Have you ever had the experience of working at a place and just feeling bad every day? Maybe your stomach was always in knots. Maybe you just couldn’t sleep at night. Or maybe your body physically hurt. You just hurt, every day. Simply put, you didn’t feel good. Maybe you wondered if you were going crazy. Could your office be responsible for your bad back or your foul mood?
You weren’t crazy then and you aren’t crazy now. For the last 20 years, there has been a growing body of research on this very question: “Are emotions contagious in the workplace?” The bottom line is “yes” they are. But the answer is more complicated than a simple “yes.” Some workplaces are more contagious than others. Some people are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others. And, of course, some individuals can affect our mood more than others (hint: who signs your check?). The good news is that there are things you can do to overcome and combat contagious emotions in your workplace – three things to be precise.
Curious? I hope so. I did a TEDx talk on this very phenomenon complete with a prescription at the end. Check it out and if you like it, pass it along.
At the end of the day, work should not have to suck. Together, we can make workplaces what they are supposed to be: a source of meaning, purpose, fulfillment and free from dysfunction!
Conversational déjà vu. This has been my life over the last few months. I seem to keep having the same conversation over and over again. It goes something like this:
Person: “You know, X is really great at what he or she does (dramatic pause)… but, there is something about the way they go about things that is not good. It is causing problems and upsetting people.”
Me: “Really? In what way (my therapist coming out)?”
Person: “I don’t know. It’s like they are going too fast, or don’t consider other’s thoughts or opinions. I don’t think it is an issue of them not caring. It’s like they don’t see the social impact they are having.”
Me: “It sounds like this could be an EQ issue and not a competency issue.”
Person: “Exactly! You’ve hit it on the head. It is definitely an EQ thing. (dramatic pause #2)… So, how can we fix that?”
How does someone raise his or her EQ?
I’ve been giving this question a lot of thought. We all know the benefits of high EQ in our careers and have seen the research that EQ is a better predictor of long-term career success than IQ. But heightened EQ can also minimize many toes from getting stepped on in life. Simply put, heightened EQ makes us better – better coworkers, better bosses, better associates, better partners, better spouses, better parents, better humans. Over the last few months, I’ve been looking for simple things each of us can do to raise our respective EQ. Consider the following:
1. Everyone had a 7th birthday.
Next time you are frustrated or angry with someone, look past the person you are currently “seeing” and try to imagine the other person as 7 years old. Picture the excitement on his or her face as they look at their birthday cake full of icing and bright burning candles. Imagine their happiness as they glance past the cake and see a mound of presents waiting to be opened. They are surrounded by all of their family and friends. They are happy, joyful and innocent.
Now imagine a different 7th birthday story. It is their 7th birthday but they are sitting at a table in a darkened room. They are alone. There are no friends. There is no cake. No presents to unwrap. The tears are streaming down their face. They sit there crying in silence – feeling unloved and forgotten. They are small, vulnerable, hurting and innocent.
Everyone had a 7th birthday. Imagine theirs to change how you view them today. Everyone has experienced intense joy as well as deep sorrow. It is hard to categorize and label others when we attempt to extend compassion and understanding towards them.
2. Look both ways.
I’ve made the argument that EQ is about peripheral vision (thanks to my dog, Ellie). Want to see how low EQ actually is in the world? Drive through a grocery store or shopping center parking lot sometime. You’ll see person after person march across the parking lot ignoring the moving cars that they are stepping in front of. Cars, people. Real moving automobiles. Maybe these pedestrians are saying to themselves, “I’m walking here and have the right of way so everyone better get out of my way.” Or perhaps they are simply oblivious to the other cars (and people) that are intersecting their world at that moment. Regardless, both are excellent examples of low EQ. This illustrates an important point about EQ. EQ is not about what is “technically correct.” I hear this inaccurate argument too often. Technically, pedestrians have the right of way and don’t need to acknowledge or pause for any vehicle or corresponding driver. However, without EQ as a complement, “technically correct” can run the risk of being perceived by others as disrespectful, ignorant, self-righteous and arrogant. Not that I’ve ever felt that way about a pedestrian in a parking lot… today at least.
Next time you are walking in a parking lot, stop. Look both ways and make eye contact with the drivers. Acknowledge him or her and mouth the words “thank you” when they motion for you to go. EQ allows us to build basic connections with others and keep us from getting run-over in life (figuratively and literally).
3. Practice the 24hour rule.
You know the one. You’ve just crafted the perfect response to something (an e-mail, blog post, comment, etc…) that stirred up your emotional pot. I had one of these moments a few weeks ago. I was about to hit “send” on my masterpiece and then thought to myself, “I should ask my wife about this.” Feeling pretty proud of myself, I expected her to say, “Oh, you nailed him. What a perfect answer. This is just one more example of why I married you.” To my surprise, that is not how the exchange went. My very wise wife said to me, “you know, maybe you should give it a day or so before you send that. You might think differently.” She was right. I did think differently and I never sent it. Just one more example of why I married her.
Strengthening and stretching your EQ is also about self-restraint. It is about listening to your emotions but not being driven by them. Next time you have something emotional that is prodding you, give yourself 24 hours to reflect on your next move.
There you have it. Three ways every one of us can begin to strengthen our EQ and make efforts to move through life with more emotional and relational intention and grace. It definitely beats getting run over.
Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is an interesting concept. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, it goes something like this… We all have some level of baseline intelligence (IQ). And IQ is a wonderful thing. It is great for standardized tests and doing quantum physics in our head (if you like that sort of thing). But at some point along the way, it became clear to many researchers and others alike that something was missing in the IQ story. If IQ was so great, why didn’t folks with high IQs always and consistently ascend to the tops of societal ladders? In fact, too many high IQ folks seemed unable to link their ideas to other’s needs or build the essential relationships necessary to mobilize a collective group. They were intelligent but appeared isolated and awkward at times. What was missing? The notion of EQ was born.
With countless definitions, emotional intelligence (EQ) is essentially one’s ability to effectively manage through the complexities of social interactions in order to not only survive but also to be productive. Individuals with high EQ can read social cues well, have a degree of self awareness and have the ability to self-regulate so that they can achieve the optimal social outcome. In addition, research has shown that EQ is a better predictor of long-term career success than IQ. As one of my business school faculty colleagues likes to point out:
“If you continue to ascend in your career, at some point, you and all of your peers will have about the same levels of intelligence (IQ) – higher than average. EQ will be the differentiator as to who continues to ascend and who doesn’t.”
So, to sum up, our brilliant physicist with bad body odor and is a poor tipper in restaurants could use a little more EQ if he or she wants to really change the world. Got it.
But I always felt like something was missing in the standard definitions of EQ. Countless coaching clients of mine have had not only high IQ’s, but one could argue, they met the criteria of high EQ based on traditional definitions. Put in a customer-facing situation, they were charming, asked the right questions and ultimately, met their customer’s needs strengthen both the relationship as well as getting results. EQ alive and well. But there was a problem. When these same individuals were away from their customers and inside the four walls of their organizations, they weren’t so pleasant. They might throw a temper tantrum during a meeting, roll their eyes at their boss or walk past the receptionist without even acknowledging his or her presence. What was going on?
