Should Fun be Mandated at Work?

September 29, 2010

Fun activities in the workplace can often improve employee engagement. When these are mandated or poorly concocted, however, the fun can actually be counterproductive and reduce overall morale.

Some companies have used fun activities as a way to recruit new employees. It is used to increase customer engagement and even to help leverage social media opportunities. But is this fun really effective if it is mandated rather than grown more spontaneously?

Some examples of the fun activities I’m speaking of include:

  • TD Bank, the American arm of Canada’s Toronto Dominion, has a “Wow!” department that sends out teams in costumes to “surprise and delight” successful workers.
  • Google offers employees volleyball courts, roller hockey and bicycle paths to encourage hanging out longer in the workplace.
  • The London branch of Red Bull recently installed a slide in its office.
  • Acclaris, an IT company, has a “chief fun officer.”
  • Twitter claims one of its core values as creating “fun and a little weirdness.”
  • Zappos encourages workers to form noisy conga lines and then single out an individual colleague for praise, whereupon the person must wear a silly hat for a week.

What is it about fun that makes it necessary for employers to create it for us? Is this due to much of the younger workforce having had so many structured fun activities as children: heavily scheduled playdates by helicopter mothers, overly supervised slumber parties, too little downtime between extracurricular activities?

Encouraging employees to have fun while at work is all well and good, but this shouldn’t be a requirement. And what that fun looks like should not be decided by public relations or human resources departments in isolation of rank and file employees.

There are many ways employees can find more joy in their work. The most basic are not so much fun and games, as they are simply more supportive of the workers.

Fostering an environment where people feel empowered to do their best work should be executed long before efforts on creating fun. These can include such sensible things as:

Safe Environment – Ensure that every employee feels physically and emotionally safe to execute his or her job function. If employees are more concerned about their personal safety, they are not going to be able to enjoy any fun activities.

Open Communication – Provide the opportunity for every employee to feel free to speak with others throughout the organization. Keep an open door policy so that all ideas and concerns—both positive and not so positive can be heard.

Meaningful Values – Netflix includes nine behaviors and skills that they value in all employees: judgment, communication, impact, curiosity, innovation, courage, passion, honesty, selflessness. Working around people that embody these nine values would trump all fun activities for me.

Team Building – Provide opportunities where people can bond on topics outside the work they do. This can often be loads of fun with extremely powerful benefit of building trust and teamwork.

Advancement Opportunities – Ensure there is a career path for every employee so that expectations can be met and incentives exist to encourage moving up in the organization.

Flex Time – Perhaps the most fun employees can have is in first ensuring that their personal lives and families are taken into consideration. This could ultimately mean that an employee does not want to have fun at work if it means additional time away from his or her family.

These things will certainly help employees feel more joy in the workplace, which can result in higher employee engagement. They are also likely to improve productivity and that’s the kind of fun we could all use in this economy.

Trustworthy Behavior: It’s Not Just For Kids

March 19, 2010

The other day our 10-year-old daughter was caught in a lie of omission. The actual subject of the lie was of little significance, but the slight erosion of trust provided my wife and me with concern because the behavior was so atypical for this girl.

Where previously there had never been a question with regard to her word, doubt had now entered our thought processes. Certainly this is an excellent learning opportunity for all three of us.

Regardless of whether it is in our families or with our co-workers, the level of open communication and trustworthy behavior can often be the difference between success and failure in all relationships.

None of my recent posts resulted in more reader comments than When Employees Don’t Trust the Boss. Perhaps this is because we are all greatly impacted by trust and take it very personally. Trust takes a long time to earn and only a second to lose. When a high level of trust is found in the workplace, costs go down and productivity goes up. Without trust, there can be no sustained progress.

I remember a time in my previous career when I was given feedback that I was “not afraid to give executives bad news” with regard to an upcoming product schedule. The comment was made as if withholding information was acceptable, as if it was the rule and I was providing an exception. But how could I expect executives to effectively manage our company if I withheld important information from them?

If information is indeed power and people withhold information in order to maintain power, this should also be considered a lie of omission. In my experience, many companies seem to condone this type of behavior and actually believe that internal competition for information will somehow lead to greater products and services. In fact, this can only lead to increasing costs, and slowing down innovation and productivity.

It is all too easy for companies to simply state their commitment in mission statements and pepper corporate value statements with words such as “integrity, honesty, openness, and mutual respect.” Actually walking this talk takes vigilance and needs to be modeled by upper management before these powerful words can be truly embraced internally.

