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The Dangers of Affirming our Well Formed Opinions

Let’s face it, we are ALL the smartest and most correct people in the room.We have become experts on a particular topic, advised senior leaders, argued circles around our peers and taken up residence as the Grand Poobah. We are so persuaded that our position is brilliant that no amount of additional input will move us. Because we are the best and smartest. Of course others tend to see us as utter assholes…especially after we proclaim “I told you so”.

Moving past all the insecurities and ego problems this self righteous and closed stance implies, I’m especially interested in why we all have a tendency to fall into this defense (present company included). Interested and concerned because if you have six people on your team and everyone believes they have the right answer there is trouble ahead. The conversation will become combative, loud and unproductive and poor decisions will be made.

First, some research. Psychology and social psychology are filled with theories and experiments that all point to the same conclusion: Once a person has a strongly held belief no amount of data to the contrary, new information or persuasive arguments will change his/her mind. That powerful idea is woven into the fabric of many other beliefs or one’s self definition and it is just too threatening to untangle or change it. (Look up cognitive dissonance, belief perseverance or backfire effect.) The only proven method for changing someone’s mind requires some positive self affirmations before a private conversation. Trying to change people’s minds in a public forum won’t work. Way too threatening.

So think of your team of six. Imagine that four of you fervently believe you have The Right Answer. The other two feel less convinced of their own positions on this issue. While the gang of four duke it out, the other two find this a waste of time. As the leader you try to facilitate a more open dialogue to find a middle ground. As the decibels increase you jump in to shut it all down by declaring The Decision. Discussion over. If hope springs eternal in your heart, you will leave the meeting believing that everyone will do as you instructed. But I know you are not that naive.

Let’s focus on self awareness. Given that most of us will play the part of the asshole from time to time, it is important to acknowledge a few truths.

  • We invest heavily in our public persona. By the time we are successful professionals we have a well crafted narrative. We let others know what prestigious schools we attended, what stellar companies we used to work for, what esteemed roles we held and our string of success stories. To back up that story we display some bravado because modesty won’t get you ahead. Being able to argue a strong position and persuade others is all a part of the profile. And it must be reinforced constantly.
  • Ideas that are different than our own are experienced as a challenge. I express Point A. You express Point B. I immediately react to convince you and others that Point B can’t possibly be right because it contradicts my better Point A. I don’t even take a breath long enough to really hear what you have said, let alone entertain it. To hold my own strong opinion at the same time that you express the exact opposite is tremendously uncomfortable. I’m all instinct and very little thought.
  • It takes a lot of work to change our minds. To open up to other points of view requires some mental and emotional gymnastics. I have to suspend my own thinking, listen fully to what you are saying, sift through what resonates and what doesn’t, integrate that new thought into my long term perspective and then figure out how to use this new hybrid idea. Phew! It’s much easier to just be mentally lazy.
  • We might look weak or wishy washy if we open up to new ideas. Somewhere along the way the notion that changing one’s mind was not a sign of strong leadership. Decisive, carefully thought through, determined, persuasive…these are admirable traits. Open mindedness, flexibility and agility are considered strengths these days but there is not much resonance yet that those traits amount to potent leadership. It is still aspirational for leaders yet a requirement for staff. If leaders demonstrate these traits too frequently they are deemed confusing. The staff clambers for declarative statements and unwavering decisions from their leaders.

There are no simple solutions to this very human drama that unfolds in our teams everyday. Relaxing your strongly held positions is hard work. Helping your team to hear each other ain’t easy. Serving up multiple points of view without seeing that as a battle cry goes against habit. But doing all three of these things will create remarkably different conversations, decisions and outcomes.

Imagine yourself preparing for a critical discussion with your team. Write one sentence that states your position and then leave that note in your desk. As you do this tell yourself to let go of that opinion so you can remain open to what happens in the room. You start the meeting by asking each person to do the same thing: write down their opinion and put it aside. Use some other techniques to draw out each member’s thoughts. For example, rather than saying “I’d like to hear from everyone”, ask each person to move to a private section of the room and write three bullet points about their thoughts on the subject on a flip chart. Then ask the team to wander around the room to read the charts. Have them use markers to put stars by the lines that resonate. There will be a visual display of points of agreement to begin the discussion. This process can bypass the strident “listen to me!!” that is often the start of debates that must result in a decision. Beginning with convergence deflates some of the brashness. The conversation can proceed with greater probability of incorporating multiple additional points of view that contribute to the core consensus.

