How are you doing?

As the end of the year approaches, we may ask ourselves how this year went. On balance, did I do what I intended? Am I, are we headed where we want to go? After all, things change. What’s pressing in on this life of mine and what can I do about it?

How would this reflection be different if you set aside – or just plain rejected – the standards that others might apply? 

I thought I was a pretty accepting person, but I have a knee-jerk suspicion that those who don’t work hard and make a living have something wrong with them. Now that I see this, I wonder: When did conventional success become a not just benchmark but a moral value to me?

I was talking with my father-in-law today. We reflected on a recent trip with a somewhat distant relative. He is fascinating, irascible, charming, often disheveled, and always underemployed. From one perspective, he makes little contribution to society. From another, he’s more thoughtful, more knowledgeable, and better company than me. By someone’s measure, he falls short. By others, he’s awesome. 

So, when you stop to ask how you’re doing, stop to wonder whose standards you are applying to this self-evaluation. Or at least, consider that the measures you’ve used so far may be outdated for the present job, family, community situation.

You could even ask, What standard have I held that I can drop, and what could take its place that comes from within?

Take another look at struggle

It can feel like we spend a lot of time trying to make things happen. At work, most of the forces already in motion will mobilize against that. 

People don’t resist doing what we want them to do because they’re opposed to us. It’s not about me. At least not unless there’s some history. No, there is the momentum of what’s familiar, what I know how to do, the established process. I’m feeling productive. I’m working on the goals set out for me.

So we can spend a lot of our time pushing a rope. We’ll pay for it in stress, a lot of effort for little return, and often having an impact on others that creates that history and distrust that I mentioned. We also become convinced that people who cooperate with me are allies. Everyone else is an opponent. More history.

One way to cut down on struggling is to ask questions. This takes us out of a fascinating hobby: attributing motives to people based on our assessment of what we see and what it means to me. It brings us back into now. It brings us back to a more objective, and shared, understanding of the stituation.

We could spend time with the people who need to be engaged in our thing – the project, the implementation, the change, the new initiative. Really get to know what they do, the constraints they experience day by day, and the cost of change for them.

Beware of your own temptation to ask questions that box people into making a commitment. That’s cross-examination, not inquiry. 

Watch how the urge to push others to change comes up from inside you. What might be driving that?

You could even ask, “If you were trying to achieve this objective, starting from your function, what would you recommend?” Oh, and then listen. But you knew that.

Days x X = Life

 The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.

– Annie Dillard

 What you are is what you have been, and what you will be is what you do now.

– The Buddha

“What I didn’t do….” – Mario Cuomo

I have fond, vague memories of the late Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. When he died, I recognized that I had an impression of him as a leader even though I didn’t follow politics closely when I was young and he was in the governor’s mansion.

My impression was that he was avuncular, witty, and wise. He appeared to be someone who felt responsibility for the state and its citizens. I must have taken this from his manner, which was thoughtful without being too self-serious. I may also have sensed that he was a bit of a philosopher. And even he admitted that he thought too long and sometimes did not focus enough on image. Here’s good advice for leaders today in the form of reflective self-examination, another practice I recommend to leaders all the time:

What I didn’t do was pick one thing and keep saying it over and over again, so I could have gotten credit for it.

What makes this wryly humorous is that he recognizes that getting credit is as much about taking action as it is about being remembered for it. What makes is wise is that he also recognizes that leadership communication is about choosing your message and sticking with it, not only for the sake the credit, but as acknowledgement that human beings are forgetful and distractable.

The Great [Expectations] Recession

If you’re worried about the future, you’re in good company. But it isn’t company that’s good for you. Not only are we still in a stubborn economic recession, we’re in an expectations recession.Danger expectations

Don’t forget what your broker says: Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. This is usually a warning to prevent inflated expectations. But there is little optimism in the news that’s not countered by skepticism. We’re in a boom that may be a bubble. Consider these few data points.

  • “…young people today expect to work more, achieve less, and have fewer children [compared to a 1992 Wharton study].
  • “For all of that work and sacrifice of family, recent grads don’t expect to rise as high in their careers. Stewart Friedman, a Wharton professor who directed the study, says that it’s part of a general trend toward lower aspirations in work and family lives.”
  • “The majority of college graduates believe that their generation will not do better than the one that came before them.”
  • “Not even half expect to have more financial success than their parents; one in five expect to do less well than their parents and another 31 percent say they expect to do equally well.”

