Lessons in Snow

Lately, I’ve begun to think about the culture of organizations a little differently than I used to. I once believed a medium or large size organization striving to induce a major shift in the way things are done would have to do a great deal of analytical work, then set up and administer rather large, costly programs. This is, after all, the DNA of the organization we are messing around with, so of course we have to study the molecules in detail, then “objectively” decide what kind of vast shift to the enterprise is called for. I hear this kind of analytical approach to major initiatives these days; for example, with employee engagement programs (or training programs in emotional intelligence, or lean initiatives). They may need a survey and assessment phase, a training phase, an implementation phase, a follow-up and measurement phase. It’s all dependent on expensive consultants and their special knowledge, taxing existing staff to the max, and sometimes paying for other costly infrastructure changes. To say nothing of gaining senior management “buy-in” in the first place.

I’m wondering if there is a simpler, less expensive way.

DSC_0278 - Version 2

One question that has repeatedly come forward for me is how much value the big surveys really hold; you know the ones designed to measure employee attitudes across a series of benchmarked measures, with lots of data that gets rolled up into executive reports to highlight seemingly major themes (e.g., “communications”) and target particular work units where morale is especially low. The themes get reduced to generics such as “recognition” or “trust,” qualities that for the most part cannot be programmed into organizations. Recently — even worse — the Gallup organization, one of the biggest vendors of such surveys, is now saying that the really big strategy has to do with hiring the right people as managers in the first place. Well, that’s not much news, and the problem is that it doesn’t do anything for transformation. What’s the option? Fire 70% of the managers out there and start over? I’m only being partially facetious. It seems to me, quite seriously, that the answer is we don’t really have an answer and surveys don’t provide it. There is no expert view that will solve the problems. It seems the answer must come from somewhere else; some other source, closer to home.

The other day I noticed something quite remarkable in a client organization: an executive having a conversation with two middle managers from a different division than his own. The executive had become curious about what it was really like to work in the firm — from a “street-level” view, he said — and the managers had offered informally to fill him in. It wasn’t a big deal, just an open exchange of questions and observations. In the course of an hour the managers identified at least three quite actionable areas. One involved doing something about an abusive high-level professional staff member whose demeaning behavior negatively affected a work unit trying to cope with large changes to their workload and work methods. A second issue involved a peer who was notorious for lacking personal cooperation when asked for help by others from outside his department. A third had to do with a regular, large-group management team meeting that was formal to the point of being intimidating, where people might be grilled for bringing up their unfinished ideas. None of the problems seemed insurmountable. Some intervention was called for in the case of the abusive staff member and the uncooperative peer, and the management team meeting could just as well be fixed with a better structure that incorporated some small group work, a participatory agenda, and a more informal atmosphere.

This conversation could be a catalyst, I thought to myself. Suppose, the executive just worked on one of those problems and it was solved. What would be so hard about that, and what positive impacts would result? Could this single stone thrown in the pond induce something positive and good as a model for a better way of working together? Could it, along with other informal efforts, begin to change the DNA? And wouldn’t that be the purpose of all that big change programs anyway, to get people talking to each other, solving problems — because they wanted to? No big training effort required?

Well, the truth is that the organization in question (perhaps like yours) does suffer from two kinds of challenges.

The first kind has to do with issues — such as the abusive staff member, uncooperative peer, and bad meeting format. But it’s the second challenge that’s truly the problem: the absence of means to informally and openly communicate about the issues as they come up and then collaboratively take action — do something about it. It seems to me this second problem speaks directly to changing the DNA. And it’s not likely to be solved by a survey, even one that calls out all the issues and the past absence of action on them. The DNA only changes when a leader hears and then, without force, coercion, programs, evaluations, external incentives or directives, personally and positively chooses to address what he or she has heard. A survey won’t change a culture, but a single player responding to an informal conversation and operating generatively can perhaps do more to truly open that door. That person can act as a gentle but dynamic force. Just imagine if this kind of culture were already in place — what would that do when it came time to learn more about employee engagement or emotional intelligence or lean? Do you think it might be easier to “implement” — and a whole lot less expensively?

