Cruel Bosses: The Gods of Workplace Punishment

Overworked employee

While some folks have fulfilling jobs, many find their work to be torturous. You don’t have to look hard to find examples portraying jobs as boring and/or painful to endure. Here is a short list of movies or TV shows.

  • Office Space
  • Horrible Bosses
  • The Devil Wears Prada
  • 9-to-5
  • American Beauty
  • The Apartment
  • The Office

Even if you don’t currently relate to these examples, there’s a good chance you have been in a toxic work environment. At the very least, someone you know is struggling with a negative job experience. You as a leader may also have blind spots that put your people through unnecessary suffering.

This view of work and bosses is nothing new. Long before any of the shows above were created, Charles Dickens literally gave us a Scrooge as an example of a hard-nosed business leader apathetic to the plight of his employee Bob Crachit. If we look even further back in literature, Greek mythology gives us many examples of individuals being oppressed by their authorities. Even though these are punishments doled out by the gods, they are expressions of the human condition common in ancient times as it is today. Let’s take a look at four stories and see what modern leaders can learn from ancient Greeks.

Tantalus: Dangling Carrots

Ever wonder where we got the word “tantalize?” It comes from the punishment given to Tantalus. He was condemned to stand eternally in a pool of water under a fruit tree. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Well, when Tantalus got thirsty, he would bend down to drink from the pool at his feet. The water would recede, not allowing him to drink from it. Then, when Tantalus became hungry, he would reach for the fruit over his head. As you can guess, the branches moved up so he could not grab the fruit. Tantalus was eternally hungry and thirsty while being tantalized by water and fruit barely out of his reach.

Leadership Lessons from Tantalus

Some leaders offer future promotions or benefits that never materialize. When employees ask for specifics (dates, milestones, etc.), these offers recede like the water at Tantalus’ feet. That next pay raise is the fruit of their labors, but it moves out of reach when they attempt to grab hold of it. Leaders who don’t keep promises, or keep them vague to avoid accountability, soon lose the respect of their workers. Instead, any incentives promised to employees should be detailed in writing with specific criteria, like milestones that must be achieved or dates when the incentives will be enacted. Don’t back out or future incentives will have no credibility and will be unlikely to motivate anyone.

Sisyphus: Hard Work Without Purpose

Talk about back-breaking labor! Sisyphus was sentenced to roll a boulder up a hill all day. As he reached the top, it would roll back down and he would have to start all over. It’s reminiscent of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but with a giant boulder instead of a groundhog. Wonder if he had to listen to Sonny and Cher sing I’ve Got You Babe the whole time.

Leadership Moral from Sisyphus

If leaders want disillusioned and disengaged workers, then they should make work purposeless. When employees don’t understand why their work matters, then it may feel like rolling a boulder up a hill, just to watch it roll back down. Day after day after day. That could be enough to make you want to punch Ned Ryerson in the face.

Dan Ariely has a great TED Talk on the important role purpose plays in our work.

The good news is that if we added all of those components and thought about them — how do we create our own meaning, pride, motivation, and how do we do it in our workplace, and for the employees — I think we could get people to be both more productive and happier.
~Dan Ariely

Employees need to see a purpose to their work. Some workers only see the small part they do themselves, but leaders can show how each person’s contributions fit into the final product. They should see how what they do impacts the customer. Employees seeing this in person is great, but a video may do the job. This is a reason customer testimonials aren’t just good for marketing, they are good for influencing your internal culture as well.

Prometheus: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

The gods of Olympia were withholding fire from mortals. The Titan Prometheus stole fire and brought it to man. This angered the gods, so they punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle. His liver would grow back each day, so the process could repeat (and perhaps so the eagle could avoid anemia).

Leadership Moral from Prometheus

Ever wonder why people don’t step up to do the right thing? In some workplace cultures, it may be because of a history of good deeds being punished. Shortsighted leaders see someone who goes beyond the call of duty as overreaching. And they feel it is their job to put that person back in their place. They may figuratively tie the employee down with new rules or threats. They also could rip the guts out of that employee by chastising them harshly in front of their peers, making an example of them and leaving workers feeling unsupported.

This calls for a certain amount of emotional intelligence from leaders. Instead of feeling threatened by what feels like an upstart employee, leaders should view this as an opportunity to coach a high potential. Encouraging the leadership skills of employees is part of what sets apart great leaders from competent managers. Jim Collins identifies this kind of humility as an essential characteristic of what he calls a Level 5 Leader.

(Note: I originally wrote that Prometheus brought light to mortals. Melissa pointed out it was fire, not light. Fire is an even better metaphor as it not only helps us see, but it warms us as well. Let’s not punish those who bring insight and comfort to others.)

Atlas: Taking on the Weight of the World

Atlas didn’t fair much better than his brother Prometheus. The Titan fought a battle against the gods of Olympus. As punishment, Atlas had to hold the sky on his shoulders for eternity (the common misperception is he had to hold the Earth).

