When you want to help with uncertainty

While I will never get political in any of my writing, our current circumstances seem completely out of balance. These circumstances are creating significant stress and uncertainty in people’s home, families and organizations.

I have noticed a general sense that we went from an attitude of “we can do this!” to extreme fatigue, frustration and even resignation in the course of 7 months. Our economy is okay (some of you may disagree with me) but certain industries are struggling.

We continue to move toward automation that can eliminate certain jobs but there are new skill sets that will create new jobs as long as we provide opportunities to learn them. Higher education is being majorly disrupted to the point that people are not sure if getting a degree is worth the investment. People are unsure which discipline to choose to pursue in these times. Inside the virtual walls of organizations, some can’t hire people fast enough while others contemplate how long can they make payroll.

Put all of this together and you get mixed signals and unclear directions. I am very unsure as to what the future holds and how we will all pull through this. I have to have hope because the alternative is something I can’t fathom. Whatever the source of change and stress, there are a few things managers can do for their teams right now…especially, if you are in budget-cutting mode.

Set clear expectations.

I could write a whole book on this. The simplest action managers, at all levels, can take is to set expectations with each team member so they know their scope of work and what they are responsible for. I am always amazed how many professionals I speak to tell me that they don’t really know what they are on the hook for at work. They can describe their role but when I ask how they are measured, I get blank, virtual stares.

I have worked for several organizations where I had no clue what I was going to be measured on or, even at times, what my role was. The number of times where I found someone else doing exactly what I was doing would make a long list. So, I would do what I think added value all the while guessing if it was truly the right thing to do.

In the setting expectations department, managers need to stop doing these 5 things:

  1. Stop assigning the same task to different people to see who will get it done first. This creates animosity and territorialism…not to mention wastes time and money.
  2. Stop speaking in generalities about a role and get specific. Set clear goals with targets, deliverables and dates.
  3. Stop avoiding the performance measurement question; tell people what they will be measured on. Is it only the completion of activities or is there another measure like client service? Quality? Reduction in a process? Saving money? Being on time? The worst thing that can happen is someone gets a terrible review for something they had no idea they were supposed to focus on!
  4. Stop letting your team decide who should do what. This creates a Lord of the Flies situation where everyone tries and takes the conch. I have been a part of too many of these exercises and they always end badly with someone dominating and someone upset. Get input from your team but, as a leader, make the decision. Don’t put that stress on your team to do that for themselves.
  5. Stop avoiding feedback sessions where your team member needs critical feedback. Be kind but honest. Avoiding giving feedback does NOT help them. It may not feel good to deliver critical feedback but that is to help them. If your team member continues to go down the wrong road, that could impact their career at the organization. Your job is to help them even if it is uncomfortable for you.

Share what you can even if it isn’t much.

I always respected a leader who told me even little bits during times of great stress and change. Even if this person said: “We are figuring some things out and while I cannot share confidential information, I will let you know information when I am able,” I felt like they acknowledged the situation.

I have been laid off once in my career due to a start-up growing too quickly that they couldn’t sustain their growth. It is a terrible feeling to lose your job be it from a layoff, a firing, an unsuccessful experiment.

When I was laid off, the head of HR delivered the message to 12 of us at once. He had great compassion, didn’t mince words and let us know what our options were. He was incredibly professional and open to even being a counselor of sorts. I will never forget what a class act he was in delivering terrible news.

Do your thing to create value.

In uncertain times, sometimes all you can do is focus on your work and create value, whatever that looks like, in your job. It is easy to give up, resign to everything being out of your control and go lay on the couch and watch re-runs of Law & Order (even though they are totally entertaining). I can joke because I have done this. When I lost my job, I was devastated. I, in no way, thought this could happen to me.

The truth is, if an organization is struggling, it may be out of your control. So, don’t get sucked onto the couch, get your resume together, connect with others but also re-engage on your job. Do what you love and show how valuable you are. That is so much better than giving in. As a manager, help your people do the same.

Take stock.

Sometimes, times of stress and uncertainty can create opportunities to look at ourselves and what we want to accomplish. It also is not a bad time to list what you are grateful for. Anything you can make “certain” in times of ambiguity; take those opportunities to help you have some security in something…even if it may not be your job at the moment.

I have given my team advice about making gratitude lists and thinking about their career goals. Times of uncertainty can create those moments where we can do our deepest thinking.

Demonstrate empathy.

