Stretching Reality

The HR director was rather proud of herself. She was speaking to one of the company’s departments outlining her achievements, including the fact that she had a strong commitment to stretching employees with new assignments, career advancement, and job rotation. It was a hallmark of her tenure. She went as far to say that she didn’t want to have employees who weren’t willing to be stretched in the organization. It was part of the company’s success.

The employees listened to this politely, thanked her for attending, and left. They were polite enough not to laugh at her words in front of her, but had plenty of conversation about them afterwards. Job rotation? Advancement potential? Stretch assignments? None of them were part of the department they were in.

The HR director had addressed this. If this wasn’t happening, she wanted to know. She would take action. However, the actions taken were more deleterious to the employees than awakening to the management.

In theory, the HR director should have known this. After all, there was a representative for each of the departments, wasn’t there? Yes, but for most employees, the only time they saw their HR representative was at these meetings. When they did come to the department, it was to meet with the executives. And when the executives were questioned as to whether they were growing and stretching their people, what do you think was the answer? The message to the employees? They weren’t important enough for the HR representative to visit and speak with, even though it may tell a very different story than the executives related.

This didn’t happen, and since it didn’t, the commitment of the HR director went unfulfilled. It would have been easy to remedy. Talk to the employees. Find out when was the last time they received a stretch assignment. Find out if they were being groomed for a promotion possibility. Find out if they had been offered a job rotation or offered a short assignment with another group or department. Nobody did, because nobody cared. The employees simply weren’t important enough to do so.

The HR director said she didn’t want to see anyone leave the company because of unfulfilled expectations or potential. If she had put her energy into ways to ensure that instead of just making speeches about it, she would find a much lower turnover rate. She would have found much more fulfilled employees and a lot more heads nodding in her meetings with departments.

What We Have Here…

Even though a question was asked, there was silence in the room. It wasn’t that the question was so difficult that nobody could answer it. No, rather it was that nobody wanted to answer the question. Except one.

The venue was the monthly staff meeting. Human Resources had been invited to discuss the results of the yearly engagement survey. While there had been some good points, mostly in the area of serving the department’s customers, there were also some areas where improvement was needed. One of those areas was communication from the executives of the group to the rank-and-file workers.

The Human Resources representative had outlined what it planned on doing to rectify the problem, and had then asked if the department’s staff had any contributions about why communication was an issue and what could be done about it. That was the reason for the silence.

It wasn’t that the staff didn’t have any suggestions. The executives of the department only seemed to communication at these monthly meetings or when something was needed. Otherwise, they stayed in their offices, barely interacting with most of the staff who didn’t directly report to them. There wasn’t malice in this non-action, and most of the staff ignored the fact that they were ignored. Still, it bothered most of the staff that they were treated simply as workers, so that is how they acted.

It also wasn’t that the staff was afraid of retaliation if they spoke up. They knew they would be looked upon unfavorably, nothing would be done, and some being given the feedback might even take offense at the words spoken. Still, the staff kept silent, despite the benevolent gaze of the department head.

The silence was broken by one of the department executives who offered her interpretation of the results. She explained that there were two questions on communication on the survey – one for the company as a whole and one for the department. The executive speculated that the staff simply confused the two questions. They thought, as a group, they were answering the question on the company as a whole and not the one for the department. There was no problem to report, according to her.

While the staff continued to be silent within the conference room, there was much chatter after the meeting ended. The staff could not believe the temerity of the executive to explain away the results, and explain it as the staff not having the sense enough to know which question they were answering. Nothing demonstrated the gap between the executive group and the staff better than that comment. The ‘confused’ employees went back to their desk assured nothing would change with attitudes like that.

When evidence comes that shows there is a problem, a leader has three avenues of approach. He or she can choose to ignore it, explain it away, or find the reason behind the problem and work towards solving it. The good leader doesn’t have a choice, as only the last is an option. Not only does the problem get tackled, the staff is engaged in his or her leadership, increasing engagement and productivity.

Blame the staff? Don’t be surprised if the communication worsens, productivity goes down, and the scores decline. After all, if they can’t even differentiate between two questions, how can they be expected to do their jobs competently?

Snow Day!

The company policy was pretty straightforward. Each employee had the technology to work remotely. If the office was going to be closed due to inclement weather or other emergency, employees were to work from home during what would be regular office hours. All in all, it was a reasonable expectation, especially in a time when every employee should have had home internet service.

