Rule bound system fails to serve customers  


Dec. 10, 2014

Joan Lloyd

Dear Joan:

My boss believes that the customer is always right - even when he or she is wrong. This is fine conceptually, but let me give you an example of my situation.

I work in a store and a customer came in just before we closed and requested a special service that required many extra steps, which would have run way past our closing time. A week before our manager posted a memo telling all of us that we were not supposed to wait on people after the store closes.

In this case, I tried to state the policy to the customer but she complained to the manager. I was not only reprimanded in front of the customer but told to do even more services than the customer requested no matter how late it ran. I was then written up and told that I had a poor attitude. Now I ask you am I wrong or is he?



You both are. Each of you was trying to do what is right but unfortunately your system is flawed. Your manager is operating on the old principle that control can be achieved by making a lot of policies and rules. Unfortunately, policies never seem to fit every situation, so then the rules either have to be broken or more complex policies have to be developed for each exception that comes up. What you end up with is an impersonal bureaucracy, filled with people who are rule-bound and unable to do what is right for the customer.

There is a new philosophy, which takes a different approach; the empowered employee should be able to practice self-control and make the best decisions on the spot - if the system is set up correctly.

Let’s look at this from three perspectives: the customer’s, the manager’s, and yours.

Customers don’t want to hear about policies and rules. They’ll balk and walk. They want a product or service on their terms and if all their expectations are met or exceeded they might be back. They want every person who deals with them to have the authority to do whatever it takes to serve them. In other words, they want every employee to act like an owner who wants to keep them as a customer.

If you were an “owner,” there’s a good chance you would have looked at this situation differently.  You probably would have willingly stayed late, depending on your judgment of the situation. You would hope that this extra service would earn a loyal future customer.

Your manager probably established the policy on store hours in response to another situation he was trying to remedy - and it backfired. He may have been embarrassed that it was his own policy that was causing the complaint. He could have salvaged the situation by admitting it was his well-intentioned rule that was at the heart of the problem. ... not your obstinateness. Chances are, if you had been treated with respect and dignity, you would have been much more willing to stay late and do what was needed.

The policy tied your hands and made you look like the problem. You made the situation worse when you argued with your manager. In the future, you would be better off to go to your boss immediately, explain the situation and ask permission to “break the rule.”

For any future policy, ask a lot of questions at the time it’s implemented, so you know (and your boss is forewarned) about how it could actually hurt instead of help.

Your manager doesn’t realize that his employees are his customers too. This new philosophy of leadership means treating you like a partner, with shared information about future vision, the competition, profitability, and goals. If you were aligned with your manager and top management you wouldn’t need a lot of rules. Your judgment would tell you what was the best reaction for any customer situation because you would think more like an owner. The “control” would be internal instead of externally imposed.

You would even have a more powerful and compelling reason to do this if your compensation was based on a combination of your skills and knowledge; how well you performed; and how well the company performed. You would have a reason to learn new things and provide knock-your-socks-off service.

Hopefully, management at your company will come to realize that customer service rules can hurt the very people they are designed to help. A system that builds good judgment, rather than fat rule books, makes a lot more sense for everyone.


When you must step into others’ turf   
Dec. 4, 2014

Dear Joan:

I have recently been appointed marketing manager of the firm I work for. My new duties include crossing functional lines of a dozen departments to direct and implement our marketing programs. Two of the individuals I deal with are close personal friends, who prefer to deal [with each other] directly rather than following the “chain of command” through my office. In order to be effective in my position, I must have the cooperation of these gentlemen on a day-to-day basis and need to assure them it is necessary to respect the “chain of command” for the overall success of our business. How can I be assertive and obtain their cooperation without appearing aggressive?



You have touched on a significant problem in companies today. That is, how to get cooperation from people over whom you have no direct control.

As the need to meet competition grows, departments are finding it necessary to pull tightly together to get more done in less time with better quality.

New product teams and task forces frequently consist of members from several departments. Line and staff functions have been forced into more communication. And office automation is connecting us directly to information and to one another.

Gone are the days when Production seldom talked to Marketing, or Sales rarely communicated with Service.

There are several things that could be barriers to you in this situation: You are new in your job and haven’t built trust, influence and credibility with your new network.

If the position is newly created, your colleagues aren’t used to working with someone in your capacity. If you did have a predecessor, he or she may have allowed these two men, and others, to operate too informally without central marketing control.

The fact that you are a woman may, or may not, have some bearing on your male colleagues’ reluctance to go through you in “the chain of command.”

Your status level may be lower in the organizational hierarchy than these co-workers, thus putting you in a less powerful position.

With all these barriers in mind, let’s examine your options:

* Eliminate the phrase “chain of command” from all verbal and written communications. It refers to power through authority and is applicable only in a boss/subordinate relationship.

* Constantly inform these two friends, and all other people from whom you need cooperation, of the impact their cooperation has on end sales. If people understand why they need to cooperate, they will usually do so.

* Show them what you do with the data they provide, explain how you have followed up on their suggestions and tactfully describe what can happen if you are left out of the information loop.

* Meet face to face as often as possible. Rather than sending a formal memo, try to personalize your dealings with these men. Because they seem to prefer an informal way of sharing information, they will probably warm up to this style of interaction. You may want to build in more structure later after rapport and trust is built.

* If you perceive that this problem exists with more people than just these two, you may need to market yourself before you can market your products.

* Schedule lunches with people from whom you need cooperation and sell your marketing ideas, goals and strategies. Solicit their ideas on how they can help you accomplish these things. Always emphasize the success of the business rather than your personal success.

* Have regularly scheduled meetings that are attended by people important to the company’s marketing goals. The format for these meetings could range from sharing and discussing information to brainstorming solution ideas for marketing problems. However, if you use meetings, make sure they are informative and worthwhile for all parties.

* Be direct, yet diplomatic about what you need. You’ve already partially scripted in your letter a perfectly logical way to state it assertively without being aggressive: “In order to be effective in my position, I need your help and cooperation on a day-to-day basis to achieve the overall success of our business.”

You could go on to say, “I respect the fact that you are close friends and enjoy dealing directly with each other, but it is causing some problems.” (Explain bottom-line effects.)

Or “I know you’re both probably not even aware of this. That’s why I thought I’d explain the situation and ask for your help.

* Throughout the process, keep your manager informed and be sure to ask for his or her advice. The coaching you receive will help you understand the political side of this issue.

 This approach will help you earn respect and cooperation that will get you more mileage than forcing the issue.

Helping an employee with personal woes 
Nov 28, 2014

The performance of one of your best employees has begun to sag. Her last two reports weren’t as thorough as they usually are, and she seems distracted and preoccupied. She’s even come to work late a few times - something she rarely did before.

You finally decide to talk to her. Her reasons? “I’m going through a divorce.”

Many people have problems in their private lives that can affect their performance on the job.

As a manager, you are faced with balancing the concern and consideration you feel for your employee with the standards and requirements of the job.

Some managers feel that employees’ private problems should be discussed at home and not at work. They don’t want to be “social workers,” and they feel uncomfortable discussing personal problems. Other managers feel everything bothering employees should be discussed. These managers tend to get involved in the daily details of employees’ lives and try to give advice.

I don’t think either approach is good for the employee, the manager or the organization.

It’s necessary to strike a balance between empathy and the bottom line. Your employee needs to feel supported but must also understand he or she still is responsible for getting the job done.

If a manager shows no concern for an employee during a traumatic personal time, he or she is likely to resent that manager long after the crisis has ended. They may think, “Why should I go the extra mile for him when he doesn’t care about me?”

On the other end of the scale, if an employee is allowed to continually fail to meet job responsibilities, an “understanding” boss soon finds a morale problem among the rest of the employees who are forced to carry the slack. Co-workers are usually more than willing to help out a fellow employee during a rough time but not when they sense that the situation is unfair. These “nice guy” bosses usually wind up feeling bewildered because their employees can’t get along like one big happy family.

