Is stress the 21st century’s black death?

18 03 2012

The Japanese have a specific word for death from overwork: karoshi. Although useful for describing early death, this is not comforting to know that this syndrome is recognised enough to have its own word.

So here is a pretty interesting infographic. No surprises at some of the top most stressful jobs – but PR officer? On the other hand, my future career is as a philosopher, which features in the least stressful jobs. Of course I might be stressed about income in that job – does anyone pay for philosophers these days?

However two shockers for me:
1. Apparently relationship with boss, although a top reason for leaving a job, was not a major factor in stress levels (really? I beg to differ. See earlier postings about Psychopaths in the workplace)

2. women who felt they had some level of control in the workplace were MORE likely to die early. (The complete opposite of the Whitehall study findings from the 1960s – when the public service was 90% male. This study found that those who felt they had some level of control over their work / environment etc had better health outcomes than those who were lower down the food chain and largely powerless. We women cant seem to catch a break.)

I do however wonder how they measured stress other than early death. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and other platitudes.

The original link is here.

Interested in dysfunctional workplaces and stress? Have a look at
When organisations turn cannibal

Psychopaths in the workplace

A very short list of sayings that aren’t true

8 12 2011

photo credit Falashad

A fish rots from the head. This is used to imply that when an organisation has problems, it is the fault of leadership. While that may have merit, the metaphor does not. Fish rot from the gut, where the wet, bacteria- and enzyme-laden guts rapidly liquify and then rot. I’m sure I don’t need to go any further, you get the picture, and you don;t want to start imagining the smell. I decided not to test the other fish saying “after three days fish and visitors start to smell”.

photo credit F Trudeau

It’s always darkest before the dawn. This is used to impart hope and encourage perseverence – if things are really bad right now, then they can only get better. Not only is this sentiment not true (it is amazing the ability of situations to further deteriorate beyond what you thought was rock-bottom), but in fact it is darkest when the sun is on the directly opposite side of the earth from where you are standing. So if sunset is 7pm and sunrise is 7am, it will be darkest around midnight. Preferably in the country where there are no street lights, under a cloudy sky with no moon.

photo credit maryatexitzero

A watched pot never boils. Clearly if it has heat applied to it and has fluid inside it, it will boil. Your watching or ignoring a pot doesn’t actually stop it from boiling or otherwise. The Hawthorne effect does not work on inanimate objects. This saying refers to time being relative – when you are waiting for something (good) to happen it seems to take forever. On the other hand, bad things seem to come around quickly.

This is the end of the very short list of sayings that aren’t true. What other sayings annoy you?

Ethical Leadership

27 09 2011

I have had the pleasure of working for some really inspirational leaders, leaders from whom I learned a lot. These are some of the lessons I have learned from some of the best leaders I have worked for and observed.

1. Stand by your decisions. If you are making hard decisions that affect people’s lives, you put your face out there. There’s no hiding. If you make the decision, then you stand beside it, even when the going gets tough. (This doesn’t mean you can’t rethink.)

2. Be accountable. No excuses, if you make the decision then you own up to it.

3. Be fair. Find out the information from both (or more) sides of the story and hear both sides out fairly before making a decision. Particularly important in staff disputes and performance management situations.

4. Be available. People want to understand. They want to connect.

5. To err is human. We all make mistakes – you, me, everyone. It’s part of the human experience. Own up to your own mistakes and be clear that if you are changing your decision, you know you are changing your decision – you are not pretending that this was the decision all the way along (and why didn;t everyone esle understand that?). Likewise, recognise that the most perfect, hardworking and motivated employee will make mistakes from time to time.

6. Don’t make people wrong. So you are looking to lead your organisation in a new direction. Don’t start with a scorched earth policy – belittling and destroying everything that has gone before. What happened then happened for a reason and might have been the right thing at the time. Now times are different. You don’t need to make the past wrong in order to have a burning platform for change now and in the future. You also lose goodwill from staff if you denigate what they have done in the past.

7. Criticising the previous incumbent in your position is a cheap shot. And most of us recognise it for what it is. It doesn’t make your performance good, even in comparison. If you are good at your job, demonstrate it by being good, not by making everyone else bad.

8. Part of being a leader – a really big part of it – is dealing with your own emotional luggage. This is the EQ that makes someone a good leader because they aren’t wrapped up in their own emotions, triggers, reactions etc. You need to be able to be objective, you need to be focussed on the task at hand and how it is going. You need to not inflict your psychological hang-ups on others.

9. Being objective doesn’t mean you have no compassion. A Level 6 leader is a true human being who can bring their human compassion and understanding to the job – and still get the job done. It is possible to performance manage or discipline someone with compassion. It’s hard, and the person may not appreciate it at the time, but it’s ethical.

