This is a story from an organisation which I hated working for, but stayed for a couple of years because my then manager was a kind person and we both disliked the place equally. We were also comfortable with each other in talking about the incompetent people, who made the majority of that place and the organisational culture.
This place was a model organisation for all the wrong reasons. There were trust issues, toxicity, bad culture, nepotism, questionable management competence, lack of integrity, lack of empathy for employees as well as for customers among many other dysfunctions.
In simple words, it was a clusterfcuk. (A friend suggested that I replace it with “omnishambles”, which sounds more posh and sophisticated. Nah! doing so would dilute the effectiveness of this post. And more importantly, if I do use that fancy word, I will not be happy.)
Leading to win (that’s what I thought):
At one point of time at that place, I was leading a digital transformation team. Even though the whole thing was completely screwed up, and the consultants were screwing it up even more, I am thankful for all the lessons I learned there. Plus, the bonus was that I got all the stories to share like this one.
The people in my team were part of the same system. Some of them were new, and some had fused the organisation’s DNA with theirs. The environment was so bad, that all new people got influenced within weeks and became political quickly. If you don’t know how cults work, you can get an idea here.
Anyway, long story short. I was in the role for just a couple of months before I went for my planned leaves for about three weeks. The team was delivering the outcomes and I was doing my best to enable the achievements of those goals. I was coaching them, mentoring them and at times, holding hands to get work done.
Look, the problem with being too focused on your objectives is that sometimes you fail to read the room. People can be two faced and if you don’t realise that soon enough, they will do good enough damage.
Airlines teach pilots situational awareness. Which is about being aware of one’s surroundings, and not just rely on the instrument. Not being situationally aware can cause trouble and that was the mistake I made too. I should have been more diligent in keeping an eye on environmental factors. It is like product companies keeping an eye out on subtle feedback coming out on Twitter and fixing problems before they become issues.
Anyway, back to the story of the screwed up project and place.
Hoping for a reward:
When I returned from the leave and joined the work back, the CTO called me in his cabin.
The CTO was a nice person, but he wasn’t a charismatic leader and he lacked conviction (I was going to say ‘he lacked balls’, but that wouldn’t be nice, right?). His demeanor was of a person who is trying hard to stay in his job and not ruffle any feathers. But you know what, an appease-all policy makes your position weaker. In my opinion, stronger and assertive people command more respect and have better chances of staying or growing in their jobs than others.
So yeah, he called me for a quick meeting in his office.
“Recognition time!”, I thought.
Yes, you guessed it right. I was not going to get recognition. I was there for a reprimand.
With a serious face, and a deep tone, he said that the team told him that Rajesh was gone, and no one noticed. It seemed that I wasn’t making an impact. And that I did not have control on the team. In his opinion, the team should have been dependent on my leadership.
Honestly, I felt betrayed by the team. I treated them as friends, and they behaved like grade 3 kids who tell on you to the teacher. I also felt bad that the team couldn’t see the bigger picture. They had much more freedom than other teams.
So, when I replied to the CTO, he was instantly remorseful.
I said, “I am actually quite happy to hear what the team said to you.”
He looked confused, and said, “What do you mean?”
I continued, “It seems that I was able to achieve my goal much earlier than expected. If the team believes that they were able to function without having someone guiding and driving them, then they have become a self-contained, self-organised team. They have learned much more about delivering innovative products than anyone else in the entire group. I know that there are many other organisations and teams that try their best to achieve self-organisation and never reach there. We should celebrate that we are doing the right thing.”
There was a long pause.
Then the CTO said, “I should have thought that, and I should have said that to the team. You are right. Sorry that I didn’t manage it well.”
WHOA! I never expected that I would ever hear those words. While there was no formal recognition, at least he understood what I was trying to do.
Culture change is hard:
You might be wondering what happened next. When I tell this story to people, some assume that there was a happy ending with rewards, awards, recognitions, and a case study of organisational improvement.
No, nothing of that sort happened. Culture problems often have deep roots and resolving them takes time, courage, integrity, congruence, openness and willingness by the leaders first. I think it all starts with accepting that there are problems.
