Parlor Games

lets-playI just saw a “game” on Facebook that got my attention.  It said “Each of us possesses different types of personality that fall in the certain category. There are basically four types of people in this world. You can only fit into one of these four personalities; which one is it?”

The call to action was “Let’s play.”

Okay, I just can’t let that go.  Granted it is Facebook which makes no claim to the authenticity or veracity of anything posted. And it is Facebook where we go these days for our news and opinions.

And it is kind of fun to see where you fall out in these “games.” Perhaps we learn a little something about ourselves, which helps us feel comfortable in our own skin.  Learning and comfort can be a good thing.

So why did this get my attention?

Because it stereotypes, and stereotyping limits.

Years ago, I watched an organization stereotype employees into birds. If you were an owl, you were quiet and industrious. An eagle dominated the room. A dove sought peace everywhere. And I bet you can guess the nature of the peacock!

Of course, this was applied in a workshop that started with answering a series of questions, and then plotting where your questions put you in terms of assertiveness and emotionality. You end up somewhere in a quadrant based on a two-dimensional matrix.  “Somewhere” is the key. To truly believe that there are only four types in our world is, of course, ludicrous. Even in the “bird” test, there are nuances that tell a more robust story.

In this organization, HR presented the birds in an hour workshop.  Fifteen minutes of the time was spent taking the assessment. The remaining time was spent telling participants about the attributes of each quadrant.  So we minimize the learning and reflection in favor of a quick hit.

It’s just not that easy

And we don’t look past that. We put our owl or peacock on our cubicle and check off the box: we’ve done that silly test that HR makes us do. On the up side, we take a little insight and move on. On the down side, we write off the dove as too meek to really add much value in our decision-making process.

I like Myers Briggs. Not because they have 16 “types” versus 4.  It is because it is a process of learning and reflection that can be a helpful tool in understanding self and others.  A Myers Briggs workshop contains exercises that allow participants a deeper understanding of what the results mean, and an opportunity to explore similarities and differences.

Even with Myers Briggs, though, it can easily be reduced to a parlour game. A quick run through of the methodology and a booklet that defines your “type” can be accomplished in an hour or so. At least, it is a little more complicated to create a stereotype.

My cynicism is probably showing, and that’s unfair. So how can these various assessments be useful?

Break it down

All of the quadrant assessments, (DiSC, Birds, Personalysis, etc.) have component parts, most evolving from the work of Carl Jung. In DiSC, the components are task focus vs people focus, and process focus vs action focus.  Personalysis is based upon decision-making, interpersonal connections and contribution style.

Rather than focus on the whole, the real insight is in the components.  In working with people and problems, are you more focused on the problem or the people?  That’s important to know, and often explains where conflict occurs. In groups making decisions, both are important but somewhere in the middle is the right decision.

Using an analysis to better understand where your focus lies, and where others might be focused, helps to broaden understanding, be open to others’ input and consider all of the options.

Recognizing that some people see and adopt a solution quickly, while others ponder all of the different aspects can provide a means of building understanding and respect for both camps – the need to both investigate and then to decide. Somewhere in the middle is the right balance – enough information and time to move.

Use it as a communication tool

Bring those components out in the open. Talk about why one person favors quick action, while the other feels compelled to continue investigating options. Come to a point of agreement where everyone is comfortable understanding and talking about their “gut” reaction.

Once that has occurred, the group can recognize when one side is out of balance – too quick to decide, or analysis paralysis – and talk about how to move along toward a decision.

Use your knowledge to ask questions rather than make judgments

It is easy to make a judgment when you “know” a stereotype. Oh, she is an introvert which is why she is quiet in meetings.  He gets too much into the weeds because he is a sensor.

Instead, turn that insight into a useful tool. For the individual that is quiet in meetings, explore the “why.” Ask directly for her opinion. If she doesn’t respond in a meeting, try a one-on-one.  Perhaps she is not sure her opinion will be welcome, and may open up in a safe space.

If someone is dragging their feet about making a decision because they want more information, ask about the possible downsides of making the decision now. Perhaps there is wisdom there.

It’s a tool, nothing more

These assessments have their place, and it is not as a parlor game. Yes, you absolutely can laugh at yourself and have a good time as the realizations of why people do what they do become apparent. But there is a science to all of them, and it is never as simple as one letter, or four letters.  The very best these tools can do is provide insight, to help you and your team learn and reflect.

A Modern Day Business Fable

castle-foyerOnce upon a time, there was a small but beautiful castle, tucked under a mountain outside the city.   The castle had been in the William’s’ family for generations, and had a long history of splendor and opulence.  Old Mr. Williams loved the castle and tended it carefully until he got too old to work.  When old Mr. Williams passed away, the family donated the old castle to the state historic Society, as the family and the castle could trace their roots back to a famous person in history.  The Director of the Society was excited to renovate the castle, and hired a contractor to restore it to its early grandeur.  They had a limited budget for the renovation and realized that the renovation would have to take place over a long period of time, but The Society was very interested in opening at least part of the building to visitors as soon as possible.  They conveyed this to the contractor.

