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September 29, 2009

Whistle While You Wear on Co-workers' Nerves

Blog cartoon 9-30-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

I feel happy for the Seven Dwarfs, but I'm glad I don't have to work with them. Aside from worrying about catching a cold from Sneezy, I don't know if I could handle the whistling. I also would wonder at their happiness in cynical ways. Is there something dark behind it, or are they just so at peace with themselves that they can't keep the songs in their hearts from escaping their lips as whistling?  Or is it more of a nervous whistle, like the compulsive way some people whistle when left alone on an elevator with a maniacal looking person?

I like to think the best of everyone (or at least force myself to try for the sake of my sanity), but I've noticed the happiest people in offices aren't always the nicest and/or smartest. Who could remain song-fully happy, after all, watching hard working co-workers laid-off while less-deserving and liked colleagues remain?  I can see still having hope and enjoying your work, but who walks around whistling and singing amidst all that? 

Part of the happiness of those who hold onto their ebullience in recessionary times can be attributed to a competitive spirit. They've survived, others haven't, so much the better. Instead of regretting a co-worker's unfortunate performance review or lay-off, they celebrate the opportunity to advance into that person's position, or enjoy some of the salary they leave behind. I've been guilty of those feelings before, but always restrained myself from whistling, humming, or stomping my feet over it. Such emotions are normal, and even healthy from a survivalist perspective, but isn't there something sinister about those who aren't sensitive enough to conceal them?

Since lay-offs and salary/position freeze-ups during a recession often seem arbitrary rather than a result of work performance, those who trot around the office like show horses in the winner's circle are a mystery. Are they dumb luck recipients, good manipulators, mean-spirited (just enjoy watching pain), or really stupid (and haven't noticed anything is wrong)?  The best thing we can hope for is stupidity—or is it?  What's worse? To work with mean-spirited, though efficient, manipulators or very dumb people who have dumb luck, do dumb things, and are too dumb to notice anything awry? Since "stupidity" carries such a negative connotation, I prefer to think of the always-whistling people at work as ignorant.

Let's say your company is near to crumbling apart, and Joe Ratsweeds is ambling around whistling and tapping rhythmically on all the cubicle walls he passes by on the way to his spacious office. Should a workforce manager wonder at his business acumen or his commitment to the company?  If I were you, observing a mid-level worker acting that way in the thick of a financial crisis would raise questions. No one should bring work troubles home with them, and it's essential to keep one's sense of humor and fun during hard times, but isn't the song-and-dance routine a bit much, and reminiscent of dancing on co-workers' professional graves?

With the sensitivity training we put workers through regarding ethnic and cultural differences, it's funny no one I've heard of has implemented recessionary (or recession recovery) sensitivity training. Some say the economy is turning the corner, but most agree layoffs won't lessen, and might even get worse, for another six months. With that in mind, how are you going to prepare your employees to emotionally support those you're forced to ax?  "Ax" may not seem like the most sensitive word for me to use, but it's the most accurate because it connotes the pain of what happens to a person who loses his job—he's cut off from an essential part of his life. I've spoken before of the importance of being good to those you lay-off for both the sake of the laid-off person as well as for the morale of remaining employees, but what about the importance of teaching employees how to support each other during the crisis?

Since hiring a workforce psychologist may be out of the question for a lot of you due to budgetary limitations, I would do research on my own if I were you about peer support during layoffs. I haven't checked it out yet, but knowing our post-Information Age, I bet there's a wealth of information out there on the topic. If you can't find any that suits your company's particular situation, take an educated leap of faith, and pen a few pages yourself for your corporate intranet or social networking site. This "educated leap" could consist of passing along examples of employees supporting each other in impressive ways, based on your own observations and stories shared with you by others. If you can't think of any, and you want to encourage inspiring acts of workplace empathy, ask in a company-wide memo, or in an announcement on your intranet's homepage, for such stories. As always, many will need an incentive to take the trouble to write down their tale, so offer a reward, such as a gift certificate or extra vacation time, for the most compelling (and provably true) story.

There's only so much you can do as a workforce manager during a difficult time at the office because there's only so much your workers and managers will tell you and the executive team. They'll never tell you as much of their woes and suffering as they'll tell a colleague, and out-going colleagues have a lot to say to those who laid them off that they're dying to express to someone who knows exactly what they're talking about. Your reaction to such "sharing" sessions may be fear. After all, you don't want bitter, out-going workers to poison those remaining, but there's no need to worry.

