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Fight the good fight

Let’s face it – no matter what our aspirations, most of us leaders will never ascend beyond middle management. That’s because unless we are a CEO of a company without a board (or we are ALSO the board chair), we all answer to somebody.

This perpetual state of “rock, meet hard place” means that leaders are constantly being asked to implement ideas, policies, projects, and other shenanigans they absolutely do not agree with. And even more, they know their employees will not agree with them, either.

The challenge is always knowing when to fight and when to support. In general, the rule of thumb has always been “fight up, complain across, support down.” Which…mostly works. It’s important that leaders know how to pick their battles and when to gain and spend political capital.

On the other hand…

There are times when your team really needs to see that you’re fighting for them. They need to believe you, their leader, has their back when they aren’t around to see it. They need to see that you are human, that you recognize when a policy from the higher ups seems contrary to the organization’s stated values, and that you are willing to stick your neck out for something that’s important.

Leaders, you won’t win on these. Most of the time the decision has already been made and you’re basically just fighting a whirlwind. You’ll be told you have your marching orders and that it’s happening with or without you, so it might has well be with you.

How you decide to react to that statement is up to you.

What I can tell you is that your team notices when you fight for them and with them. They know most of these issues are a losing battle. They know you’re putting your neck on the line. And because of that, they will be in that battle with you.

That means you have to be smart. That means you fight when it matters, not when you’re feeling petty. That means you explain why you’re fighting – so make sure the reason is worthy.

Being a leader means finding a balance in that gray area of supporting the organization’s mission and purpose and railing against anything that seems to be against the mission and purpose. Being a leader means knowing you will fight many times, and you will lose.

But being a leader also means showing your employees that with power comes responsibility, and being a manager sometimes means pushing back on authority now and then when the issue is important. It shows your employee you support them…and you expect them to also push back when the issue is important. Because informed dissent breeds innovation, and permission to dissent respectfully builds trust.

Yes, leaders. You will lose the occasional battle. But you just might win the war.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2017 in General Rant about Leading

 

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If I were king of the forest: in praise of managerial courage

I’m one of those people who lacks a strong natural filter.

I know – shocking, right?

I mean, I can have a filter – a damn good one. I’m very good at spinning a story to make it seem like it’s a good idea, or at the very least, not a horrible one. I’ve worked in tech startups, for crying out loud. I had to write press releases to make a letter of intent sound amazing even though we didn’t really have a product that worked. And I’ve work in Human Resources, for crying out loud. Do you know how many times I’ve had to “sell” a new policy or change in benefits? I can filter, dammit. It just takes effort.

king-of-the-forest

With a woof and a woof and a royal growl – woof.

 

So why am I talking about filters when I so clearly stated in the headline that I’d be talking about managerial courage? Because I think that filters sometimes overtake our willingness to be bold. We are so concerned with not ruffling feathers or rocking the boat or saying the wrong thing or looking a little silly that we turn the filter up to 11 and refuse to speak up and let things happen that shouldn’t. [I used ‘and’ a lot in that sentence. Oops.]

Leaders should exhibit managerial courage if they want to be successful. I’ve got reasons:

  • Innovation doesn’t come from being meek: Change happens because someone stands on a desk – metaphorically or otherwise – and yells they are MAD AS HELL AND AREN’T GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE. Courage means sometimes you have to do something unpopular to move forward.
  • Feisty managers can instill pride in a team: Employees know when bullshit is going down. They might not have the best spin detectors in the world, but they know enough to be able to tell when a bad idea is implemented. Managers who speak up appropriately against the craziness in their world show their teams that not every leader accepts the crap that rolls downhill. (You’ll notice I said ‘appropriately’ – that’s important.) Teams like a manager who stands up for what’s “right” – whatever that looks like.
  • Speaking out can foster healthy conflict: Not enough organizations know how to fight. Too many people seem to think debate = anger = personal attack. Can we stop thinking this? Seriously. Managerial courage requires leaders to accept the momentary discomfort of conflict and start an exchange of ideas, which leads to better decisions because people have learned to talked about the issue and not each other. Healthy conflict – good. Artificial harmony – bad.
  • Safe is boring: Ever heard the line Fortune favors the bold? No? Well, now you have. If you have ambition to move up in an organization or want to gain influence with your stakeholders, you’ll need to speak up. It creates opportunities for you to be viewed as a thinker – as someone who thinks big and isn’t afraid to share their big ideas. I don’t mean that you should naysay everything. Then you’re just an asshole. I mean you should accept a little risk in order to gain a bigger reward.
  • You learn how to fail: Not every episode of managerial courage will end with you draped in glory. In fact, you’ll most likely fail more often than not – especially early on. Each time you will refine your timing, target your message, and fine tune your approach. The powers that be will start listening, and even if you don’t change their minds this time, you’re depositing influence for a later discussion. It’s kind of like when a star player argues a foul call or a called strike. They know they won’t reverse the call…but it just might get the ref to lean towards their point of view the next time.

