Leading with Trust

The 5 Causes of Psychological Safety and Why You Need to be a Safe Leader

Reflective Listening

Psychological safety sounds like a complex academic topic, doesn’t it? It’s quite simple when you boil it down to its essence.

Amy Edmondson of Harvard University has pioneered the research on psychological safety. She says psychological safety describes an individual’s perceptions about the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in his/her work environment. It consists of taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line, such as asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea.

When faced with these kinds of situations, we make micro-second calculations to assess the risk and likely consequences of our behavior. We make these decisions in light of the interpersonal climate we’re in, so we say to ourselves “If I do X here, will I be hurt, embarrassed, or criticized? Or will I be praised, thanked, or respected?”

Organizational Conditions for Psychological Safety

There are five areas that contribute to the establishment of a psychologically safe environment. The first is Leader Behavior. The leader is always being watched. What you say and do has a profound impact on whether your team members feel safe to be vulnerable with you. Research has shown that bad news is rarely transmitted up the hierarchy and team members are more likely to seek help from peers than their boss. But on the flip side, research has also shown that leaders who exhibit supportive managerial behaviors have positive effects on self-expression and creativity. Leaders must go out of their way to be open and use coaching-oriented behaviors. The three most powerful behaviors that foster psychological safety are being available and approachable, explicitly inviting input and feedback, and modeling openness and fallibility.

The second area that contributes to psychological safety is Group Dynamics. The norms of a group either encourage or inhibit team member vulnerability. Are new ideas welcomed or discouraged? Are divergent opinions solicited or are they criticized? The interplay of team member roles and characters are also part of group dynamics. Have you ever noticed how people in teams tend to assume familial-type roles? You often have a father figure of a group that offers sage advice and direction. You may have team member who plays a mothering role, the favored son who can do no wrong, or even the black sheep of the team who tends to stir up trouble. The interplay of these roles has a direct impact on the level of safety within a team. Additionally, in-group and out-group dynamics and power distribution among team members influence psychological safety.Psychological Safety 5 Factors

The third area that influences psychological safety is Trust and Respect. There is significant overlap between trust and psychological safety as it relates to vulnerability. Trust can be defined as the willingness to be vulnerable based on perceptions of someone’s (or some thing’s) trustworthiness. If you don’t feel the leader or team is trustworthy, you won’t be willing to be vulnerable and put yourself at risk. Supportive and trusting relationships promote psychological safety, whereas lack of respect makes people feel judged or inferior, resulting in them keeping their opinions to themselves. Trust is at the heart of creating a safe environment.

The fourth area that contributes to psychological safety is the use of Practice Fields. Peter Senge coined this term in the 1990’s to describe one of the hallmarks of a learning organization. He made the point that unlike other fields, most businesses don’t employ practice and reflection to improve the skills of their employees. For example, what do sport teams do between games? They practice! Practice is a safe environment to learn, make mistakes, and work on skill improvement. Pilots train in simulators before flying a new aircraft. Surgeons observe, assist, and practice new procedures before leading an operation. Employing practice fields creates an environment where it is safe to learn and make mistakes without fear of being penalized.

Finally, the fifth area that contributes to psychological safety is having a Supportive Organizational Context. What does that mean? It means team members have access to resources and information to perform their best. When people have this level of freedom it reduces anxiety and defensiveness. Contrast this to being in a “need to know” environment where suspicion, tension, power, control, and territoriality are the norm. Organizations with healthy and ethical cultures of fairness and trust create the supportive mechanisms that allow people to feel safe, take risks, and innovate.

Results of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is a win-win for both employees and the organization.

Safe environments allow people to seek feedback more often. Seeking feedback places a person in a position of vulnerability to hear negative criticism, however, when it is safe to do so, the sharing of feedback leads to improvements in quality and performance. Safe environments also encourage people to seek help from those who are in positions of greater power. It’s risky to ask for help from someone who judges your performance, but leaders who foster psychological safety make it easy for their team members to ask for help.

A culture of psychological safety encourages people to speak up about wrongdoing. It alleviates concerns about repercussions of calling out unethical or illegal behavior, which is critical in today’s low-trust environments of many organizations. Innovation is also a benefit of having a safe environment. Innovation is essentially about taking a risk and trying something new. It’s about offering new ideas and challenging conventional ways of thinking which can’t happen if people are afraid of being judged or punished for stepping out of line. Lastly, psychologically safe environments allow team members to work more effectively across boundaries. It increases communication and coordination with other groups in the organization. It lowers the interpersonal risk of asking for help, resources, seeking feedback, or delivering bad news.

