Bad News Bearers

…do we kill the messenger?

We’ve all heard – and probably used – the idiom no news is good news, meaning that if we haven’t been told something bad has happened, then nothing bad has happened… and that’s good news. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never worked in an organization where that was true.

No, leaders who actually believe that if they haven’t heard any bad news then nothing bad has happened are a) wrong, b) just kidding themselves, and c) setting themselves up for spectacular failure. It’s much more likely that they’re not hearing bad news because people are afraid to tell them bad news.

If we trust our teams to do their jobs, and we do our best to help them be successful, then why do they withhold bad news from us? Do they think we won’t find out? Do they think they can fix it before we do find out? Do they hope some other messenger will be the bearer of bad news… and possibly get shot in the process?

Could it be that our usual reaction when things go wrong is something akin to road rage in the office?

A recent unpleasant experience with a local car dealership highlighted that using no news is good news as a business practice is a good way to destroy your service quality reputation. My frustration at my car being held hostage by the service department was fueled not by the department itself but by the rep that promised regular updates and repeatedly failed to provide them. When pressed to explain his lack of communication, he sheepishly replied, “I hate to give bad news to customers.”

My guess is that he’s not much better at giving his boss bad news.

OK, so we’re not road-ragers at work. Still, do we even know if our team is hesitant to bring us in the loop when something goes wrong? A good clue is if there is one person – a trusted agent of sorts – who keeps us informed about how things are running. We tend to appreciate the trusted agent’s insights and rarely get upset with them when they share bad news. Everyone else knows that and feeds us information about trouble in paradise through our informant… even though they probably feel like we’re playing favorites.

We all know that the best time to fix a small problem is before it becomes a big problem. But have we ever asked, “Why did you wait so long to tell me?” It’s probably not because they just discovered it. More likely, they were working up the nerve to tell us because of our usual reaction to bad news.

If we discover it before they tell us, do we behave as if we caught them in the act? Or tacitly accuse them of deliberately withholding the bad news and then mask our micromanagement behind trust but verify?

And how do we feel when we come out of a meeting where our boss confronts us about a situation big and bad enough that we should have known about? Worse yet when it happens in front of everyone and makes us feel stupid. Do we storm down the hall like a headhunter (and no, not the executive recruiter type)?

I’ve certainly been guilty of one or two – or more – of those negative reactions to bad news over the years. It took the intervention of a mentor to change my behavior, and countless unwitting employees can be thankful for him and glad they didn’t work for the old me.

If any of those situations ring true, here are a few hacks that helped me become a better leader… and easier to work for:

  • First and foremost, be a grown-up about hearing bad news. Short of a life-threatening situation, mature grown-ups (and good leaders) don’t lose control of their emotions and raise their voice. Grown-ups don’t intentionally make others feel stupid or incompetent. That’s actually a life hack, not just a leadership skill.
  • Don’t react to bad news; respond instead. Give it the old ten-count before you open your mouth and listen to what the bad news bearer has to say with an intent to better understand the situation. I had a boss that liked to say, “Now’s not a good time to overreact.”
  • When the situation is remedied, make it a lessons learned Include a discussion about ways to avoid a similar situation in the future. Leaders do that with every mistake that’s made – theirs or someone else’s.
  • Forgive and reassure. Remember that the offender already feels bad about the situation and give them an opportunity to both show and tell you how they have addressed it. Make sure they don’t feel like you’re always checking up on them. Trusting leaders don’t keep score.
  • Never go into a meeting unprepared. Make it a habit a habit to ask the team, “Is there anything I might get surprised by?

Remember, the main goal is to restore lost trust and let everyone put their behinds in the past.

Is that already the way you handle finding out about bad news? If not, why not?

It’s up to you, leaders.

Don’t Be a Leadership Dummy

stop making this so hard

I wanted to call this Leadership for Dummies, but that title was already taken. Looking through some of the other leadership improvement offerings, it boggles the mind how we’ve managed to take a subject whose basics haven’t changed in a few millennia and written a gazillion books that make it a more difficult concept to get a handle on. But we just keep writing.

Sure, new hurdles arise, technology changes, business environments change, the economy changes, we invent new ways of doing things, etc., but human nature hasn’t changed since the time of Adam and Eve and neither has what it takes to lead other humans.

As leaders, we often find ourselves in new situations – positions, companies, teams – that require us to adapt how we lead, but nothing changes what we need to do to be an effective leader. Let’s stick to the basics: We have to know where we’re leading; we have to be able to communicate that to others; and we have to be able to motivate others to help us achieve the undertaking. Plain and simple. From the team leader on the shop floor to the C-suites, the basics don’t change.

