Our Attention Deficit Work Culture

Our Attention Deficit Work Culture

In San Francisco, a private high school challenged its Seniors to go without their digital devices for a week. Phones were collected and off the students went into their own private purgatories. How long could they last? The Principal thought it would not be long. He saw their humanity slipping away into digital space.

It was not a successful experiment. Within 24 hours, 20% of the students succumbed and got their phones back; 48 hours—another 50% gave in; 3 days—only 10% were left. No one lasted a week. But those who lasted more than 2 days reported better conversations and more fun with their friends.

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.
-Albert Einstein

The Quest for Balance

We don’t do much better at work. Our lives are defined by the “ping, ping, ping” of our digital devices, rather than the needs of our businesses or our people. Every second or two there is a new message that demands immediate attention and we respond with near-Pavlovian precision. We have an Attention Deficit Work Culture (ADWC). And it’s getting worse rather than better. It’s like people feeling compelled to text while they drive or walk, with almost no regard for others. We have become digital extensions of the Internet. There appears to be no balance or counterweight. One company tried by turning off the “ping” feature in their systems so that the workforce could focus on real work.

In other words, our digital interfaces have seduced us into the position of not having the discipline or will to resist them. Over time, this subservient habit leads us deeper and deeper into the cavern of ADWC. The strategic gets subordinated to the operational, and our work lives become so thoroughly transactional that we may lose focus on the real challenges we face. Sub-optimization at its finest.

I know we have to have connectivity, so this is not an anti-technology rant. But it is an appeal for greater balance, self-discipline, mutual accountability, and human-to-human relationships. I think we lose our humanity, and often our civility, when we relate to the world through our digital devices. Just 15 years ago they didn’t exist. But we cannot, and should not, roll the clock back.

We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human race.
-John Naisbitt

Our Challenge, Our Choice

Our work culture challenge, then, remains building workplaces fit for the human spirit—not bits of code. It is to model the way toward cultures that enable us to be our best selves, to serve each other, to innovate and create, to solve real problems.

As Jacque Ellul, author of The Technological Society said 40 years ago (paraphrased): the biggest challenge human beings will have in the age of technique, is to maintain our humanity in the face of overwhelming technological advances—and to not subordinate ourselves to the machine.

As we enter the unknown worlds of artificial intelligence, will we be able to maintain our humanity? Or will we each just become another digit in the Attention Deficit Work Culture? We each have a choice.

People at Work Want to Matter

People at Work Want to Matter

Everyone in the workplace knows that the bottom line matters, and that without a healthy bottom line, jobs are at risk. Everyone also knows that customer satisfaction matters, since without it there is no healthy bottom line. And everyone knows that quality of products/services matters, because without it the customers won’t be satisfied. And more often than not, this is where the conversation stops.

There’s one more step in what matters: the people want to matter.

Balancing Necessity and Humanity

In an Ohio manufacturing company that had about 250 people working in the plant, whenever there was an economic downturn, a good 20% of that workforce was let go. It was an economic necessity, or so they were told. When the economy recovered, they started rehiring again, and tried to get the same workers back. Many had already moved on or lost confidence in leadership. The company had to incur major costs of recruiting and training new workers, costs that went straight to the bottom line.

The company then adopted a culture of collaboration, the workforce was organized into teams, a new governance process was put in place, and high trust was built. When the next downturn came and management wanted a 20% reduction, the workforce chose to take a week of unpaid leave instead, preserving the jobs of 50 of their fellow workers. When the economy came back, the company had saved the costs of recruiting and training, had maintained loyalty and confidence, productivity improved along with quality, and profitability went up—and the workforce got to share in some of those profits.

People who matter are most aware that everyone else does too.
-Malcolm Forbes

The workforce found out that they mattered—to each other, to leadership, and to the customers.

Lead with Respect

What we know about people at work is that at the end of the day, they want to matter, to feel significant. They want to be respected, heard, honored, and supported; they want to win, learn, grow, and do their best. What we need are cultures that recognize this principle, and lead accordingly. Here are some key dimensions of such a culture:

  • Trust: Build a workplace based on trust, not fear, where people can speak their truth to power respectfully and not fear retribution
  • Ownership: People take care of what they own—they don’t wash rented cars; give them ownership of their jobs, the culture, vision, mission, and strategy
  • Listening: People know they matter if leadership listens to them, and then acts on what they have learned
  • Learning: Create a learning environment, where mistakes are opportunities to improve and grow
  • Acknowledgement: Honor not just the job well done, but who the people are as human beings; develop them, nurture them, coach them

By creating a leadership culture where people feel they matter, everything else the business needs to do will happen—productivity, quality, customer satisfaction, and profitability.

