Posts

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.

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.

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.

Workplace Assessments – What Works (and What Doesn’t)

It was fun writing about the six steps of the Group Workplace Assessment Case Study we did for a client. We have used other assessments before, but we found many of them asked what people like/don’t like, or what they saw as the biggest issues facing a project or a management team. If you want your entire department or group to be more effective, you need more than a bunch of opinions sorted in the order of “Which ones got the most votes?” or interviewing only the management team or a “select” group of staff. That’s no way to run a railroad.

If you want your whole system to be effective, you have to take another approach: Ask everyone about the workplace problems, situations, or issues they see in their workplace – the things that cause them annoyance or frustration, losing energy or productivity – or sometimes losing heart.

Our idea is to ask only one question: “How often do you see each of these situations occurring in your workplace?”  There is no blame and no shame – just a bunch of individual assessments added up to say what the group as a whole will need most. Oh, and you get feedback. And recommended solutions.

We have identified (from years of experience) 56 workplace situations that are negative in terms of getting work done and being effective. Each situation can be minimized or eliminated by changing one or more of “The Four Conversations”, which – no accident – are discussed in our book of the same name.

It has been a workplace assessment that people really get into, and most welcome the idea of learning a few new communication practices too. The long-term results are excellent, with people making more clear requests, following up on agreements, and starting new projects with a firm foundation.

If you are interested, you could try taking the Free Workplace Assessment first, so you can get a feel for the kinds of questions we use and how many of them resonate with what you notice in your own workplace. When you submit your responses to the survey, you’ll receive your feedback: Which negative workplace situations you see most often – and what communication habits might be improved to reduce those problems.

If you want to use one of the two types of Group Workplace Assessments, you can get a subscription. Both subscriptions will take the survey responses from each of your group or staff members, protecting the privacy of individual responses, while adding up ALL responses to give you a group assessment – with solution recommendations for the “Top Three” issues.

The Manager Subscription is good for 90 days, allowing you to do a follow-up if you like. The Consultant Subscription is good for one year, allowing you to use it with multiple other groups during that time.

You will be surprised to see what your group sees – it will be different from your own perspective. We have learned that managers and consultants do not always see the same situations that employees and workers see. And getting to a group consensus is welcomed by the people who have been putting up with difficulties, some for quite a long time. You can see the Case Study here – it will likely give you some ideas about the value it could provide in upgrading your own railroad. Let us know!

Supervisors See Four Kinds of Personnel

Best Employee. Supervisor gives work orders and turns job over to worker. Worker requires only recognition.

  1. Accurate and complete work; Good results.
  2. Accomplishes more jobs; Productive and efficient.
  3. Organized; Knows where things are.
  4. Can do all assignments; No hand-holding needed.
  5. Looks ahead; Thinks how to help; Has good ideas.
  6. Good attitude; Courteous to all.
  7. Volunteers to help team members; Gets involved.

Good Worker. Supervisor recognizes good performance and points out problems. Worker requires support for teamwork.

  1. Willing to learn; Wants to do better and improve skills; Interested in the job.
  2. Takes on any job and does what is asked.
  3. Hard working; Skilled; Paying attention.
  4. On time with results and finishing jobs.
  5. Careful worker; Does complete work.
  6. Keeps work environment in good order, equipment and supplies organized.
  7. Often helps others on the team.

Improving Worker – Supervisor is clear on details and gives encouragement. Worker requires instruction and appreciation.

  1. Doesn’t know all aspects of the job; needs guidance.
  2. Afraid to make decisions without asking what to do.
  3. Results sometimes good, sometimes not.
  4. Willing to learn with supervisor encouragement.
  5. Sometimes doesn’t see to do more than necessary.
  6. Capable, could do more with better results.
  7. Requires attention dealing with sensitivities.

High Maintenance Employee – Supervisor points out everything to do. Worker requires attention.

  1. Late to work or has to be told to do jobs.
  2. Works slowly; Inefficient. Makes small jobs big.
  3. Moody or argumentative; Complains to co-workers.
  4. Messy work area; doesn’t take care of equipment.
  5. Watches others at work; Sometimes distracts them.
  6. Takes easy jobs or waits to be told what to do.
  7. Often turns in work results that require more work or cleanup from others.

