Change Agents Take Heart…the Era of the Mindful Leader Has Begun

For years practitioners in the development field have fought for a transformation in the Thoughtful Warriormindset of business leadership. Agents of change have known that when the challenges they faced were technical in nature solutions were possible. However, when the problems they were charged with solving were leader induced or at least affected by leadership behavior in some way the probability of success would plummet. The tip off of course was when they were asked by leadership to “fix them”, meaning others, and report back. “Them” of course being the employees who were seen as failing to perform to expectations.

Having leaders be unwilling, much less able to see themselves in any way part of or the source of the problem in organizations has led to literally millions of dollars being spent for limited or no benefit.

If this sounds like business leaders have had an attitude problem when it comes to their own responsibility for issues in their organizations then that would be an incorrect interpretation. Yes, maybe some leaders display hubris to a great extent, maybe most display hubris at least some of the time. That, however, is not a shortcoming of leaders, it is a limitation of being human. In the simplest of terms…it is nearly impossible to see your own point of view, not merely your opinions, but “the point” or origin of your opinions. Moreover it is as difficult to see how this fact of human life impacts the actions we take. When things aren’t going well, or the way we had intended it is unnatural to look at yourself first as the source of the problem. Even when we suspect that we might be in part responsible for a problem we are facing it is equally difficult to see our own perspective without the aid of an outside source.

Years ago, early in his practice Dr. Edwards Deming offered his observations that a system simply cannot objectively observe itself. And so it has gone for nearly fifty years since he began, business leaders wanting the results practitioners like Deming claimed were possible yet unable to see how their behavior and perspective were limiting the return on the investments they were making. Meanwhile many around them helplessly knew the truth was not possible to expose. Painful, expensive and true as anyone in the field of organizational development will admit. Yet, persistence is paying off to some degree.

It seems the time for an idea’s time to come never really happens all at once, rather it is a gradual process of endorsement by sources respected by the audience at large as “credible.” With the appearance of the article ‘Change leader,change thyself’ in the McKinsey Quarterly in March it might be time to declare that the work of organizational,leadership and management development have entered a new era. Business change professionals get a real boost from this article regarding the value of their work, especially as it relates to the need to understand the perspective of the actors in the business environment.It is not so much that the content is new, the most remarkable feature of the piece is how familiar its message is beginning to sound and the source of the message. Here are a few excerpts…

 “Taking accountability as a leader today includes understanding your motivations and other inner drives.”

“Simply put, change efforts often falter because individuals overlook the need to make fundamental changes in themselves.”

“A new strategy will fall short of its potential if it fails to address the underlying mind-sets and capabilities of the people who will execute it.”

…and I would add…Duh!

But here’s the thing and what is so exciting about seeing this written about in a McKinsey publication, which I might also add uses several references to work being done at Harvard! See, that sells it, McKinsey and Harvard in the same sentence, instant credibility.

But I digress…what is so exciting, if you have hung in there with any attempt to change a business leaders mind about anything or to have them SEE what they cannot see…you can now share the article with that very same business leader and now have an increased possibility to have them recognize themselves in the mirror it provides. At the very least you can use the article as an excuse to have a conversation with others about the concepts discussed and whether anyone can see themselves reflected in the message.

…With the efficacy of reflective thinking going mainstream does that mean there will be no more obstinate business leaders or an end to the need for change agents;hardly. There are always going to be plenty of problems to solve. What may be different is that they can be approached with the optimism that real solutions rather than bandages can now be achieved.

Don’t Let “finding good people is hard” Be an Excuse to Keep the Wrong People

Last summer my son and his wife took on a major addition/renovation project at theirRegret home in Portland. I had observed the progress of the project from afar here in Anacortes, getting weekly progress reports, photos and so forth as events unfolded. The project was pretty large, involving the entire second floor of their home. They even made arrangements to live elsewhere for a period of time for the work to get done quicker. In all the process was supposed to take about four months from beginning to end so when they began in early July all expectations were that the job would be complete by the end of October. Well the end of that month came and went and soon it was January, then February and finally around the first of March they declared everything complete. The progress reports and photos had stopped coming in early October having been replaced by lengthy complaints about the contractor which continued from then until Late January when they finally dismissed the original contractor. They made that decision when they realized the job might never be finished without drastic action. They then found someone who agreed to finish the job and six weeks later everything was wrapped up.

