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Lessons learned series: People make their own choices

This is the third in a four-part series chronicling the four most memorable leadership lessons I learned in my career – the hard way. And by “the hard way” I mean – boy did I get it wrong sometimes when I first started out, at times painfully wrong, but over the years I’ve learned by trial and error.
I originally meant for this to be one “listicle” post, but it turned out to be a long one, so I’ve broken it into a series. We’re at lesson #3, stay tuned for the last one:
1. Criticism doesn’t work
2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations
3. People make their own choices
4. Great leaders are servants

As a leader you can create a “circle of safety” as Simon Sinek would describe it. You can create the conditions for trust, change, growth and optimal performance.

Then you need to get out of the way.

However, not everyone will respond in the same way. Some people will continue to respond in ways that are unproductive or not conducive to a high-performance environment.

Here’s a scenario: you’re a new leader of a team. You signal that the department needs to develop some new processes; to be more data-driven in your efforts. You can’t go by “gut” alone any more, you need evidence that your work is aligned to the strategic plan, that your department was helping to move the needle in advancing the interests of the organization.

You ask each direct report for a yearly plan, backed up by data. If data isn’t being collected, you want to know what your team needs to do in order to get it.

One of your direct reports does not submit their plan on deadline. No explanation, no request for information or extension.

Except for the fact that you have everyone else’s plans, you would have questioned whether you had actually made your expectations clear in the first place.

During the subsequent one-on-one, it comes out that your direct report has never actually written a yearly plan before. So you provide some guidance and a template that you usually use, plus some resources they could find on the internet. You extend the deadline by another week.

At the end of the week, you got a two-page summary of work already done, but it doesn’t include any goals, metrics, measurements, key messages, or budget, all headings in the template you had provided.

This is a composite, generalized, anonymized scenario of course, because a variation of it is something I’ve seen a number of times.

During one of these times, I turned to a mentor/colleague for advice.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, “You can provide no support at all, or all the support possible, but you have to understand: people make their own choices.”

There could be many reasons why your direct report didn’t respond: you had a short time to establish trust and a comfort level, perhaps not enough time for this person to feel like they could ask for more help or training. Perhaps the task was beyond their skill level. Perhaps they felt they had been promoted beyond their abilities and didn’t want to admit it. Perhaps they just hoped you or the problem would disappear. Who knows?

If you have time and your employees are willing, it’s worth delving into some of those reasons, because in most cases, they can be overcome.

In rare cases, they can’t be overcome, and your employee is completely unwilling to step up. In that case it’s time for some personnel changes.

In the end, we cannot control others, we can only invite them along for the journey. Whether they choose to come along is, ultimately, not for us to decide. In those cases, we have to allow for others to make their own choices.


Photo credit: “Once upon a Time” ice cream flavours by Ruth Hartnup on Flickr, used under Creative Commons (CC-BY 2.0) license.

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Photo of Two clear teacups with tea

Lessons learned series: Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations

This is the second in a four-part series chronicling the four most memorable leadership lessons I learned in my career – the hard way. And by “the hard way” I mean – boy did I get it wrong sometimes when I first started out, at times painfully wrong, but over the years I’ve learned by trial and error.
I originally meant for this to be one “listicle” post, but it turned out to be a long one, so I’ve broken it into a series. We’re at lesson #2, stay tuned for the others:
1. Criticism doesn’t work
2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations
3. People make their own choices
4. Great leaders are servants

(I have a mild cuss word in this post. You’re warned; I do swear sometimes.)

Focusing on what works (see post 1 in this series) doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and roses, and it doesn’t mean shying away from difficult conversations about performance. Very few leaders are given the chance to practice this deliberately, in a safe space. Most of us had to learn by trial and error, in real world situations.

The TL;DR on this is: formal performance reviews generally do NOT work. What works is to intentionally build a culture of trust that leaves space for frank, compassionate conversations that can include performance issues.

Preferably over a cup of tea. Tea solves everything.

Learning how to give feedback is a skill, and like any other skill it takes practice to master. Learning to have those candid, forthright conversations, especially when they’re about the most difficult subjects, can mean deeper and more trusting relationships with team members.

Every time I must have a tough conversation, I re-read the book Thanks for the Feedback by Stone and Teen. When I’m in the moment, I try to remember four things:

  1. be specific,
  2. be non-judgmental,
  3. focus on the impact, and
  4. be curious.

A sample script might be: “I’ve observed (specific example of behaviour) a couple of times, and it has affected me/the team in the following ways. Can we talk about it? Where’s that coming from?”

