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psychological contract

A couple of years ago I coached a client who worked at a high-end fashion company.

He knew he made a mistake taking the job on his first day.

The onboarding process consisted solely of being shown where his desk and chair was. Nobody came around to say hello or offer their help if he needed it. There was no training, no welcoming, no nothing.

He sat in his chair wondering what exactly he was supposed to do.

“Okay,” he realized, “I have to figure this out on my own.” And so began a trial-by-fire process to learn the ropes. Every time he made a mistake, his boss would come out from her office to scold him publicly. In fact, the only reason she ever emerged from her office was to scold him.

That was how he learned the job: by training himself, making an innocent mistake, and then being told he did it all wrong.

When his boss sat down with him for his first performance review she told him, “We’ve never had someone make this many mistakes before.”

This was actually a line she had used on each person who held his position before him. He later learned that his boss was getting the same hostile treatment from her own boss, the president of the company. The president treated everyone under him the same way, and an atmosphere of fear and shame pervaded the entire company.

[There was even spyware on every computer in case the president decided to arbitrarily see what any person was doing at any particular time.]

The reason I’m sharing this story is to show how deeply a leader’s behavior can propagate throughout an organization. How a leader relates to the people around them can set a precedent for the entire culture.

The Emotional Footprint

Most of us are familiar with the idea of our carbon footprint, and we try to take steps to reduce the negative impact of our lifestyle on the Earth.

We understand that if we throw garbage on the ground, drive a car that gets 5 miles per gallon, and never recycle, those choices will have a real impact on the environment that only compounds over time.

Most of us take steps to make sure we’re not unnecessarily destroying the Earth with our carbon footprint, but we might not realize we are leaving an emotional footprint too:

The effect that a person or company has on the work environment of an organization and its people.

An emotional footprint is the result of emotional contagion, be it positive or negative. As a leader, your emotions and the way you relate to the people around you affects the organizational environment, oftentimes in ways you might not anticipate.

It’s when the emotional footprint is negative that is cause for concern. Like an oil spill in a coral reef, toxic emotions or interpersonal practices from a leader can cause drastic damage to the balance of an organization.

Emotional contagion spreads like wildfire.

So many factors contribute to the emotional footprint impressed upon a people and an organization. Just like there is a variety of different ways to pollute the earth, there is a plethora of ways a leader can sour the emotional environment of an organization.

It can be small, ongoing things.

It could be a bad mood or a short temper. It could be nitpicking, micromanaging, and mistrust. It could be ego or an unwillingness to admit mistakes. It could simply be a harsh and unappreciative communication style.

Or it could be something extreme, like Jackie Bucia, who was the emotional equivalent of the BP oil spill for the automotive group she worked for. In 2011, Jackie asked her employee, Debbie, to give her a kidney. After Debbie underwent surgery and gave away her kidney, Jackie (allegedly) fired Debbie for not recovering quick enough from the surgery leaving Debbie without health insurance.

Actions like the above pollute the minds of the people in the organization, which causes unproductive group dynamics, a lack of trust, and a decline in creativity and collaboration.

For example, if the CEO treats all employees – regardless of status – with respect and appreciation, then that sense of equality and respect will diffuse throughout the organization.

If, on the other hand, the CEO acts like she is a queen and every other employee is her servant, the emotional atmosphere will be tense; the struggle for power will hinder people working together towards the common, organizational goals.

For a leader, it’s always a good idea to conduct an emotional footprint test, to gauge the overarching emotional vibe running through the organization.

Emotions spread like wildfire, and if you have an outbreak of negativity polluting the air you want to contain it before it destroys productivity and morale.

Keep an open door policy

The easiest and quickest way to feel the pulse of your organization is to promote a culture where people feel comfortable to speak their mind, and share their feelings.

Promote psychological safety. Create a comfortable environment where speaking your mind is accepted, and expected. Feeling safe to be vulnerable, to take risks, to just be, can be powerfully motivating. Google conducted 200+ interviews over the course of 2 years looking at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. They found the teams that had achieved psychological safety were the most successful.

Create a space where leaders accept feedback from employees, anyone can ask for help, and employees are allowed to make mistakes, especially when they are taking a risk or developing a new skill.

