Feelings are a fact

March 30, 2009

Rita McGrath has a spot-on take on why we should not separate feelings from business — because, well, we can’t. Our brains are hardwired for emotion as well as thought, and although we can hide our feelings if we must, we can’t keep ourselves from having them. Feelings exist: they are as much a fact of any situation as any other data.

You’ll never succeed arguing substance when the real problem is a problem of emotional meaning.
— Rita McGrath, “AIG: Why the Facts Don’t Matter

At least one commenter takes McGrath to task for advocating “spin doctoring.” I understand that concern, but I don’t see her post that way. Reframing a situation to examine a different perspective is an essential leadership skill, in my opinion. Leaders have to be able to do it to make good decisions, and to make their thinking transparent to others. Just make sure you’re offering a different perspective rather than telling someone why their perspective is wrong. That may seem like a subtle difference, but we all know it when we hear it. And if we’re being told our feelings are wrong, we stop listening.

Your job as a manager and leader is to keep people engaged. If you don’t listen, you’re automatically disenfranchising people who may be offering you valuable information, albeit wrapped up in angry words. I’m willing to bet that someone at AIG heard about this bonus plan and questioned the decision. Probably in emotional terms: that will really upset people, or that feels unfair. And now AIG executives are learning the hard way that an emotional response to a decision is sometimes a more powerful force than all the “spin” in the world.

Does that mean that if someone’s upset by a decision, you as a manager should reverse course? Does everyone always have to feel good about everything? No, of course not. But don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that feelings don’t matter; and when you must make an unpopular decision, get as much input from as many stakeholders as possible ahead of time. Listen to the feelings. If you can demonstrate that you’ve heard people, and taken their reaction into account, then they are generally more willing to accept that they aren’t necessarily going to get the response they were asking for. That’s what she’s suggesting President Obama could have done, and I think she’s right.

It can be scary to be confronted by other people’s feelings. Take a breath. Model the behavior that you want to see. And remember that it’s fine to set guidelines around expression — yelling, throwing things, and sabotaging work aren’t okay ways for grownups to behave in the workplace — but do not try to legislate the feelings themselves. Remember the last time someone told you that you were overreacting? Did it help you calm down? Well, there you go. Angry, frightened or offended people want to be heard. So listen to them.

Be authentic

March 19, 2009

As a follow-up to Tuesday’s post about being smart with heart, here’s a thoughtful and useful article on why and how to be an authentic leader.

A fallout of working for, or being associated with, an inauthentic leader is that this person robs us of our own authenticity as we tread carefully around them. We focus on what keeps us safe in our jobs. In the process they don’t get the best out of us – they get our labor, but not our full engagement… Lack of authenticity in a leader carries a hefty price tag.
— Bruna Martinuzzi, from “The Talisman of Leadership”

You’ll find ideas about authenticity and transparency, and concrete suggestions for how to bring more authenticity into your own work experience. Remember, authenticity is a skill like any other. “Practicing” authenticity doesn’t make you a manipulator or a hypocrite — it makes you better at being truly authentic. It can be scary. It can make you vulnerable. And the results will certainly surprise you.

Smart includes heart

March 17, 2009

He saw that the people who push the wheelchairs were practicing medicine. — from the Boston Globe article “A Head with a Heart” by Kevin Cullen

Here’s what is possible when a leader is as focused on people as on “business” — when a leader understands that people are the business, and that we must support both in order to sustain both.

When we lead from values that include seeing how everyone contributes to the mission of the company, when we are willing to stand in front of eight thousand people or the two members of our start-up IT team and say Here’s what I’m thinking. What do you think? What are your ideas?… then what happened at Beth Israel Hospital can happen for us too.

Good management isn’t about leaving your heart at home. It’s about bringing it to work along with your brain, and reaching out with both to the people around you. Is that too fuzzy for you? Well, look at what happened at Beth Israel. Those folks are saving jobs, saving money, maybe saving lives because the person is charge was willing to look at the company with a curious heart as well as financial eyes.

(Thank you to Sarah for this link. If you find stories to share about being human at work, or have some of your own, please email me at keskridge at humansatwork dot com.)

Audit your secrets

March 12, 2009

Allison O’Neill, author of The Boss Benchmark, joins me today as a guest blogger with a very timely article on keeping secrets at work.

