We have all been there at some point in our lives; trying to do something that seems so pointless. It may be filling out a timecard with multiple activities, or answering phones only to redirect them to someone else. The tasks seem pointless in themselves, and regardless of the value the task has to someone else, it makes it less of a priority to get done. We often ask ourselves, what is the purpose?

A purpose is a powerful motivator. Nations have gone to war because of a sense of purpose, civilizations have been created and extinguished through purpose. A purpose will guide decisions, justify actions, and inform strategy. It has brought products to market, businesses rise and fall by it, and new technologies discovered every day come and go based on finding a purpose. It’s safe to say that humanity needs to find a purpose to have an impact. In the workplace, there are layers of purpose to be found, though I’d like to focus on three: enterprise purpose, team purpose, and personal purpose.

Enterprise Purpose

Enterprise purpose, at least by my definition, is the reason and driving force for the company’s existence. It can be as simple as, “Safeguard your Savings” for a bank, or “Streamline your Work” for process automation. Growing up in the ’80s the media often portrayed the purpose of many a faceless corporate giant as “making more money,” and often “making more money for executives.” Needless to say, it was easy to vilify these entities in various workplace comedies with the little guy having to fight against the big corporate money machine.

Around the 2000s there was a shift, starting with tech companies (at least then the global marketplace) and quickly spreading to other organizations: defining a positive, socially impactful purpose. Google began with “Don’t be evil” as their purpose, and though vague it resonated with employees. Other corporate entities began to see the benefits of sharing their purpose as well: both customers and employees could get behind them. It drove adoption, profits, hiring, and retention. I will honestly say that if I am ever reached out to by another company, I always ask about the company’s purpose. I need to know where they are and what drives them.

Team Purpose

The team purpose is very similar to corporate or enterprise purpose but at the team level. It’s all well and good to have a corporate purpose of “End Cyber Bullying,” but where does your accounting team fit into that purpose? Break it down further, how does your internal billing team relate to that purpose? By defining a purpose, decisions are informed by clear guidelines. Teams know what they are doing, and how it impacts the company and customers, and are empowered to make decisions based on that purpose.

Personal Purpose

It’s difficult to talk about personal purpose without talking about a moral compass. To me, they seem the same. A personal purpose is what you, and you alone, value and desire. It will impact the career you strive for, the length of time you are at a company, and the effort you put in while at a company. If you value titles over opportunity, that will impact job growth moving forward. If your values match well with a company, you are likely to remain longer than if your values are in direct contrast.

For instance, my purpose is to provide future security to my two boys with autism, while inclusively building career opportunities through training and development. I value the importance of family, and I value the importance of allowing everyone to be successful.

When the Stars Align (or Not)

In a perfect world, all three levels of purpose will align. When that happens you see happy customers and employees, successful teams and companies. Everyone is driven by the same goals because they know what they want, what the team wants, and what the company wants. It’s truly magical when that happens.

And when it doesn’t, that’s when you have issues. Employees without purpose or who lack the understanding of their purpose become frustrated. It’s much like being tested on unknown criteria and not knowing the expected results. If you feel that you do not have a purpose for your team or organization, sit down with your manager and work out that purpose. If your manager isn’t sure either, then it’s a good time for both of you to work out clear-cut expectations and how you can meet those expectations. Then you both will be more satisfied with the work and results!

Several years ago, shortly after I became a manager, my Senior Director lent me a book. The book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni, takes the reader through the journey of a new CEO tasked with fixing the dysfunction of their C-Suite. The CEO outlines the five common dysfunctions in any team, starting with Trust. Trust, in this sense, isn’t “I trust that you will get the job done,” but rather “I trust your character enough to be vulnerable.” It’s a problem I’ve seen in several organizations, particularly when you have folks who are ambitious. There’s a general feeling that motivations cannot be trusted because you don’t know if they are genuine.

In my own career, I’ve found it difficult to trust. As Bill McDermott, ServiceNow’s CEO, always says, “You gain trust in drops, but lose trust in buckets.” I’ve had situations at work where leaders have offered their support, only to turn on me during a meeting. They tell me one thing, then quickly say something else to their leadership. They’ve turned peers against each other by saying they are the only ones that can help them. It’s a technique that serves in the short term but damages organizations for years afterward.

Why Do You Need to Build Trust?

Trust is the foundation of constructive discussion. If you trust those in the room, you feel free to voice your concerns without fear of retribution or poisoning your career. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your concerns and you don’t trust the decision-makers, you won’t buy into the decision. That means it won’t be held accountable, won’t have the support it needs to succeed, and in the end, will fail as so many good ideas do in poorly run companies. That, in turn, will lead to a once-promising organization falling into mediocrity; a death knell to any organization in any company.

How Do You Build Trust?

Companies have tried to build trust through team-building events by having competitions, falling backward into waiting arms, and even going on expensive retreats with team-building experts. Lencioni’s method, as outlined in his book, was pretty basic: Get to know each other personally. This can be as simple as sharing something personal that no one else in the room knows. I’ve had the opportunity to share this experience with many colleagues, even those considerably senior to me, and it’s helped me understand their motivations and values, and in turn, enabled me to place some trust in them. The key to building trust is to place everyone in a safe but vulnerable state at the same time. Being vulnerable together generates a sense of community: We are all in the same situation with the same risks.

