How to deal with issues and problems

How to deal with issues and problems

 In last week’s blog – “You cannot bypass the truth” – I discussed the fact that if you want to fix/transform any dysfunctional or unwanted organizational condition or dynamic you have to start by being honest and telling the truth about the problem.

I am sure you have heard the saying

95% of the solution to your problem is admitting that you have a problem!

Well as simple as it sounds, this powerful principle applies when dealing with big organizational issues.

If you want to fix or change an undesired condition, you have to make sure all the key leaders and team members who are involved in that condition agree that there is, in fact, a problem. They have to own and embrace the fact that things are not working, and they have to be willing to talk about it.

Many times leaders have to look in the mirror and acknowledge that something about themselves is not working. It could be in the way they are interacting, collaborating, aligning or the way they are being viewed by others. Most importantly, leaders have to own the negative impact that their dysfunctional behavior is having on the teams they manage.

If leaders are too proud or arrogant to admit their shortcomings they don’t stand a chance at driving change.

In my last blog, I stated that the two main reasons that prevent leaders from addressing the issues are either their lack of courage or that they simply don’t know how. They don’t have a reliable methodology and approach for addressing the problems.

Many leaders have shared with me their previous bad experiences of how trying to create a dialogue to address a problem turned into a ‘bitching session’ or ‘screaming match’. In many of these recollections, their attempts not only didn’t yield a positive outcome they caused greater divide, trauma and bad feelings.

I would like to share a high-level approach, which is both simple and powerful, for addressing issues, problems, and unwanted organizational dynamics. If you apply this framework it will help you transform even the most challenging issues.

  1. Clearly define the Problem. Start by clearly acknowledging and outlining the problem. By clearly I mean make sure that everyone sees the problem the same way. As part of this first step, you could also get clarity on questions such as: “When did the problem start?” and “Why did it start?”. So many times this seemingly simple step of clarity isn’t achieved and different team members have a very different take on the problem. In fact, most often whilst some members say there is a problem others deny it. If team members are not on the same page about what the problem is, they won’t be on the same page about what to do to solve it and they definitely won’t bring the same commitment and passion to the task.
  1. Focus on your commitment. People are often eager to delve into the details of the action plan and ‘who is going to do what’ too quickly. They go into ‘What needs to be done?” and lose sight of ‘Why do we want to do this?”, “What do we really want here?” and “What is our bigger purpose and committed?” By taking a step back to focus on your commitment you can generate a much more powerful and compelling platform of shared and aligned commitment. Operating from commitment is proactive. Fixing a problem is reactive.
  1. Come up with possibilities and ideas. Once you are clear about your bigger purpose and commitment you can start exploring possibilities and ideas for how to turn it into reality. A keyword in this step is COULD – “What could you do to fulfill your commitment?” In this step allow yourself to think outside the box. Don’t restrict yourself to ‘realistic’ or ‘achievable’ ideas. After all, in this step you are not committing to anything, so truly allow yourself to come up with as many new possibilities and ideas as you can.
  1. Commit to clear actions. Once you have a long list of possibilities and ideas for what you could do you need to decide which of these you are actually going to carry out. Whatever you decide to do, commit to it. Promise it. Make sure the outcome, time frame and ‘who is committing to what’ are all crystal clear. In fact, document all promised actions so you can follow up on them.
  1. Set a cadence of follow up touch points. Many teams are good at creating ideas and even committing to them, but they are not good at following through. So, as part of the action plan commit in advance to a cadence of follow up meetings and make sure to keep to them, no matter what!

These five steps represent a very powerful process. However, any process or methodology is only going to be as effective as the context inside which they are being implemented.

You can’t simply follow the steps and hope for great things to happen. You have to bring your heart, soul, commitment, and most importantly – courage – to the game.

You cannot bypass the truth!

As I have repeated many times in previous blogs, if you want to fix/transform any dysfunctional or unwanted organizational condition or dynamic you have to start by being honest and telling the truth about the problems.

There is no way around it – no matter how challenging it may be!

I was working with a leading telecoms company to elevate their performance to the next level. As always I started with a cultural analysis and the results revealed significant issues: silos instead of collaboration; politics instead of transparency; lack of alignment between functions and levels; plus a lack of unity within the senior leadership team itself.

