Sunday, April 6, 2014

Moment of Truth: Your Boss Doesn’t Care About Your Kid Problems

We are, by and large, a nation of liars.

We tell big lies and small lies, and we lie for reasons both noble and depraved.

Mostly we lie to protect others or to protect ourselves from others—from their judgment, their interference, or their potential to hurt us if they knew the truth.

I’m fascinated by the lies people tell and thoroughly disheartened by how difficult it can be to tell the truth without risking privacy, employment status, or relationship.

One of the biggest lies we as a society like to tell ourselves is that we care about children, when we mostly don’t.

Our public school system is a mess, and we couldn’t give a crap whether working folks with children can earn enough to consistently put food on the table.  

So yes. We may care about our own children. But we really don't care about anyone else's.

But we like to pretend we do. 

At work, this fiction has major impact.

For example, consider how quickly a job applicant would be eliminated from consideration if, in response to that standard question—“Why do you want to work for ABC Company?”—she responded that she needs money to provide for her family, which is her first priority. (A truer answer than most others, I’d bet.)

Then think about how often you’re asked (encouraged, “provided with opportunity,” or whatever you want to call it) at work to sacrifice personal time with your family to advance company goals and how well you’ll be regarded if your consistent response is no thanks.

It’s common knowledge that pregnant women still face discrimination at work, as do women in general, simply because they either have children or have the potential to bear children—even though we all just love children.

And I think of something my mother once said to me: If a man really loves his children, he’ll respect his children’s mother.

A related truism? If we as a society really love children, we’ll respect their parents’ need to provide for those children.

But we don’t. Not really. 

And our lie about it instigates other lies at work—lies we tell to protect our time with family and especially, the little ones (and maybe even a few not-so-little ones) who depend on us. 

These lies are designed to keep our employers in the dark about how much our families mean to us, because if we’re too honest we’re bound to get labeled as not serious about work, lacking in commitment to the job, or some other crap.

I’ve already gone on record as stating that work-life balance doesn’t exist. My attitude is that sometimes work must take priority, and sometimes home and family must take priority.

But even that attitude isn’t good enough for some employers, who won’t view you as the best of the best unless you express a willingness to make work a priority all the time.

Ironically, whether you actually do consistently make work a priority is beside the point. Your employer is only interested in hearing the lie.

Because we are, by and large, a nation of liars.

But we don’t have to be.

So, if you’re a manager, I sure hope you do what you can to ensure your employees never feel compelled to lie about their priorities to make you feel good about the job they’re performing.

And if you’re not a manager, I hope you can find the balance you need to feel good about your performance as an employee and a parent—even if you have to lie a little to do it. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

When Saving Face Leads to Poor Decision Making and Poor Leadership

The importance of saving face in Asian cultures has been well documented, and Americans planning to work in Asia often are advised to get familiar with the concept.

But come on. American workers are okay with saving face, too.

A trusted boss early in my career taught me the truth of this, and I’ve been grateful ever since. Leaving people an out is many times the right, wise, and humane thing to do.

Take the day I received an angry email message from a senior manager (who’d copied his manager) that he hadn’t gotten his bonus pay, so where was it? He KNEW his manager had forwarded the paperwork to payroll!

I could have been tempted to correct this manager that he certainly had received his bonus, because I’d processed the entry and put the pay statement in the mail myself—but no. Instead I asked a question, because hey, stuff happens, even to assholes:

“Hi ______.

When you say you haven’t received your bonus, are you saying the money hasn’t been deposited into your account, or are you saying you haven’t received the paper statement? If the former, I’ll double check with your bank, because this week I processed and verified the payroll myself, and your bonus was included. If the latter, please know that I mailed the statement yesterday, and it may take a few days to reach your home.”

Now, let’s think about this for a moment.

Clearly, the employee wasn’t complaining that he’d received the money but no statement yet, because who the hell would care about that?

So, I already knew there was a good chance this person (a nasty bully who seemed to relish embarrassing people in public) hadn’t checked his damn bank balance, but I saw no reason to embarrass him by pointing that out or by stating the obvious—no paper statement in the mail is not the same thing as no money in the bank.

Well, waddaya know? After getting my response, the employee admitted he hadn’t reviewed his balance before shooting off his mouth email message, and after that initial admission, I never heard from him again (on this particular matter, that is).

But that’s okay. Another fire put out quick, fast, and in a hurry. That’s all I care about.