Can you add to this discussion? I welcome your thoughts and ideas on social media. 

Business-Smart but People-Challenged

Business-Smart but People-Challenged

There is an up and coming leader in a global IT firm, Ray, who is known as the smartest guy in the room. He has been a top performer for years, is well known for his executive briefings of customers, and his solid strategic sense. In fact, he’s so smart that whenever he goes into a meeting with colleagues, everyone waits for him to weigh in on the issue of the day, since there’s no point in having a different view. You’re most likely going to be made wrong. He also has the ear of the Senior Vice President, so Ray speaks with power as well as smarts.

Ray’s problem, however, is that he just got some rather difficult 360 feedback. His colleagues don’t like working with him, are fearful given his proximity to the SVP, and don’t find the meetings very helpful. Ray was flustered by this information. He didn’t understand. The essence is Ray is Business-Smart But People-Challenged. He’s got low EQ.

Recent research sponsored by the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business found that among the most critical skills executives need in this complex global marketplace, are the ability to build trust-based relationships, effectively collaborate with others, and engage the workforce so that they are aligned with senior leadership.1 Ray does not possess any of these capabilities.

The future of business leadership belongs to “people-smart” leaders.

In company after company, we see people who are technically good at what they do as engineers, project specialists, or sales people, being promoted into the leadership track where they have to manage people. Sometimes this transition is possible, but more often than not, what made them successful on the technical track impedes success on the management track—as in Ray’s case. In fact, based on the 360 data, he realized he was probably in the wrong job.

What can senior leadership do in this situation? Here are some perspectives:

  • Leadership EQ is More Important Than IQ: Work gets done through people. Leadership requires high EQ, empathy, and understanding of what motivates people
  • Collaboration and Trust-Building Are Essential Capabilities: Leaders must know how to effectively collaborate across silos, cultures, levels, and geographies, as well as build trust, which is the new currency in business
  • Workforce Engagement and Ownership Ensures Success: Millennials and Gen Y expect to be engaged and own their work; if they don’t, they leave. Imagine the impact on business if an entire workforce owned the strategy, goals, and process
  • Make the Decision Quickly: If a leader cannot change their people smarts, cut your losses quickly; don’t drag it out and victimize your workforce
  • Revisit How Leaders are Identified and Selected: If there is a pattern of Business-Smart But People-Challenged leaders, it’s time to reconfigure your recruitment and selection process.

The future of business leadership belongs to People-Smart leaders. At the end of the day, you can have the best business plan, strategy, and funding, but execution is done through and with people. They have to own it to take care of it. It is leadership’s job to make that happen.

What are your thoughts and can you add to these perspectives? I welcome your ideas and look forward to your comments on social media. 


1. Future Trends in Business Education, Executive Core LLC, for AACSB, UNICON, and EMBAC, Summer, 2015

Is the “Soft Stuff” Really Soft?

Is the Soft Stuff Really Soft?

“We don’t have time for the soft stuff” was recently heard in a senior leadership meeting. “Let’s get back to the real work—our budget and strategy for next year.” This team had just been through a training workshop that focused on leadership styles, their impact on the workforce, and the need to shift their behaviors toward more openness and collaboration. Comments on the “soft stuff” have been around for some time. It’s amazing in this time of work complexity, ambiguity, vulnerability, and interdependence, that some leadership still undervalue the importance of the human side of enterprise.

Getting the people side of business right is perhaps the hardest work that any leader or leadership team can do. If the culture in which people work is polluted with fear and anxiety, is infused with politics, and infected with dysfunctional behavior, then the business results will suffer—dramatically. But, if you get the people piece right, the business will thrive. It is incumbent upon leadership to get the people piece right, and if they are uncomfortable with doing that, it is an opportunity for them to grow.

If we have learned anything in the last decade about working in a complex, rapidly changing, global market, it is that we all depend on each other to get things done. To do so requires high levels of trust, authenticity, and openness in collaborative relationships that increasingly must work across the supply chain, silos, time zones, and cultures. Technology cannot fix the distrust issues people have. Neither can a marketing strategy or reorganization. We have to address the messy business of people’s relationships head on.

