When you want to influence up

Being in the middle has its challenges. You have responsibilities to listen, coach and manage performance of your team who reports to you. You also have expectations from your manager of you and your team. Sometimes, these become out of alignment. Sometimes, what your boss wants is not what your team agrees with (or yourself) and you’re stuck in the middle.

When your boss directs the team to move in a certain direction but the team doesn’t want to go, what do you do?

First, examine your own thoughts about the situation. How do you feel about it? If you agree with your manager, present the “why” behind the decision. Your team deserves more than a “because he said so” answer. Oftentimes, there could be politics or other initiatives that the team may not be aware of and it can be appropriate to share some of this context with them.

If you do not agree with your manager, this can sometimes feel awkward. If your organization is hierarchical in nature, it can feel even more awkward. It is much easier to say nothing — to just agree with your manager and execute what you feel is wrong. I have always felt that I am on the payroll for my expert opinion and experience. I could be wrong but voicing what I think should be a part of my expectations.

The problem with not saying anything is bad feelings can develop and fester. Your relationship can suffer with your manager. If you don’t speak up, will you do the best job you can if you disagree with the direction? There are ways to politely and professionally disagree to influence up.

  1. Is this a hill you want to die on? This is my mother’s go-to question for me when I present a conflict I am having at work. Not everything you disagree with needs to be challenged. If it is small, consider letting it go. If it is more about tactics (how) and not about strategy (what and why), definitely consider letting it go. There is usually more than one way to accomplish something.
  2. Gauge how important this is to your manager. If this is a “hill” for your manager, consider letting it go. I have found over my career that when I ask questions and a manager becomes a little frustrated, usually that person will express the importance or significance to her. In that case, I usually try it their way and reserve judgment.
  3. Ask questions; don’t make statements. While this may seem like Psychology 101, I am always amazed by people who come out guns blazing with statement after statement. “You, you, you” or “We don’t agree…” If you ask questions to understand, both parties can walk away with a different understanding. Asking questions can be disarming and lead to a dialogue. If it is an emotional topic, I pose these questions: “May I offer a suggestion?” “I have a different way I have been thinking about it. Can I share it with you?”
  4. Remove emotion. Some situations can be emotional. Especially now, I find that people are even more tied to their work. It can be the one place they derive some fulfillment if they are not able to help their parents, coach little league or volunteer as they used to. Back to Psychology class, a simple “I understand” or “I hear what you are saying”, goes a long way to make someone feel better. Staying calm while someone is railing is essential. It is okay to get out of the situation and say you have another meeting but you’d be happy to pick this up later. Time to cool off can help.
  5. Communicate how important this is to you. If this is a “hill” for you, share why this approach or idea is so significant for you…and the business! For you to persuade a manager to change his thinking, share the benefit beyond just yourself.
  6. Paint a picture. Portray a vision of what your idea will do for the team, company, community, and/or your manager. What will the outcome look like? Paint visual pictures instead of speaking in abstract thoughts. Use data. Nothing speaks the truth and can get people’s attention like data. Data can be used to paint a bad current state or a rosy future state depending on your objectives. A bad current state makes the case for what will happen if we don’t act. A solid future state communicates the opposite — the positive impact if we take action.
  7. Ask for a trial run. If you are not convincing your manager of your point of view, ask for a trial run. One time in my career, I strongly believed we needed a new team to look at internal communications and I wanted to head it up. I went to the COO and asked for “seed money” to try this out. If after 6 months, we didn’t yield some value, I would go back to my original position. This may sound like a bad infomercial where we will give you your money back, but I enjoyed great success as a result of this negotiation.

There are many ways to influence. The first is to determine if it is worth it to make the case. If it is important to you, proceed with facts, leave out emotion and make your case professionally.

When you start to take things personally

One of the most difficult lessons I have learned in my career is how not to take every comment, action or criticism personally. I am a strong person who has confidence but there have been times when some feedback has felt unfair or I beat up on myself because I was not perfect. (More on the love/hate with perfectionism in a future post!)

“Work and personal don’t mix. Feedback is a gift. A businessperson should have thick skin. Leave your emotions at the door. Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. And, don’t take things too personally!”

