Managing perceptions part of communications

The need to manage perceptions as part of an overall communications strategy came to mind this week. I'd been chatting to a group of managers and they mentioned they had held meetings with their staff over time, to draw attention to some unhelpful practises that had crept into the workplace: gossiping, talking about staff behind their backs (and spending an inordinate amount of time doing so) and negativity – a constant flavour of anti-this, anti-that and the other thing. It was interesting to hear that once they had raised the issue about the destructive behaviours, the time wasting and the negativity, everyone's awareness of those issues and how they may have contributed to them were heightened. Within a day or two, the behaviours had changed. All credit to the managers who saw what was happening in their workplace, tackled the issue head on and managed the perceptions in the workplace. It's a good reminder that we must get onto issues the moment they first appear.

Choice is good, right?

Barry Schwartz's book, The Paradox of Choice (2004), has been on my must-read list for ages until now. Once opened, it's difficult to put down, as he unpacks the reality of our world today – it offers us more choices than ever before but they don't necessarily equate to more satisfaction or happiness or good outcomes. He explores the overwhelming options available and the choices to be made in our personal and organisational lives; and then, thankfully, offers eleven practical, sensible steps on how to limit choices to a manageable number and derive satisfaction from the choices you need to make. If you feel overwhelmed by endless options and have some choice at the moment about your leisure reading, choose this book. It's an eye opener and life saver.

Passion or passionless?

A small paragraph in an article in NZBusiness ( February 2011 edition (p.31) entitled What Business Owners Can Learn From NFPs, sprang off the page and grabbed me. Clive Plucknett, CEO of Challenge Trust said NFPs can beat dollar-driven organisations in one main area – they have passion for their cause. He went on to say this was so, partly because they had to, but mostly because it worked. When you think about it, some people are drawn to work in NFPs because their values and interests match the organisations' values and interests and they are aligned, right from the outset. Could the same really be said for profit-making organisations and the people drawn to work in them?

Workplaces are jungles – is yours?

You may be surprised to know that in almost every workplace in the country, all through the year, staff dealt with not only their day to day work but an infestation of quadrapeds, fish, birds and insects. It's shocking but true and all without an SPCA or pest controller in sight. How could this be possible? You may well ask and yet the answer is quite simple – read on, to reveal all.

Some say it's the quadrapeds that cause the most problems in the workplace. Who hasn't said they're late for work because it was raining cats and dogs? Who hasn't declared in meetings they'll take the bull by the horns, tackled something then discovered they didn't have a dog's show of succeeding? Who hasn't confided to a workmate they had explored a difficult issue and once underway, wished they'd let sleeping dogs lie? And as for keeping confidences, who hasn't, on occasions, let the cat out of the bag?

When observing work-shy workmates, who amongst us hasn't wished they'd take the lion's share of the work, before realizing a leopard can't change its spots? As for business planning sessions, how difficult it is to go donkey deep into issues and keep a bird's eye view of things before someone says they don't want to be the fly in the ointment but…? Planning sessions may encourage some to count their chickens before they hatch whereas others may be known for pussy-footing around difficult issues and some may stick doggedly to their world view regardless of the views of those around them. Some participants may run with the hares and hounds on some topics and others may excel at nit-picking. Not nice in company, but still.

And who hasn't, on occasions, floundered around on a new project before getting crabby at their lack of progress? The fear of making an ass of oneself prohibits some staff to put their hand up on some things whereas others may prefer to put their head down, beaver away and work at a snail's pace.

It's common to find staff locking horns on issues or panda to the wishes of a minority group or mussel in on issues that don't concern them. Some staff are skilled at ducking for cover when things go pear shaped and others may be known for crowing about their achievements. Some workplaces are also known for having a Queen Bee, a wise owl and a wolf in sheep's clothing. Worse still, some staff like horsing around and acting the goat on occasions and who hasn't had a cat nap, some quiet afternoons? All of these things may cause workplace conflict. Who hasn't wanted to be the fly on the wall to get the inside goss at some meetings? Who hasn't been the sacrifical lamb on occasions, in the interests of moving through a difficult workplace situation?

And sometimes all these workplace shenanigans get a bit much and some staff may feel like a fish out of water if forced to join in.

