Natural Consequences Go Both Ways

There is a certain flow to the universe; a balance. When there is an action, a reaction of some kind is sure to follow. A cause has a subsequent effect. And every decision has a consequence. If you poke a hungry, hungry hippo, your arm will get eaten. Similarly, if you decide to skip work for a week without calling in, that promotion you were hoping for isn’t going to happen because, as Arnold once said, “You’re terminated.” 

Each decision has a natural consequence. It’s the way of things. In an organizational context, management practitioners talk about the concept of natural consequences for certain employee behaviors. 

For example, an employee who flat out refuses to work naturally can’t continue his employment. A business needs to make money in order to survive and cannot keep a deadbeat employee on its payroll. A good manager would explain these natural consequences (in much nicer terms, of course).  

I’m a fan of the phrase natural consequences. I much prefer it to “disciplinary action” because the latter implies some sort of parent/child relationship. You don’t discipline other adults. You’re no better than they are. You don’t sit on some higher plane of existence than they do. As your employees, you have an agreement with them, and if either of you fails to live up to your side of the bargain, there will naturally be consequences. However, managers tend to only think of these consequences relative to employee conduct. I can assure you, though, the door of natural consequences swings both ways. And if you’re not careful about treating your employees well, that door will indeed swing back and hit ya right where the Good Lord split ya.

What exactly am I talking about? 

Disengagement. Absenteeism. Presenteeism. Burnout. Turnover. Unionization. Low productivity. Errors and defects. Increased costs. Unhappy customers. Bad publicity. Lawsuits. 

Get the picture?

These are all natural consequences of a negative employee experience. If you bully your employees, overwork them, have unrealistic expectations for them, deny them opportunities for advancement, don’t give them the tools or resources they need, or force them to work in uncomfortable, unsanitary, or dangerous conditions, then something will happen as a result. And it won’t be something you’ll like.

That something might be disengagement or what managers would perceive to be “disloyalty.” 

A few years ago, several DirecTV contractors gave a television interview explaining that the company cut their pay after they were unable to upsell customers a telephone service they did not want. The contractors were subsequently fired for airing their grievances to the public and making the company look bad. A lawsuit led to the National Labor Relations Board stepping in on the contractors’ behalf. The Board ordered DirecTV’s subcontractor, MasTec, to reinstate their employment because they had engaged in what is called “protected concerted activity” to collectively address work conditions. 

The DirecTV contractors hadn’t acted out of malicious spite. They were acting on human nature. It is a natural human response to seek justice when we are wronged. And, as a society, we naturally cannot allow employers to prevent their workers from engaging in activity aimed at improving their working conditions. That’s why we have laws like the National Labor Relations Act.

It seems that there is a double standard in the modern workplace. Employers hold their workforce accountable for production, acceptable conduct, quality, service excellence, loyalty, engagement. Employees’ failure to live up to a certain standard results in consequences. Accountability is unilateral, apparently. Or is it? 

You’re probably familiar with the phrase “shit rolls downhill.” It’s a crude way of saying any abuse, mistakes, poor decisions, senseless processes, and crazy goals eventually make their way down the organizational hierarchy and land squarely in employees’ laps. There are indeed natural consequences for hurling the proverbial “shit” at employees and expecting them just to make the best of it. Natural consequences, in some form or another, hold employers accountable for whatever they send rolling downhill.

Take bullying, for instance. Employees respond to fear-based management in different ways, with passive aggression being one of them. Recent studies have even shown that employees who engage in passive aggressive retaliation — like slowing productivity — against their abusive bosses experience lower stress levels as a side benefit of “sticking it to the man.” There will always be some form of consequence for bad boss behavior, whether that’s withholding discretionary effort, taking more sick days due to stress, or passing the abuse on to customers. Cause/effect. Negative employee experience/natural consequence. 

