Have you ever had the experience of working at a place and just feeling bad every day? Maybe your stomach was always in knots. Maybe you just couldn’t sleep at night. Or maybe your body physically hurt. You just hurt, every day. Simply put, you didn’t feel good. Maybe you wondered if you were going crazy. Could your office be responsible for your bad back or your foul mood?
You weren’t crazy then and you aren’t crazy now. For the last 20 years, there has been a growing body of research on this very question: “Are emotions contagious in the workplace?” The bottom line is “yes” they are. But the answer is more complicated than a simple “yes.” Some workplaces are more contagious than others. Some people are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others. And, of course, some individuals can affect our mood more than others (hint: who signs your check?). The good news is that there are things you can do to overcome and combat contagious emotions in your workplace – three things to be precise.
Curious? I hope so. I did a TEDx talk on this very phenomenon complete with a prescription at the end. Check it out and if you like it, pass it along.
At the end of the day, work should not have to suck. Together, we can make workplaces what they are supposed to be: a source of meaning, purpose, fulfillment and free from dysfunction!
Trust is a powerful word. It just feels good to say it. Go ahead… say it. Don’t be shy. Ignore the guy in the cubicle next to you playing temple run on his phone. Trust is part of a list of words that if blurted out at work, no one will blink an eye (Other “blurtable” workplace words include: strategic, leadership, customer, excellence, service, etc…). Unfortunately, like other really important corporate buzzwords “trust” is overused in daily speak and hence largely overlooked. Today, we aren’t going to look the other way. We’re gonna look “trust” dead in the eyes and see where we stand. Do others trust us? Do we trust others? You get the drift…
How does trust fit in with our theme this month? Simple. Trust is somewhere on a beach right now sipping a pina colada enjoying the smooth silky rays of the Caribbean sun. Where trust isn’t is at work. Most senior leadership today is having a very difficult time trusting others and that’s causing a unique set of problems and dysfunctions.
Ways Senior Management Doesn’t Trust Today
MICROMANAGING – Need I say more? I was talking with a SVP at a global technology company about her job and here’s what she told me, “I used to love my job. I’ve been doing this kinda work all of my career. But recently, it hasn’t been near as much fun or as fulfilling. The problem is the CEO. About twice a month I meet with him to go over my reports, analysis and recommendations on what we need to be doing. Instead of trusting me to do my job and using that time to really dig into options, scenarios and strategies, he literally pulls out his calculator and goes over all of my calculations. Talk about unmotivating.” Did I mention she was a SVP at the top of her field? Ridiculous…
WHO’S GOT THE “D” – A peculiar flavor of this “no trust” dysfunction has emerged over the last few years. I recently saw this with a room full of mid-level leaders at a large financial services organization. Here’s how it works. Senior management decides they want their team (VP’s, SVP’s, etc…) to operate with more ownership and initiative. After all, they are tired of feeling like everyone is looking to them for answers. Sounds good, right? The problem comes in when the question is posed back to senior leadership by their direct reports, “so, does that mean we also are empowered to make decisions? And what decisions can we make anyway?” Senior management often responds by saying they still want to make all of the decisions, they just want others to take more ownership and accountability. Frustrating to say the least.
Why Senior Management Doesn’t Trust
There are a couple of reasons why senior management doesn’t show much trust today. They’ll come as no surprise.
Reason #1 – They are afraid to take their hands off the steering wheel. They’ve been gripping the controls of the organization tightly to keep it from hurtling over the cliff. Now the time has come to loosen the group and get others involved. But they just can’t seem to do it.
Reason #2 – Trust = Vulnerability. Vulnerability = Weakness and Risk. Vulnerability is hard without a doubt, but you can’t have trust without it. While I hate the idea of doing trust falls and other “ropes course-like” silliness, the concept is right on. Trust is about relying on someone else to catch you, support you and deliver on the results that you are held accountable for.
So, take a moment to imagine that you are the CEO and you don’t trust anyone around you. A moment of silence and sympathy for those leaders who are suffering from a reluctance to trust others. Why be sympathetic, you ask? Because those leaders have to be tired. The sheer volume of work they must be doing (everyone’s job after all) and the loneliness they must feel is not enviable. A lack of trust is exhausting and isolating.
