Do you suck the life out of your team?

I started reading “An Everyone Culture” recently and came across a personal story that blew me away.  The book follows three true learning organizations, and then analyzes the commonalities to propose a method that any organization can use to become a “DDO – a deliberately developmental organization.  Good read.

In the story, a leader described feedback she’d received from a subordinate whom she called her “canary in a coal mine.” He said that he felt the room go cold when things weren’t going her way.  After much grueling soul searching, the leader concluded that “for people to be able to flourish, they would need to do it in their own way, and not the way I thought was the way.” (p.39) Wow!

You can’t read any business journal today without seeing the words “employee engagement.”  We hear from Gallup that 87% of the workforce is not engaged. And thousands of vendors will sell you the panacea.

Perhaps this courageous leader in the book gained insight into a different way of engaging employees – not disengaging them?  I would propose that all the engagement tools in the arsenal are useless if intentional disengagement is in play.

Somewhere back in the 1990s organizational psychologists began to demean the “command and control” leadership style of the industrial age, and tout a more “participative leadership” style and inevitably vendors set up shop to help organizations make the transition and management fads took off.

It was about the same time that organizations were downsizing and the highly effective “management training program” that hired and trained to leadership skills fell prey to cost cutting.  It was much less costly to take the best worker and promote her to manager (sorry, the sarcasm just came out).

Let me get to my point. If today’s leaders cling to the concept that they know what to do and how to do it better than others and they allow others to see this bias, they cannot engage their team.  They suck the life out of the team.

The leader in the story above made an interesting point about receiving early feedback, before the “canary” shared his.  She said, “I listened to it all, but I literally couldn’t see it.  I didn’t know what to do with it.”  This make sense – if you have forged your career with success after success, you have an ingrained approach to your work that has proven effective.  It has become a habit.  But if that success is due to your own concept, knowledge and actions, it may be sucking the life out of your team.  How can you know? Here are four steps to uncovering a leadership habit that may be keeping you from being your best leader.

The first step:  Accept

Accept that being an effective leader does not mean being omniscient, omnipotent, or doing all the work your way. Being an effective leader means bringing the best thinking together to collectively come to a solution.

It’s not enough for you to know you don’t have to do everything; your team needs to know you know you don’t.  If you’re having trouble getting your head around this concept, watch Brene Brown describe the power of vulnerability in leadership.

The next step:  Ask

This is pretty simple if you’re open to it.  Observe – does your team wait for you to make decisions?  Do their faces look confused, uncertain or shut down?

If you’re not sure, ask.  [This assumes the team trusts you otherwise, they won’t be honest.]  It is probably not a good idea to ask, “Do I suck the life out of this team.”  When a team is invited to share feedback to their leader, they need to know why.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable and let the team know that you are working on your own development as a leader, so that you can be most effective with the team.  Let them know that you need and want their help.

The, perhaps an open-ended question like, “What might I do differently to get you excited about the work we are doing?”  This is a good question, but you may have to ask a few times.  If asking for feedback is outside the norm, it will take a while to build the trust that you really want to know.

The third step: Listen

Try not to be defensive.  This might be one of the more difficult tasks you’ve undertaken, but it is very important.  Defensiveness comes in many forms.  It can be a simple and honest as just wanting to explain your rationale.

But remember, listening isn’t about you, it’s about the speaker(s). If you have invited candor, you’ll shut it down in a nanosecond by trying to explain. You may be able hear the vacuum cleaner roaring to life.

If you don’t understand, ask for examples.  If you think you heard, repeat it back and ask if you heard right.

Thank the speakers, sincerely, and let them know how you feel.  If you aren’t sure, tell them that. If you’re “shaken,” tell them that. If you’re not sure what to do next, ask permission to revisit the topic after you’ve had time to process.

And the most important: Act

Act doesn’t mean do exactly as you have been told you should do.  If you have had time to process, and you still believe your explanation of why you do something is valid, now is the time to share that.  Many times, it is simply a matter of not providing context – the “why” – behind your actions. The time for explaining is not immediately after the feedback is delivered, it is after thoughtful consideration of what you hear.

If you do see an opportunity to do things differently, let them know you are trying and would appreciate their continued help.

Put the vacuum cleaner away

Being the leader of a team is a unique role.  You’re part of the team, but yet you are the leader.  With that comes the ultimate responsibility for success.  You can’t do it alone, but you can share this responsibility honestly and openly be allowing your team to see that you are open to their thoughts and ideas.  This will bring air into the team, not suck it out.

Four Fundamentals of Leadership, Perfectly Demonstrated

According to leading business research firm McKinsey, organizations spend $14 billion annually on leadership development. In this 2014 article titled “Why Leadership Development Programs Fail,” they go on to provide four reasons why such programs don’t work, including lack of context and measuring results, lack of connection to real work and underestimating mindsets of the learners.

That is a whole bunch of money to waste, when leadership fundamentals are really pretty simple.

I recently joined a community chorus. (Hang on, I’ll get to the leadership fundamentals but I have to set the context first.)  I live in a relatively small historic town with lots of tourists but not as many locals.  I love to sing, and when I saw the ad to join the chorus, I thought a nice, easy community chorus would work well with my otherwise busy schedule.  I was a music major.  I can sight read, so this’ll be a breeze.

