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.

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.

 

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.

How Important is Appreciation as a Part of Employee Feedback?

One client, Amos, managed a group of 14 people who took the Group Workplace Assessment – with a surprising set of results. Amos had convinced me that he had “great relationships” with his staff, but those results said otherwise. Among the “Top Ten” issues identified by his staff were these 3 responses:

  1. There isn’t any follow-through on people who don’t keep their agreements or do complete work.
  2. People are seldom recognized or thanked for what they do, even when they go the extra mile to accomplish something.
  3. Some people expect someone else to motivate them or tell them what to do, which slows things down and makes it harder to get work done.

What did those responses have in common? They all point to a lack of useful feedback – specifically, to appreciating their work.

For #1, when people don’t get feedback on their work – whether to approve their results or point out a problem – they may lose confidence and start second-guessing themselves. This can begin a process of erosion in work timeliness, accuracy, or creativity. Or all three.

In #2, an expression of appreciation for the work they do is missing, meaning people are likely to lose energy and a sense of providing value to others, or to the organization. Work becomes ho-hum, and if my work doesn’t matter, it loses its purpose.

And #3 underscores the cost of too little attention and appreciation: work slows down, staff loses interest in doing a good job, and others around them will soon be infected by this “sleeping sickness”. Keeping workers energized and alert is a function of attention and appreciation.

Amos was so proud of his staff that he did not see a need to provide positive feedback. “They just keep the pace around here”, he bragged. “They don’t need to be micro-managed.” He was mad at himself for not seeing his lack of attention.

A CEO who writes 9,200 employee birthday cards a year shows, in this article, that he knows the power of positive feedback – a thank-you and special recognition from a boss will make a big difference in people’s relationship to their work. His people know they matter, and that they are making a difference on the job.

This is the power of what we call “Closure Conversations”. These conversations have 4 ingredients – the Four A’s – though not all are necessary to use in every Closure Conversation.

  • The first is Acknowledgment, stating what has happened. “Your work results are good, and you missed one thing over here. But you got the other six done completely.”
  • The second is Appreciation. “Thanks for doing it this way, because it makes our next Board meeting easier for the members and will help them to finish their year-end report.”
  • The third is Apology. “I see that I didn’t make clear the way to structure this middle section. I had expected to see it summarized as a list, not as paragraphs, so I hope you don’t mind doing a bit of cleanup. I think it will be clearer to see the big picture if you do it that way. Sorry for my lack of clarity.”
  • The fourth is to Amend the understanding of the job, which updates the work agreement as needed. “I know it will take extra time to reformat this, so let’s extend the deadline to Tuesday before our team meeting. That will leave enough time for us all, in case team members need to edit anything further before Friday.”

In a sense, all four of those items are “positive feedback”. Each one tells you that someone is paying attention to your work in a constructive way. And you know what to do with each of those A’s: recognize what others see in your work, enjoy the appreciation, accept the apology graciously, and interact with the coaching given by making amendments.

The 9,200 birthday cards is over-the-top Appreciation, although I’m sure it pays off for that CEO in people’s willingness to invest themselves. But in the case of Amos, he will be learning to use all four of the Closure Conversation elements. He says he wants effective workers on his staff, so it’s time for him to start practicing all “Four A’s”. I suggest starting with Appreciation.

NOTE: If you want to get your group’s feedback on what they see as their “workplace issues”, the Group Assessment survey will add up their responses to 56 questions while maintaining the individual privacy of people’s responses. You’ll see the results and be able to discuss how to implement the recommended communication solutions with your staff.  

The Manager-Staff Gap – And an Idea for Updating the Performance Review

Looking at a file from work with a former client, I found one particularly interesting list of “Top Five” workplace issues for their organization. What made it interesting was that we could see the difference between problems that Managers had, and the problems reported by lower-level Staff members.

The survey was made of 56 Workplace Assessment questions designed to identify their biggest workplace problems; we used the Consultant Subscription to survey different groups at the same time, but instead of defining survey groupings by their department or function, we grouped them by their different levels in the hierarchy. Here’s what we found:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Managers – “Some projects and assignments involve other teams and departments, but it is difficult to get their cooperation and support.”

