Recently, I had coffee with an old work colleague. He had started a new senior management job for a manufacturing company about a year and half prior. I almost did not recognize him when he walked into the coffee shop. He looked tired, resigned and truly depressed. I could not believe this was the same vivacious leader that I once worked with.
I asked how things were going at his “new” job. Almost as though he was embarrassed, he told me his story.
He said he was struggling. He was dealing with a veteran employee that clearly had sought his job prior to his arrival. To date, the veteran had not reconciled the fact that he did not get the role. This employee has been with the organization for more than 26 years.
Since my friend’s arrival at the company, this employee has challenged and undermined him. The employee pushed other employees to deliberately not meet my friend’s deadlines, undermine his meeting agendas and act disrespectfully.
When my friend tried to manage these behaviors, his efforts seemed to only make things worse. The group, through the encouragement of the ringleader, filed false complaints about my friend to human resources. Some of the allegations were quite serious and difficult to disprove.
When the complaints were investigated, my friend found himself trying to defend unfounded he-said/she-said allegations. He told me that HR gave too much credence to these allegations. As a new manager, he felt he had little protection from his own employees’ intimidating and bullying tactics.
He felt alone. He did not share his feelings with higher management as he believed that admitting he was struggling to control his own staff was admitting failure. He wanted to impress senior management and assert himself in his new workplace. But instead, the whole experience was giving him bouts of anxiety, sleeplessness and shaken confidence. He now was thinking of resigning.
I was so struck by his story. We tend to perceive intimidating behaviors as moving only downward, where a person of authority victimizes a junior person. But clearly, managers can be targets of troubling behaviors in the workplace on the part of their own subordinates. Colloquially, this behavior has been known as “boss bashing;” experts now call it “upward bullying.”
Upward bullying is attracting increased attention as organizations realize the risks attached to the toxic effects this behavior has on an organization’s culture, morale and productivity.
The reality is that most companies will always have groups of lax employees whose performance is under scrutiny. Or they will have pockets of resentful staff who have been denied promotions or pay raises. These employees may retaliate by abusing their managers or filing false complaints against them.
Does your organization pay attention to this risk? Are policies in place to protect the safety and welfare of the leaders who are there to drive success in your business?
The costs associated with upward bullying can be substantial. Consider how much time and energy is dedicated to addressing false allegations, the increased absenteeism of line managers, the overall effect of undermined leadership and the compromised ability of leaders to push an organization to achieve its objectives.
Bottom line, we clearly need stronger risk mitigation and support systems that defend employees at all the ranks of an organization.
We all played the game as children — we called it “Broken Telephone.” Children would sit in a circle and someone would whisper a phrase into their neighbor’s ear as quietly as possible. Each neighbor would pass on what they heard until the phrase returned to the message originator.
There were no winners. The game was for sheer amusement when you heard the final, usually unrecognizable message. This game was to teach us how easily information can get corrupted if we’re not careful.
So why is it that many decades later, I often feel I am once again sitting in a circle, this time a much larger corporate circle, listening to what someone said somewhere about something, then passing it on as though it were true?
Did we learn nothing?
Based on what I have experienced, it feels we at times give too much credence to rumors spread around corporate offices.
In fact, it is not that uncommon to witness disciplinary action taken on an employee solely based on information spun in an office rumor mill.
Do rumors pose a corporate risk? Consider a common rumor — that of a pending “corporate restructuring.” We have all sat in that rumor circle at one point. The degree of anxiety and insecurity that runs rampant through an organization with that rumor is astonishing. And sadly it can quickly harm productivity, morale and ultimately profitability.
Exacerbating things is the amplification power provided by our social media and communication tools.
Gossipers no longer have to limit their sharing to just their immediate neighbor. They now have the exponential power to broadcast information to hundreds and thousands of people whether their story is true or untrue.
In fact, the fear of this risk pushed the Chinese government last year to institute harsh new measures aimed at thwarting the spread of online rumors by threatening three year jail sentences if posted rumors were proven untrue. People could be charged with defamation if their online rumors are reposted more than 500 times or visited by 5,000 Internet users.
