Successful Supervisor 22 – Foundations to Build Trust

April 16, 2017

We are all aware of things we can do that build higher trust. In my seminars on trust, I ask groups to name some things that build trust, and they quickly create a list of dozens of behaviors in just a few minutes.

For example, here are a few of the things typically named that will help to build trust:

• Operate with integrity
• Do what you say
• Use the Golden Rule
• Be respectful of others at all times
• Admit mistakes
• Be as transparent as possible

These actions and hundreds of others like them are needed to build and maintain trust at all levels of management. Each level has a different focus on why these things are important, and at the supervisor level employees look for these behaviors constantly.

Because of the span of control, supervisors must be alert to applying these behaviors in a consistent manner to avoid the perception of playing favorites, which is a major trust buster, especially among first level employees.

The conundrum is that while we know numerous things that will build trust within an organization, in most organizations there is still a serious lack of trust.

I believe the reason is that there are four conditions that form a foundation on which all of the other trust-building behaviors rest that makes them work. These four conditions provide a deep understanding of the nature of trust in an organization, so they act like the concrete blocks upon which we ultimately construct a lasting building.

This article will name these four conditions and describe why I believe having this foundation underneath the common behaviors gives them much more power to build trust. Then I will explain why these concepts are just as important at the supervisory level as they are at higher management levels.

Condition 1 – The First Law of Trust

Trust is reciprocal. You trust every person you know at some level, and that person also trusts you at some level. The levels are not always the same, and they fluctuate based on the transactions between you and the other person.

Any communication between the two of you will impact the trust level for both people. It may be face to face conversation, a phone call, e-mail or texting, or even body language at a meeting that impacts trust either positively or negatively.

Trust may go up in one direction but down in the other direction from the same transaction. It is a highly dynamic system.

When you extend more trust to another person, he or she will instinctively respond by showing more trust in you. This “First Law of Trust,” as I call it, is not true 100% of the time, but it is directionally right with such high frequency that it makes a pretty good law of nature.

If you want more trust with another person, find ways to show more trust first.

Condition 2 – Values-based Behaviors

When I begin work with new clients, I always ask if they operate from a set of values. Normally the senior leader is able to produce a list of some values that the group has adopted. Sometimes the values are on a plaque on the wall, and other times they are buried somewhere in a desk drawer.

I then ask the senior leaders point blank if they always follow the values, even when it means making a difficult decision.

The question is usually followed by a pregnant pause and finally someone says, “Well we try to follow the values at all times, but sometimes it is impossible.” While the answer is an honest one, it really signals a kind of hypocrisy that leads to organizational dry rot of trust.

The correct answer must be “yes” at all times in order to preserve trust.

When leaders adopt values they cannot abide by in all circumstances, they set themselves up for failure. That is why one tempting value: “People are our most important asset” is a dangerous one.

If people are really our most important asset, then when there is a downturn in business, we will keep the workforce and sell buildings or other assets to survive. Few companies actually do that, so it is unwise to adopt that phrase as a core value. You simply must abide by the values you advertise or trust becomes a casualty.

The specific values adopted at the supervisor level must mirror the values set at higher levels. There may be some different phrasing to make it apply to first line employees, but the intent needs to add up to the same conclusion or the organization will not be aligned.

Condition 3 – Balanced Accountability

The word “accountability” has become more popular in recent years. It is a shame that in most organizations accountability takes the form of a “gotcha” mentality where all accountability discussions are negative.

My observation is that most people on most days go to work intent on doing the right things for the right reasons. They need to be held accountable in a positive way for the things they are doing right and in a corrective way for the things that did not get done correctly or on time.

If the accountability discussions were not always focused on missed opportunities, then people would not get the impression that the only time they hear from supervision is when they mess up.

I invented the phrase “hold people procountable,” which means that we need to feedback performance that is directionally right as well as the corrective feedback. The nature of the feedback needs to be proportional to the holistic nature of the performance.

This philosophy should be spread across the entire organization, but it is particularly important for the supervisor, who is working at the critical junction between management and the workers. Negative accountability discussions are often the downfall of an inexperienced supervisor.

Condition 4 – Reinforce Candor

This fourth condition I believe has more power to create trust than any other leadership behavior. That is why it is one of the foundational conditions. It consists of creating an environment of low fear where people believe it is a good thing to point out areas where the behavior of higher managers is monitored for consistency.

