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How Leaders Can Get Honest, Productive Feedback

  • Category EQ

As an executive coach, I work with many successful leaders who want to become even more effective. Recently, I asked a client of mine what kind of feedback she was receiving to help her be a better leader. She said, “My last performance review was really positive. My boss told me I’m doing a great job and I should just continue to do what I’m doing.”

That felt nice to hear, I’m sure. But it is also completely unhelpful to her growth and development.

According to research on effective learning, to improve performance, people need three things:

  • A clear goal
  • A genuine desire to achieve that goal
  • Feedback that indicates what they are doing well and what they are not doing well

Unfortunately, the feedback many leaders receive is not helpful. It’s often infrequent, vague, or unrelated to specific behaviors — and as a result, leaders tend to be less proactive about getting more of it. Low-quality feedback is not useful, positive feedback is undervalued, and negative feedback delivered unskillfully can actually cause physical pain.

Without clear performance targets and data measuring how close or far they are from reaching them, leaders will continue to find it difficult to grow and improve. When delivered thoughtfully, however, feedback can provide leaders with the actionable data they need to become more effective.

If you want to get the feedback that is necessary to improve your leadership, there are a few steps you can take.

Build and maintain a psychologically safe environment. Sharing feedback is often interpersonally risky. To increase the likelihood of your colleagues taking that risk with you, show them that their honesty won’t be met with negative repercussions. You can do this before you ask for feedback by being curious, rewarding candor, and showing vulnerability. Being curious starts with having the right mindset, or believing that you have something useful to learn. It is demonstrated by asking your teammates open-ended questions that you really don’t know the answers to: “What could go wrong if we try this?” When you listen to and genuinely explore your colleague’s different, and possibly risky, perspectives — even if you disagree with them — you are rewarding their candor. Acknowledging your weaknesses or mistakes along the way are great ways to be open and vulnerable.

Ask for feedback skillfully. Asking “What feedback do you have?” rarely elicits a useful response. Instead, ask about specific events (“What did you hear when I shared my strategy?”), worrisome patterns (“How often do I interrupt people in meetings?”), personal impact (“How did it feel to you when I sent that email?”), and lastly, recommendations (“What can I do to help build my relationship with Priya?”).

Request both positive and negative data. Clients tell me all the time that they just want to hear “the bad stuff” when it comes to feedback. What they fail to appreciate is that positive feedback that targets a specific behavior is useful. It tells them what they don’t need to work on, and increases their motivation to focus on the behaviors that they do. For clarity, positive feedback is not the same as praise. Praise tells us someone is happy with us and thinks we are performing well. Praise sounds like: “Nice job!”; “You were great in that meeting.”; “Killer presentation!” While it feels good, praise does not give us enough information to understand what we are doing effectively so that we can repeat the behavior. 

When receiving feedback, give your full attention and listen carefully. Eliminate distractions, including your phone and laptop, and focus fully on the person giving the feedback. Having your phone present, even if you’re not looking at it, negatively impacts relationships and reduces your ability to connect with others. Listen carefully to what the other person is saying, resisting the impulse to evaluate the accuracy of the message.

Don’t debate or defend. If you find yourself disagreeing with some feedback, practice self-awareness and notice this reaction, but do not offer contradictory evidence or challenge your colleague. If you debate, you will look defensive and not open to feedback, and you may decrease the likelihood of that person offering you feedback in the future. None of these are the outcomes you’re trying to achieve — so don’t do it. 

 

Own your reactions. You may feel happy, angry, confused, or frustrated by what you hear. Recognize that your reactions are about you, and not the other person. If you asked for feedback and someone was brave enough and generous enough to share it with you, it’s your responsibility to own and explore your reactions. Instead of finding fault in the messenger, become curious about yourself. Ask: Where is this anger really coming from? What about this is confusing? What part of the message is actually true for me, even if I don’t want to acknowledge it?

Demonstrate gratitude. Say thank you in a way that conveys sincere appreciation. If you’ve heard something helpful, the person giving you feedback likely spent a good amount of time considering your performance and how to thoughtfully discuss it with you. They took a risk by being candid, so let them know how much you appreciate their effort and courage.

Reflect and evaluate. Now that you have some new data, reflect on what you’ve heard even if you don’t like reflection. By thinking through the meaning and implication of the feedback, you can learn from it and consider what parts to work on, what parts to disregard, and what parts require deeper understanding. To do this, it helps to think about your development areas, the value you place on this individual’s perspective, and possibly, what you have heard from others as well. This is also the time to come back to what you may disagree with. Given that your objective was to learn others’ perspectives on you, ask yourself if it’s really worth the potential damage to go back and “correct” the information. Typically, it’s not.

Make a plan and take action. All of the steps before this set you up to make a plan and put it into practice. Pick one or two capabilities you want to improve, get really clear about what “improved” looks like, and then consider the steps necessary for you to learn and adopt that new behavior. Making a plan and taking action are not only important for your learning and development, they’re also a signal to those who shared the feedback — you are serious about improving and you value their perspectives.

Sustain progress and share updates. You need to repeat new behaviors for at least two months for them to become new habits. If you go back to your feedback providers and tell them what you are doing differently, you’ll give them a catalyst to change their perspectives, validation that you heard and appreciated what they had to say, and the opportunity to see you as a person who is committed to your professional development.

Great leaders are great learners. Their never-ending pursuit of information pushes them to constantly improve and sets them apart from the rest. Getting and learning from feedback isn’t always easy, but it is necessary, if we want to become better. It’s rare that our colleagues will offer us the kind of feedback we need to develop, and also rare that we respond in a way that rewards their efforts and helps us improve. It’s worth building the skills to do this well if we want to reach our full potential.


Jennifer Porter is the Managing Partner of The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She is a graduate of Bates College and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, an experienced operations executive, and an executive and team coach.


