Lonely in the Workplace

December 7, 2018

Loneliness is on the rise in America. This is a huge health concern and has ramifications in the workplace. The solution is complex yet maybe we can learn something from magpies.

First some facts regarding the impending epidemic. A recent Cigna survey of 20,000 U.S. adults 18 years or older found that:

  • Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
  • Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
  • One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent).
  • Only about half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.
  • Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) that is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7).

Turns out loneliness can be as big a health risk as obesity. The American Psychological Association released a study concluding lonely people are at a greater risk for premature death. And according to John Cacioppo and William Patrick in their book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, studies suggest that one lonely day can exact roughly the same toll on the body as smoking an entire pack of cigarettes!

Many of us are not sleeping enough, and sleep deprivation can increase loneliness because it takes a lot of energy to engage with others. Despite the fact that the “open office” environment was designed to bring about more interaction, this has yet to be proven effective.

Using Slack, social media and your company’s intranet are no substitute for face-to-face water cooler—err, espresso bar—conversations. Interacting with co-workers in real time and in person enables connection unlike any other method.

Now about those magpies: Research by Ben Ashton from the University of Western Australia found that cooperatively breeding Australian magpies living in large groups showed increased cognitive performance. Repeated cognitive testing of juveniles at different ages showed that the correlation between group size and cognition emerged in early life, suggesting that living in larger groups promotes cognitive development.

“Our results suggest that the social environment plays a key role in the development of cognition,” says Ashton, though the findings are considered contentious.

Nevertheless, if magpies can benefit cognitively from social interaction, shouldn’t humans—considered the most social animals—find ways to interact face-to-face more often?

Bright spots in the Cigna survey found:

  • People who engage in frequent meaningful in-person interactions have much lower loneliness scores and report better health than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face.
  • Getting the right balance of sleep, work, socializing with friends, family and “me time” is connected to lower loneliness scores. However, balance is critical, as those who get too little or too much of these activities have higher loneliness scores.

“There is an inherent link between loneliness and the workplace, with employers in a unique position to be a critical part of the solution,” said Douglas Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna. “Fortunately, these results clearly point to the benefits meaningful in-person connections can have on loneliness, including those in the workplace and the one that takes place in your doctor’s office as a part of the annual checkup.”

We shouldn’t look to our workplace to keep us from being lonely, of course, but we could all benefit by choosing to meet with our colleagues and discuss things face-to-face more often. To enable time for this will require getting out of those many meetings we currently attend. But that’s a topic for another post.

Demanding Jobs with Little Agency

November 8, 2018

The World Health Organization reports that the United States is among the most anxious nations on the planet. Our current political climate certainly contributes to this distinction, but much of our stress stems from feeling a lack of agency on the job.

Agency is the capacity to act independently and make our own free choices. This sense of agency is tightly connected to a sense of ownership. If we feel a lack of agency on the job, it can show up as not being fully engaged, holding back on challenging assumptions, and withholding the important creativity and problem-solving abilities we were hired to demonstrate.

Increased anxiety and stress are huge problems for businesses and the government. According to the American Institute of Stress, U.S. industries lose nearly $300 billion a year—or $7,500 per worker—in employee absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover and direct medical, legal and insurance fees related to workplace stress.

“While it may seem obvious that hard-charging white-collar workers are under stress, studies show that blue-collar workers—line cooks, factory workers, practical nurses—are even more vulnerable,” according to Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of The Job: Work and its Future in a Time of Radical Change. “This is because of what Ofer Sharone describes as the toxic confluence of high demand for their efforts and low control over their working lives.”

This high demand for ever-increasing productivity in a 24/7 always-on workplace combined with little control and freedom over the tasks makes for an unhealthy environment.

“Demanding jobs do not necessarily make us sick, but demanding jobs that give us no agency over what we do or the way we do it are quite likely to,” says Shell. “For growing numbers of Americans—no matter how successful—these pressures have transformed work from a source of satisfaction and pride to an anxiety-ridden bout of shadowboxing.”

So how much of this lack of agency should be blamed on the employer and how much on the employee? This is not easy to answer, but clearly there is responsibility in both.

Leaders and managers in organizations need to consider how much freedom and control they actually provide individual employees. For example, is the task well-defined with a clear understanding of what the deliverable should look like and when it should be completed? Yes. But are the steps regarding how it should be completed and delivered also predetermined yet perhaps not clearly communicated? This can undermine agency.

