Leading Organizations Archive
I had a colleague at my last job who was a peer and a friend. We were at a similar level and would periodically sit in one of our offices, with the door closed, talking about the bad decisions our company’s senior leaders made. One day I realized that these conversations were exhausting to me. They were negative and didn’t make me feel better. In fact, they made me feel worse.
Some people distinguish between gossip and venting, asserting that venting is cathartic and makes people feel better. It doesn’t.
I’ll use an analogy I read in one of Deepak Chopra’s books. When you put a plant in the closet and don’t give it light or water, it withers and dies. When you put a plant in the sunlight and water it, it grows. And the same is true for people. Whatever you give attention will proliferate. Whatever you deprive attention will go away.
Your life is made up of the people you spend time with and what you talk about. What are you talking about?
In addition to draining you of energy and ensuring you focus on the things that frustrate you, gossip kills the organization’s culture. If employees can’t trust that their peers won’t talk about them when they’re not there, there is no trust in the organization. And you can’t have real relationships without trust.
Gossip isn’t going anywhere. It’s a human phenomenon and is here to stay. But you can reduce gossip.
A few ways to reduce the gossip in your office:
- Address the gossip head on.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of gossip, which is not good for our culture.”
- Hold regular town hall meetings, and give employees information about initiatives, organizational changes, profitability, etc. Employees want to know how the company is really doing and what they can do to contribute.
- Create a no gossip policy.
“We want people talking directly to each other, rather than about each other. As a result, we’re putting a no gossip policy in place.”
- Draw attention to gossip.
“Every time you hear gossip, wave two fingers in the air. This will draw attention to the gossip without calling anyone out.
Also, ask your peers and friends not to gossip with you. End conversations that contain gossip. This will be hard to do, but if everyone does it, it will become much easier.”
- Have an agreed-upon consequence for gossip.
“Every time we hear gossip, the gossiper owes a dollar. Every quarter the gossipers will buy the office lunch from the gossip jar.”
The keys to reducing gossip in your office are to draw attention to the gossip, have a consequence for gossiping, and over communicate so your employees don’t have to make stuff up. Employees want to know what’s happening in the organization. In the absence of knowledge, people make stuff up, and it’s never good.
Venting and gossip are the same. Unless you’re planning a conversation with a coworker or friend to address a challenge or problem, you’re gossiping. And talking about what frustrates you will only make you more frustrated.
My advice: Do something about the things you can impact and let the other stuff go. Talk about the things that matter to you. Resist the temptation to speak negatively about the people around you. And know that anyone who will gossip about someone to you, will also gossip about you.
Many organizations spend more money than they have to on employee recognition gifts and appreciation programs that often involve bonuses, paid time off, contests, gifts, and other expensive forms of compensation. What employees want most is to know they’re doing a good job.
Giving feedback in the workplace is the cheapest, most effective, and often overlooked form of employee recognition. Employees want to know how they’re performing, and most employees get little to no positive or constructive feedback at work. They may not want to hear negative feedback, but employees want to know if they aren’t meeting expectations.
In one of Candid Culture’s training programs, I give participants a box of questions to help coworkers set expectations and improve workplace communication. Some of the questions include:
- Do you prefer to receive information via email, voicemail, or text message?
- Are you a big picture or a detail person?
- What are your pet peeves at work?
- What type of work do you like to do most? What type of work do you like to do least?
- What do you wish I would start, stop, and continue doing?
I am consistently amazed at how often training participants ask what their coworkers wish they would start, stop and continue doing. I assume employees will be hesitant to ask for constructive feedback in front of a group of peers. But training participants consistently tell me that they get almost no positive or constructive feedback at work, and they’re desperate for the information.
If you want to engage, retain, and motivate employees without spending a lot of money:
- Give clear, specific, and timely positive and negative feedback. Employees want to know how they’re performing.
- Ask what type of work employees really want to do, and let them do that work most of the time.
