How to Dry Dishes

My way or the highway sign

It was the first time in months that Ralph had any spark of interest in his job.  It was an unusual sensation for him, and he welcomed it.  Ever since the new management team had come in, he had lost all spark of interest in his job, doing it like an automaton, putting in his hours, and then going home.  He knew his fellow employees felt the same way.  The new management team had come in, expressed disapproval of the way they had done things, and instituted a strict regimen of how they would do their work going forward.  There would be no room for creativity, no room for personal expression.  There would be the way the ‘best practices’ prescribed and that would be it.  In short, since the new management wanted automatons, this is exactly what they got.

Ralph was working on a presentation that had been previously given under the old management.  As it was not up to the new management’s specifications, he was busily correcting it, making sure it passed inspection before he would be allowed to present it.  As he was creating it, he saw a need for a job aid for his fellow employees.  It would allow them to take the heart of the presentation with them and use as they saw fit.  He quickly went about creating the job aid, trying to balance the need to convey information with a little less than corporate style.

Knowing he would have to present it to his new manager, he took the initiative, and told her what he was doing.  She, as expected, informed him she would need to see it to give it her blessing.  He sent it to her, and was summarily asked if he could step into her office.

His manager informed him that context was good, with the right information needed.  The issue was the layout.  It wasn’t in straight lines.  The images were a bit off center from each other.  They needed to be in straight lines in order to ‘look good’.  He was advised that he could use PowerPoint SmartArt in order to redraft this, as it placed things in nice, neat order.  She began to show him how to use the tool when he announced to her that he knew how to use it.  As he walked out of the office, any spark that had ignited had been extinguished wholly by a whole bucket of control freak water.

I’m reminded of a story told by a colleague.  Many years ago she was at her grandmother’s house, and was helping her dry dishes.  The grandmother looked at her disapprovingly and told her she was drying the dishes the wrong way.  So not to disrespect her grandmother, she began drying the dishes the ‘proper’ way, but the point of the story was that the dishes were going to be dry regardless, so why was she drying them improperly?  It was that her grandmother saw that doing things her way was more important than the result.  The same could be said for the manager in this story.

A strange paradox in the working world is that when you hold on the tightest to control, you actually control less.  You have your sense of control, but you have unmotivated, uninterested, and unengaged workers who are there to collect a paycheck.  They have no freedom, have no creativity, and have no interest in their jobs.  You are basically saying you don’t trust anyone at all, and have to keep them in line for anything to get done.

By releasing that control, you get people who will use their creativity.  By loosening the boundaries, you can still get what you want, but have people try new and innovative ways of working within those boundaries.  You get your way without having to exert it like a sledgehammer.  By giving up control, you are showing trust in your people, and you get people who want to keep that trust in return.

It is a choice between believing only in yourself or believing in your people.  Your choice will determine whether your people believe in you.

Oh, and that colleague who had the very controlling grandmother?  You may recognize who it is…her name, at least in these articles, is Sarah.

A Good ‘Helping’ of Useless Information

Going Around in Circles

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.

Excuse me?

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.

Excuse me?

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.

New Rodeo, Same Clowns

sad clown

You had to hand it to the Executive Council of the company.  They found new ways to try to get the pulse of the company.  In anticipation of the latest all hands meeting, they had harnessed the power of social media to get the opinions of the employees.  A site had been set up where employees could write their questions of the Executive Council.  Employees could also vote on those questions, improving their ranking.

This wasn’t just a fanciful test of technology.  For the past three years, the Executive Council had been the recipient of increasingly poor rankings of trust and leadership, as expressed by the employees.  As they were in the midst of the latest survey, and that Board of Directors would be watching the scores, it was important for them to be seen as wanting to get the voice of the employee.

The employees did not disappoint.  The questions were sharp, to the point, and pulled no punches.  Those questions expressed frustration, anger, and distrust.  If those questions were answered in a forthright way that equally pulled no punches, it would reflect a new era in relations between those who were governing and those who were governed.

Based on the title of this article, I think you can guess what happened.

