Customers Are #2

By Mike Lehr
The influence of this statement extends deeply into an organization.

The influence of this statement extends deeply into an organization.

Eighty percent of companies seem to emphasize the classic, “Customers are #1,” mantra. Far fewer emphasize an employee-centric one, “Employees are #1.” With the latter, the rationale is usually “Treating employees well encourages them to treat customers well.” It’s much deeper than that though.

Centier Bank in Indiana is an example. In Indiana Bankers Association’s publication, Hoosier Banker (Hoosier is Indiana’s demonym), Mike Schrage, the bank’s chairman, chief executive officer and president, explains the rationale:

We also put our associates first, before our customers and our shareholders. The reason is that if we are treating our employees really well, they are going to treat our customers really well (see “Mike Schrage: Leading Centier Into the Next Generation” pg. 9 [pdf])

Intriguingly, reinforcing this as Centier is “Indiana’s largest, private, family-owned bank,” employees sign a “Declaration of Independence,” acknowledging to do what they can to preserve that independence. Additionally, Centier offers an in-house clinic, with free health screenings, treatments and generic prescriptions, and conducts annual fund-raisers for employees experiencing difficulties.

Below this pragmatism though, “Employees are #1” triggers emotions of long-term security and emotional recognition. Employees know Centier won’t sacrifice their jobs, integrity and efforts for customers. Under “Customers are #1,” all are potential fodder for that cause, expendable. They also know Centier values their unique skills, talents and “servant-oriented” personalities for which they actively recruit.

A colleague once countered, “Mike, employees don’t think that.” He’s wrong. They do on an intuitive and subconscious level. The first generates undefinable uneasy emotions, the second unattributable or misattributed ones. Feeling anxious about their jobs or about protecting themselves from blame are typical symptoms.

What we say and how influence motivation and thus outcomes. If the emotional aspects of messages are important in marketing, why aren’t they too with our internal markets?


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Top Secret

Keeping secrets is stressful.

As it turns out, we might be doing harm to those we tell secrets expecting them to keep. In her article, “Why You Can’t Keep a Secret” (The Atlantic, March 2014 edition), Sarah Yager cites six different studies exploring why it’s so difficult to keep secrets. Very simply, it’s stressful and carries implications for the workplace.

Among other things, secret keepers “performed worse on a spatial-ability task, reacted more rudely to criticism, gave up sooner” and perceived tasks more difficult. More importantly, secret keeping wears the body down including increased colds and chronic diseases. The severity of these effects increased with the secret’s importance. Secrets are stressful too to their originators especially if no one else knows such as personal secrets about sexual orientation.

What makes secrets hard to keep though is that once told most of these problems go away. For example, “teens who confide in a parent or close friend report fewer physical complaints and less delinquent behavior, loneliness, and depression than those who sit on their secrets.” Secret keepers feel better even if they simply write about them.

This isn’t new. It’s similar to the “talking cure” Freud popularized. Yet, vastly improved technology and research methodology have allowed researchers to deepen and reinforce our knowledge, concluding that sharing openly and venting are healthy for employees and for businesses.

For example, a secret could be as simple as employees being afraid to tell managers about problems. This increases employees’ stress, putting them under pressure and increasing the likelihood of improper behavior.

In the end though, the real problem hides as such employees are often reprimanded or terminated, thus categorizing the problem as one with the employee rather than the business culture. In effect, the real problem becomes a secret the company keeps from itself.


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Leveraging group interactions to mold relationships and culture.

Two Types of Group Interactions: Presenting & Question and Answer

All group interactions (GI) are a blend of two types. The difference between the two is the amount of interaction between the audience and the leader or facilitator of the GI. Thus, they influence differently. Understanding this becomes important as we leverage GI’s to mold relationships and cultures.

At one extreme, little audience participation occurs. The leader alone presents. TED talks are popular examples. At the opposing extreme, the audience participates usually in the form of question and answers (Q&A), thus directing GI flow. Press conferences are public examples (although the leader often has ways to moderate questions). Thus, by mixing the two, any GI becomes a ratio between leader’s presenting time (P) and audience’s Q&A or formulaically P/QA.

