Taking high road pays off in the end

September 13, 2012

Q: I was wrongfully blasted by my boss in front of my entire team. I was so blindsided that I couldn’t even respond. I’m sure I’ve lost all credibility and want to know if there’s any way to recover.

A: You probably feel like you have nowhere to go except out the door right now. However, your silence probably saved you. A public outburst or retort against someone of higher rank can be corporate suicide.

Choosing the high road versus defending the indefensible in the moment pays dividends.

The exchange revealed not just your character but that of your boss under pressure. It is not a weakness to stand in the tornado without acquiescing to your emotions or retaliating.

Demonstrating self-control shows self-discipline, inner resolve and emotional intelligence.

Leaders who manage their impulsivity create an environment of trust, comfort and fairness. One study showed that executives promoted to CEO demonstrated seven times more emotional self management than those who were passed over.

Your team is unlikely to come to your rescue. However, don’t interpret their self preservation as abandoning you.

They are watching you closely. What kind of leader do you want to be viewed as? It is entirely possible to turn a slap in the face into a powerful victory by being viewed as calm, fair and honourable.

Focus your energy on the issue at hand rather than taking the attack personally. Look beyond the boss’s behaviour and determine the underlying trigger for the outburst.

Detach from your reaction before responding so you will be calm and objective as you determine your desired outcome.

Set up a private one-on-one to understand the boss’ perspective, clear the air and set the record straight.

Following these steps could avert being the boss’s future scapegoat when he loses control.

Originally published in The Province, September 9, 2012

Give critics a chance to be heard

August 6, 2012

Q My team implemented a company-wide technology change and a small but vocal group of detractors is publicly criticizing the move which is thwarting uptake. How do I get their buy in?

A dissension is normal and creative conflict can lead to valuable improvements when harnessed. Invite the core group to meet with you and other key leaders to voice their alternate viewpoints. Have a few former resisters attend to explain how they overcame their doubts and the ensuing benefits they discovered by opting in.

Set the meeting tone by appreciating their willingness to attend and share. Explain the intended purpose and out-come of the platform change and reiterate that it is here to stay. At the same time, state your commitment to hear their feedback and ease their challenges during the transition phase.

During the meeting, keep the dialogue focused on issues, not on people.

Strive to hear the value, insight and good in their viewpoints.

Remain calm, neutral and objective. Resist judging their opinions or defending yours.

Let disagreements emerge, remain curious and open. Recognize that the emotional stress of any adjustment period can result in a need to vent. Most often people want their views to be heard, accepted and validated, they are not expecting your agreement.

While you may not convert all of the naysayers, your goal is to create enough safety and comfort for them to bring issues directly to you rather than the public.

Schedule regular followup meetings to ensure you remain on common ground going forward.

If handled appropriately, the staunchest opponents can become your greatest advocates.

Originally published in The Province, August 5, 2012

Introverts need time and trust to open up

June 18, 2012

Q: I have inherited two executives who are challenging me.

The rest of the team exchanges ideas and dialogues passionately while they sit withdrawn and silent.

When asked to contribute, their ideas are well formulated and sound. But they are painfully slow at articulating so I often pass over them. How can I get them to keep up with the rest of us so we can include their input?

A: Recognize these leaders are likely introverts. Introverts reflect, think and process information internally before responding to a situation. They need to be asked for their opinions as they rarely volunteer their depth of knowledge. Introverts prefer to listen. They think before they act and once decided, aren’t easily swayed.

These executives may not appear as team players. Introverts are generally private, requiring time and trust to open up.

Extroverts process their thoughts by saying them aloud.

Comfortable in groups, they take up a lot of space and their energy drains introverts.

Communicating in larger groups is more challenging for introverts. They far prefer deep discussions one on one.

Introverts have a greater ability to focus their attention narrowly for longer periods than extroverts.

Get the best from these executives by giving them time to prepare their thoughts. Tell them you’ll be asking them for their viewpoints shortly. Draw them out by asking them specific questions.

Pause and leave space for them to participate. Give them the time they need to talk.

Understand it takes extraordinary effort for introverts to get their momentum.

Don’t interrupt. Keep meetings short and regular rather than infrequent and protracted so it is less taxing. Give them the option to communicate their views in writing after the meeting. Respecting the introverts’ style will bring out their best providing your team with more range and depth.

Originally printed in The Province, June 17, 2012. 

Managers need to buffer staff from stress

May 14, 2012

Q: Our region has been understaffed and over-worked for almost 18 months due to output demands and a head count freeze. My staff is burned out, tempers are flaring and productivity is dropping. How can I reduce the stress when I can’t hire?

A: The high price of stress includes errors in judgment, interpersonal conflicts, increased com-plaints and absenteeism.

Stress caused by organizational issues or poor leader-ship decisions can be mitigated by ensuring staff perceive their work as meaningful and valuable.