Now, it doesn’t always go as planned, and Lencioni points that out in his story. Some people will refuse to be vulnerable or will use that opportunity to humiliate someone else. How you, as a leader, handle the situation is very important. The example in the book tells of the CEO’s first experience when she had a dysfunctional team where a high performer was very rude and condescending to the team. She made the mistake of promoting the high performer because of her performance and lost three members of the team because of that action. Shortly after she was fired for the decision, someone else took over. The high performer left the team, and the remaining folks not only compensated for his loss but for the three others who left. Supporting the team’s trust is far more important than looking at simple performance numbers.

Where Should I Start?

Start with observation, particularly in meetings. Do you have folks who are always quiet? Do you have team members who, once they voice concerns, are quickly shouted down by others? Do you have an “Us versus Them” mentality on your team? Do you (or your team) make mistakes but not own up to them? And finally, do you have a team that just can’t make decisions because they are too worried about their own teams? If you do, you have a dysfunctional team. Your next step is to look at where the dysfunction lies: Most often it is at the fundamental level of Trust.

Trust is the foundation of any and all business transactions. If you cannot trust each other, the entire organization suffers. If the organization suffers, then the company suffers, and ultimately, the customer suffers. If you have a lack of trust in the team, address it immediately! The longer you wait, the worse it will get. Trust doesn’t fix itself on its own, because no matter how many drops you put in, you won’t fill a bucket that’s missing a bottom.

For my family, traveling is quite an ordeal. Having two boys with autism means I need to do a lot to get them to overcome their fears of going to someplace new. That means finding an incentive that will excite them enough to leave the comforts of Southern California and brave the more temperate, ancient world that is my second home: Germany. For my youngest son, that means going to Disneyland Paris at the end of the trip. For my oldest son, it means having Spaghettieis every day. Both these perks aligned with the values of my boys, and my family, and communicated the type of culture we have: fun, family, and good food (or in this case, treats).

The beginning of the year is a time of stress for managers, and one often looked forward with anticipation by employees. It’s that time when the Company shares its values with the employee. You might be thinking of mission statements, the company All Hands meetings, or new company visions being shared in meetings around the globe. And yes, while that does share the company purpose, vision, and goals, that doesn’t tell your employees what the Company, Organization, and ultimately each individual manager values. That is communicated by compensation reviews or raises and promotions.

Employers take the time to sit each employee down and outline their performance, and what has and has not qualified them for an increase, promotion, and/or bonus. Human Resource departments diligently outline to each manager the company values, the ways to express and approach those values, and how to best target the high performers on the team. Numbers, charts, spreadsheets, databases, etc. are being generated to best identify how allocations should be made. Performance and potential are weighed, market adjustments are made, and compensation is calculated. Managers, directors, and so on look to find ways to make allowances and stretch resources to try and keep things as human as possible. But in the end, when all is said and done, the results of this process outline the values of the company.

This is important to note because the annual compensation review should not be a surprise for anyone, whether or not they received a raise or promotion. If, as a manager, you have been diligent in regular (at least quarterly, if not monthly) performance reviews with your direct reports, and outlined the values of the company and those expectations, then nothing should be a surprise unless it’s a pleasant surprise that was unexpected. The problem that I’ve often seen is a lack of clarity. I’m not talking about your Key Performance Indicators, which are hard numbers and are the foundation of all performance reviews, but rather the how of your performance review. How, as in how those key performance indicators are reached, how your team performs, and how they treat each other.

When I started as a manager a few years ago, my director, Jon Lloyd, lent me a book entitled The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, which shared a story that I have always kept with me: promotions communicate what you value. The story is found on page 370 of the ebook version and was told by the main character, the CEO trying to fix a dysfunctional C-Suite team, about her first promotion as a manager. She had one top performer on the team that had a really bad attitude. In spite of his being the top performer, his attitude and methods of accomplishing the work impacted the culture of the team. Instead of firing him, she promoted him. Instantly three members of the team quit, and the department fell into chaos. She made the mistake that so many other managers have made before and valued individual performance over culture, and as such damaged the team and overall performance.

Performance is valuable because it’s through a long history of performance that drives business success. But long histories of performance don’t happen unless you have a culture of respect, gratitude, and trust. So while working through compensation adjustments, bonuses, and promotions, please keep in mind the long-term impacts of your actions. It communicates volumes to your employees about what you and your organization truly value, and that value will dictate the culture you wish to foster a lot more than Free Food Fridays, Margarita Mondays, or pep rallies every quarter. Celebrate your wins and cultural contributions, and you will see an organization that will thrive.

2021, much like its predecessor, was a difficult year. When the world should have been returning to a sense of normalcy, the Delta and then Omicron variants reared their head. Opportunities hoped for were lost, long-anticipated plans and events changed, and life-changing events continued to happen. 2021 was the year I lost my dad. Many others have lost parents, siblings, grandparents, or children. And those with that feeling of loss and grief are coming into the workplace. I’d like to focus on what we can do to help others with their feelings of grief and loss, regardless of the cause. I’ll be referencing two articles that I highly recommend: Coping with Grief and Loss, and Workplace Grief and Loss: Coping with the Death of a Coworker. Please read through both of these excellent articles for a more comprehensive understanding. Also please note: I am not a mental health professional and this information is given as a general reference. If you are dealing with serious trauma, grief, or depression, please seek out appropriate medical help.

