Successful Supervisor Part 53 – Getting Management Buy-in

November 18, 2017

In this article I will discuss one of the most vexing problems facing professionals of all kinds, including supervisors. Supervisors are often faced with the dilemma of getting full buy-in for an initiative that they know will advance the organization.

A typical complaint might sound like this, “I know bringing in this training would pay huge dividends for my operation, but I cannot get their attention long enough to make my case. If I turn up the volume, then I am accused of getting emotional, which lowers my chance of getting what is obviously needed.”

Let’s explore the root causes of this problem and suggest some potential antidotes. Note: this problem is so pervasive that fully resolving it may not be possible.

Why isn’t Top Management Listening to Your Ideas?

There are likely numerous answers to your question. Let me suggest a few of the more common causes of managers failing to get behind initiatives that are proposed at lower levels.

1. Isolation and Preoccupation

Many top managers work in a kind of bubble where they interface with the managers who report directly to them but have a lot less contact with people lower in the organization.

Their days, and nights, are full of thought patterns relative to how they can keep the ship moving in the right direction, so they appear to be very preoccupied with details and hard to reach for different ideas.

When they are at work, every minute in every meeting is often spoken for. A new initiative might feel threatening to them as if it might cause some distraction from their primary agenda. Trying to get a new idea or initiative on the agenda, no matter how brilliantly conceived, will require some creative thinking.

One tip that can help is to always focus in on the benefits that will accrue from your idea before describing the steps that need to be accomplished. If your idea will reduce an organizational problem, be sure to stress this first to get the attention of the top brass.

2. Working Through Layers

Often the supervisor or person with a great idea has to work through a layer or two of other managers in order to get air time on the agenda at the top. These other layers have been put in place primarily to allow the senior leaders time to work on their agenda.

It is common for a manager to come back from the top level meeting and explain that even though she had gotten your idea on the agenda, it never surfaced at the meeting because there were more urgent topics to resolve.

The tip here is to find a way to get your idea exposed to the top leader yourself. If you count on your boss or her boss to take your case to the top, you have less chance of success.

Your agenda will get watered down significantly as it moves through the layers. Rather than allow another person to pitch your idea, explore creative ways to get before the decision makers yourself.

This technique can be tricky because your boss has to justify her role as well. You might suggest a route to the top with an approach like this: “I really want to present the idea to Mr. Big myself this time. Would you be willing to tee up the conversation and arrange a lunch meeting for the three of us?”

3. Chain of Command Issues

The well intended professional may not have enough recognition at the top of the organization to gain share of mind. The supervisor may have a wonderful idea, but the top leader will never know it because he assumes her direct boss is the one who should pass judgment on the idea.

The tip here is to get a chance to surface your idea at a meeting where both your direct boss and the top leader are there together. Ask for the support of your boss ahead of time, so when you surface the idea she can provide immediate support in front of the top layer.

That approach has three benefits: 1) the top layer hears your idea in the way you describe it, 2) the senior person knows you have done your homework, and 3) you have an opportunity to make your boss look good in front of the senior leaders.

4. Insufficient Credibility

The top leaders may not be adequately aware of your prowess in terms of seeing and executing innovative opportunities for the organization. If this is the case, you need to start small and generate several small successes.

It also helps to volunteer for leadership roles in furthering the causes already being pushed from the top. Be strategic because credibility is earned over time, but the equity can be destroyed by a single misstep.

5. Not Invented Here

NIH thinking permeates the mind of people at all levels. If you are three levels below me in the organization and you come up with a magic solution to all my problems, what force makes me want to displace the solutions that are coming out of my head to give your solution a try?

The top leaders may fear that the changes you advocate will lead to loss of control or some side effect that will cause extra effort or cost to unscramble. To fight this problem, you need to present the idea as simple, logical, and bullet proof (low risk).

It also will add to your credibility if you have thought through some potential problems and have solutions to offer if these might arise. When you present a balanced and thoroughly investigated idea, it lowers the risk.

Some Other Tips

I will suggest some ideas here, but recognize that individual differences will make them successful or not depending on the circumstances. Maybe the best advice is to build a reputation for excellence and innovation in the areas you control. A track record of excellence is your best calling card.

