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Leading During Non-Ordinary Times

Leading under ordinary circumstances is a challenge. Leading during crazy times presses us into unknown and uncomfortable territory. As leaders, we don’t usually worry about the mental health of our staff, how to take an appropriate ethical position on events of the day, whether or not to shift policies on political talk at the office, how to sort out shifting government positions that impact our businesses, how to keep staff focused in times of overwhelming uncertainty and the list goes on.

Should leaders even be concerned about any of this? Is there a distinct line that can be drawn between what happens within the business environment and the rest of what is going on in the world? Should organizations focus more keenly on the distress of their people?

There is no right answer. But consider this: employees are showing up for work with unusual energy that is effecting how well they can perform. Some people feel depleted and disheartened by the events of the day. Some feel ready for battle about world issues with adrenaline pumping. Some feel invisible or judged because of their personal views. It is no longer clear cut what is acceptable language or behavior in the workplace and many are on edge and shutting down. Others feel less censored and get a thrill when testing the limits of the new norms.

So, how can we lead effectively during these roller coaster times where decorum has broken down and stability is a thing of the past? How can leaders provide some sanity?

State the obvious. Whether you use internal communication boards or all staff meetings to deliver key messages, leaders can acknowledge this moment of confusion and distress. “We are in the midst of extraordinary times when our leaders/country/world are challenging our institutions, the world order and civil discourse. Most of our reactions happen outside of work but it is unrealistic to think that we leave our emotions at the door before we walk in here every day. I appreciate the challenge of managing this stress. As much as possible, let’s try to be our best selves with our co-workers.”

Exhibit your own humanity and compassion. Leading by example has never been more necessary. If you model compassion and understanding, others will follow. If you listen and take genuine interest in others, you set the standard. If you show heart and concern for others, the mood can permeate. If your normal style is one of command and control, being fully in charge of most things and leaving others to be in the role of adherents, now may be a good time to develop beyond that stance. Fewer employees are receptive to this autocratic style these days.

Deliver a message of connection and collective efforts. Reiterate the importance of teamwork, hold face to face meetings, encourage asking for help, reward collaborations, train people in more sophisticated methods of respectfully disagreeing to achieve a shared objective and support efforts for community volunteering. The human to human connection is the most powerful antidote to today’s insanity.

Remind people to take good care of themselves. Companies do not need to bend over backwards to provide extraordinary resources for self care or stress relief. But they can communicate the value of practicing healthy habits. Employee Assistance Programs, on site yoga classes, nutrition workshops or a good referral network for other services are helpful to have on hand. Human Resources can facilitate this without making it their core function.

Determine if or how your organization wants to respond publicly. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, has taken very public stances on critical social and policy issues. Other CEOs have followed. Sometimes the staff is pushing for a CEO to take a public position. Sometimes employees have left companies that didn’t align with their values. You need to decide where you and your organization stand on various issues. Again, there is no right answer.

Corporate and nonprofit leaders have a rich history of leading the way on critical issues of the day. (Think: some diversity efforts, charitable foundations, opposing specific policies.) They can shape the culture and force government entities to shift directions. (Think: gay and transgender rights.) Employees are looking for sanity and humanity in their leaders today. Be that person!

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Where Has Our Humanity Gone?

(These are thoughts weighing heavy on my mind lately. A bit of a departure from my usual posts.)

For all of history, the harm that human beings have done to each other is astounding. Some would say it is in our DNA and that is partly correct. The other part of our essential make up is that we crave connection above all else. We want to be cared for, recognized, listened to and loved.

Yet our history is littered with wars and genocides and lynching and slavery and all kinds of unimaginable damage to our fellow humans. If our most basic drive is to be connected to other beings why, then, is aggression, rejection and hatred so dominant?

Tribalism, yes. Confirmation bias, yes. Imagined threats, yes. But this is a description of outcomes rather than an explanation of what is at the core. I certainly don’t have all the answers but I have a couple observations.

We have always lived within hierarchies; in our villages, our families, our offices, our societies and our world. This means that some are at the top and some are in the middle and some are at the bottom. For those at the top, if the middles and bottoms stay in their places there is order. Not to mention that they receive the spoils from this arrangement. But if those in the lower rungs either break into the upper echelon or drop down in status, there are problems. Discontent surfaces if the ruling group gets infiltrated by “nouveau uppities” who don’t belong and the lowest class swells in size and protests their unexpected fate. The order has been upset and must be dealt with to get things back to the way they are supposed to be.

So, the Have’s look at those who succeeded against all odds with suspicion. What are you doing here? Who let you in? Did someone or some program show you undue favor? Whose seat are you taking up who belongs here? Oh, you must be an exception to the rule. And for those that break through, they never fit in. They always feel like “other” because they don’t have the right body parts or skin tone to be accepted into the club.

Resentment ensues on both sides.

