Does It Really Take a Psychologist?

I have been serving organizations and leaders in various capacities my entire career.  My training, education and work experience have all been focused on the growth and development of people, personally, spiritually, physically, socially and organizationally.

When I transitioned from ministry and psychology to business, I envied the folks with the MBAs, until one of my clients, who had his MBA and was also well positioned in his organization, expressed envy for my training in psychology, and said, “I think it takes a Psychologist to lead an organization these days.”  That was when I came to understand how much all of us, regardless of the educational discipline and work experience, can learn from each other and must rely on one another to build great organizations, that produce great products/services, and great people.

I came across research recently that indicated that only 17% of employees report contributing high levels of discretionary effort, meaning that they go above and beyond the daily demands, pull more than their share of the load, and tend to be the hardest workers in the work group.  That same research indicated that only 70% of those same workers intend to stay with their organization.  In other words, 30% of the hardest workers are considering leaving for another opportunity!

With the war for talent being at its peak, and promising to stay at this level for some time, leaders must engage their business and their psychological thinking to attract and retain this workforce and answer the question, “What are high performers looking for from their workplace?”

In no particular order, here is what I believe these high performers are looking for:

  • Compensation – that is a given. Do your homework to ensure that you are paying (total comp package) market value for good talent.
    • Compensation that’s a reflection of their effort (the reason I love bonus and gainsharing types of programs)
  • Respect
    • Demonstrated by leaders valuing their ideas, listening to their feedback, and honoring their work/life needs.
    • Respect that gives them greater and greater autonomy to do what needs to be done (I.e. not being micromanaged).
  • Feedback
    • Subjectively: Directly from their supervisor that tells them how they are doing in the job
    • Objectively: Visible metrics that show them and the team how they are performing against the goal.
  • Discipline that ensures that the “high performer” pool is growing, i.e. that you are challenging the low performers to step up or move out so they can be surrounded by others like themselves who are committed to their own and the company’s success.
  • Pride in their work and in their company. The realization that they work for a great company that does great things, makes great product, and serves a noble purpose, to the degree that they are willing to recommend it to their likeminded friends.
    • Pride in the fact that they are playing on a winning team, or that is the vision everyone is aspiring for.
  • Optimism about the future. Confidence in the future of the company and about the opportunity for their growth and advancement.

This is where the multiple disciplines come together.  Blending the financial and business metrics with the leadership and organizational culture to co-create a high-performance workplace designed by, with, and for high performers.

In Pursuit of a Culture of Trust

I have been reading some interesting research regarding the science of Trust from Dr. Paul Zak, professor of psychology and management, and director of The Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University.  He writes that human beings are “constantly seeking the right balance between being wily of strangers and obtaining the value of interacting with them.”  He shows how our brains are wired for greater health, joy, generosity, productivity and well-being in relationships where trust is preeminent.

It doesn’t take long on this planet to “get burned”, betrayed, or let down by the people around us.  As a parent, you know how painful it is to watch this happen with your children.

One tendency, when feeling betrayed, is to become cynical, skeptical and put barriers up that cause us to look for the worst intentions and motivations from others.  I’ve been there and done that.  Not a pretty picture.  Letting go, forgiving, and moving back to deeper relationships of trust is the only option that makes sense for me.  Risky?  Sure.  No doubt, people will let me down again.  But I still have a choice; get bitter and cynical, or get better!  I choose the Get Better option.

On the other hand, being human, I am pretty sure I will let people down as well, even if it’s unintentional.  I am hoping the realization of the common human condition will help both of us forgive one another and try again for a better relationship.  I call it, “The Triumph of Hope over Experience.”

In organizations management too often thinks employees are out to take advantage of the company, to get away with doing as little as possible.  On the other hand, laborers have been known to become cynical and distrusting of management, thinking they are out to use and abuse them for the sake of the almighty dollar or to meet some goal.  Many of us bring these past experiences of betrayal to our new work environments to the point that we are preconditioned to be self-protective.  That preconditioning will shape the lenses through which you view things to the point that you are more inclined to see signs of betrayal and disloyalty over trust and humanity, thus reinforcing your cynical skepticism.  This could be a tough cycle from which to break free.

