More on ground rules

May 13, 2009

I’ve been thinking more about ground rules since my exchange with Bob Sutton about using them to help manage meetings. As Harold Shinsato points out in his comment on that post, “ground rules and team commitments need not only be restricted to meetings.” That’s absolutely true.

I believe strongly in team agreements as the foundation for team structure and culture. Done properly, specific agreements about behavior, process, and roles/responsibilities aren’t anal-retentive corporate fiddlefaddle. They are the tools that create a level playing field for everyone on the team, so that everyone can expect the same basic experience of being a team member. An effective, happy team becomes everyone’s right and everyone’s responsibility; and that’s when teamwork really takes off.

    I think every manager should facilitate Team Ground Rules. Like meeting ground rules, these are specific behaviors that everyone on the team helps define, and then agrees to. Together, the team creates a set of behavior guidelines that they believe will:

  • Make it easier for them to do their individual jobs
  • Make it easier to work together as a team.
    General team ground rules can cover a number of areas:

  • sharing information
  • communication
  • areas of authority or responsibility
  • commitments to training and development
  • handling mistakes
  • raising concerns
  • addressing interpersonal conflicts

Here’s an example of Team Ground Rules from a team I’ve been part of:

    Noise and Privacy

  • Avoid extended loud conversations at our desks.
  • Tell people if they are being too loud. Don’t stew about it.
  • Respect when someone says they are busy. Tell them what you want to discuss and ask when they are available to talk. You should both take responsibility for following up.

  • Let each other know if something is bothering us.
          — Be polite and respectful.
          — Be direct.
          — No ultimatums.
          — Get a manager to facilitate the conversation if necessary.
          — Assume that we all have good intentions.
  • Stay approachable and open.
  • Keep helping each other. We all have different skills to share.
  • Let the team know when you are absent, and identify a proxy.
  • Share information about our priorities, responsibilities and workload.

Your team can decide on whatever ground rules you think will make it easier to work together. The point is that everyone agrees.

I also strongly recommend that you develop Manager Ground Rules that apply specifically to how managers on your team behave. It’s important that every team member feel confident that the team is managed consistently, whether you have multiple managers on the team or it’s just you. Again, the team works together to create these rules — they are not Handed Down From On High. It can be scary to give your team input into how you as a manager behave with them: but I guarantee there is no more powerful way to create a connected, supportive and successful team than to ask people how you can best manage them.

Here’s an example of Manager Ground Rules (again, from a team I managed, so I was bound by these rules along with other managers on the team):

    Working with team members

  • Hands-off attitude. Allow people to do their job in the way that works best for the individual except where necessary to meet team standards.
  • Delegate properly. Make sure people understand the work that is required, and then let them go.
    Resist the urge to do the work yourself.
  • Get involved in hands-on details only when you need to learn a new area of the business; to assist in problem-solving; to get information for a decision; or to provide training.
  • Balance between making suggestions and giving directions.
  • Know when people need help. Know when people need smaller goals and more manager involvement, and then when they are ready to go it alone.

  • Share information consistently, especially information that team doesn’t have access to.
  • Overcommunicate at first and then pull back as requested.
  • Give context for information.
  • Communicate important information verbally as well as in writing.
  • No mutual mind-reading. Everyone has to communicate. Employees have to also take responsibility for the relationship and sharing information with the manager.

  • Listen. Hear all details and information first before jumping in.
  • Be fair. Get all the information and perspectives you need to make a decision, then inform everyone of the decision.
  • Don’t make decisions in a vacuum. Consider all input, even if you can’t give everyone the answer they want.
  • Explain decisions.

I devote an entire session of the Humans At Work curriculum to teaching managers how to define and create a variety of team agreements, including Team Ground Rules and Manager Ground Rules. You’ll also find examples of all agreements in the Tools and Materials document.

Ground rules

May 11, 2009

I left a comment the other day on Bob Sutton’s thoughtful post about what poorly-run meetings can indicate about the managers in charge. My comment was about Ground Rules, a very useful tool for meetings of all kinds.

