Category Archives: Organizations

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

What Makes a Good Facilitator?

There is nothing like a good facilitator to help a team communicate about important issues and reach needed decisions. At the same time, there’s nothing like a bad facilitator to make people irritated, or worse. By facilitator, I mean someone who is brought in from outside the group to help employees discuss issues. Facilitators can perform a variety of functions including leading retreats, mediating conflict, running strategic planning meetings, and so on.

So what distinguishes a good from a bad facilitator?

  • A good facilitator has some background in the issues, personalities, and challenges facing the group. It’s not just technique: the facilitator has to understand at least some of the dynamics, past interactions, code words, and key events that underlie the group’s discussion.
  • A good facilitator sees the group and its problems as unique. Participants will know immediately if the facilitator sees them not as individuals but as role players in a typical group dynamic. Related to this: the facilitator cannot seem patronizing or condescending. The facilitator serves a specific role, but he or she is not thereby “above” the group.
  • A good facilitator creates a safe environment where participants feel able to speak honestly. He or she also ensures that everyone has an opportunity to participate.
  • A good facilitator has confidence and tells it like it is. This doesn’t mean he or she takes sides, but it’s important for the facilitator to jump in and clarify what’s happening and to tell the participants – diplomatically, but honestly – what he or she is hearing and seeing.
  • A good facilitator moves the meeting along. It’s not good to visibly rush the participants, but there are techniques that help ensure that no one person or issue will dominate the meeting and that the meeting will be productive.  For example, the facilitator can summarize the views that have been expressed as a means to transition to the next level of discussion,
  • A good facilitator knows how to squelch bad behavior in a way that doesn’t sidetrack the discussion. And if the behavior is such that the meeting does have to come to a stop, the facilitator knows how to deal with the problem and move back to the agenda.
  • Finally, a good facilitator likes people and sincerely wants to help them reach goals. No one wants to feel “processed.”

Any other ideas on what makes a facilitator good? ~Amy Stephson

Does Teambuilding Work? Part 2

In last week’s post, I outlined the approaches to teambuilding that don’t work. This week I will discuss those that do.

One note: I’m talking here about teambuilding for an already established team. Some of the available kumbaya or fun activities I’ve criticized may work better if the team is just forming. Though maybe not….

So what does work?

  • An assessment must precede the teambuilding. You can’t fix a team if you don’t know what’s needed or broken. Needs and problems are often multi-layered: they can involve personalities, management, organizational systems, training, the nature of the work, and so on. The assessment can be done by someone in-house, though it may be more effective to bring in someone from outside who can view things with a more objective eye. Assessment tools include interviews, surveys, 360-degree instruments, testing, etc. Often, interviews are enough.
  • It’s important to determine which issues are amenable to a teambuilding approach. Some will require personal attention, e.g., behavior and performance problems. These cannot be solved via a group effort.
  • The program needs to focus on the issues found in the assessment. Sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying. If the teambuilding doesn’t seek to address what’s really going on, it will be a waste of time and money. It may even make things worse.
  • Sufficient time, energy, and resources must be devoted to the teambuilding. This means there probably will need to be more than one meeting. It means that management must be visibly committed to the process.  It means that the facilitator must be skilled and have a good understanding of the issues set out in the assessment. (I’ll talk about what makes a good facilitator in another post.) It often works well to have the same person do the assessment and the teambuilding since that person will have a deeper understanding of the players and the issues.
  • The teambuilding should lead to agreement on future do’s and don’ts. It’s not enough for everyone to just speak frankly and get along during the sessions. It’s important that a concrete action plan of some sort be agreed upon.  Ideally the action plan will include some sort of “enforcement” mechanisms, i.e., tools that employees can use to keep their teammates (and management) on the right path.
  • Follow up. Follow up. Follow up. One session or even a series of sessions won’t work if there is no follow up. Such follow up may include check-ins by management, subsequent meetings, or a follow up assessment. Management needs to ensure that employees adhere to whatever “agreements” were made and mechanisms created at the teambuilding sessions.

Any other ideas on effective teambuilding? ~Amy Stephson

The Pitfalls of Promoting Technical Experts

Last week we had a discussion about the amount of technical knowledge a supervisor needs in order to be effective. Thanks for your great comments about that!  I want to take the conversation further.

