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Got A Little Too Much JQA In Your Organization?

I’m always a little late to the game when it comes to finding good podcasts. However, I have a wife who has a longer commute than me (sorry, honey) and has found podcasts to be a balm to soothe her mind and stoke her intellect while navigating Atlanta’s daily traffic woes. One of the latest podcasts she has introduced to me is Presidential, which is produced by the Washington Post. Each week, Lillian Cunningham devotes an episode to one President – starting with Washington and ending with Obama – and explores their character and the legacy they left as Chief Executive. Well, consider this history nerd fully fascinated and engaged.

Now, even though the podcast started a few months ago, I just started listening and am only caught up to John Quincy Adams (AKA JQA). But already I’ve learned so much about the birth of this nation and how even the Founding Fathers were complex individuals who didn’t always get governance right. And I’ve learned that while we might think our current political climate is completely FUBAR, from the moment of our nation’s founding there was discord among opposing viewpoints, constitutional squabbles, and racial tensions that don’t seem that different from what we are experiencing today. In some ways, it’s rather comforting to know there really has never been a golden age when all Americans – regardless of color, religion, creed, etc. – held hands and sang Kumbaya. Yes, granted there have been better times than others, but this “union” of states has always been in some phase of precarious tension that could tear it apart.

A related and important question raised in the podcast series, and which gets to the title of this post, is what does effective leadership look like? Let’s say you have someone with a bold vision for what they want to see and a strong policy framework in mind to make it happen. That sounds like effective leadership, doesn’t it? It’s supposedly what we want from the person in charge. By that definition, JQA was a visionary leader who wanted to dramatically overhaul the infrastructure of the young U.S.A. The only problem was that Congress wasn’t having any of it. The result: gridlock. No one was willing to budge or compromise for reasons both petty and pragmatic. Sounds familiar, right? Sounds like what’s happening “over there” in Washington right now, yes?

But what if it’s also happening right now in our own organizations? Show of hands where there is no conflict holding up a crucial project or keeping a department from surpassing its goals. Yup, thought so. I’m not suggesting that conflict is inherently bad…quite the opposite. Productive conflict that focuses on mission and a mutually desired objective is what moves organizations into new areas of growth. Yet, on the other hand, unhealthy conflict occurs when leaders believe their own vision is the only vision and their way of getting there is the only way of getting there. (It’s also not too healthy when leaders get too caught up in their own fears of change and paranoia of not being completely in control, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I get it, though. If figuring out how to create win-win scenarios on a daily basis was easy, thinkers like Stephen Covey wouldn’t have sold millions of books. Organizations like yours and mine would be operating with close to zero friction. And JQA’s presidency would be considered a rousing success rather than the one term failure that history has judged it to be.

Here’s the question I invite you to ponder along with me: how can we practice effective leadership which best balances our vision for organizational success so it is also inclusive of the visions held by others? When things stop working well, that seems to me one of the only ways we can dislodge ourselves from the political mire that holds us back from doing world-changing work.

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Five Observations For Surviving The Modern Workplace

Zigzag MazeThis post might serve as some indication as to the type of week I’ve had. One where the veil has been pulled aside to further clarify some observations that I’ve noticed in my long and winding career journey.

1. Our organization is not our family.
This very notion that my organization is a family has always made me cringe. Unless we’re related by blood or marriage or some other legal compact, there’s not one shred of truth to this. Further, it feels cultish, like I’ve joined up with the Sunshine Carpet Cleaners.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, goes so far as to say that its one of the worst lies a company can tell its employees. It’s misguided at best and deceptive at its worst.

In a Harvard Business Review article, he elaborated:

In a real family, parents can’t fire their children. Try to imagine disowning your child for poor performance: ‘We’re sorry Susie, but your mom and I have decided you’re just not a good fit. Your table-setting effort has been deteriorating for the past 6 months, and your obsession with ponies just isn’t adding any value. We’re going to have to let you go. But don’t take it the wrong way; it’s just family.’

2. Our organization is not responsible for our happiness.
On the face of it, this feels stupidly obvious. But how many times have we felt pissed off, frustrated, and ultimately unhappy only then to blame our organization for it. Take a moment and reflect on your recent experience. Go ahead…I’ll wait. Hey, I did it just this week. It’s all too easy to feel we’re owed happiness at work by the very organization that feels it’s owed our loyalty in return for a signed paycheck.

However, who gets to determine our happiness? We do, of course.

