Is it the situation not the person?

June 15, 2010

A very interesting article in Fast Company by Dan Heath (author of Made to Stick) looks at the impact that the Fundamental Attribution Error can have on how we assess behaviours.  Fundamental Attribution Error occurs when we attribute the behaviour of an individual in a specific context to being part of their core character.

A typical example is how we all can sometimes behave when in rush hour traffic.  Most of us have committed acts when driving that, while not life threatening,  are not always nice!  Do these acts reflect our real personality?  Do we react in a similar fashion in other contexts when under stress – probably not.

Sometimes we need to take a step back when assessing an unusual behaviour, especially one that is out of character,  and ask the question: is this behaviour a result of the situation or is it the person?


12 Things Good Bosses Believe

May 31, 2010

Bob Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University . He writes an excellent blog, as well writing for, among others, the Harvard Business Review.  A believer in evidence based management, he is one of the sanest and more interesting writers on management out there. This is all a forerunner for one of his latest pieces on the 12 things good bosses believe. These include:

  1. I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it feels like to work for me.
  2. One of the most important, and most difficult, parts of my job is to strike the delicate balance between being too assertive and not assertive enough.
  3. One of the best tests of my leadership — and my organization — is “what happens after people make a mistake?”
  4. Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive.
  5. How I do things is as important as what I do.

The rest are available at the HBR blog.  For my part, I will add that a leader needs to get his people to understand why the organisation does what it does.  This is crucial to getting buy-in and that all important engagement.


Myths about teams

May 28, 2010

The latest edition of HR Dynamics newsletter focuses on how organisations can make the most of their people through better team work. If you would like to join our mailing list, please let us know at shane@hrdynamics.ie.  One article from the newsletter deals with some of the myths about teams.

Many organisations establish teams by putting a group of employees together to deliver on a particular project – and then label them a team.  When the sum of the parts does not equal (or is even less than) the sum of the individuals, the organisation blames the team, the team leader or the notion of teams.  Management attention moves onto a new focus and the idea of the team gets a bad name in the organisation.  But a team is more that the members; many managers fail to grasp; instead they rely on some common misunderstanding of what teams are – and what they are not?

Some of the common myths and realities about teams are discussed below. Note 1

Myth 1:  Teams are harmonious

Teams are made up of diverse groups of people with different needs, expectations and beliefs.  This diversity can – and often does – lead to conflict. However, it is the diversity of the team that will lead to its success if harnessed appropriately.

Myth 2:  People like teams

Research has shown that approximately one third of the working population like teams, one third are indifferent to teams and one third dislike teamwork.  However, when teamwork is appropriately fostered, high performance outcomes can create an environment that employees want to work in. Success breeds success.

Myth 3: Teams are simple

Teams are complicated structures and should only manage complex and challenging issues.  If the task is simple, it should be left to an individual.

Myth 4: Teamwork is a soft option

Choosing to introduce teams is one of the most challenging management options.  Teamwork demands that members practice their skills to the full at all times and in a consistent manner. The rewards that flow from successful teams are what make the challenge worth the effort.

By understanding the many misconceptions surrounding teams, leaders can help minimise the chance of the team failing before it has the chance to begin.  Next we look at the stage a team must go through before it can be a success.

Note 1: Based on The Myths & Realities of Teams © Wright Consultancy; www.consultwright.com


Do your employees trust your Leaders?

April 25, 2010

Recent research from marketing company Maritz Research paints a poor picture of employee’s attitudes towards their work, organisation and Leaders.  Some of the key findings include:

i. Only eleven percent of employees strongly agree that their managers show consistency between their words and actions,

ii. Worst still, only seven percent of employees strongly agree they trust senior leaders to look out for their best interest,

iii. Surprisingly, the same percentage (seven) strongly agree they trust their co-workers to do so,

iv. Twenty percent of those surveyed disagree that their company’s leader is completely honest and ethical,

v. Finally, one-quarter of respondents disagree that they trust management to make the right decisions in times of uncertainty.

