4 Steps to Break Out of Your Leadership Prison Cell

I recently spent time at Alcatraz…as a tourist, of course. The old federal penitentiary hasn’t housed prisoners since 1963. As a history nerd it was fascinating to walk the same halls as some of the world’s most famous criminals like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Robert Stroud, the “birdman” of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz cell 1Some of the prison cell doors are open so you can walk inside and get a sense for what it must have felt like to be confined in such a small space. The cells are five feet wide, seven feet tall, and nine feet long. I could reach my arms out to the side and place my palms on the walls of the cell. The concrete walls hold the frigid chill of the San Francisco Bay and the steel doors are hard and unforgiving. It’s difficult to imagine what it must have felt like to be confined in such a small space for hours on end, day after day, year after year.

Prison cells aren’t just concrete rooms with steel doors; they can be rooms of our own making. (click to tweet) All of us, in various areas of our lives, have constructed cells that imprison us and constrain our ability to experience true freedom and joy.

In the realm of leadership, some of us are career criminals doing hard time and the only life we know is within the four walls of our prison cell. These leaders are guilty of crimes like wielding power as a weapon, hoarding information, sucking up to the hierarchy, micromanaging, breaking trust, playing politics, and over-reliance on command and control styles of leadership. Most of us leaders aren’t hardened criminals serving a life sentence, but we dabble in our share of petty theft that puts us behind bars from time to time.

There are ways you can escape from the prison of ineffective leadership practices, but it takes planning, patience, and perseverance. You didn’t build those walls overnight and it’s going to take time to tunnel your way out. Here are four steps to break out of your leadership prison cell:

Discover Your Leadership Purpose

Why do you lead? Answer that question and you’ve discovered your leadership purpose. Discovering your leadership purpose is an introspective process that takes time and effort, but the result is an internal clarity and drive that inspires and fuels your work as a leader.

The process for discovering your leadership purpose begins with reflecting on your own leadership role models. How did those people influence you? What about the way they led others inspired you? What did you learn from them and how do you display that in your own leadership style? Second, how does your leadership connect with your larger life purpose? Do you see your role as a leader integrated with your overall life purpose? Are you clear on your greatest strengths and how you can use them to positively impact the world around you? Third, what is the legacy you want to leave? How do you want to be remembered for the way you influenced those you lead?

As you wrestle with these tough questions, you’ll eventually gain insight into your leadership purpose. Writing a simple purpose statement will help crystallize your thoughts and provide a reminder of why you do what you do as a leader. Do an internet search for “writing a personal mission statement” and you’ll find dozens of excellent resources and templates. As an example, my purpose statement is To use my gifts and abilities to be a servant leader and a model of God’s grace and truth

Define Your Leadership Values

Leadership is an influence process. As a leader you are trying to influence others to believe in certain things and act in specific ways. How can you do that if you aren’t clear on your own values? What drives your own behaviors? You have to be clear on that before you can expect to influence others…at least in a positive way.

In the absence of clearly defined values, I believe people tend to default to the more base, self-centered values we all possess: self-preservation, survival, ego, power, position. As an example, my core values are trust, authenticity, and respect. I look to those values to guide my interactions with others. Just as river banks channel and direct the flow of rushing water, so values direct our behaviors. What is a river without banks? A large puddle. Our leadership effectiveness is diffused without values to guide its efforts.

Declare Your Leadership Brand

Your brand image is not only how people perceive you (your reputation), but also what differentiates you from everyone else in your company. When your colleagues and team members think of you, what is it that comes to their minds?

Tom Peters, the guru of personal branding, says, “If you are going to be a brand, you’ve got to become relentlessly focused on what you do that adds value, what you’re proud of, and most important, what you can shamelessly take credit for.” Now, I’m not into shamelessly bragging about personal accomplishments, but I do think it’s important, and possible, to tactfully and appropriately share your successes.

Forget your job title. What is it about your performance as a leader that makes you memorable, distinct, or unique? What’s the “buzz” on you? Forget about your job description too. What accomplishments are you most proud of? How have you gone above, beyond, or outside the scope of your job description to add value to your organization? Those are the elements that make up your brand.

