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Workplaces in both the public and private sector are feeling the pinch as federal budget cuts threaten their bottom lines. Managers are responsible for maintaining operations and morale, even as their employees face furloughs and pay cuts. Business coach and diversity consultant Howard Ross joins us to explore the challenge of managing a workplace in times of crisis and the leadership skills that serve effective managers well.
- Howard Ross Author, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance" (Rowman & Littlefield); also Principal, Cook Ross
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Howard Ross is here. Being the boss is hard enough, but the job is even harder when your office is in crisis mode. In the sequester world order of federal debate cuts, workers around the Washington region in both the private and public sectors are looking at furloughs and pay cuts.
MR. KOJO NNAMDICaught in the middle are the managers and leaders who have to keep the ship afloat and maintain productivity all the while keeping morale from going down the tubes. This hour, we're exploring the qualities that make for effective workplace leadership during times of crisis and what both employers and employees can do to maintain a healthy dynamic in the office even when it seems that the place is going up in flames. Howard Ross joins us. He's business coach and diversity consultant. He's a principal at the firm Cook Ross. Howard, always a pleasure.
MR. HOWARD ROSSHi, Kojo. Good to see you.
NNAMDIYou can join this conversation too if you have questions or comments by calling us at 800-433-8850. What do you think are the best things a boss or a manager can do during a time of workplace crisis, and what are the worst? 800-433-8850. Howard, it's hard enough to be the boss when everything is going well, when your budget is flush, and you're riding high.
NNAMDIBut it's another thing when the chips are down, the employees are squeezed, and, in this case, public employees across the country, for example, are looking at furloughs and pay cuts because of the massive federal spending drawdown known as the sequester. But managers are going to have to find a way to keep those offices running and sustain morale. What would you say are the most leadership qualities that one brings or one needs to bring to that kind of situation for those people who are left in charge?
ROSSWell, I think the most important thing, Kojo, is to recognize there's leaders in circumstances like that where our own inner system is in turmoil. You know, and so people have their own fears, their fears about what they're going to get down, how are they going to make these hard decisions if we have to lay people off, who are we going to have to lay off, are we going to be the bad guy having to tell them that, all of that kind of stuff.
ROSSAnd what happens is because most people function more externally than internally -- that is, they worry about what's outside of themselves before they worry about what's going on inside of themselves -- a lot of those decisions get made up reactively. And so one of the most important things that a leader can do at times like this, to begin with, is to lead from the inside out. That is to sort of learn to check in with yourself.
ROSSAnd sometimes, it's really helpful to have somebody who -- a friend, a colleague, a peer, somebody who's outside of your organization, coach if you've got, you know, access to that, but somebody who you can sort of bounce around what's going with yourself because at times of turmoil people look to leadership for -- to provide sort of that supreme control or -- if you will. You know, we all have an internal supreme control...
ROSS...where we feel at certain times we feel a certain sense of calm. And at times when chaos is happening, we lose that, and so everybody is panicky wondering what's going to happen to them. And if the leader is just part of that panic, then it's like a ship running without a rudder. On the other hand, if the leader gives a sense that, OK, we don't know what's going to happen, but we can provide some stability here, then people will really rally around them. I think a great example is the way everybody rushed to support President Bush after 9/11.
ROSSIf you remember in the month or two after 9/11, his approval ratings went up to, like, 93 percent, and it wasn't everybody starting liking President Bush. It was that the way he responded initially with firmness was gave people a sense, all right, somebody is at the helm. And so that's the first and foremost thing is can we not by lying to people, not by providing a false sense of security, but by letting people know that they're on the task, that they're doing everything that they can and that they'll keep people informed.
NNAMDIWell, given that a lot of managers say in the federal government and in the case of the District, the District government were not the ones who made the decisions that people had to get furloughed, but they are the ones who either, A, had to recommend who gets furloughed or, B, have to deal with telling it to people who got furloughed even though that they did not make the decision themselves. So I'll turn -- flip the coin and say, what are the worst qualities a manager can bring into a situation like this?
ROSSWell, I think the situation you're describing is a very common one, and it's common not just in the case of government, but it's common in the case of businesses, really any kind of organization that senior leadership in an organization makes a decision and management or in some cases board of directors do or whatever, managers then have to implement that decision. But acting like, well, I didn't decide that they did is really an abdication of your responsibility as leaders.
ROSSI mean, when you sign up to be a leader or a manager in an organization, either explicitly or implicitly, you're signing up to make the decisions of senior leadership, people above you happen. And that doesn't mean you have to like them, but it does mean that you need to provide the sense of a surety to people that you're going to do it in an equitable way, in a just way, and in a way that serves the best interest of the organization.
ROSSSo one thing that people should not do is to sort of point the finger and say, well, that's above my pay grade. And that -- like, again, that doesn't mean you have to pretend like you like it, but to say, look, this is the decision the organization has made. Our job is to figure out the best way to implement it.
ROSSWhen we don't do that, when we get into our own panic whispering to people, you know, becoming one of them against or one of us against them, all of those kinds of things doesn't resolve the problem. It may make you feel better in terms of your ego because people around you like you more, but it doesn't resolve the problem at all. In fact, it makes it worse.
