Beware of workplace hyenas! Know their communication signals.

Workplace Hyenas

Like the hyenas out in the African plains, workplace hyenas give off communication signals before they attack. Fortunately, if you know what signals or hints to watch out for you can avoid becoming the next victim of a workplace hyena.

Workplace hyenas are predators like those in nature except they don’t always choose the weak and vulnerable as their prey.

Hyena Hint 1: Separating out a target prey from the herd is a classic hyena move, for those in the wild and those in the workplace. Unlike real hyenas, workplace hyenas don’t always go for the weakest member of the herd. Many times they go for the most skilled member of the herd to advance their hyena agenda. The point of this hyena move is that once the target is separated they become more vulnerable. Once the hyena has you separated they have you exactly where they want you. In the workplace, that means the rest of the team does not have transparency. If you’re the skilled expert, once you’ve been culled from the herd, the hyena has you on the run, in a defensive position and possibly manipulated into service of the hyena agenda. This manipulation is meant to convert you so you have to advance their position, opinion, or recommendation – whether you agree with it or not.

Watch out for updates that go to an entire team but when the difficult subjects are being debated, communications suddenly start going to one or two people for input or clarification.

Hyenas run prey down until they’re exhausted. Workplace hyenas wear you down with delays and distractions.

Hyena Hint 2: Another hyena move is to run prey down and wear them down. In nature, this is more sprint than marathon for the poor wildebeest that usually loses the race for life. In addition to raw speed, hyenas are so cunning they will launch a test chase to practice the kill. In addition to the learning, it tires out the herd and the individual targets. Workplace hyenas have additional ways to wear you down such as delays and distractions. Delays and distractions keep the project and the team stuck where it is, which is probably where workplace hyenas want you to be. Delays and distractions give them the time and position to be able to manipulate the situation to suit their agenda. Often, delays and distractions are a tool to cover up bigger problems such as mistakes, ethical issues or ineptitude. When workplace hyenas are constantly on the offensive with delays and distractions, then you are on the defensive, worn out and incapable of hurting them or their agendas.

Watch out for communications that have the team “look over here, so you don’t look there.” Also look for never-ending questions and clarifications that are constantly circling back to basic issues and unnecessarily extending the timelines. Look for white-knuckled grasp on a status quo, existing recommendation or way of doing things even when it doesn’t seem to make sense to the larger team.

Hyenas are social, cooperative hunters. Workplace hyenas coordinate attacks to eliminate threats to their agenda.

Hyena Hint 3: Hyenas are like wolves in that they are cooperative hunters. There may be nothing a lot more more eerie than hearing the howling cascade that indicates wolves are coordinating the moment they advance for the kill. Hyenas also coordinate using audible, visual and olfactory communication. They are famous for their laughing, although it’s probably not so funny if you’re the wildebeest. Workplace hyenas can operate as a coordinated clan, too. The hyena clan coordinates their attack because you represent a threat to the group, their collective ideas and status quo. The hyena clan believes they represent the majority while you represent the minority. They protect the group’s agenda by marginalizing you and anyone else like you on the team.

Watch out for communications that have a gang mentality, like a shooting gallery to blow holes in colleagues’ new ideas, opinions or recommendations. Keep an eye on communications that suggest you aren’t seeing the bigger picture because the clan understands the greater good better than you do.

More often than not, our colleagues aren’t acting like workplace hyenas on purpose.

Hyena behaviors can happen without the person knowing they are being toxic. Nobody intentionally sets out to be a culture killer. Sometimes our colleagues feel so strongly about their agenda that, when it’s threatened, they revert into hyena behavior. Just because they are nice people doesn’t mean you can treat the hyena behavior as if it isn’t dangerous. Workplace hyenas are no laughing matter. Know the communication signals of workplace hyenas so you don’t become their next meal.

#WorkplaceHyenas Content Laboratory

The Currency is Credibility. Are you squandering your fortune?

Bank of Communications

The U.S. national political landscape is all about credibility — or lack of it. Business looks a bit better, but not great. If you are working in communications, you are likely watching the spectacle of press briefings, earnings machinations, statements, apologies, sound bites, and spin with a certain amount of awe. Too often it’s a clown car of ineptitude.

The purpose of communications is to relate and engage with other human beings. It is about sharing the human experience. Otherwise, we don’t really need to ever speak or put anything into writing.

There isn’t a point to communications if you’re not connecting, relating, educating, convincing or motivating.

In politics and business communications there should be an outcome to all our effort — there should be a purpose. Communication with purpose usually involves some kind of motivation. Getting someone, or a whole bunch of someones, to DO something is why we do what we do. Ultimately, what enables communication with purpose is credibility.

