Listening to Your Work Environment

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Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

In 2016, I first discussed the notion of an organization’s culture core. Reader response to that post — and the numerous discussions which followed — have fueled my interest in both individual and organizational core stability. Of late, I’ve been exploring a set of key concepts and contributing psychological constructs (for example, psychological contracts and psychological safety) that either build or work against a culture’s potential to provide needed stability.

To orient you to that discussion, here is an excerpt from that post:

“In this ever-changing world of work, I’m going to go out on a proverbial limb and vote for stability. Not the type of stability that shoots you in the foot and has the potential to signal an organizational downfall (resting on laurels, complacency, lack of customer connection). I’m speaking of the kind of internal stability that allows your organization’s engines to really rev and take flight. The kind of security borne of trust and understanding.
This is your organization’s cultural core.”

Declared vs. Operating Culture
Interestingly, we often conflate the notion of declared culture and the real-time operating culture. The frustration that develops can affect not only the larger organization’s ability to meet its goals, but individual contributors and teams as well. In many cases we have the right intentions and do invest in a strong cultural core, but the foundation remains weak. In recent trainings we have been exploring “dark side” cultural elements that fight core stability — and how these obstruct an organization’s positive cultural intentions. When organizations seek excellence, these dark-side elements can work against progress and ultimately drive behavior. They live as destructive undercurrents within your culture and can destroy positive investment in that same culture.

Righting the course demands that we pay attention to the environment and expose its reality. If not, we function within cultures that exert silent, negative pressure, as we fail to acknowledge the operating “energy field”. This dynamic can manifest in in a variety of ways. We might invest in training — and nothing seems to change, or we reiterate the organization’s mission & values — but somehow behavior (and metrics) remain out of alignment. These are symptoms of this ongoing tension.

Paralyzing Undercurrents
Taking the time to identify and expose what is standing in the way of progress is a vital  conversation. This demands that we listen intently to the environment in which we work and to those immersed in it. I’ve found that in my work with high-performance teams, this has become an important diagnostic exercise. The process is rooted in my early exposure to the auto industry and later on, to the Toyota Production System. Tantamount to Toyota’s system is the philosophy of Jidoka — where production could be stopped at any moment, if an employee detected an issue that affects quality (More here.) Jidoka is built on a deep respect for human wisdom within manufacturing environments. It supports “listening” intently to that environment. (See my collaboration with Toyota here.)

We sometimes ignore or underestimate, an undercurrent working against excellence. In some cases, the issue has been detected — but not fully addressed. Here is a quick reference guide to help your team “stop the line” so to speak, when they detect a problem. (A slide from a current talk):

I’ll share more about this technique as time goes on. Meanwhile, share your experiences in this forum.

Have you ever found yourself in an environment where the operating culture overpowered the declared culture? How did you proceed?

Learn more about Core Stability through Dr. Gottschalk’s training series — The Core here.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist who explores challenge and change in work life. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program since 2012 — her thoughts on work life and core stability have appeared in various outlets including Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

Saving a Valued Employee With One Foot Out the Door

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

It’s rarely good news when a valued team member expresses serious thoughts of leaving. In some cases there may have been signs of disconnect, yet those signs were not interpreted as evidence of a deeper problem. In other cases, we’ve recognized that an employee’s experience has not been ideal, but failed to address the fallout. Ultimately,  managers are caught completely off-guard — and a response in the moment is difficult to construct. Yet, timely decisive action is necessary to avoid a one-way pass into the “departure lounge”.

One option to direct this response, is to apply the notion of core stability and the psychological constructs that contribute. This may help a manager understand where things fell apart and offer clues to a possible resolution.

Consider the case of Michael, a research analyst who had been recently promoted. His new role focused on the development of a new insight survey, which would hopefully become a strong revenue center for the organization. Michael jumped into the development phase excited and good faith, preparing the necessary business plans with supporting numbers. But, the process inexplicably stalled in upper management with no direction toward a resolution. His manager failed to notice that while Michael appeared to persevere, repeated revisions of his plan had drained his psychological resources. With his former duties re-assigned, he felt he could no longer contribute in a meaningful way. After repeated attempts to right the ship, he gave notice.

Unfortunately, becoming attuned to an employee’s level psychological capital (Hope, self-efficacy, resilience, optimism) is not as commonplace as it should be. Furthermore, breaches of the psychological contract are common and are often left undetected.

What can a manager do in these situations?

