Put Aside Platitudes (HBR)

“Our people are our most important resource!” That statement or some variant of it can be found in nearly every corporate mission or values statement. Sometimes employees file past posters emblazoned with the statement on their way to all-employee meetings where headcount reductions are announced.

Please, enough already. If senior managers truly valued their employees, then Scott Adams would still be working for the phone company instead of drawing Dilbert, and The Office would have been canceled after the first episode. And hundreds of thousands of people recently laid off in the automotive, financial services, pharmaceutical, and real estate industries would be gainfully employed.

Headcount reductions are among the first-trigger moves that companies employ when the economy softens, which is why repeating that hollow mantra that employees matter most during an economic downturn is pure poppycock. Repeating it to employees, as many senior managers do, is as disingenuous as it is de-motivating to the people who remain with the company. (For how long is anyone’s guess).

So instead of saying people matter during a downturn, prove it. Here are three ways:

Stop pretending. Economic downturns produce anxiety in the workforce. Daily newscasts or hourly web updates chart the downward effect on markets, industries and companies. Pretending that bad news will stay away is a losing strategy, yet many corporate managers do try to avoid the subject. Be straight with people; explain what the downturn means and the implications on your business. And if you don’t know something, admit it, but try and find out. Sooner than later.

Encourage personal decision-making. Give employees more say in how they do their jobs. Managers determine the “what do to”; but when employees have a say in how they do the job, they feel more engaged. Loss of control over one’s fate is vexing in a downturn, but if employees feel they have some say over how they do their work, they feel more in control.

Invest in employees. Training and development are typically cut during down economies. That’s too bad because often the acquisition of new skills and the development of untapped talents are the factors that will help the company survive the downturn. Sometimes downturns bring lulls in the work flow. Use such time wisely by grooming your talent base.

When times are tough, employees want to know their bosses are down on the floor with them, not perched high in an office tower. In a study by the Center for Creative Leadership (October 2007), nearly 100% of managers surveyed said that collaboration was essential. Yet less than half of respondents said collaboration occurred.

That’s too bad because collaboration might produce one thing that senior leaders really need right now — commitment. When employees know the facts, and believe that senior leaders are being straight with them, they may pay more attention to their jobs. They may be more willing to commit to their work instead of worrying (too much) about when the ax will fall on them.

First posted on HBR.org 8/22/2008

Three C’s of Dealing with Underperformers (HBR)

“Since my last report, this employee has reached rock bottom and has started to dig.” 
“This employee is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot.” 
“Works well when under constant supervision and cornered like a rat in a trap.”
Alleged Quotes from Performance Evaluations

Performance evaluations such as these, true or not, always draw laughs, chiefly because we know these people. For all that’s written about stupid bosses, we’d be remiss if we didn’t address the issues of poorly performing employees, too. In fact, some employee misbehavior is what drives once-well-intended bosses around the bend.

The challenge for managers is what to do with under performers. It’s easiest to ignore them and in fact that’s what usually happens. Again and again in large organizations, peak efficiency is undermined because companies retain people who are clearly not doing their jobs. One reason under performers hang on is because their supervisors fear confrontation. Other times, the employee has a connection to an executive in high places. But ignoring the problem is not bliss; it’s stupidity, one that undermines the integrity of the organization. 

Here are three things you can do with an under performer:

Converse. Before you address the issue of under performance, you need to find out what’s going on in the employee’s life. Personal problems such as a sick child, a pending divorce or an ailing parent will distract an employee from devoting full attention to work. If there is such a problem, and the employee has a history of good performance, find a way to work around the issue. Those employees are worth saving.

Coach. Keep in mind that often employees under perform because they lack the necessary tools and or training. It’s the manager’s job to provide on-the-job coaching. The process is very straightforward. Discuss the issue so that the employee understands where he’s falling short. Ask him to devise solutions for improvement. Talk about those solutions and agree on a timetable for improvement. And always hold the person accountable by following up.

Can. If there’s no improvement (and outside issues are not relevant), then you must come to the conclusion that the individual is not right for the job. He or she should be encouraged to find another position for which he or she may be more qualified. (Note: don’t pawn an under performer off on another department; that simply kicks the issue over to another boss.)

