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What to Say When Your Employee Makes a Mistake

Jeffrey was the CEO of a hedge fund, and he was upset about some poor trades that Tom, one of his portfolio managers, made. He called Tom into his office. (This is a real example with real people, but I’ve changed their names.)

“Those trades were a terrible idea! What were you thinking?” Jeffrey asked Tom.

The conversation quickly went downhill. With that first question, it would have been hard for it to go any other way.

Why was it a bad way to start? “What were you thinking?” is a past-focused question. When Tom explains his thinking to Jeffrey, he’ll reinforce his mistake and sound defensive because his thinking was problematic and led to poor results. He doesn’t necessarily think the same way now, of course.

Let’s play it out. Tom will explain why he made that trade, and Jeffrey will get angry at his poor judgment. Then they’ll both leave the conversation frustrated and disheartened (which is, predictably, exactly what happened).

What could Jeffrey have done differently? A better choice would have been to avoid talking about the past and, instead, ask Tom about the future: “How will you do it differently next time?”

This kind of future-focused question allows Tom to acknowledge his mistake and demonstrate his learning. It will reinforce both people’s confidence in Tom’s abilities while also giving Jeffrey the opportunity to point out any further problematic patterns in Tom’s thinking — in a way that could help Tom make better decisions in the future instead of just making him feel bad in the present.

Another advantage of a future-focused question? It’s faster and more reliable because you’re removing one step in the learning process. Rather than going over your mistake and then (hopefully) applying the learning to a future situation, you go straight to the application.

Why don’t we all do this intuitively? Because, in the moment, we’re not feeling it. What we’re feeling is angry, and probably a little scared, frustrated, and annoyed. And then we blurt out, “What were you thinking?”

We do it in order to make ourselves feel better. We ask that past-focused angry question because our emotional overload in the situation is simply too much. We burst. But that’s not great leadership, and it’s not great communication. When we lead and communicate, we’re not doing it for ourselves; we’re doing it to help others improve.

Which means we need to tolerate our difficult emotions so they don’t overwhelm us, so they don’t get in the way of our intended impact on others.

Emotional courage is the willingness to tolerate all feelings. It’s entirely developable, and developing it increases your ability to lead effectively, get business results, communicate in a way that inspires others, and make the impact you’re trying to make. How do I know? My company, Bregman Partners, measured those changes in people who increased their emotional courage at our Leadership Intensive.

It’s one thing to know how to communicate in a way that inspires others and brings out their best. It’s another to actually do it, in the heat of the moment, when your emotions are high.

Here are a few keys to making it happen:

  1. When you feel emotional, be suspicious of any instinctive reaction. Before saying or doing anything, pause and take a breath.
  2. Pose a silent question to yourself: What is the outcome you want your next move to achieve? In other words, what do you want to happen as a result of your communication? Make sure you get to a real outcome. If your answer is that you want the other person to feel bad, ask yourself why. What are you hoping will result from their feeling bad? If your hopeful response is that they will make better decisions next time, then that is the outcome you’re going for. (The feeling-bad part is how you think they will get there — but you’re wrong.)
  3. Decide what you will do or say that will most likely lead to your ultimate outcome. Often, what you’ll find is the conversation that holds the greatest likelihood of getting to your ultimate outcome is about the future, not the past.

If you’re a leader, and you’re dissatisfied with someone’s performance, take that breath, identify the outcome you want, and then ask them what they plan to do in the future.

And if you’re Tom? If you’ve made a mistake and your manager asks you Jeffrey’s ill-advised question: “What were you thinking?

As I mentioned, it would be hard for the conversation to go well. Hard, but not impossible.

Even though your manager is asking about the past, it’s your turn to take that breath and ask yourself what outcome you want. Then, your best move is to ignore the question asked and, instead, answer the question that wasn’t asked: the future-focused one. “What was I thinking?” you could say. “Clearly, not the right things. But here’s what I would do differently next time…”


Peter Bregman is the CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that helps successful people become better leaders, create more effective teams, and inspire their organizations to produce great results. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Leading with Emotional Courage. He is also the host of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. To identify your leadership gap, take Peter’s free assessment.

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Hire Leaders for What They Can Do, Not What They Have Done

Fifty years have passed since the publication of The Peter Principle, but its rule still applies today. “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties,” noted Laurence J. Peter, the educator behind this famous work. His theory postulates that most competent people are promoted until they reach a position that is above their skill level, at which point they cease to grow.

Academic studies show that promotions are still largely a reward for past performance, and that organizations continue to assume the attributes that have made someone successful so far will continue to make them successful in the future (even if their responsibilities change). This may explain why there are still a large number of incompetent leaders.

Organizations that wish to select the best people for leadership roles therefore need to change how they evaluate candidates. The next time you are filling a managerial position, ask yourself three questions:

1. Does the candidate have the skills to be a high-performing contributor or the skills to be an effective leader?

The performance level of individual contributors is measured largely through their ability, likability, and drive. Leadership, by contrast, demands a broader range of character traits, including high levels of integrity and low levels of dark-side behaviors born out of negative attributes likes narcissism or psychopathy.

The difference between these two skill sets explains why great athletes often end up being mediocre coaches (and vice versa), and why high performers often fail to succeed in leadership positions.