Yet most people, deep down, are solid, dependable types who are as strong as an ox and after many years working, have developed workplace survival strategies that work for them. Many staff, although they may talk longingly about rats leaving a sinking ship, will stay where they are because they like what they're doing and they like their workmates. They're with birds of a feather, they'll say, and the usual goings on can be brushed off, like water off a duck's back. ©


Sue Dwan, Dwan & Associates Ltd ©,

October 2010

Organisational Prostitution – a crime of our time

It's confession time. I was an organisational prostitute for 20 plus years. But before you reel with horror and think ‘that can't be, she seems such a nice woman', let me explain.  A prostitute is, according to one definition, someone who offers themselves or their talents for unworthy purposes. My definition of an organisational prostitute is someone who has well developed skills, abilities, experience, qualifications and opportunities yet gives themselves and their talents in roles that they no longer like, want or feel fulfilled in; who stay in organisations that no longer fit with their personal values; who work with colleagues and others they have little in common with or respect for; who exchange their labour for money and golden handcuffs. An organisational prostitute is one who functions perfectly adequately in their role and to all accounts and purposes is alright, but inside they're struggling, suffering or dying, metaphorically speaking, of course.

Golden handcuffs (as opposed to the ordinary type used by police and others) are the offered extras that entice people to stay in their roles and in the organisation. They're typically items like performance bonuses and medical insurance; superannuation schemes or share options; long service leave or sabbatical leave; a company car, a car park; travel perks, discounted purchasing power; or status. And although the extras may be useful in themselves, intended as they are to be incentives and rewards, they're also a poisoned chalice. They're harmful to organisational prostitutes because many won't or can't give them up, even though the effort of getting them may be harmful to their mental, emotional, spiritual or physical health and wellbeing; even though once they have them, they may not feel joy or satisfaction at their attainment; even if they never feel like the reward or an incentive they're intended to be.

Some organisational prostitutes have huge habits to feed, such as compulsive materialism, an image to maintain or expensive hobbies, as well as the usual responsibilities for mortgages, children or university fees. And all these factor in their decision to stay in their roles, regardless of the personal cost of doing so.

Eventually, some organisational prostitutes realise they can't sustain the effort of being in a role or organisation that doesn't fit well for them and they leave, searching for something more aligned with their values, interests and needs. Others stay and adapt as best they can, but may remain at heart disconnected and indifferent to what's happening around them. Some exist by limping along from corner to corner – the next long weekend, the annual holiday break, the countdown until retirement. And some never understand why they feel the way they do, assume it is how everyone else must feel inside, and simply work on, with quiet desperation.

Yet the responsibility to change their situation rests with the prostitutes themselves. There is inner work that only they can do: to know themselves, their interests, skills, passions, motivators and demotivators; their tolerance levels to the intolerable; their personal standards, hopes and dreams and fears. It is for the individual to be honest about themselves and the situation they're in; to see what personal gains they get from prostituting themselves; what excuses they use to keep the status quo and the real, not imagined, constraints they operate within.

It is for the individual to determine what's important in their life besides their habits; to calculate the true cost of being in a career, role or organisation that no longer suits them; to make some choices. It requires them to adopt a problem solving model and a thinking and feeling approach through issues, to determine what would make their spirits sing or heart lift; to know what would make them feel energized again; to know what they would do if they realized this lifetime wasn't a dress rehearsal, but the real thing.

It's also a management issue, as staff whose hearts aren't in their career or role can't fully be their best, despite their best efforts to do so. They may be fine for a period of time but eventually there will be a cumulative, reduced level of interest and energy to the work in hand; decreased productivity and lowered morale. Managers need to know their staff and listen carefully with their eyes and ears to the signals of inner struggle. The sign posts will be there – it's just a matter of knowing what to look at and listen for. And it means giving them support and encouragement to find their way forward, to seek some professional help, to gather some courage, as it can be a scary journey over uncharted waters. Professional help is available to organisational prostitutes and it is but a phone call or mouse click away, to career coaches in particular. They're a valuable resource to use throughout our working life and not just when we're starting out, fresh from school.

Just as it's not an easy task to get prostitutes off the streets, it's equally difficult to get organisational prostitutes out the door. For those who stay yet need to, understanding, professional help and encouragement is needed to help them kick their habits and get a happier, more fulfilled working life.