Bob kindly took my comment and created a post around it. Please stop by his blog if you’re interested in ideas about Ground Rules; and please stay to read his other wide-ranging and excellent advice on creating better workplaces and better managers. I admire his work very much, and in fact have a notion to someday create a series of blog posts here that reflect on the items in his sidebar.

That’s how these ideas of new ways of working together will spread: as we all learn from each other, as we all become engaged in this great conversation about management, leadership, and being human in the midst of it all. So please, visit Bob’s blog and add your voice to the conversation; and come back to Humans At Work whenever you’d like to talk. There’s always a seat at this table. That is, in fact, one of my Ground Rules.

Snow job

May 10, 2009

Everyone who lives in Seattle knows that we can’t handle snow here. The weather people predict an inch of the cold stuff and bam, we’re all charging off to the grocery store to stockpile canned goods with thoughts of the Donner party dancing in our heads.

But occasionally, the snow really does come down. Last December, Seattle was paralyzed by a series of snowstorms that left 16 inches in my neighbor’s yard and proved impossible for the city’s transportation department to keep up with. I live at the bottom of a steep hill: if it weren’t for my neighbors and their enormous pickup truck, I’d have been living off canned white beans and instant pudding for a week. I was grateful for the community I live in, and chalked up the complete lack of plowing as one of those things.

It turns out that it was one of those management things. The entire process was badly handled, and then people in charge spent more energy spinning the results from “failure” to “adequate” than they had, perhaps, spent on the process itself.

And it gets better. It’s come to light recently that the manager in charge of street maintenance (with primary and direct responsibility for snow emergency response and removal) was promoted to that position after a $515,000 study verified that as a manager he was “viewed as unsafe, dictatorial, vindictive, unwilling to listen even … by credible, well-respected witnesses.”

That’s right. The City of Seattle spent $515,000 of taxpayer money to produce an 8,000 page report that detailed management incompetence specifically in the core skills of managing humans well. After reading this report, the manager’s boss promoted him into the street maintenance job because she wanted a tough manager in the job.

I’m shaking my head. When the going gets tough, the truly tough do not create chaos — they keep people pulled together and achieving results even through their business equivalent of 16 inches of snow. It drives me nuts that the city administration spent half a million dollars just to find out that one guy lacks skills — and then they promoted him. And he was unable to articulate a plan, set priorities, or motivate his team to be effective while the snow piled up and people’s health and well-being were imperiled. He’s responsible for that, and so is his boss, and so is her boss (that would be the Mayor).

Managing humans poorly does not just mean that you hurt their feelings; it means that you jeopardize their health and safety, and the ultimate survival of your business. It means your company is wasting money and wasting the skills of people who would be doing a good job if only their manager would help rather than hinder them.

The skills of good management matter. They are essential. They are what would have made our snow removal happen. And they would have cost the city of Seattle a lot less than $515,000 to get.

Good leaders say…

April 15, 2009

  1. Please.
  2. Thank you.
  3. I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you.
  4. What do you think?
  5. How can I help?
  6. You’re right.

    and, sometimes most importantly…
  7. I screwed up. I’m sorry.

The lessons of Amazonfail

April 13, 2009

This past weekend, experienced the new power of social media to create a PR firestorm. You can find dry summaries of the situation at online news sources; but the real story is the way that people all over the world used social media technology — blogs and Twitter — to spread not just the facts, but their own sense of outrage at the perceived injustice. As of this writing — less than 36 hours after the word began to spread through the internet — there have been hundreds of scathing blog posts. Nearly 16,000 people have signed an online petition. There have been tens of thousands of individual tweets (Twitter messages) under the topic #amazonfail, and those tweets will have been seen by hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people. That’s an enormous PR punch in the gut for any company.

Amazon has handled this communications crisis in the worst possible way, which is to ignore the outrage and throw corporate-speak at the issue. I was aware of the controversy early Sunday morning: there was no response from Amazon until late afternoon, and the company spoke through a press release to the Associated Press. Amazon is an online business, suffering an online publicity massacre, and they offered no online response of substance. No blog post of their own. No direct dialogue attempts on Twitter. Imagine that you’re on an arena stage in front of tens of thousands of angry people, and instead of speaking into the microphone, you get on your cell phone and call someone to take a memo to send those folks. That’s essentially how Amazon handled it.