If something appears to be inconsistent with our values or ethical standards, employees know they will be rewarded rather than punished for bringing it up.

I believe “the absence of fear is the incubator of trust,” and the logic holds at all levels of the organization.

Supervisors can improve the level of trust by making sure all employees know their observations are valued and appreciated. In practice it is not easy to reward someone who points out that some of your behaviors appear to be hypocritical.

Make a special effort to make sure when an employee questions a decision or action on your part that the employee walks away glad that he brought it up.

If the preceding four elements are in place, then I believe the foundation is laid where all the other things that create higher trust will be highly effective.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on 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, or 585.392.7763

Successful Supervisor 21 – The Importance of Trust

April 8, 2017

In my seminars on trust, I always do an exercise that illustrates the pivotal importance of trust in any organization.

In this experiential exercise I split the group up into small discussion groups and give each group a different dimension to work on by answering the following question: for your dimension, can you contrast what it is like to try to accomplish it if you are working with a high trust group versus a low trust group?

I could think up dozens of dimensions to explore, but to keep the exercise bounded in terms of time, I use only nine dimensions with groups. Here is a list of the nine dimensions along with my comments on the contrast of trying to do them in a high versus low trust group.

1. Solving Problems

In organizations of high trust, problems are dealt with easily and efficiently. In low trust organizations, problems become huge obstacles as leaders work to unscramble the mess to find out who said what or who caused the problem to spiral out of control.

Often feelings are hurt or long term damage in relationships occurs. While problems exist in any environment, they take many times longer to resolve if there is low trust.

In addition, the creative ideas of people are more readily accessible to the group when people aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

Sometimes a lack of trust can cause small problems to bloom into first class disasters.

A good example of this progression is the Challenger Disaster in 1986. The Rogers Commission (1987) found that NASA’s organizational culture and decision making process were key contributing factors of the accident. Technicians who were aware of a problem did not feel it was safe to bring it up due to low trust levels.

2. Focused Energy

People in organizations with high trust do not need to be defensive. They focus energy on accomplishing the Vision and Mission of the organization. Their energy is directed toward the customer and against the competition.

In low trust organizations, people are myopic and waste energy due to infighting and politics. Their focus is on internal squabbles and destructive turf battles.

Bad blood between people creates a litany of issues that distract supervision from the pursuit of excellence. Instead, they play referee to a bunch of adult workers who often act like children.

Trust leads to constancy of purpose as well as focus. In Managing People is Like Herding Cats (1999), Warren Bennis wrote: “A recent study showed people would rather follow individuals they can count on, even when they disagree with their viewpoint, than people they agree with but who shift positions frequently. I cannot emphasize enough the significance of constancy and focus.” (p.85)

3. Efficient Communication

When trust is high, the communication process is efficient, as leaders freely share valuable insights about business conditions and strategy.

In low trust organizations, rumors and gossip zap around the organization like laser beams in a hall of mirrors. Before long, leaders are blinded with problems coming from every direction. Trying to control the rumors takes energy away from the mission and strategy.

High trust organizations rely on solid, believable communication, while the atmosphere in low trust groups is usually one of damage control and minimizing employee unrest.

Since people’s reality is what they believe rather than what is objectively happening, the need for damage control in low trust groups is often a huge burden. Not only is verbal communication enhanced by trust, all forms of communication including e-mail, body language, and listening are improved by trust.

In A Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Steven B. Sample (2002) discusses the concept of Artful Listening which enables a leader to “…see things through the eyes of his followers while at the same time seeing things from his own perspective” (p.22). He calls this skill “seeing double.” Sample stresses that Artful Listening is enabled by trust.

4. Retaining Customers

Workers in high trust organizations have a passion for their work that is obvious to customers. When trust is lacking, workers often display apathy toward the company that is transparent to customers.

Most of us have experienced this apathy while sitting in a restaurant where the service is poor. If there is a low trust environment, we feel an uncomfortable tension that discourages our future return to that establishment.

All it takes is the roll of eyes or some shoddy body language to send valuable customers looking for alternatives.

5. A “Real” Environment

People who work in high trust environments describe the atmosphere as being “real.” They are not playing games with one another in a futile attempt to outdo or embarrass the other person.