Evaluating Leaders – It’s Not a Popularity Contest

My husband Jeffrey has finally submitted his paper on the “leadership of change” to an international academic journal. It has been in development for over 3 years and could alter the research approach to leadership. I hope it does – that research needs help!

Consider the way researchers evaluate the effectiveness of leadership: they do a survey. Think about that. Can we say whether someone’s leadership is effective based on the opinions of their colleagues? If we admire someone in a leadership position, or think s/he is a great person – does that mean they are a good leader? Aren’t we supposed to look at the results they produce?

Effectiveness, after all, is about producing effects, i.e., results. How about asking whether a “change leader” actually made the intended change happen? Maybe even look to see if the change was accomplished on time? And on budget, too.

Jeffrey’s paper identified three basic functions that together add up to good leadership: (1) structuring work; (2) maintaining group integration; and (3) adapting and innovating as needed. One important point he made is that those three things do not need to be done by a single individual. In other words, leadership can be a distributed phenomenon – a collection of people that together contribute to getting those three things right.

So, you might be good at setting up the structures for getting all the necessary tasks done, while Darryl in the next office is great at keeping the group working well together with good internal communication. And maybe the IT team on the third floor brings their expertise to watch the progress of the initiative and make sure that surprises are addressed in an appropriate and timely way. The three of us – two individuals and a group – make up a good leadership team.

Where do those opinion surveys fit in?  They can help us see how people think you are doing with organizing task assignments, or how Darryl is doing with group cohesion, or if the IT team is seeing all the places that need attention. Asking people what they think of the way things are going and whether they think the leaders are on top of things is useful to learn something about the culture and climate, and can also provide feedback to the leadership team on all three leadership functions.

Opinion surveys have a role to play, but not in determining the effectiveness of a leader or a group of leaders. Thinking highly of someone doesn’t mean they are effective. To know about that, we need objective measures of results and outcomes. Which means the goals have to be clear and the steps to accomplishment spelled out for all to see. And then we need to check on how things are going at regular intervals: are we behind schedule or over the budget this week? Effectiveness isn’t a personality thing. It’s about measures and status updates. Accountability starts at the top. So there.

The Perils of a Too-High Hierarchy: All Talk No Listen

I studied an organization that had quite a few unhappy people at “the bottom” of one of its departments. After several meetings and some 1-on-1 interviews, I heard from people who were looking for another job due to favoritism and rudeness by their supervisors. That wasn’t the biggest problem, however.

Seventeen people made up a direct-service group with daily customer contact. “We call ourselves the Service Bottom”, one group member told me. “We are fending for ourselves down here with no connection to the top of the organization. We serve the customers as best we can, but we are definitely not a well-organized service team. We have 3 supervisors who are focused on their own job interests instead of our group performance.”

“That’s not true!” one Executive said (loudly) to me when I told him about that comment. “Our Supervisor Team collaborates to make plans and work with the service staff.”

My observations, however, showed the large distance between the Executive and the Service Bottom that prevented him from seeing what was happening. Seven layers filled that gap: Senior Director, Director, Manager, Assistant Manager, Service Chief, Supervisor, and Team Leader. Each layer was primarily focused on its own concerns, with most attention going upward in the hierarchy, not down to the people below. The Executive was certain that the 3 supervisors heading up the Service Bottom worked in coordination to support their people. But in fact, they were competing for promotion to replace the Service Chief who was leaving at the end of the month.

I gave the 17 people in the Service Bottom group our Group Workplace Assessment, to find out where the problems really were. Here are the top three workplace issues, as reported by group members:

  1. Lack of accountability: Instructions are given with no follow-up to see if they were carried out; there are no measures of good vs. bad performance; and there is no formal system for tracking customer satisfaction or complaints.
  2. Poor quality work: The lack of follow-up by Supervisors meant that they didn’t see the difference between good employees and ineffective ones, so training efforts were not improved to assist service staff.
  3. Incomplete conversations: Service staff did not have the opportunity to have a dialogue with Supervisors regarding what they saw as dysfunctional work patterns in their group. Communication with Supervisors and their staff was “all one-way, from boss down to worker”. Supervisors did not get useful feedback on the challenges staff members were facing every day.

