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!
Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is an interesting concept. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, it goes something like this… We all have some level of baseline intelligence (IQ). And IQ is a wonderful thing. It is great for standardized tests and doing quantum physics in our head (if you like that sort of thing). But at some point along the way, it became clear to many researchers and others alike that something was missing in the IQ story. If IQ was so great, why didn’t folks with high IQs always and consistently ascend to the tops of societal ladders? In fact, too many high IQ folks seemed unable to link their ideas to other’s needs or build the essential relationships necessary to mobilize a collective group. They were intelligent but appeared isolated and awkward at times. What was missing? The notion of EQ was born.
With countless definitions, emotional intelligence (EQ) is essentially one’s ability to effectively manage through the complexities of social interactions in order to not only survive but also to be productive. Individuals with high EQ can read social cues well, have a degree of self awareness and have the ability to self-regulate so that they can achieve the optimal social outcome. In addition, research has shown that EQ is a better predictor of long-term career success than IQ. As one of my business school faculty colleagues likes to point out:
“If you continue to ascend in your career, at some point, you and all of your peers will have about the same levels of intelligence (IQ) – higher than average. EQ will be the differentiator as to who continues to ascend and who doesn’t.”
So, to sum up, our brilliant physicist with bad body odor and is a poor tipper in restaurants could use a little more EQ if he or she wants to really change the world. Got it.
But I always felt like something was missing in the standard definitions of EQ. Countless coaching clients of mine have had not only high IQ’s, but one could argue, they met the criteria of high EQ based on traditional definitions. Put in a customer-facing situation, they were charming, asked the right questions and ultimately, met their customer’s needs strengthen both the relationship as well as getting results. EQ alive and well. But there was a problem. When these same individuals were away from their customers and inside the four walls of their organizations, they weren’t so pleasant. They might throw a temper tantrum during a meeting, roll their eyes at their boss or walk past the receptionist without even acknowledging his or her presence. What was going on?
My Dog Ellie
Enter my dog, Ellie into our EQ story. After years of pressuring their dad to get a dog, my kids finally won and we rescued this little brown puppy from the local Humane Society. Nearly three years later, Ellie is an 80lb family favorite. Out of curiosity, we did a mail away DNA test on Ellie. The report came back that Ellie is pure boxer on one side of her family tree and on the other side is, well, a dog party. An Australian cattle dog, a Rottweiler, a Chow Chow and an unknown party crasher were apparently invited to this DNA mixer. Part guard dog and part herder, Ellie is wired to perform a particular job: know where her family is and keep the pack safely together at all times.
To add to the story, we recently moved into a new house. The house and the yard is bigger. This has made Ellie’s job harder. Every day since the move she will patrol the house, looking for each of us. One by one, she comes over to us, leans on us and nudges us with her nose to check that we are o.k. Once we tell her we are good, she moves onto the next pack member. And if we make eye contact during the exchange, she’ll lock eyes and wait for us to tell her what we want her to do. Unlike other dogs I’ve had in the past, Ellie is not about her needs first. Rather, she is about making sure we are o.k. and we don’t need her to do something for us. When she is sure we are good, then she’ll play, but not a moment before.
The Missing EQ Ingredient
Why do I tell you this? Because I believe Ellie possesses the missing ingredient to how we think about EQ. Humor me for a moment. Imagine a dot on a piece of paper and nothing else, just one lonely dot in the center of a blank piece of paper. That dot represents a person with low EQ. All that exists in that person’s mind is his or herself. The universe revolves around him or her. They wake up every day thinking about what they can do to make themselves happy. They are the universe. Now, draw a circle around the dot. That represents someone with moderate EQ. They see and care about the people in their immediate sphere of influence. This could be just a handful of people, but there are people inside that circle nonetheless. Maybe their list simply consists of their significant other, their best friend from college and their children and no one else (sorry mom and dad) or perhaps it is more extensive. Regardless, there is a group of people that are “in” and everyone else is not. Everyone else is of little consequence. Now draw another circle around the first circle. Make it big and wide. That revised diagram represents a person with high EQ. They not only consider their immediate sphere of influence (the people closest to him or her in the first circle), but they also consider all the people that they may have an impact on during the course of a given day, week month or even a year. From the perspective of someone with high EQ, everyone inside both of their circles is a “customer.” How do we know these people? These people say hello to the receptionist. They hold doors open for the person coming behind them with heavy boxes. They think to let others know where they are going to be when they aren’t in the office (or at home). They consider other’s emotions, are self-aware and self-regulate in an exponential and systemic way. We often call these people “considerate, thoughtful, team players, supportive, easy to work with, humble, etc…” The fact is, they possess and utilize high levels of EQ with everyone around them. They see and hear the people around them. Individuals with high EQ have a high degree of emotional peripheral vision. My dog Ellie has emotional peripheral vision. But, admittedly, her EQ circle is small. It consists of her immediate pack, the five members of my family. That’s about all she can handle.