Bottom line: digging your heels in to maintain your strong opinions is self serving and leads to crappy team dynamics and decisions. Developing a practice of productively sharing ideas rather than egos is challenging but doable. As a wise person once told me: Get over yourself. Better things can happen when you do.

How To Understand and Appreciate Our Team Mates

As I sit with team after team providing guidance for better functioning, I am always struck by the same three related observations. One, everyone seems to be speaking a foreign language. Two, no one is hearing each other. And three, everyone would rather be getting a root canal than be in a room with this motley crew. It’s a wonder that anything gets accomplished!

Sadly, this is the norm for many teams. From a psychological perspective I break it down this way: we have egos that need to be stroked, we each want to stand out from the crowd, we get confused and defensive in group settings, we don’t know what else to do. We are not bad people who mean to disregard our peers. We just missed that day in school. Oh, right! We never ever learned this stuff in school.

We each need to take personal responsibility for getting out of our own way by quieting our voracious appetites for recognition and turning up the volume on positive intentions towards others. That is the starting point for developing an appreciation for our team mates. Easy for me to say, harder to do. But becoming aware that the “me, me, me” meter is running over time is important. Hit the pause button. There is a lot of amazing stuff you’ll start to notice when you do that. Hidden gems to feature and obstacles that are simpler than we imagine.

The path to understanding starts with teams that speak only one language: the native tongue of your country. Not MBA jargon, not company alphabet soup acronyms, not trend du jour memes, not functional discipline gobbledygook. Just plain english (in my case). Years ago while I was working at a newspaper the editor drilled this into me. As a fine written and verbal communicator it made him crazy when team meetings were over run with gibberish. The opportunities for misunderstandings and meaningless exchanges were exponential. He taught me that down to earth, plain-spoken english would improve our discussions. And he was right.

I’m not saying that a team of functional experts should never use their own shorthand. I’m suggesting that mixed teams need to err on the side of normal language and even experts need to revert to english when it comes to debates and decisions. This is the only way a team can establish a common language. Without that, the chances for understanding each other drop significantly.

By now everyone has sat through training courses on effective listening skills. We’ve all learned how to nod our heads and ask questions for deeper understanding and how to draw out the silent ones. That’s all good stuff. Just not enough. If we appear to be listening, is that the same as actually hearing what is being said? Here’s how you can tell if you’ve been heard. Someone says, “Hmmm. I never thought about it that way. Tell me more about how you got to that place.” Here’s how you can tell if you really heard someone else. When you ask a question the person does not reply, “I just answered that same question five minutes ago.” In order to hear someone two things need to happen: you need to have a quiet mind so you can take in new information and you need to assimilate that data. If you are mentally busy thinking of your response to the person or how you want to score your own points or reminding yourself to pick up milk on your way home, then you haven’t heard a word. You might appear to be listening but you’re not.

Walk into a team meeting with this goal: I’m going to speak much less and try to hear much more. Jot some notes as others are speaking. Pick up on key words and themes. Hear content as pieces of data to be mixed and matched and moved around. See if you can pick up on emotional tone. Is the person excited or frustrated or bored? Fit the affect together with the content to see if that reshapes the picture. In other words, sit back and take it all in rather than feeling a need to jump in repeatedly. Speak up when you can add something valuable to the discussion. Especially helpful is your synthesis of the key points in the conversation. Your team mates will be surprised and pleased that someone heard all that and was able to make some sense out of it. Being heard is what we really want. Listening can be too superficial.

I believe these first two issues feed into the third problem: people aren’t enjoying being together. It feels like a chore, one more thing to check off the daily to-do list. Most teams are made up of a cast of characters who are different than we are. That’s a good thing for the business but not necessarily easy to figure out how to get along and be productive. This one is so analytical and that one can’t make a decision and this one loves the sound of his voice and that one never follows through. Why can’t everyone be just like me: charming, cooperative, smart, quick, focused, practically perfect in every way (thank you Mary Poppins)? Our task is to find ways to appreciate those differences and understand the necessity of having them.

I don’t expect us to adore every person we work with but I absolutely believe we can come to respect our peers. If we all spoke one common language and we all made the effort to hear each other (and quiet our inner judges and ringmasters) we would be well on our way to understanding the value of each team member. When I stop worrying about trying to be the smartest one in the room and I sit back and listen, I can actually hear who else is smart. I don’t have to be the only one. I can even hear some valuable insights from those that I don’t have the highest regard for. That can help me realize that I was being too harsh and hasty. When I honestly admit to myself that the reason I go crazy about the overly analytic team member is because I don’t do well with details, I can start to respect her and realize the team really needs that. When I can laugh at myself because a whole room full of Nicki’s would be an absolute nightmare, then I can appreciate the cast of characters that make up our team.

