Just listen to me and stop trying to solve my problem!

There’s an old adage that goes: If you’re always solving other people’s problems, you will always be solving other people’s problems. That’s a serious issue for me, and I struggle to stop babysitting other people’s monkeys as part of my own circus. It’s a hard habit to break when you’ve been raised to be a problem solver.

Good leaders tend to be good problem solvers… which is probably why they’re in a leadership role in the first place. Those who are always complaining to their boss about their problems don’t usually climb very high on the ladder of the success.

Great leaders teach others how to solve their own problems. But first we have to learn how to listen.

While raising two beautiful, smart, and successful daughters, I learned (and relearned many times) the hard lesson that sometimes they just wanted me to listen for understanding and not listen to solve.

It’s the same in leadership.

If we haven’t learned how to just listen without trying to solve, we’re robbing our team of opportunities to grow and improve. And we’re certainly not empowering them. In short, we’re hindering their success.

I like to watch people stumble upon a solution while they’re just describing a problem to me. I’ve certainly done it, and I remember the sense of accomplishment and burst in self-confidence that came from it. That burst of confidence can lead to increased performance and better problem-solving skills – just what we’re looking to develop in our teams.

And it’s directly related to increasing empowerment in our future leaders.

Well, you ask, how do we know when they’re struggling with a problem they’re capable of solving themselves? We should know because we’ve been having regular conversations with them, listening for clues they’ve run into a hurdle. Great leaders have enough emotional intelligence to be in tune with their team and can tell when something’s wrong.

If we just can’t discern if they’re looking for a solution after listening for a few minutes, ask them. No, really, ask them if it’s a ‘listen and solve’ or ‘just a listen’. It’s taken me     quite a while (decades, if you ask my girls) to intuitively know which it is, but we get better at being able to tell the difference the more we practice listening for understanding.

Then comes the active listen skills, which I’m certain we’ve all mastered:

  • Pay attention! Ignore the phone, don’t look at the computer and if we have space, we should get out from behind the desk and sit without a physical barrier between us.
  • Show that you’re listening. And I’m talking about non-verbals here, but here’s a warning: non-verbal cues can be easily misunderstood! Case in point: when I’m talking with my wife, I nod when I agree with her; she nods in understanding without regard to whether she agrees. No wonder I’m wrong so often. It’s the same in the office, so we have to be careful about interpreting – and misinterpreting – the nonverbals we’re seeing. Clarify if needed but don’t end the conversation without a clear understanding of the next step(s).
  • When the opportunity presents itself, don’t offer a solution! Now’s our chance to ask Do you want my advice? Or how about Do you want me to help you brainstorm a solution? Make it clear we’re not going to do it for them or tell them how to do it, but we will provide the encouragement they need to come up with a solution by themselves.
  • Don’t offer the solution Have I mentioned that before? Action-oriented leaders tend to listen until they’ve devised a solution. We grow impatient when the speaker doesn’t get straight to the point, especially when the best solution (ours) is so obvious. The trouble with that is there’s a good chance the problem we just solved in our minds was misdiagnosed to begin with, and we jumped to the wrong conclusion. We wouldn’t know it, of course, because we were only listening to solve.

Final thing to remember: no one likes anyone telling them how to do something. At least no one I know. The quickest way to shut down communication is to start a sentence with, “Well, you just have to…” It’s also a good way to end up with malicious compliance.

So next time someone says, “Hey boss, I have a problem,” don’t be in a hurry to tell them how to solve it. We’ve probably seen or heard of it before, and we likely know the fix, but we’re not doing them any favors by cutting the learning opportunity short by listening to solve.

I find I still have to practice just listening. Maybe you do, too.

It’s up to you, leaders.

Criticism and Feedback: NOT the same thing!

I had a mid-level manager ask me recently, “Is there a difference between giving feedback or giving criticism as a leader? Seems like the same thing to me.”

The differences seems subtle, but in reality they’re pretty damned big. And from a results perspective, the differences are huge.

Huge differences. Most have to do with intent and desired outcome.

Criticism, in its simplest form, is for the giver, not the recipient. To criticize is one of the easiest forms of ego defense, and is generally a display of defensiveness and lack of personal confidence. We criticize most when someone aspires to accomplish what we cannot (or will not), or when their accomplishment could somehow threaten ours.

It’s acting out hurtfully with negative thinking.

Feedback, on the other hand, is principally to help someone grow and improve. To positively change a behavior for the better. In other words, it’s more of what we recommend they do, and less of what they did wrong.