As I began the transformational phase of the process I shared my cultural analysis findings with the senior team and managers effort. Whilst everyone understood the list of issues (as the output came directly from their feedback as participants in the process), it was hard, especially for some of the senior leaders, to fully accept, embrace and confront the dysfunctional reality.

In fact, a few steps further into the process when I wanted to bring the list of issues up again in order to create a plan to address them there was reluctance and resistance from some leaders to do so.

The leaders didn’t want to bring up and discuss the dysfunctional issues again because they were afraid that by doing so they would be taking the organization backwards and making things worse. The leaders believed that by not discussing the issues they would simply disappear or their negative impact would be contained or minimalized.

And, surprisingly the HR leaders and managers, whose role it is to nurture and improve the corporate culture, were most adamant about not resurfacing the issues.

Unfortunately, I experience this exact dynamic in quite a few companies.

The logic of “If you can’t see and hear the problems they don’t exist or they don’t negatively impact the organization” is fundamentally flawed, undermining and dangerous to any corporate culture.

In fact, not bringing up the issues and talking about them makes things much worse, rather than addressing them head-on.

If you understand corporate culture at all you know that when employees feel they can’t publically bring up the painful issues that they then don’t discuss them at all. On the contrary, they simply go underground to express their frustrations and this directly impacts the culture. Negative background chatter becomes rampant, people become more skeptical, cynical and resigned, issues are avoided and things get worse.

This undermining dynamic is the ‘kiss of death’ to any change initiative and negates everything that a change initiative is typically about.

The senior executives can keep saying all the right things about the importance of change. However, contrary to their declarations, their reluctance or inability to deal with the negative issues sends a covert but clear and definitive message to all, that the change initiative is a farce and that the senior executives don’t have what it takes to lead it.

And that is exactly what happened in the organization I described at the start. No matter how much change and progress they were actually making, every time I went to their offices, people would pull me aside and give me an earful about how nothing is changing, and the leadership team isn’t living up to what they said and they don’t have the courage to drive change.

This prevailing mindset was like a cancer to the initiative, and it was very hard to change people’s mindsets, because, to be frank, they were right – the senior leaders didn’t demonstrate the courage to deal with the most important problems, most of which stemmed from their own divided and dysfunctional behaviors.

Everyone knew all this, however people blamed others for the situation, and everyone felt powerless and frustrated.

Unfortunately, I see this type of dynamic in so many organizations.

Why are people so reluctant to allow the prevailing problems and issues to surface?

The main reason, plain and simple, is lack of courage! However, it goes beyond that. People don’t know how to deal with the negative issues and problems, which are often loaded with ego-based emotions and blame.

In next week’s blog I will complete this account by sharing a simple, yet powerful approach and process for addressing and transforming issues, problems, and dysfunctional realities.

Stay tuned!

Slogans or Reality?

I was speaking at the annual sales kick-off meeting of a growing successful global telecommunication company. This event was impressively managed with main stage events, breakout sessions and a barrage of high-end social activities.

Like similar events, the themes were catchy, motivational and relevant. The messages were powerful and well presented by the senior executives, and the presentations were effective at inciting and pumping up everyone to do their best in the coming year.

At the end, the event scores seem to be high, the senior executives left feeling great, and judging by the high energy, everyone seemed to be on board. A picture perfect reality.

Companies invest so much money in these mega events. They hire the best production companies to ensure things run like a Swiss clock, and there are always inspiring themes and slogans to incite commitment and urgency among the troops – things like: “This is our time!”,”Winning together!”, “Our time is now!”, “Be the change!” and “The future is here now!”

Big stage presentations are often highly inspiring and exciting, as this is the opportunity for the CEO and his or her senior executives to shine by patting themselves and their teams on the back for great performance and progress. It is also their chance to show their human, personable, vulnerable, charming, funny and visionary side. And, to top it all off, there is usually a great guest speaker to help drill down the corporate messages and inspire the troops.

I have attended many of these events, and they are always excellent!

