How to make sense of your workplace

As a leader, do you really know what is going on in your workplace?

You could compare understanding your workplace with trying to making sense of a picture.

So, what can you see in the above image? What patterns and shapes do you see? What story do they tell?

I see a tall thin person rising above the neck of a short and stocky animal. The positioning of the individual appears awkward as the creature seems to be wearing the full force of the individual’s weight.

That image speaks volumes to me. It’s a pattern of behaviour I’ve encountered in a number of workplaces that have gone pear shaped. A manager riding others when they think no-one else can see – covertly abusing their power. Worse still is where everyone can see. This behaviour creates fear which in turn creates negative energy. Before long the workplace is shifting into the wrong shape.

Every workplace has its own unique energy or ‘vibe’

The energy or ‘vibe’ is a barometer of the health of the workplace created by the collective behaviours, feelings and attitudes of those that inhabit it. Being able to penetrate this energy is critical for leaders to be able to keep their fingers on the pulse of their workplace and make sense of what is really going on.

Within the workplace, sometimes it is not what is said, rather it is what is not said. Observing the patterns of behaviours is one way to penetrate the energy or ‘vibe’ of the workplace and get to the truth of what is going on. Patterns of behaviour paint a very clear picture about what shape a workplace is truly in. A picture paints a thousand words.

An example of a workplace that went pear shaped

I once worked in a large organisation during a change program. The leadership team met on a weekly basis to discuss the change initiative which included driving a set of KPIs, absenteeism being one.

I was allocated a number of workplaces to help shift their shape. A new manager had been appointed to one of my workplaces as part of the restructure. Highly energetic with a polished and sharp appearance, he openly espoused his professional and technical prowess. His presence was commanding and he confidently held centre stage. Having escaped the ‘transit lounge’ he was intent on making his mark and he set to work with misplaced zeal. Unequivocally, he was a force to be reckoned with.

When I arrived at his workplace there was a sense of disquiet. His people looked downwards with fear in their eyes. No-one wanted to interact. Upon being introduced to him, he was dismissive proclaiming he had no need of any support and nor did his people. I knew this pattern of behaviour well as I’d come across it before – a manager who isolates their workforce and workers too fearful to speak up.

In the meantime he had made himself indispensable by being available 24/7 to the leadership team. He lulled them into a false sense of security. My insight and concerns fell on deaf ears.

The manager got off to a fast start with the change initiatives. At one of his first management meetings with his team he made it clear that taking sick leave would be frowned upon. As his people dragged themselves into work sick absenteeism went down. To the leadership team he appeared to be a shining star. But not to his workforce who were becoming disengaged and disenchanted.

Just like in the above image, he rode that team until they buckled under his weight. Soon fear turned to anger and contempt and the tide turned. It was as if an avalanche had been set off. His people began to take orchestrated sick leave in groups together and in large chunks so no-one could be signalled out individually. His absenteeism KPI went through the roof as did the number of people seeking a transfer out of his workplace. His workplace had gone totally pear shaped.

How to get back into shape

Sometimes leaders cannot see what is going on right under their nose – their workplace awareness is limited. Often they don’t want to know because they are too stressed and overloaded. Or they are lulled into a false sense of security by those surrounding them, but by then it’s too late.

Leaders have to be ready to listen – listening is a very important skill.

Sensing, seeing, listening and heeding are all necessary for a leader to keep their finger on the pulse and know exactly what is going on in the workplace – to make sense of their workplace. Once you know you can act. But you can’t act if you don’t know.

When you walk into the workplace ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What do I feel?
  2. What do I see?
  3. What do I hear or don’t hear?

Just like the image, interpreting and understanding the patterns and shapes will help you understand what is really going on in your workplace.

What I sense and how I experience a workplace enables me to cut straight to the issue often long before others are remotely aware of what is going on. You can too.

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