Tips to Improve Team Culture

The culture of a team governs its effectiveness. Most teams have a culture that allows adequate performance despite many unfortunate outbreaks of tension and sometimes childish behavior. It is unfortunate that more teams do not experience the exhilaration of working in a supportive culture that produces excellent results. The methods of building teams into high performing units are well documented, but most teams do not go through the rigor required to get to that level. This paper blends well known processes with horse sense born of experience that will allow any team to perform better.

In 1965, Bruce Tuckman described four stages that every team goes through. They are Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. A critical time for any team is when it is forming. This is when the team is trying to figure out its role and goals. Members are not sure of their status or contribution at this point, and personal bonding is a key element to the eventual success of the team. It is advisable for the group to go offsite for some initial teambuilding activities. Many leaders avoid this step because often team building activities involve a kind of game atmosphere that does not feel like “work.” In fact, team building is real work that may be fun at the moment, but it is deadly serious business that can result in millions of dollars of profit if done well or millions of dollars in damage control if not done at all.

During the storming phase, there is some kind of power struggle where members vie for position and influence. It is up to the team leader to help the team move quickly through this awkward time. Usually the storming stage is short simply because it is painful. People want to get out of the rut of consternation and move on to getting the work done.

It is in the norming phase that the team decides the degree of effectiveness it will ultimately enjoy. If individual and team behaviors are agreed upon with conviction, the team will immediately begin to perform with excellence. Included in this phase is identifying the individual skills brought to the team by the diversity of talent in the group, the goals of the team, the ground rules of expected behavior, and the consequences of failing to comply with team expectations.

The two most basic things required for any team to become a high performing unit are 1) a common goal, and 2) trust. If these building blocks are in place, all of the rest of the team dynamics (like excellent communication) will sort themselves out. If either of these is missing, the team will sputter and struggle to meet expectations. A key rule fostered by most teams that is most often compromised is to treat each member with respect. There is a kind of disease that sets in most teams where members subtly undermine each other.

People often make jokes in team meetings. Keep your antenna up and you will discover that, for most groups, the majority of jokes are sarcastic digs about other people in the room. Everyone knows they are only jokes, and they laugh, but deep down some damage is done.

Smart groups have a conscious norm that they will enjoy humor in meetings but never make a joke at someone else’s expense. It may seem like a small thing, but over time this practice can really help improve the function of any team. It is easy to accomplish. The leader just needs to set the expectation and remind people when they slip up. In coaching some groups with a particularly bad habit on this, I have suggested that any time a person makes a joke that is a dig, he or she has to put $5 in a kitty. The money is used later by the group for a party. This small change can actually change the entire culture of a team.

Now that you are sensitized to this, just keep track in a few meetings with some hash marks on a piece of paper. You will be astonished how pervasive this problem is and also how certain people are addicted to the practice. Then, solve the problem and begin enjoying the benefits of better teamwork.

I have coached hundreds of teams, and find that there are patterns that lead to success and other patterns that lead to extreme frustration and failure. There is one condition that rises above all the others when it comes to dysfunctional teams. When some members of the team believe other members are not pulling their fair share, the team is going to have major problems. Unfortunately, this situation is so common, it is almost universal, yet there is a simple cure that is about 95% successful at preventing this condition or stopping it if it happens. The cure is to have an agreed upon Charter for the team upfront before behavior problems surface.

During the forming stage of a team, there is an opportunity to document several critical parameters of how the team will operate. These include:

  1. A list of the talents and skills each member of the team can contribute
  2. A set of solid, measurable performance goals for the team
  3. A set of agreed upon behaviors that the members agree to follow
  4. A statement of the consequences that will occur if a member fails to live up to the behaviors

When teams take the time at the start to document these four items, the chances of success are much higher than if this step is omitted. The most powerful item is #4, and it is the one that is most often omitted from a charter. The reason it has power is that when the team is forming, usually all members have good intentions to pull their weight for the good of the team. If they agree that letting the team down by slacking off and having others pick up the slack will result in some unhappy consequence (like being voted off the team, or having no points on an assignment, or having to do extra clean up work, or some other penalty) they are far less likely to practice “social loafing.” If they are tempted to goof off, then the penalty they have already agreed to is quickly applied, and the bad behavior is quickly extinguished.

