Category Archives: communication

Giving at the Office…A Leader’s Best Gifts

christmasgiftboxGot your Christmas shopping done yet? That’s a common question at this time of year and one that usually causes my eyes to roll up in my head because procrastination is my middle name. Actually my middle name is Mary but you know what I mean. Anyway, the Christmas shopping question tends to push my “get moving” button before I’m actually ready to er, get moving.

Nonetheless, once in gear, I manage to rise to the occasion long enough to consider things that might delight my loved ones and please my friends. After all, it is not the gift itself that is the reward. It is the happiness element that comes with it that makes gift -giving so much fun.

I like the idea of happiness being the real gift and I think it translates well too, when it comes to exchanging gifts at work. Of course, it is always a little more challenging to give meaningful gifts to people at work, but here are a few ideas to consider. They cost nothing. They can have lasting effects. And, to the best of my knowledge, they aren’t fattening.

The Gift of Attention

Give a few minutes of your undivided attention to each of the people you lead, each day.

That means spending the time listening, being curious about their interests, thoughts and opinions and suspending judgment long enough to learn something about them that you might otherwise miss.

The Gift of Inclusion

Take a little time to remind those you lead, why you come to work everyday. Give them the big picture (even if you’ve done it before) and show them how they fit into it as individuals. Yes, I know, it’s the old vision thing again. But, believe me, when people can see where they are going and that there is a place for them on the proverbial bus, that creates some happiness.

The Gift of Challenge

Consider those you lead and give each a challenge for the New Year that will allow them to stretch, grow, and learn more about themselves and what they can do.

I hazard to say that everyone likes a challenge. It gets the juices flowing and allows us to test our boundaries. Giving the gift of challenge suggests faith in each person’s capability and potential. And, its value is that much greater at times when the individual doubts or fears his or her own possibilities.

The Gift of Encouragement

Of course challenge on its own can become onerous if not accompanied by encouragement and the support that goes with it. So, with each gift of challenge, include whatever each person might need to accomplish it, including resources, education, training or a friendly ear. That will ensure, I think, the highest possible opportunity for success and resulting happiness.

The Gift of Truth

Find ways to convey to those you lead that you will always be straight with them no matter what the circumstances. And then make sure you follow through.

Leaders who are truthful, both in good times and bad also give the gift of useful information. Useful information allows people to make good decisions for themselves. Being Truthful with them acknowledges their capability to respond as adults. It is respectful. And, even if the news is not good, it gives them their best opportunity to work through it and find satisfying resolutions.

This of course is not an exhaustive list. They are only the gifts that first come to mind for me. What gifts do you have in mind for those you lead? Please feel free to add to the list!

 

Note: Originally published in December 2009

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Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values

The Importance of Being Care-full

I often like to make a distinction between caring and care-taking when it comes to leading others. This post, from 2011, gets more specific about what it means to care and why it’s important.

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hands-heartBenjamin Franklin once said, “Want of care does more damage than want of knowledge”

Never is that more true than in the workplace. Of course, there are those who continue to believe that caring for the people we lead is unimportant or a sign of weakness. After all, they would never accomplish anything if they had to spend all of their time worrying about everybody who works there. And others are often heard to say, and quite proudly too, that they take care of their people, which is a totally different thing.

The flaw in this kind of thinking is that caring for those under our charge isn’t about parenting. It is about inviting people to bring all of themselves to work every day and helping them give their best effort willingly to something that matters both to them and to the organization. I think it safe to say that engaging people in this way gets results. That makes it pretty important.

So, what does caring for people look like from a leader’s vantage point? Well, I have some thoughts about that. Here they are:

Judicious leaders care enough to…

Be interested in each person’s skills, talents and ambitions

This is a good place to start and is not dissimilar to taking inventory. You have to know what, and who, you’ve got before you can decide how you are going to help them use it and grow it for both individual and organizational benefit.