This post is purely an ode to many of the creative and on-point scary coworker ideas I’ve received this month. Well done readers, well done. I’m sufficiently frightened. I think this Halloween, I’m working out of my home office with all of the lights on. ‘Course it doesn’t take much to freak me out. This is a guy who used to get uncomfortable simply by hearing the theme song to the American TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.” I didn’t even have to watch the show. The theme song was plenty. Pathetic.
Your Scary Coworkers
Without further adieu, this is your list of workplace monsters and scary coworkers (in no particular order):
The Office Troll – Grumpy and grotesque, this keeper of the “road” makes you pay a toll before you are permitted to pass. As one reader noted, they “wait to take your ideas after you’ve paid your toll to cross through their department.” Not only do you have to pay the toll, but you are fleeced as you pass. Nastiness. Welcome to the joys of office politics.
The Princess – I gotta be honest. This one took me by surprise. After all, what’s scary about a princess? But the more I thought about it, I realized it makes total sense. There is a fine line between princess and diva. The Diva is not pretty. They throw temper tantrums at a moment’s notice. They storm out of meetings in dramatic fashion. They are delicate, unstable and narcissistic. Woo… The only way to survive an office princess / diva is to make them the center of your workplace universe. Princess usually tend to reside in “small business” kingdoms, but I’ve seen them in non-profits, universities, retail and hospitality. Oh, and don’t be confused. Princesses can be men just as easily as they can be women.
The Faceless Coworker – I received this description from a reader and thought it was spot-on. So much so, I’m gonna let it stand on its own. No need to mess it up with my commentary. “The metaphorically Blind, Deaf, Speechless (and likely touchless and smell-less) coworker – without eyes, ears, nose, tongue or fingers. Why? — A divorce lawyer learns quickly that the opposite of love is not hate – It’s indifference. (Love and hate are close – going back and forth and erupting in emotion.) This monster ‘hates’ you by ignoring you – doesn’t see or hear or ask anything about you. [It] is simply indifferent to you and ignores you – the workplace equivalent of the high school football quarterback or prom queen who doesn’t see anything but themselves in the mirror.” I’ve seen this coworker just about everywhere. Scary.
Again, well done, folks, well done. Ya make my job easy.
Next Month’s Dysfunction:Death by Meetings. You won’t want to miss this nasty pervasive dysfunction, unless of course you don’t ever go to meetings. If that’s you and you truly never attend any meetings whatsoever, you likely live in a cave. In which case I recommend you take a shower, shave, invest in some new clothes and try socializing once and a while. It will do you some good.
I love the image of Frankenstein: a big, slow moving uncommunicative monster that lumbers along in the world. More often than not, he’s gentle and non-threatening, stopping to pet the occasional kitten. The big theme with Frankenstein is “misunderstood.” You can’t really understand him and as a result he is easy to misinterpret. When misunderstanding does occur, Frank loses his mind. He flails about, yells unintelligibly and breaks stuff. Do you work with a Frank? My guess is that you do. Perhaps one of the most common dysfunctions at work is the overall inability to clearly articulate to others what one expects. It’s messy when a coworker fails to communicate, even messier when a customer is guilty of poor communication and downright horrific when the boss is the culprit. So what can you do?
