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

The Many Hats You Wear

From time to time it’s helpful to think about the multiple roles we play as a manager; it’s one of the reasons why the job is so challenging. And if we want to do it really well it can be a life-long endeavor. The typical roles most supervisors and managers play include the following:

  • Coordinator, planner, organizer
  • Teacher
  • Coach
  • Technical expert
  • Culture developer & keeper
  • Interpreter
  • Decision maker
  • Communicator
  • Quality guide & monitor
  • Team member
  • Team leader
  • Relationship builder

Recently we looked at the related roles of Teacher and Coach. Today I’d like to focus on the roles of Interpreter and Decision Maker.

Interpreter – Every organization develops routines and standards. From the gas station or shoe shop on the corner to the biggest governmental agency . . . from the local storefront church to the billion-dollar worldwide nonprofit agency . . . all organizations have rules, policies, and procedures. They may be formal and written or they may be informal and unwritten.

Whatever those rules are, as a manager you’re responsible for teaching, guiding, interpreting, and explaining the rules to each of your team members. What are the rules, policies, and procedures in our organization? How do we do the work and why do we do it that way? Merely handing down the rules and explaining how to carry them out isn’t enough; people need to know why so they can truly understand “how we do things around here.” Once they understand the what, how, and why, they’ll be much more likely to do what needs to be done in the way it should be done.

Decision Maker – Managers make decisions all the time. Who to hire . . . what to have them do . . . what tasks take priority over others . . . which team members should attend a new training program first . . . when to start doing something new . . . when to stop doing something that has been done in the past. Making decisions is part of every manager’s daily life.

Some of us enjoy making decisions, seek opportunities to make decisions, and make them quickly. Others seem to struggle with making even the simplest decision. They postpone, waffle, beat around the bush, and change their mind a dozen times.

Over time and with practice, you’re likely to get more comfortable with this role. You’ll see that making decisions too quickly can lead to consequences you hadn’t thought of. At other times you’ll need to make a decision quickly, before you miss an opportunity. Shoot from the hip? Sleep on it? Regardless of how you tend to handle them, as a manager you must make decisions.

When you interpret the organization’s rules, policies, and practices you provide crucial guidance that affects team performance. When you make decisions about what the team will do and where it will focus its attention, you’re helping determine the team’s direction and priorities.Understanding the true nature and scope of the job of the manager is critical to your success. And ultimately your success has a direct bearing on the success of your team and your entire organization.

 Paul

Adventures in Lego-Land

Recently I attended the monthly meeting of InterCom, the organization for professional communicators in SW Michigan.  InterCom has become a must-attend for me in recent years because of the quality and variety of the monthly programs.

March’s meeting featured Renee Shull of integrated play. The couple of short “building” exercises she had us do using Lego blocks was certainly fun. It was also revealing as she explained the use of the small blocks as a metaphor for our perceptions about success and work. But what particularly struck a chord with me was when she talked about the need to remake herself after a career in corporate HR and how it led her to working with former NFL, NHL, MLB, and NBA athletes. Renee has built her business on helping former athletes and others create successful transitions from their current career to whatever comes next for them and their families.

As she pointed out, some professional athletes have a relatively short career and in their 20’s or 30’s realize there is going to life after the playing field or arena. The average NFL career is 3.5 years while the average in the NBA is 4.8, the NHL is 5.5, and MLB is 5.6 years, so it’s clear that most professional athletes are going to need to do something else at a relatively young age. Long-lived playing careers, such as Derek Jeter’s 20 years as the New York Yankees’ shortstop are unusual to say the least.

Thanks, Renee, for a fascinating and fun InterCom meeting. And best wishes for continued success with integrated play. For the rest of us, this is a good reminder to keep working on Skill 8 – Growing Yourself

What’s next for you?

Paul

Choices And Expectations

Whenever we see performance problems the culprit frequently involves expectations. Someone’s expectations about what was to happen did not get met. Those might involve results, behaviors, communications, relationships, or a combination of unmet expectations.

Expectations are often unstated or implied, the person “expecting” certain behaviors or results rarely has been explicit about the specifics of the expectation. Far too often the offending party has no idea what they have done wrong, and when an expectation goes unmet for days, weeks, or even months, the relationship sours, perhaps to the point of somebody losing their job.

Expectations come from a variety of sources, for example:

  • Employees have expectations about how their manager communicates with them.
  • Managers have expectations about when an employee needs to ask for input or permission and when the employee can act on their own.
  • Customers have expectations about the relationship with your organization, including how and when you will communicate with them.
  • Peers and co-workers have expectations about the relationship and communications between you and them, as well as between your unit and their unit.

