Who out there knows the old saw about what happens when you assume?
Great. You can put your hands down. Yes, we all thought that was funny the first time we heard it – like when we were 12 – but please stop asking people that.
If we know we make an ass out of ourselves when we assume we know what someone else is thinking or how they’re feeling or what they want, why do we keep doing it? I guess I should have put assuming on last month’s list of prohibitions for this Roarin’ Twenties.
Here’s a recent example: I was asked by our volunteer coordinator, “Kevin, we want to show our volunteers how much they mean to us. What do you think about having a big breakfast for everyone?”
I replied, “They don’t want breakfast; they want a shirt so they feel like part of the team.” Undeterred, she matter-of-factly said, “We don’t have money for shirts, but we can buy everyone breakfast.”
The coordinator incorrectly assumed (as almost always happens) that everyone would feel rewarded and appreciated by eating a free breakfast. Even after being corrected, she still assumed she was correct.
News Flash: not everyone feels rewarded by the same token of appreciation.
A month later, the executive director asked me when I thought a good time to get the volunteers together for breakfast would be.
“Ummm… on the 12th of Never?”
Okay, that’s not what I said, although I wanted to. As the self-anointed appointed spokesman for the volunteers, I explained that while breakfast was a nice gesture, what they really wanted was a shirt like everyone else so they felt like part of the team.
Not surprisingly, I heard, “Yes, but the coordinator says we don’t have the money to buy shirts, but we all think a breakfast would be nice.”
Of course a breakfast would be nice… if you served it to me in bed.
But the last thing a sane person would want to do is to drive across town in this neck of the woods with the morning rush to eat a low-quality breakfast and then drive home. Or to lunch. Or to a happy hour – okay, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, but the drive home might be ill advised. What’s wrong with a shirt? Or a nametag, or a cubical sign, or a desk plaque… I’m not picky. But make it something that requires a little thought about what the individual or group would find meaningful.
The short points to my long story are these:
If you want to express your appreciation for a job well done, genuinely express it as soon as you feel it. Not a pat on the head and a “good job” but an expression of sincere appreciation for a specific task done well or hard-won success.
If you want to reward someone for exceptional performance or accomplishment – even with a small token of appreciation – do it publicly to add more meaning to making them feel like a valued member of the team. This assumes, of course, that they don’t mind being in the limelight, which leads to…
If you want to give something meaningful to an employee you would hate to lose, ask him or her what that could be. A morning off maybe? A Friday afternoon off? Tickets to a sporting event? The movies? A play or ballet? Dinner for two at a fancy restaurant? The possibilities are almost endless! Just ask.
By the way, gift cards are nice, but if your employees are struggling for groceries or gas, that’s indicative of a different problem.
Other signs of assuming: “Would you mind…?” “Could you stay late to…?” “Can you come in this weekend to…?” “Did you remember to…?” “Did you fix the…” “Are you available to…?” “Do you have the information I need to…?” “Can you take care of this real quick?” to all of which we assume the answers will be the ones we want to hear and not the reality of what’s going on inside the person’s head.
Those questions are asked so carelessly and thoughtlessly that it’s clear to the receiver that the person asking has no real idea or concern about the impact. There I go assuming again.
If any of this rings true in your organization, please put a stop to it, and if you see someone else making these kinds of morale-killing assumptions, please stop them.
After all, it makes someone look like an ass… and it’s not me.
The last Roarin’ Twenties was a decade marked by economic growth, technological advances, an increase in leadership opportunities for women, a society tired of war, fascination with material wealth, and a social media obsessed with sports and entertainment celebrities.
Déjà vu all over again?
Not to be a buzzkill, but we all remember how the last Roarin’ Twenties ended – with a stock market crash and the Great Depression. Let’s see if we can keep from repeating some of the mistakes this decade.
Lest I fail to mention Prohibition, I’d like to propose some Prohibitions in the workplace that will get the New Year off to a good start. No need for a Constitutional Amendment, just good leadership.
Prohibit hiring and promotion practices that reward butt-snorkelers and overlook hard-working members of the team. (The difference between brown-nosing and butt-snorkeling is depth perception.) My experience with this came mostly from the military, but it’s no less present in the corporate world. Promoting people who are better schmoozers than contributors or hiring people less qualified than some you already have has an outside effect on your top performers. It reeks of favoritism and is demoralizing to the team, and it is a great way to drive the best to another organization.