1. Don’t Appear to be Overly Anxious or Disgruntled

If you lose your cool out of frustration, then not only will you not get approval for your project, but you will damage all future proposals. Always remain respectful and helpful. Keep stressing the benefits and remind superiors that we are all on the same team.

In some circumstances, you can even ask for a “favor” to allow your idea to be executed. This approach shows that you really care about the organization and have the initiative to bring up solid solutions. One good technique to accomplish this is to suggest a “pilot program” that can demonstrate the benefits with a lower risk.

2. Always be a Team Player

Seek out allies and friends at all levels. Make sure you are doing more than your share of the work and be generous with your praise for others. If people genuinely like you they will go to bat for you in many ways.

Also, foster good relationships with the administrative helpers of people higher in the organization. These people have more power than is sometimes realized by people lower in the organization. For one thing, they control the time agenda of the people in power, so if they like you it means you can get more access.

In addition, the administrative assistant is privy to discussions that go on when you are not around. If the person likes you, he or she will tip you off if you are coming on too strong or in some other way hurting your own agenda.

3. If You Get Approval, Make Sure to Express Appreciation and Report Results

Work is really a series of initiatives, so you do yourself a favor by praising the big boss if you are granted the opportunity to show how your idea will help. Do this in writing (not texting or email). Make sure to report back the fine results of the implemented idea with expressions of further gratitude.

Basically, you want to develop a groove or pattern of successful implementation of ideas. This pattern will make future proposals have a higher chance of success and will often lead to eventual promotions for you.

Gaining and maintaining a reputation that causes senior leaders to be eager to hear your ideas is a daunting task, but it is possible to accomplish through the application of excellent political skills.

Selling your ideas is an ultimate test of your professional capability. Study the ideas above and add more to your repertoire through your own experiences.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Successful Supervisor Part 1 – The Critical Junction

November 21, 2016

This is the first part of a series of short articles on how to be or create a more successful supervisor. Each part will be posted in this blog.

As of this writing, I cannot tell how many episodes there will be. Readers are encouraged to comment on any of the parts, which may create additional dialog along with more key points.

I believe one of the most challenging jobs in the management ranks is that of first line supervisor. Since different organizations use various terminology for the same function, let me define the role I am discussing in this series.

In every business, there is a junction between the working group of employees and the management levels. In most cases, the junction is between non-exempt and exempt employees.

Individuals in these roles have huge responsibility and are often caught in a kind of squeeze play between management and workers. Think about your own situation, whether you are operating as a supervisor or trying to coach people in that role; this series provides ideas that can help make work life more enjoyable and effective regardless of your position.

The viewpoint from above

There is a whole network of management layers working in a matrix to accomplish organizational goals. The supervisor represents the layer that translates the needs of the organization directly to the people who actually make the product or provide the service.

From this perspective, upper management counts on the supervisor level to keep things running efficiently and provide the motivational impetus to the workers (Note: this is often referred to erroneously as “motivating the troops” as I will describe in a future post.)

The viewpoint from below

There is a two-level system of workers and managers. The supervisor is the person in the organization that is both worker and manager, but really this person represents “management” to the workers.

The supervisor becomes the focal point for everything going on in the organization, whether that is good or bad in the opinion of the workers.

These two distinct perspectives result in a kind of inter-organizational tension that the supervisor is supposed to resolve in both directions simultaneously. It is incredibly challenging because a statement that might be viewed as positive to the employees, might have the wrong spin from the management perspective, and vice versa.

Recognize that the supervisor role is often a thankless task that is poorly understood from both directions. If you are a management person who is blessed with individuals who are excellent at the supervisor role, consider yourself very lucky and cherish these people for the work they do.

If you have people who are not well suited for this role, consider whether you should get them some training or perhaps find them a different role where they, and the organization, are simultaneously better off.

If you are or have been in a supervisor role yourself, I hope these articles provide some support and ideas to lighten your load. You have an incredibly important role to play, and often are not given the tools you need to do it well.

