Workplace Culture balances Change and Constants

I received a couple of emails following my last posting (Managers Create Culture), and taken altogether the gist of them was this:

“If I don’t have a comprehensive philosophy yet, like you have in Managing with Aloha, how do I start to define the workplace culture I want to foster as an Alaka‘i Manager? The variables can be so overwhelming, and I struggle to focus, and set my priorities.”

Hat’s off, shoe on, to Isaia

Do you know when those variables get overwhelming? When they aren’t actually yours. We managers have a way of inheriting and collecting periphery.

Here’s what I recommend instead. It’s still about articulating an all-you packaging of your values (which is Managing with Aloha at its core), but arriving at them in another way, one which concentrates on action connected to desired change and valued constants.

To paraphrase and add to a famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi:

Be the Change you wish to see in your world, while remaining devoted to your Constants.

We talk about change a lot, equating it with initiative, innovation and creativity, however we tend to forget those constants we have already invested in, constants which keep us grounded, confident, steady and sure.

So try this: Sit with a blank sheet of paper, and make a simple list of your purely instinctive, gut-check WANTS, writing them down under one of two sub-headings:

    (your keepers: You have these, still want them, and will devotedly hold on to them)
    (your goals: Assume you want these for good reason, so work on getting them!)

Your list should describe your future. Identify what you want it to be, so those wants can guide you forward. Be as specific as possible, for specific detail is more conducive to revealing action steps you can take.

Your values will provide the ‘why.’ When you can tap into it, ‘purely instinctive, gut-check’ wanting gives voice to your values — you’ll be able to read between the lines, and get clarity on what your values are all about, and not theoretically or historically, but right now, for today, and for ‘Imi ola— a creation of your best-possible future.

This might help you start your list… Fill in the blanks, remembering to then choose which column they go in, valued CONSTANTS, or desired CHANGE:
I want to work on ______, and not on _______.
I want to forge a partnership with _______, so we can work on __________.
I’d love to see the day that we _____________ all day long!
I want to keep learning about _____________, so we’ll be able to _________.

Bet you can take it from there!

The first step in articulating the workplace culture you want is usually to be more selfish — yes, selfish, as in self-aware. Focus is all about energy management: Self-manage (channel your energy) and self-lead (create fresh energy) before you presume to create workplace culture for anyone else. It evokes the oxygen mask theory: You can’t save anyone else when you can’t breathe either.

In clarifying your change and your constants, you define your stretch while holding on to your keepers. You also couple your form and function without interruption (i.e. your on-going productivity and business of life), for balancing Change and Constants is simply a way you sort through the clutter of life, and focus on what’s important to you.

For instance, here on Talking Story you often read postings where I seem to question, dabble, and experiment: I especially love 90-day projects as a gift-boxing of my still-tentative change. When I wrap up those projects, I weave them into my Ho‘ohana Story somehow, for my constants are about Aloha (defined here), Ho‘ohana (worthwhile work), and ‘Ike loa (intentional learning). Over time, my keepers in the MWA culture became the 19 values in my book, and the 9 Key Concepts. The early sentences on my List of Wants moved into statements like the 10 Beliefs and Core 21.

If you pull out your list every time you do a Weekly Review, you can revise it with constantly freshened relevance. When something no longer sounds like a Burning Yes, just cross it off the list and add what does.

Trust me: If you can make this simple process your new habit, your desired workplace culture will be steadily revealed to you. And remember…  You are Your Habits, so Make ‘em Good!

Your Change + Your Constants = Your Culture:

  • Write it down: Gut-check list your wants as either Constants or Change.
  • Create your future: Allow that list to set your priorities, and be your values-based focus.
  • Make it happen: Review weekly to self-manage and self-lead, and
  • Feel good about it: You’ll get a good grip on your best energies.
  • Share it: The Workplace Culture you champion will be the great result.

So turn this affirmation into a poster you look at daily:

I’ll be Change, and I’ll be Constant. I’ll be the Culture of my Future.

Write it on a post-it and tape it on the mirror where you brush your teeth each morning, then Ho‘ohana — make it happen.

Managers Create Culture

Me saying I’m a workplace culture coach is just another way of saying I coach managers. Plain and simple (and complicated and messy) managers create the culture which exists in every workplace. Every other variable is just more noise or window-dressing. Our challenge, is that the vast majority of workplaces aren’t set up so managers can spin their magic.

I had to share these snippets with you from an article written for the Morning News by Jonathan Gourlay, for he makes the case in a much more entertaining way as he shares his true-story experience working at Borders Bookstore. The tagline penned by the Morning News introduces his essay with this summary:

As Borders liquidates its merchandise, a former employee of store #21 looks back at a glorious workplace—of quirky managers, Borders gypsies, the odyssey to stack more than Hobby/Collectibles—and the moment when salvation seemed at hand to save the chain.

