Category Archives: Teams
There is no ideal model workplace culture and no single path to get there.
I’m writing a new book and am at the research stage. The most obvious visible behaviour for me at this stage is not writing. So much reading! The book will be about adding ten productive years to your life and a section will be about extending our healthy lifespan. As a result, I’m reading a lot of inherently contradictory information, much like we’re all lambasted with constantly. Eggs are good for you. Eggs are bad for you. Some bits of eggs are good for you and some bits are bad for you. Some eggs should face trial for war crimes. That sort of thing.
There is some absolute quackery about miracle cures for aging that, no doubt, someone will try and sell you in pill form very soon. Telling us that there is a restorative compound in red wine is useful. Finding out that we’d need to drink a bathtubfull a day to get enough of that compound is less helpful. I’d need to refer back to my notes but I may have read somewhere that our wine limit should be 2 glasses a day. Perhaps there is a market for glasses the size of bathtubs? That is definitely one bathtub where you’d want to utilize a non-slip bathmat. Perhaps several, for the footpath for your long walk home?
I’m keen to believe the probiotic yoghurt propaganda. (The theme of this month’s issue of Employment Today is, after all, culture.) In case you’ve missed the infomercials, here’s the downlow on the lowdown bugs in our guts. There are bugs in our guts. There are bugs all over our bodies. (And, no, I’m not talking about the imaginary ones you’ll hallucinate when you try to cut down on your two-bathtubs-a-day red wine habit.) There are bad bugs which is why we should wash our hands and good bugs which is why we should not smother ourselves inside and out with disinfectant drugs and chemicals. For decades as a society, we’ve been pointlessly amping up on anti-biotics for sniffles and viruses which is useless and increasingly diminishing the effect of antibiotics and breeding antibiotic-resistant hospital-loving superbugs. Antibiotics also fail to distinguish between good and bad bugs, killing both in a broad spectrum kind of way.
So, the sales pitch goes that this lifestyle, plus our sad, beige diets has led to imbalance in the gut bug world and a lot of our ailments can be attributed to this. Please buy our brand of probiotic yoghurt or pills. I’m prepared to partly accept this because I like yoghurt and I’m always a lot more open to new information when it in no way conflicts with my existing beliefs and behaviours. You know, like virtually everyone.
The thing I didn’t know about our gut bugs is that we don’t all have the same ones or the same mix. At some point in our early development, we get colonised and that type of bug is ours for life. It’s a bit like blood types with types A+ and O-. Some researchers are mooting that in the not-too-distant future, there will be probiotic cafes where you can get customised smoothies with the gut bug that’s right for you. I’m guessing that they’ll get the marketing department working on a better brand name than ‘gut bugs.’ (GB?) Knowing my own gut bug type is currently a level of self awareness that I have failed to achieve.
This might be the longest bow I’ve ever drawn, or the most tenuous of metaphors, but, in a way, isn’t workplace culture a bit like this?
So many books, blog posts, LinkedIn articles and conversations revolve around the premise that there is this mystical, magical and elusive one-right-way to generate a successful results-oriented, customer-focused, highly engaged workplace culture. Implicit is that there is one ideal model culture to which to aspire. There isn’t. It depends.
Like gut bugs, workplace cultures need to evolve. Like the probiotic cafes of the future, we need to know what workplace culture we want before we start any efforts to build one or improve one we got stuck with. And, we need to stop poisoning our workplace cultures, killing the good alongside the bad, with broad spectrum shotgun efforts.
How anyone thinks there can be a uniform and constant workplace culture is beyond me. Just driving around with your eyes open displays sharply that contemporary New Zealand is multi-cultural and increasingly so, in the more usual demographic sense of the term. Workplaces are reflecting diverse racial and national cultures and you can throw in age, attitude and other demarcations too. The point here is that there is no point – not a single point anyway. What’s needed is an openness amongst employers to diversity, coupled with an acceptance that the now and the future need a lot more personalised approaches to workplace culture than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
Is there a red wine yoghurt? Asking for a friend.
Conflict conjures up images of stress and battles on the job but managed well, it can stimulate employee engagement and productivity.
