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The Workplace Culture Chasm: Why So Many Get It Wrong

One of the biggest challenges in the business world today is developing a collaborative and productive workplace culture that can than boost performance. Organizations are beginning to discover that interpersonal relationships are key to a harmonious office where employees feel good about each other and their work. Todd Davis, whose title is chief people officer for FranklinCovey, has poured more than 30 years of experience in human resources and talent development into his new book, Get Better: Fifteen Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work. He joined the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM channel 111 to share some insights on creating a kinder, gentler office where conflict-resolution is constructive and peaceful. (Listen to the full podcast using the player at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: How prevalent are relationship problems in the modern workplace?

Todd Davis: For me in my role, they are very prevalent. They consume me. I’ve been in this line of work for the past 30 years, and I’ve been coaching and observing leaders and others in all levels of organizations. I have found that there is certainly the notion that we’ve got to have the right people on the buses, the right talent. But it’s the nature of the relationships between those people that really creates a team’s or an organization’s or a company’s competitive advantage. I think it’s critical, and it’s really what makes or breaks the success and effectiveness of an organization.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are companies becoming more aware of the importance of relationships and trying to emphasize that

Davis: I think so. I think they are very focused. While we certainly anticipated the book and the topic to resonate with folks, it has been just overwhelmingly received in great fashion because of what you just said. It’s a high priority with organizations around the globe.

Culture has been a real focus for many years. I think organizations are realizing that, while we describe culture a lot of different ways, it really boils down to the nature of the relationships between the people in the organization.

Knowledge@Wharton: You say not having effective relationships can bring an economic burden on the company and create mental health issues for employees.

Davis: Absolutely. Most of us spend many more hours working than we do with family and friends and people in our personal lives. That doesn’t mean that those people in our personal lives aren’t the priority, but it’s just the nature of the design of our work. We spend more hours with those we work with. If those hours are burdened with challenges and conflict and issues, it does take a significant toll on our physical and our emotional well-being.

“We describe culture a lot of different ways — it really boils down to the nature of the relationships between the people.”

Knowledge@Wharton: You discuss something called pinball syndrome, which is when you try to do your job but have to get involved with the work of others. You end up spinning in all directions. Could you talk more about that?

Davis: You just said they key word there: have to. What I remind myself, and what I coach others on, is that we don’t have to. We choose to. We forget that we’re choosing to, but we choose to.

Those of us above a certain age remember the old pinball games with the buzzers and the whistles and lights. You pull back the plunger and this metal ball flies up, and the whole goal is to keep these flippers going and keep this thing afloat as long as you can. There’s a lot of stimulus there. It’s exciting, it’s a challenge, and we feel exhausted when it’s over — but it’s a game. What I see time and time again at work is that we confuse activity with results. We get to the end of the day or the end of the week or the end of our life, and we’ve been very busy, we’ve been very exhausted, and we’ve been doing a lot of things. But have we been doing those things that really matter or make a difference?

That’s the metaphor, and the idea of avoiding the pinball syndrome is stepping back. I recommend on a weekly basis to outline and say, “Wait a minute, where am I really spending my time? And am I spending it on things that are important or simply things that are urgent. Have I confused urgency with importance? Am I trying to be everything to everybody, and in the end accomplishing nothing?”

Knowledge@Wharton: You may not have a lot in common with the people you work with. How do you build bridges and forge close bonds in that case?

Davis: There’s a practice in the book called “Wear Glasses at Work.” The way we see things and the way we see other people shapes everything we do, our behaviors and the results that we get. I may not have much in common with you, and we work closely together every day. Instead of just belaboring that point or saying, “Well, that’s how it is, and it’s tough. I don’t like it.” Step back and ask, “Who is he? Why does he do things the way he does them?” Take time to consider the other’s perspective.

I don’t profess to be perfect in all of these things. But when I stop and take time to consider the other’s perspective and think about their world, their goals and their struggles, boy does it get us on playing ground where we can really start to solve problems or take advantages of opportunities together.

Knowledge@Wharton: It seems simplistic, but you say there are situations where basic good behavior is key.

Davis: Well, isn’t that the truth? Particularly in our current culture and climate, at least here in the U.S., just basic civility and treating others how you would like to be treated, is sometimes overlooked. Do we have that mantra at the forefront of our mind every day as we walk into work, or as we come home to those that we care about?

