Keeping People In the Loop

March 4, 2010

If you go into any organization and do a survey about what leaders are doing well and poorly, the vast majority of groups will put “communication” at the top of the list of things to improve. This is true even though most leaders are nearly consumed trying to keep people in the loop on a daily basis. Why is there such a disconnect between needs and performance?

There are numerous reasons for the gap. First, the magnitude of information that needs to be shared is growing exponentially. With the global markets and worldwide scope of most operations, the complexity is dozens of times more daunting than it was just a decade ago. The ubiquitous access to all kinds of information and misinformation on the internet means that leaders need to unscramble a plate of informational spaghetti on a daily basis. What used to be cells of gossip and rumors quickly becomes a rats nest of damage control when a horde of titillated bloggers or twitterers swings into action.

Corporate communications can no longer be a matter of having a quarterly Town Hall Meeting. Information needs to be disseminated on a continuous basis, and misinformation needs to be beaten down almost hourly. Is it any wonder key executives get bogged down and withdraw to let the “communications officer” handle the mess. Yet when a CEO unplugs from the communication process, this is how people get the idea he is hiding something or he just does not care about telling them the truth. That creates a significant trust problem.

Whew, is there an antidote to this malaise? I think there is. It is a simple remedy that has been known for centuries. It is called “walking the deck,” or if you are a politician, “pressing the flesh.” The trick is for top executives not only to practice the art of interfacing with people, they need to insist that all middle and lower managers do the same thing. This is particularly true when times are tough.

If there is a crisis or emergency, most managers and leaders like to retreat to the safety of their office and communicate electronically. Unfortunately, spewing out long explanations of current realities may seem like progress, but consider how many of the people are reading or understanding these tomes. My advice to leaders is to at least double their shop floor time when times are tough.

If top leaders insist on a culture of talking with workers directly often and insist that all managers in the chain do this routinely then the crushing load of communication can become more manageable. The side benefit is that the workers will not be besieged with a flood of electronic drivel to digest daily.

Trust and Fear

June 11, 2009

I have always thought that trust and fear were incompatible. Recently I have begun to wonder if trust and fear toward another person can exist at the same time.  One example I can think of is if you really trust your boss to do the best he can to keep you employed, but fear that the situation may be beyond his control.  Another one may be that you trust your doctor to do her best to help you, but fear that you have a life threatening disease. What other examples are there where trust and fear can exist at the same time?  Here is an article I wrote a while ago on how to prevent a loss of trust.

Ten Hallmarks of TRUST in an organization

June 11, 2009

The advantages of working in a high trust environment are evident to everyone from the CEO to the shop floor, from suppliers to customers, and even the competition. Building and maintaining trust within any organization pays off with many benefits. Unfortunately, very few organizations have been able to create an environment of high trust. The few that have enjoy an incredible sustainable advantage. To understand why, we can contrast high trust environments with lower trust areas along many dimensions.

 Solving Problems

In organizations of high trust, problems are dealt with easily and efficiently. In low trust organizations, problems become huge obstacles as leaders work to unscramble the mess to find out who said what or who caused the problem to spiral out of control. Often feelings are hurt or long term damage in relationships occurs. While problems exist in any environment, they take many times longer to resolve if there is low trust. That is wasted time.

 Focused Energy

People in organizations with high trust do not need to be defensive. They focus energy on accomplishing the Vision and Mission of the organization. Their energy is directed toward the customer and against the competition. In low trust organizations, people waste energy due to infighting and politics. Their focus is on internal squabbles and destructive turf battles. Bad blood between people creates a litany of issues that distract supervision from the pursuit of excellence. Instead, they play referee all day.

 Efficient Communication

When trust is high, the communication process is efficient as leaders freely share valuable insights about business conditions and strategy. In low trust organizations, rumors and gossip zap around the organization like laser beams in a hall of mirrors. Before long, leaders are blinded with problems coming from every direction. Trying to control the zapping information takes energy away from the mission and strategy.

High trust organizations rely on solid, believable communication, while the atmosphere in low trust groups is usually one of damage control and minimizing employee unrest. Since people’s reality is what they believe rather than what is objectively happening, the need for damage control in low trust groups is often a huge burden. 