Employees worth keeping are smart enough to notice on their own that something's wrong, and kind enough not to gloss it over by whistling show tunes. Encouraging them to support co-workers who were "let go,"  will help them deal with their own feelings of sadness. Repressed emotion and denial, you'll find, are the most discordant tunes of all.

How do you encourage employees to support one another during rough financial times?  Do you have any inspiring stories of co-worker empathy and camaraderie to share?

September 22, 2009

Who's Your Least Trusted Employee?

Blog cartoon 9-23-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

At many companies, the CEO is like the Wizard of Oz, a person no one sees, except as a posed face staring back at them from company-wide e-mail blasts. Those messages often appear to be lies of omission, so who can blame your employees if they don't trust the CEO and his cohorts?

For companies with a CEO who roams the floors meeting and greeting all the little cubicle people, the interactions often are just live performances of their e-mail-blasted propaganda pieces. There are catch-phrases and company culture slogans bandied about in response to the rare bold question from the cubicles. It's understandable that the big man or gal at the top wouldn't want to bare his/her soul to the corporate bystanders he/she meets and greets on every floor, and it also should be understandable why your employees don't trust him or her. Not only is it understandable, but a good thing if they don't trust your CEO. Unless your CEO is a martyr, her main concern is herself, followed in prioritized order by those who can help her—meaning your company's board of directors and/or its greatest shareholders. I've heard it argued that no one can help the CEO more than the cubicle people, and that may be true, but it's a truth that hasn't been internalized by the majority of CEOs. If it has been internalized, then I guess they're just not good at showing their love.

A silly "for instance" demonstrating where the loyalties of the CEO reside is lunch.  When your employees have a lunch meeting in these cash-strapped times, I assume you either ask them to order pizza, bring brown bag lunches, or schedule the meeting so it accommodates participants' needs to head out for a bite beforehand.  When your board of directors have a lunch meeting, do you give them the same menu guidance?  Gourmet salads, pastas, and sandwiches are more like it for them, right?  Why is that?  If your employees are most important to your company's success (or at least that's what your CEO says), then why aren't they, at least every once in a while, given the gold platter treatment (as opposed to the 8th grade lunch tray treatment)?

Similarly, and more seriously, why do CEOs of the People (who love to roam the cubicle aisles, shaking hands or nodding at their workforce soldiers) feel OK about demanding and receiving multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses while they know their average mid-level worker makes $40,000 or less?  The answer, of course, is that their main concern is themselves and the people best equipped to keep them comfortable.

So, I have this idea I think is really fabulous: Instead of trying to get your CEO and executive board trusted and admired (under false pretenses) by your workforce, why don't you make use of the natural (and healthy) adversarial relationship?  What about a Prime Minister's Questions of sorts for the CEO every quarter?  Much as the English Prime Minister appears before his country's parliament to respond to often hard-hitting, uncomfortable questions, your CEO could appear before your employees (or a random selection of, say, 50 employees at a time to make it more manageable) to answer a barrage of antagonistic questions. So workers aren't afraid, tell them there will be free fancy restaurant dinners (have to throw some meat to your dogs heading into the arena to fight) and free vacation time for those who deliver the most substantively probing/difficult questions to the CEO (can't ask him, after all, why he keeps gaining weight despite his expensive, company-paid gym membership).

Would your CEO be courageous enough to face this onslaught?  If he doesn't want to face the questioning squad, why?  If you're proud of your work performance, you'd think you'd be eager to defend it. That's how I am, anyway.  Some of you will hate me for this, but at all the jobs I've had since graduating from college, I've looked forward to my performance reviews.  I know I work as hard as I can, and in the most honest way possible, so why should I dread it?  If there's something a supervisor questions, I'm secure enough in my performance that I always feel ready to spring, in a non-hostile way, to my defense with examples of why whatever they said isn't so.  My guess is a lot of your employees (the same ones who smartly don't trust your CEO) are just like me.  They know they do a good job, work to their greatest capacity, and act honestly, so there's no performance review dread.  For those with CEOs who would shy away from their own version of Prime Minister's Questions, what are they ashamed of, or unable to fully defend?

Beyond giving employees the answers they deserve, rigorous, vaguely contemptuous question and answer sessions between CEOs and workforces, is a help to companies. The angry employees inevitably will ask questions your shareholders (after the fancy dinner) and customers (after they get the products home and see they're not that great) also will soon be bothering them with. Hearing this criticism from inside your corporate "family" first will help your CEO craft his strategy for answering those he can't dispense with by firing. 

