Focus on Trust Level

March 28, 2015

VisionI claim to be able to accurately determine the level of trust in a group by just observing the interactions of people in the group for about 10-30 seconds. It is not hard at all. You just have to pay attention to what people are saying.

If you observe a team, and people are talking about the vision they are trying to accomplish or the new product they are launching, then you are likely observing a high trust group. That is because their focus is outward on what they are trying to accomplish.

Instead, if you observe people at work and they are talking about each other, usually in negative or defensive terms, chances are good that team is a low trust group. If people are myopic and focus their energy inward defensively rather than outward with a positive attitude, it shows a lack of interpersonal trust.

Let’s take the exact same condition going on within a manufacturing unit and evesdrop on a short break room conversation:

Low Trust Group – No wonder we are falling behind, Fred and Margaret are more interested in their love affair than in doing their part of the work. We will never get there if they don’t pull their load, but management is so clueless they don’t see the problem.

High Trust Group – I think we are going to make the aggressive target for customer service this month. This will make three months in a row we have met their needs. Even though Fred and Margaret get starry-eyed sometimes, they are making a good contribution to production.

You don’t need to be a PhD to accurately identify the level of trust in a group. Simply pay attention to the words being used on a daily basis. It is a dead giveaway that can be applied very quickly. You will find it to be remarkably accurate.

Try keeping track for a day by making hash marks on a 3X5 inch card. When you hear constructive comments about satisfying customers or pursuing the vision, put a mark on the right side of the card.

If you hear griping conversations about the other team members slacking off, or managers messing up, put the mark on the left side.

At the end of the day, simply count up the marks, and you will have a good approximation of the trust level in that area.

It is not just the words but also the body language that shows the attitudes of people toward their fellow workers. It is very easy to detect supportive and positive feelings and even easier to see hatred or lack of care.

People working together day to day project their level of interpersonal comfort and trust, but most people ignore the signal. Now that you know the secret, pay attention to what people are saying and you will have better insights.


Perks Help: Culture Helps More

March 21, 2015

Carrot vegetable group on white backgroundAs I interface with MBA students, I am astonished with the number of organizations that use perks, contests, quotas, and other methods in an attempt to improve productivity and raise employee morale.

I believe that all of these things can and do provide some temporary increase in morale and performance, and yet I think their use is often overdone and their effectiveness is way overrated.

Having a constant stream of gimmicks as a means to obtain higher engagement of the employees shows that the leaders do not understand the nature of motivation.

Over 60 years ago, Frederick Herzberg demonstrated that trying to pump up the workforce using what he called “Hygiene Factors” is like trying to drive a nail with a screwdriver. It may be possible to get the nail partly into the wood using the handle of the screwdriver, but the job would go much better if you used a hammer.

Herzberg’s experiments led to his “Two Factor Theory” about the nature of motivation. It states that to eliminate job dissatisfaction workers need a sufficient level of hygiene factors, but that alone will not create motivation. To create an environment where workers really want to engage in the work, you must add adequate motivating factors.

Perks and other mechanical means of focusing on productivity will cause people to pay more attention to the work, so some effect will be noted, but if you want to use the proper tool, try working on the culture instead.

A better culture would include greater autonomy, where people are not micromanaged and are allowed to do things their way. It would include specific feedback, so people have a sense of progress and mastery against the goals that they helped to set.

It would also include the realization that we are citizens in a world that needs our collective help.

Most of all, it would include an environment of trust where there is low fear and people are allowed to voice their ideas or gripes without the threat of dire consequences.

In his book “Drive,” Dan Pink presented the idea that if we treat people like people rather than smaller and better-smelling horses who respond to carrots and sticks, we are going to produce higher engagement. He suggests that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are three prime ways people get really engaged in the work.

Herzberg would agree with Pink and call all three of those conditions “Motivating Factors” rather than Hygiene Factors. After over half a century of knowing that using carrots (perks) or beating on people mentally (sticks) produce only minor and temporary results, along with a lot of cynicism and trying to beat the system, why do leaders fail to heed the advice to work on building a culture of high trust?

I think the reason is that the mechanical approach is far easier to visualize and orchestrate than actually getting down to creating a better culture. It is easier to find a better sales incentive plan than to figure out what behaviors leaders need to change in order to build real and lasting trust.

You can put out a new work quota in 15 minutes without batting an eye, but you are missing the steps required to reach the hearts of the people at work.

So, the games go on, year after year, in numerous organizations, and the results remain tepid at best. Still, leaders are allowed to remain in place to crack the whip or peel the carrots.