I met with the Supervisors and shared this data with them. One said, “We stopped having regular meetings with staff about 5 months ago. I guess this is why we needed those meetings.” Another said, “It’s good to see the specifics about what is missing. Now I think I know what would solve this.” The third said, “Don’t show this to our bosses, okay?”

I said I wouldn’t , and that we could work together to improve staff effectiveness. Then I showed them the recommendations from the version of the Group Workplace Assessment that I used: the Manager Subscription. We scheduled three meetings with the Service Group members too study the communication changes identified in the recommendations. We’ve had one of those meetings already, and all participants are optimistic about the new communications they are now practicing.

Sometimes a hierarchy is just too high. Executives can see what’s on the horizon, but do not know what is going on in the deep, where staff meet the customers, contractors, and competition. A little diagnostic work and a few communication changes can bridge the gap.

How to Handle Lateness – It’s Everywhere!

Projects are late. Promises aren’t kept. Schedules are tweaked or ignored. We human beings are pretty bad at starting and ending our tasks on time, no matter how much planning we do.

A good article-plus-podcast Why We’re Late explains the causes. One is that lateness is due to the “planning fallacy” – our estimates of how long a task or project will take is often too optimistic. We don’t plan for all the possible interruptions we might encounter – after all, as the article said, we plan to succeed, not to fail. Two other contributors to lateness are:

  1. On big complex projects, we often forget to plan for the coordination required to pull various aspects of the project together.
  2. On a more personal level, we forget that humans aren’t very good at “impulse control”, meaning we procrastinate because we do what we want to do at the moment, instead of sticking to our scheduled plan. Like, I’m going to check my email for a minute first? Yeah, sure, and half an hour later I’m into a whole other mini-project. We humans are pretty distractible!

Solutions? They mention software that helps project team members see what other players are responsible for, and how project parts are related by schedules and dependencies. They suggest tracking your performance – get data on what takes a project off-course or distracts you personally from getting a task done. And also, of course, using that data to improve your time estimates.

Lateness is everywhere. People are late to meetings. Managers give assignments without a specific deadline, often over-using the word “priority” as if that will make things go faster. And when an assignment is turned in late, nobody says, “This is three days overdue.” We let it go.

Communication can shift the lateness habits of a work group. Performance Conversations and Closure Conversations help give more attention to timelines, including follow-up on whether deadlines were met.

  • Alex says, “I’d like to present this policy brief at the Board Meeting on Tuesday. Can you get the references needed, collect comments from the other three Advisors, and include the changes they suggest? I would need that finished by Friday close of business.”
  • Justin says, “Sure, I can do that. Send it over to me.”
  • Alex confirms that they have an agreement: “You promise you have time for this? I don’t want to be scrambling to pull things together on Monday.”
  • Justin: “Yep. Consider it done.”

So, a request from Alex + a promise from Justin = an agreement. Performance Conversation complete.

  • Justin, on Friday at 5:45, says, “Sorry, but one of the Advisors hasn’t responded yet. I’ve sent you the update using comments from the other two, but don’t know if that’s enough.”
  • Alex says, “Thanks, I’ll look at it over the weekend. But, FYI, close of business means 5:00 PM, not 5:45, so I was wondering whether you were going to deliver. I say this because I want all of us to pay more attention to keeping time agreements. I’ll talk with Advisor #3 this weekend about that too. Sorry I didn’t make it clearer before. And, despite being picky about timing, I really appreciate that you’ve made it possible for me to review this and plan my Board presentation over the weekend. Thank you very much.”

Closure Conversation complete. Bringing all “four A’s” into a conversation is powerful:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the situation – what happened and why it matters;
  • Appreciate the people – recognize the value of their effort and contribution;
  • Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings – cleanup improves trust; and
  • Amend broken agreements – set up for a future where agreements can be honored.

The article pointed out there is data going back more than 100 years showing that at least 80% of projects have cost and/or time over-runs. Making clear agreements, and communicating with people about the success and failure of those agreements, can shift the communication habits of a work group to support being on time.