Stanford’s Professor Robert Sutton undertook a massive study into organisations and the majority of them were displaying ineffective behaviours when it came to building and maintaining teams. The angle of his research worked backwards from those repeated ineffective behaviours to the leaders’ mindsets and preconceptions that drove them, over and over again. One of those mindsets was a belief that team harmony was crucial to success. It isn’t.
The theme of this month’s issue is conflict resolution. I’ve run the occasional training session around conflict resolution. Often, I’ll ask the group for the pro’s and cons of conflict in the workplace. The cons are obvious enough and people are adept at quickly amassing a swarm of negative thoughts. But if provoked a little, people can work up quite the list of advantages of well-managed conflict in the workplace. And this is what Sutton concluded about team harmony. At one extreme, constant battles are unhealthy and unproductive but at the other extreme, the illusion of constant peace and tranquillity need not be all fluffy bunnies and rose petals either. Often, that veneer of civility is a facade for repressed conflict and passive aggressive behaviour. Zero conflict is unrealistic and not very productive either.
The answer isn’t even halfway, its north of that. Conflict occurs as it will normally with reasonable people. The conflicts are resolved professionally and courteously but they have to occur because it is from those ashes that innovation arises. This is where new ideas occur, problems get solved and sacred cows are challenged. This zone is called ‘Productive Conflict.’ Are you wondering if your workplace is in Sutton’s magical zone of productive conflict? The litmus test is this – Can the lowest ranked, least paid or newest member of your team speak up and say anything, challenge anything to the boss without fear of consequence? If they can, that’s a sign of the state of productive conflict. If they can’t, it’s a sign of something else. And that’s not good.
Most hiring failures occur due to attitude. Some of those failures result in employees leaving. Most result in employees staying but in a disengaged state, doing no more than they have to because they have to with all the performance management workload that entails. There are a lot more dimensions to this thing called ‘attitude’ than just trying to hire those with a ‘good’ one rather than a ‘bad’ one. One attitude to search for and target with your structured behaviour-based interview questions and so forth is a non-avoiding and mature attitude towards conflict.
My kids aren’t perfect and neither is my parenting but we’re all in a good patch at the moment. We have our share of family conflict. My son has had a weekend job at our local Pak n Save the past ten months and got seriously great feedback from his performance review. My daughter went with me to a Warriors game, got to talking to a woman she’d never met and walked away with a job interview appointment for a summer job. The point I’m trying to make here to parents and people who have ever been a teenager that are also employing young people is that young people can chose their attitudes as easily as they can choose their body piercings and tattoos. And that includes their attitudes toward conflict.
I’ve spent the past couple of months delivering thirty presentations to six thousand business people around the country. I’ve shared a bunch of research and a few stories and case studies on team building. A lot of stories came back at me, many involving conflict. Most were realistic about it being a process, a tunnel with a light at the end, albeit with absolutely zero idea of how long the tunnel is.
There’s the old joke that goes like this:
During a visit to a mental asylum, a visitor asked the director how to determine whether or not a patient should be institutionalised. “Well,” said the director, “we fill up a bathtub, then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient, and ask him to empty the bathtub.” “Oh, I see,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the bucket because it is bigger than the spoon or the teacup.”
“No,” said the director, “a normal person would pull out the plug. Do you want the bed near the window?”
When people are presented with a situation as a problem with a number of solutions, then that’s how they see it. Conflict need not be a problem but it will be if that’s how you choose to see conflict.
Too many employers see ‘Team Building’ as an event. Something you do, tick a box and move on. It’s really a continuous process and in addition to any team that’s getting built, your leadership is too.
My local burger place prides itself on being an equal opportunity employer. They’ve hired an Orc, a Hobbit and an Elf. Personally I think it’s just Tolkeinism. Bada bing!
I wrote that joke when the ‘Lord Of The Rings’ movies were big and I’ve never had an opportunity to use it. Many of you might be thinking that I still haven’t had the opportunity and that I just force-fitted it here because I thought it was a good idea. Many times, that’s how employers treat team building – they force-fit people into roles and into groups because that’s all they’ve got to work with, or they think that it is. They don’t take into account the tremendously real, negative and lasting costs of poor fit to the employer, employee and the wider team’s morale and productivity.