This particular dysfunction can be cured but it takes some intentionality and self-management.
If you are a direct report, consider the following:
Clarify what it would take for your boss to trust you. Ask him or her what trust “looks like” and how you could get there.
Share what it is costing you and them to operate without it. Let them know how frustrating it feels and unmotivating it is to know that you are not fully trusted.
If you are the senior leader, consider the following:
Think of one small decision that you can and should delegate to one of your directs. Start small. The key here is when you delegate it, really delegate it. Empower them to do it their way and make any necessary decisions. Hold them accountable for the results but leave the rest up to them.
Understand the difference between “quality checking” and “auditing.” Quality checking is the head chef that occasionally tastes the food to make sure it is up to standard. Perfectly fine for any leader. The auditor makes it his/her job to double check everything. Leaders can not afford to be auditors.
Avoid the “How” as much as you can and focus on the “what, when and why.” This is the perfect preventative measure to counter micromanagement.
Tell one person this week that you trust him or her. Simple in concept but I can’t tell you how many senior leaders I know that struggle with saying it. However, there are very few things that are music to one’s soul than to hear someone they respect say, “I trust you.”
One of the wonderful leaders I’ve gotten to work with over this past year is an absolute master of this. Whenever one of his direct reports comes to him with a problem, he quickly responds, “what do you think we should do?” After they give an answer, he says to them, “you are a seasoned and competent professional. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t. I trust you to do the right thing and get it done.”And off they go with his blessing. The performance of his team, their loyalty and overall results of their organization in their market are off the chart.
Put in place these simple prescriptions and I promise you a turnaround of wonderful proportions.
I was having lunch with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. After picking at his salad for nearly an hour, he dropped his fork, looked at me and said, “They promised.” Nothing more. After some probing, I came to learn that senior management at his firm had recruited him with the promise of a hefty raise after year one. When it came time to honor their promise, senior management suddenly had amnesia. “I don’t remember that we promised you THAT,” was the statement his boss made in response. Stuck, my friend looked across the table at me and said, “what should I do?” No pressure, Brandon.
Senior management breaking promises is nasty any time it happens. However, this particular dysfunction has risen up the charts over the past four or five years. I hear it from every walk of life from the fresh recruit to the long-time manager in the firm. And I hear it in any and every industry you could imagine ranging from non-profitst to banking. Senior leaders make lofty promises to keep star players and when the time comes to make due on their promises, they run the other way. No one in this economy seems immune.
Ways Senior Management Breaks Promises Today
THE LOST PROMOTION – Like the hunt for lost treasure, you’re given a map (typically at the conclusion of your annual performance review) with an X that marks the promotion spot. You work diligently throughout the year charting your course. When you finally arrive at the X after a year of hard work, you see someone else standing on what should be your spot. The promise of a promotion if you hold out for one more year is tantalizing to resist and frequently broken.Note: the more severe case of this particular dysfunction in the U.S. rests with our friends who are looking for green card sponsorship from the organization on their path to citizenship. They are often dragged for years with the promise that it will be “next year.” Cruel and unacceptable treatment to say the least.
THE DISAPPEARING RAISE – This one is particularly troublesome. An employee is promised a raise if they take on (or continue to take on) an excessive workload complete with challenging workplace fires. After one year, the firefighting employee comes out on the other side successful (although slightly singed) and senior management suddenly forgets their promise of more benjamins. As the discussion heats up, senior management commonly defaults to any of several arguments:
“I don’t know what you are talking about. We would never have promised something like that.”
“If we do that for you, we’ll have to do it for everyone.”
“If we did that, you would be making too much money (and/or more money than your boss, etc…).”
“Things have changed. We can no longer afford to do that.”
Why Senior Management Breaks Promises
“But Brandon, why is this happening? Didn’t senior management get the ‘ethics memo’ that the last economic cycle taught us?” I couldn’t agree more, but unfortunately the answer is to the question is quite simple. Senior management breaks promises more today than I have ever seen in my career simply because they can. What do I mean by that? Consider the following reasons:
Reason #1: Talent isn’t going anywhere – Senior management knows that there is no real competition for talent today. Sure, some jobs and some players are hot commodities, but broadly speaking, most of us can’t quit a job today and land a similar or better one tomorrow without some real work. It is a buyer’s market and we are all sellers. Senior management knows this and so their choice is to either take advantage of their people or do the right thing.
