Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Um, what did you hear me say?

Here are four ways to tell if someone properly understands the performance feedback conversation you've just had with them:

  1. By assuming they just did - know, though, that the reliability of this particular technique can be very spotty.
  2. By noticing the actions they take subsequent to your conversation - the reliability of this technique is much higher than #1, but it's also much delayed.
  3. By noticing the reactions that other people have to the person you talked with subsequent to your conversation - although used by many as their primary method of confirmation, it is neither as reliable as #2, nor as timely as #1.
  4. By immediately asking the person you're providing the feedback to - in the very same conversation, in fact - what they understand your message to be.

How might this last way work? By asking something like this:

"Tell me, what did you hear me just say? I want to see if I can recognize what I meant in the words you use to tell it back to me."

I guarantee that you'll have no trouble recognizing if what they say is - or is not - what you meant for them to hear. And if it's not, you then have the opportunity to clarify your message right then and there - which is a very good thing to be able to do, by the way.

Just think of all the confusion (and time) that little extra step can save.


Monday, April 24, 2006

What problem are you trying to solve?

Managers are bred to be problem-solvers. The problem with that, though, is that they often get confused as to what problem they're supposed to be solving.

While many (most?) managers try to solve the functional problem - which is actually staff's job - the problem that managers ought to be focusing on is this: How do I improve the problem-solving skills of my direct reports?

Solving problems for your staff versus improving the problem-solving skills of your direct reports. See the difference? It's substantive.

Yet I suspect that solving problems for your staff is a lot more comfortable for you. After all, you are a professional problem-solver - it's what probably got you promoted in the first place. Yet if you continue to solve problems for your staff you're actually training them how NOT solve problems themselves ... Which only increases the amount of work you have to do AND demoralizes your direct reports in the process.

The choice, of course, is yours, but if you feel you're overworked and/or your staff is under-performing, the underlying problem might be that you're focusing on the wrong things.

Here's the litmus: When faced with a new problem, ask yourself, "What problem am I trying to solve here?" If your answer has anything to do with the function issue (and little to do with how you can improve the problem-solving skills of your direct reports) then chances are good that you are working on the wrong thing.


Friday, April 21, 2006

A Better Man

A musical interlude for this Friday morning ...
song title: A Better Man
music and lyrics: Kevin Moore / O. Osbourne
recorded by: Keb' Mo'
album: Slow Down

Sittin' here in my problem
What am I gonna do now
Am I gonna make it
Someway, somehow

Maybe I'm not supposed to know
Maybe I'm supposed to cry
And if nobody ever knows
The way I feelIt's all right
And it'll be ok
I'm gonna make my world a better place
I'm gonna keep that smile on my face
I'm gonna teach myself how to understand
I'm gonna make myself a better man
Climbing out of the window
Climbing up the wall
Is anybody gonna save me
Or are they gonna let me fall

Well I don't really wanna know
I´ll just hold on the best I can
And if I fall downI´ll just get back up
It'll be alrightIt'll be ok
I'm gonna make my world a better place
I'm gonna keep that smile on my face
I'm gonna teach myself how to understand
I'm gonna make myself a better man

I'm gonna make my world a better place
I'm gonna keep that smile on my face
I'm gonna teach myself how to understand
I'm gonna make myself a better man
Maybe I'm not supposed to know
Maybe I'm supposed to cry
And if nobody ever knows
The way I feel
That's all rightIt'll be ok
I'm gonna make my world a better place
I'm gonna keep that smile on my face
I'm gonna teach myself how to understand
I'm gonna make myself a better man

I'm gonna make my world a better place
I'm gonna keep that smile on my face
I'm gonna teach myself how to understand
I'm gonna make myself a better man

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Who want's to Volunteer? Anyone?!

When was the last time you volunteered for something. No, I don't mean when was the last time you allowed yourself to be volunteered. Allowing yourself to be volunteered is something that happens through your inaction. Like when everyone in line takes back and there you are looking like you stepped forward! Similarly, being picked by the boss to volunteer is acquiescing, not volunteering.

Volunteering is when you purposely step forward, regardless of what anyone else is, or is not, doing. And because so few people actually do it, volunteering builds both credibility and visibility, too.
  • Been meaning to earn a few extra points with the boss? Why not volunteer to help with his/her next big assignment?
  • Been meaning to improve relations with your coworkers? Why not volunteer to work on a special project with them?
  • Been meaning to do a little networking? Why not volunteer to join an industry association and work on a Committee or its Board?
  • Been meaning to get to know people in the neighborhood a little bit better? Why not volunteer to help out at school function or with one of your kid's sports teams?
  • Been meaning to meet that special someone? Why not volunteer at a 5K race or lecture series?

Volunteering puts you in different conversations, with different people, in different places. And while 'sameness' does have its benefits - familiarly being one of them - trying new things in new ways every so often is also very, very good for your soul.

