Brian’s head was starting to throb as he scrolled through the two-dozen new voice and e-mail messages on his phone while walking to his cubicle. Looks like another crazy day in the hamster cage he muttered to himself. Brian, age 41, was growing increasingly frustrated. Despite working 50 hours and more per week (with an increasing amount of weekend work to “catch up”), it felt like his career wasn’t going anywhere. Work that once energized him now left him drained. Brian felt that unreasonable customers, managers, and co-workers were speeding up his hamster wheel just to watch him run faster. He had little time with his family and no time left to look after his health and fitness.
Down the hall, Brian’s boss was meeting with the HR director to review staffing for new roles and projects emerging from the recent organizational restructuring. They really needed a professional with Brian’s technical skills to lead an important project team. “Brian’s strong technically, but he’s clearly not the person to lead this team,” his manager reflected. “His ability to set priorities, inspire and engage people, and pull a team together are weak.” “I agree,” the HR director nodded. “He works hard but doesn’t use his time well. I’ve also heard he’s becoming more negative and cynical about all our organizational changes and new services.”
Paradoxically, people who work harder, often get less done. As technology speeds up the flow of information and communications, less-effective people are swept away on a tidal wave of trivial urgencies and busyness. Failing to reflect and learn from their experiences before choosing their next course of action, they race around putting out multiple fires with little thought to fire prevention. They join the ranks of the stupid busy. Like painting a building with a toothbrush, they work very hard using the wrong approach.
Leaders with stunted growth often believe they are much more effective than others think they are. Their insecurity means they won’t seek critical feedback on their own performance or personal behavior. Their “circle of delusion” is maintained by being unapproachable with criticism or suggestions. This leads to a belief that they’re doing well because no one is telling them otherwise.
Tomorrow we publish my November blogs in the December edition of The Leader Letter. This issue provides you with ways to deal with key leadership issues such as those frustrating Brian. He’s stupid busy and not making tough choices about the strategic use of his time. He’s bringing this lack of discipline to any project team he leads.
Brian could pinpoint what’s stifling his effectiveness and career growth by getting unfiltered feedback through a 360 assessment. But that feedback can also hurt leaders when it focuses more on what’s wrong, gaps, and weaknesses. Most leaders don’t put together rigorous personal development plans and stick with them when centered on fixing weaknesses. And it’s hard to leverage weaknesses. In this issue, you’ll learn how another leader, Andy, pulled up a cluster of skills by lifting one of his key strengths.
Hope you take the time to reflect and refocus on how to be ‘smart’ busy.
For decades, Harvard professor Michael Porter has studied, written about, and consulted top companies and countries on competitive strategy. He’s found that “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
A recent issue of Harvard Business Review features an article on “Too Many Projects.” Authors Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins write, “Leaders keep layering on initiatives, which can lead to severe overload at levels below the executive team.” This is a critical problem that’s burning out managers and team members. Declining engagement and retention are just two symptoms of the problem.
Hollister and Watkins identify seven roots of this big leadership failure:
Reflecting on a series of offsite planning retreats I’ve facilitated over the past few months with executive teams and a board of directors, this article is especially timely and relevant. It’s about discipline, focus, and making hard choices.
Here’s what we find helps leadership teams get out of the stupid, busy death spiral they create through weak strategic leadership:
All Eyes on the Prize — agree what success looks like, what you value most, and why you exist
Behave Yourself — define the leadership behaviors that reduce eye rolling and snickering and show it’s not just more yadda yadda
Pull Yourself Together — get your team working together and stop undermining each other once you leave meeting rooms
Kill Lists — identify meetings, projects, initiatives, sloppy e-mail habits, committees, and strategies to chop or sharply reduce
Choose ‘Em and Lose ‘Em — pick the two or three (four tops) strategic (high leverage) imperatives (must-do) with the highest potential, and park or kill the others
Get Serious — put your top leaders and best cross-functional teams together and give them the mandate and resources to deliver on your Strategic Imperatives
Reduce the Moose — use an anonymous and confidential process to raise the key issues/barriers (moose, elephants, or 800 pound gorillas); secretly vote on the top 3 or 4, and address them
Culture Rift, Drift, or Shift — the best strategies and plans die if the leadership team doesn’t define and actively shape the culture that boosts or blocks implementation
Getting your leadership team away from daily operations for a few days of reflection and planning is incredibly effective. I am clearly biased since I’ve facilitated so many retreats; when offsite retreats are well designed and facilitated (a bit more bias), the return on investment is exponential.
Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, has an impressive track record of getting things done. She said, “I strongly believe in ruthless prioritization…only focusing on the very best ideas. It means figuring out the 10 things on your list and, if you can’t do all 10, doing the top two really well. Ruthlessly prioritizing can get hard because you’re always trying to do more, but it’s one of the best and most important ways to stay focused.”
Declining or stagnant engagement is an all too common organizational problem. Many people quit their jobs – but still come to work every day. Quit-and-stay and on-the-job-retirement are symptoms of weak leadership.
Countless studies over decades show a big gap between what managers and frontline staff feel energizes and engage people. In one such study, computer programmers ranked the 10 factors providing them with the highest degree of motivation for their jobs. The programmers’ top three were: full appreciation for work done; feeling that they were in on things; and, sympathetic help with their problems. The managers felt the top three factors that most engaged the programmers were: above all wages, followed by working conditions, and fair discipline.
Stanford Professor of Organization Behavior, Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his Harvard Business Review article, “Six Dangerous Myths about Pay,” writes “People do work for money – but they work even more for meaning in their lives. In fact, they work to have fun. Companies that ignore this fact are essentially bribing their employees and will pay the price in a lack of loyalty and commitment.”
We’ve known for decades that lack of money can quickly turn people off. But financial incentives aren’t very effective at turning them on. Many managers see “their people” as coin-operated human resources (assets with skin) to be manipulated with money. In his seminal 1959 book, The Motivation to Work, Psychologist Frederick Herzberg outlined his Motivator-Hygiene Theory. He showed that if we feel we’re not compensated fairly, lack of money can demotivate. But once we feel that we’re treated fairly; the promise of more money doesn’t sustain higher energy and mobilize inspired performance. His 1968 Harvard Business Review article, “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees?” sold over one million copies and was the most requested HBR article of all time.
People’s real needs are much less mercenary than most managers believe. People want to take pride in their work, belong to a winning team, and be part of an organization they can believe in. Low engagement levels reflect how those needs aren’t met.
Ultimately, the problem is a failure of leadership. When yet another internal survey highlights an organizational energy crisis, managers often blame a changing millennial work ethic and ask, “Why don’t people want to work anymore?” But that’s the wrong question, based on the wrong assumptions. The question to ask – with a long gaze in the leadership mirror – is, “Why don’t people want to work here?”
Managers try to motivate. Strong leaders inspire. Managers try to understand how to motivate people. Strong leaders seek to understand and address why people aren’t feeling motivated. Managers try to add more drivers to increase mobilization and energy. Strong leaders identify, prioritize, and remove the biggest resistors. For example, one strong leader held a series of small group meetings around his organization on “What’s the dumbest thing we do around here?”
Recognition, celebration, and appreciation is a powerful energy source used by many highly effective leaders. Tomorrow, we will publish my October Blogs in our November issue of The Leader Letter. This issue provides dozens of ways you can recognize teams and individuals.
You’ll also find some ideas from my video interview on navigating workplace change. So, if you’re still shuddering from Halloween fright, you can at least make chilling change less scary.
In Canada, the US, and some other countries, fall is a time for thanksgiving. Celebrating and appreciating a bountiful harvest is a powerful tradition from our past. Present research reinforces the power of gratitude in evaluating and extending happiness and satisfaction. Cicero proclaimed, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” Studies of positivity ratios show how vital this practice is to effective relationships, teams, and organizations.
One of the top reasons people leave their jobs is not feeling appreciated or recognized for their contributions. Stanford Professor of Organizational Behavior, Charles O’Reilly finds “there is an implicit, and I think wrong, assumption coming out of economics that you have to pay people a lot to get them to work. I think people have to feel that they are rewarded, recognized, and appreciated in a broadly defined way. Simply relying on money to do that is nonsense.”
Top performing organizations often have cultures of celebration, recognition, and appreciation. “Thanks pay” is higher than in most other organizations. In his book, The Culture Cycle: How to Shape the Unseen Force that Transforms Performance, James Heskett highlights Southwest Airlines and Walmart: “Celebration, to the extent that it contributes to the quality of work life, may help explain why both of these companies achieve extraordinary productivity when compared with their peers.”
Here are a few recognition traps to avoid:
Obvious flattery or exaggerated praise
A prelude or “cushion” to criticism
Focus primarily on top performers, excluding others
Impersonal, phrased in generalities and platitudes
Team recognition can be especially powerful to reinforce collaboration and teamwork. Here are a few ways you can recognize team effort:
Managers cook/serve a special meal to express thanks or congratulations.
Spontaneous treats (e.g. doughnuts, cake, ice cream, pizza) for passing a milestone or celebrating a win along the way.
Charts or posters showing team progress.
Posting team pictures and their stories/achievements.
Have teams present their accomplishments/projects/progress to executives, visitors, organization meetings, etc.
