Author Archives: Bonnie Milne

How to Deal with Negative People at Work

Bonnie Milne, PhD

Bonnie Milne, PhD

This blog post was written in response to the Coffee Shop HR World Café topic: “How do you manage negative attitudes in the workplace?”

We have all encountered people who stay in an organization for years, all the while complaining on a daily basis about their boss, the organization, their colleagues, their clients – it tires me out just thinking about it! But, how do we improve the situation?

First of all, it’s important to remember that complaints, much as we may not want to hear them, sometimes unearth legitimate issues. I remember reading once that it is better to have an employee who criticises the organization because it means they care about the quality of the people and the product. Perhaps this is one of the keys. At the risk of sounding like I am wearing my rose coloured glasses – well, maybe I am, but you can’t see me – I think it is possible to redirect the complaints into plans.

The danger seems to be in falling into the trap of responding to a complaint with another complaint – competing complaints – one-upmanship of the worst kind – “ Well, you think that’s bad – let me tell you….” You get the picture.

What if we respond with a question? Perhaps we could ask what the best solution to the problem would be –or what could the person complaining do to improve the situation. I love the way our brains respond to a question! It is as if they are programmed to answer any question thrown their way. So by asking a question you will have redirected the conversation instead of adding fuel to the fire.

Another technique; this one learned from Don Pinkham who I worked with at BCAA, calls for asking the person what the next step is. So, for example – when your colleague comes up with a solution – ask her what the next step is, or perhaps, what the first step is. Follow this up by asking if there is anything you can do. Quite often the answer will be that there is nothing she wants you to do.
I like this technique because it places the onus on my colleague and leaves me knowing that there is nothing expected of me. On the other hand if I’m asked to do something – I can consider it. Either way, I have broken the cycle – at least for the moment.

I came across this ‘no complaining rule’ in The No Complaining Rule: Positive Ways to Deal with Negativity at Work written by Jon Gordon in 2008.

Employees are not allowed to mindlessly complain to their coworkers. If they have a problem or complaint about their job, their company, their customer, or anything else, they are encouraged to bring the issue to their manager or someone who is in a position to address the complaint. However, the employees must share one or two possible solutions to their complaint as well.
This rule puts the onus on management to work with negative employees, but the message is the same. Colleagues who complain should be asked to come up with solutions. This turns the conversation around and that is, after all, what we want. And, it seems to me that every employee can be part of the solution.

So, we can deal with the issue of negative employees ourselves or try to implement a process in our organization. Although I would prefer the latter, sometimes we don’t have the power to change the organization, but we always have the power to change our response and that is a good starting point.

Is There a Right Way to Leave Your Job?

Bonnie Milne, PhD

Bonnie Milne, PhD

This blog post was written in response to the Coffee Shop HR World Café topic: “Is there a right way to quit your job?”

Oh my gosh – I hope so.

That’s my first reaction to the question. Like most HR people, I’ve been on both ends of resignations – the receiving and the giving. I was always surprised to receive a resignation because the people who were resigning had been very quiet about their plans until they materialized – that is until they were about to relocate or take on a new job.

I am not sure if I, on the other hand, was that discrete. I don’t have a ‘poker’ face so my intentions are usually quite easily read.

It is very difficult to leave a position without another one in hand so it is difficult to give your employer more than the required notice. I have also seen that those who are too open about their intentions are sidelined early. They are slowly, or sometimes quickly, excluded from the decision making process. Their colleagues disengage from them almost as a defense. After all, when you decide to leave an organization, it is the people you are leaving, and they will have an emotional response. While they may be happy for you, they may feel abandoned.

I remember one time when I resigned from a small organization to take on a new position and right after I announced that I was leaving, my colleague, who didn’t have another position to go to, also resigned. It turned out that she was fed up and thought leaving was the logical thing to do.

Unfortunately, although she felt fantastic at the time, it took a while for her to find work.
Something to think about is your letter of resignation which needs to stress the positive aspects of the job you are leaving. Sometimes a humourous resignation letter is in order, but only if you are on good terms with your supervisor!

Nathaniel Koloc, co-founder and CEO of ReWork, cites three reasons to leave your job, which I’ve elaborated on.

