The Fallacy of Authority

authoritySimply put, leadership is the ability to influence others.

Ironically, however, the ability to influence others, either in an organization or in the political arena, ultimately doesn’t depend on an individual’s title or position of authority. In fact, those in positions of “authority” often confuse their ability to inflict their will on others (where authorized by their position or title) as a “right” of leadership. This is frequently the case with new managers and those whose motivation for leadership is based on a desire for authority in the form of personal control and power.

These authoritarian relationships may command respect in a superficial sense, but are void of trust and respect. They are based solely on fear rather than empowerment and personal ownership, and offer no provision for alignment of ideas or ideals. In this self-centric mindset, the emphasis on success is internal. The success of both subordinate individuals and the team is viewed by the manager as being dependent upon his or her personal success. These managers tend to believe that in order to validate their own value to the organization they must make themselves essential to the success of the team.

I see this in teams that are largely dysfunctional when the leader is absent. Decisions cannot be made without the manager’s consent. Personal ownership and accountability is stifled and autonomy is restricted. There is little or no basis of trust in the competence and discretion of the team members. This type of manager hordes power, controls rather than leads, and lacks the self confidence to allow subordinates or the entire team to excel in his absence. They make the success of their team completely dependent upon their presence and participation.

I believe that just the opposite is true of superior leaders – that the true measure of success for a leader is not how necessary he is to the team, but in fact how unnecessary he is. This might sound radical or counter-intuitive, but if a leader has truly done his job, the people who work for him should be able to function autonomously for an extended period of time without the necessity of his direct supervision. They should all be aligned both individually and collectively with the organizational vision and goals. They should each have a strong sense of personal ownership and accountability, both to their leader and to each other. They should exhibit integrity and self-discipline. They should be enthusiastic and self-motivated. And finally, they should have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement. This is the very essence of a high performing team, and the best managers and strongest leaders, in effect, actually make themselves less and less integral as their teams become more and more self-sufficient.

The ability to influence others is a powerful and awesome responsibility. Effective, superior leadership, under which individual and team performance is developed and cultivated to its highest potential, requires uncommon, illusive, and perhaps innate personal qualities.  It requires confidence and vision with a strong sense of purpose.  It requires courage, discipline, and dedication to the development of others.  It requires authority without authoritarianism.  Superior leaders nurture cooperation instead of mandating compliance.  They build consensus and create a culture of alignment in which every member shares in the ownership and accountability.

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The Social Construct of Morality

Joining the ranks of religion and politics, morality has quietly become a minefield to be publicly avoided at all costs.  Discussion on the matter, let alone debate, is just not politically correct; someone is sure to be offended.  Others might disagree, but I assert that morality, once commonly guided by absolute principles broadly accepted by society, has gradually evolved to a matter of individual preference.  I personally believe that matters of preference are subject to compromise, while matters of principle should be firmly upheld.  The problems begin when my principles differ from yours.  While my intent here is not to impose my ideology, I do want to explore the cultural inconsistencies in the interpretation of right and wrong within our society.  To that end, I pose these questions as food for thought and comment:

Should the foundation of morality be based on an absolute – a definitively established set of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, or should it be left to the interpretation of individuals or larger society groups?  Should these cultural standards be established or affirmed, recognizing that not everyone will be in agreement?  Do we let the majority decide, or do we default to the lowest common denominator within our culture – the individual?

I’m using the term ‘lowest common denominator’ in the context of contrasting two ends of the spectrum for judgment over what is and is not acceptable, i.e., morally right.  By that I am referring to an accepted societal viewpoint in which the wishes/rights of individuals have priority over those of a larger population.  I’m drilling down to the idea of ‘individual rights’ as the lowest level driver of moral authority, assuming ‘rights’ are interpreted in the strictest sense.  I’m also using the concept of right and wrong in the same context as morality, since by definition, morality is the principles of right and wrong in behavior.

The fact is, belief and value systems within our culture vary so greatly that there is an enormous gap between what most of us believe as individuals and the reality that exists within our society.  Despite what many would assert should be, I don’t think a consensus on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ truly exists in our culture because we simply cannot agree on the boundaries.  Sure, there are certain actions that are almost universally considered taboo, but the waters get murky when you start talking about simpler issues of right or wrong.  Subsequently, no one is satisfied.  We assess issues and behaviors, etc., based on our personal perspective, recognizing the influence that our experiences, beliefs, and shifting cultural views have on us.  Perhaps the most commonly accepted concession is that what is ‘right’ for one person or group may not be so for another.

As a society of like minded people (I’m talking in the broadest sense), we’ve traditionally made sweeping cultural decisions about what is considered right and wrong.  In the age of political correctness, those decisions are being challenged by those who believe the ‘one’ is just as important as the ‘many.’  Priority of designated ‘rights’ has shifted away from the absolute and/or cultural majority to individuals and small groups with interests that do not conform to traditional norms.  Current cultural pressure dictates that we are no longer supposed to judge right or wrong whenever there is the potential that an individual or group might take offense or in some way be repressed.

Some would argue that morality is and should be a social construct.  That concept is indeed at the heart of the questions I’m posing.  Since defining morality as a social construct implies that there are culturally established standards of right and wrong, how then should this morality be imposed upon society, when by doing so, it may in fact conflict with the principles and values of those in disagreement?

