Can organizations be helpful with the mental health of their staff?

Many years ago, while I was taking care  of my  wife who dying from cancer, I was prone to try absolutely everything that worked. We visited alternative medicine clinics, visited specialists who “rewire mental energy,” and frequented near-magicians. After a  few months ,she died. I look back at the days I dragged her around to various quacks and still feel guilty. She was tired and worn down- and we were being fucked over by quacks.

I believe that organizations create a lot of mental health issues. They set impossible goals, pit people against each other, measure your performance against ambiguous/fake yard sticks , rank and rate you, and force feed slogans the goal of which are to get more for less. Management is very often toxic. Change after change creates tons of anxiety. On top of it, people are asked to be authentic, and punished  when they are.

It is my deep belief that organizations should stay away from helping employees deal with mental health issues. They are suspect; they often exacerbate mental disorders and in some case cause mental disorders.They should provide no in house  counselling whatsoever. Wolves should not be allowed in the chicken coop, even if it is guard duty.

I also believe that discretion promised to troubled employees is often violated.

People with mental health and their support group should manage mental health issues outside of the work place if at all possible. Allowing organizations to meddle in employees mental health is akin to falling victim to quackery, or extreme naivete.

Wolf, stay away with your stretch goals, authenticity, play room, coaching-for-stress and toxic management.

 

 

 

 

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Fake information in organizations

Fake information has been around in organizations for more than two decades. It has had a devastating impact on the way that organizations function. In this brief post, I will document frequent manifestations of fake information which I have encountered in my consulting career in North America, the Mid East, Europe and Asia.

  1. Fake commitments. Company A competes for a tender by promising to deliver non existing product features in an impossible time frame. The tender is won, and the delivery as promised never really happens, or is delivered as a so called  “phased delivery” in a long and painful process of de-commitment.
  2. Fake planning. As a result of the fake commitments,  aggressive deadlines are driven down to the troops in Company A in order to deliver the non existent product features on time. The nerds provide feigned agreement to the plans.  As due date comes, things start to “slip” and no one is really surprised. New nerds are recruited, only to slow down the development process. Lessons learned passes off the blame left, right and centre, but never to the initial original sin of a fake commitment.
  3. Fake team work In order to drive costs down, people from all over the world are recruited to work in virtual teams. These teams are negatively impacted by trust issues, language issues and cultural differences. However these difficulties  are patched up with fake team work, a series of pyrotechnical activities which sort of, or sort of not, “put us all on the same page”. As a result, the hidden agendas flourish mainly under the surface, where they are harder to observe and treat.
  4. Fake wellness Caving in to management gurus as well as  slick salesmanship and fads, organizations hide their intention of getting “more for less”  via “wellness programs” for those nerds caught up in the above scenarios. These programs perfume the pig by better nutrition, gym membership preferably on-site, and perhaps breathing exercises.
  5. Lies in due diligence No where are there more blatant lies than in the due diligence phase before certain (though not all, obviously) mergers, aka acquisitions. The acquired company misrepresents its product, assets, liabilities, market share and pipeline in often a (desperate) effort to find a perfect “suitor” who can inject cash and put them out of their financial, client-related or technical misery.
  6. Mergers There are no mergers. Just acquisitions.

 

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3 Similarities and 3 Differences in the business culture of Israel and Singapore

Similarities

  • Both societies, at least at face value, appear as task focused and fast moving with a semi -Western veneer. Yet, when you scratch a little bit, the Western veneer disappears and therein lies a web of intense relationship based networks which serves as the great enabler. So both in Singapore and Israel, you do not always see what you get.
  • Both business cultures are survival driven: paranoid, focusing on the urgent and very flexible in the crisis mode.
  • Singaporeans and Israelis both adapt themselves to others rather than expect the other to change.

Differences

  • Israelis show a basic lack of respect to authority. Singaporeans will generally show apparent deference, expressing differences of opinions “wrapped up” in respect.
  • Israelis often tell clients  “what they need” ; Singaporeans will make more of an effort to provide clients with what they want, albeit they know that the client could benefit from something else.
  • Israelis have little tolerance for face saving behaviours, which are part and parcel of doing business with Singaporeans. Needless to say, Israelis find Singapore less focused on face than the Chinese or Thais.

