Ask your people to be solution-focused

A few weeks ago, I interviewed a soccer trainer about the way he leads his team. He beliefs the right behaviors are the basis to build the team upon. He decided to set three main rules for his team. One of them was: be solution-focused. When problems arise, when things don’t go well in the team, don’t become negative. Don’t gossip. Don’t undermine others. Don’t be a victim. Stay in a positive mindset, and think about how you can be part of the solution.

That is so true. Many conflicts, in organizations or otherwise, escalate because people contribute to the negative situation, instead of to the solution. Both parties don’t take the first step. They feel hurt, or harmed. They feel injustice is done. And then they feel entitled to get it fixed. By someone else.

As a manager, you probably experienced this more than once. You were expected to solve conflicts like this, after both parties escalated it to an unnecessary degree. Many leaders get irritated, or frustrated, when their people behave like this. They say: “my employees should feel more responsibility”.  Or: “people should take more ownership”.

But what it actually boils down to, is that they want their people to be solution-focused. What leaders don’t want, is employees who sit back and blame others, and wait for someone else to fix the problem. They want people to think: what can I do, to improve this situation? And of course, in the end people are better off when they take care of a difficult situation themselves.

I like what this soccer trainer is doing. He is not allowing his team members to be the victim, to spiral downwards in negativity. He demands his people to take charge, to be part of the solution. And yes, that is actually hard work, and sometimes we need a kind reminder. It was for me, and I hope it is for you, too!

Most people want more freedom in their work – but it comes with responsibility

Most people want more freedom in their work. More room to maneuver, and to make their own decisions. To be the master of their own destiny. Organizations increasingly experiment with work forms empowering employees. And it works. According to research, it increases productivity.

But often it’s a struggle to get there. Managers feel less in control, some employees feel uncomfortable (e.g. not everybody likes to work from home), and both feel that not everyone deals responsibly with having more leeway.

I passionately believe in the benefits of giving employees more freedom. More room to choose their own path, more flexibility so they can reach their targets in the way they think best. However, sometimes it doesn’t work as well as I expected, and I had some nagging doubts.

And then I realized: with freedom comes responsibility. For the employee, for the manager, and for the organization. It just doesn’t work when people don’t realize that freedom also brings responsibilities.

Let’s start with the employee. Getting more freedom in your work, also means you become more accountable. It should get less easy to blame others. However, often, people somehow find more reasons to put blame elsewhere.

Or when the organization wants all voices to be heard. It doesn’t mean you should (1) give your opinion in a blunt, harsh manner; (2) expect your opinion will always be taken into account. When people are asked to speak up, it isn’t an excuse to just blurt out everything. If your badly given feedback hurts anyone, or chases away the client, don’t be proud of being the type that ‘just says how it is’. You have to think about the consequences first. And, you have to think through whether your opinion adds value. If not, why waste everyone’s time sharing it?

Then the manager. When you decide to manage employees just on output, you really have to do so. Manage on deadlines, on milestones, on achievements. Focus on the value they add. If output is lacking, don’t be shy to address that. Employees need to know. If they experience difficulties, see if you can help them. But don’t let them get away with vague stories on why they couldn’t achieve what you’ve agreed with them. It’s their responsibility to get something done, and to inform you when something is preventing them from performing. If they don’t, address that. They need to show you they’re capable of managing themselves.

Colleagues need to address each other as well. If someone’s not delivering, which prevents you from reaching your deadline, you need to speak up. First to your colleague, then to his manager. We all need to contribute. In many organizations people find it hard to address each other. But if you are all expected to manage your own job, you also have to manage the interfaces with other people to get your job done.

When you have doubts implementing new ways of working, with more freedom, consider the above. Show people they have to take responsibility. And how to do that.

You won’t amaze yourself from within your comfort zone

I love stories about people who managed to overcome tough periods in their lives, and have achieved incredible things. Whose darkest moments have been an inspiration. I admire their determination to create something good out of something bad.