This past week my son and his daughters came to visit during the school break in Portland and I had an opportunity to spend some time with him and get some of the details I had missed during that October to March window.

My first question to him was “So when did you suspect you might be in trouble with this contractor?” His answer was one I have heard from many employers when talking about employees they held onto for far too long. He said, “When we were supposed to move back into the house at the beginning of September I could see the process was well behind where we had expected it to be and we began getting a steady stream of excuses instead of results around the same time.”

You can probably anticipate my next question. “So why did you keep him on so long?” I asked. His response again echoed those of employers I have worked with that when asked to explain their failure to take action with under performing employees when they first became aware that there was a problem… “Well I was hoping he could get it together and work things out. I wanted to give him a chance to make good on his promises.”

At this point I decided to press my son a bit since I know that as a construction architect he runs big jobs for his employers where millions of dollars are involved and I knew he would not be this tolerant with his employer’s reputation at stake. “So really, why were you so patient with this guy?” My son bristled a bit then shot back, “Do you know how hard it is to find good contractors?”

So there it was, the classics reason I have heard time and again from employers when confronted about keeping under performing employees, “Do you know how hard it is to find good people?”

So I continued with my son, “Aren’t you really telling me that you know you made a poor choice with that contractor and now you were questioning your own ability to make another similar decision?”  He thought about it for a moment then admitted that he was more disappointed in himself than the contractor. He knew for a while that the contractor wasn’t going to work out but simply had a hard time facing the mistake he had made ; such a hard time that he caused his family undue hardship while they lived through the mess until the right contractor was found. Not knowing if he could correct his mistake made things that much worse.

How many times as employers have we made this same mistake? Are we living with our mistakes right now rather than facing up to what needs to be done? Here’s a 10 second test that I got from reading an article by James Raybould, Senior Director of Marketing at LinkedIn. Go through your employees one by one and ask yourself if you’d regret any of them departing. Raybould says this quick test will give you varied outcomes and courses of action and questions you’ll need to answer

  • If you’d find a departure devastating, are you investing enough to ensure your star is fully motivated, with a clear and compelling career path ahead?
  • And if you’d find a departure desirable, are you on the road to fast improvement or do you need to move more quickly to consider alternative options?

Are you imposing on employees you’d regret losing by keeping ones that you wouldn’t? Take 10 seconds per employee to ask this question today.






Is There Hope for Capitalism? Maybe…If We are Willing to Say No to Greed.

“If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

Tim Cook, Apple CEO, responding to a challenge from a shareholder at Apple’s annual shareholder meeting     pogo_3


OK, this is going to be something of a rant so hang in there.

I left my position in corporate life just over thirty five years ago. One of the reasons I left was for what at the time I perceived as a basic conflict between my understanding of capitalism, more accurately “for-profit” pursuits and what I saw in practice. It seemed to me that the short term, quarterly targets, stock price etc. frequently trumped the long term interests, especially those of employees, and often shareholders if they were in for the longer term investment. Somewhere behind the short term moves it was always possible to find a small group of employees, usually senior managers, who benefitted disproportionately from the impact of short term maneuvering.

A second fundamental reason for my leaving was related to the first and it was the apparent inability of many people in power positions, usually managers, to operate consistently with common moral standards when they appeared to be in conflict with the priorities of a for profit enterprise. I saw far too many instances of profit being chosen over principle and it was not possible for me to look at it any other way.

I left with this question; are basic capitalistic principles at odds with the concept of right livelihood and the notion that I should consider my neighbors interest in all my actions? I have been working to resolve this perceived paradox since that time with varying degrees of satisfaction. Most importantly for me, I have turned the question into a declaration of possibility…The basic principles of capitalism, when viewed as guidelines and not rules, are not in conflict with the concepts of right livelihood, standards of human decency, and a world that can work for everyone. What has unfolded in the years following my departure from the corporate position has been my life with its ups and downs. On balance I think that greed is winning but now and again, as I have witnessed recently I see a glimmer of recognition that there are business leaders who do not see always compromise in favor of profit.

I regularly read in a variety of sources about the news in the business world. Quite frankly it is often hard to think that there is any news that is in some way not a reflection of the business world, or at least driven by the background of capitalism that motivates much of human action. But is it capitalism, a system of ideas, or something more basically human, say greed for example that often gives us pause when we think. “What the hell is going on here really?”