10. Bring people on the journey with you. Particularly if you are new to the organisation, you may have a different idea or understanding of what needs to be done, the direction you need to head in. But respect the people around you enough to explain it to them and bring them on the journey. They aren’t in the same “idea” space as you because their journey has been different. This means you need to lead.

11. Enthusiasm is contagious. If you are truly inspired by the tasks ahead of you, it is easier to inspire others. And inspiration works – it can set a workforce alight with ideas, energy and motivation. Be passionate.

12. You don’t have to pretend everything is great all the time – but be careful what you say. Casual throw-away comments by the leader can be taken very seriously by staff.

13. Set the example. People watch the leader to see what they are doing, what is the expected standard. Work hard and be seen to work hard. Be respectful of others. Model good morale and good relationships. Be ethical. All of these things set the tone for people around you and help establish a positive culture.

14. Don’t be fake. You’ll get caught out and you’ll lose all credibility. And being fake about caring about others, being ethical or being an expert in a field is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.

15. Assume the best motivations in people. Assume that most people want to come to work to do a good job. Usually you will be right. This doesn’t mean being naive or not recognising when something is wrong, but it gives people the opportunity to prove you right.

16. Be professional in all things.

That’s what comes to my mind as I think about some of the inspirational people I have known. The behaviours I have described, while modelled for me by leaders, are not only for leaders but also for people who want to be leaders, and those who want to work in a positive ethical workplace.

What else have I missed?

As the Romans do

4 09 2011

What the Romans did. A 79AD mural inside a farmhouse at Pompeii

I find organisational culture fascinating. I have done two Masters degrees, both with mini-theses on this topic, and continue to be fascinated.

So, to ensure we are all on the same page, I am talking about the culture that develops in an organisation, particularly with a stable workforce. It is the sum of the intangibles, the way people deal with each other, the way different layers of the organisation deal with each other, as well as the myths and stories that grow up and seemingly, self-perpetuate. New people into the mix become acculturated either consciously (through orientation etc) or subconsciously (Stockholm Syndrome!) Hence the title.

If you want some of the basic texts, have a look for Edgar Schein and Smircich. They explain it pretty well.

So of course cultures can be good or bad. They can work for the organisation or against the organisation. They can be healthy for people to work in, or unhealthy.

But because they are self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing they tend to be change-resistant.

So how to change a culture? No guarantees, but here are my thoughts:

1. Create the burning platform. We need a strong story that explains to everyone why change is not only necessary, but imperative for survival.

2. Leadership MUST be on board. They need to lead, manage and reinforce the changes, but in a coaching motivating way which encourages the employees to take control of the implementation themselves. Culture is SHARED, so the changes need to be shared as well.

3. Communicate it well at all stages of the process and keeping in mind the issues faced by all groups of workers. Each group need to feel they will not be disadvantaged. Ensure that the message is consistent (saying one thing to management and another to workers will be found out).

4. Don’t make what has gone before “wrong”. The people you are working with are part of that past and they want to be proud of the past. What happened in the past happened for a reason. It was probably the right decision at the time, but the times are changing and we need to change as well. Making people “wrong” will build resistance.

5. Work with managers and employees to develop the new structures and rules. This gives people the opportunity of feeling ownership in the result and also begins to break down the barriers. Again – the changes need to be SHARED.

6. Implement the new structures and remove the old ones at the same time. The old structures – team meetings, hierarchies, reports – all support the old culture. You don’t want them competing because people will side with the old out of habit and familiarity.

7. Sometimes minor things can make a difference – painting a wall a different colour, rearranging the furniture or putting a new smelling air freshener in. Anything that subconsciously says “it’s different now”. Welcome to the new world!

8. Recognise that it will take time and that people will try to slip back. There needs to be constant reinforcement of the new ways. New processes and ways of working can help reinforce the change.

The key of course is the will to change. If no-one wants to change and you are unable to convince them of the need for change, then it isn’t going to work. You can’t do it by yourself.

And remember, no matter how dysfunctional a culture, there are people benefitting from it, either directly, or because they are comfortable with it and fear change more than they are dissatisfied with their current culture.

Pick your battles.


3 09 2011

I have been following some interesting discussions on LinkedIn about psychopaths in the workplace (Leaders Institute of SA group). While I believe sociopaths is probably more accurate, I have to admit psychopaths has more of a ring to it. So I will bow to peer pressure!