Causes of Grief: And trying not to judge

Any type of loss can cause grief. In Coping with Grief and Loss, the list is pretty comprehensive, and yet just a small list of examples:

  • Divorce or relationship breakup
  • Loss of health
  • Losing a job
  • Loss of financial stability
  • A miscarriage
  • Retirement
  • Death of a pet
  • Loss of a cherished dream
  • A loved one’s serious illness
  • Loss of a friendship
  • Loss of safety after a trauma
  • Selling the family home

Any type of loss, real or perceived, can cause grief. It’s a tendency of humans to pass judgment on the level of grief expected to be felt, generally based on one’s own experiences. The best thing anyone can do for someone else is to accept their feelings of loss and grief as real and justified, regardless of the cause. Emotionally, the feelings and impact are the same and should be treated equally. Everyone needs understanding during their times of grief, not a judgment on whether or not their level of pain is justifiable based on someone else’s scale.

Understand the Grieving Process

In order to best help others, it is necessary to understand the grieving process and help others work through their pain by being present for them. Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the 5 stages of grief, which gives a good guideline on how it’s processed.

  1. Denial: I don’t believe this is happening, because it can’t happen – Often someone in denial will just continue on with the job, unwilling to accept that their loss and grief impact their ability to do the job.
  2. Anger: Why is this happening, and who is to blame?! – Anger can boil over at the littlest things, and at any moment. It may not be controllable, or understandable. Taking a break and talking it through can get to the real cause of the anger.
  3. Bargaining: Please, stop this from happening and I’ll do _____
  4. Depression: I’m too sad to do anything – A sudden loss in productivity or engagement, failing to be present, or just simply not showing up at all are clear signs of depression. It’s not always easy to be self-aware about your own depression, so it helps to have co-workers and family members who can see those behavior patterns.
  5. Acceptance: I’m okay with what’s happened – The last stage is one where individuals will often try to rush to, and with variable degrees of success. Know that someone can be okay with things one minute, and have the weight of grief hit them the next. Be patient, understanding, and willing to take what you can.

It should be noted that these stages do not necessarily happen in order, and there is no time frame for how long each stage can last. People all process their grief in their own way and in their own time. To help your co-workers through their pain, it’s important to observe, communicate, and be available. But much more than that, know that while someone is grieving, little things can overwhelm them very quickly. Often the person grieving isn’t aware of what could overwhelm, them until they are overwhelmed. Be sensitive specifically to otherwise unexplained drops in productivity.

Help Others Cope

You can help others through their grief by being sympathetic and available, and doing what you can to help ease the challenges that can compound grief. Often co-workers in the workplace will try to rationalize, avoid, or push their pain away in order to appear “normal” and avoid the stigma of grief. These behaviors might temporarily help avoid the pain of loss but can create more feelings of shame, fear, and isolation around that loss. Be conscious of loss and grief around you, and be clear and open with your expectations. As a leader, do what you can to mitigate expectations and allow people to grieve. The more someone pushes, or is forced to push, their pain away, the longer it will take for someone to move through the grieving process.

It’s also very important to be sure that any mental health services provided by the company are available and that your co-workers are aware. While you can be understanding, you are not expected to be a mental health expert (unless of course, that is your actual job). Encourage those who are grieving to take time to work with someone in order to process their grief and pain in a healthy way.

Taking Action

When my father died, my mother was devastated, and yet still working. Having already been on extended Family leave, she had already burned through her PTO prior to my father’s passing, and now she felt obligated to return to work before even the funeral was held. Her supervisor, in a complete and total expression of compassion, told her to take all the time she needed, and it would be worked out with HR. Her team then contacted her to let her know that the work she would have done was being handled by them, and they would step in to make sure she didn’t feel overwhelmed when she came back to the office. What an excellent expression of compassion and sympathy by the team, leading them to an action that supported my mother at her most vulnerable.

Empathy is understanding someone’s circumstances, but sympathy is acting on that understanding. While empathy has been a buzzword in the business world for a long time, just understanding, or trying to understand, someone’s plight isn’t enough. There are times when action is far more important, showing your support by doing what you can in order to help someone else. It doesn’t have to be huge, just enough to lift someone’s burden.

2021 was a rough year, and every year is rough for someone. Understand, be sympathetic, and be there and support your teammates when they struggle. That is the best part of being human.

The other night I had a nightmare. I had been asked by a friend to watch over his house and collect the mail while he was out of town, for a year. I agreed, understanding that my tasks would be to water the lawn and take mail into the house. We shook hands and my friend then left.

When I entered the house on the first day, I heard noises on the lower level. Going into that part of the house, I noticed that my friend had a large number of cages and tanks full of pets, many of whom looked hungry. I texted my friend, and he said as if just remembering, “Oh yeah, if you could just feed them, that would be great!” I sighed but just got to work feeding the animals. I then looked out into the backyard and saw kennels, a cattery, and a small aviary full of animals, all in the same spot. I texted my friend again, who promptly said, “All you have to do is just feed a couple of extra animals, that’s it.” Severely annoyed at this point, I hear a noise behind me. Three elderly women in wheelchairs were complaining and threatening to sue me because they hadn’t been given a decent meal in weeks.

