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Volume 9 | Issue 5

Putting it in context

A message from CDC Integrated Services, LLC

The Broken Connection

A couple of years ago, I wrote in one of my letters about words and phrases falling out of favor; sometimes deliberately diminished by cultural forces opposed to the underlying meaning. Sometimes they fell out of favor because people stopped using the word in the marketplace of ideas.

In that letter, I talked about the word Linchpin – a word commonly used until the early 2000’s when everything digital swarmed the business landscape. A linchpin holds together parts or elements that exist or function as a unit, and that analogy often defines what a leader does, especially when it comes to problem-solving.  

Increasingly in past 15 years the emphasis has been on what is different instead of what binds things together. Unfortunately, instead of seeking out those things that make connections stronger, leaders now look at a bucket full of acronyms that do the opposite. Open your company newsletter, your favorite online magazine, your web browser to your favorite websites, or turn on a TV, and you will hear these acronyms multiple times.

On Monday your CEO announces renewed efforts to advance ESG, and on Tuesday the head of your HR department makes a new announcement about your company’s efforts to advance DEI. What is not immediately apparent is what connects these acronyms. It only takes a small amount of effort and time to discover that this soup of alphabet letters looks at differences in people and the organizations in which they work. 

Inside this latest group of acronyms is an unstated partnership between a company’s leaders and outside “stakeholders” to advance socio-economic objectives. These objectives may be desirable and laudable when all parties are in agreement. But, unfortunately, not all stakeholders are included in the decision by many companies to pursue these socio-economic objectives.

Stockholders, for example, want the companies they invest in to provide the best return on their investment. They expect those companies to outperform other companies providing similar goods and services. Employees have the very reasonable expectation that their efforts will translate into goods and services that demonstrate high reliability and performance and that the company will reward them.

All organizations have this one reality in common: the effectiveness and quality of problem-solving directly reflect the leader’s attitude. When they reflect a positive attitude toward problem-solving, it sends a clear message that problem-solving is worth the effort and time of their leadership team, and that attitude cascades through the organization. 

Managers, supervisors, and employees see the expectation being created from the top down and respond accordingly. The leader’s attitude toward problem-solving quickly grafts itself to the organization’s culture and can have a long-lasting effect on the culture. 

Challenges and obstacles cross the leader’s desk daily, and solving these is a critical component of their role in the organization. The leader must possess a positive attitude to maintain momentum. There is a compelling paradox in that one of a leader’s most important tasks is to take the lead in solving the issues that confront them, and one of their most important tasks is to minimize the occurrence of problems by anticipating them.

Until recently, leaders of companies were deeply skeptical of anything that did not advance their ability to make risk-based decisions that met the customer’s needs, solidified, or potentially expanded market-share. To aid these company leaders in achieving their objectives, many companies developed risk analysis tools, techniques, and processes designed to map out multiple consequences from any set of decisions.

A new generation of corporate leaders is coming on the scene that read and hear that consumers want products that come to them in ways that do not harm the environment or result from the exploitation of children or forced labor. These are laudable goals and objectives. Yet, a goal is not a plan.

Publishing a Diversity and Inclusion policy and introducing supporting procedures does not constitute a plan. For example, it is good to say that a company needs more minority engineers. However, the reality is that only 14% of African American students graduate from college with a degree. Of this number less than five percent (5%) graduate with an engineering degree.

This low number means that there aren’t enough minority engineers to meet every company’s goals, and there won’t be for many years. In addition, companies that look at other minorities, such as those of Hispanic descent, will find similar constraints as only 10-11 percent of Hispanics earn engineering degrees. 

The actual difficulty with these alphabet programs is that they will inevitably disappoint. And when a company falls short in its efforts to hire minorities, its leadership often “passes the buck” and makes excuses. The excuses offered by “leadership” travels rapidly through an organization, creating increased levels of distrust and creating opportunities for conflict.

I find it interesting that some leaders offering excuses do so with the belief that they are offering reasons for their effort falling short. If those up and down the organization do a better job of getting behind these policies and helping promote them better, the company will come closer to meeting its goals.

The unstated message is that the failure to acquire a scarce resource, such as an African American or Hispanic engineer, is the collective failure of the organization. It does not take long for employees in that company to realize they must allocate more and more of their time to policy issues that do not yield any results. These non-productive efforts, popular as they may be, reduce the employee’s ability to their work product on schedule.

The conflicts created by this new environment are solvable, and it often falls to the supervisor or the manager to recognize these stress points. However, identifying them before they become a problem is key to mitigating or preventing the inevitable disruptions.

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Food for Thought:  What drives innovation is abundance and ease, not the pressure of scarcity. (Adam Gopnik) 

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