Prohibit making good doers into unprepared managers. Just because someone is good at what they do doesn’t mean they’ll be a good manager. And that’s okay. But making someone who has not been developed as a leader a “Manager” is somewhere between risky and foolish. The other doers may put up with it for a while, but there’s a good chance they’ll start heading for the exit as soon as their spouse gets tired of the complaining. Instead, develop the high potentials who have the characteristics necessary to influence others to execute the company vision BEFORE they become supervisors and managers… and don’t stop. We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: effective leadership development can’t be a one-and-done activity.
Prohibit making Feedback a dirty word. First of all, feedback is neither inherently good nor bad; it is simply factual information provided to an individual or group with the purpose of helping them grow and improve. It can contain critical information, but it doesn’t have to; letting people know what they’re doing right helps them grow and improve. The key is to give and take feedback often enough in a non-threatening environment that it becomes second nature.
And for heaven’s sake, if the company’s HR process for providing feedback is cumbersome or otherwise user-unfriendly, scrap it. If it’s only used once a year for compensation purposes, scrap it. If it’s only used to document sub-standard performance, scrap it. If it promotes a one-way diatribe instead of an honest conversation, scrap it. Get the idea?
Prohibit cookie cutter rewards systems. There are certainly money-grubbing exceptions, but for the most part, people want to feel valued for doing worthy work. It’s not always about getting a big paycheck (though it doesn’t hurt); there are plenty of ways to reward your folks. The key is communication and finding out what makes them feel rewarded. For some, it’s recognition; for others it might be time off. If money is their deal, a surprise bump in pay or unexpected bonus, or maybe even a charitable contribution in their name. Promotion consideration and leading a new project are also ways to let them excel at more worthy work. How do we know what makes them feel rewarded? Of course… ask them.
Prohibit making more work the reward for good work. Not saying don’t challenge your top performers with more difficult assignments, just remember that being an excellent worker is both a blessing and a curse. Stay vigilant for signs that someone is close to being maxed out or risk burn out. And never, ever give someone more work because someone else is skating by doing the minimum or less. Short of lashing someone in public, I can’t think of a quicker way to demoralize a valuable contributor to the organization.
These a just are few ways to get the year off to a good start with the team, because ultimately, it’s about them! If some of these prohibitions ring true where you work, talk to your folks and find ways to rid the workplace of the behaviors. Get the team’s buy-in by involving them in the solutions. The alternative is inviting disruptive turnover for preventable reasons. Not the best start to the new Roarin’ Twenties.
Kinda scary to think we’ve put another decade in the can. For the millennials out there, I don’t mean the trash can; it’s an old movie-making phrase that means we’re done. And speaking of a decade, last month marked the tenth anniversary of my retirement from the United States Air Force.
I’m not one who likes to live in the past, nor am I asking anyone to look back over the last decade and reflect. That would take introspection to the extreme sport level, and living with a mindset of “if only I’d…” is depressing.
Instead, I thought I’d look to next year and use some of the lessons learned in the 20-teens, and I learned a bunch! Ten years ago, I thought the corporate world would be a lot different than my experience in the military. Leadership-wise, I was wrong
And since we’re in the leadership development business, here are some things I’d like you to consider as we head into the next decade:
In my experience, people join organizations they want to be part of… and then quit because their boss is a jerk. Or their boss’s boss is, or a dominant co-worker, or someone who’s making them feel bad about themselves. Usually, it’s the way they feel they’re being treated.
Why do we think we’re treating our team well when we talk to them like we talk to ourselves? In 2020, let’s not do that. Let’s talk to other people like we’d talk to our grandparents, with respect and consideration for how they receive the message we’re sending. Which leads me to…
In general, we humans suck at communication. We build trusting relationships through communication and our actions, and when we’re not intentional about our communication style, we screw it up. When we don’t communicate freely with our team, we’re screwing it up.
You see, people want to know what they want to know, and when we don’t share information they think we’re hiding something. And that’s a dangerous road for your team to travel. If they think we’re hiding something, our integrity goes right out the window.
Then there’s the delivery. Drive-by taskings aren’t appreciated. Blame-storming in meetings isn’t appreciated. Public shaming (yes, co-workers can hear over the cubicle partitions) isn’t appreciated. It’s good to remember that constructive criticism doesn’t have to be painful.
I often hear the excuse, “I’m just being direct.” Yeah, right. I used the mantra, “Not everyone thinks I’m an asshole because not everyone’s met me yet” as an excuse to be direct, and it was never appreciated. We can ‘cut to the chase’ without ‘beating around the bush’ and still not come across as a jerk. Maybe we should try that in 2020.
