Leadership Barometer 112 Bully Managers

September 30, 2021

A student in one of my graduate leadership classes posed an interesting question. If bully managers cause so much grief, why are so many of them allowed to remain in power?  

The question got me thinking of the many reasons bully managers, even the extreme ones, seem to hang onto their positions. Here are seven of the reasons.  

Weak Leadership Above  

If a bully manager is allowed to remain in place, it means the leaders above him or her are not doing a good job.  If those in charge look the other way while a manager is abusing people, then they are the real culprits.

It is rather easy to spot a bully manager when doing a 360-degree review process, so once one is identified, if the person is allowed to stay in a management position year after year, I blame the top leadership.

Also, weak leadership might look the other way because the bully has powerful allies. Bully bosses intimidate people at their own level and higher in the organization.

They know the buttons to push or people to pressure in order to get their own way. If a weak leader is afraid of the bully, that can be a reason this person is allowed to continue.

Sufficing  

A bully manager does elicit compliance because people are fearful.  The unit reporting to this manager will perform at a credible level, even though people are unhappy and underutilized.  The crime is that the unit could be so much better, and the lives of the workers could be richer if the manager was replaced by someone with higher Emotional Intelligence.

Many units limp along by employing a culture of compliance and avoidance and do not even realize the huge potential they are missing.

Being Clueless 

I have written about this before. The idea is that most bullies simply do not see themselves accurately. They would view themselves as being tough or having high standards of conduct. 

My observation is that most bully managers are genuinely proud of their prowess at getting people to behave. They have no impetus to change because their twisted logic reinforces the behaviors that elicit compliance.

They often view themselves as smarter than the people working for them and bark out orders because they sincerely believe they know best.

Another clueless possibility is that the entire corporate culture is stuck in this Ebenezer Scrooge mentality. Hard as it is to fathom, there are still old-style companies where management likes to terrorize. The same holds for family businesses where one generation intimidates the next. 

Lack of Trust  

A bully manager trashes trust on a daily basis without realizing it.  When trust is low, all other functions in the organization operate like a car would run on watered-down gasoline.

The irony is that when the bully manager sees things sputtering and not working well, the logical reaction is to jump in with combat boots on to “fix” the problems.  That bullying behavior perpetuates the problem in a vicious cycle of cause and effect. If there is no external force to break the cycle, it will just continue.

Short Term Focus

 Most bully managers have a fixation on short-term actions and do not see the long-term damage being done to the culture.  They would describe “culture” as some squishy concept that is for softies.

If you propose ideas to improve the culture to a bully manager, he or she will start talking about performance and accountability. Holding people accountable is a very popular phrase in management these days.

Imagine a world where there was less need to talk about holding people accountable because the culture they worked in was one that automatically extracted their maximum discretionary effort.

If the vast majority of workers in a unit habitually performed at the very peak of their potential because they wanted to, then accountability would take care of itself. 

Lack Of Skills  

Bully managers often have not had good leadership capabilities built-in through training and mentoring. You cannot blame a tyrant if he or she has never been shown a better way to lead.

Bully managers are often accused of having a “my way or the highway” attitude toward people, but I would contend that many of these misguided individuals simply feel “my way is the only way I know how to get things done.”

For these leaders, some intensive reprogramming can be an effective antidote only if they come to the table eager to learn new ways.  

Fear Means People Will Not Challenge  

Most workers are not going to be willing to challenge a bully boss. The fear of getting their heads chopped off for leveling with the boss makes the prospect of telling the truth feel like knowingly walking into a lion’s den. 

Occasionally, there is a person so foolish or confident that he will just walk into the lion’s den because there is little to lose. This person can help provide shock therapy for bully leaders by providing data on how the behaviors are actually blocking the very things the leader wants to accomplish.

These people might be called “whistle blowers,” because they provide an errant manager, or the leadership above, with knowledge of what is actually happening.

Sometimes, a bully manager is so extreme that he or she must be removed and replaced by a more people-oriented manager.  Unfortunately, it is also true that many bully bosses have the ability to remain in place for long stretches.

This adhesion to power is extremely costly to the organization in terms of current and future performance along with a prime cause of high turnover.  If you have a bully manager reporting to you, get him or her some help through training. If that does not work, move the bully out of a leadership role and put in someone with high Emotional Intelligence.

 

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on www.leadergrow.com.

