Calm in the Storm

Practical Strategies for Effective Management

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What We Can Learn from Other Drivers: Culture in the Workplace

corporate culture

A recent trip to Arizona reminded me how complex culture is across this country, and how much of it is revealed by ordinary aspects of everyday life. In Tucson Arizona, highways are smooth and elegantly designed, and not surprisingly, there are no frost heaves! Drivers drive close to the speed limit, rather than 5 or 10 miles over it. Yet, like many of us, I have been in other states where the norm appears to be more aggressive and competitive. Some drivers refuse to pull over for others entering the highway, despite a disappearing on-ramp. Some states “economize” by making on-ramps serve double duty as off- ramps, which means that rapidly accelerating cars are sharing space with those that are slowing down. Use of turn signals may be absent, or yellow lights ignored, or rolling stops may be common, depending on a region’s “road culture.” We have all observed these phenomena, and some states and cities have the reputation for having terrible drivers or misbehaving pedestrians. I have lived and worked in a dozen different states and one foreign country and have my personal list –what’s yours?

You might argue that this is a fairly silly way to think about culture, although it is something we all have experience with. Culture is a highly complex field of study with a huge presence on the web. But identifying the culture that you are working in is very important, especially when starting a new job. So beyond driving patterns, how do you identify the culture in your new environment and work place?

The most important rule of thumb I have learned is: Pay Attention!

I start my observations with the formal:

  • What is the organization’s structure? Is there an org chart? Is it flat? Hierarchical? Team based? And, then, how does it REALLY work?
  •  Are there written policies? Are they followed?
  •  What happens at meetings? Do people show up on time? Is there an agenda? Are the meetings useful?

A disconnect between formal documents about structure or rules and how they are actually practiced is a signal that something needs attention. Are the policies outdated? Illegal? Arbitrary? Or are they good up-to-date policies that are not honored? It’s the same with the org chart: If everyone ignores boss X, and goes right to X’s supervisor, you need to ask yourself what is going on? Do people routinely make end runs around the org structure? Is there a problem?

Then, I try to observe informal interactions:

  • How do people address each other? There are still some professions, places, and regions, especially in other countries, where people do NOT routinely use first names. When is it appropriate to do so? Do executives insist on titles, but call staff by their first names? “Name calling” will tell you a lot about an organization!
  • Who eats lunch with whom, or does everyone eat at their desks?
  •  What celebrations are there? How are the organization’s successes celebrated? An annual holiday party? A picnic? A lunch? Does the office celebrate birthdays or the anniversary of date of hire?

I’ve seen the range there: One president sent me a birthday card, which very much surprised me– and it really didn’t feel appropriate since we saw each other only a few times a year. Another organization gave out 5 year service pins. Sigh. I once was a new manager in an organization that celebrated nothing, which, among other things, reflected a culture where people felt unappreciated and suspicious. I instituted an annual “reception,” with refreshments, candle light, music, and wine–out of my pocket– to celebrate individuals’ accomplishments. Despite pushback and suspicion at first, over a number of years it became an eagerly anticipated event. Although I left that workplace years ago, they still hold the reception every year.

Finally, how are raises, resources and perqs distributed? In my view, some ways are more productive and fairer than others:

  • Do prime vacation weeks go to those with the most seniority? First come, first served? Grace and favor? To those with kids? Random assignment?
  •  Who gets new computers, prime office space, or new office furniture?
  •  And raises? What are raises or bonuses REALLY based on?

While there is a lot more to culture than these few examples, of course, being successful in the workplace means being attuned to its culture. If it is a good one, celebrate and nurture it! If it is not, your awareness can help you find ways to nudge it into more productive practices, depending on your role and responsibilities. But be aware that it can take many years to change a negative work culture; and it is nearly impossible to change a pathological one.

Personnel Pathologies

 

Everyone knows the stereotypes– often heard when employees have an opportunity to complain. Meetings with groups of employees often end up as complaint sessions: The boss is both too distant and is a micromanager. Or there is a team bully, or a whiner, or a free rider. Or there’s the guy who steals your ideas or the woman who gossips behind your behind your back. Then there is the disappearing lunch or pen kleptomanic. From the seemingly insignificant to serious workplace menace, all of these stereotypes and many others are out there in every American workplace…

Or are they?

While it is one thing to complain, it is another to assume that negative behavior in the workplace is somehow “normal,” and therefore must be tolerated. Whether you are a manager or an employee, there are effective strategies for dealing with personnel problems before they become pathological.

It is not enough to recognize the behavior or even to try to understand it. It is important that we all develop strategies for changing the problematic behavior. I have three favorite resources that I consult when trying to deal with a behavior pattern that raises this kind of complaint.

The first is a wonderful personnel handbook called Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job by Alan A. Cavaiola and Neil J. Lavender (2000). What I like about this one is that it identifies the various “toxicities” that might be in the workplace and then suggests strategies for dealing with them, depending on whether the individual is a co-worker, subordinate, or your boss!

From the world of government comes this short article by John W. Myrna discussing the various types sitting around the table—and strategies for dealing with them. The article, “The 8 Worst Behavioral Archetypes on Executive Teams” is from Government Executive, October 6 2014 ( http://ow.ly/Jxksp) There are some excellent insights here, whether you work in government, the non-profit world, or business.

Finally, I would add C. K. Gunsalus’ excellent The College Administrator’s Survival Guide (2006). This funny, insightful and powerful book crosses over easily into today’s bureaucratic work environments, and again, Gunsalus writes about solutions, not just problems.

The moral of the story is, whether you are the boss or not, you can provide the antidote to the poison that makes a toxic work environment.

Disaster Preparedness at the Office

blizzard

As I look at the weather maps showing some serious weather bearing down on us in the Northeast, I can’t help but think about the importance of disaster preparedness for good managers. Too often “risk management”  simply means insurance policies for some folks.  For me, risk management is also about being prepared for disaster:

Step 1: it is important to have procedures!

  • Weather related (Blizzard of 2015?)
  • Power failure
  • Fire or chemical spill
  • Technology breach or failure
  • Ransomware!
  • Dangerous individuals

Step 2: If you don’t have procedures, develop them!

  • Talk with your colleagues
  • Review the Small Business Association’s disaster preparedness website at: http://www.sba.gov/content/disaster-preparedness
  • Consult with your local police and fire department
  • Talk to your IT people
  • Think!

Step 3: What is your post-disaster plan?

  • What do you need to have ready to get up and running? Where and how will you access it/them?
  • Back up files?
  • Contact lists?
  • Communication plans?
  • Alternate service sites?

But it is the day before the blizzard is going to strike. It is too late to develop procedures now, so what can you do today? Of course your first responsibility is to your family. So if you haven’t filled the gas tank on your car and gathered up the batteries, water, and extra milk yet, do it now.

If you have a few minutes left at work?

  1. Back up all your files on a portable drive and stick it in your pocket. Yes, even the ones in DropBox or ICloud—you may not have internet access at home. Even if you have a generator, the cable company needs external power to get your internet service to you.
  2. Bring along any hardcopy reading you’ve been wanting to get to.
  3. Grab your most critical paper files.
  4. Take your list of home phone numbers.
  5. Shut off all the equipment, so your computers, copiers, and so on aren’t hit by an electrical power surge.

My list here is pretty short, and there may be more that you really need to have at home given your industry. Maybe it is client contact info? Or head office contacts? Or field people?  Board members?

Now, enjoy the snow. Make a big pot of chili or soup, get out the board games, and revel in having a snow day!

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