Speaking plain english and hearing each other go a long way towards understanding and enjoying our team mates. These are small but overlooked steps to building better teams.

Do You Know What Your Team’s Purpose Is?

If I asked you what your team’s purpose is would you have a ready and brief answer? Would it be the same response as the other members of your team? I’m guessing the answer is no all around. Oh sure, you know what your goals are and what metrics you must achieve and what strategic mission you need to fulfill and all that stuff that is hammered out each year or quarter during goal setting and calibration meetings. That is what you are supposed to do…as in tasks to accomplish. That is not a purpose, the reason you and your colleagues are gathered together.

First, let me offer a clear definition of what I mean here. “Purpose can be anything that benefits people and society in some way…Whatever form it takes, purpose is the glue that integrates the work of one into the work of many. It lifts people’s efforts above the level of everyday, self-centered activity.” (Linda Hill etal, Collective Genius) Think of it as the higher calling of the team. I’m certain that most teams have not given this a moment of thought. And I’m even more certain that senior leaders have given it even less consideration.

Second, let me tell you why this is so important to developing a highly functional team. We human beings feel more passionate and connected to a meaningful purpose than we do to keeping score. Of course we like our teams to win and hit the financial targets but at the end of the day…meh. It’s not enough to keep the battery charged. And it most definitely isn’t enough to pull a team together. Without a compelling purpose our teams are merely a collection of individuals trying to cross the finish line. No glue, as Linda Hill calls it.

How does a team think about and decide what it’s purpose is?

  • Defining a team’s purpose may/may not be driven by the formal leader. If you are an inspiring visionary you can help a team connect to something grand and compelling that appeals to all. If the members share excitement about that purpose, great. But even more powerful than following a leader is when the members bounce their thoughts off of each other and come to a common vision. We tend to commit more energy to things we have a hand in creating.
  • This is a collective activity. Each member needs to put forward his/her own thoughts about purpose and then the group needs to hash out all the ideas. No rush to judgment. No disregard for any individual. Think of this (iterative) discussion as a mosaic with everyone contributing colorful tiles. Move the pieces around until a clear and exciting picture emerges.
  • Think boldly. Move past the metrics, jargon and platitudes. Purpose is more akin to BHAG, big hairy audacious goal. Except that it is more essential, more fundamental. “If we are gone tomorrow, we will have left behind…” “We are uniquely capable of…” “We get up every morning just chomping at the bit to be together to…”
  • Consider what helps on the bad days. No matter how lofty the team’s purpose is, there will be lots of crappy days and wrong turns. What is the team mantra that can help members feel centered enough to refocus their attention? “This week sucked! Thankfully we have big aims so the details of this moment aren’t life threatening.” You may even consider establishing some rituals around pulling yourselves out of the hole and reminding each other of the bigger picture.
  • Keep team purpose discreet and simple. It should be stated in one sentence. Don’t confuse purpose with team norms or decision making or terms for collaboration or rules of the road or any of those other important tasks that teams need to agree on. Be sure that purpose comes first and then let all those other decisions fall in line to support the team’s purpose.

Is purpose the same thing as mission? No. The mission is usually at the enterprise level and it describes what the company does. The team’s purpose will have a sight line to the larger mission but will be closer to home. Is purpose the same as vision? Kind of. It is more aspirational, bold, future oriented. But it may not provide the glue a team needs. Personally, I hate quibbling over these too often used and too often misunderstood and too often meaningless terms. We have all spent too much time at off sites agonizing over just the right words. That’s why I like “purpose” instead. It’s plain english and more user friendly.

If your team feels like it is stumbling around in the dark or a collection of individuals going off in ten different directions, it may be time to take a few steps back and define the team’s purpose. It’s not as simple as it sounds but creating a space for this discussion will pay off in big and small ways. And best of all, anyone can get the ball rolling. Be the one!

If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem

That was the slogan I chanted at the 1969 March on Washington to end the war in Viet Nam. And it is the same sentiment I want to shout from the mountain tops in 2016 about a different, more insidious war.

I’ve been reading Carol Anderson’s book, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. It is a history lesson that I and everyone else never got in school. It is painful, chilling and shocking. You must read it immediately. Especially white people. Especially business people who are in a position to effect change. The punch line is that the racial divide is not about black rage but about white rage. White rage that has systematically (through legal and legislative processes) denied African Americans true equality in this country. I dare any white person to walk away from this book still believing any number of bromides: it is so much better, blacks play the victim, my family didn’t own slaves, reverse racism is alive and well, I don’t personally disrespect people of color etc.

