Do other people know what you want?

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

Just yesterday I asked “Will middle managers join the dinosaurs?” after reading Lynda Gratton’s Future of Work blog post. Today in HBR.org John T. Landry gives a different approach:

…[W]e’re better off accepting command-and-control as the default for organizational life. A few companies or industries may be able to achieve true empowerment and collaboration for a while, mostly because their fast-changing markets leave them little choice. For every other organization, let’s lower our sights and focus on softening the edges of hierarchy.

Interesting. But I am more interested in a different part of the post where Landry describes an interview given by Bob Brennan CEO of Iron Mountain. Here is how Landry describes what Brennan says:

Brennan starts by saying that business is going through a transformation and top-down leadership no longer works well for companies. But he believes that too many of his managers still operate in a “command-and-control reflex.” They’re a lot like he was earlier in his career: good at holding subordinates accountable but bad at setting clear expectations. When subordinates aren’t sure what the boss really wants to accomplish, they don’t feel safe, and true delegation is impossible. Instead of acting autonomously, they hang around the boss and try to do whatever pleases him at the moment.

Fascinating. It reminded me of something I wrote long ago in a post called “What will your employees do when you leave for a vacation?”:

Imagine. You leave for a month of an overdue vacation. The catch is, it is on a deserted island, which has no way of communicating with the outside world. What will happen to your employees when you are gone? Will everything continue as usual? Will they be able to ask themselves, at every decision intersection they face – what does my manager would like to me to do, and answer that question? Correctly?

In one of the forums on Linkedin there is a current discussion about the difference between leaders and managers. While I have my own answer for this question, I found it interesting that a large part of the discussion was devoted to the question of vision and whether it is a necessary ingredient in the success of a company.  Well, maybe vision is a big word that frightens people and makes them think about historical figures or CEO of multi-million dollar companies. But actually it is much simpler. A manager needs to ask – will my employees be able to make decisions when I am not here. The decisions might be right or wrong in retrospect, but that is less important. What is important is whether these decisions align with your guidelines and attitude?

So, do the people around you know what you want even when you are not there?

Elad

Getting #feedback is hard

Photo by Criterion

I remember when I was in the Israeli Air Force an officer responsible for teaching one of the cadet courses and I had the following conversation:

Officer: Hey, you guys teach how to give feedback, right?

Me: Yes, do you want us to give a class to the cadets?

Officer: Yes, but I want you to teach them how to receive feedback.

Me: What do you mean?

Officer: We try to provide feedback all the time, but they keep arguing and talking back. I want you to teach them how to listen so my constructive feedback will be more effective.

I am reminded of this conversation every once in a while whenever I have trouble dealing with feedback myself. I ask myself from time to time should we teach people how to receive feedback?

While I would be inclined to agree that some people are very difficult when exposed to feedback – even constructive well intended one – my answer would generally be no. One of the first points I teach when I talk about feedback is very intuitive and usually is revealed by the students instead of lectured to them. Getting feedback is hard. There are a lot of reasons for this, many of them psychological and emotional. But I don’t really need to tell you that, as you probably felt it before. Everybody who ever got some feedback – and all of us have – felt it.

When I analyze it in hindsight I think the request of the officer suffered from a misunderstanding of one of the most basic principles of communication. In most cases, when there is miscommunication, it is the fault of the transmitter and not of the receiver. That is why I always try to refrain from saying “You don’t understand” and instead say: “I did not explain myself well”. Saying – “they just don’t listen” – takes the responsibility of your hands and puts it on the listener. The question is not if somebody else isn’t listening. The question is: are you talking in a way that will allow them to listen to you?

That is what I said to that officer. Teaching people how to receive feedback will probably not do any good, if you do not take the responsibility for giving true and effective feedback yourself. We should focus on how you give feedback and especially on ways of finding out why your cadets are unresponsive for you attempts to give them constructive feedback.

He did not like my answer. He did not come back.  I can guess why.  Getting feedback is really hard.

Do you take responsibility for giving constructive feedback or do you think that people are just not listening to you?

