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My Door is Always Open (but my Mind is Always Closed)

Open Door    Ever had a boss who claimed to have an “open door policy” — but nobody actually believed it? Are you that boss, by any chance?

I recall a manager early in my radio days who made quite a point of saying he had an open door policy. He genuinely believed it, too, and he would frequently express frustration that few people took advantage of his Open Door to ask him questions or bring him information. Truth was, all too often whenever someone did dare to come through that open door with an idea he didn’t like, guess what happened? The reaction was scary! This particular manager did not care to have his ideas and policies challenged, and those who did challenge his thinking learned the hard way that they had become suspect. One friend of mine was branded as “not a team player” and ended up leaving the company.

You see, the boss’s door was definitely open — but his mind was firmly closed. Needless to say this was a deeply frustrating trait for all of us, and we soon learned to avoid that “open door” at all costs.

It’s human nature for us to want to have our opinions validated and not negated. I think that’s why we all have a tendency to practice “echo chamber” thinking, where the only people we talk with or listen to are those who agree with us. (This is especially true in media, specifically in the realm of political talk radio.) But I would suggest that “echo chamber” thinking is particularly toxic in the workplace, because it reinforces the notion that the only opinions that matter are those the boss agrees with — and that is a recipe for worker frustration if there ever was one. In many books and surveys about workplace dissatisfaction, one of the leading reasons workers dislike their jobs is that their views, suggestions and opinions just don’t seem to matter. If my views are devalued, the thinking goes, then so am I.

If you work for a closed-minded boss, here’s a scary thought: you may need to be the one to talk to him or her and explain why the open door/closed mind paradox is highly dysfunctional. It’s called “speaking truth to power.”

According to the online Urban Dictionary, it was the Quakers who first coined the phrase “speaking truth to power” back in the 1950’s, as part of their desire to confront the prevailing political establishment. But the idea is hardly new. The Old Testament book of Proverbs tells us, “Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value the one who speaks what is right.” (Proverbs 16:13)  So while telling the boss something he or she doesn’t want to hear may be scary, if the boss is a person of character and self-confidence, your words will hopefully fall on receptive ears, so long as you speak appropriately. If you decide you need to walk through the Open Door and talk with the boss, here are a few thoughts.

First, be positive and not negative, emphasizing how much your co-workers genuinely want to contribute to building a more effective workplace. Use terms the manager can relate to: productivity, worker output, reducing turnover.

Second, be professional and not overly personal. Don’t say “You hurt my feelings” — ask instead, “Are you willing to consider modifications to your plan that my colleagues and I believe will make it even more effective?”

Third, have a few examples, and write them down. I’ve tried bringing up challenging behavior to a few bosses in my past, only to get flustered when he or she challenged my thinking. Far better to have two or three specific instances than to get tongue-tied and end up with generalities like “You never listen!”

Finally, don’t go alone, but don’t gang up, either. Two people coming to see the manager seems reasonable. Six feels mutinous. There may be strength in numbers, but you may also be sending a message you didn’t intend to send!

One more word: if you currently have a boss whose open mind matches his or her open door, say thanks! Tell her or him how much you appreciate their spirit of openness.  After all, it’s a real blessing to work for someone who values the opinions of subordinates and is willing to consider them — even when those opinions challenge the views of the person in the corner office.

 

 

 

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Posted by on July 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Introverts and Extroverts

goldfish jumping out of the water    Think about your workplace for a minute. Or your non-profit, your church, your classroom. Think about the people who get noticed, rewarded, promoted. If the environment you’re thinking of is typical, you may perceive that it’s the extroverts — those with outgoing social skills and a work-the-room personality — who tend to be the ones to rise to the top and end up in positions of prominence and leadership. The quiet ones — those who analyze before they speak, who generally prefer small groups and one-on-one conversation to big crowds, who don’t put themselves forward — tend to be overlooked, their contributions often undervalued.

If that’s your perception, you’re not alone, and now there’s evidence to back up that notion that our American society favors the extrovert. I’m reading a really interesting book, and it has opened my eyes to a strong bias that I think exists in our culture — a bias in favor of extroverts over introverts. The book, published last year, is called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Quiet is extremely thorough and well-researched, and it gets pretty scholarly at times, so I won’t try to over-simplify the author’s concepts, but basically she says this: our Western culture idealizes the extroverted personality type over the introvert, and we often do so to our detriment.

Why is this apparent bias such a bad thing? Well, there are two problems with our infatuation with the extrovert. On one hand, in group discussions, extroverts often get their way by sheer force of personality, especially when they gain positions of power. Any of us who has worked for a strong-willed extroverted boss knows how hard it is to confront him or her when we disagree about the wisdom of a pet project or new plan. Extroverts may be persuasive, but that doesn’t make them right. A study of the Wall Street personalities who brought us the recent recession would almost certainly show that it was the extroverts, those bold, passionate, articulate risk-takers, who with overwhelming confidence strode out onto the thin ice and practically sank our economy.