NNAMDIAre you a federal employee or contractor facing a furlough or pay cut as a result of the sequester? How is it affecting the dynamics between you and your boss? Give us a call at 800-433-8850 or shoot us an email to email@example.com. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. What do situations like the sequester reveal about our work environments? People can be happy, challenged and fulfilled. And then when you mess with the certainty of their pay, their basic security, a lot of things can change, can they?
ROSSOh, yeah. I mean, look, we're talking -- and especially now, because, you know, because we know we're not in a flushed economic environment. You know, if you go back five years ago when unemployment was really low and people were looking for workers rather than looking for work is a different kind of circumstance because if you were fairly talented and you know how to do your job pretty well, even if you're not outstanding, you have a pretty good sense of you being able to find a job somewhere even though nobody likes to be relieved by their job when it's not their choice.
ROSSNonetheless, you had a pretty good sense of it. Now, we know and most everybody knows people have been out of job, out of work for a long time and to be putting out of a job is a real threat to one's survival. So at the basic lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy it's touching into something that's really important to us.
ROSSAnd so, you know, as a result of that, we see various different archetypical reactions. We begin to notice a number of years ago in working with folks that there's certain almost caricatures that you can see of the way people responded to this. There are sort of eight different identities that we develop that people went into.
ROSSAnd, you know, some of them are really obvious ones, you know, what I call the destroyer, the person who gets so emotionally wrought that they're just, you know, all of a sudden, they're all over the place, and their behavior is destructive or self-destructive and that sort of thing. But there are these sort of eight types that we can see. And if we can begin to spot how those different employees are behaving, we also know that there different ways to interact with each of them to help them get through the transition.
NNAMDIGlad you talked about the extremes because to what degree is good management in crisis a matter of empathy? We heard a lot of stories in the immediate wake of the sequester about lawmakers, like D.C.'s own delegate, Eleanor Holmes-Norton, donating portions of their pay personally to federal employees through the federal employee education and assistance fund.
ROSSWell, I think there are things that we can do as leaders to create a sense of security even without providing or reassurance without providing necessarily a sense of security. We may not be able to provide a sense of security. And being part of the solution is one way to do it. And I know when we had that experience back in 2008 when the economy was tanking, and, you know, we're a small consulting company and clearly very vulnerable to these kinds of circumstances.
ROSSSo then in February, probably January or February of 2009, we called a staff altogether in the conference room and said, look, we -- everybody, we know that you're nervous. We know that you're wondering what's going to happen to us. And so we want you to know what's our plan is, and the plan that we put out to them was that we knew that we had a great team. We wanted to keep it together as much as we could or as much as it was possible.
ROSSAnd so our first line was going to be when we hit a certain level of cash flow that we would reduce -- Leslie and I would reduce our income by 15 percent and ask everybody across the board to take a 10 percent pay cut so that we could all share in the potential risk in that. And it didn't relieve everybody's anxiety completely.
ROSSBut what it did do was it -- had everybody realizing we're all in the ship together and that we were going to start -- because what can happen in these kinds of circumstances is all of a sudden you start elbowing out the person next to you in case, you know, you're afraid that there's only one spot for the two people that you want to be sure it's you.
ROSSAnd so people began to look out for themselves and not for the team. They begin to undermine people around them. And actually, essentially, it's the problem because, you know, it makes it even -- exacerbates it rather because now instead of pulling together, doing the things we can do to help us survive, we're not undermining each other.
NNAMDIYeah. I'd mentioned Eleanor Holmes-Norton because under the Constitution, the salaries for members of Congress are except from sequestrations so that's something she is doing voluntarily. Let's go to the phones and talk with Cherie in Leesburg, Va. Cherie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHERIEHi, Kojo. I just want to reiterate what the speaker just said. I'm actually a contractor, and I recently had to take a 15 percent pay cut, my government boss displacing a furlough. And, you know, we've all gotten together as a team and felt like we're all in this together either tough economic times, and we'll just get through it. I don't find any resentment on either side. I feel like it's a team, and we're just trying to get through it.
NNAMDINo resentment even at the Congress of the United States?
NNAMDIWell, everybody feels resentment against them so that's understandable. But thank you very much for your call, Cherie. What sense do you have for how a lot of employees -- and Cherie is a contract employee -- see the situation when they get gestures from people like Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton? Employees may see it as their boss taking one for the team out of solidarity as you and Leslie did. For others, they may say, well, it's easier for Howard and Leslie. It's easier for Eleanor Holmes-Norton to do. They still don't know what I'm going through.
ROSSWell, of course, and there's going to be some of that. And you can't avoid knowing that there are some of that. And one of the things I think that we need to do at times when people are going through extreme stress when there are threats of things happening like we see now, they thought of the sword as hanging over people's heads is to recognize that that it is a difficult time that people are frightened, that the bottom-line is that people are afraid.
ROSSAnd fear will make people do lots of different things. It will make them hide out. It will sometimes make them become really aggressive. It will sometimes make them become sort of overachievers. You know, there's another type we call the accelerator, you know, those people who will say yes to everything, and so they burn themselves out.
