The danger of detachment

Events in the world have been more frustrating than usual for a while. I hadn’t managed to put a finger on what’s different, until recently. Some people would say “it’s the left“. Others will claim “it’s the right“. While the reality is a mix of both, that’s not what I’m referring to. Some would suggest that “it seems worse than it used to be” and that most of that is because we’re far more aware of things than we were in the past. Of course, this comes thanks to changes in how news is distributed – and how quickly. Also true. However, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to something that crosses over – affecting politics, business and much more. It’s detachment.

What’s a “frustrating” event? I’m talking about recurring, widespread activities that you might find aggravating, disgusting, dishonest, unethical (the usual “winner”), etc. As I dig deeper, I’ve become convinced that detachment is at the root of a lot of problems. 

What about detachment is a problem?

Detachment acts as insulation. It creates distance between people. It’s particularly good at creating distance between groups. By distance, I mean  a weaker relationship or no relationship at all. Less understanding. Less intimacy – not romance-wise, but a lower level of comfort.

Think about a flood on the other side of the world in a country you’ve never visited. Many people probably lost their homes and everything they own. While it’s a shame and you feel bad for them when you see the video of what’s going on, the reality is that it doesn’t affect you all that much. Most people will move on. Life’s chasing them around. Right here, right now.

When the distance shrinks

The situation changes when the affected people are family, friends or co-workers.

Imagine that flooded home belongs to one of your employees or a family member. Your perspective changes. Now it isn’t about people you’ll never know in a place you’ll may never be. You know them, their kids and you’re a part of each other’s lives. You aren’t detached because you have a relationship with that person and possibly their family. Moving on will take a while. Perhaps a long while, even if they work at your Houston office rather than south of Bangalore.

That’s how detachment insulates us. 

Insulation equals distance

When you know the people involved, your detachment may not be eliminated, but it’s reduced significantly because the situation affects people you know and/or work with. 

To get right down to it, detachment (like distance) gives us “permission” not to care as much, or at all. Not everyone uses that permission, but many do. In some cases, it gives people permission to care so little that the other person / group can eventually be positioned as our enemy. 

Even if we work for the same company. Sometimes,  even though we’re part of the same family. 

Again: The insulation of detachment gives us permission to care less, or not care at all, even about family members or co-workers. 

This detachment is especially dangerous when you have remote employees because it can work both ways. The distance can help them become detached from you and while you simultaneously become detached from them. 

It can kill a company’s culture, particularly one with remote workers or multiple locations. 

Detachment dehumanizes

The worst feature of detachment is that it dehumanizes the people we work with and the customers we serve. 

Ever heard anyone talk in dehumanizing terms about an opponent, a competitor, or someone with different political differences? Sure you have. “Animal” is a common term you’ll hear, but there are numerous terms that can do the trick. All you have to do is pick a word that you’d (hopefully) never call them to their face if they were a family member, customer or co-worker. These terms let us position other people and other groups as if they’re something to be discarded like trash.

That’s what dehumanizing them allows.

Detachment induced dehumanization can have effects that are much worse. We see it every day, but may not recognize it for what it is. 

Exterminate it.

I’ve seen so much of it, even in business, that I am convinced that it’s essential to exterminate it. Take aggressive steps to identify and destroy it. It’s that dangerous to your business. 

Quality management’s slow ROI

We talk about numbers, metrics, & dashboards from time to time. One of the more difficult things to measure, much less manage, is quality.

Is there a single measure?

Some might suggest Net Promoter Score as an ideal single measure. NPS ranges from -100 to 100. It represents the willingness of a company’s customers to recommend their products & services to others.

If your business makes / sells cars, what single measure indicates your overall quality? Number of recalls per model year? Number of cars returned under lemon laws? Annual average cost of warranty repairs? Repeat sales?

Quality management is difficult

What makes it so hard to manage & measure quality?

Cost: Quality management systems are expensive, at least they feel that way. If you manufacture things (including software), the investment necessary to measure & report quality can easily approach the cost of producing the product. Finding the ROI is difficult at best, while the price sticks out of your P&L like an ingrown toenail.