I will offer many ideas and resources you can use to make your work experience more enjoyable and successful. Here is a partial list of the topics we will be discussing over the next several weeks:

• How to improve the initial success when a new supervisor is named
• How supervisors can maintain control without coming across as a tyrant
• The methods by which supervisors can build and maintain trust
• How to reduce the tendency to use rank as leverage
• How to employ peer pressure without the danger of backlash
• Techniques to please both the top brass as well as the workers simultaneously
• The secret to inspiring motivation, and the mistakes to avoid in doing so
• How body language is the most valuable communication tool that is often overlooked or misunderstood
• How to see what is really going on and not be fooled by the appearance of things
• Employing superior listening techniques to get to a full understanding
• Why Emotional Intelligence is the key leadership skill and how to harness it
• How to give more effective employee reviews that drive true motivation
• The steps to create a great culture where everyone is fully engaged

Whether you are a new supervisor, an incumbent supervisor, or a manager who is coaching supervisors, this series of articles will provide accessible education and insight at no cost.

The segments are laid out in small chunks of pragmatic and tested advice that will provide the basis for continuous improvement and excellence in supervisory skills.

Please join us for this series by clicking on the “Sign me up” button on the right side of your screen. You will receive an e-mail every time a new episode is posted (usually once a week).

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Smart is Dumb

January 3, 2015

Dud ManagerIn his famous program, “Effective Negotiating,” Chester A. Karrass, makes the observation that, in negotiations, often appearing dumb is a great strategy.

The idea is that acting naïve causes the other party to fill in some blanks with information that may ultimately be helpful to you in the negotiation.

Conversely, acting as if you know everything is usually a bad strategy, because you end up supplying too much information too early in the conversation. This habit gives your opponent in the negotiation a significant advantage.

As I work with leaders in organizations of all sizes, a similar observation could be made about leadership. Being dumb is sometimes smart, and being too smart is often dumb. Let’s examine some examples of why this dichotomy is a helpful concept.

To make enlightened decisions, leaders need good information. It sounds simple, but in the chaos of every day organizational issues, it is sometimes difficult to determine which set of information is true.

Rather than blurting out their preconceived notion of what is going on, if leaders would simply act a little confused, like the brilliant detective Colombo, they would elicit far more information from other people.

The way to execute this strategy is simple. Refrain from making absolute statements, and ask a lot of open ended questions. This draws out alternate points of view from individuals and allows the leader to hear many nuances before tipping his or her hand.

When leaders display hubris, and expound their perspective on every issue before others have a chance to voice their ideas, it stifles collaboration and creativity.

Therefore, being smart is often a dumb strategy. Of course, no rule of thumb works in every situation. Leaders need to know when the time is right to divulge their opinion.

Unfortunately, due to over active egos, most leaders like to weigh in on issues far too early. This colors objective conversation and cuts off interesting alternate perspectives.

The same logic holds when making decisions after the information has been gathered. If leaders would say, “I wonder what we should do,” instead of, “Here is what we have to do,” they would draw out the best ideas available.

Smart is dumb and dumb is smart in terms of getting a smorgasbord of options from which to choose.

The antidote to this problem is simple. Leaders need to understand this dynamic and catch themselves in the act. By being alert to the dangers of advocating too early, leaders can improve their batting average at allowing everyone to enter the conversation at an appropriate level.

Sometimes in a crisis situation, it may be necessary for a leader to be highly directive and quick on the draw. Usually, it is better for the leader to allow conversation around sensitive issues, and then work with people to find the best solution.

If you are a leader, it is important to catch yourself on this issue and begin to train yourself to have more patience and improve your listening skills.

It has been said many times that the Lord gave us two ears and one mouth, because we should listen twice as much as we speak. Many leaders do not understand this simple logic, and it works to their detriment.

They are dumb because they are too smart.


Stretched Too Thin?

July 22, 2012

We hear that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. If you are a manager, one sure thing is that people will tell you there are not enough employees to do the job. I have yet to find an organization where the workers do not feel stretched beyond their ability.

Productivity makes an interesting study, because most behavioral scientists agree that in any organization the actual productivity is a small fraction of the capability inherent in the people. Research reported by the Gallup Organization in 2010 indicates that for average organizations, only 33% of the workers are engaged, 49% of them are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged. This low productivity is usually not the fault of the workers, but the result of a poor culture established by top leaders.

The paradox here is that while there is a perpetual outcry for more people in most organizations, the human resources that are available are grossly underutilized. By establishing a culture of higher trust, managers can change the equation dramatically.