It’s vitally important for leaders to establish environments of trust and safety so their people can step out, step up, and achieve new heights of accomplishments. It begins by being a safe leader who is trustworthy, respectful, and committed to prioritizing the well-being of his/her team members over his/her self-interest. It begins by leading with trust.

5 Ways Leaders Try to Lead Right in The Wrong Way

Right-way-wrong-wayFew leaders wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “I wonder how I can screw up today?” Most leaders have good intentions and earnestly try to lead in the right ways, but sometimes the actions they think are helpful to their team actually cause harm or frustration. They’re trying to lead right in the wrong ways.

Here are five common ways leaders try to do the right thing in the wrong way:

1. Valuing results at the expense of relationships—Leaders are responsible for achieving results, and a common mistake is to pursue those results at the expense of relationships. Meet the sales quota…close the deal…finish the project under budget, on time, and with top quality…all important goals to achieve in and of themselves. But how do leaders achieve them? Through the efforts of the people they lead. What good does it do to run roughshod over your people to achieve a short-term goal? It may produce immediate success but it will destroy your long-term effectiveness. Leading right in this instance means valuing results and relationships. Take care of the needs and concerns of your people and they will take care of your customers, projects, and business.

2. Treating everyone the same in order to be fair—Leaders have to balance myriad issues and one of the trickiest is treating people fairly. Playing favorites is a huge trust buster! It kills the morale of your team and makes people suspicious of your motives and decisions. One way leaders try to avoid this problem is by treating everyone the same, and quite frankly, it’s a leadership cop-out. Most leaders do this because it’s easy, expedient, and causes them fewer headaches. Leading right in this case means treating people equitably and ethically given the particular situation. Of course, there are some policies and procedures that need to be universally applied, such as health, safety, and operational business processes, but leaders have more opportunities than they realize to increase employee loyalty and engagement by treating them as individuals with specific needs rather than just another nameless face that needs to toe the line.

3. Not developing relationships in order to maintain professional distance—This can be a particular challenge for newly promoted leaders who find themselves leading people who used to be their peers. In an effort to establish leadership credibility, leaders become reticent to develop personal relationships with those they lead. This results in a lack of connection with people, lowers their trust, and reduces commitment and engagement on the job. Research has shown that one of the twelve key factors of employee work passion is “connectedness with leader.” People want to have a personal connection with their leaders. They want to know and be known. Learn what makes your people tick, what’s important to them, their hopes, dreams, and fears. Leading in this way will gain you trust, loyalty, and commitment in spades.

4. Hoarding information—Why do people hoard information? Because information is power, power is control, and leaders love to be in control. In a well-intentioned effort to maintain proper control of their team, leaders can lead in the wrong way by playing their cards too close to the vest. Lack of information sharing leads to suspicion and distrust. Leaders build trust by sharing information about themselves and the organization. On the personal side, sharing information about yourself allows you to be a little vulnerable with your people and they get to know you as a person, not just as a boss (see #3 above). Sharing information about the organization allows your people to make smart business decisions. People without information cannot act responsibly. In the absence of information people will make up their own version of the truth. However, people with information are compelled to act responsibly.

5. Micromanaging—Micromanagers are like dirty baby diapers—full of crap and all over your butt. Ironically, most leaders don’t realize they’re micromanaging. They think they’re helping someone out by telling them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. That’s fine when a person is first learning a task or skill, but once the person demonstrates competence and commitment in doing the work, the leader needs to back off and let the employee be in charge of the task or goal. Micromanaging competent team members kills their initiative and morale, and over time, creates a state of learned helplessness. They give up on using their brain because they know the boss is going to tell them how to do it anyway.

Most leaders have good intentions and want to lead right, but sometimes we go about it in the wrong ways. Take time to pause and think about your leadership behaviors before you jump into action. If you don’t, you might be causing more harm than good.

5 Common Leadership Behaviors That Crush The Spirits of Employees

crushedI admit it. Sometimes when I’m under the gun at work and feeling the pressure of all my responsibilities, I can get tunnel vision about accomplishing my own goals and forget how my behavior is influencing others. It’s not that I’m trying to be insensitive to people, I’m just not being mindful or intentional in my actions.