Do we need help developing a clear vision so we know where we’re leading? Often, yes. Do we need to continually improve our communication skills to ensure our expectations are clearly understood? Absolutely! Is it important to build a culture of trust and authenticity that allows us to give and get honest feedback and helps us know what makes our team feel rewarded? Damned straight it is!

So why the review of Leadership 101? Because there is so much “new” material out there about how we’ll need to lead in the coming post-pandemic era that uses big, strategic sounding words to obfuscate the leadership basics. Here’s an example I ran across from a well-known and respected business publication (paraphrased to remove the fancy language):

  • We’ll have to adjust our strategic vision to account for recent changes in our business environment while remaining faithful to our company’s core values.
  • We’ll need to communicate this new vision throughout the organization – including executable objectives as required – especially leveraging the media platforms that have matured over the last year (i.e., virtual town halls and team meetings).
  • We’ll need to reassess how to keep our followers motivated to perform and succeed in a way that helps us to achieve the vision (or at least keep from demotivating them).

Duh.

In other words, successful leaders will need to do in the future what they’ve been able to do in the past. Might have well told us that to wash our hair in the future we’ll need to apply shampoo, lather, and rinse (repeat as necessary).

I’ve been helping a former colleague (now a senior executive in the Pentagon) adjust to a new leadership position this past year, and to say that there have been some challenges leading and building relationships with the team she’s inherited would be an understatement. Some were motivated professionals weary of slogging through the bureaucratic morass while others were entrenched, low-performing functionaries who fertilized the morass while waiting for retirement. You get the picture.

It’s been both fun and rewarding to watch her overcome the hurdles and hit her stride. I asked recently how things would be different with the changing ratio of face-to-face to virtual work and her boss’ upcoming short leave of absence… other than having to attend more unproductive meetings.

Without giving it much thought, she replied that she understood the direction the Department wanted her to advance her portfolio in and was clear on her boss’ priorities. She’d laid out her expectations to the team, including regular progress checks, and now she was going to get out of their way and let them do their work. They trusted her to have their backs and knew her motivation was to help them be successful.

Sounds a lot like Leadership 101, doesn’t it?

Leadership isn’t difficult, but we continue to make it more difficult to understand than we have to. On the other hand, leading people is hard, and we can only get better at it through practice. Why do we think we’re any different than athletes or welders or doctors and lawyers? The key to being successful is to start with the basics and continue practicing throughout our careers – or for the rest of our lives.

Leadership dummies? Not if we stop making it so difficult.

How about you, leaders?

Accepted Doesn’t Mean Acceptable

… even if we’ve always done it that way

We Texans were a little bit whiney last month during SNOWVID-21, but most of us are better now that we’re back to the old normal of the global pandemic. There are still some recovery efforts and healing going on that are teaching lessons “we” thought we’d already known. That’s the royal “we” because it’s less damning than saying I.

Like untold numbers of Texans, my wife slipped on the ice last month and broke a bone. It’s the shoulder attached to her dominant hand rendering her mostly unable to fend for herself for the last few weeks. I thought the occasional use of humor would take the edge off of her frustration; apparently, I used the phrase peeling her grapes and feeding her bon bons one too many times.

How often do we use humor around the workplace that not everyone thinks is funny? Hey, just because they don’t have a sense of humor doesn’t mean I’m not funny, right? In last month’s At C-Level, Kevin Berchelman wrote about being more aware as senior leaders of how their “suggestions” impact others. Same goes for humor… and any other little comments the boss makes. We can never forget as leaders everything we say or do is being paid attention to.

I can hear a lot of eye rolling out there accompanied by disappointment that I’m getting all politically correct. I’m not. My point is a leader’s style may have been accepted for years, and people say, “Well, that’s just Kevin being Kevin.” But just because what’s said and done has been accepted by others, it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.

When it comes to humor, no one likes to be made fun of, and whether or not others think it’s mean spirited they’ll certainly be on guard for when it’s their time to be the butt of the joke. I’m not advocating a humor-free workplace; I’m saying that humor – and anything we think – will probably better received if we don’t express it the very second we think it.

Enough about humor. Another example: someone leaves a meeting to retrieve something he forgot at his desk. As he leaves, the boss makes a comment that is interpreted as less than complementary. The boss doesn’t think anything about it because it’s always been accepted, but the result is a trust killer: everyone else around the table now knows that the boss talks about them behind their backs. Not acceptable.

A board president makes an innocent comment to a new board member in response to his suggestion: “That’s not really the way we do it here.” The comment is accepted by the other board members, but the president just proved that she’s not interested in diverse thought and confirmed what the new member already anxiously thought… he’s an outsider. Accepted but not acceptable.

We roll our eyes in response to a suggestion. We just devalued that person’s experience and professionalism in front of others (at least that’s the perception). Public humiliation is always a morale booster.

