The pop-up dental clinic is being set up in a high school in Memphis. Tarp laid and chairs set up.
One of my foodie friends enjoys reading the comment threads on recipes to read the responses from the recipe haters who swap out this for that and sub out a few more things they didn’t have on hand and angrily give a one star review to a recipe that bears no resemblance to the the one posted. A wiser person than me finally handed me the clear rule that I have now adopted, the first time you make something, just follow the instructions to have some idea of how it is supposed to go down. Even respecting the instructions so much can change your outcome. Using baking as an example, how hot is your oven really? How much moisture is in that flour that has been sitting in your dry as bone mid-winter house? You get the picture.
This was one of many lessons I had re-enforced when I went down to Memphis recently to fulfil a long held curiosity to help at a pop-up medical clinic put on by Remote Area Medical. I was in turn, fascinated and pushed to exhaustion by my minimal contribution to this clinic.
One of my firmly reenforced mantras was to first, seek to trust the instructions. What abetted this trust was understanding the reason behind the instructions and hearing it from such credible sources.
I was trained on-the-spot for a number of tasks in a clear, step-by-step fashion. These instructions might include things like the number of parts I was looking for and what order I would have to do them in. Perhaps most importantly, they would usually include the why behind the instructions. The job accurately billed as the worst of the day was to set-up 60 folding dental chairs. They were heavy and not entirely cooperative but could be made to stand just fine if you followed all the instructions. In one case we had to move the position of a central rod using a crank before we started other parts of the set up. If you did this in the wrong order, you’d have to redo the set up to correct. Horrors. In other cases we would sanitize an item and then leave some object in a particular place as a symbol that we had done all the required steps.
I generally follow rules and instructions so it wasn’t a hard sell to follow along and given that you have the background motivation that you want vulnerable people well served. That said, there were motivations to cut corners. This work was exhausting with a small crew that had mostly been recruited to do actual medical work and it wasn’t the patient-facing work which many volunteers were likely hoping to do when they signed up.
What also helped was that I could fully and completely trust the source of the instructions. My admiration for the RAM folks was very deep because it was evident that they had hammered out the design of the clinic thoughtfully and deliberately over time (they have done over 800 clinics). Things are put away in a specific way so that they can be carried or hauled and so that it is clear what is in each bin. They tie off plastic bins to show that they are full with three complete settings for dental stations. No need to count, we can trust this. Carrying cases are colour coded so they are directed to the right vehicles.
As a last observation, I can see now that I was also motivated to follow the instructions because I was continually surrounded by people who would help keep me on track if I was unsure as to how to go ahead- not choking micro-management but supportive access to supervision. There was no need to wildly freelance to fill in the gaps.
Tony Schwartz describes CEOs as Chief Energy Officers and writes here about his experience of re-orienting a meeting where he was feeding the group many new ideas with enthusiasm, and not receiving the warm welcome he had hoped for. Instead he was hearing about people’s stress and lack of recognition for the work done so far.
My two favourite points in his response:
“Because human beings have a strong “negativity bias,” we pay more attention to our bad feelings than to our good ones. It once clearly served our survival to be vigilant about what might go wrong and that instinct persists. Today, it may serve to buffer us from disappointment, but it also promotes disproportionate and destructive discontent. The simple question “What’s going right?” provides ballast in tough times.”
“The highest skill — whatever your role — is the willingness to embrace opposite feelings without choosing up sides. Acknowledging bad feelings is key to being able to address what’s causing them. Recognizing they’re only one part of the story frees us to notice what we feel good about and grateful for, which helps us to feel positive even in the face of ongoing challenges.”
I’d add a third observation from the first rate materials and training that I have received from the National Managers’ Community in the Government of Canada: Behind every complaint is a commitment. Whereas in my early days as a manager my instincts might lead me to wonder why people were “just being oppositional” when work needed to get done, when now I take the space for explorations of the values that people are indirectly expressing when they are complaining, I have found important information that may provide a jumping off point to a better working relationship. The number one reason that people are complaining: they want sufficient time and space to submit a good product.
This article focuses on the ability to empower employees by shaking off the inclination to be a constant contributor to the ideas they bring and resisting the temptation to give step-by-step instructions for every task.
I especially liked the quote that when you give advice, the brain is essentially asleep versus when you ask questions it engages the listener.
I liked this piece on the importance of humility in leadership. I have posted here and here on this issue, but this one brought more practically to the subject which I appreciated.
