Above and Beyond Undercover Boss

Recently Calgary Transit Director Doug Morgan appeared on an episode of Undercover Boss Canada with a goal of giving Calgarians a behind-the-scenes look at the work of employees who make his organization tick and, according to Ruth Myles of the Calgary Herald, a chance to hear an uncensored take on the workplace from employees.

Working Statues

All too often in the workplace there is disconnect between the corner office and frontline workers, reinforced by everyday barriers including assistants’ desks, dress codes, and separate floors and buildings. Doug Morgan had to take a pretty extreme measure to vault the barriers at Calgary Transit, donning an uncomfortable dark wig and in his own words “crazy shoes”, but he relished the opportunity to connect on a new level with his staff and is now looking for ways to continue and reinforce that “connection back into the organization.”

You don’t need to get on Undercover Boss Canada and don a crazy uncomfortable disguise to connect with your employees says Michelle Phaneuf, Alberta Co-Director of the Workplace Fairness Institute. Michelle says “owners may be aware that there are issues in the workplace, but employees are often missing that safe environment to provide direct feedback.”

Michelle and her fellow Workplace Fairness co-director, Marjorie Munroe, have developed a process to engage employees for that all important feedback. The Discovery Interview process is the first step in supporting organizations to instill fairness in the workplace. Using skills gained in their extensive mediation experience, Marjorie and Michelle establish a safe environment and gather anonymous and frank data around issues that impact employees. This data is compiled and presented in a report that highlights concerns, often revolving around trust, respect, leadership and transparency. Marjorie Munroe acknowledges that management often has a good idea of what is going on within the organization but adds “nonetheless Discovery Interviews serve two very important purposes: they provide a forum for employees to feel heard an acknowledged, and they send a firm and transparent message that management is concerned about learning the truth.”

Discovery Interviews are only the first step. The second step is often a group conversation facilitated by Michelle and Marjorie to ask: How can the employees work with management to find solutions to enhance their organizational culture? Together, staff and management work on a specific plan to address concerns. Through careful professional facilitation, staff are empowered to contribute to a solution which will meet needs in the workplace they have defined. Because both staff and management define the terms for success, success becomes achievable.

The Workplace Fairness Institute is a Canadian company focused on enhancing organizational culture through collaboration, communication and proactivity in managing conflict.

The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office is a new initiative of the Workplace Fairness Institute which offers ombuds services to small and mid-sized organizations. Trained as ombudsman through the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman and the Osgoode Hall Law School and with backgrounds as Chartered Mediators , Marjorie and Michelle bring abundant experience and ample expertise to the Ombudsman office. The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office will support individuals by working with them to understand and consider options regarding their concerns, answering questions, facilitating communication, and providing information and referral.

The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office will provide a service which emphasizes independence, impartiality, fairness and accountability. Additionally the service will help organizations recognize and address systemic issues early.

Managing Trust and Transparency for Engagement

It is not an unusual scenario: a new supervisor inherits a bad and undeserving reputation based on staff members’ previous experiences. Every move of a new incumbent is evaluated against the poor communication and bad decisions of a predecessor and the scene is set for “stay-but-go” or even worse, active disengagement. How do you rebuild trust? Trust is built with transparency in our actions (process), in our emotional reaction (response), and in our thinking (content).

Transparency with actions requires a clear and open management process. This may include a predictable and regular routine for employee feedback and performance reviews for example, and extends to the methods used to manage meetings, and to make complex decisions (such as setting annual budgets). A transparent process for decision making will contribute to a climate in which staff are clear on the past, present and future implications of decisions.

The supervisor who is transparent in their actions is aware of not only what they are doing or deciding, but why. When they speak to staff, they communicate clearly their decisions, and the route they used to get to there. Transparency in actions requires taking a deliberate step with each important decision to decide how to decide and then communicating that rationale.

Emotionally mature managers will have the tools to build trust through their response to any given situation. A workplace devoid of emotion is a workplace devoid of passion, and where there are people there is emotion. So trust in the response is also based on trust of the people, and an open and transparent communication about the relationships and the underlying needs and interests between the people in the work environment. A supervisor who experiences a strong reaction can choose how to relate to that emotion. Stepping back and detaching from the situation to look at the business problem will help to determine the right steps to take. Acknowledging others’ emotions without taking responsibility for them will help staff know they are heard.