We nonchalantly comment about someone’s clothing. Okay, Judgey McJudgeface, we just made others self-conscious as they assume we’re judging the way they dress. We just showed our genuine selves to them. Again, accepted behavior for years but not acceptable for a leader trying to build team cohesiveness and trust.

These are not big things to us, and we’re usually not even aware we’re doing something unacceptable. And because we’ve long accepted that behavior from others – including from those who lead us – we accept if from ourselves. It’s become a bad habit that we don’t know we should break.

And like most bad habits, breaking them isn’t difficult (just stop it!), but it’s not easy either. It requires us to consider others before we let that thought whirling around in our head like a centrifuge come flying out of our mouth.

As leaders, our small but unacceptable words and deeds are usually – and unfortunately – accepted by others. But they certainly shouldn’t be by us.

We have to be intentional about demonstrating acceptable behavior. After all, leading by example isn’t an option.

How about you? Acceptable or just accepted?

It’s up to you, leaders.

When Crisis Turns to Chaos

it separates leaders from managers

This is definitely not one of those academic treatises about the difference between leadership and management. I outright despise those.

Nor is it a “thought piece” similar to those written in the last year about leading and managing in and through a crisis. Lord knows we’ve had plenty of them crowding our inboxes.

Think back – just about a year ago, we were all facing a crisis of global proportions of which we had no control. We had to react and respond at the same time, and we were all taxed just to keep toilet paper in our bathrooms, not to mention our businesses running while keeping our workforce and our customers safe. For many businesses (if not most) managing our response to the crisis was more of a life-or-death issue for the company than it was for our people.

Here in Texas we pride ourselves on getting through one crises – economic, natural, and political disasters are all second nature to us now. Believe me when I say we can lead and manage the hell out of a crisis.

And then hell Texas froze over.

Now 2020 definitely sucked, and 2021 was off to a shaky start, but just when we thought we were hitting our stride with COVID – balancing work between home and office, keeping stores and restaurants open without endangering anyone’s health, and keeping industry producing and the economy running –  Texas came to a screeching halt.

It happens all over the world because Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate, and some equally disruptive catastrophic events are mankind’s own doing. The question for us then is: How do we lead when the shit hits the fan? Crisis sucks; chaos eats crisis for lunch (with a nod to Peter Drucker).

So, what do we do when crisis turns to chaos?

The first thing we want to do well is manage the hell out of it. Calm heads with excellent managerial skills find ways to keep producing, delivering, selling, operating, etc., the best we can. Lessons learned when we tame chaos and crisis back to normal day-to-day operations can quickly become marketplace advantages. If we don’t do it well, we’re probably just like everyone else.

How’s that different that what we did most of 2020? Not much, except that for much of 2020 we weren’t that concerned about our workforce freezing to death or being physically unable to leave their homes. Not to mention how little concern we had for their home repair projects.

I’m not down on managers. Often underappreciated and over maligned, managers get a lot of flak for not being good leaders. But it’s our own fault when our great doers aren’t great managers and great managers aren’t great leaders if we haven’t given them the tools to be effective. Here’s an example:

A local hospital department manager I know (a good doer) responded to the chaos around him by contacting each of his employees in the hospital and the surrounding clinics under his control when they could report to work (and left their supervisors out of the loop). But he didn’t ask a single one how they were doing. When one of the employees reported she had fallen on the ice and broken her arm, he only asked for how long she might miss work.

Remember the childhood game Follow the Manager? Remember the old war movies where the hero crawled out of the trenches and managed the charge into the heart of the enemy’s gunfire? How about when Ken Blanchard said, “The key to successful management today is influence, not authority.”

No, because none of those are real.

In crisis-turned-chaos, a leader’s concern has to be first and foremost about people. Does it suck to have to lead and manage simultaneously? Sometimes. Suck it up, buttercup. That’s what they pay us the big bucks for. And we can’t manage or lead without dealing with people, so when we’re trying to do both at the same time in the midst of chaos, here are four key skills to rely on:

  • Make sure your people are safe. The military has a few institutionalized methods of reaching every single servicemember under an individual’s charge. It starts at the top and branches out so that at each level of supervision, everyone is accounted for and provided critical information. If our organizations don’t have a way to pass accountable information from the top to the bottom other than sending ignorable emails, we’re doing it wrong. In chaos like this, a leader’s number one concern should be: are all my people safe. The next should be:
  • Ask if they need help that you can provide. We may not be in a position to provide anything but moral support. On the other hand, we might have a list of resources they can reach out to. Totally dependent on us and/or our organization, but the least we can do is listen to their needs. Leaders listen and then:
  • Admit vulnerability. I couldn’t get out of my neighborhood for a week, so I couldn’t rescue my daughter who was without power and water, and she couldn’t get to us. Hell yeah, I felt It’s okay to admit stuff’s happening that we can’t control and don’t know when it’s going to end, but leaders do it in a way that doesn’t portray helplessness or hopelessness. Leaders acknowledge the difficulty while portraying the confidence that we’re going to make it through it stronger. I know it sounds cheesy, but people are looking for a confident anchor in their leader, not an uninflated life preserver. Finally:
  • Execute 360-degree leadership. Once we’ve accounted for all our people and done what we could to assure them they’re not alone, reach out to peers to see how they’re doing and then call our boss. Like a preemptive strike to keep from being inundated by incoming calls yourself. Is it elf-serving to call your boss to check in? Maybe if that’s the motive, but in this case, it’s just good leadership.