How to Work with Frankenstein
If you work with a workplace Frankenstein (aka “Frank”), you have a few options:
Be gentle – Franks are spooked easily. Firing off question after question is a great way to elevate their blood pressure. Slow and gentle is the key. Ask simple basic questions. Questions like: “what would you like to see happen?”, “What would please you most?”, etc… Pause between each question and allow time for a response.
Get comfortable with silence – Franks need time to process questions. What does that mean for you? You need to get comfortable sitting in silence for long periods of time. Don’t fill the space with words or chatter. Don’t try to restate your question. Don’t do anything. Just sit. Franks will come around when they are ready.
Give him stuff to react to – Franks do not do well if you ask them to clarify what they mean. Franks also don’t do well if you ask them to tell you what they want or want of you. They don’t author. They don’t articulate. They react. If you want to work with a Frank effectively, you have to be prepared to give them things to react to. Come in with options and present them. “Frank, do you like A or B better?”, “Frank, do you mean X or Y?”, “Frank, who does things the way you prefer? Drac or Wolfie?”
Don’t surprise him with bad news – Franks are very wary of villagers with fire and pitchforks. If bad stuff cometh, give him as much notice as possible. Don’t wait until the problem has reached Frank’s doorstep. Then it’s too late. The the arms will start flailing and stuff gets broken.
Workplace Frankenstein’s aren’t all that bad. With a little patience and effort, they are easily managed. Just don’t expect too much from them. For better or worse, working with a Frank means you are in the driver’s seat. They won’t be able to tell you much. So, if you are looking for compliments, clarity and collaboration, you need to look somewhere else. I heard Dracula has some openings, but as I’ve covered, emotional vampires have their hang-ups too.
Sometimes the problem with coworkers isn’t what you see, it’s what you don’t see that becomes the issue. When you want them to be there, they aren’t. When you try to find them, you can’t. To make matters worse, in some cases these “ghost” coworkers make such a lasting impression when the do materialize, others just simply don’t believe your story.
I believe in ghosts. This comes from personal experience. For nearly 4 years I worked with a ghost as a colleague and business partner. And man, when he materialized before a client, they were left in awe. But when the client engagement was over, so was he. He would disappear. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t seem to get him to materialize when I wanted him to. I would send him e-mails, leave him voicemails, and try other ways to wake the spirits. Nothing. The only thing that I ever found to work was to call his house, get his wife on the phone and persuade her to “wake him from the dead.”
Ghosts are tricky to work with.They are unreliable, unpredictable and usually materialize when they want to – not necessarily when you want them to. To complicate things, they love to make unexpected big entrances and positively “surprise” important people, leaving you dumbfounded, frustrated and more than a little pissed off.
How to Work with a Workplace Ghost
So what do you do if you have a workplace ghost on your hands? You have a few options:
Figure out where they live – if you’ve ever watched any of those ghost shows or even cheesy horror flicks, you’ll hear the paranormal investigators talk about finding the part of the house that has the most paranormal activity. You need to find that room. In practical terms, this means finding out where they go when they vanish so you can plan on how you are going to communicate with them.
Get a medium – Ghosts don’t respond to any and all mediums. You need to find the right medium in which to contact your ghost. No need to find someone with a Long Island accent, however you do need to be thoughtful about identifying a medium that works with your particular ghost. This can either be a person who has a certain connection with the individual (boss, friend or in the case of my story, a spouse) or the right kind of communication mechanism (e-mail, voicemail, Twitter, etc…). Having woken more than my fair share of spirits, I find that texting is particularly useful. It’s the 21st century version of the ouija board.
Threaten to leave the house – Deep down, ghosts actually don’t want you to leave. They need you to play your part so they can be, well, ghosts. Without you, they are left to do the work. So, threaten to leave. That will get them to show up… for a short period of time, anyway. But be realistic. They are ghosts. It is only a matter of time until they disappear again.
Call for an exorcism – Eventually, the day will come where you need to make up your mind. Either you leave the house and find another home (i.e. find another job) or you get the ghost removed. That’s when HR and your boss need to be brought into the mix. Just be prepared that they may not believe your ghostly tales. You may have to leave until they ultimately see it for themselves. Comforting or not, they will eventually see it and you’ll be proven right. It just may not be on your timeline.