Do read the entire essay when you can: The Day Borders Got the Wobblies

For now, here are the snippets grabbed about those “quirky managers.”

Image Credit: Lauren Tamaki

“Neil, our manager, calls me over the intercom with a “Jonathan, please dial 42.” This is his code for “nothing is happening, but I’m saving you from a rude customer.” It is also his nod to The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “42” is the answer to the ultimate question of how to escape the clutches of a horny old man.”

“Neil is the guy who brings the quirky mid-’90s vibe to this bookstore. Neil lets homeless men sleep in the big reading chair in two-hour shifts. Neil encourages my co-worker Dan to play guitar in the café even if his songs are all about how New York City is a boat sailing away with his ex-girlfriends. Neil allows me to dress the front of the store with Marvin Bell’s The Book of the Dead Man, a difficult book of poetry purchased by exactly zero customers. (One thing Borders does well is track its inventory.) Neil wears unlaced hiking boots in the summertime. His hair is dark and long. His daily uniform is a Nirvana T-shirt underneath a suit jacket. When mentally disturbed customers spread feces on the walls of the bathroom, Neil cleans it himself. Neil says they don’t pay us enough for that duty. Everybody loves Neil.”

* * *

“For Borders, which first opened in 1971, the end began when it was sold to K-Mart in 1992. By the time I got there, three years later, only a few of the stalwart Borders believers remained to try to change the store from within. Within a few months of my arrival, Neil gave up and retired to play in his band, The Human Rays. I don’t know if the band was real or Neil just thought it was amusing to retire and join The Human Rays. His friendly management style didn’t jibe with the new owners.

Neil’s replacement was a guy named Doug. Doug had the personality of a pair of brown corduroy pants. We all hated Doug. We hated him because he was not Neil. Underneath that hatred was a hatred of what Doug represented: corporate masters and the loss of our own identity. With Neil we labored under the impression that we were cool. Under Doug we just labored.

We were all called, one by one, to Doug’s basement office where he asked unanswerable questions like:

“What can I do to make things better at the store?”

It was like trying to explain to plain yogurt what it’s like to be strawbana flavored. Poor Doug was an immigrant from the land of Blue Light Specials. He was now in charge of a funky bookstore where most of the workers held advanced degrees in esoteric subjects like Marxist Geography and Women’s Studies. How could we tell him that his very presence made us feel bad about ourselves? Not because of anything that he did but because of the fundamental essence of who he was. He was a boss, plain and simple.”

Extra points: After you read the complete essay, do read the comments, where other former employees and managers weigh in.

Trump those Old Rules with Your Values

Preface: If you are an Alaka‘i Manager learning the 9 Key Concepts of Managing with Aloha, this posting deals with several of them:

  • MWA Key 3: Value Alignment
  • MWA Key 4: Role of the Manager
  • MWA Key 6: ‘Ohana in Business
  • MWA Key 7: Strengths Management
  • MWA Key 8: Sense of Place
  • MWA Key 9: Unlimited Capacity

Old Rules, your days are numbered!

I’ve been doing quite a bit of one-on-one coaching lately. People are reaching out for help as they encounter the new world of work, and I’m happy to help as I can.

We always start with them describing their ‘new world’ for me, and I’m consistently amazed by how many old rules remain in play, erecting these obstacles that people struggle to understand. Thus, most of the coaching I offer has to do with managing up, and building better relationships with the people they feel are in charge, and in control at their workplace.

Our goal is always positive movement forward: We want to forge a better workplace partnership for them, and more often than not, the boss-employee relationship is the one we address.

Old rules are dispensed by old-thinking managers. By worn out, tired managers. By lazy and careless managers, and managers who are stick-in-the-mud stuck.

Surely those managers are not you!

If you are a manager, please stop for a moment’s self-reflection: Are there any old rules you’ve allowed into your workplace culture just because they’re convenient, historical, or worse, because you haven’t updated, replacing them with one of your own value-based rules?

A healthy workplace culture isn’t created by rules. It’s fostered by the managers who map out that culture’s movement with relevant values (e-book link), and then allow common sense to rule.

An old rule is a sacred cow which keeps fattening itself up in your pasture, lazily eating your resources and tromping through your meadowland, even though it won’t reciprocate in any way, and won’t contribute to the worthy cause of your business. It’s not a dairy cow, it’s not a beef cow, it’s not the father or mother of a hopeful generation. It’s a costly, expensive drain on the character and health of a place — a scar on your sense of place.

Used Cows for Sale

Alaka‘i Managers know they simply can’t afford sacred cows. Not now, not ever.

Sometimes, old rules are self-inflicted. People assume they have to follow them, when in fact, they don’t. No one else notices (no manager cares enough), and people continue down the wrong path. It’s a path paved with frustration, and one road block after another.

