How to Conquer Cynicism at Your Workplace

How to Conquer Cynicism at Your Workplace

Enthusiasm rubs off on others

A few weeks ago, I met a friend at Chick-fil-A. When it was my turn to order, I told the woman taking our orders that I am vegetarian and couldn’t eat much of the offerings on her menu. The woman asked me, “How about a milkshake? I make the best strawberry milkshake!” I could not misjudge her sincerity and pride. It’s not often that one is asked anything like that at any service-business, let alone at a fast food chain restaurant.

In a world of work that’s so rampant with cynicism, there’s nothing more refreshing than encountering employees who are engaged, cheerful, and take pride in what they do.

In the same vein, in The HP Way (see my summary & review), author David Packard and co-founder recalls an engaged worker at Hewlett-Packard:

I recall the time, many years ago, when I was walking around a machine shop, accompanied by the shop’s manager. We stopped briefly to watch a machinist making a polished plastic mold die. He had spent a long time polishing it and was taking a final cut at it. Without thinking, I reached down and wiped it with my finger. The machinist said, “Get your finger off my die!” The manager quickly asked him, “Do you know who this is?” To which the machinist replied, “I don’t care!” He was right and I told him so. He had an important job and was proud of his work.

Conquer Cynicism and Negativity in a Workplace

How to conquer cynicism and negativity in a workplace

Cynicism is an upshot of distrust in the workplace. Cynics have misgivings about their managers’ and leaders’ motives. Cynics are further aggravated by the comparatively lofty salaries commanded by corporate leaders. The once-presumed social contract between employers and employees has dissolved, and cynics believe that given the chance, their employers will exploit their contributions.

The damage of cynicism is evident in lower levels of commitment, distrust, blame, criticism, politicking, divisiveness, pessimism, negativity, and sarcasm. Moreover, cynicism worsens with employees’ age and tenure.

Here’s how to conquer cynicism:

  • Firstly, don’t be cynical yourself. If you display even a hint of pessimism, you’re likely to feed into your team’s cynicism, especially if you’re a manager.
  • Try to love—at least show some passion—what you do and whom you work with. Passion for your work brings a remarkable sense of meaning and attracts opportunities for growth.
  • Recognize that people bring their entire selves to their jobs; they don’t turn off their hearts and souls when they come to work. Today’s demanding and competitive workplace requires of employees not only stamina to work exceptionally hard but also their hearts-and-minds’ commitment to bring creativity and insight to their efforts.
  • Care for people and understand what drives them. Money is not as powerful a motivator for most people than when they truly don’t have enough of it. Beyond a threshold, people are more motivated at work by the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to a cause, and get recognition for their achievements.
  • Encourage two-way flow of information, identify and change stress-provoking work patterns, clarify their roles, convey clear and concise objectives, coach and give regular feedback.

Idea for Impact: Employees who are engaged are more productive. Determine what makes your employees most engaged in their work. Ask what parts of their jobs they like the best and what you could do to decrease their job pressures. Engage them by tapping into their natural talents and strengths.

David Ogilvy on Russian Nesting Dolls and Building a Company of Giants

In the Company of Giants

Ogilvy & Mather founder and creative genius David Ogilvy (1911–1999) designed some of the world’s most successful and iconic marketing campaigns, including the legendary Man in the Hathaway Shirt advertisement.

Ogilvy left a rich legacy of ideas in his books. Confessions of an Advertising Man and Ogilvy on Advertising describe how he approached his creative life and aimed for greatness rather than settling for second best.

David Ogilvy on Hiring Smart

'Ogilvy on Advertising' by David Ogilvy (ISBN 039472903X) In the preface of an Ogilvy & Mather recruiting brochure, Ogilvy explained the high creative standards and attitudes he expected of his employees:

We are looking for gentlemen with ideas in their heads and fire in their bellies. If you join Ogilvy & Mather, we shall teach you everything we know about advertising. We shall pay you well, and do our damnedest to make you succeed. If you show promise, we shall load responsibility on you—fast. Life in our agency can be very exciting. You will never be bored. It’s tough, but it’s fun.

