Archive for November, 2009
I know some of you will roll your eyes at this, but I love workplace holiday parties. Or rather, I love holiday workplace parties in organizations where the party planners understand the opportunities these events offer to create organizational memory and take full advantage of them.
Back when I was an in-house HR director, I worked for a big hotel company in which the COO threw a party for the hotel general managers every year. It wasn’t a holiday party, actually; but it was a annual event that could have happened at any time during the year, so it could have been a holiday party. GM’s would fly in from all over the country for it, and the COO would spend months planning it. During the dinner banquet, GM’s were recognized for everything from being the top revenue producer to having the best guest service scores to making the biggest and funniest “blooper” mistake that year. The COO spent time getting to know each award recipient and would even find out their favorite song, so it could be played as the GM came up on stage. Videos were created, skits planned, gifts purchased (both gag gifts and real ones) and all sorts of multi-media content was created for the evening. One year, when the party was being held in Los Angeles, the COO even hired the A/V company that had done the Academy Awards to do our party. It was an unforgettable night that people would talk about for the rest of the year, full of celebration of the company’s people, achievements, history and culture.
The party was expensive, and some people criticized the COO for that. But I really believe it served its purpose: the event would motivate and inspire those GM’s throughout the year to do their best for the company. Everyone wanted to be up on the stage receiving an award that night, or at least see their hotel and staff on the big screen during some of the video presentations.
Now, 15 years later, it’s my inspiration for a much smaller event that I help plan every year, a holiday party for my mountain rescue team. I don’t have a $200,000 budget for this event, but I find you can still do a lot if you spend the time. We present awards, recognize the top ten “snafus” of the year, and show a slide show of photos from the year’s rescue missions, training events and public outreach projects. I spend hours sifting through the show to make sure everyone at the party sees a photo of themselves at least once during the evening. We buy little gag gifts for some of the attendees, to be presented with great fanfare. We show some of the media coverage we got during the year. The evening celebrates who we are and what we exist for, and I hope it inspires our members the way that the hotel company’s parties always inspired me.
This year as you plan your own organizations’s party, think about what impact it will have for your employees. Will they see their own faces up on a big screen? Will they be recognized in front of their peers for something they did well? Will they laugh with their colleagues about something funny that happened during the year? Will they talk about it later and relive great memories from the evening? Or will it be a dull, obligatory event in which people try to escape as early as they can, and HR spends all night “managing risk” and monitoring behavior?
Sometimes when teams are not functioning well, we search for deeper answers than we need to. Sometimes it’s just a matter of revisiting group norms and making sure that:
1. There are some
2. They are the right ones–they facilitate the mission and effective operation of the team
3. Everyone knows what they are and agrees on them
4. They are based on values
Perhaps this last one is the trickiest. Can you explain, in terms of a value, what each of your group norms is based on? Without this, norms may seem arbitrary or even contradictory to team members and they won’t stick on a long-term basis.
Here’s an example. On my mountain rescue team, we value safety as our top priority. We have many standards of behavior based on this value, including that everyone must wear helmets in rockfall areas, all rope systems must be doublechecked by a “safety officer”, and everyone must wear an avalanche beacon in the field during avalanche season. If we suddenly decided to create a norm that says everyone must wear an avalanche beacon in the field during the month of July, or everyone must wear helmets while conducting a search in an open field, these norms would not stick because they are no longer based on the value of safety. Perhaps we still have a clear reason for creating them—e.g. because doing these things consistently, all year round and regardless of terrain, will help us to never forget them—but because they no longer make sense to us in terms of our values, they are not likely to stick. In fact, they may undermine the team’s established norms in the process.
Let’s translate this to a typical workplace example. Perhaps one of our team’s values is that team members’ time is valuable. A norm based on this value is that meetings will start and end on time, and another is that there will be an agenda to keep everyone focused. If we suddenly create a standard that says all meetings must begin with a round robin update on each team member’s functional area, and this norm is not perceived to uphold the value of team members’ time, we will have trouble maintaining that norm. Not only that, but people may begin violating another norm by showing up late to the meetings, since they feel that their time is being wasted. We often shoot ourselves in the foot by creating norms that contradict our stated values.
