Anger and the job in difficult times

On Wednesday the United States set a devastating new record in the coronavirus pandemic: 3,124 people dead in one day. This was the first time the daily number of deaths has exceeded 3,000 but I fear it will not be the last. There are over 260k deaths in the US so far, over 1.5 million deaths worldwide. This is crippling, and it is difficult to go day-by-day with the pain of this suffering.

And yet, we need to work, support our families and communities. Get the job done. Amidst all that it is important to remember that is important to grieve and it is okay to be angry.

People grieve in diverse ways with different emotions, from anger, to depression to hopelessness, to resentment over what has been taken from them. Combined with the isolation of the pandemic, this is a recipe for poor mental health and poor coping mechanisms. And then there is a question of just how much and what sort of coping is good. Two-hundred-and-sixty thousand people are dead and there is a lot of evidence this is an underreport and a lot more people are going to die.

I hope you understand that I am angry. All day long. And it is a struggle not to bring that anger to work, not to let it twist my relationships. Yet that anger always exists.

I linked earlier this week to an article on mental health. It is particularly important to make this part of our organizations. Burnout must have a systematic fix.

What we need to give permission to, give space to, is a recognition that we are not in an okay state. And it may not be okay for a very long while, long after vaccines are widely available, and we return to the office.

It is okay to have taken a step back from obligations. I have not, for example, been writing much on this blog. It just did not work for me. Be kind to yourself and be okay with the things you must do less of. And when you are ready, go back to it.

Anger and Culture

Our organizational cultures are full of anger. What we must do is work to establish mechanisms to assure that anger is directed at issues or situations, not people. This will build psychological safety, enable good decisions and enhance our problem solving culture.

Some things we should do:

  • Acknowledge what is happening: Senior leadership needs to be working from compassion and generosity and taking real steps to address.
  • Treat toxic positivity as a bias: Toxic positivity is the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset. This is especially important as we have talent discussions, evaluate performance, and perform other managerial tasks.
  • Have systems around burnout
  • Focus on decision making quality
  • Build employee judgement feedback loops

We are not done. This winter will be very hard for many. As leaders we need to be ensuring our organizations can get through this and then leverage what we’ve learned to build a better culture.

The Value of Vulnerability

I’ve been thinking of the role vulnerability a lot in light of the current pandemic situation, and so I went back and re-read Professor Brené Brown’s Dare To Lead. In this book she lays out a framework for vulnerability, as a resource in leadership and within the workplace, which can impact the entire culture and creativity of a team.

Professor Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure and lays out how vulnerability is essential to enabling collaboration. Leaders need to be transparent about their own challenges and encourage others to share their challenges with the group. Sharing vulnerability creates group cohesion.

At the same time I’m reading this book, I also started a new job and I’ve been in a lot of conversations about how we get folks comfortable with sharing their difficulties in their implementation around quality 4.0 initiatives.

Here’s the thing I want to stress, we can make vulnerability an organizational habit by instituting standard processes like after-action reviews and lessons learned. Building these processes into project lifecycle and our very culture provides a clear, designated space for sharing and vulnerability. By ensuring consistent application of lessons earned we can build this habit honesty, vulnerability, openness, and sharing of information. And through that we can help drive a culture of excellence.

Vulnerability can create space for “productive failure”, as Professor Brown terms it. A tricky thing for people to buy into but a way of thinking and working that turns failure into an opportunity to learn. When you know productive failure is a possibility you may be more inclined to be courageous and try and create something bigger and better despite the risks. When a workforce sees vulnerability named and shared by their leaders, and where they also acknowledge risks of failure but see it as an opportunity for learning they are likely to believe they can mirror some of that themselves.

There are a lot of reasons why organizations are bad at doing lessons learned, but I think at the core there is this unmovable idea that vulnerability is a weakness. It is probably for this reason that we see folks very willing to share their successes in case studies and at conferences, but not so willing to shares misses and failures. Even though we have a lot to learn from that vulnerability.

I’m curious. How is vulnerability expressed in your organization?

