Archive for the ‘Organization Culture’ Category

I heard Tom Peters proclaim this, without the question mark, in early 1996 while attending a conference in town.  It was intriguing and thought provoking.  When you’re a thought leader and helping launch a new magazine called Fast Company (2nd issue), you can say things like that.  His point was to hire people that are different, even very different than you.   On the surface it sounds like an interesting idea.

In my last post I talked about “surface-level” diversity, which refers to observable differences.   In contrast, “deep-level” diversity refers to attributes that are less obvious but can be inferred over time after more direct experience.   My simple personal model encompasses the following categories in descending order: thinking style, personality, and beliefs and values.   Unlike observable differences, the negative effects of these differences appear to increase over time.

Arguing about how to do something (task conflict) is usually the result of competing thinking styles, frames of reference, and past experiences.  If managed well, this conflict can result in a better way to do to things.

Not getting along is a different matter.  Personality conflicts, clashes, incompatibility, whatever you want to call it, is much more difficult to manage.  Relationship conflicts can create more severe problems and ultimately result in reduced effectiveness.

Seldom is there a simple explanation for conflict.  Throw in beliefs and values and things can really heat up.  Next time you have a meeting; try using some of these topics for icebreakers: politics, religion, capital punishment, or abortion.

People naturally avoid stress and anxiety (not to mention fear), especially leaders.  That’s why Rosabeth M. Kanter stated in Men and Women of the Organization that leaders create other leaders in their own image.

Tim Cook and Steve Jobs

Do organizations really want deep differences?  If you consider that most organizations have a set of corporate values they want people to adhere to, the answer becomes more obvious.  The phrase “organizational fit” is even more revealing.  If deep differences were really desirable, the phrase “fit” wouldn’t exist.

Okay Tom Peters. I’m sorry to say that while telling people to hire other people who scare them is provocative, in practice, it‘s unrealistic,  impractical, and really kind of scary.

From Layoutsparks.comOf course my favorite answer is “it depends.”   There is no shortage of phrases or statements on company websites that promote the benefits of differences in the workforce. To be effective and realize the benefits though, the workplace needs to have programs and processes in place to leverage these differences. More simply said, a diverse workforce also requires inclusive workplace.

So what differences are we talking about?   While various descriptors can be found on company websites, the best measure of desired differences shows up in hiring practices. Based on my own experience, the primary focus areas are Male/Female and White/Minority.  Even  though some Equal Opportunity Employer statements are very specific:  “…race, religion, color, sex, age, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, citizenship status, veteran status or other legally protected characteristics;”  I have never seen targets that include religion, marital status, sexual orientation, or any other less obvious characteristic.

Okay, so in an attempt to hire and promote a diverse workforce, organizations use “surface-level diversity” factors, which refer to observable attributes.  Even using only these two factors, probabilities kick in to encompass differences in the less apparent  factors.

So what difference do these surface-level differences make?  Below are some of the advantages and challenges. I say “some” because it is not an all-inclusive list.

Surface-Level Diversity Differences



  • Their existence provides evidence of equal opportunity employment practices.
  • Potential hires view the organization as more representative.
  • When addressing more complex tasks and problems, the differing viewpoints, ideas, experiences, etc., can provide higher quality solutions.

Note: Knowledge work has been on the rise for quite some time resulting in more complex work.

  • Based on similarity-difference issues, teams in their early stages may feel a negative impact, but these tend to disappear as members learn more about each other.
  • When addressing simple problems or tasks, the broad range of viewpoints becomes more of a hindrance.
  • Fault lines can occur in diverse groups when informal subgroups form based on similarities.  Research has shown that the potentially detrimental effects of subgroups can be offset with training and awareness that teams may benefit from their diversity.

I talked with an HR Director in a US company who was concerned about a group of male Chinese scientists and technical professionals that continually hung out together in the research facility and only spoke their language.  So, is this good or bad?  A better question may be “In what ways in this good and bad?   It’s not the intent of this post to answer that question, but rather to incite thinking about how to discern the positive and negative impacts of surface-level differences.

There are numerous models that demonstrate the range and depth of differences in individuals.  I chose to use the “text book” terms of surface-level and deep-level diversity for simplicity.  In part 2, we’ll explore the latter and how those differences are viewed. What do you think, “desirable or not?”

When I pose the question above to people about the risk management experiences they have had in their organizations, they always say that it’s really more about risk elimination.  These are typically larger organizations and risk management, done well, is a prudent and necessary activity.  So why do they say “elimination?”

Definitions are adapted from Wikipedia.
Risk management is the identification, assessment, and prioritization of risks (the effect of uncertainty on objectives)  followed by coordinated and economical application of resources to minimize, monitor, and control the probability and/or impact of unfortunate events or to maximize the realization of opportunities. Risks can come from uncertainty in financial markets, project failures, production, legal liabilities, credit risk, accidents, natural causes and disasters as well as deliberate attack from an adversary or events of uncertain root-cause.

Sounds like pretty important stuff.