- Ask what skills employees want to learn, and give them a chance to attain those skills.
- Write hand written notes of appreciation.
Employees at Candid Culture get their birthdays off paid. We often buy employees lunch, give bonuses, and have a generous time off policy. Those perks are important and do help retain employees. But monetary rewards never replace or supersede the value of being aware of employees’ performance and caring enough to tell employees the truth.
No matter how much you like and get along with your boss, you are not friends. Nor is your boss your confidant or venting buddy.
Unless your boss follows you around all day, every day, she is not aware of all the things you do at work. And if she does follow you around, she probably needs more to do, which I doubt.
Given that your boss often doesn’t see you work, the only exposure you may have to each other is during one-on-one and group meetings. So be careful how you behave during these meetings.
I’ve made lots of career mistakes . . . once. Here’s a mistake I made before launching Candid Culture. I’m hoping you won’t replicate it.
In my last job, I was lucky enough to have a great boss. He was a good coach and mentor. He supported me, gave me exposure throughout the company, and always had my back. We didn’t cross paths much at work, except during our regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings.
I’m what some might call passionate. I have a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. And I can be critical of those who I think don’t do the right things.
I would often share my frustrations with my boss. The head of that department didn’t do this. This person made a bad call. So and so was making my employees’ lives hard. I wasn’t complaining, well I kind of was, but not without a purpose.
One day my boss called me out on my passionate (and at times critical) style. He said that if I was so impassioned during meetings with him, he assumed I was equally vocal in meetings with other people and departments.
This wasn’t the case. I was very careful in how I managed myself with other people in our company. I understood the importance of good business relationships and knew that people work with the people they want to work with and around the people they don’t.
But my boss didn’t get to see any of those interactions. For the most part all he saw was how I interacted with him during our meetings. With no other point of reference he was left to assume that if I vented with him, I did this with other people. If I got a little too soapboxish about an issue with him, I must do the same in other meetings. I didn’t do those things with other people, but he had no way to know that.
My boss and I had a good relationship and I felt comfortable with him, probably too comfortable. I was politically savvy with everyone but him.
Your boss is an appropriate person with whom to express frustration, but manage how you do it. Don’t vent to vent. Every topic you raise should be with the aim of problem solving. Keep things honest but positive. Vent and complain at home, or with someone who doesn’t know the people you work with. Or better yet, spare your friends and family, and take your frustration to the gym, or the shoe department, whatever your preferred form of therapy.
Assuming you have limited exposure to your boss, make the time you have with her count. Put in front of your boss only what you want her to see. I’m not saying to be disingenuous or brush problems under the rug. Speak candidly, but manage yourself with your boss as you would with any internal or external customer.
If you stayed out until two in the morning and you’re dragging the next day, your boss doesn’t need to know that. She will assume you’re not on your game that day and that will be a check mark in the negative category for lacking good judgment and commitment to your job and the company. If you had a bad date, your boss doesn’t need or even want to know. If you think someone you work with is a dolt, ask for help in how to work well with him, and keep your opinion of his acumen to yourself.
Your boss has limited time and exposure to you. Manage yourself by showing him your polished and professional self.
Indecision plagues many of us at work.
- Hire the person or source additional candidates?
- Let the employee go or keep him?
- Launch the software implementation or wait?
- Gather more technical requirements or move forward with the information you have?
- Ask for different responsibilities or look for a job?
- Announce upcoming organizational changes to all employees or just to the leadership team?
We meet and discuss, meet some more, discuss some more, and still don’t decide. Endless meetings, discussions, and indecision exhausts and discourages employees and costs money.
Do your due diligence:
- involve the people closest to the work in making the decision;
- gather enough information to make an informed decision;
- get key stakeholders’ buy in;
- then decide and act.
And if it’s the wrong decision you’ll know soon enough and can course correct.