Team building is a term loosely hurled around to justify ten pin bowling. I’m not disrespecting ten pin bowling. It’s great. I especially like those bumper rails they put up on the lanes for the kids to avoid the gutters. (Some people need those bumper rails to follow them around for when they’ve walking after they’ve been drinking, often during bowling. Gutters are everywhere!) Team building should be a continuous process incorporating a formally thought-out plan for what the team culture is, versus what it should be and how to plug that gap via recruitment, orientation, employee engagement and evidence-based performance management. It isn’t a themed scavenger hunt on Waiheke Island using those motorised bicycles.
“How’s the team building going Kim?”
“Oh, really good, we did it last week.”
I’m not saying that bowling, motorised bikes and drinking aren’t part of the solution. (Although, definitely not at the same time!) These fun aspects are potentially genuine short-term stimulators of productivity, albeit often fraught with some peril for those organising them and paying for the insurance on the bikes. Recent research has proven that time flies when you’re having fun. From the people who proved that men and women are different, diets are never the means to sustainable weight loss and that bears do stuff in the woods. Seriously, Philip A. Gable, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama (yes, THE University of Alabama) has shown via the scientific method that people’s perception of the passage of time is influenced by the nature of the experience including fun. More specifically, Philip used the term, “positive approach motivation” which just goes to show what a wild and crazy guy he must be. Nice work if you can get it.
The Christchurch post-earthquake experience has injected a new word into the zeitgeist. (For me, ‘zeitgeist’ is also a new word and it was also force-fitted because I thought it was a good idea.) That word is ‘deconstruction.’ Not ‘demolition’ but ‘deconstruction.’ There’s a definite, distinct and important difference that also applies to teams.
Few of us get the chance to genuinely build a team from the ground up – so to speak. To start from scratch and recruit people where before there were none, specifically and sensibly chosen for specific purpose. Mostly we inherit a team when we start out leading people and they come and go and we replace them. When you were a kid, maybe you got some Lego blocks as a gift? You opened that box and spilled out the loose individual components? Or did you inherit the blocks from an older sibling with various pre-made and abandoned clumps of failed constructions. Bits were missing. There were teethmarks. And you had to work with what you got? People are like those Lego blocks and not just because they hurt when you stand on them.
Team building, rather than fun and beer and skittles, might have to involve a period of deconstruction. If it’s true that 26% of employees are engaged and 28% actively disengaged, then 46% of employees are showing up and doing the bare minimum. Sure you want to attract and keep more of the highly engaged and sure you want to amp up the efforts of those just showing up but how much angst is warranted with those who just do not fit?
Real and useful team building is made possible when budgets, time and priority is given to planning and upskilling those people who lead teams. Then they’re aware of, and able to do, whatever they can to achieve the fit and goals they need. If that includes a karaoke night then great. (Note – it should not include a karaoke night.)
And just like Lego blocks, if a person doesn’t fit, then no amount of banging with a hammer is going to make them fit. And any teethmarks will be traceable back to you.
Conflict is inherent in human interaction so people must love it, right? Xbox is hugely popular but there is no game called ‘Gears Of War: Conflict Resolution.’
Solomon Asch is a great name for an Xbox villain but it’s also the name of a psychologist who ran a now-famous 1951 study on social conformity. (If you’re visualising this as you read, do so in the grainy black and white newsreel style of the day.) Groups of participants were seated at a table while a moustached man in a lab coat with a clipboard told them they were part of a programme of assessing visual judgements. All but one of the participants were in on the scam and it was that one person per session who was the actual subject of the experiment.
Each group was shown two large cards at once. On one card was a single vertical line. On the other card were three different vertical lines labelled a, b and c. Each person was asked to say out loud which of a, b or c was the same length as the first line on the other card. The process was repeated again and again. For the first two rounds, the researcher’s confederates gave the right, and obviously right, answers and so too did the subject. From the third round onwards, the confederates gave the same wrong, and obviously wrong, answer. The subject, who was in the middle of the group, got to hear the incorrect answers being spoken before and after it was his turn.
Initially, most subjects stuck to their guns but it didn’t take more than a couple of rounds for most people to scrunch up their faces, weave their eyes back and forth and go with the group. There were eighteen sessions and three quarters of people conformed at least once. One third went along every time.