In essence, risk management is a process:

  • identify, characterize, and assess threats
  • assess the vulnerability of critical assets to specific threats
  • determine the risk (i.e. the expected consequences of specific types of attacks on specific assets)
  • identify ways to reduce those risks
  • prioritize risk reduction measures based on a strategy

In typical risk management, once risks have been identified and assessed, there are four basic techniques for managing the risk.

  • Avoid (eliminate, withdraw from or not become involved)
  • Reduce (optimize – mitigate)
  • Share (transfer – outsource or insure)
  • Retain (accept and budget)

I believe that what I and many others have experienced in “risk management” is actually an abbreviated two-step process:

  • Identify any risk/threat
  • Avoid it (eliminate, withdraw from or not become involved)

What is the effect of this approach on the larger organization?  How does it impact performance, moral, commitment, engagement, or whatever measure you choose to use?

Incite: Perhaps the “Two-Step” Risk Management process itself is another risk that needs to be managed.

I have wanted to write this post for some time now, but for some reason have been putting it off.  On May 27, 2011, however, for the first time in US history,  a bill was signed into law by a mechanical autopen at the direction of President Obama who was in Europe. This historic event, and dare I say a great money saver, provided the inspiration I needed.

About fifteen years ago, while in graduate school, I was tasked with developing a model to explain organization dynamics. At the time I was working in a manufacturing environment so the human-machine interface was obvious. The manufacturing equipment was part mechanical, part electrical, and the factory was supported by IBM mainframes, DEC Minicomputers, and other smaller computers. Supervisors were equipped with shortwave radios and beepers for more effective communication. Personal computers had started to enter the workplace in 1981 accompanied by dot matrix printers and later, ink pen plotters. For me, the most obvious concept was the CYBORG Model.

I specifically remember one of the first outbursts against the invasion of the Cyborgs that populated the model. In the late 1980’s we had hired Dr. Wayne Dyer to come to the world’s largest factory of its kind and speak to the salaried workforce in the auditorium. Within minutes after his opening remarks, someone’s beeper went off.  Dr. Dyer abruptly stopped his planned talk and went into a ten minute rant about “electronic leashes” He chastised the group for being slaves to technology and not taking personal responsibility for deciding when to turn it off. I wonder how he feels today.

Technology began to evolve at an ever increasing pace. Palm Pilots were the Personal Digit Assistants (PDA) of choice, but were later eclipsed by the BlackBerry, with other models spanning the gap. Car phones became mobile phones and entered the workplace. Productivity steadily increased as did distraction.

“Crackberries” soon began showing up in meetings. They tended to be the higher level managers that the company had chosen to supply with the technology. The behavior of checking the device increased in frequency.

As technology continued its whirlwind advance, computers became more useful and cell phones smarter. Our ability to connect with others increased exponentially as did our ability to disconnect on a personal level.

It’s not uncommon today to see more than one person in a meeting checking emails, text messages, or even just entertaining themselves as Cyborgs. A bigger complaint, one I have experienced myself, is the one-on-one meeting with the “manager” who during the course of the meeting will glance at his computer screen for incoming email, check her cell phone for text messages or take an incoming call, and yes, even answer the “land-line” phone.

What has happened? In science fiction it’s called assimilation. Have we become assimilated by the technology? All technology devices I am aware of have On/Off switches.  Could Dr. Wayne Dyer’s rant in the 1980’s been a foreshadowing, a warning about the future?

As much as I observe and sometimes criticize Cyborg behavior, I am not immune from it. I would not be able to function without my laptop; and just recently I was seduced by the Sirens of the smart phone. My rational was that I needed mobile access to my email when I traveled. Little did I realize that the lure of its capability would capture so much of my time and attention – the Android may well be the cousin of the Cyborg.

I haven’t even addressed the Internet or the World Wide Web. And now that Web 2.0 has arrived, perhaps the entire concept of the human-machine interface is changing. Check out this popular 4:31 minute video by Professor Wesch and pay special attention to the ending messages. It’s called Web 2.0… Machines are Us/ing Us.

Incite: To what degree have you been assimilated? When personally connecting with other people at work, can you control or even shut down your machine-side?  What can you do to show others that they are more important than your technology?

Our perceptions, our knowledge, our beliefs, i.e. our mind sets, are the result of patterns we have created in our brains over time.  On one hand they are a good thing because they are efficient and they require little thought.  Imagine having to pull out a map or use your GPS every time you wanted to drive home from a familiar location.  On the other hand, according to Dr. Edward Miller, Dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University, 90% of people who have coronary bypass surgery do not change their lifestyles.  Why is this?  The patterns we create in our brains are wired, eventually hard wired, and difficult to change – they can become mental traps

What’s the key to avoiding restrictive mental traps? Pattern-switching – it’s the ability to switch over and see things in a different way and create new connections.  It is the basis for insight, learning, and dare I say wisdom – eventually. Pattern switching is much more difficult for the “close minded” person.  The “open minded” individual who is also open to influence has greater success.