And how much overall tolerance is there for risk taking and trying things in a different way? If you find yourself hearing (or saying) “That’s not how we do things here,” you may find little tolerance in your organization, and this lack of tolerance also undermines agency.

Employees also have a role and they need to consider when and how to step into agency—even when they may not feel they have the right to do so. Obviously, when you’re new to the job, it’s important to first understand the established rules, norms, values and organizational culture before you can fully express agency. Many of these may actually be the culprit.

Demonstrating agency means taking responsibility and ownership when it’s clear no one else has and yet needs to happen. It means pushing back on standard operating procedures when you see the faults, have a better solution and know how to communicate and implement it. And it means requesting more control or freedom over the work when you can provide clear and compelling benefits. These not only demonstrate agency, but also leadership potential.

It often takes courage to demonstrate agency. When unsuccessful, challenging assumptions or making mistakes can sometimes damage your reputation. Tread carefully but proceed boldly.

By carefully choosing when and how to use agency, you may find you can have more success than failure. You will have more freedom and control on your job. You will reduce your overall anxiety and stress. And you will likely feel more fully engaged. All of this is good for you and your organization.

Psychological Safety in Workgroups & Teams

October 25, 2018

Most of the important things accomplished in the workplace as well as society are done not by individuals but by groups of people. Workgroups and teams at their best are able to accomplish far more than a collection of individuals on their own. Effective collaboration is essential and this begins with psychological safety.

Feeling psychologically safe in our environment is a basic requirement, yet all too often we may take this for granted. Think about the last time you joined a new team or workgroup. How long before you felt comfortable speaking up, challenging assumptions, and making mistakes? Maybe you still feel uncomfortable doing so.

When you feel unsafe due to negative or disrespectful behaviors in the group, you are unlikely to contribute effectively. On the other hand, when you do feel safe and comfortable to deliver your best self in a group setting, you are more likely to make contributions that benefit the group as a whole.

Group Norms Determine Performance

As I wrote about previously, researchers from Google’s Project Aristotle concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were key to improving Google teams. They determined that the right norms can raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms can hobble a team—even if all the individual members are exceptionally bright.

Specifically, the researchers at Google found that group norms of 1) taking turns speaking and 2) listening with empathy were the most important factors for improving team outcomes.

Harvard Business School professor and author of the book Teaming, Amy Edmondson, found that when team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other—what she terms psychological safety—this was by far the most important of five dynamics that set successful teams apart.

“Psychological safety makes it possible to give tough feedback and have difficult conversations without the need to tiptoe around the truth,” says Edmondson. “In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake, others will not penalize or think less of them for it.”

Psychologically Safe in Your Workgroup or Team

To determine the level of psychological safety in workgroups or teams in your workplace, look for signs of judgment, unsolicited advice giving, interrupting, or sharing outside the meetings. These things get in the way of psychological safety, according to researcher and author Brene Brown in her book Dare to Lead.

To counteract those behaviors and provide psychological safety, Brown suggests initiating and modeling behaviors that include listening, staying curious, being honest, and keeping confidences. Then and only then will all members of the group feel confident to speak up, offer new ideas, and challenge potential groupthink.

Highly effective workgroups and teams require trust, respect, cooperation and commitment. When people are able to take turns speaking and listening to each other with empathy, these group norms can bring about greater outcomes. First establishing psychological safety as a foundation to build upon is critical. Think safety first.

Focused Attention Through Intention & Discipline

October 10, 2018

In this age of intensified distraction, it’s hard to find time and space to concentrate on one specific thing to any significant degree. Yet if you want to be more productive, you need to focus, which requires both intention and discipline.

Productivity means different things to different people, but we all know what we need and want to accomplish. It just seems we are often stymied in our attempts due to the hyper-connected world in which we live. The solution is to deliberately manage your attention.

Take a look at just a few of the distractions in our workday:

  • We look at our cellphone on average 80 times a day (Millennials 150 times each day!)
  • We check email on average 88 times each day (11 times per hour)
  • Two-thirds (67%) of surveyed employees say they check social media while at work
  • Some 58% of surveyed employees want more privacy in the open office environment
  • And 54% said the open office environment is too distracting to concentrate

Even with the best of intentions, this combination of technology and environment make it difficult to focus on any given task. It should be no surprise then that the best way to manage our attention in order to concentrate is to first turn off all alerts (text, email, news, etc.) and create a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted.

