The Leadership Challenge… Again.

I saw an article earlier this month titled “How to Spot an Incompetent Leader”. I rolled my eyes, expecting to see a case for personality traits rather than communication effectiveness. I was right about that, but it was an interesting article, nonetheless.

Here’s a sample: “competent leaders cause high levels of trust, engagement and productivity”. Well, yes, of course they do. But how do they do it? With their charming personality? Or by knowing when, how and why to communicate with their people? The article says the personality trait that is most highly correlated with incompetent leadership is arrogance, or over-confidence. Maybe so. But I’d like to clarify two things.

First, that leadership is defined as the ability to “draw people together toward something”. That is a two-dimensional capability: pulling people together and moving them ahead to reach a goal. I understand that being self-centered could distract from accomplishing both of those things.

Second, drawing people together to accomplish something is not simply a matter of personality. It takes productive communication to make that happen. (You knew I would say that, didn’t you?)

  1. Talk about the goal. Clarify what we all want to make happen, why it is important and how we will know when we are successful. A clear and worthwhile goal, with timelines and measures of progress – a scoreboard of sorts – helps give everyone a sense of purpose. It “draws people together toward something”.
  2. Engage the people. Talk with people about the goal and discuss ideas for reaching it. Listening is important here: use people’s ideas wherever they make sense. Meetings and one-on-one conversations should include mention of the “game and the scoreboard”, plus respect for team member input.
  3. Develop management skills where possible. The people on a team will need to reach out to others, perhaps both inside and outside your organization, in order to achieve the goal. Whether they are in other departments or outside customers or vendors, goals are reached by productive networks of agreements. Have at least some team members make requests, make promises, and create and manage agreements with “outsiders” to achieve specific results toward the goal.
  4. Review progress regularly. Weekly or bi-weekly meetings are the forum for examining the progress made on goal, measures, and timelines as well as the successful delivery on agreements with other key players. This also serves to train team members in being accountable for creating agreements and supporting their fulfillment.

These four conversations are what ensure that “competent leaders cause high levels of trust, engagement, and productivity” in the workplace, as mentioned in the article. True, as the article points out, incompetence is likely to be a product of putting too much attention on oneself, which looks like arrogance or narcissism. Competent leadership puts attention on drawing people together – by talking with them and listening to them – while making the goal the center of the conversation.

It is fine to have several goal-endeavors going at once, if you can handle it. Each goal-team will have its own version of the four conversations identified above, focused on accomplishing something specific and of value. Not everyone is able to be a leader, but that’s alright.  Still, according to this article, we probably should not put people who think they are the center of the universe in positions where we want them pulling people together to achieve something important.

All Ears: The Importance of Listening in Organization Change

The Smart Manager magazine’s copy editor asked me last autumn to write an article for them about “how leaders can stop blaming resistance to change and view it as a positive resource”. Since Jeffrey and I have several academic articles on that, so I am familiar with the topic and it was fun to write. They just published it in their January-February 2020 issue. I liked the clever “meme” they used with the article too – it gets the whole message across visually.

Here are three quotes from the article they featured with bits of their “meme” artwork — so you’ll get the picture:

  1. Organizations need to constantly evolve to meet new challenges, but there is one key component that gets lost in the upheaval—listening. Without an open culture which encourages and responds to feedback — in all its positive and negative forms — a company-wide transformation will fail before it has even begun.
  2. The primary role of leadership in organizational change is to facilitate employee engagement at every level, across all departments and units that will be directly or indirectly touched by the change.
  3. Dialogue and discussion are the tools of good leadership to formulate and prepare for a change, and to see the change through to a successful conclusion.

Management communication is especially important when making an organization change. I’ve seen many failures – and more than a few bad moods and resistant behaviors – when a change process marches forward without proper dialogue and genuine listening.  You, dear subscriber, can see the article HERE – and at the bottom of the lead image there is a shaded strip with arrows that will let you scroll through the document.

Some Advice from an Effective Change Agent

Shannon, one of Jeffrey’s former students, just sent him an email about our “four conversations” material (https://usingthefourconversations.com/). He also referred to Matt Lemay’s “Product Management in Practice”, and included these two quotes from that book: (1) “the guiding principle for communication is ‘clarity over comfort’…”, and (2) “you cannot fear discomfort – you must actively work through it to get clarity for yourself and your team”.

