Author Archives: Tom Foster

About Tom Foster

Tom Foster spends most of his time talking with managers and business owners. The conversations are about business lives and personal lives, goals, objectives and measuring performance. In short, transforming groups of people into teams working together. Sometimes we make great strides understanding this management stuff, other times it’s measured in very short inches. But in all of this conversation, there are things that we learn. This blog is that part of the conversation I can share. Often, the names are changed to protect the guilty, but this is real life inside of real companies.

Three Team Members

Who is on your team?

The first type of person always shows up early, helps to arrange the chairs, sits on the edge of their seat and is a frequent volunteer. This is the person I call the Eager Beaver.

The second type of person is never early, but never late. I call this person the vacationer. They are very happy to sit in meetings, because after all, they are not back in their cubicle at work. Responding to a discussion, sometimes they will participate, sometimes they won’t, doesn’t really matter to them, because, after all, they are on vacation.

The third type of person is precisely punctual, sits in the back of the room with arms folded, daring any person around to engage them in conversation. Body language is simultaneously defensive and aggressive. This is the person I call the hostage.

Which of these three has the insight, the brilliant idea that will save the day?

As the manager, we don’t know. No manager can afford to have a single team member disengaged. We need maximum participation, no coasting, everybody plays.

How often do we sit in meetings and watch people check out? One ear open to the meeting, one eyed glancing at a report they were supposed to review yesterday. One brazen team member, laptop open, supposedly taking notes of the meeting, but more likely checking e-mail.

Who is responsible for creating a different atmosphere, a different context? Who is responsible for creating the crucible in which a problem can be explored, alternatives generated and a solution selected? Who is responsible for creating the kind of meeting where each team member is engaged from beginning to end? Who indeed?

If that’s you in the mirror, the next question is “how?” How can you create maximum participation from every person in the room? How can you create full engagement?

The Smartest Person in the Room

Don’t try to be the smartest person in the room. Dialogue is not to see who is right and who is wrong. Dialogue is about discovery.

The most important discovery is self-discovery. Have the humility and the courage to allow other team members to see your authentic self. It is your authentic self that needs the help.

Holding People Accountable is a Myth

The only person who can hold you accountable is YOU. Invite and give permission to others to examine and challenge your commitments, AND understand that you are the only one who can keep those commitments. The only accountability is self-accountability.

We cannot hold people accountable, we can only hold people to account.

This is not a nuance of language. Holding others accountable is a myth. We cannot hold others accountable. We can only examine and challenge commitments. We can only hold people to account, to themselves for the commitments they make with themselves.

Comfortable with Discomfort

The armed and dangerous team tackles the tough issues. Its members run toward the fire, not away from it. Armed and dangerous teams become comfortable with discomfort. The pit of discomfort often holds the real issue.

When a team is comfortable and in total agreement, there is high likelihood they are not dealing with an issue of high consequence. It is only when there is disagreement and debate, where the team is in discomfort, that important issues are on the table.

The Underlying Problem

Often, the problem we seek to solve is only a symptom of something underneath. We examine the symptom to identify its root cause. And, sometimes, even root cause analysis fails us.

Sometimes, the root cause does not lie in the problem, but in the way we see the problem. The way we talk about a problem is a function of what we believe, our assumptions about the problem.

Does the way we state a problem have an impact on the way we approach the solution?

What we say is what we believe.

Before we grapple with the problem, it is important to understand our beliefs and assumptions about the problem. It could be the problem is not the problem. The problem could be what we believe about the problem that is simply not true.

Yelling Only Creates Avoidance

“But, I give them feedback,” protested Tyler. “They know how to do it right. Why don’t they just do it the way they are supposed to?”

“You want your team members to work the line in a specific sequence in a specific way?” I replied. “You are looking for very specific behaviors?” Tyler nodded his head in agreement.

“When they do it wrong, do you pay attention to them?” I asked.

“Of course. I am usually right on it,” Tyler replied.

“And when they do it right, are you right on it?”

“Well, when they do it right, they just do it right. When they do it right, I don’t yell at them.”

“Tyler, to get desired behaviors, you have to reinforce those behaviors in a positive way. Yelling at people for doing something wrong doesn’t teach them to do it right. Yelling just creates avoidance from doing it wrong. That avoidance behavior can by very erratic and unpredictable. They don’t know whether to scream or eat a banana.

“On the other hand, if you positively reinforce desired behavior, it becomes repeated and predictable.

“So, Tyler, you tell me. What has more value, erratic avoidance behavior or positively reinforced predictable behavior?”

Whose Drama?

“Work is personal,” Marjorie said.

“Would you want it any other way?” I asked.

“But, I don’t want the personal drama at work.”

“If there is no drama, people will bring it. What is your role, as a manager, to create drama, at work?”

“But, I don’t want drama,” Marjorie protested.

“The absence of drama in a person’s life is pathological. Why do you occasionally observe pathological behavior, yes, at work? If there must be drama, at work, whose drama do you want it to be?”

“You are telling me that I have to create drama at work?” Marjorie questioned.

“Drama is meaning, the interpretation of our world. Yes, I want you to create drama, I want you to create meaning, I want you to create context. Context for the work. Work is personal.”