Giving this employee the benefit of the doubt—and an out—rather than getting defensive or God forbid, advising him to check his account before making assumptions followed by accusations about who hasn’t done what, would have had no effect but to prolong an unpleasant interaction. No thanks.

Allowing people to save face has its benefits for sure.

But saving face has its dark side, too.

Decisions, decisions!
Because when someone cares a little too much about saving his own face, decision making becomes clouded. In the worst case scenario, it becomes irrevocably compromised. 

In “Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions,” authors Campbell, Whitehead, and Finkelstein present research indicating that even good leaders can make abysmal decisions in the presence of three “red flag conditions.” Topping the list? “Inappropriate self-interest.”

(The others are “distorting attachments” and “misleading memories,” and those are fascinating to talk about as well, but I’m going to focus on the self-interest piece today.)

Campbell et al first published their research in 2009. I think it’s more relevant today than ever.

Why? Because we’re fielding more data than ever, and that means we have more stuff to sift through when making decisions.

In other words, decision making is getting more and more complicated.

And when things get complicated, people get stressed.

And when people get stressed, sometimes they begin to focus on themselves and their stress (even if unconsciously) and what certain outcomes would mean for them, personally—rather than the department, division, or organization as a whole—and that’s when “inappropriate self-interest” and the desire to save face rears its big old ugly head.

I’ll be honest. I’m as versed in CYA as the next worker, but I don’t have a whole lot of patience (and hardly any respect) for a leader who’d rather protect her self-image than solve a flippin’ problem.

It’s counter-productive, and it’s cowardly.

Don't be a sissy!
So, sure… when the price is low and the benefit is high, do what you can to help someone else save face.

But when the cost is high (say, a boatload of money  or someone else’s conscious), saving face is for the damn birds.

Grow a pair, already.

‘Nuff said.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What a Brand New Employee Needs from You Most

I’ll tell anyone who asks that I’m a proud cynic.

The definition of “cynic” varies slightly from dictionary to dictionary, but most say something along the lines of “distrustful or scornful of others’ motives,” and I think that’s a little harsh. I prefer to define my worldview as a pragmatic recognition that most people will most of the time behave so as to further their self-interests.

And I don’t consider pursuit of self-interest terribly shocking or awful, either, because for most of us pursuing what we want is not incompatible with living peaceably with others.

Frankly, I think the world could use a few more good cynics. At least then email messages like the following would produce fewer victims.

(This appeared in my inbox today, and I left ALL the typos in for authenticity.)


Congratulation,You have won yourself Us$1,500,000.00 from our database for using western union money transfer. I?m very glade in informing today that all necessary arrangement in effecting the payment to you as it have been programmed $4,000.00,USD in your payment file.All you need to do now:
Reconfirm your information to enable us make change of the RECEIVER'S NAME to your name,so you can be able to pick it up now.
Your Name:===========
Your Country:========
Your Tel:============
However: this is to inform you that we have been carrying on your payment as to enable us make sure that the payment have be complete before the year will come at the end.
Your first payment of $4,000.00, USD is already been Programmed into System.We only give you six digital number instead of Ten for security reason avoid hackers stealing the money online.When i receive your Informations i will release the remaining Four to enable you pick it up.
{MTCN}Control Number:869440xxxx
AMOUNT: $4,000
Waiting for your information to make change of RECEIVER'S NAME to your name and release your MTCN to enable you pick up the fund.
Rev.Favor Ralph

Good grief.

But even I, an unabashed cynic, believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt until doing so proves unwise.

And when it comes to your brand new employee, bestowing the benefit of the doubt is especially important.

I’m talking about trust, people. I’m talking about treating your new employee as though you sincerely believe in his ability to competently do the job you hired him to do without an inordinate amount of oversight, double-checking, and second guessing from you.

Naturally a new employee will make mistakes (as will any employee, actually), but mistakes are how we learn. Mistakes, and the unpleasant feeling of failure, make lessons penetrate.

My good friend and consultant Helen Richardson has developed a coaching model called A New Way to Think about Work™, in which she proposes that work is a relationship. And it is.

So trust me when I tell you that treating your new employee as though you aren’t sure you made the right decision in hiring him is not a good start to the relationship.

That’s why whenever I teach anyone anything, I show him once, and then I leave him to do it. If, after reviewing his efforts the work is good, I congratulate him and move on. If the efforts are less than good, and I need to teach something again, I’ll do it. But my goal is always to show once and move on. It’s efficient, and it sends the message that I trust the learner’s ability to learn.