Of course what I’m saying here is that you and I could be exactly the leaders who begin the shift in the DNA through our own informal actions. We don’t have to wait.

A friend of mine refers to this phenomenon as shoveling snow. You can either wait until the snow is five feet high, we’re up to our necks in it and can no longer move, blaming others, or we can notice the snow as it begins to fall in the first place. Then we have a chance to shovel it out of the way together when it is only a couple of inches deep. If more snow falls, we keep shoveling. In effect, we’re always shoveling, but the difference is that while some will be isolated in their houses by five feet of snow, those who shovel together regularly will always have a clear path to and from their doors.

I wish more people in leadership roles understood snow and what to do about it. The executive in this case is beginning to understand it, learn from it, come to grips with it. Good for him. You just have to get to know the other really good people in your organization and ask them about the weather. Since they are out in it every day doing their jobs, they can easily tell you whether the snow is falling and whether, in fact, it is a blizzard — if you catch my drift.


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  • Another thought-provoking post Dan.

    Highlighting a very important part of your post here:

    ‘But it’s the second challenge that’s truly the problem: the absence of means to informally and openly communicate about the issues as they come up and then collaboratively take action — do something about it.’

    Our challenge with this is derived from the fact that there are still very few people who know how or are willing to communicate the issues directly. There’s still a major lack of genuine assertiveness all across the board. Further complicated by (and I hate labels yet hopefully it will serve the point here) people who have learned to be passive, others who are overly aggressive, and then the passive aggressive bunch.

    The passive people aren’t going to say much of anything at all. The aggressives will bulldoze other people over to get what they want (and in leadership, the underlings tolerate if they are dependent on their paychecks) And the passive aggressive is perhaps the most dangerous one of all. They can’t handle direct communication either and yet will find a way to ‘attack’ indirectly using more covert methods.

    It certainly helps to know who/what you are dealing with in order to be able to find those solutions to good communication.

    Another one for deep reflection Dan. Thanks for sharing. : )

  • Dear Samantha~

    You are so right — the way we have thought about the problem is in terms of getting others to speak up. I co-authored two books on the subject and have a great deal of respect for the challenges you mention. They are real.

    And yet what I observed of the executive being curious and the managers sharing openly also suggests that we may have been thinking about the problem from the wrong side. I have seen the phenomenon of gentle inquiry by a senior leader create a dynamic opening many times. When the request is not part of a formal survey, when it’s not in too large a group, when it is motivated by genuine curiosity and good will, when the conversation is unique to the people and very informal, something else besides the walls you describe can happen. The survey method is designed to be used (and subtly reinforces) an environment of mistrust. The theory is by solving the problems surfaced by such a survey, trust can be built or restored. But I think, increasingly, there is a flaw in that logic. Trust is built by people reaching out informally to one another, and then acting on their connection. An executive who asks and listens, managers (in this case) who are willing to share.

    There are problems with this approach, too, of course. One could complain that such a method won’t “scale.” Just because one person voluntarily seeks information and is willing to do something about what is learned, does not necessarily mean others will also do it. Especially if it is a requirement or to be done on a schedule. It has to come from the leader’s soul, whether that leader is the questioner or the leaders who share information.

    We yearn to make sure everyone participates, everyone is committed, but in the end that just comes down to another kind of compliance and force. But perhaps if one executive leads the way, this can be viewed as an invitation for others to follow. If in fact there is energy in a group to change the DNA of existing culture, then something can happen. If the energy is not there, it cannot be forced.

    From my standpoint, we cannot simply go on being critical of employees for their aggression or passivity. Precisely the same thing could be said of any organizational group, including middle and senior managers. Better to focus on the good people who are willing to take a small leap of faith, who will be open to an ongoing conversation — if asked in the right way. By right way, I mean, this isn’t some interrogation or writing of promissory notes. It’s a dialogue about “what is” by people who might differ in stature or formal power but who respect a deeper humanity as partners in the same organization.

