A really short read for some of you today: Everyone who has a great job, raise your hand.
Okay, the three of you with your hands up can go back to checking your email. Everyone else should keep reading.
If you’re not in a great job, how about those of you with a good job?
That’s more of you but still disappointingly few. Now, bonus points if you can articulate what makes it a good job.
Is it the money? Do you like it because you’re good at it? And they recognize you for it? Do you have the autonomy you want? Or is it because you like the people you work with?
Some or all of the above? Those are certainly the most common responses to the question.
Or maybe you like your job simply because you feel secure in being employed for the foreseeable future and it’s one less thing you have to worry about in life.
Regardless of how you feel about your job, how often do you engage those who work for – and with – you in an effort to make their jobs better for them? That’s our job as leaders, after all.
I can hear your eyes rolling. Geez, Kev, why don’t we just pay them a lot of money and don’t ask them to do very much?
I had a job like that once. It sucked.
This may come as a surprise to some, but work is something you do, not somewhere you go. And it doesn’t have to be a grind.
And this isn’t some squishy, get-in-touch-with-your-feelings leadership. You know me better than that. If we want to be effective leaders, we haveto care about what people think about their jobs because it directly impacts their performance and retention. And, as important, what individuals collectively think affects morale, culture, and recruiting across the entire organization.
And there’s the rub: We have to care about individuals.
See, it’s not the job itself; it’s the personal experience in the job that makes it good fit or not. It’s how they feel about the work they do that keeps them coming back day after day… or looking for another job.
The naysayers will disagree (of course) and declare work is transactional. Go to work, do the job, get paid, go home. We call those people managers, the jobs mind-numbing, and the talent pool wide but shallow.
I started asking people I led how I could make their jobs better almost out of desperation – not because they were leaving but because we were really short-handed, and I needed to get the best out of them. It was a hard habit to get into, but it paid big dividends in job satisfaction and productivity.
Literally, I tried to wrap up our encounters by asking, “So what can I do to make your job better?” Initially, responses were predictable: pay me more and work me less (see above). Over time, real suggestions came out. Some I couldn’t change, some we could fix together, and some I could empower them to fix themselves.
But even small changes made their efforts more successful (which made me look more successful), and it eventually produced a climate where people believed their boss was open to suggestions and not mired in that’s the way we’ve always done it.
So, I tried the practice with my peers – and occasionally with my boss – and was surprised at how little effort it took to build a climate of collaboration for making improvements that benefited the organization as a whole.
For the naysayers (again): this isn’t a new concept! There isn’t anything new under the leadership sun and there hasn’t been for a few millennia. It’s just another way of getting feedback and removing some of the (often self-imposed) hurdles keeping your team from being more successful.
Think of it this way: Many of you are fans – and understand the importance – of helping your teams understand the WHY. The importance of leaders understanding the WHY of their followers should make sense to you, also.
And making the effort is free!
Back to the basics here: people want to feel valued doing worthy work. A leader’s job is to find out what makes them feel valued and what makes their work worth doing. That doesn’t mean we’re their friends; it means we’re working for them and not them for us. They still need adequate instruction (training), to understand our priorities and our non-negotiables, to be empowered to accomplish their jobs successfully without micromanagement, and to be fairly compensated for their efforts.
But it doesn’t hurt if, while we’re doing all that, we find out what they think would make their job better. It might end up making them feel like they have a great job.
I’m going to catch shit for this by leadership academics, but I catch shit for a lot of things I write, so…
The big news from last month that isn’t surprising describes how a mathematician proved the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t really a good reflection of human cognition. Before you get bored by scientific-sounding jargon, enjoy John Cleese’s version of the effect: “If you are really, really stupid, then it’s impossible to know that you are really, really stupid.”
For the non-academics, Dunning-Kruger says everyone thinks they’re above average, but people who are above average tend to think they’re less above average than they actually are, and people who are below average tend to think they’re more above average than they actually are.
It doesn’t take a mathematician poking holes in a generalization or psychology professors testing whether incompetent people are unaware of their incompetence to prove or disprove what a good comedian already handily described.
In short, clueless people don’t know they’re clueless.
And I’ve certainly known my fair share of clueless people, although I prefer to describe their cluelessness as a giant Johari Window blind spot. Mostly to describe my daughters’ boyfriends.