Time: Quality control isn’t easy, fast, or simple. Measuring & reporting quality either during or immediately after the manufacturing process is a complex, incrementally-built thing. It takes time to build. If your team’s culture is focused on speed above all else, quality management may not make your “projects to implement” list.

Quarterly expectations: Time-to-return-on-investment compounds the difficulty. Quality control feels like an expensive, plodding animal, making it easy to view as an extravagance rather than an investment.

Accountability: Quality measurement can feel like blame creation, rather than data collection. Accountability must extend beyond the head/hands of the worker to the team’s management, systems, and to the training & tools provided to that worker. Quality work is accountable by design, and rarely happens by accident. It’s resilient, running for days or weeks at a time without stopping. It’s ready for the edge cases that try to inject chaos into your customers’ world. Customers appreciate when the products they buy can take a punch.

Culture: Quality isn’t a job. It’s a value. If your team sees it as an incumbent part of their job, it will change their work, how they work, & how they think about their work. If someone doesn’t see quality as part of their job, they may need training. If training fails, they may fit in better elsewhere. People who value quality don’t want to work with those who don’t value it. Who would you rather lose?

Every job is a quality job

Years ago, a leadership instructor moped into the room after a break & started droning on in monotone. He sounded like he was having the worst day of his life. After a few minutes, he took a break. When he returned, his mood was positive & very happy to be there – despite being in the same room with the same people.

He stopped for a minute & asked if anyone wanted the old, depressing guy to return. No one did. His lesson from that little act was that “Every job is a sales job.” If you’ve ever been “greeted” by a sullen receptionist, the meaning of “every job is a sales job” is obvious.

The point? Every job is also a quality management job.

Like the sullen receptionist, it only takes one person, event or action to make us forget the good work a business has done. Similarly, when one department’s role in quality management fails, it devalues the work of the rest of the company.

Quality management systems help us monitor & correct these things before they cause reputation damage.

Forests, forest fires, and reputation

In a world dominated by short term views, quality management’s slow ROI & difficult to identify returns seem too expensive & time-consuming to invest in. Even for those who invest, a ROI search in their accounting system comes up empty.

As a result, a bad financial period makes it easy to cut what seems like an extravagance that isn’t contributing to the bottom line.

Think twice.

Quality & reputation can be both sturdy & fragile, like a forest. It takes decades to grow a healthy forest. Reputations grow similarly.

Like a random lightning strike, a carelessly discarded cigarette butt, or an abandoned campfire can destroy a decades-old forest in hours, a change in quality that goes undetected can cause reputation damage that takes months or years to recover.

Does your business have months or years of staying power? In a pinch, you can borrow to bridge a short-term cash flow gap.

You can’t borrow reputation.

“Sink or Swim” is not training

Pentagon Secretary Rumsfeld once said “…you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” He wasn’t referring to the Army personnel, or to their level of training, but to the number of Humvees that were not armored and therefore prepared for Iraq-style guerrilla warfare, IEDs, etc.

While you don’t need armored equipment for your team, they do still need to be prepared to succeed in their roles. Failing that, they will show up and do their best. Rumsfeld’s troops may have lacked the amount of armored equipment, but they didn’t lack training.

That is one of the primary differences between the military and business: Businesses often fail to invest sufficiently in training. It doesn’t matter if they are new to the business or experienced. Your team needs training and equipment. A lack of training might prevent reasonably effective use of the equipment you provide.

Sink or swim isn’t training

Employees are sometimes expected prove their worth via “sink or swim”. They’re expected to get started and become effective and valuable on their own. Failing to do so is “sinking”, and may result in the loss of that person’s job. When the employee is new, and the skill require is sales, sink or swim is usually little more than setting up the employee for failure.

I’ve seen this touted as a means of “separating the men from the boys“, so to speak. The euphemism is about identifying who is ready and able to produce results, but the reality is more nuanced than that. When you put an untrained or poorly trained sales employee on the floor, on the lot, or wherever they work with prospective customers, never forget this: They’re dealing with prospects.