The takeaway here is to understand that, as an employer, there are consequences for the way your treat your employees. If you mistreat them, they will eventually burn out, check out, act out, step out, or freak out. It’s called being human. As inconvenient a truth it may be, you do business with and work with humans. Employees expect to be treated fairly, with respect and compassion. That’s not unreasonable; it’s only natural. It’s your end of the employment bargain. When you renege on that deal . . . well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

The Bus Metaphor Redux

If you have been in business and, in particular, in management for a certain amount of time, you’ve probably heard of Jim Collins’ seminal bestseller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. The book uses a bus as a metaphor for your organization and tells you that, in order to become great, you must build a great team by getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats, and by getting the wrong people off the bus. Plenty of CEOs have latched onto this concept thinking it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. All you need to achieve greatness for your organization is effective talent management. 

I won’t argue the value of properly attracting, retaining, and leading talent. However (and no disrespect to Jim Collins), the bus metaphor in Good to Great has two massive holes in it: 1) the bus driver, and 2) the bus itself. You can play musical chairs with your bus passengers all the live long day and still not have a truly great organization if you are not also looking at what’s going on with the bus driver and the bus itself. “Jonathan, what do you mean?”, you ask. Okay, let’s have a little fun with this bus metaphor . . .

What if the bus were on fire? What if the bus were driving the wrong way down the street, crashing into cars and scaring little old ladies? What if the wheels were about to fall off the bus? What if it were headed for a cliff? What if there were a bomb on board that was rigged to explode when the bus goes over 50 miles per hour? And when passengers try to warn the driver, all he says is, “You kids better sit down and shut up back there! I’m the one driving this bus!” Maybe the driver is totally incompetent or a psychopath or has a terrible sense of direction. Maybe he’s  been pocketing the bus fares for the last ten years. Maybe the bus driver keeps going in circles and insists he’s right in spite of the persistent warnings from passengers that they aren’t going anywhere. Maybe he throws sharp objects at passengers for being too loud.

Alright, so hopefully you get the point by now: you’re not perfect and neither is your bus. But what happens in the modern workplace when employees voice any concerns or feedback about their organization and its leaders is they get booted off the bus or threatened with the same. Don’t tell the bus driver he’s headed into oncoming traffic or that the brakes are making a funny noise, and certainly don’t cross the white line behind the driver’s seat. Just sit down, shut up, and be grateful for the ride. I’ve seen this over and over again in my own work experiences and in my observations of other companies and leaders. 

One example I use in my book, The Stepford Employee Fallacy, is the Wells Fargo account cross-sell fiasco. A few years ago, Wells Fargo’s CEO set a goal for all bank customers to have at least eight accounts. His mandate was unrealistic and was only based on the fact that the number eight rhymed with “great.” Still, that didn’t stop the bank’s managers from holding employees accountable for opening at least eight accounts per customer. Any employee who raised concerns, expressed dissent, or couldn’t meet the goal was punished. Since the goal could not be met, employees resorted to opening fake accounts for thousands of Wells customers. Of course, when the fraud came to light, the bank found itself in a public relations nightmare and the CEO eventually stepped down (after making millions of dollars while the scandal was going on). The employees who opened the fake accounts lost their jobs, as did many of their colleagues who were brave enough to stand up to their bosses.

In my book, I stress the importance of leaders seeking out and acting upon feedback from their employees. They are the ones who work closest with customers and can tell you whether a particular strategy is realistic or advisable. They are also the ones who make your organization successful. I believe the bus metaphor is flawed, but not just because it ignores the imperfect nature of organizations and their leaders. It is flawed because employees are not passengers on a bus. The word passenger implies someone who has no agency, who is just along for the ride. But organizations need partners in action, not passive riders who have no say. They are on the bus, so that means they have just as much of a stake in its safe and successful travel as you do, perhaps even more so. After all, their lives (or their livelihoods) are in your hands.

It’s true that you need the right people on the bus, but it’s more important that the bus is in good working order, that the bus driver knows what he’s doing, and that he listens when passengers are screaming that he’s about to drive them off a cliff.

#EmployeeEngagement #EmployeeExperience #Leadership #organizationaldevelopment #spreadthetruth

The Stepford Employee Fallacy: The Truth about Employee Engagement in the Modern Workplace is now available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and through other major retailers. Buy direct here:

Diversity is Fine . . . What about Equity?