What if Your Boss or Employee is a Ghost?
Now, what if the situation is different. What if you are dealing with a workplace ghost but it’s not your coworker?
What if your boss is a ghost? If your boss is a ghost, follow steps 1-3. Unfortunately, exorcising a ghost that has been around a lot longer than you is hard to do. You’ll likely need to leave the house. Look for an internal transfer to another department and let your replacement deal with the hauntings.
What if your employee is a ghost? If you have a ghostly employee, follow steps 1-2, skip step 3 (you aren’t going anywhere) and move to step 4 quickly. Force them to permanently materialize or they will be exorcized. Just know, exorcism will be the solution in over 90% of workplace hauntings. Getting ghosts to change their sheets is no easy task.
Workplace ghosts are tricky to deal with. However, if you can find where they live, get the right medium and layout your expectations, you’ve got a shot at a happy haunting. Start your ghost hunting today before things turn even more frightening.
My coworker is scary. If you’ve been a loyal follower of this blog (of course you have. Pat yourself on the back for being AWESOME!), you may recognize this topic. This marks the first time I’ve decided to resurrect a monthly theme (get it… resurrect… I kill me…). Last October, in the spirit of Halloween, we took on some nasty workplace beasties. From emotional vampires to workplace zombies, we fought the good fight against some of workplace’s most vicious inhabitants. When the dust settled and November rolled around, I realized that October is not the only month out of the year when our workplace looks like a scene from a horror flick. In fact, having “scary” coworkers is such a messy and pervasive problem, that I’ve come to realize that I’ve only scratched the surface on this topic. But I can’t do it alone.
I Need Your Help
Here’s what I’m asking. I’m going to kick start our month in this post by summarizing the workplace creepies I tackled this time last year. Then it’s up to you. What workplace monsters am I missing? Ghosts? Goblins? Ghouls? You get the point. No one knows workplace monsters and scary coworkers better than you. After all, they are probably in the cube, workspace or office right next door.
Here’s the current list of “captured” workplace monsters and scary coworkers. If for some reason, you haven’t gotten a chance to read these posts, check ‘em out. They are poignant, thought-provoking, entertaining and moving. You’ll laugh and cry, never to be the same again:
The Office Zombies– Surviving their brain numbing existence is not for the faint of heart. This post made an appearance on The Today Show. #Famous.
The Workplace Werewolf – One minute, a mild-mannered colleague. The next, he/she is leaping over the cubicle and attempting to rip your face off.
The Emotional Vampire – Charming, they lure you into their presence and suck the life out of you until all that is left is an empty exhausted shell.
Join the Fight
Think you see something out of the ordinary or eerie at work? Got a workplace monster wreaking havoc at the office? Post a comment below. Comment on Twitter or LinkedIn. Shoot me a note directly (my e-mail is: Brandon[at]theworkplacetherapist.com). Write a note, stick a stamp on it and put it in the mail. Send smoke signals. One way or the other, get me your scary coworker example and I’ll take it on.
In the meantime, look sharp, eat lots of garlic, cover any exposed flesh, watch for full moons and don’t eat any apples lying about. Scary coworkers are not to be taken lightly.
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!
Every year I pick out one relationship that I want to improve. Sometimes it’s a work relationship. Other times it’s a relationship with a family member. Regardless, I set a specific relationship goal for the year. Some years I look back at the end of the year and say to myself, “Sweet. Things with X have definitely gotten better. Well done ‘B’ (that’s what I call myself. Feel free to call me that… or anything you like. I won’t be offended). ‘B,’ you are a rock star (I’m all about positive affirmation).” Other years, the conversation isn’t quite so positive “What was holding you back? All you had to do was ask out X to lunch / dinner a little more often, call them a little more frequently, etc… Suck it up. Get going you slacker…” The point isn’t my crazy self talk (although it is probably entertaining to hear… After all, I’m a big fan of “healthy delusional thinking”). The point is that I have a relationship goal every year. Without, there is no way to gauge progress with the relationships in my life I want to nurture and grow.