  1. Assess the damage. Sit down with your employee for a candid heart to heart. Explore the situation and inquire about the events that have created the most stress or exhaustion. Apply the construct of the psychological contract, to determine if there has been a breach of the employer-employee exchange relationship. In the case of Michael, he felt that a promise had been made to invest in his expertise, yet he was repeatedly rebuffed. On some level, he felt the organization had misled him down a dead-end path with little support.
  2. Own up. If possible, intervene. Acknowledge that you should have been more aware. If you suspect that a breach has indeed occurred, inquire what you might do to rectify the situation. For Michael, offering to serve as an advocate and exploring the obstacles standing in the way of an accepted business plan would be in order. A timely, targeted resolution to restore faith is vital. It is possible that the individual’s psychological resources can be bolstered.
  3. Ask for time. Ultimately, time is necessary to put a course of action into motion. Clarify that course and ask for time (breathing room) so they might reconsider their thoughts of leaving. In some cases, a breach of the psychological contract can be mended — but the associated emotions require time (and forward progress) to settle. In Michael’s case, the project stall couldn’t be rectified. That offered him the information needed to make an informed decision.

Sadly, not all situations can be saved. However, acting once a problem is revealed may help your employee see his or her relationship with the organization in a better light. If not, lay the groundwork for a possible return in the future.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation like this? Were you the manager or the employee? What happened?

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist who explores challenge and change in work life. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program since 2012 — her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

When Starting a New Role, Mind the Vernacular

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Landing in the whirl of a new work environment can be an overwhelming experience. With a quick influx of people, projects and information — it may feel as if you are trying to gain balance while the ground shifts beneath you. Regaining some measure of stability and establishing a “new normal” is important for newcomers, as they can quickly lose their way. Managers can support them by staying close at the outset, and remaining attuned to their work life needs/goals longer-term. Newcomers should doggedly seek clarity to help them move forward. This includes the finer points of their new environment.

As we all know, teams are essentially micro-cultures with developed mores and operating principles. The simple notion of “How the work gets done around here” can be filled with nuance and confusion for newcomers. One area to consider carefully, is the vernacular used to communicate vital information about the work.

As many of us have learned when entering an established group, understanding what is being said — and what lives between the lines — is vital.

What to do as a newcomer:

  • Look around. Consider if you have landed in a group of individuals that are similar to you, or if you are from a dissimilar industry or background. Do you bring a novel area of expertise? Do you come from an industry/organization where the culture might be vastly different from your new environment? Answering these questions may alert you to the potential for a language disconnect.
  • Explore the language. People have a way of “talking, but not talking”. They may express one thing, attempting to appear one way (such as flexible and forgiving) — yet their behavior might reveal something else. Consider the case of deadlines for example. Be sure to clarify what specific phrases such as “Get to it when you can”  or “This is a priority” truly mean to this group.
  • Watch for cultural cues. The operating “language” of a group can also dictate how they communicate when facing problems. For example, environments can vary in both their “directness” and speed to correct a misstep. This ultimately affects your feedback loop. Some cultures will be quick to address a problem. Yet, others may let you languish.
  • Set the tone. What you personally require communication-wise to remain effective is also important. If language seems to be getting in the way, take steps toward clarification. While you may not be able to change the vernacular, it may help you personally to bring clarity and avoid stressful situations down the road.

Have you ever misunderstood the vernacular in a new role? What happened?

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She explores challenge and change in work life. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program since 2012 — her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

 

 

Why You Should Lose That Toxic High Performer Sooner Rather Than Later

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Photo by Alejandro Ortiz on Unsplash

I’ve recently read (and shared) this MIT Sloan post about the notion of a “Toxic Superstar”. (My previous post on the topic is here.) Most of us do not require convincing that this scenario is a common one, or that managers ring their hands over it. However, if you are in the midst of this, you may feel frozen — and I may have to convince you to act sooner, rather than later.

Long ago, in my very first role a “toxic superstar” not only held an entire team hostage, she managed to have me eliminated for no good reason (except that she engaged in an intense competition with me). Sadly, I was unaware of this unhealthy dynamic until 4:00 PM on a given Friday afternoon. It was both shocking and devastating.

Toxicity happens.

I am fully aware of the risks that must be weighed which lurk in the foreground. There is the workload. The schedule. The deadlines. There is the effect (short and longer-term) upon the customer and the fallout this may bring.