I was at the gym the other night when I noticed a little person struggling to reach the free weights. At about three feet tall, he could barely see over the top of the weight rack. Luckily, his friend came over, took down a pair of weights for him and he continued his workout.

Looking around, I realized that my gym was not terribly little-person-friendly. The water fountains were average-person height, as were the machines, exercise balls, and cardio equipment. Come to think of it, every gym I’ve ever been to only serves average-sized clientele. If little people want to work out at a gym, it seems they are very limited in what they can do there.

This got me thinking about the way we look at diversity and inclusion. There has been a strong push over the last several years for organizations to attract and retain more diverse talent. But does more diverse really mean more inclusive? What about equity? Does simply hiring minority talent mean they have the same chance to reach their full potential as the majority? Do women, people of color, LGBT, and the differently-abled have an equal shot at success?

I believe we’re on the right track with the best of intentions for a more diverse, inclusive workplace. But I can’t help but wonder how much progress we will ultimately make if we keep the same organizational structures, beliefs, paradigms, and models that have only supported the majority.

Does it make good business sense to implement changes that benefit only a minority of stakeholders? I think so. I think we’d be living in a much better world if we were more accepting of differences; if we worked to ensure everyone has the means and the opportunity to achieve. Don’t you?

Leadership Lessons from ‘The Good Doctor’

I just recently hopped aboard the ‘Good Doctor’ bandwagon and, boy, am I hooked. It’s such a good show! The premise puts an interesting spin on the television medical melodrama formula. It focuses on a very gifted young doctor named Shaun Murphy, who happens to be autistic. He and several other new residents work at the fictional San Jose St. Bonaventure hospital, where they tend to emergency patients, assist with surgeries, and make plenty of mistakes along the way. The hospital President, Dr. Glassman, acts as a mentor for all of the residents and exemplifies what calm, nurturing leadership should look like.

Last night’s episode saw the hospital staff pushed to their limits when a bus crash flooded the ER with dozens of casualties. One patient asks resident Dr. Claire Browne if her wife survived the accident. Upon seeing that she’s not listed on the intake roster and is nowhere to be found in the waiting area, Dr. Browne surmises the woman’s wife is still at the crash site. She locates her in the woods several yards from the bus and determines she has a dangerous brain hemorrhage. After having a breathing tube inserted and the fluid drained from her brain, the patient is transported to St. Bonaventure where an EEG shows zero neural activity: she is deemed brain-dead.

Dr. Glassman catches up with Dr. Browne before she can tell the patient’s wife the devastating news. He asks her whether she checked the patient’s respiration after intubating her. She stumbles trying to remember, explaining her focus was on aspirating the hematoma. Glassman then informs her that she inserted the breathing tube too deep into the patient’s damaged lung causing a lack of oxygen to the brain while she was en route to the hospital. The hematoma did not cause the woman’s brain death; it was Dr. Browne’s mistake that did.

Glassman quietly and compassionately tells Browne what she did and how it affected the patient. But instead of going on to berate her for making an honest mistake, he recounts a story from his own residency in an ER many years before. A patient presented with a bad cough, so he prescribed her antibiotics and sent her on her way. Paramedics brought her back to the emergency room hours later in full cardiac arrest. She was having a heart attack the whole time and he had missed it. She unfortunately died because of his mistake.

This was a perfect example of a leader helping one of his employees learn from a serious mistake while reminding her that we are all human. He didn’t harshly criticize her or go so far as to threaten her employment. This was a teachable experience for her, albeit one with much higher stakes than most any other profession. She understood what she did and the dire consequence it had for her patient. Still, her boss’ intent was to teach her in that moment so she can be a better physician for future patients, not to break her spirit with stern admonition.