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How organizations counter intuitively make people feel unsafe

Lots has been said about the need to make staff feel safe in organizations. It has been claimed that feeling safe is the critical success factor that make teams successful.

I want to suggest 5 ways that organizations and leaders make people unsafe. As usual, i will focus on the counter-intuitive, since much that has been written and talked about until now about making people safe is common sense.

  1. Promoting authenticity can and does make many people feel unsafe, especially those who come from cultures where emotions need to be repressed. Encouraging people to be authentic can be akin to asking people to sit in a room naked if the air-conditioning is not working, so that they feel comfortable.
  2. Delegation of authority can make people very unsafe, especially those people who expect that the privilege of being a boss comes with the price tag of protecting staff from risk and exposure.
  3. Asking people to express an opinion can make staff tremble if they come from cultures where opinions need to be kept to yourself in fear of being seen as rude or a tall poppy.
  4. Giving rosy and positive feedback can make people who are highly self critical feel that they are being lied to or deceived.
  5. Asking men from conservative cultures to report into a woman in general and a younger woman in particular can make men feel very unsafe.

I do know that item five is politically incorrect. But because I prefer being correct to be politically  correct, so I feel safe about writing this post. To wrap things up, making staff feel safe has a lot to do with addressing the basic cultural assumptions and needs of a global and  diverse nature.

 

 

 

 

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Organizational Panic Attacks

Panic attacks include crippling, extraordinarily intense, sudden fear of a general/specific nature, pounding obsessive thoughts as well as  physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, sweating and increased heart rate. As  the French Canadians say, c’est pas un cadeau or loosely translated- it’s no great fun. (Literally, not a gift).

Individuals with panic disorders are treated by drugs and counselling. The therapies lessens the frequency and intensity of the panic attacks and in many cases, eliminate them entirely if one adheres to therapy. Panic attacks however are not limited to individuals.

Organizations also have panic attacks. Sensing either an intense internal or external threat,  an organization can loose  its judgement and  respond to  threats with irrationality,  often damaging itself more than the perceived threat,

When an organization panics, its response to the untrained eye may appear as routine managerial precaution. However, to the trained eye this is not the case.

In my experience, constant reorganizations, ongoing resizing, overly obsessing about values like religious fanatics, incessant  aggressive finger-pointing and a culture of constant escalation indicate an irrational response to threat. Furthermore, when “what do we need to do” is not proceeded by “how do we need to think differently”,  it is highly indicative of an organizational panic attack.

There are other responses to panic attacks that organizations have: throwing bodies at a job, intense time pressure, self deception and looking for one silver bullet.

Sometimes consultants are commissioned to implement inappropriate responses to panic attacks.

My suggestion is to work the management to identify triggers to anxiety, and map out effective and not effective coping mechanism for the rampant irrational fears which characterize organizational life.

Learning to discern panic and its triggers and developing healthy responses to threats  is a critical component of an advanced organizational skill set.

 

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The exaggerated importance of people skills

I am no stranger to the domain of “people skills”, having made a good living working in this area all my working life, as well as in my military career.

Every so often, there are hurricane-like winds exalting the importance of people skills. At times, it seems to me that people skills are as important as oxygen or clean water. But they are not.

I want to point out the contexts in which people skills are not all that important to success.

  1. In a shitty job market, the importance of people skills take a beating, because management thinks you should kiss their ass simply for having a job.
  2. When someone has extremely good and rare skill set, it is not all that important  for that person to have people skills.
  3. In cultures which foster subservience and deference, people skills are a nice to have, but things get done anyway.
  4. I do believe that feigned interest in people is far more important than authentic people skills for senior executives. My experience is that very senior managers often have reached the top because they put task before people, set impossible deadlines which stress people beyond belief, and ignore the squawking from below the deck. I belief that people skills often (not always) hinder people from getting to the top.

So are people skills important?  Sometimes yes. But not all of the time. If these skills were all that essential, the marketing of our skills would not be a hellish nightmare.

This having been said, there are specific areas where people skills are absolutely critical, as was pointed out to me by my friend GK in personal correspondence.

