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Seeing Problems as Solutions

Of all the truisms in the world, one that ranks high on most lists is – stuff happens!  Sometimes it’s because people screw things up.  Sometimes it’s because things screw up people. Other times, it’s hard to tell who or what screwed things up, and yet other times, it’s just one of those things.

Whatever the cause may be, it’s inevitable that something will go wrong sometime, somehow, somewhere, despite even the most vigilant preventive measures to safeguard against “stuff happening.”  Most of the time, people eventually get past their upset and search for ways to solve the problem, but how successfully they do that depends on a couple of key conditions:

  1. How much time they waste and how much damage they do in fault-finding and finger-pointing
  2. How open they are to seeing a potential solution in the problem itself

Handling Problems with People
When people are at the root of a mistake, reactions and repercussions can run the gamut from sympathetic to scathing and everything in between.  Given the nature of human beings and the natural desire to fix things when they go wrong, the most constructive and productive response is to treat people NOT as the cause of the problem, but rather as the source of the solution.

Here’s why.  When people are treated as the cause of a problem, they experience a range of debilitating emotions – especially defensiveness.  Assuming the person who caused the flub is perhaps in a good position to help solve it, how can they possibly do their best work when they’re feeling defensive?  On the flip side, if people feel like they are viewed as a positive solution, they are more eager to assume responsibility for fixing the problem, not to mention more likely to make things right.

Handling Problems with Situations
When a situation is at the heart of a problem, it can trigger an alarmist response that makes it difficult to explore an effective range of solutions.  A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, entitled “Find Innovation Where You Least Expect It,” offers a compelling example.

When the Titanic struck an iceberg that doomed more than 1,500 passengers to an icy death, it appears that no one considered the iceberg itself not just a hazard, but a potential safe haven  – a 400-foot long floating island where life boats might have ferried virtually everyone on board.  In part, that’s because it was viewed as the cause of the disaster, instead of a possible source of the solution.

Psychologists have a name for that kind of “blindness” to offbeat and counterintuitive ways of looking at how things work – functional fixedness.  When it comes to problem-solving in the business world, most organizations are caught in an array of mental biases that limit people’s views on how to survive and thrive, especially in the midst of a crisis.

To overcome functional fixedness, the authors of the HBR article offer a method for changing how an object is described by breaking things down to their elemental components, using what they call a “generic parts technique.”

With any given item, they ask two questions: “Can it be broken down further?” and “Does our description imply a particular use?” If the answer to either question is yes, you keep breaking down the elements to their most basic descriptions. If you are in urgent need of a string, for example, using this technique can help you see a candle as a source of the solution because you’re not stuck in the functional fixedness of seeing the wick solely as something you burn to give light or create a romantic mood.

Not all solutions can be found in the problems themselves, but organizations can gain at least two substantial benefits if they start the recovery effort by focusing on that possibility. First, when employees mess up, they will be in a better state of mind to rectify their own mistakes if they’re not looking over their shoulder worrying if they’re going to get chewed out or fired.  Second, when a crisis strikes, people are less likely to be seized by an alarmist reaction that clouds their ability to look more expansively and creatively at an array of solutions to the problem.

How do you create a culture where people are viewed as solution sources?  We help management kick-start the process with our Accelerated Continuous Improvement program. For more information, send us an e-mail or call us today at 314-664-6497

Shifting from Servant to Shared Leadership

For years now, servant leadership has been touted as a seminal model for modern day management.  It’s easy to see why when you consider how a servant leader is characterized – as someone who “makes sure that other people’s highest priority needs are served first, who shares power, and who helps people perform as highly as possible.” What’s not to like about that?

Time to Move On
At the risk of spouting heresy, the notion of servant leadership – as affirming as it sounds – may have served its purpose and passed its prime as an enlightened form of workplace culture.  The reason for its attraction is rooted in an elemental aversion to old-school leaders who tend to hoard power and act like dictators.  Traditional command and control doesn’t work well for at least two obvious reasons.  First, it often crushes the spirit of the workforce. Second, it usually kills the initiative to pursue any semblance of innovation and improvement.

Let’s accept for a moment that most people these days are reasonably clear on that reality, and few managers are hard-nosed power mongers.  For the most part, they are trying to be more open and engaging – they just aren’t doing it particularly well.  With today’s workforce, though, the solution to those shortcomings does NOT lie in helping managers be better at “serving” the people who report to them.  It lies in abandoning the paternalistic notion that it’s a leader’s role to serve “lower level minions,” and shifting instead to a self-management model where leadership is shared with everyone serving one another as equal partners in a joint enterprise.

