Caught Between A Rock And A Hard Place: Surviving In A Toxic Environment

“But you and I both know who our true enemy is. It is important for you to know that this is just a job to me, not a calling. I have a family to feed and nonmilitary employment is hard to come by. Surely you understand.”
From The Story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Michael Van Dyke

When theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in Nazi Germany in 1943 this is a quote from a prison guard to Bonhoeffer. This brief statement is very telling in several ways. First, at the outset it sets the tone they are both like-minded in their feelings about what is going on in their country. Second, there is almost an expression of despair (hopelessness?) on the part of the prison guard for the circumstances ruling Germany.

Often some people feel locked into their jobs. They feel locked into their life without any control. Their current job pays the bills and nothing is changing in their lives with little, if any, excitement attached for working in an environment that is supposed to express satisfaction in using their true gifts, skills, and talents. Why?

Remember the excitement people feel with starting a new job? What happens over time? At what point in time does management take responsibility for the slow decay of morale for not only individuals but the overall organization? I can spend five minutes talking with someone about their job and in that short amount of time I can get a good sense of the overall employee attitude. Further, this is typically a mirror image of what is going on in top leadership.

All to often, leadership gets bogged down in the nuts and bolts of running the organization and fails to see the bigger picture. In some organizations I have literally seen dozens of pages of metrics and the numbers that are redundant and (here’s the scary part) measure variables neither the rank and file employees or anyone in the organization for that matter can do anything about yet people are held accountable in some fashion for the metrics. That’s like saying to an employee, “By the way, you’re in charge of world peace and if you can’t get that, then be prepared to have a good reason why and what strategies you will use to improve next quarter.” This is a great illustration how to blow up employee morale.

You can’t survive in a toxic environment without getting poisoned a little at a time. It shows up in productivity. It shows up in a lack of creativity and initiative. It shows up in personal attitude. Nothing good ever comes from working in a toxic environment. This is especially tough on second chair leaders who usually are the stalwarts in an organization and do well many times not because of leadership but in spite of it.

The most logical way to deal with a toxic environment is to leave it and leave it cold. No part-time. No continuing relationship as a consultant. Just leave. Short of leaving employees who feel stuck need to find an outlet for their skills, gifts, and talents that used to be valued but are not. I know some pretty good employee actors who put on an exceptional show but inwardly they shake their heads at staff meetings and organizational webinars. How sad. Employee options are limited in this type of environment but the best advice short of leaving is to focus personal fulfillment outside the work environment all the while making preparations to go on to something more fruitful. Consider the time spent in a toxic environment as a “wilderness” where one can learn lessons in leadership for what NOT to do all the while looking to the one day you will really make a positive difference someplace else.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Organizational Change: “Congratulations! The operation was a huge success but unfortunately, the patient died.”

All too often, someone in an organization thinks something is a good idea but in reality it’s a trainwreck waiting to happen. The business world is strewn with examples of ideas that may have sounded good or even looked good on paper but in the end they were disastrous for the organization sometimes requiring major triage to keep the company afloat. How does a company know what’s a good idea and what isn’t? Go back to the basics and surprisingly, the basics is not the financial bottom line.

The core of any organization is the customer base, i.e. the people who buy the products or use the services. The question needs to be asked, “What’s in the best interest of the customer who is the end-user for what we do? In public safety the end users are the taxpayers and general public. In education, especially higher education, the end users are students. In healthcare the end users are the patients and the list goes on but some organizations don’t understand this. Some might even pervert this thinking.

For instance, consider the hypothetical where an institution of higher learning touts students as not customers but a product for end users of people who hire graduates. Extensive pandering is done in the best interest of the businesses who might possibly hire graduates but the businesses don’t pay the bills. They are secondary in the metric measuring food chain. Clearly, in the highly competitive nature of higher education what separates those organizations that are successful with those that are not is the bottom line of student enrollment metrics. If enrollment is down the bills and salaries aren’t going to be paid because the money isn’t coming in through tuition payments, student grants, or student loans. Prospective students will go to those institutions where services and teaching are exemplary especially in an age with rising costs. Cutbacks in staff and services will have a major effect no matter what witty marketing slogans are attached to them. Rest assured the customer base sees cutback situations for what they really are.

