New Leader Tuesday—Ideas to Help You Cure Feedback Fright

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsTuesdays at the Management Excellence blog are dedicated to those just starting out on their leadership journeys.

While the act of delivering constructive feedback doesn’t rank up there with the fear of public speaking (stage fright) or facing an IRS audit (just pure fear), too many managers…especially newly promoted first-timers avoid this activity because it makes them uncomfortable. Others use crutches like sandwiching or sugarcoating to calm their own fears, creating muddled messages in the process.

A good number of managers carry feedback fright with them throughout their careers, leaving a wake of under-developed, under-supported team members wondering what they might do better to strengthen their own performance and further their careers. When polling participants in workshops, one of the top wishes I hear is, “I wish my boss would give me more feedback.” Seriously. No one wishes for another IRS audit, but they want more feedback. Even the constructive (“you need to improve this”) kind.

It’s essential for you to learn to tame your emotions and control your feedback fright. Failure to overcome this issue will prove debilitating to your effectiveness as a manager. And frankly, it’s not so hard to resolve.

9 Ideas to Help Cure Yourself of Feedback Fright:

1. Remember, your team members are waiting for it. Read these words and believe them…after all, you read them on the internet: good people are hungry for feedback. Seriously. They’re waiting for it. They want input to help them raise their game.

2. Quit hesitating because you’re worried about the reaction you’re going to elicit. If properly constructed, delivered and managed, constructive feedback most often will elicit a positive response. Perhaps not immediately, but eventually. I’ve lost count of the times someone has thanked me and offered some variation of, “I’ve never heard that before,” or “No one ever mentioned that to me.” And while not all of these discussions go swimmingly, if executed properly, the majority will. Hey, nothing’s perfect!

3. Deliver feedback on observed behaviors not hearsay. Don’t get caught up in the “he said/she said” traps. Get out with your team members and observe them in action and offer feedback in near real time. If someone is suggesting aberrant behavior outside of your eye-sight, redouble your efforts to observe.

4. Always link the behavior to the business. If you make it personal, you’ll lose. If you link the behavior to the business, you’re operating on the side of goodness.

5. Plan your feedback discussions. Nothing strengthens performance like proper planning. Take time to think about the behaviors and business impact and then jot down your opening sentence. Practice the opening sentence to yourself a few times and then put it to work.

6. Get it just right with time, tone and temperament. As you approach the discussion, spend a few moments focusing on your objectives: a clear, concise and unemotional discussion leading to an action plan to improve. Feedback is best served in Goldilocks fashion. If it’s too hot…too emotionally turbocharged, it will be destructive. If it’s too cold…too old, it will be ineffective.

7. Don’t inventory the issues. The closer to the observed behavior you address the situation, the better the outcome and the better you’ll feel about these discussions. The worst feedback habit is waiting for the annual performance review and then backing up the dump truck and unloading. This won’t go well for either party.

8. Create a discussion, don’t deliver a monologue. Know that your goal in the discussion is to engage the receiver in developing ideas that he/she can put into action to strengthen or change the behavior in question. You don’t have to have all of the answers…you simply have to create the situation to jointly develop the answers.

9. Remember how to get to Carnegie Hall. OK, old, lame joke with a point. Passenger: ”Cab driver, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” Cabbie: “Practice, practice, practice.”

The Bottom-line for Now:

While there are a number of different and very important managerial tools to support behavior development and change, feedback is fundamental. Your feedback fright is best resolved by employing a number of good habits, starting with the recognition that your people are hungry for clear, meaningful and timely input on improving. By the way, so are you. Remember to be a great feedback receiver when it’s your turn.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Leadership Caffeine™—When It Comes to Toxic Employees, Don’t Hesitate

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

A few of the most contentious (and job threatening) moments in my career have come when I’ve gone to the mat on dealing with toxic employees. For a number of reasons…none of which are worth much, too many leaders hesitate when it comes to purging these radioactive waste products from their teams. If you’ve been rationalizing retaining one of those characters that creates fallout with every encounter, it’s important to recognize what you’re doing to everyone else and then to take action.

The toxic employee has a “special” knack of destabilizing groups, destroying trust between coworkers and stifling conversation and creativity in nearly every situation. This person is offensive…with the double-entendre intended, in their approach and with their presence. They attempt to manipulate the agenda to suit their own needs and they strive to suppress voices contrary to theirs.

