Thursday, February 4, 2021

No Easy Fix: Opinion and Belief vs. Facts and Truth

We’ve all experienced the feeling. Our hopes get raised and then... splat. No payoff. No satisfaction. 

I got excited when I saw the title of Adam Grant’s recent article, “The Science of Reasoning With Unreasonable People,” published in The New York Times. Could “motivational interviewing” help win over people who choose beliefs, faith, and opinions over facts? What wonderful news! We need a breakthrough when it comes to persuading people to accept the facts around a host of science-based issues including climate change and vaccine safety. 

Alas, it was not to be. In one example detailed in the article, an intensive effort managed to get an anti-vaxxer from negative to, well, a tiny bit less negative. At the end of his piece, there was a tinge of resignation. Grant wrote, “All I can do is try to understand their thinking and ask if they’re open to some rethinking. The rest is up to them.”

All I can do? There has to be more, right? 

It turns out that motivational interviewing might have a limited role in addressing the vaccine hesitancy of some new mothers. A study cited in the article demonstrated a seven percent (statistically significant) increase in vaccination coverage in a subset of infants. While a good outcome, the authors recognized a number of study design limitations. And in actual practice, there’s a huge amount of ground to gain.

The chasm between hard data and belief exists because facts don’t matter to a big chunk of the population. We’ve known this for years. If facts were all it took, we’d be done: People wouldn’t smoke cigarettes, abuse drugs, be racist, or refuse to wear motorcycle or bicycle helmets. If the facts don’t fit the person’s worldview or “frame,” as the cognitive linguist George Lakoff terms it, the facts bounce off like bullets shot at Superman’s chest. Your challenger deflects all the information while you get blue in the face.

So, it’s clear that information and insight by themselves don’t produce change. It’s the desire to change and seeing the value in change that drives us forward. 

One desire killer is inertia. We’ve heard the excuse: “That’s the way we’ve always done things.” There may be no consequences: “Who’s going to notice, who’s going to care?” We may feel powerless: “I don’t have the resources, I don’t have the access.”

A second drag on change is simple ignorance and, on this issue, I’m having déjà vu. I wrote about “Swine Flu's Teachable Moment” nearly a dozen years ago: “It was disturbing to read about a growing public health threat in "Vaccine Refusal, Mandatory Immunization, and the Risks of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases" in this week's New England Journal of Medicine (Omer et al.). The bottom line is that there is a critical need for new education and policy efforts to protect children (sometimes from their own parents) and the general public.”

Dr. Marijn Dekkers, former CEO of Bayer and former Chairman of Unilever, pointed out at financial conference several years back, “Even the most outstanding ideas and scientific breakthroughs have no chance if people do not accept, appreciate and support them. All too often, people are afraid of – or uneasy about – new ideas, inventions, processes or products.” Dropping information – even crucial or compelling data – onto the heads of an unprepared public, or expecting a response to another “call to action,” is unproductive and unrealistic.

We’re in this situation partly because our science literacy is abysmal. The United States ranks 18th out of 78 countries, according to the most recent analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics. China, Estonia, Japan, Korea, Canada, Poland, Slovenia, UK, Netherlands, and Germany are among those ahead of us.

And it’s an even bigger issue than the public health or economic competitiveness. Poor science literacy can eat at the core of our democracy. Professor Jon D. Miller (now at the University of Michigan) told The New York Times in 2005 that “…people’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process.” He continued that for so many issues affecting society, "if you don't know a little science [it’s] hard to follow these debates. A lot of journalism [will] not make sense to you."

It’s not a problem that can be addressed by a one-year budget cycle or even a five or ten-year plan. It will take a generational blueprint that needs to be comprehensive, coordinated, and well capitalized in order to see a return on the investment. Let’s get started.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauoestreicher.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Predicting Change in the Age of Trump - We Need a T.H.E.M.E.

How long is too long to wait for change? If you’re at a red traffic light for more than a few minutes, you’re probably wondering if it’s broken and contemplating an isolated break with a societal norm.  

But what drives us to wait or to move on? I wrote about the change many predicted Donald Trump would make following his victory in the Republican primaries nearly five years ago. Surely, conventional wisdom dictated, he would pivot quickly from fiery agitator to energetic statesman. After waiting the duration of a campaign, a presidential term and then another campaign, I think it’s safe to say the wait is over. Change is not coming and it never will.

