Category Archives: Workplace Culture

Work Group Culture: Be Intentional

Every organization has a culture. It may be hard to describe but everyone feels it. Culture is the organization’s character and personality. It is the sum of its values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes. It is affected by leadership roles and actions, organizational systems, management philosophies and practices, the physical environment of the workspace, and so on. It is pervasive.

Work groups also have a culture. These are created by the overall organizational culture, of course, but also by the group’s individual leader. While group leaders often won’t be able to totally control their group’s culture, they can have a significant influence.

Among the many decisions leaders make– intentionally or not – that affect culture are:

  • How will group members communicate with each other: by email, in person, a combination of both?
  • What kind of work hours will be required – and when?
  • How must employees manifest their “commitment” to the job – by doing good work, working long hours, something else?
  • Is input on management decisions discouraged or encouraged?
  • Can employees speak frankly to management about their concerns?
  • What kind of behaviors are allowed – frequent swearing, expressions of anger, gossip, cliquishness?
  • What is done to make everyone on the team feel included and appreciated?
  • Is there overt or subtle favoritism on the part of management?
  • Are employees accountable for their actions or is blaming others the norm?
  • Are different approaches and personalities respected?
  • Do people laugh enough — in a good way?

If you’re a leader, it is well worth your while to take some time to answer these questions and others that come to mind. If things are not going as well as you hope, the underlying culture of your group may be a part of the problem and once identified, you can work on it. Don’t hesitate to bring team members into the discussion — just involving them will be a start to improving the culture.

One caution. Sometimes, leaders and employees will refer favorably to their workgroup as a “family.” This is a nice idea, but has its definite perils. As an idealized concept, family brings to mind a friendly, casual, and supportive workplace. However, families also have a host of behaviors that are not helpful or appropriate in the workplace. Within their families, people can be emotional, behave badly, discuss very personal issues, retain grudges, and so on. Families have very different boundaries than those required in a workplace. More bluntly: a family is just not a very professional environment!

A different paradigm is needed: one that includes the positive aspects of “family,” without bringing in those aspects that are not appropriate in the workplace context.

What other questions should a leader ask when evaluating his or her work group’s culture?

~Amy Stephson

 

The “Perception Is Reality” Trap

We all know the phrase, “perception is reality.” And in a psychological sense it is true: we all experience the world through our own lens and that is our reality.

In the world of human resources management, however, I find that this phrase can muddy up the analysis necessary to effectively lead and manage employees. This occurs particularly in workplace investigation and conflict resolution contexts where it is all too easy to be sucked into an unreasonable employee’s perceptual wormhole.

Here’s how problems arise. When applying harassment policies, we are taught that it’s the impact of an employee’s actions on another that matter rather than the employee’s intent. This is often true: someone may think they’re “joking” when they make a sexist or racist remark, but regardless of their intent, such remarks can still be harassment based on their impact on the recipient.

This does not mean, however, that any and all perceptions, i.e., impacts, are created equal. Because the law also provides that the recipient’s reaction to an action or remark must be “reasonable,” i.e., based on some objective reality. Some examples:

  • A female employee sees posted in a male employee’s cubicle a birthday card with a scantily clad female on the front. Can she ask management to direct him to take down the card? Sure. Can she argue that the card in and of itself has created a hostile work environment for her? Not so much. However upset she may be about the card, her perceptions do not trump the fact that a reasonable woman would not find her workplace imbued with gender hostility based on a co-worker’s birthday card with a bikini-clad woman on the front. And she needs to be told that. [And yes, this was a real case.]
  • An employee contends that he feels “unsafe” after his supervisor critiques his job performance in a closed door meeting. Or he contends that the supervisor was “abusive” for telling him he could be terminated if his repeated tardiness continued. The employer will certainly want to check into these allegations to make sure the supervisor did not behave inappropriately. But once the employer is comfortable that the supervisor was just doing his or her job, the complaining employee must be told that in no uncertain terms.