Elad

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Awareness (2)

Yesterday I wrote about awareness and how it is important for managers to be aware of their surroundings in order to to reach a human connection. Then I encountered the next two quotes:

Whoever knows essentially his own nature, can know also that of other men and can penetrate into the nature of beings. He can collaborate in the transformation and the progress of Heaven and earth (Confucian teaching).

How can the soul, which misunderstands itself, have a sure idea of other creatures? (Seneca).

Exactly what I said. Just shorter and more to the point.

Elad

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Awareness

Photo by Metro Centric

In the last few weeks I have been taking classes in positive psychology and practical philosophy. Both disciplines have a lot in common but the main thing is the idea of awareness and noticing out surroundings. The basic idea is kind of ironic. Only by truly being aware of the now and truly feeling it, you can achieve long-term goals of a sustainable happier life.

If you watch the amazing clip above, you will learn many things about human behavior. One of the most interesting pieces of information in it is that while American people complain that they don’t have enough time for themselves, for their families and their friends because there are swamped at worked, when asked what they will do with an extra day a week, they answer – will work more. Talking about being aware and not noticing what we are doing to ourselves.

When you think about, this tension, between long-term goals and short-term, almost hedonic, needs is a tension that is found in all facets of business and management life. How often do you stop to reflect and ask yourself – what am I doing right? What am I doing wrong? How can I make sure I recharge myself so I can keep up this crazy race in the long run? I am sure the answer is – not much. Life is to hectic, work to demanding, costumers want things yesterday.

Now think about your employees, peers, teammates? When is the last time you stopped and noticed them? Spent some time really getting to know them? Thought about their lives and what drives them? Thought about how to make their lives easier so they can survive the long run? Besides the fact that socializing and informal communication was found to be an important antecedent of creativity, innovation and team effectiveness, there are much simpler reason to be aware of your employees.

Grant McCracken asked, on HBR.org, a few days ago: Do You Know What Your Employees Are Watching? While McCracken suggested that we can learn about trends in the economy from employees TV habits, I think the question is important on a much more individual and personal levels. Are you aware that your employee loves to watch that dance show, because he always dreamt of being a dancer or even taking a dancing course? What will happen if instead of giving him a standardized bonus next time, you would be able to buy him a dance class for the same amount of money? What if you suddenly notice that all your employees are into Glee… will that enable you to create a contest between teams in your department that will boost morale?

Opportunities to make a difference are out there all the time. the question is, are you aware enough to notice them and utilize them for long-term benefits.

Elad

Correction: In the post I talk about a clip, which I forgot to include. Here it is:

We already tried that

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This is my second post in a row commenting on a post by John Kotter on HBR.org. Well… what can I say? He sure does write interesting stuff. This time he has a post titled: Getting Past the “But We Already Tried That” Response. As it sounds, it discusses the situation where good ideas are shot down by people saying “we already tried that”.

This is Kotter’s suggestion for the proper response that will help deal with such a comment:

The basic comeback for “We tried that already and it didn’t work” is to say something like: “That’s a good point, but that was then and this is today. You know, things change. They always do, for all companies everywhere. We don’t make the exact same products. Our customers are changing” [or other basic, clear, facts that illustrate how things have changed]. “I’ll make a call to the lawyers today, just to be safe” [if you haven't already done so, which you may have] “and if there’s a problem with doing this now, we’ll try to solve it and get right back to you. But we need the 15%, right? So unless the lawyers scream, why don’t we agree now to go forward with the plan. I mean, it really is a terrific idea.”

Great suggestion, right? The comments on the post show that many people certainly agree it is. And I do to. I just don’t think it’s enough.

Kotter’s response has an underling assumption. Rational arguments convince people. While it can happen, this kind of response ignores the fact that the person who says “we tried that before” is not only giving a rational argument; he is also giving an emotional argument.

The person opposed might think it’s a bad idea. He also might be afraid that if it fails, the blame will fall on his department. Or he thinks that the proposed change might mean more work for him. Or maybe he is the guy who invented the part that people are proposing to take off. The thing is, we don’t know. And until we ask and discuss we won’t.