Speaking of Johari, it has its fair share of critics, too. They say the tool is only useful if its users are honest when taking the survey(s) and are willing to apply the results to improving communication and relationships.
But guess what? Some people don’t always present their authentic selves to others.
In the leadership development field, it doesn’t really matter which personality trait/type tool you prefer, there are just as many critics who laugh at you for things like making employees wear colored badges around the office as there are to support your development efforts. What we sometimes forget is that all of the tools are just generalizations about human nature – which hasn’t changed recently as far as I can tell.
“All generalizations are false, including this one.” Mark Twain
So I’ll finally get to my point(s). First, if the critics of the tools would spend as much time applying them to their own behavior as they do bashing them, it would be more enjoyable to be in the same room with them. That applies to most chronically critical people, by the way.
Second, we (assumably as leaders) are supposed to help clueless people improve so they’re not so clueless.
But get this: We aren’t supposed to help them because they’re clueless, we’re supposed to help them improve both because their behavior is disruptive in the workplace and it’s keeping them from being as successful as they can in your organization. That’s what leaders do.Provide feedback that will help clueless people grow and improve.
Okay, I’ll stop calling them clueless. How about unaware?
And I’ll freely admit that there were times in my career I was oblivious to how I was coming across to my coworkers. Just like there were times I was very aware… but pretended to be oblivious (see EQ as a Superpower). Real office jerks know they’re being a jerk.
My question is: “What are you doing to help them improve?” How do you help the one who feels like they always have to give input, relevant or not? How do you help the disruptive one who rubs everyone the wrong way or who spends their spare time disrupting those who are actually working?
Even harder, how do you help your boss not be the one no one else wants to be in the same room with?
First, make sure they actually lack self-awareness and aren’t just behaving badly. And then make sure it’s not you. Could the tension be mutual? Could coworkers be contributing to the effect of the offending behavior? Could the root problem be solved by a simple suggestion?
If they really lack self-awareness, they’re not aware of their shortcomings and don’t know that to become a better team member, they need to grow and improve. This is where a leader’s skill at providing effective feedback comes in (see link above).
Focus on the behavior, keep it private, put yourself in their shoes first, and be careful not to make them feel like it’s a personal attack. And put hard thought into possible roots of their lack of self-awareness – not therapy level, but things like need for recognition, insecurity, emotional awkwardness, perfectionism, procrastination, etc. You know, those things a lot of people struggle with but don’t know how to mask them behind a thin veneer of confidence.
Remember, it’s the behavior you’re trying to change. If the person wants to and changes in the process, all the better.
Then offer some alternatives to the offending behavior.
Maybe consider the merits of both sides before… Maybe you could try… Maybe next time… Maybe resist… Or even next time I see it, I’ll…
This is about them, not you, and if they leave the encounter feeling belittled and without your support, you haven’t done a leader’s job.
Finally, don’t let HR dictate the tools you have to use to help your team grow and improve. Stick to the leadership basics and model the behaviors you’d like others to have.
Unsolicited advice or feedback is always for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver.
Think about it. How did you react the last time someone gave you unsolicited advice or feedback – in the office or out in the big mean world – that started with “You should…” or “You need to…” or “Have you tried…” or “Did you think about…” or “If you just…” ad infinitum?
Did you immediately think “What a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that?” Or did it sting a little bit and you wished the other person would keep their opinions to themselves?
I’m in the latter category but am trying to get better at remembering the giver is only trying to help.
You see, giving the advice makes the giver feel better about themselves because they’re trying to help us (or tear us down because they’re a jerk). Either way, they feel better, and we generally feel worse.
In life, it’s usually our mothers who are full of unsolicited advice.
But at work, we’re surrounded by people who are pretty sure they could help by offering an unasked-for suggestion. Thankfully, only those at or above our level on the food chain have the gonads to speak up and give us advice or feedback they think we’ll follow.
And the funny thing is, while most people are perfectly willing and able to give unsolicited feedback at the drop of a hat, when we honestly want some feedback about self-improvement or advice on overcoming a roadblock we’ve run into, getting solicited, constructive feedback or suggestions is like pulling teeth.
Ok, it’s look in the mirror time, folks. If you identify with either the giver or receiver of unsolicited feedback, read on.
If you’re perfectly happy shooting advice from the hip and taking pot shots from your boss and coworkers (or your mother), you need a kind of help I can’t offer.