Shannon said that in his workplace, he often hears people saying, “You need to be able to work within an environment of ambiguity”. This led him to notice that people often prefer ambiguity rather than having what could be a “difficult conversation”. The problem, he says, is that “we end up promoting and recognizing people who passively choose to not seek clarity”.

This reminded me of when I first discovered the idea of creating certainty (in the Landmark Forum https://www.landmarkworldwide.com/). I had always thought certainty was discovered, not created – and that it was discovered by scientists or geniuses, not by mere mortals like me. But then I learned about giving my word – making promises, agreements and commitments – and about integrity, which means keeping my word. Giving my word and keeping my agreements is what creates certainty.

Of COURSE people are reluctant to do that! It’s a little scary, at least until you practice it for a while and discover how useful it is – and how effective it can make you. Shannon is realizing there are people who don’t care about being effective, and it’s true that we aren’t all wired to be interested in that. Plus, it’s often easier to be ambiguous, unclear and uncertain than to commit to something or confront those “difficult conversations”.

But Shannon said that Lemay’s quotes about “clarity over comfort” helped him address the ambiguities that are usually left hanging in some conversations at work. I’m glad he also gave credit to his study and use of the four productive conversations in those situations. In fact, he gave Jeffrey some high praise that I will share with you: “First off, thank you for the awesome class you taught during our Master Black Belt training at OSU. I have actively been applying the principles around conversations and being an effective change agent at my job. We even integrated some of your key topics into our Six Sigma training sessions at the office.

Nice, huh? But I think the realization that may contribute the most to Shannon was in these 34 words of his email: “We rarely see leaders encourage people to create clarity with their peers. Instead, there is more emphasis on “getting along” instead of actually creating productive environments. We shouldn’t settle for ambiguity in the workplace.”  I’m betting that Shannon will use that advice to become a stronger leader himself. Let’s make it easier for people to step up to creating clarity and certainty.

How Reliable are “Expectations” for Getting Good Performance?

Answer: Not very. Why? Because expectations live in your head. If they are not put into a conversation with the person you “expect” will take action, those expectations have no way to get out of your head and into theirs. At least put them on a post-it and hand it to that person. That will increase the likelihood the person will take some action, all the way from 7% up to 24%.

OK, I made those statistics up. But in the past two days, I have heard three different people refer to “expectations” as if such a thing existed and are as real as a sign in the hallway or a billboard along the road – visible, in big bold print, where everyone can’t help but see them, and they know what to do. Here is one of those conversations:

Karyn, the head of an IT project management team, saw her boss in the hallway. He stopped her and said, I want you to gather the data on project performance over the last six months and prepare a report on what you find by the end of this month.” Karyn told him she would do that, and they went their separate ways.

Later that month, Karyn told me her boss was really cross with her because she had not delivered the report. “It wasn’t the end of the month”, she told me. “I thought he wanted me to prepare the report, but I didn’t know he wanted me to deliver it to him! Plus, I really had no idea that for him, the end of the month is really the middle of the month. He must think I am a mind reader.”

Karyn’s boss had “expectations”, thinking that she would know – of course – that “prepare a report” means “prepare a report and bring it to me”, and that she knew he meant the end of the company’s financial month, which was on the 15th of every month. Karyn was bothered by this, and by not seeing any way to tell her boss that he was making assumptions that weren’t valid.

I’m reminded of a former client’s response when I told him that the Marketing Department team was not giving the Customer Service office the information that they needed to keep customers informed about new options for different service packages. I thought he would help me be sure the communications between the two groups was workable for both of them. Instead, he banged his fist on his desktop and shouted, “They should know their jobs!” He apparently didn’t realize that jobs change faster these days due to technology and communication improvements, and that what it says on most people’s “job descriptions” (if they even have them) is usually way out of date.

So, if you have expectations for someone, whether a co-worker or a family member, it will be helpful to explain those expectations to the people you expect to perform in a particular way. If you explain what you want, when you want it and maybe even tell them why you want it that way… AND if they agree to that, then you have an agreement between you. If they don’t volunteer an agreement, ask them if they will agree to do what you ask.

You at least need a clear statement of what you want, and when – plus a “yes”, before you are entitled to have an “expectation”. What’s inside our head is less obvious to others than we think.