Sue Dwan, Dwan & Associates Ltd ©,

28 July 2009

Has your organisation lost its heart?

In formal management text books its difficult to find anything about an organisation's heart and soul. It's hardly surprising really, given management texts delve into black and white concepts and core management functions and leadership texts explore qualities and traits and styles.

Yet an organisation does have a heart, a spirit – the essential, most important part of a place that's experienced by all employees, as to how a place feels like and is like to be in; how people work together and communicate; what everyone considers important; how people treat one another; the organisational values and how they're manifest in the workplace; how management drive the place and acknowledge staff, their efforts and ideas; the organisation's rituals and customs; and its reputation, known by those inside and outside the organisation.

Organisations have reputations and some are widely known as either being great places to work with caring and supportive management and colleagues, innovative and creative, encouraging and go-getting or the complete opposite. And of course, there are organisations who fit somewhere along the continuum of Good to Great to Less Than. The concerning thing is that many organisations lose their good heart over time and management may not realize it has happened – their focus may be on other important things, like financial survival or the competitive marketplace.

Some indicators that would let staff know they are in a place that has lost its heart include:

  • staff within the organisation speak about the misuse of power from people in positions of formal power – lots of stories based on experience of harassment, overt and covert bullying, micro-managing to the nth degree, lying, misinformation tactics and staff being played off against one another
  • numbers of known ‘good' staff (skilled, ethical, professional) eventually leave because they find some senior managements' practices are untrustworthy or inconsistent; inter-personal relationships within the staff, teams or sections are frayed; great work, endless effort, new or alternative ideas are dismissed or ignored; staff are largely ignored only until someone does something that's perceived to be wrong
  • staff leave the organisation without any formal acknowledgement of the work they have done, their years of service, the contribution they have made over that time
  • staff who raise legitimate concerns get frozen out, picked on or subjected to a smear campaign; organisational issues are inappropriately personalized and the messenger gets shot
  • human resource practitioners' roles get reduced to risk management and legislative compliance and there is little focus on staffs' well being, their personal growth and development and their contribution to the success of the organisation; HR staff may find themselves powerless to deal with some issues as their views/recommendations are overruled by senior management
  • staff lose their trust in some HR practitioners because they're experienced as the puppet of the management, not a source of support and guidance for the staff
  • staff have no opportunity to provide feedback on their managers' performance yet the staff themselves are subjected to intense, constant scrutiny

How would management know the organisation is heartless or has symptoms of advanced heart disease?

  • increased numbers of complaints from staff raising legitimate concerns about how some things are being handled or managed in the organisation or managers hear staff are unwilling to speak out about inappropriate practices for fear of retaliation
  • an internal cultural audit reveals a workplace filled with anxiety, fear of speaking out; or management or staff practices that don't reflect best practice or basic professional behaviour
  • increased numbers of ‘off' staff – staff who may not like their job, their colleagues, organisational change or the direction the organisation; staff who are exhausted or seriously burnt out and lacking personal energy

How do the rest of us find out about organisations that have lost their heart?

  • friends, colleagues or complete strangers tell us about people they know who have been driven out of a particular organisation because they questioned the status quo, were concerned at the common practices within it, or they couldn't remain in the environment any longer
  • skilled, able people avoid working in a particular organisation because the organisation's negative reputation or the reputation of some personnel, is widely known

What can be done, to repair the damaged heart?

  • conduct a cultural audit every twelve months to take the pulse of the organisation – use an external resource to ensure an impartial view and recommendations for any potential changes
  • determine organisational values that are meaningful and use them as the yardstick to guide all decision makers (ideally, respect, fairness, integrity, professional practices and ethical behaviour should be in there somewhere)
  • ensure all staffs' personal values match the organisation's values
  • ensure managers, team leaders and supervisors have not only technical skills for their roles but also emotional intelligence (self awareness, awareness of others, humanity, compassion etc), interpersonal and communication skills, interest in their staff and concern for their wellbeing and passion – for the organisation, for the role, for the work, for the staff
  • require all staff, regardless of their role, to consistently model and reflect the organisation's core values
  • view staff as treasures and treat them with respect
  • develop systems and processes to identify staff in positions of authority who misuse their formal power and deal to those behaviours; develop safety mechanisms to protect staff from inappropriate management
  • manage staff who have lost their interest in their jobs, their organisation or their way in general; support them to get their interest back or find alternative, more satisfying employment options

The loss of organisational heart is a preventable condition. It can be reversed with a desire to be a healthy organisation; a willingness to instigate an appropriate regime of specific interventions over a period of time and a commitment to constant monitoring and adjustment.

