Sunday, September 23, 2007

Corporate Culture and the Rules of the Game

It has always struck me as extremely perverse that the UHaul motto is "An Adventure in Moving." Having rented my share of UHauls through the years, including a 24 foot truck equipped with a hydraulic lift and a steering wheel that could have doubled as a Catherine's wheel (the medieval torture device used to discourage apostasy), the last thing I would hope for is an adventure in moving. I would definitely prefer something much more predictable. A brief stroll perhaps. Or even a nap.

Unfortunately, I have also had adventures in working. Some in "real" jobs in education, entertainment, and real estate and some in temp jobs in law, medicine, energy, and film. Some of these jobs were more adventurous than others, but none was exactly the same as any other.

All of which is to say that every firm has its culture, its own set of rules that govern behavior. Some of these rules may find their way to a manual. When you show up and when you go home. But most of these rules are never written down. If you can contradict your boss. Whether it's okay to joke around. Even where you are supposed to purchase your clothes. Many of these rules you only discover when you break them. Others, you may never have the luck to find out.

So, how do you figure out what the rules are? Knowing that there are rules gives you a boost. It prepares you to look closely from the minute you start (or better yet, from the minute you go for the interview) at how the employees behave on the job. When they come, when they go, if they take lunch, if they take breaks, if they take vacations, if they work weekends, how they treat authority, what their mood is, how they dress, what their posture is, how they walk, how they address clients, whether they take personal calls, and if they are punctual to meetings. Not that every employee will act the same way. You will invariably observe a wide variety of styles. But look for clear trends among the stars of the firm. And from their behavior, extrapolate the rules.

Once you know the rules it's easier to play the game. Or better yet to decide if it's a game you want to play. If not, you can look for a better fit somewhere else -- which is generally a safer bet than trying to bring change, depending on the size of the firm and your position. If so, you know what's expected and can try to deliver. Either way, it's crucial to identify the rules. Not to do so is like driving a UHaul without lights. More of an adventure than you signed on for when you started.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Rage in the Workplace: A Matter of Helplessness

Though it would appear that the world of business is populated by adults this is at best only partially true. Unfortunately, I have witnessed the most infantile behavior from people who otherwise would seem to be of age. In one company I had a boss who routinely yelled at me and was reputed to have thrown a typewriter out the window. In another I heard my employer say of someone he didn't like that he was going to remove his genitals and force them down his throat -- though admittedly in somewhat less delicate terms. And in a third I saw a member attack the chairman of the board in an attempt to humiliate and remove him from office. Each case was not only an act of agression. Each case was also an act of regression in which a would-be adult turned into a child.

To understand more clearly what happened in these moments, it's helpful to remember what it's like to be two. Imagine that you are no more than 18 inches tall. You come up to your parents' thighs, chairs and tables look like mountains, and the family boxer outweighs you by 25 pounds. You know what you want but barely know how to say it. The world feels often dangerous and beyond your control.

Now, imagine that you're sitting in a cart at the market. Your mother is pushing you, and you see a balloon. You like the balloon. You want the balloon. You point to the balloon and shout, "Balloon!" Your mother says, "That's right! That's a balloon!" but keeps pushing her cart without stopping to get it. Again you say, "Balloon!" This time even louder. But your mother keeps going despite your insistence. Frantic, you shout "Balloon!!!" and burst into tears. You gesture wildly and start screaming at the top of your lungs. All to no avail. Your mother doesn't stop.

Two things happen to you in this moment. First, you encounter the limits of your power. The fact that you are unable to change the situation. Second, you experience a feeling of helplessness. A response to the fact that your power is limited. This combination proves to be overwhelming. It's scary to discover that you don't have control. And it's painful to feel helpless in the face of this discovery.

Anything is better than this state of affairs. Immediately, your fear and helplessness give way to anger. Adrenaline fills your veins as your fury starts to mount, and you feel increasingly powerful and even invincible. Big and strong enough to take on the world. Superman, the Hulk, and Spiderman in one. You talk louder, gesture wildly, cry, and then scream. Now for sure you will get what you want. No helplessness here. Just Herculean force. At least until your mother walks past the balloons and replaces your fantasy of omnipotence with impotence.

My boss, my employer, and the member of the board all regressed before me to childlike states of mind. They encountered situations they thought they couldn't change. And as a result they experienced feelings of helplessness. These feelings were immediately displaced by waves of anger which swelled to fantasies of deadly omnipotence. Their acts of aggression were acts of regression designed to reverse overwhelming realities and the intolerable feelings to which they gave rise.

