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Leaders: This is What the Staff Wants

It’s not that complicated, really, to understand and deliver what employees want from their leaders. I boil it down to just three things: truthful and open communications, respect for what they professionally and personally bring to the party and opportunities to use and expand upon what they know. If staff experienced this nearly every day there would be so much less noise and much more productivity.

The research on this has not moved an inch in a couple decades. It’s not about the generations or digital explosion or globalization or any other trendy topic. It’s all about people and work and relationships and human value. No one rolls out of bed in the morning and thinks, “I can’t wait to get to work so I can be disrespected and under utilized and told a pack of lies! I do my best work under these conditions.” Beyond financial security (which is a big one) we all hope to grow in skills, competence, confidence and position in our jobs. Again, not complicated and not news.

But for too many of us our organizations are run by people who aren’t able to fulfill these very basic requirements. And as leaders, we struggle much more than we need to on these dimensions.

Communication. The majority of leaders work hard to provide timely information to the staff. They try to balance the good and bad news while remaining focused and inspiring. This goes off the rails in a few common ways.

  • Information flow is all over the map. A small inner circle may be privy to closely held (and difficult) information that seeps out into the organization in uncontrolled ways. This means that some people know things early and incompletely while others are in the dark. Rumors foment, anticipatory responses get prepared, passive aggressive power grabs ensue. Conversely information is held so tightly that only a small portion of it ever gets communicated. In other words, there isn’t a plan in place.
  • Erring on the side of too much or too little. There are executives who value a strategy of complete transparency and communicate often, early and in full. Most employees prefer this approach but then find themselves inundated with TMI. They lose focus or get anxious and don’t know how to digest everything. They wish for some judicious editing. Other leaders believe that everything is too confidential to share openly. This leaves staff very uninformed which breeds suspicion and mistrust.
  • Limited one on one contact. When an employee has limited access to his/her boss in the first place and then there are no quarterly check ins or private annual reviews, the disappointment can lead to disengagement. Add to that the continuous cancellation of update meetings and it is a bad recipe. The employee has prepared for those precious few minutes and when they are bumped from the schedule s/he can feel only one thing: insignificant. Oh, and maybe pissed off.

Respect. See me! Value me! Especially if I am different than you are. That’s what employees want. But here is what they usually get instead.

  • Benign disregard. Someone gets hired because of some great skills that no one else has and then it’s as if amnesia hits the manager because that person is rarely tapped to provide that expertise. Or women and people of color are served up a daily dose of micro aggressions that make them feel invisible and unimportant. Or who you know matters more than what you know and do. I could go on, but the point is a whole set of small jabs that add up to big and painful feelings.
  • Overt disrespect. Most work is accomplished through team work or collaboration but many leaders will take full credit for the results. Tearing down someone in public, offering open support but privately preventing a promotion or pitting staff members against each other are all ways that employees feel hostile disrespect.
  • Differences. In spite of some good intentions, most leaders continue to struggle with people who are different. Older white men did not ascend in a world filled with working women or professionals of color. Unconscious deference to other white men is still the default so to be fully respected if you are different than those in power still sucks.

Utilize. The number one reason people leave organizations is that they feel under utilized and see no opportunities for growth. This has been true for 2-3 decades and I don’t see this changing much. There are fancy, complicated HR strategies and initiatives in many companies to reverse this trend but there is more work to be done.

  • Bench sitting. In the best companies staff get told once or twice a year how they are performing and what their future looks like. Plans are made for new jobs or projects but most of that is for naught. When are you going to call me in? When do I get to play? You promised! Right idea but very poor follow through.
  • No resources. Most companies aspire to develop talent in all sorts of ways but when the rubber hits the road they can’t find the resources. Either development budgets are cut or HR staff is overwhelmed or senior leaders are maxed out on mentoring or training is at your own expense. When belts get tightened, staff growth programs are cut while exec bonuses are reduced by a percent or two. Message received loud and clear.
  • Risk averse. Someone is warming up on deck and ready to take the plunge but senior leaders pull back for fear of failure. In spite of promises and good supervision and consensus that someone can step up, leaders hold too much control by sticking with the tried and true ones. Staff stop striving for new roles because they doubt it will happen or they get aggressively competitive to dethrone and take down the regulars.