You may think that this leadership and business blog isn’t the right forum for this topic but I strongly disagree. It is well documented that the biggest social changes have gotten their start in the corporate world. As imperfect as these advances are… women and gay rights, diversity and inclusion practices, global connectedness, intergenerational respect, digital explosion…they were first embraced within companies because it made good economic sense. Laws and social acceptance followed the corporate lead on these kinds of issues.

That is why I want to push white leaders harder on the racial discrimination that still exists in our companies. I’m not talking here of the obvious metrics: diverse staff percentages, people of color in top leadership roles, inclusive hiring practices, sensitivity training. I’m talking about the less conscious and less overtly hostile behaviors of well intentioned and open minded colleagues and leaders. Stuff like this:

  • Not noticing that the slate of potential candidates for an open position are all white. Not insisting that HR serve up a panel that is more varied.
  • Not noticing that a project team is composed of all white (or all male or all one discipline) members. Not even pausing to consider that the team’s results may not be as robust without some different perspectives in the room.
  • Using the word “qualified” when speaking about people of color but never using that adjective with whites.
  • Seeing each black peer as the voice of their entire race. That there is a monolithic black experience that your one colleague can represent.
  • Understanding that Black Lives Matters isn’t just about confrontations with police. It also means that blacks are invisible in your company too.
  • Understanding that when you suggest to your black colleague that he must visit the national parks around Utah and Wyoming that the small nod he offers withholds the truth. He will never go to Utah or Wyoming because it’s uncomfortable at best and unsafe at worst to be the only black person for miles around.
  • Using words like “polish” or “fit” as code for not white when deciding if a black person is right for a promotion. Not wanting to make a department feel uneasy with someone who is different.
  • Thinking of black people as too different for you to relate to so you don’t consider them for key roles.
  • Asking black people “so how did you get here” (aka. how did you beat the odds) but never asking white people the same question.
  • Seeing inclusion as a box to check versus the right thing for the business…not to mention society.
  • Not noticing that you join the all white lunch table in the cafeteria. But thinking that the all black table is an act of hostility or exclusion.

We white people do these sorts of things all the time. Many of us don’t mean to be harmful or to perpetuate disrespectful habits but we are doing just that all the same. To make our actions better represent our good intentions and open mindedness we have to take a cold, unvarnished look in the mirror. I don’t have all the answers but I have a few suggestions.

  • Educate yourself. Read books and articles you would not ordinarily gravitate towards. Whether it is White Rage or The New Jim Crow  or The Underground Railroad…learn US history for real. Not the sanitized version most of us got in school. Understand how hard whites fought (and won) to keep African Americans separate, uneducated and impoverished. Read things that make you uncomfortable.
  • Stop denying your white privilege. It just is. Period. Even if you don’t actively lord it over anyone you get to walk through this world without a target on your back. No need for guilt or denial or lashing out. Just acceptance and awareness that non-whites did not win that lottery.
  • Start paying attention. Even if your team or department is nearly all white, start calling that out and state what a disadvantage that is. Engage other whites in noticing this and take active steps to change this. Notice when the HR recruiters offer up only white candidates.
  • Speak up. White leaders have the power to make the changes. When the discussion does not include other voices or other bodies or other customer considerations (aka. non-white) insist that decisions cannot be made without additional input. Break up the monotone, homogeneous group think that is corporate life.
  • Have tough talks with other whites. Challenge your white colleagues to start on their own personal introspection and change process. Push back on all white decisions or hires or discussions. Turn up the contrast dial so that all white becomes blinding.
  • Change the headline. Stop talking about diversity and inclusion. That is so yesterday. Start talking about living up to the corporate (not to mention US) values. Values of robust dialogue/debate, engaging in new thinking, breaking down barriers, being in step with the 21st century, letting go of old ways of viewing the business/the world. To bring your business into the world we live in today, new faces are a baseline requirement.

I’m not opposed to corporations doing the right thing for the sake of profitability. After all, capitalism is uniquely American. But if blacks are responsible for all the enslaved, brutal, free labor that built the wealth of this country then it is unconscionable that they be left out of the fruits of their labor and losses. Business leaders, it is hundreds of years late but it is time to right this horrific wrong. Blacks have long understood this: until whites acknowledge this country’s original sin of slavery we cannot unite as a nation nor fully thrive in our businesses and the world.

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.

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