Are culture and emotional intelligence all that relevant for smaller businesses?

There has been a significant swing in the professional world from management and metrics to culture and emotional intelligence. It makes sense why; we are moving toward a more technology-based environment, where contributions are not always tangible products that can be measured. In a professional world where creativity, innovation and being first to market are the drivers of success, instilling an environment to elicit these results seemingly relies on different strengths than traditional organizational models.

Or does it?

As I’ve mentioned previously, I fall firmly in the ‘hybrid’ category when it comes to leadership and management. My experience has proven to me that companies are more successful when they have defined goals and a way of measuring corporate and individual progress towards these goals…AND…that leaders with high emotional intelligence are able to create cultures that elicit not only high performance, but also loyalty, high morale, and innovation.

When you’re a small but growing company, it is all too easy to put culture and leadership development on the back burner for several reasons. First, you’re small enough that you either ARE the main leader, or your team is small and handpicked and have high visibility as well as direct accountability to you for most if not all of their actions. As a smaller business, you ARE the culture so unless you have a significant internal ‘me-me conflict’ (as we like to say in coachese) you probably really enjoy your company culture.

What you will realize as you begin to grow though, is that if you aren’t intentional about your culture and strengthening yours and your leaders’ emotional intelligence, your culture will quickly unravel. It’s not difficult or complicated to do. For your company culture, I like to start by just bullet pointing all the things you’d like to be true about working for your company. It’s that easy! For example, some things on my list are:

  • We look at every challenge as an opportunity to teach, learn, and grow
  • We tell the truth, with love
  • We don’t throw team members under the bus
  • We own our own mistakes, not others’
  • We are in constant recovery from perfectionism and therefore celebrate progress
  • We laugh at ourselves – often

From this, hopefully you can see that the culture I’m cultivating is a high performing one of accountability, tempered with humor and a strong desire to stay on the productive side of my perfectionism. It’s best to get your culture identified before you get too big. If you already have a team, its great to get them involved in this exercise.

The emotional intelligence of yourself and your leaders is a little tougher to define. I’m mostly in favor of a 360 review here…I say mostly because if these are done incorrectly they’re useless at best and incredibly destructive at worst. During a 360 review, feedback is collected from a person’s direct manager, their peers, and their subordinates in attempt to give them a picture of how they are perceived. Sometimes, feedback is even solicited from clients.

All too often, I’ve seen 360’s used because someone near the top of the food chain is behaving badly and senior leadership is too wimpy to call them out, and their subordinates are too scared of retaliation. Usually the thought process is that if the bad-behaver sees that everyone agrees s/he’s a jerk then they’ll have an epiphany and change their ways. I’ve seen this work zero times. Don’t use 360’s to fix jerks.

If you are interested in conducted a 360 review of emotional intelligence, I’d recommend reading up on the 12 characteristics of emotional intelligence and designing a behavior-based assessment to use. For this to be really helpful, you need two qualities already in place: The first is trust, and the second is positive intent. Positive intent means a sincere desire to find and reward the good, and identify areas of improvement. Trust refers to the team’s belief that you do have positive intent and that their peers do as well.

As another example, years ago I was part of a small, tight-knit management team. We completely trusted each other and believed that we all had each other’s backs and that there was no malice. I’d been having trouble with turnover in my department, so I asked my team for feedback on my leadership. They told me that I sometimes came across as intimidating because of my direct manner of communicating coupled with my relentless perfectionism (see, there’s the p word again).

As a caution – even though I trusted my team, and knew they cared about me, AND I’d asked for the feedback, it still stung! It probably will for you and your team as well if you truly get honest feedback. That’s okay. In my case, after the sting wore off, I was able to use the feedback constructively. This would not have happened if it was thrust in my face, or given in a way that felt threatening or judgmental.

In conclusion, YES, you should be worrying about culture and emotional intelligence even if (or especially) if you’re small and growing. Setting a solid foundation in these areas, in addition to creating effective goals, metrics, and feedback, will have you solidly positioned for success!

Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Today’s Leadership Solutions, a Seattle-based consulting firm focused on helping organizations, leaders and job seekers to identify workplace solutions that work.  As a certified executive coach, organizational development expert and resume writer, Carrie consults with small to medium sized businesses on OD, human resources and recruiting solutions in addition to providing career coaching to managers and executives in transition. Carrie can be reached for consultation at


Managers: Are you killing your pigeons?

When I was fresh out of university, I had the incredible privilege of being mentored by a pioneer in behavioral psychology, Dr. D. Chris Anderson. Dr. Anderson was a professor emeritus at Notre Dame University and by the time I met him, he was working with organizations across the United States and Canada applying the principles of behavioral psychology in the workplace. Behavioral Psychology (think Skinner’s rats pressing levers for food) has gone somewhat out of vogue in the advent of Cognitive and Positive Psychology in terms of leadership tools but in my opinion you just can’t beat it for developing solid management systems that work. Chris was very passionate about different ways his technology could be relevant in the marketplace and he definitely infused me with the same passion. As I began to develop myself as a coach, I was happy to augment more of the ‘touchy-feely’ transformation leadership and positive psychology research into my work, but still use organizational behavior management as the cornerstone of my work with managers and company owners.

