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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6 phenomena you may notice in business meeting with Israelis- and what they mean

Lois Martin is the Americas sales manager for an Israeli firm which sells drug detection technology to police forces. Lois, a Toronto resident, was recruited 9 months ago; she has just finished her first visit to Israeli HQ, in Tel Aviv. Lois was absolutely shell shocked after a week of meetings.

Lois and I met for lunch today to debrief her on her impressions. Here is what shocked Lois, and the meaning I ascribed to augment her understanding.

1 Lois-Decisions appear to be final; then they are revisited and then undone.

Allon-Correct. No decision is binding until the very last second. It is common practice to challenge decisions all the time. This does not detract from commitment, rather it is a sign of commitment.

2 Lois-No one follows a meeting agenda. They jump from subject to subject.

Allon-Indeed. Issues get discussed but not as per a planned agenda. Free association and “I have something related to this” constantly shift the focus of discussion. However, everything get done but just in a different order.

3 Lois-Everyone is glued to their cellphone, all the time.

Allon-Everyone is glued to their cellphone, all the time.

4 Lois-People interrupt one another all the time, and raise their voices; it’s pandemonium.

Allon-People talk at the same time, butt in and contradict people before the other has finished speaking. It is not pandemonium; it is a discussion with different rules of engagement. You don’t use the rules of baseball in a football game. Discussions in Israel have their own rules. Join the mob or sit on the sidelines. And there is a lot to be said for almost total absence of “feigned commitment” so frequent in more polite cultures.

5 Lois-There are many off colour jokes; I was shocked.

Allon-Isn`t that refreshing-not to have all that PC rammed down your throat? Lois smiled, clearly not in agreement.

6 Lois-I noticed that people come to meetings late, and at times deal with family issues or bureaucracy during work.

Allon-Being on time is not all that important. A minimum ten minute delay is common practice, And Israel has a crushing bureaucracy which drains endless effort, especially if people are taking care of elderly parents or dealing with an insensitive government agency. For example, it can take 2 hours waiting to get a package at the post office, which often is open only until 2 pm. Or another example, cars have a compulsory “test” at a government accredited garage, a procedure which often entails quite a few hours. There are many more chores which need to be done, often on company time.

 

 

 

 

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Consulting individuals who are severely misreading reality

CEO Liz leads a company with an outstanding product suite and market leadership, yet sales are missing the numbers due to  market slow down and increasing price sensitivity. Liz believes that her last 3 sales managers have been incompetent.

Liz hired me to look into the Sales organization. I found a group of highly skilled and highly motivated people who were doing a great job under the toughest of circumstances.

When I presented my findings to Liz, she was upset. “I did not hire you to hear that”.

I have been working with Liz for 9 months. She has not changed her espoused opinion about the Sales organization, but she is happy with the work I am doing with her (about how she manages).  I have not managed to change her views about how Sales is run, but I have changed some of her behaviours towards the Sales organization, Liz talks the same, but acts differently.

Here are a few things I have done with Liz,

  1. Used paradoxical interventions. “Liz, how about firing the whole lot of them now and biting the bullet. I’m sure you could turn this around in a quarter”. Or, “Liz, you aren’t busy enough, why don’t you run sales as a pastime?”
  2. Put Liz’s misunderstandings into context. Liz rose to the top quickly. She never failed. She prides herself on her spectacular career. She sees people as winners or losers. Once I understood this I could be more compassionate. (She sees me as a winner.)
  3. Winter driving techniques. Having learnt to drive in Montreal, I know how to get out of a snowbank, thanks to Mr Canning, my driving teacher. Back and forth-slowly. No force-just go back and forth. With Liz it’s same-same but different. Sometimes I entertain two opposite ideas, rocking her mind back and forth. because it’s stuck. “Liz, how about putting pre-Sales under a different manager, or setting up a technical pre-Sales department, or better localizing the Sales team”..Such sessions of “rocking her mind” are the ones she appreciates the most, subsequently settling back into rigidity.
  4. Giving Up. Sometimes I tell her that she looks at a giraffe and does not see its neck (an Israeli euphemism). That I cannot do anything. That she has defeated me. This gets her very angry, then she softens up.
  5. Humour. Liz and I share a sense of humour, Making her laugh about her own rigidity is very helpful.
  6. Understand the personal bias. Liz comes from a technical background. This is what we have cooked and it tastes great, Just sell it. Liz does not understand the complexity of other peoples’ non technical roles, yet.

 

 

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Anxiety in organizations

Anxiety is built into organizations.

The anxiety stems from peoples dependence on one another.

  • If I build something but you do not sell it, I may get blamed.
  • If I cook a feast but the person who designs the menu makes it appear unattractive, then fingers may be pointed at me.
  • If I teach a course but the room is too hot, people may walk out on me.
  • If I answer the clients’ queries but the IT system is too slow, then the level of service provided gets knocked.

