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workplace culture

Sometimes I like to go to the movies by myself because I only laugh if I truly find something funny and I might like a story that – were I with others – I might not otherwise like due to my subconscious perception of their reaction.

When we go to the movies with someone, we are swayed by their laughter or their mood, and that in turn colors our experience of what we are watching.

And isn’t that true for most of our group experiences in life?

Those around us often affect our moods, reactions, thoughts, and feelings. So it goes to reason that when we put ourselves into groups and teams in the workplace we will also be affected by the personalities that surround us.

Sometimes, teams gain their strength by being greater than the sum of their individual members. But group dynamics and social influence can cause far more problems than they solve.

Groups, whether they are an executive team or a religious cult, are susceptible to making decisions that none of the individuals involved would have chosen or condoned independently.

When it comes to why smart individuals make dumb group decisions there are four major factors.

1. Overconfidence

There comes a point when healthy confidence dips over the edge into overconfidence:

When we are excessively confident, to a fault, in our own abilities.

Overconfidence breeds arrogance, which can lead to faulty decision-making.

This is dangerous for anyone, but particularly for leaders. If we are so confident in ourselves that we disregard facts and/or insight that would benefit us, then we’re headed down a self-destructive path, and we are taking everyone down with us.

Interestingly, groups do not quell overconfidence; rather, individuals tend to grow more confident in groups.

One way this happens is through our cognitive biases, like the confirmation bias:

our propensity to seek out and weigh only the information that supports our beliefs or decisions.

In a group setting confirmation bias can play out in dangerous ways.

It’s much easier to share information with a group that supports the consensus or the new idea everyone likes. It’s much more difficult to be the “wet blanket” who has information or an opinion that goes against the group momentum.

On a larger scale, confirmation bias can begin with the formation of the group. For example, if I have an exciting but expensive idea for a new marketing campaign, I might not invite the budget-minded CFO for a discussion of my plan.

With a lack of dissenting voices and information, individuals in a group can grow more and more confident in the infallibility of their ideas and make poor decisions.

2. Common Knowledge

New ideas are hard to come by – and accept when brought to the table – but it’s even more difficult to take the risk and share a totally new idea with a group. This is why groups tend to rely on common knowledge when they get together to generate ideas.

It’s much easier to talk about that which you know already than that which you don’t.

Group members prefer to exchange information held in common because they receive more favorable reactions.

If you play it safe and stick to the status quo, you aren’t vulnerable, causing any anxiety, or potentially sounding like an idiot.

If, however, you are the sole member of a group with a new, innovative idea, the odds are against you.

When you present something that is unknown, unseen, and unproven, you can make people psychologically uncomfortable because they have to consider their biases and assumptions, critically think about the issue at hand, and have to decide whether or not they want to change (and people hate to change).

3. Groupthink

In the famous Asch conformity studies, participants are seated at a table with a few other people, whom they believe are fellow participants but are actually actors.

A researcher presents the group with cards like ones pictured below and asks the folks sitting at the table which line, A, B, or C, matches the height of the line on the left. The actors answer first, each going down the line and answering incorrectly, “A”. The participant then has to give his answer.

While the answer is obviously “C”, about 1/3 of people will conform to the actors’ incorrect answer.

Now, you might be thinking: “I would never conform and say the blatantly wrong answer!” However, what if instead of random actors answering the question before you, it was your boss and other members of the upper management at your company? Would you defiantly give your honest answer or would you conform to avoid rocking the boat?

We are social creatures, and our desire to maintain harmony, avoid conflict, and protect feelings can lead to extremely dysfunctional decision-making.

Irving Janis researched the phenomenon in 1972 and proposed that certain characteristics of groups tend to encourage groupthink:

  • Strong group cohesion
  • High levels of stress
  • Strong/directive group leader
  • Insulation from outside opinions
  • Isolations from other groups
  • Lack of norms for evaluating information

Groupthink undermines the long-term viability of the team as bad decisions pile up. The best, productive, and innovative teams will be ones where the members feel safe to speak their minds, throw out ideas, and negate or support one another without the fear of retribution, attack or dirty looks.

Teams should cultivate empathy, respect, and mutual support for all opinions so it is a safe place for risk-taking and expression.

People have different levels of comfort. Some naturally speak up, while others – who may have fantastic ideas – never do. Setting a rule in place to give every person time to talk in the group helps create the norm where everyone’s voice is heard.

It helps people practice who don’t normally speak up have their voice heard; it helps those who always speak up practice listening; and it creates a norm where everyone’s voice is important.

Counteracting the Traps

  1. Establish Group Diversity – Uniformity tends to breed lackluster results. Groups thrive when opinions from different genders, age groups, and ethnicities are welcome.
  2. Define Expectations – Knowing what’s expected of a group can help the group stay on track. Expectations support accountability as well, since the group members can’t deny they didn’t know what the goal was.
  3. Emphasize Collective Awareness – Understanding common group biases helps to keep them at bay. The group should know their weaknesses and how to spot them.
  4. Provide the Right Training – Teamwork training is essential and often overlooked. Team members need to understand how their role fits into the larger group identity and feel comfortable with their position.
  5. Stress Freedom of Thought – Individuals can do their own research and thinking before meeting with the group. Leaders should stress that all ideas are welcome, no matter how far out or strange they might seem.
  6. Insist on Information Sharing – It’s imperative that everyone in a group list all of the information in their possession that relates to an issue. It’s the only way to get the best results.
  7. Promote Innovation – A good leader stimulates people to climb over the mental fence that can keep a group from devising, openly discussing, and adopting new ideas and solutions.
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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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Few children grow up thinking, “Someday I’m going to be a manager.” Truth be told, few adults probably do too.

