Creating A Healthy Workplace — Part 1 — The Elephant In The Room

An actively engaged and satisfied employee base is at the root of a healthy business.  Absent that, results are unlikely to be as good as they could be.  One financial services client [1] was doing well in 2016, but employees felt very dissatisfied and underappreciated.  Within three months, we identified the problems that existed, overcame a history of distrust, and instituted significant change that led to greater success for the firm due to a more satisfied and engaged workforce.

In this paper, we outline the process by which any leader in an organization can identify and resolve issues that increase employee satisfaction and engagement, improve morale and organizational culture, and result in great financial success.

The Problem

How do you manage the ever-changing landscape of your business?  Do your employees feel content and motivated,?  Do they enjoy working for your organization?  Are they engaged, providing innovative solutions for your business and generating new ideas?  Are you confident that your productivity levels, sales and profits have reached their highest potential?  Have you received or are you considering seeking outside help to affect positive change to increase your business’s prospects?

Perhaps you are reading this because you are curious and wondering if you should make changes.  Maybe you are trying to: (1) make changes to increase employee satisfaction and engagement; (2) attract and retain talent or slow turnover in your organization; (3) figure out how to make organizational change that has positive impact; and/or (4) obtain the most from your existing talent.  And let us assume that you — an executive, department head, change agent, or human resources professional — are open to finding or are ready to identify solutions that will help your organization thrive today and well into the future.

If you are asking yourself why one should focus so much on internal forces when there are departments and leaders in your organization whose job it is to do this, or if employee satisfaction and engagement are on your list of responsibilities, you are not alone.  If you were alone, there would not be a market for consultants to help businesses!  The key is to remember that by providing a workplace to which employees enjoy coming, in which they feel that their ideas are heard and valued, and where they sense that they are part of something bigger, you can maintain long-lasting positive relations with your firm’s eco-system.

Why is your firm’s eco-system important? Your eco-system is the network — or circle — of those who make your company what it is.  Being at the helm is a true honor, privilege, and pain in the you-know-what.  You have deadlines, measurables, people to manage, answer to, and influence; perhaps you are on the speaking circuit or hosting client and board meetings regularly as well.  For purposes of this discussion, your key constituents fall into these four main buckets — employees, customers, shareholders, and outside influencers (analysts, media, etc.).

To keep everyone happy, we argue that employees must come first; this is a lesson learned from a revolutionary executive whose company went through the Tech Bubble Burst of 2000, and whose former employees still gather for annual reunions.  Former CEO of Brooktrout, Eric Giler’s argument was that, “if you take care of your employees and customers first, you will be taking care of your stockholders.” [2]  If those three constituent bases are happy, there is no doubt that the media — and those who have outside influence — will pick your company as a winner.  When this happens, the most talented people will want to work for your organization, thereby increasing the total number of talented people working at your company, and continuing the cycle.  Thus, a healthy eco-system has been created.  Moreover, it can be maintained even as times, organizational changes, and market disruptions occur.

Let us look at some of the known problems that can cause hiccups in a corporation.  Whether they occur individually or in combination, many factors can lead to disruption in a company eco-system.  For example, those who worked in technology (during the ’00 Tech Bubble Burst) or in financial services (during the ’08 financial crisis) know that market changes can lead to dramatic alterations in an organization even as course corrections are attempted.  Thus, in good times and in bad, companies grow and contract in order to adapt to the expansion and slowdowns caused by changes in the market.

  • These changes to the company result in changes to the corporate personality and culture, and can leave employees feeling disconnected. When contraction — or downsizing — occurs, employees who remain are often over-burdened with increased responsibility and affected by a sense of loss.
  • Management issues can also take a toll on an organization’s personnel. If relationships between leaders in an organization are fractured, or departments siloed, an “us vs them” mentality develops, which is hard to break. This can permeate an organization in damaging ways.
  • Finally, internal changes, reorganizations, and leadership complacency tend to throw dynamics off.

The problems above are compounded by a changing workforce demographic.  These include but are not limited to baby boomers on the verge of retirement, no clear lines of succession, and a millennial generation entering the workforce more prepared than other generations to take the world by storm.