The first two options are relatively easy, but terminating an individual is not. Tread carefully and work in sync with your human resources department. Otherwise you could find yourself on the wrong end of lawsuit. While it’s never easy confronting individuals about poor performance, tolerating it is a failure of leadership.

First posted on HBR.org 9/10/2008

VIDEO: 3 Things a Leader Can Do to Slow Down Time

We are so busy doing what we do that we don’t take enough time to assess where we are now — and where we want to go in the future. It becomes the leader’s job to discipline self and team to slow things down a bit and take stock.

Here are things leaders can do to focus themselves and their teams on the challenges of the moment as well as the opportunities of tomorrow.

  1. Think deeply. Make time to think about what it happening around you.
  2. Communicate clearly. People are looking for direction.
  3. Provoke action. Mobilizing others for common cause is a leader’s chief responsibility.

Thinking, communicating and provoking: Three simple words that can help you channel your leadership energies.

Note: This video was inspired by a book jacket endorsement quote by author/historian S.C. Gwynne in praise of the book “Tribe,” by Sebastian Junger.

First posted on Smartbrief.com 5/05/2017

Help! My Team Thinks I Am a Bad Leader (HBR)

“We’re shocked, shocked you even get it, pal” smirks the woman into the conference phone thinking that her boss on the other end of the line cannot hear her. Her colleagues seated around the table chuckle knowingly. But when a young staffer pokes his head into the conference room to say the mute button on the phone is not working, the lighthearted mood evaporates. “Bye, bye bonus!” mutters a colleague.

While this scene is part of a Xerox commercial, the context is real. Many of us would like to tell off our bosses.

But take a step back for a moment. What if you are the person being insulted, held up for ridicule in front of your team? What should you do? Well, there are two things you don’t do. 

First, you do not over-react, insulting those who have insulted you. That merely puts you on the same level as your direct reports. Second, you do not ignore the situation. Reflect on the situation and consider your next steps. Thinking and planning are critical. 

Specifically, do three things:

Examine the context. Consider what is going on in the workplace. Is work going well, or are people feeling overwhelmed? Venting at the boss is a typical reaction to stress that may result from over work or a feeling of helplessness. Perhaps the business is doing poorly and people are feeling nervous and tense about their situation. The boss becomes an easy target.

Consider the source. Not all employees are worth their weight in gold. The person who insulted you may be a malcontent or wiseacre. Or it may be the best performing employee you have. Consider what they say and why. You’re entitled to have a conversation with the individual to find out why they feel the way they do. If their grievance is legitimate, you must talk it out and find some common ground.

Address your team. As painful as this situation is, it need not be the end of your management career, even with the people you are managing. You can turn the moment of criticism into a learning opportunity. Think about what you need to do to win back their confidence. Be open and honest about your failings. Ask for input from them to make things better.

Most importantly, share ownership of the issue. Once you bare your soul and own up to the problem, it’s time for your team to demonstrate accountability. It’s easy to throw stones, but it is harder to do when you are the one who must fix the broken windows. You’re still the boss so you are right to demand responsibility from your team. Be specific about what you expect from them and make it clear that you will be holding them accountable for results. Those who don’t pull their weight may need to find work elsewhere.

None of us is above making mistakes. How we deal with mistakes, even those that may threaten our credibility, is the measure of our leadership. Ignoring the situation is tantamount to giving permission to your team to do whatever they want to do. Taking joint ownership of the situation is what leaders do.

If you, or a boss you know, has been insulted by his/her team, tell me about how you dealt with the situation.

First posted on HBR.org 9/15/2008

Mea Culpa: 3 Lessons Learned

Sometimes you don’t know until you know.

That’s how I have been feeling in the wake of a post I wrote for Forbes.com about the incident that occurred on the National Mall between students from an all-boys Catholic school and a Native American elder.

The piece generated a lot of page views as well as ire directed at me. Most critics wanted me to apologize for my errors, and so let me talk about what I have learned from this episode.

