It was a great evening. Good friends. Good food. Many laughs. Larry, whose story you can read here, was having dinner with Sam to get his ideas on getting back into the workforce. Larry had retired from his job at the mutual workplace that he and Sam had worked, but in truth, he was forced to retire by a management intent on wearing him down so he would leave. That was over six months ago, so Sam was happy that Larry wanted to talk.
Over dinner, the conversation naturally drifted towards their prior, shared workplace, with stories being swapped, and gaps filled in from different points of view. Larry was ready to jump back into the workforce, but hadn’t prepared a resume for many years. That was where Sam came in. He had gained a reputation among his former co-workers as a good resume doctor, so Larry sought him out.
“I don’t know why it took me so long to jump back in the job hunt”, Larry admitted. It was over six months ago that he retired, and he was not the type of guy who would just want to sit and take it easy for the rest of his life. Sam smiled. He knew exactly why Larry had taken so long. He needed to heal.
If we are fortunate in our work lives, we have workplaces that we cannot wait to get to each morning. They nurture us, uplift us, and give us the ability to grow as a person and in a community. Those places have low turnover and are the places where you have to ‘know someone’ to get hired into.
If we are less fortunate in our work lives, we go to workplaces that are simply workplaces. You put in your time each day, do your work, and clock out. They are not very uplifting, but they are also not damaging. They are simply places you spend eight hours or more doing your work so you can get to the people and things you enjoy.
If we are unfortunate in our work lives, we work for those places which are designed to damage our hearts and souls. We have managers who believe only by degrading you can they raise themselves up. They believe that the only way they can show that they are truly in power is to make your life miserable. An insult or slight is always on their lips, and the only words they know about your performance is ‘never good enough’.
They seem to enjoy inflicting pain and look for new ways to do it. They are always the victim, and you are always the aggressor, though the truth is just the opposite. Nobody is happy under them, yet in too many cases they stay in power.
When you finally escape that workplace, you think you can just go on with you life. Sadly, you have to, but you can’t just walk away like nothing happened. Those workplaces affect both your heart and soul. They leave scars and injuries. Those scars take time to heal. You may not want to admit it, give into it, or think it is silly to think that way, but that doesn’t change what has happened to you. It also doesn’t change that you need to heal. Hopefully where you have gone to upon fleeing that workplace is one which allows you to heal and see the true worth that you have.
Larry took this all in and had to agree with Sam, though he did have one question. How did Sam know this? Easy, Sam replied, he left the organization later than Larry did. Guess who was still in the process of healing?
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.
Sarah’s staff was numb on the day after their retreat. It was almost more than could be comprehended by them. Despite her assurances that things were done because they needed to be done, the staff walked around in a daze, either too stupefied to speak or such a swirling maelstrom of emotions as to not know where to start. Let’s back up a bit to find out how the staff got to this point.
The retreat was a multi-day affair, held off-site. The facilitator was respected and knowledgeable, and had invited the staff to contact him confidentially to speak with him about what they found to be issues in the department. Several members of the staff had done so, sharing their thoughts on what the issues were and what their thoughts on Sarah’s leadership were. This was a leap of faith. As part of the department’s concerns were the lack of confidentiality, and the lack of trust that went hand in hand with it, this was a rather daring step. Still, many of them felt that nothing would be done without full honesty, and trusted that the facilitator meant his assurances that everything said would not only be confidential, but ‘sacred’ to him.
The retreat hadn’t accomplished much of what the staff hoped it would. As in past attempts at retreats, the focus had devolved into how the department had to be respected by the other areas and how they could ‘get a seat at the table’. Frustration rose as the facilitator sailed past the core concept — that a department which had such deep internal issues with trust of each other and their leadership could never put forth the face to the outside that would make it get that seat. Granted, it was one of the most difficult things to do. How do you get past trust issues if no one trusted that they could safely speak about the issues? Still, the facilitator was being paid good money to do just that, but seemed to focus on things like shared vision and shared goals.
The latter part of the retreat seemed to do a bit better, at least touching upon the issues, with an exercise that gave a symbolic representation that one person would always be there for another. There were some tears, some hugs, and a general kumbaya feeling among the staff. At the end of it, Sarah, also emotional, indicated that she had ‘learned’ about her staff at this retreat and would work to change her ways in order to understand her staff on their terms and not her own. That statement alone left the staff at least hopeful that there may be some change.
