Regarding Employees

Our capitalistic system requires that we pay to procure products or services. If purchasing a service, the real or implied contract is that the recipient must deliver that service in a satisfactory manner else lose their job or the customer’s business.

That expectation of salary for service creates potential problems in the creation of a quality relationship. After all, the relationship is quid pro quo or Thou Shall Do Something For Me, not necessarily based on a genuine concern for the other. The Arbinger Institute, author of the books Anatomy of Peace and Leadership and Self-Deception, regard this expectation as treating another not as a person, but as a vehicle or means to an end. This may be especially true for a star performer – after all, my employees are there to make me look good, right? And they’d better keep doing it.

At the other extreme are employees that create problems. Those problems may either include a lack of productivity, disruptive behavior or poor work quality. In this case, management is likely focusing on the problem and the employee’s weaknesses, not their strengths. Employers may be regarding those folks not as people but as obstacles.

Alternatively, an employee may perform adequately, neither rising nor falling significantly above or below the threshold of productivity to attract the attention of management. The employee may not be on the radar of the employer at all; they’re pretty much left alone to do their job. Again, the employee may be regarded as an object – in this case, as irrelevant. Management is not focusing on strengths or weaknesses as they may be ignoring them completely.

Each scenario, though understandable and common given human nature, sets us up for conflict and dysfunctional relationships.   The scenarios where the other is an obstacle or irrelevant also increases the odds the employee will be either unengaged or actively disengaged (complaining, creating problems, angry). In the meantime, management is probably feeling pretty helpless, victimized and perplexed by employee attitudes and work performance.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Employers are not the only ones guilty of the behavior. Employees may feel management is irrelevant, gets in their way, or is a vehicle for their own needs, such as income, and desires. If these attitudes are pervasive among both management and staff, then the whole organization may be mired in relationship dysfunction.

There’s no way, given our system, to avoid those Thou Shall expectations when you’re paying someone for a service. However, that does not mean that we must be blind to the subconscious dynamic that is associated with that expectation. Arbinger suggests that we have a choice as to whether we transition from regarding others as people (where their needs, cares, hopes and fears are as important as our own) to seeing them as objects (vehicles, obstacles or irrelevant). In other words, if you are to reward, punish or review an employee, do you consider their needs, cares, hopes and fears? Are you sensitive to those needs? Do you treat them as you would want to be treated? Paying someone does not give another permission to disregard their humanity.

Managing Office Politics

The term “office politics” refers to overall culture at work, but often in a way that implies negative connotations. I usually hear about it in terms of how workplaces gossip and cliques manifest from informal power struggles.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Office politics can be transformed to a positive culture where each person feels valued, engaged and supported in a way that enables their success. Each person knows that their teammates have their back – whether they’re present or not. Every person in the organization plays a part in creating and sustaining such a culture, but management plays a key role in either generating or discouraging such an environment.

What kind of culture are you nurturing? Think about who you work with and answer these questions for the whole range of people you work with, rather than just the best or worse case scenarios.

  • I tend to see what others are doing wrong.
  • There are people that I’d rather not deal with.
  • Certain people are making my job or life really difficult.
  • I tend to like to vent about others to my work friends.
  • I love to share a juicy story about a colleague.
  • I try to spend as much time as possible with the people that can help me.
  • I feel better when others confirm to me that I am right.
  • I know that I’m right most of the time.
  • I don’t feel worthy of or capable in my job.
  • I wish that others would get their act together and start doing their job.
  • I am not ready to be involved in decision-making.
  • It’s important to me that I’m viewed as productive and competent at work.

If you’re human and being honest with yourself, you probably had at least a few of these statements feel true to you in at least some circumstances. It’s natural. We all do it. However, please be aware that this tendency, which is often subconscious, is what contributes to a negative work culture. The Arbinger Institute calls this natural human tendency going into the “box”.

Going forward, try to catch yourself in the act when you’re in or going into the box. What does your body feel like? What thoughts are you having? What sorts of situations cause you to feel this way?

Now think about what you tend to do when in the box. Are you at your best, most helpful and peaceful self? Do you tend to be productive and creative when in the box? Probably not. We tend to actually lose productivity, collegiality and/or work quality when distracted by negative feelings.

Therefore, it makes sense to manage the box. Notice when you go in and know how to get yourself out. How can you find calm, peace, forgiveness and compassion for the person that is trying their best and struggling, just like you?

Creating the right office culture starts inside you. You can only give what you have, and if what you have is anger, resentment, entitlement, or victimhood, then that’s what you’ll sow at work. Instead, cultivate generosity, helpfulness, appreciation, and compassion inside and that’s what you can grow in others.

Read more about office politics in HBR here.

Evolving the Misfit Into A Hero

"Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri)"

“Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri)”

Every office has one. You know, that person that just doesn’t fit in. They always seem to have their head in the clouds, or they’re off on their own. Folks have pretty much given up trying to understand where they’re coming from.   They march to their own drummer and no one seems to know how to get them in line. To make matters worse, that poor misfit consequently is often the subject of jokes and snide comments. Maybe occasionally you’ve even participated in that gossip.