And the Federal Reserve offers,

  • “…the large, unexplained shock to income expectations might suggest a permanent change in households’ views–a phenomenon that would continue to weigh against a recovery in consumer spending.”

Our own worst enemy, or is it best ally?

Not only are we expecting less, but our expectations may be keeping us from experiencing a more typical recovery. Our inability to envision and make a better future are getting in the way of having a better future.

There’s a body of research that bears this out. Richard Rosenthal could be called the father of expectancy research. He showed that teachers influence their students’ scholastic performance as a direct result of what they expect of them. And he continued to demonstrate the effect in follow on research (pdf). Not only do we get what we expect, we get what those around us expect.

You’re not alone, and you can make a difference

You shouldn’t feel disappointed if you’ve been influenced by low expectations surrounding you, or even imposed on you where you work. They are numerous and pervasive. And a conservative approach to risk is built into our biology.

But consider how different your day might be if you thought that expectations around you were positive. What if you could change things? Could you aim to invent and innovate instead of aiming to be sure that you don’t fail?

In a time when so much uncertainty prevails in markets and forecasts, it may be smart to hedge against your own optimism. But for most of us, envisioning a future through and beyond the boom or bubble may call for breaking familiar habits of thinking. For new college graduates, they’ve only known recession expectations. They can expect more.

Shaking off the The Great Expectations Recession

To make fundamental change in Great Recession habits and adjust the trajectory they’ve set is not the work of a day. It may call for outside advice – a stronger voice asking, “Now that you’ve answered ‘what if…,’ and you’ve hedged against likely risk, what if things go well?  What if best case is the reality? How does expecting good outcomes influence your thinking? How might it influence others to re-engage and strive, innovate, and hope for the best case themselves?”

Some people will find that voice in a friend, mentor, or other adviser. Some will look to executive coaches for a dose of that alternate, pragmatic, very real possibility that recession thinking has taken over our expectations, and that they’re getting exactly what they expect. We can expect more.

Split HR? Solomon Speaks

Ram Charan proposes an idea that some of you have already had. HR fails to do what the organization really needs.  The solution: split it.

How many times have you heard employees or leaders complain about HR. That’s right. Often. It’s an uphill battle if you are one of those HR people, trying to be all things to all people.The tension between HR’s operational and developmental charter has been growing. And developing HR business partners, a part of the solution, has not consistently been matched what they deliver. But hey suffer the same drawing-and-quartering as their leaders, pulled by competing tactical objectives, fire-fighting, and responsibility for big programs that uniformly dissatisfy everyone.  Peformance reviews, anyone?  Compensation equity, maybe?

At lunch with a VP HR recently, he recounted a story from an HR conference. The panel discussion was about “getting a seat at the table for HR.” Again.  Someone stood up and said, roughly, “If you’re talking about getting a seat at the table, you’re not going to get a seat at the table. This is business. The seat is for business people.” Sounds like he’d been there and done that before.

HR: Fail or Pragmatic Adaptation?

It looks like there’s an important assumption in Charan’s column: Some HR people do not get enough about the business to play a strategic leadership role. And they are not going to develop into people who get it.

His solution is to acknowledge and organize for what works: on one hand, a tactical, operational HR reporting into the CFO, who is in a position to measure the desired impact; on the other, a future-oriented, strategic HR focused on talent management, leadership, succession and organizational development. You can already see who has a seat at the table.

What do you think?

  • Can HR learn to “get the business” and lead?
  • Why haven’t we done a better job at it in the last two decades?

Stipulated: There are many good exceptions to this generalization. See Libby Sartain’s great counterpoint that points to the inter-relationship among the administration of programs and strategic objectives. And plenty of other commenters say that their minds have not been changed about HR’s potential.

Using Conflict Constructively

Whatever you do today, it will make another scene in your leadership story.  If it were part of an HBO series, would it be interesting to watch?  Stories worth paying attention to are powered by drama – tension, conflict, opposition.  If a leadership story doesn’t have a protagonist who’s making trouble – purposeful, thoughtful, intentional – it isn’t much of a story.

conflict is an engine

Conflict is easy to recognize, exactly because drama at work is something to be avoided.  Or is it?  Operatic, fruitless conflict, yes. How can we change our minds about conflict to make it more like a pivotal scene in a fascinating story rather than an recurring scene in a tired melodrama?

