Political Discourse in the Workplace: Embrace the Authenticity

Leaders should avoid influencing voting behavior of employees

We live in strange, and some would say scary, times.  Political rhetoric, commonplace in Presidential campaign years, has been far more polarizing that usual.  And the vitriol between major party candidates has egged on and perhaps revealed diametric beliefs and prejudices in our society.  As a former political science major in college, with follow-up graduate study in public administration, public policy, and eventually organizational psychology, I don’t shy away from the debate, in person or on social media.  And many can attest to my penchant for acting as provocateur in many of these forums.  I enjoy pushing the boundaries and questioning beliefs…I’ll admit it.

But people do take offense, and sometimes that’s okay, I’d argue.  And I’ve written in the past that when one sees articles, memes, or just plain bizarre (in our opinions) pictures posted on social media, we always have a choice to respond, either with comments or by simply removing that person from our feed or contacts.  It’s a fairly easy solution.

pulitzerfacepalm-e1334711507124And, as I’ve said, the passion that accompanies (in increasing fashion) various “debates” on social media sites is ramping up in direct relation to the temporal proximity of election day.  Even that’s quickly spread from its haunts on Facebook and Twitter to infect more professional sites like LinkedIn.  Again, there’s an easy fix, if we find ourselves offended by political diatribes.

Earlier today, I read an interesting (if somewhat simplistic) article about how the current political battlefield is creating discomfort within the locker rooms of the National Football League.  In and of itself, this should surprise no one, particularly in light of the protests certain high-profile players have enacted in recent months.  Tension and ill will are creeping into environments that have long been paragons of communal bonds, causing some to question the motives, thoughts, and ingrained beliefs of their coworkers.


And I’ve asked people in a variety of industries and work environments if they’re seeing the same things playing out in their organizations.  The responses have been predictable, if not troubling:

  • “I’m sure they are, but we don’t talk about things like that here.”
  • “Yeah, it’s tough to know you’re working with people who could believe that way, so we don’t address it.”
  • “Better to keep one’s personal beliefs to oneself, I always say.”
  • “Politics and religion are out-of-bounds at our company.”

Is anyone surprised by these statements?  This is the way we’ve been trained, similar to those family gatherings or early morning lumberjack breakfasts, where silence was the only way to avoid confrontation and potential brawls!

But is it healthy?  Is it ultimately productive, or strategically oriented to the long-term sustainability of one’s workforce?  I would argue it is neither of these…Ignoring the deep-seated beliefs of one’s workers, coworkers, bosses, or even customers does not breed healthy environments.  It does not promote effective teamwork or effective productivity.  And it does not make one a function, viable organization (in either a family or work setting) for long!

TrustRelationships are all about trust.  And where we ignore the diversity of thought that exists between ourselves and others around us, we don’t nurture an atmosphere of trust, but rather of fear and uncertainty.  When we aren’t enabled to respectfully disagree with those with whom we are sharing a life (personally or professionally), or even worse, we don’t even acknowledge that we disagree on fundamental beliefs and values, we aren’t developing stronger relationships, we’re merely hollowing out relationships built on smoke and mirrors.

When we talk about organizational effectiveness and employee engagement, a natural link is made to the “right fit.” And we know that when individuals feel more closely aligned with the values of the organization and their coworkers, their engagement numbers soar.  And yet, when we stifle honest, respectful exchanges around closely held belief systems, we’re setting our organizations and our employees up for a fall.  At some point, someone will figure out that how we’re acting or the beliefs they believe we espouse are not, in fact, the true “us.”  At that point, more than likely, the damage is irreparable.  When people realize their presumed understanding of others’ beliefs was based on falsities, it’s tough to get past the sense of betrayal.

So, wouldn’t we all be better off openly and honestly discussing with our work teams our beliefs on politics, religion, and anything else that speaks to someone’s individual values?  If we preach “goodness of fit,” shouldn’t we look at how our own personal values truly do match with those of our organization or our team?

images (15)The key is in practicing (and teaching) respect for alternative perspectives.  You may hold strong beliefs in a particular political candidate with whom I strongly disagree.  You might have religious preferences that I don’t share.  Heck, you might believe in raising your kids with completely different ideas around discipline, tv watching, or myriad other issues that conflict with my own choices.  But none of those may mean we can’t work together….or conversely, perhaps they all mean we shouldn’t work together!  But that’s an individual choice that can only be made if we actually share our perspectives, beliefs, and values with those with whom we work.