ROSSYou know, all these different kinds of reactions, and it's -- one of the challenges that we have is that leaders, these are times when we're often feeling the same kind of a fear. And so at a time when we most need to have empathy and compassion for the people who are working for us, we're worried about ourselves.
NNAMDICherie, thank you very much for your call.
CHERIEOK. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you ever felt like you were working at a sinking ship? How did the performance of your manager affect office morale during those tough times? 800-433-8850. Howard, as a manager, how do you keep things like furloughs or even layoffs from reinforcing some of the psychology inside of an office about who's most important and who's less important and who's least important?
ROSSWell, I mean the -- I guess at the core, the most primary answer to that is to communicate, to talk about what's going on. It's a great time for people to let people know what you do know and what you don't know. You know, we were working on one project a number of years of ago, and it was a merger. And mergers, of course, bring up a lot of uncertainty for people. And the senior vice president of one of the two companies who is going to be the senior V.P. of H.R. of the merged company and I were conducting these sessions for groups of leaders.
ROSSAnd there are groups of leaders from various different stations in, you know, different places in the organization. And they were all talking about how uncertain everybody was and how bothered -- how worried they were and all this kind of stuff. And one guy stands up in the back and he said, well, actually our boss tells us everything. And we're all doing fine. And this guy, the SVP of human resources looked at each other kind of like, uh-oh, because there are certain things as you know in a merger you're not allowed to tell.
ROSS...because for legal reasons, it could be insider trading. So afterwards, we went up to him, and what we found out was that his boss wasn't telling him or his team anymore than anybody else knew. It's just that he was doing with such regularity. He would have them come together every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for 15 minutes. He would say, here's what I know, and here's what I don't know.
ROSSAnd just knowing -- even if he wasn't telling them anymore information, the fact that he was doing it with such regularity, and they trusted he would tell them what he knew, that even when said I got nothing new to tell you this time was able to have them relax. It's kind of like when we're stuck in an airplane tarmac, and the pilot comes -- doesn't come on and everybody's sitting there wondering what's going on.
ROSSAnd then finally, the pilot comes out and says, look, ladies and gentlemen, I apologize. I don't have any information for you. But I want you to know I'm looking, you know? And all of a sudden, everybody relaxes. They haven't learned anything new, but you know that somebody's at the wheel. And that's an important thing you can do.
NNAMDII love the 15-minute meeting. Howard Ross is a business coach and diversity consultant. He is a principal at the firm Cook Ross. We're going to take a short brake. If you have called, stay on the line. If you haven't yet, the number is 800-433-8850, or you can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Howard Ross, business coach and diversity consultant, he's a principal at the firm Cook Ross, and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. What happens in tough economic times when there have to be layoffs or furloughs and how managers, who may not necessarily be responsible for those layoffs or furloughs, nevertheless have not only to communicate them but to do their best to maintain morale on the job?
NNAMDIIf you had an experience that you'd like to share with us about that, you can call us at 800-433-8850 as did Steven in Washington, D.C. Steven, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVENKojo, thank you for taking my call. I work for a government agency contractor, and we knew the sequestering was coming. And we were told, you know, work harder, work smarter, work faster, do all that you can. A lot of people worked a lot of late hours, 12-, 13-hour, 14-hour days. And then without our knowledge or any warning, we got all of those projects done. We did our work. And they came in and said, OK, here's boxes. You guys are gone. Bye.
STEVENAnd we were off and found out later that the managers got a 5 percent bonus for laying us off and getting the work done for the great job that they've done. And, you know, it took some of us two months. Some still don't have jobs. And I finally found a job, but I had to take a 47 percent pay cut. So the managers are -- were horrible. They didn't manage. They protected themselves. They built themselves a bomb shelter and that -- and we were it.
NNAMDIHoward Ross, care to comment on that?
ROSSOh, there's nothing much to say about that other than what Steven said, which is it's a pretty good example of a horrible way to handle a circumstance like that. I mean, you leave people feeling manipulated because it sounds like they were manipulated and/or very well could've been manipulated. And it's completely understandable that people would be angry and have resentment in a circumstance like that.
ROSSI don't think anybody would want to be treated like that. And it's unfortunate when things like that happen because I think what begins to happen is that when people are trying to do it in a way that has more integrity and that has a greater sense of compassion to it, there's a lot of cynicism out there because people hear about circumstances like Steven and his team went through.
ROSSAnd then they look at somebody who claims that they're trying to do the right thing and have a suspicious eye to it. So rather than working together with that leader, they're looking out for themselves. So I think it's unfortunate when things like that happen not only for Steven and his team but also for the impact it has on others who hear about it.
NNAMDISteven, what were you and the members of your team led to believe what happen if you, in fact, worked harder and worked smarter and finished those projects on time?
STEVENThat we would probably have to take, you know, be furloughed one day every two weeks. And -- but that, you know, and there wouldn't be no bonuses. I mean, the bonuses weren't great. They were like, you know, 2 percent, 3 percent. So that's what we were told.
NNAMDIAnd instead, you were laid off?
NNAMDIAnd what was the explanation given between -- for the difference between what you were promised and what ultimately occurred?
