Sunday, November 26, 2017

Do You Work in a Trusting Environment?

Trust is one of those words rarely discussed in the work place, yet it has a huge impact on performance, talent retention and sustainable growth, to name just a few elements. All the leaders I’ve respected in my career have been men and women I genuinely trusted, amongst other great attributes; and the high performing teams I’ve been involved with also had trust as a key element in their successful make up.
Paul Zak in a 2017 Harvard Business Review article found that “building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working in low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance,” (p.86).
Worse still trust is a word customers hardly use anymore where in fact distrust seems to be the rule rather than the exception. I’m still amazed that organizations and leaders feel that trust isn’t an attribute worth focusing on; and don’t care if they and their organizations are distrusted. Yet Zak highlights how “leaders understand the stakes – at least in principle. In its 2016 global CEP survey, PwC reported that 55% of CEO’s think that a lack of trust is a threat to their organization’s growth. But most have done little to increase trust, mainly because they aren’t sure where to start,” (p.86).
Trust is actually very healthy in all aspects of the business equation – it’s not just important for the business-customer relationship, but has a huge impact inside the organization too. Zak highlights how “neuroscience shows that recognition has the greatest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it is tangible, unexpected personal, and public. Public recognition not only uses the power of the crowd to celebrate successes, but also inspires others to aim for excellence. And it gives top performers a forum for sharing best practices, so others can learn from them, (p.88).
The problem with trust is, as we know, that it takes time and a constant effort to develop a trusting environment, probably even more so in the 21st century, and yet that same trust can be eradicated in a split second. It seems that too many leaders either simply don’t want to put in the effort to build trust in their workplace or feel that ‘trust’ limits their leadership style – where the latter is a very scary but real fact in today’s business world.
The thought that some leaders would feel that ‘trust’ limits their ability to lead should be something more academics and subject matter experts are discussing openly. The signs are everywhere, an over-promoted to fearful of showing their weaknesses and too scared to ask for help and development, limp through their leadership role using mostly power, with a pinch of ‘fear’ and find a distrusting environment makes it easier for them to lead; and I’d even suggest in some cases they purposefully create the mistrust.
I mentioned in the first paragraph how the high performing teams I’ve worked with in my career have all had ‘trust’ as a key attribute; and looking back it wasn’t even something the team consciously worked at. It was simply a team of skilled and principled people, who wanted the best for the organization and that was our primary focus. We felt great once the objective was achieved and had leaders who recognized our successes. Zak mentions how “when a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals, including oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, that intensify people’s focus and strengthen social connections. When team members need to work together to reach a goal, brain activity coordinates their behavior efficiently. But this works only if challenges are attainable and have a concrete end point; vague or impossible goals cause people to give up before they even start. Leaders should check in frequently to assess progress and adjust goals that are too easy or out of reach,” (p.88).
Further Zak highlights how “only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goal, strategies, and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits the release of oxytocin and undermines teamwork. Openness is the antidote. Organizations that share the ‘flight plans’ with employees reduce the uncertainty about where they are headed and why. A 2015 study of 2.5 million manager-led teams in 195 countries found that workforce engagement improved when supervisors had some form of daily communication with direct reports,” (p.89).
It genuinely saddens me that one has to write articles about an attribute like trust – where even without the science, we know ‘trusting’ environments are better than ‘distrusting’ ones. As Zak mentions “the brain network that oxytocin activates is evolutionarily old. This means that trust and sociality that oxytocin enables are deeply embedded in our nature. Yet at work we often get the message that we should focus on completing tasks and not making friends,” (p.89). Why, even when we know something is right, are we prepared to settle for less. We know how long it takes to build a trusting environment – and we know how much harder it is to rebuild trust, if the trust has previously been broken. We also know there comes a point where it’s virtually impossible to rebuild trust without fundamental changes in the makeup of the group.
So let’s draw a line in the sand. Shareholders, corporate boards and executive directors make it your mission for 2018 to build a trusting working environment – the benefits both in the short and long term will be well worth it for all of you.
Zak highlights how “high-trust workplaces help people develop personally as well as professionally. Numerous studies show that acquiring new work skills isn’t enough; if you’re not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer. High-trust companies adopt a growth mindset when developing talent. Some even find that when managers set clear goals, give employees the autonomy to reach them, and provide consistent feedback, the backward looking annual performance review is no longer necessary. Instead, mangers and direct reports can meet more frequently to focus on professional and personal growth. Assessing personal growth includes discussions about work-life integration, family and time for recreation and reflection. Investing in the whole person has a powerful effect on engagement and retention,” (p.90).