Most teams without a good charter end up in the frustration of having one or more people believing they are unfairly doing more than their fair share of the work. When a good charter spells out the expected behaviors and the penalty for non-compliance before the team experiences a problem, it greatly reduces this most common of all team maladies.

Playing Favorites

As a leader, do you play favorites at work? I ask this question in my consulting and teaching work frequently.

Most times leaders think about this for several seconds and then say with a shrug, “Well, I guess I do play favorites, but I try not to.” Occasionally I will have some managers or supervisors who are adamant, “No, I do not play favorites.” As we discuss this a bit more, the managers realize that they do have some people they are more compatible with than others.

In every group, there are people you would rather work with if possible. That is human nature. When making decisions about who does what in an organization, leaders habitually “play favorites,” even though they know it is a real trustbuster. Let’s examine why this is and suggest a few antidotes that allow you to operate freely, and not fail as a leader due to the issue of favorites.

First, recognize that you do have people that you prefer to work with on specific jobs. You click with them and work well together, or they have a special skill and track record that gives you confidence the job will be well done. These are your “go to” people for specific jobs. Barring any outside force, you would choose these people for their traditional roles. Unfortunately, the more you use people in a certain type of special assignment, the more you appear to be paying favorites to the rest of the population. That can create unfortunate conversations about you in the break room.

How can you continue to operate most of the time with the people you are most comfortable with and still beat the stigma of playing favorites? There are several antidotes to consider:

  • Have a kind of standard for special assignments. If you select George to do the budget work because he has accounting training, that is something you can explain to others. If someone else wants to help with the budget, he or she needs to get some accounting training too.
  • Discuss the situation openly with employees and offer flexibility. In a typical staff meeting it might sound like this. “I am asking Alice to answer this customer complaint letter because she has done this work well in the past. Since I have used her before in this role, this might appear to be playing favorites, and I want to avoid that. If other people in the group would like to answer these letters in the future, let me know and I will ask Alice to work alongside to train you in the proper techniques.” This method has three advantages. First, by openly addressing the issue of favorites, it becomes impossible for people to accuse you of being clueless on this issue. Second, you have shown a willingness to develop others in this special role if they want to step up. Finally, Alice is put on notice that she is not the heir apparent just because she has done you a few favors in the past.
  • The easiest way to beat the favorites stigma is to operate outside your “normal groove” on a few occasions. You only need to do this a time or two to beat the rap. The vast majority of times you can go with your gut or normal pattern. Furthermore, you get to pick which times you veer from the normal path. Select a time when the particular assignment is not crucial or the timing allows for significant review and offer that opportunity to try someone new. Letting someone new take a specific assignment is all it takes to squelch the break room talk that you always play favorites.
  • Having a policy of cross training everyone on a few jobs is another easy way to reduce the favorites issue. This is a simple matter of developing bench strength, which is a sign of an astute organization anyway. If everyone is trained on at least three jobs, you will rarely be caught flatfooted when a key person is out for two months due to an automobile accident, or be left stranded when a prime employee decides to quit. The side benefit is that people will see this as logical and willingly cross train others if it is part of an overall policy. If you wait until you are in a downsizing mode, you will get a chilly reception if you ask Ann to train Mike for her job responsibilities. She will instantly know her days are numbered. Her training efforts will be lackluster at best and full of future sabotage at worst.

There is an interesting backlash to the issue of having or playing favorites. If you are in a leadership position, you want all of your feedback and appraisal information to be as objective as possible, but how do you know when you are being objective?

I often found myself unconsciously grading down my favorite people in order to satisfy myself that I was not being biased. Then I would catch myself and wonder if I was really being fair to my best people.