“Smaller companies and companies in trouble are usually in a very weak situation with employees, investors, board members, and customers. In these situations, which is a huge percentage of actual situations faced, people skills are critical because the relationships are often all that is between a customer or employee leaving, or a board member going hostile. Of course, stellar results always trump everything, but that is not always under the manager’s or CEO’s control.” (emphasis mine AS)

“In big companies results matter, of course. However, what actually matters more is the perception of results, rather than the results. In a big company, managing P&L and spinning information takes a huge portion of senior manager’s time. The critical people that need to be influenced for this to be successful are not always in the direct line of the hierarchy. They are often finance people, other staff people etc. They will support those they like more than those they hate. Of course, they may support those they fear even more (see Machiavelli), but that may be more short term.” (emphasis mine AS)

To wrap things up, if consultants know how to properly position when and where people skills are important, and avoid preaching people skills as a religious doctrine, marketing the abstraction of soft skills may become easier.

 

 

 

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A glimmer of hope

On Friday morning, I woke up, walked my dear dog George, ate breakfast, and headed to the beach-a mere  17 minute drive. It was so hot that my car had just started to be comfortable only as I approached the parking attendant, where I was milked 20 shekel (about $7) for parking.

At the beach kiosk, I stocked up on Zero, cold water and an ice coffee, then headed 50 meters to the seashore where a Hebrew speaking Sudanese illegal milked me for another 20 shekel for an umbrella and a chair. I set up shop and started reading my book, Steinbeck`s Grapes of Wrath.

On the right next to me was a large Palestinian family from  Bethlehem!  On my left was a British granny and her family on holiday. The family included the grandmother, a grandchild and his Israeli wife and three Israeli grandchildren. Behind me there was a football game. The players were bellowing to one another in English, Hebrew, some African language, Russian and Arabic.

The sea was calm but there were many people in the water and the lifeguards had their hands full with kids getting lost, people swimming beyond limits and other sundry affairs. The lifeguard used 3 languages, French, Hebrew and Arabic. They were very polite, addressing people with appropriate honorifics.

Granddad with blue hat, move right; Ms Yellow Bathing Suit, hold onto your child with two hands; Uncle, move south`

And the ice cream salesman: Lemon icy prevents pregnancy. Ilana Ilana, buy a cold ice-banana; I am leaving town-buy now or never.

I never lose an opportunity to practice my Arabic, so I wished the people next to me a happy holiday. They offered me some nuts. They also offered the British granny and her family some nuts. The British granny turned out to be Iraqi born, and soon a lively conversation was going on in three languages.

And I felt a surge of joy.

This is what life can look like without leaders. The beach, the water, the nuts, the trilingual dialogue, the football game, the polite lifeguards, the peace of mind that yes, things can be very good.

And if the context is appropriate, there can be more than just cold peace. A rare moment of pure optimism.

 

 

 

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Beware of the ideology of consensus-based decision making

Liz now works as a  senior  sales manager in a company that makes decisions via consensus building, or buy-in. Liz has been with the company for 9 months.

The common practice is to consult all those impacted by a decision for input in order to build full apriori support for the decision and ease its implementation.

The company’s culture frowns on managers and decisions made without buy in. Decision making  takes a while, but it is very rare that people blame one another for poor decisions, because before the decision, everyone has agreed.

Liz ‘s boss wants to take away three of her 3 dedicated presales people in order to transfer them to a new “brand enhancement” group, Liz is dead set against this move and has not budged towards agreement  despite all of her boss’s attempts to get her buy in.

Liz has been very flustered due to the mounting pressure on her to conform to the proposed change; Liz went out to lunch today with Allon, a veteran member of the Israel based team currently spending a month in company HQ, where Liz works.

Over lunch, Allon told Liz that “buy-in” is not the company culture; it is the company’s institutionalized ideology; it’s almost a religion. As in institutionalized religions  there are ceremonies to enforce practices, high priests aka HR who force feed/preach, and tons of deviant behaviour by staff  who don’t want the religion “shoved down their throat”.

Allon told Liz that the most common way to deal with this forced buy-in is “feigned buy-in”.