The all hands meeting came around, and, as promised, the top vote getting questions were selected, asked, and then answered.  The answers were safe.  The answers were careful.  They answers were the same things that were heard every single time the questions were asked.  No bold promises were made.  No trails were blazed.  No responsibility taken by any of the executives…only responsibilities assigned by the executives, saying the employees had to find their own answers.  For every question asked, a buck was passed.  It would never be the executive’s fault that promotions were not given, or bonuses lacked, or that there was unfair treatment.  What did the employees hear?  “Don’t bother us, peons, we have governing to do”.

The employees left the meeting with ironic smiles on their faces.  Once again they had been duped.  They had been asked for their opinions, with the implicit promise that these questions, no matter how painful, would be answered.  They were answered…with the same trite phrases that had been used by the executives of the company since time immemorial.

One of the greatest traits that an executive can have is that of courage.  Many will claim they do have it, usually in response to the latest round of layoffs or cuts they have authorized.   That, I suggest, is not courage.

Courage is admitting that you may be wrong in your approach.  Courage is having a willingness to listen and change.  Courage is addressing questions with the same frankness as they have been asked. Courage is making yourself vulnerable, stepping outside of your comfort zone, and be willing to try the new and innovative, even if it means you won’t be as comfortable or secure as it once was.

Courage is not providing the same, trite answers to questions, but realizing there is something deeper in those questions.  It is finding out why those questions were asked in the first place and taking bold, innovative steps to address them.

Come to think of it, that is also called Leadership.

Engaging in Illogic


Hey Everyone!  It’s time for that new game that’s sweeping that nation, “Where’s the Logic”!  I’m your host, Chuck Lotsofteeth.  Let’s meet tonight’s contestant, a department in a company, both wishing to remain anonymous, for reasons which will become painfully obvious.

This department in question recently learned its scores on the company’s employee engagement survey.  Like most surveys, there were areas for celebration, and areas where the department could have done much better.  One of those areas for improvement was the pervasive feeling that employees could not speak freely.  They did not feel it was a safe-to-say environment.  The department leadership decided to focus on this, and began a discussion on how to fix the perception.

“Why don’t we put together focus groups to discuss why they don’t feel it is a safe to say environment”, one manager suggested.

Let’s pause here to ask…WHERE’S…THE…LOGIC!

Let’s see.  The people of the department have indicated that many of them don’t feel it is a safe-to-say environment.  So, what are you, dear manager, proposing?  Let’s get together in a group to openly discuss why we can’t discuss things openly.  How successful do you think this is going to be?

As the brainstorming continued, another manager brought up the idea that each group in the department should hold a meeting where the employees could openly discuss with the manager what the manager’s faults were.  This would clear up any misconceptions and solve the problem.

Once again, let’s ask…WHERE’S…THE…LOGIC!

It’s not a big leap of logic to believe that those who feel they cannot speak openly are those who fear their manager will engage in an act of reprisal.  Whether that manager is their direct supervisor or someone who has some power in the department, those people are the ones who can adversely affect an employee’s career.  What does this manager want to do?  Have those self-same employees openly criticize their manager.  The silence will be deafening.  Doesn’t it make sense that if the employees felt they could do this, there wouldn’t be a safe-to-say problem?

Sorry, leadership, but you will have to come up with better than the same old solution if you want to fix this issue.  First, start by looking inward and do some self-reflection.  Ask yourself, ‘is it me’?  Then, find a way to get to the truth that will provide safety to your employees.  We have some lovely consolations prizes for you.

Join us next time on “Where’s the Logic”, where we always are unafraid to ask, and where it is always safe to say!

The Conversation, Part 2


In my previous blog, I recounted a routine one on one staff meeting between Henry and his manager, Violet.  In one part of that meeting, Violet updated Henry on the status of his tuition reimbursement request.  The request had to be approved by the department head, Lillian, who had not liked Henry for personal reasons for several years.  Lillian, true to form, asked Violet some questions that were designed to preclude Henry from using this benefit.

The conversation between Henry and Violet was unfortunate already, but was not finished, either in content or in being unfortunate.

For some time, there had been an opening under Violet, caused by the departure of one of the department’s employee’s.  Violet had worked to upgrade the position into something more than it was, in hopes of getting more help for herself and Henry, who were carrying a significant burden.  Violet, to her credit, was not interested in handing all the work to Henry, but was sharing it equally between the two of them.