I won’t go into too much detail – if you are interested, google it, there is a wealth of information. But basically they are talking about people who exhibit sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies such as a lack of empathy, extreme self-absorption and focus on benefitting themselves irrespective of the cost or impact to others or to the organisation.

Many years ago I had one of these as a boss – the entire organisation was dysfunctional as a result – and more recently I have been observing (from what I hope is a safe distance) a couple of others in action courtesy of some friends who are currently suffering.

However the one area I haven’t seen much conversation about is the enablers.

The original Psychopaths in the Workplace text (which I have unfortunately forgotten the name of and hence can’t link), talks about how the psychopath can appear charming and plausible. It is part of their psyche to be able to manipulate people and you can’t do that unless you can form alliances, bring people on-board. If they were instantly repellant and obvious then they wouldn’t be so effective at their manipulation.

The stats seem to say 25% of senior execs display psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies. And we aren’t just talking about leaders with poor people / communication skills, people who are driven to achieve, or people who have to do tough and unpleasant things like retrenching employees. The important difference is that for the psychopath, their focus is entirely on themselves and they completely lack empathy. Benefits to the organisation are incidental only in that they reflect well upon them. If came down to a choice between the organisation or themselves – well there really isn’t a choice.

So the people around the psychopath fall into a number of categories. The most obvious is the victims – anyone who gets in their way is in this category as they will stop at nothing.

Then there are the useful ones – they are the worker bees, often subordinates to the psychopath, who are rewarded or protected because they are useful. They might do work for the psychopath, or provide intelligence. They may or may not see the psychopath for what he or she is. They are safe so long as they serve a purpose and don’t get in the way. Any threat will be eliminated.

The other category often mentioned is those above the psychopath. While they have potential to be in the way and hence fall into the victim category, they also can be useful to the psychopath. They may be in charge of conferring promotions or opportunities, or being referees. So often the psychopath will put on the charm offensive, and these people won’t see him or her for what they truly are.

But the enablers. And here is where I am going out on a limb. My experience and observations are that the psychopath often has one or two enablers. These are people who have formed an alliance with the psychopath. They are, if you like, super-worker-bees – or perhaps henchmen. They do the bidding of the psychopath and display similar tendencies.

Are they mini-psychopaths in the making? Are they simply modelling what seems to be effective and/or rewarded behaviour? Do they have Stockholm Syndrome? I really have no idea, and maybe it is a mixture of all three.

But if they are not psychopaths, then they are almost more culpable, because they have set aside their ethics and morals to do things they know to be deleterious to others.

The psychopath doesn’t know any different.

Disclaimer: I stress that I am not a clinician and hence this is the opinion of a layperson – a keen amateur diagnostician, as I like to refer to myself.

Further information on this topic can be found in the fascinating book The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronsson). There are a whole load of resources at Amazon. And as always, Wikipedia provides us with information on the Hare psychopath test.

If you like this posting you might also like When organisations turn Cannibal and Swimming with Sharks.

to restructure or not to restructure…

30 07 2011


That is the question.

Often a new executive or manager coming into an organisation will restructure. This has the effect of looking like a “go-getter” action sort of person who is getting things done, addressing the issues and making changes.

International literature indicates that a restructure hold an organisation back by 12 months. A merger or demerger has an 18 month impact. For that period of time staff are busily working out their roles in relation to others, reporting structures, remaking committee structures and reporting lines, budget lines and delegations, policies and procedures, remaking relationships with other units – a significant productive-work-time cost. While time is spent reforming the organisation, other innovations get put on hold. Meanwhile your competitors may be working on their product and service innovations.

On top of that there may be direct financial costs: new staff and executives, new letterhead, business cards, websites, signage. The effect on staff of restructures and particularly frequent restructures is cynicism and change-fatigue (leading to change-resistance), particularly if a “spill and fill” methodology is employed. Such a method can also cost significantly in payouts for those who are retrenched as part of the restructure.

So why would you restructure? It is not always a bad idea – sometimes restructures can make a quantum leap for the organisation.

1. When the current structure doesn’t actually work. This may be because the industry has changed, but it may also be that the current structure has grown over time rather than having been designed to fit organisational outcomes.

2. To align with the CEO’s mental map. For the CEO to have a good grip on the organisation and an understanding about work flows and process flows, it does need to align with their mental understanding of how organisations work. This is probably the least easy reason for staff to understand.

3. To cut costs through significant savings. As noted above, there are very significant costs inherent in a restructure, so the savings predicted by the new structure need to be significant. As opposed to the immediate costs of a restructure, the benefits can flow long-term – providing you aren’t going to restructure next year and the year after….ad infinitum. Cost savings might be realised through eliminating a unit or function, or through merging two or more units. However these need to make sense from an organisational point of view – eliminating the R&D section because they are costly and not directly linked to an income stream is not going to help the organisation long-term.