When there is a team norm issue, whether it be lack of norms, lack of agreement about them, or a value contradiction, it sometimes pays to put everyone in a room to do a little work on the issue. Discuss the values of the team, and examine the standards of behavior attached to them. Identify inconsistencies and gaps. The time you spend here could make your team measurably more efficient and effective.
What other ways have you seen teams run afoul because of basic issues with team norms? And what have you done about it?
I was in a teambuilding session earlier this week, leading an exercise in “balancing inquiry and advocacy”. If you’re not familiar with the work of Peter Senge, this concept involves getting people to balance two crucial dialogue skills:
1. Asking questions and actively listening in order to understand the perspective of others on an issue (and to understand them from their own frame of reference rather than our own, as in Covey’s “seek first to understand”).
2. Clearing explaining your reasoning and intent in order to advocate for your own position on an issue.
For many of us, it’s the skill of inquiry that is often lacking and so that’s where I tend to focus during a workshop.
This group was interesting. I asked them where they thought we needed to focus, and they said, “We need to get better at advocacy. We need to be more persuasive when communicating up the chain.” Most of them said they thought they were pretty good at inquiry already.
So we tried a little exercise. I gave them a hot workplace issue to talk about, and they paired up. Half of them discussed the issue and the other half acted as observers to give feedback on the effectiveness of each person’s dialogue skills. Their goal was not to solve the issue, but to demonstrate the skills of both inquiry and advocacy.
When they were done, I couldn’t help but make the observation to them that I hadn’t heard anyone ask a single question. From my perspective there was no inquiry practiced at all. They protested that the exercise was too contrived, and that they had an issue to talk about which they couldn’t solve and therefore they were just venting. They also said that emotions ran high on the topic. These were valid points, yet I still felt we needed to work on the skill of inquiry. Situations in which emotions run high are exactly the sorts of situations where we need to practice inquiry and active listening, I pointed out to them.
What to do now? If I insisted that I knew better than they did what we should work on, I was surely not practicing what I was preaching. If I shifted our focus to what they had requested and gave them a model for persuasive presentation skills, we would miss the boat not only on what I felt would give them the best return on their investment of time, but also on what I had been hired by their leadership team to deliver.
In the end, I compromised and we managed to squeeze in a little of both topics. But it made me think about why we tend to be so bad at inquiry–often so bad that we don’t even recognize that we’re bad at it. Is it a cultural construct, in a culture where assertiveness and achievement are prized? Is it that our educational system somehow doesn’t teach us to value inquiry? Or does it simply have to do with human or organizational psychology? What do you think?
I was in a teambuilding session recently, asking the participants a question about their group norms, and one of the newer members of the team said, “I’m still trying to figure out the flavor of our culture.”
That’s a common feeling when you’re new to an organization. Here’s the more important question in my mind: Is your culture accessible to new employees, or is it a secret handshake that you only get if you play golf with the boss or get invited to happy hour by the “in” crowd? The culture of an organization describes “the way we do things around here,” the behaviors that will allow you to fit in and be accepted. Can a newcomer figure out what those behaviors are? Do we talk about them, pass them on, or have them written down anywhere? Or do they operate as rules for the elite, which you can only find out once you’ve been initiated?
This is important not only for practical reasons, but also for diversity reasons. Cultures which operate as secret handshakes often unintentionally screen out newcomers who are different. The management group that hangs out on the golf course or at the local watering hole is an all-male group, for example, and they’re pretty comfortable keeping it that way. The new woman on the executive team doesn’t get an invitation and doesn’t feel confident enough to invite herself. It seems clear to her that this is not a group where she’s welcome, so she goes home on Friday evenings and misses the many important decisions that end up being made over a Scotch. Over time, she is unable to pick up the many subtle clues as to what behaviors lead to promotion in this organization, nor does she find out the latest gossip in terms of who’s moving where, what opportunities are opening up, and who’s been called onto the carpet for doing what. She’s not part of the “in” crowd, so it’s harder for her to fit in and figure out what it takes to be successful in the organization. So she stagnates in her position, never really feeling comfortable with her teammates (nor they with her), and eventually she leaves because she feels there is a “glass ceiling” in the organization, although what that glass ceiling is composed of she really can’t put a finger on.
