With Martin G. Moore

Episode #166

Don’t Mollycoddle Your People: They’re paid to do a job

Debate is raging about the merits of remote work versus on-site colocation, exposing some real issues for leaders. One of the lighter discussions is on whether people should be allowed to turn their cameras off during Zoom meetings. This has generated some interesting debate in the wake of a research study published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

I released an episode a couple of months ago that deals with a few of these types of issues—Ep.154  Return to Work Rules—in which I developed a framework to guide you through the decision-making process. In this episode, I go a little deeper into some of the ways these issues can affect you and your people.

I address the Zoom question, in typical “No Bullsh!t” fashion; I give a comprehensive example of what can happen when you let your people take on an air of entitlement; and I give you some rules of thumb for delivering the best outcome for your organization, while still maintaining critical relationships with your people.

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Episode #166 Don’t Mollycoddle Your People: They’re paid to do a job

It’s been an interesting month or two in the US as many people are returning to office life and the debate about the merits of remote work versus onsite co-location is raging. This is exposing some real issues for leaders. Many of whom are struggling to set the appropriate standards and policies on everything from whether people should be vaccinated, in order to work for their company, right through to whether employees should be allowed to turn their cameras off during zoom meetings.

The zoom meeting question in particular has generated some interesting debate in the wake of a research study conducted by some fairly reputable academics which was published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The study even got endorsement from Adam Grant, organizational psychologist from the Wharton Business School and New York Times bestselling author of titles, such as Think Again, and Give and Take.

Since then, I’ve done a few interviews on regional TV for several US networks to talk about why leaving the camera on is so important from a leadership and culture perspective. You may recall, I released an episode of No Bullsh!t Leadership a couple of months ago that deals with some of these issues. That was Episode #154: Return to Work Rules where I developed a framework, which Em turned into a handy downloadable for how to think through these issues.

Today, I’m going to go a little deeper into some of the ways these issues can affect you and your people and give you some ideas for how to actually solve them.

  • We’ll start by asking the big question, zoom cameras on or off?

  • I’ll then give you a striking example from my experience of what can happen when employees try to dictate their conditions

  • I’ll finish with a few tips to help you maintain perspective on how you as a leader, should best manage the people in your team when you have to make hard choices

Zoom Cameras On or off?

Some research findings were recently released by seven academics from the University of Arizona and some other institutions. It was basically about leaving cameras on or off during zoom meetings. And their findings, was that leaving cameras on can be detrimental. They’ve called it zoom fatigue.

The implication is that apparently you get better results from people if they can leave their cameras off during meetings. Apparently, people become more fatigued after a day of meetings with the camera on versus the camera off. And this is supposedly felt more strongly by women, I assume this means as opposed to men, and by newer employees who don’t have the same tenure and relationships inside the organization.

When I look at this study, there are some obvious limitations. The research only applied to one company, and this was a company that employs mainly call center staff. Also this company has had a ‘camera’s optional’ policy for a long period of time.

Now what the research overlooks, is that perhaps, this is a symptom thing. There’s a lot going on here. When you think about work from home and remote work, it’s a lot more than just your zoom meetings that make you fatigue. Some people are homeschooling. Many are dealing with loss of their social network or their inability to communicate with a close peer group at work. Sharing a confined space with a partner is also an issue when perhaps they don’t get on so well. The whole context has changed.

Taking an isolated issue like whether your zoom camera is on or off, won’t necessarily be representative of the deeper problem. And yes, I do know how statistical analysis and regression testing works, but I think any correlation here has to be wafer thin.

Another obvious limitation is that the research study only talks about fatigue. There’s no link to performance or productivity. And they measured two things during the meetings, changes in voice and engagement.

The findings showed that it doesn’t affect voice or engagement, whether you have your zoom camera on or off, but it impacts what they called ‘within person fatigue’. That sounds just a trifle dodgy to me.