On a day in and day out basis is it an adherence to capitalism that has us choose to ignore basic human decency and respect for the other, or greed? For instance when a business is not meeting its objectives and yet employees are doing everything they’ve been instructed to do and maybe more; why is it they who get laid off and senior leaders then collect a bonus for what only appear to be good management? Why isn’t it common practice for management who sits at the controls of business to suffer greater pain in times of decline than front line employees do? That would seem more like capitalism to me.

I am not for anybody necessarily losing their job but often times across the board pay cuts, starting with management, would send a message that we are all in this together. But the message from the greedy seems to be that, “No we are not all in this together and by the way, see you in church sucker, just make sure you sit in the back!”

When I saw the story about Tim Cook taking on a baiting shareholder at Apple’s recent annual shareholder meeting I actually got tears in my eyes. It had been a while since anything in the news from business had been anything but merely interesting. This story came across to me as inspiring. Apple under Steve Jobs, for all his genius, was not the best corporate citizen. I don’t know that in the long run whether Apple under Tim Cook has now assumed a new kind of leadership role, time will tell.

What I do know is that for one moment as Tim Cook addressed his audience I saw a glimpse of a future that calls to me, for the sake of my grandchildren; a future where morality and capitalism co-exist as partners in a world that can work for everyone.

The enemy of the welfare of our future is not capitalism, it is us.


Confidence Can Be Gained or Lost, Can it be Borrowed or Lent?


confidenceHow important is confidence in the workplace? What role does it play in employee engagement? If you are at all curious about what factors impact performance you must have asked yourself questions like these; “Why do people of equal skills consistently have different outcome?” “Why do some of our teams perform above their talent levels?” I believe managers need to have an appreciation of the importance of confidence to overall performance and be able to intervene effectively when they see it is missing.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, distinguished professor of business at Harvard feels so strongly about the importance of confidence that back in 2004 she went so far as to write a book, ‘Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.’ This is a big fat book which might look daunting to some but reading just Part Three for application makes getting it a great addition to your reading material if you are a manager with an interest in improving your skill set. These days you can buy copies used as well so it is a great value.

Kanter continues her interest in the topic of confidence right up until today. (Some messages bear repeating as you know.) As recently as January this year she wrote a piece in her Harvard blog identifying and cautioning against getting caught in any of eight distinct confidence traps…

  • Self-defeating assumptions
  • Goals that are too big or too distant
  • Declaring victory too soon
  • Do-it-yourself-ing
  • Blaming someone else
  • Defensiveness
  • Neglecting to anticipate setbacks
  • Over-confidence

Many of these traps are self explanatory, you’ve seen them yourself or been guilty yourself, others maybe not so much. I recommend reading the piece just to get her understanding for yourself.

But back now to my opening question, we know confidence can be gained or lost, at least that is the way it gets talked about. Can it be borrowed or lent? In the inspirational film ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ Will Smith as the lead character Chris Gardner counsels his young son…

 “You got a dream, you got to protect it. People can’t do something themselves they want to tell you… you can’t do it!

Given his circumstances it may be hard to tell if Gardner is talking to his son or himself but the message would seem to be that a leader in any circumstance can notice an absence of confidence in an employee, a friend, a child or even a stranger and offer to share their own experience as a temporary substitute for the missing ingredient. Of course you can’t make the patient take the medicine but you can see the opportunity to step in and lend what seems to be needed. Rosabeth Moss Kanter would offer that it is this type of action that defines leadership. In her view leadership is not about the leader but how she/he builds the confidence of others so that leaders emerge throughout an organization.

Fungible is a funny word but in this case it may apply to the conversation. Is confidence fungible, can yours or mine be substituted for that which may be missing in someone else? I think so. I also think it can be taken, which is a form of violence we unfortunately see all too often in the workplace. A manager gives an associate an assignment which does not go well. In the future the manager refrains from giving that associate similar opportunities. There may be no words spoken, the message is clear, the manager has no confidence in the ability of the associate in that capacity. The net effect of an experience like this can shape a career.

