What To Do When Your Organization’s Culture Sucks

You may be compelled to stay with your company because the pay is good, the work itself is rewarding, or your peers are like family. But the organization culture is mediocre, at best. What do you do when the organization’s culture sucks, but the reasons to stay outweigh the motivation to move on?

I’ve been in this scenario many times: managers who fail to walk the talk, inane policies that defy logic, and practices that thwart progress at every turn. But along the way I’ve learned some lessons about what it takes to survive – even thrive – a company culture that seems to get more wrong than right when it comes to empowering people to contribute to the organization’s success.

10 Traits of Sucky Cultures (in no particular order)

  1. Lack of leadership accountability
  2. Emphasis on maintaining the status quo
  3. Undefined processes
  4. No opportunity to participate in decisions
  5. One size fits all solutions
  6. Command and control management
  7. No support for professional development
  8. Unclear expectations & mixed messages
  9. Undervaluing in-house expertise & insights
  10. Thinking only about the bottom line

Create an Island of Health in a Sea of Bad Culture

So many quips and quotes come to mind as I think about advice for carving out a little slice of heaven in the midst of organizational Hades:

“If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.”

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

I’m sure you can picture a hallway in your organization filled with motivational posters collecting dust. They are artwork, at some level, but certainly not beacons of inspiration that the purchasers envisioned. There used to be a Successories store in every major mall in America, but the platitudes and pictures of teams high-fiving and individuals scaling summits were so far from reality that they subconsciously demotivated us.

So what do I do if I’m committed to my job but am in an environment that brings me down? How do I keep going when the organization is doing so much to stop me from progress? Here are five recommendations for creating your island of health in a sea of bad culture:

  1. Know what you can do – and know your limits. Understanding your boundaries will help you adjust your mindset and not become overwhelmed by all that could and should be fixed. You may have no authority or power to fix policies, but you may be able to put some order to your world that makes things easier to manage. At the same time, be aware of signs that workplace stress is taking a toll on your health. No matter the benefits/reasons for staying with the company, when your health takes a hit, it’s time to walk.
  1. Become a stealth influencer. It’s amazing what you can do when you go undercover to influence up and down the org chart. Covert operations allow you to make recommendations and suggest improvements subtly, little-by-little. You may also benefit from piloting tweaks to processes and practices, sharing your positive outcomes after the fact. True, you probably won’t get recognition for your brilliant ideas, but your workplace will be better, which is more important.
  1. Bring others with you. You don’t have to be stranded alone on that desert island – bring someone with you! Band together with others who are committed to their jobs and want to see the organization culture improve. Partnership alone can do wonders for your job satisfaction! And even if you can’t make a cultural breakthrough, having a colleague to commiserate with will get you through hard days. Commit to being a mutual encouragement to one another.
  1. Be a burr with a sense of humor. Identify a few things that are worth fighting for and be the burr under the saddle of those who are in positions to do something about it. This is probably the most challenging of the five recommendations, since it takes an ability to pester without being labeled a pest. You don’t want to lose your influence, but you don’t want the door slammed in your face either. The key here is to have a sense of humor. If you present every opportunity as an urgent crisis you’ll not be heard (like the boy who cried “wolf!”.
  1. Celebrate successes, however small. Yes, it may be a “party of one,” but do take the time to recognize when your efforts have been successful. Whether it’s a grin as you leave your boss’s office with a new inch of ground, or a more tangible celebration (like cake!), it is important to your psychological well-being and continued motivation to reward yourself when progress is made.

There are plenty of articles and books, and consultants like myself who are available to assist leaders in creating positive workplace cultures, but if your executive team has yet to crack open any of Edgar Schein’s great works on designing culture perhaps the advice above will keep you engaged in the meantime. Or you might want to pick up a copy of one of these books and initiate a “lunch & learn” to talk about what might be done to create a great workplace culture!

By Edgar Schein:

The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, 2009

Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2010 ed.

By Others:

Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture (Cameron & Quinn), 2011

Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture & Organizational Design (Argyris), 2012

(Order below from the CreativeGapMinding Bookstore):

      

We’re Peers, Not Rivals

Have you ever wished you could go back to a previous job or workplace situation and do things over again using the knowledge and skill you’ve acquired since that time? I can think of several circumstances that I am much more prepared for now than I was in the moment. There are conversations I would have guided differently, concepts I would have used to solve a challenge, and attitudes that have evolved over the years that would have been much more beneficial.

Do-Over

Focusing on interpersonal do-overs, I imagine a few things come to mind. For me, there are 2-3 significant situations that I wish I could go back and re-do: a rivalry with a coworker when I was in sales; a time when I became so entrenched in a position that I couldn’t hear others; and a missed opportunity to confidently present my idea to someone I allowed to intimidate me.

