Sunday, November 28, 2010

Leading Jerks is Idiot's Poker

Earlier this holiday weekend, I tweeted the link to Bob Sutton's poignant New York Times article How Bad Apples Infect the Tree.

The poignant part was Dr. Sutton's story about the Silicon Valley executive he called Ruth, and how effectively she detached from the prevailing jerk culture in her workplace: 

When I asked Ruth how she kept her sanity amid the meanness at the company, she told me about some advice she had received as a teenager from a river rafting guide: If you fall out of the boat, don’t fight the rapids. Just rely on your life vest and float with your feet out in front of you. That way, if you are thrown up against the rocks, you can use your feet to push off, and you’ll protect your head and conserve energy. 

The very day she got that advice, Ruth fell overboard while traversing rapids in the “Satan’s Cesspool” section of the American River in California. After a wild trip with her feet stretched out in front of her, Ruth wasn’t hurt and felt exhilarated. 

Ruth explained that she used the Satan’s Cesspool strategy to survive those nasty meetings some 30 years later. Verbal barbs bounced off of her, just as the rocks had bounced off her feet long ago. When the personal attacks, dirty looks and finger-pointing commenced, she stretched out her feet in front of her under the table, and told herself, “I just got thrown out of the boat by these jerks, but I know how to survive.

Instead of seeing herself as a victim, Ruth felt strong and in control. She shared her strategy with fellow victims in the office, and it helped them endure the slings and arrows as well. 

Ruth’s strategy was effective because it enabled her to reframe the nastiness so she could become emotionally detached — to “prevent the poison from touching my soul,” as she put it.

I love the method, visualization and metaphor of resiliency and maintaining personal power of being thrown out of the boat by jerks yet knowing how to survive in the face of the ebb and flow of workplace threats.  Dealing effectively with and detaching from workplace jerks is the first important step towards building a jerk-free workplace:  very similar to the 12-step program process of dealing effectively with and detaching from active and dry alcoholics who have yet to take responsibility for their own sobriety / recovery.  Truth be told, workplace jerks and dry drunks are fairly interchangeable, and usually end up being one in the same.

Amen also to Dr. Sutton's assertion that one jerk can bring a whole workplace down a negative spiral.  Sutton further asserts that such jerks need to be reformed, and if necessary, expelled.

However, nothing can beat the time-suck oxymoron of attempting to lead / manage workplace jerks at any organizational level:  and listening to the lame defense that the jerk makes the organization a lot of money and we should work together to heal them - praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!  Okay, then let's talk about the jerk's impact on employee, vendor and customer recruitment, retention, productivity, reputation and morale:  are they still making us a boatload of cash after those factors are added to their net cost-benefit?  Been there, done that.

It truly is a game of organizational idiot's poker:  everyone loses and we all look like morons, including, last but not least, the problematic jerk.  It's not the first conversation to attempt to heal the jerk that's frustrating; it's the 6th conversation.  (Oh dear, that anger management class didn't work:  shall we have another <undocumented> come-to-Jesus meeting with them?)  All that time wasted on a jerk who won't or can't change, when we could have used our meeting time instead to achieve our organizational goals. 

What do I mean?  Only rarely can a workplace jerk be reformed / coached -- I have seen it happen, but in my experience, it is absolutely the rare exception.   A workplace jerk only gets better if they have a personal epiphany (e.g. hitting a bottom) which motivates them to change their ways on their own.  Or if the jerk's ass is soundly kicked by a bigger organizational alpha dog.  Usually it's only the former that institutes real change and reforms a workplace jerk.  The latter almost always gets you a temporary cease-fire of lip-service, white-knuckling and empty promises.  It's like a time-bomb ticking:  I can usually predict when the explosion of pent-up dysfunction will take place: when the jerk will screech like a strangled banshee in a team meeting, finger-pointing over an imagined affront.  No one wins in this particular game of idiot's poker.