Understanding this sequence can be enormously useful in sorting out the behavior of those with anger issues. To be able to recognize in the face of someone's rage that they are probably drowning in feelings of helplessness can keep you from launching a counterattack. Such an attack only tends to make bad conditions worse. You become the casualty of their anger and thus evidence of their omnipotence or the agent of their defeat and thus evidence of their impotence. Either way, one of you gets hurt in the process, and the underlying situation isn't addressed.

A better choice is for you to disengage from the conflict until the groundswell of anger has had a chance to subside. Only then will it be possible to look at the situation and figure out if there are really no options to pursue. Sometimes, of course, this is the case. And difficult decisions need to be made. But often there are choices, if not always ideal, that lose visibility in the fog of helplessness. In a calmer state of mind, these choices appear and make an impossible situation feel much more acceptable.

Of course, none of us is exempt from moments of rage that arise in the face of feelings of helplessness brought on by circumstances that seem beyond our control. But just as we want to understand this state in others, so we want to understand this state in ourselves -- and to do what we can to find solid land. First, by stepping back and acknowledging that we're angry. Second, by observing that we probably feel helpless. Third, by asking ourselves if we are as helpless as we feel. And fourth, by figuring out if there are tenable options. If there are we will discover that we have more power than we thought. And if there aren't we will have to deal with the disappointment and loss that invariably accompany the experience of failure. But this in its own way is a mark of success. The success of emerging from child to adult with the capacity to think about our most painful feelings and mindfully to act on the basis of these reflections.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Importance of Healthy Relationships in Business

Before I saw the light and became a psychologist, I spent several years developing real estate in Los Angeles. This was during the early to mid-1990s after the market took a dive from the heights of the 1980s. Home owners were suddenly "upside down" in their mortgages. A house that in 1989 had appraised for $500,000 in 1992 was worth $350,000. This made a mortgage of $400,000 more than the adjusted value of the property. As a result, many borrowers handed their keys to the lenders. The lenders ended up with lists of "Real Estate Owned," which they then tried to slash by further lowering prices. The net effect was a cataclysmic depression in value which didn't turn around till the end of the decade.

One of the few areas of the market to stay firm was tax credit based affordable housing. In exchange for restricting rents, developers were allocated credits which they then sold for cash to syndicators, corporations, and individuals. Revenue from these sales, along with a variety of grants, provided the equity for a typical project. The debt often came from conventional lenders happy to finance below market rate housing.

Developing a successful project entailed certain givens. The numbers had to pencil. The demand had to exist. And each member of the team had to be competent. If any one of these pieces wasn't in place, it jeopardized the overall success of the project. You could put up a great building in a firm rental market, but if it cost too much to build, it would go belly up. You could come in on budget in a firm rental market, but if the construction were shoddy, it would go belly up. And you could build a great building and deliver it within budget, but if the market were soft, it would go belly up. Numbers, demand, and competence were all necessary for success.

And yet they were not sufficient for success. Healthy relationships were also essential. This is because you can't deliver a project if the members of the team don't interact effectively. To purchase the land the developer must have healthy relationships with his broker, the title company, his attorney, the appraiser, and frequently with a private group of investors. To construct the building he must have healthy relationships with the architect, the construction lender, the general contractor, and the accountant. If he's building affordable housing, he must have healthy relationships with the neighborhood, the council person, the city development office, the state tax credit agency, and the syndicators, corporations, or tax credit broker/dealers. Finally, to lease it up, he must have healthy relationships with the permanent lender and the management company. Moreover, any of these entities that has more than one person must also have healthy internal relationships. In every aspect of every stage relationships matter. If the relationships aren't healthy, the project will suffer.

Though I saw this firsthand in my experience as a developer, I see it secondhand as an executive coach and psychologist. Again and again the challenge of relationships presents itself. Supervisees try to figure out how to satisfy supervisors. Supervisors try to figure out how to motivate supervisees. Founders try to figure out how to satisfy boards. Boards try to figure out how to motivate founders. CEOs try to figure out how to satisfy VCs. And VCs try to figure out how to motivate CEOs. Every relationship has its own challenge. If one isn't working the whole system suffers.

The difficult question is how to manage these relationships. One must have the sensitivity to read other people, the strength to maintain solid but flexible boundaries, the intelligence to understand the flow of power in hierarchies, and the resilience to withstand the inevitable conflicts. Fortunately, these abilities can be cultivated through insight, and insight can be nurtured through coaching, therapy, and training. But the key is to recognize the importance of relationships to begin with -- that along with good numbers, strong demand, and a team competence, healthy relationships are essential for success.