Be clear about their expectations:

No one can produce desired results if they are working with a murky set of expectations. So it is incumbent upon the leader who cares to be able to state what s/he expects, as simply and succinctly as possible and to ensure that the person to whom s/he is speaking understands those expectations in the way they were meant.

Tell hard truths

We are all familiar with times when it is easier to avoid the truth than to confront it. But, when someone is not performing well, it is essential for the leader to address it. This often requires some pretty uncomfortable discussions, and can result in equally painful decisions. Caring sometimes means helping others step up… or step off to something else.

Hold people accountable

So you’ve had the conversation. You and your colleague have come to an agreement about what s/he will accomplish and how you will support him/her. It sounds good and you both leave the room feeling good.

Caring leaders know that it doesn’t end there. Follow-up is necessary, first, because those under their charge may need some help. Second, they may need some encouragement. And finally, they may need some reminding about the commitments they’ve made. Holding people accountable for doing what they say they are going to do sends the message that their efforts matter to the success of the whole.

Risk their own vulnerability

Relationships, even those that are forged for professional reasons, are two-way propositions. Leaders who care and want to build strong connections with others are willing to share their own stories, something of themselves that makes them human. No one is a super-hero. If we try to be that, we don’t have time to concentrate on much else

Challenge people to stretch

Sometimes people are capable of going beyond what they have agreed to do, and yet, haven’t. Or, they are assigned something they believe to be too challenging for them, and don’t think they can do it. In either case, the leader who cares will provide a needed nudge, will challenge, cajole, encourage and inspire that extra effort that brings them over the top and helps them win.

Clear the way

Leaders who care will anticipate and provide needed resources. And, they will address obstacles that get in the way of success.

Let go

So by now you’ve made a heavy investment in someone’s development to the extent that s/he is now a top performer. It is natural to want to hang onto that person. After all, s/he is making a huge contribution to your results.

Letting go is hard but it’s also an important part of organizational, and personal, development. Those who go on to greater things will appreciate that you cared. Those who feel held back will quickly forget that you did. Besides in letting go, you get to….

Start Again

This may be good or bad news from a leadership perspective but the truth is that people come and people go. I like to believe that the person who has built a good reputation as a leader who cares attracts those who are willing to learn and to meet him or her halfway.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

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Listen Here!

listening“Pardon?” I say.

“I didn’t hear you.”

“Well,” he says.

“That’s because you weren’t listening.”

I expect that, for most of us, this is a pretty common conversation. And yet, if we were to ask any number of people to rate the significance of listening in being a good leader; building good relationships; or doing good business, the ability to listen well would be among the most important.

So why are we not better at doing it?

Well for one thing, there is a possibility that we assume, because we come equipped with two ears, listening is something that will naturally follow. However, while hearing may come naturally, listening certainly does not. And yet, little attention has been paid to teaching us how to use our ears for the purposes of actually absorbing what is being said.

Think about it. When we were little children we were taught to read and write. In high school we might have learned how to debate effectively or write a coherent essay. And, Later on, we might have had instruction on effective presentation techniques, or business writing. We recognize these as developed skills. In comparison, there is little such instruction on the topic of listening because we tend to believe that hearing and listening are synonymous.

The truth is, most people can hear. Listening on the other hand involves engaging, not only the ears, but also the brain, in the process of receiving new information and assimilating it in the way in which it was intended.  Fewer people are good at that.

So, the question is, how do we get to a place where we  listen more?

I have a few thoughts on that and here they are:

1. Make Understanding the Goal

Just to be clear, understanding is not the same as agreeing. Often, when someone is speaking, we allow our own values and judgments to intervene prematurely and evaluate. Because of this (and just as often) we fail to understand what is really being said. Making understanding the goal means getting past our own biases and making space for someone else’s perspective.

2. Be Quiet

This seems simple enough. But is requires some practice. It’s hard to take in what someone is saying if we have crowded our heads with inner chatter; are waiting for our turn to speak; or thinking about what we are going to have for dinner. Taking a little time to achieve some sense of quiet and focus on the person talking will help to achieve the understanding we need to engage in a meaningful exchange of information or opinion.