The study of emotional intelligence reminds us of the importance of knowing our own motivations & emotional triggers, and how to become more intentional about how we engage with those around us. Our attitude towards something drives our actions, so we have to use the right attitude and words if we are to optimize a situation.

Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Choosing the right attitude can change the outcome of a situation, and when it comes to those we spend so much time with in our workplaces, it’s critical that we give thought to the best attitude that will move us toward positive results for ourselves and others.

Getting on the Same Side of the Stream

So, how do you view your coworkers as a whole? Certainly there are some you would call friends and others you would call rivals, even enemies. If you’re competitive by nature, perhaps you would consider most of your coworkers “friendly rivals.”

I am a word-nerd, meaning that I really enjoy studying word origins and meanings. Language and word choice are important, so I seek to understand how a word evolved and what that means to how it is used to communicate an idea. Rivalry (a person or thing competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity) is a deficit-based attitude that believes that resources are limited and only a few can win.

Rivalry comes from the Latin word for stream (rivus): rivalis means “a person using the same stream as another” or “on opposite sides of the stream.” As neighbors vied for use of the limited resource of the water supply, the territorial arguments could become heated and may last for generations. In our contemporary workplaces we fight for budgetary support, strategic placement, favor from the boss, and any number of tangible and intangible resources.

But what if instead of rivals we take on the attitude of peers? A peer is an equal, someone of the same status, someone who is on the same side of the stream as we are, working side-by-side with us to achieve a common purpose.

I know it seems like a simplistic, utopian position to take. It sounds like “be nice, be positive, and you’ll win.” But there is more to it than that. The field of Positive Organizational Scholarship, which applies the concepts of positive psychology (what’s working vs. what’s broken), led by the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations, provides some compelling research about attitudes and behaviors that lead to thriving organizations.

Toward Positive Organizations

In their article “Prosocial Motivation at Work: When, Why, and How Making a Difference Makes a Difference,” Adam Grant and Justin Berg  define prosocial motivation as “an employee’s tendency to care about benefiting other.” When we view our colleagues as peers, we are motivated to help them achieve their own success. Research shows that as we help others, our own productivity rises and we are more engaged in the collective success of our peers (or at least a chosen few).

The research from the Center for Positive Organizations is slowly making its way into mainstream business dialogue. For those more academically inclined, and who don’t mind carrying around a book that’s 3-4 inches thick, the Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship is an excellent resource. There are also many articles and more “pop-business” books on various aspects of positive organizations.

Our workplaces are complex social structures, with multifaceted layers of social and relational dynamics making it difficult to navigate. The sense of urgency within mot organizations leads toward an expeditious (decide now, justify and think through the details later) culture. This alone can foster rivalry between colleagues and business units.

Choosing to see coworkers as peers rather than rivals creates a mindset that leads to cooperation, creativity, and collaboration. The synergies and partnerships that are formed through a peer-based mindset take energy that would normally go to competitiveness and territory-protecting behaviors and funnels it into something much more positive.

Evaluate Work Relationships

Make a list of the people you interact with most in your organization. Make a column for “rival” and another for “peer.” As you go down the list and check which of those relationships are peer-based and which ones are rivalry-based, think about what drives the competition in your rivalries. Jealousy? Limited resources? Personality?

How could you see your rivals as peers? What attitude adjustment would create a more collegial mindset and foster a “same side of the stream” approach to working with those people?

     

OD-Jobs: Organizational Development is Everyone’s Job

building togetherWhat is Organizational Development?

Organizational Development, or OD, is hard to define. Ask a dozen people and you’ll get 15 answers! To most professionals, OD encompasses change management, organizational culture, leadership development, and organization structure. I’ve worked in organizations that use the term organizational development as an aggrandized term for training.

OD practitioners will argue that their work centers on planned change efforts intended to improve productivity through cultural initiatives such as employee engagement, process improvement and effective performance management. The international Organization Development Network defines OD as

an effort (1) planned, (2) organization-wide, and (3) managed from the top, to (4) increase organization effectiveness and health through (5) planned interventions in the organizations “processes,” using behavioral-science knowledge.

Matt Minahan, current board co-chair of ODN, defines the field a little more clearly…

“Organization Development is a body of knowledge and practice that enhances organizational performance and individual development, viewing the organization as a complex system of systems that exist within a larger system, each of which has its own attributes and degrees of alignment. OD interventions in these systems are inclusive methodologies and approaches to strategic planning, organization design, leadership development, change management, performance management, coaching, diversity, and work/life balance.”

