leadership incorporated blog

February 11, 2013

How smart leaders unintentionally murder successful outcomes

In the mid-1990s, the murder rate in Minneapolis was higher than New York’s. Things were so bad, people referred to the city as “Murderapolis.”

Today, that rate has dropped by 60%. How did they do this?

They gave high-risk teens an A.

I’m referring to the concept of “Giving an A” described by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander in The Art of Possibility (Penguin Books, 2002).

The idea is to assume that everyone is an “A student,” — even violent teens in Minnesota. You can see it in the core goals of Minneapolis’ program:

  • Every young person was supported by at least one trusted adult,
  • Intervention at the first sign of risk,
  • Focus on getting kids back on track rather than giving up on them,
  • Recognition that violence is learned; that there is a larger system at work.

This program assumed that every kid was deserving of support, intervention, training, trust and belief.  And it produced a dramatic result.

This same concept can make a big difference in the growth and effectiveness of your organization.

When we approach poor or underperformance from a stance of judgment and blame (the equivalent of assuming people are F students), what happens?

  • We become blind to root causes
  • We repeat the same patterns of poor performance over and over
  • We send discouraging messages to individuals that undermine their ability to recover
  • We send the team a message that blame is an organizational strategy, setting the stage for increasing blame in the place of problem solving
  • We increase costly drama and politics

When take the opportunity to assume that everyone is an “A student” it generally leads to the opposite actions:

  • Looking for root causes and creating more lasting solutions
  • Sending a message of support and expectation to the person that tends to increase effort and commitment
  • Establishing an organizational culture focused on attacking problems and not people, which increases trust, safety and retention
  • Reducing costly drama and politics

Meet Gordon, the VP of R&D in an information technology company.

Gordon lived in a constant state of fury brought on by Joan, one of his project directors. He had no patience for hearing that yet another of Joan’s deadlines had been missed and the raft of excuses that would follow. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point where they were barely communicating. He was ready to issue her a Performance Improvement Plan that would allow him to finally let her go at the end of 60 days.

He was giving Joan an F.

When I was brought in to coach Gordon, the conflict with Joan surfaced as one of his biggest challenges. When I asked Gordon how he would approach the situation if Joan were an “A student,” he realized that in his quickness to assess Joan as a underperformer, he had not once had a straight conversation with her about the challenges she faced.

Gordon uncovered that the issue was not with Joan but with another department Joan’s group was dependent upon for data.

By giving the other department an A in his negotiations with them, Gordon was able to work out realistic deadlines and help them in resolving a bottleneck that was consistently keeping them behind schedule.

Do you want to be right or do you want to be productive?

When I present this concept, I’m often asked, “When can I give someone an ‘F’?”

This question asks, “When can I blame?” My response is “Never!”

Blame never leads to the best possible outcome.

This does not mean you won’t give people honest and constructive feedback. It also doesn’t mean that you won’t hold people to the highest standards. Or even sometimes let an employee go.

You may take the very same actions when giving a person an A as you would have when giving them an F. Yet, the quality of the experience of those actions will be completely different for all concerned — in ways that support rather than undermine growth and success.

The concept of assuming people are “A-students” actually makes it easier for you to effectively hold someone accountable, as well as to support them in creating the outcomes your business needs.

One more distinction: you may be tempted to reframe this as “giving someone the benefit of the doubt.” This takes you halfway there, but still begins with doubt.

Giving someone an “A” begins with trust. And trust leads your organization down a very different and much more productive path.

March 6, 2011

When leaders don’t know they don’t know.

One evening (about 15 years ago), my infant son who’d been playing quietly with building blocks suddenly began to scream. I looked up to see that he had grabbed a handful of his own hair and was pulling as hard as he could. The harder he pulled the louder he screamed. He couldn’t see the connection between what he was doing and the pain he was feeling.

I see this in business all the time.

This week, I coached the leader of an organization who thinks everyone around him is stabbing him in the back. He is suing one client. He has just terminated another. He’s fired one employee and thinks the rest of the staff are taking advantage. He recently stormed out of a professional association because he felt ripped off.

I see him entering new relationships already angry and expecting the worst. As a result, he doesn’t communicate well. He is so worried that he is not going to get his fair share, that he ensures he doesn’t get what he needs. At the first hint things aren’t going his way, he blows a gasket. He feels he’s given and given and he isn’t going to give anymore.

The best clients experience him as angry and demanding and back away from doing business with him. Retention of clients and staff is a problem.

