Opening a Can of Worms


Open (up) a can of worms: to create a situation that will cause trouble or be unpleasant            (

In my conflict management work, I occasionally hear a senior leader say that addressing a workplace issue (fill in your own workplace-issue-blank) will only “open a can of worms.” I translate this statement as, “I won’t admit it but I’m conflict avoidant and don’t want to deal with this issue that I know is a problem. Let’s leave it alone and maybe it will go away.”

I applaud leaders who not only open cans but shake them as well! There may be rich topics that will surface – issues we need to explore.

 I’m not a proponent of inventing issues or lingering on issues that have little merit (i.e. the non-issues that are raised to distract.)

I am, however, seeking courageous leaders who know that in this can of worms may be clues, lessons and discussions that can enhance our workplace environment. It’s time for leaders to do some responsible shaking. We may be surprised what we find.

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Assessing Our Cultural Health

Organizational culture is the behavior of humans within an organization and the meaning that people attach to those behaviors.Culture includes the organization’s vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits.  (

I’ve recently had the opportunity to address audiences on the issues of cultural health. This topic is important on many levels: employee engagement, recruitment of talented employees, retention of valuable associates and on and on.  Many assessments are available to use if an organization wants to assess its health, and here are some of the areas that should be considered in the assessment:

  1. Organization rules and habits: What are our written and unwritten rules, and how does each rule serve us?
  2. Do we demonstrate responsible accountability at all levels of the organization?
  3. Is our organization comfortable with ongoing change, and do we manage change well?
  4. Do we operate in an open communication system – issues are directly addressed and no organizational secrets are kept?
  5. Do members of our organization trust each other, and do we consistently work to build and maintain trust?
  6. Does each associate know how her or his work matters? Do people know their work has purpose?
  7. Do we effectively recognize people on an ongoing basis?
  8. Does our physical environment reflect care and respect for our employees?
  9. Do we have a rigorous plan for career development and succession?
  10. Have we created a learning organization in which people are encouraged to learn and grow their talents?
  11. Do we serve our larger community in any meaningful way?
  12. Do we provide mentors and coaching supervisors to our employees?
  13. Do we stress and facilitate health and wellness in the workplace?
  14. Do we promote, by our actions and policies, work/life balance?
  15. Are we consistently creating a feedback-rich culture?
  16. Is our senior leadership team committed to their own cohesiveness, alignment and high performance?

 This list is not complete; the uniqueness of each organization should be reflected in the final assessment. What is true for every organization is:

 - Whether we are aware of it or not, our behaviors create our culture.

- Creating cultural health takes attention and work!

- Senior leadership is most responsible for creating a healthy way forward.

Pause and assess your culture. Hold on to that which is working, and be fearless to change that which limits your success.


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The Challenge of Multiple Roles in the Workplace

I have developed a deep appreciation for people whose job it is to manage their multiple roles and identities in the workplace.  Here’s what I mean…

Linda is responsible for generating sales for her mid-sized company.  Much of her time is cultivating relationships with customers and ensuring her company’s products and services meet and exceed customers’ expectations.  At the same time, Linda is managing the team that ultimately produces and facilitates all aspects of customer orders. So, where should her loyalty land? She is accountable to satisfied customers AND she is accountable to developing a high performance team that works to meet customer needs.

Question: Overall, who does Linda end up treating better? The customers or her team members? I bet you know the answer… her customers. And who would blame her? The sales she generates with satisfied customers affect her financial bottom line. When her team members fall short of expectations, Linda is the one whose neck (and paycheck) is on the line.

Some people have natural skillfulness when juggling these multiple roles. From my observations, most people struggle. They become emotionally trapped, and this results in frustration and impatience.

Company leaders are well served to examine their organizational ‘dance.’ Are people positioned in such a way to be free to concentrate on their main goals and objectives? Have we set people up to be trapped?  Frustrated, irritated and disappointed managers cannot build a trusting team.

Make sure your company is organized in a way that facilitates each person’s key purpose. Don’t let cost-cutting measures trick you into thinking one person can be equally effective in competing roles. It’s the senior leadership’s job to make sure everyone is set up for success.

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That’s the Wrong Answer!


I was working with a group of manufacturing frontline leaders, and we were talking about the characteristics of a high performance team. 

