What to Manage: Workers? Or the Links Between Them?

I’ve been reading an article (HBR, Competent Management) which mentioned “obstacles that often prevent executives from devoting sufficient resources to improving management skills and practices”. The research they reported made it clear that better management skills lead to higher competitiveness and better performance all around. So, understanding obstacles to good management is a good idea.

What are the “obstacles”? First, overconfidence: managers think they’re already doing a good job. Another obstacle is that many managers can’t make an objective judgment about how well things are really going. The article included several other obstacles, but the whole list made me recall the most frequent problem I encountered in my career as a management consultant: managing the people and their activities. That’s not what needs to be managed.

I learned about that obstacle very early in my career, from the CEO of a non-profit firm. I saw a need for better management practices – aligning people on goals, measures, tracking and reporting. Two of his groups were making mistakes in the products and communications they were sending out to the firm’s members, prospects and customers and the reason was they were not collaborating with one another at all. When I suggested to the CEO that it would be useful if his Marketing team and his Communications Office got together at least once a month to clarify what each of them needed or wanted from the other, he banged his fist on his desk and shouted at me, “They should already know their jobs!”

Omigosh – he was watching what his people DO instead of what they DELIVER to others! Wow.

I was startled that he shouted at me, of course. But it was difficult to believe he did not have a process for ensuring that different units in his organization had an opportunity to talk with each other to stay updated on the products, services and communications they produced, sent out, and/or exchanged with one another. That would have given the Marketing team an opportunity to find out what the Communications Office was sending out to the firm’s prospective members, which would have helped Marketing do a better job of recruiting new members.

The CEO couldn’t see that the Marketing team needed information from the Communications Office and vice versa. Instead of supporting effective and goal-oriented communications between groups, he was watching what goes on inside those groups, as if they were stand-alone entities. As I went through my whole career, that was something I came to see as a frequent cause of misunderstandings in organizations. It was also a source of blaming “those people” for not knowing what they’re doing.

The mistake was the focus on what people were “Doing”, which isn’t what I was watching for at all. I focused on what moved from one group to another or went out to a customer: the products, services and communications that go out of Group 1 and into Group 9, then on to a user/customer. This allowed me to start at the end of the line, getting ideas from the Receiver of a delivery about how they evaluate or measure the quality and effectiveness of what they received. Then I could work with the Sender to obtain and use that feedback from the Receiver on a regular basis. I admit, it was sometimes touchy, especially if the Receiver was unhappy with what they got from the Sender. But I was the “ambassador”, carrying feedback to the Sender and assisting them in finding ways to put it to work. Ultimately, though, the two groups would establish a productive relationship and better products, services and communications were then available to all.

I was surprised to find that almost no manager watches the links between Senders and Receivers. They’re watching the “job”, the “work”, the people and their activities – but that’s not where the leverage is. Just sending something from one place to another doesn’t mean you’re getting the job done. You need to get the Receiver’s feedback on how well it worked. Was it the right quantity or size? Was the quality what they wanted or needed? Did it arrive on time? Does it perform properly, producing the effects the Receiver desired?

Getting feedback requires establishing a reliable communication link between Sender and Receiver, an easy management practice to implement. And, according to the article, good management practices will pay off in a big way, delivering better overall organization performance. That non-profit CEO actually learned how to improve the whole network of teams in his firm.

Even though that article I read didn’t focus on the links between groups, it had a lot of smart things to say about competent management. One valuable point was that companies think strategy is more important than management. I haven’t seen this discussed for over a decade, and the research reported in this article clarified that management competence is more important than strategy. It’s a good read, even if it is over 3 years old. Check it out: (HBR, Competent Management).

A Close-Up Look at Micro-Management

When I was a management consultant, clients sometimes complained about “micro-management” in their organizations. I had to look it up, because I thought it just meant someone was paying too much attention to details. I learned that it’s much worse than that, but now I have been educated in real life, because I have now been micro-managed.

I am working, post-retirement, as a volunteer in a small organization. I support three Committees, each of which has a Chairman, so I take my job to be assisting those Chairmen in setting and attaining goals as well as supporting the Committee members in working as a team and being productive and effective. All was going smoothly until one Chairman resigned and was replaced by Captain Micro.

The Captain watched every action I took, heard every idea I offered and saw every communication I delivered to Members. He then criticized each of those things, saying this email to members was “too complicated”, and that idea was “inappropriate”. His instructions to me were specific but piecemeal, and I wasn’t always able to assemble them into a meaningful whole. I confess to having lost my sense of humor at one point, telling him that his latest instruction was “another piece of our communication problem”, which was the first time I had let him know how I saw the situation.

Another annoyance was that he wanted me to check with him about every little thing before I took any action, as if I couldn’t see for myself what would work. He gave me miniature assignments – send out this email to the members, forward him a copy of Aaron’s article from last week, etc. And he often messed up my schedule by giving me several different due-dates and times for each request. Multiple emails and phone calls showered down in the first week of working with him, which became annoying. I suspect he could hear the impatience in my voice by that Friday afternoon.

Week Two didn’t gain any momentum. Fewer calls and emails, but he was still stalling on taking any substantive action for the Committee and was not allowing me to make any decisions (or he corrected the ones I had already made). What had been an unfolding project for the Committee was now a mute folder lying on my desk waiting for attention, and I couldn’t get him to move ahead. He didn’t seem to know or care what I had done for the prior Chairman nor to have any sense of urgency about moving the members’ teamwork forward to meet the goal everyone had aligned on before his arrival.

It’s over now. Captain Micro won’t work with me – he’s going to do it all himself. Perhaps I’m too headstrong, pushing to finish the Committee’s current project so we could move on to future aspirations. It appears he has decided to take over the facilitation tasks I had been doing – sending out what he chooses to the members, and perhaps also taking notes on their monthly calls and creating an agenda for the next call (though he may not think such tasks are necessary).

Now I’m supporting only two Committees. I initially feared that Captain Micro’s lack of support would undermine the group’s sense of purpose and cohesion, but several members have now been in touch with me, looking for more productive pathways to get what they wanted to accomplish. Captain Micro will go his own way with his new Committee – and I wish them all the best. I’ll continue my accountability for supporting the two remaining Committees as best I can, and be grateful for the trust and respect of their leaders.

 

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.