If you've recently volunteered for something, you know exactly what I mean.


Monday, April 17, 2006

Listening Awareness

Still more good stuff from the HBR article, "Listening to People," by Nichols and Stevens. This time it's an exercise they recommend for increasing your awareness of listening. It goes like this:
"[Create] a simple form divided into spaces for each hour of the day. Each space should be further divided to allow [you] to keep track of the amount of time spent in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. "

Then, spend a little time thinking through your answers to the following questions:

  • What percentage of the time do you spend listening?
  • Is it more or less than you expected?
  • What might increasing the frequency and/or duration of your listening do to improve your effectiveness?
  • What might it do to improve the effectiveness of the people you listen to?
  • How might you listen better? How might you get people to better listen to you?

Hear what I'm saying?!


Friday, April 14, 2006

Giving your Undivided Attention

People listening too little is a BIG problem. And, based on a Harvard Business Review article written in 1957 by Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens, called "Listening to People," this is nothing new. Think about that - poor listening has been a pressing business problem for 50 years!

The authors do what I think is an excellent job of explaining the complexities of the listening process:

"The newspapers reported not too long ago, that a church was torn down in Europe and shipped stone by stone to America, where it was assembled in its original form. The moving of the church is analogous to what happens when a person speaks and is understood by a listener. The talker has a thought. To transmit his thought, he takes it apart by putting it into words. The words, sent through the air to the listener, must then be mentally reassembled into the original thought if they are to be thoroughly understood. But most people do not know what to listen for, and so cannot reconstruct the thought."
Part of the problem is that we are able to think far faster than people can speak. So, when someone's talking to us our mind has plenty of spare time for "mental sidetracks." At first, we can drift off and come back without missing much content. But, as our mind continues to focus on other, more complex, sidetracks we soon lose track of what is being said. Countless messages are lost (or misunderstood) every single day because we basically forget to actually listen while where listening.

That's one of the reasons why, when I was in charge of telecommunications at Chicago Mercantile Exchange, I had staff wear badges that said: "You have my Undivided Attention." I wanted us all to remember to focus our listening on ... listening.

How well do you listen? What would help you give more people your Undivided Attention? What might you try?

Thanks, LK.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Looking at Facial Expressions

Facial Expressions can be helpful. But just because someone looks angry or annoyed, it doesn't mean that they necessarily are. Nor does it mean that they're necessary not.

  • Your boss is looking at you with a particularly sour face - Is it because of something you did? Something you didn't do? Or a residual from an especially tart bottle of grapefruit juice s/he just finished?
  • A peer can't help notice your furrowed brow and white-hot glare - Is it because you're displeased with something s/he did? Or didn't do? Or is it a residual from a dressing-down you just got from your boss?

Contextual clues can help. Is your boss holding an empty juice box, or a scathing complaint letter about you? Are you glaring at your co-worker of just staring absently into space? The clues provide cues.

But it's also helpful to verify your impression. "Are you mad at me for some reason?" asks your co-worker. "You?" you reply, "Heavens no. I was thinking about a terrible meeting I had with my boss earlier today." "Is that letter about me?" you ask your boss. "Yes it is - and it concerns me greatly."

A simple question can go a long way to avoiding all sorts of misunderstandings. As can some additional research. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Visit a webpage called, "Facial Expressions of Emotion." It offers an interactive demonstration of how changing the look of a person's eyes or mouth changes what we infer about his/her mood. Notice what you notice.
  • Spend the week focusing on facial expressions. You'll no doubt find that some people look grumpy even when they're not and others look cheerful even when they're not. Notice who tends to do what?
  • Spend some time looking at yourself in the mirror. Notice your natural expression and how might it (or might not) accurately reflect whatever mood you're in.

Do your facial expressions help or hinder what you try to do?


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Feedback, Tutelage, and Deep Learning

I was watching the latest edition of "The Next Food Network Star" - one of the latest in a series of who-gets-voted-off-the-island-next type reality programs. In this one, the winner gets his or her own Food Network show a la Rachel Ray, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse,

What I'm finding particularly interesting about this contest, though - and why I'm blogging about it - is all the constructive feedback and tutelage that's being provided to the participants, even though all of them, except one, will ultimately be eliminated from winning. It got me thinking about what it'd be like if businesses interviewed (and selected) employees this way.

You may be thinking that "
The Apprentice" (NBC) does this already, but it really does not. Although I haven't watched it this season, Trump and company typically just assign, critique, and eliminate: "Here's an incredibly complex assignment, now go do it," followed by, "Yeah, yeah, whatever," and "You're fired!"

American Idol" (Fox) doesn't really provide much constructive feedback either. (Well Simon does, but who really listens?)