If that sounds too much like a socialist movement that’s out of step with hard-core capitalism, take a look at one company that has implemented shared leadership and self-management with astonishing success.  Located in California, The Morning Star Company is not just the world’s largest manufacturer of bulk tomato products.  When it comes to leadership and management methods, they are pace-setters and mold-breakers of the first order.

What’s the Difference?
For starters, the company has no managers.  None.  Nada.  Nowhere to be found.  All employees are interdependent parts of a genuinely collaborative venture that relies on each person taking individual responsibility for aligning his or her role with other co-workers and the needs of the overall business.  Here’s how Morning Star describes its self-management system on the company website:

“We envision self-managing professionals who initiate communication and coordination of their activities with fellow colleagues, customers, suppliers and fellow industry participants, absent directives from others. For colleagues to find joy and excitement utilizing their unique talents and to weave those talents into activities which complement and strengthen fellow colleagues’ activities. And for colleagues to take personal responsibility and hold themselves accountable for achieving our Mission.”

Mighty highfalutin words, right?  Sounds like the kind of thing a lot of companies aspiring to employ progressive management practices would claim about themselves. At Morning Star, though, it’s more than mere words.  The difference is apparent in the structures by which the enterprise is organized and the methods by which it operates.  It’s also apparent in the depth of employee sentiment about their company and the personal responsibility each person assumes for its success.

If you’d like to learn more about how Landes & Associates can help you implement systems and processes that foster greater shared leadership, click the link below for a short video clip.

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The empowerment myth

A funny thing happened on the way to employee empowerment.  More sad than funny really, but here’s the truth.  It’s mainly a myth in most organizations that claim to believe in it.

A Dilbert cartoon from several years ago cuts to heart of the disconnect between what managers say they want and how they react when employees take the initiative to do something out of the ordinary.  In a nutshell, the pointy-headed boss tells employees he wants them to act more like “entrepreneurs.”  When they ask him if they can do specific things that typify entrepreneurship, the boss says no to each question for predictable and pretentious reasons.

Let’s Get Real 
Truth is, managers are happy to see employees go above and beyond – as long as those actions don’t wander outside the cocoon of their comfort zone.  When people try to “think outside the box” or “take ownership,” command and control often rears its ugly head, and managers scramble to corral the renegades so they don’t roam too far afield.

Then guess what happens in the kind of culture when pointy-headed bosses ask employees to step up with ideas for how to make things work better?  Here are some things you’ll hear them saying:

  • They’re not really serious
  • They won’t do anything with it
  • The last time I suggested something, they said thanks but no thanks
  • No one really cares for my opinion
  • My ideas are too small to make a difference
  • It’s not my job, and I’m too busy doing my regular work
  • I might get in trouble

You get the picture – and here’s what makes the challenge even more difficult. It’s not hard to see why managers resort to command and control – and their dreaded twin, micro-management – in the first place.  It’s called survival. They need the security of predictable results in order to keep their own butts out of the sling. One slip, one bad quarter, one poor production cycle, and they’re in trouble – at least that’s what they fear.  That’s why the words and actions of employee empowerment and engagement have to be aligned and real top-down, bottom-up, middle-out and sideways.

Moving Beyond Lip Service
Getting to that level of reality takes the right mind-set, the right heart-set and the right systems and processes for imbedding effective engagement principles and practices into day-to-day operations.  The journey takes patience, persistence and trust, but the cost of sticking with command and control and micro-management can be very high indeed when you consider how employees often respond to it:

  • People are more likely to do what they’re told – right or wrong
  • They won’t take the initiative to use “good judgment”
  • They’ll rarely, if ever, offer ideas for improvement
  • They sometimes take secret pleasure in seeing things fail
  • You drive away your best talent – every time

It’s also easy to see the impact of that kind of culture on a company’s connection with the marketplace.  When employees don’t feel trusted to do the right thing on their own initiative, it deadens their drive for going the extra mile to take care of the customer.

Here’s a quote from the classic business book, The Customer Comes Second, by Hal Rosenbluth that captures that connection perfectly: “Only when people know what it feels like to be first in someone else’s eyes can they sincerely share that feeling with others.  We’re not saying choose your people over your customers.  We’re saying focus on your people first because of your customers. That way, everybody wins.”