 

When a Leader Is Causing Conflict, Start by Asking Why

Not long ago, I received a call from an HR manager at a large corporation seeking an executive coach for one of their senior leaders. He was described as arrogant, tactlessly blunt, and lacking empathy. Despite his challenges, all of which hadn’t improved much despite several previous coaching interventions, the company hadn’t fired him because he was considered one of the industry’s most brilliant engineers, responsible for several of the firm’s most profitable patents. The company simply couldn’t afford to let him go.

How do you coach a leader whom others think is a hopeless case? Sometimes you can’t. The person may well turn out to be a jerk who won’t change their toxic ways. In that case, the company needs to fire the individual. Tolerating destructive behavior will send the signal that it’s ok to mistreat others as long as you get results. But, often, as was the case with my client, the leader who everyone thinks is hopeless is simply being misunderstood and their behavior misdiagnosed.

Whether you are a coach, an HR leader, or an executive trying to help a challenging subordinate, your credibility, and that of the leader you’re trying to help, depends on an accurate understanding of what’s actually going on. Here are three ways you can be sure you’re addressing the right problem with a challenging leader in the right way.

Manage your assumptions and judgements. Without realizing it, those of us in advisory roles often bring our own issues to our work helping others. We make assumptions and judgements based on our own experiences that often have little to do with the leader we’re trying to support. Before I even met this leader, I found myself feeling anxious, dismissive, and judgmental toward him based on what others had said. I imagined how I would respond to his insulting behavior and what I would say if he made an arrogant comment. But my defenses were unwarranted and my assumption that he was a jerk proved wrong. He was engaging, open to learning, and willing to accept his need to improve. When I asked him why he thought he was so harsh toward others, he seemed stumped and genuinely troubled by how others had characterized him.

I’d heard from the company’s HR manager that this executive was especially cruel toward one colleague. Why had he singled out one person to treat in a uniquely nasty way? As we explored this, it became clear that something about the younger engineer triggered the executive’s anger and it eventually clicked: The young engineer reminded him of his older brother, with whom he had a contentious relationship. My client was raised in an excessively achievement-oriented family, that prized blunt candor over tact, and he was regularly sent the message that he was inferior. His brother had been the family’s golden child while he was never good enough. This direct report was a daily reminder of that pain. This back story in no way excused his behavior, but it did explain it. More importantly, it revealed a path forward toward changing it. But I had to set aside my biases and prejudgments to build the trust necessary to access these important insights.

Look past symptoms to contradictions. Determining what lies beneath seemingly destructive behavior requires looking beyond symptoms. My client’s colleagues had described him as mean and insensitive. His previous coaches had focused on various interpersonal techniques, like how to give constructive feedback, work with different personality styles, and delegate effectively. But they’d neglected to probe into the dynamic with that one engineer. To thoroughly diagnose a leader’s behavior, look for breaks in patterns. Are there people this person works especially well or poorly with? Specific circumstances in which they shine or falter? No one is the same all the time, so understanding where people deviate from predictable habits can isolate important clues. In my client’s case, his unique contempt toward one colleague was an important data point. Further, I learned later that his widely regarded technical expertise coupled with his family background made him feel anxiously responsible for the company’s technical reputation. His team members experienced this as micromanagement and dismissive of their expertise. If we’d focused on those symptoms, we wouldn’t have gotten very far. We needed to understand the root cause. It’s not uncommon to inaccurately diagnosis bad leadership behavior. One Arizona State University study found that toxic leadership pathologies are often confused with behaviors that might fall into a normal range of pathology. To avoid confusing common leadership shortfalls with serious pathologies, it’s critical to dig deeper behind symptoms.

Have a broad repertoire of solutions. For many in advisory roles, their diagnostic lens is narrowed to problems they are best equipped to solve. Every hammer looks like a nail, as the saying goes. For example, I’ve seen some consultants whose specialty was team building, so it was no surprise that their findings and recommendations were all around improving team trust. Leadership coaches use their favorite personality instruments to solve everything from poor financial performance to low morale. It’s important to be open-minded to solutions that fall outside your expertise. Ineffective leadership behavior can originate from deep-seated pathologies to problems with organizational culture. Having a repertoire of tools and approaches helps avoid the dangers of applying a one-size-fits-all solution to all situations. And don’t be afraid to refer people to others who have different expertise that may be able to better help your clients with particular issues. In the case of my client, I recommended he also see a therapist to work on his anxiety and unresolved family issues. He and I worked on more effective ways to engage, teach, and empower his team, and how to recognize when his triggers were getting in the way of doing so.

Consistent scholarly research suggests when it comes to empirically measuring the effectiveness of those advising leaders, we fall far short. Mislabeling behavior or a person as beyond help is one way we fail leaders. If you don’t look for contradictions, get to the root cause, and have a range of solutions, you could unwittingly limit someone’s growth or, even worse, derail their career. But if you do those things, with an open mind, you may be able to help save the job of a valuable leader who might otherwise have been let go, and in turn, provide great value to those you serve.


Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.


 

Set the Conditions for Anyone on Your Team to Be Creative

One of the most damaging myths about creativity is that there is a specific “creative personality” that some people have and others don’t. Yet in decades of creativity research, no such trait has ever been identified. The truth is that anybody can be creative, given the right opportunities and context.

If you don’t believe me, take the least creative person in your office out for lunch — someone who doesn’t seem to have a creative bone in their body. Chances are, you’ll find some secret passion, pursued outside of office hours, into which they pour their creative energies. They just aren’t applying those energies to their day jobs.

The secret to unlocking creativity is not to look for more creative people, but to unlock more creativity from the people who already work for you. The same body of creativity research that finds no distinct “creative personality” is incredibly consistent about what leads to creative work, and they are all things you can implement within your team. Here’s what you need to do:

Cultivate Expertise

One of the things that creativity researchers have consistently found for decades is that expertise is absolutely essential for producing top-notch creative work — and the expertise needs to be specific to a particular field or domain. So the first step to being creative is to become an expert in a particular area.

 

The reason expertise is so important is that you need to be an expert in a specific field to understand what the important problems are and what would constitute an important new solution. Einstein, for instance, studied physics intensely for years to understand the basic physical model for time and space before he understood that there was an inherent flaw in that model.

