Category Archives: Organizations

Just Say Hello – and Goodbye

Six years ago I wrote a post about the importance of employees saying hello to each other, particularly of supervisors and managers saying hello to subordinates. And you know what? In both my coaching and investigation practices, the issue still comes up.

Recently, for example, it arose when I was coaching two co-workers, trying to help them resolve their many conflicts. One complained that the other didn’t talk to her for days and didn’t greet her in the morning. The other said: “Well, I come in a back door and don’t pass her desk.” Oy.

The issue also comes up with goodbyes – though the offense is somewhat different: “He just leaves and doesn’t tell anyone.” She never tells us where she is going.” “She sneaks out so we don’t know when she leaves.”

So what is this about? As I stated in my previous post, “All human beings need to feel acknowledged. When a supervisor, manager, or co-worker greets an employee, the message being communicated is that the employee has value and importance. When there is no greeting, the opposite message is communicated.”  I think the same principle applies to good-byes, though to a lesser extent. There, practical problems are also involved: you think someone is around but they’re not, or you think they’re cheating on their time in some way (even if they’re an exempt employee).

I also think it’s an issue of power – particularly positional power. In another post, I discussed research indicating that, “If you have positional power, “the sense-making of people who work for you will be determined less by the facts and more by their internal story. … Every action and utterance can be scrutinized for meaning those with power are suspect until proven trustworthy.” In the hello and goodbye context, the power differential increases the “offense” felt by subordinates. They feel that by ignoring them and not exhibiting basic courtesies, the boss is holding him or herself above the others.

The main way to solve this problem, of course, is to make it clear to employees, particularly leaders, how important these seemingly small touches are. But what about the manager who is not a “Hi, how are you?” kind of person in general – particularly in the morning? I’ve coached managers like this and the challenge is for them to figure out how to acknowledge others in a way that feels authentic and not phony. Maybe they can’t give a “big” hello, but anyone can say, “Mornin’” as they walk by their subordinates.

And if the subordinates are not normally in the manager’s path (“I come in the back door”)? Change the path. Or at least send an email, “Good Morning All!”

Any other thoughts on this topic? ~Amy Stephson

Who Really Owns It: A Stress Reduction Guide

Much has been said about the necessity of getting employees to “own” or “buy into” organizational goals if they are to successfully pursue those goals. Including in this blog.

What I’d like to address, however, is a different aspect of ownership in the workplace, namely, determining who exactly “owns” a task, a problem, or a project.

Many years ago, I did an investigation at a large tech company. One thing I noticed was that nearly every witness talked in terms of “ownership,” i.e., they explicitly allocated responsibility for tasks to themselves or other specific employees. In “project managing” cultures such as that one, the concept of ownership makes particular sense and is widely used.

Since then, I’ve come to see  that explicitly allocating “ownership” makes sense in many (perhaps all) workplaces, even those that do not see themselves as managing projects. Why? There are many benefits, including increasing accountability and improving outcomes. What I’d like to address, however, is how it can reduce stress.

Imagine these four situations:

  • A mid-level manager sees that there is going to be a severe staffing shortage in a key operational area during a critical time. She is losing sleep worrying about how to handle it.
  • Another manager is working 80 hours a week implementing a new computer software program and doing an excellent job of it. He has been given staff to work with but they are incompetent and impeding productivity rather than helping.
  • An assistant in a service business is frustrated with the professionals’ failure to send bills to clients in a timely manner. She brings it up frequently, but her concerns are met with indifference or irritation.
  • A supervisor is doing everything in his power to help an employee improve the employee’s work to avoid having to terminate the employee. He’s very frustrated because no improvement is occurring.

The common thread here: ownership is misplaced. In situation one, the manager has correctly identified a problem, but then incorrectly assumed sole ownership of it. It is an organizational issue and the manager needs to present it to her manager as a problem that “we” or “the organization” need to address.

In situation two, the manager is letting his management off the hook, again by taking sole responsibility for a system-wide project that upper management also needs to own. Unless the manager makes it clear that the status quo is not working, it’s one less problem for upper management to worry about.

The third situation is just the opposite: the assistant is taking ownership of a problem that simply is not hers to own. If the providers do not want to maximize their incomes, so be it – it’s their business. So long as the assistant is paid, their income is none of hers.

