Now, more than ever, leaders need to decisively and powerfully nurture trust in the workplace. Although much of what it takes to build trust is common sense, it’s not always common practice. In this short video, I share 10 practical ways leaders can immediately build trust with their teams and organizations.
The turning of the calendar page from one year to the next is an opportunity to start the new year with a clear and focused plan for your team or organization. Yet, if you’re like many leaders, you not only find it hard to establish a clear strategy for the year, you find it difficult to keep all your team members aligned and moving forward to achieve the goals. If this predicament is familiar, you have the opportunity to clarify your leadership intent for the year.
What is a ‘leadership intent’? It’s my variation on the concept of a ‘commander’s intent.’ In military parlance, a commander’s intent is the purpose and goal of a given order from a leader to their troops. It provides clear direction and the boundaries of operation for the troops to carry out the commander’s intent.
In his book, Call Sign Chaos, retired General and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, details how young Marine officers are taught to convey a clear intent so that it passed intact through layers of leadership down to the front lines. In the heat of battle, where communication can be difficult and circumstances can change rapidly, it’s imperative that every soldier be crystal clear on the intended outcomes of the mission.
Regardless of the type of organization you lead—a military unit, business, or non-profit —a clear leadership intent sets the course for getting all your team members on the same page for achieving the outcomes you desire. The formula of a clear leadership intent is:
Leadership Intent = The ‘why’ of the strategy + A clear picture of the end state
There are four characteristics of a clear leadership intent:
1. It conveys the ‘why’ of the strategy—A shared understanding of the ‘why’ of the strategy allows your team members to understand the big picture, which allows them to take ownership of their given responsibilities. Anyone who has ever questioned the ‘why’ behind a decision and been told “just do it, you don’t need to know why,” understands how demoralizing and unempowering that can be. Knowing the ‘why’ empowers your team members to make decisions, independent of your direction, that lead them closer to achieving the goal.
2. It provides a clear picture of the end state—My experience has shown that one of the primary reasons we fail to accomplish our goals is a lack of clarity on exactly what we’re trying to achieve. We can get so twisted up in trying to set the perfect SMART goal that we fail to clearly paint the picture of the end state. A clear understanding of the end state enables team members to understand what needs to happen next in order to move closer to achieving the goal.
To illustrate the value of conveying the ‘why’ of the strategy and painting a clear picture of the end state, Mattis recounts the example of the legendary World War II British field commander, Viscount Slim. Deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Slim’s troops were vastly outnumbered by the Japanese, often out of radio contact with him for days or weeks at a time. In his book, Defeat into Victory, Slim describes the value of having a clear leader’s intent:
“Commanders at all levels had to act more on their own; they were given greater latitude to work out their own plans to achieve what they knew was the Army Commander’s intention. In time they developed to a marked degree a flexibility of mind and a firmness of decision that enabled them to act swiftly to take advantage of sudden information or changing circumstances without reference to their superiors…This acting without orders, in anticipation of orders, or without waiting for approval yet always within the overall intention, must become second nature in any form of warfare.”
3. It conveys the essential details—By the very definition of providing a clear end state, a leader’s intent should provide the essential details, and only the essential details. Resist the urge to micromanage by providing too many details. Micromanaging thwarts initiative and creates dependency on you, the leader. A key to achieving your team’s or organization’s goal is to create acceleration within your team. You want team members to take responsibility for owning the goal and developing their own plans for executing against that goal. Burdening your team with too many details or conditions handcuffs them from acting independently. Your goal as a leader is to orchestrate and synchronize the efforts of your team, not to control them.
4. It is written with ‘will’ statements—Rather than condensing your strategic plan or goals into a PowerPoint slide with fancy charts or graphs that may leave room for interpretation, try going old school and write out your leadership intent with very clear ‘will’ statements. A clear statement of your intent focuses on ‘what’ you’re trying to achieve and the ‘why,’ but refrains from telling your team ‘how’ to achieve the goal. A good leadership intent statement includes an ‘in order to’ phrase that crystallizes the measure of success.
For example, “We will attack that bridge in order to cut off the enemy’s escape” is a clear leadership intent. It describes the ‘what’ (attack the bridge), the ‘why,’ and measure of success (to cut off the enemy’s escape). If the troops seize the bridge but allow the enemy to escape, the mission is a failure. However, a troop commander acting under clear intent will adjust their actions to cut off the enemy’s escape regardless of whether the bridge is captured.
The length of a written leadership intent need only be as long as necessary to clearly convey your message. It may be a single sentence, a few bullet points, a paragraph, or an entire page, all depending upon the scope of your strategy or goal.
A clear leadership intent has the potential to align your team around the key outcomes you want them to achieve. But it requires a few prerequisites. First, trust must be present up and down the chain of command. Leaders need to trust their team members to act responsibly within the boundaries of the stated intent, and team members need to trust their leaders to provide them with all the information they need to make smart decisions. Second, leaders must be tolerant of mistakes. Empowering your team to make decisions means that occasionally they may get it wrong. If you punish people for taking risks, you’ll create a culture of risk-aversion. Instead, treat mistakes as learning moments and view them as an opportunity to teach and develop your team. Finally, discipline and accountability need to be alive and well. Team members need to be disciplined to act in alignment with the leader’s intent, and when team members stray, leaders need to hold them accountable for their actions.
