Don't Oil the Squeaky Wheel
by Wolf Rinke

Knowledge is power. You might agree with that statement . But, I don't! All the knowledge in the world won't do you any good unless you do something with it. You see, it's not what you know that makes a difference, it's what you do, and what you apply, apply over and over again until it causes you to transform new knowledge into a new auto-pilot response pattern.

Just look at what's happening in the business world today --- from corporate greed to toxic workplaces to employee distrust. Unless managers challenge the norm and change the ineffective practices they are comfortable with, these issues will continue to plague the workplace. As they say, "If you do what you've always done, you will always get what you've always gotten."

Let's explore a few of these issues. And let me offer some unorthodox, counter-intuitive strategies you should exploit to overcome them so that you can lead your organization to ethical peak performance.

Issue: Overworked and overstressed managers.
Strategy: Don't oil the squeaky wheel. If you spent more than 5% of your time with troublemakers, you are messing up.

Here's a real story: Janice, CEO of a mortgage company, was having problems. Sales were down --- and that was during the low-interest go-go years where all of her competitors were not just thriving. Employee morale was shot. Her VPs were outright depressed. To turn things around, she started spending more time with her people --- visiting branches, establishing an open door policy, making herself available to listen to people in small group meetings. She even set up a weekly "have breakfast with the boss."

After starting these sessions, Janice told me that all she heard was whining, blaming and complaining. When I asked Janice what she did with the information she said: I let people vent, listen very actively and try to be empathetic. And sometimes I talk to the other party to attempt to get the facts. And that is pretty much it, she said.

The problem, I told Janice, is that she is getting what she is rewarding. She has been "rewarding" people for doing exactly the things she didn't want: whining, blaming and complaining.

I then asked her how much time she had been spending with her high performing VPs and sales people. Very little. Because these are her good people, she felt they didn't have time to whine, blame and complain. In fact, Janice indicated that since she started listening to the whiners --- who were complaining about how overworked and underpaid they are --- she had been transferring more and more responsibilities to her top performers.

Janice's whole plan backfired. She had been rewarding her troublemakers by giving them a lot of her valuable time. Not only did she fail to hold them accountable, they just saw her as a way to unload their worries, complain about their co-workers and get further rewarded by having more and more work taken away from them. And what did she do with her top performers? She not only ignored them; she punished them. First by shifting more responsibilities and work to them. And second, by ignoring them.

If you want your team members to be positive, trusting, turned on, and tuned in, then you must spend the majority of your time with the people who behave that way, and while they are doing it, help you succeed faster.

Issue: Pervasive unethical conduct by corporate executives and corporate greed.
Strategy: Don't play to win. While it should seem obvious ----- it's not. Playing to win at any price is bad business over the long term. Especially since many companies are creating an unethical culture. For example, 44% of all non-management employees who observe ethical misconduct at work, such as abusive or intimidating behavior toward employees or lying to employees, customers, vendors or the public do not report such misconduct because they believe that no corrective action will be taken or they fear that their report would not be kept confidential. In addition, fewer than three in five employees who did report misconduct said that they were satisfied with the organization's response.

The 2003 survey of 1,500 employees, conducted by the not-for-profit Ethics Resource Center in Washington, DC, further reported that although there has been the first overall drop in misconduct seen in a decade, workers feel increased pressure --- more than twice as great --- to compromise ethics standards at times of mergers, acquisitions and restructuring. And that workers and managers under the age of 30 are far less likely to report misconduct, with only 43% reporting such conduct compared to 69% for all employees. Similarly 21% of younger managers with low tenure are about twice as likely to compromise ethics standards than their older counterparts.

Issue: High levels of fear coupled with low levels of employee satisfaction (toxic workplaces).
Strategy: Don't have people work for you. All of us work for only one person --- ourselves. Perhaps the most powerful leadership strategy of all times is to treat all employees as if they are volunteers. Doing so will eliminate fear in the workplace and achieve dramatic improvements in employee satisfaction.