At your car lot or furniture store, you know the business. If 100 people walk in on a Saturday, you can probably tell me within a small margin of error how many are “just looking” and how many are ready to buy. Likewise, you probably can tell me how many of that 100 you’ll likely sell that day. How many of those prospects are you willing to give to someone else because an untrained salesperson loses them? First impressions are everything. If your team is ineffective when the prospect makes that first visit to the showroom, lot or office, you probably know the likelihood that they will return.

Sink or swim undermines a new (or inexperienced) employee’s confidence, which will certainly be reflected in their performance and interaction with every prospect and client. Worse yet, your prospect may leave and never return because they had an ineffective, unproductive experience with someone who simply wasn’t trained well enough to provide for their needs.

Think of the most valuable customer you have. The one who buys furniture every 10 years for their 50 employee office. Or the one with a fleet of pickups for their on-site service people. How would you feel if you found out your new salesperson was sinking when they met the person who would have been your next “most valuable customer”?

Training isn’t fluff. You can tie real dollars to it.

Got the basics?

They’re called “The basics” because everyone should know them. Don’t assume everyone knows them. Train the basics. Vince Lombardi started a championship run by saying “This is a football” to a roomful of experienced pro football players. Take nothing for granted.

As I visit businesses with the intent of making a purchase, I routinely encounter salespeople who exhibit behavior that leaves the impression that they are untrained, or perhaps under-trained. Some are young and perhaps inexperienced, yet some are not as young and not as inexperienced.

Commissioned salespeople walk around without business cards, don’t know their product as well as the prospect, don’t attend to new arrivals “in the sales arena”, etc. At some level, these problems are the salesperson’s responsibility, yet new and under-trained salespeople don’t often realize they are under-trained. They can lose a great prospect who “appears indecisive”, but in reality is annoyed. Ultimately, these issues are on management. Management decides who gets trained, when, and for what skills.

Good salespeople deliver value. I visited a Michael’s Saturday to get a frame re-glassed. The employee in framing told me exactly what would happen, when it would happen, what else I could expect, and the guaranteed service window. This was not a big ticket purchase – yet this person was obviously well trained in what to communicate to me. I’ll go back because that guy made a routine purchase memorable. Isn’t that what you want?

Photo by Jay Phagan

The Value of Trust

In personal relationships, trust is something we generally have a handle on. We know whether or not to trust a family member or friend (and how much) based on their behavior over time. In a business environment, things may not be that simple. Think about it… If you have employees, do you trust them? If you have people working under contract, do you trust them? If you work for someone else, whether you’re considered an employee, team member, associate, or staff member, do you feel as if the business owner (or your manager) trusts you? Likewise, if you’re an employee or working under contract, do you trust your manager / the business owner?

Brick by brick, we build trust over time, yet it can be lost in an instant. What creates that trust? Your pile of bricks grows as time passes based on your consistency, dependability and/or responsiveness. And what else?

What owners need to trust a team member

What do owners see in team members that provides the faith to trust them? Owners like to know you have their back. They’d like every employee to behave and think like an owner at some level. Note that I said BEHAVE and THINK like an owner.

The best employees think like an owner, even if their responsibility is limited to coffee machines, ice machines, and floors in your building. When you think like an owner, you want the machines to be cleaned and disinfected regularly so no one gets sick, even if they don’t get sick enough to take time off. Clean, puddle-free floors are safer than cluttered floors that occasionally have puddles like the one that your peer slipped and cracked their elbow on.

When you behave like an owner, you don’t walk past that puddle because you aren’t the one in charge of the floors. You mop it up before someone gets hurt.

What team members need to trust a business owner

Some owners work 80 hours a week. When owners think “behaving like an owner” means their employees should also work 80 hours a week, they aren’t really looking for people to behave like an owner.

Owners: What trust doesn’t mean

If you are thinking “I can’t trust my employees because…”

  • they don’t work as hard as I do.
  • they don’t think like an owner.
  • they don’t take ownership of their work.
  • I have to monitor everything they do.

Ask yourself if you worked as hard as the owner did in your last job. Rather than expecting them to be as vested as you (assuming you have everything on the line and everything to gain), consider your last gig as an employee. How’d you feel about it? What’d you like? What’d you dislike? Did you trust the owner? Did the owner train you to think like they did?