During this conversation, Violet informed Henry that the position now had taken a different spin, and she explained what the position would now encompass.  Henry’s paid greater attention, as the position Violet was describing sounded very much like a position he had pitched for himself approximately a year ago.  Henry had pitched this because it would have expanded his responsibilities, giving him greater knowledge and allowing him to explore new areas of his profession. When he had come to Violet about this idea, she encouraged him to create a job description for it, which she would take to Lillian.  Henry did and, after some modification, Violet took it to Lillian.  The job description, and the revised position, were never to be heard from again.

Once Violet had finished, Henry asked two questions of her.  First, would his position description change due to the other person having this type of description.  Second, could he apply for this position.

Violet paused, looking for the right words.  While she had always been forthright with Henry, she wanted to make sure it was said in the most professional and gentle of manners.  When she did speak, she explained to Henry that Lillian had a certain view of Henry’s capabilities and where he should be in the organization.  There was no changing her mind on this, even though Henry had proven many times over to be more than what his position described.  Because of this, it would be futile of him to bid for this position, as Lillian would never approve him for it.

It was time for Henry to pause.  When he spoke again, he thanked Violet for her honesty and feedback.  On the exterior, they continued with their meeting.  Inside, Henry knew he would miss Violet terribly, but he had to move on.  He had no chance of advancing in the organization as long as Lillian had any say in his future.

We, as human beings, need change.  Some of us welcome it more frequently than others, some crave it more often, but we all need some form of change in our lives.  Whether it is a redecorating of our house or something new at work, we need it in order to keep fresh.  Sound businesses understand this, but also see that, in keeping up fresh, it also benefits the organization.  We learn new skills, new ideas, and new ways of viewing the word around us.  In most businesses, managers look for their people to learn something new every year, as it makes the employees more valuable to the company.

So, when the employee comes to the manager wanting to change, wanting to progress, it should be considered a good thing.  To want the employee to stay the same, do the same duties, because it fits the manager’s needs or because the manager has closed his or her mind to the possibilities of his or her employee, says a lot about the manager.  This is a manager who is looking solely at his or her need, his or her mindset, and his or her prejudices.  Too bad for the employee, I really don’t care about them, as long as I don’t have to change my mind or have any to consider anything new.  When a leader, who should know better, begins to actively block someone from becoming more than they are, it is time for both the leader to have some serious reflection and for the company to begin to think about whether they need that leader.

Blood in the veins doesn’t help the body if it doesn’t move, change, and circulate.  The same can be said about companies, and the departments within those companies.  The lifeblood of the company, its employees, need to move, circulate, and change.  To continue the medical analogy, if a blockage is discovered, it is removed.  Shouldn’t it be the same for blockages in the company’s lifeblood?

The Last Thing We Need…


Like too many in his department, Miles had very little engagement in his work anymore.  The factors for this were too many to list, and he knew by his conversations with is fellow coworkers that he certainly was not alone.  He was, like many, just showing up for the paycheck and hoping the day ended sooner than his patience.  So when a project came along that actually held some interest for him, instead of the same old same old, he put his full energies into it.

The project involved the implementation of the first internal social networking tool for the staff, and Miles had been assigned to create training for it.  Miles saw the possibilities immediately, and took the training in many directions.

As nobody else seemed to be doing anything with the rollout of the tool, he took the initiative. He polled departments on how best to use the tool to drive customer satisfaction, devised collaboration strategies to have internal areas work better together, and suggested ways for departments and leadership to use to to drive engagement and recognition.  He would not only have some standard training, but also have a suite of items ready for putting this new tool into practice.   What’s more, he was interested in this project and the possibilities it posed.

A golden opportunity came to put this work into practice when his home department was engaged in a rebranding effort in order to update their image.  The leadership had brought the staff together to brainstorm the possibilities for promotion of this rebranding, and then assign the staff to do the work.  To assist in this, the leadership had brought in several representatives from the company’s Marketing department to sit with the teams and provide advice and assistance.

It was during this time that Miles presented his ideas about how to use the new social media platform to drive recognition of the department’s rebranding efforts,  He proposed that one part of the social networking tool was perfect for this effort, and outlined how it could be used.  His leadership seemed to be receptive to this and encouraged him to continue with his ideas.  However, when the Marketing person heard this, her only reaction was, “The last thing we need is another social networking avenue”.  End of discussion.  Miles could feel his engagement circle down the drain.  He kept his mouth shut during the rest of the meeting and sullenly returned to his desk.