So, I would jack up their performance reviews. Then later I would ruminate that I really did that because these were the people I was most comfortable with. In other words, I really struggled to figure out if I was being anywhere close to objective. Compounding that is how other people would perceive my calls on performance reviews during supervisor correlation sessions. I always felt my own administrative assistant was at a disadvantage due to this conundrum.

If I rated her slightly down in order to not appear biased, then I felt guilty about it when reviewing her performance appraisal. You can go slowly insane with this kind of analysis. The best way out is to have a solid correlation process among managers to review all performance appraisals specifically looking for any local bias.

It is amazing how people cannot see their own biases toward certain individuals. I once had a Department Manager who suggested his administrative assistant was the benchmark for the best one in our division.

This was just a week before one of the engineers came to me with a complaint about the quality of her work. I looked at a letter she typed that was ready to go out to our customer, stamped envelope and all. In three paragraphs there were more than 15 rather serious grammatical and typing errors. I could not believe the Manager put her up as the high benchmark for our entire division. He just could not see how weak she really was. In this case, having the letter as evidence rather than just a testimonial from her boss was very helpful.

In order to have an environment of trust, people need to know they will be treated fairly when it comes time for their performance reviews. They have to be able to trust that they will be assessed fairly on their merits as well as their weaknesses and seen as a whole person.

Be constantly aware of the issue of playing favorites. It is a significant trust buster in every organization, yet by using the techniques outlined above, any leader can avoid the trap. At the same time it is possible to use your “go to” people most of the time for critical assignments.

Ubiquitous Reinforcement

The most effective way to get people to perform in a certain way is to reward performance that is in the direction you wish and disregard performance that is not. Two other important concepts are to establish an environment of trust up front, and gently shape impending wrong behavior toward some activity that can be positively reinforced. These concepts are documented Ken Blanchard’s book, Whale Done, published in 2002.

When people are properly reinforced, they develop habits of doing the right things because it makes them feel good. The reinforcement becomes intrinsic. People are doing their best at all times, not just when the boss has a chance to witness it.

Of all the tools at a leader’s command, positive reinforcement is by far the most powerful. Yet reinforcement can be a minefield of potential problems, and many leaders, after getting burnt, become reluctant to use it. By avoiding reinforcement, they ignore the most powerful correcting force available to them. A good analogy is when a military pilot flies a fighter jet. The way to get a fighter jet to do what you want is to carefully control the stick at all times. Reinforcement at work is like the stick of a fighter jet. If we are not skillful at using it, the results can be destabilizing or even disastrous, but that’s no reason to let go of the stick. We simply need to train everyone to use reinforcement often, learn from any mistakes along the way, and use reinforcement to enhance intrinsic motivation.

It is sad that many attempts at positive reinforcement actually lower motivation. You have probably experienced this yourself, either on the sending or receiving end, and it can be very frustrating. There are four reasons why positive reinforcement can have a negative impact.

  1. Overdone Tangible Reinforcement – The over use of trinkets, buttons, T-shirts, or stickers to reinforce every positive action gets old quickly. When using tangible rewards, keep the volume and variety to a reasonable level to maintain their impact. Check to see if people are rolling their eyes when given a trinket.
  2. Insincere Reinforcing – Insincerity is transparent. When a manager says nice things about you that do not come from the heart, you know it instantly. It reduces his or her credibility. When reinforcing others, don’t say something because it sounds good, say it because it feels true.
  3. Not Perceived as Reinforcing – What people find reinforcing is a matter of individual taste. When leaders reinforce using their own frame of reference rather than that of the recipient, it often ends in frustration. Find out what would really reinforce the other person by asking. Don’t give a doughnut to a person on a strict diet. That sounds obvious, but that kind of mistake happens all the time.
  4. Reinforcement Perceived as Unfair – Of all the reasons for not reinforcing well, the issue of fairness spreads out like a nuclear cloud after a bomb blast. Leaders get burnt on this issue once, and it colors reinforcing patterns from then on. If they reinforce Sally publicly, it makes her feel good, but tends to turn off Joe and Mark, who believe they did more than she did. That is why the “employee of the month” concept often backfires. It sets up a kind of implied competition where one person is singled out for attention. That person is perceived to “win” at the expense of others who think they “lose.” How do you fight this?