My Dog Ellie
Enter my dog, Ellie into our EQ story. After years of pressuring their dad to get a dog, my kids finally won and we rescued this little brown puppy from the local Humane Society. Nearly three years later, Ellie is an 80lb family favorite. Out of curiosity, we did a mail away DNA test on Ellie. The report came back that Ellie is pure boxer on one side of her family tree and on the other side is, well, a dog party. An Australian cattle dog, a Rottweiler, a Chow Chow and an unknown party crasher were apparently invited to this DNA mixer. Part guard dog and part herder, Ellie is wired to perform a particular job: know where her family is and keep the pack safely together at all times.
To add to the story, we recently moved into a new house. The house and the yard is bigger. This has made Ellie’s job harder. Every day since the move she will patrol the house, looking for each of us. One by one, she comes over to us, leans on us and nudges us with her nose to check that we are o.k. Once we tell her we are good, she moves onto the next pack member. And if we make eye contact during the exchange, she’ll lock eyes and wait for us to tell her what we want her to do. Unlike other dogs I’ve had in the past, Ellie is not about her needs first. Rather, she is about making sure we are o.k. and we don’t need her to do something for us. When she is sure we are good, then she’ll play, but not a moment before.
The Missing EQ Ingredient
Why do I tell you this? Because I believe Ellie possesses the missing ingredient to how we think about EQ. Humor me for a moment. Imagine a dot on a piece of paper and nothing else, just one lonely dot in the center of a blank piece of paper. That dot represents a person with low EQ. All that exists in that person’s mind is his or herself. The universe revolves around him or her. They wake up every day thinking about what they can do to make themselves happy. They are the universe. Now, draw a circle around the dot. That represents someone with moderate EQ. They see and care about the people in their immediate sphere of influence. This could be just a handful of people, but there are people inside that circle nonetheless. Maybe their list simply consists of their significant other, their best friend from college and their children and no one else (sorry mom and dad) or perhaps it is more extensive. Regardless, there is a group of people that are “in” and everyone else is not. Everyone else is of little consequence. Now draw another circle around the first circle. Make it big and wide. That revised diagram represents a person with high EQ. They not only consider their immediate sphere of influence (the people closest to him or her in the first circle), but they also consider all the people that they may have an impact on during the course of a given day, week month or even a year. From the perspective of someone with high EQ, everyone inside both of their circles is a “customer.” How do we know these people? These people say hello to the receptionist. They hold doors open for the person coming behind them with heavy boxes. They think to let others know where they are going to be when they aren’t in the office (or at home). They consider other’s emotions, are self-aware and self-regulate in an exponential and systemic way. We often call these people “considerate, thoughtful, team players, supportive, easy to work with, humble, etc…” The fact is, they possess and utilize high levels of EQ with everyone around them. They see and hear the people around them. Individuals with high EQ have a high degree of emotional peripheral vision. My dog Ellie has emotional peripheral vision. But, admittedly, her EQ circle is small. It consists of her immediate pack, the five members of my family. That’s about all she can handle.
Parenting is hard. And hard things teach lessons. Being a parent has taught me more about leadership than any leadership roles I’ve held or books that I’ve read. But before I dive into some of those lessons, let me open with some parenting background on me. Consider following nuggets straight out of my parenting resume:
I am a parent of three children (13 year old girl, 10 year old boy, 8 year old boy)
My wife and I have been married 16 years and do this parenting thing together as a team
During my time as a parent, I have experienced the following thoughts, feelings and emotions: exhaustion, frustration, embarrassment, anger, determination, pride, joy, happiness and love
No one gave me a handbook on this stuff (my resume might read something like this: “Designed, developed and implemented custom parenting system resulting in no one getting killed or kicked out of school.”)
Given my unique (or not so unique) experiences, below are four things I’ve learned as a parent that I think every leader worth their salt should know and practice:
1. Be tough on the behaviors but not the person.
This is not a new concept. Take any Management 1.0 class, and you’ll likely find this statement on page 1. But what does this really mean? To me as a parent, it means a thousand kisses, hugs and “I love you’s” spread throughout the day and week. But affection alone is not enough if your goal is to raise fully formed adults. It also means being tough on behaviors. It is a rare day in my house that I’m not lecturing one of my kids on some behavioral misstep. From remembering to bring home their homework, to being respectful to their mother, the list goes on. Interestingly enough, if you want to have a narcissist for a child, do the opposite. A recent study of narcissism in children found that parents who had narcissistic children, gave little affection. Rather, they filled that void by telling the child how great he or she is all of the time. In other words, they are soft on behaviors and tough on the person. No thank you.
2. Clarity is king.
Ever tell a 4 year old to go clean his or her room? In the infamous words of Dr. Phil, “How did that work for you?” The story ends the same way every time. The parent walks into the room a short time later only to discover the room still looks as if a bomb had gone off. Standing in the middle of the seemingly-untouched chaos is a smiling 4 year old announcing proudly that they cleaned their room. Clearly there was a miscommunication. In the workplace, the number one dysfunction I see with leaders is something that I learned as a parent all-too-well. If you aren’t clear in your expectations, there is no telling what you are going to get. At home and at work, I try to practice a version of the military’s “Commander’s Intent.” The goal is to clearly articulate the “What,” the “When,” the “Why,” and, in the case of a less-than-fully-competent report (or child), the “How” of every mission. At my house, it would look like this:
Me: “Aaron (my 8 year old), you need to get your shoes on right now. The bus comes in 10 minutes. If you don’t have your shoes on when the bus comes, your mom will have to drive you to school. That will cost you $5 for her services. Do you want to pay mom $5?”
Aaron: “No sir.”
Me: “Good. Get your shoes on and let us know if you need any help.”
And when in doubt, I stop and ask whoever I am speaking to, to repeat what I just said. In the workplace, I take the same approach with my coaching clients. After all, in the case of my clients, if they are unclear on the “what,” “when,” “why” and “how,” it could cost them their job. It’s all about clarity.
3. It is not a democracy.
In our house, we have the mantra “decision makers pay.” My kids know that the “leadership team” is my wife and me. “And how does one join the leadership team?” my 13 year old daughter slyly asks. “$1,000 a month is the on-going fee for membership,” I reply. And only when one becomes a member of the leadership team are they allowed to make decisions that impact the family. In other words, Noah (my 10 year old) can’t have whatever he wants for dinner just because he doesn’t like fish. Or Abby can’t complain about riding the bus one morning because her mom didn’t have time to take her. In addition, only members of the leadership team are allowed to “edit” others in the household. Our children are not allowed to edit us. Rather, my kids’ job is to author and our job is to edit. Talk to any leader in any company and they’ll tell you that their best direct reports author and bring things to them to edit. Their worst direct reports sit back and either complain or wait to be told what to do. I have found that I can’t lead at home or at work if I’m trying to make everyone happy. The goal is not happiness. The goal is growth.
4. Failure is a great teacher.
I was with an executive coaching client last week reviewing his feedback from his team. One piece of feedback that he received stood out from all of the rest. It went something like this, “Sam is the best leader I’ve ever had the privilege to work for. I only have one thing I wish he would change. I wish he would let us occasionally fail so we could learn on our own.” In my life, failure has been a great teacher. It has taught me resilience, self-confidence, initiative, resourcefulness and perseverance. And yet, intentionally watching others that you care about fail and suffer all of the consequences of that failure is one of the most difficult gifts any parent (or leader for that matter) can give.