Allison is an expert on bosses. She is the New Zealand-based author of The Boss Benchmark – a book about how to be an amazing boss, endorsed by high profile worldwide CEO’s. You can download the first few chapters free (and purchase a hardcopy or e-version) at her website.

Allison blogs regularly on the topic of being a boss and would love to hear any questions, ideas or feedback you have about this article. Start a conversation here, or email Allison.


Why you should audit the secrets you keep from your staff

In the past when there were stiff hierarchies there were probably lots of things management knew that staff did not. Perhaps management thought staff were not important enough to be told many things. The futuristic workplace though, has an ‘all in’ attitude — anything management knows staff should too. Such open attitudes are positively overhauling our workplace cultures. It shows staff they are respected and trusted and it increases engagement. Most places want to do away with the ‘them vs. us’ of management and staff. It is not a helpful vibe, and should have been given the boot a long time ago.

Some bosses use secrets simply to make themselves feel awesome. Anyone who keeps secrets purely to make themselves feel superior is pathetic — but they do exist. It is impossible for a team to unite and truly function as a ‘team’ under those conditions. I knew of a boss that wanted to show his team he had ‘the power’ so staged fake job interviews to frighten the staff that were on thin ice. Its like he was trying to scare them into performing better — or they’d be replaced. Mind games like this should have absolutely no place at work. Its not healthy — the boss is unfit to be a boss and it makes the staff live in fear. What a gross environment!

‘Secrets’ you shouldn’t share

If a staff member shares things with you in confidence they should of course be kept private. There are many instances where an employee needs to inform a boss about something happening in their lives that may affect their work, but that does not mean everyone else should know too. Some examples:

  • They have a health problem they are managing privately.
  • They are separating from their partner and wish it to be private.
  • They need time off for a mental health issue.

Also, in businesses where husband and wife owners work together, should they have marriage problems it can affect the entire business and team. Personal problems should be kept out of work –- if not, you will really impact your staff members and their work (often even if you think you aren’t). If it has affected the team already, apologize and inform them you will be keeping work and private lives separate from now on. If you do end up separating, draw up some rules to help you manage your work relationship and be open about what is going on with the team. Don’t leave them to guess, wonder or gossip.

‘Secrets’ you should share

I know a boss that made a huge mistake by listing the business for sale without telling the staff. The staff saw the ad when reading the paper on Saturday morning. They were very annoyed that the boss had been feeding them lies about “everything being fine”. Instead of feeling embarrassed about having to sell up, the boss should have been open and included the staff in this process honestly. Instead the culture was tense and disconnected while the sale went through. The boss didn’t regain the trust or respect of the team.

In the past a lot of businesses kept financial details secret from staff –- as if it was none of their business or they didn’t need to know. Businesses that do share such information are often better off. One great reason to share is the clarification about how much profit the owners really do pocket each year. Some staff believe it to be gazillions, which is why they get so annoyed at their wage which they may feel is miserable. Often when all the financial details are on the table they see they are paid very fairly and the boss doesn’t take home four million each week!

You should share things like:

  • If there is a drop in sales tell the team -– don’t just keep it within the boardroom.
  • Tell everyone what the high margin products are so they can focus on selling those items.
  • If there are financial difficulties discuss it with everyone and pen a survival plan together — especially since staff know the customers much better than management does. Their contribution will be very valuable.

It is important to tell staff margin details because if they are earning commissions on each item, they can sometimes assume you are pocketing a lot more from their great sales work than the miserable commission you are paying.

Audit your secrets

  1. Ponder everything management knows but the staff do not.
  2. Figure out why these things are not public knowledge amongst the team.
  3. Identify at what cost the secrets are being kept.
  4. List the pros and cons of staff knowing (more often than not, the honesty is of higher value than any negative that may come from sharing).
  5. Come clean with your secrets and tell the team that management intend on being more open about such things in the future.

Involving staff in these kind of ‘secrets’ is not rocket science –- they are stakeholders, after all. Gone are the days when the boss knew lots of inside secrets and the staff were clueless — often wandering aimlessly around scratching their heads. The workplace of the future is without old-fashioned hierarchies and is full of openness, honesty and much bigger success.

