Forget About Strategy. Reality is a Mosh Pit

CROWD S U R F E R. By Keami Hepburn
CROWD S U R F E R. Photo courtesy of Keami Hepburn.

Strategy is not superior to tactics.  At best, strategy and tactics can be integrated as equals.  In this day and age it is looking increasingly unlikely that a senior leader will come up with one brilliant idea from the top of the organization and cascade it downward through the chain of command.  Rather, we live in a world where ground-level employees determine business success; information is diffused through friends and cube-mates; and the best ideas move diagonally through the organization’s subject-matter experts with minimal regard for the org chart.

A classic example of the disputed importance of strategy is the difference between Workforce Analytics and Strategic Workforce Planning.  I routinely use Workforce Analytics to help a variety of managers and professionals adapt to an unpredictable array of questions.  Workforce Analytics has a kind of “older sister” business practice called Strategic Workforce Planning which has been around for a little longer.  Strategic Workforce Planning is the practice of using analytics in the formal process or organizational re-design.  The re-design is intended to align human resources to internal and external context, a forecast about the future, and organizational strategy.  It makes perfect sense on paper.

In my opinion, there are three major frustrations with strategic alignment.  First, it makes a presumption that organizational strategy in your organization is in its prime.  If your org strategy is in its final approval stage or a complete re-write of that strategy is about to begin, then alignment to that strategy is a dubious effort.  Second, if any of the organization’s major leaders are in transition (both incoming and outgoing) their personal enthusiasm for the formal strategy could be in play.  To some extent, strategy is a debate amongst executives, and that debate can shift as the players are in flux.

Third, forecasting is a moving target.  In the middle of the Strategic Workforce Planning process there is an attempt to identify a future state and assess scenarios where a different staff composition would prepare the organization for that future.  However, society is changing so quickly and in so many ways that speculation about any likely future state has the shelf life of about a month.  Try writing down your predictions about the future on a piece of paper and then come back to it in 30 days.  With the passage of time you will either be humbled, or you will assert that it’s been doctored and you couldn’t have written something so clueless.  As such, alignment to strategy is brief, making the overall process less tangible and less relevant.

A good example of the struggles of strategic alignment is Uber.  Uber appears to have been built around a culture of rules-breaking on taxi licensing, grey-ethics exploitation of private information about a customer’s physical location, and a backroom culture of dot-com, locker-talk bravado.  With just a little bit of blowback from the public, Uber has been obliged to change senior leaders and reverse elements of the very organizational culture that made it great.  Good luck identifying what their sector will look like in two months, what this week’s executive team is going to do about it, and calibrating staff accordingly.  They might be fine in the near future, but we won’t really know until after the fact.

Consider by contrast an impactful tactical change which adapts to emerging evidence.  There is evidence that an equitable and inclusive work environment fosters better commitment and idea sharing.  There is evidence that workplace incivility has a dramatic impact on general productivity.  There is evidence that customer engagement is hyper-sensitive to employee engagement.  It is possible to develop a supposition that millennials are quitting at a higher rate, only to discover evidence that this is more nuanced and is really about career advancement at all ages.  These insights can have a dramatic impact on an organization’s opinion about what their core function should be, how managers should treat employees, and what kinds of employees and managers you should be hiring or promoting.

Then you would need to double-down and anticipate that even more disruptive evidence will continue to arrive at an even faster rate.  And if you did not adapt in this manner, you can bank on the fact that this adaptation is happening at rival organizations.  This brings us back to the possibility of even more leadership change and yet another re-vamp of organizational strategy.

If you are a manager, a human resource leader, or an analyst you might need to abandon all delusions that you can chart a clear path.  Rather, you are in the mosh pit of life, and your prime directive is to keep moving and not get hurt.  Keep your tempo, have fun, and follow the mood.  You cannot simply obey the directives of those with money or rank.  You must arrive at work fresh and rested, and play hard.  Every day.