Do you have a relationship goal?
You are not escaping this post without defining the one relationship you want to improve this year. That simple. Take a deep breath, steel yourself and get thinking. To help you, consider the following categories:
The Grumpy Boss – Maybe you wish your relationship with your boss was a bit better… or perhaps a lot better. What I can tell you is sitting back and waiting for it to change “ain’t gonna happen.” I can also tell you that the strategy of hiding out waiting for it to get better also won’t do the trick, particularly if they have a bad misperception of your. Remember, in absence of communication, people will always assume the worst. It’s only going to get better if you do something about it.
The Nasty Coworker – If you’ve got a coworker that’s picking on you and making you the target of office politics, issues, and complaints, the burden is on you to turn that dynamic around. Think back to middle school. Trying to ignore it (as much this is professed as the right solution) rarely works. It only heightens their efforts. Ignoring people trying to get a reaction does NOT get them to go away. It simply invites them to turn up the volume. If you’ve got this dilemma, you’re gonna need to do something about it.
The Difficult Customer – Similar the nasty coworker, this person can throw wrenches and blame your way at a moment’s notice. Different from the difficult coworker, this person can make or break your success and reputation virtually overnight. There are few people leaders listen to more than key customers. If you’ve got a difficult one you want to nurture, make it a priority for this year.
The Wayward Relative / Friend– Here’s a little twist on the relationship goal. Perhaps as work and life have gone into hyperdrive, you’ve lost touch with a relative or friend from years gone by.You haven’t seen the cousin you used to build forts with for years. Do they still like to build forts? You haven’t talked to your college roommate in so long, you still remember him / her in Birkenstocks. Can you still buy Birkenstocks? Should someone from this category be on your list?
The Significant Other (or someone else living in your house)– This category doesn’t need much description. It’s self explanatory. If you’ve got someone who currently lives under the same roof as you (or you would like them to be) and things aren’t “rock solid,” I promise you that the only cure to that dilemma is investing time, energy and love. Hiding and hoping won’t cut it. Make this the top of your list (This category even trumps “The Boss.” After all, I don’t think you want your boss crashing on your couch).
What are you going to do and when are you gonna do it?
To take this on, write down 3 things you could be doing more of to improve the relationship. This could be things like:
More frequent proactive compliments of the other person
More frequent phone calls, voicemails and overall communication
Taking them to lunch and other forms of appreciation to recognize / thank them
Date nights (probably not a good idea if this is your boss…)
Surprising gifts and other efforts to show thoughtfulness and their importance to you
Finally, ask yourself “so when am I gonna do this?” Put it on your calendar (yes, even schedule an Outlook reminder if you have to). Goals without a plan are dreams. I think I read that somewhere. Anywho, it’s true so wrap a plan around it to make it work.
Got your relationship? Got your plan? If the answers are “yes,” you are free to go. Get working and I look forward to you telling yourself that you are a “rock star” at the end of the year. Though I highly recommend that you wear your blue tooth when you say it so others think you are on the phone. Just sayin’…
The last few months we’ve tackled the dysfunction of “negativity.” As we conclude this series and start a new dysfunction (and year for that matter), I can’t think of a more appropriate time for the prescription. There is perhaps no better antidote to negativity than healthy and regular doses of “thankfulness.” Seems too simple, huh? Let me explain.
“People’s brains have a ‘negativity bias’”
In recent WSJ article on smarter ways to discipline children, a quote from one of the experts jumped out at me. Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of the Yale Parenting Center was quoted as saying, “People’s brains have a ‘negativity bias’.” His point was simple yet powerful. Research on parenting has consistently shown that parents have a natural tendency to give “negative feedback” – feedback on what their kids are doing poorly or simply not doing.Shockingly, this doesn’t work if the goal is to change a child’s behavior. What has shown to be effective in changing a child’s behavior is to give positive feedback – reaffirming feedback on what was done well – at a ratio of three or four positives to every one negative (3 or 4 to 1). In other words, for every piece of negative feedback you give a child, if you want it to take, you need to be filling the tank three or four times with positive feedback. Of course that’s easier said than done. What does this have to do with overcoming negativity in general? The particularly cool aspect of this research is how shockingly consistent it is with ever other context we find ourselves in throughout life. John Gottman’s research on marriage has shown that inthe healthiest marriages, couples give each other feedback in a ratio of five positives to every one negative (5 to 1).In studying effective managers, Barbara Frederickson found that, drum roll,the best and most effective managers give feedback to direct reports at a ratio of five positive to every one negative (5 to 1).The good news for us is that the patterns and the solutions are the same in all aspects of our lives. The challenge is to ignore that darn voice in our head that wants to constantly point out what’s wrong with others… and ourselves for that matter.