In addition, while technology is needed and should form a seamless connection between members of an organization regardless of location, it can sometimes do the opposite and prevent the existence of a healthy team. In many instances, the way it is being used and/or has been rolled out can cause fear and uncertainty in people regardless of their position in the organization. For example, people often fear that technology will cost them their jobs or render them unproductive. Under those circumstances, rather than creating a seamless connection between people and technology — which would allow for better internal and external communications — the technology becomes dominant and the people become secondary.  Moreover, from top to bottom in an organization, the 24×7 connection technology makes possible can overwhelm people to such an extent that it discourages communication. When this happens, individuals can end up focusing on their tasks to the exclusion of connection to the organization as a whole.

Finally, the cost to the business when an employee decides to leave for any reason is likely far more than most executives and managers expect.  In fact, it is over double the person’s salary.  Further, we have observed that recommendations made by consultants result in loss of productivity and institutional knowledge, increased lay-offs and attrition, and eroding morale and employee engagement.  Add to that the cost of replacing employees — in excess of twice their salary according to SHRM (The Society for Human Resource Management) [3] — and your business has decreased its bottom line and, perhaps, is in worse shape.

As a result, no matter how well the business is doing on paper, when employees do not feel connected to the organization, revenue is not what it could be.  The good news is that there is always potential for greater sales and profit.   In addition, these issues are surmountable providing there is good management, great communications, as well as plans/ways to engage and include employees so hiccups do not grow into road blocks.  In fact, our experience suggests a resilient organization — regardless of size, industry and financials — is based on the ability to welcome change and ensure its employees feel engaged, valued and heard; such an organization has a strong sense of employee well-being.

 


[1] Erin Lubien & Judith F Feinleib, Changing the Culture at a Financial Services Company, Lubien-Feinleib Intelligent Consulting, 2016, http://lubienfeinleibconsulting.com/?page_id=398
[2] Eric Giler, Founder of Brooktrout, Inc., a Dialogic Inc. subsidiary and Nasdaq-traded communications technology company
[3] The Society For Human Resources Management, https://www.shrm.org/

Creating A Healthy Workplace — Part 2 — Solving the Problem

We have discussed the problem and the way in which it manifests in Part 1 of this paper.  Now, let us discuss the ways in which the problem can be solved.

Addressing the Issue(s)

The way in which business issues are addressed has a great deal to do with whether they are resolved successfully.  This can be done in-house or it can be outsourced.  In either case, it is essential that methodologies, process and techniques are sufficiently specific to maximize the prospect of lasting success (as is done by Lubien-Feinleib) rather than employing a broad-based approach.

First, the process that is not an exact science; it requires patience.  A leader who accepts the challenge of solving underlying business issues needs to be adaptable in order to produce change in an organization’s culture or personality.  Flexibility allows for his or her team to adopt and foster the process by which change can be made.  Teams that can adapt to new ideas and concepts, as well as processes and technology, are only as successful as their leaders.

Turning a team into a satisfied, healthy, and therefore, more productive group of employees requires: (1) an honest, albeit vulnerable effort to identify those parts of the organization that have slipped or need improvement; (2) listening to even the harshest of criticisms – be those about compensation, benefits, management, leadership, processes and/or technology; and (3) learning where adjustments can be made that conform to the organization’s budget and available resources. The following questions should be asked of executives, management and their teams accompanied by a promise of no repercussions for negative or critical responses.

  1. Do you have higher-than-expected turnover?
  2. Are your business departments operating at the expected productivity level?
  3. Are there interpersonal issues with one or more employees that may be cascading to others in the workplace?
  4. Do you feel that you have right kind of management team that can tell you NO or inform you of a harsh reality? (And do you listen?)
  5. Have you conducted an employee satisfaction survey?

If the answers to questions #1 to #3 were yes, and/or questions #4 and #5 were no, then the business — executives and the team — has admitted that there is/are organizational problem(s).

How should change be initiated so these problems can be solved?  Doing this requires that management and/or the executive team be part of the process through which organizational undercurrents are identified.  While it is not uncommon to find interpersonal issues at the root of misunderstandings or distrust, there is always an underlying issue that causes people to turn on others out of lack of respect, trust, or agreement.  The key is to find the underlying issue(s); your team members should be questioning each other, pushing each other’s abilities to create new ideas, and open to respectful discourse that supports rather than divides talented people.