The feeling was short lived. The very next day, Sarah announced that she had ‘regretfully terminated’ one of the most popular managers in the department. Acknowledging that the timing probably wasn’t the best, she still stood by her decision and asked the staff to soldier on. ‘Soldier’ was probably a good term, as the staff walked around shell shocked. They were stunned and devastated by the firing, yes, but also by the instant repudiation of everything that Sarah had said at the retreat. A termination usually happens after a good amount of thought and deliberation. With that in mind, Sarah had to have known this was going to happen as she spoke her emotional words of working better to understand her staff. She understood one of them so well, she decided they had to be fired.
A duck hunter sits in a duck blind, a hidden area in order to keep concealed from the ducks they are looking to shoot. They then blow into a duck call, hoping to entice ducks to them. They use decoys in order to get the ducks close enough to them. When the ducks are close enough, the hunter fires, killing some ducks. It is a practice in deception.
Sarah’s staff walked around in a daze that day. They had been lured in with the sound of a duck call, given the decoy of their department head ‘confessing’, and then heard the sound of the gun firing off a round at them. When the smoke cleared, one of them lay dead, professionally. Some wondered when the trigger would be squeezed again, while others just scrambled to find a place to hide. None of them would ever trust Sarah the hunter again.
If this is your idea of management, then never expect trust, commitment, or loyalty. Expect people with one eye on you, while their other eye is on the door, their resume, the employment section, or on their fellow employees. If you manage by duck blind, expect to always have to use a gun to get your way.
The facilitator was trying not to show his frustration, but it was evident. His company was being paid a good amount of money to run these focus groups for the department, but nobody was speaking. He was engaged by the department leadership to understand why a significant percentage of the department indicated it was not a safe-to-say environment. The best way, the leadership thought, would be to have focus groups to draw out the issues. As leadership would not be attending the meeting, the thought went, the staff would be more open to speaking up.
That wasn’t the case, as the facilitator could attest. There were some general platitudes spoken, but nothing of substance. Every question asked by the facilitator was deflected, or met with outright silence. As far as he could tell, this wasn’t because of any anger towards him. They just weren’t talking. He couldn’t figure it out.
If the facilitator had looked at the eyes of each of the participants, he might have been enlightened as to why they were not speaking. Most of the time, when not speaking with him, the participants’ eyes were directed downward, at the carpet. While they were not purposely directing him to any answer, their looks were rather illustrative of what the problem was.
If the facilitator had visited the department, he should have looked at the carpeting. There, he would have found several worn paths between offices. While the paths had different starting points, they all had the same ending point — the head of the department’s office. In short, several employees had visited the department head’s office so often, the carpet had a path worn in it.
The participants in the focus group knew about those worn paths in the carpet, and they knew who had made them. They further knew that those several people going into the department head’s office weren’t there to discuss business issues. No, they were the self-appointed department gossips, ready to tell the department head about the movement and mumblings of anyone in the department. They were, to use a term from a 1930s gangster film, the department ‘stool pigeons’. The department head, rather than putting a stop to this, welcomed this information, and used it to deal out rewards or retribution.
Those stool pigeons were front and center in the focus groups. They had their antennae up to listen for anything that they could use against their fellow employees and for their own benefit. They were waiting to wear deeper paths in the carpet to be informants. The participants knew this, and there was no way they were going to say anything to this facilitator while those stool pigeons were around. They would rather have a department with pathetic morale than the wrath of the department head come down upon them, especially when they knew the department head would not believe any criticism directed at her. What they knew was that those who wore the carpet out would be listened to by the department head, because they complimented her and fed into the delusion that she and the leadership team bore no responsibility for what was happening. The participants would smile, offer weak suggestions, and continue to look at the carpet.
Leadership has to more than say that they want an open environment in their organization. They have to live it, nurture it, and be patient with it as it becomes second nature to their people. They need to stop the wearing down of the carpeting by those whose only reason for visiting is to inform on their co-workers’ doings, and inform those same people that this is unacceptable behavior. The leaders then need to encourage new paths to be worn in the carpet. Invite people in. Listen to their ideas, hopes, and silly suggestions. Make them feel comfortable by listening without judgement, opinion, or retribution. Encourage them to speak their minds without fear of reprisals. Repeat as often as necessary to scale away years of fear and mistrust.
Will this stop people from looking at the carpet? Nope. There won’t be a need for a focus group, as your staff will feel empowered to speak up without having to worry about who is wearing a path.
