This will be the 225th post in this blog. We began this with a specific purpose, and now that purpose has been satisfied. Like the picture above, we’ve come to the end of the road. We’ll keep the blog up for a while, but there probably won’t be any more posts. There are new mountains to conquer, and new roads to travel.
We can’t leave without some recognition. Thank you to all of you who have become fans of the site, read about all our characters, and identified with the situations we wrote about. It is your encouragement that kept us going for 225 blogs, and some great times relating our stories.
Remember, you always have the power to make your work situation better if you just give it your best effort. That’s what we’ve done here, given our best effort, and what a ride it was.
It’s time to find another road…
Last week, I wrote about the meeting on the latest engagement survey for Sarah’s organization. In that article, I mentioned that the results were not the item most people focused on, but rather how those results were interpreted by Sarah and her leadership team. That wasn’t the only thing people were noticing in Sarah’s meeting, however. In this particular case, some employees were tempted to break out the stopwatch app on their smartphones. Why? Read on…
As I wrote about, everything that seemed to be positive for the department was claimed by Sarah, and everything not that positive was blamed more on the company. After the first comment that Sarah made, Anna, one of Sarah’s direct reports, who had been graced with two promotions in one year (which was against company rules, but that is the subject of another article), chimed in, “You’re right Sarah! That makes a lot of sense.” That comment, made about 5 seconds after Sarah’s comment, made more than a few eyes roll.
The next time Sarah made a comment, there again was Anna, once again congratulating her boss. “That’s a great point. I wouldn’t have thought of it that way!” One expected Anna to break out the pom-poms at that point and lead everyone in a cheer.
This back and forth went on for several more rounds, each time Anna chiming in earlier and earlier about the rightness of Sarah’s statements. If they wouldn’t be noticed for it, several staff wanted to break out the stopwatch app to time how long it would take for Anna to say something in response to Sarah’s comments. Others wanted to pass along lip balm to Anna. Still others were waiting for Anna to simply say to Sarah, “I don’t know what you are going to say next, but I’m sure it is brilliant.” As you can see, Anna’s comments were not taken seriously by anyone, save for Sarah herself.
There are two ways to ascend in an organization. You can show your excellence and value to the organization, or you can ascend with flattery and pleasing words. Either way, you will have attained a higher position, and people will have to listen to you. How would you like them to listen to you, though? Do you want them to listen with attention and respect, knowing you earned that spot in the organization? Or, do you want them to inwardly roll their eyes, nod when appropriate, and then talk behind your back that the only strength you have is tied to how hard you pucker?
Maybe you don’t care, which is a sad state of affairs, for it shows you are in for the power alone, and not what you can do for the organization and your people. If that is the case, download that stopwatch app mentioned above. You will need to be in training constantly for how you can continue to curry favor without any substance.
Worse still, if you are the boss who rewards praise and flattery, but not true substance and intelligence, you may want to download that stopwatch app as well. After all, you want to make sure your direct reports kiss up faster and faster, don’t you?
The annual meeting to discuss the latest engagement scores was held by Sarah, with about typical results. Some scores went up, some went down, and some stayed the same. That wasn’t news. As any employee who had watched this dance for several years knew, the focus of the meeting, and the major entertainment, was how the scores would be spun. This year was no different in that aspect.
You had to listen more closely this year for the entertainment, however, as it was subtle, but it was there. It wasn’t in what was said about why the scores were what they were, but in the different explanations for the scores. For any scores that were good, or had shown improvement, Sarah and her supporters immediately complimented each other on how well ‘the department’ did. However, for any scores that had shown a decline, the story was quite different. For each one of those, the explanation was that ‘the company’s’ scores on these areas must be represented by the data, not the department’s. In other words, any poor scores were not reflective of the department, but rather that the company’s poor scores were dragging that number down. Thus, it was not the department’s fault the numbers were low. They could then be blithely ignored and have no concerns whatsoever given to them.
This see-saw effect happened throughout the meeting. It was obvious that any good scores were reflective of the department, and that any bad scores were the result of everyone else dragging down what would have been stellar numbers for the department. This flexible interpretation made Sarah and her supporters feel good and walk out of the meeting assured that they were doing a wonderful job.
