Tag Archives: organizational dynamics

Aliens at Work

7 Dec

A version of this post was also published on the Executive Elements blog earlier this year.

At work, we can sometimes sense that we’ve been dropped onto an alien planet. I’m very fortunate to be working for and with people who are from “my planet,” but I’ve been in places that felt alien.

Don’t think you’re alone if you find yourself pondering:

  • What is this strange language that’s being spoken, and why don’t I understand it? Will they understand me if I say, “Plergh?”
  • Why are decisions made without any seemingly rational train of thought?
  • Is this a bad dream, or am I really awake?
  • Where’d I park my mother ship? I need to get back to Earth!

If you’re having these feelings, don’t despair. We’ve all been there. Every workplace can be awkward or downright difficult at times. Even the most healthy workplaces have their moments.

But if there’s a pattern of dysfunctional behavior, recognize it and take stock. In some sense, it’s all relative. Each of us has a different tolerance to workplace problems like aggression, passive aggression, professional neglect, workplace bullying or general incompetence. One person’s abyss is another’s heaven.

Don’t accept unreasonable behavior that jeopardizes your career growth or negatively impacts your ability to perform. Work is hard — that’s why it’s called work. But it should not kill your soul.

I’ve realized over the years that I have a high tolerance for environments that are not conducive to human life. Out of loyalty or pride (“I won’t give up!”), I’ve let myself suffer for too long at times. Don’t make that mistake.

If you are caught in the alien planet dilemma, here are some survival skills:

  1. PERSPECTIVE – Talk with someone outside of work about your situation. They can help you to get some perspective.
  2. CAMARADERIE – Blow off steam over lunch or coffee with a coworker that you trust. Chances are if you are feeling off about something at work, you’re not the only one. Don’t wall yourself off from your colleagues and make yourself feel more isolated. By commiserating, you may also find some humor in the madness.
  3. STAY POSITIVE – I remind myself that having a positive attitude and healthy self-esteem can’t change other people’s problems. What it can do is to help keep my head clear and my heart clean while seeking out what’s next.

Remember that it’s possible — and preferable — to thrive in the workplace. While it says something about a person’s endurance and fortitude to be able to to survive in challenging conditions, sometimes enough is enough.

Over time, I’ve realized that it’s important to go with my gut instincts when I start feeling as if things just aren’t right. A decision to move on when the time is right is not a failure. It is simply a decision to make a change.

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Smart Leadership is Social

5 Dec

Image: Ian Kahn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As I continue to read the Steve Jobs biography, two things are clear to me:

  1. Steve Jobs was a genius. He could envision the market demand for the substance of what his developers could build, and his product marketing skills delivered it with style.
  2. Steve Jobs was able to motivate his team intellectually, but often his social deficiencies worked against greater accomplishment. Bullying and berating his people had to create an organizational black hole of missed opportunities.

In my own experiences and through what I hear from others, in particular those of us in the creative class of workers, having a socially intelligent leader is critical. Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis describe the concept in this Harvard Business Review post.

Socially intelligent leadership can leverage the intellectual capacity of teams, and enhance that capacity by upping everyone’s game through social connectivity. This means that each team member is given permission to perform to their fullest potential–and they are also encouraged to work WITH one another to push that potential into the unexpected. This type of innovative teamwork delivers disruptive innovation. When teams are led by someone with social intelligence, they create products and services that take their craft to the next level.

Let me give a couple of examples.

1. This first example comes from state government–shocking, I know. While working at the Ohio Department of Education, I was on a team assigned with creating a  report card to inform parents how their child’s school was doing on key performance indicators.

This was a new concept and required the team to tap into design, copywriting, and technology that would deliver thousands of these reports–each unique to a school–in such a way that parents would care to read them. Our leader helped us to imagine what the reports could be, and she created a team environment where we were free to put our all into delivering the reports we envisioned. She was not dictatorial. She asked more questions than she answered. She lifted us up when we made mistakes and thought we couldn’t do it. And she celebrated our successes with us along the way and when we did deliver the reports, on budget and on time.

2. My second example is from my current workplace, a nonprofit focused on educational transformation for schools. There’s a lot of innovation going on here. My role is a combination of client-facing and internal strategy support. The creative in me enjoys having the time and space to roll up my sleeves and “make stuff” (which for me means writing and doing information design) that is useful to internal and external clients.