 

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Leadership Barometer 111 Smart Decisions

September 22, 2021

One of my leadership students laments that some of the decisions the leaders in his organization make relative to policies and the size of the workforce are just plain stupid. These decisions reflect a misunderstanding of their impact, so the leaders end up doing things that are at cross purposes to their true goals.

Leaders need a way to determine the impact of their decisions on the organization at the time of making those decisions. This knowledge will reduce the number of wrong-headed actions. Picture a leader of 84 individuals. There are exactly 84 people who are capable of telling her the truth about the impact of poor decisions before she makes them.

They would gladly do this if the leader had established an environment where it is safe to challenge an idea generated in the mind of the leader. How would a leader go about creating such an environment?

Creating the right environment

If a leader makes people glad when they tell her things she was really not eager to hear, those people will eventually learn it is safe to do it. They have the freedom to level with the leader when she is contemplating something that is likely to backfire. 

It does not mean that all dumb things the leader wants to do need to be squashed. It simply means that if the leader establishes a safe culture, she will be tipped off in advance that a specific decision might not have the desired outcome.

Sometimes, due to a leader’s perspective, what may seem dumb to underlings may, in fact, be the right thing to do. In this case, the leader needs to educate the doubting underling on why the decision really does make sense or is imperative.

The formula for making it safe

Here is an eight-step formula that facilitates a Smart Decision.

  1. As much as possible, let people know in advance the decisions you are contemplating, and state your likely action.
  2. Invite dialog, either public or private. People should feel free to express their opinions about the outcomes.
  3. Treat people like adults and listen to them carefully when they express concerns.
  4. Factor their thoughts into your final decision process. This does not mean you will reverse your decision, but do consciously consider the input.
  5. Make your final decision about the issue and announce it.
  6. State that there were several opinions that were considered when making your decision.
  7. Thank people for sharing their thoughts in a mature way.
  8. Ask for everyone’s help to implement your decision whether or not they fully agree with the course of action.

Share concerns correctly

Of course, it is important for people to share their concerns with the leader in a proper way at the proper time.  Calling her a jerk in a staff meeting would not qualify as helpful information and normally would be a problem. 

The leader not only needs to encourage people to speak up but give coaching as to how and when to do it effectively. Often this means encouraging people to give their concern in private and with helpful intent for the organization rather than an effort to embarrass the boss.

The leader will still make some poor decisions, but they will be fewer and be made recognizing the risks. Also, realize that history may reveal some decisions thought to be stupid at the time to be actually brilliant.

Understanding the risks allows some mitigating actions to remove much of the sting of making risky decisions.  The action here is incumbent on the leader.  It is critical to have a response pattern that praises and reinforces people when they speak the truth, even if it flies in the face of what the leader wants to do. People then become empowered and more willing to confront the leader when her judgment seems wrong.

Consistency is important

A leader needs to be consistent with this philosophy, although no one can be 100%. That would be impossible. Once in a while, any leader will push back on some unwanted “reality” statements, especially if they are accusatory or given in the wrong forum.

Most leaders are capable of making people who challenge them happy about it only a tiny fraction of the time, let’s say 5%. If we increase the odds to something like 80%, people will be more comfortable pointing out a potential blooper.  That is enough momentum to change the culture.

It is important to recognize that making people glad they brought up a concern does not always mean a leader must acquiesce. All that is required is for the leader to treat the individual as someone with important information, listen to the person carefully, consider the veracity of the input, and honestly take the concern into account in deciding what to do.

In many situations, the leader will elect to go ahead with the original action, but she will now understand the potential ramifications better and can adjust the plan to minimize risk. By sincerely thanking the person who pointed out the possible pitfall, the leader makes that individual happy she brought it up.  Other people will take the risk in the future. That action changes everything, and the leader now has an effective way to improve decision-making and increase buy-in among staff.

 

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on www.leadergrow.com.

 

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.

 


Leadership Barometer 110 Post-COVID Advice

September 15, 2021

In a recent interview, I was asked if I had any advice for leaders in the Post-COVID journey. Many organizations are wrestling with whether to insist that employees return to work, get vaccinated, wear masks, or work at least partially from home. I thought of two actions that seem prudent at this time. 

First Action – Let People Decide for Themselves

We each have a unique set of conditions that will bring out the best in us.  If a leader tries to impose a set pattern of work location and rules for everyone, most likely the majority of people will not be happy. 

It is far better to lay out some guidelines but allow each person to find his or her sweet spot.  Keep in mind the optimal pattern for any individual may change with time, so allow for that kind of flexibility as well. 