The need for humility in leadership may not be obvious when you think of the stereotype of leaders who should be confident taking decisions and giving direction. To me the why of humility in leadership is a fusion of understanding that: you need a lot more information than you have to do your job, you may be your best version of a leader when you are in service to everyone, and that humility will help you build endurance for the journey.
From this piece, I particularly liked the test to ask yourself the question “How do you act when you are interrupted?” (and ask yourself how you’d react when you are busy and when it is someone below you on the org chart).
It’s a brilliantly simple question and it hits at an area of deliberate growth for me in the past few years. I work in an open concept office so there is no easy way to signal when I am trying to get through something and would prefer not be interrupted. Though I am sure that I have spent too long acting perturbed that I have been interrupted, I have now taken the decision to treat my entire work day (with rare, clearly announced exceptions) as if I am hosting office hours. This isn’t to say that I can give each conversation its due at the moment it is proposed – sometimes a sit down meeting is more appropriate and at times I am on my way somewhere. That said, as a default, I want to be as present as I can for what people are coming to say.
I have learned good habits on this from observing others. I used to marvel at senior leaders who acted as if they had all the time in the world to listen to you brief when I would be distracted at thinking about how busy they were and how I didn’t want to waste their time with a long briefing. I then resolved to also be calm and clearly in receiving mode when employees would come and talk to me since expressing irritation, anger or panic do not support receiving the information needed.
Humility may save you from a mindset that won’t serve you well when you hit unfamiliar terrain. The more you think you should (already) know how to be a good leader including from being told that you have inherent talent for the job, the less prepared you are to succeed when you reach an unfamiliar situation. Carol Dweck makes a great point in this piece on mindset and leadership – it is much easier to have humility at the beginning of your management career and this wanes over time. So the ultimate question is how to continue to show humility the longer you stay in a management role and no matter the stress you are feeling.
We are in March madness for finishing our year end appraisals in the public service so this is timely. I don’t think that it would be a surprise that giving feedback that may not be well received is stressful for anyone – managers or clients or friends. It’s a skill I will be working on for the rest of my life. And though I have benefitted greatly from this book on Difficult Conversations which I consider a management bible, I have likely gotten as much benefit from cross-discipline study on empathy and compassion.
I was more disheartened to see here that the issue could be framed as widely as communicating writ large and that giving credit or recognition were sources of significant difficulty for so many managers.
That said, I am a very introverted person by nature and I would suspect that there are many other introverted managers out there learning new communication patterns to align with this role.
What has helped me most was likely deliberate practice for all types of communications. Something greater than “just do it” though that is half the battle.
A former coach asked me to put a post-it on my computer to remind me to initiate more phone calls over emails – it was a good move. I got so much more useful information at the margins of those conversations then I had ever planned that it became a habit.
For recognition, I have been influenced by this excellent book, and I now prepare so I can be very clear on why a person’s contribution is appreciated. I’ve watched train wrecks where someone freestyles it and the wrong person is congratulated for something and soaring moments where significant and long-standing contribution is paid meaningful tribute.
For difficult conversations, I (over) prepare to try and understand the issue, the effect on the team and what my role is in the situation. For these ones, the most difficult preparation is to remember to both stay on message and roll with the punches. You may want to jump in at the deep end and be aware of your own reactions to stress so you can have strategies to moderate in advance.
And for any communication that I’d find a challenge, I try to create my own feedback loop as to what went well and what I can do better in future. Lastly, I benefit from remembering while I am learning that learning to receive feedback is its own skill.
A very useful piece from the author of Just Listen – one of my favourite books for management reading of the past few years. Some helpful strategies here on what to do when you are struggling to listen to a venter or an over-explainer. Start from the premise that despite the lack of great communications skills, venters may have important things to tell you and that explainers may not be able to leave the belabouring space until they feel you have heard them. For over-explainers in particular, they may be having trouble feeling heard in other parts of their life and the impatience of the listener may actually cause them to delve even deeper into over-explaining.
The advice is essentially the same for both: override your instinct to shut down and ensure that you stay present for their words. The author even suggests that you focus on their left eye – which is connected to the right brain or the emotional brain.
Then when they are finished, say a variation of the following:
“I can see you’re really frustrated/had a lot to say. To make sure I don’t add to that, and to make sure I don’t miss something, what was the most important thing I need to do in the long term, what’s the critical thing I need to do in the short term, and what do I need to get done ASAP?”