If your people don’t take ownership, do you encourage them to take responsibility and own their work? More importantly, do you reward them based on those actions? Do you “over-manage” them? Some might call it micro-management, but over-manage might be more descriptive.

MBWA (management by wandering around) isn’t micro-management. Training isn’t micro-management. Good hiring, middle managers, documented work processes and management systems take the place your innate need to “monitor everything they do”. It’s an adjustment as your company outgrows you – which it should do. Employees expect owners to focus on strategic work that prepares the company for its next challenge(r), not over-managing.

Employees: What trust doesn’t mean

If you are thinking “The owner doesn’t trust us because…”

  • they installed a security system, digital access keypads for some areas, etc.
  • they installed security cameras.
  • they ask us to have a peer confirm bank deposit before we head out the door with the bank bag.
  • they ask us to have a peer double check the shipping list before we close a box going out to our largest commercial customer.

… you aren’t thinking like an owner.

When you complain about these things, it sounds like you aren’t interested in protecting the company’s assets or reducing the company’s risk. The value of double checking deposits or shipments to an important customer is obvious. Mistakes happen. Security systems limit access to assets by those with no business need to access them. Increased risk increases costs. These systems impact insurance costs & provide evidence gathering capability that protects good employees from bad ones.

When a family member threatens their ex who works with you, your spouse or your kid, it’s the owner who worries about whether or not it’s safe to allow people to come to work. Before you doubt that, bear in mind that I’ve lived that situation and had those thoughts. You can’t install security cameras and harden your business overnight. You have to be “a bit more ready” when you can afford to be.

Put yourself in the other person’s place, no matter what your role.

Three things or seventy three

How many projects does your company focus on at a time? For many companies, the number of active projects is often related to team size. How do you control, or at least manage this? What does that process look like? Do you use a tool, software, a manager, or something else?

The benefits of keeping control

What happens if you keep projects under control? While control is relative and may seem to consist of things not moving as fast as you’d like, it’s still critical.

“Control” does not demand a state where that things that look static, never changing, not growing, etc. Instead, we’re likely to see active projects where the mental headroom is available to thoughtfully consider the next step, much less the current one.

When that kind of space is available to teams working on a critical project, they tend to make fewer mistakes and overlook fewer things. These same things will be painfully obvious in hindsight.

A mind allowed some breathing room is less likely to work in a semi-constant distracted state where they’ll make mistakes, get injured, and / or overlook what will later seem obvious.

While it’s happening, it’s difficult to measure the cost of task switching and frenetic activity that comes having too many projects and too few hours / people to tend to them. What I tend to see from this is “doing 100 jobs poorly”. While your team might not be doing 100 jobs, they might be trying to do so many things that they don’t do any of them well. This damages your satisfaction with the quality of their work as well as theirs. These situations cause your team to do things a second time because they didn’t have time to do them right the first time.

Some iteration is a good thing, as our ability to provide a contextually accurate solution increases as our initial plan gets tested against reality. However, when the first iteration is almost always an attempt to check a box, the box really doesn’t get checked. That first iteration tends to be a solution that doesn’t satisfy your team or the client (internal or otherwise). Once you’ve trained your client not to bother implementing 1.0 of anything you create, it’s a tough place to battle back from.

We discussed the loss of trust a week or so ago. This is another type of trust – can your clients trust your new products, new services, new releases of software, new salespeople, new service writers, new mechanics, etc? When your project management and controls create a level of comfort for any or all of those new things / people / projects in your business, it creates a higher level of trust with everyone you work with.

How would your team benefit if they trusted each other more than they do now? How would your business, clients and partners benefit if your clients trusted practically anything or anyone new that you exposed them to? Same question – if your partners trusted practically anything or anyone new that your company exposed them to?

It’s not just a matter of quality and consistency. It’s a matter of what those things create. When you pay bills on time, people assume you’ll keep on doing that. When you don’t, it’ll take a while before paying them on time allows them to trust you.

What happens if you lose control?

