Really Knowing Others at Work

February 27, 2024

The ability to deeply see other people is important to develop and sustain relationships. This is beneficial in your personal life in order to live a long and happy one, but it is also important in the workplace if you want to successfully collaborate and lead others.

A vast amount of research has determined that the secret to a long, healthy, and happy life has to do with the quality of our relationships. This has been found to be more important than diet, exercise, genetics, wealth, education, and other factors.

Perhaps most famously, the Grant Study—a longitudinal study begun in 1938 that followed 268 Harvard sophomores—found that close relationships and social connections are crucial for our well-being as we age. That’s because supportive relationships help us cope with stress and protects our overall health. This finding proved true across the board not only among men in the Harvard study, but also participants studied from the inner-city.

In the workplace we may diminish the importance of how we relate to each other. Some may think it should only be about the work and that if we simply focus on the task at hand, the messiness of people won’t complicate matters. The problem with this perspective is that we are all emotional human beings and cannot simply show up as logic-minded, “Spock-like” characters in the workplace.

David Brooks, author of How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, says this ability to really know another person is all too rare.

“There is one skill that lies at the heart of any healthy person, family, school, community organization, or society,” writes Brooks. “The ability to see someone else deeply and make them feel seen—to accurately know another person, to let them feel valued, heard, and understood.”

Brooks goes on to describe some people as Diminishers, who make others feel small and unseen; things to be used, not as persons to be befriended. Diminishers use stereotypes and ignore other people because they are so involved with themselves. Qualities of these Diminishers include egotism, anxiety, objectivism, and a static mindset.

On the other hand, Brooks highlights Illuminators as those with a persistent curiosity about others, knowing what to look for and how to ask the right questions at the right time. “They shine the brightness of their care on people and make them feel bigger, deeper, respected, lit up.” The qualities of Illuminators include tenderness, receptivity, active curiosity, affection, and generosity.

Do you recognize Diminishers or Illuminators in your workplace? If you’re fortunate, you work for an Illuminator who really sees you and supports your growth. They are the ones you should strive to work for and follow.

Diminishers are those who may be holding you back from being your best self at work. They are more interested in themselves than those around them. These people may be in leadership positions, but they are not true leaders. You should shun Diminishers whenever possible.

What about you? Do you show up in work relationships in a curious, attentive, and empathetic manner or do you show up in a manner that is more transactional, competitive, and self-focused?

True collaboration and teamwork require more of the Illuminator qualities. And leaders who embrace these qualities are more likely to build solid teams and organizations that are based on psychological safety, trust, rapport, and productivity.

Until artificial intelligence replaces us in the workplace, we will need to get along by recognizing our own emotions and those of the people we interact with. This requires elements of emotional intelligence to really know others in a way that helps them feel seen and to help others to really see ourselves. Seek to be an Illuminator in all your relationships so that you live a long and happy life, and you are more effective in the workplace.

Effective Communication Takes Two

April 26, 2022

In my work as an executive coach, one of the most common goals my clients choose to work on is to become a better communicator. This is usually not about public speaking, presentations or even writing better emails. It’s about learning to actively listen, interacting back-and-forth and understanding it’s not about what you say, but what others hear.

Ironically, the plethora of tools created to help us communicate has not increased effective communication. In fact, I would argue it has gotten much worse. Look no further than the negative impacts of social media.

Effective communication requires back and forth exchange, otherwise it’s just talking at people. Sending and receiving messages requires active participation on both sides to enable accurate understanding. This is especially important in the workplace to ensure the results management wants is what employees can deliver.

“We have been working at communications downward from management to the employees, from the superior to the subordinate,” writes management consultant and author Peter Drucker in his book The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. “But communications are practically impossible if they are based on the downward relationship. The harder the superior tries to say something to his subordinate, the more likely is it that the subordinate will mis-hear. He will hear what he expects to hear rather than what is being said.”

This back and forth is all too often missing and leads to managers upset when they repeatedly tell their direct reports what they want, yet the employee fails to deliver. Perhaps it’s less about telling and more about asking.

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of doing the right things rather than simply doing things right. When those on the front lines (closest to the problem or opportunity) are consulted on what’s the right thing to do, leaders are likely to make better decisions. This involves two-way communication that balances listening with speaking.   

Drucker suggests effective executives should ask their knowledge workers the following:

  • What should we at the head of this organization know about your work?
  • What do you want to tell me regarding this organization?
  • Where do you see opportunities we do not exploit?
  • Where do you see dangers to which we are still blind?
  • What do you want to know from me about the organization?

“In every area of effectiveness within an organization, one feeds the opportunities and starves the problems,” writes Drucker. “Nowhere is this more important than in respect to people. The effective executive looks upon people including himself as an opportunity.”

