Friday, October 17, 2014

Toxic Employees: Why we need them.


Photo credit: Gregory St. Bernard.

Most offices have at least one. That disgruntled, difficult-to-work with co-worker that no one speaks to directly unless they have to, but have a lot to say behind their backs. Managers have a hard time dealing with them as well, because they are usually the ones with the real power in the department, and have the ability to sway public opinion, usually in a negative way.

Such employees develop in part because of poor HR management- those who are unhappy at work for one reason or another are allowed to fester, to the point where it clouds their interaction with the company and its clients. Some are also hired from toxic environments in previous jobs. But no matter their history, the consensus is that if they are unhappy, they should leave.

Or should they?

Toxic employees can give great insight into what is broken in organizations, and any attempt to manage them can lead to the development of key management skills.

After you dig through the negative comments and tales of woe, chances are that toxic employees can give you real insight into what’s wrong with your company culture. A lot of what goes wrong for these employees is a disorganized workspace, lack of leadership, recognition and the feeling that the company ‘owes’ them something as a result. Pay usually comes up as a sore point. But if you dig deeper, it is usually more a symptom than a cause. It really becomes counter productive when the company starts to ostracise these employees when the environment is a factor in their behaviour.

And what better way to develop your leadership skills than to be given a department full of whiners? If any manager can go in there and come out with their sanity intact, I would call it a win. At the very least, dealing with difficult employees helps managers work on their emotional intelligence, situational leadership skills and anger management. Even better if they can get these employees to be productive.

At times, with all the talk about productivity, efficiency and innovation, we forget that it is human beings are at the core of the activity. And as important as it is to keep pushing forward, the leaders of organizations need to ensure that everyone is on board- even the naysayers.

Unless your company is absolutely perfect, there will be toxic employees. As much as we may be tempted to ship them off to our competitors, it is a useful exercise to try and integrate them, or at the very least understand what got them there and address the internal issues that created the mistrust and negativity.

And if they are unwilling to change, then buy all means, ask them to exercise other options.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Work/Work Balance and Freezing Eggs.

Photo credit:

Back in the mid 2000 the buzz word in management circles was leadership. If you were a graduate school, a management consultant or a business book author and you didn’t have a program or book with the word leadership in the title, you were out of the money. It is ironic though, that in the midst of this obsession with developing leaders, the global financial crisis happened.

Money problems kept us distracted for some time, but it seems that a new buzz word has crept into the vernacular: productivity- followed closely by its close relative, performance.

Now that we are slowly crawling out of the financial mess, companies are now ever focused on maximizing their earning potential, by wringing the last ounce of the work out of their slaves… err employees. I jest, but this new obsession sometimes borders on the ridiculous.

We saw a dramatic increase in concepts such as tele-working, shared workstations, standing desks (no seats provided), to the introduction of pool tables, video games and pets in the office. All in an effort to make employees more comfortable and creative.

Photo credit:

From a performance standpoint, HR has been working overtime to come up with compensation schemes to keep workers happy and engaged… then here comes Apple and Facebook with their egg freezing scheme. Really?

So I guess the concept is that we the company, pay you enough so you don’t have to worry about your bills. We will give you a car, so you don’t have to worry about transport. We will freeze your eggs, so you don’t have to worry about starting a family until later on. All we ask for is that you think about, or be engaged in your work every waking moment of your life. No big deal.

I won’t be surprised if someone starts the trend of building an apartment complex onsite, so employees can walk to and from work.

In the drive to become more innovative and faster to market than competitors, companies seem to be going to another extreme- that of controlling every aspect of an employee’s life. We seem to live in a World of extremes, where competitors try to outdo each other to not only get the best talent, but also in ways to keep them engaged.

In terms of engagement, I’d propose a different way- one that actually let’s employees spend less time in the office, and more time with their families and on personal interests that they may have.

Less time at work? Well my reasoning is, if I can spend more time involved in the activities that I love, it frees my mind and my creativity, and helps me to focus when I’m actually at the office.

So instead of freezing eggs, we could set up crèches and pre-schools close to workplaces, where employees can feel confident that their kids are well supervised. Additionally homework centers run by competent staff can be added to the mix. Companies can invest in a transport system that takes kids to and from school safely, again reducing the anxiety that parents may have. None of this is new, and many companies do some or all of these already.