Managers are about the organization; leaders are about the organization’s people. We don’t often sit around ruminating about responding to chaos, but it probably wouldn’t hurt once in a while. Because our response will reveal whether We Care About People on the wall is a core value or only a trite slogan.

It’s up to you, leaders.

One thing for sure, there are a lot of Texans who look back fondly on the days when we only had a global pandemic to deal with.

Nothing Helps a Bad Mood

like spreading it around

2020 is over. Ding dong, the witch is dead.

Don’t you wish we could flip a switch on the anxieties we felt last year as easily as we turn the page on the calendar? As I looked forward at 2021, I looked back over the last five years in our lives and saw this truth: every year has ups and downs that affect our mood at work; they just change over time. Not rocket surgery I know, but I needed the reminder.

Like leading by example, we don’t have a choice on whether our mood affects those around us and those who work for us. It does. Now I can’t guarantee a positive outlook and motivation will fill our workplaces with butterflies and rainbows, but there can be no doubt that a leader’s dour mood directly affects their employees’ morale and engagement.

I’m a strict Calvinist. In my favorite comic strip of all time, Calvin sums this up nicely: “Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around.”

I used to think I was a pretty positive boss to work for. Then one day a mentor called me out when he said, “Kevin, you’re just not prone to happiness, are you?” A huge part of a leader’s role is inspiring others to follow in pursuit of a vision. We make it really hard for them to be inspired if they don’t believe we are.

No, I’m not trying to resurrect the old myth about leaders having to be charismatic – there’s plenty of evidence to debunk that. But from the C-suites to the referent leaders far down in the organization, others are taking their emotional cues from us. Not a believer? Reflect for a second on a couple of the very best leaders you known: were they positive and encouraging in a way that make you want to do and be better, or did their interactions feel perfunctory and their tone and manner… like a thin veneer covering their anxiety.

Here’s a test: we all come to work at less than our best once in a while. On the rare occasion we do – regardless of whether we’re bothered by a work-related issue or something that happened outside the office – do people ask is something wrong? If not, it either means they’re used to us being in a bad mood or we’re not as approachable as we should be.

So how do we do it? How do we model a positive attitude when it feels like the world is throwing us more curveballs than we can hit? Do we just grin and bear it? Fake it ‘til we make it?

I have a better strategy for 2021. Here are a few tried and true behaviors that can improve our outlook and make us more positive leaders in (and out of) the workplace:

  • First and foremost: no complaining! Psychologists generally agree that our brains are hardwired to spend more mental energy and time on negative events than we do on good news. Complaining can easily become a habit, so we have to intentionally resist that negativity bias and if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. (Thanks, mom.)
  • Keep the vocabulary positive. Speaking of saying things, we can be honest about substandard efforts without sounding accusatory or hostile. “I think there’s a problem with this” and “I don’t think this is your best work” have a completely different impact than “You screwed this up” and “This is a piece of crap.”
  • Avoid emotional vacuum cleaners. I don’t mean the kind of emotional vacuum where it feels like nothing can fill an inner void; I mean the kind of person who can suck the joy out of a Superbowl victory parade. A common trait of good leaders is being empathetic, but that doesn’t mean we need to spend more time with Negative Nancy or Derek Downer than necessary. Maintain a positive boundary and move on.
  • Don’t lose sight of the long game. As in don’t sweat the small stuff. (Thanks again, mom.) Many of our problems at work are short-term and in the big scheme of things aren’t that big of a deal. After we deal with a problem, will it still seem like a big deal next week? Next month? Next year? The Greek philosopher Epictetus reminds us “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
  • Finally, put your own mask on first. Like donning emergency oxygen masks on an airplane, our heads have to be in the game enough to recognize when others are struggling. If they’re showing up at work anxious and frustrated and their performance or behavior is suffering, we’re liable to take the easy way out and address only what we see. That’s especially true if not taking good enough care ourselves.

Our folks deserve our best efforts in giving them a positive workplace where they can be successful. Are we giving it to them?

It’s up to you, leaders.

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