Words of wisdom we have all heard and they sound logical. Yes! This is how we should act! However, most of us are committed to quality work. We take pride in what we do and we are invested in the outcome, which includes what people think about us.

When I was younger, one of my mentors told me it was a waste of time to spend too much energy on how others feel about us because we can’t control how they feel; we can only control how we feel.

Intellectually, this makes sense. Practically, it is tough to not think about how did someone take what I said? Did that leader like what I did? How am I performing? Am I liked or just tolerated? And, my personal favorite, how do I compare to my peers? Is he better than me?

All of these thoughts are normal human behavior but they can become all-consuming and translate into a “I am having a bad day” all the way to “I need to find another job.” We can carry these feelings to our homes especially in these times when our offices are mere steps from our personal interactions in the kitchen.

Here are my tips for taking a breath and not taking comments, actions and criticism as a personal attack.

1: Focus on You. Instead of focusing on what someone tells you or how you may be treated unfairly, focus on what you think of yourself and your efforts. Do you feel good about what you achieved? If not, then examine what you could have done better and do that the next time. Are you satisfied with the results? Do you like what you are doing? How can you find joy in your work? Instead of seeking approval from others, we should strive for self-fulfillment and work on how we feel about our performance first. When we feel good, that self-confidence shines through to others.

2: Walk in another skin. In one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells his daughter that we don’t really know someone until we have jumped in their skin and walked around in it for a while. If someone criticizes you or even snaps at you, just remember it may not be about you at all. If we realize that people react based on the many things happening in their lives, we save ourselves lots of time spent on complaining or getting upset. Some people can compartmentalize and some cannot. Think about how you react to things. Is it all about the person or is it just a tiny bit about the argument you had this morning with your significant other, the fact that you can’t see your family now or the dog is driving you nuts?

3: Show compassion. I truly believe this is a skill that can be learned because I am living proof. I have spent the last year focused on compassion. I have it posted on my bulletin board and I have mantras I recite every morning saved as reminders in my phone. It has saved my mood, my family life, and my overall well-being. Instead of thinking the worst, have compassion for what the other person may be going through. There could be other motivations for why they may appear critical. Maybe they are afraid of losing their job or maybe they are experiencing health issues. Keeping compassion front and center has helped me let things go and not take certain actions personally, which only helps me (and everyone around me)!

4: Breathe. Simple and effective. When we hear something that we think is personal, stop and don’t react for five seconds. Take a quick, deep breath. Remember you, what it’s like to walk in their skin and practice compassion. Trust me. This will help you focus on what matters and not take things personally.

Making Progress? If Not, Be Worried About Your Employees

progressI am always behind in my reading. I try to stay up but then I fall back. I was reading a short article in Harvard Business Review’s Reinvent January/February issuetoday and I was so struck by one “breakthrough idea” I read that literally a light bulb appeared above my head.

What really motivates workers….recognition? Try again. Incentives? Mmmm…they are important but not quite. It’s progress! And, when researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer asked leaders what they thought, all said recognition was first and progress was dead last.

I feel like shouting this from the mountaintops. Amend every management course. PROGRESS! Yes! Don’t we feel frustrated when action isn’t taken? Or, politics gets in the way? Or, cumbersome approval processes prevent us from moving forward? Yes. This all affects our engagement levels and motivation because our ability to succeed, contribute and create value is inhibited.

So, as managers, and leaders especially, to improve employee engagement and retain high potential staff members, ensure that progress is being made and obstacles to progress are removed immediately.

Ensuring progress means:

  • Breaking down silos
  • Communicating frequently
  • Providing tools and technology access
  • Setting achievable goals
  • Fostering creativity
  • Securing resources
  • Involving your people in decisions

These sound so easy but they can be difficult depending on culture. But, I can’t think of a more important charter for a leader than being able to retain top talent while moving the ship forward in the right direction.

Do We Sell or Tell To Get Action?

take.action.tour_Social is here but is it driving people to action? We have spent decades researching and discovering how to communicate, motivate and collaborate with people. We’ve studied generational and cultural differences; methods and techniques; channel and venues. We pour over statistics to make informed decisions. But, is any of this helping us get people to read or listen? I know there are many of you who would have statistics to tell me “yes”!