In a discussion on this subject several years ago, a friend of mine argued that cultures judge right and wrong at will while governments protect the rights of individuals.  I don’t entirely agree with this, although I think I understand what he was getting at.  Cultures do define and judge right and wrong, however, governments obviously do not always protect individual rights.  The legal imposition of morality is in constant flux and the monitoring and protection of affected ‘rights’ depends on a host of social and political factors, all of which vary by culture vis-à-vis country.  I would point out that even in the U.S., public perception of certain assumed rights is itself frequently a cultural misconception, based on popular assumption but with no specific legal basis.  Simply put, just because we think we deserve something doesn’t mean we’re legally entitled to it, and having a voice doesn’t always equate to having a vote.

That same friend also asserted that “tyranny of the masses precludes justice and fairness” in the application of moral constructs imposed upon broader society.  Assuming that’s true, where then is the demarcation between social morality and individual rights?  How exactly should fairness be defined?  Given the imposition of social/cultural morality on the broader population, exactly how and where is the line drawn when a generally accepted social ‘good’ conflicts with the perceived rights of a smaller group within that population?

My point is our individual concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is founded entirely through our personal perspective, which is a product of our experiences, environment, religious beliefs, and cultural influences.  When does the determination of ‘right’ by the majority justify decisions that adversely impact the minority?  I think we’d all agree that it sometimes does.  Perhaps the bigger question is should it?  Is there in fact an absolute truth that supersedes an inconsistent socially constructed morality?

I think our society today frequently confuses its beliefs with its desires, or more accurately, we shape our beliefs to conveniently fit our desires.  More to the point, we allow our preferences to shape our principles instead of the other way around.  We also confuse our freedoms with rights.  As a result, everyone creates his or her own reality.  In my reality are my perceptions of right and wrong.  There are people who agree with (i.e., share) my perceptions, and people who do not.  Consequently, there are multiple social moralities on any given issue.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve been so programmed to embrace everyone else’s opinions and beliefs, we’ve compromised our own principles in the process.  I’m not suggesting that anyone should be intolerant or judgmental, but I think the terms are often used as a convenient weapon against those who philosophically disagree.  There is nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in, even when it’s not politically or socially correct.  In fact, I believe that by adhering to the rules of political correctness under the premise of ‘not offending anyone’, we’ve completely prostituted ourselves to a homogeneous culture where people are persecuted for defending a principle that conflicts with the preference of others.  There are many people who are not concerned by that, so maybe I’m being cynical.  I just have a hard time accepting that actions and behaviors should be justified based on whether they pass the ‘doesn’t harm anyone’ test.  Shouldn’t there be some better criteria for judging the morality of what we think and do?

We live in an age of anarchy – not political anarchy, but social and cultural anarchy.  Everyone is encouraged to ‘do their own thing’, whatever that thing may be – and it’s all supposed to be okay so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or infringe upon anyone else’s rights.  It’s an inconsistent premise at best and I don’t buy it.  When the boundaries of morality and ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation, the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes driven by convenience and preference, lacking any principled bearing.

Actions, whether by individuals or societies, have repercussions.  Our decisions and behaviors, whether in public or in private, slowly shape the world in which we live, and ultimately influence who we are.  We create our own cultures, just as we create our own realities.  Whether you believe in a single authority or cultural evolution, there are many social moralities.  The trouble with that is, none are right, some are right, all are right.  It all depends on your perspective.

Parental Responsibility in Social Training

Have you ever witnessed children running wild in a restaurant or retail store while the parents, apparently oblivious to the chaos, completely disregard the effect this behavior has on everyone else around them?  Of course the child’s behavior is not really the issue is it?  After all, the actions of children are merely a reflection of the parent’s priorities and values.  Unruly, precocious, undisciplined children left to explore the world on their own terms are simply another symptom of a larger socio-cultural trend that inflicts many adults today – a warped sense of entitlement compounded by a general lack of personal responsibility.

As a parent myself, I simply don’t accept the notion of the overwrought mom or dad, out in public trying to enjoy a family meal or finishing up errands with kids that are overly tired or bored.  Children and their needs should always be the parents’ first priority, but this is often not the case.  The parent’s agenda far too often comes first – the dinner out, the gift to buy, the dress to try on – all the while with kids in tow.  I can’t tell you how many times my wife and I have left a cart full of groceries in the store because one of our toddlers was having a melt down, or how many meals one of us finished alone in a restaurant while the other waited in the car with one of our unruly monsters.  Our needs, our schedule, our time together – all came second to our kids.

I also don’t accept the parental ‘philosophy’ of untethered social training, in which children are allowed to explore the world around them with minimal restraint or direction, the justification for which is to encourage creativity and individual expression.  Seriously, give me a break!  I see parents every single day who evidently subscribe to this theory, either by design or through the abdication of their parental responsibility to provide guidance and leadership.  Truthfully, I think many parents today are simply too lazy or too consumed with their own personal desires to provide meaningful parental leadership to their own children.  Instead of owning up to the tough role of parent, they instead try to be ‘friends’ with their kids.  Children need their parents to be role models who hold them accountable for their actions, not ‘friends’ who condone destructive behavior and shield them from the consequences of their actions.

