A Higher Standard

As a consultant, I pushed empowerment. I believe that those closest to the work know the work the best and are the right people to make decisions about the work they do. I’ve helped leaders make strong efforts at empowerment and find that the change from paternalistic cultures is slow.

Peter Block described a simulation his colleague Joel Henning designed, which rings true in most of my experience:

Three teams role-played high-control patriarchal leadership, cosmetic empowerment, and genuine participation and empowerment. The high control group was quiet, had their arms folded, and had one or two pale, informational questions at the end. When asked their feelings about the meeting, they said they felt controlled and punished.

The cosmetic empowerment team had many questions, all of which were cynical and reeked of barter and deal making. They asked, “What’s in it for me?” and “Where did this fad come from?” They wanted the leaders to prove their sincerity. There was a lot of laughter and energy during the meeting. Upon reflection, they felt manipulated and doubtful, although they admired the cleverness of the strategy.

The genuine participation group went last and when they shared their intention to involve everyone in defining the program and solution the employees would have none of it. They wanted a common vision and strategy, they wanted to know what was expected of them and were fed up with this soft, open-ended non-solution. They questioned who was in charge and who was going to steer the ship to a safe harbor. They wanted to know what management was going to do to fix the problem. In processing the meeting, they felt management had abdicated. The employees had 20 suggestions about how the team could have done a better job and voted no confidence.

What disturbed Block?

  • We resent patriarchy and its dominance,
  • We become cynical at attempts at cosmetic change,
  • Yet faced with the prospects of real participation and accountability for an unpredictable tomorrow, patriarchy begins to look better and better.

Block concluded that while we may talk blithely about the end of command and control, emotionally we miss it when it’s gone. If we are offered real choice and power, we push our leaders back into a controlling and directive stance. Our lips may say no to a benevolent monarch, but our eyes say yes. Leaders see the longing for good parenting in our eyes, and they have little choice but to respond.

Genuine empowerment carries freedom, responsibility, and accountability with it. We get to make choices about the work that we do. We get to select between alternatives that matter. It is our job to make our decisions real and to implement action steps. We get rewarded or punished, praised or criticized for our choices and actions. We get to act like adults and are treated like grownups. Many of us don’t want this level of adulthood in our work lives. Many of us, instead, want freedom from responsibility and escape from conflict.

Genuine involvement is messy, difficult, and time consuming. Reactive problem-solvers have to learn to be imaginative anticipators and that is hard to do—maybe impossible. People disconnected from others throughout their competitive work histories have to learn to listen, engage, connect, cooperate, compromise, empathize with others, and find win-win solutions. People who only feel okay when they are accomplishing a task have to learn to sit still, think, and engage with others.

Many of us don’t want to develop new emotional and intellectual muscles. When put in a situation that asks us to stretch, we can’t get away fast enough. We may prefer to be one of the walking dead so prevalent in our organizations. Aliveness is way too threatening for us.

Why do we need a higher standard?

In the past decade alone billions were spent on leadership development and employee involvement and empowerment programs. How’s it working for us?

Today Gallup research shows that 74% of American workers are disengaged clock-watchers who cannot wait to go home. We know that the vast majority of change efforts are deemed failures by those who lead them. The sustainability of Fortune 500 companies pales in comparison to its potential.

We can’t afford to continue with the status quo: Not as a nation, a company, or a person.

The Fastest Pickle Packer in the Plant

An email from Meg made me realize that in previous posts I had under-emphasized the responsibility each of us has to choose to be our best selves at work and in every setting of our lives.

Meg wrote:

When I was 16 years old, working for Gedney pickles and standing at a bin where we stuffed pickle spears into jars manually for 8 hours a day, I learned that only I had the power to make the job rewarding for myself.  I created a daily competition to pack more jars than I had packed the prior day.  I became the fastest pickle packer in the plant.  It made the time go by more quickly and it was fun to compete, even if just against myself.  I’ve carried that through all my jobs and shared it with my kids.  So no matter how nasty the job is, we have to find ways to feel rewarded and often that entails reinventing the job, which I’ve pretty much done with all my jobs.

And I’ve also learned not to fear things that I don’t understand.  When I came to IT Telecom and they laid off the whole team except me, I had to recreate 30 years of telecom architecture.  I just peeled off one layer at a time, disconnected unused services, saved the company thousands of dollars each month, and felt terrific for accomplishing it.

Toxic employees would see opportunities for savings and keep it to themselves figuring “if my boss doesn’t see it, why should I?”  Work ethics are not easy to teach, but managers needs to realize it is crucial to success and they should spend more time helping employees find the fun in the job and the passion to help the company thrive.

I’ve been very lucky because, at times, my employers have tried to “box” my jobs, but being the conformist that I can appear to be, they thought I was doing well. In reality, I was reinventing the jobs, letting them think the changes were their ideas. I could never have been productive if I wasn’t allowed to be creative, inquisitive, and progressive.

