The refrain you usually hear when you ask unhappy people why they are working is the line, “It pays the bills.” This response implies that “the bills” are the unavoidable price of modern existence. It further suggests that we are helplessly chained to a cycle of financial burden.


It is true that a regular job appears to provide a consistent source of funds. Reliable employment translates into reliable income and our imaginative minds begin to project the present into the future, enabling us to make plans. With projections predicting a stable future, we buy houses for our families and occasionally spring for a new car. Self-employed individuals are at a disadvantage in this regard, because their income is not quite as predictable. Therefore, one of the advantages of having a job is that it allows us to believe that “it pays the bills,” and gives us confidence that the money will be there to meet current obligations and incur new ones.

Unfortunately, reality wreaks havoc on our projections. Organizations in this period of our history find it much easier to cut costs by cutting people; many employers have lost any sense of responsibility to provide secure employment. But despite the evidence of instability in nearly every organization on the planet, the regularity of a paycheck lulls us into the belief that it will always be there, making it too easy to create new financial obligations, making us feel more dependent on the whims of an employer.

We also forget that having a job is in itself an expensive proposition. Beyond commute and clothing expenses, there are dozens of hidden costs in having a job. These include: contributing to a co-worker’s birthday gift; laying out a couple of bucks on the football pool; being shamed by the company into contributing to their favorite charity; or feeling like you have to buy a couple of those waxy chocolate bars that working parents of high schoolers foist on their colleagues every school year. Taking into account the remarkable talent of most Americans to spend far beyond their means, it is safe to say that we waste a good two-thirds of our take-home pay on stuff we didn’t really want or need in the first place or on the trappings of employment itself.

While many people have told me that they work primarily for the money, the desire for money does not necessarily translate into having to have a job. There are hundreds of other ways to earn a living, many of which may be far more appealing than having to live your life by the clock and put up with the insanity of organizational life in the 21st century. So why do people automatically assume that the best way to survive in our culture is by getting a job?

I think it has to do with the hard-dying need for the appearance of stability. Having a job creates a routine that makes life appear to be a stable proposition. Going to work every day helps order our existence and human beings like a sense of order in their lives. A job gives us social validity, enabling us to confirm our right to respect when asked the question, “And what do you do?” While well-publicized layoffs and reorganizations have compromised this traditional meaning of security, having a job seems like a more ordered reality than working in the arts or starting your own business. The regularity of the weekly schedule provides a soft, steady rhythm in the midst of the chaotic dissonance of modern existence.

Unfortunately, this love of order is a two-edged sword. Our need for predictability can interfere with our ability to perceive new opportunities and consider new ideas. We get very stubborn when someone messes with our personal sense of order. However, when the need to preserve routine becomes more important than the human needs to learn, grow and contribute, we stagnate. Because organizations often reinforce our natural preference for order with endless rules and regulations, life in an organization can become so regimented that we start working far below our capabilities.

This need for order can also lead to absurd decision-making. I know many people who chose their careers simply because they believed that a particular field had a bright future. They didn’t bother to consider what the day-to-day reality of the job entailed, what kinds of people they’d be working with or even if they thought the work was particularly meaningful or important. They found careers that paid well or gave them status and it seemed to be the sensible thing to do. Unfortunately, they often find that years of education were wasted for a life at work that drained their spirit and left them feeling more trapped than ever. One woman I worked with who gave up artistic leanings to become an MRI tech spent most of her work life projecting her inner dissatisfaction onto her boss and co-workers, complaining constantly about anything and everything that triggered her inner frustration.

The lesson here is that you don’t have to let the economy control you or define you. We tend to start our search for work with the question, “What’s out there?” when we should be asking ourselves, “What do I really want to do?” You may not get there in your first attempt. It may take years of compromise and hard thinking to align your needs to something that will provide you with a decent income. But if you surrender your dream to the need for security at the start of your search, you’ll have a much harder time getting there. In the process, you’ll be compromising your psychological and physical self, which helps no one.