Workplace Incivility Drags Workplaces Back to Stone Age

neanderthal-museum-by-clemens-vasters.jpg
Neanderthal Museum. Photo courtesy of Clemens Vasters.

How important is good manners?  Really, really important.  And it extends much further than knowing what an oyster fork looks like.

Incivility weakens health in areas such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, ulcers, and of course mental health.  For reasons of reducing health care claims alone, mistreatment of staff should be curtailed.  However, preventing workplace incivility is actually a bigger deal than originally thought.

In fact, there is significant research that shows being outright rude to colleagues is a major killer of workplace productivity.

In my jurisdiction, there was legislation brought in a few years ago that obliged employers to curtail bullying and harassment.  The legislation goes beyond the long-standing human rights legislation preventing harassment on prohibited grounds, such as sexism or racism.  The new rules say that if we are to compel others to action we must not be aggressive, humiliating, or intimidating.

Uncivil Workplace Culture Adversely Affects Productivity

According to her research, Christine Porath found that for those treated rudely by their colleagues:

  • 47% intentionally decrease the time spent at work
  • 38% deliberately decrease the quality of their work
  • 66% report that their performance declined
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined
  • 80% lost time worrying about the uncivil incident
  • 63% lost work time in their effort to avoid the offender

In addition to the reduced productivity of those who stick around, there is also the consideration of those who quit.  Twelve percent of those treated poorly leave the job because of the incident and, by contrast, those who are treated well by their manager are more likely to stick around.  What is interesting from an analytics perspective is that those treated poorly don’t tell their employers why, making it a blind spot in the data.  We know this from other sources; it’s always okay to say that you’re leaving for a better opportunity elsewhere.  But employees usually quit because of their manager and refuse to talk about it in exit interviews.

In addition to those directly treated in an uncivil manner, those who observe someone else being treated in such a manner are also affected.  “You may get pulled off track thinking about the incident, how you should respond, or whether you’re in the line of fire.”  Those who witness incivility see their performance halved and they “weren’t nearly as creative on brainstorming tasks.”  It makes sense that behavior is social and contagious, and that we feel for those around us.  That includes emotional pain.

The impact is not just contagious between employees, but it also spreads to customers.  In research conducted with two colleagues form the University of Southern California, Porath found that “…many customers are less likely to buy from a company they perceive is uncivil, whether the rudeness is directed at them or other employees.”  When customers witness an uncivil episode between employees, that customer makes generalizations about the company.  This has happened with Uber; customers who perceive a toxic environment have turned to competitors.

It’s more evidence of an emerging business model I refer to as double engagement.  That is, that it is engaged employees who attract and retain engaged customers, causing the revenue flow that marketing and finance want so desperately.  The days of investors and marketing teams driving a product or service into the hands of witless customers is long gone.  We live in a world where being human dictates business strength.

But before we put this all in the hands of the worker, we should note that the main source of an organization’s emotional tone comes from its leadership.  Simply put, when leaders treat their team fairly and well, they are more productive.  The team goes above and beyond.  They have more focus, better engagement, more health and well-being, more trust and safety, and greater job satisfaction.

For leaders, the new bottom line must also now include compassion, emotional sensitivity, and engagement.  You must step away from individual heroics and reverse your sense of who is important.  Why? Because way down at the bottom of the pecking order there may be someone who is not treated so well.  Whether you’re a caveman or a gentleman, if you are stronger and more powerful it is your job to carry them.

How to Become Strong By Understanding Disadvantage

2012 Marine Corps Trials Day 2.  Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUB.

We hear lots about excellence these days.  So what are the opportunities for persons with disabilities and disadvantages to drive excellence?  It may be that those who are in the throes of disadvantage might not have a fair shot at success.  But there are opportunities for everyone to aspire to excellence, through the cultivation of empathy for those who are disadvantaged.