These are all examples of ordinary human behavior…not evil incarnate. We all have a groove and we get comfortable in that groove. Doing a better job at just one of these things means stretching ourselves. Some days we can make the effort while other days we snap back to our usual habits. But here’s the problem on both sides of the table with that. If the leader listens better on Monday and Tuesday but the rest of the week reverts to being less attentive, the employee will feel hopeful and then disappointed. Rinse, repeat. Pretty soon the leader will stop altogether and the employee will feel duped and will disengage more completely. False hope is a bitch. So what is the fix?

Leaders, pick one of these three things (communication, respect, utilization). Then pick one behavior you are confident won’t be too hard for you. Let’s say, only cancel an employee meeting if there is an emergency. Otherwise, you will keep all staff appointments (or at least 70%). Ask your assistant to monitor this for you and help you achieve your goal. Commit to a three month trial period. If you find at the end of that time that a) you feel these meetings are worthless or b) you do not see improved engagement or productivity from your staff, then reevaluate the process or your communication style. But I’m fairly certain that you will derive any/all of these things from ongoing communication with your staff: deeper knowledge of what and how well they are doing, who the gems are in your group, who has more to offer than you thought, insights about those who are struggling, more opportunities for you to delegate stuff, new ideas, better sense of how your team is functioning as a whole. That’s a big bang for the buck if you ask me.

And staff, keep insisting on getting these basic needs met. Keep your leaders challenged to do the right thing.


Self Monitoring: Give It a Try

Picture this. You are the most introverted person on your team. Two of your peers are extroverted, bordering on obnoxious. The others fall somewhere in the middle. There is a heated discussion about a new product launch. In the midst of the debate, Thing One turns to Thing Two and says, “Those overly cautious, shy, never speak up types in finance just don’t get it. If we didn’t poke them every now and then you’d never know if they were even alive.”

True story. As the consultant in the room I intervened and shut down the stereotypes and name calling. But I must admit I was appalled…initially. Until I thought about it some more and saw examples all around me. The uncensored, rude, disrespectful and uncivil discourse that takes place in the work place may not be quite as coarse as what we see in the public forum on our nightly news but it is not far behind. After all the inclusion and harassment training and company policies you would think that employees understood the importance of treating each other with dignity. But I fear that too many think that training was corporate bullshit and, in order to keep their jobs, they are just sneakier about trashing others.

Here is a quaint idea. How about we all start to manage our ids a bit so we can treat each other with some basic human decency. When did we decide it was fine to express our every thought without consideration for the impact on others?

Sure, the internet and social media has unleashed a torrent of awfulness and some of that spills over into our work lives. That may have created a social milieu of incivility but I don’t think that is the whole answer. In no particular order, here are some of my observations of corporate behavior that fuel this “say anything” habit.

  • Transparency, better flow of information and open communication are misunderstood. The push for more frequent and honest dialogue from the C suite has taken an odd turn. While executives work harder at trying to do just that, employees insist on receiving more and more information. They claim they don’t want a filter and should be privy to tightly held plans as if they were sitting in the board room themselves. When executives reveal staffing plans or product decisions or strategy shifts employees feel betrayed that they didn’t know sooner or weren’t consulted. I recall many occasions when I was an executive and staff would come into my office to rant about “how dare we blindside” them. No amount of “it would have been inappropriate” cooled their jets. Staff now feel entitled to be in on everything and anything short of that (which is the general rule) is cause for indignation. They express this slight by bad mouthing leaders with little regard for the consequences.
  • Internal competition between employees is brutal. This is not new, just part of this bigger picture. With flatter organizations and fewer top level positions available people shout and shove in hopes of getting one of the rare slots. Meetings often devolve into screaming matches between the alphas in the room, back room backstabbing is common and “everyone for themselves” is understood. Empathy, compassion, teamwork, principled actions…out the door.
  • Home office staff create in and out groups. With loads of employees on the road or working remotely, the number of bodies in the headquarters is a small subset. Remote workers don’t engage in much riff-raff because they are isolated and have a different vantage point. Those in the office form cliques and reinforce their loyalty to each other by creating an us vs. them dynamic. “Those sales folks in the field don’t have a clue! Don’t they know how to complete their friggin’ reports?” Then when everyone gathers at HQ for a big meeting it feels like high school lunch tables all over again.
  • Emails leave too much room for venting and miscommunication. We have stopped picking up phones to talk to each other so we are now dependent on our written words to do the job. The knowledge that we are leaving a paper trail has created new social norms. There are those who write so briefly that you get the headline with no details. The sender doesn’t get nailed for something and the receiver is left in the dark or free to make up their own meaning. Others write long, detailed epistles to cover every single eventuality or objection. They feel the documentation will protect them from future prosecution. Still others behave like an internet troll blasting away in ALL CAPS. These (twisted) people believe their paper trail will be THE evidence that “I told you so” when disaster strikes later. Emails are such a blank slate and we can pour into them our lack of self awareness, snark, disrespect and CYA behavior.
  • Gossip, gossip, gossip. Again, nothing new here. Small groups of people behind closed doors talking trash about others. But a couple things have changed. For one, the tone is nastier. There is some notion that it is okay and harmless to take down your colleagues. Secondly, gossip is often false or a twisted truth but if those stories seep out then real HR investigations sometimes ensue. This is the ultimate slam of a colleague that often proves to be unsubstantiated but the stain of suspicion lingers on. And last, gossip fuels our basest selves. It does not serve any conceivable good. It tears at the fabric of an organization and destroys reputations. To gossip is human but to damage is cruel.

