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How Sweeping Generalizations Create Soul-Crushing Cultures

This negative bias against employees is harmful. It sets low standards and leads to micromanaging, among other things. It also prompts employees to view management through an equally negative lens.

Whether it’s a conscious choice or not, workers who don’t like or respect their leaders don’t perform as they should — or could.

According to the traditional rules of management, assumptions about people directly determine policy and decision-making. Bad experiences with even just a handful of people shape how an entire group is viewed: Consider what happened with Google’s former employee James Damore, who, in 2017, blasted a companywide memo stating women were less biologically fit to work in technology than men. Met with serious backlash from the general public and its own employees, Google was suddenly painted as an organization comfortable with hiring misogynistic and unfit people.

Suffice it to say, Damore was fired from the company (and Google’s hiring practices have become stricter), but experiences like these can have lasting effects at a company: For fear of more bad apples in the mix, some employers may begin to treat their workers like they’re in need of policing — even when they’re not.

This negative bias against employees is harmful. It sets low standards and leads to micromanaging, among other things. It also prompts employees to view management through an equally negative lens.

As the negative outlooks and disharmony spread, pessimism worms its way into office culture. In the case of Damore, his toxicity seeped so deeply that many employees even held walkout protests in response.

Needless to say, no one thrives in this type of environment. It breeds disengagement — which contributes to higher rates of absenteeism and turnover, diminishes employee loyalty, and produces an attitude of apathy at work. But poor performance is a result of negative assumptions — not a justification.

The transportation industry gives us a good testing ground for this, as it’s usually organized by a two-class management approach: Management is on top, and drivers are treated as lower-tier.

As in any sector, some people may be model team members, while others exhibit less savory personality traits or troublesome work ethics. Workers in labor jobs, such as transportation, are commonly characterized as rough around the edges and are often treated as if so-called good workers are the exception, not the norm.

Of course, behavior is the visible manifestation of attitudes. So if management has negative assumptions about drivers — that they’re lazy, hard to work with, etc. — how does it show? Perhaps managers keep communication to a minimum, meet driver frustration with apathy, or do the minimum to help a driver reach his or her financial goals. Then, drivers “live down” to those assumptions, thereby reinforcing managers’ attitudes.

By contrast, a management style rooted in the assumption that employees are good and hardworking makes a team feel valued. Team members, in turn, value their employer and strive to perform at top levels. It’s not just a matter of being treated better. It’s a mindset shift that drives changed behaviors.

Breaking the cycle of discouragement

Knight Transportation, North America’s largest full truckload company, worked from the beginning to support and value its drivers. When our team began working with Knight, it already had a positive culture that facilitated high performance. However, negative assumptions can creep in with new management hires, especially during periods of high growth.

We worked with the company to address such concerns — and to ensure its overall positive culture wasn’t jeopardized as it expanded. The result was a highly interactive, experiential training event with follow-up support. When managers became aware of the impact of their assumptions and associated behaviors, they left highly committed to changing.

Wherever you are now, improvement starts with removing negative assumptions that stem from traditional mindsets. Knight’s CEO, Dave Jackson, is an advocate of positive assumptions in the workplace. “We believe that the vast majority of employees — about 95% — are responsible adults who care deeply about our mission,” he told me. “We don’t waste time trying to mitigate the behavior of the 5%.”

To disinfect your traditional mindset, you must first ground yourself in this belief. There are several ways to do this:

1. Provide an experience for management that challenges traditional thinking. In their “2018 State of Leadership Development” study, Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning and Stingray Research reported that organizations that prioritize leadership development are nearly 30 times more likely to experience successful transformations than those that don’t view leadership as important.

Knight learned that the 95/5 principle was instrumental and, because of this, conducted a lot of vetting upfront. Knight empowered hiring teams, many of which did not include any managers, to make the final decision on who would be hired based on certain attributes (e.g., honesty, reliability, being a team player, etc.).

