Pills For Common Sense

October 9, 2016

An MBA student in one of my classes reacted to my lecture on how forecasts are almost always wrong by saying that you can have the most rigorous software to forecast peak loads and schedule people, but you need to temper the computer decisions with common sense. What a wonderful statement, and I could not agree more.

Having been in the corporate world for several decades and running my own business helping companies for the past 15 years, I have seen or made my share of boneheaded decisions and policies.

It would be helpful if each organization had a kind of medicine cabinet, and inside there was a bottle of sugar pills marked “Common Sense Pills.”

Workers could be allowed access to the cabinet so any time a manager proposed a new policy or decision that was counter to what the organization was really trying to accomplish, the workers could get the bottle of pills and put it on the desk of the executive.

Of course, in most cultures, that act of honesty would be followed by all kinds of retribution against the employee. You would also see a secret camera installed over the medicine cabinet so in the future there would be evidence in order to punish the correct person.

I picked up a neat phrase at a Vistage lecture several years ago (cannot remember who the speaker was). He said,

“…doing things this way is only common sense: too bad it is not common practice in most organizations.”

We really need a mechanism for making sure common sense solutions are also common practice. There is such a remedy if only leaders would invoke it.

The antidote to blundering into decisions that defy common sense is to build an environment of trust. If people know they will not be punished for voicing a concern, and if leaders have the foresight to consider and discuss the impact of possible decisions before blurting out stupid orders, then many of the errant decisions would be avoided, and the “Common Sense Pills” would grow old in the medicine cabinet.

What if you were a leader and wanted to increase trust so people would tell you when you were about to do something stupid? The answer is to reinforce people when they tell you something you really did not want to hear.

I call this leadership behavior “reinforcing candor,” and I believe it is the quickest route to building real trust in any organization. Once you start making people feel glad when they point out a potential gaff, they will do more of it, which allows more protection in the future.

The ability to reinforce candor also reduces the risk of ethical problems in the organization. Ethical dilemmas often start with innocent and legal decisions that become accepted behavior.

Then, if we can shade the numbers this way today, we can add a little more coloring tomorrow, and soon we are on the slippery slope that leads to obvious illegal or bone-headed activities.

Leaders often miss the slide of behavior into questionable areas as if they are wearing dark glasses. If you are a leader who makes people feel glad when they point out a potential problem, you will get the message soon enough that you are about to cross the ethical line. That can not only keep you out of trouble; it might even keep you out of jail!

Another way to reduce common sense errors is to have a well documented process. The organization’s procedures need to be well designed and include a review or audit process with benchmarks and check points that will expose problems. With that level of rigor, a proposed deviation from the procedures would stick out like a sore thumb.

It also helps if there are specific measures in place that everybody knows. If we get off the beam, the measures, if they are well constructed, will give us leading indicators of trouble to come. If you are an employee and see something wrong, you can use these measures or audits to approach leaders in an objective and non-threatening way.

Most leaders punish people who challenge an action, and that behavior lowers trust. That is when employees need to start reaching for the Common Sense Pills again. Instead, foster an open environment where your employees are allies who help you run an excellent organization.

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


Less Control Can Mean Better Results

January 26, 2013

JoystickThe advice in the title sounds backward, doesn’t it? The typical knee-jerk reaction when things are not going according to desires at work is for managers to add more controls. This is an effort to get more people to do what they are supposed to do, so performance will improve. Only one problem: most of the time greater control translates into lower performance.

The reason why more control is usually the worst course of action has to do with motivation. In most organizations, there is already too much control over what people do. Policy manuals and specific rules for how we do things are installed for a reason, and woe be to anybody who breaks the rules.

The signal being sent by management is that they do not trust people to do the right thing. When managers heap more rules onto the already steaming pile of procedures, people become more disillusioned, and motivation takes a hit. Result: people comply begrudgingly, but will not go beyond simple compliance. The organization suffers as workers leave most of their discretionary effort on the front steps.

Great managers realize that by reducing the control, performance often increases and does so in dramatic ways. In Smart Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey and Greg Link give ample evidence that when employees are trusted to do what is right, they normally rise to the occasion, and remarkable things start to happen. The book has literally hundreds of data points to show there is a definite trend here, but one example, in particular, caught my eye.

I like the story of Gordon Bethune, who took over the helm at Continental Airlines in 1994. At that time, Continental was approaching its third bankruptcy, and performance measures in all areas were the worst in the industry. The workers had been so abused by managers applying onerous rules and regulations that they were just going through the motions, and Gordon did not blame them. He was smart enough to recognize he would need to repair their spirits before he could get them to perform. He likened the daunting task of turning around their enthusiasm to being the adopted parents of severely abused children. He would have to earn their trust before he could begin to restore their enthusiasm for the work. But how could he do that?

In a number of steps, he started to show employees that he had more faith in them than in the rule books. In fact, at one point, he had company policy manuals taken out to the parking lot where he had them burned publicly. Rather than rely on controlling rules, he let the people know the objectives and broad operating methods, but let the employees use their own judgment in making the decisions on day-to-day activities.