What is not known by higher up decision makers is how much amazing potential of the organization keeps falling off the table, year after year. Studies indicate that only about a third of the workforce in an average organization is engaged in the work. The remaining group is either not engaged or actively not engaged, meaning they are consciously working against what needs to be done.

I have written dozens of articles on how leaders can generate more trust in their organizations. It is all about getting leaders to change their behaviors.

One of the most powerful ways leaders build trust is by creating a culture of low fear where people know it is safe to voice their opinions and not have to worry about being punished.

To accomplish that, leaders need to encourage people to voice their concerns and then praise them for doing it. I call that skill “reinforcing candor.”

The productivity improvements in most organizations are available, but only when leaders learn to use the correct tools for the job. Focus on creating a culture of higher trust rather than trying to incent the workers to be more engaged and motivated.


Merging Cultures

March 14, 2015

Hand Mixer with Eggs in a Glass Bowl on a Reflective White Background.When there is a merger, acquisition or other major organizational change, the different cultures must be blended into a coherent new culture. Managers often assume this will happen naturally over time, so they do not focus on this aspect when planning the merger.

WRONG! Achieving a stable culture where people are at least supportive if not enthusiastically driving a singular mindset is the most significant challenge for most change efforts. Do not assume things will work out; instead, take a highly proactive approach to defining a new culture.

In every case, even when the action is described as a merger of equals, one group will feel they have been “taken over” by the other. Curiously, in many instances, both groups feel they have been taken over because employees in each former group will need to modify procedures to accomplish the union.

Usually, one of the parties is assumed to be in the driver’s seat, so it is the other party that needs to endure the bulk of changing systems. Lack of trust and genuine animosity lead to resistance when it comes to blending the two groups into one.

It is common to have the conflict occur as passive resistive behavior. People will have the appearance of agreeing, but subversively undermine the other group however possible. This kind of “we – they” thinking can go on for years if allowed. So what actions can management take to mitigate the schism and promote unity? Here are a dozen ideas that can help.

1. Start early – Do not let the inevitable seeds of doubt and suspicion grow in the dark. Work quickly after the merger is announced to have teambuilding activities.

Openly promote good team spirit and put some money into developing a mutually supportive culture. Good teamwork is not rocket science, but it does not occur naturally. There must be investments to accomplish unity.

2. Have zero tolerance for silo thinking – This is hard to accomplish because human beings will polarize if given the opportunity. Set the expectation that people will at least try at all times to get along.

Monitor the wording in notes and conversations carefully and call people out when they put down the other group. This monitoring needs to include body language. Often rolling eyes or other expressions give away underlying mistrust.

3. Blend the populations as much as possible – Transplant key individuals from Group A with counterparts from Group B. If this is done with care, it will not take long for the individual cultures to be hard to tell apart. Sometimes the transplanting process is unpopular, but it is an important part of the integration process.

4. Use the Strategic Process – It is important to have a common set of goals and a common vision. If the former groups have goals that are not perfectly aligned, then behaviors are going to support parochial thinking. When conflicts arise, check to see if the goals are really common or if there is just lip service on this point.

5. Reward good teamwork – Seek out examples of selfless behavior from one group toward the other and promote these as bellwether activities. Verbal and written reinforcement from the top will help a lot. You might consider some kind of  award for outstanding integration behavior.

6. Model integrated behavior at the top – Often we see animosity and lack of trust at the highest levels, so it is only natural for the lower echelon to be bickering. People have the ability to pick up on the tiny clues in wording and body language. The leaders need to walk the talk on mutual respect.

7. Co-locate groups where possible – Remote geography always tends to build polarization in any organization. If merged groups can be at least partially located under one roof, it will help to reduce suspicion by lack of contact. If cohabitation is cost prohibitive, it is helpful to have frequent joint meetings, especially at the start of the integration process.

8. Benchmark other organizations – Select one or two companies who have done a great job of blending cultures and send a fact finding team made up of representatives from each group to identify best practices. This team can be the nucleus of cooperation attitudes that can allow unity to spread through the entire population.

9. Make celebrations include both groups – Avoid letting one group celebrate milestones along the way while the other group is struggling. Make sure the celebrations are for progress toward the ultimate culture instead of sub-unit performance.

10. Align measures with joint behavior – Make sure the measures are not contributing to silo thinking. If the goals are aligned for joint performance, have the measures reinforce behaviors toward those goals. Often, well intentioned measures actually drive activity that is directly opposite to the intended result.

