Boss — Don’t Withhold Your Encouragement!

Pete Carroll Confetti   It was a magic moment — a beaming Seattle Seahawk Coach Pete Carroll showered with confetti as his team basked in the glow of their Super Bowl win. But obviously that moment came at the tail end of long months of tireless effort. What was it that Pete Carroll did as Seahawks head coach that helped propel his young, untested team to the pinnacle of achievement in the NFL?

I’m sure there’s a long list of things he did do to build his Seahawk team. But based on what I’ve read and heard in the weeks since that memorable Super Bowl victory, there seems to be at least one thing Coach Carroll didn’t do: he didn’t withhold his encouragement. In post-game interviews, player after player repeated variations on the same theme. Pete Carroll builds us up — he lets us be ourselves — he builds on our strengths. He’s an encourager.

Are you someone who hungers for encouragement at work? I am. An encouraging word from the boss, or an encouraging note or email, can sustain me for days! Still, in the past I’ve worked for a few managers who seemed to feel that too much encouragement is dangerous, creating a sense of complacency. These leaders simply never seem to offer encouragement — or if they do they dole it out with an eye dropper. It’s as if I hear them saying, “Encourage your people too much and they’ll stop trying!”

That may be true for some people, but in four decades of workplace experience I have never seen it. Many things can breed a sense of workplace complacency, or more accurately workplace apathy, but I don’t think genuine encouragement is one of them. Quite the contrary, in fact: encouragement energizes. If the boss is distant, aloof, hard to please, or seemingly oblivious to an employee’s efforts, it’s demoralizing. Few things create workplace apathy more quickly than the sense that my efforts don’t matter.

And as the example of Coach Carroll shows us, encouragement is NOT the enemy of performance! Maintain high standards. Hold people accountable. Don’t let up in your quest for excellence. You can do all these things and still encourage your workers by noticing them, complimenting their efforts, asking their opinions, praising them in public and reprimanding them in private. “Seek the good and praise it,” as the old saying goes.

A word to you leaders: if you are the kind of person who willingly and freely gives encouragement, thank you. If you’re not, you can start today. Start offering sincere words of unqualified encouragement. At first your staff may react with skepticism — but keep it up. Your encouragement can be the wind beneath your employees’ wings — or its absence can be the anchor that keeps them tied down in frustration. Your call.

Was Pete Carroll’s encouragement the only thing that caused the Seahawks to win the Super Bowl? Of course not. But take away that encouraging attitude, and the difference Coach Carroll’s encouragement clearly made, and the outcome might have been different. Something to think about!

The Toxic Power of the “Downer Club”

Negative Co-workers      I was once the newest member of the “Downer Club.” I didn’t realize it at the time, and we never called it that, but that’s exactly what it was.

We all worked for the same company, and I was the brand new sales rep, naive and eager to please. So after a few weeks on the job when I was invited to join a co-worker for breakfast, I jumped at the chance. After all, I wanted to make friends and fit in, and here was a great opening to do just that. And it got even better, because when we arrived at the restaurant I was surprised to see three or four of our co-workers already at the table. Apparently this group get-together took place on a regular basis, often every week, and now I had been invited in!

We re-introduced ourselves around the table, placed our orders, and started to chat over coffee. And I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that this wasn’t just a periodic gathering of colleagues — it was a 90-minute-long gripe session. Sometimes it went even longer, as one after another my new co-workers started dredging up a litany of issues: times when the boss had chewed them out unfairly…times when accounts had been shifted arbitrarily…times when commissions had been calculated incorrectly. Two things became clear to me: first, that my fellow salespeople hated their jobs; and, second, that they loved getting together to talk about it. I sat there silently absorbing this endless list of corporate malfeasance on the part of my brand new company, and before I had finished my scrambled eggs I was wondering — “When I took this job, did I make a terrible mistake?!”

Welcome to the Downer Club.

Did I have the good sense to stop going after that first negative encounter? Are you kidding? Of course not! I wanted to fit in, to be part of the group. I had been a sales rep for maybe twenty minutes and I figured hanging around with my so-called colleagues would be a good, productive way to spend my time. And after a few of these breakfast gatherings I got to where I could come up with negative sob stories just like everybody else. The Downer Club had initiated a new convert. What I soon discovered was that I felt great during those breakfast sessions, hanging with my so-called friends, but I felt lousy afterward — negative about my job, my boss, and myself. The false high of being part of the peer group quickly gave way to the hangover caused by an overdose of negativity.