By empowering people to decide for themselves how they choose to work, the leader has the enthusiasm of most of the people from the start. Showing trust in the people to make the best decision is uplifting, and the result will be a more engaged workforce throughout the organization. Naturally, people need to be accountable for getting things done and done well.

Granted, there will be some circumstances where a person simply must be present, but the general pattern of attendance usually can be made flexible enough to allow each person the freedom to choose the details.

Second Action – Double Communications

When people are working at least partly remotely, it is imperative that they have more frequent contact with others in the organization.  During “normal” times, a standard pattern of communication is usually adequate, but in times of stress, it is imperative that communication occur more frequently.

I used to observe that when things were difficult or edgy, rumors would tend to spring up within the workforce. I would observe managers wanting to hide in their offices because they did not want to face the questions people might ask. 

The opposite reaction is much more helpful.  When people are upset, leaders need to double their interface time with them. That action tends to increase trust and maintain engagement as well as reassure the people.

The Actual Interview

In case you are interested in watching the entire interview, here is a link to it. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=apezCmMDYAs The part where Kevyn asks me the question on COVID Advice is at minute 39, so feel free to scan forward.

The whole interview is over 50 minutes long, but it is highly entertaining throughout as Kevyn Rustici and Tyler White ask odd questions that draw out comical answers. Also, I have ample time to share my theories on how important it is to have a culture of high trust and actually share the secret sauce for how to obtain that huge advantage.

I also have the opportunity to share some stories that illustrate my points and that you may find inspiring.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on www.leadergrow.com.

 

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Leadership Barometer 109 Opening Our Eyes

September 8, 2021

I am a student of lean thinking principles.  One concept used early in any lean exercise is to create a Process Flow Map. The map is a very specific diagram of what is actually going on in a process. 

The experts call this process “learning to see.”  It is effective because without the tool we get lulled into a state where we are looking at things and events, but not really paying attention to what is going on.  We look, but we do not see what is important. 

Sacred Cows

I believe this phenomenon is going on a lot more than we recognize.  That is why the concept of the “sacred cow” can be so useful to groups at work.

A literal sacred cow in the Hindu religion is an actual cow that is treated with sincere reverence. A figurative sacred cow is a practice or act that is immune from question or criticism, especially unreasonably so.

An example of a “sacred cow” is sitting up watching a lighted crystal ball slide down a pole on top of a building in Times Square every December 31st at the stroke of midnight. Most of us just do this every year and never stop to ask why.

The scary thing is that we are surrounded by sacred cows in the workplace, yet we are blind to many of them because often we just do not see what is going on right in front of us.

I was once part of a production operation that created a cow pasture in the form of a bulletin board on which anyone could write what he or she thought was a practice that had no merit on a construction paper cut-out of a cow and place it in the pasture on the bulletin board. 

This action had the effect of bringing a ridiculous or unwarranted practice to light so it could be eliminated.  It was really a process of opening our eyes to see what was actually happening.

I suggest that every office and organization have a kind of contest to see who can identify the most sacred cows. The only additional rule needed is that the individuals who point out the sacred cows also have to suggest an alternate, more sensible, practice.

The Abilene Paradox

A close cousin to sacred cows is a phenomenon called “The Abilene Paradox.”  The term was invented and presented by Jerry B. Harvey in 1974 in an article in “Organization Dynamics Journal.” 

Jerry described a situation where a family took a road trip to Abilene for dinner on a blistering day in Texas when none of the individuals really wanted to go. Each person rode in the car with no air conditioning because he or she assumed the others wanted to go. 

In effect, the group was incapable of seeing that every single person was against the idea, so they all went on the journey.  Today we call that phenomenon “groupthink” or another term, “tunnel vision.”

It is easy to see our government making groupthink decisions on spending that everyone admits we cannot afford. In order to get re-elected, it is necessary to avoid unpleasant decisions, so the group, en-masse, will pass an appropriation that none of them individually think is good for the country.

The terms “sacred cow” and “groupthink” describe situations where individuals or groups are simply incapable of seeing what, in fact, is true.  Why are these terms helpful? 

The terms help us because when the paradox is revealed to a group or individual, it is often easier to end the deception.  Using the terms in meetings or social interfaces allows people to actually see what is going on much the same way as a Process Flow Map. I believe getting people to use these words in public is cleansing because it allows a more healthy debate once the denial of a habit is exposed.