Everyone knows this toxic worker. They dread sitting in meetings with him and they’ll do anything to avoid having to call upon this person for input. The toxic worker sucks the oxygen out of a room and ensures that brains and jaws snap-shut.

From an exaggerated fear of reprisal (typically unfounded legal reprisal) to the lame excuse of specialized knowledge or the equally lame fear of what competition will learn if they glom on to your “special” employee, the excuses to not act are consistent and weak. If you allow your business to be held hostage by a toxic person, well, I’m not optimistic about your chances for future success. You destroy your credibility as a leader and you most definitely will struggle retaining talent and inspiring people to do their best work. Oh, and I can think of nothing more enjoyable than this person spreading her radioactivity at my competitor!

If this questionable character is under your direct responsibility, your biggest challenge is avoiding falling into the “rationalize” trap described above. Recognize the character of this person for what it is and take all legal and procedural actions necessary to purge your team of this person. A well-run H.R. department will guide your actions to ensure compliance and accelerate outcomes. A poorly run H.R. department will be a giant block on this issue and you’ll need help from others with the power to help.

My own noteworthy battles on this topic have come when the toxic co-worker is under another executive’s charge. Without hire/fire authority, it’s an issue of moral suasion and/or negotiation. It gets sticky when the toxic worker’s executive suggests, “I kind of like having a bulldog in my group. It keeps everyone else on edge.” That executive was and is an ass, and I moved the issue upstream to the broader executive group. At the end of the day, this group voiced all the fears described above and a few more, but agreed that the individual in question displayed behaviors so far out of a reasonable interpretation of the firm’s values, that she had to go.

As outlined in my post on my own hiring mistakes, I’ve misread a few people and their characters. They did an excellent job projecting the persona I and we wanted to see. Once we discovered the real character of the individual, I had no qualms about admitting my mistake and taking fast action.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In every circumstance where I’ve had to remove the toxic employee I used up valuable political capital. In hindsight, I cannot think of a better way to have put this capital to work. It’s an investment that paid back principal and interest many times over from the hearts and minds of my high-character colleagues. When it comes to the toxic person on your team, don’t hesitate. The costs of waiting are unacceptably high.

Subscribe to the Leadership Caffeine Newsletter with subscriber only content. Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

 

High Performance Management—Courage and Business Transformation

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThe topic of transformation is a challenging one for all management teams. It’s not surprising that few muster the collective courage necessary to transform their organizations even in the face of sustained headwinds or looming crisis.

Certainly, there are different drivers behind the need for significant change. One very common and challenging situation arises when a firm comes face to face with its own impending irrelevance, often created by competitive disruption or technological obsolescence. Another scenario…the one I see most often in technology firms is the need to transform to support growth. Both offer their own unique challenges.

The first situation…impending obsolescence and a high probability of organizational death demands transformation on a major scale. The issues are fairly clear, and the adversary easily observed and studied. While some of the big decisions are obvious…shedding unprofitable endeavors, cutting costs etc. selecting the response or strategy that will postpone or eliminate impending doom is quite challenging. The art and science in this situation isn’t the financial management it’s the strategy and execution work.

In the second scenario, transforming to support scaling…to go from good to great or great to greater, the biggest adversary management teams face is overcoming the comfort of “incrementalism” and wrapping their brains and arms around the need to unite on and drive significant change. The overwhelming emotion for managers is to incrementally fix and tweak and tune what has been working versus taking action to reinvent. What’s needed are new functions, processes, systems and talent with a charter to go to new arenas, and what happens looks more like the duct-tape and flexi-hose repairs I use for sudden plumbing problems. I momentarily stem the crisis, but I don’t fix the systemic issue.

Having lived both of these scenarios in multiple technology businesses, I find the second situation, driving significant change while successful (albeit increasingly stymied by capacity, infrastructure and talent issues) to be the most vexing of the situations. There’s almost never a mandate to change and management teams solve small problems all the while the bigger machine begins to squeak and groan and then smoke. As efficiency and effectiveness decline and good opportunities in new markets or with new products go unrealized, management begins to flail and inevitably, the financials begin to move in the wrong direction.

Navigating and ideally, avoiding the squeaking, groaning and smoking phase takes incredibly strong senior leadership starting at the top with the CEO and carrying through the entire executive management team. In the circumstances where we got this right, the group was able to put ego and personal interest aside and focus collectively on what was right for the business over a longer horizon. The groups found a new performance gear, and while talk of risk and uncertainty dominated much of the dialog (and emotional atmosphere), the unrelenting focus on the need to help the business “Level-Up” defined the mission. There must be unanimity or talk of transformation remains just that.

