Monday, April 22, 2013

Compassionate Accountability

There is a plethora of articles written about effective leadership. But, our intensely competitive business environment has made leadership more complicated when negotiating the line between providing support to employees and holding them accountable. It begs the question of how can you be an authentic, compassionate leader and still hold an employee accountable to job performance standards?
For instance, you have an employee who was recently divorced and is experiencing grief and is possibly in crisis. But, he or she is negatively impacting work by coming in late several times per week. How do you express support without sacrificing job standards? Your compassion may even slow your response to the employee job performance problem. In addition, if you have experienced a divorce yourself, you may be overly empathetic or, conversely, harsh.
The first step is to be honest with yourself about how your employee’s situation may be affecting you. If you are grieving your own recent divorce, you may be providing too much leeway to your employee. Or, you may not want to face into the situation at all. All of us as leaders have our own “trigger” issues that are based our own past experiences, whether that be a divorce, alcoholism, or death of a family member. Knowing your sensitivity areas helps you mitigate your own experience.
Second, focus on the fact that enabling your employee doesn’t provide any pressure for your employee to improve their personal situation. Holding a grieving employee accountable may be exactly the push he or she needs to join a divorce support group. It does not help the employee to be overwhelmed with emotions and not focus on her job. Even in very dramatic situations, such as when an employee has lost a family member, maintaining job performance standards may be the incentive he or she needs to get into a support group. If you are lucky enough to have a human resources expert, of course, consult with him or her before your meeting with the employee.
Third, an employee problem that is not attended to impacts the whole team. Whereas, setting a culture of accountability increases the pride of the whole group. People rise to the performance standards that are clearly delineated.
Fourth, have compassion for yourself. If you have a large work group you are responsible for, you more than likely have several people with serious personal issues. To talk to your employee about work requirements and standards while he or she is getting treated for cancer is not easy for anyone. But, if you enter into the conversation with compassion for yourself and others you will set the right tone for a successful outcome. An important question is – how do you center yourself before a stressful meeting? 
Fifth, be prepared for a negative reaction. It is more the norm than not, for an employee when give specific negative observations to be defensive and angry. The emotion from the work feedback gets mixed in with all of the background troubles he or she may be having possibly exaggerating the response to you. It is essential for you to refer to your notes and stick to your facts with a compassionate tone. Be firm as you repeat yourself and make a plan for improvement. It is beneficial to follow up with your employee in writing about the specific expectations you have for job improvement. 
Sixth, practice making referrals to your internal or external employee assistance program or a community referral service. Saying something simple such as, “Other employees have found the employee assistance counselor to be very helpful to confidentially discuss your family problem. It is okay to seek help.” 
In summary, I want to reiterate that it is possible to be a leader that is supportive and compassionate, but also holds people accountable. Following the six steps above gives you a framework for doing both.   

Friday, April 19, 2013

Abusive Relationships from the Past: How They Impact Workplace Productivity

One out of every ten employees, male or female, have been physically abused in their lives as a child or abused by a partner as an adult. The statistics are even higher when considering emotional and verbal abuse. Therefore, if you have 500 employees, anywhere from 50 to 100 have a history of abuse. Is it possible for individuals who have experienced this kind of trauma to cut off this part of themselves when they come to work? Absolutely not; how your authority figures or intimate partners communicate with them become embedded in one’s subconscious. Hopefully, most were among the lucky kids hearing kind words and support, which now has become of part of their internal landscape. However, many of you reading this blog may have experienced abuse yourself, and know that it truly includes all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. 
There is no question that employees’ personal backgrounds affect their workplace interaction and when he or she has experienced abuse it may complicate even the most simple communications. As a leader, you may want to believe an employee leaves their personal self at the door when they enter work, but the abused child is right underneath their professional persona. The abused child is sensitive to criticism, aggression and uncomfortable with conflict. In addition, long term effects of past abuse include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and alcohol/drug abuse.  As an employee advances in his or her career handling more and more responsibility being good at conflict resolution is necessary for one’s success.
You might be wondering why I see this as a problem and why you should care. In a 2012 research study completed by Dr. Mark Attridge and myself, 95% of 100 male and female millionaires/multi-millionaires stated they are comfortable arguing a point to closure!  In other words, to be very successful one needs to be able to comfortably negotiate conflict.
Let me explain all the different ways an abusive background may play itself out at work. In my executive coaching practice I have seen bosses who have been abused that are overly harsh with their employees (an opposite self-protective style). There are leaders who are uncomfortable supervising the opposite sex, aggressive bosses who trigger their employee’s abusive victim history, employees who bully their supervisor, and senior leadership teams who alternately act out the aggressor and victim roles, never learning healthy ways to resolve conflict. 

I have seen females and males in the aggressor and victim roles. My experience as an employee assistance psychologist at Honeywell, in Minneapolis, demonstrated that the amount of and impact of abuse on men is very underestimated in the workplace. As a supervisor, one way to spot when an  employee’s own personal issues are interfering is when you see an ongoing fixed pattern or interaction around disagreement whether it be between two people of the same sex or opposite sex. The emotion may appear to be way out of proportion to the issue being debated and affects other employees in the work group. When employees really dislike each other and have convinced themselves the other has no redeeming characteristics, past histories have been activated and it is difficult for the employees to distinguish past abuse feelings from the present.
These unhealthy dynamics interfere with good team communication and cohesion resulting in less creative and successful strategies for organizational success.

Your job as a leader in your organization is to observe team members (at any level):
  1. Who do not participate in the resolution of issues through healthy debate, but seem to retreat or freeze.
  2. Individuals who yell, intimidate, or have a cold and condescending manner.
  3. Absenteeism after a stressful management team argument. 
In the spirit of embracing difficult communication, I would encourage you to take the following steps:
  1. Meet with your employee alone and gently point out the specific behavior you have observed.
  2. Explain the importance of being able to effectively participate in conflict resolution to find the best organizational solution.
  3. Recommend he/she get some help/education with conflict management and resolution.
  4. Refer to your employee assistance program for a professional assessment to determine the best referral, whether it be a conflict resolution class or counseling.
Our job as organizational leaders is to develop cohesion and improve communication to enhance overall organizational effectiveness. Unfortunately, this job becomes more difficult when the abused child “comes to work” with the professional adult. But, observing your team and compassionately making referrals for one to improve their communication during times of conflict can help put your employee and the entire team on the road to success.