1. It just isn’t sustainable –it takes too much time, you don’t get paid enough or you simply hate going to work every day. I had two colleagues, in different organizations, who told me that every day before they could muster up the courage to go into their offices, they sat in their cars and cried. Can you imagine? One of them toughed it out and her boss eventually retired, the other one asked for a move and she is much happier now. Interestingly neither of them resigned.

2. It Isn’t Furthering Your Professional Development – our work should stretch us – not diminish us. We should have opportunities to learn and to expand our professional horizons, build communities of practice and mentor others. If these opportunities are not available, or our salaries don’t allow us to pursue, them then it is time to think about looking for something new.

3. Something Else (Way Better) Comes Along – Hmm – give your head a shake. This one should be a no-brainer, but many of us procrastinate, ‘Oh my resume isn’t quite ready!’ That’s my favorite! We let the opportunity pass by. Really, what is the worst that could happen? Take a chance, submit a gracious letter of resignation and move toward your dream!

Molly Ford has some great ideas for when the time comes for your to tender your resignation. Her advice includes: tell your boss first, and then your colleagues, all in person. Have a transition plan – make sure those loose ends are tied up, and prepare your reason for leaving. Keep it positive, as she notes; your colleagues are staying and there is no reason to make them feel badly about their work place, or, for that matter, about you! Her last piece of advice is to stay in touch.

I have resigned from a number of jobs and amazingly returned to three different organizations after resigning, including the one where I’m currently employed. So I know the value of staying positive and staying in touch. I usually update my former colleagues on my career and depending on how close we are, on my personal life as well. I follow up on their moves and provide encouragement.
I read recently that people have become commodities and we have to treat ourselves as a product. While I find that a very callous way of thinking about myself and my life; I do find that relationships often provide unexpected opportunities and that staying ‘up to date’ and ‘in the loop’ makes a positive difference in my career.

Food for thought, when it is time to tender that resignation!

How can job seekers get interviews when entry-level job postings demand previous work experience?

Bonnie Milne, PhD

Bonnie Milne, PhD

This blog post was written in response to the Coffee Shop HR World Café topic: “How can job seekers get interviews when entry-level job postings demand previous work experience?”

While work experience is important – let’s just take a step back and think about what a recruiter is really looking for when they are asking for work experience. Work experience demonstrates the ability to hold down a job, which put simply, means getting to work on time, performing the duties of the position and getting along with colleagues and customers. There are other activities that demonstrate these abilities. The first thing that comes to mind for many of us is volunteer work so I won’t delve into that except to say that it is an excellent way to learn and practice these skills.

I would like to look at how responsibility and creativity are developed in other ways. Being a member of a dance troupe, a sports team or a musical group are ways that applicants can demonstrate the attributes a recruiter is looking for. Each of these activities requires one to show up and perform. Not only that, but in order to be successful on a team or in a musical group, one has to get along with a variety of people, take direction, and often, practice on one’s own. What a great precursor to a job!

When I ask my youngest son how he gets along with his colleagues, he always refers back to his experience on hockey teams. He had to build relationships with his team mates or they wouldn’t pass the puck! They trusted him and he trusted them. He understands management styles because he has had a number of coaches with incredibly different styles, from those who were very demanding to those who were stood back and let the team make decisions.

A recruiter could craft a set of requirements rather than relying on the ‘catch all’ of previous work experience. Why not ask for experience working with or leading a team over a period of time? This would open the door to applicants who have developed their skills outside the workplace.

Another aspect one could explore is training – it is not experience or application in the usual way, but training develops skills that are critical to success in the workplace. In the UAE, teens don’t hold part time jobs. Their first jobs are entry level jobs and they may not have any previous ‘work’ experience. College graduates have worked on team projects (we all know how difficult these can be) and they have usually completed a ‘work experience’ with a company. These are training experiences that segue nicely into an entry level position.

In my experience, students who demonstrate leadership potential in college or university are often offered coaching, workshops, or other opportunities to develop their potential. They might take a leadership role on the student council or in campus clubs. This training and these roles provide the experience students need for an entry level position. Seeing this kind of experience on a resume is a cue that this applicant has been recognized for their potential and has begun to develop their skills.