Over the next few days, Miles found out a few interesting facts.  This tool was not requested by Marketing, but rather the company’s customers.   The company’s IT department, which was in charge of rolling out the tool, had invited Marketing to many meetings on its implementation, and Marketing had declined each and every one of them.  It seemed, to use a popular expression, since Marketing didn’t want a tool they could not control, they were taking their ball and going home.  They would rather pour cold water on this new social networking tool than work with people like Miles to implement it.

How do you drive engagement?  A good start is to give people work that they are passionate about, and are willing to take into new directions.  Encourage them.  Guide them.  If they are going in a direction that should not be pursued, gently put them in a better direction.  You’ll find not only happier employees, but a wealth of new ideas.

A big mind allows many ideas.  A small one shuts them out.  The last thing we need is the latter.

Same Old Pig, New Shade of Lipstick

The department management were so excited as they unveiled their latest project.  The staff had known about this project for a while, as they were asked for the input into some small portions of it, but this was the be the grand unveiling of all the hard work that the management had put into this.  Without further ado, the presentation started, and the new logo for the department rebranding was unveiled. Wasn’t it exciting?

If you ask the staff, not really.  The impetus for this rebranding was to change the image of the department in the company’s eyes.  The department wanted to look innovative, consultative, and a whole lot of other ‘-ives’.  So, old department titles were going away, changed to hipper, newer titles.  A new logo was commissioned for the department, which would be used on every piece of correspondence, marketing, and presentation they could think of.  Each group within the department would have its own special icon, and the department itself would have a new tagline.  So why wasn’t the staff excited?

For the answer to that, let’s look at the Cadillac Cimarron.  In the early 1980s, GM was finally waking up to the fact that it needed to have more fuel-efficient vehicles.  That included its luxury Cadillac line, which was known for its big heavy cars that measured gallons per mile, not miles per gallon.  It was a way to show the world that GM was listening to the public.

Instead of sending their design teams to work and creating a truly unique compact luxury car, Cadillac decided to go for a less expensive route.  they would use an existing platform, called the J platform, to build the Cimarron.  The J platform currently held the Chevrolet Citation, an entry-level car in the much less expensive Chevrolet brand.  You bought a Citation not for the looks, which were unremarkable, but because it was good on gas and didn’t cost an arm and a leg.

So, when all was said and done, and the Cadillac Cimarron unveiled, it looked like…a Chevrolet Citation.  Oh it had a few fancy pieces of trim on it and the Cadillac nameplate, but it looked like a Chevrolet Citation.  When it didn’t sell, they executives couldn’t understand why.  They couldn’t see that if people wanted to buy a Chevrolet Citation, they would buy a Chevrolet Citation, and not the more expensive Cimarron.  Cadillac owners, who were used to luxury, didn’t want to buy a car that looked like a Chevrolet Citation.

That is what the staff of the department saw that the management didn’t see.  Namely, that they were putting all this effort to rebrand the department, but underneath it was still a Chevrolet Citation.  They had done nothing to improve conditions within the department.  They had done nothing to solve the problems that staff had complained about.  They hadn’t even bothered to address the grievances of staff, as evidenced in the employee opinion survey, for the last three years.  No, all the department management wanted to do was slap on a Cadillac nameplate and call themselves brand new.

Staff knew that the new department still wouldn’t do anything about their career development, inequalities in how people were treated, engaging staff in new and interesting work, or acting as if management gave a damn about them.  None of that would change with the rebranding, so why should they care?  Yet management gave the marching orders that all staff needed to be excited and spread the word about this rebranding, as this was a new beginning for the department.  Paste on the fake smiles, boys and girls, and go spread the good news.

A new coat of paint, a new nameplate, or a new brand image mean nothing if there isn’t substantive work behind the scenes.  The best way to show off your new and improved appearance is to have an engaged workforce that will spread the good news organically about the department and its managers.  They will be your best ambassadors, and they will tell the company how great the department is, because they truly feel that way.  A good manager knows that if the house is falling apart, you fix the foundation, not slap a fresh coat of paint on it and say it is fixed.  They work to get everyone on board because everyone wants to be on board, not because you are told to get on board.

Without true engagement brought about by true reform, you are simply putting a new shade of lipstick on the pig.  All that does is make the pig mad and results in a waste of good lipstick.