There is an old saying that success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. In this case, failure did have a parent, but it turned out to be dubious lineage. Sarah and her supporters didn’t know who the parent was, but it was obvious it wasn’t them. This finger pointing would allow them to escape any critical review of themselves for another year.
A good leader is one who accepts both the good and the bad news. That leader than engages in critical reflection of that bad news and why it happened, and what can be done to turn it around. That leader does not push it to the side, blaming everyone else for it, but uses it to grow. The result is a better leader and a better situation for those they lead.
If the only mental exercise you get is to figure out a way to blame others for your own bad news, then I congratulate you. You are a master of the spin.
I cannot congratulate you for being a good leader, though, for you have a long way to go before that title is bestowed upon you.
The CEO took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. No matter how much he looked at the report on his desk, he could coax no sense out of it. Putting it aside, he scanned his desk for another matters that required his attention.
His eyes lit upon a letter that had been written to him and to the President of the company. He had not filed the letter yet, so picked it up to reread it. The letter was from a terminated employee of the company, or rather the employee’s lawyer, spelling out rather specific charges against the employee’s now former manager. The accusations could cause the company some trouble, as they could be interpreted as violating federal regulations.
The manager in question was someone the CEO knew. She had stepped up to head several projects in the company and had volunteered to fill a spot on the leadership council temporarily, taking some burden off the CEO. He liked when people did this, so was willing to overlook such reports of the manager’s, shall we say, deficiencies. He had decided not to investigate these accusations at all, but held on to the letter in case the President thought differently. He didn’t think the President would, as he had his own agenda and pet projects, and didn’t bother much with the needs of the company’s staff.
The letter did remind him that he needed to make arrangements to make the manager in question’s temporary promotion permanent. After all, didn’t she help him out? Staff complained too much anyway. He took the letter, and promptly filed it in the round file under his desk.
He sighed. That was enough of a distraction. He needed to get back to his report.
Picking it up, he read the top of it again. It was the employee engagement results from the survey taken earlier in the year. It had shown, as it had in previous years, the same disturbing data.
I can’t figure it out, the CEO thought, reading the data for the 100th time. Why do the staff feel so strongly that the leadership of this company don’t care about them or their concerns at all?
Anyone who read Charles Shultz’s classic comic strip ‘Peanuts’ knows the setup. Lucy Van Pelt would hold a football and invite Charlie Brown to kick it. Charlie Brown would refuse to do so because he knew Lucy would pull the football away at the last minute and cause him to go sailing in the air.
Readers knew that was going to happen. That wasn’t the payoff of the comic strip. What readers looked for was Lucy’s current excuse to Charlie Brown about why it would not happen this particular time. The reason was always well thought out and convinced Charlie Brown to run up and want to kick the football with all his might. Then, at the last minute, Lucy would pull the football away, Charlie Brown would go flying, and she would offer some excuse why she just had to pull the football away, usually making it sound as if Charlie Brown was at fault.
Sarah probably read ‘Peanuts’ religiously just for the times when Lucy and the football would appear. She seems to have taken lessons from her.
Once again Sarah had received bad news on the Employee Engagement report for her department. Once again the report showed her people’s morale was abysmal, lower than low, with the lowest scores being reserved for their trust in executive management and staff’s ability to speak up without being punished. As longer term readers of this blog know, this wasn’t a surprise, and wouldn’t be when Sarah released this to the department. Like Lucy Van Pelt, the entertainment came with the excuse that Sarah would give for the scores being so low. Here is a recap of some of the previous excuses Sarah gave throughout her career:
- There was nothing wrong with management. It was all the employee’s fault, and thus they had to fix everything that was wrong.
- The scores were reflective of the previous leader of the department, despite the fact that the questions asked not about the leader of the department, but the leadership of the department, of which she was one.
- Silence save for asking the leader of the department what she was going to do about the scores, despite the fact that Sarah had led the department for seven months during the rating period.
- Everyone had a different interpretation of the question. Once we had a common interpretation, the scores would be better. (They weren’t)
- and our particular favorite: Staff was tired of taking the survey, did not answer honestly, so the survey was invalid.
This year, Sarah went for an oldie but goodie. She attacked the survey itself. No space between the words, no comma, no semi-colon was safe from her ‘examination’. Her goal? To convince herself that the test itself was poor, so could not provide accurate results. No matter that the company which created the test had decades of experience in the field, that the questions were vetted by experts, and that the company had thousands of clients. None of this mattered. It didn’t tell her (again) that her brilliant and inspired leadership was causing her staff to dance in the aisles, so it must be invalid. And who can believe an invalid test?