As a strong, yet empathetic leader, you need to approach the problem only when it begins to affect job performance. Until that happens, you have no right to interfere in the private life of an employee.

In my opinion, it is never wise to give personal advice or take sides. Instead, listen intently to the feelings and concerns of your employee. Never say, “She sounds like a jerk. I don’t blame you for divorcing her!” Not only are your opinions irrelevant, but if there’s a reconciliation, you will have to swallow your words and your embarrassment. Sometimes an employee will use what you say to bolster their argument, which is also dangerous. For instance, “You’re being unreasonable! Even my boss said so!”

Don’t automatically assume you can’t assign new or challenging work to the employee. However, it the project has high risk, high visibility, or both, you may consider choosing another employee, or team up the troubled employee with one who is a solid performer. He or she may need a little extra care in the form of extra resources, careful delegation and follow-through, coaching and flexibility. Ask your employee what he or she needs from you to continue meeting job standards. Be willing to consider things like extending a deadline or adjusting work hours.

Many companies offer an employee assistance program for the purpose of referring employees to outside agencies for counseling. This service is confidential and offers strong support to employees of these companies. No reports are sent to the company. If this type of program is not available, consider suggesting outside counseling.

Things can become sticky if prolonged personal problems cause a long-term decline in performance. After numerous discussions about the importance of meeting standards, you may be forced to outline the consequences of continued poor performance. Before doing so, however, you must be mentally prepared to carry out those consequences, should the employee fail to improve. It’s a judgment call that takes careful thought. Your best bet is to get advice from Human Resources.

Fortunately, in most cases, the trauma is short-lived and has little impact on an employee’s long-term career. Often, all that’s needed from the manager is a willingness to listen.

A manager who conveys fairness and understanding to an employee with personal problems can go a long way toward inspiring renewed motivation for someone going through a tough time and among other employees who watch from a distance.


How to disagree agreeably (but directly)
Nov. 9, 2014

If people only talked to each other, most of the conflict in the workplace would disappear.

Instead, it seems when we are wounded by someone, or disagree with something they've done, we end up talking to everyone except the person who's directly involved. We wander down the hall and talk to a co-worker ... mention it to our lunch buddies ... complain about it to our spouses. We spread the negative poison around the organization, drag unwitting coworkers into the fray, sully reputations and, in the end, erode the trust that comes from open, honest, face-to-face communication. 

Where did we ever get the idea that confronting someone face-to-face had to be such a horrible encounter? Are we all so worried about being 'nice' that we've opted for being spineless? And when did we get confused about the perils of telling people the truth?

What about the perils of not telling them the truth? Our organizations are paying a big price for this 'smile to your face/make a face behind your back' communication style. It's costing millions in wasted time and lost productivity, in addition to a human price in broken trust and lost respect.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating brutal honesty and confrontation that strips away self-esteem and dignity. I'm talking about the respectful, caring communication that says, 'I care about our relationship. Something's bothering me and I thought it was important to talk to you about it directly so we could reach an understanding.'

I think most people are afraid. They're afraid of hurting someone's feelings. They're afraid of sounding 'negative' or 'making waves.'  They're afraid of the backlash that can come from a conflict that escalates into a fight. They're afraid of de-motivating their employees. They're afraid of not being liked. They're afraid of collecting political baggage. They're afraid of not getting ahead or losing their jobs.

If you're guilty of side talk instead of straight talk, here are some behaviors that can help:

1. Use the 'best intentions' approach. Most people don't intentionally wake up in the morning and think to themselves, 'I'm going to really hurt her feelings today!'  Most people have the very best intentions. But it's those good intentions that keep getting us into trouble because others don't know our intentions - they only judge our actions.

When approaching another person about a conflict, you could say, 'I'm sure you had good intentions when you ... but let me tell you how it looked from my perspective ...' Rather than waving the finger of blame in someone else's face, just talk about the effect it had on you.

2. Use the 'I'm just getting your advice' approach sparingly. A lot of damage can be done by going to multiple people to "seek advice" about how to handle a conflict situation. It can become a way to see how many people are on your side. It can also be a sneaky way of poisoning the well for the other person; everyone's heard your 'side' and so the other person suffers political damage no matter what the outcome.

3. Start by looking for things for which you should take responsibility. The beauty of opening any conflict resolution session with self-disclosure is that you bring the other person's defenses down immediately and problem solving can occur.

For example, 'I was out of line when I was sarcastic to you in the staff meeting. I'm sorry - it was inappropriate. I'd like to talk with you about the issue.'

4. Be as open and honest as you can, while preserving the other person's self-respect and dignity. This is the very heart and soul of building trust. Sugar-coating your message, or smoothing over conflicts, might feel better to you in the short run, but it can create more problems.


It can be liberating to lay it bare and call it what it is, instead of pretending. The only way to build a foundation of trust is to be open, honest and straightforward in your day-to-day dealings. But in order to preserve the relationship you must let people maintain their dignity and save face. That means using neutral words to describe the problem and finding common ground - pointing out why both of you stand to win if both of your needs are met.

Does this sound pretty basic? You bet. It also is just plain good common sense, but common sense isn't so common - we all have to work at it.

Tips for managers who struggle with delegating effectively 
Oct. 23, 2014

“If I want it done right, I’d better do it myself.”

“If I gave my people more to do, they’d resent it.”

“By the time I explain what I want done, I’ll have it done myself.”

Do any of these sound familiar? If they do, it’s probably because many managers struggle with delegating effectively. They worry that they will lose control, serious mistakes will be made, deadlines will be missed or subordinate resentment will build.

The following tips will not only help you to get more done in less time, by utilizing and developing the talents of your subordinates, but will allow you to maintain the degree of control appropriate to the situation.

Explain why you are delegating the assignment. Adults perform tasks more readily when they understand the reason for completing them. Tell them how this assignment fits into the “big picture” and why it’s important. In addition, if there is a particular reason for choosing this employee, by all means, let him or her know.

For example, “Our department has been chosen to pilot the new office automation system. The results of this project will help the company decide the direction it will take in the future. I’ve chosen you to help me with this project because of your firsthand knowledge of the clerical tasks in this department.”


Define assignment

Clearly define the assignment. Many times an assignment is delivered quickly or in vague terms. Only after an employee has worked hard and handed in the project does the manager realize that it wasn’t what was wanted after all.

Think through the task and jot down your specific expectations, possible approaches, deadline, resources and the key people with whom they should communicate. Answer all the who, what, where, when, and how much questions.

Determine the level of authority your subordinate will have and communicate it to those involved. Send a memo or announce it at a staff meeting. Don’t forget to inform any people outside your department who may be affected.

Factors like the importance of a project and the employees’ experience or judgment will determine the amount of control to give them over the outcome of a project.

For instance, you may want an inexperienced employee to report all the facts to you so you can make the final decision. To a more seasoned employee or for a complex assignment, you might say, “Let me know the alternative actions - including pros and cons of each - and recommend one.” Or you may ask experienced employees to simply let you know what they chose to do after the task has been completed.

Allow your subordinate to ask questions and make recommendations. A hit-and-run approach may buy time at the front end, but cost you time and money in the long run. It’s important for both of you to confirm and clarify the details.


Provide outline

Provide them with a brief outline of the specifics. Never assume that all the details will be understood and remembered. Jotting down your thoughts in advance will help you think through the assignment and provide a guide to your subordinate.

Tell the employee how he or she will be evaluated. This is often overlooked by managers but can make a tremendous difference in the way an employee will tackle a project. This will determine where the employee will concentrate his or her energy.

For example, if an employee knows she will be evaluated on how well the other employees accept a new procedure they have been asked to implement, you can be sure the proper care will be taken to gain that acceptance.

Always ask the employees to summarize what you have asked them to do. Never assume they fully understand until you hear their interpretation of what they have agreed to do.

If the task is complex or will take a while to complete, build in checkpoints along the way. Set up brief meetings for your subordinate to update you on his or her progress. Avoid overcontrol or snatching the assignment back. Schedule your checkpoints so you’ll know of any trouble in plenty of time to help them do something about it.

