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.


The NFL, Bullying and The Next Big Thing

November 7, 2013

In 1998, 1999 and 2000 I went to the NFL Camps of the Baltimore Ravens and the Minnesota Vikings, and I talked about behavior.  We discussed sexual assault and date rape.  The players were unusually frank and raucous in each case, and the youngest players seemed amazed that they now had a public persona to master.  What struck me was that each year, one of the veterans (and marquee players) stood up when the less experienced players began to argue with the idea of respect and consent, civility and empathy and put a stop to the silliness.  I remember feeling profoundly moved when one Viking (whose picture was on my child’s wall as part of a trio of much-lauded players) stood up and said, “This is for real, guys.  We have a responsibility to the team, to each other and to the people we care about.”

I can’t speak for other teams, but I know there was hazing.  Late to the Ravens due to a bomb threat in downtown Baltimore, I learned they made use of the time by having the freshman players stand on  chairs and sing. I was curious and asked about the extent of the hazing. The coach chuckled about it, and told me how it used to be.  Brutality and humiliation.  No more under him he said.  Maybe carrying the equipment but no cruelty.

The headlines this week about the Miami Dolphin’s situation and the culture of hazing that exists in all or part of the NFL is not new news.  Statements in the media suggest that the degree of hazing varies from team to team, as does the involvement of coaches in setting the tone and calling out the limits.  In fact, several former players have discussed their experiences with hazing varying from silly initiation rites to outright cruelty; those who have survived them often claim the experiences have “bonded them,” or “made them stronger.”    Things get more interesting when you read the quotes from “the personnel men” at the NFL;

“”Locker room culture will never be understood unless you’ve lived or have been around it,” said a personnel man. “This is another ploy in the league’s ‘player safety’ book. Incognito knew who to try. You never heard anything like this come from John Jerry or Mike Pouncey. Instead of being a man and confronting him, he acted like a coward and told like a kid.

Aha.  Now we are getting to the dirty little secret behind bullying.  It is often attached to a visceral sense of exceptionalism and a pattern of enabling.  Once exposed, there is wringing of hands and claims it won’t be tolerated, but that history of enabling renders the organizations’ decrying incidents of bullying wholly unbelievable.  And it is not just the NFL.

The worst bullying cases I have encountered in the last twenty years have occurred in the professions, in academia and in other enterprises that involve super stardom.  The superstars may not live on posters in my child’s room, but they have marquee status on the firm’s letterhead, the university’s endowed chairs, the surgery suite and the charity’s boards.  These are the people who recognize their authority and power and abuse it. The organization, rather than demanding leadership, cowers in response to their misbehavior.  Bullying becomes a badge of success and is passed from generation to generation as a privilege of accomplishment. Those who survive are rewarded with promotions, tenure or other status and dollar-driven rewards. The ability to inure oneself to bullying behavior becomes part of the DNA of success, and the DNA of the organization.  Rather than condemn the rituals and behavior that probably thwarted their best work, targets who thrive through it simply emulate the behavior and denigrate those who cannot or will not survive it.  It becomes a badge of courage.

The hardest part of my work, which at times involves uncovering and at other times involves trying to intervene with, workplace misconduct, is that despite the rush of fear that organizations feel in the face of a complaint,  many of them have become inured to a culture based on an erroneous belief that people will do better when they have been subject to some “toughening up.”  One physician recently told me she cannot respect new doctors because they are protected by rules that limit the number of hours they can be asked to work consecutively in their training; “We would operate under conditions that seemed second only to death in the pain they caused, and I think that made us better,” she said.

There is nothing that actually supports the value of humiliation, abuse, embarrassment, exploitation or terror as a positive source of bonding, motivation or future performance.  There is nothing to be found that suggests that any positive organizational metric is associated with the countenance of bullying or negative hazing.  There is no literature that says being screamed at, called names, threatened, publicly criticized or having things thrown in your direction make you a better employee.  Rather, what emerges when we look at these patterns is a terrible dose of inadequate leadership, lazy ethics and a dull acceptance of the status quo.  This is where the work of combating bullying needs to focus.  It is well established that engagement and a sense of safety and dignity go a long way towards creating innovative, creative and productive employees, whether it is in pro sports or the corporate world.  To all of the organizations that say that this behavior is unacceptable, I issue the following challenge; make bullying behavior a toxin to success.  Make it clear by your words and actions that bullying behavior will block even a super star from further rewards, including promotion.  Expand your harassment policies to include non-protected class bullying and charge the folks at your highest level with promoting those policies and walking the talk.  Protect your whistle blowers and recognize that crawling out under the crushing weight of abuse to report it is an act of profound courage and bravery. Live up to those lofty mission statements that always include “respect” and “dignity.”

The next big thing?  A hard stop on bullying. A commitment to a culture where we name it and we rush to support it’s targets. A decision, collectively and organizationally that it really is as old and useless as a canister of DDT.  It’s a poison we can all now condemn and replace with smarter, safer alternatives.

For those not in the know, there is a bill floating around that would bring US states to the level of civility of most other first world nations. The Healthy Workplace Bill has been introduced in 23 states and passed in none. While opponents continue to throw out arguments that it is vague and bad for business, it is clear the law’s time has come.  It is time for a hard stop, and if the law can help, it should.