When it comes to the special mention for women and your employees, there’s no control group to determine whether this was the case in office space meetings before we all learned how to log onto Microsoft teams. But with zoom meetings, and now having given a number of virtual keynote presentations, I’d certainly concede that it takes a lot more energy to be expressive over a video conference link than it does in a face to face context.

So what have we learned in the last 18 months or so? Whereas it’s relatively easy to work from home, it’s much harder to lead from home. The things that get lost are pretty important.

1) The first is communication. It’s much tougher. And whether you have your zoom camera on or off, let’s face it, it’s never going to be as good as the real thing.

2) It’s much harder to undertake talent management and succession planning, and that’s all-important for the future of the organization. Now you’re not going to see the cracks immediately, but you’ll certainly see them over the forms of time.

3) And the third thing is culture and accountability. You don’t have the same ability to get the team dynamic and culture going the way you would when you have people in the same location. And accountability, particularly when it’s spread across different people, is really, really hard to monitor.

We know we can survive in full work from home mode, but how long can we sustain it without finding significant issues? More on this one in a minute.

My stance is when you communicate with people, body language matters. As a leader, you want to be able to gain as much input as possible in every communication, including any non-verbal cues. This is why video is important. If someone is struggling, you’re much more likely to pick up on it. And as a leader, you want to know if your people have issues.

Video conferencing will always be inferior to face-to-face. You can’t read the energy and you can’t see the nuances of facial expressions. And look, call me crazy, but were meetings ever optional in normal work circumstances? When the boss called a meeting, we actually thought it was a good idea to turn up. We didn’t say, “Ah, I’m not sure if I feel like it today. I’m having a bad hair day”.

We turned up regardless because that was a requirement of employment. Now people’s varying comfort levels with how they present, was always there. But now we seem to think that this should be different when we’re working from home.

Maybe the study is accurate. If people turn the cameras off, they won’t be quite so fatigued because they don’t need to pay attention. With the camera off and the mute button on, people frequently aren’t engaged with the meeting, but busy doing other things. We should probably stop looking at symptoms though, and look at the root cause of these problems.

Is it possible that we’re having too many meetings that don’t deliver enough value? Do we have too many attendees in each meeting that actually don’t need to be there? And are too many insecure bosses having endless check-ins just to make sure?

my experience of what can happen when employees try to dictate their conditions

So the zoom research study was fun and interesting, but let’s get a bit more serious. The concept of employee choice is a really important one. Choice can be a crucial factor in autonomy. I’m a massive believer in autonomy, as long as there’s clear and unequivocal accountability to go along with it.

But too much choice is bad. And you certainly don’t want people to feel as though they can simply opt-in or out of things, depending on their own personal choice.

When a leader thinks something’s important, the tail starts to wag the dog, and the balance of power shifts dangerously towards short-term gratification rather than long-term value and sustainability. But many leaders feel as though they have to mollycoddle their people to keep them happy and to exceed to their wishes.

What happens if one of your young children decides that all they want to eat is ice cream? And you accede to that wish, and you let them eat ice cream, three meals a day. Well, the first day, a couple of days, a couple of weeks, are going to be awesome. And they’re going to have so much fun and you’re going to be happy and they’re going to be happy.

But look down the track, a year later, two years later, they’re going to be morbidly obese. They’re going to have terribly low self-esteem and they’re going to be bullied at school. So, what we do in the short term doesn’t necessarily feed into our long-term objectives, and we all know that. But we have to also be careful not to breed an entitlement culture of employees dictating to leaders what they will and won’t do.

It reminds me of a tricky case I had many years ago. I held an executive role in a company and had hired a C-level leader below me to run what was probably the biggest transformation project in my part of the business.

To cut a long story short, the person I hired couldn’t meet the standard I was setting—remember, weak leaders lower the standard to meet the performance… strong leaders lift the performance to meet the standard. And, even back then, I tended to be a fairly strong leader.

It became obvious to me in the first few months that even my close support and mentoring wasn’t having any impact. It was a step up for him, and it appeared that he couldn’t make that step. The core of the issue was that he couldn’t get out of the detail for long enough to see the big picture–not a good look in a really senior role with a broad reform agenda! If only I’d known back then, the importance of pre-employment aptitude and psych testing, I’m sure that his lack of abstract reasoning capability would have been identified.