Senior executives/management as well as team leaders may find that they are hindering progress or change.  This should not be regarded as defeat but rather as an opportunity to create change and empower people; in fact, however difficult it may be, it is an opportunity for executives and managers to improve their management style.

Interpersonal issues aside, there are many other factors that can be explored employing in-depth interviewing techniques. [1]  When Lubien-Feinleib works on these problems, we meet with each member of the leadership team individually.  During our interviews, we identify: (1) themes that appear throughout the interviews; and (2) key employees outside of the executive suite who can share their honest and completely confidential insights about the company and its issues.  In the interest of having both unbiased interviewers and interviews, we suggest this be done by professionals who can protect the anonymity of the staff; if this is done in-house, a trained professional who is not part of the management team should conduct the interviews.

In addition to interviewing, online information is available about companies of all sizes and shapes.  Is the company under consideration listed on LinkedIn, GlassDoor.com or Yelp?  If so, an audit of the comments made about the organization, management team, future outlook and more can provide a completely confidential overview of how it is perceived by current and former employees.  As in any audit, there will be outlying commentary that can either be included or eliminated as appropriate.

Once the issues at the heart of the matter have been deciphered, it is time to query the entire company.  With today’s online survey tools, a survey can be created in minutes; however, careful, strategic preparation and planning will be needed to obtain as much as possible from this exercise.  Questions should be formulated in ways that draw the truth out of the audience; they should also be translated effectively for offices in non-English speaking locations. Anonymity and confidentiality are critical; the collection of data must not be traceable to any individual.  The answers being sought should relate to compensation, benefits, satisfaction of working for the company, and should solicit feedback on such themes as development, career paths, diversity, and trust.

Before the survey is given, it must be tested and retested in order to make sure that it is as accurate is possible.  Considerable care must be given the roll-out to all employees.  For example, surveying people in August in most industries is not advisable because it is the slowest month of the year and the month in which the greatest amount of vacation/holiday is taken.  If a survey must be conducted in August, the response time should be longer than at other times of the year; we recommend between two-and-a-half and three weeks.

To obtain the greatest participation in the survey, communications about it must be positive, open, inclusive and engaging.  Employees should be told how long the survey could take to complete so that they can take it when they have the requisite amount of time.  Follow up with regular communications — share the percentage of completed surveys and reiterate the deadline so employees have a sense of urgency.  Managers should be asked to support this effort in team meetings.

Identifying whether there is trust in management is critical because it is an indicator of disconnection.  If employees do not trust management, their supervisors or their peers, a serious problem exists. Building trust in a company requires a delicate balance of staying true to core culture and, at the same time, changing the causes for lack of trust.  When trust erodes in the workplace, it is important to focus on restoring or creating a new healthy environment.

Ultimately, it is essential to remember that each employee is a person with unique experiences that have created the talented individual who spends more time working in the organization any Monday through Friday than he/she does with anyone else during waking hours.  When an executive takes the time to explore employees’ ideas and thoughts, he or she is revered as engaged and interested in his/her staff, which then builds trust.

When the survey has closed, the answers should be reviewed expeditiously and carefully.  The results should indicate the staff’s level of satisfaction and trust; this should then be shared with everyone in the company.  While sharing this information may feel painful and judgmental, doing so helps bring credibility and honesty to the company leadership.  In fact, it is through the sharing information including the harshest criticism that the entire staff will be able to help change the things that are keeping your organization from performing at its best.

Why this process?  In over 50 years of combined experience, we have seen management decisions to hire consulting firms for too much money, resulting in changes to processes and technology without addressing the people dynamic in an organization.  These tactical changes, whether converting to new techniques, methodologies and processes — such as Lean or Six Sigma — or from archaic manual processes to new technology platforms, do not resolve the underlying issues.  Further, we have observed that recommendations made by consultants result in loss of productivity and institutional knowledge, increased lay-offs and attrition, and eroding morale and employee engagement.  In addition, as noted earlier, the cost of replacing employees is in excess of their salary!  The business will have decreased its bottom line and, perhaps, be in worse shape.

