Brutal honesty is not enough.

In my last blog I emphasized the importance and benefits of creating an open, honest, authentic and courageous communication environment in teams and in life. In this blog I want to dig a little deeper.

Living with a courageous and relentless commitment to openness and honesty is a powerful and, in my view, noble virtue. I am not merely saying this because I have personally adopted this commitment in my own life. I am saying it because I have seen the power of openness and honesty triumph over resignation, despair and challenge, as well as nurture opportunity many times. BUT, I have also seen openness, honesty and bluntness deeply hurt and deflate people.

People often think that “having no filter”, “calling it as they see it” and “putting it all out there” are virtues and an asset to their group or relationship. In fact, some cultures – the Dutch for example – pride themselves on their bluntness. When brutal honesty is delivered in a productive manner, it can definitely be a huge asset. But brutal honesty can also be a disaster and an impediment. It can hurt people deeply and leave casualties.

A sales manager at a global telecom company shared with me a story that I have heard in other places before: his boss asked him to represent his country in the weekly regional sales forecast call with the upper level managers. The economic times were challenging and deals were hard to come by, so everyone on the call was somewhat tense and apprehensive, especially his boss’s boss, who was under tremendous pressure from his superiors to perform. When it was time for the sales manager to present he didn’t have good news to share, so not before long he found himself being questioned, grilled and criticized by those who attended the meeting. Needless to say, he left the call feeling devastated and publically attacked, humiliated and demeaned. His boss’s boss had a different depiction of the incident. His take was: “The sales manager came to the call unprepared so I gave him some feedback and tried to help him steer his presentation the right way”.

If openness, honesty and bluntness don’t make a difference and empower people, they are not worth the dignity they stand for and represent.

I have also heard many people equate open, honest and authentic communication to “getting it all off their chest”. In fact, in a recent coaching conversation an executive expressed pride in the fact that he finally mustered the courage to tell his team-mate how he really felt about him, after a long period in which he accumulated pent up frustrations and resentments about his colleague. I empathized with his initial feeling of personal triumph. But when I asked him if the conversation made a difference to address, resolve or change things he wasn’t sure at all. In fact, upon reflection he admitted that the trust and partnership with his colleague didn’t get stronger, and they didn’t come out of that conversation with any tangible productive actions or directions. He left the conversation feeling relief, but his colleague seemed quite upset and disheartened.

Putting it all out there, or getting if all off your chest is the wrong focus. Making a difference should always be the purpose and focus of any communication. It should guide the approach, angle, style and intensity of all our conversations. If making a difference requires being completely open, honest and blunt, then so be it. But, if being completely open, honest and blunt would hurt, insult, demean or deflate the other person, it may be better not to say anything at all.

A friend of mine, who is teaching at a post graduate university, shared with me recently that her new boss adopted the “blunt, no filter” approach, which was less than successful in their environment. Her boss, who came from the finance world, did not take into account the less brutal and more “diplomatic” academic world she was now immersed in. My friend confessed to feeling wary and cautious about bringing issues to the front because of her boss’s unorthodox style.

There are always appropriate, effective and productive ways to communicate, give feedback and express criticism and dissatisfaction – no matter how severe – which elevate and empower people.

What good is it for anyone if people around them are torn down and/or afraid to speak their minds?

Agreeing to disagree is always a cop-out!

How many times have you seen the following scenario?

A team meets to discuss issues that are critical to the organization’s future. The conversation goes on and on without resolution, as different people have divergent opinions about the best course of action. When the leader tries to bring it to a conclusion, they are no closer to alignment. They leave the meeting “agreeing to disagree.”

Such meetings are worse than a waste of time: they actually damage the organization, which is then no closer to making the necessary decisions and assuming responsibility for them. People have stayed within their comfort zones at the expense of moving the organization forward in new and dynamic ways.

This happens because leaders lack one or more of the following attributes: courage, an understanding of their role as leader, and the ability to powerfully manage conversations.

True leaders know how important it is to have an open debate with honest, respectful listening because there is rarely a single right answer to any dilemma or question. They are able to elevate their people to set aside their personal egos, agendas, and preferences to align with the collective wisdom of the group. They instill in their teams a real commitment to the type of conversation that leads to making choices, aligning behind those choices, and taking responsibility together. This requires courage.