One way to test for this potential is to ask, “what if someone pushes this measure to the extreme – will that still produce the result we want”?

11. Weed out people who cannot adjust – A certain percentage of the population in either group are going to find it difficult to get over the grieving process. Identify these individuals and help them find roles in some other organization. It will help both the merger process and the individual.

On the flip side, identify the champions of integration early and reward them with more exposure and more span of control.

12. Create incentives for the desired behavior – People should be encouraged in every way to act and think in an integrated way. This can be encouraged by having the incentive plans pay out only if the joined entity performs seamlessly.

The road to a fully functioning integrated culture can be long and frustrating. By following the ideas given above, an organization can hasten the day when there are few vestiges of the old cultures, and people feel a sense of belonging to a single new order.


Two Views of Change

March 7, 2015

Surprised baby boy using a laptop computerAt the start of a new year, many people make resolutions of how they would like to change for the future. A couple months later, most of the resolutions have been set aside. How is change working in your professional and personal life?

When we were babies, change was always a welcome event that made us more comfortable. As we grew older, change became more of a threat that often made us feel more uncomfortable, at least for a while.

We are all aware that change is all around us, and it takes many forms. In this article I want to put two kinds of change under the microscope and discuss why both are important for our lives.

Incremental Change

You have heard the saying, “In every day in every way I am getting better and better.” That statement is describing incremental change because it bases our improvement on what we already know how to do. Moving from our present state of knowledge and making creative tweaks to the formula propels us forward.

There is comfort with incremental change, because the new technique is close to what we already know. There is risk in these steps, but the risk is small, and we can always revert to the prior method if we fail. That is why so many New Year’s Resolutions do not produce permanent change.

The power of incremental change relies on the relentless application to it. If we seek to improve our current process just a little bit every day, then before long we have made fantastic strides toward efficiency and productivity.

One downside of incremental change is that we can always make modifications that turn out to be in the wrong direction. Often we cannot tell until weeks down the road that the change we make today is really a tiny bit worse than what we were doing yesterday. It is often difficult to tell at the moment if the small changes we are making are in the right or the wrong direction.

Revolutionary Change

This kind of change happens when we keep the same objective but throw out the old process entirely and begin a whole new paradigm. The obvious downside with revolutionary change is that the risk of failure is high, but so is the payoff if it succeeds.

A good example of revolutionary change occurred in 1965 in the sport of high jumping. Throughout history, jumpers used a kind of “belly down” approach to getting maximum height over the bar. It was called “The Western Roll.” Jumpers would flatten out with stomach to the ground and kick out at just the right time to get over the bar.

Along came Dick Fosbury, who decided to go over the bar backward with his back to the ground. The technique was called the “Fosbury Flop,” and Dick won the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City using his technique. To this day, the Fosbury Flop is the most popular method for high jumping.

We often see examples of revolutionary change in common products. For example, in olden days, people had to tie thin straps around their clothes or fumble with buttons or zippers in winter to keep out the wind.

That was before George De Mestral patented Velcro in 1955. It seems like a simple invention 60 years later, but then it was revolutionary.

The challenge with revolutionary change is that it is so radical we often reject it as being absurd. Even when a proposed revolutionary change fails, there are often parts of it that can be used in a slightly different way.

It is this combination of revolutionary ideas in conjunction with incremental changes that has the most power for organizations.

Whether it be in the products they make or the processes they use, there should be both a constant drive for incremental change as well as the investment and alertness for revolutionary change to maximize forward progress.


Leaders: Wag More, Bark Less

February 28, 2015

dogI confess, this title was not made up by me. My wife saw a bumper sticker with this sentiment and shared it with me.

I think the basic wisdom in the phrase is great and wish there was a way to get some managers to understand the simple logic here. Why is it that some bosses feel compelled to bark when wagging is a much more expedient way to bring out the best in people?

The barking dog is simply doing its job. The dog only knows that to defend his territory, he needs to sound off at anything that might encroach.

The frequency of barking is an interesting aspect. Why does the dog bark at intervals less than about 10 seconds?

Is it because he has a short memory and can’t remember that he just barked? Is it because the potential invaders of his territory need to be reminded every few seconds that he is still around? Is it because he simply enjoys keeping the neighbors up all night?

Is he showing off his prowess or having some kind of dog-world conversation with the mutt down the street? I think all of these things could be factors in the frequency of barking, but I suspect the primary reason is a show of persistence.

