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Category Archives: Engagement

Who is your feedback for…really?

Last night, I sang in a holiday concert with my local community chorus. I love singing, especially Christmas music, and especially with other people who love it, too. We’re not professional or anything, but we have a great time and typically, that’s all that matters.

After the concert, one of the audience members came up to tell me he thought we did great and he liked my solos (I had solos. I’ve got a music background, but that’s not super relevant to this post). I thanked him and said I hope he enjoyed the concert. He then proceeded to tell me that I should really pin my hair back because it’s distracting. And then walked off.

Um…thanks?

This incident wasn’t horrible – I think the guy thought he was giving helpful advice. And he really did enjoy the concert. It just sounded too much like other “feedback” I’ve gotten in my career, especially as a speaker. I’ve yet to speak anywhere (at a conference, as a facilitator internally, etc.) where appearance wasn’t brought up in the feedback. That could be shoes, clothes, whatever. And then there are the comments of “I didn’t learn anything new.”

I bring this up not to rant, nor do I begrudge those folks their right to share their thoughts. After all, I ask for that feedback, right? I bring it up because leaders and employees talk about feedback all the time but I don’t think it’s working. not-listening

Employees say they want feedback, then get surly when they get the truth.

Leaders say they give feedback, yet so often it’s either too vague or too “nice” to make a difference.

Feedback doesn’t work when it’s done with the wrong intentions. Employees who ask for feedback only if it’s positive are just looking for an ego stroke. Leaders who give vague feedback are just trying to check a box without having to have the difficult conversations. Even worse are the leaders who give only negative (please don’t try to call it “constructive” all the time) feedback because they feel threatened by a strong employee.

Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re thinking about asking for and/or giving feedback:

  • Be specific about what you’re looking for: a blanket request for feedback results in all manner of crazy responses. Instead, give the responders some context. “I’m trying to improve my eye contact in meetings. How did I do?” Or “In my last project, I felt like I struggled a bit with organization. How might I get better at that?”
  • Make the feedback actionable by the recipient: When you’re giving feedback to someone, make sure it’s something they can control. Telling someone the lights were bad in the ballroom doesn’t help. They don’t do the lighting. Nor is it helpful to give feedback about the way the finance department handled the hand-off to them in their project. Unless they run the finance department, they can’t really do anything about that. Instead, you can give them suggestions on how to better prepare the materials so that finance is ready to accept the handoff.
  • Find the trends in the feedback: We’re human beings – we like to think we’re AMAZING. And perfect. And special unicorns. So when we get feedback that stings, we look for reasons to reject it.  We think that person doesn’t like us, or they don’t know us, or they don’t know what they’re talking about. But when 5 people tell you similar things about your performance or behavior, you might want to take it to heart a bit. Look for the repeated themes and take the feedback with an open mind.
  • Check yo-self: Why do you want to give someone feedback? Is their behavior a career-limiting issue? Or are they just doing something differently from how YOU would do it? Really think about the intent of your feedback. It should be about helping the other person reach their full potential – not to make you look and/or feel better.

When you can ask for and receive feedback without ulterior motive, and with a pure heart, you will have reach feedback nirvana. Until then, just keep an eye on your motivation.

You may be surprised by how well the feedback works.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2015 in Clarity, Engagement

 

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When things go wrong, will your people do right?

Today was the kind of day that business travelers tell horror stories about.

I’m speaking at two conference this week (MNSHRM and WISHRM), and today was the first day of a week of travel. It was supposed to be easy. I had just gotten my TSA Pre-Check, so security wasn’t a problem. And I was flying Southwest Airlines with a good boarding position (A 31 – not too shabby).

How hard could it be?

My husband dropped me off at the airport one hour and forty minutes before my flight was scheduled to take off. I figured I’d drop off the bag, breeze through security and grab a little breakfast.

And then I encountered this:

line_southwest

A line to end all lines. And it was even worse inside.

Turns out, Southwest had a massive computer system outage today. They couldn’t print boarding passes from many of the service desks. They couldn’t print baggage claim tickets.

They had to do EVERYTHING by hand – check in, boarding, manifest clearing – everything.

