Friday, June 1, 2018

Damned If You Do and Slammed if you Won't

On my morning jog yesterday, I listened to a heartbreaking This American Life podcast entitled Damned if you Do. It poignantly portrayed the story of a Somalian refugee interned in Dadaab, Kenya who was ultimately compelled to return to war-torn Somalia because the only way to pay the debt to the store owner accumulated trying to feed her children, was to accept the $450 incentive payment to return to her country of origin. She then pushes almost all the money she's just been given through the cyclone fence at the airstrip to the sympathetic but desperate Dadaab store owner, boards a plane with two of her children for Mogadishu; the city she'd fled, again broke and imperilled.

Thankfully, in our civilised democratic country, few situations will ever compare to the type of gut-wrenching decision this mother had to make but I can't help thinking that we're living in a time where women are wrestling with their own version-lite of Damned if You Do and the sceptics, the victim shamers and the misogynists have come out to play.

Amidst this revolution to which we all bear witness, where any contemporary business publication we read is crowded with discussion about gender equity, diversity, meritocracy, the patriarchy, feminism, wage parity, targets and quotas, we see a myriad of perspectives and many are prima facie, reasonable. The truth is that there are thirty shades of context, perspective, dynamic tension and dilemma (i.e. unsolvable problems) that don't sit tidily in a box for all of us to gift wrap and present to those who would seek clarity. And indeed the more we apply reductionist theories to such intricate dilemmas, the more our positions reek of undisclosed bias.

To be brutally honest, exploring the issues around this is difficult and dangerous; open to interpretation and mischief, conscious and unconscious bias, good intention in some and underhanded yet unspoken desire to see women fail in others. And yes, some of those who wish to see women fail, are women. It's really uncomfortable to contemplate that and even more disquieting to talk about it.

A very uncomfortable truth is that a small but destructive percentage of the population at large, not complainants per se, are immoral, untruthful, jealous, vengeful. Some of them may be motivated by attention-seeking, some pathologically so. How else do we explain trolling? Some break implicit and explicit promises to privacy. Just ask AFL footballers! And some are sadly, unscrupulously opportunistic. There I said it. Remember the author who reportedly made money off vulnerable sick people by claiming to have cured herself of cancer?

Even if we acknowledge that dark underbelly of human behaviour in such a small sliver of the population, is it fair that any sexual harassment victim has to worry people will judge her through this lens? Dammed if she does. And what swift and public condemnation of anyone who doubts her or is perceived to blame her? In the recent case of EY, it appears this may have been handled poorly, but when we're dealing with perceptions, can we assume every complaint of unlawful behaviour must surely be true and every respondent surely "guilty as charged"? Sure I see some cases of staff believing they're being bullied when it's probable they're being reasonably performanced-managed. And even when we do perceive wrongdoing in sexual harassment grievances (and in my 25 years consulting in this space, often where there's smoke there's fire), how do we remain calm and objective, taking matters seriously without taking sides, coming to "The Truth" as best we can and perfecting the proportional response, including the communication around it?

A common current objection is that if the behaviour was unwelcome, why do some women take so long to complain about alleged sexual harassment? We know why. Fear of victimisation for complaining, lack of awareness that such behaviour actually constitutes sexual harassment, despairing resignation to established cultural norms are but a few. She's damned if she doesn't or if she does slowly. And let's not disregard the challenge for men subjected to unwelcome sexual attention by women. Many blokes would get elbowed in the ribs by buddies asking them what was wrong with them. The biased assumption being any sexual attention by a woman to a (straight) man must surely be welcome. 

Some women (and men) trade on their good looks and sexuality. They flirt. They accommodate. Maybe, some of us will concede grudgingly, targets merely tolerate unwelcome attention but their willingness to be 'objectified' undermines the cause and denies opportunities to those who might have earned opportunities on merit. This is a simple, oft-expressed and convenient notion. But what if the behaviour started in a "lesser" form, has continued to escalate and that what was viewed as mildly annoying, uncomfortable but tolerable has morphed into something far more intimidating and noxious? We will all have our own threshold - over which we may break... or speak. 

Here's another Catch 22. I think we're pretty well aware these days of the double standard that can operate in how women are perceived vis a vis male counterparts enacting the same behaviours. This bias isn't always vindictive yet it is heavily socialised. So is the narrow view (sometimes unconscious) still held by some that the hero leader; male, pale, stale, authoritative, above average height and looks (should I go on?) is the best version of a leader. By definition women can't be that. Many won't want to be that and is that what's needed anyway? Brad Pitt was a good Achilles but this is not Troy!

What about the ugly truth of women who kick the ladder out from under them after they climb it. Shouldn't they know better? Shouldn't they be better than that? Well I know I feel a lot better when I'm sugar free but that didn't stop me having lemon tart at lunch yesterday. While I won't condone ladder kickers, many men won't ever truly understand what it's like to be crippled by the scarcity mentality; the perception that there are still so few senior opportunities for women that the only competition they see is... another woman. And, as Sheryl Sandberg said in "Lean In" with research to prove it, it's a crime for a woman to be ambitious. And do we even have a name for the men that elbow other men out of the way for an opportunity or over inflate their abilities shamelessly to win jobs they can't really perform? No, because men are expected by the historical laws of nature and tradition to go out there and kill that bear. 

Not all men want us to fail. Some women will have wonderful male mentors and advocates. It doesn't hold those women must graciously seize their opportunities. They have the right to decide they're not prepared to make the familial sacrifices required; hence they run into "the maternal wall" or refuse to fight harder than senior men for respect and stay put ("the sticky floor") or spend their day getting concussion hitting "the glass ceiling". And even if they can transcend such barriers, they must now be on the lookout for "the glass cliff"; the hazardous possibility they've been offered the role leading a company in crisis. It may be true the company needs a radically different leader than her predecessor and she fits the bill. But if she takes the role, she's courageous at best and naive at worst. If she declines it, she's "ungracious" or plagued with fear this as the only chance she was going to get and she blew it. If she takes it and it all goes pear-shaped, does she ride out the storm, brace for the risk of a public flogging at the shareholder AGM or put the company and her reputation first by jumping before she's pushed? Damned again.

Diverse boards are statistically shown to be more successful. It doesn't automatically hold that diversity equals competence. In a world typified by long term systemic direct and indirect discrimination against women and other minorities, how do they harness the experience they have not been given the opportunity to acquire? It's not reasonable to hold women who lead troubled organisations to a different (read as harsher) standard nor let them off the hook by labelling anyone who holds them to account as automatically sexist.

Will we look back in ten years and say, in words inspired by Paul Keating that this was the bumpy, fraught, messy, ambiguous watershed moment we had to have? Yes. The circumstances by which we got to robust discussions about sexual harassment, power imbalance and even consenting workplace relationships may have been ignited by three men (Harvey Weinstein, Roy Price, Louis CK) and a baby (Joyce/Campion), but get here we did. Let's give ourselves permission, men and women alike, to navigate this confusing moment in gendered history imperfectly. What's the best we can hope for? Trying to get it right most of the time. Until when? Until such time as gender blindness, true meritocracy, work-life integration, intimate relationships protocols and boardroom diversity are as natural as breathing.

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?