While the results are based on a poll of American workplaces, these findings should resonate in every organisation.  In times of significant change and uncertainty, it is not surprising that trust is low.  The question that is applicable for most Leaders is what to do with these results? I have blogged previously about Leadership in a time of crisis based on a McKinsey survey. The top two organisational qualities needed during a crisis were Leadership and Direction.  Too often, organisations spend their time, effort and resources looking externally in a crisis forgetting the importance of spending the same time effort and resources internally engaging with the workforce.

The survey results are the outcome of the failure to look internally.  What are you going to do ensure that these are not replicated in your organisation?


Who is responsible for poor performance?

April 16, 2010

I was recently approached by a manager for help with an employee who ‘refused’ to change.  A twenty year veteran with the organisation, the employee had ‘seen off’ several managers.  A high performer when it was the way she wanted to work, the employee had successfully avoided all attempts to introduce new methods of working.  Managers, after a few forlorn attempts to introduce new ideas,  gave up and she was left to her own devices.

Who is at fault for this failure to change – the employee or the organisation?  In conversation with the manager, it became clear that previous manager’s had abdicated responsibility for the employee taking the line of least resistance.  While the employee does bear some responsibility for the pattern of behaviour, her resistant patterns have been rewarded by her various managers.  This way of working is what she knows best – ‘I like doing my job my way’.  Any new manager will be a brief nuisance and will soon see the light!

What is the answer?  As I have blogged previously, behaviour change requires consequences.  The current consequence for the employee of their refusal to change is to be allowed to continue as per usual.  For the manager to bring about change, there must be consequences – and these must outweigh the desire to continue the behaviour.  The most immediate consequence should be that the manager makes it clear that they will not be going away.


Managing your top teams anxiety

April 9, 2010

All of us suffer from anxiety; it happens when we face into a new, difficult or challenging situation. Anxiety in itself should never be an issue but it can be a problem if it is not recognised and managed.  Organisations that are undergoing upheavals are likely have increased levels of anxiety. Leaders need to learn to recognise and manage the anxiety in their top teams to ensure that it does not affect performance at a time when the they need to rely on the tope team more than ever.

People Management list some of the steps that can be taken to manage anxiety. Aimed at L&D specialists, the article is equally valid for Leaders. Some of the steps for managing anxiety include:

Validate feelings
Get your top team to talk about how they experience the pressures they face. As we often feel weak if we acknowledge being less than confident, this normalising of emotions can be helpful.  A leader can start the process by admitting that they have anxieties.

Challenge behaviour
Empathy is important but honesty is vital.  Leaders need to understand the negative impact on their team – and the wider organisation – of the failure to manage anxiety. Direct criticism may evoke defensiveness; simply describe how the organisation experience the practical consequences of this behaviour.

Identify triggers
Having helped your team understand the impact of their behaviour, work to identify key situations, people or events that trigger anxiety. The more we are aware of our default position(s), the better we can resist them.

In the pressure cooker of modern organisations, it can be seen as weak to acknowledge the existence of anxiety.   It is the Leader’s responsibility to address this issue – failure to do so can increase the likelihood of a failure of performance.


Eight Simple Rules to Becoming a Better Leader

March 15, 2010

Melissa Raffoni has a post on the HBR website that all Leaders should read.  President of Raffoni CEO Consulting, she works with CEOs of major organisations.  In this short but important post, she outlines in clear terms what employees want from their Leadership.  None of this should surprise any good Leader; what is surprising is how often we don’t put it into practice.

1. Tell me my role, tell me what to do, and give me the rules. Be clear, be direct and let me get on with my job.

2. Discipline my coworker who is out of line. Fairness and equity for everyone – for good and bad performance.

3. Get me excited. Give me a reason to get engaged in what I do.  I don’t do boring!

4. Don’t forget to praise me. When I do something that deserves praise, not 12 months later at a review.

5. Don’t scare me. Tell me what I need to know but don’t dump all of your problems on me.

6. Impress me. Lead by example.

7. Give me some autonomy. Trust me – that’s why you hired me.

8. Set me up to win. Help me to win and you look good too.

All Leaders should print these out and ask themselves every day – am I following these rules?  If not, why not?