Check yourself before your wreck yourself

Leaders must maintain a healthy daily dose of self-awareness. Before you enter the workspace conduct a self-examination:

·     What kinds of thoughts are floating through your head?

·     Do you feel happy or sad?

·     Are you feeling introverted or extroverted?

·     Are you inspired, indifferent, or unenthusiastic about work?

Rest assured whatever is going on in your head is going to create a chain reaction. If you are stressed, frustrated, and angry at the world, those emotions will play out in the workplace and they will spread throughout your team.

Create a positive onboarding experience

Make the first impression the right one. When a new hire starts make them feel welcome. Get the team together and give your new member a chance to get to know everyone.

Sounds simple and yet it is overlooked more often than you’d think. Many leaders simply do not take the time to incorporate a positive onboarding experience, which in turn sets the tone for that new hire’s experience at said company.

Submit yourself to a 360-Degree Assessment

A 360-Degree assessment is a chance for your supervisors, direct reports, and peers to anonymously give you feedback about your strengths and weaknesses.

This is a very quick and easy – though not necessarily painless – way to get a snapshot of how your coworkers think of you.

Have the 360-Degree assessment be conducted by an executive coach or leadership development team to help analyze your feedback and develop a plan to improve upon the negative aspects of your personality or leadership style.

When it comes down to it, we’re talking about self-awareness, and widening the scope of your self-awareness isn’t always easy. It’s emotional, it’s personal, and directly confronts your ego. In the long run, however, you’ll be thankful you did it.

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I hate managing people. Probably most people do. In my ideal world everyone knows what they have to do, they do it on time, without being reminded, and we all co-exist as a happy, independent – but also bonded – self-directed, motivated working family. Not so hard, right?

Well, it’s a tad hard actually.

Everyone has different skillsets, different brains, and different methodologies. Moreover, not everyone possesses a self-directed, entrepreneurial brain, despite the push these days to cultivate the intrapreneur. There will always be people who need specific direction and those that don’t, and neither is better than the other.

In a typical week I meet with my team to discuss agendas and ideas, then we break for the week, and then re-group the following week. I’m less concerned about adhering to a specific schedule or traditional workday than I am about giving people the freedom to work according to their individual style.

What I didn’t foresee when I started my leadership consulting business though is that:

too much flexibility and independence can set a low bar if not paired with strong accountability.

I’ve had my share of horrible bosses; I didn’t want to repeat their mistakes and bad behavior. I vowed to create a space where people could work and thrive independently.

Everyone was free to work according to their own schedule but when tasks and projects weren’t completed I allowed for further flexibility and understanding, which didn’t yield the desired results. I found myself repeatedly asking for work week after week that I wasn’t getting.

The following are some lessons I learned about how flexibility, understanding, and accountability work with – and against – each other.

1. Be specific about what you want so you get what you want.

It doesn’t make someone weak if they need specific directives. Have an initial conversation to uncover what kind of work style the person has (particularly in remote working situations) and what they expect from you. Maybe run an assessment on them so you get a glimpse into their personality. What you want to avoid is having this conversation repeatedly:

You: This isn’t what I wanted, this is what I wanted.

Employee: Oh I didn’t hear you say that.

You: I thought it was a given.

Was it a given? Or do you need to…

2. Manage your own expectations.

Not everyone is going to think like you. They may have the intrapreneurial gene but that doesn’t mean they will fill in the blanks for everything that needs to be done to carry the business forward. Develop awareness of your own expectations and of your employees’ abilities. Don’t expect someone with an “employee” mindset to be the best independent worker capable of doing what you haven’t outlined. On that note…

3. Don’t expect people to care as much as you do.

Even your hardest-working, most devout employee will never care about the company quite the same was as you. It’s not their baby, they don’t feel the day-to-day pressure that comes with owning and operating a business, and ultimately they can always leave if they want. This is a good starting point so you can…

4. Recognize everyone has strengths and weaknesses (including you) but don’t let them off the hook for their weaknesses.

People will favor their “strong arm” naturally but ignoring your weak arm causes injury to the rest of your body, so to speak. You owe it to your employees to challenge them to work on their weaknesses and hold them accountable for their development. If you allow them to only do what they’re good at, you will only give them certain projects, they’ll only expect to get specific projects, and you’ll end up doing work you probably should have delegated, which will build resentment, which is why you need to make it known that…

5. Flexibility is earned.

If your people don’t do what they said they would, then they’ve lost their flexibility. They will feel the jarring brunt of that loss when they incur more attention on themselves and find they are being managed to a degree they hadn’t been beforehand. Or you may find it necessary to implement harsher consequences.