3. Use the Inquiring Mind

Let’s face it. Even with the best of intentions, we aren’t always going to get to the intended meaning of every conversation easily. And, when we don’t, it is tempting to pretend we do if only to advance the conversation and move onto something else. But of course doing that takes us further away from the goal. So it’s not something we would want to make a habit of. Asking questions for clarity however, is a great habit to get into. It lets people know we are listening and it keeps the conversation on the right track too.

4. Paraphrase

Paraphrasing is another good habit to develop when listening to someone speak. This, by the way, is not about repeating word for word what we hear. Instead, paraphrasing asks us to summarize in our own words what we have heard, without judgment. If we are able to repeat what we understand the speaker to have said and the speaker confirms it as being what he meant, we have listened successfully.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

 

Note: this is a refreshed version of a post originally written in 2010

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Unlocking the Energy…Yet Another Job for Leaders

Enthusiasm-150x150Frances Hesselbein once said, “the Leader’s job, after all, is not to provide energy but to release it from others”

Admittedly, the initial image that popped into my head, on reading that quote, was a bit bizarre. (I’ll spare you the details). And, I thought that Ms Hesselbein’s remark was not quite right or perhaps an oversimplification of a very difficult job.

But then I wondered. What does it actually take for people to unlock hidden reservoirs of energy from others and have them use it willingly in the accomplishment of great work? As a matter of fact what does it take to make me give my best?

So I had a little think about it and here’s what I came up with.

First, give me something I can relate to and believe in.

For me, work transcends into something meaningful when I know why it’s important and the part I have to play is equally important. If I can feel that importance, then I stop thinking about it as work and start thinking about it as contribution, which to me, is something I do by choice.

Second, work with me.

I don’t mean that you should do the work I’m doing or be there every minute. No, I mean, talk to me from time to time. Let me know I’m on the right track and if I’m not, help me to make adjustments. Tell me what I need to do, or be, to succeed. Let me know you’re interested in what I’m doing. And yes, occasionally, roll up your sleeves and work alongside me. That will help me to build my sense of common purpose. As well, I seem to have more energy when I feel that the work I do is important enough for you to pitch in from time to time.

Third, please Don’t Hover

There is a fine line between working with me and hovering over me. If I satisfy your need to know that I know what I’m doing, then let me get on with it. If you hover, you can be sure that my energy level will plummet pretty fast. On the other hand, I can get pretty stoked when I know that you trust me to do my part without having to give me constant direction.

Fourth, give value to my contribution

There is nothing more energizing to me than being acknowledged for doing my job well. It doesn’t have to be a big deal but from time to time, I need to know that what I’m doing is appreciated and valued.

Fifth, and finally, (at least for now), help me to make my work life fun.

I don’t expect you to be a constant source of entertainment. I know there is serious work to be done. But at work, as in life, there are, well, absurdities that just need to be laughed at. I have so much energy when I can laugh in the company of my colleagues. It breaks any tension that might be hanging around and really helps me to keep a healthy perspective when I need it.

So that’s it for now, from me anyway.

What about you? What turns you into the Energizer Bunny?

Note: This post was originally published in April, 2010

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Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, motivating & Inspiring

Climbing the Ladder of Inference

It happened again this week. I was going along merrily about my business when I read something very disturbing on someone’s Facebook page. It was one side of a multi-faceted, distasteful, eye-opening situation affecting a significant number of people personally and about which most of the rest of us had an opinion. I took an opinion too, way too early in the game. And, I found myself at the top of the Ladder of Inference feeling embarrassed by my rush to judgment and having to climb my way down again by taking back words I had written in haste and with insufficient thought.

I don’t suppose it will be the last time I’m going to rush up the ladder. However, it is a goal of mine to ensure fewer occurrences. The air is far too rarified up there for critical thought to successfully cancel out, or at least modify, the rush of emotion that fuels an ill-considered journey to the top.

