Podcast  /  Work Minus Taking the Human out of Work with Karen Eber

Work Minus Taking the Human out of Work with Karen Eber

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We often talk about the holdover that the industrial age has left on work. In many ways, we've lost how to be human while we are working: treat each other like adults, be honest, and make good decisions.

In many ways, our workplaces feel like they've been sabotaged; not by a foreign power, but by our own temptation to continue to operate as normal.

Karen Eber has some really interesting thoughts about how we can bring these core human skills back to the office.

What we learned from this Episode

Bad performance reviews generate a negative 30% impact on a team member. Good performance reviews generate a 5% positive impact. You are better off not doing them at all.

Perceived control of management actually results in sabotaging your whole system.

Slow decisions are a sign of sabotage.

What you can do right now

Treat team members like adults

Seriously, stop doing bad performance reviews

Eliminate roadblocks where you make slow decisions

Key Quotes

"If you're a parent of multiple children or you even just know multiple children in your life, you do not approach them the same way. What works with one doesn't work with another. So, the same goes for leadership."

"An easy thing to do is just ask yourself, 'Where are we slow to make decisions?' You really quickly start to see problems that we need to look at. Another question I love for teams to ask is, 'What is one thing we can stop doing?’”

Today, our guest is Karen Eber. She’s the owner and founder of Eber Leadership Group which focuses on leadership development and shaping culture for global organizations. This episode is called Work Minus Taking the Human out of Work. Hi, Karen. How are you?

I am well. Thank you for having me.

We’re very, very excited to have you on. So, why don’t you start off just telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in your career?

I was the child that always asked why, and much to my parents’ dismay, and I’ve just always had this fascination about people and what motivates them. I started off in university studying psychology and took that into how do people go about their work and what motivates them and where do they get troubled up into. I’m one of the few people that have actually taken my studies into my actual job. I’ve spent about 20 years working with different companies in roles of leadership development and shaping culture and seeing how you ultimately just put more human behavior into work, treat people like adults and help them bring their best and take away all those things that are super annoying and don’t make sense, yet, we seem to love to hold on to them.

Absolutely. That’s what the show is all about. We’re excited about that. And you’re still asking that “why” question, right?

I am still asking that “why” question.

Very good. I want to touch on a point you just made about treating people like adults and humans. We focus on the human side and we’re going to dive into that a little bit deeper. But that adult word is a little bit interesting to me. We talked about that with one former guest about this attitude of maturity and treating people as adults. What do you mean by that?

I think that companies will often fall to bureaucratic party lines and ways of doing things because maybe they were done to them instead of stepping back and saying, does this make sense? So, a great example, a friend of mine told me that they got an announcement from their company this week that the company was no longer going to be contributing to the 401K, that they were under cost constraints and they had to make some tough decisions. And she felt like just treat me like an adult. Just tell me you are putting the investment somewhere else and you’re not putting it in us. That would be a lot easier to believe than you putting this spin on something that isn’t real. And so, I feel like a lot of times companies say things and they’re trying to be politically correct or they’re following the lines of bureaucracy put in front of them instead of just being real and honest with people and treating them like adults which most people would take much better than the bureaucracy.

So, part of treating someone like an adult is not lying to them, trusting them with the hard truths. What other ways can we treat people like adults in the workplace?

Well, a lot of the work I’ve done is on performance management and if you want to talk about a place where you could treat people better, that is one. If you are in an old style of performance management, you are helping, as a leader, you may be helping your people set goals in the beginning of the year and you’re checking in on them in the middle of the year and then you’re assessing their performance at the end of the year, giving them a rating, maybe forcing that rating into a bell curve and assigning compensation. And that’s just something that’s done to people. Nobody has goals that are the same throughout the year. It’s that ongoing conversation, it’s the ability to have someone show they care about what you’re doing and help you along the way grow and develop that makes the difference. And so, old style performance management is like this huge offender and just treat people like adults. People want to know someone cares about their career. People want to know how they’re doing and how they can be better and they want to be able to get that coaching along the way. And so, I think some of these trends we’re starting to see are so welcomed because it’s all about, like, thank you for treating me like a human. We don’t need to do things just because they’ve always been done that way.

Well, let’s get into performance management then. I think there are very, very small percentage of companies out there that feel like their performance management system is great. So, what are some things that people can pick up on easy things and also really forward thinking things they can add to their performance management?

You hit it right on. The words are just enough to make everybody roll their eyes and feel nauseous. I think if you don’t think of it as a system and you really think about how we’re developing our people, when is the work that needs to get done and instead of me coming to you and saying, as your leader, here are the four things you’re going to do and how you’re going to do them, we have a conversation about what are the outcomes that need to be hit and jointly understand and agree to them. And then if you’re working for me, I’d say, okay. Great. Come back to me and let me know how you’re going to go about that. Let me know what help you need, what challenges that you anticipate, and then we keep checking in at whatever frequency is best for us.