Liz, who is very straight-forward almost to a fault told Allon that she does not want to feign buy-in and subsequently  lose the three people who run her successful presales effort,

“You don’t need to lose the people, Liz. First you need to feign agreement, Then, ask for “phased implementation”, perhaps one transfer ever six months. And, in the meantime, just re-recruit the resources you need, give them a new title, and keep them focused on presales activity as always”.

Liz asked Allon why the company puts up with this nonsense.

Most organizational ideologies which look like religion as opposed to culture, want things to look good. Under the table, lots of deviance is tolerated to keep up the appearance. “Don’t forget Liz, buy-in here is an orthodox unchallenged religious premise”.

“Ah”, said Liz, ” It’s not a true belief, because true belief doesn’t look like this”.

Both Liz and Allon had learned.

And finally lessons learned-

The use of consensus-based decision making should be contingency based. There are decisions which need to be taken top down.And feigned buy-in is the child of overdosing on the religion/ideology of consensus-based decision making.

Authority, even arbitrary authority, is needed in some cases.

If you ask the author of this blog, authority is often very arbitrary. And some people even prefer it that way.

 

 

 

 

 

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What we do not see in organizations, nevertheless exists

The medical profession are experts in dismissing patients because they cannot see diagnose things which tests don’t pick up on.

Those of us who suffer from back pain have all heard from doctors that “I cannot see anything wrong”. I have a friend who suffers from very sharp pains in her small fingers which drive her to distraction; she has been assured by her MD that she “need not worry because there’s nothing wrong”.

In this post, I want to caution organization consultants about things we may not see when we diagnose an organization which causes us to misdiagnose or miss the point altogether.

Here are a few things I missed because of things I could not see.

  1. Illicit sexual relations between employees. Many years after I had worked with a chef and F&B manager who quarrelled endlessly for no apparent reason, I learnt that  lovers quarrels  were the cause of what I was observing.
  2. Spouse involvement. I worked with a very senior scientist who earned a huge salary. Suddenly he wanted a title that no one in the organization possessed, as well as a BMW. He negotiated himself into a corner and quit upon his requests being turned down. Years later, when we met at a gas station restaurant on the Tel Aviv to Haifa highway, he told me that his wife had been instrumental in his demands because “she thought they were taking advantage of me”.
  3. Mental Illness of a single individual.  Depression is often masked.   Masked depression can manifest itself as excessive conflict between teams due to one depressed individual,  lack of/excessive motivation and  substandard communication.
  4. A horrendous secret. I worked with a company whose product did not work. It was due to “go live” with another year of investment but the three founding scientists (an Indian, Israeli and American) knew that it would not work. The seemingly endless meaningless friction between them was all about how blame would be allocated. This I learnt only after the company disintegrated.

Years of experience have taught me that I don’t know what I don’t know, but I always assume that I don’t have a complete understanding, ever

And the morale of the story is: read Sherlock Holmes, and never strive to understand everything. Because if you try to get everything right, you “explain things away”.

 

 

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Kindness in organizations

I rarely see the term “kindness” used in organizations as a way to describe desired behaviour.

Staff are urged to be engaged, to collaborate, to be transparent, to respect a person’s sexual preference and gender. And not to “flirt, leer or wink”. (Mikado)

Management/leadership shows us the way, removing barriers to execution, hire as per the latest fad de jour, and maintains a work life balance. And if you follow social media, you get about a hundred inconsistent posts an hour how to be a great manager/leader.

But where has simple kindness gone? Simple plain common kindness. I am not going to define, because critics would tear me apart. But I know what it is, and I know it when I don’t see it.

Kindness has nothing to be with being assertive, demanding, delegating or assuming responsibility. (I myself am very goal oriented, yet I consider myself a kind and compassionate human being).

So for those who want to improve organizational life, get back to the basics. Small minuscule kindness can make a world of difference to organizational interaction.

Case One

I was in the US in the summer and there was a cold spell. I had not brought the appropriate clothing from home. The R&D manager drove me to a shop to buy a sweater in the middle of the day, cancelling an important meeting. “I noticed you were shivering”.

Case Two

While waiting in line for food, George speaks to the people who serve him

Case Three

CEO Jeremy ALWAYS closes his  phone during meetings and discussions.

Case Four

Marwan has made a rule for himself that he will never start or end the day without some small talk with his peers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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