We all know that the most successful salespeople, software developers, and stockbrokers have exceptional technical skills, domain knowledge, discipline, and abilities to self-manage. But can those same skills be used to get a group of people to ignore their selfish agendas and cooperate effectively as a team? Probably not. Leaders do need to obtain a certain level of technical competence to establish their credibility, but too much expertise in a single area can be a handicap. Experts are often hindered by fixed mindsets and narrow views, which result from their years of experience. Great leaders, however, are able to remain open and to adapt, no matter how experienced they are. They succeed because they are able to continually learn.

This has been proved in many situations, particularly in the area of sales. A recent academic study of over 200 firms found that performance as a salesperson was negatively correlated with performance as a sales manager. If you promote your number one salesperson to management, you create two problems: You lose your top salesperson and you gain a poor manager.

2. Can I really trust this candidate’s individual performance measures?

The most common indicator of someone’s performance is a single subjective rating by a direct line manager. This makes measures of performance vulnerable to biaspolitics, and an employee’s ability to manage up. Although peer-based and network-oriented performance management is growing, it is still in its infancy. As a result, performance measures may not be as reliable as you think.

This is likely why women still tend to be promoted less than men, even when their performance is identical. Many organizations promote people into leadership positions because they “create the right impression,” even if their actual contributions are minimal.

If you ask yourself the above question, and the answer is “no,” take some time to think about what good leadership looks like at your company. Are you looking for leaders who can drive great results? Bring people together? Listen and develop others? Or are you looking for leaders who can connect, innovate, and help evolve the business? Every company needs different types of leaders at different times, and someone who performs well in their current role may not be the right person to help you reach your most immediate goals.

 

3. Am I looking forward or backward?

The secret to selecting great leaders is to predict the future, not to reward the past. Every organization faces the problem of how to identify the people who are most likely to lead your teams through growing complexity, uncertainty, and change. Such individuals may have a very different profile from those who have succeeded in the past, as well as from those who are succeeding in the present.

Avoid promoting entirely based on culture fit. Although you may have good intentions in doing it, it often results in a lack of diversity of thought and outdated leadership models. In today’s ever-changing world, businesses are expected to grow as fast as the technologies surrounding them. Their models must be in constant transformation. What worked in the past and what is working in the present may not work at all in the future. Companies, then, need to get more comfortable thinking outside the box. This means taking “misfits” or “people who think differently” and placing them into leadership roles. Give them support and time to prove themselves. This is just one way to deepen your leadership pipeline.

You should also take an extra look at the people who “may not be ready,” and analyze them on the basis of their ambition, reputation, and passion for your business. Often the youngest, most agile, and most confident people turn into incredible leaders, even though their track record may not be the best. Mark Zuckerberg, one of the most successful CEOs in decades by many measures, had almost no business experience before he started Facebook. Steve Jobs had not run a large company before Apple, yet he had the insights, connections, and drive to make it a household name.

It’s time to rethink the notion of leadership. If you move beyond promoting those with the most competence and start thinking more about those who can get you where you want to go, your company will thrive. In other words, start considering those who have high potential, not just top performers.


Josh Bersin is founder of Bersin by Deloitte, and now the Josh Bersin Academy, the research and professional development academy for HR and business leaders. He is a global research analyst, public speaker, and writer on the topics of corporate human resources, talent management, recruiting, leadership, technology, and the intersection between work and life.


Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. He’s the author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It). Find him on Twitter: @drtcp or at www.drtomas.com. 

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How to Have Difficult Conversations Virtually

As the psycholinguist Herb Clark has pointed out, human communication is optimized for small numbers of people to talk together face-to-face in real time. The further we get from this ideal situation, the more opportunities there are for communication to go awry.

And, yet, so many of us work with people who we never see in person because they (or we) work remotely, are in different offices, or in different parts of the world. This can make communication challenging. This is particularly true when the situation or topic of conversation is going to create stress for you, the other person, or both of you.

When you are trying to explore topics with your colleagues that are emotionally or conceptually difficult, it’s good to get as close to the ideal situation as possible. Being able to interact in real time lets people interrupt a speaker if they get confused or have trouble following the conversation. This coordinated negotiation is a hallmark of effective communication.

When a situation is emotionally challenging, visual contact is even more important. Facial expressions provide a lot of information about what people are feeling. Even fleeting changes in what people display, so-called micro-expressions, can provide useful information about people’s initial reactions to information. When you’re exchanging emails or texts, or even if you’re on the phone, you’re likely to miss momentary changes in people’s facial expressions — and the meaning they convey.

If you need to have what you expect to be a challenging conversation with someone, there are several things you can do.

Create a sense of co-presence. The more difficult the conversation you are having, the more you need to think about the technology you are using and how to make it as seamless as possible. You need to create a sense of co-presence, which is the ability to feel as though you can interact effectively with another person. For example, you might consider using a phone connection for voice and to reserve bandwidth for video if you do not have a great internet connection. Also try to keep the environment free from distraction so everyone can concentrate on the conversation itself. This is particularly important if you work in an open office environment.

Have eye contact, if possible. When having emotionally difficult conversations — particularly when delivering bad news — it’s best to be able to make eye contact with the person you are talking to and to present information in a sympathetic and caring manner. It can be difficult to use your facial expression and tone of voice to convey your attitude in virtual environments. Try to use technology like videoconferencing or Skype if you can’t get together.