Breaking out of old patterns is more difficult than it seems.  If you really work at it, you can find examples of groupthink within every group.  Giving the actions a name and discussing them openly allows people to catch themselves when they are “on the road to Abilene,” so they can break the paradigm.  Encourage and reward people who are perceptive enough to see and expose the habitual time wasters or just plain dumb things that go on in every organization every day.  Take positive steps to put your sacred cows out to pasture.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on www.leadergrow.com.  

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.

 


Leadership Barometer 108 High Performing Teams

September 1, 2021

Many teams in the working world have various symptoms of dysfunction. You can observe all kinds of back biting, laziness, sabotage, lack of support, passive aggressive behavior, grandstanding, and numerous other maladies if you study the inner workings of teams. Yet some teams are able to rise above the petty problems and reach a level of performance that is consistently admirable. 

I have studied working teams for decades and have concluded that there are four common denominators that all successful teams share. If your team has these four elements, you are likely enjoying the benefits of a high-performance team. If you do not see these things, then chances are you are frustrated with your team experience.

A Common Goal

This is the glue that keeps people on the team pulling in the same direction. If people have disparate goals, their efforts will not be aligned, and organizational stress will result.

If people on your team are fighting or showing other signs of stress, the first thing to check is if the goal is really totally shared by everyone. Often people give the official goal lip service but have a hidden different agenda. Eventually this discontinuity will come out in bad behaviors.

Trust

When there is high trust between team members, the environment is real. Where trust is low, people end up playing games to further their own agendas.

Achieving high trust is not simple, nor is it the main topic of this paper. I have written extensively on the creation of trust elsewhere.

One caveat is that trust is a dynamic commodity within a team. You need to keep checking the trust level and bolster it when it slips. Constant attention and vigilance are required.

Good Leadership

A team without a leader is like a ship without a rudder. But the leader does not have to be the anointed formal leader. Often a kind of distributed leadership or informal leadership structure can make teams highly effective.

Beware if there is a poor leader who is formally in charge of a team. This is like the kiss of death. No team can perform consistently at a high level if the official leader is blocking progress at every turn. The best that can be achieved is an effective work-around strategy.

A Solid Charter

I have coached hundreds of teams and discovered that the ones with an agreed-upon team charter always out-perform ones that have wishy-washy ground rules.

A good charter will consider what each member brings to the team so the diversity of talents can be used.

Second, the charter will contain the specific goals that are tangible and measurable.

Third, it will have a set of agreed-upon behaviors so people know what to expect of each other and can hold each other accountable.

Fourth, the team needs a set of ground rules for how to operate. Ground rules can be detailed or general, it really does not matter, but some ground rules are required.

Finally, and this is the real key, there need to be specific agreed-upon consequences for members of the team who do not abide by the charter. 

The most common problem encountered within any team is a phenomenon called “social loafing.” This is where one or more members step back from the work and let the others do it. This inequity always leads to trouble, but it is nearly always avoidable if the consequences for social loafing are stated clearly and agreed upon by all team members at the outset.

People will not knowingly slack off if they have already agreed to the negative impact on themselves, or if they do it once and feel the pain they will not do it again.  This last element of successful teams is the most important ingredient. When it is missing, you are headed for trouble eventually.

There are numerous other elements that can help teams succeed, but if you have the above four elements, chances are your team is doing very well. All high-performance teams have these four elements in play every day. Make sure your team has these as well.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on www.leadergrow.com.  

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.

 


Leadership Barometer 107 Don’t Enable Problem Employees

August 25, 2021

In any organization, there are situations where supervisors accommodate problem employees rather than confront them. Ignoring  wrong actions models a laissez faire attitude on problem solving and enforcing rules. It also enables the perpetrator to continue the wrong behavior.

In a typical scenario, the problem festers under the surface for months, or even years. Ultimately escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point when something simply must be done. By this time, the problems are so horrendous they are many times more difficult to tackle.

A common example is when workers stretch break times from the standard 15 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room.  The total duration is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes.

The supervisor does not want to appear to be a “by the book” manager, so the problem is ignored every day. When things get too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a major loss in morale.

I once worked in a unit where one person suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him.

Finally the situation became intolerable. When they called him in to confront the facts, he had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, “What took you guys so long?”

Following months of treatment, he became sober and was able to go on with his life as a positive contributor. Unfortunately, he was old enough by that time to retire; the organization had acted too late to gain much benefit from his recovery. The problem was clear, yet for years nothing was done.