And then… everyone goes back home and sooner or later (usually sooner…) things pretty much go back to the way they were before – politics, silos, blame, infighting, victim mentality… yada, yada, yada. The slogans remain slogans and the reality remains reality.

What a dismal predicament!

Why does this happen?

Is it inevitable?

It is not that the slogans are flawed or that those who are presenting them don’t genuinely believe them. It’s also not that those who are receiving the messages aren’t listening or they don’t care.

The reason is – executives focus too much on the content and they don’t focus on the context inside which the content is being received, assimilated, and implemented.

What determines if the slogans will remain slogans or if they will change and/or become reality is the context inside which people absorb, interact, behave and perform.

For example, at a different event I attended the CEO stood in front of her entire sales team and asked everyone to take full ownership of the company goals. She urged everyone to not be afraid to bring issues up and do whatever it takes to fix them in order to succeed. She even showed a slide with an up-side-down organization chart that had the CEO on the bottom and the sales employees on the top – I have seen leaders use that trick several times. She accompanied this with: “I am at the bottom of the pyramid. My role is to remove barriers and help you win. I work for you…” However, this same CEO and some of her executives were known for micro managing the day-to-day, including things like scrutinizing people’s expense sheets and giving them a hard time when they overspent on customer related activities.

I am sure the CEO meant every word she said on stage. However, anyone with a healthy sense of reality knows that no one in the audience took her comments seriously. In fact, people rolled their eyes, looked at each other and whispered cynically: “Whatever…”

While the CEO wanted to deepen ownership and commitment, her comment and more importantly her lack of awareness of the perceptions people had about her and her team, actually weakened it. She was too focused on getting the management text book messages right, rather than on how people would perceive and receive them.

This CEO is no different from so many others I have seen. Executives think that they can stand on a stage once or twice a year and say all the fancy slogans with gusto, and then go back to micro managing the day-to-day, and that will drive change. Nothing is further from reality!

If the CEO wants to create a new culture of “Transparency”, “Honesty”, “Courage” and “Winning Together” he or she has to make this a priority as high as achieving the revenues or profitability numbers of the company. He has to invest and put in place the same robust programs, routines, incentives and practices to continuously promote, foster, reward, nurture and sustain the desired behaviors. Elevating your team culture is a process/journey, not an event. That is not a slogan!

Peter Drucker, the great business management guru, once said: “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast.” Believe me, that is not a slogan. It is the inevitable reality, that for some reason many CEOs, even if they understand it and can repeat the slogan, still don’t seem to get and adhere to.

Size Matters!

Whilst working with a leading regional technology company, I was supporting the Sales and Services teams to help establish greater clarity about their roles and responsibilities in order to reduce overlap and infighting and increase alignment and collaboration between these teams in the marketplace.

After a few sessions, we got it right and it was time to update the company’s senior leadership team, as well as the entire middle manager forum on the newly established role definition and rules of engagement that the team created. However, some of the Sales and Services senior leaders expressed reluctance to share the details with that wide of an audience.

They were concerned that if too many people get exposed and involved in the dynamic between Sales and Services, everyone will meddle and want to influence things and this will complicate and slow things down. As one of the leaders put it

“As long as the Sales and Services leaders understand the rules that is all that matters. It isn’t anyone else’s business.”

I have witnessed this type of mindset quite a few times before. Many executives often believe that when it comes to critical business discussions and decisions (including strategic planning), these important debates should be conducted as an exclusive affair.

Their logic is that the fewer people who are involved in the process, the easier, smoother and faster it will be. As such, they often limit participation to a small group of business unit heads and/or the strategy development group.

However, making key decisions and/or putting together the strategic planning team is not a matter of finding the perfect size of group — it’s about gathering together the right people.

Remember, any decision, direction or strategy is only as good as the context inside which it’s being received, owned and executed. Therefore, in order to make the best decisions and create the most powerful strategy with the strongest sense of ownership and accountability for execution, you must include both those individuals who have the best expertise about where the organization needs to go and the people who are going to be involved in, support and implement the agreed upon direction and objectives.

While some impatient executives might see this broader inclusion, for example of support functions such as Human Resources and Marketing as slowing things down, slower, in this case, will inevitably be faster where it counts most. This is the case since doing things right from the start saves time, money, and prevents having to do things all over again when people are only paying lip-service to the execution further down the road.