I lasted in that job about six months. Could I have stayed longer, done better and not violated my boss’s trust in me when he hired me? Probably. But whether or not the job was the right one isn’t the point. I see now that my desire to run with the pack caused me to make toxic decisions. The so-called “power of positive thinking” may not be absolute, but I can attest to the power of negative thinking! It is guaranteed to be corrosive to your enthusiasm and productivity!

So here’s a question for you: when it comes to your work, who is on your “Mental Committee”? Do you surround yourself with people who pick you up or who bring you down? I suggest that some self-examination may be in order. As for me, I changed jobs, got into a much healthier environment, and quickly came to realize that I had been part of the problem, choosing to surround myself with the wrong crowd. How about you? Is it time to turn in your membership card to the Downer Club?

Boss — Don’t Waste Your Anger!

Angry-Boss-man    Ah, the anger of the boss. It’s a powerful thing — too powerful to be wasted!

Don’t believe me? Think back on a time when the boss, or the coach, or the team leader got really ticked off and started venting, not just at you but at everybody. I’ve been on sales teams where this happened: the sales manager was getting seriously frustrated with a few sales reps, but instead of dealing with the “problem children” privately, he decided it was best to chew out the whole team. Believe me, that sales meeting got really quiet, really fast. The boss wasted his anger on the whole team, and it didn’t accomplish what he thought it would. In fact, it was deeply counter-productive, breeding resentment and mistrust.

The Angry Boss also wastes his or her anger by blindsiding people in individual settings. In past sales jobs I’ve been in one-on-one meetings with my boss where I was suddenly on the receiving end of an angry outburst that caught me by surprise and felt unjustified. In meetings like that we tend to get really defensive really fast, and the quality of the communication goes downhill rapidly. Instead of engaging in fruitful problem-solving, we can’t wait to get out of the door.

So, bosses, listen up: your anger is a powerful force. You may not realize it, but unless I miss my guess the majority of your employees or direct reports are highly attuned to your moods. I suspect they really do want to do a good job — and in so doing they actually want to help you look good. You have considerable power to establish the tone and culture of your organization, company or team through the careful management of your moods! Please, manage those moods wisely.

You Old Testament fans may want to check out a great example of this leadership principle in the book of Nehemiah. In chapter 5 we read that the people working on rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem had to stop work due to acute financial stress. Had Nehemiah been like some bosses he might have come unglued at this work stoppage and started kicking rear ends — but he didn’t. Instead, as angry as he was with the situation, he took a deep breath and realized who was responsible: the self-centered so-called community leaders who were fleecing their own people. He went to these greedy gougers and confronted them head-on, got them to change their ways, and the work on the wall resumed. I suspect morale soared as well.

So, leaders, those of us who report to you are asking you — please — use your anger carefully, wisely, selectively. Your anger can motivate a positive change or it can create deep resentment and chronic mistrust. Next time your temper starts to flare, take a breath, determine where the real problem lies, and use your anger like a scalpel, not a machete. Because of hard work and wise leadership, Nehemiah and his people got the wall built in only 52 days! I’ll bet your team can accomplish great things, too.

Leadership Lessons from “Twelve O’Clock High”

Gregory Peck   Recently my wife and I watched the World War II classic, “Twelve O’Clock High.” And I realized again what a great study in leadership this movie really is.

Many of you know the story. General Savage, a.k.a. Gregory Peck, takes over a demoralized “hard luck” B-17 bomber squadron in England the early days of World War II. The former commander is a great guy whom everybody loves — but somehow by identifying too strongly with his men, worn down by the danger and death they face every day, he has failed to inspire the kind of courage and pride essential to the mission. The men have stopped believing in themselves, and their performance has begun to suffer. Air crews are being lost through careless and sloppy tactics.

So Gregory Peck takes over the squadron and immediately adopts a “take charge” attitude. His my-way-or-the-highway leadership approach is met with hostility, to the point where every single pilot puts in for a transfer. But by buying time, developing some key alliances within the squadron, and giving the men the chance to learn, grow and perform together, he rebuilds the team into a top-notch unit, with a deep bond of loyalty and shared high standards.