These attributes are viewed as far more important than previous experience or skills, especially if the job will require training anyway. During group interviews, hiring teams ask candidates behavior-based questions to determine whether those attributes are present. The team must reach consensus before an offer is made. If you trust your current team members, a peer panel group is a great way to help vet people and reduce turnover.

Knight also held workshops for management to challenge traditional thinking — which often means levying “do this or else” mandates. We started by having 24 leaders identify the best and worst leaders in their own experiences. We posted the best leader qualities and continuously referred to them during the workshop.

We then asked the leaders how much time they spent performing leadership duties versus technical and administrative duties. Most recognized they were working a level or two below what they were titled. To tie it all together, we highlighted how very few of the best leader qualities had anything to do with knowledge and administration.

We continued engaging them in examples of how each tier or silo in a company blames the other — again, largely based on negative assumptions. When we did this exercise, I saw light bulbs go off as leaders realized they were in full control of changing these assumptions and stopping the associated behaviors.

We did more interactive sections on trust, high expectations, and adult-to-adult communication. By the end, they were excited to do things differently. Immersion in these settings helps adjust behavior immediately by providing a better way of seeing and interacting with people.

2. Accept that most of your team is comprised of adults who want to succeed. Rather than approach performance or behavior problems in a disciplinary way, adopt a problem-solving approach. Coach employees to understand the root causes of a problem and how it affects the company, then empower them to work out solutions on their own. Beyond this, try to gather your employee’s perspective and, armed with that knowledge, restate (or reset) your expectations.

For example, I once managed an individual who did first-line leader training for a billion-dollar aerospace company. He was so popular that the company recognized him as the employee of the year and sent him and his spouse to Hawaii for a week. When I stepped in as his manager, I soon learned that he was doing more entertaining than actual training. What’s more, he was spending all his time on the phone talking with new supervisors, rather than redirecting them to the appropriate managers.

During our first conversation, I tried to understand why he didn’t stick to the learning objectives and asked him to stop being the middleman between supervisors and managers. He quickly committed to making the needed changes … but nothing changed. During our second conversation, he simply kept smiling, promising he’d do better. So I asked him to leave for the day and think about whether he wanted this job. And if he did, he needed to come back with specific action steps to correct his behavior.

He was shocked. But upon return, he made immediate changes that aligned with the commitments we discussed. Years later, after we’d both left the company, he told people that this experience had probably saved him from skating his way through life. Most performance problems get solved by simply having an adult-to-adult problem-solving conversation rather than writing people up as part of progressive discipline.

3. Evaluate your HR policies. Most likely, your human resources policies are extensively detailed with massive lists of “thou shalt not” rules that were created based on advice from attorneys. Lengthy documents like these might be considered comprehensive, but they’re not necessarily helpful or productive.

To illustrate, let’s consider a policy in which employees need to work the day before and the day after a holiday in order to get paid for said holiday. Why was this policy created? Likely because a few employees took advantage of the days surrounding the holiday to create a longer weekend for themselves.

We don’t have policies like this — and never will — because if there’s a problem with one or two people, it should be discussed directly with those people. For 30 years, we’ve operated in many states (including California) with a simple standard of conduct and the problem-solving approaches described above.

Knight had a similar issue with its HR policies, so senior management worked with HR to transform the rule book into a much shorter guidebook based on positive assumptions. As far as results go, Knight’s turnover of drivers is the lowest in the industry, and these approaches have substantially reduced safety costs by Knight’s own admission.

When HR works with a less lengthy document that uses a respectful tone (rather than condescending legalese), team members can more effectively address problems and improve company culture and performance.

There’s no need for a comprehensive manual of legal terms, either. If a problem has serious legal implications, companies usually consult their in-house or retained outside counsel. Even then, legal doesn’t make the final decision — it simply evaluates risk. HPWP companies are not run by the legal profession; decision makers consider risk but also look at the impact on the people and the culture.

To be fair, negativity (and those giant policy books) are born from bad experiences. But don’t punish your decent employees because of a few bad seeds. When trust permeates a culture, people perform better, stay longer, and enable a company to push ahead of its competition. Rather than proving the 5% right, what can you do to propel your 95% to greatness?

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