Archive for the 'Topical Discussion' Category

Due Process

Monday, March 10th, 2008

This past February, the always excellent This American Life radio program (heard on your local NPR radio station) aired an episode entitled “Human Resources”. Among a few other interesting stories in that week’s, they had a piece concerning the NYC Department of Education’s Teacher Administrative Reassignment Centers (often referred to as the “Rubber Rooms”).

To provide some brief background, the NYC Department of Education currently has program where teachers who are under investigation for a work-related infraction or a performance issue are placed in a probationary status (allegedly often without a specific charge provided) and reassigned from their classroom duties (with full pay) to a local Administrative Reassignment Center. They must report each day to the “Rubber Room” and are given nothing to do but sit and wait until the NYC DOE completes the disposition of their case. This process can take months or even years.

An excessive bureaucracy and inefficient process of rectifying these cases, a strong union that makes it difficult for the DOE to remove bad (or even dangerous teachers), and even a convenient method of keeping “whistleblowers” or the more vocal critics of a particular policy or school administration at bay have all been alleged as reasons for why this practice currently exists.

How does this topic relate to employee engagement? To underline the fundamental importance of employers maintaining a timely and fair process when resolving employee-related performance issues. Imagine working in an organization where, after finding yourself involved in some kind of workplace incident (a heated altercation with your boss, for example), you were, perhaps without the benefit of any indication of what you were being accused of, instructed to sit in a particular conference room each day (with pay) indefinitely until the matter could be further investigate and resolved. The appearance of guilt prior to any formal charge or conclusive investigation coupled with the intense boredom of being in a daily state of administrative “limbo” certainly represents, at the very least, an unhealthy and unfair process.

If you are interested in reading more on this topic, there are a number of interesting articles available on the subject including “Class Dismissed” by Mara Altman (found in the April 17th 2007 issue of the Village Voice and “Where Teachers Sit, Awaiting Their Fates” by Samuel G. Freedman in the October 10th 2007 issue of the New York Times). In addition, a documentary film on the topic is currently being developed by Five Borough Productions and some clips of their work in progress can be found at their website here.


Keeping It Simple…

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

In the field of OD-related consulting, there is never a shortage of required reading and new learning opportunities. Books, magazines, webinars, podcasts arrive and pile up – it can get a little overwhelming at times. You try to prioritize, find new techniques to more efficiently tackle the task at hand, etc. and do your best.
Therefore, it is always refreshing when you happen to stumble across something that resonates particularly when you were not even looking for it. When opening my mail today, I found the Spring edition of the short quarterly newsletter from the SHRM Texas State Council, “HR Matters”. I skimmed through the issue and flipped to the cover article “Create a Winning Corporate Culture”. It was written by Dr. Gary Bradt, author of the recent book, The Ring in the Rubble: Dig Through Change and Find Your Next Golden Opportunity. Dr. Bradt also runs a consultancy practice based in North Carolina (Bradt Leadership Inc.) along with his wife, Dr. Peggy Bradt.

Although the article is fairly short and straightforward (outlining Bradt’s five basic steps to building a successful corporate culture), what struck me was this concise passage:

“Some leadership teams attempt to create culture by acting as wordsmiths, spending untold hours carefully crafting vision, mission and values statements. That’s unfortunate, because in the end culture is not created by words plastered on the wall or carried around on laminated cards, but rather culture is defined by actions on the ground”

Dr. Bradt goes on to say…

“It’s not that words don’t have a place in creating culture; they most certainly do. But a winning culture is defined by words so simple and basic a child can grasp them easily, and an executive can explain them quickly. And, in a winning culture, a leader’s words and actions are aligned. What leaders say accurately reflects the way things are.”

As simple as this sounds, I think the number of organizations that ultimately adopt this approach are few and far between. Organizations that utilize simple and easily communicated principles to guide and drive their business. Leaders who “walk the talk”, leveraging these same key principles in everything the do, encouraging others to do the same and rewarding those who do.

As Dr. Bradt notes at the end of his article:

“If I have made creating a winning culture sound simple, that’s because it is. Don’t muck it up by making it more complex than it needs to be.”

What do you think?

PS: I found an alternative online version of the above referenced article from Dr. Bradt here.

Should Leaders Take the Blame?

Monday, December 10th, 2007

Paul Michelman of the Harvard Business Review Online recently posted an entry on his “Conversation Starter” feature titled “Should Leaders Always Take the Blame”. It poses an interesting question, “When do you stand up and take the bullet for a deal or strategy gone wrong and when do you duck your head and let others take the fall?”. The article gives a example of a leader not taking the blame from the recent headlines (Morgan Stanley’s Zoe Cruz). There are some excellent comments from readers that you might find interesting.

What do you think?

PS> Harvard Business Online is a wonderful resource, with lots of relevant articles, podcasts (“Ideacasts”), video and links. Make sure to check it out.


Is The Customer Always Right?