Likewise, the Have Not’s (the longstanding ones and the new ones) find they cannot sustain themselves. The opportunities, education, open doors, programs and institutions don’t exist or are designed to keep them out. At best, the societal efforts to make systems fairer are underfunded and encounter extraordinary resistance. “Fair” is not something that motivates the ruling class. Maintaining the order as historically defined is their goal. The pie is small and there is not enough for everyone, they seem to imply.

Resentment ensues on both sides.

This resentment, born from the futility of working hard and the counter valence of protecting the gates, has generated cruel thoughts, words and deeds against humanity. Some on a large scale but most very mano-a-mano. And it’s not just threats to the natural order that fuels the hostility. Much is amplified by imagined fears, lies and the ability to deliver those messages anonymously. Thank you internet. In this hateful morass, people can’t even discern what is worth paying attention to because what matters most is not being shouted over the airwaves. If there is data or news about people being connected in caring ways, it gets lost in the nasty noise and lasts for a nanosecond.

We are encouraged to embrace each other with love and listen to those we disagree with. Not bad advice but it isn’t changing the ethos or the systems. We may have kind connections that sustain us in our small universes but it doesn’t allow us to move up the ladder or ignore the aggression at the office or feed our families. We used to say, “all we need is love” which the hippie in me still believes. But there is no “love-in movement” today. Instead there are horrible things being said and done to our fellow humans that are anything but loving.

It seems that every moment is pregnant with negative possibilities. Someone looks at you sideways. Someone ignores your presence. Someone votes differently than you do. Someone worships differently or not at all. These encounters can unleash vicious tirades that have only one resolution: see things my way or I will continue to attack and marginalize you. We can’t even have simple exchanges without them blowing up. We are anticipating an attack and our adrenaline prepares us for the fight.

Then there is real and significant harm and human suffering. Rape, discrimination, gaslighting, poverty, war. In a humane world, there would be empathy for the victims and actions to right the wrongs. Instead, sufferers are abandoned or not believed or told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. When brave souls come forward to tell their stories there is an outpouring of hostility and defensiveness. It seems these horrors don’t match some narrative that is part of the “natural order”. Compassion is for sissies.

It feels like someone has thrown accelerant on petty grievances to ignite the battle of “who has it worst”. A bad, yet offensive, joke is a 10 on the scale of indignities worthy of expulsion from the human race. So, where does gun violence or a global financial crisis rank on the 10-point scale? And why hasn’t anyone been expelled? Lots of handwringing and op-ed pieces and everything stays according to the “natural order”. The top people are still in charge and the middles and bottoms feel further demoralized and invisible.

I keep searching for answers and deeper understanding. I have days when I hold tight to my optimism only to plunge into a week of hopelessness. I want to believe in our better angels. And I naively think there is some silver bullet answer that will pull us all out of this deteriorating mess.

But I’m not quite that naïve. In my work, I guide leaders to have more questions than answers. So here are my questions.

  • Why are humans so frightened of each other?
  • Why do humans hold onto stereotypes and caricatures of people who are different than our own tribe? Why do we substitute “stories” about others for actual real life experiences?
  • Don’t humans understand that we are made of the same skin, bones, muscles and blood even if we look different? Why do we not see our similarities?
  • Why do humans prefer the company of people who look, sound, act and earn the same?
  • What is so awful or threatening about people who look, sound, act or earn differently? Aren’t we curious to learn about people and places beyond our life experiences?
  • Why do those at the top want to control everyone and everything else? What do they fear would happen if there was more access to the top?
  • Why do humans look at those with difficult circumstances and blame the people rather than the situation? Why don’t our hearts ache for all the injustices that cause suffering?
  • Why don’t humans understand that where we are born and to whom is random?
  • Why are humans in the public square (IRL or virtual) so vicious? What feels so good about making others feel so badly?
  • Are all these nasty interactions because we fundamentally feel terrible about ourselves? If so, how did that happen during the self-esteem-Olympics decades?
  • Why is being kind and assuming positive intention so much harder than being cruel and assuming the worst?

We have lost our humanity. That precious connective tissue that allows us to know with certainty that we are all in this together and that our similarities far outstrip our differences. We are all just one county away from poverty, one country away from a war zone, one neighborhood away from gun violence, one boss away from sexual harassment, one generation away from slavery, one brother away from PTSD, one cousin away from addiction, one friend away from rape, one paycheck away from homelessness. Not even the very top folks are protected from life’s dangers. And when those bad moments occur (and they will for all of us), it is the kindness of people we know and many we don’t know that helps us survive.

So, is our reliance on the decency of our fellow travelers only valid when we personally experience hard times? That doesn’t make sense. It seems we would carry within us the warmth of that generosity and act on that during the good times when our well beings are intact. Sadly, that is not where we are today.