If your subordinate is doing a task that is unfamiliar to him or her, reassure him or her that you don’t expect perfection at first. This will make it easier to report any mistakes to you immediately rather than trying to hide them from you.

Avoid these poor listening pitfalls - best managers are best listeners
Sept. 11, 2014

Think back to the best boss you’ve ever had. Chances are, that person really listened to what you had to say in spite of a busy, demanding work schedule.

Bosses who are good listeners convey to their employees that they are valued and that what they have to say is important. Consequently, these bosses are not only well-informed but often have loyal, committed employees.

Most managers are constantly bombarded with data to be sorted through, decisions to be made and schedules to meet - hardly an atmosphere conducive to active listening.

Research, done in companies across the country, reveals that most managers spend over 60 percent of every day interacting with people. Up to 80 percent or more of that time is spent listening.

With so much important information coming at us through our ears, we can’t afford to miss much. That’s why it’s shocking to discover that these studies show we forget 50 percent of a 10-minute presentation within 24 hours, and 25 percent more is lost by the next day.

Our listening habits are not the result of poor training, but rather the result of the LACK of it. We need to learn to listen the way we learned to read and write - systematically and with practice.

In the business place, like elsewhere in our lives, we need to listen between the lines to truly comprehend what is being said. Often, people hint at what they are really thinking, or have an undeveloped thought that needs to be drawn out.

If you miss these cues, you may be operating with only surface information. When a subordinate quits, a project fails or morale sags, you may have been forewarned, but you never really listened.

According to Drs. Ralph Nichols and Manny Steil, here are some of the bad listening habits we have acquired and what you can do about them.


In & out listening

We can listen four times faster than the average person speaks. The poor listener will daydream, particularly with a slow speaker. A good listener will evaluate, synthesize, weigh the evidence and listen between the lines for the feelings beneath the surface.


Red flag listening

To some people, words are like the proverbial red flag to the bull. Words like “new procedure,” “taxes,”  “grievance,” can provoke strong emotions that shut down listening. Good listeners are sensitive to the feel of these emotional “hooks.” They keep their mouths closed and their minds open until the speaker has had a chance to finish his train of thought.


Prematurely judging the speaker or his ideas

We sometimes decide too quickly that the subject or speaker is boring or makes no sense. The good listener will try to overlook the speaker’s delivery and seek out the content of the message. The skilled listener will also ask, “What’s in this for me? How can I use this information?” Furthermore, he will listen for central themes and ideas, not just for facts.


Preparing for the counterattack

We don’t like to have our pet ideas, prejudices and points of view overturned. When this happens, the poor listener will tune out and begin planning his own defense or a cross-examination of the speaker. (Red flag listeners often fall into this category, as you might expect.) Good listeners won’t judge until comprehension is complete.


Too-deep-for-me listening

When a topic is judged as too new, complex or too difficult, the poor listener mentally shuts off.

Good listeners will make a real effort to understand and will ask lots of questions. They will try to relate the information to their own experience and use their listening time to mentally summarize and look for central themes.

There is one thing you can do to enable you to overcome most of the bad habits mentioned above: paraphrasing. This, repeating in your own words what you think the speaker meant, without interjecting your own opinion or questions, is the single most important listening technique.

Paraphrasing sounds like this: “In other words, your plan is to research the topic and prepare a proposal. Is that right?”


The components of paraphrasing are:

1. repeat a summary of the speaker’s thoughts and feelings;

2. use key words and phrases to avoid “parroting”;

3. always check with the speaker to make sure your summary was accurate;

4. if you are losing the train of thought, it’s all right to interrupt to paraphrase;

5. don’t insert your opinions or argue a point until the speaker has completed his comment.

It is particularly important to paraphrase when you are going to make a decision on the information, opinion or suggestion offered. And it’s equally important when your immediate reaction is to reject, ignore or disagree with what you’re hearing.

When you confirm your understanding of someone’s thoughts or ideas, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with what is being said. When you say, “In other words, you’re saying... ,” “So you feel that... ,” you’re simply making sure you both share the same understanding of what is meant. This puts you in a position to take whatever action is necessary.

Even if you choose not to follow a suggestion or use an idea, the fact that you’ve taken the time to listen and understand is motivation. It meets the speaker’s need for recognition and strengthens the perception that his suggestions and opinions will be listened to and understood.


Workplace conflict? Complex picture emerges as you dig into organization’s culture  
Oct. 9, 2014

I love my job as a sociologist and cultural anthropologist. The challenge for me is to dig beyond an organization’s conflicts and the dysfunction, into the rules, measures, structures, goals and all the variables that go into making a mini-society work - or fail.

I was working with a group of senior leaders recently and they were identifying some of the problems their company was experiencing. “There is so much conflict between departments,” one leader explained. “The Project Managers are always wrestling with their project teams to get things done on time and with any sense of urgency.”

“Morale is bad, too,” another leader added. “We’re losing some good people and others are complaining that there is just too much work.” “And people complain that we’re ‘meeting people to death’,” another added.

As the discussion progressed, I started asking some questions, to understand what the core problems might be.

* How are you structured? Are employees organized homogeneously by technical specialty, or cross-functionally organized by product group? By geographic region?

* How does your customer interact with your organization?

* How are people evaluated? What’s measured? Who gives feedback to whom?

* What is rewarded?

* What brings in the most revenue? How is that work assigned? What kind of work do you want more of in the future?

As we peeled away the layers of the onion, the core of the matter was exposed. All the while they had been saying “We have a matrix structure” and “We support project management” and “The customer wants integrated solutions.” But the truth of the matter was that most of their internal infrastructure hadn’t changed much from years ago - but their demands and expectations had changed significantly. The leaders were getting more and more frustrated but no one else seemed to understand what the fuss was all about.

They surprised themselves when they realized that the employees were rewarded for individual and department performance and project work was not a part of the goal-setting process or the reward process. No wonder Project Managers had a hard time getting any sense of urgency from members assigned to their cross-functional teams. The future strategy of the company hung on integrated solutions but people were happy doing their department-focused work because that was what counted when it came to salary review and promotion time.

As we uncovered the layers in our archeological dig, the leaders began to see what had been overlooked. When you are getting behavior you don’t want in your organization, it may not be personalities or “styles” at fault. You have to look deeper - at the cultural anthropology - at the formal and informal laws, hierarchy, and infrastructure that make up their organization as a “society”. Organizations, departments and teams are just mini-versions of whole societies, just like the Navajo or the Aborigine.

So often, leaders will see the symptoms and want to fix them. “Let’s teach people how to manage conflict.” “We need a teambuilding session.” And sometimes those are absolutely the right moves to make, but just as often they won’t do a thing to fix the real problem.

So the next time you see the wrong behavior and you want to change it, think of yourself as an anthropologist or a sociologist studying a newly discovered tribe. Here are some of the cultural components you would want to examine:

* Who are the formal and informal leaders and how do they set the norm for the rest of the group? Look beyond what they say to what they do.

* What behavior is rewarded and reinforced? (Look beyond the obvious. Long-standing bad behavior is getting reinforced or it wouldn’t be happening.)

* What gets measured? What behavior do you want and how is that measured?

* Does the reporting structure point clearly to appropriate and clear accountability and lead naturally to the expected outcomes? Do people have to “work around” the system just get the right work done?

* Do the senior leaders all share the same vision for the future and have linked business goals?

* Do the policies and procedures reward the right behavior?

* What gets “punished”?

* Where is the corporate graveyard and who are the walking dead?

* Who do they tell stories about? What stories make up the oral history of the company, that are repeated over and over?

You get the idea. Dig deeper. You may be surprised at what you uncover.

Five strategies for managing group dynamics, in meetings  
Sept. 25, 2014

I think my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Sadist, taught me what not to do as a group leader. When freckle-faced Pat Shanhan threw a spitball, the whole class had to stay in for recess. Rather than exert peer pressure on Pat, it just made us focus our resentment on her. And when Billy Larenson was caught napping, the teacher called on him, just to embarrass him in front of the class.