The message we get from the barking dog is “I am here, I am formidable, I am not going anywhere, so keep your distance.”

In the workplace, if a manager sends a signal, “I am here, I am formidable, I am not going anywhere, so keep your distance,” the workforce is going to get the message and comply.

Unfortunately with just compliance, group performance and morale are going to be awful, but the decibel level will at least keep everyone awake.

When a dog wags its tail, that is a genuine sign of happiness and affection. You can observe the rate of wagging and determine the extent of the dog’s glee.

Sometimes the wag is slow, which indicates everything is okay, and life is good. When you come home at night and the dog is all excited to see you, most likely the wag is more of a blur, and it seems to come from way up in the spine area.

The wag indicates, “I love you, I am glad you are here, you are a good person to me, and will you take me for a walk?”

Dogs are incredibly loyal, even beyond human reason. For example, I am reminded of the picture of a Labrador Retriever lying next to the coffin of his master who was killed in Afghanistan. The dog refused to leave the area.

Even when a dog is not treated well, it does not become critical or judgmental. The wag is not withheld because the dog had a bad day. The dog looks for the good and appreciates it. The dog is ever hopeful, ever optimistic, ever grateful. The wag is still there unless the dog is seriously sick. It is amazing.

A manager who wags more and barks less gets more cooperation. Life is better for people working for this manager, and they simply perform better.

Showing appreciation through good reinforcement is the more enlightened way to manage, yet we still see many managers barking as their main communication with people. Look for the good in people, and appreciate it. Try to modify your bark to wag ratio and see if you get better results over time.


Wait Your Turn

February 21, 2015

Businessman pointing at his watchEver since we were children we have had to wait our turn. The world is filled with individuals who all have needs, and the services available to attend to those needs are pitifully inadequate to meet them all at once.

Hence, the need for a cue and a triage process. Hospitals deal with this problem every hour of every day. The decision process is complex, but the hospitals are used to the routine and do it by rote.

Other institutions handle the problem of priority with varying degrees of skill. For example, some nursing homes are quite good at assessing the needs of the individuals.

Unfortunately, many of them are so understaffed, the residents often feel abused when they have a personal need and have to wait long periods for assistance.

Attempts to gain higher priority by several different methods, like calling out every 15 seconds, usually backfire and put that person lower on the priority list than those who humbly wait.

For the person waiting, it seems so unfair and annoying. I learned that lesson when I was in High School.

One cold winter night, I had finished my homework and decided to take a hot bath before going to bed. My Dad was out of town on business, and my Mom was out at an art class.

No problem; I was 17 years old. I got in the hot tub and gleefully soaked for as long as I could stand. Then I got out of the tub to dry off.

I remember grabbing the towel, then immediately blacked out from the lack of oxygen. The next conscious moment, I was on the floor of the bathroom with blood all over the place.

I had fallen, hitting my chin on the tub resulting in a gaping cut that would require stitches for sure.

I called the place where Mom was taking her art class and told them to send her home for an “emergency.”

Can you imagine how cruel that was to do to my mother? She had no idea what the emergency was!

She came screaming home and transported me to the emergency room of the hospital several blocks from our home. I sat in the waiting room of the hospital for over an hour with a towel to sop up the blood.

They took me into the triage room and started to work on me. Then, it seemed that the attention went elsewhere. There was a bunch of activity in the room next to me and all of the staff was called over there.

I was very upset because I had to wait longer to get treatment. After another hour, they came back and stitched me up.

When I complained, they told me that a man was brought in with a heart attack, and he died. It turned out that the man was the father of one of my friends.

Ten minutes earlier I was feeling sorry for myself, and now I realized my problem was nothing compared to what was going on just a few feet down the hall.

That was a memorable moment for me.

Never assume you know the full extent of the load on service providers and be patient when other people are getting attention.


Open Door Caveats

February 14, 2015

Listening 3If you are like most professionals, your company has an “open door” policy. This is one of the most commonly employed HR strategies to ensure individuals are not trapped under an ogre of a supervisor with no way to communicate their frustration.

Unfortunately, the strategy is often dysfunctional, and it can actually do more harm than good. Let’s put the “open door” policy under the microscope and see what makes it dangerous, then suggest an antidote that can help.

The Open door policy sounds so inherently right, few employees question it until they are embroiled in a problem and have to try to get the intended benefits.

It reminds me of an insurance policy. You think you are protected until you have a claim, then you find out what the fine print was all about.

Likewise many managers hide behind the open door as a kind of cure-all for organizational low trust. Both symptoms mask an underlying malaise that must be rooted out and destroyed.