Well, not everyone. An executive with the company posted on social media that the building was closed. He had made some hot chocolate, put his feet up, and turned on some reality TV. He would be back, ‘diligent as ever’, tomorrow.

In other words, while every other employee was hard at work obeying the company policy, the executive decided to have a snow day. Since he knew he was connected on social media to many of his employees, one could guess he didn’t really care what the reaction would be. The reaction, by the way, was far from positive.

Nobody commented on the post, at least in a negative manner. That would have been the same as career suicide. However, the talk in the office from those who had read the post and shared it with others expressed shock, dismay, and anger that the executive felt he didn’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else. The executive didn’t seem to notice, though, as he was involved in too many ‘important matters’.

We all would love a snow day. The thought of getting paid for reading a good book or binge watching that long-anticipated series is irresistible. For many of us, it remains a distant dream. There are no snow days. There are days where we plug into work, and put in our eight or more hours.

Unless you are an executive. Then you can not only take a snow day but also brag about it on social media, caring little about the reactions of those who read your post.

What message does that send to your employees? First, that the rules are different for you. Second, the consequences of that decision don’t matter to you. Third, you care more for your own comfort than for the good of the company.

You cannot tell your employees to give their all for the company’s profitability and you yourself not do the same. You cannot expect your employees to live up to a greater standard of behavior than you, as the leader, portray. You cannot expect that your behavior won’t have ripples through the productivity and engagement of your employees.

If you do, the landscape isn’t the only thing that is getting a snow job.

The Jelly Jar

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The group sat around the cafeteria table, their jars in front of them. Most of them remained silent, shaking their heads. Arlene had really underdone herself this time.

Arlene was another member of the department in the executive ranks. Over the past year, she had come to each person who was sitting at the table requesting their help. She needed their expertise, their relationships with the customers, and their time and energy. She made no excuses why she needed that help, either. She said several times, “Without your help, I can’t make the numbers I need to get my bonus.” At Arlene’s level, that ran into five figures. They appreciated her honesty and could understand her motives.

Each member around that table put in significant effort for Arlene and her bonus. They had to forego work that would contribute to their achievement of their bonuses, leverage their good will with the customers, and put in some significant extra hours. They did it for teamwork and to help a fellow member of the department.

All that extra effort worked, and Arlene made her numbers, assuring her bonus. She was generous with her words of appreciation to the group, thanking them for helping her make that bonus. At holiday time, however, the situation was different.

For each member of the team, she proudly gave them a gift of…a homemade jar of jam or jelly. To add to this, she gave them a gift card to a local coffee house, each card in the amount of $5. She remarked it made her feel good to contribute to a local charity that made jams, and gave it with a smile to each member of the team. Yes, the jellies and jams were homemade, but not by her.

Sitting at the table, each member of the team was staring at their jar of jelly or jam. On top of each of jar each member of the team had placed their high-value gift card. Eventually the silence was broken by one member of the team who made a proposal. Each person at the table would chip in for a loaf of bread, which they would bring in, use the cafeteria toaster, and they would have some delicious toast and jam, all courtesy of Arlene.

That managed to get people laughing and talking, with suggestions that they could really go for broke and buy some butter to spread on the toast and have with the jam. This evoked even more laugher and talk.

When the laughter had died down, they each made a promise. They would spend the new year focusing on their goals and reaching them with the same energy they had given to Arlene’s request. As for any further request Arlene made? They would give it the same amount of respect that she had shown them in her gifts.

The sealed that promise with a toast of their jelly jars.

The Lessons of a Pizza Lunch

The group chatted affably over the slices of pizza. It was a scene they all were familiar with. They were asked to join upper management in the conference room to bid farewell to a co-worker who was going to another job. The speeches were made about how the person would be missed and thanking them for their contributions over the years. The employees would then be invited to have some pizza and mingle.

It was all very nice, but all very familiar. For some of the employees, this was a well-worn ritual that happened well too often. For those who had been there some amount of time, their estimate was that around 75% of the company had their pizza lunch or equivalent. Even for those who were not in the company a long time, they saw an inordinate amount of pizza.

Each time it was the same. The same reasons would be given. It’s the economy. It’s the nature of the business. People just don’t want to stay around and grow with the company anymore.

The truth was a bit different. People would have stayed if there was growth with the company. Sadly, except for a few, there wasn’t. The position you were hired at was the level you stayed at. The duties you were hired to do were the duties you always did. There was no growing, no stretching, no innovation. Even when some would suggest something to grow themselves, the answer was usually in the negative. There wasn’t money for that or the person wasn’t experienced enough for that, or it would take away from their more important duties. Eventually people became frustrated or bored and looked elsewhere. Then there was pizza.