Ogilvy directed his recruiters to seek out highflyers, “Hot creative people don’t come around looking for jobs; they have to be rooted out like truffles by trained pigs. Do our trained pigs do any rooting? I don’t think so.”

Recruiting brilliant people is a kind of brilliance in itself

David Ogilvy on Russian Nesting Dolls and Building a Company of Giants In his bestselling Ogilvy on Advertising, Ogilvy described how recruiting smart people was the key to transforming his advertising agency into a global advertising, marketing and public relations giant. He wrote,

When someone is made the head of an office in the Ogilvy & Mather chain, I send him a Matrioshka doll from Gorky. If he has the curiosity to open it, and keep opening it until he comes to the inside of the smallest doll, he finds this message:

“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

Entrepreneurship guru Guy Kawasaki echoed the importance of hiring smarter people and recalled in Reality Check that, when he worked at Apple in 1984, “In the Macintosh Division, we had a saying, ‘A players hire A players; B players hire C players’—meaning that great people hire great people. On the other hand, mediocre people hire candidates who are not as good as they are, so they can feel superior to them. If you start down this slippery slope, you’ll soon end up with Z players; this is called the Bozo Explosion.”

The best managers hire employees with superior intellect—and revel in it

Managers are typically judged not on their personal output but on how well they’ve hired, coached, and motivated their people—individually and collectively.

A wise manager hires employees who are smarter, more creative, and more talented than the manager is. The new employees’ talents will improve the entire team’s performance and reputation—even the manager’s.

In contrast, a mediocre manager feels threatened by underlings who seem more intelligent than the manager is. Mediocre managers tend to hire down—they fear that a superior employee could make the manager look inferior and perhaps hold back their career progress.

Idea for Impact: People make or break businesses; so hire people who are smarter than you are.

Management by Walking Around the Frontlines [Lessons from ‘The HP Way’]

President Abraham Lincoln visiting the Union Army troops during American Civil War In the early part of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln regularly met the Union Army troops and made informal inquiries of their preparedness.

Decades later, on the eve of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, Dwight Eisenhower paid a visit to American and British paratroopers who were preparing to go into battle. As I described in two previous articles (here and here,) the Normandy invasion’s success was wholly dependent on the weather across the English Channel, something Eisenhower could not control. Eisenhower famously told his driver “I hope to God I’m right” about his wager with the weather in launching the Allied attack.

These two leaders were carrying out what is now called Management by Walking Around (MBWA.)

Without MBWA, managers rarely emerge from their offices-turned-fortresses

General Eisenhower addressing American paratroopers on 5-June-1944 before the Battle of Normandy MBWA is a widespread management technique in which managers make frequent, unscheduled, learning-oriented visits to their organization’s frontlines. Managers interact directly with frontline employees, observe their work, solicit their opinions, seek ideas for improvement, and work directly with the frontline to identify and resolve problems.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) was the first company to adopt MBWA as a formal management technique. In The HP Way (1995,) co-founder David Packard attributes much of the success of his company’s remarkably employee-oriented culture to managers’ good listening skills, employees’ enthusiastic participation, and an environment where employees feel comfortable raising concerns—all cultural attributes directly engendered by MBWA.

Fostering open two-way communication

The American quality management pioneer Edwards Deming (1900–1993) once wrote of MBWA, “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realize they have one in the first place.”

Acclaimed leadership guru Tom Peters popularized MBWA in his bestsellers In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence. Even today, Peters advocates that leaders and managers use MBWA to not only personally spread the company’s values to the frontline but also to accelerate decision-making by helping employees on the spot.

Sam Walton with Walmart's Frontline Employees » Management by Walking Around

Learning about problems and concerns at firsthand

'The HP Way' by David Packard (ISBN 0060845791) MBWA is comparable to the Toyota Production System‘s concept of gemba walks” where managers go to the location where work is performed, observe the process, and talk to the employees. By enabling managers to see problems in context, organizations can better understand a problem, its causes, and its negative impact. Gemba (Japanese for “the real place”) thus facilitates active problem solving.

Because of MBWA, managers’ presence on the frontlines sends a visible signal that a company’s management connects with the realities of the frontline and that leadership is serious about listening to employees’ opinions and resolving problems. MBWA thus complements an organization’s open-door management policy.