As part time work becomes more difficult to find – the economic downturn meant that some of those part time jobs disappeared and others were taken by full timers who were downsized, we need to be more creative in our approach to hiring for entry level positions.

While I have written about what I think recruiters can do to dig a little more deeply, applicants can also think about ways to demonstrate their ‘unpaid’ work experience.

Should micromanagement be viewed as a negative management style?

This blog post was written in response to the July 2013 Coffee Shop HR World Café topic: “Should micromanagement be viewed as a negative management style?”

Bonnie Milne, PhD

Bonnie Milne, PhD

Negative is a very strong word. To me the connotation is that there is nothing positive about it – it’s at the very far end of the ‘wrong’ scale.

I define micromanagement as giving very clear instructions and following up on every detail to make sure that these instructions are carried out ‘to the letter’.

I don’t think that any management style can be seen as completely negative so micromanagement must have some redeeming qualities. Perhaps there is a time when it is necessary, like when an employee is just starting out, or learning a new task or when the task is critical, like in nursing and the person needs to learn the protocol correctly and completely. These situations might make micromanagement a necessity – at least in the beginning.

In the long term, once a person has learned the steps, the protocol, or the correct procedure, as the case may be, micromanagement is no longer necessary. The supervisor can move on to a different style that works for the employee and the supervisor.

Micromanagement ensures that employees do their work to the manager’s standard. It doesn’t encourage initiative or creativity – it simply sets a standard and maintains it. I have found that I am less likely to take care with my work when I am being micromanaged. I know that my supervisor will double check everything so if there is an error, it will get caught. Sometimes I think the supervisor will be happier if she finds an error to fix. This, unfortunately, encourages her to continue to check every detail, reinforcing the cycle.

In the first HR job I had, I was asked to draft letters for my manager and she would go over them, marking them up with a red pen, pointing out changes she wanted me to make. We had entirely different styles of writing, so there would be many changes. I didn’t try to adapt my writing to fit her style; I simply rebelled, wrote terribly, and waited for her to rewrite the letters in her style. It was a waste of our time, but we kept at it. I was, after all, reinforcing her need to check the letters carefully. I see that now, but at the time, I felt I insulted and couldn’t think of another approach.

Micromanagement, like any management style works, but it has limitations. It seems to me, that as always, communication is the key. If you feel that you must micromanage, explain the need for it to the employee and describe the process you will take. In other words, explain that, when the employee has learned and executed the procedure correctly a number of times (be specific about the number), you will change your approach. And remember to ask for suggestions for improvements to the process. Do this early in the game, while the employee is just learning. This is the time when s/he will best be able to see improvements or ask questions. Perhaps you will find that you are, in fact, micromanaging an outdated process!

Being Fit Influences Work Satisfaction

Bonnie Milne, PhD

Bonnie Milne, PhD

This blog post was written in response to the June 2013 Coffee Shop HR World Café topic: “How can we maintain healthier lifestyles at work?”

Not that long ago, I would have promoted the idea of having fitness facilities in the workplace, but I have changed my mind about this. In September of 2012 we moved to a new campus that has a small gym for employees and I have used it once. In spite of that, I am in better shape than I have been in years.

On one of the days when I’m scheduled to work late, I attend a yoga class in the morning. This stops me from coming in to work early and ensures that when I do arrive, I feel great! In the evening and on the weekends, I have been lifting weights, kayaking, snorkeling and playing tennis. These activities have helped me to increase my fitness level and they have encouraged me to meet people. I have new friends who have similar interests and when we are together, work disappears!

In the past, I have exercised at work, and this has simply extended my work day and made my workplace even more of a focus in my life. There have been times when I thought this was fine, but I don’t think so any more. I think well rounded employees need to engage in their community. When they are at work, they are working, but their whole life doesn’t revolve around work and they are less stressed because they have more outlets.