Finally, the fourth situation highlights what happens when a supervisor has taken improvement of an employee on himself, instead of placing it where it belongs: on the employee. The supervisor’s job is to coach the employee and provide guidance, but it is the employee’s job to do what’s needed to improve his or her job performance.

These scenarios are all based on real situations. In each one, once the person realized where ownership belonged or with whom it needed to be shared, their stress decreased markedly.

Placing ownership where it belongs is an important tool. Have you found that in your work? ~Amy Stephson




Everyone has heard the saying that when we “assume,” we make an “ass out of u and me.”  Yet, in our everyday lives, we have to make assumptions or we can’t function.  I have to assume you will stop at the red light as I go through the green light.  I have to assume that I can use my credit card at the store without the number being stolen.  I have to assume that my Facebook page won’t be hacked, or stop using Facebook.

The same is true in our work lives.  I assume that if I’m your employee, you will pay me according to schedule, and will pay me what we agreed to when I took the job.  I assume that if I do good work, you will not fire me for no reason.  I assume that you will provide me with enough tools to do my job.

But we also make other, less reasonable assumptions in our work lives – and most of the time we don’t even know we’re making them.  An assumption is a belief that is unexamined and unsupported by facts.  There are many benign assumptions – but there are also some pretty destructive ones.

In many years of work as an employee, manager and consultant/investigator, I’ve identified my top three most dangerous common workplace assumptions:

• Assumption: Management knows what the problem is.  They just refuse to fix it. Often, what is obvious to staff is not at all obvious to management.  For instance, it may be common knowledge among her co-workers that Henrietta ducks out early every Friday.  Because it’s common knowledge among employees, they assume it’s known to management.  Likely, that’s not the case unless someone goes to management and tells them.  Don’t assume management knows what’s going on even if you think it’s obvious.  If you see a problem that’s not being addressed by management, it may be because they don’t know.  Bring it to their attention and ask that they address it!

• Assumption: Employees understand the reasons for management action. How often have you been in a situation where management did something, made some change, without explanation?  Perhaps you’ve even been that manager.  If you’re in management when that happens, you’re assuming that because you know the back-story, everyone does.  You’ve been working on the change for months – so it’s obvious to you.  You forget that it’s all new to your employees .  Don’t assume – explain not only what’s being done, but why.

• Assumption: They’re out to get us.  The “they” can be anyone you see as the “other.”  If you’re in management, it’s easy to assume the employees are out to get you.   If you’re an employee, it’s just as easy to assume management wants to do you in.  Unions and management sometimes assume that of one another.  How does that happen?  It’s the result of poor communication and lack of trust.  As human beings, we need explanations.  When we don’t get them, we tend to  make them up – sometimes with little or no factual basis to back them up.

For example, Harold just started here, but has already been promoted.  I assume he’s sleeping with the director.  Maybe he is – or maybe he has exactly the background that’s needed for an important vacancy that just happened.  Or, for example, the manager of my division was just replaced, giving us the fourth new manager in three years and making it really hard for the division to function well.  I assume top management wants to make our division look back so they can close it down.  Maybe – or maybe things are changing so quickly that people are getting moved and promoted in an attempt to help the company grow.

And don’t forget this truism: never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.  They’re likely not out to get you, they may just not be very good at what they do!

What to do?  First of all, become aware of the assumptions you’re making, and examine them closely.  If you can be aware of your own assumptions, and attentive to the destructive potential of the wrong assumptions you make, you can go a very long way toward better communication, less miscommunication, and more understanding and harmony in your workplace.  And, seek information and ask questions, lots of questions – respectfully, but with determination.  Help your workplace be a better place with fewer destructive assumptions!

Have you ever found that assumptions you made at work were wrong?  How did you find out?  What happened?  Let us hear from you!  ~Daphne Schneider

It seemed like the right thing to do…

I recently finished Donna Tartt’s first novel, The  Secret History.  It’s a fascinating, rather dark story of students in a small, New England college who are part of an even smaller group studying classics with one professor.  Here’s the first sentence:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

The remainder of the book describes how this all happened: how a group of smart (hey, their private conversations are in classical Greek!), mostly rich, mostly well-travelled young people came to kill and think it was normal and necessary to do so.