The movie demonstrates the overwhelming power of good, effective leadership. Knowing my personality, I might have been like the former commander, the one who got too close and didn’t set standards high enough. But General Savage knew from personal experience what the squadron needed — a leader who would establish the tone and adhere to it no matter what. So what are the take-aways from “Twelve O’Clock High”? Here are a few.

First, leaders define reality, After all, this was early in 1942, a highly dangerous time at the start of the war when the strategy of daylight bombing was unproven. It was potentially life or death for the Allies. General Savage never sugar-coated the facts: the frightening reality of the situation demanded a hard-edged uncompromising leadership style.

Second, leaders build an inner circle. Almost immediately after taking over, General Savage starts creating a nucleus of key leaders within the squadron and helps them see what his brand of leadership could accomplish — he helps them see and share his vision. He didn’t try to be the Lone Ranger, something ineffective leaders can tend to do. And he learned to listen to these key players, using their valuable insights to adjust his approach.

Third, leaders understand the need for patience. When faced with a virtual mutiny, General Savage did what he could to buy time instead of reacting to the immediate situation. Eventually the entire squadron came around to his point of view, something that would not have happened had he over-reacted. While it’s important to maintain a healthy sense of urgency, an impatient leader is often an ineffective leader.

Fourth, leaders lead by doing. In the film, General Savage trained with his men, flew with his men, and faced danger with his men. He wasn’t an armchair leader content to remain behind in comfort and safety. He knew what could be accomplished because he himself had done it. He led by example.

Fifth, leaders stay the course. There was no doubt in General Savage’s mind that his squadron could perform. He kept an unwavering eye on the prize of excellence, and eventually his team achieved it. Even though many hated him at first, they came to believe in him and trust him because he modeled absolute integrity and adherence to the mission. (After all, what else would you expect from Gregory Peck?!)

So go watch “Twelve O’Clock High” and see what you think. Could you work for a leader like the one Gregory Peck depicted in that classic film? I’ll say one thing for him: he did a great job of defining reality for his men — and in so doing he actually re-shaped reality, creating a whole new belief structure. A classic example of the power of effective leadership!

They Can’t Say Yes — but They Can Say No!

gatekeeper cartoon  My first sales job was for an unnamed office products company nearly four decades ago. This was back in the day when almost every decision maker had a secretary — not an executive assistant or an office administrator but a secretary.

Of course, our goal as salespeople was to get in front of the decision maker. Therefore the central paradigm of our sales training went like this: the secretary is the gatekeeper keeping you away from the decision maker. Therefore it is vital that you learn ways to “get past the secretary.” I don’t recall any training designed to help us build credibility with the secretary so that she would become our ally and not our adversary.

We were frequently reminded not to “waste time” talking with the secretary because she (back then almost always a “she”) did not have the power to say “Yes.” This may have been true. However, as I learned to my chagrin, she frequently did have the power to say “No.” The professional secretaries I encountered, like their executive assistant and office administrator counterparts today, wielded considerable influence earned over years of experience; and if they wished they could use that influence to help you win the sale — or to make sure your proposal ended up in the round file (no recycle bins in those days).

One time I had made a presentation to a large concern in downtown Seattle. The order would have been a very good one for a junior salesperson to bring home, and getting this particular client to use our equipment would have represented a feather in the cap of my company, potentially leading to future sales down the road. So during the sales process (going against my relational instincts) I followed my training and worked my way past the secretary, doing absolutely nothing to earn her good will or to listen to the product features that might have been important to her. After all, who really knows the office environment — the secretary/admin professional or the so-called decision maker? Had I spent time asking her questions and listening for her insights I would have gained invaluable information and earned her trust in the process.

But I didn’t. And as a result we lost the sale — because, as I later found out, the secretary preferred one relatively minor feature of my competitor’s product to mine. Could I have overcome this so-called objection? I’ll never know — but I’ll bet you a latte the answer would have been yes.

