Whom do you trust these days? 2020 was a shocking and challenging year on so many levels. There were so many lies, and so many ways to spread them rapidly. Are there any voices left that we can listen to with confidence?
Once in a while, someone shares a quote with me that captures an essential piece of wisdom. Today it was a line from Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”
Isn’t that annoying? Don’t you wish the culture was shaped by people’s best behavior? But having observed hundreds of organizational cultures, I know the quote is true. That’s why the “No Jerks” rule many companies have adopted is so important.
Of course, the challenge then is to define what being a “jerk” looks like. That will vary from one setting to another. But nonetheless, in any organization there have to be limits on what behavior is tolerated.
As a girl, the power to make myself invisible was a magic wish. It seemed so wonderful — to be able to sneak into places and do whatever I wanted without anyone noticing.
Then feeling ignored at work gave me a taste of invisibility, and I learned it actually isn’t so great.
The first time I remember feeling invisible at work was the winter of 2008-2009. I was working for a consulting firm, and part of my job in that miserable winter was to bring in new business. I did everything I could think of: I made phone calls, wrote newsletters, sent emails, developed marketing materials, and invited people for coffee or lunch or drinks. The response? Bupkes! Not just nothing, but the Yiddish word for “emphatically nothing.” I even found it difficult to elicit a response from my colleagues. It was profoundly demoralizing.
If you read my blog regularly, you know I love finding a new word that has a special, unique meaning. I have written past columns about bricolage, JOMO, mentern, and sprezzatura. Today I have another discovery to share with you – “zozobra.” It is a Mexican Spanish word that means anxiety – anxiety of a specific kind.
I found the word in an article in the Chicago Tribune on November 3 by Francisco Gallegos and Carlos Alberto Sanchez. They explain that zozobra is the anxiety that results from being unable to settle into a single point of view. It is related to the Spanish verb “zozobrar,” which means to wobble or capsize. It is a feeling of instability, uncertainty, and unfamiliarity. It may result from finding that fundamental “truths” you depend on are not as solid as you thought.
I am invited to a lot of networking events with M&A (merger and acquisition) advisors, PE (private equity) investors, and other deal-making types. It’s a fascinating world, and I enjoy talking with people whose language, leadership style, and goals are often very different from mine. I am often the only management psychologist in the room. People are mildly interested and polite, but for the most part they don’t really “get” the kind of work I do or why they should care about it.
In a recent small meeting with a number of M&A advisors and PE folk, however, my experience was different. The topic was “What is going on and what is the outlook for your industry?” Each of us talked a little about the work we do and what was new, exciting, or challenging. To my surprise, after I spoke many of the others started asking me about my work and my observations of the leadership landscape in the current context. That had never happened before in a meeting like this.
Last March, when most of us were just starting to learn about COVID 19 and the world was shutting down, I asked a medical expert, “How long is this going to go on? When is life going to get back to normal?” She answered, “Probably late summer.” I was shocked and horrified. How on earth could we live in isolation that long? How would businesses survive? What would happen to family relationships, to our communities? I couldn’t imagine that the crisis could go on that long.
Yet here we are at the end of 2020, and there’s no sign of a return to normalcy. Sure, for many of us the isolation is not as strict as it was in those early months. But no one I know has a life that is in any way “normal.” I’m so tired of this. My clients are all tired of it. The whole world is tired. And once again, I’m asking, “When is life going to get back to normal?”
There was big news in Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR leadership, last summer. The CEOs of more than 180 major companies signed a document announcing that big corporations should no longer focus exclusively on maximizing shareholder profits. Jamie Dimon, Chair of the Business Roundtable and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, presented a statement that business leaders should focus on delivering value to all their stakeholders — to customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities, as well as their shareholders.
When I wrote about it at the time, I saw it as a shocking shift in how businesses would measure their success. But I was also skeptical. One of the main drivers of change in a business is what gets measured. So I said:
“Watch what the CEOs do about measuring their companies’ success. If they focus solely on stock price, then their statement was just window-dressing. They and their companies will continue to emphasize short-term shareholder value above all else. But if their quarterly reports and analyst calls start highlighting other measures, then perhaps they really mean to change the game. It should be interesting.”
I’ve been calling this a challenging summer, but that doesn’t quite seem to capture it at this point. We’re dealing with the pandemic and all the medical concerns it raises. We’re facing an economic crisis of mammoth proportions. We’re revving up for a contentious election. We’re struggling with complex and painful racial justice issues. Here in Chicago we just had a wave of tornadoes pass through. The stress and anxiety just seem to keep on coming.
How do you make it through? Where do you find the reservoirs of strength and hope and determination that you need to keep going?
James is the Chief Human Resource Officer at a Company G, a professional services firm. For years he has been committed to increasing the diversity of the employee population at the firm, especially at the mid- and senior-management levels. He is well aware of the beneficial impacts of diversity on multiple measures of company success, from innovation to customer relations to profitability. He has the backing of the CEO and the senior leadership team. He has helped to establish Employee Resource Groups for women, LGBTQ, and members of racial minority groups. He has brought in trainers to increase employees’ awareness of racial and gender bias and stereotyping. Every year he has been tracking the number of new minority hires. And the numbers haven’t budged.
This summer, the sharply increased focus on racial injustice and exclusion has led James to reflect once more on his own attitudes and biases. It has renewed his commitment to make a difference on the diversity front at Company G. But he is very frustrated – what else can he do that will really make a difference?
I hate the phrase “new normal” to describe this horrible time we’re living through and what lies ahead. I wrote about the phrase in early May, quoting my colleague, Constance Dierickx, who said, “This situation is not the new normal; it is a time of extreme disruption.” To me, “new normal” implies resigning yourself, settling, saying, “Well, I guess this is the way it’s going to be and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
And then, a couple of weeks ago I attended a panel sponsored by the Executives’ Club of Chicago on “Reinventing to Reopen: How to Succeed in our New Normal.” One of the speakers introduced the phrase “the new better.”
Here’s a leadership case study: It’s May 29, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s four days after the murder of George Floyd. You’re the mayor of the city and you learn that a peaceful demonstration has been followed by widespread violence and looting.
What do you do?
Here in Illinois, the COVID restrictions are beginning to loosen. Personally, I had ten people at my home for dinner last Friday. I hope to have my hair cut soon. And on the professional front, employers are talking about when and how to have their teams begin returning to work.
In some ways, shutting down the office was easier. The rules were announced and companies sent their people home. Sure, there were a lot of technological and process issues that had to be solved fast, but at least it was clear. Unless you were an essential worker, everyone had to go home — period.
Now — it’s a lot murkier. When should an employer bring people back? What are the precautions that need to be in place? Maybe it would just be better to let people continue to work virtually? After all, many employers have found that the online work force was just as productive as they were in the office.
The building project was a total disaster. It had been underway for decades and was nowhere near completion. In fact, it looked more like a ruin than a building under construction. A half-dozen architects had already worked on the project, and the multiple designs were incompatible and badly conceived.