Rather, they are focused toward a common goal that permeates all activities. When something is real, people know it and respond positively.

When trust is high, people might not always like each other, but they have great respect for each other. That means, they work to support and reinforce the good deeds done by fellow workers rather than try to find sarcastic or belittling remarks to make about them.

The reduction of infighting creates hours of extra time spent achieving business results.

6. Saving Time and Reducing Costs

High trust organizations get things done more quickly because there are fewer distractions. There is no need to double check everything because people generally do things right.

In areas of low trust, there is a constant need to spin things to be acceptable and then to explain what the spin means. This takes time, which drives costs up.

In The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey relates that when trust is low, organizations pay a kind of “tax.” This tax increases costs and reduces speed (Covey, 2006).

7. Perfection not Required

A culture of high trust relieves leaders from the need to be perfect. Where trust is high, people will understand the intent of a communication even if the words were phrased poorly.

In low trust groups, the leader must be perfect because people are poised to spring on every misstep or misstatement to prove the leader is not trustworthy. Without trust, speaking to groups of people is like walking on egg shells.

The irony is that leaders should be glad when people are vocal about apparent inconsistencies between actions and values. People will not do so unless the leader has created an environment of trust.

This phenomenon was described by Noel Tichy (1997) in The Cycle of Leadership as follows: “The truth is that the leader gets nailed to the wall for failing to live the values only if he or she has created an open and honest shop. More often, people simply become demoralized and ignore the values just as the leader does” (p. 43).

8. More Development and Growth

In low trust organizations, people stagnate because there is little emphasis placed on growth. All of the energy is spent jousting between individuals and groups.

High trust groups emphasize development, so there is a constant focus on personal and organizational growth, as described in Treat People Right (Edward Lawler, 2003).


9. Better Reinforcement

When trust is high, positive reinforcement works because it is sincere and well executed.

In low trust organizations, reinforcement is often considered phony, manipulative, or duplicitous, which lowers morale. Without trust, attempts to improve motivation through reinforcement programs often backfire.

The trick is to get people to want to do the right thing through reinforcement.

Ken Blanchard (2002) in Whale Done wrote “Instead of building dependency on others for a reward, you want people to do the right thing because they themselves enjoy it” (p. 56).

Once groups wrestle with these nine dimensions and contrast what it is like to operate as part of a high trust group versus a low trust one, they understand the immense impact that trust has on every aspect of how an organization operates.

Simply put, if you have high trust, all aspects of the organization work well, but with low trust, nothing works as expected.

Seek to build trust at every level all of the time. If trust becomes compromised for any reason, move swiftly to repair it (the subject of a future article).

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on 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, or 585.392.7763

Reinforcing Candor: The Key to Building Trust

October 17, 2015

Whenever I hired a new manager in my organization, the very first conversation I had with that individual was about “reinforcing candor.”

Over a period of 30 years I’ve discovered that reinforcing candor is the single most powerful way to create trust within an organization.

For leaders, it is imperative for them to understand what this means and be able to practice it. The idea is, when an employee comes forward with a concern about something that the leader has said or done, rather than punishing the employee, the leader makes the person glad to have brought up the issue.

This behavior is not easy to do, because the leader does not see a problem with what was being done. In essence, everyone in the organization, including the leader, wears a button saying, “I AM RIGHT.”

If an employee challenges an action, then it’s only human for a leader to become defensive and punish the person in some way for bringing it up.

It takes superhuman effort on the part of leaders to consistently reinforce candor, but the impact on the organization is so great that those leaders who can understand the wisdom of this technique have a huge advantage in terms of building trust.

Without reinforcing candor, all of the other actions to build trust are somewhat blunted. They work a little bit but they are not very powerful.

Once the leader understands how to reinforce candor, a whole new world opens up, and all of the other actions to build trust work like magic.

Exercise for You: In your organization, work to reinforce candor the next time someone tells you something that you did not want to hear, but has some truth to it.

You will find it difficult at first, but the more you practice this technique, the easier it becomes, and soon you can change your entire pattern of behavior when you’re challenged.

The ability to reinforce candor is the most powerful method of creating trust, because it allows a safe environment where employees know they will not be punished when they bring up scary stuff. I call this skill the key for building trust.

What if you are not the top leader but wish to be a positive influence on that person? If you can get the top leader in an organization to reinforce candor more, trust will spread rapidly throughout the entire population.