Those are simply a few examples of where there are expectations, but you get the general idea. And in many instances the expectations are strongly held but completely unstated. Think about what kinds of expectations might be operating in your particular situation. What expectations do you have about how your subordinates are to behave and which of those expectations are merely implicit? How often has an expectation not been met but you’ve said nothing to the employee? Look at some of the examples below:

Managers Expectations – samples:

  • Be flexible in responding to shifts in priorities or direction
  • Suggest improvements to will help the organization be more successful
  • Keep them in the loop about what is happening in your unit
  • Be a self-starter, honest, trustworthy, and reliable

Employees Expectations – samples:

  • Manage under-performers so they either succeed or leave
  • Listen to their ideas, concerns, problems, and proposed solutions
  • Keep them informed about things that have a bearing on their work
  • Provide clear information about what you expect them to do

Peers Expectations – samples:

  • Pull your share of the load; make sure your team does too
  • Train and develop your staff
  • Be an active member of the team; provide ideas, suggestions, feedback
  • Share information that helps others get the job done successfully

These are just a few examples of typical expectations; you can easily come up with others. And there may be expectations unique to your own organization. Yet time and time again these kinds of expectations are not communicated to the key people you work with every day. What would happen if you sat down with your boss, your employees, your peers and had a real conversation about expectations? Do you think it might help people work more cooperatively, more positively, more successfully?

I think so. 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

What Did You Learn?

What did you learn from each of your previous bosses? Maybe you worked for one of those rare “natural” supervisors or managers. I’ve met a few, but they are few and far between. Most of us who have worked inside organizations have worked for a series of bosses. And we probably had no difficulty finding things about their style that bugged us, frustrated us, even made us angry from time to time.

But at the same time, looking at it from the rear view mirror, I bet you also learned some valuable lessons from each of them. I know I did. Some of those lessons were positives – things to emulate, copy, and modify to fit me. And some were negatives – things to not do when faced with a similar situation.

One of my first bosses was The Chief. He was a Master Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy and was the lead admin for the Supply Officer on my ship. He’d been in the Navy about 25 years and had risen steadily to become one of the senior people in his logistics specialty. Since our ship had one of the first on-board computers in the Navy (a Univac 1500 that took up a lot of room and was one of the few air-conditioned spaces on the ship), we were dealing with state-of-the art in some ways, and very old technology in others. Remember 10-part carbon paperwork?

From The Chief I learned precision and the importance of doing the job to the best of my ability. He also served as a role model of how to handle a difficult boss who had spent his entire career on shore duty. When we were at sea, the Supply Officer spent the whole time holed up in his cabin, alternately hollering at somebody over the ship’s phone and bouts of throwing up .

Some years later I worked for a boss I’ll call Sam. I was running an organization-wide system with multiple locations and nearly round-the-clock operations. From Sam I learned the value of building effective cross-departmental relationships and the wisdom of seeking multiple opinions and perspectives before making major decisions. My mid-20’s shoot-from-the-hip, get-it-done-now style sometimes backfired on me, particularly when I failed to identify key stakeholders and give them a “heads-up” regarding plans. Sam showed us all how to lead a diverse (and often highly competative) group of department heads in a positive direction by “communicating lavishly,” to use a favorite Max DePree quote. Sam knew where we were heading, kept us all in the loop, and ran interference with other senior leaders when necessary. Quiet leadership, practiced daily.

Those are just two of the people I learned from. What did you learn?

Think about what you’ve learned from some of the people you’ve worked for over the years. If you’d like to share a thought or two, that would be great. If not, at least think about it.

Collaboration

Recently I gave a brief talk to InterCom, the regional group for communications professionals. The topic was collaborative organizations, using our Midwest Consulting Group as a model. We believe MCG is the oldest virtual corporation in Michigan, and probably one of the oldest in the U.S. Building business through collaboration is what we have been about since 1990. The bright, diverse, neat-to-hang-out-with people who make up MCG are involved in both individual and collective projects and collaborating has become part and parcel of how we operate. Clients and projects may differ considerably, but working, thinking, planning together has become part of our hardwiring. The common denominator is helping organizations, individual professionals, and teams get great at what they do.

Whether it’s helping a nonprofit agency to create a strategic plan, guiding a university faculty member through the process of publishing in an academic journal, helping create a brand identity for a business or nonprofit, coaching executives and professionals, teaching and training people to be better supervisors, managers, and leaders or creating a comprehensive management development program  . . . the commitment to collaborate, cooperate, and help each other grow our businesses is in everything we do.

Who are you collaborating with? And what have you achieved through collaboration? Would be an interesting discussion, I think.