Bring Meaning to Work and Purpose to Spirituality

Towards Less Dysfunctional Workplaces – Getting Out of the Gate

Many years ago I worked on a customer relationship improvement project for a Fortune 500 company. Participants are the customer relationship managers who had had mediocre customer feedback and/or fell under the expectations of senior management.

At our first meeting, I asked everyone to name some challenges of their job. Most complained that they were kept extremely busy, not enough time for their families and work/life balance was terrible. I asked what challenges they had with customers. The answers were that customers were often unreasonable and it was difficult to negotiate profitable and/or sizable deals that senior management expected from them. I then asked them if they saw any opportunities for improvement, most answered that they had been so overwhelmed by work that they had not had the chance to think about anything beyond survival.

From my experience of working in Corporate America for the past twenty plus years, this kind of passive resistance to change, good or bad, is not a rare occurrence, in fact quite common especially in large companies. That’s why companies needed performance management systems. A lot of time and money go into administering these systems with mixed results with no clear alternatives in sight. How else do companies get rid of non-performing employees legally and with some measure of justice which is essential to maintain acceptable morale? In this case, the relationship managers knew very well that they were at risk since I was hired to improve their performance! Yet they showed few sign of waking up or even willingness to explore different options than what they have been doing. Why?

There was no doubt many external factors such as the company culture, poor management, process issues, product problems, etc. However, there is no denial of a crucial even fundamental difficulty within the employees themselves: a lack of sufficient interest, passion and skills to cope with the business challenges of their profession. Positive Psychology has a term to describe this phenomenon called ‘learned helplessness’. Although humans have evolved from a more animalistic past and still possess strong resemblance with our ancestors, one defining characteristic of being human is that our behavior is influenced and modified at least somewhat by what we think or the knowledge base that we have developed and/or acquired over time. When an individual or group is facing a threatening situation but is reluctant to make necessary efforts to alter their future prospects, it could only mean that their existing knowledge base is telling them that it’s useless to even try and therefore better stick with what they know and hope for the best.

Under such circumstances, which are not uncommon in business, it is unwise to rely exclusively on external pressure to change group behavior. It could trigger irrational mass revolt and put the business at risk. A better approach would be to tap into the internal dynamics of human intelligence, help people to develop sufficient skillsets to translate their frustrations, a form of emotional or potential energy, into concrete behavioral changes, a form of physical or kinetic energy, that result in superior business results as well as emotional health for the employees.

Let’s look at a real business case to understand some key elements of such a strategy. A few years ago I worked with another Fortune 500 company. A business manager decided to take all the employees of his department to an all-day offsite meeting where they brainstormed answers to the following question: why do we come to work every day? They divided themselves into several smaller groups that came up with individual answers and then each small group presented their answers to the other groups. Finally, they voted with yellow stickers on the best answer for the department.  The winning answer read, ‘Align and Unite Our Passions to Create Confidence in Our Customers and Ourselves’. To this day, this manger has this statement written on the white board in his office. It is not at all to show off but proved great practical value. Regardless our intentions the reality of work is such that someone’s ego will be bruised occasionally, there will always be gossips and it is easy to misunderstand or even become upset with someone. Such emotional hiccups often get in the way of collaborating effectively between colleagues. Who had not had the experience of holding back from someone with whom we had just argued or debated in a previous meeting? Or even enjoy a secret smile when we saw some boneheads stumble upon avoidable mistakes? It hardly occurs to us that the biggest loser is the business when we are being entertained by such emotional fling.

The companies, at least in developed countries, are getting smarter. Almost all established firms in Corporate America these days have installed elaborate and formal behavioral standards for employees to model after and incorporated behavioral reviews into their performance management systems. At the company of this business case, the behavioral aspect was treated as an important input into employee performance management and promotion decisions. It makes business sense. A lot of modern work, not only in research and development, are driven by knowledgeable specialists who must compliment vs. compete with each other in order to achieve success and maximize efficiency. The common thread here is the shared desire to produce results for the benefits of the company and everybody involved in production. How to cultivate such desire and translate them into flawless execution is often the linchpin of effective management for the modern firm. For example, the purpose statement in this business case has helped the manager to align employees’ variable passions with their shared desire to make themselves a stronger and more confident organization. At his regular 1-on-1’s, the manager usually organizes his conversations with employees around three questions:

  1. What are you most interested in life and work?
  2. What can I (manager) do to maximize the overlap between your (employee’s) interests and work?
  3. What do you (employee) and I (manager) need to do immediately to put the above ideas into practice? How do we know if/when we are succeeding?

There is a clear pattern of responses emerging from these conversations which then informs the manager of the employee’s potential and the steps appropriate to stimulate their growth in that particular time and situation. If someone doesn’t know what his/her interests in life are and shows no desire to discover themselves, then he or she has been infected with a disease that I call the ‘deadwood’ effect, consuming more than contributing to the growth of a healthy organism.

It is rare to come across individuals fitting all descriptions of the ‘deadwood’. However, as a group behavior it is quite common as illustrated in our first example. It’s like a group of desperate swimmers caught in strong currents, dragging each other down unconsciously. In From Good to Great, Jim Collin named professional will as an essential quality of what he calls a level 5 leader. Unless a leader is able to break up this naturally occurring dysfunctional group dynamics, it is a nonstarter attempting to save individual lives. That is the fundamental flaw behind so many failed humanitarian efforts, in both developing and developed countries, both business and not-for-profit, government and NGOs. Many business leaders today, disillusioned by the exclusive profit motive of the capital market and the corporate machine, have turned to ‘the human side’ for hope and peace of mind. Very often they unwittingly become victims of the ‘deadwood’ effect. Notable examples include the organizational learning movement. After serving as the torch of human and corporate development for several decades, it recently ceased operations just when businesses have become more open than ever to its ideas and expertise. It’s a classic case of leadership failure to deal with the ‘deadwood’ phenomenon within its own movement. Therefore, the rule #1 of reducing organizational dysfunctions must be to ensure individual responsibility: no matter how dire and even unfair the external circumstances may be the opportunity and hope of renewal fundamentally resides with the individuals trapped within the system. The leaders’ responsibility is to optimize the conditions and minimize the risks of renewal but must not create the illusion of a free or even easy ride. It violates the most sacred principle of what means to be human: a creative force of nature. The individuals must ultimately make the choices and bear the responsibilities of creative outcomes, favorable or not. It can be extremely painful for leaders to witness someone suffering from past traumas struggle and fail to take advantage of the new circumstances and opportunities and end up in the deadwood pile of organizational history.

Happily, the fate of deadwood can be avoided for the vast majority of employees who have plenty of interests in their lives but struggle with aligning their hearts with what need to be done in business. For example, someone might be superb at spotting mistakes in the workplace. His enthusiasm would have been very valuable to the business if not for the fact that he likes pointing them out only in others but never his own. He also likes to use a sarcastic tone in communicating the mistakes to others, causing other people to avoid him or even retaliate. The leadership challenge is then how to help the individual

  • Recognize his own dysfunctional behavioral patterns
  • Align his passion with the goal of growing confidence in others and himself
  • Take steps to experiment achieving the stated goal, understanding that some pain and mistakes are part of the journey.

At this point, the employee, the manager and their relationship are officially out of the gate, an exciting future of human development, full of both promises and risks, is about to begin.

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