So, keep an open mind and open your eyes to the possibilities within you. Don’t get stubborn and affix yourself to a single possibility. Take the time to define what you really want and filter your choices through your true desires. You may have to settle for 40% for now, but if you keep pressing and refuse to give up, you might increase that percentage and wind up with something that makes you pretty happy.

Baseball in TattersIs America in decline? That was the entire content of one of those quickie polls that appear in the sidebar of the Washington Post’s website. “Is America in decline?” Yes or no.

What a stupid question!

For one, the question can only produce one result: an argument. If you answer yes, you’ll be labeled a traitor and will get the love-it-or-leave-it message from a self-proclaimed patriot. If you answer no, you’ll be labeled as a person seriously in denial by those who have reached the opposing conclusion.

When I took a peek at the poll results, the results showed about a 50/50 split. Duh.

The reason why it’s a stupid question is because it’s not a helpful question. The problem of “America” is too big and broad for us to solve. “America” is the result of a billion variables that go into the recipe. If you try to solve the “America problem”, all you’d wind up doing is making a lame attempt to cover up a failed recipe with a few spices in the hope that it might at least turn into something palatable.

Which America are we talking about? North Dakota seems to be doing pretty well. Recent dining experiences have convinced me that American winemakers are on their game. Last weekend’s round of football playoffs were pretty exciting. On the other hand, there’s little question that Congress is broken, that the stock market is more influenced by fear than fact and that there are still far too many people without jobs. By trying to solve the “America problem,” we fail to solve thousands of problems that are within our power to fix. Instead, we waste our time debating a meaningless question that cannot possibly yield a solution.

The other problem with the question is that it allows the person answering the question to sidestep any responsibility for the problem or the solution. “America” becomes an abstraction, something that is beyond me, a problem I did not create and cannot solve. When we break any problem down to its components, we know this cannot be true. If you voted in your congressional election, you bear some responsibility for the sorry state of Congress.

Edward DeBono came up with a simple way to define problems. A problem is simply the difference between what you have and what you want. If you try to apply this model to the “America problem,” you’ll find out pretty quickly that you can’t come up with a problem definition on which everyone will agree. We all have different definitions of what we have and what we want. That alone should tell you that you’re trying to solve the unsolvable.

Until we agree on the problem, we will never agree on the solution. This is why the most important stage of group problem-solving is the first: trying to precisely define the difference between what you have and what you want. Too many groups in business, government and the nonprofit sector operate in crisis mode, reacting to symptoms instead of problems because they haven’t taken the time to clearly define the issue at hand. This leads to poor decision-making, failure and to a decline in the confidence of the group members to solve any problem.

As anyone who has been a human being for any length of time knows, it takes time to figure out what you want and what you don’t want. It requires hard thinking and quality discussion to help a person or a group clarify a goal and avoid potential pitfalls. One way to get there is to reshape DeBono’s model by phrasing the question in the “How can we/Without” format: How can we (get what we want) without (getting what we don’t want). How can we reduce unemployment without increasing the deficit? How can we position this product in the market without cannibalizing sales on other product lines? How can we improve the bottom line without cutting heads? How can we design a compensation program that has real impact without breaking the bank?

Some might read this post and blame our instant gratification, time-sensitive culture for refusing to give us the time we need to clearly define problems. Sorry, but I don’t buy “the culture made me do it” argument. Anyone in a position where they have the opportunity to influence an outcome has the responsibility to take the time to get it right.

Given the seeming enormity of our many problems, taking the time seems like a pretty inexpensive investment.

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Our previous post dealt with various ways you can lessen the impersonal nature of an engagement survey and gather critical information about what’s really going on in your organization that engagement surveys often miss.

Even with our recommended enhancements to the engagement survey process, there will still be something missing. In the first post of this series, we made the argument that unless you are serious about engaging each individual employees, you are not serious about engagement. Unless every individual matters, no one matters. If you diminish one, you diminish all. To have a truly engaged organization, every individual needs to matter and everyone needs to feel that the work they do, the talents and energy they bring and the things that make them a unique human being also matter. Even when you have to fire someone, that person deserves respect and preservation of dignity.