It is with this in mind that I’m re-publishing this post about the Ladder of Inference, just in case, along with me, you also could use a refresher course.

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6c4ec-examineThe other day, while at the supermarket, I was reminded of how easy it is to make assumptions about people. It happened while I was going through the checkout counter. Behind me, were a mother and her little boy, who looked to be about three years old. Together, they had two carry baskets brimming with grocery items.

Realizing she had forgotten something, Mom left the queue to go and get it, suggesting to her son that he begin to put the items they had already collected on the counter. He was very small. In fact so small his ability to comply with this suggestion was in some doubt, at least in my mind. But, soon he was grabbing each item and chucking it as high as he could over his head so that it landed, rather unceremoniously, on the counter above him. He was doing fine until he came to a can of soup. After heaving this in the direction of the other items, it landed on its side. Being fearful that it might roll off the counter and hit him on the head, I took the can up and set it aright, thinking I was doing him a service.

The little boy gave me a filthy look. He looked at the can. Then he looked at me and scowled. And, when his mother returned from her quest, he said, “Something’s not right

Mom, not really understanding what her son was on about, asked him what was not right, at which point, I said,

I think he’s referring to me. I righted the can of soup so it wouldn’t roll off the counter. I was trying to help

To this, the little boy raised himself up to his full height of maybe three feet and loudly proclaimed, “I didn’t want any help!

While a little stunned by the vehemence of his words, I quickly apologized to him, received some words of thanks from Mom and then decided it might be best if I minded my own business.

Thinking about this story, The Ladder of Inference comes to mind. It was developed by Chris Argyris and made known in Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline. It works something like this:

ladder-of-inference

http://www.strategyworks.co.za/2004/11/05/the-ladder-of-inference/

At the bottom of the ladder is information that is clear and observable. In this case, I saw a little boy helping his mother with the grocery shopping. I saw too, that there were a lot of groceries and that the little boy was really small.

I climbed to the second rung from the bottom where I narrowed my focus and selected only the data that interested me. In this case, I concentrated on two things, the little boy and his attempts to hurl grocery items onto the counter above him.

I climbed to the third rung of the ladder and began to make assumptions. First, I assumed that because he was small, he was not really capable of fulfilling his assigned task. And then, I assumed he needed help.

I climbed to the fourth rung of the ladder and concluded, based on these assumptions, that he would be glad of my help. From there, I proceeded to the fifth rung where I connected this conclusion to my belief that helping each other is an important and natural part of the human experience.

When I got all the way to the top of the ladder and acted in accordance with my assumptions and beliefs, I was met with hostility rather than the appreciation, or at least the neutrality, I was expecting.

The point is that it is easy for us to run up the ladder and get things wrong even when we have the best of intentions. Had I simply asked the little boy if he would like help in unloading his groceries (or in his case UPloading his groceries), I would have had the answer I needed, respected his wishes and stayed out of trouble. But I didn’t. So I didn’t.

All of which brings me to this…Good leadership can falter quite easily too, if we fail to check out and validate assumptions before we act. For instance, before every meeting you hold do you assume that everyone knows why you are meeting? Do you assume that everyone will have everything they need to fully participate in the meeting?

What other assumptions might you be making when you interact with those who follow your lead? How accurate are they? What steps might you take to prevent a trip up the Ladder of Inference? What questions might you ask?

Have you other thoughts you can share?

In the meantime and on the lighter side, this is what Oscar Wilde thought about assumptions, courtesy of Benny Hill.

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Leadership & Creating an Environment of Service

Servamt Leadership 2 No_optA lot has been said about the leader as “servant”. I expect, given that it is a relatively young term (having been ‘born’ in 1970), it is also subject to wide interpretation. As such, while some people will experience great results from their efforts to serve, others will consider it a fad that will go away if they ignore it. Still others will make every effort to embrace the notion of the Servant Leader but find themselves exhausted, confused and possibly resentful because people seem to be walking all over them.

