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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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Am I the Only One Who Dislikes Internal Competition??!

Competition     Like you, I have worked for sales managers and general managers who get all excited about internal competition — you know, those annual Sales Contests where the top producer wins and everyone else loses. Typically they have names like “Spring Sales Sweepstakes” or “Las Vegas Extravaganza.” I guess these events are designed to get everyone fired up for sales success.

Well…maybe they do. But in my experience, one thing these contests don’t do is build teamwork. I don’t mean to sound contrarian, but I hate sales contests! I’m convinced they do more harm than good.

Now before you label me un-American, since we Americans love a winner and all that, let me add that a contest with multiple winners where everyone has a shot at winning the Big Prize is fine. Nothing wrong with incentives — I’ve spent most of my career in an incentive-focused environment. But incentive and competition are two different things. In an effort to get your sales team fired up, are you inadvertently sowing seeds of mistrust and an unhealthy competitive spirit between people who are supposed to be pulling together? Your poorly thought-out sales contest may end up with unfortunate unintended consequences.

In my experience with salespeople and sales teams I have always placed a high value on healthy teamwork. Having a bunch of hard-charging Lone Ranger types, each looking out for Number One, has NEVER been my preferred route to sales success with the teams I’ve led (which probably explains why I would last maybe thirty seconds working on Wall Street!). Teams support one another. Teams collaborate. Teams aren’t afraid to share ideas and leads. Teams build each member up when things are tough and challenge each member to work more effectively. In short, teamwork is a highly-prized value, so anything that undermines teamwork is probably a bad idea. Including most sales contests.

By the way, depending on your sales environment, well-crafted territories can also build teamwork. I once worked for a national firm in which each of the sales reps had a large, defined territory, resulting in a high level of collaboration. If I traced a lead to a home office in Chicago, I knew I would be passing that lead along to my colleague Mark in the Chicago sales office. I also knew if he found a lead and traced it to the Pacific Northwest, he would pass that lead along to me. We all watched out for each other and worked together for the good of the company. Later, however, after I left that firm, I heard that they had done away with territories, leaving each rep free to pursue leads wherever they were in the country. So guess what? Mark and I would have gone from being collaborators to competitors. Maybe I’m dumb, but that doesn’t sound smart.

So, sales managers, if you want to incentivize your team, go for it! But why not come up with a set of prizes or bonuses or whatever in which everyone can win? Set goals commensurate with each salesperson’s experience level and billing potential. Avoid the Darwinian “I win, you lose” approach that I fear is still too common in many sales environments. I predict your organization will reap the rewards as the spirit of teamwork is enhanced. And if you think I’m being a competition wimp — well, you may be right. Still, why not try it and see if it works? I’ll bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well your team does when they really are working as a team!

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Connecting the Dots?

Dots      Last time we talked about the topic of Introverts and Extroverts. It’s really fascinating how much our society is wired to appreciate Extroverts and make Introverts feel out of place! Here’s one recent example…

I was at a day-long business conference last week in a room with about 200 strangers. There on our plastic-enshrouded name tags alongside our names (First Name BIG FONT, last name smaller font) and company/organization was a colored dot. Oh-oh, I thought — this has all the earmarks of an ice-breaker.

Sure enough, at the first break, the cheerful lady at the mic announced that during the break we were to find someone else with a dot the same color as ours and converse. Strike up a conversation. Get to know each other. I presume we weren’t supposed to get too deeply into the weeds of intimacy since we only had 15 minutes (“Five minute countdown, everybody — five minutes!”) This was a longish break so we were supposed to connect more than one dot, as it were, although I think I cheated and talked to the same guy for maybe 20 minutes before I headed to the restroom.

I don’t really mind this stuff, actually, being more or less an Ambivert — with elements of both Intro and Extro woven into my personality. I can do fairly well chatting with strangers. (I do confess to an impatience with rules, though, which explains more than anything else my cheating on the colored-dot protocol.) But when I mentioned this episode to my delightful, sociable, introverted daughter, her immediate response was, “I hate ice-breakers!” And I had to wonder, how many of the people in the room wearing colored dots on their nametags felt exactly the same way? Was this exercise really designed by Extroverts, for Extroverts, leaving a significant number of Introvert attendees feeling awkward and out of place? Did it really break any ice?