Over the next decade, Continental Airlines, with this new philosophy of fewer rules and higher trust, began to win customer service awards. Their stock price went from $2 to over $50, and in Bethune’s final year, Fortune ranked Continental the Most Admired Global Airline. Let’s sum it up. Fewer rules and higher trust allowed a nearly dead airline to rise to a predominant position. Why? Because the power of the people is what you need to run any successful organization.

Covey and Link give a five part formula in the book that creates a pathway toward an enduring trust that is neither blind or naive. It is what they call Smart Trust. I recommend the book for any manager who is struggling with poor performance and a situation of over control.

It is important not to just throw away all procedures, because some of them are needed for legal purposes or to ensure standard practices in complex and critical situations. Managers should stop trying to account for every situation that might go wrong. They should stop trying to direct people how to react to every single scenario, because it chokes out the creativity and enthusiasm of the workforce.

The secret is to have specific processes only where they are needed, and allow people to use their brains when an off-standard condition requires quick thinking. For example, there may be a set procedure for investigating the situation before granting a customer refund, but there will be times when it is wiser to ignore the rule and immediately accept the customer’s word.

When managers allow people to use their God-given intelligence, they nearly always do the right thing, and if they make a mistake it is usually a small one. If the rulebook is so heavy that it takes hours to find out the proper way to react to a given situation, what you will get is simple compliance most of the time, but you will miss the opportunity to have a fully engaged workforce.


Clean Out Your Clutter

October 7, 2012

Most of us need a reminder once in a while to clean out our clutter. This article is about the topic of clutter in various parts of our lives and how we need to keep it from building up. If you have the personal discipline never to have a cluttered desk or workbench, stop reading and give yourself a medal for being so organized. The rest of us will pick apart the concept of clutter and find some coping mechanisms.

First, it would be good to identify exactly what clutter is. Clutter is that set of things (or ideas) that once served a useful purpose in our lives, but now are no longer useful. For example, if you look in your cupboard or pantry, you are likely to find some condiments or food items that expired over a year ago. If you think about it, these items are not safe to eat, and you will never use them. They remain on the shelf taking up valuable space, but they will not be consumed by you or anyone else. To throw them out would be the smart thing to do, but we continue to work around these artifacts and simply refuse to do what is obviously right.

Look in your closet. There are probably clothes in there that you intellectually know you will never wear again. Your body shape is not going to return to the size that would allow these items ever to be wearable by you, and you cannot legitimately give them to someone else. Yet, year after year, they remain in your closet taking up space and leaving the place a cluttered mess.

Keeping clutter is not just a bad habit for people; it is also a problem for organizations. In any organization, there are procedures and processes that have no current purpose, but we continue to do them out of momentum. They sap energy and time from our current operation, but we fail to stop them. An example might be a daily report that nobody pays any attention to anymore. It may be the ancient Mimeograph supplies in the stationery cabinet. They will sit there for decades in their unopened boxes, even though the Mimeograph machine was tossed out in 1975. You probably have ink cartridges or toner for printers that no longer exist in your office. The list goes on and on. Spare parts for machines we no longer own; old Christmas decorations; trade show posters collecting dust; a broken vase; these are all items that can be found in most office store rooms, and there are thousands of other examples if you think about it.

There is also mental clutter that clogs our brains with old ideas that do not apply in our current world, or maybe never did apply very well. For example, many managers still practice a “command and control” philosophy, clinging to the ancient belief that in order to get things done they need to scare people into compliance. Managers may believe that to “motivate” people, all they need to do is add some extrinsic goodies like t-shirts, pizza parties, or hat days. Those ideas went out with Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory over 60 years ago, yet every day I still see managers trying to motivate people with extrinsic rewards.

How can we get a handle on clutter and remove much of it from our lives? To start with, we need to be able to actually see the clutter in a different form than we usually do. I think one way is to do campaigns where we remove every single bottle of lotion or shampoo from a cupboard and then only replace those items we are likely to use in the future. You can do one cupboard or closet a day and have an entire room cleaned up in a week. You can set aside three consecutive days on your calendar to do the garage or attic. Just be sure to have a dumpster handy and a wheel barrow to carry the junk out to it.

With the office procedures, why not have a “clean out” day where we challenge all of the rituals and things that take up our time. There is a formal process for this called “work out.” The idea is to take the useless work out of our processes so we can spend our precious time only on the things that matter, thus de-cluttering our processes. The concepts of lean thinking and “5S” principles are particularly helpful for these clean out activities.

The benefits of cleaning out your clutter is that you make room to put the vital few things for your current existence front and center where they are readily available and not hidden among the piles of useless garbage that has built up over the years. In the event that you need to downsize your environment in the future (and we all eventually do) you will need to throw out the clutter anyway, why not start now and enjoy some more usable resources today.