It is time to give healthy, positive organisations the equivalent of the Heart Foundation's tick. For the organisations that have heart disease, a health warning could be issued to people who may wish to join it: exposure to this environment may be toxic and damaging to your health – extreme caution is advised.

Sue Dwan, Dwan & Associates Ltd ©

June 2010


Passionate or passionless?

No, this isn't a salacious read. It's about individuals and workplaces. How do you get your passion back for your work, when you have ‘lost it'? And how do you get passion for your work, if you've never had it to lose in the first place?

A typical dictionary definition says passion as a strong enthusiasm for something. I prefer to say it's something that makes your heart sing (for the less musically inclined, read lift). In other words, if you are doing something you love doing, chances are you are highly energized, enthusiastic, feel unstoppable and are highly creative; you'll be at your very best and you and those around you, know it. This is a great state to be in, but how do you and those around you know when your passion has gone?

It's gone when you find yourself:

  • talking negatively about your organisation, the management, the co-workers, the clients, workloads, the past, the future, new business ideas or any combination thereof – there's not a positive word to say about anything
  • procrastinating on small to big tasks; not volunteering to help others; being slow to pass information on; taking an inordinate amount of time to do something that typically takes little time at all
  • doing what needs to be done and nothing more; looking out for oneself, no one else;  withdrawing from meetings or day to day interactions; ignoring some work and finding lots of reasons to justify your stance
  • going through the motions and being physically present but mentally absent; feeling lethargic and may have a low mood; finding nothing you do interests or stimulates you in any way.

Personal factors can contribute to a loss of passion. People may:

  • feel powerless to change anything in the workplace or make a difference and rail against things they can't control
  • feel undervalued by ‘management', colleagues or the ‘organisation' as a whole and hold growing resentment, hurt and personal pain
  • have personal values that clash with the organisation's values and feel increasingly out of integrity with what they do, who they're with and where they are
  • develop burn out/exhaustion from constant change processes or trying to change things they can't change, which may lead to health issues
  • fail to take regular leave and work too long without a proper break
  • be bored, especially if they've been doing the same thing for years and haven't recognised the affect it has on them or those around them
  • be fearful and feel trapped by a lack of alternative job/career options, self confidence, qualifications or some skills to find another job. They may believe their age or life stage is a reason for not exploring other options. Staying where they are, however much it doesn't work for them, seems a safe, sustainable option
  • have events happening in their personal world that take all their physical and mental energy

Organisational factors can contribute to staff losing their enthusiasm and passion:

  • rolling change processes without any evidence of positive change or significant outcomes
  • few breaks in-between major change processes, with little time for integration of the last change process before the next one starts
  • a lack of clear direction and clear leadership – there's nothing substantial or compelling to pull people forward or commit to
  • disbursing staff around the workplace at will, without regard to their skills, experience, ideas or strengths
  • constant downsizing which increases demands on staff and decreases the amount of resources available, to assist them
  • managers who misuse their positional power and treat staff poorly, fail to acknowledge their skills and contribution, thank them for the work they do or deliberately withhold information, opportunities for advancement or salary increases

How can an individual get their passion back? They could:

  • name the elephant in the room – be honest with themselves and the state they're in and determine all the personal and organisational factors that may have contributed to the situation
  • identify how their lack of passion manifests itself in their workplace (with colleagues, workmates, projects, etc) and in their own work on a daily basis
  • identify the personal cost of working without interest/passion (e.g. stress, boredom etc) and the organisational costs incurred (e.g. lowered productivity, impact on others, poor work done)
  • check the alignment of their personal values and interests with their organisation's values and interests – if they're not aligned, determine what may be in their control to change, what isn't in their control to change and what they can or can't continue to live with
  • reflect back on their working life and the roles they've had when they've felt at their very best and identify the key elements that enabled them to be at their best (e.g. autonomous, self directed, member of a small team, ground-breaking work) and use those elements to see how many of them are reflected in their current role/workplace reality.
  • identify their passions – the things that make them really come alive
  • identify their fears (fear = fantasized experience appearing real) to see what personal beliefs may be keeping them stuck; identify any real barriers to change and determine how they could be minimised or eliminated altogether.
  • get external support i.e. a coach or mentor, to talk through their current situation, their passions, key elements that work for them, what they want to do about things
  • make a decision – it is an individual's personal responsibility to make changes in their working life. Conscious choices need to be made, not unconscious choices driven by patterns of avoidance, denial or fear.

