Cleaning Up the Promisphere in Companies

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Recently, the breakdown in worker/management relationships at RBTT Jamaica and the Fiesta Hotel in Hanover, Jamaica have made me think where I would start, if given the chance, to make a difference in each of these companies.

I would start by working to restore the condition of the promisphere in each company.

What is the promisphere?

The promisphere is the internal environment within a group that consists of promises and agreements that have been made, broken, changed or are hanging in limbo. It also includes promises that are expected to be made, believed to have been made or thought necessary to make at some point in the future.

The total environment of promises collectively work together to create a promisphere.

Just like our physical environment, a promisphere can be polluted. In fact, there is almost no perfect promisphere that exists, simply because groups are made up of people who are imperfect.

In the case of RBTT Jamaica, the workers went on strike on Friday. In the case of Fiesta Hotel, a worker was shot in a recent riot. In both cases, the workers will be back to work on Monday. At RBTT, they have been ordered back to to work by the government. In the case of Fiesta, there was a negotiated agreement, again brokered by the government.

On Monday morning, it is likely that each situation will be a tense one.

There will be a temptation for the leadership of both companies to “grin and bear it” — try their best to “just move on” without dwelling on the problem at hand, or the past. In fact, they will be quite happy if collective amnesia were to set in.

Unfortunately, this remains the best tool that most managers have — an ability to force things to move on, and to avoid talking about the difficult issues at hand.

However, this approach only works to delay troublesome issues, and in the case of the Jamaican workplace, it only serves to allow issues to build a quiet, dark momentum.

A much better tactic is to deal with the promisphere.

In each company I have consulted with that has issues between individuals, or groups of individuals, there has existed issues with respect to the promisphere.

A promise made in public that no merger was underway, was broken when the merger was announced within a matter of days. A promise made to clean up the physical environment is abandoned. An agreement to increase wages is laid aside.

An expectation that the company is a family is willfully violated in a newspaper report. A secret told in confidence is leaked. An expectation that a manager will be around to lead his people is violated with an abrupt resignation.

These are everyday occurrences in business, and they happen between people and groups who are good, bad or somewhere in between.

The point is, that a transformation in the culture of a company, department or team cannot happen unless the following takes place:

  • broken agreements are restored
  • amends are made for forgotten promises
  • apologies are rendered where damage has been done
  • mis-understood promises are openly dealt with

These simple acts take courage, but their effects are powerful. Trust can begin to be restored, forgiveness can start to heal relationships, and the promisphere, which is critical to getting complex work done in groups, can be restored.

A well-working promisphere is not one that is empty of promises — instead it is filled with clarity, and the simple power that comes from human trust and mutual expectations.

Ultimately, and in the real world, all promises cannot be kept.

In a well-working promisphere all members are vigilant for the smallest instances of pollution. They act as if the smallest promise that is broken is easier to resolve sooner than later, and that the collapse of this very fragile entity starts with small instances of overlooked agreements.

The very worst companies do not even acknowledge the existence of a promisphere, and are oblivious to the effect that seemingly simple actions have. They rely on unauthentic and hollow “rah-rah” efforts to get people excited, which fail because they are built on promispheres that result in:

  • skeptical employees that assume the worst — “Yeah right…”
  • pessimism and doom-saying — “Whatever…”
  • constant questions about whether or not the newest statements/efforts/projects/initiatives can be trusted, because of what happened in the past

The worst companies just try harder, with more posters, slogans, slicker graphics, more consultants, newer programs, more exotic team-building, longer surveys, new mission/vision/value statements, etc.

As a consultant who is sometimes brought in under these auspices, I try to ask each and every time when an executive explains that things are not working — “What is the state of the promisphere?” (without actually using the word.)

The truth is that companies should forget about trying to do anything different until they begin to see some gains in cleaning up their promisphere. Only then will they be able to move them, and their people ahead.

Doing Business with Strangers — Networking 4.0

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A couple of days ago I met a friend, colleague and business partner of mine who lives in Trinidad. We spent all of an hour together. Yet, this was only the second time we have ever met in person.

The Internet has further opened up the possibility of doing business with people that we hardly know, and this is not limited to performing simple transactions. What enables this deeper level of commerce and cooperation is not how well we know other people from first-hand or second-hand sources, but how well we can get to know them from the different sources that exist in cyberspace.

Knowing someone from their Internet “reputation” is very different than knowing that they have certain qualifications or experiences, or hold one position or another.