In 2016, a New York Times editorial (The Donald Trump Pygmalion Project) focused on Donald Trump’s behavior and how “Mr. [Paul] Manafort’s ambition is to turn this Eliza Doolittle into a candidate more acceptable to decent society, in time for the general election.” 

But too few were paying attention when Mr. Trump said, “I sort of don’t like toning it down.” That rare, honest admission should have been a clue. More questions needed to be asked; intentions should have been probed.

I love checklists and acronyms, and this looks like the perfect place for both. In politics, as in personal and business relationships, we need think about and evaluate others in terms of a THEME:

Transparent. Do we have a clear view into this person and his or her intent? Is what we see what we get?

Honest. Are rules, and the rule of law respected? Are we getting the facts, the truth or some belief, some wishful thinking? 

Empathic. Does this person really care about me, about others and the common good? What is this person’s motivation – is he concerned about helping others, greedy, or a narcissist?

Moral. What does this person value? Is there an understanding how his or her actions might affect others?

Ethical. What is the character of this person? Is this a principled person with a consciousness of his or her actions? 

This is the lens through which we need to view our leaders, colleagues, even friends and family members when it comes to gauging the probability of change. Of course, we need to remember that no one is perfect and giving the benefit of the doubt is generally better than immediately cutting off relationships. 

But when it comes to the current President, we already had years of answers to the questions in my THEME. We should have been able to avoid the mistake of the fabled frog. I’m referring to the story of the Scorpion and the Frog where the scorpion, unable to swim, asked a frog to ferry it across a river. The frog responded that it was afraid of being stung by the scorpion. The scorpion answered in logical terms: If I sting you, he said, then we’d both drown. Thinking the scorpion wouldn’t risk its own life, the frog allowed the creature on its back. Well, you guessed it. In mid-crossing, the predatory arachnid stung the frog. As they began sinking toward their deaths, the frog asked, “Why?” The scorpion replied, "I couldn't help it. It's who I am." The echo of 2016 Donald Trump is loud and clear.

The frog did ask, though. He questioned. Sadly, he believed the lie. He hoped and trusted when he should have been skeptical and suspicious.

Too few challenged Donald Trump and still don’t, even after all the facts were in plain view: the self-dealing, the hush money, the loyalty tests, the muzzling of scientists, and the targeting of the news media as “enemies of state.” The passivity of some and the enabling by others empowered an unabashed, unaccountable, downright lawless Administration. After hundreds of years of steady though non-linear progress, our country has actually devolved. Americans are worse off now than in decades past. Our people are sicker, more polarized, less trusted. The planet is unhealthier, more fragile, less stable.

It’s not too late to reverse course. The whole country won’t respond right away and some people never will. But what differentiates us as human beings is that we’re able to learn, adapt, and progress. Let’s do that.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauoestreicher.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Biden Won – So Did Science

The most anti-science, science-denying president of our lifetime was defeated by, you guessed it, science. While the election was close, it still has to rank as one of the biggest ironies in history.

Even so, seeing how tens of millions of people voted against their own self-interest is one of the most baffling and infuriating phenomena I know. It helps to prove that a belief can overpower a fact, how a lie can (shall I say it?) trump the truth. 

The facts and allegations are painful to repeat but, briefly, Donald Trump failed to disclose taxes or foreign entanglements; destroyed immigrant families; encouraged white supremacists; belittled women; covered up ties to Russia; illegally used campaign funds; threatened allies; praised dictators; created economic hardship with a trade war; killed environmental protections; undermined funding for education and the arts; enriched himself and his family at taxpayer expense; threatened political adversaries; mocked disabled persons; disparaged soldiers; attacked the news media; rammed through lifetime appointments to the judiciary; advocated voter suppression and intimidation efforts, and lied to the public – according to fact checkers – approximately 25,000 times.

But put aside his long list of self-serving, amoral, unethical, and likely illegal activities for a moment. It was the COVID-19 issue that Donald Trump handed to Joe Biden. While Trump won in some of the states hit hardest by the virus, the pandemic cost him the election. He and tens of millions of others may have ignored the science, but a bug less than 0.000004 inches across tipped the scales to Biden. 

Trump cowed Republican leaders, tossed the Obama “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents” and all but disbanded the White House Coronavirus Task Force. He called Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the world’s top infectious disease specialists, a “disaster,” said scientists were “idiots,” and falsely claimed “doctors get more money if somebody dies from COVID.” 

Despite all of that and the desperate efforts to gaslight the public on the seriousness and deadly scope of COVID-19 – a White House press release claimed the president ended the pandemic – Trump could not alter the science of a viral infection. He couldn’t bully the virus away.  He couldn’t short-circuit the careful research and development process required for new vaccines and therapeutics. 