Zak, P.J. (2017). The Neuroscience of Trust. Harvard Business Review. Jan-Feb. p.84-90.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Do You Dislike Your Boss?

Times have changed over the last five decades. There was a time where organizations had to develop and secure the best leaders to retain their best talent. Although poor leaders existed, they were often quickly identified by a high turnover of staff in their area – as employees voted with their feet.
Yet more recently and especially after the global financial crisis jobs have been scarce in many industry sectors, globally, with supply outstripping demand and hence poor leaders have been able to entrench themselves in many organizations, both large and small, as employees are less able to ‘vote’ with their feet anymore.
This is bad for everyone – organizations, employees and stakeholders and the only winners are the bad leaders - where way too many are able to ‘survive’ in today’s global economy, as many employees are ‘forced’ to put up with their poor dysfunctional behaviour.
According to the most recent Gallop ‘State of the Global Workplace’ study, half of all employees in the United States have quit jobs at some point in their career in order to get away from their bosses. The figures are similar or even higher for workers in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
The same survey, consistent with previous ones, also shows a clear correlation between an employee’s engagement (that is, motivation and effort to achieve organizational goals) and their relationship with the boss. Where 77% of employees who said they were engaged at work described interactions with managers in positive terms (for example, my supervisor focuses on my strengths).
What’s really worrying is that research has shown that an engaged workforce is a key driver of organizational success, and yet according to Gallop, only 13% of employees worldwide fall into that category.
Manfred Kets de Vries asks in a Harvard Business Review article: “What are these ‘bad’ leaders doing? Frequently cited grievances include micromanaging, bullying, avoiding conflict, ducking decisions, stealing credit, shifting blame, hoarding information, failing to listen, setting a poor example, slacking; and not developing staff. Such dysfunctional behaviour would make anyone unhappy and unproductive. However, whatever sins your boss commits, managing your relationship with them is a critical part of your job. Doing it well is a key indicator of how effective you are.”
Across the globe there are too many demotivated employees and their organizations seem unable or unwilling to try to shift the balance. The problem often starts right at the top with corporate boards and shareholders only focused on the short-term , where a ‘culling’ of the poor leadership would not be good for the share price in the short-term – although it would, if done correctly ensure much greater returns in the long-term, than they will get keeping the status quo.
The short-term focus mind set is destroying the very fabric of developing world class, efficient leaders who can develop their organizations to completely new levels of performance and innovation; two key factors required for competing in the global 21st century market place.
Kets de Vries offers some basic tips and tricks for employees who work for ‘bad’ bosses;
“Research has shown time and time again that practicing empathy can be a game changer in difficult boss-subordinate relationships, and not just as a top-down phenomenon. Experts such as Steven Covey and Daniel Goleman emphasize the importance of using this key aspect of emotional intelligence to manage ‘up’. Where neuroscience also suggests that it’s an effective strategy, since mirror neurons in the human brain naturally prompt people to reciprocate behaviours.
Second - Look at yourself. People who struggle to work well with their bosses are nearly always part of the problem themselves: their behaviour is in some way preventing them from being recognized and valued.”
However there is a naivety with these suggestions. With the first ‘tip’ many poor leaders just ‘lap up’ the empathy and actually don’t reciprocate it – rather taking the empathy as ‘tacit recognition’ statements that they are in fact ‘great’ leaders. These people refuse to accept their weaknesses and hide them behind all the poor traits that were listed above.
Sadly if these simple steps don’t work and you don’t have a solid case to take to your HR department – and remember it will have to be solid, with factual evidence and not conjecture and opinion. Then most employees start to just go through the motions at work and try to minimize contact with their boss – hoping that by playing the waiting game their boss will move onwards and upwards or move preferably out completely. The problem with this strategy is that during this ‘playing for time’ phase your relationship is unchanged at best, or deteriorating at worst, as from the poor leader’s perspective you’re not ‘putting in the effort or being a team player.’ Which they use against you to make life even more miserable.
Often it’s not the best strategy to play for the time when the boss leaves – but play for time when you can leave and use the time actively seeking alternative employment – specifically at a time while you are still feeling positive about yourself, your self-worth, and your future ambitions. Since being stuck in a ‘playing for time’ scenario for too long can have a negative psychological effect on you and ultimately your health.