Retaining Customers

Workers in high trust organizations have a passion for their work that is obvious to customers. When trust is lacking, workers often display apathy toward the company that is transparent to customers. This undermines top line growth as customers turn to more upbeat groups for their services. All it takes is the roll of eyes or some shoddy body language to send valuable customers looking for alternatives. 

A “Real” Environment

People who work in high trust environments describe the atmosphere as being “real.” They are not playing games with one another in a futile attempt to outdo or embarrass the other person. Rather, they are aligned under a common goal that permeates all activities.  When something is real, people know it and respond positively. When trust is high, people might not always like each other, but they have great respect for each other. That means, they work to support and reinforce the good deeds done by fellow workers rather than try to find sarcastic or belittling remarks to make about them. The reduction of infighting creates hours of extra time spent achieving business goals. 

Saving Time and Reducing Costs

High trust organizations get things done more quickly because there are fewer distractions. There is no need to double check everything because people generally do things right. In areas of low trust there is a constant need to spin things to be acceptable and then to explain what the spin means. This takes time, which drives costs up. 

Perfection not Required

A culture of high trust relieves leaders from the need to be perfect. Where trust is high, people will understand the intent of a communication even if the words were phrased poorly. In low trust groups, the leader must be perfect because people are poised to spring on every misstep to prove the leader is not trustworthy. Without trust, speaking to groups of people is like walking on egg shells. 

More Development and Growth

In low trust organizations, people stagnate because there is little emphasis placed on growth. All of the energy is spent jousting between individuals and groups. High trust groups emphasize development, so there is a constant focus on personal and organizational growth. 

Better Reinforcement

When trust is high, positive reinforcement works because it is sincere and well executed. In low trust organizations, reinforcement is often considered phony, manipulative, or duplicitous which lowers morale. Without trust, attempts to improve motivation through reinforcement programs often backfire. 

A Positive Atmosphere

The atmosphere in high trust organizations is refreshing and light. People enjoy coming to work because they have fun and enjoy their coworkers. They are also more then twice as productive as their counterparts in lower trust areas. In groups with low trust, the atmosphere is oppressive. People describe their work as a hopeless string of sapping activities foisted upon them by the clueless morons who run the place. 

These are just ten contrasts describing the difference between high trust and low trust organizations. There are many more distinctions, some of them very subtle. No list of contrasts could be complete. If you have an organization where trust is low, you are operating under such a huge disadvantage to your counterpart with high trust you cannot hope to survive. 

Most top leaders understand all of the above. The conundrum is, they sincerely want to build an environment of high trust, but they consistently do things that take them in the wrong direction. Many leaders end up hiring expensive consultants to help create a better environment within their organization.  This rarely works because the leader does not realize the problem cannot be fixed by an outsider. To fix the problem of low trust the leader needs to say, “The atmosphere around here stinks, and it must be my fault because I am the one in charge. How can I change my own behavior in order to turn the tide toward an environment of higher trust”? 

With that attitude, there is a real possibility an outside coach or consultant can help the organization. Unfortunately most leaders have a blind spot on their own contribution to low trust, so in those groups there is little hope of a lasting change.

Don’t Try to Motivate your Employees

June 11, 2009

As a leader, how many times a week do you say, “We’ve got to motivate our people?” When you do, you make a mistake that often leads to lower rather than higher motivation. Seeking to motivate employees is the most common thought pattern leaders use every day, so what’s wrong with it? 

Trying to motivate workers shows a lack of understanding about what motivation is and how it is achieved. Leaders who think this way want to eat the dessert before the entrée.  While the temptation for the tasty stuff may seem irresistible, it is not a wise strategy because after dessert, the main course is less appealing. Leaders do not make the necessary mind shift to do the things that actually do improve motivation. So, what is the dessert and what is the entrée?  The entrée is the culture of the organization that either enables or extinguishes motivation. The dessert is how satisfied people feel at any particular moment. 

Why do many leaders try to reverse the conventional order; try to motivate people by making them feel good?  

