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Which leadership trait do you use most: Control or Wisdom?

Oliver is absolutely in control of this situation, not at all interested in Grace's wisdom!

Oliver is absolutely in control of this situation; he’s not at all interested in Grace’s participation and wisdom (shown sulking in the background)!

Being an effective leader means having control and being in control. That’s what a lot of people think, anyhow. It’s certainly true that there are times when a leader has to take the helm and move things forward. It is especially critical for a leader to take control during difficult or contentious situations. Chaos and disaster ensue if a leader can’t make a decision when he needs to.

Control creates a leadership paradox though. Being too controlling creates a host of unintended issues. When employees are tightly managed by a controlling person, you might see some of the following as evidence: flow of honest information is prevented, innovation is stifled, employees do what is minimally expected of them because they don’t feel valued or trusted, apathy is pervasive. Sometimes these outcomes are subtle, sometimes not.

Good dog trainers understand the perils of too much control. Teaching a dog to do anything based on control alone (pushing only your own needs and not understanding where the dog is coming from) might get you compliance, but you certainly will not earn respect nor loyalty from your canine partner. And the smarter the dog, the more she will resist, thus creating other behavior issues like rebellion or even worse, aggression. Think about an intelligent employee who has offered creative ideas only to be ignored and dismissed; then the employee openly bad-mouths the management. If leadership had participated in a discussion about the merits and downsides of the ideas, the employee would have had an entirely different conduct.

I’m fascinated and impressed by leaders who are making dramatic, and effective, organizational changes by giving away their control. Not just in ordinary situations like the simple example above, but in extraordinary ways that test everyone’s courage and ability to trust. Can you imagine having employees set their own salaries? Well, you need to listen to the remarkable TEDTalk given by Brazilian CEO Ricardo Semler. This is a man who has spent the last 25 years running his company — and his life — with a focus on discovering wisdom and relinquishing control. He offers brilliant, but formidable, leadership advice: he advocates tapping into the wisdom of people, rather than controlling them.

Instead of coming to each situation with answers, he comes with questions. His curiosity serves as a way to think differently about the way we work, the way we teach, and the way we live. Here are just of few of the profound questions and thoughts posed and discussed by Semler that resonated with me:

“Why do we want to know what time you came to work, what time you left, etc.?”

“Why can’t people set their own salaries?”

“How can we be taking care of people? People are the only thing we have.”

“How we design, how do we organize, for more wisdom?”

“When you think and you say, now is the time to give back — well, if you’re giving back, you took too much.”

“We’ve all learned how to go on Sunday night to email and work from home. But very few of us have learned how to go to the movies on Monday afternoon. And if we’re looking for wisdom, we need to learn to do that as well.”

There were so many other thought-provoking ideas in this 20-minute presentation; I highly recommend viewing it. It will change the way you think about how you manage and lead.

Another great resource for those in New England on the topic of employee engagement is the upcoming annual conference hosted by New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility. Held on May 4, 2015, it will be a day filled with cutting-edge ideas and inspirational networking. Hope to see you there!

Changing our workplaces to be filled with collective wisdom and limited control is certainly challenging.  But it is possible. There are some NH companies (you can meet them at the NHBSR conference) already putting their toe into the waters that Semler is advocating. Will you be one of them?

These cool rodents exposed me to a new kind of rat race

This cool rat is curious, social, and clean. He helped me understand a different kind of rat race.

This cool rat is social, curious, and clean. She gave me a new perspective about what rats are really about and it felt great to expand my horizons. In the workplace, every time we are open to a new experience, we grow, and that keeps us out of the rat race that can be so easy to get caught up in.

In today’s business world, where being busy is a badge of honor, it’s easy to get caught up in the corporate rat race. Sometimes the pressure comes from a demanding organizational culture, sometimes we impose unrealistic expectations upon ourselves to do more, work harder. We feel compelled to achieve more than is humanly possible and feel defeated when we fall short of that.

When we get caught up doing — or thinking — the same thing over and over and over again, we are officially a part of the rat race. Rather than stop and assess our current situation, we continue to stay steeped in our routines and beliefs. We close the door to another perspective. The ramifications of this ‘rat race’ syndrome impacts our ability to be open to ideas, change, and development opportunities.