Burnout Needs a Systematic fix

It is more like being involved in a complicated love affair. One minute it’s thrilling, passionate, engaging. The next, it’s exhausting and overwhelming, and I feel like I need a break.
— Read on hbr.org/2019/07/when-passion-leads-to-burnout

Jennifer Moss, When Passion Leads to Burnout. HBR

It is the responsibility of leaders “to keep an eye on the well-being of their staff.”  Organizations whose staff feel unmotivated due to stress and burnout cannot aspire to achieve a culture of excellence. Our systems need to be designed to eliminate the root cause for stress and burnout.

Five mechanisms can be leveraged to improve organizational system design: 1) Eliminate organizational issues related to roles, responsibilities and authorities of employees, 2) establish a policy of transparency and effective “bottom-up” internal communication channel to permit employee contribution and recognition, 3) establish criteria for resource distribution, 4) establish a commitment to identify needed training and provide resources for the purpose and 5) establish a systemic feedback loop for analysis and improvement of employee motivation based on periodic measurement of employee motivational levels.

If employees know exactly what their tasks are, without sustained overload, with necessary resources and competence, and recognition for the task well performed, there will be no major system-induced reason for demotivation.

This gets to the heart of Deming’s use of psychology in his System of Profound Knowledge. Lean calls it Respect-for-People. This is all about ensuring our organizations are healthy places to work and thrive.

Driving towards a Culture of Excellence

What do we mean when we discuss culture, which is sort of an all-encompassing word that seems difficult to pin down, or can be a rather nebulous way to refer to something bigger than any one individual or team.

Many definitions are available to describe culture. Formally, culture can be defined as “the [predominant] beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviors, and practices that are characteristic of a group of people” (Warrick, 2015).  Culture can usually be described as the symbols, power structures, organisational structures, control systems, rituals & routines, and stories of a group.

Johnson & Scholes Cultural Web (this illustration: www.businessgrowthhub.com)

Why does culture matter, well for starts let’s look at some differences between high and low performing cultures.

High Performance CulturesLow Performance Cultures
Leaders are skilled, admired, and build organizations that excel at results and at taking excellent care of their people and their customersLeaders provide minimal leadership, are not trusted and admired, and do little to engage and involve their people
Clear and compelling vision, mission, goals, and strategyVision, mission, goals, and strategy are unclear, not compelling, not used, or do not exist
Core values drive the culture and are used in decision makingCore values are unclear, not compelling, not used, or do not exist
Committed to excellence, ethics, and doing things rightLack of commitment to excellence, questionable ethics, and a reputation for doing what is expedient rather than what is right
Clear roles, responsibilities, and success criteria, and strong commitment to engaging, empowering, and developing peopleUnclear roles and responsibilities and little interest in fully utilizing and developing the capabilities and potential of people
Positive, can-do work environmentNegative, tense, stressful, and/or resistant work environment
Open, candid, straightforward, and transparent communicationGuarded communication, reluctance to be open and straightforward, and consequences for saying things leaders do not want to hear
Teamwork, collaboration, and involvement are the normTop-down decision making with minimal teamwork, collaboration, and involvement
Emphasis on constant improvement and state-of-the-art knowledge and practicesSlow to make needed improvements and behind times in knowledge and practices
Willingness to change, adapt, learn from successes and mistakes, take reasonable risk, and try new thingsPoorly planned change, resistance to change, minimal learning from successes and mistakes, and either risk averse or risk foolish

Culture can either be built in a purposeful way or left to chance. As we strive for excellence we need to be methodical about building and sustaining cultures we want to drive excellence. A few guidelines then:

  1. Make strategy and culture important leadership priorities
  2. Develop a clear understanding of the present culture
  3. Identify, communicate, educate, and engage employees in the cultural ideals
  4. Role model desired behaviors
  5. Recruit and develop for culture
  6. Align for consistency between strategy and culture
  7. Recognize and reward desired behaviors and practices
  8. Use symbols, ceremonies, socialization, and stories to reinforce culture
  9. Appoint a culture team
  10. Monitor and manage the culture

What most of struggle with is how to actually do that. Of the many papers and articles I’ve read on the subject, my favorite might be from the International Society of Pharmaceutical engineers (ISPE).

The ISPE in 2015 introduced a cultural excellence framework which was expanded on in their 2017 Cultural Excellence Report. I’ve returned to this report again and again and continue to mine it for ideas for continual improvement and change in my organization.