As a mentor of mine once said to me:
“All day long we work with adults. But don’t be mistaken. They aren’t really adults. They are secretly children stuck at various stages of development in adult bodies.”
If you look at it that way, maybe the connection between parenting and leadership isn’t that tenuous after all.
Contrary to popular belief, LOVE is not a four-letter word in the workplace (I’m sure many of my HR friends are cringing right now, furiously composing a rebuttal). And yet, it is a rare workplace in which I encounter a leader comfortable enough to embrace the power of love (shout out to Huey Lewis) in how he or she leads. Emotional distance is safer. As one leader recently shared with me, “I keep a safe distance with all of my direct reports because I may one day have to let them go. It is much easier to have those conversations if I don’t know anything about them personally or don’t have a deeper connection with them.” No doubt, arms-length leadership is the safe play, the legal play. But arms-length leadership is neither inspiring nor compelling leadership.
For the purposes of this post, consider the notion that “leaders must love to truly gain the commitment of others.” Love is a powerful form of positive energy, and simply put, leadership is all about pumping energy into a system in order to drive alignment and progress. Whether we are talking about inspiration or instilling urgency, leadership is all about energy.
“leaders must love to truly gain the commitment of others.”
Consider the following leadership loves that I would argue great leaders possess:
Love the mission and purpose of the organization. They feel an emotional connection to the “why” of the organization and are comfortable sharing that passion with others.
Love the customers they serve. They care about their customers enough to be curious about their customers’ needs and how the organization might be able to make their lives better.
Love their employees. They feel a deep commitment and care for the people they lead.
Love their jobs. They consider themselves blessed to have the privilege to touch so many lives and lead others to something better. Their role brings them joy and a personal sense of purpose.
Leaders that have these four leadership loves inspire others. They have the ability to lead others through difficult change. Followers and customers alike give them the benefit of the doubt in times of uncertainty.
Leading with love is a long-term strategy. It is rewarded with loyalty and commitment from others. Arms-length leadership is a short-term strategy and is rewarded with temporary commitments until something better comes along (something better always does seem to come along).
So what are you waiting for? Time to stop playing the field and time to get serious. Take a chance and lead with your heart.
I’m a culture geek. I’m not afraid to admit it. I’m a pocket-protector-wearing culture nerd. While others think about stuff like who’s going to win the Super Bowl or the latest round of celebrity gossip, I think about culture. Disney parks, Ritz Carlton hotels, Google, SouthWest Airlines, NetFlix, Chick-fil-A, etc… if the company is associated with culture, I read up on them, spend my money with them and generally try to figure out what makes them tick. And while I’m fascinated by the systems, processes and policies that these companies put in place to support their culture, don’t be mistaken. I’ve come to realize that it is not the systems or policies that make culture. It’s the leadership. Culture begins and ends with leadership.
It is in this way that the topic of leadership and culture can extend beyond the board room table to the kitchen table. Great leaders lead and set a clear culture. I’ve found the same phenomenon to be true at home. The most effective parents have a clear culture set inside the four walls of their home that contributes to the growth and development of their children and the family.
What is Culture?
You may be thinking, “Brandon, what do you mean by culture?” Simply put, culture is what happens when you aren’t around. It defines how stuff gets done. In the business world we often link culture to execution. If your team is getting stuff done while you are away at the conference, you’ve got an effective culture.
“Culture is what happens when you aren’t around.”
At home, we can make the same statement. Are members of your “organization” doing what they are supposed to do when you aren’t around?
Whether we are talking about your team at work or your ankle-biters at home, the question for you is the same: “what culture do you want and how are you going to set it?”
How Leaders Set a Strong Culture at Work and at Home
To answer that question, we can turn our attention to leaders of companies with strong cultures. Over the years, I’ve noticed some common behaviors amongst almost all of these leaders. And along the way, I’ve also helped myself to their approaches and applied them at home with some interesting outcomes. Consider the following leadership traits related to leading strong cultures:
They see their roles as “protectors of the culture.” Listen to any leader of an organization with a strong culture and they’ll tell you that their role is not to run the business. Rather, they see their role as the “protector of the culture.” Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A is a perfect example. Protecting a culture is a full-time job and full time role whether we are at work or at home. It means making decisions based on the values one is trying to reinforce. Several years ago, my 10 year old was pushing us to let him quit karate. He hated sparring class because it was hard. My wife and I talked together about the importance of teaching him “resilience” and how important it was for us to protect the values of resilience and courage in our household. We wouldn’t let him quit. He’s scheduled to get his black belt next year.
They make their values clear and simple. The best cultures have simple, sticky and memorable sets of values that can be easily recited inside the organization. At home it should be no different. One of my personal favorites that all of my children in my home can recite in their sleep is the following values statement: “Decision-makers pay.” When a child is complaining about the fantastic gourmet dinner that mom cooked, I announce to the table that this particular child is showing leadership and would like to decide what we will be having for dinner. And as a result, this member of the family will also be buying dinner for the family. After a brief pause to contemplate my statement, the child then makes the following statement to the table, “mom, dinner looks and smells wonderful. Thank you for making it.” Culture, baby.
They talk about the culture every day. We get this. Jack Welch famously commented that as a leader of a large organization, you’ll find yourself talking about values and culture on a daily basis until you are blue in the face. This is where I’m going to ruffle some feathers, folks. Ready? You can’t outsource this. As parents and leaders, it requires a regular presence. If you are not home more nights than not, you aren’t talking about culture. You aren’t leading culture. Just like if you were the CEO of a company, you’d never consider hiring a part-time worker to be the culture advocate at your company. Hiring help at home and expecting them to carry the culture flag is unrealistic and unfair.
They punish swiftly and severely when culture is violated. I was talking to a senior HR leader just last week at a Best Places To Work organization and he shared with me this great story. After searching for some time, he and the CEO hired an external candidate to serve as the President of a division. After just three weeks on the job, they were hearing more and more complaints from the President’s team until eventually the whole team went to leadership and told repeated stories of arrogance, disrespect and condescending behavior. Within 3 hours the President was pulled into HR and “invited to leave.” Leaders of strong cultures punish violators swiftly and severely. I got the pleasure of having one of these conversations with my 13 year old daughter this morning. It was not pretty. Dad probably came in a little too “hot.” Hopefully she got the message, but time will tell. Being a parent is hard.
They win with their culture. Culture is one of the few competitive advantages of any company that simply can’t be copied. It is so specific to the people and, more importantly, the leadership that it can serve as a huge competitive advantage for companies that do it well. Think Disney parks. They dominate the amusement park industry like no other. In 2009 while the industry reported significant revenue losses as a result of the recession, Disney marched forward with nearly 5% topline growth and has continued the march forward since. We get what “winning” means at work but what does winning mean at home? Ultimately, winning as parents is the development of fully formed adults that make positive contributions to society. But consider this short-term definition of a winning culture at home that I find to be particularly helpful. It goes back to the statement that culture is what happens when you aren’t around. My kids may behave poorly at home (not an uncommon experience for any parent, I would imagine) but frankly, it matters less to me than when we aren’t around. When my children are at school, at a friend’s house or staying with the grandparents, they represent us. They are Smith-Culture Ambassadors. If I get glowing reports from teachers, parents, grandparents, strangers and even wait staff at restaurants, I know I’m doing my job. However, a bad report is a failing grade for leadership and for the culture. An overhaul is in order.