Organizational Development is Everyone’s Job

When this list is viewed in light of the day-to-day operations within an organization, it is possible to see how everyone in the organization carries the responsibility of OD. Since we are all part of the complex system that makes up the organization, our role is to either maintain or influence to ensure forward momentum and effective operation.

As an individual contributor I participate in organizational development by either complying with processes or challenging them to ensure they are effective. I manage my performance, respond to coaching, and openly communicate ideas and concerns.

If I actively contribute and challenge in a sincere and positive manner, I expect to be heard and valued as a member of the system. This requires a management philosophy that not only seeks out staff participation, but is not threatened by unsolicited feedback that questions management decisions. This level of transparency and vulnerability is possible when humility permeates the organization. This, of course, is easier said than done, since we have a strong tendency to self-promotion and self-protection, both of which make it difficult to accept criticism without defensiveness.

Culture Shift is Happening

I believe organizations are gradually learning that there is a great benefit to employing the whole person, not just the part of the individual that aligns with the job description they were hired to fill. A whole-person mindset in an organization allows for full engagement, nurturing innovation, and sharing ownership of the organization’s success at all levels.

When individuals are fully engaged, they look for ways to improve, they lead change efforts rather than waiting to be told what to do, and they feel like what they are doing is significant. While I see things moving in this direction, I know it is a difficult transformation. The forces that are pushing for this type of change encounter resistance from the forces of power and control.

Organizational Development Utopia

I have identified a few things that an organization can do to build the type of full-engagement culture where everyone takes responsibility for organizational development.

First, I believe it takes a process of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I know these concepts are not associated with corporate culture, but they should be. Management needs to come clean about how they have focused more on outcomes than people. Employees have been used, abused, and threatened into performance. At best, this has resulted in either mediocrity or short-lived peaks followed by valleys of burnout and performance rebellion. Employees must confess that they have often withheld their best thoughts and energy in response to their perceptions of management manipulation.

Second, organizations have to rethink processes, especially the conduits of communication. Ruts and grooves are formed over time as the same path is taken over and over again, but our desire for order and predictability may be leading us to a grave, not a garden of opportunity. We must regularly evaluate how we’re doing things and listen to voices of the processes, our people, and the customer and be open to rethinking our strategies.

Third, organizations must forego expediency for wisdom. Executives pride themselves on making quick decisions, believing that their experience and knowledge alone ensure their decisions are the best. But no amount of experience can take in the sage advice of stakeholders up and down stream. Sustainability and maturity come through listening and wisdom, not expeditious control.

Fourth, build on successes and use an asset-based mindset. We like to be seen as problem solvers. With hammers in hand, we hunt for nails that need to be pounded back into place, but maybe that’s not the most productive use of our time. Instead, perhaps the more beneficial approach is to take the time to look at the abundance we’ve created as an organization and focus our attention on harvesting more of that success. In other words, we can choose to see our workplaces as rife with fires to be extinguished, or places of great wealth that needs to be invested.

Finally, creating a fully-engaged workforce requires investment in developing skills, in expanding the world for team members. Tunnel vision occurs when we fail to look beyond our own workplace to see what is going on beyond our virtual walls. Employees should be actively involved in professional organizations and accountable for introducing new ideas into the organization.

I have labeled these five cultural imperatives as utopian because, as optimistic as I am, I know about human nature. When things are going well we will commit to a positive plan of action, building teams and putting money into developing people in our organizations. But as soon as challenges, like a major economic crisis, come our way, we throw development out the window and adopt a command and control management style.

Our half-hearted commitment to doing the right thing perpetuates mediocre organizational life where positive development and effective leadership are hit and miss. This inconsistency causes confusion, disillusionment, and self-limiting behaviors. We can’t afford this approach any more. As companies like Google, SAS, Zappos, QuickTrip, TD Industries and W.L. Gore have discovered, it’s possible to focus on people and profits at the same time. A concentration on one does not preclude the development of the other. It takes enlightened executives willing to forego business as usual to create a culture of full engagement and mutual ownership for organizational development.

Cultural Savvy in the Training Room

Unconsciously baked into every training program are a group of biases, preferences, and approaches that overlook the cultural and sub-cultural realities that training participants bring with them to the classroom. With increasing regularity the training room is filled with a diverse mix of individuals that, without attention to this reality, could be hampered in their learning if trainers and instructional designers don’t develop some cultural savvy.

A good diversity program encourages awareness of and appreciation for a laundry list of differences from ways of thinking (cognitive diversity) to education, socio-economic background, race, gender and age. We learn not to judge others for those differences, but to find common ground. We look for ways to learn from one another and draw on each person’s strengths as we work in teams and strive to reach the organization’s goals.