It’s hard to tell a complaining employee “in no uncertain terms” that his or her perceptions are incorrect. Such messages must be delivered kindly and without any suggestion that the employee is lying or crazily hypersensitive.

In appropriate cases, moreover, management may want to take some steps to at least partially acknowledge the complaint (“We have told him to take the birthday card down” “Would you rather meet with your supervisor in a conference room next time?”) But it is critical at the same time not to enable or encourage employees to maintain their unreasonable perceptions.

Why not just give in? After all, that “unreasonable” employee may decide to bring a lawsuit against an employer for not taking the actions he or she demanded. So yes, it is important for an employer to take complaints seriously even in cases involving “perceptually challenged” employees.

At the same time, such employees often have a highly negative impact on both co-workers and managers, to the point that these others may leave. After the due diligence is completed, therefore, it is equally important to insist on a level of sanity and reason in the workplace.

Any additional thoughts on this issue? ~Amy Stephson

Assumptions!

 

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

Is Filing a Complaint the Best Answer?

I’ve conducted about 300 workplace investigations in my many years of doing this work. As might be expected, I’ve seen some patterns emerge. One of the most troubling ones I’ve found is when formal complaints of harassment or discrimination are made with virtually no facts to back up a case. Unfortunately, this can have the result of trivializing real and serious issues. Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about:

Example 1, Touchy-Feely Harley: several female employees make a sexual harassment complaint against Harley because he’s more ‘touchy-feely’ than they like. He occasionally puts his arm around their shoulders, sometimes stands pretty close when they’re talking, and has a habit of giving people a quick hug when he first sees them in the morning. The women get fed up and, rather than talking to him and telling him they don’t like to be touched and want their personal space respected, they file a sexual harassment complaint against him. This forces Human Resources to conduct (or have an outsider conduct) an investigation. In the end, the investigation shows that what happened did not come anywhere close to rising to the level of behavior that is “severe” or “pervasive” – the standard in the EEOC Guidelines. Harley is mortified – he says he had no idea he was offending anyone, and would have stopped if anyone had said anything to him – but no one did. All someone had to say was, “Harley, please don’t touch me or stand so close. It makes me uncomfortable.” He would have backed off.

Example 2, Sickly Matt: Matt has some legitimate health issues, and is sometimes absent for days because of them. He has made several disability discrimination complaints, each one being submitted after his supervisor asked him to change the way he worked or criticized his work in some way. When he makes a complaint, the supervisor rescinds the instruction or changes the critique while Human Resources investigates. And, each time he has made such a complaint, the investigation has found no discrimination. The cycle keeps repeating itself, because everyone (Matt, his supervisor, Human Resources) keep behaving the same way. A manager needs to talk with Matt and his supervisor. In this conversation they need to clarify Matt’s job, ensure he understands what he is expected to do and that his supervisor has the authority (and responsibility) to assign and direct his work, and help him correct things that are being done wrong. In that conversation Matt should share his point of view, and the supervisor should demonstrate understanding while still being clear about expectations. Though management certainly can’t interfere with Matt’s right to file a complaint, he should be encouraged to first try to work issues out with his supervisor – and be praised and rewarded when he does so. It may be necessary to have this conversation a number of times.

In the end, what’s the real problem here? Shouldn’t employees make harassment or discrimination complaints if they feel they’re being harassed or discriminated against?

The problem here is that more and more, rather than people talking with one another if one has an issue with another’s behavior, or taking another constructive problem-solving approach, they choose the complaint route – which of course immediately escalates any situation. Don’t get me wrong – some complaints of harassment or discrimination are absolutely legitimate. And, once a complaint of harassment or discrimination is made to a supervisor or manager, they have to treat it as a complaint and investigate it accordingly. But by too easily raising the issue to a compliant, often the real complaints are trivialized (like crying wolf) and a lot of damage (that could have been avoided) has been done to workplace relationships.