As you head into a new year, consider making your leadership intent explicit with your team. Provide them a clear picture of the end goal, a solid understanding of the purpose of the strategy, and enough details that enable them to make the next right decisions to accomplish the mission.
Telling an employee “thank you” is one of the most simple and powerful ways to build trust, yet it doesn’t happen near enough in the workplace.
Whenever I conduct trust workshops with clients and discuss the role that rewards and recognition play in building trust, I will ask participants to raise their hands if they feel like they receive too much praise or recognition on the job. No one has ever raised a hand.
So in an effort to equip leaders to build trust and increase recognition in the workplace, and with the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday just a few days away, I thought I’d share ten ways to express thanks to your employees that will mean everything to them, yet cost you very little. I’ve used these myself and can attest to their effectiveness.
1. Let them leave work early – This may not be feasible in all work environments, but if you’re able to do it, a surprise treat of allowing people to leave early does wonders for team morale and well-being. I use this technique occasionally with my team, usually when they’ve had the pedal to the metal for a long period of time, or if we have a holiday weekend coming up. Allowing folks to get a head start on the weekend or a few hours of unexpected free time shows you recognize and appreciate their hard work and that you understand there’s more to life than just work.
2. Leave a “thank you” voice mail message – Don’t tell my I.T. department, but I’ve got voice mails saved from over ten years ago that were sent to me by colleagues who took the time to leave me a special message of praise. The spoken word can have a tremendous impact on individuals, and receiving a heartfelt message from you could positively impact your employees in ways you can’t imagine.
3. Host a potluck lunch – You don’t have to take the team to a fancy restaurant or have a gourmet meal catered in the office (which is great if you can afford it!), you just need to put a little bit of your managerial skills to practice and organize a potluck lunch. Sharing a meal together allows people to bond and relax in a casual setting and it provides an excellent opportunity for you to say a few words of thanks to the team and let them know you appreciate them.
4. Give a small token of appreciation – Giving an employee a small memento provides a lasting symbol of your appreciation, and although it may cost you a few bucks, it’s well worth the investment. I’m talking about simple things like giving nice roller-ball ink pens with a note that says “You’ve got the write stuff,” or Life Savers candies with a little note saying “You’re a hole lot of fun,” or other cheesy, somewhat corny things like that (believe me, people love it!). I’ve done this with my team and I’ve had people tell me years later how much that meant to them at the time.
5. Have your boss recognize an employee – Get your boss to send an email, make a phone call, or best-case scenario, drop by in-person to tell one of your employees “thank you” for his/her work. Getting an attaboy from your boss’ boss is always a big treat. It shows your employee that you recognize his/her efforts and you’re making sure your boss knows about it too.
6. Hold an impromptu 10 minute stand up meeting – This could be no or low-cost depending on what you do, but I’ve called random 10 minute meetings in the afternoon and handed out popsicles or some other treat and taken the opportunity to tell team members “thank you” for their hard work. The surprise meeting, combined with a special treat, throws people out of their same ol’, same ol’ routine and keeps the boss/employee relationship fresh and energetic.
7. Reach out and touch someone – Yes, I’m plagiarizing the old Bell Telephone advertising jingle, but the concept is right on. Human touch holds incredible powers to communicate thankfulness and appreciation. In a team meeting one time, my manager took the time to physically walk around the table, pause behind each team member, place her hands on his/her shoulders, and say a few words about why she was thankful for that person. Nothing creepy or inappropriate, just pure love and respect. Unfortunately, most leaders shy away from appropriate physical contact in the workplace, fearful of harassment complaints or lawsuits. Whether it’s a handshake, high-five, or fist bump, find appropriate ways to communicate your thanks via personal touch.
8. Say “thank you” – This seems like a no-brainer given the topic, but you would be amazed at how many people tell me their boss doesn’t take the time to express thanks. Saying thank you is not only the polite and respectful thing to do, it signals to your people that they matter, they’re important, valuable, and most of all, you care.
9. Send a thank you note to an employee’s family – A friend of mine told me that he occasionally sends a thank you note to the spouse/significant other/family of an employee. He’ll say something to the effect of “Thank you for sharing your husband/wife/dad/mother with us and supporting the work he/she does. He/she a valuable contributor to our team and we appreciate him/her.” Wow…what a powerful way to communicate thankfulness!
10. Give a handwritten note of thanks – Some things never go out of style and handwritten thank you notes are one of them. Emails are fine, voice mails better (even made this list!), but taking the time to send a thoughtful, handwritten note says “thank you” like no other way. Sending handwritten letters or notes is a lost art in today’s electronic culture. When I want to communicate with a personal touch, I go old school with a handwritten note. It takes time, effort, and thought which is what makes it special. Your employees will hold on to those notes for a lifetime.
What other ways to say “thank you” would you add to this list? Please a share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
With Halloween just a few days away, I told my wife that I wanted to write an article about the bad, clueless behaviors that make a leader a “Frankenboss” (see definition above). Sadly enough, it only took us about 3 minutes to brainstorm the following list. If any of these describe your leadership style, you might want to take a look in the mirror and examine the face that’s peering back at you…you might have bolts growing out the sides of your neck.