Who to thank
Alright. So you are ready to fill others’ tanks with positivity by thanking them for what they have done for you over the last year. But who should you thank? Consider the following list:
Mentors – mentors are a great place to start. Those individuals that have provided counsel, support and simply an ear when you needed to be heard qualify as mentors. And don’t confine yourself to the mentors that impacted you directly over the last twelve months. Many mentors plant seeds that come to fruition years later. Thank mentors of years-gone-by as well.
Helpers – I have a long list of the many dysfunctions this global economy has produced over the last four years. Near the top of the list is the near complete absence of “thank you’s” to those individuals that help us get our job done. Examples include direct reports, colleagues or simply the folks at the local copy center that without them, things might have gone terribly wrong. “Helpers” need to be thanked.
Refers and Recommenders– Odds are, someone (or multiple “someones”) recommended you for something positive this past year. Maybe they recommended you for a job, a promotion or an opportunity. In the craziness of just trying to get it done, we often forget that if it wasn’t for these people, we wouldn’t have had the opportunities that we had. These folks need HUGE “thank-you’s.”
Family and Friends – Those closest to us that have supported us along the way and offered unconditional love and support are invaluable to us in work and life. They need “thank you’s” just as much as everyone else. We often overlook them because they are “family.” Don’t. Fill their tanks just like you would anyone else.
The right way to say “Thank You”
Now that you’ve got your list, how do you say “thank you” the right way? There are so many ways to thank another person. Let me give you a mini-list based on ease and impact. In other words, I’m going to start with the easiest and naturally the lowest impact and work my way to the hum-dingers of “thank you’s” for that special person who, to quote cousin Eddie from the movie Christmas Vacation, you want to do “somethin’ real nice.”
Thank You E-mail– Thank you e-mails can be great ways to capture your thoughts about how much someone has impacted you and your corresponding level of appreciation for them. The benefit of this approach is that it takes five minutes or less, you can do it anytime and they can read it quickly at a time that is convenient for them. Great for those individuals who may not have made a singularly huge impact on your life and career over the year but did many of the little things along the way.
Ease of effort: Low
Thank You Voicemail – Often overlooked, a wonderful thank you voicemail can go further than a thank you e-mail. Why? For two reasons: First, the other person can hear the sincerity in your voice making the message more personal and impactful. Second, voicemail “thank you’s” are rarely done resulting in a higher probability that it is remembered and kept.
Ease of effort: Low
Thank You Note (Handwritten) – Old school, but still one of the very best ways to thank anyone. It is personal, it shows effort and most of all, hand-written thank you notes are rarely done anymore. Notice offices and desks as you walk by. You’ll see people now keep every single thank you note that they receive and proudly display them. The payoff for sending a handwritten thank you note short-term and long-term is huge. Now, you just have to remember how to use that thing… what’s it called again? Oh yeah: a pen.
Ease of effort: Medium
Thank You Gift – Ranging from a small thoughtful gift to taking someone out to dinner, giving a token of thank you can be particularly appropriate and impactful for those individuals who did something big that resulted in you benefiting significantly over the last year (Ex: a new job, winning a sale, a promotion, saving you from utter catastrophe, etc…). It is powerful and memorable. It can also be dangerous if not done just right.Two warnings on this approach: First, be careful not to get carried away on the value of the gift resulting in the recipient feeling uncomfortable. If the gift seems extravagant, it may feel less like a thank you to the recipient and more like a pay-off (this is particularly dangerous if the recipient is your boss). Second, be careful not to give something that isn’t actually a reward to the recipient but more of a punishment. In other words, don’t require them to do something that takes time and effort to get the gift. Examples to be careful of are: tickets to events (with you of course), dinner, an invitation to your house, etc… For busy people, these can all be punishments. Consider the person’s time and ability to “receive” your gift. With that being said, giving a “gift” can be a particularly powerful way to say “thank you” for those individuals who made your year.
