Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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Leaders may need “timeout”

Too many companies are plagued by “sandbox leadership,” with executives behaving more like spoiled toddlers than responsible adults.  We’ve seen this attitude reflected in the halls of government and corporate boardrooms across the country.  Arrogance, pouting, tantrums, personal attacks, and betrayal of trust seem to be the order of the day.  The nation’s current problems, as vast and overwhelming as they are, appear secondary to the whims of spoiled children, unwilling to play well together. At a time when we need solid, grounded leadership more than ever, we seem to be in short supply of adults who act like, well…like adults. What makes this even worse is that employees at all levels mimic what they see in their leaders.

I realize this is not necessarily a new thing; it just seems to be more obvious lately. Sometimes in dealing with these less than “adult” individuals, I think
maybe I should work with children; at least I can put them in “timeout” and tell them to think about it for a while.  Decorum, self-control, compromise and honor are sorely lacking today. And to be fair, many leaders and employees alike— I would even say the majority — are honest, hard-working, dedicated individuals. But unfortunately the leadership that’s getting attention today in both the public and private sector is sending our potential leaders a very poor example.

To put it simply, we need more mature leaders — now.

Maturity is experience-driven perspective and awareness of your emotional patterns and triggers. It is the ability to suppress impulse and master emotional reactions. Many of our leaders today have other excellent leadership skills, but only a remarkable few are able to control their impulses and put others’ needs first.

The key is control. Every day, we are confronted with decisions that have short-and long-term implications. Mature adults can fend off short-term impulses by keeping the long-term in view; this is what helps them stay in control.  Similarly, the best leaders I have worked with are masters of their emotions. They rein them in when the situation demands it, or let loose when it will have maximum impact. At times, you need to be still and impenetrable; in other moments, you need to be able to pound your fist on the table. It is not whether you are typically a calm or intense person. It is your ability to gain mastery over your emotional tendencies and reactions. You must develop the ability to fit the emotion to the demands of the situation. Either way, you remain in control.

This isn’t easy, and executive maturity takes time to accrue — though we’ve seen it doesn’t always come with experience. Regardless, whether you are a current CEO or an aspiring one, there are ways to accelerate this ability intentionally.

Know your triggers. Leaders are sometimes consumed with so many day-to-day responsibilities that they rarely stop to reflect on how and what they react to. But understanding your own triggers and vulnerabilities is a must — you need to recognize the kinds of events that bring out the worst in you. Think about the times you’ve flown off the handle or lost control. What set you off? Think about the vices you have and the opportunities that would lead to indiscretion.  Be realistic. Then look for the subtle signals people give off in response to your behavior. If you don’t like what you see — you are at risk.

Assemble a “personal board of directors.” Everyone needs to vent. Find a person or group of people you can trust to share your feelings and experiences with honestly so that you don’t snap and get defensive under pressure — and publicly. If you can’t find these
people in your organization (and many leaders cannot), look elsewhere in your personal network for those who will both listen to your frustrations and give
you honest feedback about how you’re being perceived when you show your emotions.

Define your personal code. Maturity is expressed through your judgment — what you decide and how you react. One of the best things you can do to enhance your judgment is to define your personal code, or your fundamental beliefs about work and life. Take a moment to write down five things you believe in as a leader. Share your list with the people who report to you. Think about how powerful it would be for your people to understand what you believe in at your core, and what behavior is acceptable under your leadership.  Leaders who put their own gratification above the needs of others lack the ability to see the long-term consequences of their actions. This does not bode well for them, the economy, or our country. It’s time we start counting emotional maturity and control among the “must-haves” for leaders everywhere.

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Is speaking the truth in your best interest?

Hey, boss! Remember how you asked me what I really thought? Well, I thought about it and decided I really don’t think it’s in my best interests to tell you.  In my role it has always been critical for me to tell my boss the truth and it isn’t always pretty and I do provide suggestions, recommendations and solutions during these times.  However, I will admit it has sometimes been at my own peril.  Would I go back and change it?  Not on your life!

In a recent survey almost half the professionals surveyed (48%) indicated this is precisely the reason they keep from speaking their truth at the office much of the time. Note, this wasn’t a scientific survey, but 155 respondents’ gave pretty consistent answers that look like meaningful indicators as you plot how to manage your employee base to stellar business success.

And this data is consistent with a recent study by Corporate Executive Board with even scarier results.

  • Companies whose employees were afraid to speak up suffered 5.8% lower total shareholder return than those with cultures that encouraged open communications.
  • Where fear was more prevalent, fraud and misconduct were higher.
  • 59% of companies surveyed said that $1 million worth of harm would have to be at stake for employees to share honest negative feedback (29% said $10 million).

Why? You make my life miserable for weeks, that’s why.

Eighty-two percent of respondents to the first survey said at some point in their careers they’d been penalized for speaking their truth, penalties ranging from being passed over for promotion, pushed aside and fired. Get this, 70% said it was the boss’ fault because his/her ego got in the way. So even if you’re not a jerk, your employees are probably walking on eggshells around you anyway because their last jerk-boss made them wary.