I don’t know if would’ve influenced the science but all the participants were men. They were student volunteers and maybe there weren’t many women at university in 1951 or maybe women had better things to do with their time? (Insert your own joke here about women lying about the length of things.)
The thing about experiments like this is that, if they prove anything at all, they prove it about most people and I’m sure you are not most people. However most people are most people and they’re the ones you’re employing, leading, developing and depending on for your success. Thinking about your workplace, how conformist are your people? What innovations aren’t happening? What sacred cows aren’t being challenged? What problems aren’t being solved? All because of too much of what seems to be an overly human trait of conflict avoidance.
One of the themes of this month’s issue is conflict resolution. Some people, perhaps even most people, see conflict as a problem that needs to be prevented, avoided or minimised. I see it as a tool to be managed. By definition, ‘resolution’ does not mean prevention, avoidance, minimising or even ending. It means the act of resolving or determining upon a course of action. We need to acknowledge the conflict and choose to deliberately do something about it. I call this, “Going ugly early.”
A lack of conflict may seem like a great idea but it’s more likely a symptom of organisational avoidance problems. It’s an unrealistic fantasy to have a conflict-free workplace.
Often though, the conflict on balance becomes destructive or unsustainable. Then someone needs to intervene.
One of the critical ingredients in anyone’s skill acquisition, personal development and long-term success is heightened self awareness – metacognition or our ability to think about the way we think. Nowhere is this more evident than how different people view and handle workplace conflict and conflict resolution. There are a number of different models simplifying conflict styles. “I’m an avoider. You’re a competitor. She’s an accommodator.” The key first step is to realise that, whatever the label de jour, when it comes to conflict you have a default preference style and others may differ. Become self aware, then look for clues in others. Only then can you tweak, test, evaluate and re-tweak an approach. Modelling and teaching this behaviour flows through into non-conflict communication, accelerating understanding of, and effective interaction with, others. It allows innovations, third ways and the emperor with new clothes finding out he’s naked.
When it comes to conflict, two wrongs don’t make a right (in the same way that two positives can’t make a negative. Yeah, right.)
This HBR article about debriefing is one I wish I’d written. (From meglomaniacal me, that’s high praise.) I’m often directing participants in my training workshops to conduct debriefs. I tend to use experiential models a lot. For non-trainers (muggles?), that means we do things, then learn from them in a structured way. I favour a 3-phased approach, repeated over and over:
- Frame the activity
- Conduct the activity
- Debrief the activity
I hear a lot of people using the word ‘debrief’ and its meaning seems to vary wildly. In that sense, the word ‘debrief’ is much like the word ‘spicy’ or the word ‘love.’ I try to consistently summarise the meaning of it in my workshops, not just because we’ll use it in the workshops but because it’s one of the most useful things you’ll ever learn in life, not just for work, but for situations where things happen and you’d benefit from learning afterwards. That applies a lot outside work (hopefully.) Relationships and families could well do with that skill. It’d certainly give us something to talk about over compulsory sunday night family dinners.
To do something and to deliberately learn from it is what successful people do. That might even be a great definition of what success is. To do something and maybe learn from it or not learn from it is what most people do most of the time. Don’t be most people. They’re nice enough but…
The HBR article gives a great structure if you want to either learn debriefing yourself or communicate it to others:
- Schedule a regular time and place (ie make debriefing part of the way things are done around here!)
- Create a learning environment
- Review 4 key questions: What were we trying to accomplish?; Where did we hit or miss our objectives?; What caused our results?; What should we stop / start / continue doing? (I’m a big fan of stop / start / continue; That’s the name of one of my books ‘Stop Start Continue’!)
- Codify lessons learned (People after us will learn from our mistakes, not theirs.)
This recent article in the business section of the New Zealand Herald cites research conducted by a firm of recruitment consultants. I’m not suggesting for a moment that they have a vested interest in interpreting the results in any particular way, but they interpret the results in a particular way… that says employers aren’t recruiting effectively. (If only there was someone around who could help them?)
Sarcastic and cynical as I am, I’m not disputing the results of the survey – just their narrow interpretation of the cause. There’s never ONE cause. Maybe poor recruitment contributes. I bet it does.