Netflix has been praised for having the ideal company culture under the umbrella of “freedom and responsibility.” You get all the vacation you want, you can expense without approval, they don’t have yearly performance reviews, you’re paid well, and you have the freedom to work and innovate without being bogged down by process. They take the high road and treat everyone as adults and as such they expect you to act and work like one.

They have a strong accountability in place: you’re expected to work at a high level or you might be asked to leave. Another way to phrase all this is…

6. The High Road i.e. “Don’t make me manage you.”

If everyone does what’s expected of them, then ultimately there’s no need for a “manager” per se. “Managers” exist when people can’t be trusted. They are carry-overs from the old guard when employees were considered “guilty until proven innocent.” If you set the expectations, are specific about what you want, and understand the work mentalities of your employees, then you state that your policy is the “high road” policy, where as long as expectations are met then flexibility is there for the taking. And if you find that you are not holding people accountable, then…

7. Self-analyze.

Ask yourself some hard questions:

Are you not being direct because you want people to like you?

Are you afraid to manage people?

Do you expect everyone to be entrepreneurs?

Do you in fact know what you want or were you hoping your employees would figure it out for you?

And when they didn’t figure it out did you then realize the onus is still on you to figure it out and now it’s one more thing you have to do?

And now you hate yourself and everyone else and you need go on a coffee run?

It’s ok, you can still…

8. Right the ship.

Start implementing continuous feedback and accountability. Create deadlines and don’t let people off the hook. A lot of pressure rests on the boss – and company – to build the perfect workplace culture, but it’s a two-way street: employees are also responsible for earning the flexibility and understanding. This is especially hard in remote situations, but make it a mantra that “accountability comes before flexibility.”

Create a working relationship where feedback is open and welcome; this is the only way you set the bar higher.

 

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When my husband was a child, he couldn’t understand why his older brother would voluntarily go to Hebrew School. Worried he would face the same fate, he asked his mother if he would have to go at some point too.

“When you want to know what it means to be Jewish, then I’ll send you to Hebrew School,” his mother told him. Great, my husband thought, all I have to do is never utter those words and I’m home free.

Cut to:

His brother’s bar mitzvah: a huge, lavish party at an expensive hotel, with dancing, food, drinks, laughter, friends, family, and most importantly…TONS OF PRESENTS and MONEY.

The next day, my husband, eight years old at the time, said to his mother, “I want to know what it means to be Jewish.” And off he went to Hebrew School for five years, at the end of which he got his party, his presents, and some cash.

Cut to the present: He has not stepped foot inside a temple since.

I offer this parable to illustrate the effect of extrinsic motivation in the workplace, that being that the offer of rewards – bonuses, raises – do not create employee engagement, retention, or loyalty. With our eye on the prize, we will work towards the reward dangling in front of us until we get it – we will do the bare minimum to get it – and then we will move on to greener pastures.

This is in opposition to intrinsic motivation, which is inspiring someone from within, when an employee wants to do a good job out of a personal and professional sense of integrity. They want to do a good job for the company and for themselves because they find meaning in their work and that meaning gives them a sense of purpose in life.

It is up to the individual to come to work desiring meaning in their work, but it is also up to the leader to inspire from within.

When an Employee Goes Through the Motions

Neuroscientist Patrick Haggard, at University College London, studied the effects of intentional action vs action that is performed because of directives.

What he discovered is that intentional action creates a warped sense of time. If, for example, you have a button that makes a sound and you intentionally press that button to make the sound you will think the sound comes much quicker than it actually does (a phenomenon called “intentional binding”). This warped sense of time is absent from those who press the button because they’re told to; they have a clear sense of the time interval between the button being pressed and the sound created.