This inherent anxiety happens both within organizations and well as between organizations. Lawyers are used to lessen the anxiety between organizations. Sometime SLA’s (service level agreements) are used, with very partial success, to mitigate anxiety between people and functions within one organization.

Nothing whatsoever can eliminate this anxiety.  It is a built in feature. The only way to mitigate the anxiety is to talk about it, acknowledge overlapping responsibilities, maintain realistic goals, reward cooperation and hire-for-both-attitude and competence.

In the framework of the supervision I constantly hammer my young flock to avoid jumping to wow-wowism and sloganeering to paper over the basic anxiety  all organizational members carry on their backs or in their gut.

It’s there, and we need to learn to live with it. It cannot be otherwise, nor should it be. Depending on others is no mean feat.

 

 

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Preconditions for Enhancing Ownership

Blame shifting, buck passing and turd-on-the-table avoidance are rampant in many organizations.

There are very good reasons why this happens: lack of long term mutual commitment between employee and work place, the gig worker/external vendors upon whom blame is easily shifted, goals which are overly aggressive and “a victim must be found”, the shocking lack of solidarity between what was once “the working class”, and the use of digital communication which make shirking of ownership so easy.

Many organizations play lip service to enhance the level of ownership. These organizations PREACH ownership, put the word ownership in job descriptions and mission statements and T shirts. However, this is what Israelis call “hasbara”, or (mindless) propaganda.

Other organizations want to enhance ownership but do not know how. This is my advice:

  1. If the goals that are set are too aggressive, forget about enhancing ownership. If you set up your employees to fail, they will not tolerate it. They will not agreed to be screwed. They will avoid being hanged at all costs.
  2. If risk assessment is shared, then ownership can be enhanced. This sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t. The sharing of risks provides the context in which people can assume ownership yet feel safe. Force clarity of language. “Challenging”, “obstacles”, “threats”, “probable.”…these are words which hide more than they reveal.
  3. Use shared KPIs so that team members help one another to succeed. Do NOT rely on goodwill or teamwork. No one should be able to look good if they don’t help their peers succeed.

 

 

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The cruelty of the so called flat organization

Flat organizations have a very cruel dynamic which I will highlight in this post.

A flat organization is way or organizing which has no hierarchy or very few layers of hierarchy. Supposedly, these organizations are superior  places to work, giving more room for creativity, abstaining from forcing decisions and  less infighting and bureaucracy.

I have worked for 8 flat organizations. Two are listed on Wall Street and are technology powerhouses. Three are industrial/agricultural collectives in Israel, and three were start ups.

Here are a few shared dynamics between all 8 organizations.

  1. There was a huge gap between what the way that they operated, and the way they claimed that they operated.
  2. There was a power elite in all these organizations, whether or not the people held office or not.
  3. There was massive social pressure to conform.
  4. The culture of these organizations was viewed as a ritual, ie, one must behave according to the rules in the spirit of a blind leap of faith.
  5. There was a lot of apparent buy-in to decisions.
  6. A language developed to hint at disagreement without actually saying it. Eg, the goal is really tough, yet if we all hunker down, it may be possible.
  7. There was a lot of cynicism about organizational life.
  8. Decision making was a nightmare.

Organizations need hierarchies to coordinate, make decisions, allocate resources and manage the inevitable kindergarten that exists in all organizations. And often, there is a dirty diaper to change. Lack of hierarchy causes extreme dysfunction and massive anxiety, so a de facto hierarchy is re-construed under the “non-hierarchy”.

The challenge of good organizing is about making more effective hierarchies, not via taking away the very scaffolding which provides sanity against extreme anxiety, albeit many many negative side effects.

 

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Coping with the Critical Flaw of a Senior Manager

Meet three of my clients from the past: a Quebecois, an American and an Israeli. Jacques, Marshall and Zeev are three outstanding executives whose organizations have constantly  over-performed for the last decade. Each manager has a critical flaw in his style.

Jacques sells all the time. When he should be consulting with his management team, he sells them his ideas. When he should be telling them what to do, he sells to sell them his ideas.

Zeev lacks emotional intelligence. Severely! Despite outstanding cognitive capabilities and strategic depth, he fails to factor people into his decisions.

Marshall commits his organization to impossible goals out of an almost fanatical religious belief in aggressive over-commitment. His teams constantly over achieve yet few executives (none) can stay with Marshall for more than one year due to mental and physical exhaustion.

Over my long career, I have worked with outstanding managers like these three on their critical (and near fatal) flaws. In this post, I want to share what I have learnt in the hope that can help someone.

