leadership dot #3896: platitudes

The old Field of Dreams movie slogan “If you build it, they will come” seems to have morphed into an organizational mantra of “If we say it, it must be true.”

I hear it espoused when talking about organizational culture and when organizations boast about a great work environment when I know the reality to be different. I hear bosses say that they welcome feedback and have an open-door policy but I privately hear their staff members are afraid to speak up. I see organizations proclaim their commitment to diversity and inclusion but continue to take actions that are the opposite of support.

Just because you put a nice saying in your lobby or orientation packets doesn’t make it so. The real evidence shows up in behavior, not platitudes.

leadership dot #3878: crickets

An intentional marketing strategy calls for stores to put some of their “loss leaders” or discounted items right at the entranceway as a way to entice consumers to put an item in their cart. Target has its “Bullseye” section of $1-5 items, and other stores put seasonal merchandise or tempting treats right when you enter. Retailers have proven that if customers put something in their cart, they are more likely to add items to it, so displays are frontloaded to jumpstart that buying process.

The same psychological trickery can benefit you in meetings. If you are faced with crickets during your time together, a way to circumvent the silence is to structure your agenda so that others begin talking right from the start. Early engagement sets the tone for people to continue their participation and signals that you are not the only voice at the table.

You can accomplish this through a rotation of “nuggets” (dot 108), check-in questions, or an icebreaker, and by assigning others to lead the opening exercise or by sharing responsibility to have different people kick off the meeting with a fun activity or treat. You can also inject some silliness like Kim Scott’s “Whoops-a-Daisy” to encourage people to open up. What you do is less important than having others become active at the beginning. It’s the meeting equivalent of putting one thing in the cart — one comment often leads to others.

Even if you’re the convener, don’t carry the whole load yourself. Instead, create a consistent structure for others to use their voice and wisdom to create the engagement you seek.

leadership dot #3868: well

Yesterday I wrote about medical debt that was in collections due in part to not being able to cover the deductible (dot 3867). You may think this occurs only for a few patients, but FDIC reports that 32% of Americans would struggle to cover a $400 out-of-pocket emergency!

Based on this information, our local credit union is conducting a “Be Well” campaign, urging its customers to be financially well by setting aside funds to cover unexpected expenses. They report that 41% of its members have at least $400 in savings — better than the national average but still dismal.

What are you doing to enhance the well-being of those you serve? The credit union has taken a broad view of wellness and has appropriately focused on fiscal health. Recently, attention has been paid to employee wellness but it can go beyond those who work for you to tending to your customers or those you impact. Consider what aspect of holistic wellness aligns with your mission — spiritual soundness, mental health, physical fitness, emotional balance, social support, or cultural well-being — and prioritize attention in this area. Everyone benefits when everyone is well.

leadership dot #3864: iced

Unfortunately, our area was hit with ice as part of the recent Olive storm. Everything was coated with a thick, frozen layer, making treacherous passage for vehicles, humans, and animals.

Unlike a snowstorm, the drizzle that created the ice was almost imperceptible as it came down, different from looking out the window and seeing flakes. Yet, the final effect was more hazardous than a snowfall as the ice is more pervasive and difficult to get rid of. Snow can be shoveled but ice-coated branches and thick layers across sidewalks cause more lasting disruption.

I think toxic employees are a bit like ice — you may not even notice that they are drizzling their negativity into your environment until it has touched everything and hardened. You may feel it before you see it, but once it’s visible, the damage may already be done.

If your own observation or clues from others warn you that an organizational storm is forming, proactively take steps to prevent the ice from coating your culture. Turn up the heat by addressing the issue or employee directly. Put out warning “salt” by reinforcing positive norms to help lessen the impact. Accelerate the “melt.” by redirecting emphasis to focus on mission or values. Don’t let your best efforts be frozen in place by those who seek to ice you out of your leadership or influence.

leadership dot #3852: roots

I read about a tradition in the United Kingdom whereby a traditional court hearing — complete with a jury and a black robe and wig-wearing judge — takes place every year to assess whether the British coins met their established standards. Known as the Trial of the Pyx, it has occurred every year since the 12th century and is designed to keep the coinage uniform, free from counterfeiting, and within regulatory requirements. Nearly 8000 coins are tested over three months before a verdict is provided to the master of the mint. It’s a unique tradition but one of many that keep history and heritage alive in Britain.

What does your organization do to anchor the present to its earlier roots? Some organizations celebrate or have the day off to commemorate their Founder’s Day. Others feature displays or photographs that showcase key figures in the development of the organization. Some only look back on anniversaries or at times of leadership transition.

Keeping your history alive can help team members feel a sense of belonging and connection to a bigger purpose. You probably don’t have an elaborate tradition that dates back centuries but I’m confident you have an aspect of your organization’s development that is unique. Be intentional about carrying out a tradition that recognizes what has made you be you.

leadership dot #527a: Santa economics

I asked a friend who has young children what the hot gift was for the kids this Christmas. He replied that his young daughter wants a special Lego kit — that costs $130! When she told him about it, she said: “I would never ask you and Mom to buy it because it costs so much, so I am asking Santa for it!”

