Leadership Caffeine™—Are You Driving Your Team Bananas?

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveFair warning—watch out ahead for excessive use of alliteration and the massacre of more than a few innocent metaphors.

What I really wanted to call this post was, “Quit Acting Like a Hyper-Rooster.” It’s much more visual, and after all, does anyone really want to look or act like a hyper-rooster? Yet, that’s exactly what too many managers act and look like, as they simultaneously strut and flit around the office or plant, moving from activity to activity, focusing on everything and nothing and making their colleagues dizzy and disoriented in the process.

These over-caffeinated and self-anointed drivers of productivity falsely believe that constant pushing and oversight followed by more pushing are all essential. They subscribe to an old model of motivation—one that depended upon unwavering immersion in the act of “supervising” the work of others. The underlying belief is that people who are watched and/or, who are constantly goaded into action actually outperform those left to their own designs.

There’s the un-trusting, “you’re likely screwing off if I’m not here, so I’m going to incessantly look over your shoulder,” form of this “hyper-rooster syndrome.” And then there’s the falsely noble but every bit as destructive form of constantly “touching base” or “checking in” which fools no one. A third incarnation is the manager who resets priorities every time the wind changes direction, creating a maelstrom of motion but killing any chance of productive performance. I’ve encountered a few managers who regularly hit the trifecta in displaying these horrendous habits.

While it might work for ensuring calm in prison populations, this style of management—death by oversight and over-involvement—doesn’t work for any audience on the other side of the barbed wire. Our brains are wired to respond differently depending upon whether external stimuli are sending us forward (with interest) or pushing us away from something (out of fear). The habits of the hyper-rooster manager induce anxiety and ambiguity and drive us squarely into the fight or flight camp. Unless we’re being challenged for “who’s going to be dinner?” by a sabre-tooth tiger, the fight or flight trigger offers no benefit in the workplace. Quit invoking it, dammit!

Your job…our job, is to form and frame an environment where we’re able to simplify complexity, stimulate creativity and foster collaboration in pursuit of their work and the team’s or firm’s goals. While sounding a bit like the inside of a Hallmark Management Card (do they have that category?!) it’s true. The short form tag-line might be (in a tribute to Deming): “Get the fear out!”

image of a hand holding a mirrorSpeaking of fear, if you fear that you resemble the hyper-rooster, even a little bit, why not try an experiment or three. (If you’re not sure, find someone willing to give you frank feedback and ask them about what works and what doesn’t work with your style.) Spend more time up front clarifying goals and direction and then back off and let people show you what you can do. If you’re courageous, confess to your team that you are working on becoming more effective as their manager and part of it is trusting more and overseeing less. While no one will believe you until you prove it, at least you won’t leave them confused, waiting for the hyper-rooster to jump in the middle of their work.

Try issuing fewer orders and instead, ask more questions. Aim for a 10:1 ratio—10 questions for every order. Keep a tally.

Encourage people to reach out to you to bounce ideas around or to alert you of potential problems and potential solutions to problems. Don’t fall back into old habits and start solving every problem for everyone who walks through your office door. Your new favorite question should be, “I don’t know, what do YOU think YOU should do?”

Offer positive feedback. A lot of positive feedback. You’ll be amazed how people respond once they get over the shock.

Take the time to sit down with team members and work with them on developmental ideas or directions. Where needed, offer that critical constructive input. Try feed-forward. Instead of criticism, talk about great behaviors and approaches looking forward.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While the list of good behaviors can go on indefinitely, changing our behaviors is incredibly difficult. Look in the mirror and if you see a hyper-rooster, accept that you need to change and do it incrementally. Move too fast on your own positive change and people will think you’re dying. Of course, if you keep up your old habits, they might not mind.

See more posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

Art of Managing—Bad Boss? Are You Sure it’s Not You?