Ease of effort: High
There are few ways better to beat back negativity than by thanking others. Get to it and I promise, not only will you feel better, but you’ll find you’ll be strengthening some of the most important relationships in your personal and professional lives. Oh, and for that voice in your head that says negative stuff about you, “thank him” by sending him on a permanent vacation to some place far, far away. I promise you won’t miss him.
I get it. The last several years have been tough. “Do more with less… there won’t be any raises this year… you are lucky to have a job… we may have to close our doors tomorrow…” Working day-in and day-out under these conditions can get to anyone. A therapist colleague told me a story that I think captures this sentiment perfectly. Several years ago he had a client who was in a highly toxic, negative and abusive relationship. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get her to change her perspective. One day he finally came to a realization. Here’s what he told her, “I’m a very healthy person. And yet, if I were in the relationship you are in 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, I would be just as broken-down, lost and as negative as you are.”Workplace negativity can get to us. To that point, here was a question I received over the past week from a reader that I think sums up many of our collective feelings of frustration at the office:
Where we work, the morale is terrible. Everyone is overworked, frustrated with our demanding customers and generally burned out. As a result, we are handling stress in negative and unhealthy ways. What specific tools can we use to change the negative and unhealthy ways we are handling stress? For example, I would like to put a punching bag in the back so we can hit it as a way to vent and then hopefully go about our business a bit happier.
To feel so stressed and frustrated that the idea of hitting something sounds like the perfect cure truly says it all. And to the reader’s question, what is the right solution? Is a punching bag in the back room the answer or is it something else? While a punching bag may sufficiently empty out the negativity from our veins, it doesn’t resolve the core issue. Negativity has infected our workplaces and unless treated, no amount of punching bags are going to fix the problem.
Stomping Out Negativity At Work
Below are a few different treatment options for eliminating negativity at work. Feel free to take them in combination. Daily doses are recommended.
Leadership needs to declare war. A critical starting place for eliminating negativity at work is for leadership to take a stand and declare all-out war against any forms of negativity at work. This can be the boss or a team decision. Regardless, those who lead need to announce that negativity is no longer welcome and they must be prepared to confront it at every turn. What does this mean? I’ve seen leaders who are serious about fighting negativity send an employee home when they become “infected.”
Make it a game. A second treatment option is to turn the negative moments at work into positive events by reframing them. In other words, make it a game. For example, I worked with an insurance company several years ago that had developed an interesting way to combat negativity at work. During the week, customer service reps would take a beating with disgruntled customers. At the end of each week, reps would meet and share their most difficult customer interactions. Whoever had the most difficult or challenging encounter won the “crazy customer” trophy. A huge oversized trophy, the “crazy customer” trophy would live at the desk of the rep who won it until the next week when more stories were shared. Games and fun competition can take a negative event and create a more playful team experience.
Throw out all the bad apples. Sometimes negative work environments are the product of a bad apple – an employee who is so negative he / she is poisoning everyone else. If there is a bad apple coworker in your midst, inviting them to leave is a necessary first step.
There you have it – strategies for eliminating negativity at work. Feel free to combine any of the above remedies. Take regularly and often.
Of course, if nothing else works throw up the bag in the back and wear it out. Who knows? You might find you have a future in the ring.
