Getting to Yes: Simple Leadership

January 4, 2016

It is sometimes the simplest ideas that bring about real culture change in organizations.

Three simple questions. Three simple answers. The result is a harbinger of everything important to employers. It’s very simple to create a respectful workplace if you boil it down to this: if you can get one hundred percent of your employees to answer three questions with “yes” every single day, you will have a workplace where employees are engaged, they are productive, they are self-correcting (because they are giving and getting honest feedback) and they are showing up and staying with your organization. What are these magical questions?
Does my employer value me?
• Do the people I work with and for treat me fairly and humanely?
• Does my work matter?
Of course, the converse is true. If only some of your employees say “yes,” the rest are saying “no.” Negative answers to these questions bring about behavior, attitudes and performance issues that take time, energy and emotional investment away from the organization’s mission.
If it’s that easy, why is it so hard to find employees who love what they do? Because we focus on too many metrics, we make organizations unnecessarily complicated, and we don’t measure leaders on the happiness and engagement of their employees. If, instead of complex performance matrices or numerical fictions, we simply told leaders that they would be evaluated, rewarded and compensated on how many “yesses” they got to these three questions, how would they be spending their time? Teaching, coaching, praising, guiding, communicating and collaborating. Try it. Put these questions on your wall and every day ask yourself, “How can I get my people to yes?” Challenge other leaders to do the same. If the experience of one of my clients is indicative, your people will notice the difference immediately. In three months of “getting to yes,” theft was reduced, productivity improved, conflict was handled at a lower level, attendance improved and injuries were reduced. Supervisors began to post their ideas for getting their employees to “yes.” No complicated training, no lectures. Three simple questions, one big payoff.

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The Modified Golden Rule. What do you think?

December 3, 2010

This morning catching up on back reading, I read David Yamada’s post “What if we applied the Golden Rule at Work?”. It brought me back to my earliest days of educating workers and coaching “bad actors” and my struggle with the assertion by many that if we just lived by the Golden Rule, everything would be fine. I am an immense admirer of Yamada’s work, and embrace fully his thinking, but perhaps it is time to modify the rule.

I found several years ago that when educating about workplace behavior, the Golden Rule came up short. Too often, people would say “Well, I wouldn’t care if someone said/did that to me.” Very often, these were bullies or harassers who lacked the empathy or sensitivity to recognize others’ perspectives. I even had one bad actors’ wife arrive to a coaching session with her spouse to explain that she found his behavior acceptable. As a matter of pedagogy and also for purposes of making culture change in organizations, I had to find a way to bring this to the next level.

My thinking led me to this: if we modify the rule slightly, changing it from “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” to “Treat others as THEY would have you treat them,” it increases the complexity of civil behavior substantially, but also reflects the challenges of the real world. Civil and respectful behavior compels a need to understand others and modify our conduct to accommodate THEIR world view. An example I provide is the profound aversion I feel when I hear well-intentioned people saying that this is a “Christian Nation.” As a child of holocaust survivors, it kicks off a ton of aversive feelings and ideas programmed into me at an early age. “But,” cry the learners….”how can we avoid stepping on every landmine?” Some would argue that my response is thin skinned. Others would roll their eyes and moan about “political correctness,” but the fact is that if I tell you it offends me, you can show me that I’m worth a minor modification in your terminology, or that I’m not. One will improve our relationship. One will sour it. So, how to reckon with this? The answer is twofold:

1) In the world of the modified golden rule, it is my responsibility to provide you with feedback. To let you know that my world view is different from yours. I might say “I know that this seems like an innocuous term to you, but it offends me.” This means that I have to be willing to risk triggering a defensive reaction in you, demonstrate courage and give you the opportunity to do the right thing. It’s hard, but necessary.

2) In the world of the modified golden rule, you now know how I’d like to be treated, and you have the opportunity to treat me as I would like to be, even if it is dissimilar from your view on the term. You need to accept that my view is different from yours. Not better, not right, not correct, but different, and that your reaction can build or damage our future interactions.

I’m a pragmatist. I know that speaking up is hard. It is hard to give someone negative feedback. We are largely programmed to “suck it up” when someone bugs us. If you don’t buy that, think to the last time you were on an airplane, and someone wanted to talk to you, but you did not want to talk to them. Did you tell them to leave you alone, or did you signal your discomfort non verbally, or at all? We calculate that it is better to tolerate the unwelcome behavior than to risk offending or upsetting the seatmate.