Stop trying to predict the future!

Every year, executives around the world go through the customary tradition known as ‘strategic planning’. They emerge from days or weeks of meetings with a sacred document that — if adhered to — will increase their sales, make their services shine, engage their staff and secure their future. Well, that’s the story they tell us in business school anyway.

But unfortunately – as Professor Robert Kaplan of the Harvard Business School and his associate, David Norton of the Balanced Scorecard Collaborative tell us – as much as 90 percent of all corporate strategies fall short of their stated objectives.

From my many years of global experience, helping executive teams generate a clear and compelling direction for their organizations, I have observed several key misunderstandings and myths that lead to wishful, wasteful, or less-than-worthwhile strategic planning efforts and outcomes.

One of the biggest myths is that in order to create an effective and relevant strategy you have to be able to accurately predict the future in terms of market, technology and/or consumer trends. Many executives seem to believe this.

But, nothing could be further from the truth. In today’s rapidly changing technological, consumption, and economic environments, no one has a crystal ball, and no one knows what the future will bring.

In the last few years, we have probably seen more examples than ever before of the predictable not materializing, and the unpredictable becoming reality.

In today’s world, it’s often the new, unknown, small players that burst into the market unexpectedly and overnight they dictate new consumption and business trends, and how we live our lives. Take as an example the likes of Uber, Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Paypal and many other ‘use-to-be startups’.

So, any attempts to predict the future could easily be misleading and lead to misjudgment and failure.

Unfortunately, many executives still believe that there is a “right” strategy for their organization and their job is to identify and capture it. They believe that if you get the content of your strategy right, the success of that strategy is a foregone conclusion. They assume that the substance of the strategy must be composed of realistic objectives based on the most accurate and valid data and information. In many organizations, this belief leads to “analysis paralysis”.

Those who try and get the future right typically do so by analyzing the past. They create their strategic plans by looking at their rearview mirror. They determine their future goals by benchmarking and analyzing their own, as well as others’, historical performance and trends. That often leads to merely repeating past cycles and trends.

In addition, what goes unrecognized and unaddressed is that no strategy can ever be right or reasonable enough to account for all the events that might emerge on the road to its fulfillment. Therefore, perfect content, as a path to success, is an illusion and leads to increased investment of resources in the pursuit of the one true strategy that will win the day.

In reality, any strategy is only as good as people’s ownership and commitment to its fulfillment.

Even the most accurate and well-crafted plan will fail if people don’t own it and take accountability for delivering it. Therefore, you are better off having 100% ownership for a strategy that is 80% accurate, then have less than 80% ownership for a strategy that is 100% accurate.

Of course, you need a healthy understanding and respect for past and present trends. I  believe there is plenty of experience, expertise and smarts in most organizations. However, as Alan Kay, ex-Apple Fellow, said,

The only way to predict the future is to create it“.

The most powerful strategies are informed by the past, but influenced and driven by future thinking. This means a team envisions the future, takes a stand, and commits to a direction and destination as a responsible, plausible, and a calculated risk. Then everyone commits to that destination – not because it is perfectly accurate, but because they believe it is the right future to pursue.

The process of creating a powerful and effective strategic plan should not be an accounting and forecasting exercise that is informed by some leadership, but rather the opposite – a leadership exercise that is informed by some accounting and forecasting. It requires not a calculator, but the courage and conviction to inspire everyone to be their best and get on the same page.

As Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola famously said:

 “The first step in making a great movie is getting everyone involved to be making the same movie.”

What is the most important aspect of any Organizational Transformation?

In most organizations, when people talk about Organizational Transformation, they typically mean a major reorganization or restructuring, a process re-engineering initiative or a system and tool upgrade.

These things are very important, and at specific times in the evolution of a company they may be just what the organization needs in order to reach the next level.

However, I have seen organizations with best-in-class processes, systems and tools struggle to achieve great performance and results. And I have seen organizations with barely-adequate processes, systems and tools achieve extraordinary results beyond expectations.

Why is this the case?