So, maybe you want to talk once a week or once every two weeks, maybe someone else wants to talk once every three weeks, but we regularly having these conversations where you’re sharing, here’s the progress I’ve made, here’s where I’m stuck, here’s the help I need, and I’m sharing observations of I noticed in this meeting I love how you brought this up and how you did this one thing. I’d love to figure out how we help you do that more. So, to me, it’s less this process that we’re using to get people paid and more how are you truly helping people do their best work and help them feel like they’re progressing towards something that they have a key role in that. So, you can take away technology, you can take away all of the things that we traditionally think of and focus on changing the conversation and you’re going to have a huge impact.

When we think about performance management, I think one of the struggles we have is that we feel like it all has to be done the same way and every manager has to be doing the same thing, every employee has to fill out the same form, which when you’re dealing with a huge organization, maybe you do need to do that, but is that true or is that just a myth that we’re living with?

Well, I think there’s two things to think about and I love the example of parenting. If you’re a parent of multiple children or you even just know multiple children in your life, you do not approach them the same way. What works with one doesn’t work with another. So, the same goes for leadership. The process you follow maybe has some similar things but what you say and do and how you work with each person to bring the best out of them is going to be different and that’s okay. We should be doing that because it takes understanding what motivates each person to have the impact. From a system standpoint, what is really interesting to me when I’ve worked with companies to change performance management, most often the legal department is thrilled because they feel like people aren’t necessarily documenting or capturing the information they need today so they’re fine to make the changes. HR organization gets a little nervous because they are faced with a changing role, they’re no longer pushing the process and trying to get you to be compliant. They’re there to help you be better and turn into coaches and so they struggle with that change a bit. The things we think we have to do most often, we really don’t and we’re not doing them well today. So, in many cases, with performance management, there’s some studies that say if you have a bad performance conversation, it has something like a -30% impact on the person. And it doesn’t even mean a bad rating, it just means a conversation, a poorly executed conversation. If you have a good one, it has something like maybe a 5% bump in engagement. You’re barely getting any return on this processes like it. So, you could do nothing and already be coming out ahead.

That’s really fascinating. Let’s shift a little bit. We’re talking about Work Minus Taking the Human out of Work. What are some other areas where organizations are taking the human side out of work where they shouldn’t be?

I want to tell you my conspiracy theory. It’s that many organizations have created their culture based on influence from the CIA which, again, sounds insane.

All right. This is getting deep.

It’s getting deep. So, if you think of things like can we take this offline or if you’re in a meeting and people start haggling over the wording of something, and I mean like 20 people in a meeting start haggling over the wording of something, or you’re in a regular operating meeting and ready to move to the next item and someone says let’s go back to that decision we made in the last meeting and open it up again. All of these are the things that just make you want to pull your eyelashes out one by one. They don’t make sense and they drive us all crazy but we do them because we feel like they’ll give us control, they’ll give us a better outcome. What is fascinating is that they actually come from this is declassified document. If you Google simple sabotage, you’ll find this declassified CIA document. They used this in World War II. They wrote it with the intent that people that were in axis driven countries and we’re friends of the allies, if they started to adopt these behaviors in factories, they would slow down performance in the factories, they would make them less able to have the production levels, it would slow down the economy in these countries and it would ultimately hamper the war efforts. And this whole idea was meant to really stop performance and slow things down and make it crazy. Yet, over time, we do this because we perceive this gives us control, we think this is going to give us better outcomes. And so, it’s a great example of this is just the way we’ve done things because we haven’t necessarily stopped to think is this helpful? Is there a better way?

Wow. Now you got me interested. So, spending too much time defining things, going back and reevaluate decisions that were already made. What are some of these other things that come out of this sabotage way to run a company?

One of the questions I love to have teams ask themselves is where are we slow to make decisions? When a team does this, when they ask this discussion, they realize really quickly where they’re maybe trying to get consensus and they don’t need to or where one person is a bottleneck or there’s a problem that is just slowing down where they’re slow. Many companies spend so much time reorganizing, defining a structure to be a certain way thinking once we get this set, everything will be perfect. There is no perfect organizational design. It’s really checking in on what is working and what is not working. So, an easy thing to do is just ask yourself where are we slow to make decisions and you really quickly start to see care problems that we need to look at. Another question I love for teams to ask is what is one thing we can stop doing? Inevitably, you get a list of 10 and there are things that were started with the best of intentions but maybe aren’t giving the impact that are needed or just not needed anymore but we just keep doing them out of habit. And so, there’s really simple things we can do like that to check in and see what can we do to be better that we’re just not stopping and thinking do we need to do this?