I’ve noticed that a lot of us tend to stop learning and developing when we feel like “they” (whoever “they” are) have stopped making us. Not when “they” stop expecting us to develop but when “they” stop making us. Nowhere is this truer than in leadership.
If I had led my 500-person team the same way I led my 50-person team, chaos would have reigned. If I’d led my 50-person team the way I led my first 5-person team, there’d have been a mutiny. In case you’ve missed our thoughts on the topic, good leaders aren’t born any more than good athletes are. Without development and intentional practice, neither reach their potential.
I thought I’d seen all the ways bad leaders cripple an organization when I left the military. I was wrong. In 2020, I’ll strive to continue to hone my leadership development and coaching skills to help others not continue the bad habits they learned as young supervisors.
Finally, we all feel a huge amount of pressure and stress at the end of the year. Take one part holiday crazies on the road, one part delivering what the boss wants before close-out, and one part family stress to deliver the ‘”perfect” Christmas; shake vigorously in a holiday party atmosphere that you don’t feel like being part of; squeeze it all into your work clothes and go to the office.
As managers, we pretend none of that affects us. As leaders, we need to admit (at least to ourselves) that we’re just human. And then we need to cut our team a break and acknowledge they’re struggling with the same things. Cutting your team a break when they’re struggling is one of the most powerful ways I know to build loyalty to your organization.
In 2019, I learned again that when I act like I’m only human, my family is easier to get along with, my friends are easier to get along with, my clients are easier to get along with, and my co-workers are easier to get along with.
If you haven’t experienced that yet, maybe 2020 is a good time to try.
There is a tradition, especially among our military’s ground troops, that officers eat last. I’ll let the Army and Marines argue about who started it, but woe be unto the uninitiated Airman or Sailor who gets in the chow line out in the field with ground forces before all the enlisted men and women have been fed. I’ve seen it in action many times, and sometimes it means the officers go hungry.
When an Air Force airplane with a big crew lands at the end of a mission, the crew doesn’t put the aircraft to bed and head to quarters (or maybe the club) until everyone’s finished with their post-flight duties. The pilot in command (a good one, anyway) doesn’t leave the rest of her team behind because she’s the boss; she’s willing to pitch in because she knows other, less employed, team members will follow her example to the benefit of the entire crew. If the officers aren’t going to eat last, at least they’ll all eat together.
Who knows how the Navy does it on ships. I’ll leave it to someone else to write about that.
So what’s my point? What could that possibly have to do with the way you lead your team?
Eating last – making sure the troops are taken care of first – is an outward display of servant leadership, and the phrase obviously has less to do with who eats when than it does about putting others first. And while it should start at the top (at the CXO – the Chief Whatever Officer in your company), it sadly often doesn’t.
But don’t use a selfish C-suite or company culture as an excuse to “overlook” opportunities to take care of others before you fill your reward plate (or coffee cup). Here are a few ways I’ve seen servant leaders really shine in the workplace:
First, your team has to believe you care. If you don’t, servant leadership isn’t for you. They’ll know if you’re faking it. That being said, I’ve seen that approach work for a short period of time with the result being a well-intentioned supervisor growing into a leader who actually cared for her team.
Most bosses are blissfully unaware of two things: their own shortcomings and when their team is struggling. Becoming more aware of both before they become butt-biters only requires the use of a clever communication tool we call talking. Not texting or emailing, but an old-fashioned, honest face-to-face conversation about how things are going. It’s one of the ways to show you care.
Don’t underestimate the value of compassion. We all have our own three-ring circuses going on outside the office, and it’s important to know when life’s challenges are affecting a team member’s performance. The return on cutting someone slack during a difficult period is huge with the payout being a more trusting and loyal employee.
Don’t pretend you’ve had nothing but success. Share what you’ve learned in your time in the organization, not in a “this is how to do your job” sense, but the lessons learned through experience – good and bad – that will help your team struggle less to deliver excellence. That may sound like a no-brainer, but if more leaders helped their teams learn vicariously from the leader’s past mistakes (we’re all human, after all), leadership development consultants like me would have to find a new line of work.
We’ve reminded scores of leaders over the past years that they can’t be successful unless their team is successful. A servant leadership mindset is one of those ways a leader can keep from looking upwards into the organization for signs of his success and stay focused on ensuring his team has what it needs to deliver that success.
And while you’re at it, get used to “eating last.” Make being considerate of others a habit not just at the office but at home, in traffic, at the store – wherever you interact with other humans. If eating last becomes a way of life, the worst that can happen is that people think you’re a thoughtful, unselfish person.
