VIDEO: Listening Is a Sign of Respect

Listening is an important behavior that many of us fail to do well enough.

We fail to listen not because we don’t hear but rather because we don’t care to listen to what we are hearing. In short, we don’t like what we are hearing, so we tune out.

Listening is an act of respect; it connotes that one individual cares enough about another to listen to what he or she has to say. And so when there is no listening there is no respect.

A leader who demonstrates respect is one worthy of following.

First posted on Smart Brief on 8/05/2016

Why You Need to Be a Happier Manager (HBR)

Take note, managers: Happiness can be passed from person to person, even from strangers.

A groundbreaking study by researchers at Harvard and the University of California San Diego demonstrates in the words of Nicholas Christakis, M.D. “Emotions have a collective existence – they are not just an individual phenomenon.” He told the New York Times that “Your happiness depends not just on your choices and actions, but also on the choices and actions of people you don’t even know who are one, two or three degrees removed from you.”

What this means for managers is that their actions, positive or negative, can influence the emotional health of others. Common sense may have told us this but this study affirms a principle of positive organizational scholarship, in fact that happiness can be “contagious.” This finding could not have come at a better time. With the economic travails grinding away the edges of even the most optimistic managers, this research may give impetus to managers who want to do something to cheer up their teams. Here’s how:

Resolve to cheer. It is a leader’s job to spread confidence. Optimism is critical. While few of us can do anything to affect business conditions, we can control what occurs on our watch, in our organizations. Therefore, managers owe it to their people to look on the bright side, when possible. Not naively, but resolutely. Optimism is not an excuse to be oblivious; it is an obligation of leadership.

Pick your moments. Too much optimism and good cheer, especially in the wake of layoffs or serious downturns, may seem foolhardy. And, in fact, may be perceived as such. That’s why the manager has to choose her moments carefully. When it comes to radiating optimism, you don’t do it when layoffs are announced or poor earnings reports are published. Rather you do it when you think people need that extra boost, that extra bucking up.

Keep on doing it. The story of legendary explorer, Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated but heroic journey to the Antarctic is well known, in particular that every man with him was saved. What is less known is exactly how much attention to morale Shackleton paid. He shared his rations with the sick, ensured everyone had proper clothing, and spread confidence as best he could. My favorite story is that of Shackleton skiing out over the ice to bring hot tea to men returning from a periodic supply trek to their abandoned ship, Endurance.

What’s more, there may also be a business incentive in happiness. James Fowler, co-author of the study, told the Times, “if your friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket.” In recessionary times that should be music to the ears of any manager seeking ways to improve morale. While happiness will not make up for real (or perceived) shortcomings in compensation, a happy workplace, as researchers for generations have demonstrated, does make coming to work a more pleasant experience. Productivity even improves, and so too does engagement.

Happiness will not save a failing enterprise. That will require gumption and grit, as well as a strong business plan and marketable products and services. But an elixir for keeping organization in good spirits may be a dollop of managerial cheerfulness.

First posted on HBR.org 12/08/2009

 

VIDEO: Influencing People Where They Work

Visiting with employees in their work space is a good habit that not only shows respect but also allows the leader the opportunity to get an up close and personal look at how the work is going.

At the same time, a leader’s time is valuable; she must ration it carefully so here are some suggestions for when to visit a subordinate. So here are four reasons to do it:

  1. To clear the air. People who work together have disagreements. While it often falls to subordinates to try and smooth things over, when the boss makes the first move and goes to the employee to do it, it conveys a sense of “we’re all in this together.”
  2. To ensure clarity. Some issues require face to face interaction as a means of checking for understanding. The boss’s actual presence may encourage good dialogue that allows each party to ask questions.
  3. To deliver bad news. No one ever likes to give bad news, so when a boss makes a point of going to the employee directly on his turf to give him unpleasant news about a project cancellation, a budget cut or a headcount reduction, it communicates that the cares about the people on his team.
  4. To celebrate. Visits from the boss need not be reserved for tough times; good times are an occasion for celebration. When a boss visits the team at their workplace to congratulate them for a job well done, it’s a good thing. Employees remember it.