There is never a justification to leave a conversation agreeing to disagree. It is always a cop-out. Of course, some topics are complex and may need a number of meetings to gather the necessary input and to digest it as a group. But paralysis by analysis is always an excuse to avoid taking a stand. And, the cost of lack of decisiveness, accountability, and follow-through is cynicism, resignation and stagnation.

Achieving extraordinary results requires the ability to align on goals. Agreeing to disagree precludes that. Organizations that achieve 100 per cent alignment behind a goal that is 80 per cent right have a much greater chance of success than those where people are divided behind a perfect goal. Compromise too often means that some of the people are 100 per cent behind one point of view and others are zero. How motivated are those zero per cent people to work towards the success of a goal they have not endorsed? They are the ones watching and waiting to say: “I told you so.”

Obviously, it is scary to step up to the plate and take full responsibility for a goal or direction that is uncertain, controversial, difficult to achieve, or politically incorrect. Making choices means eliminating alternatives. But when team members do find the courage to make tough choices, they are immediately more powerful. They are able to apply their energy towards proving their choices right rather than wasting energy on proving that others are wrong.

If an entire team is behind one direction – even if it is only 80 per cent correct – if they truly align, commit to a direction, and backstop each other, it is astounding what can happen. Individuals are then free to stake out a much more powerful future – and in my experience, they almost always do.

What has been your experience? 

Are you expecting what you haven’t been promised?

Having hopes, dreams, and expectations is a good thing, for the most part. Sometimes, however, having expectations can be a source of disappointment and frustration.

We have expectations in most areas of our life. At work, we expect our boss and colleagues to treat us a certain way. And we expect that things that are not working well in the work environment will get addressed and fixed in a timely manner.

In our personal relationships, we expect our partners to treat us lovingly, and with respect and generosity. And, we have clear images and standards about what all that should look like. In fact, if you self reflect on this you’ll see that we have a view about how things should be in most areas, most of the time. Sometime we state our expectations, but often they stay unspoken. When our expectations aren’t met, we tend to get upset, disappointed, frustrated and often discouraged. Sometime even resentful, and angry.

But, when we get disappointed or upset about unfulfilled expectations – what percent of the time were these expectations explicitly promised to us by someone?

I have found in my own life and in my work with others that more often than not we get disappointed and upset about things based on expectations that we have, which in reality no one ever explicitly promised us. We often complain about things that we have no legitimate claim to; no one promised us those things. If someone did promise something and they didn’t live up to their promise or deliver, we have the right to complain and there are effective and empowering ways to do it.

Recently, I was coaching two senior executives in one of the leading brokerage firms. They had very different personalities and they were assigned to a lucrative project together, but were not performing as well as they needed to because they had significant trust and communication issues. They had many complaints about each other – about lack of honesty, courtesy, respect, transparency and collaboration. And, most of these were never effectively communicated or addressed.

One of the executives kept complaining about the fact that his colleague was not including him in the project in a transparent way. But, the other swore he was doing his best to do so. When I asked if they have created clear expectations about how to work together, and made specific promises to each other on what they could be counted on for, the frustrated executive said “No” and added “this is basic stuff. My colleague should know how to communicate and how to include me”. As if there is some universal truth about how to work together effectively. Once the executives learned to make specific requests for what they needed from each other, rather than merely expect the other to behave consistent with their standards, things started to work much better.

We will be so much more powerful and happier in our lives if:

1)     Every time we are frustrated, disappointed or upset about unfulfilled expectations in any area we would ask our selves: “Are these my expectations OR did someone actually promise these to me?”

2)     If we wanted an expectation to be fulfilled in a certain area, we looked for someone who can promise these and explicitly request what we want.

3)     We stopped complaining, being disappointed or upset about unfulfilled expectations that nobody explicitly promised us.

It can be very energizing to have dreams, hopes and desires as long as we don’t get trapped in the vicious cycle of unfulfilled expectations.

Where in your work and life have you been frustrated, disappointed and upset about unfulfilled expectations that no one ever promised you to fulfill?

Generating Breakthroughs in Challenging Relationships (Part 4): Rules of Future Engagement

How do you take a challenging relationship — personal or professional — and transform it into one built on trust, respect and intimacy?