Create a win-win atmosphere rather than win-lose. Focus more on group performance, where the whole group is reinforced with special mention to some key players. Have the employees themselves nominate people singled out for attention. Group nomination feels better than having the boss “play God,” trying to figure out who made the biggest contribution. It is a tricky area.

You can never overdo sincere reinforcement in an organization. The best reinforcement approach is to make it ubiquitous and continuous. The word ubiquitous comes from the Latin root, ubiqe, which means everywhere. It was originally a theological expression used to describe the omnipresence of Christ. In this context, it means that reinforcement should exist everywhere in an organization and be encountered constantly.

Developing a Reinforcing Culture

Thus far, we have discussed personal reinforcements for a job well done. This is important, but it pales compared with the power of developing a reinforcing culture at all levels. That culture is a social norm that encourages everyone to honestly appreciate each other and say so as often as possible.

Many groups struggle in a kind of hell where people hate and try to undermine one another at every turn. They snipe at each other and “blow people in,” just to see them suffer or to get even for some perceived sin done to them. What an awful environment to live and work in, yet it is far too common.

Contrast this with a group that builds each other up and delights in each other’s successes. These groups have much more fun. They enjoy interfacing with their comrades at work. They are also about twice as productive! You see them together outside work for social events, and there are close family-type relationships in evidence. Hugging is spontaneous.

As a leader, you want to develop this second kind of atmosphere, but how? A good place to start is with yourself. Make sure you are practicing positive reinforcement in a way that others see and recognize. Create an atmosphere where everyone understands and places high value on effective reinforcement. Become a model of reinforcement, and praise those in your organization who excel at it. One good technique is to have the leader encourage reinforcing notes within the organization and ask to receive a copy of each note. By reviewing the notes and publicly giving praise to both the sender and receivers, the method will quickly spread and perpetuate itself. The speed and ease of e-mail facilitates these notes of praise.

At the same time, leaders need to encourage verbal reinforcement that is not documented. Any time someone sees another person doing something right, she should be encouraged to offer praise. Especially important are the “thank yous” any time a person goes out of his or her way to help someone. The key is to create the culture at all levels. It isn’t enough for just the boss or a few supervisors to reinforce people. Teach everyone to do it. That multiplies the impact by however many people you have. As the culture develops, you’ll see it spreading to other parts of the organization. People will begin to notice your area is much more positive and productive than before. It will sparkle, and upper management will start asking how you did it.

A reinforcing culture transforms an organization from a “what’s wrong” mindset to one of “what’s right.” The positive energy benefits everyone as the quality of work life is significantly enhanced. In addition, the quality and quantity of work increases dramatically because you have harnessed energy previously lost in bickering and put it into positive work toward the vision. What an uplifting way to increase productivity! Instead of beating on people and constantly dwelling on the negative, you’ll be generating good feelings and loyalty while you drive productivity to new heights. That is worth doing and easy to accomplish!

Don’t get discouraged if you make a mistake in reinforcing. Sometimes you will. It is an area of significant peril, but its power is immense. Continually monitor your success level with reinforcement. Talk about it openly, and work to improve the culture. Consider every mistake a learning event for everyone, especially yourself. Often these are comical in nature – like throwing another pizza party when everyone is sick of pizza.

Let your reinforcement be joyous and spontaneous. Let people help you make it special. Reinforcement is the most powerful elixir available to a leader. Don’t shy away from it because it’s difficult or you’ve made mistakes in the past.

The preceding information was adapted from the book The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, by Robert Whipple. It is available on

Cross Training – The Miracle Cure?

Don’t you love the advertisements that promise to cure all your problems just by taking a pill? They try to convince you that all ailments are related, and for only $19. 95 plus S&H you can have a full month supply of the cure – “But wait! If you order within the next 20 minutes, we’ll double your order; just pay separate S&H.” It is amazing that there are people who actually believe this drivel.