In this case too, culture problems were deep rooted.
To me, it was clear that trust was an issue. It was broken.
I did have an open discussion with the team and we discussed having honesty meetings. Someday I will write about that too.
Most of the team members understood what they had achieved and that I was there to help. Yet, some of them were not onboard. They were laggards. After leaving that organisation many years ago, I came to know that the laggards were still there where they were.
Not long after that incident, I left that organisation. I knew that I was a square peg in a round hole.
One can only try to change a system. Most of the time you can only influence a small part of a system and there is a high likelihood that this small part will go back to its old ways due to other parts of the system.
When you try to change a system, not all parts of the system will react the same way. But that doesn’t mean that we stop trying.
I tried, I succeeded a little, and then I failed.
Change takes time. Effect of change can take even longer. And recognition and reward will not always be part of the process.
As change agents, we must be patient while remaining pragmatic.
Sadly, more often than not, organisations that claim to not have hierarchical structures, have unwritten ones. Worse, some of these places have a command and control culturer where the top boss or someone else in the upper echelons control everything.
Few years ago I worked for a financial organisation that did not have many levels in their organisational structure. I was leading a digital project with a budget of few millions. What I found surprising was that the senior management team asked for so many details from projects that the monthly report was over 200 pages long. Did they read the report? I doubt that. Soon I figured out that the structure was less hierarchical because the bosses wanted to keep all the control and didn’t trust others enough to delegate. Unfortunately, that culture flowed down and made that organisation a typical command and control driven culture despite trying to be Agile in vain.
Are their any positives of a hierarchical structure?
One vendor that I can think of is that a hierarchy gives you a possibility of climbing the organisational ladder. It is easier for a company to move people one level up but adding a ‘Sr.’ to their titles. It doesn’t cost much and employees stay happy with yearly promotions. Result is that everyone stays happier.
What to do if you end up in such an organisation?
Well, it truly depends on your own circumstances. If you enjoy your work and the hierarchy does not impact you and your attitude, then you have no problem. What matters is whether you continue enjoying your work or not, and whether you have the right opportunities available for you.
However, if you feel claustrophobic in there, or if you want to climb the organisational ladder fast, then may be you need to consider other options. Again, that’s all circumstantial.
Look, any good manager would want his or her team members to apply critical thinking and spend time on thinking through possible solutions. Such a manager also wants their teams to take more responsibility and accountability of their work instead of being spoon-fed by their manager. So, hearing this phrase from a good manager should give you an idea of their support to their teams.
On the other hand, lazy and incompetent managers can use this phrase to avoid responsibility. If team members come up with options which, together they often can, then the manager’s job is only to choose the one which suits them. Easy! Isn’t it?
Sometimes, an organisation’s culture also doesn’t let the managers delegate responsibility. When managers do not delegate powers, employees do not feel empowered to even suggest options or solutions of problems. Even worse is, in such cultures even when employees have to come up solutions, they find something that aligns more with managers’ opinion than being a good solution.
A little while ago, the team coach at one of my clients suggested that we collect feedback from the team anonymously to understand the ‘team health’. My opinion has been that you can explore and understand a team’s health by frequently talking and working with them. So, I wasn’t really in favour of gathering data anonymously, but since I had started working at that place only a few days ago, I asked for more information.
Turned out, the team coach, who was a nice person and was quite experienced, was actually not in favour of collecting anonymous feedback either. However, the inexperienced manager of that group truly believed that feedback should be collected that way and therefore commanded the coach to follow the process.
I believe that most of us don’t like receiving anonymous feedback. To validate my assumption, I spoke to a number of people. However, I wasn’t entirely surprised when many of them told me that they didn’t mind providing it when asked. Some even admitted that they have exaggerated while giving feedback anonymously. Giving and receiving feedback can be daunting, however, it can be worse coming from an unknown source.
My experience is that managers who have a command and control mindset do not like transparency, conflict or challenge. They see that as confrontation and try to avoid that.
