All in Your Head?

“Let me see your list of questions,” I asked. I could see by the furtive glance that Claire didn’t have a list.

“I don’t have them written, just in my head, but I could probably write the questions down for you, if that would help,” she responded.

“How many questions do you have in your head?”

“Well, none really prepared, I have the resume, so I will just ask questions from that.”

It’s not Claire’s fault. No company ever trained her to conduct a job interview. No company ever trained her to create interview questions that reveal valuable information to make a hiring decision. Hiring interviews are one of the most critical management skills for the successful manager.

I see many managers conduct the hiring interview solely from the candidate’s resume in their hand. Change this one thing to make your interviews better. Craft your interview questions from the role description rather than the person’s resume. Every question should have a specific purpose to give you data about the candidate relative to the role you want them to play in your company. It’s not what the candidate has done (though it may be fascinating), but what the candidate has done related to the role. -Tom

Magic and Fairy Dust, Notions and Potions

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
The best engineer on our team was recently promoted to VP-Engineering. Don’t get me wrong, he is a great engineer. But something is just not right. Relieved of his engineering duties, he seems to wander around, sticks his nose into a project without any background on its status. Since I was in your workshop last week, now, I understand that a VP (of anything) is an integration role. It is becoming clear that my boss made a mistake. This guy is not an integrator and we miss his contribution on the engineering team.

Response:
I don’t know the background, I don’t know your company and I don’t know what your boss had in mind when he made the promotion. Doesn’t matter. I hear these stories all the time. Here’s the problem.

Few companies take the time and effort to clearly define the role. Most companies promote without clarifying the work. Maybe your engineering team member has the right stuff to be a VP, but until we define the work, we have no clue.

Most hiring managers believe in magic and fairy dust when they make a hiring or promotion decision. Then, they are disappointed when the candidate doesn’t live up to the expectations that were never defined.

There is no magic. There is no fairy dust, just a little managerial elbow grease –

  • What is the purpose of the role? Why does it exist?
  • What are the key areas in the role? Key result areas (KRAs)?
  • In each key area, what are the tasks and activities?
  • In each key area, what is the output, goal, objective?
  • In each key area, what decisions have to be made? What problems have to be solved?
  • In each key area, what is the time span of the goal?
  • In each key area, what is the level of work?

This is the critical thinking that has to be done before you make the hire, before you make the promotion. The answers to these questions will lead you in the right direction. Without this data, there is no way to make a sound hiring or promotion decision.

But, no one wants to do the managerial work. They would rather rely on magic and fairy dust, notions and potions.

Survival Behavior

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

What happens when you realize you were given a promotion and not able to live up to the capabilities? Do you admit it to your superiors? Do you keep it to yourself and risk failure?

Response:

There are many ways to survive in a position that’s over your head, but in the end, it’s only survival. Not a way to live.

I often ask managers, “How do you know, what behavior do you observe when a person is in over their head? Where the Time Span required for the role is longer than the Time Span capability of the person?”

The descriptions come back.

  • They feel overwhelmed.
  • They cover things up.
  • They cut off communication.
  • Their projects are always late.
  • I can’t ever find them.
  • They always blame someone else.
  • They have all the excuses.
  • They never accept responsibility.

So, the short answer is yes. When you realize you are in over your head, go back to your boss. Explain the difficulties you are having. Ask for help. If it is a matter of capability (Time Span), no amount of training, no amount of hand holding will help. It is possible that you may grow into the position, but it’s more likely a matter of years, not weeks that allows for the required maturity (increase in Time Span).

This doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means you were placed in a position where you cannot be effective. Yet!

That’s Me

“I don’t care,” Roberto insisted.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I don’t care if that is what the boss wants. It’s a stupid idea. And my role is not to do stupid shit.”

“Pushback?”

“Call it what you want. CEOs run fast, sometimes making a mess. That’s why I have a job, to clean up the mess they call strategy. Somebody has to execute. That’s me.”

Requires a Conscious Mindset

“So, how do I get the team back to productive work?” Miriam asked.

“Facing the issue of having to work together, in a conscious, cooperative way, takes effort,” I replied. “It doesn’t happen by itself. As the manager, when you push the issue back to the center of the table, there are four predictable responses. The team will go into fight or flight. They will freeze or appease, not necessarily in that order.”

“I just have to outlast the panic,” Miriam remembered.

“To work together, the team has to change its belief about the way it works together. Culture starts with the way we see the world, the way we see our circumstances. Teams that work together have a different mindset. They don’t cooperate (for long) because we tell them to. They support and help each other because they believe that is the way things are done around here. It may not be comfortable at first, but high performing teams not only live with the discomfort, but create rituals to meet adversity head on. I can always tell a team is making progress when they trade in (solve) old problems for a new set of problems.” -Tom

BAMS

“Miriam, I want you to look at these two columns of words,” I pointed. “One column describes a group engaged in work, the other describes a group engaged in non-work. When you observe a team, these are things to look for.

Work ——————- Non-Work
Team cohesion———- Pairing behavior
Conscious ————- Unconscious
Cooperation ———– Collusion
Scientific ———— Un-scientific
Constructive ———- Complaining
Focused ————— Distracted

“These are sometimes not so subtle signs of a team going into disarray,” I explained. “And, it is mostly unconscious. The team doesn’t even know it is doing it. There is an exercise I conduct at the beginning of most meetings. It’s called Good News. ‘Tell the group something positive that happened to you in the past week.’ Invariably, one or two people will have difficulty. ‘I can’t think of anything,’ they will say. What if I had asked the opposite question, ‘Tell the group something negative that happened to you in the past week?’ No group has a problem coming up with the negative stuff. It is unconscious. Positive thought requires conscious effort.”