This warped time factor can be neurally recorded and this “neural signature,” as Gopnik put it, is how neuroscientists determine whether an individual feels a sense of agency or not with their decisions.

In their studies, whenever a subject was told to do something the intentional binding neural signature was absent. When a subject acted out of their own free will the intentional binding neural signature was present.

To be clear, If we feel a sense of agency, the neural signature of not being aware of time intervals is present; if we don’t feel a sense of agency the neural signature is absent and we clearly remember the time intervals between action and the result of that action.

The end result is that when the neural signature is absent the subject doesn’t feel as though the decision to, say, press the button was their own. It was an order given to them. And as such they don’t feel like it was they who did it.

How does this affect meaning in the workplace?

The more agency you give your employees the more they will feel that they themselves are doing the work, they are creating and assigning the value to their work, and this motivates them from within because they have a sense of free will.

If their job solely consists of taking orders and doing what they are told they will feel a lack of agency, and this lack of agency will create a gap between themselves and the work being done. They will not feel invested, like their own mind was being used, like they are making their own decisions and creating meaningful work on their own.

They will grow bored, feeling untapped. They will work to not be punished. They will work for the paycheck, and the paycheck only goes so far. You will create employees who feel no sense of loyalty and will not experience any guilt over leaving you high and dry should something better come along.

Inspire from within!

You want to create an aligned, harmonious culture where the people are engaged and feel a sense of loyalty to the work.

Doing so requires replacing our habitual, unconscious day-to-day behavior with a conscious relational philosophy built on heightened social awareness and skillful relationship management. It’s called having a relational philosophy.

Here are some tips for doing just that:

  1. Find out what other interests / passions your people have. And then utilize them. This creates more meaning for their life and feeds back into the company by creating an aligned, sticky culture. Promote individuality so people feel like their specific existence plays a valued role in the organization/company.
  2. Promote psychological safety. Create a comfortable environment where speaking up is nurtured. Feeling safe to be vulnerable, to take risks, to just be can be powerfully motivating. Google conducted 200+ interviews over the course of 2 years looking at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. They found the teams that had achieved psychological safety were the most successful.
  3. Create Supportive, Friendly Competition. Focus on how everyone’s individual efforts help the entire team achieve success. Remain alert for unwarranted complaints about others, angry outbursts, backstabbing, finger pointing, and sabotage. Create friendly competition, not an ultimate “win or lose” challenge among team members.
  4. Celebrate Success. Celebrating small wins motivates. It helps teams stay focused on what they are working for, and it gives everyone a chance to reflect on their successes. Take everyone out for drinks or create some time during the workday to acknowledge the wins.
  5. Show Appreciation. Feeling appreciated is a core emotional concern for all humans. It is part of our make-up. A simple thank you, a handwritten note, a pat on the back, or gratitude for someone’s unique contribution can be more motivating than money. If you want to give a token of appreciation, tailor it to the individual: show that you’ve been listening (e.g., a day at the spa, tickets to someone’s favorite band or restaurant that they keep talking about). This makes the gesture unforgettable.
  6. Pay attention to the environment. If you can, build a beautiful, cozy, fun, creative atmosphere for you and your people to work in. Research has shown that environment can be more important and more motivating than money. Our surroundings can inspire our brains.
  7. Hire for cultural fit. You’re building a clan. It behooves you to hire with personality in mind, not just credentials. We spend most of our lives with our coworkers, it thus makes sense for these people to be our friends, people with whom we’d like to get a drink and spend time with outside of work. For proof of concept, look to Zappos. I recommend reading Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness.
  8. Be flexible. For instance, if a remote work situation produces good results from a valued employee, work out an arrangement that works for all parties. Saying no just because it’s never happened before is spiteful. If you can’t reward with money, maybe there are other things you can do to show appreciation – be creative! Think outside of the box.

The tale of Sisyphus is oft-used as a metaphor for drudgery and drone office work. We can all potentially turn into – or feel like we are being turned into – Sisyphus, taking repetitive orders to complete mindless tasks ad nauseum.