A few years back a in a seminar I was conducting a woman asked me about a circumstance she was facing. She said that for some time she had a desire to attend law school but she had postponed the pursuit in favor of raising a family, a not too uncommon scenario to be sure. There was now time for her to get back to her vision but she said she had serious doubts about being able to make the grades after all the time away from school. She was asking me for advice, maybe she was asking me to agree with her and put an end to her quandary. I knew she was married so I asked how her husband felt about her dream. She said that he had expressed full confidence in her ability. My response surprised her. I said, “Why don’t your borrow his confidence in you until yours shows up?” Four years later I received a note in the mail, a thank you card announcing the recent graduation from law school of this lady with no confidence. Enough said? I hope so. There are no guarantees so don’t wait for them.


Hiring the Right People for the Right Assignment May Well be a Manager’s Most Important Job

“Human development, if not nurtured, eventually leads to frustration and sadness. And those are not performance boosters.”

Paul ZakEnthusiasm (1)

I am going to start today with a short true story. Back around spring of 1992 I met one morning with a woman who had been recommended by one of our staff members for a position we needed filled. What impressed me immediately was the energy she put into connecting with me during the conversation, she was not passive in the least, her mood was enthusiastic; I found myself immediately captivated. This lady had an energy that I thought would fit in well, I was certain she would blend well with the team we already had in place. The fact that she already knew one member of our small administrative staff was a plus. Honestly, I was so enrolled by this lady in our conversation that I skipped a lot of the detail background questions and went right to asking what she needed to move from her current employer and join us. I knew that in her current position she was managing a retail operation so I wanted to make sure our environment and the work we were going to ask her to do was going to be a good fit. Her current salary was a good deal more than we were planning to pay but she seemed to have so much more to offer that I felt the additional expense would be a good investment. I thought we could work it all out and told her I just wanted to meet with our other employees before I made her an offer. I and asked her to think it over as well and told her I’d call back the following morning.

After she left the office I convened other staff members who had also interviewed our candidate and found that they concurred with my view and agreed we should make an offer. So it was settled, we made the offer, she accepted and we prepared to move forward.

That proved to be one of the most significant hiring decisions I made during my 20 years of running the business. Our new employee proved to be even more beneficial and talented than I had imagined. In the years that followed she became engaged with the primary offerings of our business, asked to be trained to deliver our programs and eventually became the highest billing of all our consultants. She now has her own business as she grew to a point where we couldn’t offer her the development she was ready for.

As Paul Zak says in the opening quote, if what you are offering people as assignments does not keep pace with their developmental capacity you can pretty much count on dissatisfaction setting in. Rather than that option I always felt that I needed to pay attention and when people reached the point where their needs were greater than what we could offer an arrangement would be made to transition them out of our business and set them up in something that worked for them…and us as it turns out.

So I see now that my story has gone on longer than I had planned, let me get back to the part I left out. Shortly after we made this new hire I found our new employee practicing typing on the computer. Not being sure what to think I decided to take my office manager aside and ask the question I had. To my surprise I found that my office manager had assumed that during my interview I had covered the fact that our new employee did not type and had in fact never used a computer, the basic tool of our administrative process! But, my office manager informed me, she was learning and it should not be too long before she was up to full speed!

At the conclusion of the conversation I asked if our new hire was going to be successful. She said yes, she guaranteed it. She was, as was I, so taken by our new employee’s attitude and enthusiasm that she knew things would work out. And, as I have already told you they did and more.

     In my experience, enthusiasm often trumps training…Paul Zak

I suppose you also want me to tell you this story was the exception in our hiring practices. Yes and no, more often than not we hired for attitude and embraced the opportunity to teach the skills needed. No regrets!

“That one can hire only a whole man [or woman] rather than any part thereof explains why the improvement of human effectiveness in work is the greatest opportunity for the improvement of performance and results,”

Peter Drucker

If There is Just One Thing You Expect from Employees, This Should Be it!


“Few things leaders can do are more important than encouraging helping behavior within their organization.”

Teresa Amibile, et al, ‘IDEO’s Culture of Helping’, HBR Jan.-Feb. 2014

If you are a sports fan, and I am one, you know that fans love to pose hypothetical questions as part of their dialogues. It is a benign way to pass the time between actual sporting events that proves absolutely nothing, but that it the nature of most higher level sports any way, benign entertainment. One of the hypothetical questions that inevitably get raised is this; “If you were going to start a new (name your sport) franchise who would be the first player you’d want on the team?” Depending on the sport of course the players named differ and since there is nothing sports fans like more that hypothetical debate, (nothing real at stake, lots of differing opinions and lots of emotional release) this type of question is usually worthy of two beers at least on any given week night. But it is after all hypothetical.