Diversity training is seen as a program – something that good companies do to help employees get along and create goodwill in the community. Yet as our organizations become more global and cross-cultural, little has been done to ensure training is conducted in a way that makes sense to the globally diverse workforce.

With western dominance in the area of training development, most training programs are designed within a very narrow framework by instructional designers with little, if any, training in cultural dimensions.

Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede is well-known for his longitudinal study that led to the identification of six cultural dimensions:

  1. Power Distance: the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
  2. Individualism vs. Collectivism: loose-knit social framework where individuals take care of themselves vs. a tightly-knit social framework where relatives and in-groups take care of one another.
  3. Masculinity vs. Femininity: Traits that are considered masculine are achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material reward for success. Feminine traits are cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life.
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance: the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
  5. Long-term vs. short-term orientation: Societies with a short-term orientation generally have a strong concern with establishing the absolute Truth. In societies with a long-term orientation, people believe that truth depends very much on situation, context and time.
  6. Indulgence vs. restraint: Indulging societies allow for free gratification of human drives for life and fun. Restraining cultures suppress gratification using strict social norms.

Watch Geert Hofstede talk about the Seven Deadly Sins in a Multicultural World

  1. Trainers and instructional designers should learn about the cultural dimensions. In addition to Hofstede’s view, Robert House led a study of 62 societies in the GLOBE study. Both Hofsted and House are good starting points for understanding cultures.
  2. Find a middle-ground that avoids extremes that can cause a learner to shut down. The best approach is variety. Use difference teaching methods to ensure all cultures are engaged at some point during the training. Go from lecture, to small group discussion, to role-playing/experiential exercises.
  3. Know your audience. To the degree possible, consider the cultural diversity within the classroom and adjust your approach accordingly.
  4. Adjust as you go. Watch for reactions of participants and try different teaching methods if it seems learners are indifferent, disengaged, or even hostile. This is a good practice no matter what the makeup of the class, since there is some level of diversity in every training session.

American’s tend to like trainers who are high-energy, humorous, and get the audience actively involved. I’ve witnessed this approach in global contexts as a U.S.-based trainer is sent to England, Bangalore, or Manila to conduct product training. This over-the-top, highly individualistic and indulgent style often did not resonate with the audience, who was used to lecture-style training within a strict hierarchy.

The opposite can happen, too, as a lecture-based training can be viewed as boring and un-engaging by American’s who want to be actively involved through exercises and dialogue.

Conducting effective training in a global context is becoming increasingly difficult. Cultural savvy is a critical element that will greatly benefit trainers who want to ensure learning is taking place.

Every culture has its biases, preferences and values. Developing an understanding of cultural differences and proactively building training programs to incorporate the dimensions of culture will lead to more effective training. An additional benefit of building cultural savvy into the training room is that walls of miscommunication are broken down and relationships are forged.

Purchase these books from the Minding the Gap Bookstore:

Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across NationsCulture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 SocietiesCultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Third Edition

Investment-Based Performance Improvement

I am a certified performance technologist (CPT). What in the world does that mean? According to the International Society for Performance Improvement, a CPT has proven the ability to apply the ten competencies of human performance improvement in a way that makes a positive performance difference to an organization. Don’t worry, this post is not going to be a shameless self-promotion. I want to focus on my approach to performance improvement and how I’ve shifted my focus from ambition to investment.

First, an overview of the competencies of human performance improvement (HPI):

The 10 Standards of Performance Technology, which are based on four principles and following a systematic process to improve performance, ensure that the Certified Performance Technologist has conducted his or her work in a manner that includes the following:

  • Focus on results and help clients focus on results.
  • Look at situations systemically taking into consideration the larger context including competing pressures, resource constraints, and anticipated change.
  • Add value in how you do the work and through the work itself.
  • Utilize partnerships or collaborate with clients and other experts as required.
  • Systematic assessment of the need or opportunity.
  • Systematic analysis of the work and workplace to identify the cause or factors that      limit performance.
  • Systematic design of the solution or specification of the requirements of the      solution.
  • Systematic development of all or some of the solution and its elements.
  • Systematic implementation of the solution.
  • Systematic evaluation of the process and the results.

Performance improvement, when done with these standards in mind, can be a powerful tool in any organization.  Any time an individual or work group applies a systematic, intentional process to making things better, the results can be like compounding interest in a savings account, leading to great gains over time. The practice of performance technology is a focused effort to innovate solutions to systemic challenges.