While control is a bit of an illusion, seemingly out of control, frenetic behavior is fairly easy to see. If you aren’t careful, you’ll start seeing activity just so people can show that they’re doing something. Look at what’s being accomplished.

Inefficient activity often results from these situations. Have you ever gone to the grocery store without a list and found yourself bouncing all over the store as you think of the things you need? I remember as a kid that my mom grouped her grocery list by department, i.e.: produce, dairy, etc. While I’m not sure it sunk in while I was a kid, the benefits of that little effort on “elapsed time in grocery store” became obvious later in life.

Imagine a plane that gets to 80 knots on the runway and then decides to stop, change runways and take off again. It wastes a lot of energy starting and stopping, while getting little accomplished in the way of actual travel. Think of your projects in the same manner. Avoid changing runways.

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kija_kaji/

Teamwork means… what?

Teamwork has been on my mind a bit lately, so I thought I’d organize a few thoughts along those lines.

Trust is leadership is influence

Every day of your life, people are doing a credit check on you…your trust
– Rick Warren

People learn to trust you when you are predictable. When they can predict how you will handle a situation, how you will care for a client, how you will advise or comfort an employee, how you will discipline an employee – as well as when or where, and how you will call out an employee for a solid or above the call effort.

Think about that not only regarding your service to clients, but your service to your team. What example do you set for other employees? How do you talk about clients when clients aren’t around? How do you talk about other employees when they aren’t around?

People trust those who are loyal to them. Loyalty demonstrated in others is often assumed to be the same loyalty one thinks they’re getting when they aren’t around. Loyalty doesn’t mean being soft. It means being consistent, predictable and thinking of everyone – including but not solely the company and its owner(s) in every decision and action.

Life’s battery isn’t self-sustaining

Remember, the employee’s job is one of many things attached to their “life battery”. Work, home, kids, spouse and many other things compete for and/or charge/consume the energy in that battery.

If everything is taking energy from the battery and no investment is made in recharging the battery, how long will it last?

I don’t have the right to be tired” – reality show producer Mark Burnett, meaning that he doesn’t have the right not to take care of himself.

You can probably identify things that drain your battery. Can you also point to the things done daily or weekly that recharge it? What helps your team recharge? Does your team know what saps your battery? Let them know. For me, drama and the inability to get focus time are major battery leaks.

Teamwork, motivation and ownership

Don’t expect every staff member to work at the same level all the time. Different work motivates at different levels. Energy levels swell and fade. You and other team members can impact the performance of others more easily than you think.

Don’t expect employees to care as much as you do, work as long as you do, work as hard as you do, or live and breathe your business like you do. Some will, but most won’t because they don’t own the place. For you, it’s an investment in your lifetime financial future. What is it for them? What have you done to make it more than a paycheck for them? Perhaps you have some sort of employee ownership program, but it has to be real or it may as well not exist. Employee owners have a skin in the game and they will view things differently as a result, just as you did before you were a business owner. Don’t expect people to act like an owner if they aren’t.

When team members show an interest in learning new things or deepening their expertise or skills, it’s not enough to get out of the way. Do what you can to help them get a running start. You can pay for the education, reimburse upon success, make time in their day for it, and find other ways to leverage their enthusiasm and interest. No matter what you do, don’t discourage it.

Affirmation and Appreciation

Management of mistakes is important. Perseverance, determination and endurance combine to create wins, but mistakes teach us what doesn’t work. How we recognize, debrief and analyze them to avoid repeat episodes is critical.

Make at least weekly contact with everyone. I don’t mean a wave or a smile in the shop, but a few moments or a pre-arranged chat, email or text conversation about the Weekly Four:

  1. I’ve made progress on …
  2. I’m having a problem with ….
  3. I need a decision from you about ….
  4. My goal(s) this week is ….

Keep in mind that presumption isn’t communication. Assuming that an employee knows that their long/late hours lately are appreciated isn’t appreciation. Be explicit to them and their family. A short handwritten note to the family to recognize their effort and the family’s sacrifice is more than a thank you.

What does teamwork look like to you?

