leadership incorporated blog

December 17, 2012

Leaders: Are You Using The Activation Phenomenon To Succeed Bigger?

A 2001 study at Johns Hopkins showed that when nurses met the medical team by name and asked about their concerns early on, they were more likely to note problems and offer solutions than nurses who were not treated as valued team members. Getting people personally involved activated their participation, their sense of responsibility and their willingness to speak up.

The researchers called this the “Activation Phenomenon.”

Think about your own experience in workplaces where you were (are) activated and challenged to be at your best. Weren’t you more interested in your work? Did you look forward to getting to work and not want to stop? Did you have moments in which time stood still while you worked your magic? Didn’t you find yourself caring deeply about the work, the results, your clients, co-workers, and vendors?

On the other hand, most of us have experienced not being encouraged to use our smarts and skills and can-do spirit. We’ve felt frustrated, bored, undervalued. We’ve questioned our own worth. We’ve done our time without caring about the results, because, really, what was the point of caring?

Companies that produce the best results over time more often make people feel the first way. Organizations that create the second set of feelings, generally have to spend a lot of their time and capital on people problems, efficiency problems, quality problems, turnover problems…yes, all kinds of problems. And that gets in the way of creating sustainable success.

Do some of the engagement issues come from the people themselves? Of course, yet no problem is one-sided. And your business is either doing things to activate engagement on the part of its people, its clients, and its vendors or it is doing things to deactivate them.

So, it’s a good idea to periodically take an unflinching look at some of the conditions business leaders create that either activate or de-activate even themselves:

  • Create A Strong Sense Of Purpose: When we feel connected to the “why” behind our jobs, we work longer, harder, smarter and with greater passion. When disconnected from the end results of our work, our roles become abstract and we become disengaged.
  • Offer A Good Meaty Challenge: Stretching people just slightly out of their comfort zones is highly engaging. On the other hand, asking too little keeps us feeling bored and insignificant. However, asking the impossible breeds resentment and lack of respect.
  • Build A Connected Team Feeling:  Personal connections, being part of something bigger than ourselves, knowing others depend on us and that our delivery has an impact on their ability to perform is a powerful and energizing motivator. When work is impersonal and disconnected from others, it’s much harder to care.
  • Treat People With Respect: Virtually everyone does their best work when approached consistently as valuable human beings and team members. Conversely, being talked down to, blamed, ignored, yelled at, dismissed, and so on, almost always results in mutual disrespect.
  • Provide Constructive Feedback: Study after study shows that people work harder when we know how we are doing, whether the feedback indicates we are exceeding, meeting, or failing to meet expectations. One critical warning: make sure feedback is actionable and focused on the work, not the person. Blame, judgment, and feedback that does not suggest a course of action will demotivate.
  • Give The Authority To Make Decisions That Impact Outcomes: When people are able to create and carry out actions that produce results, we feel empowered and take ownership of the process. When we’re held responsible for conditions over which we have no control, we become passive and resentful, feeling that we’ve been set up to lose and that it doesn’t matter what we do.
  • Allow Permission To Make mistakes: In environments that encourage mistakes (and learning) we feel freer to think out of the box, to come up with new and better ways and speak up when we see the potential for problems ahead. When mistakes happen, we don’t hesitate to surface them and get to immediate resolution. On the other hand, when we fear “getting in trouble,” we risk less and cover-up more. Which do you think is of greater benefit to any organization?

See anything here that your organization might do better on? What conversations can you have in the next few weeks to activate yourself and the people your business depends on to hit the ground running in 2013?

Wishing you a happy holiday season and some highly activated growth in the new year.

November 4, 2012

When fear and anger interferes with business growth

My husband has attempted to have a substantive political dialogue with a few colleagues on the opposite side in Tuesday’s election.

The problem is that their positions are consistently based on unsubstantiated stories that predict massive disasters for those with their views.

