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!

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 observing others can train you more effectively than most leadership training can

Previously, I posted “Anyone can create a good leader (more effectively than most leadership training can)”. It was about the importance of reinforcing positive leadership behaviors you see around you.

This time I’d like to emphasize what we can learn every day from leadership examples around us. From positive examples, as described in the previous post, but also from (at first) seemingly random examples.

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a group in the restaurant of a hotel. The person who paid, added a tip on the credit card slip in the appropriate slot. When the waitress returned the credit card, she said: “The tip you added won’t go to the hotel staff. So I didn’t charge you for it…” We left the restaurant stunned.

Apparently, she preferred us to keep the money instead of paying it to the hotel. She probably thought: if the hotel owner doesn’t allow the staff to earn a bit extra for work well done, what is the point of a customer paying extra? And indeed, we meant the tip to go to the personnel, and not end up in the hotel owner’s pocket. However, although we appreciated her honesty, it left us with a strange impression of the place. How does this hotel treat it’s employees? Why does this employee feel more sympathetic to the customer than to her boss, so much so, that she gives money back to the customer?

Of course we don’t know the whole story. There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation why the staff is not paid their tips (maybe their base salary is much higher than restaurants in the neighborhood, or they get compensated another way). Whatever the situation is, the personnel clearly isn’t happy. This has an effect on being able to attract and retain good staff. It also has an effect on customers. A customer’s impression is quite important in an industry based on service. And this didn’t leave a great impression.

When you are a manager, you don’t want your employees to behave like that. Of course, you can’t always be their most favorite and popular person. But you certainly don’t want to turn your employees against the company.

Turn situations like this into questions about your own team. What are your people telling customers? What kind of impression does the company want to give customers? And if there’s a discrepancy, what is the cause? Are your people committed to the organization, and want to boost it forward? Or are they just earning their money, while frantically looking for other, more interesting, opportunities?

Understand what is happening in your team, and why it is happening. And address issues when they arise.

And keep your eyes peeled, as interesting leadership lessons like these come along every day.

Do you put your people first, or the organization?

In my experience, the majority of leaders fall into two categories:

  • the ones that put their people first
  • and the ones that put their unit (organization, department) first.

It’s a chicken and egg situation: should you first take care of the employees (who can then take care of the organization), or of the organization (which can then take care of the employees)?

The first group believes a leader should ensure people are motivated and happy. They can come across as soft. While debating an important decision they might say things like ‘I want people to agree’. Or ‘This decision should impact people in a positive way’. They strongly believe people are at their best when their motivation is intrinsic, and they enjoy coming to work.

It might seem to others they believe the workplace should be a free-for-all just-do-what-you-like happy space. But that is not the case. Their basic believe is that the organization wouldn’t exist without its people, and motivated, fulfilled employees make a better and more profitable organization. In order to achieve this, the organization sometimes has to make sacrifices for the people. With good pay and secondary benefits, but also with molding a job to someone’s strengths, or giving people leeway when they need it. They are convinced that as a result, the organization will benefit as well.

The second group believes the organization and results should come first. Their basic believe is that the people wouldn’t be there if the organization didn’t do well. So instead of the organization having to make sacrifices for the people, they feel employees have to make sacrifices for the organization. They strongly believe the organization needs to thrive and can then take care of its people.

They can come across as tough, because they might say things like ‘X will have to do this job whether he likes it or not, because it is best for the organization’, or ‘We first and foremost need to deliver, no matter what it takes.’ Most of them do not believe results are so important that all other values should take a back seat, but they do believe that the best way to take care of your people is to focus on keeping the organization healthy and doing well.

Although I belong to the first group, I can see where the second group comes from. More importantly, I’m convinced the two groups need each other. People have different perspectives, and we should value that. If one group prevails, it leads to a singular culture and tunnel vision. Marrying the two beliefs often leads to meaningful discussions from a broad perspective, and better outcomes. Yes, you’ll have heated debates and deep-rooted differences of opinion. But it is needed for a well-balanced organization.

