Taking Your Culture From Good to Great

I recently had a discussion with the CEO of a large East Coast hospital system. She was relatively new in the job and was lamenting that her prior organization, where she had been the COO, seemed to have operated much more effectively than the one she had taken over. 

As we began drilling down into the issues she was experiencing, she noted that employee morale was low and patient satisfaction was only average (as identified through surveys), and there seemed to be a general lack of concern from key employees that these were important issues. Additionally, she observed the creation of silos and a CYA mentality, in which a culture of blame existed, rather than one of mutual problem-solving. 

One example she provided was how nurses on one of the nursing stations were blaming housekeeping for the general untidiness of the area, but doing little on their watch to make things better. It was easier to blame than to problem-solve. This blame, and counter-blame, was unproductive, yet no one was taking responsibility or ownership to make the environment better for employees or for patients. Furthermore, she was alarmed that a few good employees had recently left the system for jobs elsewhere. It was clear to the new CEO that she was navigating through a depressed culture—a result of the absent accountability.  

Everyone wants to be associated with a winner, not a whiner. When differentiating between winners and whiners, the most important differentiator is also the simplest: accountability! 

When problems arise, and persist, it is common to hear employees say that “no one is being held accountable.” This is often perceived in a punitive sense, with the assumption that there must be someone to blame for problems not being solved. This attitude is one in which employees are always looking outward, rather than inward, for solutions. While the process of creating a culture of accountability can be arduous, the steps to be taken are easy to understand and are generally related to leadership. 

As we explored the creation of a culture of accountability with the CEO, we discussed the necessary steps that leaders must take to be successful. These are, in order: 

  1. Leaders must themselves have a clear understanding of the mission and goals of the organization. 
  2. Leaders must have the authority to create a culture of accountability in their department or organization. They must also have the support to make the changes necessary to transform the culture.
  3. Leaders must have the right people in the right positions. Changing a culture is not easy; not everyone has the courage, nor skill set, necessary to drive change.
  4. Leaders must clearly articulate their expectations and create an environment in which the goals of their department align with the goals of the organization. These expectations include standards related to the quality, quantity, and timeliness (QQT) that leaders expect, and include metrics for measuring success. 
  5. Leaders must identify owners of the goals and objectives.
  6. The goals must be communicated throughout the department or organization.
  7. Owners of goals must have a cadence of meetings for regular review of goal accomplishment, relative to expectations, and revise goals when necessary.
  8. Rewards and recognition must become part and parcel of the process.

In our discussions with the CEO, we noted that the most important aspect when creating a culture of accountability is to sustain the effort until it becomes institutionalized. Too many organizational initiatives begin with a bang and end with a whimper, as poet T.S. Eliot famously wrote. Finally, while accountability is often associated with some kind of punitive action, efforts to instill accountability in the culture are much more likely to be successful by having the right people in the right places, and rewarding behavior that approximates the desired results. The new CEO is currently in the process of implementing our recommendations. We are confident that she will be successful!

For information on how we can assist your team, contact us at: MyronBeard@BeardExecutiveConsulting.com

From the Ashes: Bringing New Life to a Low-Performing Team

Situation: A newly appointed head of a large, dynamic organization was concerned with how effectively her team was performing. Through her onboarding process, she learned that not all of the members on her new team were satisfied with the team’s functioning. This was causing division within the team and the creation of dysfunctional silos in the organization. In order to have a more comprehensive and objective understanding of her team, she requested that all direct reports participate along with her in Beard Executive Consulting’s High-Performing Team webinar.

The DNA of Leadership Webinar Series: A solution for teams that are experiencing less-than-satisfactory results, Beard Executive Consulting offers 12 unique DNA of Leadership Webinars to solve the issues that organizations face on a daily basis. The Building High-Performing Teams webinar was the ideal solution for this particular team, providing an interactive way for them to reengage and gain essential characteristics required to thrive and survive. Through a case study, custom assessments, and personalized content, the 90-minute format gives leaders information and tools to develop behaviors that are targeted for the positions they hold.

The Process: Prior to the webinar, each team member and their new manager were given an online survey in which they could rate the team’s performance from their own perspective. In addition, team members were sent pre-reading to provide context for the webinar. The meeting was conducted in a live, online setting in order to optimally accommodate everyone’s busy schedules.

The Webinar: To enhance learning, a digital workbook was used during the webinar and the manager was provided with a leader’s manual to help guide implementation of changes post-webinar. The presentation identified two critical metrics that were found to be lower than others for this team, based on the overall survey results:

  • Productivity: The degree to which a team’s output is achieved in a quality manner that is timely and meets the expectations of the initiative.
  • Vitality: The degree to which team members experience cohesiveness and engagement, and have high morale.