It doesn’t get much more real than that.

If you want to learn more about how to make empowerment and engagement the “real deal” in your organization, click on the following link for a short video clip, and we’ll show you how to get there.

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Never waste a good problem

I’ve always struggled with the notion that the mark of a great company is doing things right the first time every time.  First of all, it can’t be done.  Second, when things inevitably go wrong in that kind of culture, people often get upset, stressed out and too eager to find and punish the “guilty party.” That’s not exactly the kind of environment that fosters the experimentation and calculated risk-taking needed for continuous improvement and innovation.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t TRY to get it right the first time.  That would be idiotic. I also realize that the margin for error in some enterprises must be virtually zero. No one wants to learn how to fly a plane safer from a crash that kills hundreds of people.  Nevertheless, most businesses stand to gain a lot from realizing that perfection isn’t possible, and the most constructive thing to do is figure out how to never waste a good problem.

There’s Gold in those Mistakes
Companies obsessed with always getting it right the first time undervalue two huge opportunities. For starters, every miscue is a learning opportunity – a chance to pinpoint a root cause issue and improve a process that’s not working at peak performance.

Here’s another somewhat surprising benefit.  According to research conducted by the Technical Assistance Research Program (TARP), a customer who complains and is satisfied with the resolution is 30% more loyal than someone who doesn’t complain.  They’re 50% more loyal than a complainant who isn’t satisfied with how their complaint was handled. Now, here’s the real kicker.  Customers who complain and are satisfied with the resolution are 8% more loyal than if they had no problem in the first place.

Think about what that means.  Here are two big implications from the TARP research:

    1. Instead of blowing a fuse over a problem or a complaint, treat it like a gift because it offers a chance to fix a process and boost customer loyalty all at once.
    2. If you want to optimize the potential of unhappy customers, make it easy for people to complain. Even more, set up a mechanism to proactively pursue complaints. Instead of treating the customer service team as a tool to keep customers happy so they don’t bail out, think of them as an actual profit center that can increase operating performance and business results.

Change the Mindset – Change the Process
Getting the most from that approach starts with thinking differently about how customer service works with the rest of the organization. Making that shift requires a specified process for directing complaints immediately to the people who can get at the root cause of the problem.  If complaints are handled as isolated incidents, and the main goal is merely making people happy, you could wind up with a lot of pricey fixes that never go away. Most organizations understand that premise instinctively, yet the mechanisms for turning complaints into systemic improvements is often sluggish and convoluted, and laced with tension and friction.

Put Your HEART in Service
Another important factor in making the most out of complaints is how they are handled with the customer.  We advocate the HEART method:

  • Hear the customer out
  • Empathize by expressing understanding and appreciation for how they feel
  • Apologize for the problem
  • Reassure them that you will take care of the matter, and tell them what you’re going to do
  • Take responsibility for resolving the issue quickly, and don’t transfer the call unless it’s unavoidable

One way to embrace the value of problems and complaints is to think of them as a feeder source for a systematic continuous improvement process that includes input from both customers and employees that you actively seek on a routine basis.

Just like customers, employees face problems that often turn into complaints, and they respond in a variety of ways.  Sometimes they just suck it up, and say what the hell – that’s par for the course.  Sometimes, they find work-arounds and short-cuts to circumvent the core problem because it’s easier and faster than trying to go through the red tape of getting it fixed systemically.

If you want employees and customers to come forward with problems and complaints that lead to sustainable root-cause solutions on a regular basis, you need to make improvement part of everyday operations.  It must be an imbedded, routine process, and you need to treat complaints and problems as the essential “fuel” to make it run.

So set your anxiety aside and “love” your problems. You’ll get a lot more input and a lot more improvement a lot more quickly – not to mention a lot less complaining about complaints.

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Want to learn more about a systemic approach to help you think outside the employee suggestion box? Check out our free webinar. Then give us a call and we’ll show you how to get employees tuned in, turned on and eager to go above and beyond.

Why NOT to Conduct an Employee Engagement Survey

With all of the fervor that organizations have around employee engagement surveys, how many of them ever stop to take a deep, serious look at why they’re doing them?  Even more to the point, why should organizations consider NOT doing them?

Here’s one good reason.

