Decoding the Workplace: A book review by Bob Morris

Decoding WorkplaceDecoding the Workplace: 50 Keys to Understanding People in Organizations
John Ballard
Praeger/An Imprint of ABC-CLO

A brilliant explanation of why not all messages sent are received and not all messages received are understood

Perhaps the single greatest challenge that business leaders face is to establish and then sustain a workplace environment within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. The challenge is greater in organizations whose leaders mistakenly believe that social purpose and profitability are mutually exclusive. On the contrary. It is no coincidence that most of the companies annually ranked among those most highly admired and best to work for are also among companies that are most profitable and have the greatest cap value in their industry.

I agree with John Ballard that the most effective leaders decode their workplace so that they can understand the messages they receive from those entrusted to their care. As Ballard explains, “I use ‘keys’ as a metaphor. Keys unlock things; the right key can help decode a program; a person with a key can unlock and see what others perhaps cannot. Keys can help to decipher the world around you, and suggest explanations, interpretations, or solutions. The concepts and ideas you will find in these pages are indeed keys…The keys highlighted are those that I have found especially useful in decoding the workplace.”

My own view is that the 50 keys Ballard highlights in combination with related information, insights, and counsel serve to create a context, a frame of reference, within which leaders can make sense of the hundreds of “messages” (both verbal and non-verbal) that they receive each day. Those who do not “read” other people correctly are certain to fail as leaders and managers. (Note: With regard to non-verbal communication, major research studies have established beyond doubt that, in face-to-face interaction, body language and tone of voice determine more than 80% of impact; what is actually said determines less than 20% of impact.) I presume to offer a key of my own in the form of a metaphor: It is impossible to drive a vehicle to a desired destination if all of its windows are covered with black paint.

These are among the “keys” that caught my eye, accompanied by an annotation:

o “Promotions and opportunities are not based on you and your performance but on perceptions of you and your performance.” (Page 24)
Comment: False perceptions can often be the most dangerous realities.

o “Be aware, as best you can, of the impressions that you create.” (25)
Comment: Ask at least three people who know you well and really care about you to suggest three adjectives that best describe how you come across to others. If you don’t have three who care enough about you to be candid, you have serious relationship problems that must be immediately addressed.

o “Unwritten rules apply only to behaviors — not to what you think.” (48)
Comment: Defying such rules, however, can create all manner of problems. Pick your fights or others will do it for you.

o “Ultimately much [if not most] of what you learn about surviving and succeeding in the organization is from ‘trial and error.'” (71)
Comment: Also keep in mind that most wounds and most limits are self-inflicted.

o “Not all groups in the workplace that are called teams actually are teams; many are just work groups.” (79)
Comment: The value of a team is determined by the value of what it produces in collaboration.

o “Differences between what an organization preaches and what it does could reveal the real core of an organization’s culture.” (95)
Comment: If you often dread going to work, if you do not frequently brag about your associates, if you don’t want family members and friends to work with them, that tells you about all you need to know about your organization’s culture.

o “A leader inspires others to go above and beyond the normal requirements of the job.” (105)
Comment: Leaders don’t motivate others; they inspire others to be self-motivated but only if there is mutual trust and respect.

Early on, Ballard observes, “This book focuses on essentials to help you understand the workplace, the concepts I consider to be essential to understanding yourself and others. I present them from my perspective, as seen through my lens — as a management scholar and as a manager and consultant. This book is not a primer on management or organizational behavior per se.” Quite true. Think of it, rather, as a primer on the basics of human nature within a workplace environment. He shares what he has learned from what he has experienced and observed. Self-discovery is a journey, a process, not an ultimate destination. Decades ago, my grandmother pointed out to me that I have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. “Use them accordingly.”

Not all locks can be opened with a key. It is possible but unlikely that you need all or even most of the 50 keys that John Ballard provides. (Over a period of years, you may need all of them at one time or another. Add them to your business acumen “keychain.”) You may also have a lock or two for which he provides no keys in this book.

As you work your way through the book, decide what is most relevant to your current needs, interests, and concerns. Absorb and digest what he shares. After about a month, re-read the book or at least the passages you have highlighted. (Shrewd readers will have a highlighter near at hand as well as a lined notebook in which to record comments, questions, page references, etc.) The more self-understanding you gain over time, the more effective you will be in most relationships at work and elsewhere. If you embrace the idea of observing and listening at least 80% of the time during conversations, you will become a more complete human being. Begin the journey today. If it is already underway, Bon Voyage!

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