Paula Reece, who is a co-owner of Crossroads Fitness Centers, says that employees who are fit have higher energy levels, are more goal oriented and have higher levels of self-confidence. These are traits that would increase performance in almost any job.
Workplace incentives like gym memberships, paid lessons, personal coaches, and time off for reduced sick leave are good starting points for employers to consider if they want their employees to be healthy and fit.

On the other hand, fitness is a personal issue. Most of us do better if we have a buddy to work out with. Workplaces can provide information about fitness activities in the community; create online programs for employees to find others who are interested in particular activities so they can exercise together. Employers can also promote free websites like my fitness pal where one can track exercise and calories.

My experience is that when I begin to feel and see the benefits of exercising, I become even more committed. According to Moore (2010), my experience is not unique. Annesi (2005) adds that when a person exercises for several months, they come less anxious. As well, the research shows that exercise increases self-efficacy – essentially one’s belief that she can achieve her goals.

Employees with higher self-efficacy tend to set goals that are more challenging and stick to them. Moreover, people with a high sense of self-efficacy invest more effort and persist longer to accomplish a specific task than those with low self-efficacy.

What I found most interesting while perusing through Moore’s dissertation is that employees who exercise have better psychological states, and physical well-being, and as a result were more satisfied with their jobs (Moore, 2010). It is hard to believe that it could be that simple. No need to change jobs, simply exercise more. What great news and what a great opportunity to take control of our lives and our work lives!

Moore, David. (2010) The Relationship Between Exercise and Job Related Outcomes PhD Dissertation UMI Number: 3405149

Retaining the Best Talent

Bonnie Milne, PhD

Bonnie Milne, PhD

This blog post was written in response to the May 2013 Coffee Shop HR World Café topic: “What will it take to retain the best talent over the next 5 years?”

When one works internationally for a local employer, retention is a big issue, for both the employee and the employer. In the UAE, all expatriate workers have working visas which are not transferable, so it isn’t just a case of finding another job, giving notice and transferring one’s visa. In some organizations, there is a six month notice period. Most employers do not hire six months in advance, so many employees resign without another job in sight.

Resigning is serious business. It means preparing to relocate to another country, which means shipping or selling artwork, clothing, sporting gear, selling one’s vehicle, and finding new homes for pets or organizing their transport to another country.

So, one could say that the deck is stacked in favour of the employers. Most of us work out our contracts in our case are for three years.

Having said that, this year a number of my colleagues have given their six month notice and are preparing to leave. Those I interviewed are leaving mid-contract and, so far, none have firm job offers. They are leaving to leave, not to go to a new job. I consider every one of these colleagues to be excellent, dedicated workers – people I would like to see stay.

When I asked what it would take to keep them here they responded:
• an improvement the air quality in our community (we have a number of cement plants spewing dust into the air and the rate of asthma here is very high)
• better educational options for children
• more promotional opportunities
• personal days off
• family events organized by the employer
• better medical coverage
• an opportunity to develop expertise in one area and apply it rather than constantly switching and learning new things

My initial thought was that the community issues, like the air quality and the availability of educational opportunities might be unique to this area and not of much interest to those of you who reside in North America or Europe. But I’m not so sure that this is correct. I think organizations have a duty to the communities in which they operate and that duty could include monitoring air quality and contributing to schools to make sure that they are able to maintain high educational standards. Perhaps Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which often falls under the auspices of HR, could focus on things that are vital, like air quality and education, which in long run affect everyone. I wonder if CSR programs like this, in any organization, might energize employees.

According to Cummins, ‘engaging employees in community problem-solving helps us attract, retain and develop employees. We set an expectation for community service at all levels of the Company.’

My colleagues mentioned that they wanted an opportunity to excel in their work, to develop expertise and use it. They felt that this would make it possible for them to contribute to the organization and would increase their commitment. More importantly, they wanted to do a good job and they felt they were hindered when they had to move into new areas before they were comfortable with their current area.

Doing a good job and being engaged, go hand in hand so It would seem that increasing engagement in employees would also increase retention. A recent study in Europe and Britain identified the top five drivers of engagement as: career opportunities, organizational reputation, pay, work processes and innovation.