As a psychologist I want to remind you that the id is the natural state of a child who operates on instinct, immediate needs, wishful and willful desires and has no relationship to reality. The id is our most primitive and infantile self that we learn to control as we develop. The ego comes along to reason and make decisions about actual reality. The ego knows the difference between right and wrong and tries to steer the id in the right direction. The super ego assimilates cultural norms from the world and works hard to manage the id’s capricious nature. In other words, there are two parts of our conscious and unconscious functioning that work over time to get the id to behave and act like a grown up who actually cares about someone other than self.

Feeling a compulsion to be boldly blunt or not to consider others’ feelings or stomp your feet is not virtuous or admirable. It is childish and self centered. As we mature (like past the age of 20!) we are supposed to function on all levels where the thoughts and feelings of others matter to us and reality as it is overrides our fantasies.

You will feel better about yourself, receive more respect from your co-workers and make valuable contributions to your company if you put your id in the box and bring it out to play at home. Friends don’t let friends bring their ids to work!


It’s All About Relationships and Collaboration

Can you remember the last time that you achieved a work goal where you didn’t have contact with another human being? Some project that didn’t require talking or collaborating or reaching out or checking in or supervising or meeting with other people? Even activities that may seem singular (writing code or preparing spreadsheets) still need to be discussed with others. The one thing all our technology has not replaced (yet!) is building productive relationships to accomplish our objectives.

The trend to focus more on collaboration and relationships is intensifying. Technology is a tool. The core of our work is still about the productive interaction between people.

I’ve been in the business of helping people work well together for a very long time. Team work has been in vogue for decades. So has self awareness (AKA, Emotional Intelligence). We’ve had two generations of workers trained in communication skills, conflict resolution, getting to yes, Myers-Briggs styles, team building and decision making methods. My observation is that some of that training is actually working but not as much as it needs to.

These dynamics exist in many companies that make it difficult to use effective interpersonal skills.

  • Internal rewards and incentives still skew to individual performance. In spite of some effort to reward team objectives the vast majority of metrics hinge on meeting one’s own goals. Bonuses tend to be individual vs. team pay outs. Ratings and promotions are individual. When we structure work this way, no amount of extolling team work will get you that collaborative behavior.
  • More talking and less listening is a hallmark of most organizations. It’s impossible to achieve true collaboration without a good balance between the two. The unspoken norm in most cultures is “s/he who speaks first/loudest/most often is the key influencer”. Focusing on persuading others to a singular point of view is autocratic rather than relational or inclusive.
  • Healthy debate is a rare occurrence in most companies. This requires safety to express opposing or minority opinions, tolerance for disagreement, no premature shutting down of discussion, comfort with tension and ambivalence. These traits are in short supply in most employees and leaders and the cultural norms minimize this degree of discomfort.
  • The best collaborations occur within small teams that come together for a specific assignment and period of time. Members are having fun, respect each other, disagree, don’t have alpha dogs and are riveted on achieving the end goals. They share and follow through on commitments and use the team’s experts. People walk away describing this as the best team experience ever. Sadly, it is not replicated often making it the exception rather than the norm.
  • Interpersonal discussions happen in private and are frequently used to offer “constructive feedback”. All those skill building sessions get used behind closed doors rather than in group settings. People will have conflict, difficult conversations, bonding moments and resolutions out of the public eye. What this does is create an environment where one- on-ones mean bad news while the obvious dysfunctional group behavior goes unchecked. There is no habit of calling out unproductive behaviors when it happens. Someone who is constantly interrupting is rarely told in a meeting to sit back and let someone else speak. But privately that person’s boss will have that talk and apply negative consequences if the behavior doesn’t change. This is a missed opportunity to encourage productive collaboration skills in the team setting.
  • Emotional facades substitute for honest interactions. In some companies you can feel the “we all get along here” mood. In others you experience the open hostility. I’ve seen team work posters all over the walls of organizations that clearly signal “every man/woman for themselves”. I can tell you for sure that there is no such thing as everyone getting along or only extreme aggression or competition in any organization. Again, in small private groups there are much more dynamic discussions taking place and great work is getting done. But that generalized tone, usually set by the CEO and executive team, is the expectation. It becomes an overdrawn caricature that is too uni-dimensional for anyone. That said, everyone publicly marches to the drumbeat.