As I was pondering this, I came across an article in the February 24, 2014 issue of Time Magazine.  It discusses the cheating practices that have come to light among Air Force personnel at some of our ICBM missile bases.  Staff there have to take monthly tests to ensure they stay on top of critical information, and dozens, if not hundreds of them have been found to be cheating on those tests.   As one former officer said, “I felt guilty about it, because my four years at the [Air Force] academy taught me that was wrong…But after a while, my friends and I joined with the herd in helping each other out.” Again, a group of presumably pretty bright, educated, committed and principled young people going terribly wrong.

This total reinterpretation of ethics and morals can also happen when people have nothing but the best motives.  For instance, an organization working to help homeless people with medical issues begins fudging on reports a bit to get more Medicaid money to them (they really need and deserve it!)  This can easily happen in the name of doing good, and even more easily happen if a group feels victimized, or is working with someone they feel is victimized.  Doesn’t the end justify the means?

So, what does all this have to do with our workplaces?  Unfortunately, everything.  Every workplace creates its own culture.  The more isolated the work group (office, unit, department, school, program…), the easier it is for staff to look only to each other to reinforce their ethical standard.  Once they start telling each other it’s ok to do something they may initially feel queasy about, they start to believe it’s ok.  Then, it’s only a matter of time when they no longer even question what they’re doing.

So what can you do to ensure that’s not happening in your workplace?  Here are some questions to ask:

  • Are there good checks and balances in place?
  • Are managers held accountable for knowing what is going on in their areas?
  • Do we listen to people who raise ethical questions about how something is being done, or do we shut them down as troublemakers?
  • Are we clear about our organization’s values, and do we regularly talk with employees about how those play out in our workplace?
  • Do we discuss real-life ethical issues in staff meetings and trainings, and work through how to deal with them?
  • Do we ensure transparency in all aspects of the work?

Going sideways from what we know is “right” is all too easy.  Take positive steps to ensure your workplace follows good ethical and professional practices.  What other questions might you ask, or what else might you do to address this complex issue?  Let us know!  ~Daphne Schneider

Having Employee Performance Problems? Maybe It’s the System!

I regularly check out the website  They have a wide variety of interesting videos and news articles that they seem to cull from all over.  Recently I watched this video, about a former female Marine who was sexually harassed and raped while in the Corps, and then, when she complained, she was retaliated against.  Check it out:


In this clip, Ariana Klay and her husband, Ben, clearly describe the systems problem that made possible the harassment, rape and retaliation she suffered.  Yes, individuals (including her fellow Marines and their commanding officer) broke laws and otherwise behaved in appalling ways.   Yet these two former Marines maintain that it was probably an unreasonable expectation to think that her commanding officer would impartially investigate or judge the accusations and complaints she made against her colleagues.  According to their comments,

  • The military system is set up to train commanders to lead troops in war (right – it’s the military).  It is not set up so that commanders can impartially mete out justice to their own troops.
  • The system rewards unit cohesiveness at all costs (which is likely destroyed when one member accuses another of harassment – or rape).
  • It expects commanders to act in a judicial capacity when they have little or no training to do so.
  • It rewards high unit performance at the cost of all else.
  • Finally, the military pays lip service to fighting harassment (creating anti-harassment policies, providing anti-harassment training, displaying anti-harassment posters, etc.) while maintaining a system that protects the harasser (or rapist) and vilifies victims.

So, what does all this have to do with our non-military workplaces?  Think about this the next time you see managers, supervisors (or, for that matter, employees) who fail to live up to your expectations.  Ask yourself:

Does our management and systems structure promote the best work from everyone, or do we make it impossible for people to do their best work?  For example,

  • Do we tell leads and supervisors (and even managers) they’re in charge without giving them the authority to do what needs to be done?
  • Do we tell employees to work collaboratively while rewarding individual performance?
  • As we reduce our workforces, do we ask already full-time employees to take on more and more without dropping or changing anything they were previously doing?

Do we ask people to do things for which they have no training?  For example,

  • Do we promote the best technical people, then ask lead and supervisory employees to do their new jobs without giving them any training in supervisory skills?
  • In reducing our workforce, have we asked people to take on tasks they don’t know how to do without training them in those tasks?

