Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Measure what you treasure


Image from iStock

Over twenty years of consulting has led me to believe this: one individual can disrupt a system but a vulture culture is a system whereby disruptive, debilitating, unethical or toxic behaviour is perpetuated or enabled by the system.

A counsellor friend shared a story with me a few years ago that illustrates this in a very different system to that of a business. She told me of a family that presented with a very bright six-year-old who was acting out. He was violent at times, belligerent, attention seeking, and disruptive: in short, a real handful. The parents went to my colleague to have Billy (not his real name) sorted out after he had found some matches and allegedly tried to set fire to his sister's hair. In the first session, he sat there quietly while his parents recounted a tale of woe about what it was like trying to raise Billy. He sat stony faced and impassive, occasionally blinking hard but absorbing every disparaging word. After a short while, when it became clear there was not going to be an upside to their story, my colleague asked the young boy whether this was an accurate summary of some of the challenges in the family. He said that it was. The counsellor asked to speak with him alone, which shocked the parents, but they reluctantly agreed, particularly after reminding themselves that he was the problem.

When they were alone, my colleague asked Billy how it felt to hear those things. He admitted it was rough but added it was all true. He also admitted he didn't enjoy getting told off all the time and excluded from family time by being sent to his room. The counsellor then asked him why he did those things if they weren't fun. He looked at her hand for several moments, was about to speak, and then hesitated. She quietly told him she would not share his answer with anyone else unless he let her. His voice cracked as he told her he did all those naughty things to keep his parents together. He wasn't sure they loved each other much anymore, and he didn't want to grow up without one of them in his life, which is something his closest buddy at school had to do. With permission, my colleague shared this with the parents (but without Billy in the room), and this became the catalyst for them to work on their relationship. Billy's behaviour was merely the presenting manifestation of a 'system' in crisis.

In this powerful and provocative try story lies the premise on which all our work on organisational strategies is predicated:

The keys to creating and sustaining better organisational health and eliminating counterproductive workplace behaviour in the service of innovation, work productivity and quality, profit, morale, job satisfaction, retention of talent, business reputation and risk management lie in a holistic multifaceted approach that may include important work to be done at the organisational, team, and individual levels in the system.

In Billy's case, his behaviour met a need; his acting out served a purpose for Billy and his parents. It was the same need for the two sets of parties; to provide a shared focus for the parental relationship and to distract them from the stuff going on between them that wasn't working. Billy's challenging behaviour was also a way to validate the tension in the family, and it prevented family members from having to look in the mirror and see problems (in this case anger, resentment and depression) in themselves. Some factors that enabled the continuation of Billy's behaviour were the game playing and point scoring that existed between the parents and the boundaries that the parents did not consistently enforce. None of this is to stay that Billy's behaviour wasn't extremely difficult. He could have found subtler and less damaging ways to manifest insecurity and give his parents something in common. I am not trying to excuse or justify Billy's challenging behaviour or to suggest this wasn't a real burden for the parents. But at the end of the day, this boy was just six-years-old, and his parents were subconsciously duplicitous in Billy's acting out by failing to address the underlying causes, allowing the misery to continue.

On paper everyone wants to work with a high performing team, yet some teams fire, some languish and tragically some implode. It's no secret many organisations are heavily investing in leadership and coaching development programs, spending big dollars on growing future talent and focusing on developing agile and resilient teams. However, we need to constantly assess the way we operate and change our internal organisational culture in a way that allows people to have the tools and comfort they need to do great work.

The 'enlightened' organisation will:
  1. Institute measures to minimise the chance of wrongdoing, reputational risk and other negative consequences (they will try to make it hard to do the wrong thing)
  2. Educate people to make sensible and ethical decisions (they will try to make it easy and attractive to do the right thing)
  3. Develop processes, policies and protocols that enable a timely and coherent response in the event something bad happens
  4. Act on any transgressions proportionately and consistently; and
  5. Be proactive in setting the tone and tenor of a professional, respectful workplace so that doing the right thing and fostering a respectful, dynamic, healthy, and innovate workplace is as natural as breathing.