The best leaders are not those who bark orders, dole out punishments, and crack the whip when followers step out of line. Holding a leadership position is an honor and a privilege because it gives one tremendous responsibility for developing employees into their best selves. Effective leadership means growing and guiding those in your charge. Leaders lift up their people, especially when they mess up. They even admit their own errors to show that anyone can learn from mistakes and grow to be successful in their careers. Nobody is perfect — not doctors, and certainly not leaders. But both do help the people in their care to overcome imperfections and go on to lead better lives because of their support. I’m excited to see what other leadership lessons Dr. Glassman can teach his residents (and us, the viewers) in upcoming episodes.

The Other, Other ‘B Word’

As an advocate for gender parity and diversity, I strive to broadcast a message about the immense economic potential of advancing women in the modern workplace. Often, my content is couched as a rallying cry for more men to become allies on the journey toward gender equality. Aside from the obvious egalitarian reasons for having more women in leadership, it also makes sense from a purely business standpoint. If organizations had gender-balanced leadership teams and equally valued the contributions of both sexes, they would be better suited to adapt and thrive in a complex, volatile global economy. The advantages of diversity in business have been studied for years and are well-documented: There would be higher employee engagement, less turnover, and greater profitability.

Considering the clear benefits of diverse leadership, why are there still so few women in C-level roles today? Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, founded the Lean In non-profit organization to address this issue, and one of their campaigns is to ban the ‘B word’. No, not the one that rhymes with pitch. The other ‘B word’, bossy, is a term applied to young girls and women who are decisive, confident, and direct in the way they relate to others. It’s a pejorative used to discourage females from acting contrary to societal norms; i.e. that they should be agreeable and docile. Of course the male-driven business model encourages cutthroat competition and a commanding leadership presence, creating a Catch 22 for women who hope to be successful. If they try to fit in as one of the boys, they are perceived as aggressive and difficult. But if they are simply authentic, their kindness and cooperative nature work against them. The Ban Bossy project aims to empower women of all ages so they embrace their innate leadership qualities and are recognized as leaders in their own right. While this is an important effort in the push for gender parity, I worry that the message can be misinterpreted by some women who take it as free license to be the other, other ‘B word’: bully.

I stumbled across a YouTube video secretly recorded by a Georgia middle school janitor as he was being reprimanded by the principal for leaving work 8 minutes early. (You can watch for yourself here.) Throughout the meeting, the principal was rude, condescending, dismissive, belittling, and downright cruel. She repeatedly asked the janitor what his hours were, interrupted him as he attempted to explain the situation, and spoke to him in a manner unfit for conversation between grown adults. It was obvious from her smug demeanor that she was accustomed to using fear and menace to bend employees and students to her will. I’ve worked for and with women like this throughout my career. They either adopt this ‘dragon lady’ persona as a means of survival in a company or industry dominated by men, or it’s just their personality. This management style is unacceptable regardless of a person’s gender, but, as I mentioned before, there’s a double standard for women. They’re damned if they do act like men, and damned if they don’t.

How, then, can we ensure equal representation of women in leadership while discouraging bully behavior? Well, there are plenty of excellent books on the former, so I’ll tackle the latter because I believe bullying is an employee engagement issue, not merely a gender issue.

In my employee engagement practice, I teach managers to embrace a mindset of empathy, curiosity, and humility. Without these virtues, you are a just boss, not a leader. And you certainly won’t earn the respect or engagement of your employees if you forgo true leadership in favor of being a bully.

Empathy is our ability to relate to and feel for others. It’s what makes us human. When we empathize with people and “put ourselves in their shoes”, it causes us to think more carefully about how we behave and speak toward the the individuals in our lives. When meeting with an employee to have a potentially difficult conversation, empathy can make the difference between a mutually acceptable outcome and a result that leaves one party — invariably the lower-ranking person — feeling unheard, disrespected, mistreated, or cheated. Had the principal in the video practiced empathy by asking herself how she would want to be treated if she were the janitor, things would have gone much differently (and saved the school quite a bit of embarrassment).