 

The Management vs. Leadership Debate

I’m sorry to weigh in on this, but I can’t ignore it any longer due to a current writing assignment on management. I worked with executives and managers for my whole career of 35+ years and came to have very high regard for them, thinking of them all as “managers”. I never thought of that as a derogatory term in any way.

But apparently Abraham Zaleznik (in the Harvard Business Review of May-June 1977) asked the question, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”  That launched a 40-year discussion of putting down management as simplistic and dealing only with the routine, while elevating leadership as… drumroll, please… visionary and inspiring.

Unfortunately, that premise was reinforced by otherwise brilliant John Kotter, in his “What do Leaders Really Do?” article in HBR, December 2001. As a result, the people who enjoy an opportunity to take sides between “bad vs. good”, “dullards vs. geniuses”, or any other “better-worse” kind of argument, have an excuse to keep up that artificial and divisive comparison.

I have tried to ignore this, going so far as to tune out the vote of MBA students in Jeffrey’s classroom a few years ago, when they were asked, “Would you rather be a manager or a leader?” The entire class raised their hands for being a leader. Managers, I’m sad to say, have a bad reputation created by “leadership experts”.

But now I must face the flurry, which is, I hope, winding down these days. Here’s a quick summary of the argument:

WHAT MANAGERS DO WHAT LEADERS DO
Planning and budgeting Creating vision and strategy
Focus on routine operational results such as producing products and services Focus on strategic direction and producing useful change
Organizing and staffing to build capacity Aligning people with the vision or strategy
Specialize in structural matters Specialize in communication issues
Control Inspire and motivate
Solve problems Prepare organizations for change
Managers are task-oriented Leaders are people-oriented

Mitch McCrimmon (https://www.lead2xl.com/john-kotter-on-leadership) said, “This was a disaster for our thinking about management from which we have yet to recover.” I agree. The fact is that managers do all those things at different times for different reasons. Humans do not fall into such neatly arranged categories.

Watching managers and leaders in action for over 3 decades, the primary factor in the differences between people in positions of authority is their location in the hierarchy. Those at the very top of an organization – the “C-Suite” and Board members – are called upon to communicate more frequently with “outsiders” who are in civic, community and corporate power positions, rather than focusing first on internal activities and connecting with fewer “outsiders”. Every organization has a level in the hierarchy where communications seldom reach up or down (I’ve seen them, remember?), and both sides of that authority dividing-line don’t know much about the other one.

That gives the top layers of an organization a closer view of the worlds outside the organization, hence a larger context to work with. Unfortunately, it also gives them a smaller view of those toward the middle and bottom of their own organization. The number of CEO’s and Executive Directors who know almost nothing about what their people toward the bottom of the organization are dealing with daily would horrify you. That is also the reason organization change is so problematic, often failing to meet planned deadlines and budgets. The “leaders” simply do not see the realities and challenges that are the facts of work life for those in the bottom rungs.

OK, that’s all I need to say for now. I will get back to my writing assignment, which is on the subject of “management”, i.e., the machinery that operates organizations and a layer of smart people that is a lot more strategic, people-oriented and effective at communication than they are given credit for.

Happy New Year!

Feeling and Thinking Happen Inside Us.  Communication Happens Between Us.

“Being a manager involves a lot more than just setting targets and entering numbers into a spreadsheet. It requires empathy and an understanding of human nature.”  That’s a quote from The Economist, December 14, 2019.

Wow.  A recommendation that a human manager should have empathy and understand human nature -imagine that! What would a workplace look like if that were the case? Well, start with empathy: “Experiencing the feelings of another as one’s own”. (That’s from a Merriam Webster Dictionary). And understanding: “The knowledge and ability to judge” (same dictionary). So, a manager should be able to experience other people’s feelings as their own, as well as knowing and being able to judge human nature.

The problem is, with just those two capacities alone, the workplace really wouldn’t look much different than it does now. The reason is that experiencing empathy and understanding human nature are both ‘internal states’ – they occur inside people. Are we sure those internal states will leak out into our interactions with others in a way that is effective or useful? A manager can be a lofty and inspired person, but that doesn’t mean their communication is lofty and inspired, does it?

