Critical conversations at work

Managing people is a skill

I’ve been a manager for over twenty years now, managing teams ranging in size from 2 to 263. One thing that I have learned is that if you want to do anything big then you need to work through other people to achieve at scale. And managing through other people to achieve goals is one of the biggest challenges when one shifts from being an individual performer to being a team leader or manager.

The skills of team leadership are not often taught formally to new managers, and they are often learned on the job. One of the scariest things that one is called upon to do as a new manager is to provide negative feedback to a team member. But it is important to know how to build the context around it so that it becomes part of the working relationship and not a surprise to anyone.

Critical conversations

Many problems in workplaces are caused by hesitation in initiating critical conversations. And this does not necessarily mean conversations that are focused on criticism of an individual or their work. It also means conversations that clarify the work to be done, issues and risks relating to the work, and any barriers to getting the work done.

“Know what you want. Clarity is power. And vague goals promote vague results.”
– Robin Sharma.

If teams are not having meaningful conversations with each other on an ongoing basis then, instead of small adjustments in course, it can evolve into enormous delivery and execution issues, and even escalate into an official performance management issue that can result in a job loss. Many times I have seen the performance management issue come as a complete surprise to the individual staff member involved, yet it is rarely a surprise to their team members. This is typically the result of the team leader being afraid to have a critical conversation, and the result of poor ongoing communication between the team leader and the team member.

“Often we go through an entire conversation – or indeed an entire relationship – without ever realizing that each of us is paying attention to different things, that our views are based on different information.”
Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

This means that, as leaders, we need to create an environment where team members (including the team leader) communicate effectively about the work to be done, who needs to do what tasks, when they are needed by, and to what quality standards they need to be done in an objective manner.

Some techniques that I have used to create this kind of environment include the use of specific language. For instance, a team member will often give updates in terms of “I hope to deliver it by Tuesday”.  I make it very clear that hope is not a delivery strategy, and often reply that:

“We don’t hope. We provide a percentage confidence level it will done on time and budget, so what is your confidence level for this task?”

By shifting the language used by the team to talk about delivery and relating it to the reality of getting things done this creates an opportunity to discuss issues and barriers to getting the task done.

Performance management

Once this kind of environment is in place, in the normal course of things, there is little reason for the manager to intervene. However, when it becomes evident that a team member is unable to deliver assigned tasks at the required quality standard and to the relevant timeframe, the manager needs to intervene.

As a manager it is important to have ongoing conversations with team members. Performance issues rarely pop up overnight. They develop over longer periods and there are usually warning signs. If critical conversations happen early and often enough then the issues can be addressed and performance can be  improved. However, it is necessary to understand why people sometimes do not do what they are supposed to do.

Reasons why employees don’t do what they are supposed to do

The starting point for this is to work out why the person is not performing as required. Former Columbia Graduate School professor, Ferdinand Fournies,  interviewed nearly 25,000 managers asking them why, in their experience, direct reports did not accomplish their work as assigned. Here are the top reasons Fournies reported :

  1. They don’t know why they should do it.
  2. They don’t know how to do it.
  3. They don’t know what they are supposed to do.
  4. They think your way will never work.
  5. They think their way is better.
  6. They think something else is more important.
  7. There is no positive consequence to them for doing it.
  8. They think they are doing it.
  9. They are rewarded for not doing it.
  10. They are punished for doing what they are supposed to do.
  11. They anticipate a negative consequence for doing it.
  12. There is no negative consequence to them for poor performance.
  13. Obstacles beyond their control.
  14. Their personal limits prevent them from performing.
  15. Personal problems.
  16. No one could do it

Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed To and What You Can Do About It

It is always one of these types of issues that is at the root of poor performance. But lack of clarity around tasks and acceptable quality standards has been the most common reasons in my experience, and this is the most easy to remedy.

Healthy workplace conversations

This list above is a good starting point for conversations about performance. But performance is also a result of the team culture, high performing teams tend to experience a lot less poor performance.