Protecting your business

Business owners protect their business by reducing risk, managing cash flow, getting appropriate legal advice and insuring their people and assets properly. Most businesses decide to check out motor trade insurance instant online quotes and look for the company that suits them. The thing is, you can do those all things properly and still leave your business open to damage that’s incredibly difficult, expensive and time consuming to repair. How? By providing out of context customer service.

Specifically, I’m referring to what tends to occur when you’re trying to recover from a mistake. The perfect time to show them you have their back… or to turn your back.

Which do you do?

Every once in a while, you make a mistake. Hopefully you learn from it. If it was caused by a systemic failure, you know by now to put a system (preferably automated) in place to prevent it from happening again and of course, integrate it into the rest of your systems. If it wasn’t caused by a systemic failure, then the problem might have been caused by a customer service flub, a product or service mistake, or a failure to deliver – regardless of the reason.

What happens next is where I see businesses repeatedly making a mistake: How they recover for the customer. That’s when context becomes critical.

Recovering FOR your client

When approached by a disappointed, angry, concerned, distraught customer, it seems that many businesses have trained their people such that their Customer Service Prime Directive is to protect the business at all costs.

Guess what. Recovering from your mistakes in a way that preserves the customer relationship IS protecting the business, but only if it’s done right. While protection of the business is essential in these circumstances – your legal paperwork and insurance should have already done that. The third leg of the stool is how the customer feels when the exchange is over.

Consider what happens if a flight attendant accidentally spills a cup of black tea in someone’s lap on a plane. The passenger’s linen skirt is stained (a bit embarrassing for now), but it could impact the skirt wearer’s day severely if they’re being met at the airport by an important new prospect. What if their next direct manager is meeting them at the airport for an interview? What if the flight arrives at midnight and the traveler simply has to grab their bag and drive home alone at midnight.

The subconscious loss of confidence in the client / employment situations could alter the airline client’s entire life. Maybe that’s good, maybe not. How the airline reacts FOR their customer can determine how that customer feels about them for the rest of their lives. People remember how they were treated – particularly in situations like this. The context the client provides (even if you have to extract it from them) is critical to the level of your response.

I’m reminded of a surprise Peter Shankman received in 2011 from Morton’s Steakhouse after he jokingly asked for a steak to be delivered to Newark airport. You might think that was an expensive response resulting only because Peter had a lot of Twitter followers at the time. I think they saw an opportunity to make a lifetime memory for a good customer, even if they knew that he’d blog/tweet about it. Five years later, where do you think he takes clients to dinner more often than not?

How you recover for the client in their current context is everything. If Peter was landing in Missoula (which has no Morton’s), then a clever tweeted response might have sufficed, though they could take if further if they had a connection to a solid steak house in MSO.

In Customer Service, context is everything

Sometime’s a “Sorry” and replacement / discount will suffice. Sometimes, the client’s context makes your $154 mistake a memory that could last for years. Imagine you had a romantic evening out of town planned with your significant other and when you arrived at the hotel, they didn’t have a room – even though you’d paid in advance. What if the town is booked solid because of a local event? There’s “no room at the inn”… ANY inn.

How you protect the business is everything at that point – keeping in mind that the wrong kind of business protection creates customer defection. If you’re going to create a lifetime memory, make sure it’s a good one.

Culture defines who has your team’s back

How tight is your staff? What’s the culture of the team? Do they trust one another? Do they trust you? Do your employees know you have their back? Do they know their peers have their back?

Can everyone on your team depend on the processes, systems and people involved in your business? If you said yes, does every single person agree?

If you haven’t asked, don’t assume the answer is yes.

How well do they jell?

Ask your team about the qualities of the people they want to work with. Use their answers during your hiring process. You can’t allow even the smartest, best qualified prospect to join your team if they’ll create cultural conflict.

A few more questions to ask your team:

  • Is there anyone whose call you don’t want to answer? Ask them to think about why they wouldn’t answer.
  • Is there anyone whose call you will always take? Ask them to think about why they’d always answer.
  • Is there anyone on the team who makes you wonder “Why does management keep that person around?
  • Is there information about the business that you don’t have that’s preventing you from doing your job to the best of your ability?
  • If you’re responsible for local sales, do you know what parts of town yield the most profit?