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsJust about everyone I’ve encountered recently—or so it seems—has an ax or two to grind with their boss. From, “she just doesn’t understand me,” to, “he’s only in it for himself,” to, “he micromanages me,” the complaints sound like the story lines of bad (redundant?) relationship-gone-wrong episodes of the Dr. Phil Show.

I ran into an individual celebrating leaving an alleged miserable manager in the lurch by quitting. Another was busy scheming of ways to undercut her manager by sinking one of the manager’s pet projects. (Harsh and stupid!) And, the coldest cut came from someone genuinely positive that his manager was out on sick leave. I asked whether it was serious, and the guy laughed and said, “It’s not my problem.” (Harsh and cruel!)

I’ve experienced my own fair share of individuals in leadership roles who would have struggled to organize a pumpkin judging contest for 8-year-olds. And there are more than a few I’ve encountered, where it has  crossed my mind that karma will be a b@tch. However, newsflash: it’s not always the manager that’s the issue.

If you’re struggling with a challenging boss, a bit of mirror-gazing might just be the ticket. While never excusing or defending bosses who violate ethics, values, and common courtesy, there are a good number who work hard at this most difficult of all tasks of being responsible for the work of others, and still end up on the short-end of your judgment. However, I can assure you from long experience, that a good number of you are no day at the beach to work with. (And yes, I resemble that remark. I made life challenging for a number of my well-intended managers. Too brash, too zealous, too aggressive—guilty on all counts.)

Take a look at the list, and if the mirror isn’t clouded by a bit too much ego, perhaps you might just catch a glimpse of yourself.

The Boss’s Top 10 Challenging People:

1. The One Who Doesn’t Think for Himself. Your favorite question is, “How would you like me to handle this?” Your favorite complaint is, “She’s a micromanager.” Hmmm.

2. The Soap Opera Star. Yes, it’s unfortunate that you crashed your 23 year-old car while driving your child to his court-mandated counseling the same morning you accidentally fed your dog cat food and the cat ate the bird in protest. You could sell tickets to your weekly stories, and while I empathized 52 tragedies ago, you’re wearing thin. I’m not sorry that I’m holding you accountable to the same standards for timeliness and productivity as your colleagues.

3. The Us-v-Them Revolutionary. It’s great that you take your role in building our culture seriously, however, if you would start working and spend a little less time raising a militia to confront the evils of management, perhaps things would go better for you.

4. The Office Politician. You’re networking skills are excellent. In fact, it seems like you are perpetually running for an office that doesn’t exist. Now,  about your project, your deadlines, your team’s performance…

5. The Outraged One. Yes, I know you find it preposterous and outrageous and reprehensible that anyone might dare to offer you specific, behavioral, constructive feedback. If I’m a jerk for doing this important part of my job, so be it. Here’s some heartfelt advice: GET OVER YOURSELF!

6. The Harmonizer. I love your idealistic view to what the workplace should look like. In your mind, there’s a lot of hand-holding and harmony and peace and orderliness. In reality, we’re running flat out for survival, and the process is just a bit messy. Work with me and I’ll work with you.

7. The One with the Chip on the Shoulder. Seriously, not everything is an insult to your intelligence. Your propensity to start an argument for dominance with anyone who you think even looks at you funny is annoying. Much like the advice to the Outraged One, GET OVER YOURSELF!

8. The Knowledge Hoarder. OK, we know you’re smart. Your willingness to only dole out nuggets of wisdom on the second Tuesday of the month is just annoying. And, it’s definitely not a strategy for long-term growth and development. Maybe you’re not as smart as you think you are…

9. The Conspiracy Theorist. There are no aliens or alien craft on the third floor; that executive meeting wasn’t about you, and the look that you think you got from your boss’s boss wasn’t the, “Remind me to fire him” look. You see conspiracies where there are none and you play games where no one else sees the playing field. It’s obvious and funny and sad at the same time.