Not so hypothetical is the issue of the type of culture you want to have in your organization. There the stakes are quite high so getting it right makes a big difference. So if you were going to start a business organization today what would be the one expectation that you would want to model, communicate, encourage, reward and design for?  This expectation would insure a culture you would want to be part of, one that performed at high level on a consistent basis and attracted people that you’d want to be associated with.

If you are like me you have read your share of books and articles about what a great culture looks and feels like. In much of that reading I find complexity that discourages me from wanting to try to match the ideals put forward. In reading ‘IDEO’s Culture of Helping’ (Click for full article) I was struck by the simplicity and humanity of the approach modeled by the leaders;

  • don’t hesitate to ask for help and
  • make room in your schedule to help those around you

The really startling thing about this approach is that IDEO’s finished products represent very customized ideas that pass through complex project management to reach their final form. What IDEO’s senior leadership seems to recognize is that the more complex the work the more likely it is that no one person will have all the answers so collaborative behaviors are a must for success to be realized.

“Useful help at work lifts emotions; improves perceptions of co-workers. Managers and the organization; and boosts intrinsic motivation to dig into the job.”

Amibile et al

You might visit the IDEO website and come away thinking “But our business isn’t that sophisticated, we just need people who can follow directions and be responsible.” I’d challenge your thinking there because you are likely thinking like an engineer doing a project map, assuming that everything will go as planned! It never does and that is why you need people who have developed a strong sense of mutual self interest. (No, this is not a contradiction.)

Unless your employees are performing uncomplicated tasks that they can complete on their own, no interdependency, no collaboration and limited cooperation required, then I’d say that establishing from the very beginning of a new employee’s experience that you expect them to have to ask for help and be helpful themselves. Not only do you need to express this expectation you might also want to

  • model it yourself, be available and also ask for assistance
  • make clear that asking for help is a sign of wisdom not weakness
  • also make clear that the more an employee is able to help others their perceived value increases
  • reward helping behavior, not incent it
  • designate and identify “helpers” for specific areas of knowledge
  • embed “help” in the work practices of your organization
  • address political battles directly
  • design working spaces to encourage/allow cross functional contact
  • arrange mentoring for employees who get stuck in a competitive mindset

See, here’s the thing, once you get started down this path the ideas of what you can do to encourage collaboration just start to flow. It is the way people want to work, when they allow themselves the freedom to imagine their ideal work place.

Think about it for a minute, if you were looking for a place to work, how would you set it up? I bet (hypothetically of course) that you might start with a blank sheet of paper and at the top you’d write


#1 Everyone knows that the most important value of the place is making each other successful



Worried About the Cost of Getting Higher Engagement? Maybe it Saves You Money.

Dollar Sign

The January-February Issue of Harvard Business Review features “A Great Place to Work” as its primary theme. Reading the article on Netflix I was most taken by several comments recommending the kinds of people to bring into your company. The first of these goes as follows…

“The best thing you can do for your employees, a perk better than foosball or free sushi, is hire only “A” players to work alongside them. Excellent colleagues trump everything else.”

Patty McCord, former Netflix Chief Talent Officer

At first glance the idea of hiring “A” players might be a bit confronting. You certainly want be improving your workforce but “A” players, wow that might be a high bar to shoot for. You might rightly wonder why the best and brightest would even want to work for you, after all what you’re into isn’t exactly rocket science and why would you want to pay best and brightest money to people doing work that doesn’t require best and brightest talent? Wouldn’t the best and brightest get bored no matter how much you paid them and eventually leave contributing to higher turnover costs than you already have? OK, let’s step back.

If this is how you reacted to the quote from Patty McCord you might be stuck with a mental image of what she means by “A” players. She goes on to clarify that when she refers to hiring the right people she is really talking about a moving target, what you need in a work force that is right for your business now, and this is going to evolve over time. This in fact may be more confronting than the idea of hiring the best and brightest, which you could rationalize away on the basis of cost versus return alone.

What McCord says that really challenges the average employer is “Excellent colleagues trump everything else.”