The reason is that even in today’s increasingly digital and technology-oriented environment, no matter how high-tech your business is – your success still fundamentally depends on your people. Whether you like it or not, the old cliché: “our people are our most valuable asset” is still as true and vibrant as ever.

Unfortunately, judging by their behavior I still see too many senior leaders who don’t seem to get this fundamental concept, or they simply underestimate what it takes to create the environment for successful and sustainable change.  Maybe that is the reason why so many large change initiatives don’t succeed.

These executives seem to think that because they are senior and have the authority to hire and fire, they can mandate people’s engagement, commitment and ownership, and people will just naturally line up with their direction.

I still see town hall meetings in which senior leaders get up on the stage, explain the rationale for change and express their expectations that everyone will step up to do their part. They then get off the stage feeling that now that people understand the direction and they will join the cause.
However, in reality, nothing is further from the truth.

Yes, if leaders create an environment in which people are afraid to speak up everyone will say what the executives want to hear. However, people are smart. They know how to play the game; how to pretend as if they are on board and pay lip service to the company’s initiatives.

So, any organizational transformation effort has to include a major focus on people; creating the right mindset and focus.

In fact, no matter how complex the restructuring or system change aspects may be, the people aspect will always be the defining factor for success.

Wise executives will prioritize their time and effort to make sure everyone is on the same page, with the same clarity about the strategy and outcomes of the transformation.

They will also invest their personal time and passion to ensure that everyone genuinely buys into the change, driving high levels of commitment, ownership, and accountability. And, that people feel they can step up, speak up, do the right things, bring the tough topics to the table, rock the boat where necessary and take risks – without being afraid of getting into trouble.

When people feel and believe that their leaders get it – that they genuinely value their people’s importance and contribution – they are much more inclined to get excited about the transformation.

And, as we all know – excited people are much more committed. They own the game and go out of their way to ensure that the organizational transformation is a success.

You can’t beat that!

Why is straight talk so difficult?

I was coaching two entrepreneurs who were partners in a services business. They were very good at what they did and their partnership made them a lot of money and afforded them great market brand and reputation.

However, they had very different personalities and they had an acrimonious relationship for a long time.

Even though their teams had to work closely together, somehow the two managed to navigate the business conversations and activities while staying clear of the need to directly deal with each other on a personal level.

They continued to avoid dealing with their personal conflicts, lack of trust and overall contentious relationship, even though it negatively affected the people under them, as well as the overall effectiveness of their company.

When I talked with each of them alone, they always had lots of blunt criticism and negative comments about each other. But, when the three of us had sessions together, their accusations always seemed watered down. They were not communicating in a straightforward, bold and honest way.

Every time one of them criticized the other I would first ask them, “Have you told your partner how you feel and what you want/need?” and if the answer was “No!”, as it often was, I coached them to go do so.

On several occasions when one of them would report: “We had a blunt conversation and I told my partner exactly how I feel and what I want,” the other would contradict the story and say: “We talked but we didn’t discuss anything new.”

I see this type of dynamic happening in organizations all the time. People can engage in straight talk with me, but then they water it down when they talk to the person with whom they need to have the blunt and direct conversation.

Why does this happen?

From my experience, it is due to one of the following reasons:

  •  People are not clear about what they want to say. When people speak in circles or stumble on words, or when they don’t know which words to use or how to phrase what they mean it is simply because they don’t know what they want to say. Many times, people enter conversations feeling confident about what they want to say but then during the conversation, they realize their thoughts are still half-baked and unclear. People are also unclear when they haven’t quite taken a solid, final stand on something yet. I have seen this happen many times. The minute people become clear about what they believe and want, they always find an appropriate and effective way to say it.

 

  • People are not willing to own what they have to say. They are not willing to own the tough feedback, coaching, assessment or requests they have of others. This may seem a bit simplistic, however, if you net it out, I find that it all somehow boils down to courage. Having the courage to either dig deep and be clear about what we want to achieve and what we want to say, or actually coming out with it even if it may be uncomfortable to the person expressing or the person receiving.

So, next time you find yourself stuck in a conversation ask yourself: “Am I really clear about what I am trying to say?” or “Am I avoiding owning what I have to say?” This will help you move forward.

