The Outsider Within

On May 14, 2015, in Insights, Uncategorized, Workplace Culture, by Phillip A. Jones

outsiderIt is natural to want to work with people who share your values, sense of humour and validate your world view.

Most of us don’t want to be challenged or provoked on a daily basis. We just want to do a good job, work reasonable hours in a positive workplace, go home, get paid.

Strong and effective teams are often those who share the same vision professionally, been forged through common experience, and feel they have each other’s back.

But the reverse of that strength are teams that reinforce complacency, or accept less of each other’s professional standards because it gives them permission to ease off too.

They’re comfortable, and assume the default position of ‘good enough’.

Sometimes that’s the result of no leadership, or having a leader whose become their friend, and cannot exert any challenge else risk the good vibes they enjoy. Perhaps they’ve been together for years, and without realising it they’ve created a space that reinforces mediocrity.

With poor motivation, members of the team in turn feel they’re only going to expend the minimum effort, because that is all they feel the job (or their pay) is worth, or how they’re valued.

Then there is also ‘this is the way its always been done’ culture. It speaks of inertia and a team that is no longer challenged to be better, or wants to learn from its experience.

Another feature of this way-too-comfortable culture is a lack of accountability and candidness with each other. There isn’t the feeding information up the governance ladder.  They’ve stopped caring, or feel that their superiors are disengaged with the reality of the workplace, so they tune out.

One of the common cures for these scenarios is the appointment of a new leader to be the ‘new broom’.  They’re appointed to rev up the team, set new standards and hold the team accountable.

More often as a result there is an attrition of team members who move on, and new people brought in and that can make a positive difference. A healthy purging.

Alternately, consultants are brought in when there is a manager or leader in place to provide a fresh perspective, but not every organisation can afford that luxury.

A third way is having a team member who has the perspective of an outsider. They might be a contractor or consultant to do a particular job, but rather than get cosy in the workplace culture, they are there to speak truth to power and reflect back constructively on workplace performance areas that should be challenged.

The role needs to be overt and their place understood in the organisation, so that any feedback, usually critical, isn’t seen as a negative or destructive tone for the sake of it. It is their job to retain to a perspective and help hold the organisation accountable to its own values and goals.

This may be mean some distance in workplace relations to help retain objectivity, but they are not there to be a spy or white ant team performance.

Their role is to have the best interests of the organisation at heart and help identify blockers that stop it realising its potential. They can also be a catalyst for change by challenging the team to higher performance, including the leadership team.

Over time as successes are achieved and recognised, the culture of self-reflection as a team may be embedded and the appointment may become redundant, its mission accomplished as the team becomes accountable to each other.

Alternately, someone in the team adopts the role for each project in turn and can offer ‘black hat’ perspectives in a constructive way.

But whatever means are used, all teams + workplaces can gain by having a perspective that challenges them to better performance + standards.

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Thoughts on the Absent Leader

On March 7, 2015, in Insights, Workplace Culture, by Phillip A. Jones

IMG_0836Delegation, autonomous teams, self-directed work, are they a cop out?

In 2015 the idea of directing every detail of a team’s work reeks of micromanagement and a sign of a poor performing team.

Of course each workplace and role is different, some positions require more direction that others, workplace organisation differs, and the experience of the person in the role will impact the level of management support required. In a knowledge economy the ideal is a team that gets on with the job to the required standard without the need of a supervisor, along with the expectation of a work-life balance culture.

In theory if you recruit well, and have good systems in place, then shouldn’t the appointment be perfect for the role and apply themselves with diligence? Of course its not that like in the real-world, we all being imperfect creatures and variable on a daily basis.

How far done the ‘hand’s off’ management road do you go before the leader is so absent that its every person for themselves in the workplace?

Having consulted across all sectors, there is no particular ethos for the public, not for profit, association or private sector. Sometimes the management style is laissez faire because the manager is simply too busy doing their own job to manage their team, other times its the culture of the workplace, sometimes its intentional and nearly always well-intentioned, but the results can be the same.

A few years back in conversation with a director of a a very busy commercial SME I was told that their management style was to allow their staff to get on with their job without their input, as to direct them daily would reflect a lack of trust on their professionalism.

There was no overall direction, no pulling together of the team on a daily or weekly basis,  no reflection on a job well-done or not, no vision or goals described, no motivation or accountability conversations unless asked.

There was just the annual performance review, or the opportunity to grab them for a decision or input on the fly.