In terms of social engagement, many employees are unable to take part in volunteering and charity work- simply because they don’t have the time. This can also be integrated into the work-schedule, where time is given to participate in social activities, with the support of the organization, on an ongoing basis. This may mean that part of your work week may be spent at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen- during what would normally be working hours.

For these, and similar initiatives to work though, the work itself will have to be properly planned and configured. In a lot of cases, employees work long hours not only because of issues related to insufficient staff levels, but also poor job design.

And hopefully the pendulum won’t swing entirely the other way, where work doesn’t happen at work, but I’m hopeful that we can get the balance right.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Are you Tough Enough? Developing Mental Toughness


Dennis Kimetto on his way to breaking the Marathon World Record at the Berlin Marathon on September 28th, 2014.

Photo credit: Berlin Marathon

I spend a fair amount of time running and cycling- mainly for fitness, but the other reason has a lot to do with another kind of a workout- the mental kind. Running, and other endurance sports are as much a battle with pain and fatigue as it is a mental struggle, as anyone who has run a marathon will tell you.

Though I am yet to test my mettle in a 26.2 miler, I’ve had my fair share of half marathons, and 3-hour sessions in the saddle- to know the kind of mind games that can develop. At some point in these activities, your brain actively tries to convince you to stop and give up. Every. Single. Time. First there is the pain. Then the fatigue. The temperature. The humidity. All of it will stop, if you just… stop.  


Some race bling after a particularly difficult Half Marathon.

But I continue. Not only for the shiny medals at the end, but I’ve found that endurance sports is one of the best ways help me to develop something which helps me at work- Mental Toughness.

Vince Lombardi, the late American Football player and coach put it best:

"Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind – you could call it ‘character in action.’"

Normally used in sports, the term has quickly found it way into management speak. For me, it is a key concept for success in business- whether you are running a corner store, or a large corporation. Some people have more than others. That ‘sticktoitivness’ that does not allow them to give up when circumstances, or failure loom large. It allows you to cut through the arguments of negative people like a hot knife through butter, and ensures a quick rebound from setbacks.

The best way I can explain it is the feeling of euphoria, and the adrenaline rush I feel after completing a particularly difficult race or ride. It is a buzz that can last for hours, and is commonly termed the ‘Runners High’. But the only way to experience it is to willingly put yourself though pain and sacrifice. And to do that on purpose. 

This can sometimes be replicated in the office. It could be securing an elusive client after a long courtship. It could be the successful completion of a difficult project, or the development and launch of a new product or service. The doubts and the detractors are sometimes many. The setbacks, numerous. But the pay-off for success, when it comes, is priceless. 


The end of a particularly difficult race- my first (and probably only) Olympic distance Duathlon (10K run, 40K ride, 5K run).

It is not a solo effort though. One of the things that I love and appreciate about competing is the community spirit among runners in particular. If a runner seems to be struggling during a race, total strangers will shout encouragement. Tell you to press on. And cheer you across the finish line. These are the type people that you want on your team. 

I’m grateful that every time I lace up my shoes, or hop on my bike, I have an opportunity to exercise the muscles of my mind. To either stay in the safe, painless zone, or push to the outer limits of my ability. Sometimes I stay in the comfort zone. Other times I push the envelope. At times I train with others who push me past my limits.

The pay-off; whether it be a personal best time, a podium finish or a new lucrative contract, comes after many hours of training, personal sacrifice and an ability to see past failures. It is the ability to be mentally tough. It is something that I try to get better at. 

The fastest doesn’t always win- it is he (or she) who endures to the end.

Then I take that ‘endurance’ to the office.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Work is Evil.

Well, that is if you believe the graphic below:

The quote at the top is attributed to former Indian Prime Minister Dr. Addul Kalam, but in the age of social media, there is little way of proving that he actually said it. 

Personally, it has always been difficult for me to love a company, simply because the ‘company’ as an entity is made up of many different components. There are aspects to like and or dislike, but overall, employees can either buy into the philosophy of their workplace, or not- love is a strong word, that evokes strong emotions. Additionally, the company’s ability to ‘love you back’ is tenuous at best- as decisions a ‘company’ makes that may make employees’ lives easier (or harder) is impacted by executive decisions and market conditions.

But it is definitely possible to love your work, and I’ve never had a problem where that is concerned. But I’ve met many who do. Sometimes it is a function of poor job design, lack of proper facilities and poor HR management, but in other instances, it has to do with a person’s own lack of motivation, or they simply aren’t sure about the career that they want. 