My question:  What might occur in an organization that is pursuing a Culture of Trust?  You see, Trust is the real engine of economics and economic transactions.  In a Culture of Trust people will still make mistakes, but when they do Radical Candor would prevail.  People would address these mistakes, directly, honestly, openly and respectfully in order to achieve a better outcome for all stakeholders.  We would see each other differently.  I would look to my colleague as someone who has the best intentions, even when I don’t see them.  I would work hard to get clarity so that I don’t make assumptions.  I would do my best to provide clarity to others so they don’t make assumptions.  We would have open and honest communication, a rarity in most organizations.  We would offer our best contributions.  We would listen to and value the contributions and suggestions of others, regardless of rank.  We would spread honor where honor is due, and do so un-begrudgingly.   We would celebrate successes.  We would move into mistakes and failures with intentions to improve rather than blame.

Some say that my vision for a Culture of Trust is a utopian fantasy.  Maybe.  But the alternative doesn’t do much for me.  So, I will continue to pursue this in the organizations I work with.   The one thing that I know for certain, is that in order to make progress toward that vision, each person has to begin by looking in the mirror.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where am I making assumptions?
  • Where am I being cynical or distrusting?
  • What conversations do I need to step into with more Radical Candor?
  • What conversations am I avoiding out of fear?
  • Who do I need to forgive so I can move on?
  • Who do I need to ask to forgive me for being out of line, so we can move on together?
  • Who needs recognition or encouragement from me today?
  • Who needs feedback and clarity from me?
  • How does the work I do have meaningful impact in the lives of others?
  • Am I finding joy in my work?

Try these questions on for a few weeks before you ask others in the organization to do the same.  Let’s see how this works out.  Could be fun.

Radical Candor

I can’t get the thought of it out of my head.  I don’t know Kim Scott or her organization, nor had I ever heard of her before I saw a post on LinkedIn that referred to her organization and her highlight of this term.  I cannot overstate its simplistic value.  I have been serving as an Executive, Consultant and Executive Coach for years and have witnessed the destruction and dysfunction that results when Radical Candor does not exist.

Kim Scott defines Radical Candor as that sweet spot that combines genuine care for people with open, honest and direct communication.

If genuine care for people is missing the result is most often Obnoxious Aggression, where people are blunt, direct and lacking empathy.  This usually results in a toxic work environment that people cannot run from fast enough.  Those led by Obnoxiously Aggressive managers keep their heads down, don’t speak up, never offer their ideas for fear of receiving the blunt end of their manager’s emotional reactions.  They are in it for the pay check and are usually actively looking for somewhere else to work.

If open, honest and direct communication are missing the result is most often Ruinous Empathy.  What a great term, and probably the most valuable aspect of Scott’s work.  While we’ve all witnessed it, I am not sure we had a term to define it until now.  Thank you Kim Scott!   Ruinous Empathy creates an environment in which we fail to make the hard decisions, engage in the crucial conversations, or hold honest performance reviews for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.  We hand out titles, bonuses and raises in hopes that these acts of “kindness” will lead people to behave better and act more responsibly.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  This is just another version of a toxic work environment.  Only the toxicity is more covert than overt.  People tend to feel or get trapped in these environments because they cannot replace their salary or title in anywhere else.  They die a slow and painful death as the fires of dignity and passion for their work are quenched from within.

It stands to reason then, that the only environment in which people thrive and grow and bring their best every day are those where Radical Candor is the norm, or at least is the standard that is being strived for.  Achieving the fine balance of genuine care for people with open, honest, direct communication is truly an art.  And like all art, it is only perfected with focus, attention, and practice.

Wait, I’m the Problem Child?…Now What? Part 2

In Part 1 I highlighted what some have realized when they come to terms that they may be a problem person on their team. Maybe you’ve had the difficult conversation with your manager and you’re now wrestling with the feedback. Everyone responds to this type of direct feedback on performance in any number of ways. Some are more productive than others.What type of person are you?

Misfit: Maybe you’re just not in the right organization or in the right role. It’s not the right fit and you feel like you’ve been forcing it for some time. You’re misfit for the work or the organization. This happens all too often. You’ve known it for a while and it’s impacting your performance. You’ve just not been very motivated to do something about it. You’ve coasted with relative disinterest in your work and your team. You’re waiting for something to move you and this is your opportunity. You can quit quietly and go your own way. You don’t cause a scene and you may be able to talk your manager into calling it a mutual parting of ways. Either way, you’re out the door and on to discovering your new thing, your right fit.

