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Posts from the ‘Culture’ Category

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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How To Stay Clean In A Toxic Environment

Your boss is a nut case. Or your team is dysfunctional. Or your department is at the bottom of the heap. You can smell the stench all around you. It may be easy for you to point to others and their deficiencies but eventually people in the company will assume you are guilty by association. Is it possible to remain above the fray? If so, how can you emerge untouched by the dirt?

Amy joined the marketing department while it was still in transition. It was widely known that the group was broken, dysfunctional and avoided as much as possible. Samir was brought in as CMO with the mandate to fix the team and the function as soon as possible. Amy was one of his first new hires. He told her that the department was in turnaround mode and her skills and attitude would help shape the future. She was up for the challenge because she admired the company and felt that she and Samir were on the same page.

As the newbie, Amy was courted by all the splinter groups. The Back Stabbers couldn’t wait to tell Amy all kinds of crappy things about team members. The Never Ever Samir posse trash talked their boss with a vengeance. The Hallway Whisperers were hellbent on sharing every innuendo without any evidence to back it up. Amy felt dizzy from all the lobbying to join forces with one of these factions. She had moments when she was drawn to this one or that one but her shit detector told her to stay away.

Her resolve to remain detached from these cliques isolated Amy. She struggled to get the cooperation she needed to get her work done and she sensed that she was a target for the underground slams. She considered whether or not to discuss this with Samir but decided not to take that route.

Here is what Amy did instead.

  • Turned her attention to the internal customers. If the marketing function was broken she was going to demonstrate what a talented and responsive partner looked like. She worked closely with the key internal folks to understand their needs and to find clever ways to deliver on her promises. If she couldn’t get the assigned graphic designer to cooperate, she found newer and less tainted ones. If she couldn’t get all the sign offs she needed, she acted anyway and used the customer’s delight to justify her bending of the rules.
  • Made allies with less divisive team members. No matter what the reporting relationships were, Amy reached out to some hidden gems in the department. These were people who did not have a power base or loud voices so they were often ignored. Short of creating a shadow organization, Amy was able to get some remarkable work products done for the customers.
  • Established a “no trash” zone around herself. When she was with internal customers and they wanted to gossip about the marketing folks, she shut it down. When team mates wandered into her office to share the latest dust up, she shut it down. When peers around the building wanted to get the inside scoop, she shut it down. It became a no-win for people who wanted to engage Amy in the bullshit so they stopped trying.
  • Kept tight boundaries in her discussions with Samir. When he asked for feedback about the bad apples, she never offered generic impressions or hearsay. She stuck to her own experiences and described the specific behaviors she encountered. She suggested that Samir get HR involved to gather additional feedback so that people could be more open and the process could be more objective.

Taking this approach, you can probably guess how things turned out for Amy and the department. Yes, she emerged as the go-to person for the internal customers. Yes, the less visible and under-utilized team members began to rise to the surface. Yes, the evil doers were marginalized. They were forced to change their ways or be fired. Samir spent several months having one-on-one discussions with these folks (with help from HR) and two-thirds left the organization. As they were departing, new people were brought on board. And, yes, Amy was eventually promoted.

It is very tough to navigate a toxic environment. Find people who are not crazy or harmful and get the work done with them. In spite of the challenges, be the shining example. Above all, find and strictly adhere to your moral compass. You will be recognized as the exception and will become a magnet for the right stuff. Setting yourself apart from the nuts turns up the contrast on them. And that will be a good thing for you.

Repost: Everyday is Groundhog’s Day for Professionals of Color

Note: In light of the election results and many people’s anxiety, fear and rage with the results, I want to repost this blog entry from this past February. I have been hearing from many good white men who just don’t understand why women, people of color, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ folks are so worried. Those of us who fall in these categories are so used to putting on armor and being on high alert that we don’t discuss it. It just is. But now that sentiments that were once held back have now been given cultural permission to be spoken and acted upon, it is important to legitimize this fear. We must talk about it. We must help white men understand it. We must insist our companies take this more seriously. We must stop letting it just be “the way things are.”

 

You wake up each morning in the comfort of your home feeling relaxed and fully yourself. You go to your closet and select the appropriate armor for your day ahead at the office. As you drive to work you expertly tuck away big chunks of yourself. You walk into the building.