How can this be changed?
Obviously, you can’t tell employees they can’t file complaints. However, a fair percentage of those situations that I’ve investigated (way over 70%) could likely have been avoided if there had been strong and skilled management, employees with good, assertive communication skills and a workplace culture that rewards those who make serious attempts to work through difficult communication and interpersonal issues. You CAN create a workplace culture where people are taught how to discuss concerns with one another, and encouraged to do so. It takes thoughtful consideration of expectations, and it takes teaching managers, supervisors and employees assertive communication and problem-solving skills. It’s hard – but it’s worth it.

Have you encountered situations where complaints are filed instead of employees engaging in good problem-solving communication to work though the issue? Or have you been in workplaces where problem-solving of this kind was encouraged and rewarded? Either way, we’d like to hear what happened! ~Daphne Schneider

Involve Others in Making Decisions…or Not!

Congratulations! You’re a modern, progressive manager. You respect your employees, and listen to their ideas. You treat them fairly, compensate them well, believe in them and appreciate their contributions. It follows, then, that you should involve them when you make important decisions, right?

Well, sort of. Let me share a story. Years ago I was in graduate school, writing my thesis. I was absolutely convinced of the worth of participative decision-making. That is, involving those affected by decisions in making the decisions. Thus, if employees were to be affected by the yearly objectives that were being set, they needed to be involved in setting them. If citizens were to be affected by the placement of the new LightRail route, they needed to be involved in deciding where that route should go. You get the idea. I was convinced that, by involving those affected by a decision in making that decision, you got a better, fairer and more equitable decision.

So, off I went to do research. Here’s what I discovered: to coin a phrase first made famous by George Gershwin, it ain’t necessarily so. The research shows that the extent to which it’s a good idea to involve folks in a decision depends on many things. If you’re facing a significant decision that will affect those who work for you, use the following questions to decisde whether and how to involve them in making the decision.
1. Do you have to have some technical knowledge to understand the issue? For instance, deciding whether to have a “casual Friday” in an office probably does not require technical knowledge – it’s more about opinions and understanding your customers (if you see customers). On the other hand, deciding the best laptop to buy for each of your 100 employees requires at least some technical knowledge, though you also need to know how each employee will use the computer to make the best choice.
2.If technical knowledge is required, do those you’re considering involving have it, or is it something they can learn quickly? If not, it’s probably unwise to expect them to be worthwhile contributors to the process. Ensure that those you involve in decision-making, whether in a group or by requesting individual input, actually have the technical skills and knowledge in the subject to provide meaningful input. Public input processes are notorious examples of uninformed folks being asked their opinions on complex issues about which they have opinions by not real knowledge. I’ve been to way too many such meetings – and they tend to be really frustrating for both decision-makers and meeting attendees.
3.Do those you’re considering involving have a significant emotional interest in the outcome of the decision? For instance, if you are considering outsourcing some work, those whose jobs might be changed or even eliminated have a significant interest in the outcome of the decision. It is unlikely that they would be able to objectively assess the pros and cons, taking themselves out of the equation for the greater good of the company or organization. As one management book author put it, it is unreasonable to expect people to enthusiastically participate in making plans for their own demise.
4.Will those you’re considering involving be working with others in this process? If so, do they have the skills to participate in a collaborative decision-making process? If this is a large or complex decision, it is best to begin the process by developing the team that will be involved. This entails setting expectations, establishing ground rules, defining parameters for the decision, defining the group’s authority (advisory? decision-making? other?) and actually providing some training in the collaborative process.

So, although I’m still a great proponent of involving those affected by decisions in making those decisions, our very complex world sometimes makes that a poor idea. In principle it’s great – but make sure involvement is really meaningful and that those who are involved have the knowledge and skills to help you reach a better decision than you would have reached without their input.

Have you been involved in a collaborative decision-making process? How did it work? Was it successful? 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