Those last two questions are a clue about the information your team needs to become more effective. It’s not always about the obvious things.

Team members who are ready to grow into more responsibility will start asking (if not only wondering to themselves) if the work they’re being asked to do is turning a profit for the business. It’s critical to complete the circle of communications to your team about sales and profitability. When employees show concern about these things, feed that fire. It’s a sign that they’ve matured beyond taking home a check and are interested in growing their impact on profit.

These things contribute to your culture

While some businesses will hand wave away their culture as a meaningless foofoo thing, culture is what glues your team together. It defines how well they work together every day (or not) and that goes directly to how well they treat your clientele.

It’s essential that you use your culture as a filter for deciding who has the privilege of joining your team.

If you don’t, you’ll likely lose people who are very difficult to replace because they’ll see right through the “culture is important, employees are important” statements you might make.

To be a place where people want to work, these things matter.
To be a business people want to do business with, these things matter.

What doesn’t kill you…

I had an annual meeting conversation with a team this weekend. They’ve been to hell and back over the last year, business-wise. The ones who survived the worst part and stuck around have learned to depend on each other and expect great things of one another every day. They understand the importance of defending one another, covering for one another and expecting the best from everyone as the work together. They understand what’s important, what’s not and that they have to stick together and continue to work together or they will certainly die (employment-wise) separately.

While I won’t mention what business they’re in, I wouldn’t suggest taking them on. After listening to them and speaking with them, it’s clear they’d take punishment for one another. Best of all, they understand that the best culture in the world doesn’t mean much if profitable sales, consistent delivery and service don’t happen. It takes all of these things.

And that’s important because?

I mention this because a trial by fire will either destroy your team or bond it like few other experiences. The differences between teams that get destroyed and the ones that bond include your leadership as an owner, the team’s leadership (implicit and explicit), who makes up your team and what they’re made of. These things define your team’s culture because it defines who they are.

Which team do you lead? Do you know where the strengths and weaknesses are? Are you willing to investing in the proper hiring, training and communication to build your team into one that can take a punch?

Making employees feel safe

Gary Vaynerchuk make a safety comment in a video I was watching the other day that struck me to the core. It made perfect sense but I hadn’t really thought about it from quite the angle he came from.

While I’ve always tried to listen more than I speak (thanks Dad) as well as “praise in public, scold in private” and work within a number of Jim Rohn / Stephen Covey “seek first to understand” ways, I have found that there’s a line that you can cross when managing people that can stop the flow of accurate information from them to you – and perhaps from you to them.

The deadly part is that once you cross that line it’s really hard to erase the line or cross back over it into the nice little town of Truthville. That’s the place where Gary’s comment provided some clarity.

How do you make them feel?

What Gary said was “When you make them feel safe, they start telling the truth”.

He wasn’t accusing people who don’t feel safe of being liars. He’s saying that until they feel safe around you, within your business and its culture, you aren’t giving them the option to tell the truth. Up to that point, you’ve only given them the option to tell you what you want to hear, or perhaps the “safe” part of the truth.

When people don’t feel safe, it damages every conversation. It isn’t solely about the critical, strategic discussion you’re having this afternoon. It will affect every discussion, because they aren’t comfortable where the danger zone is.

As a result, they will often say nothing, as if they have no opinion, have nothing to add, and agree with whatever’s already been said. The reality is likely that they might have something quite valuable to share, controversial / challenging or otherwise, but they don’t feel safe sharing it. Unless you’re sensitive to what you’ve done, or more accurately, what you haven’t created for them – they might appear ambivalent, stupid, shy, unthinking, not insightful and many other things that you might see as negative.

How is this costly to your business?

The obvious problem is that your people tiptoe around and say only what they feel safe saying, instead of offering their most brilliant ideas and insightful opinions. Those things are rarely going to be middle of the road safe, so they are muted. This will change the appearance of that person and their attitude.

You might even think about getting rid of them because they aren’t intellectually contributing to important conversations at the company. Who wants an employee who doesn’t care one way or the other, or who doesn’t think about the big questions the business needs to discuss, or never has an opinion?

