From Trust Busters to Trust Builders: Three Ways to Gain Trust in Your Culture

Perhaps one of the greatest retention tools in today’s fast-paced environment is to consciously create a culture of high trust. When employees trust their boss, productivity increases and retention remains stable.

Stephen R.M. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust says it best, “When trust is low, in a company or in a relationship, it places a hidden “tax” on every transaction: every communication, every interaction, every strategy, every decision is taxed, bringing speed down and sending costs up. My experience is that significant distrust doubles the cost of doing business and triples the time it takes to get things done.”

Covey stresses the two primary components of trust building which includes character and competence.

Character includes your integrity, motive, and intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, skills, results, and track record.”

Within the competencies and skills category—assuming the character and integrity is intact—this article addresses three trust-busters with easy to do checklists—Trust Builders—to significantly increase trust in your department, teams, indeed, your workplace culture.

Trust-buster #1 – Inconsistency

Inconsistencies can happen in almost any area of the business. For example, the outdated policies don’t align with the realities of the current state of the business or processes that have yet to be defined. Another area of inconsistency is in leadership behavior. When the boss has uncontrollable fits of anger, employees don’t know what to expect and are often afraid to speak up when speaking up is necessary.

Why consistency is important

In times of uncertainty the brain registers uncertainty as a threat. In today’s world of speed and uncertainty, dialing up the certainty gives your organization a competitive advantage. Consistency is the key to successfully managing in uncertain times.

Trust Builders to Increase Consistency

  1. Update policies to match today’s reality.
  2. Document and update processes.
  3. Schedule conversations to introduce changes and updates.
  4. Only hire leaders who are high in emotional IQ and communication skills.
  5. Hire and discipline based on stated values.

Trust-buster #2 – Broken Promises

The easiest trap for new managers to fall into is making broken promises. Statements like, “Great idea, I’ll get back to you,” almost always backfires. Sometimes change happens due to outside circumstances, such as new legislation, political agendas, or environmental issues. There will be times when you simply can’t keep a promise. In these rare circumstances, communicate changes so that you don’t unintentionally create a lapse of trust due to the perception of broken promises.

Why keeping promises is important

Keeping promises or updating employees when an unexpected change occurs helps employees to feel secure. They perceive that what you say goes. This gives them the freed up energy to move forward with confidence. If they perceive that what you say is the “flavor of the month,” they simply won’t put their heart and soul into their work. They will procrastinate and wait for the change they think is coming.

Trust Builders to Increase Promise-Keeping

  1. Schedule all agreements. Even statements like “I’ll get back with you” requires a date on the calendar.
  2. Set realistic expectations on new ideas. For example, initiate a pilot program to test new ideas so that there’s an ending place if the idea doesn’t work.
  3. Update employees when changes prevent follow through.
  4. Apologize when you dropped a ball or didn’t follow through on a previous promise. If this is a habit for you, check to see if there is a skills deficit or a process problem, such as documenting or scheduling agreements on a calendar.
  5. Let your “yes” and “no” mean something. Stop saying “yes” just to end conversations.

Trust-buster #3 – Poor Listening

Listening takes a lot of energy. You have to distill the relevant from the irrelevant, and let’s face it, employees aren’t necessarily great at getting to the point. It’s easy to get hypnotized by the story and start multitasking, discounting, or nodding in agreement. And if you’re on a phone call or conference call, it’s tempting to check email or start working on something else the moment you feel bored. It’s even more difficult to listen when the stakes are high—when you disagree, or you feel angry. This is when it’s most important to do what I call “Radical Listening.”

Why listening is important

There’s an old saying, “When I talk, I know what I know; but when I listen, I know what I know, and I know what you know.” In difficult conversations, it’s easy to try to shut down or argue than to really listen. But winning an argument rarely wins you more trust. When you aren’t really listening it’s easy to make agreements you aren’t really prepared to keep and it’s likely you’ll miss something important that could eventually erode trust. In addition, you may miss the meta-message and other subtle cues that could be detrimental to your decision-making.

Trust Builders to Increase Listening

  1. Stop interrupting. Hold your tongue at the roof of your mouth. It’s easier for the other person to hear you once they feel they have been heard.
  2. Do not multi-task. Stop checking electronic communications. If you can’t focus at the moment, tell the truth and schedule a time when the other person has your undivided attention.
  3. Ask questions for clarification when you don’t agree or don’t understand.
  4. Notice how much time you are lecturing, preaching or talking versus just listening. Invite conversation by asking questions if you notice that you’ve been taking up too much air time.
  5. If your mind wanders, admit it. Say, “I got distracted. Could you repeat that?”


Many of us have difficulty solidifying ideas like trust-building, but when you take the idea, break it down into observable behaviors and business results, you can reverse-engineer any trust-buster and work on the skills and competencies to dramatically increase trust, drive growth, and reduce costly mistakes.


Editor’s note: One of the largest culture-related market studies in the world cites that culture is created and evolves in groups, and that leaders can impact culture with the strategies or approaches they use to lead their team as well as with the systems they implement. The report noted that an excellent place to start is with cultivating trust. If you lead or collaborate on transforming workplace culture, use this report supplement to guide your efforts. For details and download information, click here

How to Support A Drama-Free Culture In Two Essential Steps

Imagine a single organization from the perspective of two different cultures: Culture Accountability and Culture Bottleneck.

In Culture A (Accountability), things get done quickly and efficiently. Executive teams are cohesive and managers know what is expected. As a result, managers run a tight ship and are quick to course-correct any activity, behavior or process that doesn’t align with the shared mission and vision. Managers are confident that their decisions will be supported by the executive team. Conversations, both vertical and horizontal, are focused on both process and people; results and relationships. Those who do not fit the culture leave on their own accord.

In Culture B (Bottleneck), bottlenecks create frustration. Decisions seem to be an afterthought and lack of trust precedes the need to micromanage. Managers fear making decisions because their decisions are often overridden. Executives complain that their managers never get the job done. On the front lines, turf wars and internal drama erupt spontaneously. Uncertainty, unexpected change and chaos color the culture. Conversations are avoided and poor performance is justified until something major happens and firing is the only option.

“At most organizations, the bottleneck is at the top of the bottle.”
– Peter Drucker

All other things considered, there are two components that distinguish Culture A from Culture B:
Clarity and Communication.

Clarity about who is in charge and how decisions are made

In every single instance of time-wasting drama, no matter how it manifests, at the root is a lack of clarity in some form.

On the front lines, when employees are unclear about what success looks like, they lose confidence and waste productive hours getting reassurance and clarification—procrastinating when uncertain.
At the highest level, lack of clarity about the real problem or the desired end result wastes time and resources hiring vendors and consultants offering “one and done” workshops or other ineffective solutions.

Even when there is clarity about the real problem, the end result and the process, a big road-block I often see is the lack of clarity about who is in charge and how decisions are made.

For context, let me share a quick example. Years ago I was on a project for a mid-sized corporation. My inside contact, a high-level director, had absolutely no power to push the project forward. Because of this fact, any work I did had to be approved by the top executive who would continuously change calendar dates and, in doing so, would “delegate” the date changing to the director, who had to navigate calendars and multiple dates. I estimate we wasted at least 40 productive hours chasing down the real decision maker to make a change instead of setting up one phone call.