  1. Poor understanding of motivation – The notion that by adding perks to the workplace we somehow make people more motivated is flawed. Over 50 years ago, Frederick Herzberg taught us that increasing the so-called “hygiene factors” is a good way to sweeten things (reduce dissatisfaction in the workplace), but a poor way to increase motivation. Why? – because goodies like picnics, pizza parties, hat days, bonuses, new furniture, etc. often help people become happier at work, but they do little to impact the reasons they are motivated to do their best work.
  2. Taking the easy way out – Many leaders believe that by heaping nice things on top of people it will feel like a better culture. The only way to improve the culture is to build trust. By focusing on a better environment, managers enable people to motivate themselves.
  3. Using the wrong approach – It is difficult to motivate another person. You can scare a person into compliance, but that’s not motivation, it is fear.  You can bribe a person into feeling happy, but that’s not motivation it is temporary euphoria that is quickly replaced by a “what have you done for me lately” mentality.
  4. Focusing on perks – Individuals will gladly accept any kind of tasty dessert the boss is willing to dish up, but the reason they go the extra mile is a personal choice based on the level of motivational factors, not the size of the cheese cake. 

Putting the entrée before the dessert means working on the culture to build trust first. Improving the motivating factors, such as authority, reinforcement, growth, and responsibility creates the right environment. Motivation within people will happen. Then, when dessert is added, it is much sweeter. 

Why do I make this distinction? I believe motivation comes from within each of us. As a manager or leader, I do not believe you or anyone else can motivate other people. What you can do is create a process or culture whereby employees will decide to become motivated to perform at peak levels. An example is when you set a vision and goals then allow people to use their initiative to get the job done as they see fit. 

How can we tell when a leader has the wrong understanding about motivation? A clear signal is when the word “motivate” is used as a verb – for example, “Let’s see if we can motivate the team by offering a bonus.” If we seek to change other people’s attitude about work with perks, we are going to be disappointed frequently. Using the word “motivation” as a noun usually shows a better understanding – “Let’s increase the motivation in our workforce by giving the team the ability to choose their own methods to achieve goals.” 

An organization where all people are pursuing a common vision in a healthy environment has a sustainable competitive advantage due to high employee motivation. The way to create this is to build a culture of TRUST and affection within the organization. You accomplish this through consistency and by letting people know it is safe to voice their opinion without fear of reprisal. You work to inspire people with a vision of a better existence for them and by really hearing their input. Doing this helps employees become motivated because: 

  • They feel a part of a winning team and do not want to let the team down. Being a winner is fun.
  • They feel both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards when they are doing their best work and that is what drives their behaviors.
  • They appreciate their co-workers and seek ways to help them physically and emotionally.
  • They understand the goals of the organization and are personally committed to help as much as they can in the pursuit of the goals.
  • They truly enjoy the social interactions with peers. They feel that going to work is a little like going bowling, except they are distributing computers instead of rolling a ball at wooden pins.
  • They deeply respect their leaders and want them to be successful.
  • They feel like they are part owners of the company and want it to succeed. By doing so, they bring success to themselves and their friends at work.
  • They feel recognized for their many contributions and feel wonderful about that. If there is a picnic or a cash bonus, that is just the icing on the cake: not the full meal.  

For an organization, “culture” means how people interact, what they believe, and how they create. If you could peel off the roof of an organization, you would see the manifestations of the culture in the physical world.  The actual culture is more esoteric because it resides in the hearts and minds of the society. It is the impetus for observable behaviors. 

Achieving a state where all people are fully engaged is a large undertaking.  It requires tremendous focus and leadership to achieve.  It cannot be something you do on Tuesday afternoons or when you have special meetings. Describe it as a new way of life rather than a program. You should see evidence of this in every nook and cranny of the organization.



Do not skip directly to dessert by attempting to motivate people with special events or gifts. Instead, dine with your people on motivating factors and build the meal around a culture of trust. The end result is that many people will choose to be highly motivated, and the organization will prosper. Then, if you give some tangible perks for reinforcements, they will be like a wonderful dessert that is more meaningful and longer lasting.