So there you have it. One culture geek’s effort at taking best practices in the working world and bringing them home. And if you doubt my geekiness, enjoy the following picture. And yes, we wore those the whole day.
Who would have thought being a parent would be so itchy?
I need to come clean with you. Open kimono. Full transparency. The naked truth. Here it is:
I have less patience with others.
And I’m a better leader and person today than I used to be.
“What are you talking about Brandon? What could have happened to you? After all, you used to be so ‘nice’.” My answer is three words: I HAD CHILDREN, three of them – a girl (Abbigail, 13) and two boys (Noah, 10 and Aaron 8). Through my own journey as a parent, I have become convinced that parenting can be one of the best training grounds for leadership. It is a trial like no other. It forces you to determine what you stand for, defend those beliefs, set boundaries, make sacrifices, consistently and clearly communicate your expectations and hold others accountable on a daily basis. Sounds a lot like leadership, huh? And like leadership, most people are not very good at it. The unholy truth is that there are many more ineffective parents than there are effective ones. Go to any public place and you’ll find more lazy or failing parents than you’ll find parenting rock stars. How can you tell? Easy. Just look at their kids. If you see children exhibiting any of the following behaviors, you’ve got clear signs of ineffective parents: rudeness, anxiety, disrespect, whining, paralyzing fear, abuse, self-centered attitudes and demanding “prince and princesses.” These are all signs of parents that do not lead.
Want to avoid all that stuff and be an effective leader at home? Consider the following traits of parenting rock stars:
Set a culture of what is acceptable and not acceptable clearly, consistently and regularly
Are not afraid of initiating conflict and must always be prepared to lecture, punish or deliver time-outs at the drop of a hat.
Must be prepared to hold the line. A parent’s authority will be challenged on a daily basis.
Are committed to their leadership team first and foremost. The most effective parents are committed first to their spouses and second to their children. Parenting is not a democracy where everyone has an equal vote.
Focus on developing their children and recognize that they will likely have to adjust their development approach for each child in order to be effective.
Are master cheerleaders. They love their children unconditionally and let them hear and feel that love on a daily basis.
Communicate what is going on in the world and what it means to the family in a way that reinforces values and lowers anxiety.
Raise their children so that the role of parent is no longer necessary. Effective parents strive to raise healthy fully-formed adults that contribute to society (and others) positively.
Is leadership in any business or organization materially different? And yet, we rarely give parenting its proper due. In an effort to be politically correct, we tend to downplay the role of parenting as if it is equivalent to some sort of hobby to be taken up on the weekends like adopting a puppy or joining a skeeball league.
Parenting is hard. Leadership is hard. Over the next few posts, my hope is to make you more efficient and effective on both fronts.
In the meantime, get off my lawn. I’m taking a nap.
I have an interesting job. Some might call it a little crazy (I wouldn’t disagree). After all, who’s ever heard of a workplace therapist? When I’m doing my workplace therapist thing, one of the more important roles I play is that of an executive coach. And let me tell ya, this “coaching thing” can take many forms. Sometimes I’m hired to support a newly promoted leader (“happy coaching”). Other times, I’m hired to help a leader round out his or her rough edges (“development coaching”). And then sometimes I’m hired to save a client from being fired (“fixer coaching”). And sometimes, I fail.
Recently I’ve been reflecting on all of the clients I’ve worked with over the years who I failed. And when I say “failed,” I mean it. They lost their jobs. Exited. Fired. Canned. Booted. Downsized. Invited to leave. On the surface, the reasons were not obvious. It’s not like these individuals were unethical, unprofessional or walking H.R. nightmares. No. The reasons were much more subtle. Over many hours at the gym, shower-time-pondering and long Atlanta commutes, here’s what I’ve come to (it’s actually a pretty short list):
They function like consultants and not like owners
All consultants, former or current, need to take note. In fact, share this with your consultant friends. These clients held onto their consultant hat way too long. Maybe they were once consultants and now they were hired into a senior role by a company. Or maybe they held internal “consulting” kinda roles (regional director, etc…). Regardless, they were reluctant to take ownership inside their organizations and push results. They preferred to spend their time thinking big thoughts and painting bold strategies. They are rarely around (think workplace ghost) and when they are, they are masters at delegating so well that nothing is left on their own plate. No one really knows what they do.
They are reactive and not proactive
These individuals can never seem to get in front of any problem or issue. Their days are spent putting out fires – usually ones they’ve themselves created. They appear unprepared and reactive in meetings and seem to lack the ability to follow things fully through. This is the kind of feedback I’ve heard over the years about these folks:
“He can’t tell his boss ‘no.’ Ever. This just means we’re left to do the work, and we’re already overloaded as it is.”
“She is constantly changing her priorities. Daily. Her priorities seem completely driven by random conversations she has in the hallway.”
“He is not strategic. He just reacts to stuff. Honestly, I don’t think he can think beyond this week, even if he was forced to.”
“She never takes initiative. She just sits in meetings and waits for her boss (the CEO) to tell her what to go do.”
They have no fans
Several years ago, I had just completed a round of 360 interviews for one particular client and it was time to meet with him to review the feedback. I sat down with him to go over the rather hefty report and as I began, point by point, he attempted to discredit every potentially negative piece of feedback I presented to him. When I finished, I closed the report and looked up at him. He looked back at me with a smug expression as if he had won. I pushed the report to one side, slowly leaned forward and matter-of-factly said to him, “You have a fan problem. The problem is that you have none.” Leaders with rough edges tend to have at least some fans. But if someone doesn’t have any fans (not administrative assistants, direct reports, peers, bosses, customers, the janitor, etc…), the writing is on the wall. He was “invited to leave” about two months later.
That’s my list so far. As I think back to all of my “downsized” clients through the years, they really didn’t have too much in common (other than rock star resumes which should tell us something). There were men and women equally in that group. They represented different ethnicities as well as a variety of industries. They were Directors, Vice Presidents and C-Level Execs. But what they all did have in common is that they had at least some combination of the items above before they were shown the door.
That’s what I’ve seen. So the big question to you is:
What am I missing?
Other than naked pics of course. Those never go over well.
It was 1998. I was nearing the finish line for my graduate degree in counseling and I found myself in one of my last classes: “Clinical Diagnosis” (or something like that). Each week class followed the same script. The professor would start the class by popping in a tape (yes folks, a VHS tape) and on the screen would appear a patient who was suffering from some set mental illnesses or issues. Like grad school Jeopardy, our job would be to see who could diagnose the patient on the screen the quickest and most accurately. From paranoid schizophrenia to bipolar disorder, I was a diagnosing rock star – the equivalent of the returning Jeopardy champ week after week (it didn’t hurt that I was working at an inpatient facility at the time). Once the diagnosis was revealed to the class, we would dive deeper into that particular mental illness. And every week, about the time the conversation would start to die down, Frank would slowly raise his hand.
