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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How personal should a boss get?

Words by Francis Kahihu
The author is an Organizational Development Practitioner

When they get too far removed from the staff, they are said to be aloof yet when they get too close, staff express reservations with regard to respecting personal space. Just how personal should a boss get for staff to feel comfortable? What is the generally acceptable space between a staff and the boss so that the relationship progresses professionally with both parties feeling at peace with each other and not affecting the respect that ought to exist between the two offices?

Consider the experience of Katana, a Program Officer at an international organisation. One day, as he reported to work, he found a mail from his boss wishing him a happy birthday. This was a shocker. How had the boss known that he was about to celebrate his birthday that week? He was taken aback since his relationship with the said boss had been flat with the two only exchanging a greeting whenever they met along the corridor. 

On the actual birthday, Katana was surprised to get a card and a flower from the boss wishing him a well-deserved 29th birthday. This tore him apart. What was happening? Was the world falling apart? Something must have been wrong. This closeness made him uncomfortable. As far as Katana was concerned, the boss had no business wishing him a happy birthday. He imagined that the boss ought not to have even known when his birthday was since a birthday is a personal affair that junior staff should celebrate with their fellow juniors. 

As the workplace culture moves from personnel management to people resource management, bosses are getting more and more aware of the need to bring down several of the imaginary walls that exist between them and the staff they supervise. Bosses realise the need to treat staff as people first and then as workers for efficient and effective productivity. With this, supervisors increasingly want to get involved in certain components of the personal lives of their juniors knowing so well that instability at the personal level could well lead to reduced productivity.

The challenge however has been the management of this closing-in by the managers. It seems like the managers are having secret tips by workplace professionals on how to improve the culture at work that make them unleash surprise closeness to the rest of the staff. With this trend, there seems to be some disquiet as the rest of the staff wonder what could be happening. Staff realize that the bosses are getting closer every day and this makes them imagine the bosses are playing some tricks on them.

Some of the managers break the walls as a way of building teams and enhancing closer interactions within their departments. This process should however be well communicated. The staff should know that the management is seeking to improve on workplace relations and wishes to enhance more effective teamwork among the staff, and especially between the staff and managers. With this clarity, staff would feel comfortable when they find their bosses drawing closer and getting more concerned about the staff personal welfare than before. 

This change of culture should however be managed within the limits of professional ethics to mitigate against unexpected consequences. It could be that some of the bosses may want to get too close at the pretext of wanting to be better teammates while some employees may want to get too close to the boss so as to attempt to manipulate. Regardless of the culture change prescription, the workplace must ensure it respects individual personal spaces in line with the acceptable cultures and values of staff and operating environment.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Do team building activities build teams?

The season is on and the bells have rung. It is time for team building. Companies and organisations are on the roll, planning for this year’s team building parties. The budgets are set aside and they are huge. The consultants have been procured and the planning is in top gear. The deliverables are clear and the team builders are busy purchasing the paraphernalia for the great team building they are about to facilitate. It truly is all systems go.

But as the craze hits the season, we would want to consider whether this hype adds up to any positive results with regard to team building. Do team building activities actually build teams or do they serve to pacify organisations into imagining that teams are being built even when none of that is being accomplished? 

 Jethro’s example could be a classic indicator of how team building has evolved over the years. He works for one of the leading companies in the country and has just come from a team building activity. While he was on leave, he was reminded by his supervisor that he had not attended the company’s team building activities as part of his performance targets and that he needed to do so before the end of the current month.
Wise as he was, he visited the local branch of his company and coincidentally, the branch had scheduled for a teambuilding activity the following weekend. With this information, he forwarded his name to the branch manager indicating that he would be joining the team for their teambuilding activity. By the end of that day, he had participated in a team building activity and a report way forwarded to his boss and this was included in his file and worked well for him during his performance appraisal.

This experience raises significant issues with regard to team building activities. Do they actually build teams or are they just part of a company’s policies and targets that must be met every so often. How much of team building happens when staff go out of the offices to a retreat center to play and sweat the whole day, accompanied with lots of eating and drinking. Just how much of teams are developed when staff are encouraged to ‘feel’ part of a team with their bosses and supervisors with whom they never see eye to eye during normal office engagements and are expected to put on a happy ‘team’ face during the field activities?

Team building should be taken as a process and not a one-time activity. Employers should be keen on what strategies they put in place to enhance natural and organic team building instead of spending too many resources on ‘teambuilding’ sessions that add no value to the company. Team building does not necessarily happen in the field when staff are involved in a ‘trust fall’ or when staff have to get into ‘teams’ to pull each other during a ‘tug of war’ event. With the joys and ululations that accompany such sessions, little of team building is accomplished since the engagements are short-lived.

It is necessary for the companies to realize the need for concerted effort throughout the year and note that trust within a team is earned through various engagements over time and not through an event. Companies should analyse their team challenges and consult professionals on a long term strategy to achieve their required goals with regard to forming and building teams instead of spending resources on activities that don’t necessarily add up. But in the meantime, let the celebration retreats go on.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What if you lose your job today?

Losing a job is one of the subjects many people would rather not talk about. It is a taboo topic just like death and we would rather live on as though it will happen only to other people. With the rising inflation, the rise in interest rates and the loss of value of the local currency, many employers have initiated several institutional restructuring processes that have included job cuts. Several others have factored possible job cuts in their medium term strategies.

It is hence a reality that you could just be a victim of the changes in the air and with the stroke of a pen, you could just be rendered jobless. This is a hard reality yet when it strikes, we all wish we were better prepared for it. Since it is a possibility that the axe can fall on any person, it is wise to consider how well prepared we are for such an eventuality. Companies have different strategies in laying off staff. They could either target the lower cadre, the middle level management like what the KCB Group did a couple of months ago, or even consider laying off the senior management in a bid to manage both costs and productivity.

Knowing that we could just be the next in line after the forthcoming board discussions, how well could we then prepare for a job loss? There are several factors that we need to consider in this process. It is necessary to compare our current monthly income with the total monthly expenditure. This will help us appreciate the amount of surplus we have every month. The comparison will also help us acknowledge the most important costs that must be catered for in the event of a job loss.

Experts in financial management advise that every employed staff should ensure they have some savings that would comfortably take them through 3 months expenses in the event they lose their job. This is critical since you will be able to plan for all the important costs and will help your life not to stall. The sad fact is that many of us live on the edge, spending all we earn and have little or nothing to take us across the lake should the boat fuel get finished mid stream.

Most persons who are self-employed would imagine this piece would only apply to those who are employed by others. The reality however is that even self-employed people can suddenly find themselves without a source of livelihood. Consider the events of the post-election violence in 2008 or the fires that have razed businesses in the recent past. We can all be victims of joblessness hence the need to be equally on the ready.

Having an extra source of income is a great idea for risk mitigation. It is never wise to rely on your employment as the only source of your family livelihood. Since there is no written guarantee that you can never lose the job or business, it is always a great idea to diversify your income sources. Have a business here and some consultancy engagements there as you spread your income net wider. Should your main source of income be interrupted, you should find safety on the other running opportunities.

Finally, as much as the current penetration level of insurance in Kenya ranks at below 5%, it is always a wise idea to ensure we insure our businesses and ourselves so that should fire gut down our premises or we are involved in accidents that leave us totally disabled, hence out of work, such systems could come to our rescue. Since we never can tell what the future holds, it is better to be prepared all ways.