This is a touching article about a doctor who was concerned about his own mother during her  disabling illness.  The illness was Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder that affects movement.  In the Times article, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar is rigged with a device that allows him to personally experience the sensation of his muscles turning to jelly, like those who have Parkinson’s, like his mother.

Why would he do such a thing?  Because he always wanted to understand his mother’s perspective during the illness.  Devices are also available that replicating the effects of emphysema, psychiatric illness, and nerve disease related to diabetes.

While I haven’t experienced it yet, I have also heard rave reviews about a similar effort called Dark Table.  Dark Table is a restaurant in Vancouver where food is served and eaten in a room which is completely dark.  The servers are blind or visually impaired, and the guests commit to keeping their gadgets off and eating their meals in the dark.  The dark dining experience increases the awareness of other senses such as hearing, touch, and taste.  It creates jobs for persons with disabilities.  And it also helps people empathize with the perspective of the visually impaired.

Emotional Intelligence in Workplace Conflict

On the human resources side of the fence, it’s possible to develop greater empathy for those we are in conflict with.  The nurturing of empathy is important for industrial relations, the professional development of managers, performance conversations, and the general growth of all staff.  How do you teach workplace empathy?  I have been involved in complex roleplay scenarios called Conflict Theatre.  The theatre scenes are designed so that each scenario is integrated into well-developed back stories and emotional perspectives of the actors.

The theatre is presented so as to invite audience members to step into the shoes of an individual actor and attempt to change the course of the conflict.  It’s one thing to sit back and observe from and armchair, and develop an opinion about how things should be done.  But the real expertise is to understand the full emotional context of each player in a conflict, an understanding which is far more vivid when experienced directly.

Empathizing with diverse perspectives turns out to be a key attribute of those who face conflict with dignity and grace.  It takes you beyond the negotiations that resembles bartering for trinkets, and even beyond the interest-based bargaining of those vying for a win-win solution.  You have to learn how to understand people as individuals based on their perspective and story, not their category or “type.”  This includes understanding their perspective when they struggle with ability, whether it’s professional ability or impairments.

Using Emotional Intelligence to Improve Workplace Culture

The thing I find fascinating about these initiatives is their scientific and cultural back-story.  The Parkinson’s device was built in response to well-documented complaints that patients perceive their nurses and doctors lack empathy for their hardships.  Blind dining is traced back to Switzerland by a man named Jorge Spielmann, whose concept was imitated in restaurants in London, Paris, and New York.  Conflict Theatre in Vancouver comes out David Diamond’s Theatre for Living, which itself comes out of Theatre for the Oppressed, created by Augusto Boal in Brazil in the 1970’s.  Theatre for the Oppressed, as you might guess from the name, arises from social critiques and movements to overcome repression, with an intellectual legacy dating well back into the 50’s.

To affect society on the larger scale we need to reach into the emerging science, the social experiments in many countries, and the lessons learned many decades into the past.  The knowledge and confidence of those with power and privilege can pale in comparison to the universe of individual experiences.  In order to take full advantage of the best information when advancing ourselves in this world, we need humility about how right we truly are, curiosity for knowledge that is new, and sensitivity to the lessons from other cultures and other moments in time.  Only then can each of us aspire to excellence.

Data Democracy, For Better or Worse

Vote Here. By Andrew DuPont
Vote Here. Photo courtesy of Andrew DuPont

Do you wish that there was more equality in our access to information?  I do.  In the past (i.e. a few decades ago) it used to be far more common for information to be more tightly-held by those with power.  However, major employers are pushing data downward into the hands of more people within their organization.

Here is an interesting article about data democratization, a buzzword that warrants some clarity.  Author Bernard Marr, in his July 2017 article in Forbes, describes data democratization through general themes.  An organization’s internal data is no longer “owned” by the Information Technology department, rather the data is put into the hands of diverse users.  Everyone has access to the data and there are no gatekeepers creating an access bottleneck.  People from varied ranks and diverse professional backgrounds can use the data to advance their goals.  There are down-sides, including redundant efforts by distributed users, concerns about data security, the fact that some data still exists in silos, and misunderstandings by those who don’t deal with the data every day.