There are no easy fixes for this phenomenon. There is no magic training course. This is about each person screwing up the courage to speak up and connect in meaningful ways. This requires self awareness, decent interpersonal skills, comfort with differences of all kinds, solid core beliefs about human beings and a sense of the greater good.

You’ve seen these people in your own organization. They are trusted go-to people who provide insights, thoughtful listening and objective guidance. You can become one of those people. Try doing some of these things.

  • Listen, really listen. Give higher priority to hearing what others are saying instead of formulating what you will say that will wow the audience. Ask follow up questions so that you get a clear sense of what the person is saying. Ask other people in the group to chime in so you understand the range of perspectives. Mull over what you are hearing. Listen for divergence and consensus. Press others to hear different points of view.
  • Facilitate productive debates. Resist the urge to prematurely shut down lively discussion or to let it go on endlessly. Make sure all the relevant data is part of the discussion so that conclusions aren’t drawn missing something critical. Emotional pleas are fine up to a point but the balance needs to be weighted on the side of facts and the big picture. Beware of key influencers who are pushing their own agendas. Minimize their impact on the group by pulling others into the core debate. Make it safe for people to disagree by acknowledging all points of view. Stay neutral as long as you possibly can.
  • Use private conversations as dress rehearsals. When people approach you for that confidential one-on-one to discuss a problem with a person, team or boss use all your best skills to listen and problem solve. Then focus the conversation on the actions the person will take after this talk. Encourage people to speak in public or private about tough issues by role playing in advance. Follow up at a later date to see how things went. In other words, coach folks to build good relationships.
  • Be the one. With candor and respect, be the person in the room who points out the obvious dysfunction. “We’ve been going in circles for the last 15 minutes. It’s apparent we aren’t getting anywhere. My sense is that we are avoiding the real issue which is…” This takes courage, self confidence and a strong desire to move matters forward in productive ways. There may be blow back, you may make people uncomfortable, you may get chastised but as long as you speak these truths for no personal gain you will be on solid ground.
  • Make meaningful connections. If there are people you work with constantly but don’t like how you relate, go out for a casual lunch and get to know each other a bit. If you admire someone but don’t get enough time with them, seek out their guidance on a knotty issue. If you are intimidated by someone, find a way to interact with them in a more relaxed situation. Find out what the biggest stressors are for the folks you are closest with. Find out how you can alleviate some of that pressure. Acknowledge people’s accomplishments by asking them how they did it; go beyond a high five. Keep your door open for others to connect with you.

We all know that the best results are achieved through great collaborations. No matter how toxic or unproductive your organizational culture is there are many things you can do to go against the flow. All companies give lip service to team work so when you get called on the carpet for doing just that you can point to all those posters on the wall as your excuse.

Xenophobia: Misplaced Fear and Anger

It’s hard to ignore the news of the day and think of it as separate from issues of leadership in the real world of corporations and nonprofits. The Trump campaign and the Brexit vote send a very clear message: We don’t want outsiders, those people who are different, foreigners who are not the “originals” who made the country great. These leaders have unleashed anger, frustration and dark emotions that lurked in the shadows. These are movements with brash leaders and millions of followers.

Yet there are opposing forces who extol the rich history and virtue of embracing our differences. How does this conflict show up in our work place? How are leaders and staff mirroring this tension? Even when our companies behave more civilly than our public forums, how is that vitriol playing out? And how well are the calls for greater inclusion faring?

Recent data reveals that corporations have barely moved the needle when it comes to non-white and non-male representation on boards and in C suites. The majority (sic. white and/or male) want women and people of color to feel great about how things are so much better than they used to be. Sure, there have been some strides but most of us would say things have remained stuck in first gear for decades.

So in spite of angry outcries that immigrants or minorities or women have displaced millions of white male workers there simply isn’t fact to back that up. Which makes me dig deeper into understanding this hostility and rage at these “others”.