The director applied the same approach to themselves, the result being the team not knowing if they were going to be in the office, and needing to manage upwards to get the input or decision point required, with a lot of energy second guessing what may be required on a daily basis. This resulted in a lack of relevance + authority of the leader to the team.

There was also a strategic impact on the organisation: with the workers acting independently, the potential of all the teams intellectual and professional capital being harnessed collectively to a goal was a missed opportunity.

The upside of this scenario was that the workers did collectively form a sort of accountability over several years. They made up for the lack of strategic + tactical direction themselves, with a token reference to the leader, which was admirable.

There was also a strong team culture formed by a core group – solidarity you may say.  The work ethic was strong, and this was just as well, for the workplace flexibility could as easily been abused.

But there was no overarching goal being worked toward, the focus was tactical, daily, weekly or project driven.  Like most organisations, I think, the only time anyone referred actively to the business or strategic plan was for governance reasons as a tick the box exercise.

It is said that most people want just a few things from their work:

  • Clear boundaries of what’s expected of them
  • What the professional standards required are of them: so they know when they’ve done a good job
  • Pride in their work and recognition
  • A positive work culture and association with their work
  • The opportunity to develop their careers and professionally
  • Reasonable work conditions, flexibility and renumeration.

Without an active and present leader in the workplace these norms cannot be established or applied consistently, and the vacuum is filled by subjectivity, personalities and short-term fixes, albeit often well-intentioned.

To my mind, its great to have professional autonomy in one’s work-life, and be treated as an adult who know’s what one is about. But without a collective vision of what the team is working towards on a daily, weekly or longer term basis, plus the accountability to ensure standards, the multiplier effect of a well-led team is lost.

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The team + leadership appointments

On January 27, 2015, in Insights, Workplace Culture, by Phillip A. Jones

typewriterIt is well understood now that most people leave a role due to their manager or workplace culture generally rather than as a purely financial driver.

Yet when seeking a successor to a manager or director, its usually the executive team or Board that both define the skills, qualities+ experience they are seeking and conduct the selection process.

But the people who have to actually work with them day in day out are rarely, if ever, consulted.  They are the ones who have to executive the directives of the new leader, know better than anyone the realities of what it takes to get the job done and are the ones most impacted by the skills + personality of the new leader.

Certainly management isn’t a popularity contest, and its rare a company can institute a Maverick/Semco solution where leaders are voted for, or key decisions are voted for via employee democracy.  But it seems to me a missed opportunity if the team are not consulted with when designing the selection criteria, or considering the qualities required in the workplace.

The appointment of a new leader is a risky and delicate moment for the organisation and team. The selection team or employer want to make sure the time consuming and expensive process sees the appointment of someone who can drive results quickly and see the organisation prosper.  They often take the opportunity to reshape the strategic direction or set new KPIs.

The staff naturally hope the appointment allows them to keep the things about the job they like, and improve on the ones they don’t, and the new appointment wants to shine and make a difference.  Everyone wants to win. But those ‘wins’ can be quite diverse and rarely shared with the main stakeholder groups.

With any appointment the risk is always there that there will be attrition from team members who don’t like the appointment for various reasons, such as personality, new workplace culture or the KPIs put in place as the new leader wants to put runs on the board.

I don’t think the risks are any greater or less if the appointment is from within or without. With the former there will be team members who are not fans of the appointment, or are too familiar for them to exercise effectively the new authority. So whilst they may seem the one who can step up easily with minimum disruption, they may come with baggage.

With an external choice, they may have a mandate from the people they report to make changes, or drive results that may be at odds with the current culture. But to carry that off they need to bring the team with them and attune to the workplace culture quickly. With advance insight from consultation as part of the process that can be done so much more easily.

By taking the team into their confidence and asking for input the selection panel can mitigate some of these risks as part of the overall mix. The team can provide insight into the workplace, the key needs of the organisation as they see it, and the qualities they see a new leader needs to have as part of the selection process.

As a group I suggest they will be mature enough to know that they are not going to get their next best friend by coming up with a wish list. The fact they are asked at all sends a powerful signal too that they are valued by senior management. Most people want the best for the place they work for, and understand that the next appointment will have responsibilities to answer for and there will be some changes they can expect.

The caveat, of course, is that they would have to understand that by presenting a shopping list of their dream boss will not result in that coming about, but at least they’ll have been heard

Through this consultation process those involved will have gained insights into the organisation they may not have otherwise received, had a chance to be listened to, and the new appointment can be well briefed on the team’s perspective, leading to a well-informed appointment.

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