But it is the 7 points below that trouble me a whole lot more. So here is my take on them:

  1. Yes, work is a never ending process- that is why we have to go back each working day. If work could be completed, there would be no need for companies and economies to exist. This literally makes no sense.
  2. Family is important. So are our clients, albeit in a different way. It is not an either or situation. If you clients are not happy, you will have no work. No work, no income. No income, unhappy family. You will have a lot of time to spend with them, but chances are you will also be homeless and starving.
  3. I have too many instances of the opposite being true- where family did not help people, and the company or client did. This is just plain silly.
  4. I was agreeing with the first part of this, until the meaningless part. First off, it is possible to socialize, relax, entertain and exercise at work. In fact many companies put a lot of resources towards this. Work also brings meaning to many people’s lives.
  5. Ha. Someone who stays late could be a hard-working person. His or her department could be understaffed, the job could have been designed poorly, or they just don’t want to go home for whatever reason. It does not have to mean they are inefficient or incompetent. It could also mean that they love what they do so much, that they go the extra mile to get things done. It should not be done on a regular basis. But it does not mean I don’t know what I’m doing.
  6. True. But I also did not study and struggle to become unemployed. And don’t machines make our lives easier?
  7. And if you DO want to be unemployed, do what point 7 says. The better path though, may be to have a discussion about understaffing or job design issues- and come up with innovative ideas to ensure that employees don’t have to work late. That could be a lot more meaningful. And might even lead to a promotion.

Leaving work on time does not guarantee a happy life. Leaving work late does not doom you to an unhappy life. What we do, how we interact and what we believe has a lot more to do with that. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Mind Games and Management

Photo credit: BBC Sport

Over the weekend, there was a potential bust-up between two managers in the Barklays Premier League (BPL) in England. Arsene Wenger, manager of the Arsenal FC football team, took offence to a tackle on one of his players, and gave Jose Mourinho, his counterpart at Chelsea FC a piece of his mind- and a shove to go along with it.

The backstory is that these two men are not fond of each other, and this is where professional rivalry crosses over into personal dislike and general bad behaviour. Last year, Mourinho told reporters at a press conference that Wenger was a ‘specialist on failure’, referring to the club’s inability to win a trophy of any kind for several years. Chelsea went on to beat Arsenal 6-0 in a game a few days later. I had the privilege of seeing this tie a few years ago, and it is a big deal for the fans as well.


At the game back in 2010.

But what does this have to do with management and leadership? Quite a lot, actually.

Managers in the BPL are known for using ‘mindgames’- by making statements about opponents that raise tension and discord- in an effort to unsettle the opponent on the field of play. Does it work? Possibly, and maybe it works better on some personality types than others. The thing is, some managers and CEO’s do the same thing.

In the business world, the jibes between Apple and Samsung come to mind.

Some CEO’s are guilty of demonizing the competition, in an effort to galvanise the support and motivate their own organisations to outdo them. Some managers also pit departments, divisions and even individual employees against each other, in an effort to motivate better performance. Professional rivalry is fine, but when it turns to animosity and shoving, we have a problem.

If it was not effective, it would not be done, but it is a poor substitute for good management practice. Sport evokes high emotion and passion, and so does work for many people, and the quickest and easiest way to harness this may be to create an adversarial atmosphere which pushes people to compete-  however in the medium to long term, this level of discord can destroy relationships, cause elevated levels of stress and institutionalise animosity. 

As an employee, you need to be aware when the ‘game is being played’ by a a manger or executive. To do this, you need to:

  1. Do not go on hearsay. The easier way to stir up conflict is to tell one person that another said something less than complimentary about them. Whether it is true or not, this is essentially gossip, and should be ignored.
  2. Shoot the messenger. If the newsbearer is known to be cantankerous, chances are they are trying to involve you in their battles.
  3. Remember that professional rivalry does not have to be bitter. Again I remember that last year in the European Champions League (CL) the social media managers of Paris Saint Germain (PSG) and Chelsea FC had an entertaining and clever banter of facebook during their tie in the quarter finals of the CL. 

And most important of all, don’t be surprised that while the employees and the fans are fighting, the managers and the CEOs are probably sitting behind the scenes, having a drink and a laugh at all the bickering and aggressive competition they have caused. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Manchester United: A lesson in Management.

Photo credit: Kevin Quigley, printed in the Daily Mail.