Be specific. There are two kinds of distance created by virtual conversations. One is physical distance. The second is that the barriers to making a connection can increase the sense of distance between people in a conversation. Research on construal level theory points out that the more distant you are from something or someone socially or in time or space, the more abstractly you are likely to think about them. However, having difficult conversations often requires providing specific feedback not abstraction. This is particularly true when addressing problems with someone’s performance at work, where you need to give specific demonstrations of problems and particular actions that someone can take to fix the problem.

Take care to override the effects of distance and make your discussion as specific as possible. It can be helpful to take notes before a conversation so that you have particular examples to bolster your main points. Otherwise, you run the risk of having a conversation that does not help people to address the difficulties you have noticed.

Having difficult conversations is hard to do successfully under the best of circumstances. When you must have that conversation virtually, a little extra preparation can go a long way toward making the interaction feel more like it would if you were in the same place at the same time.


Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. His new book is Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career (HBR Press).

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How Leaders Can Open Up to Their Teams Without Oversharing

In the age of social sharing, people who work together know more and more about each other. In general, this is a good thing for peers and leaders. Research shows our brains respond positively to people when we feel a personal connection with them. We try harder, perform better, and are kinder to our colleagues. Command and control management is on its way out, and bosses who practice empathy and make an effort to connect with their subordinates are in.

This willingness in leaders to be open and honest, even if it makes them vulnerable, is important because it builds trust — people can easily sense inauthenticity. We tend to assume that leaders are marketing to us. If a leader never shows emotion, that conviction only becomes stronger. But when a leader reveals a more personal side to herself, and we sense that it is authentic, we feel a connection and are more likely to believe her words.

However, people who overdo this accomplish just the opposite and can end up completely undermining themselves. If leaders share information that suggests they are not up to the task — for example, “I’m scared, and I have no idea what to do right now” — there is a good chance their team will take on that same emotion, or worse, lose faith in their ability to lead. People in charge have to think longer and harder than the rest of us about when to be transparent because they have more eyes on them. Every time they are vulnerable (or are not vulnerable), their reports are watching and analyzing their words and actions for a deeper meaning. So, when does sharing become oversharing? We argue that the way to find a balance between the two is to be selectively vulnerable — or open up to your team while still prioritizing their boundaries, as well as your own.

This issue often presents itself when there are new initiatives or changes in an organization. We typically find leaders asking themselves how much of their own worries they should reveal when leading their team down a challenging or unfamiliar road. The best leaders are honest about how they feel while simultaneously presenting a clear path forward.

Below are some tips to help you do this:

  • Figure yourself out. The best leaders are able to hit a pause button when they become emotional. Instead of immediately acting, ask yourself, “What exactly am I feeling? Why? What is the need behind this emotion?” For example, an average manager might say she feels irritable about a project because the workload is annoying, but a great manager will take the time to reflect on this emotion. In doing so, she might realize the root cause of her irritability is anxiety about meeting a deadline.
  • Regulate your emotions. Once you identify your feelings, you need to know how to manage them. This is as important as managing your reports. What you consider a momentary bad mood can ruin someone’s day. Reactive, hot-tempered managers are hurtful, demoralizing, and the main reason people quit jobs. Research shows that employees confronted by an angry manager are less willing to work hard — especially if they don’t understand where the anger is coming from. But when managers control their words and body language during tense situations, their reports’ stress levels drop significantly. “An important part of being a leader is understanding how much weight the people around you can bear,” Laszlo Bock, founder and CEO of Humu, and former head of HR at Google, told us. “You can’t burden your employees with more than they can carry, or expect them to hold you up all the time.”
  • Address your feelings without becoming emotionally leaky. We’re often worse at hiding our feelings than we think. If you’re frustrated or upset, your employees will most likely pick up on your bad mood and might assume that they are responsible for it. “The idea that you’re never going to have a bad day as a boss is bullshit,” Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, told us. “The best thing to do is to cop to it. Say to your team, ‘I’m having a bad day, and I’m trying my best not to take it out on you. But if it seems like I’m having a bad day, I am. But it’s not because of you that I’m having a bad day. The last thing I want is for my bad day make your day worse.” You don’t have to go into more detail, but acknowledging your feelings helps you avoid creating unnecessary anxiety among your reports.
  • Provide a path forward. When you’re tackling a challenging project, practice how you’re going to share your emotions with your team, and make sure you do so with intention. Dumping your feelings onto them in a reactive or unthoughtful way leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation. Aim to be realistic but optimistic. A good formula to follow is: “Because of ______, I’m feeling _____ and _____. But here’s what I’m planning to do next to make it better: _________. And here’s what I need from you: _______. What do you need from me?” This will help you address your anxiety without projecting negative emotions onto your team. “It’s a promise to work towards a solution in spite of emotions,” says Jerry Colonna, former venture capitalist and coach, also known as the “CEO Whisperer.”
  • Avoid oversharing. A good rule of thumb for figuring out if you’re about to overshare is to ask yourself: “How would I feel if my manager said this to me?” If it’s something that you’d be thankful to hear, chances are your reports will feel similarly. If it’s something that would give you pause, err on the side of caution. Be curious about your own intentions. Are you sharing from a place of authenticity, or are you trying to fabricate a connection with others? Sometimes we overshare personal experiences just to feel close with someone else. But often, this is not useful or effective.
  • Read the room. If you think members of your team might be feeling anxious about the project, it’s okay to surface those feelings to help them feel less isolated. For example, if everyone has been working long hours to meet an impending deadline, you might say something like, “I’m feeling a little tired today, but I’m grateful for how well we’ve worked together and that we’re set to send the client a proposal we can all be proud of.” Again, always try to pair realism with optimism, and share when you sense it will be helpful to others.