The indecision is often worse than making the wrong decision. My friend and colleague Steve Shapiro author of Goal Free Living would say that the only wrong decision is not making one.
But we know there are decisions that have negative consequences, which is why we’re often hesitant to make decisions. If we make the wrong decision families, careers, and companies are impacted.
So we wait and discuss, dialogue, and debate, over and over and over. Follow the steps above regarding due diligence and decide. Don’t wait too long or stay too long. It’s not good for anyone, especially you.
There are things in our lives that bug us, but we put up with them. They’re often little things like a burned out light bulb or a messy drawer in which we dump stuff that doesn’t have a real home. Maybe the bulb has been out or the drawer has been a mess for so long that we no longer even notice it.
Our workplace isn’t any different. There are things in your organization you’re tolerating. Perhaps a process or software is inefficient, but you don’t say anything to the people in your organization who can do something about it. Or maybe you said something a few times, but you didn’t feel anyone listened and you gave up.
Organizations are comprised of doers and leaders. And organizations need both. If everyone wants to lead, you’ll have trouble. If no one leads, you’ll have even more trouble. Doers keep things going from day-to-day. Leaders create opportunities, fix problems, and upgrade existing conditions.
I’m often asked to coach managers in organizations. The coachees’ boss tells me, “He’s a great employee. But if he wants to move up in this organization, he needs to be a leader.” And more often than not, the employee is confused by what the manager wants. Coachees say things like, “I give my opinion in meetings. I volunteer for stuff. What else does my boss want?”
I tell my coachees the most straightforward thing I know to transition from a doer to a leader –improve processes and look for opportunities to fix things that are broken.
To be a leader in an organization, ask these questions regularly:
- What in the organization frustrates people? What could we do differently to ease people’s frustration?
- Where do we have mediocre results? What’s the breakdown?
- Where are we wasting money? Where are our costs too high? Where are we losing revenue?
- What processes take longer than they need to? Or where is there a lack of process?
- Where do we have inefficiencies and redundancies?
- What practices work in one department that could work in another?
Leaders in organizations are always looking for ways to make things better. They look for opportunities and (picking their battles) pursue solutions. Pursuing a potential change does not mean asking your boss or department leader once or twice. It means telling someone in a position of formal authority about a missed opportunity, asking permission to make a change, and then doing the work required to make it happen. Leaders do not tell their boss about a problem and walk away. Leaders suggest and implement a solution.
A few weeks ago I flew an airline whose employees were universally nasty. Every person I interacted with –from the person who checked me in for the flight, to the gate agent who scanned tickets, to the flight attendant on the plane–was nasty without being provoked.
There are two reasons why employees in various roles and locations are universally nasty to customers. Either employees feel they are treated poorly by the organization’s leaders, and they knowingly or unknowingly take their frustration out on customers, or there are insufficient expectations for good customer service. Given the competitive nature of the airline industry, I’m going to assume customer service standards are in place, and employees are reacting to how they feel they’re treated by the organization.
Your employees will not treat customers better than you treat your employees. Expecting employees to treat customers better than the employees feel treated is akin to buying subpar building materials and expecting superior construction. It isn’t going to happen.
Your organization’s handbook and customer service training programs can outline explicit instructions for how customers should be treated, but if the practices for treating employees are markedly different, don’t expect great customer service.
This begs the question, what does it mean to treat employees well? Don’t all employees need different things to be happy? What about the differences between Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y employees?
In my experience people of all ages need many of the same things to be satisfied in a job. Employees want to learn, grow, and feel challenged. They want to work in an environment in which they feel comfortable–they like the people and feel accepted and respected. They want to make a difference and contribute to something bigger than themselves. And they want the flexibility to control their schedule and personal lives. Depending on an employee’s stage in life and career, some of these things become more important than others.