For a healthy, balanced approach, ask yourself:

  • Which category do you belong to?
  • And your colleagues?
  • Do you personally allow for others to share their vision, and to ensure a balanced approach in your organization?

Anyone can create a good leader (more effectively than most leadership training can)

“Ladies and gentlemen. I am the captain of this flight, and I would like to inform you about our departure.” A wave of sighs and apprehension ripples through the hundreds of people, forming a line, about to board the aircraft. “As the airport of our destination has delays due to bad weather, I have decided to not let you board yet, until traffic control can give us a more precise time window for departure. I am very sorry, I apologize, and in thirty minutes I will come back to you with more information.” He then walked around through the crowd, and checked whether people had additional questions.

I love to see an unexpected example of great leadership in everyday life. With those few lines, the captain:

  • showed he wasn’t afraid to stand in front of a crowd to give a bad message;
  • took responsibility (“I decided not to board yet”), in order to divert potential angry passengers away from his colleagues, towards himself;
  • was clear about what information he did and didn’t have, and when people could expect additional information.

The situation had the potential to become messy. Nobody likes an unexpected, unintended change to their plans. And frustrated, often tired, passengers can get angry quickly if they feel they’re not helped immediately and adequately. But because this KLM captain was brave enough to face the crowd head-on, in a courteous manner, he defused a potential explosive situation, and protected his crew.

Another example.

“I am proud to start as the new director of this great school. My ideal is for parents and teachers to work together, to not only educate, but raise your children in the best way. We all need to responsibly interact with each other, with this goal in mind. That said, I will not accept the way one teacher was trashed last year by several parents in the class whatsapp group. In case you disagree with a teacher, please talk to the teacher directly, or to me. And I also expect every parent to stop a whatsapp thread that’s being disrespectful or downright damaging to anyone. Please, let’s work together to make this school and it’s culture a great environment for your children to grow up in, and look up to for guidance.”

With this, the director:

  • addressed the most important purpose of his job: to educate children attending the school – not only to teach them math and history and grammar, but also to raise them to become responsible and respectful citizens;
  • stood up for his teachers;
  • made clear what he expected of parents, as nowadays parents seem very vocal about their expectations of schools and what they feel they and their children are entitled to – but are sometimes less aware of their own duties playing a part of creating a good school environment.

Both stood up for their people (invoking my immediate admiration), communicated information well, and addressed their audience respectfully, clearly, and adequately.

I’m happy, every time I encounter great leadership like that. For them. For the people they are responsible for. For passengers, or parents, or clients. And for me, because it’s heartwarming to see many real-life examples of great leadership.

Some of you might say: that’s their damned job! Well, yes. They handled it the way any captain and any school director should. But we all have experiences where they didn’t, so we know excellent leadership behaviors aren’t that common. With bad examples we are usually quick to express our disapproval and criticism. So why wouldn’t we equally express our appreciation of good ones?

As HR manager, I’ve seen how important positive feedback is in someone’s development. Positive feedback makes people do more of what they did. It teaches them what behavior works well, in a more effective way than most leadership training can. Once I realized this, I tried to let people know I appreciated them. Not only professionally, but also in the day-to-day examples as above. I let them know why they were great by telling them, or sending an email, or just by giving them a quick thumbs-up. I want them to know someone appreciates them for doing a great job. And hopefully it gives them the encouragement that anyone needs, no matter how good they are, to keep up their good work.

If you want to see more great examples of leadership around you, start giving positive encouragement when you like what someone does. Let them know. Make their day. Be part of improving the level of leadership everywhere around us; one compliment at a time.

The high-performing, high-risk, high-potential

Almost all organizations hope to spot their talents early, to develop their future leaders. Much is written about how to make high-potential development successful, as the return on investment of such programs is questionable.

But what about the risk of successfully developing high-potentials?