Over the last three weeks, we have examined the first three steps for generating this kind of breakthrough:

  1. Both parties must authentically desire a transformation and commit to having the conversations necessary to take the relationship to a new or better place.
  2. Have an honest, open, rational conversation about the history in order to drive closure, complete the past and bring the relationship back to the space of nothing (zero).
  3. Generate rich, exciting possibilities for the future of your relationship.

This week, we’ll cover the fourth and final step: Turn the new possibilities into clear actions and practices that take the relationship to the next level.

Turn the Possibilities into Reality
This phase of the conversation is about cementing the new possibilities you’ve generated for your relationship with clear promised actions and practices. If the last step was all about creating rich possibilities, this phase is about narrowing the playing field and committing to specific actions.

Most people like to keep commitments ambiguous because it leaves wiggle room, which allows them to avoid the potential stress of having to do what they say. The problem with vague promises is that they leave a lot of room for failure and disappointment. So, my coaching to people who are in this step is always to keep the promises simple, clear and rigorous.

  • “Simple” because it is better to commit to fewer actions and really keep them well than to have a list of 20 things — I call it the “should” list, the things we should do — and not follow through with most of them. In fact, I recommend making the fewest promises that make the most difference.
  • “Clear” because different people at times have different views about what certain things mean. And I have seen so many breakdowns in trust that were caused or made worse by people believing everything was clear only to discover through the other person’s actions and behaviors that this was not the case.
  • “Rigorous” because especially when people turn a new page, it is particularly important, in my experience, to manage promises and expectations in a rigorous way. This is a time of heightened sensitivity. It takes many conversations and much effort to give a relationship a new chance but only one screw-up to ruin the progress and take things backward.

Actions and practices could look like:

  • “Let’s agree that every Tuesday, we’ll meet for half an hour to share our key objective of the week, especially the anticipated challenges. Agreed? Great!”
  • “Every time we have a presentation, we’ll first have a one-on-one conversation to ensure we are on the same page and have the same message. Agreed?”
  • “Every time you hear some feedback or some information that could be of use to me, you’ll share it, and I’ll do the same thing. Promise? Good!”
  • “Whenever I do or say something that upsets you, please promise me that you will come straight to me to talk about it. And I promise to listen without getting defensive. Because if I do these things, it’s because I am unaware, not on purpose. OK?”

In Conclusion

Now you are ready to move forward — to change what wasn’t working and to begin building the trust and intimacy necessary to work together well.

To recap, what did we do? We didn’t react to a problem. We didn’t react to an issue. We completed the issue, took it to zero, and then created a new possibility for the future. Rather than reacting to the past, we proactively created the future we want from nothing.

While this might not always be easy to do, the principle and steps are quite simple, and they are based on common sense. Just keep these four last tips in mind throughout your conversations:

First, be authentic. Stay true to your intention. Don’t sell out.

Second, be courageous enough to share your feelings and generous enough to listen as the other shares theirs. Let it in.

Third, stay with it, even if it’s messy or you get lost in the conversation. Go back to your initial intention, and resist the urge to get defensive. Remember, this is about feelings, and whether you agree or disagree is irrelevant.

Lastly, Be smart, not right. I think this is self-explanatory.

If you keep these things in mind and work the four steps, you will be able to transform and/or elevate any challenging, dysfunctional or functional relationship to a new level of trust, partnership and affinity.

I would love to hear your experiences in using this — whether you were successful or not. This will give me an opportunity to provide more support. Please comment on my blog.

Generating Breakthroughs in Challenging Relationships (Part 3): Starting From Scratch

How do you take a challenging relationship — personal or professional — and transform it into one built on trust, respect and intimacy?

Over the past two weeks, we have examined the first two steps for generating this kind of breakthrough. The first step is that both parties must genuinely want to take the relationship to a new, better place and commit to having the necessary conversations. The second step is to have an honest, open, rational conversation about the past so that you can complete the past and “zero it out” so you can start over.

This week, we’ll discuss the third step of the conversation: generating a rich, exciting possibility for the future of your relationship.

Envision a New Future

This part of the conversation is about expressing and declaring what you both want — how you want your relationship to play out going forward.

This is not about creating a plan of action or making promises to each other (that’s step four, which we’ll get into next week). At this point, you’re simply expressing what you want the next level of your relationship to look like and what you both hope to create together.

