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workplace dynamics

I had a situation recently in my business where employees were sending around group emails discussing the outcome of the election. Unbeknownst to them, there were a couple of employees in the mix that held opposing views and they took offense to the emails. One of the folks with an opposing view spoke with me about it and I found myself in unchartered waters.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Lately, employees and CEOs alike are making their voices heard and the consequences are dramatic:

  • Uber’s CEO was initially on Trump’s advisory council but removed himself after facing pressure from within – and from outside – the organization. Uber’s membership dropped by 200,000 accounts as a result.
  • In Philadelphia, Comcast allowed employees to take off work to participate in marches.
  • Mark Zuckerberg began to address the issue of fake news that populated Facebook during the presidential run.
  • A senior executive at Oracle publicly resigned after the CEO joined the Trump transition team.
  • Nordstrom’s dropped Ivanka’s clothing line; #boycott is trending on twitter.

It’s fair to say at this point that the rule of “no politics in the workplace” no longer applies. This can create conflict for teams and coworkers working under the same roof who need to get along and work toward the same goal.

As I wasn’t entirely sure how to handle the matter in my own business, I felt it deserved some exploration. What’s a leader’s role when a divisive political climate enters the workplace?

Given that I’m a shrink, I looked at why first. I figure if you can get a grasp on the why, it’s easier to understand the best intervention.

There are many factors at play but there seems to be two obvious psychological phenomena that are triggering the intensity.

Us vs. Them – Let’s Get Back on the Same Team

When I first moved to Philadelphia from New York, I went to a Phillies / Mets game. New to the city, I was unaware of the fanaticism of Philadelphia sports fans. As I cheered for my Mets, I found myself on the receiving end of jeers and threats from Philly fans. It was the first time in my life I feared getting attacked by a group of lunatics. It was also the first time in my life that I really understood the “us vs them” phenomenon.

The groups we belong to are an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity, a sense of belonging: feeling pride for your sports team because it’s where you live or were born; being born a blonde or brunette; being born a man or a woman.

With “us vs them” the “versus” becomes prominent. In order to increase our self-image we enhance the status of the group to which we belong. There is nothing inherently wrong with this except when one group starts to perceive the other group as “bad,” “wrong,” or “defective.”

In a non-heightened political climate “us vs. them” can potentially stimulate healthy workplace competition, but the same aspects that promote healthy competition in an us vs. them team-based work environment can backfire dramatically when politics enter the fray.

Once congenial co-workers can become teams of you versus me, us versus them, and ultimately bad versus good. The current political climate has heightened the potential for these workplace chasms; pushing against each other serves to give more power to the struggle.

But this is not the only psychological phenomenon at play.

Confirmation Bias: The Glue that Keeps Us Comfortably Stuck

Confirmation bias has started and sustained wars, prompted consumers to buy things they neither want nor need, and led to some of the worst (and best) business decisions ever made.

You’ll find no better example of confirmation bias than in the emotionally charged world of political opinion. In 2009, three Ohio State University researchers—Heather LaMarre, Kristen Landreville, and Michael Beam—used the satirical Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report, to investigate the subject.

Stephen Colbert parodied conservative politics and pundits, pretending, for example, to have launched a run for the presidency. The researchers asked 332 participants in the study to describe Colbert’s point of view. Those who held liberal opinions viewed him as a liberal and his show as pure satire. Conservatives, on the other hand, saw him as a conservative pundit expressing honest conservative opinions through his satire. In short, the participants’ own views strongly colored their perceptions of the comedian.

We see things the way we want to see things. We hear what we want to hear. We look for information that supports our views and quickly ignore or diminish information that goes against our views. When something as dividing as politics comes into the picture, it highlights this normal human characteristic more than ever and thus, enhances emotions and fuels conflict.

So at the most basic level, these are some of the things making an already tense situation heightened.