First posted on Smart Brief on 6.24.2016

Managing Big Egos (HBR)

Can you have a team comprised of too many smart people?

“Sometimes too many geniuses is a problem,” said New York Times columnist David Brooks, speaking in early February on PBS’s Charlie Rose. Brooks noted that some of the difficulties that the Obama administration was having initially on his economic and foreign policy teams was caused by the proliferation of so many smart people. While Brooks alluded to “brains,” he was not simply speaking about intelligence, but also about strong-willed people. These are folks who are more inclined to believe in the strength of their own ideas rather than the ideas of colleagues.

Every successful coach knows that a team of stars is not a team unless some of those stars are willing to channel their formidable talents to team rather than individual excellence. The Four-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs are a prime example of superstars merging ego and talent toward championships rather than individual stardom. Their coach, Greg Popovich, has been masterful in getting stars and role players to meld as one team in the quest for NBA titles.

A manager boasting such a collection of talented people is fortunate indeed, but unless she finds a way to bring her team together around common goals, the team will be ineffectual.

We don’t come across as we think we do — and we’re not as good judges of others as we assume, either.

To that end, here are some suggestions:

Set big goals. Nothing motivates talent like a big goal. Talented people love nothing better than tackling big problems. The more difficult the obstacle, the more engaged they become. Therefore, put the goal before the team. Ask them how to solve it. And then challenge them to do it. Big goals are common in design, engineering and research sectors; innovation fuels their drive.

Rub egos together. Smart people like being around other smart people. They especially enjoy proving how much smarter they are than the others. So use this ego to the team’s advantage. Competition for scarce resources like funding and manpower will keep people on their toes. Treat everyone fairly — but not necessarily equally. That is, the more one achieves, the more recognition he will receive.

Keep team goals first. Work to ensure that rivalries are achievement-oriented, not personal. Bruised egos are fine; hurt feelings are not. Make certain that everyone continues to feel part of the team.

Sometimes you need to invite a star to leave, however. Not because she is a malcontent or because she is causing trouble but because she needs to move on for the good of the organization as well as herself.

Such talents may need to move into management, where they can learn to build and sustain their own teams. Or they may be destined for senior management and need to spend time early in their careers as staff assistants to senior leaders. The military routinely assigns promising junior and mid-level officers to work as aides to senior command officers. Dwight Eisenhower, Colin Powell, and David Petraeus — to name three — all benefitted from working in this system. Powell also served as a military attaché to Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger during the Reagan Administration.

Getting a team to work together may be more art than science. And having a team of especially talented people may be a manager’s gift — but unless she can harness the individuals to work collectively, it’s a wasted gift. The individuals may remain like uncut diamonds, rough and unpolished, rather than glittering as jewels in a singular crown.

First posted in HBR.org on 2.19.2009

VIDEO: Vision, Mission and Values

Sometimes we can be too clever and in the process lose sight of what it is we are trying to achieve.

Such is the case with vision, mission and values statements. Every organization needs to have them, but in trying to craft them, we sometimes overshoot the mark and end up writing something that sounds to good to be true.

Toward that end, here are three ways to define them.

  • Vision is where you want to go. Vision is an act of becoming. It is intended to be aspirational.
  • Mission is what you do to get there. Mission is the work that your organization performs.
  • Values are what hold you together. Your values are your belief system. They define organizational purpose as well as individual conduct.

Vision. Mission. Values. Three words that can help keep people focused on what needs doing as well as mindful of how they do it.

First posted on Smart Brief on 7.8.2016

Put Positivity to Work (HBR)

A colleague of mine was talking about the challenge of getting employees to look on the bright side — or as he put it viewing the “glass as half-full rather than as half-empty.” Encouraging employees in good times can be tricky because employees sense you are seeking to manipulate them. But in bad times it is downright daunting. The signs of economic decline are pervasive. With revenues dropping, companies closing, and employment numbers rising, it is hard to convey any sense of optimism. Doing so can make a manager seem foolish rather than well-intentioned.