Fortunately, that article in The Economist’s was also applauding the use of the arts in training business managers. Training sessions included participants who practiced conducting a choir, reading and discussing a novel, and even acting our roles in a play. One tutor said, “We help people to become more aware of their habits; what they do without realizing it. How people manage their physicality – their breath, their voice. Not many people are aware of how they come across.” That is surely true.

Empathy and understanding occur in an internal world of feeling and thinking. Practicing communication with others – whether in daily conversations and discussions, or in using the language of music, discussing characters in a book, or acting out roles in a story – well that would create a self-awareness that internal states alone cannot bestow.

To support and increase self-awareness in conversations at work, managers could assure direct reports that if they communicate both freely and respectfully, their perspectives and ideas will be welcomed and considered. In other words, managers can give others permission to practice communicating, and thereby to learn for themselves what works and what doesn’t.

Most of us live inside of our own thinking and feeling much of the time. But the world of interactions between individuals and groups occurs in the communication space around each of us, a space that we create with our words and actions, and our listening for others. When we notice that space, we can bring ourselves there and, eventually, learn to see ourselves as others see us. It’s a powerful lesson in self-development.

Your 1-week Bargain on Books for People Who Think!

Our publisher for “The Four Conversations” book is Berrett-Koehler, a source of quality books for people who want to make a difference in something that matters to them. Right now, they are having a 1-week book sale. Berrett-Koehler is especially known for its high-credibility publications on leadership, effectiveness, and getting results in a variety of fields. Take a look – Publisher Book Sale!

I especially like the books for people who are interested in the world of management – one is Henry Mintzberg’s latest – “Bedtime Stories for Managers” – love that title!  I know several people who will enjoy it.

Anyway, starting today, Dec. 2nd through next Monday, Dec. 9th, ALL of Berett-Koehler’s books, including eBooks and Audiobooks, are 40% off with Free Shipping.  And 50% off if you want to be a member.  Just go to Publisher Book Sale and use the code PRESENTS.  You can get the book-gifts that will let you give a nice boost for those people who matter to you – co-workers, colleagues, family or friends.

Best to you all for an enjoyable holiday season. Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

Your 1-week Bargain on Books for People Who Think!

Our publisher for “The Four Conversations” book is Berrett-Koehler, a source of quality books for people who want to make a difference in something that matters to them. Right now, they are having a 1-week book sale. Berrett-Koehler is especially known for its high-credibility publications on leadership, effectiveness, and getting results in a variety of fields. Take a look – Publisher Book Sale!

I especially like the books for people who are interested in the world of management – one is Henry Mintzberg’s latest – “Bedtime Stories for Managers” – love that title!  I know several people who will enjoy it.

Anyway, starting today, Dec. 2nd through next Monday, Dec. 9th, ALL of Berett-Koehler’s books, including eBooks and Audiobooks, are 40% off with Free Shipping.  And 50% off if you want to be a member.  Just go to Publisher Book Sale and use the code PRESENTS.  You can get the book-gifts that will let you give a nice boost for those people who matter to you – co-workers, colleagues, family or friends.

Best to you all for an enjoyable holiday season. Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

Where Does Forgiveness Fit into Leadership?

I was in a meeting last week where several people were studying a popular topic: leadership. One person asked a question I had never heard before: “What is the role of forgiveness in leadership?

Seriously.

But as the discussion progressed, three questions came out, along with some interesting responses.

  1. Do leaders and managers need to forgive?

The word “forgive” literally means “to give as before”, i.e., prior to the time when that person or group did that bad thing or made that costly mistake. The mistake-maker did something and people are mad at him, or upset with him, or he feels embarrassed about causing problems for others. So there is some incident – caused by actions and/or communications – that requires attention to resolve and it likely needs some personal cleanup for the people affected. Fix it and forgive it.

Surely everybody needs to learn something about forgiveness. It’s a good practice to master. Why? Because stuff happens that can have negative effects on others and it’s always good to clean up the messes around us. So, leaders, being human beings, need to forgive people too.

  1. When is it appropriate for leaders to forgive someone?

Forgiveness from a leader may be appropriate when someone in, or something around, the workplace has been damaged in some way – especially if the “wrong-doer” or other people are upset about it. This applies to a broad scope of negative reactions or outcomes: Martha took offense and is pouting, or the project budget has been blown to smithereens and the project manager is frantic.