I used to have an open mind, but my brains kept falling out.  ~Steven Wright

So let’s get back to the original question – what is the most powerful  mind changer?  Humor – it’s the most straightforward and obvious expression of the ability to switch patterns. It’s one we seldom resist. With humor, we suddenly see or think of something in an unexpected new way, and it makes us laugh, or at least chuckle.

I think the power of the mental process that underlies humor trumps logic and reason. Logic and reason help us explain things and figure them out –  humor changes them.

Note: For a more deliberative approach to pattern-switching, see The Medici? Effect.

Incites: Many managers have an open door policy. To be effective, they also need an open mind policy. When you have a different point of view, do you ask other people about the thinking, the experiences, the story behind theirs?  How can you connect the two different perspectives to create a new connection. For example: A physicist speaking with a minister – If heat rises, wouldn’t Heaven be hotter than Hell?

The “elephant in the room” is a common expression used in organizations for an obvious issue that is being ignored and going unaddressed. The reference to elephant suggests that the issue would normally be impossible to overlook.  Some people even add the color pink to emphasize its obviousness. Those who pretend that the elephant is not there tend to deal with smaller or less relevant issues.  So the question is why. Note: Some people mistakenly use the expression “white elephant;” it has a totally different meaning.

There are number of potential reasons. One is that the issue is so large, overwhelming, or complicated, that no one wants to try to deal with it.  Or, the problem may be associated with bad news, and few people want to be the bearer. Bad news is associated with negative emotions, and we know that negative emotions are associated with the messenger, even if not consciously.

That’s why sayings like “don’t kill the messenger,” “don’t stir the pot,” and “don’t be a trouble maker” have been around for so long.  This poster contains one of my favorites – it’s an old Moroccan saying.

So how do you deal with an elephant in the room? I would love to say I have the perfect answer. Actually I would like to say I have a good answer. Unfortunately, organizations and the environments in which they exist are so complex that it is difficult for me to provide any answer in which I would have great confidence.

The basic approach however is 1) name/acknowledge; 2) address/confront, and 3) solve/overcome.

Even after calling attention to an issue, there is no guarantee that it will be addressed, let alone solved, especially if it’s a complex issue with no easy answer.  There’s a reason it became an elephant in the first place. At least by talking about it, you have taken the first step –  better you than the elephant.

Incite: What elephants exist in your organization? Is it okay, even encouraged to talk about them?  If not, what can you do to make it okay?  What method do you use to address them?

It’s Monday morning, five minutes past nine, the six staff meeting attendees are discussing their weekend activities.  The manager looks down at the agenda, looks at the clock on wall and says in a controlled but somewhat impatient tone “Okay, let’s get this meeting started.”

Actually, the meeting has started, but not in the eyes of the task focused manager.  The employees are reconnecting on a personal level prior to getting into the content of the agenda.  If the manager understood the importance of both relationship and task, he may have asked something like “So, before we continue, what was the most surprising or positive experience someone had this weekend?”  Or, using an approach that also connects the participants to the work, “Now that everyone seems refreshed from the weekend, what work are you most excited about this week?” (Hopefully, there would be answer; if not, there’s other work to do.)

This is “connection before content” in its simplest form.  It’s important enough to be consciously aware of and to plan for.  In longer or larger meetings, it is useful to determine the desired outcomes from both a business (task) and people (relationship) perspective.  This awareness ensures that connection exercises or activities are built into the design.

In early 2008, a colleague and I conducted focus groups to discover what made people feel connected.  The responses fell into three categories: 1) physical/environmental; 2) personal interaction; and 3) organizational practices and processes.  Below is one of the key findings:

A distinct impression that many believe when being asked to be part of a company, is that often means giving up something of one’s self; that being professional means being less human. Connecting on a personal level is critical to feeling connected on a business level.

“Connection before content” is not a new concept.  I have seen it described as a “Peter Block rule of thumb.”  Peter introduced the concept into the organization I was with in the early 2000’s. It is also addressed in his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging (2009) in Chapter 13, p.146, in a broader and deeper societal context.

Before diving into the agenda, citizens need to be connected to one another. Whenever we enter a room, it is with doubt and a vague feeling of isolation. Connecting citizens to each other is not intended to be just an icebreaker, which is fun yet does little to break the isolation or create community. Icebreakers will achieve contact but not connection. Connection occurs when we speak of what matters about this moment. This is done most easily with questions.

While not a new concept, it’s one that’s worth repeating, both for use in the organizations in which we work, and in the communities in which we live.

Incite: As an employee, do you purposefully maintain the connections you have and build new ones? If you manage others, do you understand the importance of personal connections? Do you allot time in your meetings for them to occur?  Do you also ask the right questions to connect people to the work, higher purpose, and future possibilities?

Additional Resources: In addition to Peter Block’s book mentioned above, another book, Fired Up or Burned Out (2009) by Stallard, Dewing-Hommes and Pankau, provides a comprehensive model of the connected organization without calling attention to it in the book’s description.