Reason #2: Do more with less – Senior management is operating under the mantra of “do more with less.” Whether it’s their personal leadership mantra or they have a Board dictating “leanness” and “efficiency,” they want to squeeze every last drop out of every last employee for as little as possible. That means no raises, promotions or hiring if they can avoid it.
Reason #3: Fear of adding headcount – Let me be clear. Cash is not the problem with the majority of for-profit organizations today. The issue is that most senior managers fear adding additional people and overall headcount. To them, more people equates to more on-going expenses and headaches related to selection, on-boarding, managing and ultimately downsizing if necessary. And don’t forget the messiness and confusion surrounding benefits packages today (insurance, pensions, etc…). As a result, new roles are not getting created easily so there is nowhere to move existing players regardless of their performance.
This particular dysfunction grows in dark, damp places. Your best strategy is to shine a bright light everywhere you can to keep it from rooting.
If you are an employee, consider the following:
If you are agreeing to any promotion or salary increases, PUT IT IN WRITING. Get the promise down on paper so it looks and feels like a contract. Assume that if you don’t spell it out what everyone is agreeing to, the other party will take advantage of the fuzziness and of you. Have your manager sign it and consider “cc’ing” HR and/or have them present to sign it as well. If it is spelled out clearly and signed by multiple players, you are preventing senior management amnesia.
If it’s too late and you have already had promises broken, your best strategy is to form a coalition of others who have suffered a similar fate and bring your collective complaints to the attention of senior management and HR.To pull this off, you will need to be prepared to quit if the commitments made to you and your colleagues are not fulfilled. Why do this as a group? One vocal voice is almost always written off as a troublemaker, but a group is usually taken seriously. Not to mention, a mass resignation is a fire that senior management does not want to have to address.
If you are a senior leader, consider the following:
As a leader, you are as good as your word. If you make a promise, you should do everything in your power to keep it. And if for some reason you cannot (there may be legitimate reasons), have the managerial courage to address the broken promise prior to the time of the agreed upon time of “payment.” Your integrity, honesty and concern for the people working for you will serve you well today and tomorrow.
The time of reckoning is coming. I can see the clouds on the horizon and I can smell the change in the air like the smell of an approaching thunderstorm. Companies will soon begin to open up the hiring floodgates as they have no other choice in order to achieve their grand plans. Couple that with Boomers beginning the transition into retirement and you’ve got a storm of sorts. Real leaders will be revealed over night as employees have the choice to stay or to go. Real leaders will lose no one. And with a stable of committed employees aboard, organizations led by true leaders will rise to the top quickly as their competition loses employees at a record pace. Crewless, ships with dysfunctional captains will crash into the rocks amidst the crashing waves of a new economy.
Which will you be? The choice is yours and starts with the simple promises you make today.
Is senior management at your organization guilty of not listening? Playing deaf in the senior management ranks is not an uncommon dysfunction but the price that leadership pays today is higher than ever. Let me give you an example. Not too long ago, in the days of overflowing corporate coffers and first class seats on the fast-growth train, it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to hear the complaint that “senior management doesn’t really listen.” While this particular dysfunction was probably fueled by an unhealthy level of narcissism, the sin was usually forgiven because life was good. After all, pay increases and promotions were usually just around the corner for everyone. Today, however, I rarely hear the comment, “work life is good.” Don’t get me wrong, people are thankful for having employment, but with increased workloads and flattened compensation, work life is stressful to say the least. As a result, the sin of senior management refusing to listen is not quickly forgiven today. As one mid-level manager put it, “If you are going to increase my workload and refuse to give me a raise or a promotion, then you better damn-well listen to me.”