The challenge is how to get the leader to develop the skill and patience to reinforce candor when he or she may not see the need to do so.

Here are six ideas that can help encourage a leader to practice reinforcing candor. Try to use these in the spirit of helpfulness rather than manipulation. The idea is to help shape behavior over time, so if any of these ideas are creating tension, back off and go slower.

1. Start by planting a seed in the leader’s mind that there is a potential for a much better culture if higher trust can be generated. Point out that trust grows when people are made to feel glad when they bring up their concerns.

2. All leaders want higher trust, so the opportunity to make things better by some changes in their behavior should be appealing.

3. Start small. The goal is for the leader to see the benefits of reinforcing candor and try to be less defensive when people push back on actions or statements.

4. Model the principle of reinforcing candor yourself when working with the leader.

5. Talk openly about how you are using the skill and ask how the leader is responding to it.

6. Catch the leader applying these techniques and praise the effort. Also make note of the positive response on the part of the person who was reinforced for being candid.

No leader will ever get to 100% perfection at reinforcing candor, but if the percentage can go from 5% (which is about what most leaders typically achieve) to something like 70% of the time, the culture will make a seismic shift toward higher trust in short order.

You can help shape the behavior of your leader toward the benefits of reinforcing candor. It may take a while for the concept to gain traction, but once the leader experiences the forward progress, he or she will be anxious to do more of it.

The preceding was derived from an episode in “Building Trust,” a 30 part video series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to

Trust and Reinforcement

September 5, 2015

AwesomeIn groups with high trust, management attempts to reinforce workers usually work well. People are appreciative that management notices good performance and expends effort to recognize them.

Since reinforcement is one of the best ways to shape future performance, any organization that has high trust between management and the workers has a significant advantage.

In groups with low trust, attempts to reinforce workers are often met with apathy or suspicion, and they frequently backfire. This reaction happens because of the low trust, and workers feel the reinforcement is likely some form of manipulation.

Here is an example of how an attempt to reinforce workers did not work well.

Marvin was the big boss in the organization where I worked. He wanted to reinforce a group of employees who had put in a lot of overtime over several weeks. He asked the manager to buy theater tickets for everyone in the department.

The problem was that he failed to provide a similar reinforcement to another department who worked in the same building and had put in similar crazy hours. So by trying to reinforce one group, Marvin caused significant loss of motivation in the other.

It was an ugly scene, and he tried to smooth things by buying tickets for the second department, but the damage had already been done.

Although reinforcement is a powerful way to improve performance if done well, it can be a minefield if there is not a basis for trust behind it because it feels manipulative.

People ask “what is he up to now,” or say “there must be something more he wants from us,” or “uh oh, he is trying to butter us up to tell us some bad news.”

Often thoughtless leaders try to reinforce workers from their own personal perspective rather than the perspective of the workers themselves.

An example is the supervisor who decided to have an ice cream social to celebrate a production milestone.

He had forgotten that over half of the workers had signed a pledge to lose 20% of their weight in an effort toward better health.

Most of the workers boycotted the social, and the hapless supervisor ended up with the scoop in his hand and a lot of melted ice cream. Worse, his crude attempt to celebrate with the workers made him the laughing stock of the production area.

Here are six ways that well-intended managers blow it when trying to reinforce workers:

1. Reinforcing too much with trinkets like t-shirts or hats, etc.
2. Being insincere when reinforcing
3. Having the reward something the workers really don’t want – like the ice cream story
4. Unfair application of rewards where one person or group is favored over others
5. Recognition not timely to the actions that caused them
6. Automatic or mechanical reinforcement that does not come from the heart

Exercise for you: Think about your own successes and failures when trying to reinforce people. Try to pinpoint the root cause of why any problems occurred.

Think about what could have been done differently to prevent the resulting loss of motivation. With effort, you can usually spot the error in logic and the cure. This gives you a chance to apologize and not make the same type of mistake in the future.

Reinforcement is a powerful method of improving performance, but only if it is done with skill. Having high trust is a great enabler of effective reinforcement. It helps managers avoid the many pitfalls that can happen.