And you know what? They did it with a smile.

The skycaps worked quickly. They had their process down and did what they could to keep the mood light. (I got through that ridiculous line in 35 minutes.)

The boarding gate agent was funny and handled the craziness with some humor.

The flight crew acknowledge the challenges, kept the passengers informed, and did what they could to ensure everyone on the flight made it – even when security was backed up (seriously…get TSA pre-check).

It wasn’t just in my hometown where the employees did what they could to make the best of a terrible situation. Check out these employees in Las Vegas, handing out cold drinks to folks stuck in the hot sun:

SW_2

Was everyone happy? Of course not. It was stressful for everyone involved. Not everyone saw exemplary service from Southwest employees, but overall, they have handled the ongoing problems pretty well.

In the event of this kind of crisis, how would YOUR employees perform? And what can you do to best ensure you’re ready to respond?

  1. Have a plan: The Southwest employees weren’t using sticky notes to process baggage. They had printed tags designed for manual checking. The gate agent had a protocol to process mobile and paper passes without computer access. If you don’t have a Plan B for your business process, you’ll have even more problems.
  2. Hire the right people: Southwest is very explicit about their culture and expectations for their employees – but they also make a pledge to do right by their people. (The “To Our Employees” clause…) By taking time to find the right people to carry out your organization’s work, you increase the likelihood that they will be able to respond to a challenge the way you want them to.
  3. Balance process with humanity: I can’t imagine the level of complexity Southwest faced with this system outage. Between the sheer number of passengers, Homeland Security requirements, and airport regulations, they could have chosen to approach this with a very command-and-control approach. Instead, I saw employees empowered to make decisions. I read examples of employees given the freedom to hand out cold drinks. I saw a flight crew take time to alleviate a passenger’s concern about a connecting flight when we took off late. Are you willing to let go in times of pressure and put the trust in your people to do the right thing?

They say that adversity does not build character, it reveals it.

What character will your people reveal?

[Disclaimer: I’m sure a LOT of people had a horrible travel day today, and many of them are annoyed and frustrated still. My experience may not be the same as others. If you had a bad start to your day, I really hope it got better!]

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2015 in Engagement, Teamwork

 

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Slow or fast, we’re all in the same race (lessons from the driver’s seat)

No, this isn’t going to be an introspective look at the fleeting immediacy of life. I mean, that’s a real thing and you should really think deep profound thoughts about it, but I’m not in the mood.

I’m in the mood to talk about driving.

As readers of this blog know, I always wanted to be a stunt car driver. I don’t really remember why that was something I wanted to do. It just looked like a lot of fun, and the drivers were badass.

I’m not a stunt car driver (yet), but I have gotten a chance to live like one for a few hours. It’s called autocross – and if you’ve never gotten to do it, I highly recommend it. It’s so choiceIMG_2998

Basically, autocross is a giant parking lot or other paved area with a course laid out in cones. It might be a hairpin turn, followed by a slalom, followed by a 90-degree turn, etc. You get a series of runs throughout the day, each one timed. If you hit a cone, you get a time penalty. If you miss a “gate” or go off-course, you officially get a DNF (did not finish), but unofficially you still get to drive the rest of the course like a baller.

This was the second such event I’ve had a chance to do and, like a lot of people in my line of work, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities to the workplace.

Someone else may lay out the course, but you choose how you attack it.
In autocross, like a lot of jobs, there are a series of obstacles/tasks you have to tackle. The cool thing is that we get to choose the way to get through them. In autocross, you see people who go as fast as they can, slamming on their brakes to course correct, and sometimes it’s not pretty. Ultimately, though, they learn from their mistakes and do better next time. Some people start very slowly and tentatively, afraid to make mistakes, learning the course. And as their confidence grows, they get faster and better. Your job is the same way. You can go fast and furious, or go slow and cautious. Each approach teaches different lessons, and the “driver” (employee) can either choose to learn from them and improve, or get the lesser result.