Want scientific backup for this point? CEB found it was a “fear of retaliation” was the most important driver for employee discomfort in speaking up.

So what? I’m outta here, that’s what.

Many people report that being penalized for speaking their truth made them quit or seek employment elsewhere. Speaking truth isn’t just another career skill — like negotiating a salary package — it really hits people at their core and is related to feeling like they’re being true to themselves as human beings. Seventy-six percent said when they withheld their truth they regretted it later. So if almost half your employees aren’t comfortable speaking their truth to you, and the majority of them regret having to bite their tongues, it’s logical to think that this issue is contributing to the increased levels of job dissatisfaction and loyalty we see reported lately.

There was also some indication that women are rewarded less often for speaking their truth than men (68% and 82% respectively). Sure, there may be many reasons for that, but if you have a goal to reach the 30% tipping point of women in leadership at your organization so you can reap the market rewards, then you might want to look into whether this issue is driving some of your best women leaders away.

Sure, I’ll listen if you’ve got a plan.

We all know that plenty of people think they’re speaking their truth when they’re really not. Speaking truth to power – the skill that will help your employees tell you what’s really on their mind in a way that is productive and meaningful – is a career minefield judging by the high numbers of people who’ve experienced severe penalty (82%) and high reward (72%), but an important one if you want to make your employees feel valued and find out what they’re not telling you. For that matter, are YOU good at speaking truth to power? Your truth matters too and the CEO or the board should want to hear what you have to say just as much as you need to hear from those below you.

Speaking truth to power effectively means you have to resist buying into our cultural myths about truth-telling – that the truth that matters most is the first thing in our minds or hearts – no matter how deeply felt – and that the opposite of True is always False, for example. You and your employees need to learn to speak truth to power effectively and work to make it part of your corporate culture. Only by focusing on it will all the pains of past penalties be overcome in your workspace.

What do you think? What’s your personal experience with speaking truth to power? Have you been penalized? Rewarded? How does that factor into your willingness to speak your truth in your current situation? Come on – we all have a story!


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Distorted Performance Expectations

I spent the greater part of my day with leaders who are sometimes baffled by a performance issues. In many of these cases it is the result of The Halo
Effect.  The Halo Effect happens when someone possesses an outstanding characteristic or skill set and we allow our positive judgment of that single characteristic to influence our total judgment of that person.   So we end up evaluating that person exceedingly high on many traits because we are so magnetized by his or her performance in one trait. For example, if a person is very persuasive during one-on-one discussions, we may presume a host of related attributes: great presentation skills, potential sales star, group spokesperson. . .Do I feel a promotion happening here.

The effect is worth noting because it can wreak havoc with management. Supervisors responsible for employee appraisals can let the strong rating of
one critical area influence the ratings for all of the other factors tied into the halo effect.   Many times individuals are prematurely promoted or given roles they won’t be effective in.  Managers wonder why the individual isn’t performing the way they anticipated.  In fact they may be…just not in the areas mistakenly attributed.

There is an opposite effect that is equally insidious known as the “Horn Effect” (think of a little cartoon devil with horns). It works the same way. If a person seems particularly lacking in one key trait, that person will  often be labeled as deficient in other related traits as well. One simple example: If one is frequently late for work (even though there may be important extenuating circumstances known to the company), the word around the office is that (s)he is “not committed” or even “negligent” regarding work tasks.

What To Do:
Recognize the reality of each of these effects and how easy it is to be lured into their respective auras. When you start wondering why Phil in Accounting, who
graduated Phi Beta Kappa, is terrific at crunching numbers but fumbles at explaining their meaning and application, put on your Discernment hat. Break
down the elements of the job and begin to assess, based on observable, verifiable performance, what he does well and where he struggles. The first job
of a leader is to accurately assess reality. The sooner a manager can discern the high-medium-low performance areas, the sooner that person’s talents can be
used effectively and a developmental plan put into place.

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The deceptive nature of flattery

The most common form of manipulation comes packaged in the form of flattery – it’s also the most dangerous. The veils of most “hidden” agendas are also
typically cloaked in flattery.  I have worked with many senior leaders who fall into this web and begin to really believe that anyone who disagrees with them or their idea is wrong, mostly because insincere flattery has fed their ego to no return.

The deceptive nature of flattery is that it becomes most powerful when it is given to those who thirst for it. Leaders who place their need for adoration
and acclaim above serving the needs of others are high value targets for those who would abuse the misplaced trust given to them. If you take one thing away from this post it should be this – the power that comes with a leader’s ability to positively influence others is only trumped by the power given away as they are adversely influenced by others.

The problem with the old saying that “flattery will get you everywhere” is that those with less than pure intentions not only believe it, they understand that
flattery has the power to influence, corrupt, undermine and deceive – they wield flattery as a lethal weapon against the undiscerning.