There is definitely strength in numbers – but often in business it seems to be everyone for themselves. If a group of people can go to leaders they trust and ‘flag’ the poor leadership traits they are experiencing and have some constructive solutions, then maybe, just maybe, your voices will be heard. But it’s often a very risky strategy and you find those people who have promised to be ‘right behind you’ – are, when the time comes, so far behind you, you can’t see them for dust.
There’s a great quote that states “don’t push a loyal person to the point where they no longer care” – too many poor leaders are doing that on a daily basis around the world and sadly it’s a lose-lose scenario for everyone involved.
I just hope that key stakeholders will take a stance soon to bring effective leadership back into the workplace.
Kets de Vries, M.F.R. (2016). Managing Yourself. Do You Hate Your Boss? Harvard Business Review, December, 2016. P.97-101.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Do Ethics Matter?

It seems that not a week goes by without the reporting of unethical behaviour in business and politics. Yet most organisations usually have a list of corporate values on their hallowed walls somewhere – but does the constant stream of scandals mean that the only place you can find corporate values in the 21st Century is on walls, rather than in the hearts of leaders and employees, where they belong? It definitely seems that organisations are failing to move their values from ‘wall plaques’ to actual living entities within their employees, at all levels, in business (and politics for that matter).
As citizens of the world we have to decide the kind of world we want the next generations to inherit and then teach our children accordingly. If greed and unethical behaviour is going to be the rule rather than the exception, as it seems to be – then we might as well take the leap and start develop our children to be excellent liars and cheats; giving them a head start into the business world they will eventually join.
But if we genuinely want a world where ethical values are the rule – then we really need to start standing up to the constant stream of unethical events around the globe and start holding people and organizations to account. We, that’s the global ‘we’ of consumers, have the power to make significant change if we really want to. Politicians and the media know the power we have – which is why they are constantly trying to keep us divided – as they know if we come together and use our consumer power, we can make more change in a day than any government or multibillionaire makes in a year (or more) – just simply through our combined buying power.
We’ve been brainwashed into believing ‘this is the world we live in’; ‘we can’t change anything’; etc, but we have to stop believing this rhetoric and start ‘fighting’ for the world we want for our children and their children.
As an example of the stream of scandals and unethical behaviour I just researched two days, Friday 8th September and Monday 11th September and looked at some of the unethical practices being reported in the media; some of which I’ve shared below.
We’ve seen the report of a young British mother who is suspected of running a massive tourist sickness scam that allegedly defrauded the industry of at least 9.2 million British pounds. She is alleged to have controlled touts who enticed hundreds of British holidaymakers in Majorca to make false sickness claims against hotels on the island over the past three years (Graham K Madrid, The Times, Fri 8th Sept, p.5). On the same day the Times reported how two retired footballers are alleged to have invented ‘ghost learners’ to steal 5 million British pounds meant for training apprentices.
The environment editor of the Times, Ben Webster, reported how Tesco has been accused of holding on to millions of pounds that should have gone to charity from the proceeds of the compulsory 5 pence charge on disposable plastic bags. The retailer retained 3.4 million British pounds last year to cover the ‘cost of administering donations’ unlike other major supermarket chains, which did not deduct any of the proceeds for that purpose, (p.8, 8th Sept).
Mark Bridge, the technology correspondent of the Times, highlighted how ‘virtual assistants’ are at risk from hackers. Where researchers in China have found that cheap off-the-shelf technology could compromise virtual assistants from companies such as Apple and Amazon, potentially enabling criminals to instruct them to carry out tasks for their own illegal ends. Imagine situations where ‘psst, Alexa, unlock the back door. And Siri, transfer $1,000 to bank account number …..’ Where criminals could use ultrasonic sounds to ‘whisper’ commands and take over voice-activated electronic devices such as smartphones, (p.17, 8th Sept).
We had David Bond and Emma Dunkley on the 8th September reporting how staff at Bell Pottinger have been told that the scandal-hit PR firm is likely to go into administration as early as next Monday, after attempts to find a buyer failed. Co-founded by Margaret Thatcher’s favourite advertising executive Tim Bell in the late 1980’s, Bell Pottinger has been battling for its future after the PR industry’s UK trade body expelled the agency for at least five years over the Gupta controversy. In a damning report, the Public Relations and communications Association concluded that its messaging for the Guptas targeted wealthy white individuals and corporations in South Africa and was likely to inflame racial tensions, (p.12, FT, 8th Sept).