The wonderful book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking delves into this fascinating topic in detail, and I highly recommend the book. One thing she said toward the end really struck me. “If you’re a manager,” she wrote, “remember that one third to one half of your workforce is probably introverted, whether they appear that way or not.” Boss, you had better stop and consider that reality, especially if you’re an Extrovert yourself! How much of your workplace, from the placement of desks to the assignment of accounts, is designed to appeal to (and maximize the performance of) Extroverts — to the possible detriment of many gifted Introvert members of your team? Have you made provision for these quieter, more reflective types to make a full contribution to your organization’s success?

More about this later. For now, if you go to a trade show or seminar and your name tag bears a colored dot, take my advice and plan your strategy ahead of time. Find a pleasant person with the same color dot as you, grab some coffee and locate a comfortable corner to chat. You even have my permission to talk with a dot of a different color! Oh, and one more thing — they called this particular ice-breaker “Speed Dotting.” I am not making this up.

 

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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When Do You Decide to Stop Being the Boss?

The Office    You’re the boss, but you’re unhappy. You’re the Sales Manager, the Operations Manager, the Senior Team Leader, but you really don’t like it very much, and you’re beginning to wonder if you made a terrible mistake wanting to be a manager in the first place.

So…when is it okay to decide you want out? When is it okay to decide to stop being the boss?

Let’s consider a few thoughts about this — but first, a disclaimer. I am NOT giving you advice here! A decision to step down from a management position is a highly individual one, not to be taken lightly. Seek plenty of honest input from people whose counsel you trust, and make sure you’ve handled the decision well before you take what many would consider a leap backward. Don’t act impulsively. (And before you read on, sign this release form. Just kidding.)

I bring this question up because I have twice made the decision to step out of a management job and to stay with the same organization in a “front line” role with no supervisory responsibilities. In hindsight both decisions were good ones, and were I faced with the same choice today I would likely do the same thing. The first time I stepped down voluntarily was early in my radio career when I was Sales Manager; the second time came more than two decades later when I was VP of Donor Relations. Here are a few common denominators that affected each decision. Do any of these apply to you in your present managerial situation?

  • In both instances I was working for a boss I found very hard to please, largely due to my inexperience
  • Both those bosses felt they knew more about my job (radio sales and fundraising) than I did, and they may have been right
  • In both instances I felt like I was in over my head and had doubts (groundless, but real) about my future job security
  • In both of these situations my dissatisfaction had gone on for months — and seemed to be getting worse
  • In both cases I had begun to doubt my professional abilities, and that self-doubt was compounding the stress in my life
  • In both situations I had complete support from my trusting and discerning wife who saw how the stress was affecting me
  • In each of these situations, before I made a move, I had met with my boss on multiple occasions and talked openly through my decision process so the choice to step down from management did not seem impulsive or irresponsible
  • In each case I planned as well as I could for my own transition within the organization, and also helped plan how my managerial duties would be covered by reorganizing the team.

How did it turn out? The first time, I moved from Sales Manager into a sales position and things went fairly well. The second time I moved from the VP position into a fundraising job and things went okay but I ended up taking a job outside the organization six months later. The downside both times was that I did take a hit in salary and benefits — ouch — and my ego took a hit as well, to be candid, even though leaving management was my decision. So it goes. But each time I was happier and will probably live longer as a result. And I did end up managing again (after the first self-demotion anyway) and was much better at it the second time around.

If you’re a leader and happy in that role, stick to it with enthusiasm. If you’re new to leadership and you’re not sure how happy you are, hang in there — you need time to learn and to grow. But if you’ve been managing for a while and you’re increasingly unhappy and unsure of yourself, it just might not be the worst thing in the world, after you’ve taken all the variables into account, to decide to do the counterintuitive thing and step down voluntarily, moving into a non-managerial role. Just a thought, for what it’s worth.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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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.

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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