I assert that while we can afford to tolerate the temporary intrusion of a stranger in a temporary situation, that we must develop a different set of behaviors for our workplaces, where we go each and every day and must carve out a place where we can get our work done in the best possible way. To get to this place, we have to first feel safe to speak up, and secondly we need to learn to take critical feedback on our utterances and actions that may make us defensive, but to view them as key information about what it will take to build a relationship with the person in question. This can only happen when the leaders in the C-Suite demonstrate receptivity, emotional intelligence and the capacity to take criticism and candor (One of the best books on this subject is Michael Roberto’s “Why Great Leaders don’t take Yes for an Answer”)

So, the modified golden rule means this: if every employee, from the top of the organization to the last hired, knows they can speak up if something offends them, and every employee, from top to last hired will do their best to listen, understand and accommodate the concern, you will have a workplace that not only is free from expensive and painful litigation, but you will become an employer of choice.


The Diminishing Value of Apology: Changing the Script of Conflict Resolution

March 18, 2010

“I am sorry. What I did is wrong. I take full responsibility.” These words have been echoing through the media as one public figure after another goes through the now-ritualized public apology, often for behavior that might, in a previous time, been deemed private. The statements more often than not lack authenticity, as though pulled from a grand script of remorse, as though the words somehow will move forgiveness forward, as though they are the formula to exoneration. The more these words are uttered, the more cliche they become, and the less value they are likely to have in bringing about true resolution of the problems being apologized for.

Workplace apologies are needed. In years past,people whose work life had been disrupted by the misconduct of others were often looking to regain what they’d had before the misconduct. “I just want things to go back the way they were,” was a familiar plea by those who’d been wronged by others. In those cases, the remedy was sometimes a facilitated dialogue and a sincere apology, and, with managerial fingers crossed, life could possibly go back to normal with proper monitoring and coaching. Read the rest of this entry »


The “Other” Harassment: The Bully in Your Office

March 24, 2009

“His face was inches from mine,” said the complainant.  “I felt as though he was going to hit me.  He didn’t yell, but spoke so slowly that it was as though I was a child.  I could feel myself shaking.  He told me I was worthless, and then threw the report on my desk and stomped out.”

This (composite) statement was made by a middle aged man in a mid management position, describing one of many incidents involving his male manager.  The history included name calling, public belittling, threats of job loss and the periodic throwing of objects or (in one case) destroying work product.  Desperate, he had gone to see his Human Resources manager who told him, not for the first time, that there was little she could do.  There had been numerous complaints over the years, but this behavior was neither discriminatory nor violent, and therefore was viewed more as a “style issue” than an issue of policy.  This company, like most, did not have a policy prohibiting bullying or “general harassment”–that is  intimidating behavior that is not based on protected class status and does not rise to a level of threats of violence.

“The truth is,” said the Human Resources Manager when seeking my advice,”Frank (pseudonym) is one of our most effective guys, results wise.  He manages up brilliantly and no matter his methods, he gets the job done.  When we’ve tried to influence his leader to take control of the situation, he suggests that we recruit better people for Frank.  He tells us that Frank is a driver, and the problem is his subpar staff.”

What are workplaces to do with the “Franks” of the workplace?  Talented and capable, perfectionistic and goal driven, they are ideal leaders on paper.  Their metrics tend to shine, but not reflect the damage inflicted on others and the unused potential wasted in the process.  In the best of worlds, bullys would be spotted early in their careers and held accountable for their people practices.  Technical expertise would have to somehow be paired with a modicum of emotional intelligence and an understanding of human development.  That doesn’t happen in most organizations, and most particularly in the professions such as law and medicine, where one rises on the strength of their accomplishments, not their relationships.