In contrast, the Food Network show has more than just performance happening. There's Deep Learning, too. And not just about arcane TV production stuff. As example, participants are learning:
  • How to effectively multi-task
  • How to maintain your composure when things go terribly, terribly, wrong
  • How to give a live demonstration
  • How to work with unyielding time frames and other constraints
  • How to creatively pitch an idea to a decision committee
  • How to use supporting materials in a cohesive manner
  • How to play big, but keep it real
  • and more

Sadly, few companies afford employees such opportunities even after they're hired, let alone as part of the selection process.

Your takeaway question then is this: What are you doing to encourage the ongoing growth, development, and Deep Learning of your employees?

And, for that matter, what are you doing to encourage that in yourself?!


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Delegating Outcomes - not just Tasks

Help me think this through: When we delegate tasks - that is frame assignments in terms of processes or steps to take - we run the risk of people doing exactly what we say, but still not getting the job done as we hoped. But if we we delegate desired outcomes - that is what we want to result from the assignment - it's more likely that that's what will be accomplished. Might this be true? Let's see:

Presenting Issue #1: A customer complaint needs to be addressed.
  • What delegating the task might sound like: "Here, go talk to this person."
  • What delegating the outcome might sound like: "Here, go make this customer happy again."

Presenting Issue #2: A vendor order needs to be expedited.

  • What delegating the task might sound like: "Here, go track this order."
  • What delegating the outcome might sound like: "Here, go insure the successful - and timely - delivery of this order."

Presenting Issue #3: Recent sales figures are below expectations.

  • What delegating the task might sound like: "Here, go research this report."
  • What delegating the outcome might sound like: "Here, go determine what needs to be done to get these numbers back on track."
In each instance, delegating the outcome seems like it would yield better results than just delegating the task. But, quite candidly, it took me a bit of time to figure out how to phrase each request in terms of an outcome that was both desired - and meaningful.

So I wonder, is the extra up-front work needed to focus an assignment like this really worth it? If the assignments you delegate sometimes come back to you completed, but insufficiently so, it very well may be.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

a perfectly linear moment!

Check out the date/time of this posting: two minutes (and three seconds) after one o'clock on April 5th, 2006. Said another way, that's 01:02:03 on 04/05/06.

I was told that this won't happen again for 100 years, but assuming you're using a 12-hour clock, I think it will happen again in just another 720 minutes!

-----Category: _fun


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Are you Un-Ready?

Here's the scenario: You (the boss) have this new assignment that needs to be completed in short order (nothing new there) so you call a quick meeting to let your staff know what you need and when you need it by. But instead of heads nodding, information-clarifying questions, and brain-storming on "here's how we might do this," you get lectured by your staff as to why this is a particularly bad task to undertake.

Ever been there?

For those of you who have, you know you now have more than one problem to resolve. The first problem, of course, is whatever the original assignment is (that still needs to be worked ). The second problem, though, is that your staff is clearly "un-ready" to accept such new and unplanned challenges. And that un-readiness is the bigger problem of the two.

Note that I did not suggest that your staff was unwilling to accept this new assignment (although they very well might not be) - I suggested that they were not ready to accept it.

Now let's flip the table and say that instead of you being the boss, you're the direct report. Your boss has called a meeting and is now laying out the requirements of a new, high-priority, assignment.

Ever been here?!

But this time, I want you to STOP and get totally conscious about your thoughts. Are they actively moving you forward , trying to figure out how you might satisfactorily complete the assignment? Or have they got you stuck in neutral as you hear yourself rant about how much work you already have to do, how ill-conceived the assignment is, or how flat-out wrong this priority is?

Truth is, it's probably one or the other, so which is it? More importantly, which one would your boss say it is?

You see while I usually have no problem railing about lousy bosses and bad management, sometimes there truly is a legitimate need to get something additional done, notwithstanding what's already in process. So do what you need to do to be ready to engage in the "how to" discussion, ASAP.

Even if you have too much work on your plate, the stronger move is still to brainstorm the "how to" ASAP.

Why? Because you can't accurately judge how much time/effort a new assignment will really take if you haven't thought it through. (And don't think your boss doesn't know that.)

By thinking things through collaboratively, you not only can more accurately 'size' the assignment, but you can also use your conclusions to better articulate why you can't just squeeze it in to what you're already doing - if in fact that is the case. Remember: whining is not a cogent argument.

Bottom Line: Don't be "Un-Ready" to think through new assignments that come your way. Ready? Set? Go!


Monday, April 03, 2006

It's time to review your review

Welcome to the second quarter of 2006. It's time to dust off your year-end review to see what "developmental needs" your boss wanted you to address this year. It's also time to get going on whatever it is that you wanted/needed to accomplish before your mid-year performance review.

Hey, I get that it's still early, but I wanted to give you plenty of time to procrastinate and still be able to get things done on time!

So figure out what you need to be doing and let your boss catch you in the act of doing exactly that.

Your boss tends not to notice such things? Not to worry; just say something like this: "Hey boss, check this out - I'm doing exactly what you said I should do on last year's performance appraisal. Good for me, eh?!"