This discovery meant that the team as a whole was functioning at a level that was far below both the training and backgrounds of individual team members, and required focused efforts in these areas in order to improve and become high-performing. The team then learned about the key components that were required for this level of change, and gained an understanding of the areas that required improvement.

New Life as a High-Performing Team: Based on the results of the webinar and guidance from Beard Executive Consulting, the new leader assembled a small subgroup of her team to create and implement a plan to ensure that the team would become more productive and would do so in a way that increased engagement and cohesiveness. A six-month follow-up survey found that the team had improved in both metrics and that team members had become much more involved with, and supportive of, each other. A positive side effect was that the new leader had gained the respect and admiration of those on her team.   

For information on how you can use this webinar to assist your team, contact us at: MyronBeard@BeardExecutiveConsulting.com.

Toxic Employees—Does Your Team Need a Cleanse?

The president of a company engaged me to help him understand what appeared to be an ongoing conflict between two of his key employees. A year earlier, the president had hired his “dream team”—a group of individuals whom he believed could change the face of the company in the marketplace. Each of these hires had been very successful previously and, on paper, had all the credentials needed to make the company a standout and move it ahead of the competition. But that didn’t happen. What happened instead was that two members of the “dream team” became embroiled in bitter disputes that involved manipulation, back-biting, self-righteousness, over-confidence, intimidation, unrealistic certainty of their position, and more. Neither of the employees in question had behaviors that rose to the level of termination, and both had levels of productivity and quality of work that were exemplary. Their contentious relationship was only a distraction at first, but it began to involve others in choosing sides and creating divisiveness on the team. The president recognized that something had to be done.

Toxic Workers

The conflict the president was witnessing is associated with behaviors of “toxic” employees. Toxic employees are ultimately quite harmful to an organization because their undermining, unethical, or questionable behaviors can spread to other employees. However, the complexity in dealing with toxic employees is that they are often high performers. In fact, according to recent research, compared with the average employee, the toxic employee is often more productive as well as more likely to better follow processes, rules, and procedures, often with rigid adherence. Although these employees’ behaviors may be incredibly disruptive, their ability to be productive—and appear (to management) to be acting in the best interest of the company—keeps them employed. It is only when enough damage has been done and the complaints from other employees reach a fevered pitch that management is forced to take action.

Characteristics of Toxicity

According to the research, the toxic employee is characterized by three major traits:

  1. Over-confidence: Toxic employees appear to have supreme confidence and the sense that there is nothing they can’t accomplish. Over time, not having a sense of limits or boundaries can cause them to engage in behaviors that may verge on misconduct.
  2. Self-regarding: Toxic employees consistently put their interests or functions above those of their colleagues. They demonstrate arrogant behaviors that suggest their approach is the only right one, and that they will prevail at all costs. They will not demonstrate any collaborative or supportive behaviors with their colleagues. In this sense, they exhibit a low level of emotional sensitivity, similar to both narcissists and psychopaths.
  3. Rule-follower: Toxic employees will regularly insist that their adherence to the rules of the organization is the foundation for their differences with others. They may claim that rules should not be broken and will steadfastly follow them whenever it suits their purposes. Interestingly, these same ostensible rule-followers are more likely to be terminated for actually breaking the rules.

Toxic Effects

Because toxic employees are usually productive, many of their behaviors are likely to be overlooked or accepted as the price of having a “diva” on the team. This rationale can also be used to discount the early warning signs reported by their disgruntled coworkers. The clever toxic employee can even make others feel responsible for conflicts that the toxic worker has initiated. They are the kind of people who blame others for having a white carpet if they spill red wine on it!

As if having toxic employees were not bad enough, the situation is often exacerbated by their ability to “recruit” others to follow in their footsteps. Their intimidation, persuasiveness, and convincing sense of being right have the effect of causing others to fall in line. This becomes a vicious cycle, whereby toxic individuals and their followers reinforce detrimental behaviors and compete increasingly with others in the organization! Another downside is that those having close, regular contact with toxic employees have a higher chance of being compromised and terminated themselves, compared with those who work with non-toxic employees.

Antidotes

What is the best solution for managing and dealing with a toxic employee? If you identify a toxic employee in your workplace, your best strategy is to take the high road. The odds of turning a toxic employee into a good employee are low, at best. In fact, a company is better off replacing a toxic employee with an average employee than spending time and energy trying to transform the toxic one. Of course, prevention is the best solution. Note the predictors and traits of toxicity discussed above and do not hire candidates who display these traits. If your team needs a cleanse, as with the president and his two problem employees discussed earlier, a manager should bring the team together to remind them of their shared goals. By re-establishing the vision for the team, managers can bolster the productivity and morale of employees, while also maintaining the effectiveness and credibility of management, thereby decisively counteracting any harmful behaviors.

