Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox

I lift weights because I was quite small as a kid. In grade two, a tall athletic kid named Micah spoke down to me. When I talked-back he threatened: “Watch yourself or there’s going to be trouble.” Things escalated and word got around. We ended up in on the gravel soccer field surrounded by older kids who stood shoulder-to-shoulder so the noon-hour supervisors couldn’t see. One kid showed me how to hold my fist, moving my thumb to the outside, then told me to aim for the nose. In the next two minutes, my opponent hurled verbal threats at me while I got him onto his back and bloodied his nose. The older kids pulled us apart, and said “great fight.”

There used to be a great divide between jocks and nerds. But it’s now obvious there is no meaningful line between a strong brain and a healthy body. You have to have your wholeact together in order to walk into meetings with calm and confidence.

The Effects of Fitness on Workplace Productivity

There is ample evidence that the benefits of physical health translate into intellectual and emotional health. For employers, that means improved bottom lines, as outlined in a 2003 Journal of Exercise Physiology article entitled, “The Relationship Between Fitness Levels and Employee’s Perceived Productivity, Job Satisfaction, and Absenteeism”. The authors are Matthew G. Wattles and Chad Harris.

The study looked at three indicators of workplace effectiveness and four indicators of physical wellbeing. Notably, not all fitness measures were associated with all workplace effectiveness indicators.

  • Muscular strength influenced productivity
  • Cardiovascular endurance influenced job satisfaction
  • Flexibility influenced absenteeism

Amongst those who had increased their activity levels, there was more than an 80% favourable response to questions about exercise affecting their quality of performance, ability to relax, think clearly, and concentrate. Experiencing less fatigue was a big deal because:

“Employees who have more muscular strength would not be as physically taxed as employees with lower strength levels. This may make the employees physical work feel less demanding and may have contributed to their feelings of increased productivity.”

In their literature review, the study cited one paper that found that “the average reported impact of fitness programs on absenteeism is between 0.5 and 2.0 days improvement in attendance/year and it is estimated that the improvement would translate to a dollar savings of 0.35 to 1.4% of payroll costs.”

It’s another case where doing the right thing and making more moneylead to similar conclusions.

Cardiovascular endurance, by contrast, creates a sense that everything is chill. Those with better cardio have less anxiety, more self-esteem, concentrate better, and are more satisfied. Interpretations beyond the evidence were that fitness increased work capacity, reduced minor illness, and provided “…relief from boredom, anxiety or pent-up aggression”.

I wonder if we could reduce aggression in the workplace – and in schools for that matter – if we just got more cardio into people’s lives. A lot of workplace issues relate to struggles between those with different levels of power. Yes, we can cultivate more meaningful conversations between those in the midst of a power imbalance. But people need to be physically calm in the first place.

Related to power imbalance is that results vary between men and women. Fitness improved sick-day absences for women by 32% whereas for men there was no change. This makes sense because fitness improvement is often about bringing women up to a level that already exists for men.

This Girl Can

The “This Girl Can” campaign out of the UK is a best-case scenario for inspiring people to get active. Sports England, a government agency, was concerned about the under-representation of women in sporting activities. In addition to an inspiring video-driven campaign homepage I also found an article in Campaign magazine which provides great drill-down.

The campaign started with a research base that identified that “by every measure, fewer women than men play sport regularly… despite the fact that 75% say they want to be more active.” Digging deeper, they found:

  • Women’s fear of judgment by others is the primary barrier to exercise. In particular, women fear being judged about their ability.
  • 44% of mothers feel guilty if they spend time on themselves instead of their family, in contrast to the fact that men having “hobbies” is encouraged.
  • 48% of women say that getting sweaty is not feminine so being seen sweating causes concerns about their appearance.

If you watch This Girl Can videos and read the write-ups you hear from women who are recovering from a major surgery, getting going after a breakup, or becoming active after having kids. These women had been put in certain place by their circumstances and the way they were born, and have decided to change their lives physically. The campaign created a manifesto:

“Women come in all shapes and sizes and all levels of ability. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bit rubbish or an expert. The point is you’re a woman and you’re doing something.”

Since the campaign, the number of women playing sport is up by 245,200 people over a 12-month period to the end of September 2015.