Unfortunately, some leaders took their lessons in leadership from people like Mrs. Sadist. They run lousy meetings and don’t have a clue about how to manage group dynamics. “Our department meetings are a nightmare!” a friend confided over coffee last week. “The department head doesn’t have a clue about how to handle the group, so it’s pretty much a free-for-all. She’s losing respect, too, because everyone wants her to regain control.”

A large group can be intimidating even for a seasoned manager. Here are some tips I’ve used to lasso unruly group members without alienating the group.


The dominator

This person uses a meeting for his or her personal forum on every agenda item. You need to cut him off but if you do it too harshly and wound his self-esteem, he will have hurt feelings and the group will side with him.

Strategy: Look for a place to interrupt him, quickly summarize his point of view and turn to the group and say, “Does anyone else have an opinion about this?” or “Joe, I’d be interested in your opinion about this.”


The wallflower

You know she has good ideas but she’s just too shy to share them in a group setting.

Strategy: Set her up with a little encouragement. “Susan, you’ve had experience with this in your last position. What can you tell us?”  “Susan, you were telling me about an idea you had last week. Why don’t you share it with all of us?”


Side conversations

In a big group, two people will often huddle together and start buzzing about something. If you embarrass them, you’ll look like Mrs. Sadist. Besides, they may be discussing a great idea about the topic.

Strategy: Pause a little longer than normal before you make your next point. Sometimes that will cause them to stop talking (however, avoid giving them an evil glare). Call on someone who is sitting next to one of them. That will startle them enough to stop, without embarrassing them. If all else fails, “Hey, you two. You must have a good idea over there. How about filling the rest of us in?”



This one is tricky, since he or she may have a legitimate point and you don’t want to shut down honest dialogue.

Strategy: Summarize the basic concern the person is griping about. Use neutral words such as “She thinks the policy isn’t fair.” Turn to the rest of the group and say, “What about this concern? Let’s examine it. Does anyone else feel this way?” If no one else joins in, the group can often diffuse the griper and you won’t have to do a thing. If the person is a chronic griper, it’s time for a private one-on-one conversation about what is at the bottom of his or her discontent.


The quiet group

Groups can be reticent for many reasons. For instance, the topic may be an emotionally charged issue that could divide the group, or the leader may dominate the conversation, or the group may be resistant to a new change.

Strategy: If your group is usually quiet, chances are you are the problem. Perhaps you talk too much or have intimidated people in the past when they had an idea that disagreed with your own. Your best strategy is to let others lead the discussion and reduce the frequency of your comments. Ask more questions and make fewer judgements.

If the topic is political, don’t force a discussion in a group. You will have more luck talking with people individually. Then bring forth the range of opinions in a group session, without attributing comments to specific individuals. This will allow people to discuss pros and cons of a solution without being politically vulnerable.

If you don’t know why your group is quiet, it’s time to ask them. The next time you meet, tell them that the only agenda item will be an evaluation of the group meeting format. The goal of the meeting will be to redesign your meetings to make them more effective.

To resolve conflict, managers must separate facts from emotions  
Sept. 16, 2014

Confronting and resolving conflict can be an unpleasant affair. So unpleasant that some managers will either avoid a problem or intervene without careful preparation, just to get it over with.

Conflict is an inevitable part of any work environment. Some conflicts between employees will resolve themselves and some may even produce useful competition or change. But most conflict shreds the cooperative fabric of the workplace and diminishes productivity.

Dear Joan:

Two employees of mine have been in a fight for two weeks. They are barely speaking to each other, and now one to them appears to be trying to get some of the others on her side.

Their fight is about some comment one appears to have made about the other. The accused employee denies such a comment.

I have spoken to each of them and then brought them together for a talk, but it didn’t do too much good. It is beginning to affect everyone, and others are complaining. I would hate to lose either person because they are normally good workers.

I thank you in advance for any advice you can give me.



Your goal is not to make them like one another but to be able to work together. You will need to reduce the emotions and get to the facts.

Do Your Homework

Prepare yourself with as much factual knowledge about the problem as you can. Look at how productivity has been affected.

Your approach has been correct so far. You’ve spoken to each employee separately and then together to attempt to settle his or her differences. You didn’t mention the quality of their relationship before this conflict arose, but I am assuming it was reasonably amiable and professional.


Get Emotionally Prepared

You will need to be impartial, even-tempered and fair.

Both parties probably will be attempting to win you over to their side by building their case and by blaming the other. They will look to you for subtle signals, like the amount of time you allow each person to speak or any expressions of empathy on your part, either verbal or non-verbal.

The day you choose to meet with them is the day they should be notified of the meeting. This will limit the amount of time they have to arm themselves with more accusations or build defenses.

Open the conversation by stating your concern about the problem. Tell them it is affecting their performances.

Never attempt to humiliate them into a resolution. Comments like, “You’re both behaving like children” or “You both have really disappointed me” sounds parental and condescending and only create further resentment.

Two consultants with McGraw Hill,Inc. David Engler, General Education Media, and Lester R. Bittle, author of “What Every Supervisor Should Know,” suggest that you:

1. Ask each person to explain his or her account of the problem. Each version is likely to be laced with emotional interpretations and assumptions. Do not let either party interrupt while the other is talking or you will have an “I did not!” “You did too” free-for-all. Instead, say something like, “Jane, you will get a chance to talk in a moment.”

2. Ask each employee to state the other’s views of the problem. This may be difficult for them to do because they have been too busy mentally arguing and defending themselves while the other person spoke. Asking each of them to put into words what the other’s views are can have a calming effect.

3. Ask each to confirm the accuracy of the other’s restatement. Simply say, “Charley, is that what you said?” Each person needs to feel heard before you can move on.

4. Ask each in turn to focus on the facts of the problem. If either one begins to stray into hearsay or interpretation, calmly but firmly restate that it’s important to stick to the facts. This will create a more problem-solving climate and keep the mud in the buckets.

Here you will need to listen very carefully to make sure you are getting a clear, detailed description of the problem. Allow no generalities.

5. Ask each to suggest solutions. By this time, you may have mentally settled on your own solution. Resist the urge to steer them in that direction or impose your own ideas. Listen open-mindedly to their suggestions since they will be more committed to solutions they come up with on their own.

If their solutions are impractical, unacceptable or not forthcoming, you must offer your own opinion and solution. Offer any support you can to make the solutions work.

6. Ask each of them to restate what they have agreed to do. This eliminates any misunderstandings. It’s also a way to create a more binding agreement.

7. Set up a followup meeting before they leave. This progress check creates a sense of urgency and lets them know you’re serious about ending their conflict once and for all.


Empowering employees is a matter of survival 
Sept. 11, 2014

Status, power and control. These three brass rings are what American employees have been after for decades; and they have grabbed the prize when they were promoted to management.

The language of control is liberally sprinkled throughout the corporate vocabulary. For example, “span of control” describes the number of “subordinates” who “report” to a “supervisor” or “manager.” Even the word “supervisor” implies that employees can’t be trusted and must be controlled.

It’s no surprise then, that some managers are silently digging in their heels and muttering under their breath, “Participative management isn’t for me. I’ve earned my perks the hard way, thanks. Give me one good reason why I should suddenly share these hard-earned goodies with my employees?”

I can give them a reason: survival.

These managers have seen management fads come and go and they figure if they go through the motions and mouth words such as “involvement,” this too shall pass. Not this time, buckaroos.

The only way to harness the waning work ethic is to create the kind of environment that gives status, power and the ability to self-control to the employees. Some companies are way ahead of their counterparts and have established a new set of definitions. Their productivity and profitability are up and their employees don’t leave. Let’s take a look at these new definitions that are reshaping the competitors who are out in front:



There will be fewer corporate status symbols 10 years from now. The walls executives erect between themselves and their employees will need to come down. Why? Because the employees who work directly with the customer, solving their problems and making sales, will be the focus of corporate attention, not who gets the corner office.