I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. It happens to every leader from time to time when we’re under stress and reacting in the moment. It’s in these occasions that we have a tendency to focus on the objectives of the task and minimize the people concerns. Who cares how people feel as long as the job gets done, right? Well, consistently behaving this way may help you check items off your to-do list, but it can come at the cost of crushing the spirits of your team members in the process. Here are five common spirit-crushing behaviors leaders should avoid:

Micromanaging – Control is the opposite of trust, and micromanaging sends the message to your team members that you don’t trust them to do their jobs. It’s common for leaders to exert control when under stress because they feel more secure being able to directly influence the outcome. However, micromanaging saps the initiative of your team to the point where they stop taking responsibility because they know you’re going to step in and take charge.

Demeaning Others – Leaders demean others through careless comments that degrade their dignity, status, or character. An example is when a leader says or does things that communicates people are “less than” they really are. Stereotypical examples are asking an administrative assistant to pick up your dry cleaning or get you a cup of coffee, tasks clearly outside their job description.

Ignoring Others’ Contributions – We all have an innate need to be appreciated and it doesn’t take much for leaders to acknowledge the efforts of team members. Many times all it takes is saying thank you. A pattern of not recognizing the good work of others will eventually turn team members against you. People will develop a mindset of doing the minimum amount of work acceptable because “they don’t appreciate me going above and beyond.”

Intimidating or Coercing Others – This behavior is a holdover from the days of Command and Control leadership, but unfortunately, too many leaders still rely on this tactic to get work accomplished. I think there are two main reasons why this is the case. First, some leaders truly don’t know any better. They believe their job as the “boss” is to tell other people what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Secondly, it’s the path of least resistance. When leaders are stressed and short on time and patience, getting work done by intimidating or coercing others seems the most expedient thing to do. It may work for you once or twice, but intimidating others will not only crush their spirits, it will create enemies that actively work against you and not with you.

Playing favorites – One of the most influential factors that crush a person’s spirit is being treated unfairly. We are hardwired with a desire for justice, and when we feel we’re aren’t being treated justly, it causes a variety of emotions ranging from defensiveness and anger to cynicism and despair. Leaders can be fair by treating people equitably and ethically. Being equitable means people receive what they deserve based on the circumstances, and being ethical means the leaders behavior is alignment with the values of the organization and it’s policies and procedures.

I believe most leaders have positive intentions. There are very few leaders who wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “I can’t wait to crush the spirits of my employees today!” No, that doesn’t usually happen, but what does happen is we get so focused on our own agendas that we forget how we’re treating our team members. Being more mindful of how our leadership impacts others and avoiding these spirit-crushing behaviors will help foster an environment where our people feel safe, appreciated, and free to give their all.

Thrown Under the Bus? 8 Tips on Dealing with Unfair Criticism

thrown under busSooner or later…sooner if you’re in a leadership position…you will get thrown under the bus by receiving unfair criticism from a boss or colleague.

Unfair criticism comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it shows up in your annual performance review when the boss rates you as failing to meet expectations in an area of performance where you had no idea you were falling short. Other times it shows up when a colleague criticizes you in an effort to deflect attention from his/her own shortcomings. Regardless of the cause or circumstance, unfair criticism hurts. It erodes trust between people, causes rifts in relationships, and stymies effective teamwork. You can’t control when you get thrown under the bus, but you can choose how to respond. Here are 8 tips on how to respond to unfair criticism:

1. Remember that your response shapes your reputation – Above all else, remember this point: the way you choose to respond to criticism will greatly shape your reputation. Take the high road and respond with integrity, empathy, and professionalism. Don’t let someone else’s unprofessional behavior goad you into responding in kind. Trusted leaders know that at the end of the day all they have is their integrity.

2. Don’t react defensively – Defensiveness only escalates the situation and lends weight to the unjustified criticism (similar to responding to a loaded question like “Have you stopped beating your wife?”). Getting passionately fired up over friendly fire gives emotional control to the accuser and limits your ability to respond rationally and thoughtfully.

3. Listen to understand; not to rebut or defend – Our most common instinct when we experience unfair criticism is to zero in on the fallacies of the other person’s comments and formulate a response to defend ourselves. Instead, resist the urge to focus on the micro elements of what’s being communicated and instead focus on the macro implications of the criticism. Even if the specific accusations of the criticism are off-base, there may be things you can learn and benefit from if you consider the broader message.

4. Acknowledge any truth that is present – Agreeing with any valid part of the criticism is a way to acknowledge you’re hearing the feedback without agreeing to the entirety of what’s being communicated or beating yourself up over the situation. Sometimes there is a kernel of truth present in friendly fire and it may be an opportunity for you to learn something new about yourself or the other person. If there are elements of the criticism that are blatantly not true, state your differences in a respectful and professional way without getting into a debate parsing the details.

