Crossing the Line

joe —  Fri 12-Feb-10 — 6 Comments
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I believe that no matter how happy you are, you have at least 10% of your psyche dedicated to bitching. For many, it can be quite a bit more, but everyone has at least 10%.

If you are a leader and want to help your teams it is critical that you know a little bit about this and how it may cause you to do exactly the wrong thing despite your best intentions.

Despite having a great day, week or life, there is always some natural tension eating at us that we need or would like to change. This dissonance is what gives us the hope and drive to be better tomorrow than today. For some it may be that they are unhappy in their appearance. For others it may be that they cannot figure out how they are going to pay the bills this month.

Maslow.pngClearly there is a gap between the importance of paying the bills and how that extra 10 pounds makes you feel. Psychologist extraordinaire Abraham Maslow recognized this in the 1940’s and developed the famous pyramid known as the Hierarchy of Needs. In too brief of a summary, needs at the top of the pyramid do not become important until the needs lower on the pyramid are adequately addressed. It is not likely that one will be concerned with their need to “discover themselves” if they don’t have food to eat.

These needs always creep into our conversations. Sometimes you have to listen closely, other times they hit you over the head like a frying pan, but they are there. As leaders these words are important to us as they give us a great clue to roadblocks that might prevent our teams from functioning properly. They also tell us when we should do nothing.

There is a magic boundary that I call the “bitch line” (BL). This line separates items that require attentionBitch Line.png and those that may not. Every employee, including yourself has a BL that they are operating against on any given day – and it changes regularly. Knowing where this line is and how to respond is one of the keys to developing a healthy team.

If you hear an employee complain “Why do we have soda machines but not juice machines – juice machines are healthier” – clearly above the BL. If they had food, air or water issues, their conversations would not be about juice machines. If another one is lamenting about the fact that gas has become so expensive that they can’t afford the 40 mile commute much longer you have an item below the BL. It will be difficult for them to take interest in much higher order problems unless they can resolve this problem.

Your job is to establish your own BL and assess where your team is in respect to that line. Work on those below the line and ignore those on the top end. Remember we all have 10% bitch in us. Removing the top is like trying to remove the air bubbles from a water mattress – there will always be more. You will create much resentment on your team if they see you trying to fight the company for free coffee when several on the team are fighting with work/life balance issues.

In order to measure where you are, you are going to have to get involved with your employees and their first line managers. You are going to have to listen with the purpose of discovering where they are. It is going to take work, especially on larger teams, but I can’t begin to tell you the rewards that come when you start to understand where your team is and what your role needs to be.

If all of your team is 100% above the BL, depending on your belief system either congratulate yourself on a job well done or say a prayer of thanks for God’s grace for you are in a great position.

Today’s Question
Do you have a measurement system that helps you understand the psychological health of your teams?

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  • Sue

    Joe I just love your articles on team building. I have seen alot of the struggles you are mentioning in your articles, and just subscribed to my work email so this can also be forwarded to other supervisors I work with. Our clinic is undergoing a staff satisfacion process very quickly and this article will help all to understand other aspects of the pyramid. Thanks for all your doing!

    • http://www.TheStrandedStarfish.com joe

      How cool is that? I’m interested to see how it turns out. Do you have the ability to influence those in your group?

  • Karen

    My comments are related to issues that go beyond obvious problems related to basic needs, as in your “can’t pay the bills” example.
    Here are a few evaluation questions that come to mind:
    – What is the frequency and duration of the bitching? What’s the trajectory of morale related to the issue? Is it subsiding or getting worse? If the bitching is getting louder, darker, and more frequent, it warrants some attention.
    – How widespread is the bitching? If the issue seems minor, but a lot of people are grumbling, it might warrant some attention. It could be like the splinter in your finger – not life threatening but enough to drive you crazy.
    – Though an issue seems silly to you, could it be symbolic for somebody else?
    Here’s an example: I have a friend, Mary, whose stepmother would buy Hostess Ding Dongs for her own children, but would not allow Mary or the other stepchildren to have them. For Mary, Ding Dongs are highly charged symbols related to worthiness.
    Could the removal of the coffee, tea, and filtered water feel like a message that the company doesn’t care about employees? Could be, especially in the case where people are already operating under that confirmation bias.
    I understand the value of having a “cut line” for quick analysis, but know when you need to dig deeper. And keep in mind that sometimes, people just like to know they are being heard. Listening is all you have to do to make it better.

    • http://www.TheStrandedStarfish.com joe

      Great points Karen. Like almost all rules of thumb there are things underneath that should be considered and I think you have hit a few good ones.

      I think your questions all point to going deeper to find the root cause of the need rather than the surface. Often the bitch on the top isn’t really the source of the need – much like punching a girl in the arm in 3rd grade meant you liked her.

      Personally, I love to use the “5 Whys” method conceived by Toyota to get to the root (a future column). It’s at the root that you can attempt to classify where in the hierarchy the problem lies.

      And by all means as you point out, never confuse or substitute cursory audio processing with true listening.

      Clearly based on your insights you already get this stuff!

  • http://higginbottom.com Paul

    Reminds me a bit of a book, I think it was Peopleware (excellent book even if it wasn’t the source), that people will complain no matter what, it’s WHAT they’re complaining about that you need to pay attention to.

    If employees are complaining that the cube walls aren’t the ‘right’ shade of gray… probably not important. If employees complain that they’re aware their salaries are lower than competing companies and there’s little other ‘up side’ or they’re complaining that the constant noise is making it very difficult to work and the results show this, definitely important!

    • http://www.TheStrandedStarfish.com joe

      I need to read that. Someone gave me a copy a long time ago but I never read it (it may have been you?). Sounds like it is time to dig it up.