How do we avoid this? In two ways:
1. Make sure your culture is something tangible. Talk about it often, and write down the behavioral norms that make up that culture. Creating group norms is a valuable teambuilding exercise in and of itself, and the final product will be something you can give to new arrivals to help them fit in.
2. Go out of your way to include your colleagues in unofficial activities, especially those who are different from you and those who are new. If you always go to lunch with the same people, invite someone different to lunch tomorrow. Not only will you help them to feel more included on the team, but you might learn something from them or gain a new perspective yourself.
What other ways can we make our team and organizational cultures inclusive rather than exclusive?
I was a ski instructor for about six years, and one of the first things I learned to tell new skiers was, “Your skis want to go where your eyes are looking.” A first-time skier who is frozen in fear will look down at the snow right in front of him/her, and it affects both the skier’s balance and the ability to control the skis and make them turn in the desired direction.
When I was learning to mountain bike, one of my biggest challenges was to navigate a sharp switchback; I would always stare right at the crook of the turn, and that’s exactly where I would end up losing my balance and missing the turn, sometimes even falling off the bike. Someone finally taught me the magic words: your bike wants to go where your eyes are looking. Look past the turn to the straight-away beyond.
I read the popular book this week The Art of Racing in the Rain. It’s a beautiful story told by a dog named Enzo about his love for his owner, a race car driver. The mantra Enzo repeats throughout the book is–you guessed it–your car wants to go where your eyes are looking. Enzo is very in tune with the corollary of that mantra also. Don’t look where you don’t want to go. Don’t look, don’t think about it, don’t stick labels on it or categorize it if it’s not what you want. When the race car driver’s wife dies of brain cancer, Enzo blames the fact that she finally went to the doctor and got a diagnosis. Once the malady is named and categorized and her death is foretold by the doctor, it’s all over. Now she can’t fight anymore, she can only follow the path that has been laid out for her.
It’s easy to see how these ideas apply in the workplace. And it’s not just that you need to look where you want to go; you need to look where others want to go also. Think about the educational experiments that led to the discovery of the Pygmalion Effect. They were all about how students whose teachers had a picture of success for them succeeded, and students whose teachers had a picture of failure for them failed. Our minds, our goals, our efforts, our lives are all influenced by our own expectations and the expectations of others, and especially of others who are in positions of authority, influence or leadership. Expectations are a powerful tool that can be used or abused with equally important consequences.
- Expect the best of your subordinates and teammates, and paint a picture of their success when you talk to them.
- Give people the benefit of the doubt when they do something you don’t like. Ask yourself, why would a reasonable person do that? Now ask them the same question, and be open minded about their answer. Most people are doing what makes sense to them, given how they see their situation.
- Be optimistic about the future of the organization, and paint a picture of success for it. Now communicate that picture through your words and actions.
- Envision where your career will be in one year, five years, ten years. Make sure it’s where you want to go.
- Don’t dwell on your fears about what negative things may happen. Acknowledge the fears, and then paint another picture of the positive future you want and what actions it will take to get there. Now dwell on that instead.
Do you have any tips to add? How else do you make sure your eyes are looking where you want to go?
Sometimes people challenge me about being a diversity awareness trainer, especially on the specific topic of generational diversity. They say that talking about various types of diversity is really just generalizing and stereotyping, and that we should simply have classes that teach people to respect each other rather than delving into the topic of what makes people different.
I’ve always disagreed. But I read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book this week, Outliers, and it crystalized the argument for me.