You might be a Frankenboss if you…
1. Lose your temper – Some leaders think by yelling or cursing at employees they are motivating them. Baloney! Losing your temper only shows a lack of maturity and self-control. There’s no room for yelling and screaming in today’s workplace. Our society has finally awoken to the damaging effects of bullying in our school system so why should it be any different at work? No one should have to go to work and fear getting reamed out by their boss. If you have troubles controlling your temper then do something to fix it.
2. Don’t follow through on your commitments – One of the quickest ways to erode trust with your followers is to not follow through on commitments. As a leader, your people look to you to see what behavior is acceptable, and if you have a habit of not following through on your commitments, it sends an unspoken message to your team that it’s OK for them to not follow through on their commitments either.
3. Don’t pay attention, multi-task, or aren’t “present” in meetings – Some studies say that body language accounts for 50-70% of communication. Multi-tasking on your phone, being preoccupied with other thoughts and priorities, or simply exhibiting an attitude of boredom or impatience in meetings all send the message to your team that you’d rather be any place else than meeting with them. It’s rude and disrespectful to your team to act that way. If you can’t be fully engaged and devote the time and energy needed to meet with your team, then be honest with them and work to arrange your schedule so that you can give them 100% of your focus. They deserve it.
4. Are driven by your ego – The heart of leadership is about giving, not receiving. Self-serving leaders may be successful in the short-term, but they won’t be able to create a sustainable followership over time. I’m not saying it’s not important for leaders to have a healthy self-esteem because it’s very important. If you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s going to be hard to generate the self-confidence needed to lead assertively, but there is a difference between self-confidence and egoism. Ken Blanchard likes to say that selfless leaders don’t think less of themselves, they just think about themselves less.
5. Avoid conflict – Successful leaders know how to effectively manage conflict in their teams. Conflict in and of itself is not a bad thing, but our culture tends to have a negative view of conflict and neglect the benefits of creativity, better decision-making, and innovation that it can bring. Frankenbosses tend to either completely avoid conflict by sweeping issues under the rug or they go to the extreme by choosing to make a mountain out of every molehill. Good leaders learn how to diagnose the situation at hand and use the appropriate conflict management style.
6. Don’t give feedback – Your people need to know how they’re performing, both good and bad. A hallmark of trusted leaders is their open communication style. They share information about themselves, the organization, and they keep their employees apprised of how they’re performing. Meeting on a quarterly basis to review the employee’s goals and their progress towards attaining those goals is a good performance management practice. It’s not fair to your employees to give them an assignment, never check on how they’re doing, and then blast them with negative feedback when they fail to deliver exactly what you wanted. It’s Leadership 101 – set clear goals, provide the direction and support the person needs, provide coaching and feedback along the way, and then celebrate with them when they achieve the goal.
7. Micromanage – Ugh…even saying the word conjures up stress and anxiety. Micromanaging bosses are like dirty diapers – full of crap and all over your a**. The source of micromanagement comes from several places. The micromanager tends to think their way is the best and only way to do the task, they have control issues, they don’t trust others, and generally are not good at training, delegating, and letting go of work. Then they spend their time re-doing the work of their subordinates until it meets their unrealistic standards and they go around complaining about how overworked and stressed-out they are! Knock it off! A sign of a good leader is what happens in the office when you’re not there. Are people fully competent in the work? Is it meeting quality standards? Are they behaving like good corporate citizens? Micromanagers have to learn to hire the right folks, train them to do the job the right way, monitor their performance, and then get out of their way and let them do their jobs.
8. Throw your team members under the bus – When great bosses experience success, they give the credit to their team. When they encounter failure, they take personal responsibility. Blaming, accusing, or making excuses is a sign of being a weak, insecure leader. Trusted leaders own up to their mistakes, don’t blame others, and work to fix the problem. If you’re prone to throwing your team members under the bus whenever you or they mess up, you’ll find that they will start to withdraw, take less risk, and engage in more CYA behavior. No one likes to be called out in front of others, especially when it’s not justified. Man up and take responsibility.
9. Always play by the book – Leadership is not always black and white. There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to being a leader and the best ones learn to use good judgment and intuition to handle each situation uniquely. There are some instances where you need to treat everyone the same when it comes to critical policies and procedures, but there are also lots of times when you need to weigh the variables involved and make tough decisions. Too many leaders rely upon the organizational policy manual so they don’t have to make tough decisions. It’s much easier to say “Sorry, that’s the policy” than it is to jump into the fray and come up with creative solutions to the problems at hand.
10. You practice “seagull” management – A seagull manager is one who periodically flies in, makes a lot of noise, craps all over everyone, and then flies away. Good leaders are engaged with their team members and have the pulse of what’s going on in the organization. That is much harder work than it is to be a seagull manager, but it also earns you much more respect and trust from your team members because they know you understand what they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis and you have their best interests in mind.
I’m sure you’ve had your own personal experiences with a Frankenboss. What other behaviors would you add to this list? Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.