“I’ve got that”
Frank was one of the older students in class. In his mid-40’s, Frank always looked a bit unkempt. His hair hadn’t seen a brush or barber in months and his clothes had the “I just got up from a 3 hour sweaty nap” look. His fingernails were stained yellow from cigarettes and his legs were perpetually in motion as he sat. He was a curious and nervous dude. Eventually the professor’s gaze would fall on Frank’s raised hand. Once Frank had secured the professor’s attention, he would matter-of-factly announce to the class, “I have that.” It didn’t matter the week or illness, like clockwork, Frank would end every class period by adding one more illness to his growing collection.
Fear is like that. We rarely have just one. At points in my life, I’ve been like Frank. I could raise my hand and say “I’ve got that.” Here is just a sampling of the fears I’ve had in my life that I’ve worked through.
Fear of humiliation. When I was 11 years old, I developed an uncontrollable stutter. I could not speak in public without getting stuck and going into the stutter spiral. Like a skipping CD (or broken record for you old-schoolers), it would go on for what seemed like an eternity, causing pain for the stutterer and everyone who was present. Imagine if you knew you had this thing lurking, the last thing you would want is to have everyone’s attention on you. Ordering a pepperoni pizza was no picnic. For nearly a year, I would go to school early a few times a week to work with a speech therapist. I was terrified of speaking in public. After working through it, I became more comfortable. But admittedly, it is still not my favorite thing to do. It’s ironic that today I teach classes on communication to 700+ MBA students every year.
Some fears we can shrink so small that they fit in our pocket, but we still carry them with us wherever we go.
Fear of failing. Admittedly, my high school and college days were less than impressive. In high school, I typically slept through classes in the morning, ate two lunches and then took an afternoon nap to close out the day. College wasn’t that much better. I put forth the minimum effort required to pass. In retrospect, I know what was going on. I was afraid of failing. I’m an “all in” kinda guy. Deep down, I was afraid of putting forth 110% effort and having it not be good enough. So, what’s the best way to stay on the sidelines? Sleep a lot. It wasn’t until I had the world’s worst boss that I discovered my purpose. I had something compelling enough for me to face my fear and look it dead in the eye. Today, I’m all-in in everything I do working to eliminate workplace dysfunction.
Fear of not knowing enough. Fast forward. I start my business and I’m coaching and consulting with companies that I know nothing about.I started to wonder and worry. What would my clients do if they knew how inexperienced I was? What would they do if they knew how little I knew about their business? Etc… And then a mentor of mine looked me in the eye and said,
It is not about having the answer. Everyone has a piece of the truth. Understand that the value you bring is your perspectives, insights and ability to see things the client doesn’t see. It isn’t about having the answer.
In that moment, my fear seemed to vanish.
Fear of being vulnerable.Being vulnerable is never much fun. I don’t know too many people that enjoy it but I do admire those who are comfortable with it. My two big “vulnerability no-no’s” have been talking about personal tragedies in my life(my big bro killed himself when I was 10) and asking others for help. I really don’t know what my hang-up was about these two other than I don’t want others to feel sorry for me. I’ve been working on these two the last few years and ironically, they go hand in hand. When others truly know you for who you are and what you’ve overcome, they feel compelled to help you.
Fear of hearing “no.” Admittedly, I haven’t conquered this bad boy. It is why I do not love doing business development and am an awful negotiator. I’m working on it but it has been baby steps. I’ll have to keep you posted on this one but I’m open to suggestions.
We really aren’t all that different from Frank. We all have fears that we carry around with us. Those fears can weigh us down and immobilize us or we can neatly tuck them in our pocket and continue on our journey. The first step is to acknowledge what’s holding you back.
Fear. We all have it. It’s what keeps us from walking up to a fluffy black bear while on a hike and attempting to rub its adorable tummy. But there is such a thing as too much fear. Debilitating fear.
I believe we are in the middle of a fear epidemic.
It seems more and more of my friends, family, clients and colleagues have contracted this disease. Good people, competent people, accomplished people that are paralyzed from taking the necessary first step towards the future that they want and they are meant for. They sit as years pass. Stuck. Regardless of the role I’m playing with them: executive coach, professor, therapist, consultant, blogger, radio dude, parent, husband, friend, etc… my focus is always the same: help them get unstuck and take the first step. And yet, despite how easy and painless as I try to make the process, something always seems to be in their way. Fear. It causes paralysis inside its victim, but more importantly it spreads. Only, fear is not like cancer. It is exponentially worse. Like cancer, it sits inside of us and eats until nothing is left. Unlike cancer, fear is highly communicable. It gets passed to friends in fear-riddled statements like “you can’t do that.” It gets passed down to children in the form of overly anxious and controlling parents. It gets passed down from insecure bosses that tell you that you aren’t good enough because, deep down, they believe that they aren’t.
If you want the life you’ve always dreamed of, the life you feel like you are meant for, you will have to look fear in the eye.
You can’t go around fear. You can’t bury fear. You can’t ignore fear. If you try, it will simply feast on your soul.
What Are You Afraid Of?
Have you inadvertently contracted a debilitating case of fear? Is fear holding you back? Here are some of the most debilitating strains of fear that I’m seeing more and more. Are any of these you or those closest to you?
The fear of acknowledging what you really want or need
This form of fear whispers into the victim’s soul that they can’t have what they truly want. When someone is suffering from this fear, it exposes itself quickly. When I present my magic crystal ball and ask the person to imagine their perfect life in 5 years, sufferers of this fear will respond to that seemingly innocent question with one of two statements:
Them: “I don’t know what I want or need in life. I just don’t know. That’s my problem. Can you tell me the answer?”
Me: “I don’t believe you. You are lying to me but more importantly you are lying to yourself. The answer is inside of you. Have the courage to listen, but more importantly the courage to claim it.”
Them: “I’m good. I don’t want or need anything. Everything with me is perfectly perfect.”
Me: “Really? Your career is exactly where you want it to be? Your relationships are golden? You are living where you’ve always dreamed? Liar. Go sell that somewhere else.”
In an effort to protect themselves from that possible pain of disappointment, this fear convinces it sufferers to lie to themselves and to others in order to maintain a bubble of happiness. The problem is that sufferers of this fear aren’t living happy lives. They are often scared, anxious, judgmental, controlling, tired and dangerous. This fear wants its sufferer to spread the mantra to others so they aren’t alone huddling in the corner. Be careful. This fear will try to get you to turn your back on your dreams.
The fear you’ll be found out
The impostor fear. “If others find out who I really am, they’ll surely kick me out of here.” This is one of the most common fears that emerges with accomplished working professionals. It’s this idea that deep-down, we are still that young kid that doesn’t know what he or she is doing, only now we have 5 direct reports and a $3M budget. “I sure hope no one finds out who I really am.”
This fear is easy to spot. We often label these people as “too corporate” or “politicians.” They seem plastic and phony in their interactions. They fear authenticity because that would mean others would see who they really are, and they can’t have that. Their fear won’t let them. Instead, they dress, speak and interact in overly scripted ways. This fear generates extreme self-judgment. An important note about judgment: judgment is never one directional. These individuals take out their fears on others by judging others, micromanaging direct reports, avoiding any type of “risky” assignments and sometimes decline promotions. This fear will tell you not to be who you really are and to just stick to the script.