I am listening to a brilliant, not-so-new
audiobook by Seth Godin called “All Marketers are Liars.” In the book he talks about a company being authentic, and allowing its true character to come across in all communication with the public. An example: some CEO’s have blogs, and these blogs give very powerful insight into the true nature of the company, especially when the blog has an authentic voice. Not surprisingly, those bloggers that insist on trying to “put their best face forward,” are the ones that appear to be the most “faked”. When the blogger is a CEO it puts the entire company at even greater risk.

Successful networking in the Internet age has a great deal to do with having the courage to be authentic in cyberspace, and taking a lead in defining oneself.

The truth is, that if we do not take the lead to do it ourselves, then someone else will do it for us by mentioning that they met or know us, and what their impressions are/were. In other words, we run the risk of being defined by others to our detriment.

Most of the defining will be done by strangers.

Can these strangers be trusted?

Whether or not they can be, they must be interacted with, if we as professionals are at all interested in creating a personal brand that people can trust. If we think about the interactions we are interested in having, we can drive them towards certain outcomes that we have an interest in.

For example, a professional project manager who has an interest in the management of concerts could express it in the formation of a public brand that demonstrates their passion, and expertise. Over time, they could simply corner the market on this brand by generating an Internet and therefore public presence.

What allows this to happen is a skill at interacting with strangers in cyberspace.

This is a skill that I cannot quite name, but it has to do with learning how to make and trust Internet acquaintances, both professional and personal. Kids in their teens get this concept readily — they live in a networked world in which friends are thousands of miles away in other countries, and they communicate with them via IM, email and text messages in real time.

In our day we had something called a Pen Pal — a stranger we got to know by exchanging mail over long distances, and long time periods.

Today, the intervals have been shrunk dramatically.

We have blogs like this one, in which, with the click of a Publish button, anyone in the world can have instant access to any of the thoughts that I wish to share.

The difference is staggering, and the trust required to operate in this new world is quite different from what it ever used to be. Instead of trusting my Pen Pal, I now need to trust millions of people who interact in cyberspace.

The upside of all this instant exposure is that cyberspace can be used to amplify authentic messages — warts and all.

For the professional, deciding to stay away from it all is just not an option. Having no presence on the Internet is a little like not having a telephone — it communicates something about our level of seriousness and professionalism regardless of whether or not that is the message that we wants to send.

The best option, as always, is to be proactive, and to master the medium. There are many ways to get our message and our brand out, but it is up to us to use them to our benefit.

The Customer-Supplier Fallacy

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The time has come for the business world to retire the customer-supplier model, and this is especially true of Caribbean companies.

There was a time when companies were more interested in making short-term profits, than they were in serving customers.

Until the early 1980’s, Western companies were quite complacent in the way in which they served, or did not serve customers. The rise of the Japanese manufacturer, however, forced a level of competition that created an entirely new paradigm of customer focus. The Quality Movement was born, with gurus such as Deming and Juran taking the lead in helping customers to create a new focus on serving customers.

However, as useful as the model was when it was introduced, it had its limitations. It was primarily created as a way to transform the relationship between the paying customer and the employees of the company. By thinking about the customer differently, employees could begin to put their needs at a higher priority than before, and therefore ensure that the company’s efforts were focused on the end-customer needs.

Problems arose as the model was stretched beyond its limits when it was applied to internal relationships between departments, and employees within departments. The “customer-supplier” model was applied to all kinds of relationships, and to this day it is still being mis-applied.

The mistake came when two departments or employees that are interdependent were forced into the model’s relationship and one party had to be seen as the customer and the other seen as the supplier. In a neat, artificial world of linear processes it was possible to force the distinction to apply, but in most real-world working relationships the optimal way to achieve combined goals is not to think of the relationship as linear.

Instead, the relationship should be seen as more of a partnership between equals, where an objective is shared, as are the means to accomplish it. In this kind of relationship, the customer – supplier model is not useful, and can even be damaging.

For example, in some companies in which my colleagues and I have worked, we have observed individuals fighting over who should assume the role of supplier versus customer. The fight would typically take place over who the customer is, and therefore who had the power to set the precise terms of the relationship.

In other companies, there has even been a struggle to turn a productive, non-linear relationship into unproductive, linear relationships with an emphasis on formality and bureaucracy. Attempts to turn the New Product Design process in numerous companies into something that resembled an assembly line are good examples of trying to force a creative process into a mould that it should never be forced to fit.

Thankfully, the newest thinking from the marketing world related to the customer’s experience offers a way out.

In our work here in the Caribbean we face a situation that is not unique, but is quite pronounced relative to that of developed countries. In short, the average customer service professional in the region has at most an idea of what excellent service is. At the same time, they have very little direct experience of excellent customer service.

In other words, they have heard about, read about and seen excellent customer service in the movies and on television and from those who have traveled. However, they have not actually experienced it themselves on a systematic basis.