It is logical that employees are less likely to bite the hand that feeds them (well). Engaged employees are more likely to want to come on board than those who are embittered, stale, or bruised. We know that optimistic, engaged and resilient people are more productive. So, take the time to understand your people - their "DNA", their skill set and what motivates and energises them. Counterproductive workplace behaviour happens in the context of poor moral norms of behaviour and absent, corrupt, or incompetent leadership, but it is also much more prevalent among disenfranchised staff. If we help people enunciate what motivates them and help meet individual aspirations, staff may not have to act out to have their needs met. They are also less likely to want to pay out on the organisation because they are dissatisfied.

So I ask you: does your organisation have a climate of goodwill and trust such that your employees want to stay and work through periods of uncertainty and challenge? Or when given an effective choice will they rather be quick to fly the coop and jump at the opportunity to go somewhere else to shine?

Monday, October 29, 2018

A long time coming


Photo from iStock

There was never a question I was going to go. I felt I owed it. To the organiser who worked so hard to track us down, to plan it and to get us there. To the friends in my year who had passed away; so many of them I'd hear people tell others that my year at school was "cursed".

But I'd be lying if I didn't say that deciding to attend my 40 year school reunion (yes I was a child prodigy and graduated when I was six) filled me and others with trepidation.... until we got there. As soon as I walked in to the old High School gymnasium, I was struck by the warmth and the joy; the genuine enthusiasm with which people greeted each other and the shrieks as people who had lost contact found others from across the far side of the room. You would have been forgiven for thinking we had all been one big happy family. But we hadn't been.

As hard as it is to believe these days, I'd been the only kid in primary school whose parents had divorced. I was taunted mercilessly for coming to school one day with my biological family surname and the next with a new one as my mum's second husband, my dad who is now 88, bless him, adopted my brother and me.

I still get wobbly when I remember how it felt to be told by an HSC girl I barely knew I should check out the secondary school toilets and walked in, alone, to see scrawled across four toilets in black bubble writing which was all the rage: "I hate Leanne Faraday". I don't know if the artist was in the room last Sunday night. It certainly didn't feel like it. In truth, I'll never know and while it was, and still is, a painful childhood memory and may in some unconscious way have helped me find my destiny working in the EEO, diversity and inclusion space, it doesn't define me. It certainly didn't help at the time with the abandonment narrative I had going on which can still bubble to the surface when I get an unkind course evaluation (which thankfully is very rare).

What I choose to remember most about that traumatic experience, one of utmost rejection, confusion, shame and public humiliation is the other side of my strict, gruff French teacher, my convenor that year. The one who always told off Ilana and I for talking through French class. It was to her office I went to sobbing that day, almost unable to get any words out. She got me to sit and softly but resolutely called the cleaner on the spot to make sure the amateur signwriting would come down immediately. She reminded me there are lots of sides to all of us and as the teacher trying to command attention, enforce respect for authority and ensure our vocab and verb conjugation improved, I had only seen one side of her... until then.

The other powerful revelation from Sunday night was the evidence of how much people can change. Some looked the same as they did 30 years ago. Thank goodness for the thoughtful name tags as some I might not have recognised at all. There were those who had hair where there hadn't been any. Predictably, there was the opposite. There was the guy at school who'd been quite overweight and was now slim. A significant number who'd been slim but no longer. There was the school hunk (still gorgeous) who hugged and kissed me warmly. I felt momentarily pathetic registering the thrill of acceptance by someone who wouldn't have looked at me twice back then. And there was the touching memorial to all our missing school chums because it was only the past two reunions where we had the maturity to know this was something we had to do even if it brought down the mood in the room for a short while. It was just decent and right and we'd all been on the planet long enough to know we have to take the bad with the good and that life isn't just beer and skittles or trips to Disneyland or in our case, Skyhooks and Sherbet coming to our school to do lunchtime concerts (although that was amazing and I even wagged an extra 10 minutes of class afterwards because Daryl Braithwaite asked me to get the basketball courts unlocked for a quick game).