Apple’s Steve Jobs once said “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” This advice should be followed by all executives as an organization can only be as effective as its people.

George Bernard Shaw once said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Ensure that your communication includes active listening, back-and-forth interaction, and that what you say is what they hear. Then it won’t be an illusion.

Workplace Flexibility in Flux

August 15, 2021

As organizations determine the best way to bring employees back into the workplace, it’s clear no one size fits all. Workers have found the virtues and drawbacks of working from home, and many prefer flexibility. Company leaders suspect something has been lost by not being in the office but haven’t been able to fully quantify it.

Many organizations are choosing to follow CDC guidelines on when to bring employees back, and due to the dramatic rise in the highly contagious Delta variant, timeframes have been pushed out to January 2022 and beyond.

Zoom Fatigue

Some organizations found workers to be more productive at least initially due to fewer interruptions and meetings. Yet our technology (Zoom, Teams, Slack, text messaging and email) found a way to overcome the physical distance and disrupt our re-found ability to focus. Staring at a computer screen is one thing, but using it to effectively communicate, collaborate, or manage others via camera is exhausting and often futile.

As an aside, I find it especially troubling during a video conference, our eyes are not looking into each other’s eyes, but instead looking down because the camera is located not in the middle of the screen but above it. Perhaps it would be great if we were all trained to look at the tiny green light like newscasters, but, of course, we would ultimately miss the reaction of our audience and that would also diminish real connection and effective communication.

While many workers have been able to reallocate the time saved by not commuting, others struggle with a lack of a clear definition between work and personal time. No longer is there a period of transition afforded by the commute. Further, we are challenged with the competing demands of home life (kids, pets, chores, etc.) while remaining focused on our work life.

Full Return

Companies that recently announced post-pandemic policies for a full return to the workplace include Abbott Labs, Archer Daniels Midland, Bank of America, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Comcast, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft Heinz, Tesla, and Wells Fargo. This suggests they are expecting things to go back to relatively normal again. Most companies, however, plan to offer a hybrid or more work from home opportunities.

Fully Vaxed

Those requiring all employees returning to the workplace to be fully vaccinated include Amtrak, Cisco, CitiGroup, Delta Airlines, Facebook, Ford, Goldman Sachs, Google, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Netflix, Salesforce, Twitter, Tyson Foods, Uber, United Airlines, Walgreens, Walt Disney and Walmart. This is a list that will likely continue to grow, especially since many state and federal offices are now making full vaccination a requirement as well.

And those who refuse to be vaccinated may have to provide proof of a valid health or religious reason and, in many cases, subject themselves to weekly or twice-weekly COVID-19 tests.  

What can we learn from the past 16 months that can help us improve how productive and engaged we are in our careers? It seems that the pandemic has redefined the workplace and what it means to be “at work.”

In my work as an executive coach, I find I really miss meeting face-to-face with clients. There is no substitution for establishing trust, building rapport, and communicating in the most complete manner than by meeting in the same physical location. But I also know that once we’ve established this trust, rapport and understanding on how we communicate, we can often meet via phone or video conference and make it nearly as effective.

This kind of flexibility will be important going forward. While some jobs won’t allow for any remote work, many should enable some form of a hybrid approach. Giving workers and their managers the flexibility for how and when to work from home can raise productivity and engagement, but it should be done intentionally with measures in place for accountability.

The workplace we return to—physically or virtually—will likely be forever changed, and it’s important to recognize that this crisis can lead to a great opportunity for improving the way we work together.

Your Side of Successful Communication

September 5, 2014

It’s back to school time and a reminder that we should all stop working so hard and start working smarter. Stop sawing and sharpen the saw.

When it comes to challenges in the workplace, communication is an area that seems to impact just about everyone. More specifically: communication breakdowns.

A great book on the subject is I Hear You: Repair Communication Breakdowns, Negotiate Successfully, and Build Consensus . . . in Three Simple Steps by Donny Ebenstein.

In the book Ebenstein discusses the behavioral change needed in you in order to move from being stuck to unstuck; the importance of shifting your perspective to really understand the other side; looking from the outside to be more objective of your perspective; and how to use role-play to practice these skills so they become second nature.

As you probably noticed, it is all focused on what you can do to fix these communication breakdowns, even though our tendency to blame others for this breakdown.

Unlike choosing our friends, however, we rarely select those we work with. And even if it is others who are responsible for the breakdown, we need to find a way to communicate effectively with them.

Using the steps outlined in this book, you can learn how making small behavioral changes in how you interact can dramatically shift the conversation.

For example, an important aspect for improving communication is to give legitimacy to the other person’s point of view. This can be difficult, but it is essential for bridging the gap, truly understanding the other’s perspective, and to avoid appearing condescending towards them.

Giving legitimacy to another’s perspective means fully listening and demonstrating that you really heard what they said by paraphrasing back. There is no substitute for this and it really enables the other to trust that they have been heard.