In every organization, there are situations like this (not just health issues – tardiness, too many smoke breaks, or abusing the internet are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away.

The advice here is to remember the comment made by my friend, “What took you guys so long?” and intervene when the problems are less acute and the damage is minor. In his case, that would have been a blessing; the man died a few months after retiring.

Taking strong action requires courage that many leaders simply do not have. They rationalize the situation with logic like:

  • Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
  • Perhaps I will be moved sometime soon, and the next person can deal with this.
  • Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
  • We have already found viable workaround measures, so why rock the boat now?
  • We have bigger problems than this. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from our critical work.

The real dilemma is knowing the exact moment to intervene and how to do it in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group.  Once you let someone get away with a violation, it becomes harder to enforce a rule the next time.

The art of supervision is knowing how to make judgments that people interpret as fair, equitable, and sensitive. The best time to intervene is when the issue first arises.

As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and only well-justified exceptions. It is not possible to treat everyone always the same, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize is both appropriate and disciplined.

Be alert for the following symptoms in your area of control. If you observe these, chances are you are enabling problem employees.

  • Recognition that you are “working around a problem”
  • Accusations that you are “playing favorites”
  • Individuals claiming they do not understand documented policies
  • Backroom discussions of how to handle a person who is out of control
  • Denial or downplaying an issue that is well known in the area
  • Fear of retaliation or sabotage if rules are enforced
  • Cliques forming to protect certain individuals
  • Pranks or horseplay perpetrated on some individuals

These are just a few signals that someone is being enabled and that you need to step up to the responsibility of being the enforcer.

Sometimes supervisors inherit an undisciplined situation from a previous weak leader. It can be a challenge to get people to follow rules they have habitually ignored.

One idea is to get the group together and review company policy or simply ask what the rules are in this organization. Often people do not know the policies (or pretend they do not know), because the application of rules has been eclectic.

This void gives you a perfect opportunity to restate or recast the rules to start fresh. It can be done as a group exercise to improve buy-in. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better. 

If you are not a new leader but are in a situation where abuse has crept in, using this technique and taking responsible action can help you regain control and credibility.

The reward for making the tough calls is that people throughout the organization will respect you. Problems will be handled early when they are easier to correct.  The downside of procrastinating on enforcement is that you appear weak, and people will continually push the boundaries.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on www.leadergrow.com.  

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Leadership Barometer 106 Secret Word

August 18, 2021

I believe there is a single word that has more to do with your happiness and success than any other word or force in your life.  We use this word in a number of ways, and it often has a negative connotation.

If we understand the concepts behind this word and how all the philosophers over the centuries have taught us to harness its power, then we have a much greater control over our destiny. If you are curious what this most powerful word is, read on.

The power of the word lies in understanding the things that control our lives. What we control and what we cannot control has everything to do with the quality of our lives. 

Many things in life we cannot control.  We cannot control where we were born for example.  Nothing we can say or do will allow us to go back and change conditions so we could be born into a wealthy and talented family in a secure part of the world rather than being born to an unwed young mother in Africa who has AIDS. It is up to a higher power to decide these things. 

There are plenty of people of wealth and power who live in a world of chaos and despair. There are also some people who have very little who have found the pathway to an enlightened life of service, peace and happiness regardless of their situation.

You might be exempt from serving in the military due to a medical condition and have the money in your family to go to Harvard Business School.  You find yourself the president of a wealthy bank. 

Meanwhile, the guy who was born in the very next house went to war and is now sitting in a POW camp in some hot desert. Yet the POW may very well be the luckier of the two individuals. It all depends on whether he understands and uses the word correctly.

Hopefully, by now you have guessed that the word I am thinking of is attitude. Several philosophers over time have realized and expressed the same ideal, “what determines the quality of your life is not what happens to you but how you react to what happens to you.” 

We cannot control many of the external things that happen to us in life, but we most certainly can control how we react to them.  That gives each of us a huge amount of control over our level of joy during our fleeting time on this planet.

The people who understand the concept and live their lives by it have a guaranteed pathway to success in life.  Those who refuse to accept the wisdom are doomed to a life of despair and pain regardless of the material possessions they acquire.

I am not saying anything new here. There are hundreds of authors and philosophers who have enlightened the world with this most simple but most profound knowledge. My personal belief is that one can never hear it enough because we all have a tendency to forget the logic when adversity hits. 