My leader in this setting is an ace at managing demands and matching the best people to excel in meeting those needs. There’s been more than one situation where my big ideas have gotten the best of me. I have a tendency to “think big” and not consider the time commitment I’ll need to make to get to “big.” She knows this tendency of mine and encourages me to be vocal in asking for more resources to help reach the goal, rather than killing myself in the process of getting there by pulling all-nighters. What I appreciate about her approach is that she gives me the room to exercise my creativity, and she offers me the support I need to get there. In short, she saves me from myself.

Socially intelligent leaders ask questions, clear the path so that their team members can achieve, and help them find ways to pace themselves to sustain their creativity (and not burn it out) over time.

Collaboration: The Productivity Puzzle

28 May

Collaboration. Is it a blessing or a curse? The answer: Both, sometimes.

This Harvard Business Review article is a good reminder of the benefits and difficulties of team collaboration. I have to say I’m a fan of the approach defined here as “disciplined collaboration.” This is collaboration with a purpose, intent and timeline. In short, it’s collaboration framed by productivity.

I’ve been around for long enough to experience both sides of this “double-edged sword.” Here are some considerations to help determine whether your workplace’s collaboration is productive or not:

  • At what point does together time stop getting you closer to perfection and start being a pain in the you-know-what? There’s a point of diminishing returns with collaboration, and it’s different with every team and every project. If the results of the collaboration are highly valuable, a large investment of time is appropriate. If the results are more incremental in nature, it’s best to set more boundaries on the time spent collaborating.
  • Is the adage, “Together, we’re better,” always true? I think there are times when working alone can actually be the best approach, followed by a little virtual collaboration by team members after I’ve created a straw man.
  • My current organization, Battelle for Kids, is big on collaboration, and we’ve created some amazing things as a result. But the our leadership frames the collaborative structure by Quinn and Rohrbach’s competing values framework. As long as the organization can sustain the tension between the four sides of the framework — flexibility/discretion vs. stability/control, and internal vs. external focus —  creativity and productivity can co-exist.

What are your experiences with collaboration? Have you felt both sides of the sword?

Working Motherhood

14 Nov

Today I was chatting with a friend who mentioned an interesting workplace concern:

Mothers who do not pull their own weight due to “kid commitments” — doctor appointments, school drop-offs, parent-teacher conferences and the list goes on.

In all honesty, I have very little patience with this rigmarole.

Walk in the shoes of a working mother or father for just a day. It ain’t pretty.

The juggling act of a parent with a professional position requiring anything beyond 40 hours a week of work is backbreaking. I’m not saying that those without kids don’t work hard. What I am saying is that those with children manage a high-wire act difficult to imagine unless personally experienced.

Spare time is nonexistent. With what little time there is in that grey margin of time just before and after work, the trade-offs are make-or-break:

  • Please a client by going the extra mile one evening by writing another op-ed or go to the ballet recital.
  • Make the boss happy by attending a client reception or be at home for dinner with the family.
  • Delegate to junior associates or do the work myself while my son is going to sleep.
  • Work on the weekend to catch up on the email and “thinking work” that I’m too busy to complete during workdays filled with meetings, or let it go and spend time just being a mom.
  • Have a tough conversation with my boss with the phone on mute while I am transporting my extremely loud and arguing kids to X evening activity, or set the limit that we’ll need to talk about work tomorrow.

Kids remember when we are not present. And so do coworkers, bosses and clients.

Being a parent and a professional are both serious business. Frankly, the only way I’ve found to do both is to do quite a bit of work while my children are sleeping or otherwise occupied on the weekend.

I often have the sense that I’m not paying enough attention to one or the other, but the simple fact is that I devote well beyond “full-time” to each. I know that most parents feel this way, too. Not all workplaces are sympathetic to working parents’ challenges. Children interrupt us at work, just as work interrupts us at home. It goes both ways. With the encroachment of technology and the stressors of the “new economy” — constantly feeling like we have to prove ourselves in order to stay ahead of the next layoff at work — it is often not fun.

For the most part, the policies of my employers have been open-minded to the situation of the working parent. I’ve been lucky in that regard.

What’s surprising is the attitudes of co-workers. Probably the most frustrating thing for me during my 14 years as a working mother has been the judgment of colleagues.