I picked a few words deliberately here. First is “create.” In this step you are creating the new future of your relationship. You can only create something if you start from nothing, or zero. That is why the previous step of completing the past and returning to zero, or nothing, is so critical. If you don’t complete the past and return to zero, whatever you try and create will be on top of incomplete and unresolved baggage — and it will only be a matter of time before something will trigger the baggage again, and the resentment and lack of trust will re-emerge. If you have done the previous step genuinely and effectively, this step will be very exciting, stimulating, liberating and empowering.

The other word that is important is “want.” In this step you are expressing what you want the relationship to look and feel like: what it could be, what you’d like it to be. When people express their desire, there are very few limitations to the conversation and you can literally create whatever both people want.

Build Excitement for the Future

In the last step of the conversation — where you discussed the past — I suggested taking turns and resisting the urge to interrupt or comment on what the other person has to say. This third phase of the conversation is a different type of conversation — it doesn’t have to be so structured. Ideally, you will build upon what each other says by going through a lot of back and forth.

For example, one person might start off by saying, “You know, I would really like our relationship to be open, easy and straightforward. You are so good at bringing people together and getting them to work together, and I am so good at addressing issues and conflict resolution. If we could work together, we could really do some great things. I would love for us to be able to work like this.” Halfway through, the other person will respond by saying, “You know what? I agree with you. I feel exactly the same way. Remember what happened a year ago when we brought these customers together and they were upset about our quality of delivery? I did a great job getting them to the meeting. But you did such a great job of defusing the tensions and getting a dialogue going that led to our best year ever. If we had done it together in all these other situations, can you imagine how great the results might have been? I would love to work with you in this manner, with no tensions and complications …” “Yes, I agree ….”

This conversation will be highly interactive and energizing, and the two of you will get infected and inspired by each other’s expressions of “What if …,” “How about …,” or “Wouldn’t it be great if ….” The energy will spiral upward. Eventually, both of you will be left in a space of: “What do we do with all this great possibility and excitement?” That’s when you know you’ve just completed the third step of the conversation.

Next week, we’ll examine the fourth and last step — where you cement the new possibilities you’ve created for the relationship through concrete practices, actions and new rules of engagement for the future of your relationship.

Generating Breakthroughs in Challenging Relationships (Part 2): Zeroing Out the Past

How do you take a challenging relationship — personal or professional — and transform it into one built on trust, respect and intimacy?

Last week, I outlined four steps for generating this kind of breakthrough. The first step is that both parties must genuinely want to take the relationship to a new, better place and commit to having the necessary conversations. This week, we’ll examine the second step: Complete the history of the relationship by fully getting each other’s reality and experiences. This requires an honest, open, rational conversation about the past.

Setting the Stage for Change

Start by setting the time and place for the conversation. Obviously, if possible, do it in person. However, if it’s not possible, don’t delay the conversation. Do it via phone or any other platform, like Skype or FaceTime. If you think you can only achieve breakthroughs when sitting in front of someone, that is not true. I have had many breakthrough conversations via phone, and I have seen others do the same. On the other hand, I have seen too many people avoid and procrastinate the difficult conversation because they felt they couldn’t do it in person. My experience is that most of the time it’s better to have the conversation not in person than not having it at all.

The purpose of this second step is to fully understand each other’s reality, experiences, perceptions and feelings regarding the history of the relationship.

It’s best to take turns. One person communicates while the other person listens, and then you switch sides. Do not interrupt each other unless something is unclear and you need clarification. There should be no pushback or arguments because you are sharing feelings, perceptions and experiences, not facts and truths.

For example: In one of my sessions, person A and B were having a conversation to generate a breakthrough after a falling-out that occurred a year earlier, which caused them to stop trusting each other and collaborating. Person A was expressing his feelings to person B, and he said, “I was really offended by your comment in the meeting we had last year. I felt dismissed, disrespected and demeaned.” That evening over dinner, when I was asking people how their conversations went, person B said to me: “It went well, but I still disagree with how person A took my comments in the meeting a year ago. My words were not offensive, dismissive or disrespectful…” It took me a while to make him see that whether he agreed or disagreed with person A’s feelings was irrelevant and that the real opportunity in the conversation was to fully stand in person A’s world, get how he has been feeling, and get that how he has been feeling is in fact valid. Person B’s reaction is common. That is why I always advise people who are pursuing breakthrough conversations of this type to truly listen, without judgment or defensiveness, and genuinely seek to understand. This way, they are not pointing fingers, assigning blame. Instead, they are sharing their reality. It’s not about who is right or wrong. Instead, it’s about understanding each other so you can move forward.