As humans, we have the gift of consciousness; the ability to think things through and not just act on instinct. Cruelty and denigration are choices we make. The stories will tell ourselves about why our mistreatment is justified are simply that…stories. They are not based in the ability to see, hear and understand that person sitting across from us or speaking on the TV. We must reclaim our sense of humanity so we can see, hear and understand that when we treat others so poorly that we are doing harm to ourselves. Because, after all, we are all the same and we are in this together.

 

 

 

Does Your Leadership Team Need Group Therapy?

“Let’s pull out the couch. The doctor is here!” A refrain I often hear from my team clients that isn’t exactly true. There is no couch and I’m not a doctor. But they are expressing a sentiment about what it feels like to do the tough work of examining their individual and group dynamics. It does feel a bit like therapy because they are asked to speak authentically to each other in productive ways. They are being asked to improve their bonds so this “family” can function in healthy ways so that all can thrive.

But it isn’t therapy. We just aren’t used to being coached to respectfully say what we mean, not passively or aggressively dig at each other, openly support our peers, minimize the competitive posturing and to actively create a psychologically safe work environment. It is one thing to aspire to work collectively and quite another to learn the skills and develop the self awareness to make that happen.

Lucia was hired to save a broken field office that was in danger of being shut down completely. She was selected because of her strong track record in developing high functioning leadership teams. Within a month of her tenure, she was experiencing significant buyer’s remorse. She had never sat with such a dysfunctional group of people and she was baffled about where to start.

I began to work with Lucia and her team by her fourth month. She regaled me with data points about each leader and what she had uncovered about their performance and what it was like to work with them individually or collectively. I spent 1:1 time with each team member to arrive at some initial thoughts about their separate perspectives. There was the usual finger pointing and multiple agendas but I uncovered two things I wasn’t expecting. One member seemed mentally disturbed and another seemed completely out of his element. I’m used to uneven performance on a senior team but it had been quite some time since I encountered someone who probably should not be in charge of anything, let alone other people. I had to strategize with Lucia about how to delicately and sensitively remove this person.

Once the unstable person left the team, she was no longer the lightning rod for all the woes. The member who was in charge of a function that he knew nothing about began to stick out like a sore thumb. He began to lobby for greater authority and prominence; his belief in his abilities was so strong (yet blind). Lucia successfully contained his ambitions as she worked hard to pull this team together.

In time, it was apparent that Lucia had such an odd mix of people on this team she inherited. She provided them with a very clear direction and set of principles and coached them to get on board and improve their individual and collective performance. Ultimately, she made several key decisions. She brought in a strong number two person who she had worked with in the past who could help develop the team and high performance. She decided to invest in developing one person who was too junior for his role but had potential. She replaced the under-performer for a much more qualified person. And she relied most heavily on the other team members who appreciated her leadership and were fully on board. Lucia was able to turnaround this team within 14 months and the office has been a top performer ever since.

Here are the lessons to glean from Lucia’s experience.

  • The leader needs to be clear about expectations and make some tough calls. Most leadership teams are aimless and not held to high standards. Lots of unproductive behaviors go unchecked so individuals are allowed to do whatever. Leaders must define expectations and hold people accountable.
  • Individual or team dysfunction feels unsafe. Even good and talented people will withdraw, act out or under-perform if they fear being attacked or judged. Having members in the mix who are either unhealthy or bad actors will prevent the team from becoming productive.
  • It is good news/bad news each time the leader removes or adds someone to the team. There is a sigh of relief followed by worry that they may be next when the thorn in the side leaves. Conversely, when a superstar walks into the group it feels threatening because the bar has been raised.
  • Creating healthy team dynamics is a process. It requires lots of 1:1 coaching, facilitating new ways of talking in team meetings, developing habits of giving feedback and patiently guiding everyone towards new behaviors.
  • The leader must always model the new norms. This means holding herself to the same high standards, acknowledging mis-steps, taking risks to be more open and vulnerable and using “we” more frequently than “I”.

Team development (group therapy!) is a high risk activity with extremely high yield. Imagine the leadership team working so well together that it sets the example for the rest of the organization. Imagine how productive discussions, decisions and collaborative work would be. Imagine how much less noise there would be if no one was complaining about those idiot leaders.

Making Sense of #MeToo in the Work Place

Like you, I have been reading, listening and thinking about this #MeToo moment. I feel an urgency to bring clarity to a discussion that veers all over the map. Speaking as a former therapist who specialized in sexual abuse, a former head of HR and a consultant focused on leadership and culture, I have had more than my share of exposure to the issues of sexual misconduct and power dynamics. In recent months, I have been listening to other HR folks, leaders and feminists. I’m certain that my thinking will continue to evolve. But for now, this is where I am.

(Note: My focus here is white collar work. I am loathe to use the term “sexual harassment” because it is too imprecise and inaccurate for the range of mistreatment of women.)