The proposed response ignores the fact that we don’t know. It does not suggest recognizing the contribution of that person. It does not suggest asking him to explain his argument or what really happened last time. It does not ask him based on his experience, what can we do to make this work this time, given the changes that happened since last time.

It is a nice response. It is better than arguing. But I am not sure it will succeed in achieving the desired results and in keeping that experienced guy in the loop of contributing. We do want to use his experience, right?

Oh, and one more thing… what if it really still can’t work? Isn’t that a possibility we should consider… after all they call it experience for a reason…

What do you think? How what you handle this kind of situation?

Elad

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Are you standing out as a manager?

Photo by Cameron Cassan

Jon Gordon wrote yesterday in his blog about standing out:

It’s not enough to just show up to work. In today’s economy you must stand out at work to differentiate yourself and your company.

And what are his examples for standing up? People that eagerly and passionately doing their work by truly caring and connecting with other people.

Isn’t is surprising that the species that came to dominate this planet, in large part because of its ability to create social structures and deep relationships is now so enthralled in being a cog in the machine, that all you have to do to stand out is actually act like a human being? There are not enough people who actually wake up and decide each morning to passionately connect with others. To lead through infectious being. We have all been that person who is happy to get exceptional true heartfelt service like Jon did. We have also all been the one who gives it whole and feels the difference being created, at some point or another in our lives. But organizational hierarchies, the psychological safety provided by dehumanizing others and lack of inspiration and passion all prevent us from waking up every day with an urge to make somebody else’s day.

What can managers learn from all of this?

First that it is easy, even as a manager, to stand out. The bar out there is so low and there is so much mediocrity that just by being human, you can stand out. When is the last time you really connected with your team on the human level? Second, that it is so easy to spot and find the people who are really remarkable. They stand out just by being human beings. If somebody does not act like a human being and does not try to make the extra connection and instead acts like a cog, well…, than he deserves to be a cog somewhere else. He made himself replaceable, so, replace him. And if you act like a cog, don’t be surprised that it will happen to you too…

How are you standing out as a manager?

Elad

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The bad equilibrium of office conversations

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Dan Ariely reports, both on HBR.org and on his blog, on a fascinating experiment that I think has many implications to managing people. The setting they chose for their example was online dating and first dates. The idea was that during first dates or first encounters online, the two people usually are carful and don’t want to rock the boat. So they limit their questions and conversation to boring stuff like the weather or the food. These if of course not a conversation that is in their best interest, because although it means not offending the other side, the couple does not actually learn much about each other and might waste time and effort going into a relationship that is not right for either of them. This is what economists call bad equilibrium.

In order to change that, the experiment took willing participants and gave them a list of pre-approved questions that were anything but small talk – questions ranging from “whether you have STDs?” to “Have you ever broken someone’s heart?” to my favorite ice breaker: “How do you feel about abortion?” (which always reminds me of that Seinfeld episode). What they found out was that these questions actually prompted livelier, deeper more meaningful conversation.  As Ariely summarizes it:

By forcing people to step out of their comfort zone, risk tipping the relationship equilibria, we might ultimately gain more than if we just fall back on those tropes that are safe for everyone, and useful to no one.

Usually when people talk about stepping out of the comfort zone, they talk about new skills or behaviors that people need to acquire. While I am not sure I completely agree that in terms of skills we should push people so hard to go out of their comfort zone, there is no denying that there is opportunity for learning in these kinds of situations. However, you will never find people talking about deliberately pushing people out the comfort zone in emotional relationship oriented situation. But this is exactly the kind of behaviors we need to see more from managers.

Think about all those undiscussables that were just under the surface in your your last meeting. Or how weekly gathering of your team looks like. Do you feel like everybody is just being careful not to rock the boat? But isn’t rocking the boat, to a certain degree what these gatherings are really about? Do we really need to put everybody together in the same room so they can talk about the things everybody already know? Isn’t facing the issues, talking about them and finding shared ways to deal with them is the point of all of these meetings.