At some point, no matter how new your employee is or how much you perceive him as not knowing, you’ll have to relinquish control or risk compromising your new hire’s performance as his confidence wanes and his frustration grows—and that’s if he even decides to stick around.

So here’s the question you may want to ask yourself. What bad thing do you think will happen if you trust your employee to do the job without your constant supervision? And, how do you suppose your lack of trust is making your new employee feel about you and his new job? Do you think it causes him to trust you?

Friday, February 28, 2014

Black History Month Friday—Cool Facts about Frederick Douglass

Here it is, the last day of the month, and I’m finally getting around to writing something about Black History Month. That’s wrong.

When I was a kid, BHM was a big deal. You’d see commercials about it on television all month long, there’d be posters all around our school, and we’d have special lessons and projects, too. Now the entire month goes by with barely a blip.

I asked my ten-year-old son Thomas, “Did you do anything at school for Black History Month?”

He sighed heavily. (I'm getting that a lot these days for some reason.) “Well, Benjamin (not his real name) gave a book report about George Washington Carver, and we read about Rosa Parks.”

Wow. All that? 

Sad, sad, sad.

Not that George Washington Carver and Rosa Parks aren’t worthy of classroom time, but this is a little pathetic, is all I’m saying.

So, I figure I should do my part. 

Here are a few facts about one of my favorite African American figures, Frederick Douglass. (And yes, I know Douglass is a BHM staple too, but dude is really, really interesting.)

Facts About Frederick Douglass (With a Little Opinion Thrown in for Good Measure) 
  • Douglass was born a slave in February 1818, which is one of the reasons BHM is celebrated in February, NOT because February is the shortest month of the year. At least … I’m pretty sure month length wasn’t a factor. 
  • Douglass learned to read and write as a young boy, first being taught by his Mistress (until her husband put the kibosh on that) and then by poor white boys in exchange for bread. (Damn. I don’t know which part of this story is sadder—the idea that there were people worse off than slaves, or the idea of a child sneaking around town offering up chunks of bread in exchange for reading and writing lessons.)
  • When he was roughly 20 years old, Douglass fled his Baltimore plantation and landed in New York. Not too long after that, he married Anna Murray and settled in Massachusetts. In 1882, Murray died, and Douglass married his white former secretary. (Yes, you read that correctly. And, I don’t want to judge, but … I ... ah …. Oh, never mind.)
  • In 1841, Douglass spoke before a white audience in Nantucket, Massachusetts. His speech was so well received that he was hired as a full-time antislavery lecturer by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. However, some doubted Douglass’ story, because he was too well spoken. (Gee, imagine someone being surprised that a black man is articulate? Well, I never!!)
  • To prove the naysayers wrong, Douglass wrote his story. In 1845, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, was published. Of course, some claimed that Douglass wasn't the real author.
  • For 16 years, Douglass edited a successful black newspaper, successively called The North Star (1847-1851), Frederick Douglass' Paper (1851-1858), and The Douglass Monthly (1859-1863).
  • Douglass was an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln—Hey! Does that make Douglass the original black friend?—during the Civil War. (I’m guessing, however, that Douglass did NOT advise Lincoln to suggest that all the slaves go back home, already. Apparently at his wits' end that the war hadn’t yet ended, Lincoln had the (cough) brilliant idea that the slaves be colonized. You know… since we *all* were having such a hard time getting along, perhaps an amicable parting would make it all better, yo?)
  • Douglass died of heart failure in 1895, ending a well-lived life as a speaker, writer, abolitionist, and civil rights activist.

Learn more about Douglass on

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Things Your Employees Won’t Tell You That You Need to Know Anyway

Is it possible an employee somewhere is thinking this about you?

“If you can’t be a good boss to me, nothing else matters.”
Regardless of what else you and I may have in common—hobbies, educational background, sense of humor, political party, general worldview, or even religion—if you can’t manage me well, I don’t give a damn about it. First and foremost, you’re my boss, and if your lousy management gets in my way instead of helping me out, you can take your compliment about my taste in clothing and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

“If you ever forget that I’m a human being, all bets are off.”
Your position as my boss does not give you license to talk down to me, bully me, or otherwise abuse me. You’re not my parent, and I don’t care to be controlled by you as though I’m incompetent or incapable of contributing to the company in a meaningful way. If you can’t treat me with the respect due any living person, I will shut you out and do only what I must to keep my job. Forget about “going the extra mile” or anything close to it. I’ll only bestow that type of loyalty on someone who’s earned it.