Take Charge of Technology

With regard to technology, this means mustering up the discipline and courage to deliberately turn off all those alerts on both your computer and cellphone. It also means resisting the urge to constantly check email, news sites and social media. I know FOMO (fear of missing out) is intense, but I suspect you are currently unable to accomplish all that you want. Isn’t that more important than knowing the constant status of your virtual friends and followers?

Enter the Best Environment

If you work in an open office, this can be a challenge, but there are things you can do to make the best of it, such as using noise-cancelling headphones. You can also alert your colleagues of your intention to have “focus-time,” and that you would appreciate not being interrupted. Use a simple sign on your desk or cube to signal when you want this.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to declare your intention and develop the discipline in order to deliberately manage your attention.

According to Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus: How to be More Productive in a World of Distraction, directing your attention toward the most important object of your choosing—and then sustaining that attention—is the most consequential decision you will make throughout the day. Ultimately, you are what you pay attention to.

Bailey calls this attentional space the amount of mental capacity you have available to focus on and process things in the moment. He suggests the most important way to begin is to divide your tasks into the quadrants below. The bulleted items are mine; yours may be entirely different.

Intention-Setting Rules

With regard to intention, Bailey recommends three intention-setting rules:

  1. The Rule of Three: Everyday choose three things you want to accomplish by the end of the day. Keep these very visible, such as on a white board. You can also choose three things you’d like to accomplish each week.
  2. Most Consequential: Determine which of the three is most consequential by separating them into the four quadrants: necessary, purposeful, distracting and unnecessary. Out of the necessary and purposeful lists, which has the potential to set off a chain reaction?
  3. Hourly Awareness Chime: Have a chime on your watch, cellphone or computer remind you to check in to see which quadrant you are in at that moment and whether you are following your intentions. (I know this is counter to “turn off your alerts” mentioned above, but this is important and purposely distracting for the right reason.)

By following these intention-setting rules you will go a long way to accomplishing more because your intention drives your attention.

When it comes to discipline, you will need to find the motivation to keep this method of operating present in your life. Take three weeks and implement it every day so it becomes a habit. Then reflect on whether this has made you more productive or not. Perhaps enlist your supervisor to provide his or her perspective and to keep you motivated and engaged.

You will likely need to alter your current behavior and show up differently. And while your colleagues may at first mock or sneer at what they may perceive as “anti-social” behavior, they will ultimately respect you for your ability to provide the boundaries necessary in helping you bring your best self to the workplace environment.

Be intentional about where you direct your attention so you can be more productive and reach more of your goals.

Men Abusing Power vs. Men Manning Up

September 28, 2018

The allegations against and removal of powerful men in entertainment, politics and the media has sparked increased attention on the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Men abusing power in the workplace isn’t new, of course, but other men manning up to defend women seems to be especially lacking.

The unfolding drama that is Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court is reminiscent of the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill hearings 27 years ago. That event was followed by the so-called “year of the woman” in 1992. But little has changed with regard to the way many men in power treat women.

Yes, the recent #MeToo movement created a stir and helped remove powerful men such as Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly from Fox News, Travis Kalanick from Uber, Charlie Rose from PBS and CBS, and Harvey Weinstein from The Weinstein Company. Most recently, comedian Bill Cosby—once referred to as “America’s Dad”—was sentenced for three to 10 years in prison for his sexual misconduct.

On the other hand, comedian Louis C.K., who admitted to sexual misconduct of five women and fallen out of favor, has recently staged a comeback. Charlie Rose reportedly was in discussions with regard to starring in a show where he would interview other high profile men brought down by the #MeToo movement. And, of course, the current President of the United States has been accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women, yet continues to serve.

In any workplace, as long as there is a huge imbalance of men to women in leadership positions, a lack of equal pay for equal work, and the minimizing of sexual harassment claims, we cannot have a safe, equitable and thriving work environment.

According to a recent poll conducted by Pew Research Center regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, of the 6,251 people surveyed, a majority of men (55%) and nearly half of women (47%) said that “the recent developments have made it harder for men to navigate workplace interactions.”

But when it comes to sexual misconduct in the workplace, it shouldn’t be difficult to navigate workplace interactions. It is simply about respect and treating others the way you would expect to be treated—regardless of gender.