What are the signs your negativity has tipped too far? There are several warning signs that I plan on sharing, but before I do, I had a negativity moment over the weekend that has stuck with me. On Saturday morning, I was in the drive thru line at McDonald’s, picking up breakfast for my family when it happened. The car in front of me pulled forward so, naturally, I inched my car ahead to take the now available spot. About the same time I made my move, out of the corner of my eye I noticed an older couple walk out of the restaurant and step off the curb about twenty feet away from me. Even though there was some distance between us, the woman was apparently quite irritated with me for not seeing them sooner and for continuing to move my car into position. After my car did finally come to rest in the drive thru line, she walked in front of my car, proceeded to yell at me and then hit the hood of my old Ford Explorer with her fist.Stunned, I didn’t know what to do. She continued to yell at me incomprehensibly as she passed my Ford and proceeded to her car across the parking lot. I finally snapped out of my fog and rolled down my window to hear what she was trying to say. After she was done, I said to her, “ma’am, you hit the hood of my car. That was not nice.”(I know… I’m so tough) She blasted back at me, “you need to stop when people are crossing the road!” Meanwhile, as all of this was transpiring, her husband calmly left his angry spouse and walked behind my car, crossed the parking lot and sat down in the passenger seat of their car waiting for her to finish. She finally got in her car, backed out quickly and slammed on the brakes as she ironically almost hit an approaching car.
Why do I share this story with you? Simple. While I did not drop to her level of yelling, screaming and hitting of cars, I wanted to. For a large part of the day on Saturday, I replayed the event in my mind adding in the addition of several “perfect” responses ranging from me hitting the hood of her car to see how she liked it to deflating her logic by reminding her that a parking lot is not a road and her assault on my vehicle was police worthy. That’s the problem with negativity. It is contagious. We have a natural tendency to “match levels” and default to where the other person is at. And it can linger with us for hours (if not days) later. So what might be signs that you are like the car assailant in my story? Consider the following signs:
Signs You May Be Negative
Are you “harshing other people’s mellow?” Kudos to my cool wife for actually using this phrase in conversation yesterday. The reason? She was dreading the prospect of spending time with a friend of hers because of the constant negativity that oozes from their pores. You may be “harshing other people’s mellow” if you’ve either noticed a drop-off of invites from others or, more to the point, someone has actually told you your negativity is tough to take.
Are you in a negative profession?Not all professions are created a like. There are some that naturally default to a “glass half empty” view of humanity and the world. For example, many roles in the legal profession, credit / commercial lending, finance, compliance and even H.R. often assume that people will screw you over if you don’t watch them close. I had a student once tell me that when she worked in commercial credit (commercial lending for businesses), she was told by coworkers to get married as quickly as possible or she would become so jaded by the profession that she would never trust anyone enough to ever think about getting married not to mention the constant negativity she was likely to bring to every date. If you find yourself in one of these professions, the burden that is on you is to leave the negativity at the office. Trust me, your kids and spouse don’t want to be constantly “caught” doing something incorrect and accused of lying, cheating, or general deception at every turn. Definitely not a good strategy.
Do you give more negative feedback to others than positive? Whether we are talking about work or at home, the research is consistent. You should be giving about five times MORE positive feedback than you do negative (5:1 ratio).More to come on the research later this month, but needless to say, if your negative feedback is exceeding your positive feedback, you’re about to lose listeners (if you haven’t already). People can only take so much.
In a typical interaction, is the first thing out of your mouth a complaint? Think back to your casual conversations. Are you typically working in a complaint in just about every conversation? Not sure? How about this more specific question: When was the last time you complained at a restaurant? If you can’t remember, then you are probably good to go. If, however, you immediately thought to yourself, “Do you mean about the service, the food quality or where I was sitting? It would be different levels of frequency for each.” If you have enough “data” to categorize them into different buckets, the answer and my point is clear.
Not sure if you are “harshing other people’s mellow?” The first step in any self-awareness process is to notice. Spend some time over the next week just noticing your interactions with others. And as part of noticing how you might be interacting, be careful not to judge yourself. In other words, don’t turn your own negativity against you. Simply notice judgment free. The goal is to gauge if this has become a severe problem that may bring heavy costs or if you are just suffering from the occasional bad day.
Next up, we will be tackling what you can do at work and at home to keep negativity in check. In the meantime, do me one favor: avoid slamming your fist onto the hood of someone else’s car. Trust me. It won’t make you feel better. At least I don’t think so…