I spent a lot of time working in Ford and GM plants in the 90’s. Toyota and Honda were invading the US auto market, much to everyone’s surprise. No one took them seriously. Union workers assumed life long security in their jobs and pensions and senior leadership never imagined the US auto industry being challenged by the Japanese. What I heard from the shop floor to the board rooms was “consumers wouldn’t dream of buying a foreign car” and “they are not a real threat to the business”. Everyone thought that if they ignored the situation that the US cars would remain supreme and everyone would live happily ever after. As plants were shut down and workers went on 24 month leaves and ultimately drew on their pensions at the age of 50, the shit got real.

There were minority opinions in the room warning that the leaders and workers ought not ignore reality. The world was changing and everyone needed to wake up and adapt. Those pleas were ignored. Instead what I heard was anger. Anger at those “damned Japanese” and “disloyal consumers” who didn’t buy American. The hostility was turned outward rather than looking inward to see that arrogance, ignorance and denial had lead to a series of bad decisions. Executives, unions and workers all refused to take personal responsibility and cope with the new reality. (As an aside, the hatred was so visible that I was not allowed to drive my Honda to these plants because they did not allow foreign cars in their parking lots.)

I have similar stories about US based electronics companies and newspapers and accounting firms and consultancies. All of these organizations were dealing with huge forces of change in their sectors due to economics, globalization, digital transformations, labor costs and many other factors. Evidence was everywhere in the news and industry trends that the world of work was changing and would never be like it was in the good old days. Things change and many of those changes are outside our control. And that makes change doubly hard.

So I have been listening to this externalized rage for a few decades. If it wasn’t the Japanese it was Silicon Valley. Or the SEC or Indian call centers. Or greedy venture capitalists or automation or cheaper labor costs overseas. Or it was a trade agreement or a political party or an activist board or an ignorant CEO. There was always a target for the pointed finger where blame could be assigned. But the blame was never staring back at anyone in the mirror.

This has me scratching my head. Aren’t we the country of roughed individualism? Don’t we value taking personal responsibility? Don’t we look down on those who take government hand outs? Why isn’t this true in our corporations? I’ve heard leaders give every excuse under the sun for poor results from shortsighted decisions and listened to employees blame the leaders for not keeping them employed. And this makes me mad.

How dare executives make efficient, stupid decisions that will please Wall Street but damage the staff? How far in the sand are workers’ heads to not read the handwriting on the wall? If you are going to be a CEO or an executive then you better damn well understand how many thousands of people are counting on you to make intelligent, well intentioned, strategic and prudent decisions that benefit more than your ass! If you feel extreme loyalty to a company then demonstrate that by constantly learning and adding value rather than feeling entitled to a steady pay check!

You may not have tons of control at the macro/global level but you sure do at the local one. So stop blaming all those “others” and deal with the reality that has been around for decades. You don’t get to revoke your membership in the real world. And all your anger that has now turned to xenophobia and hatred is unimaginably dangerous. Dangerous to you, your company and all the rest of us.

Going back to those Ford union workers…There was a fork in the road in the 90’s. The new world was becoming apparent and people had to make choices. Do I have faith that the company will survive the turmoil and I will get called back to work and I won’t have to worry for the rest of my life? Or is sitting back and waiting and hoping too risky for me and my family? Should I take advantage of some of the training programs that Ford and my community college are offering to get some new skills? My high school drop out brother in law was faced with this exact dilemma. He worked the line and had no other skills. But he had a wife and daughter to support. So during the 18 month shut down he got an associates degree in computer repair. While he waited to get called back to the plant he got a job working with computers. This launched him into a completely new direction and he has been extremely successful in the field of electronics. He took the risk of personal responsibility. Sadly, he is the exception. Most of his peers took the other fork in the road. They are the angry mob.

Much of the current dialogue politically and within corporations is about how to give a leg up to those who were left behind in the globalization push and outdated industries. I have deep compassion for those folks, especially since the CEOs were not left in the cold or imprisoned. But if this was the whole story then the mobs would be railing only against our institutions or companies. They would be tar and feathering CEOs and demanding justice. They would be going for the head of the snake. Instead the rage is turned against the least powerful “intruders” in their narrative: the “others”. They did not create your misfortune. They are not the enemy. But when we feel at the bottom of the heap we need someone to direct our hurt and fear and anger towards. How about we stop blaming all these “others”.