Having credibility, or not having it, defines communications success in business and life.

It is a good idea to think about credibility as the currency of communications. If we think about it as an important asset, something valuable, we’re more likely to thoughtfully protect the credibility of our organizations and our own reputations.

So if credibility is currency in communications, are you adding to your bank account or are you on the verge of being flat broke?

It’s easy to manage your credibility bank account and grow your reputation wealth. Very simply, you need more deposits – many more – in the account than withdrawals. Ideally, the credibility deposits should be ones that come with compounded interest. These are communications that reinforce credibility with existing constituents and create or build credibility with new audiences.

Where do you have deposits, where are there withdrawals, and where are you overdrawn?

Look at communication channels, the communications within those channels and the audiences and constituents receiving the communications. Are you relating effectively or just speaking loudly? Are you depositing credibility pocket change or something truly substantial? Are you making regular deposits to your credibility account? Or are you just spending your credibility fortune like a newly minted lottery winner?

Don’t kid yourself or others when answering these questions. You have to look at it from outside your normal vantage point. This may require criticism from a person outside of the loop, someone who has no skin in the game. Don’t go to your usual critics, they do have skin in the game and there are reasons they are so vocal. In this audit, you want a purely objective point of view.

If you are constantly using your credibility currency to manage issues, you are doing the equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck.

In our day-to-day worlds, the urgent often eclipses the meaningful. Issues management is the hamster wheel of communications. If you are spending most of your time managing issues, you are running in place at best and you will never get ahead. You will never be reputation wealthy.

The body of what we say and stand for should be as important to us as our hard-earned paychecks and bank accounts. Pay attention to your credibility bank account and you are building reputation wealth you can count on well into the future. Fail to continually invest and you are squandering your fortune.

Content Laboratory

Is civility dead in business (and life)? If so, how do we bring it back?

Moment of Shame Truth

It’s hard to watch the news lately. It is heart-breaking to see a not-so-slow-motion train wreck of our collective ideals and values as a nation. Whether it’s politics, business or our personal lives, many of us probably need to ask ourselves the important questions more often. How low we can go in American society, politics and business? Can we bring it back around? Are there more people out there that believe all of “this” is just fine compared with those of us who say “this” isn’t anything close to civilized or even okay? Where do we go from here?

Of course this is my opinion but it seems to be something we’re all stressing over on a daily basis. Is this true?

Probably because I have spent a career in healthcare, I take values, ethics and an overall moral core very, very seriously. I have quit jobs because of my beliefs. I have called out the most senior leaders because I simply won’t compromise truth and other imperatives of leadership. I serve at the pleasure of patients first and foremost, not profits or corporate structures above all else. It is clear that if you take the perks of leadership you also carry the heavy responsibility. You must put self interests aside to always work in the better interests of humanity. You work to elevate people not marginalize them or harm them. Otherwise you don’t get to take the paycheck and you shouldn’t accept the title. Not a complicated equation.

Given that high ground I have carved out for myself, there’s no debating the embarrassing and shameful truth that I have behaved badly on too many occasions. I have to check myself on that one. And, I have to do better.

In my opinion, we don’t see accountability for this disappearance of a civilized core in politics, business or life today. Manners are seemingly gone. Civility is receding. Selfishness is on the rise. Bad behavior is rampant. Truth and intellect seem to be regularly attacked and mocked as not really important or positive. It seems that if you can craft a statement to rationalize a shaky point of view or action, then by all means do it and do it with vigor — right or wrong. We almost seem to respect the aggressiveness and skill of lying and justifying. Does anything go in today’s world? Are our standards really that low? There’s too little accountability about this. Too little calling ourselves out for this and saying we have to do better.

Protecting civility and decency isn’t about sides. It’s not about rationalizations. It’s not about excuses. It’s gone off the rails and I believe we need to collectively act with urgency to get it back.

I’m curious to hear what the LinkedIn community thinks about this.

What do you think? Is civility off the rails?

Can we get it back? How do we get it back?

Content Laboratory

Shut It Moment #1: When the Subject Calls for Experts . . . & You’re Not One

Big Fat Comms Diet Graphic 1With social media and so many internal and external channels, communications today can be like an all-you-can-eat-buffet for leaders. Quantity over quality. Our appetites get the better of us and before you know it, every random thought we have in our heads ends up on the communications plate. Without discipline, you can stuff yourself (and your audiences) nearly to death.

My Big Fat Communications Diet isn’t just about communicating less, it’s about communicating well, making better communication choices and working your communication muscles so you become a truly healthy communicator.

