There are scores of helpful courses, articles and books by multiple firms on how to lead during times of change. (Full disclosure: the company I work for is one of those firms.) Many of these resources focus on strategy and tactics, while others focus more on the human emotions that leaders must also pay attention to. Thankfully, that human side of leadership and change seems to be gaining more attention. This is good news for the workplace, and quite possibly, the world as we know it. Change seems to be the rule more than the exception, which means we’d all be better off if we learned to deal with change – and each other – more effectively.
Suggesting that the world can be changed through a greater focus on the human side of organizational life may sound a tad grandiose. But when leaders pay as much attention during change to the emotional engine in their organization as they do to their strategy and execution plans, they can foster a spirit of well-being that kick-starts the change initiative and transcends the workplace. That is a win for all of us even if we don’t work in the same organization. Think about it: what type of post-workday conversation would you rather participate in? Would it be the one that is full of positive energy and optimism? Probably. Unfortunately, too many of these conversations go like this: “Well, you’ll never believe what they dropped on us at work today.” As a leader, the way you implement change in your organization can have a direct impact on the dinner table dialogue and the sense of well-being for everyone on your team. Research about the impact of positive psychology by thought leaders such as Dr. Martin Seligman bears this out. Check out his recent book, Flourish, to read more about this for yourself.
So, presuming you are a well-intended but busy leader, what steps can you take to devote more attention and intention to the human side of change within your organization? You can start with something I explain to my executive coaching clients as an EKG. No, this isn’t a medical procedure for your heart, but it does involve your heart and the hearts of those around you. EKG stands for empathy, kindness, and gratitude.
Think back to the last time a friend or family member approached you about some changes they were going through at work. Did they excitedly tell you about something their boss or company did during that time to show them how much they cared about him or her as a person? This is a simple yet underutilized aspect of leadership and human relations in general. Leaders promote well-being and engagement by demonstrating empathy. You might try a statement similar to this one with someone on your team who has stepped up to help during a time of change:
“I realize that the new system we’ve implemented is taking some extra time for everyone to get used to. I really appreciate the time you’re taking to learn the system and coach others on it. Your patient willingness to help has reduced the stress level for more than one of your colleagues! I know your effort reduces the time you’re able to spend on other projects you really enjoy though, and it also impacts your own personal time when you work late to catch up or help a colleague. What can I do to support you and give you some of your time back as we all continue to work through this change together?”
Of course, demonstrating empathy involves more than the right words offered at the right time. Leaders also need to listen deeply as their team members express what’s going on for them. They also need to follow through on whatever they offer by way of support. Not following through is one of the quickest ways to break trust – a vital part of the fuel in the emotional engine that chugs away in organizations every day.
When it comes to empathy, Daniel Goleman said it best in his book, Primal Leadership. He writes, “Empathetic people are superb at recognizing and meeting the needs of clients, customers, or subordinates. They seem approachable, wanting to hear what people have to say. They listen carefully, picking up on what people are truly concerned about, and respond on the mark. ”
Check back here in a few days for my next post about the next factor in an EKG: kindness. In the meantime, what opportunity will you take this week to demonstrate some empathy with those you lead? Please post a comment so we can all learn from you!
It is a generally accepted principle that an organization over time cannot be much better than its leadership. There may be temporary, heroic flashes on the front lines, but for sustainable, renewable performance, leadership is essential.
The reasoning is that effective leadership sets the stage for performance and alignment of activity. Without clear context, the narrative of what is supposed to happen, agreement on the values in use, what matters, what makes sense and all those other functions of leadership people are left to their own devices, and anything from confusion to chaos can result.
Now let’s switch gears for a moment.
When people talk about “performance management” in the federal government, what comes to mind? The press is full of stories of non-performing employees, bureaucrats who administer red tape, embrace process over results, and any other number of criticisms and dings. Everything from productivity, to work ethic to innovation all get called into question.
The idea seems to be that employees need their performance managed. That’s the assumption that I suspect many people make.