So what to do?

Well, first I’m thinking that we need some clarity about what it means to serve or be a servant. So I looked it up in a number of dictionaries and found this:

“Servant leaders are humble stewards of their organizations’ resources.”

A Servant is one who serves another, providing help in some manner.”

“A servant is a person who performs duties for others”.

So far so good.

Then I went to the Thesaurus for some synonyms for the word servant. Between the words attendant and steward lay these words, lackey, flunky, minion and drudge.  Okay then, herein may lie a problem.

Perhaps it is that many of us, when we think of the term Servant Leadership, take this subservient perspective (a.k.a. lackey, flunky, minion and drudge). In other words, it suggests that by serving, we are also submitting to the whims of others for no other reason than to render them superior. And, let’s face it, our egos are going to have a hard time with that. So, if you have been leaning in that direction when you think about the notion of Servant Leadership, I have some good news for you. I don’t think it’s about that at all.

Here’s what I do believe it’s about. It’s about…

knowing the Over-arching purpose I believe a good servant leader will focus on an over-arching purpose. This purpose becomes the master and the guide for all activities undertaken within the framework of the company. The leader serves the purpose through people. For instance, Southwest airlines’ over-arching purpose is stated as: “To provide the best service and lowest fares to the short haul, frequent-flying, point-to-point, non-interlining traveler.” This simple statement lets everyone know why Southwest Airlines is in business and whom it is there to serve.

However, in order to succeed, this understanding of service must permeate the organization and so it also becomes the role of the leader to:

Serve the people who are working to fulfill the over-arching purpose. This means providing the resources needed for people to do their jobs well and happily. It includes delivering needed training, supplies, connections, information, accommodation, direction and anything else that allows people working in the company to move the organization closer to the achievement of its purpose.

Encourage and develop an environment where people serve each other.  Where we can go wrong with this servant leadership thing is that we fail to expect all people working in the organization to serve too. Or, we simply don’t convey it very well.

Those who believe servant leadership to be a role only for the designated leader would be wrong. In truth, an environment that embraces service will do so in an all-encompassing way. This means that regardless of title or position, each person will both lead and serve another, or a group of others, to achieve company goals and make a contribution to the achievement of its purpose.

So, having said all that, what does it actually take to create this environment where service is king? Well, for what it’s worth, this is what I think about that.

It takes Discipline: Staying focused on the over-arching purpose and using it, as a guide for providing service to others is not easy. As humans, we can become easily distracted. It may be easy to stay the course and remain true to the purpose when times are good. But, when they are not so good, it becomes tempting to stray and do what is expedient instead.

It takes Humility: Putting others before ourselves is sometimes a challenge, especially in business, but humility is an essential ingredient in a successful service environment. I’m not talking about being obsequious here. I’m talking about simply being unselfish and mindful of others’ needs and contributions.

It takes Collaboration: Simply put, in order to serve the purpose and each other, we have to learn to work together, avoid internal politics and protectionism and share our ideas and resources with each other more freely.

It takes Trust: Trust is often an earned thing. However, a leader who serves the people will, in my view anyway, start from a platform of trust rather than skepticism. In my experience, people respond well to a leader who conveys faith in their intent. People who feel trusted are more likely to be willing to serve the over-arching purpose. Will you be disappointed? Yep, from time to time you will. But, if you start out not trusting my hunch is you’re going to be disappointed anyway.

And:

It takes Faith: I’m not talking about the religious kind of faith here. I’m talking about the kind of faith that makes you believe so strongly in your company’s purpose and its people that all of your activities centre around them and the financial results that you realize from that come as a by-product of your collective effort.

So, is servant leadership for the faint of heart? I’d say no. Is it about subservience, or slavery? Certainly not.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*Note: this post was originally published in 2010.

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Filed under communication, Customer Service, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, organizational Development

Feedback…Criticism or Opportunity?