Don’t even think about conducting an engagement survey unless you plan to do something substantive and meaningful with the information your employees have given you. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize it’s usually counter-productive to ask someone their opinion if you don’t have a sincere interest in responding to what they have to say.

Employees want to know you’re genuinely interested in their opinions and that you are not simply conducting a survey so the company can give the appearance that “they care.” If people feel you’ve falsely raised their hopes and wasted their time in asking for their opinion without a plan of action from what you learn, they are unlikely to participate next time around or give thoughtful responses if they do.

Organizations can take several steps throughout the survey process to develop confidence and trust with employees. These steps are especially important if people feel that previous surveys have done little to improve the work environment.

Before the survey:

  • Explain the survey’s purpose and expectations
  • Describe how participation will benefit both the employee and the organization
  • Identify the survey provider you are working with, and outline the methods and process they will follow to protect the employee’s identity
  • Introduce the survey with timeframes for what will happen and when
  • Develop a plan for how you will evaluate results and consider corrective actions

After the survey:

  • Communicate survey findings while the survey is still fresh in the employee’s mind
  • Review results in structured discussion sessions – don’t send results in an e-mail or present them at a town hall meeting
  • Involve employees in planning how to use the findings
  • Implement action plans to make indicated changes and improvements
  • Evaluate results of action plans
  • Report on what has worked and what hasn’t worked with improvement efforts, and describe adjustments that will be made

Finally, be sure to work with a professional service that doesn’t just simply pull standard questions off the shelf. It takes thoughtful customization to get a survey right for your individual culture. If you’re looking for a first-rate survey firm to help you do it right, contact Opinions Incorporated, and they’ll help you make sure that employees feel it was genuinely worth their while to participate.

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Creating a habit for improvement and innovation.

If there’s one thing you can count on with human beings, it’s our innate desire for things to improve.  We want today to be better than yesterday, and tomorrow to be better than today.  For organizations with a zeal for innovation and continuous improvement, that should be very good news. Just tap into our DNA, right?

But not so fast.  Truth is, people are a curious mixture of colorful contradictions that makes improvement less natural and more challenging than avid innovators would like.  On one hand, we’re just like all other living creatures on the planet – marching to the beat of the program that dictates what we do to ensure our survival.   The highest priority in the animal world is doing what’s safe and predictable, not exploring new worlds and taking the risks that are inherent in striving for innovation.  Animals only step out of their survival patterns when they’re enticed or forced.

People are Creatures of Habit…and More
On the other hand, humans have a counterbalancing force that makes us want to fly to the moon and beyond.  It starts with free will, our singular human power to ignore our animal program and choose to do something altogether different. Along with that ability, we also possess the unique quality of imagination – the capacity to conceive of things that exist only in the mind and not in the natural world.

Taken together, those two extraordinary gifts – imagination and free will – make up a compelling force that propels human beings to amazing feats of creation. It’s also the main driver behind our intrinsic desire for things to be constantly improving.

BUT … that special spark only flourishes as long as it doesn’t jeopardize our survival.  That comes first, and the way we tend to guarantee survival is through predictable processes that have kept us safe in the past. In the end, humans are creatures of habit like other animals – and for good reason. Going back to cave man days, we rely on those habits to keep us alive.

Striking the Right Balance
So here we are with this puzzling duality.  We desire innovation on one hand … status quo on the other.  Differentiation on one hand … conformity on the other.  Adventure and discovery on one hand … safety and security on the other. It’s a constant tug-of-war that’s both thrilling and threatening.

When it comes to individual human beings, every person decides how much of those two competing forces they can manage in their lives.  We are continually striving to strike the optimal balance across the wide spectrum between unbridled exploration and drone-like repetition.

For organizations, things become more complicated. The need for processes and habits to ensure predictability, consistency and control is even more vital for a group’s survival. Otherwise, chaos can set in.  Innovation and continuous improvement are also essential, or you run the risk of being left behind making buggy whips while your competition is building a spacecraft.  So how do you manage those dual demands and do both at the same time?  It comes back to habits and processes.

Break a Habit with a New Habit
The renowned scientist and inventor, Buckminster Fuller, once said, “Don’t fight forces, use them.” So if humans are naturally creatures of habit, here’s the key.  In order to get people engaging constantly in innovation and improvement, you need to create a habit for breaking the habit of doing things the same way over and over again.  You have to overlay existing work processes with a meta-process that leverages the energy of imagination and free will through an imbedded routine of constantly challenging the status quo.