Often I wish everyone, including me, would have more of that determination. But I wonder, would those people have achieved the same if they wouldn’t have had to come from very far? Does one need to be desperate, in order to find the energy and dedication to take big, life-changing steps? Maybe because they have little to lose, they take risks, as it can hardly get worse than it already is.

Let’s face it, most people are more or less in a good place already. If we take risks which don’t work out well, we could lose the good things we already have. We prefer to cling to what’s good in our lives. We want to protect it. Our comfort zone seduces us, by painting us a desirable, peaceful picture. But well within that comfort zone, we lose sight of other possibilities, other ways of life, other roads to travel.

Teachers know this. For children to learn something new, there should be a manageable difference between the new knowledge and their existing capabilities and knowledge. Children, and adults just the same, need to step out of their comfort zone, in order to learn new things. For children, exploring the area out of their comfort zone often comes naturally. But somehow when we grow older, we like to cling to what we have and what we know.

Sometimes, our unconscious gives us a message. We get restless, but we don’t know why. We just don’t know what’s bothering us, because we are where we want to be. But somehow we feel the pull of different opportunities.

That restlessness is telling us we need to get out of that comfortable equilibrium. It’s time to learn something new, to get amazed and excited. Or even to get anxious, appalled, or shocked. It’s time to get out there, and develop ourselves.

So take that course you’ve been hesitating about, try out that new sport you’ve been interested in, or go for that odd hobby you’ve been thinking about for a while. In your job, never assume you know everything. Realize you can always learn from others. There’s always a way to do your job better. Or to move to another job. To add new skills.

Get out of your comfort zone, to live, learn, cry and be happy. Amaze yourself.

Who wants a manager that has no interest in people?

Years ago, a magazine featured an interview with a CEO of a medium sized company. Most of the interview was about the standard questions about his leadership style. He gave the usual answers, such as “I’m a people manager”, and “It’s important to walk the talk”. Then the interviewer asked how his job affected his family life. The CEO admitted he didn’t see his wife and kids much. His wife mainly raised the kids, he mainly worked.

So far, so good. People are allowed to make their own choices, and when they’re both happy with it, I’m not judging.

But then he was quoted saying: “It’s better that way for everyone. I’m just not cut out for boring, repetitive, routine tasks; like bringing the kids to school every day.”

Luckily for him, this happened before social media ruled the public opinion. The toll was just a bunch of letters by readers in the next three issues of the magazine. No harsh jokes going viral on YouTube, no thrashing flooding Facebook. Just three weeks of ironic or angry readers. Some felt sorry for his wife, whom he apparently considered excellently suited for repetitive tasks. Some for his kids, who were thought to be better off without him. And some for the CEO himself, for missing out on his kids.

I was mostly feeling sorry for his employees. A manager who can’t see the importance of spending time with his own kids? Who doesn’t see a ride to school as an opportunity to enjoy precious moments, like sharing jokes, listening to what’s bothering the kids, which friends said what in class, or insights in how they really feel about going to school?

Some might ask, so what? There are plenty of people who don’t bring their kids to school because they can’t. Their work schedule, or location, doesn’t allow for it. Does it matter whether he just admits he doesn’t like to do it?

It does. A manager who doesn’t see the value of small moments of interaction with his own kids, isn’t interested in people at all. He’s not interested in small talk. Not interested in your private life. Nor your work life. He’s not interested in what you would like to do with your life, what projects you like to work on, or whom you like to work with. If he does ask questions, he just does it because he knows he should. Because he wants to be able to say “I’m a people manager.”

Someone who will label spending some time with others as “boring, repetitive routine tasks”, is not interested in people at all. And who wants a manager who has no interest whatsoever in his employees?

Being able to give clear feedback makes you a better manager

A manager had someone in one of his teams with performance issues. This employee was leading a crucial project, but wasn’t communicating nor cooperating well with others. Not within his department, and certainly not with people from other departments. This employee reported to a junior teamleader, who hadn’t been successful in improving performance.

When other senior managers grew concerned about the delivery of the project, the manager realized he had to take action. He felt he couldn’t let his junior teamleader solve the problem, and decided to get more involved himself. He informed HR that he was going to have a serious talk with this employee. He was going to state it as a last chance, where he would personally monitor the performance of the employee. He was sure it would be an important signal, to show the seriousness of the situation.