Ironically, being empathetic by nature does not serve well in situations where you need to give specific feedback and outline expectations of better performance. The danger of an overdeveloped sense of empathy is twofold:

  1. knowing you might hurt someone’s feelings can make you hold back and not get specific enough. Your message won’t get through. You’ll step back from saying what needs to be heard.
    And that “shit sandwich” thing where you couch “bad” feedback between two “good” pieces of feedback? Well, shit is shit. It doesn’t taste any better when you slap it between two slices of bread; you’re just confused as to what you were supposed to be eating.
    I have had supervisors do this to me, and it always leaves me guessing: do I need to do something better? What WAS that conversation was all about? Why couldn’t he just get to the point?
  2. on the other hand, turning off that highly-tuned empathy button to get through your prepared list of grievances can make you come across as a wooden, unfeeling automaton. In turn, that amplifies any hurt feelings that may arise, provoking a negative, panicked reaction from an employee or co-worker.

Both (1) and (2) are over-corrections, and I have been guilty of both in the past.

I knew I nailed the balance between trust, compassion and candidness when I had to have a frank conversation with an employee who was starting to drop the ball on several projects.

I had set up a meeting and, as usual, couldn’t sleep the night before. However, I had already established a good relationship with the employee. At the end of our hour-long meeting, we had an action plan for improvement, including ways I would help her through it, and she said “I’m so glad we had this talk. It was hard but – I trust you.”

Instead of leaving my direct report confused or upset, the conversation deepened our relationship and added to a high-performing team atmosphere. And her performance did improve.

Candid, compassionate feedback is a skill, but it’s also a gift that will return itself many times over.

Image: Tea for Two by Naama ym used under CC-BY-SA-2.0

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Bookshelf with hardbound journals all with the title "Criticism"

Lessons Learned Series: Criticism Doesn’t Work

This is the first in a four-part series chronicling the four most memorable leadership lessons I learned in my career – the hard way. And by “the hard way” I mean – boy did I get it wrong sometimes when I first started out, at times painfully wrong, but over the years I’ve learned by trial and error.
I originally meant for this to be one “listicle” post, but it turned out to be a long one, so I’ve broken it into a series. We’re at lesson #1, stay tuned for the entire series:

  1. Criticism doesn’t work
  2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations
  3. People make their own choices
  4. Great leaders are servants

What you focus on becomes your reality. If you don’t want mistakes and sloppy work, don’t pay attention to them. If you want more excellent performance, start paying attention to what that looks like on your team.

When I first heard this at a weekend coaching for performance workshop I was a brand new manager of half a dozen communication professionals.

I simply could not believe what I was hearing. How can you let grammar and spelling mistakes, or worse yet, factual errors, go by without pointing it out to the staff member responsible this is unacceptable?

Isn’t it my job to bring the staff in line and make sure the work gets done properly? What if something gets published and it brings embarrassment to the client or bosses?

Then, something happened at that workshop that started to change my mind: the facilitator practiced what he preached.

At the beginning of the workshop he asked that everyone give plenty of time for fellow participants to comment and ask questions. He also let us know he’d be watching the time vigilantly to ensure we got through our full agenda.

But, there’s always THAT GUY. You know the one. He (or she, but in this case it was a he) can’t shut up, he just has to give his opinion or anecdote for every single item up for discussion. He has to debate every point.

“When is the facilitator going to remind that guy to shut up and let someone else talk?” I wondered when Mr. Talker made himself known only an hour into the session.

But the facilitator never did remind us of the expectations. After the first incident, he simply ignored Mr. Talker when he went on too long, and called upon others to speak, or went on with the agenda when it was time.

The effect was subtle, but profound, over the afternoon and second day of the workshop. Mr. Talker became more subdued. Everyone was engaged, the discussions were fulsome (even Mr. Talker made some good points, but didn’t dominate the discussion), and it was one of the best professional development activities I’ve ever taken part in.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I was fully able to integrate this lesson into my own leadership style .

I did say these were leadership lessons learned the hard way.

I see too many managers and supervisors using criticism and even browbeating in an attempt to get more out of their direct reports. I was guilty of this too, in that first leadership position many years ago, but it wasn’t that workshop that drove the lesson home.

A colleague gently but firmly pointed out to me that my style was counterproductive. That was hard to hear. But I had the good sense to listen and to amend my ways, and since then I’ve kept learning and growing that particular leadership muscle.

Turns out criticism pretty much never works. Pointing out all the things team members do wrong takes precious time and energy away from everything that’s going right, and moreover it makes people feel crappy and pretty soon they’ll hate coming to work.

The good news is, people change. I changed. Bringing out the best in people is a skill: practice makes – well, not perfect, but better. Really good even.

No one’s perfect.

I’ve had a lot of great bosses and mentors over the years, and the best of them focused on the positive, on the work that needed to get done, on how best to get it right, how much it matters to the core mission of the team. The worst of them pounced on everything I was doing wrong.

Guess which bosses I admire most and still keep in touch with to this day? Guess which teams were most fun to be in; the most productive?

That’s right: the ones that turn their time, energy, and attention to the great work that shows results.


Image credit: “criticism” by Paul Hermanson used under CC-BY-NC-2.0 license.

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