Leadership Moral from Atlas

How do some bosses reward hard work by capable employees? By giving them more work. They eventually burn out productive workers by piling additional work onto them. To make things worse, when mistakes are made or work isn’t accomplished, they attack the employee’s competency even though the workload is unrealistic. Exceptional employees can be given more work, but it should be incremental. Also, at some point, they should be able to delegate some of the more basic tasks as they take on additional and more complex work.

In general, leaders can’t view themselves as gods of the workplace. We’re all mere mortals, doing the best we can. Maybe these ancient stories can shed some light on cruel consequences that shouldn’t be inflicted on us or our people. The good thing is today’s punishments aren’t eternal. We can make changes starting now.

Bonus: Play Ancient Greek Punishment, a Flash game, to add a fun, interactive element.

 

A Business Carol: Don’t be a Scrooge with Your Story

John Leech illustration used by Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/John_Leech

John Leech illustration used by Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/John_Leech

In the spirit of Christmas, here’s a fun way to make sure your business is engaging for you, for employees and for customers. Pay a visit to the ghosts of business past, present and future.

The Ghost of Business Past

Have you captured your origin story? Do you share it with employees and customers? On his Brand Autopsy blog, John Moore gives some great examples of this from the early days of Whole Foods.

By visiting the Ghost of Business Past, you can inspire folks with the original purpose and drive that was the genesis of your organization. The challenges overcome in the beginning can encourage folks when they face adversity today. Your origin story can also instill a sense of purpose and belonging for employees and customers alike.

The Ghost of Business Present

Sharing your origin story is a good start, but it’s not enough if people don’t understand who you’re serving or why you exist. Is there a clear understanding of your business’ mission, the purpose it is fulfilling TODAY? We need reminders of the unique needs you are serving, so we have a clear picture of the hole that would be left if your business disappeared.

I’ll allude to another Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Maybe your business is like George Bailey. By realizing how some customers and employees would miss your business if it never existed, you can recognize the unique value you bring. Once you’re aware of the value only you bring, you can put more emphasis on that value and let it drive your mission as an organization.

Chick-Fil-A’s corporate purpose reinforces the decisions employees make on a daily basis, because it instills purpose:

To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.

When employees understand why your business exists today, they can be decisive knowing they are in line with the organization’s purpose. It also gives customers the confidence of knowing why they should choose you over your competition.

The Ghost of Business Future

Once you’re clear on how you started and where you are today, you need to paint a picture of tomorrow. Have you cast a vision of your company’s future? I’m not talking about, “We’ll be doing the same thing for twice as many people.” I’m talking about a compelling vision that will show what has to change in order to move from HERE to THERE.

Your mission will help everyone understand why they do things today, but a vision will help them know what has to change to reach tomorrow. And just like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, you have the opportunity to change that future.

Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

So, if you tend to say “Bah, humbug!” to putting time and effort into capturing your origin story, branding your business or crafting mission and vision statements… maybe you need a visit from these 3 ghosts to transform your business.

4 Reasons Your Team isn’t Performing

Reasons Your Team Underperforms

Last quarter, your team didn’t reach their goals. You chalked it up to market circumstances or a seasonal anomaly. Halfway through another quarter and things aren’t looking any more optimistic. It’s obvious this is a trend and something has to change.

Before you assume you should restructure bonuses or send folks through training, you should consider different reasons your team isn’t performing. If you assume you know what the problem is, then you’re guessing at the solution. And applying the wrong solution may be worse than doing nothing at all.

So, what could the problem be?

Here are 4 reasons your team isn’t performing:

1.     Lack of knowledge

Either people don’t know what to do, or how to do it (or both). Leadership will often assume this is the problem, because training seems like a simple solution.

Signs you may have a knowledge problem:

  • The same questions are asked by different individuals
  • There is a steep learning curve with every project/undertaking
  • Quality is inconsistent

Knowledge Solutions:

  • Training
  • Quick Reference Guides
  • Mentoring
  • Continuing Education

2.      Lack of structure or process

The steps to get things done in your organization are undocumented and it is unclear who has authority. Consultants will often assume this is the problem, because they have methods to address this.

Signs you may have a structure or process problem:

  • Decisions are often delayed
  • People are doing the same work (redundancy)
  • People step on each others’ toes unintentionally
  • It is difficult to report status of projects/undertakings
  • Quality is inconsistent

Structure and Process Solutions:

  • Organization charts
  • Outlining roles & responsibilities
  • Process maps / flowcharts
  • Decision framework

3.      Lack of Tools and Resources

People are not equipped to do their work. They do not have the hardware, software, people, and/or budgets they need to accomplish their responsibilities. Front line workers and line managers will often assume this is the problem because they see the workload, feel overwhelmed, and don’t feel supported by leadership.

