Monday, April 29, 2013

Clarity revealed in an old barn.

Leaders underestimate the impact of even subtle misalignment at the top…just a little daylight between members of a leadership team becomes blinding and overwhelming to employees one or two levels below.  ~Patrick Lencioni

One of my childhood memories from the farm in Kansas was spending time with a friend in a large old barn where she kept her horse.  Like most old barns, this one was several stories high, completely open with no windows, and there were cracks between some of the aging boards and slats.  Despite the lack of windows, because the two-story vaulted ceiling put quite a bit of distance between us and the roof, even a slight crack of daylight pinching through was enough to light the entire barn.  I'm certainly no physicist, but Lencioni says he's heard this referred to as the "vortex effect."

In working with leadership teams, I've discovered a common assumption: the absence of disagreement = alignment.  In other words, if we're not disagreeing then we must agree and if we agree then there must be alignment.  We don't disagree so there's no daylight between leaders; no vortex effect here.  This is a dangerous assumption. 

First, let's add some perspective.  Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase.  All this information needs storing and we now each have the equivalent of 600,000 books stored in computers, microchips and even on the back of our credit cards.  I just checked, and my college alma mater's library has a total of 130,000 volumes.  So that's more than 4.5 times my college library.

The ability to process all this information with computers has doubled every 18 months and with telecommunication devices has doubled every two years.

We could list many more staggering statistics about the amount of information that we all try to process on a daily basis, but I think you get the point.  If the leaders in an organization aren't absolutely, positively, and unequivocally creating clarity and alignment for their employees, then the daylight that pushes through the ever-so-slight misalignment becomes the vortex effect.  Like my childhood experience with the light in the old barn, the organization becomes filled with misperceptions, misinformation, and is consequently misled.

None of us yearn for more information, data, or messages to be hurled in our direction.  But we do long for a mechanism to filter what's really meaningful and what really matters.  Lencioni suggests that a leadership team must create clarity and become fully aligned (i.e., they have no doubt that when they leave a meeting all decisions are crystal clear and will be communicated with absolute precision from every member of the leadership team).  Then Lencioni says that leadership teams must over-communicate this clarity and then reinforce clarity.

I've talked with several executives lately who've said they feel like they are repeating themselves a lot and view that as some type of failure on their part.  That's not the case, at all.  It's simply a sign of the times.  Leaders must intentionally (and yes, frequently) over-communicate clarity and then reinforce that clarity.  Think of all the information and messages leaders are competing with, and against.  You can only win the battle against the vortex effect by continually, constantly, and intentionally aligning your leadership team and your employees with clarity.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Toss out that stale sandwich!

A pinch of praise is worth a pound of scorn.  A dash of encouragement is more helpful than a dipper of pessimism.  A cup of kindness is better than a cupboard of criticism.  ~William Author Ward

If you have to deliver bad news, criticism, or anything negative, sandwich it between two positive statements.  I'm not sure who first suggested this analogy but I think most of us have heard it.  Many of us probably do it.  Well, I've learned that this sandwich technique is stale and should be tossed out with the trash!

Harvard researcher, author, and entertaining speaker, Shawn Achor, shares some eye-opening research in his book The Happiness Advantage.  Results from psychologist and business consultant, Marcial Losada, contradict the age-old sandwich ratio of 2 to 1 for delivering something negative.
Based on Losada's extensive mathematical modeling, 2.9013 is the ratio of positive to negative interaction necessary to make a corporate team successful.  This means that it takes about three positive comments, experiences, or expressions to fend off the languishing effects of one negative.  Dip below this tipping point, now known as the Losada Line, and workplace performance quickly suffers.  Rise above it—ideally, the research shows, to a ratio of 6 to 1—and teams produce their very best work.
Here's what one skeptical CEO said when his company went through a "notable transformation" after incorporating Losada's recommendations to increase their ratio above the Losada Line.  "You untied knots that imprisoned us:  Today we look at each other differently, we trust each other more, we learned to disagree without being disagreeable.  We care not only about our personal success, but also about the success of others.  Most important, we obtain tangible results."

