Are we really working?
This article challenges some of the ways in which we are operating in the business world; in an apparent culture of entitlement, where rights and obligations have become unbalanced. It focuses on the difficulty some leaders/bosses have in confronting low performance and low accountability.
Expending energy at work does not mean we’re working
Often times, we find ourselves working very hard, for long hours and for extended periods of time, and as a result, we often feel tired, exhausted and with no energy or drive left in us for our own personal enjoyment, family and friends. We oftentimes even catch ourselves saying things like, “I’ve been working so hard,” and we hear our family or friends say, “You are working way too hard, are you a workaholic?” But are we really working? What if I find out, after so much ‘work’, that my work has not been completed? How would I feel about it?
Jenny is exhausted and she feels resentful and angry. She’s just had her mid-year review with her boss, for the position she’s been in for the past 24 months, and this is her fourth job appraisal so far. Jenny is the Manager of Marketing and Customer Service and is heading a self-proposed Innovation Initiative at a boutique lending and finance department. The business is performing below the expected goals set in the last AGM and is losing some of its market shares. The CEO is under great pressure from the Bank CEO and shareholders to perform much better, if not, the operation may be consolidated into other departments and 80% of the people there could lose their jobs.
In a nutshell, this is what Jenny was promoted to 24 months ago: her mandate, described in her KPIs (that she had a hand in setting) includes: to increase the number of loan applications by 10%, decrease customer complaints, lift team engagement by 15%, reduce the headcount by 10% and expenses by 20%, lift stakeholder satisfaction and create innovative initiatives across the firm; but very little has really happened. Market share is lower as applications per month have decreased; headcount was reduced by only 2% but temporary contractors increased by 20% and the budget went up by 15%. Customers are still leaving and the new ones are not very satisfied. The marketing department has created innovative ideas that are drawing in more customer enquiries, but the business cannot provide the level of customer service expected, so increased tension and finger-pointing has created a volatile environment.
The New Normal
Jenny’s experience is not unusual. She is exhausted from spending so much energy at work, she and her team are working very hard, but has work actually been done?
Work and Newtonian Physics
Newton’s first law of motion states, paraphrasing, “even though energy has been used, if there was no motion (if the mass has not been moved) then work has not been done.” What a concept!
In physics, there is work done when something has been moved. We can use Newton’s laws of motion to elucidate the way we work and find some measurable points with which to assess movement, advancement or success in life, to assess if we’re really working. Do we have the energy (capabilities, skills, motivations etc.) necessary to move the mass (work objectives, strategies etc.) to a new position? We must also recognise that Newton’s laws are insufficient to analyse other business dynamics where other parameters of analysis must be found.
Newton’s first law:
Everybody continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it. 
If we consider the Marketing-Customer Service and Innovation Initiative, we see that:
- It hasn’t moved, at least in the direction expected or mandated, they are ‘at rest (i.e. no change forward)’ and we can easily deduct from the facts that there is not enough energy (force) to break the inertia and get the ‘mass’ to move.
- They have been following a trajectory dictated by the internal culture of inefficiency, team anxiety, low productivity etc. We know that it will continue along in that same straight line until an equal or greater energy is impressed upon it, forcing it to change its direction.
In both points, we can clearly observe that the present force – the energy, is not greater than the task of moving the mass onto the right performance path. This a good starting point.
In short, Jenny had four appraisals, each one of them showed that the department was not moving in the right direction and KPIs were not being fulfilled, yet she left each appraisal with an increased salary and bonuses paid despite the targets not being achieved. This was because her boss was afraid of losing her, as she was a valuable female employee who he needed to retain in order to maintain his diversity target in a management position.
Jenny did the same with her employees as she believed that their low performance was a systemic problem that the company needed to resolve before they could ever begin to perform better. Apart from that, she was afraid to confront her team for not performing following a legal case taken by one of her direct reports. That had arisen out of a conversation she had with him regarding his repeated mistakes and repeated failures to report incidents appropriately. He presented a case of stress and lodged a formal complaint about bullying. Result: he left the organisation with a good package; Jenny was left afraid to confront anyone and the culture of low accountability and non-confrontation was consolidated. Looking retrospectively, Jenny mentioned that the lenient attitude of the company, something she financially benefited from, didn’t really help her team professionally as she didn’t get the appropriate feedback and “mirror” for the work accomplished by her and her team.