3. Our boss is not our friend. And conversely, our employee is not our friend.
This isn’t to suggest that the boss-employee dynamic shouldn’t be friendly. But do not mistake that dynamic for a true friendship. The boss still holds the upper hand in the power structure. Don’t believe me? The next time you have the chance to do what you want versus what your boss wants, go your own way. Where your friend may be irritated, your boss is likely going to see it as a direct challenge to their authority. Do it too many times and you’re going to find yourself taken behind the woodshed for a professional whipping.

And god forbid that you work for a friend or hire a friend. The times when this works out for everyone is vastly outnumbered by the times when it ends in tragedy.

4. Our job does not define our identity.
I am an entrepreneur. I am a dentist. I am a diner waitress. I am an assistant to the traveling secretary of the New York Yankees. Or for me, I am a digital nonprofit fundraiser.

Yes, these can all be true statements…and untrue if we believe our job is our sole defining role. The times when I’ve identified myself as primarily a marketer, an entrepreneur, or a fundraiser are the times when I have been a shitty husband, father, and friend. These are also the times when I forget that I am a writer, a hiker, an amateur naturalist, a Steelers fan, and several other things that I enjoy in my life.

5. Our work is not our life.
There’s a thin line between being invested in our work (which is good) and being over-invested (which can lead to the type of obsessive behavior that robs us of strong relationships and our well-being). Over-investing in work can also lead to a type of vicious anxiety where the work isn’t just part of our life…it can feel like it’s life or death.

One mistake can cancel out several superb accomplishments. Then, fear of committing another mistake can prompt job insecurity and a paralyzing fear that just one more mistake can lead to a pink slip. And then we’re marked by the stigma of the Scarlet Letter F – for Fired AKA Failure-at-Life.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. But wait.

If you’re still with me so far, hang on. I’m about to take this whole line of thinking for a U-turn because maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe this is my cynical persona taking me for a ride.

Instead, if I listen to the quiet voice of inner wisdom that whispers in the space where my ego screams, it reminds me that all is One and Life is interconnected. And our Work is a testament to our love not just for our self but a gift to this fractured world.

As someone who has experienced career success as well as career hell, here’s where I openly admit that I struggle with two concepts: realism and idealism. The real provides a protective fence for my ego. By avowing that my organization is not my family, it allows me to keep the group at arm’s length so I can’t be hurt. By acknowledging that my employee is not my friend, I can more easily make the decision to cut him loose with a parting comment that it’s “just business.” Maybe this protective fence is what keeps me from fully living life, fully sharing my talents with others, fully being human (and therefore vulnerable) with each person I encounter in my daily journey.

Perhaps these five “cynical” concepts I’ve described above have the opportunity to be turned around and transformed into something more spiritually rewarding, and therefore more radical in society and our modern workplace. What if organizations can be more human spaces where respect wins over condescension, courage over fear, service over power, and vulnerability over arrogance?

I wonder what our organizations would look like?

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The War On Play

Playground and treesWhy is there a war being fought against play?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself for a while.

I hear it when I talk to friends about the near-constant stresses of their work. The fear of taking time off only to see the mountain of work upon their return. The endless cycle of meetings where conversation tends to focus on the tactical, on the execution, on the pressure to get shit done NOW. If I would ask, “But did you get to actually play today?” they would look at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. And for good reason…we’ve pretty much separated the ideas of work and play in our current economy.

But there’s a reason why I decided to call this site Bailey WorkPlay back in 2006. Because I truly believe we can and must reconnect work and play if our organizations are going to succeed.

Yes, it’s an uphill battle and the latest employee engagement statistics don’t offer much reason for optimism. Not to be a Dougie Downer, but we’re not exactly helping our kids see the connection, either. I witness this every day when my children bring piles of homework from school. Just this past weekend, my 14 year old daughter probably had four or five hours of personal time. The other remaining hours were devoted to projects, studying, and various other work. For her, play has become a luxury she can’t afford.

It’s almost as if our educational system is saying, “Get used to it kids. We’re preparing you for the real world where work is first. Life is just that thing that fills in the odd spaces.”

Why do we believe this is okay? Why have we decided that we need far less time to play, create, and wonder? Why do we regard learning as this intensely serious undertaking instead of the playful possibility it can be? Is this a reason we see so many more instances of depression and anxiety among adults and teens today?

Maybe it’s because as much as we like to believe we value creativity, we really don’t know how to handle it…in our businesses and in our schools.

What will it take for us to make play a vital tool in creating vibrant learning organizations?

