A couple of days before the election I was jolted awake by a radio interview. A bookie was being quizzed about the candidates’ odds of success. It went something like this.

  • Question 1 – how had concerns over the candidates’ values, competence and trustworthiness affected their chances of taking power. Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn had both been laughed during a TV debate. Answer - not at all.
  • Question 2 – why not? Answer - the public had “priced in” their view of each candidate’s flaws already. Further examples would be overlooked if they were seen as just more of the same.

I chewed this over as I chewed my porridge. I’ve seen the same thinking many times at work and I bet you have too. It comes up in performance review discussions (“Yes, you wouldn’t want to get on his wrong side, but I’m not going to upset him because he’s so valuable….”). It comes up when someone’s done something that has landed them in hot water (“But I’ve done this for years and nobody has ever said anything! It’s unfair for you to make a big deal about it now….”). It’s natural to adjust to the people we are familiar with.

The problem is that when we stop noticing what is going on around us at work, little by little we allow the culture to slip. We don’t champion and reward great behaviour. We enable small issues to develop into big ones. When leaders and HR do this, they are seen to condone it. And when management is seen as part of the problem, people are more likely to eat a field of brussels sprouts than to alert you to some of your biggest risks.

I’ve spent my career as a mirror, helping people and organisations see what is going on and to take action. Now I’m part of a team that equips people to create and sustain great workplace cultures; places where people are psychologically safe. The discussions are fantastic and people say they make a big difference. A key point is that people notice different things. Over breakfast after that interview two characters came to mind. I’ve met a variation of Sam and Alex many times and I bet you have too. In great workplaces their behaviour is recognized and not simply priced in. How does your workplace stack up?

Sam – the high performing introvert

Sam takes pride in not being a politician: there is no annual Sam is No.1 campaign when the organisational goodies are handed out. But maybe there should be - Sam makes a major contribution: quiet and efficient delivery; sorting out problems without fuss or publicity; and supporting people around them. This is Sam’s modus operandi. The benefits? Sam’s manager can sleep easy at night- a smooth operation; high collaboration with peers; a highly engaged team; low turnover; no grievances; no casualties; no regulatory or reputational risk. No concerned calls from clients. By definition, the way Sam creates value is low key and therefore easy to take for granted. The risk of the manager falling into that trap? That you lose Sam and all that hidden value.

How can we make sure Sam’s contribution is noticed?

  • Sam – why not make 2020 the year that you don’t collude in being undervalued? How can you get due credit for the value you create?
  • Leaders and HR – how do you make sure Sam knows that their contribution is highly valued? Think about how extravert orientated your organisation is and how that squares with any statements you make about inclusion. Quiet by Susan Cain is a good read.
  • Observers – when was the last time you told Sam what their strengths are? What harm would it do to tell them?

Alex – the jerk

If Sam’s problem is they are easy to overlook and politically disconnected, Alex is the opposite. Alex is on a permanent campaign to overstate their brilliance, their expertise, their indispensability, their busyness, their challenges, their achievements, their contribution; their needs and their worth. And the key thing Alex will do is to make sure that anyone with power over them ignores or excuses their poor behaviour and its negative impact. Alex can be very creative in how they do that.

What is Alex up to? Corrosive behaviour – game playing, put downs, lies and half-truths. They won’t be limited to just micro-aggressions; when the opportunity arises, major aggression will be in the mix too. Alex’s impact? The pattern is always the same: undermined peers; a strong in-group/out group split; resistance to organisational controls; high turnover, complaints and, too often, people made ill.

How do we make sure that Alex is noticed?

  • Alex - take a good look in the mirror and think about making changes while you have time. Plenty of people know what you’re doing and the world is a lot less tolerant of your modus operandi these days.
  • Leaders and HR – take a different perspective on Alex. What would a critical new joiner, journalist or regulator say? Get to the bottom of the fallout around Alex. Stop making excuses. The Soft Stuff by Matt Dean is a good read. So is The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton.
  • Observers - care enough and be brave enough to do something. I know what many of you are thinking – Alex holds grudges and a quick way to be on their target list is not to dance to their tune. Calling out what’s going on seems like all risk with no upside. The problem is that that thinking like this doesn’t help anyone but Alex. There is hope. At byrne·dean we equip people in your shoes to make smart choices. Someone in your workplace is paid to be accountable for risk management. They may have regulatory obligations. Maybe you do too. If you can’t think of a better alternative, go and see them. Or use whatever whistleblowing service is available to you.

Building robust cultures

So there we are. My bet is that if you work for a Sam or an Alex this makes a much bigger difference to your wellbeing than who runs the country. That’s good news, as everyone can champion Sam and challenge Alex.

And what about leaders and HR? This is complex and difficult stuff: times have changed and yesterday’s ways of handling issues can provoke outrage today. So here’s a simple test – how confident are you on a scale of 1-10 that Sam gets championed and Alex challenged in your workplace? If you’re not a 9 or 10, why not use 2020 to increase the capability of everyone in your organisation to notice, champion and challenge? These skills used to be a nice to have. Now they must be priced in to the way things are done in your organisation, or the consequences will be no laughing matter.