Deal with tension in the office- or risk this

Every office I've ever worked in or worked for has some degree of tension. Tension isn't necessarily bad. In fact, a lot of business and organizations skillfully use tension to spark new ideas and innovation.

However, there is lots of unproductive, interpersonal tension out there. This kind of tension happens when there are misunderstandings and unresolved issues between employees. It typically starts small and builds over time. Each person involved is keeping score. They count up slights, criticisms, and decisions that didn't go their way.

And whether you're involved or not, you feel it. It comes out in snarky, sarcastic comments during meetings or in the "meeting after the meeting" when subsets gather for a debrief on what they really think.

Avoiding tension and not dealing with the problems head on erode productivity and trust. The ramifications are worse if you're in a leadership position. Issue avoidance is a signal of weakness that will undermine your ability to motivate and get big goals accomplished.

With that in mind, I wrote this recent article for my Inc.com column on how to deal with tension in the office before it gets out of control.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.

Are you tracking what matters most?

Performance metrics matter. We know this and yet we continue to track things that have little to do with our goals. The better alternative is to make sure that you're measuring progress against the things that matter most to you and your future. Here are four steps to think through that process.

I'm trying to move away from outputs-- such as number of contracts-- and focus more on outcomes. Did I create a connection with a client? Did a client come back after the project to ask more questions or start another task? Would we both want to work together again?

What do you track on a regular basis?

Improve employee engagement by focusing on attitudes, not roles

INCREASING BUY-IN BY SHIFTING FROM ROLE-BASED TO ATTITUDE-BASED EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

Gaining buy-in is something we often treat like a "check the box" exercise when, in fact, it's much more complex and costly.

Whether you think in terms of effort or dollars or both, what makes some projects so hard is the anticipation of resistance you will meet along the way. But take a breath, get some coffee and consider how you might apply these three things to improve communication and buy-in today.

What’s the end objective? Shift from role-based (project manager, engineer, HR Director, etc) to attitude-based messages to increase buy-in by more precisely addressing each group’s unique concerns and challenges.

How might this shift from role-based to attitude-based outreach work?

MESSAGE SEGMENTATION

Perceptions Matrix

Perceptions Matrix

Role-based communications is critical when communicating job requirements but is not precise enough to address an individual’s unique perspective of concerns.

Develop attitude-based communications

Develop attitude-based communications

To more precisely target outreach efforts, program managers should segment their stakeholder community by creating attitude categories. The matrix above includes two dimensions including 1) perceived program value (high or low) and 2) implementation pace (early adopter, passive supporter, and resistant). 

  1. Refine the categories to mirror the categories of concerns
  2. Estimate the percentage of staff within the broad stakeholder community that fall into each bucket. This will provide some focus and sense of areas of importance
  3. Develop messages and outreach opportunities that match the needs of each attitude category
  4. Roll-out approach, recognizing there will be multiple messages released in parallel

EXAMPLES OF ATTITUDE-BASED CATEGORIES AND SAMPLE MESSAGES

As shown above, there are two broad dimensions of perceived program value and pace of adoption that help define attitude categories.  Using the combinations, attitude groups emerge that can help inform targeted outreach efforts. 

To implement this approach, program managers have to morph the traditional thinking on outreach.  Specifically, key assumptions include:

  • The believers or people who rate high on the perceived value of the program and are early adopters are critically important. These people are continually looking for ways to improve and advance program within their part of the organization. They might be frustrated with the negative feedback because “it’s working just fine for them.”  Confident program managers should encourage this key group to run with their ideas to push the program forward.
  • Reaching out and trying to convince the most stubborn, resistant staff (depending on their role) should be a lesser priority or not done at all. 
  • Outreach efforts should be focused on the top and middle tiers with the belief that they’ll create the momentum and have the most influence.
  • Every opportunity to highlight accomplishments should be seized upon.  Amplifying the positive leaves less time and attention for the more negative, counter-productive attitudes.

In sum, an attitude-based approach will help target messages—regardless of role within organization—and more precisely address their issues and needs for better buy-in.

3 Practical Ways to Improve Leader/Staff Engagement

The first step in seeking out a better relationship with our leaders is to separate what’s about you and what’s about them—and sadly, a lot of what we see our leaders do is about them.