Beware the Charming Psychopath

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Once again, Bob told our manager that he would be willing to take on the largest and highest-profile project in the business. Pleased with the eagerness of our coworker to volunteer, our manager smiled and gave him a thumbs-up at his initiative. But the rest of us on Bob’s team shuddered inside. When our coworker committed to the project, he was essentially committing the rest of us, because he was not about to lift a finger to get the project to completion. We knew that working with Bob meant we would be cajoled, conned, manipulated, shamed, and otherwise maneuvered into doing tasks none of us had signed up for. We also knew that, upon successful completion of the project, Bob would take all the credit.

At first glance, an outsider would wonder why we did not have the chutzpah to stand up to Bob, walk away, tell our manager, or choose to take any number of other actions that would circumvent the inevitable problems ahead. In hindsight, we would have those same thoughts. How is it that a coworker, and an equal on the organizational chart, can get away with doing so little work and still get so much credit?

Psychopaths in the Workplace

Employees with personality traits like Bob’s are known as “high-functioning psychopaths.” Although Bob’s behavior is characterized by traits of psychopathy, they are not to the degree of individuals who are institutionalized perpetrators of crime and punishment. Instead, high-functioning psychopaths are driven individuals whose success is often at the expense of others and who display the following types of behaviors:

  • Consistent and persistent manipulation of others, especially those who get in their way.
  • Masterful deception (exaggerating or outright lying) to get their way.
  • Crafty deflections (distractions or half-truths) when confronted about their behavior.

With regard to accountability, charming psychopaths can be so slippery that pinning them down is like “nailing jello to a wall.” You often sense that something is wrong, but you just can’t put your finger on what it is. The truth is that employees like Bob can be extremely charming and personable at the same time they are being ruthless and vindictive. Charming psychopaths are particularly good at managing up, and those higher in the ranks of the organization somehow miss seeing the underlying—and undermining—behaviors.

Psychopathic Behavior

Unlike many personality disorders that are rooted in anxiety, the psychopath has difficulty feeling at all. They crave power and control over people. The hallmark of the psychopath is an inability to experience remorse or empathy. Often, they themselves have no feelings at all. In this regard, the only relationships the psychopath is able to sustain are those that narcissistically serve his/her own interests. These relationships involve a truly sadomasochistic dynamic, in which the recipient of the psychopath’s behavior tolerates the abuse and manipulation that the psychopath dishes out. However, even these relationships tend to be short-lived.

In contrast to the anxiety normal humans feel under pressure, psychopaths become fearless and more focused on their target or goal. The psychopath has an uncanny ability to read people and exploit their vulnerabilities. Hence, in the workplace, the psychopath is able to identify the most vulnerable of coworkers and exploit them to his/her end. They are guiltless, callous, self-centered, and can be superficially charming. Because of their unbridled confidence, they can be very attractive, initially, with their charm and stories of success. They can have the very characteristics that can appeal to executives in management, who can confuse their superficial charm as charismatic leadership. In fact, it is not unusual to see high-functioning psychopaths in the highest levels of an organization. Their focus and ability to get things done, even nefariously, can serve them well.

How Corporate Psychopaths Work

In our example of Bob volunteering himself and, by default, his coworkers to take on a very important, high-profile project, we see Bob’s craft at work at a high level. Although Bob may attend an initial meeting aimed at organizing the project, do not expect him to leave that meeting with any meaningful responsibilities, if any at all. As a master of deflection, he may say things like, “Mary would be great to handle those details,” or “Those issues fall right into John’s skillset.” In these unwanted, unsolicited, and unauthorized delegations of duty are implied compliments to his coworkers, making them difficult to oppose, especially publicly. Initially, Bob’s employees were taken off-guard by his charm until later, when it was too late and they realized they had been duped. When requested to take on any responsibilities himself, Bob will have any number of reasonable-sounding excuses to decline. However, he will want to be at the progress meetings with the manager and may even facilitate those meetings to make certain he appears to be in charge and receives the credit.

Behind the scenes, Bob is constantly “stirring the pot” and creating dissension among team members, knowing that his lack of involvement will be overlooked in the midst of the dramas and conflicts he instigates. By creating confusion, Bob provides himself assurance that, if the project should fail, he has the team’s dysfunction to blame.

Three Ways to Deal

How do you deal with this kind of personality in the workplace? Keep in mind that the chances of psychopaths changing their behavior is nil! Corporate psychopaths have an entrenched personality style that allows them to incredibly adept at maneuvering and counter-maneuvering for self-serving purposes. So when you encounter high-functioning psychopaths, keep these tips in mind.