Are we clear about our expectations?  For example,

  • Do we say one thing (like putting up anti-harassment posters) while doing another (like joking with our employees or colleagues in ways that are funny at someone else’s expense?)
  • Is there a direct link between what we say we want and what we reward with pay or promotion?

So, before blaming individuals for failing to do their jobs properly, look at the systems you have in place.  W. Edwards Deming ( said it way back in the 1990s, and it’s just as true today:

Most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to proportions something like this:

* 94% belong to the system (the responsibility of management)
* 6% are attributable to special causes [aka individual employee performance issues].

Do you have some insights into systems issues?  We’d love to hear from you!  ~Daphne Schneider

Creating Ownership

Ownership is an interesting concept.  We have some understanding of what it means when we’re talking about stuff – we own the house (well, except the part the bank owns…), the car (ditto), the cat (really? does anyone ever really own a cat???), the shirt – ah, that we really do own.  We bought it, paid cash for it, wear it and wash it.  We went through a process…and now we own it.

But what does ownership mean when we’re talking about ideas or directions or outcomes, particularly for teams and organizations?  I’ve recently facilitated several teams in developing plans for the future.  Initially I met with the leaders who talked with me about what the issues were and about what they wanted to achieve with their teams.  From one perspective, the outcomes were almost forgone conclusions: when I asked these people what they wanted to accomplish, they were pretty specific.  And, as it turned out, they pretty much predicted the outcomes of my work with their teams.

Between these initial conversations and the end results, I worked with the teams and their leaders for many hours.  We talked about what was important to them individually, about what was important to their teams and organizatioins.  We talked about the present and the future, and about creating the future they were dreaming of for their organizations.  We took time to hear every member of the team, and to listen deeply to what each person brought to the table.

So why go to all the trouble to bring people together for hours or days just to get to the end you knew they would likely reach anyway?  One thing that decades of study has repeatedly shown: even though it might appear more efficient in the short run, in the long run you have to have time and individual involvement to build commitment.  So, it’s about talking and processing to build ownership.

Now, I’m someone who is quite capable of being bottom-line oriented.  Just get to the point and be done with it.  That said, I also know that much of the time that simply does not work.  You cannot order a sense of ownership and commitment to an outcome.  You can get compliance that way: that is, I’ll work toward your goal while you’re watching, but if you turn your back, you don’t know what you’ll get. You can only get ownership and commitment the long, slow way.  If you want and need that for a path-forward, you need to have participation in developing that path from those whose commitment you want.

I can just hear some of you saying – but isn’t that manipulative?   The answer is that it is no more manipulative to involve people in working toward a goal you have in mind than it is to learn a foreign language in order to communicate with someone who speaks that language.  If you want people to be part of what you’re building, you need to involve them in the plans and speak to them in a language you both understand.  Having said that, you also need to be prepared that they might not go along with everything you had in mind, and it might not look, in the end, exactly as you had imagined it would.

By taking the time to build ownership, you will have a relationship that has been strengthened, a bond that has been developed and a commitment to an outcome from those who were involved – which are things that you simply cannot have without that time and participation.

Have you had experience building a sense of ownership?  Tell us about it! ~Daphne Schneider

Some Basic Truths

A couple of recent situations I’ve encountered have prompted me to think once again about some basic workplace truths.  I’m talking about them here because I find that when folks forget them, the result is often a huge headache from hitting one’s head against a brick wall.  So, here they are:

Situation #1:  Susan and Jeff work together, and very much enjoy each other’s company.  They sometimes go out to lunch together, often carpool, and frequently sit in one another’s cubicles talking – both about their work, and about other things. Everyone is convinced they’re having an affair.   Truth #1: If sex is seen as possible, sex is seen as probable.  Corollary to Truth #1: Appearances count, and perception is viewed as reality.

Situation #2: Harriet is Mark’s lead worker.  She and Mark are quite friendly with each other, and both are friendly with the rest of the team as well.  On that team there’s a lot of sexual banter in which Harriet, Mark and others participate.  Sometimes it actually gets personal and physical: Harriet has made comments about Mark’s “package” as she reaches toward his crotch, and Mark has made comments about Harriet’s “girls”  as he cups his hand and reaches toward her chest.  Truth #2: Even if everyone is participating, the fact that Harriet is a lead worker makes the situation rife for a  sexual harassment claim against her that will  likely stick.