Being a leader is exhausting. You often feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle and all you get is blame and you never get the recognition. You’re responsible for a team of people who may or may not trust you, and may or may not care to be engaged at work. Oh, and if you’re like most people, you’re a “working leader” – meaning you have a whole bunch of deliverables due, too.  I think that’s why so many leaders shut down and decide to go along to get along – they just don’t have the energy to fight anymore.

Well, I say – fight, dammit. Step up to the plate and display your courage. You’ll energize yourself. You’ll energize your team. You’ll energize your organization.

Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
– Winston Churchill

 
 

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Leaders, remind your people they have value (no matter what those laws say)


NOTE: This post might be interpreted as “political.” That’s cool. Remember, my opinions are my own. And goodness knows…I have opinions.


You know which laws I’m talking about. This one. And this one. Thankfully, this one got vetoed.

There is plenty of material out there discussing the laws, the impact it will have on local communities (Paypal and Bruce Springsteen put their money where their mouths are…with more to come, I’m sure). I’ll leave the social discussion and moral outrage to others who can articulate it with such dexterity (like this incredible post by Jay Kuhns).

Through all this, I started thinking about everyday employees who had to hear that message from their government. And when Ed Tsyitee tweeted “HR people in Mississippi and North Carolina must be doing a collective facepalm right now,” I realized…he’s right. How messed up is this? Here we are – a nation of businesses supposedly obsessed with employee engagement, now confronting a message that we care about our people…as long as our people are exactly like we say they should be.

What a tough pill to swallow. valueadded

Employees are just trying to make a living. They want to live their lives. They want to fit in in a way that feels right to them. For god’s sake, they just want to go to the bathroom.

Leaders (true leaders) know how important it is to allow people to be authentic. And no…I don’t mean they have license to be assholes. I mean that people have the right to live as they are – male, female, gay, straight, furry, LARP-er, Star Wars nerd, Star Trek geek – whatever makes them who they are. Leaders sometimes face ridicule (or worse) for supporting their zany crew. These leaders are simply trying to keep their team motivated to do the work the business needs to do.

For those leaders of employees who face this challenge on a daily basis, here are some things you can say to impacted employees:

You matter.

You make a difference in the organization. You a person worthy of respect. You are a human being – with the same strengths, flaws, quirks, foibles, and greatness as everyone else.

You will be held to the same standard of work as others. You will be praised when you knock it out of the park. You will get a talking to when you goof up. After all – we have a job to do.

You can share who you are with this team, because we support you. And you are free to hum the theme song of ‘Dallas’ when the spirit moves you (unless it’s during a presentation to the executive team – that could be bad).

I’m so glad you’re on the team.

You. Are. Valued.

No matter what the outside world throws at your employees, you have the power to remind them they are PEOPLE first. They are YOUR people. They are the lifeblood of your team. They are the reason your business gets things done.

Leaders – you can set an example for others. You can show the fearful people that “different” isn’t something to punish. We’re all different.

And we all have value.

 

 

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Don’t like policies? Then control yourself

I’ve worked in HR for a long time, which means I’ve heard pretty much every complaint out there about why people don’t like the human resources department (or personnel, if you’re of a certain age).

While some reasons are downright creative – even colorful – the most common one I hear about is that HR always says no. Or that HR is the “Policy Police.” Or that HR won’t let you do anything.

*sigh*

Listen, people. It’s not HR who isn’t letting you do something. It’s YOU – leaders and employees alike. Actually, let me amend that – it’s US. We all contribute to this issue.

If human beings weren’t so jerky from time to time, we wouldn’t have to have all these stupid rules. If we could act like adults with integrity, we wouldn’t have to worry about nepotism, inappropriate conduct, approval levels, complicated oversight, internet and computer usage, etc. meatdress

But we’re people. So we do stupid things. And we make stupid decisions. And we act like it isn’t our fault. Hence…personnel policy manuals.  We like to be able to point to something and say, “Hey, not our idea. It’s in the policy.” When the tough conversations come up, we like to be able to say, “I didn’t want to, but HR made me.”