As a starting point, it’s easy to recognize three kinds of conflict: careless, habitual, and thoughtful.

Careless conflict makes great scenes in which the actor’s performance eclipses the story.  We remember the person and the behavior, but not the purpose.  In the interest of keeping drama at bay, people learn to keep the volume down. To avoid those scenes, we pre-empt conditions that trigger it.  This can lead to avoidance.  Leaders pay attention to the patterns of careless conflict and the avoidance that ensures.  They step in to investigate, appreciate, and address it.

Thoughtful conflict is the kind that makes good stories.  It has a beginning, middle, and an end.  Start by learning and appreciating the perspectives around you.  Wading in to stir the pot will make things interesting, but it drains the trust you’ve worked so hard to build.  Often thoughtful conflict is productive because it unblocks an impasse.  So the middle of the story often requires patient, deliberate conflict.  Ron Heifetz calls this regulated distress.  Your goal is to generate an encounter with the need to change, the big rocks that that systems and techniques alone can’t blast through.   In fact, he says that “a leader helps expose conflict, viewing it as the engine of creativity and learning.”Habitual conflict can arise from best intentions.  Folks who hold high standards and challenge conventional thinking can fall into a rut.  Nothing is right, good, efficient, creative, profitable, or practical enough.  It’s easy to see this in others, but what about ourselves?  What is the point of diminishing returns on habitual conflict?  Leaders pay attention to opposers, challenge their habit, and investigate the risk – to the company and themselves – that they’re trying to address.

What engine is powered by the conflict you usually engage in?

Delegation Webinar: Technique is Not Enough

Yesterday, my colleague Kande McDonald and I convened a webinar on delegation. There’s a lot of good will, good intention, and frustration out there. We feel you. Our message: technique alone won’t change delegation. To make change, leaders at all levels look under the hood to see what’s driving them.

Some of the frustration develops when managers and project leaders adjust their approach to delegation but get the same result. Frustrated?When the kid gloves are off “frustration” is just another way of saying, “I’m (a little) angry that things aren’t changing.” And that can grow into, “I’m angry at you. Maybe at me, too. But definitely at you.”

Here are two insights you might be able to use:

Learn first, even if you think you know

We tend to solve problems first. That’s what makes you a good contributor or manager. Take a different view and learn first.

Step back from the situation and list all of the “shoulds.” “I should be able to [insert the work here] and he should be able to [insert your expectation here] because of his [insert skill, knowledge, experience, ability, etc. here].

Examine the three big assumptions: I should…, he should…, and because of his…. Now explore those assumptions with the person your working with. His perception of each of them – even his ability as a result of experience – is likely to be different from yours.

Your perspective is limited. Build a common understanding of what’s real with the people you work with.

What kind of leader do you want to be?

When I lead a small team, I want to be the big thinker, the supporter, and the coach. These are good goals. And I don’t like doing work that makes me appear to be the disciplinarian, the accountability keeper, “that guy.” “I work with great people and they should be able to….” They should.

But they may need something very different from their leader, particularly for new, challenging, unfamiliar, or less rewarding responsibilities. You might not want to be that kind of leader. But your people may need you to be that kind of leader.

Further, don’t confuse being the leader they need with the leader they’ll like. Chances are you’d like to work for the leader you’re trying to become. But that’s you. Your people are different.

Are you holding onto a model or idea of a great manager that’s getting in the way of meeting your people where they are?

You might also like:

Delegating to Develop People (on the blog)

Delegation:  It may not be what you think (on the blog)


Delegating to develop people

When people find it hard to delegate, they often say that they don’t have time to slow down the work and give it to someone who who won’t do it as fast (or as well).  What’s wrong with that familiar rationale is this assumption:  getting a volume of work done fast is the most important thing we do here.  In fact, developing the team is the most important thing we do through the day-to-day work.

You want to be able to give people a wider range of assignments.  They want to demonstrate their ability, to be trusted and take responsibility.   And exercising those capacities is motivating.  You have probably heard that 70 percent of American workers are disengaged.  If they’re not challenged or appreciated, you can help.  You can help yourself, too.