I have observed a number of these misfits over the years. In one setting, they may be unproductive and/or misunderstood and/or difficult to get along with; an enigma. But funny thing is if you take that Fish Out of Water (FOW) and put them in, well, water, then they can really sparkle.

Organizational culture is a strong but unseen force that we old-timers tend to take for granted. This is how things are, except they are not that way everywhere. New employees may have a tough time transitioning to a new organization, especially if it has a strong culture and orientation and onboarding are minimal. Even with a strong orientation, some just may never feel at home in an organization if the priorities, values, and tendencies are afar from their own. For example, I will probably never feel at home at a financial institution since money is the last thing I want to think about.

Tendencies are also important in a culture. The Gallup organizations defines our strengths are our natural patterns of thought, feeling or behavior. Like-minded people tend to have similar strengths. Therefore, having an office with many like-minded individuals tends to result in smooth interpersonal dynamics. Using the Meyers-Briggs personality as an example, an office full of introverts will make the sole extravert feel out of place, and visa versa. Introverts gain energy from being alone; extraverts gain energy from interacting with others. One is not better than the other. They’re just different.

While personality homogeneity may tend to create a smooth cultural dynamic, the potential downside is group-think and over-relying on a narrow range of skills. In contrast, a successful team accesses a wide range of strengths and uses them effectively. For instance, the office may need an office advocate. That FOW extrovert may be a good choice for this social role since they will be energized by meetings with others.   The extrovert will also be saving the rest of the team from doing a task that is effortful for them.

Now who’s the office hero?

In sum, the FOW actually represents an opportunity to make your team stronger and round out the team skill set.   Else, the FOW just quits in disgust, leaving the others in their group-think mode. Managers have a responsibility to help the FOW find the tasks and roles that best suit their skills and tendencies, and to value the unique role they play in the group setting the example by role modeling.

Remember, we’re all genius at something. Focusing on the shortcomings and struggles of another is not only unfair and unkind, but also unproductive. Challenge yourself to discover the genius and glory of the person you don’t understand. Seeing them in a new light may also help you to see yourself differently. You’re a gazelle, have you ever felt like you were suddenly under water?

It may also be true that the FOW may need to find a pond, and the gazelle a dry stretch of land.  But in the meantime, we’re a delicate ecosystem that is full of God’s creatures that are all interdependent. Help that FOW find a little water, and you may find that she can evolve and grow lungs.

Self-(un)fulfilling Reality, Part II

Scientists use control groups in experiments since the simple act of observing or measuring can have an impact on the experimental outcome. Our tendency to influence our environment also occurs in our interactions with others at work or at home.

However, we are often completely unaware of our influence on an interpersonal dynamic. For example, I may observe that a colleague or friend is very defensive; makes me wish they would just get their act together and not be so insecure. What’s blind to me is my role in making them feel defensive. That person may be simultaneously wishing that I would quit being so critical.

What? Me? I’m not critical!

Just because I think this other person needs to get their act together, start doing their job, quit going around talking to everyone about how it’s not their fault, doesn’t mean I’m critical!

It’s probably easy for you to see this dynamic because you’re not in the middle of it. Three observations are noteworthy. First, just because I may not have said anything critical to my poor victim, doesn’t mean that my body language, tone, or actions don’t broadcast my feelings. Second, the trait I’m complaining about (defensiveness) is the exact same behavior I’m exhibiting. This is called projection. Projection means that I hate and criticize a trait in someone else because I hate it in myself.

Finally, my subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages and projection means that I am probably influencing the outcome and dynamic of this relationship without my knowledge. Me? I’m completely innocent, right? By viewing the other as the defensive one, I am making her defensive through the criticism that I am fooling myself into believing that I am hiding from her. In other words, I am creating my own reality through my expectation of others.

We are told that children rise to the level of our expectations. This has actually been demonstrated in scientific studies. If a teacher believes an average child is gifted, then that child will outperform other students.  Others rise to (or fall) to the level of our expectations.

I believe the same dynamic holds true for adults. If you’re a manager and you believe that an employee is incompetent, lazy, careless or immature, how will you treat them? Are they likely to be engaged or given opportunities to develop or excel? What behavior will result?

Beware your expectations. You may be creating the behavior you’re expecting and being a hypocrite in the process.

Now consider flipping your critical expectations to the positive. Instead of finding what’s wrong or lacking in others, find what is admirable or excellent. What behavior are you inviting now, in yourself and others?

Now, doesn’t that feel so much better?

Meaning at Work

Getting surprised while doing a training session never seems like a good thing. When I train, I like to anticipate what the range of reactions will be so that I am prepared to handle them.

However, on Friday I was leading a session on job crafting – an exercise that helps you edit your job to be more satisfying, fulfilling, and productive – when I got a surprise reaction from this group of 50 or so female leaders.

In hindsight, maybe it’s related to the fact that I had just strayed from the traditional exercise.   Duh.