Recently, I was introduced to some pretty cool rats. Mind you, I never really expected the words ‘cool’ and ‘rats’ to be in the same sentence coming out of my mouth. Rats, well, they are very disgusting. Or so I thought.

As a volunteer at our local shelter, I’ve spent a little time with the rats the past few weeks. I was apprehensive. Would they bite? Or perhaps squirm away, leading me through some wild rat chase through the building? With the encouragement and patient support of the staff, I moved through my tasks. When my hand entered their cage to offer fresh food and water, they nuzzled in close, softly welcoming me. The quick and frequent sniffs of their noses rubbed against my skin, as if to say, “Nice to meet you. How are you today? Thank you for this food.”

I gained a completely new perspective, in only minutes. They are social, clean, and aside from the tail (which is a still a bit of a turn-off to me), they are pretty darn cute. The eyes are sweet and curious and they are genuinely interested in you when you’re in their presence. (More than I can say for some humans I’ve met.)

rat-up-close-at-MHSMy nervousness melted away. Instead they made me feel calm. Even happy. I smiled at how my opinion of rats as creepy vermin had dissolved. I’m not saying I’m ready to adopt, but I now completely understand why some people do.

For that, I’m grateful. How wonderful it feels to step off my rat race of misconceptions. Every time we are open to a completely different experience, we grow. These rats have sparked an interest in me to learn more; it is a satisfying reminder that I don’t know what I don’t know, and equally good to feel the delight of new knowledge. Employees and managers who have that thirst for learning and an appetite to expand their horizons are valued in the workplace.

I’m fine if you still think rats are gross. The point isn’t that you agree with me (though I highly recommend you get properly introduced to a rat to see for yourself). But I hope this inspires you to seek out ways to get out of your own ‘rat race.’

What will you do today to get out of your rat race? 

 

April Fool’s Day can be everyday in the workplace, if you do it right

Oliver is cautious with change but open to it when his favorite toys are involved. How do you manage employees to make sure you know their tolerance?

Oliver is cautious with change but open to it when his favorite toys are involved. How do you manage employees to help them adjust to change that meets their individual tolerance?

Today is April Fool’s Day, a time for pranksters to have some fun and have an excuse to justify it. These impromptu games might be acceptable today, but they are characteristic of the same kind of irritants that managers unknowingly create for employees on any given workday. Some employees feel invigorated by spontaneous announcements, but others can get rattled. You need to know your audience for best results.

Our two cats, Oliver and Dodger, are skittish. Not quite as bad as Grace, who has a long history of dealing with fear, but these two feline brothers are definitely a cautious pair. For example, they startle very easily. Moving a toe in front of them when they aren’t expecting it can make them jump three feet high from a solid standstill. It’s pretty funny to me and my husband, but I’m quite sure they don’t appreciate the jolt to their mental state. And don’t walk into the kitchen while they are drinking water from the dish that has been in the same place for the last five years. They take off so fast that I’m convinced they think I’m going to torture them. Still, they love a chase of a laser beam light that darts unpredictably around them, or a bug that buzzes to and fro in their space. They have some tolerance for change, you just have to know what is exciting to them versus what is frightening.

As managers, you need to work with some employees and understand that same tolerance line. For some folks, you’ll need to make sure you don’t spring big surprises on them. If you know a significant change is coming, start talking about possibilities as soon as you can. Don’t dump it all at once, begin with the reasons for the change, so there is context with any breaks from their routines. Giving them options, and ways to manage the change, will also help make things go smoother.

For others, offering a drastically new opportunity will create a welcome challenge. They want and need diversity in their workday — and their future.

I would never intentionally goad Grace (even with any good-natured intent); her guard is constantly up too high. But Oliver and Dodger can take a wee bit of rousing. They’ll peek out from their surroundings and be entertained by favorite toys, even when they are a bit uncertain about what’s next.

Don’t fool around with those that don’t like fooling. But don’t miss the opportunity for a little fun for those who do. 

New Year, New Achievements. Or not?

Facing something new can be both exciting and scary. Grace wasn't too thrilled to be face-to-face with this photographer, but she was a bit intrigued by her, too. Thanks to Caitlin Selby who worked to make her feel comfortable, the best thing you can do when trying to help someone through a rough spot.