The latest attempt at a teambuilder was innocuous enough. The instructor was competent, the material solid. It contained its usual share of ice breaker and team activities in order to break down barriers. What was most interesting about was the talk after the teambuilder, not the talk during it.
One of the ice breakers was that you had to tell the group about a mistake you made in your professional life. It was designed to be a group catharsis, showing everyone in the room that we all made mistakes and we are forgiven. Each member of the group dutifully told a tale, most humorous, and the teambuilder continued on its merry way.
When it was over, small groups gathered around the room, or left together, busily chatting on their way up to the team’s space. The topic of most of those conversations was how long did the person have to think of a ‘safe’ mistake story to relate. To a person, they all feared that if they told the ‘wrong’ story, or something too close to the present, it would be cataloged and recorded by the head of the department for use against them. They also feared it would be used as gossip fodder by those close to the head of the department. So, each person carefully crafted a story that would satisfy the teambuilder leader, but one that would not be used against them at an unspecified future date. Ironically, the teambuilder did foster conversation for the team. It just happened that the conversation was about how much they didn’t trust their leader.
What would those conversations be with your department, your group, or your reports? Would they prepare carefully crafted statements meant for your listening pleasure and then, when out of earshot, say what they really thought? Do you promote an atmosphere where this type of behavior doesn’t have to happen, or have you or someone in the department fostered such a lack of trust that clandestine whispers are the only way people can honestly communicate? Would you be subject to that same irony found in the story? Would the only team building come from everyone agreeing how they couldn’t say something without fear of it being used against them?
Pay attention to the after session whispers. They may tell you more about your people than any teambuilding trust building exercise ever could. And, if you are privy to some of those whispers, take them seriously, and start a self-repair effort immediately. The best way to stop the whispers is to give them nothing to whisper about in the first place.
Safe to say. Three little, one syllable words that can mean so much to an organization.
For those who may not know what the meaning of Safe to Say is, it is a concept that employees of an organization are free to speak their minds without the fear of punishment or retribution by those above them. Yes, there are limits to this. It does not mean you can call your boss a jerk and not expect to be hauled in front of HR, if you even make it that far. It does mean that you, as an employee, have no fear of being able to walk into your manager’s office and express your opinion that a particular opinion is misguided, a particular plan of action flawed, or that you have strong reservations about something. You know your opinion will be given due consideration, and either acted upon or not acted upon by your manager, or those higher up in the department. At no time do you fear that you will have some act of retribution committed against you because you decided to voice an unpopular stance or question the conventional wisdom.
What are the benefits of a safe to say environment? Let’s start with innovation. A safe to say environment, where people are allowed to safely disagree with decisions made by management, can lead to new ideas, new products, or new ways of looking at a problem or situation. Employees are allowed to challenge what has been established, and in doing so, possibly stumble upon a fully unique idea that can benefit the department or the company. A manager in a safe to say environment will foster this constructive disagreement because he or she knows it may lead to something even better than what was originally conceived.
Let’s continue with morale. A department with a safe to say environment has employees who know their thoughts and opinions are valued. This is not the same thing as knowing all your proposals will be adopted. However, the employees know that they can openly express their thoughts and opinions, that their managers will give them a fair hearing, and that ideas will be adopted or dismissed based on their merit. Employees feel empowered and are willing to think about new approaches. They look forward to coming into work because it is stimulating to be there. They feel valued, and that is a precious attribute.
Along with that is engaged and retained. If you are an employee in a safe to say environment, you realize how good you have it. You don’t want to leave that wonderful place. You become part of that department, allowed to think differently, allowed to propose. You think that your department is fantastic. Voila! You are engaged. As you never wish to leave there, you become a growing asset to the company, gaining and sharing organizational knowledge throughout your tenure.
Let’s take a look at the environment that is not safe to say. Employees stay in their offices or cubicles, unwilling to come out, wary of saying anything that might get them in trouble. Conversations don’t happen. An eerie silence hovers over the department. When opinions are asked for, some will venture only supportive comments, though the idea itself may not be good at all. There are no negative comments, no chances for stretching the idea. There is fear. There is stagnation. Good people leave. Those who stay get into the mindset that they have a job, and that is exactly how they perform. Come in on time, do your work, and leave on time. Do nothing more than the minimum and maybe you won’t be targeted. It is a dispirited group.