10. The “What’s My Career-Path” One. OK, good managers love people who want to develop and grow. It’s the people who want the promotion before they develop and grow that we struggle with. Newsflash: your progress down any path requires hard work, great results and signs that you can take on increasing levels of responsibility and deliver. While I can explain possible paths and strive to understand your interests and skills, and I can give you new challenges, I cannot predict your future. You make your future one step at a time!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s no doubt your manager owns the majority of the heavy lifting for building an effective working environment and for building effective working relationships. However, you are a stakeholder in this situation with a significant investment—your time and energy and your future prospects. The relationship is a two-way street. If things aren’t going well with the boss in your mind, perhaps it’s time to look in the mirror at your own behaviors and make a few adjustments.

10 Ideas to Help Deal with the Abusive Boss

The “It’s Your Career” series at Management Excellence is dedicated to offering ideas, guidance and inspiration for your professional pursuits. Use the ideas in great career health!

Health Warning: there’s no easy method for dealing with an abusive boss. Sometimes, the next exit ramp is the best approach. And sometimes circumstances require you to stay and attempt to cope. While your options are limited, there are some tactics worth considering before pulling the plug on your relationship with your firm or opting for unemployment. And let’s face it, no one should be compelled to remain as a doormat for an abusive boss. The cost is too high for your self-esteem and your mental and physical health to simply take it.

These miserable excuses for managers are often brilliant in their clever manipulation of human psychology. They are the consummate psychological abusers, expert at preying on your fears (usually loss of income) and weaknesses, and practiced at eviscerating your sense of self-esteem in the process. They break you down to build themselves up and the more you shrink in front of them, the more comfortable they are at heaping on the verbal and psychological abuse. For them, it’s a game that goes on as long as you take it, or, until they grow tired of you and dispose of you in pursuit of fresh prey.

Instead of enduring it in quiet agony, collect your thoughts and examine your options. Here are 10 ideas to consider in navigating this truly challenging and unfortunate experience. Just know that every single options comes complete with a variety of risks, especially when it comes to maintaining your employment. In this case, it pays to be prepared.

10 Ideas to Help Combat the Abusive Boss

1. Explore a Transfer. If you like the company, explore options in other groups. It’s within your rights to apply for posted positions. However, beware the blocking power of the abusive manager. She has a vested interest in not letting you out of her clutches. And know that even if you escape, she’s still there and capable of undercutting you in future situations.

One caveat on this guidance. I appreciate the desire to not be chased out of a place you generally like, however, ask yourself whether a firm that allows this manager to remain in a position of power is the right one for you. There’s a disconnect somewhere between the values on the wall and the culture that perpetuates this toxic manager and her abuse.

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development words2. Use Feedback. Provide clear, specific, unemotional feedback to your boss on his abusive behavior. One individual facing repeated dressing down in public very quietly and unemotionally said, “Your repeated yelling at me in public settings is embarrassing to me and to you as a manager. By doing this, you destroy your credibility as a leader. You show that you don’t support the corporate values. And you ensure that everyone who works on your team will do everything in their power to leave or to make certain they give you the bare minimum. Please stop it.”  The abusive boss was speechless. He stopped it.

The above statement was pretty bold and might not seem realistic for many situations. The employee pulled this off by maintaining a clear tone, speaking confidently and authoritatively, but not offensively. Another approach is to focus on just the behavior: “How did calling me incompetent in front of the team get us any closer to the business solution we need for this problem?” Remember, abusive bosses prey on weakness. Tackling this in a calm and professional and confident manner shows anything but weakness.

3. Attempt Constructive Dialog. The intent in this discussion is to strive to align around interests…corporate goals, departmental performance etc. It’s also essential to strive to understand whether there are legitimate performance issues on your end that are getting lost in the poor translation. Most people don’t try this because the boss keeps them off-balance. The victims don’t feel powerful enough to initiate this discussion.