So how do you cultivate expertise? Performance expert Anders Ericsson has studied that problem for decades and found that the crucial element is deliberate practice. You need to identify the components of a skill, offer coaching, and encourage employees to work on weak areas. That goes far beyond the intermittent training that most organizations do.

For example, one skill that Amazon has identified as crucial to performance is writing. Employees need to constantly write six-page memos, even for introducing small product features throughout their careers at the company. They consistently receive coaching and feedback and need to write good memos in order to advance within the company.

Any company can replicate Amazon’s memo-writing policy. What’s not so easily replicated is the intense commitment to cultivating writing expertise that the company has prioritized for years.

Encourage Exploration

While deep expertise in a given field is absolutely essential for real creativity, it is not sufficient. Look at any great body of creative work and you’ll find a crucial insight that came from outside the original domain. It is often a seemingly random piece of insight that transforms ordinary work into something very different. For example, it was a random visit to a museum that inspired Picasso’s African period. Charles Darwin spent years studying fossils and thinking about evolution until he came across a 40 year-old economics essay by Thomas Malthus that led to his theory of natural selection. The philosophy of David Hume helped lead Einstein to special relativity.

 

More recently, a team of researchers analyzing 17.9 million scientific papers found that the most highly cited work is far more likely to come from a team of experts in one field working with a specialist in something very different. It is that combination of expertise, exploration, and collaboration that leads to truly breakthrough ideas.

That is how Google’s “20% time” policy is able to act as a human-powered search engine for new ideas. By allowing employees to work on projects unrelated to their formal job descriptions 20% of the time, people with varied experiences and expertise can combine their efforts in a way that would be extremely unlikely in a planned company initiative.

Empower Your People with Technology

In Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci, he recounts how the medieval master would study nature, from anatomy to geological formations, to guide his art. Now Leonardo was clearly a genius of historical proportions, but think about how much more efficient he would have been with a decent search engine.

One of the most overlooked aspects of innovation is how much technology can enhance productivity. Part of the reason is because it makes the two factors noted above, acquiring domain expertise and exploring adjacencies, so much easier. However, another reason is because it frees up time to allow for more experimentation.

You can see this at work at Pixar, which was originally a technology company that began shooting short films to demonstrate the capabilities of its original product, animation software. However, as they were experimenting with the technology, they also found themselves experimenting with storytelling, and those experiments led them to become one of the most highly acclaimed studios in history.

As Pixar founder Ed Catmull put it in his memoir, Creativity Inc., “Every one of our films, when we start off, they suck…Our job is to take it from something that sucks to something that doesn’t suck. That’s the hard part.” It is that kind of continual iteration that technology makes possible, and that makes truly great creative work possible.

Reward Persistence

Far too often, we think of creativity as an initial, brilliant spark followed by a straightforward period of execution, but as Catmull’s comment above shows, that’s not true in the least. In his book, he calls early ideas “ugly babies” and stresses the need to protect them from being judged too quickly. Yet most organizations do just the opposite. Any idea that doesn’t show immediate promise is typically killed quickly and without remorse.

One firm that has been able to buck this trend is IBM. Its research division routinely pursues seemingly outlandish ideas long before they are commercially viable. For example, a team at IBM successfully performed the first quantum teleportation in 1993, when the company was in dire financial straits, with absolutely no financial benefit.

However, the research wasn’t particularly expensive, and the company has continued to support the work for the last 25 years. Today, it is a leader in quantum computing — a market potentially worth billions — because it stuck with it. That’s why IBM, despite its ups and downs, remains a highly profitable company while so many of its former rivals are long gone.

Kevin Ashton, who first came up with the idea for RFID chips, wrote in his book, How to Fly a Horse, “Creation is a long journey, where most turns are wrong and most ends are dead. The most important thing creators do is work. The most important thing they don’t do is quit.”

Yet all too often, organizations do quit. They expect their “babies” to be beautiful from the start. They see creation as an event rather than a process, don’t invest in expertise or exploration, and refuse to tolerate wrong turns and dead ends. Is it any wonder that so few are able to produce anything truly new and different?


Greg Satell is an author, speaker, and advisor. His first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, was chosen as one of the best business books of 2017 by 800-CEO-READ. His new book, Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change, will be published by McGraw-Hill in April, 2019. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto.


 

How to Manage Morale When a Well-Liked Employee Leaves

It’s a dreadful moment when a well-liked member of your team tenders their resignation. You experience a cocktail of emotions ranging from fear about how the rest of the team will react, to frustration at having to add recruiting to your already hectic calendar.  The worst is the lingering feeling of being rejected. As with most difficult situations as a manager, how you handle the resignation will affect more than just you. How you respond will influence whether the person’s departure becomes a typical bump in the road or the inflection point to a downward trend for your team.

Before sharing the news with anyone, take some time to consider your response carefully. This allows you to grapple with your own reactions before you’re forced to manage those of your team members. If you move too quickly and try to communicate a positive message while harboring anxiety, frustration, or bitterness, those potent emotions will show through in your body language. When your words are positive but your body language telegraphs concern, your team will notice the incongruence and infer your intent from what you’re showing rather than what you’re saying.

Once you’ve reflected on your own reaction, you can work through a process that will minimize the damage of a well-liked team member resigning.

Start by helping everyone celebrate the person who is leaving. It’s understandable if you feel like downplaying the person’s departure, in hopes that no one will notice. It just isn’t likely to work. Losing a well-liked colleague will create concern and even grief for your team and invalidating that grief removes an important part of the process. Letting the person slip out the door unheralded will suggest that you don’t care. Don’t make the mistake of minimizing the moment.

Instead, be at the front of the “we’ll miss you” parade. Throw a party to wish the person well. Say a few words about some of the great things the person contributed to the team. Laugh about inside jokes and shared experiences because, as you do, you’ll not only make the person who’s leaving feel good about your team, you’ll strengthen the bond among the people who remain.