When upper management looks the other way as directors and managers compete with each other for projects and resources by withholding information from each other, this sends a signal that values such as integrity, openness and mutual respect are important only from a public relations perspective and not a human resources perspective.

Trust comes about not from selective sharing, but through full disclosure. When leaders model this selective sharing, those who report to them are far more likely to follow suit. In the same way children model what parents do no matter how often we say something counter to it, employees follow the behavior of their supervisors.

As human beings we are well trained to recognize the incongruence between what is stated versus what is done. Given an opportunity, we typically follow the behavior and not the words. Behavior simply trumps whatever comes out of our mouths.

Trust also directly impacts our communication with each other. When we trust someone, whether this is in a personal or professional relationship, we are more likely to believe what they say and they believe what we say. If trust has eroded, then every time something is communicated it is treated suspiciously and not immediately believed.

In personal relationships, this keeps us from increasing intimacy and strengthening bonds. In business relationships, it prevents us from moving quickly and effectively to accomplish our mutual goals.

Navigating the teenage years with all three of our children may be challenging, but I believe if my wife and I can keep the lines of communication open and maintain a solid foundation of trust with our own consistent behavior, we stand a chance of doing okay. Similarly, in the workplace, executives who model trustworthy behavior and maintain open lines of communication stand a better chance of employees following along.

Mark Craemer   

Leadership and Trust

January 14, 2010

As we begin a new year this might be a good time to take stock of your leadership skills, and the most important for me is trust. Like no other attribute, your capacity to convey trustworthiness has a huge impact on your ability to effectively lead others. That’s because nothing impacts an organization’s overall productivity more than the level of trust found within it.

Is your organization one where trust is especially low or high? If trust is low, I suspect employee engagement, job satisfaction, and overall productivity are also low. On the other hand, if trust is high, more than likely there is better employee engagement, higher job satisfaction, and greater overall productivity.

According to author Stephen M. R. Covey in his book The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything when trust goes down productivity also goes down and costs go up. Conversely, as trust goes up productivity increases and costs decrease. This is the economics of trust in the organization.

And nothing impacts your ability to motivate employees more than the level of trust they have in you as a leader. Trusted leaders, first and foremost, are those whose actions match their words. In the same way children emulate what parents do more than what they say, employees look to see if the actions of their leaders align with their words. Keeping words and actions in lock step builds trust and credibility like nothing else.

In addition, a trustworthy leader:

  • Tells the truth even when it is easier to tell people what they want to hear;
  • Acknowledges when he or she does not have all the answers;
  • Is approachable and friendly to people without using his or her position of power to win them over;
  • Really listens to others by using paraphrase to check for understanding;
  • Shows support for employees, especially when mistakes are made;
  • Balances the need for results while being considerate of people’s feelings.

All of these attributes enable you to build lasting trust, and when people trust you, your ability to persuade them increases ten-fold.

According to Covey, trust is ultimately a function of character and competence. Character in this sense means integrity, motives, and intent with other people. Competence is your capabilities, skills, results, and track record. Both greatly impact the level of trust in any relationship.

But what if trust in your organization is already low? Is there anything that can be done to restore the lack of trust employees have in you? This is hard because trust is based on a feeling and you can’t force someone to trust you. Still, you can attempt to rebuild trust if you are: (1) sincere in your apology for any part you may have had in creating the distrust, (2) transparent with your intentions moving forward, (3) consistently able to walk your talk, and (4) able to demonstrate credibility in all your actions.

Effective business has always been the result of trustworthy relationships. If your trust as a leader is in doubt, then your organization will suffer. Strengthening this trust will serve you as well as your employees, suppliers, partners and customers like nothing else.

“The ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust with all stakeholders—customers, business partners, investors, and co-workers—is the key leadership competency for this new global economy,” says Covey.

Mark Craemer                    

Trust, Direction and Support in Group Development

December 10, 2009

Bruce Tuckman’s model for group development goes a long way in helping to define the evolutionary process of effective workgroups. According to Tuckman, successful workgroups go through the following phases in this order: forming, storming, norming and performing. These four steps are necessary and inevitable for groups to grow, face challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, and deliver results. Group members who understand this model can face the storming phase with a little less stress. Group leaders should also understand how trust, direction and support shift throughout this group development process.