Joe Biden did push a few other campaign issues: Trump’s lack of character, morality, and empathy (“The Battle for the Soul of America”); the assaults on affordable healthcare and attempts to strip protections from those with preexisting conditions, and the diminished standing of the United Sates around the world. In fact, some reports had the economy and health care out-polling COVID-19 as key election drivers.

Yet the Biden team ended up displaying some remarkable consistency in messaging on the COVID crisis. Why? The economy and health care are complex issues. COVID-19 is not. It’s impossible to ignore. The virus is surging again and predictions are the worst is yet to come. Some will continue to claim it’s a hoax, that the numbers are inflated, and it’s not much worse than a bad cold. But the number of cases, positivity rates, hospital admissions, and deaths are hard to argue unless you’re locked into a belief system where no facts will ever penetrate. 

Trump couldn’t help but to respond, not with actions to protect the public health but with more derision. “With the fake news, everything is COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID,” Trump complained at a mostly maskless rally. It was painful to see how he politicized science and it used as a wedge, driving people further apart.

A platform based largely on science, medicine, and public health won this election – barely. We will win the battle against this coronavirus with the right leadership and resources; naming a new coronavirus task force on November 9 was the president-elect’s first major announcement. But the fight comes with a terrible, sometimes irretrievable cost, the result of missteps and misdeeds from a malign, incompetent Administration. 

Like hundreds of millions of others around the world, though, I’m hopeful that in the days and years ahead that facts will matter, and our scientific, political, educational, and journalistic institutions will again be held in the highest regard.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Three Steps to Save the Presidential Debates

While the president was demanding a fourth debate with his challenger, an opinion piece in The New York Times suggested that debates be scrapped altogether. Yes, the debates have certainly devolved over the years but this is a classic “throw the baby out with the bathwater” reaction. Let’s fix them instead. Here are three changes to elevate the debates and increase their value to the public:


1. Ditch the audience. In her NYT piece, Elizabeth Drew wrote that debates were less about conveying a vision or a plan than they were about upstaging the opponent. “Points went to snappy comebacks and one-liners. Witty remarks drew laughs from the audience and got repeated for days and remembered for years,” she said. She’s not wrong, of course. But it’s the debate format that has helped to create the reality TV atmosphere. The candidates have been playing to the audience; they look for applause or a laugh. Let’s get serious and let’s remove the audience. The point might be made moot because of the pandemic this year but the editorial board of The Washington Post recently endorsed this idea, calling the debates “quip contests.” We’ll gain time, engagement, and potentially more substantive responses. 


2. Level the field. I mean this literally. The candidates should be seated, anchored to their chairs. The freewheeling Town Hall format, where the candidates roam the stage, should be banned. In 2016, candidate Trump tried to intimidate Secretary Clinton when he alternated between standing and pacing back-and-forth behind her. Clinton said he was breathing down her neck, which made her feel "incredibly uncomfortable." Politico magazine called it "the ugliest debate ever seen." Pressing a physical advantage – bullying – must not be allowed. And having the candidates seated will also help mitigate any height discrimination, or “heightism,” where taller people are perceived to be stronger, and better leaders.


3. Check the facts. A consequence of our glorious First Amendment is that political speech is highly protected – essentially any half-truth or lie may be told. While there are plenty of post-debate analyses, it’s too late. Many viewers tune-out after the practiced smiles and forced handshakes. And our brains tend to cling to misinformation even after it's been refuted. We need real time (or near real time) fact checking. If IBM's Watson computer can win at Jeopardy!, why can't we get an indication of veracity while the debate is still in progress? Let’s use technology to help the experts sift through speech transcripts and testimony; almanacs and atlases; laws, regulations and policy statements; credible survey data, and non-partisan news articles, journals, and research reports. Let’s help ensure the public gets the facts and not the flimflam.


While we’re more polarized than ever and fewer people are undecided, more information, more opportunity for side-by-side comparison, is still crucial to the democratic process. In a society that’s increasingly stressed by the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, systemic racism, and so many other issues, political discussion can be dispiriting, infuriating, and sometimes incendiary. But, as Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451, “If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

My Time with Larry

Larry Kramer, the playwright and AIDS activist, died yesterday at age 84. He left his mark in two different worlds – the arts and health care. He changed me, too.