If you want to learn more about how to do that, check out our free webinar that describes two core processes for making continuous improvement as routine as turning on the light switch or cranking up the machinery.

Whatever method you choose to use, it’s imperative to beware of the fatal “program trap.” You can’t use a one-off suggestion program or periodic activity that merely “encourages” employees to come up with new ideas.  It has to be systemic, intentional, habitual and built into the fabric of day-to-day operations.  Otherwise, the animal in our nature will keep us from ever realizing the full potential of what we can accomplish when we’re free to be fully human.

Want to learn more about our Accelerated Continuous Improvement program? Contact us today by e-mail or call 314-664-6497.

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Making accountability constructive.

Years ago I came up with a phrase to help people respond constructively when they run into trouble dealing with their coworkers:

Always treat people as the source of the solution,
not the cause of the problem.

That maxim has profound implications for employee engagement – and how people show up when they relate to customers. I often encourage clients to write it on a post-it note and stick on their computer or their desk or anywhere else in plain view every day.

Beyond Accountability’s Bad Rap
Of course, seeing the words all the time is one thing. Applying the concept competently and consistently is quite another. One of the obstacles to embracing it fully is a misguided notion about what constitutes effective accountability. Research shows that about 80% of employees view accountability as a form of punishment for bad behavior or poor performance. Little wonder it’s so challenging to make it a positive and widely applied practice in the workplace.

Here’s another obstacle. Rigid disciplinarians often think treating people as the source of the solution for failures and foibles is just a way to mollycoddle a “problem child” who really oughta’ get a good lickin’. If there’s any place at all for that that kind of discipline, it should be reserved for bullies who use accountability as a club. Truth is, the vast majority of employees really want to do a good job, and instead of raising fear, accountability should be grounded in a systematic, constructive mechanism to support people in delivering on their intentions and agreements.

6 Elements of “People-Friendly” Accountability
Here are some guidelines for designing an accountability mechanism that people will embrace:

  1. Clear and credible expectations for both actions and outcomes from the outset. If the goal line is fuzzy or it seems unattainable, the entire accountability process is fatally flawed and almost surely doomed to failure.
  2. Systematic ongoing tracking of outcomes and core drivers. Without consistent, reliable data and information, performance evaluation often comes down to interpretation and guesswork.
  3. Regular check points and milestones to assess completion and quality of actions and outcomes. If you don’t keep a constant eye on how you’re doing and how well you’re doing it, you can stray off course in a heartbeat.
    – Automated alerts can help remind people of deadlines without needing a supervisor to look over their shoulder and make sure tasks are getting completed.- Having peer-level “accountability partners” can provide nonthreatening encouragement and support for staying on task.
  4. Alignment on required adjustments. If you find you’re off the mark, recalibrate plans or actions and set new agreements. 
  5. Review of actions and outcomes following agreed upon adjustments. Check again. Don’t assume adjustments will be made as planned or produce the desired results. 
  6. Informal “well-being” checks. Looking in on people periodically to see how they’re doing is an opportunity to reinforce good progress and clear away obstacles that may be getting in the way.

Consider the Consequences
Realistically, even the most constructive approach to accountability occasionally requires some form of disciplinary action. Perhaps surprisingly, that’s when you need to apply the “source of the solution” principle most of all. What? You mean it’s still not time to take ’em out to the woodshed? It all depends on your main goal.

If what you want is highly developed, responsible employees, consider what normally happens when you treat people as the cause of the problem rather than the source of the solution:

  1. They get defensive, and very few people do their best work when they’re feeling vulnerable and self-protective.
  2. It weakens their sense of empowerment in taking action and ownership for “making things right.”
  3. It sends a chilling signal to other employees that mistakes and missteps are not tolerated, which often stifles initiative, creativity and innovation.

Now, if your main goal is to satisfy your appetite for reckoning, and you still believe that fear is the best motivator, then by all means go ahead and take a hard-nosed approach to accountability. Be sure to let me know how that works for you in the long run.

Want to learn more about constructive accountability? Contact us today by e-mail or call 314-664-6497.

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A blinding flash of the obvious

With all the emphasis these days on the power and purpose of employee engagement for business success, it’s hard to imagine how organizations have persisted so long with the soul-sucking, anxiety-provoking, bias-ridden, team-spoiling practices of the traditional performance appraisal process. Any guess how I really feel about the subject?