How can you tell?

• Public temper tantrums, negative rants, biting or sarcastic asides, and exasperated speeches—are about them. This is the show poor leaders put on. Leaders who let their contempt show publicly figure it’s more efficient to get their message of power and control to a larger number of people. In contrast, good leaders initiate calm, private conversations and provide the opportunity for back-and-forth dialogue. These conversations are worth listening to, even if your boss is awkward in initiating the conversation or stumbles to find the right words.

• Advice that boils down to “just be more like me” is about them and should be filtered before taking it to heart. Great leaders seek to bring out the individual strengths of each person and don’t attempt to replicate their own perceived strengths (which can be grossly distorted) in others.

• Veiled negativity coming from the top is about them. Seeing these patterns can be tricky, but they are often found in the space between the company policy (or the law) and how employees are subtly encouraged by their managers to get work done. Leaders at the top are saying the right words in meetings, but they are getting the message out in other ways that compliance with the rules or laws is bad for business. This more generalized negativity is relayed down through the hierarchy of managers and should be recognized as a big red flag.

• Feedback on how your approach isn’t producing results is about you.Even when the talk is tough to hear because the delivery is awkward or unpolished (or even has a tinge of frustration), feedback about your performance is about you. This is especially true when it’s provided in a timely manner in private and is specific to the issues. As difficult as these conversations can be, feedback is absolutely critical to career survival and, ultimately, to your raging success. I know firsthand how hard it is in the moment to see “fix this” directives as the gift that they are. Dismiss or diminish these conversations at your own risk.

The second step is to recognize just how toxic leadership contempt can be to leader–follower relationships—and to organizations as a whole. Such contempt, and the attitude that it’s “us against them,” can spread quickly within organizations. Attitudes are passed around in every conversation and shape how people think about the issues and what options are on the table to solve problems.

Can contemptuous leaders change? Of course, but they have to want to. They have to want to see the damage to morale and the real, bottomline business costs caused by turn-over and opportunities missed because the staff was too discouraged, distracted or defensive to pursue new work.

Once a leader has decided to change, a world of options opens from leadership training on improving emotional intelligence to effective time management and delegation to crafting inspiring speeches.

However, undoing past damage and preventing future staff loss comes down to the leader growing a sense of empathy that eventually crowds out their negative tendencies. Specifically, get well plans include:

1. Read more. Starting with biographies of past leaders, getting a more in-depth understanding of how respected leaders think can start to sink in.

2. Forget the golden rule. Many of us “grew up” professionally in very different times. Because something was common practice years ago doesn’t make it the right or best way. Further, just because a leader doesn’t believe they’d mind having a specific negative behavior inflected on themselves, doesn’t make it ok to turn around to do it to someone else. Great leaders hold themselves to a higher standard.

3. Turn the tables. It can be helpful in the moment to imagine the person across the table is one’s own child or parent or a dear friend. Trying to see each person’s humanity and inherent value is critical.

Great leaders continually examine their attitudes about staff, competitors, and the business and fix the unproductive ones before they infect the business. One of the greatest opportunities afforded to leaders is the chance to decide in advance what they want their legacy to be. Each of us has the chance each day to lead with contempt or lead with consideration and appreciation.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.

Dealing with Leaders Who Hate Their Employees

April Nicole Art, Fluorescent Pink & Yellow 

April Nicole Art, Fluorescent Pink & Yellow 

For some, one of the perceived “perks” of promotion is the earned right to look down on others from a higher leadership perch. You’re not imagining it. Leadership contempt, to quote from Alanis Morissette’s 1995 classic, can be a little bit “ironic, don’t you think?”

It’s still all too common in the work place to have leaders that are downright ruthless, mean and unapologetically self-interested. Of course, there are notable exceptions, but history teaches us that that kings and queens of our shared past got high on their own tyranny. Having contempt for your subjects was the norm—not something to be ashamed of or hidden. And it was expected. Leaders had power, and those with power used fear to get what they wanted—often at any cost.

Over time, our beliefs about effective leadership have evolved (thankfully). Today, the leadership qualities we most value share some similarities with the past (such as vision and decisiveness), but also more contemporary thinking on inclusiveness and the ability to use positivity to motivate.