Miriam’s eyes grew wide. “So, what do I do. I see this group behavior often. As their manager, how do I get the team back to productive work?”
_______
Some of you may recognize this model as BAMS, Basic Assumption Mental State, described by Wilfred Bion in his tortuous book, Experiences in Groups. -Tom

Classic Pairing Behavior

“But, what if I am being overly dramatic?” Miriam continued to question. “What if the team’s inability to work together is just my own projection of insecurity, and that when the going gets tough, they will put their differences aside and cooperate with each other? What if I am just afraid of a little water cooler talk?”

“What do you mean, water cooler talk?” I wanted to know.

“You know, two people at the water cooler, complaining about the third person,” Miriam replied.

“Always the same two people, ganging up on the other?” I asked.

“Heavens, no,” Miriam chuckled. “There is equal opportunity pairing at the water cooler. Depends on the issue to determine who is at the water cooler and who is thrown under the bus. Scapegoat of the week.”

“And, how do you know what is discussed at the water cooler?”

“Oh, I hear. The rumor mill is much more effective at communication than the company newsletter.”

“So, you have your own little birdies who pair off with you?”

“Yes,” Miriam nodded. “And, that’s what has me worried. These are the issues that could blow up the team in the middle of a high pressure project.”

“Miriam, the reason I wanted to hear the details of the water cooler talk, is that this is classic pairing behavior. A group, faced with an unspoken issue will splinter into pairs, often at the water cooler, to avoid confronting the issue in the group. It is a collusion, between two people to find allies in a struggle to avoid the issue.”

“Is that what they are doing?”

“Not just them, you have your own little birdies. You have engaged in pairing​ behavior yourself,” I described.

“My goodness, I didn’t​ even realize. I was doing it, too.”

“Not to worry,” I smiled. “Pairing is an unconscious behavior. You didn’t know it was happening, neither did your team.”

The Killing Fields of the Project

“I know you are right, that I should challenge my team to solve its own problem with its inability to work together in support of each other, but it is a very uncomfortable conversation,” Miriam wondered out loud. “Everyone’s stomach will be upside down, so, in your words, the threat of a real issue exists. I am just afraid that the whole thing will blow up in my face and I will be the one left to pick up the pieces.”

“It is a risk,” I replied, “and, not​ greater than the risk that mid-project, the team will reach the same impasse for this same reason. And, the higher the pressure of the project, the more likely the impasse. Do you want the team to confront the issue now, while things are calm, or meet the problem in the killing fields of the project?” -Tom

A Manager’s Stomach

“Every time you, as the manager, take a team problem behind closed doors, you participate in a grand collusion that cripples the team from solving ANY problem,” I said.

“What do you mean collusion?” Miriam asked.

“Faced with a problem the team doesn’t want to deal with, they panic and engage in non-work behaviors, so they don’t have to deal with the problem themselves. Remember your team of independent technical contributors, all very competent on their own, but they butt heads when they are required to work together?”

Miriam nodded.

“You give them a difficult project where they have to work together,” I continued. “What is the first problem they have to solve? And here is a hint. It has nothing to do with the project.”

Miriam was quiet for a moment, then, “You are right. The first problem they have to solve is how to work together. But are you suggesting that, as the manager, I put them in the same room and talk about their inability to work together?”

“Yes. And what is the reaction when you say, ‘Gentlemen, I called this meeting today to discuss how difficult it is for the three of you to work together. We are going to talk about your behaviors that derail projects and what behaviors need to change.’ Then you stop talking. How is your stomach feeling right about now? How are the stomachs of each of your team members?”

“Are you kidding? It makes me feel queasy just to think about saying that to the group,” Miriam admitted.

“Then, you know you are talking about a real issue. When everyone in the room has their stomach upside down, you know the team is dealing with a real issue. High performance teams get comfortable with discomfort. Low performance teams go into non-work and want you, as the manager, to solve the problem for them.” -Tom

Weasel Wisdom

“This is a team problem, not your problem to solve. Understand, you are accountable for the output of this team, but only the team can solve this problem. Your role is to name the problem, put it on the table, in front of everyone, and outlast the panic,” I repeated.

“I don’t know if I have the courage,” Miriam replied. “Besides, I always heard that you should praise in public and scold in private.”

“Weasel wisdom,” I nodded.

“I heard you say, there are weasel words, but now you say there is weasel wisdom?”

I continued to nod. “Yes, weasel wisdom. If it is an individual’s issue, you speak directly to the individual, and if it is a team issue, you speak to the team, in front of the team. Yes, you are right, it takes courage.”

“And if I don’t have the courage?” Miriam questioned her own confidence.

“What does that say about your belief? Remember, what we believe drives behavior. What is your belief?”

Miriam struggled. “If I don’t confront the whole team with the team problem, it says we don’t believe the team can solve the problem. It says the team cannot talk about the problem. It says the team can only deal with the problem behind closed doors.”

“And every time you, as the manager, take the team problem behind closed doors, you participate in a grand collusion that cripples the team from solving ANY problem.” -Tom