Now, you have an article up that’s about the importance of actually talking with people, encouraging them, making sure that they understand what you need from them. We had a guest come on that talked about Work Minus Intuition where you shouldn’t just guess that everyone around you knows the importance of what’s going on. How does that relate to being human in the workplace?

I was facilitating a meeting for leaders, for managers, and one of them was a senior engineer and he raised his hand and he said to me, “So, you’re saying the only way for me to get my team to be high performing, to get the results I need, to have a healthy team is to talk to my team?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, then, when are you going to teach me how to do that?” Which it struck me but what he really meant is I’m uncomfortable having a conversation where I don’t know where it’s going to go or maybe it’s going to touch on areas of frustration or emotions that they make me feel uncomfortable and I don’t know how to handle it. And so, I find many people just want to understand how do I have these conversations? The article you’re mentioning is where I really tried to encourage people to talk to people on their team and say here’s why I’ve hired you, here’s the value I think you bring and what I am hoping for, here’s where I want to challenge you to grow. And particularly, when you’re facing a tough assignment, here’s something that you’re going to do here that I don’t think anybody else will do. Every person wants to feel like someone cares about their career and truly understands what they can bring, and so, when you have conversations like that, it’s really powerful recognition and perhaps more importantly, when they hit challenges, because they will hit challenges, they’re going to feel a stronger sense of purpose for why they’re slogging through it each day.

Karen, what is the most human team you’ve ever experienced or even conceptualized? What does it mean to be a totally high functioning human team?

I was on a team that was high functioning and then it quickly went dysfunctional. I think it’s a great example. So, high functioning, we were candid with each other. So, our belief was it’s better for us to challenge each other in this conference room, on this conference call, so that we are giving each other the toughest fight and not our stakeholders because we were leading a big transformation. And so, I think that there was trust that was built, there was that ability to feel like I want to take this challenge from this person and I want to hear their constructive feedback because it’s going to make us better. And that took time to develop and it was a really important thing. I think where we split into dysfunctional and we didn’t realize is we completely underestimated that teaming is an ongoing thing and you’re never done. And so, we got pulled into different directions, we started to get different recognition, different areas of interest, and we stopped putting the care into making sure we were building that trust with each other. And so, these fractures started to form because we did not realize you have to continually cultivate these muscles. So, the best experiences where you’re aware that you are creating the psychological safety that everybody talks about, you are keeping that going, but there’s a really fine line between high performing and dysfunctional if you don’t keep that going.

So, you brought the idea of parenting in terms of team leadership, but many things you said made me think about just families in general and how they need to always be connected, they don’t want to miss out on big important meals throughout the calendar year that they always find ways to stay in touch and have that constant connection that’s there. Is that too much of a cliche term to use in this situation?

No, it’s not cliche. In fact, I talk to companies about the fact that culture doesn’t come from your CEO standing on a stage. It comes from what your teams are living each day. So, if you picture any university, picture Harvard, there’s a culture to Harvard. Just saying the word Harvard, you’re probably picturing bricks and ivy and all those cliche things we hear about Harvard. If you dig into the college of physics, there’s a culture there that’s really different than maybe the college of literature or music. They’re all under Harvard. They all have the Harvard culture. But when you start to dig into the respective colleges, they have a different culture, a different feeling, same for family, same for teams. This is why you can have your best leader and your worst leader in the same company because, as a team, you’re defining how are we working together. And sometimes you’re verbally and intentionally defining this and sometimes you’re doing it subconsciously by what you allow, encourage, or discourage.

So, let’s talk to somebody who is leading a large team, a team of more than 100 people that recognizes that, yes, there’s a macro culture that’s going on here, but most of what’s going on, most of how people are feeling is really impacted in these small teams that exist within that hierarchy that’s there. What’s some good advice you can give to people who are in that situation?

I’m not a fan of the posters on the wall with the eagle or the guy climbing the rock and the inspirational saying, not because they’re not helpful, but many companies just think, “Here are our values, look at them, aren’t they great?” But then you start to see these contradictions of people who aren’t living their values. A great example is the company Enron. They were very public with some really lovely values that just weren’t true and how work gets done. So, to me, the important thing is, at the team level, the day to day level of where people are working, talk about what does trust mean for us? What does it look like when we’re trusting each other and what does it look like when we don’t? How do we call each other out if things aren’t working? It can feel difficult to start some of these conversations and this is exactly why that engineer said to me when are you going to teach me how to do this.