Back to my opening, these times scream for extra empathy. Even if you are not good at this, get better. Start just by making time to listen. People need a ton of flexibility during these times if the organization can allow it. Not all situations can be accommodated for but we need to listen and try to come up creative solutions. Whether it is time off to visit ailing parents, a flexible schedule to help a struggling teen with virtual learning or more breaks throughout the day to walk the dog to mentally break from stressful work. Try and do those things.

Everyone responds to stress and uncertainty differently. One of my favorite thoughts from a book (I have this in my phone) is from Amber Rae’s book: “Choose Wonder over Worry” — Not knowing is not stressful; that fact that we need to know is (mic drop). I think many of us struggle to know what someone else knows or to have 100% guarantee of something but that is not possible. We need to breathe and try and take action during times where we just don’t know what will happen.

As a manager, you can help your team by following some of above. Psst….these things can help you too!

When you have to make a tough decision: 3 tips to help steer you

As a manager, you are faced with some tough decisions. Deciding on compensation, promotions, assignments, hiring, firing, and budget cuts (my least favorite) are all part of reality as a manager. Most managers try and find the most fair decision based on some criteria.

Determining what is fair maybe “should” be obvious but, oftentimes, decisions can get caught in a web of ambiguity. There is no black and white…only gray. What may benefit you, may not benefit your team. What might be best for the organization can hurt someone on your team.

There are many models and frameworks that can help you make a decision. Typical frameworks direct you to frame the problem, gather information, identify alternatives, collect evidence, weigh the evidence and choose the best solution. This sounds good as a process but determining “best” can be difficult to achieve as our definition will vary among all of us. It is also difficult to prevent our bias from creeping in when identifying solutions and choosing the right one.

In some circumstances, there may not be a “right” one. “Right” is in the eye of the beholder especially if there is a decision for the greater good that may impact a single person negatively. So, what can a manager do in these circumstances?

When I look to make a tough decision, I compare benefits and challenges. I think through risks and consequences. I solicit others’ opinions, if appropriate, to help me think through the implications of the decision as completely as I can. I also believe in transparency as much as possible. If people can voice their opinion in a decision, they will feel better about it even if the decision doesn’t go their way.

One time I had the responsibility to decide who on the team I had to cut. We were given a directive to trim staff and I had to decide whose position I would eliminate and how the work would either be absorbed, paused or stopped. Ugh. The worst possible decision a manager has to make.

In hindsight, I wish leadership would have been more transparent into the financial situation and enrolled the managers in HOW we could cut. Even though this was not done, I weighed by entire budget and looked at vendors, external programs and other areas to trim. I bundled together enough savings through other areas to avoid cutting my small team. Letting people go should be the absolute last resort a company should look to save money (in my opinion). Unfortunately, in tough financial times, this is the only way to go.

Decision-making can be complex to break down. I could list many factors here to keep in mind but the following three actions have helped me the most in making good decisions.

  1. Write it down. Documenting thoughts can be helpful in making a decision. I find I struggle the most when I just try to sort everything out in my head. Whether you are an ole Benjamin Franklin’er where you list two columns labeled pros and cons or whether you follow a more complex model, put it on paper or type it on your screen. This helps you get out of you head. Seeing something written down can spark all kinds of clarity.
  2. Find the middle. Some decisions are difficult because there is no win-win. Of course, I always look for the win-win, if that is achievable, but when it is not, I look for a compromise or what might be in the middle. I have read some leaders who think no one “wins” in a compromise because no party gets what they really want. I don’t think it is a win for anyone if someone gets all of what they want and someone gets zero. To balance fairness, I think it can be more effective if we can come up with a compromise that meets some needs of all parties. Finding compromise can take creativity. This can take more time, take more convincing, and take more influencing ability on your part. I have always found that the middle is more effective in a complex situation.
  3. Know your “why”. Thinking about communicating and influencing, it is important to know why your decision is the best one for this time, this organization and this circumstance. Sometimes a decision made at a different time or in a different group would not be the right one. Knowing your “why” will help you defend the decision and get others behind you.

There are many factors that can go into making an effective decision. Documenting, being creative, seeking middle ground and having a strong rationale behind your decision will help you gain confidence and demonstrate leadership. Some decisions are straightforward but others can be complicated and challenging to make.

My last piece of advice on this is once you make the decision, do not second guess yourself. Don’t keep re-visiting the decision. Know your “why”, write it down and share it with others. Stand firm. Second-guessing only leads to stress and can make you appear less confident, which will make others question the decision. And, sometimes, managers get it wrong. We are human after all. That’s okay. Learn the lessons and apply them to the next decision.

