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.

With Gratitude

“What are you thankful for?” I asked.

The eyes from the other side of the table turned kind.

“I am thankful for this time of year, where things slow down. I stop. I stop being busy and become aware. If we don’t stop, we just keep going. Gratitude is about awareness. When I stop, my heart rate goes down. I am calm. In the quiet, I can take it in. I can watch and see things more clearly for what they are.”

“And, what do you see?” I prompted.

“I see connections, the relationships I have with other people. I play a role in other people’s lives and other people bring value to mine. It’s all about connections.”

“And, what are you thankful for?” I asked again.

“I am thankful that I am not wandering alone. I am thankful for those around me, that are connected to me. It sounds too obvious. That’s why it is so important to slow down and become aware. If we don’t stop, we just keep going.”

During this time of Thanksgiving, I am going to stop. To become aware.

See you next week. With my gratitude.

Which Mental State Do You Feed?

Mental states trigger different parts of the brain. Mental states trigger different hormones in the blood stream.

There are several versions of a story, this one ascribed to the Cherokee.

There was a grandfather speaking with his grandson, telling of two wolves. “There are two wolves living inside me,” the grandfather explained. “They fight with each other, one is evil, one is good.

“The evil wolf uses anger, sorrow, fear, judgement, greed, self-pity, guilt, lies, false pride and ego.

“The good wolf uses love, serenity, hope, empathy, exploration, generosity, gratitude, truth, compassion, creativity and purpose.”

“In this fight between the two wolves,” the grandson asked, “which will win?”

“The answer is simple,” the grandfather replied. “The wolf that wins, is the wolf you feed.”

Which wolf are you feeding? It’s a shift in mental state.

Negative Stream

Around the water cooler, have you noticed the tone of conversation?

  • “Did you hear about so and so, can you believe what happened?”
  • “You should have seen this guy who cut me off in traffic this morning.”
  • “Can you believe the gall of that person, why are they so opinionated?”

And, most of this is unconscious. It comes streaming out with little thought, guidance or direction. So easy to find fault, condemn or complain.

Ask a person about something good that happened yesterday, and they will stop, suddenly out of flow. Something positive requires conscious thought, does not come streaming out. We can usually find that positive moment from yesterday, but we have to interrupt our unconscious negative stream to do so.

The negative stream and positive thoughts sit in two different parts of the brain. Negative thoughts, from the primal brain arrive from a mental state of survival. Reflexive in speed, we don’t have to think. Positive thoughts require that we trigger the neo-cortex, fully visible on a fMRI brain scan. Responsive in speed, we have to think. Which part of the brain are you thinking with? Which mental state are you using to solve problems and make decisions?

Limitations of Performance-Reward

“There is nothing wrong with Performance-Reward (Work=Paycheck),” I said. “It is the contract that we make with employees. They show up each day and do their best in exchange for the agreed-upon compensation.”

Helen looked down, picturing something.

“I know you see yourself as a Motivator,” I continued. “And, here is why Motivation is so important for managers.

“I asked you before, if I was getting the Performance I wanted, as a Manager, why did I give two hoots whether it was Motivation or Manipulation (Performance-Reward). Here is why.

Performance-Reward requires you, the Manager, to be present, either physically present or present-by-threat, meaning, you will be back to check on things. So, Performance-Reward requires the proximity of the Manager.

“Second, the duration of the behavior is short, happens only to the specification required to get the reward. And if something happens to threaten that reward, diminish that reward, delay that reward, the performance stops.

“And that’s why Motivation is so important. As a Manager, we need sustained performance even when we are not around. We need more than Performance-Reward.”

Is Manipulation a Bad Thing?

“I just don’t like to think of myself as a Manipulator,” Helen said. “I want to believe that, as a Manager, I am perceived as a Motivator.”

“Great cover-up, isn’t it?” I smiled. “Listen, Helen, I am not suggesting that you do things, as a Manager, through deceit and trickery. What I am saying is, don’t fool yourself (11th commandment). Most of what we do is Performance-Reward or Underperformance-Reprimand, external inducements to get desired behavior.

“So, tell me, Helen, is manipulation necessarily a bad thing?”

Helen paused. “I just don’t like it. It doesn’t sound good.”

“Have you ever been working on a project, where you needed everyone to stay an extra half hour, to staple and bind all the reports, or to get a truck loaded with an emergency shipment to a customer; a situation where you needed just that extra bit of effort? So you tell everyone that you are ordering in a pizza, if they would just stay on for the half hour?”

“Well, sure, it happens, but what’s wrong with that?” Helen replied, then chuckled. “It’s a good thing my team likes pizza.”

“Exactly, just understand it is Performance-Reward. It is NOT Motivation.”

Reward or Reprimand?

Helen’s face dropped. Her smile extinguished.

My words, “Sounds like manipulation to me,” rang in her ears.

“But, but, what do you mean?” she gasped, not in desperation, but surprise.

“I mean, most of the things we do as Managers, fall in line with manipulation. We create expectations of performance, we get the performance, the team member gets a reward.

“Or more clearly, we create expectations, if we don’t get the performance, the team member gets reprimanded. Either way you look at it, most of what we do as Managers, is manipulation.”

