Inoculate your company against rigid thinking 


March 19, 2015

Joan Lloyd

Dear Joan:

I was thinking of you at a staff meeting we had today. I thought you might appreciate an anecdote from the field about a regular occurrence: incorporating new people into a work team.

Today, I had the first management team meeting with a new employer. I found the situation to be productive and extremely comfortable. Of the nine people in the room (all upper managers), three of us had less than a year with the employer, three had over 15 years of experience, and the other three were somewhere in between. What made the meeting special was the interchange of ideas and a good dose of humor. The newcomers were neither singled out nor ignored. Even though we had little experience as a team, the humor helped us to build the relationships we will need to be effective in the future.

Contrast this with two other employers with whom I tried to build a career. Virtually from day one, it was made clear that “We won’t even know your name until you’ve been here for 10 years.” Although it was a joke, it was also a sad truism. It was difficult to bring anything new to the table because the culture excluded contributions from newcomers (even at high levels).

One of my peers was constantly on the defensive as a manager because long-service, lower-level people would go over her head to other long-service executives. Tens of thousands of dollars in recruiting fees were wasted because the employer did not have the gene that incorporates new contributors into the organization. Both employers had high turnover of middle management employees hired from outside the company. (And in neither case was I given the opportunity to give an exit interview.)

I believe there is so much to be gained in the collaboration of long-service employees with those who have other work experiences. Employers who do that are truly “employers of choice.”


Every organization is like a living, breathing organism with its own personality, emotional health, ethical standards and an immune system that rejects behavior and ideas that threaten its state of being.

When a foreign object - such as a new idea - is injected into the system, the organization’s antibodies rush to surround it and destroy it before it can spread to the rest of the organization.

In a healthy company, the foreign behavior that isn’t tolerated may be that of a disrespectful sales rep, who verbally abuses the internal sales assistants. Or, the organization might drive out an employee who refuses to work cooperatively on her team.

In an unhealthy organization, it sounds like this, “Oh, we tried that already and it doesn’t work,” or “Nothing changes around here unless the boss says it’s okay,” or “OK, try it if you want but I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes if it doesn’t work.”

This kind of insulated, narrow-minded thinking usually comes straight from the top and the only way it will change is through a change in leadership (or seeing the Ghosts of Christmas Past). That’s one of the reasons old-line or closely controlled companies with calcified cultures so often start by looking for an enlightened leader with a strong stomach for initiating change. The problem is that the executives and managers are conditioned so well, it is very difficult to change years of reinforced behavior.

Organizations that want to inoculate their organizations against rigid thinking are wise to take some of the following steps:

* Hire enough people from the outside to keep fresh ideas in the company’s blood stream.

* Make it a point to take full advantage of lessons learned somewhere else. Ask, “Jack, you’ve had experience with this at ACME. When you were there, how would they have approached this problem? Any lessons we could apply here?”

* Do 60-day interviews with new employees to find out how they like the organization, if they are feeling accepted and if there is more you can do to tap their experience.

* In meetings, squash nay-saying and premature evaluation of new ideas.

* If an employee has a new idea they are convinced will work, let them test it and monitor its effectiveness.

* Do a “Post Mortem” on projects that fail or ideas that didn’t work. Rather than blaming those involved, make them a valuable part of the analysis of why it didn’t work and what can be learned. Thank people for their efforts.

* As an executive or manager, have the emotional courage to stay open to new ideas yourself. Admit when you’re wrong. Ask for advice. Try something for the first time.

Even the smartest companies fall into the “not invented here” trap. If you think it’s seeping into your organization, it may be time for a booster shot.


What makes an organization a great organization? 
March 12, 2015

Dear Joan:

There are, or at least there used to be, companies/organizations reputed to be especially good places to work. What qualities and characteristics do such places of employment possess? What is it about these companies or organizations that causes their employees, and often the community, to feel so positively about them?


Sometimes I feel like a very lucky fly on the wall. Because our consulting firm has an opportunity to work with so many good companies, as well as companies who strive to be, we learn so much about what really works. And because we are on the lookout for the latest studies and research, we have discovered some common traits that just simply come up time and time again.

Here are some of those observations. Perhaps they will be useful fodder for your next staff meeting. Why not say, “Let’s rate ourselves on these things and create an action plan to close the gaps we have.”


In general, the best organizations have:

1. Focus - Senior leaders who are of one mind about the kind of culture they want to create, and who consistently send the message through their actions and decisions.

2. Communication - Managers who recognize their role as the “key connection” between the people and the organization.

3. Rewards - Systems, benefits and pay systems that reward the right behavior.

If an organization is successful in these 3 areas, employees will be clear about what is expected of them in their culture and make a personal commitment to their part of the “contract.”

Senior managers are enthusiastic advocates for a healthy culture.

Excellent companies recruit executives who are focused on a lot more than just the bottom line. They set aside time to talk about the culture and recognize that it is an important component of strategic planning. The president or CEO is usually the strongest advocate and holds his or her senior managers personally responsible for being role models.

The senior management does not wall itself off from the next layer of management. They often meet together to plan and decide how best to roll out new initiatives with employees. Senior managers value the input middle managers can provide and they expect managers to actively encourage employee involvement.

Senior managers periodically interact personally with employees in small group settings, or electronically, to help them understand the company’s direction, a new initiative or just to keep communications open.

Senior management takes an active interest in the systems, benefits and pay systems that are created. They know that these are powerful tools that can help them shape the culture they are trying to create. They usually want flexible systems that encourage people to self-manage and take personal responsibility. They also tend to be creative with their perks and benefits; things such as, flextime, work at home, incentive bonuses, etc.