    I love the idea of bringing out onto the surface all the strengths — and objections — to what I am suggesting. Maybe together we can figure this out.

    All the best

  • Yes, the reason survey’s don’t work is precisely because it lacks REAL connection with a person. There’s no ‘relationship’ created via surveys or other similar means of info-collection methods.

    Heart and soul driven rather then forced compliance IS the way to go. That said, you’ve pointed out many of the pros/cons to that as well. You are right, no one can be forced to communicate beyond what their current comfort level. The more heart-centered leaders that can create the safety needed AND model this informal and open communication style, the better to set the tone for the rest of the org. Granted, not everyone will be open to it. If it’s not a fit, then it’s important for people to start exploring other options. (if the person can no longer remain in the org)

    Thanks again for bringing up so many insights on this. I’m in alignment with most of your viewpoints on this so it resonates with me.

  • Dear Dan,

    I enjoy reading all of your posts, especially as you keep widening the circle of thought and relfection on organizational dynamics and behavior. Forgive me for my long-winded reaction, but here goes.

    The recent Gallup poll you invoked (http://bit.ly/15p6lo6) which reveals that 70% of current workers are emotionally disengaged in the workplace, was reported in the media with little fanfare, pointing out the correlation between productivity and employee engagement, which I see as a major “call to action.”

    I work in non-profit management, with a specialty in fundraising—the lifeblood of most charities. I can think of two experiences I had working with organizations where the absence of strong leadership to instill what we call, “a culture of philanthropy,” failed to take root because leadership failed to ensure that this culture (read: employee engagement) reached every level of the respective organizations. Thus, the traditional silos had whittled down to everyone being buried in the snow. (Imagine 30 employees in example #1 and 1,000 in example #2, all standing in a group buried up to their necks, rendered immobile, and working at cross purposes.)

    In example #1, the CEO was very “concerned” about the organization’s ability to scale it’s fundraising by a growth factor of almost 40% in contributed income, just to meet the needs of the bottom line, expecting the endowment (savings) to cover the shortfall if she failed. (This is not an uncommon dynamic). Working with this client for over a year, I felt the CEO had learned the organizational logistics to increase funding, but lacked the will and resolve to confront his entire team and demand that everyone “work as one”—with a shared vision to increase philanthropy through heightened employee engagement. In sum, fear of confrontation, or fear of appearing too over handed left both the CEO and his entire team frozen in the snowdrift, with no hope of increasing productivity, or yielding significant growth in contributed income.

    In example #2, the CEO had fully embraced the concept of a culture of philanthropy, however she lacked the resolve to make it an “institutional” priority. While the CEO was ready to pitch in at every turn, and shovel the snow, the folks in the silos were not getting the memo that “it takes a village,” and that no one was exempt from moving the fundraising needle simply because they worked outside of the fundraising department, such as finance, human resources, or facilities management.

    If I may take some editorial license here, building on your metaphor, I see Christmas lights (glowing in the snow) connecting all of the employees buried in the snow. Except these are Christmas lights of yore, where if one light burns out, the whole string of lights burn out, leaving no light at all.

    The examples I gave above have counterparts where philanthropy is at the center of an organization, and even the janitor knows the value and importance of philanthropy. My experience working at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is a shining example—from CEO to janitor, everyone is drinking the Kool Aid, and the dollars follow.

    It is highly dangerous for Americans to take a collective shrug at the current state of employee disengagement. In the non-profit world, it means fewer clients served in medical clinics, high school counseling, job readiness, food banks, senior centers, child care centers, etc. In the for profit side, it translates to front line employees who treat the “bread and butter” clients with little passion, and nothing in the way of appropriate customer service, for a service economy. It’s a lose/lose proposition. Our economy, and the organizations and institutions on which we depend, and support with our dollars, cannot afford to succumb to ennui, bitterness and immobilization.