Children are naturally inquisitive, energetic, and reckless. They are also inherently kind, honest, sensitive, and generous. However, they are unfortunately also a product of their environment. Values such as respect for others, self-discipline, and good old fashioned manners must be instilled and practiced, starting at home. A child’s behavior is a direct and unequivocal reflection of the parent’s behavior and values. Children are taught, or perhaps more accurately, allowed to learn and practice disruptive, disrespectful, and inappropriate behavior.

The mere fact that some parents feel that ‘everywhere’ is a training ground for social interaction, as if that somehow defers the parent’s role, neglects one of the core responsibilities that parents have for raising their children.  Training for social interaction begins and ends at home and should define the boundaries for what is acceptable when out in public.  The “everywhere” argument implies that the world shares responsibility for training children. I disagree.

Many adults, particularly young adults in their 20s and 30s appear to believe that the world about them exists solely for their comfort, convenience, and satisfaction. Perhaps this is the result of a couple of generations of economic prosperity, but this particular demographic seems to feel that they are owed something – abject servility in restaurants and stores, instant gratification and satisfaction, and freedom from personal responsibility and accountability. For the most part, they’ve not experienced serious difficulty in their lifetime – no cold war nuclear threat, no painful economic hardship, and very little in the way of any significant personal sacrifice. They’ve never spent hours in line for gas on odd days of the month, or worried about a mandatory draft. They’ve been too busy enjoying the American dream, getting what they want when they want, and along the way have become morally complacent, materialistic, and hopelessly entitled.

I don’t know for sure exactly how this mindset became part of our culture. Maybe it was instilled by the parents of my own generation. Maybe it was the environment in which this latest generation grew up. Regardless, it is no wonder that so many of today’s children mirror those attitudes. It’s been bred into them. Children today reflect the same sense of entitlement that they see their parents demanding in their own interactions.  If a child breaks something, it’s the store’s fault for having it accessible. If the parents can’t “control” them, they excuse the behavior by saying the children are “uncontrollable” rather than accept responsibility for the fact that they are failing their children in this aspect of their development. Parents insist their kids have the “right” to run and play in public, to make as much noise as they want, to learn social interaction everywhere they go and regardless of the consequences for others around them.

So don’t blame the kids running between the tables in the restaurant or rolling on the floor in the retail store; they’re just children who learn from and emulate their parents.  It is the parents who are at fault.  It is the parents who should be asked to leave when children are behaving in a way that is disrespectful or inappropriate for their immediate environment.  Better yet, the parents should exercise good judgment and remove their children without having to be asked.

Social training should only take place in public places that are conducive to age (or maturity) specific interaction. This, of course, depends on the behavioral capacity of the child. Children who have been adequately taught appropriate behavior at home and who demonstrate appropriate behavior when out in public may well be able to handle a more sensitive adult environment.  In any case, there should be no carte blanche for public social training.  Unfortunately, the burden of discretion falls upon the parents, who themselves too often need remedial social training.

Five Fundamental Principles of Service Excellence

To say that customer service is virtually non-existent today would be a comical understatement.  It seems everywhere we turn the quality of service we receive is inconsistent at best, from the waiters and sales people who ignore us to business managers who view us as interruptions.  I believe the root of the problem is not so much one of employee indifference; this is merely a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself.  The real problem is a systematic failure on the part of companies and their managers to see beyond the transaction, make decisions based on intellect verses emotion, and empower their employees to be an advocate for the customer rather than ‘defender’ of the company.

Most people, if they are at all engaged in their job, want to do well.  Likewise, all companies want to be successful, and understand the value and necessity of happy customers.  So, where is the disconnect?  I believe it’s with the middle and lower level leadership.  It’s not much of a stretch to conclude that employee attitudes toward customers are a reflection of the culture created by management within the store, restaurant, or department.  I suppose there are a myriad of reasons, everything ranging from indifference and ignorance to a misguided notion of protecting the financial bottom line.  Just last week my wife asked to speak with the general manager of our dealership over a mechanical problem with our year old car that the staff was unwilling to rectify.  His response after listening to her complaint was to accuse her of being confrontational.  It is no wonder his staff was so unhelpful.

Leaders at every level bear the responsibility for maintaining a culture of service excellence, communicating expectations, and monitoring performance.  This requires personal interaction, not only with employees, but also with the customers.  Leaders can’t lead from behind a desk or though emails.  They have to get out of their offices, spend time along side their employees and participate in constant face to face interaction.  This is why you see managers in finer restaurants stop by your table to ask if everything was okay.  They understand the value of personal attention to their staff, customers, and business.  Philip K. Wrighley, chairman of the world’s largest chewing gum company, famously relayed the following story: “I went into our New York office one day and they asked who was calling. I told them it didn’t make a bit of difference. It might be a guy wanting to buy some gum – and that’s all that mattered.”

Below I’ve attempted to summarize service excellence in five fundamental principles.  Perhaps I’ve oversimplified it, but I don’t think so.  In fact, isn’t that the point?  Superior customer service really isn’t all that complicated or expensive.  Everyone should try it.