Preparing for Change

Once the steps above have been executed, it is time to create a blueprint for change.  Engage those inside and outside the organization to solve the biggest challenges; look to market benchmarks for issues related to salaries and benefits, professional help for management and interpersonal challenges, as well as to in-house departments — such as technology or human resources — to partner, research, procure or implement organic solutions to other challenges.

Incentivizing employees for organizational change is often a misunderstood technique; however, when done correctly it can have a multiplier effect.  By structuring performance reviews and compensation to adopting technology, accepting and propagating positivity, as well as meeting the demands of change, a much more satisfied and accountable team can be created.  Each employee and leader must have tangible and realistic goals that relate to organizational goals as part of their performance reviews.

Communicating change is by far the most important opportunity available to enlist employees in the process of creating positive change.  When employees are connected to the process as an on-going effort and information is shared whenever it is available, a team environment and individual buy-in that benefits the company will be created.  Further, should reorganization occur, the chances of acceptance will be increased.

Finally …

If the steps discussed above are undertaken, the issues that cause internal problems in an organization can be identified and solutions can be implemented. The result will be increased employee satisfaction and engagement, improved morale and organizational culture, and increased financial success.


[1] Judith F Feinleib & Erin Lubien, Interviewing Techniques, Polling and In-Depth Interviewing, 2017, http://lubienfeinleibconsulting.com/?p=91

Bibliography
Larry Dressler & Roger Schwartz, Standing in the Fire: Leading High-Heat Meetings With Clarity, Calm and Courage, Berrett-Kohler, 1987, Oakland, California.

Horizontal Mentoring™ — Connection, Community & Institutional Knowledge

As is well recognized, changes in the way that a company does business, needed to ensure that it remains competitive in the marketplace and that it grows, can mean that the people on whom the business depends have a hard time adjusting to changes in the corporate culture.  More often than not, such changes are not only felt to be negative but can be systemic.

This can be exacerbated if these changes occur in conjunction with other alterations including, but not limited to, rapid growth or reduction of staff as well as leadership and management issues. Typically, people no longer feel that they know what is going on. Perhaps even more important, when an organization has increased or decreased in size, has management issues or is responding to changes in the market, it is perceived to be difficult, if not impossible, to disseminate the knowledge gained by experience throughout the organization. This, in turn, results in poorer service to/products for clients.

Mentoring — The Classical Vertical Approach

In general, mentoring occurs vertically, that is, a person who does not have experience in an area and/or with a company is advised by a person with experience who is in the same field and/or division, department or unit. The idea is to create a secure environment in which the person being mentored can learn and can also discuss other work related issues. [1]

Vertical mentoring while effective, is narrow in that it applies to one unit — be this a division, group or team — but does not extend across units. Because of this, beginning in the late 1990’s, some efforts were made to extend the concept to the expansion of corporate knowledge across managerial boundaries; among the objectives were the creation of greater connection and wider dissemination of knowledge. [2] Nevertheless, classical vertical mentoring which is confined to one unit remains the approach most commonly used.

The Horizontal Mentoring Model

Horizontal Mentoring uses people whose life and industry experience combined with their people skills, allows them to reach across unit lines at any appropriate level to teach, listen and help provide lasting solutions for client/customer issues. In other words, regardless of age or formal background, mentors fit into a construct which can be paraphrased as follows: “I’ve been in this industry for a while and I’ve seen these issues even when they aren’t in my own area of expertise.” [3]

The mentoring is horizontal because mentors and mentees must come from different parts of the organization, that is, they must cross organizational lines.

  • Because of this, mentors work with people who do different things than they do; it is their experience in problem solving as well as a different perspective that is crucial to the effort.
  • In contrast, classical vertical mentoring does not cross lines. This means that while a mentee may be junior to his/her mentor, both will likely work on the same or similar things; the wisdom will be shared but the broader perspective does not exist.