Given the sheer size and complexity of organizations today, this seems like a daunting task. This is why selecting and training leaders who are oriented more towards lifting people up instead of dragging them down is critical to engagement.

If you hire and develop leaders who truly believe that each individual matters and that they have responsibility to every person on their team—and, most importantly, back up their beliefs in words and deeds—you will astronomically improve your odds of achieving an engaged workforce. They will engage with employees because they want to, not because they have to. They will do it because for them, it’s the natural thing to do—it falls into the “of course” category. These leaders will make time for each person on the team, because they know in their hearts that every individual makes a meaningful contribution to the team’s performance. They will help people survive the rough patches in organizational life because they care what people think and how people feel. They’ll listen, give honest feedback and provide helpful suggestions because they know that doing those simple things keeps the team strong and healthy.

So, what can you do to ensure you have great leaders in your organization? Even though we sell leadership training services, we have to be honest and tell you that training alone will not get you there. Here are the key things you must do to create a great team of leaders in your organization:

  1. Make your hiring and succession processes for leaders challenging and educational. You have to hold leadership candidates to a higher standard because their decisions have greater potential for good or harm. Identify the real competencies you need, develop specific behavioral questions and don’t let the candidate get away with a non-answer. Use multiple sources to assess candidates: assessments, simulators, tiered and cross-functional interviews. Focus heavily on decision-making, communication and collaboration skills while probing hard for compatible values. Avoid the tendency to use soft interview techniques (all too common at the executive level, of all places!) and feel free to challenge the candidate’s thinking and engage the candidate in debate. Your stance has to be, “If you want us to give you the responsibility to lead in this organization, you’re going to have to show us that you’re the best—because we want to be the best.” Don’t settle for less. When the process is over, give all the final candidates honest feedback about what they did well and what they could have done better, and don’t let any employment attorney frighten you out of that obligation. Remember, every individual matters—and that includes people who want to work for you.
  2. Provide forums for discussion, debate and education. Organize monthly sessions for leaders to talk about leadership and its challenges. Select participants for each session at random so that you mix leaders across functions and levels to expand their perspectives and forge bonds between leaders across the organization. With advances in video conferencing technology, even global organizations can hold these forums regularly. On the education side, use a competency-based blended learning approach and combine assignmentology, online courses, professional memberships, knowledge sharing portals and classroom training to keep leaders engaged. On the classroom side, leaders should have at least one classroom course per year, because face-to-face communication is still the most powerful and effective form of communication . . . and leaders need to be especially competent in interpersonal skills.
  3. Never compromise, but make sure you have a back-up plan. There are always strong forces in an organization that will drive you towards making sub-optimal decisions based on convenience or compromise. Don’t let this happen in your leadership selection process and don’t let this happen in your leadership correction process. Bad leaders have a toxic effect on an organization and the higher they are, the more poisonous they can be. If a leader is in trouble, act quickly to get them help or move them on. This problem can be almost entirely avoided through an effective succession planning process because knowing you have a good back-up candidate will allow you to take the time to work with the non-performing leader.

We do not have to live in organizations filled with people who don’t want to be there. With competent, honest and responsible leadership, with multiple opportunities for engagement and with a culture that lives by the belief that every single individual matters, you can avoid having an organization of the unwilling and get closer to the ultimate state: a place where people gladly choose to come to work each and every day.

Photo Credit: © Bellemedia | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

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Our previous post dealt with the fact that many of our organizations are filled with people who would really rather be doing something else.  The numbers of people who feel that way in any organization rises and falls over time . . . and therein lies the problem and the solution.

In human relationships, we experience high points and low points, good times and not-so-good times and times when we’re idling in neutral. What allows us to keep those relationships healthy is a consistent, active mutual commitment to the other person(s) in the relationship that is best demonstrated when we aren’t experiencing a high point. When things temporarily go sour, we engage the other person(s) and talk it out. When things are in neutral, we continue to check in from time to time to make sure things are okay.