“I’d prefer to make my mistakes in private.”
I understand that you want to be informed, but it’d be nice if you didn’t require that I copy you on every single email message I send. For starters, it’s dumb. Also, I’d like to keep my occasional typo, word usage mistake, or unnecessary question between me and the recipient, if that’s okay with you. The truth is, I do my best work when I feel free to make a mistake every now and again without hearing about it from you.

“I value your support more than I can say.”
When Butthead Bob sent that snarky email about how my department messed up the annual thingamajig report, you were quick to respond “junk in, junk out,” and then you reminded him that we’d made multiple attempts to warn everyone that the inconsistent data input from his department was bound to cause a problem sooner or later. So, we still have a mess to fix, but BB has been put on notice (publically—which is apparently how he likes it) that all of us own a piece of the problem, and you won’t stand for anyone playing the blame game. Thanks. Today, you’re my hero.

“How you feel about your job is your business.”
Please, when I come to you for guidance/advice/a complaint about my work situation, don’t get all “me too!” I don’t want to hear how your boss frustrates you, how discouraged you get, or how X works you like a dog. I promise you these revelations are not creating a “bonding moment.” Instead, they reinforce for me how vain and immature you are as a manager, and they confirm for me that you will not be addressing my problem today, if ever. Seriously, if you don’t like YOUR job, go and complain to YOUR boss. I’m here about me, okay?

“I won’t give up time with my family to accommodate this company’s dysfunction/general inefficiency.”
If you want to work all hours of the morning and night because it suits you, God bless. I’m going to need more of a reason than your example to do the same. What’s that expression again? “Failure to plan on your part is not an emergency on my part?” Yeah, I like that. Listen, sometimes the unexpected happens, and I can live with that. But I won’t regularly sacrifice time with my family because it takes twice as long to do something in this place as it ought and you think a great employee shouldn’t notice that.

“I love it that you ‘get me.’”
Wow. Do you know how many terrible bosses are out there? More than I can count, that’s how many. But you’re the bomb. You understand who I am, and you like it. We go together like peanut butter and jelly, you and me. This is nice.

“I really, really don’t want your job.”
It’s flattering (sort of), but I’m not motivated by hearing how you think I could do your job “someday.” “Someday” sounds awfully far off, and I don’t plan on being here then. Also, I’ve met your boss. No thanks.

“I want your job.”
Watch your back, okay?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ah … to be French!

My son Adam is in France, studying abroad this semester. He’s a Junior, and finally old enough, in my opinion, to handle the responsibility of a semester far, far away from home.

Well… all but the financial responsibility. That’s for dear Mom and Dad. And on the one hand, I’m very grateful we can scrape together the money to provide this experience. But on the other hand, I’m amazed that we’re actually doing it. The life this kid is living is soooo far from the one his parents (especially Mom here) could lay claim to at that age. Sometimes I wonder, how long will it last?

Because a lot has been written about how the United States is a country in the decline, writing checking for things we can’t afford using money from people (primarily middle class people like me) who can’t afford to give it.

It's an issue with HR written all over it. 

Yesterday, after I’d transferred money into Adam’s account, he emailed me (yes, we’re emailing again instead of texting—too expensive for the Mom who can’t afford a smart phone) thanking me and then asking what I want, because it’s that time of year when the French have mandated store sales, so hey, obviously now is the time to buy.

I was incredulous. Did I just read that correctly? Was this boy offering me a gift with my own money? And alsowhat?! The government tells store owners when to put merchandise on sale? What the heck?

So Adam confirmed that yes, it’s the law (and later I learned this period has a name, Les Soldes), and then he throws in a few other Frenchisms, like everyone (including Adam) has general insurance in case they break something in a store; and he’s now covered by two medical plans, because the French plan is mandatory; and somehow he also qualifies for French social security (or at least he has to register for it).

And it all sounds incredibly warm and cozy, and I kind of want to live there and get my free healthcare and 30 days of vacation, but I can’t help wondering who is paying for all this? 

Or is that just a dumb question and should Americans lighten up already and live a little? At 11.1% unemployment, the French are hurting, but so are we—and we’re way less thin and chic.