Recalling these stories will also put a smile on your face, which is much better than the look of terror that might be associated with your inner voice that’s saying, “What will we do without her?” or “What if others start to follow suit?” That face will only make your team more nervous when they’re looking to you for reassurance. Your words and body language should convey that it’s normal and natural for people to move on.

Once you’ve thrown the party the person deserves, ask them for a favor in return — their candor about what you need to learn from their departure. Even if your organization has a formal third-party exit interview process, conduct your own interview. Ask the person to be honest with you as part of the legacy they can leave in making you and the team better in the future. Prepare your questions carefully and get ready to take the lumps.

You’ll need to have good questions and follow-up prompts to get past the pat answers such as “I was offered higher compensation” and “It’s an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.” You need to identify what factors contributed to the person taking the call from the recruiter in the first place. You can make these questions less pointed by asking, “What advice would you give me to prevent another great person like you from taking a call from a recruiter?” “What do I need to know that people aren’t telling me?” “How could I improve the experience of working here?” By making the questions more generic and less personal, the departing employee might feel more inclined to share any uncomfortable truth.

You can also seek feedback about things beyond your control, such as, “What other messages does the company need to hear?” “What factors would contribute to a better experience here?” Throughout the discussion, your emphasis should be on asking great questions. Do as little talking as possible and instead, listen carefully and objectively.

After the exit interview, your head will be full of powerful, sometimes conflicting thoughts and feelings. Give yourself a night to sleep on it and then start the process of putting your insights into action. First, lean into the uncomfortable conversations. Whether one-on-one or in team meetings, dig into any themes that have merit. Share your hypotheses and ask people to clarify, refine, validate, or challenge how you’re thinking.

For example, you could say, “I’m coming to understand that the biggest problem is not the workload, but the lack of focus. What do you think? Is it true, false, or only half the picture?” This process of generating and testing hypotheses will not only help you make the most targeted changes, it will also help you strengthen the connection with your remaining team members.

As you listen to their responses, go beneath the facts and information they’re sharing with you and watch and listen for what they are feeling and what they value. Where does their language become stronger (e.g., “we always do this,” or “never do that”), suggesting that they are frustrated or angry. Where does it become weaker (e.g., “I guess we…, or “I think sometimes we might”), hinting that they might feel hesitant or powerless. What is their body language telling you? When you spot an emotional reaction, ask a few more questions to understand what’s beneath their feelings.

Through all of these conversations, try to discern whether one great person resigning was a single point or the start of a pattern. Be open about what you can do differently and advocate for the changes from other stakeholders that will make your team a better one to work on.

The insights you glean from conducting your own exit interview and testing your hypotheses will be valuable, but don’t lose sight of the most important ways that you contribute to the morale of your team — by positioning them to do meaningful work. Double down on the management essentials. Make sure everyone is clear on your expectations, especially on the highest (and lowest) priorities for the team. Have frank conversations to ensure people feel like they have the requisite skills and resources to do their jobs well. And pay more attention to the feedback, coaching, and celebrations that will motivate them and keep them engaged.

If there was a problem on your team you were unaware of (or trying to ignore) it might take losing a well-liked employee for you to recognize the severity of the issue. Work through your emotions and then start a virtuous cycle by celebrating the departing employee, seeking their candid feedback in an exit interview, forming and testing hypotheses about how to improve your workplace, and making meaningful changes that make your team feel heard and valued. Losing one team member might end up being a relatively low price to pay if it leads to better morale all around.


Liane Davey is the cofounder of 3COze Inc. She is the author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done and a coauthor of Leadership Solutions: The Pathway to Bridge the Leadership Gap. Follow her on Twitter at @LianeDavey.


 

How to Stop Delegating and Start Teaching

As a college professor, I regularly train PhD students. In psychology and most fields of science, students are assigned to a project early on in their studies and learn key skills through an apprenticeship model. Many go on to projects related to more specific research goals, and are eventually taught to design their own studies — a slow and painstaking process. Each step, from idea development and design to data analysis and reporting, requires a lot of supervision. It would generally be faster for lab directors to hire employees to carry out these studies instead, or to do all the heavy lifting themselves.

But, then, who would train the next generation of scientists?

Managers who have difficulty delegating tasks can learn from this process — particularly if your workload has become overwhelming, or you need someone to pick up the slack when you are out of town. The hardest part about delegating a task to someone else is trusting that they will do it well. And many managers are reluctant to turn over their responsibilities to someone who may not meet that expectation.

But there is a problem with this mindset. Managers need to stop thinking of passing off responsibilities as delegating — period. If you do, then you will only assign your employees high-level tasks when you don’t have time to do them. Until then, you will continue doing everything yourself. This is not an uncommon behavior. After all, you are probably better at doing your job than your direct reports, who have less experience in your role.

The problem with this style of delegation is that it sets your employees up for failure. A coach wouldn’t let an athlete go into a big game without practicing extensively beforehand. Managers should share this same mentality. When you assign someone a task for the first time — with no prior training — simply because you are unavailable to do it, their chances of succeeding are slim. You also run the risk of damaging team morale. Employees might get the impression that they are not capable of doing complex work if they are too overwhelmed by the task.

As a manager, a central part of your job is to train and develop people. This includes people who want to move into leadership roles, similar to yours, one day. When you take on the mindset of a trainer — instead of a manager delegating work — you will naturally look for ways to give a little more responsibility to the people who work for you. And those people who put in effort, and show an aptitude for the work, should be given more opportunities to try new, challenging tasks.

To start, try to gauge who on your team genuinely wants to move up in the organization, and identify their main areas of interest. Create a development plan for them and write down the skills they will need in order to reach their goals. Then, focus on giving them assignments that require those skills, as well as any tasks you think they are curious to explore. Often, people need a nudge to focus on their weaknesses — particularly ones that they are convinced fall out of their wheelhouse.

Structure the experience so that your employees are able to work their way up to a challenging task. Give them a series of practice sessions. The first time you introduce a task to someone, you might want them to experience it as a ride-along. Just let them shadow you while you explain some of the key points. Then, give them a piece to do on their own with your supervision. Only let them carry the full load when you sense that they are ready.