Start the conversation by leveraging the feedback technique in #2 above, however, shift the dialog to identifying ways to mutually support better performance. If there are shortcomings in your own performance, identify ideas to improve and ask for coaching and constructive feedback for your efforts.

One client brokered a truce with this technique. Another ended up with a boss that was irrationally angrier than before. She tried, the technique failed and she moved on to a different firm. But she tried.

4. Start Gathering Evidence. Most employees are unarmed when the abusive boss decides to turn this into a performance issue with formal H.R. involvement. When faced with the latest tirade, grab something to take notes. Be overt about it. Identify any witnesses. Describe the behaviors, note the date and time and circumstances. And ask clarifying questions. Use active listening techniques and repeat back to the boss what he is saying just to make certain you got it right. One bold rebel asked the abusive boss to review the notes and initial them just to confirm they were accurate. The boss threw the notes back at the employee. Everyone in the vicinity saw it. This was documented as well. (Yes, this approach has a high probability of just setting this character off like a firework, but it’s reasonable for you to take notes. You may need them.)

5. Raise the Issue with H.R. Health warning: I’ve seen this one both work and backfire. Be specific and clear about the abusive behaviors. The notes help. So do witnesses. Be aware however that at some point this tactic goes nuclear critical when the “alleged” abusive manager is engaged. Remember that your objective is for the behaviors to end…not to fire the manager.

6. Leverage the Power of the Group. If the behaviors are visible to all and pervasive, a series of individual complaints to H.R. will trigger alarm bells. One team marched on H.R. and an investigation and intervention followed. Beware however, that no one wins in a witch-hunt. The description of the behaviors must be honest and well documented. Again, the goal is for the behaviors to stop.

A different flavor of this group approach is the direct intervention. I’ve not yet seen one of these work. Typically, the group members talk tough until it comes time to confront the boss and a number of people leave the one or two leaders hanging out to dry. Be cautious here.

7. Explore Political Options. Again, that annoying health warning…many abusive managers are expert politicians. The Game of Thrones ends up with a lot of dead characters for a reason. Nonetheless, if your mentor is a powerful executive or if you and one of the C-level executives regularly play golf, you can look for an opportunity to raise concerns. Operate on the side of goodness here. Make it less about your feelings and more about the potential damage this type of behavior is creating in the workplace.

8. Explore Legal Options. While there are all sorts of red flags and health warnings on this one, it is possible you may have grounds for a hostile work environment case. Speak with a highly competent employment attorney and know that bridges will be burned beyond repair with this approach. You also can lose. Use this option sparingly.

9.Take Charge of Your Own Career. While this doesn’t help in the heat of the moment, a great defense is an active offense (or something like that). Be prepared at all times. Whether you are happy or miserable in your work, the process of expanding your skills, growing and strengthening your professional network and showcasing your positive brand are table-stakes for survival and success in this world. You own this and this hard work over a long period of time pays tremendous dividends when you want to move sooner than later.

10 Call It. Seriously, life is too short to live and precious to live with this cr@p. Ideally, you have the financial reserves to navigate your sudden paycheck interruption. If not, there’s always work somewhere. It might not be good work, but there’s work. Consider a transition role to protect your physical and mental health. While you will have to focus eventually on crafting your own story line on your sudden shift for future prospective employers, any situation that is destroying your physical and mental health must come to an end sooner than later.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

It’s hard to think rationally when you are under the stress generated by an abusive boss. It’s essential to do something other than just soak it up. No matter how strong you think you are, the abuse takes a toll on your well being. Stay on the side of goodness with your approach, but for your own sake and for the sake of the people who care about you in your life, do something. The rewards in this world go to people who take action.

Leadership Caffeine™—Running Uphill Against the Wind

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

The oft-cited and disturbingly dismal numbers reported about employee engagement tell an interesting story about leadership effectiveness…or the lack thereof.