4 Steps to ensure mergers and/or acquisitions fulfill their purpose

I often work with organizations and teams that are going through, or have gone through, internal or external merger or acquisition.

Unfortunately, it is a known fact that most mergers or acquisitions fail to fulfill their desired or anticipated potential. I read a statistic, which stated that the archives of the Wall Street Journal show that upwards of 80 percent of mergers and acquisitions fail to fulfill the strategic goals that justified the merger and/or acquisition within the expected timeframe. In many cases, the resulting organizations are less effective and less successful than the original two by themselves.

My personal experience and observation have led me to believe that this failure is due to the fact that most teams and organizations don’t invest enough time and effort in the cultural, personal and human aspects of their integration. Rather, they focus almost exclusively on the content and process and they often end up with a well articulated plan that is disconnected from the actual reality.

I have supported many integration efforts and I have found that there are four specific steps that any team or organization can take to ensure their merger or acquisition will work and fulfill its purpose:

1. Establish an environment where people can communicate and dialogue about the merger and/or acquisition (M&A) in an open, honest, authentic, courageous, and effective way.
● M&A efforts are often stalled or undermined because teams and organization try to quickly address the redundancies, overlaps and duplications, including the nuts and bolts of reorganizing, restructuring, and scaling inside an environment and atmosphere of mutual suspicion, guardedness, and defensiveness, as well as lack of trust, respect, and open, honest, and effective communication. Trying to do things fast often slows things down because people say all the politically correct things, but then they walk away paying lip service to the integration effort.

2. Elicit genuine ownership on both sides for the success of the M&A.
● In most M&A’s, one party feels ‘taken-over’ or victimized by the other. While this dynamic is understandable, it undermines the ability of both organizations to succeed in their integration. From the start, it is critical for the leaders to create an environment in which everyone on both sides of the aisle genuinely owns, feels committed to, and is accountable for the success of the integration process and its outcome.

3. Make sure both parties have an opportunity to complete their respective pasts in an honorable and empowering way.
● Each team or company has its own unique legacy of culture, brand name, competencies, ways of doing things, heritage and identity, which its people often feel proud of and attached to. In order to move forward into a new shared identity, people need to ‘complete their respective pasts’ – or differently said: ‘grieve for the end of an era.’ But when both sides, especially the acquired, feel respected, heard, considered, included, recognized, and validated for their legacy, it creates space for all parties to generate the next chapter as an even-greater one.

4. Align the combined teams around a new shared future and identity that embody the best of both cultures and operations.
● To create a reality where the new whole is greater than the sum of its historical parts, the two teams and organizations have to articulate and align on a new bold and compelling shared future which both parties equally own, feel committed to, accountable for, and energized about. Unifying the teams around a shared future and identity will immediately create genuine excitement and urgency on both sides to clarify, align, streamline and scale roles, functions, structures, and responsibilities. When creating the future, it is important to consider and include the positive attributes and uniqueness of each organization in order to avoid the trap of one company feeling crushed by the other.

The only constant is change

For years, in my work in the corporate world, I’ve heard the slogan “change is the only constant,” but it has always seemed hollow to me. Instead of developing a workforce and leaders who are nimble and capable of constantly adapting, many organizations in the business world are, in fact, having a very difficult time adjusting to change. Sudden changes in their operating environment seem to cause them to hit the reactive, panic button, laying off employees; slashing development, improvement, and quality programs; cutting off contracts with suppliers; and retreating into downsizing.

Even though companies and organizations say they will make their cuts strategically, this is most often not what happens. Instead, the cuts often turn out to be “across the board” and irrational, damaging the organization’s short-term and future interests, while preserving the deadwood and the obsolete. The best and the brightest are often the ones who “take the package” and move on.

Needless to say, this plays havoc with organizational culture. I’ve seen it happen many times: Employees quickly become anxious, fearful and cynical; they stop seeing themselves as having a long-term future within the organization. Their loyalty to the company, and sometimes to each other, declines dramatically. It’s “everyone for themselves.” The loss is more than financial. The biggest cost is to the spirit of the organization: demoralization; lost confidence, morale and investment; and a decline in people’s commitment to, and ownership of the company.