For example, you might want to teach someone how to run a weekly progress meeting while you are out. Start by training them when you are in the office. Have them watch you formulate the agenda and think through the issues that will be discussed. Then, the next time, let them create an agenda of their own, but critique it. Give them a chance to run part of the meeting with your supervision. That way, they are ready to run a full meeting on their own when the time comes. By doing this, you are both helping your team reach their career goals, and training them to take on some of your own responsibilities.

Taking on some of your direct reports as apprentices is an effort. It will take extra time out of your already busy week. You will have to check their work carefully at first to make sure that it is up to your standards. You will have to teach them not only how to do the tasks, but also, why the tasks are done that way. You will have to call on them to help fix any problems that arise from the work they’ve done, because practice is how they will learn. And your own productivity may slow down as a result of the time you spend mentoring others.

When you make this kind of training a regular part of your job, though, delegating tasks becomes easy. You will have created a team of trusted associates who can step in and help when you are overwhelmed or out of the office. And, as an added bonus, you have also groomed your successors. After all, as the old saying goes, if you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.


Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. He is the author of several books including Smart Thinking, Smart Change, and Habits of Leadership.


 

Why Leaders Need to Cultivate Complementary Strengths

Robert is a strong leader.

How do I know? When he left one company to join another, many in his top team followed him to the new company because they wanted to keep working for him. That’s a pretty strong testimonial.

“Yes, he pushes us hard,” one of his direct reports told me, “but I work harder and I deliver. I like that.”

But every leader — even strong ones — have their challenges. And while Robert (not his real name) inspires hard work and loyalty, he also inspires fear, especially in people who don’t know him well or are a few levels below him in the hierarchy. To be clear, Robert is not abusive. He simply has a high bar and is respectfully intolerant of mediocrity. But the impact is one of fear. More than once, a member of his team has come to me with great ideas that they have not shared with him.

Fear doesn’t bring out the best in people. It mutes their performance as they take fewer risks and make overly conservative, safe choices. It also befuddles them, sending them down a confidence-sapping negative spiral: They speak nervously, which makes them appear unsure, which creates doubt in their leaders, who question them more aggressively, which increases their nervousness, which befuddles them even more…and it’s all downhill from there.

On the one hand, this is not Robert’s problem — it’s the problem of the insecure employee. People need to build the confidence to engage with leaders who have an incisive mind and high expectations.

On the other hand, it is Robert’s problem. If he wants to get the most out of all his employees (and their teams), he needs to create a safe environment in which they can perform their best.

As an executive coach of high-performing leaders, I see this all the time. And here are two mistakes coaches often make when trying to help these leaders.

  1. The coach accepts the leader’s perspective that it’s not his problem, that it’s the problem of the people with too delicate a constitution. They shouldn’t quiver in their boots under a legitimate line of questioning. He may be right about them, but he’s not right that it’s not his problem. As a leader who wants to get the best out of his people, it’s always his problem.
  2. The coach tries to help the leader tone down his approach so that he’s not so scary. This is a bad idea. Why? First, most leaders are right that their questions are legitimate. Second, muting the leader is an exercise in frustration and is unsustainable. Third, even if that works, performance suffers anyway since the leader is no longer holding people to the high standard they ultimately need and want. In other words, the leader ends up replacing high performance with mediocrity. And for high-performing leaders (and their organizations), that’s unsustainable.

So what’s the solution?

Imagine you make a soup and it tastes too bitter. The soup is made; you can’t remove the bitter taste. But you can add some sugar to it that balances out the bitterness and makes the soup far more palatable. In other words, sometimes it’s not about changing or taking out an ingredient; it’s about adding one that’s missing.

Instead of reducing his incisiveness, Robert should increase his warmth.

He can acknowledge a person’s insights before asking his questions. Or he can thank them for bringing something to his awareness that was missing (which has the added benefit of showing his vulnerability). He can add a few words of support. He can simply connect with the person warmly and with a smile. He can give context to his questions so that everyone can learn about the way he thinks.

We all have attributes that simultaneously work for us and against us. The solution is not to subdue our strengths but to add ingredients that balance them out. In other words, build complementary skills.

If you have the opposite problem of Robert? If you hold people with care and comfort but tend not to push them? Don’t reduce your warmth — rather push yourself to ask a hard question, without losing your warmth.

Recently someone I work with was accused (by more than one person) of being too political. Her role required that she be adept at managing the politics of the most senior leaders of the organization, so dulling this trait would have been counterproductive.

“Your problem isn’t that you’re too political,” I suggested. “It’s that you’re not communicative enough with your colleagues at your level.” I coached her to continue to leverage her diplomatic skills, while including her team in her efforts instead of working around them.

As for Robert? “Don’t dilute your greatness,” I told him. “Let’s just build a container for it.”


Peter Bregman is a Master Certified Coach and CEO of Bregman Partners, where he leads a team of over 25 coaches, helping senior leaders and teams create positive behavioral change and work more effectively together to achieve the company’s most critical business results. Peter is the best-selling author of Leading with Emotional Courage and hosts the Bregman Leadership Podcast. To receive an email when he posts, click here.

If Your Innovation Effort Isn’t Working, Look at Who’s on the Team

An all-star team is making headway with a new initiative that could alter the future of the organization. Spirits are optimistic and the team is successfully maneuvering through new, yet very promising, territory. Then, the results begin taking longer than anticipated to prove, and after too much time spent outside of their comfort zones, the team of high-achieving employees can’t seem to execute within the uncertain environment.

The team’s outlook shifts and it becomes clear that the group will not be able to weather the storm of uncertainty needed to realize this new organizational opportunity.

How could such a capable team fail?

At the heart of many organizations is a deeper problem that blocks transformation: product/function organizational structure. This structure works in well-understood environments, where maximizing delivery of a product or service is the goal, but transformative projects require the organization to return to a more malleable state. This challenge requires teams that are formed through a re-matching of resources and employee capabilities.