Finding the right balance between sharing and oversharing is not easy. But with practice, it can be done. As a leader, it’s your job to understand the powerful role your emotions play, and to harness them in ways that will help your team succeed.


Liz Fosslien will join Humu, a company that uses nudges to drive behavior change aimed at making work better, at the end of February, where she will be responsible for content. Most recently, she designed and facilitated organizational culture workshops for executives at LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, BlackRock, and Nike. Liz’s previous writing and data visualization has been featured by The Economist, CNN, Freakonomics, and NPR. Liz and Mollie are the authors of the book, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @lizandmollie.


Mollie West Duffy is an organizational designer at global innovation firm IDEO. Mollie formerly worked as a research associate for the Dean of Harvard Business School Nitin Nohria and renowned strategy professor Michael E. Porter. She’s written for Fast Company, Quartz, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Entrepreneur, Quiet Rev and other digital outlets. Liz and Mollie are the authors of the book, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @lizandmollie.


 
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When a Leader Is Causing Conflict, Start by Asking Why

Not long ago, I received a call from an HR manager at a large corporation seeking an executive coach for one of their senior leaders. He was described as arrogant, tactlessly blunt, and lacking empathy. Despite his challenges, all of which hadn’t improved much despite several previous coaching interventions, the company hadn’t fired him because he was considered one of the industry’s most brilliant engineers, responsible for several of the firm’s most profitable patents. The company simply couldn’t afford to let him go.

How do you coach a leader whom others think is a hopeless case? Sometimes you can’t. The person may well turn out to be a jerk who won’t change their toxic ways. In that case, the company needs to fire the individual. Tolerating destructive behavior will send the signal that it’s ok to mistreat others as long as you get results. But, often, as was the case with my client, the leader who everyone thinks is hopeless is simply being misunderstood and their behavior misdiagnosed.

Whether you are a coach, an HR leader, or an executive trying to help a challenging subordinate, your credibility, and that of the leader you’re trying to help, depends on an accurate understanding of what’s actually going on. Here are three ways you can be sure you’re addressing the right problem with a challenging leader in the right way.

Manage your assumptions and judgements. Without realizing it, those of us in advisory roles often bring our own issues to our work helping others. We make assumptions and judgements based on our own experiences that often have little to do with the leader we’re trying to support. Before I even met this leader, I found myself feeling anxious, dismissive, and judgmental toward him based on what others had said. I imagined how I would respond to his insulting behavior and what I would say if he made an arrogant comment. But my defenses were unwarranted and my assumption that he was a jerk proved wrong. He was engaging, open to learning, and willing to accept his need to improve. When I asked him why he thought he was so harsh toward others, he seemed stumped and genuinely troubled by how others had characterized him.

I’d heard from the company’s HR manager that this executive was especially cruel toward one colleague. Why had he singled out one person to treat in a uniquely nasty way? As we explored this, it became clear that something about the younger engineer triggered the executive’s anger and it eventually clicked: The young engineer reminded him of his older brother, with whom he had a contentious relationship. My client was raised in an excessively achievement-oriented family, that prized blunt candor over tact, and he was regularly sent the message that he was inferior. His brother had been the family’s golden child while he was never good enough. This direct report was a daily reminder of that pain. This back story in no way excused his behavior, but it did explain it. More importantly, it revealed a path forward toward changing it. But I had to set aside my biases and prejudgments to build the trust necessary to access these important insights.

Look past symptoms to contradictions. Determining what lies beneath seemingly destructive behavior requires looking beyond symptoms. My client’s colleagues had described him as mean and insensitive. His previous coaches had focused on various interpersonal techniques, like how to give constructive feedback, work with different personality styles, and delegate effectively. But they’d neglected to probe into the dynamic with that one engineer. To thoroughly diagnose a leader’s behavior, look for breaks in patterns. Are there people this person works especially well or poorly with? Specific circumstances in which they shine or falter? No one is the same all the time, so understanding where people deviate from predictable habits can isolate important clues. In my client’s case, his unique contempt toward one colleague was an important data point. Further, I learned later that his widely regarded technical expertise coupled with his family background made him feel anxiously responsible for the company’s technical reputation. His team members experienced this as micromanagement and dismissive of their expertise. If we’d focused on those symptoms, we wouldn’t have gotten very far. We needed to understand the root cause. It’s not uncommon to inaccurately diagnosis bad leadership behavior. One Arizona State University study found that toxic leadership pathologies are often confused with behaviors that might fall into a normal range of pathology. To avoid confusing common leadership shortfalls with serious pathologies, it’s critical to dig deeper behind symptoms.

