Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Your Department’s Reputation = You

Twenty years ago I worked at a company that was and still is known as one of Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. My department and most of the people I worked with were fun and supportive. We worked hard, had a chance to be innovative, and were appreciated for our efforts.

But one department that I had to work with on a regular basis was a nightmare for me. In fact, the department was so difficult to work with that it had acquired a nickname in the company - the “Estrogen Explosion”.  Needless to say, the top two or three people from the vice president on down were women who perpetuated the B-word. And I don’t mean boss.

I had many run-ins with these women and I often left our bi-weekly meetings feeling frustrated and put-down. My own boss, a very nice man, didn’t have a clue as to how to work with them effectively and so I didn’t receive any coaching on how to deal with their behavior.

I tried everything I could think of to improve the situation. I hosted appreciation events with both of our departments to strengthen working relationships. I tried holding my ground and talking sternly back to them when they got on my case. I tried letting their sarcasm and snide comments wash right over me without reacting. In the end, they “won” as I left the company, feeling exhausted and somewhat abused. My nice boss had left two years earlier and had been replaced by one not so understanding or supportive. Between him and the constant stress from working with the Estrogen Explosion, I needed a long break and I took it.

I was one more person who left a good job with a good company due to poor leadership.

Do you know what your department’s reputation is? Is your team known for being easy to get along with, knowledgeable, and high-performing? Or do other employees dread inter-departmental meetings with your people?

I have experienced both extremely collaborative departmental cultures and the opposite. Sometimes the team is on the whole very cooperative except for one odd person who is insecure or competitive or both. Leaders set the tone - they reinforce the values which become the culture of their areas. If they are competitive, secretive, and power-mongering, then their organization will tend to be the same. If they keep themselves and others accountable to a higher set of behaviors, then those will morph into the culture and reputation of not only their department, but will become their signature leadership qualities as well.

As one (and not the only one) of the casualties of the Estrogen Explosion, I observed first-hand the different leadership styles and their effects on the people around them. This experience was one of the catalysts for changing my career from international sales and marketing to a coach and consultant. So I did get something positive from that prolonged ‘learning experience’. And I pass my hard-earned wisdom on to anyone who needs it.

From my position now as a leadership coach and trainer, I know that there were things I could have done at the time had I known of them. I can see that my behavior style was a direct opposite of the vice-president’s and her manager’s. Had I known then what I know now about flexing my behavior style, I could have mitigated the confrontations to some extent. Roles, responsibilities, and expectations should have constantly been reviewed because there was overlap between our two departments that also contributed to the conflict. And, my nice boss also had a behavior style which was in conflict with theirs. If he had understood what I do now, he could have coached me on quite a few options to try in order to improve circumstances.

What values are you reinforcing? What behaviors do your employees see you employing, especially when circumstances are stressful? Are you keeping others accountable to high behavior standards or do you let them get away with (seemingly) minor transgressions as long as you get the results you want? What you say and do ends up affecting your entire organization, but most of all, it affects you and your direct reports. Find out what your department’s reputation is, and if you want to change it, it starts with you.

Testosterone Explosion? 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Could Your "Difficult Employee" Have a Personality Disorder?

In a study of over 29,000 men and women in the U.S. workforce, it was determined that 18% of men and 16% of women have personality disorders that cause them to deviate from societal norms when interacting with others. The most common of these personality disorders, in order, were obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anti-social behavior, and paranoia. (Contrary to how the layperson usually defines it, anti-social behavior refers to behaviors such as lying, cheating and stealing.)

Personality disorders are less serious mental illnesses than diagnoses such as depression or bipolar disorder. But they do cause difficulties for the afflicted and those around them. Employees with personality disorders lost their jobs at about double the rate of those without disorders, and experienced serious problems with bosses or co-workers three times as often.

This study, published in the January, 2011 edition of the journal Industrial Relations, might explain any “difficult employees” you have. It seems every office has at least one. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is the most prevalent and usually the least offensive. I know my exercise teacher exhibits that at every class: when others try to help her take down equipment after class she gets upset when they put away things in the “wrong” place or wrap up cords and things the “wrong” way. If they try to help her by setting up chairs she will rearrange them so they are “just so” – alternating sets of two and three along each wall. We old-timers have learned not to help her and she appreciates that.

At work, these common personality disorders may show up as interpreting emails in distorted ways, taking innocent comments as personal insults, refusing to accept different ways of doing things, or seeing conspiracies where there are none. And of course, lying, cheating and stealing.

Although one of my clients told me, “Managers have to be psychologists!”, you really don’t have to be the one to make a personality disorder diagnosis, nor should you be. However, you should be alert to these types of behaviors so you can work with the individual in the best possible way. Just because someone has a personality disorder doesn’t mean they can’t still be a very valuable employee.