In my own experience, professionals and workers who are engaged have a number of very common characteristics. They care deeply about their work. It’s a reflection in part of who they are as human beings and they have a fierce desire to not only strive and succeed, but to help their coworkers and their organizations succeed. They see the flaws in the workplace and genuinely strive to be part of the solution. They have an emotional attachment to their work and their workplace that transcends the pay for hours provided.

And they respect their firm’s leaders. They feel supported, challenged and safe.

There’s another group…perhaps the largest group in aggregate. These are individuals who WANT to care deeply about their work, however, something is fundamentally wrong in the working environment, pushing them to operate mostly in “safe” mode as a survival mechanism. They have no emotional attachment to their workplace and they most definitely don’t feel good about their bosses.

Sadly, this latter group is sizable, and likely contributes mightily to the disturbing size of the “we’re not engaged” numbers. The root cause of this situation isn’t a flaw in the people, it’s a flaw in the system of management in these firms, and particularly, it reflects fatally flawed leadership.

When I’ve surveyed or interviewed individuals in this latter group, the input is consistent. There’s some combination of not being treated with respect, being micro-managed, being verbally abused, not being challenged and supported to grow that combine to create these very dysfunctional environments.

All of these behaviors are easily identified, and while often not curable across the firm and up and down the organizational ladder, they are curable by YOU in your immediate environment.

We have an interesting tendency to mimic the behaviors of those around us, and in organizations, the behaviors modeled by those in senior leadership roles tend to be the behaviors adopted by everyone in managerial or supervisory positions. However, you don’t have to fall into this vicious failure trap.

If you’re reading this, you’ve already likely self-selected yourself into the group of “I care.” Now, take the time to look hard at your own behaviors. Are you creating an environment with your team that is safe, free from toxicity and genuinely focused on helping people strive and grow? If not, you’ve got some work to do, or you’re at risk of being part of the problem.

 The Bottom-Line for Now:

An early mentor of mine impressed upon me the reality that even in a sea of aberrant organizational behaviors and lousy leaders, I should always strive to create a calm zone where people valued their work and felt respected and appreciated. He was right. It’s hard work…you’re running uphill and against the wind. But it’s the good work you’ll be proud of when you look in the mirror. Don’t accept dysfunction and lack of engagement as inevitable. It’s time to start running uphill.

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™—Letting Go of Your Need to Be the Smartest Person in the Room

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

One of the most common and damaging of a leader’s blind-spots is the compulsion to regularly provide evidence that he/she is the smartest person in the room.

Many well-intentioned leaders are adversely impacted by this bad habit without realizing it. The impact of what is often not much more than one or more behavioral tics includes stifling creativity and innovation and derailing any hopes of developing a high performance environment.

The challenge is to learn to recognize your own smartest person in the room behaviors and to replace them with a few simple but not simplistic habits that focus on drawing input from team members instead of stifling input. While blind-spots are by definition difficult to see, I’ll make a reasonable assumption that your desire to improve your effectiveness as a leader can help you both self-diagnose and take some simple but powerful corrective actions. (For those too smart to spend time thinking and working on their own performance and behaviors, now would be the time to write a comment suggesting why you’re right.)

3 Common Smartest Person in the Room Behaviors:

Do any of these feel familiar?