Shut it moment #1: When the subject matter calls for experts . . . and you’re not one.

By definition, an expert is a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of and/or skill in a particular area. In seriously complex areas such as science or health care you probably need at least a doctorate degree and a pile of letters at the end of your name to be most credible. If not, you better have impressive experience and knowledge in the subject matter before you open your mouth or craft a post. Even in this case you still need a squad of real, honest-to-goodness experts who can inform your thinking and support you.

Politics aside, a good example of this one is the rhetorical question “Who knew healthcare was so complicated?” This is the big time of shut it moments. Really? Oh, I don’t know, maybe the tens of thousands of people who are actual experts, people who work in and are dedicated to the field, people with real world experience, people who have achieved and have made relevant contributions to the care and wellness of human beings. Better to shut it than to blurt out a comment that looks a little ridiculous when you’re in a position of authority but clearly don’t have even a basic knowledge or understanding.

It may not be inherently stupid to make a shut it comment like this, but it sure isn’t smart.

Look at the result of the comment rather than the politics, likability of the person, or other related factors. Nothing positive happened. Nothing was moved forward. No agenda was served. It was a distraction and a withdrawal from the credibility bank account. Communications gluttony was served, that’s all.

A former CEO of a tech giant said in a USA Today interview prior to the launch of the Apple iPhone that it had “no chance” of getting “significant market share.” Huh? Certainly he was not a fortune teller. And apparently not an expert on mobile or smart phones. He also is no longer the CEO.

Perhaps a this was a bad luck moment. Nobody has a crystal ball so I guess it’s possible this could have gone either way. Or, maybe this was a little tech hubris gone awry. For sure, nobody in communications explained to this CEO that these things have a very, very long shelf life. The embarrassing moment never really goes away. Ultimately, it was a shut it moment.

An actress who started a lifestyle products company has seriously irked many credentialed experts in health and science because of the wacky advice and snake oil products that are promoted on the website. And rightfully so. Bras can cause cancer? Tomatoes are toxic? And ladies, you don’t want to know where they suggest you need to put an expensive jade egg to restore sexual balance. Yikes!

This isn’t just lack of expertise. This is something more, something pretty destructive. Cashing in on people’s fears by luring them into an illusion of wellness with junk ideas and no real evidence is wrong – really, really wrong. If you have no expertise in healthcare, science and wellness, learn something about it, get several degrees, hire legit experts or else shut it. Permanently.

It’s often smarter to stay quiet than to shoot your mouth off.

It should go without saying that communications should have a positive purpose and result. To avoid looking silly, or worse, looking like a charlatan, think before you speak when the situation calls for certain expertise that you might not possess. If for no other reason than this kind of pause gives the respect due to people who earned the degrees and have the experience to be called an expert. For our friends who are leaders of communications teams, please make sure you convince your organizations and the leaders within them to shut it when the moment commands it. Educate them to ask themselves at least one important question before they make a comment that could haunt them for years to come. Are you a bona fide expert? If the answer to that question is a negative or even the slightest bit shaky, do yourself a favor, take a breath and shut it. You’ll be better off (as will your agenda and your constituents).

Content Laboratory

5 Signs It’s Time to Clean Up Your Brand Message

Messy Message Closet

We all have one of those closets in our homes. You know. The one nobody wants to talk about. What array of stuff is jammed in there with the clothes we don’t wear anymore? Only our worst demons know what lies in the deep reaches of this particular hell. It took a long time to turn it into chaos so it’s bound to take forever and lot of frustration to clean it up. Right? Actually, it’s more like the parable of the boiling frog. If you were suddenly dropped into chaos, you’d see it and deal with it. More often than not, the disarray sneaks up on us because we miss the signals – we’re not aware it’s as bad as it is.

This is true of our corporate, culture and product brand messages. So take a step back, look for the signs of message messiness and clean up your message house before the chaos takes over.

Message Messiness Sign #1 – Lack of message architecture

The most obvious sign is lack of a message architecture or one that hasn’t been updated and used in . . . a long time. This one speaks for itself, yet there are so many brands out there that don’t have a defined message architecture. This is a clear structure that states the overall brand essence with reasons to believe and supporting message tracks. And, there are even more brands that once had a message architecture at launch but that document now collects dust on a shelf or a virtual dusty shelf within a server. If there is no organized architecture for messages, or it isn’t used and refined regularly, of course chaos rules.

