Standing Your Ground

How do you know when it’s time to stand firm on a point and when it’s time to cave in and go with the flow?

The answer is obvious: You never know, not for sure.

The hardest calls are the ones you make alone. You listen intently, gather data, think about the situation, seek counsel from close advisors, but in the end if you decide to take a stand, consider yourself alone.

Values, ethics, morals — all of them seem clear on paper when you are reading about someone else’s lapse. That’s called history. You read it in hindsight with reflection. You wonder in amazement at how something so rotten could have been advanced.

Looking forward is another problem entirely.

If you think making a decision on principle is easy, you probably haven’t yet made a hard one. If you have put yourself on the line for a heartfelt conviction, you know that courage is not something usually acknowledged in the present tense. It is awarded upon completion of a task, win or lose, based on context.

In the present you might be called something else entirely: difficult.

Difficult people tend to get a bad rap, and being difficult just to be difficult is not likely to lead you to the corner office. Some of the questions we face in staring down adversity include:

  • Whether we have thoroughly thought through an objection to the more genially accepted plan we oppose.
  • Whether dissension without triumph creates any intrinsic value of its own.
  • Whether the cost of standing in isolation is worth it.

Let’s think about those three filters as we ponder a few hypothetical but easily applicable real-world examples of standing your ground in the corporate world.

Someone Getting Fired Unjustly. Suppose a colleague of yours, Charlie, has somehow become the fall guy for a project that has spiraled wildly off schedule and budget. The project team has found an easy out because your department VP is already known to dislike Charlie, so all the group has to do is subtly throw Charlie under the bus and the clock resets to zero. You don’t particularly like Charlie, but you know he is no more innocent or guilty than anyone else on the wayward team. When you suggest a defense of Charlie to the group, it becomes clear that if you go to bat for the loser, you will be ostracized, And hey, everyone knows the VP has been looking for a way to get rid of Charlie for years, so how are you going to talk her out of it?

Bonus Calculations Are Manipulated. You work under a sales leader who is a notorious sandbagger (someone who asserts a goal is a Hail Mary when it’s an underhand toss), but smooth talker that he is, his forecasts go through every year and your team receives handsome bonuses. This year he sets a revenue goal that your team has already achieved with existing repeat business. His plan is approved. This year’s goal is in the bag before the starting gun is even fired, so bonuses will be flowing like water. Then you attend a company meeting and hear the CEO say in earnest that the company is having some critical financial issues this year and will probably lose money unless everyone digs deep for a better outcome. You approach your sales leader and suggest he increases the sales goal so bonuses aren’t paid out of losses. He tells you that you don’t understand the CEO’s game, and if you so much as mention taking up the goal again, you will certainly need to find another sales team, and possibly a new employer.

Confidential Information Is Compromised. After months of going in circles and failing to make progress on a design problem, the senior engineer on your team circulates a breakthrough project plan. Your company has been losing market share to a competitor for the last year on inferior feature design at high cost, but at last that is behind you. Late one night when you are building out your portion of the specification, you overhear a conversation where the senior engineer jokes that it only cost him a few thousand dollars cash to hack the competitor’s database and extract the secret sauce that has been causing your company to lose. You approach the senior engineer and tell him you are uncomfortable with what you overheard. He tells you he was just bragging, it was open-source code he found and modified, and he would appreciate it if you didn’t broadcast that because open-source solutions are frowned upon in the company. Is he lying about open-source vs. hacking? Either way, if you speak up you’re going to be responsible for stalling the turnaround.

On first blush I’m sure most people considering these scenarios think they would do the right thing, because we all like to believe when faced with a crisis of values, ethical people will choose to act with ethical intent. Now ask yourself this: Do you know someone working beside you who has faced a similar situation and not acted in the appropriate ethical manner? If you do, why haven’t you confronted them? If you have confronted them and they have brushed you off, how far were you willing to pursue the compromise in judgment? Why are you willing to work in an environment where a person like that can get away with something so wrong?

Courage is a word that is tossed about without nearly enough care, but understand that in your time on the job you will have multiple opportunities to act courageously or not. Are you ready to put yourself to the test? Are you willing to stand your ground and take what comes with that decision when the consequences may not be reversible? If you want courage to be a descriptor of what your life is about, you’ll need to embrace the notion that poetic justice is much more present in literary fiction than it is in real life. Situational ethics may be a useful convenience, but they aren’t likely to do much for your self-esteem. You only win by doing what is right if your definition of winning is more about who you are than the outcomes you direct.

Courage is at the heart of a true leader. It can be costly in the short term, but it will always reflect your character. Standing your ground is not a question of options; it is the challenge of identity.


A Little More on Loyalty

Following up my last post on the strange phenomenon of willing senior-level turnover, one of my colleagues suggested I expand on the following:

How do today’s companies inspire, and enact, loyalty within the shifting parameters and instabilities of the contemporary business world? This is the question that gnaws at me.

It really is a quandary in the world of “at-will employment.” Downsizing, right-sizing, presumed right-sizing, grading, rating, ranking, bottom 10% trimming (yuck!), all of these are the strident tools of Management Consulting—not to mention Fear and Loathing in the Workplace, to borrow from the late Hunter S. Thompson. But what are the tools of inspiration, engagement, and leadership for everyday folks?