Before I go any further it is important to understand that praise and flattery, while often used interchangeably, are not synonymous. “Praise” is most commonly defined as: the expression of favorable judgment or sincere appreciation. “Flattery” is most commonly defined as: excessive and insincere praise. The naive, the needy, the impressionable or the ego-centric view flattery as genuine praise. Discerning people understand flattery may be
disingenuous, or false praise motivated by an agenda.  Here’s the thing – In times past it was a bit easier to discern authentic praise from false praise because the methods by which relationships were constructed was different. We used to build our relationships slowly and carefully based upon personal history and experience. Trust was earned over time through personal observations of a person’s character, actions and decisions.

In today’s digital world speed has influenced every aspect of our lives-perhaps most notably how we build our relationships and who we grant access to.
If you examine the speed at which people build their friends, fans, followers, and connections on social networks.

Personally, I prefer sincerity to flattery. It was Socrates who said, “Think not those faithful who praise thy words & actions but those who kindly
reprove thy faults.” What leaders need to become cognizant of is that flattery comes with the territory. The more influence you have, the more you’ll be prone to attract flattery. The question is, can you discern fact from fiction and can you handle it?

Well I realized things really haven’t really changed all too much as I read this quote from a letter written in 1520 by Martin Luther to Pope Leo: “The ears of our generation have been made so delicate by the senseless multitude of flatterers that, as soon as we perceive anything of ours in not approved of, we cry out that we are being bitterly assailed; and when we can repel the truth by no other pretense, we escape by attributing bitterness, impatience, intemperance, to our adversaries.”  Interesting, isn’t it.

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Employee Engagement, It doesn’t have to be that hard!

I just read survey of nearly 800 Human Resources executives, 74% said their job stress level has skyrocketed in the past 18 months due to several key concerns
including retaining top talent, developing leaders and controlling health care costs.  But above all else, keeping employees engaged and productive was rated the biggest workplace challenge by those surveyed. That’s a repeat performance, as 2010 survey results had employee engagement in the top spot as well. The survey, titled “What’s Keeping HR Leaders Up at Night,” is conducted by Human Resources Executive, a leading publication in the HR arena.

Employee engagement is a huge issue at companies—big and small, but the good news is, it doesn’t have to be.  Just to give you a little perspective, I worked with a company whose employee meetings were poorly viewed, poorly attended and overall not very engaging.  While trying to uncover the root cause, several facts came to the surface. First, meetings were stuck in one-way, transmit mode, which made employees feel like they were attending a lecture. Second, hefty PowerPoint presentations dominated the 60-minute sessions. The text-heavy charts laden with buzzwords and acronyms in 12-point font did more to tune out
than tune in. And third, no conclusions and action ever resulted after the meetings.

So I challenge you to try a new approach to employee meetings, designed to create more collaboration and interest—and ultimately, engagement. When employees engage and actively participle in meetings, they learn a lot more about business goals and performance and their piece in the big picture.

How do you get started?

No. 1: Break the mold. If “that’s the way we always do it” is a mantra at your company, then silence it. Whether the challenge is company meetings or customer greetings, accept the fact that you can and should improve.  Continual improvement is vital for success.

No. 2: Form a diverse steering committee. This group will help champion the change! Draft talent from the front-line workforce, supervisors and middle managers to take the helm, which is what happened with my customer. From a pool of volunteers, four employees were selected to an action team, which partnered with senior leaders to improve company meetings. The group had responsibility for identify relevant, timely topics for the agenda, recruiting the right speakers to discuss them, and coaching speakers on their presentation material as well as how to interact with meeting attendees. Team members actively sourced live questions for the actual meeting and helped to create a safe-to-speak-up atmosphere.

No. 3: Mix it up. More often than not at company meetings I see members of the senior leadership team sitting together in the front row of the meeting room. It’s a polarizing visual. If meetings occur in a face-to-face format, leaders should mix and mingle with attendees. They should arrive 10 minutes early and make small talk with employees as they are getting seated. Another powerful technique that I’ve used with clients is to station leaders at exit doors and have them shake hands and say “thanks for being part of today’s meeting” to employees as they leave the room. Small talk and sincere appreciation build better relationships—and that goes a long way to engaging employees’ attitudes and actions.

No. 4: Measure effectiveness. Meetings suck up overhead budgets. Ensure that they deliver the return on the investment being made. Conduct short “pulse checks” immediately after each meeting and canvas feedback about what went well and what didn’t. By asking people to give their direct comments, you are engaging them on another level in the meeting process.

No. 5: Listen, learn and act on feedback. Use results of the meeting effectiveness poll to learn what matters to employees, and make adjustments accordingly. As with external customers, listening to and acting on feedback demonstrates respect. It signals that “we value you.” If employees feel that way, they will contribute more during company meetings and all aspects of their job. At our client, results of post-meeting polls were quickly shared through various company communications with employees along with a few corrective actions to be made in the next meeting. Messages shared results—good and bad. Transparency is ultra-important today to get people to believe in you and your company.

Although this is targeted for company meetings, these tips are readily transferable to other workplace practices—such as introducing a new software system or revising a vacation policy. Invite employees to help design, deliver and manage the initiative. By giving employees some skin in the game, you demonstrate trust, acknowledge their collective know-how and respect their contributions.