Anyhow, sensing that I was becoming more and more prescriptive about what he needed to do to perform to the required standard, he became extremely erratic with his people. And I had the unusual situation of a number of good people below him breaking the chain of command to come to me directly and tell me about what was going on in that team.

Of course, I had many conversations with this leader about his performance, until the real crunch meeting came. I didn’t pull any punches, and by the end of our session, he would have been pretty well versed on what he needed to do differently. I sent him away to think about possible ways forward, and agreed to meet with him three or four days later to check-in.

As it turns out, this guy knew how to play the game. He could see the Sword of Damocles suspended above him and saw the writing on the wall. He decided to no-show for our next meeting, and instead lodged an application for sick leave, based on—wait for it—job stress!

At this stage, he’d only been in the role for three months or so. This is all pretty routine so far—not the first time someone has fallen back on a defence of stress when simply being asked to do their job to the required standard. And you need to be careful with these situations, as the medical condition may well be genuine, despite any indicators to the contrary.

Whether someone’s condition is true or fabricated is irrelevant. When a medical professional provides a written opinion on someone’s health, that’s the thing you have to observe and respond to.

Besides, as a leader, your duty of care overrides everything else, so I treated it as if his stress claim was 100% genuine and put plans in place to manage his return to work accordingly. That meant his return to the job could occur only after a full medical clearance. And at that point, his performance would be under the spotlight again…

But what he did next surprised even me. This guy decided to double down and go on the attack. He knew that I couldn’t continue with the performance management issue, because he was, for all intents and purposes, unfit for work. So, he went around me and started to work the HR channels in the organization.

First, he alleged that I was harassing him, and I should be removed from my role, relieving him of the inconvenience of having to report to someone who set high expectations for behavior and performance. But fortunately, even HR found that one laughable, so he didn’t get very far with it.

Then, when he couldn’t discredit me, he started to impose all sorts of other conditions, with a very explicit threat of legal action against the company. His basis for the threatened action? If the organization didn’t do as he asked, he would allege that he was being discriminated against, based on his health condition!

Fortunately, the company held firm, and he was eventually freed up to be successful in another organization. But this was a critical moment in the formation of the company’s culture. Lots of people had visibility of what was going on. If people are allowed to leverage what they think is an entitlement or right, and call the shots based on that, companies can end up making some really poor decisions. If this one-off case had become the cultural norm, it would have had a profound impact on company culture.

The danger is that a company can become overly risk-averse, and in doing so, accede to employee demands in order to avoid any conflict with employees. This is often the case when the senior leadership can sense things like the threat of strike action; the threat of legal action; or concern about possible reputational damage.

But more often than not, all this does is to give the inmates the keys to the asylum…

Since then, I’ve seen many cases like this, and they’ve taught me an important lesson. Sometimes, people will feel entitled to something based on their personal situation: I don’t like Mondays… I have difficulty getting up in the mornings… I want to have enough time to run my lifestyle business and really don’t want to work this hard for the company…

None of this is relevant, as a leader. Sure, you need to know your people’s circumstances: their likes and dislikes, the things that put them under pressure, the things that motivate them, their long-term ambitions and goals, their strengths and weaknesses.

But your obligation is crystal clear: Organization first, team second, the individuals in the team third. And, if you can manage to do that, you won’t have to worry about serving yourself, it will already be done in spades along the way. Serve the interest of the organization first, and you will never regret it. Sometimes it’s just hard to know which of your many stakeholders should take priority at any given point. But if you mollycoddle your people, and just do whatever they want for fear of upsetting them, you’re likely to get poor outcomes, especially in the longer term. And that’s really bad for your people too when the organization becomes uncompetitive and unprofitable. Think closures and layoffs, the inevitable future of a poorly run business.

how TO manage the people in your team when you have to make hard choices

With any issues where you have to decide between what the employees want and what’s best for the business, I’m going to assume that you already understand the process and framework for making these types of decisions.