How people engage with each other, and how managers and team members give or receive feedback often tells a lot about an organisation’s culture. Correct?
I can see that you are nodding your head, most likely in agreement. Well, if you trust me enough then tell me about it.
Let’s try to analyse the feedback given in an unidentified and unspecified manner. An easier way to analyse that is break it down.
- Is anonymous feedback good or bad
- What happens when people are allowed to give feedback anonymously
- How do we feel when we receive anonymous feedback
- Criticism or critique
- What does good look like
Is anonymous feedback good or bad
The debate about anonymous versus face to face feedback isn’t new. In my work as a coach, consultant and sometimes as a manager, I have come across scenarios where leaders were looking for, and at times, encouraging, anonymous feedback. Their logic or assumptions often were similar. “People feel confident providing anonymous feedback and we learn what our teams actually think about the organisation or the processes or the management or all of these.”
Nonsense!! If the culture of a place isn’t conducive to openness, people will not tell the truth even in an anonymous survey.
If people in a team find it hard to offer direct honest feedback, then it is clear that the group has trust issues. Because if I trust you enough, then I’d feel confident that you would listen, pay heed and won’t mind about my feedback.
So, in general, it seems that anonymous feedback isn’t a good thing.
What happens when you are allowed to give anonymous feedback?
How people respond to a request for feedback largely depends on how they feel in the setting in which they are. We respond and react passively or negatively in an environment that makes us feel unsafe. That’s why the ‘feeling of safety’ matters a lot. When employees feel safe to challenge the management, they inadvertently also save their employers from a lot of trouble. When they don’t feel safe, they won’t bother telling the management that the organisation was on fire, and in some cases, literally.
In a blame culture, while some people give up hope that the management would take any actions on their suggestions; few others find the request for anonymous feedback a great opportunity to vent their frustrations. They may exaggerate situations, they may skew data by giving the lowest score for everything and they may even lie if they feel vengeful. And why wouldn’t they? Anonymity provides them the veil to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do.
Receiving anonymous feedback:
Here is a scenario that you will possibly recognize.
“Hi, we need to talk”:
Your manager comes to you and says,”I have received some feedback about you from some of the team members. They think that your quality of work is poor, you delay their work by not responding on time and you arrive to work late. I’ll have to take some action if you don’t improve.”
Naturally, you are taken aback because you thought you had cordial and honest relationships with your colleagues. You considered them your friends and you always assumed that they would approach you for any concern they had about your work. Anyways, you always believed that you produced high quality work. You have been praised for your work by the clients and this feedback did not seem to make any sense.
So, you ask,”who has given that feedback?”
Manager says, “All feedback that we receive is anonymous. We don’t want people to feel exposed or unsafe for providing information or feedback. And we also don’t want people who receive feedback to be vengeful.”
“That’s a load of bollocks!”, You feel like saying to your boss, but decide to keep this thought in the mind and don’t actually utter it. Times are tough and saying that could be a career limiting move.
Instead you mutter, “I understand that, but without knowing exactly what the issue is, I can’t accept or even take action on this feedback. Actually, I think all of that feedback is incorrect. If you tell me who’s provided this feedback then I will work with them to fix things.”
Of course you never get that information.
The problem in the above scenario is that you don’t have any specific information. The feedback was vague, you didn’t know who provided that. You also don’t know whether your boss misunderstood what your colleagues said about you or whether they all were truly two-faced people. If you have a weak manager, then the first thing that comes to your mind is whether your boss was making up all that feedback.
Whatever the case maybe, now you have a dislike and distrust of almost all your team members and also your boss. The damage has been done.
Criticism vs critique:
Criticism is always an attack on someone’s person. When you give critical feedback, you’re talking about that person and how bad they are. However, when you critique, you talk about an attribute of a person, and not the person.
Brene Brown says this about anonymous feedback:
“If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
What does good look like?
The good looks like working in a culture where people feel safe speaking out, respect is a common behaviour, the management folks are open and honest in accepting mistakes and failures and actively ensure that their teams do the same by encouraging them.