For organizational ailments, I believe there is a potion that really does attack many issues at the same time, and you can actually get a double dose for a very low price with no S&H (and the offer does not expire in 20 minutes). The tonic I am referring to is cross training. Let’s look at some of the reasons why this is such powerful medicine.

Link Between Training and Satisfaction

Several studies over the past 50 years have established a strong link between training and satisfaction. Organizations that continuously train their people have higher motivated employees and less absenteeism. If you look at the organizations in the Top 100 companies to work for in the United States, you will see that every one of them has a strong training program in place for employees.

Improved Bench Strength

It is not rocket science to discover the benefits of having people cross trained on each other’s job. Every time an employee is out for an illness or vacation, it is a simple matter of moving people around to cover the lost function. Having several back-ups for each position generates the flexibility to operate efficiently in today’s frenetic environment. In sports, we know that a team with great bench strength has an easier time winning than one with monolithic superstars.

Better Teamwork

When people train others on their function, a kind of personal bond is struck that is intangible but powerful. It is really a large teambuilding effort to install a cross training program in a company. People actually enjoy it and rightfully feel the additional skills have something to do with job security. Interestingly in organizations that do not cross train, many people are protective of their knowledge thinking that being the only one who knows procedures makes them indispensable. Actually the reverse is true because when large numbers of people feel that way, there is high tension and the organization fails when someone is out. Jobs are not very secure in organizations like that.

Reduction in Turn Over

An organization that focuses on cross training suffers less from employee churn. Why? Because people have more variety of work and higher self esteem. They have more fun at work and tend to stay with the organization. Also, the opportunities to learn new things adds to the equation. Basically, people operate at higher levels on Maslow’s pyramid in organizations that cross train.

Leads to Higher Trust

Trust is directly related to how people feel about their development. In organizations were people have a solid training program for the future, people know management cares about them as individuals. The discussions to develop the plan are trust-building events because the topic is how the individual can improve his or her lot in life. That is refreshing and bodes well for the future.

Not Expensive

Of all the medications an organization can take for their problems, cross training is one of the least expensive. Reason: Training can be inserted during the little slack periods within an operating day or week. Training keeps people occupied in growth activities when there is nothing much else to do. So, the real cost to the organization is much lower than it appears on the surface. When compared to the benefits, the ROI is fantastic.

Keeps the Saw Sharp

We all know the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. This is because in order to explain what you are doing, you have to understand it very well. A cross training policy forces incumbent workers to have their job processes well documented and easy to communicate. Also, in the process of training someone else, there is the opportunity for the trainee to suggest better ways of approaching a task, so the process is being honed and refined all the time. That is healthy because it prevents stagnation.

If your organization does not have an active and specific cross training process, get one started today. It has so many upsides and really no significant downside. If you have a program, ask yourself if it is fresh and vital. Are you milking this technique well or giving it lip service? If the latter is true, you have a lot to gain be revitalizing your process.

4 Tips To Improve the Morning Meeting

Some companies have a kind of pep talk on a daily basis followed by a cheer before employees are allowed to work. There are two ways of looking at this practice. In most groups, these pep rallies have only a short-term positive impact on morale. In fact, many groups eventually stop the practice altogether because of the incredible negative impact on morale.

The boss is uncomfortable because she knows people hate the “morning meeting,” and the discipline of the company cheer before going to work has become a joke. People feel the activity is a waste of time, because their morale comes from sources other than pep talks. It does not matter what the boss says at the start of each shift.

What matters are the signals sent a thousand times all day outside of the rallies. The ritual of a morning meeting only serves to underscore the hypocrisy, and therefore, has the reverse impact of what was intended.

In some groups, the pep rally concept actually does produce higher morale and is a sustainable positive force in the company. What factors allow this to happen?