I learned a long time ago that people pay attention to communications from the top. As flat as we’d like to be, if my manager or anyone in my chain sends me an email, text, IM or blog, I will read it. But, now we have social experts telling us that peer review and peer opinion drive eye-catching interest and translate into action. That we listen to and trust our peers more than our “superiors”. I feel that is true but maybe in a different context.

I personally believe that to motivate different behavior, a message from my manager will motivate me to change but so will a message from a trusted colleague IFthat message has a story I can relate to and a result that is impactful enough. From the top, it’s enough to TELL me what is expected. From my peers, it’s all about SELLing me to get me to change.

Imagine if the tell and sell could be combined in a communication strategy – managers AND peers? I think that would double your success for changing behavior, which is the intended result of most communication strategies.

Initiative Overload: Is Less Really More?

How many of us are already on initiative overload and it’s the third week of January? It seems the economy and the need to sustain business has catapulted leadership to focus on too many “things” right out of the gates. New tools, new processes, new roles, new strategies, new products, new programs. While some of these might be necessary, I think we have lost our ability to prioritize.

Prioritization takes a huge amount of discipline. Many of us can see 50 feet in front and know what needs to be done to be successful. But, we only have so many resources to get it done. I don’t think a person can be successful if they are so splintered.

One of my favorite quotes I learned in business years ago is: “What gets measured, gets done.” Measurement takes a lot of effort. I mean true measurement. Not just logins, hits or activities but true measurement of success based on business goals.

I argue that focusing on 3 real priorities with real plans, measures and follow-up will yield more success than having a list of 20 projects to do. But, sometimes, that philosophy is not embraced. Being busy and churning out work justifies our existence. But, does it?

Establishing performance measures tied to business results will force a conversation about prioritization. It all starts there. Many of us will have to lobby for the less is more approach, and you can do so by showing what will be measured and what impact the less approach will generate vs. an endless task list.

My hope for this new decade is a focus on less. Less is better. Less is achievable. Less is necessary.

Autumn Means Work

autumn_leavesWell, I missed my goal of blogging every week. I set out this goal when I started my blog back in June. I inadvertently took the last 3 weeks off because my schedule became overrun with professional work, outside presentations I have been working on and a full personal calendar.

Why is October so crazy? When you have a significant other’s birthday, Halloween, college football parties, raking leaves and companies ramping up projects to get done before the end of the year, October tends to be a pivotal month.

Apparently, we’ve played all summer and now it’s time to get down to business. The weather is crummy, darkness sets in at 4:30 pm so there is nothing to do but work. And, we need to be productive before the holiday time takes over our personal lives and forces us to take vacation to accommodate those plans.

Even nature gets busy. While I’m toiling away on my computer at home on Saturdays, I see the squirrels going nuts (literally!). They are in a hurry. Gathering as much as they can as fast as they can and heaven help the other squirrel that gets in the way. With puffed tails, the squirrels chase the other off and yell at them that if they ever see them in their territory again, they’ll get it.

Are humans this way? With October and most of November being crunch time, do we snap at others more easily? Do we expect more from our families and employees? To a degree, I think the answer is yes. So, focusing on health, sleep and sanity is most important during these crazy times.

October and November have to be the most productive time of the year! I know…what about spring? Spring is perfect for spring cleaning, listing a home, planting flowers, engaging in outdoor activities that we couldn’t do in the wintertime, and don’t forget planning for the projects that will commence in the Fall. We also lose an hour so we have to compensate for that lost time by doing more in less time.

Let’s face it…we are busy all year round regardless of the weather. The race to November 26 is on. Good luck to everyone!

Flexing Your Style

flexibilityIn a knowledge management role, it is important to understand a company’s culture, technology infrastructure and processes. But, everything starts with people. How a culture influences people management styles is critical if you are trying to change behavior, increase adoption new things and inspire collaboration.

A person’s management style is unique to them. I have managed people for years and certainly have a “style” about the way I do that. I believe in collaborating across the team, adequately defining roles and responsibilities to prevent toe crunching, setting goals and allowing employees the freedom to work on their own and propose recommendations and solutions to me. Then, I get out of the way. I manage this way because that’s how I like to be managed.

I have always known that sometimes you have to flex your style a little bit to engage your employees in the manner that suits them. Some employees want to be left alone and others need frequent touchpoints and more direction. I pride myself on being fair. It’s taken me years in people management to realize that fair does not necessarily mean equal. That flexing is necessary for continued employee engagement.

