business communication Tag Archive

By |

When Does Empowerment Become Entitlement?

Do you sometimes feel that some of your employees exhibit a sense of entitlement? Have you questioned whether it’s you or them? Did you do something to cause it, or are they just inherently that way? Or do you just chalk it up to the nature of the current generation? All of these generalizations might be missing the point – I’d like to posit that it might be your fault!

Let’s start with a simple analogy. Imagine a sausage factory with two kinds of jobs – sausage-stuffing jobs and sausage-counting jobs. Sausage stuffers come to work every day and are told to stuff sausages working on this machine or the other for eight hours. They take breaks when they are allowed to and stop for lunch during their lunch hour. At the end of the day, they go home and don’t think about stuffing sausages. When they take their allotted vacation time, they expect that somebody else would’ve stuffed those sausages when they were gone. They really don’t care who was stuffing them. It isn’t their job. They expect to come back and stuff new sausages for the new week.In contrast, sausage counters have to count the sausages, make sure they are making enough to meet the demand, ensure that the stuffers are stuffing enough sausage to meet the specifications (but not too much to drive down the margins), and the like. Sometimes they have no time for lunch, and sometimes they have plenty of time to discuss the previous night’s ballgame. When they go home at night, they take their job home with them, worrying whether they had ordered enough casings for next week’s sausages, whether they have too much capacity for the slowing demand and what they should do about it, etc. When sausage counters return from a vacation, all of their sausages are piled on the floor to be counted. Nobody counted them when they were gone. They have to count the previous week’s sausages and the current week’s sausages. I suspect you get the point.

Most companies have both sausage-stuffing jobs and sausage-counting jobs. However, identifying which is which might not be as simple as it may appear. A common misconception is to equate this distinction with workers and management. For example, a software developer, who is considered a worker-bee at a digital design shop, might still take her work home and be brooding over a menacing software bug all night long. Conversely, a shift supervisor at a construction site might leave his work at the construction site when he goes home. Additionally, two individuals with the same job description might treat their job differently: one as a sausage stuffer and the other as a sausage counter.What does sausage stuffing and counting have to do with entitlement? A lot. Sausage stuffers are committed to doing a very good job of stuffing sausages. They don’t want more responsibility. Sausage stuffers expect that for a job well done, they will receive their negotiated slate of compensation, including their pay, benefit plans, vacation and sick time, etc. If they are due five sick days in a year, and by the end of the year they have not utilized all five, a sausage stuffer is likely to find a way to use the remaining sick days they’re entitled to. After all, they do a good job for the employer and they expect to receive the entire slate of compensation they were promised. You might view that as entitlement, but the sausage stuffer views it as their implicit contract.

Sausage counters view their jobs differently. They’re committed to the success of the business and are willing to do whatever it takes, whenever it needs to be done. They look for increased opportunities to contribute and view their compensation beyond that of monetary and benefit plans. For them, part of the compensation is the challenge in the job, growth of themselves and their career, and the freedom to operate independently rather than be supervised. Sausage counters value the freedom of independence and associated empowerment. They also recognize that with it comes an obligation: the success of the company.To illustrate this, imagine one of the machines in the sausage stuffing plant is leaking sausages. The conscientious sausage stuffer working at that machine might yell out to his supervisor, “Hey, Counting Boss, this machine is leaking sausage grind. You need to do something about this.” After simply reporting his observation, the sausage stuffer feels that he has completely discharged his responsibility. In contrast, the Counting Boss is up all night thinking about whether the machine can be fixed, or if she needs to buy a new machine, how much the new machine would cost, whether there is room in the company’s capital budget for the new machine, and so on. Does the sausage stuffer want to deal with the headache? Absolutely not. Does the sausage counter like the challenge and independence of being able to make that decision? Absolutely.The ownership of the company might want to empower and provide greater autonomy to their sausage counters in terms of how they manage their time, when they take breaks and if they can go to their child’s afternoon soccer game. But, afraid to label people as either sausage stuffers or sausage counters, they might provide that autonomy to their entire staff. Lo and behold: for the sausage stuffer, this is now part of the overall slate of compensation – their ability to manage their own time. A few months later, ownership looks at the behavior of their sausage stuffers and complains that they seem to feel entitled. Of course they are entitled: the owners enabled them.