I’ll acknowledge that a first-line supervisor needs at least enough technical knowledge to know how to judge the work that subordinates are doing – or to know whom to bring in to help do that. However, once you get to the next level in the organization (and the higher you go after that), the less critical that technical knowledge is – until it’s simply no longer possible for any individual to have technical knowledge about all the areas he or she supervises (do you think Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz knows or needs to know about the mugs sold in his stores, the perfect way to make a latte, or how the music selections on sale at Starbucks this month were chosen?)

That said, here’s what I often see in my work: an organization that has no way to reward outstanding technical expertise other than to promote the person to a supervisory – and then managerial position, so that’s what they do. Let’s call our technical expert Kim. Kim is promoted to supervisor because of technical expertise so believes the most important work in the new job is to continue to increase that technical expertise. Besides, Kim loves the technical stuff, loves being an expert in it, loves being recognized, rewarded and promoted for it, and is happy to be placed in a position where the expectation is for continued growth in that expertise! And supervising staff?  Well, that takes a distant second place.

Now, fast forward several years. Kim is now the manager who has continued to develop technical expertise, and is now sought out nation-wide to speak at conferences and assist with tough technical problems. The organization is very proud of the great reputation they have developed.

Unfortunately, Kim’s employees are not doing so well. Feeling alternately micro-managed and ignored, as well as mistreated, they’re looking to form a union. They’ve met with a lawyer to see if they have any grounds for a lawsuit or harassment complaint. They’re considering talking to the newspapers about their concerns if top management won’t help them.  And poor Kim has no clue as to what’s going on because as far as this manager is concerned, the work group gets nothing but accolades and should feel great!

What happened? I would suggest that what happened is only partly Kim’s fault – and largely a systems problem in the organization. Promoting a technical expert who has no supervisory or managerial skills and expecting that person to just get in there and do what’s needed at a higher level is nearly always doomed to failure. So, what’s an employer to do? Here are a couple of thoughts:

• Create ways of rewarding technical expertise without promoting people into supervisory or management positions. For example , create a technical, non-supervisory career ladder (e.g., Accountant I, II, III).

• If you do promote a technical expert to a supervisory or managerial position, provide extensive training and mentoring to ensure success in those new skills. That means ongoing support and training – not just a one-time class.

Have you encountered this issue in the promotion of great technical people? Have you seen organizations that did it right? Please share your experiences. ~Daphne Schneider

Why Aren’t More Managers Great?

There tends to be a fair amount of manager-bashing in the HR and employment law world. Setting aside whether this is fair, I think the more interesting question is why more managers aren’t great. Participants in an excellent LinkedIn forum came up with a number of reasons and I myself see others:

  •  They’re not given the training and guidance to do their jobs effectively. It’s not easy being a manager or other leader and it usually doesn’t come naturally. Yet most managers get little if any effective training or coaching.
  •  They don’t like being managers and aren’t good at it – but the only way to progress in the organization and earn more money is by becoming a manager. I did an investigation once where two employees in technical fields kept seeking and being denied supervisory positions. The two claimed this was because of their ethnicity, but it wasn’t; it was because they were very good at their technical jobs, but would be terrible supervisors. The real problem was that their workplace had no technical track that enabled them to advance while doing what they did best.
  • The organization has a hierarchical system that does not enable managers to make decisions and take action. Instead, they have to go through multiple approvals before doing anything that could create even a little dissatisfaction or controversy. One form of this is the organization that overly fears its employees and enables their poor behaviors and performance without realizing the harm this does to managers.
  • Top leadership does not cultivate the development of lower level managers. This may occur out of ignorance, insecurity, ego, or a perceived lack of time and resources.
  • The managers are focused on themselves, not others. A quote from the LinkedIn forum on this topic: There are two types of individuals: “One … sends this message when he/she meets you, ‘Here I am.’  A second type … sends this message when he/she meets you, ‘There you are.’”  As the commenter added, “I wonder which type we believe “most” great leaders are?” On this same point, another commenter wrote, “Good achievers are all about themselves, great leaders are all about others.”
  • They don’t have the time to be great and no one rewards their leadership efforts or even allows them to retreat from the daily grind to develop their leadership ability.
  • They don’t understand the difference between getting results and leading people to get results.

Good managers are key to the success of every organization. Perhaps the larger question is why more organizations don’t act on this basic notion and work to develop the skill set needed for their managers to succeed. Any ideas? ~Amy Stephson