Facing something new can be scary. Grace was nervous and a bit unhappy to be face-to-face with this photographer, but Caitlin Selby worked to make her feel comfortable. It’s the best thing you can do when trying to help someone push through obstacles you feel they are capable of achieving. Caitlin and I were supportive and encouraging as we imposed this situation on Grace (asking her to pose for pictures), even though she didn’t want it. I think Grace felt our confidence in her and stayed by my side to face this stranger and her odd equipment, when I’m certain she really just wanted to flee to room and cuddle in a comfortable spot. 

When the calendar page turned over to the first day of 2015, it seemed that there would be plenty of time to accomplish all the things I wanted to do. This week, reality is settling in. January is moving fast. The minutes and hours are fading into days which are becoming weeks. We’re almost at the end of the month already. How can that be possible?

This is a new year and I was excited about my plans for new achievements. Are those hopes fading? 

Absolutely not! I’m determined to accomplish what I have set out to do. The good news is that I have already made some progress on my two projects.  Yet I haven’t accomplished nearly what I had expected to do, even by now. It’s easy to start feeling defeated, with a growing sense that the projects will never get done. But I know that is not true, I just have to make some adjustments if I want to get back on schedule.

One of the projects I’m working on is not easy for me. It’s requiring new skills and it’s also challenging to fit it in an already busy schedule. It’s way too easy to push aside the difficult, uncomfortable tasks and move towards taking care of familiar things that are pulling at me. But if I allow that to keep happening, my project will never see the light of day.

Employees can fall into this trap, too, feeling overwhelmed by what’s ahead. Even when someone is capable, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. It gets more complicated if they have too many conflicting priorities on their plate — or they aren’t excited about the project to begin with. I put my own project plans in motion and I still run into challenges, but imagine if someone forced an activity upon you. Just because it’s a priority on your list doesn’t make it so for them. Things might be going amok if you start to hear excuses creep into status reports (if you’re lucky enough to get one), describing emergency fires that needed attention or routine tasks that developed complications, taking additional work time to complete. It’s unlikely that they’ll come right out with “I hate this work!” but rather try to find ways to circumvent it.

As a manager, it’s your role to set the expectations for what is needed in the job. That might mean getting someone to have courage to move outside their comfort zone or do something that they don’t want to do. The best results will come out of how you work with the person to break through obstacles, whether real or imagined. Sometimes a manager feels they shouldn’t have to micro-manage or baby-sit, and there are times when an employee should take the initiative. But if they aren’t moving ahead with the task at hand, it’s likely because they feel they can’t or don’t want to. You’ll need to work with them to find out how to get through that.

And it’s you that is procrastinating, you should find a buddy and have this type of frank conversation. Ask for their ideas of support; a fresh and honest perspective might be just what you need to get moving. So what’s stopping you from your new year’s achievements? 

 

Employees can go through phases

Grace has always loved our walks in most any kind of weather, but there was a time that she resisted going down our street because of loud noises. That phase has (thankfully) past and she's now eager to go! Giving her a little time and space to work through that obstacle got her back on track.

Grace has always loved our walks in most any kind of weather, but there was a time that she resisted going down our street because of loud noises from nearby target shooting. That phase has (thankfully) past and she’s now eager to go! Giving her time and space to work through that obstacle got her back on track.

Yesterday, around 2:30 p.m. as if on cue, Grace walked into my office and whined. It’s her [not so] subtle way of saying she’s ready for our walk. It’s a new routine these days — but also one that is familiar to us from the past.

For years, Grace and I have ventured down the road we live on for a walk. We have other favorite spots, but during the week, this is convenient and accessible. We’d usually go mid-afternoon, offering a welcome change of pace to the day for both of us.

Yet there was a time in the summer of 2012 when Grace would not go for our walk, no matter how much coaxing I did. She had gotten frightened by the loud noises from target shooting by a neighbor and the random and deafening noises created panic for her. The days turned into weeks, and then months, where she would not go down the familiar path.