While empathy means having an open heart, curiosity is keeping an open mind. Being a curious leader requires a willingness, even a desire, to hear positions other than your own. Doing so gives you an opportunity to build stronger relationships with employees. By asking them for their views, their feedback, their stories, and then listening without judgement or interruption, you are positioning yourself as a leader who wants to collaborate on solutions, instead of just bark orders. When leaders curiously listen, they are sending a message that they wish to co-create a positive and engaging employee experience. Woodrow Wilson once said, “The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.” The principal made it clear during her meeting with the janitor that the only voice she cared to hear was her own.

Curiosity also means questioning your motives and behaviors. This takes a high degree of emotional intelligence that comes from being humble. Humility allows us to challenge the ego and make decisions that are more effective in the long run, as opposed to satisfying our own immediate need to feel important. Many people, when given power over others, tend to let it go to their heads at the expense of the relationships with those in their charge. They haughtily believe their management title grants infallibility and deity; that it somehow elevates them to a higher stratum than the peons being managed. But we are all flesh and blood. None of us is any better than the rest. What makes a leader is not her status, nor her ability to control and punish. The measure of a great leader is seen through the eyes of people whose lives are better for having followed her.

In order for us to have an impactful conversation about developing more women into leaders, we need to agree that bullying is the antithesis of effective leadership. We need to hold everyone in management positions, gender notwithstanding, to the highest standards of conduct and preserve the integrity of what it really means to be a leader. It will take a dramatic shift in the business world, one that champions the merits of empathy, curiosity, and humility. To start, those with the power to make this change will have to be another ‘B word’: brave. Courageous leaders — both men and women — must shape the modern workplace into an environment where bullies aren’t welcome, one where success doesn’t come without kindness.

Are White Men Really Losing in the Diversity Game?

I recently gave a talk about employee engagement and organizational culture in Boston. Near the end of my presentation, the topic of gender parity came up for discussion and I shared my thoughts on Massachusetts’ new law (which goes into effect next year) prohibiting employers from asking about a job applicant’s salary history. This is the first statute of its kind in the country and other states are already in the process of passing similar laws. Personally, I think it’s a step in the right direction toward the greater goal of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Women have traditionally been paid less than men in the same role, so lawmakers’ intent is to eliminate this pay gap by requiring employers to compensate workers based on their value, not their previous salary. I feel proud to live in a state that leads the way for diversity, inclusion, and equity because I believe in the importance of all three. Massachusetts has historically been a forerunner for worker and human rights, notably passing the nation’s first minimum wage law which specifically guaranteed women pay commensurate with the cost of living.

Of course, the concepts of diversity and gender parity are not without detractors. After my talk, one of the audience members approached me to express his concerns. There were quite a few more women in attendance at this event, so I wasn’t terribly surprised that he waited until most of the room cleared before sharing his views. The man told me that, after a long career in the tech space, he had come to resent all of the diversity initiatives being foisted upon him and other members of his cohort — highly-skilled, white, middle-aged, men — because they made him feel deprived of opportunity and that his contributions were cheapened. “I’m so sick of this diversity stuff”, he said.

Rather than educate him on the business case for diversity and spark a lengthy debate that would keep me from my lunch (I can get hangry), I decided to take the path of least resistance and just hear the guy out because he seemed dead set on his opinion. I listened to him lament the diversity-driven hiring practices that favored women or minorities over equally qualified white men. He also argued that women taking maternity leave should not be paid as much as men because they aren’t adding the same amount of value to the organization during their absences. As he continued, a thought struck me: Men like the one with whom I was speaking aren’t trying to put anybody down. They just prefer a meritocracy wherein people are rewarded based on what they can do, not what they look like. At best, they simply see no personal value in supporting diversity efforts. At worst, they feel discriminated against when organizations take any kind of affirmative action to elevate marginalized groups of employees.

This all comes down to the challenge of engaging Caucasian males in the push for a more diverse and inclusive modern workplace. Deloitte recently made headlines and raised eyebrows when it announced the dissolution of its Employee Resource Groups. Their objective in doing so is certainly laudable: Bring white men into the diversity conversation by replacing ERGs with inclusion councils to convene employees from disparate backgrounds, including senior executives. That way everyone can gather and discuss how the organization could better serve diverse talent and customer bases. But will it work? I used to co-lead a Women & Allies ERG, and I will admit that both interest and impact among men were pretty low. So maybe it is time to rethink the way we foster diversity and inclusion.