Deliver on Your Leadership Promise

If you’ve ever removed the cardboard sleeve on a Starbucks coffee cup, you may have noticed this statement printed on the side of the cup:

Our Barista Promise

Love your beverage or let us know. We’ll always make it right.

My experience with Starbucks is they live that promise. Whenever I’ve not been satisfied with my drink, they’ve always made it right.

Your leadership promise is the combination of your purpose, values, and brand. It’s who your people expect you to be as a leader and it’s how they expect you to behave. Whether you’ve articulated your leadership purpose, values, and brand to your people or not (which I strongly advocate you do), they have ascribed a leadership promise to you based on your past behavior. You are setting yourself up to break trust with your followers if their perception of your leadership promise doesn’t align with your own.

Escape from Alcatraz

It was simple for me to leave the island when my time was done on Alcatraz; I boarded the ferry and rode across the bay to San Francisco. It wasn’t nearly as easy for the prisoners who once called Alcatraz home. Likewise, it won’t be easy for you to escape your self-constructed prison cell of dysfunctional leadership practices, but it is doable with intentional focus and effort. Discovering your leadership purpose will direct your energies, clarifying your values will guide your activities, declaring your brand will let others know what you stand for, and delivering on your leadership promise will hold you accountable to being the leader you aspire to be and the leader your people need and deserve.

Confronting Poor Performance is a “Moment of Trust” – 5 Steps for Success

Addressing poor performance with an employee presents a leader with a “moment of trust” – an opportunity to either build or erode trust in the relationship. If you handle the situation with competence and care, the level of trust in your relationship can take a leap forward. Fumble the opportunity and you can expect to lose trust and confidence in your leadership.

Now, I’m the first to admit that having a discussion about an employee’s failing performance is probably the last thing I want to do as a leader. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for both parties involved. I mean, come on, no one likes to hear they aren’t doing a good job. But the way in which the feedback and coaching is delivered can make a huge difference. The key is to have a plan and process to follow. The following steps can help you capitalize on the moment of trust and get an employee’s performance back on track.

1. Prepare – Before you have the performance discussion, you need to make sure you’re prepared. Collect the facts or data that support your assessment of the employee’s low performance. Be sure to analyze the problem by asking yourself questions like:

        1. Was the goal clear?
        2. Was the right training, tools, and resources provided?
        3. Did I provide the right leadership style?
        4. Did the employee receive coaching and feedback along the way?
        5. Was the employee motivated and confident to achieve the goal?
        6. Did the employee have any personal problems that impacted performance?

2. Describe the problem – State the purpose and ground rules of the meeting. It could sound something like “Susan, I’d like to talk to you about the problem you’re having with the defect rate of your widgets. I’ll give you my take on the problem and then I’d like to hear your perspective.”

Be specific in describing the problem, using the data you’ve collected or the behaviors you’ve observed. Illustrate the gap in performance by explaining what the performance or behavior should be and state what you want to happen now. It could sound something like “In the last week your defect rate has been 18% instead of your normal 10% or less. As I look at all the variables of the situation, I realize you’ve had some new people working on the line, and in a few instances, you haven’t had the necessary replacement parts you’ve needed. Obviously we need to get your rate back under 10%.”

3. Explore and acknowledge their viewpoint – This step involves you soliciting the input of the employee to get their perspective on the cause of the performance problem. Despite the information you’ve collected, you may learn something new about what could be causing or contributing to the decline in performance. Depending on the employee’s attitude, you may need to be prepared for defensiveness or excuses about the performance gap. Keep the conversation focused on the issue at hand and solicit the employee’s ideas for solving the problem.

4. Summarize the problem and causes – Identify points of disagreement that may exist, but try to emphasize the areas of agreement between you and the employee. When you’ve summarized the problem and main causes, ask if the two of you have enough agreement to move to problem solving. It could sound something like “Susan, we both agree that we need to get your defect rate to 10% or below and that you’ve had a few obstacles in your way like new people on the line and occasionally missing replacement parts. Where we see things differently is that I believe you don’t always have your paperwork, parts, and tools organized in advance the way you used to. While we don’t see the problem exactly the same, are we close enough to work on a solution?”