Given the clarity of this data, I'd suggest that this 6 to 1 ratio has many applications in addition to successful work teams.  What about friendships, families, neighbors, and communities?  I'm a fan and admirer of psychologist/philosopher, William James, and one of my favorite James quotes is: "The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook."  It seems to me that if we're living a 6 to 1 ratio, we're growing in the art of wisdom and learning to overlook what we might have been tempted to point out in the past.  The 6 to 1 ratio could make us far more selective about what negative statements and critiques we choose to actually say, out loud.

My understanding of this research is that it does not suggest that because the negative is a 1 to 6 ratio with the positive that we are able to somehow bypass the negative.  But rather, when the negative is cushioned with a good dose of positive, we're in fact far more able to receive the negative and accept the need for change and modify our behavior. 

As a consultant, I'm really sort of paid to point out what's not working or the negative.  But I've learned, the hard way, that I need to be very selective about what negative aspects I choose to highlight if I want the negatives to be received, accepted, and have a chance at making some impactful change.  So even when hired to identify what's not working or the negative, I have to remember that we're still human, we're still fragile; we still need lots of sugar to help the medicine go down.  

If you feel some kinship to the sandwich analogy, then I'd suggest you start to think about it more like a club sandwich with lots of layers, maybe six layers.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Emotional labor?

Emotional labor is the act of connecting to another human being and making a change even if it’s not easy for you to do in that moment.  ~Seth Godin

In his book, Linchpin, Seth Godin states that no one pays you to do physical labor anymore.  You're getting paid for emotional labor.  It's the act of doing work you don't feel like, the act of having a conversation that might be difficult, etc.  It's the hard work of digging deep inside and producing an idea that scares you.  It's the act of connecting to another human being and making a change even if it’s not easy for you to do in that moment.

I grew up on a farm in Kansas, so my developmental years were dominated by physical labor.  Having three older brothers, my participation in the physical labor of farming was limited.  However, as several of my brothers graduated and moved on to other careers, I needed to lend a hand out in the fields.  One of my periodic jobs was to drive the tractor and pull a baler while either my brother or father stacked the hay bales on the trailer that was also attached behind the baler.  While we had to work in tandem, it was nearly all physical labor, very little emotional labor. Except for the occasion when I would let up on the clutch too quickly which wasn't good for the baler or the person attempting to stand on the moving trailer.  In those moments a little emotion was expressed by my brother, my father was more tolerant of my less than perfect clutching abilities.

But we really could get by (for better or worse) without a great deal of communication or emotional labor.  Today's workplace is a dramatic shift from my childhood; and since some of you are thinking it, I'll go ahead and say it, "we're not in Kansas anymore."

In the days of physical labor much of the work was done in an assembly line or it was somehow repetitious, much like my driving the tractor on the farm.  My personality type didn't really matter, my personal strengths didn't have to play a role, my worldview didn't alter how I approached the work.  If I could watch someone else go through the motions, then I could copy what they were doing and get the job done.  If only emotional labor was that easy to learn.

Emotional labor takes time and effort, and in our fast-paced society we don't always want to give emotional labor the time it requires.  Someone new is hired in a leadership or managerial role and they jump right into the "task" of doing their work.  We short-cut and side-step getting to know the people with whom we spend the majority of our time.  We wonder why the leadership team (or any team for that matter) doesn't quite seem in sync.  Or, we refer to our half-day team building retreat from three years ago and question why we don't seem to be firing on all cylinders. 

Emotional labor is not a one-time event or fully covered in employee onboarding.  It's hard labor that needs to happen every day.  It's the act of doing work you don't feel like, the act of having a conversation that might be difficult, etc.

I've watched leadership teams go from awkward and inefficient artificial harmony to moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful; but only after investing heavily in the work of emotional labor.  Connecting to another human being and making a change even if it's not easy to do in that moment.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Schedule nothing!

The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.  ~Stephen R. Covey    There cannot be a crisis today; my schedule is already full.  ~Henry Kissinger

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, had a title to his blog post last week that got my attention: The Importance of Scheduling Nothing.  This reminded me of a client who recently said to me, "I just need time to think."  She is the type of person who crams her schedule full of meetings and phone calls.  But she was realizing that she couldn't serve her own clients well if she didn't prioritize time to think so she could give them her best strategic thinking.