Ways Senior Management Doesn’t Listen Today
What are the unique versions of this nasty dysfunction today? Consider the following:
“My ideas have ALWAYS worked before” – Why should I listen to anyone else? My ideas have always worked before. This is a dangerous trap that many senior leaders fall into. They assume (incorrectly) that because they’ve been successful in the past, they will be equally successful in the future simply by making similar (if not the exact same) decisions. They fail to consider that the context has likely changed (Ex: the state of the economy, changes in customer behaviors, technology, destabilization of their industry, etc…). Take the story of Bob Nardelli at The Home Depot as a perfect example. Bob came from GE as a heralded leader to take over the helm from founders Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank. Bob insisted on doing things the “GE way” nearly his entire tenure at Home Depot. He banked that efficiency and low price were what customers really wanted. The problem? At GE, the businesses he ran all were successful with that formula. But in the world of home improvement retail, service and convenience trump low cost in nearly every case. After several painful years, Bob was shown the door leaving a culture catastrophe in his wake.
“I know what customers REALLY want” – A seductive trap that is all too common. When management begins to assume that he or she is actually the customer, bad things begin to happen. They assume that their needs and wants are in fact what the real customers actually desire. As a result, the entire marketing function and, frankly the customers themselves, become irrelevant. We look at the recent story of J. C. Penney for a perfect example. Ronald B. Johnson’s stint as the CEO of J. C. Penney was a brief 17 months. In that time, he rolled out change after change based on what he wanted refusing to listen to marketing or do any customer research. The result? Customers left and soon followed Ron (for the full article, go here).
“I want uniformity, simplicity and standardization” – What senior management team hasn’t been preaching this over the last 4-5 years? The challenge with this mantra is that there are always necessary exceptions to grand plans of simplicity and standardization. The trap comes in refusing to listen to those necessary exceptions. If the leadership team labels those exceptions as “resistance to change” and “excuse-making” rather than listening for real risks and concerns, the team runs the risk of shooting the entire organization in the foot. Consider the story of a large global financial services corporation. Several years ago, the CEO announced that all divisions, without exception, were to implement a 10% headcount reduction. The problem? The mature divisions could pull off the headcount reduction without missing a beat. After all, their business was mature and wasn’t growing any time soon. But there was one division in the company that was an exception. This particular division was only a few years old and was on the cutting edge of the industry. It was riding the emerging wave of technology and as a result was doubling every year – in both revenues and people. A 10% reduction would kill its progress and allow competitors to catch up. The CEO refused to hear the argument. The rising rock star division had to make its cuts. As a result, it went from first in the industry to middle-of-the-pack overnight.
Why Don’t They Listen?
“But Brandon,” you say, “this has got to be rare. After all, what kind of person does this and still becomes successful enough to be part of a senior management team?” I hear ya. There are several reasons why senior leaders don’t listen. Some are well-intentioned, some are a result of how they were trained and some are simply the result of “bad eggs” in senior roles.
Reason #1: Attempting to simplify an ever-increasingly complex world – Sometimes leaders don’t listen because they are trying to make the current situation less complex. They see confusion and turmoil swirling around the organization. From emerging disruptive technologies, to smaller margins and pickier consumers, for most organizations the world is uncertain to say the least. As a result, senior management picks a path, covers their eyes and ears and starts moving.
Reason #2: The wrong training – Many leaders rise up through the ranks because of their ability to make quick decisions with limited data. Analytical skills that are highly coveted and rewarded in fields such as finance, engineering, accounting, law and medicine train leaders to make snap decisions and trust their judgment above all else. Thus, in times of stress they rely on only one person – the one in the mirror.
Reason #3: Fear – Sometimes a lack of listening is the result of fear. Fear that they’ll hear bad news. Fear that they’ll hear reasons why their strategies won’t work. Fear that paralysis will set in. Fear that the organization will fold under their watch. As a result, they close the door, turn off their phones and wax nostalgic about times when life was good and every decision they made was right.
Reason #4: Hubris – Sometimes leaders don’t listen because they have had an unfortunately lengthy track record of their decisions being the right ones. They begin believing that they have a golden touch and can do no wrong regardless of the situation or problem. Couple that with direct reports that tell him or her how amazing they are and you end up with a narcissistic deity complex – nasty to treat and even nastier to follow if you are one of their employees.
Overcoming senior management that is reluctant to listen is critical to everyone’s health, including that of the organization. If you are trying to get senior management to listen, remember one of the most fundamental principles of influencing: others are open to being influenced (in other words, willing to listen to you) when they feel heard first. Listen to what senior management talks about and cares about. Hook your conversations to those hot topics and you’ll find them suddenly receptive to what you have to say. In these situations, packaging is everything.