He goes through his life and work screaming and screaming — not realizing that he has the power to change what he’s doing and get different results.

Before we judge him too harshly, let’s be honest. We’ve all had times when we’ve had a metaphorical fistful of our own hair in hand and haven’t made the connection that we are causing our own pain.

We are particularly vulnerable to this in stressful times, during change and even growth — when we are overwhelmed, exhausted, scared, frustrated, depleted, and low on resources.

Here are a bunch of TO DOs — and a few TO DON’Ts — that can turn it around:

TO DON’T: Ask “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?” This question tends to keep us stuck and feeling and acting like victims.

TO DO: Ask “What might I be doing to cause this?” And “What could I do differently to produce a different result?” It might seem subtle, but there is a huge difference!

TO DON’T: Blame others or yourself, even if wrongs have been done. Blame doesn’t get us anywhere.

TO DO: Take responsibility for creating the results you want and need to see.

TO DON’T: Give in to the urge to hyperbolize. Even though it may feel like it, it’s just not true that NOTHING is going right. Or that EVERYONE is against us.

TO DO: Turn your focus to what is working. See how you can leverage that.

TO DO: Remind yourself of your vision and purpose

TO DO: Prioritize

TO DO: Get your focus off yourself and onto being of service to others

TO DO: Find the opportunity in the crisis.

TO DO: Control what you can, let go of what you can’t.

TO DO: Laugh. At yourself. At the situation. Find the humor. Trust me, it’s always there. And finding it makes a real difference.

TO DO: Go outside, take a walk and clear your mind

TO DO: Remember what’s really important

TO DO: Breathe

TO DO: Delegate

TO DO: Ask for help

Finally, here’s an exercise that can help you to spot where you may be part of the problem. Simply answer the following questions:

  1. Identify the undesired results you are currently experiencing. Be specific.
  2. Do you truly want to change the results you are getting in this area?
  3. Are you willing to be completely honest with yourself?
  4. Flip it:  Imagine you WANT TO create these results, how would you go about it? Make a list. Go for volume. Have a sense of humor. Ask others.Brainstorm every possible way you could create the results you are currently getting.
  5. Now look to see what on this list you may be doing — intentionally or unintentionally.
  6. Now that you see your situation in a fresh way, turn it around and brainstorm ways to create the successful results you actually want.

Feel free to let me know how it goes.

Wishing you an inspired week.

August 30, 2010

Inspired to Succeed: : 9 Ways Smart Leaders Lose Peoples’ Respect and Loyalty

This week I observed as the leader of an organization in a team meeting made a series of common mistakes that are practically guaranteed to annoy, offend, alienate and otherwise reduce the likelihood of building loyalty in the team.

I can’t imagine that she had anything but the best of intentions. Yet, these common behaviors are likely to undermine her objectives.

Here are some guidelines that may help you to not make similar mistakes:

DON’T be deceptive about your purpose. When you lead people to expect one thing and deliver another you erode their trust.

DO think about how your words will land with others, what those words will lead people to expect. When in doubt, get feedback.

DON’T focus more positive attention on long-time members. This is just as true in a business as in a membership organization.  It’s easy to think that you want to honor your most valued team members first and most and that this will encourage others to get involved.  However, what this really does is create separation and often makes newcomers feel as if there is a closed circle to which they are not welcome.

DO welcome newcomers first. Make them feel special. Give them the opportunity to introduce themselves or share. Then when you honor those on the team, it feels inclusive and not exclusive.

DON’T make assumptions about the motivations and knowledge base of the team. People come to your business or organization with a wealth of experience and know-how. And they each come with their own motivations. When you assume and get it wrong, they will feel they don’t belong.

DO be aware of your assumptions. Check with the group to see what they know, what they want, what they have to offer.

DON’T bring limiting beliefs into the mix, if possible. Others may not share these beliefs. Nothing will alienate someone faster than a mismatched belief system.

DO work to become aware of your own limiting beliefs, especially in areas relevant to your organization.

DON’T hold yourself up as a role model. Even when you have accomplished miracles and it would benefit people to follow your lead, standing at the front of a room speaking about yourself as someone to emulate is a turn-off. This doesn’t mean you can’t share your experiences and knowledge.

DO be a role model. However, focus your attention and energy on your audience and not on yourself. Know that there are other possible paths to success than the one you followed.

DON’T hold yourself as separate from the team. This is closely related to the last point. When you hold yourself as a role model, you see yourself as being ahead of or better than those you are leading or hoping to lead. They will feel that separation and the best among them won’t follow.