They use epithets like “snake,” “anti-Israel,” “like Christians rooting for the lions,” “America haters,” “apologists” and other language that seeks to cast both the opposing candidate AND my husband as malicious, evil, ignorant and hostile to the US.

It’s clear that they are very afraid which makes them angry which makes them more fearful and which in turn makes them still angrier. They aren’t interested in facts or reasonable alternative viewpoints and this has made mutual understanding and meaningful dialogue impossible.

A few weeks ago, one of the group invited us to a “debate” intended to showcase each party’s views. She neglected to tell us that the organization putting on the event was strongly affiliated with “her side.” They cheered for their representative  and when the opposing debater spoke (even though he was a highly respected member of the clergy) the crowd began to boo and hiss. Even when admonished repeatedly by the moderator and host to be respectful, they still couldn’t or wouldn’t contain their disrespectful behavior.

The language being used by the debater on their side was full of extremes and violence. He described his opponents as “beating up on our values,” “throwing us under the bus,” “dangerous,” “shoving ideas down our throats,” and so on.

Meanwhile, as his opponent tried to respond with factual and reasoned arguments, the crowd increasingly shouted him down.

As the evening progressed, the angry energy in the room became more and more intense. As it became clear to those around us that we weren’t participating in the heckling, we started to feel hostile glares. Each of us had moments of wondering if we were physically safe.

It struck me that the stories being told and the language being used were intended to incite fear, anger and intense emotion. And that the more fearful and angry the people became, the less able they were to listen, think independently, or to make a rational decision.

One of the biggest problems with using fear and anger as a political tool is that after the dust settles, you’re left with people who’ve been pushed into extreme territory that is a huge challenge to address or control and that can take on a life of its own.

This experience increased my awareness of the emotional and fear-based decisions we all find ourselves faced with, not only in this election, but in our businesses and lives.

A decision made from fear is always the wrong decision. ~ Tony Robbins

We’ve seen a lot of leaders make bad business decisions in the atmosphere of fear that has dominated the past several years:

The manufacturer who stopped all marketing efforts in a panic thinking they could save their way out of financial challenges, and whose rapidly declining market share is making it clear this was an extremely costly mistake from which they may not recover.

The marketing firm that cut several star performers in the early days of the recession and who are now finding that not only have they been unable to replace them, they have to compete against them.

The medical center that for the first time in its history experienced a loss and cut off funding to key departments, creating conditions that guaranteed underperformance, which has compounded their financial problems with decreasing customer satisfaction, bad press, morale issues and turnover that will take much greater investment and time to turnaround.

But what are leaders supposed to do to manage change in these turbulent and scary times?

  1. Notice the emotional stories. Be vigilant! Resist the urge to get swept up in the drama. Be aware of language that triggers fear, anger and other strong emotions — whether it’s coming out of someone else’s mouth, or rattling around in your own mind!
  2. If you do find yourself faced with an emotional or fear-based decision, do the hard work of remaining open. Stay calm. Fact-check. Choose reality. Make sure your sources are reliable. Be curious to see if the opposite story could be just as true.
  3. Create a clear, specific, inclusive and positive vision for what would be better.
  4. Share your vision. Get excited. Get others onboard. You can’t do it alone! Give them an opportunity to get involved; to play a part in creating a better future.
  5. Get into action. Nothing allays fear or anger like positive forward movement.

 The best thing for us all in politics, business or life, regardless of whether you lean toward conservative, independent or liberal views, is to reject fear-based thinking (which can come from either side) get the facts and make the best decisions we can, based on our values. One of the great things about our amazing United States is the built-in respect for competing views, which provides checks and balances that over time keep us moving forward on sane middle ground.

Let’s never forget that. And don’t forget to vote on Tuesday!

April 22, 2012

How You Make The Difficult People You Work With More Difficult

Who ruins your day? The VP who has to be right no matter what? The client who doesn’t listen? The direct report who undermines your authority? The CEO who has to belittle someone in every conversation? Your colleague who, after you’ve come to an agreement, does exactly the opposite? The weenie who takes credit for your work? The softie who can’t make a decision?