I stopped asking her to go that way, as much as I wanted to pull her along, pleading with her to see that all would be fine. In her mind, it was not fine and no words could change that for her. Instead, we’d get in the car and drive to a lovely spot nearby that didn’t scare her, or we’d just poke around in the yard if time was limited. The walks had changed and honestly, I thought she would never want to go down the road again.

Time seems to have healed her worry. We haven’t heard the target shooting for a long time and Grace found a way to move past her fear. Now she is eager to venture down the road and doesn’t hesitate to let me know she’s ready. It’s as though we never stopped this routine.

As we were walking yesterday, it dawned on me, that over the last several days she’s been asking to go, as if she had never gone through a phase of resisting. It made me realize that all of us can be prone to cycles or routines — good and bad — but we often find our way back to something familiar and comfortable.

In the workplace, employees can go through phases, too.  It’s important that we look at the overall trend of performance and gauge the frequency and severity of any dips. Sure, we have expectations for performance that must be met. No doubt about that. I’m talking about situations where we know that a baseline exists that tells us the employee is the right fit for the job. But even when an employee has a solid track record, it can be easy to start to wonder about a person when they hit a big snag. Managers can start to project the issue into a long-range problem rather than working through it. Instead of jumping to conclusions, it’s best to figure out the cause and allow the employee some latitude in turning the situation around.

Solving the issue might be as simple as helping the employee recharge her batteries after an intensive project has ended. Or it could be as significant as the person re-thinking a career path. Any number of possibilities exist.

Even in rare cases where it doesn’t work out, the way you work through this makes a difference. There are important intangibles that result from taking the time and effort to work through a rut. Of course, keeping a key and valued employee is most notable. But other employees in the organization will see how this was handled and this feeds a culture of loyalty and respect. I can think of no greater rewards.

Managers who support their employees, through thick and thin will receive the best performance in the long haul. Have you worked for a manager that gave you leeway to work through a tough time? What impact did that have on you and your work? Leave a comment so others can learn from your experience.

Talking a walk down the road isn’t always as easy as it seems. When you can help others work through a stressful situation, you become more than simply a walking partner.

Do something you haven’t done before!

This didn't even look like a spot to lie in so I assumed she was trying to dig a hole. But no, she just thought it looked cozy! We should all be looking at the same things differently!

I would have never envisioned that Grace would have found this spot attractive because in the past, she’s landed on the mulch, not right on top of the tall grass!  She saw it for what it was — a plush, cozy spot to snuggle in. Grace opened her options by having a different perspective, and doing something that she had never done before. That’s a lesson we should all embrace. 

Have you ever been surprised by something that an employee (or manager) has done in your workplace — and then been thankful for the outcome because it was something you would never have thought of yourself?

This past weekend, Grace was nearby as I spread new mulch in our flower gardens. Because she’s an anxious and nervous dog, she doesn’t stay in any one spot for too long, so it’s not uncommon for her to be moving around a lot.

But I was curious when she starting pawing around in the tall, ornamental grass. The stuff was thick and there was not one logical spot that I could see where she could fit. Was she trying to dig a hole (not something she does casually without being on a hunting-related mission)? Was she trying to find something I couldn’t see? As my mind was still pulling up questions trying to figure this out, she plopped down happily on top of the grass!

So that’s new. I haven’t seen her do that before.

And then instead of questions, my mind went to answers: “Well, why not lay on top of a patch of tall, thick, soft grass?” That was actually kinda smart, I thought. It’s like an overgrown lawn patch, made just for her!

Grace was thinking much more creatively than I was that day. I was stuck in my preconceived notions of where she would be comfortable, in places where I’ve seen her before. But she went outside those boundaries and found a new, even better, spot.

Have you been witness to this kind of behavior in your workplace? Perhaps you’ve seen someone taking an initiative when another person in the same situation is ‘blind’ to the possibilities?

We can all get caught up in doing things the way we’ve always done them. In some ways, it seems efficient, because we know the routine and it’s comfortable. But we may be missing out on something wonderful, and it might even be right in front of our very eyes all the time!