There is a golden rule we have in the world of Professional Speakers Australia: Never do therapy from the stage. You might see this piece as breaking that rule. Atypically for me, I'm not going to finish this article with any references to leadership, EEO, culture or high performing teams. But we are all humans. We bring all of ourselves to work whether we are conscious of what's in that briefcase full of baggage we carry with us through life each day or not. The story of last Sunday night was an uplifting, empowering, healing and joyous reminder of many things that I want to carry me to the next reunion and beyond.

They are:

People can learn and grow and mature. They can shift from isolating, ridiculing and humiliating on the differences between us to embracing and acceptance. We can typecast people as being one-dimensional like my gruff French teacher until situations allow for us to see other sides of them. Do we even bother to look for these when the human brain doesn't need to be logical? It just needs to be right. What is the power of one leader to set the tone for inclusion, acceptance and joy? I believe the chief reunion organiser made a large contribution to the atmosphere that was cultivated on the night (OK maybe I am getting close to talking about leadership and culture with that one!)

And finally, how important is it sometimes to take a chance, to back ourselves, to walk into the uncomfortable. To put on our armor and our wrinkle cream. To risk being sad, hurt, reminded, rejected. Indeed to share our most vulnerable experiences and risk others' judgment. I could have stayed away last Sunday night. I'm so glad I went.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fallen Heroes


Image from Shutterstock

It was 2001. I’d gone out on my own a few years before but still did some work through a large training organisation. I confess to being somewhat star struck by the account executive with whom I partnered. She was stylish, confident, resilient, and successful. When I grew up I told myself - I was in my 30s - I wanted to be just like her.

So that particular day, I got a call from a former client of mine from the Bank I’d left to establish Brash Consulting. He “couldn’t promise anything” because they were speaking to other providers too but I’d been highly recommended for design and delivery of a large scale roll-out of Employee Relations training for a major Australian airline. A dream gig doing M.A.D (Make a Difference) work. We made an appointment to meet.
An hour later my “hero” called with the most exciting news. Her RTO had just been invited to pitch for, you guessed it, a large scale ER roll out with an airline and when I was I free to meet them?

I told her I’d already been approached. She sat on the other end of the line silent for what seemed like ages.
To her credit she regrouped quickly to proclaim: “Oh, Leanne. That’s great! When we go in together we’ll have two chances out of three instead of one. Besides, they would surely prefer to go with a big training organisation than a boutique consultancy.”

What was I thinking in that moment? Not necessarily. And the financial implications were hard to ignore as with her I’d be working for less than half the fee charged and I really believed I had as good a chance as aforementioned RTO to win the business. I told her that politely and said I’d need to think about it overnight.
She sounded shocked, but again regrouped quickly to say: "Well, I can’t believe this. To me it’s a no-brainer, but sure. You think about it."

And then came the knife in my heart as she continued: "But of course, if, say, another opportunity came up another time, I’d have to remember that when we had a great chance to work together, you chose not to work with me….."

What did I tell her the next day? That we’d go in together.

Whenever I’ve told that story on the platform, audiences have been shocked!

For those of you who do know me and the work I do, there is no doubt I would do it differently now.

I’d be far less vulnerable to the mother-daughter-disapproval ritual. I would have backed myself, said “No” nicely, and assertively called out the passive-aggressive thinly-veiled threat.

Months later, half way through the roll-out of the 53 workshops I would ultimately run for Ansett (of course it was!) she invited me to pre-Christmas lunch. It was tortuous. I realised the relationship could never recover. The woman I had looked up to, even idolised was a fallen hero.

Some people told me they felt the same way when Wayne "King" Carey cheated on his then wife and even more deeply when he became the subject of domestic violence and assault allegations. I know that Carey has worked hard to rebuild his life and his reputation but for some does the disappointment or the damage ever go away?