So now that we understand the why, lets move on to what to do as a leader.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers; this is as new for me as well. However, based on what I know about bias and counteracting bias, here are some things to try and think about.

To show your hand or not

Some CEOs have come out in support of the current administration and some have come out to denounce it. Your company’s image will be affected on either side of the coin.

Whether you choose to show your hand or not, you need to weigh the risks and ensure that it’s in the best interest of your people and your company versus your own interests. Taking sides can have an alienating impact on some and an ameliorative impact on others. If a demand for your voice isn’t requested, then your voice might be best served in a bipartisan fashion.

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton, but also sent a thoughtful letter to the entire company after Trump was elected, urging everyone to choose compassion and understanding as we moved forward as a country.

Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, published a pro-Trump letter prior to the election, confident that Trump would be positive for business growth.

Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, was an outspoken critic of Trump during the election process, but continued to sell Trump-related products on Amazon. Post-election, Bezos offered a conciliatory tweet wishing Trump success.

If you do speak out, personalize your story to clarify your motivation. It’s easier to empathize and relate when the narrative is more personal rather than political. I recommend a recent article in The Harvard Business Review, which offered some sound insight into the matter.

See it as a strange opportunity

The current political climate – if it is leaking into your workplace – is a perfect excuse to confront conscious and unconscious biases: biases of which we are unaware but are responsible for interfering with good decision-making, clear thinking, effective problem solving, healthy relationships and even creativity.

It’s imperative for biases to be identified so everyone can spot them when they rear their ugly heads. If we can better understand our biases, we can better counteract them. Use this as an opportunity to teach and train.

You can implement training and workshops that focus on developing self-awareness around biases, and tools to counteract them. This will only make your workforce stronger.

Use it as a chance to flex your empathy muscle

The bottom line is this is rough for both sides. Perhaps too much time has passed at this point but other divisive issues will surely arise in the future, whether political or other.

Use these times to acknowledge and validate. When you acknowledge and validate, it makes people feel heard and understood. It creates a foundation of safety knowing that it’s okay to have differing opinions, as long as respect permeates the culture. As a leader you have an opportunity to set the climate and to model empathetic behavior.

Use Us Vs. Them as a Chance to Unite and RE-Instill an Ideology

Everyone who works together needs to realize that one’s political affiliation does not make them a bad person nor professionally incompetent. Ultimately, the diversity can only help, both the company and the employees of the company.

A diversity of beliefs in a cooperative culture is what you want; it’s what we all want for our society. You can create a microcosm of the perfect society within your organization where diversity is cultivated and respected.

Why would we want everyone to think the same in our organization anyway? That just leads to groupthink, status quo, and the acceptance of the group’s version of “common knowledge.”

A leader’s challenges during this politically divisive time is to bring everyone together, to validate the realities felt by all, and see it as an opportunity for the company to become something more expansive than it was prior.

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Dear Employee,

As the leader of this team, I want to empower you to really take charge. I want to empower you to create initiatives and run with the ball. I want to empower you to seek out new revenue sources for us. Lastly, I want to empower you take your position and this company to the next level.

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Dear Boss,

A simple “I want you to do a lot more than you’re already doing” would have sufficed, though it would have been just as equally an unwelcome surprise.

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Why Your Torture Plan Will Surely Backfire

“I want to empower you” is a euphemism for “step it up” and it’s transparent. Actually, it’s translucent: the employee will get the point that you’re telling them to step it up but they also might wonder if they were already supposed to be doing said tasks. It might instill insecurity and the word has a note of embedded insincerity.

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Maybe Try this Instead?

Rather than use the word “empower” just come out and tell your employee what you want them to do. Lay out the specific ways you need them to be “empowered” rather than use that word. Create a joint plan so they walk away with a clear sense of what they’re empowered to do. Save “empower” for 3rd person. You can always tell someone else that you empower your employees if you’re dying to use that word. I want to empower you to use ‘empower’ sparingly.

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You hear a Star Wars ringtone repeat until the call finally goes to voicemail.