We’re All Mentees

For the program to be effective, everyone must be a mentee.  Indeed, reality suggests that everyone at every level of any organization can benefit from having a mechanism which allows experimentation, venting and obtaining work-related advice without any judgments being made.  Thus, Horizontal Mentoring programs provide that everyone — from Board members on down — has a mentor.  Whether a company grows or contracts, mentoring takes place across division, unit and team lines.

Mentors — People Skills & Life Experience

A number of mentor qualities are essential if a Horizontal Mentoring program is to succeed.

  • Mentors must come from a different part of the organization than mentees.
  • Mentors must have characteristics that will make them good mentors most notably, people skills as well as life and professional experience.
  • While they should not be junior personnel, mentors need not be senior management. Indeed, depending on the individuals, it is entirely possible that a middle management person in one part of the organization could be a valuable mentor to those senior to her/him in another part of the organization.
  • Moreover, to make sure that a mentee gets the broadest exposure possible, the mentor should have people skills and life experience and should occupy a completely different position. Thus a Vice President in one division should not mentor a Vice President in another division.

This cross pollination has a number of useful effects for all parties.  It: (1) provides both mentor and mentee with perspective on the organization; (2) establishes contacts across unit lines; (3) reduces isolation; and (4) breaks down the cliques that often form and can result in hard feelings and poor production/service delivery.

Choosing A Mentor — The Process

Mentors should be chosen by a neutral group.  Depending on the state of the organization, the group may consist of people from the Human Resources Department, from other parts of the organization or be a combination.  Regardless of how the group is formulated, its members must be trusted and must know people throughout the organization well enough to be able to select people who would be good mentors.

Possible mentors must be consulted and agree to serve in the role; no one should be forced to undertake the job.  Mentors will work with a number of mentees on an individual basis.  While the number of mentees may vary, no mentor should be assigned more than five mentees.

Boards of Directors

In many cases, members of the Board of Directors mentor each other informally.  In that sense, Boards can be viewed as having their own system despite the fact that this does not extend to the entire company.  This raises the question of whether or not Board members should participate in the company-wide program.

Quite apart from Board-only mentoring, at least initially, staff may feel that having Board members as mentors is somewhat overwhelming.

  • If that is not the case, then Board members should be encouraged to participate in the company-wide program as mentors or mentees providing those who serve as mentors have the requisite skills.
  • If the staff would be overwhelmed, finding one or two cases where a Board member could be paired with a staff member would make it clear over time that it is “safe” to be mentored by a Board member.

Program Start-Up

When a Horizontal Mentoring program begins, staff members at all levels may feel that they do not have sufficient time available to take part.  However, even if this is the case, the problem occurs only when the program is in its inception.  Once it is functioning properly, Horizontal Mentoring can be expected to save enough time so that people are able to participate without feeling pressed.  Moreover, because internal corporate communications will be improved, client service/product delivery will be improved thus saving more time and improving the bottom line.

That said, if Horizontal Mentoring is to succeed, it is essential that it have Board and senior management support.  Moreover, Board and senior management members must make sure that people know that they will not be penalized for participating particularly during the program’s inception when the benefits will not yet be apparent.

Mechanics

Once Horizontal Mentoring has been set up, mentors will be expected to devote about an hour a month to each individual with whom they work.  As noted above, barring exceptional circumstances, no more than five mentees should be assigned to a mentor; in fact, depending on the organization, it may be possible to reduce that number.  People being mentored will be guaranteed that anything that they say will be confidential.

It is very important that neither mentors nor mentees feel that Horizontal Mentoring must be done on their own time or as any kind of overtime.  Mentoring should take place away from the office and expenses, such as the cost of lunches or dinners, should be borne by the company.

While Horizontal Mentoring is always a company-wide program in that everyone must be a mentee, it is essential to announce and launch so as to avoid rumors sweeping through the organization.  Much will depend on the ability of the neutral group to select mentors who not only meet the requirements but can be expected to accept the assignment.  In rapid order the neutral group will then: (1) discuss the program and obtain the consent of the prospective mentors; (2) assign mentors and mentees; and (3) announce the program ensuring that everyone knows about it, knows it is universal, can see its benefits and knows when it will go into operation.