Her boss also had increases in his salary and his bonuses paid despite his entire department performing below its expected targets. Also, one of his colleagues, a very low performing director, was promoted to an international CEO position. What kind of culture is that?
Furthermore, HR, under pressure from the CEO following a very low engagement report and low performance in almost every area, decided to propose a series of leadership workshops to address culture, communication, trust and leadership, and to have a number of behavioural and driver profiles completed with an external provider. Many employees became more aware of their behaviours, motivations and values though little change came of it. Others attended the meetings resentfully as they had been taken from their desks, upset at the hundreds of emails and the backlog of work that would await them after their time out for team building activities. Looking at the program we can see that there was little or nothing done to address capability, accountability and how to address low performance. There were many sessions on leadership with topics like empowered leadership, or leadership versus management, but no mention of ‘followership,’ what it means to follow, ‘for an employee to do what they were hired to do’. HR had been working very hard on how to reward and motivate employees through improved talent programs and reward systems but no conversation ever took place regarding the consequences of tasks that went unfulfilled. There were many ‘oops!’ moments; moments that cost millions of dollars that were met with comments like “we were wrong there but we’re learning.” However, after similar mistakes continued to occur there was no actual learning taking place; only mistakes with no consequences. The mantra was “there are no mistakes, there are only learning opportunities.” This could possibly be true but is it the whole story? Are we learning? Something interesting was also observed, everyone was reluctant to make decisions as they were afraid of making mistakes when in reality, there were no consequences for mistakes made – an interesting dynamic. How does this happen?
Back-Up a Step
We can trace the way we work in our capitalist society back to the Industrial Revolution. In a nutshell, with a very simple description, the Industrial Revolution was the result of a great change of mindset in the western world relating to the attitude to work, to what M Weber called ‘protestant ethic’ in his book “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. The basic change that came as a result of a Protestant–Calvinist, was that teaching/preaching was a change in the attitude to work, whereby work came to be seen as a blessing, that any work was dignifying and that work was a gift from God.
This process moved people from the fields into the cities where industries were set up. It helped many to aspire to better standards of living, but also created great disparities between the owners of industries and their workers who were abused and kept just below the poverty line while the business owners became richer and richer. K. Marx responded by criticizing capitalism, accusing the owners, whom he called the bourgeoisie of abusing their power over their workers who he called the proletariat. The Weber-Marx dynamic is certainly an interesting topic that we’ll save for another day.
The struggle between the oppressed and oppressor in every layer of society has existed throughout history. As a response, the pendulum had moved to benefit one or the other but it seems we are yet to wisely navigate the tension between both. Where we are still finding the language to articulate, present and create fruitful dialogues. Is the pendulum, at the moment, on the side of promoting a culture of entitlement, of rights, avoidance of risk and an increasingly blurred line between right and wrong? We are in the midst of an evolutionary process in which this line has been challenged and is taking away the stigma on behaviours, customs and personal life preferences that are ‘different’ compared to traditional ones but not necessarily wrong. Hopefully, we’ll not deviate from that path of liberty and personal respect and dignity alienating the different. But do we need to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater?’ No, we don’t, we can maintain a path of clarity and dignity while learning to name things as they are without the fear of being called abusive, despotic, a bully or an oppressor. We’d like to believe that we are a more mature, and ever-maturing society that can make the distinction between what, when and how to name a few and to act appropriately to something that is missing its target. Learning how to name things better and quicker could elicit, in a progressive society, to address issues better and quicker. But if we don’t, we create a culture of disregard for the society we aim to improve. We can learn to name things better. What parameters can we use?