Most mistakes are minor. Don’t freak out. Keep going.
If you hit a cone in autocross, you get a 2 second penalty. And people might give you a hard time. If you miss a gate or something, a corner worker makes a big X with their arms and you get a DNF for the run…but you get to keep driving and you learned something. Most work mistakes are similar. Did you send out an email with a minor typo? Okay, you goofed up. Own it and learn from it. Did you forget to staple ALL the packets? Nobody died. Don’t be afraid to make minor mistakes. (And if you’re a leader, realize your people will make them!) The important thing is to learn from it.

Some mistakes ARE a big deal. Recognize when it could happen.
In these types of driving events, you don’t drive all that fast. But cars do sometimes spin out and go flying off the course. If you’re working a corner, you need to be alert and position yourself in a place that will minimize your risk of getting hit. Not all jobs are life and death, but SOME ARE. Inattention can and does get people killed. Whether you’re the person doing the dangerous activity, or the support person watching that activity, be alert and do what you can to ensure safety protocol is followed. We all want to get to the finish line in one piece.

People doing the same thing at the same time have SOMETHING in common. Work with that.
People who do autocross events have all different types of cars and come from a variety of backgrounds. In a generic social setting, it’s doubtful that any of them would hang out. But put them in this situation and suddenly they are best friends, trading driving tips and encouraging each other to improve each run. Your coworkers may not be people you’d choose to socialize with. In fact, people are socializing with coworkers less and less these days. And it may be impacting our work experience. So while you don’t have to be a best friend or anything, it’s okay to loosen up and talk like people now and then.

Have a good time.
You’re driving a car through a crazy course. OF COURSE YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE FUN. Granted, work isn’t going to be a super fun autocross event every day. But hopefully parts of it are. And if it isn’t, try to find ways to make it a good time. You’re there for too many hours in your life.

Whatever you do – in your “real” life or your “work” life – it’s important to remember that while we all have different approaches, we are all still just trying to finish the race.

Start strong, stay strong, and finish strong by always remembering why you’re doing it in the first place.
– Ralph Marston

 
 

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Snark is the New Cool…and that may not be cool

One of the things you may not know about me is that I’m a bit of a musical theater nerd.  What this really means is I tend to be a singing snob.  Yeah…I’m one of those people.  It doesn’t mean I think I can do it better than other singers, I just get annoyed when singing isn’t done correctly. (Note to teachers of young singers – STOP MAKING THEM SING OUT OF THEIR NOSES!!!!!  Thank you.)

So when a live broadcast of The Sound of Music was announced with Carrie Underwood, I wasn’t terribly excited.  Nothing against her voice – I’m just not a country fan and I think sometimes she can be a little wooden in her performance.  And I love Julie Andrews.  Therefore, I chose not to watch.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t read a bunch of the comments made on social media on the interwebs.  Seriously, y’all got creative.  And some of you were funny.  And a little mean.

snark1

I was listening to Seth Speaks on my satellite radio (On Broadway channel – enjoy!) and Laura Benanti was a guest (she played the Baroness on the NBC broadcast, and starred as Maria in the Broadway revival…and she is amazing).  She was sharing some backstage stories and such, and Seth asked her what she thought about the comments made against Carrie.  And Laura threw down on the haters.

“Snark,” Laura says, “is the new cool.”   She pointed out that here was a person with the courage to try something she’d never done before…live…in front of 18 million people.  Instead of applauding her for it, and celebrating the fact that a major network took a chance to bring a new, younger audience to Broadway and music, the Twitter-verse used it as a chance to show off how clever it is.

No snark?
This stuck with me.  I love snark.  I enjoy the heck out of reading it, and I tend to engage heavily in the dishing out of said snark, too.  But Laura has a point – snark can get in the way of what you’re really trying to accomplish.  It can shut down people’s willingness to take a chance.  It can break down the feeling of “team”.  A lot of people who give snark can’t take it, so then you get a whiny snarker.  And while snark might be funny or make you look clever, is it adding anything of value to fix the perceived issue?  In short, snark can be extremely damaging.