  1. Customer service is never an ‘exception’ or an ‘accommodation’
    These two words should be removed from our vocabulary.  Meeting (not to mention exceeding) a customer’s expectations should be a matter of principle.  Make decisions with enthusiasm, not reluctance, demonstrating a spirit of genuine appreciation instead of concession.
  2. Delighting a customer is a personal opportunity to be the ‘hero’
    Be the customer’s advocate in every interaction.  Customers should see us as their personal partner, not simply a representative of the company, and certainly never an adversary.  It is our job to get to ‘yes’.  Regardless of the situation, every satisfied customer reflects a personal success, and every disappointed customer reflects a personal failure.
  3. Customer service does not cost money, it earns future business
    We get far too wrapped up in our perceived sense of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’ when making service related decisions.  Any costs incurred in delighting a customer are literally insignificant compared to the goodwill and future business we gain.  Whether or not we feel they deserve it is irrelevant.  Customer service is not a battle to be won or lost, nor is it an affront to our integrity.  Better to give in to 10 thieves than to lose one legitimate customer.
  4. The solution is always more memorable than the problem
    Problems are going to occur – products will break, deadlines will be missed, mistakes will be made.  It is how well we anticipate and resolve our customers’ problems that influences their perception of our company and their decision to give us their future business.  Never leave a customer with an unresolved problem; always initiate a solution.
  5. The customer doesn’t have to ‘be’ right for us to ‘make it right’
    It’s as simple as this… no matter who is at fault, no matter what it costs, no matter what it takes – make it right for the customer.

Building and Sustaining High Performing Sales Teams

Portrait of a High Performing Team
Almost everyone who works with others wants either to be a member of a high performing team, or to lead a high performing team.  In fact, I bet 9 out of every 10 managers I’ve ever spoken with have claimed their teams were high performing.  Yet, when asked about the performance of individual team members, these same managers invariably cite a litany of “typical” shortcomings.

While I hesitate to question the self proclaimed assessment of another manager’s team without seeing them in action for myself, I have to wonder how they came to their conclusion.  How can a high performing team be comprised of individuals with performance issues?  Can the diversity of performance strengths and capabilities within a team actually make the overall team stronger, despite certain individual weaknesses?  And how is it that these managers don’t ask themselves these same questions?

To be sure, individuals with performance problems are not high performers.  That is not to say that an employee must be perfect; indeed, everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  There is a distinction, however, between weaknesses and performance problems.  Strengths and weaknesses between team members are like pieces of a puzzle.  All the pieces must fit together to complete the picture.    In the strongest teams, members should complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, assembling a team in which there is diversity of strengths should be a priority.

There’s no single recipe for building a high performing team.  The variables are simply too great.  On the other hand, there are clearly common attributes that successful teams manifest, and at the same time behavioral patterns that destroy a team’s effectiveness and their capacity for achievement.

So, what does a high performing team look like?  It’s really quite simple.  While individual strengths may vary, high performing teams exhibit many (hopefully most) of the same qualities of highly effective, influential team leaders.  At the highest level…

  • They complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • They exhibit integrity and self discipline, both individually and collectively.
  • They have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement.
  • They are responsible and accountable – to their leader and each other.
  • They are enthusiastic and self-motivated.
  • They are individually and collectively aligned with the company’s vision.

Of course there are many other skills and traits that high performing teams must possess and demonstrate – effective communication, mutual trust, respect, etc., and of course they must work harmoniously together to achieve the task at hand.  Skills, however, can be taught, habits formed, and behaviors modified, while character and cultural fit are individual factors that are deeply ingrained.

High Performing Teams Begin with High Performing Individuals
Diversity, complementing strengths and skills, and achievement oriented members are all considerations when building or adding to an existing high performing team.  From a practical standpoint, assembling a high performance team begins with a thoughtful and well developed hiring process.  Recruiting often focuses on matching experience to a job specification. This is important where technical qualifications are concerned, but it will not necessarily identify people with high performance traits.  High performers are almost always high performers – wherever they work.

Who are your high performers?  According to a McKinsey & Company report on “The War for Talent,” top performing employees make a 50% to 100% greater contribution to organizations than do their less capable peers.[1] So ask yourself this, if you had to start from scratch, would you re-hire all the employees you currently have? If not, why?  If you could select from just 10% of your existing work force, who would you choose and why?

In my experience, the highest performing sales professionals demonstrate the following characteristics…

  • Achievement Oriented – Money shouldn’t be the goal, only a way of keeping score
  • Perpetually Optimistic – Doesn’t concede defeat, doesn’t accept no as an answer
  • Selling is a Lifestyle – A way of life, not just a job – they never stop selling
  • Understand Customer Motivation – People buy on emotion and excitement, not logic and reason
  • Walk in the Customers’ Shoes – Sensitive to customer’s needs vs. their own (understands difference between ability to buy and desire to buy – validates the customer’s desire)
  • Leverages the Strengths of Others – Those around them

Strategic Hiring Decisions
Research on hiring decisions reveals that people tend to hire applicants with whom they share the strongest personal connection, i.e. those with similar outlooks, mannerisms, personalities, and ideas.  Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Kanter calls this phenomenon “homosocial reproduction.”[2] While this may be just fine in some cases, the implication is obvious in others.  As Stanford Professor Robert Sutton indelicately puts it, “…assholes will breed like rabbits.”[3]

That’s an extreme (albeit accurate) example, but practically speaking, everyone including the most effective managers has areas of weakness.  While we certainly don’t want to compound weaknesses, the inverse is also true.  To use the puzzle metaphor again, whitewashing over weaknesses by cloning strengths is like trying to put together a puzzle in which all the pieces are the same size and shape.  The strongest teams are comprised of diverse personalities with complementary skills, and they use this to their advantage.  Reduce the risk of poorly influenced hiring decisions by having several managers interview a candidate and collectively participate in the decision process.