We could start with an objective one, what is my mandate at work, what am I paid for? Am I achieving my main objective? If I am, this is a time for celebration with myself and every stakeholder involved in the process. It’s time to pause and reflect looking at what has worked and what can be done to further improve productivity. If not, should I wait for someone to find out? Then, when that happens I’ll defend my case as it’s obvious that it’s not only my fault. Or, as soon as I become aware that things are not going according to plan I can pause and reflect, to become more aware of what’s really going on, I can also initiate a meeting with my team, boss or stakeholders and have a ‘conversation’ or many, to talk and discover what is really happening. If I’m the boss, should I wait to initiate a ‘conversation’ about ‘it’? But to do that we need first to identify and articulate the ‘it’ and create the right and timely environment to have the much needed ‘conversation.’
Acting by choice or decreed
Can we afford to continue “beating around the bush?” How many elephants in the room would it take for us to finally begin to engage in the current situation? Work has to be done, this is what we’re paid to do.
Are we paid to be engaged, to enjoy trust, to love our work or we are paid to ‘work,’ to move a still mass to what we have agreed upon or to change the direction of the mass for better performance. We have a great opportunity to do “work”, but we must first clearly understand what the ‘mass’ is and when, where and how it needs to be moved. When we clearly identify the “mass” and we know the challenge ahead we’d have the opportunity to embrace that invitation to succeed, to achieve the desired goals and do it from the heart. We can see work as a gift, even if we perceive that our work is of the most mundane, but we can do it with gratitude, creativity, being engaged with others and in the business itself, bringing others into the journey. Knowing what my task is, what the “mass” is and where I need to move it, to identify who or what needs to be influenced to achieve the goal. We could create an environment of authenticity. We could develop trust, following the mandate of the leader and guiding others to achieve the purpose of our work. We would take leadership to a whole new level, doing it with pleasure and happiness and we’d have fun with it. Yes, trust, engagement and motivation are needed but we can’t put the cart in front of the horse. No, don’t shout criticising this approach as though it’s coming from a right-wing oligarch. These are the teachings of my grandfather, a wharfie in Argentina, in those times they had one the lowest salaries, they were uneducated, very poor, he with a wife and their three children. He got up every day with a sense of gratitude for what he had, breathing authenticity and integrity. He had abusive bosses living in an abusive corrupt political system. But he knew what the “mass” was and where the “mass” had to be moved to, and he did it. He was greatly respected and admired by his peers and bosses. He was a great follower and that made him a great leader, father and friend. This article is not to condone corporate abuse or to encourage silence to abuses of the weak and powerless by the powerful. This is not to say that the “end justifies the means”, and it also doesn’t say that “it’s not about the destination but about the journey”. We are mature enough to navigate through the ambiguity of life and know which one must be used in each circumstance. We should all learn when to say, “C’MON! Try harder,” and when to say, “Relax and smell the flowers”. The old proverb says: “It’s time for everything”. It’s called discernment.
Solutions are closer to us than we would ever suspect.
To do this we would need an amount of energy/force that is bigger than the “mass” we need to move. If we don’t have that energy we’ll continue to slide, wasting energy and not being productive; we deserve better than that, we do not need to emulate Jenny.
If we do not have the energy/force we should simply PAUSE. Do not continue striving and pushing for the impossible. Be courageous and face it. This may require support from a colleague, a buddy or even a mentor or coach.
If you and your organisation refuse to pause by choice, you’ll likely be “stopped’ by failure or be stopped by force, painfully, by the McKenzie Method.
The Relationship Capital model believes that the power is not within one person or the other, or with the ‘mass’ or ‘energy/force’ but between all of us. It assumes that people don’t have “those conversations” not because they don’t want to, but because of fear and the lack of skills needed to have them. On the other hand, people are afraid of having “those conversations” with management that we often call performance management as they usually end in tension and distrust, when they are in fact a great opportunity to talk about ‘it’ and what must be done as soon as possible. People are often unable to really articulate what the issue is, the metaphorical ‘elephant’ or are unable to communicate it to others. RC provides a way of clarifying what we are moving, what we are dealing with and provides ways to clearly assess our responses using Active Role Theory and promotes key, easy to follow steps towards having clearer insight into oneself, of others and how to manage the interface between themselves and others through ‘critical, crucial conversations.’ It helps to clearly assess the ‘mass,’ what we are facing, which role’s energy is needed and helps to develop an action plan for succeeding with a real sense of achievement.
Can you risk continuing trying to move a mass bigger than your energy? It may be time to pause and chat!