Short of jailing our employees, should companies try to proactively manage their rumor mill? Should they manage the potentially damaging effects of rumors before they get out of control? In effect, should companies have a rumor risk management strategy?
Some common guiding principles for rumor risk management strategy include trying to keep employees informed as much as a possible — true and timely information is key.
We should try to avoid vague corporate speak or double talk as much as possible. Don’t let employees fill in the blanks for you. It is likely the blanks started the rumor in the first place.
Create mechanisms that allow employees to be linked with a source of truth. Call it a rumor control center. We know that “mystery leads the mind to dark places” so it is best they have a place to go to alleviate their anxiety.
As management, if you yourself hear a rumor, nip it in the bud. Break the chain and kill the game of broken telephone. Use it to your advantage if need be. Send correct messages into the circuit. But do act quickly, as rumors become stronger and more difficult to stop over time and can become accepted as truth.
Lastly, don’t forget to do a post mortem. Try to get at the root of the rumor and manage the situation better going forward.
Read more of Joanna Makomaski’s columns on risk management.
Killing With Kindness
I recently attended a baby shower. As per tradition, the room was filled with moms, kids, pink frilly things and plenty of unsolicited advice on child care.
One toddler caught my risk management eye. She happily zoomed around the room on her new wobbly legs as she sucked on her bottle of milk.
Almost as though on cue, we heard a loud crash. She dropped her glass baby bottle. The bottle broke into a million pieces. Rattled, the baby started to cry, ran through the shards of wet glass to seek out mom. Mom pulled out another bottle for her. Moments later, she calmed. All was quiet again.
Only a few minutes later, we hear yet another crash. Mom pulled out another bottle. And no lie, it happened again. But this time mom ran out of glass bottles.
Finally, a grandmother dared to suggest to mom, “Maybe it would be better to use a plastic baby bottle in the future?”
Uh-oh. We all went silent and waited for the inevitable. We woke Mom-zilla. Mom gave granny an earful with a lecture on the clear and present dangers of the common plastic ingredient bisphenol-A (BPA) used to make the polycarbonate and epoxy resins in everything from DVDs to baby bottles. How dare this ancient grandma suggest such a dangerous thing for her daughter?http://wp.me/p4sYQ1-1Pt
Poor grandma forgot the first law of risk management: Never take on a first-time mother drunk on hormones and crazed by exhaustion.
But clearly grandma knew the second law: A well intentioned risk mitigation plan can sometimes create an equal or more threatening risk. I call this law: killing through good intentions.
We see this often in the risk management world. We come up with a risk solution to a real or perceived risk. By implementing the risk mitigation, we create an equal or even bigger problem. Consider the early generation of vehicle air bags. Their intent was to cushion the blow of vehicle impacts, not to smother children to death when deployed. But that is indeed what they did.
I truly believe that good risk management planning involves a balance of ingenuity with critical thinking, healthy perspective and common sense. We should try to analyze solutions from cradle to grave. Try to consider the interdependencies or cascading effects of our plans. In essence, we should really try to think things through.
I have no doubt that the toddler’s mom had only good intentions: to thwart the evil threat of her child ingesting BPA. But what I found more concerning is that for some reason, she could not see the more imminent and real-time danger posed by the sharp wet shards of glass all around her child on multiple occasions.
Our risk analyses need to compare threat to threat as environments and conditions change. For instance, use plastic bottles when we are likely to experience dangerous chips, cracks and breakages of glass bottles. If leaching BPA worries us, heat milk in a glass vessel and then transfer to the plastic bottles. (But for what it’s worth, BPA-free plastic items are clearly labelled and easy to find.)
If your home is wall-to-wall with thick carpeting, it may be safe to let your child run wild with the glass bottle. If she develops a fascination for the sound it makes when it thwacks against the wood or metal furniture, switch to a plastic bottle instead.
Most importantly, if you plan to go to a baby shower in a room with porcelain floors and self-righteous moms, best to consider using plastic bottles. Not worth risking both baby and mom getting cut up.