Every once in a while, I like to get back to the basics.  The basics for me are always about people and how we relate to each other.  This post addresses giving and receiving feedback. I know, it is an old topic but I’ll stop talking about it when more of us get better at it. In the meantime, here it is…again.

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canstockphoto6447088“Feedback is the breakfast of Champions” or so says Ken Blanchard. But I’m wondering how many of us truly have an appetite for it.   After all, it has a way of feeling like bad news much of the time.

Why is that I wonder?  Well, first of all a very common view of feedback is this.  Feedback equals Criticism.

When I looked up the word criticism, here are some synonyms that greeted me…reprehend, censure, reprobate, condemn, denounce. Okay then, I can’t wait to get me some of that!

Often too, the experiences we have around performance management time can bring on an allergic reaction to feedback because, despite good intention, it is often delivered badly and received equally badly…a breakfast of champions complete with sour milk.

Perhaps, then, the task for all of us is to shift the perspective of feedback from one that equals criticism to one that equals opportunity.

So, where is the opportunity in both providing and receiving feedback?

For the Recipient there is opportunity:

For personal growth

We only see ourselves from the inside out.  The value of having others observe us and give us information about what they see helps us ‘round out’ our impression of ourselves.

To make positive change

Information about ourselves gives us a chance to make changes that have some personal meaning.  The hardest part about making change is the commitment it takes to sustain new behaviour.   Knowing why a change is important helps us to remain on course and raises the potential for experiencing positive results from our efforts.

For the Provider there is opportunity:

To build relationships that include trust

Feedback becomes a gift when it is presented sincerely and without judgment.  As well, when it is given as part of a conversation rather than a laundry list of things to fix, it is more palatable for the recipient and allows for deeper understanding on both sides.

To convey belief in the recipient’s capabilities & potential contribution

Giving feedback allows us to paint a picture of what we believe another is truly capable of and to shape our expectations around those beliefs.  If we simply demand a certain level of performance without inviting input or considering what people might need to make it possible, we will likely be met with resentment rather than interest.

Okay, so this might address some of the why for shifting a negative perspective of feedback to a more positive one (and there are doubtless more reasons for doing so as well) but it doesn’t speak to the how.  So here are a few thoughts on that:

As Providers of feedback, if we take the opportunity perspective we must:

Be clear about what we’re looking for

This means that if we are going to observe someone going about their work and then provide meaningful and useful information to them, both parties have to be focusing on the same things.  Feedback, after all, is comprised not of a single conversation but a series of conversations that lead to change and growth.

Make conversation and observation a daily habit

Sitting down with someone once a year to talk about performance and outcomes does not encourage an opportunity based perspective on feedback.  Instead, it becomes something one dreads.  Having daily conversations with people and making daily observations about their activities facilitates good and useful exchanges of information.

Avoid the “poop sandwich” approach

Who is not familiar with this?  Its starts with something positive; ends with something positive and then sandwiches the negative  you-know-what in between.  I personally don’t like this approach because it feels contrived.  And, by the way, no one is fooled by it.

As Recipients of feedback, in taking the opportunity perspective we must:

Participate in the conversation

In my experience, people who say nothing during a session that includes personal feedback can have plenty to say when the session is over, and to people who can only commiserate.  While this might feel good at the time, it really isn’t very helpful.  Participating in the conversation means asking questions.  It sometimes means disagreeing and challenging.  But it also means there is opportunity to understand as well as to be understood.  That alone has great value.

Take the view that feedback is as often positive as it is negative

Whenever someone says, “May I give you some feedback?”  It is tempting to say “Uh-Oh.  What have I done now?”

To be open to receiving feedback I think we must also do our best to wipe out the negative “tapes” that play between our ears about it.  In short, an open mind helps.

The truth is, these discussions are rarely easy.  They take thought, and work, by both parties.  And, because we have this tendency to equate feedback discussions with personal shortcoming, we avoid having them; wait to the last minute to have them; or rush through them in a way that does more harm than good.  I think shifting our perspective  away from criticism and toward opportunity might help

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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