Further, if we include some self-reflection in our feedback — opening ourselves to others — we both grow. Our blind spots will be forever blind without effective feedback from others, and people are more inclined to be open with those who have been similarly open with them.

The Johari Window is a great tool for determining how public or “open” you are to receiving feedback, which is crucial for your feedback to be well received.

The more I increase my “public” or “open” window:

  • The less I am blind.
  • The less I have to worry about keeping things hidden.
  • The more I may discover parts of me that I like, which are hidden.

I can’t reduce my Blind area without help from others (feedback).

If I am to help others, I must learn to give helpful feedback.

It really is that simple.

And Be Brazen, remembering that Grace and Accountability can coexist.

Video: Leading with Influence — The ultimate Jedi Mind Trick

It’s like a Jedi Mind Trick…

Leading with influence is real leadership. It’s the only leadership that matters.

But how? It’s simpler than we sometimes think, so let’s just keep it that way. No need to complicate things unnecessarily. Three areas to focus on:

  1. Know your audience. Influencing at a senior level is not the same as doing so for a more junior audience. Senior folks tend to grasp concepts and ideas more readily, while our up-and-comers can focus on our specific words so closely they can sometimes lose sight of the big picture.
  2. Keep it intentional. Leading isn’t an offshoot, an unintended consequence, or an afterthought. It’s your primary focus, as should be your efforts to influence. Make your intentions known – no one should have to guess. Do good things, then move on without fanfare. Be the example, not the excuse.
  3. Be aware of your impact. Like it or not, you’re always “on.” Effective leaders don’t get to have bad or “cheat” days. Those you lead need you at your best – or at least your apparent best – all the time. Be mindful that your influence doesn’t lead to unintended consequences.

Leading with Influence is simply “be the good example” on steroids. Exemplary, intentional behavior along with clear language on expectations and results gets us pointed in the right direction.

May the force be with you.

Be Brazen.

The Problem with Accountability — Or, hey, it’s not my fault!

I didn’t have enough time.    If only I had more…

That’s not my job.    Someone else will do it.

I don’t know how.    I don’t think the boss said/meant that.

The list is endless. The bottom line… It’s not my fault!

And therein lies the crux of the problem: Accountability isn’t about blame, it’s about ownership.

We recently conducted a workshop on Leadership Accountability. Powerful, uncomfortable stuff. People squirming in chairs, eyes shifting around, not making eye contact… even being accountable for understanding accountability was difficult.

Damn. How’d we get here?

First, let’s discuss what Accountability is in the leadership context, what it isn’t, and what it looks like when worn correctly.

(These are my definitions, so just bear with me. If you want to use your definitions, write your own article.)

“Leadership Accountability is being responsible for the results of your decisions or actions without demand or force and prepared to explain them when you are asked.

Think OWNERSHIP.

Like owning a car. No one blames you for owning a car (well, some of you may push that a bit), you just own it. If it’s clean, that’s on you. If it runs well, that’s on you. If the oil isn’t changed regularly (you know who you are), that’s on you as well.

In other words, you’re completely accountable for that car. You aren’t to blame for the car, you’re simply accountable.

So, think ownership.

We keep using “responsibility” when discussing Accountability… are they the same thing?

No. Here’s something to chew on to distinguish between Responsibility and Accountability:

Responsibility is taking ownership of activities.  A person who completes the tasks required for their job or role is responsible.

Accountability is taking ownership of results.  A person who knows what needs to be accomplished and does what it takes to get the right results is accountable.

We’re responsible for tasks, accountable for results. No, that’s not just a play on words, either. It brings us to another point: Accountability is one-deep.

Many people can own responsibilities, but…

Accountability is one-deep

Many managers can be responsible for submitting their numbers to a Director. That director, however, is accountable for that report. If one of those managers doesn’t do their job, that director is still accountable for the report.

Only one person is ultimately accountable for any result, though many may have a responsibility to assist.

Now, just to mess with your head… that same manager may have had an accountability to submit that report, but it’s only an accountability for that manager – the director still has overall accountability for the report.

Things that make you go “hmmmm…”

To further unpack this, we must understand that Accountability doesn’t mean punishment. Accountability is a willingness to accept responsibility for our own actions. We too often use Accountability and “holding someone accountable” as negative events. They aren’t, when done correctly.

First, you own accountability yourself. No one can “hold” you accountable for anything. They can force, coerce or threaten you to get you to do something, our even punish you when you don’t; but remember our definition, being forced doesn’t count.

What we can do, however, is assist others and ask for help ourselves.

