Fear in the Workplace

Long before I founded Midwest Consulting Group in 1990 I worked in a variety of organizations in management roles. One thing I noticed was the presence of people who seemed to be in fear much of the time. I came to understand that Fear is a reality in many working environments. You may define workplace fear differently, but what I sensed and saw were some of the following fears:

  • Fear my boss will fire me; I could be without a job, lose my house, etc.
  • Fear people will realize I don’t really know what I’m doing.
  • Fear others will think my ideas are silly or unworkable.
  • Fear I’ll be viewed as not a “team player” if I disagree with plans or priorities.
  • Fear I’ll make a bad decision, support an unsuccessful initiative, or chose the “wrong side” in disputes within the team.
  • Fear of . . . some unknown something that might happen someday.

Recently I worked with a nonprofit arts organization where most of the above fears seemed to be operating. Even the director exhibited some level of fear. As you can imagine, the atmosphere and energy around the group was decidedly negative; people were constantly watching their back.

In “The 8 Essential Skills for Supervisors & Managers” Freedom from Fear is described as the “foundation” of Skill 3 – Building Successful Relationships. When the relationship is one based on Fear, the higher-level aspects – honesty, trust, personal interaction, acceptance, good communication, development and growth, mutual benefit – simply cannot happen.

Over the next several posts we’ll examine the components of successful relationships. As our colleague and coach Mary Jo Asmus says, “It’s all about the relationships.”

Paul

Managing Your “Boss”

I need to make a confession. Frankly, I’m biased against the term “boss.” It’s an old label from the days when the person in charge of a crew or group of workers really did “boss” them around. “Do this! Do that! Do it this way!” Although there are settings or situations when having someone clearly in command makes good sense – first responders in emergencies and military combat come to mind – the term is really outmoded today. Still, it is short, easy to say, and everyone knows what you mean when you refer to “my boss” as the person you report to within your organization.

The relationship with your own boss is one of the most important work relationships you have. When you and your boss are generally on the same page, have good rapport, and communicate reasonably well, you’re much more likely to enjoy your job. On the other hand, if your relationship with your boss is strained, you don’t have good communication, and your ideas about how to get things done are substantially different, your daily interactions can quickly become conflict-ridden and, well, a grind.

What kinds of expectations do you think your boss has of you? What are the things you generally do to keep your boss in the loop? Some expectations a manager might have of you as their direct report are pretty universal, such as “Know your responsibilities and carry them out effectively without a lot of detailed instructions.”

What other specific expectations do you think your manager has? If you aren’t sure, maybe it’s time to ask – having a conversation about what you think they expect and what they actually do expect might be a highly useful discussion. After all, if you aren’t clear about what is expected, it’s going to be difficult to be effective as a supervisor or manager.

We live in a world that’s dynamic, fluid, and fast-paced. Priorities change and external events present new challenges. Try sitting down with your boss. Say to them, “Here are the things I’m currently working on. Here’s my perspective on what you expect of me in my current role. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page about priorities and whether you think I’m focusing on the right things.”

Help your boss manage you. It might just be the most important thing you do this year.

What do you think?

Paul

It’s All About Choices

I’m willing to bet that you have lots to do. At the end of the day, week, or month you can look back and spot all sorts of things that you could have accomplished but didn’t. You’ve clearly made choices about what to do, what not to do, what to pay attention to, and what to ignore or defer until later. You probably make hundreds of choices every day. The choices you make must answer three basic questions:

  • Who should address or resolve this issue? – you, somebody else, or nobody?
  • How important is this to me? Is this mission-critical to my job or not so important?
  • What is the best use of my time, talent, and energy right now? Handling this particular issue or something else on my plate at the moment?

I’m certain you have issues you can make decisions about, otherwise known as your “span of control.” These are decisions you can make on your own, choosing what seems best to you. For example, if something is within your span of control, you may decide to move ahead and keep your boss in the loop after the fact. If the issue requires sign-off or approval from your supervisor, then it clearly is not in your span of control; it’s in somebody else’s span of control.

You also have issues, challenges, problems, and concerns that you have some influence over, whether you realize it or not. This is your “sphere of influence.” These issues are outside your span of control; your position and authority don’t allow you to simply decide what to do. In this case you need the approval of someone else or the willingness of your boss to carry things forward. These issues tend to be things you care about and would like to see changed, but are outside your direct ability to make happen. So it pays to get good at raising issues, communicating critical information, and making recommendations so you can influence the person who actually can make the decision to make their choice the way you would like to see it made.

Learning to effectively use your sphere of influence has a great deal to do with the future scope of your span of control. Using and expanding your sphere of influence usually starts with your relationship with your own manager. You should quickly learn how they prefer to get your suggestions and ideas. Do they:

  • Need a lot of data or just a general overview?
  • Prefer to discuss your idea or issue, see it in writing, or receive it electronically?
  • Have a more receptive time of day?
  • Need to perceive any new idea as their own?