Smart executives will do everything in their power to break down the barriers between themselves and the front line. They will need to find out what their employees know about the customer and they won’t get a “worker bee” from the bowls of the organization to open up to them if they are sitting at the opposite end of a 6-foot mahogany desk. Executives will shed their suit coats and go visit their employees where it counts - on the factory and showroom floor.

Instead of status-loaded titles such as “supervisor” and “subordinate” we will see more “associates” and “members.” Perks will go to everyone or to no one at all. The goal will be “one for all” instead of “the guy with the biggest title wins.”

Companies who understand how to compete will know that in order to keep the best and brightest where they need them - on the front line, working with the customer - they will have to make it more attractive than moving into management. Middle management ranks will continue to thin out and steep hierarchies will be a thing of the past.

Many companies have typically paid their field salespeople more than they could make in management. Companies will have to extend this concept to employees at the corporate headquarters, if they are to attract and keep talented, young employees from the ever-shrinking labor pool.


Power and Control:

In the past, power belonged to the decision-maker, the performance evaluator and the money distributor. This will still be true, however, the people who perform large portions of those tasks will be the employees.

Some service-minded companies, who have moved toward the concept of self-managed employees, first experimented with letting teams make some of their own decisions about how they do the work. When these teams were given real power and authority to make the changes they felt were important, these employees exceeded the performance goals that were set for them. 

When management realized that the employees were enthusiastic and the quality and speed of their work improved, they trained them in more self-management tasks such as peer performance reviews and hiring and firing and even salary distribution. The team, rather than the individual, became the unit to reward. Their managers became facilitators and coaches and the focus of the organization shifted from how to please the boss, to how to provide the resources the employees need to serve the customer.

Contrary to popular management belief, anarchy does not prevail when power and control shifts to the employees. But this doesn’t happen without hundreds of hours of training and a management team that is fully committed to the vision. Employees will watch what their bosses do, not what they say. A few control-minded executives can undo, in one knee-jerk decision, the employee commitment that took months to build.

These are exciting times for management and employees alike. The companies who make it will learn the power and excitement of joining hands and beating the competition instead of each other.


Sometimes it’s better to leave than try to fight perceptions 
Sept. 6, 2014

Dear Joan:

After working with my present employer, a large financial institution, for more than two years, I decided to take advantage of the firm’s policy of allowing a review of the results of pre-employment tests with a Human Resources Department representative. I learned that although I ranked in the upper 95th percentile in psychological and social attributes, I rated in the lowest 5th percentile in intelligence and, therefore, could never, according to company policy, be considered for a promotion or higher position.

While in school, I was placed in the Superior Ability Program of the Milwaukee Public Schools when I was in the fourth grade (a minimum IQ of 125 was required); I was admitted to the National Honor Society and graduated with honors from high school; graduated summa cum laude from a large university; received an MBA degree; and now teach senior-level courses in college in the evening.

Obviously, the pre-employment tests are erroneous, but the Human Resources Department insists that an error is impossible and changing the records could not be considered.

The test score explains why I have not been promoted and why I am always given the department’s more secretarial, routine assignments.

My supervisor is an extremely uncommunicative person. How do I proceed from here?


If you decide to stay in this company, after uncovering this information, your intelligence would indeed be in question!

Unfortunately, pushing your Human Resources Department will only tie another can to your tail. The more noise you make, the worse it’s likely to get. Since they insist an error is impossible, they aren’t likely to be tolerant of your protests to the contrary. (Incidentally, why did they hire you in the first place if they thought you scored so low in intelligence?)

Even if you write a letter detailing the facts, the damage has probably been done. As you know, changing people’s perceptions can be difficult. Because you don’t know who has seen it, you wouldn’t know where to begin.

Start looking for another job. Two years is a respectable amount of time to spend at one company. You can tell potential employers that you are looking for a job with more growth and responsibility.

Consider it lucky that you discovered the error when you did. You could have spent many frustrating years questioning your ability.

If you feel you must pursue this issue, it’s not unreasonable to ask to speak to someone from the Human Resources Department who is more knowledgeable about interpreting test results. (They may be willing to let you talk with someone from the testing firm.)

Ask for the name of the test. Find out if it’s valid. Any test used to enhance or determine promotional opportunities needs to meet Equal Employment Opportunity employee-selection guidelines.

Obviously, a mistake was made, but erasing it may create a bigger smudge. You were smart to check your file. Now, be shrewd and leave.

Just a footnote about testing:

Psychological tests are typically used to reinforce a decision the employer has already made. Valid tests are heavily researched and can be used to show a correlation between certain test scores and people who tend to be successful in a particular area. Of course, these predictions are never foolproof.

If the test is reliable and valid, it can increase the likelihood of a good job match. Common sense must prevail, however. There is no substitute for careful interviewing, reference checking and a record of past accomplishments.

What four things separate good bosses from bad bosses? 
Aug. 11, 2014

Is it just me, or is there more selfish, insensitive and downright mean behavior at work these days? When did we cross the line from honesty to cruelty? When did we evolve from “I’m okay, you’re okay,” to “I’m okay and who cares about you?”

In some workplaces today, employees don their emotional bulletproof vests to prepare themselves for the psychological battle they will endure that day. Managers can be the worst offenders, since their employees are at a political disadvantage if they want to stand up for themselves. Heavy workloads and more stress are probably the culprit but certainly no excuse.

Here’s the irony: this is emerging at the same time employers are launching all-out recruiting and retention campaigns to keep their best employees happy and content. In some cases, these minefields of caustic behavior are causing people to walk out the back door faster than they can get them through the lobby.

Here are some of the nasty things I’m seeing from managers and co-workers, and what to do about them:


Sarcastic comments.

Sarcasm can be a hoot at work but when it turns into a veiled barb, it’s crossed the line. The attacker can hide behind his words with a thin smile, “I was only kidding. Can’t you take a joke?” Meanwhile everyone in the room is squirming. The victim of the sarcasm has been publicly skewered and can only lose: he looks defensive if he’s offended and he looks weak if he’s the regular punching bag.

Approach: Public counterattacks can backfire and are tricky to pull off. Instead, pull the peer aside after the meeting and say, “Jack, from your comment in the meeting, you seem to have an issue with the way I’ve handled the Anderson account. I’d like to hear what your concerns are.” After his feedback, say, “I appreciate your honesty. In the future, I’d prefer a similar discussion between the two of us, rather than a comment in a meeting.”


The stealth bomber.

Sometimes everyone in the department knows about Jeff’s problem except Jeff. Co-workers gossip about him on their breaks. The manager has had a stream of complaints and ends up commiserating with other employees about Jeff’s problems.

Approach: Develop a conflict protocol in your department. The expectation is that anyone who has an issue with someone else is expected to go directly to that person first. When the supervisor receives complaints, he or she should coach the complainer to go and talk with the person first before the manager gets involved. The goal is to encourage everyone to take responsibility for the situation instead of playing high school games.


Condescending comments.

I’ve heard about comments that could curdle fresh milk. “Do I have to do your job for you?” “Last time I checked, I was the department manager and you were just a secretary.”

Approach: Stand up for yourself if you are the victim of blatant disrespect. “If you have a concern I’ll be happy to discuss it but not if you use that tone.”


Screaming and temper tantrums.

Managers and co-workers who yell and throw things often dismiss the ripple effect it has. Their way of dealing with a frustration is to get it out of their system, never mind the fact that they have now passed their stress to everyone around them. Sister symptoms are door slamming, sulking and huffing around the office. And if the rage is directed at you, it can be demoralizing and devastating.

Approach: In the middle of the storm, either walk away or tell the person you’ll talk with them when they’ve calmed down. In a calmer moment give some advice. Use this model: 1. Describe what they are doing. 2. Say how it is affecting them/you. 3. State what you would prefer. (“When you yell and start blaming me, it makes me just shut down and get angry with you, instead of directing my attention to solving the problem. And because I’m worried about your reaction on things, I don’t always tell you when a problem is brewing, which makes it worse. I’d prefer it if you would state the problem and wait to hear what I have to say and then let me figure out how to fix it.”)