5. Problem solve for the solution – Once you’ve completed step four, you can then problem solve for specific solutions to close the performance gap. Depending on the employee’s level of competence and commitment on the goal or task, you may need to use more or less direction or support to help guide the problem solving process. The outcome of the problem solving process should be specific goals, actions, or strategies that you and/or the employee will put in place to address the performance problem. Set a schedule for checking in on the employee’s progress and be sure to thank them and express a desire for the performance to improve.

A moment of trust is a precious occurrence that you don’t want to waste. Using this five step process can help you address an employee’s poor performance with candor and care that will leave the employee knowing that you respect their dignity, value their contributions, and have their best interests at heart. That can’t help but build trust in the relationship.

3 Reasons Why Leaders Should Pause and Take Notice

I have to admit, it’s easy for me not to notice. I get focused on my own goals and priorities and everything else around me seems to fade from view. That focused attention is a good thing when I need to meet a deadline or accomplish an important task, but when it comes to leading people, it’s a deadly mistake. I can get so wrapped up in my own agenda that I neglect to notice the needs of my team members.

I know I’m not alone here. Many people fall into the same trap because they think that’s what leaders are supposed to do. Make decisions, be in lots of meetings, and wear our busyness like a badge of courage. Let me be the first to break the news to you—that’s not how you should lead. Great leaders make time for their people because they know a leader’s best ability is availability. (click to tweet)

You may not think being a good “noticer” is important but I’d argue otherwise. I think it’s one of the top priorities for leaders because it makes you other-focused rather than self-focused.

Being a good noticer builds morale. Being valued, understood, and appreciated is a basic human need, but unfortunately, too many leaders forget their people are actually human. They view people as utilitarian resources performing a specific job function and treat them as interchangeable parts. But taking time to notice people lifts their spirits. A well-timed praising, note of thanks, or even just a personal conversation can turn around a person’s day.

Noticing people also builds trust. It shows your people that you care about them as individuals and not just as workers showing up to do a job. Everyone has a story and good leaders take the time to learn the stories of their team members. I’m not talking about hugging everyone and singing Kumbaya, but simply building relationships. Asking about their kids, getting their input on new ideas, or eating lunch in the break room with your team members every once in a while. With the trust of your team you can reach new heights, but without it you’re dead in the water.

Finally, noticing others keeps your leadership on course because you’re in tune with the needs of your team. The higher up leaders move in the organization the easier it is to get disconnected from the realities of life on the front line. Being a good noticer means you have to stay engaged with your team. It means you are familiar with the good, the bad, and the ugly of what your team has to deal with daily. That allows you to make leadership decisions based on what’s really going on versus what you think is going on.

So I challenge you to make a commitment this week. Take 5 minutes each day to pause, consider your team, and notice what’s going on around you. If you see a person doing a good job, tell him/her so. If you see someone struggling, ask if they need help. If one of your team members seems downcast, ask if they’d like to talk. It’s not that hard; it just takes a little time and effort.

Feel free to leave a comment this week to let me know what you noticed.

3 Reasons to Apologize Even if You’ve Done Nothing Wrong

“I’m not going to apologize because I didn’t do anything wrong!”

I remember my kids uttering that phrase a number of times when they were young, and I’ve also heard it from adults in the workplace more times than I care to remember. No one likes to be wrongly accused and most people certainly don’t want to apologize for something they didn’t do. The thought of apologizing when we’ve done nothing wrong, or even worse, when we’re actually in the right, causes our blood to boil. We become indignant, defensive, or lash out at others, none of which does anything to improve the situation.

However, there is a time and place for apologizing even if you’re not guilty. It’s important to remember that apologizing is not an admission of guilt; it’s an admission of responsibility. (Click to tweet) You are taking responsibility for improving and moving past the situation at hand. Here are three good reasons to apologize even if you’ve done nothing wrong:

  1. Choosing relationship over being right—When difficulties arise in a relationship, it’s a natural human instinct to want to assign blame. If the other person is in the wrong, then we can gloat in the satisfaction of being right. It’s easy to dive into the deep end of the pool of self-righteousness. It takes emotional maturity to prioritize the health of the relationship over the ego-feeding need to be right. Apologizing for the pain and difficulty of the current situation, even if you didn’t cause it, shows you place a higher value on the other person than you do on the need to be right.
  2. Lose the battle to win the war—You need to have a long-range perspective when it comes to relationships. There are going to be lots of battles (e.g., differences of opinion, conflict, etc.) in our relationships at home and work, and we’d die of exhaustion if we fought tooth and nail to prove ourselves right in every instance. Sometimes it’s better to lose the battle and apologize even when you’re right, for the sake of winning the bigger war (e.g., maintaining peace, completing the project, etc.).
  3. Take one for the team—As the leader, there are times you need to take one for the team. You may not personally have been at fault, but if your team has dropped the ball, you should take the blame on their behalf. Weak leaders will often throw their team under the bus when they’ve made a mistake. The leader will absolve him/herself of any responsibility and blame it on the team acting carelessly. The best leaders, however, apologize for the mistakes their team make and accept whatever blame comes their way.

It’s no fun to apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong. Every fiber of our being compels us to scream that we didn’t do it, and to blame someone or something else. Responding with righteous indignation often escalates the tension and does little to resolve the situation. If you value the relationship more than being right, are willing to lose a small battle for the sake of winning the larger war, or need to take one for you team, it’s OK to apologize—even if you’ve done nothing wrong.

A Fine Collection of Work Cartoons by John Junson

Today at Work in Winnipeg, it is -50 celsius with windchill. 

Now that’s cold. To keep warm I have collected the best cartoons by John Junson from his Today at Work collection from 2018.

When we laugh, we indulge in a short humor break and boost to rejuvenate ourselves and maybe even keep us warm!

John has created over 600 cartoons on work for the Employee Experience and Engagement network. I encourage you to use his cartoons today in your work.

To view the collection visit: http://www.davidzinger.com/wp-content/uploads/Today-at-Work-2018.pdf

9 Warning Signs of a Failing Employee

Danger Thin Ice“I’m sorry, we need to let you go.”

Oomph! Those words feel like a punch to the gut of the employee on the receiving end, and for the leader delivering the bad news, those words create anxiety and many sleepless nights leading up to that difficult conversation.

No leader likes to see an employee fail on the job. From the moment we start the recruitment process, through interviewing, hiring, and training, our goal is to set up our employees for success. It takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and expense to bring new people into the organization and ramp them up to full productivity, so it’s in everyone’s vested interest to see an employee succeed. Yet we all know there are situations that, for whatever reason, an employee struggles on the job and there isn’t much hope of turning it around.

I recently met with a group of HR professionals and line managers to debrief employee termination situations. As we reviewed the cases at hand, the following nine signs emerged as warning signals, that had they been heeded early on in the employee’s career, a termination decision could have been made much earlier in the process that would have saved everyone a lot of heartache and the company a lot of money. Any one of these signs is alarming in and of itself, but when you combine all of them together…KABOOM! You’ve got an employee meltdown waiting to happen.

Nine Warning Signs of a Failing Employee

1. Things don’t improve with a change of scenery – Maybe it’s the relationship with the boss, certain peers, or the nature of the work has changed and the employee is struggling to perform at her best. Whatever the reason, moving the employee to another role or department can get her back on track. I’ve done it myself and have seen it work. But if you’ve given someone another chance by giving them a change of scenery and it’s still not working out, you should be concerned. The scenery probably isn’t the problem.

2. You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around the employee – We all have personality quirks and some people are more difficult to work with than others, but when an employee becomes cancerous to the morale and productivity of the team and everyone feels like they have to walk on eggshells around the person for fear of incurring their wrath, you’ve got a serious problem. Don’t underestimate the destructive power of a toxic, unpredictable employee.

3. Emotional instability – Part of being a mature adult is being able to manage your emotions and it’s critically important in a professional workplace. If you have an employee that demonstrates severe emotional mood swings on the job and in their relationships with others, you need to pursue the proper legal and ethical guidelines in dealing with the employee and getting them the support they need. Don’t ignore the behavior by chalking it up to the heat of the moment, the stress of the job, or excusing it by saying “Oh, that’s just Joe being Joe.”

4. Trouble fitting into the company culture – Perhaps one of the earliest signs that you have a failing employee is noticing she is having significant trouble adapting to the culture of the organization. There is a natural transition time for any new employee, but if you’re constantly hearing the employee make negative comments about how the company operates and criticizing leadership, or not developing solid relationships with others and becoming part of the team, warning alarms should be going off in your head.