This would forestall another year where she might have to be introspective about the nature of her leadership. This would put off any thought that she was a poor leader and manager who might need to make significant changes to her personal style in order to have a happy and engaged staff. This would give her 12 months breathing room to have to look inside herself and come to grips with the fact that she needed to change. No, it was much more efficient to find the next excuse than expend energy on becoming a better person, and by extension, a better leader.
Sarah could be very happy in walking off the field with her football while her staff lay moaning in pain. After all, it was their fault they were in pain, wasn’t it?
Sarah’s department retreat had not happened yet, and she had a request transmitted from the corporate coach who would be conducting the session: “Please have your people contact me, confidentially, so I can get a good pulse of the department”. Though this was fraught with danger, as if the coach was not going to treat this confidentially, there would be retribution by Sarah. Still, even with this danger, there were a fair number of employees who took the corporate coach up on this offer.
The coach very patiently and kindly listened to all the callers, and made a surprising revelation. Each caller had said the same thing about Sarah and the department. Each caller had indicated that it was a not a safe to say environment, that there was retribution, that Sarah was never wrong, even when she was…all topics that readers of this blog have become familiar with in the tales of Sarah. The coach then promised that these issues would be addressed in the coaching sessions.
The first session came and the staff waited for these issues to be addressed.
And, with the exception of the coach saying that everyone was expected to speak openly and candidly, which the staff who had been around a while promptly ignored, not another word was said regarding any of the issues that was spoken about to the coach. The staff began to worry that they had spoken to freely and that the purpose of the coach’s invitation was to gather evidence to pass along to Sarah. After all, one person had mysteriously ‘been terminated’ shortly after the session.
The second set of sessions did not have the coach ask for any feedback on either the previous session or on the progress, if any, of Sarah. During this set, the coach went further, extolling the virtues of Sarah and saying how much he admired her. To be fair, he also complimented the staff, but only Sarah stood out for special treatment. The staff saw very starkly that the coach had not lived, and was not going to live up to his promise.
We all prefer the soothing words over the words of criticism. It is human nature to want to do so. We prefer to hear that we are doing well over the idea that we might be doing something poorly. However, we need to hear what is wrong, especially when so many of those who have had dealing with us say the exact same thing. If all we desire to hear, or reward hearing, is the good and not the bad, we are deliberately avoiding items that might make us a better leader, manager, or person.
When you aid in this, by deliberately avoiding some appealing truths, what does that say about your worth as an adviser, coach, or confidante? Are you simply selling out to the highest bidder?
If, as a leader, you say you value honesty, but then don’t want to hear it. If you favor those who only say favorable things about you. If your interest in improving by looking at your weaknesses is nil. If that is you, don’t bother calling yourself a leader, and don’t expect anyone else to, either.
Well, except those you pay to do so.
When you hear the word ‘betrayal’, what comes to mind? Some political intrigue? Some far off movie on spies and espionage? Maybe a bad Telemundo soap opera? How about coming out of the mouth of the head of a department at a professional conference? Read up and see what is happening with Sarah and the Great Betrayal.
It happened at a teambuilder that Sarah had put together for her department. She brought in a high priced coach to help the team get through some of the ‘issues’ that she felt the team had. She sent the team to an offsite location so they would not be disturbed. There was even lunch served.
One of the the exercises that the coach put the team through was to mention a word or phrase of something that happens to them in the office which angers them to most. Participation was mandatory. Everyone had to answer. When it got to Sarah, the word she used as her emotional response was, ‘betrayal’.
There was a silence when she said that word, as if the staff and the coach had to digest it. The session went on, but the word itself left a lasting impression on the staff. What exactly did ‘betrayal’ mean to Sarah, and what implications did it hold for the staff?
First, they didn’t expect to hear that particular word coming from someone who holds herself us as the height of professionalism. Second, it was a professional business event where Sarah used the word ‘betrayal’. Not ‘unprofessionalism’. Not ‘lack of business focus’. Not ‘not achieveing our objectives’. ‘Betrayal’.