But just to recap, particularly Episode 154, there’s a simple process to follow:

1) Make sure whatever you do is lawful

2) Make sure it’s consistent with your organization’s values and your own

3) Make sure you’re fulfilling your duty of care to your people, and this means your duty of care to the majority, as opposed to the whims of any one individual

4) Make sure you’re fulfilling necessary operational requirements

5) Make your decision on a risk basis

So for example, there’s a potential tradeoff between not getting optimum performance for the business, with the risk of people resigning. To understand this risk, you need to work out how many people your decision is going to piss off, and whether they’re the people you want to keep, your top talent.

Making the decision is one thing but how do you handle this from a relationship perspective? How do you not erode the trust you’ve established with your team? And how do you strike the balance between the company’s requirements and the desires of the individual?

1) Don’t mollycoddle your people

Don’t pan in to their every desire. That’s just stupid. They are paid to do a job and it’s your job to make sure they do it. Yes, you want to motivate and encourage them. Yes, you want to give them autonomy. Yes, you want them to be happy and fulfilled in their work. Yes, you want to generate loyalty and yes, you want to maintain a strong psychological contract.

But when it comes to issues where the individual desires to part from the needs of the organization, you only have one way forward. What’s best for the company. And, in determining what’s best for the company, you have to make an assessment of the impacts on employees when they don’t get what they want. So here are a few steps that will make the process manageable for you, if not easy. So first and foremost, before you do anything else, listen. You want to be able to make a good assessment of a few things. How big an issue is it for your people? Why is it an issue? Think like you would in any negotiation. How can I give you what you want while still getting what I want? Where are the rub points where you can capture value without impacting my value proposition and vice versa? Remember, we’re trying to increase the size of the pie that’s got to be divided up between us. So always look for ways to satisfy the other party and give them what they want if you possibly can.

2) Determine the risks properly

What risks are there if you choose to make a decision that doesn’t coincide with your people’s wishes? And you do this like any risk assessment. You have to make an assessment on likelihood and impact. How likely is it that a certain outcome, like for example, disgruntled staff resigning will occur, and what are the consequences to the business if it does?

This is part of any decision-making process, but you’ve got to be really careful here. Many leaders I know will overplay the potential likelihood and impact of an exodus of people. Why? Because it’s a convenient rationalization and an excuse to not do the things that might upset people because then they mightn’t like you. Respect before popularity, people. You need to rid yourself of this scourge of wanting to be liked by your people.

3) Talk to other leaders, above, beside and below

If you’re not at the top of the organization with unfettered decision rights, you want to know your decision is in step with other leaders. You want to know that the leaders above you have the appetite to execute on your decision and support you if things get a little hairy further down the track. This is an exercise in influencing and alignment. These are the subtle skills of senior leadership that are so critical to your success.

4) Make the decision

This sounds really obvious, but I know a lot of leaders who hedge their bets and make half decisions. Maybe I won’t address it yet. Maybe I’ll just deal with it on a case by case basis. Maybe I’ll just see how it goes for a while, or maybe I’ll wait for someone above me to decide for me.

Nope, make a call. That’s what leaders are paid to do, so procrastinating. Avoiding doesn’t help anyone.

5) Communicate your decision to the team

If you make any decision that affects people, don’t send an email. Do it face-to-face, in groups, and individually where necessary. Explain the decision-making process. Explain what options you considered and why you chose to make the decision you did.

But remember, the tone is really important here. You’re not looking for approval. You’re not looking for consensus. You’re merely seeking to give your people an understanding. Why? Because first of all, it’ll make any decision so much easier to implement if your people can see why it has been made. And let’s face it, you want to be seen as a rational boss because that inspires confidence. Tying all this up, there are many issues in situations you’ll come up against where you have to make a tradeoff between what individuals want and what the organization needs.

Don’t fall into the trap of mollycoddling your people, and then rationalizing in your own head, why it was a good business decision to do so. It never is!


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