One of the stories Chris used to tell was how, back in the sixties, it was popular to train pigeons to do un-pigeonlike activities, such as walking in a figure eight (rarely if ever necessary in a pigeon’s natural environment, as you might expect). You could train them to do anything, Chris used to say, as long as you were consistent in your reinforcement schedule.  In the case of walking in a figure eight, you can wait around for years, and will never ‘catch’ it just doing it spontaneously for you to reward it. So, when you are training a pigeon to do something totally unfamiliar, you need to give small and frequent rewards for every new behavior getting. You might tape the eight on the floor and put pellets along the path the pigeon is to walk. Then remove the tape after several sessions. Then remove more and more pellets…you get the idea. Basically, you reinforce progressive movements towards the goal with frequent and contingent reinforcement. Simple, right? However, once in a while a tired or drugged out (this was the sixties, remember) lab assistant would drop a pellet outside the proscribed figure eight and the pigeon would get derailed. When that happened, the pigeon was never, ever able to forget about the time he/she wandered off track and got an unexpected reward. Because times were hard in those days for lab pigeons, the fate of a mis-programmed pigeon was, sadly, death.

Now, please note, employees are different from pigeons and I am a huge Daniel Pink fan and completely agree that the types and schedules of reinforces vary to a tremendous extent and that you would never, ever use delicious food pellets to elicit spontaneous creative behavior (free snacks nonwithstanding). However, I WILL pretty much go to the wall and state that managers can metaphorically kill their employees with inconsistent rewards or punishments.

Most managers or company owners I work with consistently bemoan the fact that their employees don’t care about the company as much as they do. By this they are usually talking about stewardship of company resources or customer goodwill. They want employees to bring up solutions, carry a high sense of urgency and problem solve.

Unfortunately, in nine times out of ten, the owner has killed that pigeon. How? By accidentally punishing desired behavior or rewarding undesired behavior. The most common things I see is making it painful for someone to tell you bad news, or, conversely, ‘rewarding’ substandard performance with less work and a raise.

To illustrate: What happens when an employee brings you news about a major equipment malfunction? I’m assuming TELLING you about the malfunction is a good thing. It allows you to engage in damage control. If the employee who communicates this to you gets sworn or yelled at or denigrated – guess what? It won’t happen again. Trust me, this is not a good thing and if your employees can’t get past this, it is metaphorically fatal for them (and eventually you). Similarly, if someone brings you an innovative idea or plan, and you scoff at them because it’s a bad idea (and we’re not in grade school so of course there ARE bad ideas from time to time) or worse, remonstrate them for wasting company time daydreaming, you will have very effectively eliminated any more creative thinking. 

The second most common example of improper reinforcement is when a poorly performing employee is relieved of responsibilities (which are usually given to a highly competent employee, without the requisite pay increase). Poor performer is 8/10 not written up and often still receives a raise on his/her annual review. Maybe not a big one, but they’ll probably get something. It is almost impossible to redeem this situation.

Now, I’m not convinced that one incident can destroy the employee’s desire to contribute forever…but I’m not saying it never does, either.  The ability of our reactions as leaders to impact others are astoundingly more powerful than we tend to believe. I encourage the folks I coach to be very intentional about the behaviors they are hoping to see from their people and extremely cognizant of their own reactive tendencies to try to reduce the chances of inadvertently creating the exactly opposite effect they are hoping to create.

So think before you react, and save the pigeons!


“Please stop ruining your company” – HR’s role in dealing with difficult bosses

I have been fortunate enough to have been asked to speak at my SHRM chapter in May and the topic will be HR’s role in dealing with difficult people.  Human Resources professionals have consistently been growing into a strategic presence in organizations and we are often relied upon at the senior planning table to help articulate, conceptualize and implement plans to achieve organizational goals.  This is an absolute win and I have seen how organizations benefit from having us be part of the process.  As most people have experienced at one point or another in their lives, however, even the best laid strategic plan will fail in the hands of toxic people.  This is truly where a skilled HR professional can bring maximum value to their role.  

But it’s not easy.

Anyone who has been in a senior HR role for any amount of time will have experienced the ‘bad boss’ phenomenon.  It starts with rumblings or maybe an employee or two in your office talking about what a ‘jerk’ such-and-such manager is.  Further investigation reveals that yes, the manager in question is not upholding corporate values and is inconsistent, disrespectful or even downright mean.  Although this is not pleasant, it is somewhat routine for a seasoned HR professional (or great consultant/coach) to address first or second level managers on their conduct.  

