Want to improve your workplace culture? Be truthful and honest

Posted By Mike Padgett

Aug. 10, 2008

One of a company’s top employees is big in mouth and small in character.

He goes off task to yuk it up with colleagues at their cubicles, imposing his thoughts on their time. He makes personal phone calls from his desk.

He criticizes colleagues, supervisors and customers behind their backs. He fails to forward messages to coworkers.

Staff meetings become rambling and dysfunctional because of his inappropriate humor. Morale becomes road kill.

Sound like the class clown who never grew up?

Actually, egocentric workers exhibiting one or more of the above composite character’s traits are found in many organizations. And he – or she – is likely the product of a corporate culture in which managers lack the courage or the smarts to confront the high-producing but obnoxious worker.

The company can find itself battling a them-versus-us mentality in which managers dodging confrontation are pitted against employees disillusioned by weak management.

Strategies for solving the above situation and other leadership challenges are in a new book by husband-and-wife co-authors and workplace experts Jamie and Maren Showkeir of Phoenix. Their specialties include organizational development consulting, leadership development, and organizational change.

The Showkeirs say companies interested in improving their corporate cultures must first embrace authentic conversations, which is part of their book’s title.

Jamie and Maren Showkeir

Although written largely for corporate leadership and management, the book’s recommendations for improving corporate cultures are useful for everyone in an organization, from the boss to the janitor. The secret is a no-brainer – honest and truthful conversations with no sugar coating and no vagueness.

In “Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment,” the Showkeirs show the hazards of manipulation, glossing over painful truths, and dodging difficult situations. The book is set for publication in September.

“We think any individual can change the conversation and have an impact, and that is what we urge in our book,” Maren Showkeir says.

She says that while the book could benefit every member of an organization, its leadership and department managers “tend to have more influence and so may have the power to effect change a little more quickly.”

The book highlights a variety of tactics detrimental to organizations and their workers. According to a press release about “Authentic Conversations,” the undesirable managers and other employees are those who make unrealistic promises, spin the facts, feign interest to get what they want from others, exaggerate urgency, understate major corporate issues, disguise personal agendas, make others feel foolish, and suck up.

Henning-Showkeir & Associates has 25 years of business and consulting experience for divisions of several major companies. They include 3M, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, British Airways, CIGNA, Coca-Cola, Federal Aviation Administration, Ford Motor Co., Hewlett Packard, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, The Miami Herald, Nature Conservancy, Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., and others.

The Showkeirs’ company was founded in the late 1980s by Joel Henning, who died in 2001, and Jamie Showkeir. In 2005, Showkeir met journalist Maren Bingham. She soon joined the business as a partner, and they married in 2006.

The book was started in the late 1990s by Henning and Jamie Showkeir. It is based on their collective experiences, along with what Jamie calls a box filled with reference materials and “articles and notes and white papers and stuff related to this topic.”

Maren Showkeir added her own experiences from her work for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor in the United States – where she personally witnessed “some really ugly situations in organizations” – and in her experiences consulting for newspapers in South America.

The Showkeirs say truth and honesty are two words critical to changing a corporate culture. Be truthful and honest about the company’s situation and strategies and goals, and the culture soon will reflect management’s up-front philosophy. Mislead the employees, and they will become cynical.

“If you change the conversations in an organization, you will change the culture,” Jamie Showkeir says. “The conversations carry the culture and create the culture and sustain it or change it.”

He says organizations hurt themselves by allowing socially obnoxious employees – even though they are top performers – to run roughshod over other workers and even intimidate managers.

“I think it’s dangerous to the culture, which is ultimately dangerous to the company,” he says.

A common corporate scenario is one in which management has its own agenda and is unwilling to listen to input from employees who might have better ideas. Management stands firm and lets the workers know that if they are unhappy, they can leave.

“The difficult issue with that is, (management) is missing out because of the climate of fear, because they won’t listen, and even if somebody does have the courage to tell the truth,” Maren says.

“They miss out on the collective wisdom. There’s a lot of creativity, brilliant ideas, people who contribute vast amounts of wonderfulness that don’t get heard because they’re afraid to say what is on their mind, or they’re not listened to. And that creates a very cynical environment.”

Jamie adds that fear is another important factor in the workplace. Many employees remain silent about workplace issues out of fear for their jobs. They don’t speak up when managers ask for input, remembering the worker who left the company soon after speaking out against management.

“As a result, change is difficult,” Jamie says.

The Showkeirs’ Web sites are www.authenticconversations.com and www.henning-showkeir.com. Their publisher is Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Aug 10th, 2008

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