Bring yourself back to the realization that it is you, not external events, who is responsible for the way your life plays out. 

One thing for certain is that no matter how things progress, within less than 10 decades we will all be dead. But between now and then we each have a choice. Choose happiness and success.

 

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on www.leadergrow.com.  

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Leadership Barometer 105 Invest in Your Culture

August 11, 2021

Culture is critical to the performance of any organization. When I advise CEOs how to improve the performance of their organization, I first analyze the situation, then report back to the top officer with some advice. Quite often my advice will sound something like this:

“There is low trust in this organization, and that is causing a lot of conflict. You and your top leaders are running yourselves into the ground trying to solve problems all day. It is like you are playing Whack-a-mole, and the problems keep coming faster each day, so you cannot catch up.

Many of these problems are of your own making. What you need to do is carve out some time to work with your entire organization on improving your culture, because that is the only way to get out of the Whack-a-mole Game.”

They often look at me in utter astonishment. They know what I am saying but just cannot imagine that it is possible to actually take time away from solving problems to invest in the culture. 

Some of these leaders blow up at me and throw me out of their office with words like, “You must be insane. You have no idea the issues we are resolving every day. If we took time off, we would be buried almost instantly. Get out of here and stop bothering me.”  I head for the door, and on my way out I say, “Well, then, I hope you enjoy your Whack-a-mole game.”

What they fail to see is that four hours of time invested in the culture will save them more than 8 hours of solving problems and conflicts later. The reason is three-fold:

  1. Taking time to improve the culture instantly reduces the most time-consuming problem any leader has. That is the inability for people in the organization to get along with each other. Most managers spend from 30-50% of their time dealing with interpersonal issues. If the culture were improved, much of that time would be reclaimed.
  1. When people work on the culture, they are also helping to chart the way forward for the organization. This means that the leader has many willing and eager hands to resolve technical issues. He or she does not have to solve every problem. Many issues can be delegated to other people in the organization who would be delighted, even thrilled, to help out. People in the organization will have higher buy-in, so they put more effort into their tasks. Presto-another 15-20% of time is reclaimed.
  1. The ability to get away from the constant mind-numbing pressure of the daily grind and think about how we can work better together is therapeutic. Working on the culture affords the opportunity to relax, recharge the batteries, and build a stronger team. That pays off in increased energy to resolve the few problems that remain.

Consider the return on investment of taking time regularly to improve your culture.  You will find the quality of your life to be significantly enhanced, and your organization will function more smoothly. The other benefit is that when you take a sick culture and turn it into one of high trust, productivity goes up by a factor of two or more. Leadership becomes a blast rather than a grind.

If you are an exhausted leader who is not happy with performance, try my prescription.  You will feel a whole lot better, and your organization will prosper.  

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on www.leadergrow.com.  

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Leadership Barometer 104 Why Employee Surveys Fail

August 4, 2021

We have all been exposed to an employee satisfaction survey at some point in our working lives.  For some of us, the idea of filling out yet another QWL (Quality of Work Life) survey is about as appealing as having a root canal. 

I have witnessed a significant hit to morale in many groups as a result of these attempts by management to gather information. 

Let’s examine ten reasons why employee surveys cause problems and suggest some antidotes that can make a big difference.

  1. Questionable anonymity – Nearly all QWL surveys are advertised by managers as being anonymous. This is to encourage people to share information without fear of repercussion. Unfortunately, nearly all surveys these days are conducted electronically.

Most people are aware that anything online can be traced, if a smart IT technician is assigned to the case.  People simply do not believe the promise of anonymity, which lowers the validity of the data. 

One action that can help is to have a shop floor person (perhaps a known skeptic) participate in the data analysis phase, so he or she can verify personally that the managers do not know who said what. 

If you claim anonymity but are quietly keeping track on the side out of curiosity, then there is no hope for you, and you should get out of the leadership occupation immediately.

  1. Poorly worded questions – many managers believe that putting together a survey is a simple matter of writing a few questions about how people feel. Actually, survey design is a rather complex and exacting science.

There are numerous ways to present questions that will yield meaningless (or at least ambiguous) information. There are also some methods that will generally produce usable data. The cure for this problem is to have someone who is trained on survey questions actually construct the instrument. If you have not had at least one course in experimental research design, then it is best to leave the matter to someone who has.