But there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.
How do we talk about performance management for leaders?
And since we now know that things like emotional intelligence, engagement, open communication, transparency, truth-telling and the ability to craft a compelling narrative around the “why” of work really, really matter in leadership, how do we regard or manage the performance of leaders who are more about high control, secrecy, command, politics, inner circles, vision of nothing except (in the private sector) making a fortune, or manipulation?
Of course, the mushrooming use of the 360-degree assessment is one foot in the door, but I suspect the whole notion that leaders are held accountable for their performance on the job – and in the process, not just in the results – is something of a surprise for many.
In this context, an article last year in Government Executive on how senior executives in the federal government evaluated political appointees was fascinating reading. The appointees earned a “C” average. More than 30% of the respondents gave the appointees a “D” or “F.”
The story reads: “Obama officials lack functional and agency-specific knowledge, according to survey respondents. Many believe appointees don’t understand human resources and procurement rules, saying they presume the ‘institution is there as an obstruction’ and attempt to ‘break organizations.’
“Appointees have ‘unbelievably poor communication with career employees,’ one respondent commented. Almost 40 percent of managers gave appointees Ds or Fs on collaboration and communication with their staffs. Some ‘have a divide-and-conquer strategy, and there are way too many industry fingers allowed in decision-making,’ a respondent noted. At another agency, a manager said the result has been ‘politicization of normal agency functions.’”
You can only wonder how the people the survey respondents were talking about feel about these results. In my experience, leaders hearing such criticisms usually go to defenses. This is all unconscious activity, but it’s quick, and often well-grooved. They will talk about how others don’t “get it,” they have complainers and whiners on their hands, the culture has too much deadwood, etc.
Which raises the question, whose accountability is that?
Moving beyond simplistic and naive power-based notions of “I set the rules” to acceptance of everyone’s performance really mattering – including at the top – is one of the dimensions of the new story of leadership emerging in our lifetimes. The disconnect between poor performance in leadership and accountability for that is just one more issue organizations are grappling with as they find their way into this new and very different story.
This week, I had the pleasure of participating in a video shoot Management Concepts organized as part of the Professional Government Supervisor Program. It was a lot of fun (apart from the mortifying aspect of seeing yourself on screen), but what I really noticed was how the director worked with people who had speaking roles.
Time after time, he would encourage the on-air “talent” through expressions such as “That’s great,” or “Yes!” or “That’s it!”
Let me tell you, it is no easy thing to stand in front of lights that look like they could be used to open a car dealership and coherently express thoughts. You are aware the camera is rolling, and that mistakes cost time and film.
In this context, I’m sure the Director has figured out over the years that the best way to help people perform at their best is to remove any sense of threat or criticism, and to encourage and praise progress.
Since it’s all about what it takes to achieve peak performance, we can contrast this approach with the fault-finding, nit-picking, micromanagement and looking for any weakness that sometimes characterize supervision, management and leadership.
A prime example of where this occurs is when something you write is edited by someone else. There is some kind of deep-seated need to find something to change. The dreaded red-ink (today, track changes) produces a lot of negative emotions in most writers. With a red page, they lose confidence, try to second guess the editor, and sometimes wind up hating the whole process of writing.
Contrast this with steady, honest praise for what is working well, along with questions or suggestions to change what could be better, but all couched in a posture of support.
The fact is, when we are criticized or micromanaged, our brain’s threat center (the amygdala) switches on. We can fight, freeze or flee really well, but we generally don’t get very creative, intelligent or resourceful. Cortisol (the stress hormone) floods our systems.
When we are praised, recognized positively or complimented, the dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters kick in. We feel good, empowered and ready to roll.
So when the director said “Rolling,” he really knew what he was doing. In fact, I don’t know if he even knows about hormones, neurotransmitters or the amygdala. I think he knows a lot more about establishing shots, close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, how to flare the camera and lot of other things. But he doesn’t need to understand exactly what happens between the ears. He’s operating very successful from his own intuitive understanding of what it takes to help people perform at their best.