The first step in getting past these normal and understandable “blocks” is to recognize it. If we don’t know we’re stuck, then we certainly can’t move to a different place. Here are a few of my suggestions to help raise your awareness and move into action:

  • Listen to others who suggest another approach. They may be telling you that your process is outdated or inefficient, or just isn’t working any more!
  • If a task feels too complex, awkward, or confusing, it probably is! Start to think about ways to simplify.
  • Don’t get stuck on staid thoughts like “we have to do it this way” or “what would Sue say if we got rid of that?” Getting too comfortable with things creates a false sense of absolutes.  Those phrases can also be a signal that you’re using excuses to prevent you from moving towards something better.
  • Make a commitment to do at least one new thing every day. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or time-consuming. Maybe it’s trying a new food or learning a new vocabulary word. Creating patterns of change will help you be open to other ideas that naturally cross your path.
  • Take any feelings of fear (of the unknown) that you have and think of them as an opportunity to learn and develop. Refocus your nervous energy into excitement about what’s to come and what you can achieve!

Sometimes we need to stay in a tried-and-true state — and it’s ok to do so for a while.  But it’s most often the case that if we haven’t evaluated our most consistent ‘things’ (whether it be processes, skills, daily habits, or relationships), we are missing opportunities for improvement. 

What examples can you think of where you got outside your normal thinking and life improved? What patch of plush, green grass will you find for yourself today? 

Are you, or your employees, stuck in the decision-making process?

This cracks me up.

Dodger is a big boy. He’s not gigantic, but he’s really too large to fit comfortably under this small table. However, he was in no way deterred, he was on a mission to retrieve a trapped toy, even though there were another dozen catnip-laced mice within easy reach. (Another lesson: what is important to you might not be important to someone else!) Making decisions depends on how much risk you see and how badly you want it.

A colleague and I were talking the other day about how frustrating it is when people don’t get back to you. Simple things, like scheduling a meeting or making a decision on who to involve on a project team.

In the beginning of our little pity party, we were not so tolerant, saying things like: “How hard is it to pick up the phone or send off a quick email to let us know?” But we quickly came around to this consensus: what looks like rude behavior (i.e. not responding) is often the result of a person being stuck in the decision-making process. For example, committing to a meeting could lead to some potential next step that might be overwhelming to that person. As a result of the meeting, perhaps they will be asked to consider more work, spend money, or change something in their routine that could be uncomfortable (even if it’s to their benefit).

What my friend and I had identified as a lack of follow-up is only the tip of the iceberg to hidden obstacles that a person is dealing with. That’s where things get tangled — and delayed. Instead of working through those issues, a person will do nothing. It seems easier. But it’s not the best way to proceed.

I believe that in any situation where there is lack of action, even in instances that seem so easy or simple, there is something deeper going on that prevents the next step.

It boils down to two things for me. First, people make decisions at different speeds. Some prefer to gather lots of data, build consensus, and reduce their risk. Others are shotgun decision-makers, moving ahead with whatever data they have, relishing in the risk involving, or at least not losing sleep over it. I was surprised when I found out where I fell on that spectrum, always imagining that I made decisions easily, quickly. That’s not exactly true. I like to think about things. Now that I know from an objective source about my natural, comfortable speed in making decisions, I can appreciate how that fits with the style of others I interact with.

The second aspect is the priority. If something is not meaningful to you, nor of any interest, then you will naturally let those decisions wait for another day. It may be important to someone else, but so what? It has to have some consequence (good or bad) to you in order to move you into action.

Here’s what to do if you, or your employee, gets stuck and can’t (or won’t) make a decision:

  • Recognize that you and another person might be processing the information at a different speed. Gain an awareness of where you’re at, where the other person is at, then discuss some medium ground, so you can find the right balance of moving ahead at a pace that works for both parties.
  • Understand the cause(s) of the delay. Once you identify the obstacle that is holding you back, you can deal with it. And trust me, it’s better to deal with the issue than just let it hang. It will free up your mental space to handle other situations more clearly.
  • Determine what are the pros and cons of moving ahead. If you were to go in one direction, what are the benefits and costs (financial and non-financial)? Similarly, what are the downsides? When you get a handle on this information, it’s easier to see the value in making a choice. Someone once gave me this wonderful piece of advice: when you are clear [about whatever the situation is], your choices become easy.