Sarah Harris, Jack Doyle, Daniel Martin and Tom Payne, reported in the Daily Mail on 11th September how demands were growing for the Government to slash the ‘outrageous’ interest rates of up to 6.1 per cent levied on student loans. Chancellor Phillip Hammond is being urged to use his next Budget to help students by at least replacing the outdated inflation measure used to set repayments – the Retail Prices Index (RPI) – with the historically lower Consumer Price Index (CPI). Its adoption could save students as much as 18,000 British pounds over their lifetimes, according to recent estimates. Last month Theresa May’s former joint chief of staff, Nick Timothy, described higher education as an ‘unsustainable and ultimately pointless Ponzi scheme’ that burdens graduates with debts and needs radical reform, (p.10, Daily Mail, 11th Sept).
Ilan Ben Zion, from Tel Aviv, reported how the controlling shareholder of one of Israel’s largest supermarket chains was arrested on suspicion of corruption. Rami Levi, chief executive of Rami Levi Chain Stores Hashikma Marketing, as well as a local politician, another businessman and a reporter were detained for questioning for alleged fraud and breach of trust involving the owners of a shopping mall and the local municipality; according to a police statement, (p.14, FT, 11th Sept).
Ben McLannahan, from New York, reported in the Financial Times how emerging markets are hit by financial crime curbs. The global regulators’ assault on terrorists, tax dodgers and money launderers is sapping vitality from a host of emerging market economies, according to the private-sector arm of the World Bank, as big banks cut ties that could expose them to sanctions. Over the past few year’s banks such as HSBC, BNP Paribas and JPMorgan Chase have paid billions of dollars in fines for failing to keep tabs on criminal activity, while spending heavily to increase their routine flagging of suspicious transactions, (p14, FT, 8th Sept).
At the political level you had Laura Pitel from the Financial Times in Ankara reporting how New York prosecutors have charged a former Turkish economy minister with taking millions of dollars in bribes in order to conceal a scheme that bypassed US sanctions. Where Mehmet Zafer Caglayan is accused of receiving cash and jewellery as part of an international operation to trade billions of dollars of gold with Iran, (p.3, FT, 8th Sept).
Joe Leahy and Andres Schipani, from Sao Paulo, report how the Brazilian supreme court ordered the temporary arrest of billionaire Joesley Batista, who in May revealed he had secretly taped a conversation with Brazilian President Michel Temer allegedly discussing bribes, has been ordered to face at least five days in jail alongside close associate, Ricardo Saud. “There are multiple indications …. Showing that they were part of an organisation dedicated to the systematic practice of crimes against the public administration and money laundering” supreme court judge Edson Fachin said in the order, (p.2, FT, 11th Sept).
And of course not surprisingly on the same day, 11th Sept, Joseph Cotterill, Southern Africa correspondent for the FT highlighted how Robert Mugabe’s spy agency secretly controls a diamond mine in Zimbabwe’s Marange region that has enriched the president’s allies and funded state repression, according to anti-corruption campaign group. The evidence, gleaned from company records and secret documents linked to CIO, will reignite fears that a hole of up to $31 billion in reported revenue from Marange has enriched the country’s political elite and the ruling Zanu-PF, (p.4, FT, 11th Sept).
As I start to wind down my own career and think of retirement, I’m genuinely concerned for the future of business and politics; and the generations to come after me. In my lifetime I’ve seen a dramatic change in business behaviour, mostly for the worse. I do wonder how long it will take us to work together as consumers to make positive change and make a real difference throughout the business world, for the generations to come.
I don’t believe (or don’t want to believe) the reported argument that that the current generation don’t care – I actually believe they do. The problem is we are ‘divided’ and until we come together for the greater good, these greedy, unethical people and businesses will be laughing at how gutless we all are, all the way to their offshore banks.
At the moment I think history will look back very poorly on the current world we live in and how much ‘crap’ citizens are prepared to take – let’s stop being divided and come together to make a difference; and lets starting living our corporate values today.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

How Good Are You At Problem Solving?

Problems, problems, problems – life can be full of them, and how we approach them can make a huge difference to our productivity, both at work and in our personal lives. Get caught up with a problem for too long and it can have dramatic effects on the business environment as well as negatively impacting the relationships of those involved in the problem (both directly and indirectly).