Another important point is to put your self in the other person’s shoes. Not just from on the surface, but by fully understanding how you would feel if you saw things from their perspective.

These ideas aren’t revolutionary, of course, but actually implementing them into the way we interact is rare. You may find the whole practice awkward and people may bristle when they first witness your new behavior, but in the end it will help restore trust and reduce misunderstandings.

The speed of business is increasing faster and faster, and this means it’s vital that we take time to stop, reflect on what we’re doing, acknowledge our mistakes, and change course if needed and/or redirect our time and resources. It is also paramount that we continue learning.

Resolving communication breakdowns may be one of the most common and yet fixable problems in every workplace. Waiting for others around you to change is foolish. You need to actively do your part to overcome the impasse.

This means stepping up to the challenge by investing your time and energy into demonstrating your compassion and openness to truly hear and empathize with the other’s perspective. It means being courageous enough not to take things personally and try to stay focused on the bigger picture.

Those who want to stay competitive in business should always be on the lookout for ways to improve their skills and value to the organization. If you find communication breakdowns are impacting your effectiveness, read Ebenstein’s book and implement this strategy to mend communication breakdowns.

5 Things Managers Should Say to Employees

November 17, 2010

With nearly ten percent unemployment, it may seem ludicrous that a manager needs to say anything nice to employees these days. But you might consider the upside of treating your people well in hard times as well as good times.

In an earlier post, I wrote about things an employee should say to his or her boss. This provoked some harsh feedback because many readers may have thought I was referring to an employer as opposed to an immediate supervisor or manager. The immediate supervisor is someone who very likely also has a boss and therefore knows what it’s like to be in your shoes.

Unfortunately, there is a great divide between what employees want versus what their bosses think they want. And this has been consistent for a long time.

A survey on the discrepancy between what employees want versus what managers think employees want was conducted in 1946 by Foreman Facts, from the Labor Relations Institute of NY. This study was replicated with similar results by Ken Kovach (1980); Valerie Wilson, Achievers International (1988); Bob Nelson, Blanchard Training & Development (1991); and Sheryl & Don Grimme, GHR Training Solutions (1997-2001).

What Employees Say They Want (in order)
1. Full appreciation for work done
2. Feeling ‘part’ of things
3. Sympathetic help on personal issues
4. Job security
5. Good wages
6. Interesting work
7. Promotion/growth opportunities
8. Personal loyalty to workers
9. Good working conditions
10. Tactful discipline

What Managers Think Employees Want (in order)
1. Good wages
2. Job security
3. Promotion/growth opportunities
4. Good working conditions
5. Interesting work
6. Personal loyalty to workers
7. Tactful discipline
8. Full appreciation for work done
9. Sympathetic help on personal issues
10. Feeling ‘part’ of things.

If you just look at the top three things that employees say they want from their managers, you can see that these are at the bottom of what managers think employees want.

As someone who has worked in both for-profit and non-profit organizations, it always amazed me how little businesses use praise in the way it is often used in non-profits. A genuine “thank you” or “nice job on that project” can truly make someone’s day and often make an employee feel more satisfied and productive in his or her job.

Managers often forget that what motivates them are the same things that motivate their people. Employees want to be recognized and appreciated. They want to be treated humanely. And they want to be integral to the organization. Bottom line: it’s not always about the money.

Here are five things a manager should say to employees:

  1. “How can I help?” Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed the Situational Leadership Model on the importance of providing a combination of direction and support depending on where the employee is at a given time and position. Ask your employees what they need from you to perform their best.
  2. “Great job on . . .” Use specificity to make your praise authentic and meaningful. Everyone craves appreciation and receiving it can be more powerful in motivating an employee than just about anything else.
  3. “You seem particularly happy/sad/irritated . . .” Insert something genuine here to show you are paying attention to feelings. Say it in a way that communicates you are concerned and then really listen for understanding.
  4. “I want your input on . . .” This can make an employee feel engaged and appreciated in the organization like nothing else. But don’t say it unless you mean it and will consider what they say.
  5. “Thank you.” These two words are never used enough in the workplace. Using them more often is not simply for common courtesy, but as a way of connecting and showing appreciation for a job well done.

Employees and managers are more stressed than ever, working faster and with fewer resources. And lots of managers mistakenly think they are too busy to give praise, show appreciation, or truly connect with their employees.

But the best managers—ones who are able to effectively direct and support employees, recognize and appreciate them when appropriate, and remain sensitive to their emotional needs—are likely to get the most out of their people and thereby increase their own value to the organization.

What about you? Does this ring true for you who manage other people? As an employee, would you be more satisfied, motivated, and productive if you heard these things from your boss?