This experiment is a great example of the fact that managers should sometimes take a stand and make their people go through uncomfortable processes in order to stimulate discussions that open issues into the air. I am aware that it is a challenge to find the right process and right questions to ask. But the only way to find them is to experiment. Will it be awkward? Yes. Will you make mistakes and cross the bar and maybe insult people? Probably yes. But in the long term, it is worth the effort.

How can you change the bad equilibrium so you’re the important thing are discussed?

Elad

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You are not listening to me

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It happened last week. I got into an argument with someone close to me. Very close. Well, that happens frequently enough, but this argument was one of those arguments that quickly became explosive and went to high volume shouting. It has been more than a week since, and I still can’t get it out of my mind.

When I think about it, it still bugs me. I know I was right (what good does that for me now?). I know I was agitated and tired (I was in pain because I had two of my wisdom teeth removed a few days before). I know I was under a lot of stress (the subject of the argument was a document of legal importance). And all of that does not really matter. Because I feel it was a personal failure on my part.

A big part of this blog deals with interpersonal communication. I constantly write about how to manage difficult conversation and conflict. How to ask question and how to give feedback. I know everything (well, a lot) about the methods that should help a person communicate calmly and almost “emotion free”. And still, I failed.

And that got me thinking, if I failed, what chance do people who are not as versed as I am to successfully engage in difficult conversations? After being very pessimistic about this issue for a few days, I finally decided that even the best professionals can fail from time to time. The question is, whether we learn from our mistakes. In addition, none of the methods I write about are bullet proof. We are not robots. For good and for bad, sometimes, our emotions will have the better of us. So, I decided to focus on one issue that I relearned while shouting.

More than anything, when I go over the conversation in my head, I remember saying: “you are not listening to me”. And getting the anticipated response: “you are not listening to me!”. When I give feedback workshops I always advise people to mirror the other side’s behaviors and your own emotions and thoughts! The trouble starts when people try to mirror the other side emotions and thoughts. The problem is that we only have assumptions. Something I read today in an article called: “Too Hot to Handle? How to Manage Relationship Conflict” by Amy C. Edmondson  and Diana McLain Smith in the California Management Review:

The discipline of mapping requires paying strict attention to what people are doing, not why they’re doing it—that is, to the behaviors or actions of the people around the table, not their intentions or motives.

Building on this idea, you can understand why the sentence “you are not listening to me” can be  so easily misused. It seems like a behavioral description but it is actually an intention, motive or cognitive description. It suggests that the person in front of you does not understand you or is disrespectful, when it might be that he is actually just trying to get his message across. And what happens when you attempt to tell someone what he is thinking or feeling – he is insulted and reacts, usually passionately, by making similar accusation towards you… and from there… usually all hell breaks loose (as I now know too well).

So, what did I learn?

  1. We all fail sometimes! The question is whether we learn from it or not.
  2. Emotions are hard to control, but by being a little more aware of the words we use, we can try and “cool down” any argument.
  3. “You are not listening to me” is a very dangerous phrase that I, and everybody involved in an argument might want to try and refrain from using.

Elad

You are not listening to me

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How do you say: “No!”

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Miguel Barbosa conducted an interview with Dan Ariely about his new book and posted it to his blog. Ariely gave a small excerpt out of that interview on his blog where he posted as an answer to one of the questions. This answer gives an example of dealing with the issue of internal motivation (or meaning) at work. Here is the example:

Three weeks ago I was in Seattle where an ex-student of mine who works for a big software company. She contacted me six weeks prior and I agreed to meet with her team. Something happened at that company in the weeks before I gave the talk.  The background being that my student and a small team of people had discovered an idea which they thought was the best innovation in the “computer world.” They worked very hard on this idea for two years and the CEO of the company looked at it and said I’m canceling the project.

Ariely then goes on to describe how that affected the team:

So here I was sitting with a group of highly creative people, who were completely deflated- In my life I’ve never seen anyone (in the high-tech industry) with a lower level of motivation. So I asked them, “How many of you show up to work on time since the project has been shut down?” Nobody raised their hand. I asked them, “How many of you go home early?” Everyone raised their hand. Lastly, I asked them, “How many of you feel that you should have taken the opportunity to fudge on your expense reports?” In this case, no one answered the question — rather everyone sat laughing to themselves—in a way that makes me think that they would have fudged their expense reports. So here you have a case of people who worked incredibly hard on a project and basically got rejected. Which leads me to ask how could the CEO have behaved differently if he was also trying to create a more positive feelings for the team members.