This is quite different from their counterparts in the North America, for example, who are much more likely to have experienced service that is consistently professional through a variety of national chains or nationally known companies. In the Caribbean, the regional examples such as KFC, HiLo or local public transportation companies for example, are not examples to emulate in the least.

The new employee, therefore, enters the workplace with this lack of experience serving as their only point of reference.

Furthermore, they enter workplaces that are characterized by a deep mistrust, if Jamaica is an example through which region-wide behaviours can be broadly understood.

Studies by Carl Stone in his 1982 study for the Jamaican government entitled Worker Attitude Survey, and the book Why Workers Won’t Work (1997) by Kenneth Carter show clearly that most workers are demotivated, and that their de-motivation has its roots in distrust of management.

It can be argues that this distrust has its roots in slavery, and the perverse worker-management relationships that prevailed in that institution for almost 400 years.

Regardless of the source, this lack of mistrust in today’s workplace begins with worker-manager relationships and continues in the employee-customer relationship. There is an old axiom: “an employee will never treat their customer better than they themselves are treated.”

I would update that axiom to say that an employee will never provide an experience for their customer that they themselves are not experiencing on the job. I would even go further to day that an employee will show no more interest in the customer’s experience, than their manager is demonstrating in the employee’s experience. In other words, a manager who does not care will produce employees who do not care.

I cannot say to what degree the above “updated axiom” is true of companies based outside the region. However, I am confident in saying that our background of workplace de-motivation and distrust makes it more (not less) likely that an unskilled manager will do serious damage to the customer’s experience by mismanaging employees.

The symptoms are rife across the region. “Res a Dem” treatment, sullen faces, workers standing around waiting for something to happen, “service with a scowl” according to a colleague of mine.

The enterprising worker is unable to rise above the norm, and quickly learns to do as little as possible to keep the job, without being committed to a high standard of anything. Eventually, he or she moves on to a different job, hoping that it will be different, and generally encountering the same situation.

While I have no empirical evidence, I believe that there is a difference when that same worker migrates to North America and encounters very different management style, in general. The change in behaviour may not be immediate, but it does take place. If this could be investigated with actual research, it might show that the worker himself is not the problem, as they are quite able to adapt to the demands of their new job.

Instead, the problem would seem to be one of management, and ownership. Company leadership takes the primary role to create the environment in which the workers serve customers. In other words, the onus is on them to create the experience that is desired, provide an environment that is abundantly manifests it, and train themselves and employees to produce it consistently.

This focus on producing experience is the gift that the marketing world has given to those who must transform their companies to be customer-oriented. These experiences go beyond the mere meeting of needs and the provision of outputs, and include as well the psychological feelings that ensue from good service.

For managers, this is a far departure from the old customer-supplier model, and for Caribbean managers it means finding ways to overcome destructive relationships and experiences that damage the bottom-line.

CAP: Having a Powerful Dialogue

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One of the results from the study that was not so surprising was data that we collected that showed that of the different elements of the acquisition communication plans, the most fruitful was the 2-way dialogue with employees. Interestingly, a similar international study done in mostly first world countries showed that this dialogue was much less important (some 25% less agreement as to its usefulness.)

In the absence of trusted information in these acquisitions, we observed that employees had a tremendous capacity to manufacture rumours that quickly became ““fact”” in the minds of a critical number of workers. The effectiveness of 2-way dialogues to correct rumours and address anxieties cannot be under-estimated, and at the same the risks are considerable.

The CEO of one of one firm’’s clients invited several small groups of employees to attend informal breakfasts, at which he invited them to “say anything”. People began to open up over time, until his irritation at their complaints began to grow, until one morning he retorted “Don’t you ever have anything good to say?” in response to one woman’s poignant observation. That was the final informal breakfast he conducted.

The risks of an authentic dialogue are considerable, which is why CEOs and other executives are notably reluctant to conduct them. They can get messy, and in an acquisition situation there is often considerable anxiety. This can get translated into feelings of anger and upset, and most CEO’’s are not well trained to deal with groups of people under these circumstances. This is especially true in acquisitions, when the acquiring executives are usually elated at their financial success in landing the deal, while the employees in the target company could not feel differently.

In the Caribbean, our observation has been that more often than not in public dialogues, CEOs devolve into a kind of parental role, while their employees display varying degrees of child-like behaviour. Dialogues can then become unproductive, looking more like monologues, as the CEO plays the role of someone who can remove the anxiety, when in fact he cannot –– it is inherent in the circumstances and in her people’’s reactions to it.

However, CEOs can be trained to conduct these dialogues effectively, through a combination of personal development (many have ego-issues that only become amplified in public settings) and video-based feedback.