The fear you won’t be liked, loved or accepted
This fear is all about giving oneself away in an effort to win friendship, love and acceptance. While problematic in our professional lives, this fear is particularly troublesome in our personal lives. Parents with this fear can’t tell their children “No” and ultimately raise selfish, rude and insecure human beings (Ex: Veruca Salt). These sufferers have no boundaries. They give themselves away freely to anyone who will ask. They work extra-long hours at work. They stay in unhealthy relationships too long. They try to desperately rescue as many other people (and animals) as they possibly can because, by doing so, they feel needed and important. I know when I’m dealing with someone suffering from this fear when I try to get them to set boundaries (Ex: “No, you can’t have spaghetti tonight for dinner. We are having chicken… No, I will not rescue another cat / dog… No, I will not do your job for you. That is your responsibility… No, I will no longer tolerate your abuse. Get counseling or we are done.”). This fear hates boundaries. When I propose setting boundaries to a sufferer of this fear, the person becomes angry, hostile and for a split second, I can see in their eyes the desire to leap across the table and kill me. This fear will convince you that good people sacrifice themselves and never say “no.” Guilt is its weapon. Be on guard.
What’s Fear Costing You?
Is fear standing in the way of what you truly want and need? Do you know that deep down, you are meant for more, but you just can’t seem to take the first step? Your first step is to ask yourself “what is fear costing you?” Are you willing to pay that price? I’m no stranger to fear. At times I’ve been paralyzed in my life, afraid to take that first step wondering if I had what it takes, wondering if I could stick to it, wondering and doubting until I took that first step.
Make no mistake, the road to realizing one’s dreams is littered with fear-consumed souls. At its best fear is sneaky and paralyzing, but at its worst, fear takes lives. In my family, we have had the misfortune of losing three relatives to suicide. My oldest brother Chris was one of those, a casualty of fear. Fear was too much for him and he succumbed. Fear kills.
Don’t let fear win. Get courageous. Look fear in the eye and take one step forward.
It was last Fall. I was sitting in my office waiting with anticipation for my cellphone to ring. Over the past year, I had been running hard coaching, consulting, speaking, teaching, blogging and doing my radio gig. In a few short minutes, I was going to receive the phone call that represented the culmination of all of my hard work. I was going to have my very own TV show. We had already shot the sizzle reel (TV lingo for the three minute promo for the show) earlier in the year and the production company had been pitching it to networks for several months. In my mind, things were going to play out like this: First, a network exec would hear the pitch and almost instantly would have responded with, “Yes. We love it. And his hair is frickin’ awesome. Let’s start production tomorrow.” After fighting off several equally interested networks, the production company would select the winner and would call me with the news. And in a few short minutes I was going to receive that very call. After graciously accepting my prize (a show), I was going to begin to move things around in my life to accommodate this new adventure. Soon, workplace dysfunction was going to be treated on every screen, from tablets to TVs, across the country.
But that’s not what happened.
The sizzle reel had fizzled.
As the next few months unfolded, I realized two important things about myself and how I had been operating. First, I had this persistent itch that I was “meant for more” than what I had been doing. Before you jump to conclusions, let me clarify what I mean by “meant for more.” I wasn’t saying I was unhappy with what I do. Far from it. I wanted to see how I could do it bigger. And I wasn’t suggesting I was “meant for more money, more stuff, more fame, more glamour, etc…” I’m quite happy with the stuff that I’ve got (although my daughter would rather not share her bathroom with her two brothers, but that’s a whole other issue). It was a deeper sense that I was meant to play a bigger game than I had been playing. It was akin to feeling like I was roaming centerfield for some obscure minor league team in a one stoplight town knowing that I had the skills to play in the big leagues. Second, I realized I was doing this whole “meant for more” thing all wrong. I was sitting back waiting for some big thing to come find me. The reality was that the production company found me. I didn’t find them. It was the production company that was pitching me to the networks. Not me. I was simply sitting back sipping a cappuccino, waiting for them to bring me something wonderful.
I realized that’s not how “meant for more” is supposed to work. You can’t just wait for something big to come along and find you.
And when it does find you, you then conveniently move things around in your life to make space. I realized I have to make space first and then set out on a mission looking for that bigger thing. I set out to scratch the itch in a different way.
Make room in your life for something big to come
Last year was a whirlwind. Nearly every day was packed full with work. The first thing I set about doing was to clear space in my calendar for something big to nest. I immediately honed in on my relatively large teaching load across multiple MBA programs. I realized if I took a step back from some of my teaching commitments in the Fall, I could pick up about 15 extra days. Done. Second, I took a harder look at the work I was saying “yes” to and I started to become much more discriminating. I don’t do stuff that I simply don’t like and I have raised my rates on the stuff that I was giving away too cheaply. That bought me back even more days. Finally, when folks want my advice or help but aren’t looking to hire me (in other words, they want a free workplace therapist), I still say yes. I just ask they either meet me at my favorite breakfast joint early or opt for a phone call during one of my commutes. The net effect? I’m thinking I’ve picked up at least 30 days of open space between now and the end of the year. Not too shabby.
Put your money where your mouth is
When the production company first broke the news that the sizzle reel fizzled, I asked them what the feedback was from the networks. Their response was simple. Since I’m not a “throw chairs” type of guy, the networks would have liked to have seen me on TV first. So, I get on TV when I get on TV? Riddle me that. I hired an awesome PR firm and with their help, I made several TV appearances on Fox and PBS this year. TV appearances. Check. I also realized my “Workplace Therapist” blog had serious room for improvements in making it more user friendly. Site upgraded. Check. Finally, I realized I needed to have a separate site that could communicate what I (and hopefully others) could provide for individuals and companies looking to eliminate workplace dysfunction and take their organizations to the next level of awesomeness. With the help of a fantastic consultant and my web master Kristen, The Worksmiths was born. Check. Bank account empty. Check.
Embrace other’s discomfort
Throughout this journey,some of my closest friends, surprisingly, have been vocally uncomfortable with my new plan.
Friends: “What? Are you sure you want to walk away from some of your teaching gigs this Fall? Isn’t that guaranteed income that you’re turning your back on?”
Me: “Yep. Yes it is and I’m sure this is what I want to do.”
Friends: “Do you have other work lined up?”
Me: “Nope. I sure don’t. That’s the point. I’m trying to create space.”
When my friends first tried to talk me out of my plan, I began to question myself, and then it hit me. That’s what faith is all about. This isn’t my first faith rodeo. Nearly 10 years ago, when I was finishing up my MBA, I received a full-time offer from a prestigious consulting firm to join their human capital practice. Nationally, I was the first and only MBA they extended an offer to at the time. After much soul-searching, I turned down the offer and decided I would do my own thing. The news spread like wildfire in the business school. Upon hearing the news, no one in the business school would talk to me for two weeks. Whatever it was that I had contracted, no one else wanted to risk picking up. Turns out I had come down with a serious case of faith. Trust yourself and what you feel called to do. You are on the right track when others are uncomfortable.
Want to scratch your itch?
Feel like you are stuck in the bush leagues, playing a mean third base waiting to be discovered? Stop waiting. Make space in your life. Start putting some resources toward your plan and know that the more uncomfortable others get, the more you are on the right track.
Big isn’t for everyone. That’s why it’s big.
I’ve got a final recent turn in the story. Over the next month I shoot sizzle reel #2 with a different production company. Through a series of events, we found each other. Turns out, big things do happen to those who don’t wait.