I woke with a start. The creep of responsibility that wasn’t communicated and yet left in my hands by my friend had disturbed me. It made me reflect on how to work with teams, and more importantly how to communicate expectations to others.

If you have ever been on a project before you are likely aware of the concept of scope creep. This is when your original planned project gradually grows from new, unforeseen requirements that come up during the project lifecycle. It’s also possible to see responsibilities creep into a job the same way and with the same level of stress. This often happens when a particular job or set of tasks has been assigned that hasn’t been defined or quantified, so the amount of effort required to complete those tasks is unknown. When you add a hard deadline to those tasks, the stress begins to build. Then add a lack of support from peers or leadership, and you have set an employee up to fail. And while failure isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a bad thing, no one likes to fail. Your employee will then become disengaged, and the tasks will suffer.

Of course, the reality of any quickly growing organization or industry is the lack of certainties. Often real effort isn’t known until the tasks have been properly scoped, and the full scope of the job is defined along the way. There are three ways to handle this in the Project world, and each has its pros and cons:

 

  • Increase the number of resources dedicated to the tasks to bring them in on time
  • Reduce the scope of tasks so only critical tasks are completed within the given timeframe
  • Shift the due date and allow for more time to complete the tasks.

 

Increasing the number of resources seems like a great idea on paper, but doesn’t always translate to more efficient work completed. Anyone new coming in will need time to familiarize themselves with the state of the tasks at hand, and that time will have little impact on the overall effort being put in. If done early enough in the process, this solution can work, but generally, when you know you are in trouble you are likely too late to add additional resources and have them be significant contributors to success.

Reducing the scope of work is an excellent solution if the effort in place includes a lot of features that are not critical. Often the problem is determining those critical tasks, and just how critical. To this solution, I would recommend following the advice of Steve Jobs and knowing when to say “no” to features so you have a solid, distilled release that can be completed within the given timeframe. It may not have every bell and whistle you wanted, but you will have a solid accomplishment for which your employees are proud.

Shifting the due date is always the least favorable option for a lot of reasons. Often tasks that have a hard deadline mean they are mission-critical for some other project or initiative to take off, which in turn continues a cascade effect that can throw a lot of business initiatives into uncertainty. That being said, if you need an extension, do not sacrifice the health and welfare of your employees to avoid giving one. You may get this set of tasks out the door on time, but lose some good employees to other firms and all the experience they gained in completing the tasks with them.

Getting back to my analogy, yes, I would have helped my buddy with all the tasks not previously disclosed, but he wouldn’t be my buddy much longer. I also would have avoided that scenario in the future, flat-out refusing to help my buddy again. It’s important to understand the value of the person doing the task is greater than the tasks themselves. The knowledge they gain while completing them is always reusable, and you will want that experience on your team for any new, similar tasks. Value your people and their well-being, and your business will thrive. Sacrifice those people for short-term business goals will ultimately sabotage your business position.

The topic of gratitude and recognition has been a big focus for me of late. I’ve been encouraging my team to share recognition for others’ help, the value they bring, and the unique qualities that build the team experience. In general, the team welcomed the idea but questioned the execution. A question asked was, “What if we don’t mean it?” It was a question that put me off but, to be fair, a valid one. We’ve all been in a situation where participation prizes were given to make sure everyone felt included and recognized, which devalued the recognition process. What makes using recognition as a tool to help others feel better about themselves any different?

Recognition is a very interesting tool. It can be used to foster competition or generate a sense of exasperation when used wrongly. It can build a team, or just an individual while destroying the ecosystem. When used with care and purpose, it can build a culture. When carelessly thrown to the side, it can become yet another failed experiment. It all comes down to the intent and meaning you put behind it.

Sales is an excellent example of a competition-based recognition strategy that succeeds. Generally dominated by highly competitive personalities, a sales team will thrive when they have an exclusive prize in view. Recognition in terms of financial or other perks becomes the prize, driving everyone to perform well or excel. The meaning behind sales recognition is the value brought to the company’s bookings and bottom line. The more a salesperson brings in, the more the company can recognize toward margin and ultimately profits.

Now apply that idea to another scenario. If you set up a competition within your team for “best customer service” or “most hours worked” and you drive very specific behaviors toward spending a lot of time hand-holding a customer for that CSAT score, or decimating work/life blend to get that prize. People will either reduce productivity to get high CSAT every time or they will kill themselves to prove they have what it takes. Neither of these behaviors is likely to be desirable, though they technically meet your criteria of best.

When building a team, recognition can be powerful if used to foster and grow those desired behaviors. A good example would be recognition around collaboration, team support, or outstanding quality of work. The behaviors are varied, all tied to measurable KPIs, and therefore make easy recognition opportunities for multiple people based on their strengths. It’s a common method that most organizations apply to non-competitive departments that look to recognize excellence within established KPIs.