White men have always been in power and that’s the way they like it. Women are relative newcomers to professional schools and jobs. The 60’s was the beginning of women entering college in larger numbers. By the mid-70’s the number of men and women in college was about equal. The numbers have steadily increased over the decades where women now outnumber men. Today, 52% of the white collar work force is female while only 14% of the CEOs are women.

We are nearly sixty years into this second wave of feminism yet work place equality and civility are in short supply. There are scores of reasons for this but I think it comes down to the basics. If you have always enjoyed the privileges and entitlements that come with power, you don’t want to share it or give it up. White men have resisted and will resist relaxing their grip on power and control. They prefer an all boys club that doesn’t have to watch their language or hands to make accommodations for women. The idea of a more heterogenous environment that assumes people of color and women are equal to men is confusing and requires a mindset shift that many men simply did not grow up with.

White men felt their work space had been invaded and for many decades they went about their business much as they always had. Occasionally there were lawsuits or investigations but mostly there weren’t any consequences to men behaving badly. Women and people of color have always understood this dynamic. This power differential is the primary reason they haven’t spoken up en masse until recently. Not from fears of retribution but because of real retribution towards the victims, not the offenders.

Not all behaviors are created equal. Because women have not had a voice until recently, all misconduct is being lumped together. We need to make distinctions immediately. Forget the employee handbooks. Here is a continuum to consider.

  • Dismissive. Ignoring input and contributions, talking over women, rendering women invisible.
  • Disrespectful. Demeaning or lewd comments, treating women as less than men, objectification.
  • Aggressive/Intrusive. Unwanted touching, verbal threats, asserting physical or positional power, no regard for physical boundaries, bullying.
  • Abuse of Power/Position. When a woman reports mistreatment she is passed over for promotions, fired from a job, becomes a pariah, blackballed, slandered.
  • Violence. Rape, physical abuse, forced sexual contact.

To be clear, victims of any of these actions can be traumatized. Consequences of verbal misconduct are not as severe as physical or violent ones. I say this from years of contact with survivors. But the only person to assess the damage is the recipient. Not the offender, not HR, not the society.

As we try to figure out what to do with all these stories, I believe two things. We must honor everyone who speaks up. And we must work towards eradicating all of these behaviors in the work place. Each of these categories contributes to an environment where women are not valued.

How should we mete out consequences? I don’t believe our corporate policies and legal system have caught up to the reality of the mistreatment of women and minorities in the work place. If not all behavior is a nail, then we should figure out what tools to build other than hammers.

We need third party specialists that are contracted by companies but do not work for the company to address employee complaints. Take these discussions out of HR or the legal department. This third party entity is staffed with experts who can conduct thorough interviews and investigations, provide legal guidance and/or referrals, offer counseling assistance or referrals and be the victim’s advocate with the corporation. It would gather ongoing data about individuals to discover repeat offenders and guide the discussions about potential solutions. This organization would oversee the process from start to resolution.

With a safer process in place, victims are more likely to come forward in a timely fashion. The criteria for punishment are determined by criminal guidelines, HR policies and patterns of behavior. For example, three women report that a VP constantly comments on their physical appearance in ways that feel uncomfortable. The VP’s boss and the third party professional meet with this man, tell him what the investigation revealed, offer him assistance in changing his behavior within two months and then reassess. If there are no further complaints for 12 months, there will be no additional consequence. If he does not comply, he will be fired. If the offense is more physically or verbally damaging, then firing immediately is reasonable.

If the process is a cleaner one, the punishments can fit the crimes. Right now it is a mess.

What about incidents that happened years ago? Legally, not much can happen. It is more fruitful to look for long term patterns of behavior that may still be taking place. If someone comes forward to describe that Mr. D cornered her in the copy room repeatedly a decade ago, ask her if this is still going on today. Ask her if she knows if others have been treated the same way. Ask her how Mr. D treats her today. Ask her what impact this had on her performance. Direct her to lodge a complaint with the outside third party so they can gather relevant data. It may turn out that Mr. D’s behavior has changed for the better in the past 10 years. Or it may turn out that other women have come forward more recently. Or it may be that he no longer corners women but constantly asks them to go out for drinks after work. If Mr. D still behaves badly, then an investigation proceeds. If there is not other evidence, the company can let the woman know that the policies and processes have been revised and she needs to come forward if anything happens again and it will be dealt with differently.

We can’t apply today’s responses to yesterday’s behaviors. If we could, then there are a few lawsuits I’d like to initiate!

Where do we go from here? I read so much about the need for a culture change. I’ve spent half of my career immersed in this topic. I just don’t hold out hope that a) culture change is possible and b) it will solve the problem. I’m not even sure I know what people mean by culture change in this context. Culture change occurs very slowly over time by willing participants. I just don’t see the necessary willingness to move mountains to make women equal in the work place (let alone society).