And for teams who have lost their passion, they could:

  • get each team member to examine their own personal reality (as above) then determine what it would take to rekindle their passion
  • as a group, determine what a passion-filled workplace would look like, sound like and feel like then assess the current state of their workplace and the gap between how it is and how it could be
  • determine the range of actions they could take to bridge the gap – and document them in a plan – the old ‘think it, ink it, do it and review it' model
  • use a coach or mentor to provide encouragement, challenge, endorsement and support, while they work their way through any changes

And for individuals who aren't the least bit interested in their work and never have been, they will need some help to see they are ignoring their potential and talents and wasting much of their time and energy on something that isn't sustainable and ultimately, is harming them. They need to know the organisation needs people with interest and passion for what they do and there is a mismatch between how they currently are and what is needed. A process could then be instigated to help individuals become more aligned or find other employment alternatives.

Sue Dwan, Dwan & Associates,

September 2010 ©

Earthquakes and Risk Management

There's nothing like being in a major earthquake to focus the mind and sharpen the senses. The most basic instinct to kick in is personal survival and following that, concern for the wellbeing of family, friends, neighbours and the safety of homes. Business owners and managers within organisations had additional concerns – their business premises, operating equipment, stock, staff, loss of revenue and possible livelihoods. How many organisations, large and small, had adequately prepared for such an event?

In Christchurch, the Mayor, the Christchurch Council, Civil Defence, the Police, the CDHB and Emergency Services had prepared exceptionally well for such an event. Within 20 minutes of the earthquake on 4th September 2010 the emergency command centre was fully operational and the civic leaders firmly in control of the situation and the city. Calm, consistent, clear leadership and calm, clear, regular communications meant panic was avoided and in the weeks that followed, management of the crisis was followed by a seamless management of the aftermath and the city's rebuilding. It's textbook stuff and inspirational, to boot.

Risk management is a topic that makes some people think insurances and others, to run to the hills, as it is too difficult to think about. However, there is more to risk management than insurance and there are simple steps every business and organisation should take to prepare for the unexpected.

Some definitions

‘Risk' applies to any management decision which could have either a good or bad outcome. It may also be a future event which results in actions taken now. A hazard is anything that can go wrong or cause harm. A risk is the chance that the hazard may cause a problem. Risk assessment requires defining what could go wrong and risk management involves taking steps to control the risks.


Risk may be non-entrepreneurial i.e. an accidental or deliberate event that threatens a business and impacts upon its normal functioning, like fire, pollution, fraud. Risk may also be entrepreneurial i.e. a merger or change process, a new product launch. A crisis/risk can be caused by an act of nature, an intentional act or an unintentional accident. Risks need to be managed as a system, so that they are managed in a proactive, co-ordinated, cost-effective and prioritized way.

The purpose of risk management is to identify and manage the two key areas of risk – the strategic and the operational; to undertake risk analysis to determine what risks are worth pursuing; to manage crisis situations; to separate the management of a crisis from the day-to-day functioning of the business; to avoid cost, disruption and distress; to proactively prepare for the unexpected.

There are three parts to risk management processes:

Part One – Pre-Crisis Assessment and Planning

1. Identify and assess risks – conduct ‘what-if' analysis for every potential hazard/threat to the business – this can be done using a probability and severity chart. Set priorities – which ones have the highest priorities? Determine how to minimize, transfer or spread the risk i.e. through a crisis plan, determining alternative options for every ‘what if', ensuring the cost of the plans are proportionate to the actual risk.