It’s important to take this phenomenon seriously as a trend that is building steam, and which is probably here to stay.

In my opinion, the word “democracy” is problematic.  For example only those with digital literacy who are inside the organization can take full advantage.  Those with more power can use the new information more significantly to their advantage.  There also tends to be a winner-takes-all outcome, where the person with the best information and the most sophisticated ability to use it tends to come out ahead.

While you might think that these phenomena imply data is undemocratic, guess again.  Electoral democracy, although pure in spirit, tends only to involve between one-half and three-quarters of voters who cast a ballot.  Those who are powerful (i.e. business owners and property owners) have a strange ability to get more out of elected governments than others.  And those who are the best at politics will tend to win all of the power, leaving others in the dust.  Much like parliamentary democracy, data democracy works best for those who have the upper hand.  In both cases, the system is a pseudo-democracy of established interests choosing amongst themselves who they will share power with.  I think that’s called aristocracy.

Sorry Sir, I’m Just Not Feeling Motivated

Scream. Courtesy of Crosa.
Scream. Photo courtesy of Crosa.

What is the trade-off between a compassionate workplace culture and strong corporate performance?  Surprise, there isn’t one!  Corporate performance is subordinate to organizational culture and the emotional intelligence of senior leaders.

This article by Travis Bradberry of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 fame describes an interesting conundrum.  A large number of top corporate leaders have poor emotional intelligence.  The highest emotional intelligence is found amongst front-line managers and then each management level upward the leaders display increasingly diminished emotional intelligence.

Bradberry attributes this phenomenon to two factors.  First, corporate boards are selecting for leaders who deliver the numbers, such as profits, sales volumes, and stock price appreciation.  Second, the work environment of senior leaders impairs emotional intelligence and inhibits its growth.  Severe stress, lack of rest, regulatory enforcement, and a low-trust and blame-heavy environment can drag anyone into an emotional stone age (and keep them there).

What is fascinating is that corporate leaders with high emotional intelligence, although fewer in number, still perform better than others.  It may be that organizations will select the occasional gem of a leader, but otherwise we are mostly recruiting and promoting lower-functioning leaders into senior roles.  So how do mean bosses even get the job in the first place?

It is reminiscent of Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.  Pfeffer provides endless examples of how an executive’s career prospects are often inversely proportional to their performance.  In brief, being a cold and calculating savage will motivate people to not mess with you.  It is possible to rig your career towards a poisoned and under-performing work environment where you still reign supreme.  When corporate leaders spend all day making power plays, there appears to be no beneficiary of this behavior other than the leader.  Look directly at these kinds of leaders.  How are they doing?  They seem to be doing well.  It’s just everyone around them who is falling apart.  It’s all of those people who just can’t play the game and can’t keep up; they aren’t able to deliver corporate performance.  Of course, the punchline is that downstream inability to perform is a hallmark of inferior top leadership.

There is another consideration; do major corporations have sufficient protections against leaders who have personality disorders?  The best-known personality disorder is psychopathy, which is well-documented in Robert Hare’s Without Conscience.  The other disorders are important, but psychopaths are special.  When you get to know the type, it sounds like the personality of someone who perfectly reflects the values of an emotionless profit-maximizing corporation.

Indeed this was well documented in The Corporation, a movie by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan.  Their critique is that the behavior of major corporations (as institutions) ticks all of the boxes on the checklist of psychopath behaviors for people.  If we promote leaders who reflect corporate values, and the corporate values are that we should act like psychopaths, then who is going to end up in charge?