You smile and greet each person so that you appear friendly but not too friendly. You make certain that you give attention, even deference, to your white colleagues and keep some distance from other minorities. You sit in the meeting and offer your views being sure that your voice isn’t too loud or aggressive. You suck it up all day when colleagues overtly and covertly question your competence and right to be in your position. You play the part of the non-threatening person of color and express too much appreciation for every opportunity you are given. You disregard all the moments in the day that you are ignored, discounted or disrespected. You leave the office, get in your car, blast the music to drown out your ranting and walk into your home to become your full self again.

Every day people of color have to start at square one to prove themselves worthy of their jobs. They are not afforded the automatic respect and trust that white people do. It doesn’t matter that they are well educated, experienced and very good at what they do. The thin line they must walk every day is something white people cannot relate to or ever need to think about. It takes very little for a person of color to be labeled an angry black person, bitch, too expressive, affirmative action recipient, diversity quota hire, less than, not professional enough, too flamboyant, uppity, always bringing up the minority view. In other words, professionals of color must find that narrow space that makes white people comfortable. Even that is no guarantee that they will ultimately earn respect and status.

(There is no equivalency to this daily submersion of self except for women of all colors. As a white woman, though, I can tell you that I don’t have to watch my back nearly as closely as a woman of color. But I can understand a bit of what people of color experience.)

This self-shrinking raises an obvious question. What is it about white establishment men that makes them so threatened by people who are different? Why is it okay for white men to be expressive (sic. loud, frustrated, pissed off) and take up air and physical space when the same traits are judged so harshly for people of color? Sure, the obvious answers have to do with wanting power and control and the old ways are changing and safety with your own type and on and on. But I’m not satisfied with these tired responses.

Other makes all of us uncomfortable. That can set off automatic fight or flight responses. This is evident in the workplace. There is polite avoidance or hostility (often displayed as rejection or dismissal). Both choices maintain or widen the gap between groups. To choose to confront one’s own discomfort and bridge the distance by connecting with people who are different takes self awareness and courage. Sadly, there just isn’t enough of that in our companies. This goes way beyond even the best inclusion activities. I’m speaking here about forming meaningful relationships that are professionally satisfying. It’s not about going for drinks after work. It’s about seeking out the expertise, collaboration and camaraderie of people who are other during work hours.

I’m writing this because corporations usually lead movements that create social change. But companies are woefully behind on this score. Sure, there are good intentions and inclusion officers and recruiting campaigns. But the needle isn’t moving. As someone who used to be one of those officers I can tell you what the bottom line is. All the best convictions and programs don’t scratch the surface of the culture that brown professionals walk into. It would be great if there was a critical mass of minorities but they are used to being in the white world. They are adept at being chameleons. It is the lack of respect that is so pervasive is the ultimate killer of even good efforts.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and make every white professional feel what a person of color feels every day at the office. I want them to feel slighted and less than. I want them to feel the pain. I want them to feel that all their hard work and blue chip educations don’t count just because their pigmentation is all that is seen. I want them to put their personalities and emotions into a tiny box for 10 hours every day. I want them to take on a persona that works for the people around them while they shrivel up inside. I want them to feel the exhaustion at the end of every day from putting up with all the crap.

I’ve got nothing clever to say about this phenomenon. Just a sincere and passionate plea to all my fellow melanin challenged colleagues. Pay attention to your less conscious judgments about people who are different than you. Fight to neutralize these learned and automatic reactions. Change your assumptions. Greet each person of color with the same respect you are granted every day for just showing up. Assume (at least) equal status, competence and capacity. Drop the unearned skepticism and open your mind. Extend your hand to get to know someone who is different than you. Be curious about his/her story. Share your own story. Form a professional bond.

And once you’ve done that with one person, don’t stop there. Because if it is only one or two people of color that you connect with you are apt to think that they are the exceptions to the rule.

For more information on GetReal help: https://getrealleadership.com/get-real-help/

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.

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.

Xenophobia: Misplaced Fear and Anger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Leaders: Who Would You Rather Work For?