Managers understand their role as the “key connection” between employees and the company.

They act like the “hub” of communication and decision-making. They don’t just focus on getting the job done; they care about each individual. They care about their career interests, their families, their morale and satisfaction with their work.

Managers demonstrate their respect for employees by encouraging their involvement and by valuing their ideas. They also help employees experiment and implement their ideas. They have lively team meetings, where problems and solutions are discussed, but they also spend some one-on-one time with each person, to provide direction and to give honest feedback. They look for “teachable moments” to keep employees on track and to give them career coaching. They look for ways to challenge and grow employees; big assignments, job rotations, lots of responsibility, visibility, etc.

Probably one of the toughest things to do, but one of the most important, is a culture where managers deal with conflict early and honestly and hold people accountable for making changes. They aren’t afraid to let someone go if they aren’t performing or are hurting the team.

They also find ways to make work fun and lighthearted. They celebrate successes and take care to thank and compliment employees personally and in group settings.

Healthy workplaces expect a lot from their employees.

Each employee is expected to take personal responsibility for his or her own behavior. They are clear about what is expected in their culture and when they sign on to be a part of it, they are held accountable. They are expected to step up to changes, learn new skills, and speak up when they have a new idea or a complaint. They are expected to get involved on a meaningful level. And an entitlement mentality is not accepted. In short, the unspoken contract is that employees are treated like adults and then employees are expected to come halfway as adults in a mutually beneficial partnership.


The best managers are the best leaders
March 5, 2015

What do managers do all day? Put their feet up on the desk and think deep thoughts? Spend the day keeping track of everything their subordinates do? Make broad policy decisions and command whatever resources are needed? Surely, life must get less complicated as the manager moves up the pyramid.

Ask any upper level manager and you’re likely to get a long, low chuckle. Most of them will quickly tell you that these widely held notions are myths. Well, then, what does a good manager do that makes him or her a successful leader?


The best leaders I know have certain personal characteristics in common:

They have the ability to focus attention on the vision for the future.

They are single-minded about the direction they wish to chart. In staff meetings, speeches, work assignments, the theme is the same. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind what the goal is and what values support it. This framework helps his or her direct reports make their own decisions, since they can evaluate each situation against the goal. If quality customer service is the vision, for example, then it becomes a criterion in the decision-making process for everyone in their organization.


They have patience and a sense of timing.

They have the ability to assess the power structure of the organization and determine - on any given proposal - who will support it, block it and all areas in between. No matter how sorely they want to push an idea through, they will seldom challenge when a corridor is blocked, preferring to wait for it to open up. These leaders are able to move the organization toward the goals they’ve set by finding opportunities as situations arise. They watch the trial balloons of others and put their finger to the wind, always looking for an opening. They recognize the futility of trying to push total packages or programs through the organization, if it isn’t ready. They are willing to take less than total acceptance in order to achieve modest progress toward their goals.


They have a talent for keeping themselves informed about a wide range of operating decisions.

As they move up, their network expands across many departments. When necessary, they will bypass the formal lines of authority to get the “whole story” about a situation. Their subordinates know they must keep them well-informed about decisions they make. These leaders know that if they isolate themselves from operations, their decisions will be based on limited knowledge.


They avoid meddling in their subordinates’ work.

Because they are well informed, they can help guide and position their employees’  ideas or projects, but they avoid telling them how to do their work. They don’t make - or unmake - their subordinates’ decisions. Rather, they are alert to potential problems or opportunities. Their primary functions are to open doors, support and influence decisions, play devil’s advocate and act as chief questioner and strategist.


They coach by simultaneously challenging and supporting their subordinates.

In your own career, you probably can recall a boss who supported you but seldom challenged you to the limits of your capabilities. Or, you may have had a manager who provided you with more challenges than you could handle, yet was never around when you needed him or her. Leaders who can do both are likely to have high-performing employees who aren’t stagnating or burning out.


They can build commitment.

They know how to energize the organization at all levels, to create and exploit change. They know that employees who are involved in the decisions that affect their work are more committed to their work. They encourage participative meetings and welcome any creative idea. They praise people who identify problems as much as those who bring good news. They know that continual change is necessary to discover new combinations of opportunities.

An organization is doomed to mediocrity unless it is guided by good general managers in key positions. No matter how rich its other resources, an organization will not excel unless it is led by what are becoming increasingly rare individuals ... superior leaders.

Employees deserve honest coaching

Feb. 26, 2015

Jack’s secretary drove him crazy. She forgot to write meetings in his calendar, sent memos to the wrong people and was curt on the phone.

Last week he exploded in a fit of anger and fired her. She was dumbfounded. “He never told me there was anything wrong! He seemed crabby sometimes but he never said he was unhappy with my work.”

Tom is a vice president for a medium-sized company. One of the managers who reports to him is a weak performer. In spite of the fact that the president has urged Tom to take some action, he can’t seem to bring himself to demote him or fire him. When pushed, Tom makes excuses for his manager rather than hold him accountable. After all, he reasons, this fellow only has six years until retirement.

Janet is a supervisor in a small manufacturing plant. Janet has gone to her boss on several occasions to discuss her promotability. He always tells her the same thing, “Don’t worry, your performance is just fine. Something will come along that’s suited to your skills.”

After four years of hearing the same old story, Janet left the company and is now working as a manager for a competitor. After she left, a former co-worker told her that her old boss made negative remarks about Janet’s communication style.

Jack, Tom and Janet are self-muzzled managers. They are unable to level with their own employees about what they want. They not only hurt themselves, they cripple the very people they are trying to shield.