Companies Finally Hearing the Cries for Change?

Sound-minded authors of countless books and articles over the past 20 years or more have decried the old methods as essentially useless and even damaging to both people and business.  One of the best is Abolishing Performance Appraisals written by Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins 15 years ago. Yet somehow, the tried and not-so-true annual review with its characteristic rating game has continued to dominate the performance management landscape.

But maybe – hopefully – its day are numbered.  We actually may be reaching a true tipping point on the dreaded performance review universally disliked by employees and supervisors alike.  This past month, two highly regarded magazines published articles on why the old appraisal process is not working and, more importantly, what some organizations are doing to replace it.

Deloitte Ditches Ratings to Focus on Strengths

The Harvard Business Review ran a piece entitled, “Reinventing Performance Management” written by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. Buckingham has numerous books to his credit, including Find Your Edge and Win at Work.  Goodall is the director of development at Deloitte Services, whose new performance management system is the centerpiece of the article.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Despite years of recognizing the severe shortcomings of Deloitte’s old review system, the need for change didn’t crystallize until they found that completing the forms, holding the meetings and creating the ratings consumed close to 2 million hour a year.
  • A study with 4,492 managers revealed that 62% of the variance in ratings was due to peculiarities of perception in the individual raters.  Actual performance accounted for only 21% of the variance. How’s that for rater bias and inequity?
  • Deloitte ultimately decided the main focus should be not on rating people, but helping them use and build on their strengths.  Toward that end, they have ditched the annual review, and replaced it with quarterly or per-project performance “snapshots” and weekly check-ins between employees and their supervisors.

Reviews the Wrong Way Chase Talent Away

In the same month, HR Magazine published “Reinventing Reviews” written by Dori Meinert. The article features numerous people from academia and corporate America, denouncing the traditional appraisal and spotlighting new processes that focus on positive growth and development for all employees.

Here are some notable insights from the article:

  • At Adobe Systems, right after review time each year when they used the old rating system, they saw a “disturbing spike in voluntary turnover as disheartened employees – many of them good workers – left the company.” People were told they were “exceptional” when they were hired, but now a year later, relative to their peers, they were only “average.”  As one manager put it, “That doesn’t feel good.” No kidding.
  • The company concluded that instead of giving everyone a chance to make an impact, the old process was pitting person against person, undermining their efforts to be more team-oriented.
  • Part of the problem goes back to the “rank-and-yank” policy popularized by General Electric’s Jack Welch in the 1980s to constantly weed out the bottom 10 percent of employees.  Recognizing the anxiety it produced and the cost of replacing good people they were losing, the practice was phased out about a decade ago.

None of this shift in thinking about how to get the best from employees and how to help them grow and develop should come as a surprise to anyone with a lick of sense about human nature.  Still, sometimes even a blinding flash of the obvious takes a while to get people’s attention.  Now it’s time to put the final nail in the coffin of the old appraisal process, and seize the opportunity to turn this burgeoning awareness into a full-fledged revolution that’s a win-win for employees and employers alike.

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We can help you turn the dreaded annual performance review
into a win-win process that employees enjoy getting
and supervisors enjoy giving.  Contact us today by e-mail
or call 314-664-6497 to learn more about our

Performance Development Process

It’s Not About the Nail

Have you ever experienced a scenario that goes something like this?  Someone comes to you and tells you about a problem they’re having.  You listen for a while, and you assume that they’re looking for feedback, some advice on how to deal with the situation.  What’s more, you’re pretty sure you have a good solution.  So you share your wisdom to help them out.

Naturally, they jump for joy and throw their appreciative arms around you, right?  Not so much.  In fact, instead of their face lighting up and showering you with gratitude, your advice lands with a thud.  Worse than that, you may even get feedback that you’re not really getting it.  If it’s a co-worker, you may get a “thanks-anyway.” If it’s your spouse, you might have a fight on your hands.  Either way, they turn around and do the exact opposite of what you suggested.

What’s up with that, anyway?

Open Your Ears and Zip Your Lips
Here’s the deal.  Sometimes people just need to know that you’re LISTENING and you’re sympathetic to what they’re facing.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  I’ve harped for years that a person’s ears are the most important communication tool of all.  Still, people continue to tout the importance of creating the right message, effective storytelling, on and on with a persistent emphasis on the quality of what we send out instead of what we take in.  Listening is the ultimate communication art, and people are generally not very good at it – including many communication professionals who often get caught in the message-making trap.