Why Your Approach to Performance Improvement Matters

I want to contrast ambition-based performance improvement and investment-based performance improvement.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives three definitions for Ambition:

  1. an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power b: desire to achieve a particular end
  2. the object of ambition <her ambition is to start her own business>
  3. a desire for activity or exertion <felt sick and had no ambition>

All of these uses of the word ambition center around an individual trying to get his or her way. Ambition is self-promoting. The original usage applied to those going around town to solicit votes for election. So if I initiate a performance improvement effort from an ambitious mindset, I am first looking at my own rank, power, and ability to influence others to my way of thinking.

Investing, on the other hand, focuses on what I can give to another, making them the center of attention rather than myself. Here’s what Merriam-Webster provides as definitions for Invest:

  1. [Medieval Latin investire, from Latin, to clothe] a: to array in the symbols of office or honor b: to furnish with power or authority c: to grant someone control or authority over : vest
  2. to cover completely : envelop
  3. clothe, adorn
  4. [Middle French investir, from Old Italian investire, from Latin, to surround]: to surround with troops or ships so as to prevent escape or entry
  5. to endow with a quality : infuse

I like the picture that we get from the first usage above: to array in the symbols of office or honor. It ties to the idea of empowerment and equipping people with the tools and structures to succeed in their work. I am a strong believer in servant leadership, which fits perfectly with an investment-based performance improvement methodology.

Investment-based performance improvement has four distinct characteristics:

  1. Humility
  2. Humor
  3. Harmony
  4. Honor

These 4 H’s, when used in conjunction with the competencies of performance technology, create an environment where individuals work collectively for the good of the organization while building one another up.

Let’s take a look at each of the characteristics.

Humility.

We don’t talk much about humility in the workplace. Our western culture views humility as a weakness, something that gets in the way of ambition. Many view humility as unrealistic in the cut-throat world of the marketplace where it’s “eat or be eaten.” But humility is making a resurgence in the marketplace. Good guys (and gals) really can finish first.

Humility breaks down barriers of communication, disarms individuals from protecting their territory, and allows us to listen. When we are driven by ambition, we cannot hear what is being said because we are always looking to promote ourselves and our solutions. But with humility I can truly listen, truly desire to hear, and see where the insight emerges, even if it doesn’t originate with me.

Humor.

It may seem odd to make humor a characteristic of investing, but it makes such a big difference that it warrants an honored place as an essential element in working with others toward common goals. When I say humor, I am not talking about sarcasm, jokes, or laughing at the mistakes or shortcomings of others. Instead, humor as an investment gives us perspective. It is the ability to look at a ridiculous situation and see it as it is – a case of human reality at its finest and most sublime.

Many of us have lost our sense of humor in the workplace. We have become cynics or comics, but have no good humor that allows things to slide. We are quickly offended, proud of our fast retorts, and use humor to tear others down to make ourselves look better. But humor as an investment intentionally laughs at challenges, sees the irony and chooses to smile instead of lash out, and promotes light-heartedness over criticism or caustic remarks.

Harmony.

Harmony embraces diversity, especially cognitive diversity where we bring together different perspectives, unique insights, and approaches to situations that may be foreign to our own experience or preference. Harmony as a performance investment looks to blend ideas from multiple sources into one beautiful arrangement that is infinitely more than anyone single individual could accomplish.

To create a harmonious workplace requires that we look at each individual and learn to appreciate what they bring to the party. We have a tendency within our human nature to look for homogeneity – we immediately seek out those who are like us. It makes us feel comfortable, part of the group. But diversity is all around us, and we must promote harmony through building rapport with those who see things differently, looking for areas of agreement, but mostly striving to appreciate their point of view and working to integrate the best from all sources.

Honor.

The final characteristic of investment-based performance improvement is honor. Honor and harmony are kindred spirits, since honoring someone can lead to harmony. But I keep honor as a distinct characteristic because of its importance as a mindset toward other people. Honor has to do with “a showing of usually merited respect.” When we honor someone, we hold them in high regard. We see them as a person of value, worthy of investment.

In another sense of the word, we consider it an honor to work with certain people, or to be recognized by them. When it comes to investing in someone else, to make their ability to perform at their peak level, we should consider it an honor. That person may be on a different level in a corporate hierarchy, but if we choose to see it as a privilege to assist them in their success, our ambition takes a back seat.

Investment-based performance improvement, using the 4 H’s as the philosophical starting point, sparks a positive change in the workplace. Whether a certified performance technologist, a supervisor working with a team of customer service reps, or vice president of national sales, you are making an investment in the lives of others. Ambition has its place, but when our ambition centers on our own power, glory, and advancement we quickly become blind to how investing in the performance of others raises all of us to a higher level. When you raise others up, you go a little higher yourself, but then you realize that isn’t really what it’s all about after all.