We had just finished identifying their strengths, passions, values and job tasks. Then I asked them to consider their personal mission and the purpose of their work.   Then to my surprise – everyone burst out laughing. Not in a that-was-really-funny-Susanna way, but in an are-you-kidding-me? kind of way.

I then explained to them that finding and building meaning at work can enhance worker satisfaction and motivation. Think about it: if all your life you wanted to be a teacher, and you have a job teaching people how to sell a video game that you believe to be bad for children, likely you will not enjoy your job. Once I explained this concept, they thankfully seemed to settle into the exercise without that element of incredulity.

But why the initial reaction? Is the notion of meaning and purpose at work so out of reach, at least upon initial reaction, for some people? Do most of us really just go to our job for a paycheck and little else?

Research on callings tell us that approximately 1/3 of the adult population considers their job simply a means to a paycheck. These participants self-selected for this seminar, so perhaps they are disproportionately represented in this category as opposed to the 1/3 of the population who are pursuing their calling through their work.

Are you in that means-to-paycheck group? Can you draw a connection between what you do at work each day and your life’s mission (what you long to contribute to humanity)? If so, perhaps you feel relatively good about how you spend most of your day. If not, why not? Maybe your answer will surprise you.

Trust at Work

Trust is an important element of motivation, so creating trust in the workplace is critical for employees to perform at their best.   Transparency and open communication is essential for trust. But it’s so much more.

When I was a kid, back during the last Ice Age, employees had an implied and actual contract with their employer. If they were loyal to the organization, the organization would be loyal to them. They had generous pensions and could trust that they could retire comfortably after a certain number of years of service without worry.

That concept seems laughable and naïve these days since the pension seems to have caused financial ruin for many companies. Though the model is not financially sustainable, this idea of a reciprocal relationship between the employee and employer also seems to be as outdated as the dinosaur.   In other words, what the modern contract seems to amount to is: You work as hard as possible, and take on incredible stress and responsibility with little or no support. In return, I give you a paycheck and maybe some benefits. I may or may not treat you well, help you or recognize your efforts.   I may or may not help you grow as an individual or care about your personal or professional well-being. I will dispose of you as soon as I think it will benefit the organization. If the time comes when I think it’s time for you to go, I may simply escort you from the building without so much as a “thanks for your service.” And for that, you better show your appreciation to me and make this job your first priority.

And employers wonder why employees don’t work harder or show a better attitude.

Granted, this contract may be implicit since few managers will actually say something like that. But just like I do a terrible job of trying to appear happy and friendly when I’m actually grouchy or upset, words, tone, and actions belie true intentions.   Being transparent and openly communicating about this You Are A Cog in the Machine philosophy will not improve trust. It will improve disengagement and resentment.

In my opinion, the difference between a manager and a leader is whether they treat employees and colleagues well given the realities of the modern workplace. Treating someone well does not mean you never, ever fire or discipline them. It simply means that when that time comes, you treat them as you wish to be treated. Treating someone well also does not mean that you constantly praise and affirm them. Instead, it means being authentic and true with your praise and reward, and not because you want something from them.   The Arbinger Institute (Leadership and Self-Deception and arbinger.com) teaches this philosophy about doing business either by treating others as objects – an obstacle, irrelevant, or a means to an end, or as people – whose needs, wants and desires are as important as your own. Until one learns the difference and behaves accordingly, I believe true leadership will continue to evade them.

The Trouble With Smart People

Pretty much everyone I know is smart. So friends, don’t hate me for what I’m about to say. But someone has to say it and I’m known for speaking what I believe to be truth.

We can be a real pain in the buttinsky.

There. I said it.

At least know that I’m including myself in this equation. In fact, it’s my own experience from which I draw this conclusion.

In my last blog, I wrote about the difference between confidence and arrogance. We can easily cross into arrogance in a blink of an eye – yours truly especially. Arrogance can be very global to our whole lives, or to a major part of our lives like our work (which is mostly what I was referring to).   But arrogance can also be situational and episodic. Either way, it can lead to stupidity.

I like to think that I usually keep my ego in check, but I’m rethinking that assumption after a recent minor injury. As a (non-practicing) health care professional, I felt that I was capable of self-prescribing my recovery plan. A week later I had made little or no progress.   It took a chorus of not only my immediate but extended family (and a few friends) to send me to the doctor and get and X-ray and some crutches.

Some people are more open to input than others.

And, as usual, I see the fallacy in others but not my own folly.

“Why do you look at the speck in your brothers eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”

I frequently see others bypass the wisdom of experts, even when offered for free, because of their belief that their knowledge, wisdom and ability to strategize into the future is complete.   They are (I am) an island, and you can keep swimming on by.

In certain areas, I am a wise consumer. I tend to get care, advice, and supervision proactively when I know I’m out of my league.  In that case, what I don’t know is just ignorance.   But when in an area of comfort and knowledge, what I don’t know are blind spots potentially reinforced by arrogance. Health, psychology, relationships, education, parenting… my blind spots are vast and deep.

“Ignorance is bliss but knowledge is power”

Which do you choose?