Ultimately, this is a man’s problem to solve. Women and people of color are the victims. We can’t keep stating the obvious about what is wrong. We can’t be the ones to keep twisting ourselves into pretzels to accommodate the white male power needs. We can keep telling our stories. We can band together. We can lead differently when we get those opportunities.

We need CEOs with a flawless moral compass who don’t stand for the mistreatment or inequality of women. When the men who run our companies promote women and people of color and set a high bar for civil behavior, others will follow.

Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace

“He’s our rainmaker.” “He’s the guy that knows the industry inside out.” “He might leave and go to a competitor.” “I’m certain this is an isolated incident.” “His classes are still the most over enrolled on campus.””He doesn’t mean anything by it.” “Hey, it happened at the holiday party and everyone was drinking.” “He’s the CEO. Our hands are tied.”

This is just a short list of remarks made to me when I raised questions about a male employee harassing, molesting or abusing women. No surprises here. Ask any woman and you will hear multiple stories about painful encounters in the workplace. I’ve got quite a few doozies myself. With all the revelations in the past couple weeks, I am disheartened that there are so few solutions being offered. I sense a combination of: it’s always been this way and nothing will change the situation and until men start to act more civilized we can expect more of the same. In my darkest moments, I believe all of the above.

But then I began to think about all the incidents where the right thing happened. As a woman in a position of power as a consultant and a corporate executive, I actually have some good stories to tell. Just like averted terrorist threats, the public doesn’t know about the proper removal of bad actors. The CIA and HR can’t speak openly about what didn’t happen. In hopes that you well intentioned folks reading this blog are looking for some sane guidance, here are some powerful examples of things gone right.

A senior leader turned to me in confidence to reveal that she was being stalked by a male peer. As a consultant, I was a safe and private outside resource. This man was married, she was not. She had willingly entered a brief affair with him but then chose to end it. For six months this man threatened and followed her, making her constantly fearful and anxious. She was seeking therapy and medication to cope. She was reluctant to go to HR because a) she had previously been in a consensual relationship with this man and b) the HR executive was a weak player and unlikely to do anything about it. Both the man and woman were highly respected and valuable to the company. After several conversations with this woman, she agreed to let me speak to the CEO who we both trusted a great deal.

I called the CEO and told him very directly what was happening. Without hesitation, he called in the HR exec and told him to remove the man from the company immediately. There was some strongly worded language about potential criminal charges if he ever bothered this woman again. The man left (with some self righteous indignation) and the woman remained safe thereafter. Her career continued to thrive at the company.

Some time later I asked the CEO why he spun into action so immediately and definitively. “Because it was the right thing to do,” was all he offered. He didn’t doubt the woman’s story and he felt no moral dilemma or squishiness. He did add, “Even though this guy was leading the charge to bring the company into groundbreaking territory, I won’t have someone with such flawed character in this company.”

As the head of HR, a senior leader spoke with me about one of his managers. The manager had come to my colleague to request an office change. Long story short, it was because an affair with his direct report had ended and they shared an office; it was just too uncomfortable for him. (I know, the guy is an idiot as well as a sleaze!) I was legally bound to investigate and participate in several conversations. The one I had with the manager and his boss made me wonder if I was hearing his story right. Yes, he was married. Yes, they had sex in the office. Yes, they had ended the affair. Yes, he believed she still wanted him even though he could not describe any actions or words to back that up. Yes, he wanted to move his office because it was just so very distressing for him.

I did my best to play it straight, ask all the questions I was supposed to, took my notes and thanked him for his candor. When I asked him if he understood that he could be fired for engaging in a sexual relationship with a subordinate he said, “That’s what my wife told me when I mentioned I told my boss about this.” (Seriously, that’s what he said.)

When I spoke with the company attorney about firing this guy, she reminded me that I had the power to just reprimand him without going so far as to let him go. She mentioned the consensual relationship, he came forward, the relationship was over, yadda yadda. I couldn’t believe how much gray area she was painting. I was only focused on protecting the woman in this story. She did not have the power. My duty was to protect her from this man regardless of what had happened in the past. With the complete support of my (male) boss, I fired the guy.

This young up and comer had a reputation in the company of being a bit of a dog. Married with two kids, he was flirtatious with the young women in the company. I didn’t know the specifics but there were lots of rumors. Shortly after his divorce (no surprises there), he was more diligently focused on his work and was in the running for a significant promotion. After much back and forth with my colleagues, it was determined that he was worthy of the new position but he needed to get his inappropriate behavior in line. Just after he was given the new job I called him into my office.