Did you ever play the game Show and Tell when you were in elementary school? It wasn’t really a game in the traditional sense, but more like story-time or a group activity to help the whole class learn more about the presenter.
The premise of Show and Tell is a student gets to bring something from home to show the class and then tells them why it’s important to them or what it represents about them as a person. I remember looking forward to Show and Tell days with great excitement!
My favorite Show and Tell was in 6th grade when Simon Mattar’s uncle showed us his tricked-out 1950’s era ambulance that had been converted into an all-purpose rescue vehicle. This thing was so cool that you could change a flat tire on the vehicle while it was driving down the road! That’s the day Simon Mattar became a legend at Avondale Elementary. I gained a whole new appreciation for who Simon was and what his family was about after that experience.
I think our workplaces would be more productive, humane, and empowering if more leaders played Show and Tell. Not in the same way we did as kids in elementary school, but in our everyday words and actions. Here’s a good place to start:
- Competence – Too often people stop focusing on their personal learning and development once they reach a leadership position. I would argue the opposite needs to occur – that’s when you need to ramp up your education. Showing your team that you prioritize ongoing education sends the message to them that they should do the same. It’s important to not just stay up to speed on the technical aspects of your team’s work, but also on general leadership and management practices. Being a manager or leader is a mindset and skillset unto itself, and the best leaders are lifelong learners.
- Integrity – Integrity is about walking the talk. It’s about your actions aligning with your words, and when you’re a leader, you can be sure that your team members are watching your every move. The best leaders show they are worthy of the trust of their teammates. They do that by being honest, keeping confidences, and not playing favorites. At the end of the day, leaders are known by their integrity, and sadly, the lack thereof.
- Care and Concern – It’s a cliché but it’s true: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Expressing care and concern for others is one of the quickest and easiest ways for leaders to earn the trust and respect of their team. You can start by building rapport, which is simply finding common ground with another person. You can also express care by getting to know your team members as people who have lives outside of work. What are their interests? Hobbies? Kids’ activities?
- Dependability – Leaders show they are dependable by following-through on commitments. They are responsive to their team members, respect their time, and are punctual for meetings (yes, showing up on time is still important!). Conversely, not being reliable erodes trust with others and shows that you can’t be depended on when it counts.
- People they’re doing a good job – How many of you are sick and tired of all the praise you receive from your boss? Nobody? I didn’t think so. The truth is that most people are starved for a little bit of recognition from their boss. Take the time to verbalize your thanks and appreciation for the good work your team produces.
- People how they can do better – Yes, you heard that right; tell people how they can do better (and show them how). A good coach is always encouraging his team members to improve their skills. Why do you think professional athletes still have coaches? It’s because they know that no matter how good they are they can still get better. I’ve learned through personal experience that withholding constructive criticism from a team member does them a disservice. People can’t improve if they don’t receive timely and accurate coaching.
- The whole story – Too many leaders are selective story tellers; they only tell their people what they want them to know. In the absence of information, people make up their own version of the truth. It’s the leader’s duty to share as much information as ethically appropriate and then trust their people to act correctly. People without information cannot act responsibly. People with information are compelled to act responsibly.
- Others about yourself – Leaders who share information about themselves, particularly their vulnerabilities, garner immensely more respect and trust from their team than leaders who don’t share personal information. I believe it’s a false notion that leaders must keep their business and personal lives separate. Today’s employee wants to have a genuine and authentic experience at work. They want to know they are valued and appreciated as individuals, not just workers showing up to do a job. Leaders must model that level of authenticity if they hope to attract and retain the best talent.
Show and Tell in today’s workplace isn’t quite the same as it was back in elementary school, but the outcomes are similar. It results in helping people to know each other better, foster team cohesiveness, and develop a greater appreciation and understanding of their teammates. Those sound like worthy goals for any organization.
Dr. John Gottman is world-renowned for his work on marital stability and is one of the top thought leaders in the field of marital therapy and psychology. Much of his research and writing focuses on the behavioral patterns that formulate healthy relationships, and conversely, the behaviors that destroy them. Through his research, he has been able to predict with 90% accuracy the four behavioral patterns that destroy relationships. He calls these behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The negative impact of the Four Horsemen behaviors is felt in all relationships, not just marriage. Being aware of these behavioral patterns, and how to prevent them, are key to establishing healthy and trustworthy relationships in the workplace. Let’s look at the Four Horsemen and their antidotes:
1. Criticism—Criticism is different from critiquing or voicing a complaint. Whereas critiquing/complaining is focused on a specific issue, criticism is directed at the person, not the behavior. Criticism is filled with accusatory language and “you” statements: “You always forget to complete your reports on time and don’t care about how it affects me. You’re so unreliable.” Criticism makes a person feel picked-on, rejected, and hurt, and opens the door for the other deadly horsemen to follow.
Antidote—Using “I” language is the antidote to criticism. Rather than blaming or criticizing another person, describe how you feel and its impact on you by using “I” statements. “I feel let down when you miss the reporting deadline because it forces me to work over the weekend to complete the reports.”