One of the characteristics is a shared vision.

So, how does a team know if every member has the same vision? You ask!

Questions like… 

  1. What are we trying to achieve and accomplish in our work?
  2. What’s working well for us and where are our challenges?
  3. What can we do to be more efficient and effective going forward?

 …get us to the right conversation.

 Then I added this question to the list:

“What excites us about our work right now?” and the head of these frontline leaders said, “Debbie, come on! Our employees are working in sweltering heat, doing the same manual work all day long… do you really think I would ask them what excites them about their work?! I don’t know how much experience you have with manufacturing companies, but I would never ask that question!”

And that’s the wrong answer!

The minute a leader sees work (and workers) as “You have to do this job” versus “Your job has purpose,” we might as well sit down and admit we work with no expectations past a low bar of engagement or motivation. 

It’s the leader’s job to articulate and cheer on work’s purpose. We owe it to our workforce to help them see that they and their work matters.

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30-Day Touch Base Conversation


I am a big fan of ongoing and effective feedback in the workplace. New hires especially have a right to know if they are on the right track, and we owe it to them to be intentional about providing meaningful conversations.

Many organizations have standardized effective processes for new hires, and I share here some of the questions you might consider asking a new employee after s/he has been on the job a month or so:

30-Day Touch Base Conversation


 “It’s our practice to set aside some time after 30 days to talk with all new employees.  This allows us to share information and perceptions, continue doing what is helpful and make any adjustments, as needed.  I look forward to this conversation.

“I’ll ask a series of questions to guide our discussion, and feel free to interject your own questions along the way.” 


 The Hiring Process…

  • We are continuously evaluating our hiring process.  After our initial contact, did you find our staff responsive and timely in our communication?
  • Did we execute the interview process in a way that made you feel comfortable and informed?
  • Did the hiring conversations give you the necessary information you needed to make your decision to work here?

 Now that you’ve been with us 30 days (or more)… 

  • Did the job description and the interview accurately reflect our expectations and your expectations of the work you would be doing here? Please explain.
  • If there were any ‘surprises,’ what were/are they?
  • Do you feel you have been given enough direction to feel confident in your assignments?
  • Do you think your background and skill set are well matched for your job’s expectations?
  • Have you been given the resources you have needed to execute your assignments well?
  • What else do you need at this time?


  • It’s been just a month, but what excites you most about your work at this time?
  • Where are your challenges?
  • Are you getting a sense of our culture?  Does this feel like a good ‘fit’ for you? 

Moving forward…


  • What would you like to accomplish in the next 30 days?
  • How can I support you?
  • Are there any areas of your expertise or skill that you would like to more fully utilize?
  • Are there any adjustments you would like to suggest so you continue to move forward successfully?
  • Is there anything else you would like me to know?

 My recommendations (optional) …

 “As I look to the next months and see the projects ahead, here is what I am going to recommend as priorities…”


“Thank you for your feedback and discussion.  I’d like to summarize our discussion in writing so we can review it and add to it in another 30-60 days.  In the meantime, let’s plan on informal ‘touch base’ conversations throughout the work weeks.”

This takes some extra time on the part of a supervisor or manager – no doubt.

I contend the time is well spent. A new employee has the right to know how s/he is doing, celebrate that which is working and have the opportunity to adjust behaviors if something is not lining up.

Motto: Lots of feedback! No surprises!

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The “If / Because / In spite of” Dynamics of Motivation


At a manufacturing plant in Illinois, a foreman told me he returned from vacation to find his crew had accomplished very little during his time away.  He was disappointed in production numbers, and I could tell he was disappointed in his team. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to build this team,” he said.

Then this week, in Ohio, several of the Team Leads I was meeting with talked about the motivational patterns they see in their crews.

     “Some people know exactly what is expected, and they get to it.” 

      “Some people work if you tell them what to do and keep on them.”

I call this the “If and Because” of motivation.

Many years ago I was introduced to three levels of  attitude and action.  In short, some people will behave as expected IF someone else provides incentives:

            “I will work hard IF you pay me enough.”

            “I will do my work IF you are around and watching me.”

            “I will be responsible IF there’s a chance I’ll be in trouble if I don’t.”

In these instances, motivation is provided by outside forces. People who ascribe to this philosophy are difficult to work with.