So how do you solve this distinction? In the old days, manufacturing companies had a clear demarcation – hourly employees and salaried employees. In fact, the U.S. government then defined the concept of non-exempt and exempt employees (other governments have similar concepts). This worked well as long as we had sausage factories where the stuffing jobs were distinctly different from the counting jobs. But with the decrease in manufacturing companies and the increase in automation, most of the employees in your companies are now either service workers or knowledge workers. In other words, they are either serving a customer or using their thinking to create value. Both types of jobs appear to be sausage counting jobs. But are they really? Even if they are, do the individuals behave as sausage counters?

Interestingly, most new-economy companies have taken the position that all jobs are sausage-counting jobs and expect their employees to operate with the associated level of autonomy and obligation.

Now look at it from the employee’s point of view. If you gave them a choice, what do you think they would want to be? Of course, you would have to explain the limited responsibility and authority that comes being a sausage stuffer and the broader privileges and obligations that are associated with a sausage counter. What would likely happen is that everybody would want the privileges of a sausage counter, yet not everybody would sign up for its obligations.

Here is an illustrative example. At Think Shift, we have a simple vacation policy: “Vacation is good, take some. End of policy.” Is this a privilege or an obligation? It’s both. Yes, the employees get to decide when and how much vacation they take. However, their job remains their responsibility even when they are away. So before they go on vacation, every employee makes sure that all of their tasks are either completed ahead of time, or negotiated with a colleague to complete while they are gone. Even after that, do you think they have full peace of mind that they had covered all the bases? No. During their vacation, they worry that they might have missed something. Every employee checks their email when they are on vacation. Management doesn’t ask them to do so. The employees feel a sense of obligation to do so. Is our vacation policy a privilege or an obligation? It’s both. We find that this policy works well as long as all employees view themselves as sausage counters – with the attendant authority and obligations. But if you administer such a vacation policy to a group of employees, some of whom behave like sausage stuffers and others as sausage counters, it might be ill-advised.

At the end of the day, your desire to give people authority and to empower them requires that they rise up and accept certain obligations. Have you communicated those obligations? Have you empowered the right kind of people? Or are you unwilling to distinguish between sausage stuffers and sausage counters, and have thus empowered a few who will never rise up to fulfill their responsibilities? Has empowerment led to entitlement?
__________

We welcome your comments on our Food for Thought mailings and encourage you to explore the Food for Thought archive. We hope your business is doing well. We’re happy to chat about the content in this article or anything else with which you’d like assistance.

Read more »

By |

This Tango Takes Three!

This tango takes 3!

This month’s article is an attempt to change the conversation with a non-performing employee from one of blame to one of collective responsibility. We are happy to point out that, in keeping with the provocative nature of these articles, there is probably plenty here with which you might take issue. We welcome your critical review.

We start with our definition of Stewardship, as offered by our friend Glenn Mangurian: the responsibility to protect, preserve and enhance assets that do not belong to you but have been temporarily entrusted to you.

As an employer and a manager, you have been entrusted with the human capital asset of your employees. You have a responsibility to protect, preserve and enhance that asset. You must leave behind a richer set of assets at the end of the year than what you inherited at the beginning of the year. We discussed this in recent articles on performance reviews (Employee Performance is not just about Results and Put an End to the Annual Performance Review).

In this article, we discuss the implications of this stewardship responsibility. When you hire an employee, you are making a commitment that you will grow this employee to be a richer person each year – not just financially richer, but richer in their craft, in their profession and as a human being. You, as an employer, are accepting this obligation, knowing everything you know about this employee you just hired. So, in a job interview with this potential employee, not only should you ask if the individual can perform the duties of that job, you must also ask if you have the skills to enrich the individual, if your company has the capacity to enrich the individual, and if the individual has the potential and willingness to be enriched. It takes the combined efforts of the employee, the manager and the company for the individual to be enriched. In other words, it takes three to tango.