Latin America has the highest engagement score at 74 per cent so I decided to see what companies in Latin America are doing. I went to the Best Companies to Work for site (this group has been in existence for 20 years!).  One of the things that caught my eye was that statement that ‘Great workplaces usually perform better on the public markets, attract more job applicants, retain more employees, and suffer less theft.’

So what do these Latin American companies that are rated the best, do to retain their employees? What stands out for me is that they provide a lot of training for their employees – an average of 61 hours per employee per year and they promote /hire women into senior management roles – 31% of their senior managers are women. (In Canada women hold 22.9% of senior management roles)

HR leaders have many avenues to take if they want to increase the retention of their best employees. They can look at their organization’s contribution in the community. What changes are needed for their employees to ‘settle in’ and feel comfortable in the community? Increasing their awareness of the obstacles employees face in their children’s education and their family’s health could provide opportunities for the organization to contribute to the community and it is fair to surmise that this involvement would increase employee engagement.

HR leaders can also look at training opportunities, keeping in mind, that once employees gain new skills and expertise, they want to apply the skills and use the expertise. They want to do a good job and this is possible when they have time to develop their strengths.

As well, many employees want to move up in the organization. Top performers are seldom happy to stay in one position for long. It could be that more women in senior roles will also increase retention. This is something I will continue to think about.

Related Pages:

What Will it Take to Retain the Best Tlent Over the Next Five Years? by Joanne Kondo, CHRP

Planning and Communication are the Keys to Retention by Christine Ramage, CHRP

The Magic Bullet by Nicole Davidson

Learning Strategy through Tennis

Bonnie Milne, PhD

Bonnie Milne, PhD

I am not a strategic thinker.  I would be the last person to be called politically astute, but it is never too late to learn.   I teach a strategy course, but it is strategy at the organizational, not the personal level.  I’ve unwittingly been taking a course in strategy for the last month.  The strategy of playing doubles on the tennis court.

Before I began my lessons, I played doubles a few times, but I really didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t know where I should be on the court and, in truth, I didn’t think I should be there at all!

Manual, my couch, has been teaching me that tennis is a sport that requires incredible mental focus.  One has to pay attention all the time and not just to the ball, but to the other people on the court and to one’s own position in relation to them.  For example, he says that you need to react every time your partner moves; you move in sync and you always cover her.  If she moves to your side of the court, you move to hers.  If she moves left, you move left.  It is almost as if you are joined by a rope.

He says that developing a routine is helpful.  When I serve, I should follow the same routine each time.  Bounce the ball a few times.  Look at the other side of the net and think about where I want the ball to go.  If I throw the ball up and it isn’t in the right place, I’m to catch it and begin again.  There is no rush.

Manual says that he doesn’t play against the other player.  He focuses on his own play and tries not to make mistakes.   He has realized that a mistake means the other person scores, so avoiding mistakes is one of his strategies.  This way he not distracted by the person he is playing, he is always focused on his game.

He tells me to look for the empty space on the other side so I can decide where to place the ball. It was hid comment about looking for space and having a panoramic view, that made me begin to appreciate that perhaps the strategy I am learning on the court is transferable to the workplace.  I asked, and he said, ‘Yes, of course – it is all the same!   Manual, who is the husband of my good friend, Debra, is from Mexico, and he speaks with his whole body.  So when he launches into a topic, I listen.  He says that if someone consistently calls the ball ‘out’ when it is ‘in’, you shouldn’t trust them off the court.  The way people behave on the court is the way they behave in life.  If they are overly competitive on the court, they will be in life too.  If they are gentle on the court – that behaviour carries through.

While I’m not strategic in the workplace, I’ve often been able to see opportunities or spaces outside.  Business opportunities spring to mind on a weekly if not daily basis, and I mull them over and share them with others, but until now I haven’t pursued them.  Since I’ve been playing doubles and applying that strategy to the workplace, I’ve begun looking for space both inside and outside the college.  I am wondering if it is possible to combine a business idea with my work at the college.  I am wondering if I can involve a partner, remembering the importance of a partner on the tennis court and the way we cover for each other.