Transformation-capable teams are made up of people who are not only high performers, but who hold a unique balance of skills and mindsets that allow them to sustain focus, agility, and optimism in the face of uncertainty for prolonged periods of time. Ultimately, not all top-performing employees are equipped for this.

In our book, Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, we highlight certain capabilities to search for and cultivate while building a transformative team. Specifically, there are three unique characteristics that will play critical roles as a team takes on a breakthrough initiative.

Negative capability: being comfortable with uncertainty

The term “negative capability” was coined by the poet John Keats while describing writers like Shakespeare who were able to work within uncertainty and doubt. Keats was describing the ability to accept not having an immediate answer and to remain willing to explore how something may evolve before there is a clear outcome.

In the modern context, negative capability can be thought of as the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, even to entertain it, rather than to become so anxious by its presence that you have to prematurely race to a more certain, yet suboptimal, conclusion. Whereas many people cannot stand the fuzziness of uncertainty, those who demonstrate negative capabilities can facilitate the exploration of new terrain and the discovery of an adjacent possible opportunity.

Individuals with negative capability remain curious and focused even when your project is far from the end goal. Chances are, they will even find this point of the project enthralling, rather than overwhelming, which is exactly what you want. They will also be able to suspend judgement about an end result and stay open to many possible outcomes, rather than become fixed early on to one version of success.

Chaos pilots: leading and executing in unfamiliar territory  

In 1991, Danish politician and social worker Uffe Elbæk took out a $100,000 personal loan to open an unusual business school called Kaospilot. The vision of the business school was inspired by a previous project of Elbæk’s, where he observed a new skill set in students for navigating uncertain problems and saw the opportunity to teach these skills to business leaders who needed to do the same. Chaos pilot is a perfect label for a specific persona needed on a transformative team.

Chaos pilots are people who can creatively lead a project through uncertainty. They have negative capability, but they also have other critical skills, such as the ability to create structure within chaos and take action. Leaders who are chaos pilots are able to drive a team forward on a project even as the environment around them fluctuates.

Although it may sound glamorous to be such a person, being a chaos pilot is hard — they are the colleagues working on ambiguous projects and frequently getting beat up in the process. People who aren’t capable of being chaos pilots quickly flounder when the environment around the project gets shaky.

Chaos pilots often care more about creating meaningful change than about climbing a corporate ladder or getting another star on their charts. Finding chaos pilots to join you can be challenging and requires observation and experimentation, though there are a few fertile places to look for good candidates.

For example, look for people who are getting mixed performance reviews, but who are still highly prized by the organization. Often, these people are getting mixed reviews because they make those around them uncomfortable — because the potential candidates often challenge the status quo — but they continue to succeed, because they perform so well.

Divergent thinking, convergent action, and influential communication

Finally, there are three neuropsychological traits to seek while building a transformative team. These three traits — divergent thinking, convergent action, and influential communication — all play a crucial role to succeeding in innovation and transformation. While many individuals hold one or two of these skills, finding a person with all three is more challenging, yet optimal.

The first of the three, divergent thinking, is the ability to uniquely connect new information, ideas, and concepts that are usually held far apart. People with this skill can match dissimilar concepts in novel and meaningful ways and uncover new opportunities that others may overlooked.

Convergent action, the second trait, is the ability to execute on these new ideas in order to create something tangible. Though many people can come up with great ideas, it is often those with convergent action who will move that new concept from idea to product. Last, having the ability to communicate ideas in a coherent, compelling, and influential way is paramount. This trait will inspire other leaders and decision-makers to believe, support, and act on a novel idea or opportunity.

Similar to how many transformative business opportunities are found in unlikely places, the same is true about where you may find the best-suited team members to drive forward a promising new initiative.

Each organizational project represents a moment of potential transformation, and each successful project helps an organization self-correct away from becoming a calloused machine executing on routine, and instead become what they need to survive: a malleable organization capable of capturing new opportunities.


Nathan Furr is an assistant professor of strategy at INSEAD and a coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).


Kyle Nel is the CEO and cofounder of Uncommon Partners, a behavioral transformation consultancy, the former executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, and a coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).


Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy is the founder and CEO of Neurons Inc. He is a coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future (HBR Press, 2018).

 

How Busy Working Parents Can Make Time for Mindfulness

It seems everywhere you look these days someone is touting the benefits of mindfulness — a practice that Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, describes simply as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Research shows that people who practice mindfulness are less stressed, more focused and better able to regulate their emotions.

But, if you’re a busy working parent, how do you build mindfulness into an already-packed day? Those of us with kids and jobs often feel tired and rushed. We’re constantly multi-tasking, juggling personal and professional responsibilities, and feeling stressed about all we can’t get done. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, 56 percent of working parents say they find it difficult to balance their time between work and family. Though I now counsel others on how to break this cycle, I can certainly relate to it.

Years ago, I worked as Twitter’s head of learning and development when the company was growing 350% year after year. It was like being on a rocket ship, and I loved the work. But I found myself struggling to stay connected to my family. I can remember the afternoon my son’s school called to make me aware that no one had come to pick him up. He was in first grade at the time, and I burst into tears.

Although I was already committed to a mindfulness practice (I would sometimes sneak away to the meditation and yoga room we had in the office), I was still having trouble figuring out a way to weave presence and awareness into my day. Here’s the solution that I came up with and now recommend to others:

Start by spending a few minutes writing down what you do each day. It might look something like this: wake, coffee, family breakfast, pack lunches, prep for school day, walk dog, shower for work, drive car, train ride, walk to office, work all day, walk to train, car ride home, dinner, bath time, family reading or games, bedtime.

Now consider where mindfulness practice can fit in. For example:

Coffee: Make sure to pause before the first sip. Smell the aroma, feel the heat of the mug on your hand, and take three intentional breaths. Now enjoy.

Train ride: Once you’re settled into your seat, set a timer for five to ten minutes and practice mediation. Sit in silence and focus on your breathing or use a mindfulness app on your phone to listen to a guided meditation. Your eyes can be open or closed depending on the situation and what feels safe or comfortable.

