Tag Archives: Leadership

Building Diversity

BuildinbuilddiversityThis video came up on the Facebook page of Clementine Ford, an Australian Feminist. It’s about “unconscious bias” the biases we all carry that affect decisions we make, including hiring decisions. It cites the orchestra that auditioned musicians from behind a curtain so that the judges could not determine their gender. Now an Australian film festival is doing something similar after noticing that only 5% of finalists were women, following blind judging that number rose to 50%.

Sexism is not the only bias judges and employers hold, there are reports from the US, Canada, the UK and the Netherlands that associations of race and nationality are made based on a person’s name, often to the disadvantage of non-white candidates. And we all remember the Academy awards a few years ago releasing #OscarsSoWhite.

We know that diversity is good for business, but we’re bad at it.  So how could we make our hiring or judging processes better for diversity?

Use Data

You need to make the unconscious bias visible. In the Tropfest case the organisation looked at their finalists and found that only 5% were female. I’d bet good money that was a lower percentage than anyone realised before doing the research.

Do some research in your own organisation; how many women and minorities are hired? How many are making it through to the highest decision-maker level? If you’re organising a conference do you have a diverse range of speakers? (if you have to try harder it’s your network at fault) If you’re an award giving organisation how many of your nominees are people of colour, LGBT+ or women? And how many of your judges… you get the idea.

Be aware of stereotypes associated with roles, I had a somewhat technical role in a communications department. The head of department congratulated me on helping the department’s diversity figures by hiring a man into a comms team. In reality I’d hired a guy into a slightly technical team – hardly striking a blow for equality. (For the record the gender split in my team was 40:60 women to men, while across the department the split was around 70:30)

Address the Gap

Make sure your company policies and practices encourage diversity – write new policies for your organisation if they don’t. Hint; do this with a diverse group for best results.

I wrote about other steps you can take in an earlier post called Diversity Works. This won’t get better just on good intentions, you will need to take action.

  • make your hiring process more open; from neutral job ads to diversity on the interview panel, can you remove gender and ethnicity signifiers from the CVs for the first round of assessment?
  • look for role models across the company from diverse groups, help them gain visibility across the company and outside the company. Think of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, their slogan is “if she can see it, she can be it”.
  • support groups set up to help minorities in your organisation
  • state your diversity practices on your website and in your job advertisements (Shell has a statement about women in leadership that it puts on every job vacancy)
  • make sure senior people in your company are able to speak about diversity, and do so comfortably – nothing will sink your diversity efforts more quickly than an insincere executive.
  • educate your leaders, your managers, your teams
  • build diversity into your personal network

Diversify Your Network

We all gravitate towards people who look like us, sound like us, share our values. Start building your network to be more inclusive; follow people on twitter who are not like you, read different perspectives, listen to speakers from radically different backgrounds. LISTEN to what they have to say. Resist the temptation to disagree, to put your point of view, to defend yourselves (this is the misstep made by all those well meaning #notallmen posters).

One of the best posts around on this is from Tin Geber, he’s talking about male privilege in relation to inviting women to speak at conferences, but the principles still apply. As he concludes;

It’s on me — and each person reading this — to actively strive to rebalance the playing field.

Measure Progress

The Australian Film Festival went to 5% women finalists to 50% women finalists. They measured their progress and then they talked about it. It must have given aspiring women film directors a boost.

Measure your progress, and talk about it only once you have seen specific improvements.

A lack of diversity won’t change without specific, sustained action. Starting with people of privilege listening and making room.

Image: Diversity  |  Nabeelah Is  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Building Diversity

builddiversityThis video came up on the Facebook page of Clementine Ford, an Australian Feminist. It’s about “unconscious bias” the biases we all carry that affect decisions we make, including hiring decisions. It cites the orchestra that auditioned musicians from behind a curtain so that the judges could not determine their gender. Now an Australian film festival is doing something similar after noticing that only 5% of finalists were women, following blind judging that number rose to 50%.

Sexism is not the only bias judges and employers hold, there are reports from the US, Canada, the UK and the Netherlands that associations of race and nationality are made based on a person’s name, often to the disadvantage of non-white candidates. And we all remember the Academy awards a few years ago releasing #OscarsSoWhite.