Who among us has not entered a workplace where we encountered a long time employee who upon casual observation could easily be found to be obstructing the daily flow of work by simply not being up to speed with the current levels of skill required to perform as the business needed. How often have we raised a question about the presence of this employee only to be told that they had been here a long time and were really loyal to the company? Then we might be asked to make it work with him or her. Clearly the competence of this employee was deemed to be something we needed to live with. How often I wonder have any of us left or declined to recommend a company simply because there had been some demonstration that something other than performance excellence was the order of the day?

As McCord continues to share her insights about the Netflix culture she emphasizes that maintaining an excellent level of employee requires a constant level of vigilance as well as a willingness to address both unacceptable behavior and performance in a straight forward manner. Honestly I think there are two features of a workplace that are more distasteful to the kinds of people you want to employ. One is a cumbersome policy handbook and the other is a patently CYA performance review process. Here is what McCord has to say about the issue of policy in place of high expectations and I couldn’t agree more…

 “If you are careful to hire people who will out the company’s interest first, who understand and support the desire for a high performance workplace, 97% of your employees will do the right thing. Most companies spend endless time and money writing and enforcing HR policies to deal with problems the other 3% might cause.”

Over policing while tolerating underperformance puts good people off and sends them looking for other places of employment.

The second unattractive feature identified by McCord that simply screams mediocrity may not be as much an issue for smaller employers as it is for larger ones, the CYA performance review process. This is hardly even worthy of explanation because it is so prevalent; fear of litigation drives these processes. We all know it. We also know that a related practice, the Performance Improvement Plan, is equally bogus and simply a notification to the employee to pack their bags as they have about 90 days before termination. Nothing could be more transparent, nothing could be more unattractive to solid performers with a desire to see under-performers dealt with quickly with dignity and respect.

The bottom line here; if you want an engaged workforce select new employees carefully, develop them with care, prune the workforce regularly, maintain skill levels across the board, treat everyone like adults and expect them to behave that way. You may pay a little more on the front end but over time the payoffs will more than cover the investment.







Stuck with Low Engagement Scores? Maybe You Have a Culture of Shame.


My first introduction to the shaming practices often unconsciously featured in the workplace took place in 1973, the first year after I left graduate school. I had noticed a trend in the promotion practices within a certain department and spoke to my manager about it. He suggested I do further research and prepare a report, which I did. The net result, which did not point any fingers, simply demonstrated the point I was trying to make.

I discussed my findings with my manager and he decided to send it along to the department in question. A couple of days later I was called into my manager’s office and informed that the affected department had returned the report noting that there was an inconsequential error in my addition in a single column. They had told my boss that they appreciated the effort on my part but could not take the findings seriously knowing that I was so careless with my calculations! My manager used the incident to educate me in organizational politics. Even though what I was doing was in the best interest of the business someone was likely to look bad, or at least think they might. What he told me was that if it had not been for the error in addition the affected department would have found something else to object to. They were sending a message for me/us to mind our own business and when they wanted to hear from us they would let us know.

I know that for the past twenty plus years managements in organizations far and wide have been struggling with the question on how to get seemingly intractable engagement statistics elevated to any significant extent. A lot of money has been spent, a lot more is planned to be spent but the history would suggest that quite possibly we’ve been looking in the wrong places with the efforts to date.

Consider the story reported earlier, or ones from your own experience since I know you can find them. What is being described here is something insidious, something not really worthy of further examination because it is simply the way that it is. Organizations have always had politics and will always have politics, just let it go!

But I am pointing to something more fundamental  than simply politics, practices that have been tacitly endorsed for years intended to maintain the status quo and let people/employees know their place should they ever forget it. These practices could be lumped under a theme…shaming, and it is so prevalent in many workplaces that no one even recognizes the cost or sees how it undermines any efforts to elevate employee engagement.

Webster’s defines SHAME as follows:

noun, a) :  a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety in one’s own behavior or position 

Brene Brown in ‘Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead’    Has this to say about the institutionalized practice of shaming…

“When shame becomes a management style, engagement dies. When failure is not an option we can forget about learning, creativity, and innovation.”

She goes on the say that shaming practices are often housed in a context of scarcity, i.e., never enough, not good enough, fear of not keeping up

Brown describes the context of scarcity as characterized by three primary components

“Shame: Is fear of ridicule and belittling used to manage people and/ or to keep people in line? Is self-worth tied to achievement, productivity, or compliance? Are blaming and finger-pointing norms? Are put-downs and name-calling rampant? What about favoritism? Is perfectionism an issue?