STEVENThere was no explanation. We had boxes, and security was there. And we were to be escorted out. They came and took our badges, our keys, get your personal fittings, and get out. There was no explanation.
NNAMDIYou know, Howard, the minute I hear security and escorted out, that tells me that something was done either inappropriately or unjustifiably in the communication process.
ROSSWell, yeah. I mean, and as I said, this is a -- this circumstance, as Steven's describing, it could be a poster child for how to do something poorly. I mean, it's just every aspect of it reeks of that, so...
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steven. We move on now to Miliana (sp?) in Columbia, Md. Miliana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MILIANAYes, Kojo. Hi. Thank you for having me. I just wanted to make a comment in the question very briefly. I work for a department. I'm a federal worker. We ranked number 17 on the best places in the federal government to work, and it isn't great at all. And morale was low in the very beginning, overworked, underpaid.
MILIANANow, we are hit with furloughs as -- beginning today, in fact. And you know, we are asked to do so much more for so less. But now with the furloughs, morale has really changed. And with an office that already had substantial problems, how do you rise above that? I mean, management is discussing having a picnic that no one wants to go to, you know? So how do you give beyond that? Thank you.
ROSSWell, I think that's a -- first of all, I think it's important for us to know, in general, when you talk about government workers, whether state government or federal government, right now, you're talking about a population that, generally, is under siege from all directions. You've got, you know, there's one element of our population which keeps targeting most government workers as if they're, you know, ciphers on society or something.
ROSSYou know, they're takers as opposed to makers in society which is, you know, nonsensical when you really look at comparative salaries and really look at the fact that most people who are working especially in highly skilled areas of federal government can make far more money than they're making in the federal government if they went into the private sector. They're being targeted by these pay cuts and the sequestration and the kinds of things that Miliana is talking about.
ROSSSo one thing is, I think, that we need to recognize that we all have to set a tone or look at the tone we're setting about people who decide to give public service, whether that's elective public service or people who are hired in the public service, because if we don't, what's going to happen is we're going to find anybody who's talented enough to have an option will not go into public service. And that creates a far greater challenge for us.
ROSSI think that in the circumstance like this, we have to be careful not to, you know, you do something like throw a picnic when everybody's suffering. It's like putting a Band Aid on a cancer, I mean -- or trying to paint over cracks in the wall, you know? And people see right through that. And, of course, they don't want to participate. And if anything, you know, oftentimes, you see people say, well, why we're spending money on a picnic when we have to lay off Sally.
NNAMDIPicnic is duly a celebration.
ROSSExactly. There's that, but there's the other pure financial aspect which you just laid off Sally and now you're going out and spending $15,000, $10,000 or whatever it is on the picnic. I can't buy into that. So once again, I think that what leaders can do in circumstances like that is to pull the team together and say, look, you know, first of all, let's get it all out. You know, everybody get a chance to empty out everything that there, to say what's there on their minds.
ROSSAnd then to say to put our heads together and to say, OK, what are some of the scenarios that we can begin to look at that can have this be the best of a bad situation, understanding we can't make it perfect? That's just the reality. But what could we do to have it be the best of a bad circumstance and get the whole team working together on that? But, you know, that's hard to do if you have been already created a background of relationship with your team, and you're the kind of leader who people trust to have those kinds of conversations circumstances.
NNAMDIIndeed. Miliana, it sounds like morale was bad even before the sequestration came through, and that may have been an indication of a poor management style to begin with.
MILIANAAbsolutely. And that is the case in my office, unfortunately.
NNAMDIYeah. Well, that's a tough situation, Miliana. Thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you. We move on now to Aaron in Fairfax, Va. Aaron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AARONHi, Kojo. This is Aaron. Thanks for having me on the show. You know, what's going on in the federal government is not -- what should I say -- it's normal in the private industry when they pull the plug on contracts or -- though I came from the airline industry taking a 30 percent cut, get laid off every few years. It gets pretty tough after a while, but that's kind of normal in the airline industry itself. And it's, you know, my advice to these people is just save as much money as they can and prepare for the worst. You know, you just don't know when it's going to happen anymore.
NNAMDIAaron, I'm interested in how do you balance the relationship between tough on the one hand and normal on the other hand? Because what you seem to be saying is that in the business that you're in, tough is the new normalcy.
AARONIt is. It is. It's a, you know, there is always labor unrest, or when people aren't flying, they're not making the profits. And, you know, they have to keep their profit margin. It's -- there's always a dynamic situation in the airline industry, and it's still going on with all the mergers that are happening. And it's not as happy as people say or at least the leaders are saying in the company. There's a lot of unhappy people, you know. There might be just three major or four major airlines, but it's, you know, it's not the same anymore. That's all I could say.
NNAMDINow, Howard, as a private business person yourself, you understand that there is a certain amount of risk when you get into business, the kind of risk that may not provide the job security that workers say in the federal or local governments expect. But the economy, the way it is, tough is becoming the new normal for a whole lot of people. Does that mean that management, whether in the private or the public sector, has to understand how to deal with situations like this more frequently than they had in the past?