Does every employee have to grow each year? What is wrong with Joe, the welder in the machine shop who just wants to be a welder? Joe is a darn good welder. That is what he wants to be, he doesn’t want to do anything else, and I want to keep him. Joe is happy. He gets a good paycheck. He has a good life. Joe has been with me for a decade and I want to keep him for a couple more until he retires. What is the problem with that approach? Why shouldn’t I just let Joe be?

Well, there are actually two problems: The first is an economics issue and the second is a philosophical issue. Your company is expected to grow and improve each year. Not only is your revenue expected to grow, but you are expected to generate at least as much profit per dollar of revenue in spite of your expenses growing with inflation. How do you do that? By doing what you used to do even better and more of it. This economic reality requires each individual in your company to do more and do it better each year. So, you can’t just let Joe be. Joe has to become a better welder each year, weld more per unit of time, weld it for a lower cost, etc. But, wait a minute. Is it possible to do that forever? Don’t you reach a point where Joe is performing at maximum capacity and it cannot be done any better? When you and your employees peak, your company peaks as well.

The second problem is philosophical. An attitude of “let Joe be” instills a level of complacency that will permeate the entire organization. If you let Joe be content with doing what he did last year, you have to let the entire company be content with what they did last year. Will that be acceptable to you? Your organization’s excellent performance this year must become the benchmark of mediocrity for tomorrow. So, as a company philosophy you must require each employee to grow each year.

Now for a bit of reconciliation. Growing each year does not mean that Joe has to become a supervisor. Each employee has to constantly grow in his or her craft and profession. Even better, each employee should constantly expand their skills, knowledge and interest into related disciplines – neighboring disciplines to their craft and profession, neighboring disciplines of interest to the employee, and neighboring disciplines of relevance to the company. This growth responsibility falls on all three parties: the employee, the manager and the company. Although, in this day and age, no company guarantees lifetime employment, collectively, the three parties should guarantee lifetime employability.

How well do most companies fare on this score? Most companies will philosophically accept this position at the point of hiring an employee, but they quickly back pedal within a few years. Let’s point out four typical scenarios that companies and employees face.

First, a non-controversial and positive scenario is the performing employee with a growth trajectory. This is the case of an individual that performs exceedingly well. The individual grows in their job, takes on new and expanding assignments, assumes greater responsibilities and is generally successful. The employee, the manager and the company all discharge their stewardship responsibility. Well, that was the easy scenario where the dance and the music make for a beautiful tango.

The second scenario, still positive but uncomfortably so, is the performing employee for whom the company cannot offer the needed growth opportunity. This employee performs very well. He or she grows in their job. The individual is critical to the company. The boss depends on this individual. After a few years, the employee needs new assignments or additional responsibilities in order to grow. But, in your small company, there are limited growth opportunities. You just don’t have that next position for this employee. They are ready for it, but you are not. What should you do? What is your stewardship responsibility? The company has a responsibility to act selflessly and work with such individuals to position them for their next career growth opportunity, which will likely happen elsewhere (see Small Companies Must Turnover Good People). The employee, the manager and the company are usually hesitant to face this situation. And, in that hesitancy, all three fail to be a steward. In this tango, the music stops but the dancing continues without the gusto.

The third scenario represents the performing employee whose personal growth does not keep up with the market and environmental growth. This is where many companies get stuck with a “used-to-be-performing” employee who hasn’t kept up with the fact that you don’t use a calculator anymore but have to make an Excel spreadsheet. As in the case of Joe, the welder, this is an employee whose consistent excellent performance many years ago has slowly but surely become below mediocre by today’s standards. Who is at fault? All three: the employee, the manager and the company have been complicit in allowing the employee not to grow. In this tango the manager and the company have moved on to the new song but the employee is still dancing to the old song.

Finally, the fourth scenario involves a non-performing employee. The company and the manager often ignore the non-performance as an act of kindness when, in fact, it is gross negligence of their stewardship responsibility. When you hired that individual, you accepted a stewardship obligation to grow that individual. You have two options: either to discharge that stewardship responsibility or absolve yourself of that obligation. You do not have the choice to ignore it. If you approach the conversation with the attitude, “I (the manager) am unable to find ways, and create an environment in which, you can grow as an individual,” then the conversation becomes less about blame or judgment and more about stewardship. Both the music and the dancing stops in this tango.