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 »


The Fear: A Look at Employees’ Reluctance to Complain in Tough Times

January 14, 2009

If my workload mix is any indication, investigations are down.  Last year, I did over fifty investigations between January and September, and between September and December, only a handful.  While I am pleased to engage in other services for my clients, I have to consider the reason for the change in project mix.  Are people happier? Have employers become enlightened and learned to engage and motivate their people? Has there been a quantum reduction in employee misconduct? Perhaps, but more likely we have entered a period in which people are just darned glad to have a job.  You can see the change in mindset in many places.  For instance, I frequent a woman’s running forum, where we share lots of things besides running.  One of our regulars has been having trouble on her job, and some of the trouble seems to involve serious bullying by a supervisor.  Whereas a year ago, the assertive posters on that forum might have directed her to speak up, to complain, or even to quit and find something else, the general advice was, “in this economy, maybe you’d better just figure out how to survive it.”  The economy has everyone scared, and that fear has simply magnified the fear intrinsic to so many employees — the logic, or illogic that reflexively says, “I can’t complain about my bosses behavior — they’ll fire me.”

For years, the reflexive instinct that employers will punish complainers has been fascinating to me.  Of course, the fear is not unfounded, or there would be no need for laws protecting employees from retaliation — yet the number of cases I see in which employers are astutely avoiding even a semblance of retaliation far outweigh those incidents suggesting that an employee has been punished for speaking up.  Nevertheless, the longstanding fear of complaining has something I have worked with many organizations to overcome.  Now, with employees feeling simply lucky to have a job at all, employers should not get complacent and assume that all is well.  Those that view the silence as positive do so at their own peril.

It is worth considering that an employee experiencing bad behavior by others, but who does not complain about it is not a good thing.  It is inevitable, in the absence of a change, that the unhappy employee’s productivity and engagement will diminish.  As time passes and productivity and engagement continue to drop, the employee might be subject to progressive counseling or disciplinary action.  Faced with such action,the employee may finally surface the now-longstanding concerns, forcing the employer to have to unravel the “chicken and egg” of alleged bad behavior and a seemingly “bad” employee.  The numbers tell the truth:  over 50 percent of employees who raise complaints of harassment have some sort of performance or disciplinary issue going on at the time of the complaint. When the complaint involves alleged unlawful behavior,  the employer becomes hamstrung between continuing to correct the performance issues and appearing retaliatory.  In many cases, despite attempts to keep things contained, the situation becomes complex and  demoralizing to others.  Suddenly, the cost of the problem becomes more than that of one employee’s productivity — it becomes a matter that has effectively handcuffed performance management at a time when managing performance is an imperative.

The average length of time between an employee’s recognition of a problem and their reporting it as alleged harassment is 16 months, and that is a number culled from a healthy economy.  With worries about job security and a job market that is on it’s last gasp, one might argue that the pressure to keep one’s problems to one’s self has increased geometrically. One might also think that the silence is golden.  People are keeping their heads down and doing their job, right? Think again.

In a shrinking workforce, the impact of a single unhappy employee is proportionately greater. In a smaller work group, viral unhappiness spreads more quickly. In stressed workers, conflict can be the final blow to diminishing morale.  More than ever, employers need to be proactive in attending to working conditions and relationships, to encourage employees to speak up and to train managers and supervisors to use intake skills that will demonstrate their willingness to address problems at the earliest possible moment.  In the most receptive* workplace cultures, supervisors, managers and human resources personnel understand that an employee complaint is a good thing.  It is an opportunity to address a problem before it becomes a factor in performance, productivity and engagement.  It is an opportunity to gain the trust of employees.  It is an opportunity to win loyalty and improve working conditions.  Supporting and training managers in eliciting and responding to employee concerns is not a “frill” that should go away in a declining economy, but an imperative that should be placed at the highest priority.

In the tense times of declining resources, as many organizations scramble for survival, it makes more sense than ever to be sure that employees are giving you their best work.  Maintaining an open door and an open mind to the challenges of human interaction may provide that tiny competitive advantage that can make the difference.

*using a cultural dyad of “receptive” versus “deflective” cultures


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 »


Confidentiality — Managing Expectations

January 20, 2007

Every supervisor has heard some version of these words: “I want to tell you something, but I want you to promise not to tell anyone….” These words should be somewhat flattering. It means that an employee trusts the supervisor enough to confide in them and wants the supervisor’s advice. Right? Maybe…and maybe not. In my supervisory training, I tell trainees to treat these words as though someone has just handed them a live bomb. Yes. A bomb. bomb

The instinct to respond to an employee request for confidentiality with assurances that the supervisor will maintain the employee’s secrets can be explosive and expensive. Why? Simply because if the employee reports certain kinds of violations, such as violations of Title VII, then the discussion of that issue with the supervisor is notice to the company, and a company becomes liable for harassment or discrimination when it “knew or should have known” of the conduct, but failed to take prompt, appropriate action.

It is not unusual for serious allegations agains a company to be accompanied by reports that “I told my supervisor and he/she did nothing to stop it.” It is also not unusal for the supervisor him or herself to protest, “but s/he told me s/he did not want anything done.” So what can be done to help supervisors with the dual obligations to create an environment of trust with their employees, while maintaining a primary obligation to act in the interest of the organization?

1. Supervisors should be very clear on the limits of confidentiality. In fact, it is not a bad idea to eliminate the term “confidentiality” from the workplace altogether. After all, what does “confidential” mean to most employees? Ask a few. You will hear that it means “whatever I tell you, you will not tell anyone else.” What they are describing is privileged communication available under the rarest of circumstances in the workplace. There are so few situations in which an employer can offer privilege, that merely suggesting it is an option simply inflates expectations. Rather, policies and statements should include the more verbose, but more precise language that “employees’ information will be kept private to the extent possible.” Thus, an employee asking a supervisor to keep something secret would be told “There are many things that can stay between you and me, and some things I will need to act on. If what you tell me involves possible violations of policy or law, I probably will need to act. Read the rest of this entry »


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