Choosing between molehills and mountains

My teammate and I presented our strategic planning approach to a client the other day. After the hour-long presentation and a couple of questions she said, “This looks great. I just don’t know if we’re making a mountain out of molehill.” Her concern was acknowledged and we assured her that the pace and depth of the process could be adjusted according to their needs. And so, we began.

As we said our goodbyes and planned to meet again, it struck me though that every strategic plan is a choice between a molehill and a mountain. The difference isn’t defined externally. It’s internal to the organization. It is the leaders’ vision and ambition. 

Every mission in every organization- no matter what stage or how constrained- can do things bigger, better, faster, more flexibly, more inclusively, with more heart, or with less friction. 

Anything is possible.
 

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.

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.

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.