1. The Meeting Itself

There is some actual benefit if the meeting contains useful information or some kind of social support that people find helpful. Often the meetings are a time to remind employees of new policies or drill on the location of recently moved articles. By enhancing basic communication, these meetings help managers perform a basic function that would be hard to achieve in an e-mail or other form of announcement. It also gives employees a chance to question the information for sanity or just to verify understanding. So if WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) has enough positive power, then a morning meeting might actually work.

2. The centering thoughts

Rather like an exercise in yoga, some meetings help people compartmentalize their lives so they can display the right persona for customers. They can filter out the chaos or distractions going on elsewhere in their lives and focus on the tasks at hand. This would be the equivalent of a team “suiting up” before a public sporting event.

3. A pre-existing environment of trust

If the leader has achieved a culture of trust where people see congruence of words and actions, the leader will have more credibility. This is the equivalent of a coach in sports. In this case, a rallying cry for team spirit may actually inspire some people to put forth more effort. At least the company cheer has the potential to generate some fraternal feelings that are directionally helpful. Without the element of trust, these cheers have little chance to produce a positive impact.

4. Employee ownership

If the meeting is sponsored and designed by the employees for their own benefit, then they have a much better chance than if it is a management-driven event. This shows the link between empowerment and morale. When the workers are respected for being mature enough to design and conduct a meeting, with perhaps some guest appearances from management, the dynamic can be a liberating influence. The flip side of this is if certain cliques within the worker ranks own the process to the exclusion of others, the chosen ones will alienate the rest of the group and eclipse the benefits.

In a trusting environment, daily meetings can be helpful for the above reasons. Communication is enhanced, which helps transparency, and it gives managers the opportunity to model reinforcing candor.

In general, the early shift meetings should be avoided if there are trust issues among people in the organization. Some people would argue that is precisely the reason to invoke the technique in an attempt to remedy a low trust situation. I think where low trust is a pre-existing condition, the dangers outweigh the benefits. Since most organizations have extremely low trust, it is a good idea to proceed with great caution when considering trying to enforce morale through daily meetings. The old adage feels all too real for many employees, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Most organizations obtain only a tiny fraction of the effort that is possible from the people they employ. A key measure is what percentage of discretionary does your culture elicit (and there is no known way to measure this variable accurately). No organization can get a sustained 100% of the potential effort of people. That’s because it would require a continual flow of adrenalin that would be fatal. But my estimate is that many organizations operate at about 25% of maximum capacity. They can double the effort of most people by using the Leadergrow Trust Model and still have them operating at a comfortable 50% level from their peak. The key enabler to this leap in productivity is the existence of real trust within the organization.

Acting Like Adults

I am a big fan of documenting expected behaviors for a team. Reasons: 1) expectations are clearly stated, which improves performance and 2) it is easier to call out members who are not abiding by the rules.

Every team should spend time upfront to construct and document rules of behavior and engagement. Here is an example set of rules one of my teams came up with that helped us perform well over several years.

  • When in conflict we will try to see the situation from the other’s perspective
  • We will not leave our meetings with “silent nos”
  • We will listen to each other but not beat dead horses (80/20 rule)
  • We will build an environment of trust
  • We will work together on a finite number of common goals
  • We will be more inclined to ask for and offer help

The team that created this set of rules was a high performing group of mature managers. In many offices and teams, there is an additional rule that would be most helpful. That is

We will try to remember we are all adults and act that way most of the time.

It seems so simple, yet all of us have witnessed adults acting like children at work. If you have not seen this, check your pulse – you may be dead! The problem is that when we get into petty squabbles, the real issues are deeper than the symptoms that are driving us nuts on the surface. So those childlike behaviors come out all over the office.

Operating in close quarters, human beings have a remarkable talent for driving each other crazy. This problem is ubiquitous, no demographic is exempt from this kind of bad behavior. You can find petty squabbles and childish actions on the part of lawyers, doctors, construction workers, bellhops, auto mechanics, ballet dancers, rock bands, people on assembly lines, farmers, office workers, top managers, etc..

If you observe a typical work environment for just a couple days, you will see ample evidence of all the aberrant behaviors grade school teachers witness every day in the class room and on the playground. Here are a few examples you will quickly recognize.