The Psychological Toll of Following a Bad Leader

Whether I am watching the political news or working with clients I am observing a frightening phenomenon. A leader makes questionable decisions, says outlandish things, changes his mind every hour, crosses the line of civil/professional conduct, believes the rules don’t apply to him and alienates large swaths of people. Everyone in the organization (country) acknowledges and complains in private about how crazy the boss is. They wonder why the repeated poor quarterly results are allowed to stand. They wonder why the board hasn’t removed him.

That’s bad enough. But what is even worse are the mental gymnastics the staff does to continue to follow this terrible leader. In their hearts and minds they know this guy is not firmly in touch with reality and that he is doing damage to the organization and the brand. They read the industry press and know this CEO is a joke. There is plenty of data to support what they already know. Yet they still defer to him in meetings, support his random decisions, sell the latest initiative to their teams and cling to their jobs. What is going on here?

It is a mix of psychological and organizational dynamics at play. It’s complicated but let me try to break it down.

The Person in Power (PIP) has legitimate control of the organization and people’s job security. What he says, goes. The People Without Power (PWP) are beholding to the PIP and fear he will take away their jobs or future ascent to becoming a PIP themselves. This causes the PWPs to exhibit unhealthy habits: saying yes when they mean no, not sharing important data that would halt PIP actions, suppressing the truth, joining in group think, minimizing the damage certain decisions will cause, blindly following without questioning. In short, agreeing that the Emperor’s clothes are magnificent! Over an extended period of time, this behavior will turn the most creative, outspoken, forward thinking and productive person into a drone. S/he will wake up one day and wonder what happened to their core self.

These zombie behaviors are reinforced by the evidence all around. PWPs have observed what happens to staff that “speak truth to power”. They are gone. They can hear the fist pounding and yelling all the way down the hall when the PIP gets questioned. They notice that “loyalty” has become the most virtuous and oft-repeated corporate value. They see that the most favored PWP is the biggest ass kisser. Executive team meetings have become rubber stamps bordering on obsequious. And when PWPs talk amongst themselves about all the lunacy of the PIP the conversation ultimately focuses on job security. “I’m retiring in two years. I just need to ride this out.” “I’ve got two kids in college now. I can’t afford to leave.” “If I left now I’d be leaving too many stock options on the table.” Add all this up and you get a whole mess of PWPs with severe resignation and a collective sense of powerlessness. Their only hope is that the board will figure this out and take action. But of course, PWPs are not going to give the board any truthful data. And so the PIP reigns supreme.

From an organization perspective, what can be done?

The task of confronting the PIP usually falls to a) an outside consultant/advisor or b) some respected PWP who is about to retire or c) a PWP who still has the balls and the respect of the PIP to speak up and who isn’t worried about finding a job. This is a series of long conversations that may or may not sink in. But the message boils down to this: you, PIP, are harming the company and if you can’t make serious changes I will speak to the board. In my experience, these kinds of PIPs are too far gone and convinced of their own invincibility that nothing will be taken to heart. Instead it will feed their own delusions of disloyalty in the ranks, paranoia, everyone else is an idiot and no one can touch them. Ultimately this is an issue the board needs to address and resolve. I don’t recommend PWPs marching into the PIPs office to tell him a thing or two!

At a personal level, what can you do?

Assuming that you can’t risk losing your job, there are some ways you can protect yourself psychologically and emotionally.

  • Find ways to safely counteract the craziness. Lead your own team in sane ways. Don’t emulate the PIP. Create a “garage band” team where like minded people work on something great together. If you know that today’s directive will be ignored tomorrow, shield your team from today’s menu.
  • Get a coach or outside sounding board. You need a reality check and it is best from an outsider. You need to let off steam so you don’t become crazy or depressed. The more you hold onto the daily grind without relief, the more likely you will be to go under. And your spouse will get sick of some of the ranting.
  • Don’t waste work hours in bitch sessions with colleagues. It is so tempting, I know. And there can be some relief. The problem is that you become part of the hand-wringing-powerless-unproductive gang who still isn’t going to take any action. It’s a lot of wheel spinning for what value? In the end it actually drains more energy from you and reinforces how shitty things are.
  • Network outside the company. Join your professional organization and attend its programs. Meet people in other industries and see how the other half live. Attend interesting seminars that speak to your passion or future. Get active in your alumni association. The more insulated you become, the more hopeless and stuck you will feel. If you remain professionally active and connected it can lay the groundwork for your inevitable job search.
  • Focus on your physical and mental health. Working out and eating right is a good counter balance to the quicksand. It is something you have control over. It can get some endorphins and serotonin buzzing. Take a run after work to shake it off. Find ways to preserve your sanity; laughter, play, your loved ones, therapy, writing. Whatever works for you.

