Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Even Darker Side of Sexual Harassment

It was 1993. I returned from maternity leave to my big bank employer and walked into a firestorm. The bank was facing the single biggest case of gender discrimination in this country until the David Jones saga would eclipse it almost 20 years later. The Executive finally realised we needed to change the culture of the bank. As a learning and development specialist, I put my hand up to help. I hung out with clever people from Freehills, the bank's lawyers, and attended courses on Anti-Discrimination Law. I studied unfair dismissals legislation which had only just been introduced at federal level and no-one knew how the Commission would apply it. And I devoured landmark cases as determinations were handed down. Anyone from back then would remember the infamous "flight attendant's case".

One landmark case in the Federal Human Rights Commission would haunt me forever. Faatupunati vs. Balaskas; a case so old, I can’t find a link to it. But it represented one of the most horrific abuses of power I could recall that fell short of rape.

A supervisor in a manufacturing company was found to have pressured an immigrant single mother, a casual worker, to meet him at the local motel and have sex with him or be taken off the work roster. Mercifully, someone at work found out. Ms Faatupunati got an interpreter and some advice. While the organisation Balaskas worked for could not find reliable evidence of any wrongdoing when they investigated, it appears the Commission found it easily enough. Of significance was the still rare view formed by the Commissioner that the company could not reasonably have foreseen, much less encouraged such behaviour and would not be held vicariously liable. The supervisor himself was fined around $63,000, surely a pittance for the magnitude of his reported abuse of trust and power.

How might we compare and contrast this case with more contemporary #MeToo cases of sexual harassment?

Not all cases of sexual harassment are typified by the crass "grope and hope" methodology though some are and these would probably constitute sexual assault, not only sexual harassment. Most cases of sexual harassment fall short of criminality. The stereotypical harasser drinks too much at functions, losing inhibition and judgment. But in so many cases, the oft-unreported cases, the really insidious, manipulative characters target specific individuals - not necessarily because they’re ‘attractive’, but because they’re single (with no-one at home to complain to), junior and/or new to the business or the industry. The targets of these devious harassers are often vulnerable. They’re longing for a break and/or short of money. The harasser offers them a break, a job, a favour, an introduction, maybe even special attention; attention which might be genuinely appreciated, at least for a while. Accusations against Don Hazen of AlterNet exactly fit this profile. Some targets may feel uncomfortable but may rationalise that it would be ungracious to rebuff the senior partner in their silent power play. They may find the initial attention or care flattering or endearing. They might be told, yes, by women and even by family members that there is something sadly inevitable about such behaviour; that it's "rife" in their industry, that they shouldn't do anything to jeopardise their jobs because good jobs are so hard to come by. And in the worst, most subversive and psychologically abusive cases, targets may protest and be told they've misread the situation, that they risk victimisation and isolation for making waves or that they must surely have done something to encourage unwelcome attention. Let's ponder that. How does one encourage uninvited attention that by definition must be unwelcome? Is that not the blackest con of all?

I've spoken with many women and men since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have gathered momentum and the common but sometimes glib objection/suspicion is why the victims (almost exclusively women) often take so long to speak up?

In some cases they didn't even know the treatment they received and the way it made them feel was sexual harassment, particularly in environments where sexualised or gender-based behaviour was normalised. In some situations, even if they realised they had been groomed as a forerunner to actual harassment, they may have had no confidence a complaint would do any good and in many cases had every reason to believe complaining would go against them. And it is this fear of complaining and the lack of trust and confidence employees may have in being heard and abuses acted upon that probably serves to silence them (for a time or forever). Why do we hear too often about these allegations as people are walking out the door?

But for actual employers and the media, the sexualised nature of the conduct often takes centre-stage and eclipses reflection and discussion on the contextual or systemic factors that enable such behaviour to occur and often to continue. Many manipulative, wilfully targeting perpetrators who are prepared to exploit a sexist employer/employee imbalance of power are serial harassers.