Instead, consider managing jerks through a well-documented and consistent progressive disciplinary / performance process:  verbal; written; final written; performance improvement plan (if for some reason the organizational torture needs to be prolonged); termination.

If they don't get better, promote them to customers, as we used to say in one of my organizations.  You will be on the side of the angels, the numbers, and most importantly, your customers and employees.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I'd Like to Thank My Board of Directors

While I have served on several nonprofit Boards of Directors and have learned a great deal from those experiences, nothing compares to my personal Board of Directors.

In both entrepreneurial and career endeavors, and through the detours and roundabouts to follow my bliss, my personal Board of Directors has been both the sounding board and the crucible in which I've forged each phase of my vocational journey.   And it has truly been a wonderful journey.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I'd like to thank (in no particular order and certainly not inclusive of all who have shepherded and walked beside me on my career path):
  • My dad, who brought me to his office when I was 4 years old, years before Take Our Children to Work Day, inspiring me to want to get a job on the spot;
  • My college friend Portia, who suggested that I apply to the New York State Assembly Internship program, which led to my first job out of college as a writer;
  • My first boss Nan, who first taught me how to network for fun and profit, sparking a lifelong passion which has also led me to some amazing career experiences, the equivalent of several master's degrees;
  • Miss Lee, my 4th grade teacher:  she conducted monthly writing contests (poetry and prose), awarding the winner $1.00, teaching me that I could write for a living (I won a few times);
  • My former boss Carol, whom I helped hire as our organization's first female VP and who insisted that I get my SPHR certification, supporting me with both time and funding to do so;
  • My stepmother Judy, who as the formidable and competent head merchant of a successful clothing chain, made executive achievement accessible and real to me;
  • Bob, my former boss who "saw" me and what I had to offer his organization, creating both a job and wonderful career experience for me as a result of a courtesy networking meeting;
  • My former boss Bill, who tirelessly coached me on a daily basis because he believed in me and my talent; 
  • My friend and colleague Judy, who recognized my Operations leadership potential and connected me to my first of several broadening experiences thereof;
  • My friend and colleague Georgia, who recognized my CEO / President potential and named it when I could not;
  • My husband and my son, who sustain me with the unwavering faith and belief in my talents and capabilities; 
  • My friend and colleague Dale, who taught me everything he knew about loss prevention, retail and corporate life;
  • My fellow writers:  Joel (my husband), Katie, Anne and Nancy - your talent inspires me;
  • My friend and colleague Barry, who taught me distribution operations and to shake off setbacks;
  • My friend and colleague / partner Ron, who has journeyed with me through the ebbs and flows of the economy in support of our mutual success;
  • My former mentees, who taught me as much as I taught them, and who have equaled and /or exceeded my career achievements:  Jeff, Julie, Laurie, Melissa, Alison;
  • My friends Anne, Cathy, Avon, Kathleen, Andrea and John, who work successfully for themselves and who encourage me to break free from the gilded cage of employment;
  • My friend and colleague Concetta, who during an 8-hour lunch one snowy Saturday, urged me to use my native interest and skills and get trained and certified as a mediator;
  • My former minister, Priscilla, who is a beacon of female leadership in her own discipline and who nurtures mine;
  • My clients, for teaching me how to work for myself and that ultimately, I am the source of my income;
  • My HR buddies Sue, Lisa, Lynn and Meg, whose professional calibrations are worth their weight in gold;
  • My fellow GE alums Allen and Patty, and my friend and colleague Linda, whose love and support is mutual (and for encouraging me to pursue my bliss in teaching / leading workshops and seminars);
  • My friend and colleague Alissa, who recognized my entrepreneurial spirit / potential and named it:  Deb Best Practices.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Do you have a personal Board of Directors?  If so, have you thanked them lately?

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    Stop and Listen for the Needs Underneath the Yelling

    As a native of Queens, NY, I used to have only two communications gears:  speaking loudly and yelling.  Due in part to our geographic location and also due to our family's ethnic and cultural paradigm.