We know that diversity is good for business, but we’re bad at it.  So how could we make our hiring or judging processes better for diversity?

Use Data

You need to make the unconscious bias visible. In the Tropfest case the organisation looked at their finalists and found that only 5% were female. I’d bet good money that was a lower percentage than anyone realised before doing the research.

Do some research in your own organisation; how many women and minorities are hired? How many are making it through to the highest decision-maker level? If you’re organising a conference do you have a diverse range of speakers? (if you have to try harder it’s your network at fault) If you’re an award giving organisation how many of your nominees are people of colour, LGBT+ or women? And how many of your judges… you get the idea.

Be aware of stereotypes associated with roles, I had a somewhat technical role in a communications department. The head of department congratulated me on helping the department’s diversity figures by hiring a man into a comms team. In reality I’d hired a guy into a slightly technical team – hardly striking a blow for equality. (For the record the gender split in my team was 40:60 women to men, while across the department the split was around 70:30)

Address the Gap

Make sure your company policies and practices encourage diversity – write new policies for your organisation if they don’t. Hint; do this with a diverse group for best results.

I wrote about other steps you can take in an earlier post called Diversity Works. This won’t get better just on good intentions, you will need to take action.

  • make your hiring process more open; from neutral job ads to diversity on the interview panel, can you remove gender and ethnicity signifiers from the CVs for the first round of assessment?
  • look for role models across the company from diverse groups, help them gain visibility across the company and outside the company. Think of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, their slogan is “if she can see it, she can be it”.
  • support groups set up to help minorities in your organisation
  • state your diversity practices on your website and in your job advertisements (Shell has a statement about women in leadership that it puts on every job vacancy)
  • make sure senior people in your company are able to speak about diversity, and do so comfortably – nothing will sink your diversity efforts more quickly than an insincere executive.
  • educate your leaders, your managers, your teams
  • build diversity into your personal network

Diversify Your Network

We all gravitate towards people who look like us, sound like us, share our values. Start building your network to be more inclusive; follow people on twitter who are not like you, read different perspectives, listen to speakers from radically different backgrounds. LISTEN to what they have to say. Resist the temptation to disagree, to put your point of view, to defend yourselves (this is the misstep made by all those well meaning #notallmen posters).

One of the best posts around on this is from Tin Geber, he’s talking about male privilege in relation to inviting women to speak at conferences, but the principles still apply. As he concludes;

It’s on me — and each person reading this — to actively strive to rebalance the playing field.

Measure Progress

The Australian Film Festival went to 5% women finalists to 50% women finalists. They measured their progress and then they talked about it. It must have given aspiring women film directors a boost.

Measure your progress, and talk about it only once you have seen specific improvements.

A lack of diversity won’t change without specific, sustained action. Starting with people of privilege listening and making room.

Image: Diversity  |  Nabeelah Is  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Diversity Works

diversity

Diversity works. I know this from personal experience, I’ve always sought to hire people from a range of backgrounds. I know I don’t have all the skills needed in my team so there’s no point hiring more of me. To be specific I’m not great at fine detail; I can go through massive ugly spreadsheets but it’s not my strength. I hire people into my team who have those skills and I value them – partly because I admire the skills and partly because I’m so grateful. In addition for me it’s more fun to hear about Romanian culture, Spanish idioms and Turkish cuisine over lunch than all Dutch stories.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. McKinsey’s research reports a “diversity dividend” of 15% for companies that are gender diverse, and a rocking 35% for companies with ethnic diversity. Correlation does not equate to causation; it may be that high performing companies choose diverse workforces and executive teams rather than diverse teams causing improved performance.

Harvard Business Review unpacks behaviours around diversity a little further and reports on some behaviours that point to diverse teams being smarter. Apparently diverse teams focus more on facts, which contributes to better decision making. Diversity also contributes to innovation.

The studies mentioned so far focus on gender and cultural diversity, but we should look at other personal characteristics such as national origin, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability/disability. I’ve also heard one argument that the NASA team responsible for the first moon landing was more diverse than today’s team; back then there weren’t specialised astronautical studies programmes so the team was the best they could find from a range of fields. Which suggests we should be open to different training and work experience backgrounds (when the role allows it; don’t hire a plumber to a medical team!)