Have teams featured or make presentations at industry or technical conferences.
Add to the team’s Laughter Index with humorous or fun activities, events, or holiday celebrations.
Make up team plaques, pins, trophies, certificates, hats, mugs, t-shirts, etc.
Have a senior manager drop by a team meeting or work area with special thanks, celebration, or presentation.
Hold special days on which teams can set up a “trade show booth” in lobbies, exhibit halls, hotel ballrooms, to show what they’ve been doing and connect others to their work.
Recognition, celebration, and appreciation are extremely powerful motivators. But many managers under use these powerful energy sources. We’re wired to look for what’s wrong, and focus on that. However, many highly inspiring leaders build personal habits and cultures looking for what’s right and reinforce those behaviors. What gets rewarded, gets repeated.
Tilt your head slightly to the left and look at this drawing. Do you see the rabbit? It’s facing to the right with its ears tilted horizontally behind its head on the left. Now tilt your head slightly to the right, and focus on the duck. It’s gazing to the left with its long bill (what just looked like the rabbit’s ears) partly open. Which view is “reality?” What we see depends on what we’re looking for.
Our perception is our reality. In their book, What the Bleep Do We Know!?, William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente explain, “The bottom line, at least as far as science has gone up till now, is this: We create the world we perceive. When I open my eyes and look around, it is not ‘the world’ that I see, but the world my human sensory equipment is able to see, the world my belief system allows me to see, and the world that my emotions care about seeing or not seeing.”
“Medical School Syndrome” is an example of the power of perception. Medicinenet.com describes it as “a form of acute hypochondriasis that affects most people in training to be a physician. For example, when studying Hodgkin disease, a medical student feels behind their ears or neck, feels little lymph nodes (that are entirely normal), and thinks they have Hodgkin disease.”
It’s all about perspective. Closing one eye and holding our thumb close enough can block out the moon at night. Today’s news often blocks the bigger picture. Pessimistic preconceptions can especially distort reality. A cynical focus on overly negative current events burrows especially deep into our psyche tapping into our darkest fears. A series of studies at the University of Michigan found that “when misinformed people were exposed to accurate information in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. On the contrary, they often became even more strongly wedded to their beliefs. Far from curing misinformation, the facts were actively perpetuating it.
Tomorrow we publish my September blogs in the October issue of The Leader Letter. This issue features my review of, and quotes from, a highly inspiring and perspective changing new book. Steven Pinker’s exhaustive research and extensive analysis helps readers pull their black thumbs of doom from blocking their eye to see the beauty of the moon – and universe – beyond. We’re now living the enlightenment dream. To see it – and change our reality — we need to change our perspective.
You’ll also find my Globe & Mail column on dealing with a bad boss. Upward leadership is an example of perspective and choices. We can wallow in the crap he or she is dumping on us and be miserable. Or we can decide to act like a leader, and change our reality.
When you’re deciding to hang a painting or photo on the wall you’re choosing a perspective. Depending upon the size and color of its frame or matting, the painting or photo can appear larger or smaller, brighter or darker, or imbued with certain colors or tones.
How are you framing turbulence, adversity, or changes in your life? Are you making them bigger or smaller? What color or tone are you accenting? What is the reality that the frames you’re using create for you? How do the glasses you’ve chosen to wear manifest reality in your life?
Bad bosses can be deadly. One 15-year study found that when employees had a difficult relationship with their boss, they were 30% more likely to suffer from heart disease. Perhaps really bad bosses have lower coronary disease because their hearts are seldom used!
If you have ever said, “My boss makes me sick!” you might be right. A British study found that stress induced by a bad boss lowers immune response, and participants were more susceptible to a cold virus.
As with much in life, it’s not what happens to us, but what we do about it. A bad boss might victimize you, but you choose whether to be a victim. Strong leaders don’t wait, they initiate. If you have a bad boss, you can decide that he or she’s not unbearable and live with your situation, fire your boss by leaving, or practice upward leadership with some boss management.
Boss management or leading upward is one of the most popular topics on our website. Recently The Globe & Mail published my column on Five Ways to Deal with a Bad Boss in their Leadership Labs section. I condensed years of writing and coaching on this topic into five steps:
Strengthen your credibility and relationship
Check your timing and approach
Don’t wait, initiate
Fire a bully boss
Click here to read the column for a brief description of each step.
A reporter once asked the Dalai Lama why he didn’t hate the Chinese Communists. Now they have some bad bosses! The Dalai Lama replied, “They have taken over Tibet, destroyed our temples, burned our sacred texts, ruined our communities, and taken away our freedom. They have taken so much. Why should I let them also take my peace of mind?”