Being selfish – Kids like to hog the remote control. Well, so do adults (and don’t deny it). At work, the idea is to cooperate and give as much or more than you get, but since equity is in the eye of the beholder most people have the perpetual feeling they are doing more than their fair share. They put up with it for a while, but eventually the perceived inequity flares beyond the tolerance limit and fights erupt.

Whining – Oh boy, is that ever common in the working world. You would think some people are living in a prison camp the way they moan and cry about everything that is not up to their personal liking. We had a sign in one of my work areas that had a big red circle with a line through it and the word “Whining” in the center. The “no whining” symbol was actually useful in many cases. When people are called for whining, they tend to do less of it. Some offices have Olympic quality whiners. They need to be called on it.

Shouting or grandstanding – Sometimes the level of yelling in the workplace is amazing. In school, bullies find out that most kids do not have the courage to stand up to them when they bluster. It is a great trick to be able to out shout the competition and often get your way. Supervisors in many organizations have a habit of using a tone of voice that people interpret as yelling. I often find that word to be hard to define because it really is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes a supervisor will be accused of yelling at an employee when he has not raised his voice at all. So, “yelling” does not always mean shouting, but it can mean that. I know one supervisor who really does yell at people – loudly. This kind of approach has no place in the working world, in my opinion, but there is still some debate.

There was an article in the Harvard Business Review indicating that for large scale change or innovation initiatives, a healthy dose of dissent is necessary. For example, it is said that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were famous for yelling at people. In my book on Trust, I share a cute story about Jack Welch. “One former GE executive who had been dressed down by Welch for daring to question his boss, admitted to the moderator of an Aspen Institute Seminar that Welch’s furious tirade ‘caused me to soil my pants.’ ” I think most of us would agree the bully approach is most often working at cross purposes to the organization’s best interest. Short term it may get compliance, but it destroys motivation.

Hitting – I guess this is not so often seen in the working world, but I have actually witnessed it in rare situations. Usually the hitting is with words rather than fists, but sometimes cat fights do erupt that involve pushing and shoving or an occasional slap in the face. Sometimes there is a type of sexual harassment that goes along with the physical contact sports being played by the children at work.

Sulking – This is so common that you will recognize it immediately. Watch for it whenever someone is called out for another one of the child like behaviors. The person will sulk and mope about for days because his or her ego has been bruised. This childlike behavior occurs because people just do not know what else to do, so they hang their head and sigh deeply that the world is so unfair.

Passive Aggression – We see this all the time when people do not feel motivated to do their work. They will go into a “Flight Controller Slowdown” and do only exactly what they are told to do. Then they will sit and wait for more instructions. It is a way to get even for the sins done unto them by the big bad bosses. Kids do this to try to get out of doing their homework or eating their vegetables. Adults practice it to punish those in control. It is exactly the same driving force.

Getting even– Back stabbing or in some way paying back an individual or group for some perceived wrong doing only serves to escalate the hostility. The easiest way to witness this is in the e-mail grenades that go back and forth in every office in the world. Each time a note comes from the other person, the situation becomes graver and additional top brass are copied on the note until the final string becomes really laughable. It is the exact equivalent of a food fight in the Junior High School cafeteria. It gets messy very fast. The antidote is so simple. Don’t take the bait!

There are probably dozens of other childlike behaviors you can witness every day in the working world. I think having a rule that indicates we are going to try to avoid this kind of thing is a good defense that can work. There needs to be a highly visible effort to act like adults and not resort to immature tactics to get our way. When you set that expectation as a leader, it flushes out the individuals who like to practice these techniques and they are far less disruptive. Soon the embarrassment of the whole thing forces the perpetrators to grow up and join the adult working world. Try it, and see if it helps improve things in your place of work.

