Thank you

November 27, 2008

Humans At Work has been open for business less than two weeks as I write this, and already I have so much to be thankful for.

Thank you to everyone in my work history who helped me learn why it was good to be human at work, and how to best do it. My teams who held me to high standards and helped me meet them, and in whose company I had moments of learning and witnessed moments of grace that still ring within me. My bosses who guided me when I needed it and then let me go figure out the rest for myself. My bosses who taught me what not to do, who weren’t that good as managers, but who wore human faces and had human flaws, so that I learned that most bad management is lack of skill rather than lack of character. And my colleagues in organizations around the country with whom I’ve laughed, shared frustrations, done good work, failed spectacularly, and had some wonderful success. I value you all.

Thank you to the people from around the world who have been so responsive to Humans At Work these last two weeks. Your support and encouragement helps me engage with this new work with enthusiasm and confidence, and that’s what good management is all about. Thanks for setting the example and reminding me that we manage each other in all sorts of daily ways, whether we “work for” each other or not. And that how we treat each other makes a difference.

Thank you to the people without whose direct help — ideas, curriculum review, website testing, encouraging emails, conversations, hugs, hot meals and some very good bottles of wine — Humans At Work would not be what it is: Liz Butcher, Juliane Parsons, Jennifer Durham, Karina Meléndez, Vicki Platts-Brown, Tommaso Fiacchino, Sharon Woodbury. And most especially Nicola Griffith, who daily makes me want to be the best person I can.

Happy Thanksgiving to US citizens wherever in the world you may be, and to everyone else, may your day give you some gift, great or small; so that perhaps today we may all be connected by feeling thankful.

Get connected

November 24, 2008

I recently got my virtual hands on a copy of “The Connection Culture”, a manifesto by Michael Lee Stallard proposing that fostering a sense of connection among people at work has a direct impact on employee engagement, productivity, and business success.

One measure of connection is Gallup’s Q12 survey that asks questions such as whether people care about you at work, encourage your development, and seek and consider your opinion. …[T]he research showed that business units with higher Q12 scores — in other words, higher connection — experienced higher productivity, higher profitability, and higher customer satisfaction as well as lower employee turnover and fewer accidents.
 
— from The Connection Culture by Michael Lee Stallard

The connections Stallard describes have a powerful and profound impact on people and companies because they are how people behave with each other in ways that get the job done better. Management is behavior: all the good intentions or business acumen in the world won’t make a speck of difference in your company if people don’t behave in ways that help everyone work more effectively towards common goals. Managing humans well makes them feel more connected to their job, their team, their company and to themselves. That’s when you get people’s best ideas, best effort, and their most consistent results.

For those who are suspicious of “fuzzy stuff” at work, let me point out that Stallard is not advocating (as an HR friend of mine says wryly) “linking pinkies and singing Kumbaya.” You don’t have to sing, I promise. As a manager, what you have to do is make it possible for people to engage — with the work they do, and the people they do it with — in ways that keep everyone focused, effective and productive even in chaotic and frightening times.

In fact, I submit that it’s in such times — like now — that we most need to be engaged, to be connected with each other and our common goals rather than hunkered down in defensive silos. It’s by working together that we’ll find ways to move our businesses down this stretch of very rough road.

Say it

November 19, 2008

Communication is a manager’s most important skill: we’re getting work done through other people, and if we’re not clear and direct about what we want, we can’t expect other people to give it to us.

The problem comes when what we want is to not be uncomfortable.

Managers hedge, hide, avoid or deny because we’re afraid that if we speak clearly, other people will react in ways that threaten us. They’ll rage, they’ll cry, they’ll argue, they’ll say terrible things about us to everyone they know… I remember as a new manager being terrified that if I gave an employee a bad review, she’d actually come to work the next day with a gun. I went ahead with the review, and she was angry. The next few days were no fun for either of us. But there was no gun: and once I got some distance on my fear, I realized that I wasn’t really worried she would kill me. I was worried that telling her something she didn’t want to hear, and her potential response to it, would be uncomfortable for us both.

It is uncomfortable. That’s why many people — even those who have good management skills in other ways — don’t do it. But here’s the bottom line: if you are a manager, it’s your responsibility to say the hard things that need to be said. Clearly. In plain language. So that people have the information they need to decide how to feel and what to do.

I’m writing this today because of Bob Sutton’s recent post about layoffs. It’s timely: we’re all thinking about job security in these days when the news is full of companies announcing “rightsizing” and “streamlining” and (from a commenter on Sutton’s post) “offboarding” (excuse me while I just go throw up a little).

When you’re managing and leading people, please don’t use this ridiculous language. Please don’t put a layer of pretense over the very hard, real thing that is happening to real human beings, just because you think it might make it easier. It doesn’t: it makes it worse. No good manager ever dehumanizes herself or anyone else this way.

