leadership dot #2633: rip currents

While on vacation at Lake Michigan, we were warned to watch out for rip currents, a force of water that occurs away from the shore. Swimmers can get caught in the waves near a sandbar and feel the pull of water toward the center of the lake.

Instinctively, swimmers fight the current and attempt to head against it back to shore. While this may be their first reaction, it is the wrong one and will only serve to tire the swimmer. A far more effective response is to swim parallel to the shore until you are past the rip current and then you are able to return to the shore with ease.

I think rip currents occur in organizations, too – places where strong emotions or opinions bubble up and create disruptions all those in the area. You may feel trapped in the current of dissent and expend your energy fighting it. Better to take the counter-intuitive route and go about your business in a parallel fashion; ignoring the currents rather than getting sucked into the drama.

leadership dot #2621: shifting

I have noticed lately that the relative size of products is shrinking each time I purchase them. The dog treats are just a wee bit smaller in the new package. Snack bags used to be in boxes of 50 for $1, then 45 and now 38. Fountain beverages were 32 oz. and now are only 30 oz. in some places. The scrubbing pads used to be packaged 10/box but are replaced with 8/box for the same price.

Unless you are really paying attention or happen to have both the old and new side-by-side, you likely won’t notice these changes…

…until they reach a tipping point and you do.

The same is true of organizational culture. It’s barely perceptible when civility first takes a hit or morale shifts a little in the wrong direction or the vision becomes a bit fuzzy. People don’t notice when the standards start to lax or the transparency begins to fade – until the culture reaches that tipping point and suddenly the lapses aren’t so insignificant anymore.

Most changes – for better or worse — occur incrementally. It’s far easier to pay attention and address minor shifts rather than being oblivious until an obvious change has occurred.


leadership dot #2548: labyrinth

Navigating a change process is like moving through a labyrinth – you need to pay attention to the process or you’ll get lost. As I told my Organizational Behavior class, creating change goes against many of the natural inclinations that we have. You need to intentionally pay attention to the change effort itself – not just the outcome you seek — or your actions will carry you in ways that are counter to your effort.

Some examples:

  • Leaders who forget that they have been thinking about change long before they share it with others will be negatively impacted by the Leader’s Lag (dot #2317). You must remember your message is new to others and therefore allow time for them to absorb the idea – even though by the time you share it, you are ready to jump into motion.
  • Changemakers inherently think they can go from the old to the new but will get tripped up if they forget about going through Crazytown first – that period when both the old and new are still present. You must intentionally prepare your team for that period of confusion. (dot #2301)
  • We naturally think that once the change happens, it is the beginning. Not true – William Bridges teaches us that the first stage of a transition is the ending and leaders must help their team deal with loss and limbo before expecting forward motion. (dot #75)
  • Leaders must also fight the natural inclination to squelch tension that occurs. Peter Senge’s rubber band analogy reminds us that the further “current reality” is from “future vision”, the more tension that occurs. Conflict means that you are getting someplace! (dot #371)
  • It’s also tempting and the first impulse to jump right in and start making changes. The School Retool framework reminds us to start with an aspiration (the why) and then identify small experiments that can lead to the desired behavior. Even though we want to act now, we need to know where we’re going before we just head down the road. (dot #2358) We also need to see our actions through the lens of learning rather than just doing, with the former more important. (dot #2359)

Change management is becoming an increasingly important skill in today’s fast-moving world, and, ironically, the faster we move the greater the tendency to focus on the outputs instead of the internal process driving the change. Do yourself and those you lead a favor and be the exception. Helping people through the labyrinth makes it much more likely that the change will endure.

leadership dot #2432: ice

First, the Midwest was besieged by snow, then frigid temperatures and then ice. I think most believe that ice is the worst of all the conditions – first, because you have no control when driving on it, and second because there are so many times when you can’t even tell it is there.

Ice is the invisible hazard; it seems like the road or sidewalk is clear, but a thin layer of danger lurks that makes forging ahead almost impossible.

In many organizations, there is a toxic employee that acts like ice. On the surface, things appear to be normal but what is underneath impedes progress. Others proceed as if conditions are fine – as if there are no objections to a change – but then slip and fall because of the unseen ice, or at best they are only able to move forward at a significantly reduced pace.

Those in the organization who act like rain or snow and make their presence (and opinions) visible are far easier to deal with than those who remain icy silent. It is often what is not seen or what is left unsaid that causes the real damage.