5. Consider the source – Probably the sagest of all advice when it comes to unfair criticism. If the person delivering the criticism is prone to dramatization, criticizing others, being egotistical, or other unpredictable behavioral patterns, then you have more evidence to discredit their feedback. However, if the person delivering the criticism is known as a steady, stable, trustworthy professional who has been personally supportive of you in the past, you should take stock of their feedback and explore it further.

6. Probe for root causes – What’s being communicated in the unfair criticism is often symptoms of a deeper problem or issue. When you encounter criticism, ask open-ended questions or statements like “Tell me more…,” “Explain why that’s important to you…,” or “What is the impact of that?” Asking a series of “why?” questions can also help you discover the root cause of the issue.

7. Understand their world – It’s helpful to put yourself in the other person’s shoes in order to understand their motivation for being unfairly critical. Is the person unhappy? Stressed? Insecure? Vying for power or control? Frustrated? Is there a significant amount of change happening in the organization? Organizational change brings out the critics and unfair criticism increases dramatically. Criticizing and blaming others is a defense mechanism to deal with the fear of being asked to change. Even though you’re the target, remember that unfair criticism is often more about them than you.

8. Remember that you are more than the criticism – It’s easy to get down on ourselves when we experience the friendly fire of criticism from our colleagues. Most people strive to perform well and do what’s right, and when we have a boss or colleague criticize our efforts it hurts deeply. Depending on our personality and emotional make up, it may lead to anger, bitterness, stress, resentment, self-doubt, and pity, just to name a few. Remember that this too shall past, and in the big scheme of things this is probably just a blip on the radar. Keep focused on all the positive things in your life such as the people you love, those who love you, the successes you’re having at work, the joy you experience from your hobbies, your spiritual faith, and the support of your family and friends.

As the American writer Elbert Hubbard said, the only way to avoid criticism is to do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing. Getting wounded by criticism stinks; there’s no two ways about it. But remembering these principles can help us keep things in perspective and maintain a strong defense when we’re thrown under the bus.

How do you deal with unfair criticism? Feel free to leave a comment and share your wisdom with others.

Leaders – Quit Trying to be Fair and Do This Instead

Fair vs UnfairComplete the following statement: “I’m being fair because I treat everyone the ______ .”

You’ve probably heard this statement many times from the leaders you’ve had in your career and you’ve likely said it yourself from time to time. The statement is:

“I’m being fair because I treat everyone the same.”

The reality is that treating everyone the same can be one of the most unfair things you do as a leader. It’s easy to fall into the trap of treating everyone the same because it’s the easiest thing to do. Broad-brushing everyone with the same treatment is less work and causes fewer headaches for leaders. “Sorry, that’s the policy” or “I’m treating you the same way I treat everyone else” takes less mental and emotional effort than digging into the individual situations of our team members and formulating an appropriate response.

Frankly speaking, I think it’s a leadership cop-out to treat everyone the same. It’s the path of least resistance. Now granted, there are certain rules or policies, particularly those involving health, safety, and welfare, that need to apply to everyone equally. But generally speaking, when it comes to day-to-day employee relations, too many managers default to treating everyone the same as their method to ensure fairness.

There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals. ~ Aristotle

Instead of trying to be fair by treating everyone the same, try treating people equitably and ethically given the particular situation. Let’s drill into that a bit more.

Treating people equitably means being impartial, unbiased, and even-handed in your dealings with others. It also means you are concerned with people getting their just deserts; what they have rightfully earned or deserve. Treating people ethically means you hold them, and yourself, to the principles, standards, rules, or policies of right conduct.

Let me give you an example. My team has a policy that affords people the privilege to work from home two days a week if they meet specific standards of performance. Some people meet the standards and get to work from home while others don’t meet the standard and aren’t able to enjoy that privilege. Both sets of people are treated equitably because the policy is applied impartially and they receive what they deserve. They’re also treated ethically because they are being held to the same standard of performance. If everyone were treated “the same,” it would mean all or nothing—either no one is allowed to work from home or everyone is given the privilege. You can see why it would be easier to treat everyone the same instead of looking at each case individually and treating the person equitably and ethically given his/her unique situation.

Treating people equitably and ethically is closely tied to the concept of justice. Fairness and justice are often used interchangeably but they are separate constructs. (See here, here, and here for interesting reading on the distinctions between fairness and justice.) Without getting too far down a rabbit’s hole, there are two forms of justice leaders should pay attention to: distributive justice and procedural justice.