1. Distance Yourself

You do not want to be another body left in their destructive wake. As soon as you are able to identify any high-functioning psychopath (the sooner the better), work to distance yourself. You do not want to be on the same team or affiliated with them on any project. Decline opportunities to work together as politely as possible. If the psychopath is your manager, very quickly find another part of the organization in which to work—or another job!

2. Watch Your Back

Workplace psychopaths can be ruthless and have no trouble bending the truth or outright lying. Which is why confronting them comes with great risk. Remember, they are at their best at times when normal people are anxious and fearful. Confronting them will not lead to any changes in their behavior; and once confronted, they will actively set out to destroy you to coworkers, your manager, or anyone else who will listen to them.

3. Depersonalize

The greatest weapon that a psychopath has is to manipulate you in a way that makes you doubt the way you think about yourself, rendering you more vulnerable to his/her maneuvering. Remember that psychopaths’ behavior is about them, not about you, and do not take their compliments to heart any more than you take their condemnation to heart. You are no better or worse than when you first met them, and you are hopefully more aware. Do not lose a sense of who you are in working with them.

The bottom line is two-fold: first, you cannot change the behavior of high-functioning psychopaths; and second, you do not want to change your own behavior in response to theirs. Be aware, be on guard, and be yourself.

Hard Conversations? Just Do It!

Recently, a client called me to ask for my counsel regarding an upcoming performance discussion with one of his subordinates. He told me about the individual’s declining performance, including several instances of the employee failing to deliver on agreed-upon projects. The employee was contrite and apologetic, but his performance had not improved. In addition, the employee had experienced some personal problems over the past year, for which my client had made several allowances. It was clear that my client had delayed the discussion for some time and could delay no more. The time had come for a direct and unambiguous performance discussion.

My client expressed significant apprehension about having the discussion and asked my advice on how to handle the meeting.  Violations of company policy or ethical standards are easier to address because they are cut and dried. However, discussions about performance issues are not always as clear-cut. Such issues tend to be more about the behaviors of employees, which are more difficult to discuss because they may cause employees to feel defensive, embarrassed, or nervous.

My experience is that when leaders have faced difficult personnel decisions, they never say, “I wish I would have waited longer before taking action.” Quite the contrary! They always say, “I wish I would have taken action sooner.” The effects of waiting to take some kind of corrective action include loss of time and productivity. More important, leaders who are slow to address performance issues risk demonstrating a lack of credibility and confidence to subordinates and colleagues.

Why do managers consistently delay the timing and directness of difficult performance conversations? The major reason they procrastinate is a lack of self-confidence. They are uncomfortable having potentially tense and contentious discussions in which they do not feel in control of the outcome. In addition, I see leaders delay having these discussions because they want so much to be liked and admired that they would rather be taken advantage of than risk hurting someone’s feelings. The greatest error leaders can make is to lose sight that such conversations need to be unemotional reviews of the facts of the individual’s performance, not emotional displays of feelings.

There are three things managers need to keep in mind before having difficult performance discussions with their employees:

1: Data. Come to the meeting prepared with clear data about the individual’s performance. To have a productive performance discussion, it is critical for managers to have provided clear expectations for work behavior and responsibilities (including quality, quantity, and timeliness of efforts), as well as to have documented instances when expected behaviors or deliverables were not met.

2: Focus. Have a clear agenda about what you are going to discuss, and stick to it. Because the meeting will be based on facts and not opinions, the tone of the meeting should be professional and any degree of emotion should be minimal. The manager can always respond to difficult retorts by the subordinate by staying calm and guiding the discussion back to the facts at hand.

3: Plan. Prior to the meeting, decide with clarity what changes are required, what the expected outcomes should be, and by when you expect to see improvements. In meetings of such importance, it is unfair and unprofessional to make it up as you go. If the manager does not have a plan, including the consequences for failing to meet expectations, the outcome of the meeting will be sub-optimal. A less-than-good outcome is not beneficial for either the individual or the organization.

The key to having difficult performance discussions is preparation, along with a commitment to keeping the conversations factual, focused, and outcome-oriented. My client took this advice to heart and went into the meeting prepared with the facts, an agenda that he followed, and an outcome in mind. He kept the meeting factual and non-emotional; and though the discussion was not an easy one, the client and his subordinate left the meeting with a clear and unambiguous plan. Furthermore, it was agreed that if the subordinate followed the plan, he would be successful, but that if he wasn’t able to follow the plan, he would be either reassigned or terminated. As is often the case, my client’s post-meeting evaluation was, “I should have had this meeting a long time ago!”

The next time you are faced with having a difficult conversation, make sure to plan ahead, have data to support your positions, keep the discussion focused, and go into the meeting with an idea of the desired outcome. Being prepared will make these interactions more productive, and you will waste less time and energy worrying beforehand.