This is a total rule of thumb, but I’ve noticed that the thicker the rule book, the more unhealthy the culture. (There are exceptions, but still.) When employees can’t make smart, informed, mature choices, you see more and more of the decision-making taken away and replaced by a policy.

Is that how you roll? Do you WANT to lead that way?

I know I don’t. And I don’t like having to practice HR that way, either. I like to be able to work with leaders and employees to find the best solution for the situation they are currently in. It needs to be legal. It needs to be consistent with previous situations. But we all need the flexibility to make good decisions for the circumstances.

So what’s the answer?

Don’t be a doofus. And tell your peers and employees to not be a doofus. If integrity is a value to you, then LIVE IT, don’t just point to a banner on the wall. Do the right thing, especially when there isn’t a policy telling you what to do.

We all have the power to change the system. Believe me – most HR pros would LOVE to rip up the policy manual and just talk it out.

Help us help you.

 

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How open-minded are you….REALLY?

If I were to ask this question of a random sampling of leaders and employees, how do you think they’d answer?

Most likely, everyone would present themselves as an open-minded, thoughtful human being, unswayed by their bias. (Except for that weird guy from the third floor. But he’s probably a sociopath.)

The reality is that people don’t like to think of themselves as closed-minded, or at the very least, they know better than to admit it. That’s because companies work like hell to hammer home the fact that inclusion, respect, diversity, love, peace, unicorns and rainbows are an integral part of a successful workplace. And it IS important to be inclusive and respectful.

But deep down, we all kind of suck at it.

I don’t mean we’re all assholes and racists or anything. I just mean that we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve got control over our natural biases. And not just the big ones (gender, race, age, etc.) – I’m talking about white-collar, blue-collar, where you went to school, the shoes you wear, what music you listen to…that kind of stuff. Even the most well-intentioned, self-aware person has inherent biases. [For an eye-opening revelation about your own biases, take the Project Implicit test from Harvard. It’s free. And a little spooky.]

All those little biases add up to a pretty significant impact on our decision-making.

Don’t believe me? Look at your hiring practices. Many organizations have some sort of diversity initiative in place – whether it’s monitoring and reporting, or a specific process to ensure a certain candidate pool mix. Hopefully, these programs ARE making a difference for your organization on a macrolevel.

Now look at the teams around you. Look at YOUR team.

Is everyone just a little too…the same?

Do you all like the same things? Have similar backgrounds? Make decisions the same way?

Did you even realize it when you hired them?

BOOM. That’s bias in action, baby.

If you want to be closer to the level of open-mindedness you claim to have, you have to be aware you’re not perfect and be proactive in your approach to make a difference. Here are a few things you can try, either as a leader or an employee:

  • Hiring practices: When hiring, consider taking off names, addresses and school names off the resume. Just look at whether the person meets the required education level and has the right experience. (Bias exists for peers just as much as hiring managers!)
  • Job design: Question whether the education level you’re requiring for a job even makes sense. A college degree does not magically make you a better employee and mean you can do the job. I’m not saying it’s NOT a good thing, but question your implicit assumption it’s required for success.
  • Teams: Challenge your need to like everyone you work with. I mean, it’s nice and all…but a lot of times we like people because they’re just like us. Same can be boring and stifle innovation. Build and/or join a team with people who will challenge your thinking.
  • Silos: Go learn more about the people who do work that is wildly different from yours. If you’re in a corporate office, do some ridealongs with the field folks. If you’re in the field, shadow the corporate people. Understanding of the unknown helps breaks down bias and assumptions.
  • Ideas: What happens who you propose an idea and someone questions it? Do you defend it to the death? Do you think the other person is an idiot because they don’t agree? Do you assume they don’t like it because they don’t have your background? All of the above? To be truly open-minded, you have to be open to the fact that you DON’T know everything…even about the topic you’re supposedly THE expert in. Listen and learn.

These are just a few ideas on how you can set up an environment that encourages open-mindedness through behavior, not intention.

Give one or two of them a shot. After all, you’re open-minded….

Right?