State Your Feelings, Not the Facts

Sometimes in order to complete the past people have to discuss the events that took place in the relationship. This is often a more challenging topic as most people, especially when they have baggage and emotions, don’t do a good job distinguishing between the facts and their interpretations or feelings that followed what happened. In addition, many times people simply remember things differently, but everyone is convinced their version is the truth. And when people are at odds with each other, they tend to feel that the other person is maliciously lying about the situation.

But when people really want to have a breakthrough, it is easier for them to realize that often it is less important to agree on the facts. Sometimes what is equally or even more important is to understand and accept how the other person experienced what happened.

For instance, someone might be upset with another person because they are always late to appointments. They may say, “You are always late. You don’t respect my time, or me for that matter.” The other person may say, “That’s not true. I was only late six out of the last ten times. You are exaggerating.” I often coach people on this. It doesn’t matter if it was 10/10 or 6/10. It still left the other person feeling disrespected. In order to have a breakthrough, you need to understand and accept how your being late — whether six or ten times — affected the other person.

When people can accept the validity of each other’s reality — the feelings, not the facts — that’s when the magic begins.

Here are some angles you could use to share your reality with the other person:

  • “My experience and feelings about you and our relationship has been …”
  • “I’ve always felt your view about me and the relationship is … and that has made me feel …”
  • “I started to feel this way when …” (share the event that triggered it, if you recall)
  • “When this happened, I felt …”
  • “Ever since, it has affected me in the following ways …”
  • “It has prevented me from doing the following things …”
  • “It has cost both of us the following tolls …”

Listen Generously

The only way this conversation will work is if you are both willing to close your mouths while the other person is speaking, so that you can open your ears and open your heart.

When each speaker finishes talking, the listener should say “thank you.” You are expressing your gratitude for the other person’s honesty, courage and willingness to share his/her feelings.

By approaching the conversation with gratitude, you are more likely to listen, rather than simply wait for your turn to talk. For instance, I’ve noticed that when people raise their hands to speak in meetings, they tend to shut their ears. Even if during the time their hand is raised their issue is addressed or resolved, they don’t hear it because they’re in waiting-for-my-turn mode.

The words “thank you” tend to open people’s hearts so they can let the other person’s truth in, acknowledge it, own it and live in peace with it. Expressing gratitude is also a generous way to acknowledge the other person’s courage and commitment — and the validity of his/her feelings. This in turn encourages more sharing and communicating.

Get to Zero

After both people have spoken, and if you’ve both genuinely shared and listened without getting defensive, what you will be left with is a sense of emptiness, “nothing” — a clean slate — and the question “So, now what?”

Only when you get to this place, when there’s no fight left, can you zero out the past. What will naturally follow is a new sense of possibility, hope and excitement for the future of your relationship.

So, what do you do from here? How do you build something new from “nothing”? Stay tuned for my next blog.

Having Effective Conversations to Build or Restore Trust in Any Relationship

There are some people with whom we easily build trusting, productive relationships — people with whom we connect and take our relationships to the next level without much trouble or controversy. But there are other relationships — personal and professional — that require more work, either because past dealings or misunderstandings have created mistrust or animosity, or because different personalities make it harder sometimes to find common ground. Sometimes there is a problem in the relationship that we need to address or react to. But at other times, even if the relationship is functioning sufficiently, we want to take it to a higher, better level.

Communication: The Key to Transforming Relationships

Trust, relationships, partnerships: These are just different ways of talking about the same thing — a level of intimacy and trust necessary in order to connect, interact and collaborate well with others. This intimacy lives in communication and is shaped by communication. It gets built through communication, and it can be destroyed by communication, or a lack thereof.

Over the next few weeks, I will share my thoughts about how to take any challenging relationship and transform it into a genuine partnership based on trust, respect and understanding. I will also cover how to take relationships that are functional to the next level. The principles for both scenarios are the same. The application has to be personalized to each person, relationship and circumstance.