We do not need more people; we need better utilization of the people we already have. How do we solve the age-old mystery of getting higher levels of effort and engagement on the part of people? The irony is that when managers look to improve productivity, they often focus on numerous other things and forget that true productivity lies with the motivation of people.

For example, I read an interesting article on productivity in the Encyclopedia of Management 2006, which gives 17 ways to improve productivity in an organization. They are:

1. capital investments in production
2. capital investments in technology
3. capital investments in equipment
4. capital investments in facilities
5. economies of scale
6. workforce training and experience
7. technological changes
8. work methods
9. procedures
10. systems
11. quality of products
12. quality of processes
13. quality of management
14. legislative and regulatory environment
15. general levels of education
16. social environment
17. geographic factors

Notice the amazing lack of motivational aspects in this list. The only factor in the whole list that has much to do with motivation is item 13, quality of management. True, we can improve productivity with capital investments or systems, but the real gold is changing the morale of the people doing the work. That takes an investment of a different kind. My thesis is that the missing ingredient in productivity is trust.

The Trust Across America Organization has gathered some compelling data over the past decade that shows corporations with high trust achieve 500-600% greater returns than the S&P 500. So productivity, and the resulting profits, are available if we can only educate leaders on how to build and maintain higher trust. That revelation means we can stop whining about not enough people and start focusing more effort on the skills needed to grow trust.

Improving the level of trust in an organization starts at the very top. The most senior managers must recognize it is their behaviors and the signals they send that set the tone for everything that happens in their organization. There are several groups and consultants, including myself, who specialize in helping organizations understand the pathways to higher trust.

I recommend that all top managers have a key thrust to change their behavior patterns so that trust begins to grow from the highest levels. Once started, the improvement in trust will naturally flow down through the entire organization, and the first thing you know, the outcry for more people will become muted. The employees are there just waiting to put their shoulder into the work once they are treated the right way.


Challenge “Samers”

July 8, 2012

I often hear a phrase coming from the lips of hiring managers that makes me cringe. “We want to hire someone who will fit into our group.” A lot of effort is expended in screening candidates with personality tests, multiple interviews, even role plays in order to determine that the new hire will be similar in thinking to the existing team. I think this is a big mistake.

It is often the maverick or even outcast among a group of people who comes up with the genius solutions to problems or creates entirely new streams of income. When we seek to have everyone “fit in” we lose the potential for diversity of thought that is a major part of the creative process.

My leadership team was blessed with a mixture of line managers from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicity, and gender. These were in a constant state of flux because all were growing and moving in their careers, creating slots for others.

Often, it was the minority representation that brought the group up short when we were off base. They would help us realize our gut perspectives were not to be trusted. They would point out when we slipped into a dangerous “group think” or “monoculture” mentality.

In “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership,” Steven Sample described it this way:

“A highly homogeneous organization is as susceptible to disease and infestations as a large biological monoculture. Every farmer knows that when he and his neighbors plant tens of thousands of contiguous acres in a particular variety of wheat year after year, that variety will soon become vulnerable to new diseases or new strains of insects. Ecosystems that are biologically diverse are much tougher and more resilient in the long run than monocultures, and so it is with organizations that contain a wide variety of people working toward a common goal.”

It was important to have a variety of people on the team and critical to listen when they pointed out our naiveté. It kept us growing and searching for a greater appreciation of diversity. Although no group ever fully understands the issue, at least if we embrace diversity, we can be a little less blind.

Obviously, it is a good idea to avoid putting a person on the team who is a total misfit, is disruptive, or always brings up a contrary point of view creating dissent. Instead, try to foster a mixture of ideas and points of view by following the actions:

1. If personality tests are used to screen candidates, seek to place people with different style patterns.

2. During interviews, try to determine the level of independent thinking while also determining an appropriate level of teamwork.

3. When asking about prior experiences and background, put high value on skills that will add new dimensions to the existing team rather than map closely with existing team skills.

4. Do not look for clones in terms of demographic and ethnic characteristics. Always seek to increase the variety of the team where possible.

5. Seek to make strategic moves of people from one team to another that will add diversity of thought to both groups.

6. Continually reinforce the idea that we can gain our greatest strength from diversity.

Building a strong team means not going the comfortable route where we hire and place people just like us. That is a formula for mediocrity.


