A few years back I was at a big strategy and leadership forum in NYC listening to Michael Porter, the Harvard prof who is well known for his work on competition and strategy. So Porter goes through a bunch of models and concepts – lots of detail – about what companies need to do to become successful.
Then Jack Welch, at the peak of his fame and recently retired from GE, gets up to speak.
“You hear all that stuff Porter talked about?”
“Well, we didn’t do any of that.”
Lots of laughter.
Which got me thinking about Deng Xiaoping. Who? You know, the guy who orchestrated probably the most dramatic and successful political transformation of the 20th century. Following in the sizeable footsteps of Mao Zedong, it was Deng who introduced market-based principles and reforms into China’s communist economy. And it was Deng the savvy pragmatist who said, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouse.”
In business there are many models and many approaches, many of which have been successful. Whether you’re a disciple of Michael Porter or Jack Welch doesn’t matter. What matters is getting the result.
So apply the Deng Xiaoping test. Don’t be overly concerned about whether your cat is black or white. Only that it catches the mouse.
As a leader you need candid and specific input from your people. The straight goods. Not just generalizations or feel-good fluff. So how do you make sure you’re getting it? Answer: Ask the right type of questions.
Don’t Ask: General Questions
“How are things going at the plant?” “Good.”
General questions produce answers that yield little if any information. And they leave too much room for spin. “Good” could mean anything from “Well, the place hasn’t burnt to the ground yet,” to “We’re starting to see some solid productivity improvements.”
Don’t Ask: Positive-Assumption Questions
“Is morale still strong at your location?” “Ya, pretty strong.”
Faced with a positive-assumption question, most employees are reluctant to disappoint. So they respond by weakly confirming the positive assumption. “Ya, pretty strong,” could mean, “Sure, among those who haven’t jumped ship yet.”
Do Ask: Negative-Assumption Questions
“What’s the number one challenge you’re facing in your department?” “Our main supplier has become unreliable at meeting delivery commitments. It’s causing havoc with our production schedule and ultimately we’re disappointing our customers.”
That’s real information that points to a line of constructive questions: “Do we understand what is causing supplier unreliability? Do we know how long it’s likely to continue? How could we adjust our schedules to take this into account? What short-term alternatives are there?”
Psychological research has found that respondents are far more likely to divulge problems when asked negative-assumption questions (87%) versus positive-assumption questions (59%) or general questions (10%).
The point? To get real information, ask negative-assumption questions with positive intentions.
I’m returning from a week on Isla Mujeres, a small jewel of an island that Bernadine and I have visited regularly for over 20 years. So how do I feel after immersing myself in the “island state of mind?” The same as I do after each trip: refreshed, refocused, recharged and ready to go.
The fundamental rhythm of life is binary: exertion and recovery, waking and sleep, exercise and rest. Respecting this rhythm keeps us strong.
When leaders discourage downtime, they unwittingly compromise productivity. And even if they don’t explicitly discourage it, employees may be anxious about how they’ll be judged when they do take time off.
How can you encourage your people to take downtime? 1) Be seen to take downtime. 2) Communicate the value of and your support for downtime. 3) Mandate downtime for that dedicated employee who is worn down but won’t take time off.
Enjoy your downtime!
Years ago, management theory distinguished between “Task Management” and “Relationship Management” styles. Modern-day thinking recognizes that you need both to be effective.
Today’s competitive demands mean you can’t survive without effectively managing tasks. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that employees who feel positively engaged with their boss and their work are more productive and give more discretionary effort. Their efforts are amplified. So how do you elicit engagement, how do you build rapport?
Whether you like an employee, dislike them or are indifferent, you must always demonstrate respect. No, you must always be seen to demonstrate respect in everything you say and everything you do.
Think how you would interact with a child. Genuinely caring about an employee means being joyful at their successes and compassionate and encouraging with their struggles. It also means knowing what’s important to them.
Employees are more open to your world when you show you are willing to enter their world. As Stephen Covey wrote: seek first to understand, then to be understood.
It’s not complicated and it’s not difficult. But it takes intentional effort to become habit. Demonstrate respect. Show you care. Strive to understand.
One of the toughest things for leaders to do is to hold their employees accountable. Why? Confrontation is uncomfortable. We’re uncertain how things are going to play out.
So how do you constructively confront an employee and reduce the uncertainty and discomfort? Here’s a roadmap for the accountability conversation:
- Convey the Common Purpose. Show how employee expectations are aligned with the organizations's goals. Emphasize that you and the employee are allies, not adversaries.
- Confront Reality. Place the facts on the table. Don’t judge the employee’s motivation or their attitude. The focus should be on the performance not the person.
- Offer Support. To engage in a real conversation about performance, you need to disarm the employee. Ask what you can do to help them. It will put them at ease. You don’t have to agree with all their suggestions, just use your best judgment.