Taken this further, it’s possible to weigh too heavily on those who are regular high-performers, or have more opportunity to excel because they are more senior. Or, to not leave anyone out, management will often find some type of recognition that fits the person instead of the KPI. It can also be tempting to use recognition as the only form of reward, as opposed to bonuses, raises, or promotions, even though excellence in meeting KPIs brings high value to the organization. If not properly followed up, this type of recognition becomes meaningless and will often be treated as a running gag amongst employees. It can even become a point of toxicity amongst employees, leading to derisive comments directed at those who are rewarded just for doing their job.

What does this all have to do with gratitude and meaning, you ask? A fair question. Gratitude is an expression that is given to those who assist when it is most needed by someone who needs that help. Someone who is in a vulnerable spot requires help and expresses that gratitude when help is received. The receiver then knows that the person who helped can be trusted. If the receiver then publicly recognizes the helper, trust is reciprocated. Therefore gratitude, if used and recognized properly, becomes a vehicle to build trust in a team. That trust, in turn, builds respect, and respect will foster inclusion and belonging within a team. Expand this throughout an organization, and you build a strong culture of gratitude.

The meaning comes from the act of helping. Often help comes, not through completing tasks, but the way the tasks had been completed. Every individual has their particular strengths, skills, and knowledge they bring to work every day. And while someone may physically help with tasks, someone else may give guidance. Still, someone else may provide emotional support, and yet another person can provide a good laugh at just the right time. These non-KPI skills and values brought to the job are just as valuable as KPIs because they build, sculpt, and define the climate and culture in which everyone works.

The problem is, that gratitude can only be expressed when someone is feeling vulnerable. If the company culture doesn’t provide a psychologically safe space for vulnerability even someone who is grateful will not recognize that beyond a verbal thank-you. Leadership will never know, and the value of that gratitude is greatly diminished, or often ignored. The company culture then suffers and presents a breeding ground for toxicity within the workplace. Ironically, the simple process of acknowledging gratitude within a company can build that safe space.

I’ve been encouraging gratitude, and leading by example, within my team to help build a stronger culture of inclusion and belonging within the team. I’ve also encouraged other leaders to follow along, breaking down their comfort zones and exposing their vulnerabilities in doing the same. I started by setting some ground rules:

  1. Your recognition needs to be focused on the how, not just the what: How did someone help you, and what did they bring to the table that made this experience so important to you?
  2. Be personal: express your gratitude in a very personal, direct way that connects to what their support has meant
  3. Be real: If you are faking it, you are not grateful. If you aren’t grateful, then why are you posting something?

This last point I’d like to expand on. Too many leaders feel obligated to express recognition for something, and so they will write something out that is, well, not as sincere as it could be. And the person receiving it will know. They always do. Remember, they were there as well. They know how they helped, how you took it, and whether or not your expression is genuine.

Now what if you can’t think of anything at all, yet you want to recognize someone because they did something? Think deep, and ask yourself some searching questions:

  • Why do you feel it necessary to recognize this person?
  • What was it they did you feel was extraordinary?
  • How did they help?
  • What made their help so useful? For this question, don’t think about the “what,” but rather the “why.” Look at the intangibles, the personality the person brought, and their attitude that made the experience unique to them

I’m in the business of Training, so I naturally know that skills can be taught to anyone. Proper training can help anyone do anything given enough time. What can’t be taught is the personality, vitality, humor, and sincerity that someone brings to the workplace. It’s those intangibles that magnify the value of someone’s effort. Those intangibles should be recognized, particularly when they are most valued: when you are vulnerable and in need of them. Express your gratitude at work, and I promise you that your work culture will change for the better. It’s not a silver bullet, but a valuable tool when building a culture of trust, inclusion, and belonging.

This is a particularly personal concept for me, which is why I wanted to share it. Back in my Elementary school days, I watched a movie short that has always stuck with me: Cypher in the Snow. In the movie, a young boy walks off the school bus and just passes away. His teacher, who doesn’t remember him, was asked to give the eulogy at his funeral because he was the boy’s favorite teacher. Perplexed, the teacher then spends the rest of the short trying to find out all he could about the boy. He had no friends, a rough home life, and was one of those students who didn’t do well enough to get praise or poor enough to be reprimanded. He was, well, a cipher. The end of the short has the teacher vowing never to allow another boy to become a cipher if he could help it. As children, we were encouraged to follow that example, and never let a peer feel like a cipher. Some kids laughed, many felt sorry, and we went on our merry way.

Since I started my work experiences, I’ve watched those around me. I’ve seen some folks learn and grow, social groups grow, shift, and personalities grow dominant. I’ve also seen several folks that come in, do the job well, and then go home. They are quiet, sit in the corner at lunch or breaks, and are quick to head home. Maybe they had been invited to join a group once or twice and declined, and shortly after invites were no longer forthcoming. These employees cycle through a lot of jobs, often not staying in one place for too long. Many on their team don’t bother to learn their name. They are, essentially, ciphers.

I’ve been a cipher before in a past organization. I know how it feels. It hurts. It hurts to see others promoted or given opportunities because they have more visibility and popularity. To know that often you are overlooked because your input isn’t seen as important is frustrating. Your morale falls to rock bottom, and you spend a lot of time looking for other, better opportunities. Changing organizations appeals as an easier fix rather than trying to improve your current situation.

