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Teams Work Best When Members Feel Connected

Try as I might, I don’t understand how a group of 12 individuals can come together and work productively and collectively if each one is a separate island. If my thoughts/agenda/reactions are the most important, I assume that the other 11 people feel the same way. I can’t imagine how you bridge all that isolation to truly collaborate.

Unfortunately, most companies encourage a more individualistic approach to work. Goals, assessments, rewards and promotions are almost exclusively rated on how well one person performs. Sometimes there are team goals that must be achieved but even those aren’t scored collectively. All emphasis is on how well I do my job; not how well WE get great results together.

Yet these same companies insist on team work as the major venue for getting work done. I don’t know about you, but if I’m being scored as an individual, I’m going to have a hard time not thinking about that when I work with my project team. I will be looking at those other members and hoping they don’t screw up my standing! That causes me to bounce back and forth between being the good team member I’m expected to be and looking out for my own best interests. The system is set up to separate us when team work requires that we reach out to connect.

At our most basic level, we humans are wired to connect and care about others. That is what gives us meaning and purpose. It is also what creates health and well being. The more isolated we are, the less vital, productive, creative and healthy we are. Most of us know this on some level and we yearn for it. Our work lives create significant dislocation from each other, making it hard to fathom how we can do our best work.

Despite decades of research that suggests companies need to change structures and reward systems to make collaboration more possible, there has been very little progress on that front. So how do we connect with our team mates and colleagues in spite of the organizational disciplines?

Whether you are a senior executive, team leader or team member, try these things.

Approach others with kindness, respect and generosity. When I treat you with positive regard, you are more likely to relax and make a connection with me. I may/may not pick you as a chum outside of work, but we have some shared goals and needs while we are at work and one of those is to be treated respectfully. And if I am generous with my time and resources, you may return those favors. Like begets like.

Understand that we humans have more in common than not. We all walk into work each day wanting to be our best selves and anything others can do to support that effort will be appreciated. We don’t want to be lonely, we don’t want to take the weight of the world on our shoulders alone, we need help, we have self doubts, we need comic relief, we need a receptive ear, we need interactions. Of course, I won’t admit that to you but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Listen deeply to learn new things from those who are different than yourself. I’m certain I’m the smartest person in the room and that the team will do great as long as they follow me. Translation: I’m scared that you may be more creative or smarter or more knowledgeable or more interesting than I am. When we are scared, our egos take over and we stop listening. We completely miss the incredible gems others are sharing because that loud voice inside our heads is shouting “me, me, me!!” Take a breath, sit back and soak in other voices for a change.

Err on the side of the collective rather than the individual. Even when I don’t have lots of faith in this team of people, I need to do my part to create bridges between us. I need to invite others into the conversation. I need to ask more questions, drill down with open curiosity. I need to say please and thank you. I need to ask for and offer help. I need to let my guard down and express uncertainty or vulnerability or share a whacky idea. I need to set the example of what it looks like to make meaningful connections. And for lord’s sake, I need to stop tooting my own horn!

Become a more three dimensional, full person. It seems we leave most of our true nature at the door before we enter work. This is the saddest part of all. We become cardboard cut-outs of the roles we are expected to play and see how many points we can rack up on the board. Much like buying that brand new dream car, it feels good for a minute but it doesn’t make you feel whole or give you meaning. It just says “I alone won”. Work encourages us to be lone wolves. Our emotions, our spirits, our relatedness, our purpose, our creative juices all stay home in bed while we go through the motions. The more we bring our whole selves to work, the more we will work collaboratively. Because that is our natural state.

This all sounds rather simple, I know, but any one of these suggestions is a huge act of courage. These are not the perspectives or behaviors that are rewarded or encouraged in most companies. Emotions? Not here! Relationships that are not purely transactional or a friendly beer? Unthinkable! Putting We before I? Not if you want that promotion! Organizations are not the healthiest environments for human beings yet teams require us to bring more of our human beingness to the office. Tough challenge but so worth it.

 

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Compassionate Leadership Responses to Sexual Assault Allegations

I have been reluctant to use this blog to comment on issues in the public space but I feel compelled to provide some understanding and guidance for leaders and colleagues when it comes to sexual abuse survivors. Our political leaders are not setting a very good example and I believe we can do so much better in our work places.

Before I went into consulting, I was a psychotherapist who specialized in treating survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I studied, taught and wrote about the impact of such heinous actions on young victims. After 40 years as a professional, I can tell you with respect and reverence for these survivors, hearing their stories and facilitating their recoveries was the most meaningful work I’ve done. It is with this background that I offer some guidance.