Not to be macabre, but I noticed the other day in looking at my high school reunion site (Truman High School, Independence, MO, Class of 1975) that 36 classmates have died.
You never know how much time you have to get done what you are here to get done.
I often compare the emerging, new story of supervision and leadership to the loading of a huge new program on your computer. You know — the blue status bar creeps slowly across the screen, so you go get a cup of coffee rather than staring at it for a long time.
This new story loading onto the computers we call ourselves and our organizations is contrasted thus:
• Commitment versus compliance
• Initiative versus status quo
• Communication versus need-to-know
• Engagement versus apathy
• Listening versus just telling
• Connectedness versus fragmentation
• Spirit versus emotional void
• Caring versus not caring
• Excitement versus depression
• Winning versus just getting by
The blue status bar just lurched forward a bit with the news that the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is going to widen the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) out to all federal employees. It currently goes to about one-third.
(Caution: Descending into the survey results can result in a lot of time going by. The results are endlessly fascinating, and OPM has brilliantly made the data available in a way that can be sliced and diced across multiple dimensions, such as age, gender, supervisory status, HQ versus field, etc.)
OPM Director John Berry said the survey is becoming more important in how federal agencies address their challenges.
Now, let’s just stop here for a moment and have a pulse check.
One interesting thing that we run into from time to time in our work is supervisors’ and leaders’ reactions to hearing the concept that they are going to receive feedback from employees reporting to them. This is often in the form of the 360-degree assessment, an instrument that is rapidly growing.
There is simply no way to comprehend the sanity or utility of such an idea if you believe supervision and leadership are about control, command, only telling, using power to punish dissenters, and most of all, that the “people stuff” in work is irrelevant.
Sorry to tell you ladies and gentlemen, this mental model is much more common than many people think. Old habits die hard.
And so, here we are in 2012 with the federal government tripling the size of one of the most powerful surveys by which the workplace, supervisors and leaders are evaluated. It’s only been around 10 years, and now it’s being rolled out to all employees.
There is an expression command-and-control types use whenever employee perceptions, recommendations or even actions come into the mix. “The lunatics are running the asylum.”
This is a dark, depressing expression on several levels. It name-calls – a very primitive defense against uncomfortable things — and it compares work to an asylum. Some other expressions you have probably heard include, “When I want your opinion I’ll ask for it,” or “That’s not your area.”
I have often said that we are living in a fascinating time. The old story of leadership is slowly, agonizingly slowly, headed toward the door, mainly through the room called retirement. Showing up in its place, and championed by Generation Y, is an entirely new mental model around what leadership and supervision are.
The voice of employees is about to get a lot louder.
As I listened to a coaching session recently, an insight suddenly hit me. I realized that in the many hours of coaching I’ve done and listened to for observation purposes, I have never heard anyone speak in what I call “fancy pants” language.
Fancy pants means convoluted, long-winded, and jargon- and abstraction-laden language. It is the opposite of plain language, where the goal is to get to the meaning of what is being said as quickly and accurately as possible.
(Full disclosure: I’m from Independence, MO, home of Harry “Plain Speaking” Truman.)
It made total sense to me that anyone working with an executive coach would want to get to the point clearly, and communicate in a way that worked.
And so the question that came up was: Why would anyone do anything different? Why would leaders engage in buzzwords, clever concepts and ambiguous phrases?
I think the answer is complicated, and probably related to several factors.
First, there is a desire to impress or influence.
Second, there may be (and this is probably mostly unconscious) a desire for other people to think you’re smart.
Third, it may just be what you’ve learned.
In my experience, the more the language shifts from clear, understandable and direct, the more distrust arises. People have to parse through to figure out what is meant. They may feel like they don’t know everything the other person is talking about. Distance is created.
Here is an example for contrast:
“We need to upskill enterprise-wide in order to leverage emerging and strategic ios opportunities go-forward.”