At that point, the dialogues become transformational, and employees and CEOs become more connected than anyone thought possible. This can occur even when the CEO has no hard information to share, but is just able to face his/her employees concerns directly, listening carefully to what is being said and leaving his/her employees with an experience of “we’ve been heard.”

While these sessions can be conducted as Q&A’s, at some point a CEO can develop his skill to go further than just answer questions, which is the most basic level of public dialogue. He can actually take the role of leading difficult conversations that distinguish new principles that can be used to run the company at higher level. While there are very few CEOs that are this well trained, the few that I have worked with who are, consistently generate considerable loyalty and motivation by engaging openly and publicly with his/her employees.

In acquisitions, this skill is invaluable.


CAP: Planning for a Culture

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While it is clear that the Human Resource (HR) function was not used to help plan the acquisitions included in the study, the question still remains: what are some of the things HR would do, if asked?

One key action would be to lead the development of an “Acquisition Philosophy” by the deal team.

There are many approaches that can be taken to undertaking an acquisition. Usually, the company being taken over is at least an average performer, although the majority of the companies included in the study were either failing or had already failed.

Obviously, the acquiring company is making the investment or purchase with the belief that their ownership will make the critical difference in the performance of the company. If this belief were not true, then it is reasonable to assume that the acquisition would not take place. After all, even a successful company would not allow its shares to be taken over in an acquisition unless there was some premium paid. Acquisitions involve significant costs and risks, and no stock-holder in his right mind would undertake either unless he were being duly compensated.

Turning a mere stock-purchase into a successful acquisition, however, has much more to do with the way in which the culture of the acquisition is integrated than the price paid. Our research showed that within the companies we researched, there were widely differing views on the Acquisition Philosophy to be used.

The Acquisition Philosophy has to do with a decision as to what precise combination of vision, mission, values and leadership to bring to the new company to turn it into a financial success in the mid to long term. The Philosophy created has everything to do with a sound understanding of the culture that prevails in the target company, and what interventions need to be created to make it successful.

Different scenarios call for very different Philosophies.

For example:

Example 1: A company being acquired was a combination of entities that had formerly competed, and had all failed financially. The parent company decided to create a culture in the acquired company that was a modified version of the culture found in the parent’s company. The new firm was formed around the same values, vision and mission of the parent, with small changes to account for differences in national culture. The leadership came from the parent company.

Example 2: A very successful company was taken over to help expand the market share of the acquiring company. The Philosophy created was to keep the company intact, and to keep the ownership in the background as much as possible, hoping that the success would continue.

Example 3: A company did not know to create an Acquisition Philosophy, and did not address the new culture of the company and how it would effect integration, except to mention it in passing comments. The company fought fires as they came up in the form of strikes, poor results and a rotating door of successive of leaders, none of whom were groomed for the job.

In our research done in 2001-2, the companies studied came closer to Example 3 than any other. The lack of a coherent Philosophy left them vulnerable and without adequate plans for the many surprises that came once the acquisitions were completed. A complete Acquisition Philosophy may have included the following decisions:

  • Does the acquired company require a new culture, replete with new values, vision and mission that is new and distinct?
  • Or, should the new culture just be the same as the parent company?
  • Is there an intention to have local executive leadership? What will be done to develop it?
  • If a culture change is required, how will it be affected?
  • Will the new company be run by a local board or by the parent company? What are the lines of accountability?
  • Will profits be repatriated to the parent company / country?
  • Is the parent company willing to learn from the acquired company and change its culture accordingly?
  • What will be done (or not done) to send a message to the employees that the change is a positive one, and what is the plan for motivating them and communicating in a way that reduces rumour-driven anxiety?
  • What will be done to help the people in the acquired company bring closure to their past successes and failures?

While the above list may appear formidable, our experience in assisting companies in transforming their cultures tells us that it is more important that the company’s executives come to agreement. It is a fact that there will be surprises and unforeseen events that the executive team will need to react to, and their Acquisition Philosophy can be used to guide them in making the joint decisions that are required.

Doing a perfect job on all the above points is much less important, and cannot be done by anyone other than the players accountable for the acquisition being a success.

A set of Acquisition Values can be developed in conjunction with the deal team, and the implementation team to guide the way in which they acquisition activities are executed. For example, at one company the directors steadfastly denied rumours that an acquisition was being considered.

A week later, they announced that there was in fact an acquisition underway. Instantly, everyone knew that they had lied, yet the fact was never addressed openly. Of course, it was talked about quietly for years after the fact and used as evidence as to why the company’s leadership could not be trusted. A serious commitment to an Acquisition Value such as “transparency” may have guided the team to a different set of behaviours, or to at least a dialogue to resolve the public discrepancy.