Most of the issues listed by Fournies can be discovered by having meaningful conversations among the team about goals and objectives, and open discussions about roadblocks.

“difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values.”
Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

Don’t wait until someone is performing poorly, look out for the early indicators of problems and initiate conversations about the issues early. Provide relevant feedback, both positive and negative in timely manner – it is much better when the feedback is delivered close to the action.

It is important that it is a conversation too, that is, a dialogue between two human beings – with give and take. So listening as well as speaking is critical. Building a relationship with your team member is important too. If you have taken the time to build a relationship with your team member then the difficult conversation becomes somewhat less difficult.

Some good questions to ask at regular catchups

Here are some questions to prompt the types of conversations we need to have to build healthy and productive workplaces:

  • How are you going?
  • Are there any road blocks you need help with?
  • Is there anything you need me to do?
  • Who are your key stakeholders? What are their issues? How are your relationships with them going?
  • Does that align with the culture we’re building here?
  • Does that align with team/individual KPIs or should you be doing something different?
  • How do you plan to achieve that objective?
  • Are you on track with that?

Resources about difficult conversations

Carmichael, S. G. (2017, May 02). Difficult Conversations: 9 Common Mistakes. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2010/10/difficult-conversations-9-common-mistakes

Dowling, W. (2014, July 23). 7 Tips for Difficult Conversations. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2009/03/7-tips-for-difficult-conversat

Fournies, F. F. (2007). Why employees dont do what theyre supposed to do – and what to do about it. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2011). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. London: Portfolio/Penguin.

Riegel, D. G., Healey, T., Roberts, J., Knight, R., & Whitehurst, J. (2016, June 30). When to Skip a Difficult Conversation. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/03/when-to-skip-a-difficult-conversation

Rowland, D. (2016, April 14). What’s Worse than a Difficult Conversation? Avoiding One. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/04/whats-worse-than-a-difficult-conversation-avoiding-one

Sharma, R. (undated). The Giant Achievement Method [and free worksheet]. Retrieved from https://www.robinsharma.com/article/the-giant-achievement-method-and-free-worksheet

Leaders, problems, and action

“We measure a leader, not by the absence of problems, but how he or she confronts those problems and takes action.”

Rosabeth Moss Kanter


There has been a long and largely unprofitable debate in management circles about the difference between management and leadership. Over the years I have come to a realisation that management and leadership are inextricably linked and that they are defined by actions.

In the long run it does not matter what is said. The finest words pale into insignificance beside our actions. What we do defines us.

The true test of leadership is when problems arise. And the actions taken by the leader in response to problems are the measure of their leadership.

The leader needs to embody the values espoused by the organisation. The actions taken by the leader enable their teams to see how they too can respond to problems facing the organisation.

Good management goes hand in hand with good leadership, and it is how efficient and effective processes are put in place to support the business, its customers, and its staff.

Too often we see a combination of poor leadership with an absence of good management. This makes for an organisation with unhappy customers that is a horrible place to work.

And it is easily changed. Good leadership and good management will fix it. It can be surprising how quickly appointing an effective manager can turn a dysfunctional team into a functioning team. And to effect this change it is often how the leader confronts the challenges facing the team that causes a cascade of behavioural change among the team.

A good leader is a catalyst for new ways of being and of thinking for the team. As mentioned previously, the good leader embodies new ways for the team to be and gives them permission to act differently.

As managers we must give sincere thought to our role as leaders. We are the ones who set the tone for the team. For good or ill, leaders set the scene and signal the boundaries of acceptable and desirable behaviour.

Predicting success #startups

“The only major personality trait that consistently leads to success is conscientiousness.” via Business Insider

In large companies personality tests and similar instruments are often deployed to provide people with better insight into their own and team performance.

Over the years I have participated in many of these – for example, Myers Briggs, DISC, Belbin Team Roles, Hermann Brain Dominance, 16PF, Big Five Inventory, etc.

