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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World Peace

I generally write about work, and how to make the work place more positive and engaging. This month my thoughts are broader–how to make our society and the world more peaceful.

In this midst of this holiday season, which is normally filled with anticipation and joy, I find myself struggling to make sense of the human violence that daily floods my awareness.

I believe by nature human beings are more prone to be kind and compassionate than hateful and violent. So, what is going on in my community and in the world? And, more importantly, can we fix it?

As the debates about what to do about violence become more polarized, I find myself becoming more ambivalent about my positions, less sure in my opinions.

  • I agree that we must protect freedom of speech; and I agree that excessive violence in entertainment (e.g. books, movies, TV shows, video games, rap songs) contributes to the violence.
  • I agree that people have the right to own guns; and I believe no civilian needs a semi-automatic weapon.
  • I agree that we should protect the privacy of people with mental illness; and I agree that they should not be allowed to buy guns.
  • I agree that black lives matter and racism is real; and I agree that most police officers deserve our respect and gratitude.
  • I agree that we should welcome refugees who are fleeing unimaginable horrors; and I am afraid that those intent on inflicting more harm would exploit this generosity.

I believe that the path to peace is to build more bridges, not more walls; to create more understanding, not more judgement; to ask more questions and really listen to each other’s perspectives.

Perhaps the seeds of peace lie in the very ambivalence that makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps moving away from knowing with certainty to asking with genuine curiosity is our best hope for the future.

In this season, we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the birth of Muhammad. We have Festivals of Lights, and affirm the principles of Kwanzaa. And, when we have reached our darkest day, our part of the world will again turns its face toward the sun as we celebrate the Solstice.

I pray for world peace through understanding, and wish you peace in your world this holiday season.

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Don’t Outshine the Boss

Have you ever found yourself in a competition with your boss that you never intended, but wound up losing? It starts so innocently with you trying to do a good job, which should make your boss look good, right? Then somewhere along the way, it starts to get weird. Instead of supporting you, your boss starts to nitpick everything you do, which is puzzling at first. Then, it dawns on you (or one of your colleagues points it out), you are looking smarter than your boss.

One of the unwritten rules of hierarchy is, “Don’t outshine the boss.” When you realize what has happened, the only appropriate response is to start stroking your boss’s ego and dialing back your own “shine.” You need to get small so the boss can be big. If you dare to remain in the competition, you will likely eventually be disciplined for insubordination.

This absurd dynamic stems from a cultural assumption that superiority correlates with authority. The higher your position, the smarter you must be, right? Not true. However, we are all expected to act as though it is. I call that the “Superiority Tango”–pretending the boss is always right even when s/he is not.

We need to change the rules of the hierarchy game to ensure that everyone can be big, engage and participate fully, without fear of outshining anyone, least of all the boss. Excellent leaders, like excellent coaches, encourage everyone to excel, even beyond their own shining achievements.

For radical ideas on how to create a work environment where everyone shines, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com and on Amazon.

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The Kid’s Table

When there are too many people coming to dinner than there are seats at the table, what do you do? You create the kid’s table.

The kids-table-make-less-noisekid’s table is often a card table, with a plastic tablecloth, mismatched dishes and folding chairs. Because the table is too small for serving dishes, food is passed from the big table. Toward the end of the meal, someone notices that at least one dish never got passed to the kid’s table, which sends groans from the kid’s table, and laughter from the grown-up table.

If you were raised in a “kid’s table” family, you know the hopeful anticipation when you believe you are finally old enough to move up. You may know the pride that comes with this right of passage, or the humiliation of being told no because the grown-up table is still too crowded.

At work, do you ever feel like you are sitting at the kid’s table with folding chairs and mismatched glasses, getting dishes that have been passed to the important people first, and wondering if you are getting the whole meal? Do you ever have the sense that your table could be folded up and stored back in the closet at any time, and you’d have no place to sit, just as dessert is being served?

Executives and managers who sit at the grown-up table would be wise to learn a lesson from my Mom. She was opposed to the notion of a “kid’s table.” Instead, she and Dad rearranged their living room, extending the dining room table with as many other tables as she needed to ensure that everyone sat together and got to participate in the conversation. She and Dad made it a point to sit at the card table end to prove that it was just as valued as the other end of the table.

At Mom and Dad’s house, no matter how big the gathering, no one was diminished. All were welcomed as equals. Now, please pass the mashed potatoes!

For more radical ideas on how to open the table at work, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or on amazon.com.

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Demilitarization Zones (DMZ)

In the 1960s, the United States declared War on Poverty. Since then, we have declared War on Drugs, War on Cancer, War on Terrorism and War on Alzheimers. In these wars, we name enemies, sympathize with the victims, celebrate the survivors and mourn those who have lost their battles.

War talk is everywhere. At work, we rally the troops, bullet point ideas, shoot each other emails, fill our arsenals with weapons and create war rooms to deal with the fall-out when things blow up. When we win, we say, “We killed!” When we are defeated, we say, “We were slaughtered!” We are willing to lose battles in order to win wars.

In information technology, we assess threats and respond to cyber attacks. We also create demilitarization zones (DMZs). DMZs sit outside of the company’s internal network, and exist solely to communicate and invite connections with external parties in a way that is safe, protected and military free.