Distributive justice is concerned with the fair distribution of pay, rewards, and recognition within the organization. Procedural justice involves the policies and procedures of an organization being applied fairly and consistently across the organization. Treating people equitably supports distributive justice in that people are rewarded according to what they’ve earned, whereas treating people ethically supports procedural justice because everyone is held to the same standard and must play by the same rules.

Treating people fairly can feel like a no-win situation for leaders. There will always be someone who exclaims “that’s not fair!” which causes leaders to play to the lowest common denominator—treating everyone the same. As the quote above from Aristotle illustrates, not everyone is the same, and treating them the same can be one of the most unfair things you do. Instead, focus on treating people equitably and ethically. It takes more time and effort, but in the long run you will be known as a fair and trustworthy leader.

5 Ways to Turbocharge Development of Trust in Relationships

trubochargeWe live in an instant gratification society. One-click purchases, overnight or same-day delivery, self-checkout lines at the grocery store, microwave ovens, and real-time global communications in a 24/7 world—whatever we want, when we want, and how we want it.

When I conduct training sessions on building trust I often get questions from participants along the lines of “How can I build trust quickly with someone?” The questioner is often a time-crunched manager struggling with a low-trust relationship and is looking for a quick and easy solution to his “trust issue.” Trust is a multi-dimensional construct that doesn’t fit easily into our desire for quick and easy solutions. It’s a relational dynamic that is constantly ebbing and flowing with each trust-building or trust-eroding behavior or situation we experience. However, there are key behaviors a person can use to turbocharge the development of trust in relationships. Here are five important ones to consider:

1. Admit Mistakes — It’s inevitable; we all make mistakes. The key to building or maintaining trust is how you handle the situation. If you make excuses, try to shift the blame, cover it up or pretend it didn’t happen, the trust others have in you will plummet. If you readily admit the mistake, stand up and take responsibility for your actions in a sincere and humble way, trust in you will sky-rocket. People yearn for authentic connections in relationships, and in order for that to happen there has to be a level of vulnerability. Admitting mistakes is one of the most effective ways to demonstrate vulnerability, and as a result, the development of trust.

2. Follow-through on Commitments — I believe that most people genuinely intend to honor their commitments. The problem is we often lack a plan for doing so. We over-commit ourselves or fail to sufficiently plan our course of action and end up dropping the ball. Few things erode trust more than not delivering on a commitment. If you want to build or sustain trust, make sure you do what you say you’re going to do. If something looks like it’s going to get in the way of you being able to deliver on your commitment, speak up early and reset expectations. Negotiate new deadlines or seek additional resources to meet the original commitment, and most of all, don’t use the “P” word (Promise), unless you absolutely know you can deliver on your promise.

3. Be Nice and Helpful — People want to do business with those they like and trust, and it’s amazing how much trust you can build by simply being nice and helpful to others. You learned the basics from your parents and it’s still true…say “please” and “thank you.” Look for ways to make your colleague’s job easier, and even more so, make it easy for others to work with you. Smile, laugh, and extend simple courtesies to others; it really does work in building trust.

4. Be Interested in Others — People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. You may be extremely competent at what you do, but if you don’t take a personal interest in the welfare of others, people will withhold a measure of trust from you. You don’t have to be an extroverted social butterfly to be a “people person.” It only takes a little effort to build rapport. Ask people how their weekend went, inquire about their kids, learn their hobbies, and take a genuine interest in them as individuals, not just as co-workers doing a job. When you start to do that, and do it genuinely and authentically, trust will blossom.

5. Walk the Talk — Acting with integrity is the foundation of being a trustworthy person. The word “integrity” comes from the Latin word integritas, meaning soundness, wholeness, or blamelessness.” When we say a bridge or building has structural integrity, we mean it’s sound, sturdy, and stable. So it is with a person of integrity. That person is steady and consistent in his behavior. Being a person of integrity means being honest, treating people fairly and respectfully, and acting in alignment with honorable values. If you say one thing and then do another you will severely injure trust in your relationships. Gossiping, spinning the truth to your benefit, omitting facts, or taking credit for the work of others are sure ways to diminish your integrity and the trust people have in you.

Sit down, buckle your seat belt, and consistently practice these five ways of relating to others and you’ll see the turbocharged development of trust in your relationships.