About the Self-Image of Muslim Women Kickboxers

Regarding all shapes and sizes, Asian Muslim women in Britain have a lot of extra work in overcoming the judgment of others. There’s a great article in Vice about a woman organizing a kickboxing studio geared entirely towards Muslim women. Khadijah Safari is a 5’4” Muay Thai boxing instructor who teaches classes in Milton Keynes, outside of London. In the past 10 years her community experienced a doubling in the size of the visible minority population, up to 26%, of whom 4.8% were Muslim.

The rising ethnic diversity and the occasional act of Islamist terrorism is now wrapped up in a toxic blowback about “British values” at the heart of the Brexit fiasco and open racism in the streets. Women wearing religious headdress feel particularly threatened, telling stories of being spat on and name-called. Instead of “going home” this vulnerable population can instead attend self-defence classes. In these women-only classes, the women remove their hijabs and cover the windows, while they build their muscles, skills, and emotional resilience.

One participant is a 33-year old woman named Afshah who has been in the UK for eight years:

“…I have three kids at home, and I want something for myself,” she says. “…before I came here, I lived in Worcestershire and people would shout ‘Muslim!’ at me in the street. I felt so insecure. I didn’t want to go out. This class has given me a little bit more confidence.”

These women have a great icon to look up to. Ruqsana Begum – known as the Warrior Princess – was the British female boxing champion in 2016 and at the time the only Muslim woman at the top of her sport in the UK. She’s petite, has used her sport to overcome depression, and has gone on to build a business designing and selling sports hijabs. She has a great interview in highsnobiety.com where she sums it up: “I guess for me, no matter what you’re doing it’s all about being the best version of yourself and what you tell yourself is what becomes reality. It starts in your mind and then you make it happen. It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you can pick yourself up.”

Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager could get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman also suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.

[Repost from December 14, 2017]

Would you trust your doctor to repair your car

Reach for it (she made it, btw). By Lorie Shaull
Reach for it (she made it, btw).  Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull.

When people move up in the world, do you notice how they sometimes expect to be trusted?  It’s almost as if the trust were some kind of cherished prize attached to status and position.  But that’s not how it works.  Trust is something people earn.  And the ways in which trust is earned are mysterious and counter-intuitive.

Onara O’Neill’s TED Talk on What We Don’t Understand About Trust is an eye-opening revelation of an ambiguous concept.  Trust is a sentiment experienced by the trust-er, not by the person hoping to be trusted. In order to receive the trust of others, one must behave in a manner that is trustworthy.  This trustworthiness is judged on whether someone is honest, competent, and reliable.

You can trust people on some behaviours but not others.  For example, you can trust leaders to make good decisions, but perhaps not trust them to understand the perspective of those who are less powerful.  This dichotomy can make lives difficult for leaders who make missteps in empathy.

It’s also possible to trust someone will give accurate information, but not trust that they will guard your secrets.  For me, that’s the analyst’s dilemma.  The act of sharing information too freely can discourage people from providing the very information that is needed to advance research.  Conversely, being over-protective of information sends off signals you’re using the information for your own benefit, or for the sole benefit of your masters.

Trust can be localized to the profession of the person in question.  There is no good reason to presume a physician would provide good advice on auto-mechanics.  A doctor’s importance, intelligence, and general credibility might normally sway you, but this influence should have no bearing on whether you trust them on topics outside their expertise.  This distinction should be key when considering the trustworthiness of senior leaders in your workplace.  Do you ever see leaders express their views about how the world really works, while they stray outside their area of professional competence?  It doesn’t instil confidence.  Someone should tell them.  But who?

If only it were possible for clear opinions to go up and down the hierarchy.

The Features of Two-Directional Trust

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article from July 2017 entitled “Want Your Employees to Trust You? Show You Trust Them”, describes how workplace performance suffers if employees perceive they are not trusted by their managers.

The authors note: “Employees who are less trusted by their manager exert less effort, are less productive, and are more likely to leave the organization.” The degree to which employees trust their manager is sensitive to the degree to which the manager trusts them. And if there is any chicken-and-egg question, it’s easy to see the direction of causation: leaders set the tone.  Sometimes by accident.