ROSSOh, I don't think there's any question about that. I mean, you know, we went into -- probably about, what, 15, 20 years ago, we went into a new way of being in corporate America. They called it the new employee contract. And, you know, that was a shift, maybe even -- maybe a little more than 20 years ago. But, you know, up to that point, we sort of had this notion that if somebody took a job with an organization and did their job well, that they could be guaranteed a job pretty much until they retired.
ROSSAnd then all of a sudden we shifted to this, you know, to more of a, you know, sort of as-needed kind of a contractual basis between employees and businesses for a lot of reasons, and it was building tremendous overhead. And I'm not suggesting that, you know, in many cases it wasn't necessary to do that, but nonetheless, it had a very direct impact. And what that did was it shifted -- as the employee contract shifted from the side of the boss or the company, it, of course, shifted it then from the standpoint of the workers.
ROSSAnd the workers then begin to say OK. So if we've got to this new employee contract where I can't count on you, then I can't promise you that you can count on me anymore. I'm not going to necessary be here. If I see another opportunity, I'm not going to walk away from that opportunity. I'm going to look out for myself more which means, by its very nature, I'm going to be less engaged. I'm going to have sort of one foot out the door, one eye out the door all the time.
ROSSAnd then you throw in, on top of that, the recession and what, in some cases, were seen as temporary layoffs back in 2009, 2010 in a lot of organizations which have never come back. And what's happened in a lot of organizations is that in order to deal with those layoffs, everybody had to start working harder, faster, do more with less with the overwhelming threat above their head being you may be next if you don't. And corporations began to see wow, you know, we can actually make it with 80 percent of the workforce that we had.
ROSSWe seem to be making without realizing the long term cost that it has on the workers to keep trying to push them and push them and push them. And so as a result of that, we created culture of sort of post-traumatic stress and burnout throughout our companies in a lot of cases. It's having a long-term effect on -- not only on the well-being in the organization, but in many cases on the well-being of the workers themselves.
NNAMDIAaron, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us. The number is 800-433-8850. What privileges at your office would you be the most reluctant to give up during tough times? Something we're getting ready to talk about. Which ones do you think would be reasonable to give up if your boss asked you to do so? 800-433-8850 or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow.
NNAMDII say that because crises are the times when managers have to take a hard look at what things they can take away, where they can save money, what privileges need to be reconsidered. So what do you find are typically the hardest things to roll back once employees get used to them? Some things like limiting the expenses of a lot of lunches to nice restaurants might seem kind of reasonable to most people. Others may think of it as an affront because they've gotten used to it.
ROSSWell, I mean, by its very nature, it's almost always difficult to take back something that people already have had. It's, you know, it's much easier always to just decide not to give something new than it is to take away something people had because any time you take away something from people, they're going to feel just like that, that something's been taken away from them. I think, you know, how it impacts people might matter a lot to different individuals and different organizations.
ROSSAnd so for some people, for example, cutting back on health care, how much money we're putting into health care might not seem like that big of a deal because for them it's just a matter of money, for somebody else it might be foundational to their security. For some people, things like expenses, like taking people out to lunch, things like that are generally easier things to take away. They're inconveniences for people, people don't like them, but the truth is it doesn't really take anything away from them.
ROSSSo instead of having a lunch meeting with a potential client, I can go to their office and meet with them from 10:00 to 11:30 in the morning or 1:30 to 3:00 in the afternoon rather than taking them out to lunch. I can still meet with them. It doesn't restrict me from doing the thing that I needed to be doing. When I can't go to conferences or things like that, that can be problematic for some people because a lot of people see that is a way to build their professional brand.
ROSSAnd so you're now telling me I can't engage. I know -- I was just talking to somebody the other day, who's a chief diversity officer for an organization, and she was told that she was going to be very restricted in terms of how many conferences she could attend and places that she could go. But that's a very strong part of the industry, that networking between people.
ROSSSo for her, it's almost the deal breaker. It's almost, you know, the sign that she needs to be looking for some place else to go. So I don't think there's any quick answer to that, but I do think that the things that are less essential that can be taken away without stopping us from doing whatever it gives us access to or the things we first look for.
NNAMDIYes. I guess in that business, conferences are not a perk of the job. They are, in many cases, a necessity.
NNAMDILet's cut to the chase and look at Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer because she upset a lot of people earlier this year when she rolled back her company's privileges for working at home. Part of her argument was about changing her company's culture and its collaborative environment. Another part of it was crisis management. Her company had not been doing well. She was trying to change the culture with some degree of urgency. How do you think she handled that?
ROSSWell, I mean, first of all, there's how she handled it and how the press handled it, and those were obviously two different things. She can control the message to some degree, but she can't overall control it. So I think that in terms of the issue itself -- I tend to be a believer in telecommuting and people being able to work from home whenever it's possible, but I also have an experience that it does affect the nature of how people work together.
ROSSAnd anybody who thinks that it doesn't, I think, is fooling themselves. You know, there is an impact on not having people see each other, be with each other. Sometimes it's a necessity, and sometimes we're balancing. You know, as a cost-benefit analysis, we gain something by doing that, and we accept the fact that we lose some of the connection.
