Monday, 23 November 2009

Is your firm “mental”? Probably.

Have you ever noticed how dysfunctional relationships between the people in organisations commonly are?

Have you noticed the apparently endemic scheming, manipulating, back-biting, bullying, blaming and shaming, personality clashes and communication breakdowns? Have you ever felt angry or depressed about that? No? Then maybe you work in an exceptional organisation, or in splendid isolation, or you are on “happy pills”.

After “quite a few” years in corporate, institutional and business life I’ve come to the view that the average firm is “mental”; meaning it is dysfunctional: a psychologically unhealthy place to be.

Dysfunctionality isn’t OK but it is normal, so it’s what’s expected and tolerated. We can effectively deny it’s an issue until the competition pays attention to it and begins to overcome it. Then, if we are to survive, we too must seek to become a “high functioning organisation”.

Several years ago I got to work with academics and practitioners in the mental health sector and became acquainted with the Recovery Approach to individual and community mental health. Out of that interaction I co-wrote chapter 7 in Clinical Management in Mental Health Services. December 2008. Blackwell: London.

There Samson Tse and I outlined for clip_image002mental health practitioners how they could relate and apply their clinical knowledge and methodology, the Recovery Approach, to their dysfunctional mental health service organisations.

When I recently began working with an NGO in the mental health sector this piece of work once again became prominent for me. So much so perhaps that when I was recently asked “What is your profession?” I replied, “Organisational Therapist”! The ensuing conversation inspired my previous blog post “What to do about bullying.”

Check out the Recovery Approach. You may find, as I have, that although it’s designed as a treatment for people who are ill, it’s broadly speaking an interpersonal-relationship and community-based way to keep people well and foster creativity, collaboration and engagement in shared purpose. That’s what contemporary organisations need to compete by continuous innovation in the world today.

Monday, 16 November 2009

What to do about workplace bullying

The other day a prospective business-owner client asked me what to do about workplace bullying. My advice: act immediately to change the culture and isolate the bully. Bullies kill engagement, big time. They cost you heaps in diverted energy and focus and unnecessary staff turnover. They drive their victims, potentially your most promising people out, or mad, or both. Though they may seem competent and nice as pie they are typically operating well beyond their competence and their influence is effectively evil.  You can’t fix a bully. They have to go. Here’s a strategy that works:

Start MBWA (Managing By Walking About)immediately .

Bullies thrive in bureaucratic hierarchies where they can control the flow of information both upward and downward. Bureaucratic hierarchies aren’t the preserve of large organisations. They are common in organisations of all sizes and kinds. Open up communication and loosen up the hierarchy by establishing direct, focused conversation with a range of individuals at different levels in the organisation. Share your knowledge with them. They’ll return the trust.

Establish purposeful responsibility.

Bullies manipulate roles and expectations to their personal advantage, typically to obscure their own incompetence. To counter that, execute a strategy to clarify the organisation’s values, purpose and long term goals. Within that framework, work with individuals and teams to clarify responsibilities, accountabilities  and action priorities. Make them widely known (including yours).

Establish a widespread habit of regular, frequent meetings to openly discuss individual and team progress and blockages in executing those priorities. People thrive on shared purposeful responsibility plus frequent open discussion of progress foils a bully’s manipulative strategy. Expect the bully to resist and attempt to subvert this regular, open reflection and review process.

Isolate the bully.

Regular, frequent open review of progress on personal and team accountabilities will isolate the bully’s performance and break the bully’s hold on information flow. Better informed, other team members will become more bold, convincing and successful in their arguments and actions. The bully will become clearly and contrastingly less competent and isolated.

You may be surprised who the bully turns out to be. After all they’ve been making a career of ingratiating themselves with you: agreeing with you, bolstering your ego and maybe even dealing with a few of your tough HR issues, while creating an engagement-killing climate of fear and favour to isolate and silence their critics. Bullies are experts at hiding their incompetence and bad behaviour. Victim’s attempts to draw attention to the bullying  will likely be cast by the bully as whinging justification for poor performance.

Openly confront the bully.

When you have plenty of solid evidence of the bully’s incompetence and lies,  personally confront the bully.  Be  ready for  angry denial and counter attack.  They will attempt to bypass you and ingratiate themselves with a higher authority. The bully will be very reluctant to admit their bad behaviour and incompetence even to themselves, even though it is by now widely and openly known.

If the bully doesn’t leave on his/her own accord then you already have clear justification and support to dismiss them for unsatisfactory performance in their specific role.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

FREEDOM = purposeful responsibility

“People are unique. Combinations are even more unique. The successful companies tend [to] communicate and apply [“the 7 habits”] in unique manners that match their unique dreams and goals and strengths. That's when earth-shattering experiences are created, delivered, experienced.”

Zane Safrit makes this interesting observation in a on Linkedin discussion about David G. Thomson’s Business Week article The Seven Essentials of High Growth Companies.

I add that not only are combinations of people unique but combinations of opportunities are too. The effects of these unique combinations are always more or less unexpected. Organisations that thrive on the unexpected are those that thrive today.

So perhaps it would be useful to consider how communicating the “7 habits” might enable organisations to encounter, recognise, take and profit from unexpected opportunities.

One quality that seems to pervade the “7 habits” is diversity of people at all levels in and around the organisation. Not just having the diversity but recognising it and utilising it within a unifying sense of cohesive purpose and shared vision. Effective interpersonal communication is the key to that.

At a practical level, I find that a major blockage in that communication process is the common sense that a job is a series of tasks. That’s an industrial concept founded in people as machine parts in a process. My role frequently includes helping people to re-conceive their job as a purposeful role in a collaborative project; a role defined by mutually interdependent responsibilities and indicative accountabilities rather than tasks. Almost invariably this is scary and confusing for them.

It’s rather like having been in prison for years then being released to “freedom” and unable to cope with the responsibility. It’s not that people don’t want responsibility or cannot be responsible. Responsibility is something that most people desire. Being given responsibility is an indication of trust, competency, standing, worth, esteem, regard.

Here’s the thing: people can’t re-conceive their jobs as roles by themselves any more that they can pull themselves up by their own boot laces. They need the help of an “outsider’s” perspective to generate the new imagery.

As the “outsider” I walk people through the process of defining their role in 120 words or less beginning with a fresh descriptive title, then the purpose of the role within the greater scheme; a summary responsibility in a sentence and up to five specific responsibilities; their overall accountability in a sentence and up to five specific indicative responsibilities with goals (KPIs).

Once they’ve described their own role with me I encourage them to attempt the process with their reports and so on. It’s got a high probability of being effective, purposeful interpersonal communication between unique individuals.