Idea for Impact: Practice MBWA

Employees will appreciate that their managers and leaders are open-minded and will sincerely listen to what employees have to say.

Don’t use MBWA to spy on employees or interfere unnecessarily with their work.

Advice for the First-Time Manager: Whom Should You Invest Your Time With?

Advice for the First-Time Manager: Whom Should You Invest Your Time With?

Before you were a manager, success was all about your individual performance. When you become a manager, success is all about growing your employees. It is about bringing out the best in people who work for you—making them smarter, pushing them to perform better, and advancing their professional development.

As a manager and a team-leader, your performance as an individual matters in the sense of how you cultivate your team’s efficacy and foster their self-confidence through coaching and feedback. Your success will be measured less by what you do and more from the reflected glory of your team.

Given a team to manage,

  • Don’t invest the same amount of time for each employee. Treat employees differently, based on their responsibilities, strengths, and their developmental needs. Do spend some time every week chatting with each employee. Then prioritize and invest more time with:
    • those who ask for your help.
    • those who need your help, but may not ask for it—especially those employees who may be struggling with some assignments because of their weaknesses.
    • those who are transitioning into their roles or may be experiencing changes.
    • those whose ideas and performance have the biggest impact to the organization—now or in the future.
    • those competent employees who understand the responsibility you’ve assigned them and the results expected. Especially with employees who need little help and direction getting things done, focus on ensuring that your expectations and priorities align with theirs.
  • Give your employees the freedom and responsibility to do their jobs. Set high standards and make them accountable for achieving the results.
  • Give your employees continuous, timely feedback: not just during the HR-required mid-year or end-of-year performance reviews. Thoughtfully use every meeting, design review, brainstorming, project closure, or client-presentation as a teaching moment.

The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Avon’s Andrea Jung [Leadership Lessons] [Book Review & Summary]

When companies do well, their CEOs are often heralded as outstanding visionaries and brilliant innovators. In particular, when macroeconomic conditions are favorable, these CEOs are sheltered from scrutiny because the spoils of their success deflect attention from their leadership shortcomings (see my previous article on how success often conceals wickedness.) When the tide turns, however, the leadership deficiencies are exposed for all to see. The CEOs are the first to get the blame, even if they may not merit it.

Deborrah Himsel’s Beauty Queen offers an insightful tale of the spectacular rise to the top and the tumultuous fall from grace of Andrea Jung. Beauty Queen divides Jung’s tenure as the CEO of cosmetics company Avon from 1999 to 2012 into two halves: Jung led six consecutive years of double-digit growth initially and then presided over a series of operational missteps that led to her resignation. Alas, Avon has never since recovered—its numerous restructuring efforts have failed, and its strategic and financial performance has severely deteriorated.

The Rise of Andrea Jung and Avon (1999–2005)

'Beauty Queen: Inside the Reign of Avon's Andrea Jung' by Deborrah Himsel (ISBN 113727882X) Promoted at age 41, Andrea Jung brought glamour, charm, and personal style to her CEO’s role. She quickly reshaped Avon’s image and articulated a powerful purpose for the company. She injected energy into a decaying cosmetics brand and pushed Avon into new profitable markets in China, Russia, and other countries. When Jung became CEO, 60% of Avon’s sales were in the United States; by 2011, only 17% of sales were in the United States and 70% were in developing markets.

Jung’s revival of Avon’s fortune catapulted her fame; she became one of America’s most recognized chief executives. Fortune magazine named her one of the most powerful women in the world. Jack Welch recruited her to General Electric’s board of directors.

Beauty Queen attributes this initial success not only to Jung’s inherent strengths in marketing and branding, but also to her right-hand person Susan Kropf. Kropf was a brilliant operations person, who balanced Jung’s acute lack of skills in running the day-to-day operations of a global company.

The Fall of Andrea Jung and Avon (2005–2012)

Avon’s sales started to slow down in 2005. And, Susan Kropf’s exit in 2006 corresponded with the dawn of Avon’s misfortunes. Andrea Jung never replaced Kropf; Avon was left without a chief operating officer.

