Leaders: Is it “safe” to work at your organization?

Leadership is about making people feel safe. When someone feels heard, they feel safe. ~Simon Sinek

In my position I hear things that leaders, managers, HR personnel, etc. never hear. I hear comments like “I can’t tell him what I really think!” “She’s my boss, I can’t just give her feedback.” Consequently, people leave organizations frustrated and never communicate what really caused them to look for another position. Or, instead of employees hearing that they aren’t meeting their supervisor’s expectations, they are gradually (and many times painfully) marginalized until they get so frustrated they resign. [But at least their supervisor never had to tell them what they really think.]

I’ve worked with a variety of organizations from manufacturing to human services. One of the mantras I hear frequently in manufacturing is “safety first,” and rightly so. They are referencing physical safety. Above all else, the number one priority is safety. What if all organizations assumed the same mantra? Only in this case “safety first” referred to psychological safety?

My examples describe the tip of the iceberg. The good news is leaders can create safety. Here is just one, of many, steps to move toward psychological safety.

Leaders must make it a consistent practice to ask for feedback.

Notice I said ask for feedback, not give feedback. Skillfully asking for feedback—especially when it comes from leadership—can be just one step toward building psychological safety. Jennifer Porter in the HBR article How Leaders Can Get Honest, Productive Feedback provides great advice about asking specific questions.

  1. Don’t ask, “What feedback do you have for me?” Terrible question! It’s vague and the other person has no idea what you expect (and you do have expectations). This question is kind of like putting a landmine between you and the other person and hoping, praying, they don’t step on it.
  2. Ask specific questions.
  3. Ask specific questions about events. “What did you hear when I gave my update?”
  4. Ask specific questions about possible bad habits. “How often do I cut people off in meetings?” Note, you didn’t ask do I, you asked how often to make it safe for them to provide a truthful answer.
  5. Ask specific questions about emotional impact. “How did it feel when you read my email?”
  6. Ask specific questions to garner recommendations. “What can I do to build my relationship with Joe?”

I’m guessing a few people reading this are thinking, “Aren’t these questions showing uncertainty or weakness?” These questions are demonstrating an outward or growth mindset (i.e., leadership) as opposed to an inward or fixed mindset (i.e., you looking smart). As Keith Rosen said, “Are you tough enough for vulnerability-based leadership”?

One step to psychological safety.

Leaders stop trying to look smart. Instead, leaders make it a consistent practice to skillfully ask for feedback.

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Why So Many Leader’s Goals Fall Short

If you pick the right small behavior and sequence it right, then you won’t have to motivate yourself to have it grow. It will just happen naturally, like a good seed planted in a good spot. ~B.J. Fogg

It’s a new year, and that means many leaders are setting goals for the year – personal and professional. In a few months (or maybe even weeks!) many of those goals will be tossed by the wayside. We will have determined, all too quickly, that we will never achieve those goals.

This is because when leaders simply set goals, they fall short!

I have an activity I use with leadership teams following the development of a new strategic plan – chockfull of goals. I go around the room and ask each leader to tell everyone in the room what they are going to do differently in order to help the organization achieve those goals. In other words, how are you going to behave differently. Typically, I get blank stares and most leaders don’t identify anything. Hence, why it’s so hard to achieve goals. We expect a different outcome without actually changing our behavior.

We stop with developing goals and don’t dig deeper to identify and commit to new behaviors. Goals are achieved by changed behavior, not by simply writing down hopes and dreams.

Think about this on a personal level. You can have a goal to lose 20 pounds by June. Even add some objectives, like workout at the gym three days a week. And, you may do just that; but then you’re soon back to the old routine.

Why? You didn’t change behaviors!

Example. To go to the gym at say 6:30am and stick with it, you may need to change your behavior and start going to bed earlier. You may need to shift your food choices and meal schedule so you have more energy early in morning.

Merriam-Webster defines behavior as: “anything that we do involving action and response to stimulation.” What is stimulating you and how are you responding to that stimulation?

Many organizations have a goal around innovation. However, when presented with a new idea in a team meeting (stimulation) several key leaders immediately begin to critique the idea and list all of the barriers, issues, etc. why it won’t work (response to stimulation). If they want the organization to achieve a goal involving more innovation, then these key leaders need to make a change in their behavior. [Note, while this might sound like an obvious example, I’ve seen this scenario happen on numerous occasions.]

If you want to achieve your goals this year (personal & professional), what behaviors do you need to change?  How will you begin responding differently to specific types of stimulation?

“Pick the right small behavior, and sequence it right,” to achieve your goals in 2019.

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Leaders know: culture trumps strategy.

You can’t trade your company’s culture in as if it were a used car.  For all its benefits and blemishes, it’s a legacy that remains uniquely yours.  Cultures evolve over time—sometimes slipping backward, sometimes progressing—and the best you can do is work with and within them, rather than fight them.~Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, Caroline Kronley

I’ve read a number of articles and studies about why strategic plans fail and have attempted to steer leaders clear of those obstacles. I’ve come across numerous articles that not only highlight, but emphasize the critical nature of a strategy aligning with a culture in order to have that strategy be embraced by the organization.

Authors Katzenbach, Steffen, and Kronley wrote a thought-provoking article in HBR entitled, Cultural Change that Sticks: Start with What’s Already Working. There are many great takeaways from this article, but I’m going to highlight the nuggets that really stood out to me. The author trio said…

Leaders: Start with What’s Already Working

Too often an organization’s strategy, imposed from above, is at odds with the ingrained practices and attitudes of its culture. Leaders may underestimate how much a strategy’s effectiveness depends on culture alignment. Culture trumps strategy every time.