I worked with few such teams (I have yet to see an ideal organisation) where people openly expressed their opinions and views. The leaders there created a culture where we felt safe to debate and challenge in an honest, healthy and respectful way.
In an environment like this, team members as well as managers can offer genuine and meaningful feedback in a supportive way. There you talk like mature people. And that not only helps the individuals to grow, but also helps their teams and organisations to stay on course. These cultures also encourage frequent and just in time feedback instead of waiting for a quarter of a year to deliver bad news.
Few recent conversations made me think about the approaches and tools that we choose for delivering valuable work. Many people rely solely on tools that they’ve always been using. They never change their ways of working. Or, they may change the labels, but not the actual approach.
This is the snippet from the first conversation:
One of my ex-colleagues mentioned that his primary stakeholder, who happens to be the executive of the department, told him not to bother her about the process and frameworks he was using. She hated any mention of Agile, Kanban or Jira. She needed detailed plans, roadmaps and estimates and believed that other approaches didn’t work.
Why was that?
The other conversation happened during a recent event. A participating senior manager of a large organisation was concerned that stakeholders don’t understand iterative approaches. He wanted to collect and use more data points to prove that work was happening. My personal observation was that his team and he himself lacked an iterative delivery mindset. Was his approach to rely on data right?
What seems to be the problem?
“Elementary, dear Watson!” (Actually, Sherlock Holmes never said those words in any of the stories. At least I didn’t come across those words. I have read Sherlock Holmes more than once, I enjoy that so much.)
It might be true in both cases that one party thinks that the other one knew more than they actually did. My colleague possibly was talking in a jargon laden language that the business executive didn’t understand and decided that it was all nonsense. All the while the ex-colleague assumed that she being an executive knew more about what he was talking about. That’s the curse of knowledge.
It is also possible that the same executive believed that she knew more about all delivery approaches. And the ones she actually knew more about, were the better ones, because she knew more about them (sounds dumb, but that happens). That assumption by her makes the other ones bad automatically, at least for her.
That’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
The third point I want to make is not about bias, but about data.
Data is ruining everything.
Well, not really. We rely on data for decision making. However, over-reliance on anything is bad, isn’t it? I must remind you of the Challenger catastrophe if you disagree with my assertion. You can read about that here. If you read the report, pay special attention to Richard Feynman’s observations and findings. Every word there is insightful.
In a nutshell, what happened then was that NASA wanted to make decisions purely on data, while an engineer had a gut feeling that there was something not right with the O-ring (type of a valve that stopped gases from leaking from the spaceship). That engineer didn’t have data to prove, only a strong gut feeling.
We all know about the disaster where few astronauts sadly lost their lives.
The CTO in our scenario is focusing on data. It has been proven many times either through research, or in real life, that statistics often fails to influence us compared to social proof.
Think how many times you have made decisions based on a friend’s advice. We approach our family or friends and read online reviews when we buy cars, houses, electronic equipment and other stuff. We look for social proof there.
So, I’m not surprised that by offering data to executives, this person is hardly making a difference.
What else is happening?
What do you think is happening in these scenarios? I’m looking for more insights before we jump into potential solutions.
Let me know either by commenting or emailing.
Is remote work doing more harm than helping?
In the past weeks some of my clients, friends and ex-colleagues have told me how they’re working longer hours, getting lesser exercise and spending less time with family.
That indicates a big problem. And that problem is burnout.
While working longer hours you may see high productivity in short term, but the consequences can be disastrous in the longer term. So, please stop it!
What can/ should you do:
– Block your diary for breaks. Have short breaks if you’re worried about disruption to work.
– Use lunch breaks for exercise and walks. Can you attend meetings while walking?
– Talk to your colleagues about good practices and prepare a working agreement. (I’ve written about how to create these. Visit my blog.)
– Stick to your delivery or release planning process. Agile releases allow you to flex the scope. What would your stakeholders prefer? A massive surge in productivity now and a massive drop later; or a continuous flow of delivery?
What else can we add here?
I work with teams and individuals in improving their delivery practices. Connect with me if you need help.