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Monday, August 27, 2012

Running away yet inside a box

When we were growing up, we were always embroiled in sibling rivalry as you would expect of a small homestead accommodating a total of 5 energetic boys and one girl. On several occasions, we would fight and in an attempt to run away and hide, we would realize the only space available was within the house. 

And the house was a little small room that was self contained, hosting all possible functions of a family home ranging from the kitchen, living room, bedrooms for each person who considered the place a home. Running around this space in a bid to avoid being caught by the angry elder brother for a beating was a tough calling. We would run yes, but only within the box.

This scenario comes to mind when I observe the goings on in many places of work. The most obvious is the experience of staff running away from their bosses. In cases when bosses and staff conflict, there is always the tendency for the staff to want to be as far as possible from the respective boss. They do all within their means to ensure their eyes do not meet and that their paths don’t cross.

The workplace is an interesting environment. Staff and management are constantly in conflict in the process of undertaking their daily tasks. The conflicts range from professional and task related disagreements to highly personalized conflicts. You will once in a while hear staff talking about their boss who never appreciates anything good they do and only capitalizes on their weaknesses. 

On the other hand, you will hear of bosses lamenting of a certain staff who does not seem to toe the line. They would be found discussing about a staff who does not seem to appreciate their leadership and is ever demanding for more space than what they are provided.

At some moments, these conflicts are open and clear for all to see. The verbal and non verbal messages are legible and other staff realize that certain persons around them are not in talking terms. During this tense season, the conflicting parties tend to pool others around them with the aim of consolidating support and making the other person appear as the bad one. As this happens, the workplace is split into camps, with perceptions and attitudes built one against the other. Schisms appear and people start running away from each other.

When the attitudes are ripe and well cooked, staff start making moves against each other. It seems like everyone starts to suspect the other as no one knows who initiated the hate campaign and none seems to trust the other anymore. Everyone gets thrown into a race, a race against each other yet within the same office space. 

You don’t want to be seen laughing with so and so since it may be interpreted to indicate you are buddies and may become an enemy of the rest. The use of words changes and caution becomes the utmost concern. You never know who is in which camp hence must be clear on who you talk to and on what issues.

Eventually, you find the workplace embroiled in the game of mystery friend and assassin. In this game, within the space provided, each person considers another as a friend and another as a foe. You never disclose who plays which role. When requested to move towards your friend and as far away from your foe, you notice weird movements. Whoever you may have picked as your friend could have picked on you as a foe hence the closer you tend to move towards them, the further they want to move away from you. A crisis.

The only way out of this circus is open communication. Talk to each other and eliminate suspicion. Build trust and address conflicts as they arise. Do not propagate discord against each other otherwise; you will initiate a silent run, a run away from each other, among the staff. And remember, you have only one space to run around. You better run in peace. Run towards each other, not in conflict and the run will be enjoyable within the box.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Holding each other up at the workplace

When she walked into the room, she could breathe the heavy air. Though she could not exactly tell what the issue was, Peninah was sure that it was not business as usual. The staff looked somber and in deep thought. The guard at the main gate had reluctantly opened the gate for her but she had considered it as part of the Monday morning blues. 

She had taken no offence. But by the time she sat on her office couch, she knew she needed to do something, something she could not finger. And what needed to be done had to be done fast. It seemed everyone in the office had been waiting for her to walk in so as to provide leadership in the case.

Over the past weekend, one of the longest serving staff in the company, Nicholas, had been involved in a tragic road accident while visiting his relatives up country. As a result, he had lost his wife and daughter and was now fighting for his life at the District Hospital. Word had not reached any of the workmates until that Monday morning when a friend had called the office after locating a business card in his wallet. This was tough. It was tragic and no one could behave as though nothing had happened. A dark cloud hang over the office and leadership was needed. Leadership from the boss.

As Peninah listened to the horror incident from the head of HR, her head sunk. Her spirit rose and went for the heart of the injured staff. She quickly logged off her computer and requested for a quick staff meeting. In a short while, the entire staff team sat in the board room waiting to hear what the CEO had to say. Unity of purpose seemed to hold all staff together. It was clear. 

Everyone needed to be involved in whichever way to support the injured colleague. Quick resources were raised and a team dispatched to visit the injured staff in hospital and later on visit his home. Two of the staff’s sons had just closed school to the news of the demise of their mother and sister and hospitalization of the father. They all needed help. Quick help.

After a month in hospital, Nicholas was discharged and spent a further one week at home before reporting back to work. As he walked out of his house that Tuesday morning, he could feel the warmth attracting him to the office. He just wanted to get to work and shake the hands of every staff. They had pulled him out of death. Almost literally. He knew he owed them thanks. They had held him up.

This story could just be a representation of the many challenges staff go through either at work or in their private lives. The support mechanisms available for them mean a lot in terms of enhancing team feeling among staff. The support goes far beyond the team building events the organization may have organized in terms of building real team bonds. It separates the wheat from the chaff in creating a sense of being at the workplace. The actions get so loud that you can barely hear the words emphasizing team work.

When staff hold each other up, the support goes a long way into creating lasting bonds among staff and management. At those points of need, there is no compartmentalization of the office space. All persons get down to earth to help the situation and no one carries the glory at the end of it. ‘We all did it’ becomes the new slogan as the feeling of comradeship sets in. At this point, the company is ready for a rebirth, the recreation of the fibre that holds it together. A linking up of the human side of the company.