In one organization I know, the CEO reacted immediately to one of the recent downturns, pulling the trigger on across-the-board cuts without consultation. In doing so, he destroyed a brilliantly successful change initiative that was under way, which had already made a dramatic improvement in the company’s bottom line. Needless to say, when the market began to recover, he lost a significant number of his best people, who had just been waiting for a chance to jump ship.

Here’s another example: A division head of a global company took a completely different approach, for which he endured some tough scrutiny from the head office and other divisions. He trimmed expenses very carefully and strategically ‐ first by laying off a very few under-performers, and then by gathering his leadership team and having in-depth conversations about how to implement further cost reductions while boosting morale. People agreed to switch roles and take on more responsibility, working hard to make the changes successful. The division was the only one in the company to achieve its targets throughout the toughest time, and the division head attracted support and admiration from across the company ‐ as well as a promotion.

The young adults who are now graduating from universities do not expect that they will be able to stay in a firm for the long term, or that the firm will be loyal to them. The concept of “job for life” has long gone by. Therefore, they are only prepared to make a limited investment in a workplace that may well use them up and spit them out. They also want a more balanced life than their parents had, and they are not willing to sacrifice their own families, relationships and children to the interests of an employer.

In the coming years, companies will be forced to look hard at their people practices if they want to survive the ups and downs and come out the other side with an engaged, motivated, aligned workforce, and a loyal clientele that will continue to buy their products and services.

It may be too early to tell, but it seems as if we are all learning to live with more instability than before. The recession that started in 2008 has never really ended, and the roller-coaster seems constantly off again.

There is no gyroscope for managing organizations through uncertainty and upheaval, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that a set of constant cultural or people-values and a long-term vision are more important than ever ‐ because the era of constant change has finally arrived, and slogans alone just aren’t going to cut it.

Organizational politics at its worst

The real strength and health of an organization is tested in tough times. When things are good and there is plenty of money, resources and success to go around; people tend to be more content with what they have. They also seem to have more tolerance and “generosity” about other people’s success, including people who are doing even better than they are.

But – in times of turbulence and change, especially when organizational borders are being redefined or when there are significant work force or expense reductions and restructures, the true color of the organization is revealed.

Unfortunately, in so many cases, when this happens the political deadly claws and sharp teeth come out and then you can see the ugliness of organizations in full swing. People seem to become more selfish, they work in the dark to position themselves and their agendas, even at the expense of throwing others who, up to that moment were their friends and alias, under the bus. One of my HR clients expressed it as: “When the year is tough people fight internally instead of rallying together to fight our external enemies.”

In this scenario some people emerge as winners and others as losers. But the ultimate loss is for the organization as a whole. The overall team is robbed of the optimal outcome. The “winners” drive the agenda in a self-serving way, and eventually the “losers” get discouraged. They disengage when they realize that no one really cares about their view or the greater good of the organization. Key decisions are made only by those who will gain from them in the future. And, an entire pool of tribal knowledge, expertise and experience is being ignored, excluded or disenfranchised.

For example, a traditional hardware technology company acquired a new age software and services company in order to escape the commoditization of its legacy business and migrate into the higher value market. These two companies had very different business expertise, views and models. When it came time for integration, instead of planning and executing the integration together, the traditional hardware leaders kept dominating the discussions and swaying the decisions in their favor. Many of the acquired team members ended up leaving and while some of the acquiring leaders felt victorious because they secured senior positions in the new structure, things continued to be shaky for a long time and the company had to adjust the model several times. All this could have been avoided if the acquiring and acquired teams would have worked together to bring the best of both worlds for the good of the whole. I have seen this type of dynamic play out in similar ways in so many organizations.

When people do work together to come up with the best outcome and structure for the success of the entire company things are quite different. Everyone puts their personal agendas and egos aside. Instead, managers and employees put their best thinking forward to come up with a shared future state that best serves the next chapter of the organizational evolution.

Even the people who know that if they do the right thing for the company they would drive themselves out of a job would rather do that then look back in frustration and regret.