You, as a manager, have an obligation called stewardship and a privilege called management authority. The former requires you to care for your assets. The latter allows you to acquire and dispose of your assets. The more diligently you discharge your stewardship responsibility, the more impenitently you can exercise your management authority. But, remember, this tango takes three.

Read more »

By |

The Price of a Collegial Atmosphere

collegial-atmosphere

In the U.S. we do not discuss politics at work. And if somebody expresses an opinionated position, we simply smile, nod and move on to the next topic. Why? Because politics polarizes people and we want to maintain a collegial atmosphere at work. I grew up in India and I have spent a fair amount of time in Europe and Asia. Political discussions are not considered to be as polarizing in those regions of the world; they are viewed simply as a healthy debate.

Does a collegial atmosphere require lack of disagreement?

In a collegial atmosphere, can people disagree, express their opinions with passion and conviction, and close the conversation agreeing to disagree? We tend to believe that discussions must end in agreement or some sort of resolution. This tendency results in inauthentic conclusions to discussions.

Diffuse speakers relax their convictions and specific speakers dig in their heels for an argument. (Read article: Are You Specific or Diffuse?) Do all disagreements have to be resolved one way or the other? Can people maintain healthy relationships knowing full well that they disagree on certain important matters?

Healthy relationships are not measured by the number of hugs, but rather by the number of fights that end in hugs.

It is the ending in hugs that is important, not the lack of fights. Healthy relationships should foster healthy debates. Lack of debates might well be an indicator to the relationship not being healthy.

In creating an intentional corporate culture, you might strive to create a collegial atmosphere. The shadow side of this strength is fear of conflict – where people are reluctant to express their opinion because it is not aligned with the opinion being otherwise aired.

Fear of conflict leads to the loud and obnoxious shouting out the quiet and thoughtful. It leads to the multitude of subordinate opinions deferring to the single opinion of the superior. It leads to the new and different ideas being overwhelmed by the status quo of tried and true practices. In a culture of collegial atmosphere, it is important that you empower, encourage and enable people to face conflict and have healthy debates.

How do you teach people to have a healthy debate?

We offer three common causes for debates to turn ugly, and from it, three ways you can turn debates healthy.

The first cause is Aristotle’s principle of the excluded middle. The belief that there is a right and wrong. Something is good or bad. It is either true or false. Either you are on my side or you are with the enemy. This polarization of thought causes debates to become personal. What is the solution? Try throwing in expressions like, “I believe…” The more you use the term “I believe,” the easier it is for the other person to receive your opinion. So, do you turn everything into a belief?

That naturally leads us to the next reason debates turn ugly – facts versus interpretations.

In a wonderful book called The Communications Catalyst, my good friends and colleagues Mickey Connelly and Richard Rianoshek explain how people co-mingle facts and interpretations. By separating facts (that can be observed and measured) from interpretations (that are your way of looking at the facts and drawing conclusions from them), they argue that you can have more “accurate” and more “authentic” conversations. Instead people pursue “sincere” conversations where, by co-mingling facts and interpretations, they pursue “their truth,” convinced that it is the truth. So separate facts and interpretations and preface your statements with those labels.

Finally, ignoring the old adage, people fail to seek to understand before they seek to be understood. In our opinion, the most important aspect of a healthy debate is the ability to understand and advocate the other person’s point of view. (See our January 2013 Food for Thought, Coaching through Advocacy.) Showing that you can argue the other point of view demonstrates mutual respect for the individual(s), concedes the existence of multiple points of views, acknowledges an appreciation of the strengths of the other side, and in the process, expresses a recognition that the parties at play are not good or bad, right or wrong, based on which position they hold. It leads to hugs at the end of fights.

Following the practice started last month, we will be holding a telecon on this topic.

On February 20, we will hold a complimentary webinar at 8 a.m. (PST) where we will discuss this article and the fear of conflict shadow side of a collegial, friendly work environment. We encourage you to sign up and attend; please visit our event registration page here for more details.