Under their leadership, good employees lose their enthusiasm and poor performers propagate. Political gamesmanship flourishes because the person with all the cards can’t be depended upon to keep things fair. Decisions rarely get made and those that do are easily unmade by those who choose not to be accountable.

Some of it boils down to a reluctance to deliver bad news. The fear of being disliked for making a judgment sends these managers scurrying for their rationales: “I’ll hurt his feelings,” “She might cry,” “He’ll be devastated,” “He’ll lose his motivation,” “She’ll stir up trouble in the unit.”

An interesting thing happens when you ask managers like Jack, Tom and Janet a question about their own bosses. Ironically, they often complain about a lack of honest feedback or coaching. “How can I advance unless I really know what I must work on?” “I’d give anything to know what he really thinks.”

Ask any working adult this question: “If you were doing something at work that was getting in the way of your performance or advancement, would you want your boss to tell you?” The person would probably respond, “If it is something I had the power to change, of course I would want to know!”

What are we so afraid of? Perhaps it’s the fear of saying the wrong thing, alienating an employee, receiving a grievance or becoming unpopular.

Here are some tips for you to use the next time you feel like holding back important performance information:

*  Don’t postpone the feedback. The longer you do, the more likely hostility will build toward the employee and the problem will be blown out of proportion.

*  Analyze the severity and urgency of the problem. If it is getting in the way of his or her success, you have a responsibility to be honest with this employee.

* Bring up only one issue and give a description of the problem, not your judgment about it. For example, “I believe that it is important that staff meetings start on time. I know you’re very busy but I’d like you to make a stronger effort to be on time.” Don’t open with, “You are always late for staff meetings and constantly waste everyone’s time.”

* Only bring up behavior the employee has the ability to change. Your employee can learn to give smoother presentations but probably can’t do much about a squeaky voice.

* Give feedback in a private area. However, making a big production out of finding an out-of-the-way place can make the message seem worse than it really is.

* It’s very important to tell the employee about your positive intent and your desire to help him or her succeed. For example, “I know you are interested in getting ahead. I want to help you succeed in this company. As I see it, the best way to help you is to give you honest coaching.”

* If you don’t have quantifiable facts, say, “It appears to me...” or “As I see it...”

* Once you have made your point, don’t apologize for it or sugarcoat it. Calmly listen to your employee’s reaction.

* Your employee may benefit from examples and advice you may have for solving this problem. It’s also wise to ask your employee if he or she has any ideas for solving it.

* Hold the person responsible for solving the problem. If your employee blames others or makes excuses, re-focus the discussion by paraphrasing, “You feel that your late reports are Sue’s fault. You are accountable for the overall results on this project. What can you do to make sure you don’t miss your deadline?”

* Don’t forget to ask what you can do to assist your employee. Often, managers get in the way without knowing it and don’t give their employees opportunities to tell them so.

* Finally, speak in a matter-of-fact manner. If your tone and demeanor are upbeat and natural, your employee is more likely to see the discussion as helpful coaching. If you wrinkle your brow, avoid eye contact, sugarcoat your words or lean forward in a worried pose, your employee will become alarmed. If you are straightforward about the discussion, your employee will be able to hear it for what it is - helpful coaching from someone who cares enough to help them succeed.


The smartest guy in the room

Feb. 19, 2015

As a kid he was always bored in class. He took a tough curriculum in college and sped through it, with honors. He had plenty of job offers and took a position that enabled him to use his talents and shine. So why isn’t he getting promoted five years later? In fact, he was just pulled off a cross-functional team project and was appalled that the project leader role was given to someone he considered inferior in intelligence.

“I think he got the project because he was kissing up,” he said. “They are going to fall flat on their face without me. They don’t have the technical capacity and knowledge I have.” He may be right about the intellectual contribution he provided but the project was crashing because of him.

Why? Because he thinks he is the smartest guy in the room and his behavior was a turnoff to others on the project. They resented his arrogance and his refusal to listen to the ideas from the group. It was clear he thought he was the only one who could solve the problem. He dismissed their offers to help and tried to be a one-man team.

Complaints started among the team - quietly at first. But over time, their frustration grew and it started to leak out in wider circles. The negative reputation started to spread like oil in the water.

The noise about him reached his boss’s ears and he was pulled from the high-visibility project.  When he marched in and demanded to know why, his manager said, “You don’t play well with others. You need to be more collaborative and build a working team that is going to be engaged and buy in to the final solution. I was hearing too many concerns about you trying to do the project on your own, without the team.” 

He was angry and frustrated. For most of his life, he could win by being smart and driven but now it wasn’t enough.

He was lucky. His manager arranged for him to work with a coach. It was going to take some rewiring and some new behaviors to get his career back on the rails. And he had a big hole to dig out of - his peers had already decided he was a jerk.

Collaboration skills are prized in the modern organization and in many jobs are more important than intelligence alone. I can think of few jobs where an employee can succeed in isolation today. Most organizations have morphed from a siloed (vertical hierarchy) to a matrix structure. It’s common today to have “solid line” and “dotted line” reporting relationships, where the solid line is the “real” boss and the dotted line is the internal customer, or co-dependent peer. If you can’t collaborate with others, your career will stall.

How are your collaboration skills? 

* Do you seek out the opinions of your customers and other stakeholders? Do you really listen to their advice? Then, do you get back to them to tell them how you used their suggestions? Most people don’t close the loop and miss this opportunity to build the relationship and make colleagues feel valued.

* Do you wait to offer your opinion until most people have offered theirs? Or, are you quick to jump in and push your opinions on others? Even if their ideas aren’t completely solid, there may be a nugget that is valuable. And listening to them will make them more inclined to hear your ideas, too. Paraphrasing can curb your desire to speed ahead.

