My father was a “yellow dog” Democrat, and in keeping with his legacy I have long believed politics are important, and that voting actually matters. But the political shenanigans demonstrated by our Congress in response to the recent debt ceiling debate left me not just angry, not just embarrassed or afraid. They left me in despair. Me, the kid who wore a patch on my jeans in 1968 that proclaimed: “Nixon has a secret plan to end the war. He’s going to vote for McGovern.” After the euphoria of seeing Obama sweep into office, igniting such hope and inspiration, how could we be here in just two years? Squabbling our way to the brink of economic paralysis? For the first time in my life, I felt my political faith defeated. I would not bother to vote again. Washington is broken and will never fundamentally change. If these are our leaders, then heaven help us.
So I did what I have often done in moments of despair. I ran away to the movies. In the dark of a theater in Myrtle Beach, SC, I watched The Help. I’d read the book but seeing and feeling the genuine risks that one young, white aspiring writer and a few black maids took to tell what it was really like to work in those Mississippi households during the Jim Crow era was riveting. But even more powerful was being in an audience of mixed blacks and whites laughing and clapping together—in South Carolina, of all places—as the story unfolded onscreen. In fact, given my childhood summers visiting this same beach, I once never would have believed it would be possible.
You see, when we went on vacation fifty years ago, we went to a stately old Southern beach hotel where you had to dress for dinner and all the servers were black and wore crisp uniforms, and the maitre’d hands sported white gloves, with which he smoothly pulled out the chairs to seat the ladies. I remember their names, their faces, and their duties as clearly as if I being led to the table right now. Cleo served the bread in a special silver bun warmer and served the roll you picked with tongs. She always had a floral handkerchief in her breast pocket that made her stand out and seem so friendly. Riley, the elegant maître’d, looked like a black Alfred Hitchcock, rotund, formal, and searingly articulate, and the only one of the dining room help that wore a black jacket instead of a white one. One waiter would be assigned to serve our family for the entire week, and we jittered with excitement to see who it would be this year: Daniel (also known as “Lamb”), Joseph (who stuttered), or Jesse (who once raised a fist in anger and was quickly quieted and led away to the kitchen)?
My grandfather, beloved but bigoted, never said their names, but rather raised a finger as he held a toothpick between his teeth to summon their attention.
I didn’t know how wrong it all was then and never pictured any other way being possible.
Yet those racial lines have largely evaporated in my lifetime. Perhaps I sat just a row behind Cleo’s granddaughter in that theater yesterday, cheering for those maids to hold their heads up and tell Miss Hilly where to go.
In fifty years it had all changed and for much the better. If we can manage to uproot the worst of institutionalized racism, then surely we can wrangle our way towards a government that truly serves instead of shames us. We did before.
So change is possible. Perhaps if our leaders could engage their genuine curiosity, compassion, and courage, instead of just tactics—compromise, coercion, and cacaphony—we would see some progress on the red vs. blue front. It seemed to work when black vs. white were the charged colors in America. I believe I’ll vote in the next election after all.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
-excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem, “After Apple-Picking”
I don’t know if this first blog entry is best described as a personal admission, professional rant, or a cry for workplace sanity. Maybe this is the winter of my discontent. Or my Jerry Maguire moment—you know, that dawning crisis of conscience written and distributed in the form of a “memo” asserting that something about the way we are working is seriously out of whack. In the movie, Jerry left the office after that memo’s clarion call (and his quick, decisive dismissal by the company) with a single goldfish and single follower.
What the hell. I haven’t had a goldfish since I won one in the 5th grade Catholic Halloween carnival. And I just quit my job in the midst of the worst recession in my lifetime, so I can’t be fired anyway.
So I am calling for a radical shift—a return to a way or working that actually acknowledges that the “workforce” comprises real human beings who are finite in their time and energy, have friends and family who miss their attention, and who are desperately in need of a long winter’s nap with their cell phones set to ‘silent.’