The Equality Act of 2010 defines sexual harassment as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.” This includes indecent or suggestive remarks, unwanted touching, requests or demands for sex and the dissemination of pornography.

Though there may be some cases of misunderstanding, the bottom line is demonstrating basic respect for the other person. It’s about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. And treating women in the workplace no worse than you would treat your mother, sister or daughter.

As someone who regularly encourages men and women to tweak their behavior in order to show up as better leaders, I know changing behavior is difficult. It takes concentrated effort that needs to be continually monitored and applied. Changing behavior also takes a network of others to make the most progress as well as maintain accountability. This network of other people can encourage positive steps and attest to whether there’s improvement or not.

And this is where other men come in. If there is sexual harassment in any workplace, it seems unlikely that no other male colleagues are aware of it. And because far too many men look the other way or fail to speak up, sexual harassment continues unabated in many of today’s workplaces. In the same way women are reluctant to speak up for fear of repercussions with regard to their careers, so too appear to be many men.

It takes courage to stand up to a bully. It takes courage to speak out against a fraternity of colleagues. And it takes enormous courage to call out one’s boss. But by not speaking up, standing up, and calling out sexual harassment, you are complicit in its continuation.

We live at a time far removed from a “Mad Men” workplace, but until all men begin to hold themselves, their colleagues and leaders accountable, little will change will be made for bringing true equality for women in the workplace.

As Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono said recently with regard to men in this country: “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing for a change.”

Thriving in the Workplace

October 28, 2016

We live at a time when employee engagement is especially low. Employees are dissatisfied, discouraged and disinclined to be optimally productive. This is bad for both employers and employees.

According to Gallop’s 2012 State of the American Workplace, 70% of American workers said they feel they are not engaged at work. This comes at a time when competitive pressures and the technological rate of change are ever increasing.

Engaged employees are those who work with passion and feel a connection to the work and their company. They have a positive relationship with the people they work around and to the work itself. They are also vastly more productive than those who are not engaged.

Disengaged employees may show up to work, but they lack the enthusiasm and energy necessary to thrive. Disengaged employees are pervasive yet most are not actively disengaged, which can be especially harmful to an organization. Nevertheless, it is this lack of engagement that really hinders organizations.

It also impacts the ability for employees to thrive. And without thriving employees, organizations can’t bring about the innovation and creative problem solving required to be competitive in the 21st century.

The solution is for employers to provide an environment suitable to engage employees and for employees to do their part to be engaged. This second part is just as important as no amount of incentives will raise engagement without the employee’s own involvement.

While it is possible to find and hire employees who are naturally inclined to thrive regardless of where they work, the workplace environment can certainly accelerate or hinder this.

Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porat along with their research partners at the Ross School of Business’s Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship found that thriving employees are those who are not just satisfied and productive, but also engaged in creating the future—the company’s and their own.

In their research regarding what enables sustainable individual and organizational performance, they found that thriving employees were 32% more committed to their organization and 46% more satisfied with their jobs. Not surprising, these employees were also less likely to miss work.

In order for employees to thrive, Spreitzer and Porat identified two components: vitality and learning. Vitality is the sense of being passionate and excited, which can spark energy in themselves and those around them. Learning is in the growth that comes from gaining new knowledge and skills, such as developing expertise in a certain area.

It’s the combination of the two components that is required because learning without vitality can result in burnout, and vitality without learning leads to work that is too repetitious and boring. It is also the partnership of the employer and employee to be actively involved.

To encourage vitality, employers should provide an environment that generates a sense that what employees do for them really makes a difference.

Employees should seek out organizations for whom they can get passionate and excited about as well as put forth the effort to actively participate. Vitality cannot come from outside the individual because it is intrinsic and, although it can be supported by the opportunities inside the organization, it must bubble up from within the individual employee.

With regard to learning, employers need to provide opportunities for employees to obtain new knowledge and skills. And employees need to maintain a growth mindset and choose to continue learning while on the job. No amount of teaching will lead to learning without a willing student who is ready and interested in gaining new knowledge.

Spreitzer and Porat further identified four mechanisms that can help create the condition for thriving employees. They are:

  • Providing decision-making discretion
  • Sharing information
  • Minimizing incivility
  • Offering performance feedback

This makes sense as these mechanisms are necessary for employees to feel empowered, knowledgeable, comfortable and self-aware.