ROSSSo the fact that when Marissa Mayer came in and she made that decision and said we're going to be changing -- we want to move the company -- which was in trouble -- in a new direction, we want to get all hands on deck so that everybody's here, everybody -- we know everybody really understands what we're doing and pulling in the same direction, is a good example of the fact that sometimes in organizations, the pendulum has to swing to more control and then sometimes to less control.
ROSSAnd there are different times when you do that. And often, when there's a change, when there's something cataclysmic that's happening or something traumatic that's happening, it's a time when we tend to pull towards more centralized control because that means that we can kind of get a sense of what's going on. Now, she didn't say -- and she hasn't said, as far as I know -- that they're not going to go back to telecommuting at some point.
ROSSIn fact, I think the opposite. She said, at some point, she expects that they will. But at that time, it felt like the right thing to do from her standpoint. And I'm not in position to judge her one way or another for that, but I -- what I will say is that I have seen lots of circumstances where that was the right thing to do, to get everybody coming in.
ROSSNow, having said that, there are certain people for whom that impacts much more deeply than others, so if you -- if you're somebody who -- who's doing that as a result of a family circumstance that makes it very difficult for you to come in on a daily basis or something like that, then it's obviously going to have a greater impact on you.
ROSSAnd one of the things that's important is to do this -- make these kinds of changes whenever it's possible in a way that gives people time to make that adaptation. So if I say on a Friday, starting on Monday we're doing this, that's pretty inappropriate because it's going to -- it's almost bound to create havoc for people.
ROSSIf I say on April 1 that, beginning July 1, this is what we're going to be doing, and people have three months to prepare themselves and create their backup structures, that's a much more reasonable way to do it. Now, you can't always have three months, depending upon your circumstance. But to the degree that you can give people the ability to make those accommodations so that they can be ready for that transition, it'll be much easier.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you haven't and you're thinking about doing so, the number is 800-433-8850. If you want to send us a tweet, you can do that, @kojoshow. Has your boss ever tried to implement more accountability measures during times of crisis to make people pick up their performance? How did that go over with you? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Howard Ross. He is a business coach and diversity consultant, the principal at the firm Cook Ross. Let's go right back to the telephones to talk with Petros (sp?) in Winchester, Va. Petros, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETROSYes. Hello, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. And I want to say a big hello to my friend Howard there. And thank you both for the conversation. It's a very interesting one. And I want -- I want to say that...
NNAMDIYou know Howard Ross, Petros?
ROSSOh, yeah. Petros and I are good friends. Good to hear your voice.
PETROSYes, yes. Thank you, Howard. And I wanted to say I think Howard's comments are obviously very accurate. And the point -- if we broaden the scope of the conversation to include the country at large, they point to a larger problem in that -- and my sense is that our representative government does not do what Howard is suggesting, making us feel like we're all in the same boat. Just all the posturing and partisan politics are -- create the opposite effect and create fear in the country.
NNAMDIYeah. Well, politics are one of the reasons we're having this conversation right now even as we speak. Howard, care to comment?
ROSSWell, and I think it -- I think that Petros' point is well taken, and that is that in the same sense as I was saying before, that if you're in an organization and the leader kind of leaves the ship adrift and allows people to sort of struggle on their own, it's going to create greater trauma, greater stress and greater fear in the organization. What we're seeing here clearly around the country is the same thing, and that is that our leadership relative to Congress is -- has given the impression that they're having their own private little war there that don't really have their eye on how it's affecting everybody else.
ROSSAnd as a result of that, we have a cascading effect that's much larger than any one organization because you have people in organizations who are in positions to make some decisions that might be slightly risky in normal circumstances. I'm going to invest in this. I'm going to allow our organization to take a loss for a few months even though I know it's a little bit risky because I can count on the fact that we'll get our ship righted, you know, pretty soon.
ROSSIn a circumstance like we have now, there are an awful lot of people who say, I can't afford to do that 'cause I have no idea when these folks are going to get their act together and get things righted or get things solidified at the very highest level. And as a result of that, on an organizational level, I get the mindset I need to take care of myself, which then cascades down through that mindset throughout the organization. So I think you're absolutely right. You know, in this them-versus-us culture that we're living in today, it creates even more problems in these kinds of circumstances.
NNAMDIHoward Ross is the author of the book "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." Petros, thank you very much for your call. On now to Daniel in Fairfax, Va. Daniel, your turn.
DANIELHi. Big fan of the show, Kojo. Third-time caller. I just want to say I work for an airline, Virgin America, and I just came back from my annual training, which almost didn't happen this year due to difficulty in the airline industry. But our CEO pushed for it, and it was a two-day thing. Everyone in our company, 2,000 employees, went. And after -- we all kind of went in with a huge amount of fear and questions about, you know, our jobs and our future, but I left feeling like, wow, you know, this makes a lot of sense.
DANIELDavid Cush, our CEO, spent an hour talking to us and spent the whole day basically talking to us about why we were doing things and what we're going to do in the future. So I just want to say it really does work. And this is my first real kind of job, and I left with a huge sense of relief and want to stay with the company much, much longer.