A few days after this talk, the employee walked into the HR department. He seemed inches taller, with head held high, and puffed up chest. He demanded HR to increase his grade (and salary). Baffled, the HR advisor asked why. Well, he was now reporting directly to a more senior manager, wasn’t he? He moved up in the organization, which was long due of course, because he managed such a crucial project. The only issue remaining was to finally get him to be rewarded accordingly.

Obviously, the manager had not gotten his message across. If the employee had been aware he was given a last chance, he probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to demand a raise.

Communication, especially about performance issues, is often watered down too much. We shouldn’t be blunt to people of course, but we need to be honest. People have the right to know how they perform. How they can become better at their job. And certainly how they can avoid being fired.

There are many good courses and books on how to improve your feedback skills. But many people feel they don’t need it. They hate training sessions where they have to role-play. They feel awkward having to try in front of their colleagues. Or they just feel they are capable enough. But giving good and effective feedback is difficult. Especially when addressing performance issues. It is much easier to water down the message, and remain the nice boss, or the easy going colleague. It really is a skill to address someone’s behavior.

Giving good feedback is one of the most important things to master as a manager. You can’t get your team to perform well without letting them truly know how they perform. So if you want to perform as a manager, you have to get your people to perform by letting them know what they do well and where they need to improve. Next time, ask yourself: are you sure your message came across as intended? You can’t afford not to give the feedback. Otherwise the work, the team, and you will suffer.

Let’s admire female role models, instead of criticizing them

In a recent article a woman lamented that the lack of female role models caused women to strive to be too perfect. She argued that not having enough women to look up to, makes us have an unrealistic view of what successful women should look like. It makes us think we need to be perfect in all aspects.

But I wonder. Maybe the causality is actually the other way around?

I thought back to  my own post about female role models. In which I also complained a female colleague was the wrong example. Ashamed I ask myself: isn’t that the reason why we are so hard on ourselves? Because we criticize all other women, and know they do the same to us?

As a teenager, I was asked who my role model was. My answer, Madonna, brought about grins and raised eyebrows. Years later, when during an application I was asked again, I changed it safely to Mahatma Gandhi. Because I didn’t want people to think I admired a woman who was considered superficial, too outspoken, too ambitious, selfish.

But the truth is, I still admire her. She broke through so many barriers and taboos. She decided on what she wanted and worked really hard to get there. She reinvented herself a couple of times successfully. I love how she always dared to take risks. How she refused to be stopped by fear of failing publicly, or of harsh criticism. She is incredibly brave, creative, energetic and determined. Why would we care about her relationships, or her tough diets.

With male role models, we allow them to be great in one aspect. We downplay their shortcomings, their quirks. We see Steve Jobs as incredibly smart and creative, and just accept he had a rude and harsh leadership style. We revere Mahatma Gandhi’s gentleness, purity and achievements in making the world a better place, but we hardly hear about how unforgiving and authoritative he was to people close to him. Or, that his raw food life style was more extreme than Madonna’s…

With female role models, we expect them to be great in everything. And if they’re not, we point out their flaws, much more than we focus on their brilliance. If we would look at male role models in the same critical way as we look at female role models, we would hardly have role models left.

So let’s admire the female managers or business owners we know. The creative stars we read about. The female politicians or queens ruling our countries. Let us graciously accept their failures. Let us allow them to look fat, or old, or grumpy, whether it’s their off-day or not. Let us acknowledge they aren’t perfect mothers (as nobody is).

Let’s focus on what they’re great at. On why they got so far. Let’s revel in their qualities. And see them as a great example, a role model to admire. Once we start doing that, we will suddenly have a lot more female role models to learn from.

Is your organization united, or does it feel like a bunch of departments thrown together?

A number of people, who didn’t know each other, were randomly assigned a green or a red badge. They were asked to sit together with people wearing the same colored badge. Then they were asked to describe their own group, as well as the other group. An impossible task, as they didn’t know each other at all. However, that didn’t stop them from describing the group they belonged too in much more favorable terms than the other group.