Global PillageFor a very light-hearted look at diversity, in fact an experiment in diversity, listen to the Global Pillage podcast. Each episode takes on a theme and opens with contestants identifying the ways they are diverse – gay, transgender, brown, immigrant, multi-lingual, vegan, left-handed all get a mention. The format is then a quiz between two teams of two people, with the audience able to give their answer. Spoiler alert; the audience (a bigger and presumably more diverse group) usually wins.

To get a more diverse team you have to change how you hire and how you work. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. Writing the vacancy notice
    Use gender neutral words, define the role in human language, state your diversity policy (don’t have one? write one). More tips here.
  2. Place the vacancy where it will be visible to diverse groups
    Look for publications, online communities and organisations associated with a range of groups. Reach out to Women in Tech groups for example.
  3. Interviewing across cultures
    Take some time to understand what cultural differences might exist between you and your interviewees. Habits of eye-contact may differ, some cultures show more deference which may seem like a weakness through an anglo-saxon filter.
  4. Flexible working environment
    Are you ready to accommodate someone with disability needs? What about someone who observes Ramadan? Or who celebrates Easter a week later than your company does? Are you able to allow people flexible hours and working from home options? The more you can answer “yes” to these hypotheticals the easier it will be to hire a diverse team.
  5. Culture of inclusion
    It’s not enough to just hire a cast of diverse colleagues, you need a workplace culture that is inclusive – where, as a colleague put it, “everyone can be their best selves”. The more widespread this is, the better. But you can have it in place in your own team, after all, you’ve got to start somewhere.

I’ve lived in several different countries, I’ve learnt several languages, my influences are from different sources. For me diversity is an important part of the work environment and yet from the outside I appear to be of the majority. Maybe diversity practices are good for us all.

 

Image: WOCinTech Chat  |  WOCinTech  | CC BY 2.0 

 

How Dumb are Those Rules?

Law books - company rules

I’m not a fan of bureaucracy, I try to avoid, reduce or eliminate it when it’s in my power to do so. However I’ve also worked for large companies where a certain amount of bureaucracy is inevitable and I’ve worked in regulated industry where the regulation is there there for a reason; to protect the health or the finances of customers.

So when I came across and article that talked about 10 dumb rules that make your best people quit I was initially cheering.  But some of those rules are there for a reason; sometimes the reason is the law and sometimes it’s a real risk and sometimes it’s just that not everyone is honest. So I decided to unpack the rules further think about the reason companies put such rules in place and discuss how there might be a different way to work with such rules.

1. Dumb rules for hiring.

This is a lament about the black hole a resume goes into when you apply for a job. I absolutely agree with this, the process used by many companies is so disrespectful. It is not difficult to make a humane process for handing job applications, whatever the size of your company.

  • Respond to every application; since applications are made online this is an email. It can be a standard email for those who don’t make the shortlist.
  • When people make the shortlist or the short-shortlist and have been unsuccessful at the interview stage send a personal email saying what was missing.
  • Be clear about the decision timeline and stick to it.

My best recruitment experience was one where I did not get the job.  Since then I’ve tried to follow that example – that might be a separate post for a later date.

2. Dumb rules for performance reviews

“Performance reviews are a waste of time. Brilliant and talented people deserve better than being slotted into some bureaucratic five-point scale once a year.” begins the complaint on performance reviews. I agree, but performance reviews aren’t about feedback.

In a large company you need to find a fair way of distributing the rewards, aka pay rises, and the performance review system is what has evolved to fulfil that task. I have written about performance management before and agree that it’s a flawed system; it’s not always fair, and even when people get good reviews they don’t like the process. Some companies are testing other methods, moving away from rigid review and stacked ranking systems. However all companies need to find a fair way to judge the performance of employees.

I think it needs to change. In the meantime managers can improve the process for teams by giving feedback throughout the year, and by being honest about the purpose of the dreaded performance review.

The article ends this subject with “Trust them to produce, and if they are not producing let them go” it’s not that easy under EU law to just let people go, and I think if you’ve hired someone and they are not performing you have a duty to coach for improvements.

One last reason to have a system that attempts to be fair; lawsuits.