There is a lack of insight amongst psychopaths, corporations, and many corporate leaders, and this lack of insight is at the root of poor emotional intelligence.  Let’s face it, if you got cut off in traffic by some jerk on your way to the office, and then a colleague cuts in front of you at the coffee station, it’s easy to get snippy.  Do you keep control? Are you even aware that you’re just carrying-forward a residual emotion from an hour earlier?  I mean, if it’s possible to carry-forward quarterly accounting indicators, surely it’s possible to carry forward emotions.

How can corporations be unaware of the need for a compassionate working environment?  I think it’s because hierarchy diminishes the two-directional information flow up and down the chain of command.  If the board wants numbers, executives commit to deliver, and the rest of the hierarchy snaps into line, this reveals an opinion that the best opinions come from the top.  However, this might not be how the world really works.  It is an organization’s history, geography, and people that determine the culture.  And it is the culture that determines the customer experience, the spirit of innovation, a healthy attitude towards rules, compassion during crisis, and discretionary effort amongst staff.

One does not simply demand good numbers.  Rather, we harvest good numbers from a well-cultivated culture.

Breathing Life Into Your Work Team

I love bubbles. So much. by Sam Wolff.
I love bubbles. So much. Photo courtesy of Sam Wolff.

In 2011 Google released the results of Project Oxygen.  Project Oxygen was Google’s effort to identify what makes a good manager.  They put analysts onto large volumes of data from 10,000 sources to find what is at the center of the puzzle.  Their results are:

  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage
  3. Show interest in employees’ successes and well-being
  4. Be productive and results-oriented
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  6. Help your employees with career development
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Have key technical skills, to help advise the team

In the New York Times article summarizing these findings, a few things jumped out to me.  Five of these items (numbers 1-3 plus 5-6) imply a compassionate, nurturing, and transformational leadership style.  It is a rebuke to the notion that managers need to assert control, maintain discipline, and establish themselves in the hierarchy.  However, managers are also not allowed to be weak or wishy-washy in terms of results and clear vision.  While new managers step away from alpha-dog dominance to lead people in a “different” way, the alternate style cannot be deliberately passive.  You still need to actively cultivate, intervene, and get the information out.

It’s some stellar research.  For most of my work, I manipulate numbers.  By contrast, this is an interpretation of large volumes of text and I know this is hard, specialized work.  The findings are also contrary to many vested interests.  When the client and the analysts themselves are great at technical analysis, and they declare that technical skills are not the most important thing… you know they’re not feathering their own nest.

However, I would like to highlight a couple of vulnerabilities about these findings, just to keep everyone on their toes.  First, these findings are specific to the time and context, and findings can shift from one dataset to the next.  It’s likely the list looks a little different if you don’t work at Google, and it may even change within Google over the years.  Remember, this is not a representative sample of all organizations throughout time.  It is good practice to give research findings the benefit of the doubt within context, and be skeptical or critical outside of that context.

For example, what if everyone at Google is really good at certain things and therefore those attributes don’t have a correlation with anything else?  Examples might include having a university degree, getting access to information, receiving a decent salary, and vitamin D.  You need a data sample where some people are bad at certain things to build out the lower-left corner of a scattergram.  Otherwise a perfectly plausible driver of success will drop from statistical significance.

In the discussion about this project’s findings, people tend to go on about how technical skills are “dead last.”  Not so fast.  Wasn’t this a list of dozens of attributes, and they dropped all the attributes below number eight?  As presented by the analysts, technical skills still make the list.  Also, consider how you can blend technical skills with career development, empowering your team, and being productive.

I think it’s still the case that sleep, diet, exercise, and a good mood are the major drivers of focus, emotional intelligence, and energy.  As individuals we need to take care of those home-front items in order to break into the next level of performance.  However, if you botch the home front, you might not even get the job in the first place, never mind being good at it.

This brings us to the fact that they chose a fitting name for this project.  What is the one thing you need above else to determine your success at work?  Oxygen, of course.  Lots and lots of oxygen.  Good luck motivating staff without it!