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Australia vs. The Time-Out Chair

Timeout chair  I was having lunch with friends the other day, and they started asking my advice on some chronically bad behavior at their company.  They were complaining that dysfunctionality was running rampant in their organization, and were wondering what they could do about it.

I asked them one simple question:  "How do your executives act?"

The response was as I expected.  Terms such as "childish" and "distrustful" and "conniving" were thrown about.  It was simple cause-and-effect.  The employees misbehave BECAUSE the executives misbehave.  A while back, I was asked to respond to a letter on Office-Politics.com where the top three executives were having affairs.  I suggested to the letter writer that he may want to consider a career change because their behaviors would eventually filter throughout the company.

It's pretty easy if one person misbehaves.  In school or at daycare or at home, you have a time-out chair to help correct the errant child.  (Some children spend more time on the chair than anywhere else.)  However, a couple of centuries ago, Britain decided they needed a whole island to deal with their less-than-stellar citizens, so Australia was colonized as a prison.  (Now people vacation there; go figure.)  So it is with some organizations.  If you have one or two bad employees, it's fairly easy to deal with them the traditional ways: coaching, counseling, corrective action.  If the whole lot are acting like a werewolf convention during a full-moon, then you have a problem with the overall culture.

The diagnosis of the systems output is simple.  However, the cure can be more challenging (but not impossible).  If enough people (namely executives), decide they want to change the culture (think Seattle's world famous fish market), then anything is possible.  With the Fish! example, the decision to change had to come from the top man himself, and then he had to make good by modeling the behaviors he wanted to see.

Where do you see yourself fitting into this organization?  Are you prepared to tackle an entire culture?  Some battles you can win, but some wars are costly.

There are no easy answers, but it certainly gives you something to think about if you're in an organization where you dread getting up in the morning.

Jest the Facts

Lalala I'm a big fan of systems thinking... and I happen to love the "thinking" part every bit as much as the "systems" part.  There's just something about the exchange and use of facts and information that fascinates me.

I've been distressed by the onslaught of poorly constructed rhetoric coming through the media in the past couple of years in the form of political campaigns.  It appears as though both parties have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction, reality from opinion.  And it doesn't matter which side we're talking about.  Both have become so entrenched that neither will consider a view the doesn't coincide with its own.  For example, here in Iowa, it's a FACT that the courts ruled that banning same sex marriage is unconstitutional.  It is OPINION that this ruling was part of a politically-fueled left-wing conspiracy.  It's a FACT that the democrats at a national level passed a health care bill.  It's OPINION that it will actually help those it is intended to help in the long run.  It is a FACT that some people are in this country without legal documentation; it is OPINION as to whether or not they should be allowed to stay.  (For the record, I could argue pro and con on either side of these arguments, so don't read anything into the above statements that is not intended.)

Facts and opinions are two of the many inputs our brain uses in its own system of making decisions about issues, news, people, and activity.  It also uses beliefs and values, as well as experiences and relationships to form decisions.  This article by Joe Keohane for the Boston Globe points out some fascinating things about us humans.  Facts don't always win.  If one's belief system is so strong, presenting said individual with facts may only backfire:

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters - the people making decisions about how the country runs - aren't blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the mere misinformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

"The general idea is that it's absolutely threatening to admit you're wrong," says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon - known as "backfire" - is a "natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.

I think we've all run into those people who are ALWAYS right... even when they are not.  How do we deal with them?  Well, my preference is to disengage.  If somebody won't operate on logic and integrity, why bother dealing with them?  Whether or not I call them out for their behavior (directly or indirectly) depends on the individual and the culture (environment) in which I'm working.  Your main focus needs to remain on why you wanted to convince them in the first place.  If winning over the other individual is not mission critical to meeting your goals, then quit wasting energy there.  It's as silly as the rhetoric the far left and far right use to convince the other how wrong they are.  However, if you need to win the person over, but their belief systems are too strong to let facts influence them, then find other ways to penetrate through their beliefs. In some cases, you may need to appeal to their belief systems.

The key point is recognizing how the system of influence and exchange works between you and your audience before you engage.  It will save you much headache in the future.

Sumac Problem

Sumac When we moved into our house over 14 years ago, I was overwhelmed with a number of household projects.  The then-40-year-old house had more than a few quirks, both inside and out.  Over the years, my wife and I (and contractors too numerous to mention) have tackled quite a few of them.  One of the first issues was the amount of sumac growing around the house.