The difference between Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y: I don’t think each group needs drastically different things to be satisfied at work. In my experience, the key difference between the groups is that Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers will put up with not having everything they want. Gen Y’ers will not. Baby Boomers and Generation X will put up with a boss or job they don’t like for two years, waiting to see if things improve. Millennials are more impatient. If they don’t think they can get what they want from a job or organization, they move on quickly.
The quickest and easiest thing managers can do to engage and retain employees of all ages and stages in their careers is to ask what employees need to be satisfied. And no, employees may not tell you. There is an almost universal and pervasive fear in organizations to speak candidly with one’s manager. But employees definitely won’t tell you what they need to stay with your organization if you don’t ask. And even if employees aren’t candid about their desires, you still get points for asking the questions most managers don’t.
In every leadership, management and coaching class I teach, I ask managers to answer these questions:
• What are your employees’ career deal breakers? What would make your employees leave your organization?
• What kind of work do your employees like to do most? What kind of work do they like to do least?
• So you can provide personalized recognition they’ll appreciate, what are your employees’ favorite
hobbies, foods, and places to eat or shop?
• What are employees’ pet peeves at work?
I’ve asked these questions of thousands of managers, and few can answer the questions. If you can’t, without absolute certainty, answer these questions about your employees, don’t be surprised that you aren’t getting the performance you desire. How can you manage and motivate employees if you don’t know what’s important to them?
The easiest thing to do today to raise employee performance, and in turn improve customer service, is to ask your employees what they need, and when appropriate, give employees those things. If you can’t provide what employees what, tell employees why you can’t honor their requests. Rationale, the answer to the question why not, goes a long way.
You may be wondering, isn’t it worse to ask employees what they want and have to say no, than not to ask at all?” Quite simply, no. Not asking about employees’ needs because we may not be able to tell them yes is akin to the fallacy that if we don’t talk about something it doesn’t really exist.
Employees want what they want, regardless of whether you talk about those desires or not. I’d much rather have an open discussion about not being able to meet an employee’s needs, and know they will job hunt, then be surprised when they quit. If employees’ desires are truly deal breakers, you’ll lose them anyway. If you know what employees want, you can negotiate and attempt to meet some or all of their needs, giving you more control over employee engagement and retention.
Ask what employees need to stay with your organization and be satisfied, and watch performance, morale, and customer service rise.
Dating turnoff: A guy who tells me negative things about other women he’s dated. If he’ll talk smack about other women to me, he’ll talk poorly about me to other people. I know I’m special, but I’m not different. And neither are you.
If your coworkers talk to you about other people in your office, why wouldn’t they talk to others about you? Likewise, if you talk to your friends at work about all the dolts you’re forced to work with, why shouldn’t your friends assume you will talk negatively about them. Like you, they’re special, but not different.
Gossip exists in every organization everywhere. It’s been around forever and is here to stay. The problem is that gossip creates environments of suspicion and fear and kills organizational cultures. Employees watch his or her back, wondering from where the next jab and stab will come. And when people are worried about how others will damage them, they work alone versus together. They hoard information and recognition. All of this is, of course, very bad. But the distrust and paranoia that gossip creates isn’t the only reason to reduce the gossip in your organization.
An even more compelling reason to reduce the amount of gossip in your organization—it’s exhausting.
My clients split hairs attempting to convince me that gossip and venting are not the same thing. They insist that venting is productive—it allows people to blow off steam and problem solve. Here is my one word reply: Garbage. That is complete garbage.
Although I am the least woo-woo person I know, this next thought may sound a little woo-woo. So hang in there with me. If an hour after a meeting you and your work friends are still talking about how inept the meeting facilitator is, you might as well still be sitting in the meeting. If you go home after work and complain to your spouse about the people you work with who do little work, then you might as well still be at work. You life is what you talk about and with whom. That’s the woo-woo part.
If you want a different experience, say something different. If the meetings in your office are ineffective, talk to the meeting facilitator off line. Offer suggestions; offer to run the meeting, or stop going. Do anything but talk to people who can’t impact the situation. If you’re working harder than the people around you, either talk to them or your manager, or simply do less. Sometimes we have to let things break for others to know they are broken.