While Casual Friday, fresh fruit, bean bags and billiard tables might all be well received, our biggest obligation to our people is to make them feel safe to speak up and speak out, no matter where they sit on the org chart. The worst harassers aren’t like the rest of us, that is, good people behaving badly. They are predators.

Whilst always assuring natural justice and resisting the overreaction, companies must find the courage to dismiss perpetrators of serious harassment. This immediately cuts risk and recalibrates culture. It is also worth noting that trial by media should not become the method by which justice is served. Again, trust and confidence in the willingness of an organisation's leadership to listen and investigate no matter how unpleasant or inconvenient, is the best safeguard against targets and victims taking their grievances and their trauma to be tried in the court of public opinion with the Twitter-verse as their testimony.

A disturbing short film that depicts this subversive dynamic stars David Schwimmer (yes, from Friends) and can be found here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

CBA: The two-edged sword of comfort and cohesion

It was 2004. I was conducting a workshop with the top 200 Australia managers for a global sporting brand. I’d done my homework. I‘d interviewed suppliers, retailers, consumers. There was a need for them to lift their game. Retailers were angry about the supply chain and unreliable and inaccurate orders. Suppliers felt bullied. Consumers loved the shoes and hated the apparel. So you can imagine my interest when the participants arrived for our two days together. They were friendly, they were fun and most certainly collegiate. But the casual and formal conversations reeked of complacency and their views on their global rival, their biggest competitive threat, were out of kilter with the current reality and especially stakeholder frustrations. 

Presenting to them on my ‘discoveries’ and the offhand, almost defensive reactions of some of those managers was more than disappointing. I’ll admit I had a lump in my throat as it dawned on me that most of them just didn’t get it. I registered the irony of feeling vulnerable myself even though I knew they were in far more trouble than me.  Now I understand through the brilliant work of Heifetz and Linsky, I had “turned up the heat” on them and rather than accept the gift they were given by external stakeholders and not wanting to turn on each other, they attempted to shoot the messenger instead. 

Reading about APRA’s report on the Commonweath Bank yesterday, has taken me back there. In many ways the CBA has outperformed its rivals. We just have to look at their share price as one indicator. They’ve purportedly had the best technology, high engagement and strong leadership. But what they seem to have failed to do is to strike a balance between collegiality/culture and good outcomes. When an organisation is riding a crest of a wave that seems like it will go forever, how does it ensure employees including executives maintain focus, strive for continuous improvement and ensure they don’t start taking their customers for granted? They cannot afford to assume like my iconic sporting brand or any AFL Football Club that decides to forget its members by immersing itself in a ‘bubble’, that their followers will always be there - no matter what they do, no matter how those customers or members are treated. 

All emotions have a vast range of intensities. In the mildest form of negative attention, companies can feel indifference towards customers. But in its most acute form, reflecting of superiority, this lack of respect is exemplified in disdain, even contempt. I don’t believe many at CBA were necessarily conscious and intentional in their disrespect to some customers. Over time some of them, with no knowledge or intervention by executive leaders became habituated to decisions that after a while didn’t seem so bad. Indeed strategically we know that where shareholder return is exalted and certain KPIs result in fat bonuses, we can predict the behaviours that will follow. When self-interest melds with organisational interests in a harmonious workplace, people stop questioning. There’s no one to play devils’ advocate and any outlier who does, gains little traction with unpopular ways of thinking.   

According to APRA, in certain practices, the CBA lost its humanity and its ethical compass. Paradoxically, just as people may feel unsafe to ‘upstand’ in the worst of cultures that are physically or psychologically unsafe, they can learn not to question unethical and unempathic decisions, individual and organisational, when they like and trust those who make them.  

Yes, CommBank rode the crest of a wave for a long time. However there comes a time in the life of any surfer when they face the wipe out and get unceremoniously dumped. It’s often not fatal but it leaves then winded and wounded. CommBank will have to face the harsh truth of its culture and whilst legitimately continuing to acknowledge its success and lots of things that were done right, it can expect in its people an identity crisis, some grief, some necessary hypervigilance about processes and protocols and an unfamiliar struggle with humility and apology. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Going for Gold: What can our Aussie Athletes teach us about leading and sustaining high performing teams?