Be a Fair Leader by Treating Employees Like Chess Pieces, Not Checkers

Chess PiecesWhen I was a young kid I used to love playing checkers with my younger sister. Part of the joy came from always beating her, which isn’t much of an accomplishment given she was four years younger than me, but mostly from it being an easy game to play. Checkers is a game with limited variations and clearly defined rules. You can move a checker forward, and once you get a “King,” you can move it backward. You capture your opponents’ checkers by jumping them and once you’ve captured all of them you win. That’s pretty much it.

Chess, on the other hand, is a different kind of game. Each piece on the board can move in different directions, but although each piece is treated differently, the rules of the game apply equally to all. There is also much more strategy involved in chess than in checkers. In chess you have to play with the long game in mind. Each move is one step in a larger plan to take control of the board and defeat your opponent. There are limitless ways to creatively implement your strategies.

I’ve noticed that when it comes to managing people, many leaders treat their people like checkers rather than chess pieces. I can understand why; it’s easier and less complicated. It’s also one of the most unfair things you can do as a leader.

Complete this statement: As a leader I am being fair because I treat everyone the _____.

You probably said “same,” didn’t you?

You’ve probably heard many leaders say that, and in fact, you’ve likely said it yourself from time to time, haven’t you? I know I have.

The reality is treating everyone the same can be quite unfair because everyone is not the same. People are like chess pieces, not checkers. Aristotle said, “There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.”

The key is to treat each of your people equitably and ethically given their unique needs and circumstances. Each team member has their own life story and individual gifts and abilities. Fair leaders don’t broad-brush everyone and treat them the same. They take each person’s situation into account and apply the rules and policies of the organization in an equitable and ethical way.

Of course there are certain rules, policies, and procedures that need to apply equally to everyone to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of all employees or to make sure your business produces quality products and services. However, when it comes to career development, performance management, and other employee-specific issues, leaders will build more trust and loyalty be treating people individually.

Treat your people like chess pieces and not checkers. Although it’s a harder game to play and takes more thought and energy, your team members will appreciate your efforts and respond with higher levels of trust, engagement, and performance.

Note: Credit goes to Tim Elmore for first exposing me to this idea. Check out his blog post on this topic for great insights.

Surviving Friendly Fire: 8 Tips for Dealing with Unfair Criticism

criticismSooner or later…sooner if you’re in a leadership position…you will get wounded by “friendly fire”— unfair criticism from a boss or colleague.

Friendly fire comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it shows up in your annual performance review when the boss rates you as failing to meet expectations in an area of performance where you had no idea you were falling short. Other times friendly fire shows up when a colleague criticizes you in an effort to deflect attention from his/her own shortcomings. Regardless of the cause or circumstance, friendly fire hurts. It erodes trust between people, causes rifts in relationships, and stymies effective teamwork. You can’t control when friendly fire comes your way, but you can choose how to respond. Here are 8 tips on how to survive friendly fire:

1. Remember that your response shapes your reputation – Above all else, remember this point: the way you choose to respond to friendly fire will greatly shape your reputation. Take the high road and respond with integrity, empathy, and professionalism. Don’t let someone else’s unprofessional behavior goad you into responding in kind. Trusted leaders know that at the end of the day all they have is their integrity.

2. Don’t react defensively – Defensiveness only escalates the situation and lends weight to the unjustified criticism (similar to responding to a loaded question like “Have you stopped beating your wife?”). Getting passionately fired up over friendly fire gives emotional control to the accuser and limits your ability to respond rationally and thoughtfully.

3. Listen to understand; not to rebut or defend – Our most common instinct when we experience friendly fire is to zero in on the fallacies of the other person’s comments and formulate a response to defend ourselves. Instead, resist the urge to focus on the micro elements of what’s being communicated and instead focus on the macro implications of the criticism. Even if the specific accusations of the criticism are off-base, there may be things you can learn and benefit from if you consider the broader message.

4. Acknowledge any truth that is present – Agreeing with any valid part of the criticism is a way to acknowledge you’re hearing the feedback without agreeing to the entirety of what’s being communicated or beating yourself up over the situation. Sometimes there is a kernel of truth present in friendly fire and it may be an opportunity for you to learn something new about yourself or the other person. If there are elements of the criticism that are blatantly not true, state your differences in a respectful and professional way without getting into a debate parsing the details.

5. Consider the source – Probably the sagest of all advice when it comes to unfair criticism. If the person delivering the criticism is prone to dramatization, criticizing others, being egotistical, or other unpredictable behavioral patterns, then you have more evidence to discredit their feedback. However, if the person delivering the criticism is known as a steady, stable, trustworthy professional who has been personally supportive of you in the past, you should take stock of their feedback and explore it further.