And organizations can either encourage or discourage these mechanisms. To encourage them, they need to be more than HR policies or corporate value statements because it is a part of the corporate culture. To fully embrace these four mechanisms means everyone in the organization needs to adhere to them and they need to be reinforced each and every day.

Thriving employees need to feel that their contribution is making a positive difference, they are able to directly influence the results, they are free to speak openly even when they disagree with the status quo, and they are able to continue learning and growing in their career

A thriving workplace is one where both organizations and their employees take responsibility. This partnership is mutually beneficial. Organizations can attract and retain top talent while increasing profitability, and employees are more satisfied, encouraged, and inclined to be optimally productive. A thriving workplace is a win-win.

The Value of Thought Diversity

September 29, 2016

As much as we have learned the importance of diversity in the workplace, it is often focused on gender, race and ethnicity. Thought diversity is more subtle, but just as important. That’s because our thoughts are guided by where we focus our attention and, all too often, we seek the comfort of confirmation rather than the anxiety of challenging our assumptions.

This deficit in thought diversity is limiting our overall understanding, undermining the ability to truly connect and collaborate with others, and detrimental to the creativity necessary for solving the most challenging problems.

Think about how:

  • Our family, friends and acquaintances are made up primarily of people who share and reaffirm our individual identity of who we are and what we believe.
  • Our neighbors likely share a socio-economic demographic that continually reinforces our perspectives directly based on our geographic point of reference.
  • Our individual news feeds are chosen to maintain rather than challenge our perspectives on the economy, politics, entertainment, environment, and other subjects.
  • Our social networks are filled with those who align with our unique views and opinions, enabling more “follows,” “likes,” and “shares.”
  • Our entire digital footprint is making it so advertisers can provide us with information tailored to what they believe we want and limit our attention from going elsewhere.
  • Our workplace, though there may be some diversity in race, gender, ethnicity, age, ability and/or sexuality, it may not be a place that encourages diversity of thoughts, opinions or perspectives.

Too often a hiring manager and HR partner—after first singling out candidates who possess the necessary skills and experience—look for the one who fits the corporate culture, which may unfortunately lead to groupthink. This cultural fit may actually undermine the ability to bring about diversity of thought.

The Difference

In his book The Difference, University of Michigan economist Scott Page describes a unique way to hire people to maximize diversity of thought within an organization. In the study, three candidates interviewed for two vacant positions on a research team. All candidates were asked the same 10 questions: Jeff correctly answered 7 of 10, Rose 6 of 10, and Spencer 5 of 10.

table

Many organizations would hire Jeff and Rose because these two candidates garnered the highest cumulative score. Another reason is that HR managers spend a lot of time and money-making sure that their people all think the same. They value “consistency and efficiency over individual flair.”

If the hiring manager and HR manager, however, spend time examining which questions each candidate answered correctly, they will notice that Spencer, the lowest overall scorer, correctly answered every question that Jeff, the highest scorer, incorrectly answered. As such, Spencer presumably brings a different way of thinking to the organization—and quite possibly more value.

Thought diversity at work is vital as it enables out-of-the-box thinking to bring about creative solutions to 21st century challenges.

Some companies use the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, four-color personality test or other 4-grid assessment in order to identify and differentiate employees as this helps each person to understand the benefits and drawbacks in each type. The larger lesson is that there is wisdom when all four types or colors are represented as it can help bring about diversity in thought to arrive at the best solutions.

Encouraging Thought Diversity

Diversity of thought can come in many forms, and it needs to be encouraged in the way organizations both hire and manage their workers.

Thought diversity places the focus on an individual’s mind, which is influenced by his or her experiences, culture, background and personality. It is not rooted in opinions, but in thought processes and problem solving abilities.

The primary benefits of thought diversity include:

  • Reduction in groupthink because different perspectives encourage everyone to bring their own perspective based on their unique background and personality.
  • Creative tension that enables fresh ideas and out-of-the-box thinking, which can sometimes be messy, but ultimately leads to new insights.
  • Increased employee engagement as everyone feels that their opinion and ideas matter, and that they have value in reaching the best solutions.
  • Attracting Millennials who are looking to join those organizations that foster an inclusive culture where they can be most successful.