My life is more important than your life.

You see it everywhere. “I’m going to call in sick. So what if someone else has to cover for me?” “I have to leave early [again] to do something at my son’s school. Sally can finish this project, she’s single and doesn’t have any family obligations.”

Approach: Self-centered people fail to see themselves from other angles. Explain it by putting them in other peoples’ shoes. “If you were Sally, how would you feel if you had to stay late without warning each week to cover for a co-worker? Whether it’s for a child, elderly parent or just an aerobics class, it’s not fair to assume your life is more important than hers.”

If everyone practices a little more civility at work, it can reduce the stress for all of us.

If you ask someone what he or she loves or hates about work, you’re likely to hear about a great working relationship with a subordinate or about some sneaky little weasel in the next office. You’re also likely to hear about his or her relationship with the boss.

It’s no surprise that bosses are often the primary cause of people either loving or leaving their jobs. In your own career, you’ve probably been deeply influenced by certain bosses.

Learning to be a good boss isn’t as clear cut as learning technical skills. There is no degree to earn or tests to pass. Most of us learn how by watching our own managers and by making our own mistakes.

The other day someone asked me if I’ve seen any patterns emerge from the letters I receive about good and bad bosses. Over the years, I have begun to see that there are four main themes that seem to separate the good bosses from the bad.

They are: setting expectations, coaching, feedback, and recognition. These big four can make all the difference.


Setting clear expectations:

Every time I interview a new employee I ask him or her, “What kind of manager do you like to work for?” I’ll bet you know what they say: “Someone who tells me what they expect and how I’m doing.”

Managers need to sit down with new employees and point out priorities. It’s a good idea to pull out the performance review form and discuss how you define “excellent performance.” Paint a picture. Don’t assume.

For experienced employees it’s critical to discuss your expectations at least once a year when you’re forming plans for the coming year. It’s even better to discuss the results you expect when you are delegating each assignment. Too often, we simply tell our employees what we want done - not the results we expect. We deserve to be disappointed.



Too many managers lead through mental telepathy. They assume their employees know what to do and how to do it.

Managers must learn how to be good sideline coaches. Too often a well-meaning boss will run in and play the game for the subordinate rather than calling in the plays from the sidelines. The boss may be having fun but her subordinate isn’t learning a thing.

Overcontrolling bosses make their employees feel inadequate and undermined. Because they don’t force them to take the responsibility for solving their own problems, their employees either give up and become passive or the good ones quit.

Undercontrolling bosses cause different problems. Their hands-off style contributes to confusion about priorities. They don’t like to make unpopular decisions because they want everyone to be happy. Their team ends up running around the field in circles bumping into each other. Fights break out. They usually end up being ignored or despised.



Why wait until the formal performance review to surprise your employee? Then it’s too late to do anything about it. Managers get into trouble by not confronting employees early enough.

They often tell me they don’t want to hurt employees’ feelings or are afraid the employee will lose his or her motivation.

The next time you struggle with whether or not to share negative feedback with your employee, ask yourself:  “If I had this problem, would I want my boss to tell me?”

A good way to give negative feedback in a constructive way is to use the employee’s personal goal as a lead-in. For example: “I know you’re trying to bring in bigger retail clients, so I’m sure you’d want to know if there was something getting in the way of that ...”  It helps them hear what you have to say because you have their best interests at heart.

Feedback given along the way sounds more like coaching - not like punishment.



Employees demand recognition for their efforts. They are actively managing their own careers and won’t tolerate neglect.

We can’t afford what happens when good employees begin to wither from lack of positive reinforcement. In spite of themselves, some of them begin to say: “Why should I kill myself? He or she doesn’t appreciate it anyway!”

There has been a lot of research on motivational theory. One of the things inherent in all of the findings is that humans thrive on recognition. Nothing improves our hearing like praise. We never get too old for it.

Giving positive reinforcement is the most powerful coaching tool you have as a manager. Mention the thing you like and you’ll get more of it.

Remember to be specific, don’t mix negative and positive. Give feedback and compliments as soon after the event as possible. If you wait until their performance review, the effect is lost.

Your job has a tremendous impact on the people you manage. Your success or failure to pay attention to the “big four” will not only affect your employees but your future as well.

Good managers know that employee satisfaction is essential to healthy teamwork, initiative and productivity.  Based on an in-depth study of the most innovative ideas in creating a culture where employees thrive, our recruiting & retention tools have all the secrets you will need to find and keep the best employees.


Learn how to give criticism effectively
August 5, 2014

Receiving criticism is like swallowing bad-tasting medicine. We wish we didn't have to take it, but we know, if it’s valid, it will make us better.

Criticism is often as difficult to give as it is to receive. We don’t like to criticize because we don’t want to hurt feelings. Because of this, many managers rank giving negative feedback high on the list of techniques they want to improve. Even the best employees occasionally need to hear how they can improve their work. In fact, as a good coach, you owe it to your employees to recognize excellent work, as well as to give criticism, so they have a clear picture of the performance you desire.

If employees only hear about their work when they do it wrong, they may feel unappreciated and withhold extra effort because “the boss never notices anyway.” You risk getting an average performance out of a star performer.

Conversely, if employees hear only positive remarks or silence, they are being cheated out of important feedback that could help their careers. For example, studies have pointed out that some male bosses are hesitant to criticize female employees because they aren’t sure how they’ll handle it.

Here are some basic guidelines to help you deliver corrective criticism:

■ Don’t sugar-coat the criticism with compliments.

Even though you may think it will make the criticism easier to take, you may send mixed signals to your employees. They may either doubt the sincerity of your compliment or not take the advice as seriously as they should. For example: “John, I really think this report is well done, but there are quite a few little things missing.”

Instead, focus immediately on the task or behavior you wish to change. This doesn’t mean you should ignore the need to preserve your employee's self-esteem, however. Example: “John, these fact sheets are incomplete. You’re usually very thorough in your reports. Can you tell me anything about this?” This preserves the employee’s selfesteem and reduces defensiveness, while staying focused on the specific problem.

■ Give negative feedback on only one thing at a time.

Overloading an employee with several criticisms at once can diffuse the importance of each item. For example: “Sharon, there are too many typos in this letter. You have to be more careful. It’s just like your filing ... I couldn’t find the Evans report this morning ... and another thing ...”

Overloading criticism is also unproductive because it tends to make your employees feel ineffective, frustrated and resentful.

It is better to concentrate on one issue at a time and to deal with the most important area first.

■ Be specific about the change or result you want.

The change you want is probably so obvious to you that you assume it is understood by the employee. Constantly communicating your standards and expectations helps everyone stay on track. Consider the time, energy and anxiety caused by this vague criticism: “Brenda, you must work on writing better memos. Work on improving your style next time. It needs to be tightened up, OK?”

A better approach might be: “Brenda, you made some interesting points in this memo, but they were hard to find because of the memo’s structure. Next time, try limiting it to a half page and underline each key point.”

■ Offer criticism in the form of advice and give it right before the employee has a chance to try again.

This technique makes the feedback sound supportive rather than punitive. It can be difficult to discipline yourself to do this because our tendency is to routinely offer criticism immediately after a mistake is make.

Here’s how it could be done: “Pete, you have some difficult formats to put together for this report. I’d like you to be consistent with the other technicians in the way you lay out the data. When you get to that part, let me know. I’ll show you how I’d like it done.”

This timing technique of describing the change you want, right before they can practice it, isn’t always practical, but when used correctly, it is an effective coaching tool. Athletic coaches use it all the time to make performance adjustments.

■ Involve the employee in thinking through solutions.

This helps to eliminate blaming.

Listen to this exchange: Employee: “If Accounting had gotten the information to me on time, I could have prepared a complete report.”

Manager: “Do you have any ideas about how to get those figures from Accounting on time, next time?”