Increasing clarity inevitably increases your productivity and speed. Here are some suggestions for increasing speed by increasing decision-making clarity.

What to Start Doing

  1. After identifying the real problem and the desired outcome, take the necessary time to agree on how decisions will be made among top executives. Whether you are a co-owner or a team of C-Suite executives, your organization’s success and your peace of mind is dependent upon your maturity to clarify your decision-making processes.
  2. Have a plan in place to maximize efficiency and decision making for those times when change happens.
  3. Give real decision-making authority to those to whom you delegate power.

“The bottleneck is never code or creativity; it’s lack of clarity.”
– Scott Berkun

What to Stop Doing

  1. Stop going rogue on your senior partners. Before you make a major decision, get alignment from your executive team.
  2. Stop delegating when delegation creates a bottleneck. Instead, hire an assistant to do the grunt work and let your director-level people get their own work done.
  3. Stop complaining about your employees and team members. If you find yourself complaining, set a time on the calendar to confront the issue with the person (or people) who needs to hear the conversation.

Initiate clear conversations

The number-one problem I see that slows progress and efficiency is the inability or unwillingness of leaders to initiate what I call executive conversations. Executive conversations (as I define them) are both results- and relationship-oriented.

Many drama-laden cultures adopt an either-or mentality: a mindset that it’s all about results—anything for a profit, or it’s all about relationships—avoiding conflict at all costs. Both mindsets create accountability-related issues.

In his bestselling book, Advantage, Patrick Lencioni says:

“Many leaders struggle with accountability but don’t know it. Some will tell me that since they aren’t afraid to fire people, they must not have an accountability problem. Of course, this is misguided. Firing someone is not necessarily a sign of accountability, but is often the last act of cowardice for a leader who doesn’t know how or isn’t willing to hold people accountable. At its core, accountability is about having the courage to confront someone about their deficiencies and then to stand in the moment and deal with their reaction which may not be pleasant.“

When there is a lack of accountability there is a lack of alignment, and when there’s a lack of alignment there’s a need for executive conversations.

What to start doing

  1. Increase your awareness of what is happening that should not be happening, and articulate it.
  2. Ask for the behavior or action you want directly and succinctly without blame.
  3. Keep the overall good of the organization in mind when you address the issue.
  4. State how the problem you perceive affects the revenues, productivity, team, client satisfaction or any other business case.

What to stop doing

  1. Stop holding grudges and realize that a grudge is a sure sign of a conversation that needs to happen.
  2. Get coaching support to learn how to initiate conversations that get results instead of resentment.
  3. Stop firing people before you’ve had the courage to have a couple of conversations. If you communicate effectively, they will either improve with some coaching, or they will eliminate themselves when they see they can’t cut the mustard. The good news is they will probably leave on friendly terms.


There are many factors that shape culture; however, it’s up to the senior leaders to eliminate the time-wasting bottlenecks that contribute to high-drama cultures. Get clear on the real problem and the desired end result. Clarify who is in charge and how decisions are made. Initiate executive conversations that are both relationship- and results-oriented to transform the Bottleneck Culture into a Culture of Accountability.

Barriers to an Accountable Culture

Embodying 3 Keys to Enable Success

Almost every organization wants to increase accountability, yet the road to an accountable culture is often rocky, narrow, and slippery. Most executives can quote books, articulate models, and share statistics about accountability, yet the gap between knowing and doing remains wide.

What I often see in the field is intellectualizing rather than embodiment. Intellectualizing is about “head knowledge,” and embodiment is about taking actions until the actions become habits that turn into ways of being. This post is about three distinct barriers to creating an accountable culture and what to do to shorten the gap between ideas and action.

Barrier #1 – Lack of Alignment

The first barrier is lack of alignment. One reason this barrier exists is because we lack understanding about alignment: what it is, what it isn’t, and how to recognize a lack of it. Most people I ask define alignment as “the walk matching the talk,” or some version of living in harmony with your values.

There’s a difference between knowing and doing; between intellectualizing and embodiment. For example, valuing the quality of respect and living that quality is very different from just knowing about it. And we would certainly know how to identify a hypocrite, yet, most of us have a much more difficult time looking in the mirror at our own misalignment. 

To truly understand alignment, you must understand inner conflict. Inner conflict happens when we experience opposing drives, desires or demands. You desire to be respectful, yet it’s difficult to hold back when you’re triggered, perceive injustice, or find yourself absorbed in a vortex of negative media and heated emotion. Embodiment is about living the value even when the value is tested.

What to do:

Look at the issue of alignment from both a personal perspective, and then through your organizational lens. First look at values. Get clear about what behaviors are in harmony with those values and what behaviors need to be let go. As a leader, make a decision about what you need to clean up to be in alignment with the corporate mission and values. In your next meeting, share an example or two of an employee who embodies the stated behaviors and make that your blueprint for talent selection. Then make behavior a part of your performance requirements. 

Embodiment is about living the value even when the value is tested.

Barrier #2 – Lack of Clarity

Without clarity, there can be no alignment. How can an employee be aligned with your leadership when she is unclear about her role, responsibilities, priorities or direction?

When your organization experiences workplace drama in forms of negativity, reduced employee retention or low morale, you will always find at the root, a lack of clarity. The number one stressor for employees is unclear goals.

Clarity must come first, before alignment is possible. In my work, I see tremendous clarity about desired revenues and sales goals, but once you get past the financials, clarity turns to fog. Most employees I talk with say they don’t understand how their boss measures success. Research supports what I’ve seen in the field: Gallup reports that half of employees strongly agree that they don’t understand what’s expected of them at work. Sadly, managers are equally at a loss.

What to do:

Update the job descriptions and standard operating procedures. Meet regularly with employees to keep them updated on the progress and any changes. Don’t wait for a yearly review if an employee’s performance is lacking. Invite conversation and analyze where the lack of clarity or lack of alignment occurs.

Barrier #3 – Lack of Courageous Conversations

All things considered, the biggest barrier to creating a culture of accountability is the inability or unwillingness of executives, managers, and supervisors to initiate difficult conversations. Why do I say it’s the biggest barrier? Because even if you are clear and aligned, a culture of accountability can’t be sustained if leaders aren’t willing to talk about difficult subjects related to performance, behavior, and results. 

A good conversation can help you achieve clarity and alignment, but clarity and alignment do not necessarily drive good conversations. Therefore, the lack of executive conversation is the biggest barrier to creating accountable cultures. In short, executive conversation drives performance and avoidance creates a culture of avoidance.

A culture of avoidance is easy to spot. I use a ten-point questionnaire to help companies see the snapshot. Here are four of the ten:

  1. Employees “walk on egg-shells” to avoid their manager’s mood
  2. The “inherited problem” has gone on for more than three months
  3. There an excessive amount of unwanted turnover
  4. “Negative Nellies” are shuffled off to someone else’s department

A culture of avoidance and a culture of accountability cannot exist in the same space.