2. Contempt—When treating people with contempt, we are being mean and disrespectful. Contempt is demeaning others through sarcasm, ridicule, and body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The victim is made to feel “less than” and in a morally inferior position as the perpetrator. Contempt sounds like: “You think you have it tough?! You come into work, do a half-ass job all day, take long lunches, and then expect everyone to help you get the work done so you can punch out at 5:00 sharp! I’m tired of carrying you on my back around here. You have no clue what it takes to succeed!” Contempt is the single biggest predictor of relationship failure.
Antidote—The antidote to contempt is to treat each other with respect and appreciation. No matter the difficulties you’re encountering with someone, that person deserves to be treated with a modicum of respect and decency. Focusing your attention on the positive aspects of the relationship and expressing gratitude is a way to cultivate a culture of appreciation.
3. Defensiveness—People react defensively when they feel threatened and it’s often in response to criticism. Defensiveness destroys relationships from the inside-out. It creates a climate of contention and tension that eventually leads to a loss of trust, alienation, and separation. When we blame or criticize someone and they react defensively, we often respond in kind, leading to an ever-increasing level of conflict.
Antidote—Accept responsibility for your part in the conflict. Accepting responsibility is not an admission of guilt or wrongdoing; it’s demonstrating that you value the relationship more than you value being right.
4. Stonewalling—This behavior is usually in response to contempt. Stonewalling is when an individual withdraws from the interaction, goes quiet, doesn’t respond or engage, and essentially shuts down. Instead of actively participating in resolving the situation, the stonewaller retreats and isolates himself. Gottman says this is usually the result of the individual feeling physiologically flooded, and when in that state, the person literally may not be capable of responding in a productive manner.
Antidote—The way to address stonewalling behavior is to take a timeout. Give each other at least 20 minutes to calm down and process the situation before re-engaging in conversation. Having time and space to process your feelings allows you to gain perspective which often isn’t visible when you’re in the heat of the conversation.
The Four Horsemen can be defeated with conscious effort. Early diagnosis of these negative communication patterns, and replacing them with positive ones, will help you develop healthy and productive relationships.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you are a scientist running a grand experiment on leadership. Your laboratory is an organization with hundreds of leaders at varying levels, and with technology, you can watch and listen to them 24-hours a day over an extend period of time. Sort of like the TV show Big Brother, except corporate style (and minus all the drama-filled antics). Essentially you get to observe the species Homo Sapiens Laederes in their native environment.
Your quest is to learn the behaviors that make servant leaders stand out from the crowd. In a noisy world where a few celebrity leaders grab the headlines, and everyone tries to copy-cat their way to becoming an overnight leadership success, servant leadership has withstood the test of time as a tried and true approach to effectively leading people and organizations. You would observe at least five key ways servant leaders are different from their counterparts.
- Listen more than they talk—A servant leader is much more interested in hearing the viewpoints of others than having their voice be the loudest in the room. Make no mistake, servant leaders clearly articulate their point of view and cast a vision for the organization, but they do so after they’ve spent plenty of time hearing from others, incorporating their ideas, and enlisting others in their cause. As Larry Spears observed in the book Servant Leadership in Action, listening is one of ten key characteristics of a servant leader. Listening involves paying attention to what is said and not said, identifying the will of the group, listening to the leader’s own inner voice, and coalescing that input into a clear plan of action.
- Say we more than me—When servant leaders do talk, they focus the attention on their team by speaking in the collective we, rather than the personal me. Servant leaders know that leadership isn’t about them; it’s about others. Robert K. Greenleaf, the father of the modern servant leader movement, said the motive of a servant leader is to serve first, and out of that desire to serve rises a conscious decision to lead. Servant leaders are driven to improve the welfare, contribution, and autonomy of others, not to garner fame, attention, or status for themselves. Their focus is on we, not me.
- Flex their leadership style to meet the needs of their followers—Since servant leadership is about doing what’s best for others and helping them to realize their full potential, servant leaders adapt their leadership style to provide the right amount of direction and support their followers need. There is no one best leadership style. If someone is new to a task, the leader provides higher levels of direction to teach the how, what, where, when, and why. If the follower has a moderate level of competence but is unsure of himself, the servant leader uses a supportive style to build the follower’s confidence and help him problem solve. Servant leaders understand their followers have varying levels of competence and commitment on their tasks or goals so they adjust their leadership style to the situation.
- Look for opportunities to shine the light on others—As you observe leaders in this mythical experiment, you’d notice that servant leaders make an intentional effort to give people the chance to be in the spotlight and to praise them for their accomplishments. Servant leaders don’t care who gets the credit; they care about helping people and the organization succeed. Ken Blanchard likes to say that “people who feel good about themselves produce good results, and people who produce good results feel good about themselves.” It’s a virtuous process that servant leaders look to perpetuate.
- Treat failures as learning moments—Failure is inevitable; learning is optional (click to tweet). Servant leaders view failure as an invaluable teaching tool, and rather than punish or demean people for making a mistake, they turn it into a positive and make it a learning moment. This is possible because servant leaders have a high level of trust with their followers. When people are trusted, they aren’t afraid to take risks and try something new. They know that if they fail, their leader will partner with them to use the opportunity to grow, learn, and do better next time. My friend and fellow servant leader, Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, embodies this philosophy. He believes that creating a culture of learning has been one of the pillars of WD-40’s success, an organization with 93% employee engagement.