In the Jan-Feb 2017 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg highlighted how a survey of 106 C-suite executives, representing 91 private and public sector companies in 17 countries showed that 85% of them agreed or strongly agreed that their organizations were bad a problem diagnosis, and 87% agreed or strongly agreed that this flaw carried significant costs.
It’s good to see that these organizations aren’t afraid to be transparent about their weaknesses and the impact this has on their organization, albeit that the question seems very generic. I imagine their response doesn’t correspond to every problem they encounter and further detail would be very illuminating, as to what kind of problems organizations struggle with the most and at what levels these problems occur. Although I can think of 10 times that amount of companies that would never even admit a weakness such as this.
Wedell-Wedellsborg highlights how “it has been 40 years since Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jacob Getzels empirically demonstrated the central role of problem framing in creativity. Thinkers from Albert Einstein to Peter Drucker have emphasized the importance of properly diagnosing your problems. So why do organizations still struggle to get it right?”
One answer will be that many organizations do not create or encourage ‘creativity’ across the organizational spectrum, to the extent that in too many organizations creativity is smothered as soon as it raises its head, forming a restrictive top-down driven culture.
And then another “part of the reason” as Wedell-Wedellsborg sights “is that we tend to over-engineer the diagnostic process. Many existing frameworks - TRIZ, Six Sigma, Scrum, and others – are quite comprehensive. When properly applied, they can be tremendously powerful. But their very thoroughness also makes them too complex and time-consuming to fit into a regular workday. The setting in which people need to be better at problem diagnosis is not the annual strategy seminar but the daily meeting – so we need tools that don’t require the entire organization to undergo weeks-long training programs” (p.78).
Which is so true, as many industry sectors don’t have the luxury of being able to allow for lengthy problem solving approaches and need fast track solutions or else they can start to lose market share virtually immediately. Where it’s not just the process but those involved in following it that impact the attention to detail and the time wasted on non-productive factors.
As Wedell-Wedellsborg mentions ‘even when people apply simpler problem-diagnosis frameworks, such as root cause analysis and the related 5 Whys questioning technique, they often find themselves digging deeper into the problem they’ve already defined rather than arriving at another diagnosis. That can be helpful, certainly. But creative solutions nearly always come from an alternative definition of your problem” (p.78-79).
This is when leadership skills succeed or fail – a great leader will always be able to solve problems in the optimum time, gaining consensus on the way, and hence ensuring successful resolution once the implementation takes place. Rush the diagnostics part to much and the ‘celebrations’ for solving the problem quickly will be short lived as the implementation phase starts to stall and falter.
Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests seven practices for effective reframing of a problem, which are quite effective in practice;
1. Establish legitimacy. It’s difficult to integrate a method if you are the only person in the room who understands it;
2. Bring outsiders into the discussion. People who will ‘think outside the box’ and speak freely;
3. Get people’s problem definitions in writing. It’s not unusual for people to leave a meeting thinking they all agree on what the problem is after a loose oral description, only to discover weeks or months later that they have different views on the issue;
4. Ask what’s missing. When faced with the description of a problem, people tend to delve into details of what has been stated, paying less attention to what the description might be leaving out. To rectify this, remember to make sure to ask explicitly what has not been captured or mentioned;
5. Consider multiple categories. Powerful change comes from transforming people’s perception of a problem. One way to trigger this kind of paradigm shift is to invite people to identify specifically what category of problem they think the group is facing. Is it an incentive problem? An expectations problem? An attitude problem? Then try to suggest other categories;
6. Analyze positive expectations. Look for instances when the problem did not occur, asking ‘what was different about that situation?’ Exploring such positive exceptions, sometimes called bright spots, can often uncover hidden factors whose influence the group may not have considered;
7. Question the objective. Are their different personal drivers involved? For example, imagine two people fighting over whether to keep a window open or closed. The underlying goals of the two turn out to differ: One person wants fresh air, while the other wants to avoid a draft. Only when these two hidden objectives are brought to light through the questions of a third person is the problem (potentially) resolved – by opening a window in the next room, for example.
However I suggest the final important ‘practice’ to effective problem solving is to always to debrief afterwards;
What went well?
What didn’t? and
What can we do differently next time?
Organizations have to learn from each problem solving situation; as well as each and every step of the way – helping them become better pro-active problem solvers – which should be the ultimate goal.
Wedell-Wedellsborg, T. (2017) How good is your company at problem solving? Harvard Business review, Jan-Feb, p.76-83.