When you want to delegate but are afraid to: 6 pitfalls to avoid

As a people manager, there are a number of responsibilities we have that may seem challenging, not just when starting out, but at any time as a manager. Some of those include delivering critical feedback, communicating bad news, putting someone on a performance improvement plan, resolving conflict and delegating (among others).

Delegating can feel weird to some. The biggest challenge I see in new managers is determining when to delegate and when not to delegate. Some may not have the confidence to delegate; some may not know what is appropriate to delegate. Some may be concerned with how it looks to others to delegate and not to do all the work themselves. Some, quite frankly, may have control issues or suffer from perfectionism. In that case, delegating may seem out of the question to them.

There is certainly a level of trust that must exist between a manager and their team to delegate appropriately. This trust goes both ways. The manager needs to trust that the work will be completed and completed in a way that supports the objectives of the effort. Team members also need to be able to trust the manager to delegate interesting work that fits their skills or even stretches them from time to time.

Delegating meatier projects is an excellent development opportunity for your teams. People want purpose in their work. People, usually, relish a challenge. Whenever you have the chance to delegate an interesting project instead of taking it on yourself, try it. Your team members may surprise you. And, when they perform well, you perform well. After all, you are a team.

There are several pitfalls I have seen managers fall into; I have fallen into them myself early in my career. Keep these in mind when assigning work.

  1. Don’t hoard work. This may seem obvious but the short note is…delegate. I have known managers who keep all of the work to themselves to appear valuable to their leadership. Unfortunately, some cultures still support and reward those who put in extra hours and are the “doer”. In those cultures, the role of the manager is under-appreciated so managers don’t manage; they don’t delegate. I encourage managers to think before they hoard. If the culture is really one that rewards hoarding of work, or what I call the “hero syndrome”, try and nudge the culture. Get a group of leaders and managers together to try and change that.
  2. Don’t delegate all of the work. On the flip side, people don’t respect managers who do nothing but assign work and not roll up their sleeves from time to time. I once had a peer several years ago who did nothing but “manage”. The problem was she started to appear that she had nothing to do. All she did was act as a traffic cop assigning projects to the three people on her team while she engaged in, what appeared to be, nothing. Unfortunately, this did not bode well for her because she was asked to find another job.
  3. Don’t just delegate tasks. One of the biggest mistakes I see is when a manager delegates simple tasks but keeps the broader project to herself. Instead, share the overall objective and context as to what the work is and why it is important to the organization. Try delegating a work stream or even the entire project instead of just a few tasks. I learned in my very first management class to delegate goals and not tasks. Delegating goals empowers the team member to do a complete job and feel a sense of purpose. To only get tasks piecemeal is not very motivating. Once again, I ask you to put yourself in their shoes and practice empathy. How would you feel if that is all you got from your manager?
  4. Don’t micromanage. Once you delegate, whether it be a project or part of a project, let it go (to some degree…see below). Don’t stand over your team member and make sure they do everything the way you think it should be done. I have written a bit about micromanaging before. Definitely set deadlines and have project status updates but don’t hover. “How” someone does something may not be important if they get to the same end result. Catch yourself if your team member is not doing something the way you would do it. This can be especially difficult for those new to delegating. The old saying: “If you can’t get something done right, do it yourself” does not apply. Resist that urge.
  5. Don’t disappear. Delegating certainly means to assign work and empower others to manage an effort but you should not be too far away. Your team members may need feedback or they may need you as a sounding board. As a manager, you need to be that person. Providing feedback and coaching is part of effective delegation. Some managers struggle with giving feedback and, therefore, avoid it. This is one of the most important roles a manager plays. Delegation does not mean you, as the manager, has no role to play. I have senior managers on my team and they run their projects but we discuss the goals, the approach, the change management components of what we are doing. That is the role I play on the team.
  6. Don’t let accountability slip. Delegating does not mean to assign a project and forget it. Setting deadlines, reviewing their approach and checking in are all a part of managing effectively. As the manager, you are accountable for certain work to get done. I had a friend new to management say she was just so nervous to delegate but she knew it was the right thing to do. She would delegate a project and then had knots in her stomach for weeks while she got out of the way. Getting out of the way doesn’t mean you can’t check in, ask questions and brainstorm with your team member. None of this is micro-managing. This is effective management.