Queue the impending tsunami of drama.

Now, I will encourage you to walk away with your winnings (but at the right moment, and with a plan).

Consider the following:

  • Membership. The very first thing to acknowledge is this: they are not a part of our team. They are rogue a soldier. Their goals are their own and they can be a destructive force when left to their own devices. Their presence is laden with increasing risk.
  • Currency. What makes them “tick” and brings them to work — is likely not what drives the rest of your team. This essentially limits your impact upon their behavior. In many cases, you will have little influence over them.
  • Consider your metrics. While the work may be moving along swimmingly, other metrics/costs are mounting. As a manager or team leader, are you willing to pay the outstanding debt, when all is said an done?
  • Psychological resources. Playing to this person and allowing them “go their own way” will eventually damage trust between manager and team. Observing a rogue superstar run the show, ultimately damages psychological capital.
  • Plan, plan, plan. Above all, it is important to separate the skill set, from the individual that is bringing it to the party. Offer them help to change their ways, but also start a plan to replace their competencies. You may be in the position to offer a another, committed team member a chance to shine.

Have you been in this situation? How did you proceed?

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She examines the effect of Core Stability on work & work life life. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program since 2012 — her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

Managing Others? You Need to Declare Yourself

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Adjusting to any new role is a challenge. There are countless elements that must be mastered; core tasks, a new organizational culture and team commitments. Organizations may be well versed in helping newcomers complete on-boarding basics such as needed documentation, work spaces and technology. Yet, there are untapped opportunities, instrumental in helping this transition become the first steps toward a healthy, productive employee journey.

The bottom of the learning curve that newcomers face is often a steep one — characterized by a brisk influx of both information and people-focused demands. (I’ve heard the experience described as “drinking from the fire hose.”) Existing research focusing on newcomers, can offer managers clues as to what hey can do to support the process. Overall, these actions should serve to establish core stability, a confluence of elements that help a contributor become engaged and hopefully, successful.

However, we miss key opportunities to help newcomers find their way — and managers can actively contribute to building this needed sense of stability early on.

While we inundate newcomers with information about projects, budgets and goals — we under-represent information about ourselves. As a manager, providing essential information concerning who you are as a manager can be overlooked, leaving employees mired with questions. How do I connect with my manager? What is their work style? What do they value in the workplace? Sharing who you are as a manager — what you value, how you work best, what you are looking for performance-wise in the context of their role, even your career backstory — can put a newcomer at ease.

So declare yourself.

Share what you can share comfortably.

Fill in the blanks.

Here lies the rub: Managers are not encouraged to reflect on their own “management brand“. This may occur because: 1) we undervalue its contribution to healthy work relationships and 2) we are somewhat uncomfortable sharing it. However, as managers, there is an expectation to lay a solid foundation.

Team members shouldn’t be left to guess.

I will go one step further to say that (as a goal) this information should be shared long before the newcomer’s first day. This may allow talent (and managers) to assess whether there is real fit and an opportunity to form a healthy psychological contract.

However, to be honest — I’ll settle for this discussion on any given Monday.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever felt left in the dark concerning how to connect with your manager?

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. Her program: The Core for Managers — focuses on the importance of building core stability to a strong team. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program since 2012 — her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

What Cross-Functional Teams Might Need to Really Succeed

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Photo by Manuel Nägeli on Unsplash

 

When approaching our work, we cannot ignore the elements that provide needed support.

These elements combine to create a broad, stable foundation that acknowledges a set of decidedly human-centered needs. Ultimately, these “stabilizers” are necessary for our work to become a success. Case in point: cross-functional teams.

Cross-functional teaming arose from a vital need to deal with quickly developing challenges and opportunities in the external environment. With teams, diverse skill sets are brought together to forge an improved organizational response. However, the supporting elements necessary for this process to function to its best advantage are not always present. To understand this dilemma, we must fully explore the systems that inform or support their work.

Clearly there are underlying structures that support teaming. However, much of what contributes to the success of teams, is rarely discussed completely.

Here are a few elements I would like to consider, likely critical to the support of cross-functional teams; 1) role clarity, 2) built sense of community, 3) networks, and 4) technology/systems that inform the network. Over the years, I’ve observed how these elements have pushed their way to the forefront of leadership concerns. Interestingly, these elements explore both the quality and boundary of connection — the very essence teaming.