I was sad to read of his passing but this is not an obituary covering all the details of his dynamic life; it’s a brief reflection starting when we met in 1988. I was the chief representative to the HIV/AIDS and oncology patient communities at drug giant Hoffmann-La Roche and he was on the other side of a conference room table. His first comment to me was, “Bristol-Myers met us in a nicer hotel.”

The year before, I joined the company’s Public Affairs department from the R&D group. There was a need for someone with a technical background to help explain what was coming out of the labs to the general public. I landed in the role and immediately found myself in the middle of history. Roche was one of only three companies at the time that had a late-stage anti-HIV drug development program. Burroughs Wellcome (now part of Glaxo) had the first marketed product, Retrovir®/AZT. Bristol-Myers (now Bristol-Myers Squibb) and Roche had retroviral analogs in the pipeline.

Burroughs Wellcome was reviled by the AIDS community Larry helped to organize. Drug prices were high and communication from the company was absent. There were no best practices, no case studies on how to communicate with patients. It simply wasn’t done. Companies would inform the “learned intermediary” – the physician – and he or she would communicate with the patient.

Today, there’s at least one patient advocacy organization for any given disease. There were only a handful of AIDS groups in those days. Larry and others paved the way for all the rest.

Bristol-Myers decided to meet with the AIDS groups and I began my campaign to convince Roche management to do the same. I remember making a presentation to the Executive Committee and quoted Lincoln: “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” It wasn’t the easiest sell. But people realized there were both ethical and business considerations at play – many of the activists were patients trying to save their own lives, and they were phenomenally organized and well informed. The potential benefits of hearing the patients’ point of view and adjusting our own plans were new and valuable concepts.

A letter from Larry’s organization, ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was the catalyst for our first meeting. He once said, “If you write a calm letter and fax it to nobody, it sinks like a brick in the Hudson.” The demands in the letter were copied to a long list of top-tier news media, members of Congress, AIDS activists, and health care policy makers. I wrote back, explained our research initiative, agreed to meet, and copied back the entire list.

Then, my phone rang. “What are you doing writing back to all my constituents?,” he barked. I said, “They’re our constituents, too.”

That was a pivotal moment. Yes, I gained some respect by coming right back at him but the truly important piece was that first step we took into a common ground. Our constituency was their constituency and everyone wanted new, effective medications in the hands of patients as soon as possible. The two “sides” worked to expand access to experimental therapeutics, enroll patients into clinical trials, support NIH funding, and lobby for FDA reform to speed drug reviews and approvals.

The world was changing. The normal course of business – the normal course of life – was disrupted. But progress was made – advancements in understanding and equality, as well as advancements in medical science.

Larry was called a troublemaker and much worse. But at least there was talk back then and a respect for science. It’s worth noting that ACT UP’s slogan was Silence = Death. With COVID-19, I’m afraid Silence has been replaced by Division and Ignorance. Maybe a little Larry Kramer-style agitation wouldn’t be such a bad thing to get people think about the state of our society and the status of our health care system.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

You Don’t Get It… and Don’t Know It

Like it or not, we don’t “get” a lot of things. Most importantly, we don’t get ourselves. 

The Harvard Business Review recently re-posted an article by Tasha Eurich where five years of research showed “95% of people think they’re self-aware, [while] only 10 to 15% actually are.” It’s a consequential finding, despite all that’s been written on cognitive dissonance and self-awareness. Think about how many and how deeply personal and professional relationships are affected by our lack of personal insight. 

A survey I conducted a few years ago on self-perceptions of meanness and niceness showed “respondents felt others are much meaner than they perceived themselves to be.” Twice as many people thought they were never mean versus those who said they were sometimes mean. In the workplace, “un-self-aware colleagues aren’t just frustrating; they can cut a team’s chances of success in half,” Eurich wrote. These individuals can spur “increased stress, decreased motivation, and a greater likelihood of leaving one’s job.” 

This is big. Unchecked, it’s life and career changing. 

It calls for intervention and the resolve to make it happen. No one likes conflict but it’s a necessary step. In Toxic Team Treatment I wrote, “Few go looking for a confrontation but it’s a critical part of working in teams, and supervising and leading others. Having the courage to take some action is not the same as “making waves.” Making waves connotes stirring up trouble and creating new problems. This is about airing and addressing the issues by asking questions, and seeking clarifications while showing respect for different views.” 

But productive dialogue requires mutual trust. “For someone to truly be open to critical feedback… they must fundamentally believe that we have their best interests at heart. When trust is present, the other person will feel more comfortable being vulnerable, a prerequisite to accept one’s unaware behavior,” Eurich said. 