- Clearly State Your Expectations. Fuzzy expectations lead to fuzzy results. Clear expectations take the form: what do you expect by when.
- Rigorously Follow-Up. This is the moment of truth. Before you leave, establish a follow-up meeting. Now the employee knows they need to take action.
Accountability isn’t easy. But following a structured process can give you more confidence and make it less uncomfortable.
Most employees are anxious about change. Why? Change brings uncertainty. What if I don’t like it? What if I’m not good at it? Will I be less secure in my job? And it’s rational for employees to doubt the need for change. Why don’t we just keep doing what we’re doing?
The antidote to this anxiety and doubt is a simple one: Regular, interactive communications.
1. Elaborate on the “Why” of Change. Sure, it’s important they understand the “what” and the “how.” However, answering why is what makes change meaningful.
2. Put Their Concerns on the Table. Acknowledge that it’s human nature to be concerned about change. Elicit their concerns. Understand and empathize with them. Discuss them.
3. Offer Support. Using their concerns as a starting point, discuss how you might offer support. Get their reactions and input.
4. Exude Confidence and Commitment. Employees feel better about change when they see their leaders exhibiting strong, positive behaviors – and that doesn’t mean “selling” change.
Employees aren’t apprehensive about change because they’re set in their ways. Often, they simply need information, reassurance and support.
I’m always surprised how much impact a little reinforcement can have.
I finally meet our property manager in person and send her a quick email that evening saying it was a pleasure to meet her. Thirty seconds. No big deal. Done. So she sends me a reply thanking me for the kind words and how they “warmed her heart.” And how happy she was she got a chance to meet me and “if you ever need anything, please do not hesitate to let me know!” Hmmm, guess not too many people have acknowledged her.
How often do you acknowledge your people? Thank them? We’re all busy, that’s no excuse. It’s a matter of making it a habit so it becomes natural. And to make it a habit you’ll need reminders to get you started. Like a scheduled email to yourself each morning or a post-it you keep on your computer or a repetitive reminder on your calendar. “Acknowledge someone today!”
It’s the multiplier effect. Small actions done a multitude of times can have an enormous effect.
Thanks for taking the time to read this blog!
Holding people accountable. The part of business that so many leaders struggle with. Why? It’s uncomfortable; it’s conflict. So we try to avoid it by rationalizing to ourselves. Maybe if I give it more time it will get better. (Sorry, it won’t.) I’ll never find someone to replace them. (Wrong, you will.)
Here’s the paradox: The number one reason you have to hold people accountable has nothing to do with those few people. It’s so you don’t de-motivate and demoralize everyone else. Everyone who bought into the dream and is driving to make it happen. It’s those people who get frustrated when you don’t hold someone accountable. Why isn’t that person getting the job done? Why aren’t you holding that person accountable? Wait, it gets worse. Because now they question their commitment. Why should I work so hard when you don’t care enough to hold that person accountable? Maybe you’re not that committed.
Congratulations. You’ve now de-motivated the many because you won’t deal with the few.
The next time you find yourself avoiding an accountability discussion – and you’ll know it – ask yourself: By not dealing with this, what is the effect I’m having on everyone else?
He was the first of my college football teammates to die. A hulking lineman, he had struggled with weight in recent years. But then, the competitor he was, he got serious and started losing it. Still, he dropped dead of a heart attack at 51.
So when another former teammate, a linebacker, showed up at a game weighing 280 pounds, I decided to apply positive pressure. “Mike,” I said, “we’ve just lost one teammate, we don’t want to lose another. You’re going to lose some weight.” He agreed. And then we negotiated: How much would he have to lose? Fifty pounds. By when? Within one year. And how much would he have to contribute to the Alumni Football Association if he didn’t? $2,000.
One year later, before the start of another game, a group of us gathered around a scale. Mike stepped up … 55 pounds lighter than the year before. Victory!
When there’s no pressure – self-induced or otherwise – there’s nothing to respond to. Your will atrophies. It’s like floating in a zero-gravity environment; your muscles and bones aren’t challenged so they deteriorate.
Positive pressure is good. It means challenging people. To achieve a goal they believe in. Letting them know you believe in them. Letting them know there are consequences. And most importantly, letting them know you care.
Exert positive pressure.
A critical meeting. You want your people intensively engaged. Totally present, focused, and deeply processing the issue. So how can you tell if they’re giving you their best? Here’s one way:
At the start of the meeting state that you expect each of them, at some point, to ask their one best question. An incisive question that reflects a deep understanding of the issue or deep insight into its implications. If they come up with a conclusion or recommendation, they should word it as a question. Tell them you’ll be evaluating their one best questions.
Give them feedback. Recognize those whose questions are outstanding. Challenge those whose questions are not. Push them to think deeply.
If it’s that important and you need their best, then expect their best. One question. Their one best question.