The staff also wondered what constituted betrayal in Sarah’s eyes. Was it not agreeing with her fully? Was it simply disagreeing with her? Was it not being 100% committed to her vision? Was it not saying ‘good morning’ to her? Was it something else? With some of the things she had done recently, nobody was ready to dismiss anything. The term ‘execute her vision’ had taken a very dark and ominous turn.
So, instead of the teambuilder showing the staff how to work together in a trusting atmosphere, all it had done was drive the specter of doubt and uncertainty further into the department. People would be walking even more gingerly on those eggshells now so they didn’t stir up feelings of betrayal in Sarah.
The teambuilder did build one thing for the team: paranoia.
If you are a leader of people, learn the lessons of how to deal with people as a leader. Leave the ‘betrayal’ comments to the Telemundo soap operas.
It had been a pretty much one-sided conversation on the ride back to the office from the job site. The talking had been done mostly by the senior partner in the firm, with the listening by the one of his employees. The employee knew better than to really engage the senior partner in any conversation, as the senior partner enjoyed hearing the sound of his own voice. The employee was happy enough, for if he were to say anything, he might not have a job after that day.
The senior partner was going on about the recent rash of people leaving the firm. The most recent departure was someone pretty high up in the organization, leaving a hole they would have to fill and quickly. It was odd. When there was a hole in the employee’s level, there wasn’t an urgency to fill that vacancy, and the work was distributed to others as a ‘cost savings measure’.
The senior partner continued. “Why didn’t he just come in to speak with me about what was wrong. Nobody seems to do that. If they would just do that, we could work things out with them and we wouldn’t be facing this.”
The employee just nodded and continued to stare straight ahead, keeping his mouth shut. He didn’t mention that this was the same firm where, if an employee asked for a raise, the senior partners would drag out every mistake they had ever done since the employee first walked in the door as justification to reject the raise. This was the same firm where there were not automatic raises, even though their billing out rates continued to rise. This was the same firm, which, as mentioned, would not replace workers when they left because, ‘well, we aren’t making enough money to do so’.
Unaware of this inner dialogue, the senior partner continued on what he considered a happier note. They had won the contract for a few other projects, which the employee would be the main contact. Looking at the employee, the senior partner said to him, “Let’s hope you don’t screw this one up like you did the last one”.
The ride continued in silence.
Managers and leaders are mirrors for their organization. What attitudes, ideas, and opinions they generate are reflected back to them in the attitudes, ideas, and opinions of their employees. If they generate fairness, insight, and professionalism, they will have this reflected back at them. If they generate the opposite, that, too, will be reflected back to them. It is the clueless manager who generates one set of values and expects a different one to be reflected in their organization.
If you are wondering why employees in your organization act a certain way, look to yourself first to see if this behavior is the one you are sending out to the staff. If it is, and if you truly want your organization to work differently, then begin with the most difficult change of all — your attitude. Turn that mirror on yourself and take a good, hard look at yourself. You may be surprised at what you see.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a company meeting where the top management invited the staff to write in with their questions. The top questions, based on votes by the staff, would be answered in the session. The answers were, to be charitable, less than what the employees deserved. The next two blogs will focus on two of those questions, both asked of the HR Department.
One of the more popular questions, by evidence of how many people voted for it, was asked of the HR Department, which had received the majority of questions asked. The questioner asked how they could advance in the company. They kept going for new opportunities in their department, always to be turned down. They wanted to stay with the company, but it seemed that only the chosen few ever received promotions or advancement.
The head of HR, very seriously, answered that question in the following way: Talk with your supervisor about how you can advance.
Let’s recap for a moment, shall we? The main reason for the employee writing in, and so many people’s approval of the question, was because this person has spoken with his or her supervisor several times about promotional possibilities in the office. Each time they were either blown off or turned away. By the number of people who voted up this question, it was quite a common managerial behavior in the company. Now, when brought into the light, what does the head of HR say to the person. Talk to your supervisor.
You are advising someone who has hit a brick wall with their manager about moving up in the company to talk with the same manager who is blocking them. Is anyone getting whiplash here?
This question, and the amount of positive votes it received, should have been a red flag in the air for the head of HR. There is an epidemic in their company of favoritism, or perceived favoritism, in the promotional process. People are frustrated and are looking for a lifeline to stay with the company. Your answer, head of HR, which probably took about a minute and a half to scribble down, is akin to saying, “Screw you. This is not important for me. Here is a generic answer that you will accept because I have no time to care about your petty problems.” Yet the head of HR probably wonders why the majority of critical questions are directed at her.