5. Blames others, makes excuses, and challenges authority – You know the incredibly loud sound of air raid sirens used in civil defense situations? That’s the sound you should be hearing if you have an employee with a track record of blaming others and making excuses for her poor performance. Failing employees will often challenge authority by trying to lay the blame at the boss’ feet by saying things like “You should have done this…” or “You didn’t address that problem…” or whatever the case may be. If you have an employee who always seems to be involved in drama, ask yourself “What (or more appropriately ‘who’) is the common denominator in these situations?”

6. Distorts or manipulates the truth – I’ve dealt with employees who were very skilled at manipulating or distorting the truth. In whatever difficult situation they were in, they would find a kernel of truth to justify and excuse their involvement to the point that I would feel compelled to side with them. I learned you have to be discerning and consistent in your approach to dealing with manipulative people and make sure you document your interactions so you have sufficient data to support your termination decision.

7. Unseen gaps in performance – One of the most challenging situations is when an employee seems to be performing well by outside appearances, but when you explore behind the scenes you discover there are gaps in her performance. Maybe it’s sloppy work, not following correct procedures, or even worse, being intentionally deceptive or unethical. Be careful, things may not always be as they seem.

8. A trail of broken relationships – Employees don’t have to be BFF’s with all of their coworkers, but they do need to respect others and be able to work together. A person may be a high-performer in the tasks of her job, but if she can’t get along with other people and has a history of damaging relationships with colleagues, eventually there will come a point where her contributions are outweighed by the damage and drama she creates.

9. Passive-aggressive behavior – You know those smiley-face emoticons at the end of slightly sarcastic and critical emails? A classic example of passive-aggressive behavior where the sender is trying to couch her criticism in feigned-humor. This is toxic and can be hard to manage because it manifests itself is so many ways that appear to be innocuous in and of themselves. Veiled jokes, procrastination, sullenness, resentment, and deliberate or repeated failure to follow-through on tasks are all signs of passive-aggressive behavior. Be careful…very careful.

The number one job for a leader is to help his or her employees succeed. Before an employee is terminated, a leader needs to be able to look in the mirror and honestly admit that everything possible has been done to help the employee succeed. These nine warning signs should serve as critical guideposts in helping any leader be alert to a failing employee.

Does Being a Naysayer Make You a More Powerful Leader?

photography of a person pointing on something

If you’ve ever wondered why so many negative and critical leaders seem to rise to power, recent research sheds a little light on the cause. It turns out that even though we say we want compassionate and empathetic leaders, we perceive naysayers as being more powerful than their non-critical colleagues.

In one of a series of studies, 518 participants were shown four pairs of statements made by former U.S. presidential candidates during nationally televised debates. They were not told the candidates’ names or when the debate took place. The pair of statements included one that was positive and supportive of America’s future, while the other was negative and critical. Participants were asked to rate how powerful each candidate appeared to be, how effective they thought the person would be in office, and whether or not they would vote for the person.

Compared to the presidential candidates who made positive statements, participants rated the negative candidates as more powerful, more likely to be effective in office, and likely to earn their vote. In additional studies across different contexts such as art reviews and opinions on social issues, participants consistently rated the naysayer as more powerful, albeit less likable, than their neutral or positive counterpart.

Why is this the case? Researcher Eileen Y. Chou theorizes the cause is human psychology. We perceive naysayers as being more independent, willing to speak their mind, and willing to “tell it like it is.” This fuels a perception of the naysayer being powerful enough to not be bound by normal constraints or resources. This perception of power was strongest among those who felt the most disadvantaged. The disadvantaged perceive the naysayer as being willing to speak truth to power and disrupt the status quo.

So, should you incorporate more negativity into your leadership style in order to become more powerful? Let’s see…how can I put this in a sensitive, thoughtful, diplomatic way?

NO!

There is certainly a time and place for candid realism in a leader’s communications. Leader’s who sugarcoat the truth and try to get their people to believe everything is rainbows and unicorns are perceived as out of touch, fake, and incompetent. Leaders have an obligation to “keep it real” with their followers, but also need to inspire people with hope for a better future. Constant negativity and criticism causes people to view the leader as a malcontent and they eventually remove their support.