Listen Like a Mirror
That said, you don’t have to shut your mouth entirely when someone comes to you with a concern.  Instead, you need to hone your “reflective listening” skills.  If you’re not familiar with the term, you can probably guess what good reflective listening looks like.  In a nutshell, it comes down to two main steps:

  1. Listening closely to what a person is saying, and observing actions and cues that might provide a deeper understanding of the issues the person is facing.
  2. Repeating back what you heard to confirm your understanding, and expressing sympathy.

What?  No solution? No fixes?  No – not unless and until the person asks you for it.  Even then, tread lightly and be wary about how far you go with your advice.  That’s hard for most people to do.  Why? Because we think the most valuable thing we can offer is a solution to the problem. It’s counterintuitive to think that your greatest value might simply be as a sympathetic sounding board.

Still not convinced?  Take a look at this very short … very funny … very enlightening video clip called “It’s not about the nail.”  If that doesn’t give you a wake-up call … then you need to spend some more time in listening class.

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Like one-handed clapping

I always get a chuckle when clients tell me, “What we need around here is more two-way communication.” I sometimes ask them, “What other kind is there?”

The typical response is something like, “You know – all the memos, e-mails, presentations, announcements, policies, instructions, directives – one-way stuff like that.” To which I reply, “Oh, you mean message distribution. My mistake. I thought you were talking about communication.”

It’s a bit cheeky, but it usually gets people’s attention. Truth be told, most people operate with the misguided notion that when they send out messages, they’re actually communicating. Just listen to how frequently people use the word “communicate” as a transitive verb, and you get the picture. For example, “As soon as we get the strategic plan done, we need to communicate it TO employees.” Fact is, the only legitimate way to communicate is WITH someone, not TO them.

Connectivity is Key
Why is that distinction so crucial? Organizations must shift away from the fundamentally flawed notion that sending out messages – however well crafted – is the same as communicating. Otherwise it’s impossible to achieve the connectivity that the “central nervous system” of organizational communication should be designed to provide.

That is not an off-handed metaphor. In day-to-day operation, an organization is similar to the human body. If the signals that travel throughout the “body” are blocked or distorted, its ability to function is diminished. What’s more, those signals have to travel in all directions to maintain systemic health, not just top down. In a truly healthy organization – just like a healthy body – “information” flows up, down and sideways.

Building on that analogy, effective employee engagement requires a shift in communication from diatribe to dialogue, from conversion to conversation, from persuasion to acceptance, from influence to integration, from crafting messages to building relationships … from doing it TO ‘em to doing it WITH ‘em.

Don’t Leave it to the Professionals
Making that shift requires a basic change in mindset. Organizations must embrace the counterintuitive realization that communication is too important to be left solely in the hands of professional communicators.

Here’s why. Most of the communication that takes place in organizations has little to do with the messages that communicators create and the media they manage. It’s the day-to-day, minute-by-minute exchange of information between every employee that dictates how well an organization performs.

Based on that premise, the top priority of professional communicators should be to help equip everyone in the organization to handle that daily communication effectively. It’s also their responsibility to develop and imbed systems, tools and processes that provide the infrastructure for communication to serve effectively as the central nervous system of the organization, rather than a bullhorn for management messages and mandates.

Making the shift also requires rethinking the qualities of a “great communicator.” Most people think it’s about being articulate, inspiring, clear, confident, a great presenter and public speaker, etc. They believe it’s about the ability to say the right things in the right way at the right time. Rarely do I hear anyone say the most important quality is to be a great listener.

Use Your Ears More than Your Mouth
Most people can learn to be a good message sender with enough training. What epitomizes the truly great communicators is their ability to LISTEN – to deeply, profoundly, empathetically HEAR what people have to say. Along with that, it requires humility, openness, empathy, caring, respect, and similar qualities that seldom jump to mind when we think of great leaders.

There’s an old adage that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason – we’re supposed to listen twice as much as we talk. The way I look at it, one-way communication is an oxymoron. It’s like one-handed clapping. You may move the air around, but you rarely make a connection. Bottom line – it’s pointless.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” One good way to make sure it does take place is to stop sending messages and start making connections.

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