If you are a senior leaderand you want to avoid the traps above, here’s your prescription. Take daily.
Test all of your ideas and / or possible decisions by ask the following questions and truly listening for answers:
What assumptions am I basing my strategies on? Does the current situation support those assumptions or refute them? What evidence do I have?
What do customers say? Would my most valuable customers support this decision and / or the direction I want to take? What evidence do I have?
What risks / exceptions do I need to consider? Have I asked others what I should be considering?
What other stakeholder groups might be impacted and how can I get their honest input?
The above questions are hard. They require careful thought, data collection, analysis and synthesis – something that any senior leader worth his or her salt should be capable of executing. However, If you can’t or simply won’t ask the preceding questions, not only are you a poor listener, but you should never be in senior management. You are a senior “gambler.” You are a risk to the organization and I would recommend your immediate termination.
Then again, if you are reading this today, I’ve got a good feeling about you…
Ah yes, fuzziness and lack of clarity – a subtle yet deadly dysfunction that is all too common with senior management. Whether it’s working for an organization without a clear strategy to working for a senior leader that expects you to be a mind-reader, a lack of clarity from senior management is a killer. It kills morale, productivity, alignment and focus. It breeds anxiety, silos, rumors, frustration and distrust. Before we dive into the most common versions of this dysfunction, consider these few guiding principles on the importance of clarity at work:
Principle #1 – Clarifying expectations is the job of managers and leaders (who, what, when, where, why and how).
Principle #2 – If done well, clarifying expectations up front (from vision to individual performance) can eliminate over 50% of all workplace dysfunctions (and home dysfunctions for that matter).
Principle #3 – In absence of communication, people ALWAYS assume the worst.
The Most Common Forms of Sr. Management “Fuzziness” Today
The following are the most common forms of this senior management dysfunction. If you work for a senior manager that does any or all of the following, take note. A prescription will soon follow. And if you are the senior leader, pay particularly close attention to what each of these dysfunctions costs you and the organization.
NO CLEAR STRATEGY– Don’t be fooled. An unusually high percentage of organizations today don’t actually have a clearly articulated strategy. Instead of a clearly formulated strategy that provides clarity to all the members of the organization, what we more commonly see is either a series of corporate buzz words thrown together (Ex: “Our strategy is to be the industry leader in service, excellence and quality by 2020”) or a consistent delay by senior management in providing an overarching strategy (Ex: “We have been working diligently over the last 6 months to finalize our strategy. Trust me, it’s coming” – no it isn’t).
COST: The cost of this dysfunction is significant. Members of the organization assume two things, first there isn’t a strategy and second, senior management is largely incompetent. As a result, thousands of little competing strategies pop up as mid-level managers attempt to fill the void left by senior management.
CULTURE… WHAT CULTURE? – Setting the culture is the job of senior management. Period. What do I mean by culture? Simply put, culture is the clarification of what it means to work here and how we as members of the organization are expected to operate. Do we share our toys in the sandbox or is it every man or woman for themselves? Most senior management today is so focused on short-term metrics that they have stopped addressing these fundamentals with any kind of regularity.
COST: When this isn’t clearly communicated WEEKLY by senior management (contrary to popular belief, communicating this once at an off-site four years ago doesn’t work), competing sub-cultures form. In other words, you get the joy of working in silos that fight with each other and don’t trust other functions. In addition, without a clearly communicated culture poor performers can hide because the rules-of-the-road were never clearly communicated. Infighting and working alongside incompetent slackers that are getting paid the same as me – a party I would rather not be invited to, thank you very much.
LAS VEGAS MANAGEMENT– Great leaders communicate on day one what it is that they expect of the staff. From quality of work product to frequency of communication, they paint a clear picture of what success looks like. This allows them to manage performance more effectively and to empower their direct reports. Notice, I said “great” leaders. Today, most senior managers practice Las Vegas management. They let you gamble and guess what they expect and when you guess right, you are rewarded. When you guess wrong, you are punished.
COST:Las Vegas management creates frustration, anxiety and poor performance in any organization. It almost always results in public temper tantrums by senior management when direct reports continue to guess wrong, tarnishing senior management’s credibility as leaders. Frustrated direct reports soon opt to dust off their resumes.