This leadership evolution has made our world and our organizations better, but it hasn’t erased some of the antiquated habits and attitudes that our organizations’ leaders carry around today. The gulf between the leaders we idealize and imagine and the ones we work with down the hall is very real but hard to reconcile.

Why?

Because leaders are products of their past and their present and still struggle with dichotomous forces as they lead. On the one side, leaders, giving in to natural human tendencies, may decide to wield power to get what they want (and now!). On the other side, they may foster their more intellectually driven desires to nurture their staff and work collaboratively with teams. Regardless of the inner struggle, present-day leaders who show signs of being on a primitive power drive are far from revered. Such leadership is largely seen as unacceptable.

So how do leaders make sense of these two sometimes conflicting personas? Especially those who lean toward the power drive and opt to use less than revered forms of leadership? Some leaders put on a different face for the world—a kinder, more polished, more measured version of their leadership selves. But for followers, this may mean that we talk about leadership in one way, but experience it as something quite different.

This dichotomy, in part, fuels the business industry’s insatiable appetite for inspiring quotes, insightful blog posts, researched articles and “how to” books on the topic of leadership. There are hundreds published every day. Yet at the core of that appetite is a desire—on the part of both leaders and followers—to smooth out the inner conflict and seek better leadership balance.

Recognizing leadership contempt for what it is can be sanity-saving at work. Many people who see or experience firsthand these behaviors in their boss take it personally. And who wouldn’t? Those of us who have experienced it can’t help but pay attention to someone with a significant influence in their lives—especially when that individual plays the role of performance assessor and career guidance counselor.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.

Are You Ready for the Next Organizational Crisis?

Abstract painting by Bryan Dubreuiel

Abstract painting by Bryan Dubreuiel

Whether it is retrieving astronauts from space or clarifying a tactless comment that created a firestorm for someone in the communications office, all organizations face challenges that force employees to think and act differently in response.

At a time when many agencies just want to fly under the radar and focus on mission work in anticipation of the next administration, there are a few that can’t seem to avoid critical attention for their handling (or mishandling) of organizational issues. The VA continues to struggle with ridding the agency of underperformers. Homeland Security faces questions about executives’ use of private email. And the National Park Service faces accusations of employing “scum” by one especially vocal Congressman.

As the public gets a glimpse into the leadership’s handling of public crises, one has to wonder what’s going on beneath the surface with the career staff. How does a pounding in the press affect morale and engagement?

We intuitively know that an engaged workforce—one that shows dedication and effort in their work—is crucial to high-performing organizations. In fact, one study  in the Harvard Business Reviewshows that employee engagement is key to reaching organizational goals, reducing turnover, improving work quality, and improving overall individual employee health.

We also know that high-performing organizations are better able to handle moments of crisis. But what about those organizations at the other end of the spectrum? What are they missing?

The very nature of some organizational challenges makes employee engagement especially important. For example, problems stemming from unethical conduct or incompetence among one or a handful of senior staff can be hugely damaging for organizations already on uncertain ground with their employees. Conversely, those with strong workforce engagement are more likely to view those events as one-offs and not as systemic problems. In moments of crisis, an engaged workforce can be the key to a quick recovery that minimizes the distraction and disruption when big problems arise.

According to one study, 73 percent of full-time workers surveyed encountered ethical lapses in management. Of those, 36 percent say they were distracted by the incident. For some, distraction means an entire day or more of productivity lost. Because of their size, large organizations have more to lose in terms of productivity and engagement when a crisis occurs.

The solution is preventative: Engage employees now to improve performance when times are good and minimize disruption when problems occur.

How? Most traditional approaches focus on leadership action and attempt to isolate employee engagement from other issues. Often, well-meaning organizations start by conducting an employee survey to collect insights into engagement drivers and barriers. Then, senior management convenes to discuss the results and develop an action plan to address the findings. More experienced executives then review progress against the plan at regular intervals and hold leaders accountable for results.  

While this approach may incrementally improve results, there is a better, simpler way: Engage employees on actual problems. Invite them into a participative process to share what they and their teams need to fully unlock discretionary effort. Employees who believe their opinions are valued will have the best ideas to create a better workplace experience that benefits them, their teams, and the overall performance of the business.