Nearby, some coworkers are discussing the logistics of The Walking Dead while the latest Drake album plays through communal speakers.

You stare at your computer screen, trying to remember what you were about to do when you’re asked to join a meeting that will go nowhere and solve nothing.

After the meeting a coworker asks you to help him with something. You can’t believe he couldn’t figure this out on his own.

Your boss has been absent the last few days and suddenly bursts in to alert everyone to stop what they’re doing because the ship is about to go under. This happens every month.

As our offices get hipper and the sharing of information encouraged more and more you might find yourself in an unproductive working environment. Fear not! There is hope.

All it takes is changing all of your ingrained habits and routines. I know, easier said than done. But it’s not impossible. Here are some tips:

  1. Buy noise reductive earphones. I used a pair while I wrote my book, What Keeps Leaders Up at Night. My neighbor’s house was under construction for six months. I would not have been able to write a word without my trusty Bose noise-cancelling headphones. These earphones – coupled with a little white noise or brain.fm – makes a world of difference.

Note: These things really work. If you do this, put a sign on your back to gently approach you because it can be terrifying when you’re not expecting someone.

2. Set boundaries with your time. Every office has a few interrupters who routinely need help, who like to chitchat, who seek advice. They’ll hunt you down. See if you can have some fun with this one: maybe an “ON AIR” light to indicate you’re not available, maybe a velvet rope, or maybe an auto-response you create in the AM that announces you’ll be unavailable for a period of time that day (every day?).

3. Chunk your time: This can be done the night before or first thing in the morning. Assign time periods for your projects so you have a plan in place. It can be very relaxing to look at your daily calendar and see, “OK, I’m doing this until 12, then I’m doing that until two.” Assign a time slot for tedium like answering emails and such and then turn off those notifications for the rest of the time. Tell the people in your personal and professional life to call if there is an emergency, rather than text or email. That way you’ll know it’s necessary to pick up.

4. Divide your day into Creative & Reactive work. To time-chunk more effectively, try this. Creative work is projects that require your undivided attention and the full scope of your mental capacity. You’ll want to schedule those early in the day when you are the least depleted. Reactive work – answering phone calls, emails, unimportant but unavoidable meetings and so on – can be slated for the latter half of the day.

Note: During the creative part of your workday block out everything that is not part of your creative work. No emails, phone calls, texts, social media.

5. Don’t go to every meeting if you don’t have to. If you work for a meeting-heavy company, figure out when your presence is truly required. Maybe you can get exemption if not truly needed. If you are truly needed, see if the meetings can be scheduled for a time that works for you (see: #3: chunk your time). Basically, this falls under the “don’t be afraid to speak up” umbrella. If you never say anything then you’ll never know.

6. If you’re not a fireman, don’t get involved with putting out every fire. There are those reactive-putting-out-fires constantly environments that can tire a soul out, i.e. the whole company might fold any second if we don’t do THIS! Maybe you can implement a grass roots campaign to analyze what’s urgent and what’s not. A nice consequence is you will begin to behave proactively (versus reactively) to abate these “urgent” scenarios from reoccurring.

7. If you’re drowning in work, prioritize. Sit down with your manager/boss to help prioritize your workload. Then you can chunk your time (#3), maybe work from home, and skip some meetings perhaps (#4). To be clear, I’m referring to the overwhelming workload that results because you might work at a company where everyone wears a lot of hats, or perhaps someone was recently let go and their job was folded into yours. This isn’t because you don’t know how to manage your time and/or distractions. Bottom line: don’t assume other people know you are overloaded. It’s your job to speak up.

8. If your boss is inconsistent, ask for confirmation. This can be frustrating. You start to work on something only to be told to change directions midway; something was given top priority and then there’s a new something that’s suddenly an even higher priority; but wait, now there’s something even more important; actually, now that they think of it, the first thing is still the most important and by the way, where are you on that? If you have a boss like this, get confirmation on the prioritization of work.