Image from Getty

Yes we’ve seen the Aussies dominate in the pool; Cate Campbell making a comeback since Rio and her sister Bronte deservingly having her time in the spotlight as she took out the 100m freestyle title. We’ve seen the Boomers swish their way to the top, and gymnasts Alex Eade and Christopher Remkes execute gold-medal winning routines. And we’ve been witness to the heartbreak and the sheer display of resilience and embodiment of sportsmanship as we watched the disqualification of Claire Tallent whilst leading the 20km women’s walk, to collapse to the ground in tears, and minutes later, to make her way to the finish line and cheer on fellow Aussie Jemima Montag.

After 11 days of competition involving 71 nations across 25 events (including para events), the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games offers a fascinating workplace parallel into how we lead and sustain high performing teams:

1. Organisations must have a clear vision. Organisations need to start with the vision of goals including desired culture at the forefront. Whether it's winning a championship, maximising profitability or developing talent to become the future leaders of the organisation, people need to 'get it'; not just intellectually but how it is to be embodied behaviourally.

2. Organisations must remember to inspire their people about their purpose and successfully attach a social or moral cause to its strategic goals. People have to connect emotionally with the why behind what they do. That is, they need to be ‘moved by it’ and inspired to lead and drive action. Too often organisations dwell on what has to happen i.e. business results and forget to emphasise why it matters. When athletes are selected to represent their country, the 'cause' is self evident. How many spoke about the incredible support competing 'at home' as a driver for our best success ever.

3. Whatever the organisation’s code, their people need to 'live by it'. Once the organisation's vision and purpose has been established, leaders need to be clear about the expected behaviours to follow. How does your organisation continue to demonstrate that it will not tolerate 'below the line' behaviour? Traditional management techniques are great if you want compliance. If you want engagement, self-direction and employees who show initiative, tangible and intangible 'tools' to succeed in their role, work better. Create a supportive culture in which giving and receiving feedback is the norm and employees feel safe enough to have the tough and courageous conversations. Invest in leadership development, in attracting and retaining talent, building resilience, emotional intelligence and the desire for innovation within leaders (all of which are prized commodities being talked around right now). However, all of this doesn't mean a high performance culture has to be built from scratch. Nick Kyrgios and the Australian Swim team are vivid examples of how underperforming individuals and teams demonstrating 'below the line' and counterproductive workplace behaviours can change.

4. Break past habits, challenge 'old world' thinking, be bold. As the old saying goes, where there's a will, there's a way! Inspire the team (and its audiences) through appreciation and accommodation of difference. How inspiring and infinitely do-able was it to integrate other-abled and para events? Certainly easier that producing a compelling and heart-warming closing ceremony it would appear, judging by the backlash!

5. Organisations need to develop a growth mindset and foster resilience. We may have a 'default' mindset but we can choose to develop it. Carol Dweck’s research on Mindset has shown that adopting a growth mindset (believing that your abilities aren’t ‘fixed’ and can improve) is a key element to achieving success. We saw Cate Campbell crumble under the pressure of a fear to fail at the Rio Olympics. This was a different Cate just now. How the organisation defines and rewards this success can shape how employees respond to failure and mistakes; that is what is praised and reinforced develops or impedes the growth of resilience and willingness to innovate/try new things especially when there's no guarantee of success or worse, there is fear of failure.

Being resilient requires us to work through challenges and adversity. Studies have shown that the specific personality trait of hope is a key predictor for resilience. Mentally tough or hardy individuals seem to:

a) Believe they can. This is not arrogance but high self-belief.

b) Have high confidence in their ability to navigate obstacles that arise whilst working towards achieving goals. This is high self-efficacy.

c) When a crisis strikes, they accept the fact that stuff happens and kick into problem solving mode quickly. They push the reset button and exhibit high 'bounce-backability'. 

So, as an organisation, how energised are you towards achieving your goals? What is the path or multiple paths to getting there? Have you identified them clearly? And if so, what strategies are you going to put in place to ensure that you and your team can achieve them?