For those who don't know, sumac is a highly productive plant which spreads like wildfire.  It is beautiful for its thick coverage, especially in the fall when its leaves turn a very deep red.  It is the wildlife of landscaping.  It is also a noxious weed, very toxic, and irritating to the skin.  By the time I had finished my "deforestation" project, despite wearing long sleeves and gloves and other protective gear, my arms and legs were a wreck.

Organizations have sumac as well.  They pose as highly productive employees who seem to accomplish a lot of good for the organization through projects or sales or other contributions.  On the surface, their achievements are pleasing to the eye.  But their accomplishments come at a cost:  they are highly toxic.  They poison those around them, making their professional lives miserable.

What to do with organizational sumac?  Well, my friend and leadership guru, Kevin Eikenberry, once conveyed to my students during a guest speaking conference call that "you can't coach toxic," and those behaviors should be eliminated from the organization as quickly as possible.

I've always liked Bob Sutton's approach in his book, The No Asshole Rule.  He suggests calculating the TCA (Total Cost of Assholes) and weighing the cost these people create through absenteeism, turnover, additional meetings, counseling, etc. against their so-called productivity.  When observing the economic balance sheet of bad behavior, it becomes pretty evident that they are not contributing to the bottom line as much as management may credit them.

Of course, there is always the Atticus Finch approach from To Kill a Mockingbird:  "If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."  Maybe your sumac needs to be put in someone else's shoes to see how they like their point of view.

No matter how you cut it, sumac is still a weed.  What's really going to determine whether it dies or thrives is how management and the organizational culture react to it.  After all, according to Thorndike's Law of Effect: Behavior that is rewarded tends to be repeated.

Nailing The Dismount

Gymnast Even in a bad job market, people evidently still have their dignity.

After all, one can only put up with a bad job, bad coworkers, and/or bad boss so long before one gets really fed up and says "Screw it!!!"  I'm always bewildered by those who write into Office-Politics.com and have put up with a bad work situation for (drum roll) YEARS and wonder how they can make it better.  (It's called a "recurring pattern of behavior," Bucky... sloooowly step away from the employer.)

I've been amused by two stories that have made the news in the past couple of days.  The first is Steven Slater of Jet Blue who got fed up with a passenger's disobedience, delivered a rant via the PA, grabbed some beer, and high-tailed it down the inflatable slide.  The second is Jenny, who got fed up with her bad boss, and resigned via photos to her coworkers (in the process exposing her boss's Farmville addiction)... although I'm not sure how credible the latter story is, but it is hilarious nonetheless.

"Take this job and shove it!" never sounded so good... well, except for poor Steven who is now behind bars for his antics.  Everyone has had a bad work situation from time to time.  As I talked about yesterday, office bullies sometimes run rampant and unchecked.  Some executives are utterly clueless.  Silly rules of bureaucracy befuddle otherwise intelligent and rational individuals.

Still, your stint at a particular employer (or client, in my case) is a system.  And your departure is the final piece of output.  Losing it on the dismount is never a good thing... unless you are attempting a triple-quadruple-3/4-rotating-back-front-rotating-vertical-gravity-defying-death-cheating-Holy-Mary-mother-of-God-did-we-really-just-see-that flip.  Then a less than perfect landing might be expected.  I've had clients where I've left less than gracefully (but I've done it with my head held high for what I attempted to do while I was there), and I've dismounted some projects with a style and grace that would leave Shawn Johnson with her mouth gaping.  How you depart is up to you.  But be prepared to deal with the perceptions of others... that feedback loop can be like landing on concrete without padding if you're not careful.

HR Is Neither Human, Nor Are They a Resource

Cb OK, I'm going to have every single SHRM member down my throat if I don't explain my title pretty quickly.

I'm quickly becoming a fan of workplacebullying.org - an outstanding resource for those who are dealing with the extreme of office politics known as workplace bullying.  I take a vested interest in this topic because I was a target of bullying my first job out of college.  Both of the bullies eventually "met their waterloo" and I've been able to observe their roller-coaster careers with interest.  Both have zero credibility with those who now work with them, and those who formerly worked with and for them have extremely unfavorable things to say about them.

Regardless of my own past, I've found this site to be thought-provoking and articulate, especially with a recent post on HR's role in dealing with office politics.  In my afore-mentioned experience, I reached out to HR, who was not only unwilling to help me, but reported my issues to the superiors who were bullying me, just adding fuel to the fire.

A lot has changed in 20 years of evolving organizations... or has it?  Is Human Resources part of the solution or the problem?  After reading two sides of the argument and the corresponding comments, what do you think?  What positions have you observed from HR?  Do they assist with bullying or alleviate it?

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