Seek and give feedback graciously. The success of a feedback loop depends on being open to feedback AND being able to communicate feedback in a way that can be understood, considered and integrated into action. Giving feedback is not yelling. Challenge the status quo with clarity AND respect. Be straight AND sensitive.
“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?”
“I don’t understand why people have to bring their personal lives to work,” complained Marjorie. “I don’t need the drama. Can’t they just put up this virtual wall between their work life and their personal life?”
“So, why do you think people bring their personal lives to work?” I asked.
“I don’t know, because they have them, I suppose.”
“If there is no drama in a person’s life, what do most people do?” I prodded.
“Now, that’s funny. If there is no drama, people create it,” Marjorie spouted.
“If there is no drama, at work, what do most people do?”
“I told you, if there is no drama, people create it.”
“Please, understand that an absence of drama is a pathological condition. Drama is the meaning, the interpretation of our human experience. If there is no drama, at work, most people will bring it. And, in the absence of drama, in the absence of meaning, most people will bring it. If you, as a manager, have not created the context for the work, people will bring it. If what happens outside of work is more meaningful than what happens inside of work, you notice that people bring that outside in.”
Marjorie was listening. She spoke. “So, what you are saying is, that work is personal.”
“When you talked to Taylor, what did you tell him?” I asked. Dana had just completed her first accountability conversation. It had not gone so well.
“I told him that I really liked the work that he was doing, but that he needed to come to work on time. And that I really appreciated the effort he was making,” Dana replied.
“I can see why he thought he might be in line for a raise. Dana, the first part of his behavior that you want him to change is coming to work on time. What impact does it have on the rest of the team when he shows up late?”
Dana stuttered for a second, then organized her thoughts. “Well, no one else can get started on their work, until Taylor is there. It’s not just him. In the fifteen minutes that he is late, he costs the team about 90 minutes of production.”
“And what are the consequences to Taylor if he doesn’t start coming to work on time?”
Again, Dana had some trouble. She had not thought this through to the next step. “Well, I guess he could get fired,” she finally realized.
“You guess? Dana, you are the manager. What are the consequences?”
“You’re right,” she concluded. “If I have to speak to him twice about coming in late, I have to write him up. Three written warnings are grounds for termination. So, yes, he could lose his job.”
“And, when do you want this behavior corrected?”
“Well, tomorrow would be nice.”
“Dana, if you want this behavior changed by tomorrow, you need to call Taylor back in here and have another go at this accountability conversation. What two things do you need to cover?”
“I need to talk about the impact he is having and the consequences.”
“Ted, your team is functioning exactly as it was designed to function,” I started.
“What do you mean? You make it sound like it’s my fault,” he defended.
“Exactly, as the manager, the team you have is the team you deserve.”
I could tell Ted was getting agitated. It is easy to look at someone else to blame. It is tough when the responsibility is ours.
“The team you have is the team you deserve,” I repeated. “As time goes by, you will find that your team will be no better than you are. The speed of the pack is the speed of the leader.
“If you find that your team is not what you want it to be, if you find that you are not able to bring out the best in that team, to bring them to higher levels of performance, then, as the manager, you are not the leader who deserves better. At least not yet.”
Ted was quiet.
After a minute, I broke the silence. “So, what do you think we need to work on? Where should we start?”
Ted took a breath. “I guess we have to start with me.”
From the Ask Tom mailbag –
I was in your workshop last week and suddenly realized why I feel frustrated in my position. In the course of a project, I solve problems and make decisions, submit them to my manager for review, and then, he sits on them. People who depend on those decisions, one way or the other, ask me, “what gives?” The decision sits on my manager’s desk in a black hole while the project gets delayed. In the end, my decision survives, but the project is late, time and again.
Is it possible my manager is in over his head? He gets credit for my decisions, even though the project is late. I am worried that I will be stuck here under my manager for the rest of my career.
There is always more to the story and I cannot speculate on the capability of your manager. I do know that your manager’s goals and objectives set the context for your work. Keep your head down. Keep making decisions and solving problems on your assigned projects. Continue to give your manager “best advice.” That’s your role.
Your biggest fear is that your career may be in a dead-end under your current manager. It likely appears that your manager is, indeed, not focused on your professional development. Not his job.
Look to your manager’s manager, your manager-once-removed. Your manager is specifically focused on a shorter term set of goals and objectives. Your manager-once-removed is focused on a longer term set of goals and objectives. Some of that longer term focus is the professional development of team members two levels of work below.
The working relationship with your manager is different than the working relationship with your manager-once-removed. The relationship with your manager is an accountability relationship filled with task assignments, checkpoints and coaching. The relationship with your manager-once-removed is a mentoring relationship filled with discussions about professional development, career path, working environment, challenge in your role.
It is likely that your company does not recognize the importance of the manager-once-removed relationship. It is possible your manager-once-removed has no awareness of this necessary managerial relationship. You do. You are now aware.
What to do
Pick two or three professional development programs that you find interesting and that could help you bring more value to the company in your role. Don’t pick something that pulls you away from your current role or something with an unreasonable budget. It could be something as simple as three different books you would like to read that will bump up your skill level.
Ask your manager-once-removed to schedule a short fifteen minute conference to ask advice. Don’t ask for advice, ask for a short fifteen minute conference. This is not a casual conversation in the hallway. You want undivided attention across a desk or a table.
This fifteen minute conversation is your first of several meetings with your manager-once-removed to talk about longer time span issues related to your professional development. This is not a time to talk about the accountabilities in your current role, those discussions should be with your manager. This is the time to talk about your long term development and contribution to the company over time.
Take baby steps and build from there. A reasonable routine to meet with your manager-once-removed would be for 30-45-60 minutes every three months. Keep in touch. -Tom
“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.”
“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
“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?”
“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
“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