Are you in sales or fundraising? Treating everyone with respect and courtesy is a given, of course — and if your behavior causes them to use their considerable influence on your behalf, so much the better. My suggestion is, don’t be as quick as I was to try to circumvent the very individuals who may be able to provide you with the greatest assistance! That so-called “gatekeeper” may not have the power to say “Yes” to your proposal, but he or she can very likely say “No” — and that’s a word we would rather not hear, isn’t it?

What if Your Critic is Your Boss?

bad-boss-woman   We talked the other day about handling criticism. But what if your harshest critic is your boss?

I was leading a brief discussion in a class the other day about handling criticism, and a friend came up to me afterward to share her story. She said she is constantly dealing with a hyper-critical boss, and it’s really starting to become an issue at work. No matter what my friend does, her supervisor is always critical. To make matters worse, the boss, also a woman, is considerably younger than my friend.

We talked for a few minutes about the best way to handle this situation, and as we talked I got the sense that the age difference may be a big part of the issue. I’ve observed many younger managers (this one is in her early 30’s) who seem to feel that the best way to command workplace respect is to be tough. Be the hard-nosed boss. Don’t cut your people any slack. I’m sure like many of us she was advised by someone early on not to “get too close” to the people you supervise. Keep your distance and let them know you’re in charge, or else your subordinates will run roughshod all over you. I got that exact same advice once, just before I accepted my first gig as a sales manager. (Come to think of it, the person who gave me that advice had followed it to a T — unfortunately.)

Well…that advice may be true in some workplaces, but my experience just doesn’t bear this out. I feel people will work much more willingly and enthusiastically for a boss who likes and trust them — and who they like and trust — than for a boss who rules by fear, or intimidation, or a critical spirit. This is something many of us who have been in management and leadership learn over time, often the hard way. Yes, if you get too close you might get burned from time to time, but the payoff in higher productivity and improved morale is well worth it, I’m convinced. (This is probably a debate for another time.)

So what should my friend with the younger, critical boss do? One possibility is that the younger boss is behaving critically because she is trying to establish her managerial credibility. This may be her first leadership position. Could it be that her critical spirit masks some significant professional insecurity — an insecurity compounded by my friend’s seniority in age and experience? I might suggest that the best course of action could be to get together with the boss one-on-one and let her know you’re rooting for her and that you are committed to her success. Compliment her on things she does well. Ask her advice. I’m not suggesting you behave dishonestly or that you become a subordinate schmoozer — but building up your boss has to be a better strategy than letting the frustration build to the breaking point.

If the boss is truly unreasonable or mean-spirited, that may be different. But by always responding with criticism, a boss could simply be showing his or her need to be right. The more the boss trusts the employee, the less that critical spirit will prevail — hopefully. I’ll ask my friend next week how “Operation Build Up the Boss” is working out.

Too Nice to Decide

Indecisive       Do you have a prospect who is too nice to make a decision?

Sometimes the people we find most enjoyable to deal with can be the most frustrating — that is, if we’re trying to get them to make a decision. Those of us in fundraising and in sales know this experience well. We establish a wonderful, warm relationship with a prospect. We build rapport over time. We gain trust. They seem to look forward to our calls or visits. Eventually we earn the right to ask for the order, or the gift, so we ask. And in return for all our work, we get — indecision. Vacillation. The sound of crickets.

The problem is, some of our most warm-hearted, most relational prospects seem to have a terrible time making a decision!

Why does this phenomenon happen? Why do some of the nicest people we deal with turn out to be the most indecisive? Seems to me there are a couple of common reasons. Maybe we haven’t given them enough information. Maybe we haven’t given them enough time. Or maybe — just maybe — they don’t want to hurt our feelings.

Whatever the reason, when this happens, you and I are in a bit of a dilemma. Push too hard for the order or the gift and we run the risk of alienating the prospect. But if we tread too lightly in the interest of maintaining the relationship, we remain in a state of indecision and paralysis. If we’re intent on closing the sale or getting the gift, it’s incumbent on us to figure out what’s going on. The best way to do that, as we know, is to ask.

Maybe our obvious first question could be a simple one: “Have I given you enough information?” Chances are we have, but it’s good to double check. Pinning down any missing data might help us get the conversation off dead center.

The second question, about whether they need more time, is trickier. If we ask, “Have I given you enough time?” they may say “No” just to keep on delaying. It’s probably better to pin down a specific time when we can ask again. We might say, “Will there be a better time soon when we can talk about this again?” Or “I understand if you’re not sure right now. How about if we talk about this again next Tuesday?” Our goal is closure, and this might help.