* When you are the project leader, do you facilitate meetings so everyone is heard? Creating a safe place for people to share their ideas is a key to the success of a team. If the only voice in the room is yours and the heads around the table are simply nodding, you aren’t doing your job.

* Do you make it safe for team members to challenge each other and look for the best solutions? If some people are silent for too long, you are missing something. Often, they’re silently disagreeing, or finding a flaw but hesitating to speak.

* Are people showing up for your team meetings and acting engaged? If they start finding reasons to leave early, show up late, or not at all, they are telling you they feel it is a waste of time.

* Do you know how to ask good questions? Or are you too busy talking? People who are full of themselves don’t learn to ask good questions because they think they know all the answers.

* Have you worked on your facilitation skills? Do you know how to create a process that focuses the team on the right work at the right time? Do you pay attention to the group dynamics - or are you so down in the details you forget you are leading the team, and not the sole problem solver?

Ironically, the smartest person in the room is the one who makes everyone else feel they are smart, too.

How to ensure understanding and get engagement when presenting to large audiences

Feb. 12, 2015

Do you want to convey an important message to a large group and get commitment and buy in? Simply standing in front of them and speaking, even if it is accompanied by a great set of PowerPoint slides, usually doesn’t do it.

Why? Because the individuals in the audience haven’t been living it and discussing it for weeks like you and your senior team have. They don’t have the context or background information you have.

You exclaim, “But I ask them if they have any questions and I get nothing!” Of course people aren’t going to stick their necks out in a political atmosphere - in front of peers, bosses, employees - and look like they don’t get it. Or worse, like they are challenging or questioning it!

Here is a technique I call “The Huddle Technique” that will help you engage with your audience (even hundreds of people), assure they get their questions answered in a safe environment, and experience firsthand what your audience really comprehends and buys into.


1. Tell the audience upfront that you are going to be using a new approach to get questions and dialogue after your presentation. This puts them on notice that they will have to do something different, and as a result, they will listen closely.

2. Present your material in a concise, conversational manner, using slides that graphically illustrate your points (if slides are necessary). Keep it short - 15 minutes is ideal.

3. Once you are finished, say, “What I would like you to do is to huddle up in groups of four or five, with whomever is seated closest to you. Your assignment over the next 10 minutes or so is to discuss what was presented and come up with one question or one comment per group.” Then give them time to buzz.

4. Interrupt them after about 10 minutes and say, “Can I interrupt please? Now would you go back into your group and choose a spokesperson, who will ask your question or make your comment.”

It’s important to wait until the group has had a chance to discuss the topics without a leader before naming a spokesperson. (If you ask for a spokesperson upfront, they will choose the highest ranking or most outspoken person-who tends to dominate the conversation and influence the group with his or her own ideas.) Give the group a few minutes to regroup and decide on their question or comment. This will automatically create a quick prioritization.

5. Go group by group and ask the spokesperson to stand and state their group’s comment or question.

The beauty of this approach is that it is “safe.” It’s the groups’ question and not a person’s question. They feel more anonymous. Your objective is to answer the questions as honestly and transparently as possible. You may want to direct one of the other leaders to take a question. If the question is something you can’t answer yet, say so and let them know when you will tell them (perhaps in another session like this). If you run out of time, you may want to collect the remaining questions and address them via conference call or email. You may want to ask one of your leaders to write down the questions asked verbally, or collect them on 3x5 cards. Usually there are a lot of similar themes, so even if you have a large audience, a few groups will represent the rest.

The goal of this process is to address their concerns in the meeting room. If you don’t, it’s likely the real concerns and questions will be voiced in the hallway and behind closed doors for days to come.


Self-reflection allows coaching to take root

Feb. 6, 2015

After years of coaching high potential executives, I’ve observed some factors that make the difference in whether or not they are successful. When an outside coach is brought in, it’s usually because there is something they need to polish or there is a problem they need to fix. Often, the change includes modifying their behavior, job execution, leadership tactics, or personal mannerisms.

Here are some of the internal and intangible things that make the difference:


The capacity for internal examination and reflection

Once an executive, or other high potential, has climbed a few rungs of the success ladder, he or she can be easily lulled into a false sense of complacency regarding his or her skills and credibility. After all, they can reason, they beat out hundreds, perhaps thousands, to reach this level.

Unfortunately, for those who have limited capacity to look inward, the path to derailment can come faster than a hairpin turn.

Jack was a brilliant negotiator and also possessed the technical skills that propelled his rise to the level of vice president. Jack’s blind spot was his arrogance and disregard for the feelings of his employees and peers. When his bullying treatment of others reached crisis proportions, the company enlisted my help as his coach.

After interviewing the people around him at all levels, I presented him with the feedback. It wasn’t pretty. “These people are idiots,” he explained to me as if I had missed the obvious. “I’m smarter than all of them and they are too thin-skinned when I prove it.” His inability to look in the mirror eventually cost him his job.

In another case, I was asked to help a brilliant statistician, who couldn’t explain his work to the executive team in laymen’s terms. When first presented with the idea of working with a coach, he said, “My reports and findings are self-explanatory. They should be obvious to the executive team. They just don’t understand the field.” Once he realized his work was useless unless it was understood, he was willing to learn how to win the credibility he deserved.


The ability to learn from and act on feedback

I worked with a new plant manager, who was having problems adjusting to an old-fashioned, autocratic culture. Rather than rejecting the feedback because of its source, he was able to use it to modify his style. “I know this company has its flaws,” he said, “but if I can be successful here, I can be successful anywhere. I’m going to learn a lot about how to change a culture - it’s going to be a great learning experience.”