We can help others with their accountability by doing what we’re supposed to do, respectfully reminding, and helping out wherever we can.

We can also ask others to help us with our accountabilities. Give people permission to be our eyes, ears, Jiminy Cricket or whatever floats your boat to help us remember and follow through. It’s not forced if you asked for help – it’s simply smart and resourceful.

So, how do we foster better accountability within our hallowed halls? It’s not hard, if we can get past the blaming game…

  • Clear communications. People know what’s expected and why it’s necessary.
  • Meaningful Consequences. Focus on positive consequences, negative/punishment is indicative of a failure somewhere. (this will be another article – it’s a big deal)
  • Model accountability. Leaders set the tone. Speak accountability; demonstrate accountability. “Do as I say, not as I do” simply will not work here.

The “Model Accountability” deserves more info… we model Accountability when we accept and embrace our own Accountability. Words like “I was wrong,” “I made a mistake,” “That’s on me,” and other similar statements imply accountability.

Think about it – openly accepting accountability is generally a positive thing and has a constructive impact on others.

And be prepared to explain why, because that’s how we learn. Use reasons, not excuses. I could write a boring treatise on the difference, but I’ll use my simple mind’s clarification:

  • Reasons include my action or inaction as the center of the failure,
  • Excuses use another person, inanimate object or intangible as the center/cause of failure.

Give reasons, not excuses. We all learn, grow, and improve when doing so.

I’ve crammed four workshop hours into this brief article, and those four hours could easily have been two days. Accountability, though simple, has the constant complexity of people’s emotions and fear. Makes for some heady stuff but hoped to give you a brief overview here.

Happy to share more if you like, just ask, comment or complain and we can discuss. As always, you can reach me at kevinb@triangleperformance.com.

And Be Brazen, remembering that Grace and Accountability can coexist.

That’s a messed up Org Chart!

Though leadership is always my preferred topic, sometimes we need to get into the management weeds. The blocking and tackling that is so necessary for success in leadership is sometimes overlooked for more of the sexy, fun stuff.

It’s important, though. And likely no management concept is more important — or more ignored — than that of appropriate Span of Control.

What’s the perfect number of direct reports? People who report directly to you? How many employees should any one manager have working for them; does it matter what “kinds” of employees?

I get these questions a lot, so thought I’d help shed some light.

This challenge, of course, refers to what’s called Span of Control, and though there are always “unique” circumstances that defeat any rule, there are some decent historical guidelines.

Span of Control isn’t simply dependent on each individual; it’s a basic limitation of all managers as it describes only their direct reports. Though a manager can effectively “control” any number of people if there are enough levels in between, not so when it comes to direct reports. That capacity is finite.

…and here’s the deal: don’t give me this song and dance bullshit about how this doesn’t apply to you, or that you’re somehow different. It does, and you ain’t.

Appropriate span of control refers to those you can effectively and successfully manage, not just have on an org chart. If you have 10+ direct reports, they simply cannot be receiving the individual attention that each one needs. There aren’t enough minutes in the day.

I may not be a math major, but I do own a calculator.

Be Brazen, and remember that Grace and Accountability can coexist.

Leave criticism at Wal-Mart

I was recently asked a question on Quora:

Is there a difference between giving feedback or giving criticism as a leader? What are the main differences?

Huge differences. Most have to do with intent and desired outcome.

Criticism, in its simplest form, is for the giver, not the recipient. To criticize is one of the easiest forms of ego defense, and is generally a display of defensiveness and lack of personal confidence. We criticize most when someone aspires to accomplish what we cannot (or will not), or when their accomplishment could somehow threaten ours.

It’s acting out hurtfully with negative thinking.

Feedback, on the other hand, is principally to help someone grow and improve. To positively change a behavior for the better. In other words, it’s more of what we recommend they do, and less of what they did wrong.

Further, if we include some self-reflection in our feedback — opening ourselves to others — we both grow. Our blind spots will be forever blind without effective feedback from others, and people are more inclined to be open with those who have been similarly open with them.

The Johari Window is a great tool for determining how public or “open” you are to receiving feedback, which is crucial for your feedback to be well received.

The more I increase my “public” or “open” window:

–The less I am blind.

–The less I have to worry about keeping things hidden.

–The more I may discover parts of me that I like, which are hidden.

I can’t reduce my Blind area without help from others (feedback).

If I am to help others, I must learn to give helpful feedback.

This mutual feedback process builds trust and strengthens relations among teams, groups and even individuals.

In short, criticism is selfish, feedback is helpful.

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

Great question, by the way.