I have to confess, I’m an itchy dude. As my kids will attest, dad is always looking for a good back scratch. But my itchiness doesn’t stop with back scratches. It seems like I’ve always got an itch that I am trying to scratch. Sometimes that itch is a feeling that I’m running out of time. Chalk it up to attending way too many funerals before I turned 10. Other times the itch is just a desire to do more of something that I seemed to only get just a taste. And then sometimes the itch is more difficult to isolate. I can feel it but I can’t quite tell where it is and how to get at it.
Years ago I had knee surgery to repair a torn ligament I suffered playing basketball (an example of what happens when a non-athlete thinks he’s a champ). After the surgery, I had a bulky brace that I was instructed to wear for several weeks without removal (showers were a blast, let me tell you). As anyone who’s ever had a cast or a semi-permanent brace can attest, when you’ve got an itch underneath the thing, there is nothing worse (other than perhaps the smell when you finally do take it off. Whew.). All you want to do is scratch the itch but you are neither sure quite where it is nor how to reach it. Your anxiety spikes. You become fidgety. You shake. You wiggle. You yell out in frustration. You’ll do anything to get that feeling of discomfort to simply go away.
Sometimes we have those kinds of itches in life. The kind of itch that sits just under the surface that slowly and persistently needles us until we do something about it.
The itch prods, nudges and irritates. The problem is that we usually don’t know quite where it is or how to scratch it. All we know is that where we are in life is not where we want to be. The itch tells us that something is out of place, that this is not how it is supposed to be. This is not how we are supposed to be.Maybe it’s the relationships we are in or the career we’ve chose? Maybe it is where we live? And sometimes it is what we are not doing that we should be that is the cause of the itch. Regardless of the reason, we know deep down that the itch is trying to tell us that we are meant for more. “But what?” is the question.
I got the itch last year.
On the surface, you would never have been able to tell. Things were rockin’ and rollin’. I was as busy as I had ever been and work was just coming. But something just didn’t feel right. Something was missing. While I enjoyed the work I was doing, it didn’t feel like I was making the progress I wanted to make on my mission and purpose to cure workplace dysfunction. I had an itch that I needed and wanted to scratch, but I didn’t know exactly where the itch was or how to scratch it. So what did I do?
Over the next month, I’m going to share with you my journey of scratching the “meant for more” itch. To get the itch to go away, I am doing some crazy things. Namely, the following:
Taking some big chances and walking away from guaranteed work
Depleting my savings to build something better for my mission
Learning how to ask for help
Working on myself and who I want and need to be
Will it be inspiring? I don’t know.
Entertaining? Probably. Watching others do potentially embarrassing things usually is.
Sometimes dysfunction comes in the form of a Trojan horse. It doesn’t come straight at you like an abusive boss or nasty coworker. It sneaks in through the backdoor and once in, it rears its ugly head. Remember the story of the infamous Trojan horse (and no, I’m not talking about an e-mail virus)? As the story goes, after nearly 10 years of trying to break the Trojans and get into the city of Troy, the Greeks came up empty (personally, I can’t imagine failing for 10 straight years. I can’t decide if that’s crazy or persistent.). In a last-ditch effort, the Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse, and hid a select force of men inside. The Greeks pretended to sail away, and the Trojans pulled the horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the Greek force crept out of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army, which had sailed back under cover of night. The Greeks entered and destroyed the city of Troy, decisively ending the war.
Needy direct reports are Trojan horses. They are friendly, ask our opinions, crave our feedback, and hang on our every word. We welcome them with open arms. The problem is that once they are inside our walls, all hell breaks loose.
How do you know you have a needy direct report?
Are you currently under siege by a needy direct report? Consider the following signs of truly needy directs:
They always want your time. You find yourself trying to sneak into your office without being noticed. You know that if they see you, you have just lost several hours of your life never to be returned.
They always need reassurance. Needy direct reports value your opinion so much that they need your approval and reassurance on everything. Everything. #Everything. Ex: “Yes, I think the sandwich platter you ordered for our next lunch meeting will be fine. Yes, I think you did a good job of ordering just enough turkey sandwiches. No, I don’t think Rebecca will care if her veggie sandwich has tomatoes. No, I don’t think it matters what kind of cookies you get. Etc…”
They always need feedback. I’m not talking about the simple and healthy process of asking for feedback. No. I’m talking about you dying under the crushing weight of constant prodding for feedback. Ex: “No, we can not meet every week for the next year to discuss your most recent performance review and to review your current progress.”
They always need to know where they stand. These folks take the phrase “in absence of communication, people always assume the worst” to a whole new level. They need to not only know where they stand with you, but they often want to know when they are going to get promoted… even right after they have accepted a promotion. Ex: “Our general philosophy around here is that one stays in a job for at least 6 months before another promotion. You know… Enough time to sufficiently do the job they are currently in.”
Notice the consistent word in the attributes above – always. Needy direct reports are managerial dream-killers. Anyone who ever wanted to be a manager soon finds the idea as painful as plucking nose hairs after having a needy direct report (you can thank me for that image).
How to manage a needy direct report
There are a few simple tactics to manage a needy direct report and keep those Greeks at bay. The key in all of these is being “proactive” and on the offensive rather than on the defensive. Our needy direct reports are continually on the offensive, assailing us at every turn. Defense won’t work. You need to fight back with the following:
Schedule time with them weekly (ideally at the same time on the same day each week). This replaces any impromptu meetings they try to thrust on you. Stick to your schedule and don’t let them hijack you in the hallway.
Require them to send an agenda ahead of time. This serves two important purposes. First, it puts the ownership on them. Second, it allows you to prepare for the conversation without being blindsided by a “so what did you think of my TPS reports yesterday?”
Give them as close to 5 positive pieces of feedback for every 1 piece of negative feedback. This may be difficult for you on many levels, but it is necessary if you want to keep their anxiety and insecurity under control.
Tell them where they stand and where they are going. If you can, try to provide them a clear road map in the organization for the foreseeable future.
Maintain strong boundaries. “No” needs to become your friend. Go ahead. Say it. “No.” Nada. Zilch. #No.
Finally, have them read my posts on “I thought I was a Rock Star until they let me go.” Here’s the link.
Now that I think about it, I’m sure a needy direct report would have no problem harassing you for 10 years or more.
Dave was a small business owner. His business, like many, had been hit hard by the recession. Doing business the way it had been done before just wasn’t going to work anymore. He needed to change his business model, how he approached his customers, his processes, etc… And with that, his people needed to change. The problem? Dave has had his business for over 30 years and many of his employees have been with him since the beginning. They were like family. No one represented this better than Wanda. She had been an office manager for Dave for the past 20 years and had somehow managed to function without ever learning how to use a computer. She had resisted any form of technology. Unless the whole world loses electrical power (making Wanda a tribal queen overnight), the days of avoiding technology were coming to an end and Dave knew it. Wanda was no longer competent to do her job and her time was running out.
One morning as I visited Dave and we were discussing Wanda, he said to me the following in a smooth southern accent:
“I don’t want to have to take the family cocker spaniel out back and shoot it, but I know that might be what I have to do.”
What is incompetence?