Management is an elusive field. It’s hard to find the right candidate because, aside from the stature and increase in pay, it typically raises your stress level and negatively affects your interpersonal relationships. Just the word “manager” can conjure negative feelings in employees.

Managers may not have clear visions of how to lead and what to delegate. They may fear a coup of their very position and then become withholding with regard to tasks and responsibilities. They may battle with inner demons of respect and loyalty. Managers are people who are rarely trained in the art of management and thus leave a trail of inconsistency in their wake.

Employees are oft left with the role of self-management in lieu of strong leadership. Navigating inconsistent management is a skill in itself. The good news is it can only help you!

Factors that Contribute to Inconsistent Management

The main ingredient for inconsistent management is a lack of self-efficacy.

Rarely is inconsistent management a case of someone so confident they adhere to the Emerson belief that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” More often it is someone who wishes to be perceived as consistent; their underdeveloped self-awareness is the very thing that leads to their erratic decision-making.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Western Ontario (J. Robert Mitchell, Dean A. Shepherd, and Mark P. Sharfman) conducted a study to figure out the how / why behind managerial erratic decision-making.

What they found was the following:

“Erratic strategic decisions are less likely from managers with greater metacognitive experience and for managers who operate in more dynamic environments.

Conversely, erratic strategic decisions are more likely from managers in more hostile environments, especially when dynamism in that environment is low.”

Meaning…

  1. Self-awareness – or the absence of – is one main component for inconsistent management. Managers who do not self-reflect and aren’t aware that they don’t self-reflect will lead to a higher rate of inconsistency. Their lack of self-awareness about how they’re coming to their decisions (past experiences, thought patterns, metacognitive processes) informs the efficacy of their decisions.
  2. Dynamism – The more dynamic the work environment the less inconsistent the decision-making; most likely because decisions have to be made, there isn’t time to deliberate. Given too much time, anyone can second-guess their decisions.
  3. Hostile & Changing Environment – The work environment doesn’t have to be hostile, it can simply be ever-shifting with regard to personnel, protocol, or allocation of space.

And I would add a 4th:

  • Lack of knowledge / experience – If you do not have any past relatable experience to draw upon, chances are you will not know what to do to produce a desired result. You may not even know what the desired result is.

Where does this leave the employee?

Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is when we are conditioned to think we are powerless to change a bad situation for the better, thus accepting that there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

In the context of inconsistent management, there are two forms of learned helplessness:

  1. When the manager projects an image of incompetence, sending out conflicting messages and confusing directions. The employee is left feeling hopeless regarding the manager’s competence.
  2. When the inconsistent management takes the form of inconsistent reinforcement, meaning complimentary one day and critical the next. The employee may have initially felt competent, but now feels incompetent due to their boss’ inconsistent reinforcement.

Solutions:

  • Speak with HR.
  • Find new employment.
  • Bounce experience off trusted colleagues for confirmation.

It is crucial for the employee to keep their self-efficacy intact. Doing so requires self-awareness that it’s even setting in.

Hopefully they’re reading blogs about learned helplessness. Hopefully they’re recognizing the behavior as inconsistent and problematic and running it by someone. It can be HR or a trusted colleague. They need to confirm their own sanity to ensure the problem isn’t on their end.

Emotional Contagion

A manager with inconsistent moods that lean toward negativity is a form of mild torture; you’re never sure who you’re going to get. The only upside is it it’s a great lesson in learning what you do have control over, which is your own mood. So, start there:

  • Step outside for a moment.
  • Watch a video you know makes you happy.
  • Listen to a song you know makes you happy.
  • Talk to someone that makes you happy.

When to confront your boss & when to let it ride

Good question. More often than not, I’d suggest letting it ride. Inconsistency is likely due to insecurity. Tapping into their issues may threaten them and consequently hurt your professional standing. I recommend:
  • Pick a time when you’re fairly certain you’re on their good side and they’re pleased with you.
  • Pick a time when they’re in a good mood and seemingly open and receptive to the outside world.
  • Pick your battles. Make sure this is truly a situation that needs to be resolved and addressed before you can move on with your work.

Reframe it back to the manager for clarity

If the inconsistency is with direction and conflicting messages, the employee should ask for clarification:

  • Reflexive mirroring. Repeat what they said back to them so they can confirm their own statement and add what you need clarification on. Have the manager give a clear directive so the onus is on them.

For instance…

“I heard that you want the project done asap, but that we should also focus on this other project immediately as well. I want to make sure I do exactly what you want – which should I make the priority?”

When it comes to inconsistent reinforcement, the employee can do the same thing – throw the ball back, i.e.:

“I want to improve and make sure I’m doing the best job – what is the area you feel I need to work on?”

Asking your boss for clarification shows respect and protects you from future misunderstanding. With inconsistency, there are no rules, so you want to do your part to get on as stable ground as possible.

Speaking up for yourself will also embolden you. When you act and express yourself – even if the conditions don’t change – you will change internally because speaking up for yourself has an ameliorative effect on the soul.

When you don’t stand up for yourself or your needs, you tap your willpower. You are left feeling drained, exhausted, and you increase the likelihood of learned helplessness.

——

We can be swayed by titles – manager, boss, CEO, etc – but it’s always important to remember these are not divine kings sent to us from the heavens, they are regular people who were hired into a position.

Though inconsistency and incompetence are infuriating, it’s important to allow compassion and understanding in. This is a person with faults, insecurities, goals, and dreams like everyone.

Perhaps they took on more than they can handle, maybe the inconsistency is a result of trickle-down inconsistency from the top and they’re just trying to stay afloat; perhaps they never even wanted to be in this position but couldn’t resist the pay increase.

Put yourself in their shoes, consider their life, what might be happening in their world. Consider the fact that if they leave and you get their job that a) that might have been one of their fears all along and b) you might not be so consistent yourself.

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