In another case, I was working with a female executive who received some stinging feedback from her peers. Some of it was based on some false rumors. She came around to this conclusion: “If I am going to change their perceptions, I guess I am going to have to behave in a way that makes them change their thinking.” Along the way, she discovered that she had inadvertently contributed to some of the perceptions, and was able to positively change her credibility in the eyes of her peers.

In both cases, they were willing to take the change process to heart and put energy and enthusiasm into doing their personal development “homework” between sessions, to reach their goals.


The willingness to disclose to others that they are working on themselves

Some coaching situations are done without involving others but in many cases, involving others is necessary and desirable.

Take the case of Tom, a hothead who blew up at the slightest provocation and intimidated his staff. He agreed to let me interview his colleagues for feedback, because he realized without it we wouldn’t have much data to work with.

Once he heard the collective opinion about the damage his behavior caused, he called his team together and thanked them for having the courage to be honest. He then read a list of the behaviors he never wanted to display again and gave them permission to tell him if they ever saw him violate anything on his list.

Starting that day, his team rallied around him and became a team of “coaches.” By being authentic and vulnerable with his team, he was able to jump-start the journey toward winning respect and becoming a role model for self-development.

Even an open door policy needs some ground rules

Feb. 3, 2015

Dear Joan:

We have an extremely busy office, which has experienced tremendous growth this past year. There are three of us supervising about 30 professional people. These are wonderful, fun-loving individuals who seem to enjoy our casual work environment.

We are beginning to think we are too casual, as our staff constantly interrupts us, thinking nothing of walking into our offices and interrupting a conversation to ask questions or give a running commentary on some project in which they are involved. They seem to want answers immediately so they can complete something, rather than gather up several questions to approach us at one time.

In the past, we have suggested to them that they give us a note and we will seek them out when we are finished with our task. This lasted about one week. Perhaps the question is, how available should supervisors be?

It feels like they have no respect for our time and want us to be “on-call” when and if they need us. Most of what they ask for or need could be addressed at a later time. As a result of the constant interruptions, we end up working weekends or staying late just to keep up. Are we not being clear enough?



Your actions speak so clearly, your employees aren’t hearing a word you say. If you say one thing but reward another you are sabotaging your message. In an effort to be supportive and respectful to your employees, you have created a disrespectful situation for yourselves.

Although I hate to draw an analogy between employees and children, I think this example will say it all: Often parents will give in to their child’s whining because they just want the child to be quiet. Of course, once this behavior is rewarded, the child now whines on a continual basis to get what he or she wants. That habit will not be broken if the parent simply tells the child to stop whining. As with your situation, you will need to back it up with behaviors that are congruent with what you say.

It’s easy to see how you could have gotten yourselves into this situation. You undoubtedly want to keep your delightful group of employees happy and motivated. And it’s great to see supervisors who want to be so accessible, especially during times of rapid growth, when fast decisions need to be made minute to minute.

Communication and consistency break down when there are no systems in place during rapid growth. Then, when you get just a little bit bigger, say 50 employees, problems start erupting and satisfaction begins to take a nosedive, unless a little more structure is in place. Obviously you don’t want to create unnecessary bureaucracy, but a few ground rules and systems are needed now.

As you make these changes, take care not to position them as a reaction to the employees’ interruptions. You certainly want them to continue to come to you with issues and updates. Instead, explain the changes as a few “structural steps” you feel will be helpful to everyone as the company grows.


Here are some ideas:

* Commit to holding regular weekly meetings, no matter how busy you are. These meetings can be short (no more than one hour). Invite people to electronically submit their issues/topics, or just post a sheet of paper that people can use to add their agenda items.  Explain that these meetings are necessary so that everyone can keep in touch with each other, and that you expect them to share information during the meeting, rather than just having one-on-one conversations with supervisors. Start directing people to submit their updates and issues on the agenda.

*  Have regular one-on-ones with each key employee. Make it clear that these sessions are for them to update you on their work, and for you to provide guidance and answer questions. They can be encouraged to save non-essential questions for their one-on-one. Start with once a week for 20 minutes - you may be able to go to twice a month over time.

* Hold daily huddles at the beginning of the day or shift. Keep these even shorter (15 minutes). Gather in one area at the same time each day for a stand-up meeting. This can be used to plan the day and follow up on burning issues. Let everyone know that this is the time for quick questions and information sharing.

* It’s important that you meet often enough with your fellow supervisors so that you are all sending out the same message on key issues and policies. If you are inconsistent, or if one supervisor shares more than the others, you will start rumors and create communication gaps that will require more time and energy to resolve later.

* Create a signal that means “No interruptions.” This can be as simple as a closed door. Tell them you must do this to get some of your work done and encourage them to find their own signal so they can have quiet time, too. Then DO NOT ALLOW THEM TO BREAK THE RULE. Simply say, “My door was closed. Remember that means I need quiet time to get some work done.” Period.


Are you an absentee manager? 
Jan. 20, 2015

Dear Joan:

Something happened to me that I thought other readers could benefit from, especially managers. I took a new job about a year ago as an accountant for a small insurance company. There was a long-term employee who seemed to have it in for me and never let up. Because I was new I didn’t push it by telling our boss. Instead, I tried to do my own work and get along with everyone, including her.

I soon found out that others have left because of her. In the meantime, I began looking for another job because I could see that I wasn’t going to get anywhere. She withheld information from me as I was training and seemed to be threatened by me. However, lately we had simply stayed out of each other’s way. I’m not a very threatening person and recently made this career change after earning my MBA at night.

