White Privilege

I recently had an insightful conversation at work with a white colleague. We had just attended a diversity training. Unlike me, who grew up in the suburbs, my colleague grew up “dirt poor” and does not know how to relate to the concept of “white privilege.”

My colleague worked very hard to create a prosperous life, which is a source of pride, imbedded in gratitude that we live in a country where hard work can move someone from “rags to riches.” This is America’s story of hope and promise to those who work hard.

Hard work, however, is only half the story. The other half is opportunity. Without opportunity, hard work does not lead to financial success, let alone, wealth. White privilege, as I understand it, is recognizing that the opportunity deck is stacked in favor of those who are classified as racially “white.” Those who are not considered “white” face a myriad of barriers that my colleague and I did not have to overcome.

I have come to understand my own “white privilege” by looking at the data and listening to people who have struggled against barriers because of the color of their skin. I have come to see the patterns that value white over non-white people in our social, economic, political and cultural systems and institutions, creating an unfair playing field, particularly for African Americans and American Indians. For so many years I did not see these dynamics because they did not affect me. That has been my privilege.

When it comes to data, I need look no further than my own state. Minnesota consistently ranks high in national studies for quality of life, health, education and employment—if you are white. Minnesota also consistently ranks high in racial disparities. The gaps in education, income, home ownership and health between “white” people and “people of color” is stark.

In 2016, the Metropolitan Council published a paper, RACE AND ETHNICITY MATTER FOR ECONOMIC SUCCESS AND OPPORTUNITY that details these disparities. I encourage you to look at the report and its sobering conclusions.

Looking at data and listening to people have motivated me to learn more and do my part to dismantle institutional, cultural, systematic racism. I want to help create a workplace that values every employee and provides equal opportunities, regardless of one’s skin color or background. I want to live in a nation that lives up to its promises of freedom and justice, where every child and adult feels valued, and has the opportunity to realize her or his dreams, just as was possible for my white colleague, and for me.

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Oh, Oh! What Did I Do Wrong Now?

I was recently asked what I like about working where I work. I responded, “I don’t worry  about getting in trouble for doing my job.” I don’t lay awake at night second-guessing my every action, wondering whether I will be “talked to” about how I did this or that wrong, or didn’t consider all of the implications, or include the right people, or didn’t get permission first—all with a parental tone with the message that I messed up—again!

I thought back on all the jobs and bosses I have had over the years and saw the pattern. The jobs I most disliked (even if I liked the work), had a common element—a constant feeling of dread that someone would judge me, my words or my actions, and I would have no opportunity to defend myself, lest I be considered “insubordinate.”

Constant correcting causes employee disengagement. Why work hard, invest your energy and passion if it is constantly criticized? When people feel judged at every turn, they have little inclination to make decisions, act, take risks, or throw out creative ideas.

Frequent criticism, or as we like to say in management, “employee coaching,” is too often used to keep power dynamics in favor of those who have the most, feeding their egos and reinforcing their sense of superiority, but it is not good for employees, morale, the organization or the bottom line.

This is not to say all coaching is bad. If it comes from a place of generosity and it is allowed/encouraged both directions (up and down), feedback can be very powerful, leading to growth and confidence.

One of my favorite bosses, Mary, was a master of positive coaching. I was never afraid when she asked me to come to her office, or when it was time for my annual review.

One of Mary’s favorite lines was, “Assume good intentions” and she practiced what she preached. She always assumed my intentions were good and our work goals were aligned. She encouraged me to take risks and bring my full self at work.

When Mary offered me feedback it was in the form of insights or options for me to consider. “Here is another way to think about that” or “In my experiences, this is what I have observed” or “You might consider checking this out” or “What you are proposing might have these untended consequence.”

Mary was affirming and supportive. She trusted me and believed in me, which motivated me to work harder and engage more. She also asked me for my feedback on how she could be more effective. Our relationship was mutually respectful and beneficial.

I wish everyone could have a boss like Mary. I wish every boss would assume good intentions. Work would be so much more engaging and fun!

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Competition and Collaboration

Everyone loves a good competition, and hates a bad one. Better to have not played at all than to have participated in an unfair contest.

But what makes for good competition? Clear goals, an agreed upon field of play, reasonable rules that are documented and fairly enforced, and evenly matched contestants. Good competitions have structural integrity.

How many times have you been part of a work team that lacked structural integrity? There are no clear goals, no common understanding of what is in or out of bounds, no documented rules, or, worse, rules that change in the middle of the game, and no or unfair enforcement of the rules.

Good competitions also have collaboration—working together toward common goals. In team sports, we see collaboration in the magic that happens when the team’s goals are valued over individual accomplishments. This can only happen when players trusts each other’s intentions and skills, and are willing to give their all for their teammates. Good collaborations have behavioral integrity.

How many times have you been part of a work team that is supposed to be collaborative but lacks behavioral integrity? Members may not believe in the goals, or trust each other’s intentions. Required skills of some members may be lacking, so the “stars” are often expected to “carry” the others.

Great leaders, like great coaches, create environments and build teams that have both structural and behavioral integrity. They are responsible for the framework, ensure that required skill sets exist to enable trust, do not change the goals or rules in the middle of the engagement and do not generally enter the field of play.

Excellent leaders may set up some healthy internal competition but not at the expense of collaboration. They don’t undermine the team by pitting people against each other but often frame competition within the team against an external measure of time, performance or quality. At work, it is less, “Can we do better than them?” and more, “Can we do better than we did last time?”

