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A Change of Habit

August 5, 2011

Many years ago I worked for an organization where there was a long standing and firmly held belief that if you had a conflict/issue/negative interaction with a co-worker it was of the utmost importance that YOU be the first one to report the issue.  Now this did not occur from a good-for-the-business-and-the-organization cultural value.  Rather, it arose from the absolute conviction that if you told the BigBoss your side of the story first – then that was the version that would become the gospel.  Too bad for your co-worker or teammate, also involved, who didn’t get to the BigBoss first . . . s/he would be presumed guilty and have to prove their innocence.

Naturally, when I went to work in this environment I refused to believe that this was how things operated.  “Surely,” I said to a peer, “the BigBoss isn’t really managing situations in this manner?”

“Just you wait,” she replied cryptically.

So I waited.


And I saw it come to pass.

Margie and Betty had a verbal tiff (it barely even registered as a disagreement) on how to complete a process.  Betty didn’t like the way Margie “was bossy” so she ran to the BigBoss and reported this atrocious transgression.  The BigBoss began an investigation (yes, really) and assumed that Margie had committed the most egregious act possible…before he even had one word with her.

Stan noticed his co-worker Bob reporting to work late on a regular basis.  Stan decided his best course of action was not to have a word with Bob, nor even to mention it to his Manager.  Rather, as you can imagine, Stan high-tailed it to the office of the BigBoss.  And thus commenced another ‘investigation’ by the BigBoss who, when he spoke to Bob, came to learn that not only did Bob’s Manager know what was going on, he had approved a temporary change to Bob’s schedule so he could attend some medical appointments.

And on and on.



I came to find that this was a long standing (think decades-long) practice.  As I got a sense of some of the historical and cultural norms it appeared that this way of operating had come about for a couple of reasons:

  • The BigBoss (and some managers) felt that their role was to keep their wayward children in line – with kindness of course – and teach them right from wrong.  So in the name of caring for employees (“we’re like a family after all!”) and teaching some important and necessary work skills, a culture developed that encouraged this sort of childish behavior on the part of the employees.
  • Staff members bought into this paternalistic environment where they were treated as children rather than fully functioning professionals; heck, in a way it was all somewhat easier!  So for years being the office tattletale was validated.  At its core, of course, it wasn’t so much about ‘getting someone else’ in trouble.  Rather, it was all about getting some love, appreciation and face-time with Dad the BigBoss.

Not an easy habit to change.


But change it we did.

And while there were a number of contributing factors that went into a major adjustment of this particular workplace culture, there were a few key action steps that helped us change this particular habit:

  • We defined (and communicated) the role of our managers – for their own benefit as well as for the benefit of their employees.  We mapped out competencies, expected performance indicators, and accountabilities.  People were amazed and astonished at the positive things that happened once we let our managers “manage.”
  • We clarified what our ‘open-door’ policy meant (because yes – it was an actual policy in the actual Employee Handbook).  While we still encouraged feedback and sharing of information, we migrated, by example, from a tattletale culture.  Primarily by…..
  • Encouraging the BigBoss to (gently) turn employees away from his door by asking one simple question – “Have you spoken to your manager first?”

Three relatively painless shifts in how we operated.  And over time we witnessed a transformative effect.

As for the BigBoss?  He was extraordinarily happy.  He hadn’t realized how exhausted he was.

One Comment leave one →
  1. HRBR permalink
    August 5, 2011 11:31 am

    Thank you, thank you very much.

    I enjoyed reading this post. 3 simple steps to a better environment.

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