Work: Each time you sit down to your computer, take a pause. Close your eyes, notice the sensation of your feet on the floor, your body in your chair, feel your breath come in and out of your body. Continue with your day.

Dinner: As you are preparing the meal, spend a moment reflecting on where the food came from. Imagine who planted it, picked it, or drove it to the store where you purchased it. On occasions when your entire family is sitting around the table at the same time, take a moment to feel grateful.

Bedtime: Decide on a ritual that cultivates mindful awareness. For younger children, consider having them put a stuffed animal on their belly as each of you count how many times the animal rides up and down with their breath. If your children are older try a head, heart, gut check-in at bedtime. Is the mind busy or calm in this moment? Are any emotions present or lingering from the day? Is there anything that needs to be shared or said that has not been already?

Does mindfulness seem a little more doable now? Research indicates that it takes just eight weeks of relatively regular practice to make positive changes to the brain. But if we wait until we have enough “bandwidth” to devote big blocks of time to it, we may never start. For working parents, my advice is to instead insert just a few small moments of mindfulness into your day, even — and especially — when life seems too busy, hectic and out of control.

Michelle Gale is a mindful parenting educator and a former head of learning and leadership development for Twitter. She is the author of the new book Mindful Parenting in a Messy World (Motivational Press, 2017.

 

What to Do When You Realize You Made a Bad Hire

Sometimes it happens that a candidate who had the right credentials, seemed to fly through the interview process, and had lovely references turns out to be an unexpected problem after hiring. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, consider yourself lucky, because only 19% of new hires are considered fully successful, according to a frequently cited study, and by the 18-month point 46% are deemed failures.

If you’ve been in this situation, you’ve had to face the dilemma of whether it’s worse to be stuck with an employee who can’t handle the work and is damaging to the team, or to go public with the admission that you’ve made a significant mistake. Usually in these situations it’s less costly to make a change, and the sooner you make it, the better. Although coping with the impact of a bad hire will never be easy, following these steps will help you recover and move on with the least possible damage to all parties.

Prepare for a direct, and probably uncomfortable, conversation with the new hire.Rather than hoping for the best, or trying to deter a confrontation, leveling with the new hire about your dissatisfaction and their performance issues can open the way to joint problem solving. By sharing your concerns and asking for their input, you may be able to discover workable alternatives, or at least understand how bad the situation truly is. You can start off with something like, “James, I want to talk about the last few weeks, and where we seem to be on track and where we need to make some adjustments.” Keep in mind that the new employee may recognize the same problems that you do and be grateful for the opportunity to clear the air and work on a solution together.

Try to repair the situation with focused feedback or reassignment. One of my clients hired a relatively junior staffer for his moxie, energy, and drive. Within just a few weeks, though, the new employee started broadcasting his concerns that the job was not as exciting or rewarding as he had expected, and he started making careless mistakes and goofing around with other employees. His manager gave him careful feedback on his behavior and asked lots of questions about why the job felt unsatisfying. Luckily, thanks to projected business growth and flexible organizational parameters, the manager was able to shift the new hire to another department and a more challenging job that suited his ambitions better. We developed an intensive training program to equip him for the new role and ensure a smooth transition.

This doesn’t always work. At one client company, a new vice president who came from a different industry made numerous commitments to apply the feedback she was receiving, but she didn’t understand the business model and seemed either unable or unwilling to adapt her technical skills, so she was incapable of implementing the feedback accurately. Watch out for the escalation of commitment — many of us resist “giving up” on a tough situation. But if you’re giving the person lots of feedback, and you don’t see both significant personal effort almost immediately and actual improvements over the next three to six months, at some point you need to prepare to cut your losses.

Identify both the current and the future expense of keeping the bad hire. In some situations, the negative impact on other team members or the business makes it impractical to look for other internal opportunities or to invest in ongoing development. In one case, a senior executive who had previously worked for a very large public company joined my client, a midsize family-owned company, with such unrealistic expectations about resources and autonomous decision making that he cost the business dearly. Giving him feedback didn’t work, and moving him to another role wouldn’t have solved the problem.

In situations like these, the costs usually include reduced productivity or increased opportunity costs, employee disengagement and possible turnover, and increased interdepartmental conflict. Some clear indicators are missed deadlines or a decline in work quality. A less obvious sign is extra pre- and post-meeting meetings — often an attempt by colleagues to compensate for or work around an underperformer’s struggles. Compare those impacts with the cost of replacement and onboarding for a new candidate.

Often you won’t recognize how much negative impact the bad hire has until you remove them, as happened at one of my clients where they tweaked the organization multiple times over several years, trying to find a place for an executive who had made a good initial impression but did not have the necessary knowledge or skills, and who therefore bottlenecked work, suppressed innovation, and created dissension among colleagues and subordinates. It wasn’t until she was removed that others stepped up to build bridges and enthusiastically tackle languishing initiatives and propose new creative solutions.

Make the case for an exception to the typical exit plan. If the relationship can’t be salvaged, look for every opportunity to make the transition and departure as smooth and graceful as possible. Start by considering whether you can negotiate a mutually beneficial plan. An honest conversation can give the unsuccessful hire more sense of personal control and also give you the leeway to work publicly to support the team’s activities and find a replacement. Particularly if the employee has previously expressed discomfort, you could open with something along the lines of, “I appreciate your telling me how concerned you are, and the current situation is having a negative impact on the team, too, so I wonder if we can work this out in a way that benefits everyone.” Check with your HR department before you do this.

Otherwise, if it has to be a surprise to the employee, be direct and to the point: “As we’ve discussed several times, someone in your role needs to be able to accomplish these tasks and goals successfully, and you haven’t been able to do that. So unfortunately, we’re going to have to terminate your employment as of such-and-such date. Here’s how we’re going to manage the exit.”

Offering severance and outplacement services will demonstrate to both the unsuccessful employee and their colleagues that you’re acting in good faith. While it’s true that most companies only provide severance payments or outplacement services in situations where an employee has provided long and faithful service, when organizations take responsibility for the mistake of a bad hire, it helps everyone move on more quickly. The exception to this would be if the employee misrepresented their skills or has ethical or behavioral problems.