A good place to start is taking a look at the concerns white men are raising. There’s a lot to unpack just from my relatively brief conversation with the man at the event. For example, let’s follow his train of thought about maternity leave and pay equity a bit further. What if a woman isn’t pregnant when she’s hired? Should she still be paid less based on the possibility that she might get pregnant and take a leave of absence down the road? If she chooses to have a family, should she be deemed less eligible for a promotion because her commitment to the company seems lacking? What if her husband decides to take paternity leave while she goes back to work right away? Should his pay get docked? What about a man who plans to adopt and needs to take time off from work to bond with his child? The argument that women should be paid less or treated less-favorably because they have child-rearing responsibilities just doesn’t hold up. It oversimplifies a very complicated issue and puts people in the unfair position of having to choose between job and family.

Still, thoughtful examination won’t necessarily stop white men from feeling like they are somehow being slighted by all this focus on diversity. There are plenty of reasons behind their resistance, such as men’s propensity, on average, toward being competitive and not wanting to lose their position in a hierarchy. Whatever the cause, it’s important to involve them in the process and help them understand that diversity and inclusion are meant to benefit everyone, not unfairly give preference to one group over another. Perhaps Deloitte is in the right vicinity, if not on the right track, with its new D&I strategy. Discussions about issues pertaining to diversity shouldn’t be relegated to peripheral interest groups who haven’t the captive audience nor the organizational clout to make a difference. Those at the top (roughly 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men) must be involved and invested. It’s simply a fact that diversity is and should be a critical priority in today’s ultra-competitive, hyper-connected business climate. Consumer preferences can ebb and sway, leaving rigid, old-school companies unprepared to respond. Businesses need new and different perspectives to stay relevant. They need a diverse workforce to survive.

I once had a manager who told me “Business is all about relationships.” It really is. The relationships a business forges with its customers are crucial; that’s a given. But first leaders have to establish and nurture relationships with the people who connect the business with its customers: its employees. Diversity isn’t about reaching quotas or excluding members of a certain group. It’s about cultivating an environment that attracts and engages the best talent from all walks of life. It involves building strong relationships with those employees so they feel inspired to help their company thrive in a complex and diverse global economy. That’s how the best organizations will win. And who doesn’t like winning?

You Can Lead a Horse to Water… But Can You Make an Employee Engaged?

There’s an old proverb used by many to describe the leader/follower dynamic with respect to employee engagement: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” This is a way of saying ultimately people will only do what they choose, even if you show them the way. In other words, just as a horse has to choose to drink, an employee must choose to be engaged.

Well, yes and no. Getting the horse to drink is the desired outcome, but what happens up to and during that point will influence his willingness to do so.

  • If you’ve been running the horse ragged without any time to recuperate, he won’t have the energy to make it to water.
  • If you’ve been shouting at the horse and beating him with a stick, he won’t trust you no mater where you’re trying to lead him.
  • If the terrain is rocky and you force him to walk in busted, rusty horseshoes, he isn’t going to be all that thrilled about going the distance.
  • If you feed the horse 1 pound of oats a day when he really should be getting 3 pounds, he’s going to focus on finding food elsewhere instead of following you.
  • If the water is polluted or tastes funky, the horse isn’t going to drink.

Here’s what I’m getting at: If the employee experience at your organization sucks, employee engagement isn’t likely to happen. Too many leaders fall into the trap of thinking a lack of engagement is the employee’s fault; that they’re choosing not to be engaged. Take a good look at what it’s like to work for you before making that judgement. And start with the basics — a reasonable workload, an empathetic leadership style, effective tools to get the job done, fair pay, and a healthy work culture. Then make adjustments if anything is wrong. As a leader, it’s your job to create an employee experience that makes them want to go above and beyond.

Horses need to be enticed, not forced, to drink water. What kind of employee experience are you creating, and is it enough to entice engagement? Remember, employees don’t engage themselves. Leaders engage employees.