Similarly, reader Margaret wrote: “There have been jobs that I had that I didn’t like. When I’ve been in that position, I tried to think of at least one thing, often more than one thing, that I could change in the situation to make the job more to my liking.”

We are responsible for the lives we create or do not create.

Does Your Job Excite You?

Does you wake up enthused to go to work?

For most people, the answer is “no.”

Gallup reports that 52% of workers in America aren’t involved in, enthusiastic about, or committed to their work. Eighteen percent are actively disengaged (less loyal, less productive, more stressed, miss more days): they are the folks who sabotage company strategy and pressure co-workers to dumb down.

I know that engaged employees achieve tremendous business results and that absent engaged employees an organization cannot endure for the long-term.  Sadly, most leaders don’t yet realize the power of engagement.

How are organizations doing when it comes to sustainability and engagement? I define a sustainable organization as one that endures indefinitely in a continually changing environment or marketplace. Some companies endure for hundreds of years so we know the potential exists for all. Some examples are DuPont, Hudson Bay Company, and W.R. Grace.

Sadly, however, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company pales at 40-50 years. The 40-50 year life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company is the worst actual-to-potential life expectancy ratio of any species on the planet. This statistic cuts across nations and is even worse for smaller start-up companies — 40% survive less than 10 years.

The massive disengagement that Gallup has reported for years is symptomatic of low life expectancy for the organization. We experience low life expectancy as stress, pettiness, power struggles for control, cynicism, resignation, and the walking dead of our organizations. If this sounds like your company, then your company is dying.

Companies often state, “People are our greatest asset.” I don’t think so. Not in most organizations. And the devaluation of people shows in the lack of sustainable organizations.

While employees bear some responsibility for this disengagement, for the most part it is a leadership issue.

I’ve seen the walking dead come back to life when they’re invited to participate, to be involved, and when required to be responsible — when treated with basic human respect. They showed me the impact leaders have on people and showed me the vast untapped human potential available to all of us.

The truth is, no one in a management team is performing their job if their employees are not engaged — and this includes supervisors, managers, and executives. As leaders, we need to own this issue of employee disengagement, and grab the potential of engaged people.

In The Elements of Great Managing, Rod Wagner and James Harder reported Gallup data that shows, among other things, that engaged employees miss less work, quit less often, steal less from their employers, have fewer accidents (all of these by dramatic percentages), and more engaged organizations outperformed the earnings-per-share of their non-engaged competitors by 18%.  Long-term profits come when we lead people well.

The leadership challenge of the 21st century is to achieve outstanding and sustainable business results by creating conditions for employee engagement that brings forth the vast untapped human potential in organizations — the competitive advantage of our time.

The Illusion of Control

Always on the lookout for rare corporate authenticity, I listened to the group from a Fargo, North Dakota manufacturing plant as they spoke at an ethics luncheon sponsored by The Center for Ethical Leadership at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Pete, the quality guy, was high-energy and exuded enthusiasm — a true believer in the work he did.  Walt, the president of the company, was humble and soft-spoken.

They talked of their workplace  and new tools like self-managed work teams, open book management, and continuous learning, along with the various methods of the quality movement they excelled in. I was more interested in their depth, passion, idealism, and human connection than in the tools they used to organize and express themselves — as interesting as those programs were.

Walt invited me to visit the plant. I talked with him and other plant leaders for two energized hours. Someone expressed concern for the sustainability of their innovative work. I told them they could think of their work as a beautiful garden that they nurtured with loving care. And I told them how a guy in a pickup truck could destroy their garden in a moment. Successful change efforts get destroyed every day in the corporate world by mindless and sometimes malicious executives.

The dominant culture of the corporation eventually pushed Walt out. Committed to ethics, authenticity, and employee engagement, Walt took over a plant in the middle of America. The plant owner had visited the Fargo plant and wanted Walt to transform his plant. As the plant turnaround took off, the owner complained to Walt that things felt out of control; he felt out of control.

Things felt out of control?

I think the owner wanted a feel-good quick fix: easy, fast, and comfortable. He apparently didn’t understand that fear, anxiety, and feeling inadequate and out of control go with organizational transformation and that deep change can’t happen without inner turmoil. Dealing with fear, loss, anxiety, and the loss of control evolves us as people and from the changes in us our organizations change. Under stress, people often try to return to an earlier state of comfort─a sure step towards decline. If people understood that their discomfort would pass if they embraced it, they would grow to a new level of understanding─a sure step towards sustainability.

I knew many executives over the years who said they supported employee involvement until the day came when they felt they were not in control─a sign that change was happening. Then their dark sides took over, and they sabotaged the employees who did what the executives had told them to do.

Our cosmos is not a vast machine that we control. She is a living system: chaotic, complex, and ever creative.

The belief that we are in control is an illusion.

Walt, a wise and resilient man, now leads a plant in the Eastern part of the country.