9. When your colleagues aren’t carrying their weight, do this. Communicate, but don’t tattletale. For instance, you can send a group email to all parties involved, with the boss cc’d, asking for confirmation on who’s responsible for what. That way it’s in writing and there are no assumptions. If the scenario doesn’t allow for that type of communication the next best thing is to speak with the colleague(s) themselves. Again, speaking up is vital!

The only reliable way to get different results in this world is to change your own behavior. Don’t expect anyone to change. Much of being productive in an unproductive work environment involves being communicative about your needs and speaking up for yourself. It’s the only way you’ll know what resources and freedom are available to you.

A great byproduct of all this speaking up for yourself is your self-confidence will improve; your self-efficacy will be bolstered; you’ll feel empowered to ask for what you need; the world will start to work for you instead of against you. Perspective is everything. Don’t presume anyone knows what’s happening in your world and don’t expect anything to change without your effecting the change first.

It all starts with you.

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Dear Employee,

Went through your spreadsheet and I think this is a great start.

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Dear Boss,

Thank you for those kind, succinct words. I was up late the last couple of nights working on it, hoping to impress you, so knowing I’ve started something great is inspiring. Hopefully you can shed some light on where the finish line is. That way, when I start again I’ll know when I’m done.

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Why Your Torture Plan Will Surely Backfire

A lack of guidance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where the employee doesn’t meet your standards because no one – except you – knows what those standards are; maybe you don’t either until you see them met. You have to give guidelines so you get the work you want out of your people. It also creates disengagement as the employee feels unrecognized for the hard work they’ve done thus far, and frustrated by a lack leadership.

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Maybe Try this Instead?

If you’ve been handed some extensive work try not to minimize it with “this is a great start” as that undermines all the effort put into it. Get specific. Clearly explain what you want. If you don’t clearly explain what you want and then say, “this is a great start” the employee’s going to think, “Start?? I thought I was done!” If you don’t have a clear idea of what you want then indicate that you don’t need anything extensive because the project at hand is just getting started.

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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.

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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.

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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 Employee,

Though we have our hurdles ahead of us, I just want to send a friendly reminder that it does not matter how slowly one goes as long as you do not stop. This is an exciting stage for us, it’s where we learn the rules of the game and the next step is for us to play better than anyone else. These aren’t problems, they’re challenges! And anyway, we should expect problems and eat them for breakfast. I think it was Albert Einstein who said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” But I don’t want to be one of those bosses who throws empty phrases at you so I’ll just say, in my own words: if you can dream it, you can do it, the secret of getting ahead is getting started, and keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.

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Dear Boss,

Thank you for these extremely motivating words. Please know that I am all gratitude but also words are powerless to express my gratitude. I can’t thank you enough. I’m forever grateful. Thanks for being there when I needed you. I cannot express my appreciation. Please accept my deepest thanks. Your generosity overwhelms me. I will never forget what you have done. Thanks a million.

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Why Your Torture Plan Will Surely Backfire:

Although your intentions may be great you sound disingenuous, like an automaton, the business version of a Stepford wife. Words only go so far.

I want to share a tale with you…

A guy is climbing a mountain. He’s exhausted and starts to lose his balance.

His friend says to him, “keep going tiger, you can do this, you’re the man!”

The guy falls to his death.

If you want further proof that really brings it home do a Google search that starts with “inspirational quotes are” and you will find the following:

0*-6-y_7-K2sm-7yfu

 

 

 

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Maybe Try This Instead?

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde

Just kidding. Well, not entirely. If clichés do motivate you personally then use one, but don’t use two. You’re typically only given a pass for one in any conversation. After one cliché you become disingenuous. Ask yourself what would motivate you if the roles were switched. What would you want to hear? Maybe say whatever nonsense quote you want to say in your head and then out loud say something personal, relevant and helpful that means the same thing.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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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