They also may get some great ideas about how the company's resources can be better managed. What if everyone at the meeting says a particular vendor the company contracts with isn't worth the million dollars or so you send its way?  That's information that's good to have, right?  Or, what if hordes of employees at the question-answer meeting are incensed about a new work flow routine you've foisted on them?  The easy answer is to tell them they don't have a choice, and that if they don't like it they can go elsewhere, but is that the smartest response?  If participants are set free to force the CEO to probe, they might ask why he'd risk losing so many valuable employees (the CEO said how much they all mean to him, after all), and why he'd risk losing productivity for the sake of a work process? 

How mentally stable is your CEO?  Do you think there's a chance he'd start bawling like a preschooler to just leave him alone half-way through the question-answer barrage?  I bet some of them would have to at least excuse themselves to cry/whine in the hallway.

That thought brings me to another of my brilliant ideas. Should a licensed therapist be on hand to ask your CEO about his childhood, and whether chocolate chip cookie deprivation early in life is why he doesn't want to give cost-of-living adjustments this year?

What are the most uncomfortable questions you think your employees would like to ask your CEO?  Do you think there's a good reason they don't trust him?

September 03, 2009

The Dog Ate My Marketing Report

Blog cartoon 1

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

The American workforce, at least the parts of I've seen, are woefully unprepared. Sure, they're unprepared when they come out of school (I've heard Americans aren't as well educated as people from Europe, for instance), but worse than that, they stay unprepared until retirement. Then, maybe when they retire, they become expert preparers because they finally have things to prepare for that they enjoy. Who wouldn't prefer preparing for shopping over preparing for your business unit's latest most-boring-in-the-world-finalist meeting?

Workers themselves have to take the initiative to be prepared, but it also would help if your company's managers were more observant about the scourge of the unprepared. I know a few stories—at least a few—of obvious signs of preparedness abyss.

First, there was a person I once knew in the workplace who was an interesting study. If I had to describe him, here are the words I would use: lazy, disengaged, watchful, secretive, nervous, and insecure. He turned in substandard work he consistently got away with thanks to the kindness of managers (like the "kindness of strangers," but not as spiritually productive because it means overlooking deficits that hurt fellow, harder-working employees). There was no doubt to at least one vigilant co-worker that he was not only unprepared, but that he gloried in his lack of preparedness. He never made an effort to change, and never seemed to feel the need to pitch in even when he noticed his own boss straining herself to help him. He just shucked his undone work on her because he knew he could get away with it.  He was a bad case.

What's most awful is the effect he had on his colleagues. They knew something was wrong with his work performance and persona (his private self seemed OK), and so they became distracted, ascribing dark motives to his most mundane activities. The distraction began to make them—the formerly stellar-prepared—less prepared. They made up a game involving him. The game was figuring out why, at least several times a day, they heard him opening and locking his filing cabinet. It was probably nothing, the logical half of their brains told them, except the somewhat neurotic habit of locking up his wallet. But the more fanciful (and desirous of being unprepared) part of their brains thought there was something much better than that in the repeatedly locked and unlocked filing cabinet. Their top guesses for what was inside were as follows: A gigantic squirrel he was planning to take home to his wife as a surprise (a unique gift); a society of shrunken people (science fiction, but possible anyway) who had come up with a panacea for all the ills of the world but couldn't get out of his filing cabinet to implement it; or an illegal drug of some kind (would explain his secretive, watchful ways, nervousness, and insecurity).

To make matters worse, they saw that this unprepared co-worker suffered no consequence for his ways even as they struggled to put aside their distractions to get their work done. He kept his spot in the midst of layoffs, and was considered a person with an admirable professional style. His unpreparedness was rewarded!

A second case of the unprepared from my personal experience involves a woman who became the boss's golden girl (not that old, though), and remained that way years after her preparedness had gone away. She was hired in the 1980s, for instance, and made no effort to master her trade in the electronic form it found itself in by the time I got there in the early 2000s. By that point it seemed she was under the unpreparedness grandmother clause—the liberty you can take with unpreparedness if you're friends with the right people and have been at a job so long you're practically a sealed-to-the-lobby-floor doorstop. And she got promoted to boss a few years ago!  Can you believe it?  She's the Doorstop-in-Chief now.

As a trainer, I definitely think you should work to change the scourge of the unprepared. You can't do the preparations for your worker, or prevent the imaginary golden retriever from consuming the marketing report, but you can teach managers in leadership seminars how to spot flagrant violations of preparedness, what to do about it, and the consequences for doing nothing. It's not just an assignment or two, or an assignment every so often, that will suffer—it's your whole workforce. What the unpreparedness culprit doesn't prepare, someone else will have to do work on instead.