Pointing the finger at Accounting isn’t going to solve the problem, so the manager put the responsibility where it belonged – with the employee. Only if the employee’s facts clearly indicate that the fault lies elsewhere, and is beyond his or her authority to handle, would the manager intervene.

Involving the employee in thinking through solutions to mistakes encourages a healthy discussion of the problem and forces the employee to take responsibility for solving it.

Giving criticism is usually not easy but knowing how to do it well increases the likelihood that it will be heard and acted upon. It will make you a boss everyone will want to work for.

Reserve competition for your competitors

July 25, 2014

Dear Joan:

For the past 10 years I have worked in sales and have been successful because I’ve developed good relationships with my customers and the sales team.

For the past four years, I have been working for a manufacturing company in sales but I’m having a difficult time dealing with the philosophy of our sales manager. He believes that the best way to motivate the staff is to sow seeds of dissension between us. When we confronted him in a meeting he said that he believes that healthy competition keeps us motivated and working hard. We think this is counterproductive. Isn’t the “enemy” our competition - not each other? It’s tough enough dealing with the outside environment; we don’t want to be fighting inside too. What do you think?


I’m with you. The individuals on the team would probably do much better if their focus was on beating the competition instead of each other. Internal competition between individuals and between departments does all the wrong things: competition for resources, withholding help and information, opposing goals ... all the things that will hurt the customer and can kill a company.

Many managers still think that setting up some "healthy competition” between peers will spark the drive to do better than the other guy. Unfortunately, not many people are motivated this way.

Most people do better when they’re in a supportive team. The pressures of the workplace are relentless, and in sales they increase when making your mortgage payment depends on a commission. Sales people spend a lot of time alone in the field, and dealing with rejection is tough enough, so when they come back to the office they need to feel supported. It’s important to be able to congratulate each other’s successes and support teammates when they need it.

Another powerful component of motivation is having a shared goal. Imagine the dynamics of two differently structured sales contests. In group one, the sales manager would pit each sales person against the other for a prize. In the second group, the manager would have them work together.

It’s likely group one would steal leads from each other, withhold valuable market information, and hide how well they were doing. There would be winners and losers. Even the sales person who came in second place would be a loser. And because they wouldn’t share information about successful tactics, the team members wouldn’t learn much from the experience.

In the second team, things would be much different. The sales manager would work with the team to come up with a team goal that would be challenging yet possible if everyone did their part. Progress toward the goal would be prominently posted and the team would meet regularly to discuss how they could help each other to do even better. They would have a vested interest in making sure each of the team members had all the help and information they needed. They would have a compelling reason to share customer information and marketing ideas. They would all be winners and so would the customers.

These dynamics don’t just occur in sales teams. Most companies are inadvertently set up in a way that creates destructive competition. If they are structured functionally - each with their own goals - it’s inevitable. People fight each other for limited promotions, departments fight each other for resources ... and the customer is the loser.

That’s why progressive companies are moving toward a new way to structure and reward work groups. Rather than the traditional departmental configuration, they are now grouping people around a whole front-to-back process or product. The idea is to start with the customer and structure the organization to serve them, rather than organizing to suit the selfish efficiency needs of the organization.

Your manager doesn’t realize that these two things - structure and rewards - need to be in alignment before everyone wins.


Progressive discipline minimizes liability, maximizes productivity
July 18, 2014

Dear Joan,

I am a new manager, having recently been promoted after five years at this company. I am concerned about how to discipline employees. Some of my questions are:

1. How are U.S. firms dealing with employee discipline?

2. How do managers discipline their employees without offending anyone or getting sued?

3. How can a manager earn respect from their employees and still have them make sure the job is completed with satisfaction?

Our company doesn’t have a human resources function. We are a small service company of 35 employees. I am struggling with an employee who only seems to work when he feels like it and when I talk to him about his work he will improve for awhile but go right back to long breaks and missed deadlines.

What is the right approach? My boss is always worried about getting sued, so he wants me to tiptoe around this employee but I want to get him to perform his job. What do you advise?



An employee who is performing below the minimum standard - and getting away with it - is, in fact, lowering the standard for everyone. After all, if he can get away with lousy performance, doesn’t it mean everyone else can, too?

I’m on your side. If your manager ties your hands and prevents you from holding this employee responsible, he is taking away your authority to do your job. I suspect your manager is uninformed about what constitutes appropriate progressive discipline.

It’s called “progressive” because it evolves over a period of time, with no surprises for the employee and clear expectations and consequences. When done correctly, an employee can either take steps to turn around the situation or “fire himself.” In other words, he knows what the consequences will be if he doesn’t change his behavior but he continues down the path to termination anyway.

Experience shows us that surprised people sue. This process eliminates the surprise and gives the employee clear choices about the outcome. He or she may sue anyway but chances are you’d win the case, if you have been clear, consistent and reasonable about expectations and what the consequences could be if he or she fails to meet minimum expectations.


Here are some general guidelines to follow:

1. Meet with your manager and show him this process. Ask for his support as you move through the steps. If it would make him feel more comfortable, speak to a lawyer who specializes in labor and human resources issues before you begin.


2. First meeting: Have a discussion with the employee to spell out exactly what is expected and give him examples of the pattern of behavior that is unacceptable. “Jack, over the last few months you’ve missed a number of deadlines. Your weekly reports are consistently late, three of your main projects have missed major targets and you haven’t begun the new assignment that is due next week. This pattern isn’t acceptable and we need to talk about what you are going to do to turn this around.”

During this conversation, it’s important to do three things:

* Keep the focus on his responsibilities. Don’t accept excuses or blame. “Let’s stay focused on you. What are you going to do differently that is going to ensure that you meet your deadlines?”

* Determine if there is some legitimate barrier preventing him from meeting the expectation.

* Give him fair warning. This isn’t going to be documented but if you need to talk to him again, you will be forced to document the incident and put it in his personnel file.


3. Second - Third - Fourth Meetings: Observe his behavior, being quick to notice if he is making improvements but talk to him again if he fails to meet expectations. At this point, you will probably ask him to meet with you weekly and report on his progress. Restate the expectations, ask him for actions he’s going to take, or impose some actions if necessary.

* Summarize your conversation, including action items he’s agreed to do, in an email and give him a copy. Put a copy in his file.

* Spell out the potential consequences. “I feel that it’s only fair to tell you what could happen if you don’t turn this around. It has already had an impact on your results, which will affect your salary review. If it continues, it could cause you to lose your job. I hope you will take the necessary steps to prevent this.”


4. Final Meeting: He hasn’t improved consistently enough and you are going to give him one final warning. He is one step away from termination and he needs to know it.

* Give him specific, measurable actions you want from him, within a clear time frame. “Over the next six months, you need to hand in your weekly report by 3 p.m. on Friday. You also need to meet every deadline, unless we’ve agreed otherwise. Failure to do this could result in losing your job. It is unfortunate that it’s come to this but you’ve left me no other options.” (Notice the words “could result.” This gives you some wiggle room in case there actually is a legitimate reason. But at this point, it would need to be something out of the person’s control.)

Taking disciplinary action is never easy. But done correctly, it will put the employee’s fate in his own hands.


Boosting quality means thinking about service
July 8, 2014

Do your employees know who their customers are? If you’re thinking, “But they don’t have customers, only our sales people have customers,” you are missing out on an important concept. If each employee served internal customers as well as they serve outside customers, the level of quality in your organization would rise substantially.

Everyone has a customer. It’s easy to identify them. Just ask yourself. “Who receives the output my work group produces?” “Who complains when our work isn’t done right?” Tomorrow, call your employees together and discuss the concept of internal customers. But before you do, think about how you manage for “customer service.” Quality gurus, such as W. Edwards Deming, point to faulty management practices as the undermining influence that destroys good quality.

Here are some things to consider when you want to reinforce what you preach: Do I give my employees enough autonomy to solve problems with their customers or do I force them to follow inflexible policies? Have you ever heard one of your employees say to a customer, “I’m sorry, but that’s the rule.”

Is my organization structured so that employees who do different parts of the work can talk to one another daily and consider themselves as part of one team? Do your groups blame and complain about each other?