What to do:

This must start at the top. Executives must pave the way. Most managers won’t be able to create departmental accountability if the top executives are avoiders. Invest in formal or informal training to give your executives and managers the skills of initiating difficult performance conversations. Start a re-set button and create new standards.


Creating an accountable culture is not about using accountability as a whipping stick to gain compliance. Compliance is not commitment. Enlightened accountability, where people truly take ownership and seek growth, can only be achieved through clarity and alignment. Embodied through action, conversation is the bridge to bring it all together.


Photo credit: Farsai Chaikulngamdee on Unsplash.

How Visible and Invisible Forces Shape Culture

How Visible and Invisible Forces Shape Culture

Edward Stack, CEO of one of the nation’s largest retail stores in Dick’s Sporting Goods, took a bold stand to no longer sell assault rifles in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. In addition, the guns they will still carry they will only be sold to those 21 years and older. At a time when the country is divided over second amendment rights, gun control, and public safety, why would a company like Dick’s make such a decision? Was it the discovery that Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old responsible for the attack, had purchased a gun from Dick’s previously? Was it because of the millennials protesting gun violence? What are the cultural implications? These answers can be found by looking at how the environment influences decision-making, public opinion, leadership, and culture.

When people talk about culture they are usually referring to the internal environment and “the way we do things around here.” But culture is much bigger than the internal environment. One of the top thought leaders on culture, Dr. Edgar Schein, said in an interview, “Culture is what a group learns as its way of surviving and both getting along internally and solving its problems externally. What’s usually missing is understanding how the external environment influences culture.

This article introduces the idea that both the internal and external environment influences culture, and that culture is more than your work environment and more than what meets the eye.

The Internal Environment

The internal environment can be described in two subsets: The visible internal and the invisible internal.

The visible environment in the workplace consists of the building, lighting, furniture, equipment, and space. Physical space, resources, and equipment can significantly alter behavior.

For example, I remember my days as a front-line factory worker where employees would argue over who got to sit in one of the few chairs on the lines. Because of a perceived lack of resources, employees became competitive, short-tempered and hostile. You could blame the employees for being negative, or label the managers as unenlightened, but either only adds to the negative climate. 

Or you could try to “change the culture” by offering workshops on how to Stop Drama. However, the leader who understands how the physical environment affects culture could simply invest a few hundred dollars to get the needed number of chairs. The point being that we often try to “change culture” when a simple shift in the visible internal environment makes an impactful difference.

Meanwhile, the invisible internal environment is often more difficult to fully understand. The elements in the invisible internal environment include the history, processes, tacit assumptions, and beliefs. Although you can’t see any of these with a physical eye, these invisible elements eventually manifest into the physical realm of behaviors and “the way we do things around here. Workplace relationships reside in the invisible because relationships are built on the way we think about other people. The way you see yourself and the way you see others affect your connectedness, or lack thereof.

In addition, status and identity affect the way people perceive each other and these perceptions contribute to cultural norms. For example, on the factory floor, there was often an unspoken us-against-them mentality when it came to those who worked in production versus those who worked in sanitation, even though we all worked for the same company.

The External Environment

The external environment also includes both visible and invisible influences. The visible external includes your location, your customers, and your competitors. For example, when Wendy’s builds a location across the street from a Burger King, we see how the forces in the visible environment affect the business for better or worse.

Notice how the invisible elements of politics, relationships, and current events are influencing the decision-making of top executives. Stack and Dick’s Sporting Goods were willing to take a hard, political stance even though they would be risking other political alliances such as the NRA

Another example of how legislation affects the environment was when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services were allowed to penalize healthcare organizations that didn’t convert to electronic records management. Large hospitals to small clinics across the nation were practically forced to comply as penalties were instated for those who refused, and bonuses were given to healthcare organizations that complied. It’s not difficult to imagine the stress on workplace relationships while healthcare workers tried to learn and implement new technology against their will and against their own timeline.


Culture is more than “how we do things around here” or “a set of beliefs that determine behavior.” Corporate leaders have the opportunity to play a big role in shaping not only workplace culture but perhaps the culture of a nation. Once Dick’s Sporting Goods took a stand on the firearms, Walmart and Kroger quickly followed suit “defying the NRA”, as reported by ABC News.

In short, culture is not just about the inside of your workplace. Culture is shaped by visible and invisible forces, some of which leaders can control and others to which leaders must react. To understand culture, you must study environmental influences, both the invisible and visible, the internal and external.

Interested in learning more about how visible and invisible culture is impacting your team? Check out if our Group Styles Inventory can help your organization! 


Two Requirements for Building a Values-Based Culture

Two Requirements for Building a Values-Based Culture

Values live in the realm of the invisible therefore many of us struggle to get the employees (and ourselves) to become the living example of our stated values. Executives are often discouraged several months after a strategy session when they realize that the work of designing a culture based on values is more difficult than anticipated.

Building a values-based culture begins with two requirements: Communication and capacity.

Conscious and Deliberate Communication

The first step to bringing the invisible to life is through conscious and deliberate communication. For example, look at any healthcare organization and you will see stated values such as compassion, empathy, care, and so on. It’s easy to make a statement “Our top value is compassion,” but much more difficult to describe and identify.

Stating the corporate values is an event. Living the corporate values is a process. That process starts with deliberate and conscious communication.

In a retreat with a healthcare organization, I recently asked these questions: “How do you know what compassion looks like? What does it feel like? What are the barriers to compassion? Now that you have connected the dots, can you share a story of when you showed compassion? Can you identify the barriers that keep you from living the value?”

Whether the value is compassion, integrity or public safety, if you truly want employees to embody and embrace that value, it needs to be part of the corporate conversation on a daily basis. If the value is not part of the conversation there will very little awareness around the subject, and therefore a lack of alignment to that value.

For example, at Kraft Foods where I worked for over twenty years, “safety” was not just in the policy manual and an OSHA requirement, it was part of the conversation every day. The organization engaged workers to think about safety by initiating competitions for creating the best safety slogan and offering steak dinners after one million hours of no lost time accidents. Policy and actions were aligned with the conversation. Workers were required to wear safety glasses during sanitation and earplugs during production.

“To embody any value, you first have to elevate the awareness about the value.”

The point is that if you have a stated value such as worker safety on your walls and in your policy manual, but there’s no conversation about safety in the halls, workers won’t develop safe habits. To embody any value, you first have to elevate the awareness about the value. You do this through conscious and deliberate communication so that everyone understands and can describe the value when they see it.


In our fast-paced world of instant access to communication and unrealistic expectations to do more with less, we lose capacity without even recognizing it. The question we must ask is this: Do we have the capacity to live our values? First is the personal capacity, and second is the organization’s capacity.

When your own boat has a leak, you are in survival mode and have little to give to someone else. For those in emergency services such as first responders and healthcare professionals, the questions I ask are these: Are you well rested? Are your own needs taken care of? Is your personal life in order? Do you have the stamina when more is required?

When our personal capacity is compromised we become misaligned to the company values. For example, think about how the lack of sleep in healthcare and emergency workers compromises patient safety or public safety.