While I agree with Ariley’s suggestions on how the CEO could have behaved differently (read the rest of the post and the entire interview) I am interested in a different question. From the way the situation is presented, the CEO has no idea of the effects his decision had on his employees. Just read what the people describe as their feelings. It is freighting to think about the CEO’s ignorance! (also see – Toxic Tandem).

Now, beside Ariely’s ideas that are all, in one way or another, ways not to actually say “no” to the team, I am thinking about how the CEO could reach the same result, without taking the wind out the team’s sails and without creating all of these negative feelings in the team.

To be honest, I am not sure, I don’t know enough about the situation. I am, however, sure about one thing. A lot of it is found in the way the decision was communicated. Most people understand “no”. But they want to hear the “no” in an emphatic way and feel like they were listened to and that the process of reaching the no was fair. Thus, how the message is communicated matters. It is clear, from the way the team reacted and the solutions they offered (later in Ariely’s example) that what really mattered to them is not that they have been denied, but the way they have been denied. This might seem like semantics, but when dealing with internal communication between people, semantics matter (see my E-book for more examples)!

I think that if you ask each and every one of those employees whether it occurred to him that their project could be shut down, they would probably say – yes. And if you would have asked them, should, some projects be shut down while other should get the green light – they would have said yes. They don’t have a problem with the decision itself, although the justifications for it could be debated. It is, from what we can understand, a reasonable decision that CEO’s make. It is how the decision was communicated to them.

It is an important lesson. It is not enough to say “no”. Managers and leaders should be aware of the consequences of their “no” and communicate it clearly. Yes, it will require some more of the CEO’s time. Yes, it will mean that the decision will not be as fast. But it will ensure that the team will continue to the next project, pumped with energy and ready to risk themselves again.

Elad

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Absolutely clear expectations about everything

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Rosabeth Moss Kanter has an interesting post today on HBR.org called: Four Things Groups Want that Leaders Can’t Give — and One They Can. To spoil the message, the four things are: Absolutely clear expectations about everything, Perfect certainty about the future, Yes all the time, The ending at the beginning. And the one they can is TLC — tender loving care. You got to love that.

I want to concentrate on the first thing “groups want that leaders can’t give”:

Absolutely clear expectations about everything. Expectation-setting sounds good as a leadership principle but is difficult in practice, especially when leaders try to tell people about things they haven’t yet encountered and do not yet have the experience to comprehend. No matter how much leaders try to define expectations, lay out the nature of likely events, or describe the steps that the group will be going through, it’s not enough. As the work unfolds, leaders are likely to hear, “Why didn’t you tell us X, Y, or Z?” Even when leaders pull out the opening memo with X, Y, and Z spelled out in detail, some people deny that they received it. All leaders can do is strive to be thorough, to communicate repeatedly, and to document the flow of events.

I agree with Kanter completely but I think it is important to note that the fact that we can’t set expectations about everything does not mean we shouldn’t set them at all. Like with many other things in life, it is a matter of choosing the right issues to focus on. More than a year ago I wrote a post about the importance of expectations and got into an interesting debate in the comments about what it actually means. I think that debate revolves around the point I want to make here. No one can set expectations for every possible scenario. In fact, that collides with second thing “groups want that leaders can’t give”: perfect certainty about the future. That is why expectations should be used as templates not as clear rules. When we think about setting expectations, somehow, the picture that comes to mind is one of micromanaging. Instead, expectations should be less about the task itself or how to do it and more about the process of communication and about the guidelines for decision-making.

No. there wouldn’t be clear expectations about everything. Actually, there wouldn’t be about most things. But, if we recognize a number of key issues, the vital signs of our business if you will, and set our expectations around these issues and about how and when to communicate, those are things that groups might not want, but they certainly need.

Elad

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