Many of us remember the phrase Getting to Yes from the 1981 tome by Roger Fisher and William Ury about straightforward negotiation. Let’s try to eke out a pathway for Getting to Loyalty, or at least identify the mismatched needs that most open the door to conflict. Here’s the rub as I boil it down from my experiences—the priorities of individuals and companies in the hiring decision funnel are not necessarily aligned.

When I coach an individual on the job-changing decision, I ask him or her to focus on three core needs in the following order before pulling the trigger, those things that I think matter most in building a long-term career:

1) What you do—is the work itself compelling, satisfying for the sacrifices you will make, a set of diverse tasks that will lead to continual growth and learning?

2) Who you do it for—is your boss sane when it comes to managing authority, a reasonable mentor, and a decent leader?

3) How much will you be compensated—is it fair pay for what you produce, or would you be valued more highly elsewhere given conditions 1 & 2 are equal. Note that I put pay level in position 3 of 3, when it will almost always be the #1 tactic someone uses in trying to poach you. You are likely committing about half of your waking hours. Beware the trade, Mephistopheles.

In juxtaposition, here’s what I think most companies focus on in the final offer process, not necessarily thinking long-term, sometimes just filling a box with a warm body to knock down a set of tasks:

1) Are you competent—does the individual arrive with the necessary skills to do the job?

2) Are you affordable—will you create rather than consume value given how much you are paid?

3) Are you a culture fit—do your needs, work style, and world view remove or add friction to the work environment.

If you agree with those contrasting three points as a premise, you can see where loyalty can become an issue, because both sides don’t want the same thing, beginning with tenure and commitment. The individual is idealistic, human, fragile, creative, hungry, in search of self-realization and interpersonal relationships, emotional bonds that can be reciprocal. The company is pragmatic, an inorganic construct that is valued on metrics by objective third-party measures that are entirely unforgiving of missed opportunities in the form of creative destruction. Individual rewards can be intrinsic (good feelings) as well as extrinsic (take home pay), while corporations and their owners are rewarded on a much simpler scorecard by the optimized deployment of capital and management of risk, often avoiding complex human interplay in pursuit of a level playing field and legal fairness.

You can’t have a puzzle without puzzle pieces, but getting the puzzle pieces it fit in real-time is no small challenge. Hence the nuts and bolts that often don’t snap into place:

• You want interesting and fulfilling work. The company wants you to do what you have proven you do best. You may want to grow, they may want to pigeonhole you.

• You think you’re worth more. They want to pay you less, but more than that, not disturb the status quo for the pay grade into which you fit. If you get a raise, others will come asking, no matter how quiet you promise to be. Leaks are everywhere, because confidential knowledge exchange inside companies is a currency all its own.

• You want to be you, not wear a suit of conformity. They say they want out-of-the-box thinkers, but only if they play nicely. People are who they are, not who the company wants them to be. Both individuals and companies know they must change to survive, but naturally resist it. Creativity is not nice.

Starting to see the problem about how hard loyalty is on both sides of the equation? Now let’s think about some ways to close the gap. Let’s go outside the corporation for a proxy, to those we love rather than those beside whom we labor.

Any sense of loyalty within a family or among friends has less to do with a verbal pledge than it has to do with shared values. We don’t choose our families, but we choose our trust levels, often on the basis of belief sets. We do choose our friends, initially on the basis of common interests, but over periods of time those interests bridge to commonalities of caring. When values are shared and reinforced, bonding is enhanced, we have reason to heal more quickly from conflict. When values are misaligned, it is much less painful to sever a relationship, sometimes with notions or actions that can be punitive.

Values are not necessarily unique to people (and no, companies are not people, if you think that, you never worked for a real one). Too many companies state their values in their mission statement, then file it in Human Resources or post it somewhere obscure in the About Us or Recruiting sections of their website.

Believe it or not, some companies take their values very seriously. I have worked for companies where core values were a big deal and discussed all the time, and I have worked for those where they never came up except for copy approval in a brochure. You can often tell when you hear senior executives speak publicly about their companies, they lead by example and choose their words deliberately not for public relations, but for accurate representation of the company culture they champion. They know a company is just an artificial bureaucracy meant to produce profit, but they want it to be more and are willing to reach beyond the bounds of the normal to make that happen. If you don’t see a reflection of the values that matter to you in the vision of a company’s leading evangelists, I promise you it won’t get any better deeper in the organization.

Values—integrity, honesty, customer service, creativity, responsibility, intelligence, diversity, compassion, respect—can’t be faked. If a company treats its public image as a distinct entity from its actual operating behavior, turnover will be high. That might be okay for you if all you want is a paycheck for as long as it lasts, but just like a company cannot be something it is not, you cannot will it to be something it only pretends to be. You need to know what those values are, and whether they are words or realities. If you get a fit, there’s a chance that loyalty can happen. At the very least, the relationships you build will be more likely to follow you through your career than the accrued value of a pension.

A final word for now on values, loyalty, knowing when to stay and when to go—one of the first truly important maxims I learned in business was that given a choice, most employees don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. Let’s end there.