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Perfect Case Study for Transition through Change

You don't need me to comment further on the factors - cultural ("win at all costs/god complex"), interpersonal (team cohesion/loyalty) and intrapersonal (seething rage/resentment in a natural born fighter like David Warner) that I believe catalysed the biggest scandal in Australian Sporting history since an underarm bowling action. I've done so on radio in the last week and in my latest LinkedIn post.

However, more fascinating to me now is the clear depiction by David Warner and Steve Smith navigating the four Stages of Transition in change and grief so publicly over the past three weeks.

We saw the shock, numbness, even surreal detachment of Warner in Denial before the full weight of what he'd done descended on him.

We saw the resolute Resistance to being drawn in discussion on what happened and the delayed somewhat hollow and repetitive apology for "his part" in the saga.

Then we heard the hints about an appeal as he considered his options. His age was relevant. He is 31. Would he be able to play county cricket in England? Was there any chance he could still play in India or salvage some of his remaining sponsorship deals if he didn't appeal? How would he be judged by Cricket Australia  and indeed the whole of Australia if he appealed the CA ban? We can only imagine the classic overwhelm and uncertainty he probably felt as people can do in the Exploration phase as he weighed up various options, had to decide whose advice to take (particularly after the involvement of the publicist, Roxy Jacenko backfired so badly). He would have noted the public's growing empathy for Steven Smith and their continued vitriol towards Warner for involving Bancroft in his duplicity and being the only one to "bat on" when he'd allegedly been the mastermind.

Ultimately he decide to cop it sweet and we knew he was in Commitment phase; forced to accept the full weight of his actions while he thinks about his immediate future and Cricket Australia examines how this could have happened and how they rebuild the culture in an era where just performing well is not enough if behaviour is questionable, even reprehensible.  

Friday, April 6, 2018

No Room to Field Bad Behaviour

This week we've seen it plastered across headline after headline. We've read the stories about Darren Lehmann claiming he had no idea what was going on and whilst I have to say I believe him (based primarily on his unprintable expletive-laden enquiry of Peter Handscomb when he saw the disturbing vision of Cam Bancroft) , this doesn't excuse him. We've seen Steve Smith authentically 'own' his error in judgment, take full responsibility as captain and apologise for his mistakes. We've seen Cricket Australia swiftly remind the senior coach that the ball tampering happened on his watch, run a speedy but seemingly adequate investigation and determine their version of the punishment that fits the crime.

So, what are some key learnings we can draw from the Australian Cricket Team scandal? We can determine a healthy culture from a potentially toxic one by three distinguishing features:

1. Whether or not any unethical behaviour is committed at all. Does someone do something in the organisation that others wouldn’t dream of doing in theirs? (Think allegedly widespread unethical loan practices in some major banks).

2. If someone does play up, is it 'called'? Does the organisation turn a blind eye to the behaviour, explain it away or unwittingly condone it through inaction? Are there situations where people are not able to speak up for the moral cause because it will immediately isolate them as "wooses", the vice police or worst of all, not "team players"?

3. Is what's committed ever 'consequenced'? We get the culture we deserve; we get the behaviour we are prepared to tolerate. Every example of unethical behaviour shapes culture. If enough people are condoning and enabling this within an organisation, we have a self-perpetuating system.

In view of the above, leaders need to learn quickly and with humility (particularly from mistakes - theirs or others’). They need to summon courage, glean the facts and circumstances, exhibit mental toughness or bounce back-ability and to quote my beloved "West Wing" enact the proportional response.

Leadership is like parenting. Others learn from us when we want them to. They learn from us when we don’t. People need to know what it is they are expected to do. They need a clear understanding of what the alternative way of ‘being’ actually is. And actions speak louder than words. One can say, ‘I care about the fairness of sport’ and/or 'I care about our brand'. But what are they doing about it? They can apologise for their actions but that doesn't erase the wrongdoing or explain the factors that gave rise to it in the first place? Of course, they might deeply regret what they've done and promise it will never happen again, but in a practical sense, what catalyses their next action and how do we ensure they don't regress in another high stakes moment? The Ashes against England? Reporting the company financials ahead of merger negotiations?