Some businesses try to do this through training or off-sites. The expectation or hope is that if people learn new content together they will behave differently. Usually training results wear off after 60 days, as it did with the senior team noted above. People don’t change years of patterned behavior because they go to a workshop. Don’t get me wrong, training is important for certain kinds of things like skills development, but not for dealing with the challenges of human relationships.

Here are 5 proven ways leadership can address the people side of the business:

  • Engagement: Establish an ongoing dialogue across the workplace about the direction of the business
  • Team-Based Governance: Create a process where members agree on the “rules” for how they are going to work together
  • Change Ownership: Ensure that the people who have to live with the results of a change own the change process itself
  • 2 Way Communications: Set up an ongoing 2 way process that can increase mutual understanding, trust, and alignment between leadership and the workforce
  • Learning: Learn from mistakes. Have after-action reviews. Have a repository of lessons learned. Celebrate the successes.

We achieve business results through and with people. The hardest work any leader can do is to build a workplace culture that is fit for the human spirit. There is nothing “soft” about this.

Can you add to this subject? I welcome your thoughts and comments on social media. 

Bridging the Authenticity Gap

Bridging the Authenticity Gap

“I never give a 5”, said the senior executive when evaluating one of his people on a 5 point scale. “No one is perfect.” All our lives, in school, athletics, or socially, we are poked, prodded, and pushed to be perfect by evaluation systems that merely show us we are not 5’s, “not good enough”. We are less than perfect, based the standards of others, so peer pressure becomes our moral compass. In the business world, it’s organizational politics and fear that shape how we behave. We have to take orders, get along, and not rock the boat in order to advance. 

The Authenticity Gap

For organizations, leaders, and teams, this evaluation system creates what could be called an authenticity gap—which is the distance between who people truly are, what they believe to be true, and what they wish they could say, on the one hand, and on the other, what they have to be, believe, and say in order to advance. This gap is sustained by a leadership culture that is based on power, politics, and fear, rather than principle and trust.

The Consequences

For organizations, the consequences are mediocrity, bureaucracy, reduced innovation, productive energy and collaboration. In fact, how can we possibly collaborate in a culture that is based on the fear of not being “good enough”? Organizations can, and do, lose their moral compass in this culture since people will go along to get along—witness the recent banking scandal.

For individual leaders, the greatest consequences include an unwillingness to speak truth to power, to take risks, and admit mistakes. The primary focus is rather on meeting the expectations and standards of others to get ahead. External standards and measures are used to assess their worth, rather than their internal sense of self, values, and moral code. Like organizations, people can easily lose their way when always conforming to the expectations of others.

Bridging the Gap

I know a senior executive at the top of his game who is the most authentic leader I have ever known. He bridged the gap—he found a way to be himself and also excel in his work. He brought this leadership to his teams and organization, creating a culture where they could tell their truth, make mistakes, learn and grow; the results were collaboration, innovation, and sustainable growth. How did he bridge the gap?

  • Providing a Clear Vision: He inspired the workforce with a clear vision that involved them all
  • Honoring Their Humanity: He acknowledged his own humanity and mistakes, which enabled others to do the same
  • Living One’s Principles: His behaviors and actions were based on principle, rather than politics, personality, or power
  • Engaging Others: He actively engaged everyone in a conversation about what was possible in the future, mobilizing their energy and creativity
  • Listening Graciously: He always listened, resulting in true collaboration, problem-solving and goal attainment

No one is perfect, even those evaluating us. Anyone can bridge the authenticity gap and create a collaborative work culture. It’s a conscious choice.

What can you add to this discussion? I look forward to your comments below. 

Can We Reverse the Decline in Trust?

Can We Reverse the Decline in Trust?

Distrust is the new normal. There has been a dramatic decline over at least the past 15 years in almost every sector of our society—distrust of the police, government, financial institutions, ethnic groups, and even each other. “Distrust” is the headline every night on the news.

Trust vs. Fear as a performance driver

In the business world, distrust is a daily affair as well, with fear being the driver. The predominant style of leadership, even today, is based on the use of fear to direct workforce behavior, whether it is hierarchy, span of control, accountability or human resource policies. A culture of fear has a momentum of its own. It gets infused into the very infrastructure of the business, its DNA. Leaders actually come to believe that unless you threaten people’s jobs and security, you won’t get peak performance.

Quite the contrary is true. Research has shown that people thrive in their organizations when they feel trusted and engaged, when they own their work and work processes, and know that their leadership believes in them, and will encourage and support them.