Contrasting the two, presenting delivers much information in a short time period but doesn’t permit clarification and exploration. Q&A does but since this takes time, it covers less information. So, looking at any GI as the ratio P/QA, a GI oriented around presenting could be 90/10, 90% presenting and 10% Q&A. One oriented around Q&A could easily be 30/70 meaning the leader opens with comments for 30% of the time and then attendees engage with questions and comments for the remaining 70%.

From the perspective of molding relationships and cultures, Q&A is more influential and persuasive than presenting; the spontaneity of Q&A is psychologically and emotionally more impactive. The leader is on the spot, potentially challenged. It’s the same reason management by walking around and “teachable moments” are so powerful. This doesn’t mean presenting can’t be influential, but it does mean we will need to leverage certain techniques more.

The key is remembering that all GI’s usually blend the two. That blend will depend upon the balance we want between our pragmatic goals and our relational and cultural ones.


Related post: Group Interactions, Molding Relationships and Culture


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3 Gold Stars - Leadership Secret

Across leadership studies, a consistent leadership definition or model is very often lacking.

Greger Wikstand, a Capgemini consultant (plus much more), and I exchanged Tweets on my post, “Leadership, The Secret (Pt 6): Scientifically Unproven.” He asked me to look at some science that apparently proved good leadership begets good results. After tweeting what I look for in these studies, he suggested I read the study more thoroughly and write about them.

The research Greger had me analyze was an excellent exercise for which I am grateful to him for suggesting. It’s a systematic analysis of current literature on leadership’s predictability of:

  1. Job well-being
  2. Risk of sick leaves
  3. Early retirement
  4. Job satisfaction
  5. Job performance

Interesting enough, after “109 articles were thoroughly analyzed” and “conclusions [were] based on 27 articles providing the best evidence,” (see Abstract, Objective pg. 904) the study concluded only a “moderate association” with the first three and “weak associations” with the last two (see Discussion pg 910). In other words, while leadership might be good for employee’s health, “the relationship between leadership and performance remains unclear.” (see Abstract, Conclusions pg. 904). So, in terms of my post, the only thing this research seems to prove is that good leadership begetting good results, especially performance, is still unproven.

Nevertheless, Greger wanted to know what I examine in these studies. One important aspect I mentioned is definitions. They form studies’ foundations. Varying the definition of a ball will change outcomes. Leadership works the same. This study provided no definitions of leadership, let alone definitions of good leadership, used by the analyzed studies. More astounding, 62 different leadership models were used to assess leadership (see Description of Studies pg. 907). This inconsistency dynamically influences hypotheses, methodology, results and conclusions.

Thus, reconnecting this study to this series on leadership’s secret, the conclusions (especially those regarding performance) and inconsistent assessment approaches confirm the subjective, arbitrary nature of leadership – it’s real secret. It makes defining and studying leadership in any consistent manner difficult, if not impossible, and is probably why this study concluded that “there is a relative lack of well-founded prospective studies” in this area (see Abstract, Conclusions pg. 904).


Referenced study: Leadership, Job Well-Being, and Health Effects – A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis by Jaana Kuoppala, MD, PhD; Anne Lamminpää, MD, PhD; Juha Liira, MD, PhD; and Harri Vainio, MD, PhD (12 pgs.)


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Problems with Science

By Mike Lehr
Irrationality of Science

The scientific method, as with any process, is not immune to adverse human influences.

The biggest problem with science are people, not only scientists but the people who fund, publish, cite and use it. As sharp as the scientific method (SM) is – the overarching process powering science and academic research – as a process of inquiry, unchecked human biases dull it as they do with any process.

Supposedly, SM’s ultimate bulwark against such biases is peer review (review of findings and process by others in the field). However, it’s under assault from money, prestige, publication and unconscious biases. Consequently, peer review is barely up to the task of providing this defense anymore, so much so that market forces are producing opportunities for firms to do what scientists increasingly have difficulty doing themselves: protecting science from sloppy research (“Metaphysicians” [The Economist, March 15, 2014 edition]).

Such problems with science are not new. In 2005, John Ioannidis, Professor of Health Research and Policy at Stanford School of Medicine, published in PLOS Medicine a groundbreaking paper Why Most Published Research Findings Are False (see also “Science, Its Irrational Aspects” for additional related research). Jonathan Schooler, University of California Santa Barbara, is another who has taken on “broader issues and associated questions regarding the frontiers of science.”