However, recently, I have found that sometimes you not only have to flex your style to meet an employee’s needs but also to fit within a culture especially if it’s new to you. A long-standing culture generally has dictated a management style – command and control, hands-off, hands-on, touchy feely, etc. So, how do you balance your style, your employees’ needs and the culture’s paradigm?

I’m not sure I have all the answers. I think this is why managing people is so difficult, why it is truly a discipline and why it’s not for everyone. Finding simple and small ways to flex for all of these reasons without compromising you and your abilities is the secret. 

For example, if a culture is command and control, perhaps you should try to be a change agent here. I actually have never found command and control to be effective. Touchy feely – Check in more than you’d like to with your employees if it’s expected; spend time talking about the weekend. Hands-on – offer to review things more than you’re used to. Hands-off – delegate and let a few things go!

I think finding these small items to flex on makes a world of difference. Stretching ourselves as a people manager can only help us succeed.

Real Change?

Every month, I enjoy reading “The Future of the Future” column in KM World. In April’s article, Art Murray wrote part one of a two-part piece on Real Change and how companies should be transforming their way of doing business.

I loved all of his ideas: move from hierarchies to networks, eliminate silos, make learning systemic, focus on systemic improvements not band-aids, and be positive about how to make things work. Common sense tells us that, yes, these are all great ideas to make the organization run smoother and employees happier.

So, why do silos still exist? Why do we implement bandaids knowing they will peel off eventually? Why don’t people share information with each other freely?

In a word…FEAR. I hoard information to make myself more valuable. I don’t share in forums because I am afraid of looking stupid. I implement band-aids because doing something quick looks better than taking time to plan, which looks like I’m doing nothing.

I have spent my entire career championing ground-up, organic change. And, once leaders saw the degree of  crowd approval and desire, that was the tipping point to making that change a reality but it always needed an eventual leadership endorsement to become a business practice.

Lately, I have found that grassroots efforts aren’t enough to tip the scales if leaders aren’t willing to acknowledge and listen to the fear that permeates their employees. I think it takes a brave soul, willing to take a risk, to point out to leadership how to alleviate people’s fears.

I still think real change takes real leadership. Plain and simple. Real leadership is:

  • Setting expectations to share; in fact, hoarding should be disciplined
  • Empowering people to make mistakes…..once
  • Giving time to properly plan and discouraging band-aids, unless they make business sense
  • Assuring people to share ideas; don’t penalize if they are off the mark
  • Empowering people to make decisions
  • Delegating authority with tasks

Return to Empowerment

KeysIn today’s tough environment, it is easy for us to go on lock-down and have leaders dictate to everyone not only what to do but how to do it. I urge all people managers, no matter what level, to resist that urge.

People are disengaged and demotivated enough with their friends and colleagues being let go on a quarterly basis, entire fields drying up, and unemployment benefits running out, without a manager suddenly going “micro” on them.

People are looking for ways to find their motivation in these times so the best way to help your people do that is to treat them the way you always have – with respect, listening to all new ideas whether they can be implemented or not, allowing them to problem-solve on their own without the dark shadow of management looming over their left shoulder.

Try not to commit these mistakes in tough times:

Start requiring ROI on everything I realize we need quick payback periods and we should always try to prove a return on an investment but we need to be reasonable. If we want to make capital investments, then, yes, require that. But, if an employee wants to start a new community or lunch n’ learn group that requires time not hard dollars, what’s the harm in letting them run?

Start requiring weekly activity reports There’s nothing more taxing than weekly activity reports. Try quick weekly status update meetings where people can report but also ask questions. Or, use social software, like a wiki, for quick and easy posts. Don’t make someone complete a complicated Excel spreadsheet when simple and quick will do.

Stop learning opportunities In times like these travel dollars are slashed and conference attendances become non-existent. I do think conferences need to explore more virtual opportunities but they are also providing discounts and even travel vouchers to get people in the door.  Don’t eliminate this!  However, maximize the investment by asking attendees to summarize their findings and report to a larger group what they learned. Ask them to network at conferences to increase potential prospects for your business. And, definitely, sign up for free webinars whenever possible.