Death by Micromanagement

May 27, 2012

Everybody hates to be micromanaged. So why do so many managers do it? We know that overbearing, but well intended, managers micromanage all the time in an attempt to optimize performance. I will identify the cure for this habitual dilemma in this article.

The problem is that by micromanaging people, the manager is severely limiting performance rather than optimizing it, so the manager is operating at cross purposes to his stated goal. Unwittingly, the manager is removing incentive for effort and creativity on the part of the employee. We are so familiar with this problem simply because it is rampant in our organizations (Bielaszka-DuVernay, Harvard Business Review, June 23, 2008). Let us contrast micromanagement versus trust to give some insight on how the latter leads to greatly enhanced performance.

To micromanage someone implies a lack of trust. The manager is not confident the employee can or will do a job correctly, so the employee is besieged with “helpful” instructions from the manager on exactly how to perform tasks. At first, the intrusion is simply irritating to the employee, who has her own ideas on how to do the job. After a while, it degenerates into an opportunity to check out mentally and join the legion of disenchanted workers doing what they are told and collecting a paycheck. This leaves the employee’s power on the door step of the organization every day.

Another drawback is that employees will try to avoid a manager who tends to micromanage, simply to reduce the aggravation. This leads to a circular decline, where the manager has less and less information, so he tries even harder to intervene and direct activities. This makes people want to avoid him even more.

To trust an employee is to think enough of the person to treat him or her as a thinking person who can have good ideas if given a goal and some broad operating parameters. In an environment of trust, employees have the freedom to explore, innovate, create, stretch, and yes, sometimes make mistakes. These mistakes can be thought of as waste, but enlightened leaders think of them simply as learning opportunities.

Here are nine ideas that can help leaders and managers reduce the tendency to micromanage, thus unleashing a greater portion of the power available to the organization.

1. Set clear goals and make sure your employees have the basic skills and tools to do the job.
2. Be clear on the broad constraints within which the employee must operate. In other words do not let the employee try to conquer the world with a tuna-fish can.
3. Express trust in the employee and encourage creativity and risk taking as long as the risks are well-considered and safe.
4. Reject the temptation to step in if the employee seems to struggle, rather make yourself available if there are any questions or requests for help.
5. Provide the resources the employee needs to accomplish the tasks.
6. Do not totally overload the employee with so many duties and projects that she cannot succeed at any of them.
7. Express praise and gratitude for positive baby steps along the way.
8. Give the employee time and space to try different approaches without having to explain why she is doing every step.
9. If problems occur, consider them as learning experiences and ask the employee to describe how she will do things differently next time.

These nine ideas are all simple, but they are nearly impossible for a micromanager to accomplish without constant effort. The concept of trusting employees does involve some risk, but the rewards of having people working up to their full potential rather than just complying is well worth that risk. You will see better, faster, and more robust solutions if you trust people and let their natural talents surface in an environment of less micromanagement.


The Sandwich: I Won’t Bite

September 4, 2011

There are literally thousands of leadership courses for managers. In most of them, one of the techniques advocated is called the “sandwich” method. The recommended approach when a leader has a difficult message to deliver is to start with some kind of positive statement about the other individual. This is followed by the improvement opportunity. Finally, the leader gives an affirming statement of confidence in the individual. Some people know this method as the C,C,C technique (compliment, criticize, compliment).

The theory behind the sandwich approach is that if you couch your negative implication between two happy thoughts, it will lessen the blow and make the input better tolerated by the person receiving the coaching. The problem is that this method usually does not work, and it often undermines the credibility of the leader. Let’s examine why this conventional approach, as most managers use it, is poor advice.

First, recall when the sandwich technique was used on you. Remember how you felt? Chances are you were not fooled by the ruse. You got the message embodied in the central part of the sandwich, the meat, and mentally discounted the two slices of bread. Why would you do that? After all, there were two positive things being said and only one negative one. The reason is the juxtaposition of the three elements in rapid fire left you feeling the sender was insincere with the first and last element and really only meant the central portion.

A manager might be able to slip the sandwich technique past you at the start of a relationship. At that point, you do not have a pattern to guide your subconscious thought. Later, if the manager has a habit of using the sandwich, you will become so adept that you will actually hear the second and third part of the sandwich coming up before they are even uttered by your manager.

