VIDEO: Put Passion in Your Pocket When You Argue

Passion may hurt you more than help you in your next argument.

That’s a conclusion of new research into persuasion by a pair of university academics and reported by Shankar Vedantam of NPR. Passion, often highly prized by leaders, may actually work against that leader if he or she is trying to reach out to someone who may not agree with them.

This new research into persuasion really is confirmation of what all good leaders do when seeking consensus; they first seek to understand what the other is thinking and why they are thinking it.

To become more persuasive consider these three questions:

  1. How does the other person see the world? This question addresses the other person’s value system.
  2. How can I frame my argument in terms my opposite understands? Relate your values to the others. When you scratch the surface many people can agree on what is good for others – love, security, opportunity and integrity.
  3. How can we find common ground? Know what you know about the other person you have a foundation upon which to build your argument. Focus on the values the other person holds and relate them to values you hold.

First posted on SmartBrief on 9/23/2016

Failure to Accept Responsibility Is a Failure to Lead (HBR)

It was caused by forces out of our control. That line is not from a 1950s sci-fi movie in reference to aliens taking over the world. Rather it seems to be the assessment of many senior leaders in the financial services industry as to the causes of the economic meltdown.

“Nobody was prepared for this” is what Robert Rubin, a senior official at Citigroup, told the Wall Street Journal in 2008. “Maybe there are things, in context of the facts [the board] knew then, we should have done differently,” Rubin admits. Not acting “differently,” however, caused Citigroup to lose $20 billion over the past year and to receive $45 billion in federal assistance. Although Rubin turned down his 2007 bonus, he has earned $115 million from Citigroup since joining the firm in 1999. As for “regrets,” Rubin told the Journal, “I guess I don’t think of it quite that way… If you look back from now, there’s an enormous amount that needs to be learned.”

One thing that may need to be learned (or re-learned) is a lesson in responsibility. It rests on three principles.

Be aware. Every leader needs to take a moment to drink up the action. You need to step back from the day to day flow and assess what is happening. Acknowledge what is going well as well as what is going poorly. Always be aware that things are not always as they seem and be prepared for surprises.

Accept consequences. Few executives need schooling in taking credit, but too many need some reminding about what happens when things go wrong. Accepting the consequences for failure is not a sign of weakness; it’s a measure of leadership. While no one likes to fail, the sooner you accept what happened, the sooner you can move forward.

Resolve to improve. Some crises are too great for the current leadership to continue. We are seeing replacements of CEOs in nearly every business sector. But the majority of senior executives have their jobs, or new ones, and so they will need to discover ways to improve things. That starts with a resolution to make a positive difference. In crisis it means sacrificing short-term gains, e.g. bonus compensation, for long-term growth.

Behavioral scientists teach us that the first step in recovery is an acknowledgement of responsibility. But sadly too few executives are holding themselves accountable. This is not only bad for the future of our economy. It sets a poor example to younger managers and those about to become managers. Forget what you might have learned in school (or from your parents), these executives seem to say, do what you want to do and deny responsibility.

“The price of greatness,” said Winston Churchill, “is responsibility.” Something the all of us facing tough times need to remember.

First posted on 12/02/2008

Every Leader Needs a Laugh (HBR)

One of my favorite parts of the Harvard Business Review is the cartoon section. Of course, the articles make the magazine distinguished, but the cartoons make me laugh. Every month the aptly named “Strategic Humor” section is what I turn to first. In these tough times I enjoy cartoons that regularly puncture the self-inflated bubble of our management culture.

Senior managers are a special target; everyone loves to see them taken down a peg. Also satirized are silly “feed the monster” practices that do nothing but waste time. But even ordinary employees are fair game especially when they play the “suck up” games with higher-ups. Here are some of my recent favorites and some lessons they teach.