Open the office door

March 10, 2009

Another good overview (this one by leadership consultant Kate Sweetman) of what it takes to be a leader in challenging times.

The principles of Sweetman’s leadership code are keepers. And her perspective, which I share, is that any time is a challenging time to be a leader. These last 18 months present specific and severe challenges, but it’s never a cakewalk to provide clarity, support, roadmaps and resources to other human beings. You certainly cannot provide these things if you’re hiding in your office.

Managers are leaders too. As you manage and lead through the waves of fear that are swamping everyone right now, remember to stay connected to your people and your goals. Stay focused. Communicate. And open that office door.

See it, be it

March 9, 2009

As a follow-up to talking about the importance and power of focus, here’s a great article by Srinivasan Pillay on why and how visualization works — what happens in the brain, and in our lives, when we visualize.

Visualizing works. And it’s an enormously important skill for managers. It goes hand in hand with focus. As Pillay points out in the article, feeding your brain a “plan in a thousand words” is less successful than giving it a single, specific image. The real work is getting to that single image.

But that’s all it is — work. We can all do it. It’s a process. Most of us start with a jumble of ideas, feelings and thoughts that don’t really draw together into a coherent set of goals — that’s perfectly normal. Like anything else, it gets easier with regular repetition. We can teach ourselves to visualize focused goals, and we can figure out the right steps to take in pursuit of those goals. And along the way, we’re also fighting the paralysis of fear for ourselves and our teams, making our businesses more successful, and making our brains more healthy and our spirits more resilient.

Part of the science behind visualization that Pillay describes (see his second paragraph) is mirror neurons. You’ll find some exercises to help you and your team understand the power of mirror neurons in Session Two of the Humans At Work program. And at the end of Session One, you’ll find some questions you can ask yourself to begin visualizing the best manager you can be. You can make that a long-term visualization — or you can adapt the questions to consider how your “best manager” self would respond to your specific team or company situation right now.

And finally, here’s one of the article’s most important points for me:

Remember, a failure is not a final statement that you will not succeed. It is information that your vision has to be changed, refined or repeated.

In work, as in life, we do not have to be perfect the first time out in order to be successful. We just need to keep working on it.

All managers are leaders

March 5, 2009

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that more companies are recognizing the need to continue investing in developing and deepening leadership skills even in hard times.

That’s great, but the news is not all rosy. It’s a hard time for training in general — a hard time for business in general — and it infuriates me to see so much short-term thinking coming out of the back rooms and board rooms of companies whose decisions affect so many human lives. Bob Sutton makes a case for why knee-jerk layoffs are stupid response to economic woe (and I encourage any companies who are considering layoffs to pony up for the Harvard Business Review case study/commentary “The Layoff”). Layoffs are the most egregious kind of panic response, but it’s equally frustrating to see companies emphasizing “leadership” training for “senior” people.

Please. The people who most need whatever skills and tools we can give them are the people on the front lines of business everywhere — people who are making things, building things, fixing things, transporting goods, getting services out, getting payments in, putting groceries on the shelves and checking them out at the register. People who are doing the daily work of business. Yes, strategy and innovation are important, and they may save your company down the road, but today the people who are doing the work need all of us to be the best managers we can be.

All managers are leaders.

Training executives and senior managers at the expense of front-line managers and supervisors is dumb. Because productivity and effectiveness start at the local level — with the individual team. If that team’s manager is ineffective at communicating clearly, providing resources, sharing information, making decisions, managing conflicting priorities and keeping people focused, then it doesn’t matter that the vice president of the division is a great leader. It just doesn’t.

My bias is obvious, of course — my program is all about training managers. But I am not frustrated today because the Wall Street Journal implies that such programs can’t make money right now. I’m frustrated because companies don’t seem to understand that so-called “soft skills” — communicating clearly with co-workers, running effective meetings, agreeing on process — are what keep work flowing through their organizations. Real leadership would be doing whatever it takes to keep that pipeline as wide open as possible.

I believe that things will get better. American business, the business culture I know best, has a long history of being both ingenious and stubborn. We haven’t always been flexible, but we’re learning — we have to. And those much-derided soft skills are at the heart of the flexibility that will save us.