Collaborative leadership cultures

If companies want consistently high levels of performance, they need to transform their leadership cultures into ones that are more collaborative—based on the principles of trust and ownership, a culture that believes in the innate competence of the workforce, that they want their companies to win, and want to be proud of who they work for.

Five elements of Trust

To reverse the decline in trust in business, here are five key elements for leaders to consider:

  • Trust as a Core Belief: Trust becomes the core belief system; it means believing in the competence and capability of the workforce; providing the resources and support needed for them to do their jobs; that fear is consciously demolished as a way of doing business
  • Trust as the Culture: Leadership makes a commitment to foster a culture where decisions are made based on principle, not politics; moving from a focus on “I” to a focus on “We”
  • Trust Through Ownership: People take care of what they own; they don’t wash rented cars; the workforce not only owns the values, vision, and mission of the business, but also their work processes and outcomes
  • Trust as Structure: Trust is built and supported best in teams; it means a team-based, flat, and cross-functional structure; shared responsibility for delivering outcomes
  • Trust as Learning: People learn through their mistakes; being self-accountable for performance, accountable to one’s peers, all with a focus on learning without fear of retribution

Distrust may be the new normal, but there is hope. Leaders can act on this hope by taking a stand for trust and transforming their cultures to trust-based, collaborative enterprises. Collaborative leaders know that trust-based organizations will out-perform their fear-based counterparts every day of the year.

Does your culture help leaders thrive in collaborative ways? Are these five elements of trust in place? Or can you improve upon even one of these trust elements. I look forward to your comments.

Toward a Trust Culture

Toward a Trust Culture

Imagine this

Imagine walking into your leadership team meeting wondering whether the same old politics was going to play out. Would the same people work their own private agendas, again? Would the same people be silent and watch it happen? Would everyone just be nice and kind and not honest, and let the meeting pass without ever addressing the elephant in the room?

Imagine further that the distrust issues were so deep seated that you begin to wonder if this team would ever be able to be high performance.  We know fear, silo-based work, conflict avoidance, a lack of confidentiality, and a lack of accountability play havoc with an organization’s efficiency, effectiveness, quality, and bottom line. Now imagine the impact that all of this has on the workforce.

For most business leaders today, they don’t have to imagine this scenario. It is how business works today. These behaviors reflect leadership cultures based on power, politics, or personality, with the results being sub-optimal at best. The greatest victim is the loss of trust between individuals, teams, departments, and between senior leadership and the workforce. And yet we keep working this way.

On trust and distrust

Trust is the one principle of relationships we know we must have to be successful in our own lives, in our teams, and our organizations. And yet it is the most elusive for us. It is an amorphous quality of relationships—we can’t touch it, hear it, or see it. But we can feel it. We know when we are trusted and when we trust another. It is hard to attain and easy to lose; and if lost, we may never regain it. Trust is the icon for our personal and interpersonal integrity. Whether we trust others is the outward reflection of whether we trust ourselves. And when the trust is broken, our ability to forgive others is a reflection of our own ability to forgive ourselves.

Distrust in teams, especially leadership teams, can result from our playing by different rules, having different interpretations of events, or have undisclosed expectations of each other or the business.

What if…a Trust Culture?

What if we could create a Trust Culture by:

  • Strategic Direction: Being clear about where the organization is headed so that the workforce knows and can adapt?
  • Governance: Developing a set of operating agreements we all agree to that define how we will work together, make decisions, handle disagreements, and hold each other accountable?
  • Alignment: Creating alignment by having a set of charters for each group or team that spell out their missions and roles in the organization?
  • Ownership: Building a high level of ownership of any organizational change, like a new technology, process redesign, or restructuring that directly engages the people most directly affected by the change?
  • Psychological Safety: Nurturing a leadership culture that supports the practice of “speaking truth to power” without fear of retribution, so that the workforce will want to innovate?

All five of these core dimensions of a trust-based culture are within our reach. What is essential for success, however, is leadership who see building trust as vital to the cultures of their organizations. What If is possible.

How about you? Are there opportunities in your client’s organization or your business to gain more awareness around trust? If so, please share your thoughts on social media for our continued learning.  

Creating the “WE” Organization

Creating the WE Organization

Years ago, NASA ran a series of experiments on the best way to make decisions. They used a series of survival scenarios, and asked individuals in a large group to solve the challenge and rate themselves. Then they asked small groups to solve the problems and rate their performance. About 98% of the time, the groups received better scores than the individuals.