  • Many of these flaws are like chronic pain. They are here to stay. There are good times and bad times, but the flaw is best recognized as permanent. By doing so, appropriate expectations can be set.
  • Taking the bull by its horns (“stop selling to me Jacques”) is rarely effective. Damage control strategies appear to be more effective. (What happens if your people don’t buy in, Jacques?)
  • Working around the flaw has proven itself in many cases. (Zeev should empower his HR partner to provide input and guidance for to augment his poor instincts).
  • Paradoxical interventions are very effective. For those who are not acquainted here is a link. Paradoxical intervention should not be practised without appropriate training. (Marshall, why not have your staff work on New Year’s eve? Just give them the appropriate carrot).

And the consultant must remember that he or she is not a brain surgeon. Dealing with critical flaws is a slow uphill crawl. It’s not about your own competence; don’t push to be overly effective otherwise you will lose your clients’ trust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Strange fetishes of organizations

A recent visit to the Museum of Sex in Amsterdam enlightened me about various strange sexual fetishes. I grew up in the sixties in an era when, let’s put it this way…I assumed that there was very little I did not know. I was wrong.

So I got to thinking, is there such thing as a fetish in organizational behaviour? If we describe fetish as obsessive interest, the answer is a resounding yes. So in this post, I want to provide three examples of rampant organizational fetishes that I have seen, and I believe that my readers can see, all around them

  1. The fetish of defining away complexity. Given the complexity of reality, overlapping responsibility is often necessary, creating the need for people to communicate and decide together in the areas of disagreement where overlap occurs. Instead of focusing on addressing this need, organizations prefer to focus on over-definition of roles, responsibilities and process clarity. Thus, our first fetish.
  2. The fetish of overdosing on gender diversity. Oh yes, I may be in trouble for this. However, there are roles where professional competency trumps gender as a selection criteria. When a hospital wants to recruit 6 brain surgeons, three of them of each gender, this makes no sense at all. As a patient at least heaven forbid, I would prefer their recruiting six top surgeons, in the unlucky scenario that I would need their services.
  3. The fetish of engagement. Most management (except perhaps on social media) is about getting as much as possible for as little as possible over an optimized period of time. In a bad market place, employers exploit employees, and in a fast growing market with skill shortages, employees squeeze and extort their employers. It’s a market dynamic for the most part and since 2008, it is a blood bath for employees. Engagement is a sedative aiming at dulling the true nature of the relationship. The goal of engagement is more for less, regardless how the pig is perfumed. Most people know this, but the fetish is rampant.

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Remembering Hyman Bernard

There is no one else alive who remembers Hyman Bernard, or more accurately, Hyman Ber Schwartz. And I ain’t so young either, and although I have not begun to pack my bags, I feel this is a good time to share what I remember. For those readers who like small short stories with happy endings, this is the time to stop.

Papa Hymie (my grandfather) was the youngest of three children. His brother , Uncle Jack, and his sister, Auntie Ida, lived in the British Mandate of Palestine in Raanana, which they founded. Hymie, born in Hamilton Ontario where his father was a ritual slaughterer, never joined Jack and Ida in Palestine. As a matter of fact, my grandfather was not involved in Judaism or Zionism. (Nor was my father, who was a total atheist).

My grandfather was very much like a character from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath-dirt poor, uneducated, a bit crass. He smoked like a chimney and swore like a trooper. My Dad Phil used to sing me ditties that “I learned from Papa Hymie”.

In the great recession, my grandfather had no money and no food. He left Montreal for a few years to work in the States, so he could send money to my grandmother (Sadie) and my Dad, an only child. My grandfather came back  after the recession as a broken man. In the period when Papa was in the States, my father and grandmother lived with 12 other very poor people in one room, sharing a toilet at the end of the hall for the entire floor. Papa felt guilty and useless for no fault of his own.

When I was born, Papa Hymie used to pick me up and walk me in the stroller on rue Draper. I was told that this was the only thing that made him happy, except smoking.

He worked as a menial clerk in a storeroom at Reitmans, a job he obtained through family connections. Papa got cancer when I was very young and they amputated his leg. I was not told about this, but when I came to visit him at the Jewish General or the Royal Vic (I don’t remember), I noticed that there was only one leg under the blanket, and I was sitting where the other leg should have been.

Papa came home from the hospital, coughed all the time; he was in severe pain. His bother Jack came to visit him from Israel in the late 1950s; those were happy moments. I have learnt that Papa had sent Jack and Ida blankets and food, in 1956, due to severe shortages in the emerging State of Israel.

I was visiting my grandparents one day on 5350 Victoria (corner of Isabella) when Papa could not take the pain any more. I remember him being carried away on a stretcher, and then learning about death for the first time.

For many years, I resented being asked to “bring me my leg”, but not any more. I named my son after him, Amir Haim. And I myself often pardon myself for being gruff and very down to earth, because it runs in the family.

And I do wish I could have known Papa a bit more.

My son- some similarity?

 

 

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