Why should a prepared person be dragged down to a productivity black hole caused by a negligent person?  After all, we don't all have imaginary golden retrievers.

How prepared are your workers?  Would you describe them as well on their way to the abyss of the unprepared?  Is there anything you can do to help your managers make them better at preparing for their jobs?

September 02, 2009

How Do You Say "No?"

Blog cartoon 9-9-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

If I were getting transferred to another country for work (and I could bring my cat, Miss Minnie), I would be excited. Of course, also, I would hope no unpleasant viruses were running rampant there. Beyond that, I would be careful to understand and be able to clearly pronounce all the ways to say "no" in the country's native language.

I've signed myself up for many and varied tasks I grew to regret volunteering myself for, but at least I could say "no" if I wanted to. In an age when people notoriously over-commit themselves, the most important language lesson you could give an employee departing for a work assignment in another country is how to back out and (when necessary) squirm out of professional commitments they won't be able to deliver on.

It's funny and liberating to focus on the profound beauty of "no," but it's not as easy as you think. In addition to the usual emotional discomfort of saying "no," and the mastery of the words and expressions that mean "no," your transferred employees have to be able to differentiate between the "nos" that will get them into trouble and the "nos" that will set them free. What makes this especially challenging for me is I'm not sure I have that art mastered in my own language and culture let alone that of another country. 

Let's say you're in a foreign country you've just relocated to for work, and your new boss tries to set you up on a date with one of his children. What do you do?  Aside from the usual awkwardness of that situation, you've seen his picture, and know this is most definitely not a good idea. In the U.S., I doubt this situation would arrive at most companies. Thanks to sexual harassment laws, a manager could get into big trouble for pressuring you to save one of his children via marriage. But in a more traditional country, who knows, maybe it's considered not such an unusual or unreasonable request.  How do you know in your new home if it's OK to say "no?" 

I suppose the best thing to do is find a native mentor who works in the same office to beg for help (and an alternate person to go out on the date). So, it's important that as you teach your employee all the ways to say what they need to say to make you money, you set them up with a local, on-site "buddy" to help them wade through thorny social/cultural issues. These social/cultural issues, of course, also are essential to master because "no" judgment also needs to be used in business dealings. What if a sales prospect had made the same familial dating request?  It's funny until you have a business deal on the line, right?  In addition to "no," come up with some culturally-appropriate excuses to use when extricating from touchy situations. In the U.S., for instance, it's OK (depending on how liberal your workmates are) to say you can't join co-workers for dinner because you've already promised to go clubbing with friends.  Your after-work time is your own, and, for the most part, professional colleagues respect prearranged plans for a night on the town. In another culture, would you have to lie and say you're visiting a sick aunt?

Of course mannerisms and synonyms also come into play. There's that famous problem about some cultures using the right to left head shake to mean "yes" and the nodding head gesture to mean "no," but worse than that, are cultures in which similar sounding words can mean the opposite of what you intend. Take care to point these out to young relocatees. It would be awful to find that you had signed yourself up for corporate vampire night when you thought you had gracefully bowed out of that one.

If you're to assume a managerial position overseas, it's equally important to be clear on "no."  How well does the worker understand, for instance, what it's OK and not OK to ask employees working under her to do?  In the U.S., it's generally alright to ask workers to stay an extra hour or two if you're on deadline for an important project, but what about in the relocated manager's new office?  Family life has gone by the wayside in America compared to more traditional countries, or at least that's what I've heard, so are the relocated manger's native subordinates going to think she's the local culture's interpretation of a demon for asking them to miss the dinner hour?  You also have to understand what others in the office will resent you for wanting to say "no" to, but not being able to because you're the boss.

Some of understanding what to agree to; what to decline; and what to refrain from asking others comes down to manners that your employees may never have mastered in any language. They just got lucky and happen to live in the U.S., where it seems people are more forgiving of boorish manners than they are in other countries. I don't know, maybe that's not true, but it seems that way.

Before relocating a worker, take the opportunity to help them brush up on their etiquette while you teach them the tongue they'll need to converse in. One thing I'm curious about (and just as troubled by as I am about the potential nightmare of not being able to say "no") is learning how to inoffensively ask in as many languages as possible if my business table-mates could please chew with their mouths closed.

What are your top tips for preparing workers for relocation from a language and culture perspective?  What do they have to know to make money and not embarrass themselves?