Boy, was I wrong…about the easy, breezy part anyway. I walked into a room of 120 volunteer musicians and picked up nine choral scores. Most pieces changed keys 5-6 times. Several split four-part harmony into eight parts. I guess this Community Chorus has stayed active and popular for 70 years because they have something special to offer.  Okay, time to roll up the top of my piano and practice.

But here’s where the leadership fundamentals come into play. In eight weeks, the Director has taken a group of volunteers, some of whom cannot read music, and created a spectacular presentation – at least it will be in three weeks when we present the concert “I Hear America Singing.”  I know it will be great, because the Director is leaving us no choice but to excel.  And I find that an endearing motivation.

There are four things he has done that, based on my years of developing leaders, are fundamental. Let me share his methodology; it could be easily adapted in any situation.

He Established Stretch Goals

He could have selected pieces that were straightforward, harmonious and easy to sing.  Instead he selected nine very difficult pieces that are complicated, difficult to learn and challenge even the most experienced musician.

That was motivation, right there. I probably would have been okay with simple. But I was excited, energized and highly motivated to conquer something difficult.

He Recognized the Capabilities of his Musicians and Provided the Right Tools

One hundred and twenty volunteers naturally will have varying degrees of musical prowess, including the ability to sing written notes and tempo, and the knowledge of how a Director will communicate his own interpretation of the music. But with an eleven-week rehearsal time, each individual needed to learn parts quickly.

He knew that if he wanted the group to sound professional, he had to provide tools and hold us all accountable for using them, so he provided digital music tracks that emphasized each of the parts, with the other parts in the background. We could follow along with our part and be confident when joining the other parts.  Well, at least slightly confident.

He Trusted Us to Learn, and Told Us When He Was Disappointed

Even after the first few rehearsals, we sounded a whole lot better than I expected. He used that time to teach; not what we were supposed to learn ourselves, but how to work together as a chorus.

After the fourth week, some pieces were still sounding pretty funky.  He stopped us immediately, gave us feedback and a chance to practice a few times.

In the eighth week, one piece sounded pretty lame, and I love how he delivered his feedback.  He said, “That was terrible.”  He went on to say, “You heard it too, right.  Tell me you know that was terrible.”  As everyone chuckled, I sense there were more than me that were feeling pretty sheepish and vowed to work harder on that piece.  I have.

He Worked Harder Than Any of Us

I don’t mind the candid feedback when I respect the heck out of the provider.  It has been obvious since I walked in the door back in February that he had spent a great deal of time preparing, had obvious deep knowledge of all facets of the music and was going to make sure this was one helluva show.

I don’t want to let him down.  My music is marked carefully to make sure I stop and start at the right times because he made a comment that “you don’t want to come in too early, or you’ll make us all look bad.” It was said with a smile on his face, but…

What Does This Have To Do With Organizational Leadership?

What I just described is part of a basic management course:  set stretch goals, provide tools and resources, give regular and candid feedback and take your leadership responsibilities seriously. We all learn it, but sometimes we forget just how powerful the basics can be.  We get caught up in the minutia of the daily grind. We find ourselves overwhelmed with deadlines, and our team “can wait.” It can’t.

The single most important role of a leader is to lead. That means setting course, correcting course when necessary and being helpful and visible.  McKinsey’s article about the failure of leadership programs says to me that most programs don’t set the standard for good leadership and then train to those principles.

Helping our leaders grow and develop the mindset that they are there to produce results may be a good place to start.

What will the measure of the Community Chorus results be?   A phenomenal concert.

What phenomenal results can you motivate your team to achieve?

How to stop leaders from “gaming” your system

For two decades I designed compensation and performance management systems for large and medium companies. I always had this nagging thought that after two or three years the system had run its course. Those who wanted to do so had figured out the game and turned what was intended to be a fair system into their own playground.

Quantitative performance ratings drove me crazy. Leaders would figure out the overall rating they wanted, and then go back and tweak the individual ratings so that they could give the salary increase they wanted to give.

Today, the Wall Street Journal carried an article about how companies are learning to game Glassdoor. Companies like SpaceX, SAP, LinkedIn and Anthem “encouraged” people to leave excellent reviews, causing unusual spikes in their ratings. CEOs questioned about the practice said that the ratings on the site were not representative of their company, so they fixed it.

I see a pattern here – those systems that are intended to provide helpful and unbiased data can be “gamed.”

The other nagging thought I had back when I designed compensation plans was that plan sponsors wanted to substitute a system for daily leadership. How do we make sure the tellers are upselling? Put in an incentive plan. Are tellers balancing? Put it in the incentive plan. Are they being nice…? You’ve got the idea. The plan becomes so complicated that two staff analysts are engaged to “track and manage” it. The branch manager doesn’t understand it and spends more time explaining the plan than correcting behaviors.

I see another pattern here – there seems to be more value placed on systems to manage behavior than on leadership observation, coaching, and feedback.

Systems are critical in an organization. They lay boundaries, communicate values, encourage appropriate behavior while discouraging behavior that is contrary to the mission. They are not, however, a substitute for leadership. The timely and effective use of organizational systems should be a competency for which leaders are held accountable.

How can an organization build accountability into their systems so that the data and results are intentional and not “gamed?” Here are four ways to get started. (more…)