4. If the industry or the goals have moved. If the organisation is undergoing significant change in purpose, a restructure might be necessary to change the direction. When Nokia changed from manufacturing rubber boots, cables and consumer electrical products into focussing on electronics, it would have been necessary to restructure to meet the needs of the new industry.

Have you been through a restructure, merger or split recently? Has the dust has settled, has it worked? Did it achieve what it was meant to achieve? Was the process well managed?


23 07 2011

Bad day at the office?

In an ideal world, we would all be happy and unstressed all the time. We would deal with other with respect and kindness, and would be treated the same in return. If this is the world you live in, please email me and tell me where this place exists.

In reality however, we all have bad days – some more than others. Some in fact seem to be permanently in a bad mood. And that might be a nice way of explaining away their behaviour. No names will be mentioned to protect the guilty.

The evidence linking positive morale with motivation and performance in the workplace (and in life) is inaarguable. But this also works the other way – a negative work environment has detrimental effects on performance. And it is not just that people feel demotivated and less enthusiastic – it actually affects their ability to do the tasks required of them.

In the July 2010 British Medical Journal, Professor Rhona Flin of the University of Aberdeen cited a series of studies demonstrating that being the recipient of rudeness – or even just witnessing rudeness at work – can make you more likely to make a mistake. Students who were insulted prior to performing a series of memory tasks performed worse than the control sample.

Perhaps this is obvious. Workplace bullies the world over know if you pick on someone you can push them to make errors. Usually as managers, we are told we need to deal with bullying for OHS reasons. But this series of studies link the workplace culture and the way workers treat each other to performance. And you don’t have to be the one bullied to make the mistake – you only need to be a witness.

Prof Flin referred to the risks inherent in medical mistakes and used the example of an operating theatre. But the evidence is not limited to the medical field. A US study in a department of transportation found that workplace incivility affected not only job satisfaction, but also the effectiveness of quality programs aimed at teamwork, customer focus and continuous improvement. Decision making and team work was found to be negatively affected by rudeness and incivility in a study of high school students. A quick search of reveals over 30,000 hits.

Generally, we all want to feel what we are doing is important and respected. We want to feel we are doing a good job. We want to work in a positive and supportive environment – and to be positive and supportive ourselves.

If only “the others” wouldn’t get in our way.

When organisations turn cannibal

21 07 2011

Many years ago I worked for a boss who fits all the criteria for “psychopath in the workplace”. He, and the place I worked, shall remain nameless for the purpose of this blog! (Disclaimer: If one of my former bosses is reading this and worried it is them – the fact you are worried means it is not you.)

This man ran a small organisation with four different operational arms. I can only suspect he was worried about his managers getting together and overthrowing him (much as he had done to the previous CEO) because the culture he encouraged was for each of the managers to attack the other managers’ units as a way of deflecting attention and negative focus from their own. To say that the organisational culture in this workplace was toxic is an understatement. When a manager came through your office you hid whatever you were doing and said nothing of any value to them at all. Non-cooperation was the order of the day. Staff turnover was endemic – people couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Years later I had risen through the ranks and happened to work alongside one of the “other” managers from this workplace. Her view on the experience was illuminating. She did what she had to do to survive and to keep her staff safe – as we all did. Imagine how effective the organisation could have been if everyone had been focussed on achieving organisational goals instead of cannibalising each other.

So a recent Forbes India article about leadership intrigued me. There were of course the usual “bad” manager types (Sociopaths, Opportunists and Chameleons) but one of the “positive” leadership types – Achiever – also had some cautionary tales attached to it.

The Achiever, according to the article, is highly prized for reaching goals and achieving outcomes. However, they tend to have a shorter term, insular view of their goals. An example given was shutting down investment in R&D as a cost-saving measure. Very effective in the short-term, but ham-strings the organisation in the medium to long-term.

Another example is where the achiever is competing against internal competitors. They do things that benefit their unit (and disadvantage other units) without understanding or perhaps caring about the broader organisation. Short term personal gain – their unit is working well, they may look good – but causing problems for the organisation.

Management book “Think One Team” uses the example of a jelly bean company (one of my former staff called the book “Jelly Bean Dreaming”) to illustrate how silos that compete against each other and don’t have an organisation-wide view actually work against the company.

While silos exist for a reason – the coalition of like services into units makes sense organisationally – silos that don’t see themselves as achieving for the whole organisation, or worse, compete with each other and actively disadvantage each other, equal a dysfunctional organisation.