Conversely, where the need was present but the work failed, these teams lacked the collective courage to consider the topic with anything more than lip-service. Talk of transformation in these cases is infused with politics, self-interest and the dialog if it even turns into that, is more an endless philosophical debate. Those seeking to derail this train are able to easily manipulate the agenda and a less-than-unified team lets it drop. In this case, the focus remains on tackling incremental issues versus systemic. It may work for awhile, but it eventually runs into the brick wall of reality.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you and your team have recognized the warning signs of your firm’s structural, capacity, strategic and human limitations, it’s important to begin framing and forming a discussion that looks beyond the symptoms to the underlying issues. The temptation is to attempt to reduce the symptoms with a variety of small fixes. The need is for the team to rethink what it needs to look and act like to ensure a profitable, healthy future. Don’t fight reality. Recognize that the inertial power of the status quo is strong. It takes extraordinary strength to move beyond how we do things today.

Subscribe to the Leadership Caffeine Newsletter with subscriber only content. Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

 

 

 

New Leader Tuesday—Learning from Your Communication Mistakes

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsTuesdays at the Management Excellence blog are dedicated to those just starting out on their leadership journeys.

You will make many communication mistakes in your formative role as someone responsible for the work of others. People are complex. The process of communicating with others is filled with opportunities for mistakes, misfires and misperceptions.  It takes time and more than a few mistakes to recognize your need to understand the communication preferences of your team members and to learn to tailor your approach.

4 Communication Lessons Learned the Hard Way:

1. Trying too Hard to Sound In-Charge. One first-time supervisor perceived that part of being in charge of the department meant showing strength with a commanding tone in all interactions. His brusque style was off-putting to a group that prided itself on team cohesion and a track record of great results. When apprised of the tension his style was creating he sat down with the group, apologized and adopted a more supportive and empathetic tone. He learned that being in charge didn’t mean that he had to sound in charge at all times.

2. Misjudging Communication Preferences of Your Team Members. Another common mistake is to misread the amount of communication interaction people desire from their supervisor. Ask an independent person too many questions on a regular basis and they will perceive you as micromanaging. Give another person ample space when they really desire regular contact and feedback, and you’ll be perceived as distant and uncaring. Pay attention to what works when communicating with your team members. Accelerate the process by asking about their preferences for contact and communication. They’ll be impressed that you cared enough to ask.

3. Abusing Feedback. Excessively sugar-coated or watered down feedback doesn’t help anyone. I see this problem regularly with new managers uncomfortable in delivering constructive feedback (i.e. the type that is driving for improvement). Instead of constructing a clear and crisp discussion that identifies the behavior, explains the implications of the behavior and invites a true discussion on how to improve it, they strive to make themselves comfortable by surrounding the message in praise and diluted terms. No one benefits from this type of feedback. (I am cringing as I write this, recalling a number of my early and awkward attempts at this process.)

If you are uncomfortable delivering constructive feedback, ask to attend a training course or seek out one of the many resources on feedback (including many posts at this blog) and practice making your positive and constructive feedback focused, specific and usable.

4. Unleashing a Torrent of Your Ideas. Another manager I coached was filled with ideas on how to improve departmental processes and work-flows and she was relentless in telling people how to change their work. She was quickly perceived as an overbearing micro-manager (no one loves this character) and people worked hard to avoid her. Once she became adept at asking team members for their ideas on how to streamline processes and asking “What if?” questions on her own ideas, the team began to respond with creativity and enthusiasm. She accomplished her desired results and gained team support and trust in the process with a simple shift from telling to asking.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

A mentor of mine once offered, “You’ll go far as you are able to communicate.” At the time, I thought it was an awkward phrase and I didn’t think much of it. Looking in the rear-view mirror of three decades of leading others, I wish I had tattooed it on my forearm the day he said it. Your ability to communicate with others…to appeal to their hearts and minds and engage their energy in pursuit of common goals is what your role is all about. Starting today and continuing everyday hereafter, focus on strengthening your ability to communicate with others. This critical skill will take you far.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Leadership Caffeine™ Are You Making Time for the Big Topics?

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

When it comes to the forward-looking issues around talent, team and strategy development, the uncomfortable answer to the question in the post headline for just about all of us (myself included) is, “Not enough.”

From CEOs to front-line supervisors, there’s a gravitational pull to the daily urgent and urgent-unimportant that keeps us from the meaty and meaningful work of leading and planning.