It’s common to get stuck. People are busy with a million things calling them to act. So we sometimes excuse our own behavior (“I just have too much to do”) or blame others (“she doesn’t care a bit about her job”). Neither party wins when things are at a standstill and it’s important to remember that doing nothing is not an acceptable resolution.

Managers and employees can work together to get unstuck. It’s a matter of making it a priority. In what ways do you get unstuck? Comment below or give me a shout. I’d love to hear from you! 

What to do when an employee doesn’t listen to your feedback

While watching a friend's dog (Sammy on the left), Grace was determined to sleep in HIS bed all the time instead of her own. This was very frustrating to me -- why must she 'steal' his bed -- and even the jacket left behind with the scent of Sammy's mom? We can't always know the motivation or reasons people (or dogs) do something, only enforce expectations when problems result. Here, the dogs slept fine in whatever bed they landed in, lucky for Grace that I didn't have to bounce her!

We recently watched a friend’s dog (Sammy on the left) and the entire time he was with us, Grace was determined to sleep in HIS bed instead of her own. Despite our encouragement to rest in her own bed, Grace continued to ignore our good advice. This was very frustrating to me — why must she ‘steal’ his bed — and even take control of the jacket left behind for Sammy with the scent of his mom? We can’t always know the reasons people (or dogs) do (or don’t do!!) something, nor is it our place to make a judgment about them because of their inaction. The role of a manager is to set an expectation and then enforce it — when problems result. Here, the dogs slept fine in whatever bed they landed in, lucky for Grace that I decided not to bounce her!

Someone I know has been unhappy in his current job for some time. He and his employer have had their ups and downs working together, almost all related to differences in their own styles, not dissatisfaction with the results of his work. The employee has gone as far to say that he wants a career change. He’s voiced this desire for some time now, and while the degree of his determination ebbs and flows, generally there has been a consistent theme. His manager has been very supportive, offering resources and being open to a change. But despite all the encouragement, he remains in his current job, with no evidence of doing anything to move himself in a new direction.

It’s very tempting for his manager to get frustrated that this employee hasn’t done something about his situation. This employee is smart, talented, and capable. If he truly feels that this job is not fulfilling, why doesn’t he do something about it?

I bet every one of us has experienced something like this in our own lives; when we recognize that we need — even desire — a change but find it nearly impossible to break out of our existing routine. Maybe it’s unhappiness with the job we’re in. Maybe we want to lose a few pounds. Quit smoking. Exercise more. Reach a new professional goal. When we can recall our own struggles to advance, it helps us have empathy to the obstacles someone else faces.

Yet when we, as managers, offer constructive feedback to show a person how they can get out of a jam, we have a tendency to expect that the person will immediately take action. We KNOW it is in their best interest to do so, so WHY DON’T THEY LISTEN TO US? (Yes, I’m screaming, isn’t that what we feel like doing when we can’t get an employee to change?)

When managing people, it’s important to do your best job at delivering feedback effectively, but remember that is no guarantee that they will hear you. It is not your role to make judgments on why a person does or doesn’t do something — even when they agree and say how important it is to them. If nothing is happening, then the bottom line is that the timing isn’t — yet — right for them.

Last Friday, I attended an inspiring women’s conference in Manchester, NH. The keynote speaker was Tory Johnson, long-time contributor to ABC’s Good Morning America. She spoke of her life-long struggle to lose weight. She walked us through her journey of multiple failed attempts to shed pounds. But after having a fateful conversation with her manager in December of 2011, a shift happened for Tory. In 2012, she succeeded in dropping 62 glorious pounds. Why then and not before despite the fact that she had always desperately wanted to have a healthier weight? (I highly recommend her book, The Shift, which I read from cover to cover last Sunday, to hear all the details first-hand.)

When you read the book (or hear her speak as I was lucky enough to do), you’ll learn that Tory’s manager delivered the feedback with extraordinary compassion and grace. There were no overt directives imploring Tory to take immediate action; there were no demeaning threats. Was that the reason Tory finally took action because her manager delivered the tough message so effectively? No.

Certainly it helped, but it wasn’t the real reason she moved forward. Her motivation came from within. My point in today’s post isn’t to say that the delivery isn’t important. It definitely is. But even if you offer your feedback in the best way possible, there are no guarantees that will make a difference.