“Our capacity can grow or diminish, and either way, the results compound over time.”
-Audrey Moralez

Secondly, does the system (your organization) support individual efforts to maintain capacity? Are there enough resources for employees to plug the leak in the boat? Are there temporary relief workers to allow adequate downtime for weary workers? (Research suggests that healthcare environments that supply adequate staffing have better nurse outcomes and less burnout.)

Are there quiet rooms for employees to take a needed break if they are required to be in emergency mode? Does the organization provide adequate technology, equipment, and other resources to maximize employee effectiveness or are employees required to make do because of the budget? If organizations do not recognize the environmental role they play in providing the capacity, they are misaligned from the beginning.

Using healthcare again as an example: Patient safety is one of the values, yet nurses are asked to work 12 hour days and overtime. That’s why UPHS-Marquette nurses went on strike. The current culture prevents them from the capacity to deliver on the promise of patient-safety.

In the industry of Public Safety, 911 Telecommunicators are expected to work with high-drama and maintain the professionalism and judgment of a first responder, yet the workers are classified as office and administrative support. Until the dispatcher role is reclassified, there will be less requirement for training and thus put the public’s safety at risk.


There are many internal and external cultural barriers to both communication and capacity. External barriers include the work environment, unrealistic demands, and lack of resources. Internal barriers consist of our thoughts, emotions, relationships, and the desire for self-development. Building a values-based culture requires the right organizational structures as well as dedication by the individuals within the organization.

Please share your thoughts and comments on social media.

Connection: A Building Block of Culture

Connection - A Building Block of Culture

Many factors contribute to unwanted turnover: A poor relationship between supervisor and employee; a toxic work culture; dissatisfaction with the job; and employee-peer drama.

All of these issues have one thing in common: Connection. Connection creates trustworthiness, loyalty, and a sense of ownership. Connection is a key building block to a great culture. Relationships crumble and relationships erode when there is a lack of connection.

For example: When patients lose connection with their healthcare provider, they begin to question their loyalty to that provider and they start looking for a replacement.

Another example: During mergers and acquisitions, employees often lose the connection they felt to their brand, their identity, and their norms. As a result, drama follows.

Employees lose their connection to the job when they are viewed as a cog in a wheel, or when they are expected to do more with less. It’s not long before they start searching for a job they can connect to.

Connectivity is more about feeling than it is about logic. In business, the world “feel” is a four-letter word we avoid at all costs, yet connection is primarily about feelings. This article is about four types of connections which become the building blocks of culture.

  1. Connection with self
  2. Connection to the job
  3. Connection with the boss
  4. Connection with peers

When we know ourselves to be connected to all others, acting compassionately is simply the natural thing to do.
-Rachel Naomi Remen

Connection with Self

As a leader, good connection with yourself (self-awareness) is the key to building good relationships with others. When you are connected to yourself, you live in alignment with your highest values. For example, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner practices compassionate management to get to the root of the problem instead of getting drawn into workplace drama. His practice of empathy is rooted in his own values and connection to self.

If you are currently struggling in your leadership role, ask yourself where you have lost connection to your highest truth. Ask yourself if you are being forced to make decisions that are out of alignment with your core values. Perhaps you have been allowing poor performance because you fear conflict. Perhaps you are weak in some of your managerial skills but you are not willing to invest in yourself to become competent. These little habits of self-betrayal take away your confidence and connection to self.

Connection to the Job

Frontline employees in jobs such as manufacturing, janitorial services, or secretarial work often feel disconnected because they perceive there is no opportunity for growth. To increase connection in these types of jobs leaders can do two things: Help employees understand how their job affects the whole, and offer personal growth or career opportunities.

Besides the perceived lack of opportunities, employees can disconnect from their job because of internal scandals that tarnish the brand and diminish pride. (Think about the employee experience at Uber Technologies since the sexual harassment scandal and resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick.)

The key phrase to remember when cultivating an employee’s connection to the job is a sense of ownership. The more the employee feels a sense of ownership toward their role and the company brand, the more connection to the job and the more engaged they are.

Connection with the Boss

When I do focus groups, interviews, or 360 degree assessments, the biggest complaint that I hear among employees is “my boss doesn’t listen.” The second most common statement is, “My boss doesn’t respect me.” Employees want to be heard, acknowledged, and respected. Employees don’t want a best friend for a boss: they want a boss who is fair. They want to know how to be successful in their boss’s eyes, and believe it or not, they want to be held accountable. Accountability helps employees achieve success. Disconnection with the boss can generally be fixed if the boss listens, communicates, and is perceived as fair.

Whether the boss is the supervisor or the CEO, employees will risk it all if they believe in their boss. When employees are connected to their boss, they go the extra mile. A great example is Market Basket employees who went on strike to reinstate Arthur T. Demoulas, the beloved CEO of Market Basket grocery store chain.

Connection with Peers

The leader has a lot of influence on employee peer connectivity. Think of the boss-employee relationship to parallel the parent-child relationship. When mom and dad play favorites, or when mom and dad have different sets of rules, the kids figure out how to work the system, and sometimes they do so against each other. Structures in your workplace work much the same way. For example, if one of your managers plays favorites, or if one of the staff members tries to gain your trust by tattling or by giving you the inside scoop, it isn’t long before teamwork starts to erode, cliques form, and gossip ensues. Don’t invite backstabbing behavior by encouraging gossip or by listening to hearsay. If you want the team members to improve their capacity to work together, make sure are fostering trust. Connection happens when employees like and respect their co-workers.

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.
-Martin Luther King Jr.


Without a connection to self, it’s difficult be an enlightened leader. Without connection to the job, people do not bring their unique strengths and gifts to the workplace. Without connection to the boss, there is a risk of unwanted turnover. Without connection to peers, there is lack of teamwork and an increase in turf wars and workplace drama. The four building blocks of connection builds the platform for connection with the client.

In your line of work, do you observe more connection or disconnection? Please share your comments on social media.

Promote Cultures Where Conversation Empowers Performance

Promote Cultures Where Conversation Empowers Performance

Workplace culture is shaped from the top down. One of the costliest mistakes to organizations is the inability or unwillingness of its leaders to successfully facilitate difficult conversations. The difficulty may lie in the manager’s skill level. He or she simply doesn’t know how to coach an employee on a performance issue. Or a leader may be embarrassed to talk with an employee about careless social skills. Or the difficulty may be a more complex cultural issue that goes unseen until the problem becomes national news.

For example, recently at Uber, a female engineer reported a sexual harassment incident to the Human Resources leader. This leader allegedly avoided initiating a conversation because the accused was a high performer. Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, who says he was unaware of the problem, quickly became aware of the mega-cost associated with avoidance and denial.

A mega-cost affects three areas: time, money, reputation. Looking at Uber’s desperate situation, we can easily imagine the astronomical costs associated with initiating an investigation, paying for legal fees, and defending bad press going viral across the internet.

When it comes to your organization, these financial and social risks can be significantly reduced by crafting a culture where open and honest dialogue nurtures and endorses performance. Three steps to facilitate this approach are: get commitment from the C-Suite, offer skills training, and make behavior part of performance.