The more fundamental issue for me beyond the role of being a naysayer is a leader’s relationship with power. Power accompanies leadership and it can be used in healthy and unhealthy ways. The greatest use of power is in service to others and there are noble and altruistic ways of developing and sustaining power that benefits others.

One only needs to listen to the political rhetoric these days to see the harmful effects of naysaying leadership. Constant criticism, negativity, and fault-finding appeals to the most base instincts of humanity. The most successful and enduring leaders call to the “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln said, and unite people through a shared vision of a more promising tomorrow.

The Secret Power of Moments for Full Engagement

I believe one of the biggest barriers to full engagement in work is fear. Fear arrives in many forms. One form I am familiar with is procrastination. We put off. We delay. We think we lack good time management or tenacious willpower.

What we lack is a way to tackle the fear that surrounds being engaged and the answer resides in moments. The fear can range from the idea that even if we do our best it won’t be good enough to not even knowing how to do a task and afraid to ask for help.

We can often do in moments what we can’t do in grand plans, big strategies, and “smart” goals because moments shrink fear to something so small that we are no longer afraid.

Here is a simple equation to explain this:

Engagement = Moments > Fear

The next time you encounter personal disengagement and you believe fear is lurking behind the scenes I encourage you to remember this statement:

Moments shatter fear into tiny fragments that can easily be managed and overcome.

Take your next moment, separate it from the herd of endless time, and focus your work in that moment. When you start to string or stack together many moments you may even surprise yourself about what you can accomplish. The poet, William Blake, encourages us to see the world in a grain on sand…

Engage along with me, our best is yet to be.

Just OK is not OK When it Comes to Being Trustworthy

When it comes to trustworthiness, being just OK is not OK.

You may have seen any number of AT&T’s “just OK is not OK” series of commercials touting their wireless network. Well, I’m a fan of creative and funny TV commercials, and the first time I saw one of these I immediately saw the connection to trust. 

People form perceptions of our trustworthiness based on our behavior. Acting in trustworthy ways creates the condition of trust in our relationships. When you look at what makes people trustworthy, you find they are:

Able: Being able is about demonstrating competence. Able people have the expertise, training, and qualifications to perform well in their roles. They also have a track record of success as they demonstrate the ability to consistently achieve goals. Able people are skilled at facilitating work getting done in the organization. They develop credible project plans, systems, and processes that help team members accomplish their goals.

Believable: A believable person acts with integrity by dealing with others in an honest fashion; e.g., keeping promises, not lying or stretching the truth, not gossiping, etc. Believable people have a clear set of values. They communicate these values to others and use them consistently as a model for their behavior: they walk the talk. Finally, treating people fairly and equitably is a key characteristic of a believable person.

Connected: Connected people show care and concern for people, which builds trust and helps create an engaging work environment. People can create a sense of connection by openly sharing information about themselves and the organization and by trusting others to use that information responsibly. Connected people also build trust by having a people-first mentality and building rapport with others. Taking an interest in people as individuals, not nameless workers, shows that these people value and respect their colleagues.

Dependable: Being dependable and maintaining reliability is the fourth element of trustworthiness. One of the quickest ways people erode trust is by not following through on commitments. Conversely, those who do what they say they are going to do earn a reputation of being consistent and trustworthy. Maintaining reliability requires people to be organized so that they can follow through on commitments, be on time for appointments and meetings, and get back to people in a timely fashion. Dependable people also hold themselves and others accountable for following through on commitments and taking responsibility for their work.

Growing in trustworthiness is a journey, not a destination. You never reach the point where you can say you are fully trustworthy. Trust in relationships is a living organism, constantly interacting with and adjusting to the dynamics of the situation and individuals involved. In order for trust to flourish, it’s important to behave in ways that demonstrate you are able, believable, connected, and dependable.

When it comes to trustworthiness, being just OK is not OK.

Conflate for Employee Engagement

Think “conflate” for employee engagement in 2019. To conflate is to mix together. We must strive to ensure our behaviors for engagement conflate results, relationships, wellbeing, and career.

As you offer performance feedback connect that to achieving results, building a relationship, to developing the other person’s career, and to increasing the wellbeing of both of you.

One input – many outputs.

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