Yet getting employees to focus on the positive is essential. Positivism is an orientation toward what you can do rather than what you cannot do. In management, positivism is more than attitude; it is initiative. For example, a front-line employee cannot control corporate cash flow, but can control the effort she puts into her job. This sense of control stimulates more positive feelings because the individual can influence outcomes. So how can a manager encourage feelings of positivism? Here are three ways:

Never sugarcoat reality. Employees know things are bad. If you seek to hold back information they will assume the worst, not the better. The company “grapevine” thrives on rumors, especially bad ones. Talk frankly about the business and emphasize an employee’s role as a contributor. I use that word deliberately. Address employees as contributors, not as costs.

Challenge people. Now is a wonderful time to re-think the business. Invite employees to come up with ideas for improvements. Give them the authority to turn good ideas into action steps. Slow economies provide time to reflect on ways to re-engineer processes and products. Pull out the proverbial plans for what you would do if you had more time and resources. Ask your team to see how they might implement them; you have the time, perhaps you can find the resources.

Look ahead. The downturn will not last forever. This is the time to think about who is capable of leading the organization. Simon Callow, the managing director of Personnel Decisions International (UK), said organizations “must focus on leaders who can guide them through these turbulent times.” Such leadership is not reserved for those in the C-suite. It will fall to the men and women who demonstrate by virtue of their ideas and their actions that they can help their companies survive, and even thrive, now.

Cold, hard reality reminds us that thinking positively will not save a business, or an employee’s job. Plenty of well-intentioned, hard-working and optimistically minded individuals have lost their jobs in the automotive, financial services and pharmaceutical sectors through no fault of their own. But even in good times, this can be the case — an employee’s company can always be sold or downsized for reasons beyond his personal control.

Dwelling on the negatives is a spiral to nowhere; it leads to nihilism. Encouraging employees to focus on the positives is an act of leadership. It shows a faith in individuals as well as a faith in the organization. “Think positively and masterfully, with confidence and faith,” urged World War I ace and aviation entrepreneur, Eddie Rickenbacker, “and life becomes more secure, more fraught with action, richer in experience and achievement.” That is an attitude worth maintaining and nurturing especially when times are so severe.

First posted on HBR.org on 3/02/2009

VIDEO: Influencing People Who Don’t Report to You

Maybe the toughest thing in management to do is persuade others to go along with you when you have no authority over them.

If you find yourself in this situation, consider these five action steps.

  1. Do your homework. Find out what your colleagues in different functions think about the initiative.
  2. Make your case. Demonstrate how the initiative will make things better in the long run. Acknowledge short-term pain for longer-term gain. Argue the business case.
  3. Listen, listen, listen. Pay attention to what your colleagues are telling you.
  4. Push hard. If this initiative is important and if senior management is counting on you to drive it through, and then keep on it.
  5. Be there to follow up. This is critical. Make it known up front that you will be available to help implement the initiative.

First posted on SmartBrief on 6/10/2016

Help Your Team Build Resilience (HBR)

“Every day you read what a terrible age we live in. Well, I’ve heard that all my life,” said Horton Foote in a 1988 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. “I don’t think any age is any worse. There are just new [and different] problems is all.” Foote, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, died recently at the age of 92. Many of his plays drew upon the memories of preceding generations of relatives, who inhabited the small towns and by-ways of Texas. Foote and his family had certainly seen hard times, such as war, drought and the Great Depression as well as personal loss. Some could not cope with their losses, but some, like Foote, did.

Foote’s words, now twenty years old, remind us of the resilience of the human condition. We are very capable of enduring hardship. And for the most part we bounce back. Managers need to kindle this spirit of resilience in the workplace. Here are some suggestions to perpetuate it:

Gain perspective. The magnitude of this recession is unprecedented to anyone born after 1945. Millions of people have lost their jobs and many more will do so. Yet, if the past is any indicator, most companies will survive and new ones will be born. More importantly, we as a people will persevere.

Show resolve. If you have a job, and the majority does, apply yourself to helping your organization succeed. Management and employees need to work jointly. Employees are not beholden to management or vice versa. Each is beholden to the other.

Share stories. Foote was a gifted storyteller. Many of his plays dealt with adversity and loss. The heroes of his dramas learned how to survive. Managers can borrow from a playwright’s example by collecting the stories of people who are making it. It may be possible to turn a portion of regular staff meetings into story time. Not as a means of kvetching but as a means of coping; and, more importantly, as means of learning from the example of others.