Change is Hard

Studies show that only 10% of people who have had heart bypass surgery or an angioplasty make major modifications to their diets and lifestyles afterward. We don’t alter our behavior even in the face of overwhelming evidence that we should. Change is hard. So you need to choose your battles.

Observe the behavior prevalent in your organization now, and imagine how people would act if your organization were at its best, especially if their behavior supported your business objectives. Ask the people in your leadership groups, “If we had the kind of culture we aspire to, in pursuit of the strategy we have chosen, what kinds of new behaviors would be common? And what ingrained behaviors would be gone?”

It’s tempting to dwell on the negative traits of our culture, but any corporate culture is a product of good intentions that evolved in unexpected ways and will have many strengths. If you can find ways to demonstrate the relevance of the original values and share stories that illustrate why people believe in them, they can still serve your organization well. Acknowledging the existing culture’s assets will also make major change feel less like a top-down imposition and more like a shared evolution.

I’ve watched numerous organizations struggle to implement their strategic plan. In retrospect, in several cases I can see where the strategy was asking the organization to make a cultural leap that probably felt like they were trying to straddle the Grand Canyon. I would argue that it’s always good to challenge yourself in a strategic plan, but starting with what’s working within your culture as a launching pad certainly makes all kinds of sense.

Swim Downstream

It’s kind of like choosing to swim downstream and throwing in a new stroke every so often to continue to evolve overtime—gradually, intentionally, and gently.

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A Lesson in Grace for Leaders from George H.W. Bush

We as a people have such purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world. ~George H.W. Bush, January 20, 1989 Inauguration

This past week while the nation said a final goodbye to our 41st President, several images that stood out to me. One of those images was the friendship that developed between George H .W. Bush and Bill Clinton. This friendship reminded me of one of the points in Simon Sinek’s forthcoming book, The Infinite Game. Simon makes a case for the idea that leaders who view leadership from the paradigm of an infinite game will have a worthy rival as opposed to a competitor.

A Worthy Rival

A worthy rival is acknowledged and treated with respect. Our success or failure isn’t measured against them. Our rivals push us to improve. We are constantly striving to become a better version of ourselves. Ultimately, we are competing against ourselves.

Who are the beneficiaries when leaders become rivals instead of competitors? The followers! Using politics as an example, imagine two candidates who are pushing each other to become better, who create strategies as if their #1 competitor is themselves. We get two better candidates from which to choose!

Leaders Have a Worthy Rival Mindset

Last week CNN reported, “Once political rivals, Presidents Bush and Clinton ended up forming an unlikely friendship.”CNN quoting Bush, “Just because you run against someone does not mean you have to be enemies. Politics does not have to be mean and ugly.”

This CNN piece was titled The letter George H.W. Bush left for Clinton is a lesson in grace. If you have or haven’t read this letter, I believe it’s worth repeating. It’s a wonderful example of a leader’s worthy rival mindset.

Dear Bill,

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.

I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.

There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.

Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.

Good luck—


May all leaders find the courage to become a worthy rival, and lead with grace, as did George H.W. Bush.

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Leaders, Stop Wasting Money on Team Building

Failure to collaborate was, ironically, a function of their excelling at the jobs they were hired to do and of management reinforcing that excellence. ~Carlos Valdes-Dapena

Stop Wasting Money on Team Building is an article title I’ve seen pop-up in social media over the past couple of weeks. I decided it was time to give it a read. I agree with the basic premise of the author. Spending lots of money on activities like rope courses, cooking classes, etc. provides a short-term bonding experience. Unfortunately, when back at the office and faced with tense situations and conflict, that “team building” will have disappeared.

I believe that some of the emphasis on team building over the past number of years has swung the pendulum too far in one direction. Leaders assume that nearly every effort in organizations should be completed in collaboration. And all that collaborating makes organizations more effective. We need collaboration. We need to be more strategic and thoughtful about when collaborating really is the best approach.

Basketball team?

Some authors suggest that real teams, the most collaborative teams, resemble the highly interdependent and constant interaction of a basketball team. This is contrasted with a golf team, made up of highly independent team members. I’m going to step-out and disagree with this perspective.

First of all, there is a great deal of research that indicates that we are most innovative and creative when working alone, independently. Second, sometimes too much collaboration results in group think. You’re not finding the best answer but instead the one you’ve collectively gravitated towards.

Or relay team?

Is there a happy medium? I think so. I’ll stick with the sporting analogy and suggest that team building needs to focus on becoming better relay teams. There is significant time spent working independently. Similar to a relay team, the handoffs become extremely critical. So critical that the handoff can mean the difference between winning and losing.

This also means a shift in prioritizing our “team building” efforts. The author of Stop Wasting Your Money on Team Building points out, the priority shifts to establishing accountability. For those individuals involved in this research, they said that “collaboration is an idealized and vague goal with no concrete terms or rules. Collaboration is messy. It dilutes accountability and offers few tangible rewards.” Consequently, here are three things this group of employees did differently that resulted in significant organizational performance improvements – a different way to look at team building.

  • Build collaborative commitments into individual performance objectives
  • Co-create a list of behaviors expected of each other in support of those commitments
  • Agree upon how to hold yourselves accountable

I think this is much more like a relay team. Recognize that some efforts are completed more effectively without a great deal of collaboration, but within the context of collaborative commitments (like a relay handoff). Then determine behaviors to support those commitments (decide which relay handoff technique you’ll use). Finally, how will you hold yourselves accountable (will you win or lose the race).

In a nutshell

Team Building = Building Accountability

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