First of all, I recognize that feedback and advice (aka helpful suggestion) aren’t the same thing. One is information and the other is a recommendation. Both should be intended to be helpful, but the delivery is often so badly mangled, the receiver gets no benefit.
Look, feedback is not a four-letter word. We shouldn’t dread giving or receiving it, and there are some best practices for both that you already know. What we tend to forget is giving and receiving effective feedback are leadership skills that have to be honed and practiced intentionally.
For starters, go back and read Kevin B’s Effective Feedback in Today’s Crazy Times in February’s At C-Level. Kevin reminds us, “Feedback is [simply] information provided to another person to help him or her grow and improve.” And the feedback you’re giving has to be either requested or expected for it to be useful. Unsolicited and unexpected feedback or suggestions almost always generate negative emotions in the receiver, and when that happens, you’ve lost your audience.
“I’m only trying to help” is not a justification (or excuse) for blindsiding someone.
Helpful suggestions follow the same pattern. If the advice hasn’t been requested (effective leaders actually do ask for feedback from others), then the only way it will be received in an ‘expected’ way is if you preface what you want to say with something like: I have some ideas; would you like to hear them? If the answer is no, zip it and walk away.
And don’t think disguising your unsolicited helpful suggestions as feedback sandwiches makes them more palatable. Feedback sandwiches are an idea whose time is long past. Receivers who don’t recognize a feedback sandwich usually miss the important information in the middle and leave the conversation focused on the bread. Those who recognize the sandwich dismiss the bread as fluff and interpret the meat in the middle as criticism.
Hardly the intention of the giver.
So, let’s stop with the unsolicited advice. When we’re about to open our mouths with some “helpful” information, let’s pause to consider how the message is going to be received. Let’s remember how it feels to be the recipient of unasked-for (and usually unwanted) suggestions.
That’s a leadership skill that has to be practiced.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed here are that of the author. Caution: some of you may agree with them.
Some of you may be offended by this. Me saying sorry you’re offended probably won’t make you feel any better.
It’s a good bet that you and I have different ideas about the goals of well-intentioned DEI efforts, how they should be measured, and the benefits they can bring an organization. And I would argue that’s a good thing; after all, that’s what diversity of thought is all about.
But we have absolutely ruined what diversity, equality, and inclusion policies were meant to bring to the workplace by the heavy-handed and ham-fisted way we’ve shoved them down people’s throats.
And we wonder why people aren’t embracing what should have already existed in the organization… as if the unreceptive employees are heretics who should be burned at the stake.
Obviously, something set me off and, as usual, it was another close encounter with a friend who’s struggling in a business turned upside down by a new CEO top-down driven DEI agenda. After the swift exodus of high-performing talent who didn’t like to be told what they had to believe, there’s yet another new CEO who’s left to hold together a business that may not survive.
Probably not the goal of the DEI-focused CEO.
Let’s dissect this DEI, shall we? It used to be diversity, equality, and inclusion and has evolved somewhat (unfortunately, in my opinion), so let’s take each part as it has to do with your BUSINESS. That’s right, a change in your business, not society.
DIVERSITY: We have always believed that when reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned people with the company’s best interests in mind have a difference of opinion and are able to have an adult conversation about it – no matter what they look like – it’s good for the company. This is the essence of diversity of thought. And for it to be part of your culture, it has to be promoted and practiced at the very senior levels of leadership.
Group-think is a virus that grows quickly in an organization and usually dooms it to failure. A group of old white men can group-think just as easily as a rainbow-colored group of men and women who are hesitant to raise their voice in dissent around the boardroom table.
Deny it and you’re lying to yourself.
If you want more physical diversity in your organization, you have to hire differently than you have in the past. Plain and simple.
Butthat doesn’t mean lowering hiring standards! No, you need to expand your recruiting pool, create programs (internships) that attract talent, and invest in programs that develop the kind of future talent you’re looking for to lead your company in the coming years.
That’s what we should have been doing all along.
How about EQUALITY? Equal compensation for equal value to the company? Equal opportunity to advance in the organization for qualified individuals? Of course it should be that way! It should have always been that way. The best way to make sure that happens is to have a system of checks and balances to review both; you probably have perfectly capable people to do that already. I added that last bit because you don’t have to hire a slew of self-proclaimed DEI “experts” to do the job. Just don’t leave it in the hands of a single individual or you invite (and encourage) bias and favoritism into the process.