As Avon started to struggle, Jung’s inadequate operations experience became a serious liability. A streak of self-inflicted problems resulted in strategic and operational disasters that took a huge financial toll and resulted in a flight of Avon’s top talent. Jung failed to deal effectively with failures of computer systems in Brazil, inadequate inventory and supply-chain management, poor management of working capital, and a staggering bribery scandal in China.

Jung’s lack of expertise to deliver results went up against her bold projections about the business’s future. Straying from Avon’s door-to-door direct selling roots, Jung experimented with a direct-selling channel, but quickly abandoned her strategy of running Avon retail stores. Her attempts to start baby-goods and other new product lines foundered after just two years. Avon’s many acquisitions failed; a silver jewelry company (Silpada) that Jung bought for $650 million had to be sold back to the original owners for $85 million.

Avon never recovered from the blunders that Andrea Jung presided over

Avon Beauty Products After Jung’s several turnaround efforts had failed to take hold, she resigned in 2011. Her replacement, former Johnson & Johnson executive Sheri McCoy, has since struggled to turn the company around.

The bribery scandal in China impaired Avon. In 2014, Avon settled the case with the Justice Department and the SEC for $135 million. To boot, Avon not only spent $350 million on legal fees, but also lost ground in the burgeoning cosmetics market in China.

Avon’s market value fell from $21 billion (1-Mar-2004) at the height of Jung’s success to $1.1 billion (15-Jan-2016). The company’s stock price fell from $44.33 to $2.50.

Lessons from Andrea Jung’s Leadership Style at Avon

Some of the most instructive leadership lessons from Beauty Queen are,

  • “Studying the trajectory of the Avon CEO is a great way to learn leadership. Andrea’s career … offers invaluable lessons about finding the right balance between substance and style.”
  • “Her story is a cautionary tale, one that suggests the critical importance of being aware of your weaknesses and how they can sabotage you.”
  • Leaders should know when to go. “If Andrea had departed in 2008, she would have left with her reputation and halo fully intact … CEOs that are successful early on often err on the side of staying too long.” [See my previous article on why leaders better quit while they’re ahead.]
  • Companies should pair up their leaders with deputies who have complementary skills to offset the Achilles’ heels of the leaders.

Recommendation: Skim through the first six chapters of Beauty Queen for an informative quick read on Andrea Jung’s rise and fall at Avon. Thumb through the next five chapters for an uninteresting discussion of broad leadership lessons and action lists in dry PowerPoint style.

Don’t Push Employees to Change

Don't Push Employees to Change One of managers’ most common complaints relates to their failure to persuade their employees to change.

Having high expectations of employees can lead to bitter disappointment. The frustration that comes from employees not wanting to change causes many managers to focus on their employees’ negative qualities. Such an attitude makes it easy to find errors in employee behavior, leading to more disappointment—even resentment.

Even when an employee wants to change, he often fails to because he is pulled in two directions: by a motivation to change and by a motivation to maintain the status quo. Since change is seldom as easy as we think it will be, the motivation to maintain the status quo often triumphs.

The real reason employees (and people in general) don’t change is that underneath each employee’s commitment to change, he has an underlying, even stronger commitment to something else, as identified his intrinsic motivation.

Employees Resistant to Change For instance, an employee who expresses a desire to earn a promotion may avoid tougher assignments on his current job because he may be anxious about not measuring up. This employee may not even be fully aware of his own opposition. Therefore, managers are best served by understanding what truly motivates (and limits) each employee—i.e. his elements of intrinsic motivation. Only then can managers, through coaching and feedback, impel the employee to change by channeling the levers of extrinsic motivation (rewards, salary raise, fame, recognition, punishment) through one of the employee’s elements of intrinsic motivation.

Idea for Impact: Trying to change people will result in frustration and futility. Employees may change for a short time, but unless they have a compelling reason for change, they will go back to their natural state. Managers must temper their expectations about changing employees. As the Buddha taught, one way to lessen disappointment in life is to learn to lower your expectations of others.

Eight Ways to Keep Your Star Employees Around

Eight Ways to Keep Your Star Employees Around

Every manager should make employee retention a priority and regularly inquire, “How many of my star employees would leave my organization if they could?”