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

In a recent interview with Smart Business, the president of Ka Architecture, James B. Heller, pointed out that there are clearly times when the company needs be loyal and side with its employees during a customer-related issue. During the interview, Heller reflected on one particular situation in which an architect had a customer was extremely unhappy with him and was disgruntled. Instead of disciplining the employee, Heller supported the architect’s view of the situation and personally helped him to work out the conflict with the client, thus strengthening both the customer’s and the employee’s loyalty at the same time.

Here is how Heller recommends how organizations should consider approaching this type of scenario:

“Typically, I might get a call from a client who identifies a concern. They say, “This is happening on this particular project.” There’s a problem there, whatever it might be. One pitfall is to too quickly jump on that particular project manager and always side with the client. The typical comment, “The client is always right” — well, don’t fall into that trap. Have a face-to-face conversation with that staff person. Understand there are always two sides to every story, and work with that person to solve the problem. Don’t jump down on that person.”

What do you think of this approach. Can you think of an example in which the company applied a similar approach in order to strengthen engagement?

Permeating Negativity

Monday, October 29th, 2007

Here is an interesting question regarding the battling of negativity that flows from the top of the organization…

I’m an HR Generalist in a small company and am disturbed with the amount of negativity that has flooded the company lately or how bad employees feel about working here. Most of the concerns are actually expressed by company top-level execs, stating their skepticism that the environment can ever be changed. If this is how the company’s feels, I truly wonder if any of my effort is worth the time. The primary issues seem to be that the company’s owners feels that there is no need for extra incentives or rewards and that the employees should be honored to work here. They provide no support for any employee programs. The senior leadership feels poorly treated by the owners and they seem to pass this poor treatment on to the employees.

I have experience in helping organizations transform their reputation towards their talent and a great desire to help solve this problem, but my boss has made it clear that I should not intervene in this manner. Could you suggest any strategies to address this situation?

Don’t give up just yet. You seem like you are up for this challenge, based upon your experience and expressed desire to make this situation better. The process of moving your firm towards focusing on employee engagement and retention will not be an easy one. However, please keep in mind that the very fact that you were hired with the resume you have says that someone in senior management recognized that you possess a unique level of expertise that would be valuable to have in their company.

Your first step is to breathe deeply and take the necessary time to assess the entire situation realistically and thoroughly for yourself. Resist the temptation to jump to conclusions or over-react to the situation. This will be difficult because it is an issue that you are clearly passionate about. But driving significant, meaningful transformation inside a change-averse environment takes a great deal patience and effort. In order for you to truly get the company’s top-level executives’ to pay proper attention to this matter and have confidence in your recommendations, it is imperative that you always appear level headed, pragmatic, and balanced.

Perhaps one key problem you might be facing is the simple fact that you are presenting an extremely unwieldy issue that is difficult to define and always tends to be mired in opinions and qualified data. Clearly you will need a persuasive, fact-based approach to get your senior management on board and supporting your efforts. A comprehensive, independently administered employee attitude survey might do wonders to put some much-needed structure, facts, and definition to the perceived morale problem. It might also provide important guidance in creating a prioritized plan for improvement, as well as an ongoing tool to measure the improvements that are made.

A good survey can be costly and gaining management approval to execute one is going to be a significant challenge in itself. You need to develop and formally present a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis that highlights the risks of not performing the survey and underscores the potential tangible and intangible benefits over the long term. Simply put, you need to carefully build your case.

If the long-term economics of the situation are presented in a balanced manner, the ownership will get on board, particularly if you utilize available metrics that are easily comparable to other firms. Lean on your CFO for help in compiling data that are appropriate for your firm and industry. Examples might be your firm’s historical employee turnover and turnover cost, as well as “per employee” productivity. You might take the dollars you are projecting to save from reduced turnover and increased productivity and add that to the profit from your prior year to see the overall impact of improving employee engagement.

Regarding the cost side of the equation, between direct expenses (such as recruiting, interviewing and training), indirect costs (effect on worker’s who stay, increased workload, and customer satisfaction) and opportunity costs (lost employee knowledge, existing work that could be performed without the burden of constant rehiring activity), the total cost of employee replacement is likely to run twice that of the previous employee’s annual salary. Another rarely discussed intangible cost of employee turnover is the loss of value inherent to lost relationships between co-workers, employees and vendors, employees and customers, etc. which are extremely valuable and, in many cases irreplaceable..

Use readily available data to show the link between high employee morale and corporate profitability. For example, a recent survey by Sirota Survey Intelligence reflected that the stock prices of companies in which over 70% of the employees expressed overall satisfaction with their employer outperformed similar companies in their same industries by a 2.5 to 1 ratio.

Once you have your written analysis reviewed and updated, then you will need to formally present your case to your firm’s CEO. Your approach must continue in line with your written analysis-persuasive, fact based, and concise. Remember to keep your focus on gaining approval for a survey and remain open to the possibility that the survey might reflect that a serious problem amongst the majority of employees might not, in fact, exist.