Resources:
Aeon Magazine: The Play Deficit

Slate: Inside the Box

 

Photo credit: eurodrifter

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Three Myths Of Corporate Culture

Messy CordsOne of the reasons I’m attracted to anthropology is because I want to better understand something that most businesses fail to fully comprehend: organizational culture. There are countless posts out there by otherwise well-intended people trying to describe “corporate” culture. Trying to clarify how this concept of culture works. Trying to explain how we can create culture that gets results.

These posts are all very nice. And most of them are dead wrong, at least in terms of trying to convince us that culture is this narrowly-defined concept bereft of nuance and appreciation for complexity.

In a blogpost last week, Rand Fishkin wrote about what company culture is and is not. On whole, it’s one of the better and more eloquent attempts by a business leader…but it still simplifies culture down to what are very limiting ideas. Yes, culture can encompass shared beliefs and values. Yes, it can include how people act and behave together. But too many organizations use culture to control their people and institute a false sense of order. When this happens, they are perverting culture to be just another management tool.

Business leaders do this based on what I have found to be three interrelated myths of organizational culture:

Myth #1. Culture can be built, top-down.
Yes, it’s important for leadership to clearly articulate goals, values, and mission. But these elements merely provide direction and structure, the expectations of management. They are not the culture themselves. The problem is that management has come to see culture as one more way to institute controls over employees. If you read, “This is the [insert company name] way” when discussing culture, then you’re reading a top-down, executive mandate for what management wants the culture to be…but likely not what actually is. And just because the CEO says, “This is our culture” doesn’t make it true. It’s way bigger than that.

Myth #2. There is just one culture.
No matter how many people call an organization their professional home, there is not just one culture in play. Actually, there are multiple cultures and subcultures that often get overlooked. Even in a small start-up, think about the differences between accounting and sales teams. Yes, they may adhere to the same shared norms and values of the company, but how they work and interact are very different.

This isn’t even including the cultures we bring with us from our own outside lives. Think of the large, multi-national companies with work teams spanning the globe. We don’t shelve our personal lives when we enter the front door of the office, why then would we expect folks to shelve their respective cultures?

Again, by emphasizing one monolithic culture, management can feel like it’s exerting control over the organization. This also ignores the next myth, which is…

Myth #3. Culture is tame and structured.
This is the most pernicious lie that business leaders tell each other. Instead, here’s something closer to the truth: Culture is messy. It’s constantly evolving. It can be fragile and bewildering. This is what happens when people come together. We’re not programmable robots. We’re extraordinarily complex creatures with emotions, dreams, fears, and ambitions.

Corporate culture isn’t a highly conformed and stable melting pot. Instead, think of it more as a dynamic mixed bag of goodies of all shapes, sizes, and flavors.

It pains me to see culture get thrown around like so many other management buzzwords. This is when it gets stripped of its meaning, its vitality, and its power to convey something that is truly beautiful in its complexity.

Photo credit: otkuda via Flickr

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The Seduction of Best Practices

I’ve been a fan of Dave Snowden for a while. Every so often I peek in on his work at Cognitive Edge and am often blown away by his insights. Here’s his take on best practices:

Now when you say that we should prepare ourselves to handle an uncertain future most people agree without a problem, the trouble comes when you try and explain just how major a shift in thinking this is going to be. For starters you don’t prepare for future uncertainty but following recipes based on case studies of what has succeeded in the past. Best practice is generally past practice and suffused with the seductive opiate of retrospective coherence and apparent safety. Many a reader of the airport Management how it was done books has fallen for the charms of the lotus eaters. I often see these books as examples of detective fiction, the author can decide who did it, while scattering multiple clues to mislead the curious reader. With the benefit of hindsight the final denouement allows the hero/heroine to show their genius by connecting the dots. Being wise after the event is only too easy, seeing patterns of causality in past case studies is too often an example of fundamental attribution error, confusing correlation with causation.

Indeed, there is quite a seductive quality to adhering to best practices. This is the introduction to a series talking about his three principles of complexity based management.

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Why It’s Not Smart To Assume Universal Values

Think those values around ethical research you have are universal? Think again. The folks at Mind Hacks point to an interesting article from the Dana Foundation about how different cultures share different worldviews of ideas like knowledge, ownership and anonymity.

The scientific method itself also conflicts with indigenous Canadian peoples’ worldview. Most scientists consider knowledge to be objective, evidence-based, and individualistic. It resides within individuals, and scientific research aims to obtain this knowledge from groups of individuals and natural phenomena, to construct an objective view of the truth. By contrast, many indigenous peoples view knowledge as relational—it is received and constructed from one’s relationships with other people, including that which is passed down from ancestors, and with the relationship with the natural world.