Anthropologists say that language reflects the values of culture. In our battle-laden, and battle-weary culture, I think we need more DMZs, neutral areas where it is safe to drop our war-like stances to promote communicating and making connections.

To have a more peaceful world, and more sane workplaces, let’s embrace metaphors and language that reflect values of equality, freedom and democracy. These metaphors are emerging as we engage employees, provide transparency of information, promote diversity of thought, create cross-functional collaborations and form representative governance. Let’s declare War on War talk, and replace it with Peace talk to promote understanding and compassion in place of judgement and aggression.

For more radical ideas on how to demilitarize your workplace, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or though Amazon.

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What, you ask, is a fractal?

“A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.” (Fractal Foundation) th

Fractals exist in nature (trees, plants,  coastlines, mountains, sea shells, hurricanes) and in human relationships.

For example, hospitals focus on reducing small mistakes to reduce the large ones. They have learned that the same repeated patterns that cause minor errors are responsible for costly ones.This is a fractal.

In 1989, Stephen Covey wrote a groundbreaking book about highly effective people. He found that the secret to success lies not in intelligence or personal charisma, but in having effective habits; simple patterns repeated again and again. This is a fractal.

In organizations, fractals abound. Patterns of integrity or corruption, transparency or secrecy are repeated at different levels, creating what we call organizational culture. This is a fractal.

Internal cultural patterns are also repeated externally. Employees who are treated with respect and appreciation will provide the same to customers and clients. Employees who are treated poorly will provide poor customer service. This is a fractal.

We all create and reinforce fractals by repeating patterns. Employees at all levels can change organizational culture by refusing to repeat patterns that create dysfunction, and creating new patterns that bring life. The great thing about fractals is they can transform systems from the bottom up, and from the middle out. They are not reliant on authority or positional power for their energy, but thrive on the energy of everyone who participates.

fractals-picture Denise Moreland’s book, Management Culture, can be purchased at mgmtculture.com or Amazon.  (Please consider writing a review on Amazon.) Sign up for Denise’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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Supervising Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Everyone makes mistakes, but at work, everyone is not required to own up to them.

If an employee screws up, s/he is expected to admit it, apologize for it, identify lessons learned,  and commit to doing better in the future. We call that “employee development.”

If a boss si-am-the-bosscrews up, s/he is not expected to own up to it or apologize. Instead, we are supposed to work around, cover up or pretend that the boss is never wrong. When employees dare to point out their boss’ mistakes, we call that “insubordination,” and subject them to disciplinary action.

Pretending that bosses never make mistakes puts a lot of pressure on bosses, and robs organizations of truth and authenticity. It affects productivity and morale, and drives a wedge between management and employees.

The best way to fix organizations suffering from the ill effects of pretending the boss is always right–what I call the “Superiority Tango” (see chapters 4-6 of my book, Management Culture)–is for bosses to admit when they are wrong, apologize to those who were negatively affected, and learn from their mistakes.

I once wasted 6 months of an employee’s work life on a project that was a mistake to even begin. When I made the assignment, I had not fully understood the complexity of the issues. I also did not make analyzing the issues part of the assignment. Trying to be a strong leader, I  decided what needed to be done, and told the employee to do it.

After the project was completed, I realized I was wrong. I couldn’t undue my mistake, but I could apologize and learn from it. I apologized to my boss and the employee who did the work. I learned that the best decisions are made when I ask the people actually doing the work to participate in the analysis, and make recommendations of what to do and how to do it. Now, I seldom presume I know enough to dictate a solution before the analysis has been done.

Everyone makes mistakes. Organizations are healthy and vibrant when everyone is free to talk about them, own up to them, apologize and learn from them.

For more radical ideas on how to improve organizational life and productivity, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or on Amazon.

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Why We Dread Reviews

What is more frightening than Halloween? Annual performance reviews, of course!

I didn’t completely understand why I dreaded being on the receiving end of reviews until I became a supervisor and started giving them. As “the boss,” I am expected to rate employee performance and identify development goals for the next year. I am both a judge of work and development coach.

Imbedded in my responsibilities is an assumption that I am superior–smarter, more experienced, more knowledgeable and wiser than my, so-called, “subordinates.”  Then it hit me, I dread reviews because they are inherently patronizing to the reviewees. The truth is, I am not smarter or wiser than the people who report to me. I merely have more responsibility, authority and accountability. We have different, but equally important, roles.

Several years ago, I decided to abandon my roles as judge and developer of other people. Instead, I expect people to develop themselves and own their careers. I have replaced judgment with questions:

  1. What have been your accomplishments and challenges?
  2. What are your career goals?
  3. What experiences and training do you need to get there?
  4. What energizes you at work? How can we get more of that into your job?
  5. What do you find most frustrating? What can I/we do to lessen it?
  6. Are you getting what you need from me?

Of course, I am still willing to provide feedback, and I expect the same in return. I am willing to share what I have learned over the years, in exchange for listening to the wisdom of my colleagues. Stepping out of the role of judge and developer of employees, I find my dread for giving, and getting, reviews is greatly diminished, and our conversations are more real, more productive and more meaningful.

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

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