The same is true in our relationships to organizations: sometimes we’re in love, sometimes we can’t stand the sight of the place and sometimes it’s just a job and no big deal. The problem is that while it’s relatively easy to engage another person, it’s harder to engage an abstraction like “the organization,” particularly when “the organization” chooses to relate to its people in that way.

This is one of the fundamental flaws in an engagement survey: they’re sponsored by this impersonal entity called “the organization” and likely created by another organization whose members are faceless and unknowable. Hardly the kind of experience the average person would find personally validating.

It also explains why most of the free-form comments in engagement surveys tend to be whiny. We turn into whiny moaners when we feel powerless and slip into passive-aggressive mode. An engagement survey becomes the opportunity to vent frustrations to the faceless people who have power over you, allowing you to get some low-quality satisfaction by sticking it to them.

Another facet of an engagement survey that increases its impersonality lies in the design of the survey itself. The questions on an engagement survey reflect classifications that have been identified by the consultant in the consultant’s language. The themes in every engagement survey I’ve seen are always the same, even if a few customized questions are thrown into the mix. The message there is pretty clear: “the organization” only wants to “know” about certain things and not others. The organization cares less about what the individual employee thinks or feels and even less about the real problems that exist between the cracks of the engagement survey’s categories. The leaders have chosen to deal only with what they believe they can manage, and management is frequently about limiting those unpleasant uncontrollable variables that human beings have a tendency to generate.

Engagement surveys are useful for two things: collecting mass data about organizational programs and identifying conversation starters. The data may be ignored, twisted or taken seriously, depending on the quality of leadership in the organization. However, the conversations never really happen, even when results are shared at the work team level. And neither the survey itself nor the various forms of sharing engagement survey results ask the most important question you can ask a disengaged, demotivated employee.

“How are YOU doing?”

An engagement effort that fails to engage each employee on an individual basis is a half-hearted effort at best. A talent management program that fails to involve each individual in making choices about their skill levels, performance levels, career path and contribution is just another program.

Unless every individual in your organization matters, no one matters. This is the key to minimizing the ebbs and flows in employee engagement: people have to believe they matter and that their contribution matters. This is why leadership is so important: the organization’s top leaders must act in ways that reinforce the belief that each individual matters and the individual leaders have to personally and meaningfully engage their employees in conversations about work, about life and about how they’re doing.

In Part 2, we’ll go into more detail about how to make engagement surveys and programs more helpful and useful. We’ll also cover how we can capture what’s really going on in an organization and how leaders can make a meaningful difference.

Photo Credit: © Raphotography | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos


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Despite various paradigm shifts and stunning advances in technology and communication, the dominant pattern of modern life has not changed much in the last fifty years: go-to-school-get-a-job-get-married-settle-down-raise-a-family-get-a-watch-retire. If you are one of the unfortunate souls who were not born into streams of inherited wealth, you have probably followed all or part of this pattern, depending on how far you’ve advanced in the aging process.

However, it is clear that the pattern is unraveling. Marriage is not the sacred institution it once was, and if you’re not heterosexual, it is not an option in most places. Having children is no longer an automatic choice for growing numbers of women; I once worked in a department with nine other women, all but one over thirty, all but one childless and the rest with no plans or even thoughts of either getting married or raising kids. The get-a-watch concept is fading fast, as corporations switch their propaganda from “job security” to “job opportunity,” meaning that any loyalty you have to a company had better be of the flexible variety. Retirement itself is undergoing flux, as Social Security looks iffy and our faith in the ability to the stock market to grow our 401(k)’s remains under assault.

But the go-to-school-get-a-job part of the pattern is still holding firm. There are a few artistic types who manage to avoid it, and few entrepreneurs who have parlayed their talents and marketing savvy into relative independence, but for most of us slobs, the menu is pretty much limited to a list of possible occupations. Some opt out of going to college and have to select from a shorter menu. Those who go to college may begin with more choices (depending on the job market at the time), but those choices are eventually reduced by the push to specialize in a single body of knowledge. People see jobs as a necessary evil, a sign that you have matured and are willing to accept reality for what it is—a daily routine of commute, work and commute again. They are things we “have to get,” not necessarily things we “want to get.”