Efficiency is in the eye of the beholder. That’s the theme of a cartoon depicting a staff meeting of mice at the office to which the presenting mouse points to a graphic depicting a downturn, “And here the cat was away…” Another cartoon featuring a boss asking a stone-faced subordinate “Well, then, when would be a good time to talk about your procrastination?” [November 2008 Harvard Business Review]

You can spin anything. “By golly, Jones, I like your optimism. I didn’t know we had a fifth quarter,” exclaims a puffed up looking senior executive time. So true! Haven’t we all been in meetings where subordinates will say anything to their boss just to make him happy? And worse, the boss is too clueless to recognize the lies. [October 2008]

Talent is overrated. “First off, let me allay your fears of being overqualified” says a manager to an employee. In another cartoon, a manager hands a performance evaluation to a debonairly attired employee who replies nonchalantly, “I never read my reviews.” The caption to a cartoon featuring employees performing song and dance routines says, “We’ve invested heavily – if not always wisely–in talent.” [June 2008]

Employees are disposable. This is a common theme. “Hey don’t worry. It’s a layoff. It’s not as if you did anything wrong,” chimes an oversized boss to a diminutive and sniveling employee. In another cartoon another laid off employee is seen carrying out his belongings to which he mutters, “More grist for my blog.” [October 2008]

Like it or lump it. Everyone has stories about incentive plans. For example, a boss explains to an erstwhile employee seated before him. “Certainly we have an employee incentive program. We call it payday.” One employee complains to another, “I’d quit, but the company can only afford a wooden parachute.” And finally, an employee pushing a shopping cart is shown the door to the stock room. The caption reads, “How’s this for a severance package? Five minutes to grab all you can get.” [March 2008]

What so many, if not all of the cartoons, have in common is a jaded view, and healthy irreverence, for ill-conceived management practices and too self important executives. And for that reason, I will go on reading them for the laughter they provide, and the insights they deliver. Good stuff for these hard times in which we work.



First posted on on 12/29/2008

VIDEO: How Can I Help You Do Your Job Better?

A question employees love to hear: How can I help you do your job better?

That is one of the most potent questions in management for a senior executive to put to an employee. Offering such assistance is recognition by the executive that his job is to help others do their jobs better.

When you hire people who are motivated to stretch themselves to reach goals for themselves and their teams, providing support for them stokes the fire of their engines.

Failure to acknowledge them, or worse, failure to support them with resources, is what is demotivating. Not words of praise.

A leader who believes his or her job is to help others is a leader who knows what it takes to inspire others to do their best work.

First posted on SmartBrief on 8/19/2016

Leadership Lesson from My Mother-in-Law

“They gave us a whole can of soda” was how my late mother-in-law explained a recent experience when her plane was kept on the ground an extra hour for de-icing. Monica was not complaining; she was framing the delay as a positive. This veteran traveler knows that delays are inevitable.

My mother-in-law’s attitude might serve as a good reminder for anyone who is seeking ways to cope with forces that seem to threaten the economic stability we have come to count on. Falsely, as it turns out — but nonetheless many of us may be tempted to think that the recession is a personal attack on us. Recessions as severe as this are equal-opportunity levelers; that is, most of us suffer.

Managers might do well to keep this in mind as they seek to keep their teams engaged. Our culture is one of aspiration; it sparks our quest for improvement as well as our desire to innovate. Fueling that aspiration becomes all the more critical when attitudes and resources are compromised. So here are some ways to keep aspiration alive while dealing with hard realities.

Know what you cannot do. This part is easy. None of us can make our customers buy our products or services. We can wish for the economy to improve, but we cannot make it so. Therefore, we must accept what is given us and find ways to do what we can do.

Know what you can do. This part is tough. But as legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, put it, “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” Think about how you can prepare your team to think and act differently, in light of tough economic conditions.

Know that you must execute. Lucy Kellaway, writing in the Economist’sWorld in 2009,” says that while salaries and perks are diminished, there will be an increased focus on execution, that is, getting the work done. Managers must keep this idea paramount as they nudge their teams forward.

As much as managers may seek to bolster team spirits, they must do so in the spirit of “eyes wide open,” being cognizant of what individuals on the team are going through. Some folks may be laid off; the rest may wonder if they are next. “Rah-rah” does not work. But seeking to take control of what you can control is a sign that no matter the economic climate, you are seeking to make a positive difference.

Accepting reality is no excuse for giving up. We may decide to abandon a project for lack of funds, or even a change in market conditions. That decision is not the same as giving up the company; perhaps the project will be revived in the future when the market swings upward once again. Rather, it is an acceptance that a change has occurred — and that we in turn must change our expectations.

First posted on 12/23/2008

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 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 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