The Hudson survey “paints a bleak picture for employers”, saying: “Of every 10 employees: four are not good hires, eight aren’t engaged in their work and six are actively seeking other employment.” Ouch! This is born out by other research I’ve been reading over years and around the world. There’s a bit of variation, mostly by industry, but this survey isn’t that surprising and New Zealand isn’t that bad. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of scope for improvement.
Apart from the recruitment tools being used which the recruitment company focuses on, the primary cause of the problem implied is that employers are recruiting almost entirely for skills – technical skills. It’s that old mindset of, “I’ve got a vacancy, I’d better fill it because it’s costing me money” without doing the correlating maths on how much it costs to fill that vacancy and get it wrong – to fill it with someone technically competent (and that’s even assuming they get that bit right) but quickly disengaged or a misfit in several other ways.
Bad luck? Like most games, you make your own luck in the recruiting game. I was meeting recently with a manager who hadn’t had a single instance of negative turnover for nine years. Yes, people had moved on but for the right reasons such as internal promotion. He used the usual suite of tools to find a pool of potential applicants, whittled them down through CV checking, interviews, reference checks and even the occasional behaviourial profile. But he added another step. Shortlisted applicants all got to sit in on some actual work with some people who, if their application was successful, would be their co-workers. Those co-workers got a right of veto. I used this myself in the past with some success in a call centre that wasn’t a typical call centre. It gave applicants a dose of what their potential working reality could be. Sometimes they got put off by us and our work; sometimes we got put off by them. Either way, it’s better for both parties that be known early and up front so neither employer or employee have to suffer the consequences of misfitting. And those are greater than the costs of vacancies.
Another means of increasing your odds is to encourage referral of potential applicants from existing employees. Some firms even offer a commission for this. BUT if you do that, ponder how this might affect behaviour and what exactly it is you’re wanting to incentify and provide commission on. Any commission should be for a successful applicant who is still there after a predetermined period and performing well. Not just for putting someone with a pulse into a vacancy. Rather than just advertising to the great untargetted masses for your specific vacancy, wouldn’t it increase the chances of success if you sought via an informed gene pool – the people who are already aware of what it takes to do the job and who is likely to prosper there?
Wringing the final life out of my luck metaphor, when it comes to those few shortlisted candidates who are demonstrably technically competent but you’re not absolutely certain that they’ll fit and be engaged, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run. Often it’s better to walk away and play another day. Cheaper in the long run even if baby needs a new pair of shoes.
Re-blog from Nov 2011 & my most read post ever
I don’t know what responses we’d get if we asked one hundred people to tell us the first thing they thought of when we mentioned the term ‘screening.’ They might think of screening as in airport security or preventative health check-ups – keeping the dangerous out. They might think of screening as in letting your phone go to voicemail or checking caller ID and answering for only for the sexy callers – keeping the timewasters and unsexy out. Screening is also a gold mining process – keeping the valuable in. They might think of a movie screening. The difference between a movie screening going badly and employee screening going badly is that the movie screening will just spoil one night. Poor employee screening could mess you up for years. Employee screening is probably a combination of all these different perceptions of screening – except for keeping the unsexy out. That’s illegal and also clearly not working. Where would the unsexy end up working – in any department of a radio station other than sales?
My uncle, now in his 80s, and my son, now in his 18s, were talking about getting their first jobs. My son’s first job was with a supermarket in the seafood section. He made a written application and went through several written interviews and assessments before winning his role. My uncle spoke of showing up on an Aussie building site, saying he was from New Zealand, demonstrating which end of a hammer was up and that was it. (He got the job.) Times have changed. I’m not sure they still use hammers, I think the internet does that now? And now, no one in their right mind would screen an employee so poorly and perfunctorily. Actually, applicants are often screened to make sure they’re in their right mind. Even leaving aside things like skills and attitude, there was no screening for previous work injuries, criminal records, financial shenanigans, child-molesting, non-child molesting, drug use, bringing employers into disrepute in well-light Christchurch offices across from pubs, being a jerk on social media and all the other things you need to screen for now.
I should probably call it pre-employment screening. It might be the smallest part of the phrase but that ‘pre’ is awfully important. Anything you find out ‘post’ is too late – someone’s potential problem has now become your actual problem. Pre-employment is to employment as dating is to marriage.