Have a broad repertoire of solutions. For many in advisory roles, their diagnostic lens is narrowed to problems they are best equipped to solve. Every hammer looks like a nail, as the saying goes. For example, I’ve seen some consultants whose specialty was team building, so it was no surprise that their findings and recommendations were all around improving team trust. Leadership coaches use their favorite personality instruments to solve everything from poor financial performance to low morale. It’s important to be open-minded to solutions that fall outside your expertise. Ineffective leadership behavior can originate from deep-seated pathologies to problems with organizational culture. Having a repertoire of tools and approaches helps avoid the dangers of applying a one-size-fits-all solution to all situations. And don’t be afraid to refer people to others who have different expertise that may be able to better help your clients with particular issues. In the case of my client, I recommended he also see a therapist to work on his anxiety and unresolved family issues. He and I worked on more effective ways to engage, teach, and empower his team, and how to recognize when his triggers were getting in the way of doing so.

Consistent scholarly research suggests when it comes to empirically measuring the effectiveness of those advising leaders, we fall far short. Mislabeling behavior or a person as beyond help is one way we fail leaders. If you don’t look for contradictions, get to the root cause, and have a range of solutions, you could unwittingly limit someone’s growth or, even worse, derail their career. But if you do those things, with an open mind, you may be able to help save the job of a valuable leader who might otherwise have been let go, and in turn, provide great value to those you serve.


Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.


 
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Why Leaders Need to Cultivate Complementary Strengths

Robert is a strong leader.

How do I know? When he left one company to join another, many in his top team followed him to the new company because they wanted to keep working for him. That’s a pretty strong testimonial.

“Yes, he pushes us hard,” one of his direct reports told me, “but I work harder and I deliver. I like that.”

But every leader — even strong ones — have their challenges. And while Robert (not his real name) inspires hard work and loyalty, he also inspires fear, especially in people who don’t know him well or are a few levels below him in the hierarchy. To be clear, Robert is not abusive. He simply has a high bar and is respectfully intolerant of mediocrity. But the impact is one of fear. More than once, a member of his team has come to me with great ideas that they have not shared with him.

Fear doesn’t bring out the best in people. It mutes their performance as they take fewer risks and make overly conservative, safe choices. It also befuddles them, sending them down a confidence-sapping negative spiral: They speak nervously, which makes them appear unsure, which creates doubt in their leaders, who question them more aggressively, which increases their nervousness, which befuddles them even more…and it’s all downhill from there.

On the one hand, this is not Robert’s problem — it’s the problem of the insecure employee. People need to build the confidence to engage with leaders who have an incisive mind and high expectations.

On the other hand, it is Robert’s problem. If he wants to get the most out of all his employees (and their teams), he needs to create a safe environment in which they can perform their best.

As an executive coach of high-performing leaders, I see this all the time. And here are two mistakes coaches often make when trying to help these leaders.

  1. The coach accepts the leader’s perspective that it’s not his problem, that it’s the problem of the people with too delicate a constitution. They shouldn’t quiver in their boots under a legitimate line of questioning. He may be right about them, but he’s not right that it’s not his problem. As a leader who wants to get the best out of his people, it’s always his problem.
  2. The coach tries to help the leader tone down his approach so that he’s not so scary. This is a bad idea. Why? First, most leaders are right that their questions are legitimate. Second, muting the leader is an exercise in frustration and is unsustainable. Third, even if that works, performance suffers anyway since the leader is no longer holding people to the high standard they ultimately need and want. In other words, the leader ends up replacing high performance with mediocrity. And for high-performing leaders (and their organizations), that’s unsustainable.

So what’s the solution?

Imagine you make a soup and it tastes too bitter. The soup is made; you can’t remove the bitter taste. But you can add some sugar to it that balances out the bitterness and makes the soup far more palatable. In other words, sometimes it’s not about changing or taking out an ingredient; it’s about adding one that’s missing.

Instead of reducing his incisiveness, Robert should increase his warmth.

He can acknowledge a person’s insights before asking his questions. Or he can thank them for bringing something to his awareness that was missing (which has the added benefit of showing his vulnerability). He can add a few words of support. He can simply connect with the person warmly and with a smile. He can give context to his questions so that everyone can learn about the way he thinks.

We all have attributes that simultaneously work for us and against us. The solution is not to subdue our strengths but to add ingredients that balance them out. In other words, build complementary skills.

If you have the opposite problem of Robert? If you hold people with care and comfort but tend not to push them? Don’t reduce your warmth — rather push yourself to ask a hard question, without losing your warmth.

Recently someone I work with was accused (by more than one person) of being too political. Her role required that she be adept at managing the politics of the most senior leaders of the organization, so dulling this trait would have been counterproductive.

“Your problem isn’t that you’re too political,” I suggested. “It’s that you’re not communicative enough with your colleagues at your level.” I coached her to continue to leverage her diplomatic skills, while including her team in her efforts instead of working around them.

As for Robert? “Don’t dilute your greatness,” I told him. “Let’s just build a container for it.”


Peter Bregman is a Master Certified Coach and CEO of Bregman Partners, where he leads a team of over 25 coaches, helping senior leaders and teams create positive behavioral change and work more effectively together to achieve the company’s most critical business results. Peter is the best-selling author of Leading with Emotional Courage and hosts the Bregman Leadership Podcast. To receive an email when he posts, click here.