    Subsequently, I have spent my entire adult life in the Albany, New York area.  Even at this writing, most Albany natives rarely use their horns to defensively drive.  It's considered rude.  In other words, when you honk your horn around here, it's a form of automotive yelling.  Yes, it's one of my few remaining vices.

    At the beginning of my HR career, I was not only lucky enough to receive extensive formal and on-the-job training, but I was also taught and repeatedly trained to develop other communications gears besides downshifting into Queens.  The success profile of my organization at the time was reserved and analytical. I am anything but reserved, but also analytical.  The coaching, for the most part, was therefore successful.  After every meeting together, my boss Bill would take me aside.  "You did very well in the meeting," Bill would say.  "However, I have one piece of coaching for you:  speak less and more softly." Bill was a wonderful mentor and I think of him often, all these years later.  Even at those coaching moments when I sighed and wanted a coaching rain-check, I treasure his perseverance and interest in molding me for success and subsequent promotion.

    One of my first HR client managers there was the Purchasing Manager; he was a great guy who drove a Harley to work every day, rain or shine, and relished beating the stuffing out of our vendors, as was our organization's performance norm for the Purchasing function.  He and I were two very loud peas in a padded pod, and very much the organizational culture's exception.  We had a rambunctious debate on an employee relations issue in front of one of my more experienced and very reserved HR colleagues.  "Wow," my HR colleague said, "that's the loudest conversation I've ever witnessed at work." (Wow, I thought -- really?) "Why did you two have to yell at each other?"  He was genuinely upset.  Both the Purchasing Manager and I were surprised.  "We just had a great conversation and resolved the issue, we weren't yelling at each other," the Purchasing Manager reassured my HR colleague.  "No worries.  I need my HR person to be direct and to the point."

    Bill's coaching sank in nonetheless:  I consciously and for the most part consistently modulated my tone of voice and developed my HR poker face, and learned to listen first and talk later.  Completely out of my comfort zone, but part of the Zen practice to achieve my goal to do human resources and organization effectiveness work.

    At my next organization, yelling was the communications norm.  However, something wonderful clicked early in my tenure there.  Because I listened first -- or as Covey would say, I sought first to understand, rather than to be understood -- that's where I first started to hear the needs underneath the yelling.

    We were in the process of acquiring another company, and we were making relocation employment offers to several of the other company's employees located out of town.  Since the acquisition had triggered a WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act scenario, these employees had 30 days to consider the relocation employment offers.

    My boss at time, one of the organization's executives and not an HR professional by background, was, to put it mildly, livid.  In the privacy of his office, he yelled for 20 minutes straight about the absurdity of the WARN Act and how it was preventing him (and us) from conducting our business.  I immediately understood that he was mad at the WARN Act and not at me.  "I know, it's very frustrating," I murmured periodically.  At one point, when he paused to catch his breath, I gently observed:  "You know, I find the IRS Tax Code completely frustrating and illogical.  But like the WARN Act, we're forced to follow it too."  He immediately calmed down, and apologized 3 times to me for yelling. "No worries," I responded.  "I know how you feel, legal and compliance boundaries are often frustrating."

    Clearly, there's a time and a place for yelling, preferably in private.  And there's a clear distinction between loud emoting and loud (demeaning) abuse.  I'd rather have my partners and customers at work be authentic, and at times, they need to yell.  In a functional culture, yelling is definitely more the exception rather than the rule, at all levels.  When change is occurring, yelling can be part of the flak we experience from each other as we get closer to the change target.

    During my training as a mediator with Mediation Matters, our trainer, Duke Fisher, confirmed my HR experience in needs-identification perfectly.  He encouraged us through role-play and other mediation training experiences that the key to mediating conflict (whether it's over dog poop or international relations) is to first have the courage to listen for the needs underneath the yelling without taking it personally.  And that when one party keeps yelling about the same issue, that's one of several divining rods to accurately isolate the needs underneath the yelling, which in turn will become the building blocks of a solution to move forward.  To meet needs and create peace.

    The source of all human conflict, Duke taught us, is needs met and unmet.