Issues define problems. People define potential.

Here’s an example.

In most organizations large enough to have different divisions, there’s been a long-standing old rule that “we don’t transfer problems.” It started with good intentions (most rules do) connected to keeping buck-passing out of the workplace with the culture-driven, value-aligned encouragement to own your problems, confront them head on, and solve them in a way that completely ferreted out any deeply rooted causes. If a problem or issue started with your division, chances are you remain closest to it; your team is likely the best team to address it.

Here’s where that old rule went wrong: We didn’t keep it focused on issues. We applied it to people who didn’t fit in the team or boss-subordinate equation for some reason, and it became an unspoken HR rule everyone towed the line with: ‘Problem people’ weren’t ever transferred either — and more often than not, they can be, and should be as a strategy of optimal workforce development; abundant choice is one of the advantages of larger organizations!

Misjudged people have become our good people souring in poor places, feeling hopelessly stuck or stereotyped. They never had a chance with finding their right fit and new lease on life elsewhere in the company — they were ignored or put out to pasture with progressive discipline, and their true strengths were never revealed. Their managers were tacitly allowed to dismiss them.

It’s been tragic, and still is, the number of times someone representing a wealth of experience and future potential is named a “problem child” because their manager fails to create a powerful partnership with them, and no one else will give them a chance. We are seeing how this old rule turned assumption keeps fresh talent out of hiring as well, because of the chronic dysfunction in the referral process: We still see scarlet letters on applicant chests, and fail to question the other people who put them there.

Coaches like me do a lot of Ho‘ohanohano work with giving people their dignity back: We have to convince them they aren’t broken, that they are strong and worthy, and they do have the talent, skills, and knowledge someone in their world is just chomping at the bit for. We get them to own it and bring it as a golden partnership ready to happen, and happen quickly: We help them define these things with useful and relevant clarity, so they can apply them with a positive outlook and renewed sense of optimism.

And not just coaches like me. That’s what ALL Alaka‘i Managers do.

“People catch their own weaknesses.
Your job, is to catch and encourage their strengths,
and those strengths aren’t usually clear.”
Failure isn’t cool. Neither is weakness

What other old rules are still roaming your workplace meadowland?

Beware of Invisible Cows

Question and freshen your rules constantly.

Rules can be good. For instance, I use them to clarify our managing and leading verbs, but if you use them, honor them in a Language of Intention. Be sure they’re YOUR rules and not assumptions you’ve allowed into the culture which were actually inherited from someone else’s intentions and values.

Preparedness Pays!

Dear Talking Story subscribers,

You may recall that I wrote a twice-weekly column for Hawai‘i’s daily newspaper The Honolulu Advertiser from November 2008 through May 2010, when the paper was sold, and became The Star Advertiser. I was invited to continue writing Say “Alaka‘i” but declined, deciding it was a good time to return here to our Talking Story mothership instead.

Impressive start

As of August 3rd, The Star Advertiser decided to add paid online subscriptions to its business model:

With this step, the Star-Advertiser joins scores of other daily newspapers in communities large and small across the country, from The New York Times and Dallas Morning News to the Albuquerque Journal and The Citizen in Key West, Fla., that charge to view their online content, said Star-Advertiser publisher Dennis Francis.

“Our next-generation products such as our premium content, e-editions, apps for notebooks and tablets, e-readers and PDAs will all play an important part of our future,” Francis said. “We will deliver the news and information to readers when they want it, where they want it and, most importantly, how they want it.”

Yes and no… The Star Advertiser was very gracious in keeping the Say “Alaka‘i” archives accessible up to now, but with this change you will find that you can no longer read them there.

I can’t get to those archives via my old Honolulu Advertiser dashboard either. However…

Preparedness Pays!

The good news is that I had always retained full publishing rights to my old columns, and you can access them here on Talking Story. To do so, scroll down the right column of the blog to the drop-down menu titled “Search Talking Story by Category” and select the 3rd option: Columns: Say “Alaka‘i.” Here’s a link if you prefer to bookmark it in your browser.

Try it now, and see what oldies but goodies you find :)

The still-challenging part, is that I have an awful lot of links to be corrected here within the Talking Story pages too, though mostly in the older postings archived.

So meanwhile, the quickest do-it-yourself-trick, is with the magic of search: Copy the title of the post you’re looking for into the blog search box (in the right column, directly below that category drop-down) anytime you get to a broken link. Do it here and your results will be here, and not web-wide. Remember to put quotation marks around the complete title for a more focused search, and you should be able to get to the right page pretty quickly. If not, send me a note and I’ll very happily find the article for you.

Mahalo for your patience, and thank you for reading, and for continuing to be here.

We Ho‘ohana kākou, together, and with Aloha,