For more about Human Performance Technology and the Certified Performance Technologist designation, visit the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI). If you decide to join, make sure you list me as the one who referred you!

Fundamentals of Performance Improvement: A Guide to Improving People, Process, and Performance

Making the Pieces Fit: Right Person-Right Job-Right Organization

A couple of years ago, when I was managing a group of trainers for a large financial services firm, I needed to backfill a position when a trainer was promoted within the company. We lacked internal bench strength, so following the culture of promotion from within wasn’t a viable option. I would have to hire externally. Personally, I welcomed this opportunity because I felt we needed some “new blood” in our organization.

As I sorted through dozens of resumes and began narrowing down the candidates, there was one individual who stood out to me as unique. What he lacked in industry experience I was confident he could overcome with his ambitious, unconventional perspective. I wanted to shake up the rest of the trainers, and I was committed to hiring a diverse team to broaden the perspectives of the group and encourage them to learn from one another.

So I ignored the concerns of a couple of people I had invited to participate in the interview process and went with my gut. What I learned is that sometimes your gut needs to listen to the guts of others!

Jerry was probably the worst hire I have ever made! Almost from the beginning, when he was a participant in the training class, he began stirring things up, but not in the exciting, positive way I had envisioned. Over the next two years I coached and disciplined him until it was obvious we needed to sever the relationship altogether.

What I now know is that company fit is a two-way street. An article published in 2005 by researchers at the University of Iowa (Kristof-Brown, Zimmerman & Johnson, Personnel Psychology, 2005) addresses Person-Environment fit. Fit can be considered from various angles, such as person-supervisor fit, person-organization fit, person-workgroup fit, and so on.

Recruiters and hiring managers may have some instinctive knowledge, and maybe even some formal training, in screening individuals for organizational fit. There is a desire to find out if someone will be a good fit for the culture as well as provide the necessary skills and experience to do the job. Often, though, organizations do what I did with Jerry – they fail to look at things from multiple perspectives, so they miss things that could become a problem down the road.

The most useful person-environment factors to consider are vocation fit, job fit, organization fit, and workgroup fit.

Vocation Fit

Remember the career interest inventory you took your senior year in high school? Your results showed a laundry list of possibly occupations based on what you selected as most and least desirable in the assessment. I think some of mine included funeral director, teacher, librarian and zookeeper. Often there is little personal counseling that goes along with these assessments so you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what you might want to be when you grow up!

We assume that individuals have figured this out before they start applying for jobs, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked why someone wants a particular job and they respond with “I really like to help people.” That’s great! But why help people through this job? Why does it satisfy you? Why is this career of choice? I ask my college students what they plan to do after graduation and most of them say “get a job.” Minimal effort seems to be put into discovering strengths, passions, interests, and vocational fit.

Job Fit

Assuming the individual has made a thoughtful vocational choice, the next step is to consider job fit. My wife used to laugh at me early in our marriage when I would look through the want ads and circle jobs (yeah – remember the days when you had to get the Sunday paper to find out who was hiring?!) that I didn’t have the credentials for but was convinced I would be a perfect choice for! Or I would apply for jobs at companies that I would not enjoy working in.

As job seekers we get into the desperation trap of “I just need a job – any job – and I’ll keep looking if its not the best one.” With bills piling up we quickly jettison the idea that we need a job where we can thrive – we’re just trying to survive. We become overly optimistic and let the dollars guide us.

The opposite happens with organizations and hiring managers. I’ve made desperate hiring decisions just to fill a position quickly, then regretted it later. In the call center world we called it “butts in seats.” In retail we had a similar approach – the “fog a mirror” test. The assumption is that its better to have someone…anyone…than no-one. Some industries just come to expect a certain amount of turnover.

But have you noticed the difference between the fast-food associate that is a good fit and the one who isn’t? They are in the right vocation – customer service – and in the right job. They smile, interact, and do their work with pride. In some ways its harder to measure this as people climb the ladder. They have the experience, skills, and credentials. But do they fit with your job?

Organization Fit

There are a few ways to look at organization fit. First, is there values alignment? Job seekers have to find out if what they believe about life and work meshes with what the company believes about life and work. Do they produce products and services that we think are harmful in some way? I once worked for a company that provided customer service for companies that sold adult videos, psychic readings, and online gambling sites. I didn’t know that until after I started working for the company, and it gave me some heartburn to be associated with such a company.