3. Dumb rules for onsite attendance.

Agree. With the tools we have available now onsite attendance can be optional in many jobs. I’ve always agreed to work from home agreements for team members. That trust has been more than rewarded; it’s meant that one team member avoided 6 hours of commuting per week, another could extend time with his family in his home country, and a colleague could help a sick relative. I have never seen any decline in work delivery – if anything the team members feel more dedicated.

I have often connected with the team member via some chat app. Not to “check up” on them, but to emulate the office situation and maintain a connection.

This came easily to me, perhaps because I’m used to working online, for many managers new skills might be needed.

4. Dumb rules for approvals

“Do you really want your best workers to spend their time chasing people for rubber-stamp approvals?”

Oh man. This is one of my biggest complaints. At one company I had authority to make spending decisions on items in the tens of thousands but would have to get a 20 euro expense invoice approved before it was re-imbursed. In another I had a team member based in another country – the CEO of that country organisation had to approve her expenses that were being paid from my budget. (He did, and after the first time it was no issue).

This comes down to regulation. If you’re in a publicly listed company accountancy rules come into play and the company has to double, or triple check expenses and spending to ensure there is no fraud. Even though the company knows you’re trustworthy they can’t actually trust you.

Although I understand the need the approval request systems make me grumpy.  my team used to make jokes and take me out for coffee after I’d been filing expense reports. Perhaps the answer is coffee vouchers for every approval request?

5. Dumb rules for time off

“If a dedicated employee doesn’t feel good enough to come to work, what’s the point in making them drag themselves out of bed to get a doctor’s slip?”

Here’s a win for the European way! I think it takes six weeks absence before a doctor’s note is needed. Absences are monitored, repeat absenteeism is a sign of stress or longer term health issues. But the Dutch system is sensibly generous about this.

6. Dumb rules for frequent flyer miles

The article assumes that this is a reward for work travel, and should accrue to the employee doing the travel. That’s the system I’m used to here, but I have also worked for a government department where we could not legally accept frequent flyer miles. But then no-one could which is annoying but fair. I also know of one company that collates them and reshares them across all employees. Work travel in that company is usually only by senior people and is widely seen as a benefit and the idea that should only accrue to senior managers seems unfair to them.

I’d stick to it as a reward for work travel if I were making the rules, but it’s not a deal breaker in the grand scheme of things.

7. Dumb feedback methods

“I have worked with companies that put complete faith in employee engagement surveys, but frankly I believe they’re a sham.”

Agree. Having worked for a financial services company right through the financial crisis and seen the outcome of annual engagement surveys I noticed that the engagement scores trailed the fall and rise of the share price.

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-15-10-03Few companies consider the cost of conducting an big scale engagement survey. In a company of 100,000 employees it could be 15-20 full time employee equivalents to complete it (assuming 70% response rate), do you get a commensurate value of improvements?

I’ve worked through the feedback process numerous times, and it becomes so complex and unwieldy that little is really achieved. I think you could do more by talking to people, using smaller targeted surveys, asking for feedback on your sites, and making smaller – more useful – changes.

8. Dumb rules for cell phones

Apparently some companies make staff check their phones in as they enter the company. I haven’t encountered this, although I have been asked not to photograph or record in certain areas of a company. I can understand the need in, for example, the design lab at Apple. But it’s not a rule that shows trust in employees, for most companies it’s overkill.

9. Dumb rules for internet use

I’ve seen Facebook and LinkedIn banned, and in fact blocked from company computers out of a fear of what employees might post. Well it just shifts the problem to out of work hours. A better solution is to talk to employees, make it clear what can and can’t be posted online. Employees can understand that discussing client information, sharing company results early, or dissing their manager might be a problem. Even better give them some good news to share!

10. Dumb probationary rules

Many organizations still have the throwback rule that employees have to be in a position for six months before they can transfer or be promoted”

While I’ve never come across a defined limit I can understand that in general as a manager you want people in the job you hired them for, it’s a pain in the neck to re-hire people all the time. My personal attitude is that if a person wants to move then it’s time for them to move – regardless of my assessment of their abilities or performance. I’m far more likely to recommend someone who has performed well for 18 months, than someone who’s been in the role for 3. But the roles I’ve managed have expertise levels that require a bit of learning. I might feel differently about managing wait staff in a restaurant for example where the skill set is simpler and success is more a question of personality.