Another point to remember is that reputation is key. Burning bridges is an indication of organizational and/or personal hubris from within. Organizations that have a reputation of burning bridges in the community and losing high quality staff will not last long in the industry no matter how much rationalization is done to explain reduced customer satisfaction.

In a service related industry the customers will always remember how they were treated and how cutbacks personally affected them. Studies show there is more effect on an organization’s reputation by negative commentary than by positive commentary. Hence, the huge success of start-ups like Angie’s List.

When assessing the prudence of organizational change leaders need to first assess the impact on customers and not so much the short-term financial bottom line unless, of course, an outside takeover is looming in the not too distant future. Leaders need to trust the foundation and mission on which the organization is built to sustain them in lean times. Doing anything else can typically result in the following comment about change, “Congratulations! The operation was a huge success but unfortunately, the patient died.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pursuit of Excellence

Pablo Casals is one of the greatest cellists of our time. When he was in his 90’s he was asked by a reporter why he still practiced playing the cello six hours a day since he already achieved greatness in his field. His response? “Because I think I’m getting better.” Such is the grit of what comprises success.

Nothing comes easy. A person who wants to be successful somehow finds the inner strength to persevere, overcome obstacles or challenges, and then succeeds. That is the formula.

If we take a close look at those who have gone before us and were successful you will see this same scenario played out time after time. From where does the inner strength come for success through excellence? It depends on the individual but typically it is years in the making. It is the sum of everything that an individual has experienced and is willing to sacrifice no matter what the goal whether training for a marathon, losing excess weight, or completing a college degree. Often the words excellence and success are used together.

Finally, there is a common theme that runs through the excellence displayed by successful people and that is their passion. They have passion for what they do. They have passion to persevere. They have passion to live in the moment day by day forging their stamina in the crucible of time. They are totally immersed in the present not lamenting about past mistakes or thinking about future obstacles. In this way we see success built minute by minute, day by day, and week by week until finally the miracle of time does its work and results in excellence of the finished product. Passion, perseverance, excellence, and success. They are all interrelated.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Can Christian Leaders Lead in a Secular Organization?

Christian men and women who lead in private and public organizations inwardly deal with this issue. The challenges are plentiful, for sure. These challenges typically come in the form of ethical decisions that may come in conflict with one’s personal beliefs. Sometimes it is easier to lead from the second chair than those who are more directly in the spotlight within the organization. Still, a skilled leader can bring into practice personal values and ethics that are or can be aligned with the organization.

The real challenge is to keep one’s priorities straight without drinking the organizational Kool-Aid and being led to believe one needs to bleed whatever the organizational color is. Some of the biggest challenges relate to staff conduct and performance issues. Conduct issues are usually a slam dunk. Theft, discrimination, harassment, etc. typically fall under the purview with definitive rules and the consequences are pretty much cut and dried, i.e. termination. Performance issues tend to get a little fuzzy. Is the performance issue related to a lack of knowledge, skill, or training? Are metrics measuring what they should measure? What is the history of the employee? Are there any variables affecting performance that one cannot control? These are just a few of the questions that need to be asked but personal values in dealing with individuals is critical and calls for leaders to exercise discernment and wisdom.

In deciding staff cutbacks are the “problem children” considered first? What if the company marching orders for required staff cutbacks avoid dealing with the “problem children” who exist in management? Does the leader let productive employees go just by virtue their title is not associated with management?

From a Christian perspective there are tools to the leader’s toolbox that should be required, 1) Intentionality with spending time in scripture, 2) Having accountability with like-minded people, especially those who might also be in leadership, 3) Having a mentor available for advice and counsel, and 4) Spending time in prayer and meditation. These four are important or as scripture might indicate these have the advantage of providing the full armor of God to exist in an environment that is not friendly toward having good values. To do anything else is acquiescing to those things that are of this world.

