Q&A Episode: dealing with workplace politics, egotistical bosses and how to successfully people share

Welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. In a world where knowledge has become a commodity, this podcast is designed to give you something more; access to the experience of a successful CEO who has already walked the path. So join your host Martin Moore, who will unlock and bring to life your own leadership experiences, and accelerate your journey to leadership excellence.

Marty: Hi there, and welcome to Episode 16 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week we're going to do another Q&A. We're winding into the holiday period, and we've had so many good questions from listeners that there's a few more we need to deal with. Our last Q&A got some really good feedback too, and so keep those questions coming because we will get around to answering all of them at some point in time. We're dealing with some more really good questions today. The first one on workplace politics. The second on working with an egotistical boss, and the third, a little bit more on the people share concept that I mentioned earlier, but certainly not in that order. Joining me again to help out, of course, is the other half of Your CEO Mentor, welcome Em.

Em: Hello. I'm so glad you let me come back on this side of the mic after last time!

Marty: We had really good feedback from listeners on the last Q&A format, so it was excellent.

Em: Well look, there were awesome questions, so it made my job of asking them really easy. We've got three more super interesting questions this week. Let's get straight into it. The first question is from Grant, who writes, "I was intrigued by the people share concept. We always do a safety share, but I haven't heard of too many other teams doing a people share, and would love to hear more on it." This is a really good technique, Marty, which you've explained to me before. Can you give us a little bit more detail on people shares and what you think we should be doing?

Marty: Sure, Em. I think this is a really effective and simple way for a leader to boost their reward and recognition regime. Really what it's about is giving someone some really good, timely recognition for a job well done. Now, this is particularly important when you're trying to change a culture, or change the way behaviours in an organisation are actually exhibited by your people, and particularly for the leaders that you see doing the right things. You've got to actually reinforce those good behaviours as quickly as you can. I've got this expression, "You've got to reward the approximations of desired behaviours." It doesn't mean that those behaviours are going to be perfect, or exactly what you're looking for, but when you see steps in the right direction, it's really important that you give people the feedback that says, "That's what I'm looking for. Hey, you've done really well there."

Now, when you're trying to show the organisation what good looks like, there are two ways to do it. The first way is to actually do that thing which incrementally takes people and tries to explain the different behaviours, and show them a different way of doing things, and helping them to move forward. It's much, much faster though to do the second way, which is to bring in new people, and hire new blood into the organisation that already has those behaviours, and already exhibits and models the things you want your people to do. Now, of course you can't be successful by doing only one or the other. You have to do a combination of both. So when I was at CS Energy, I used to say frequently to the team, "The extent to which we can be successful depends entirely on how well we can blend the old skills with the new ways of doing things," and that was it.

Talking specifically about people shares, these things can be done at all levels. But the theory is, what you're doing is you're trying to recognise someone while you're having a meeting of a senior group of leaders. So we'd often do this at the start of an executive meeting on a Monday morning at CS Energy. We'd ask for people to nominate those in their various groups who'd done something outstanding, or something we really wanted to recognise because it showed the approximations of desired behaviour. It would go something like this. We'd have a safety share, a story about safety to focus us on that first, as the most important thing we were doing. Then I'd call for a people share.

"Has anyone got a story of someone in the organisation who's exhibited exactly the right behaviours, and values, and performance that we're looking for?" And the story would come out. Now depending on what that story was, we then work out who was going to give that feedback. But can you imagine the power of going back to an individual in the organisation two, three, four, levels down, and saying, "The chief executive and the executive team of the company have recognised the way you did X, Y, or Z." Of course, like all feedback it has to be specific, it has to be timely, and it has to be accurate, to be useful. But then it's determining what's appropriate in terms of who actually gives that feedback.

So if it was something big, I'd quite often send an email myself, or make a phone call to the individual involved. They would be so surprised to hear from me. But their chest would be puffed out for weeks as a result of that. Sometimes for smaller things it might be an executive general manager or a site general manager. Actually, the best form of feedback you can get is from your direct supervisor because that's how people see the world, through the eyes of their direct supervisor. So whichever level it comes from, it's just a matter of saying, "We know what you've done. We've recognised it. Good news has travelled all the way up the line, and here's the feedback for you. Great job."