7 Things You Should Say to Your Boss

October 26, 2010

Working for someone else can be challenging no matter how good the boss may be. Nurturing this relationship can be important for your immediate job satisfaction as well as keep advancement opportunities front and center.

With this in mind, there are many things you should never say to your boss. For example, “this is not my job, it’s not my problem, or it can’t be done.” These will only aggravate your boss and demonstrate that you are not a team player and cannot be trusted to get the work completed.

Building a positive relationship with your boss can be vital to your general well being but, like any relationship, it takes time and energy.

Every manager or supervisor is likely to appreciate certain qualities in an employee. These include having credibility, being solution-oriented, being a good team player, being a good listener, and—if there is such a thing where you work—following the chain of command.

“The relationship with your boss is a partnership,” says Jane Boucher, author of How To Love The Job You Hate: Job Satisfaction for the 21st Century. “It takes effort to build the relationship and nurture it. You have to communicate well, avoid confrontations, and resolve differences in a positive way.”

It’s important to learn your boss’s concerns and goals. Try to fully understand the problems and pressures he or she confronts on a daily basis. Listen carefully to what your boss says and doesn’t say. And know when it’s wise for you not to say anything.

“You can lessen the chance that your boss will make bad decisions that adversely affect you and your career by managing your relationship with the boss,” Boucher says. “Keep the boss informed about what’s going on at work and never forget the pressure your boss is under. Honesty and reliability will win the hearts of most bosses.”

So what are specific ways you can maintain a positive working relationship with your boss? I have seven suggestions for things you should say to your boss.

  1. “I’d like to discuss priorities.” All of us at one time or another get overwhelmed with responsibilities, and sorting through what is most important is something our boss should help us with. More than likely, it is good just to check in to be sure what we think is most important is also most important for the boss.
  2. “I’d like your opinion.” All of us have an opinion and are typically proud to give it. In the case of a boss, this can be especially helpful as this person is likely to have a perspective different than yours. Be genuinely interested in this opinion whether you choose to accept and implement it or not.
  3. “Here’s something I really appreciate about you.” Supervisors and middle managers get lots of complaints, but very few compliments. Unless you work for an absolutely terrible boss, he or she probably has some positive qualities. Express your appreciation for these, but only if you are truly sincere.
  4. “I’ve got some bad news and a potential solution.” Employees are typically closer to the work and therefore spot impending trouble before managers do. Be proactive and give your boss a heads up about a problem as well as a potential solution. This will make you a more highly valued employee.
  5. “How am I doing? What can I improve upon?” Don’t wait for your annual review to find out your boss’s opinion on how you’re doing. Initiate an occasional feedback discussion to learn how your performance is perceived as well as how and where you can further improve.
  6. “How can I help?” Everyone needs assistance at times and this includes your boss. He or she may be unable or unwilling to ask given your other priorities, but when you see that you might be able and willing to lend a hand, be sure to ask how.
  7. “Thank you.” This could be for any number of things, such as guidance, patience, support, or the overall flexibility in how you get your job done. Whatever it is, be sure to let your boss know that you appreciate what he or she has done for you.

Speaking with your boss regularly can go a long way towards maintaining a positive relationship. By breaking the habit of simply going over the same job-related tasks and functions, and delving into more personal areas, you can create greater familiarity and closeness. This can make your immediate work environment more enjoyable and it may further your career opportunities

5 Tips for Workplace Communication

June 9, 2010

When listing one’s strengths during an interview or on a resume, most of us include “excellent communication skills” because we know this is valuable to employers. But how many of us are really capable of communicating effectively? For that matter, how many employers are excellent communicators?

I studied journalism in college, worked as a freelance writer for a while, and published some short fiction. Nevertheless, I still find writing to be one of the most challenging things I do.

At times I also find it difficult to speak effectively with clients, friends and my own family members. So much can be misinterpreted or misunderstood due to a lack of clarity when I am talking or not being careful enough when I am listening.

Ineffective communication skills in an organization can dramatically impact the bottom line. In fact, according to research by Watson Wyatt, Gallup Consulting and Towers Perrin, these costs can include:

  • increased employee turnover
  • increased absenteeism
  • dissatisfied customers from poor customer service
  • higher product defect rates
  • lack of focus on business objectives
  • stifled innovation

No wonder communication skills are so valued in the workplace. Whether it is the need to carefully compose an email, raise a sensitive issue in a staff meeting, or discuss poor performance with an employee, making our messages succinct and clear can dramatically help an organization run more effectively.

So much can be lost in translation—the coding and encoding that is done between sender and receiver. Jargon exists in every industry and this can often impede clear understanding. Acronyms enable quicker delivery, yet they also make deciphering a challenge for those who are unfamiliar with them. And do emoticons really aid our written information?