Situation #3:  Cindy had a really bad experience at her former job when she complained about harassment and about not being paid for overtime, and was then fired in retaliation.  In her current job she has some concerns too, based on comments her supervisor has made that remind her of what happened to her before.  She’s afraid of being fired again, so sends an anonymous letter to Human Resources complaining about the supervisor.   Nothing happens.  Truth #3: Human Resources (or management) can only investigate a situation if they have enough information to do that.  Going on a witch hunt based on vague and anonymous allegations tends to be a bad idea. 

Situation #4:  Cindy (from Situation 3) didn’t see any action based on her anonymous letter, so she actually went to Human Resources with her complaint, even though she feared retaliation.  When she was asked for details, all she could say was that she had a feeling that this situation would turn out the same way as her last work experience.  She was afraid of what her supervisor might do to harass her, and she was fearful of retaliation if she complained.  Truth #4: No action can be taken against your boss because you are afraid he/she is going to do something or are afraid of retaliation.  Action can only be taken if they have done something, or if they have already retaliated against you.

Situation #5:  Francie’s boss yells a lot.  He yells at her, and he yells at her co-workers (Alan, Sam and Leslie).  He has a bad temper, and loses it about once a week.  When that happens, he yells.  He asks why he has such stupid employees, and why they just can’t seem to do things right.  He calls them idots.  Truth #5: Being an obnoxious boss is not illegal.  Often, it does not violate company policy.  This kind of obnoxious boss has not created a “hostile work environment” according to law, even though you may feel you’re working in exactly such an environment.  That said, the employer who tolerates this kind of behavior likelyl will lose good employees when they go elsewhere. 

Keep these basic truths in mind as you navigate the workplace and you’ll likely have a less stressful time at work because you won’t be hitting your head against brick walls, trying to change things that won’t change.

Have you had experience with these truths?  Do you have others to add to the list?  Let us know!  ~Daphne Schneider

Office “Humor”

I’ve always noticed the “humorous” signs that office workers put up. The most noticeable thing about them is that they are invariably snarky.

Many are just plain negative:

  • “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”
  • “You want it WHEN?” [with guy with big open laughing mouth.]
  •  “Firings will continue until morale improves.”
  •  “Make someone happy today … Mind your own business.”
  • “I only have time to help one person per day, and unfortunately today isn’t your day. Tomorrow isn’t looking too good for you either.”
  • “My cow died. So I don’t need YOUR BULL!”
  • “We shoot every third salesman who walks into this place. The second just left.”

Then there are the negative messages have more of a workplace politics focus:

  • “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.”
  • “Do you want to talk to the man in charge or the woman who knows what’s going on?”
  • “CAUTION, the toes you step on today may be connected to the ass you’re kissing tomorrow.”
  • “Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.”

Finally, there are the relatively good-natured ones:

  • “Bad spellers of the world, untie!”
  • “When all else fails, read the directions.”
  • “A cluttered desk is a sign of genius.”
  • “CAUTION: Messy cubicle. Enter at your own risk.”
  • “I don’t do mornings.”
  • “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.”
  • “Give me coffee and no one gets hurt!”

So what is the significance of such signs? Do they show an employee with a bad attitude? An employee with a lame sense of humor? A passive aggressive employee? An employee who thinks she is a wit?

And what does it say about the manager who allows such signs? That he figures he’ll let employees blow off steam in a harmless way? That she supports free speech? That he thinks the signs are funny? That she too has a lame sense of humor?

I don’t really know the answers to these questions. However, I do think they are a bad idea. Why? Several reasons: First, some employees mean what the signs say and this can cast a pall on customers and co-workers. Yet, if everyone is allowed to have them, it’s hard to stop the one bad apple. Second, they set a bad tone in general. No one needs to blow off steam in this way and the signs can and do offend people. Finally, they make an office look unhappy and unmotivated. Which may be true: but it doesn’t need to be advertised!