Many of these problems originate from extending science beyond its inherent limitations. For example, science cannot prove great leadership begets great business. Pragmatically, this means soft sciences such as psychology, medicine and sociology as opposed to hard ones such as chemistry and physics will contain the biggest infections of adverse human influences. Another major source of problems is scientists’ belief they are immune to unconscious, subjective influences. Yet, this belief often makes people most susceptible.

Science has greatly improved our lives. All of it is because scientists have used it creatively, wisely and appropriately. Let’s ensure it stays that way.


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When we buy processes without assessing fit to culture, we are buying clothes without checking to see if they fit.

Processes trigger our emotions for security, for certainty. All too often processes become the end, not outcomes. Providers of all kinds, from hair treatments to management consulting, tap this emotional trigger by touting their processes, systems and practices. The untold secret of these best practices is this: more often than not they only work for certain clients meeting certain specifications.

For example, Julian Birkinshaw of the London Business School writes in “Beware the Next Big Thing” (Harvard Business Review, May 2014 edition):

But all too often, the practices used successfully at one company prove disastrous at another.

For instance, consensus decision-making only works if the business culture is geared for it. If a company has been organized autocratically or advisorily, this process could easily falter because people are not accustomed to informing themselves and knowing extended discussion is not decision-making. Yet, when clients don’t fit into our “proven processes,” we conveniently assume there is something wrong with the client. In fact, the process might be wrong for the client.

How often do we hear, “Our people are our greatest asset?” Yet, we tend to assume that the same process will work for two different sets of people. Therefore, indirectly we are adding the caveat, “But, that asset is like everyone else’s.”

Culture and relationships trump processes. That means as Birkinshaw answers the question, “Where do new management practices come from?” that “the vast majority come from corporate executives experimenting with new ideas in their own organizations.” In other words, they are trying to figure out what works for them, not unilaterally applying what worked someplace else. It’s applying trial and err to perfection.

When we buy processes without assessing fit to our culture, it’s akin to buying clothes without checking to see if they fit.


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Politeness as Dishonesty

By Mike Lehr
Politeness as Dishonesty

Are we being dishonesty when we are being polite?

Politeness softens the edge on our feelings but does so at the cost of cutting a good understanding of where we stand. If doing this purposely, are we dishonest?

Early in our marriage, my wife showed me a wallpaper sample for our bedroom. I politely said I didn’t like it. The next day, returning from work, it was up. I asked her why when I told her I didn’t like it. She answered that it didn’t seem like I disliked it a lot. Ironically, according to “Perils of Candour” (The Economist, June 7, 2014 edition), China-United States relations seem to suffer from the same politeness. A spat that occurred between the two was “welcome relief from the stifling obfuscation and pussyfooting courtesy in which much diplomacy is cloaked.” Could our workplaces be suffering from such politeness, creating problems with dishonesty and effectiveness?

We naturally shy away from dissent and conflict. We often use euphemisms such as retrenching to reference terminations and challenges to reference problems. Not only might they hide reality but they might compel us to express ourselves dishonestly. For example, is it dishonest to express something as a challenge, when we feel it’s a problem?

Moreover, as with any dishonesty, politeness produces problems. Avoiding conflict and dissent is bad for innovation and business. Some then ask, “So, I should be rude?” The real question is, “If honestly expressing how you feel, how can anybody interpret that as anything but honesty? It’s neither polite nor rude. Polite means you’re packaging truth to please, rude packaging it to hurt. Both can manipulate.

Yet, people prefer to characterize our words and behaviors along a polite-rude spectrum. Otherwise, they might find themselves admitting that they don’t like our honesty. Who’s going to admit, especially to themselves, that they don’t like honesty?


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Leveraging group interactions to mold relationships and culture.

Leveraging group interactions to mold relationships and culture

Most times, we see group interactions (GI) as convenient communication tools. Typically, they appear as meetings, training sessions and other events. Except for possible networking opportunities, we often don’t see them as opportunities for molding relationships and culture, but we can.

At the root of molding culture is relationships. Just as there are two aspects to every individual interaction there are for GI’s. The overt, rational aspect is its stated purpose. The subtle, emotional aspect is the collective impressions it creates. Every interaction, whether intentional or not, will instill emotions contributing or retarding relationships. Unfortunately, since emotional aspects are so intangible and fuzzy, they’re easy to discount. Discounting the company grapevine is an example.