Gladwell is fascinating, as always. His premise in this book is that the story of success in America–that a smart, talented person becomes successful despite humble beginnings through sheer hard work and perserverance–is a myth. He traces a number of patterns through both individual and group success stories, including the Beatles, Bill Gates, Canadian soccer champions, Asian mathematicians and New York Jewish lawyers, and in each case he shows how their environment, the year they were born and the opportunities they happen to have been given were critical factors in their success. Of course, they were all talented and hardworking too. But that alone would not have been enough, Gladwell says. Successful New York Jewish lawyers, for example, were often born in the 1930′s, a “demographic trough” in which the low birthrate gave them increased educational attention and job opportunities. They were born of hardworking Jewish immigrants in the garment industry who taught them the value of initiative, independence and perserverance and were able to send them to college. And perhaps most importantly, they were starting out in business at a time when the need for litigation attorneys was growing but high profile WASP firms wouldn’t touch litigation because it wasn’t “respectable.” They were handed an opportunity that both earlier and later generations missed.
Gladwell’s point is that we need to recognize the patterns in opportunities that are handed to some and denied to others, and seek deliberately to create more opportunities for our children. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book for me, however, is the chapter about how cultural legacies can operate as a constraint. The chapter traces the history of plane crashes and draws a parallel between pilots from high power distance cultures and pilot errors that lead to a crash. In a high power distance culture, the captain is given the utmost respect and authority and his first officer and flight engineer do not question him. Even if they have a safety concern, the most they will do is hint at it, which may or may not be interpreted correctly by a tired or stressed captain. Thus the opportunity for real communication and teamwork is limited and a fatal mistake made by a pilot may not be corrected by the rest of the crew.
Gladwell traces the history of Korean Air, which went from an airline fraught with frequent disasters and downgraded by the FAA, to one of the safest airlines in the world. How did they do it? By recognizing that the cultural influences in the cockpit were anti-success factors and by not being afraid to tackle and change them. The airline hired an American consultant (the US being one of the lowest power distance cultures) to work with them. The first thing the consultant did was to improve the English language skills of the pilots, because English does not have the same built-in language constructs around hierarchy that the Korean language does. They he taught them to speak up, to challenge authority in the cockpit, even to grab the joystick from the captain in situations where safety might be at stake.
So let’s take a step back here for a second. As diversity trainers, we teach people to understand and respect difference, whether it be cultural, generational or what have you. The idea that we would proclaim cultural traits as “bad” and try to change them is a touchy, sensitive subject. It takes a framework like airline safety to make us think we can even have a conversation about the subject. But I think the point here is that if we brush the idea of difference under the table, if we talk about simply respecting people who are different instead of learning about what makes them different, we miss critical opportunities for change and improvement. To respect difference, we must identify and understand it. We must find ways to leverage that diversity, such as when we seek the ideas of our Gen Y salespeople in order to understand how to tap into the Gen Y market, or we use our Hispanic engineers to help us design a product that appeals to the Hispanic consumer. And in some cases, we may even need to recognize that certain kinds of difference do not work in certain kinds of environments. It’s a controversial idea, and one that would be easy to abuse. But I liken it to using the DISC model or another similar personality assessment tool to teach people that flexibility is key, and that sometimes you must adapt your preferred style to meet the needs of a particular situation.
What are your thoughts? Is it useful to study types of difference such as generational influence and cultural legacy? How else does it serve us in the workplace?
I’ve seen a lot of blogs and articles and Linkedin discussions about gossip over the past six months. Most of the articles I’ve read focus on the destructive power of gossip and the idea that we can make it go away by creating and enforcing policies, and setting a different example as leaders.
I’m sure I’ve missed some very good articles that are clearer on this question, but the articles I’ve read don’t really address a definition of gossip. What is gossip anyway?
I began to think about it after reading Gervase Bushe’s Clear Leadership (for a summary of this great book, see my earlier blog on the subject). Bushe says that we are sense-making creatures and we make up stories to explain what we don’t know about our colleagues. We observe their actions, listen to what they have to say, watch their body language and interpret their tone of voice. Unless they describe their reasoning and intent to us, we are left to make assumptions about them. Once we have a theory about why they’re doing what they’re doing, we look for evidence to back that theory up. And we tend not to see evidence that doesn’t fit in with our theories. If we dislike the impact that another person is having on us, we fall prey to something called “fundamental attribution error”, in which we assume that they must be doing what they’re doing out of bad intent, rather than because of the way they perceive their situations (which is undoubtedly different from how we perceive the situation).