Notice it doesn’t say where or how the “upskilling” will happen, what the opportunities are, or how they will be “leveraged.” Also, what is ios? Is it a misspelling?
How about instead:
“We need to learn how to get our information onto mobile devices so customers can see our information wherever they are.”
Which would you rather hear? Which would you be more likely to get behind?
Ed Frauenheim has written a tremendous blog on workforce.com that everyone who feels busy should read.
To be fair, he is actually summarizing work done by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, who wrote in the January issue of the McKinsey Quarterly. But he does a nice job, and here is what he (and they) are saying:
Organizational life, work, pace and culture have stumbled into a condition that they call Strategic Attention Deficit Disorder (yes, SADD). It is characterized by leaders careening from one priority to another, always jumping to the next thing. In the process, they demoralize the workforce and “kill meaning” at work.
This only matters if you care about motivation and people feeling that what they do makes sense. If you don’t mind low morale and employee perceptions that work is meaningless, then you can disregard the piece.
Here’s the kicker: What seems to be driving at least some of this is one of the latest, recycled buzzwords of “agility.”
Who can argue with being agile? We all have to be this way – at times.
The problem is that it has become code for constantly shifting priorities that confuse employees, and who learn to see the pattern of “here today, gone tomorrow,” as the organization grasps for the next new thing. Maybe it will be operational excellence. Or customer-centricity. Or core competency.
Seriously, we can go back in the literature and pull these things out at any time – although it is best to wait until most of the organizational memory is erased around the initiative. (The one that still has not been dead long enough to remove the memories is TQM, and its key word: “empowerment.” When you use those terms with a government group, there is usually a groan, and this dates back to the 1980s.)
The desire for the silver bullet – that one, key linking piece that will forever resolve all the problems, anxieties, confusion and pain – will never go away, I suspect. It’s why a bazillion books have been written on leadership and organizations. Everyone is looking for The Answer.
It also speaks to how our brains work. We are hard-wired to notice what is bright and shiny, something exciting and new. We want to be sure we don’t miss the boat, or incur a threat. So we give a lot of air time to whatever is new, even while not really following through on what is already in place. So agile becomes fragile.
My friend Katherine McGraw calls the age in which we live “global speed-up.” I believe a symptom of the age is SADD, and wise leaders will recognize the problem and perhaps slow the ever-accelerating merry-go-round to ask some new questions.
One of those might be how to get the workforce really behind and supporting whatever the new initiative is. The answer? Engage them in the process. This creates a commitment that makes change efforts more likely to succeed.
One of the marks of great art is that it stands up to repeated exposures, and in fact becomes more meaningful with each encounter.
Psychological Type – the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – is like that. It is ironic that some people take the indicator in a compressed session, then forget much of what they learned, including their own Type. (A sports fan once told me he thought he was an ESPN.)
The reality is that since Type is essentially about learning about yourself, and others, the learning is never over, and in teaching a class in Type last week I came to renew my appreciation of the power and significance of the Indicator and the Jungian theory upon which it rests.
One indication of the impact of the learning came from one woman who at various times during the class would let out a guttural expression along the lines of “Wow!” or sounding something like “Mhh hhh hhh.” These exclamations got closer and closer together in time, and it was like timing contractions in labor.
She, and the others, reported very significant insights into themselves, most notably that they realized – sometimes for the first time – that it is OK to be who they are. That’s pretty big.
For my money, much of learning about Type is coming to understand what is unconscious. That just means we aren’t really aware of something. I was reminded of this when I got home, right before a dinner party was supposed to start, and walked into a kitchen that looked like World War 3 ½ had been conducted in it. My wife was in a panic.
In such situations, we go with what we know. We respond in an automatic, patterned way that is usually unconscious. Here’s how the mental functions in Type would engage:
• Sensor: What are the details here? How many minutes until the door bell rings? What is the state of the enchiladas, and what specific tasks remain?
• Intuiter: What happened? How did this situation come to be? Is there a pattern here? (Answer: Yes, but it’s gotten a lot better over the years.)