If you’re an organizational leader, you need to proactively apply the equivalent of sand or salt to mitigate the impact of ice on your efforts. Don’t let people skate by who create the invisible barrier to your progress.

leadership dot #2418: whacked

There are probably some people within your organization who do not feel like they have a voice in larger issues or policies, yet some of those people have forfeited their voice by choice. In unhealthy cultures, it is easier to remain quiet, doing your work under the radar rather than paying the price that people who speak up often pay. If raising questions or pointing out issues only results in pushback or creating enemies, why is it worth it? It is often so much easier to just go with the flow.

The same is true about being informed; if you remain blissfully ignorant of the issues, you relinquish your obligation to address them or to engage in finding a solution. You can focus your efforts on the surface instead of tackling the hard stuff that lies underneath.

Cultures that don’t provide the psychological safety and overt encouragement to foster disagreements, challenges and risk-taking fall into a muted rhythm where things hum along without disruption – until they don’t. Avoiding issues does not solve them, rather it just prolongs their emergence and intensifies the reaction that occurs once the festering bubbles to the surface.

If you find yourself in a culture that operates like the old Whac-a-Mole game – where anyone who pops their head out of their hole is beaten down – you have two choices: find a critical mass of “moles” to pop up with you, thus avoiding the silencing of all or find yourself another culture where you can do your best work. It may be uncomfortable to stick your head out and use your voice, but it’s the only way change can really happen.

leadership dot #2322: fitting in

When you start a new job or move to a new city, one of your goals should be to fit into the environment. That doesn’t mean changing who you are, rather being conscious about the symbols and signals you send about making a new place your home.

In the workplace, some of the strategies you should employ from the beginning are to learn (and utilize) the jargon and acronyms. Nothing will highlight your newness faster than pronouncing something wrong, calling a department by the wrong name (eg: business office vs. finance department), or by using the full name instead of the commonly used shorthand. It’s also important to be intentional about appearance, lunch and break norms and communication culture (eg: do people use email, drop by in person or schedule an appointment) and work ethics.

If you moved to a new location for your job, it’s important to assimilate into the out-of-office environment as well. Even though I was very active and consciously immersed myself in the new city, my efforts were offset by other signals I unconsciously sent that trumpeted that I wasn’t from here. I kept my cell phone number so had a different area code than most. I drive a car brand that doesn’t have a dealership here. I live in a new subdivision so my address isn’t familiar to long-time residents. As a result, my involvement made it feel like home to me, but to others, I am still often seen as an outsider.

Fitting in is a two-way process, whether that be at your job, as a tourist or in a new city. You may overtly choose to forge your own path and do things in ways that are different from the others or you may try to replicate behaviors. You may opt to pass on acclimating yourself to the town and instead learn things as you go or you may deeply immerse yourself in its culture. The key is to make your choice with intentionality, knowing that you can always do more or less to both feel like home and to be seen as being at home.

leadership dot #2278: culture

The book I chose for class, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, had me nodding my head the entire way through it. “YES!” I wanted to shout as he recounted story after story about how little actions add up to create significant enhancements to an organization’s culture and individual behavior.

Coyle outlines three skills that his research shows are necessary for an effective culture:

  1. Build Safety
  2. Share Vulnerability
  3. Establish Purpose

To create safety means that it must be safe for team members to speak up and to embrace candid feedback. He advocates going beyond “not shooting the messenger” who delivers negative news but to actually embrace that person and thank them for sharing the news that the leader needs to hear.

To create vulnerability, the leader must demonstrate this first by admitting challenges and continuously encouraging input from others. “I screwed up” and “I need your help” are two key phrases that are infrequently in the leader’s vocabulary but should be. Coyle writes that vulnerability creates trust and must come first, not the other way around as is commonly believed.

In order to establish purpose, leaders must take care of each other and cultivate the culture as the first order of business. By sharing frequent stories, inside phrases, reminders of the reason for existing and creating high-purpose environments leaders reinforce the connection to something bigger than the moment and create a safe and meaningful culture that allows groups to learn quickly and to become more successful.

It is not easy to admit vulnerability, to hear negative feedback or to prioritize taking care of colleagues as the primary mission but the initial discomfort is far outweighed by the benefits a safe culture provides. Coyle’s book provides a set of action steps to help develop the three skills, and all are small steps that are repeated with consistency over time even when they are uncomfortable at first. Start today by purposefully letting your guard down and saying: “I don’t know” or “I need your help” and help your whole team make it a habit to express those sentiments as well.

With the tight labor market, changing generations and the high cost of employee turnover you can’t afford not to pay attention to culture as your organization’s most valuable asset.

The Culture Code: Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle, 2018