6. Probe for root causes – What’s being communicated in friendly fire is often symptoms of a deeper problem or issue. When you encounter friendly fire, ask open-ended questions or statements like “Tell me more…,” “Explain why that’s important to you…,” or “What is the impact of that?” Asking a series of “why?” questions can also help you discover the root cause of the issue.

7. Understand their world – To understand a person’s motivation for being unfairly critical, it’s helpful to put yourself in their shoes. Is the person unhappy? Stressed? Insecure? Vying for power or control? Frustrated? Is there a significant amount of change happening in the organization? Organizational change brings out the snipers and friendly fire increases dramatically. Criticizing and blaming others is a defense mechanism to deal with the fear of being asked to change. Even though you’re the target, remember that friendly fire is often more about them than you.

8. Remember that you are more than the criticism – It’s easy to get down on ourselves when we experience friendly fire. Most people strive to perform well and do what’s right, and when we have a boss or colleague criticize our efforts it hurts deeply. Depending on our personality and emotional make up, it may lead to anger, bitterness, stress, resentment, self-doubt, and pity, just to name a few. Remember that this too shall past, and in the big scheme of things this is probably just a blip on the radar. Keep focused on all the positive things in your life such as the people you love, those who love you, the successes you’re having at work, the joy you experience from your hobbies, your spiritual faith, and the support of your family and friends.

As the American writer Elbert Hubbard said, the only way to avoid criticism is to do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing. Getting wounded by criticism stinks; there’s no two ways about it. But remembering these principles can help us keep things in perspective and maintain a strong defense against friendly fire.

How do you deal with unfair criticism? Feel free to leave a comment and share your wisdom with others.

Be a Fair Leader by Treating Your Employees Like Chess Pieces, Not Checkers

Chess PiecesWhen I was a young kid I used to love playing checkers with my younger sister. Part of the joy came from always beating her, which isn’t much of an accomplishment given she was four years younger than me, but mostly from it being an easy game to play. Checkers is a game with limited variations and clearly defined rules. You can move a checker forward, and once you get a “King,” you can move it backward. You capture your opponents’ checkers by jumping them and once you’ve captured all of them you win. That’s pretty much it.

Chess, on the other hand, is a different kind of game. Each piece on the board can move in different directions, but although each piece is treated differently, the rules of the game apply equally to all. There is also much more strategy involved in chess than in checkers. In chess you have to play with the long game in mind. Each move is one step in a larger plan to take control of the board and defeat your opponent. There are limitless ways to creatively implement your strategies.

I’ve noticed that when it comes to managing people, many leaders treat their people like checkers rather than chess pieces. I can understand why; it’s easier and less complicated. It’s also one of the most unfair things you can do as a leader.

Complete this statement: As a leader I am being fair because I treat everyone the _____.

You probably said “same,” didn’t you?

You’ve probably heard many leaders say that, and in fact, you’ve likely said it yourself from time to time, haven’t you? I know I have.

The reality is treating everyone the same can be quite unfair because everyone is not the same. People are like chess pieces, not checkers. Aristotle said, “There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.”

The key is to treat each of your people equitably and ethically given their unique needs and circumstances. Each team member has their own life story and individual gifts and abilities. Fair leaders don’t broad-brush everyone and treat them the same. They take each person’s situation into account and apply the rules and policies of the organization in an equitable and ethical way.

Of course there are certain rules, policies, and procedures that need to apply equally to everyone to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of all employees or to make sure your business produces quality products and services. However, when it comes to career development, performance management, and other employee-specific issues, leaders will build more trust and loyalty be treating people individually.

Treat your people like chess pieces and not checkers. Although it’s a harder game to play and takes more thought and energy, your team members will appreciate your efforts and respond with higher levels of trust, engagement, and performance.

Note: Credit goes to Tim Elmore for first exposing me to this idea. Check out his blog post on this topic for great insights.

Your People Are Keeping Score – Six Tips to Help Leaders Play Fair

Keeping ScoreCoaching a bunch of energetic 5-6 year old kids in tee-ball is really just controlled chaos. Tee-ball is normally the introduction to baseball that children experience at age 5-6, and generally speaking, most leagues don’t keep an official score for tee-ball games. The purpose isn’t to win, it’s to teach the fundamental skills and rules of baseball. Notice that I said the leagues don’t keep an official score. I remember many occasions while coaching tee-ball that kids in the dugout would be tallying up the score to see who was winning and losing!