    I'm here to listen, whether you're yelling or not:  just tell me what you need.

    Sunday, November 7, 2010

    Please and Thank You!

    I was 15 years old and out on a shopping trip with a beloved female relative in the New York / Metropolitan area where I was born and raised.

    It was a hot summer day, and we stopped for lunch.  As we perused our menus, our waitress came to our table to take our drink order, depositing glasses of ice water in the process.  "I'll have an iced coffee," my relative said, not looking up from the menu and sipping her ice water.  "Debbie, why don't you try one?"

    I smiled up at the waitress.  "I'll have an iced coffee too, please."  The waitress smiled back.  "Sure thing, sweetie, I'll be right back."  (Note:  the waitress had not smiled at Beloved Relative.)

    Beloved Relative touched my arm affectionately as the waitress padded away from our table.  "Debbie, you don't have to do that."  I was confused: were the rules looser with Beloved Relative than when dining out with my Marine Corps father?  "You mean I don't have to keep my elbows off the table?"  I guessed.

    "No," she said sotto voce as the waitress approached with our iced coffees.  "You don't have to say 'please' or  'thank you' to a waitress."  The waitress reached our table and served our iced coffees with dishes of creamers and Sweet 'n Low.  "There you go girls, enjoy!  Let me know when you're ready to order lunch."  On auto-pilot, I replied "Thank you." to the waitress.  "You're welcome!" she replied back and walked over to another one of her tables.

    The coaching from Beloved Relative was now earnest and unsmiling. "Debbie, now what did I say?"  I didn't like displeasing Beloved Relative.  "Sorry, I couldn't help it."  I was puzzled at her rule, however.  "Why don't you say 'please' and 'thank you' to a waitress?"

    Beloved Relative was hungry, and waved at the waitress to return to our table to take our lunch order.  "So she knows who's in charge," she said, affirmatively and definitively.

    Well, the coaching from Beloved Relative didn't work: I still say please and thank you, whether I'm addressing a waitress, my son or husband, a customer, a vendor, my boss, the folks I work with or a colleague.  And I teach my son Noah to do the same.

    And while it's sometimes hard work, especially when the other party is insufferably rude, whether it's in writing or in person, I pretty much mean what I say and affect the matching tone of please and thank you.  That's part of my customer service training, and the rest is Marine Corps' good manners.  I'm certainly not perfect, or always 100% successful.  However, my intent is consistent.

    When managers at any level order work direction from their teams like Beloved Relative ordering iced coffee without saying "please" and "thank you," I suspect it includes but is not limited to at least one or all of the following possible scenarios:
    • Like Beloved Relative, they think the absence of "please" and "thank you" lets everyone know they're in charge;
    • They weren't raised with good manners;
    • They were mentored by an asshole (in the spirit of full disclosure, so was I);
    • They're afraid, insecure, etc.;
    • They speak without thinking or caring about the impact of their words or behavior on those around them;
    • They're delirious or otherwise impaired.
    Now, I've worked with organizations where extensive work was done to improve employee engagement and retention, including but not limited to elaborate surveys and subsequent analysis paralysis.  These same organizations also continued to employ managers and executives who not only did not use please and thank you as simple yet consistently effective engagement and retention tools, but these same managers and executives also regularly terrorized anyone in their radius, subordinate or colleague alike, while playing up sweetly and cloyingly to compensation and promotional decision-makers above them.  Bleah.  It was not only inauthentic and the polar opposite of engagement, it was also nauseating.

    Bob Sutton, author of The No-Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss, sums up the power of thank you eloquently in his blog post, Thanks. A really neglected form of compensation.  No surveys or analysis paralysis needed here to achieve authentic engagement.

    My friend and former colleague Elaine, a career customer service pro, doesn't need Bob Sutton to point out these basics to her.  "Please and Thank You!"  she'd sing all day long in a one-phrase mantra, her glass full of motivation to get the job done for her devoted customers.

    Thank you for reading my blog post; please have a great week!