That last statement would appear to contradict polls and engagement surveys showing that a majority of Americans are at least somewhat satisfied with their jobs (not so much with their particular employers, though). I think this is more of a matter of making lemonade out of lemons. My experience tells me that people often like what they do but they despise their boneheaded leaders or the general working environment. But there is more to it than that, something elusive that cannot be captured in polling numbers or engagement surveys.

Having listened to thousands of people in all kinds of organizations over the years, I can say unequivocally that tune I hear most often in the background is Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?” This does not show up in polls on job satisfaction because people have a hard time telling the truth about their current status. We almost always say things are going better than they are because we don’t want anyone to think we’ve made a mistake. This applies to everything from buying a new car (it’s always “I love this car” even if it is a piece of junk) to choosing a job. Since people learn to put on a happy face for their employers to avoid being labeled complainers or to prevent having their career paths filled with landmines planted by resentful bosses, any survey of the workplace is but a superficial indication of what is really going on. The reality is more along the lines of the common response, “It’s okay—for a job.”

The employment scene is like a bad supermarket. There seem to be plenty of items to choose from, but none of them really satisfy the craving. Many of the items are attractively packaged, but when we open the packaging, the contents are either flat or spoiled. We stand in the aisles like Mary Tyler Moore during the opening credits of her 70’s sitcom trying to decide if we really want the thing in our hands and then shrug our shoulders and fling it into the cart. After all, we have to eat something.

Among the selections available to us, the default choice for most people is some kind of job in a corporation, particularly if your overriding “need” is to make money. Landing a decent job for a name company is considered a respectable choice; and when we get the offer, we approach our prospective employment with a combination of relief and excitement about our now apparently rosy future.

Unfortunately, once you get past the corporate packaging that advertises a constantly expanding career path and the apparently attractive job offer, you have to go to work at the place. The reality of the workplace is very different from what most people expect. Prospective employers don’t tell you that it is impossible to get anything done in their corporation because of a power struggle on the executive level. Recruiters don’t tell you that your boss is an arrogant jerk who always has to be right and that if you have the gall to suggest new ways of doing things, they will banish you to an outer cubicle to clean up an obsolete database. Sometimes an old hand will see your excited face as you enter the workplace with your sugar plum visions, pull you aside and whisper, “Wait until you’ve been here about six months.” That’s usually how long it takes for people to realize that their chances of making a real difference in an organization are virtually nil.

This is not to imply that all corporations are this way and that everyone working in a corporation is a self-serving, self-righteous incompetent. If that were the case, corporations would not have produced the successes they have produced. Most organizations survive and sometimes thrive because of a small core of decent, dedicated human beings with a strong orientation towards cooperation who somehow work through all the crap strewn in their paths like Andy Dufresne crawling through the sewer to freedom in The Shawshank Redemption. These people are both fortunate and determined enough to find both meaning and achievement in their work. Though some are in positions of leadership, most tend to work quietly in the background, translating the gibberish emanating from above or from “corporate” into workable solutions that satisfy customers and earn profits for the enterprise. They are the master lemonade makers, living proof that spending one’s life in an organization can be a rewarding, personally satisfying experience.

So while it is possible to retire with more than a gold watch but also with one’s dignity, there is more than enough pain in any organization to make job satisfaction a very difficult thing to achieve. One could read the polls and feel reassured that America is a happy place full of happy workers who cannot wait for Monday morning. If that were true, why are stress management classes in such great demand? Why do so many Americans seem to be on medication? Survey results do not capture the overwhelming dissatisfaction with the greater predicament of an employment system that seems to offer us a limited set of less-than-desirable options. The results measure what we have learned to cope with, learned to accept as normal and our ability to give up when faced with what we perceive to be the inevitable. As is usually the case, surveys fail to capture what is really going on.

What’s really going on is that our organizations are filled with people who don’t really want to be there and would much rather be doing something else.

This is something that every organizational development consultant or HR professional has to face if they are to make a real difference for the organization that hired them. In future posts, I’ll offer some ideas for how to turn that combination of unwillingness and latent energy into something positive and meaningful.

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