The ability to clearly convey our intention and message is extremely important at work. Just as important, yet rarely emphasized, is our ability to carefully listen to what is spoken and what is unsaid yet conveyed through body language. It is this combination of both clearly conveying and accurately receiving that makes up effective communication.

Here are five tips to improve communication in your workplace:

Be specific and clear. Get to the point regardless of whether you are speaking or writing. Don’t ramble or include needless details. If you’re giving instructions or issuing a directive, take special care to be accurate and precise.

Establish true dialogue. Encourage your listener to ask clarifying questions or to follow up to aid their understanding. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know an answer, and be sure to get back to them with the correct answer when you do know.

Carefully read and listen. So much can be read between the lines of what is spoken or written based on the tone or body language associated with a message. Therefore, when on the receiving end, it is important to take into account the overall context of the message and be on the lookout for a disconnect between words and subject matter.

Stay positive. Petty or passive-aggressive sniping should not be tolerated. Even the harshest feedback can and should be delivered in a positive, supportive, team-centric manner. Focus on behavior or performance and not character. When on the receiving end, it is equally important to avoid getting triggered by difficult messages.

Make a habit of on-the-spot communication. Nothing can be more destructive than waiting to deliver significant feedback, praise, criticism or complaints. If you’ve got something important to convey, don’t put it off until the next meeting or the next annual review. Make on-the-spot communication a priority.

Following these five tips in your workplace can take time and self-discipline to master, but they can help dramatically improve overall communication. And improving this so-called soft skill can deliver hard bottom line results.

Mark Craemer

When Employees Don’t Trust the Boss

February 2, 2010

In a previous post I addressed how important the attribute of trust is in leadership. Nothing impacts an organization’s overall productivity more than the level of trust found within it. But what happens when employees don’t trust their boss?

If you have strong and irrefutable evidence that your boss is not to be trusted, it seems to me you have four choices: 1) ignore the situation and hope things will improve on their own; 2) tell someone you believe can help make a change for the better; 3) leave your boss and find another job within or outside the company; 4) trust him anyway and help enable a change in behavior.

Ignore the situation. If you choose to avoid the problem of an untrustworthy boss, this only perpetuates the distrust and does nothing to improve your life. In addition, by not confronting him, you are ultimately accepting his untrustworthy behavior. A person cannot be untrustworthy by himself—someone has to be the recipient of this distrust. You have a choice as to whether or not this is you and, if you fail to confront him, you are enabling his untrustworthy behavior. Like any relationship, you have to take responsibility for your part.

Tolerating untrustworthy behavior results in harming yourself by continuing to work for such a person, and also contributes to the dysfunction of the organization as a whole. By not doing something to rectify things, you become as responsible for the dysfunction as your boss.

Tell someone who can help. This is a tricky option because your boss’s untrustworthy behavior is unlikely limited to you alone and, if nothing has been done, it may be condoned or at least tolerated by others. Who you talk to and what you expect him or her to do could end up reflecting poorly on you. If you do speak up, it is best to have your facts straight with plenty of supporting evidence. You should also make it clear what you believe needs to be done about it. And be prepared for nothing to actually happen.

If you have a progressive company where 360 assessments are regularly conducted, then perhaps the feedback of a lack of trust will get back to your boss anonymously and encourage him to rectify his behavior. However, without specific examples to refer to, any comments regarding his untrustworthy behavior may only breed ill-will towards those around him. Regardless, by not confronting your boss directly, you are leaving others to determine your fate.

Leave your boss. You could choose to look for a new position away from your boss either within the company or at another one. By doing so, you may be taking a stand that integrity matters and you will not tolerate working for someone who lacks it. If you choose to communicate to others the distrust you feel in your boss, this could have immediate and/or long-term repercussions. Like it or not, your immediate supervisor can have a huge impact on your future employment. It is therefore important to protect this relationship as much as you can, even if you lack respect for his behavior.

Trust him anyway. Okay this may be the hardest to swallow, but I think it is ultimately the right choice even if after your best efforts you end up needing to move back to the previous option. If you believe your boss is not to be trusted, I suggest you trust him anyway. I don’t mean this out of pure naivety or passive allegiance, but out of hope for a change in behavior. Most human beings (bosses included), respond favorably to being trusted. If you are genuine in your trust and listen respectfully to him, he is likely to reciprocate and trust you back. That’s how trust works and it is also how it spreads.

Trust requires respectful listening and this is filled with opportunities for self-improvement. Listening attentively with an open mind and open heart can make a huge difference in one’s ability to trust others. Trusting him may very well cultivate trustful behavior.

Trust is a two-way street. It cannot be imposed on someone and it requires risk. The only way to find trust is to look for it and expect it in others. This is risky, yet it is the only way trust can build in any relationship.

It’s difficult for most of us to confront any person in our lives. When it’s our boss, this becomes magnified because we believe he may use his power over us to make our work lives worse or perhaps fire us.