Get Commitment from the C-Suite

No matter what the policy manual says, supervisors and managers avoid difficult conversations if they think they won’t be backed up by the organizational leaders. Managers and employees know that what goes on the walls is often different than what goes on in the halls. In short, even though the mission on the bulletin board speaks about a commitment to communication, the actual behaviors may be misaligned.

Executives need to support the change initiative and model the desired behavior. Larry Senn, a pioneer in the field of corporate culture reminds us in his article on Culture University that “organizations tend to become shadows of their leaders over time.” My suggestion is for C-Suite leaders to get trained on how to initiate difficult conversations, then share new insights about the discomfort and learnings with mid-level managers. When top leaders start initiating their own difficult conversations and understand the difficulty in doing so, they are more willing to support leadership development for middle-level leaders.

Offer Skills Training

Initiating difficult conversations is not something that comes naturally to most of us. As a result new and seasoned leader’s alike struggle, stumble, or avoid difficult conversations. How you know it’s a skills issue can be determined by listening. For example, when coaching a leader to initiate a conversation about performance, the leader said, “I’ve already told him a thousand times.” This lets me know the leader does not understand how to hold the employee accountable to a measurable standard.

Or, when I hear, “I’m afraid the employee will cry,” I know that the leader needs the skill of setting the right intention and keeping the conversation on track. When I hear a general statement about an employee’s bad attitude, I know that the leader needs to learn the skill of speaking to the observable behavior. When a leader tells me she can’t stay on track in the conversation, it becomes clear that she needs a process for facilitating the conversation, or the skill to identify and avoid distractions.

Skills training develops the awareness and practice that manager’s need to successfully do one of their most difficult jobs: initiate difficult conversations for the purpose of improving performance. Skills training works when the structures in the culture provide support for these important performance conversations. Skills and conversations are useless if there are hidden agreements about what to ignore and what to let slide. That is why behavior must be part of performance expectations.

Make Behavior Part of Performance

Recently, I asked an executive client, “I wonder why behavior is not considered part of a performance evaluation.”

“It is,” she replied.

“If so, why do so many managers here avoid conversations with the bully, just because he or she is a top performer?” I asked.

In Uber’s case, assuming the cultural reason for avoiding was due to the fear of losing a top performer, then we can assume that behavior is not part of how that organization evaluates overall performance. The message given culturally is misaligned and confusing. It is as if the organization is saying, “If you can make rain, go ahead and bully. If you are the only one with the secret code, sexual harassment will be ignored. Go ahead and act inappropriately.”

Corporate leaders must understand the risk of a mega-cost when behavior is not part of performance expectations.


Culture plays a major role in a leader’s ability and willingness to initiate and follow through on a difficult conversation. Leaders who avoid difficult conversations put the company at risk of lost time, unnecessary financial expense, and bad public relations exposure. If you want to promote a culture where conversations improve performance, do these things: get commitment from the C-suite and model direct open communication; support middle managers in their decision-making; make behaviors a part of performance conversations, and offer critical communication skills development for leaders at every level.

I welcome and look forward to your thoughts and comments on social media. 

How to Use Language to Support a Responsible Culture

How to Use Language to Support a Responsible Culture

As people across the world watch the 2016 United States presidential campaign, they witness the division and ultimately a culture change evolving in our nation.

We have more choices to express our opinions, but less tolerance for the opinions of others. We have more passion, but less compassion. We have more speed, but less self-control. We want even more freedoms but are unwilling to take responsibility.

These changes contribute to the spiral down effect of incivility, disrespect and violence.

Behaviors and language that used to be considered uncivilized and unacceptable seemingly have become the norm. It’s not unusual to see social media threads full of vulgarity, verbal assaults, name-calling and other irresponsible language when people disagree with each other’s political views. The danger we all face is becoming desensitized and as a result unwittingly becoming part of the cultural decline toward incivility and violence.

The root is thought, the stem is behavior, and the bloom is culture.

Big cultural shifts start in the invisible and grow from a small seed. Violent thoughts lead to violent words. Violent words lead to violent behaviors. Violent behaviors lead to a violent culture. The root is thought, the stem is behavior, and the bloom is culture.

As a leader, whether you are a department supervisor, director, executive or owner you have a unique opportunity to shift the national culture back to civility, respect, and personal responsibility by embracing and embodying personal responsibility in your area of control. A culture of responsibility starts with the decision to practice responsible language, rather than a decision to change culture.

If you are trying to transform culture you have entered a black hole. As Dr. Edgar Schein told me when I interviewed him for my book No-Drama Leadership, “Don’t try to change culture. Look instead at the business problem and find a solution for that.”

If you think the business problem is the behavior, my advice is to go back, and listen to the language. From there you have the most power to course-correct before the behaviors manifest. Language is the area where leaders have the most ability to recognize and change to create a culture of personal responsibility.

What Is Responsibility?

I have developed a definition of responsibility that is distinct from accountability yet lays the framework for accountability to be effective. Responsibility is first the recognition of choice; second, the ownership of the choice; and third, the willingness to accept the consequence of the choice. The distinction I make between responsibility and accountability is that responsibility is about ownership, and accountability is about measurement. Responsibility is of the heart, and accountability of the head. Before accountability is possible there must be full ownership. A person’s level of personal responsibility is revealed by listening to the language.

Identifying Responsible Language

Responsible language has four core components: Absence of blame; forward moving, empowered, and respectful.

Absence of Blame

A common myth is that only front line employees gossip and blame, but I can tell you as a consultant who works with owners and executives this simply is not so. I have conducted 360 evaluations and listened to executives blame each other for the business problems yet neither of them were willing to sit down and have a mediated dialogue.

I have heard managers say, “I’ve told my employee a thousand times to do XYZ” without considering that the problem may be their ineffective leadership or inability to hold their employees accountable.

Blame is everywhere. We see it on social media. We see blame from our political leaders. We see blame in our workplaces. Until we accept the role we play and see the choices available we continue to energize this non-productive pattern that inhibits growth.

Forward Moving

Responsible language is forward moving with a focus on the vision. As a leader you cannot afford to get distracted into long-winded conversations about how it used to be, or who did something wrong a decade ago. The only two reasons to talk about the past is to reminisce, or learn. To use the past as a way to escape the choices we have in the now wastes time, and contributes to a culture of blame.


Complaining is always a sign of disempowerment. The experience of disempowerment leads to justifying bad behaviors. For example, “I had to steal because I didn’t get a raise, and I had no other choice.” People complain for only two real reasons: Either they don’t know what they want, or they know what they want but don’t think they have the power to get it. Empowerment is about recognizing choices rather than complaining about circumstances.


Reactive language always causes relationship drama. Reactive language ranges from sarcasm, innuendo, all the way to verbal abuse. A good way to know if the language is respectful in your workplace is by the ability to answer this question: Does this language build a barrier or a bridge? Respectful language is about building bridges. Almost all workplace drama could be eliminated if human beings were more respectful of each other.

We have a unique opportunity as leaders to embrace and embody the ideal of personal responsibility. I believe that there is no better time in history for leaders at every level to take a stand for the purpose of shifting our national culture back to civility, respect, and order.