    It takes a village, and we are all like the light bulbs in the chain, and if one of us burns out, all the lights burn out. And then we end up mired in the snow, up to our necks, wishing “if only” we had shoveled the snow when it was but a few inches.

    Indeed, what I propose (and I assume you would concur) is that repairing this employee disconnect requires constant maintenance, but the net result is we all have a clear path connecting each individual to one another, cognizant that if one gets buried up to his neck, we all suffer.

    The answer is always the same—courage, “moral” courage from those in leadership roles to do what they were hired to do, lead, and for all the management levels and silos to connect and work in harmony. Leadership inspires; management conspires. I salute you in your work to help train and grow the next generation of leaders, as I have been an avid fan for over a decade. Great article, Dan.

    Karl Valentine

  • @Samantha~

    Thanks for the reply, Samantha. You are raising wonderful points.

    It seems to me the worry behind many major projects that touch on management and cultural norms is that there will be “resistance,” and then the dilemma is, “What do we do about it?” Although we often say the focus is on positive leadership, in fact there is almost always background, sometimes “undiscussable” concern about the resistors. This shows up as complaints of hypocrisy about the top leaders (why don’t they just make them do it), encouraging a more or less punishing return to autocratic compliance methods. In essence all we’ve got is a new “us” vs. “them” dilemma.

    It seems whatever new model is created, we need a very different kind of approach to “resistance.” I favor “invitational” models for change that focus on who is there, not who is not there, and an attitude of good will. (Otto Scharmer’s U-Theory, for example). It’s natural that tensions will arise, and the so can the desire for a broader, deeper group discussion, instead of being offended by criticism. Rather than leaving things in the background and “undiscussable” and working toward compliance, we can invite greater engagement more precisely at the point and place of challenge. The main problem seems to be that we think this will “slow things down.” But it doesn’t slow things at all; it’s a necessary stage and potential turning point.

    Once again, thank you so much, my friend. You add and deepen the discussion so much!


  • @Karl~

    I love the sense of urgency you are bringing to this discussion, Karl. I hear you as focusing on the will to lead — the willingness to confront and then mobilize an organization through real engagement. I think this is right on target.

    As with Samantha’s comments, the concern we share is how to take action in a way that results in broad, not just local culture change. By local, I mean maybe a work group here and there versus a whole organization dedicated to working in more effective, proactive, trust-based and humanistic ways.

    In both cases you cite, what it seems to me you’ve spelled out is the inner challenge of culture change, one that boils down to the personal growth of the leader through conflict and self-confrontation. A very strong norm in American business culture is that leaders don’t show their personal growth or vulnerability. They don’t put themselves out there, taking the risk to step into awkward space where there might be, once again, “resistance.” They shouldn’t “have to” in order to effect change. This represents an old-style, highly self-protected, hierarchical model. And, unfortunately, as Samantha articulated so well, staff often reinforce this model themselves by not taking any risks themselves to speak honestly and vulnerably either.

    If I were coaching these leaders, I might suggest they do what the executive in this story did — go find out more about the issues within their organization and begin addressing those from the standpoint of staff in the middle and at the customer interface. This might leverage the natural energy for improvement that exists in the organization.

    The point is that “employee engagement” begins with doing what good leaders have always done — pay attention to, listen to, and act on — information from staff. It’s the fear of this, and of discovering in the process one’s own inadequacies as a leader, that keeps people — both leader and staff — in a very small, very formal box. Real employee engagement means “leaders and employees engaging together to address the challenges an organization faces.” If a leader is not personally and fully engaging with staff — and you give two excellent examples of that — then things inevitably remain the same, and we end up relying on the same old compliance models and “programs” to effect a shift in mindsets and relationships. In this sense, engagement becomes the leaders’ own will to listen, vulnerably speak, and act on the imperatives of internal and external change. These are matters of the soul and, as you pointed out, may be linked to a certain lack of moral courage. In more compassionate moments, I’d say we all share in that problem but it sure stands out for those who’ve agreed to take on key leadership roles.