Although it would be cool to take part in this kind of mad scientist experiment, it really isn’t necessary. Research about the effectiveness of servant leadership is plentiful and the traits of a servant leader are common sense, albeit not common practice. If you look around and see people engaging in these five behaviors and others like them, chances are they’re servant leaders who are bringing out the best in their people and organizations.
Addressing poor performance with an employee presents a leader with a “moment of trust” – an opportunity to either build or erode trust in the relationship. If you handle the situation with competence and care, the level of trust in your relationship can take a leap forward. Fumble the opportunity and you can expect to lose trust and confidence in your leadership.
Now, I’m the first to admit that having a discussion about an employee’s failing performance is probably the last thing I want to do as a leader. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for both parties involved. I mean, come on, no one likes to hear they aren’t doing a good job. But the way in which the feedback and coaching is delivered can make a huge difference. The key is to have a plan and process to follow. The following steps can help you capitalize on the moment of trust and get an employee’s performance back on track.
1. Prepare – Before you have the performance discussion, you need to make sure you’re prepared. Collect the facts or data that support your assessment of the employee’s low performance. Be sure to analyze the problem by asking yourself questions like:
- Was the goal clear?
- Was the right training, tools, and resources provided?
- Did I provide the right leadership style?
- Did the employee receive coaching and feedback along the way?
- Was the employee motivated and confident to achieve the goal?
- Did the employee have any personal problems that impacted performance?
2. Describe the problem – State the purpose and ground rules of the meeting. It could sound something like “Susan, I’d like to talk to you about the problem you’re having with the defect rate of your widgets. I’ll give you my take on the problem and then I’d like to hear your perspective.”
Be specific in describing the problem, using the data you’ve collected or the behaviors you’ve observed. Illustrate the gap in performance by explaining what the performance or behavior should be and state what you want to happen now. It could sound something like “In the last week your defect rate has been 18% instead of your normal 10% or less. As I look at all the variables of the situation, I realize you’ve had some new people working on the line, and in a few instances, you haven’t had the necessary replacement parts you’ve needed. Obviously we need to get your rate back under 10%.”
3. Explore and acknowledge their viewpoint – This step involves you soliciting the input of the employee to get their perspective on the cause of the performance problem. Despite the information you’ve collected, you may learn something new about what could be causing or contributing to the decline in performance. Depending on the employee’s attitude, you may need to be prepared for defensiveness or excuses about the performance gap. Keep the conversation focused on the issue at hand and solicit the employee’s ideas for solving the problem.
4. Summarize the problem and causes – Identify points of disagreement that may exist, but try to emphasize the areas of agreement between you and the employee. When you’ve summarized the problem and main causes, ask if the two of you have enough agreement to move to problem solving. It could sound something like “Susan, we both agree that we need to get your defect rate to 10% or below and that you’ve had a few obstacles in your way like new people on the line and occasionally missing replacement parts. Where we see things differently is that I believe you don’t always have your paperwork, parts, and tools organized in advance the way you used to. While we don’t see the problem exactly the same, are we close enough to work on a solution?”
5. Problem solve for the solution – Once you’ve completed step four, you can then problem solve for specific solutions to close the performance gap. Depending on the employee’s level of competence and commitment on the goal or task, you may need to use more or less direction or support to help guide the problem solving process. The outcome of the problem solving process should be specific goals, actions, or strategies that you and/or the employee will put in place to address the performance problem. Set a schedule for checking in on the employee’s progress and be sure to thank them and express a desire for the performance to improve.
A moment of trust is a precious occurrence that you don’t want to waste. Using this five step process can help you address an employee’s poor performance with candor and care that will leave the employee knowing that you respect their dignity, value their contributions, and have their best interests at heart. That can’t help but build trust in the relationship.
I have to admit, it’s easy for me not to notice. I get focused on my own goals and priorities and everything else around me seems to fade from view. That focused attention is a good thing when I need to meet a deadline or accomplish an important task, but when it comes to leading people, it’s a deadly mistake. I can get so wrapped up in my own agenda that I neglect to notice the needs of my team members.
I know I’m not alone here. Many people fall into the same trap because they think that’s what leaders are supposed to do. Make decisions, be in lots of meetings, and wear our busyness like a badge of courage. Let me be the first to break the news to you—that’s not how you should lead. Great leaders make time for their people because they know a leader’s best ability is availability. (click to tweet)
You may not think being a good “noticer” is important but I’d argue otherwise. I think it’s one of the top priorities for leaders because it makes you other-focused rather than self-focused.
Being a good noticer builds morale. Being valued, understood, and appreciated is a basic human need, but unfortunately, too many leaders forget their people are actually human. They view people as utilitarian resources performing a specific job function and treat them as interchangeable parts. But taking time to notice people lifts their spirits. A well-timed praising, note of thanks, or even just a personal conversation can turn around a person’s day.
Noticing people also builds trust. It shows your people that you care about them as individuals and not just as workers showing up to do a job. Everyone has a story and good leaders take the time to learn the stories of their team members. I’m not talking about hugging everyone and singing Kumbaya, but simply building relationships. Asking about their kids, getting their input on new ideas, or eating lunch in the break room with your team members every once in a while. With the trust of your team you can reach new heights, but without it you’re dead in the water.