On the surface, the open door leads to greater transparency and fairness, but in the real world there are several reasons it does not work that way.

1. The “Open Door” policy can be a sham – If an employee wants to use the open door policy it is usually because of some kind of rift with his or her immediate supervisor. There is something bad going on according to the employee’s interpretation, and the supervisor is unwilling or incapable of dealing with the situation.

During these times, trust between the individual and level-one supervision is at an all time low. Since talking it out with level one will only bring additional grief, the employee uses the open door and tries to clear the air by talking to level-two.

The level-two manager is not fully familiar with the issue, so the only recourse is to listen politely to the employee and then have a chat with the level-one supervisor.

In the process, the level-one supervisor immediately becomes aware that he or she has been “blown in” to the boss. Regardless of how professional both leaders are, this series of discussions usually results in a further reduction of trust between the three levels and the individuals involved.

Since trust was compromised to begin with, the poor employee is now under an even more ominous cloud.

2. The “Open Door” leads to games – I recall a discussion with my boss. He wanted to use the open door policy correctly and not jeopardize the employee, who was working for me.

So my boss told me one of my employees had complained that I was not treating the person fairly (he was careful to keep the discussion gender neutral to make it harder for me to guess who might have the issue).

I had taken over a new area, and the trust in me had not yet been fully established. My boss would not tell me who the individual was, or the specific area involved. He would only tell me that there was someone out there that did not trust me to treat him or her fairly.

He would not share the specific area of concern nor give me enough data to have a clue for how to fix it. This discussion served to put me on notice, but it caused me to start second guessing every interface or action attempting to uncover the problem.

In the end, I never did figure out who the person was or what the issue was. For months I went around like Sherlock Holmes trying to figure out what incorrect signals this one individual had been getting.

Meanwhile, the rest of the population, who were not concerned with my fairness, thought I was acting a little weird.

3. “Open Door” has a bad reputation on the shop floor – In many organizations employees are fully aware that the open door policy is something that makes management feel good and looks good in the employee handbook, but it is a poor vehicle to use if there is an actual issue on the shop floor.

If the symptom leading to the need for an open door conversation is low trust, then how can escalating the issue to the next higher level be helpful?

There are also folk tails of the poor soul who got so upset with a situation that he actually did use the open door and lived to regret it every day thereafter until he finally quit the organization.

Far better to suffer the current injustice than call in the big guns and ensure more pain.

4. “Open Door” failures lead to Ombudsmen – When the open door gets a reputation for causing additional grief and not resolving problems, organizations often resort to a third party grievance resolution mechanism called an Ombudsman.

Again, from an HR or legal perspective this practice seems reasonable and fair. It really can resolve some issues, but it is also fraught with cloak and dagger nonsense that usually further undermines trust as the clueless Ombudsman seeks to understand what is really going on without upsetting people.

Meanwhile the employee is on tenterhooks hoping the desperate action to call in a third party will not backfire.

Once again, since the root cause of the problem can be traced to a lack of trust, the Ombudsman approach is at best a last resort effort to save utter collapse.

5. What if the level-two manager is a jerk too? – If an employee has a problem with the integrity of the level-one supervisor, then the level-two supervisor is often in question as well.

From a shop floor perspective, all management is painted with the same brush.

Actually, there are situations where there is a bad apple in the middle and employees really do trust the second level more than the first level.

More often, all management is suspect if there are weak links. After all, if the big boss tolerates a bully in the supervisory ranks, then that manager is not doing his or her job either.

Why would employees feel high trust for that person? They more likely picture the big boss as a well intended but clueless manager who has no idea how miserable things are two levels below.

These are five very real symptoms of problems with the open door policy.

I am not saying it is a bad thing to have or that it never works. What I am suggesting is that there is a better way.

What if we taught managers at all levels to reinforce candor? Employees would learn that is not a career threatening opportunity to bring an issue to the immediate boss.

In fact, when they bring up scary stuff or perceived inequities, they are rewarded in some way. This would be regardless of the level. It would mean that the need for escalation would be significantly reduced in the first place, and for those few situations where a higher level discussion would be useful, then the employee is still reinforced.

Imagine the poor Ombudsman with less work than the Maytag Repairman.

Imagine an entire workforce concentrating on the mission of and vision of the organization instead of constantly negotiating their way through minefields of bureaucratic protectionism.

Imagine running an organization based on trust instead of fear. It is possible if we simply teach leaders to reinforce candor.


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