After my son was born, I took off nearly three months to be with him. Some thought this was too much time for someone in a leadership position like mine and let me know how they felt, but I don’t regret it to this day. You cannot get that time back.

Although I started working half-days before I returned, I still was not back at work full-time until my son was 12 weeks old. And when I was back, I took two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch every day. The breaks were to pump breast-milk that my husband could feed him while I was at work, and the half-hour-long lunch was so that I could be with him to feed him in person. I did this every day for about six months. And I worked more than 8 hours each day — usually something like 50-55 hours a week. Both the nursing and the work were priorities, and I did them both.

Because I took the breaks and the lunch on a regular schedule, often they interfered with other meetings that occurred at work. And that got noticed. I felt it. And there were one or two female colleagues without children who seemed resentful. It was stressful. I often felt rushed, running out of meetings to do the pumping or meet my husband in the parking lot with my son, so that we could sit in the car together for 30 minutes or so to nurse.

A few years ago, I was leaving work to attend a Girl Scout outing with my daughter — time that I made up after-hours. The following day, another working mom colleague shared with me that I needed to be careful about taking this time. She was subtly warning me that doing this was not generally acceptable at our workplace. I thanked her for the heads-up and took note. I also took note that people who left early to play golf did not seem to experience the same judgment.

Now that my kids are older, it’s not as stressful, but I often need to leave work right on time, or I arrive 15 minutes after our “official” start time. And I wonder whether it makes a difference or not that I am working well over full-time to make up the difference in the evenings. People can and do make uninformed judgments based upon what they see in the workplace.

The honest truth is that flex-time is over-rated. Because some of the time unfolds outside the regular work day, it’s easy to pass judgment that the time is “less than,” and thus the work itself and the commitment of the working parent are inferior.

I have no easy answer to this dilemma, for myself or for any other working parent. My own choice as a supervisor has been to support high-quality work and the people that do it, whenever and wherever they are able to complete that work.

There’s more to be learned here. I’m sure that I’ll get more clarity on this over time, but for now it’s just hard. It may sound like the easy way out, but I’m glad that I’m now counting down from nine years to the end of my time as a working mother of school-age kids.

People Being People

17 Mar

I’ve been thinking a lot about a post put up a few weeks ago by Mark Henson of Sparkspace.

Most managers will identify their biggest inspirations and disappointments in terms of people. Our bests and worsts all come down to personalities, tendencies, strengths, weaknesses, potential (untapped or activated) and interactions with other team members in accomplishing our work. Sounds like an obvious statement, doesn’t it? Here’s why:

  • People get the job done and interact with team members to achieve results.
  • People make mistakes and learn how to better do the work.
  • People are incredibly productive and creative, providing services and products never before imagined.
  • People fail to get along with other team members and make small problems bigger over time.
  • And people take up time and energy. A lot of it.

Mark’s post is about what he calls “killer whales” in our workplaces. Here’s his definition:

I’m talking about those people who just seem to create damage everywhere they go. Maybe it’s through a chronically negative attitude, or gossip, or laziness, or spreading “victim mentality.” Killer whales in companies have also been known to be brown-nosers, ladder climbers, big talkers, and otherwise selfishly ambitious snakes (oops, sorry, we were talking about whales, not snakes, weren’t we?).

I’ll add one to the list: the under-bus-throwers.

The post made me think about the various work environments I’ve experienced over the past 20 years, as a manager and an employee. Who among the people of these workplaces has been most memorable? I can quickly identify my favorite leaders and coworkers, the ones who challenged me and truly embodied the word “colleague.” I also have clear memory of the leaders and coworkers who at times seemed to actively PREVENT me from accomplishing work. Some of these individuals became the “characters” in my working with difficult people series of posts last year. Most everybody fell into an in-between category…sad but true. I guess it’s not unusual to remember the best and the worst.

Negativity and me-ism has no place in a team environment. Managers have a responsibility to hold the mirror up to the killer whale and help them to self-assess and self-correct behaviors that become unproductive, however well-meaning. Mark’s right in that sometimes the killer whale needs to be released into the wild. There are humane ways to make that happen, but running from reality and ignoring your organization’s killer whales will send other staff the wrong message.

For the sake of the common good, who among us is brave enough to confront the killer whale?