The preceding information was adapted from the book The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, by Robert Whipple. It is available on

E-mail Openings – Make Them Work

Blink: The power of Thinking Without Thinking

Humans have the ability to synthesize data with incredible precision. In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes how human beings can form accurate impressions of situations and people based on just a tiny amount of data. Gladwell calls this “thin slicing,” which is the ability to sort out germane factors from a large array of data with lightning speed. Let’s look at the first few words of some example e-mail notes and see how people are likely to react to them.

• “Hi Alan” This is a friendly and neutral salutation that puts the reader in a happy place. Why? You have used the most important word in your reader’s vocabulary. You used his name along with the happy word, “Hi.” After those two words, your reader is subconsciously saying to himself, “This is going to be a nice note.”

• “Alan” Here you use his favorite word again, but without the word “Hi” or “Greetings,” your note starts out on a sober, stern, or businesslike note. Your reader is wondering whether he is going to get chewed out or get a raise.

• “So Alan” This is an alarming opening to an e-mail. The reader will instinctively cringe before even reading the third word. This is going to be rough. Either Alan has previously written something to upset you, or you have a serious question about something he has done.

• No name or greeting Here you have lost an excellent opportunity to start your note with a polite greeting. Alan will usually not miss it on a conscious level, but he will be wary about the contents of your note until he reads further. Without the name as a courteous salutation, the first couple words will set the tone for better or worse. If you start with “Once again…” you are signaling that Alan is in trouble unless he knows you are thrilled with his most recent performance. At worst this is a trust withdrawal, and at best you have missed the opportunity for a trust deposit.

• “You dummy” There is no mistaking the tone of this greeting. Alan is going to put on his flack jacket before reading this note.

• “Bless you, Alan” This is the kind of note Alan will print out and put on his wall or take home to show his wife.

The words used to begin a note are the first “thin slice” of the tone for the entire e-mail. Make sure you get started on the right track. There is momentum when reading notes. If the reader starts out in a good frame of mind, things go more smoothly. If the opening is abrupt, curt, or is a blatant trust withdrawal, it will take a lot of honey in the rest of the note to make up for it.

It is like the difference between a conventional photograph and a hologram. If you take a photograph and cut out just a tiny piece of it, you will have only the data represented by that piece. If you cut out a tiny piece of a hologram and hold that piece up to the light, you will be able to see the entire image, only with less resolution than the larger hologram. Humans work the same way. If you have an entire note, you can study it and reveal great detail, but people can sense the body language in just a few words. The first few words of an e-mail are especially important. Let me share an extreme example for clarity.

It is the first day of an online class. None of the students know each other yet. Allison is responding to a question about whether leaders are made or born. Here is a short section of her note:

• Allison writes: “I really do not believe there is any such thing as a natural-born leader. I believe that leadership is an acquired skill and can be improved constantly. When I was seventeen, I was promoted to shift manager. I was not a good leader to say the least.”

Another student (Roger, who has not yet exchanged notes with Allison) replied to her note as follows:

• Roger writes: “Allison wake up!!! How many seventeen-year-old kids are asked to be a manager??”

The note goes on, but for purposes of this illustration, these few words are all that is required. I believe Allison had Roger pegged after the first three words, and probably did not even read the rest of his note. If she did read it, she heavily discounted the information. To her credit, she did not take the bait and fire back a strong rebuttal. She just pretended the note never happened, which is a good strategy in a case like this.

Roger’s note was a blatant example of starting out in a way that completely alienates the other person. Usually the damage is more subtle, but the impact is similar. Here is another example of a note that begins poorly:

• “I really think you should be careful when you write, ‘people like you’ in a note. It tends to peg you as a bigot or someone who likes to put people in boxes.”

The first five words, “I really think you should,” give away the body language before the real content of the message is reached. After the opening phrase, the reader is prepared to get a lecture and reacts accordingly. Here is another version of the same message with a more constructive opening:

• “That was an insightful note. One possible upgrade is to avoid the phrase ‘people like you,’ because some people might find that offensive.”

The reader is more likely to absorb and heed the advice in the second note based on how it starts.

The preceding information was adapted from the book, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online by Robert Whipple.

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