This is all about your ability to influence the future direction of your team or unit. The goal is to provide your manager with the information needed so their decision will go the way you want it to. Obviously, you need to provide your boss with information that’s truthful and complete. You don’t want to leave out an essential piece of information that could prove to be a problem later. That would brand you as someone who doesn’t think things through very well. Still, you can craft information and recommendations in such a way that they lead logically to the conclusion you prefer.

Often, supervisors and managers are frustrated by an issue or problem outside their span of control. So they toss the issue to their boss without thinking about how that person prefers to get input. When their boss ignores it, rejects the idea or makes a decision they don’t like, the frustration continues.

If you look back and can see you are not getting the results you want from your approach, it’s probably time to try a different approach. Ask yourself some basic questions, such as:

  • What is the real problem or issue? How can I best describe it so my boss understands the essential facts and generally sees the issue as I do?
  • What specific outcome do I want? If this issue was in my span of control, what would I decide to do?
  • Are there potential difficulties or problems associated with my approach? If so, what are they? What effect might they have on implementing my recommendation? (Hint – they often are political or “turf” issues)
  • What will be the benefits of following my recommendations?
  • What will the payoff be to the organization and its customers or stakeholders?
  • Who else supports my recommended approach?

Expanding both your span of control and your sphere of influence is a natural byproduct of experience. As you become more adept at managing yourself and the assignments, challenges, and opportunities that come your way, you “graduate” (David Allen’s apt term) and get to take on new, higher-level challenges. Because of the confidence you develop in your own abilities, this growth process can continue as long as you’re alive. But you have to start somewhere and where you are right this moment is a pretty realistic place to begin.

Ask yourself two questions:

  • What issues are really within my span of control?
  • What issues are in really within my sphere of influence?

Once you’ve identified the issues that are within your particular area of responsibility, then it’s a matter of choices – what are you going to do to move those issues forward to a successful resolution, and what issues do you choose to defer (maybe) until later?

Then once you’ve identified those issues that you care enough about to want to see move forward, then it’s a matter of who, how,and what – who needs to know about this particular issue, how do you want them to move forward, and what would you recommend they do?

I recommend you really think about it. What’s within your span of control and what’s within your sphere of influence?

Think about it and commit yourself to making good choices. Choose well and you’ll see your sphere of influence and your span of control expand.

Paul

70% of Our Time

70% of the time we are awake we’re engaged in some form of communication. According to a study by Air University (the U.S. Air Force’s Leadership Center) our communication time breaks down like this:

  • 10% writing
  • 15% reading
  • 30% talking
  • 45% listening

Your exact mix may be somewhat different than mine, but the simple fact is we spend a huge portion of our day communicating. Perhaps you are a great communicator; one of those people who has an innate talent for communicating with your coworkers and customers. I’ve actually met a few, but very few if I’m honest about it. As a very clear Extravert, I’ve had to work diligently at my Listening skills. Others need help to improve their Writing skills. Still others break out in a cold sweat at the thought of gettiing up and speaking to a group, which is something I am good at and enjoy. Every one of us communicates a lot and yet very few of us are great at all aspects of communciation.

What do you need to work on? What portion of your communication is less effective than it could be or should be?

For ideas, tips, and suggestions on how to improve your communication skills, order your copy of “The 8 Essential Skills” today at Amazon.com. You’ll be glad you did (and so will those you communicate with!)

An Irritating Guy!

Communications Stories from the Trenches – III

Once upon a time I worked with a colleague – we’ll call him Ralph – who seemed to have a great deal of difficulty in looking directly at me when we talked. The moment I walked into his office he stood up and did not sit down until our conversation was finished. At first I thought it was me. Then I discovered he did that with everyone. He also had an irritating habit of jingling his keys or the change in his pocket when anyone was speaking to him. He would stop that whenever he was talking. And since we had daily interaction with him, these annoying habits became a form of subtle torture for some of us, to the point where several of his coworkers went out of their way to avoid having to deal with him. He was a clear Introvert although his senior level required him to speak regularly in staff and divisional management meetings and he was reasonably effective in that setting.

Ralph was either completely unaware of the effect his irritating habits had on others, or he didn’t care, or he was at least somewhat aware at some level and couldn’t help himself. I don’t know; I’m not a psychologist (and I don’t play one on television). I do know that his nonverbal messages seemed pretty clear to most of us:

  • Ralph was clearly uncomfortable in face-to-face, one-on-one communication situations.
  • He was not paying much attention to what we were saying
  • He would like us to leave as quickly as possible

To say the least, Ralph was a poor listener. He violated most of the basic rules of effective listening. What do good listeners do?:

  • They maintain eye contact with the other person
  • They show non-verbal interest in what the other person is saying; they nod occasionally, have an open expression, and smile if it’s appropriate
  • They avoid fidgeting, crossing their arms and legs, looking at their watch. Ralph violated this one constantly.
  • They ask questions to clarify what the other person is saying
  • They repeat or paraphrase the other person’s message to check for understanding
  • They are patient and allow the other person to make their point fully

How are your listening skills these days?

