Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Values Under Construction

I know you only by the way you treat me - nothing else.
I'm not listening to most of what you say.
You asked me to find the core values brochure. It's in the closet...buried under pens and colored folders and paper clips.
Here's how I know what you care about. You, as a representative of leadership.
You don't know what I mean? You think you never see me?
I know you by:
  • The things other people say about you. Yes, your reputation.
  • The way you choose to greet people in the hallway.
  • The way you talk about other people. 
  • The way you listen - or don't.
  • What you do in response to problems.
  • The way you show empathy to those in pain.
  • Your attitude to new ideas that are not yours.
  • The way you enforce the rules.
  • Whether you study a matter carefully, or are impulsive and just act out.
  • Who you give the microphone to, and where you shine your spotlight.
Yes, I know you. Every single day, I watch your values unfold.
And I am learning.
Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity, including the United States as a whole. Photo by Jeff Warren via Flickr(Creative Commons).

Friday, May 20, 2016

Why Top Executives Keep Employees In The Dark

Have you ever noticed that most companies don't spend a lot of time telling you "how things get done around here?"

Shockingly, very little information is available explicitly.
  • Our management guru of choice: Is it Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker, who? What books do we read, what discipline do we follow?
  • The history, mission and current challenges facing the organization: When did it get started? What were the meaningful moments? Who do we revere here, what difference did they make? What do we need to do now, and why?
  • The little things: Words "we" use. When people go to lunch. How to address superiors (first name only or more formally), send emails (short or long, or maybe we talk in person and stay off the computer), and so on?
  • Of course, the "brass tacks": What are our standard operating procedures? How do we define each job - your job? When we sit down together at the end of the year and talk about a bonus - will you have known all this time what you could have done to earn it?
You would think we'd spend almost all our time doing management stuff, performance stuff, coaching stuff and cultural stuff. And, of course, training stuff to get people up to speed.

For no matter how sophisticated your operation, only human beings can get the work done. Only people can make the decisions, pull the levers, and leverage the technologies.
So why do we leave them grasping for answers in the dark?

I think the answer is that the higher they go on the food chain, the less executives understand how very little most people in the organization know - because they are having conversations at the top, where most of the real action lives.

Living at the top, most executives not only don't understand the downstream impact of ignorance - they actually do not see, and cannot understand, that it exists.

But they do see that employees are unmotivated, that they don't care.

Here's a good way to fix that problem: Tell people what is going on, what you want from them, and how they can help.  In short:
“A company is people … employees want to know… am I being listened to or am I a cog in the wheel? People really need to feel wanted.” - Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Enterprises
You don't have to make a big deal out of "internal communication" programs or hire a huge specialized staff to speak in a foreign language to those you manage.

Just step back and let them do what they are supposed to do in the first place.

If you don't, guess what is going to happen?

They will "divorce" you!

But before they leave, they'll be disengaged, pushing email back and forth, getting into needless conflicts with other employees, and eventually marking time while they find another employer that loves and values them.

Of course, there are many intelligently run companies out there. They make sure, at all times, that staff members know their place on the team. That they're up to speed, formally and informally.

Richard Branson again:
“Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.” - Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Enterprises
In fact, great companies go well beyond informing. Instead, their attitude is all about marketing, and they market from top to the bottom and all the way back up again because they know that the employees are really all they have in terms of assets. With every word, every assignment, every email and every chat they communicate:
“You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”
–  Herb Brooks (1937 - 2003), head coach of the U.S. Olympic hockey team, Lake Placid, 1980, which won a gold medal
Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity, including the United States as a whole. Photo via Pixabay (Creative Commons CCo).

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Self-Awareness First, Social Media Second

So I did an interview with FOX News' Linda Schmidt. She wanted to know what kinds of mistakes people make when they're doing social media ad campaigns.

For some reason that day I was really focused on one kind of mistake, total sexism, and I think I may have ranted a little bit about #upforwhatever type hashtags.

The other stuff I talked about was pretty stock in trade: making sure that your social media folks are true strategists; doing your homework; and serving the brand, not just the campaign.

But we didn't talk about all the things you should do, all the things that companies are actually getting right. Prime among them: Your social media ad campaigns must exhibit a strong degree of self-awareness.

I loved the recent spot with Neil Patrick Harris, where he was prepping with "Siri's" help to host a Hollywood awards ceremony. The whole point of it was how you're supposed to feign excitement when inside you couldn't care less. At the end of it he goes, "I promise the real thing will be more sincere," or something to that effect.

Social media is all about authenticity, false authenticity, and the negotiation between the two. Bravo! I loved it!