    Thank you, my friend, for sharing your experiences and keen insight into the challenge.

    All the best

  • Great analogies in this post and wonderful assessment of the “DNA” as you call it. The examples you note are very solvable with one sure element: Leadership that wants to change it not only because it will help the org. but also because they want to be in that type of positive environment.

    It sounds so obvious yet we often make assumptions that leaders want a super positive environment. Dig in and dig deep leaders to ask yourselves what fears or biases you have about an uplifting culture? Somewhere were you taught that its fake and dangerous because it overlooks trouble.

    Some leaders fail to address negative abusive moments because they truly think that tough and rough = success. Yes, … still to this day!

    There are also many leaders who are learning and embracing the value of both objectivity and positive encouragement for tremendous employee engagement.

    … Kate

  • Thank you, Kate. Yes, you are right, there are all kinds of leaders out there right now: some who avoid, some who don’t see an advantage in culture change work, some who think tough and rough equals success, and some who want a different, more positive way pretty badly. It’s a mix that hasn’t sorted itself out, and all of these approaches may coexist in the same organization!

    As to the tough and rough folks, the interventions I’ve seen, they focus less on supporting abusive behavior than trying to save or rescue the offending leader — often over a period of years. Frequently, they are folks who have beensent to coaching, but without clearcut expectations for change — not a great prognosis for improvement.

    I liked what Karl said in his comment about “the will to lead.” If a person truly has that and it is balanced by an interest in self-knowledge, much change, both internal and external, can take place.

  • Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) wrote:

    Dear Dan,
    I work as a head of department and academic advisor for a large number of students in my department. I could shift the advising job to other instructors in my department like many chairperson do, but I didn’t. Mainly because with my daily interaction with students I could sense the problems even as they start. Students talk to me and I listen well. Funny that, we regularly do course/instructors evaluations and get some statistics out of them. The statistics never brought me any news, They are only confirmation of what I have learned from my direct contact with the students.

    Ok, I have never worked in a company (always in academia), but problems are the same: rude & abusive instructors, lousy ones, etc. You can always know about them in an easy way & with no statistics involved, simply by being close to your people and by sharing their joy & problems.

    Great Post!


  • Dear Hoda~

    You absolutely understand what I’m talking about. If you listen well, you’ll here the issues directly, and maybe some that the statistics could never tell you, too. It is fantastic that you have developed this level of rapport with your students.

    The question for me is always, and what is next? What broader conversations, perhaps even in a group setting with students and instructors and administrators, does this knowledge compel? How does your leadership move outward toward culture change over all? I throw out this questions simply as matter of exploration! What might be next?

    Thank you for your kind words and sharing your experiences, Hoda!

    All the best

  • Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) wrote:


    I believe that a network of caring advisors would do the trick (in my case). If every single department has just one good listener, then the issues of everyone are taken care of.

    Now, regarding how does my leadership move outward toward culture change over all: By shoveling the snow in my garden, i do hope that my neighbor would learn how to do it and start doing it, if he/she doesn’t I give a helping hand to tell him/how how, and if they can’t do it, I’ll find a handyman to help him/her. Now if they refuse to do it and reject the helping hand, I believe this person ought to be working in no one garden!

    Extending my view to the Business environment, I believe that they simply need to hire couple of full-time counselors/coaches capable of listening well and then relaying the employees concern to the higher administrator.
    In this way they will be shoveling the snow on a daily basis.


  • I love the snow metaphor and I so appreciate your once again well written thoughts here, +Dan Oestreich. I feel that you have exposed an Emperor has no Clothes line of thought for consultants, bringing words to some thoughts I have had about our processes. It takes guts to suggest that more important than metrics are the simple bones of cross-level communication within an organization. Rather than collecting boatloads of data which measure “communication” / productivity levels/ etc., and then creating exhaustive training processes, so much can be improved though installing basic preemptive systems in which people simply TALK to each other. Thanks for a great post.

