Author Archives: Tom Foster

About Tom Foster

Tom Foster spends most of his time talking with managers and business owners. The conversations are about business lives and personal lives, goals, objectives and measuring performance. In short, transforming groups of people into teams working together. Sometimes we make great strides understanding this management stuff, other times it’s measured in very short inches. But in all of this conversation, there are things that we learn. This blog is that part of the conversation I can share. Often, the names are changed to protect the guilty, but this is real life inside of real companies.

Separated From the Group

“And, what happens when that social network of people is interrupted, where the person becomes separated?” Pablo asked. “And that separation could be physical separation, or mental separation.”

“Do you mean, like sending a technician out in the field, alone, as a team of one?” I floated.

“Perhaps,” Pablo replied. “Or excluding someone from a meeting in which they had a vested interest. Remember, the lions, tigers and bears are not so physical anymore. There are a hundred things leaders can do to disconnect team members from the group. Sometimes, as leaders, we create that disconnection without thinking. And when we create disconnection, it shifts the mental state of the individual into distress. That mental state of disengagement, can be incredibly corrosive. I bet you already have someone in mind, who is in a state of disconnection, and whose behavior you see as counterproductive (at best).”

I nodded. “Stands out like a sore thumb.”

“But, let’s bring this down to work, because that’s what we are really talking about. It is not my purpose to teach you to be warm and fuzzy with your team. We are here to get work done. Let’s create a list of characteristics where the mental state is in work mode vs non-work mode.”

  • Work vs Non-work
  • Positive vs Negative
  • Productive vs Unproductive
  • Cooperative vs Collusive
  • Scientific vs Unscientific
  • Conscious vs Unconscious

“And what is more contagious that a positive attitude?” Pablo smiled.

I nodded again. “A negative attitude.”

The Modern Tribe

“So, I am not crazy to want people to come back into the office?” I asked the rhetorical question.

“Look,” Pablo replied. “There are circumstances where Zoom works just fine, especially when travel isn’t practical, or the need for communication rests in the data to be shared. But, the connections we seek out are those that provide safety, in which we can do our best work. In the plains of Africa, that was our tribe. The modern tribe is our workplace. Where else do we spend more waking hours with other adults in the pursuit of goal directed behavior? In addition to our families, our places of worship, some of our most meaningful connections are at work.”

Lost in Digital

“But, there are no real lions, tigers and bears, at least not in the workplace,” I smiled. “So the issue of safety, physical safety, shouldn’t be an issue. My team members are safe, whether they work in the office, or they work from home.”

Pablo grinned. “The physical threats of days gone by are the psychological threats of today. We need to be together physically and we need to be together emotionally. The perceived threat of isolation is as powerful as the real threat. That is why the body language of communication is so important. A high percentage of what we communicate is non-verbal. What we can see in another person visually completes the content. What we communicate through words is mostly data. But, have you ever sent an email where the emotional content was completely overlooked, misconstrued or ignored? What we communicate non-verbally is trust, rejection, appreciation, agreement, disagreement, encouragement.”

“But in any teleconference, we can see the other person’s face, we can hear their tone of voice,” I observed. “It is truly almost like being there.”

“Almost, we assume,” Pablo replied. “Why is it, that even remote workers, when it comes to performance feedback, formal or informal, want the context of the feedback in person? What is it about the physical presence of two people, in proximity? We have meetings over teleconference, but have you ever asked someone to have lunch over teleconference. It works well for data, not so much for breaking bread. The emotional connection we all seek, in which we work the best, where we are most productive is often lost in a digital platform.”

Our Best Work

“So, it’s not a control thing?” I asked.

“Wanting people back in the office sounds like a control directive,” Pablo replied. “I am sure some team members see it that way. But, your call to reassemble, physically in the workplace, is more of an invitation. It is an invitation to collaborate, to break bread, to share the workload and ideas.”

“You’re not going soft on me are you, Pablo?” I was curious.

“Not at all,” he replied. “When we are together, when we are safe, we can do our best work.”

Human Connection

“Why do you want them to come back to work, in the building, I mean?” Pablo asked.

“They have been away so long. Since I’ve seen them, they may be two inches taller and I would never detect that on Zoom,” I smiled. “Seriously, they are detached. I miss seeing them in person, that warm smile in the morning, finding out how their child is doing. On camera, there they are, but it’s all business. Hi, how are you? Fine. How are you? Fine. What are the numbers on the spreadsheet?”

“What do you care? As long as the numbers on the spreadsheet are correct?” Pablo wanted to know.

“If I just wanted numbers on a spreadsheet, I wouldn’t build a company. I need a team. I don’t know why it’s important to be face to face, I just know it is.”