The authors bemoan how workplaces often have rules and structures which minimize risk, and this environment can undercut the degree to which those with less power feel trusted:

Centralization of authority, restricted resources and information, and bureaucratic cultures heavy with regulation limit employee initiative. Managers may support their employees taking that initiative — but in a risk-averse organization, such ideas won’t likely see the light of day.

Smothering risk-taking creates an environment where people are not free to apply their best judgment.  As I described in a related post on workplace dress codes, judgment is a skill that needs to be used regularly to be effective.  Excessive rules create a workplace culture where people are out-of-practice making judgement calls when something emerges in a grey area.  This is how a doctor got bloodied by security for refusing to get off an overbooked flight on United Airlines.

Instead of creating and enforcing rules, it is far more effective for managers to cultivate employee talents (i.e. generating competence), give a clear direction of what is expected every day (in a bid for honesty), and set clear accountabilities (fostering reliability).  If the manager has conveyed a sense of trust, the employee should be in a good position to ask for help, having already taken their talents to the limit.

The Paradox of the Bottom-Line Focus

In the HBR article, another reason managers convey a lack of trust is a bottom-line mentality.  It makes sense for management to focus on a core goal, which might be the earning of money.

However, in the pursuit of this top-level goal

…many managers become focused on their job security and respond by constricting control.  This can lead to the type of thinking that focuses on only securing bottom-line outcomes, which often come at the expense of other priorities, such as developing relationships and empowering employees to make independent decisions.

Pressure to focus on the bottom line may cause insecure managers to pass along the insecurity to subordinates in the form of control.  That dynamic creates enough side-effects that the people lose their devotion to profit maximization.  It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine a world where powerful people think profit maximization is where it’s at, and their subordinates wonder “what’s the point?”

By contrast, a workplace culture of empowerment and independent application of competence can be an engine of bottom-line outcomes.  Some managers don’t perceive that this is the case, allowing their creeping control tendencies and myopic perspective to take over.  The villain here is not people who make sound leadership decisions while sacrificing employee independence, it is managers who perceive no trade-off whatsoever.

Self-Awareness Continues to Be a Key Attribute

The manager’s lack of self-awareness is a big factor in the lack of two-directional trust.  Many managers think in their own mind that they trust employees, but send off signals that they do not.  Managers often scrutinize work in a manner that expresses a lack of trust.  This scrutiny is so close to the expectation-setting and accountability culture that would be the feature of a high-functioning and high-trust environment.

How can you tell which environment you have created?  You can take stock through qualitative measurement and feedback systems to help managers overcome lack of awareness.  If the manager rejects push-back and negates survey findings, this might be a clue.  A trusting manager would need to carefully give up control in an incremental manner which measures and tolerates risk-taking.  Well-taken risks are usually calculated risks, and better information can reduce fear in the face of those risks. First, the information needs to be created, then it needs to be pushed down into the hands of the people to whom control and trust have been granted.

Employers need to increase information-sharing, including the sharing of bad-news items, on the presumption that employees are adults.  Employees’ understanding of management decision-making is important for two-directional trust.

On the topic of unpleasant conversations, a leader can also encourage transparent conversations about career aspirations.  From the metrics, a manager should know the odds that an employee might leave.  Maybe talking about goals more openly will give the employer the opportunity to help that employee grow into a new skill set?  I foresee an interesting exchange, that the employer has confidential information about corporate decision-making, and the employee has private information about their work-place and where else they think they could do better work.

The exchange of these two pieces of information obviously involves an exchange of trust, with the information mostly acting as the frisbee that is being passed back and forth.  And you can’t foster a high-functioning environment if managers keep the frisbee framed on a wall in their basement.

I wish I was insecure

teenage confusion, by Pabak Sarkar
teenage confusion.  Photo courtesy of Pabak Sarkar.

I wish I was more insecure, so I could relate better to colleagues who struggle with their insecurity. I keep missing opportunities to share moments of vulnerability.  I can’t tap into that common language where we all wish we were better.  People watch me, waiting for me to trip-up, and then I succeed.  Then they stop watching.  This is not how you get likes.

Perhaps I can overcome this challenge by doing more research.