The conversation died down and people drifted back to their desks, most of the pizza left untouched. There were some grumbles about that from those paid for the pizza. Why hold these gatherings when people weren’t eating? The answer was simpler than that. People weren’t eating because they had no appetite for yet another pizza party.

Much of management and leadership is asking the right questions. When there is a path being beaten out the door, an inattentive manager will make excuses. A good manager will ask, “What is causing this outflux?” An excellent manager will ask, “What can I do to stop this outflux?” If employees are very, very lucky, that question be followed up with, “Am I doing something to cause that outflux?”

A good manager sees a problem and immediately begins to try to solve it, not make excuses about why it’s happening. They don’t default to well-worn excuses of the economy or the industry. They look first to their actions or inactions, and ask themselves some hard questions…ones in which they may not like the answers. They then take actions to solve the problem, even if it means some sacrifice on their part. It’s a difficult path, but the one that is most rewarding.

If they do it right, they find themselves not having to pay for so many pizza lunches.

The Price of Inflation

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Shortly after Sarah had ascended to the head of the department, she announced that, with upcoming hires, there would no longer be ‘position inflation’.  What this meant was the practice of rating a job higher than it should be for one reason or another.  It was a drain on the department’s finances, she explained, and it served no useful purpose.  True to her word, shortly after she had completed a reorganization of the department, the hire to fill the position she vacated was lower than the level she had occupied when doing that job.  The position was labeled as Director level, where she had been a Senior Director.

Several of her staff members paused at that.  When she was in the position, she felt it was necessary for her to have a level of Senior Director, with all its requisite perks and salary level.  Now that she was no longer in the position, she had a revelation that the position was too high and needed to be lowered for the good of the department and to prevent the dreaded position inflation.

It was strange how pretty much the same position demanded different levels, with the only change being who had been within the position.  It was no surprise to the staff, as they were used to this type of logic with Sarah.

Even more puzzling, soon after she promoted a few people within the department, as she no longer had to pass it by anyone within the department for approval.  One person, who only recently had been promoted, was promoted again, in direct violation of company rules.  A couple of others also were promoted.  So, the savings she gained by lowering one position was eclipsed by the higher salaries needed for the new promotions.  When Sarah was asked why she did this, her response was, “I felt it was needed”.

The rest of the staff, the ones who weren’t promoted, felt that the only things that were inflated in this whole deal, were so egos.

The Project: A Vacation

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This is the second in a set of articles detailing some of the management behaviors that took place while a certain department was working on a very labor-intensive project.  This won’t be detailing the project specifically, but how management handled the stresses on the department resulting from the project.

The project was taking a piece of everyone’s soul.  People were working extra hours, at night, and on the weekends.  One person told the story of having Easter dinner and doing testing of the latest code in between getting Easter dinner ready.  The bags under the eyes of everyone were growing steadily, tempers were getting short, and mistakes were being made simply from exhaustion.  The deadline was everything to the heads of the department, and no excuse would be accepted for that deadline to be allowed to slip.

So, based on this, it was the perfect time for Sarah to take a vacation.

She had a very good reason for it, of course.  This was when she always took her vacation, and it was, you know, the ritual that her family looked for.  She couldn’t disappoint them, could she?  After all, she worked hard for her vacation, and since she and her fellow department heads had extra vacation days that nobody else in the company had, they were hers for the taking.

It didn’t seem to matter to Sarah that other people in the department had given up their vacations or pressured to work more.  It didn’t matter that the department was near the emotional breaking point.  No, that was their problem, not Sarah’s.  It didn’t seem to matter to her that the impression she was leaving by taking a vacation in the midst of everyone else’s herculean efforts to get their work and the project’s work done was one of selfishness and uncaring.  She deserved her vacation, and she was sure that the refreshed, sun tanned, and rested appearance she gave to the department at the end of her vacation would be an inspiration to everyone.

It did surprise her that nobody really seemed interested in tales of her vacation.  They were all too busy and too tired to really stop and listen to stories.  They needed to meet the latest deadlines and get started with another round of testing.  Yes, it surprised Sarah, and it even disappointed her some, but she was in such a good mood from her vacation that she didn’t give it a second thought.

After all, if other people needed a vacation, they could take one, couldn’t they?  Funny how they didn’t though.  Sarah wondered why for a few seconds, before sharing some of her vacation photos on her social network.