I’ve seen more failures than successes with high-potential development programs. Everyone is happy when they find that rare jewel: highly intelligent, extremely driven, excellent social skills, strong focus, highly adaptive to changes, charges into difficult situations head-on. The one that sees opportunities where others don’t, is not afraid to go out of her comfort zone where others safely stay within, excitedly takes on new challenges and acquires new skills along the way.

The one person that made me realize high-potentials can be high risk, was exactly like that. The organization happily provided him with challenging assignments and new opportunities, rotating him through jobs every one or two years. Very quick, but necessary when you’re grooming a CEO for a big multinational. You want them to move up ranks quickly enough to reach CEO level somewhere before they’re sixty.

This suited the high-potential as well. His desire to be challenged was met through assignments in different types of jobs, quick career moves through several management layers, working out of several locations.

After time, a tricky pattern emerged. Even if such a high-potential didn’t start out as adrenaline junkie, ten or fifteen years of quick career moves and constant new challenges effectively made him one. He needed challenges, bigger ones every time, with little time in between. He didn’t merely survive well under pressure, but needed stressful circumstances to be at his best. He actively was seeking exciting experiences.

For a long time, the organization could provide that through new career moves. But once the high-potential-turned-top-manager reached the highest ranks, the promotion speed inevitably slowed down. With only two or three steps to go to the top job, positions weren’t always available when he was ready for it. Besides, (boards of) organizations prefer people to stay for a few years in the more senior jobs to build substance.

By now, this person was wired to get a quick succession of adrenaline rushes through new challenges. After two years in a new role, he got bored and created challenges himself. For example by shaking up the organization by designing a reorganization for which there was no clear need. By seeking changes in his private life. By exploring several risky behaviors, in his quest for new challenges.

At this point, the revered high-potential became a liability. Top management is now faced with a dilemma: he can undoubtedly do the top job, but will he bring himself, and the company, down? Or will he be able to curb his adrenaline seeking behavior and bring the company to new heights?

It will be interesting to see what happens. I sincerely hope he makes it to the top job, as he’s probably the best, most intelligent and likeable leader I’ve witnessed up close. But I also fiercely hope he has at least one or two people around him who are aware of the risk, and will actively work with him to ensure he doesn’t venture onto unnecessary risky paths.

What it is like to work with people who blame everyone and everything but themselves

One movie scene made a lasting impression on me. In “A few good men” Jack Nicholson screams, provoked by Tom Cruise in court, “You want the truth?!? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”

I know someone whose colleagues, family members and friends say: “Some things we just don’t say to her, because she can’t handle the truth.” When someone dares to give any kind of criticism, she gets really mad, ignores that person fully for days or weeks, and ultimately bans them from her life, bad-mouthing them to others. Effectively it has taught people close to her not to give any kind of personal feedback, or bring up any other version of the truth than hers. While the list of alienated co-workers, family members and friends is growing, she’s become disappointed and bitter because people are not honest with her. She feels betrayed when they say things behind her back and not to her face.

Over the years I’ve met several people like that, who ‘can’t handle the truth’ when it comes to any form of criticism. Even constructive feedback given in the most empathic, subtle, warm and caring manner, bounces off their shell. Of course nobody likes being criticized. However, most of us realize we need to incorporate feedback, to see what we can improve next time. Some people won’t accept criticism at first, but after brooding about it for a few days they work on it after all. But once in a while you’ll encounter someone who just can’t handle the truth about themselves. They  display several (or all) of the following behaviors:

  • When something goes wrong, they will say it is somebody else’s fault. Even if they obviously were the person making the mistake, they twist it into being a result from another person’s action. For example: they get irritated in traffic with a slow car, race to overtake it, and hit a pedestrian. They don’t blame themselves: if the driver in front of them hadn’t been so slow, it wouldn’t have happened.
  • They talk condescendingly about successful colleagues. They say: ‘They were just lucky, because they’re really not that good.’ Or ‘They must have achieved it in an unethical way, because just on their own they would never have gotten that far.’
  • They don’t reflect critically on their own behavior, and therefore don’t make changes to improve. In their mind it’s not necessary, because if something doesn’t work out the way they wanted it, it was either the other person’s fault, or it was just an unhappy coincidence.
  • To be able to stick to their ‘there’s nothing wrong with me’ attitude, they have to lie, or distort the truth. When confronted with objective information which shows they are not perfect, they either deny it, make up an explanation, or just make up their own version of the truth. For example, when they don’t get a promotion, they say it was offered but they declined. They might also claim they got a bonus or an excellent appraisal (when they didn’t), to create a successful impression.
  • They do not only ignore or ban people who criticize them, they actively undermine the credibility of people saying things they don’t like, to curb the impact of that person on others.

People with these behaviors have a strong self-serving bias, whereby people consistently subscribe their successes to their own skills, behavior and personality, and their failures to circumstances (or others). The bias is common, most people have it to a certain extent. Research has shown that this effect increases when someone’s self-image is threatened. So, when someone has an extreme self-serving bias, probably he or she is very insecure. This might not be so obvious to others, as their behavior often comes across as arrogant or self-assured. They are not: people with genuine self-confidence don’t need to blame or attack others to feel good about themselves.

Although it is difficult to manage people who can’t handle the truth about themselves, there are a few things you can try:

  • The best way is to identify what they’re insecure about, and address that. Have a good, empathic conversation about their insecurities, and help them build up their self-confidence. Make sure you tell them what’s going well (don’t overdo it, just be realistic). If it doesn’t work, suggest professional help.
  • Be consistent, factual and specific in your feedback. They will use any unclarity in feedback to dismiss it.
  • Identify whether certain situations, or a certain role, increases their negative behavior. These situations probably feel threatening to their self-image. See if you can help them through these situations, or change the circumstances.
  • Get closer to that person, and let them get to know you. The self-serving bias decreases towards people they are close with. It might become easier to have open conversations with them, after establishing more trust.

Make sure you are also attentive to the other people in the team who suffer from a colleague displaying this behavior. They can create a divisive and hostile atmosphere in the team, causing you bigger problems. Don’t let one person affect the whole team negatively. Focus on the other team members, to ensure they can function well.

If nothing works, it is better to let this person go. When people never accept well-meant constructive feedback, and even blame or sabotage others, you’re better off without them.

Today the world lost a great manager

It has happened too often in my HR career. Someone enters the organization: a great guy, a smart girl. After the first few years of dedicated hard work they climb to the next level. Sooner than others, but as everyone understands why, they don’t encounter much resistance. They deliver good results, are quick learners and are great with their peers. Senior managers eagerly take them on as mentees, accelerating their career even further.

Of course these great potentials make the occasional mistake. But they learn from it – keen as they are to keep improving – and move on to become an even better manager. As HR, I love to watch them, and if necessary be with them, every step of the way. To coach them on their first people issues. To counsel them on dealing with their first big disappointment. To share their joy over a well-deserved promotion. To protect them from being crushed by politics, when they first join the big league of top-management.

As HR manager I go the extra mile for them. Because I know that person is worth it. Because I see they are able to do what is needed for the organization. Because they will make this a better place for their colleagues. I want to help them unleashing that valuable potential.

But sometimes, that dreadful day comes. The day that I find that person is gone.

That keen, eager high potential is no more…

Instead, I suddenly find myself talking to an over-confident, pompous, self-righteous, run-of-the-mill manager embracing no other ideas than his own. Someone who pulled up a powerful reflective shield resisting all criticism, regardless of how well-meant or to the point it is.

Gone are the days of growth. Of continuously developing into a greater leader. Of hope she can become the next CEO who I’d be so proud to work for.

When a high-potential choses to give up on the powerful gift of self-reflection, he loses the potential to become a great leader. A leader who has the power to fuel a great team, or lead an organization through a necessary transformation, or sustain the organizations’ incredible growth.

When giving up on self-reflection, inevitably, potential turns into mediocracy.

On such a day, a little piece inside of me dies…