This interesting phenomenon also occurs in e-mail exchanges. Managers often use the sandwich approach in an e-mail. It might sound like this:

“Your review of the financial information this morning was excellent, Mike. The only improvement I can see is to use more charts and fewer tables of figures to keep the meeting more lively. Given your strong track record, I am sure you can make this tiny adjustment with ease.”

If you know this boss well, you can anticipate there is going to be a “but” in the middle long before the boss brings it up. The last part is a feeble attempt to prop you up after the real message has been delivered. If you received this message, chances are you would have internalized the following: “Stop putting everyone to sleep with your boring tables and use colorful charts to show the data.” You would probably miss the compliment at the start because it was incongruent with the second message, and you would certainly discount the drivel at the end of the message because it was insincere.

It is not always wrong to use a balanced set of input, in fact, if done well, it is helpful. If there really is some specific good thing that was done, you can start with that thought. Make the sincere compliment ring true and try to get some dialog on it rather than immediately shoot a zinger at the individual. Then you can bring the conversation to the corrective side carefully. By sharing an idea for improvement, you can give a balanced view that will not seem manipulative or insincere. Try to avoid the final “pep talk” unless there is something specific that you really want to stress. If that is the case, then it belongs upfront anyway.

Examine your own communication with people, especially subordinates, to reduce the tendency to use the sandwich approach mechanically, particularly if you have to stretch to find the nice things to say. You may find it hard to detect the sandwich in your spoken coaching, but it will be easier to spot in your written work. The habit is particularly common when writing performance reviews or when trying to encourage changes in behavior.

The sad thing for the boss is that he or she was actually taught that the sandwich technique is normally a good thing to do. That makes it easy to fall into a pattern of doing it subconsciously and not realize that it is actually lowering your own credibility, unless it is used very carefully, because you come across as insincere. How can you reduce the tendency to use the sandwich approach if you already have the habit?

The first antidote is to become aware when you use it. That means you need to be especially alert when giving verbal input. It also means proofreading notes where you are rating people or trying to change behavior. When you see the sandwich being used, change it. Give the request for modified behavior with no preamble or postscript in the same breath. Just frame up the information in as kind a way as you can, but be sincere in your words. Do share a balance of positive and negative things as they apply, but do it naturally, not in a forced, 1,2,3 pattern.

A second way to stop using the technique is to teach others to stop using it. The best way to learn anything is to teach it to others. As you help others see their bad habit, it will remind you that it sometimes shows up in your own communication. If you can reduce your tendency to use the sandwich approach by 50-80%, you will become a more polished and effective leader.

The third way to prevent this problem is to encourage the teachers of “Management 101” to stop suggesting this technique in the first place. It is not an effective method of changing behavior. Instead teach leaders to give both positive and corrective feedback in a natural way and only include sincere and specific praise, never force something to butter up the other person. People have a keen ability to sniff out insincere praise, especially if it is just after being corrected for doing something wrong.


Downsizing Mistakes

August 14, 2011

Every organization deals with downsizing occasionally in a struggle to survive hard economic conditions. These times are true tests of the quality of leadership. In many cases, downsizing leads to numerous problems in its wake, especially lower trust.

The most crucial shortage threatening our world is not oil, money, or any other physical resource. It is the lack of enlightened leaders who know how to build trust and transparency, especially when draconian actions are contemplated. We are at an all-time low in terms of the number of leaders who can establish and maintain the right kind of environment. The outrageous scandals of the past few years are only a small part of the problem. The real cancer is in the daily actions of the leaders who undermine trust with less visible mistakes every hour of every day.

The current work climate for leaders exacerbates the problem. The ability to maintain trust and transparency during workforce reductions is a key skill most leaders lack. Downsizing is a unique opportunity to grow leaders who do have the ability to make difficult decisions in ways that maintain the essence of trust.

Thankfully, there are processes that allow leaders to accomplish incredibly complex restructurings and still keep the backbone of the organization strong and loyal. It takes exceptional skill and care to accomplish this, but it can be done. The trick is to not fall victim to the conventional ways of surgery that have been ineffective numerous times in the past. Yes, if you need to, you can cut off a leg in the backwoods with a dirty bucksaw and a bottle of whisky, but there are far safer, effective, and less painful ways to accomplish such a traumatic pruning.