What to do?
I’m not going to advocate going snark-free.  A little snark is like good satire – it points out that the emperor has no clothes and uses humor and shock to heighten awareness about a situation.  Matt Charney’s Snark Attack blog  is great!  So is Television Without Pity (spare the snark, spoil the network).  That snark IS cool.  And funny.  And thought-provoking. And change driving.

So if you consider yourself a snark aficionado (and who doesn’t, amiright?), use the next 30 days to pay attention to how and when you use it.  If your intent is pure and you’re working towards a greater good, snark away.  And a little snarkiness amongst friends can be fun!  But if you’re employing snark to put someone else down because it makes you feel better about yourself and you think it makes you look clever, stop it. You’re just being an asshole.

 

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Apparently your cat hates you…and your employees might, too

You may have seen it online or in the news lately – there’s a study that claims your cat hates you, or at the very least, doesn’t really care if you’re there or not.

My first thought upon reading the article…you needed a study to learn this?  Seriously, just own a cat.  [Full disclosure: I’m a dog person.  But cats have been in my life from time to time.  Hence the dog. :)] The level of disdain even the most “loving” cats have for their owners is remarkable.  Awe-inspiring, even.

Shortly after that, I thought how similar this behavior can be to employees.  I’m inclined to believe that employees also have an “anxious avoidant” attachment style – they really don’t care if their leader is present or not present.  Not in a positive way, anyway.  Sure, employees may care to avoid an abusive or incompetent leader.  But just like a cat who snubs the owner who feeds them and gives them a loving home, employees may turn their nose up at a leader who cares about his/her employees.

grumpy_cat

If you don’t know Grumpy Cat, you are missing out!!

Leaders, try not to take it personally.  There are a number of factors that play into this dynamic:

  • Employees are hard-wired to hate “The Man”: Well, maybe not hate.  Perhaps “intense distrust” is a better term.  By and large, authority figures have it rough in the workplace.  Ask any popular employee who was promoted and then spurned as a pariah – it can be tough to be the king.
  • Leaders kinda feel the same way about their employees: Just like employees are hard-wired to hate “The Man”, there are a number of leaders who look at the privilege of leading with a sort of resignation.  They know it’s important, it’s just….tiring sometimes.
  • Leaders struggle with boundaries: There are many leaders out there who just don’t get the balance between BFF and hard ass.  This can lead to credibility issues with the team that cause employees to wish “the man” wasn’t around.
  • Most employees don’t really need a manager: Of course, teams need a manager.  They need someone to help run interference, be their champion, set the vision, etc.  But on a day-to-day basis, not so much.  Think I’m wrong?  Next time your manager is out of the office, take note of how much work you get done.

 

So what do you do to combat this indifference?  We might be able to learn a lot from cat owners:

  • Don’t try too hard: Most cat owners know that when the cat wants to interact with you, he/she will do so.  Create an environment that is conducive to interaction, exercise some patience, and see what happens.
  • Catnip works: In this case, catnip can be rewards and recognition.  Make your employees’ interactions with you positive and you may see them more often.  Figure out what motivates your employees, help them achieve that, and you should see an improvement in your relationships.
  • Know what baggage they bring to the table: As anyone who has ever adopted a shelter cat knows, some of these guys come with serious issues.  Sometimes employees do, too.  Maybe they had a crappy manager 3 jobs ago and you’re paying the price.  Patience, positive reinforcement, and a good dialogue can help overcome that.
  • Some people just aren’t cat people: If it really bothers you that your employees don’t like you, or don’t think you’re cool, or don’t want to hang out with you…maybe you aren’t the leading kind.  Re-examine your motives for getting into a leadership position in the first place – if they are still pure and you just need an attitude adjustment, do it!  If not, that’s okay, too.  Just don’t subject your employees to a non-leadership ready leader.

Do you have any advice for the leader whose employees are a little too cat-like in their attachment?  Share in the comments below!

