Leaders: Stop Traumatic Residue!

They were children of the depression!  My parents worried that the late 1920 and ‘30’s would return.  So, my siblings and I got docked our allowance every time a light was left on in our bedroom at super time.  We ate every piece of a cut-up chicken, including the back and neck.  We could not throw away a piece of notebook paper if it was used only on one side.  We heard way too many sacrificial stories of “walking to school for miles in the snow uphill…both ways.”  It was mental “residue” left over in my parents’ minds from their “traumatic” childhoods.

Business is still experiencing a bad case of post-recession “traumatic residue.”  During the 2007-2009 recession, employees were subjected to major layoffs, deep budget cuts, and frugality that would make a Scrooge look like a philanthropist.  Employees experienced deep-seated anxiety that the next round of layoffs would have their name on the list.  So, employees learned ways to cope.  The “residue” side of a normal and predictable survival behavior made total sense.  But, ultimately it takes a toll on organizational success and growth.

Two criteria typically put an employee at the top of the “cut” list—screw-ups and slackers.  The screw-ups were the folks who made repeated mistakes.  They were often the employees who should have never been hired in the first place.  But, they could sometimes include brave souls who took a risk in pursuit of a worthy vision that unfortunately yielded disappointing results.  The slackers were the sleep-walking employees who did just enough to get by.  They kept one eye on the time clock and were quick to complain if asked to do anything that smacked of extra.

Employees prone to error and employees who just get by are clearly drains on the organization’s capacity for success.  And, as an adversary economy put a squeeze on razor thin margins, retaining deadheads and deadwoods was a luxury no organization could afford.  But now fast forward well beyond the recession of eight years ago.  There is a more insidious byproduct of “traumatic residue” that can have long-term unfortunate consequences. Lodged in the DNA of some organizations, “traumatic residue” can elevate “risk averse” and “looking busy” to a performing art.

Perfecting the Fine Art of “Shake and Fake”

Risk aversive behavior, emanating from a reluctance to make any type of mistake that might cause any adverse attention, gives rise to a corporate game of “shake and fake.”  “Shake and bake” is a folksy label for plan and execute. “Shake and fake,” on the other hand, is characterized as enthusiastic and passionate verbiage around a bold idea but with absolutely no intention of implementation.  The objective is to sound bold without actually being bold.

There are numerous ways this game is played. Project sub-teams are organized around the bold idea. Meetings are long on plans and proposals; but, short on “to do’s.”  Consultants are sometimes called in to do another study, obviously complete with a report that must be reviewed and discussed. Best practice field trips are organized.  In the end, the effort dies as another “big deal” change effort takes its place enabling the “shake and fake” ritual to start all over again.  No one ever actually pulls the trigger and kicks off anything that could result in an outcome for which someone could be held accountable.

Polishing the Image of Hard Work

The “Look busy” is what we formerly chastised as the “activity trap.”  The objective is to convince everyone that you are “up to your eyeballs” in work.  There is a lot of “alligator-killing” but no much “swamp drainage.”  Requests are made for reports followed by meetings to discuss that report.  In fact, meeting-mania is one of the characteristic forms of “Look Busy.”  When you hear someone bragging about being double or triple-booked, you are probably looking at a “make work” mentality.

This game comes complete with the illusion of being very, very harried.  Game players often put in long hours fiddling with form and then complain about how hard they are working.  “I can never get caught up” or “I’m just covered up” pepper their break room diatribes. While the speed and convenience of email is a boon to communications, this game player takes emails to another level.  It is important everyone be included in an email string so all will know who is important and so very busy.  Again, little is being achieved but enormous time and energy is being expended.

Great Leaders Insist on “Getting Off the Log”

Three frogs sat on a log in the edge of the swamp.  One decided to jump in.  How many frogs are now on the log?  Nope, there are still three.  Deciding and doing is not the same thing.

In a progressive, growth-oriented world, people judge your position by the one you take, not by the one you propose.  Until you execute, all decisions are just plain old intentions.   In the end, all the planning and preparing is just “getting ready to.”  Execution—putting skin in the game--is the true test of commitment.  “I believe, I support, I approve” are weasel words unless they are coupled with visible demonstration.

Great leaders know that nothing changes, improves, grows or progresses until someone executes.  Such leaders do not allow meetings to plan meetings.  They insist meetings have an advance agenda with clear meeting objectives and that meetings end with actions assigned to people who commit to execute something by the next gathering. They require tangible, irrefutable evidence that promised results have been accomplished.

Great Leaders Rely on Trust-Building Accountability

Great leaders set clear expectations.  They know “buy-in” is vital to delivering the expected results so they hold expectations-setting conversations to gain agreement on the achievability of performance outcomes.  Great leaders know feedback is crucial to a successful outcome. They insist on regular touch points and “check in” conversations to examine the path traveled to date (versus plan) and settle on course corrections to ensure arrival at the future state. Think of these “check in” conversations as a GPS guiding performance to a new destination.

Employees trust leaders when leaders are fair and consistent. They realize when results are less than expected there ought to be consequences. They also presume there will be good consequences for exceeding expectations. When either fails to be delivered the trust between employee and leader is weakened.

“Shake and Fake” and “Looking Busy” are understandable reactions to an oppressive economic era that creates underemployment and long job searches following layoffs. But, the time has come to help employees break out of their protective game playing and focus on productivity, achievement, and growth.  It is time for leaders to “change the people” or “change the people.”  And, those who insist on playing it safe (a.k.a., taking up space for high performers) need to be given an opportunity to find employment elsewhere.

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