Stop and think --- what would you say to your team members if indeed they were volunteers? How about: Please. Thank you! Can I count on you? I need your help. I really appreciate what you've done. Thanks for being on my team! And now the one that blows the autocratic managers away: Could you do me a favor? That one, I can tell you, just doesn't sit well with many managers. Their typical response is: What are you talking about? They're not doing you any favor, it's their job. A good argument ---- yet, 100% incorrect. The fastest way to achieve peak performance is to treat all employees as if they are volunteers.

Issue: Corporate Bankruptcies.
Strategy: Don't have goals and objectives. To maintain profitability over the long term, your employees need one HOG --- Humongous Overarching Goal that drives employees' energy in laser-like fashion in a singular direction for the next 10-30 years, and makes your vision come alive.

Are you wondering, why only one HOG? Hey if one is good why not 3, 5 or 12? Remember the old days of MBO, Management by Objectives? Basically managers learned how to look good. They identified all kinds of objectives --- easy ones so that they could prove just how much they had accomplished. In other words, they got really good majoring in minors. And before you knew it the MBO became a monster that needed to be fed and taken care of, so that a good portion of managers' time was taken up by feeding the monster. The result? Managers had really great looking MBOs but didn't get much done.

A HOG with teeth, meaning that you have specific measurement systems (metrics) in place that track progress, on the other hand focuses various parts of an organization to create strategic alignment and big results. Make sure you pick only one that it is a really humongous overarching stretch goal that (1) defines the direction of your organization for the next 10-30 years, (2) that has only about a 50-75 percent probability of success, and (3) that everyone in your organization --- from executives to front line employees --- can directly or indirectly have an impact on it. Your team members have no reason to stretch if they can't influence the outcome.

If you can't figure out what the HOG should be, identify a humongous overarching customer satisfaction goal, because everyone has a customer, and everyone can have an impact on customer satisfaction measurements. An obvious, but often overlooked strategy is to involve as many of your team members as possible in defining the HOG. Involvement buys ownership, and ownership achieves results faster.

Issue: Lack of trust.
Strategy: "Trust all people all of the time, until they prove you wrong" is the advice I provide in my seminars and consulting activities. The typical response: "You don't understand the people who work for me" or "You sure have no clue who our customers are" or "I wouldn't trust my manager if my life depended on it."

In one way I understand. After all, trust has become a vanishing act in corporate America. No wonder, with all the mergers, reengineering, layoffs and the Enron debacle employees find it increasingly difficult to trust management. According to a study of 1,800 employees by Aon's Loyalty Institute of Ann Arbor, MI, "13 percent of US workers distrust their employers on the most basic level --- they don't feel free from fear, intimidation or harassment at work." In a similar study of more than 7,500 employees Watson Wyatt Worldwide of Bethesda, MD found that "only half trusted senior managers."

Here is the so-what: According to Watson Wyatt "... companies where employees trusted top executives posted shareholder returns 42 percentage points higher than companies where distrust was the rule."

So what can you do to build trust in your organization? You can start by invoking the law of reciprocity, which says: Whatever you give is what you're going to get. So, if you want more trust you have to give it first. The next thing you can do is make sure that your word is always as good as gold, that your team members never have to second-guess anything you tell them, and that they can count on you to do right by them, your customers, and your organization.

Putting it all together

If these five issues can be overcome by going against conventional wisdom --- by changing strategies that may have worked in the past ---- just imagine what you can do if you look at your organization's overall leadership practices with an unorthodox eye. You'll motivate team members to achieve extra-ordinary results; eliminate fear, stress and conflict; and achieve dramatic improvements in employee satisfaction, performance and productivity. Do I sense a light bulb going off?

Dr. Wolf J. Rinke is a management consultant, executive coach and keynote speaker dedicated to helping organizations and individuals maximize their potential. In addition to his new book Don't Oil the Squeaky Wheel and 19 Other Contrarian Ways to Improve Your Leadership Effectiveness (McGraw-Hill, May 2004), he is the author of several other best-selling books including Winning Management: 6 Fail-Safe Strategies for Building High-Performance Organizations. Rinke can be reached at 800-828-9653, or .

Don't Oil the Squeaky Wheel:
And 19 Other Contrarian Ways to Improve Your Leadership Effectiveness
by Wolf J. Rinke
May 2004

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Copyright 2004 by Wolf J. Rinke. All rights reserved.

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