Timing was the reason Tory took action. For the first time, she was ready to deal with the tough issues and behaviors that she had ignored before. Tory was open to hear the message that her manager delivered to her about her appearance. She had gratitude to her for the way the conversation was handled and respect for her because this manager was forthright to put the subject on the table — delicately, but clearly.

I want managers to do their best in delivering feedback, but it’s equally important to understand that it won’t guarantee the individual is ready to take action.

Here are my recommendations for what to do after you deliver your feedback: 

  • Step back and watch for changes. If there is the tiniest of improvement, stick with the person and help them in whatever way you can.
  • If you don’t see any changes, don’t take it personally. Remember, this is about them, not you.
  • Make any further decisions based on what is right for the organizational needs. What impact is this having on the job? The team? Like in Grace’s case, as much as I disliked her taking over Sammy’s bed, Sammy didn’t seem bothered by it. Let things work out naturally whenever possible, but know you may have tough decisions to make as well.
  • You need to do what you need to do and so does the employee. If those paths coincide, great. But it might be necessary to walk on different paths, too.

As for the aspiring career-changer, I wholeheartedly believe, as he does, that the job he is in is not ideal for him. But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier for him to change. If you’re getting frustrated by a lack of inaction by someone else, do what you can to help motivate, but realize that the work is really in the hands of the person to decide if and when they want to change.

Got a frustrating situation you’d like to discuss? Let’s talk!

Managers must rebuild and let employees fly after a failure

I was hoping to watch two baby robins grow up in the nest, but it's empty today. These parents will move on and try again. What obstacles are in your way of starting over?

I was hoping to watch two baby robins grow up in the nest, but it was not to be. Neither baby made it past two days after birth. These parents will move on and try again. Do you let simpler obstacles, with less weighty ramifications, stand in your way of trying again to do something significant?

This empty nest is a sign of failure. But it won’t stop these robins.

Just days ago, this nest held two eggs that had hatched into not-very-attractive creatures. Despite their homely appearance, I was looking forward to hearing sweet baby chirps and watching the day-to-day development of infant robins from the close vantage point of our deck, since the nest was perched right on the railing, hidden under heavy cover of our forsythia shrub. But it wasn’t to be.

For an unknown (to me) reason, the parents were unsuccessful at raising their young. Yesterday, I found one baby dead on the deck floor. I peered in the nest, to find it empty, and assumed the second one had likely become dinner for a larger bird. However, later in the day as I was trimming back the branches that have overgrown the corner of the deck, I found the second baby who had perished outside the nest and was left to rest under all the branches.

These parents had made their presence quite clear to us in the days leading up to the eggs hatching. When we were in the area, they loudly squawked from nearby trees, asking us to leave this sacred place. Experiencing the death of their young ones was traumatic for them, I’m sure.

Yet, I imagine that it in no way deters them from starting over. Why then, do we humans, find it so easy to give up in the face of much simpler obstacles — and ramifications — we face in order to reach our goals?

I had a conversation with a friend the other night and we talked about the number of times that highly capable people doubt their own ability to do things, even when others see it as a natural for them. I bet you’ve experienced that, too, with others and perhaps yourself.

When faced with adversity, we fall back on those stories in our head that say things like:

  • “I’ve never been good at ‘x'”
  • “Last time I tried that, I failed miserably.”
  • “I’m afraid to try because it seems so overwhelming.”
  • “Where would I start?”
  • “I’m afraid to make a mistake that big.”

Life is for learning. And if we aren’t stretching to do things new and different, challenging and invigorating, we’re missing the opportunity to reach our full potential. In organizations, there are lots of built-in barriers that prevent us from stretching. Things such as being in control, displaying the perception of confidence and knowledge, and avoiding mistakes that could be costly, both financially and to our egos. These are all opposing factors to trying new things.

That’s why it’s important for managers to create an environment for learning — and failing. Without it, everything, and everyone, becomes stagnant.

Maybe these robins will find a safer place for their next nest. Of course, it’s sad that little ones had to die for potential mistakes made by their parents. It’s also equally possible that this outcome had nothing to do with how or where they built the nest. That’s an important lesson for us to learn, too. Sometimes when we “fail” it has absolutely nothing to do with our actions; it could have been caused by factors beyond our control.