Finally, there may come a time when a leader needs to decide whether to stay or leave the organization. I so get this. There needs to be a fundamental faith and belief that God is in control and can be trusted. Jer. 29:11 needs to be remembered on this one. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. “

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Dangers of Cliques in the Workplace

Friendships in the workplace setting can be great things to foster the team concept and a focused mindset on the goals of the organization. They can be a good thing in times of need for members who hit upon hard times where support is needed. Sometimes the group friendships go further than they should and the groups become these things we call cliques. The problem with cliques relates primarily to the element of exclusivity.

Exclusivity has a tendency to lend itself to an “us versus them” mentality. Taken to the extreme the group think is that anyone not in the group is undeserving of the group’s company. It might even be considered a special club in its own right with special criteria for membership. For the sake of morale leaders need to be aware of work group friendships and how it affects the organization. In over four decades of observing workplace dynamics the exclusivity of workgroup cliques have generally not be advantageous to the organization. When promotions, specialty assignments, or job reorganizations favor members of the workgroup cliques nothing good ever comes from it. Moreover, I have seen the social aspect of alcohol to be a central theme of many groups even if the group is physically active or works out together. In essence what happens is that clique group think rationalizes its own behavior.

When leaders put themselves in positions of being in their own workgroup clique that can be especially problematic. The “us versus them” mentality can really take a foothold and begin to erode the confidence of subordinates in leadership. When this happens the results are often lower morale, low employee initiative, reduced productivity, and sometimes internal sabotage and even anarchy with the staff in the form of push back with the small issues. Some leaders have used staff rotation in assignments to break up the work groups but there is a risk of taking people away from the jobs they’re good at. Monitoring work groups without being big brother is still the best way to ensure the overall health of the organization remains intact.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Taking a Closer Look at the Proverbial Glass Half Full

Consider the hypothetical of an organization that has a customer satisfaction rate over a period of several years that starts at 95% then goes to 90% then to 85%. The company then touts the fact that it has a high customer satisfaction rate and even decides to invest in billboard space to advertise the 85% rate. This is probably a great example of a company “putting spin” on a statistic but the obvious to those employees on the inside leaves them shaking their heads.

The fact remains there has been a significant drop in customer satisfaction that may or may not be recognized by upper management. Further, the question is begged why is 15% of the client or customer base not satisfied? That’s an important issue. Studies indicate that more damage is done by verbally dissatisfied customers than building up the organization by those who are approving. Hence, the importance of interpreting the decline and doing something about it.

Sometimes statistics can be spun but the best interests of the company needs to be considered before marketing gets a hold of some numbers and attempts to make things look rosy. The glass may look half full but a closer look sometimes reveals a crack in the glass that needs to be addressed and quickly.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Successful Conflict Management

Notice the title is not Successful Conflict Resolution? There is a difference. In all relational situations there runs the risk of conflict. Some conflicts will be small. Others will not. The mark of a good leader is not only discerning the core issues but knowing what motivates individuals as well.

The best organizations are not lopsided with yes people. There are differences in people and they should be explored. These enhance the overall flavor and success of the organization. Having different points of view has the benefit of viewing situations from different angles and then assessing the best course of action. Doing anything else exhibits myopic thinking.

Conflict management goes to the very core of problem solving and planning for the future. The best leaders 1) know the best and most desired end result, and 2) can read people well seeing what is important to each person on the decision-making team. The people end of it is hardest part.

It takes a long time, sometimes years of dealing with people, to get the knack of conversing with someone and zeroing in on what his or her motivation is. This is much different from someone’s personal agenda. Each team member brings to the table their own unique gifts, skills, talents, education, and experiences. When expressing their feelings or points of view this all comes out with opinions or ideas. When the team is deciding the best way to get from Point A to Point B all members have valuable ideas to share. Sometimes there is conflict and the good leader can actually manage the conflict to a successful conclusion or decision. The key is to reinforce the value of all individuals no matter what decision is made. If this was a conflict resolution topic one might say this is a win-win scenario but it’s not conflict resolution. It is conflict management. Conflict management is anticipating differences from the outset and guiding the team through them. See the difference?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment