The power of personal experience

December 23, 2008

Thank you very much to Beth Wallace at A Bigger Voice for this support of Humans At Work.

Beth’s post reminds me once again of the power of personal experience. Data is important; sometimes statistics matter; but humans learn our deepest lessons through our own experience. What happens to us matters — it affects us not just in that moment, but potentially in all our moments to come. And so it also matters how we “happen” to other people.

Human relationships are all about behavior. People can’t read our minds, and when our behavior is at odds with our stated intentions, it’s the behavior that they remember. It is our behavior that shows our love, heals another’s pain, cheers someone on to success. And every human interaction, even the briefest exchange at the cash register or the coffee shop, is a relationship.

Managing each other is one of the most important relationships we have as adults. We all have stories like Beth’s (in fact, there’s a part of the Humans At Work forum reserved for such stories, good and bad — I’ll be posting some of mine there, and I hope you will too). We all know how much difference a bad manager makes in our day, our year, our lives. It’s my hope that one day we will all, every single one of us, know through personal experience the difference that a good manager can make.

Manifesting

December 20, 2008

One of the most important things we can do, at work and in life, is to demonstrate clearly who we are and what we stand for. To manifest is one of the strongest and also most vulnerable things we can do as human beings.

And so I want to make you aware of ChangeThis, a group of volunteers from CEO Books who publish manifestos free and freely share them with the online community. Their mission is to be a conduit for ideas about business, culture, politics, technology — whether they agree with the ideas personally or not. To help those ideas reach the world, where they will survive or not. The emphasis is on reaching the community, not controlling it. Manifesting their commitment to freedom of ideas by publishing manifestos: meta-manifesting, if you will, and I like it.

Anyone can submit a proposal. Anyone can vote on whether a manifesto should be published. ChangeThis publishes those with the most votes in PDF version, hosts them for download, and spreads them far and wide through a subscription network.

I want to be a part of this, so I’ve submitted a proposal to publish A Leader’s Manifesto. Publication is determined by online community vote: the manifestos that most people want to see will be published and distributed.

I’m excited about this possibility for A Leader’s Manifesto. It would be great to have a professional, downloadable, easily sharable version of the manifesto that people could read at their own convenience and easily store/retrieve. If you’ve read the manifesto and like the ideas, and would like to help it reach a wider audience, please vote for it at ChangeThis.com.

And take a look while you’re there at the other proposals up for consideration. Read some manifestos — a couple of my favorites are How To Be Creative by Hugh MacLeod and The Connection Culture by Michael Lee Stallard. Sign up to be notified of new manifestos. And if you’ve got something to share, submit a proposal and share your ideas about how to make things better.

The new model of work and life that we’re moving into is more about free exchange than about “transaction.” ChangeThis does all their work for free — a labor of love and community — and that’s part of what I hope you’ll support.

Demons

December 18, 2008

Here’s an email I got last night:

Delivered-To: info@humansatwork.com
Date: Thu, 18 Dec 2008 14:03:26 +0800
From: “Alice.Yang”
To: “info”
Subject: humansatwork Domain name Registration

Dear humansatwork,

We are Beijing Himense Technology Co.,Ltd, a domain name register organization in china. We received a formal application from a company who is applying to register” humansatwork ” as their domain name and Internet keyword on Dec 17,2008. Because this involves your company name or trade mark so we inform you in no time. If you consider these domain names and internet keyword are important to you and it is necessary to protect them by registering them first. Please contact us within 7 workdays. If out of the deadline, we will approve the their application unconditionally.

Kind Regards,

Alice.Yang
Auditing Department
Tel:+86-10-81128599
Fax:+86-10-81493938
Email:alice.yang@himenon.cn
Beijing Himense Technology Co.,Ltd
http://www.himense.cn

It only took a second on Google to confirm that this is a fraud, and that domain name slamming by organizations on China is on the rise. Here’s a more in-depth article about the legitimate registration process.

I’ve sent an email to the Chinese authorities about it. I expect it will go nowhere, and that’s fair enough: I’m sure the Chinese government has enough on its plate right now without worrying too much about the status of one woman’s domain name. We all have our priorities, and sometimes they do not meet.

But the incident has me thinking about how much easier the internet makes this kind of anonymous, faceless crime. I think that for many humans it’s easier to bully, to steal, to lie, to harm someone we don’t think of as real. To the people who sign themselves “Alice.Yang,” I’m not real. I’m just a domain name with a bank account at the end of it.

But I am real. And so are you. Neither of us is a gear or a cog: we are human. We won’t always agree. We may not always like each other. But we are here together, and we much more the same than we are different, no matter how different we may appear. Even those people in China, whether they will ever acknowledge it or not.

It’s a small step, in a different direction, from “not real” to “bad.” It’s tempting to demonize people who threaten us. And maybe sometimes it’s right to do so: I’m still thinking that one through. But it shouldn’t be so easy, and it shouldn’t be our first line of defense. Otherwise, we end up demonizing the person in the next cubicle because she plays her iPod too loud. We demonize the bad manager who actually wants to do a good job but has no idea how, and who is so busy protecting himself from his own insecurity that he’s demonizing us right back.

When do you demonize people? And what do you do about it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The zen of engagement

December 17, 2008

I’m a member of the Employee Engagement Network, and recommend it as a resource for anyone who is interested in being a better manager.

“Employee engagement” is one of the HR terms in vogue right now. If it seems too much like corporate-speak, then think of it — as I do — as finding ways for people to connect as fully as possible with their work and the people they work with. When we feel engaged, we’re more innovative, more productive, more successful. That’s a good thing for everyone.

Recently, the leader of the Employee Engagement Network put together this PDF of advice from members of the network: Employee Engagement Advice in One Sentence. You’ll find 52 ideas about getting and keeping people engaged at work. Please download and share it with whomever you wish.

Think of these not as “how to” instructions, but as management koans. They may seem obvious, or they may seem superficial, but there’s a lot of distilled wisdom in many of these ideas. The more I think about them, the more I find to think about. I hope you’ll find something helpful too.

Money matters

December 15, 2008

Do you talk openly about salary with your team?

Money is a sensitive topic in US work culture (I don’t know if it is in other countries, perhaps someone will enlighten me). But “sensitive” doesn’t have to mean “taboo” — and if you’re promoting transparency as a management value, you need to consider being open about how your company manages salaries.

I never talked about money with anyone at work except in the context of negotiating a job offer, or having my boss tell me what kind of a raise I was getting. Except for the year when I got a 2.5% raise (when others around me were getting 5% – 10%) — that year, my boss let me find out the good news when I got my paycheck and did the math.

I was devastated. I thought I was on the fast track to getting fired. I went home feeling sick. And when I finally gathered my courage to approach my boss, he told me that no, I was so close the top of my pay grade that 2.5% was as much as he could give me, but he was working on ideas about promotion for me.

Imagine how much better my day would have been if he’d just told me up front? But he was embarrassed about the raise and “didn’t know how to disappoint me.”

I was lucky: I could at least find a way to start the conversation with him. Many people are much more wary of approaching their managers, especially in times when everyone’s job is less secure.

When I managed my own large team, I sat with everyone during their performance review and showed them the company’s salary range chart. I showed them what salary grade they were in, and explained that everyone at their job level was somewhere in that grade. We talked together about how they could get an increase (performance goals), or get to a higher grade (promotion). And I found out that no one had ever shared any of this information with them before. They didn’t even know for sure that the people in the same jobs were in the same pay grade.

People won’t always be happy with their annual increases or their bonuses. But when you share information, you make it easier for people to let go of suspicion or dread, and instead to focus on how they and their team can go farther. When you share information, you make money less personal. You show that it’s a process, not simply a crap shoot or a favor-based system.

And if you can’t share information because you know that salaries are unfair? Well, I guarantee that your people already know that too.

Have any salary stories or ideas to share? I’d love to hear them.

Treat me like a human

December 10, 2008

I find it amusing when young, single, financially independent, professional women — who sign their own car loans and apartment leases, who change jobs, cities and opinions without anyone’s permission — tell me earnestly I’m not a feminist. Fair enough: we get to call ourselves whatever we want. I’m less amused when those same women add Because, you know, men don’t like feminists… but why drag out a 30-year-old social issue in December 2008 when there’s so much chaos in business?

Because in times of chaos, you need all your best people to be engaged. Some of those best people are women. And if you treat them “like women,” you might lose them — or at least their committed engagement — at the time you need them most.

You may not believe gender discrimination still happens. You may think it doesn’t happen in your company. You may see that it does and not care. That’s your choice. But I encourage you to read this “conversation starter” by a highly competent person who has experience in a complex field (insurance law) as both a man and a woman. It’s not the same experience. Check out the conversation in the comments for more perspectives from people reporting on their own — similar — experience.

Can you really afford to ignore the possibility that people in your workplace might be feeling this way? And as a manager, are you willing to examine your assumptions about the people working for you, and look at whether you offer them all equivalent levels of respect, appreciation, and support? Every single one of us has blind spots, biases and prejudices. What are yours, and what are you doing to make sure they don’t drive away good people?

I’d love to hear your stories of how you keep yourself honest, or your ideas about what people could do better where you work.

Get happy

December 8, 2008

Here’s a large, long-term study that shows the network effect of happiness. Simply by feeling good, we can influence people we have never met to feel good too. Happiness spreads.

So many people are not happy in their jobs. And yet, I don’t think it’s a company’s responsibility to make employees happy. Because not every person is a fit for every organization, no matter how impeccably run the company is, no matter how much attention it gives to engagement — the same way that two really nice people may just never fit as friends. Sometimes our expectations, values, goals aren’t aligned, and there’s no way for us to engage deeply with each other. That’s okay. It happens. And it’s better to know, and step back, than to pretend that there’s a good fit. Pretending doesn’t work.

The company’s responsibility is to be so aligned, clear and consistent in its own values, business practices, engagement practices, etc. that every employee can then decide for herself whether the result truly is a happy experience for her. She has all the information she needs to decide, “this is a great fit for me, I’m feeling satisfied and valued and like I’m contributing” — or to decide, “wow, if that’s the direction we’re going, I can’t really get on board with it.”

As managers, we can’t make it our mission to persuade everyone to be happy. Down that path lies poor management. What we can do is be direct, aligned, consistent, transparent, clear, and give people the full picture to respond to. If they respond happily, they’ll become even more engaged. And their resulting happiness will spread — to others they work with, to their families and neighbors, and beyond that to strangers. Maybe to you, or to me. If good management can have that consequence, well, so much more reason to do it.

The original article I read on the topic of “viral happiness” came from this conversation on the Employee Engagement Network, a great resource for managers or anyone else interested in ideas about how to engage people at work.

If you visit the specific conversation on happiness, you’ll see many different ideas about happiness. Some people think companies should focus on happiness as a goal, and others (like me) see it as a result that happens when we do other things right. What do you think?

Don’t eat the mice

December 6, 2008

Say hello to Buster.

Buster the cat listened patiently to what the mice wanted for Christmas, and then he ate them.

I discovered Buster when I was first putting together the project management team at Wizards of the Coast. I’d been facilitating for years (I’ve led meetings from 2 people to 250 people) — and I was very glad I had those skills. We had to move fast, both to build the team and (because project management was a new function) to create processes and interfaces around the company. I wasn’t expecting the volume of negotiating I had to do with other executives, my own team, and other teams that we would be working with.

All the facilitation skills in the world don’t stop other people from being defensive, uncommunicative, frightened or angered by change, or from hijacking the conversation onto another track. They just give me more tools with which to respond, and more responsibility to use them. But it wasn’t always a warm and happy experience. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed and stressed by the difficulty that even smart, willing people can have communicating with each other; and sometimes my stress came from people who were so caught up in their own drama that they wouldn’t look for common ground for love or money.

And so I would return to my desk, look at Buster, nod in silent acknowledgment of our common impulse, and then go back and start trying to hammer out more agreements.

Buster reminds me that good managers don’t eat the mice. And even if you’re not a direct manager in a corporate job right now, the fact is we all “manage” relationships with each other every day, in large and small ways. So please don’t eat the mice.

Edited to add: Buster is from a greeting card published by Recycled Paper Greetings. Many thanks to Adam Steele for this attribution.