When the CEO is horrible or crazy the organization will become that way too. The gravitational pull is strong and it is ridiculously hard to resist. You will get sucked into the vortex. Organizational solutions are limited so your choice is to put up and shut up or find a way out. We can’t all find new jobs tomorrow and there is that “the devil you know” thinking. But please take heed. In time, this unhealthy environment will make you unhealthy. That is a very high price to pay.

Besides, do you want an out of control nut having that much power over your well being?

Dealing With Assholes at Work

A simple fact of life is that there are assholes everywhere. When possible, most of us will turn and walk away. Not worth our time. But we can’t always do that at work. You get who you get as colleagues and we just have to figure out how to cope.

When someone behaves horribly these are my first thoughts.

  • #@$*!!!
  • How come you haven’t been fired a million times?
  • No amount of counseling will fix you!
  • Please leave me alone.

Then I move on to some awful voices inside my own head.

  • I must have done something to set him off.
  • What hoops do I need to jump through to be granted some respect?
  • I need a thicker skin so I don’t take this personally.
  • I feel so small, bad, angry…and a host of other feelings.

Finally my rational brain takes over.

  • What an unhappy, insecure, miserable person. I’d hate to be him.
  • His behavior is a reflection of his own shit. It has nothing to do with me.
  • I’m not going to feed the beast by engaging in any meaningful conversations with him.
  • The less air I give to the asshole, the more quickly he’ll move on.

It’s no secret that this person “ain’t right” (that’s a clinical diagnosis!) but we are forced to interact with him because he is our boss or team mate or key colleague. We don’t have the luxury of just walking away and we don’t see anyone moving to fire him. We are stuck. As awful as it is, there are things we can say to ourselves and things we can do to make the situation just an ounce easier.

It is important to understand that the asshole is fundamentally troubled. He is not the normal amount of anxious or insecure or narcissistic or egomaniacal or perfectionistic. Most of us have these traits to a very manageable degree. Assholes have gone way beyond that point where they cannot effectively control these behaviors. Their desire to control others or their environments is so intense that they flip out when people and things don’t fall into line according to their (often random and grandiose) plans for the immediate universe. A compassionate view of them is that they are in a living hell. And that is why they make the rest of us suffer so much. They believe that if only we did exactly as they dictated that life would be rosy. But of course, that never happens. So they keep hammering away.

So with that little bit of compassion, what can you do to deal with this asshole?

  • Don’t play his game or march to his drum. This creates a never ending and always unsatisfactory cycle. Instead conduct yourself as you would with a less volatile colleague. March to your own drum even if it is received poorly. Do not enter the battle.
  • Consciously decide what you want to ignore and what you want to stop. If the asshole is your boss you can ignore the constant harangues and seek feedback on your performance from another leader. If he is your peer you can tell him to stop being such an asshole…that you won’t allow him to treat you that way. You’d be surprised how effective this can be.
  • Report him to HR. If his behavior creates an unsafe work environment for you, get it on record with HR. You won’t be the first one to complain. This is handy when a superior won’t move to fire the person. A good HR leader will press the issue with the executive and point out the liabilities.
  • Repeat a mantra: It’s not me. It’s him. Take yourself out of the mental equation so the negativity doesn’t seep into your being. Don’t let an asshole make you doubt your own abilities.
  • Don’t assume he is intimidated by you. In these situations there is a tendency to proclaim “Oh, he’s just scared of me”. Who knows if that is true? But that thinking will send you down a rabbit hole that won’t help you. Asshole screams. You say to yourself, I’m too smart for him. You start to play one-up in your head which locks you into a battle of wills. Even if you never have that discussion out loud, you are feeding your own ego in ways that could turn you into an asshole with someone else.
  • Minimize the time and energy you spend dealing with him. That means don’t gossip with others about the latest crappy thing he did or replaying the incident over and over in your head. It means don’t try to fix the moment or him. It means shake it off. Don’t let his unhappiness become your unhappiness.

All that said, there is no denying that assholes can make you feel like shit and zap your energy. It’s hard to let it roll off your back. You are simply human. But so is the asshole. Don’t make him more important or bigger or louder than your own internal voice.

Find some healthy ways to cope with assholes. They are in every company at all levels. So figure out what works best for you.