ROSSExactly as I've been saying. You know, you have a leader. You have somebody who stands up and says, look, I know this is hard for you. I want you to know I'm doing the best I can. I'm going to give you as much information as I have, and we're going to explore every opportunity. We're open to your input and your engagement in terms of helping us make this work as best as we can, understanding that it's going to be hard on all of us. That's the team I want to be on.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Daniel. Here is Gerald in Vienna, Va. Gerald, your turn.
GERALDHello? How're you doing there?
GERALDHey, it's my understanding that about 10 years ago, the Catholic bishops in this country put out a paper saying that there's a danger in this country because the social contract that has existed for years between employers and employees is disappearing. And that was a contract of, you know, you give me your trust, give me your loyalty, give me your hard work.
GERALDI will give you a salary, and I will give you benefits. And then I will give you retirement pay to go off into the sunset after that. So I guess the, you know, point being that, what are the implications when things like trust starts to disappear and loyalty starts to disappear, you know, from our society, OK? There are implications, you know, that can be very, very serious.
NNAMDITo what extent, Howard, is that social contract the foundation of our work environment?
ROSSOh, I think it's exactly what I was referring to earlier, the very thing Daniel is talking about, which is that, you know, we're in this circumstance where we've created a new social contract. And the best description of that new social contract would be everybody's in it for themselves. And you got to watch out for yourself because nobody's going to watch out for you. And we couch this in terms of responsibility.
ROSSWe couch it in terms of other words. But really what it is is a contract that's been created by people who want to have the maximum flexibility to do whatever they can to increase the profit for their shareholders. And I'm not against people having a mind on profit for their shareholders. But I'm much more of a fan of what we might call conscious capitalism, this notion that a good organization not only looks out for the shareholders, but also looks out for employees, also looks out for clients and customers, also looks out for vendors.
ROSSIn other words, we have a broad view of what our -- who our stakeholders are rather than only one, only being driven to the shareholder. And when we don't do that, and when people have a sense that they're working for an organization or for a person who's only managing upwards, then it leaves them with the sense that they've got to take care of themselves.
NNAMDIWhat do you think are the best things a boss or manager can or should do during a time of workplace crisis, and what are the worst? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Gerald, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDII wanted to get back to the teleworking issue for a second and talk about the other side of the perspective, the side of the employer, because James Surowiecki recently wrote in The New Yorker that when it comes to the specific privilege of teleworking, the vast majority of the studies that have been done focus on how those arrangements affect employees and that it is discussed far less often how they affect employers. How do you see it?
ROSSWell, I think it's -- I think one of the things about things like teleworking is that -- we've taken something that can work extraordinarily well for certain people and certain circumstances and generalized it. And what we know is that the same amount of freedom that allow certain people to function at the very high level and in the long run, maybe that produce even more for the organization, for some people, also, can provide them with some dangerous freedom.
ROSSAnd that is not everybody can handle that kind of freedom. And it's hard not to be distracted when it's opening day, and the ball game is on, and, gee, I really want to watch the ball game, or, you know, it's a beautiful day, and I want to, you know, do something -- whatever. I mean, for some people, that could be problematic.
ROSSAnd one of the challenges that we have in many organizations is it's very difficult to say to some people, you can do this because I know you can handle it. But then say to somebody who works right to next to him, but I'm not so sure about you, so, therefore, I need you to come to the office. And that, of course, creates problems for us, in some cases legally. But even if not legally, it begins to separate people within the organization.
ROSSAnd so many organizations choose one or the other direction based on understanding that it's going to be somewhat problematic. Either they choose the direction of having people have to come in to the office because they don't want to take a risk of losing that time, in which case, people who could do it responsibly are, in effect, penalized, or they choose the other option, which is to say, all right, everybody can work at home or everybody can telecommute knowing full well that they're not going to get full productivity by everybody.
ROSSI mean, I think we're getting to a stage now where it's easier and easier to monitor people's behavior because you could tell how long people have been online and things like this. But nonetheless, we know that you can only manage a bit so much for afar.
NNAMDIWhat do you find typically happens to general levels of trust in the sinking ship kind of environment? It seems that in Yahoo's case, Mayer found teleworking to be a trust issue too that people who had been trusted with the privilege were abusing it. Before you respond, let me read this email we got from Steve: "I'm the youngest person on my team. When the leadership decided to get stricter about our expense accounts, particularly for meals and travel, I was actually OK with it.
NNAMDI"I haven't been given that much time to feel like I was entitled to lots of things. I'll fly coach to the West Coast. I still get to go to an L.A. on the company dime -- to get to go to L.A. on the company dime, you know? But lately, I found that more experienced workers treat me like a sell-out, like I'm too willing to accept what leadership wants from us and that I don't fight with them for things they still want. It's all made me feel more isolated among my colleagues, like I'm a scab. I don't like it. I like to think that it's their problem that if they feel too big to fly coach, but, hey, that's just me."
ROSSYeah. Well, I think what Steve's pointing to is that in a them versus us culture, what happens is you have to choose sides. It's very much like we're seeing, if you look at it -- getting back to Patricia's comment earlier, if you look at it in Congress now, you see it, that people who are in the middle are being thrown to the side of the road. You know, you can't be a moderate any more because if you're a moderate, you're a sellout.