“What I see time and time again at work is that we confuse activity with results.”

It’s slowing the pace down a little bit and thinking about coming from the other’s perspective, stepping into their shoes. It sounds trite to talk about because it’s age-old wisdom, but it’s age-old wisdom that I see fewer and fewer people practicing.

Knowledge@Wharton: Practice No. 7 in the book is “Think We, Not Me.” What does that mean?

Davis: I think most people are good. I think these things are unintentional. But do we default to the victor, where for us to feel like we’re winning always has to come at the expense of others? Does there always have to be a loser? On the opposite side of the spectrum, do we default to the martyr? Everybody else wins but at our expense, and we’ve just decided that’s our lot in life.

To “think we, not me” is to have what we call an abundance mentality. We have been groomed to think that there always has to be a loser, and that is so not true. The most successful organizations, the most successful leaders and other people within those organizations have this abundant mentality, where they approach every situation thinking not only what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for you? How can we collaborate and come up with something much better than either one of us could have come up with on our own? That’s the philosophy behind it.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also offer advice on communication: Talk less, listen more and get the volume right. Can you go into those?

Davis: “Talk less, listen more” is pretty self-explanatory. But the point here is that we are fixers. We want to solve problems, we want to jump in. When emotions are high, whether it’s because they’re excited about something or frustrated about something, we hear just enough of what they’re sharing with us to jump in and tell them what our great solution is, or to advise or maybe criticize the decision they made.

That’s not what they need. When emotions are high, they just need to be understood. Take the time to understand the other person’s perspective, just listen to them and reflect. Again, it’s one of those things that, while we know to do it, we don’t do it. We get to the heart of the issue much quicker than if we jump in and assume we think we know where they’re going and what the solution is. There will be a time after we completely understand them that they’ll ask for our advice and we can start to solve the problem.

Practice No. 11 is “Get Your Volume Right.” It’s all about the blind spots that we have. We all have strengths. We’re aware of some of our strengths, and sometimes we have strengths that we’re not aware of. But you’ve been given performance reviews in your lifetime, we tend to know what we’re good at. What happens is we rely on those strengths, and sometimes we rely on them too much and turn the volume up too much on those strengths so that they actually start to work against us. For instance, someone I was just coaching is an efficient and a very effective person. They are best known for their execution and efficiency.

“Begin with the end in mind.”

But the volume in this particular person is turned up so high that no one wants to work with them. They’re so efficient that their emails and communication comes across as very curt. While they’re not intending to be that way, they are offending other people. Until it was brought to this person’s attention, they had no idea why they were being passed over for opportunities to work on certain teams.

One of my strengths is that I am a very accommodating person. You might think, “Gosh, who doesn’t want that person on their team?” But I can turn it up too high. I’ve done this before unintentionally, where I’m trying to help everyone and be everything to everybody. All of a sudden, I’m doing a C- job of many things versus an A+ job of a few things.

Knowledge@Wharton: There are many situations at work where people have entirely different perceptions of what is happening. How do you reconcile that?

Davis: It begins with a conversation, sitting down and having an unbiased person say, “Could we just talk through this?” Begin with the end in mind. I start each conversation with that saying. What is the result that we all want? If they don’t agree on that, then we’ve got bigger problems. But usually they will agree with that, it’s just that they have different approaches. If we can start an open, respectful dialogue, you usually can get to a resolution. There’s a great quote that says, “With people, fast is slow.” We’re so anxious to get to the resolution, but if we can slow down a little bit and understand each other’s perspective, we can usually resolve things much quicker.

Knowledge@Wharton: What role can the HR department play in this process?

Davis: In our company, I lead what is traditionally called the human resources function. I like to change the name of that because I think sometimes there is a stigma attached with human resources being the policy wonks or the police people. We call our department People Services. That reminds me and our team every day as we walk through the door that we are here to serve. Our clients are the people in our company.

The best advice I give other human resources departments is to be a partner in the business. Be involved in the business. If you are a sales organization, attend the sales meetings, and know what is happening on the front lines. I go out and do keynotes and marketing events all around the globe with our clients. People ask me how I do my job and do that. Well, it helps me do my job because I’m out there with our employees, with our clients, on the front line. I have a real strong handle on what our business is all about. That’s my advice to human resources departments: Be completely involved in what your business is all about.

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