Okay, that sounds like a reasonable observation, since Managers have to deal with other departments (and their Managers) in a more administrative way than Staff do.  But it was interesting that the Staff did not rank this as being important at all – they simply did not see it as a workplace problem. Perhaps Staff should thank their Managers for protecting them with having to deal with this issue? Another result:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Staff members – “Some people do only the minimum work necessary or don’t do their assigned work, making it hard for others to get their work done.”

This seems reasonable too, since Staff have to deal with finding their way through the jungle of their jobs whenever their workplace contains one or more low-performing Staff members. This Staff issue, however, was ranked very low on the list of problems reported by Managers. Apparently, Managers do not see the performance barriers that Staff are actually dealing with in producing their results.

What did Managers and Staff agree on? Another result:

  • The second-biggest workplace issue for both Managers and Staff – “There are significant differences in the quality of work that people do.”

Interesting to see that both levels notice the “quality difference” of Staff performance, and both find it to be either a problem that uses too much of their time and attention, or a it’s problem they do not know how – or want – to address. What could cause this disparity?  Perhaps it was the 3rd disparity – an issue that Managers ranked as their 3rd-biggest problem, but Staff members didn’t even include in their high-ranking workplace issues list:

  • The Manager issue that was invisible to Staff: “Performance reviews are subjective and not helpful in giving guidance for improvement.”

Wow! Managers and Staff agreed on the variability of work quality, but only Managers saw the problem of subjective performance reviews. Could that be because Staff are resigned to being evaluated in subjective ways on subjective criteria?

The Managers chose to update their performance reviews. They found a person in HR to help them orchestrate several discussions with a group of Managers and Staff supervisors. These were the people directly involved with the way that “performance” actually plays out in the workplace, and they collaborated to specify what they meant by “high-quality work”.  Now this organization focuses on using observable attributes of work performance rather than subjective evaluations based on intuitive criteria.

One Manager’s comment after using their new performance review was, “Now we are evaluating “performance” as an attribute of work and results, rather than evaluating the attributes of individual people. This is a good lesson on how to redefine work quality and performance.”

NOTE: The Consultant Subscription provides the opportunity to use the same Group Assessment survey for different groups at the same time. The choice of how to perform the groupings is up to the Consultant.

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!

Step #3 – Using Conversations to Solve Workplace Problems

After Rodd filled out his own free Personal Workplace Communication Assessment, he received a Results & Recommendations (R&R) Report with suggestions for improving the biggest problem he saw: a lack of accountability. Those suggestions, summarized in Step #2, “Using Conversations to Improve Accountability”, moved him to invite all of his staff to take the survey and get their own Regional R&R Report based on responses from their own people. Maybe then they would all see the problem and work together to get it fixed!

Rodd decided to subscribe to the Consultant’s Workplace Assessment – because he wanted to have different Reports for each of his five Regional Offices, and might want to have follow-up surveys over time. He had talked about this survey idea at his last All-Staff meeting, and people sounded interested and willing to do it, so he was confident there would be a good response. He sent out the invitations to take the survey with a distinct link for each Regional Office’s personnel.

Out of 75 staff members, 70 completed the survey. To Rodd’s surprise, the five R&R Reports showed that the five Regional Offices really did see different worlds. And they didn’t all see “lack of accountability” as the biggest problem. But then, after studying the five Reports, he was intrigued to see the different patterns of responses, and figured that working on those differences as a group would help the Regions get better acquainted and begin standardizing StateOrg procedures and communications. (He was right about that!)

Rodd also made up a list of the “Non-Problems” – the items that got the lowest number of votes overall. “That’s the good news”, he told me. “I want them to see our real strengths before we talk about the problems and solutions. His plan was threefold: (1) Send the “Good News” email listing the strengths, or “Non-Problems”, of State Org to all 75 people on Thursday; (2) Send all five R&R Reports to everyone the following Monday; and (3) Schedule a one-day visit with each Regional Office the following week, to discuss their unique “Biggest Problems” and their ideas for improvement.