One tool in a downsizing is to be as transparent as possible during the planning phase. In the past, HR managers have insisted that disclosing a need for downsizing or reorganization might lead to sabotage or other forms of rebellion. The irony is that, even with the best secrecy, everyone in the organization is well aware of an impending change long before it is announced, and the concealment only adds to the frustration.

Just as nature hates a vacuum, people find a void in communication intolerable. Not knowing what is going to happen is an incredibly potent poison. Human beings are far more resilient to bad news than to uncertainty. Information freely given is a kind of anesthesia that allows managers to accomplish difficult operations with far less trauma. The transparency works for three reasons:

1. It allows time for people to assimilate and deal with the emotional upheaval and adjust their life plans accordingly.
2. It treats employees like adults who are respected enough to hear the bad news rather than children who can’t be trusted to deal with trauma and must be sheltered from reality until the last minute.
3. It allows time to cross train those people who will be leaving with those who will inherit their work.

All three of these reasons, while not pleasant, do serve to enhance rather than destroy trust.

Full and timely disclosure of information is only one of many tools leaders can use to help maintain or even grow trust while executing unpleasant necessities. My study of leadership over the past several decades indicates that the situation is not hopeless. We simply need to teach leaders the benefits of building an environment of trust and transparency and how to obtain them. My latest book, Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind was written to help fill this urgent need. It is full of ideas for creating and maintaining trust within organizations in good times and bad.


Front Line Leaders in a Merger

January 22, 2011

I have been studying the impact of mergers or acquisitions on various stakeholders within organizations. It is impossible to state the impact on everyone in a particular organizational level because of situational and personal differences. It is, however, helpful to think through what a typical person in one level is dealing with even though the exact forces will be somewhat different in each case and perhaps vastly different in outlier circumstances. This article focuses on issues for the first level of supervision in an organization during a merger or acquisition.

In some cases, these leaders are called “group leaders” or “squad leaders;” in others, they are referred to as “supervisors.” There are probably many other names, but for the remainder of this article I will use the word “supervisor.” The common thread is that these people operate at the critical and delicate junction between management layers and workers on the shop floor.

Depending on the type of work being done, these individuals come from a variety of backgrounds. The most typical history is that the supervisor was once a shop floor person who did very well on the job over a long period of time. Eventually this individual was tapped to do the work of supervisor when an opportunity arose.

Another common trait of supervisors is that they are often put in the job with little training. Reason: They already have deep process knowledge and have shown a natural tendency toward informal leadership, so they are given the responsibility with little or no formal leadership training. In most cases it is their excellence at doing the lower level jobs and their process knowledge that enabled their promotion to supervision in the first place.

The attitudes of supervisors during a merger or acquisition are critical to how the shop floor people will react to the change. If supervisors model a cooperative and adventurous spirit and keep looking for the good, it can really help people see that positive outcomes are possible. If the supervisors are rolling their eyes and visibly displaying their own fears, then it is going to be picked up and amplified by people on the shop floor.

In a merger or acquisition situation, the shop floor processes are subject to combinations or modifications in order to accommodate the changing nature of the business. This could be threatening to supervisors, since their license to lead is their familiarity with the work rather than their deep leadership skills. Changing work means their platform to lead has been upset with little warning. Couple that with the inevitable push to reduce supervisory (and all non-direct) headcount, and you have an opportunity for some terrified people in these roles.

I believe the best approach for helping supervisors adapt to the new operating procedures is to have them work intensely with the shop floor people to invent the new combined processes. The involvement will put them in a natural leadership role during a time of significant chaos, which is precisely when a leader’s skill and talent are best developed and tested.

Another way to help these people with the transition is to conduct information sessions with top management just for the supervisors. Of course, they will be part of the general data dissemination program, but their issues and concerns will have a different flavor than other levels, so it is wise to let them vent in a safe environment that is geared for supervisors. You might even want to encourage a kind of support group, because the ability to share experiences during the transition will help ease tensions.

Lastly, if there is time and money available, the transition period is a great time to do some serious leadership training for all levels. This includes the supervisors who may not have received training at the time they were elevated to their job.