ROSSAnd I think this is, in fact, the corporate example of the very same thing happening. And when you lived in an us versus them culture, what begins to happen is I fight for myself or my group, the group who I identify with, against those people and the group that they identify with. And I think that if I get the upper hand, that's better.
ROSSAnd then, of course, as soon as I get the upper hand, the other group fights back, and they get the upper hand. And we're in this constant see-saw of power without realizing that the real problem is the see-saw. The problem is the structure of the societal order that says it's an us versus them culture. And until we take on that -- and that's got to be taken on by both sides working together.
ROSSUntil we take on transforming the fundamental way we look in our organizations so when we look in our cultural structures, we're constantly going to be in this see-saw of who's on top. It will be -- for a while, it'll be management, and labor will make -- inevitably will make, you know, a strong come back, and then management, then once again labor. But none of that will fundamentally change until we transform that us versus them relationship.
NNAMDIWell, if you're a manager and you take a privilege away, how important is it for you to apply the same rules to yourself? If everybody else has to fly coach, shouldn't you, too?
ROSSWell, I think that that leadership modeling is one of the...
NNAMDICoach, unless you got our own plane.
ROSSLeadership modeling is one of the, you know, we talked earlier about what are some of the things that we could do. I think that one of the most important things is that we model as leaders that -- at least to the degree that it's reasonable, that we're in this with everybody else, that we're not going to, you know, be on our yacht while everybody else is struggling for, you know, how to get from one place to another. You know, we want to recognize new ways of doing things and get people together.
ROSSSo are there other ways that we can be -- new ways of learning new information that we can get, you know, to continue to develop a strong sense of commitment? And one thing that helps that is by reminding people of what we're trying to accomplish as an organization, to create projects either short or long term. John Kotter up at Harvard talks a lot about this, that the short-term, low-hanging fruit, the things we can do in the short term can help us get through until we can figure out the long-term problems.
ROSSThat's really helpful and really important at times like this as well. And the other thing is to help people think towards the future and do some scenario planning together, so that they're not sort of waiting at the door to see what comes next. The more we can have people be future oriented even in a time of uncertainty, the more they can kind of breathe a little a bit with what's going on.
NNAMDIHere's Dean in Bowie, Md. Dean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEANHey. Hello. This, you know how this ties together in which you were just talking about. And this is a little off track. So I hope not too much off track. But whenever I hear these discussions, I always want to talk about the, you know, changing economic times. And I don't think people talk enough about, you know, post-World War II America and how specific time that was and how much money was really flying around here for 20 or 30 years after World War II.
DEANAnd, you know, we were the only intact manufacturing base in the world that could produce and ship and sell in effective way, and the more we can make, the more we could sell. So for a long time it was cheaper to, you know, to improve contracts and make better working environments than it was to stop production. And all those things were in place during that period, and it's just not that time any more. You know, things have changed. There's people producing all over the world in all kinds of markets, and we don't have the market share we used to have. And I think all (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIThat's true, Dean, but I think we also have to remember that the 40-hour work week and fair labor conditions were not gifts simply from employers to employees because of a good economy. There were things that a lot of people fought and died for in order to get.
DEANWell, that's true, but I don't know. I mean, I just -- I came here like a lot of people were, from immigrants. And a lot of my family came here before World War II, and they talked about the America they came to. And a lot of them came here after World War II and talked about the America they came to. And they had very different stories to tell you. And it's hard for me to -- I mean, it's hard for me to reconcile the different realities and say, well, it's all...
NNAMDIThe good times don't roll forever. Here is Howard Ross.
ROSSWell, look, I mean, you know, what Dean is pointing to is accurate that the State of the Union, so to speak, has a big role. I mean, he's pointing to a time where that was especially equitable because if you look at the 15 years before or the 12 years before World War II, we were in depression, arguably the worse suppression in our nation's history. Then we go off to war, and we come back and we hit arguably one of the biggest booms in our nation's history.
ROSSSo you're talking about two periods of time that couldn't be more strongly contrasted in terms of all of our historical experience. Nonetheless, both of them require a particular consciousness. And that's what I would argue for more than anything else in this whole conversation, Kojo, is that as leaders, what we need to do is we need to be conscious first about our own reaction to what we're dealing with, being sure that we're not coming from reaction to our own fear but that we're thinking more productively towards what's in the best interest of everybody.
ROSSAnd then in our organization similarly to be very conscious about how the decisions we make are going to affect not only the people in our organizations but the long-term well-being of the organization. Because if people aren't careful at times like this, what you can do is you can basically downsize yourself out of existence.
NNAMDIDean, thank you very much for your -- Dean, you wanted to say -- you have about 10 seconds.
DEANNo. I said, I mean, good point. I just -- I enjoy your discussions, and I just think they should always be, you know, framed in as broader context as possible. So I appreciate everything you guys are saying...
NNAMDIAnd you helped us to do that, so thanks a lot. Howard Ross is a business coach and diversity consultant. He is a principal at the firm Cook Ross and the author of the book "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." Howard, always a pleasure.
ROSSThanks, Kojo. And happy opening day.
NNAMDIHappy opening day to you, too. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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