Ask someone to shadow you for a day and then report on what they saw, and I suspect their description will focus on you flitting from one issue and brief encounter and meeting to another.

While there’s no doubt that the best leaders teach on-the-fly as they engage with team members, there are components of the role that require concentration and deeper thinking and dialog than the daily transactions. Coaching, feedback and professional development are the items most frequently sacrificed on the altar of time-pressures and they’re typically reserved for the annual performance evaluation…a poor substitute for regular, quality discussions. Taking time to work on strategy is also compartmentalized to a limited number of discussions, typically around the horrid annual offsite that tends to serve as the time for strategy.

In most of our days, there’s little time for us to think deeply about our work, our people or our business, and there’s little time for us to engage with individuals or teams in meaningful dialog about performance, growth and direction. And while we all get a strong vote in how we spend our time, there’s an almost addiction like quality to the pursuit of our more transactional activities.

A few years ago, I was engaged to coach a senior sales executive. His CEO was concerned about the lack of forward-planning for team, talent and strategy, and he asked me to shadow him for a few days.

After observing the sales executive in action, I asked him when he found time to focus on strategy and talent development for his team. His thoughtful and honest answer was, “I don’t. I enjoy the thrill of the daily hunt for business.”

I appreciated his honesty however, with that type of focus, it was clear he was the wrong person to be in a senior sales executive role. His priorities better fit the regional sales leader. We moved him to a role where he excelled in guiding the hunt for a smaller group and replaced him with someone focused on developing talent and refining and driving strategy execution at an organizational level.

My biggest gripe on the short-term preoccupation is reserved for the CEOs who are supposed to but mostly fail to model the right leadership behaviors as part of building their firm’s culture and future. We’re prone to mimicking the behaviors of those with power and influence and if the top boss doesn’t place a premium on either the developmental or forward looking strategy issues, than neither will her direct reports. It cascades downhill.

It’s Time to Make a Change:

Whether the deficit in your quality time with team members around development or planning is one of omission or commission, you can make changes in your approach and activities and move towards a better balance for everyone involved. Here are 4 ideas to support your effort to regain the high ground on the critical leadership and planning issues.

4 Ideas to Help You Increase Your Time Focused on the Big Topics of Developing Talent and Strategy:

1. Build the Time In to Your Calendar. While this is a bit of the “Captain Obvious,” it amazes me how few people actually block time in their calendars to allow for development and strategy work. The worst offenders are those who allow their calendars to be managed by others…either directly or indirectly through the endless scheduling of status meetings. Time is YOUR most valuable asset…act like you own your own schedule and set your priorities.

2. Measure Your Time Investment in Development and Planning Discussions. We all know that what gets measured gets done. One senior team established a time-target for development and strategy work and we’re evaluated on their performance versus the time targets. While there was no effective way to measure the quality of the time invested, the genuine accountability to report back on time and activities kept the issues front and center. To an executive, they did the same for their direct reports. It cascades downhill.

3. Let Your Team Members Own the Developmental Discussions. While slightly in contrast with my plea in #1 above to take control of your time, I observed a senior manager who shifted the accountability for regular scheduling of development discussions to her direct reports. In this case, it worked brilliantly. The direct reports developed a heightened sense of their own need to do the heavy lifting for their own professional development and would schedule time with the senior manager that turned out to be more mentoring than performance feedback. In this case, it worked.

4. Introduce “Future View” Discussions into Your Regular Meeting Routine. One CEO economized on his operations meeting agenda and added a “Future View” discussion to each monthly session. Participants were required to report back at the monthly session on issues, trends or ideas stimulated by customer input or observation or study of the broader bigger business landscape and market forces. She required every participant to come armed with one observation and to address it in the form of three questions:

  1. How might this issue/observation change everything for us, our industry and customers?
  2. Specifically, what does it mean for us?
  3. What if anything should we do about it.

The rich discussions blossomed into a separate quarterly strategy review where the firm’s strategy was vetted against the key trends and observations. They broke the back of talking about external factors once per year by introducing a simple, but not simplistic technique.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

It takes effort to move beyond the issues immediately in front of us and focus on important, albeit more abstract topics like talent development and strategy. The mistake too many of us make is never pulling ourselves away from the urgent. The daily work is never done. However, the time invested in helping people grow and challenging and checking your assumptions about the external world is the time investment that pays real dividends for your efforts. Manufacture the time to talk about the big issues. You’ll be glad you did.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.