It was a smart thing to do – people responded well to hearing that this wasn’t all about problems and complaints. And, since each person had received their own individual survey feedback report and recommendations, they were already talking about the idea of using conversations to solve workplace problems. You can see Rodd’s Step #3 (out of 6 steps) here: Step #3 – Group Workplace Invitations & Results.

Step #2 – Choosing an Assessment to Identify Biggest Workplace Problems

We’ve received a wave of inquiries about practicing productive communication techniques to resolve workplace problems. Since last week’s post of Step #1 in a 6-step process used by Rodd, a former client (see Step#1 blogpost), it seems people recognize the need to repair a “fractured organization”. The idea of using 4 distinct kinds of conversation to get a group on track might be catching on – perhaps my retirement years will be well spent letting people know about this!

Rodd’s first introduction to using productive communication was the free Personal Communication Assessment – only 20 questions – to see how his own skills stacked up in this area. He got prompt feedback on his answers, showing him his strengths and his weaknesses. Then, he kept exploring by taking the free Workplace Communication Assessment – this time, 56 questions. Again, he got immediate feedback on 8 types of workplace problems in StateOrg (our name for his organization).  The report validated what Rodd saw as the biggest problem: a lack of accountability.  Even better, it gave him a recipe for how to use all four productive conversations to solve that problem.

First, though, Rodd thought about having all his staff take one of the Group Assessments so he could get an even stronger validation on that “biggest workplace problem”.  He only had to decide which Group Assessment he should get:

Rodd thought if everyone recognized that there was a “lack of accountability”, they would surely work together to solve it.  He also felt that getting feedback from everyone in all five regions would be a good way for them to experience themselves as part of one organization instead of five separate outposts. He was right about that part.

You can see the links to all six chapters of “The Case Study” on the Group Assessments page of the site. The story of Rodd’s second step is here, including the ideas he had for how to put the Consultant’s Workplace Assessment to good use in having his five-regions work together in a more coordinated way. (For a little more on the mess he was dealing with, see Step#1 blogpost.)

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.

Accountability is a Manager’s Job – Not an Employee’s Mindset

Last week a friend introduced me to a manager, saying, “This guy is talking about accountability, so I thought I would introduce him to you. The manager – let’s call him Steve – told me a little about his group and how they were preparing to expand it by adding 7 more people.

“I’m looking for people who know how to work with systems and have some financial background. But most of all, I am looking for people who are accountable.”

Uh Oh. I was glad he kept talking, because my brain was spinning with an attempt to think of something useful to say, without offending him.  What I wanted to say is, “That’s ridiculous. People are not accountable. Accountability is not a personality characteristic. And it sounds like you don’t understand the job of management.”  Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut until I found another option.

Accountability is an agreement – and a relationship – between a manager and an employee, or even a manager and a group. A manager, for example, has a dialogue and performance conversations with one or more team members about three things:

  1. To clarify What needs to be done and What results need to be produced, What resources need to be obtained from others, and What deliverables (products, services, and communications) need to be provided to others;
  2. Identify those “others” – Who, exactly are they? And,
  3. Specify When each of those results and deliverables need to happen.

Then all you have to do is make sure that everyone is on board – by establishing agreements to perform these results and timelines, with clear responsibilities for each result, including Who will manage each relationship with those “others” who part of the project or program.  Oh – and update the status of the agreements at regular meetings.  Try it for two or three months and watch your team’s performance measures shift gears.

I finally found something say that Steve might find useful. I told him that, sadly, people don’t come equipped with accountability as a part of their DNA, or even their education.

“Accountability is between people, not inside them,” I said.  “But with a few conversations you can set up the communication structure and schedule that will establish accountability between you and keep it going for as long as you choose.”  I told him about setting performance conversations for good agreements – discussing What needs to happen? Who is the team member responsible and Who else is involved? And When should results happen?

Steve began to look more relaxed, with just a hint of a smile. He said, “I’m going to test that idea on my current team starting this week. I suspect it will improve our performance.  I’ll let you know if it works – and if it does, I’m buying you lunch.”

I figure the phone might ring in the next 4-6 weeks.