In another study, people were asked to describe the people living in their street as well as people living in a parallel street. Also for the people in their city as well as people living in another city, and then people in their country as well as in another country. In all three cases, people described distinct differences between ‘their’ group of people, and ‘the other’ group, describing their own group in a more positive way.

Many similar experiments have been conducted. All showing our strong bias to view our own group in a more positive light than other groups. Even when we don’t know anyone, we are strongly inclined to rate people in our group more favorably than those outside the group.

Why does this happen? Well, for one, it is a basic human need to want to belong somewhere. Another important cause: we like to view ourselves in a positive light. Therefore, unconsciously, we imagine we are part of the superior group, in order to raise our self-esteem.

Although this has a social function, there are also negative outcomes. Obvious examples are racism and discrimination. But there are many more less obvious effects, still with big impact. Look around in the workplace. Many people feel their department has its own distinct identity, which they consider to be superior to other departments. They favor colleagues in their own department. They believe the other departments are not doing as well as they do. And soon these small beliefs hinder the cooperation between departments. Confirming the already slightly negative opinion they have about each other.

For an organization to work well together, we need to address this group effect in the workplace. There are several strategies to reduce tension between departments, and let them work more effectively together. To name a few:

  • Ensure people are in contact with each other frequently. People who know each other better, realize the differences are not that big and they build sympathy for each other. Put people from different departments together, stimulate interdepartmental job moves, communicate about the different departments, create an open office space for several departments together.
  • Make people feel part of a bigger group than just their department. Develop an organization identity, to which people can relate. This reduces their identification with their own department.
  • Emphasize and stimulate interdependence, ensure departments can’t do their job without relying on others. When people need each other, they reduce their negative view of another group.

Realize that human nature prevents departments from working well together. There’s no easy solution. It needs attention. But the benefits of a smooth cooperation between all parts of an organization are worth it.

Leadership by example gone wrong

Have you experienced leaders who proudly say they walk the talk? And then do any (or more) of the following:

  • complaining employees should have more entrepreneurial spirit, while incorporating more bureaucracy and authorization controls to be able to have a grip on what is happening in the organization
  • saying they always listen to the input of employees, but talking all the time during meetings, interrupting employees every time they start speaking
  • being strict with employees on costs, implementing several cost cutting measures, while negotiating for their new company car to be bigger
  • micro managing while exclaiming they want their people to show more ownership
  • saying they value different opinions, while vehemently disagreeing with colleagues all the time

Most of us are all too familiar with these examples.

Why? It mostly has to do with two basic psychological principles:

  • Almost all of us often overestimate our abilities. Research has repeatedly shown a huge majority (90%+) usually thinks they are better than average at certain tasks. This effect is often stronger for tasks we’re not experienced in.
  • We also often accept or pardon our own mistakes, while we accept much less of others. So a manager might explain away his own little mistakes, but others observing the manager won’t forgive those mistakes so easily. They’ll also think the manager has double standards, as he forgives himself but doesn’t let others get away so easily.

So how can we really walk the talk?

  • Ask yourself what kind of leader you want to be, and what kind of behavior you need to show to be that leader. Then check in with yourself a few times a day, and ask whether you are showing that behavior.
  • Actively seek feedback, to check whether your good intentions are actually perceived that way.
  • When you complain about others, ask yourself what your role has been. What was it in your behavior, that caused the other to behave that way? “When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you.”
  • When you realize you are making excuses for not walking the talk, stop yourself. Correct your behavior, or tell people you will do better next time. People don’t mind when you make a mistake once in a while, but they need to see that you realize it, and are willing to correct it.

Or even more soundproof: don’t make claims to what kind of wonderful leader you are. Just be one…

Behavioral dynamics around a new boss

One of the most interesting studies of human behavior can be conducted when an organization has a leadership change at the top.

A new leader wants to make a mark, wants to proof him- or herself. The pressure of books on strategy and 100-day plans for new leaders, of hiring executive boards who gave the new leader targets to shape up the results, and (not least) of apprehensive, excited or stubborn employees who stop doing what they used to do because things will probably change anyway. All these expectations cause most new leaders to behave differently than they would do once they’re settled into their job.