I love the Instagram campaigns by MimuMaxi in New York. The company is owned by two Jewish religious sisters-in-law who started out selling "skirt leggings," which is a modest type of clothing. They mix photos of the clothing with commentary about life from their point of view. Being Jewish and raised religious myself, I am very interested in what these sisters-in-law have to say, and I keep making a mental note to go and buy the clothing, although it might be a little bit young for me.

At its core, social media is not just about being yourself. It is essentially a journey toward finding yourself. Very often people find that they can make or do things that other people want to buy - and that's what an ad campaign should reflect. Whether it's art, jewelry, music, recipes, or whatever - I want to know what worked for you. You! I want to know about your journey.

Last thing - social media is a very visual medium. I know that some people like to read a lot of words. My feeling is that most want to look at the pictures, and get a bit of info from the captions.

The social media bottom line: Be real, bring us close, make us cry or smile or soar. Distract us from our worries for the moment.

All opinions my own. No endorsement expressed or implied. Photo of Sigmund Freud via Wikipedia.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Edit Yourself First

One time there was this senior executive - okay, he was the head of my huge law enforcement agency - who really, really, really took writing to heart.
Every month I gave him a draft monthly column for the magazine. And every month he sent it back to me - I could almost hear him huffing and puffing - with tons of scrawled edits. "NO! NO! NO!"
Another executive used to simply take the draft and rewrite the whole thing, every week well past the weekly deadline.
Senior executives live and die by the power of their communication. They can only really delegate to someone who not only writes, but thinks exactly like themselves. As David Samuels discovered about President Obama and his chief communicator, Ben Rhodes:
Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his “mind meld” with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase “mind meld” verbatim....He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.” - David Samuels, "The Aspiring Novelist Who Became President Obama's Foreign Policy Guru," The New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2016
Most of us writers are not Ben Rhodes, though. So we actually need our senior executives to be extremely involved - to focus on the message itself, while they trust us to make their words clearer and more engaging.
But writing, and all forms of communication, are only one part of a much larger issue when it comes to effectively running an organization: How much should supervisory professionals "edit" the work of their subordinates? 
Think about how confusing this is. On the one hand we say to empower people. But on the other we insist on holding leaders and managers accountable for results - even when we aren't exactly sure what "results" even mean.
Plus there is of course pressure, when you're in a management role, to "prove" that you are adding some value to the organization. If your employees are doing just fine without your red pencil editorial reviews, then "what exactly are we paying you for?"
But it's not good management to constantly be in people's faces, because most employees are not in fact writers. And they should not need to be "mind readers" in order to do a good job.
Can you imagine if we ran the Army this way? "Oh we don't have standard operating procedures," we'd say to new recruits. "Just do what I do, and you can repeat my opinions after me."
People wouldn't last very long on the battlefield.
It seems to me that the job of a manager is in fact the opposite of what one might think: To make sure that people can normally do their work independently. Ideally, to enable them to innovate, so that they waste less time and get a lot more done. This isn't abdicating the role, but rather being so skillful about how you perform it that it looks like you almost aren't there.
Here's an interesting parallel from the world of makeup. It turns out that women are perceived as significantly more attractive when we wear subtle cosmetics. Overdone makeup takes away from a woman's beauty, and no makeup whatsoever does nothing to enhance it. 
So we need the subtle manager in our lives, the kind that if it were a lipstick would be called a version of "natural." In the background, behind the scenes but very present, constantly monitoring, evaluating, adjusting, and enhancing the output of the work unit.
But we don't need, and can't afford, the ranting and raving, self-important, sadistic, and ultimately incompetent version, "cherry red." 
Not the take-out-your-red-pencil, make-her-feel-stupid, nobody-can-get-a-thing-done-without-me kind of manager.
Not the demoralizing, disempowering, devaluing, and degrading one, who makes themselves look good by putting others down in comparison.
Even if you're supervising writers, there's a better way to help them generate communication than to insist they read the boss's mind. I've heard that complaint from people more than once, and they shouldn't have to do that to be rated outstanding - any more than they should have to stay late, make coffee, buy drinks or form a personal friendship with the boss.
When I first became a manager I asked my husband for advice.
"Don't bother people," he said.
"If you can remember that, the rest will come naturally."