“With this promotion there are some new expectations that I want to make clear to you. You are now representing the company inside and outside of these walls. I suggest you go out and buy a couple nice suits and start to look the part.” He was taken aback but was also aware that I was deadly serious so he suppressed his smirk. “It is an open secret that you have engaged in multiple inappropriate relationships or behaviors with women in this company. That is never going to happen again. You put the company at tremendous risk if you do. Not to mention the harm you impose on these women and the unsafe work environment it creates. If you so much as look improperly at any woman, you will be out of here faster than you can imagine. Are we clear?” His face was red, his jaw slacked open and all his bluster was deflated. He said he understood the gravity of the situation and would abide by the rules. And he did.

What all these incidents have in common are:

  • Unequivocal moral leadership. There is no waffling about right or wrong. A man in a more senior position made advances or threatened women in lesser roles. This is unethical and illegal. Period.
  • The woman is the victim. Even in the case of previously consensual relationships, once the woman ended it she was still in danger. Once it was “no”, she had a right and expectation of safety.
  • Male and female bosses can do the right thing. Sure, it would be great if there were more women leaders who we assume would do a better job of protecting the well being of female employees. I have no idea if that assumption is true. Most bosses are still men and they are capable of being stand up guys.
  • Speaking up goes a long way in effecting change. Without knowing the particulars, when the staff sees a male leader suddenly exit, they understand that this company takes a hard line. This reinforces a culture of greater respect and safety.
  • The bad penny only gets so many chances. I know what happened to all these men (and so many others) when they were called out on their shit and removed from their companies. Some were hired someplace else in spite of some sketchy recommendations. In a short period of time, these men acted badly at the new place and were removed quickly. Even without disclosure up front, these men showed up as exactly who they were. For all their rising stars, they all went down in flames.

Those of us in leadership roles have a duty to listen, believe and take appropriate action. To look askance for the sake of the business or for what harm will come to some predatory man or because boys will be boys…only demonstrates how unfit we are to be in a position of power.

As I was concluding a long term coaching engagement with an executive who was hired away to a new company, we were reflecting on his development journey. He is one of the good guys and I thoroughly enjoyed our work together. In parting he shared this: “When we began, I was a mess. I was in a world of hurt from my divorce, angry at the world and behaving so erratically. I didn’t like who I had become. When I told you that I was ready to date again, you reminded me that I was a man with immense power in the organization and that, under no circumstances, should I date anyone in the company. I don’t think I would have understood that so clearly if you hadn’t said it.”

Again, this is one of the good guys who had successfully groomed his female successor. Speaking up to prevent anything from happening once or again goes a long way towards change.

What We Learned In Kindergarten But Forgot

I had the pleasure of picking up my granddaughter from kindergarten last week. As she ran towards me (for a smashing great hug!), I noticed a big sticker on her shirt. Hugs and kisses over, I put her at arms length so I could read her sticker. In big letters it read “I Was Proactive Today”.

Me: Sweetie, do you know what your sticker says?

Her: Yes, Grandma. It says I was proactive today.

Me: And do you know what that means?

Her: Yes, it means that I did something without being asked first. That I was helpful just because I saw someone needed me to be.

Me: Right! What exactly did you do to earn your sticker?

Her: I gave a picture to one of my friends because she needed it to finish her work.

Me: Oh honey. I’m so proud of you.

With her chest puffed out, we walked over to the other door to pick up her big brother as he exited his second grade classroom. More hugs and kisses for me.

Me: Hi sweetie. How was your day?

Him: Mostly good. But also not so good.

Me: Really? What happened?

Him: Yesterday I wanted to play with my friends at recess but they didn’t let me. I was really sad about that. So today I brought my football so we could all play together. But they didn’t want to play football. I really, really wanted to play football with them but they didn’t want to.

Me: What did you say to them? What did you do about it?

Him: Nothing really. It’s just making me feel bad.

Me: I’m sorry that happened honey. But I know you and I know you will figure out how to solve this problem.

And off he ran up the hill towards home with his sister trying to keep up. It was a bittersweet moment for a grandmother. How proud I was of how each of them handled a peer situation and how stunned that there would be one child on the planet who would not want to play with my grandson! I mean, seriously, he is awesome!!

The two interactions got me thinking. If a 5 year old is learning to be proactive on behalf of others, when do we un-learn that habit? If a 7 year old persists in appropriate ways to get his needs met and handles the disappointment when it doesn’t happen, when do we become frustrated whiners? Where is the reaching out to help our peers in the workplace? Where is the self sufficient problem solving that doesn’t require escalation to higher authorities or trash talking about our peers?

Several decades ago, the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was all the rage for businesses. It was a reminder that playing well with others was quite elementary and it was important for adults to get back to some good habits. We are years down the road, the world has changed significantly and we, once again, have forgotten our childhood lessons. I did a bit of digging to learn more about my grandchildren’s school curriculum because I was curious about 5 year olds learning big words and concepts like proactive. It turns out that the kindergarten curriculum is based on Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People!! Imagine that; teaching small children how to be independent, interdependent and to strive for continuous self improvement. What lovely synchronicity. Learn great habits in kindergarten, practice them throughout school and hopefully you will become an effective adult.