Weiner also talked about the transition from tactical execution to thinking strategically.  This transition can be fueled by a number of factors – organizational growth, environmental shifts, or simply being promoted from a managerial position to a leadership position.  One of the challenges I think many of us struggle with in this transition is the idea that "thinking" doesn't always have the same immediate tangible outcome as does tactical execution or doing something.  Consequently, we don't feel as productive when we're thinking.

To help reframe that perspective, here's how Weiner describes thinking:
Thinking, if done properly, requires uninterrupted focus; thoroughly developing and questioning assumptions; synthesizing all of the data, information and knowledge that's incessantly coming your way; connecting dots, bouncing ideas off of trusted colleagues; and iterating through multiple scenarios. In other words, it takes time. And that time will only be available if you carve it out for yourself. Conversely, if you don't take the time to think proactively you will increasingly find yourself reacting to your environment rather than influencing it. The resulting situation will inevitably require far more time (and meetings) than thinking strategically would have to begin with.
Thinking is so important to Jeff Weiner that he blocks out at least 90 minutes (sometimes in 30-minute increments) every day to think.  He doesn't schedule anything specific for that time other than thinking.  He, literally, schedules 90 minutes of "nothing" every day.

I'm guessing that at least some of us are thinking Weiner leads a large organization; of course he has the luxury of scheduling time for nothing.  He has a leadership team and managerial staff to do all of the executing.  What about those who lead a one-person business, or who are in a mid-level role, or lead a small organization?  I think the same principle not only still applies; it is just as critical.  Time is a level playing field.  We all have only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week, no more, no less.  And no matter how large or small the organization, we are all still left with the truth that "if we're not spending time thinking proactively, then we will be reacting to our environment rather than influencing it."

Does reacting or influencing have a greater likelihood for long-term sustainability? Frequently, while on dog walks in my neighborhood, I wander by a condo building called "The Montgomery."  It got its name from the previous owner, Montgomery Wards.  I think their leadership tried to react to the environment, and they tried hard, but failed to have any influence.  Makes me wonder how much thinking time was  taking place in those conference rooms, offices, and hallways that are now filled with kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

How's your mental hygiene?

The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.  ~William James

Have you ever worked with someone who frequently became defensive?  What about the person whose mind seems to wander quickly in meetings?  Or the colleague who is always trying really hard but continues to struggle with time management?  Have you ever worked with someone who seemed so focused, clear, creative, and compassionate in the midst of a fast-paced and complex organization that you wondered if they could be for real?

All of these scenarios have something in common – mindfulness.  This is what William James described when he said "voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again."  In recent years, mindful leadership has gained momentum.  Effective leadership requires self-knowledge, self-awareness, and centeredness.  Research tells us that the best leaders have some method to manage the barrage of information, data, possibilities, perspectives, and opportunities to sustain their presence of mind and overall health. 

A mindful leader trains their mind to turnoff their autopilot, multitasking habits so they can bring all of their mind's capabilities to the moments of their lives.  The American Psychological Association says "The inability to focus for even 10 minutes on any one thing at a time may be costing you 20 to 40 percent in terms of efficiency and productivity."

Here's the really good news, at least for me, mindfulness can be learned, with practice.  One of the most common ways to learn to become more mindful is through the practice of meditation.  If I just lost you, hold on for one minute.  For many of us, meditation may have been labeled or defined as thinking about nothing.  As I now understand it, that’s not really accurate.   Meditation is a practice that enables just what William James described, the ability to bring your mind/attention back to center, over and over again.  When you meditate your mind will wander; that doesn't mean you're unsuccessful or doing it wrong.  When you recognize that your mind has wandered and you bring it back to center, you are very much meditating.

Through meditation, you learn to become mindful.  When you are mindful of something, you are observing it, not caught up in it, and not identified with it.  You release any judgment about it.  By releasing judgment you are able to be more focused, see it with more clarity, and become more creative because you have no preconceived notion as to what is.

If you think that mindful leadership sounds like a lot of gobbledygook, I'd suggest you give it a test drive for a couple of weeks and see if you can sense a difference.  Organizations like General Mills, Target, Intel, Mayo Clinic, and United Way have invested heavily in training their leaders to become more mindful.

We brush our teeth every day because we believe that dental hygiene is important.  Our mind and mental abilities are key to successful leadership; so what are our mental hygiene practices?