ISPE’s Six dimensions of cultural excellence framework

The six dimensions to build and maintain cultural excellence are:

  1. Leadership and vision: Leaders establish and engender the vision for the organization. Their thoughts, words, and actions about quality are critical in establishing and maintaining a culture of operational excellence. Leadership and vision, therefore, play a key role in establishing the culture, either within a local manufacturing site or across the company.
  2. Mindset and attitudes: These play a key role in driving cultural performance, although they can be difficult to define, observe, and measure. Leaders can assess, monitor, and develop the desired cultural excellence mindset and attitudes within their organizations, using the practical and powerful approaches outlined in this report.
  3. Gemba walks: Management engagement on the floor is a powerful way to demonstrate quality commitment to all members of the organization. Gemba walks allow site leaders to communicate clear messages using open and honest dialogue, and provide a real indication of progress toward desired behaviors at all levels. Gemba walks also empower front-line employees by recognizing their contributions to site results and involving them in problem-solving and continuous improvement.
  4. Leading quality indicators and triggers: There are inherent links between culture,
    behavior, and leading quality indicators (LQIs) that drive desired patient-focused
    behaviors. Monitoring and surveillance of key triggers and the design of LQIs are highly recommended practices to help shape cultural excellence.
  5. Oversight and review: Management oversight and review practices that engage both management and employees support a healthy quality culture because they demonstrate transparency, facilitate dialogue, bring attention to issues so they can be addressed, and highlight best practices so they can be replicated.
  6. Structural enablers: These support the desired behaviors, help speed the pace of change, and improve performance over time. They include:
    –– Develop a learning organization
    –– Establish learning teams
    –– Influence and recognize organizational change
    –– Solve problems proactively
    –– Identify true root cause

Sources

  • R.D. Day. Leading and Managing People in the Dynamic Organization. Psychology Press, London, UK (2014)
  • ISPE. Cultural Excellence Report. ISPE, Bethesda (2017)
  • R.N. Lussier, C.F. Achua. Leadership: Theory, application, and skill development (6th ed.), Cengage Learning, Boston (2016)
  • D.D. Warrick, J. Mueller (Eds.), Lessons in changing cultures: Learning from real world cases, RossiSmith Academic Publishing, Oxford, UK (2015)

Making Learning a Part of Everyday Work

Cultivating expertise, in short learning, is critical to building a quality culture. Yet, the urgency of work easily trumps learning. It can be difficult to carve out time for learning in the inexorable flow of daily tasks. We are all experienced with the way learning ends up being in the lowest box on the 2×2 Eisenhower matrix, or however you like to prioritize your tasks.

For learning to really happen, it must fit around and align itself to our working days. We need to build our systems so that learning is an inevitable result of doing work. There are also things we as individuals can practice to make learning happen.

What we as individuals can do

Practice mindfulness. As you go about your daily job be present and aware, using it as an opportunity to ability to learn and develop. Don’t just sit in on that audit; notice and learn the auditor’s tactics and techniques as you engage with her. Ask product managers about product features; ask experts about industry trends; ask peers for feedback on your presentation skills. These kinds of inquiries are learning experiences and most peers love to tell you what they know.

Keep a to-learn list. Keep a list of concepts, thoughts, practices, and vocabulary you want to explore and then later later explore them when you have a few moments to reflect. Try to work a few off the list, maybe during your commute or at other times when you have space to reflect.

Build learning into your calendar. Many of us schedule email time, time for project updates, time to do administrative work. Make sure you dedicate time for learning.

Share meaningfully. Share with others, but just don’t spread links. Discuss why you are sharing it, what you learned and why you think it is important. This blog is a good example of that.

What we can build into our systems

Make sure our learning and knowledge management systems are built into everything we do. Make them easy to use. Ensure content is shared internally and leads to continuous improvement.

Ensure learning is valued.

Plan for short-term wins. There is no nirvana, no perfect state. Ensure you have lots of little victories and shareable moments. Plan for this as part of your schedules and cycles.

Learning is a very effective lever for system improvement. At the very least it gives us the power to “add, change, evolve or self-organize system structure” (lever 4) and can also start giving us ways to change the paradigm (lever 2) and eventually even transcend paradigms (lever 1).