The Four Steps for Transforming Any Relationship

There are four steps that if you follow will enable you to significantly transform or improve any dysfunctional or functional relationship no matter what the starting point. The more you understand these steps as principles or spaces to navigate the conversation through, the more confident and effective you will be at applying them to any circumstance:

  1. Step One: Align both parties on the need for improvement in the relationship and the level of trust, the desire to achieve these improvements, and the commitment to invest the time to achieve them.
  2. Step Two: Complete the history of the relationship by fully getting each other’s reality and experiences.
  3. Step Three: Create rich and exciting new possibilities for the future of the relationship.
  4. Step Four: Turn the new possibilities into clear actions, practices and results that take the relationship to the next level.

Get on the Same Page

The first step for generating a new level of trust in the relationship is that both parties genuinely want to transform the relationship and are willing to commit the time, energy and emotion to the conversations that can make this happen. You can’t force people to do this. It’s got to be authentic. This doesn’t mean that people know how to achieve the desired outcome. It means they want it.

Create a Common Interest

It’s always easier if both sides want this and there is no need for anyone to convince anyone else. But, as we all know very well, that is often not the case. So, in order to get people on the same page, there sometime needs to be an explicit dialogue about “Why do it?” “What for?” “Why now?” and/or “What’s in it for me?”

Consider a contrarian view: There is a benefit and cost associated with having a prolonged dysfunctional or dissatisfying relationship. The benefit is typically status quo, avoidance of conflict and uncomfortable conversations. When operating in the benefit mode, people tend to blame others rather than take responsibility for the situation. This is often accompanied with some self-righteousness, which could sound like, “Why should I take the first step?” “It’s all because of them;” “I’ve tried to address this before but they didn’t cooperate;” etc.

On the other side, the cost typically includes stress and loss of joy and satisfaction. And overall it drains energy to stay upset, incomplete and/or dissatisfied in a relationship for a long time. Sometimes people become cynical or numb in the relationship or about relationships in general. I had a single woman friend who every time I asked her how her love life was going, she would tell me the same story about how “all men are selfish and only care about one thing…” Self-righteousness is costly in itself.

So, when discussing the need or opportunity for change in the relationship, you can look for the areas of cost. These will give you opportunities for areas of common interest.

We all know the saying: “It takes two to tango.” However, I believe that when it comes to relationships and trust, “It takes one to take two to tango.” So, if you are the one initiating the transformation in the relationship, don’t get distracted, discouraged or fall into blame — take responsibility for enrolling the other person in the breakthrough. Listen to their concerns. Swallow your pride. Acknowledge them as valid, even if they are not factually true. And respond to them from your commitment, not reaction.

Sometimes people don’t want to move on because they don’t trust the other person’s sincerity. So, declare your sincerity, even if you have done it before. Sometimes they feel they’ve tried to address issues before and the other person wasn’t sincere, didn’t listen, wasn’t open to what they had to say, didn’t take ownership or responsibility for past transgressions, etc. So, stay open, own their experience of your past attempts as valid, apologize if needed and express your sincere commitment to making it work this time.

This first step is the ticket into the game. Without a shared desire to elevate the relationship, the next steps are irrelevant. While it takes courage to take a relationship to the next level, especially if the starting point is dysfunctional, isn’t it “better to fail giving it your all, rather than give up without trying at all?”

Stay tuned for more next week.

The Untapped Goldmine Of Gratitude

The research is in, and when it comes to employee engagement, recognition is a key factor. During strong economies or when companies are experiencing great success, most leaders feel that they have the wherewithal, resources and ability to invest in recognizing and rewarding the work their people do. This includes pay increases, bonuses and other merit-based incentives. It also includes indirect compensation – such as training programs, events, offsite meetings, and career development.

When times are tough, however, companies tend to cut back in all these areas, and employees become frustrated because they (and their work) are not being recognized.

However, in both tough and successful times, there is a goldmine of appreciation that most companies leave untapped. It’s the practice of deliberately and explicitly recognizing, appreciating and thanking the people around you. This doesn’t cost a penny, and it creates a very nurturing, productive and exciting environment for our teams.

Gratitude is a particularly powerful tool when used by managers, as well as between peers. But it’s of no use when you keep your appreciation to yourself. Instead, we must acknowledge our appreciation and have a conversation that highlights the other person’s greatness, values and achievements.