2. Set policies for each area of risk i.e. how we manage the risk

3. Implement the policies

4. Manage and monitor the risks

5. Establish and test crisis procedures

6. Repeat steps 1-6.

7. Establish a Risk Management/Crisis Management Team

8. Train the Risk Management/Crisis Management Team

9. Update base information e.g. staff lists; lists of suppliers and clients; building plans; insurance policies; back-up computer systems – all information needed by the Risk Management/Crisis Management Team.

Part Two – Manage the Actual Crisis

1. Activate the Risk Management/Crisis Management Team

2. Manage the crisis, as per pre-established procedures.

Part Three – Post-Crisis Analysis and Actions

1. Debrief with the Risk Management/Crisis Management Team – critique crisis procedures, the Crisis Management Team's roles and responsibilities, individuals' performance in their roles, the internal systems used within the team; identify what worked well and less well.

2. Invite stakeholders involved in the crisis situation to identify what worked well and less well, and any suggestions for improvement.

3. Record learnings from the debrief; make appropriate adjustments to roles, procedures, base information and systems. Update the procedures and policies.

4. Thank stakeholders, staff and all who supported the organisation during the crisis.

5. Arrange a training meeting with the Crisis Management Team to familiarise themselves with the adjusted procedures and base information.

6. Arrange quarterly meetings with Crisis Management Team

Some medium to large organisations may have head offices out of an affected area, so someone other than staff in an affected area may be the ones to coordinate events. A risk here is that sometimes a head office response may be too slow for events happening in an affected area, so local staff will need some basic pre-prepared courses of action, so time and energy isn't wasted wondering what to do but rather, simply getting on with what is needed.

Preparing for the unexpected isn't complicated. It requires positive intent, skilled and aware staff, time, some resources and commitment to do a proper job of it. Even with some basic guidelines to follow, those new to the concept of risk management planning may find the task daunting and too difficult to contemplate, so get help and guidance to get you started. If you haven't already done so, start now – there is no time to waste.

Sue Dwan, Dwan & Associates ©, September 2010


Future proofing yourself

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about future proofing. Not future proofing a business but myself. And I'm not just thinking about me but other practitioners, consultants, advisors and employees who work across sectors and subject categories and have considerable experience doing so. It can be said that the more you do the more experience you have in something but can we be sure we aren't just repeating the same three or ten years experience every time? The first of the baby boomers generation will hit 65 years of age this year. Some may choose to withdraw from their paid working life completely whereas others may want to keep working and earning indefinitely. And for those who plan to do this (including the baby boomers who aren't anywhere near the 65 year mark yet), they need to ensure they have up-to-date skills, competencies and knowledge to take them into their next 20 plus working years. Years of experience alone in a particular field, may not be enough for the future. Future proofing requires us to look now at what we have and what we may need, to remain employable. This is likely to include formal studies and new qualifications.

Police saved by stitch in time?

The State Services Commission report (18 January 2011, ONE News/NZPA) into the culture of New Zealand's police says decisive action is needed to improve police culture. Amongst other areas of need, the report identified police managers and staff at all levels tolerate poor performance and behaviours; and management have tolerated the continuation and appointments of the wrong people into some positions. Another report that same day commented there were pockets of change resistant staff within the police and they will need to be dealt with. The police don't have the sole rights to the problem of ignoring poor performers, behaviours and change resistant staff. It is quite common in organisations and it develops slowly and surely over a number of years until it becomes an accepted organisational norm. It accompanies another accepted organisational norm which is systematic management failure (new managers inherit a number of historical problems and can't or won't get the support to successfully resolve them, so the problems remain for the next manager to discover). All of which brings to mind an old adage, but goodie: a stitch in time saves nine. Simply put, if a workplace issue is noticed, acted upon immediately and successfully sorted, it will be finished in a timely fashion. It will not impact overly much on the organisation, staff, organisational culture, service, clients. If an issue is noticed, ignored and left unattended, it will eventually become a huge, huge problem that will require an enormous amount of time, effort, money and specialists, to sort. There are some other important elements needed to successfully manage these historical, difficult issues: you need a vision of what you want to create; skilled, knowledgeable courageous people who are prepared to do what is required; solid backing and support for the change agents; a well thought out plan; high standards around behaviours and attitudes; sufficient resources to do what's needed; and a zero tolerance for tolerating the intolerable. Oh, and did I mention great leadership, great role models, stickability and courage?