What are your thoughts on this? Are you responsible in your language, or is it time to course-correct?

How Leaders Shape Culture

How Leaders Shape Culture

As a supervisor or mid-level manager in a global company, you may not have the power to shape the entire culture, but you do have the power to shape culture in your department, local office, or workplace. It is not a question of whether or not you shape culture, but whether you shape culture consciously or unconsciously. The way you speak, the language you use, and the behaviors you exhibit influence the culture whether you are aware of it or not. When obvious signs emerge that indicate workplace drama, such as absenteeism, turnover, negativity or low morale, the leader can start to shift culture by changing language and behaviors. Here are some snapshots along with the behavior and a communication example to help you shape culture and improve business results.

Build Trust

You can’t build a culture of trust without telling the truth. Leaders often avoid truth-telling because of the false belief that kindness and truth-telling cannot coexist. That belief contributes to the behavior of people-pleasing. For example, a leader may say, “That’s a great idea, I’ll get back to you,” when they don’t think the idea is good, or they have no real interest in following though. People-pleasing eventually backfires. Instead of employees respecting “kindness,” they judge your lack of integrity. As a leader you have to stop being afraid of the truth, and instead learn how to speak truth kindly.

Behavior: Practice truth telling.

Communication example: “Kim, I love your initiative. The idea needs more thought. Can you come back to me with some research about…?” Now Kim knows you appreciate the initiative, but not necessarily the idea, and you have been specific about what Kim needs to do to be successful.

Result: Increased trust and leadership respect.

Promote Character

If you want to promote a culture where qualities such as honesty, initiative, and trust are valued and displayed, use character-based words such as trust, dependability, and integrity in your language. Make a list of qualities you want to see in your employees, and get clear on how you will know the characteristics and qualities when you see them. For example if you want to see more trustworthiness, define what trustworthiness means to you. When you give employee feedback, make sure to notice and comment on the character traits you appreciate in them.

Behavior: Reward employees based on character qualities.

Communication example: “Chris, I can always rely on you. It’s great to have an employee I can trust to meet deadlines and keep me updated.” Getting familiar with character-based words also helps you as a leader to model these characteristics and infiltrate them into your own life and leadership.

Result: A values-driven culture based on character qualities.

Invite Engagement: Achieving employee engagement does not have to be so difficult. The problem lies in the way we define engagement, and our beliefs about employees. Too often engagement is defined as participating on a committee or volunteering for a project. In No-Drama Leadership engagement is defined as a symbiotic value for value between employee and employer. When employees are not using their unique gifts, not experiencing joy, or are not growing, they complain. Leaders view the complaining as lack of engagement, rather than seeing that complaining is an opportunity to invite engagement. The key is turning negative engagement to positive engagement, from the understanding that people complain when they care about something but don’t know how to fix the problem.

Enlightened leaders invite engagement by shifting complaining to idea-sharing. As a leader, you have to become comfortable with someone else’s discomfort. Only then can you invite positive engagement by inviting dialogue.

Behavior: Listen without being defensive, and ask for ideas.

Communication example: “It sounds like you are unhappy about the rotation on third shift. Do you have any ideas of how we could make the rotation more effective and fair to all?”

Result: Interest, initiative and involvement versus complaining and complacency.

Create an Accountability Culture

No one likes to admit their mistakes, and leaders are no exception; however, if you want to build a culture of accountability you must model course-correction. The ability to quickly admit mistakes and course-correct is the foundation of creating a learning environment where accountability is sought after instead of feared. The less comfortable a leader is in dealing with his or her fears, the more likely they are to avoid accountability and course-correction. My suggestion is to admit your mistakes and make amends. Here’s why: Your employees will see that you are human, but strong enough to admit a mistake and learn from the mistake. This creates a learning environment where people seek accountability rather than fear it.

Behavior: Model course-correction in the workplace.

Communication example: “Last month I promised to get back to the team about the status of the new organizational structure. It totally slipped my mind and I want to apologize, and course-correct that today. I’m inviting you to remind me if it seems that I’ve dropped the ball.”

Result: A culture of accountability where people take responsibility for accurate results.

Conclusion: Even with all the constraints you may have if you are a front line manager, or if you work within a large corporate system, you can still shape the culture of your department, franchise, or office so that the values you want to see expressed are evident in the working relationships. The one with clarity and vision leads the way and when others are inspired they follow.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Leadership Behavior: The Power to Shape Culture

Leadership Behavior - The Power to Shape Culture

No matter how you define workplace culture there’s no denying that relationship dynamics play a primary role in how we do things and how we get along.

The most influential relationship in the workplace is the boss-employee relationship, and because of this even departmental leaders and middle managers can influence and dramatically shift culture in their own area of control, whether it be in a franchise, a small business or the department of a global company.

With relationships in mind I want to share a model that I introduced in my first book, Stop Workplace Drama. The Karpman Drama Triangle, was developed by Dr. Stephen Karpman who used the model for the purpose of explaining dysfunctional family dynamics. It turns out that it is also a great tool to use in the workplace.

Observe all men; thy self most.
Benjamin Franklin

A Snapshot of the Triangle

On the triangle you see three basic orientations including the victim (V), the persecutor (P) and the rescuer (R). The victim is in the one-down position, with both the Persecutor and the Rescuer in the one-up position. A quick snapshot: The Victim feels helpless, the Rescuer has the answer and the Persecutor tells you whose fault it is.

Karpman Drama Triangle

Concerning leadership effectiveness, this model can be used as a tool to identify patterns within yourself that hinder your leadership effectiveness. Before focusing on changing employee behaviors, the Karpman Drama Triangle challenges you to first look at the role you play in influencing your culture, so that you can clearly see your role and how you can influence others by your own behaviors.

This article explains the various orientations, offers seven ways to identify each orientation, and gives the organizational impact of continuing on the Drama Triangle.


One of the biggest challenges new leaders experience is rescuing. One of the biggest red flags of rescuing includes allowing poor performance by avoiding difficult conversations.

Leaders avoid difficult conversations for many reasons: Either they don’t have the skills or they don’t want to hurt feelings. Perhaps they inherited the problem employee or they let a problem go on too long so they don’t know where to begin. However the paradox is that when the leader rescues an employee from a difficult conversation, they are in effect rescuing themselves from the responsibilities of leadership. There are always consequences of rescuing. Let me share an email from a previous client.

I’m just about at the end of a yearlong process of managing a disruptive employee. This situation ended up with lawyers involved and should reach a settlement today. It has been a long and painful process as this employee had been tolerated for 18 years, occasionally talked to but was considered a “high performer” so was allowed to carry on, hurting patients, families, staff along the way as well as creating chaos in her wake of disruption.

I work in a hospital and the Joint Commission on accreditation for health care came out with strong language in 2009 against disruptive behavior. Addressing a high performer is very difficult. One thing I have found myself saying is that I would never do this again. I would move away, change jobs as it has been very negative and unpleasant. The JC article states just that…many people leave their jobs rather than confront this. The process has taken a toll on me and my team and the employee. I didn’t realize how hard emotionally and mentally it would really be.