People look for others to sense-make with, and form cliques with those who tend to see things the same way, Bushe observes. Isn’t this really what gossip is all about? My colleague Jessica tells me that she is too busy to get to the project that I’ve asked her to help with. The next day, I see her putting a spreadsheet together for another colleague that has asked for her help. I’m angry because I think that she has prioritized that other colleague over me. I think back to Jessica’s behavior over the past week and remember that she came in one morning and snapped at me because I had left some boxes in front of the door. I don’t recall her snapping at anyone else that day. Come to think of it, she didn’t say hello this morning. I begin to watch Jessica carefully and notice everything she does. I form a theory that Jessica does not respect me and thinks I’m less deserving of her help than others in the office. I notice everything she does that fits with this theory (she doesn’t smile at my jokes) and disregard everything that doesn’t fit in (she doesn’t smile at anyone else’s jokes either). I decide to test out this theory, but instead of going to Jessica to test it, I go to another colleague who tends to see things the way I do, Leslie. I tell Leslie everything I’ve noticed. Leslie nods, and says “Yes, I’ve long thought that Jessica plays favorites around here. One time she put in a special office supply order for David but the next week she told me that she couldn’t do it for me because the supply company wouldn’t let her.” I reply, “Maybe she only likes to go out of her way for the men in our office. Maybe she doesn’t believe she should have to help the other women.” Leslie agrees, and adds a theory, “That might be because she got her last promotion from a man, and now that’s where she sees the opportunities.” And off we go, pursuing our theories, adding so-called “evidence”, and even dissecting Jessica’s personal life to find more clues to back up our new story.
Isn’t this what gossip really is? Our attempts to make sense of other people?
If that’s the case, then I’m convinced that we can’t make gossip go away by mandating it. We have to give people alternative tools to sense-make with. We have to teach them that this kind of sense-making is counterproductive, and that we can understand each other better and improve our relationships by:
- Sharing our experience with others, so that others don’t have to make up stories about us
- Asking questions and listening in order to understand the experience of others
- Giving each other the benefit of the doubt by assuming that someone is doing what they think best, given how they see their circumstances
What’s your definition of gossip? Does this fit in with your own theories? Do you think we can make gossip go away by teaching our work teams an alternative?
I spent this past week facilitating a series of meetings for a government group of scientists who were going through a reorganization. Most had been based in regional field offices and had reported up through a regional structure, but now they were to report up through the Washington office and provide support to the field on a national level. The challenging part was that they would still be based in their regional offices; the move would be virtual, not physical.
These were all very smart people, and they were moving through the changes issues well. But naturally there was angst around issues of continuity: continuity of relationships, projects, communication flows, etc. People were afraid they might have to pull out in the middle of a project, or tell previous teammates ”no” when they called for help. The issues came up over and over, despite the fact that senior leadership was there at the meeting, communicating reassuring messages to the contrary throughout the week.
A pivotal moment came on the second day in the breakout session I was facilitating. One of the participants had brought a bag of miniature Dove chocolate bars to pass around, and there were little messages inside the foil wrappers, sort of like fortune cookies. One of the participants opened a wrapper and then said, “Hey, you’ve all got to hear this. My fortune says, ’Think without boundaries’.”
At first our reaction to this rather stunning coincidence was to laugh at how appropriate it was. But as the meetings went on, we referenced the fortune more and more often and it began to resonant for all of us. One of the senior leaders came into the room that afternoon and we read it to him. We began to tell the other groups about it. Whenever someone got “stuck” discussing a communication issue, we’d repeat to that person like a mantra, “Think without boundaries”. At the end of the week, in a final debrief meeting, the woman who had first received the fortune presented it to the program director in front of the whole group, in a frame, and told him it was something to remember the meeting by.
I couldn’t have created a more perfect experience for the group if I’d tried. Any number of people at the meeting could have coined the phrase and put it up on a screen or in a handout and repeated it throughout the meeting, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact. It made me think; what could you do to deliberately engineer a group experience like that? Could you buy customized fortune cookies with pre-determined messages inside, or would the premeditation of the act ruin the effect?
What do you think?