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Kissing Cousins

"It's a funny thing at this agency," she said. "You've got to be reaaaallllly careful who you talk to."
"W-why?" I responded, almost trembling. (Well in fact I was trembling, with fear actually, because people kept on warning me things.)
"Look," she said. "I'm gonna tell it to you straight. Those people you see every day at work, they have friends you don't see. You catch my drift?"
"No." I felt completely stupid. Was she talking about the Mafia?
My friend shook her head.
"Let me spell it out. These people have all worked here for a lot of years. And a lot of years is a very long time."
"These people," she said, a little bit louder now, "let's just say that many of them are close."
"I just cannot believe it," I said. "These people seem so..."
"So what? So boring?"
"Well, yeah, kinda." 
I looked over at another table, at a man poised over his lunch. He was attacking some orange chicken with his tie thrown over his suit. There was a folded-up newspaper on the table, which he appeared to be reading avidly while shoveling.
"Him? No."
"Remember these words forever," said my friend, and at that she grabbed my wrist, a bit too firmly. "Because I am about to retire, and nobody else will tell it to you like it is."
"I'm listening," I said. She had a pretty strong grip. My arm was turning purple.
"You never know who's sleeping with who in this town. So never burn your bridges, and never assume you know jack shit about anything."
* * * 
I wish I could say that I'd made that story up, or that my "friend" was only a single person. But the truth is I've heard the same type of thing over and over again, and it hasn't mattered where I worked, in the public or the private sector. 
Surveys bear this out: Though most couples are first introduced by friends, some meet in the workplace as well.
Of course, there are close relationships at work that have nothing whatsoever to do with sex. Many people have simply worked together for many years, and have a comfort level with one another. Perhaps they're even "office spouses."
Certainly we frequently see movie depictions of coworkers who socialize outside the office too. In fact, nowadays it's almost impossible to watch a movie without seeing colleagues portrayed in this way.
All of which leaves me a little bit troubled. We're all familiar with the obvious issues - sexual harassment, exploitation, favoritism, and so on. But it seems to me that we are far less aware of the severe dysfunctions caused by too much "friendship" at work. Such as:
  • Poor morale 
  • Mistrust
  • Miscommunication or lack of communication
  • Poor decision-making
  • Inability to hold people accountable
  • Outright favoritism
Google, a top world brand and a most-sought-after employer as well, has considered emotional bonds as part of its quest to build the ideal team. As reported by the New York Timesit's found that a certain amount of emotional openness is a good thing at work. It promotes trust, which helps create a sense of safety that employees badly need in order to work productively.
But there is something else employees need in order to feel safe: A strict adherence to group norms. Notes the Times:
"Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather....Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals — they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently — but when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team."
In a high-functioning team, norms are more important than the personal preferences of an individual. You might think we should call them "core values," but core values are vague. Norms are more like this: When we disagree with one another, I must say so, but I also must do it politely.
You can see how a corporate culture might not function well if employees prioritize personal relationships over the norms of the team. You can't disagree with XYZ, someone might say, because he goes out drinking with ABC almost every night.
Unfortunately, however, the "normal" business tilts decisively toward specifically this type of dysfunction:
But emotional (and sexual) comfort is the psychological equivalent of junk food at work. Indulging those parts of yourself - which really belong at home - destroy the organization just as surely as eating massive amounts of cake and cookies will make you obese and put your very life at a significant risk.
Freud said a long time ago that we need "to love and to work" in order to be healthy and it's just not good for us to try and substitute the one for the other. But people who play out their personal proclivities across the entire workplace - especially from a position of power - are hurting many more people than just themselves. 
We get so tangled up in our shoelaces when we consider thorny issues like this. It's really about professionalism - a word that completely encompasses every aspect of the organization - and yet too often, nobody wants to tackle the thorny issues.
They have to, though. 
When personal preferences eclipse a results-based culture, nothing less than disaster is bound to ensue.
In short, as they say: "Don't play favorites."
All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employer or any other organization, or the federal government as a whole. Photo credit: Allison Richards / Flickr (Creative Commons).

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Serve The User, Not The System

A work environment planned around human nature, human motivation, and respect for the basic needs of people will outperform any other kind of workplace hands-down. 
You don't need a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology to know this. Yet we are still held back by the puritanical religious beliefs and harsh working conditions of yesteryear.
Even among today's enlightened executives, there is this cognitive bias that "work is not supposed to be fun," and "you're not learning anything if you're enjoying yourself too much."
The bias that says "you must suffer to be productive" explains why, for example:
  • We have a bias toward promoting workaholics who can't seem to leave the office - even to sleep.
  • IT help desks tend to blame the user, not the system, for finding it impossible to navigate the most basic tasks without assistance.
  • The educational system overwhelmingly relies on memorizing and grades, rather than critical analysis and narrative evaluations.
I have to ask: Why should the workplace, school or any place be designed for the convenience of the system, rather than the person? How is that logical or productive?
In a world plagued by so many genuine problems, the focus of our energy ought to be growing talented people such that they can get together and solve them.
Not on serving colossal systems that do little more than beat people into shame and submission.
All opinions are my own and do not represent those of any other individual, organization, federal agency or the government as a whole. Photo credit: Cris via Flickr (Creative Commons).