A merger or acquisition is a nervous time for everyone in both organizations. Due to the unique nature of their position in the organization, first line supervisors need some special attention in order to help them and the direct workforce cope with the uncertainty and need for change.


Leading Up by Example

May 9, 2010

My business is helping to grow leaders with a focus on building higher trust within their organizations. When I work with leaders at every layer except the highest level, they typically get very excited at the potential of working on trust within their area. After some education on the impacts of trust in numerous dimensions occurring simultaneously, they salivate over the improvement opportunities that are ripe for the picking. As we discuss the behavioral changes needed for leaders to foster rather than destroy trust I can see light bulbs going on in their heads.

Then, I often see a kind of sick look come across their faces as reality sets in. After a while some brave soul will offer, “This is great stuff, Bob, but the boss does not believe in this kind of “soft skills” training. He thinks it is a waste of time and money. So we are going nowhere with trust in our organization until we can get a new CEO.” This is wrong thinking because trust can be improved at any level of an organization. Sure, it is infinitely better if the example is set from the top, but if that does not happen, we do not have to wait until a retirement, replacement, death, or murder to start building a culture of trust.

The trick is to start a cell of excellence at your own level and work downward. Nearly all leaders can improve the level of trust in their sphere of influence by changing their behaviors. After a while (and it does not take very long) the improvement in performance will shine like a beacon from a lighthouse.

As the productivity and enthusiasm shout out from your corner of the organization, eventually even the most encrusted manager above you will start asking what the heck is going on in your playpen. Then, you have earned the right to explain that your investment to get some education on building trust for you and the managers working for you has changed the whole paradigm.

The higher in space you look, the more brilliant your shining star will appear to upper management, especially if there are some black holes between you and the top layers.
They will be grateful for the bottom line improvement and maybe even willing to endorse that an improved culture really does have the highest ROI of any potential project.

The impact of trust on organizations is a well documented fact. Stephen M.R. Covey states in his book The Speed of Trust that trust is not some squishy, soft variable but a hard-edged measure that has direct and profound impact on organizational performance. In the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer, Richard Edelman noted a direct correlation between US trust in business and the S&P 500 Index: “Trust, absolutely, is now a product for companies to pursue and pursue avidly. Why? Because it enables company performance and stock price to prosper. We see an interlinking of share price and trust.”
In my own books, I give several examples of the causal relationship between trust and productivity.

No executive would disagree that trust within an organization is an important component that enables excellence. It is unbelievable that so few top executives actively seek out specific training for themselves and other senior leaders on how to build and maintain trust. It is like they have it all figured out already. But if they know how to act in ways that truly build trust, why is the level of trust within the majority of corporations typically below the 50% level? Either top leadership does not truly acknowledge the relationship or they are blind to the countless trust-busting things they do daily. Were it not for these behaviors, Scott Adams wouldn’t have invented the Dilbert series and might be a plumber today.

The good news is that you can and should create a cell of excellence in building trust at your own level regardless of the attitudes of those above you. Jim Collins, author of Built to Last, Good to Great, and How the Mighty Have Fallen offers a ten point list of things every leader should do to reach his or her full potential. Number one on his list is “Build a Pocket of Excellence.” It means that you have more power than you think you have, and it is a simple matter of leading the boss from below. Rather than trying to convince the boss to spend money on training for improved trust, just show the incredible result, and then admit that you forgot to ask permission to train your managers in the first place. The boss will forgive you and might even be more willing to consider some training at the upper levels.

Another way to think about it was offered by the retired head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Tony Dungy. His advice is to “Focus on what you can control and do not dwell on what you cannot change.” That advice applies to leading from below as well. If the boss is not convinced of the payoff of improving the culture through training, go ahead and do it anyway in the area you manage. Don’t try to reeducate or convince the boss. Remember the old adage, “Never wrestle a pig, you get all muddy and the pig loves it!” If the boss forbids any such nonsense as culture training, find a clandestine way to accomplish it. Buy some books or DVDs and have managers in your area experience them and get together once a week for a lunch discussion.

There are countless ways you can change the culture in your organization by making small investments of time, and at low cost. If your boss has a negative attitude on investing in people skills for managers, you are not dead in the water. Take the initiative to get involved with someone who can help you on the journey, and you will see amazing benefits in not only performance but in knowing that you are helping everyone in your organization lead a better life.