Employee turnover can be expensive. Managers must find and hire replacements, invest in training the new employees, and wait for them to get to up to speed—all while suffering productivity shortfalls during the transition. The more talented an employee, the higher the cost of replacing him/her.

Here’s what you need to do to keep your star employees around.

  1. Identify them. Find key attributes that distinguish top performers from average performers. Then rank your team against these attributes and identify those employees who are critical to your organization’s short- and long-term success.
  2. Perform salary and compensation research within your industry and offer an attractive-enough benefits package. Beyond a particular point, compensation loses much of its motivating power. Consider flexible work arrangements.
  3. Understand what your star employees value and help them realize their values and regard their work as meaningful, purposeful, and important. Often, the risk of losing employees because their personal values don’t correspond with the team’s values is far greater than the risk of losing them because of compensation.
  4. Get regular feedback from your star employees. Ask, “What can I do as your manager to make our organization a great place for you to work?” Let them tell you what they need and what they like and don’t like about their jobs. Adjust their assignments and their work conditions accordingly.
  5. Invest in training and development. Give star employees opportunities to develop their skills and increase their engagement and job security. Hold frequent and formal career discussions to determine employees’ goals and aspirations and coach them.
  6. Give your star employees the autonomy, authority, and resources to use their skills and do their jobs in their own way.
  7. Keep them challenged and engaged. Make work more exciting. Set aggressive, but realizable goals. Move your star employees around into positions in the company where they will face new challenges and develop critical skills. Employees would like to be challenged, appreciated, trusted, and see a path for career advancement.
  8. Appreciate and give honest feedback regularly. Make timely and informal feedback a habit. Don’t disregard employee performance until the annual review. Help employees feel confident about your organization’s future. Earn their trust.

To Inspire, Pay Attention to People: The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect: When managers pay attention to people, better morale and productivity ensue

The Hawthorne Experiments

Sociologist Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne Experiments marked a sea change in industrial and organizational psychology. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mayo led this famous series of experiments on workers’ productivity at a Western Electric factory in the Chicago suburb of Hawthorne.

The experiments’ initial purpose was to study the effects of workers’ physical conditions on their productivity. The lighting in the work area for one group of workers was dramatically improved while another group’s lighting remained unchanged. The productivity of the workers with the better lighting increased.

The experimenters found similar productivity improvements when they improved other working conditions, viz., work hours, meal and rest breaks, etc. Surprisingly, the workers’ productivity increased even when the lights were dimmed again. In fact, even when everything about the workplace was restored to the way it was before the experiments had begun, the factory’s productivity was at its highest level.

Recognition and even simple acknowledgment can give people a boost

When Elton Mayo discussed his findings with the workers, he learned that the interest Mayo and his experimenters had shown in the workers made them feel more valued. They were accustomed to being ignored by management.

Mayo concluded that the workers’ productivity and morale had not improved because of the changes in physical conditions, but rather from a motivational effect—the workers felt encouraged when someone was actually concerned about their workplace conditions.

'The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation' by Elton Mayo (ISBN 0415436842) The Hawthorne Experiments understood the individual worker in a social context. The resulting insight was that employees’ performance was influenced not only by their own innate abilities but also by their work environment and the people they work with. Mayo wrote in The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, “The desire to stand well with one’s fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the merely individual interest and the logic of reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.”

Over the decades, the methodology and conclusions of the Hawthorne experiments have been widely debated. Yet the key takeaway is profound: when managers pay attention to people, better morale and productivity ensue.

Idea for Impact: Employee engagement is the very heart of effective management

Inspire your employees by asking them how they are doing. Let them in on the plans for your organization, seek their opinions, recognize them, appreciate their work, and coach and give them feedback.

Even a little appreciation and praise can go a long way to boost employee morale. The desire for recognition is a basic human need; and managers can easily fulfill this need with the aim of bringing out the best in people.

How to Promote Employees

How to Promote Employees

Job Promotions Can Be Stressful

A job promotion is generally cause for celebration and gratification. However, it can be a source of deep anxiety for many employees: they tend to suffer additional mental strain and are less likely to find time to go to the doctor. Research at the University of Warwick found that “the mental health of managers typically deteriorates after a job promotion, and in a way that goes beyond merely a short-term change.”