A Framework for Success
There’s a saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”  A comprehensive plan helps hiring managers at each decision point by giving focus and structure to the process. With the following four-step plan, not only will you have the highest probability of making good hiring decisions, you’ll also establish a framework of success for ongoing team development.

1. Recruiting and Hiring for Excellence
Leading a high performance sales team naturally begins with the people that you hire.  You simply cannot afford to settle for the best “available” applicant, you have to find the right person for the job and team.  In building a high performing team, whether staff or management, qualification criteria should be closely examined before you ever run an employment ad or interview an applicant.  Managers tend to focus heavily on education, job experience, and presence.  These are all important, but also look closely at temperament, interpersonal skills, and character.  Hire for fit within the team.  You can always train for skill (you will probably have to anyway), but trying to train for cultural fit is an uphill battle.

2. Cultivating Success

Regardless of individual successes, a sales team is only as strong as its weakest performer.  A successful high performing team depends on each member pulling his or her weight, contributing to and complementing the team, leveraging its strengths and adding value through individual performance.  Cultivating team success involves addressing deficiencies, identifying and overcoming obstacles, and gradually redefining the very meaning of success in an existing sales environment.  This may involve rooting out underperformers, holding them to a higher level of accountability, and removing them if they are unable to meet established standards.

3. Maintaining Performance Standards
Aggressive and inclusive performance development is a key component to managing and leading high performing teams.  An integral part of the performance management process, regular coaching, feedback, and performance assessment measured against peer comparison benchmarks provide exceptionally flexible and meaningful tools for quantifying and qualifying employee performance.  In situations where progressive discipline is warranted, a consistent approach using readily available performance criteria ensures a fair and actionable case for warnings and dismissal.

4. Nurturing a High Performance Culture
I previously discussed in detail creating and nurturing a Culture of Alignment.  Developing a high performing sales culture requires a considerable investment in time, but it’s not rocket science.  You have to realize, however, that any such move to alter the culture of your store and team must be carefully planned and executed.  It will not happen overnight.  In fact, it might take a few years.  But the investment is well worth the effort.


[1] Fishman, Charles. The War for Talent. Fast Company, 2007

[2] Kanter, Rosabeth. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books, 1977

[3] Sutton, Robert. The No Asshole Rule. New York: Business Plus, 2007

Championing Change After Restructuring & Layoffs

I. Employee Reaction and Response

The Emotional Response to Restructuring
Let’s face it, corporate downsizing and restructuring is stressful on everyone involved, and the effects are registered on both those who remain employed as well as those who leave the company.  It’s ironic that companies frequently refer to staff members who retain their jobs as “unaffected” or “untouched” by the layoffs.  The fact is employees who remain employed after restructuring are far from unaffected.  They experience numerous and wide-ranging feelings of distress during and following periods of significant change.  Typical reactions include fear, grief, depression, resentment, diminished energy and motivation, difficulty concentrating, and even symptoms of physical illness.  These reactions are normal, but if left unaddressed can easily degrade short-term productivity and leave long-term scars that affect both individual and team performance.

People are not so much resistant to change per se, but rather have difficulty coping with change, particularly when it is totally out of their control.  This response is probably felt even more acutely in teams that normally enjoy a strong sense of alignment – where the culture is normally one of active involvement and participation in the change process.  Employees and teams with a strong sense of personal ownership and attachment to the company often feel a stronger sense of betrayal.  In these teams, re-establishing a sense of security and purpose after restructuring can be a challenging prospect requiring a thoughtful plan of action.

A 2006 study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that layoffs have the most negative effects on subsequent performance in what they identified to be “high involvement” workplaces. These are workplaces where employees have more decision-making authority and responsibility and greater emphasis is placed on the importance of human beings compared to traditional workplaces. As the study concludes, when members of an organization have been treated especially humanely, given substantial authority, and persistently told how much they are valued, layoffs violate the “psychological contract” between the organization and its people.

By contrast, organizations that have a history of treating employees in less humane ways and giving them less power, and then do involuntary layoffs, aren’t breaking any implicit or explicit psychological contract – employees don’t have as much reason to believe that such treatment is breaking any promises.

This may all sound like evidence that “no good deed goes unpunished.”  But the study did find that high involvement companies that stuck to their practices during downsizing rebounded more quickly than those companies that abandoned high involvement practices after implementing layoffs.[1]

On some level, everyone’s personal identity is tied to the company they work for, the position they hold, and the job they do.  Well aligned team members enjoy exceptionally deep attachments to their peers, their company, even their team culture.  When something disturbs the cultural foundation of the team (such as restructuring or layoffs), those who remain naturally go through an adjustment period.

Leaders have both a responsibility and opportunity here – the responsibility to make the transition as painless as possible, and the opportunity to strengthen the team and take it to new levels of effectiveness and success.

Effects of Transitioning Roles and Responsibilities
Following an organizational restructuring, daily routines are disrupted.  Some responsibilities are redefined, others are left untouched, and still others are completely orphaned and must be absorbed into existing roles.  Even well planned reorganizations can leave employees feeling a bit disoriented and overwhelmed during and following the transition.