  1. Long and tedious survey – It is not uncommon for QWL surveys to contain over 100 detailed questions. It is amazing that the designers of these surveys do not realize the obvious fatigue factor involved in completing one of these burdensome questionnaires.

A much more accurate reading can be obtained by keeping the number of questions to 20 or less.  This can be accomplished by paying attention and only asking important questions.  Leaving out the fluff can cut the time to take a survey by more than half.

  1. Management interprets the information as they please – It is frustrating to witness how managers wave away complaints or gripes on surveys as simple whining. Or they might shrug their shoulders and say, “there is absolutely nothing we can do about this issue,” so they consider the input as moot.

The antidote here is to not ignore input regardless of how painful it is or how frivolous it seems. All input needs to be considered valid and not assumed away with some convenient rationalization.

  1. “Nothing ever changes” – This is a common theme on the shop floor. “We take these stupid surveys, but nothing ever changes.” The antidote to this habitual problem is to actually take concrete actions based on the survey, then (and this is the part most managers forget) advertise that the changes are being made as a result of the QWL survey.

Rather than saying, “We are going to add a second brief afternoon break,”  say “As a result of your input in the recent survey, we are changing the break rules to allow a short second break in the afternoon. As always, we appreciate your candid feedback.”

If managers do not make a conscious effort to communicate that changes are the result of input, people will usually not make the connection.  Once a change is made and it becomes habit, people forget that there was a change, so the perception of “nothing ever changes” is common.

  1. Managers try to react but do the wrong thing – It is far better to let the shop floor people be involved in decisions of how to improve conditions based on survey results. It may take a little more time, but the quality of process changes will be far better if those impacted the most have a say in their invention. They will make the changes work rather than wonder and push back at the clueless inventions of upper management.
  1. Managers reacting to the vocal minority rather than the silent majority – This problem is common when surveys give the opportunity for open-ended comments. People on the fringe can give strong input, and managers might mistakenly interpret this to be the will of the majority.

The simple antidote to this problem is to verify that a strong message really does come from several individuals rather than one highly disgruntled outlier.

  1. Survey not tested for validity – For a survey to be useful, it needs to measure the phenomena it purports to measure. There are statistical techniques for determining if an instrument has validity.

You may not have the time or money to invest in a professional survey designer to test the validity of an instrument, but at least you should ask the question of whether you are actually getting valid information.

  1. No thought to reliability – The reliability of a survey is different from validity. For a survey to be reliable, it should produce a similar result if repeated and there have been no changes in processes since the last survey was taken.

If survey results are all over the map when nothing in the environment in changing, it is a sign that the instrument is not reliable (repeatable).

  1. Poorly communicated – When surveys are sent out, the cover letter explaining the purpose and process is a critical document. Many managers have an administration person whip out a paragraph of “management speak” like this.

  “It is vital that we know what people in our operation think in order to continually improve working conditions.  Please take the time to fill out this anonymous survey that will give us the information. Thank you.” 

Here is a different note where the manager took the time to set up the survey for success.

“We are going to re-do our strategic plan, and it is important to include your input before making changes. The attached survey will begin the process.  Before you take this survey, please reflect on the following points:

    • The survey really is anonymous – we will have shop floor people help with the analysis to verify no names are attached to the data.
    • We will summarize the data for you as soon as it is received.
    • We will use the information as the basis for a series of meetings (you are invited to participate) on how this business can be improved.
    • We will be making changes based on the results of this survey.
    • We are all part of making this organization a success.”

With an introduction like that, employees will know this survey will likely have some impact and their viewpoints matter.

It is critical to not waste credibility, time, and energy on a poorly designed and administered QWL survey. If the above 10 points are considered when designing an employee survey, it will produce results that can be the basis of solid organizational progress.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on www.leadergrow.com.

 

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Leadership Barometer 103 Span of Control

July 28, 2021

How much span of control should a particular manager have? Years ago, I was taught that any manager who has more than 6 direct reports cannot do a proper job of supervising the individuals.

On the other extreme, with a very flat organization and selfdirected work teams, it is possible for a manager to be directly responsible for over 100 people. This article describes some of the issues when considering optimal span of control and also shares some key behaviors that allow managers to broaden their span of control without loss of effectiveness.

The information is helpful for leaders because most organizations are heading in the direction of flatter structures.

An overarching question is why we call it “control” at all. The idea that one must have control over people in order to influence or coach them properly is outdated. I agree that the total entity needs to work together so the goals of the organization are met and the customer is well served, but the individuals within the organization do not need to be controlled like marionettes in order to perform well.