Are you dealing with a direct report that is incompetent? Let me call a “time out” and define “incompetence” as it relates to direct reports. Sometimes incompetence is a temporary condition. The job has changed and for a short time, the person will be incompetent until he or she learns the skills and competencies necessary to be effective. Other times, incompetence is a persistent condition. The person frankly may not have the horsepower to learn what you need him or her to learn and thus, he or she remains incompetent. Sometimes, fear takes over and the individual resists any efforts to get him or her to change. Regardless, the goal for us is to quickly determine what kind of incompetence we are dealing with and attempt to enact the “right” change.
How to make a direct report competent (if you can)
So where do you start? Consider these steps:
Be honest with yourself. Yeah, I know how much you just love Amy. She’s just such a nice person. She bakes fantastic homemade snickerdoodles. Oh, and she’s the first to volunteer to dog sit when you go out of town. I get it. But Amy started as a customer service representative and now her job has changed to become a cross between business analyst, programmer and social media guru. Be honest with yourself. Are you asking too much of Amy? Start with the job description and then consider the person. DON’T create the job description to fit the person. I rarely see that play well. When jobs are made to fit the person to force a fit, the individual ends up hobbling along until they eventually leave. And when they leave, you are left holding this funky job that fits no one, but the person who just left.
Be honest with them. There is no greater gift than the gift of honesty and directness accompanied with a healthy dose of compassion. Explain to your direct report what you need. Tell him or her that you value them and you want them to be part of your team going forward, but if they can’t make the shift they’ll need to find another home. Be crystal clear in your expectations so it is easy for you to know if progress is being made. For example, don’t say: “I need you to get up to speed on social media.” You’ll end up with a direct report inviting you to their snickerdoodle and dog-themed birthday party via Facebook. Instead, do say: “I need you to be able to monitor customer feedback via social media and post on at least 3 social media outlets daily on our behalf. In addition, I need you to be able to report quarterly on what trends you are seeing and what you recommend that we do as an organization.”
Start with something easy. Change is hard, folks. Don’t believe me? Try to change your routine for 21 days and you’ll see what I mean. Not easy. So help the person out by starting with something easy. Find the easiest place to start, give them an easy first assignment and check in weekly. Ex: “The first place I want you to start is by setting up a Twitter account. Next, I want you to begin to follow individuals and organizations that you believe we should be watching. When we meet next week, I want you to fill me in on what you’ve done.”
Don’t be afraid to rip off the Band-Aid. I’m a huge believer in giving people a fighting chance to change. I’ve also learned (through many cuts, scrapes and bruises), that most people don’t change. That being said, let them surprise you. Give them a chance. There is nothing more beautiful in life than watching someone overcome their fears and surprise you and themselves. The flip side of that is what most managers do. There is nothing more painful and cruel than to watch someone flail about, unable to change and neither their manager nor they stop it for months bleeding into years. The individual suffers, the manager looks pathetic and for the rest of the group, it’s a morale-killer. Don’t be that person. Rip the Band-Aid off if change isn’t happening.
A final word
This isn’t rocket science. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, there is bad news. In order to do this well, it requires two things in short supply today: clarity and courage. Be clear on what you want so the person has a fighting chance to make the change. You owe it to them. Have the courage to end the experiment quickly if it is causing more pain than progress. You owe that to them as well. Neither will be easy and it will require effort and intentionality on your part.
If you’ve ever had the unfortunate task of managing a saboteur, you know how tricky and dangerous it can be. “But wait, Brandon,” you say. “What do you mean by ‘saboteur?’ I thought saboteurs cut wires, plant bombs and generally mess up stuff?” Yep, you got it. While a corporate saboteur might not plant the kind of bombs that kill people, they set traps nonetheless. And nothing is more dangerous than a sabotaging direct report. If you are their boss, nothing pleases them more than finding ways for things blow up in your face.
“But I’m a nice person,” you plead. “Why would anyone want to be so mean to such a wonderful beautiful human being like me? I’m so wonderful that I should be on a Hallmark card.” You are beautiful, but I’m sorry to say, a sabotaging direct report doesn’t care. There are several reasons why you might end up stuck with a sabotaging direct report. Here are some of the most common that I see:
Why Would Someone Want to Sabotage You?
You took their job – I hear story after story of bosses who get tapped for a job that someone else wanted and still believes he or she deserves. Maybe they were your peer at one point and now you are their boss or maybe they’ve got you beat on seniority and age. Regardless of the reason, saboteurs can emerge if they think you have something they want. They simply just need to knock you off.
You represent change – Damn the man. Sometimes saboteurs emerge wearing berets, Che Guevara t-shirts and leading rebels against change (not for change ironically). If you have been tasked with leading a big-time change initiative in a traditional workplace, you might end up with a saboteur trying to stop you.
They don’t like you – Its junior high school all over again. Heather has decided you are mean. Miguel doesn’t like your style. Steve thinks you play favorites. It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it does happen. Sometimes you end up with a junior high kid stuck in an adult body working for you, and they do junior high things. They talk bad about you behind your back. They are passive aggressive in meetings. They have parties and invite everyone else in the office except for you (yes, I have seen this happen).
What do you do?
3 Ways to Stop a Sabotaging Direct Report
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Yep, I know. You don’t like this person. You don’t like the way they work. You don’t like the way they act. Heck, you probably don’t like the way they look. Get over it. The worst thing you can do for a saboteur is give them space and darkness in which to work. On top of that, most saboteurs are sabotaging because, deep down, they don’t feel heard or noticed. So, go notice them. Take them out to coffee and listen to their stories and opinions. And not just once. Meet with them at least once a week and help them to feel valued and special. It is difficult to sabotage someone who values you.Be that person.
Isolate them. Saboteurs are never alone. That’s the subtlety of these surface lone wolfs. Underneath the surface, they are always trying to please or impress others. Perhaps they are trying to impress your boss so they can get your job. Or perhaps they are trying to enlist more supporters to their side. Regardless, they need the validation of others to do what they do. Cut off the source. Isolate them so they truly are alone. I’ve seen managers accomplish this by changing the saboteur’s role so they have no “team” to work with. I’ve seen other managers move the saboteur’s office so they sit far away from others (just not too far from you). Just like any spy or saboteur, if you cut off their funding, they are done. Find the source of their motivation and severe the cord.
Fire them. If all else fails, get rid of them. If you’ve tried offering olive branches and you’ve been shunned at every turn, it’s not a good sign. And if you try to isolate them from others and they continue to find creative ways to keep the channels alive (Ex: after hour dinner parties, etc…), you’ve got a real nasty on your hands. Let them go as soon as possible and I promise you’ll see things turn around in no time. Things you didn’t realize they were sabotaging will begin to start working the right way. The skies will part and sun will shine.
Saboteurs are dangerous. Their goal is simple: to take you down. There is one more thing I need to tell you before I send you on your way. You are alone. Alone. “What?” you gasp. “This is not cool. Brandon, you are supposed to be inspirational and this is NOT inspirational. You make me want to crawl under my covers and cry.” I’m sorry. I really am. I don’t want to be a buzz-kill, but I want you to know what you are facing. Others around you are quite clear on what’s going on and they don’t want to be you or anywhere near you. They want to keep their heads down and stay out of the line of fire. So don’t look for other direct reports to come to your side. Don’t count on it.