We all have different internal mechanisms for coping with change, yet some are more productive than others.  I think it’s instinctual for people to want to get through the process and re-establish a new sense of personal order and routine – to “get back to normal” as quickly as possible.  However, the path through the transition can be bumpy with obstructions that will derail the effort if not monitored and managed effectively.

While some employees need to openly share their feelings about the changes confronting them, others completely withdraw into silence.  Some employees spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the changes to anyone who will listen.  Again, it’s important to remember that this is part of their healing process and necessary for them to move on.  At the same time, their energy should be directed appropriately (and constructively) so as not to unduly distract or undermine the healing of others.  Similarly, the needs of those who withdraw should also be respected, but they should never be abandoned.

Some people have difficulty accepting and adapting to new roles and responsibilities while others see the changes as a new career opportunity.  The simple fact is that some people, even high performers, are averse to change.  Change shakes them out of their groove and serves as a distraction.  Certain changes, in fact, may legitimately inhibit their ability to successfully perform at the level to which they are accustomed, at least temporarily.

It’s also worth considering that some employees have extended personal support groups outside of work while others have little or none.  Someone well established with a spouse, children, parents and other family members as well as a large group of friends may cope differently than a single person alone in the area.  Additionally, the jobs of some employees are simply more affected than others.

There are numerous factors that impact the degree to which change is felt and the ability of each individual and teams collectively to cope.  People respond differently to stressful situations and organizational upheaval.  To bring a team through the changes and re-establish a sense of common vision and purpose, it’s essential for leaders to plan strategically and implement situationally.

II. Recognizing & Responding to Organizational Change – A Leader’s Guide

Understanding the emotional effects of organizational restructuring on employees and the various ways people cope with change is obviously important.  Using this knowledge to help a team transition is crucial, certainly for its immediate short-term benefits, but more importantly, for the long-term efficacy of the team as a high performing entity.

Faced with circumstances which are at least for the moment out of their control, employees look to their leaders for guidance and reassurance (even when none exists).  These are times when the mettle of leadership is put to the test, when credibility and trust is either reaffirmed or destroyed.  Leaders have a tremendous opportunity to re-define the vision and sense of purpose of the team, introduce new objectives, strengthen alliances, and re-establish a culture of organizational alignment committed to the future, all in a relatively short period of time.

Make no mistake, during times of crisis, leaders are closely watched and their character and efficacy assessed. Everyone from subordinates to co-workers and even superiors look for and depend upon effective leadership.  Decisive, courageous, visionary leadership laced with empathy and sensitivity goes a long way toward re-establishing trust and re-building confidence, and helps assure that desired employee engagement and productivity levels are maintained through the change process.

Weakened teams cannot effectively heal under a “business as usual” approach.  There are numerous efforts that leaders should undertake to mitigate both the emotional and practical impact of restructuring on morale and productivity while championing the change initiative:

Treat Everyone With Dignity and Respect
This may sound like an obvious no-brainer, but at a minimum, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  Those being laid off, or for that matter those who are terminated for performance issues throughout the year should always be treated with dignity and empathy.  Again, the rest of the team is always watching.  The co-workers of an ousted employee may very well have a very different relationship (and perception) of the individual than does management.  The manner in which terminated employees are treated can have a considerable impact on the morale of the team, and influence their view of the company and their personal sense of value.

Rebuild Trust
The fact is, in the wake of early retirements, layoffs, and restructuring, trust is weakened.  Despite the sensitivity with which changes are implemented, it is weakened due to the emotional response to circumstances beyond the employees’ control, and a perceived violation of the psychological contract and sense of security that management typically works so hard to establish.  Think about it… companies go out of their way to foster a sense of family and teamwork.  Senior management refers to it in global communications; we build it locally through departmental celebrations, holiday dinners, and team picnics; we even celebrate important milestones in employees’ personal lives.  We do all of these things and more to impart a sense of cultural connection, and to nurture relationships with our employees and their families.  Restructuring undermines this sense of security, belonging, and personal value.

Of course intellectually, everyone understands that sustaining the viability of the business entity is the highest priority, but it doesn’t diminish the feelings of betrayal when changes in the form of layoffs and reductions in force become necessary.  The loss of a co-worker and team-mate is painful, regardless of how fiscally prudent it might be.  Those who survive the reduction still suffer a range of emotions despite the legitimacy of the business need.  Their sense of confidence and security is understandably compromised.

The key to rebuilding trust is demonstrating a strong sense of integrity and equitability.  Integrity is built on honesty and the consistent, steadfast adherence to established principles and standards.  Trust itself is a product of character and integrity, and part of the foundation on which effective leadership is built.  Further, trust cannot be reestablished without demonstrating sensitivity to the needs of others.  Everyone needs encouragement and reinforcement when they struggle.  Leaders who are strong of character neither delight in, nor are they complacent with, the struggle of others; they are personally burdened by it.

Be Visible and Be Involved
Employees are not the only ones who are affected by restructuring.  Leaders are personally affected as well.  In the immediate aftermath when responsibilities need to be delegated, job descriptions re-written, and plans for the future redesigned, it’s easy to get caught up in the tasks that must be accomplished at a time when employees need their leaders for stability and guidance.  It’s tempting to put managerial tasks first, but doing so invariably sequesters leaders away in meetings and on conference calls behind closed doors, physically and psychologically separating them from the staff just when they are most needed.