There’s forensic CV analysis too. That’s a thing now. That exists. In an age where there is software to compare a student’s essay via a search engine that compares it to anything else written ever for familiarity without accreditation, there would have to be forensic CV analysis. I see ‘forensic’, I think CSI. First there was CSI Las Vegas, then CSI Miami, then CSI New York. Now we have CSI HR. Which song by The Who should be the theme song to that show? I think all the good ones are gone.
I found one New Zealand company online offering polygraph testing as part of their pre screening process. I’ve seen too many movies with the cliché lie detector scene to take that process seriously (cue sound effect of heightened heart beat.) In fairness, it was quite an impactful marketing technique to list a series of headlines beneath that offer highlighting the dangers of not taking up their services. Examples of these headlines included: ‘Former insane mass killer unknowingly hired by Wellington school’ and ‘Convicted arsonist gains job as fire fighter.’ Although, in fairness, the latter could actually be a really good news story – a story of redemption about which movies are made (movies like ‘Backdraft,’) I checked the mass killer one. He’d killed six people, described as “friends, family, neighbours and complete strangers.” No teachers or students, so it’s questionable as to whether it’s relevant to his role working in a school but their point is still a powerful one. Frankly they shouldn’t limit their services just to employers. Remember my previous “Pre-employment is to employment as dating is to marriage” remark? I’ll take someone on their word that they like long walks on the beach but I’d sleep a little easier with greater certainty on the non-former insane mas killer front.
There are few risks and many benefits in conducting a systematic and thorough pre employment screening process. You reduce risk, increase certainty, lower costs, enhance productivity and profitability and minimise your chances of being murdered.
Obviously in this modern age of internet hammering and privacy legislation, you need the permission of the applicant to conduct any screening. Although a quick Google could be legal, illuminating and disappointing very quickly. A refusal to provide permission is the easiest and cheapest screening of all.
[Originally published in the May issue of Employment Today magazine.]
What do you reckon the top 10 complaints from a survey of over two million employees of over 2000 organisations might be? This post lists that top ten. If ‘top’ is the right adjective.
The guts of much of the writing behind employee engagement rests on the primary motivational drivers of employee engagement being intangible, intrinsic people-things like personal development, a sense of purpose, a sense of control or influence over what gets done. Everyone usually downplays money. Where do money-related issues fall in this list of the top ten employee complaints?
1. Higher salaries – pay is the number one area in which employees seek change.
2. Internal pay equity, particularly having concerns with “pay compression” (the differential in pay between new and more tenured employees).
3. Benefits programs, particularly health/dental, retirement, and Paid Time Off/vacation days. Specifically, many employees feel that their health insurance costs too much, especially prescription drug programs.
4. “Over-management” (A common phrase seen in employee comments is “Too many chiefs, not enough Indians”).
5. Pay increase guidelines should place greater emphasis on merit.
6. The Human Resource department needs to be more responsive to their questions and/or concerns.
8. Improved communication and availability (both from their supervisors and upper management).
9. Workloads are too heavy and/or departments are understaffed.
10. Facility cleanliness.
Before I swallow this as complete, representative and accurate, I’d have to go and check out the survey and the methodology and the motivations of those doing the surveys – both the company, the employees and the researchers. I’d be really loathe to give much credence to a check-box list of pre-drafted items from which respondents could select or rank. It’s more effort than I’m prepared to apply as no one is paying me to do it. The post only provides a link to the website of the research company not to the research itself. It doesn’t even date it, implying that it’s recent.
Completely subjectively, people have a job to make money and pay the rent / mortgage. Some of my friends are professional comedians. They do what they love with a skill they’ve developed. There’s is both an artistic pursuit for its own sake and a business they own. I never hear any of them complaining about their ‘job.’ I doubt many of them believe what they do is a job how they define it. It’s not particular to comedy. I know a diverse range of business people with similar mindsets. That said, when they do complain, they complain about money.
That said, there’s a world of difference between things that drive behaviour and things that cause complaints. I’m too lazy to go read my own book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ right now. There’s a section in there citing some classic research. (I would go look it up but no one is paying me to.) Roughly from memory, it seems people would rather be paid less in total, as long as they were being paid relatively more than those around them. There’s another piece of research that found that the 2 types of people most opposed to rises in the minimum wage were the very very wealthy and… the people just above the minimum wage…