Many people debate the efficacy of any or all of these instruments. However, the primary importance of these kind of instruments is the opportunity they provide for people to reflect upon their personal and work preferences. They also provide an opportunity for people to consider how best to participate in teams and to collaborate with others in a work context. These personal reflections and insights are the true value of these personality profile tools in the workplace.

Startups rarely have the luxury of investing time or money into administering these kind of instruments for their teams. This means that personal traits and interpersonal skills are not explicitly considered as part of the setup of a startup.

For co-founders and investors due diligence on the business is typically about the ‘hard’ data – budgets, sales targets, capital – rather than on ‘soft’ skills of the startup team.

Success, focus, and startups

In recent times I have been pondering how to assess the soft skills of startup teams. The one trait that keeps coming up is conscientiousness.

In the long run, brilliance and inventiveness are less important than the ability to focus and persist in the everyday tasks that accrete to make a successful business.

As Thomas Edison said:

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration.

Related research on the Big Five

How Universal Is the Big Five? Testing the Five-Factor
Model of Personality Variation Among Forager–Farmers
in the Bolivian Amazon

 

Leadership, personality traits, and success: Do nice guys really finish last?

I came across an article in Wired Science by Jonah Lehrer titled Do Nice Guys Finish Last?. It had plenty to get me thinking.

Apparently:

“… levels of ‘agreeableness’ are negatively correlated with the earnings of men”

Then:

“There are six facets to agreeableness: trust, straightforwardness, compliance, altruism, modesty and tender-mindedness. “

Also:

“Women were slightly less likely to get picked for promotion regardless of their personality.”

But:

“Agreeable women weren’t nearly as bad off, earning only 1,100 less.”

This research seems to be anchored in personality trait theory (Costa & McCrae, 1992); and there’s been a lot of theorising around trait theory and leadership over the years. That the facets of agreeableness – trust, straightforwardness, compliance, altruism, modesty and tender-mindedness – might not be considered helpful in some contexts sounds bad.

Why wouldn’t high levels of agreeableness be a good thing?  But when it comes to getting things done being agreeable is not always helpful.

For example, scientific advances rarely come to light from agreeing with everyone else. Instead they come from fighting against the current flow of ideas and consensus.

Getting a new business or new business model off the ground requires something different to agreeableness. It requires passion and vision, it calls for team-building and collaboration, it requires dedication and persistence. And, while some of the facets associated with agreeableness are helpful, they alone will not drive the change through to fruition.

Think about many of the leaders of history, for example: Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Margaret Thatcher, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or Winston Churchill.  Not one of them was reputed to be easy to get along with.  They were each, in their own way, not very agreeable. But, love them or not, they got things done.

But perhaps the agreeable people, who didn’t get promoted, are happier?  Where’s the research on that?

However, it is interesting to note that women displaying agreeableness are less badly off than those not displaying it. Thus it seems powerful women remain undervalued, unlike powerful men.

Vale Steve Jobs: a great leader with great passion

It is sad to hear of Steve Jobs’ passing. Not unsurprising news given his long battle with cancer. But the heartfelt responses to his death made me think. How many other leaders of big companies would elicit similar responses? Hardly any I suspect. His was a remarkable career, and the impact of his ideas brought to life will resonate for a long time.

He shared some wise insights at his famous commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, it’s long been a favourite inspiration for me and many others. It seems a fitting way to remember a man who followed his passion and changed the world through his passion for great technology and great design.

The full text of this speech is also available on Stanford’s website

Why do bad leaders happen to good people? #notw #hackergate

There have been astonishing revelations in London about leaders in the News International group of companies and in the UK Parliament. Perhaps even more shocking is the disclosure of the deep and complex relationships between the two groups?

It is a classic case study of power and the old-fashioned dispensation of favour. News International controlled the media, and thus they controlled politician’s access to the power of the media. It was good old fashioned Machiavellian politics of fear and favour.