Message Messiness Sign #2 – Gaps in story flow

When communications and marketing materials are long and meandering with gaps in story flow, or are too short and abrupt, there’s a message issue. The key here is to look for gaps or leaps in logic that don’t hold up to the objective straight-face test. Invite the objective voice in to pressure test your story. We seem to forget after launch, that the markets and the context for our story are constantly changing. Stuff gets thrown into the message closet over time because it seems to make sense in the moment. Issues come and go. Opportunities come and go. The messages concocted in those moments too often stick around. And, now you’ve got tennis rackets and alarm clocks in with your clothes and shoes — and nobody wants to open the closet anymore.

Message Messiness Sign #3 – Nobody can tell the story

If members of your team and leaders can’t articulate the brand story or, even worse, tell many different versions of the brand story, you’ve probably got message chaos. Sure, this can mean teams and leaders aren’t bought into the messages or they aren’t properly trained. Check first on message organization because the chances are pretty good that this is the real issue. Also look for the people who tend go their own way, developing materials and communications on their own in the shadows. The intentions may not be as nefarious as they seem. In some cases, it is frustration with the condition of the messages. Granted, these folks should raise their hands and point out the problem instead of going it alone. Ultimately, isn’t it easier to clean up the messages rather than letting team drama continue?

Message Messiness Sign #4 – Message gurus

Message gurus are a sign to watch out for. When there is only one person or a small number of people on the team who know the story or can answer questions about messages, it usually means there is so much complexity that a human compass is needed to navigate others through it. These gurus typically have the institutional knowledge about why there are gaps in the story, weird little nuances, odd little nuggets that got jammed into places they don’t belong. They are unconscious or conscious curators of the chaos. They may be great professionals, collaborators and people, but they’ve become enablers. Message gurus may or may not be proud of it, but have become explainers and protectors of the status quo. Also look for the person who feels an exaggerated sense of protecting the messages from you.

Message Messiness Sign #5 – Excuses and accusations fly

Excuses and accusations about communications, marketing and branding are other signs it’s time for message clean up. “This is an old brand.” “This is a new brand.” “We’ve gone through a lot of change.” These may or may not be signs of a larger problem. But look for a simpler solution first. Addressing messaging while creating alignment and ownership within the team could be the treatment equivalent of taking an aspirin compared with fixing sweeping communication problems or team dynamics.

Some people love to organize. Some people hate the process. I’m willing to leave the crazy piles of paper and stuff on my desk and the floor of my office. Can’t stand organizing paperwork and I know exactly where that one piece of paper I need is in the chaos I’ve created there. But I can’t – and we can’t – do that to our marketing and communications teams when it comes to our brand messages. A well organized message architecture reduces drama, increases alignment and overall it is a roadmap to success. Don’t we owe that kind of sanity to ourselves and our teams?

Content Laboratory

Workplace Snakes Are Culture Killers: Communications Warning Signals

Workplace Snakes Graphic

When you cross paths with a rattlesnake out in the desert, it is really scary. You fear the fangs, the venom and the damage they can do. When you hear the rattle, they are ready to strike. Sometimes it’s already too late. If not, you have to quickly recognize the danger and evade it.

Toxic leaders are like rattlesnakes.

Workplace snakes are just as venomous and toxic as the slithering variety found in nature. Like a rattlesnake, toxic leaders give signals, evident in their communications, you should watch out for before they strike.

Know the signs so you can evade and repel workplace snakes.

Here are some types of workplace snakes and the communications signals you should look for before they strike:

The I’m Too Busy for You Snake that uses busyness for defense and offense. This is especially true when a leader implies you might be the cause of their busy problem when you bring them an important issue or opportunity. They are using busyness to keep you from their cozy nest. They hide from people and expectations. To the snake, having to take responsibility for an issue or opportunity is an enemy that needs to be attacked with busyness.

Snake Signals: Significant levels of disengagement, can’t get on their schedules, don’t return calls or emails, talking constantly about busyness and issuing edicts that make them less approachable.

The Blame Gamer, Spotlight-Needy Snake that points fingers (or whatever snakes point), casts blame on others and takes undue credit. They have enormous egos combined with sweeping insecurities. These leaders are like the king cobra of workplace snakes. Look for the puffed up, hissing leader creating smoke and mirrors in an attempt to make themselves look good, while making others look bad.

Snake signals: Throwing team members under the bus, owning team members’ accomplishments, desperate to be noticed, demanding a “gold star” for everything, identifying other team members as “causes” and stating “the real problem in our organization is communications” (meaning the function not the skills).

The Liar, Ethically-Challenged Snake that, well, lies and has a loose relationship with ethics and values. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Those team members that are most at risk from the venom of these snakes are spokespersons, or represent some other kind of relay point for potential lies or unethical deeds. Beware of the signals because these snakes are not only culture killers — they can be a career killer.