Comparison: Healthy competition can be beneficial, but is there constant overt or covert comparing and ranking? Has creativity been suffocated? Are people held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions? Is there an ideal way of being or one form of talent that is used as measurement of everyone else’s worth?

Disengagement: Are people afraid to take risks or try new things? Is it easier to stay quiet than to share stories, experiences, and ideas? Does it feel as if no one is really paying attention or listening? Is everyone struggling to be seen and heard?”

I recall another conversation not long ago where a manager was describing to me the devastating experience of a recent performance review. “All we talked about was the 2%, just that stupid 2%.” I asked what 2% he was referring to and he responded. “The 2% I missed my objective by last quarter!” I asked further whether there was any conversation about the accomplishment of the 98% attained. “No, we never talk about that, it is all or nothing.” If this sounds familiar you have my sympathies.

I’d ask you to examine the routine management practices of your own organization. Do you talk about the 2% or the 98%, maybe both? Do you force rank, compare performance of individuals, especially publicly. If the answer to any or all of these questions is yes, rather than doing another engagement survey where already know the results, you might profit from beginning a process of highlighting and discouraging these practices. Don’t simply leave a void, offer suggestions on behaviors that reinforce initiative, encourage risk taking and celebrate unique contributions rather than simply what has come to be expected.






I Can’t Eat the Story: Lessons in Engagement, Service and Sausage

Quiche w sausage

If you are someone like me that writes a blog and works hard to keep the material fresh and frequent one thought that creeps in from time to time is this, “Eventually I am going to run out of things to write about.” Fortunately for me people always provide the next topic; all I need to do is pay attention.

My area of interest is employee engagement. If you read my pieces with any regularity you’d recognize that my focus shifts back and forth from what I consider to be an employer’s responsibility when it comes to engagement and what I think employees need to bring to the working relationship. I see the end product, engagement as a condition that results from a properly designed working relationship between employer and employee, a dynamic collaboration where mutual self-interest is the guiding principle.

So three weeks ago I was in Portland to deliver a talk to a professional association. I was talking advantage of the location to have breakfast with a colleague I had not seen in some time. At his suggestion we met at a small diner in one of the many great neighborhoods the city has to offer. The place reminded me of many of those family owned places I enjoy in my home town and I was looking forward to something that had a home cooked feel and taste to it.

Shortly after we ordered our food was placed in front of us, I had ordered a quiche with fried potatoes. My colleague and I were well into our conversation when the food arrived so without slowing down we just began to eat and continued to talk, not paying a great deal of attention to the dishes that had arrived. A couple of bites into my breakfast I noticed the absence of the flavor of sausage, the taste I specifically ordered my selection to enjoy. I stopped mid conversation and began to probe my food. Dig, dig, no sausage. Dig, dig, dig, no sausage. Hmmm, I summoned our server from the other end of the restaurant with a wave of my hand. (I am sure you have either seen or used that universal diner in distress signal!) She arrived and I informed her that the quiche in front of me was not the one I had ordered and asked her to check her notes. She took out her order pad, looked at her notes and then back at me and replied, “The owner is preparing the food, she must have given you the wrong one.” And so begins the lesson for today.

It is likely that upon hearing her response you will place yourself immediately into my position and perhaps empathize as no doubt we have all been on the receiving of something other than what we have ordered, whether it be in a restaurant or an internet purchase. I’d rather that you think as the owner of the business. Unbeknownst to you and no doubt without being trained to do so the server had just “thrown” you, her employer under the mythical bus that seems to travel far and wide. “I’ll be right back”, was the servers next comment. I did not expect to see her again until she had the correct order to serve up.

To my surprise she was back in a moment with this information, “I checked and the owner did give you the wrong quiche, I have your order up in a moment.” And still I longed for sausage!

Shortly she returned with what I hoped was the quiche I now craved and added at no extra charge, “The owner checked and says that they labeled the boxes wrong.” OK, now think as an owner. You’ve been thrown under the bus not once but three times in ten minutes by the same employee and the disappointed customer has yet to receive an apology and there is none in sight. Shame on you Mr. or Mrs. Owner, you have failed to adequately train your staff! I am not letting the server off the hook either, so shame on her for that matter.