We welcome your comments and encourage you to explore the Food for Thought archive. We hope your business is doing well. We’re happy to chat about the content in this article or anything else with which you’d like assistance.

Read more »

By |

Walking with Socrates

walking-with-socrates

“We need to improve our communication” — it’s a refrain we hear often in our line of work. Sound familiar? Does your company/department/team have this “communication thing” licked? Probably not.

Of course, “improving communication” is a pretty diffuse phrase. It encompasses everything from “please use the ‘reply all’ function in Outlook judiciously” to “have the courage to hold difficult conversations with your boss” and everything in between. I’d like to narrow the focus here to a very simple process that will greatly improve your ability to hold conversations of value. It’s straightforward (but not easy) and applicable across many kinds of conversations. It’s called the Socratic Walk.

A little background: The Socratic Walk is a play on the Socratic Method, an application of critical thinking named after everyone’s favorite Greek Philosopher, Socrates. One of the most influential of the ancient philosophers, Socrates comes to us through the writings of Plato and specifically The Dialogues, a series of stories in which Socrates questions his interlocutor (fancy name for a conversational partner) and, in so doing, helps clarify the issue at hand.

Here’s the thing: Socrates never expresses an opinion or becomes prescriptive in his approach — his questions serve as a clarifying force for thinking through the problem, challenge or position.

Socratic Walks are based on the Socratic Method. It’s a very complicated process so please read the instructions that follow carefully. One person talks (and walks); the other listens and asks questions. I’ll repeat that: One person talks (and walks) and the other listens and asks questions. That’s it. If you’re not real clear on the process, please reread the last three sentences.

Two things become immediately apparent when you undertake this practice. First, there is huge value for the “talker” in being given the space to think without worrying his/her train of thought will be interrupted. The clarity of the role — to think out loud — frees the mind to explore and not feel rushed to make a point ahead of the inevitable interruption or challenge or tangential remark from the other party.

Second, the “asker” receives equal, if not greater, value. By removing the need to respond, by focusing on the speaker’s content only for the purposes of asking clarifying questions, true active listening results. In the words of Steven Covey, the asker “seeks first to understand.” Listening for the sake of reaching a common framework of understanding, and resisting the common need to insert the ego-self by responding, is a very valuable skill in its own right. And there is no better tool to train the mind in this way than by engaging in the practice of the Socratic Method via the Socratic Walk.

And why the walk? This is where it all comes together. By formalizing the process in a walk, it is easier for each person to drop into their respective roles. Further, thinking out loud and away from the usual environment is very clarifying in and of itself. After all, how often do you sit around and think out loud (without being fitted for a white canvas jacket with wrap around sleeves)? And finally, I suspect all great thinkers are natural walkers. There is something in the rhythm and energy of the activity that fosters deeper, richer, more meaningful thinking.

Solvitur ambulando, as the Romans used to say; the solution comes through walking.

It sounds simple and obvious, and it is… which is why it works. It’s a great way to noodle out problems and train the mind to listen better. Socratic Walks are a practical, useful tool to improve communication between two people. Try it and share your experience with us. We’d love to hear your experiences walking with (and channeling) Socrates.

Read more »

By |

Specific vs Diffuse: Part 2

specific-diffuse2

Two weeks ago David Baker, CEO of Think.Shift, wrote a provocative article challenging axioms – statements we believe to be self-evident truths. In this article I want to use him as an example of how to intentionally use both specific and diffuse forms of communication effectively.

In a previous article I noted that some people are specific in their communication with intent to bring forth clarity of thought and others are more diffuse in their communication with intent to bring forth commonality of thought.

Both styles have value, and the value is enhanced if you’re intentional about your natural style and the style appropriate for your audience. While my natural style is specific, David Baker is able to use either style based on what is appropriate for the audience. Let me provide two examples of David’s writing to illustrate this point and speak to the value of being intentional in your communication.

In the last Food for Thought article Caution: Falling Axioms, David wanted to respect the provocative nature of these articles.

To be provocative and controversial, you need to be specific in establishing your point of view and contrasting it with alternative points of view.