What does this mean for market researchers and business anthropologists? It’s yet another cautionary message that simply assuming each population we study shares our values can yield very poor insights. Not every organizational culture is the same. Study companies for just a short time and you’ll notice that each one assigns different values and meanings to knowledge, collaboration, and leadership.

So rather than starting from a place of knowing how an organization works, thinks, and behaves, we have to take a few steps back to that place of unknowing. Otherwise, our research becomes more a study of ourselves instead of our actual subjects.

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Great Customer Engagement Starts On The Inside

Most businesses that know they need to create a customer engagement program start with good questions:

How do we establish our brand promise and get it in the forefront of our customers’ minds?

How do we become an essential partner with our customers?

How can we best understand their everyday needs and challenges?

What’s missing here, though? Most questions and objectives that drive customer engagement programs focus on the external but give little thought and planning to the internal…you know, those people you might know as “employees.” I’m probably preaching to the choir if you’re a community manager or in a similar role where your success is tied to gaining internal buy-in (if this is you, feel free to share this post with your manager, CMO, or CEO who needs a good prodding).

Okay, so if you or your company is intent on implementing a customer engagement program think about how it will integrate into your organizational cultures and dynamics. The question that needs to be asked is:

How can we generate acceptance and adoption of this program throughout the organization?

Success in your program begins with making sure your entire organization and workforce is aligned to your program’s goals. Here are a few ideas to make that happen:

Get internal buy-in. Yeah, I know…easier said than done. But consider this: your customers are savvy enough to know when they’re being conned and even a whiff of insincerity will trigger a nasty visceral response that will only get amplified through the web and social media. Avoid that insincerity by making sure that each one of your employees – not just the ones who are customer-facing – know the objectives and expectations of your customer engagement program. Each employee needs to embody the soul of your program. If they don’t, they might as well just answer the phone with “Hello, how can I lie to you today?”

Identify prospective employee evangelists. Just as you’re going to want to locate your customer evangelists, you need to figure out who among your employees are going to be crucial to successfully launching your program. Not sure? Conduct a social network analysis inside your organization. That will help you determine who your prime influencers and connectors are. These folks are not always managers and execs…they could be your receptionist or mailroom guy or junior salesperson. But whoever they are, you need to encourage them on-board, get knowledgeable about the program, and give them all the tools and resources they need to evangelize your program from the inside.

Understand and build competencies. Don’t assume all your employees are techno-wizards and social media smarty-pants. Many are not so it’s your mission to figure out which individuals need training and then deliver it. If you’re developing an online community, give your folks a chance to get their mitts on it. If you’re using video to connect with customers, make sure your employees know what’s happening so they don’t sound like ignorant buffoons. Nothing is worse than developing a slick new program but not having all your employees reading and working from the same playbook.

And for heaven’s sake, BE REAL. I’m going to level with you about something you probably already know: trust in corporations is at a pretty dismal place right now. Customers are on hyper-alert for any phoniness so if you’re thinking you can glide your way through an engagement program, you might want to let your PR folks know up front. Your program will only be successful if your business and brand are real, honest, transparent, and caring about your customers. Get that right and your customers will be open and willing to build a great relationship with your company.

photo credit: pdxdiver (via Flickr)

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The Myth of Fit

Bob Sutton is one of my heroes. This excerpt gives some indication why:

Does your interview decision-making process end something like this?

I like this candidate. She fits our organization. She’s like us.

If so, it’s time to take a good look at the organization you’re building. In this day and age, do you truly believe the best way to succeed is going to be hiring like-minded people with like-minded outlooks and like-minded skillsets? If so, tell me how the view at the bottom looks. Because here’s the brutal truth: it’s not the like-minded individuals that grow and transform business in this maelstrom. It’s the counter-thinkers, the revolutionaries, the courageous souls who throw all the usual bullshit out the window in order to make room for ideas that transform.

Bob Sutton – Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company (p 11)

How many organizations use their “corporate culture” like a cudgel, bludgeoning and cramming every employee into a narrowly defined sense of what fits the executives’ idea of success? Its always couched in a way that makes it seem like its the best course of health for the business…but is it? For every Zappos that might get it right, there are countless other organizations that flail about with yet another way to control their employees.

Is the notion of corporate culture that’s paraded about today beneficial? Or does it lead to a form of necrosis that threatens the future welfare of the enterprise? Unlike organic cultures, corporate cultures rarely evolve. Instead, they become entrenched, just one more thing that gets added to the mentality of this is the way things have always been done.

What if there’s a different way of understanding culture? Of creating a better workplace that is not only successfully groomed for the future, but humanizes the organization?