 Sometimes we hire exceptional people who are productive BECAUSE:

            “I work hard BECAUSE that’s what I committed to do.”

            “I am reliable BECAUSE I take ownership of my behavior.”

            “I am productive BECAUSE I take pride in my work.”

If you have ever worked with these types, you know what a high performance team can look and feel like.

 And then there is this other category of workers who truly fly high. These employees come to work and are productive IN SPITE OF:

            “I am productive IN SPITE OF the fact some on my team are draggers.”

           “I am committed to good work IN SPITE OF the fact my supervisor is less than effective.”

          “I am a reliable team member IN SPITE OF the fact some people aren’t always trustworthy.” 

These employees are self motivated. They are mature, and they are self managed. They know who they are and what they stand for. They refuse to return ineffectiveness with more ineffectiveness because they have embraced true accountability.

Is everyone possible of developing an IN SPITE OF orientation to work? Probably not. But anyone who leads others can choose to be a motivational teacher. And we might be surprised what people can accomplish.

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Interrupt the Ascent


  1. a climb or walk to the summit of a mountain or hill.
  2. an instance of rising through the air.
My colleagues at Definity Partners ( in Cincinnati, Ohio, are preparing to launch a series called “What’s Next?”  This series will facilitate the sharing of best progressive practices in area organizations.  Company leaders will gather to hear about trends, share their ideas and network with other regional thought leaders.

I have the pleasure of being one of the presenters, and I will address:

 “Creating a Contagious Culture for Growth.”

One idea I’ll present reflects on the work of  Bunker, Kram & Ting; (Harvard Business Review, December 2002).  Their research warns cultural leaders to “Interrupt the Ascent” when considering promotions. 

In short, if we promote individuals based solely on their tactical skills, we may find these new leaders are unable to demonstrate the interpersonal competencies that are needed for high performance teams. 

Tactical performance does not necessarily indicate one’s ability to: 

Listen to understand

Influence and motivate

Offer effective feedback

Manage difficult conversations

Delegate effectively or

Manage conflict situations.

In fact, a new manager or supervisor may struggle to give up his or her old role. They may return to that which is most comfortable and familiar and adopt the attitude of, “I’ll just do it. That way, I’ll know it’s done right.” The result  is time spent in firefighting rather than in strategy and growth. (See Run Improve Grow, Your Roadmap from Firefighting to Bold Business Growth by Ray Attiyah.) 

So, organizational leaders need to pay attention to their practices. Are people automatically promoted within their areas of expertise? Are they relying on their new rank to get results instead of having the skills to influence people?

Supervisors need emotional competency in order to build high performance teams. Take the time and offer the resources to develop rising supervisors. The extra effort will be worth it!

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Moments Count


 I’m thinking about change. In particular I’m thinking about the moments we pass through during change initiatives and the importance of honoring these moments.

I am convinced that effective organizations understand the necessity of change, and I am certain that effective leaders are good change managers.  Sometimes in our haste to implement change initiatives, we miss the moments that count.

When I facilitate workshops on change, we begin with ourselves. I ask participants the following:

  1. What was one significant change event you have experienced thus far in your life?
  2. Was this change optional, inevitable, mandated by someone, and/or out of your control?
  3. Did this change event result in positive, neutral or negative results?
  4. Did you learn anything about yourself because you experienced this change?
  5. How would you complete this sentence?

“If this change had not occurred in my life, I __________________________.”

As I wander around the room, observing participants answer these questions within their small group, I frequently see eyes brimming with tears.  Change can be emotional; it’s a heart and head experience, and it’s important for leaders to remember this.

Resistance to change can be irritating and frustrating to leaders who are responsible for facilitating the way forward. Frequent and effective communication is key: before, during and after the change initiative has taken place. And making space for some feelings, without judgment and impatience, can also enhance progress.

Change is emotional.

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Find the Right Fit

Working for a large organization allowed me to participate in many functions of the business, sometimes even outside my traditional job responsibilities.  While my position was not focused on recruiting, I soon discovered that I really enjoyed interviewing and selecting talent for our team. Regularly participating in the interview experience taught me that it’s just as important for a candidate to feel he/she is making the right choice as it is for the organization to hire wisely.  After all, accepting a position is a mutual choice.  With this in mind, we’re sharing some questions we find helpful in interviews – For both interviewers as well as candidates.