Finally, noticing others keeps your leadership on course because you’re in tune with the needs of your team. The higher up leaders move in the organization the easier it is to get disconnected from the realities of life on the front line. Being a good noticer means you have to stay engaged with your team. It means you are familiar with the good, the bad, and the ugly of what your team has to deal with daily. That allows you to make leadership decisions based on what’s really going on versus what you think is going on.
So I challenge you to make a commitment this week. Take 5 minutes each day to pause, consider your team, and notice what’s going on around you. If you see a person doing a good job, tell him/her so. If you see someone struggling, ask if they need help. If one of your team members seems downcast, ask if they’d like to talk. It’s not that hard; it just takes a little time and effort.
Feel free to leave a comment this week to let me know what you noticed.
“I’m not going to apologize because I didn’t do anything wrong!”
I remember my kids uttering that phrase a number of times when they were young, and I’ve also heard it from adults in the workplace more times than I care to remember. No one likes to be wrongly accused and most people certainly don’t want to apologize for something they didn’t do. The thought of apologizing when we’ve done nothing wrong, or even worse, when we’re actually in the right, causes our blood to boil. We become indignant, defensive, or lash out at others, none of which does anything to improve the situation.
However, there is a time and place for apologizing even if you’re not guilty. It’s important to remember that apologizing is not an admission of guilt; it’s an admission of responsibility. (Click to tweet) You are taking responsibility for improving and moving past the situation at hand. Here are three good reasons to apologize even if you’ve done nothing wrong:
- Choosing relationship over being right—When difficulties arise in a relationship, it’s a natural human instinct to want to assign blame. If the other person is in the wrong, then we can gloat in the satisfaction of being right. It’s easy to dive into the deep end of the pool of self-righteousness. It takes emotional maturity to prioritize the health of the relationship over the ego-feeding need to be right. Apologizing for the pain and difficulty of the current situation, even if you didn’t cause it, shows you place a higher value on the other person than you do on the need to be right.
- Lose the battle to win the war—You need to have a long-range perspective when it comes to relationships. There are going to be lots of battles (e.g., differences of opinion, conflict, etc.) in our relationships at home and work, and we’d die of exhaustion if we fought tooth and nail to prove ourselves right in every instance. Sometimes it’s better to lose the battle and apologize even when you’re right, for the sake of winning the bigger war (e.g., maintaining peace, completing the project, etc.).
- Take one for the team—As the leader, there are times you need to take one for the team. You may not personally have been at fault, but if your team has dropped the ball, you should take the blame on their behalf. Weak leaders will often throw their team under the bus when they’ve made a mistake. The leader will absolve him/herself of any responsibility and blame it on the team acting carelessly. The best leaders, however, apologize for the mistakes their team make and accept whatever blame comes their way.
It’s no fun to apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong. Every fiber of our being compels us to scream that we didn’t do it, and to blame someone or something else. Responding with righteous indignation often escalates the tension and does little to resolve the situation. If you value the relationship more than being right, are willing to lose a small battle for the sake of winning the larger war, or need to take one for you team, it’s OK to apologize—even if you’ve done nothing wrong.
“I’m sorry, we need to let you go.”
Oomph! Those words feel like a punch to the gut of the employee on the receiving end, and for the leader delivering the bad news, those words create anxiety and many sleepless nights leading up to that difficult conversation.
No leader likes to see an employee fail on the job. From the moment we start the recruitment process, through interviewing, hiring, and training, our goal is to set up our employees for success. It takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and expense to bring new people into the organization and ramp them up to full productivity, so it’s in everyone’s vested interest to see an employee succeed. Yet we all know there are situations that, for whatever reason, an employee struggles on the job and there isn’t much hope of turning it around.
I recently met with a group of HR professionals and line managers to debrief employee termination situations. As we reviewed the cases at hand, the following nine signs emerged as warning signals, that had they been heeded early on in the employee’s career, a termination decision could have been made much earlier in the process that would have saved everyone a lot of heartache and the company a lot of money. Any one of these signs is alarming in and of itself, but when you combine all of them together…KABOOM! You’ve got an employee meltdown waiting to happen.
Nine Warning Signs of a Failing Employee
1. Things don’t improve with a change of scenery – Maybe it’s the relationship with the boss, certain peers, or the nature of the work has changed and the employee is struggling to perform at her best. Whatever the reason, moving the employee to another role or department can get her back on track. I’ve done it myself and have seen it work. But if you’ve given someone another chance by giving them a change of scenery and it’s still not working out, you should be concerned. The scenery probably isn’t the problem.
2. You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around the employee – We all have personality quirks and some people are more difficult to work with than others, but when an employee becomes cancerous to the morale and productivity of the team and everyone feels like they have to walk on eggshells around the person for fear of incurring their wrath, you’ve got a serious problem. Don’t underestimate the destructive power of a toxic, unpredictable employee.