I don’t love the bureaucratic rules, but having worked in regulated industries I grudgingly admit that I can usually understand the business need. That makes it possible for me to adapt and find the smartest process that will work for everyone – most of the time. Of course I still get frustrated, but then I take a coffee break and move on to the real work.

Image:  Law books  |  Waikay Lau  |  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time

Leadership BS Book Review

Yes, the “BS” in the title stands for “Bullshit”.

More money is spent on leadership training of various sorts every year, and yet stuff goes wrong and leadership failures occur in every industry; from banking to car manufacture. In Leadership BS, the author Jeffrey Pfeffer, takes a shot at the “leadership industry” examining the commonly held beliefs delivered in leadership training and comparing them against the reality.I’ve been through leadership training and felt pretty strongly that I’d benefitted from it. So I opened the book with curiosity, but also with a personal bias. It’s a revealing read.

To start with Pfeffer makes the very valid point that we don’t measure leadership training, we don’t look at and measure outcomes.

BOTMLeadershipBSAugust2016Many years ago I worked in leadership training, and one of the challenges was measuring the effectiveness of the courses we offered. We had the usual ‘smiley’ sheets, which record how happy people are the day they finish the course, but don’t tell you much about whether the course changes how they will lead. It turns out evaluating the impact of leadership courses isn’t that easy to do in a large company, but perhaps before and after 360 degree assessments would be a good place to start.

Pfeffer works through the commonly accepted ideal traits of leadership; modesty, authenticity, trust, truthfulness, and that latecomer “leaders eat last”. In each chapter he describes the  basics of the trait, examines the reality and discusses why the opposite trait might be a better trait for leaders.

In the chapter on modesty there’s a long list of leaders who do not display any form of modesty, the list was written in early 2015 and includes Trump – the businessman Trump. Of course modesty can be seen as a positive trait for leaders, but it “may not be such a good thing for getting to the top or staying there” (pg69). Instead Pfeffer points to a healthy measure of narcissism in many successful leaders. I think we’ve all met colleagues that succeeded beyond their ability, thinking back on ones I have met I think they may have been rewarded for narcissistic traits. A number of the anti-modesty traits are more common in men than women – a potential contributor to the gender gap in leadership.

BookReviewLeadershipBS2It’s a sobering read. It focuses on the reality of the power games of leadership. It does contain a paradox, for the most part Pfeffer agrees that the leadership traits are desirable yet demonstrates that they’re not effective. He calls for individuals to adjust to the reality, and calls for the change in how we assess leaders, and how we measure the effectiveness of leadership training.

Postscript;
Came across this brilliant video addressing authenticity, particularly for women. Had to share – love the quote “we need competent leaders, but we follow confident leaders”.

 

Happy Birthday Mr President

HappyBirthday

I steer clear of politics on this blog and I’m not about to wade into the US presidential election now, except to say… I’m going to miss this president. From the world of digital I can state that it makes a huge difference to have a leader who understands the importance of digital and supports its development. That doesn’t mean they have to be expert in all aspects of digital themselves, but they need to be able to assemble experts and believe them.

Barack Obama used social in his election campaigns and built teams of young, highly skilled experts who used both the democratising potential of social media and the data analytics to develop and improve their campaign.

Once in the White House he’s built a digital team and improved their visible presence online and opened up digital communication – very much a digital coming of age.

He’s taken the stage at SXSW, where he spoke about the importance of technology and digital;

So with Obama leaving who replaces him? Which world leader has an understanding of technology and digital and the courage to lead in a digital world? Well, Justin Trudeau can understand quantum computing, and explain it to a room of reporters. I have some hope for the Canadians.

In the meantime, Happy Birthday Mr President.

Image: IMG_0791 |  Yaniv Yaakubovich  |  CC BY ND 2.0

10 Books to Read on your Summer Break

The Great Summer Reading List

It’s time to run away on your summer break, finally you’ll get time to read, what should you pick?

Leadership

(1) I will be reading Leadership BS, by Jeffrey Pfeffer. Which promises some ways of rethinking leadership.

(2) If you’re trying to re-think how you manage your team, then Why Work Sucks will take you through the concepts of a results only work environment – there are things there you can implement when you get back from summer.

(3) Your own leadership style comes out of your own attitudes The Art of Possibility is my favourite book to focus on personal leadership.