As you get ready to enter 2010, take a good, hard look at whether your “corporate” culture is growing and transforming your business. Or if it’s creating Stepford-like employees who think and act alike, now is the time to make changes to your people practices.

It’s okay to embrace values to define your organization, but not at the expense of insisting each and every employee conforms to a top-down, highly limited idea of corporate culture. Stop seeking out and creating clones. Let your employees bring their whole selves to work even if parts of those selves conflict with your notion of “fit.”

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Six Criteria For A Healthy And Effective Workplace

Sick and tired of being sick and tired about work? While indicators for workplace health my be declining, all is not lost. Ellen Galinsky at the Families and Work Institute notes there are six ways organizations can promote a healthier and more effective workplace.

As a manager or executive, how does your organization rank based on these criteria?

  • learning opportunities and challenge
  • a good fit between work and personal life
  • autonomy
  • having a supervisor who supports job success
  • economic security
  • a work climate of respect and trust

More from the CNN Health article…

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The Fallacy Of The "Don't Be Stupid" Policy

Apparently, some well-known companies have a social media policy that goes like this: Don’t be stupid. The underlying assumption is that hiring smart people means these same smart people interpret stupidity the same way. Really? That’s a pretty stupid assumption but I think I understand it. Hear me out and let me know if I’m off-base here:

Companies either…want to overcontrol the mischief their employees can make via social media so they impose a laundry list of legal “do’s and don’t’s” that make everyone paranoid about doing anything online. The results are bad relations with employees, a stifling of innovative external outreach and a reputation for being a stodgy, stick-in-the-mud company.

Or…companies want to let their employees feel free to sow their wild social media oats but acknowledge that some protection must be used. So they tell their folks, “Hey, go forth and have fun, but don’t do anything stupid.” The result is that no one knows what they hell “stupid” means. It’s rather like a parent handing their 16 year old teen driver the keys to the car with an expectation that the kid is smart and nothing dumb will happen. So what does happen? The kid gets caught up in the moment of unfettered freedom and wrecks the car anyway. How many smart people has that happened to? Plenty…and I’m one of them.

So we clearly have a problem with the whole “Don’t Be Stupid” policy. Might I propose something slightly more realistic: Put a fence around your organization’s social media activity.

Yes, I’m advocating for something in the middle of the two extremes of strict legalistic policies and loose freedom. It’s something akin to what my wife explains to me everyday in her work as a preschool teacher. We all need to know where our boundaries are, regardless if we’re 4, 24, or 44 years old. The key is to set boundaries that give a person room to roam and explore their space. Set the boundary too tight and you impede curiosity and growth; set it too loose and you risk losing focus and consistency.

What to do? Here are two key ideas but remember to put them in context with your own organization’s business strategy, organizational structure, and people policies.

Purpose: Why are we engaging in social media dialogue with our customers?
It’s a simple question that far too many organizations don’t have a consistent answer to. But using social media tools without a purpose is like taking a hammer and banging on your walls: yes, you’re doing something but you’re not really sure if it’s anything constructive (probably not). Every single organization that is using or thinking about using social media tools needs a purpose. Without that purpose, then everyone’s reasons for Twittering or Facebooking or blogging is acceptable by default.

Policy: How much room do we have to roam about in the social media space?
I didn’t say I was completely against policy. What I am against are policies created solely from upon high in the organization (likely with Legal’s review) and then set in stone. What this manages to do is disconnect the actual employee practitioners from the process. More command-and-control that regards employees as cogs that can be moved as needed by management.

Policy needs to be created like this:

  • Based around your organization’s purpose, involve a diversity of perspectives and gather input into the creation process.
  • Revisit your policy on a frequent basis. Anything need to be changed? Added? Deleted entirely? Policy should be a fluid, evolving structure that gives everyone an idea of where their boundaries lie.


Peer-Observation: How will we monitor our actions and progress?

Your organization has a purpose in using social media tools. And it has a set of policies to guide activity. How will you make sure they’re used appropriately? Rather than set one person up as the brute squad enforcer or make it just management’s responsibility to curb questionable activity, create an expectation that all participants will monitor their peers’ activity. And build a process where these issues can be addressed as learning opportunities as opposed to sanctioned beat-downs. If you’re not sure if this will work based on levels of trust or camaraderie in your organization, then you might have another problem to deal with first.

The thing about social media is that you better trust your people to speak honestly about their work and their experiences. If you’re thinking of launching any social media initiative and you don’t trust your folks…well, that would just be dumb.

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