Finally …

Horizontal Mentoring is different and setting it up properly takes a little time.  The pay-off in better communication throughout the organization, in more effective delivery of service/products and in happier and more effective staff members makes it more than worthwhile.  Perhaps most important, because there is a safe way to exchange information across company lines, organizational change can be integrated quickly as opposed to merely being accepted on the surface.


[1] Discussions of vertical mentoring systems are common in the literature. Journals which discuss this and/or put information on the web include, but are not limited to, Business Horizons, Institute of Personnel And Development Web Site Library, Journal of Management, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, Sloan Management Review.
[2] Eliezer Geisler, Harnessing The Value of Experience In The Knowledge Driven Firm, Business Horizons, May-June, 1999.
[3] Data obtained from in-depth interviews as well as from well-designed surveys conducted at numerous organizations by Judith Feinleib.

© Lubien-Feinleib Intelligent Consulting, 2017

Health Care Equipment Case Study

Corporate change can come about in a number of ways.  Sometimes, it happens as the result of a planned internal process that involves senior and middle management as well as line staff and sometimes it happens as the result of a project whose requirements result in change.

A Japanese endoscope manufacturer with a significant American market, wanted Continue reading “Health Care Equipment Case Study”

Interviewing Techniques — Polling & In-Depth Interviewing White Paper

Interviewing techniques in use today range from polling and its variations to the In-Depth approach.  While it has become common to utilize polling and disparage the In-Depth approach, utilized with care, both can provide valid information.  Indeed, where appropriate, both techniques can be used in a given project to advantage.

Polling

In general, computer technology and its ability to quantify large samples quickly and accurately, have resulted in sampling techniques that rely almost exclusively on polling, that is, on the use of prepared questionnaires that do not deviate in format and provide the interviewee with a designated list of answers from which to choose.  Depending on the purpose of the poll, the sample may have well defined characteristics.  Polling is most commonly associated with mass sampling but it has also come to be accepted for smaller samples.

While polling has many advantages and is often presented as being an impartial way to obtain information, in fact, any poll contains built in biases.  This is not to say that the people who create polling questions do not make every effort to be objective.  However, because questions are prepared and do not change regardless of a respondent’s answers, they must necessarily reflect the knowledge and biases of the people who compose it even when considerable pre-testing of questions is done.

In-Depth Interviewing

Approaches that are less reliant on statistical methodology are often labeled anecdotal, a term that implies that the information obtained is somehow less than valid.  Nevertheless, these approaches, known as In-Depth or Strategic Interviewing, continue to be used extensively.  Depending on the nature of the project, In-Depth Interviewing: (1) may be directed at obtaining results which, although general, contain nuance; (2) may be focused in order to obtain extremely detailed results; or (3) may be somewhere in between.

Although In-Depth Interviewing makes use of a questionnaire which itself acts as a guideline to ensure that subject areas are not left out, the interviewer is expected to be flexible.  If the interviewee does not understand the question or, if the question is not relevant, it can be explained or revised.  If unusual or unexpected subjects arise in the course of the interview, they may be explored.  Respondents can be guaranteed the anonymity needed to elicit frank answers even if these are negative.  In fact, it is the ability to explore the unexpected or even the negative that makes the In-Depth Interview a vehicle through which it is possible to obtain the nuance and detail which provide not only quantifiable data but the sense of a given situation without which it is impossible to create meaningful strategies and programs.

Focus Groups

Focus Groups may be regarded as a sub-set of small group polling.  While they are conducted in live session, the format and questionnaire remains the same for all respondents; it may or may not be possible to obtain nuance.  Focus Groups do not allow for the anonymity needed to permit employees or others in sensitive situations to speak freely.

Polling and In-Depth Interviewing In A Single Project

The nature of the desired material may make it advantageous to use both polling and In-Depth Interviewing one or more times in a single project or study.  There is no required order; rather the circumstances will determine what is done.  In one instance, series of in-depth interviews with executives and key team members may be warranted before the entire staff is polled. In another, an employee survey may have been conducted before depth and nuance are sought from employees and/or management.  Both may be used to assess success of changes that have been implemented earlier.

The order and use of these techniques is dependent on the circumstances.  Employed well they can be critical to the creation of organizational change.