When Things Go Wrong

Communications Stories from the Trenches – II

Nearly 30 years ago I sat in one of David Allen’s seminars on personal productivity and heard him say, Virtually every problem that would show up in your business can be traced back to communications; somebody didn’t talk to somebody about something.” The truth of that statement was brought home to me recently as I met with a long-time client. Our monthly discussions tend to be an equal mix of business strategy and people management issues. The CEO realized that on those rare occasions when people’s performance fell short or when a project did not turn out as planned, the cause was almost always a breakdown in Communication. Indeed, somebody didn’t communicate something to somebody.  

Much of the time, when things go wrong, the cause is a lack of clear expectations. You’ve hired good people, you’ve brought them on board and have come to rely on them to produce the results you’re looking for. And they become pretty good at getting things done well most of the time. When things go wrong, ask yourself, “what did I do or not do that contributed to the results? Was I clear about the outcome we were looking for? Did our focus shift somewhere along the way so we lost sight of the objective? Did priorities change? Did we overload the person or give them conflicting guidance?”

When things go wrong, instead of looking for “who screwed up,” look in the mirror and ask yourself what you could have done differently or better. Whether you are running a large organization or a front-line team, the results they achieve are an outgrowth of the communication you have with them.

You may want to check out Skill 2 – Communicating for Results in “The 8 Essential Skills for Supervisors & Managers” To ordervisit Amazon.com.

8 Essential Skills for Nonprofit Managers

For those of you managing nonprofit organizations – we’ve been asked to develop a 5-session workshop series for our friends at ONEplace@KPL. This series is designed for entry to middle-level directors and managers in all areas of nonprofit organizations (executives, programs, services, administrations, operations, fund development, communications—anyone who supervises others). Each session will be 2.5 hours and will run on five successive Monday’s from 9:30 a.m. to noon.

Interested? You can learn more by visiting the workshop announcement and topic schedule at ONEplace.  And while you’re visiting, don’t forget to check out the rest of what Bobbe Luce, her staff, and her network are doing – it’s great stuff!

Next Time: More Communications Stories from the Trenches.

PS – watch for my upcoming interview about “The 8 Essential Skills” on Mary Jo Asmus’ outstanding blog, Leadership Solutions.

Communication Stories from the Trenches – 1

Sally could be best described as someone who “overcommunicates” – like many very clear Extraverts, she figures that more words are much better than fewer words. As a result she tends to overwhelm people on her team and they often tune her out. Even simple questions often result in ong-winded, convoluted answers, often with far more information than the other person wanted. Talk, talk, talk. The result . . . often Sally doesn’t seem to wait for the other person to finish their question before she jumps in or interrupts. Obviously, listening is not one of Sally’s strong points!

She seems to be overusing her almost certain preference for Extraversion. And like many E’s she has a bias for action so doing something is preferable to waiting, delaying, or (God forbid!) doing nothing. We do not predict great success for Sally as a manager unless she makes some changes in the way she operates, such as: 

  • Becoming aware of her own communication style and the affect it has on other people
  • Learning how to suspend her need for quick answers and action until the other person has finished making their point
  • Close her mouth and open her ears so she actually understands what the other person is saying
  • Paraphrase or check for understanding so she is clear about what the other person is talking about

Perhaps you can come up with other suggestions to help Sally. What do you think?

To order “The 8 Essential Skills for Supervisors & Managers” visit Amazon.com. For orders of 10 or more copies, contact us directly toll free: 877-643-MIDW (9476)

 

Skill 2 – Communicating for Results

There’s no question in my mind that Communicating for Results is Skill 2. If Managing Yourself is the foundational Skill 1, then being an effective communicator stands between you and the rest of the 8 Essential Skills. Far too often when we see a supervisor or manager fail, that failure is driven by poor communication skills. Think about the four essential facets of Communicating for Results:

  • Speaking
  • Nonverbal Cues
  • Writing
  • Listening

Regardless of your purpose, you want to create, transmit, and receive information as effectively as possible. At the same time, you want to build understanding and enhance your working relationships. And if you are unable to get your ideas and expectations across clearly, you are not going to be successful as a manager.

What do you think is involved in effective communication – Communicating for Results?

“The problem with communication . . . is the illusion that it has been accomplished. George Bernard Shaw

“The quality of your communication is determined by the results you get.” Tony Robbins

Next Time:  Stories from the Trenches

Bill & the Company Goals

Bill was CEO of a 1,400-employee manufacturing company making precision components for the aircraft industry. His vice presidents seemed to be unclear about the overall goals and strategy of the company as the industry and marketplace were going through some rapid changes. When this confusion was first mentioned to Bill, he got visibly agitated and said, “I don’t get it. I told them the goals six months ago!” When he was asked if the goals were in writing, his response was, “No! If you write that stuff down your competition can find it out!”

There wasn’t much danger of the competition finding out because Bill’s own vice presidents didn’t even know! As a result no one else under them did either. The company continued to falter as employees tried to meet goals no one understood.

Lessons Learned

A verbal list of goals spoken in one meeting more than six months earlier wasn’t sufficient in this case. If Bill really wanted his vice presidents to “get it,” he should have provided the goals in writing, reviewed them with the team, and then discussed with each vice president how their particular area was going to accomplish those goals.

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