The thing to keep in mind is that everyone wants to be trusted and most people will make every effort to become trustworthy. In addition, most of us also want feedback on how we are being perceived. As hard as it is for you to talk to your boss about untrustworthy behavior, if your mistrust is representative of a group of people and not yourself alone, you may be surprised to find just how willing he is to listen and try to improve things.

More importantly, you will have taken a very courageous leadership step that will serve you throughout your personal as well as your professional life.

Mark Craemer  

Employee Feedback: Is There Ever Enough?

January 25, 2010

One of the challenges I encountered in my previous career was getting too little time with my boss and receiving too little feedback on my performance. Not getting regular accolades for what I did especially well and constructive feedback for how I could improve, left me at a loss for how to best provide my boss and the company with what they needed from me.

I am not in the minority. According to a recent study by Leadership IQ, 66% of employees say they have too little interaction with their boss. This number is up from 53% in May 2008, the last time this study was conducted, and could indicate that the recent recession played a part in the results.

And while 67% of employees say they get too little positive feedback, 51% also said they get too little constructive criticism from their boss. On top of this, employees who say they didn’t get enough feedback were 43% less likely to recommend their company to others as a great organization to work for. The survey included 3,611 workers from 291 business and healthcare organizations in the U.S. and Canada.

Too often organizations view opportunities for interaction with the boss and feedback as part of an annual review. In my experience, annual reviews are seen as an HR necessity rather than an opportunity to improve performance and strengthen relationships between managers and employees. These reviews typically focus too heavily on past performance, salary increases and potential promotions. The fact that they are done only once a year and often viewed as a burden to many supervisors, annual reviews are not fully appreciated for what they can deliver.

Employee feedback needs to be provided more frequently and needs to be effective so appropriate action can be taken immediately. Looking at it from an appreciative standpoint, feedback can open the door to constructive dialogue between a worker and his or her supervisor. Constructive feedback can help build upon and spread what is working well and it can minimize or remove what is not working so well. And the best feedback should not be one way in nature, but allow for true give and take so there is an opportunity for better understanding and to strengthen the relationship.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, employees may join a company because of its prestige and reputation, but they leave a company primarily due to their relationship with their immediate supervisor. Strengthening this relationship through regular dialogue can lead to greater employee engagement, increased productivity and potentially long term retention.

Organizations should demand that managers increase the amount and quality of feedback they give employees because it makes good business sense. This feedback needs to occur more than once a year and should include praise for positive performances as well as detailed constructive comments so that immediate corrective action can be taken if necessary. This is important not only because employees will feel better about doing their jobs, but because it can directly impact overall productivity as well as employee retention and recruitment.

Mark Craemer                 

Leadership and Trust

January 14, 2010

As we begin a new year this might be a good time to take stock of your leadership skills, and the most important for me is trust. Like no other attribute, your capacity to convey trustworthiness has a huge impact on your ability to effectively lead others. That’s because nothing impacts an organization’s overall productivity more than the level of trust found within it.

Is your organization one where trust is especially low or high? If trust is low, I suspect employee engagement, job satisfaction, and overall productivity are also low. On the other hand, if trust is high, more than likely there is better employee engagement, higher job satisfaction, and greater overall productivity.

According to author Stephen M. R. Covey in his book The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything when trust goes down productivity also goes down and costs go up. Conversely, as trust goes up productivity increases and costs decrease. This is the economics of trust in the organization.

And nothing impacts your ability to motivate employees more than the level of trust they have in you as a leader. Trusted leaders, first and foremost, are those whose actions match their words. In the same way children emulate what parents do more than what they say, employees look to see if the actions of their leaders align with their words. Keeping words and actions in lock step builds trust and credibility like nothing else.

In addition, a trustworthy leader:

  • Tells the truth even when it is easier to tell people what they want to hear;
  • Acknowledges when he or she does not have all the answers;
  • Is approachable and friendly to people without using his or her position of power to win them over;
  • Really listens to others by using paraphrase to check for understanding;
  • Shows support for employees, especially when mistakes are made;
  • Balances the need for results while being considerate of people’s feelings.

All of these attributes enable you to build lasting trust, and when people trust you, your ability to persuade them increases ten-fold.

According to Covey, trust is ultimately a function of character and competence. Character in this sense means integrity, motives, and intent with other people. Competence is your capabilities, skills, results, and track record. Both greatly impact the level of trust in any relationship.

But what if trust in your organization is already low? Is there anything that can be done to restore the lack of trust employees have in you? This is hard because trust is based on a feeling and you can’t force someone to trust you. Still, you can attempt to rebuild trust if you are: (1) sincere in your apology for any part you may have had in creating the distrust, (2) transparent with your intentions moving forward, (3) consistently able to walk your talk, and (4) able to demonstrate credibility in all your actions.