The company is offering a unique way of having people be heard. True, it may bring out some difficult questions, but as a leader, don’t you want these questions to surface so you can understand the critical issues facing the company? By providing such a pat, and in this case, insulting, answer, shows you do not care about the company or its people. Worse, you have squandered an opportunity for you to turn the perception of your department to something positive.
Get hit with hard questions? Welcome them. Embrace them. Treat them as a challenge to find new, innovative, and creative solutions that will truly solve the problem. This is what leaders do. It is only the lazy and uncaring that pull out the pat answers and pawn them off to people in pain.
The staff had to give credit to Sarah. At least she was trying. Well, at least it seemed like she was trying. This is what they thought, among other things, as they sat in one of the company’s larger conference rooms awaiting their ‘action day’ on their employee engagement survey responses. The scores had not been wonderful, and getting to the answers was made more difficult by the fact that a large percentage of the staff felt it wasn’t safe to speak up on issues, especially if they carried a negative bias towards Sarah. She was not known as someone who was welcoming to criticism and eventually would dole out retribution to whomever made the comment. The department was littered with those who had tried it in one way or the other. It seemed only those who complimented and flattered Sarah went anywhere in the department, and those people had a very different name among the staff.
Sarah either didn’t recognize this correlation or didn’t want to see it; the staff didn’t know which. What they did know was that they would continue to spend their time in these sessions producing little or nothing because the truth was just too dangerous to speak.
The facilitator today was someone from the company which had administered the survey. He had been at the company before, and in front of Sarah’s department before, so had some understanding of the issues. He began without much introduction, saying that they had a lot to do and little time to do it in.
The session ran in a pretty typical fashion to the previous attempts. The staff was given self-adhesive notes in order to write things that were good about the department. If the next step followed suit, they would go up to a piece of paper in front of the room and attach these notes onto the sheet in some fashion. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen just that way.
When the staff was finished writing their notes, the facilitator called upon one of the members of the staff, Mitch, to bring his responses up. Before putting them up on the paper, however, Mitch was asked to tell them out loud to the group. Mitch, glad he didn’t write anything particularly offensive, did so, while the rest of the staff furiously edited their notes for when it was their turn.
The next part of the exercise the staff knew well. As they had written down what was good with the department, now they would write down what was wrong with the department. Knowing the facilitator would ask them to come up and speak their criticisms, the each staff member was more than a little nervous. Fortunately, the facilitator gave them a chance to save both themselves and their jobs. He asked them to write down something that could be improved with their department or with the company. To a person, everyone jumped on that opportunity and, one by one, they brought up their papers describing what was wrong with the company, not the department.
This was not lost on Sarah, who commented that no one really mentioned anything wrong with the department, but with the company. She wondered aloud if this was because people didn’t want to speak of the issues with the department or that the department was running well. In a few minutes, she went on to the next topic of discussion, and didn’t give another mention of the odd case of why nobody would speak badly of the department.
Like her predecessor, Sarah didn’t, or wouldn’t, recognize a fundamental truth. People had indicated, now for a second year in a row, that they were afraid to speak up in the department. If your staff has indicated in an anonymous survey that they are afraid to speak up in the department, why would you have a session where they are mandated to…speak up in front of the department about the problems of the department? For many who knew Sarah, they believed this was a calculated move by her to indicate to her leadership peers that she had done her due diligence, but her staff was unwilling to say anything, or that they had indicated nothing at all was wrong with the department. That box could be checked off, and Sarah could remain secure in the delusion of her own leadership greatness.
Leaders need courage. They need courage beyond just having to make ‘the tough decisions’, but also to accept criticism about their leadership style. They also need courage to be able to change that style for the benefit of their staff. When a leader arranges a situation to purposely avoid that criticism, it shows that they know things are wrong, but either refuse to or are unwilling to change. It is a very selfish leadership that will be a leader in name and salary only, and not as a person with followers who truly believe in their leadership. The only leadership they exhibit is of their own ego.
When you have to rig the contest in order to assure the outcome you want, you are not a leader. You are little more than a carny game operator who makes sure that nobody can win at your games of chance. In that situation, the real losers are all those who are subjected to your so-called leadership.