The Workplace, “Bosses,” Health, and “Authentic Conversations”
As many people do, I had to fill out an online health assessment for the purposes of my family's health insurance. The survey asked the usual physical history questions, do you wear seat belts, do you smoke, etc.?
It caught my eye that there was a workplace section, which really shouldn't be surprising, given studies that show how a bad workplace culture can harm your physical health.
The questions also made me think more about an excellent book that I've been reading recently called Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment. I'll blog about all of that in today's post.
The workplace survey questions for my health assessment included:
30. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your job or the work you do?
Does not apply
31. At work, do you get to use your strengths to do what you do best every day, or not?
Does not apply
32. Does your supervisor at work treat you more like he or she is your boss or your partner?
Does not apply
33. Does your supervisor always create an environment that is trusting and open, or not?
Does not apply
Question #31, to me, comes back to the Lean notion of “Respect for People” – the ideal state being a workplace where everybody gets to contribute to their fullest and where they get to maximize the use of their unique skills, interests, and talents.
#32 and #33 reminded me a lot of the book “Authentic Conversations.”
Before I get to the book, think about the word “boss” for a minute. Wow, what an outdated word. It makes me think of a “trail boss” and herding cattle (I do live in Texas) — not a great workplace metaphor.
Even worse is the term “superior,” which I heard used today, as in “I talked to my superior,” as in manager (or leader or whatever word you find most palatable). Either way, the words “superior” and “boss” make me cringe and they so often get thrown around without giving them a second thought.
“Authentic Conversations” is such a rich book. It was recommended and given to me by the lab director I call “The Synthesizer,” as part of his synthesis of Lean, systems thinking, and “family systems theory.” We have a co-authored management journal article on this synthesis coming out soon (his name is Jim Adams, by the way).
One of the core themes, from the authors Jamie Showhier and Maren Showhier, is that too many workplace “superior / subordinate” (to use more ugly terms) relationships are unfortunately based on a parent / child relationship – and this is a failure in the workplace for many reasons.
For one, parents tend to be very directive toward their children. This is typically OK in a home, as children often can't make many decisions for themselves, depending on their age and the decision. But this dynamic is not constructive when applied to adults in the workplace.
As managers direct (and make too many decisions), then employees tend to withdraw and back off, letting “the boss” do things. This manager behavior is called “overfunctioning” (in family systems theory) and the employee behavior is called “underfunctioning.” This creates a negative reinforcing loops (in system dynamics terms, ala Peter Senge), there the underfunctioning reinforces the manager's notion that the employee is incapable, therefore they have to do more overfunctioning.
Secondly, parents tend to want to protect their children – hiding bad news or possible bad outcomes, playing the role of protector. Again, the Showhiers argue, is wholly inappropriate for the workplace. They say that managers need to “treat workers like adults” and be honest (or authentic) with people – performance will be better.
Normally, the implied tradeoff for employees is that you'll sacrifice autonomy (the ability to make decisions), but managers and leaders will protect you. But that doesn't work, for a number of reasons the Showhiers illustrate.
For example, if managers make reassuring statements like “everything will be OK” (as leaders at a failing company like GM might have wanted to do) – it's impossible to always follow through on that promise. So, employees get cynical and bitter because they feel let down when everything's not OK.
In the Lean world, there's more to it than just letting employees make decisions. It seems clear to me that managers in a Lean setting also have to be honest with employees about challenges and the situation of the company's world. Not protecting people means that everyone takes responsibility for the organization's success – moving from “compliance” to “commitment,” one of the book's core themes.
Everybody working together toward shared goals (with shared responsibility) is far more effective than an overly directive boss making all the decisions and having all of the responsibility.
There's so much to blog about in this book. There's a case example that sounds like a Lean Manufacturing implementation , without the authors referring to that – and how successful it was due to using the author's management approach (being honest and treating workers like adults). The authors also put the onus not just on bad “workplace parents” but also on people who easily fall back into the role of “workplace child.”
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