For years, without the general public realizing it, the leaders of the nation were kow-towing to the powerful masters of the mass media. Democracy as we believed it to be did not exist. Instead electoral success rode on the back of favorable mass media coverage.

It now seems that even the (once respected) leaders of the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard were not immune to seduction by power and money from corrupt media players.

Now all this is being laid bare, with systemic criminal, unethical, and idiotic behaviour revealed. The people are seeing the tawdry mess in the light of day. None of the leaders in question come out of this well. Their venality, their cupidity, and their stupidity are on public display.

But the real question is were good people betrayed by bad leaders in business, government and the police? Is society to blame? Do we get the leaders we deserve?

These are important questions for us here in Australia – after all we are an outpost for News International as well. It’s time we started looking into the murkiness of relationships between those players here too. And it’s time we ask ourselves what kind of government and business institutions we want. It’s time to think about how our democracy works. And to consider how mass media can make a mockery of universal suffrage by manipulating messages.

Andrew Crook on Crikey has done an interesting analysis of the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the current government’s carbon tax versus the Howard goverment’s GST.

Julie Posetti raises some interesting questions for local media organisations to address in her recent post Some #Hackgate Questions for News Ltd and Other Media.

Another recent development in Australia times is industry lobby groups – such as mining companies and cigarette companies – harnessing the power of mass media to promote their own agendas. And through their campaigns they seek to stop governments enacting policies such as the mining tax or plain packaging for cigarettes. Thus the lobbying that once happened behind closed doors has moved out into the public realm.

The media landscape is shifting. The democratization of access to mass media means that others who seek to drive political agendas now have access to the means of production. Power relationships around media are also shifting. As a result these are dangerous times for democracy and for the implementation of long term public policies.

It’s time to stop sleepwalking and blindly accepting the ideas that the proprietors of the mass media want us to swallow. It’s time to ask questions like:

  • What kind of leaders do we deserve?
  • What kind of leaders do we create through our actions and demands as a society?

Also worth a read in this context is an article by Massimo Pigliucci on Al-Jazeera titled Ignorance today: Our world is awash in information – but can we make sense of it?

Ethics, incompetence, and conspiracy

The common thread between these items is the importance of communication. And it is the communication by leaders and managers within organisations that signifies to people what standards of thinking and behaviour are acceptable.

This communication takes the form of spoken words, behaviours, gestures and also of absence, silence and looking away. Thus leaders communicate the way that it is acceptable to be within that organisation.

Ethics are hard to define – often they are easier to detect by their absence rather than by their manifestation in the daily life of an organisation.

When I used to work in government we talked about ethical behaviour as doing the right thing even when nobody was watching.

Interestingly, in that government context we discussed (and sometimes vigorously debated) things like probity quite a lot. Perhaps one of the features of an ethical organisation is that an ongoing discourse exists about what ethics means at a practical level for people within that organisation?

Another thing that supports an ethical organisation is a refutation of incompetence. Where incompetence is tolerated, accepted or covered up within an organisation it can override ethical considerations and breed bad outcomes.

At best, toleration of incompetence can lead to dispirited staff and unhappy customers. At worst incompetence can segue into breaches of statutory and regulatory requirements unless leaders and managers take vigorous steps to prevent it.

Incompetence tolerated also breeds passivity. If incompetence is accepted, and people are unable to stop it, then they cease to care. That giving up caring about quality means that the organisation is starting down a slippery slope that can lead to poor delivery initially and, ultimately, to ethical issues.

It is a pretty safe bet that an organisation that tolerates incompetence is not simultaneously facilitating discussions about ethical behaviour or probity. It is not likely to be focused on high quality outcomes for stakeholders such as shareholders, customers or staff.

The next step beyond this is conspiracy. This situation is neatly outlined by Michael Krigsman in his recent article, Dell lawsuit: Pattern of deceit.