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a supervisor or manager to be an excellent leader. Leadership occurs on all levels. Team members can set up the structural and behavioral integrity required to be a high functioning, collaborative teams..

For more insights about how to be an excellent leader at any level, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or on Amazon.

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“Not Bad for a Monday!”

So, I asked my coworker how her day was going and she said, “Not bad for a Monday!”

A couple days later, I asked another colleagues how he was doing, to which he replied “Doing good. It’s hump day!”

Later in the week, I overheard coworkers talking about their weekend plans, “Thank God its Friday!”

Work is perceived to be so terrible that we utter these phrases day after day, without giving it much thought. It is part of the culture to complain and look forward to the weekends when we are free to pursue our happiness.

What would it look like if we pursued happiness not only on weekends, but at work?  Sounds crazy, I know. But I think it would be transformative.

I’ll let you in on a secret.  I enjoy my work. Most days, it is really quite fun!  I seldom have the “Sunday Dreads.”

When I share this with others, usually they look at me like I am from another planet.

Being happy at work and admitting it is counter cultural. It’s uncool. But I am not deterred because my own happiness is at stake. I would rather be happy than miserable.

In addition to pursuing my own happiness at work, I have made it my goal to change the culture. Instead of asking “how are you doing?” I tilt toward positivity by asking, “What are you working on that is fun?” Interestingly enough, I almost always get an answer and even a smile, creating space for more joy in the culture.

Now, I admit that not all of the jobs I have had in my life have been totally fun. Even my current job isn’t all roses and sunshine. Still, every job has aspects of enjoyment if we are open to this possibility.

We could all have more fun at work if we challenged the assumption that work isn’t supposed to be fun.

Please join my positivity campaign and have fun at work, and encourage your colleagues to too.  Challenge the negative messages that have become part of the culture, and create the work environment that you want. We spend a significant portion of our lives at work.  It oughta be fun!

For more radical ideas on how to improve your work culture, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or on Amazon.com.









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What Happened to Middle Ground?

In the midst of unlimited access to information, understanding appears to be on the decline.

What happened to middle ground?

Middle ground is where we…

…compromise on positions to support larger principles

…trade short term gains for long term goals

…connect common values across contrary views

…celebrate our differences and engage in healthy debate

Middle ground is where we gather with candles to bring each other comfort.


Middle ground is not lost.  It has just fallen out of favor in the public square and in politics.

In our private and professional lives, we know middle ground. With families, friends and colleagues, we show respect and treat each other with kindness. We compromise, connect and celebrate differences as we live together in peace–every single day.

To solve the challenges of our time, we must value middle ground in our public and political lives as much as we do privately and professionally. We must choose to favor listening and learning over talking and taunting. 

Let us reach across our differences, and find again the middle ground that holds us all together.

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Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is all the rage.

Studies show that successful companies have engaged employees. So, to become more successful, many organizations have made engagement a priority. How does management know whether employees are engaged? Why, you give them a survey, of course! Employee engagement surveys abound, giving managers data to study and identify trouble-spots in need of change.

online-surveys copy

Employee engagement programs are a step in the right direction. Acknowledging that success is influenced by the motivation of employees is good. However, employee engagement programs sometimes focus too much on the data and surveys, and not enough on the employees themselves.

I once attended a meeting on how to engage employees and someone said, “If we do this, maybe our survey numbers will increase!” Fortunately, one of my colleagues responded, “We are not doing this to increase our numbers, we are doing this to engage employees. If the numbers go up, great, but that is not our motivation.”

Measuring employee engagement is not engagement. Engagement is asking employees what they think, inviting them to be more involved in decision-making and more invested in the work. It means that managers need to let go of control, and learn new models for co-creating with employees.

For example, instead of making assignments, a supervisor might meet with the team about all of the work that needs to be done, and ask people to express interest, giving them more choice in assignments. It means taking the time to find out what energizes people and what drains them, then increasing the former while decreasing the latter. It means seeing the differences in style, strengths and talents, and shaping work to fit employees, rather than the other way around.

For more radical ideas on how to engage employees, see my book, Management Culture:   Innovative & Bold Strategies to Engage Employees on mgmtculture.com and through Amazon.

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Like for Like

“Like for like” describes a comparison of two different things that are equivalent, even if not exactly the same. It is used in finance to compare sales, and in insurance for replacing lost or stolen property. IT uses a “like for like” principle to ensure that changing technology will provide users with essentially what they had before, not “like for less.”

“Like for like” is similar to a “hold harmless” policy or, Hippocratically speaking, “first, do no harm.” These principles guide professional practice to ensure that interventions do not leave people worse off than they were before the intervention.

I propose that the practice of management adopt a “like for like” principles as a universal tenet. Ensuring “like for like” actions would require impact analysis before management decisions are implemented, and would invite participation from everyone affected. It would result in better decisions, more engaged employees and less fear about what management will “do to” people.

Without a hold harmless principle, managers are free to wreak havoc on organizations and break what is working based only on their goals, ideas and judgement. In my experience, well-intentioned managers often deliver “like for less” and inflict harm when they are focused too much on the potential benefits of their decisions, and not enough on what might break in the process. The best insurance management has is to vet ideas and plans with everyone who will be affected to assess potential benefits and potential harm, in order to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

“Like for like” is only the beginning. We all should aspire to “like for better” or even “like for transform!” In medicine, practitioners first do no harm. But they do not stop there. Their goal is to mend, correct and heal. Managers, too, need to start with a premise of first doing no harm, then go about the business to fix, inspire and transform their organizations.

For more radical ideas on how to transform the work environment, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or on Amazon.

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