Acknowledgement requires courage and generosity on the part of the person providing it. Unfortunately, most work environments are rife with politics, silos and people trying to survive – which typically creates a challenging “us-or-them” environment. People fear that highlighting other people’s greatness will somehow take away from their own achievements. I have seen this play out again and again – especially in high-achieving, competitive environments.

However, if leaders create an organizational culture where the paradigm is “We’re in this together; we have each other’s backs and stand as one,” then the logic changes. People understand that the more giants they have around them, the bigger they are, and the more powerful their teams can be.

You can always find reasons to appreciate and acknowledge the people around you. Don’t assume they already know how you feel. There’s no reason to be stingy or lazy with your praise. You can acknowledge people for:

  • Their spirit, heart, attitude or energy.
  • Their actions or efforts towards going beyond the call of duty.
  • What they have done or created (i.e., their accomplishments and achievements).

To make gratitude viral in your organization, start practicing it yourself on a daily basis. Simply make it a point to acknowledge one or two people around you every day. You could also open team meetings by saying: “Hey, we’ve all been working so hard the last 30 days. Who would like to acknowledge someone on the team for his or her contribution?” Then spend 10 minutes or so letting your team praise each other. With enough repetition, gratitude will become a part of your culture.

Should You Axe Your Meeting Agenda?

If you ask the smartest and most experienced leaders what’s one thing that makes their meetings successful — most will tell you it’s having a clear agenda. But contrary to this popular point of view, we regularly see off-sites, strategy sessions and team meetings being held hostage by an agenda — rather than liberated by it. Here’s why.

When a meeting is oriented around an agenda, the focus becomes making sure that all the topics listed are talked about in the time they have been allotted.

This means that if item X is scheduled to be discussed for 15 minutes, from 10:15 to 10:30, that’s what happens. But what if item X turns out to need an hour of conversation? What if the dialogue around item X is so engaging, compelling and important that people want to keep chatting about it beyond the allotted time frame?

In most cases, the discussion, regardless of how important or meaningful, will be tabled to a later date to make way for the other scheduled items on the agenda.

The opposite is also true. If item X is slated for a 15-minute discussion, but really only requires five minutes, rarely will the agenda be adjusted. In most cases, the team members will simply fill up the time talking about the less important aspects of the item until the designated time is up.

So instead of having your meetings be oriented around a set agenda, with topics and the time allotted to them, we suggest orienting your meetings around the outcomes and results you want to accomplish.

The difference looks like this:

In an agenda-driven meeting, you have 30 minutes allocated to discussing the budget.

In an outcome-oriented meeting, you declare the objective of having everyone agree on how to reduce the budget by 15%.

So the next time you want to have a powerful meeting oriented around results, ask yourself:

  1. What are the specific outcomes I want this meeting to achieve?
  2. What results do I want to come out of this meeting?
  3. What are the most important results I want to walk away having accomplished?

How have agendas impacted your meetings? I would love to hear your comments.

Balancing The Budget And Employee Morale

When times get tough, most executives move to cut costs, reduce resources and shore up company savings. And while focusing on financial issues in the short term is important, this is often done at the expense of the long-term health of the organization.

In a weak economy, it’s of critical importance that leaders practice “giving back” to the company culture, even as things are being taken away.

In our experience, it’s deflating and demoralizing to a workforce when things are only being taken away and nothing is being put back in. Leaders often underestimate the level of upset brewing among staff and even misread the fact that people are not complaining to mean that they are not bothered by the current state of the company.

Worse still, some leaders take the position that since the job market is tight, people cannot leave so there is no need to take care of them.

These conclusions ultimately lead to a situation where, when the market does come back and opportunities open up, employees — who are resentful of how things were handled during the difficult times — leave.

Even in the face of reducing expenses, you need to infuse conversations with energy, confidence, hope and a sense of the future.

One important thing you can do to maintain employee morale and balance things out as the budget gets rightsized is to rally everyone around the new strategy. Start by telling employees the truth about how things are — even if the news is bad, they can handle it. Involve them in the process of fixing and improving things, developing new products and finding new customers. By having the courage to be sincere and transparent, you cut rumors and speculation off at the pass and engage employees’ commitment to both deal with today’s reality and plan for tomorrow’s recovery.

What are you doing to strike a balance between budget constraints and employee morale? We would love to hear your comments.