Although they might not ever admit it, employees like having their leaders visible and accessible.  Particularly during times of high stress, it’s reassuring for them to be able to interact with their managers.  It’s really not unlike the relationship that parents have with children.  There is comfort in knowing our leaders are close by and available.  All the closed door meetings and phone calls send the message that there are more unknowns, more changes to yet to come.  It’s bound to be unsettling, even to the most secure staff member.

There is also tremendous practical value to being visible and involved.  It affords the opportunity for a leader to listen, respond, empathize constructively, address concerns, and dispel rumors.  This time can and should be used to re-emphasize goals and vision for the team and company, laying the cultural groundwork for future alignment.  It also provides an opportunity for leaders to publicly show appreciation for dedication, resilience, initiative, and achievements during the transition period.

Communicate Constantly and Honestly
Lack of timely and open communication is perhaps the single most significant contributing factor to the erosion of employee trust and confidence.  Fear of the unknown is a powerful and destructive force.  Left unchecked, it fosters speculation, becomes a breeding ground for gossip and rumors, and grows into a distraction that overwhelms productivity, bringing the business at hand to a crawl.

I don’t know of anyone who would rather not know what’s happening behind closed doors.  And while answers are often slow coming to light, people appreciate consistent communication even if it’s for no other purpose than to offer reassurance or empathy.  Even when there is no new news, a staff meeting can serve as an opportunity to honestly explain the current state of affairs, describe the planning process taking place, focus on new objectives being designed, or simply discuss and respond to concerns.

Key to maintaining credibility and trust is to be as honest as possible.  As is appropriate, state what you know, concede what you don’t, and be truthful in all things.  Keep staff members engaged in the process and focused on the future of the team and company.  This is not the time to B.S. – be honest and genuine and give it to them straight.  Don’t sugar-coat the facts.  They may not like the message, but they’ll respect (and trust) the messenger.

In the aftermath of restructuring, keep talking.  Make sure everyone knows what prompted the changes, what alternatives were considered, and how conclusions were ultimately reached.  This message needs to reflect a rational decision process with consideration for all subsequent effects (on both the people and the business), and focus on the positive outlook for the future of the company.  Again, the message needs to be repeated over and over to rebuild the confidence and sense of personal security of the employees.

Reaffirm Personal Value and Contribution
In a recent team meeting following our own organizational realignment, I asked everyone present to take a moment and look around the room at their co-workers assembled.  I acknowledged that while some of our friends were no longer with us, this was the team that represented the future of our business.  I confirmed that the changes before us would necessitate flexibility and adaptability, and I asked for their patience as roles evolved and responsibilities shifted.  I reminded them of our strength as a team and the exciting opportunities afforded us to reshape our business and relationships, both with each other and our customers.

Ironically, the period just following a restructuring is when the absolute best is needed from remaining employees, yet this is the very time when they are most distracted and least inclined to give 100 percent.  Just about everyone’s sense of safety is compromised to some extent.  Employees are emotionally detached and motivation to put forth discretionary effort diminished.  The sense of job security is low, uncertainty over roles and responsibilities pervades, and even future reporting structure is often up in the air.

It’s important to provide a renewed sense of purpose – to specifically remind everyone just how valuable they are to the company and team, to detail what their role will be moving forward, and to engage them in the process of establishing new goals.  Focus on the new opportunities that the change presents rather than simply assigning the additional responsibilities that will be required.  The objective should be to involve them in the process and make everyone feel valuable and appreciated rather than victims of circumstance.

Create New Opportunities
Most people prefer to live and work within their zone of comfort.  Even the most ambitious people would, given the choice, prefer to adapt to change on their own terms.  Organizational change forces people to step outside of their box.  Some respond with enthusiasm over the chance to learn new skills or take on more responsibility, while others fret over the additional burden or worry that they may not be able to meet the new demands.

Smart leaders use this time of transition to meet with employees to discuss career development, identify individual goals, and develop a plan of action to take them to the next level.  It’s an excellent opportunity to reaffirm the value of the employee’s contribution, outline opportunities for growth, and personally engage them in the change process.

Champion the Vision, Values and Goals
Fundamentally, any organizational restructuring reflects the necessity for immediate and drastic change.  Despite attempts to the moderate the impact, company culture takes a hit on some level.  Priorities shift, even if only temporarily, and everyone’s sense of the future is suddenly diminished.  Individual separation, changes to team dynamics, shifting responsibilities, even changes to schedules disrupt the status quo.

As discussed earlier, teams with even the strongest culture of alignment are shocked by the reality of present and pressing business needs.  The team’s sense of purpose and direction must be reset, trust re-established, and sense of security reaffirmed.  People in these situations will generally rally around a common sense of purpose, and it’s up to the leader to define that purpose.

Again, this affords the leader an opportunity to spend time meeting with both individuals and teams to re-establish the vision of the company, values of the team, and goals for achieving success.  People are naturally inclined to seek comfort in the familiar.  An emphasis on building upon existing cultural strengths provides reassurance while establishing a foundation on which to build new goals for the future.  By providing a context for the team and its members to successfully implement the company’s plan for the future, and detailing each individual’s role in the process, cultural alignment and personal engagement can begin to restore.