It is not enough to Manage by Wandering About

February 28, 2010

Management by Walking About (MBWA) is a management practice first proposed by Peters and Waterman in their seminal book In Search of Excellence. As  a technique, it aims to allow management to bypass the bureaucracy of the organisation and stay in contact with those that do the actual work.  It is communication at its best.

The Harvard Business School Working Knowledge discusses some research that shows that management visibility on its own is no guarantee of success.  Unless managers understand that MBWA is more than just walking about, they can cause more harm than good.  The research looked at a number of hospitals that engaged with front line workers on process improvements.  The result showed that improvements were achieved in most instances, leading to not just improvements in processes but in the overall organisation climate.

However, it is also possible to damage that climate.  The researchers found that it is not just important to engage with front line staff.  It is how you engage that will make the difference.  It is too easy for MBWA to be viewed as an audit that is trying to find errors or an attempt to catch employees making mistakes. If this is the perception of MBWA, trust will be quickly eroded, increasing hostility and suspicion – the exact opposite of what MBWA is attempting to achieve.

Some simple steps that managers can follow to ensure that MBWA is effective include:

o Do it solo – senior managers should MBWA alone and not hunt in packs

o Ask questions

o If you give a commitment to act on something, follow up

o Don’t undermine your supervisors – this is not an opportunity to whinge

o Do it often – it is not a fad and repetition will make it seem the norm


Do your employees have line of sight?

January 22, 2010

I was struck by a recent conversation with a client.  She was reacting to an employee who, in her words, just did not get it. When I asked what the employee did not get, the conversation expanded into how, despite all that was going on in the economy, some staff were still reluctant to change.  We talked about why such reluctance existed.  The manager felt that some employees had their heads in the sand and needed a reality check.

I have a different take on the situation.  On questioning the manager, it became clear that while the organisation was very direct on telling employees what needed to change, there was very little communication about why the change was necessary or even what difference it would make.  If your employees cannot see a direct link between what the organisation wants them to do and how it will drive the organisation, managers can hardly expect them to be driven to change.  Most employees will change; what they need is a valid reason.  If organisations do not give their employee a clear line of sight between what is expected of them and what the organisation is doing, then while change may take place, it will be slower and less successful than it could have been.


The Motivational Power of Body Language

January 6, 2010

I was in a retail store recently – an outlet of a major international brand based in a large shopping centre.  While browsing, I engaged in a favourite past-time – people watching. The store manager was instructing a staff member to rearrange several displays.  While I cannot comment on any previous interactions between the two, this one was enlightening in the use and impact of the manager’s body language as was the  employee’s reaction.

The words used by the manager were both polite and clear. His tone and body language (especially facial expressions),however, told a different story. This was a manager who was impatient and determined to show the employee who was in charge.  The impact upon the employee was worth observing.  She was doing her best to maintain as much distance from her manager as possible given the circumstances.  Her facial expressions were obviously neutral and her responses were mono-tonal.  This was someone who was very much aware of the power dynamic at play and was not exactly happy with it.

The manager – as is often the case – was totally unaware of the impact he was having on one of his team.  Relying on the power of his position, he expected the employee to carry out his instructions.  However, the carrying out of those instructions would be all that he would receive.  I would imagine that any additional or discretionary performance would not be forthcoming.  Any situation that falls outside his instructions would likely require further interventions from the manager – taking up his time and effort.  A simple realisation of how body language can change the manager/staff dynamic would have transformed this routine engagement.

Every interaction that we have with those that we work with has an impact.  The question managers need to ask themselves is: what impact am I having and is that impact positive or negative to our the working relationship?