Signs you may have a tools and resources problem:

  • Tools are not evenly distributed and those with proper tools are your highest performers
  • The use of existing hardware or software is a consistent bottleneck (be sure it’s not lack of knowledge)
  • Multiple workers are putting in overtime on a regular basis
  • There is a large area of responsibility within a group for which no individual has the required skills or experience

Tools and Resource Solutions:

  • Assess needs through outlining team goals, roles and responsibilities
  • Research industry best practices on staffing and tools (could be informal questions asked of employees who worked elsewhere)
  • Assess ROI of additional budget for staffing and tools

4.     Lack of Motivation

People have no incentive to perform better. Entrepreneurs will often assume this is the issue, because they believe others share similar motivations to themselves.

Signs you may have a motivation problem:

  • It is unclear what is rewarded and recognized by your organization
  • You have a hard time retaining people who have a healthy sense of competition
  • People complain about expectations and adopt a victim mentality
  • Opportunities are unaddressed

Motivation Solutions:

  • Clearly stating how and why individuals are rewarded (meeting goals, taking good risks, giving extraordinary effort, etc.)
  • Have a system for tracking and reporting performance
  • Give employees honest feedback on their performance (more often than once a year)
  • Be consistent with rewards and recognition

So, when it appears your team is chronically underperforming, take stock in these 4 key areas. By identifying a specific cause, you can define a specific solution and increase your opportunity for successfully reaching (or exceeding) team goals.

What have you done to improve your team’s performance in the past?

I’d love to hear other thoughts and solutions you’ve seen work before. Share your experience by commenting below.

Envision Versus Division: Which Will You Choose?

In your organization, you have a choice. You can envision something bigger than yourself that others can rally together around. Or you can cut things down to size and try to divide, because you’re afraid of hoping for something bigger.

When you have a mindset to envision, you unite people around a common cause. You share in the responsibility and in the credit. You inspire others to “step up to the plate” and challenge themselves. You include people who bring different skills and experiences to the effort. You motivate everyone to achieve something great, and you focus them on what is truly important.

When we divide, we separate people into “us” and “them.” This restricts what we’re able to do, because “we” don’t want “them” to show “us” up. So, things become very political and begin to alienate people from the team and the organization’s goals. This can deflate any energy and determination our teammates had, which makes our whole organization weaker.

Envision-versus-divisionThink about whether you support a culture that ENVISIONS or one that is DIVISIVE.

Why is it so easy for us to lose sight of how counterproductive divisiveness can be in our work environment?

 

 

4 Ways Leaders Establish the Big Picture

Camera

Indulge me with a short thought experiment.

Imagine you’ve hired a professional photographer to get a well-crafted portrait of yourself. You arrive at the address he provided, which appears to be his house. You walk up to the front and ring the doorbell. He opens the door and seems a little surprised to see you.

“I’m here for my portrait session.” You say.

A spark of recognition flashes across his eyes. “Oh yeah. Hang on a second.”

He shuts the door in your face, leaving standing on the porch a bit bewildered. You look at your phone to confirm your appointment time and address are correct. They are. Just before you ring the doorbell again, the door opens and the photographer steps out with a camera strapped around his neck.

“OK. Uh, just stand over there.”

He points to a spot on the sidewalk about 3 feet behind you. You give him a puzzled look and slowly shuffle back according to his directions. He starts taking seemingly random shots. You realize the sun is backlighting you, which can’t be good for the photo. You haven’t changed into the clothes you brought for the photo session and the photographer gives you no suggestions for how to stand or which direction to look.

He lowers his camera. “OK. That’s it. I’ll go back and take a look at these. Maybe we’ll get lucky.” He re-enters his house and shuts the door behind him.

You return to your car to leave, highly doubtful that luck will be on your side.

We would never expect a photographer to treat a portrait session in this way. Since the main goal of a photographer is to take photographs, we anticipate they will use their expertise and exhibit some forethought in preparation for a photo session.

What about leaders? Since the main goal of a leader is to LEAD, do we expect some level of expertise and forethought as we do with professional photographers? Like a photographer sets up a beautiful picture, leaders can lay a groundwork for success.

4 Ways Leaders Establish the Big Picture

A Bear on a Unicycle

20140606-211938.jpg

Creative Commons Image courtesy Burk’s Falls, Armour & Ryerson Union Public Library

Putting a bear on a unicycle doesn’t do anyone any good. It humiliates the bear and wears out the unicycle. I’m all for servant leadership, but be careful about putting your most capable people on the most menial tasks.

The Death Trap of Black Box Leadership

BlackBox

“Nobody ever tells me anything.”
“How are these decisions made?”
“Apparently that is on a need-to-know basis, and I don’t need to know.”

If these are phrases heard in your workplace, then there’s clearly a communication issue. Despite studies that have shown better corporate-wide communication helps morale, while poor communication has the most negative impact – companies seem to resist keeping employees informed.