Em: Those are some great tips, Marty. One thing that jumped to my mind though was bosses that I've had in the past who go over the top with praising people for things that are, I don't know, I guess not that praiseworthy, if that makes sense. Do you have any strategies for figuring out what's worth highlighting, and what's just part of your job?

Marty: Yeah. That's a really good question. I think the best judge of those sorts of things are the people who are closest to that work. So if they're seeing something that's completely out of the norm, or unusual for the way their team normally acts, that's the sort of thing that gets attention. So in terms of not heaping effusive praise on something that should be expected or part of the job, we handle that by the different levels of the organisation that actually give the feedback. So for the chief executive to send an email, or to make a phone call, it would have to be something pretty serious and pretty significant. Most of the time it's further down the line, and as I said, the frontline supervisor is really the right person for this to come from because that's where you want the relationship of the positive feedback, the leadership dialogue, and the challenging, coaching, and confronting.

Em: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. What about if there are leaders out there who haven't been doing this previously, but now hopefully after listening to this episode, will want to start doing it? Could there be a fear around this change in their behaviour being really obvious to their team, or potentially being seen as disingenuous because it's not something that they would usually do? How do you recommend starting to behave in this way if you haven't in the past?

Marty: Yeah. Another good question. I think really where we have to start is a line in the sand. Disingenuous will always look disingenuous whether you do it frequently or not. I did mention this in a previous podcast episode where I asked the question, "Are happy workers productive workers?" But if you're going to actually give your people feedback, and you haven't done it before, I think drawing a line in the sand that says, "Look. I've been thinking about the sorts of behaviours we're exhibiting, and we really need to try better, and to set a better example. I want to make sure that you guys understand what it is that I'm looking for, and what good looks like. So we're going to try out this thing called 'people shares', and I want to hear all these stories about the people in the organisation who are doing great things because I know there's heaps of them. We're going to recognise them when they've done the right thing so that we know and you know what good looks like."

Em: Okay. Onto the next one, egotistical bosses. I'm sure everyone listening has either had one, or heard a story about one. Wayne has asked this question, and I'm paraphrasing it a little, "For an aspiring leader in an organisation where the leader above them is self-indulgent and egotistical it can be really difficult to reach their full potential as the competent, capable leader that they are. It's difficult to manage up with this type of leaders. The types who promote a 'Those below me should do everything for me,' culture, and only want to see green on the dashboard because anything less makes them look bad. The good leaders end up frustrated, and either eventually complying for a short amount of time, or just leaving. Either one robs the organisation. So what would you suggest someone in this situation do? How should these aspiring leaders realise opportunities, and provide value with an egotistical boss in the way?"

Marty: Thanks, Em. Look. Once again, a great question, and this one is so incredibly common. Just so our listeners know, most of the feedback we get is about how to deal with bosses and politics in different situations that arise in the workplace from the types of behaviours that your poor leaders exhibit. First things first. If you haven't listened to Episode 13 yet, which is, "Don't Outshine Your Boss" ... Now of course when Wayne put the question in, we were a long way from releasing Episode 13, but you should go and do that now. I have quite a few tips for dealing with difficult bosses, but just to hit a couple of the high points. There are lots of these around. Don't be surprised. If you know how few great leaders there are, it would be irrational to think that you would actually end up working for one, and a very, very remote possibility.

But there was particularly the comment that Wayne made in his question, about leaders who don't want to hear hard truths, and unfortunately they appear to be in the majority. A leader with real courage, who wants the news, good, bad, or indifferent, who wants to be able to tackle issues head on, and who wants to be open and transparent about what's going on, they are really, really rare. But you want to be one of those, even if your boss isn't. Leaders like this though, they are toxic, and they will never be worth working for. They exhibit all the signs that are destructive to a culture. The first thing, and the most obvious, is the self-interest. "How do I look? What does it mean to me? How do I need to protect myself?" That's the first sign. Then you've got things like poor listening skills. If they don't want to hear it, they don't want to hear it.

They're not going to be looking to challenge, and to draw out from you the things that you know, and the colour that you can add to any issue or problem. The inability to accept robust challenge will disable, and demotivate their team, and you can't get the best out of your people unless you're pushing them to challenge each other, and to challenge you. This is one of those things, I really love this expression. I use it all the time when I'm talking to one of my direct reports, "If you think the same as I do, then at least one of us is redundant, and it's probably not me." You know you've got to bring something to the table. But bosses like this, they tend to create a yes-man culture, and this completely disempowers the team, as I said. They spend most of their time covering up, prevaricating on the facts, and they lack any sort of openness and transparency that would make them a good boss.