EQUALITY does not mean EQUITY! Equity has come to mean giving a few smaller pieces of the pie so others get more. And I don’t even mean everyone gets an equal share of the pie… that’s called socialism.
I once explained the concept to my socially liberal daughter by using her grades in school. As a straight A student, I suggested she give a letter grade to those who weren’t passing so that, while she would still be above average, the other students could pass and be promoted to the next level. Not surprisingly, she protested the proposal.
Some cry “that’s not fair!” You want fair? It comes once a year with cotton candy and fun rides. Equality is fair; equity is not. As leaders, we have to understand the difference.
INCLUSION. Merriam-Webster does a fine job of defining it for me: “the act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability).” It’s the opposite of exclusion. I’m good with the definition because we (the we who these programs are meant to help) have historically been exclusive – discriminatory, if you will – in hiring, paying, and promoting practices.
But give me a break, WE have been doing bad things to each other since the advent of the human condition. Mostly out of ignorance, pride, and jealousy (think Cain and Abel).
Here’s why inclusion gets a bad rap, with an apology to Lewis Carroll:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
The military ensured I worked with a number of people I didn’t particularly care for over the years, mostly for their work ethic, and I’ve been in the EEO crosshairs for it more than once.
Naturally, I didn’t hang out with those outside work.
The fact is, regardless of anyone’s beliefs, if someone wasn’t pulling their weight around the office, I didn’t like it and might not have expressed my opinion in the most mature fashion. Sue me; I’m human.
That both behaviors were tolerated is a leadership issue, but that’s the subject of other articles.
So, for you leaders out there, here’s how to promote inclusion in the workplace:
Hire talented people.
Don’t tolerate discrimination, harassment, or offensive behavior. What you tolerate, you endorse.
Don’t put someone who’s easily offended in the role of enforcing behavior problem.
If someone’s behavior is unacceptable, don’t let them continue to work for you.
See, you can change behavior if the individual (or group) is willing to change, but you can’t change a person’s beliefs by force. No one – no one – has ever changed their beliefs through argument or intimidation. You can brow beat someone with a stick of another color all you want, but it’s not going to change their mind.
I’ll end my rant with this: if leaders are going to change culture in regard to DEI, they’re going to have to lead from the top and by example. They’re going to have to communicate to those they lead why a change is important to the survival of the company and why the efforts are the right thing to do.”
If they don’t, hiring all the DEI specialists in the world aren’t going to fix their leadership problems.
Educating executives, managers, supervisors and other leaders remains a major concern for companies eager to keep their organizations afloat or even thriving in a challenging economic environment. Frankly, the limiting factor for most organizations continues to be leadership.
Leader development is not a new concept. It continues, however, to be practiced in ways that – at best – do little to develop successful leaders and – at worst – damage functional relationships by allowing learning to exist in silos and independent “vacuums.”
The problem is not content. Adequate topical content is a dime-a-dozen and represents time-tested applications and concepts that have not changed much in a couple of millennia. Any of several firms create and publish reasonably valid content.
The principal challenge around effective development is relevancy. The content mentioned above is generic and must be made relevant for a specific functional or hierarchical group, within a specific organization. Then, when properly facilitated, we can at least hope to successfully develop a group of leaders.
The biggest issue, though, in effectively developing a group, team, gaggle, or flock of leaders is making sure they all learn the same things, the same way, and in the same context. Further, they should be able to test relevant applications and concepts together, for best learning and application.
Enter Team-Based Leader Development.
Now, I’m not speaking of team-building, per se, nor am I talking about campfires, challenge/ropes courses, falling-backward trust exercises, or other hardly-effective methods of development.
Those have value in team-bonding, but not real team development. And no, bonding and development are not the same things… in fact, it’s not actually a team just because you call it a team. See our article on The First rule of the Leadership Team.
I’m simply talking about developing a team or group of leaders at the same time, together. At our firm, we see more and more organizations wanting – needing – content specific for their groups; you just can’t get there when sending people out to some public session or seminar trying to be all things to all people.
You need your leaders developed together, learning applications and concepts relevant to your organization. By using team-based leader development, all leaders of a particular level or function learn these things at the same time, in the same room, using each other as learning tools.