But my observation is that the simple guidance of these books is not so evident in the workplace today. I have been thinking about several of these behaviors.

  • Take turns. Adults want to be first, best, the only, the winner. If someone else has that designation it can only mean: someone cheated or behaved poorly to leap in front, someone has an affirmative action advantage, someone is the boss’ favorite, someone is brown nosing the boss, someone is just crazy not to see how much better I am. I hear people everyday believing that if someone else gets a turn or a piece of the pie, that means there is less for me or something unfair has occurred. A 5 year old doesn’t think that way. We all take turns, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong, it will be my turn again soon so there really isn’t less to go around, that’s just the way the world works. Besides, we are supposed to be nice and fair.
  • Play well with others. Maybe as we age we focus more on Covey’s independent habits and think less about all that win-win and mutual understanding stuff that is required of interdependence. I used to teach team development skills so people could learn how to collaborate for better outcomes. It used to be the norm that we had to be good team players. But I’m not convinced that people see the personal cost-benefit to participating in the collective. It seems that individual recognition is preferable because I can count on the value of my own work product more than others. The team pulls us down to the lowest common denominator or so I am told. Again, kids understand that everyone needs to make a great effort to create a fun and exciting learning environment. Everyone has to participate in this.
  • Be responsible. I’ve been hearing the word “lazy” a lot recently. Colleagues describe how others are just not working as hard, staying as late, being as responsive or following through. Emails not answered lickety split: lazy! Requests for work products delayed six nanoseconds: lazy! Leaving the office at 8pm: lazy! My granddaughter is learning about SMART goals. Remember that day in B-school? When did we forget this?

I see these three behaviors as a related cluster. Intolerance that others may be talented or better than you, not wanting to count on the contributions of others and being pissed off when others don’t march to your beat all strike me as insecure and self centered. When we have to denigrate others by projecting negative attributes onto them and believe superior ones about ourselves, then we are in a whole world of self doubt. And things get ugly quickly.

It may be time to revisit those kindergarten lessons…or Steven Covey. Develop good self awareness and self reliance and be mindful and generous with those around you. As my grandchildren could tell you, if you do these things you will learn a lot and make good friends. And then you get to go to recess where I’m sure my grandson will have figured out how to get you involved in a rowdy game of football!

Taking the “A” Out of Teams. Anxiety That Is

Over the years, my clients have fretted about managing their teams and wondered if they could ever learn how to be a good facilitator. A new client raised the same question and I finally gathered my thoughts in this letter below.

Dear Simon,

I’m writing this in response to some of the questions that were left hanging after our last session. Specifically, you were concerned about your skills to run good meetings. They cause you stress and you dread them. Your leadership team meetings frustrate you and your staff meetings are a downer. Although you (rightly) have confidence in your listening and relationship skills, you are struggling to translate those abilities into a group setting.

I’m hoping this memo provides some guidance.

First, as the newly installed leader you have inherited a boat load of “pre-existing conditions.” You have some preliminary diagnoses on certain individuals, some working theories about larger systemic issues and some signs of improved health in a few one on one relationships. That’s a good start. What is less clear are the many hidden agendas, axes to grind, real damage and how all these people and issues interact. You are being confronted with an array of all these things every day. Your approach so far has been to deal with them one at a time; relying on your super-spidey interpersonal skills to improve each situation.

Hold onto those abilities and insights. You will need them.

Secondly, teams are interpersonal dynamics on steroids. Lots of steroids! I’ve seen incredibly effective leaders go batty when trying to manage their teams. Have you ever played pinball? (I must admit, I spent way too much time in college seeing how far I could go on one quarter.) You pull back the spring and release one ball. It jumps all over the board and you try to control its trajectory using highly sensitive flippers. The ball bounces hither and yon as you rake up points; successfully navigating the back and forth. Imagine releasing all five balls at one time. Your eyes and fingers dart from one ball to the other, trying to keep everything in play as long as possible and hoping you don’t drop any balls. That’s what team interactions can feel like. Your ears and eyes jump from one person to the next, noticing body language or silence, reacting to tones of voices, wondering when to jump in or sit back, worried about two people colliding or leaving the discussion. Just like pinball, there are moments of excitement or disappointment. You get a free play or game over.

Teams can be messy and exhilarating.

Third, facilitating productive team discussions can be learned. Having a good foundation of empathy and interpersonal awareness is the starting point. What happens next requires self-awareness and discipline. Get comfortable with silence and disagreement. Learn to let go of smoothing things over. Trust that others can step up. Learn to hear above the fray and comprehend the non-verbal cues. That’s the short list. (More on how to do this later.) Once you feel adept at these abilities, it becomes a question of patience and good judgment. Sometimes you will need to be the Decider and other times you will need to be the Sherpa. That will become evident.