Effective business has always been the result of trustworthy relationships. If your trust as a leader is in doubt, then your organization will suffer. Strengthening this trust will serve you as well as your employees, suppliers, partners and customers like nothing else.

“The ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust with all stakeholders—customers, business partners, investors, and co-workers—is the key leadership competency for this new global economy,” says Covey.

Mark Craemer                    

Great Managers: Key to Employee Retention

December 18, 2009

During this time of economic recession and double-digit unemployment, it may seem odd to focus on employee retention. But I contend this is exactly the right time to identify and strengthen relationships with great managers because they determine whether your best employees stay or leave the company.

Recent research on employee retention found that people leave managers, not companies. If there is a turnover problem in your company, first look at your managers because managers trump companies. Employees may join a company because of its overall prestige and reputation, but the employee’s relationship with his immediate supervisor determines how long he will stay and how productive he is while there.

Great managers, like great coaches, focus on people first and then on the actual plays. Similarly, a great novelist often begins with characters rather than a plot. And the skill set of managers is not necessarily the same as that of leaders. It is important to look at your managers not simply as leaders in waiting, but recognize the unique managerial gifts and strengths they contribute to the organization as managers.

Organizational consultant and author Warren Bennis said that managers do things right and leaders do the right things. Leaders should be concerned with looking outward and focusing on the future for the organization, while managers should be looking inward and on the immediate details of the daily operations.

In their book “First, Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers do Differently,” Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman argue that great managers do the following:

1. Select an employee not only for her unique experience, intelligence and determination, but for her talents. Knowledge and skills are competencies that can be taught, while attitudes and beliefs are talents that are difficult to teach. Talents are recurring patterns of behavior productively applied. And they can have great value to any organization.

2. Set expectations by defining the right outcomes, rather than the right steps. Great managers communicate clearly what is expected of each person in order to accomplish the organization’s goals. Rather than direct each employee on the specific way to do their job, great managers provide freedom and support to the individual to get the job done well and on time.

3. Motivate the employee by focusing on his strengths rather than weaknesses. Great managers often act as coaches by providing clear feedback on what the employee is doing well as well as not so well. The best managers help build confidence by recognizing and utilizing each employee’s unique talents. Simply stated, stress what works and minimize what does not.

4. Develop the person to determine the right job fit and not necessarily the next rung on the corporate ladder. This often runs counter to what most of us think is necessary in many organizations. The fact is many people are not suited for nor do they want to be executives in a company. Great managers determine how to recognize and fully utilize an individual’s unique talents and enable them to be successful wherever they are in the organizational chart.

According to the Gallup Path to Business Performance, sustained increase in shareholder value must begin first by identifying employees’ strengths and second by determining the right fit for them. These steps are then directly followed by hiring great managers and creating engaged employees. Without these first four, there can be no loyal customers, sustained growth, real profit increase and, finally, stock increase.

The key to excellent performance then is to first find the best match between an employee’s talents and role. Identify and cultivate those talents so that they may be best put to use in the proper role to meet the organization’s goals and objectives. Finally, make it clear in no uncertain terms what outcomes are expected and let the individual employee determine the specific steps to reach them. In this way, great managers can keep employees fully engaged and help retain the best employees in the organization.

Mark Craemer                          

Effective Teamwork in Virtual Teams

September 28, 2009

Whether you lead a virtual team or simply participate on one, there are several ways to make your teamwork more effective. Given the added complexities of working in disparate locations—often across time zones and borders—it is challenging to establish strong communication, mutual trust, and overall camaraderie.

As I stated in an earlier post, a virtual team can be defined as a group of people who work interdependently with a shared purpose across space, time, and organization boundaries using technology. Virtual teams face unique challenges at every stage of their incarnation, but developing effective teamwork early is especially important.

Like all teams, a strong foundation for a virtual team requires a solid and agreed upon purpose (mission, goals, etc.), clarity among stakeholder expectations, a common understanding of team membership, clear roles and responsibilities, an opportunity to build rapport and relationships, and agreed communication protocols. But unlike co-located teams, virtual teams need to be more proactive, deliberate, explicit and disciplined in every aspect of working together.