My greatest frustration is articles proclaiming that almost everyone is insecure.  From a Huffington Post article by Susan Winter:

Every human being wonders if they’re “okay.” That’s the big secret no one shares and no one wants to share.  …at the core of every human is the desire to be accepted and seen as valuable in the eyes of those around us.  …There will be times you’ll feel on top of the world and times you’ll doubt your worth. This is normal. It’s a part of our forward movement as we take stock of who we are, in transit to who we’re becoming.

I feel like the captain of a Star Trek vessel observing “the planet of the insecure” hesitating about whether I should help.  If I could cure this planet of its insecurities, would their social order fall apart?  Would I take away that one thing that moves them forward every day?

What Teenagers Learn About Status and Insecurity

In this age of industrialized narcissism, the insecure are way better at delivering photos of their perfect life, drawing attention to their accomplishments, and working late to meet high expectations.  In an Inc.com article Jessica Stillman cites Yale psychologist Mitch Prinstein, who bemoans that a growing number of platforms are making it easier for us to gain status.  Prinstein differentiates between two types of popularity, status and likability.  Those who pursue and achieve high status tend towards “aggression, addiction, hatred, and despair.”

It’s great television.

In another article Stillman argues you should be relieved if you were not a cool kid in high school.  Cool kids get their reputation through behaviours that must become increasingly extreme in order to keep up with their subgroup.  At some point these antics veer into criminal behaviour and drug use which peers realize isn’t cool at all: “by the age of 22, these ‘cool kids’ are rated as less socially competent than their peers.”

By contrast, those who focused on developing one really close friendship “reported lower levels of social anxiety and depression and higher self worth as young adults.”  Nerds and healthy people work on their likeability.  Not facebook likes – that’s just a type of status.  I’m talking about people liking you for who you really are.  This is hard work. You need to make yourself vulnerable to close friends.  Sincerely attempt to improve yourself.  Be authentic in your words and deeds.  Back to Susan Winter’s Huffington Post article…

A truly empowered person can look at their shortcomings and seek improvement. The arrogantly insecure must only see a mirror that reflects their perfection. …The nature of growth requires embracing the new and unexplored. Security is opposed to growth, as growth is chaotic and unsettling.  Insecurity is the gift of wondering what comes next in our discovery process. [Emphasis added]

Insecurity is a good thing?  I’m furious.

Defining Emotional Security and Its Evil Twin, Insecurity

When doing people analytics, the first pass at the numbers often hinges on a data definition that needs better clarity.  Humanity is ambiguous and the closer we get to precisely measuring people, the more the human element claps-back at the empirical system, exposing that it’s the quantitative models themselves that are vulnerable.

Insecurity is “a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving oneself to be vulnerable or inferior in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.”

Wikipedia has a great article on emotional security, which by default gets into insecurity.  Wikipedia is the source of consensus amateur opinion, which is perfect for you and me.  I mean you.  No offense. Insecurity is “a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving oneself to be vulnerable or inferior in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.”

Already we’re in a pickle given Brené Brown’s research that the quality of our relationships depends on our ability to make ourselves vulnerable to others on a topic of personal shame.  To go deep in a relationship, we must choose to be insecure.  Those high school kids with one close friend were onto something.

Is There Anything Tangible We Can Do About Insecurity?

Is there anything tangible about insecurity?  Yes. Wikipedia says

The concept [of Emotional security] is related to that of psychological resilience in as far as both concern the effects which setbacks or difficult situations have on an individual. However, resilience concerns over-all coping, also with reference to the individual’s socioeconomic situation, whereas the emotional security specifically characterizes the emotional impact. In this sense, emotional security can be understood as part of resilience.

Some people have a status and/or demeanor with which they can weather setbacks better than others.  Therefore the emotional state of insecurity relates to 1) things that do in fact happen to us, 2) our ability to adapt to those things that happen including our own actions, and 3) our perspective and emotional state that arises from our experiences and adaptations.

This trifecta reveals that there are multiple responses to these shocks to our lives.  We can prevent bad things from happening through precautions and defenses.  We can mitigate after things have happened through insurance claims, emotional debriefs with friends, or by pressing charges.  We can improve our adaptations by upping our game (by trying harder or changing our methods as individuals), or fighting back against a collective injustice (e.g. go to a rally or make a targeted donation), or sometimes just letting others win (e.g. I hereby choose to load the dishwasher).