For the interviewer:

  • You have, no doubt, studied our web site.  Given what you have read and researched about us, give us your first impressions about our company.  What drew you to apply to ______?
  • You worked at ____ for ___ years.  What is an example of work you were particularly proud of?
  • When you think back over your work history, what are some of the daily activities that you most enjoyed – Those activities you felt excited about, engaged with, etc.? Similarly, in every job there are activities that we do because they’re part of the position, but if we could avoid them, we would.  What are some examples of daily activities you wouldn’t mind avoiding?
  • Tell me about one of your best days at work.
  • This is a position that values (creativity, innovation, problem-solving, thinking on your feet, etc.).  Tell me how you’ve applied (creativity, innovation, problem-solving, thinking on your feet, etc.) to a positive end result.
  • Our associates do not see each other everyday.  Given this distance and separation, what are your suggestions for developing a tight and cohesive team?
  • Change is an integral part of our work and mission.  Talk about your own attitude toward change and give us an example when you managed change well.
  • How would previous work associates describe you as a communicator?  If you were to immediately change one area of your communication style, what would you change?
  • Our associates are expected to learn quickly.  How do you like to learn?
  • Talk about someone who, for you, epitomizes the characteristics of an effective leader.
  • How do you manage stress?
  • What do you need to receive from a company to feel set up for success?

For the candidate:

  • What kind of a person succeeds in this organization? In this particular role?
  • Please explain your onboarding process. What’s in place?
  • I value professional feedback.  Can you tell me more about how I’d receive feedback as part of the first year?
  • Tell me about a recent project you feel was particularly successful.
  • What’s on the horizon for this organization/team/department?  What are some of your future goals?
  • What are the current challenges facing this organization/department/team?
  • If you offer employee satisfaction surveys, where do employees give the company high marks? Where do they indicate areas for improvement?
  • Tell me about how you offer ongoing professional development for your associates.
  • Open and thorough communication is always a challenge for companies.  How do you keep the lines of communication open within teams and departments here at __________.
  • Can you help me understand how much of my time would be spent working with others?  Independently?
  • How many projects at a time do you typically give to your associates?
  • Who are the key partners you work closely with outside this department and organization?
  • What is this team’s/department’s/organization’s philosophy about work/life balance?

Early in my career when I was interviewing for positions, my mom gave me a good piece of advice. She asked, “Can you picture how you’d spend your time?  What would your days would be like?”  Making a professional move, in any case, requires a leap of faith.  But, the interview process, for both interviewers and candidates, is your greatest opportunity to have honest conversation to determine the right fit – For both of you.


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Creating Your Professional Identity

Who you are is what you do.

When I first began my career in communications, I was so fresh I spent most of my time trying to understand – and survive in – this brand new world.  As time went on, as my skill sets grew and as relationships started to form, I realized that in addition to fulfilling my job’s responsibilities I was also painting a picture of myself, Professional Me, everyday.  Surely, I had made some missteps.  But often, I behaved in a way I was proud of – those moments when you feel authentic, assertive, and effective.  A moment that still stands out:  After facilitating a meeting with the Executive Directors of Milwaukee’s nonprofit community, one leader approached me and asked, “Are you sure you’ve only been working a few years?!?”

It feels good to be at our best.  And since those early days in the workplace I’ve thought a lot about who I want to be as a professional.  What I find most exciting is that I get to CREATE my professional identity.  We all have innate temperaments, personalities and strengths, but an identity is not something that happens to us.  We behave in such a way to create who we want to be.  At home.  At work.  And in each role we play.

That’s why Pearce Communications decided it was time to create a learning experience that explores who we are and who we want to be at work.  Creating Your Professional Identity is a new course designed to consider three areas in a person’s professional life:

  1. You: Tools to become more self aware
  2. You and Others: Tools to relate well to others
  3. You Up Front:  Tools to put your best foot forward

Whether you’ve been in the workplace 6 months or 30 years, consider what type of professional identity you’ve created for yourself.  I’ll venture to guess, like me, you’ll find a person in progress.

Want to know more? Visit our webpage where you will find a full course outline and contact information should you want to consider offering this course at your organization.


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