  • @Hoda~

    Thanks for replying back, Hoda! I enjoy keeping the conversation going!

    You also bring up this challenging piece: what if someone, “your neighbor,” doesn’t also pay attention and welcome others’ concerns in the way you do. I love your response, which is to advise and support. I think that’s an excellent answer. A few organizations I know sponsor regular sessions for peers in leadership roles to talk with one another about the challenges they are facing. One organization calls these groups, “Trust teams,” and they can work wonders.

    So the only question is about the person who openly rejects the helping hand. A dilemma for me is that if you simply terminate this person, it makes all the other things people might do a matter of compliance, a subtle “or else.” So if I don’t attend the trust team meeting, will I get fired, makes attendance mandatory rather than an open choice. It makes me wonder what other kinds of sensitive interventions or boundary setting might be available.

    Thank you again for your wonderful response!

  • Dear Blair

    I absolutely love your articulate summary, Blair. It is an Emperor discussion, and there must be better ways to engage rather than just study at great expense the level of engagement. Your notion of “preemptive systems” and culture hits the nail on the head. Thank you so much for taking a moment to share your awesome insights!

    All the best

  • For more on engagement, here is a very interesting article, “Ten Charts That Show We’ve All Got a Case of the Mondays,” from Harvard Business Review Blog Network.

    Of particular note are comments to this post regarding how some managers resist engagement because they believe it cannot be measured.

    I think this is more “consultant bait,” in the sense that it is very tempting to counter that perception with, “Oh, yes it can,” and then go on to do the surveys, maybe even carefully linking the results to profitability. All of which sounds pretty logical, but again such surveys are not engagement and don’t necessarily produce it either. What’s called for again is a “preemptive,” “engaging” dialogue about what measurement is and is not.

  • Dan once again you have hit it out of the park!

    I love the metaphor of SNOW.

    We can blame organization, we can blame leaders, we can blame DNA.

    I see what you have described in your article in my line of work.

    And I always say, as you know, lead from within, it does not matter if you are not the boss, it does not matter you don’t own the company.

    I believe one person modeling the way, courageously will be and can be the catalyst for change.

    Maybe I am dreamer, but I believe in people!

    One person to stand out, stand up to make a change, even if slight…


  • Dear Lolly~

    Exactly. To begin, it is often just one person who makes the difference. How else could change get started? One person can be a “forcefield” without using any “force” at all. I’ve seen it time and again. The words or even just the presence of a particular individual channels an energy that changes the game. This is not the same as charisma, which is often experienced as a form of individualistic power and therefore of subtle compliance. Instead, it is the power of a kind of innocence flowing into the world that reminds people of their original freedom and the heart’s goals, that reminds people we are in this all together.

    Thank you so much for your many gifts, Lolly. They are much appreciated.

    Best to you

  • This is so very true, Dan. Another thoughtful, thought-provoking article.

    Having those informal channels of feedback and communication are essential yet so hard to do. It is a cultural thing and it needs to be started early and reinforced often.

    The other aspect is how a leader can make the small changes early and how much that saves an organization from misery and downturns. Yet, again, people close up and don’t make those changes. They would rather be snowed in than clearing the path forward.

    A few of the lessons in here is a challenge to all: Be open and encourage small dialogues of feedback. Listen closely. Next, take the small steps of change to prevent large disasters and promote big, positive changes.

    Great insights, Dan. Thank you. Jon

  • Jon, thank you — you’ve perfectly restated the plan.

    I agree, it is “a cultural thing,” and if this is the significant change that the big programs are trying to get at, then perhaps we can move in this direction without them. They are not the change, they are what is supposed to induce it (and rarely, in my experience, do). But if one person begins and another follows, as in the natural world, a pattern can spread. The exact mechanism for how things spread is the ultimate dilemma. We think we can enforce that, but such formal tactics rarely work. They are unnatural. Ultimately, it probably is just about love and how that expands and spreads because it is its nature to do so.

    All the best, Jon, and thanks again.


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