I was offered a new job two weeks ago for more money and responsibility. They didn’t call for a reference at my job so my boss didn’t know I got an offer. When I went in to tell him I was leaving, he was shocked and upset. He tried to offer me more money and told me how great I was doing. He went on and on about how much I had contributed to the company. I would have stayed with this company if I had known this!

I have volunteered to work overtime so that I can train a replacement. In fact, I’ve heard from someone else that two people might replace me. My leaving disappoints people in other departments because I was working with many of them on projects. Why didn’t he take the time to tell me all of that when I was on the job ... Why wait until good people leave?

If you print this, maybe other managers will learn from my situation. I would say to them, “Don’t hide under a bushel and hope your problems will go away because they won’t. The only thing that may go away are your good employees.”



Managers like yours are like absentee gardeners. They sow a few seeds, hope for rain and wander off. They don’t come back until harvest time and blame their poor crop on the weather and the weeds. Even the most self-motivated seedling will wither from neglect under those conditions.

Because you were new to the job, and the field, your boss should have taken special care to supervise your growth. He should have showered you with performance feedback and asked you if you had any questions.

Your strategy was perfect: you didn’t lock horns with the long-term employee and developed a reputation as a team player.

Your boss and others noticed that your reputation was thriving in spite of the trouble your co-worker was giving you.

Now is the time to think through what you will do if something like this should happen on your new job. For example, will you go to your new boss, say, after three months, and ask him or her “how am I doing?” Many companies have a six-month probationary period, so don’t make the mistake of believing no news is good news. If you are having trouble in your new job, it is especially important to take this initiative.

If someone on your new job begins to make life miserable for you, what will you do? Although your strategy worked last time, it caused you to leave your job. If you have regular meetings with your new boss, you would have opportunities to subtly make your point before it escalates to that level.

For example, if a co-worker withholds information, you could approach it by asking your boss a question, “Am I supposed to be getting the Thomson figures?” You may be able to add, “I thought I should ask because so-and-so seemed to be confused about whether I needed them.”

A few “naive” questions from a new employee will soon tip off a manager that there is a problem. By asking questions to make your point, you avoid the risk of sounding like a complainer or of misjudging someone’s motives.

If you get the opportunity, you may want to have a talk with your former boss before you leave. Perhaps your comments will help him deal with the long-term employee before she affects more co-workers. Weigh this carefully, however, since you don’t want to burn the only bridge you have in your new field. If you doubt he’ll handle the information well, don’t jeopardize yourself.

In the meantime, you’re wise to be gracious about training a replacement. Don’t discuss the situation while you’re at the old job or the new one. If you sow negative seeds they could choke out your victory garden.

I hope your career comes up roses!


Meetings are only as effective as the person who leads them   
Jan. 9, 2015

A meeting is only as effective as the person who leads it. When most managers and executives often spend half their work time in meetings, it’s shocking to hear so many complaints: "Meetings are a waste of time!" "Why was I invited to that meeting in the first place?" "We never get anything accomplished."

In business, meetings are a way of life. In fact, studies show that twice as many meetings and conferences are being held today as compared with just ten years ago.

As a skilled meeting leader, you can get more done in less time, increase teamwork and demonstrate your ability to get results.

Let’s examine what it takes to run a good meeting. The first questions to ask yourself are:

IS A MEETING NECESSARY? Could I get the job done with a memo or phone call? Use a phone call or memo if you want to communicate routine information that is likely to be well understood, accepted or does not require a group decision. Call a meeting if you want to get acceptance of ideas, resolve conflicting viewpoints, obtain immediate reactions and understanding or draw on the group’s creativity to solve a problem.

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO ACCOMPLISH? If you don’t know, you can bet the participants will spend most of the meeting time bouncing from one subject to the next. State your objective in specific terms. For instance, "Decide on a more efficient procedure to balance workflow" is much better than "Discuss our workflow problems." if the group knows the outcome they’re working toward, they will tend to remain focused on that objective.

WHO SHOULD BE THERE? Include only those who can contribute and benefit from attending. People who have nothing to contribute will only be frustrated or bored. Beware of inviting people solely because of their title or out of habit. When dealing with a controversial issue, it’s often wise to invite people who resist change or disagree. The meeting may produce sparks, but will prevent fire-fighting later.


Another thing you should do is assign pre-work to save valuable time once the meeting begins.  This includes doing your own prework.

Develop an agenda designed to get the results you’re after and send it in advance, if possible. Anticipate participants’ reactions and how you will deal with them.

Determine the materials needed, the meeting location, as well as the task. (Always set an ending time and try to stick to it, This is not only courteous, but encourages the participants to move at a faster pace.)

When you get to the meeting itself, start on time. Don’t punish those who are punctual by making them wait for those who are not. Your opening remarks should include the meeting’s objective, background information, time constraints and a description of the way you want to run the meeting.

It’s also helpful to explain why you have invited each of them, so they know how you want each of them to contribute.

Many leaders record the meeting on a flipchart mounted on an easel in full view of the group. As the pages are filled, they are torn off and taped to the wall.

This technique keeps everyone together and provides a written record. Another advantage is that members of the group feel that their ideas have been heard because they are written down.

Recording the meeting is particularly important during group problem-solving sessions. All brainstorming ideas can be listed, and members have an easier time generating ideas when they know each one will be captured for later evaluation.

Specific action plans can be charted, recording who will do what, how and when.

When the meeting is over, these giant sized flipchart minutes can be typed and distributed so everyone has a clear understanding of what was said and agreed to.