Whatever you choose to do, know that talking about the things that frustrate you to people who can’t do anything about them makes you feel worse not better.
I’ve already conceded that gossip isn’t going anywhere. So what to do?
Here are a few things you can do in your office to create a more positive and trusting culture:
- When you find yourself talking negatively about someone who isn’t present, stop.
- If there is something you’re unhappy with at work, tell someone who can do something about it. Just be careful not to dump a problem at a manager’s door. It burdens managers who are already too busy and annoys them. State your observation; recommend a solution; ask for their support if you need it.
- Create a no gossip policy in your office, and charge a $1 every time you hear gossip. The money can go to charity or towards funding company parties. People are hesitant to part with their money. You’ll be surprised at how much $1 can alter behavior. The people you work with may look at you funny, but they know how badly it feels to be thrown under the bus. Others will, in time, appreciate the policy. Working in an environment where you know others won’t talk about you when you’re not there creates an unprecedented feeling of confidence few of us will ever experience.
Ultimately the answer is simply to: Desire to have a different working environment and draw attention to the gossip you hear. That alone will help. You want people to trust you. And you want to work with people you trust. One of the fastest ways to build and repair trust is not to speak negatively about the people you work with. Plain and simple.
Meetings start and end late. Attendees slyly send text messages under the table, like no one can see them. Decision makers are absent, requiring you to have another meeting. One person talks most of the time, while everyone else tunes out.
The meeting facilitator wants to do something but feels like s/he can’t. How do you tell someone two levels above you to put away his phone and pay attention?
The majority of meetings are too long and a poor use of time.
You can impact the meetings in your organization, even if you don’t run them.
The bad meeting behavior mentioned above is predictable. It’s happening everywhere.
If you want your meetings to be different, ask for something different, before problems occur.
The reason your meeting facilitators feel as if they can’t tell their boss’s boss to show up and pay attention is because there has been no expectation set that it’s ok to do so. Meeting guidelines have not been established. And if they were established it was done long ago and the expectations were long forgotten.
Running an effective meeting requires courage AND an understanding that the meeting facilitator has permission and is expected to address people who break the rules. Even the most senior person in the room has given the facilitator permission to correct him. Without this permission, your facilitator can’t say anything, which is why s/he doesn’t.
How to have better meetings:
- Get meeting attendees’ agreement on the rules.
- Give the meeting facilitator AND attendees permission to enforce the rules.
- Take two minutes to set expectations before every meeting. Yes every meeting, even standing meetings. People forget. When you remind people of the rules, it’s easier to enforce them.
- Post the rules in all of your conference and training rooms as reminders. Make the posters with large font that can be read from any seat in the room. We’ve made it easy for you with our Make Meetings Work Poster.
- Periodically discuss how meetings are going – what’s working and what can be improved. Create occasions and grant permission to give feedback. If it isn’t safe to tell the truth, nothing will get better.
Stop wasting your time in meetings. It’s never too late to set expectations. Hang them up on the wall for everyone to see. Anyone, at any level, and in any role can suggest setting and adhering to meeting guidelines. People in your organization want someone to take control. Maybe it will be you?
The news is riddled with stories of organizations in which CEO’s allowed fraudulent practices to go on with no intervention. Are these leaders guilty of fraud? Or negligence? I’d say neither. They’re victims of pervasive insulation that is the norm is almost every organization world-wide. In most organizations the most senior people get the least information of all.
No one wants to tell her boss that a division is losing money or that customers are unhappy. Instead of speaking up, employees ‘protect’ senior leaders from bad news, putting on a front that everything is fine. Or are employees really protecting themselves?
Most senior leaders aren’t typically guilty of fraud or negligence. Rather, they’re guilty of not creating an environment in which people will tell them the truth.