There is nothing people detest more than to feel that they and their colleagues cannot do, or haven’t done the right things for the good of the company because of the big, ugly political dynamic of their organization.

And, unfortunately this still happens too often in most organizations.

Don’t confuse Commitment with Compliance

Many managers and leaders assume their people automatically will commit to a new direction or strategy. They believe they should not have to ask for people’s commitment. They come from a school of thought that employees are obliged to align when a boss askes for it. It’s a belief to the effect of, “We shouldn’t have to beg you to get on board. That’s what you are paid to do. This isn’t a democracy. As soon as you understand the rationale and valid business reasons for this direction or strategy, you should be fully behind it.” This assumption is incorrect and dangerous. We find that this attitude often stems from a view that compliance is the same as commitment. It isn’t.

Let’s be clear, low levels of commitment do not mean that people won’t do their jobs. Fear of being fired for sub-optimal job performance is enough to motivate most people to do what it takes to keep their positions. Plus, from a less cynical viewpoint, most people are proficient enough at their jobs to perform it without applying their full passion, dedication, intelligence and commitment. We can assume the Pyramids were not built by what anyone would call an enthusiastic work force. Therefore, lukewarm organizational commitment to a strategy or initiative will not inherently guarantee its failure.

But true commitment goes far beyond compliance. When people are committed, they behave differently in key ways:

  • They invest their hearts and souls in the cause
  • They perform their roles with passion and energy
  • They take on bold promises and commitments
  • They follow through with extraordinary levels of tenacity and perseverance; they don’t give up
  • They look out for opportunities to improve, fix and perfect things
  • They genuinely care for others who are on the journey with them

A committed organization is one whose employees work harder to accomplish their tasks. It’s a place where people anticipate problems and resolve them early, before they fester. Excuses are not tolerated — only answers and actions to how problems are going to be fixed. People love coming to work. They’re more productive, creative, attentive and aware.

Contrast that with an environment of compliance. People don’t take the new initiatives to heart. They don’t ache for it or want it in their gut. If it fails, they don’t lose sleep over it. In fact, they brush it off as someone else’s fault. Because they don’t view the game as their own, they avoid expressing their views including when they feel things are not working the way they should. And, if things fail they have no problem taking out the “I told you so” card. They detach themselves emotionally from its success or failure, and by making few or no guarantees to deliver specific outcomes, they are less likely to see a personal role in making the initiatives happen.

If you wanted to join a team or bet on a team’s success, which of the two would you want to be a part of, or bet on?

 Photo by: Chris Potter

Are you part of the problem or the solution?

Blame – or the blame game – is always harmful and destructive. It undermines the team dynamic and creates a stressful work environment. When something goes wrong and there’s a witchhunt for whose fault it is, people react by hiding, covering themselves, misrepresenting and being increasingly cautious. Nobody engages in a productive conversation to learn from the mistake, which only perpetuates the situation and increases the likelihood it will be repeated.

Contrast this with an environment of ownership and commitment, where people are orienting around open, honest discussions that lead to the source of problems and allow for real resolution. In this environment, no one is interested in who’s at fault, but rather in getting to the source of problems. In this environment people are eager to volunteer their insights, observations, and energy to addressing what was missing, what needs to be corrected, and take personal ownership for resolving the issues.

Unfortunately, most workplaces are filled with people spending more time trying to avoid blame for something that did – or might – go wrong, than in anticipating and addressing real problems.

In a healthy environment, people are also much more open to receiving feedback and constructive criticism, as the name game is “how to get better all the time,” rather than a “gotcha” environment where they are consumed by the fear of being caught.

If the environment is one of everyone looking out for themselves, people look for – and compete for – credit as evidence of being better than others. “Look how great I am” is the unspoken theme. In that environment, people also tend to be threatened by others getting credit; the better you are the worse I am. They can’t be happy with the accomplishment and success of others; they are far less inclined to recognize and praise others.

But, in a healthy team environment, where people feel they are working together towards a common aim there is no angst about credit and blame. In this environment, people are much more inclined to view others accomplishments as their own; they are far more generous in providing praise and recognition to colleagues. This produces energy, inspiration, motivation, and a desire to do whatever it takes for the team to be successful.

stini