The trick to delegating is to strike the right balance — don’t delegate too much but delegate enough. Don’t hover but don’t disappear. Finding this balance takes time and experience. Through trial and error, you can figure out what your team is capable of and what you are capable of. This is how trust gets built.

There is no denying that delegating, holding accountable, providing coaching and feedback instead of doing the work yourself takes more time. But, this is the crux of people management. Your job is to develop others so they can grow and add value to the organization. Delegation allows your team to achieve this.

When you want to please everyone: 7 tips to be a respected manager and let go of needing to be liked

One of the hardest parts about being a manager is that sometimes you have to make an unpopular decision, communicate bad news or take action that benefits one of your team members but not another. These can be difficult tasks to undertake but may be necessary to benefit the greater good or make financial sense.

The end result of these actions is that some or all of your team may not “like you” in the moment or may not like you period. This can be a blow to our self-esteem or confidence when we find out that someone is not a fan of our work. We can start to wonder…did they not like the decision or do they not like me? For some, it is hard to separate the decision from the person.

Many of us have the people-pleaser gene. It can feel daunting to gain the trust of people if you aren’t liked by them. I find there is a direct parallel between parenting and managing. If you are parent, of course you want your children to like you but, honestly, who likes someone who makes them eat broccoli or clean their room? No one. But, do you insist they do these things? Yes. Because it creates good habits and self-sufficiency and that matters more than being “liked”.

As a manager, I am sure you don’t care if your team member eats broccoli or cleans their room, but you do care if they meet deadlines, manage their budgets, and deliver on objectives. Sometimes, questions need to be asked, feedback needs to be delivered and directions need to be changed.

We should look at this the same way as running a household. But, I have known managers who cave and don’t deliver critical feedback because it is too hard or let things go without correction because they are afraid they won’t be liked anymore or they will hurt the employee’s feelings. This does no one any good….including your team member. Allowing them to go down a path you know will not result in the best outcome to spare their feelings is irresponsible.

Managers need to make hard decisions and share critical feedback. They need to staff projects a certain way and cut budgets when necessary. None of these actions may be popular but they sometimes need to be done. There are 7 actions you can take as a manager to execute the difficult things and not be seen as a bully, heartless or unlikeable.

  1. Show empathy. I hear people confuse “sympathy” with “empathy” often. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their point of view. It is to display understanding. Sympathy is to show pity and sorrow for the other person. Sometimes, that may be warranted, but, most of the time, in business, start with empathy.
  2. Communicate the why. If a decision is unpopular and may not be received well, you owe it to everyone, including you, to share why the decision was made. Reasonable people will understand. When you don’t have a reason is when people will start to question your motives. Be sure to have a reason and, definitely, don’t keep it a secret.
  3. Listen. Tied to empathy, if someone is unhappy with you, make time to listen. Now, there is a difference between listening to reason and listening to griping. However, as a manager, you may need to listen to some complaining. People need to vent. There can be a point where it becomes too much or too often, but allowing people to get their feelings or objections off of their chests can also help to build trust. If it becomes a habit, then you may need to ask them to change their behavior.
  4. Apply the rules consistently. Two traits you can display to your team to gain their trust and respect include integrity and fairness. Integrity means following through and doing what you say you will do. Fairness is to apply rules and frameworks consistently. Do not favor one person over the other. Do not favor one project over the other. If you are fair and even, people will then even be able to predict what you might do or say in a situation, which means they can be prepared. People don’t like surprises (except on their birthdays). Do your best to be above board.
  5. Don’t apologize. My personal favorite. DO NOT (yes…I put this in caps) apologize. I had a manager in my early years on the job who apologized every time someone challenged them. I then found myself doing the same thing. I am really sorry but I think we should go the other direction. I am sorry you disagree so let’s do what you said. Ugh! Then, I had a mentor tell me that apologizing all the time takes away from your confidence and expertise. He told me that I am on the payroll for my opinion. Be polite and professional but don’t apologize for having a different opinion.
  6. Stay the course. Stay true to the decision. A short walk from apologizing is to actually change your opinion or direction. Don’t fold to pressure by your team unless you truly feel they are right and you are not. Integrity also means having the confidence to say you’re wrong and try a new way. Assess each situation to see what you should do.
  7. Debrief. One way to build team and trust is to debrief a situation or project

One of the hardest parts about being a manager is that sometimes you have to make an unpopular decision, communicate bad news or take action that benefits one of your team members but not another. These can be difficult tasks to undertake but may be necessary to benefit the greater good or make financial sense.