High expectations for new leaders
Jan. 5, 2015

Being a boss isn’t what it used to be. In fact, many workplaces are cooking up new names to reflect the changes. “Boss” sounds dictatorial. “Supervisor” implies that employees need to be watched. “Leader” is the favorite of the moment. The change of title is strong testimony about the deeper changes that are evolving for managers.

What are these new leader expectations? They’re more sophisticated and demanding than ever before. They can be categorized in four distinct areas.


Build organizational strength.

A business owner told me recently, “Running a company today is a little like building an airplane while you fly it.” Changes are happening so fast, senior managers are scrambling to reinvent their companies. Consuming questions such as, “How do we do use the Web to maximize our business?” or, “Where are we going to find employees?” are heard in boardrooms everywhere. And quickly changing priorities can feel like chaos to everyone else.

In the past, middle managers could sit back and wait for the grand rollout of the corporate strategy. Today, managers have to jump in and help shape it and communicate it.

* Don’t complain about changes. Investigate why the change is needed so you can help others who are at different stages of commitment. Take time to answer employees’ questions: “Why are we doing this?” and “How will this affect me?”

* Think like an owner. A respected manager said to me, “When I have to make a decision, I always ask myself, ‘If I owned this business, would I make this decision differently?’”

* Become an opportunist who hunts down problems. Volunteer to lead a cross-functional task force, rather than view it as extra work. Organizational issues are your work. Seek out new and challenging lateral jobs in other departments. Think of yourself as an entrepreneur with one client - the company you work for.


Build interpersonal strength.

Employees are in the driver’s seat in this economy. If they don’t feel well treated, they vote with their feet. They want more balance, more respect and more involvement. Retention surveys we’ve done with employers point convincingly to the manager’s role as the most important link in the retention chain.

* Look for ways to make deposits in your employees’ emotional accounts. In spite of your busy schedule, find ways to give employees face time, both one-on-one and in meetings.

* Ask each employee, “What do you want most from your job?” and offer concrete help so they get what they need.

* Spend more time with the good performers than with the poor ones and take steps to coach or confront those who need it.

* Show each employee that their contribution counts in personal, meaningful ways.

* Take a stand and do what’s right rather than what is perceived as “fair” by different constituencies. Apply policies with good judgment, not “by the book.”

* Treat your employees like your important joint venture partners, because they are.


Build inner strength.

Being a manager today isn’t for wimps. It requires mental and physical stamina. Effective managers have a strong sense of values and use them as an internal compass to guide their behavior. They treat people with dignity and respect and work hard to build trust. They know their actions speak more loudly than the words they are saying.

* Do the “Duck Paddle.” Act calm and unruffled, even when you’re paddling like hell underneath. Compartmentalize stress - don’t spread it.

* Seek and act on personal feedback.

* Lead by example. Recognize that every word you say and action you take is sending a message.

* Learn everything you can about the art and science of leading others.


Build career strength.

A programmer told me, “Why would I want to move into a manager’s job? Why would I want that target painted on my back?” He knows that front line employees have a higher stock value than managers do. Simply put, average managers are expendable and hard-to-find technical employees are golden.

* Know that job security is created by you - not granted by an organization.

* Be more interested in solving problems and adding value than status or position.

* Stay marketable by keeping your skills honed and build influence with outside networks.

* Pay attention to critics because they are the first to discover your weaknesses.

We are in the middle of a workplace renaissance. There is a shortage of courageous leaders. Make the most of the opportunity.

What separates savvy managers from so-so managers?   
Dec. 31, 2014

You have worked hard to get that job in management. Now, how do you keep it? What makes an employee work harder for one boss than for another? Is it the leader’s charisma or because they’re so “nice”? Hardly. Smart managers on the rise in any organization know that it takes far more than the right vibrations between manager and subordinates to create a highly productive working environment.

First of all, a good manager realizes that there are three basic rules of adult motivation:  

1. YOU can’t motivate anyone

2. ALL people are motivated. A basic definition is: The element within a person that incites that person to action.

3. People do things for THEIR reasons, not yours.


No wonder the carrot and stick approach never works for long!

So how do you find your employees’ hot button that will cause them to be self-motivated?

Many ideas have been advanced regarding motivational theory. One thing inherent in all the theories is the need for recognition within all of us for a job well done.

Recognizing your employees for the good job they do is certainly not a new or imaginative concept. The problem is that most managers think they are doing a good job of it when, in fact, they don’t know the language of good coaching.

By giving people positive feedback about what they are doing well, you can increase the QUANTITY of their good work. The following rules for giving recognition have been developed and proven by William R. Daniels, American Consulting and Training Inc. - and I’ve seen them work!

Make the feedback refer to one SPECIFIC task. Generalized compliments like, “You’re doing a great job,” are received as back-slapping and glad-handling. They often seem phony and can damage your credibility. Paint them a clear picture of what you like and they’ll give you more of it. For example: “Natalie, your respect for customers, use of their names and eye contact is ideal.”

Rule one on specifics is crucial. Unfortunately, it’s the one researchers find managers violating most frequently. The behavioral effects will not be achieved if the rewards, attention and recognition are not clearly associated with the behavior being reinforced. This is what separates it from “positive thinking” or “being pleasant.” There is no “free” appreciation. All rewards are earned and the skilled manager is crystal clear about what is being recognized. 

Keep the recognition PURE. That is, don’t mix it with criticism. This one is tricky. Listen closely and you’ll hear managers all around you making this mistake. Listen: “You’re doing a nice job on the paperwork, Karen, but you need to be friendlier with the customers.” As soon as an employee hears the “but” after a compliment, the entire thing is discounted. Given a choice between “good news” and “bad news”, people only hear and remember the bad news.  So to get the “good news” across, keep it pure.