The other downside of our love affair with extroverts is that introverts frequently have the best ideas. In Quiet, Susan Cain cites author Jim Collins’ research in the business classic Good to Great. Collins did not set out to write about leadership — all he was trying to do was to analyze why the eleven companies he chose to study had so dramatically out-performed their peers over a long period of time. But as Collins looked more deeply at these eleven firms he made a startling discovery: none was led by the stereotypically outgoing, high profile, “Top Dog” extroverted leader! Every single company had a leader who was described by employees with words like self-effacing, encouraging, thoughtful, introspective, and reflective. In other word, all eleven winning companies were led by apparent introverts.

There’s a lot more to absorb in this book, and much more to write about. (Besides, I haven’t finished it yet.) For now, if you’re an extrovert, learn to back off a bit and be careful not to use your passion and persuasiveness to mask your doubts! You may not be as sure of yourself and your ideas as you think you are. This is especially important if you’re in leadership, where you must learn to listen to other voices. And if you have introverts on your staff, go out of your way to seek out their wisdom and advice. Just because they aren’t the first ones to raise their hands and holler, “Pick me! Pick me!” doesn’t mean they don’t have outstanding insight.

Introverts, you may have to learn a few extrovert tricks and speak up with greater boldness. But above all have confidence and take heart: you are not alone. Just because you live in a world that won’t shut up doesn’t mean you can’t make yourself heard — you may simply need to find some creative ways to do it while remaining true to who you are.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Confrontation or Clarification?

Clarification mug       Hey, business leaders and supervisors, here’s a suggestion borne out by personal experience. If you habitually shy away from confrontation, try clarification!

Ever notice how some workplace leaders and managers seem to afraid of confrontation? I know there were many times when I was. Back in my supervisory past I’m afraid I sometimes tended to shy away from confronting personnel problems, especially conflict between co-workers. I would make excuses, look the other way, or tell myself it wasn’t all that bad. For me, creative avoidance sometimes became a sort of hobby when it came to confrontation!

Maybe this is the way you tend to handle conflict and confrontation.But avoiding workplace confrontation is dangerous! The longer some of these issues persist, the more corrosive and even destructive they can become, especially when your whole team is waiting for you, the boss, to do something about the situation. Best selling business author Patrick Lencioni in his wonderful book Five Dysfunctions of a Team identifies the failure to deal properly with conflict as one of the 5 Big Reasons why some organizations are habitually ineffective.

Why do bosses avoid confrontation? Same reason most people do: we’re conditioned to steer clear of circumstances that are likely to generate unpleasantness. When you as the person in charge wade into a confrontational situation you are almost certain to cause sparks to fly. And here’s the big problem for us pleaser types: we want everybody to be happy and play nice, but confrontation virtually guarantees that somebody is going to get his or her nose out of joint. So when the choice comes down to fighting or flying, we too often choose flight.

So next time you’re faced with the need to confront a situation in the workplace, try this: change your language. Instead of dwelling on the need for confrontation, focus your energies and your intellect on the more important and much more positive need for clarification. It will change the way you think and probably change the language you use. In fact, if my experience is any guide, it will change the entire process.

This is important because the distinction between these two concepts is much more than merely semantic. The definition of “confrontation” includes the clashing of forces or ideas. No matter how you nuance it, “confrontation” implies a battle. But confrontation for its own sake was never the goal, right? The real goal is “clarification” a word whose definition includes eliminating confusion and making things understandable. Isn’t that a big part of the leader’s job description — to clarify the causes of problems as a step toward solving them? Confrontation almost  always sounds negative. Clarification almost always sounds positive. I’d love to be known as the boss who brings clarity and understanding to workplace relationships!

One caution: even when you focus on clarification instead of confrontation, at the end of the day somebody will probably still end up irritated, angry or disappointed. That’s inevitable. But wouldn’t it be nice if that somebody weren’t always you?

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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“One Thing” — the Power of Focus

Jack Palance One Thing      Everybody knows the famous line from City Slickers. During the cattle drive, cowboy Jack Palance (the unforgettable Curly) offers to tell uptight radio advertising salesman Billy Crystal about the secret of life. It’s simple, Curly states, holding up his index finger.  “One thing,” Curly says. “Just one thing.” Crystal’s character Mitch asks Curly to explain what the “one thing” is. “That’s what you gotta figure out,” replies Curly cryptically.

Speculation has abounded ever since as to exactly what old Curly really meant. (Spoiler alert: in the movie he dies not long after sharing this deep insight. “The man ate bacon every day,” said fellow tenderfoot Phil. “You can’t do that!”) But Curly’s quote came to mind the other day when I was thinking about how good leaders are able to maintain their focus in spite of a relentless rash of distractions. I’m sure you’ve experienced what I’m talking about. You and your team embark on a major project. Things get going with energy and enthusiasm. But soon other projects, other priorities, other agendas begin to pop up like moles in the old Whack-a-Mole game. The team gets distracted. Or worse, the leader gets distracted! He or she begins to take the old eye off the ball. And when the leader begins to lose focus, inevitably momentum grinds to a halt, progress evaporates, and frustration becomes the mood of the day.