If you have to lay someone off, I recommend you say some version of this: “John, I have some hard news. I’m laying you off. I’m very sorry to lose you. I want to explain to you why the company is laying people off, and I want go over the severance package with you. Do you need some time before we do that?”

And then answer John’s questions if he has them. If he cries, or pleads for his job, or calls you names, or storms out and slams the door, deal with it as professionally and humanely as you can. And do not ever for an instant pretend to yourself or to John that this is “rightsizing,” or that it should be easy.

Please resist with all your might the temptation to explain that this is really, really hard for you. Please don’t ask him to understand how tough it is to lay someone off. He’s busy dealing with how hard it is for him to lose his job, and it’s not his responsibility to make you feel better.

It’s not about you. You may be feeling sad, frightened or like a monster, but this conversation is not about you and how you feel. So be the most excellent manager you can be. Be brave. Be clear. Say it: and then do whatever you can, with compassion and respect, to help John make the decisions he must make. Be willing to be uncomfortable. That’s what good managers do.

The Right 3 Things

November 10, 2008

When I interviewed for my initial job as Director of Planning at Wizards of the Coast, I had a long talk with Peter Adkison, the founder and president of Wizards.

Peter’s focus and commitment were already legendary: his emails to staff began at 5:00 AM, and he often didn’t leave his desk until 11:00 PM. I was a little nervous about this: I wanted the job very much, but I had been to the Burnout Zone before, and a return visit wasn’t part of my career plan.

Peter said, “I work hard, and I expect all my direct reports to work hard too. I expect that kind of commitment. Can you give me that?”

I took a breath and said, “Peter, I have a partner, a writing career, and a life. I can’t put in 80-hour weeks for you. If you give me a list of 10 things every day, I can’t promise to do everything on the list. But here’s what I will promise: I will always do the right 3 things.”

We sat in silence for a moment. And then he smiled and said, “Okay.”

The Right 3 Things are a moving target. It can be especially hard in turbulent times to stay in sync with them. But if you can — if you can know every day what your Right 3 Things are — you’re a huge step down the road of making your work life, and your team, much more effective.

How do you identify The Right 3 Things? You get clear on your team’s accountabilities, and then line up your priorities accordingly. You can find specific suggestions on this, including how to identify your team’s basic accountabilities and a model for how to prioritize, in Humans At WorkSM Session 4, section 4.5 (download the PDF file).

They watch everything you do

November 7, 2008

One of the most disconcerting experiences for a new manager is the first time you realize that everyone on your team watches everything you do.

If you get up from your desk, people watch to see where you’re going. Someone always knows when you’re in the bathroom. They watch your face when the VP of Production leaves your office, and make guesses about what your expression means. They watch to see if you smile more at Sally than you do at Tom, and make guesses about what that means too. They learn to read your tells — the way you drum your fingers when you’re impatient, or the eyebrow you raise just before you cut off someone’s explanation. They talk about your behavior when you’re not around, and they assign meaning to everything.

You are constantly on your team’s radar. They hear and see everything you do.

Does that make you nervous? How about letting it make you aware instead? Let it teach you that managing is first and foremost a relationship, and behavior is the heart of relationship. Everything you do and say — every behavior — becomes a part of that relationship. The more you are aware of your behavior, the more chances you have to create an effective relationship.

But that’s so artificial, you may be thinking. No, it’s not, although it may feel that way until you get the hang of it. Keep practicing. It is entirely possible to be both aware of what you’re doing, and and authentic about it. Great managers do it all the time.

If you feel overwhelmed, remember — awareness takes practice, and it’s good to start in small and specific ways. Try this exercise: when you get to work every day, smile and say hello, by name, to everyone on your team the very first time you see them. When you are leaving for the day, say goodbye/good night, by name, to everyone on your team who is in the work area. Do this consistently for a week. See what happens.

Hope and help

November 5, 2008

Welcome to Humans At Work.

I’m glad you’re here. I hope the ideas excite you. I hope you find inspiration and solutions here. I hope you find community.

Above all, I hope you find hope.

As I write this, global financial systems are disintegrating, and people are terribly frightened. It seems like hope is part of what we need right now. Not the hope that is really fear in disguise — if I squeeze my eyes tight and wish hard, the bad things will go away! — but the hope that comes from courage and will and imagination, when people band together and say Let’s do what we must to make things better for all of us. Let’s keep going together. We can do it.

If you’re a manager, you need to be saying that to your team. And then you need to help them do it. You need a sharp focus on priorities, clear communication, and above all the guts to be engaged and authentic and brave all the time so your team can keep doing what they need to do. You need the courage to manage well even if you’re scared; because business needs good managers now more than ever.

If we manage each other well, work together effectively, and stay productive in spite of the stress and fear we’re all feeling, we will get through this. The skills and tools here, and the community we build around them, will help you.

So I say to you: we can do it. We can all be good managers. We can give each other help and hope, and we can keep going — one day, one clear conversation, one problem solved at a time.