Will That Work Here? Context is Critical

We’ve all been guilty of this one. You hear a great TED talk, you read an inspiring book or you talk with a colleague in another company. You learn about a fantastic culture or process or mindset that excites you. As a leader in your organization you share your enthusiasm with your team and insist that this New Thing is exactly what the company needs. Nods all around, everyone catches the fever and you are tasked with making it happen.

You gather some allies around you to join the cause and you are all convinced that the New Thing will bring the same results to your company that you read about in the Harvard Business Review. So far so good. Right?

As you initiate the change process things don’t go as expected. It’s not just the inevitable resistance anytime a New Thing comes along. It’s that you have cut and pasted the template onto your organization without considering your unique environment. The context matters a great deal and needs to be the first step in the discussion.

How large is your organization? What resources are available; time, money, people? What is your unique mission or service or product? What is the history? Where does your CEO stand? What will get disrupted or reprioritized? Is the staff co-located or dispersed? And so on. However great New Thing is, it must be translated for your context.

And that is the guidance that is usually missing from these great formulas. They never state that step one is to ask: Will this work here?

Twice in the last month I encountered organizations that had discovered the Holy Grail of deeply psychological assessments and personal and intense transformation assistance for senior leaders. Hey, I’m a psychologist by training. I love this shit. But I kept asking the leaders, “How is this being received?” It was all rosy until I kept pressing. “Well, we are getting some push back. The leaders keep canceling their counseling sessions and the coaches claim that the leaders aren’t willing to dig deep.” Then I asked, “Is your culture one where there is much talk about people and development and courage and self awareness? Is talking about human behavior or listening skills or making space for all voices the norm?” In both cases the leaders told me that there is some lip service but very few leadership or culture behaviors to back that up.

Okay, so maybe this initiative is the beginning of a major shift and the leaders are going first. Great. But maybe they jumped into the deep end rather than wading into the pond. Maybe the New Thing is exactly what the company needs but the template doesn’t fit the organization. To get a team of leaders who avoid psychological depth to jump in with both feet out of the gate is completely unrealistic. And it could backfire.

I’ve seen this so many times that I have a standard line. You are trying to build a Cadillac when a VW Beetle will do just fine.

Think of all the New Things as fantastic stimuli rather than strict formulas. To figure out how New Thing could work in your context have some lively conversations with leaders and key people.

  • Distill the essence of the New Thing. Describe it in a few sentences. Don’t go into the how. Stick with the what.
  • Imagine the value of New Thing in your organization. How will it improve the culture or the productivity or the services or the customer experience? Ground the concept in your context and what is needed at this moment in time.
  • Evaluate the methodology. Is it more complex than you need? Does it leave something out that is important to your company? Does it address implementation challenges? What is the simplest way to get the bang for your buck?
  • Define New Thing in terms that make sense to your staff. Take it out of the textbook and put it into their reality. Of course they want to experience success similar to Facebook but you are an accounting firm. How can “speed and customization” fit into a regulatory business? If you haven’t grabbed the essence and sorted out how it would look in your context, no one will buy it.
  • Size the effort and opportunity properly. Executives have a habit of underestimating the churn each New Thing creates. There are times when a major overhaul is appropriate but often smaller changes can create staff willingness and big wins. Each success builds satisfaction and organizational muscles for continuous changes.
  • Create your own hybrid. Just because the TED presenter said you must do all ten of these things to get the payoff doesn’t mean that will work in your company. If you have taken the steps above, had robust discussions and still feel very excited about the essence of New Thing then create your own roadmap. Add, subtract or modify how to get from here to there.

We have all experienced the difficulties of implementing change either as leaders or staff. And we all know that many of these efforts never fully realize the theory of the case. And that leads to staff reluctance to keep engaging in New Things. I believe it is because we are always aiming for the Cadillacs. Processes are over-engineered, initiatives are too grandiose and there has been little thought given to the context. When leaders hear “that will never work here” that is nails on a chalkboard. But maybe there is some overlooked wisdom.

Here’s another way to think about this. I love to cook. I read cookbooks, go to cooking classes, watch cooking shows and try new foods every place I go. My head is filled with great ideas and New Things. I print out the recipe and then go through a check list. The seasonings are amazing. But the family doesn’t like chick peas. And this is too many carbs for our life style. I’d rather use chicken than beef. What if I added more veggies? I can’t use that much sugar. In short, I’m taking the essence of something that sounds so yummy and modifying it for my family’s specific needs and preferences. I will still try New Thing and chances are it won’t be perfect the first time through. The family will chime in with “more this and less that”, I will try it again and it might just make the list of Most Favorite New Thing.

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