That’s the point here.  Just as we probably wouldn’t date someone for long without wanting to know their beliefs on religion, politics, or simply treating others, why do we accept those areas as “off limits” in many professional settings?  Why do we object so fervently to posts on LinkedIn (or any social media) that reveal the true nature of those with whom we’re connected?

So, next time you find yourself objecting to content others post, view it as an opportunity to contemplate whether the values such content espouses (and that your contact clearly supports) reflect the type of values you want in personal or professional relationships.  If the value of the relationship outweighs the moral conundrum, then stick with it and accept what they’ve posted.  If the ethical or moral elements are too onerous, then terminate the relationship.

Remember, it’s not the quantity of contacts or “friends” you have that matters.  What counts is the quality of the relationships and the people with whom you surround yourself.  It really doesn’t have to be harder than that!

 People Puzzle

From Risk-Tolerance to Risk-Ignorance: A Tale in Humility & Decision Making

11262220_10153430877586421_804774130152018682_oIn hindsight, I knew something felt just a bit off as I pulled the shoulder straps up and over my sweatshirt and reached down to tighten my leg straps.  A mishap three weeks prior, in which the wind had grabbed my parachute and briefly dragged me across the tarmac had resulted in brand new leg straps and buckles.  I’d picked up my repaired rig that morning, and had jumped it once already.  Yet, as I hurried down the sidewalk toward the waiting plane, fifteen other skydivers impatiently waiting for me, my leg straps seemed several inches too short.  Oh, I could still tighten them, and they posed no danger.  But they just seemed…off.  I shrugged to myself and broke into a trot, high-fiving my fellow jumpers as I squeezed past them and climbed the ladder onto the Twin Otter.

11894483_10153476648861421_2635937477671306457_oI’d be jumping in a two-way after three larger groups of angle and free-fliers.  So, I strapped in at the forward-most position, with my back to the pilot’s seat.  It would be a quick 14-minute climb to 14,000 feet, a ride I’d taken hundreds of times in the past.


As the plane rotated and began its ascent, I instinctively ran my hands over my gear, the first of three such checks that I habitually make before the door opens.  Helmet strap….Check.  Strapped and tightened (although I’ll remove the helmet for most of the ride before restrapping it 3-4 minutes prior to our exit).  I double-check my altimeter, comparing its changing readings with those on the wrists of jumpers squeezed in next to me, tapping the dial lightly to ensure accuracy.  Eyes out the window now, scanning the horizon and orienting myself to the direction of flight.  In the case of an emergency bail-out, this would be valuable information.

11390222_10153285192221421_6458347126434683879_nSimultaneously, I make mental note of any clouds, not so much their position in the sky (which obviously changes with the air currents), but more for their altitude.  Knowing that a cloud base ends at, say, 6,000 feet can be a great visual reference during a skydive that freefall is nearing its completion (when jumping in groups, we usually break off from one another at about 4,500 feet….about 7 seconds after passing through the 6,000 feet mark).  On this day, only wisps of cirrus clouds dotted the blue.  Check.

Reaching back with my right hand, I grasped my deployment handle and ran my fingers over the elastic opening from whence my pilot chute would emerge when I pulled on it at 3,500 feet.  As it enters the airstream at deployment, the pilot chute fills with air and its bridle (the inch-wide material that stretches about ten feet back to the rest of the rig on one’s back) pulls the curved pin that opens one’s container and releases the parachute.  My handle looks much like a hackysack.  And a hackysack my fingers felt…..Yet, something still didn’t feel right.  Again, I shrugged it off, looking down at the familiar black and purple riser covers on my shoulders.

dsc_3066In sequence, every check I made begins with my main deployment handle and progresses, in order, to my cut-away handle and then my reserve handle.  The order is deliberate, as it’s the order in which, should it be necessary to initiate emergency procedures, one would use each.  The cutaway handle rests tucked into a velcroed slot in the harness just beneath one’s right nipple, and mine is a solid, foam gripper, black in color.  Alternatively, the reserve handle is a D-shaped metal handle that similarly protrudes from a Velcro pocket, but on one’s left side.  Either a one-handed or a two-handed (my preference) pulling of these handles in order from right to left releases one’s malfunctioning main parachute and begins the deployment sequence of one’s reserve or back-up parachute.  It’s a process that is practiced each and every time one jumps, and in my case, on three separate occasions during the climb to altitude.

Looking down and deliberately watching my hands reach up and simulate pulling first my right handle and then my left handle, I went through the motions.  Check….and check!