It gets more interesting when you examine the actual message sent, which was “This was a glitch in our sales system.” The thing is, you need only do the most cursory research to discover that no, in fact, their own customer service force told people at the start of all this that the situation was the result of deliberate implementation of company policy. If that is not true, then the customer service people (and my heart goes out to them, what a terrible job to have right now) are very poorly trained. If it is true, then the Amazon corporate spokeswoman lied to the press, and by extension to that virtual arena of angry people.

Either way – not good. And because the company has chosen not to comment any further on the customer service response, or how such a “glitch” could have happened, the general perception is that the company lied. The response on Twitter has been to create a companion thread to #amazonfail, called #glitchmyass. Really not good.

And here now is the lesson: what is happening to Amazon is only the super-size-me extension of what will happen in your company, whatever its size, if you treat your team or your customers the way Amazon is treating theirs right now. The internet is simply a giant watercooler, and the conversation there is louder, but I guarantee that if you’re treating people this way in your little corner of the world, they know it and are talking about it in ways that will hurt your business.

AmazonFail = ManagementFail. Don’t let it happen to you.

Don’t ignore the potential emotional impact of a policy decision. People don’t respond only to data — they also respond to how it makes them feel. In particular, take the time up front to think through decisions that take away some benefit from your team or your customers, or that will discriminate against certain stakeholders. Remember that discrimination and “taking away benefit” is in the eye of the done-to, not the do-er: if you are not sure whether a stakeholder will perceive a loss of benefit, ask them up front. You’ll save yourself a great deal of grief by dealing with potential bad feelings early and directly. You might even find that getting input helps you get to a better solution.

Don’t just have a policy — have a clear implementation plan. One of the key complaints against Amazon is that their de-ranking policy has been unfairly administered. Amazon’s been remarkably dumb in this regard; either the policy is deliberately unfair, or the implementation has been so poorly executed that the result is all this chaos.

If your decision backfires, get out in front of the anger right away. It’s much better to stand on that arena stage when there are only a thousand angry people as opposed to a hundred thousand.

Don’t stonewall, don’t patronize, and don’t assume you have automatic credibility. Amazon is perceived right now as everything from deeply clueless to desperately stonewalling to deliberately deceptive. And of all the errors you can make as a manager, this is the worst — to communicate in a way that distances people even further. Amazon will never fully regain credibility with many of its customers, and they have no one to blame but themselves. They gave a generic “Daddy’s working on it” answer to a deeply divisive situation; they communicated “at” stakeholders instead of directly to them, on their own online turf; and they have so far refused to engage with the notion that people aren’t just curious or concerned, they are offended.

Amazon’s not alone. Hundreds of millions of employees are disengaged from their jobs because their manager, or their company, treats them like children or like rented brains (no feelings need apply). That’s the old world of management. But the new world is dawning, brothers and sisters, and in the new world we will engage with each other as humans, or we will find that the world has disengaged from us.


Edited at 4:30 PDT to add: Amazon has released more information about the error with some details about the impact and what they’re doing to fix it. I’m glad to see it, and I hope they follow through with more.

Pull up a chair

April 1, 2009

Wow. What would happen if we all just started talking — and listening — at work?

I’ve been a part of initiatives similar in philosophy (although never using the Chair approach, which I think is brilliant), and they work. It can take a while to earn people’s trust — that they will not be punished for expressing their feelings, that their ideas will be heard, that they are part of a meaningful process as opposed to a feel-good experiment. When you do earn that trust, you get the enormous reward of people who are so engaged that they will make time in their work day to find you and tell you things they think you need to know, good and bad. How much is that worth to you?

Many thanks to Allison O’Neill for the article link. Sign up for Allison’s RSS feed — her posts always have something useful to say to any manager.

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.

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