Snake signals: Comfortable lying, lying for self-preservation, thinking a lie is a white lie and therefore doing the right thing, passing off lies as mistakes or inaccuracies, creating a sacrificial lamb, blocking team members from talking to authority figures, carrying vendettas and rationalizing bad behaviors.

The Performance Evaluation As Punishment Snake that uses the talent development process as a tool to put transgressors in their place and punish those who aren’t on board with their agenda. This is a weapon of deflection to cull out team members the snake doesn’t like or sees as threatening survival.

Snake signals: Conducts a performance evaluation in a public place or even by phone (yes, this actually happens), makes it personal with commentary on personality and likability rather than results, refers to what other team members think of the person being reviewed, has favorites on the team, has impossible expectations and creates no-win situations, is mean-spirited in reviews, and includes backhanded compliments as strengths.

The Loyalty Is Everything Snake wards off the consequences of bad behaviors and poor communications by commanding absolute loyalty from their teams. These snakes are blocking transparency. They live under rocks hoping that the sun won’t shine on what they say and do. Loyal team members are the blackout shades that can keep others from seeing the truth.

Snake signals: A close circle of confidants, a fear among team members of saying the wrong thing, limited communications about the team’s activities, a lot of misdirection communications going on (hey, look over here instead of looking over there) and extreme jockeying for position among team members.

Healthy organizational cultures don’t tolerate workplace snakes. Leaders of healthy, positive cultures ensure the values foundation is solid and woven throughout the organization. Leaders of healthy cultures ensure the talent review, people development, rewards and recognition are fair and focused on actual performance, not likability/popularity/personality. Leaders of healthy cultures support and cultivate transparent, direct communications throughout the organization and all teams. These basic structures work together to act as a form of snake repellent. Ultimately, we are all happier, more productive and more secure in a snake-free workplace.

#NoWorkplaceSnakes

Content Laboratory

Let’s stop the non-apology apology: the do’s and don’ts of “I’m sorry.”

I'm sorry graphic 4.12.17

It’s been a rough week for the people and companies issuing apologies. From Oscar Muñoz to Sean Spicer, the word “apology” seems to be a fixture on the news crawl.

The problem is that too often the apology isn’t an apology and the person saying it isn’t really apologizing. Rather, they are apologizers or apologists, justifying an unpopular or improper thing and excusing themselves from accountability. Or, they’ve spent so much time being apologizers and apologists previously that by the time they authentically apologize for the bone-headed move, it’s too late and their credibility is already eroded. Basically, in these moments, they stink at apologizing.

It shouldn’t be this difficult. Defending your boss or standing behind your employees is NOT an excuse for gross negligence in your job as a leader. It is not an excuse for passing the buck or trying to spin something awful. It is not an excuse for hurting the people you serve verbally or physically. There is very simply no excuse for it. Certainly not when there is disturbing video of a human being bloodied and likely unconscious in the aisle of one of your planes — on your watch, on the orders of your frontline employees. It’s not okay. Period. End of story. (Note: If your communications staffs suck at apologizing too and can’t help you do it better, it’s really time to restructure.)

In situations that require apologies — not in a case where you are defending a true and authentic cause — there are do’s and don’ts of apologizing. Here are the helpful definitions that may improve all these sad apologies we are seeing far too often.

Do this: 

a·pol·o·gy — A regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.

Say the words, tell people you regret what has happened and that you are holding yourself accountable for the mistake. Give them assurances the horrible thing won’t ever happen again. Do it quickly, do it definitively and follow your words up with transparent actions. Do think of an apology as something you owe your constituents, a tab that has to be settled for having the privilege of being a leader.

Don’t do this and don’t be this:

a·pol·o·gist — A person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial.

Don’t make excuses. Don’t try to justify the thing and make it seem like it wasn’t your fault. Don’t shift blame. Don’t spin it and think believers outnumber cynics. Don’t lash out at your critics. Don’t delay. Don’t swing and miss at the first apology and think you can hit a home run later. Don’t let your ego take over.

Some people believe that apologizing affects credibility in negative ways. That’s completely false.

Apologizing badly affects your credibility. Doing it right and authentically does build credibility and positively enhances your reputation. It makes you human and empathetic. I say it every day, and I mean it when I say it.

Apologizing is a muscle of humanity I try to exercise as often as I can.

Like any other skill, the more you practice apologizing, the better you get. The more you practice, the more you will find that the corrosive aspects of your ego get pushed into the back seat. Until people, companies and governments stop doing knuckle-headed things, we will have to learn to excel at apologizing. And that’s when we become more effective leaders and more civilized human beings.

Content Laboratory