The contractor who successfully bid the project was called Bert, and he hired two subcontractors to supplement his own skills.   The first subcontractor, Harry, was quiet and gruff, but a very competent builder.  Harry had performed renovations on old buildings for many years, and was considered an expert on foundations and stability of old buildings.  The second subcontractor, Franz, was effusive and charismatic – a decorator known throughout the community for his wonderfully creative works.   Bert had worked with Franz many times before, and really enjoyed those times because Franz involved him in the decorating – Bert’s long-time avocation.  Continue reading A Modern Day Business Fable

Too big to fail?  No, too big to succeed

skyscraper-2Although my professional experience is in very large organizations, we now work with smaller clients. This work has helped to change my paradigm about those processes that organizations put in place to engage their workforce, and measure the progress of engagement.

This revelation – that big companies try to mandate relationships between leaders and their employees through bureaucratic programs – has been evolutionary for me. Heck, I spent my career designing bureaucratic performance management processes, chasing non-conforming managers down, and cleaning up the misunderstandings when their communication style angered an employee.

I get it, I do. When an organization is so big that those who run the organization never, ever see those who do the work, there has to be a process by which leaders are held accountable for leading without getting the organization in trouble.

But the more I work with smaller clients, the more I realize that you can’t mandate an engaging relationship between leader and employee. That must be authentic in order to truly engage. Following the myriad steps in a process without the heart or skill to be authentic results in cynicism, and does just the opposite of engaging: it tells the employee not to bother.

Take the case of a huge organization’s talent management program.  In fairness, a huge organization needs a mechanism to identify and groom talent across a wide footprint. So they create a talent management process….1.) rate everyone, 2.) calibrate the ratings so that not too much cream rises to the top, 3.) go back and “share” the feedback.

Calibrate.  It sounds good.  I used the term myself in my corporate days to explain the process of leaders defending their ratings. Some of the reasons?  Well, leaders tend to inflate ratings, and we didn’t want them giving messages of excellence when the work is really average.  So we graph the ratings hoping for something similar to a bell curve.  After all, average is actually good, right?

Not so fast. No one wants to be average. So we came up with a new term….meet expectations. Then, because no one wanted to just meet expectations, we added some adjectives….consistently, almost.

When I look back on the amount of time we spent wordsmithing the process to make ratings palatable to those receiving them, I do so with the clarity of hindsight, and a little help from smaller organizations.

Today, my clients are exploring doing away with ratings.  Eek, you say….how do they measure and calibrate?  Well, by talking. The quality of conversation becomes a key talking point up the chain of command, with as much weight and interest as budget and operational measures. We also go to the source:  “are you receiving helpful feedback from your leader?” After all, if you really want to improve engagement, don’t you really want to know the truth directly from the employees?

Case in point. A big organization finished their “calibration” session for their annual talent management program. A leader was “sent back” to talk with her employee and share a rating that was less than what she actually gave the employee, based on her personal interaction and observation of the work. Why? Because there were too many with that rating.

How do you think the conversation went?  “So, I’m really pleased with all of the work you did this year.  You completed all your goals, and brought in a project ahead of time. Your rating is [3 on a scale of 1-5].”

“Um,” says the employee. “If I did as well as you are telling me, why am I only [a 3]?”

“Well,” stumbles the leader, “I did try to rate you higher, but wasn’t able to defend it in the calibration sessions, so they made me reduce the rating.”

So much for authentic conversation.  No matter how hard that leader tries, she can’t be authentic with that employee.  And the employee? Well, why should he work so hard?  Why not just sail along?

There is a better way. It’s harder, and messier. It’s called real open communication and dialog with a minimum of bureaucratic process intervening.

Why do you need a rating?  Is it for the employee?  It sure isn’t.  It is for the leadership and Human Resources folks to use to measure compliance, to force leaders to do their job and to defend claims that might arise.

Here is my challenge to anyone in Human Resources who is designing a talent/performance management process.  Before you create a hierarchy of ratings, think carefully about why you are doing it.  If you can’t draw a line back to some benefit for the employee, don’t do it.

Put your energy toward dialogue.  Help executives recognize the value of real relationships and real engagement.  Take that time you’re putting toward calibration, and put it toward honest dialogue.

The last decade has seen many companies bailed out because they’re too big to fail.  Perhaps those same companies are too big to succeed?  If bureaucracy is leading the company instead of authenticity, that’s a problem.

If you think I’m alone in my recent disdain for traditional performance management, watch this.