You may wonder what this has to do with Human Resource Management; believe me there is a strong connection.  I have always thought that as long as employees are learning, they will contribute more at work.  It doesn’t matter if they are learning to knit or to play golf or like me, to play doubles.  From the time we are very young, we look for patterns, so when we learn in one area of our lives, we seem to be bound to apply it in other areas and many times we apply what we have learned outside of work, in the workplace.  It is important to encourage your employees to expand their horizons, in sports, in arts and crafts, academia – whatever they are interested in.  They will be more energized and alert and they will apply what they have learned in their work.  It may be a tangential application, but it will change and improve, the way they work.

Related Pages:

1. Morale – Small Steps to Success by Bonnie Milne, PhD

2. Making a Difference Through Our Work by Bonnie Milne, PhD

3. Motivational Team Building by Bonnie Milne, PhD

What three pieces of advice should post-secondary grads take to heart?

Bonnie Milne, PhD

Bonnie Milne, PhD

My youngest son is graduating from university this year so I have some, albeit limited, experience with this topic.  I say limited, because my son lives in Vancouver and his Dad and I live half a world away, in the United Arab Emirates.

When we spoke to our son earlier this week, he said that he has been going for interviews and contacting people to set up meetings, coffee, really, and he feels that he is on the verge of getting a job.  This job will be his entry to the world of urban planning and he is approaching his search from a number of different directions.  He’s cashing in his social capital, meeting with friends of friends.  He is searching in unlikely places for opportunities and he is applying to jobs he finds online.

When I was an instructor at BCIT, the arrival of spring signaled the big job search for the upcoming graduates.  I taught the Radio students and it seemed that they would all be applying for the same jobs – a scary thought, but it always worked out.  They seemed to know who would get which job because they knew one another’s strengths and didn’t see it as a competition.  I always admired the way they handled this.

The Human Resource Management students, on the other hand, would be trying to decide when to write their credential exam so they could get a jump start on their journey to the CHRP (Certified Human Resource Professional).  This exam usually came toward the end of a jam-packed program and their stamina astounded me, they must have been running on empty!  All the same, they would be looking for work, too.  A few would put it off so they could take a break, but most of them suited up and set off for interviews, maybe informational interviews, but interviews none the less.

Now on to the advice – it’s so wonderful to be asked for advice, but it’s also a huge responsibility.

Believe in Yourself

I think this is one of the few times in life when you can be really directed, hopeful, focused and enthusiastic.  Really, you’re at your best.  You’ve just achieved a life goal, that of getting an educational credential.  With your diploma or degree in hand, you are a new person and you have every right to look for the kind of work that you have been trained and educated for and that you want.  Your skill set is unique, because even though you have been learning with a group of colleagues, you are not the same as them, your experiences are different, what you are taking away from your learning is different and surprisingly enough, the work you want might also be different.  So believe in yourself and let people know what you know.

Use Every Possible Connection

Use your social capital.  Social capital helps us get things done, by making the resources of others available to us. While monetary capital is based on money, social capital is based on relationships and social networks.  There are three types of social capital: bonding – tightly knit groups that share similar beliefs and values – these enable us to get by on a day to day basis.  Bridging capital consists of loosely knit groups of more diverse individuals – these are the connections that are more likely expose us to new ideas or new experiences.  And linking capital, which is the connections we have to those who are in power – this would be known as ‘wasta’ in the UAE, and is the most tenuous.  These are the relationships we call on when our other resources are depleted.

Studies have shown that higher education leads to an increase in social capital, especially bridging capital, so use these connections.  Research also shows that these are the relationships that are most likely to get you work in a field that is outside the normal work your family and friends do so use your connections and everyone else’s.

Put Scaffolds in Place

Put some scaffolds in place, and then, be choosey.  Make sure that you have an income if you need one.  Work at a part time job so you can support yourself until the job you really want comes along.  Once your security net is in place, only apply for jobs you are qualified for and you really want.  There is no sense submitting your resume to everything that comes along and you know how difficult those cover letters are to write.  This doesn’t mean to only apply for the job of your dreams, but make sure that the job you are applying for is something you want to do for a while and can be used as a springboard to keep your career moving.

Bon Voyage!