Pablo’s turn to smile. “You are correct, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. Kurt Lewin declared that human beings are herd animals. For the purpose of our survival, on the Serengeti plain, we had to stick together, for safety. An individual, isolated, became quick prey for a lion, a tiger, in Dorothy’s case, a bear. When we are isolated, we are alone. When we are alone, our survival instincts go full alert. We are hard wired to not get eaten. We may be fishing, we may be planting wheat, but we are looking for the lion, not paying attention to the fish or the wheat. Our attention to the work suffers. We only do our best work when we are together and safe. We feel safe as a member of a group, in proximity. Hugs create endorphins and communicate, with me, you are safe. Spreadsheets are easy on Zoom. Human connection is more difficult.”

Is It Money?

“These young people! Argh!” Benjamin exclaimed, exasperated. “I just had another quit on me.”

“How many? Total?” I asked.

“Three, since the new year. For all different reasons, one says it’s money, another says he wants to live, relocate somewhere else, the last one says he doesn’t like me. That one was the worst.”

“Tough enough to hire the people you need, now you have to hire three more. This hiring problem looks to be more of a retention problem,” I said. “What do you think people want out of their job?”

“First is money and to bring their dog to work. Actually, they want to work from home, so the dog can stay.”

“Ben, why do you work here? I personally know you could earn just a little bit more from another company, so it’s not the money.”

“I’ve been here for eleven years, this is my home, these are my friends. I feel like I make a contribution to what we are all here for, and the team values my contribution. I make a difference here.”

“Do you think it is possible that your team members, who just quit, are looking for the same thing?”

Time to Step Up

“I am ready to throw up my hands. I have come up with eight ways to Sunday for our route technicians to do a better job on their service calls. I am ready to do a Flutie drop kick and just let them deal with it.” Russell commiserated, hoping I would be sympathetic.

“Well, I think it’s a good idea,” I said.

“What do you mean?” replied Russell, still looking for sympathy.

“I mean, I think you should call your technicians together and let them deal with it. Look, the problem isn’t that your ideas are bad; the problem is they are your ideas. If you want your technicians to do a better job on service calls, the ideas have to come from them.

“One of the biggest mistakes young managers make is thinking that you have to solve all the problems of the world. You don’t. Spread the burden. You will be surprised at how your technicians will step up to the plate.”

Mailing It In

“I’m stumped,” Susana announced. “I talk to my team, give them their assignments, so they know what to do, but then, it just seems they mail it in.”

“Meaning?” I asked. “Mail it in?”

“I can’t put my finger on it,” she said. “The team shows up for work. They show up on time. They do the work, but it doesn’t seem they care. I tried to talk to a couple of them about it, but they just shrugged it off.”

“I know what a shrug looks like, but what did they say?”

“They said the work was okay, that if they wanted something more out of their job, they would just go find it somewhere else. I was a little shocked. I mean, when I was growing up, jobs were scarce, and I felt lucky to just have a job. Finding another job wasn’t easy.”

“And, how did you feel about that job?” I wanted to know.

Susana stopped. “You know, I guess it was just okay.”

“Kind of like your current team?”

Susana nodded.

“So, what is different between your experience and your current team’s experience?” I asked.

“I used to think it was all about the unemployment rate. You know, supply and demand. Right now, there are lots of available jobs, so I guess it follows that mobility, free agency is pretty high.”

“And, what is the cost of that free agency, to you as a manager?”

“Turnover is a killer. I thought when we came out of COVID, when people’s government money ran out, there would be a glut of applicants looking for work. But the labor market is tight. Finding people, finding the right people, getting them trained up, letting them make a few mistakes is expensive.” Susana shrugged. “Then, if they are the wrong fit, I have to start all over again.”

“Is this just happening to you, or is it happening to other companies, too?”

“You can read about it in the press. It’s all over,” she replied.

“I know you pay competitive wages, so it’s not all about the money. Your work is no more, no less interesting than your competitor’s, so what is it, that would give your company, your team, a leg up in team member engagement?”

The Relationship

So, I left Shannon to ponder why. Why was she drawn to be a manager? I asked you the same question.

Shannon was promoted to manager as the next thing in her career. It was different than she thought it would be. She thought being a manager would make her more important (it does). Being a manager provides authority to tell people what to do (prescribing authority).

The additional compensation doesn’t last. Being important may stroke a manager’s ego, but that ego trip wears thin very fast in the face of accountability. It’s not about the manager. It’s about the relationship between the manager and the team member. Shannon’s report –

“But you were right. It wasn’t for the money. It wasn’t so I could order people around. I just want to make a difference. A difference for the company, a difference for the people on my team and to make a difference for me.”

It seems that Shannon has a cause. But having a cause is not enough. To be a truly effective manager, Shannon has to be had by the cause. And it take some time to understand the cause, to be had by it.