The preceding was derived from an episode in “Building Trust,” a 30 part video series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to

Measuring Morale

April 13, 2013

scaleCan you measure morale accurately by simply walking into a room and observing people? I think you can. In my courses, I often ask participants to tell me the best way to measure morale. Most of them come up with the idea of an employee survey or some other form of lagging indicator, like turnover rate. While both of these techniques are useful, I think there is a far faster and more accurate way to measure the morale of people in an organization, and you can do it while there is still time to take corrective actions. All you have to do is observe the individuals, and they will give ample clues as to their morale.

Here are seven ways to measure morale by watching and listening to what people do:

1. Posture

If people are standing with one hip raised, that is a sign of a poor attitude. It is a hostile gesture where the individual has a chip on his shoulder and he is daring you to knock it off. If people are sitting in a slouched-over configuration, that may be simple fatigue or it may be they feel beaten down and fearful when managers are around. If you walk into a room and people are sitting around a table leaning back with their arms folded, you can immediately sense these folks are dug in, grumpy, and not happy. The most sensitive areas for posture are in the shoulders and the position of the spine. I once walked into a restaurant to meet up with a colleague for a chat. She was sitting in a booth with her back to me and did not see me approach. All I could see of her was the back of her head and the upper 6 inches of her shoulders. I accurately determined before seeing her face or hearing her voice that she was in crisis mode due to a family tragedy.

2. Gestures

When people are together, watch the gestures. If they are doing a lot of finger pointing as they speak, there is a hostile environment. If their hands are most often open with palms up, that means they are open to ideas and suggestions. Watch to see if the gestures remain the same as managers come in the room. For example, if people are having an animated conversation about some outside event but clam up both verbally and with gesturing when the manager walks in, it is a sign of either fear or apathy. Certainly hostile or vulgar gestures are obvious indications of poor morale. The best display of good attitudes is if the gesturing remains the same when a manager approaches. People are comfortable and not threatened by this leader.

3. Facial Expression

There are thousands of facial expressions that have meaning, and many of these are specific to the culture in which they are used. The eyes and mouth hold the most information about attitude. For example, when a manager is giving information, if people roll their eyes, the meaning is that they believe the manager is basically clueless and is wasting their time. If they are tight lipped, it is normally a sign of fear and low trust. The most positive expression for morale is a slight smile with bright open eyes and highly arched eyebrows. This expression indicates interest and openness.

4. Tone of voice

When people speak, their tone will give away how engaged they are in the conversation at hand. Apathy is easy to spot with a kind of roll-off of words in a low pitch that says “I don’t care.” If the voice is stressed and shrill, that usually connotes fear of some type. Anger is easy to detect as the voice becomes choppy and the pitch and volume go up dramatically. The sneer also can be detected as people take on a mocking tone when they mimic other people. Medium voice modulation with good diction usually means good engagement and attention.

5. Jokes

When people make jokes at the expense of the other people, it is often thought of as just kidding around. The fact is, there is always some kind of truth underlying every dig. So if people are mocking a manager for always showing up late to the meeting, it may cause a chuckle, but it actually reveals that people believe the manager has no real respect for them. Some groups are world class at making jokes at the expense of team members. I maintain this is a sign of poor rapport that will show up as lack of good teamwork. This poor behavior can be easily stopped by just coming up with a rule that we will no longer make jokes at the expense of others.

At one company where I was teaching, the rule about not making jokes at the expense of others was the third behavioral rule on their list (I always have groups create such a list). It was easy to extinguish the bad habit because we just allowed people to hold up three fingers whenever anybody violated the rule. The poor behavior, that had been going on for decades in that organization, was fully extinguished in less than one hour.

6. Word choice

When people are honestly engaged in positive conversation and are making constructive observations or ideas, it shows high morale. If they undermine the ideas of others or management, it shows a lack of respect that has its roots in low morale. If the leader asks for a volunteer and you can hear a pin drop, that is a different reaction than if three hands go up immediately. People with high morale spontaneously volunteer to help out the organization. They respect their leader and truly want him or her to succeed because they know if the leader is successful then good things will happen for them.

7. Reinforcement

In a culture of high morale, people have a tendency to praise each other and seek ways to help out other people. When morale is low, everybody is in it for themselves and will discredit the ideas or desires of other people to preserve their own status. Leaders who know how to build a culture where individuals spontaneously praise each other for good deeds can foster higher morale by that emphasis alone.