One, don’t rush to judgment. The viral video that showed the confrontation between Nathan Phillips and the students bothered me. But I did not decide to write anything until I had heard Phillips’ side of the story. It turns out he gave varying accounts of the story and so some of what he said was not accurate. Additionally, more video appeared depicting the incident, notably showing that the boys had been provoked by the Black Hebrew Israelites.

Two, avoid criticizing kids.My intention was to call out the bad behavior, but I ended up directing scorn on the boys. I was wrong to cite them, frankly. As teens they deserved my discretion and I did not show it.

Three, apologize.I am sorry for focusing on the kids. Just as I was asking for “adult supervision,” I should have acted as an adult and withheld criticism of the boys.

Of this incident columnist David Brooks of the New York Times wrote, “The crucial thing is that the nation’s culture is now enmeshed in a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control. In this technology, stereotype is more salient than persons. In this technology, a single moment is more important than a life story. In this technology, a main activity is proving to the world that your type is morally superior to the other type.”

The sad part is that we do not spend enough time listening to one another. We live in bubbles of our own making. Too often we socialize with people who think and act like us and even watch the same cable TV news shows. So, when we encounter a different point of view, we react negatively, regarding that person as unworthy of our respect. I am cognizant of such behavior, and yet I know I sometimes fall prey to such negativity myself.

While rhetoric at times can be hostile, I want to quote the advice of two former presidents.  Bill Clinton said in his First Inaugural Address, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” Ronald Reagan said, “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.” 


VIDEO: Passion for Your Purpose

Passion is energy and engagement for people and the work they do. Passion as an emotion is a valuable trait when channeled appropriately.

Being focused on helping others understand and doing good work is positive passion. Losing your cool when things go wrong is negative passion. The challenge is to channel the positive to ameliorate or eliminate the negative.

Investing in employees with training and development leads to caring about customers. In turn, the company is committed to giving back to the community.

Passion becomes the catalyst that galvanizes individuals to commit to their own development as well as to deliver products and services that customers need. Passion is a powerful driver when applied to purpose. It is the personal commitment to making a positive difference!

Note: This video owes its inspiration to the work of my colleague Alaina Love.

First posted on SmartBrief.com 4/21/2017

VIDEO: Take a Hard Look in the Mirror

Change is easy if we are not the one altering our thinking or our behaviors. But within organizations, no one is exempt from change; everyone must do his or her bit to advance the process.

“Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change,” Confucius once said. Most of us know plenty of the latter but few, if any, of the former.

And change is possible when you acknowledge the obstacles but refuse to allow them to overwhelm you.

First posted on Smart Brief on 12/22/2013

VIDEO: Don’t Waste Your Time — Focus on Your Purpose

How do organizations appear when they lack a sense of purpose?


Employees feel as if they are drifting on a raft without a rudder. They lack direction as well as motivation. They also feel underappreciated and disengaged. By contrast, when people feel purposeful they are engaged and they put forth the effort to succeed for themselves and by extension the entire organization.

Purposeful organizations apply intention to what they do. Organizations that lack purpose drift and drag and by doing so waste the skills and talents of their employees.

First posted on Smart Brief on 1/16/2015


VIDEO: Confident Leaders Invite Dissent

It takes a strong person to speak truth to power. And so leaders need to surround themselves with strong people, unafraid to tell the boss – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Leaders need to make it safe for those who give feedback. They should invite push-back, to welcome people who disagree, and, in fact, to reward them for doing so.

A leader who invites dissent is one who is secure within his or her own self to be the person others embrace as their leader.

First posted on Smart Briefs on 2/13/15

VIDEO: Never Let Your Enemy Get Inside Your Head

Does a leader need an enemy to succeed?

Leaders run risks when they act on the negative. Negativity may win an election but it does not lead to good governance. A leader must stand for something, not simply against something else. Having an enemy can help when gaining attention for a cause, but using that enemy and hatred of it, as a foundation for leadership is a risky proposition. Leaders need to focus more on what they stand for.

Letting people know what you can do is far better than letting people know whom you dislike.

First posted on Smart Brief on 3/13/2015