• Thinker: What is the most logical way to get the dinner on the table?
• Feeler: How is Linda doing amidst all this and how I can support her?
The point about Type is that it creates choice. Rather than just go with the usual go-to move in such situations, awareness of Type means you can think about what will be the best response. For example, if Linda were near tears, a Feeler response might be best. If it was all about execution, the Thinker’s approach might be best. Intuition might be better after the fact to process what happened and figure out how to ease the stress a bit in the future.
My response was to first open a cold, heavily hopped beer, and then ask what I could do. I don’t know if that is what Jung called individuation (integration and balance in Type), but the dinner was excellent.
Back to the class: One other interesting thing occurred during the session. One person was disclosing some very important and personal information. This was intimate content, and reflected a lot of vulnerability and trust in disclosing it. It was not everyday conversation.
What I noticed was that while this very tender information was being shared, one person was texting.
There is a bumper sticker that says “Hang up and drive.” Folks, when someone is talking about a topic that is personal, significant and even emotional, hang up the phone and pay attention.
There is a great old story about a great old drummer named Bernard Purdie, who, if you’ve not heard of him, played on records by James Brown, Frank Sinatra, BB King, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis and Steely Dan.
Bernard has a beautiful sense of time. When you hear him playing a simple beat, you want to move. (For an example of that, click on the following link.)
The story goes that when Bernard was hired for a session, he would come in, set up his drums, and then before beginning to play, would also put up two signs, one on each side of his drum set.
One sign read: “You done it.”
The other sign read: “You done hired the hit-maker, Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie.”
That’s pretty bold.
If you watch the video clip above, you’ll understand why he was so bold. If you watch this video clip below, you’ll hear Walter Fagen and Water Becker (they are Steely Dan) talking about Bernard’s signs.
“Boldness” is a word used in coaching that turns out to have some real significance. Boldness is about confidence, belief, passion and conviction.
It may be easier to understand by its opposite: lack of confidence, lack of belief, lack of passion and lack of conviction.
Boldness comes from processed experience. That means that not only have you lived something successful, but you have thought about it, and consciously concluded you have reason to be bold about something. (Sometimes people are very good at something, but taking a page from the “aw, shucks. It’s just little old me” playbook, they downplay or minimize their contribution. Not recommended.)
A key with boldness is to find where it naturally occurs in your work. Where do you find your voice? What gives you energy? Where does fear dissipate?
Where can you put up your own signs?
Many people like to make New Year’s resolutions. That’s fine, and sometimes they actually keep them.
There are two things that are good to know about these things. First is that courtesy of neuroscience, we now understand much more about why it is better to gradually, progressively and steadily move toward change than to engage in a big bang on day one. *(It has to do with brain rewiring.) Second, you can make a resolution on any day of the year, particularly when you have learned something new. Don’t have to wait until the 31st.
So why only 11? Why not 12, or 10, or at least some round number? That’s because I invite you to submit your personal favorite — the one that is most powerful for you. And remember, the door does not swing shut at the end of the year; you can submit a resolution for change anytime you want!
Here are 11 good ones for supervisors, managers and leaders, from my seat.
1. I will take an extra minute to listen to people.
2. I will ask people for input on things that affect them.
3. I will become better at noticing what emotions I am experiencing – especially the negative ones – and instead of automatically, instinctively operating out of them, ask myself, “How do I want to show up? What would be best long-term?”
4. I will not read or type emails while employees are trying to talk with me.
5. I will ask employees the most motivating question: “What do you think?”
6. I will let my manager know what people are thinking and feeling, particularly during change, rather than sugar-coating or withholding.
7. I will make time to think strategically about what is happening at work, and carefully examine the need for reactive, tactical responses that seem to consume so much of every day.
8. I will work to understand things as employees understand them.
9. I will admit mistakes and share what I learned from those.
10. I will give feedback for only one reason – to help the employee do better next time.
11. I will examine my intentions in conversations, decisions and work.