Lila has worked at a thriving high tech animation company of 200 people for six years. During that time she has been recognized for her technical skills, her ability to collaborate with other disciplines, her willingness to be flexible and her capacity to grow. She has assumed greater responsibility and now is a director in charge of new business project teams. Overall she has been very happy with her job and career trajectory.

She asked me to meet with her because she needed a reality check. During her six years with the company Lila has seen three CEOs come and go. With each new leader there were adjustments: shifting strategy, projects taken off the schedule, new reporting structures, staff eliminations, new external partners. Lila likes the new CEO and the feelings are mutual. In fact, it is this new boss that elevated her to director.

So what was her concern? “I still like my job and feel confident that I am valued at the company. My problem is that I don’t trust the management of this place. How is it possible to have four CEOs in six years and feel like there is a stable future ahead? Plus, I’ve had so many different job responsibilities and titles that my head is spinning. I would like more than a minute to master one role before leaping into the next one. I know I’m supposed to be flexible and go with the flow and see all of this as a great opportunity. But, honestly, I’ve started to fear coming into work. Who is in charge today? And what is my job today?”

Upon my suggestion, Lila set up a conversation with the CEO. She asked more in depth questions about where the company is headed and how he saw Lila fitting into the picture. He spoke of still being the market leader and redefining animation and three major projects that would be game changers. “You are running two of those teams so you are poised for great things. I have confidence in you, you have a proven track record, everyone speaks so highly about your skills and leadership contributions. There is a reason why you are one of a couple dozen longer term employees. You embody what we are about. Your future here is very bright.”

In my follow up talk with Lila she still was unsettled. “I get that the CEO likes my work. I get that I don’t need to leave. But I can’t help but feel like something is totally messed up with this place if we keep chewing through leaders. Besides, I find myself craving a certain amount of structure and predictability.”

Eli works at a boutique professional services firm that provides consulting to educational institutions. He was hired by the founder of the firm ten years ago when she was building out the practice. Over the years Eli has become a highly sought after consultant and has grown the business in significant ways. The founder has steadily added staff and been very intentional about mentoring each consultant. She is particularly focused on a unique approach to the work that she calls “compassionate, inclusive, forward momentum”. Eli has been consistently coached in this methodology and describes growing in skills, confidence and satisfaction.

He asked to talk to me because he was feeling a need to break away. He loves his job, the clients, his colleagues and his boss. He feels that the mentoring has been invaluable and he sees the positive impact of their methodology. But Eli wondered aloud, “Maybe it’s time for me to explore new opportunities where I can learn other methods or work with different industries. Sometimes I don’t feel enough individuality because we work so collaboratively. It’s not that I don’t express my opinions or that I get shot down for them. I am able to shape the discussion. I just feel like a change of environment will challenge me in new ways.”

Eli wanted my encouragement to find out if the grass was greener someplace else. Instead I urged him to think about how he could demonstrate greater separateness at this firm. He ended up having several interesting discussions with his peers and he discovered that others were feeling too much togetherness was stifling for them too. They decided to approach the founder to explore how to better balance individual and team needs. She was initially taken aback but then very receptive. She listened to the concerns and realized that her compassionate, inclusive, forward momentum approach erred on the side of being too collective. She worried that the clients felt some of the same things the staff did. Eli’s question opened up new dialogue and possibilities at the firm.

Both Lila and Eli like their jobs and have been given some envious opportunities. Lila’s development happened haphazardly while Eli’s was planned. Both feel valued and respected by their companies and like their bosses. Lila doesn’t trust the leadership of her company while Eli worries that his firm is too dogmatic.

What did they do next? Lila is still with her company but is lightly exploring other options. Eli is still at his firm but is now leading an internal effort to expand or rethink the methodology. He wants to see how this plays out before making any decisions.

Which setting would you prefer? Which boss would you choose? Would you stay or would you leave?

There are no right answers here. But there are a couple things we know for sure about what high performers want from their jobs. They want opportunities to grow, just enough structure to make things sane, meaningful relationships with peers, trustworthy leaders and recognition for a job well done. Leaders take heed! These are the things you must provide for your Lila’s and Eli’s or else they will leave.

For more information on GetReal help: https://getrealleadership.com/get-real-help/

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