If there’s a trusting relationship, go for it. If you don’t have it, find someone who does. Speed matters, just as it does in most situations though Eurich suggested, “If possible, wait until your colleague expresses feelings of frustration or dissatisfaction that (unbeknownst to them) are being caused by their unawareness.” 

Still, don’t allow an issue to become a crisis. Act. Follow up. And be empathic – understand that it’s not only about embracing the challenge to help yourself and others; others must be willing – or persuaded – to embrace the feedback.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

3 Things Employees at Amazon, Edelman and Microsoft (and many others) Are Telling Us

It's almost impossible to escape politics these days. And by politics I mean the kind that's become less civil and more polarizing. It surrounds us through 24/7 news coverage, social media channels, and... our co-workers.

New York Times article, “Edelman, Public Relations Giant, Drops Client Over Border Detention Centers,” is another reminder of the growing advocacy of a long list of stakeholders – including employees, customers, clients, students, investors, and donors – and the expectation that sides or positions are taken on issues.

When entering this realm, organizations must make calculations on whether or not an issue really matters to them, and the value of taking a side or not. Discussion points include who they might offend or flatter, what business could be driven away or won, which employees they might alienate or attract, and how it might all be communicated. There are hard choices to be made.

So, as people find their voices (or blindly follow the herd) and leverage the tools of the digital world to amplify their message, organizations need to be prepared. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a business, university, charity, or political group. You may choose to proclaim neutrality but that, too, is often treated as just another position like right or left, for or against. It could even be seen as a weakness – the lack of will to take a stand and express the character of the organization. Expect to be challenged, no matter what.

The NYT piece – and what employees are telling us – underscores a few key points organizations must consider in an increasingly demanding environment:

1. Define your purpose and gain alignment. Organizations must ensure its stakeholders know the purpose, the mission, of the institution. People need context and a clear understanding of where the organization fits within its competitive set and where the employee fits within organization.

2. Understand there are precious few secrets. Our inability to contain information was already past the point of no return when I wrote “The Secrecy Bucket Is Full of Holes” 10 years ago. We are being recorded and tracked. There are hackers and leakers. Of all my experiences in this arena, I’ll never forget being asked to comment on confidential information my firm sent to a government agency only hours earlier.

3. Declare your values and limits. The article begs the age-old question: Are there people or organizations that do not deserve representation? In a legal situation, the answer is clear but in other sectors of business and society there are choices to be made. Organizations should declare their values, their operating principles, and enforce ethical standards. It’s not feasible to name every person, company or institution that might be off limits but you can define your beliefs and set up a structure to review and discuss critical decisions.

No one needs to tell you that we’re operating in a hot mess of division and high expectation. We need to be thinking and planning… all the time. Paraphrasing management guru Peter Drucker: If we’re not changing and innovating, we’re dying. And, while we can’t prepare for every scenario, we can take some basic steps to better listen, evaluate, and communicate.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Six More Things About the Boeing 737 MAX Crisis

“The crisis drags on” is about the last thing an organization wants to hear. But that is what’s happening at one of the world’s most venerable companies. Unfortunately, the manner in which Boeing is communicating – or not – has become its own news story.

The all-too-familiar drip, drip, drip of bad news is a classic “Don’t” in crisis circles. New and shocking revelations in the past few days have added to the tragic mess, which started last October with the crash of Lion Air 610. Boeing’s decision to base a critical flight system on a single sensor and a report that defective parts were installed in hundreds of planes are keeping the still unfolding story front-and-center in the minds of investors, the FAA and sister agencies around the world, current and future aircraft customers, and the flying public.

Apologies go hand-in-hand with crises and, while there have been hundreds of articles, reports and analyses on the 737 MAX crashes, I have a few additional observations to share on how Boeing is saying sorry using my 6 A’s model:

Acknowledging something has happened. It was impossible to deny the loss of 346 lives in two crashes. But in the days following the tragedies, Boeing claimed the 737Max was safe and the MCAS (the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which caused the planes to lose control), was "certified." This creates an astounding dissonance: While the fleet is stilled grounded, they're continuing to work furiously on an MCAS software fix. It took weeks for Boeing to say, “We own it.” Score: 5/10