Em: So what do you do about this?

Marty: Em, as much as I hate to say it, if you find yourself working for one of these people, probably your best move is to make a plan to leave. Particularly if that boss has been in the organisation for a while. Because what that means is, it's likely that the problem goes way deeper than that one individual. Now, if they're relatively new, there may still be hope, and you might want to talk to your manager once removed, your boss's manager, if you know them well. But that's pretty tricky, so you gotta be careful about that going outside of your line. But an organisation that tolerates that type of leader is not one you want to be in because it can't be successful ultimately.

If you choose to stay, because let's face it you always have a choice, then resign yourself to the fact that this is the life that you will have. You're going to have to lead that life, and you're going to have to suck it up. We found a lot of people who wish that things were different, and they're happy to complain, but they aren't prepared to do what it takes to make the changes. Unfortunately, when you're working for a boss like that, you won't change them. They are who they are, and you can either suck it up, or you can move on. I hate to say it, but that's what I think it works like.

Em: That's a pretty bleak picture, Marty.

Marty: Yeah. But I hate to see good people flogging a dead horse. You know the way this question was worded, the situation appears to be somewhat unrecoverable unless Wayne has a very strong relationship with the bosses above his immediate boss. It appears that the die is already cast, and as great a person as Wayne is, and as hard as he works, and hard as he tries, he's not going to get that far when you've got a boss above you who's going to disempower you, and disable everything you do.

Em: Okay, I totally agree with all of your points really, but just to play devil's advocate for a minute, is there any merit in managing up and figuring out how to best, quotation marks, "play" to your boss's ego, for the lack of a better description? Like, if I'm in a job that I like, I love the company, this boss isn't going anywhere soon, but I don't necessarily want to either, can't I just figure out how they best work, and try and navigate my way around this?

Marty: Sure, but that will only go so far. So if you love the company and it's a large enough company, hey, a sideways move inside that company's fantastic. When I was saying leave, get a new role, I just mean away from that particular leader, because the whole company's not necessarily like that.

But certainly, you have to work out how to manage that boss, just to survive. You have to work out how to pander to them and how to cater to their needs. But the trouble is, you'll always be suboptimal, and if you can live like that, that's okay, you can make that choice. But for most really great leaders who want to achieve great things, it's always going to inhibit them, and unless they can get out from under that boss and get promoted to another level, they're going to be stuck there.

It's bosses like that, that are the most selfish, that are the ones least likely to promote the people underneath them, and that are normally quite insecure about how they operate. So you've got this double-edged sword of, "I want to do the right thing for the company, I want to be the best I can be, I've just got to suck it up and work out how to manage my leader," and that's always going to be option second-best, number two, or number 10.

Em: Yeah, that makes sense. That's a really good explanation of it. We do get this question all the time, so if you have any specific questions about your circumstances, please let us know and we'll get back to you individually if your course of action is still unclear after listening to this episode and the others that we've referenced.

Okay, last question for this episode, and it's a cracker. Gavin has asked, "With politics in the workplace, how do you stay aware but not involved?" This is a great one because knowing where to draw the line with this is critical.

Marty: Yeah, now, I've got to tell you, this is not my forte. I've found over the years I haven't been great at office politics. I've learnt how to survive it and survive reasonably well, but it's not one of my real strengths. So office politics can be incredibly destructive but there's no organisation on the planet that's free from politics, no matter how big or small it is.

A number of years ago, my older sister, Brigid, and I set a challenge for each other, and the question was, can we rise through an organisation without being a politically manipulative asshole or bitch? I mean, can we just do it through hard work and delivering results? And to an extent you can, as both of us have shown, but it is tough, and without that political frame and the ability to manage a situation politically, things come in and they get in your way, and they are real.

Em: So what have you focused on in the past?

Marty: I've always had the view that if you deliver value, if you operate with the right intent, and if you do the things that will make an organisation better, then that will always prevail and people will recognise it and notice it, and that will be the cornerstone of your career. And look, I still believe that, but I don't think it's as true as I thought it was 15 or 20 years ago.