Or we can choose a different perspective and emotional state, such as accepting flaws in ourselves, in others, and in the world at large.  There is comfort in humility.  If you don’t like that, there’s always hope.  Choose your emotional posture.  Shape the clouds with your own bare hands.

What a Secure Workplace Looks Like

Now, let’s consider what this means in the workplace.  If an employee knows what is expected of them every day, they can correctly self-assess if they are delivering on expectations and change course accordingly.  If an employee has one good friend in the workplace, they can share vulnerable moments in which they are reassured and accepted as who they are.  If an employee is mistreated or put at risk, they can only prevent and mitigate if they are free to complain, talk to the union, or refuse unsafe working conditions.  If the employee faces unexpected dental expenses or fears poverty in retirement, they focus better when their employer provides pensions and benefits.

Take insecurity seriously, it’s the main engine.

The employer is asking people to do work for them, and in return offers an environment that is economically, physically, and emotionally reassuring to their security.  Take insecurity seriously, it’s the main engine.

There we go, my work is done.  It’s amazing what you can learn about a topic you know nothing about by putting a few hours into research and explaining things.  It feels accomplished.  It’s not that I was feeling insecure earlier.  I wasn’t.  I’m only doing this for you.

Do you like it?

Leadership is the Act of Learning

Portrait Of A Female Student

(Repost from October 19, 2017)  Are the best leaders currently excellent?  No, they are not.  The best leaders are those who always strive to become a little bit stronger in the near future.  In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review the authors identify that Good Leaders are Good Learners.[link]  Leaders who are in “learning mode” tend to develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.

This learning mode is exhibited through three behaviors:

  • “First, leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of ‘I need to learn how to…’”
  • “Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies.”
  • “Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights from the results of their experimentation.”

Several organizational indicators of the fixed-mindset mentality are contrary to the idea of a “learning mode.”  Consider psychometric testing that selects the most innately qualified leaders on a snapshot basis.  How useful is this information if you can’t identify an upward trend?  If the rules in your business keep changing, what use do you have for a leader who was top-performing under last year’s rules?  Surely the best leaders are the ones who can move upward and onward from any new starting point.  You get to change the rules more often with these types of leaders.  The world is experiencing more changes of the rules, so these types of people are well-suited for the current era.

Also consider the use of forced ranking performance appraisals and winner-take-all reward systems.  Basically, these systems use backward-looking performance indicators that anoint those at a high performance level as worthy of recognition.  But with a learning mode mindset, those mitigating from a disadvantageous starting point might be your new heroes.  Especially if they are learning and leading along the way.

My interpretation is that the “learning mode” mindset is simply the leadership-development element of an engaged workplace.  If you’re required to lead an engaged learning organization, only those with a growth mindset will excel.  And when they excel, the business will perform better.  So the leader, the culture, and organizational performance will move in synch.

Leaders cannot get fearless feedback unless they have fostered a workplace of high trust and two-way communication.  Leaders cannot openly name the things they need to learn unless they have sense of humility and an absence of back-stabbing amongst leaders.  Leaders cannot experiment with alternative strategies unless they have permission to fail; an onus of perfection would oblige leaders to stick to the tried-and-true.

It’s reassuring to know that a variety of broader truths are coming out of the evidence.  Engagement, learning, leadership, and change are all built on a foundation of focus, collaboration, curiosity, and trust.

Now if only we could make sure those types of people are actually put in charge, I think we would be set.  But that doesn’t always happen, does it? It’s a warning-shot to those who think they are already awesome. Excellence is in knowing your next step.

Creepiness Defined

Dead-eyed girl portrait
Dead-eyed girl portrait. Photo courtesy of simpleinsomnia.

You can inadvertently become the creepy leader.  To avoid doing so, you need to know more about what creepiness actually is.  Here’s an example.  If you are a parent, you may have noticed in your duties as tooth fairy that you need to safely hide the teeth.  In our family it was my duty to make the money-for-tooth exchange silently in the dark.  Also in the darkness – but not as stealthily – I would diligently place the tooth in the hiding space my wife had designated, in the middle drawer of her jewellery case.  One time in the light of day my wife fully-opened the drawer, saw the collection of teeth in all its glory, and screamed.  She was creeped out by herself.  We joked about making a necklace, and we laughed and laughed.  They’re gone now.