  1. What does it take to forgive someone effectively?

For a Leader-Manager in a workplace, forgiveness is implicit in the 4 parts of what we call a “Closure Conversation”:

  • Acknowledge what happened: Identify what was said or done and what the results and effects were on people, systems and projects – or whatever else was negatively impacted by the incident.
  • Appreciate the people: Even though someone did something “wrong” or “thoughtless” (etc.), people who work for you – or with you – need to be recognized as valued in some way, even if they did that dumb thing that upset people or blew the budget.
  • Apologize for any mistakes or misunderstandings: Did anybody do anything that caused – or could have partially contributed to the likelihood of that incident? It’s often best for those people to offer an apology, taking some responsibility for the situation and easing others’ guilt.
  • Amend the agreement or understanding: So, somebody (or multiple somebodies) made a mistake, they are still recognized as worthwhile people in the workplace, and apologies have been offered all around. Now, clarify how that kind of incident will be avoided or prevented in the future. What is a better course of actions and/or useful communications that will ensure more positive results?

Where is forgiveness in all that? Nowhere – it’s only there implicitly. For a Leader-Manager, those “Four A’s” above will create the conversations that close out any situation. But a Leader-Manager may also choose to explicitly forgive the wrong-doer, saying, “I forgive you” if that looks like a helpful thing to say. But those words are best offered as an accompaniment to the Four A’s, not instead of them.

Forgiveness can be a heartfelt experience, as is the need for forgiveness. If a Leader-Manager senses or sees that need, s/he should go ahead and say, “I forgive you”. Forgiveness, if it is offered, needs to be done as part of a conversation to complete all aspects of a potentially toxic situation. Heartfelt words alone won’t do the job to support effectiveness in a workplace. Fix it then forgive it.

Communicate – Don’t Accumulate

I know a guy – I’ll call him Russ – who is especially proud of the regard people have for him. He is pretty sure that he is admired, and that whoever spends time with him finds it a valuable and worthwhile experience. That is pretty much true, from my observation. People gravitate to him and he welcomes their company.

One oddity though, shows up when any of those people fail to keep the promises they have made to him – even about something as simple as refunding him for a purchase he made for them, or bringing him the book they promised to leave on his desk. The oddity is that he is unwilling to call them on it. He won’t dial their number or send an email to say, “Hey, did you send me a check for that seminar I paid for you to attend?”, or, “I thought you were going to bring me that book. When will you bring it over?”

Even when he sees them in the cafeteria or a coffee shop, he doesn’t mention it to them. Russ insists that, “It’s not worth it. What’s a couple of bucks?”

I asked him, “Don’t you get a little reminder in your brain when you see somebody who told you that they were going to do something, and they didn’t do it? How do you deal with that little nudge without mentioning that bit of unfinished business and resolving it with them?”

Russ laughed. “It’s not worth getting into it or mentioning their failure to come through. Maybe they just made a mistake. I just blow it off.” Maybe Russ would rather keep the relationship free of anything that could disturb their positive view of him. Or maybe he really thinks he can “blow it off”.

I disagree. Those little uncommunicated things are incomplete – and they accumulate over time, like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. They will be there forever in that relationship, little negative nags.

Russ is a shop owner, too, who is often is unwilling to tell his staff what he really thinks about their performance. I tried talking with him about using “closure conversations” to give useful feedback so they could improve. “No way, he said. They would only get upset, defend themselves, and offer explanations. I haven’t got time for that.”

Coincidentally, I just received a book in the mail titled, “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)”. The subtitle is, “Why we Fear it, How to Fix it”. The author, M. Tamra Chandler, looks at the negative ideas around feedback and creates a fresh viewpoint, allowing us to reconsider feedback as providing value and being beneficial and supportive. Now I can see it as a way of getting those little negative nags out of other people’s heads as well as my own.

I can’t say how living with undelivered communications is for Russ – he doesn’t seem to mind carrying those barnacles. Maybe they don’t slow him down or crop up in his head as brain-litter, or worse. They do for me. Brain litter is a distraction that takes me away from what I’m doing, thinking or creating, and gives me a flash of annoyance to realize that it’s still there. I started, some years ago, using that flash of annoyance as a reminder to close out that incomplete item, but I still need the reminder sometimes. Those barnacles bother me, and as much as I wish they would go away by themselves, they do not.

I’m going to send a copy of “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)” to that manager.