As you might expect, trust is absolutely essential for any group to be effective. In fact, some might argue that trust can often mean the difference between success and failure. Group leaders should be aware that the forming phase of group development is when group members are assessing leadership. This assessment includes whether or not they can trust the leader of their group. Establishing trust is especially important at this time because the next phase is when the leader may very well be the only one who is trusted. Storming is when people are least likely to get along and are looking for someone to hold the group together. A leader who inspires trust can help weather the storm. Once the group successfully passes through this storming phase, they can transition to the norming phase. The norming phase is when group members learn to trust the process and this can happen only if they pass through the storming phase effectively. Finally, the performing phase is when group members learn to trust each other. This shared trust, gained through group experiences in the previous phases, significantly enable optimal group performance.

It can also be especially helpful to look at how a leader’s direction and support are applied during each stage of group development. The direction and support I am speaking of here are based on those of the Situational Leadership Model developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey. In this model the direction and support an employee requires from his manager shifts as the employee learns his or her job. In a similar manner, the collective group’s need for this direction and support also changes depending on what stage of development the group is in.

The forming phase of a group is when direction is especially important in order to establish the necessary groundwork so the group can be productive. This is when a leader must lay out clear goals and objectives for the group as well as establish specific roles and responsibilities for each member. As I mentioned earlier, this is an especially important time for the leader to inspire trust. Support is not so important at this time. On the other hand, the storming phase is when a leader is looked to for both direction and support. Storming is when the group is most volatile and vulnerable. This combination of clear direction as well as unwavering support for each member helps the group to continue in the face of such a challenging time. Leaders who are able to balance this dual need for both high levels of direction and support enable the group to move forward to the norming phase. Norming is when the need for direction is low and support is high. This is a time when the group is finding its way and each member needs a high level of support to inspire confidence so he or she can carry out the group’s objectives effectively. It is a time when good leaders are able to inspire group members and help them become solid performers. The final stage of performing is when an effective leader’s need for both direction and support are low because of the work done previously. In the performing phase, theoretically all members of the group are now competent and confident in their ability to carry out the group’s goals and objectives.

Group leaders who understand the importance of trust throughout the four phases of group development can improve overall group performance. Gaining trust must be earned, of course, but the sooner this can be accomplished within a group setting, the smoother the transition through these phases. In the same way, a better understanding of when to apply higher levels of direction and support to group members can also improve the passage through the phases of group development. Trust, direction and support all play a role in engaging employees and the wise leader knows how to apply them in a workgroup setting.

Mark Craemer                     

Soft Skills of Leadership

November 11, 2009

Corporate leaders need to know their business, know their customers, and have the ability to execute a strategy successfully. And leaders need to be especially agile to stay current with their business as the pace of change has accelerated so dramatically. Great leadership also requires not only understanding customers’ current needs, but accurately predicting future needs as well. This knowledge of business and customers becomes relevant only when leaders also have the ability to execute a strategy that drives growth.

In a recent study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity in partnership with the American Management Association, some 600 employees working at the manager level or above in a wide range of industries were asked to pick from a list of 14 leadership competencies. Not surprisingly, the three items mentioned above were at the top of the list. The three that followed, however, may surprise you:

• Building good relationships
• Having good communication skills
• Creating an environment of trust and respect

These three competencies were cited more frequently than the ability to develop a strategy or knowing how to align the organization well. The technical skills of business are as important as ever, but unless they are coupled with these other competencies, leaders cannot be nearly as effective. So what does this tell us about the nature of these so-called soft skills?

The context for leadership has changed dramatically in the last five years. Customers are harder to find and harder to keep, profit margins are slimmer, and many employees live with anxiety, stressed by overwork and job insecurity. As a result, corporations require leaders who know how to handle themselves in this complex environment. This means demonstrating empathy to others. It means actively listening so that they really hear what is being said even when it conflicts with what they want to hear. It means having extreme self-awareness. These soft skill competencies often fall under the heading of Emotional Intelligence and are important to any progressive organization.

Building good relationships is especially important because people are obviously the most important element in any business. An ability to really know and relate to others enables leaders to get things done. Strong relationships with employees, suppliers and customers can often be the difference success and failure. In the same way our personal relationships need care and constant attention, so too do our professional relationships.

Communication skills are one of those things most of us believe we have a talent for. But do we really? Communicating well means more than the ability to write well and feel comfortable with public speaking. The ability to really listen and let others know that you have heard them is important. Leaders also need to share difficult information and explain why decisions were made. This is because unpopular decisions that are fully explained will be perceived more favorably than those that come down without full disclosure. Good communication skills require being a good listener and being articulate and authentic in words and deeds.