Creepiness was the subject of fresh research published two years ago in the paper On the Nature of Creepiness.  It’s by Francis T. McAndrew and Sara S. Koehnke in New Ideas in Psychology as of March 30, 2016.  It’s only six pages long, it’s well-written, and you can download it here.

The Definition of Creepiness

They define creepiness as follows:

A mugger who points a gun in your face and demands money is certainly threatening and terrifying. Yet, most people would probably not use the word “creepy” to describe this situation. It is our belief that creepiness is anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of whether there is something to fear or not and/or by the ambiguity of the precise nature of the threat (e.g., sexual, physical violence, contamination, etc) that might be present. Such uncertainty results in a paralysis as to how one should respond. In the mugging situation, there is no ambiguity about the presence or nature of threat. [Emphasis added]

The findings from the paper come from a survey of 1341 people who ranked items on a creepiness scale.  They ranked careers, behaviours, hobbies, and features of physical appearance.  With some consistency, the items at the top of the creepiness scale represent an ambiguity of whether there is something we should fear.

The creepiest occupations are clown, taxidermist, sex shop owner, and funeral director.  Creepy behaviours are things like standing too close, making it impossible to leave, and odd clothing or laughter.  The creepy features of appearance are greasy hair, bulging eyes, long fingers, and pale skin (i.e. features that make people look like a zombie or a skeleton).  Creepy hobbies include things that involve a lot of watching (such as bird watching), or collecting dolls, insects, or body parts.  I mean really, who collects body parts?

It’s fascinating that creepiness, although real, is three steps removed from a matter of substance.  The substantial item is harm.  You take it back one step and perceive a threat, which is the intention of harm or the likelihood one will experience harm.  Then you perceive the ambiguity of that threat.  The final step is that this ambiguity is subjectively-felt as anxiety.  So, whereas there may be material evidence of harm after it has been experienced, creepiness anticipates harm, three steps removed, has less evidence, and is hard to prove.  It’s no wonder why creeps lurk in this environment.

Eliminating Creepiness in the Workplace

It’s one thing to understand creepiness in public spaces.  But what does this new understanding about creepiness say about how we should behave at work?  We know that leadership and organizational culture shape our environment.   As a manager or human resources professional you have significant influence over several perceived risks such as health & safety, workplace cleanliness, and sexual harassment.  You can also influence things that could adversely affect the employee’s economic wellbeing such as layoffs, promotions, and performance conversations.  It is critical to convey a sense that you mean the best and you’re not going to sacrifice the employee’s wellbeing for your own self-interest.

There are also risks associated with the questionable use of data.  If you handle data about peoples’ address, benefits claims, and participation in wellbeing programs, you should feel a great sense of responsibility.  Add to that the secrets given to you by other managers about secret agendas and the organization’s direction, and you soon discover that you are truly a guardian of privileged information that can be used for good or evil.

Handling information properly can impact your reputation and how people feel about your leadership and your judgment.  You need to feel that healthy sense of fear that if you mishandled something, bad things could happen.  When I snuck into my children’s bedrooms at night to swap money for teeth, I was quite worried that I would be exposed as the tooth fairy and scar their innocence.  I felt the weight of generations past, that I must do this one thing well.

If confidential work is done poorly, you could harm a third party, the organization, or your own career.  The harm could be a matter of substance.  Or it could simply be a threat to those affected.  If you cannot provide credible assurances that you mean the best, then you are creating ambiguity about a threat of harm.

You can inadvertently become the creepy leader.

To avoid being creepy you need to be truthful, consistent, and transparent.  Or to be precise, you need to show a competent handling of truth and transparency, as if lying and secrecy were things you only do as a duty to society.  After the truth is known, will people say you did the right thing?

More than anything, trust is about advancing a sense of integrity and authenticity, that things are as they seem.  A trustworthy environment allows people to forget about bad things.  Trust allows people to stop spending precious work hours protecting themselves and each other.  If you want people to contribute their best work and share their best ideas, they need to feel safe.

So could you please keep your story straight about the tooth fairy?  Other leaders are trying to keep it together, too.  We need to tell the same story.  And keep that tooth collection hidden.