This post originally appeared in GovExec.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.

The Surprisingly Simple Fix for Ineffective Leadership Teams

LOMO #1 by Lisa Barbero

LOMO #1 by Lisa Barbero

It’s no secret that many leadership teams don’t function as well as they could or should. Leadership teams are the people in your organization who collectively hold the responsibility for just about everything that impacts growth, operations, employee engagement, and productivity. They’re often looked up to and have say and sway regarding how things get done. They often are the more senior or tenured employees and have earned their positions through past successes and ongoing performance in their areas of expertise.

Individually, they might shine. So, why can’t they get along and get stuff done when they’re together?

I see leadership teams up close and personal, facilitating dozens of offsite meetings each year. While the agendas are always customized to the unique, stated problems facing the group, there are invariably underlying issues with trust, respect, communications, and lines of authority. There are difficult relationships and politics. Many maintain a thorough accounting of past wrongs done to them and opportunities missed because of others’ ineptitude. Almost everyone is keeping score.

With interpersonal challenges like these, you’d think the fix would be big and expensive and might even require letting some people go. However, in my experience, leadership team function can be dramatically improved by addressing one simple but important thing—the recurring leadership team meeting.

Leadership team meetings typically are boring, tedious, and ineffective. What’s remarkable is that most organizations hold them every single week.

The leadership team meeting is the standing meeting in which the senior staff get together. The intent is to share what’s going on around the organization and to solve the problems common among them.

The conversation breaks down almost immediately because the session is unstructured and team members are free to dominate or tune out without much consequence. Any expectations to prepare in advance or actively participate are pretty minuscule. Most leadership teams go through the motions each week. Little is discussed, and often people disband feeling like it was yet another wasted hour of precious time. They’re all anxious to get back to their “real work.”

If you’re the one at the head of the table, this Groundhog Day-type experience can be incredibly frustrating. You probably handpicked most of these people and like each individual very much. You wonder why they can’t work more effectively together and get conflicting, biased messages about how to fix it. In side conversations, team members might advocate for reorganizations or budget realignment. They might enumerate their colleague’s failings and the slights they’ve endured.

What’s surprising is that as overwhelming as the leadership team problems might feel, the starting point for resolution is simple. Make the leadership team meeting work for you, instead of against you.

To start, announce that you’ll be changing up the meeting. This move will get people’s attention. They’re used to boring, bland, and ineffective, so they’ll be keen to hear what you have in mind.

Next, toss out your scantily clad, generic agenda and vow to never go ‘round the horn again as a way to fill the time.

Pull out your annual work plan or goals. Identify three or four specific ongoing initiatives that matter to everyone or most everyone. These will be the basis of the discussion going forward.

Remove any requirement to create briefing slides or a weekly status report. High-fives will ensue.

Lastly, set (then rigorously and fairly enforce) these new ground rules.

  • Any business between two divisions should be handled before or after but not during the meetings on everyone else’s time.
  • Only topics with shared strategic, operational, or employee impacts should be discussed. There should be plenty of these to keep the group busy all year. If not, refresh the strategic plan or do an employee satisfaction survey STAT.
  • Keep the discussion for discussion’s sake to the minimum needed to understand the issue. Write down action items. Each action item should have a person responsible and due date identified. Rotate responsibility for creating the list. Nothing fancy is needed and do this in place of minutes.
  • Tell the group that the meeting is their chance to speak up on the topic under discussion. If they don’t say anything, they don’t get to second-guess the agreed-upon direction after the fact. It’s done. Get on board and move on.
  • Any information leaks about personnel decisions or gossip about each other is grounds for removal from the leadership team.
  • Any pre-reads should be just that—read in advance. If anyone turns up unprepared, they will be invited to leave the room and finish the reading. The discussion, however, will not wait.

Just passing time together in a meeting isn’t enough to create an effective leadership team. Just because the group was gathered and talking doesn’t mean that communication has been effective or issues have been resolved.

Creating a more functional leadership team doesn’t have to be an overwhelming, complex task. Restructuring this precious and valuable time together by focusing on important cross-organization initiatives and setting expectations for participation is key to a more productive meeting, and in turn, a more cohesive team.

The post originally appeared in GovExec.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.