*Note to managers about the Misfit. This is a change they need. They may have sat on their laurels for a while, but leaving this role is best for them and best for your team.

Combustible: No one tells you you’re not right for something. You’re the reason this company, division or department is as good as it is. You’re easily offended by negative feedback and you’ll quit and figuratively attempt to burn the place down on your way out. If your manager is short sighted enough to let you stick around for more than 15 minutes you’ll do your worst to turn your team, clients or vendors against them. That’s right, you’re in charge here. While this approach may feel good in the moment as you’re protecting your ego, in the long run you’re causing irreparable damage to yourself. If you’re this self-focused then please slow down enough to know that the only person you’re going to damage is yourself. You may not do the work to change in this role, but at least leave quietly for your own sake.

*Note to managers about the Combustible. They’ll need a swift exit. You’re doing yourself and your team a disservice if you allow them to stick around and inflict damage. Talk with HR in advance to get the support you need.

Subtle Saboteur: You’re one of the most dangerous types and you know it. Sure, you’ll play along. You’ll agree to change your behavior and you’ll bend to your manager’s request only to buy yourself time so you can inflict slow damage inside the organization. You’re not unlike your combustible counterpart, you just do it with less noise. Where the combustibles are like bombs going off, you’re like a slow gas leak. You cause as much damage, but you’re really hard to detect.  So, you can stay in your role and make it even more difficult for everyone around you before you’re forced to leave (if your manager’s worth their salt they’ll have you leave sooner than later). You really should quit if you’re going to do this. The time will still come, but you’ll have done some damage in the process. You’re just a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a combustible disguised as compliant.

*Note to managers about the Subtle Saboteur. The more specific and measurable the performance plan the better able you are to gauge commitment and progress and identify a subtle saboteur in the process.

Survivalist: You can’t afford to be out on the street so you need to comply. You don’t necessarily like the work nor do you like the people, BUT you need the job, you’re in a tough spot. You want to buy time to find another job. It’s usually finances that keep people in this situation. You need the money to survive and the thought of bailing on it is completely disrupting. Ok, that may be the case, but you’re showing up to work in a way that shows your distain for the work and the people and it’s clearly impacted your performance to the point of your superior bringing it up and letting you know your job is on the line. It’s time to get in gear. You needed a job and this one was offered to you. You chose to take it. It was your life situation that led to you needing this particular job. That’s not your organization’s fault so quit treating the people around you like they forced you into this. You have a choice. Lean into this opportunity and change your behavior. That behavioral change will be a transferable skill for you in the future anyway. And, while you’re doing that hard work of change at work, begin to get your financial affairs in order so you can set up to make an occupational leap in the near future. Meet with a financial coach or try something like Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University and get ahead of your finances so you don’t stay stuck forever. You’re a survivalist and you can do the work to improve despite the circumstances. Along the way be thinking about the type of work you want to do while you’re becoming a person whom others would want to work with.

*Note to managers about the Survivalist. You may have an opportunity to coach them in the direction you need them to go for a time. Keep an eye on their performance and have open discussion with them. You may find an opportunity to help them find another team or organization while they’re making the changes you need to see. This can be a win-win.

Icicle: You care a great deal about your work and the people with whom you work, but this feedback is paralyzing. It’s shaken you deeply and you don’t know if you can face your boss, team or clients again. You’re full of self-doubt. You’re not sure if you can get back on track or what it means to make changes. You never meant to veer off course or to be disruptive. You just got so busy and life took over. You’re stuck, unsure if you can step up and face the feedback again. You have a difficult road ahead. It’s not that the work of change isn’t possible, it’s that you’ll have to face your fears throughout the entire journey. If you don’t step up to make the necessary changes you’ll likely lose your job. If you stay frozen, you’ll miss the opportunity to rebuild trust and grow in the organization. You’ll need to let your manager know you’ll need overt support through the process. You’ll want to express your care for the work and your team and be very clear that you want to make changes.

*Note to managers about the Icicle. Be proactively supportive. They’re not self-cleaning ovens like others you work with, but they are very capable of making the necessary changes. Give them the attention and support they need and they may just surprise you.