Most of my professional work centers around the concept of trust.  If an organization has a culture of high trust, then the individuals within it do not need to be controlled to be effective.

If upper management is transparent with information so that all workers at all levels know the goals and are trusted or empowered to do the right thing, then the conventional hierarchy of: group leader, supervisor, manager, vice president, group vice president, president, and CEO is way more structure than is needed.

Let us look at seven manager behaviors that will allow one individual to provide the needed guidance to numerous other people.

Delegate well

When managers back off and let people figure out the best way to accomplish the tasks required to meet goals, less direct supervision is required. The opposite of delegating well is micromanaging the work of others. Few people I have met appreciate, or even tolerate, being micromanaged for very long. Over-control is debilitating to motivation, and it drains the productivity from people.

Trust others

Most managers would like to see higher trust within their group, yet few managers realize the key to having more trust within the organization is to show more trust in the people within it. I hear all the time, “but what if my people are not worthy of being trusted.”  There is a simple answer.

If people are managed properly and are treated with respect and dignity, nearly all of them will be worthy of being trusted. So, a supervisor who cannot or will not trust the people in his or her group is really the person who needs to change, not the workers.

If someone is really not worthy of being trusted, then why are they tolerated in the workforce at all?

Fewer Rules

Standard operating procedures are really helpful guidelines for employee actions. They are vital whether you are preparing a detailed battle plan or trying to run an error-free hospital. But operating procedures should not be confused with constraining rules on how to react to circumstances that arise on a daily basis. 

Managers who attempt to figure out every possible challenge and invent rules to cover them will find themselves frustrated. You simply cannot anticipate all the things that can go wrong. Rather, it is better to have some broad operating principles and solid values but let people figure out how to react to each situation at hand.  Tony Hsieh, former CEO of Zappos said (before his death in 2020), “We trust our employees to use their best judgment when dealing with each and every customer.” They do not need detailed procedures to figure out what is right.

Self Development

Much of the administrative and coaching energy that takes the time of managers involves the development of people. Many professionals have government mandated training requirements that cause supervisors to administer training classes for compliance reasons.

Beyond the legal mandates, many organizations insist on forced career development discussions and detailed forms to fill out along with specific training hours per employee each year.  These details are all well-meaning efforts to bring out the best in people.

What if we shifted the emphasis to recognize that most people have an interest in doing the best they can?  Given the right encouragement and support, people are fully capable of figuring out how they can be more valuable to the organization in the future. 

The concepts of coaching and mentoring will help encourage employees who are timid or confused, but we do not need mandated programs that paint all employees with the same brush.

Think of it this way. You can mandate 40 hours of training for each employee each year, but you are not going to be successful at building capability into an employee who does not see value in training. It is far better to encourage employees to become involved in the extent and types of training they receive because in choosing they will learn much more.

In turn, the organization will benefit much more as a result of employees using the new skills.

Reduce “Administriva”

Many of the supervisory functions that take time are really not necessary or at least could be made much more efficient. Have an audit of the forms and paperwork that managers are forced to fill out and seek to cut it by at least 50%

In most organizations that efficiency could be accomplished with no loss of vital information.  Cut managers free to do the vital face-to-face coaching by reducing the Mickey Mouse forms and procedures that leave little time for communication, strategy, and reflection.

Improve Online Communication

It is a rare manager who does not feel buried in the avalanche of e-mail, texts, and social networking notes. The load is way too much to allow time for walking around the area to actually interface with people live. It is possible to reduce the online load significantly without losing vital information. Get help from someone who specializes in efficient online communication and create a culture where these tools are useful but not albatrosses.

Clean house

One reason why managers can only handle a narrow span of control is because there is usually some dead wood in any group.  It is well known, by the Pareto Principle, that 20% of the individuals are going to take up 80% of the time of managers. Make sure to cull out the dead wood or disruptive individuals from the organization. That cleansing will create more time and allow the managers to serve more people better.

Removing just one problem employee can make a huge difference in the entire atmosphere in a work group. It also shifts the balance of management attention from those who cause trouble to those who are doing great work. That will improve the quality of work-life for everyone.

Conclusion

Increasing the span of control is good for the efficiency of any organization. Following the seven tips above will shift the burden for most managers and allow them the time to have broader influence. This saves the organization money and provides a more rewarding environment in which managers and workers can thrive.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on www.leadergrow.com.  

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.