Here’s the bottom line, it doesn’t get any more basic than this. As a business owner you must have employees that will be accountable for the promises set by the business, you must train them that way, inspect their work and make sure you can count on them most when things go wrong, that’s when you need them to be at their very best.

For the employee, know this, a story about what happened, whether true or not is just that, a story, it isn’t what the customer ordered, ever! In the face of a disappointed customer, especially one expecting sausage, the appropriate response is always an apology and a promise to make the correction…period. The next interaction with that customer should either meet their expectation or let them know when and in what form they can expect the expectation to be met.

ps: If you don’t know the difference between a quiche with sausage and a story we may have to start over.

I hope your holiday season was safe and happy.









Having the Culture You Want Takes Intentional Action


A couple of weeks back I wrote a piece titled ‘Culture Management is Not Just for Senior Leaders’. After giving it some thought I decided to return to that topic with a look at what I consider to be action steps to reliably establish and maintain the culture you want in your business. So here we go.

  1. You might be surprised to hear this but a careful examination of your own relationship to having employees is the very first step in having the culture you want.

It is a well documented fact that you’d be hard pressed to find any public company that didn’t profess in its annual report that the company’s employees are its most valuable asset. You would be equally hard pressed to find any of those same companies that showed employees on the asset side of their balance sheet. Leaders in those companies might quickly protest that they are limited by the rules of accounting insofar as what they can show as assets and currently employees don’t meet the qualification. I say this simple practice affects the thinking of managers when it comes to employees. While I agree with this explanation in principle, based in rules of accounting and reasonable, I think it is necessary to dig deeper into any company’s actions regarding employees to see how they might reflect the truth in practice. In many cases there seems to be a disconnect between the professed value of employees and the practices that may in part be reflected in 70% levels of employee disengagement reported in many surveys. And usually these statistics reflect surveys of larger companies. Just a quick look at compensation practices will begin to demonstrate what I am talking about, especially when it comes to profit sharing/bonus plans.

I’d ask you to think about this; when you reflect on your employees do they show up for you primarily as expense or investment, resource or asset, problem or opportunity?  The difference is crucial, not so much because there is a right answer as much as knowing the answer for yourself begins to provide a clearer understanding of how you might build the culture of a business or why things may be going the way they are in your business today.

Here is what I have found as a matter of practice; some business owners have employees because they need to in order to operate their business. This is what I would call a pragmatic approach, employees as necessity; resources to be used to whatever degree they can be and ultimately expense that must be tolerated but not necessarily embraced.

Or, in other cases I have found that the employer has employees because they have a clear vision of the kind of business they want to create, how big they want to be, what services, etc. and they will willingly have as many employees as it takes to fulfill that vision, knowing that without the particular skills their employees bring there is little hope of getting there. This is a view that reflects an understood value for interdependency when it comes to accomplishing anything of consequence.

So now to other steps… before moving on it should be noted that if you are operating from the employees as necessity/expense perspective you may be reluctant to adopt the following steps. The direction I’ll be taking you involves increasing the level of reliance on the employees as the means to the success of your enterprise.

Once you clear the hurdle on recognizing that you will likely be as successful as your willingness to rely on your employees and to allow them to contribute to their fullest capacity the rest of these steps may just fall into place.

  1. Clarify your own vision for your business and begin to communicate that openly to your employees.
  2. Get clear on the values that you believe reflect the expressed vision and get them communicated often. Take a look here at how a well known values driven company, Zappos, expresses its values for employees.
  3. Define your strategic priorities. What’s going to be important that will focus employee action and intention? Will you focus on adding new products, improving overall customer satisfaction, adding new customers? Here’s an example of a strategy focused rigorously on getting the customers what they want taken from a recent segment on 60 Minutes on CBS television.
  4. Determine  and communicate the performance/results that you believe reflect motion in the direction of accomplishing your vision.
  5. Measure, Feedback and Recognize. Again, hopefully this last would be obvious but nothing cramps performance like not knowing how you are doing or not being recognized for your contribution.

Of course there is always more to say on this topic but I suspect it will likely some further definition to what is contained in these steps.

**  this will be my final entry before the new year, see you on the flip side, safe and sound and groggy from holiday cheer. Blessings to one and all.