Managers may unknowingly contribute to employees’ stress by treating all assignments as urgent and pressure employees to meet unnecessary deadlines.

Recognize the volume and intensity of the work-loads. Multiple assignments increase stress. Set realistic expectations and deadlines. Prioritize and provide clear instructions so staff can make effective choices. Stream-line or eliminate extraneous steps.

Micromanaging also causes undue stress, as staff feels controlled and stifled. Develop employees’ skills and abilities so they work independently to achieve their own success. Assign tasks and responsibilities that play to employees’ strengths. Recognize their accomplishments.

Studies show that the leader’s energy is contagious. Humour and fun increase positivity. Managers who take their jobs and themselves too seriously risk depleting their workforce.

Encourage staff to take lunch and breaks to recharge and connect with colleagues. Flexible hours or telecom-muting gives employees autonomy. Time off enables them to return refreshed and more motivated. With-out any vacations, staff will begin performing worse and working more slowly.

Invite staff to face-to-face meetings to discuss and dif-fuse conflicts. Validating their viewpoints serves as a safety valve to vent their fear, frustration and concerns. Man-agers must also buffer their staff from the stress produced by those higher in the chain of command.

Managers who communicate with their staff fairly, openly and honestly can preserve a cohesive productive workplace.

Originally printed in The Province, May 13, 2012.

Steer clear of minefields

November 3, 2011

Q: My peer’s hypercritical attitude is wearing me down. Rather than deal with it, her supervisors are waiting for her to retire. I try including her in discussions, but it doesn’t help. What do you suggest?

A: Since she interacts with others the same way, this reveals more about her than those she criticizes.

Life rarely measures up to a critic’s expectations, since they usually hold themselves to an even higher level of criticism than they do others. So don’t waste your energy taking it personally. Stress can make people curt or blunt. Maybe she is unaware of how her words come across or how her negativity siphons other’s energy.

If inviting input or opinions, you must to be willing to hear her feedback. Focus on ‘what’ she is saying rather than getting caught up in ‘how’ she’s saying it. Find the golden nugget being offered and acknowledge its value. Leave the rest. Critical people believe the validity of their viewpoint and want it to be heard.

If you’re not ready to hear her insight, do not solicit it. Keep your communications factual, business-like and brief. Stay away from minefields and limit interactions to essential items.

You can’t change others’ attitudes, but you can choose how you react. Why do her criticisms get under your skin? What meaning do you attribute to her comments? What is it that bothers you? Just as the critic’s comments reflect more about them, your reaction reveals more about you.

Ironically, she can be a great teacher. A self-critical person doesn’t have the capacity or ability to offer it to others. However, you will have developed increased self-awareness and self management when you are can respond to her with genuine compassion and understanding.

Originally published in The Province, October 30, 2011.

Set the tone for meetings

September 26, 2011

Q: My staff’s harsh criticisms of different viewpoints are preventing the sharing of innovative ideas in meetings. How can I create a more open exchange of dialogue?

A: Besides bringing in a neutral systems coach trained to resolve the team’s underlying conflict, role modelling by a leader is an effective way to achieve behavioural changes. The coaching skills of listening and asking curious questions would help break through the resistance.

Clear out your thoughts and agenda to focus attention on the speaker. If you are sorting and assessing the speaker’s message while they are speaking, you are NOT fully hearing them. You are filtering communication through assumptions and opinions. Listen beyond literal words, voice tone and their delivery. What is the underlying message they are trying to convey? What is their good intention beneath the words? What are they not saying?

Asking simple curious questions in a matter of fact manner will flush out their point of view. Seemingly obvious or dumb questions posed with sincere curiosity will encourage the speaker to disclose even more. Open ended questions that steer toward the positive in their viewpoint and begin with “what” will expand the conversation. For example: What is superior about this solution? What is the benefit? What would this afford us?

Avoid “why” questions that may make the speaker inadvertently feel interrogated or defensive. If the meeting becomes heated, neutralize it by curiously questioning the conflict – ensuring you are exhibiting judgment-free listening and dispassionate questioning. Your consistent follow through will demonstrate new meeting expectations promoting trust and safety so staff are motivated to contribute their ideas.

Originally published in The Province, September 25, 2011.

Dealing with clashing values

August 21, 2011

Q: Two of my employees clash over their competing values, creating tension in the department. I appreciate both of their viewpoints. How do I get them to do the same so they will work together productively?

A: Values conflicts can be more challenging to work through since they are emotionally charged. People tend to feel judged, threatened or personally attacked because their values reflect deeply held beliefs. This takes a more delicate mediation.

Start by facilitating an honest dialogue where both parties can explain their value freely and fully without being interrogated or criticized. The first step is to break through possible misconceptions or stereotyping by ensuring both parties feel heard.