 

Micro-management Is The Enemy of Strategic Thinking

In last week’s blog post, we discussed the way that leaders’ actions impact the cultivation of strategic thinking within their companies. This week, we continue the theme by examining the role that micromanaging plays in the process.

Heed the warning. Leaders who micromanage create an environment of compliance where people won’t think strategically and don’t act as partners.

Micromanaging suffocates strategic thinking because it forces people to interact at a tactical level only. It requires people to protect their world, and a huge amount of their energy just goes into how to survive and keep their boss off their back.

One research study on micromanagement by Dr. Robert Hurley PhD at Fordham University found that 30 to 35% of executives succeed as managers but faltered as leaders when they found themselves in higher-level positions. “For this sizable group of under-performing executives, the underlying root cause is compulsive micromanagement caused by perfectionist tendencies. By micromanagement we mean an over-controlling style that inappropriately inhibits the people the executive needs to mobilize,” says Dr. Hurley.

To counteract this, we suggest that executives and managers ask their staff to think about what they would do if they were put in charge of a particular situation, department or organization. Ask your staff what they would start, stop or continue, then discuss the responses as a group so people can learn to think strategically at a level or two above their current job.

Just remember that you will never get any company strategy perfect, rational or right enough to work without having engagement and commitment at all levels. Encouraging your staff to participate in strategic planning and practice strategic thinking is key to creating a strategy that does not just get talked, but walked.

Cheat Sheet of Strategic Thinking Dos and Don’ts

Do:

  • Actively ask for input from all departments and levels.
  • Promote and incorporate others’ ideas.
  • Ask your staff what they would start, stop or continue in your position.
  • Routinely balance out your meetings by discussing both strategic and tactical issues.

Don’t:

  • Make strategic development an exclusive club limited to the higher-ups.
  • Stifle strategic thinking by not being open to and acting on others’ feedback.
  • Try and maintain control by micromanaging.
  • Solely focus on and encourage tactical thinking in meetings.

How has strategic thinking been hindered in your organization? I would love to hear your comments.

4 Ways You May be Undermining Employee Engagement

This looks at the four most common ways leaders undermine employee engagement.

1. Not saying thank you: Managers who only criticize and find fault with their employees’ performance run the risk of creating an unhappy – and less productive – workforce. Rarely saying something as simple as “good work” or “thank you” creates an environment where staff feel unappreciated and taken advantage of.

2. Recognizing the same people all the time: Some leaders single out the same staff over and over again for recognition and praise. No matter how deserving these employees may be, repeatedly acknowledging one small group of individuals can create an environment of exclusion, which leads to a negative backlash within the team.

3. Participating in background conversations about others: Managers may think they can confidentially talk about one employee to another, but what they say always leaks out. Leaders who grouse, gossip and gripe about their co-workers, employees and bosses — especially behind their backs — create an environment of distrust and disharmony.

4. Not letting your staff shine: Many managers miss the opportunity to have their staff be recognized for their contributions, both by their immediate team members and by senior management. Failing to give people an opportunity to make an important presentation to their peers or higher-ups, not acknowledging the significant contribution of an employee to other members of the team, and actively taking credit for an employee’s work all lead to decreased trust and reduced confidence among staff.

What all these behaviors have in common is an active narcissism, a blind insensitivity or a management immaturity that makes the manager look like a jerk and their staff feel uncared for.

One 2009 study was conducted to examine the narcissistic tendencies of bosses in American organizations. Wayne Hochwarter, the Jim Moran Professor of Management in the Florida State University College of Business, asked more than 1,200 employees to provide opinions regarding the narcissistic tendencies of their immediate supervisor. Their responses:

  • 31 percent reported that their boss is prone to exaggerate his or her accomplishments to look good in front of others.
  • 27 percent reported that their boss brags to others to get praise.
  • 25 percent reported that their boss had an inflated view of himself or herself.
  • 24 percent reported that their boss was self-centered.
  • 20 percent reported that their boss will do a favor only if guaranteed one in return.

“Having a narcissistic boss creates a toxic environment for virtually everyone who must come in contact with this individual,” Hochwarter said. “The team perspective ceases to exist, and the work environment becomes increasingly stressful. Productivity typically plummets as well.”

When it comes to employee engagement, all signs seem to point in the same direction. You are either building motivation or destroying it. You are either moving forward by appreciation or acknowledgment or going backward with lack of attention. The choice is one every manager makes daily.