Related Pages:

1. What Three Pieces of Advice Should Post-Secondary Grads Take to Heart? by Carolyn Courage, CHRP

2. It’s a Big World Out There! by Christine Ramage, CHRP

3. Coffee Shop HR World Café: What Three Pieces of Advice Should Post-Secondary Grads Take to Heart?

Making a Difference Through our Work

Meaningfulness increases significantly with density and diversity of sources of meaning; the relationship between density and meaningfulness is largely mediated by diversity. Findings indicate that commitment to numerous, diverse, and, especially, self-transcendent sources of meaning enhances the probability of living a meaningful life’ (Schnell, 2011).

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading two books.  The first one, Eight Lives Down is about British bomb disposal expert, Chris Hunter.  The book takes the reader through four months of his work in Iraq mainly in the war torn city of Basra, where he and his team braved attacks to go about the work of bomb disposal.

The second book, On the Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin 1986-2012 is a collection of the author’s reports from war zones.  Colvin, an extraordinary writer and an incredibly brave woman was killed in Syria last year.

What do these two books have in common and what do they have to do with HR?

Both books are, of course, nonfiction and although Marie wrote about conflict in other places, many of her accounts are from the Middle East.  Chris’s story is centered in Iraq.  As a resident of the Middle East, I want to know what is going on in the nearby countries and both books were not only great reads, but very eye opening.

Chris Hunter and Marie Colvin expressed an incredible dedication to their work, but beyond that, they felt their work was vital.  Chris was intent on saving lives and Marie was fixated on getting the story out.

I think most of us want to do work that is important; we want to make a difference, to build a better world through education, managing product quality, leadership, research, service – whatever we do in our jobs .   We are not content to have a job that just brings in the pay.

As HR professionals, I think it is important to remember that our colleagues and employees have a desire to do their best, to make a difference, to contribute no matter what their work.

Most of us will never be asked take the risks that these authors took, or save lives on an almost daily basis, but we will make a difference – often more than we know.

In 2009, John Varney, Chief executive at the Centre for Management Creativity, in Settle, in the United Kingdom wrote, Leadership as Meaning –Making.  He makes the case that the role of a leader is to ensure that people’s work is meaningful.  As he sees it, meaningful work negates the need for traditional supervision.  The leadership role becomes one of championing employees to overcome challenges so they can find fulfillment in their work.  People are motivated and energized by the idea of making a difference.   Recruiting and retention are easier because applicants are attracted to companies where they can make a difference.

Fortunately, there has been a lot of research on what gives meaning to people’s lives.   I am somewhat familiar with the work of Tatjana Schnell, a professor and research psychologist at Innsbruck University in Austria.  Schnell has developed what she calls ‘domains and sources of meaning’.  Schnell identifies several sources of meaning, including: challenge, freedom, knowledge, achievement, tradition, community, fun, care and attentiveness.    She also talks about the importance ‘taking responsibility for affairs beyond one’s immediate concern’. 

According to Marano (2004), when workers know their work makes a difference, productivity rises and so does job satisfaction.

How can we build an organization that makes people’s work meaningful?  It seems to me that it goes right back to the vision and mission– if employees understand see them as meaningful and understand their contribution to achieving them, this is a good start.  In his article, Marano talks about research that shows the employees who can see the client’s satisfaction with the product are more motivated.

As I finish this off, I am reminded of a cleaner who worked at SFU when I was a student there, he had all kinds of signs fastened to his cleaning cart and he was always whistling or singing as he went about his work, cleaning the outside concourse.  At the time, it didn’t strike me as important, but now I can see that he was making his job meaningful.  He was happy in his work and he made a difference.  That concourse was clean and even on days when the burden of the world was on my shoulders (studying seemed like hard work, indeed) he brought a smile to my face.


Colvin, M.  (2012).  On the Front Line.  Harper Collins

Hunter, C. (2010) Eight Lives Down.   Transworld

Marano, H. (2004.) Making a Difference at Work.  Psychology Today

Schnell, T. (2011).  Individual differences in meaning-making: Considering the variety of sources of meaning, their density and diversity. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(5), 667-673. doi:10.1016/

Varney, J. (2009). Leadership as meaning-making. Human Resource Management International Digest, 17(5), 3-5. doi:10.1108/09670730910974251

Varney, J.  Sustainable Leadership Makes Sense

What is the best way to manage a virtual team?