Meeting Today’s Business Challenges

Fast forward to today’s business challenges where we face the same question—do individuals or groups make the best decisions? Today’s market requires that our organizations are agile, their people are able to work across boundaries of all kinds, and they must be able to collaborate to get things done. Today, more than ever before, it’s about We, not me. The rugged individualist and the sharks cannot survive in a world where we are increasingly interdependent. So, what kind of organization can survive complexity, volatility, and uncertainty on a global scale? I believe it is what we can call the “WE” organization.

What does the WE organization look like?

  • Its culture is based on principles, not power or politics.
  • Building and maintaining high trust is central to how people work together—not fear.
  • There is a clear strategic direction.
  • Strategic decisions are made by consensus among the senior leadership.
  • Leadership is situational rather than positional. Everyone has the capacity to lead at any given point in time based on their knowledge and skills.
  • Individuals subordinate their personal self-interest to the good of the whole.
  • The workforce owns the work processes.
  • There is transparency in how the organization operates. Secrecy creates distrust.
  • The organization’s design is flat and team-based; gone are the days of the pyramid.
  • People work collaboratively for the good of the whole. Independent achievers need not apply.
  • Accountability happens at the level of self, within teams, and based on results.
  • People are rewarded in part for achievement of organization goals, in part for their team work, and in part for their personal development and contribution to the whole.

Most organizations don’t look like this today. But there are examples of businesses moving in this direction. The WE organization is the future. It is the kind of culture that will attract and retain millenials as well as future generations. It is agile, flexible, innovative, collaborative, and self-sustaining.

Beginning the journey

The way to begin this journey is to assess where you are, e.g. is “me” more important than “we”? Do politics run rife? Do silos prevail? Is there hoarding of information? Is individual performance more important than team and organizational performance? After assessment comes a conscious choice to shift the culture. Then a strategy for culture shift is created, the workforce is engaged, and the change process begins.

It’s a journey worth taking if we not only want to survive, but thrive.

Do you agree with the need for a WE organization?  Are there other characteristics of a WE organization?  What other ideas or feedback do you have?

Photo Credit: FlickR, Fredrik Alpstedt

The CEO is the CCO – Chief Culture Officer

The CEO is the CCO - Chief Culture Officer

Whether your business is large or small, if you are the CEO, you are also the CCO—the Chief Cultural Officer. Culture matters – it is what makes the difference between a thriving, profitable, and growing business and one that is lethargic and struggling. The CCO who takes on the creating, shaping, and development of the company’s culture will see a highly productive and happy workforce who produce significant bottom line results.

What defines a company’s culture?  

It includes three important elements:

  • Identity:  The company’s history, logo, image, language,  location, and the like
  • Values & Principles: Beliefs, core values, and underlying principles
  • Productive Energy:  Is it a TGIF culture? Or is it a TGIM culture—one where the workforce is eager to get to work on Monday, take risks, go the extra mile, and collaborate to help the customer? Are they excited to be at work?

For 25 years, I have measured companies’ productive energy and have concluded that all things being equal, the company that has a productive energy level of 80+% will outstrip the competition every time.

Company cultures don’t just “happen”. They reflect the personality, leadership style, values, vision, and preferences of the CEO and their senior leadership. There is a 1:1 correlation between the CEO’s beliefs, behaviors and attitudes and how the workforce behaves.

The Role of the CCO – Chief Culture Officer

To excel, it is the CEO’s job to be the Chief Cultural Officer, which is far more difficult than handling the financial, product/service, marketing, or customer ends of the business.

Here are some things the CEO can do to fulfill this role:

  • Creating: The CCO decides what type of culture the organization is going to have—command and control, transactional, or collaborative? Will it value transparency? Will it be siloed, matrixed, or flat? Will everyone be engaged? What will the compensation system reward—individual or team performance? These are only some of the questions.
  • Shaping: The CCO then ensures that the workforce is engaged in understanding and embracing the culture. If the workforce owns the culture, they’ll take care of it. The worst kind of culture is one that emerges from benign neglect. On-boarding employees, focus groups, two- way communications, and regular engagement—all of these tools help shape workforce ownership of the culture.
  • Developing: Cultures are not static. It is the CCO’s job to stay on top of the evolution and development of the culture so that it stays true to the original principles and values.

Finally, this job that can’t be delegated. It is exclusively the CEO’s role. It’s a choice as well: ignore this role and just let things happen organically, and you get what you get; or, embrace the role, grow into it, and let the power of the culture work for the workforce and the business.