These are just seven ways you can identify the morale of a group simply by observing what people are doing and saying. You can go to the trouble of a time consuming and suspect survey, but you do not need to in order to measure morale. Measuring turnover or absenteeism will be an accurate long term reflection of morale, but by the time you get that data, the damage is already done. You have often lost the best people. By observing people every day and making small corrective actions along the way, you can prevent low morale and build an environment of higher trust. In that kind of culture, productivity will go up dramatically.

Seven Traits of Super Teams

March 31, 2013

Green Arrow Breaks Through Maze WallsIf you have ever been on a SuperTeam, you know how it felt. The group accomplished seemingly impossible goals like clockwork. The group stayed pretty much on track, and when it got off the beam, it self-corrected. People on the team shared real interpersonal affection, and the group had a lot of fun. Imagine a world where most teams functioned that way: how refreshing. What would it take to make this dream a reality?

I have been serving on and advising teams for over four decades, and I have come to the conclusion that there are seven traits that enable this kind of environment. If you are on a team that has an abundance of the following seven characteristics, I guarantee it is one of those super groups that is so rare these days.

1. Good leadership

The person in the leadership role must be an excellent leader. Reason: nothing can ruin the ability of a team to rise to greatness more quickly than a leader who cannot maintain the right kind of environment and lead by example. The leadership role can be distributed to more than one member, but there is always one person in charge at any moment, and that person needs to have excellent leadership instincts. Perfection is not required, but a values-based approach to the concept of servant leadership is fundamental, and must be there.

2. A common goal

If all members of the team are aligned behind a common goal, that forms a foundation for great teamwork. To have goal alignment, the team needs to embrace the goal or vision emotionally, not just understand it. Leaders need to foster a sense of ownership of the goal in each team member, and each person must understand his or her contribution to the goal. This alignment is accomplished best by involving all team members in establishing the goal in the first place. With universal ownership of a worthy goal, the team is off to a great start; without it the team could not function.

3. Trust and respect

Without the elements of trust and respect, team members will eventually undercut each other and cause discontent. Excellent leaders know that trust begins with them and their behaviors. It is not likely you will find a trusting team if the leader does not know how to foster trust and practice trust building behaviors daily. I believe the most important skill in building trust is to create a safe environment, where team members can voice any concerns and know they will be rewarded rather than punished. Fear is the enemy of trust and will easily destroy it. To drive out fear, leaders need to make people feel good when they voice a concern. I call it “reinforcing candor,” which is an essential ingredient in good team communication.

4. Good communication

Team members must be able to express themselves freely without fear and have the skills to listen to each other without being judgmental. Great communication skills do not come naturally, and they are not taught very well in schools. Smart leaders recognize any gaps in communication skills and provide immediate training to enable seamless and easy flow of information. Team members need to dig, not just for understanding, but for intent. The most important communication skills are listening, body language, and Emotional Intelligence. How many of us had courses in these critical skills in school? When these skills are not present, the blockages produced will hobble any efforts toward a cohesive group. Smart leaders invest in training of excellent communication skills for all team members.

5. Encouragement and reinforcement

Team members need to feel that someone truly has their back. They need to know someone really cares and will go the extra mile to ensure all members are doing their best. Reinforcement for good work must be sincere and immediate. The best reinforcement on a team is from one member to another and in a loving, spontaneous way. Good reinforcement does not need to be financial. Many times the most effective reinforcement is just a sincere thank you from another team member.

6. Discipline

Discipline should not be confused with punishment. What team members need is an understanding of the rules of engagement and a sense of resolve for upholding their end of the bargain. The most frequent source of team stress is a feeling that one or more members of the team are not pulling their weight. I believe more than 50% of all team problems are caused by this one aspect alone. Teams quickly become fractionated when there is social loafing going on among some members. The best way to avoid this is to have a team charter with expected behaviors spelled out in advance and a specific agreed-upon consequence for any member who does not pull his or her share of the load. If all members agree that a slacker will be expected to “wash the dishes for a week,” then a potential slacker is not likely to goof off. If he or she does, then the penalty has already been agreed on, so a fair application is not subject to argument. My observation is that having a solid team charter with visible consequences for social loafing is the most significant ingredient that will prevent team discord.

7. Balanced Accountability

Holding people accountable is usually a negative expression. Someone is not measuring up in some way, and is forced by others to face the fact and make corrections. I advocate a more holistic or balanced approach to accountability where the good things are reinforced in addition to some coaching on things that need to be corrected.