But I’ll bet you a dollar (just a figure of speech…) that the real problem with the indecisive prospect is quite likely that they don’t want to hurt our feelings by turning down our proposal. If we suspect that’s what’s going on, we can make it easier for them to be honest with us. If the trust level in the relationship is as high as we think it is, it should be fairly simple for us to have an honest conversation that can put them at ease. Let them know they can be straightforward with us. Let them know we appreciate the relationship very much.  And let them know that it’s okay if the answer is “No” or if our proposal was somehow off target. Hopefully our honesty will defuse the tension our relational prospect is feeling and open the door to continued conversation, and maybe a positive decision down the line.

Note to self: when I have a highly relational prospect who can’t make a decision, I owe them the gift of honesty. They’ll thank me for it — and we’ll keep the relationship alive and productive. Maybe they just like me too much to say “No!”

How Are You at Handling Criticism?

critic      How are you at handling criticism?

I’m not very good at it, honestly. I know, I know, we’re supposed to welcome “constructive criticism.” But even the so-called “constructive” kind is still criticism, and for those like me cursed with strong ego and thin skin (relatively speaking) criticism stings. In my online dictionary the first definition of “to criticize” is to express disapproval — the second is to give a considered opinion. When I am on the receiving end I tend to confuse the two.

Nevertheless, I know that receiving criticism well is a mark of maturity. In the best sense of the word, the one who criticizes me is not trying to hurt my feelings — quite the opposite. He/she is trying to point out something I need to see in order to be more effective. The well-meaning critic is (hopefully) following the Biblical admonition to tell the truth in love. So how do I learn to set aside my reflexive defensiveness and take criticism well?

The first thing I need to do when someone criticizes me is indeed to check my defenses. As I said, my defensive reaction is a reflex, a learned response to a perceived attack. When I am on the defensive I am generally at my worst, prone to put up my dukes, lash back, and say things I should not say, using accusatory or retaliatory words which can quickly turn a productive dialogue into a raging conflict. Maturity demands that we learn to check those defensive impulses the moment they arise! I’m better at this now than I used to be, but still working on it.

So when I’ve decided to respond in a calm and mature fashion — more or less — I can move on to the next two things: consider the source and consider the motive. Is the criticism coming from someone I trust? Is it coming from someone in authority? Is it coming from someone who reports to me? Is it coming from someone who knows me well? Does my critic understand the situation? Deciding if the critic is credible is fairly easy, but evaluating the critic’s motive becomes tricky: I have to consider carefully whether the critic has an agenda of his or her own. For example, I may be pushing forward with a new initiative, only to encounter critics of change who have a vested interest in the status quo. Do I dismiss them, or do I decide that their concerns are valid and I need to pay careful attention? The motive of the critic is a huge factor in determining how much credence we give them.

That’s why, when handling criticism, I need to remind myself to seek the truth. Seldom does criticism come to us without at least some shred of truth. Do I have the maturity (there’s that word again) to sift through what may be harsh words and find the gem of honest evaluation that I need to take to heart?

Sometimes the final step, and the hardest, may actually be to thank the critic. This isn’t always possible, and it may not always be appropriate, but most of the time I think it’s an important step toward closure. Proverbs 15:1 brings timeless advice when it says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” When I am criticized, can I be the one who listens and responds with grace and humility? Can I thank the one who criticizes me?

Like I said, I’m working on it. How about you?

Whatever You Do, Don’t Bore Me!


We talked about this last time: if you’re in sales or fundraising, sometimes you may find yourself dealing with a highly Analytic donor or client. You try to establish rapport using warmth and — pardon the expression — schmooze, but it just doesn’t work.  These prospects insist on data and proof, which can make it challenging for us highly Relational types to build a connection using our usual approach. When dealing with Analytic people you had better have your empirical information close at hand! Credibility only comes when they believe in your competence.

But there’s another type of prospect for whom the exact opposite approach seems best. These are the strong-willed, impatient, even impulsive types, sometimes called Drivers (although that’s not a perfect description). Drivers make decisions quickly. They march to their own drummer. They are absolutely not afraid to skip steps, start in the middle, and cut you off halfway through your presentation. And in my experience, the absolute worst thing you can do when dealing with a Driver is to make him or her feel bored.

