The Leadership Challenge… Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Ears: The Importance of Listening in Organization Change

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

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

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

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

Some Advice from an Effective Change Agent

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Management vs. Leadership Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Does Forgiveness Fit into Leadership?

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

Seriously.

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

  1. Do leaders and managers need to forgive?

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

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

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

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

  1. What does it take to forgive someone effectively?

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

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

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

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

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 #6 – Problems & Solutions: Work Plans and Follow-Up

The All-Region Workday paid off for Rodd’s managers and their staff members. They had identified the three biggest problems for the whole StateOrg organization, and then, after listening to all 12 of the small-groups presenting their solutions, they formulated a work plan to solve each problem in the same way at each Regional Office. (The three problems, with their solution-focuses, are listed again farther down in this post.)

After hearing the solution ideas – all based on using the “four productive conversations” as a basis for making changes in staff communications – they took all the ideas and came up with a single format for addressing all three problems:

  • Start by clarifying the Goal for solving each problem, using Initiative conversations to specify What they want the solution to look like, When it will be in place, and Why it matters.
  • With a clear goal, they could move into having group discussions to develop a Work Plan for goal accomplishment. They used the Understanding Conversations – a dialogue – with its questions of Who the key people are who need to be involved in reaching the goal, Where the resources will come from and Where benefits will show up, as well as How to get the right people doing the right things.
  • The next element was to establish good working Agreements with those people. They identified Who Asks for something to be done, and Who Promises to do it, making sure people were clear about What would be done or delivered (whether products, services, or communications) and by When it would be complete. These are known as Performance Conversations, and everyone seemed to recognize that these conversations were their group’s “weakest link”, as one person said.
  • The fourth piece was Closure Conversations that provided the follow-up to see where things stand. People agreed they would have Regular Update Meetings to review the status of requests, promises, and agreements. These conversations are made up of two or more of the following “A’s”:
    • Acknowledge the status of results regarding promises made and promises kept;
    • Appreciate the people who have participated in the project;
    • Apologize for any mistakes and misunderstandings that have occurred since the last meeting; and
    • Amend broken agreements – by making a new agreement that will be workable or by revoking it altogether and finding another solution.

“We aren’t too good at these conversations, either,” one person said, as heads nodded with agreement.

The solutions differed only in their focus and the details of implementation. Here are the three problems, with the key elements of their unique solutions:

  • Outdated equipment or systems and insufficient materials and supplies: It was decided that this problem would be solved by taking an inventory of what was missing and what was needed. The inventory would be kept up to date and timely purchasing would improve productivity while reducing frustration and incomplete work.
  • Changes implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change: The solution chosen for this problem was to have specific communications that would be delivered to everyone by StateOrg executives and managers whenever changes were going to be made to any staffing, budgets, or systems. The communications would be developed by the people who had been through prior changes and knew what was missing in their knowledge of whatever was happening.
  • There are significant differences in the quality of work people do. This problem would be solved only by improving the way managers and supervisors give people their work assignments. The groups working on solving this created a list of ten questions that every manager had to discuss with staff people, so they would be clear on what was expected of them. The questions would be asked whenever assignments were changed in any way.

After three months of working on implementing these solutions – using online ZOOM meetings to report results and update work agreements among the members of the three “Problem Solver” teams, the results were reviewed, including some surprises. You can see them here, with other details about the process and findings of the last step: Workplace Assessment, Step #6.

It was impressive what this client had accomplished – so impressive that Rodd decided they need to have a celebration for the whole StateOrg team. Back to the capitol for a fine buffet and a cash bar!