How to Recognize Rescuing Behaviors

  1. Difficulty saying “no”
  2. Resentment toward others
  3. Hiding the truth to protect others
  4. Control freak
  5. Constant need to fix other people’s problems
  6. The need to be the hero
  7. Doing other people’s “emotional work.”

Organizational Impact of Leaders with a Rescuing Orientation

  • Create a culture of non-performers
  • Enable victim mentality
  • Leadership burnout
  • Create learned helplessness in employees

It is wisdom to know others; It is enlightenment to know one’s self.


It would be impossible to play the rescue role if there wasn’t someone with a victim orientation needing help. It’s always easy to identify victim orientation in others. What’s often more difficult is to identify it within ourselves. The unfortunate reality is that very often leaders also exhibit a victim orientation without realizing it, for example blaming employees but not being willing to own part of the problem. The three key indicators include a lack of personal ownership, blaming others, and the lack of initiative because of the inability to see other choices.

How to Identify Victim Behaviors

  1. Constant unresolved complaints
  2. Resisting solutions and sound advice
  3. Sense of being “done wrong” much of the time
  4. Blaming the administration, employees, or the system
  5. Negativity
  6. Excuse-making
  7. Either low standards or unrealistic standards

Organizational Impact of Leaders with a Victim Orientation

  • Create a culture of dis-empowerment
  • Lowered productivity
  • Us against Them Mentality
  • No role model to follow

Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games with ourselves.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson


The number one source of stress for employees is a rude boss who uses intimidation tactics to manage. When you dread coming to work you are not going to be productive. The Gallup Organization has a lot of pertinent research about how bad managers affect engagement and work satisfaction.

In a nutshell leaders who persecute create drama. Persecuting behavior comes in various flavors. From the blunt, to the subtle, to the passive-aggressive to the almost undetectable body language. What it has in common is the messages communicated. I used to have a boss years ago when I was a line worker in a factory, who was a big persecutor. Think bully-boss. Even when people had suggestions for making a positive change his response was, “I didn’t ask you to work here. If you don’t like things, find another place to work!”

How to Identify Persecutor Behaviors

  1. The need to win every argument
  2. Justifying rude behavior
  3. Harsh criticism
  4. Sarcasm
  5. Lack of emotional control
  6. Disregard for others
  7. Passive-aggressive behaviors

Exiting the Triangle

As long as there are relationships there will be an opportunity for drama. The way to step out of drama is first to become aware of the dynamics that contribute to drama. The second step is to take 100 percent responsibility for the only thing you can take responsibility for: Your own behaviors. As a leader you can use drama as an opportunity to shift a culture where drama reigns supreme to one where trust, responsibility and empowerment rule.

Points to Ponder

  1. What orientation do I adopt on the Drama Triangle?
  2. What one action can I take to improve my leadership?
  3. What skills, resources, or coaching do I need for improving?

Have you seen this model play out in business? If so, please share the experience, what actions were taken, if any, and what was learned. I invite your thoughts and comments. 

Driving Results by Focusing on the Three E’s

Driving Results by Focusing on the Three E’s

My consulting journey came from over 20 years of experience working at a fortune 100 company, but not as an executive in a corporate office, not as a business unit manager, not in marketing, and not in human resources. Instead, I was a blue-collar line worker in a food processing plant, doing everything from packing product, stacking skids, driving a forklift and tearing down equipment for sanitation on Friday nights.

Because of my unique vantage point and experience, I’d like to share how to bridge the gaps in order to help companies maximize employee engagement to leverage business results. The answer lies in the power to create. It starts with the leaders creating the right Environment where Engagement and Empowerment drive business results.


Leaders at every level have an enormous amount of power to shape their environment. Shaping the environment happens consciously or unconsciously through the mindsets, beliefs and behaviors.

In my early days at Kraft Foods, I worked in the pasta plant. On a good production day the work was tedious and consisted of standing for eight hours on a concrete floor watching product fly by, picking off the few rejects and sweeping the floor after a big mess.

Howard, our business unit manager was well-respected because of his extremely high work ethic. Howard was always there on every shift, from first to third. Everyone wondered if he ever slept. Howard didn’t believe in taking breaks, talking, laughing or anything else that would make the tedious job a little more tolerable. In fact, he didn’t even believe in allowing chairs in the plant, so he created a no-chair policy. “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean,” he would say.

As a result, anytime the coast was clear, we worker-bees would “sneak a sit” on the table used for weighing product. When Howard came walking through the department, employees would swiftly jump off of the table and commence to sweeping the floor even if the floor was spotless.

Howard was a good example of a leadership mindset where being busy is valued more than results. It’s easy to look at this and laugh at the absurdity of it all. When things were running smoothly, standing produced no better results than sitting. When there were productivity problems, there was no time to sit anyway. The point is that this leader, by his own belief system, created an environment where employees snuck around to grab five minutes of relief. A leader’s mindset and belief systems influence the environment, for better or worse.

Action: Develop leaders to see the bigger picture. Focus on the end result and then make decisions and policies that work in favor of getting the best end result without sacrificing trust, relationships and productivity.


Engagement has made the list as one of those commonly used buzz words that is often misunderstood and misused.

In No-Drama Leadership, I define engagement as the symbiotic relationship of value-for-value. In other words, employees are eager to share their gifts, offer ideas, and give value back to the organization, while the organization provides the structure and environment for those things to occur.

Engagement is not static. What works today may not work tomorrow. Engagement is a dynamic phenomenon, which leads to what I call the Engagement Paradox.

The Engagement Paradox

Engagement problems occur when people grow. What engages an employee at one point in his or her career will shift as he or she grows, or as new priorities emerge. If it seems that your people who were previously engaged have lost interest, perhaps it is because your culture does not offer opportunities to expand and grow. Many of the lower level positions such as administrative, housekeeping, and food service keep people in a box, making the assumption that these employees are not interested in advancement, growth or opportunity. I believe these areas offer some of the biggest opportunities to help employees grow within the company.

Employees won’t tell you that they want to be noticed and acknowledged, or that they have desires outside of what they are currently doing. Sometimes they don’t even know this about themselves. Perhaps you are thinking that employees should take responsibility for their own growth and their own engagement. I agree. However if the environment does not support these mindsets and behaviors it simply won’t happen.

Action: Create an environment where employees are expected to speak up, and take responsibility for gaining opportunities that leverage their unrealized talents. Acknowledge employees who take initiative, or who give valid ideas that contribute to business initiatives and results.


Whether it’s office gossip, employee disagreements, or insubordination, every single behavior in the workplace is an expression of power, or an expression of powerlessness.

When we do not understand the impact of powerlessness on our personal and organizational lives, we contribute more drama to the very problems we are trying to solve. The key is to create a productive workforce where people recognize their choices and feel empowered to take responsibility.

On the manufacturing floor, all it took was someone stealing someone else’s chair for full-blown drama to erupt about which person had seniority and what was fair before tattling to the supervisor, interrupting his workflow.

The employee who stole the chair saw no other choice but to take someone else’s chair, and the one whose chair was stolen could see no other choice but to tattle.