Why is it that way? Because the leadership would rather be right than productive. Ego trumps good management skills. Employees are looked upon only as those who carry out the directives, not contributors to it. If someone dares to disagree, it is seen as a challenge to the leadership, who must squash it at all costs lest the leader be shown in a bad light. Yet, these same leaders can’t see why their department’s employees are so miserable. It must be a fault with them, not us.
Here’s the challenge. Create that safe to say environment. Realize that a spirited exchange can lead to great things, even better than what you thought of on your own. Allow yourself to be open to all possibilities, even those where you may not have the right answer all the time. Value your employees’ input and invite their comments. Take each as a gift, not a threat. Create that department where people are aching to come to work, not the one where people are aching to leave.
Safe to say…three small words, and one incredibly huge potential.
Recently I was speaking with an HR Director who told me that, when in doubt, she ‘always follows the rules’. For the feedback I had received regarding this Director, I concluded that this is not always a good thing.
I am not advocating being a wild, go-it-alone cowboy, especially at the level she was. As a leader and manager, you need to set the example to follow, the mentor to model after, and not have a ‘do as I say and not as I do’ attitude. However, you should not have a ‘always follow the rules’ attitude, either. Here’s my reasoning.
Whenever this woman spoke, it was about HR matters. What the HR law said, how it was being interpreted, what they needed to do to be compliant with this regulation or so. That, in my mind, is exactly what an HR Manager should do. Notice the rank I use…manager…not Director. This woman was primarily concerned with how to keep compliant with HR, to the exclusion of everything else. She was so buried in HR minutia that she could not see over it.
This woman is an executive, a leader, and a member of the leadership board. She doesn’t need to manage, she needs to lead. She needs to find and implement ways to engage her people, create a sense of community, and fire up her people to achieve great things. She does none of this, and has been told so by more than one person in her department (as have I). She roundly ignores all this and dives back into HR laws.
Why? Only she knows, but I would venture a guess that those rules and regulations are safe. She knows them, she can quote them, and she can implement them. Her staff are unknowns. She may have to take chances and stick her neck out to get engagement from them. She may have to do things she doesn’t want to do in order to get results. She doesn’t want to do any of this, as it would be ‘against the rules’. This is exactly what she needs to do.
As a leader, you cannot always play it safe. You cannot just bury yourself in rules and regulations and think you are doing a good job. You develop your people to do that, so you can make sure your people are whistling when they come into work each day and can’t wait to tackle the problems. You don’t hide in your office, you don’t hide behind regulations. You take chances. You try new things. You make yourself uncomfortable. You grow.
You break the rules when necessary. Then you can call yourself a leader.
When can laughter be considered a bad thing in an office? When it is used in a derogatory manner.
Now, believe me, I am not against laughter in an office. On the contrary, I believe that good-natured laughter is a sign of a healthy office. If you can openly express clean, professional humor in an office setting, I believe it expresses that it is an office that is filled with trust, respect, and safety.
This is another kind of laughter. It is laughter that can belittle and anger, and when wielded by a manager, can be a powerful demotivating force. Case in point:
A manager called one of her employees into her office to discuss the employee’s progress on goals for the year. The manager laid out areas where she thought the employee had not achieved their goals to date. The employee listened, and then expressed that, at least with one of the goals, the manager had never mentioned that this was a goal to be reached. The manager looked at the employee and laughed while saying, “I shouldn’t have to tell you about this…it’s your job.”
This kind of laughter speaks volumes. Mainly it says, “I can’t believe you are being so thick about seeing something that is painfully obvious. How stupid are you?” Even giving the benefit of the doubt to the manager, laughing while trying to remediate a situation is inappropriate. The employee was trying to make a point, and the manager, by injecting a laughing tone into her reply, was dismissing the point without any due consideration. What did the employee hear? ‘Your concerns are not even worthy of my attention’
Good managers have to consider not only what they say, but how they say it. If that manager had seen that the employee was trying to make a point about communication and had a serious discussion, the employee might have felt better about the resolution and acted on the performance problem. While still being corrected, the employee would have seen that the manager was taking the employee’s concerns under consideration and working with the employee to improve the situation.
Now, granted, what the manager said in this situation, “…it is your job”, was not the best response, and that will be the subject of another blog. However, if the manager had not made the employee feel that their comment was worthy of derision, they might have had a good opportunity to correct a perceived performance problem and gained buy-in from the employee. Instead, all the manager succeeded in doing was inciting anger and resentment within one of her direct reports.
Respect begets respect. That is an important lesson that every manager should remember. It truly is no laughing matter.