In May, I will be presenting a short session on  bullies at  Minnesota CLE’s   Strategic Discovery: Preventing Discovery Abuses and Handling Discovery Disputes. It will be focused on attorneys in litigation, but in preparation, I’ve been looking through the files of the many workplace bullies referred to me for coaching over the years.  These folks have agreed to see me because they either recognize they have an issue or they have been told that their career progress or even retention was conditional upon being coached.  From them, I have learned several things: Read the rest of this entry »


Cultural Myopia–Yesterday a “Family,” Today an Employee and Employer

July 30, 2007

myopia_2.jpgI don’t like to think of myself as cynical. Furthermore, I am a huge proponent of creating workplaces that allow people to be creative, empowered and engaged. Nevertheless, I find myself repeatedly listening to high-aspiration employers who describe their cultures in glowing terms, but are confused, bewildered and betrayed when unhappy or departing “team members” suddenly transform into plain old angry employees. Having built brilliant and progressive cultures focused on the talents and skills of their “family,” they have been blindsided by the stark reality that when things are good, we are a family, but when things go wrong, they are the employer.

Take, for example, a company I worked with a few years ago; although most of their work was unskilled, repetitive labor, they had embraced a lot of upscale thinking about workplace culture. They had bought the videos, trained the team leaders and done the cosmetic things that shout “we are a great company!” Some of the giveaways of this kind of thinking tends to be “creative” workspaces, generally very colorful, open and egalitarian; casual attire, goofy ‘stuff,’ in this cases lots of bicycles, razor scooters and in-line skates hanging by the doors for employees to whip around the warehouse, and video games in the break room. Monday morning huddles and open door policies were matched with generous fringe benefits and killer company events. Jan and Dave,The owners were positive, visionary, energetic people who were rightly proud of the dynamic, exciting workplace they ran, and their record of retaining people for nearly thrice the industry average.

The problems began when Roger, a long time team member, began to slack off. Roger had been hired as a line worker, had steadily progressed through promotions and was now a team leader. He was a big man, colorful and funny, and viewed as a key player in sustaining a positive culture. His marriage was on the rocks, his eldest child was in trouble with the law, and his attendance and performance were slipping. Ever supportive, everyone pitched in to help Roger through his rocky time, but after 6 months of declining reliability, the support was wearing thin. Jan had taken Roger out for lunch and told him things needed to shape up, but also averred that she herself had gone through a rough patch with Dave some years ago, and was extremely sympathetic. She granted Roger a one month leave of absence with pay so he could work things out. Upon his return, however, things were no better and Roger had begun to speak negatively of his employer. Dave and Jan expressed their disappointment in him, and hired a powerful leadership coach to work with Roger. The coach told them that Roger needed “time and patience.” Every loyal to their long-term team members, Jan and Dave waited.

One year after problems with Roger began, a highly recruited new employee came to Dave and indicated that he was resigning. He told Dave how disappointed he was with the “real” workings of the company and its failure to live up to its cultural promise; he described demoralized coworkers, sarcasm and cynicism over cultural symbols and rituals, and serious problems with product quality and reliability. While Dave first dismissed the departing employee’s feedback as inaccurate, he and Jan decided to “take the temperature” of their workforce. After talking informally with some workers, and following up with tight scrutiny of their operations, it became clear that many of the problems in their production area (and there were VERY many) could be tracked to Roger’s performance. Reluctantly, they decided it was time to let Roger go. With what they considered to be great respect for Roger, they terminated him, offering him outplacement counseling, a month’s severance and a positive recommendation. Read the rest of this entry »


After the Investigation –Coaching the Respondent

November 14, 2006

It is widely assumed that when an investigation finds evidence of misconduct that a termination of the “bad actor’s” employment frequently follows. While no hard data is available on the subject, an educated guess based on data that is available suggests that a person found to have violated a harassment policy will more often be disciplined and educated or coached. This is particularly true when the alleged harasser is in a leadership role or brings highly valued skills or knowledge to the organization.

The tendency to retain “good employees with bad judgement” seems to be a reflection of the fact that harassment complaints about such employees tend to involve ongoing conduct of a subtle or generic nature — the “low buzz” of insensitivity coupled with relationship. personality and style issues — rather than the “explosion” of explicit and outrageous conduct. While the latter type of conduct will guide an organization to seriously consider terminating even a highly valued leader or “rainmaker,”, the former is likely to result in the organization attempting to salvage the talents, experience and skills of an otherwise valued employee. This is perhaps in part due to the fact that the organization may have had a significant role in allowing the behaviors, style and relationship issues to develop in the first place! Read the rest of this entry »


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