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If Your Innovation Effort Isn’t Working, Look at Who’s on the Team

An all-star team is making headway with a new initiative that could alter the future of the organization. Spirits are optimistic and the team is successfully maneuvering through new, yet very promising, territory. Then, the results begin taking longer than anticipated to prove, and after too much time spent outside of their comfort zones, the team of high-achieving employees can’t seem to execute within the uncertain environment.

The team’s outlook shifts and it becomes clear that the group will not be able to weather the storm of uncertainty needed to realize this new organizational opportunity.

How could such a capable team fail?

At the heart of many organizations is a deeper problem that blocks transformation: product/function organizational structure. This structure works in well-understood environments, where maximizing delivery of a product or service is the goal, but transformative projects require the organization to return to a more malleable state. This challenge requires teams that are formed through a re-matching of resources and employee capabilities.

Transformation-capable teams are made up of people who are not only high performers, but who hold a unique balance of skills and mindsets that allow them to sustain focus, agility, and optimism in the face of uncertainty for prolonged periods of time. Ultimately, not all top-performing employees are equipped for this.

In our book, Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, we highlight certain capabilities to search for and cultivate while building a transformative team. Specifically, there are three unique characteristics that will play critical roles as a team takes on a breakthrough initiative.

Negative capability: being comfortable with uncertainty

The term “negative capability” was coined by the poet John Keats while describing writers like Shakespeare who were able to work within uncertainty and doubt. Keats was describing the ability to accept not having an immediate answer and to remain willing to explore how something may evolve before there is a clear outcome.

In the modern context, negative capability can be thought of as the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, even to entertain it, rather than to become so anxious by its presence that you have to prematurely race to a more certain, yet suboptimal, conclusion. Whereas many people cannot stand the fuzziness of uncertainty, those who demonstrate negative capabilities can facilitate the exploration of new terrain and the discovery of an adjacent possible opportunity.

Individuals with negative capability remain curious and focused even when your project is far from the end goal. Chances are, they will even find this point of the project enthralling, rather than overwhelming, which is exactly what you want. They will also be able to suspend judgement about an end result and stay open to many possible outcomes, rather than become fixed early on to one version of success.

Chaos pilots: leading and executing in unfamiliar territory  

In 1991, Danish politician and social worker Uffe Elbæk took out a $100,000 personal loan to open an unusual business school called Kaospilot. The vision of the business school was inspired by a previous project of Elbæk’s, where he observed a new skill set in students for navigating uncertain problems and saw the opportunity to teach these skills to business leaders who needed to do the same. Chaos pilot is a perfect label for a specific persona needed on a transformative team.

Chaos pilots are people who can creatively lead a project through uncertainty. They have negative capability, but they also have other critical skills, such as the ability to create structure within chaos and take action. Leaders who are chaos pilots are able to drive a team forward on a project even as the environment around them fluctuates.

Although it may sound glamorous to be such a person, being a chaos pilot is hard — they are the colleagues working on ambiguous projects and frequently getting beat up in the process. People who aren’t capable of being chaos pilots quickly flounder when the environment around the project gets shaky.

Chaos pilots often care more about creating meaningful change than about climbing a corporate ladder or getting another star on their charts. Finding chaos pilots to join you can be challenging and requires observation and experimentation, though there are a few fertile places to look for good candidates.

For example, look for people who are getting mixed performance reviews, but who are still highly prized by the organization. Often, these people are getting mixed reviews because they make those around them uncomfortable — because the potential candidates often challenge the status quo — but they continue to succeed, because they perform so well.

Divergent thinking, convergent action, and influential communication

Finally, there are three neuropsychological traits to seek while building a transformative team. These three traits — divergent thinking, convergent action, and influential communication — all play a crucial role to succeeding in innovation and transformation. While many individuals hold one or two of these skills, finding a person with all three is more challenging, yet optimal.

The first of the three, divergent thinking, is the ability to uniquely connect new information, ideas, and concepts that are usually held far apart. People with this skill can match dissimilar concepts in novel and meaningful ways and uncover new opportunities that others may overlooked.

Convergent action, the second trait, is the ability to execute on these new ideas in order to create something tangible. Though many people can come up with great ideas, it is often those with convergent action who will move that new concept from idea to product. Last, having the ability to communicate ideas in a coherent, compelling, and influential way is paramount. This trait will inspire other leaders and decision-makers to believe, support, and act on a novel idea or opportunity.

Similar to how many transformative business opportunities are found in unlikely places, the same is true about where you may find the best-suited team members to drive forward a promising new initiative.

Each organizational project represents a moment of potential transformation, and each successful project helps an organization self-correct away from becoming a calloused machine executing on routine, and instead become what they need to survive: a malleable organization capable of capturing new opportunities.


Nathan Furr is an assistant professor of strategy at INSEAD and a coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).


Kyle Nel is the CEO and cofounder of Uncommon Partners, a behavioral transformation consultancy, the former executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, and a coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).


Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy is the founder and CEO of Neurons Inc. He is a coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future (HBR Press, 2018).

 

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The 4 Types of Coaches Every Leader Needs

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” This quote from legendary college basketball coach John Wooden is one of the best ways I’ve found to describe the importance of coaching in the workplace.