Twice more on the flight to 14,000 feet I would go through this three-step handles check.  And three times, my fingers paused longer than usual on my deployment hacky, but moved on.  Check….Check….Check.

At about 11,000 feet, I begin my final preparations for the dive.  My GoPro camera gets turned on.  My helmet goes on my head, sunglasses cleaned and on, chin strap tightened once again.  I check my chest strap, both for tightness and to ensure it’s routed correctly through the buckle.  Check.

I reach down to make last minute adjustments to my leg straps.  Check.

And last but certainly not least, I visually scan my three-ring connections, the point where my main parachute risers connect to my rig.  The must be in a particular order, and although this wouldn’t change unless one were to completely disconnect one’s main parachute for some reason, I always check them.  In simple parlance, they should look like a snowman…a large ring, with two sequentially smaller rings, each routed up through its larger neighbor.  Check….and Check.

rslAt this point, I also glance down at a small connection that is tucked up against my right shoulder three-rings.  This is my Reserve Static Line, or RSL, and its purpose is to facilitate a quicker deployment of the reserve parachute once the cutaway handle has been pulled.  Essentially, as one’s main parachute risers are releasing from the harness, the RSL begins the deployment of the reserve chute even before you can reach and pull your reserve handle.  And having cutaway twice in my skydiving career, I can attest to the fact that my reserve was already inflating over my head as I pulled my reserve handle each time.  At 2,000 feet (or lower), every second counts and could save your life.

Dipping my head to the right, and my hand running across my three-rings, I stared at my shoulder.  Where was my red RSL?  I pushed the three-rings, convinced it had perhaps gotten lodged under them.  No red RSL.  What the hell?!?!

My eyes shot to my left shoulder.  There it was, only it was yellow.  What the holy hell?!?!  My vision remained fixated on the little yellow strap that seemed to wave and laugh at the perplexed expression on my face.  And honestly I panicked a little, my eyes now running wildly over the front of my rig, from the black material to the purple piping.  And the realization flowed into my consciousness like honey in the winter, and my eyes met the skydiver’s across from me.

This isn’t my rig,” I shouted over the din of the aircraft’s twin propellers, made even louder by the opening of the door at the back of the plane and the excited murmuring of jumpers preparing to launch themselves into the crisp air.

What?!?” he yelled back.

This is NOT my rig!” I repeated, shaking my head as it all sank in.  In my rush to board the plane, I’d somehow grabbed someone else’s parachute, one that look remarkably identical to mine, except for a few minor details….and on potentially HUGE detail.  I had no idea what size or type canopy was in this rig!

In the end, I chose not to jump, instead riding the plane back down to the ground for the first time in my skydiving career.  I was embarrassed at my blunder.  I was confused as to how it happened.  And I was determined to figure it all out!

As it turned out, we pieced together the sequence of events that led to my predicament at 14,000 feet.  But at least the mental pieces all fit together while still in the plane…In freefall or at parachute deployment altitude (3,000 ft, screaming toward the Earth at 120+ mph would not have been the ideal time for “discovery”).


So, let’s recap….

Mistake #1:  Immediately after completing my pre-flight inspection of my gear, I had decided to run to the restroom with only 3 minutes to spare before the plane’s scheduled departure.  I could have waited until I was back on the ground, but decided I’d have time.

Mistake #2:  Upon returning and seeing everyone waiting near the plane’s ladder, I’d run over the rack on which I’d hung my rig, and grabbed it….or thought I’d grabbed it.  By sheer chance, I’d hung it directly below an almost identical rig, and in my rush to get out to the plane, I hadn’t realized there were two black and purple rigs within a foot of each other.

Mistake #3:  When my gut told me something was wrong with first the leg straps and later the deployment handle, I pushed back on that instinct, brushing it off as simply being flustered by the rush of things or the excitement of getting back in the air.  Your gut feelings mean something….Pay attention to them!

In spite of all these mistakes, I could have made one more, even larger mistake that day.  I could have, once I realized I had the wrong rig, simply decided to risk it and jump anyways, confident in my own skills as a skydiver and my ability to land safely.  And, in eventually finding out what sized parachute was in that rig, it would have likely turned out alright.  But I didn’t know that at the time.  For all I knew, there was a 100 sq. ft. canopy on my back (I normally jump a 170 sq. ft chute…considerably more docile and forgiving).  But I swallowed my pride, ignored my ego, and opted for the safer option.