So pick yourself up, and try again.

What examples can you think of when you tried a second, third, (or even more!) times, with huge success? In fact, it’s unrealistic for us to expect perfection out of the gate. We often achieve our greatest accomplishments when we stick with something, learning and developing, modifying and improving along the way. Yet it’s often easier to give up. To think something is not possible. That’s why we need a supportive environment that allows the time and leeway to fail.

As managers, what specific actions do you take to encourage creative behavior? Do you actively promote and inspire new ideas? Or do just give it lip service, or worse, penalize those who seek a challenge? If you aren’t sure, ask your team what ideas they have to create the culture where they feel comfortable to fail. And let us know what you hear. We can all learn from this shared wisdom!

The most difficult time to offer workplace compassion is when we need it the most

A lesson taught by a special cat

Henry shared a lesson about life just before his death.

Henry modeled an important life lesson just before his own death. (Thank you, Carol, for sharing this wonderful picture of Henry.)

On Wednesday morning, I walked into the restaurant to meet two colleagues for breakfast. We were planning to put the final touches on our workshop entitled “Handling Workplace Conflict: Lessons we can learn from animals.”

As I approached the table and started into my seat, Melinda immediately began talking, quickly but not in a panic. She said, “We have a glitch.” I listened to the events that had unfolded that same morning for our missing colleague, Carol. She had found her cat of 18 years, Henry, in the field behind her home, unable to move. Knowing the last several weeks had been creating some signs of declining health, Carol and her husband realized that this was serious.

Tears started to gently roll down my face and Melinda’s as she told me a bit more about Henry’s life. The irony — and beauty — of this situation was front and center in our minds. Here we sat, on the morning of a workshop that the three of us had been planning for a year, a program devoted to the lessons animals teach us, and Henry was becoming a beacon of our beliefs.

With Carol and Henry in our thoughts, Melinda and I worked through the scenarios of the workshop’s agenda, deciding on options that addressed the unknowns of whether or when Carol could join us. We left the restaurant, not knowing what would happen next, but confident it would all work out the way it should.

And it did.

Carol called Melinda after Melinda and I had arrived at the training location and gave the sad news of Henry’s death. She said she was on her way and would be there shortly. When she arrived, she told us that she couldn’t imagine a better way to honor Henry, participating as we originally planned. I marveled at her composure, knowing she had within the last 90 minutes, lost a long-time family member, friend, and companion.

She then told us more details of the morning, providing evidence of what we knew: animals are important teachers. After she and her husband had retrieved Henry from the field, everyone was together on the porch. The reality was settling in and Carol sat sobbing. Henry felt her emotion and though difficult to move, he made his way over to her and softly placed his head on her foot. This incredible gesture of sensitivity, warmth, and compassion is not just touching, it shows the depth of his understanding of the situation and his willingness to do something about it. In his simple but profound way, he offered an important lesson for us in life even in moments before his death: Be present. Be kind to others. Even when it’s uncomfortable to do so.

Much too often in the workplaces, we hesitate to offer such a caring act, especially in moments of stressful conflict. We worry about how it might be perceived or if it’s appropriate. Or maybe we think it is not needed or necessary.

Yes, I do see acts of kindness in the workplace, often for those easy moments, like celebrating a milestone event, or helping when someone is ill or going through a tough time. Even then, it is reserved or inhibited in some way.

Yet in more challenging situations, when someone has made a mistake or made you mad, it’s not quite so easy to be generous with support. But that’s when we need compassion the most. By opening up lines of communication during the worst of situations, we build trust with the other person, allowing understanding that will move us towards resolution. The absence of caring and curiosity stifles what makes the strongest relationships possible.

We need to take our cue from Henry. Faced with pain, uncertainty, discomfort, and sadness, yes even death, Henry did something remarkable. He reached out to care for the other person instead of focusing on his own needs.

Thank you, Henry, for modeling the behavior we should all follow. Another fine lesson from a beautiful animal.

What stories do you have that illustrate when compassion has been offered during a difficult time? How did it impact the situation? Share your thoughts below for us to learn more.

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