This will be one of the pivotal moments in this process for you. If you feel that your presentation was worthy of an approval for the survey and the ownership declines, then you need to reassess your position in the firm and whether you are a good fit within its existing (and future) culture. If the survey is approved, then you should feel proud that you have successfully begun to build the organizational momentum necessary to proceed to the next level of this process.

Once survey results are in, you will have reached your next decision point. Should the results bear out the negativity and associated issues that you have sensed, you will have the necessary fodder to begin to drive change in your organization. If the results do not indicate general employee malaise, then you will again have to assume that what exists will continue into the future and make your personal career decisions accordingly. In either case, you should be content in knowing that have done your level best to identify, quantify, and create a positive view of employee engagement for the benefit of the firm and the employees who work there.

Do you have an issue at your company regarding employee engagement or retention. Write us at and we’ll try our hardest to get you some answers!

Motivating Without Money

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

A manager recently submitted the following question:

“In dealing with the subject of reward and recognition for my sales representatives, my organization is limiting me on the amount of compensation I can reward. What can I do to motivate my people to perform more effectively with the current constraint of not being able to offer additional compensation?”

If Money Talks, What Is It Saying?
If you choose to accept the classic theories of motivation by Maslow, Herzberg, and Schein (and even those by more current thought leaders like Ken Thomas or Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman), pay and benefits can be extreme ‘de-motivators’ when judged to be not up to standard, but actually do little to improve engagement or retention once they are perceived by the employee to be at an acceptable level. Thomas suggests that it is important to remember that, for most people, money is not the end goal, but is, in fact, the means to satisfy other needs of the person. Unless the current salary is viewed as unfair in some way (or a critical or threatening monetary need arises), it is probably important to try to understand exactly why ‘money talks’ to a particular employee. Digging deeper might result in some ‘meatier’ needs – a desire for meaningful work, a need for recognition and to feel valued, a need to learn and grow, a need for acceptance and a supportive environment, a need to be able to trust and relate to leadership, and the ability to make a difference or have an impact on the organization, etc.

Just Ask
The concept of simply asking is an extremely sound suggestion, with strong support from subject matter experts such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the team of Beverly Kaye & Sharon Jordan-Evans. I would highly recommend Kaye and Jordan-Evan’s book “Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay” or Buckingham and Coffman’s “First Break All the Rules” for some immediate action-oriented suggestions.

If It’s Not My People, Then What Is It?

Looking closely at how (and if) the job is designed for success (is the process sound, are the required tools provided, is there the opportunity for autonomy/empowerment, the ability to apply creativity, etc.), is also critical in stimulating employee motivation. To quote James O’Toole and Edward Lawler from the book “The New American Workplace”, “Managers today often fail to realize that the most successful efforts to increase worker motivation involve the design of work itself.”

In The Employee’s Control

With that said, the answer will most likely be found in the supporting and building of intrinsic motivation in each of your employees individually. To clarify, intrinsic motivation and associated rewards (as opposed to the shorter-term provided extrinsic rewards) are long term in nature and are derived by the employee directly from the work itself. Unlike the proverbial ‘carrot and stick’, intrinsic motivation is not under the company’s control.

Douglas McGregor proposed that a person is inherently motivated to pursue what they need in life and that, in order to keep one motivated as an employee, a manager should strive to provide them with an environment in which they can fulfill their inherent needs while achieving the company’s goals. Author Gary Heil said in an interview that people generally want to be strong contributors and perform meaningful work, but in most organizations there is simply not enough meaning in the work beyond the external rewards provided, to give them the incentive to move away from their own self-interest and towards making sacrifices for the good of their company. Teresa Amabile stated that intrinsic motivation comes from inside the person and is characterized by passion, interest, challenge and the simple joy derived from performing the task at hand.

Therefore, making sure that:

a.) the employee is in a job that is aligned with his/her skills,
b.) the job provides continuous challenges, stimulation, and opportunity for personal development and goal attainment,
c.) the job provides a level of autonomy in achieving goals is provided,
d.) the employee feels as if they play an integral role in the company’s mission,
e.) management provides continuous feedback and prompt recognition for performance,

…are really all key factors that positively impact a person’s intrinsic motivation.

Both Thomas and Buckingham/Coffman have broken down the concept of intrinsic motivation factors into nice, easily digestible chunks. Thomas looks at intrinsic motivation in terms of four types of rewards-a sense of choice (job autonomy), a sense of meaningfulness (in one’s work), a sense of competence, and a sense of progress (task). Buckingham and Coffman describe the Gallup Q12 as a series of 12 questions that progressively evaluate and employee’s personal level of job engagement and motivation.

The Path Less Taken
Digging deep into the real motivation, strengths, and needs of each of your employees on an individual basis is, by far, the hardest approach for you to take. It is, as some claim, far easier to throw money at the problem and hope for the best in the short term. But I truly believe that, in the long run, the time that you invest in this process will result in, not only a more engaged team, but in perhaps in increased sense of engagement and motivation for yourself.