However, the behavior of the new leader is actually not the most fascinating. The behavior of (some of) the employees is.

If you think people behave fairly consistently, watch what happens when a new top manager starts. At first, both the leader as well as the employees around the new person, behave at their best. They want to make a good first impression. The process resembles courting, but with a power twist. The employees expect the boss to have a double agenda (to change the world as they know it), so they will work hard to protect their own position. It’s not uncommon to see how people not only defend viewpoints they vehemently disagreed with before, but even seem genuinely convinced of them. Just to stay in line with the ideas of the new boss, to avoid jeopardizing their position.

It demonstrates how a change in power usually initiates a kaleidoscopic shift in the opinions, actions and attitudes of people close to the new boss. Most people desperately want to secure a premium place in the new reality, so they adjust their behavior to appease the new leader. Although the underlying psychological need is understandable, the extend of this effect baffles me every time.

A new leader benefits most from people who helps him/her understand the organization, the history, and point out risks or sensitivities without being stubborn. Who basically treat the new leader as they would a new colleague, without the politics of pleasing the new boss and vehemently protecting their carved out space.

On the other hand, this can only happen when the new leader openly communicates about what s/he wants to achieve, and welcomes all viewpoints instead of favoring specific viewpoints from day one.

So next time, when there’s a leadership change, ask the new boss to be open about what they want to achieve. And return that with your open and honest opinions, while continuing your job the best way you can. You do yourself, your boss and the organization a favor.

How to make sure your next job does not bring you down

When you’ve applied for a job, and are invited to an interview, you prepare for the questions you might be asked. You think about what they might be looking for, and prepare for what you should highlight in your experience and personality. You look at the job requirements, to decide which of your achievements you want to bring across. You look up tips and tricks on typical questions, and what the smart answers are.

And you’re right. There are numerous things you can (and should) do prepare to present yourself at your best.  It makes sense to increase your chances to land the job you want.

But don’t lose yourself by just focusing on getting that job. It’s even more important to pay attention to what you need from that next job, or the organization, or the culture and colleagues with whom you will spend the majority of your time.

Some people might say, does that really matter? Any job will do. Or, the job is so great, I just want it regardless of who else works there. Or, this company will look so good on my resume.

The problem is: when a job is a bad fit, the negative effects can last for years. Or even sidetrack your career. Over the years, I’ve met several people in a job that was a bad fit, and pretty soon it broke down their confidence and reputation. They often found themselves alone in their opinion, or their approach. Their results started to decline. They lost confidence, but started to work harder to make up for it. The spiral went further downward from there. By the time they finally realized they weren’t able to make it work, they lost the courage to look for something better.

Please, do yourself a favor, and avoid entering this downward spiral. Focus on whether the culture, the colleagues, and the job are really a good fit.

How? During a job interview, pay attention to the following, to decide whether the organization suits you:

  • Read the atmosphere between interviewers. Are they having fun together? Do they truly listen to each other? Give each other space to ask questions?
  • How respectful are the interviewers about the organization, and other (previous) colleagues? Are they competitive? Do you sense silo-thinking between departments? Do they seem engaged in power fights? Are they badmouthing others?
  • How do the interviewers respond when you tell them examples about what you liked in previous managers or companies. Do they roll their eyes? Or do they enthusiastically respond with similar examples of their own?
  • Arrive 10-15 minutes early. If you’re lucky, they’ll let you wait in the lobby or a common purpose area where you can observe people interacting with each other. How do the passing employees act with each other? Do people have a smile on their face, or do they all seem cranky, stressed, or otherwise negatively occupied? Can you find interesting inside information in internal company magazines that might be lying around?
  • Ask interviewers about their tenure in their current job. If everyone seems to rotate quickly, check why.

Add questions of your own. Think about the answers, and whether they suit you. Check them against what you need from your next job.

Make sure your next job does not bring you down, but brings you growth, fun and satisfaction instead!