Thought diversity should be included in every organization’s diversity initiatives. It makes sense when choosing who to hire and it makes sense in how to manage employees. When people are actively encouraged to present different perspectives and ideas to challenge assumptions and the status quo, that’s when you’ll see new insights, innovation, collaboration, and the very best of teamwork.

Don’t Underestimate Corporate Culture

April 2, 2015

Beyond salary, benefits, perks, and the nature of the work itself, a company’s culture is often the reason people stay in an organization. That’s because corporate culture—though not readily apparent or even easily defined—can make you feel like you are part of a team, that you belong, and that you are doing something important.

It can also do the opposite.

No matter where you work, part of the reason you’re there may very well have to do with the connectedness you feel with your co-workers. When this is strong, you are probably accomplishing a lot and feeling good about how you spend your working day. When it is weak, you are probably dreading each Monday morning.

Think of Twitter, Google, Apple, Zappo’s, Wegman’s, Whole Foods, Southwest Airlines, REI, Patagonia and Netflix. These are all companies with positive corporate cultures that share widespread brand awareness, strong financial performance, unrelenting customer focus, and a reputation that makes them a magnet for job seekers.

Corporate culture can best be defined as the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that characterize those in an organization. It is based on the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s management and employees interact and handle their business transactions.

It is defined over time from the cumulative traits of the people hired, and rooted in the organization’s goals, strategies, structure and approaches to its employees, customers, vendors, investors and the larger community. You might think of your company’s culture as its personality.

The statement “culture eats strategy for breakfast” has often been attributed to the great management consultant Peter Drucker, who argued that a company’s culture would trump any attempt to create a strategy that was incompatible with its culture. Drucker compared company cultures to country cultures. Never try to change one, he said, but instead try to work with what you’ve got.

In the same way that a company’s products and services, leadership team, market conditions, competitive pressures, and other factors need to be considered in any corporate strategy, so too must the existing culture.

Corporate culture can either help or hamper an organization in its efforts to implement a strategy. More often than not, leaders underestimate the power of culture rather than embracing its power for helping them. Implementing a strategy that runs counter to or requires a huge shift in the culture can be disastrous.

Instead, you can leverage the corporate culture by ensuring it is aligned with your new strategy, latest company acquisition, or your incoming CEO. Each of these transitions can be successful if the cultural aspects of the change are considered along with all the other due diligence completed.

A positive company culture can benefit recruiting, employee motivation and retention, teamwork, reduced absenteeism, customer service, responsiveness to change, and bottom line financial performance.

Developing such a positive culture evolves over time and grounded in the employees you hire. Be careful and selective in recruitment and in every way you conduct business, and your culture will enable the organization to grow and thrive.

Corporate Values and Goldman Sachs

March 14, 2012

Corporate values are often what attract and keep many of us at the fine companies we work for. They are above and beyond the paycheck that give our working lives meaning. Corporate values are what attracted Greg Smith to Goldman Sachs 12 years ago.

The values Smith describes at Goldman were “teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.” Beginning as a summer intern while at Stanford, he ultimately reached the position of head of United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Smith recently left Goldman Sachs and wrote a scathing editorial in the New York Times as to why.

“I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity,” writes Smith. “And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.”

“Leadership used to be about ideas,” he continues. “Setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.”

Goldman leaders immediately responded to this with an open letter to employees on their website. However, other than reporting that 89 percent of employees say the firm provides “exceptional service” to clients and that for the third consecutive year, the firm was the highest paid financial services company, I read no real challenge to the assertions Smith made regarding values and integrity in his opinion piece.

It reminds me of the importance of things that do not necessarily show up on financial quarterly reports and are therefore less likely to be reported in the mainstream press. Corporate values like integrity, teamwork and doing the right thing are what attract and keep the best employees and ultimately what wins and keeps customers.

Earlier in my career, I remember working for start-up software companies where customers were treated as the top priority and employees a close second. When some of these companies filed for an initial public offering, shareholders replaced employees in second place and, in some companies, were even prioritized over customers.

When short term profits take precedence over corporate values, a company is in great trouble. Trust and ethical behavior outweigh financial performance if not in the short term then certainly over the long run.

I have had an increasing number of clients during the past several years complaining about unethical behavior, lack of honesty and bullying by their immediate supervisor. This leads to a stressful work environment and a depreciation of corporate values.

