ArLyne's Diamonds

A running commentary of ideas

Monday, May 02, 2011

Sweeping Problems Under The Rug

All too often complaints, concerns, and conflict are ignored by upper management until they escalate into significant trouble. Why? Because in general people in positions of power want to get the job done and not have to deal with what they consider petty squabbles.

Unfortunately, this strategy of ignoring it in the interest of “just moving forward” is a poor strategy.

Elsewhere I’ve written about talking people seriously who are the first to notice something amiss. These people, more sensitive than others, or more in tune, are like “canaries in the coal mine.” They see, sense, feel things before their colleagues do.

Let me tell you about a business association that has had the same Executive Director for about eight years. In the beginning she was administrative support, and overtime her responsibilities grew, because the board members didn’t realize they were actually a working board, not a governing board, and dumped more and more responsibilities onto this woman. I’ll name her Sharon for sake of this article.

As Sharon assumed more responsibility, she also took it upon herself to have the authority to go with that responsibility and over time she was the one making most of the decisions and actually running the organization, with a board that merely acquiesced and rubber-stamped her decisions.

This stopped working well when a group of ambitious women recently released from high-tech companies that were downsized, decided to open retail establishment in this business district. Ambitious, bright and energetic, they secured positions on various committees and some of them actually chaired the committees.

Accustomed to making decisions, they were unhappy with Sharon when she repeatedly took their decisions and re-made them into her own image. In some cases she merely ignored their decisions and in others she actually violated the trust they’d given her.

Several of them went individually to members of the Executive Committee of this Board to express their concerns. They were patted on the head (figuratively) and the senior executives – all men – told themselves and each other “girls will be girls” and considered that their complaints were trivial. One board member actually believed that they like all women were nagging.

Over time the discontent grew and independently of each other ten women who had been active volunteers resigned. Sharon’s response was to tell her board that they were terrible volunteers who said they’d do something and then quit.

When things escalated out of control – I was brought in to “fix the communication problems.”
A new board was voted in this year and a new executive board is in place. Not knowing all we’ve uncovered and worked so hard to resolve, they are saying, “let’s just move forward – let’s not deal with the past.” That is sweeping things under the rug.

What I wrote is just one example of how things escalate until they cause big trouble. Let me give you another example – this from a corporate client.

In a small satellite sales office of one of the largest international semiconductor companies, worked a group of customer service and inside sales women. Their “squabbling” had become so intense that it was disruptive and the salesmen (I don’t mean to be as sexist as this is sounding …. But….) started complaining that their accounts and their needs weren’t being properly serviced. In the beginning, everyone decided to ignore the problems and sanction the women involved, telling them that it was important for them to get along. Their complaints were ignored – and again things were swept under the rug.

Finally, customers started complaining and the Sales Manager knew he had to take these issues seriously.

The Senior Vice-President of Human Resources was brought out to California from the home office in the east. He couldn’t get to the source of the problem and merely told them all to behave themselves.

The situation became more disruptive and I was brought in to find out what was going wrong and to resolve the problems.

It was an interesting experience. I interviewed each of the people in the office individually off-site and was told by each and every one of them that the Office Manager was wonderful and were it not for her, people would truly be at each other’s throats.

Yet, each of the woman who admired the Office Manager complained about each other. This didn’t make sense.

So, I observed. What I observed was that the Office Manager was playing “Queen Bee” and would repeatedly re-affirm her position by telling each of the women to work only through her and to not communicate with their co-workers. She passed on gossip, such as “Don’t talk directly to Sally because she told me she thinks your questions are dumb.” Or, “Do you realize that Mary says you dress much too sexy for work.”

This Office Manager also managed to distribute the work by parceling it out so that each of the women had to come to her for other portions of it, or additional information. Thus again she was making sure she was in control and was needed by one and all.

Finally I noticed that she had assigned cubicles to people so that those needing to work together were far apart from each other, rather than next to each other. This of course gave her the advantage of seeing all movement in her group.

Needless to say, we made changes. We called the home office and received permission to re-arrange the seating assignments. When Office Manager came in on Monday morning and discovered the changes, she knew she’d been found out and resigned.

Listening and observing often lead to understanding – and yes, I am one of those who are the canary in the coal mine.

Two months later, when I followed up, I learned that everything had calmed down and people were now working well together.

A third example comes from the Finance Department of a government agency. The controller, who I will call Sam, was very rigid and overly-cautious. They used a very complicated relational database for their accounting, including for paying frequent bills of $5.00 or less. It took them days to process each request for payment and hundreds of dollars in employee time to process payment. The person in charge of authorizing these tiny payments (Juan) repeatedly requested he be allowed to use a less cumbersome manner of making payments, but Sam refused stating that there needed to be consistency and accountability.

As I was working to resolve other issues for this agency, I learned of this situation and suggested to Sam that she set Juan up with a QuickBooks account and a separate checking account so that he would quickly and immediately make these small payments which were actually from requests for refunds from a ticket machine that malfunctioned. She refused.

I brought the matter to the attention of the CFO and he saw the value in my suggestion and we implemented it, thereby saving the company lots and lots of money and creating customer good-will.

Accountability was not lost, indeed it was enhanced since Juan could immediately see if a machine were malfunctioning, or a particular requester was a repeated requester – thus potentially trying to get money illegally.

Let me tell you another story. I became aware of this while consulting at another high tech company. Three employees, who had been long-time good employees were on the verge of being fired because they were taking too many breaks.

Their complaints that they were feeling uncomfortable in the new space they had been assigned were ignored. The Vice-President of Human Resources was about to terminate their employment when the CEO found out and asked me to intervene and try to find out what was going on.

I did. I discovered that these women had been assigned a windowless room crowded with boxes. They were feeling claustrophobic and thus needed to leave the room frequently to take brief breaks.

We removed the boxes. We purchased large posters for the walls, one a mountain scene with a waterfall and stream and the other an ocean scene. The problem was resolved.

And, yes, sometimes this is truly a man-woman difference. I hate sounding so sexist and stereotypical, but women have far less tolerance for certain things than men. Men are taught to suck-it-up and get the job done. Women need to feel comfortable – especially in relation to other people in the workplace.

Small complaints and concerns are so often ignored. Problems when they are raised are swept under the rug until they escalated into bigger problems that hurt the company and no longer can be ignored.

Instead of patting people on the back and then ignoring their concerns, perhaps upper management ought to consider that there is validity, take the concerns seriously and try to resolve the issues before they get out of control.

On the board level – you are working primarily with volunteers who need to be nurtured and appreciated. On the workplace level – you need to have your employees feel valued and understood because their productivity will decline if they are depressed by “dis-satisfiers” or no longer motivated to do their best.

Finally as I’ve stated elsewhere – it’s not about the money – you can’t just throw money at an uncomfortable situation – you need to fix the problem.

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