In reactivity, the supervisor told the complainers if they didn’t like it they could “Find another place to work,” right after explaining why there was no budget for new chairs. The conversation always ended with sage advice about the two choices always available: “Like it or lump it.”

Until people recognize their choices, they simply react to the drama that’s capturing their attention at the moment, and then they look for a supervisor to fix the problem and, in the process, waste time and lower productivity.

Leaders are the catalyst for creating a culture of empowerment; a state of personal responsibility that is the outcome of recognizing choice instead of reacting to old programming. In fact, you cannot be responsible unless and until you recognize your choices.

Lots of time and energy is wasted when no one, including leadership, sees any viable alternatives. Developing leaders who model choice-abundance rather than choice-poverty can transform drama to empowerment.

Action: Listen to language that indicates choice-poverty, for example: “That will never work,” “That can’t be done,” or “There are no other choices.” Replace the language with, “What are our options?” and “What is possible here?”

There is an old Eagles’ song, “Already Gone,” with a verse, “So oftentimes it happens we live our lives in chains, and we never really know we have the key.” Could this also be true organizationally?

We have the mission, the vision and the values. We have the talent. We have the clients and we deliver value. Leaders who focus on the three E’s, Environment, Engagement and Empowerment create a culture that honors people and drives business results.

What are your thoughts on these three E’s? Can you share a unique vantage point on maximizing employee engagement? I invite your thoughts and comments below.

To Shift Culture Use Super-Vision

To Shift Culture Use Super-Vision

One of the biggest opportunities missed by companies everywhere is knowing how to tap into the power and potential hidden within the organization—the front line employees. What can companies do to create a culture of engagement that benefits the company, the customer and the employees? Focus on Super Vision versus supervision.

When I was authoring No-Drama Leadership and seeking various viewpoints on what culture is, how it is defined, and how leaders shape culture, Dr. Edgar Schein, MIT Emeritus professor, and one of the top thought leaders on culture graciously agreed to be interviewed.

Schein told me, after hearing about my experience as a blue-collar worker for over twenty years at Kraft Foods, “The best place to start understanding culture is to look at your own. As you work with your clients, your best resource is your own understanding of what it’s like to be at the bottom of an organization. Very few managers have even a clue as to what that’s like and therefore don’t have any empathy or humility or any way of thinking about it. If you have an insight into hierarchy from having been there, that’s an enormous asset in your own understanding skills.” [1]

I’m honored to share the perspective from the bottom: What employees want, what they won’t tell you, and how to tap into their power and potential to benefit the company, the customer and the employee.

My Story

While working on the lines at Kraft Foods, and finishing my bachelor’s degree, I started to see that I had more to offer than working on the lines, stacking skids, weighing product, and cleaning equipment. I had a burning desire to discover, develop, and deliver my gifts to the workplace. The advice I received at college was to start where I was, so I started looking for opportunity right in my workplace. There were opportunities to join steering committees and other initiatives. As much as I tried, nothing inspired me, and as a result I was not engaged.

As a front-line employee ready for growth, my greatest desire was to be encouraged and to open the door for future opportunities, but initially the factory culture simply did not support my skills and interests.

Eventually an opportunity to present a safety program got my attention, and not because of my love for safety. (Anyone who has attended an OSHA safety class knows they are anything but enlightening; safety meetings are boring but mandatory.) I was interested because of the opportunity to use my creative skills, to make something boring into something interesting, and to improve my presentation skills.

The Risk of Engagement

I volunteered to do the training, which consisted of showing the proper ways to use chemicals, and demonstrating the proper way to wear protective gear during sanitation. I got the support of management to use creativity in creating quizzes, role-plays, and colorful slides. I asked if I could get some product, (macaroni and cheese) and some T-shirts to give away for prizes when people engaged. As a side note, it’s often risky for employees to engage in management initiatives. You risk being called a “brownnoser” or having co-workers say “you are sucking up to management.” This is a cultural barrier at the bottom, but one for which I was ready.

To my surprise, after the safety presentation, I got rave reviews from my co-workers. Many said it was the best safety program they had ever attended. I was elated. Then my balloon deflated. I received no acknowledgement from my boss or any of the middle management. They barely noticed. It was simply an item on the checklist to be checked off.

Meeting date set, Check.
Room Reserved, Check.
Notices sent, Check.
list available, Check.
Volunteer presenter, Check.

The end.

Determined to move forward, I set up a meeting with the plant manager. (Employees are often told about an open door, but rarely take the invitation when the status gap is so wide.)  I decided to set up the meeting nonetheless.  I walked in and said to the plant manager, “I want something more and don’t know how to make that happen here.”

He rolled his chair back, and assumed the prayer-hands position as he tried to figure out what in the heck I was talking about. “Go on,” he said, looking perplexed.

I am good at teaching. I’m good at training and development. I know how to motivate people who work here. I would love to find a way to use these skills but I don’t know how. Can you help me to figure it out?” I asked.

The only thing he said was, “What is your credibility? What gives you the right to step into that kind of position here?”

I didn’t know what to say. What I heard was, “You aren’t enough.” I felt demeaned and defeated.

Crossing Cultural Boundaries

My plant manager was not a bad person, and I was not a bad employee. Much of this issue boils down to the culture of factory life, the culture of hierarchy in manufacturing—the history of who we are, what we believe, how we do things, what is appropriate, and what is possible, regarding the various roles and points of view.  But most of all the issue is about how we see each other.

When I shared this story with Edgar Schein he said, “We don’t encourage the bottom because they’re at the bottom. Your plant manager had no insight into potential, not because he was a bad human being but because that was his job. It was his understanding of his role in the culture.” [2]

What Employees Won’t Tell You

Employees will not come straight out and tell their leaders that they want to be acknowledged and noticed. Front line employees generally want to do a good job. They want to be respected. They will engage when the right opportunity meets their interests, skills and readiness.

Many employees on the front lines, and in jobs like factory work, housekeeping, nurses’ aides, start their jobs only to meet their financial needs. One reason employees do not seek growth is due to the cultural boundaries.  The beliefs, and history does not support employee empowerment, engagement and personal growth. In addition, many front line employees come from backgrounds and family histories that are all about survival and not about vision, choice, and personal development.

What I learned from my combined experience (as a consultant, author and former blue-collar worker) is this: Until employees see something more for themselves and have the desire to reach for something higher, they do not know how to articulate their desires or how to take the first step to achieve more.

The greatest gift a leader can offer an employee is to see more for that person than he sees for himself.  I call this trait focusing on Super Vision rather than supervision. When a leader sees something more for the employee, and when the employee sees something more for himself or herself, the culture has the power to shift in small ways that benefit the company, the customer, and the employees in big ways.

Are there cultural boundaries in your workplace preventing the development and growth of your front line staff? If you could remove one obstacle, where would you begin? Please share your comments on social media. 

Adapted from No-Drama Leadership: How Enlightened Leaders Transform Culture in the Workplace by Marlene Chism (Bibliomotion, 2015)


[1] Schein, Edgar. Interview with the author. Audio recording. Missouri, August 15, 2014.

[2] Schein, Edgar. Interview with the author. Audio recording. Missouri, August 15, 2014.