DO see yourself as part of the team. Recognize the value others have to bring, and not just selective others, but each person present. When you acknowledge the possibilities in everyone, many more people will step forward to own and create those possibilities.

DON’T make a negative example of someone in the room. This makes everyone feel uncomfortable. And diminishes trust. If you do this to him today, you could do it to me tomorrow. It will make people hesitant to speak up.

DO make positive examples of people in the room. If a negative example needs to be made, fall on the sword yourself, telling a story from your past. Or generalize, making it clear that many people have made this mistake.

DON’T parent people. Forcing them unnecessarily into actions, not giving them choice and autonomy will do one of two things: It will send the independent thinkers running, it will encourage the rest into co-dependent relationship with you.

DO invite people to experiences. Create a safe space for them to learn and grow and participate. It may take some people longer to step forward than others. Or they may contribute in other ways. When you create the room for all kinds of people and all kinds of participation you will also create incredible respect, loyalty and new possibilities.

DON’T speak down to people. Don’t use your position, authority or celebrity to make them smaller. No one wants to feel small.

DO think the best of people. The excellent book The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (see link below) suggests that you “give people an A.” Assume the best and most of the time, you will both be better for it.

The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life

April 19, 2010

Inspired to Succeed: Postponing a difficult conversation?

Ever had to give an employee a negative performance review? Or tell a direct report  you’re letting them go? Have to tell a boss that his way of doing business is causing problems? Need to confront a friend about asking too much without giving back? Been on the receiving end of a confrontation?

I’m hearing from a lot of leaders this week about difficult conversations they’re having…or not having. After all, most of us, when confronted with a difficult conversation procrastinate, hoping the situation will fix itself or that someone else will deal with it. Meanwhile, we get angrier and more frustrated while our opponent gets more and more set in their ways.

Then we tell ourselves stories about what we know will happen if we do face the person, until the conversation attains epic proportions in our minds. And we become even more paralyzed.

Of course, sometimes situations do resolve themselves, and we, of course, do want to give people a chance to address challenges on their own. However, if acute situations don’t resolve themselves immediately , they quickly become chronic and often worsen. The ripple effect of an intolerable situation intensifies until you have a crisis on your hands.

How are your difficult conversation skills? Can you navigate difficult conversations gracefully while creating the most positive possible outcome?

There are the obvious things to remember: prepare, know your purpose and intended outcome, don’t have a difficult conversation in an emotional moment,  know the law if you represent the company, etc., etc.

Here are 5 useful less-obvious perspectives for difficult conversations:

1.    Develop an attitude of service. Regardless of the topic, be there to help the other person. Do not make the conversation all about you. Don’t expect or need to be taken care of or for the other person to see the situation your way

2.    Check your assumptions. Some people want to be let go. Sometimes the person does not intend for their words to be interpreted as you heard them. Some people want to be confronted. Be as curious and open-minded as possible.

3.    Find a positive mindset. Do whatever internal work you need, to go into the conversation very clear that this conversation will address a situation that needs resolving and that this is what is best for all in the long run. Look forward to achieving resolution and it will be more likely to go well. If you dread the conversation, it will be more likely to be dreadful.

4.    Set your own pace. You control what you say and when you say it. Resist the urge to jump in defensively or let the other person’s pace determine your own.

5.    Listen. Say what needs saying and then shut up. Listen to the other person. Listen for what’s not being said as well as for what is. Reflect what you hear and engage the other person in finding their own solutions.

Remember that it’s better to have a conversation when the degree of difficulty is at 3 than to wait until it hits 8. 9 or 10. And if you have the conversation early there are often more options available than later when your hand is forced.

Hope this is helpful. Feel free to let me know how it goes…

June 1, 2009

Devastating mistakes businesses make in today’s economy: #1

Cutting with a blowtorch instead of a laser. In the epidemic rush to cut staff, it’s shortsighted to let essential talent go. As a result, over 50% of workforce adjustments do not achieve their intended objectives. Too often, the company finds itself without the resources to recover and build for the future.

Solution: Think before you cut. Don’t automatically assume that a layoff is the best way to reduce operating costs. And don’t offer incentives for leaving. The best people will go, knowing they can find other work. The weakest will remain.

Sharon Rich is the founder of Leadership Incorporated and Layoff BounceBack. Her companies offer coaching and training programs designed to empower organizations and individuals in transition to create successful futures.

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