There are a lot of reasons why folks isolate or are isolated, and move into the cipher role on a team. Here are a couple that have come up in my personal experiences, though I’m sure there are others:

  • Homelife: Things are rough at home, and a private person doesn’t feel comfortable talking about it at work or feels that they will not be safe discussing their problems. This creates an additional load on someone at work and leads quickly to burnout.
  • Unhappy with circumstances: Particularly during a period of economic distress, often someone is concerned with having a job, rather than having the right job. This means someone may have taken a job they normally wouldn’t want, just so they have some money coming in. They are withdrawn because they intend to leave quickly, even though it may not happen. Eventually, this could lead to a toxic environment.
  • Personal mental health: Mental health is very taboo in many work cultures, no one wants to be thought of as “mentally unfit” for their job. The reality is that neurodiversity is a strength in many organizations, yet those who are perceived as different can be treated horribly.
  • Depression: Technically, this should be covered in personal mental health, but depression is such a common, and commonly hidden, issue in the workplace that I feel it needs to be pulled out separately. Several factors can contribute to depression, far more than I can put in a simple bullet point, but needless to say, depression will sap someone’s enjoyment of everyday events, leading to withdrawal and isolation.
  • Burnout: This is a huge one, particularly in a COVID and post-COVID world. Employees are given more tasks than possible to complete in a reasonable amount of time, measured against unrealistic or uncontrollable metrics, or given unachievable goals. Working toward those goals and trying to succeed takes too much, and eventually, the person shuts down to recover. You go from a high performer to someone thought of as “lazy” within a short amount of time.
  • Contribution Dismissal: Engaged employees will often bring up a lot of ideas, concerns, and effort, some good, some bad, some scary, and new. If those ideas, concerns, or effort is often and consistently dismissed as unimportant or wrong, the employee will stop engaging. “Why should I continue to try and engage?” they think, since when they do they are dismissed. And it’s not just leadership dismissing the idea, but also peers. Soon the employee doesn’t feel any intrinsic value in themselves, and those who once were highly engaged become cyphers.

Working your way out of cipher status is difficult, which is why so many employees prefer to just move to the next company, but it can be done. As a leader, the most effective way I’ve found is to build a culture of gratitude. Recognizing someone’s worth and unique value to the team builds someone’s confidence to engage with others. For those who are struggling, it gives them hope that they can work through their issues and have a supportive environment where they feel safe. For those burning out, they know their efforts have been valued, even if some of their work needs to be reassigned. Those who otherwise feel disconnected know that their efforts are appreciated, their ideas are valued, and their perspectives are considered. Gratitude creates a safe environment for someone to reengage with the rest of the team.

As a person who, for whatever reason, has found themselves in the cipher position, it takes a lot of personal reflection to pull out. I can highly recommend a career coach as an outside party to help evaluate one’s strengths and growth opportunities and place your gut reactions into perspective. I can also highly recommend a 360-degree evaluation to get a baseline from your leaders, peers, and directs to know where they see you in your career, and then compare with your estimations. And lastly, reach out and make the effort to be more visible within the team. Find that “superpower” that you have and make use of it on the team. Find ways to contribute at some level. The more visibility you receive, the more recognition you can earn, and the more your reputation as a contributor grows.

It’s easy to allow people to fall into the shadow of being a cipher. There will always be the high flyers that you celebrate and challenging employees who take up a lot of your time. Those that fall along the wayside are easy to neglect while putting efforts elsewhere. All the while excellent employees are deteriorating into numbers, and eventually just headcount on the team. It takes a concerted effort from the entire team to build a culture that expresses gratitude for those who contribute in the only way they can. And if you can’t think of something, perhaps you need to look closer.

I would like to end this article with a challenge for everyone reading: Get to know everyone on your team (employees, peers, and leaders), look for their intrinsic value to the team and express your gratitude to them for that value in a public forum. LinkedIn gives a great opportunity on your connection anniversary to express someone’s value, if your company doesn’t provide another way to share that value. By building this culture of gratitude, your team is more likely to feel like a team and will be more willing to engage.

 

Early in my career, I worked in several call centers, starting with customer service, then moving to technical support, and eventually customer advocacy (which is a topic for another post, I think). In each case, my dedication to the job came directly from how valued I felt. In my first CS job, I was treated as a replaceable mouth. I was there to tell customers a specific thing, absorb abuse, and deflect issues. If I didn’t like it, there was a line of people behind me willing to take my job. Needless to say, I didn’t stay long. It wasn’t until I worked for eBay that I felt like my contributions were respected and valued. I was an advocate for my customers, often looking out for them when they had issues or fears, and working as hard as I could to make sure they were successful. The difference wasn’t the tasks, because they were very similar. The real difference came from the gratitude my peers, leaders, directs, and customers gave because I was dedicated to their success.

Too often it’s taken for granted that employees are “replaceable” because anyone can do the tasks they are tasked to do. And, on a very utilitarian level, anyone can do any job. I’ve often advocated an internal need to outline and define every job task specifically to make this possible, as it’s the core of excellent training. With the right training and preparation, anyone can do any job. The true differentiator to success is how they do the job. The soft skills, attitude, and enthusiasm someone brings to their role can make all the difference in the success of their efforts. While just about everyone coming into a new position brings a level of enthusiasm to the position, if that is not recognized and they are taken for granted, that enthusiasm will quickly die and will lead to a very toxic workplace.