 
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Posted by on November 8, 2015 in Self-Awareness

 

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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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Self-fulfilling prophecies and the danger of labels

Read through the following scenario and pay attention to how you interpret it:

An employee, Shaun, shows up very late on a Friday morning. Shaun typically isn’t a morning person and has been a couple of minutes late once or twice in the past – but never like this. He is bleary-eyed, disheveled, and appears to be having trouble concentrating. He is in his early 20s, the same as a group in the office that likes to go out and party on Thursday nights. When you ask Shaun what’s going on, he is evasive, fumbling for answers that would make you happy. 

A week ago, you had a similar incident occur in which the employee actually had a hangover and had accidentally deleted an important spreadsheet and was trying to cover it up. And there have been a lot of system issues lately that you believe are caused by your employees not knowing what they’re doing and creating extra records that don’t need to be there.

Know how you’d react? It wouldn’t be surprising if you assumed Shaun is just like the other employees of his generation. After all, you’ve read all about their work-life balance YOLO lifestyle. You’re in the know. Time to act – right?

But there’s more to the story:

When pressed, Shaun tells you that he knew that the system slowdown was affecting everyone’s productivity, and he decided to stay late on Thursday to remove the extraneous records that were slowing down the system. It took longer than he thought it would, and he didn’t want to get in trouble for not telling you.

Dang it – your label failed you.

The Power of Labels

In 1968, third grade Iowa schoolteacher Jane Elliott wanted to teach her students about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and the dangers of racism – the worst kind of labeling. How do you get children to understand such a high level concept? By letting them experience LABELS. She started the day by explaining that blue-eyed children are smarter, prettier, and all around better than brown eyed children. After lunch, she changed it and and explained it turns out that brown-eyed children are smarter and better.

The speed with which these children accepted the roles into which they were assigned – aggressor and victim – is terrifying. It is even more terrifying when you consider that Jane Elliott was completely transparent about what she was doing with the children. She explained it’s an exercise. She explains what she wanted them to learn. And yet, the labels were SO strong, the children’s performance in learning exercises went DOWN when they were the “dumb” group. [Watch A Class Divided for the entire documentary. It’s amazing and well worth your time.]

label-maker1

So why do I bring this up?

Because labels are powerful – and we use them ALL THE TIME.

We talk about generations (Do you know how to recruit Millennials? Are you ready for the ennui of Gen X? Do you care what Generation Z will do???). We talk about high potentials. We talk about “difficult people.” We talk about A Players, B Players, engineers, IT, HR, “leaders”, “followers” – all of them labels. And each of these labels comes with preconceived notions about the person who has that label can and cannot do.

Listen, I get that labels can help. We have to categorize things in order to process the amount of information we encounter every day. But we also have to be aware of the impact our labels have.

Words Matter

As a leader, the labels you place on your employees are especially powerful, and are most often given within the first day of meeting a person. A “promising employee” or “hard worker” tends to get more benefit of the doubt than a “slow worker” or “troublemaker.” It’s even worse when an executive labels an employee they’ve met once. I’ve known an employee who carried the label of not being terribly smart because on her very first day, an executive asked her a question about a process she didn’t know the answer to. ON HER FIRST DAY. This employee was very smart, and very capable – and every talent discussion we had to combat the baggage of a label given after a 5 minute interaction.

Sadly, the leader’s reaction to an employee based on a label is nowhere near as dangerous as the employee’s reaction to the label the leader applied. Just like the children in A Class Divided, employees who have been labeled high potential often perform better (or fade under the pressure of expectation), while “difficult” employees make more errors, because others interpret their actions differently – or because the employees themselves believe they are the label you’ve given them*.

The same goes for employees labeling leaders. “She’s mean” or “He’s a pushover” colors the behavior of leaders because it shades the way others perceive the leader. With the prevalence of 360s in today’s business world, these labels gain more and more power, impacting the leader’s self-confidence – or potentially reinforcing BAD behavior – as each cycle of feedback simply reinforces the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Think

Labels are going to be with us for a long time. They helped us survive as we evolved (this berry = good, sharp pointy teeth = bad). They allow us to thin-slice data. Unfortunately, they also allow employees and leaders alike to be lazy – to apply labels rather than get to know the people they interact with.

Leaders, when you go back to your teams take an honest look the expectations that you hold for each of your employees. Employees, take a hard look at the way you talk about your leader.  And ask yourself, am I responding to a person?

Or to a label?

[*For more on the power of suggestion and stereotypes, read Dan Ariely’s work.]

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2015 in Self-Awareness

 

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