I Certainly Don’t Manipulate

“Well, I certainly don’t manipulate my team members,” Helen insisted. “I like to think that I motivate them to get the work done.”

“Tell me, how do you do that?” I asked.

“Well, I think it begins on their first day at work. Our orientation does a really good job of explaining to them our philosophy as a company, our mission in the marketplace, where we standout against our competitors. Then, everyone, no matter what their role, goes through a pretty intensive training program, to make sure they have the skills they need to be successful. In my opinion, it’s pretty motivational.”

“How so?” I probe.

“Once they come out of training, they have to pass some competency tests, to make sure they actually have the skills they need. If they do that, they immediately get a pay rate increase, from training pay to Pay Band I. Our training pay is just above minimum wage. Pay Band I is calculated based on their actual role, their job description. It’s beginner’s pay, but it’s a step up, so immediately, they are rewarded for their efforts.”

“So, if they successfully complete their training program, they receive a reward in the form of a pay increase?”

“Yes,” Helen replied, smiling and nodding.

“Sounds like manipulation to me,” I observed.

Motivation or Manipulation?

“So, what’s the difference between motivation and manipulation?” I asked. “My kid is in the back seat of the car, and I ask him to put on his seat belt. I tell him that if he puts it on, we will go get ice cream as a reward.

“What is it? Motivation or manipulation?” The class sits on the question. Several want to leap out of their chairs with the answer, but they know it will make them a target for the discussion.

“My kid is in the back seat of the car, and I ask him to put on his seat belt. I tell him that if he doesn’t put it on, he won’t be able to play on the computer tonight.

“What is it? Motivation or manipulation?”

Cross Department Committees

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Many times when there is an issue that affects more than one department in the company, we assign committees involving members from each department to solve them. While this seems nice from a cultural standpoint, it seems strange that we would ask people in an S-II or S-III role, to solve issues that span multiple departments, typically an S-IV function. I recently experienced this myself where I established a committee, set a clear direction (I thought), and checked in occasionally. The end result was I now had a group who had reached a consensus, but it was the wrong one! We are still able to move forward and correct it slowly, but it feels like we wasted effort. What’s the right answer to this? Be more involved? Assign another committee leader with level 4 capabilities? Provide better direction? Make a larger committee?

Response:
Quick review on general accountabilities at levels of work.

  • S-I – Production
  • S-II – Making sure production gets done, coordination and implementation.
  • S-III – System work, designing, creating, monitoring and improving a single serial system (critical path)
  • S-IV – Multi-system integration

So, your intuition is correct that, where multiple departments are involved with either output or impact, department integration is appropriate.

Your question – Be more involved? Assign someone with S-IV capability? Provide better direction?
Answer – Yes.

In any managerial role, with team members one level of work below, the manager cannot simply call the meeting and then not show up. Undirected, the team will make the decision or solve the problem at their level of context. Each level of work understands its decisions and problems from their level of context. That context is measured in timespan.

Problems or decisions involving multiple departments generally require looking at longer timespan outputs, more correctly, longer timespan throughputs. A single department is usually heads-down, internally focused on efficient output. Multiple department throughput typically looks at two things. Does the efficient output of one department provide the correct input for the next department as work moves sideways through the organization?

  • Does the output of marketing (leads) provide the correct input for sales?
  • Does the output of sales include all the data necessary agreements for proper project management?
  • Does the output of project management provide all the accurate data necessary for operations?
  • Does the output of operations provide all the necessary checkpoints for quality control?

Multiple department integration also requires a look at the output capacity of each department as they sit next to their neighbor department. Is is possible for sales to sell so many contracts that it outstrips the capacity of operations to produce? A lower timespan focus might say we just need to communicate better. A longer timespan focus (throughput) will realize that no communication solution will fix a capacity issue.

So, yes, the manager has to be more involved, include another team member at S-IV, provide better direction on the requirements of any solution. A larger committee might actually be counter-productive if it contains team members at the wrong level of the problem. I offer these same guidelines as those of a couple of days ago.

  • What is the problem?
  • What is the cause of the problem?
  • What are the alternative solutions?
  • What is the best solution?
  • How will we test the solution to make sure it solves the problem?

They Act Like Zombies

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Working with my team, trying to get them to solve a problem. But, I think my solution is better than anything they might come up with. And, I don’t have time to have a meeting, and besides, I don’t think my team wants to be creative. Sometimes they act like dolts. I can solve problems like this pretty easy. I have been in the business for six years. I have the experience. But when I tell them what to do, they’re like zombies from the Night of the Living Dead. Some of them walk around like they still don’t know what to do, even though I gave them the solution.

Response:
What are you training them to do? Are you training them to solve a problem as a team, or are you training them to act like “dolts.”

Whenever you solve a problem that the team should solve, you cripple the team from solving future problems. And, if your solution fails, who carries the burden?

As a manager, you have to figure out your purpose. If your purpose is simply to have a problem solved, then solve the problem. You don’t have to be a manager to solve the problem.

If your purpose is to train the team to solve a problem, then understand, you are now a manager, and everything you do sets a precedent for what comes after. Try this simple method of questions for the team.

  • What is the problem?
  • What is the cause of the problem?
  • What are the alternative solutions?
  • What is the best solution?
  • How will we test the solution to make sure it solves the problem?