Because as I’ve said before, risk-taking involves not only understanding where to draw the line between acceptable and intolerable levels of risk.  It requires admitting when you’ve neared or crossed that line, and open and transparent evaluation of the chain of events that led you to that point.  Failure to that changes educated risk tolerance to plain ol’ risk ignorance, and in the world of skydiving or organizational leadership, that’s never the route to go!

Acknowledge your mistake…Learn from your mistake…And live to jump another day!


“What’s Your Greatest Weakness?”: A Guide to Authentic Answers


“What are your greatest strengths?”

Now, here’s a question familiar to anyone who’s ever interviewed for a job.  And the follow-up question?  Yep, you’ve got it….say it out loud.

“And what are you greatest weaknesses?”

Ugh….(A collective groan from both the job hunter and the job holder)

Why do we hate these questions so much?  Very simply, it’s because we instinctively feel we need to embellish the former and hide from the latter.  Aside from complete narcissists, we’ve been taught not to toot our own horns too loudly, and we’ve been taught since early childhood that weaknesses are character flaws.  But should we?  And are they?  These are two fundamental questions that we all should be asking ourselves daily, whether we’re searching for jobs or not.

does-boasting-boost-a-speechLet’s tackle the first of the two…is it okay to boast about one’s strengths? (Trevor, if you use the word “boast,” then few are going to say it’s alright).  Okay….how about if I word it like this?  Is it good to share one’s strengths with others?

Worded that way, I doubt many would see this as a negative.  We all have strengths, be they because we’ve worked our butts off to get really good at a skill or body of knowledge or just because we are naturally gifted or even that we just feel we’re better at those things that we prefer doing.  There’s no shame in that.  In fact, in any organizational setting, we want to know where we shine and where those around us similarly have strengths.  Because, trust me, none of us have exactly the same strengths, preferences, or predilections, and heaven knows, I need someone who’s good at detail oriented work to balance out my preference for visioning and theorizing!

As leaders, we want to have a balanced team where one member’s strengths offset weakness (or lack of preference) of others.  In my ideal team, I want a good mix of those who can brainstorm and design and those who prefer to carry out the vision.  I’m seeking those who like to get down and dirty in the weeds with those whose spirit bends the currents of the high clouds.  Each are equally valuable, and if I can’t find people who will openly tell me where they thrive, well, I’ll move on to those who can.  So, yes, one’s ability to self-assess and accurately discuss one’s strengths is critical.

improve-your-weakness-3But what about the weaknesses?  Most can likely see that the same arguments could be made for this, but this one’s a bit trickier for most of us.  So, what do we tend to answer when asked this question?  Something like, “Well, I tend to care too much,” or “I’m a workaholic,” or “I have trouble saying ‘No’ at times.”

So, what’s wrong with that?  Here’s what’s wrong with these answers…they are spun attempts to appeal to the ideals we think others want.  “I care too much” translates to “I’m extremely dedicated and in-tune to others’ feelings.”  “I’m a workaholic” translates to “I will put in whatever time necessary to get the job done.”  And “I have trouble saying ‘No’” translates to “Just tell me what needs doing and it shall be so.”

Are these truly weaknesses?  In very rare cases, yes.  In most cases, no.  They are strengths we are trying to portray in a way that makes them SOUND like weaknesses.  And ultimately, that’s an authenticity issue, if you ask me.

You see, if you truly wanted to tell someone your weaknesses, instead of “I care too much,” you’d say, “I have trouble taking care of myself physically and emotionally.”  Instead of “I’m a workaholic,” you’d say that you recognize the need to get better about balancing your work and personal lives.  And instead of saying, “I have trouble saying ‘no’,” you’d say, “I really struggle with prioritization and accurately estimating time resources.”

Better yet, you’d follow up with an action plan for how you are currently working on overcoming that weakness.  Now THAT would be impressive!


As we all know (and I stated earlier), we all have weaknesses.  That doesn’t make us bad people, poor choices as employees, or inferior to anyone else.  When we acknowledge (truly) those things that provide ongoing challenges to us, we’re building our brand as authentic human beings and demonstrating humility.  And that’s a tremendously powerful strength in any relationship!