Great teams have a deep sense of accountability, because they have a high level of commitment to each other and the goals. Since most of the team members are making positive contributions daily, they are responsible to the team for their efforts and performance in positive ways most of the time. Acknowledging accountability for positive acts is also called “reinforcement.” If an individual does come up short on occasion, he or she receives some shaping that can be anything from some gentle coaching to a more serious discussion depending on the circumstances.

For example, if John has been regularly reinforced for his accurate reporting on the quality report, it is a much easier conversation to have when a single error occurs and his boss does some coaching on how John might prevent a future lapse. Reason: you have the string of good will as a backdrop for the coaching discussion, and you avoid the common frustration of “the only time I ever hear from them is when I do something wrong.”

All teams that have these seven elements are going to be highly successful; I guarantee it. Take away any one of them, or somehow thwart their application, and the team will suffer sub-optimal performance. Foster these seven elements in all of your teams, and they will glitter like gold and perform like SuperTeams.

Is Bribing Employees Ever OK?

December 16, 2012

bribeIs it ever a good leadership to bribe your employees? I recently asked that question in an online leadership class. We got into a very interesting discussion that highlighted the difference between four words that are often confused by managers. Those words are bribe, incentive, reward, and reinforcement. The world will not come to an end if these words are mixed, but since they represent different concepts in motivation theory, it would be wise to use them correctly.

All four of these words have the connotation of influencing people to do the things we would like to have them do. The distinction is that two words typically apply before an action is taken while the other two words usually apply after the action.

The word bribe is a well-known and loaded word. In common usage, it means we are offering people something they want in pre-payment if they will do something that they would not normally do. For example, in some cultures it is expected that airline passengers going through customs will give the customs officer some kind of “tip” in order to process their bags without hassle. That is a bribe, although we would never use the word in front of the customs officer. We have all heard stories of individuals arguing with a policeman about a potential speeding ticket and trying to offer some kind of bribe to have the ticket waived. These individuals often find a bribe is not only unsuccessful, it can lead to dire consequences.

The second type of pre-agreed payment is called an incentive. This is where a leader will challenge people to do more than expected, and they are promised a specific payment if they do it. Usually with incentives, there is no stigma associated with doing something wrong; it is merely an encouragement to do more of what is right.

Sometimes the incentives are built into a compensation plan such that they really don’t appear as separate incentives, but certainly have that same feel. For example, commissions paid for certain levels of sales are types of incentives. They are a promise made ahead of time to pay a certain amount based on the employee performing at a certain level.

When employees perform better than expected, for any number of reasons, leaders often give them extra compensation after the fact. These payments are called rewards. Often, the compensation is a token amount in recognition of the actions by the employee and are not intended to fully pay for the extra effort. Instead, they are a kind of thank you for going the extra mile.

The area of rewards can be a minefield, and there are numerous books on the potential mistakes when trying to reward people. For example, if a leader rewards an individual for a job well done, often other people feel slighted because they expended as much effort or provided more benefit to the organization than the person being rewarded. There are numerous other problems that can come up that can be devastating. It is not uncommon for well intentioned supervisors to create ill will by applying rewards poorly.

A final category is called reinforcement. Like rewards, reinforcement is something that is usually applied after actions have been taken. Reinforcement is more general than rewards. It seeks to make people feel appreciated and thanked for the things they have been doing. Usually reinforcement takes the form of verbal or written praise as opposed to tangible gifts or direct compensation. Reinforcement takes hundreds of different forms and can be as simple as a “thank you” or as complex as a group-wide celebration.

The words discussed in this article are sometimes used inappropriately. One might refer to what was intended as an incentive as some kind of bribe. Or someone might think of a form of reward as being simple recognition. It is instructive to realize there is a difference in behavior modification between promising an incentive ahead of the act versus providing a reward after the act has been completed.

To be an accurate communicator, it is important to use the right words for each application. If one of the four words described above is used in the wrong context, it can send mixed signals about a leader’s intent. That will cause a lowering of trust within the organization, and it will eventually show up on the bottom line.
Be careful when using these words to use them accurately. The concepts involved in behavior modification are critical to having people experience higher motivation as a result of reinforcing actions by leaders. They are powerful concepts, but they can be easily misused.