Innovation

(4) I’ll be reading How to Fly a Horse: The Secret of Creation, Invention and Discovery, a refreshing look at creativity.

Business

(5) I’ll be reading Industries of the Future, by Alec Ross. It seems to be a mashup of predicting trends and business applications.

(6) I want to read Phishing for Phools, reviews vary with some economists deriding it and some business people applauding it.

(7) The last business book I read (and reviewed) was Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, which challenges our current monetary system and looks at some alternative models for the future of business.

Biography

(8) I want to read the biography of Elon Musk, although I usually am wary of biographies of living people. Musk is such a fascinating entrepreneur for me, he seems driven to solve the world’s challenges as opposed to building a better widget.

Personal Effectiveness

(9) I want to read The Happiness Track, I’ve thought a lot about the way we work and the demands we put on ourselves. I’m hoping this book challenges the ideas behind our current cultural definition of success.

Fiction

(10) If you’re more into fiction – I’m halfway through The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, one of my favourite writers. The BBC has a list of ten books to read that’s making me itch for a bookstore trip.

Happy reading and happy summer.

Image: Summer Read  |  LWYang  |  CC BY 2.0

Giving Feedback

2016 May CM imagesMy Uncle went off to study at agricultural college as a young man, this was before Facebook and mobile phones so he used to write letters. He sent a long letter to his mother. She corrected the letter, in red ink, and returned it. He never wrote again.

Giving good feedback is much more than knowing what is right or correct. It is understanding what will be useful, and delivering the feedback so that it can be heard and used.

The feedback model proposed by the experts at Manager Tools has some really helpful podcasts, it’s a three step model and it focuses on behaviour. Simplified to a script template it looks like this;

When you [describe behaviour] the outcome is negative [explain how], how will you repair this/change your behaviour next time?

In their podcasts the guys from Manager Tools give several working examples of this and I’ve found it a really simple, workable method. Using this script has kept me focused on the work behaviours that really matter, removed an personal or accusatory tone to the feedback and put the responsibility for the change/improvement squarely in the employee’s hands. Of course I’ve also offered concrete help when needed.

I’ll give an example. One colleague, let’s call him David, who I was coaching, tended to pack too much into meetings meaning that he would be rushing to get through all the content in the last ten minutes,  even though the most senior people would be already preparing to leave. Instead of saying “hey, you should plan your meetings better” I had a conversation that went something like this;

Me Can I give you some feedback about today’s meeting?
David OK, I guess
Me Did you notice at the end of the meeting that the managers were closing their laptops and wanting to leave while you were still talking?
David Yes…
Me They have other meetings to go to and when you plan your meeting to go right to the hour they don’t listen for the last about 10 minutes. What do you think would work better?
David Um… Should I plan to finish at 10 to?
Me Yes, be wrapping up then. So when do you think you need to ask for the decision?
David Quarter to?
Me Yes, or perhaps earlier, to allow for discussion and wrap up. What will you do for the next meeting?
David Put less on the agenda and try to ask for the decision at about half way.
Me Let’s try that, I bet they listen to more of what you have to say that way.

This works best when the feedback is about correcting a behaviour, but it can be extended to bigger changes, either with longer discussions or repeated discussions.

There are a couple of other things to look out for;

  • the person has to be willing to hear the feedback, in the case above David was someone I was already coaching, so we already had an agreement in place that I could give him feedback. However I still asked his permission.
  • the feedback has to be useful, David had been frustrated that people weren’t listening to him, so suggesting something to change that was useful to him.
  • the feedback has to be specific,  David walked away with something to try for next time
  • the change proposed should come from them, you can ask them to think about it and come back to discuss with you or you can seed a few ideas if needed, but the answer should come from them.
  • the person receiving the feedback should feel positive and that you are helping them get better at what they do.

It is as much about usefulness of what you’re saying and delivery as the correctness of what you say.

Back to my Uncle, although he did call his mother after he stopped writing letters, my Grandma later saw her mistake. She’d given feedback that wasn’t really useful, and delivered it in a rather cruel way. She did regret sending that letter of corrections.