Do you have things in your organization where it seems like people are asking Santa instead of Mom and Dad? Things that come out of a capital fund seem more like they are from Santa instead of operational expenses out of your budget. Leases or long-term contracts seem easier to swallow than paying a six-figure sum up front, but it still costs that much in the end. When building a home, it somehow is more palatable to add in a thousand-dollar enhancement, but if we paid $1000 out of our checking account it would be painful.

Economists have shown that the more direct link there is to the cash, the smarter people are with their expenditures. What steps can you take in your organization to help your employees understand that Mom and Dad are paying the bills and not Santa?

Originally published in modified form on November 10, 2013

leadership dot #3806: soup

A friend asked if I wanted to join him at a soup luncheon at our local elementary school. It was a benefit to help raise funds for field trips and extra-curricular activities so I went, thinking it would be a low-key affair. Instead, we had a hard time finding a seat! The entire gym was full of tables, groups of children were singing from the stage, there was a silent auction, and the place was decorated to the nines.

What impressed me the most about this affair was that everyone — from kindergarten on — played a role in the event. Students decorated placemats, made thank you cards to hand out as we were leaving, made the table decorations, tied the silverware bundles with yarn, and provided all the entertainment. The students were also the only servers and table-clearers and they did their jobs with gusto! I’ll bet we were asked a dozen times if we wanted anything else to eat.

If the funds had been gained solely through the auction or other donations, it would have raised money but not increased the pride or ownership the students gained by hosting the event themselves. Think about this luncheon the next time you’re involved in sponsoring an event — whether that be a holiday party, retreat, or fundraiser. Those who contribute their time and talent gain more than just treasure through their involvement.

leadership dot #3787: turnaround

The hiring of Matt Rhule as the new University of Nebraska football coach isn’t something that would normally catch my attention — but then I saw he was given an eight-year contract. That caught my eye!

Nebraska used to be one of the premier programs in the country but has certainly lost its luster in modern times. They have amassed five national championships and over 900 wins but haven’t had a championship since 1997 or even a winning record since 2016. An eight-year contract is an acknowledgment of the magnitude of the rebuild.

Kudos to Nebraska for recognizing that the turnaround won’t be quick. Too many times, the new hero is trotted in on a white horse and faces unrealistic expectations. They bubble with optimism that the new vision will soon be realized, and then everyone faces a letdown when reality sets in. In Rhule’s press conference today he was asked about bowl games and championships but replied: “We don’t have the right to talk about that today. Let’s talk about spring practice.” If only more organizations and leaders were as pragmatic.

Rhule spoke of the great senior-level support he had at Baylor and Temple that “calmed the waters” when people were restless about the speed of success and allowed the program to “eventually break through.” The length of his contract speaks to the commitment Nebraska is willing to make to do the same — and is a reminder that change agents need to cultivate the support of those in power who can protect them.

Keep an eye on the Coach Rhule story as it unfolds. It could turn out to be a case study in change management — having a clear vision of how you do things, seeking senior support up front, being realistic about a timeline, finding alignment with the needs of the organization and skills of the implementer, concentrating on player (staff) development rather than only recruiting superstars, seeking input from the players (front line staff) to gain the knowledge they have regarding issues and solutions, focusing on “what’s next” then working on the small things every day, and trusting that if you pay attention to process the wins will come. Rinse and repeat over eight years and it becomes a new day for Big Red — and any organization with the patience to rebuild its culture.

leadership dot #3762: stepping

I often hear from people who are worried about stepping on the toes of others so they hold back or forgo involvement altogether as their fear outweighs the perceived benefits. It is such a loss of creativity and wisdom.

If you have ideas that transcend your narrow scope of responsibility and are hesitant to share them, you can smooth the way by indicating your intent upfront. If you clearly communicate that your goal is to make the organization better, it may make your idea more palatable than if your motives are unclear and could be perceived as trying to outshine another. Rather than resisting, the other party may actually cede the floor to you and allow you to do your dance without disruption.

If there is pushback, take steps to gradually impact the culture that causes these barriers. Ask for advice from the resisters on how your area might do things differently. Publicly praise those who contribute constructive feedback or provide alternative solutions. Reward those who see the bigger picture and offer system-wide suggestions.

Watch for signs that your staff is holding back and do all you can to get them to open up. “Under-stepping” is more detrimental to organizations than overstepping is.

leadership dot #484a: perspectives

My two dogs bark like crazy fools when they are out in the yard and someone walks within six houses of mine. It doesn’t matter if the walker is alone or walking dogs of their own, the response is always resounding.

But when I take my dogs for a walk and I am the passerby, they never utter a sound. Every other dog that we pass either barks, howls, or yipes loudly, but my two just stroll on their merry way in silence.

It seems to be an apt metaphor for change. If you are cozy in your own yard, going through your routine with pleasure, you bark like crazy when change approaches from the outside. You are adamant that your happy equilibrium not be disturbed and you are quite vocal that you want nothing to do with it.

But if you are on the outside, there seems to be nothing to fear. You are going about your business without thought of the impact you have on others, even if those others have four legs.

Employees often “bark” when change from the outside approaches. Managers often are puzzled as to why there is so much fear or resentment. The next time you are on either side of the change effort, think about my dogs. Sniffing each other before barking may be a good strategy.

Originally published in modified form on September 28, 2013