Authentic expression of regret. Initial statements and testimony placed some blame on pilot training. Then CEO Denis Muilenburg said weeks later, "We at Boeing are sorry for the lives lost in the recent 737 MAX accidents. These tragedies continue to weigh heavily on our hearts and minds, and we extend our sympathies to the loved ones of the passengers and crew on board Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302." My friend Helio Fred Garcia, president of Logos Consulting Group, said: "Trust didn't fall because two of its plane crashes. Trust fell because they were seen to be indifferent." Score: 5/10

Appropriate tone and language. As pointed out above, this is the tale of two phases, two apologies. Following the accidents, the tone-deafness was jarring. The later statement and corporate video seemed to make up some ground but it was sprinkled with jargon like “MCAS” and “erroneous angle of attack information.” And Mr. Muilenburg fell into the “me” trap when he said, “I cannot remember a more heart wrenching time in my career.” Score: 6/10

Acceptable venue. One gets the sense that Boeing is being dragged into its apologies and has failed to rapidly, proactively face its publics. While public statements and videos are becoming normalized, they fail to come face-to-face with those affected. It reinforces a wall of separation and does not allow interaction or engagement. Score: 6/10

Acting in the right timeframe. The video apology came 26 days after the second crash – Ethiopian Airlines. Enough said. Score: 6/10

Announcing next steps. Boeing said initially that they were “humbled” and “learning.” It was honest but not terribly reassuring or instructional. Saying they will “deliver airplanes to airline customers and to the flying public that are safe to fly” is like Starbucks saying they’ll serve coffee that’s safe to drink. Boeing finally came around and said they "will ensure accidents like that of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 never happen again… top engineers and technical experts [are] working tirelessly" and that they will give pilots "training and additional educational materials." Score: 6/10

The 6 A’s rubric weights the elements differently. So, my overall score – and you may certainly have a different evaluation – works out to 55/100. An “F.”

Apologies – good ones, bad ones – have real consequences. Boeing’s behaviors have broken trusts, damaged its reputation, slowed sales, harmed valuation, and created fear. But I know they'll make it back. They’re fundamentally, historically a good company making good products and time will muffle the damage. But it’s been an unnecessary, destructive, lengthy episode. I hope something instructive can come from all the loss.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Morale Is More Than Fun

If I read one more article about how to boost morale in the workplace simply by saying nice things to co-workers and subordinates, I might say something decidedly not nice. The message and the tone – what you say and how you say it – are, of course, important elements in the morale equation. No doubt. But words are the end, not the beginning, of the effort. We must start with an examination of the culture and values of the organization, and how the leadership implements them.

I won’t point a finger at the recently published piece that set me off. I was encouraged initially when I read the first point: conduct an assessment. Then, hopes were dashed when it was clear the research was not about values or culture or communication practices. It was about your attitude. Again, it’s an important point but not where to begin. Morale is complicated, not one-dimensional, and goes to the core of the organization and its leadership.

Perhaps the most common mistake in the one-dimensional realm is confusing fun for morale. I had a boss who once asked me what morale measures I was undertaking for the office I was recently hired to lead. I said I involved the whole operation – in teams and as individuals – in discussions about our new direction. I reported that we were creating new business plans, investing in training, developing individualized career paths, and ensuring everyone understood their role and their goals. Excitement and camaraderie was building. And, I added that we just celebrated a new business win with a very enjoyable happy hour. “Yeah, that’s fine,” he responded. “But it’s not enough.”

He insisted that I give $200 to each staff member and the morning off so they can buy something for themselves. Then, host a lunch where everyone could share what they bought. I was incredulous and pretty sure gave a reflexive, accidental eye roll. I added to the blooming disagreement by saying, “Isn’t that a bit like a band aid? I think morale is an outcome of doing all the great stuff we’ve set in motion. What expectations are we setting with the $200? What will we need to do next week or next month?”

That may not have been the best way to raise an objection but I saw too many forced-fun, temporary fixes before. You can try to build instant, synthetic relationships but authenticity rules and it takes time for cohesiveness to gel.

Like so many other important efforts, organizational behaviors and principles must be continually role modeled and reinforced. You cannot put your mission/vision/values statement in a nice frame, nail it to the conference room wall and walk away. Make them count. All the time. This applies to the intern, to the board of directors, and everyone in between. And we must ensure there are consequences for negative or harmful actions. Want to undermine the morale of your organization? Ignore, tolerate or reward bad behavior. Don’t confront the toxic employee.

The bottom line is that morale, or creating a fun or a “cool” place to work, is an outcome of an honest, ethical, communicative and interesting work environment. Organizations succeed when they focus on delivering differentiated products or services, provide unambiguous information, and instill confidence with visible and empathetic leadership.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.