As Michael summarised it:

Dell shipped approximately 12 million computers containing faulty components and then tried to hide the problems from buyers.

For Dell this appears to have played out, with staff members actively conspiring to do the wrong thing by customers, as a failure of ethics.

This kind of situation makes me wonder just what communication (taking the form of spoken words, behaviours, gestures and also of absence, silence and looking away) that the Dell leaders and managers were demonstrating to their people?

I wonder too, how many other organisations suffer in similar ways? And, if you are a leader or manager, what signals are you sending to your people about acceptable ways of being in your organisation?

Leadership – it is hard to define but I know it when I see it

That heading was inspired by the well known saying regarding pornography by Justice Potter Stewart:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis added.]”

by Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.

I was reading this case recently and it occurred to me that leadership is a bit like that too.

There are a myriad of management texts and cases that seek to define and categorise leadership. In the end leadership is hard to define at a purely theoretical level. But when I see it in action is blindingly apparent. And as an interesting corollary its absence is also apparent. Two cases illustrate this point:

  1. Christine Nixon in the 2009 Victorian bushfires
  2. Tony Hayward in the BP oil disaster of 2010

In each case the leader demonstrated by words and/or deeds that they were not fully on the job while their people were dealing with a desperate situation. They were not present in various ways to guide, reassure, direct, console or otherwise interact with workers, participants, victims, and other stakeholders in the particular situations in which they found themselves.

I know that these actions or words don’t look like leadership. Perhaps it is easier to describe leadership by what it is not?

Here’s a few of my thoughts:

  • Leadership is not walking away for recreation when your people are working through a crisis
  • Leadership is not complaining because people are angry with you (even though what they’re angry about might not be your direct fault)
  • Leadership is not whining
  • Leadership is not finding excuses
  • Leadership is not running away from problems

So who do I think is a good leader? One person that stands out for me is the Captain of the local Rural Fire Brigade – an unassuming chap whose name I shall not reveal (as he’d be a tad embarrassed). He does the opposite of the things listed above. He’s a steadying influence in a crisis and is there when we need him. Pity someone like him was not on duty with BP for their crisis.

Is leadership only about leaders?

Had an interesting conversation with my friend @MaverickWoman about leadership over the weekend. Conversations with @MaverickWoman are always thought-starters and this was no different to usual – she got me thinking.

The big question I started thinking about was:

Is leadership only about leaders?

At business school there was so much focus on the leader. There was: servant leadership; charismatic leadership; transactional leadership; transformational leadership; blah blah blah …

We whiled away many hours with huge debates about the difference between management and leadership.

For me the difference came down to the fact that, while I wanted to follow a leader, I often had no choice in following a manager. Usually I was forced to follow a particular manager by the hierarchical nature of the organisation and my own desire to follow was irrelevant.

But much of what we studied did not really look at the followers. This seems to be a very important part of leadership. There are lots of people under medical treatment who think they are a leader (for example those poor souls who think they’re Napoleon or some other famous leader) but few of us would follow them. What makes them different from well known leaders like Napoleon and others?

I know we can look to more formalised theories about this like situational leadership or Leader-Member Exchange Theory, but I want to look at something simpler than that.

During our chat on the weekend I realised that unless you have a voluntary following, you are not a leader, but a manager.

Take the examples of Jesus & Gandhi – they were leaders because people chose to follow them, not because they set out to be leaders. And, most importantly, people chose to follow them because of what they said and did and were.

So my theory is that for leadership content counts. The content of your words and actions are what makes people want to follow you.  The content is what creates the desire to follow in your followers. And without them you’re not really leading anyone.

What’s interesting about this view of leadership is that anyone can be a leader.  It’s not just some special person who went to the right schools.  It’s someone who says and does things that make other people voluntarily choose to follow them.

But what about dictators and other people who rule by might or fear? Well from my perspective they’re just a bunch of managers.