Gratitude for the individual is a key value to develop within the workplace. Developing gratitude can lead to increased positive attitudes, generate less stress, have a greater desire and belief that goals can be met, have fewer sick days, and have a high level of job satisfaction. Relationships with co-workers are more positive, and the workplace becomes a safe place to bring your authentic self. Showing gratitude is a gateway value to compassion and forgiveness, which are key values that create a healthy, positive culture in the workplace. It is also a very easy value to develop if it’s approached sincerely.

  • Lead by Example: the first step of fostering gratitude is to be the example. As a leader, you should be grateful to your leaders, your peers, and your employees.
  • Focus on the Person, not Performance: Gratitude is a personal recognition of the contributions only that person can make. Recognize, not the work done, but rather the way the work has been done. You are recognizing the contribution of personality that someone is bringing to work. In short, you are encouraging their authentic self to shine out in their efforts. Recognize their uniqueness in execution, their passion for the role, and their willingness to stretch themselves to meet the challenge.
  • Be Sincere: People know when you are not sincere in your praise. To be earnest in your gratitude, you need to take a good look at the contribution others bring.
  • Reciprocate: It’s easy to accept expressions of gratitude because they bolster your self-worth and encourage self-compassion. But to truly develop a culture of gratitude, you need to reciprocate. Express your gratitude for others, and let them know you are grateful for their gratitude.

Building a culture of gratitude is not without difficulties. There’s a worry that awards and recognition go to those who just “do their job” instead of doing something extraordinary. It takes time to change that culture perception from recognizing task completion to acknowledging the attitudes that complete the tasks with high success. This requires phrasing your recognition correctly. For example:

  • “Completing your paperwork on time and turning it in correctly” focuses on the task
  • “You complete your paperwork with a smile on your face, an excitement that is infectious, and with a desire to streamline your efforts so your customers have an excellent experience” focuses on the attitudes and motivation behind the task

Focusing on that aspect of the work, the contribution that only that person can make, and the impact that their attitude makes on the task will make all the difference in the role. While working for eBay, as long as I was appreciated for what I did and how I did it, I was motivated and happy. When my efforts were no longer valued, I began to look elsewhere. I also think of those on my team who, if shown gratitude for their work, could have been retained instead of looking elsewhere. Gratitude can make a huge difference and for that, I am exceedingly grateful.

 

It’s been almost 20 years since I completed my BA in History at the University of Utah. The experience was outstanding, and I would definitely recommend the U (yes, a shameless plug for my alma mater). But why was it such an outstanding experience? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, trying to unpack the experience that led me to where I am today. To this point, I’m going to loosely reference some educational psychology professionals because there is a lot of research that has gone into education as a whole. That is the way folks learn, the value of learning, and what makes learning valuable.

First, there’s how folks learn, or more to the point how adults learn. The brain will take in information from our senses, and process that information using previous experience as a reference. That previous experience can be biased (which really is where our biases exist), but they also help the brain process and make sense of new information. The more that information is repeated, the more likely neurons create a permanent connection, which moves the information from short-term memory to long-term memory. It’s an oversimplification to be sure, but I wanted to point out some things with this process:

 

  • The brain is processing information from all senses, not just a given one. Some may find it easier to process by listening, some by doing, or some by seeing it being done, but this is a preference. The brain processes everything coming in. To this point, I can still recall a lecture from paleoanthropology given by a visiting professor discussing the Neanderthal mastoid process because of the musty smell of the old Mathematics building. All senses are valuable, even those we may not expect.
  • What is processed is information, regardless of source. That source can be a book, lecture, video, quiz, exam, research paper, or casual conversation on a walk across campus.
  • What’s interesting is that the source itself doesn’t matter. It could be college, high school, trade school, University, post-grad work, graduate degree, or just reading in a library. The brain can learn as long as there’s information to be processed.
  • Bias has a huge impact on our ability to learn and gain new skills. Whether it’s a pre-existing bias against the content being taught, challenges to existing knowledge, or experiences that are at odds with the information being processed, biases will tend to filter, influence or down-right negate the information being taught.

 

If the brain doesn’t care where its information is coming from, why do I cherish my University days so much? It all comes down to the experience. I was a commuter student, much like the majority of those at the University of Utah (not many stay in dorms). I would go to school during the day, spend time in the library studying alone or in groups, walk and discuss questions with other students as we went from one class to another, and continue the learning journey until the evening when I would go to my full-time job to pay tuition. The experience went beyond the classroom and continued into related classrooms. As I took paleoanthropology, a senior seminar on Roman Britain, and followed that up with classes in Latin and Ancient Greek, I got perspectives that I could share with my fellow students, who would share some of the same if not all of the same, classes with me. We formed a loose cohort that remained together as we progressed together. This was, essentially, an ecosystem of experience that we all shared.

Experience ecosystems fascinates me. Apple and Google both have built powerful ecosystems around their platforms for Mobile devices that generate loyalty because of the experience. They tie tools that everyone uses together, such as email, browser, documents, multimedia, etc. within a single experience by making it easier to use together. As a user, you have a solid platform from which you can do what you need or want, and do it much faster and easier than before. This is because Apple, Google, and others look to the full experience from search to purchase to use and find ways to make that process easier.