Here are some tips when building an effective virtual teamwork environment:

  1. Get to know each other by discovering commonalities. Without water cooler conversations or running into each other in hallways, getting to know one another needs to be more intentional than with co-located teams. Find out what you share in common by talking about things outside of the task at hand. Team building exercises can be conducted to encourage participants to open up and see each other outside of their workplace role.
  2. Encourage trust among all team members. Trust is earned over time and cannot be mandated, of course. Take the time to allow for this trust to build on your virtual team. Ensure that every member of the team feels appreciated and comfortable speaking openly and honestly. Hold every person accountable for what they say they will do. Again team building exercises can help make building trust more intentional and therefore accelerate the process.
  3. Ensure that team members interact with each other. Simply accomplishing individual tasks does not make for an effective team member. Each team member needs to know the group’s current priorities, they need to share knowledge, skills and experience with each other, and they need to learn from each other. Virtual team members don’t work alone, but together apart from one another. A virtual team is about a group of people working interdependently and therefore they need to interact in order to accomplish the group’s goals.
  4. Create a virtual community. The duty and responsibility team members have toward each other helps create a sense of belonging, which is essential in any community. It is no different in a virtual environment. Enable and encourage communication outside of standard methods and channels. Consider virtual rooms, online bulletin boards, instant messaging and video conferencing in addition to standard conference calls. If at all possible, get individuals together in the same physical space and make time for non-work conversations, particularly at the beginning or end of a project.
  5. Make it fun to be part of the group. Provide a “check-in” opportunity for everyone to speak up and be recognized at team meetings. Encourage humor and story telling among team members. Practical jokes can build camaraderie and ease tension as long as it is done in a respectful manner. And don’t forget to celebrate milestones and accomplishments both privately and publicly.

Effective teamwork may boil down to simply great communication, trust, respect and camaraderie. Implementing these five tips will go a long way in making teamwork on your virtual team more effective.

Mark Craemer                                                                  

7 Keys to Highly Effective Virtual Teams

September 2, 2009

Virtual teams are on the rise in every industry and with good reason. The ability to accomplish goals as a team without being located in the same physical location can accelerate processes, reduce costs and enable true global collaboration. However, the challenges of virtual teams are also greater than those in co-located teams.

A virtual team can be defined here as a group of people who work interdependently with a shared purpose across space, time and organization boundaries using technology. However, all the existing technology that connects people on virtual teams has limitations. Without the benefit of sitting next to or across a conference room table from others, much is lost in terms of clear communication, mutual trust, and overall group dynamics. Communication is especially difficult without nonverbal clues such as body language and facial expressions. And anything that can go wrong face-to-face can also go wrong with virtual teams—only faster and less gracefully.

The key requirements for highly effective teams (co-located or virtual) include:

Trust – People work together effectively because they trust one another. With trust, groups converse easily, organize tasks more quickly, and manage themselves better. Without face-to-face clues, trust is harder to attain and easier to lose.

Respect – Everyone on the team has something to contribute and everyone’s opinion needs to be welcome. Only through this mutual respect can teams expect to function well.

Cooperation – In order to function effectively as a team, it is vital to fully cooperate with one another. This means allowing for disagreements and welcoming challenges with regard to one another’s view.

Commitment – Perhaps the most important requirement for a highly effective team is the commitment we each make to the team. Only through our commitment will we persevere through difficult periods when we otherwise might lose hope.

To be highly effective, virtual teams need all of the above as well as the following key requirements:

1. Appropriate Technology – Using the right technology to enable effective collaboration and communication is vital. This technology may include email, conference calls, video-conferencing, remote presentations, text messaging, chat-rooms, bulletin boards, web-conferencing, and other tools. Encourage the use of a variety of them to deepen collaboration and broaden perspectives.

2. Outstanding Communication – Choosing the appropriate medium (video conferencing, email, telephone, etc.), depending on the message, can be as important as the content itself. You should also carefully consider your audience and the context for your message. Then ensure that the words you use will not be confused or misinterpreted.

3. Shared Vision & Goals – Establishing a clear and inspiring vision as well as team goals shared among all members is vital to optimal performance. In addition, clarity among individual roles as well as group and individual expectations are necessary for all members to be on the same page.

4. Sense of Community – Every community requires mutual trust, respect, fairness, and affiliation. These are essential on virtual teams because individuals can often feel isolated across time and space, and requires creative ways to build a sense of community among all members. This can often be accomplished through team building and team bonding exercises, but requires continual attention.

5. Strong (and Shared) Leadership – With the absence of an opportunity to “manage by walking around,” leaders should check-in with individuals spontaneously to discuss issues or opportunities that arise. Leadership on virtual teams is often shared and this should be encouraged whenever possible so bottlenecks don’t slow progress.

6. Coordination and Collaboration – Because we don’t physically see each other working on a specific task, it is essential for a greater level of tracking and coordinating on projects in virtual teams. This coordination often transcends organizational boundaries and requires the collaboration of every team member.

7. Appropriate Electronic Body Language – Our tone of voice in conference calls, word choice and sentence structure in emails, and the speed of our response can all impact how our messages are received and interpreted. Virtual teams require that we are mindful and more deliberate in how we convey our messages.

All teams require trust, respect, cooperation and commitment to be highly effective, and virtual teams require this and more. By paying particular attention to the seven key requirements, your virtual team can be highly effective as well.

Mark Craemer