Leverage Competitive Advantage
Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”  Opportunities always exist.  The challenge is often in knowing where to look, and more importantly, how to take advantage of them once identified.  Leveraging existing competitive advantages provides an opportunity to reaffirm a common vision and focus team efforts on the positive strengths of the organization.

Building upon and focusing on existing strengths should not be anything new to the team.  If anything, these are likely to be concepts with which employees are both familiar and comfortable.  These typically represent a source of pride for the team and can be used as unifiers in rebuilding confidence and a positive outlook.  Examples include:

  • Talent and Ability of Team Members
  • Industry Experience
  • Brand Strength
  • Client Relationships
  • Quality of Products and Services
  • Design Quality and Exclusivity
  • Breadth and/or depth of Products and Services

Additional Steps
The following are just a few additional steps that leaders can undertake to rebuild team unity and restore a culture of alignment.

  • Enthusiastically reinforce the vision every single day.
  • Focus on achieving daily and weekly goals together, keeping everyone involved and engaged.
  • Provide rewards and recognition whenever appropriate.
  • Continue existing traditions and activities that the staff is used to enjoying.
  • Initiate team activities and new traditions such as periodic pot-luck lunches, team movie nights, afternoon ice cream “socials,” awards for attendance, service and contribution, or get the team involved in a philanthropic activity
  • Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with mister in-between!

Finally, it’s important for leaders to accept and share in the grieving process after layoffs.  Employees need to see for themselves that their leaders share their pain and care about the effects of change.  However, while they appreciate empathy, they also look to their leaders for strength and direction.   Superior leaders always focus on objectives, not obstacles.  They are optimistic, enthusiastic, and inspire people to become better than they might on their own.  On the heels of a corporate restructuring, these leaders provide a clear vision of the successful future, leveraging both the strengths of the business and unique talents of the individuals who provide a face to the public.

III. Preparing for Future Changes

Mitigating Risk of Additional Turmoil
High involvement teams that normally enjoy a strong sense of cultural alignment, where employees enjoy more decision-making authority and responsibility and are involved and participate in the change process, are generally able to rebound quickly when continually engaged throughout the restructuring process.  While not immune to the emotional turmoil that accompanies significant change, they are better equipped to weather the storm long term than teams with lower cultural alignment.

Most of the same techniques leaders use to lead teams through the wake of restructuring should also dampen the impact of any subsequent layoffs or downsizings that become necessary.  The benefits are essentially the same.  Leaders should continually:

  • Build Trust
  • Be Visible and Be Involved
  • Communicate Constantly and Honestly
  • Value the Team and Members
  • Create New Opportunities
  • Champion the Vision, Values and Goals
  • Leverage Competitive Advantages
  • Continue to Promote a Sense of Team

[1] Sutton, Robert. The Last Word on Layoffs: Evidence on Costs and Implementation Practices. Harvard Business Publishing, 2007

But… The Emperor Has No Clothes!

emperorRemember the Hans Christian Anderson story, The Emperor’s New Clothes?   A couple of swindlers take advantage of a vain emperor by promising to fashion a beautiful new suit.  The suit, however, was a nonexistent scam that was invisible to all, including the emperor himself.  No one had the courage to speak up and tell him the suit was invisible, so he paraded around naked until finally a child pointed out what was obvious to all.

How often does this same scenario replay itself in the world of corporate business?  Companies that stifle open and honest feedback (either unwittingly or by design) encourage just this sort of enabling behavior.  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon.  For any number of reasons, certain projects, initiatives, and decisions are considered political hot potatoes.  It might be due to a significant investment of time or capital, or simply because the initiative is the pet project of a politically powerful executive.  The justifications for wanting to hear only what they want to hear are both numerous and convincingly valid.  Convincing, that is, to the emperor who doesn’t want to be told that his “new suit” is transparent.  But by creating an environment in which feedback is reduced to self-serving affirmation, executives isolate themselves in their own fictional sphere of reality.

Companies (and people) have a bad habit of using the cost of an investment (be it a program, idea, or initiative) as justification for its ongoing implementation.  In reality, however, any unrecoverable cost is sunk once invested.  Regardless of whether the project is a success or failure, there’s no getting the investment back.  Therefore, the justification for the ongoing implementation of an initiative should be based solely on the viability and merits of the initiative itself, independent of the unrecoverable investment.  Otherwise, it’s like eating spoiled food (or wearing an invisible suit) just because you paid for it.  Similarly, any company initiative that is flawed should either be immediately fixed or killed, regardless of how much it originally cost.  You simply cannot justify the continued implementation of a flawed program based on its original cost.  And if speaking up to acknowledge or challenge the flaws is tantamount to career suicide, whose interest is being served?

Regardless of the reasons or circumstances, when a company allows its culture of communication and feedback to become constipated, so much so that acknowledging flaws in an initiative or decision is perceived as potentially career damaging, they do themselves a dangerous disservice.  No one will tell the emperor he is naked if he fears for his job or his standing in the company.

Perhaps even worse than a flawed initiative going unchallenged is the resulting sense of apathy that such closed-mindedness breeds.  Lower level management and staff eventually stop caring whether the emperor is naked or not.  And why shouldn’t they?  If the emperor only wants to hear how beautiful his suit appears, and any discussion of the fact that it’s actually invisible risks a figurative beheading, then why speak out?  Why take the risk?  Why care?