My first human resources job was for a century-old food manufacturing company that was hiring their first HR Manager in the company’s history. It took them at least two years to pull the trigger on posting the job. The average tenure of the executive team was about 20 years, so most of them started with the company right out of college and never left. As a young, ambitious, and out-of-the-box HR Manager, I was in for an awakening! I had a blast going in and setting up a new department, having the autonomy to create priorities and projects. But after about three years I had done all I could do because my desire for progressive programs did not fit the culture. They needed someone who would maintain what I had set in place.

As organizations become more active supporters of a variety of causes, from gay rights to immigration reform to global warming, job seekers have to do their homework to decide whether they fit with such an organization. It requires asking specific questions about values, priorities, and practices. Read articles about the company to see what may be below the surface of the company web site.

Workgroup Fit

At the workgroup level both the job seeker and the employer need to evaluate whether there is a good fit with a particular team. I’ve worked in large organizations that are a conglomeration of multiple sub-cultures. If the workgroup is in a location apart from corporate headquarters, how is the culture different? Is there dysfunction, infighting, or an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to working with other departments?

When I worked for a regional department store chain I was in one of the premier stores in a large mall in a large city. I would visit our stores in smaller cities and the culture within the store was completely different. There is a different talent pool, with smaller towns typically having less turnover. I’ve often found that the less turnover there is, the more likely the workgroup is receptive to change and new ideas. This isn’t always the case, but it’s important to check out.

Over a ten-year career in retail I worked in or managed virtually every department. As a 20-something male, I was assigned to manage a cosmetics department of 30 women for a couple of years. What an experience that was. Talk about a challenging workgroup fit!  Why my boss thought this was a good position for me, I don’t know. And why I accepted it shows that I didn’t give much thought to workgroup fit!

Evaluating Fit is Everyone’s Job

Job seekers and employers both have a responsibility to evaluate fit. At the highest organizational levels processes need to be in place to ensure values and priorities are clearly communicated at every level and location of the organization. Human resource policies and practices need to promote evaluation of fit, with hiring managers receiving training on how to screen at the four levels of fitness.

With high unemployment and fierce competition for jobs it will be difficult for job seekers to honestly evaluate fit, especially at the organization and workgroup levels. Individuals will accept positions out of desperation, blindly hoping that they can push through the discomfort they may have with the workplace. It won’t take long for things to surface and productivity will likely suffer. Co-workers will be affected and HR will be called in to help fix the situation.

We will continue to see tension within our workplaces from a failure to consider fit from employer and employee angles. Misalignment of skills, values, personalities and priorities cause friction and misunderstanding. As an HR Manager I frequently had discussions with hiring managers over whether it was better to keep a position open longer, taking a risk with productivity, or to keep searching for the right person. It’s difficult in the moment, because there are lines of customers waiting to be helped, or projects put on hold, or machines running at less-than-capacity. But in the end, the productivity and positive ripple effects for the workgroup and organization when the right person is in the job typically outweigh the less-than-stellar outcomes of a poor fit.

Suggested Resources

Who: The A Method for Hiring

Order Who: The A Method for Hiring from the Minding the Gap Bookstore!

Match: A Systematic, Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time

Order Match: A Systematic, Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time from the Minding the Gap Bookstore

What Color Is Your Parachute? 2012: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers

Order What Color is Your Parachute? 2012 from the Minding the Gap Bookstore!

Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type

Order Do What You Are from the Minding the Gap Bookstore!

 

 

Tai Chi, Aikido and the Art of Managing Change

A Woman does tai chi.

A Woman does tai chi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the Temple of Heaven as our backdrop and surrounded by tourists and locals filing by on their way to the ancient attractions, our group learned a Tai Chi routine in the middle of a walkway with the buzz of the vast city around us. It was a surreal experience.

I was traveling with a group of university students who were in the China for a month to learn about Chinese business practices. The contrast between the chaotic setting of noisy, polluted and over-crowded Beijing and the tranquility of tai chi provides a fitting metaphor for organizational life.

If you’re not familiar with Tai Chi, the focus is on calmness and is a good way to manage stress. The Japanese version of Tai Chi is Aikido, which emphasizes redirecting of energy rather than attack. Aikido also adds in elements of Judo. The principles of Aikido include acknowledging what is coming toward you, accepting the current reality, and redirecting the energy away from bodily harm.  The benefits of both of these martial arts forms can be realized without the religious attachments associated with them.

I was certainly not a quick learner of Tai Chi, but appreciate the mental focus and athletic control it takes to master this beautiful art form. And I appreciate the metaphor that helps me better understand the possibility of peace in the midst of chaos, the ability to turn off the noise around me to focus on what I can do to manage my situation – to redirect my energy toward something useful.

The three principles of Aikido provide a positive framework from which to manage change, whether personal, organizational or cultural.