I’m that way. I remember having an insurance guy make a presentation to me — this was back in the day of the flip chart desk-top presentation using a special notebook (the paper kind) with charts and graphs in plastic sleeves. When he opened this thing up and I saw about 40 of these pages my heart sank! Are you telling me I have to sit through forty of your flipping charts (double entendre intended)?!! I was bored before we even got started! And, no, he didn’t get the order.

Now if I had been the Analytic type, which I suspect he was, I would have devoured those 40 charts. I might even have wished for more. I might have asked for my own hard copy so I could study them on my own. But the salesman never stopped to figure out that I was a Driver who abhorred the thought of sitting through a protracted presentation. If he had done something very simple at the outset it would have set my mind at ease: he could simply have said, “Don’t worry, we’re not going through all of these — I’m just going to show you the ones that are of interest to you.” I would have breathed more easily and actually paid attention. And he might have sold me a policy.

So there’s two equal and opposite approaches to the sales presentation. For the Driver, be brief and to the point, and don’t bore me — but have the information ready in case I ask for it. You can keep it light, keep it moving, and be direct, and it’s okay to ask me for a decision because I may already have made it before your presentation is even finished. For the Analytic, be thorough and businesslike, take your time, and don’t schmooze me. Build trust by presenting me with facts, and don’t expect a speedy decision, because you’re not going to get one.

For those of us in sales and fundraising, different learning styles really do keep things interesting!

When “Trust Me” Isn’t Enough


I might have mentioned this before, but from time to time (like most of you) I’ll get these flashes of insight — my so-called epiphanies. Unfortunately when I get one I tend to run excitedly to tell someone about my latest burst of brilliance — and when I do they’ll often look at me dumbfounded and say, “Well, duh — you mean you only just figured that out?!” I seem to have a flair for rediscovering the obvious.

For that reason I have come to refer to these insightful bursts as my WDE’s — my “Well, Duh” Epiphanies. Some years ago I had a WDE which went like this: I suddenly realized that not everyone thinks like me.

I’m told that I am a highly relational person, reasonably intuitive, and quick to establish rapport. I tend to trust people quickly and I feel people tend to trust me equally quickly. And when I was newer in sales I was convinced I could connect with just about anyone. So it came as a shock when I began running across prospects with whom I seemed to lack any ability to get to relational first base. I could not for the life of me establish rapport with these individuals at all — and usually the harder I tried (using my arsenal of winsome relational techniques) the worse it became. More than once I walked away with my ego severely bruised. My vaunted relational skills had apparently failed me, and I was baffled and frustrated!

Then I began to discover that not everybody takes in information and processes it like I do. This discovery of Learning Styles (thank you to author, speaker and friend Cynthia Tobias — was a revelation. Turns out the people I was having the hardest time with are the Analytics, those men and women for whom proof is everything — and proof means data. In approaching these prospects I was placing all the emphasis on my so-called interpersonal skills, trying to get these tough clients to believe me because they trusted me and to trust me because they liked me. What I had failed to realize was that Analytics only trust you if they think you know what you’re talking about. You have to prove your credibility with facts. You earn their trust through competence and knowledge — not with your winsome smile and your engaging manner. And if they ask for the data to back up your claims, you had better have those data readily at hand. The same spreadsheets and reports that make a Relational person’s eyes glaze over are bread and butter to the Analytic. They’re essential.

In time I learned (the hard way) to temper my approach with the prospects I came to recognize as Analytic. I learned to have the data handy in my briefcase so I could prove my point with facts. I learned not to behave in ways my Analytic clients believed to be untrustworthy but to back off and to be uncharacteristically businesslike and subdued — hardly my natural bent. And I started having some success with the very type of client that had formerly frustrated me so.

We’ll talk more about Learning Styles later. For now, if you’re in sales or fundraising and you’re having a hard time building trust with certain prospective clients or donors, maybe the approach you’re taking — even though it makes perfect sense to you! — is somehow undermining their trust in you, and not building it up. Here’s a handy “Well, Duh” Epiphany: when it comes to establishing interpersonal connections, we’re not all the same!