Build trust and safety by keeping the conversational tone neutral. Ask each party: What does this value mean to you? What’s important to you about this value? Have the other party repeat what they heard and articulate how this complementary viewpoint strengthens the department.

The outcome of this meeting is to open up understanding and mutual respect for each other’s viewpoint. The intention is not for both parties to come to an agreement or to change either party’s values. You will need to remind them of this often throughout the process.

Establish common ground by finding a larger universal value that they can both support. For example: the company’s mission. If the conversation circles back to their differences in belief, keep reinforcing their commitment to the larger shared value.

Operationalize the new mutually held belief by formalizing an agreement on how they will work toward it in their own way. Include concrete action steps that they will be held accountable to attain. Finally, affirm their commitment and mutual respect.

 Originally published in The Province, August 21, 2011.

Try handling with care

May 9, 2011

Q: Due to economics, I am forced to revoke some employee benefits. My HR director says I should inform staff first. To me that’s pointless since they have no say in the matter and that would lead them to think they did. I believe it is better to play it low key and let them discover it for themselves. Who’s right?

A: Employees understand leaders are charged with making decisions they won’t necessarily agree with or support. Anger and resistance are natural responses to change. The only hope of getting staff on board is to communicate with them early and often.

Begin your message with empathy. Imagine a perk being taken away from you without being informed. Wouldn’t you feel disrespected and cheated? What would you want to hear?

What if you were told up front of the company’s challenging situation and how circumstances are forcing a difficult decision? You still wouldn’t like it, but you would be more likely to accept it.

Expose your thought process, the tough questions you asked yourself and how you wrestled with hard choices. This demonstrates that you didn’t take this lightly. Articulate three sound and compelling business reasons for making the change. Your explanations should address their likely questions so it reduces their fear, insecurity and objections. Hard news takes time absorb.

Staff want to hear the implications for them. Give them clear and specific information about what will be the same or different. Providing a forum to ask questions, express their concerns, opinions and feelings will clear the way to move forward faster, easier and with less resistance. Finally, offer them roles in the change because people support what they create.

Originally published in The Province, May 8, 2011.

Make change easier on staff

April 6, 2011

Q: My executive team spent six months working on some key changes for our business. The staff agrees it makes complete economic sense for our company and their jobs. But when we rolled it out they balked. How can I gain their support?

A: Humans are creatures of habit. Even when change is for the better, people often cling to the familiar because it’s safer than the uncertainty of the unknown. People typically move through stages of shock, denial, anger, bargaining then depression before reaching acceptance.

After planning for months, you will be at a different stage of the change process than staff hearing about it for the first time. Don’t expect them to jump on the bandwagon right away. They need time to absorb the impact.

Communicate your vision and its benefits so everyone has a clear understanding of where they are heading. Give them a forum to air their thoughts and feelings openly and honestly.

Staff need knowledge. How is this going to shake out? How will it impact me and my role? Address their concerns and expect resistance from about 30 per cent of your people. Recognize their counterproductive, negative or sabotaging behaviours. Minimize its influence on the 50 per cent undecided.

Approximately 20 per cent of your employees will be excited to embrace the change. Reward these supporters for their contributions towards the initiative. They have the ability to sway those who are taking a “wait and see” attitude. Encourage employees to get involved in the implementation. This creates ownership and increases commitment.

No matter how well you manage the process, some individuals will opt out. Let them go. Stay focused on your change leaders who will create the critical mass for organizational success.

Originally published in The Province, April 3, 2011.

Plan project in four steps

February 28, 2011

Q: I tried to empower my director with an important project. Each time I checked in with him he said he was on track and didn’t need any support. But when he presented to the client, it wasn’t at all what I envisioned. When I told him how disappointed I was, he said that he felt set up because I didn’t tell him my expectations ahead of time. What should I do in the future?

A: It can be tricky anticipating how much support and clarity a seasoned leader needs. To spare future headaches, follow these four simple steps for every initiative.

1) Create a united vision. Begin by sharing both of your visions for the project. Have your direct report go first. Discuss best possible outcomes and what they would actually look like in reality. This minimizes the expectation gap.

2) Plan and strategize. Once you’ve reached mutual agreement, forecast potential obstacles and an plan to resolve them should they occur. Put three to four key expectations on the table so your director knows exactly where the goalposts are. Be specific and measurable. Share any wisdom, insight or mentoring you would appreciate receiving if you were in his shoes.

3) Empower him to take action. Set up realistic targets and timelines for progress reports. Then turn him loose to meet the expectations and desired outcomes in his own way. Schedule regular meetings to ensure the project stays on track or to allow for course correct if the project requirements change

4) Debrief each project for the key learning. Grow your director by hearing what he thought was successful and why. Then share what you found successful and what you want next time.

Empowering your employees does not mean abdicating your responsibility as their leader.

Originally published in The Province, February 27, 2011.

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