  • The Final Word Habit. Leaders who struggle with smartest person in the room syndrome often operate with a false belief that being in charge means always having the answer. This drives the individual to assert his/her opinion as the final word or last word and it teaches people to suppress their own ideas and wait for solutions from the person in charge. If you’re frustrated with your team’s lack of creativity or active discussion about ideas, you might be someone who has taught them to wait for the last word.
  • The Eyes…and Face and Voice Say it All! Some leaders telegraph their smartest person in the room persona through their verbal and non-verbal responses to the commentary or ideas of others. I’ve observed senior managers who portray what is perceived as disinterest or disdain for the commentary of team members by interrupting them in mid-sentence or maintaining a facial expression that seems to ask: “Why are you using up my valuable oxygen with this stupid idea?” Of course, the leader may not be intending to communicate disregard or disdain however, we impute this less than noble intent based on our interpretation of the visible and audible cues. If your team members are less than enthusiastic about sharing new ideas and approaches, perhaps you’ve inadvertently shot them down too many times.
  • I’ll See You and Raise You. A closely related cousin to the behaviors above is the leader who listens to the input of his team but fails to acknowledge good ideas or threads of their good ideas. One top leader had the unique habit of responding to input with his own input in a seeming point/counter-point battle that was interpreted as either arguing or trumping the ideas. In reality, she was using an unrecognizable form of active listening to translate what she was hearing into her own words, however, it was interpreted very differently.

3 Approaches to Combat Your Own Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome:

1. Ask More than Tell. Questions are powerful leadership tools…much more effective than orders in most circumstances. Train yourself to respond to ideas with questions to help you and others better develop their ideas. Strive to understand before offering your own perspective.

2. Cultivate the Courage to Shut-Up and Let Others Decide. While you never have to cede your right to veto an idea or an approach, use this veto power sparingly. Most of the time through questioning and the technique of “building upon the ideas of others,” you can promote a modification or adaptation of someone else’s approach without throwing your weight around. If you must, use the “line item” veto

3. Work Hard to Look for the Beauty in Ideas, Not the Flaws. Some people look at a scene and see the beauty in it and others find the gaps…the faults. Frankly, those who see the flaws are significantly less interesting and enjoyable to be around. A micro-managing boss sees the flaws and hammers people for changes to minutiae. The effective manager acknowledges the beauty inherent in ideas and focuses questions and efforts on realizing that beauty. Discussions about flaws can be isolated to a simple discussion around risks.

And a Few Ideas If It’s Your Boss Who Doesn’t Recognize Her Case of Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome?

If you are working for someone suffering from this syndrome, you have a number of options…all with pros and cons.

1. Resist the Urge to Argue. It’s tempting…it’s one of my own challenges and it is often wrong. Take a deep breath…close your lips and think. If you must talk, ask clarifying questions. It never hurts anyone to seek first to understand.

2. Manage Upside Down. If your boss is generally well-intended and receptive to input from team members, construct an effective feedback discussion with behavioral examples. Indicate the business or performance consequences of the smartest person behaviors and offer one or more of the techniques above as suggestions. Offer to observe and look for opportunities to apply the techniques. Agree on a mechanism to signal an improper behavior and suggest a different course on the fly. It takes your own personal courage to offer feedback to your boss. Remember, my operating assumption is that your read on him/her is that they are interested in strengthening performance and growing as a leader. There are some who will not take kindly to your feedback. Tread softly and if the ice is firm, proceed. If not, move to number 3.

3. If the Boss Isn’t Approachable, Use Judo on the Situation. Reinforce the ideas from the boss as positive and suggest approaches to strengthening those ideas. Of course, the approaches match your original suggestions, however, you’ve re-framed the idea as his/hers. A little bit of child psychology can go a long way with a difficult boss.

4. Facilitate His/Her Idea Development and Proactively Raise the Risk Discussion. Your calm facilitation of the discussion will allow you to both ask clarifying questions and at the appropriate time, suggest that you explore the risks. List them on a board or flip-chart. The act of highlighting risks may be enough to gain cooperation from a boss who views himself as always right.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are a number of powerful internal drivers that push some people to assert their opinion as the right one. From compensating for a lack of self-confidence to falsely believing that being in charge means being right, this need to assert is a performance and environment killing habit. Learn to recognize your tendency to do this and use discipline to resist the temptation. Like reaching for the donut instead of the handful of almonds on the snack table, it’s difficult to do at first. If you work for the smartest person in the room, strive to be just a little smarter…by managing the psychology and resisting the urge to argue. In all cases, the effort is worth the potential improvement.

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.