Over the years, when it comes to politics, I've tried to be aware but not involved, but you run into some players, particularly in larger organisations, who are just all politics, nothing else, and you'll recognise these people. As soon as I start describing this, you're all going to go, "Yeah, I know the name I can attach to that." So they suck up to the boss and they serve up exactly what the boss wants to see and hear, and after they've done that for a little while, the boss loves them, and they tend to get a trusted advisor status. Now, these people occasionally use this in Machiavellian proportions. It's crazy the sort of stuff they will do. I might hesitate to use the word evil, but I want to at least say that their use of power is ugly and destructive.

I've been blindsided in the past and had a lot of damage done to me inside an organisation, because, while I was off delivering value, one of my peers was in the boss's ear, telling him all sorts of crap about me, about what I was saying, about what my team was doing, about how I was operating. Basically, white-anting from a peer or superior can be incredibly damaging, and when you've just got your head down, doing stuff and trying to create value, you haven't got time for all those shenanigans. But because this boss was weak and insecure, he never sought to confront me on the issues and he held his opinions from his trusted advisor close to his heart.

So I think you've got to be really careful about what's going on around you, and that awareness of office politics, the awareness of the organisational framework, is really, really important when you're off doing your own thing, because you've got to be able to combat it somehow.

Em: Man, that sucks. I've got so many questions about this topic. I've worked in some awesome companies, where there hasn't been any office politics at all, and then others where the toxicity has pretty much taken over and client work ended up being affected quite significantly, which was really shit. My main question is about cliques. So in a workplace, there are usually quite a few different cliques or people who hang out together, and it's kind of nice to have the same people who you have coffee with, or go to lunch with, who support you, and who you can have a bitch to if you need to.

One of the things that I've noticed, though, is that sometimes these cliques can become quite negative and nasty, and I've been in one or two myself, which I'm definitely not proud of. How do you stop your clique from becoming something like a scene from Mean Girls? You want to support your work friends and vent, but what are some strategies to keep things positive and to resist the natural urge to band together against common enemies?

Marty: I feel super uneducated now because I've never watched Mean Girls, but I understand the thrust of your question, so let me have a crack at it. I think this whole thing about the cliques, and everyone forms groups, it's human nature to form social groups with those you identify with, and it's also human nature to have an us and them mentality to other groups that form inside the organisation.

This can happen with people who are great people, who you trust and respect, and outside the group, people you trust and respect, but it's very, very hard to stop that us and them thing developing over time because we are always really happy with ourselves, and always happy with the way we do things, and it's very easy to see what other people aren't doing.

So as a leader, the first thing I'd say is, spend time with people who aren't in your collective group, and if you spend time with them and talk to them, you'll understand that they are trying as hard as you are for the most part, and they are doing the right things as well, and they have their own issues, and being able to influence and identify with those people is going to make that a lot easier.

You can actually come back to your group and say, "Hey, look, I've been talking to Sally over there. Those guys are just trying to make a living. Here's their constraints. Here's the things that are slowing them down. Here's the issues they're dealing with. Here's why they won't do the things that we want them to do." It's really about understanding others and spending time to see life through their shoes. That normally makes a really big difference to how things go.

Em: So, really, compassion is key here?

Marty: Totally.

Em: It's a really tricky one. I think going back and listening to Episode One, Respect Before Popularity, would really help people as well.

All right, that's it, all three questions done and dusted. There were some really great ones there and I have loved being on the podcast again, so thank you for having me, and I guess the next time I'll be on here is after Christmas, so Merry Christmas everyone, and bye for now.

Marty: Fantastic. Thanks, Em. So no real downloadable this week, but there's a couple of podcast episodes you might want to go back and listen to, that Em's going to put in the show notes. Thanks very much for joining us this year. We're coming into the holiday season, so have a really good time. The next time we're going to be talking to you is next Wednesday, of course, which is Boxing Day, the day after Christmas.

So thank you so much for joining us, and remember that at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally, so if you liked this episode or any of the episodes this year, please share them with your leadership network, so that we can reach even more leaders.

Next week we're going to take a break from the content-heavy stuff, and just give you a Best of 2018, which will point you to some of our favourite episodes, so you can have a listen to those over the holiday period. Until then, I know you'll take every opportunity you can to be a no bullsh!t leader.