GI’s then serve two primary, interrelated functions:

  • Positioning future individual interactions
  • Reinforcing previous individual interactions

The first is more common, laying groundwork for follow up. Announcing a project and then visiting with each member to review his specific assignment is an example. The second often uses meetings to summarize findings from individual meetings. Conducting individual assessments and then reporting findings to the group is an example.

From a relational perspective, we sometimes use our standard relationship building techniques in GI’s; however, we can also tap two broad categories of techniques specific to them:

  • Acknowledging contributions (i.e. questions, information)
  • Thanking for that contribution

To position, we use GI’s to acknowledge publicly a critical role someone will play: “Samantha, your input will be critical to this project’s success.” To reinforce, GI’s acknowledge roles played: “Bruce, this point specifically relates to your input to me last month.” With both, we can integrate techniques leveraging relationships and strategic complimenting giving us many ways to personalize.

GI’s offer a wealth of opportunities for molding relationships and culture. It means though seeing them more than simple communication tools.


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Excessive Collaboration - Let Me Do My JobAt the outset, great ideas succeed because there is adherence to their fundamental concepts, processes and techniques. Over time though, commercial pressures take hold. More become trained in them, including many less talented than the original advocates. Others find new markets by pushing the ideas beyond their original purposes. Eventually, the great ideas, with their fundamentals compromised, become like worn shoes. They begin to create foot problems rather than solve them.

Collaboration has become a worn shoe in need of refurbishing. It’s creating more problems than it solves. “Montessori Management” (The Economist, September 7, 2013 edition) cites extensive research questioning collaboration and other contemporary trends towards openness.

Morten Hansen (University of California, Berkeley) found teams became less and less likely to win deals as they spent more time consulting others. Jake Breeden (Duke Corporate Education) “worries that too much reliance on teamwork can create a culture of ‘learned helplessness’ in which managers are terrified to make decisions without yet another round of consultations.”

The open-office plan often came to encourage collaboration. Yet, the articles cites an increasing body of research indicating this not only reduces productivity from distractions but some studies show that they are “more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress and airborne infections such as flu.” Collaboration isn’t allowing people to do their jobs.

As testimony of my worn shoe analogy, Breeden cites “that managers should treat collaboration and creativity as techniques rather than dogmas.” We’ve compromised these ideas; they are now movements, universal remedies. It’s as though orange did so well in one room that we decided to paint everything orange.

Collaboration is important to innovation. Thus, there is a need to return to the original integrity of the shoe so we can all do our jobs and get some work done.


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Leadership's Impact on Goals

Leadership influences goal setting by expanding what people believe they can achieve.

Leadership’s influence on goal setting results in people believing and achieving more than they would with mediocre management. It’s where leadership’s affective essence meets reality to produce concrete outcomes, to bring about change. Growth cannot occur without change; it is change.

When Priyesh Patel asked about the significance of influence in leadership, that influence results in accomplishments. Accomplishments manifest themselves in setting goals and achieving them. To appreciate leadership’s influence, let’s explore the emotions behind goal setting.

First, it’s commonly known that goal setting helps people achieve higher performance levels than if they had no goals. What’s not commonly known is its corollary: if goals are higher than what people believe they can accomplish it’s worse than having no goals. Graph #1 in the diagram illustrates the first scenario and Graph #2 the second. When people believe goals unrealistic, they’re demoralizing and counterproductive to performance.

Graph #3 then illustrates leadership’s influence. Leadership helps people believe they can achieve more, achieve higher levels of performance. Thus, goals that they would have seen as unrealistic become realistic. This leadership premium is the difference between spectacular outcomes and inertia resulting from numbness to repeated, grandiose initiatives.

The underlying emotions fueling what can be achieved will tend to reflect three key triggers: security, growth and uniqueness. The size, longevity and history of the firm, leadership and employees generate secure, confident emotions saying this can be done. High-growth even in young firms often fuel belief that even higher performance levels are possible. A unique product, market, process or culture, can emote “destiny is on our side.”

Leadership always operates within a context, so leaders use context to leverage their influence. This occurs on the interpersonal level. It’s about helping employees to feel good about themselves and developing their confidence. In short, it’s about relationships.


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