Does your performance review process and form weigh quality and teamwork as much as it does quantity of production? Are there complaints about service or do your “customers” have to revise some of your employees’ work?

In times of crisis, do you overlook poor customer service in order to get the work done? Action in times of a crunch are what employees remember when searching for your real expectations: “If he demands good customer service during rush periods, he must really mean it!”

Do you use the terms “customers” or “clients” when referring to the people who are next in line to receive work from your employees? In order to change thinking, you will probably need to use these terms on a regular basis.

When you receive complaints about services or products, do you give them back to your people to solve or do you try to solve it for them? Do you encourage them to discover what caused the problem in the first place, so that future problems will be avoided? Or do you ignore the opportunity and encourage everyone to get back to work as usual after the complaint is resolved or the complainer pacified?

When quality slips, do you demand that everyone work harder and try to concentrate? Or do you ask your employees if there is a problem in the work flow or changes in the system that could also be causing the problem? Quality experts have found that poor quality is usually the result of faulty systems, not faulty people.

When crunch hits, will you provide the resources necessary to get the job done at a level of quality that you expect?

Do you demand quality customer service or is cost control or production your real focus? Will you hire more help or delay a project deadline if the quality isn’t up to your customers’ standards?

Do you survey your customers on a regular basis? Do you have a regular system of feedback so your employees know how they’re doing? If you asked your employees what your customers’ standards are for quality work, would they know?

Do you provide appropriate training that reinforces quality customer service? Do you actually monitor what your new employees learn during their initial training? Do your employees have frequent educational meetings at which information is shared?

Do you have regular meetings at which problems are discussed openly and solved through teamwork? Or, do employees come to you individually with their problems or complaints about one another?

Do you ask your employees to give you input on policies, procedures and work decisions that affect them? Do you let them solve problems that are closest to them?

Do you reward the employees who strive to provide a responsible level of service and quality to their customers?


Manager who plays favorites is playing with fire
June 27, 2014

Dear Joan:

I have a situation in my office for which I would like your advice. I work for a very large telecommunications company on the East Coast. Although I have been working in my position as an account manager for four years now, I started working for a new boss a year ago due to a merger.

I recently discovered that this boss takes certain employees in our department to baseball games and other events during business hours over the summer and throughout the year. Certain employees have gone to sporting events several times, while others have never been asked to go, including myself. I should mention that there is an employee, newer than myself to the department, and he has been invited twice now. I should also mention that it appears to be only men who go to these games and I understand that there are really no business discussions going on at these events. The outings require no use of vacation hours; they are simply a perk.

I wouldn’t mind it so much that these employees get to take time off during business hours to go and enjoy the afternoon, if it weren’t for the fact that there are others of us who can’t take so much as an hour off without having to use vacation hours. There are certain employees (myself included) who are not allowed to work through lunch to make up an hour, while other people in the department are allowed to do this.

I would say something to my boss directly, but I suspect he really doesn’t like me and I would just be labeled a complainer if I said anything.

I should mention that our boss does give some nice perks to all employees, which I really appreciate. I get to work flexible hours along with about half of the office and everyone gets Friday afternoons off in the summer months without having to take vacation hours. We also are allowed to dress casually (when we don’t call on customers).

Am I not appreciating the benefits I do have (even though everyone gets them)? Or, is there some discrimination going on? Is there a way to address this with my boss without appearing to be a complainer?


I’d be annoyed, too. In the best of circumstances, your manager is lacking some basic understanding about fair play and how to build a team. A worse case scenario, your manager is displaying favoritism. His selective invitations to certain employees have created an uneven playing field, whether he realizes it or not.

It appears that there is even a disparity about the way “everyone’s” benefits are administered. If some people can make up time and others can’t, I have to wonder what the criteria are for these decisions. Is it based upon the job duties? For instance, in some customer service jobs, work hours must be adhered to for coverage purposes. But if this isn’t the case, it certainly looks like favoritism to me.

Employees who aren’t his cronies must be feeling like you do. Who wouldn’t? They must feel as if the boss doesn’t like them, either. They must wonder if their careers will be ignored, while his buddies’ careers will flourish. And if the “haves” are all men and the “have nots” are all women, the career opportunity imbalance will appear to be tipped in favor of men. And that’s where the risk lies for the appearance of discrimination. Although these outings may be done in ignorance and innocence, others may view the chosen ones as having an unfair advantage when raises and promotions are handed out. This manager is playing with fire.

Ironically, this situation isn’t fair for the manager’s pals, either. Even if they are good performers, any raise or promotion will be tainted with whispers about favoritism.

If your manager is blind to the obvious predicament he is creating, I doubt that he will be open to your opinion. If you do bring this up and he reacts with more hostility, you have several choices - go to Human Resources, or to your next level of management with your concerns, or you may decide to leave.

Your situation is not unlike many stories I hear about the subtle, and not so subtle, discrimination in many workplaces. It’s where the term “glass ceiling” got its name. Many women feel that situations such as this aren’t bad enough, or overt enough, to fight against. They chose their battles carefully and try to outperform their peers. In the end, if they feel that their good work will lose out to cronyism, many of them take their talent and go where they have a fighting chance.

Address feedback – perception is often reality  
June 17, 2014

Dear Joan:

At my company we have an extensive succession planning process. As a part of that process we hear feedback from those above us regarding our upward potential. I am a mid-level manager and I would like to move up some day but for right now, I’m happy in my job. I was promoted a few years ago and I still feel I have a lot to learn. The question I have for you is about something I have heard from my boss in the succession feedback. Apparently there is a perception among some senior executives that I am “too close to my people.” When I pressed for what that meant, I was told that sometimes I don’t see my people’s flaws. I view them only through “rose-colored glasses.” In other words, I think they are better than others think they are.

In my own defense, I like to build a strong team and my team is in a role that is under heavy pressure and stress. So, I believe that my job is to protect them a little from the business politics and administration that only bogs them down and interferes with our results. And our division is getting great results (we’re in sales and service).

He mentioned a few people who have had some performance slumps and one person who has been with the organization a short while but who has ruffled some feathers. I have defended these individuals because they have great potential.

My boss said it wasn’t anything career-threatening but he wanted to make me aware of it now, so I can work on it before it becomes a more serious issue (especially if I want to move up). What do you think?


I think you should thank your boss for his candid feedback. Whether you agree with it or not, if that is the perception of some of those above you, it must be addressed. In other words, if you disagree with their perceptions, you must prove them wrong with objective data. If their comments have a grain of truth, you would be wise to take a hard look at what you need to do differently.

If you believe that you are being judged incorrectly, then your strategy is to clear up their misperceptions. Talk to your manager and find out more details about what he and the senior managers think are your employees’ shortcomings. Ask yourself, “What aren’t they seeing that I see?” “What extenuating circumstances are they unaware of ?” “What behavior is causing ‘ruffled feathers’ and what can you do to help your employee change that outcome?”

As you work with those above you, find opportunities to educate them with objective data that they may not be aware of. Their perceptions will only change after they see the whole picture for themselves. Nothing you say will make that happen. In fact, it will only make you look more protective, if you try to defend these employees in the face of those perceptions.

On the other hand, if the issue is pronounced enough to come up during a succession planning process, it is probably grounded in some real evidence. If more than one person sees it this way, you should do some soul searching.

Good people managers sometimes have this blind spot. They are such devoted employee developers and teachers – especially for those employees they hire themselves – these managers aren’t always objective about the amount of progress that is being made. They don’t want to give up on a person.

Because these managers are such people-builders, they see potential everywhere. “I’m working with him on that,” is a typical refrain when senior managers question the person’s abilities. They see their employee’s failure as their own personal failure.

If you are seen as tolerating mediocre performance, or viewed as a manager who can’t fire someone, you will be a liability to the organization. In spite of your ability to build loyalty and commitment, you won’t be seen as strong management material. The ideal manager develops his or her staff but doesn’t identify so personally with their employees that their vision becomes clouded










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