To create an environment of trust and respect means many things. First and foremost, it means being approachable and friendly because people trust and respect leaders they like. Balance the need for results with being considerate of other’s feelings. Work hard to win people over without misusing your position of power. Make sure that your words match your actions. Use paraphrase to ensure you understand what is being said. And demonstrate support for your people, especially when they make mistakes.

Leadership soft skills will continue to play an increasingly important role as leaders need to do more with less and effectively manage accelerated change while nurturing themselves and their people. A leader’s ability to speak clearly and honestly will result in employees who understand and want to step up to the challenge. Authentic transparency is what employees want in their leaders. Creating an environment of trust and respect means a leader actively demonstrates his trust and respect in every interaction with employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders. Soft skills such as these enable leaders to walk their talk and this is fundamental to great leadership.

Mark Craemer                                                                              

7 Keys to Highly Effective Virtual Teams

September 2, 2009

Virtual teams are on the rise in every industry and with good reason. The ability to accomplish goals as a team without being located in the same physical location can accelerate processes, reduce costs and enable true global collaboration. However, the challenges of virtual teams are also greater than those in co-located teams.

A virtual team can be defined here as a group of people who work interdependently with a shared purpose across space, time and organization boundaries using technology. However, all the existing technology that connects people on virtual teams has limitations. Without the benefit of sitting next to or across a conference room table from others, much is lost in terms of clear communication, mutual trust, and overall group dynamics. Communication is especially difficult without nonverbal clues such as body language and facial expressions. And anything that can go wrong face-to-face can also go wrong with virtual teams—only faster and less gracefully.

The key requirements for highly effective teams (co-located or virtual) include:

Trust – People work together effectively because they trust one another. With trust, groups converse easily, organize tasks more quickly, and manage themselves better. Without face-to-face clues, trust is harder to attain and easier to lose.

Respect – Everyone on the team has something to contribute and everyone’s opinion needs to be welcome. Only through this mutual respect can teams expect to function well.

Cooperation – In order to function effectively as a team, it is vital to fully cooperate with one another. This means allowing for disagreements and welcoming challenges with regard to one another’s view.

Commitment – Perhaps the most important requirement for a highly effective team is the commitment we each make to the team. Only through our commitment will we persevere through difficult periods when we otherwise might lose hope.

To be highly effective, virtual teams need all of the above as well as the following key requirements:

1. Appropriate Technology – Using the right technology to enable effective collaboration and communication is vital. This technology may include email, conference calls, video-conferencing, remote presentations, text messaging, chat-rooms, bulletin boards, web-conferencing, and other tools. Encourage the use of a variety of them to deepen collaboration and broaden perspectives.

2. Outstanding Communication – Choosing the appropriate medium (video conferencing, email, telephone, etc.), depending on the message, can be as important as the content itself. You should also carefully consider your audience and the context for your message. Then ensure that the words you use will not be confused or misinterpreted.

3. Shared Vision & Goals – Establishing a clear and inspiring vision as well as team goals shared among all members is vital to optimal performance. In addition, clarity among individual roles as well as group and individual expectations are necessary for all members to be on the same page.

4. Sense of Community – Every community requires mutual trust, respect, fairness, and affiliation. These are essential on virtual teams because individuals can often feel isolated across time and space, and requires creative ways to build a sense of community among all members. This can often be accomplished through team building and team bonding exercises, but requires continual attention.

5. Strong (and Shared) Leadership – With the absence of an opportunity to “manage by walking around,” leaders should check-in with individuals spontaneously to discuss issues or opportunities that arise. Leadership on virtual teams is often shared and this should be encouraged whenever possible so bottlenecks don’t slow progress.

6. Coordination and Collaboration – Because we don’t physically see each other working on a specific task, it is essential for a greater level of tracking and coordinating on projects in virtual teams. This coordination often transcends organizational boundaries and requires the collaboration of every team member.

7. Appropriate Electronic Body Language – Our tone of voice in conference calls, word choice and sentence structure in emails, and the speed of our response can all impact how our messages are received and interpreted. Virtual teams require that we are mindful and more deliberate in how we convey our messages.

All teams require trust, respect, cooperation and commitment to be highly effective, and virtual teams require this and more. By paying particular attention to the seven key requirements, your virtual team can be highly effective as well.

Mark Craemer