To be fair, I also don’t like those motivational signs for offices – you know, the posters with fabulous nature shots and inspirational messages: “Communication: The art if making ideas meet.” Or, “Teamwork: Divides the task and doubles the result.” Or, “Success: There are many paths to the top of the mountain.” Or, in my view, the worst: “Innovation: Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” I find mass-produced inspiration to be patronizing and silly – though at least the signs don’t offend anyone or set a bad tone. And some people do actually find the signs inspiring … if it’s their choice to put them up.

What are your thoughts on office signs? Or am I the only one who thinks about such things?  ~Amy Stephson

The culture of behaving badly

Have you ever heard about people behaving badly and, when outsiders hear about it, they wonder, “How in the world could that have happened? Why didn’t somebody stop them?  Why didn’t somebody do something?”  In spite of having conducted more than 300 workplace investigations and having been in the workplace as an employee for many years before that, I have to admit that I’m still sometimes taken aback by such behavior.  That’s why I’ve thought a lot about this issue.

 Nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts had some of the same thoughts when he saw the footage of the four Marines urinating on Taliban bodies. And, he has an explanation: he says war is insanity, and so people behave in war (and think it’s normal) in ways they’d never behave otherwise.  I think he’s right – but I think there’s more to it than that.

 We know that every workplace has its own culture.  People who work in that culture for a long time – or a short very intense time –sometimes behave in ways there that they would never behave elsewhere.  They sometimes seem to forget the norms of the ‘outside world’ and adapt to and adopt the norms of their workplaces.  I expect this is really a survival mechanism, and I’ve seen it time after time:

  • The office where everyone shares very private aspects of their lives and the newcomer, who might ordinarily keep those to herself, joins in in order to become accepted – telling things she doesn’t even tell her best friends.
  • The crew where new hires are regularly bullied and mistreated by those who have been around a while until they become senior and bully the newcomers – even though they’re nice people who wouldn’t hurt a fly in other environments.
  • The work group where vendors regularly bring a fifth of Scotch to share with the group on a Friday afternoon before they all get in their cars to drive home – even though the same people always have a designated driver when they go out.
  • The Wall Street employee who wouldn’t dream of cheating at cards with friends but practices insider trading because that’s just how everyone does things at his firm.

 It’s very easy to lose sight of the forest when you find yourself sitting under a tree – and to forget that what looks normal from under that tree may be totally warped from a quarter mile away.  It’s important to maintain touchpoints outside the workplace with which you compare what’s going on inside, and to look critically at those behaviors that seem normal in that setting but would be unacceptable elsewhere. 

 Have you ever found yourself in a situation where the workplace norms were very different from your own values or acceptable behaviors outside?  How did you handle it?  Let us know!  ~Daphne Schneider





Why We Love to Dis the Boss?

I recently read an interesting article in the November issue of Coaching World entitled, “Leadership Dilemma: The American Leadership Paradox.”  For me it was a reminder that effective “followership,” which I discussed in two previous posts, is a difficult concept in the American workplace.

The author, Keith Lawrence Miller, states the issue succinctly: “Society demands a powerful altruistic leader…. However, America is a nation of individualists who strive to be the leader, and are ashamed to be categorized in the role of follower.… American culture frowns upon the follower and the omnipotent leader is exaggeratedly admired.”

He then goes on to discuss some of the ways he believes this plays out in our culture:

  • Americans want community and togetherness, but also want capitalism and individual freedom.
  • Americans value family, but love the rebel.
  • Americans scoff at and criticize leaders – believing they could do better – instead of following them. 
  • Americans tolerate highly imperfect leaders because the imperfections enable individuals to feel superior and better qualified.

Thought-provoking stuff.  Does it apply in the workplace?  Not as much as in the political arena, but it does explain to some degree the disrespect and distrust many employees have for their supervisors and managers – even for those who are good at their jobs.  It also explains, perhaps, why workplace change initiatives are so fraught with difficulty and resistance. 

Keith Miller’s solution?  Leadership coaching that is cognizant of these attitudes.  I think that’s a good starting point.  Another solution may be training that addresses and fosters respect for the role of followers. Also important is to remember that the attitudes of employees from other countries and cultures toward leadership may be different than those of US-born employees.

What other ways do you see American attitudes toward leadership and followership play out in the workplace?  Do you have any other ideas on how to address these attitudes?  ~Amy Stephson