OK. The person you’re dealing with really is a grade A jerk. Difficult. Unjustifiable. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And you’re right. So what?  What does being right get you? You still have to deal with it. And you still have to deal with the consequences of your interactions.

Let me offer you what may be an uncomfortable take on this, which just may change your life:

There is no such thing as a difficult person.

Difficult people are just human beings (no matter how much they may be disguising that) behaving in ways that they believe work for them.

The perception that they are difficult belongs to you. You are part of a system with them. And just as their behavior contributes to the difficulty, so does yours.

The good news: you can change any system by changing any part of that system. You may not be able to change the other person. But you can change yourself. And when you change, the system changes and then that person has no choice but to change.

It all begins with doing something different from the way you’ve been doing it. Here’s a quick roadmap:

  1. Depersonalize the situation. It may help to assign different names to the players and pretend that you are an objective observer.
  2. Identify the problem behaviors and the problem responses. Chances are good that you have a go-to response.
  3. Identify the costs of the difficulty. Look at the big picture as well as the more immediate one. Who else is impacted by this interaction?
  4. Identify your desired outcome. What would work better than what’s happening now?
  5. Put your butt in their seat. Develop an appreciation for why they’re making the choices they are making—and an understanding of what they want to achieve.
  6. Model the behavior you want to see. If you want them to listen, you listen first. If you want them to do it your way, try theirs.
  7. Strategize. What other ways might you respond to their behavior? Consider some of the following options: Get more direct or give more direction.  Become more connected. Look at ways you might offer support. Provide information. Use humor. Push back. Don’t push back. Agree. Disagree. Try it their way. Offer other options. Ask a good question.
  8. Try it out. Put a different strategy into practice and observe the results. Expect the discomfort that comes along with changing a habit and remind yourself that your desired outcome is worth it.
  9. Learn. Fine tune. Try again. 

Don’t give up. You’ll just go back to the way things were. Instead, keep moving forward. Keep being willing to adjust your own behavior and see what happens.

January 22, 2012

Leaders: Are you focused downstream or upstream?

A man walking along a river suddenly sees a local farmer being carried along in the current, struggling to keep his head above water. He heroically jumps in to the rescue. No sooner has he got the man to shore and caught his breath, but he sees another farmer bobbing up and down, screaming for help. Again he jumps in. But they just keep coming. He can’t pull them out fast enough. He starts to become angrier and angrier at these big, stupid farmers who kept falling in the river. He sees the Mayor walking by and calls out for help, but the Mayor runs away, making the man even more furious.

Does this sound like anything you are doing in your work?

Frank, the CEO of an ad agency,  is frustrated by the constant conflict between the creative and account teams, which results in a tremendous waste of time and money — not to mention the impact on client retention and company morale. The creative group complains that the account team doesn’t provide adequate input and sets unrealistic deadlines. The account team fires back that the creatives don’t address the input that’s given and over-create. Meanwhile, they continue to miss the target and have to do work over and over, job after job, month after month, year after year. What makes Frank the angriest is when the creative department starts demanding a presence in client meetings, not understanding how that undermines the account team or the cost of that duplication of effort to the company.

Jody, the head of a regional commercial bank, is trying to support Samantha, one of her VPs in solving a problem with team meetings. Team members aren’t engaged and when they aren’t specifically “on,” they are checking email and doing “who knows what else” on their smart phones. Important information needs to be repeated often. People who slipped out for calls need to be tracked down at critical moments. Meetings take at least twice as long as they should and waste company time and money. She has tried to outlaw smart phone use in meetings. She is outraged when team members have the nerve to complain about Samantha who is the one person Jody can count on to be focused and dealing with business issues.

Back to our man at the river.

Why were the man’s tireless efforts having no impact? It turns out that one mile upstream, on the path to the mill, there is a rickety wooden bridge with no guard rail. A section of supports are loose and as the farmers move across the bridge with their heavy loads, the slats dip and tip them right into the river.