Transparency with content requires a thorough awareness and sensitivity to context and subject. As with decision making, deliberately deciding what information can be shared and then sharing it in an environment that provides a safe space for discussion will build trust.

Content is also about context. For example, shared confidence in technical or knowledge expertise will provide a strong structure for building trust in actions. A common goal, such as servicing clients exceptionally, building quality widgets, or a united search for innovation for example, will provide a positive force for trust based on content.

Rebuilding trust will take time, patience and open communication. It will be necessary to be open about the management process, the emotional response, and the content. Like a three-legged stool, the process, the response and the content are all critical, and one will not be strong without the other two.

The Human Value Connection

An organization is a community. In today’s people-based economy, the human value connection within an organization determines the health of the organization.  We do our work through conversation, and every conversation reflects the health of the organization. “The quality of conversations within an organization reflects the quality of that organization” notes Dr. Nancy Love (www.pulseinstitute.com).  

Gallup’s Employee Engagement Index indicates that engaged employees report the best health. In fact, a self-reported survey done in November and December 2010 reflects that workers who are emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace are about as likely as the unemployed to report they are in excellent health – only 2 out of 10 of these actively disengaged workers rate their overall health as excellent.  (http://tinyurl.com/65kbym9)

But what happens when emotions are elevated? When we are facing potential embarrassment or are under threat?  When we are threatened with looking bad, we enter what William Noonan calls a “defensive routine”.  With our underlying values under threat, we perceive ourselves as acting sensibly and upholding values of integrity and prudence, but we may not believe that others share those values. We have an emotional reaction to something that is said, and we lash out, or react, governed by our fight or flight instinct. Our reaction begets a trigger in the other party, and they in turn react. We find ourselves cycling away from the relationship, into a downward spiral of retaliation.  Our conversations suffer, communication breaks down, and as stress elevates, our health may suffer as well.

Notice what happens when Dean approaches his employee Melinda with some concerns:

Dean: I have been really happy about your work – it is timely and accurate, and I think you are a real asset to this team Melinda. But I would like to talk with you about your relationship with the others on the team. Some things have come up.

Melinda:  What? What sort of things? What is it about?

Dean: Well, I’d like to be very honest with you. Some members of the team think that you are interfering with their work and publically coming down on them about their performance.

Melinda: Are you serious? I have never, ever publically come down on anyone! Sometimes when I finish a project early, I offer help, but that isn’t exactly welcomed. And once, when Jim seemed to be stuck with something I stopped to talk to him about it, but he pretty much told me to mind my own business. To be honest, I am not sure I fit in well here. They are always phoning in to answer those radio show quizzes and talking about the latest hockey pool. I don’t think there is a lot of work going on here. Two people could do the work of those three! They are just hanging around waiting for retirement.

The conversation spirals out of control and emotions run high. As Melinda’s emotions elevate, Dean reacts as well. He may respond to Melinda’s retort with a “Yeah, but we have experienced a lot of growth in these past few months and…” defending his management choices. Once the downward spiral has begun, parties may need to step away and regroup, ensuring blood returns the brain, before they re-engage in the conversation.

A deliberate approach to the conversation prevents the need to do damage control, and results in a healthier more successful community at work.

  1. Eliminate your “buts.”

I have been really happy with your work – it is both timely and accurate.

  1. Choose a neutral and specific title for your conversation.
    I’d like to chat with you about your role on the team.

  2. Start with a question. Listen to their story first.

                How have things been going for you working on this team?

  1. Summarize their comments, and provide evidence that you have been listening.

So it sounds like you have some concerns about how you are all working together and about how well you have been fitting in.

  1. Make your points firmly. State them gently, so people can keep on listening; be honest, be open to what they have to say; and be specific. Take the opportunity to talk it out.

I have some concerns about the teamwork as well. I have noticed in our last few meetings you have been very quiet in the discussions. I am concerned about how the team is collaborating lately and whether we are making the most of everyone’s expertise.  It is important to me that everyone on the team has input, as each member has something unique to contribute. 

Managers who strive to deliberately structure their conversations will enhance a culture of openness and respect within their workplace community.  These small changes with big impact will result in a healthier organization and a healthier and more engaged workforce.