As with any employee, here are some management approaches to keep in mind:

   •  Assign responsibilities that may take advantage of their disorder’s challenges: for example, have them proof outgoing communications to ensure benign interpretation and proper procedure.
   •  Allow them to redesign tasks to fit their work styles.
   •  Ensure that your professional expectations are clear and hold them accountable when they don’t meet them.
   •  Understand that they may work best independently and try to assign responsibilities that allow them to do so.
   •  If there are repeated negative encounters with no improvement, yet the employee meets work output expectations, encourage them to take advantage of the Employee Assistance Program or other health benefits your employer may provide.
   •  Again, if there are repeated negative encounters with no improvement, it may be wise to consult with your legal and human resources departments to understand how best to deal with individuals with mental health challenges, and how to screen for them when hiring.

No one chooses to have a personality disorder. Diagnosed personality disorders are covered in the United States by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and are treatable.

The researchers estimate that their study results showing 17% of the workforce struggling with a personality disorder is probably low. Like my coaching client said, managers do need to be somewhat of a psychologist in order to be able to manage people effectively. It’s important to be aware of common psychological challenges that your employees may be dealing with and to have some options for managing them.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ask, Don't Tell

In this blog, I give a lot of advice. I am a teacher at my core and I like to share tips that will help others. This blog is a great outlet for me, because when I am in “coach” mode, I turn the advice off.
The best coaching is the kind that helps the other person access their own wisdom. (I know, doesn’t that sound wise?) The best coaching means asking questions that help the person clarify their thinking and consider looking at things in a different way. The best coaching helps them become a better thinker, a better solution-finder, and allows them their own “ah-ha” moments that really don’t happen when someone else tells them what to do. The best coaching allows people to transform into their better selves through the simple act of asking questions and listening.
Sure, occasionally a client is “stuck” and insists on getting some answers from me. I try to be careful with this. I offer suggestions and tips that may or may not work for them, giving them the ultimate choice about whether to try them or not. After all, they are the only ones who are walking in their shoes, and they are the only ones who know whether something will work for them or not. And, taking another’s advice is often not very motivating so it is bound to fail when they don’t follow through on it. (And then they may blame the advice-giver.) However, if through questioning and coach-guided pondering, they come up with the answers on their own, they will be more inspired to follow through on what they’ve come up with.

The exact same reasoning applies to your employees. Too many managers believe that being a strong leader means knowing the answer. Leaders think that is what they are there for, to provide solutions. They jump in with the answers when their employees come to them for help. Unfortunately, by providing the answers, they are keeping their employees from developing, and therefore keeping their organization from developing healthily too.

Providing answers trains your employees not to think or be creative. It trains them to stay dependent and when people feel dependent, they feel held back, repressed, and powerless. Sounds like a mix that generates low morale and low motivation, doesn’t it?

A client recently told me that one of the most significant behavior changes he made as a result of coaching was to pause and ask questions of his employees instead of providing answers and advice. Because of this one conscious change, he said it has allowed him to be more transparent, sharing what he doesn’t know or understand, and has allowed him to learn about new issues. “If I slow down,” he said, “I can get some meaningful responses. Sometimes it validates what I already know, but it really helps me get buy-in. Before, I would just tell them. Now, I listen first and talk second. I am less of a policeman, less of a controller; I just let things happen more and don’t try to control them. I am more into the moment - building dialogue and connections."

Wow – building dialogue and connections. What a great way to develop and motivate his staff.

One thing that works for every person whether they are manager or individual contributor, parent or friend, is listening first, asking questions second, and offering advice as a last resort, if at all. Think about how much advice people give you. How much of it do you actually take? What if, instead of offering you advice on what to do in a situation, they walked you through thinking through the problem to find a solution? What if they asked questions like:

What outcome do you really want?

What do you need to do to take the next step?

Would it help if I acted as your sounding board as you went through possible next steps and their scenarios?

What resources do you have right now that can help you with taking the next step?

What is in your way that is impeding your progress?

How would achieving your goal affect you and the people around you?

Questions like these help the listener focus on the solution instead of the problem. They help the other person develop their own problem-solving skills and determine and commit to next steps without getting overwhelmed.

Sometimes people come to you with a problem and they don’t want your advice or to be walked through to a solution on their own. They really already know the answer; they know what they have to do. But they just want to vent. That’s okay. You may need to ask: ”Do you want to talk through a solution to this or do you just want to vent?” If it’s vent, let them complain for a few minutes. Everyone needs to let off steam once in a while. The best bosses allow their employees to come into their offices just to vent for 3 minutes. That’s enough. Let them know they can come in to let off steam with no repercussions any time. Empathize, then send them on their way.

Leaders have to realize that employees, especially younger ones, probably need to be retrained in order to think for themselves. For their whole lives, from childhood through college, their parents and their teachers have told them what they should be doing. Rarely do parents and teachers teach them how to think for themselves, as students are rewarded for the “right answers” and kids are rewarded for “minding”. Now they are employees and you, their manager, are just like their parent or teacher. They want to please you so they want to do what you want them to do.

What you want them to do is think for themselves, be creative, and be solution-oriented. Listening to them, asking them questions, and coaching them will help them become motivated and productive knowledge workers.

So next time someone comes up to you with a problem, resist the initial urge to give them advice. Pause and ask a question. “What do you think?  What do you want the end result of this situation to be? What can be done to get there? How does that work?” Give your employees their own power back. They hold the best answers to their own problems.