And who discovered this? Why, the Mayor, who hadn’t been running away from the problem at all, but running upstream to find its cause.

If Frank were to look upstream, it would become obvious that his problem lay neither with the account execs nor the creatives but with agency protocol that has the account team as the sole point of client contact. From this perspective it might be easier to see that giving the creative team client contact is not duplicating effort, and is actually a solution to the problem.

Looking upstream, Jody might see that Samantha, her engaged team leader, was actually causing the problem, by using meetings to think out loud and presenting every bit of data before reaching her point or a conclusion. From here, it makes much more sense to solve the problem by coaching Samantha to prepare her thoughts in advance and communicate more succinctly.

When we’re in a downstream solution, it’s only natural to turn our anger on people looking upstream.

When looking downstream at a problem, it can feel quite compellingly that we stand to lose everything by shifting our attention away from the problem. But, that is often exactly what we must do. It’s all about perspective. And the cue to stop what we’re doing and look upstream is when we find ourselves continuing to pull metaphorical farmers out of the river — and becoming angry at the farmers for being there.

So, how about you? Where would looking upstream give you a different perspective on the problem at hand? Where are you trying to solve a business or personal problem downstream when an upstream solution could be a game changer?

Wishing you the inspiration to see your challenges with new eyes over the next few weeks.

January 10, 2012

Short-Term Relief versus Long-Term Success

Bernadette is the managing partner in the mid-west office of a national law firm.

They’ve done well over the last few years, thanks to three senior attorneys with large, high-profile, anchor clients that have kept the firm busy.

Even as these attorneys have been critical to the success of the firm, they are also a big problem. They see themselves as the stars and others in the firm as dead wood. They are condescending and at times abusive of the other attorneys and support staff. Although they are already highly compensated and there is a significant income gap between them and others in the firm, they continue to push to widen that gap further. They strongly oppose any business objectives that do not directly support their practices, effectively preventing other attorneys from rising within the firm. Their sole focus is what is best for them, regardless of what is best for the firm.

Bernadette lives in fear of losing any of these key players. She sees the cost of losing any of the core clients as unacceptable. She works hard to keep the three attorneys happy. Her intention is to retain them at all costs.

The challenge is that morale in the rest of the firm is quite low. The culture is one of fear and resentment. There is a lot of turnover. She can’t pursue any strategy that isn’t supported by the triangle. And 2 of the three major clients are businesses with aging ownership and product lines in danger of becoming obsolete over the next several years.

Bernadette knows they are headed for trouble, but feels completely stuck.

What would you do in this situation?

Would you let the short-term risks rule the day? Or would you take a look at the cost of allowing these attorneys to hijack the business’ future? Would you focus on what people would think if you lost one or more of your key players or on what people think seeing the current turnover in the rest of your firm?

We all have challenges like this which interfere with the forward movement of our businesses. For you, it might not be partners or employees. It could be a strategy or a process. It could be a vendor. Or a way of thinking.

What are you afraid of losing that is causing you to make short-term decisions that undermine your long-term growth?

As we begin 2012, try this on: Shift your focus from addressing short-term problems to making the best choices for the long-term and see what new possibilities might arise.

June 3, 2009

Devastating Mistakes Businesses Make in This Economy: #3

Forgetting that current employees are the ones who will deliver future success. Studies show that after a reduction, there is a predictable and significant decrease in productivity. Errors and mistakes increase. Morale declines while conflict and tension rise. Customer service drops which leads directly to drops in client retention. Yet, most companies do little or nothing to support their retained employees — instead demanding more, and requiring they take on tasks and responsibilities for which they may have no training….and all for less reward. Hardly a recipe for motivation or corporate recovery.

Solution: Offer customized group workshops, individual coaching and other programs that value, empower and support employees through the transition. These may include but aren’t limited to: the opportunity to process feelings resulting from the layoff or current conditions, development of time and stress management skills, communication skills, and  specific customer service and sales training that solves the problems posed by current economic conditions.

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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