The reason is that we’ve entered a new era of business in which the rapid pace of change requires people at all levels of the organization to constantly learn new skills, change their perspectives, and push themselves to higher levels of performance. That’s where coaching comes in: Coaching is about providing timely feedback to help someone strengthen their skills, knowledge, or behavior to better accomplish a short-term goal.

The word “short-term” is an important aspect to remember. Coaching is all about helping someone perform better right now. While coaching might happen repeatedly over the life of a project, it could also occur in the space of just one conversation.

While coaching has long been a critical part of how leaders interact with their direct reports, many organizations are seeing significant advantages from making coaching a part of their culture. Among other benefits, these organizations are more likely to have a strong leadership bench, experience lower leader turnover, and have more satisfied and engaged leaders.

While the benefits of a coaching culture are significant, it can be very challenging to build. One of the big issues is that many people have a misconception that coaching can only happen in one direction, with people at higher levels of the organization coaching people who have lower-level titles. But a coaching culture depends on breaking down those barriers, and enabling everyone in the organization to become a coach.

One of the key ways to overcome this barrier is for leaders to become comfortable not only with giving coaching, but receiving it. As leaders become more comfortable about asking for and receiving coaching from varied sources, coaching begins to become more ingrained in the organization’s culture. Specifically, leaders should seek out four different types of coaching, each of which plays a distinct role:

Leader coaches provide guidance

When a leader is getting coaching from a boss or another higher-level leader, the coach should ideally be serving as a guide for the leader. The coach should be focused on providing both proactive and reactive coaching that will help the leader succeed.

Proactive coaching is focused on helping set the leader up for success. It might take the form of offering insights or resources to help the leader complete a project similar to one that the higher-level leader has tackled in the past. On the flip side, reactive coaching is about helping the leader solve problems, such as helping remove barriers standing in the way of success or changing tactics to better approach the issue.

One trap for leaders as coaches, however, is that they may find themselves managing more often than coaching. While coaching is about helping guide people to solve problems, managing is telling people what to do. Managing involves setting goals, giving direction, communicating expectations, and making decisions. When coaching from a boss or other higher-level leader starts to become more like managing, leaders often get frustrated, and may feel micromanaged. While managing is a necessary part of leadership, it should occur much less frequently than coaching.

Peer coaches offer candid partnership

While bosses and higher-level leaders serve as important and valuable coaches, many people struggle to let their guard down among those who have higher-level titles in the organization. Even in high-trust relationships with their leaders, direct reports may feel that they still must present their best sides to ensure they don’t risk sharing issues that may affect their performance reviews, raises, career prospects, or job status.

Peer coaches can help to fill this gap. Peer coaching pairs together same-level leaders for mutual benefit. Without the burden of a title or rank dynamics, peers can provide candid feedback that’s focused on achieving the best possible outcome

Peer coaching can also help break down silos and improve collaboration across the organization. In addition, it can help people to feel more accountability for their work, knowing how much their peers are counting on them.

Direct reports can coach on their areas of expertise

While many leaders can see the benefits of coaching from their boss or peers, they often struggle with getting coaching from those who report to them. In the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, we learned that leaders are getting very little coaching from their direct reports—and that’s fine with them! Many leaders may be concerned that getting coaching from their direct reports may make them appear weak or lacking in knowledge.

However, direct reports often have specialized knowledge that can be extremely valuable to their leaders. As leaders are promoted, they lose touch with the day-to-day issues and experience, especially as rapidly changing technologies transform the workplace. Thus, direct reports often have much deeper knowledge of their subject matter, on-the-job pain points, and ideas for solutions than their leaders.

Coaching from direct reports is one of the most critical aspects of building a coaching culture. When team members get to share their expertise and input with their manager, they are much more likely to feel like a valued and trusted member of the team, which improves their engagement and commitment to their jobs.

External coaches provide objectivity

While developing a strong coaching culture within your organization is ideal, leaders say they desire coaching from external coaches more than nearly any other kind of development. External coaches can play a deeply valuable role in providing outside perspective and expertise to leaders. With an external coach, leaders can feel free to voice concerns without fear of damaging relationships with their colleagues and can gain perspective about how leaders in other organizations may have dealt with similar situations. They can also be objective to the situation without concern for organizational politics.

Unfortunately, leaders are rarely getting these opportunities for external coaching. Many organizations reserve external coaching only for leaders at the executive level, which can leave mid-level and frontline leaders struggling to gain outside perspective. The good news is that advances in technology are making it easier for these leaders to access coaching, such as by easily scheduling virtual sessions.

When leaders seek coaching from a wider variety of people, they not only maximize their own performance, but engage others in their success. As people begin to feel more comfortable giving and receiving coaching, it will begin to become a way of (work) life, transforming your organization not only into a coaching culture, but a high-performance culture.

 

Written by Ryan Heinl

Ryan Heinl is director of Product Management and leader of the Impact Lab at DDI, where he brings innovative leadership solutions to life. He is an entrepreneur, writer, chef, Crossfitter, mindfulness junkie and occasional yogi who travels the world in search of the perfect moment (and secretly hopes he won’t find it).