A different kind of business capital

December 3, 2008

This interview with economist John Helliwell in Rotman Magazine (the Rotman School of Management) reaffirms for me why it’s important that companies take a clear look at how they’re managing people, not just business:

The higher the degree of trust and willingness to share in a human-as-well-as-material respect across the organization, the better an enterprise will perform.
 
— Economist John Helliwell, speaking on the value of social capital in the workplace

If you’re a new manager, don’t be put off by the term social capital or the fact that the conversation ranges far beyond “strictly business” — read the interview for Helliwell’s insights into the direct connection between engaging with others (even when it takes work to bridge our differences) and positive impact on quality of life and business. What he’s talking about is the power of engaged relationships with the people around us: family, neighbors, and colleagues. When we connect in relationships that are based on helping, as opposed to controlling, each other, guess what? The community — whether it’s your village or your company — works better.

Managing is at its essence a network of individual relationships. Whether we manage well or poorly is a product of how we behave in those relationships. Every skill in the Humans At Work program is a behavior designed to help all your relationships at work be as clear, honest and productive as they can be: to build bridges across our differences so that we can all work together to achieve our common goals. That’s the essential definition of community, and these ideas of social capital as a driver of community success are important to every one of us.

So please, after you’ve read the interview, take some time to read more about Humans At Work. Download session details and find an idea that can help you at work, whether you’re a manager or not. These ideas are for everyone. Our workplace communities need managers — but the community is not for the manager, it’s for all of us. We can all benefit by making it stronger.

Diversity means difference

December 1, 2008

Does the idea of working with the people in this video scare you?

Maybe you’re thinking that Goth music and people with dark makeup or full-sleeve tattoos don’t belong in a professional work environment. Maybe you assume that “people like this” don’t have the same idea of business you do, and they wouldn’t fit into your company. Or maybe, like me, you’ve worked in environments where diversity was more than just a training topic.

One of the great joys for me at Wizards of the Coast was that I came on board during the company’s enormous business growth and great cultural flowering. At least 30% of the workforce was openly gay or bisexual, and the company offered insurance benefits to domestic partners beginning in the mid-90’s. All throughout the 90’s, people in suits and Rolex watches rubbed elbows with people in full Goth gear or with multiple visible piercings. Men with great hair and tasteful makeup served as admin assistants to women executives in silk and Armani. We were a company full of different people discovering how to reach a common goal.

Wizards’ culture was no secret — apart from anything else, it was one of our most effective marketing messages. Our customers loved the idea that the people creating their games were like them, whether they were mathematicians or metalheads. But every once in a while I would have a conversation with someone from a more traditional company who ask some (usually polite) version of, “What the hell are you people doing here?” in the tone that meant Why are you letting these people turn your company into a circus?

And I’d answer with some (usually polite) version of “Well, we’re a little too busy growing 100% annually the last few years to worry so much about dress codes. Why, what are you guys up to?”

I’ve been thinking about diversity, although my HR friends tell me that the new word these days is “inclusion.” That’s a fine word, and I do believe, for example, that people should be included in the decision-making process for decisions that affect them. But it doesn’t express the truth of the matter: there’s a difference between “including all points of view” and actively welcoming — and managing — the differences that we all bring to the table. The kind of difference that makes one person feel most alive and engaged when she’s wearing a long black dress and lace gloves, while another gets that feeling from her sharpest suit and leather briefcase.

I offer the Wizards’ story not as an example of why Dress Codes Are Bad (I don’t think they are), but rather as an example of a company that understood that clothing is just a symbol, and that the way to keep their workforce engaged in the chaos of triple-digit growth was to respect differences in whatever way made the particular people involved feel they could bring their whole self to the game.

It worked at Wizards. We all looked very different. We came to the job every day from very different worlds. And we put all that energy and vitality to work in service of a common goal. We all felt respected, and so we did a better job of respecting each other, of realizing that how we worked together was a lot more important than what we looked like while we were doing it.

We argued. We disagreed. We couldn’t always understand how someone could have their opinion — what are they, stupid? Ignorant? Willfully obstructive? Well, no, of course not — as is the case with much business conflict, they simply had a different perspective. The nice thing about all of us looking so different was that it was much easier to understand how we could think differently. That we could be different and still be together.