The end result of these actions is that some or all of your team may not “like you” in the moment or may not like you period. This can be a blow to our self-esteem or confidence when we find out that someone is not a fan of our work. We can start to wonder…did they not like the decision or do they not like me? For some, it is hard to separate the decision from the person.

Many of us have the people-pleaser gene. It can feel daunting to gain the trust of people if you aren’t liked by them. I find there is a direct parallel between parenting and managing. If you are parent, of course you want your children to like you but, honestly, who likes someone who makes them eat broccoli or clean their room? No one. But, do you insist they do these things? Yes. Because it creates good habits and self-sufficiency and that matters more than being “liked”.

As a manager, I am sure you don’t care if your team member eats broccoli or cleans their room, but you do care if they meet deadlines, manage their budgets, and deliver on objectives. Sometimes, questions need to be asked, feedback needs to be delivered and directions need to be changed.

We should look at this the same way as running a household. But, I have known managers who cave and don’t deliver critical feedback because it is too hard or let things go without correction because they are afraid they won’t be liked anymore or they will hurt the employee’s feelings. This does no one any good….including your team member. Allowing them to go down a path you know will not result in the best outcome to spare their feelings is irresponsible.

Managers need to make hard decisions and share critical feedback. They need to staff projects a certain way and cut budgets when necessary. None of these actions may be popular but they sometimes need to be done. There are 7 actions you can take as a manager to execute the difficult things and not be seen as a bully, heartless or unlikeable.

  1. Show empathy. I hear people confuse “sympathy” with “empathy” often. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their point of view. It is to display understanding. Sympathy is to show pity and sorrow for the other person. Sometimes, that may be warranted, but, most of the time, in business, start with empathy.
  2. Communicate the why. If a decision is unpopular and may not be received well, you owe it to everyone, including you, to share why the decision was made. Reasonable people will understand. When you don’t have a reason is when people will start to question your motives. Be sure to have a reason and, definitely, don’t keep it a secret.
  3. Listen. Tied to empathy, if someone is unhappy with you, make time to listen. Now, there is a difference between listening to reason and listening to griping. However, as a manager, you may need to listen to some complaining. People need to vent. There can be a point where it becomes too much or too often, but allowing people to get their feelings or objections off of their chests can also help to build trust. If it becomes a habit, then you may need to ask them to change their behavior.
  4. Apply the rules consistently. Two traits you can display to your team to gain their trust and respect include integrity and fairness. Integrity means following through and doing what you say you will do. Fairness is to apply rules and frameworks consistently. Do not favor one person over the other. Do not favor one project over the other. If you are fair and even, people will then even be able to predict what you might do or say in a situation, which means they can be prepared. People don’t like surprises (except on their birthdays). Do your best to be above board.
  5. Don’t apologize. My personal favorite. DO NOT (yes…I put this in caps) apologize. I had a manager in my early years on the job who apologized every time someone challenged them. I then found myself doing the same thing. I am really sorry but I think we should go the other direction. I am sorry you disagree so let’s do what you said. Ugh! Then, I had a mentor tell me that apologizing all the time takes away from your confidence and expertise. He told me that I am on the payroll for my opinion. Be polite and professional but don’t apologize for having a different opinion.
  6. Stay the course. Stay true to the decision. A short walk from apologizing is to actually change your opinion or direction. Don’t fold to pressure by your team unless you truly feel they are right and you are not. Integrity also means having the confidence to say you’re wrong and try a new way. Assess each situation to see what you should do.
  7. Debrief. One way to build team and trust is to debrief a situation or project especially if people don’t agree with you. They may not have had a chance to influence the decision or feedback but invite them to tell you how it went. Again, show emptily and listen. Engaging them in a post-situation debrief can help demonstrate that.

For some of us, not being people pleasers can seem impossible. I suffered from this for a long time but I believe in integrity and inspiring trust and respect over “being liked”. The real secret is…(drum roll please….) the more you are strong, open and consistent, the more you will be liked and respected as a leader. Professionals actually respect managers that can make tough decisions, communicate effectively and be fair even if it doesn’t go their way. That boss I had that always apologized made me question her values. I never knew what she stood for as she was always flip-flopping to please the person in front of her. She wanted me to like her but I had a hard time respecting her, which ultimately led to my departure from the organization. Don’t let this happen to you!