It’s painful for all parties when you make the wrong hire, so learn what you canabout what went wrong to avoid repeating the situation, particularly because it will be crucial that the replacement works out well. If you move deliberately but quickly to handle the problem, the new hire is more likely to still have some job opportunities in the pipeline, or to be able to return to their last position, and will be grateful for the chance to salvage their career — and it’s more likely that you’ll still have a batch of candidates to consider.


Liz Kislik helps organizations from the Fortune 500 to national nonprofits and family-run businesses solve their thorniest problems. She has taught at NYU and Hofstra University, and recently spoke at TEDxBaylorSchool. You can receive her free guide, How to Resolve Interpersonal Conflicts in the Workplace, on her website.


 

The 4 Types of Coaches Every Leader Needs

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” This quote from legendary college basketball coach John Wooden is one of the best ways I’ve found to describe the importance of coaching in the workplace.

The reason is that we’ve entered a new era of business in which the rapid pace of change requires people at all levels of the organization to constantly learn new skills, change their perspectives, and push themselves to higher levels of performance. That’s where coaching comes in: Coaching is about providing timely feedback to help someone strengthen their skills, knowledge, or behavior to better accomplish a short-term goal.

The word “short-term” is an important aspect to remember. Coaching is all about helping someone perform better right now. While coaching might happen repeatedly over the life of a project, it could also occur in the space of just one conversation.

While coaching has long been a critical part of how leaders interact with their direct reports, many organizations are seeing significant advantages from making coaching a part of their culture. Among other benefits, these organizations are more likely to have a strong leadership bench, experience lower leader turnover, and have more satisfied and engaged leaders.

While the benefits of a coaching culture are significant, it can be very challenging to build. One of the big issues is that many people have a misconception that coaching can only happen in one direction, with people at higher levels of the organization coaching people who have lower-level titles. But a coaching culture depends on breaking down those barriers, and enabling everyone in the organization to become a coach.

One of the key ways to overcome this barrier is for leaders to become comfortable not only with giving coaching, but receiving it. As leaders become more comfortable about asking for and receiving coaching from varied sources, coaching begins to become more ingrained in the organization’s culture. Specifically, leaders should seek out four different types of coaching, each of which plays a distinct role:

Leader coaches provide guidance

When a leader is getting coaching from a boss or another higher-level leader, the coach should ideally be serving as a guide for the leader. The coach should be focused on providing both proactive and reactive coaching that will help the leader succeed.

Proactive coaching is focused on helping set the leader up for success. It might take the form of offering insights or resources to help the leader complete a project similar to one that the higher-level leader has tackled in the past. On the flip side, reactive coaching is about helping the leader solve problems, such as helping remove barriers standing in the way of success or changing tactics to better approach the issue.

One trap for leaders as coaches, however, is that they may find themselves managing more often than coaching. While coaching is about helping guide people to solve problems, managing is telling people what to do. Managing involves setting goals, giving direction, communicating expectations, and making decisions. When coaching from a boss or other higher-level leader starts to become more like managing, leaders often get frustrated, and may feel micromanaged. While managing is a necessary part of leadership, it should occur much less frequently than coaching.

Peer coaches offer candid partnership

While bosses and higher-level leaders serve as important and valuable coaches, many people struggle to let their guard down among those who have higher-level titles in the organization. Even in high-trust relationships with their leaders, direct reports may feel that they still must present their best sides to ensure they don’t risk sharing issues that may affect their performance reviews, raises, career prospects, or job status.

Peer coaches can help to fill this gap. Peer coaching pairs together same-level leaders for mutual benefit. Without the burden of a title or rank dynamics, peers can provide candid feedback that’s focused on achieving the best possible outcome

Peer coaching can also help break down silos and improve collaboration across the organization. In addition, it can help people to feel more accountability for their work, knowing how much their peers are counting on them.

Direct reports can coach on their areas of expertise

While many leaders can see the benefits of coaching from their boss or peers, they often struggle with getting coaching from those who report to them. In the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, we learned that leaders are getting very little coaching from their direct reports—and that’s fine with them! Many leaders may be concerned that getting coaching from their direct reports may make them appear weak or lacking in knowledge.

However, direct reports often have specialized knowledge that can be extremely valuable to their leaders. As leaders are promoted, they lose touch with the day-to-day issues and experience, especially as rapidly changing technologies transform the workplace. Thus, direct reports often have much deeper knowledge of their subject matter, on-the-job pain points, and ideas for solutions than their leaders.

Coaching from direct reports is one of the most critical aspects of building a coaching culture. When team members get to share their expertise and input with their manager, they are much more likely to feel like a valued and trusted member of the team, which improves their engagement and commitment to their jobs.

External coaches provide objectivity

While developing a strong coaching culture within your organization is ideal, leaders say they desire coaching from external coaches more than nearly any other kind of development. External coaches can play a deeply valuable role in providing outside perspective and expertise to leaders. With an external coach, leaders can feel free to voice concerns without fear of damaging relationships with their colleagues and can gain perspective about how leaders in other organizations may have dealt with similar situations. They can also be objective to the situation without concern for organizational politics.

Unfortunately, leaders are rarely getting these opportunities for external coaching. Many organizations reserve external coaching only for leaders at the executive level, which can leave mid-level and frontline leaders struggling to gain outside perspective. The good news is that advances in technology are making it easier for these leaders to access coaching, such as by easily scheduling virtual sessions.

When leaders seek coaching from a wider variety of people, they not only maximize their own performance, but engage others in their success. As people begin to feel more comfortable giving and receiving coaching, it will begin to become a way of (work) life, transforming your organization not only into a coaching culture, but a high-performance culture.

 

Written by Ryan Heinl

Ryan Heinl is director of Product Management and leader of the Impact Lab at DDI, where he brings innovative leadership solutions to life. He is an entrepreneur, writer, chef, Crossfitter, mindfulness junkie and occasional yogi who travels the world in search of the perfect moment (and secretly hopes he won’t find it).