Image: alstonfamily  | Instruments of torture  |   CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

 

Toxic: Lessons from Science

Toxic chemicals, lessons from scienceI’ve seen a number of articles about toxic bosses, or toxic workplaces recently, and I’ve heard some harrowing stories; the boss who creates arbitrary rules and then breaks them, the manager who blames everyone else – every time, the idea thief, the company that expects staff to be flexible but makes no allowances for genuine personal crises. I’m sure you have more examples to add to this list.

So why do we apply the term “toxic” to a workplace?

Merriam-Webster online defines toxic as “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation”.

In science toxic chemicals are those that cause damage to an organism, organ or cell. In examining the impact of toxins scientists will consider the amount of toxin taken, the length of exposure, and the health of the organism prior to exposure,

If an organism has a long exposure and a high dose the impact will be greater, in fact there are many chemicals that are safe at a low dose by dangerous or even lethal at a high does. Vitamin A is an example, as humans we need small amounts, but cannot process large amounts, if we eat more vitamin A than we need we store the excess in our livers where it accumulates and in extreme cases leads to Hypervitaminosis A.

We also know that toxicity depends on the organism, most toxins are species-specific, and on the health of the organism. Healthy people break down protein they’ve eaten, and their kidney’s work to remove any toxins generated in that process. But for people who have damaged kidneys a high protein diet becomes toxic.

Could a workplace be that bad?

Short answer; yes.

Long answer; yes, poor work conditions, overwork, lack of control at work all contribute to stress at work and stress has a direct impact on your health in a number of ways. Toxic workplaces are a health risk.

What can you do?

If you find yourself in a toxic workplace as employee what can you do? And by toxic I mean more than the mild disfunction of most companies, to a level where your health could be impacted. There are three principles you need to stick to as you move out.

  • Understand that it’s not you, it’s them
  • Stay professional, both in your work ethic and your behaviour
  • Plan to exit with dignity.

You’ll note that I haven’t suggested trying to change the company, these are all coping strategies. The larger the company and the more toxic it is the harder it is to change, it will generally only happen following a crisis when there is a leadership change. My recommendation is to look after yourself first, and find a new role in a happy company.

As a manager or executive your options are greater, you may be able to change the work environment for your part of the organisation.

There’s a TV series called “Undercover Boss“, which has a simple premise of a boss going into the field disguised as a new recruit or someone returning to work after a career break. In the episodes I’ve seen the disguise was rumbled just once – when the company employee noticed the soft hands of a supposed experienced labourer.

In pretty much every episode the CEO learns the same lessons including;

  • when people get to make decisions about their work they flourish
  • head office makes some lousy decisions
  • you need to listen to your employees – and so does your management team.

If you recognise that your workplace is toxic and you’re in a position to change it, get out there and listen to your staff. As you listen, and act on what you hear, you’ll start to rebuild trust.

Trust is an antidote to toxic workplaces, in the same way that we have antidotes against the toxins of poisonous animals. It won’t fix everything immediately, there will still be scars, but the organism will begin to recover.

Image: Psychic Chemistry  |  Stefano Petraz  |  CC BY-NC-ND2.0

 

Support versus Commitment

201603_supportfinalIn every big project in every company you need your senior executives on board. If you’re the project manager you’re asked to get the support of leadership.

On paper leadership support sounds good; it often comes with budget and it can pave the way for decision-making.

It’s not enough.

You need commitment of your leadership. So what is the difference?If you think of the bacon and eggs breakfast; the chicken was supportive, the pig was committed.

Commitment is visible in the organisation. If your executive is visible connected to your project then she has a real stake in its success. Budget will be more easily released, decision-making will become easier, other leaders will want to be part of it. Perhaps more importantly a number of the doubts about the project will dissolve, the fact that an executive puts their name on a project gives it a credibility vaccination.

Years ago when I was involved in implementing an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) at a large financial institution we’d done really well with good adoption numbers and some real business results. We also had the support of our CEO, who’d even featured in a launch video. I was happy about the momentum we were building.

Then we got a new CEO who wanted to use the ESN to reach employees and have a real discussion. Wow. What a difference, his name was on a community and he was interacting with employees. The questions people had about using an ESN changed from “why” to “how”. There was a growing assumption that this would be how we worked.

So, look for executives who are ready to commit, ask for their visible commitment, and move the conversation from “why” to “how”.

Image:  After a Night’s Fast  | Pekka Nikrus  | CC BY-NC-SA2.0