I would like to see anyone, prophet, king or God, convince a thousand cats to do the same thing at the same time.
– Neil Gaiman

 

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NASA is freakin’ awesome (why science geeks are leading the way for engagement)

The other night, after being woken up by a particularly loud dog turning over in her crate, the TV was turned on and I ended up watching an hour long program on NASA’s Curiosity mission to Mars.  It was awesome, and if you are not in awe of the things that human beings can do when focused on a common cause, shame on you.  I’ve been a space nerd from a very early age.  The Right Stuff is still one of my favorite movies. I really wanted to be an astrophysicist (then I hit ‘Intro to Complex Variables’.  Oof.) and I watch documentaries all the time (hence the Science Channel on at 3:00am).  I love that stuff.

As I lay there, not sleeping like I should have been, I was struck by how geeked (shout out to Steve Browne!) everyone was about the work they were doing.  And I couldn’t help think that any corporation would be lucky to have such an engaged workforce, and how any workforce would love to be that excited about going to work every day.  The NASA geeks obviously love that stuff, too.

I know NASA has come under fire in the past for their culture of cover up that resulted in deaths (Challenger, Columbia) and other leadership blunders.  I’ll address that side of the culture in the future. But for those people working on the Curiosity mission, the culture gave them exactly what they needed in order to love their jobs AND be successful.curiosity

What is it that got these NASA people so jazzed (other than the obvious fact that they are working on AWESOME SPACE STUFF)?  Here are a few things that I think contribute to the high level of NASA employee engagement that corporations can learn from:

  • People get to apply their skills and interests towards really cool work: Engagement surveys keep telling us that people want to be able to put their strengths to work on interesting projects.  You’ve probably said once or twice in your career, “I just want to make a difference.”  Well, these people are doing that – they get to use all their training and years of gazing up at the stars to help explore a distant planet.
  • Everyone is working toward the same massively difficult, but inspiring, goal: NASA is all about throwing down the gauntlet.  It started with Kennedy’s assertion that we would get to the moon by the end of the decade in the ’60s, to Apollo 13’s shifted mission to bring the astronauts home, to landing the most ambitious rover safely on Mars to conduct science experiments.  This singular focus drives all decisions and actions, keeping the teams focused on the common target.
  • Everyone’s role is well-defined: As you can imagine, a project like Curiosity has a LOT of different teams working on specific aspects of the mission.  There’s the experiment team, the landing team, the communications team, the power team, the SAM (sample analysis) team, etc.  Each person knows what their specific goals are, what the expectations are, the timeline required, and the potential impact of failure.
  • Everyone understands how their role contributes to the overall mission: I didn’t hear anyone say, “I don’t know why I do what I do – I just take orders.”  These are people who are driven to succeed because they know the rest of the mission is relying on their success.  They are given the big picture to provide context and truly believe they are a part of something greater than themselves.
  • They prepared…and prepared…and prepared…and were ready for anything: The level of testing and simulations the teams underwent before launch, during the journey to Mars, and right before landing meant the team felt they were able to handle any contingency.  Leadership understood the importance of gelling as a team, practicing skills until mastery, and throwing in trouble scenarios so the team could learn how to handle them in a low risk environment.  This level of practice lent skills and cohesion that resulted in a successful rover landing…even though the method used to land the rover had never been used before.
  • The work captures the hearts as well as the minds: One of the project’s scientists told the story of when he was a kid and the first Voyager photos from Mars were published in the ’70s.  He said, “That’s the day I became a planetary scientist.”  He basically is working on the project he dreamed about when he was little. The ability to emotionally connect with one’s  work is powerful. Simon Sinek’s excellent TED talk and book Start With Why discusses the need to understand who you are as a company and then let all things flowing from there.  The scientists working on Curiosity knew why they were there, and the long hours and stress were truly a labor of love.
  • They celebrate their wins: Just watch the reaction of the team once Curiosity safely touched down on the surface of Mars.

True, most of us will never get a chance to work on a project like landing a rover on another planet so far away that it takes 14 minutes for radio signals to reach it.  But when you think about it, none of the things that make those NASA geeks so excited are really out of reach for companies.  It’s about letting your people use their strengths to move the company forward on ambitious goals that everyone understands and connects to.  Each person knows what their role is and why it’s important.  They can be emotionally committed to the work.  And everyone can celebrate their wins and learn from their mistakes.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2013 in Engagement, Teamwork

 

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