It’s not easy to always show that humility or demonstrate that vulnerability, but doing so is a key step in our own self-development.  And it’s a step that speaks volumes to any quality hiring manager you may encounter. (Trust me, if the interview looks down on you for being authentic, it’s truly not a place where you want to be hired anyway!)

brand-authenticitySo, what are some of your authentic weaknesses?  Some of mine include: 1) I tend to be a self-starter, but a weak self-finisher, something that has prompted me to build accountability systems with others, whereby they will hold me to task in follow-through on projects.  2) Despite my military background, I’m can be easily distracted and disorganized.  To combat this, I actively work on utilizing lists and taking time each day to organize my work space and the day ahead (both of which I really don’t enjoy doing), and 3) I’m not a good negotiator, and my on-going challenge is to continue seeking better ways to engage myself in this uncomfortable process (not yet getting better, but still trying).

So, take the time to really think about your weaknesses and whether you’re being authentic in how you typically talk about them.  I’d challenge you to use the authentic approach with a self-designed action plan structure to addressing these whenever they come up in conversation (whether in interviews or not).  But realize that you’ll never have equal strengths in all areas and with all things.  That’s unrealistic and, quite honestly, inhuman.  And who wants to be that!?!?


Telecommuting’s Secret…It Can Work!


“Wait, so don’t you live in California now?” It’s a question I’m asked weekly since our move last month.

“Yes, in beautiful Sonoma County!” I respond with a gleem in my eye and a skip in my step.

I know what’s coming next.  The follow-up question is predictable.

“But aren’t you leading a program in Wisconsin?”

It’s a strange question, I find, but perhaps that’s because I’ve spent so much time in the business world myself, or perhaps it’s because I have taught global business courses.  The question’s peculiar, though, because highlights two key issues.

First, the question evidences a lack of awareness of how the business world has evolved and truly works.  Let’s set global businesses aside, instead focusing on the shrinking number of companies that operate solely within the United States.  Even most medium-sized and large organizations have operating facilities, supply chains, and customers outside of the geographic region in which their headquarters sits.  How do people assume executives interact with regional or state sales teams?  How do they maintain accountability over a dispersed team?


Second, the confusion prefaces an often subconscious paradigm that plagues many organizations, a paradigm grounded in MacGregor’s Theory X.  This belief is that workers are essentially lazy and in need of constant supervision and oversight, lest they just sit around and goof off, milking their roles for a paycheck while seeking to do as little work as possible.  Put another way, it’s the “butts in seats” prejudice that requires seeing someone actively “at work” to believe they are doing anything. (We’ve all had managers like that!)

In short, what I’m highlighting here is perhaps naiveté about how much the working world has changed and evolved since the advent of the internet.  Workforces in most of the top organizations are spread out throughout the country and the world.  Projects are managed and production occurs through “the cloud.” And communication channels we frequently utilize in our personal lives (email, social media, Skype, FaceTime, etc.) have real-world business applications that are driving globalization worldwide.

And yet, even knowing this, the adoption of these technological benefits are often ignored by the very organizations that could most easily benefit from them.  There is still a need to shift from a “butts in seat” to a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) accountability system in many organizations.  But change comes slow in some circles.  Skeptics abound, and we need to understand that and coach these individuals around the fears they have around this notion.  Thankfully, when as business and organizational psychology faculty and consultants we embrace a ROWE approach to our team-work and leadership, we begin to help propagate an acceptance that will only benefit our students and business clients.  Through modeling, we show them what many of the leading organizations already know…remote working can work as well (and in many cases more efficiently) than traditional work models.

Shift-Your-Thinking22But what does ROWE entail?  Two words….Trust and Accountability.  Trust that ones outside of your field of vision will do what they should be doing.  And holding them accountable for producing high quality work (be those reports, research, teaching, or leading a team).  If the qualities of one’s work suffers, trust is lost, and then it’s okay to replace that individual with someone who you can trust and hold accountable.  I know, I know….It sounds a lot like the very same process you’d use with a person right there in the office, right? (Amazing things…trust and accountability!

The academic world of higher education is exceptionally suited for telecommuting, working remotely, or whatever new buzzword is being used this week to describe the more than 37% of the American workforce that, according to Gallup’s 2015 research.  After all, as a professor, I daily interact with, coach, and mentor students via email, phone, and video conference (Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts are my personal go-to tools).  Even when I was on campus, it was rare to see most faculty in their offices at the same times that I was there.  So, whether from California, China, Germany, or Madison, WI, over the past half-decade, an increasing amount of my work has been done virtually, i.e., not face-to-face with colleagues, students, and business partners.

In short, remote work has become the norm in the most successful organization.  But it’s not yet ubiquitous in perception or practice.  With time those perceptions will shift.  But so long as I continue to field these questions, it’s clear how many may not yet realize how normal and accepted (and potential efficient) telecommuting has become.