Technology has made it possible for us to connect and work with others around the world.  I love the descriptions from the World is Flat (Thomas Friedman, 2007) of analyses being completed in Australia overnight for physicians in the United States.  We are all familiar with the outsourcing that has taken place with call centres in Canada (Nova Scotia) Ireland and India.  In a way, these are virtual teams.

But here, I will focus on virtual teams that are working together on a project for one company.  These are teams where the members reside in different countries, often in different time zones.

A few weeks ago, I had a Dutch woman come and visit my students.   She said that the Dutch are often thought to be blunt because they speak their minds.  In the meetings she attends, people are expected to say what they think.  So I can just imagine how her and my Egyptian colleague, who tends to communicate in a very circular fashion, would manage on a virtual team.

I have read that virtual teams need to be clear on their objectives and their roles.  I am not sure if you have ever had a conversation about roles over the phone, but this can be quite difficult – some of us like to play on paper or on a white board to help illustrate what we mean – the visuals clarify our thoughts and this just isn’t possible over the phone.

The technology used is important, often key to the success of virtual teams.  Some teams use Skype which has a video streaming component, but I’ve found that even when I am working with one other person, the video sometimes overloads the system and has to be turned off, so I am not convinced that it will work with a team unless you have a dynamo computing system.

I’ve also used video conferencing when working in a team and although the interaction is a little stiff, the visuals are great.   I don’t think we realize how often we speak over one another until we are in a video conference or a teleconference and then it becomes quite clear.  ‘No, sorry, you go ahead’ seems to be a common phrase – with at least two people saying it at the same time.

Using a common system to exchange and update data can be really helpful.  Both Dropbox and SugarSync work very well – except when two people are editing same document at the same time – then it gets confusing.

So with all these concerns what does work?  How are virtual teams successful?  What role does the manager play in this success?

According to research cited by Guedes-Gondim et al. (2011) the performance of work teams depends on the member’s beliefs about the effectiveness of this mode of work.  So when a manager is putting together a virtual team, perhaps one of the first questions she needs to ask the potential members is how successful they have been on other teams.   If they can cite successes and enjoy working on teams, in general, this should make them a better candidate for a virtual team.

Team members who have used the media and worked with each other in the past are more likely to see success early on in the process.  Guedes-Gondim et al. (2011) cite research showing the types of communication virtual teams engage in, normative – what the team values and expects of each member, regulative – how the work is to be done i.e. structures, protocols and organization, and cognitive – performing the task.

Given this, perhaps the role of the manager is to help the team develop protocols, and define roles and responsibilities while keeping focused on the end result.  The manager can also ensure that there is an opportunity for team members to recognize each other’s strengths and learn more about the ways that each person will contribute to the project’s success.

Guedes- Gondim et al. (2011) also cite research that shows that people who are in the same occupation, with similar education and professional standards can work well together across cultures.  Physicians, scientists, accountants, and HR professionals, for example, are more likely to understand one another within their professional context.   A team that is diverse in both culture and profession are going to be find it more difficult to communicate and will need more guidance from their manager.

I know that trust is important in every team’s interactions.  It seems that one role the manager can play is to provide opportunities early on for team members to learn more about each other.  They could review case studies of successful teams to they can see what has worked for others.  This would give the members an opportunity to build a bit of history, to see where they agree and disagree and how they can support one another and resolve issues that may occur as they progress in their work.

One of the statistics I read a number of times is that only 30% of virtual teams are successful.  This is not an encouraging statistic but there are similar statistics around about change management projects.  It seems that if managers help the team members focus on their strengths, learn to work with conflict, rather than avoid it, and develop trusting relationships, virtual teams can be successful.    Inspirational management, indeed!

Guedes- Gondim, S. M., Puente-Palacios, K., & Borges-Andrade, J. (2011). Performance and learning in virtual work teams: Comparing Brazilians and Argentineans. Revista De Psicología Del Trabajo y De Las Organizaciones, 27(1), 31-31. Retrieved from