Based on the way I read the latest engagement surveys, the number of bosses missing the opportunities their leadership positions are providing is almost mind-numbing. It certainly appears to be numbing the minds of the people working for them.
The storyline doesn’t deviate much regardless of what industry or government service sector I talk to: 1) new boss comes in or is promoted from within; 2) boss gets stressed by pressure to deliver; 3) boss stresses team to deliver; 4) team members burn out and get demoralized; 5) team members disengage or leave. The time spans to get from 1 to 5 vary, but it’s the same old song.
If you haven’t heard the song, that doesn’t mean it’s not being sung in your organization.
Disclaimer: I did not do research for this article. Occasionally I get pushback for stating as fact information that is obvious to me but not to the recipient. Did I do research to reach my conclusion? Do I have data? What was my sample size? Yada? Yada? Yada?
My answer is usually something to the effect that 58% of all statistics are made up. Or is it 72%? Maybe 37%? Anyway, the average American has one breast and one testicle… you get the idea.
Leaders have an incredible opportunity to improve the lives of the people who work for them. Imagine if your employees get up looking forward to the workday and go home happy with their efforts. What effect might that have on their productivity? On the time they don’t spend at work? On their interactions with family and friends? On their sleep?
Bosses who don’t particularly care about the out-of-office time aren’t leaders. They’re just bosses, managers, micromanagers, supervisors, or taskmasters.
What we (the royal we) know about employees that like their jobs is that they’re more engaged and productive. And the converse is true. Why a boss wouldn’t want to learn how to effectively lead, encourage, and empower his or her organization to produce and deliver quality results is beyond me, and yet we in the leadership development space run into that exact scenario time after time.
Please help me understand what I’m missing. In fact, email me and educate me: Why is it like this? Which part of the Leadership Triangle is the boss missing – the They Don’t Know How, the They Don’t Want To, or the We Won’t Let Them?
Bosses tell me: “I’m under pressure to deliver.” Duh! Who’s not? Leaders don’t pass the buck, so those bosses must work for bosses who do (who probably work for bosses that do, who work for bosses that do, etc., etc.). I waive the BS flag at that. Just because the jerkishness starts higher up doesn’t mean it has to be passed down to a lower level. As Kevin Berchelmann likes to say, “Leadership can hurt; wear a helmet.”
Plain and simple, I can only conclude that bosses who don’t make the effort to be good leaders are self-centered. They care about themselves more than they care about the people who work for them. Not a new phenomenon, but certainly curable. As an example, look no farther than Coach Tony Bennett of the 2019 NCAA Champion Virginia Cavaliers basketball team who turned down a sizeable salary increase to provide additional opportunities for his basketball program and players.
I like the way Coach Bennett explained it, and I’m going to plagiarize and adapt part of his speech so that it applies to your particular business sector:
If it’s just about winning – if it’s just about being the best – then you’re running the wrong race. That’s empty in the long term. But if it’s trying to be excellent and do things the right way, to honor and benefit the organization that hired you, the human being you work for and the men and women who work for you, then that’s the right thing.
It’s a mindset shift: a boss has to understand that he or she can’t be successful unless their team is successful. A leader like Coach Bennett has a desire to elevate others above himself – the sure sign of a leader who others want to follow.
Actions speak louder than words. Here’s a couple of signs I use to distinguish the difference between your run-of-the-mill, worried-about-themselves boss and someone who’s trying to be a leader:
A boss says – and may believe – they care about their employees, but it rings hollow to the people she’s ordering around. A leader doesn’t have to say she cares; people know she cares by the way she demonstrates it.
A boss passes tasks down to the next level. A leader describes the results he’s looking for, describes success clearly, then asks what support is needed – and provides it.
A boss assumes expectations are understood because no one asks questions. A leader ensures expectations are clear by asking questions.
A boss does what he asked someone else to do because he doesn’t trust them. A leader trusts his people to do what has been asked by the established deadline and verifies accomplishment without micromanaging.
A boss makes employees feel guilty when emergent, high priority needs require time away from work. A leader finds ways to make her team flexible enough to react to unplanned adversity and deliver success.
A boss accepts credit for his team’s success. A leader gives credit to those who actually accomplish the success.
As I look back through my mental book of good leaders and bad bosses, it’s easy to categorize them. Yet thinking back about the hundreds of people who’ve worked for me, I’m not as confident about which category I fell into for them. It’s a shame I didn’t use such an easy rubric on myself at the time.