Contritionist: This is a manager or coach’s ideal individual. You’ve chosen to genuinely take in the feedback, work with your manager or coach and work to make changes, build or restore relationships and tell a new story of yourself in your organization. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but it is possible. You like the work you do and the people you work, but you’ve run off course somewhere along the way. The feedback you’re receiving from your boss is especially difficult because you do care about what you do and the people with whom you work. If that’s the case, it’s time to step up. Pride will battle you for a bit. Who are they to tell me that I’m not cutting it? Who are they to decide how I should behave? If you’re a top performer (and you know it) pride may be your biggest hurdle. Who are they to get in the way of me hitting my numbers? Don’t they know this is part of the package? They get my numbers (creativity, innovation, etc) and my personality is part of the package.  Your organization may have tolerated you because of your numbers for some time, but they’ve hit their limit. You’re now being called to a new reality. You’re being asked to step up or step out. Channel your strong, driven personality and put it to work in changing your behavior and you’ll be able to change your story.

*Note to managers about the Contritionist. They really do want to do the work to right their course. So, be present, be specific and offer direct feedback. Coach them along the way and offer resources where you’re able. You may find an entirely new level of contribution from this individual.

Who are you and how will you respond?

Wait, I’m the Problem Child?…Now What? Part 1

So, it’s you. Maybe you saw it coming. Maybe you’ve known you’re a bit difficult for your team or boss to handle. Maybe it’s a complete surprise. Maybe you were blindsided. Regardless, you’ve now had the talk. Your boss or your boss’ boss or some kind of corporate superior sat you down to tell you there’s a problem. And that problem is you. Your performance, your behavior, your attitude, your relationships or lack thereof are about to cost you your job, a promotion or an opportunity. Whatever the issue is, you’ve been notified that your organization, team or boss has a problem with you. Your boss has identified specific behaviors and their impact on your team and organization. They’ve outlined clear changes they need to see in the way you do your work and relate to others. Even if your boss handled the conversation perfectly, it’s still difficult feedback to hear. You’ve just found out you’re the problem child. And now you are faced with making changes.

Admittedly, no one really wants to be the problem child. Sure, some people pride themselves on pushing the limits, being a renegade or bucking the system, but being the problem child, well that’s not anyone’s favorite title. And now it’s yours. What do you do?

You have some decisions to make. Yes, you have a choice in the matter. For some reason, many people forget that they’re employed at will. It’s your choice to be at work. It’s your choice to behave as you do. It’s your choice to remain the same and it’s your choice to change. All of this is volitional. If you’re reading this it’s doubtful that you’re an indentured servant or forced labor. So, you can choose to stay or you can choose to go. Don’t make it’s something it’s not. Your behavior has gotten you into trouble at work. The company will choose for you to leave unless you choose to change your behavior. That’s the arrangement and it’s appropriate. Beyond standards laid out by employment law, your organization, your CEO, your boss and your manager get to set the behavioral and cultural norms that govern what works and what doesn’t in your environment. You get to choose to live by them or exit to live without them. If this isn’t the work you want to be doing nor the people you want to be working with go ahead and leave. You’ll be doing yourself a favor and can go search out work you actually want to do. And the team you leave behind will feel a weight off their shoulders as well. Win/win.

Everyone’s initial reaction to such direct feedback paired with what may be an ultimatum is a bit different. Most people are initially hurt. We all respond to such hurt in different ways. Some of us are defensive. Some of us are immediately contrite. Some are sensitive and deeply moved. Some are stubbornly resistant appearing unmoved by the feedback. Some still shut down and boil inside. There are a wide variety initial responses to this type of feedback. Some are more damaging than others. If you’re one to speak quickly, this is a time to slow down your response for your own sake. You can’t take back what you say once it’s out there. You may be hurt, offended or confused. Those are common experiences. This type of feedback is unsettling. You’ll be shaken up for a while. How you respond impacts how this process will play out.

You must decide what kind of person you are and how you’re going to respond. You may be a Misfit and realize the role or environment you’re in isn’t the right fit, so you leave. Or you’re a Combustible and you respond explosively and toxically. Maybe you’re a Subtle Saboteur and you stick around quietly inflicting damage on your team or organization from the inside. You might be a Survivalist needing the job and may make necessary changes to satisfy a need to keep the lights on at home. You may identify more closely as the Icicle who desires to make positive changes, but freezes in place paralyzed by fear induced by the negative feedback. Then there’s the Contritionist who genuinely leans into the process and embraces the coaching working to change their story in the organization. Each type responds differently and have their unique impact on the organization and their team. Stay tuned for greater detail on these types in part 2.