A member of my team told me how awestruck she had been by the inspirational wellness blogger, Belle Gibson, until Belle told the Women's Weekly that she'd never had brain cancer so didn’t cure herself and her hapless publisher, her family and the charities she had purportedly raised money for, paid the price.
Having recently dipped back into the fascinating Watergate saga via the phenomenal podcast “Slow Burn” I was struck by how long Richard Nixon supporters stuck by him as John Dean turned, as evidence mounted and Oval Office tapes were released. Deep into 1974, over two years after the infamous break-in on 17 June 1972, one heard a multiplicity of rationalisations from “The President wasn’t involved” to “Everybody does it” to “Remember Chappaquiddick and Teddy Kennedy?"

Neuroscience tells us we need vast amounts of contrary evidence before we’re prepared to shift our position and even then we may move slightly and we may move late.

The human brain doesn’t need to be logical, but it needs to be right.

What are everyday workplace examples in which we give people the benefit of the doubt when there isn’t any? When we rationalise other's behaviour? Or keep saying Yes when we want to say No? Or lose respect for failing to act? Or even become "dazzled" in the shadow of someone else's aura and have others accuse us of denial?

Here are a few.

The employee who’s chronically late and never counselled but brings energy and humour to the place when 
they’re there!

The abrasive worker who is tolerated because they tell people they’re stressed (and might be).

The blaming and shaming boss who continues to wreak havoc because, until and if anyone complains in writing, why bother? (Even with a sneaking suspicion that staff are too scared to complain).

The person with a representative role e.g. social club secretary or footy tipping coordinator, WHS rep or union delegate who spends much of their time not attending to core duties or using their positional power inappropriately.

The friend or family member of someone senior who gets all the opportunities precisely because they’ve got friends in high places. 

The educator with a poor reputation as a lecturer but students say nothing because they’re an easy marker.

The person who engages in unethical practices but brings in significant revenue via questionable means likely 
contrary to the organisation’s stated values.

How might we ensure we’re seeing the picture fully and clearly? That we’re not sitting in denial or delusion?
  • The good old “front page of the paper test”. Would the situation if it was spelt out in public cause us any discomfort or the brand any damage? Think the current ABC crisis!
  • Routinely ask ourselves: Is there something unique here that could be clouding my judgment and making it hard to be objective?
  • Where do other fair-minded and reasonable people sit on this issue? With me or far from it?
  •  If I “subbed out” this person (for whom I have empathy/affection/admiration) and “subbed in” someone else altogether, would I still feel the same way or differently?
  • Is this behaviour analogous or equivalent to other situations we’ve been forced to confront before? What did we do? What is our current 'custom and practice'?
  • What are our stated values and unwritten ground rules? Does this person or their behaviour violate them?
  • Is the justification given for any bad action an explanation or an excuse?
  • Even if I’m prepared to be lenient, generous, compassionate or accommodating in this instance, what are the to-be-anticipated and the potential unintended consequences of my action/inaction? What message do I send? What precedent do I set? (Note, these are not always negative).

Finally, is there a way to metaphorically “have our cake and eat it too"? In our examples, might we show empathy and understanding yet still stand up for great culture, abide by laws and rules and pay homage to values?

A few weeks ago allegations surfaced about an AFL Football player testing positive for illicit drugs. His club came out with a well-rounded and well-delivered message. It said clearly and unequivocally that:
  • the Club would provide all manner of support to their young player knowing that ASADA needed to do its job and that the player could potentially face a ban of several years
  • that the Club respected ASADA’s policies; and
  • there was no widespread problem at the Club.  

We may want heroes, but what we need are role models. To forgive is divine and we must remind ourselves that no-one is perfect, and even more, that humans are exquisitely fallible, but leaders must remember we get the culture we deserve and the behaviour we’re prepared to tolerate.