Monday, August 13, 2012

What bosses wished employees knew

It is true. The higher you go the cooler it becomes. The same is true at the work place. As people go up the career ladder, they tend to lose more of their former close friends in the same company. The moment they become heads of departments and supervisors, they soon realise the relationship between them and the rest of the staff changes.  They are no longer referred to as employees. They earn a new title. They are now boss. Supervisor. Manager. The employer.

After some time, they start noticing a certain trend among the staff that worry them. In the rare opportunities when staff get the energy and the strength to approach them, there is one running theme. Boss, we need a raise. Boss we want you to consider this and that. It seems like the employees rehearse this request phrase as each of them seems to use the same script when in discussion with the boss.

As the discussion progresses, it dawns on the boss that the employees imagine the bosses are the main stumbling blocks between them and their good times at the office. It is now clear that the employees feel like the bosses are out of touch with their feelings. This is a disturbing position for the bosses to be in. They wish the employees know just a few things about them and their experiences. Pauline, a senior executive in a blue chip NGO shares her wishes.

I wish employees knew how frail I sometimes get, she reflects. In the mind of the employees, the bosses are the strongest among all the staff in the company. It is a perception among the employees that the bosses never suffer from faint hearts. They are strong and have huge hearts to easily carry all the burdens of the staff. As much as this could be true and is a key characteristic of an effective leader, the fact is that there are times when the bosses are at their lowest ebbs. There are times when Pauline has had to hide in the bathrooms to cry as she reflects on the experiences with some of the staff.

The second perception is that when the company is at risk of closure, the boss is never concerned. Some staff imagine that the boss’s job is always secure and all the boss does is to look at the organizational chart and decide who among the staff to relieve of their duties. Nothing is further from the truth. When Pauline reflects on a recent experience when her organization suffered great shocks after key donors terminated their support to one of the projects, she grows downcast. She had received a letter from the board chairman requesting her to show cause why she should not be replaced with a more outgoing manager.

Despite all her efforts to retain the donors, a decision had already been made and hence had to manage the crisis. As she approached the staff meeting room one Friday afternoon, she knew the staff considered her as the failure and cursed her in their hearts. She walked slowly hoping to get the right words. Her heart was heavy as she weighed the implications of the donor exit. Staff had to lose jobs within a month and she knew this was a big blow to her future career prospects. She was hurting yet none of the staff seemed to realize how she had spent sleepless nights looking for extra resources to retain the team.

Finally, bosses wished the employees knew the push for their interest in improved performance among the staff. Have you ever heard staff talking about performance targets and the thread of thought to the effect that bosses only wish to load it on the staff yet life would be better off without the targets? 

What employees miss is the realization that targets set for staff are usually a reflection of the agreed upon organizational targets set by the board of directors. Their boss receives clear targets that must be attained through the various departments. 

So, when you see your boss insist on targets, appreciate their efforts as they are as accountable just as you are to their bosses. Bosses have bosses and are equally are under pressure to perform.

Kahihu is an Organizational Development Practitioner

Bosses are human, after all

As Liliana sat one evening sipping her glass of fresh juice, she contemplated a possible resignation due to the sustained challenges at the top and wondered whether she had made the right decision to join senior management at the company. She wondered whether it is ever possible to be an effective senior manager and at the same time be friends with the staff you manage.

Listening to people talk about their bosses at work, you would be tempted to imagine the persons they are talking about are machines or systems that have no human blood flowing through their veins. We are fond of saying all manner of things about our bosses in a way that portrays them as inhumane and persons with no feelings. And as you read this article, what words would you use to describe your boss?

When we think about our bosses, there are times when we imagine them as persons out to no good. We think about them as people determined to make our lives more challenging than it already is and hence consider them as part of our problems in life. The thought of the boss elicits feelings of despair and disillusionment as we at times feel like our lives would have been better off were it not for the bosses. There are actually times when we imagine life would have been better without the bosses. However, on situations when we have been our own bosses, we have realized that bossing over people, including ourselves, is never a walk in the park.

Liliana has been a senior manager at a local bank over the last 15 years. Over this period, she indicates that she has had to endure the frustration of boss-branding from staff to an extent that she started almost feeling inhumane. There are instances when the staff through the local associations had sent an incriminating letter to the directors suggesting that she had lost touch with the staff at the branch and had demanded for her removal or risk systematic poor results.

It later came to be realized that the issue had revolved around her refusal to allow some staff to internally agree on making informal switches on their working hours. Liliana had considered sticking to the bank policies and this did not augur well with the staff. A hate campaign had hence started that targeted her, both as a person and as the boss. Along the way, the staff started speaking in low tones whenever she got to the banking hall and this was truly intimidating. She felt isolated from the rest of the staff. This was suicidal.

How would she manage the staff who did not want to talk to her? She had her strong feelings on what needed to be done to remedy the situation yet no one seemed to open their space for her to explain herself. The rest of the staff were convinced she was out to box them and deter their freedom while she considered the best interests of both the staff and the company.

The disconnect seems to arise from the perception among staff that bosses are never concerned about the welfare of the junior staff. There is a general rumor that all that employers are concerned about are the bottom lines and that they do all they can to maximize on the profit and reduce on the cost even if that means stepping on the toes of the workers.

It is important to note that employers are also human. They are people with families, with social lives and are equally maneuvering through life with the rising cost of living. Bosses get affected when interest rates are raised arbitrarily and are hence aware of the impact on the staff motivation and in most cases do all they can to help mitigate the effects on the staff. All they yearn for in most cases is a listening ear and a team of staff who would be interested in being part of the solution to the problems they raise to the senior management.

Kahihu is an Organizational Development Practitioner