When it comes to effective leadership I like to consider the example of one of my favorite Old Testament characters, Nehemiah. His book, especially the first 7 chapters, represents a terrific, highly practical manual on effective leadership. Nehemiah had been sent from Susa, 800 miles away, to the ruined city of Jerusalem, intent on rebuilding the wall that had been torn down decades before when the city was sacked. Without the wall the city could barely function, but with the wall intact Jerusalem could once again become a viable commercial and spiritual hub — so getting the wall completed was a huge priority. And as we read when we come to Nehemiah chapter 6, the big project was almost finished! The wall was practically done!

Doesn’t it seem like things can unravel the fastest as you get closer to the finish line? That’s when a handful of powerful opponents, made up of people who preferred the status quo (sound like anyone you know in your office?), really began to ramp up their opposition, trying to stop the work on the wall. They first tried to distract Nehemiah with pleasant invitations masking sinister motives. When that didn’t work they resorted to rumor, innuendo and false accusation. Finally they even threatened bodily harm as a way to deter this highly focused leader and those working for him. But Nehemiah refused to take the bait and become distracted. He said, in essence, “Sorry, guys, no chance — I have a job to do and a wall to finish, and my team and I are not going to be deterred.” And they got it done, an accomplishment that finally silenced the critics.

For Nehemiah the “one thing” was finishing the wall around Jerusalem. For me, I’ve come to realize that it’s reaching the financial goal for the alternative high school I raise money for. What’s your “one thing”? It could be personal or professional, a team effort or something you’ll accomplish solo. Whatever it is, I’m learning a valuable lesson from Nehemiah — and from Curly! Don’t get distracted. Figure out the one thing. Remember the power of focus!

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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In the Weeds

cat_in_the_grass     The Big Team Project starts out with the loftiest of intentions. The boss brings everyone together and launches the new initiative. We are going to re-organize the way we do business! We are going to come up with a Vision Statement and a Set of Values that will define us for the next three decades! We are going to establish new paradigms in Customer Service and Total Quality Control! There will be brainstorming assignments, work teams, and No Bad Ideas. We will re-invent ourselves! So roll up your sleeves, because today we begin!

Everyone comes to those first few meetings salivating with anticipation, eager to reinvent, re-think, re-launch and re-imagine. But after a few months all the team wants to do is retreat. What happened? The energy has dissipated, the fresh thinking grown stale, the milestones fewer and farther between. Where’s all that the excitement? When did the air go out of the balloon? Who rained on our brainstorm?

Here’s how these efforts sometimes progress.  During those first few meetings, fueled by great intentions, the team makes great progress and everyone seems to be on board. But then the questions become more complex. The issues grow more opaque. The take-aways become increasingly obscure. The impatience grows more obvious. The lofty goals evaporate into the fog of petty argument and passive aggressive “whatever” attitudes. That dreaded nemesis “Process Fatigue” begins to set in — a toxic condition where a few impatient nay-sayers are finally joined by a growing chorus of equally impatient colleagues asking with one irritated voice, “Can we please just get on with it??!”

Face it, Project Leader — you and your team are deep into the weeds.

Most of us have been there. I was once part of a Strategic Planning team that met weekly for a period of, as I recall, at least two years. We found ourselves in the weeds a lot, debating about the meaning of terms and the pointless details of timelines that would never be met. Ultimately there was an organizational change at the top and the whole project was shelved. Hopefully your project isn’t headed for that same dismal fate!

If you’re a Project Leader and your team seems stuck, the team needs you to help get things moving. So here are three things you might want to focus on. First, replace confusion with context. When a complex project goes awry it’s easy for members of the team to lose sight of the goal and start asking, “Can someone remind me why in heck we’re doing this? What’s the point?” That is the leader’s Central Question! You may understand the point fully, but your team might not, so you need to remind everyone frequently why this project is important. Make sure everyone comprehends where we’ve been and where we’re going. Put the project into a larger context and your team should become reinvigorated.

Second, overcome complexity with clarity. Some projects are just inherently complex, and you’ll never succeed by trying to “make it simple.” But you can make it clear. Use straightforward, non-technical language. Break big concepts into bite-sized chunks and, again, help people see how these smaller pieces fit into the larger task. If you’re a highly analytic leader, learn to use emotional terms to motivate your non-analytic colleagues. When you speak with enthusiasm, confidence and conviction, your clarity can overcome a lot of fear. Take charge and be clear.

Third, turn paralysis into progress. Leaders need to understand just how frustrating it is to be on a team that’s going nowhere! The fastest way out of the weeds may be to back up a bit — something strong-willed leaders hate to do. Figure out where things began to go off the rails. Maybe you need to re-frame the discussion, rearrange the teams or reconsider the timeline. Maybe you need to focus on one or two areas where progress is possible and leave the others for later. Momentum brings a kind of energy that can often sustain itself — just as the feeling of being stuck in the mud brings the fear that it will always be this way!

Context, clarity, progress — help restore these to your project and leave the weeds behind.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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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!

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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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.

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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