But what do you do when the toxic person is the most senior executive, owner and/or your boss?  I have spoken to countless HR professionals and this is probably the number one reason why great HR people leave organizations.  For that matter, it’s the number one reason why any great people leave an organization.  From an HR perspective, this can be one of the most challenging and stressful experiences to deal with.  There are many different ‘difficult people’ profiles an owner can fall into but as a very general rule these people are: Highly driven, perfectionist, high need for control, intelligent, somewhat blind to their weaknesses, capable, achievement oriented and tending to take things very seriously.  Frankly, these skills are necessary for entrepreneurs and almost any owner or CEO will have these traits to an extent.  The ‘difficult’ part comes in when one or more of these attributes outweighs others or eclipses their social/emotional intelligence.  That is the recipe for toxicity.

When the owner of the company is creating a culture that is drastically undermining the mission of the organization there are only three outcomes: 
1)    They will realize what they are doing, become willing to change their approach and do so
2)    They will realize what they are doing, become willing to change their approach but be unable to do so
3)    They will refuse to acknowledge the destructiveness of their behavior and refuse to change.  

Usually the ‘realization’ comes from a series of very predictable pain points such as employee turnover, customer loss or other negative feedback.  This is a critical point of impact for the HR profiessional.  Often, we will be the ones requested to present this information to the owner.  This is a very vulnerable position and needs to be handled carefully.  It is my experience that until this pain point is reached, change is unlikely.  More often than not, the HR professional, as messenger will be the focus of the owner’s discontent with the feedback.  Just because this is uncomfortable, does not mean it should be avoided.  There comes a time in everyone’s professional career where we must weigh out what’s right and wrong as well as whether we are willing to continue in a situation if it doesn’t change.  In other words, working with the toxic owner also will produce a pain point spurring action.

Once the owner realizes their problem and becomes willing to change the HR professional is again a valuable asset.  We can either provide access to coaching or sometimes we are the coaches and this will be both challenging and rewarding.  

There are also the situations where the owner does not acknowledge a problem with their behavior and to the HR professional and much of the organization the behavior is intolerable.  When this happens, unfortunately there are not many alternatives.  IF the behavior is truly egregious the company’s future success is in jeopardy.  It is sometimes worthwhile to stage an intervention with other key executives in the company to try to force a realization on the part of the owner but if that does not produce a desire to change, it may be time to select a new opportunity.  

In the end, becoming adept at helping bad bosses become great leaders is one of the most important contributions of a talented HR Professional. 


The “We Value People” Series Part 3: Communication

We’ve been talking about what it means when an organization says ‘We value our people” (and they almost all say this).  We’ve discussed why it means different things to employers and employees and how to recruit for culture versus just skills.  Another thing I have found in every organization I’ve worked with or in is that they have identified ‘communication’ as an issue.  Because this is so endemic, I thought it useful to unpack this.
When ‘Communication’ is identified as an issue, it is because a pain point is being triggered.  Employers and employees have different pain point around the topic of communication, but the pain points usually center around:

Delivery:  The person communicating is perceived as rude, abrasive or untrustworthy
Frequency: The communication doesn’t happen often enough, so people feel uninformed
Promptness:  It is taking too long to receive a response to your request for communication
Content: There is not clarity about instructions, roles, responsibilities or expectations

Everyone has different thresholds about what is acceptable in terms of delivery, frequency, promptness and content.  If your needs are being met, you think there is good communication.  If your needs are not being met, you will not.  It is not possible to satisfy everyone based on this.  The answer is not simply to push more ‘information’ throughout the company.   So what is the answer?  

Again, it lies in expectations.  Unmet expectations always result in frustration, so it is critical for leadership to develop a communication protocol.  Decide for your organization what your protocol will be for the four factors.  Be realistic but optimistic when developing this.  Hopefully, your goal is to create as pleasant and functional a culture as possible, so you want to make sure you are creating standards that will result in efficiency and positivity.  On the other hand, you also want to be practical and create something that will work based on you as well as the industry you are in.  

Let’s take an example.  You have identified that delivery is an issue.  You are in a fast paced environment where attention to detail is paramount and it has been communicated that employees find some leaders ‘abrasive’.  You do not want rude or abrasive communication from your leaders, but you also know that you are not going to get particularly ‘warm and fuzzy’ on a regular basis.  You can set an expectation that communication will be direct and succinct, and also work with leaders on adding more warmth.   

Go through each factor and develop your communication strategy, then COMMUNICATE IT.  

Your communication strategy needs to be communicated to new and existing employees often.  And it goes without saying that leaders in the organization must model this, adhere to it and live it.  What will happen is that you will define your culture through this process.  This does not mean you will retain every employee.  Those for whom your communication philosophy is unacceptable will not stay.  That’s okay because you will attract people for whom this is the perfect environment and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.