Nurturing resilience is not simply an exercise in making people feel better. It is a way to keep them engaged in the work. When a manager devotes time to share his stories, he demonstrates care and concern. It also encourages employees to feel better disposed toward working for that person. In a world of increasing uncertainty, working for a boss whom you trust is a plus.

This resilience is good for the organization, but it is also good for individuals, especially those who may one day lose their jobs. If they have made it through trying times in their current job, they can do the same in the next job. Such fortitude may also keep their spirits up as they look for that new job.

In Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies, a young boy is curious about the past of a recovering alcoholic country-western singer, Mac Sledge, who has moved in with the boy’s mother. As Mac (played by Robert Duvall) strums his guitar, the boy asks him if he thinks he will ever be rich again. “Well, I tell ya what, Sonny, I don’t lay awake nights worrying about it.” Mac then sings and calls out chords on his guitar. A music lesson proceeds, just as life does.

First posted on HBR.org on 3.09.2009

VIDEO: Coaching by Flash Cards

If coaching is to succeed, it must be simple and specific. That’s why I am a big believer in flash cards. Maybe this goes back to my childhood when my patient mother used them to help me learn phonetics, words and arithmetic. You can even make a master flash card for dealing with complex problems by doing the following:

Square the circle. Focus on the core problem and its root causes, not peripheral ones that may be clouding the picture.

Determine action steps. Be specific about what you can do as well as what you cannot do.

Move forward. Take action when called for.

Flash cards can serve as your prompt to think through a problem, as well as to take action in a deliberate manner.

First posted on Smart Brief on 4.29.16

Ask Yourself Questions So the Whole Team Learns(HBR)

One of the exercises I put myself through before promoting a new book is to interview myself about what I have written. No, I am not delusional to the point of self-flattery. My wife makes sure of that.

The point of the self-interview is to look at your work from a different point of view. This process is not simply for authors but for anyone in a leadership position who is working on a project that will have impact on the organization. And if the self interview is done as the project develops (as opposed to being finished like a book) you can make changes as you progress.

As a creator, you are thinking about what you are developing. As a leader you must focus on the end result, that is, the effect it is having on others. For example, if you are in product development, the process is important, but what matters is how customers react to your product. How it makes them feel when using it. Same goes for someone in IT. You must have discipline in your network planning but users care about what your system can do for them in terms of managing the business.

Interviewing yourself is not as easy as it may sound. You want to avoid questions about action steps; that is narrative (good for stories but not for analysis). You want to focus on process and outcome. Stepping back and assuming the distance of someone else is good discipline. Here are three questions to ask:

Why are we doing this project? This question provokes a reiteration of purpose and mission. What you are doing and why? Most projects begin with such statements but so often the statement gets diluted due to distraction or misdirection. Reaffirming the mission is important.

What do we want our end-users to say about our outcome? Marketers use this question to prod developer to focus on what customers need and want rather than what developers want to produce. Sometimes there are reasons for deviation. New applications, new technologies and new competitors may alter original intentions. Nothing wrong with that as long as you are aware of them and adjust the project (and its mission) accordingly.

What are we learning? Project teams often employ existing best practices at the outset, but as the project develops you learn more about the team’s capabilities as well as available resources. By asking this question you can apply what you have more tactically, as well as strategically. Consider the obstacles you have overcome; they may lead you to avoid similar setbacks as you progress.

The self-interview can be expanded to include your team. Try the exercise yourself and then ask your team do the same, either individually or collectively. You can compare answers. Then, to borrow the “feed forward concept” pioneered by my friend, Marshall Goldsmith, you can use the self-interview questions to ensure that you are holding to the project intentions, milestones and budget.

Leaders who subject their work (or even themselves) to self interviews are those who are willing to face up to shortcomings. Better to face them as the project unfolds than when it is complete.

When you ask questions as you go along, you are seeking to influence your outcomes more directly. You may come to greater understanding of customer needs and make adjustments. Or very often you learn more about the capabilities and competencies of your team and can utilize their services more effectively. Such awareness may not only lead to better outcomes, but also better use of people and resources.

First posted on HBR.org 3.21.2009