How do we start delegating when we believe it will take too much time?  Start by conceiving of it as a different kind of project.  This isn’t a transaction or a handoff.  It’s a project.  A skill exploration.  Knowledge transfer.  A relationship-building exercise.  Look to your company culture and find the term that says “doing meaningful work with others over time.”  The right word in your world will help you see that this delegation project includes a beginning and an end, milestones in discovery and implementation, and some clear measures of successful completion.Developing the team is a core responsibility of leaders

Take that more realistic view of the delegation project, and ask yourself whether you believe in developing your people.  Do you believe that they should be unfailingly brilliant at every task today, or do they bring skill, knowledge, and ability that can be shaped for today’s challenges in your organization?  (Under-performers who don’t respond to opportunities to develop are a different challenge.)

Some high performing managers who set very high standards believe that their people should be able to solve any problem.  Research shows that those managers take a high toll on their people and the organization.  Believing in development, the potential to improve, is a prerequisite for delegating for development.  You may find that you believe that you should do everything well the first time, too.  It would be worth reflecting on whether that’s true, and how well it serves you.

When it comes to doing the delegation project, you’re starting with highly variable raw materials: a team member, and you.  You’re going to learn things about your preferences, assumptions, and biases by asking someone else to consider the work in ways that are meaningful to you.  But you’re going to learn invaluable things about your team member, too.

Situational Leadership is a good lens through which to view delegation and leadership support.  It focuses attention on two key factors in getting work done through others: willingness and ability.  This proven mental model helps identify whether the leader’s delegation project is about increasing ability or willingness or both.  It also describes how managers should adapt their delegation and support to make the most of the opportunity.

It’s great relief when leaders recognize that they have very able, very willing team members to which they can turn with a challenging project, give them the top line objective, and ask them to get it done.  They’re also pleased to learn that their high performers need a distinctive kind of support, even as they operate independently.

Friday review: Have the conversation you don’t want to have

It’s deeply human instinct to want to be liked or respected.  Most of us work hard to create team cohesion and we prefer making people feel good.  But the conversations we’re not having are crucial to realistically sound organizations.  New York Times Editor Adam Bryant devotes a full chapter to having “adult conversations” in his new book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation.  CEO, who he interviews every week for his column, The Corner Office, tell him this is one of the most important sources of culture – a force that builds up or undermines workplaces.

The Adult Conversation
“And close the door behind you…”

We avoid these conversations because we’re fearful of the response.  Maybe we’re hopeful that what we’ve noticed is an anomaly. Or we may even be concerned that we have a bias that’s making us less than objective.  What about the team member who refuses to involve a crucial person in another department.  The person who treats your team members to condescending comments in meetings.  A peer’s selective efforts to collaborate.   Badmouthing clients.  Not keeping commitments.  By now, you may be thinking of the person who does “that thing.”  She or he is the one you want to have a an adult conversation with.

Let’s talk

It’s Friday.  Today is probably not the day to hold the conversation.  But it’s a great day to plan it, preparing to talk next week.

  • What is the conversation you don’t want to have?  With whom?
  • What do you think it’s about?  This is your perspective.  Remember it’s limited, by definition.
  • What have you observed?  Be specific for your sake and theirs.
  • Assume that this conversation is going to make you uncomfortable and them feel threatened, at least at the outset.  How can you set a neutral, inquiring tone?

Some ideas for how to plan and approach I’d-rather-not conversations:

  • Ask questions.  Listen rather than arguing whether the answers are true, false, or otherwise.
  • Listen reflectively by paraphrasing and confirming what you both say.
  • Listen for assumptions and state them explicitly:  “So your assumption when you criticized him was that not taking action was a case of failing to do his assignment.  Am I getting that right?”
  • Be prepared to have your mind changed.  You do not need to dispense with your initial concern, but new information may put the behavior in a different light.  Their understanding of your interpretation may do the same.
  • Oh, and don’t forget that you can find ways to say that having these conversations makes you uncomfortable, but that there are important issues you think make it worthwhile to discuss this topic.

You know the conversation you’re not having.  Let me know how it went.

Read an HBR interview with Bryant about the themes of his book.