The advantages of this approach should be obvious, and include demonstrated successes in:
Improving communication flow within the team and out to the organization. This can occur naturally, and in a less stressful, facilitated environment. Conversations like this…
…benefit the organization, by providing calm discussions among leaders of similar hierarchical or functional levels, about just about anything important occurring in the organization today, and
…benefit the specific leaders involved, as they not only are discussing new learnings and applications, but they now have the opportunity to discuss things not normally discussed.
For example, without a safer venue, how many mid or senior-level managers would ask a peer “Hey, John, what’s the best way for me to resolve a conflict in my department?” Or “Say, Susan, I’m having some issues in driving empowerment to my hourly employees – any suggestions?”
I’m guessing those conversations/questions, in the midst of our brutally hectic workdays, would be damned rare.
Fostering mutual accountability for behaviors and results. One of the biggest advantages in having all these leaders in one location discussing the same things is that accountabilities can become institutionalized. It’s one thing to make a casual mention in the hallway; another thing altogether to commit to a group today, then speak with them a month or so later about your progress.
Also, this close-in work environment creates team ground rules that foster cohesion; if we agree in a group that behind-the-back caucusing is not something we’ll do, then having those back-stabbing conversations later just doesn’t feel right. Further, open communications in a facilitated setting inevitably translate to more open conversations in the open workplace.
Faster assimilation, shared accountabilities, and increased understanding. This is the financial “why?” answered. Homogeneous participants learn faster, and the learning is more relevant. Therefore, an organization’s return on those development dollars is quicker, and the skills are more appropriate for the organization’s needs.
Understanding is accelerated; participants can discuss/explain with each other on various points and concepts, making sure that the meaning is the same for all, and that more realize how they can actually be used for leader success.
Participants in team-based development are able to identify their primary strengths quicker, and better understand how building on those contributes to higher levels of personal satisfaction and team success.
In short, all win. And the organization is better for it, all the time.
2023’s first leadership newsflash: You aren’t what you do!
And if that doesn’t surprise you, how about this: Your job title isn’t what you do, either.
Have you ever talked to someone who was a little too proud of their job title? Like “I’m the SENIOR Vice President for Beverage Dissemination” is supposed to impress someone. I hate guys like that.
Job titles are a lot like the letters after a name in a signature block. They’re only important to people who are impressed by them. Otherwise, they’re largely meaningless, especially to the people who work for and with you.
My first experience with this was as a young lieutenant when I was appointed as the Resources Augmentation Duty Officer. I guess they figured if I could say it, I could be it, and very few people knew what the job entailed. What I did was plan for and tell people how to protect planes and people in case of a disaster – including nuclear. And I was damned good at telling people what to do.
My job title wasn’t what I did… and what I did wasn’t who I was.
Years ago, I worked with the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict and Interoperable Capabilities (PDASD SO/LIC & IC for short). Try putting that on a business card. I’m not sure even he knew what he was supposed to do, except whatever the ASD SP/LIC & IC told him to do.
My point is this: Leaders don’t need a fancy job title to lead. They don’t need to be the Chief anything or the Vice President of anything to be a positive influence on, give a shit about, and help others succeed.
And their role in the organization is less important than who they are.
Good leaders know who they are – what their purpose is, what they believe in, and what they stand for… and what they won’t stand for. And none of that should be focused on self. They may not fully realize it at the time, but when a leader believes in people and cares more for the success of others than their own, everyone around them can tell.
Case in point: When I was the commander of a flying squadron, my purpose was to do everything in my power to help my teams deliver exceptional service to our clients. That was the measure of our success. I believed in them and their abilities and my confidence in them showed. They knew what I expected of them and what I wouldn’t tolerate. And it created an environment in which they were wildly successful (and made me look good in the process as an added bonus).
See, I knew the title wasn’t what I was supposed to do, and what I did reflected who I was.
At a time when job titles were so important to my peers, the sign on my door said simply “Kevin.” People didn’t come to me to be commanded; they came to me to be led.
Enough about me. How about you?
Does your desire for the next higher job title interfere with how you’re leading your team? Does your team know that you care about them and their success more than you care about yours? Does what’s important to you reflect in what’s important to them… and vice versa?
It’s a new year, so how about we start off with a new job title. If being a good leader is important to you in 2023, dare to be just Kevin. Or Bill or Julia or Ginny or Todd. Know who you are and dare to be yourself.
Or this year will be just like the last and the one before that.