In analyzing the axiom, “If you are going to bring me a problem, make sure you bring with it a solution,” David points out that the traditional view contrasts an employee who is building with an employee who is throwing rocks. Having been specific in that contrast, he switches to the other side and provides concrete and convincing arguments as to why you should promote and encourage employees raising issues for which they have no solution. His style of specific communication is very effective.

A couple decades ago, I learned an interesting lesson. Trained as an engineer, with a background in math and a passion for logic, I have always been specific in my communication. But, while listening to my VP of marketing tell our sales force about a new series of products we were introducing, I learned that diffuse communication might achieve your results better than being specific. He drew an X-Y axes, labeled the horizontal axis with old products and new products, talked about how the old products had floundered, spoke about the amazing value of the new products and drew a sweeping graph that zig-zagged from the bottom left to the top right, proclaiming that our new products are going to take our business to new heights.

Questions came to my mind: What was the X-axis? Products? How were they arranged? By introduction date? What was the Y-axis? Units? Dollars? Was this a cumulative graph? If so, how did the graph go down with the current products? I was trying to figure it all out. Meanwhile, our sales force had heard the rallying cry. They were pumped. They cheered! Had my marketing VP not accomplished his goal? How does it matter if the graph didn’t make any sense? Being diffuse might have been the best way to communicate to that audience at that moment!

Let’s come back to David Baker. In his monthly blog, David wrote an interesting post titled “What is Normal?” He pointed out that, while most people try to fit in and be normal, it is the outliers that get noticed. To make his point he drew this picture.

by Think.Shift

by Think.Shift

Of course, I had a plethora of questions: What does the line mean? What is represented by a circle on the left side versus the right side? How about circles above and below? Are circles above and to the right better because that is the way we think? And what do the size of the circles mean? Are bigger circles better? Yet, in spite of all my questions, I understood what he was saying in the article. The picture communicated it. Was he being diffuse? Absolutely! Was he effective in his communication? Superbly! In a blog, where the intent typically is to connect with people rather than provoke them, diffuse communication allows for each reader to interpret as they choose and find common ground.

It’s important to understand both specific and diffuse communication.

Each has its value. Each is more effective in different circumstances. Each of us has a preference in our own individual style. Yet, it behooves us to be intentional about using the right style for the right situation.

On this topic, my good friend and colleague, Glenn Mangurian, pointed out that the appropriate style not only depends on the circumstance, but the speaker-listener chemistry. Glenn and I developed the following model for what might happen based on whether the speaker and the listener are specific or diffuse:

  • When the speaker and listener are both specific, they are likely to assert and evaluate. On the positive side, they might find clear agreement or find disagreement and extend their thought process. But the same conversation could turn into a debate, with each of them arguing and trying to prove that he or she is right.
  • When the speaker is specific and the listener is diffuse, they are likely to assert and consider. The listener respects the speaker’s point of view and learns. But the speaker could also be viewed as being arrogant and opinionated, with the listener agreeing in pretense.
  • When the speaker is diffuse and the listener is specific, they are likely to explore but evaluate. The listener is likely to ask for clarification and agree or offer a different point of view. Alternatively, the conversation could turn into an argument where the listener browbeats the speaker for specificity that the speaker either does not have or is not willing to offer.
  • When the speaker and the listener are both diffuse, the conversation is likely to explore and agree. Both the speaker and listener could become innovative and the conversation could become generative. Or the conversation could meander without reaching conclusion, with both the speaker and the listener agreeing without understanding.
by Think.Shift

by Think.Shift

In each case, conversation can take on a positive tone and create value or a negative tone and destroy value.

It is useful to acknowledge the natural tendency the speaker and listener and intentionally drive the conversation toward the positive, value-creating outcomes.

I want to end this article by recognizing David’s ability to switch modes when appropriate and thank him for letting me use his example to illustrate the value of being intentionally specific or diffuse. I encourage my readers to read David’s monthly blog.

We will be elaborating on these concepts in a webinar on
Wednesday, May 27th from 10:30 am – 11:30 am (PDT).

Two special guests will be at the webinar, David Baker and Glenn Mangurian, who will chime in with their thoughts on specific versus diffuse. We encourage you to sign up and attend; please visit the event registration page here for more details.

Read more »

× Close