We are seeing more signs that high performing and professional sporting teams want to jealously guard good culture and continue to demonstrate they will not tolerate 'below the line' behaviour. They know that caring about the brand is more than on field performance. The clubs would no sooner want a pre-season sex scandal as dismal match day performance in the first three rounds. In fact, for brand impact, the scandal would be worse. Whatever the organisation’s code or set of trademark behaviours, their people need to ‘live by it’. Every organisation has their rainmaker, their number one sales person, their talented high profile star but what price is the organisation paying if it continues to tolerate or tacitly condone cheating, bullying, sexual harassment or any other form of counterproductive workplace behaviour? What message does it send to clients, suppliers, sponsors, members and “players” when the end justifies any means? As I said on radio last week, we can explain David Warner's seething rage over several weeks driving a desperation to beat South Africa and resulting in the collective ball brainfade of Smith, Warner and Bancroft. But if Warner wasn't encouraged as the resident team "attack dog", if Smith hadn't struggled to control his talented yet most maverick player, if the culture enveloping the team wasn't so "whatever it takes", I dare say all three players would be gearing up for a productive and lucrative cricket season in the IPL.

Whether it's sporting clubs, the boiler room, the boardroom or anything in-between, organisations need to create the optimal environment for success. It must know its enabling critical success factors and actively work to remove impediments to that success. Being clear, intentional and consistent about the vision and the expected behaviours to go with it are hallmarks of enlightened organisations serious about sustained success and 'premier' reputation.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Storytelling as an Influence Strategy

In the space of a work week we may find ourselves having to shift from trainer, to facilitator to keynoter to consultant; making allowance for varying paradigms of power, presence and expertise and perpetually judged by how well we do that. Yet with the challenge, the responsibility, the skills, patience, energy and empathy required comes an extraordinary privilege. Whether it is a two-hour Special Interest Group session or a certificate program, those participants entrust their learning to us. We know they are ultimately accountable for their own development. Yes, we could theoretically do a brilliant job with a closed learner and make no difference to their lives. However if we can’t establish credibility, an open safe environment, if we create confusion rather than clarity, we have abused the privilege. Thus it behooves us not to be good, but great.

Greatness in the training room is not about the quality of the materials or technological wizardry but the ability to capture interest, create relevance and insight and develop “skills for Monday” – sure signs of learning. 

One way to stimulate learning is to use story. Every participant comes with a story. Some of the most vivid stories are the ones that bring them to us cynical and dejected, even fearful of what they might learn. And if we are apathetic towards their stories we are throwing mud against the wall in the hope some of it will stick. We will use story to establish credibility. Even self-deprecating facilitator introductory stories are designed to break down barriers and demonstrate self-awareness and humility such that groups will warm to us.

Participant introductions, however unimaginative, are opportunities for them to share some small figment of their personal and professional story. Twenty participants may come from 20 organisations and that number of professional backgrounds. How we do help them find common ground and shared meaning? We can tell stories and encourage them to do the same such that they can place themselves in the stories and find inspiration and discipline to try new things. Analogy, metaphor, values through action and third person stories are subtle and indirect ways of asking people to confront fears, change attitudes and behaviours without platitudes or bullying.

How often have we done our homework on a group and told stories that packed a punch “without looking at anyone in particular”. How easily could we otherwise sell messages like: “We think your boss probably sent you because you have poor people skills” or “You are so arrogant, it’s no wonder the older experienced staff in your workplace won’t share anything with you". Far better to tell a story about some mythical person out there and weave a spell around a situation that punches participants in the stomach without any risk of an assault charge!! We don’t need them to own up to us but to themselves.

So that stories are not accompanied by a cringe factor, they must be authentic. One way to do that that is to make sure they’re our own. And if ours aren’t good enough, only use the best and acknowledge the source! By incorporating story telling into our repertoire we further the possibility of being true unlockers of (not onlookers to) human potential.