As a leader or a peer, you are working side by side with survivors. They are represented everywhere in our population in astounding numbers. Knowing this, you need to be informed and prepared to show compassion as you navigate the specific work related issue that may cause someone to reveal their past. Survivors are constantly managing things that may trigger a painful memory; often through awkward habits, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. If something has occurred at work that exposes peculiar thinking or actions, how this gets handled can make an enormous difference. The person will either feel understood or re-traumatized. Obviously, it is not your job as a leader to know the private details of your staff so you can avoid any potential land mines. But it is your job to respond respectfully when the mine explodes.

Here are a few things to know that can deepen your understanding of what an abuse survivor experiences.

Ordinary development is disrupted. Think of yourself as a second grader or a high school sophomore. Remember how you understood the world, how you interacted with peers or your family. Envision what your body looked like and how you felt about it. Think about what your interests were. Now imagine that someone more powerful came along and violated you sexually. Regardless of events that transpire next, you are forever emotionally and cognitively frozen as a 7 or 15 year old. Now picture yourself trying to fit into the normal flow of life as you turn 20 or 35 with persistent intrusive thoughts that take you back to that life altering moment. Are you the adult or that frightened child? A little bit of both.

Clever coping mechanisms will be created. Children will do whatever is necessary to survive. Each survivor can tell you precisely what “quirks” they have brought into adulthood. For one it is obsessive washing. For another it is needing multiple exits. Hyper-alertness, constant placating, hiding, detailed contingency planning. If you have colleagues who have some unusual anxieties or coping mechanisms that they tell you have been there since childhood, chances are they suffered abuse. These strategies may look childish or maladaptive in adulthood, but they were lifesavers all those years ago so they are hard to let go of.

Acting normal. Accent on acting. At the moment of the assault, any semblance of fitting into the mainstream is over. Feelings of shame, guilt, impotence and being exposed are intense and constant. Survivors feel this so strongly inside their beings that they assume it shows on the outside. Every effort is made to seem like nothing ever happened. Sure, they are newly quieter, more socially withdrawn, skittish and awkward but they go to great lengths to hide what happened. Even if those efforts are not too successful.

Living with secrets and shame. Most victims do not come forward at the moment the abuse occurs usually because of a combination of verbal threats from the attacker and a deep sense of shame. This enormous thing happened but the young person must never reveal it. To people who have not experienced abuse it is very difficult to imagine not telling someone. But to all survivors it is just the reverse; they can’t imagine the new horrors that would befall them if they did tell someone.

The quandary of how to feel safe, secure and trusting. If the abuser was known to the survivor, all sense of safety ends. Even if the abuser is not known this occurs but the double whammy of betrayal by a friend or family member or priest cannot be overstated. If these are the people in your life that you trust and one of them violates you so egregiously, where does that leave you? How can you possible regain any sense that the world is a safe place and that others won’t harm you again? As adults they may appear distant, mistrustful or not comfortably joining in.

For most, their inner strength prevails and they go on to lead productive lives. They have struggled to find a way to cope with the devastation that is still alive in their beings. You will experience them as bright, kind (if not aloof) and good workers. And occasionally, you may need to have difficult conversations with them about odd or inappropriate behavior or reactions. You will have trouble creating a consistent picture of this person.

Here is some guidance for you as a leader:

  • Be mindful of unexplained anxieties. A woman is not likely to reveal her most intimate painful experiences in a work setting (or anywhere for that matter) so you will not know explicitly that this person is a survivor. But if you observe some of the behaviors or thinking listed above or unusual levels of anxiety that don’t seem to fit the moment, compassion suggests treading lightly. If you have well trained HR professionals who have the sensitivity to deal with more challenging emotional situations, you may want to include them in discussions and problem solving.
  • Be acutely aware of power dynamics. All abuse is about power and control over the vulnerable. You are the boss who can dole out consequences and ultimatums. If you are a large man and the woman before you is smaller, beware of your impact. If your style is aggressive, dial it down. This is good advice in general (why would you abuse your position and power under any circumstances?) but more generous with a survivor.
  • Offer respect and support. Listening without minimizing or discrediting a person’s story (if shared) is baseline behavior. Words that are helpful: I can’t imagine how horrible that was for you, what a remarkable person you turned out to be, I believe you, tell me what would be helpful in this situation. Words that are not helpful: I don’t run a mental health agency, I can’t believe you still think about something that happened so long ago, It couldn’t have been so bad if you didn’t tell anyone at the time. It’s true that you don’t have to attend to people’s mental health issues but, as a leader, finding compassionate solutions to make the work place feel safe is your responsibility.

I have said it here before, corporations can set a high bar for compassionate and civilized leadership. Be one of those leaders. Don’t let the politicians or anonymous Twitter ranters shape this dialogue. You’re better than that.

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!

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.

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