Fast forward 20 years or so to the workplace and we find that not much has changed. Adults are still keeping score, only now it’s about who received the new project, promotion, or corner office. And as soon as someone perceives the leader made an unjust decision, the first thing we hear is exactly what five-year old tee-ballers say when they think another player has violated the rules: “That’s not fair!”

Leaders aiming to build trust in relationships need to pay particular attention to the issue of fairness. “No problem,” you may say, “I treat everyone the same, no matter what.” Actually, that can be one of the most unfair things you do! A quote from Aristotle speaks to this: “There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.” People should be treated equitably and ethically, given their individual needs and circumstances, and the differences between people should be recognized and valued, not diminished.

In order to build and maintain trust with followers, leaders need to exhibit fairness through the distribution of organizational resources and application of policies to all team members. It’s helpful to understand exactly what “fairness” means in an organizational context. Fairness is composed of two main elements: distributive justice and procedural justice. Distributive justice is fairness in the organization’s pay, rewards, and benefits for employees. Procedural justice is fairness in the organization’s decision-making processes of how those rewards and benefits are doled out. Of the two, procedural justice is the element most under control of individual leaders and is the aspect of fairness most closely linked with building or eroding trust with followers.

Based on research from The Ken Blanchard Companies, procedural justice was ranked as the most important organizational factor for employee retention. Additionally, over 60% of respondents believed the primary responsibility for influencing and improving procedural justice rested with their immediate supervisor.

So how can leaders be fair and build trust with their team members? Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Be transparent – Share information about the criteria and process that you use to make decisions. Putting all your cards on the table eliminates doubt and mistrust.
  • Increase involvement in decision-making – As much as possible, involve the people who will be affected by your decisions in the process. People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.
  • Play by the rules – Clearly establish the rules, play by them, and hold others and yourself accountable to following them.
  • Listen with the idea of being influenced – Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you know it all. Ask others for their input and genuinely listen with an open mind and be willing to change course if needed.
  • Don’t play favorites – No one likes a teacher’s pet so don’t create one. That will eliminate a key source of jealousy.
  • Save spin for the gym, not the office – Be authentic and genuine in your communications. People see through the political spin.

Remember, your people are keeping score of your every behavior. Play fair!

Three Questions That Could Save Your Career

Three QuestionsThe question is not if you will ever face an ethical dilemma, the question is when. Ethical dilemmas come in all shapes and sizes and you will inevitably be faced with a situation where you find yourself at a crossroads. Do you choose to do something that is wrong in order to benefit yourself, even if no one will ever know, or do you choose to do the right thing?

“There is no right way to do a wrong thing.”

Last week I wrote about the five P’s of ethical power that Ken Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale discuss in their book The Power of Ethical Management. In that classic best-seller they also offer an “ethics check,” three questions you should ask yourself when faced with an ethical choice point. Asking yourself these three questions could save you from making a decision that ends your career.

Is it legal? The first of the three ethics check questions goes right to the core of the matter. Is what you are going to do legal? Does it violate civil law, corporate policy, or your own code of ethics? If the answer is No then STOP! There’s no need to even ask the next two questions. To take it a step further, if choosing to proceed could even give the appearance of illegal activity, you should avoid that course of action.

Is it fair and balanced? Assuming you answer Yes to the legality of the decision, the next question to ask yourself is whether or not your action will be fair and balanced to the parties involved. Will your decision or action result in one party being taken advantage of by another to the point of their detriment? Is there a clear winner and loser involved? The parties can’t always win equally in every situation, but you should strive to avoid great imbalances in the fairness of your actions. Ideally you want to strive for decisions that promote long-term fairness and respect in relationships.

How will it make you feel about yourself? If your actions were published on the home page of CNN.com, how would you feel? Would you feel proud of the decision you made or cringe in embarrassment that your actions were on display for the whole world to see? Besides your behavior being publicized, how would your decision align with your own sense of right and wrong? Most of us have a pretty good sense of when we’re on shaky ethical ground, yet we often try to rationalize our behavior in order to feel good about ourselves. I love the quote from John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach. He said, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.” If your decision is legal and balanced, yet something about it just doesn’t sit well with your conscience, then it’s probably not the right decision to make.

I’ve asked hundreds of people this question: “What is the most important factor in building trust?” Overwhelmingly the response is “integrity.” Integrity is a leader’s most valuable asset and using the ethics check questions can help you keep it intact and avoid what could be a career ending decision.

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