Acknowledge: We cannot live in denial. Change is all around us and often comes when it is least convenient, causing disruption to our current state. It is important to acknowledge that change is inevitable and to acknowledge that we seldom have much say in the changes that come at us.

Accept: We accept that the change is upon us. This is where choice comes into play. We can put up our defenses, bury our heads in the sand, or start swinging. We don’t accept the outcome of the change, but we accept that the change is taking place and that we have to decide our response. We accept responsibility for how we react. It is in these moments of choice that our character is shaped.

Redirect: In Aikido, the energy that is coming toward the attacked person is redirected, not resisted. As change comes toward us, we can either try to block it, or take it and redirect our thinking, our posture, and our practices toward something useful and positive. Redirecting doesn’t mean we stand by passively.  Instead, we look for ways to adjust, and by choosing this course we set a constructive tone for ourselves and those we influence.

Recommended Reading:

HBR's 10 Must Reads on Change Management (including featured article 'Leading Change,' by John P. Kotter)

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World Revised

In the Midwest? Join the Omaha Organization Development Network on Sept. 26th for a conference featuring Meg Wheatley. For more information, visit the Omaha OD Network site.

Be the Change

Gandhi during the Salt March, March 1930. Fran...

Gandhi during the Salt March, March 1930. Français : Gandhi pendant la Marche du Sel, mars 1930. मराठी: महात्मा गांधी दांडी यात्रेत. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a quote-collector. I have a database of hundreds of quotes that I’ve collected over the years: everything from pithy statements about life, profound thoughts on leadership, and inspiring words that reflect truth in a compelling way. It amazes me how putting the right words in the right order make a message quotable. Some seem to have the gift of saying really insightful nuggets of wisdom in just the right way – our attention is aroused and we compelled to write the statement down…or more likely copy/paste.

Probably one of the most popular quotes of our age is

“be the change you wish to see in the world,”

spoken by Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a good one! They are deep words that call us to action – we can’t just wish change to happen, we have to put ourselves into it. And we know that Gandhi did just that, ultimately losing his life because of the changes he wished to bring about.

What is powerful about this quote is that we can apply it immediately in small ways within our own worlds, as well as in large ways by initiating or joining large-scale change efforts.

“Be the change” applies to the workplace, the family, the community, and the global stage.

  • I can be the change in my home – setting an example of healthy communication that can have a positive impact for generations to come. 
  • I can be the change in my workplace – instilling high ethical principles into my decision-making that build trust, collaboration, and progress.
  • I can be the change in my community – by getting involved in service projects and actively supporting associations that make a positive impact.
  • And on the global level, I can be the change by becoming a citizen of the world – someone who learns about other cultures and joins causes that raise people out of poverty and hopelessness.

Once you know your values and passions you can begin to look for opportunities. How can I be the change in my dysfunctional family? What new traditions can I create? What new ways of talking and behaving can I initiate to begin building the legacy I want to leave? Go through this same exercise for your workplace, church, places where you volunteer and places you read about. A great resource to help you with your values inventory is The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes & Posner.

Another quote that is humorous while at the same time profound is, “If nothing changes, nothing changes. Think about it!”

A good story

Do you have a friend or family member who is great at telling stories or recounting events? My wife, Jenifer, is an amazing storyteller. It’s one of the things that attracted me to her in the first place. She can take the most mundane encounter and make it into a dramatic tale with an unexpected plot twist and even a moral to the story. I’m envious of her and others who can engage people in what they have to say. They make everyday life interesting and see things that others don’t see.

Stories are powerful and leaders are becoming increasingly aware of how they can shape a company culture. As the workplace becomes more complex we need stories to ground us and connect us to one another. Global organizations span multiple cultures, yet need to have a central theme that bonds them across geographical boundaries.

Zappos has done a great job in leveraging social media to tell their story. Type in “zappos” at YouTube and you’ll get over 5,000 hits! Some of the videos are posted by Zappos leaders and employees, but others are submitted by loyal customers. Same thing goes for TOMS shoes – there are more than 2,000 videos that tell the story about how TOMS shoes was founded, how they give away a pair of shoes for every pair sold, and how they’re changing the way we look at corporate social responsibility.

I’m still practicing my storytelling skills and have made this an intentional focus because I believe the way we tell stories to one another shapes our views and attitudes. I enjoyed listening to Jeanne Baer at ASTD-Lincoln yesterday. She shared 7 reasons why stories work as a tool and 8 different types of stories we can use, depending on our goals and situation. I’m looking forward to hearing Rita Paskowitz share her approach to storytelling at the Omaha Organization Development Network meeting next Wednesday.