As many corporations and flailing small businesses alike declare “work/life balance” as a core value, they simultaneously commit to business performance targets and “stretch” productivity metrics that are fundamentally incompatible with the former. And when last quarter’s profit margin competes with employee engagement scores for the greatest gains, you can be sure the one with dollar signs in front will win.
Admittedly, I am currently relying mostly on my qualitative observations as a facilitator and organization development consultant. But my instincts are bearing out in the research that shows a negative correlation between profitability, customer satisfaction and overall job satisfaction among employees. The Gallup organization has found that “actively disengaged employees erode an organization’s bottom line while breaking the spirits of colleagues in the process.” Within the U.S. workforce, Gallup estimates this cost to be more than $300 billion in lost productivity alone. Now check out this math from Towers Perrin findings: 72 percent of companies have reduced their workforces in response to the recession, while the number of “actively disengaged” workers has risen to as much as 24 percent in companies where layoffs have occurred.
At a time when most of the drones in the corporate hive just want to understand the basics of what-why-how-and when, too often the executive buzz—that deafening, deadening hum of business-speak—continues to numb their neurons to any sense of hope or clarity. Questions posed from the hive often seem reasonable enough: “Why is it that we (read mega-company) just had record 3d quarter earnings, yet we’re still laying off people?”. Yet the answers seem less than transparent (read spin).
Here is a tiny sample of what I am hearing:
Employee (Plain English) translated into CEO (Corporate Executive Obfuscation)
“I’m completely exhausted and past my limits.” CEO translation: “We are hearing about ‘capacity management’ issues.”
“I hear there is another round of layoffs coming.” CEO translation: “We will continue to evolve our structure in the coming months.”
“There is no way we can get all this done with fewer people.” CEO translation:“Our resourcing plan is aspirational at this point.”
“I’m screwed.” CEO translation: “We encourage you to carry our vacation forward into next year in response to our new stretch targets.”
It seems to that colony collapse disorder is occurring not only in bee communities but in corporate ones as well.
In the movie of Anna Quindlen’s poignant novel, One True Thing, a cancer-stricken mother confides to her daughter as they stroll their neighborhood streets decorated for the holidays, “I believe more is more.” Counter to that often-invoked call for simplicity, “Less is more,” she contentedly admits that when it comes to Christmastime, more gold, more tinsel, more glitter is better.
Let’s try a third variation. Call me the anti-elf, but when it comes to current workplace norms, I hereby proclaim “Less is less!” Trying to achieve goals that are beyond stretch (they are break), more complex , and have shorter timeframes (next week) with fewer resources (slashed budgets and lower headcount, which means people) is a low-probability endeavor. “Load upon load of apples…. One can see what will trouble/This sleep of mine.” Yet too few executives are poets with troubled sleep.
Awaken! There are plenty of goals that should be abandoned, jettisoned, or time capsuled because they are unrealistic within the current economy and prevailing corporate cultures. Send some to the cider-apple heap. Then decide what will truly set your company apart (“customer focus”? I don’t think so) and distill your priorities down to the essence of excellence to better inspire your people, capture your customers, and save us all from the unrelentingly frenzied pace and tsunami of techno-communication in which we are drowning.
So, leaders, heal thyself and LEAD (acronyms are de rigeur to get attention):
Limit priorities to the few that matter most—ABANDON others—and see what happens to focus and results
Empathize with employees’ workload and confusion (wild idea: sit in their chairs, attend their endless teleconferences, and read their bursting Inboxes for a day)—and see what happens to trust, teamwork, and retention
Allow employees time for reflection as part of their job—and see what happens to critical thinking and innovation
Declare “less is less” as a company commitment to realistic goals—and see what happens to motivation, engagement, and productivity, and perceived leadership credibility
I hereby join Jon Stewart in a call to restore sanity, not only to politics, but to the corporate workplace, where real humans spend most of their days and too many nights.
Is there a goldfish in need of a home out there anywhere? Anyone willing to follow me? I’d like to hear from you—whether it is a rant, recommendation, or story of what’s really working or decidedly not working out there.
As a business leader, what are you doing to reclaim your workplace for real human beings? As an employee, what are you doing that is bringing out your best at work, without sacrificing your health or values?