The current experience in learning is one of two: Liberal Arts, or Certification. Within the Liberal Arts education, you get a wide range of training and experience that can map to multiple career paths, with guidance to a more targeted discipline. Certification takes a targeted and focused approach, be it technical or Graduate-based, by focusing on a single certification at the end of the journey. In either method, a single goal remains: show you have knowledge as certified by a trusted learning institution or industry standard. What happens thereafter is left entirely to the student. The experience of getting to that point is rewarding, but what now? What’s the next step?

Suppose for a minute that a learning experience ecosystem could be developed. An experience in learning that would take someone from where they are (baseline) to where they would like to be and map out the process to get there. I’m not just talking next stage in a career either, I’m talking full map to the final goal(s). This would be a process of mapping out skills for every persona or discipline that someone has or would like to have, and then mapping out the skills necessary to get there. As the skills are mapped and found to overlap, multiple possibilities can be presented based on existing and desired skills and experience. Whole careers could be suggested based on current preferences, or as preferences evolve. Learning now takes an active role in career development, which engages the learner. Now they are learning with a purpose because they know what their career could map out to be if they continue.

There are a lot of pieces that could be plugged into this model, but the framework should be pretty sound. It would be a fascinating project for anyone looking to build a successful engagement for their learners. As far as I’m aware, no one has yet put together a learning experience ecosystem (if anyone can provide an example, please let me know!). So until then, it remains a thought.

Recently, after setting up a 75-gallon freshwater Angelfish aquarium and finishing my 125-gallon tetra/rasbora aquarium, I looked back at my 55-gallon planted aquarium with a more critical eye. It was my first large planted aquarium and, mainly out of panic, I over-planted it. It was heavily planted, and one plant, in particular, the water wisteria, had taken over half of the tank. Fish were hiding and the shrimp were rarely seen. It was time for a change.

My old, over-grown 55-gallon tank that needed to be rebuilt.

Changing up a tank can be difficult because it is so stressful for the animals The shifting process required pulling out about 40 fish and shrimp and relocating them to smaller temporary holding tanks while I tore down the tank, removed the plants and rock, sucked up the sand and lava rock, and rebuilt the tank into a cleaner showcase for the fish. Fresh sand was placed down to cover filter bags full of the old gravel and substrate mixture I keep from previous teardowns, rock was layered into new configurations, and the decorations that the kids wanted in the tank were rearranged. Finally, add the tap water, conditioner, and additional bacteria culture to prepare it for the fish. This took all day. The results looked great and the fish were excited to interact with the new, more open environment.

My American Flagfish male, showing off his colors proudly for July 4th.

From the perspective of the fish, I imagine this was traumatic. Ripped from a familiar environment and placed in essentially bare tanks, they remained for hours not knowing what the future would bring. They couldn’t really see what I was doing, nor comprehend the long-term benefits, they just knew that the temporary change was the “new normal” for them, and it was less than they previously had. At the end of the day, when I put them into a larger, cleaner, more interactive environment, they explored and adapted quickly. Given their behavior, they seem happier than they were in the previous tank setup. Had I not taken the time to properly prep the tank for cycling by using the bacterial culture-rich substrate, reusing the original hardscape with their existing bacterial cultures, and adding a bacterial culture to the water right away, I could have lost all the fish I wanted to save.

Recently, our department went through a pretty major reorganization. It wasn’t a reaction to performance or a failure in any way, but rather a plan for future scaling and growth. From the independent contributor’s view, the benefits don’t seem very obvious. Honestly, it’s just shifting from one director to another, one team to another. Some key responsibilities had shifted and needed to be understood, but for most folks, the shift didn’t impact their day-to-day. So why do it?

When these changes happen within an organization, most often it’s because of strategic planning. Strategic planning is the process of defining a strategy for making decisions and allocating resources toward a strategic outcome. A good portion of that process is evaluating the current organizational structure and deciding if that structure can meet the goals and needs of the organization in the next few years. An example of this type of thinking can be found when Disney Parks re-evaluated its Annual Passholder program in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Agree or not (I know my boys are none too happy), this process is often necessary to plan for growth and viability for any company.

The strategic plan can be painful for those directly impacted. Change is always scary because it brings unknown variables. When you combine departments, there are redundant roles… how do you reconcile that? Do changes mean redundancies? Will skillsets need to change? There are a lot of questions and anxieties that crop up during and after the change. This is where Change Management shines, or the process of preparing, supporting, and helping teams through organizational change. It’s important to communicate early and often about changes and their impacts to set expectations right away and allay any fears from the coming or current changes. It is also important for those in positions of power and influence (be they leadership or senior employees) to be on board with the change, so consider involving them in the change management conversations early on.

It’s a general rule for any change: failure to implement change management will seriously hamper positive change results. Employees will often fight the change, morale will be impacted, and turnover will likely increase for the organization. Much like putting fish in an uncycled tank, they will not be happy.

What does this mean to you? It’s a general principle that any change requires preparation and planning. Strategic plans will get you where you want to go, organizational change management plans will help lead the organization to success. Doing one without the other will lead to pain that, unfortunately, should be avoided.