“But Brandon,” you ask “this is so obvious. Why don’t senior leaders do these simple things. After all, it’s not rocket science.” I couldn’t agree more. There are two common reasons why senior management’s lack of clarity is so common today:
Fear – Deep down, a large majority of senior leaders are scared. Their industries are flipped upside down. They have no idea where to take the organization and what success should look like. As a result, they default to focusing on short-term metrics. Their pay-off for being vague is that no one can blame them for having the wrong strategy or setting the wrong expectations if they keep vague. After all, vague can be interpreted so many ways. On a side note, fear increases exponentially if senior leadership is “overly seasoned.” What do I mean by “overly seasoned?” Overly seasoned leaders are typically characterized by the leader that has been in his or her industry (and maybe that same company) his or her entire career and is just a few years away from retirement. Their industry is upside down and they are scared. They don’t want to screw anything up so they just keep quiet, hoping and praying for 2005 to return. They will be hoping and praying for a very long time.
Assumptions – You’ve heard the old saying about assuming right? When you assume something, you make an a** out of you and me. Sometimes senior leadership “fuzziness” is a product of too many assumptions. Senior managers expect direct reports to be mind-readers and simply “know what I mean.”
Here’s how you treat this dysfunction: become a clarity hawk. If you are not senior management, train your ear to listen for vagueness and ask clarifying questions. Consider great clarifying questions like:
“What would success for the project look like?”
“In a perfect world, where would you want see us in 5 years as an organization?”
“Where should decision-making rest? When is it o.k. for me to make a decision and when do you need to be making the decision?”
“Describe how you want us to be working together around here.”
If you are a senior leader, pay close attention to the categories listed above and remember, in absence of communication, people ALWAYS assume the worst. It is your job to fill that void. Communicate your expectations re: vision, culture and individual performance often and provide regular updates for each. Do that, I and I can promise you that you will have a high performing, nearly dysfunction-free office in no time.
Then again, drama is much more fun. Ignore everything I just said and keep things fuzzy. After all, unclear expectations make for much better reality T.V.
Sometimes dysfunction at work isn’t obvious. Sometimes we just feel the dysfunction. We know in our gut that things are not right but we can’t exactly put our finger on it. It’s not our boss, at least not most of the time. Our coworkers definitely aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t make them dysfunctional. It’s not them. And our job is fine. In fact, if this other “thing” could be removed, we might actually really love what we do. Sometimes dysfunction is the result of the actions and behaviors that are performed at the top. Sometimes senior management is dysfunctional.
This month, I’m going to take on this challenge – dysfunction within the ranks of senior management. I wish I could say that this dysfunction is less common than ever. Unfortunately, my experience is that the opposite is true. Today, senior management dysfunction is more common than ever.
Are you curious if you are suffering from this all-too-common affliction? Here are some good back-of-the-envelope signs that senior management at your organization is dysfunctional (check off as many that apply to you and if you are senior management, take note if believe any of these apply to you):
You feel a general level of anxiety at work and you can’t quite place your finger on “why?”
Long periods of time lapse before you see or hear anything from senior management.
When senior management does communicate, it is either in business jargon or it seems out of touch with what’s really going on with the business .
You don’t know what the strategy for the organization is and neither does anyone else that you ask.
Senior management doesn’t seem interested in listening to other’s opinions.
Senior management micromanages their direct reports and doesn’t seem to trust anyone in the organization to deliver.
What senior management says are the values of the organization are very different from how they behave, operate and reward.
Mood swings from senior management are legendary. Senior management may need medication.
How’d you do? Half the battle is acknowledging there is a problem and identifying what it is. If you are a senior leader and some of the above are all-too-familiar, hold tight. Prescriptions are on the way for curing what ails you. If you find yourself working under a dysfunctional senior manager(s), there’s hope for you too. Regardless, we are going to do our very best to cure this dysfunction in 3 weeks or less. Ambitious? Why not…
Got a unique senior management dysfunction that you want me to tackle this month?
Simply shoot it to me via e-mail, comment below, text me, tweet me, leave me a voice mail, send up smoke signals, yell loudly, etc… One way or the other, get it to me and I’ll throw it in the mix!