3. Emotional instability – Part of being a mature adult is being able to manage your emotions and it’s critically important in a professional workplace. If you have an employee that demonstrates severe emotional mood swings on the job and in their relationships with others, you need to pursue the proper legal and ethical guidelines in dealing with the employee and getting them the support they need. Don’t ignore the behavior by chalking it up to the heat of the moment, the stress of the job, or excusing it by saying “Oh, that’s just Joe being Joe.”
4. Trouble fitting into the company culture – Perhaps one of the earliest signs that you have a failing employee is noticing she is having significant trouble adapting to the culture of the organization. There is a natural transition time for any new employee, but if you’re constantly hearing the employee make negative comments about how the company operates and criticizing leadership, or not developing solid relationships with others and becoming part of the team, warning alarms should be going off in your head.
5. Blames others, makes excuses, and challenges authority – You know the incredibly loud sound of air raid sirens used in civil defense situations? That’s the sound you should be hearing if you have an employee with a track record of blaming others and making excuses for her poor performance. Failing employees will often challenge authority by trying to lay the blame at the boss’ feet by saying things like “You should have done this…” or “You didn’t address that problem…” or whatever the case may be. If you have an employee who always seems to be involved in drama, ask yourself “What (or more appropriately ‘who’) is the common denominator in these situations?”
6. Distorts or manipulates the truth – I’ve dealt with employees who were very skilled at manipulating or distorting the truth. In whatever difficult situation they were in, they would find a kernel of truth to justify and excuse their involvement to the point that I would feel compelled to side with them. I learned you have to be discerning and consistent in your approach to dealing with manipulative people and make sure you document your interactions so you have sufficient data to support your termination decision.
7. Unseen gaps in performance – One of the most challenging situations is when an employee seems to be performing well by outside appearances, but when you explore behind the scenes you discover there are gaps in her performance. Maybe it’s sloppy work, not following correct procedures, or even worse, being intentionally deceptive or unethical. Be careful, things may not always be as they seem.
8. A trail of broken relationships – Employees don’t have to be BFF’s with all of their coworkers, but they do need to respect others and be able to work together. A person may be a high-performer in the tasks of her job, but if she can’t get along with other people and has a history of damaging relationships with colleagues, eventually there will come a point where her contributions are outweighed by the damage and drama she creates.
9. Passive-aggressive behavior – You know those smiley-face emoticons at the end of slightly sarcastic and critical emails? A classic example of passive-aggressive behavior where the sender is trying to couch her criticism in feigned-humor. This is toxic and can be hard to manage because it manifests itself is so many ways that appear to be innocuous in and of themselves. Veiled jokes, procrastination, sullenness, resentment, and deliberate or repeated failure to follow-through on tasks are all signs of passive-aggressive behavior. Be careful…very careful.
The number one job for a leader is to help his or her employees succeed. Before an employee is terminated, a leader needs to be able to look in the mirror and honestly admit that everything possible has been done to help the employee succeed. These nine warning signs should serve as critical guideposts in helping any leader be alert to a failing employee.
If you’ve ever wondered why so many negative and critical leaders seem to rise to power, recent research sheds a little light on the cause. It turns out that even though we say we want compassionate and empathetic leaders, we perceive naysayers as being more powerful than their non-critical colleagues.
In one of a series of studies, 518 participants were shown four pairs of statements made by former U.S. presidential candidates during nationally televised debates. They were not told the candidates’ names or when the debate took place. The pair of statements included one that was positive and supportive of America’s future, while the other was negative and critical. Participants were asked to rate how powerful each candidate appeared to be, how effective they thought the person would be in office, and whether or not they would vote for the person.
Compared to the presidential candidates who made positive statements, participants rated the negative candidates as more powerful, more likely to be effective in office, and likely to earn their vote. In additional studies across different contexts such as art reviews and opinions on social issues, participants consistently rated the naysayer as more powerful, albeit less likable, than their neutral or positive counterpart.
Why is this the case? Researcher Eileen Y. Chou theorizes the cause is human psychology. We perceive naysayers as being more independent, willing to speak their mind, and willing to “tell it like it is.” This fuels a perception of the naysayer being powerful enough to not be bound by normal constraints or resources. This perception of power was strongest among those who felt the most disadvantaged. The disadvantaged perceive the naysayer as being willing to speak truth to power and disrupt the status quo.
So, should you incorporate more negativity into your leadership style in order to become more powerful? Let’s see…how can I put this in a sensitive, thoughtful, diplomatic way?
There is certainly a time and place for candid realism in a leader’s communications. Leader’s who sugarcoat the truth and try to get their people to believe everything is rainbows and unicorns are perceived as out of touch, fake, and incompetent. Leaders have an obligation to “keep it real” with their followers, but also need to inspire people with hope for a better future. Constant negativity and criticism causes people to view the leader as a malcontent and they eventually remove their support.
The more fundamental issue for me beyond the role of being a naysayer is a leader’s relationship with power. Power accompanies leadership and it can be used in healthy and unhealthy ways. The greatest use of power is in service to others and there are noble and altruistic ways of developing and sustaining power that benefits others.
One only needs to listen to the political rhetoric these days to see the harmful effects of naysaying leadership. Constant criticism, negativity, and fault-finding appeals to the most base instincts of humanity. The most successful and enduring leaders call to the “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln said, and unite people through a shared vision of a more promising tomorrow.