Many years ago I had the pleasure of working for a brilliant man. One of many, actually, but this man in particular had some of the best lessons for me in terms of managing people that I’ve ever learned.
He hired me to manage a portfolio of trading applications on an enterprise backbone. I had no experience with that in particular and one day I asked him why he hired me.
“Papa Joe’s,” he said. I looked at him askance, remembering a bar I used to hang out at in downtown Singapore. About five years prior he’d visited Singapore and I took him out on the town, as was my way with visitors.
I asked him what that had to do with anything.
He replied, “I was wearing sandals and the rude woman at the door wouldn’t let me in, so you kicked up a big fuss on my behalf. You didn’t have to do that.”
Rather perplexed by the complete non-sequitur, I asked again what on earth that had to do with trading applications.
He said, “nothing. But I’ve gone through three Vice Presidents who haven’t had the chops for this job. The business just runs all over them. Some people can have all the best technical skills, or domain knowledge in the world: if they can’t do a simple thing like stick up for someone or something they believe is in the right, they can’t handle this environment.”Incidentally in that particular job, the head of the business (who was a tough woman to please) commented that she was glad she finally saw the teams working together to solve problems; something she hadn’t seen at all since the inception of the portfolio.
I’ve thought about that often. It’s not like I brought anything special to the table in terms of knowledge or insight. My teams working for me knew way more than I did in their respective areas. How did the fact that I publicly stood up for people help my work at all?
Well, when I watch people in meetings stick their necks out, I am often very surprised at the number of people who will say nothing. Quite likely they’re afraid of taking a position others will find controversial. They may be afraid of being seen on the wrong side of the fence. But here’s my take on what I believe happens:
1) Team members stick their necks out. Frequently in person, although not always. Nobody bothers to support them and they’re left to fend for themselves.
2) Trust breaks down. Why would someone take a position they know others agree with when they will only be cut down by those who don’t?
3) Teams stop collaborating. There’s no point finding out whether or not people will agree with you if nobody will support you when it counts.
4) New ideas stop coming. If people aren’t collaborating, there’s no synergy to spark new ideas or problem solve.
5) Operations become purely reactive. If people aren’t problem solving, they’re certainly not looking ahead. They become stagnant and reactive, only dealing with problems after they’ve happened.
6) Client organizations become very unhappy. You see how that can happen?I’m not saying that this is the only cause for apathy in the workplace, but it certainly happens a lot. Frequently if I’m not in charge, I’m the one to cast my yay or nay vote in a meeting because I can’t stand to watch someone publicly suffer and stand on the sidelines.
When a work environment becomes apathetic (and oh, so many of them are), where is the joy that comes from working and doing a good job? What’s the point of getting up every morning to go to a grind you don’t care about? Surely there must be more to life than that.
But who’s responsible for creating that culture? Well, from my perspective everyone is responsible for it. In much the same way as Code Name: V claimed the people of London were responsible for the totalitarian conditions in which they found themselves in the outstanding film / graphic novel “V for Vendetta”. But as he went on to claim, “some are more responsible than others”. As a manager of people, and the head of an organization, no matter how large or small, you are responsible for the culture you foster in the workplace.
That means, even if you work for a company whose senior management doesn’t care about corporate culture, you are still responsible for the development of corporate culture immediately around and below you. True, you could make it someone else’s problem, but like Code Name: V also said, “an idea can change the world”. If you step up to the plate, you may allow one of those ideas to grow and thrive…and won’t that be worth the risk?