The old adage that people join a company based on its reputation and leave because of a manager is truer than ever. When managers engage in unethical behavior, they damage not only their own careers and those around them, but also the entire company.

Earning and keeping customer trust takes a long time; losing it can happen overnight. Goldman Sachs is 143 years old and surely they won’t sacrifice that trust easily.

I am sure Smith’s assertions have some basis in fact, but with 30,000 employees I’m equally certain there are many contrary opinions.

Regardless, the lesson should be that respecting customers and employees should be paramount in any company. Maintaining corporate values that attract employees and customers should always be more important than higher short terms profits.

A Culture of Collaboration

December 18, 2010

In my last post I wrote about collaboration as one of the essential elements in order to thrive in the knowledge economy. Though most companies boast of their own collaborative workplace environment, all too often this is more of a public relations talking point rather than an internal employee reality.

Changing the corporate culture from one that is competitive to collaborative is a huge challenge. To be meaningful, it needs to be fully embraced and articulated by the entire management team, and implemented throughout all departments.

Back in the twentieth century, employees made themselves valuable based on what they knew. Today people make themselves valuable by seeking opportunities to work with others and tapping into their expertise. Content is jointly developed through participation. The content is fluid and leveraged to create opportunities with ongoing collaboration.

Knowledge-hoarding and the accompanying silo mentality that takes place in many large organizations blocks this collaboration. The end result is power struggles, a lack of cooperation, and lower productivity.

Lack of true collaboration can also diminish innovation as competition for resources can cripple efforts for new products.

In a New York Times editorial earlier this year, former Microsoft executive Dick Brass wrote that Microsoft has a “dysfunctional corporate culture where big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence.”

“Unlike other companies,” wrote Brass, “Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.”

Time will tell whether this year’s release of Windows Phone 7, Windows Azure and Kinect will nullify any of this.

John Chambers, chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems, in a recent Newsweek interview explains how abandoning command-and-control leadership has enabled Cisco to innovate more quickly, using collaboration and teamwork.

“At Cisco we are moving to collaboration teams, groups coming together that represent sales, engineering, finance, legal, etc. And we’re training leaders to think across silos. We now do that with 70 different teams in the company.”

Chambers continues, “So we’ll have a sales leader go run engineering. A lawyer go run business development. A business development leader go run our consumer operations. We’re going to train a generalist group of leaders who know how to learn and operate in collaboration teamwork. I think that’s the future of leadership.”

In author Evan Rosen’s book, “The Culture of Collaboration: Maximizing Time, Talent and Tools to Create Value in the Global Economy,” he explains how and why collaborative tools can motivate employees and drive business. What follows are what he considers the ten cultural elements present when collaboration is working.

  • Trust – To exchange ideas and create something with others, we must develop trust. This is a challenge, especially in competitive organizational cultures. Nevertheless, we must get over our fears and develop trust if we are to collaborate freely.
  • Sharing – Hoarding information prevents the free flow of ideas and therefore sabotages collaboration. Sharing what we know improves collective creation by an order of magnitude and therefore makes everybody more valuable.
  • Goals – Taking the time to agree on goals at the beginning of a collaborative project pays off exponentially by providing the impetus for shared creation.
  • Innovation – The desire to innovate fuels collaboration. In turn, collaboration enhances innovation. After all, why collaborate just to maintain the status quo?
  • Environment – The design of both physical space and virtual environments impacts innovation and collaboration.
  • Collaborative Chaos – While all people and organizations require some order, effective collaboration requires some degree of chaos. Collaborative chaos allows the unexpected to happen and generates rich returns.
  • Constructive Confrontation – Great collaboration requires exchanging viewpoints, and sometimes that means construction confrontation—expressing candor about ideas. Collaborators must confront each other so that they can hash out their differences and make their shared creation better.
  • Communication – Collaboration is inextricably linked with communication, both interpersonal and organizational.
  • Community – Without a sense of community, we often lack comfort and trust. Therefore, community must be present for effective collaboration to occur.
  • Value – The primary reason we collaborate is to create value—reducing cycle or product development time, creating a new market, solving problems faster, designing a more marketable product or service, or increasing sales.

For organizations to meet the competitive challenges in the external marketplace, they must change the internal corporate culture from competitive to collaborative. This is a radical change and it is one that is vital for sustained innovation and increased productivity.