Facilitation is both science and art. The artful part takes over once you have learned the science.

Finally, these meetings are opportunities for others to get valuable face time with you. For some, that means persuading you on an issue. For others, it means joining with you on key initiatives. Until a team or staff is in the high functioning range, people are not coming together to interact with each other. You are their focus. They are jockeying for your favor and their stature in the organization. It’s a bit ugly and political but that is what happens when a new leader is installed. Who will become your favorite? Your aim is to facilitate their thinking and decision making with each other. You understand the value of everyone’s input and don’t want to set yourself up as the One.

Again, hold onto those ideals. For now, though, you need to recognize the team is at a more chaotic stage of development.

Most leaders in your shoes can relate to your challenge. While the 1:1 encounters may be productive, staff and leadership team meetings feel overwhelming for new leaders. Take a breath, appreciate that this is normal, let some air out of the “urgency tires” and be assured that you will get loads of chances to get this right. Meetings, unlike other organizational activities, are universally disliked. The format and content are tough to make thrilling and the dynamics just make them all the worse. Any one good meeting will be a momentary lift with only a remote expectation that it will happen again anytime soon. So, relax. You can improve this situation slowly but surely.

Let’s start with others wanting face time with you. Layer that with hidden agendas and dysfunctional dynamics. Think of it this way. You are a hard-working Dad who gets home late from the office most nights to your 5 kids who are clamoring for your attention. They will shove each other, tattle, jump up and down, scream in your face or cry just to get to you first. It doesn’t matter if the behavior is polite or not. They will do whatever works to be first, the favorite, the most important. They don’t want to share you with others and they want you to agree with whatever grievance they conjure up. They want you to kiss the booboo and tell them everything is alright. Teams are a lot like families (except we can’t fire our kids).

How would you handle this as a parent? You already understand all these kooky dynamics. You know all about sibling rivalry, discipline, structure and valuing each child. You don’t get sucked into the whining, they absolutely must brush their teeth and, no, they can’t stay up later. Although your team is a group of adults, the same principles apply. Give each one enough 1:1 time so they are comfortable in their relationship with you. (Thankfully, this is one of your strengths.) Create certain structure, guidelines (sic. rules) and parameters that set the norms for expected behavior. As the leader, consistently follow through on those rules, don’t play favorites, listen to each person and don’t allow for misdeeds.

Even if you are not the strictest disciplinarian as a Dad, watch how your wife does it and the positive impact it has on your kids. You will come to see the antics of this room full of adult staff in a whole new light if you use this parenting analogy.

Although it can take years to perfect the art of facilitating great teams, I can boil down the essential science of it into a few bullet points.

  • Forming, Norming, Storming. These are the stages of team development. In the forming stage, everyone is still getting acquainted and trying to figure out who is running the show. Norms are set both formally and informally as protocols are put in place, talkers and non-talkers emerge and the leader’s style becomes apparent. Once the norms solidify, the members will begin to challenge the order of things in the storming phase. If the original norms are strong and/or functional, the group will settle back into good operations until someone new enters, someone leaves or the norms are questioned again. This is just the ordinary ebb and flow of team development. Just when you think things feel stable, you can expect a conflict to erupt. Manage and ride the waves. As the new leader, your team is in full blown storming and looking to you for clues about the norms.
  • Be clear about your own principles. You have already made it clear that you value open discussion and consensus. Communicate that to the team by offering an explicit description of what you do and don’t mean by that. For example, you want to hear from everybody but that doesn’t mean that the conversation can remain open endlessly without a decision. I urge you to do some additional thinking about your principles and see if you want to add or change anything.
  • Structure is essential. Agendas, time management, note taking, follow up on action items and hearing from everyone are good disciplines to install. Lots of dysfunction occurs when there is an absence of these things because the vacuum needs to be filled. People will either be proactive and rush in willy-nilly to play a part or become passive and drop out. Take the reins, provide control.
  • Manage the voices. All teams have folks that will take over the discussion or cut people off or sit silently or shoot down every idea. You job is to ask some to back off and others to speak up. “I’d like to hear from Susan” is a polite way to stop Andy. “Jerry, you clearly have something on your mind” invites the cross-armed scowl-faced one to enter the discussion or to mind his non-verbals better. (Some non-verbals are not just seen. They are palpable.) The more you direct the flow of discussion to equalize it, the safer people feel to join in, the less emboldened the disrupters will feel and the more productive the discussion will be.

These are some of the basics. Sometimes I think that people get anxious or overwhelmed about facilitating teams because it feels scary. If you go back to the pinball imagery, it can be daunting. But if you can think of it more like parenting, something that is more familiar to you, you might minimize your concerns. We’re not born knowing how to be a good parent, but lots of on-the-job training teaches us over time. The same will happen for you with your team.

 

 

 

 

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