So, the easiest place I think to start is to say what’s working well for us as a team, where are we challenged. A powerful question that any leader can ask is tell me one thing I don’t want to hear but I need to hear. The magic is you have to listen. Many people lean on engagement surveys as a way to listen. I get the purpose of it, I get that it allows you to reach far and wide, but if that’s the only way you’re listening, you’re missing a lot because people are only answering the questions you ask and there could be so much more happening that’s great that you want to leverage or where there’s challenge that you don’t. So, I think starting with four simple questions at a team level to start that conversation and to understand is really powerful. The one question I encourage people to use if they want to get an understanding of their organization is ask people how would your friends and family describe the culture here. We go home every day and whatever we’ve experienced that day, we bring home with us and our family and our friends here this. And so, they can describe whether it’s a great culture or whether it’s a difficult culture. They can give you the meaty stuff.

So, start asking couple questions like that and then you shook the dialogue to what do we want this to be. I love to tell people your culture is the worst behavior you are allowing to take place. And so, it’s raising this awareness of what are these behaviors that we need to stop. It can feel heavy if you’re not used to having these types of conversations but the way it works best is if you commit time to realize as a team we need to lay the foundation for this stuff. Off sites are a great way to start that’s. We need to come together as a team, figure out what our purpose is, what we’re trying to do, and then ultimately how we work together, then you can routinely touch on that in a light way, once a month, once a quarter, okay, let’s check in again. How are we doing? Where are we struggling? Where are we slow to make decisions? What do we need to stop? Once you lay the groundwork, you can keep checking in and fine tuning and it gets easier. Where teams don’t have those conversations, that’s where there’s problems brewing and there’s fractures that you may or may not realize.

You got me taking all sorts of notes over here trying to apply things on just for the show but even for my own work. It’s really good to think about these things. Which comes to even the theme of our show. A lot of ways we talk about technology, how it’s taking over things, people are worried about robots coming in and taking jobs. But the way that you are talking about team engagement is extremely humain because I guess the robotic way to do this is to send out a survey with pre-programmed questions, have all those questions come back and then feed them into an algorithm, shoot them out, and then all of a sudden, you have all your cultural values that show up on a wall and you do some AI generated artwork out of that, and then bam, you’re done. But the really human aspect of it is recognizing that whatever questions you put on your engagement survey are not going to be enough. You’re going to need to probe a little bit deeper. You’re going to need to ask some other questions. You’re going to need to see it from a different angle, have people be willing to ask questions that you didn’t prepare for and to come about it. And I’m really impacted by a lot of things you’re saying about how important this human element of conversation and exploration is to the whole process.

That example you outlined is what so many companies are doing, and not intentionally, but to call you out, if you’re doing that, you are not doing enough on your culture, you are not creating employee engagement or an employee experience. You’re checking the box on stuff and these survey companies have deluded us into thinking, “Look at this. Isn’t this great? Here’s your employee engagement score.” But you’re not getting anywhere. And ask employees, there’s so many people who roll their eyes at, okay, let’s look at our culture survey results and the designated HR person tears through it in 10 minutes and people just sit there saying we keep seeing the same thing. You keep saying we’ve heard you. Nothing changes. And you just get a bunch of disgruntled people that have quit and stayed which is worse than quit and left.

So, to me, the magic is there are some things we should automate. There are ways we should use artificial intelligence. I’m a big fan of using data to inform our decisions. However, data doesn’t change behavior. It’s emotions that do. And the way you’re going to get someone to change their behavior is bringing meaning to data, through storytelling, through really helping people chew on it to get to an interpretation. We go through piles and piles of data and all of these culture surveys take that same approach. “Last quarter our score was 4.2. This quarter our score is 4.23.” And we spend all this time debating if the number’s right and not discussing what does this mean. So, use tools. They’re a great starting point for a conversation. But recognize you’re only going to get somewhere when you’re applying the human element to it.

So, when you’re using things like artificial intelligence, algorithms, it’s great, but you have to be careful. Algorithms most often are predicting success based on past success. You have to be so careful with that because there’s a bias inherent, you could just be recreating more of the same that you shouldn’t have. You need to leverage people to provide the interpretation on the data, to provide the interpretation on artificial intelligence, to bring it to life so people understand what to do with it. You then also really need to take the time of let’s leverage people where machines and artificial intelligence can’t which is on the dialogue, on helping people really understand what’s expected of them and how they’re doing. That engaged employee that feels like someone cares about them and that they’re doing meaningful work is going to give more calories per hour, be healthier, be more interested than the employee that’s just quit and been frustrated.

Excellent summary. Karen, thanks so much for this call. I’ve really learned a lot from it. I’m getting more excited as we go on so I hate to cut it off now. But tell us where we can stay in touch with you?

Two ways. So, first, my website kareneber.com. I have a newsletter where I share different storytelling and probably other conspiracy theories. If you want to check it out there, go ahead and sign up. Linkedin is the other way as well which is just start Karen Eber.

Fantastic. Well, Karen, thanks so much for being on the show. It’s been great to have a real conversation with you, human to human. So, we look forward to connecting with you more.

Great. Thank you.

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