Promote Employees Who’ve Shown Some Evidence of Success

Before you decide to promote an employee, ask yourself the following six questions about the candidate. The more affirmative answers to these questions, the better the chances for the promotion to succeed. Examine and resolve any “no” answers before considering the employee for other job transitions.

  • Is the candidate performing her current duties well enough to justify a promotion?
  • Can she hand over her current responsibilities to a new person?
  • Does she possess a sound understanding of the fundamentals of a business and have the requisite operating experience?
  • Is she keen to take on a new job? Is she familiar with the responsibilities and priorities of the new job? Is she willing to make decisions and be accountable for results?
  • Is she qualified and experienced enough to do at least part of the new job? Is she adequately trained or ready to be trained in the new job’s requirements?
  • Are her interpersonal skills adequate to work with employees, customers, suppliers, peers, and bosses in the new job?

Idea for Impact: If employees are not entirely prepared for new assignments, you are unintentionally setting them up for stressful transitions, bitterness, or eventual failure. Beware of the perils of promoting people too quickly.

People Cannot be Perfect

“Each person is an idiom… an apparent violation of the syntax of the species.”
Gordon Allport, American Psychologist, in Becoming

“People Are Like Apples”

People Are Like Apples - 'Root for their better angels' Some of the best advice I’ve ever received relates to managing people. Many years ago, as I was getting ready to hire my first employee, I prepared a long list of ideal competencies. My manager laughed at my list and remarked that I was looking for a perfect candidate, one that I wouldn’t be able to find. He told me a metaphor about how “people are like apples” and encouraged me to look for a good-enough employee instead.

When you buy apples in a market, don’t look for spotless apples, but rather for good-enough apples. Spotless “choice” apples are not only difficult to find, but may cost more. Instead, look for apples that are good enough and may have one or two bad spots. When you get an apple with a spot on it, you can either remove the spot with a knife (almost always, the spot is not very deep) or simply eat around the bad spot, thus enjoying the rest of the “near perfect” apple.

Employees, bosses, colleagues, friends, relatives, parents, kids, spouses, and all people are like apples. Use a metaphorical knife to work around their imperfections, flaws, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies.

“Root for their better angels”

Last year, the ever-brilliant Ben Casnocha wrote a fascinating essay reflecting upon his “10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman,” the founder of LinkedIn and a Silicon Valley investor. As Hoffman’s chief of staff, Casnocha worked on various strategic aspects of Hoffman’s professional and personal initiatives. He also co-authored two books, Start-up of You (on career management) and The Alliance (on talent management).

Casnocha’s “What I Learned” essay is full of helpful management and leadership insights. Here’s one on people-skills:

One of Reid’s underrated gifts … is that he maintains very complicated portraits of the people he knows. He appreciates the full spectrum of strengths and weaknesses of a particular person. He’ll comment on a friend’s character flaw—say, self-centeredness—but in the next breath note one of their unique strengths. Flaws that cause others to completely disengage are, for Reid, “navigable” (to use a Reid-ism) en route to their better side. … If you make a mistake (or three) or if a weakness of yours gets exposed—you’re not dead to him. It’s just another data point in a rich tapestry in a long-term relationship.

Work around Others' Faults

Idea for Impact: Work around Others’ Faults

A Chinese Proverb reminds, “Gold cannot be pure, and people cannot be perfect.” People differ greatly in their capacities: some are stronger than others, some are better looking, some are better at science, some draw and paint better, and some are better athletes. Some make decisions through logic; others rely on intuition. Intelligent people are sometimes not physically very agile and are frequently socially awkward. Great artists sometimes cannot do enough math even to balance their checkbooks. Most people are smart in their specific spheres of competence, but are clueless in many other areas of human endeavor.

When working with people, work around their idiosyncrasies. Overlook and compensate for their imperfections, or coach them and help them work on their weaknesses. Being skilled at working with people in all aspects of life involves being able to fortify their strengths and making their weaknesses irrelevant.