But we don’t have to live that way. Our work lives don’t have to be mindless, hopeless struggles. Leaders should play a major role in that pursuit: create meaning in the workplace to the best of your ability, acknowledge successes, and reward the struggle.

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Dear Boss,

The reason I gave our client the wrong info is because I was trying to wrap up all of these other assignments that you wanted by the end of the week, all of which were very tedious and draining. It’s no wonder I sent the wrong proposal, given my workload.

___

Dear Employee,

Thank you for pointing out I am at fault. It helps me. I’ll try not to give you any more work. I’d hate for you to make mistakes because of work. In fact I’d hate for there to be any work at all for anyone. Let’s just dissolve the company. That way, no one will ever feel forced by me to make mistakes.

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Why Your Torture Plan Will Surely Backfire

Your excuse better be irrefutably great if you intend to deflect responsibility, otherwise you come off as unreliable. You won’t have to worry about not making the same mistake twice because you will probably be given less to do, for fear that it won’t be done. Sure, that may be a motivator for some but for those of you that want to get somewhere in your career, consider it one of the career snafus that can damage your reputation. Most importantly, it reveals a lack of interest in doing better, which is unattractive.

___

Maybe Try this Instead?

It’s simple: take ownership. Even if you don’t fully believe you are to blame it’s going to be a hard sell otherwise. Taking ownership at least proves your sanity, your humility, and your ability to admit fault, which – with the right leader – actually garners more respect than deflection, which leaves everyone feeling cheated.

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Dear Boss,

I just realized today was the deadline for me to get you the final piece for the new campaign that you asked me to make a priority. I unfortunately don’t have the work done, but if it’s any consolation I did finish this other project that won’t create any sales, because I don’t know why exactly.

___

Dear Employee,

For some reason, I’m not feeling consoled. I think it’s primarily because the project you did finish doesn’t have any effect on us making money and the project you didn’t finish does. I guess I never specifically said out loud to concentrate first on the projects that have a direct impact on our sales, but let’s make that the policy going forward, whadda ya say?

___

Why Your Torture Plan Will Surely Backfire

You prioritized your work at your own expense. Companies are only in business when they make money and tasks that don’t further the company’s sales are typically not the most important. More importantly though, when there’s a deadline you have to meet, alert the powers that be that you need more time. Nothing worse than finding out the day something’s due you won’t be getting it.

___

Maybe Try this Instead?

Make sure you know what is a priority and what isn’t. Though one project might be more attractive because you can easily see how to complete it, make sure you finish the high priority items first. Typically we avoid that which is taxing our brain and giving us trouble. Definitely ask for an extension if you don’t see yourself completing the work by the deadline. And if you do find yourself having not met a deadline without having given any advanced warning, it’s best to simply apologize, give an ETA, and get it done asap.

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Dear Employee,

Every night at 6PM I like to kick my heels up and take a breather from the day’s work. You might have seen me with my legs on my desk, hands behind my head, gazing out the window. As a boss it’s important for me to enjoy a moment of zen. It recharges me. At about 6:30 I resume work and then go home at about 7.

___

Dear Boss,

I’ve noticed. Right about the time as you kick up your heels I am usually about to leave for the day, that is until I see your reclining silhouette basking in a state of nirvana. I then re-open my computer to make it look like I’m still working and text my spouse that I’m not sure when I’ll be coming home. The next hour or so is one of excruciating boredom as we all wait for you to head out the door and give us the thumbs up for working so hard.

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Why Your Torture Plan Will Surely Backfire

It’s a mental lock down. As the employee’s response above indicates, you’re not breeding harder workers per se but rather an environment that keeps bodies in chairs for an extra hour each day. The fact that this pattern occurs at the end of the workday means your employees leave the office with “Get me out of here!” reverberating through their brain, tires screeching out of the parking lot.

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Maybe Try this Instead?

It’s easily fixable and not one of life’s major work struggles. Simply let your employees know that if their work is done and/or they need to cut out for some personal reason they’re free to go. This policy instills trust and engagement. Like most things in life communication is key. If on the other hand you’re relishing the mental lock down, completely aware that no one is leaving because you’re still in the office, you might find a career as a pig farmer more enriching.

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