In early September 2014, the English Premier League club announced that its earnings were down significantly this year. When you put that in the context of the year they have had since floating on the stock exchange in 2013, it is not surprising.

With a seventh place finish in the league, the sacking of a coach, an exodus of experienced players and no Champions League football in the 2014/15 season, it is not hard to imagine that the once might ‘Red Devils’ are having some on and off the field issues. And even though they have made some impressive signings at the beginning of this season, and have employed the services of an experienced and renowned coach, the team still fails to impress- though the season is young.

Who is to blame for this? I put that claim at the feet of one man only, Sir Alex Ferguson.

But first, a disclaimer. As an ardent Chelsea FC supporter, I am hard wired to dislike the Manchester club. But over the years I have grudgingly learned to admire and respect them; this in no small part due to the influence of ‘Fergie’. However, I have always had a problem with his leadership style, and so it would appear have a number of former players. The infamous ‘hairdryer incident’ with David Beckham comes to mind.

Ferguson seemed to epitomize the Maximum Leader- charismatic, autocratic and driven with singular purpose.

This is not to be confused with a charismatic leader, who by sheer force of personality is able to get people to perform as they would prefer.

We see it in politics and business all the time. And even though his success at the club is tremendous, and he deserves all the accolades that he has received, I believe that the true success of a leader should also be judged on the performance of the enterprise in the wake of his or her departure.

While it is expected that there will be some upheaval in the wake of a long standing executive leaving an organization, the implosion of the club has been staggering. The first real insight into the drawbacks of this kind of leadership was the seeming autonomy given him to select his replacement. Truth be told, anyone who had to follow Ferguson would have struggled to break the mold, but David Moyes failed in spectacular fashion. It was reported on the BBC that his 11 month period in charge cost the club in excess of 80 million pounds.

Maximum leaders tend to ‘scorch the earth’ with their leadership style- the new leader must start over, and quickly set an aggressive agenda that plots a different course. It has to be a different course, because the way of the maximum leader is a singular one. Yes, the goal of any enterprise is success, the path the maximum leader chooses is invariably wrapped up in his or her personality, and therefore difficult- if not impossible to replicate. All aspects of running the organization are tuned in to how the former boss did things, and the sense of loyalty is so strong, that it is sometimes close to impossible to make the changes necessary to carry the organization forward.

It calls for strong leadership and decisive action- which may include having to separate some of those who were close to the former executive as well. The last thing any new leader wants to hear is, ‘well that’s the way it was always done.’

Sir Alex Ferguson undoubtedly knew how to make average players better, and exceptional players great. It seemed though that in some respect, this may have been done in part with the use of some levels of fear and intimidation.

Several former players have hailed him as a father figure. Others have classed his as a bully. But I always refer to his treatment of referees and match officials at games. The advent of ‘Fergie time’ is a case in point, where it usually seemed that when the team was behind, the pressure he applied both to the officials and to the players got the result he wanted. He would often be seen charging down the sidelines, staring and shouting at officials who generally seemed none the wiser about how to challenge this great coach.

And he will always be great. But any organization that has a leader with similar qualities may suffer a similar fate.

In time the club and the organization will rebound, but I think it is clear that maximum leadership has no place in the modern business World. 

Monday, September 8, 2014 Thursday, August 28, 2014
The proof copy of my new book just arrived…

The proof copy of my new book just arrived…

Sunday, August 17, 2014 Saturday, May 17, 2014

"I went home to my country after I graduated. I thought I was going to be a change agent. Things were so corrupt there, that you had to pay a bribe to even get a driver’s license. I set up community organizations. I thought if people had information, and knowledge, the culture would change. But nothing changed. It’s so hard to build a democracy in a country with no history of democracy. Nobody cared about changing the country. They only wanted to enrich themselves. ‘Everyone has to eat,’ they would say."

He is from my country. While you’d think I would want to hide this, the truth of it is greater than my shame.


"I went home to my country after I graduated. I thought I was going to be a change agent. Things were so corrupt there, that you had to pay a bribe to even get a driver’s license. I set up community organizations. I thought if people had information, and knowledge, the culture would change. But nothing changed. It’s so hard to build a democracy in a country with no history of democracy. Nobody cared about changing the country. They only wanted to enrich themselves. ‘Everyone has to eat,’ they would say."

He is from my country. While you’d think I would want to hide this, the truth of it is greater than my shame.