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).

One Management Trainer’s Advice – and Why I Think He’s Wrong

I’ve been clearing out – very slowly – the client files from my career as a management consultant. I found some notes on what one workshop leader – I’ll call him Alex – said about “how to be a good manager”, and as you’ll see below, I didn’t agree with him on several of his ideas.

Thoughts on a Workshop about “How to Be a Good Manager”

HE SAID

SHE SAID

1.  Have one-on-one meetings with each of your staff members to establish performance expectations. 1.   Have weekly group meetings with your whole team to review goals, clarify assignments and identify obstacles or problems. Don’t use the “expectations” thing.
2.  Rely on relationships and personal connections to get things done. 2.   In any conversation for getting something done, (a) state the objective and the value in succeeding, (b) establish agreements on who will do what by when, then (c) take responsibility for the follow-through with everyone. Build productive relationships, not “connections”.
3.  Influence and motivate your people rather than using your “power position” or your title. 3.   Rely on productive communication – dialogue to clarify goals and measures, clear requests and promises to establish agreements, and follow-up to review progress on agreements – to generate engagement and momentum.
4.  Encourage planning all schedules and activities based on priorities. 4.   It is important to be clear about priorities but recognize they may change quickly and often. “Planning” is a process of (a) identifying intended results and outcomes, (b) formulating the processes and actions that will produce those results, and (c) establishing timelines and assignments for accomplishing them. “Priority” can be fleeting and is not always a reliable management tool.
5.  Resolve conflicts and deal with emotional behavior promptly. 5.   Dealing with conflicts and emotional behavior is best based in policy rather than playing therapist to resolve them. Your people should understand that they will participate in resolving conflicts, including problems with emotional behavior. A manager is not a den-mother.

Mary Parker Folet, a 1920’s management guru, said, “Management is getting things done through other people.” She did not say, however, that management needs to focus on the people, but that is where management theory has taken us. This people-focus, visible in each of Alex’s pieces of advice, has given us a people-oriented vocabulary that has taken over management thinking. Here it is:

One-on-one meetings” focus on an individual rather than promoting coordinated teamwork. They are often seen as making someone feel “special”, or an opportunity for “development” of some kind. Sometimes it develops teacher’s pets, though, which can cause ill feelings among team members.

Expectations”? They are subjective – they live in your head and can change in a flash. Further, it can sound a little demeaning to tell people, “Here’s what I expect from you.” Simply state the goal, then discuss it until you are you are confident there is a shared understanding of what success looks like.

And “performance”? The word literally means “provide thoroughly”, but we have turned it into a code for evaluating people. If it’s not quantitative or visible, it may not be performance at all.

“Connections” are personal relationships, not necessarily productive ones. For a manager, it is more useful to learn how to make agreements to produce specific results and support staff people in committing to do or produce a certain result by a specific due date. Using a personal relationship to get a performance promise from someone may be seen as manipulating them into doing you a favor. Why not keep things a more professional?

And how about “influence”? This is another interpersonal game, like “expectations” and “connections”, and it relies on personalities. First, “influence” is a vague concept: how do I know whether you are influencing me or I am influencing you? But influence can also be very short-lived (ending when the Influencer leaves the room), and may not produce any genuine engagement or commitment. Maybe people don’t like being “influenced”, experiencing the process as a form of bossiness.

“Motivation” – we talk about it like it’s a thing, as if it can be passed from one person to another. But your motivation is for you to generate, not mine to give to you. I can’t motivate anybody but myself. I’ve seen managers work to “motivate” their people, expecting some response that seldom arrives. I’ve also talked with the people who have been the object of those attempts and are often not inspired. One person said, crossly, “I don’t want her to try to motivate me. She should just talk straight.”

“Priorities” are individual interpretations that are unlikely to communicate anything specific about the desired due date, the product quality or quantity. “Priority” is just a code for saying something is important and/or urgent and a priority can change quickly if something else happens. Stick with performance agreements and follow-through, including the details of what is wanted and needed by when.

“Resolve conflicts and deal with emotional behavior promptly” – this last one is the icing on the cake of management’s “people-talk”. It fails to draw the line between the rigor of clarifying agreements and holding a psychotherapy session. Both conflicts and emotional behavior should be rare phenomena in the workplace, and this suggestion from Alex takes us back to the beginning: hold group meetings, encourage people to work together in pairs or sub-groups to get things done, and deal with the whole picture of what all team members are doing and where people need help or resources. The team can solve problems, including some personal ones. Create transparency wherever possible, without releasing confidential material, and people will support one another.

Management is often misunderstood to be all about people – getting people to do things and having them behave “properly” to support a productive environment. But you can make management about getting things done with group discussion on the specifics of what, when, and who, which gets an actionable message across. Then, if you add respect, good manners and some friendliness or humor, you’ll also make room for everyone to be more responsible for their commitments to “provide thoroughly”. Do we have an agreement?

We All Need Deadlines

“I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.” -Duke Ellington, jazz pianist, composer, and conductor 

Although we resist, protest, and sometimes miss deadlines, they provide a structure time alone does not. “Deadlines are one of the most powerful tools for accomplishment you can use,” writes Jeffrey Ford. Deadlines let us know what is needed by when and, when added to a request, create an agreement that can be managed. Without a deadline, projects or tasks exist in limbo, their importance undetermined and their necessity questioned. 

No matter whether the task is for personal satisfaction or a critical business action, a deadline arranges time so you can measure success. So, the next time you are given a new assignment, take the first step to achieving success by asking, “by when do you need it?” If you don’t, getting it done on time suggests “It Don’t Mean a Thing”. 

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

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.

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.

 

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.