What could be happening is that you’ve not yet created an environment that allows them to feel safe sharing the most intelligent, valuable things on their mind. When your staff members intellectually shut down, or self-arrest before providing their most creative ideas and insights, you lose.

Eventually, you may lose them but in the meantime, you have a team of folks doing their work in an environment where they are afraid to take risks, speak their mind, share their insights (right or wrong) and take ownership of a situation. If someone doesn’t feel safe, they’ll never take ownership of something because claiming ownership means they agree to be responsible when management comes calling.

Happy, safe employees take ownership

I saw a Facebook post from an acquaintance the other day. He was getting home from work at 11:30pm on a Friday night – and all he could talk about on Facebook to his family and friends was how excited he was to work for the company he works for. While I suspect his management doesn’t want him doing that every night, I’ll bet they appreciate that he recognized something that needed to be done, done right then, and that he stuck to it till it was complete.

People take responsibility when they feel safe. Ownership matters to them. People crave it but they won’t take it if it doesn’t feel safe to do so.

Part of taking ownership is telling the unvarnished, unfiltered truth when important discussions come up. The more valuable your people are, the more valuable their insights and opinions will be.

Do your employees feel safe enough to share those things with you?

Beware national distraction season

National distraction season is upon us. Are you ready?

No, I’m not talking about bowhunting season. Work is a distraction from bow season, not the other way around, right? Seriously though – I’m referring to election / political season and the drama it brings to the workplace.

Last time, we discussed in general terms some of the trouble that employee drama can create. If you recall, I encouraged you to shut it down whenever possible, as quickly as possible before it erupts into something you can’t handle. I included some common causes of drama, but I left a few of the major ones out – like politics.

First, your employees

A particularly destructive feature of even numbered calendar years is the drama that elections and their related issues / discussions can create. I say destructive because it can not only destroy productivity for the day, or perhaps the week. It can also radically change the relationships between members of your staff, including one of the most important ones – the relationship you have with your staff.

While you and/or your staff may find substantial enjoyment from discussing election politics with friends and relatives, doing so at work is all but a no-win scenario. This may seem like Captain Obvious talking, but you would be surprised how much of it goes on and how much rapport it can damage.

You might be thinking that you don’t want any of those lefties or righties working at your business. No doubt, if you can manage that somehow, that’s on you to figure out and “police” – while doing legally, of course. Until you’ve created a 100% politically safe environment, I suggest you get your team together and address the how and when these things should be discussed in the workplace, and do so in a manner that you and they can handle productively.

On the other hand, if everyone agrees (really?), it stands to reason that full on political discussion and posturing is fair game across the entire workplace. Full political agreement among your staff doesn’t mean there won’t be conflicts or morale issues, but it will likely minimize them. Even so, is this what you want consuming your staff’s mindset and conversation as they produce products and deliver services for your clients?

You may think this is a bit of an overreach on your part. Perhaps it is. That’s for you to decide, but I’d bear in mind that everyone working for you (and their families) depend on you to keep the place productive and profitable. Your community depends on your employees and their families as well. Allowing your workplace to become a toxic political war zone may not help your business meet those needs, much less helping your people meet yours.

And then, your clientele

Speaking of your clients – if these discussions are going on, it’s pretty likely that they are going to color the tone of discussions with your clientele, or that your clientele will overhear or even become involved in a staff discussion that they stumble into at your place.

If you’re willing to lose clients over this, make it clear to your team. For those of you who aren’t interested (much less willing) to lose clients over a political discussion, that should also be made clear to your entire team. As I mentioned earlier, if you are willing to say “I don’t want any lefties/righties as clients”, that’s on you to figure out and do so legally.

If that’s not a place you want to go, then you need to make sure your team understands that their publicly accessible comments in the workplace need to stay within the bounds you set. This is no different than you laying down the law about profanity, etc. It may create a bit more frustration and perhaps will make way less common sense than “Don’t use profanity on the sales floor, on the phone, on the radio or in emails” but that’s your choice to make.

Bottom line, I would encourage you to have your team find more productive things to discuss at the workplace, like the in-state college football rivalry of choice:)