For maximum effect, make the feedback POSITIVE about good work. By encouraging desirable work you will crowd out less desirable work. For example, the following attempt at recognition only focuses on the negative, “Marcia, when you get your errors down, you’ll be a fine order clerk.” The undesirable errors will diminish much more quickly if Marcia’s manager tells her what he or she likes about Marcia’s work.

Offer the feedback IMMEDIATELY after the behavior has taken place or within 30 minutes of it coming to your attention. Giving your positive feedback, soon after the desirable work makes your message clear. The pleasure of your compliment gets associated with the work.

At first, offer the feedback FREQUENTLY - when the desired work is in place, you can diminish the frequency. Frequency at first helps the employee make certain that you are paying attention and approve. Later, the employee will internalize this feedback as you slowly diminish it.

Offer the feedback IRREGULARLY. If you always offer your recognition at the same time - Fridays at 4:30 - you will probably find that people perform for you just before your feedback, in anticipation. Give recognition irregularly and you can stimulate a steady increase.

Haphazard? No. Easy? No. Does it work? Yes.

Most new employees come to their jobs highly motivated. A good manager knows proper recognition helps them stay that way.

‘Tough love’ philosophy makes employees take responsibility for their actions   
Dec. 23, 2014

Does your workplace have a “tough love” philosophy? Are employees treated like adults, who are expected to meet expectations, or do some people seem to push the rules and get away with murder? Does your workplace tolerate behaviors that it shouldn’t accept?  Do some employees act as if they are entitled to their jobs, regardless of how poorly they perform?

Here’s a case study for you. What would you do if you were Jason’s manager?

Jason’s performance began to slip right around the time he started dating his new girlfriend. He was late several times a week, sometimes by as much as forty-five minutes. He made frequent personal calls during his workday and seemed distracted. His manager spoke to him several times about these behaviors and each time he improved, only to slip back into old behaviors a few weeks later. When his manager started to get customer and co-worker complaints about Jason’s performance, he knew he had to do something more. He decided to take disciplinary action. He gave him a verbal warning and, when that didn’t work, he issued a written warning that indicated Jason could lose his job if he didn’t improve.

Jason’s manager didn’t want to lose him because Jason generally did a good job and qualified employees with his skills are hard to find. In addition, other employees are complaining that they are overworked, and without Jason, the situation will only get worse. When the manager spoke to him, Jason admitted that he had been “pushing it” and said he’d improve. Jason said he liked his job and enjoyed working at the company but, in spite of his promises, he continued to exhibit “roller-coaster” behavior.

Assuming that you have the latitude to do any of the following, what do you do?

A.     Keep on meeting with Jason and hope that he improves.

B.     Fire him and reassign his work until you can find a replacement.

C.    Suspend him for three days without pay, to teach him a lesson and show him you’re serious.

D.    Give him a “decision day” off, with pay, to decide if he really wants his job. And if so, he is expected to return the following day with a written action plan.


Any of the above answers might work, but I like “D” the best, because it puts the responsibility for fixing the problem where it belongs - on the employee. It’s a "tough love" approach.

Let’s examine the other choices more closely. In choice “A,” Jason is allowed to manipulate the situation and only improve long enough to get his boss off his back. Meanwhile, the rest of his co-workers see that he is getting away with poor performance. Their inevitable question is, “Why am I killing myself to get to work on time and do a good job, when no one is holding him to the same standard?” The leader’s credibility drops, morale plummets and customer dissatisfaction grows. Jason may be a valuable employee but if his manager allows Jason to hold him hostage, just because there’s a shortage of job candidates, the damage will spread outward like ripples in a pond.

It’s understandable why choice “B” is attractive, and perhaps even desirable. Firing him seems a logical choice, since he didn’t respond to all of the discussions or the warnings. Yet, there are several things to consider. If he is fired, the manager and the other overworked employees will be burdened even more. Although they may be supportive of the decision, dissatisfaction will soon grow in proportion to their additional workload. More importantly, when good employees are fired they are often surprised, even shocked. After the fact, they say they never really thought the boss was serious. They thought they were somehow protected because they were “good” employees. But unfortunately, this realization comes after they are fired, when they have no opportunity to act on their regret.

I really dislike choice “C.” It reminds me of the teacher/student or parent/child relationship that I think is counterproductive in today’s workplace. In this option, punishment is clearly the intent and shame is the objective. The problem is that adults don’t respond well to this tactic. They get angry. They get even. If they come back to work at all, they are forced to save face by laughing it off (“I loved my vacation...I went fishing!”) or by stirring up their co-workers against management. It’s a lose/lose outcome.

Choice “D” isn’t perfect either, but it treats the employee as an adult who has to face up to the situation and take responsibility for his or her behavior. It can sound something like this:  “I like you, Jason, and I think you do good work...when you’re committed to doing it. We’ve had numerous discussions about this and I’ve even given you a written warning that you could lose your job, but you haven’t sustained the improvements you said you would make. I want you to take tomorrow off to think about whether or not you want to work here. If you do, come back the day after with a written action plan that outlines what you will do. If you don’t, it’s been a pleasure working with you.”

When you have a “tough love” philosophy, it means you:

* Set high expectations, so employees will be proud to be on a winning team.

* Be as selective as you can in the recruitment process.

* Hold everyone accountable to the same high standards, no matter what position they hold.

* Expect employees to take responsibility for their own behavior, rather than fixing blame on others.

* Have adult-to-adult policies that eliminate “babysitting” and punishment.

* Give honest, straightforward feedback that lets everyone know where they stand.

* Expect honest feedback from your co-workers in return.


Rule bound system fails to serve customers   
Dec. 10, 2014

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.










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