Role Clarity
As discussed in this now classic HBR post, psychologist Tammy Erickson schools us on the distinction between providing role clarity and controlling natural and the creative process. Here research revealed that team members must understand their role, their contributing “building block” so to speak, as their team collectively propels forward to meet their valued goals. Yet, teams are more likely to be successful when we leave room for ambiguity concerning “how ” the work is completed.

Examples such as the “Hollywood Model” — which allows the film industry the flexibility to come together, disband and re-convene for different projects. The foundation of the model is built upon a rare collection of supportive elements that provide role clarity, pay stability and fulfilling work.

A Sense of Community
In the opening pages of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a small town in Pennsylvania which on the face of things, had defied medical odds. Heart disease was nearly absent in its population under the age of 65 — something quite unusual — and no one was able to explain this peculiarity. Examining diet, exercise and genetics of Rosetans offered no clues. They smoked heavily and ingested a fat laden diet. Family members living in other areas did not enjoy the same health outcomes.

The identified explanation is surprising, even shocking. However, in retrospect it is an element that should have been in the forefront. It was the environment, which influenced well being. It was the very culture of Roseto itself. The built community.

When an erosion of that sense of community occurs in a workplace, we sense the loss — even if we cannot describe it.  We mourn it. The conversations with colleagues, the support and recognition. Ultimately, this dynamic influences the way in which team members interact with each other, with those across the organization.

Networks
There are numerous theories of networks within organizations. However, the manner in which networks are built and utilized, stands as one of the most critical concerns within modern organizations. Moreover, as organizations aspire to become more agile — how they communicate internally becomes central.

Exploring the specific qualities of a network is important. As organizations moved from traditional hierarchies to looser connections, it became evident that the problem of communication wasn’t completely solved. In fact as discussed here, networks will always have an “informal” quality.  (They aren’t always captured — within an organizational chart.) Like organizations networks must also remain agile, flowing and evolving as needed. Organizations must set the stage, to encourage their growth.

Technology that Informs the Network
While networks help carry out the work, technology platforms — and the elements they address informs those networks. Ultimately, the completeness of this set of systems must also be carefully considered. Consider the challenge of communicating key organizational initiatives. We cannot argue that the explanation of those initiatives will affect teaming and the work accomplished by these teams. However, there are often few systems to rapidly share these shifting priorities. Moreover, there is often incomplete information available internally, providing information about potential the team members that might contribute to its achievement.

Does your organization provide stable systems to help cross-functional teams? Yes or no. Share that here.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She examines the importance of core stability for people & organizations. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program since 2012 — her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

 

Build Your Core: Identify Your Personal Work Life Commandments

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Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

I firmly believe that exploring who you truly are as a contributor is vital to leading a happy, fulfilling work life. In my recent work with managers, (read more about that here) we build upon the work of Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project to explore the essence of their work lives — to harvest what they require to solidify their own managerial brand.

The process begins with an inquiry into what makes us “tick” at work — and how to acknowledge that individualized blueprint. In this post, Rubin discusses the identification of a set of personal commandments which serve as an over-arching umbrella to approach our lives. This exercise is easily applied to work life, and is fundamental to working toward an adequate level of self-awareness.

Your first thought may be that you do not have the “ingredients” to develop your own list of commandments, yet I urge you to do so. You have likely already considered (faced and applied) many of the commandments that you will include.

Above all, be true to yourself and how you approach your work life.

Here are a few of my guiding commandments:

  1. Seek inspiration daily.
  2. When in doubt, reach out, share.
  3. Preserve ideas. Respect them. Explore them.
  4. Value goals, but let go of them if needed.
  5. Connect the dots for others.

Here are a few ideas to help you identify your own work life commandments:

  • What feeds your work life? What drives you? What does your inner voice tell you to seek?
  • What advice do you offer others? What would you say to your younger work life self?
  • What words of wisdom resonate? As Rubin mentions, words of wisdom and shared advice or guidance often stick with us for the long haul. Note what has stayed with you.
  • What do you object to? Think of situations when you felt that someone received the “short end of the stick”. What happened? What would you have done differently?
  • Why you’ve left a role. Look back on when you’ve been tempted (or actually left) a job? Why did you leave? What was broken?
  • What you are seeking? What are you looking for at your next role? What are the guiding values within an organization or team would attract you? What is missing in your current role?

This takes time.

Build your list of commandments as they strike you.

Revise as you evolve.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She examines the effect of Core Stability on work life with The Core Training. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program — her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.