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Make a Tough Decision Easier to Accept

Every leader has to make hard decisions that have consequences for their organization, their reputation, and their career. When you’re faced with a tough call, consider two things that make these decisions so difficult: uncertainty about the outcome and value complexity, the notion that any choice you make will negatively affect someone. To reduce the uncertainty in a decision, first consider the costs of not acting, and then think carefully about your options. Have you made any assumptions that are holding you back? Are there low-risk, small-scale ways to test your options? To handle value complexity, consider how you can help people understand your decision once you make it. Especially when the decision involves trade-offs that will affect others, you’ll want to be as clear as possible about your intentions.

Adapted from “How to Get People to Accept a Tough Decision,” by David Maxfield - From the Harvard Business Review.

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How to Nourish Your Team’s Creativity

CEOs in a recent poll agreed that creativity is the most important skill a leader can have. What seems less clear is how to actually cultivate it. Every leader is hoping for that next great idea, yet many executives still treat creative thinking as antithetical to productivity and control. Indeed, 80% of American and British workers feel pressured into being productive rather than creative.

Leaders can’t afford to have people holding back potential breakthroughs. Knowing this, it is important to recognize that radical, disruptive thinking is not something that can be mandated. Too many leaders try to demand creativity on the spot: They offer cash rewards for new ideas, sequester teams in endless brainstorming sessions, and encourage competitive hierarchies that reward some people for out-innovating others. While all of these strategies are intended to manifest organizational creativity, none do— and they often backfire.

As Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire explain, “One doesn’t manage creativity. One manages for creativity.” Your role as a leader is to create a working environment in which critical thinking, new ideas, and creative solutions can flow unencumbered. Here are a few guidelines for bringing out your team’s creative best.

Define creativity for your organization without making it a formulaTom Stillwell, CEO of the Clio Award–winning marketing agency Midnight Oil, explains: “Creativity can be very expensive if you aren’t careful. You could dive into work without clarity on what creativity you want, and end up churning time, energy, and money without results.”

So the first step is to define your terms. If you treat concepts like “design thinking” and “disruptive innovation” as mere buzzwords rather than as muscular strategic concepts, you will end up spinning your wheels, and maybe even stifling creativity.

To create growth, idea creation must be directed toward the benefit of the organization and the customers it serves, something that can only happen through a shared clarity on what creativity means and the purpose it serves to differentiate you from competitors. Take care not to overextend that clarity into a rote formula. Too many R&D groups, with the noble intention of creating “innovative efficiency,” try to codify their innovation processes with such precision that they neuter imagination. A clear definition of the role creativity plays in executing your strategy should get everyone on the same page, ensuring that the entire organization is working toward shared goals.

Strike a balance between art and commerce. In a company, creative thinking must occur on a spectrum between art and commerce. New ideas that exist purely in the realm of art, or creativity for creativity’s sake, won’t necessarily drive the organization forward. And ideas that are singularly focused on commerce or profit aren’t likely to break free from the status quo. To strike a meaningful balance, it is vital that everyone on your team understands the spectrum and uses it in shaping their creative thinking. Whereas some people will have a hard time breaking free from financial assumptions, others will feel constrained by the need to anchor their creative expression to commercial realities. Manage this tension by encouraging people to move out of their comfort zones and toward the center of the spectrum. Effective leaders help their people understand this not as a contradiction but as a healthy tension that can yield the most profitable and breakthrough ideas.

Provide space for both collaborative and individual expression. Too often, we think of creativity as an individual pursuit. However, the Latin roots of the word “creative” — which describe a social, communal experience — reveal a fundamental truth: Creativity is founded upon collaboration. Julien Jarreau, executive creative director at the premier health marketing agency Health4Brands, elaborates:

“Individuality plays an important part in what people bring to the creative table. And yet relinquishing that individuality to a greater collective effort is the ultimate work of generating powerful creative results. I am clear in my expectations that I want collective creation while still honoring individuals. I don’t tolerate prima donnas.” People must learn to derive gratification as individual contributors, while balancing it with a collaborative spirit focused on a greater good. A collaborative environment allows a level playing field where good ideas can be challenged into great ideas. It also fosters the emotional safety needed for creative people to risk sharing their most divergent ideas without fear of judgment. The leader’s job is to set that standard and model it.

Provide structural guardrails without constraining freedom. Creativity is messy. It won’t follow strict protocols or processes. At the same time, it needs structure to thrive. How much structure and discipline is ideal? How much freedom will yield optimal results? A leader helps build collective capability by setting objectives and deadlines, providing creative spaces and designated times for diverging, and allowing teams to practice creativity. Put the tools and processes in place, and turn the team loose.

One of the greatest challenges for leaders is determining what role they should play in helping generate creative ideas and solutions. When leaders have more experience or talent than their team, deciding when to insert their own ideas instead of coaching others can be hard. Deadlines and slipping performance targets increase the leader’s risk of imposing their will, which just reinforces self-doubt on the team and perpetuates the cycle of the leader having to insert the “answer.” If you are going to participate in the ideation, take your leader hat off and, as convincingly as you can, inform your team not to treat your ideas any differently. Only do this if it strengthens the process and avoids muting their participation.

There is nothing more satisfying that watching your people fulfill the human need to create and having their creative contributions benefit the organization and the markets it serves. Doing this requires understanding the inherent tensions that come with leading creative endeavor. It takes intentional, thoughtful leadership to help your team unleash their most creative and powerful work.

Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/05/how-to-nourish-your-teams-creativity

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