After they respond, say to them, “What you just said is way too important for me to have misunderstood a word, so I’m going to say it back to you to make sure I am on the same page with you. Here’s what I heard.” Then repeat exactly, word for word, what they said to you. After you finish, say to them, “Did I get that right and if not, what did I miss?” Forcing them to listen to what you said they said, “because it was important,” will slow them down, will help you stay centered and in control, and will earn you their and your own respect.
Though this formula may not work for every setting, it’s a good starting off place – you clearly had something important to tell me, have I heard you?
I’m enjoying the new series of short books (long essays really) put out by the TED group. These are single topic books that you can buy for your kindle for approx $10-$15 Canadian. I’ve enjoyed all that I’ve read including this first one called “Beyond Measure.” The book is a good and easy read but I’d welcome a longer treatment of the topic – it’s an important one.
The thesis on this one is that great teams are made by something difficult to measure and this is a strong work culture. The author calls it the secret sauce of organizational life. Culture is comprised of small actions and though often beyond our control as managers, it is happily non-linear in its spread.
You can create a strong work culture by building trust in an environment that generates the best ideas.
Unhelpfully. our brains like efficiency and search for matches including in hiring when we tend to hire mirrors of our selves not people who will help us be windows to the outside world. This means we don’t get the best ideas.
To generate a stronger team culture where new ideas are introduced including ones that will run against the grain, we need courageous leadership. This is a culture that will see people calmly raise issues and concerns. Unanimity is a sign that participation isn’t really whole-hearted. (She uses harrowing examples of plane crashes caused by bad work cultures and lack of communication, to illustrate this point).
She makes a good point there is often more give in most systems than we’d expect for raising new ideas. The challenge is to solicit discomforting data which will help us elaborate what we’d see if we were wrong. She uses a great example of US intelligence sniffing out the end of the cold war in her text. Basically, the top gun had been told that the cold war was in full force but when he stated probing if contrary data was available he found it. (meat being stolen from trains with no state recourse).
Hearteningly, she tells us what it takes to get collective intelligence in a team: ensuring each person speaks an equal amount of time, getting a group that is socially sensitive (to needs of others, group dynamics) and groups that include more women (this is thought to be linked to the second element).
The higher the social capital of a group, the better it can deal with conflict. The capital is created through a culture of trust and the ability to build on good ideas to make them even better.
Finally she cites “Project Oxygen” the study Google did on what makes a good manager. Subject matter expertise was found at the bottom of the list which was a surprise to many. At the top, good managers were ones who believe in and care about their staff and take an interest in their lives and allow employees to sort things out by asking them questions instead of giving direction.
A good article from a couple of months back discussing the importance of maintaining relationships. As wiser folks than me have pointed out, always best to do this in advance of needing to lean on them.
The article highlights the need for your humility in this process and putting aside personal dislikes. Though they focus on the relationship with your boss, I think I’d be more keen to engage in a 360 degree strategy.
“…[I]dentify the most critical relationships, those individuals crucial to both your success and the success of the business, and nurture those relationships. This entails asking people’s opinions, even if you don’t think their views are likely to be helpful. It means telling people what you are doing and why—sharing information with them so they never feel left out. Serving relationships means going to visit people in their offices, not yours, and in countless other ways showing others that you value them, their experience, and their expertise.”
Behind many complaints there is a request or a commitment.
I was reviewing some materials produced by the National Managers’ Community for a course I was hoping to take before I was felled by a bad cold. No matter, as preparation, I got a chance to revisit some coaching techniques that I have learned before to bring them back to front of mind. I realized that there is a certain magic to remembering that we have the power to reframe behaviours we find difficult in the workplace. Taken from the guide available to all Coaching Practices for Managers, we can listen for both requests and commitments that are obscured behind complaints.
A complaint that someone has too many different files or doesn’t want to work on a certain file, may be a commitment to being a credible expert on the material. It may also be a request to reframe expectations around handling multiple files.
A complaint that insufficient numbers of documents are getting vetted by key partners may be a request for commitment to adequate consultation. It may also just be a request for an update on what consults were done and why.
A complaint against late meeting starts or rambling updates may be a commitment to protecting people’s time and ensuring that key agenda items get the air time they need.
More generally, this practice helped me remember that I can always ask “what else is going on here?” faced by a situation that I find challenging. Instead of making assumptions about why something is occurring, I can ask “What is the unmet need that is prompting this request?” or when I feel that my requests to my team/boss are going unmet, I can ask “What need of my own have I have failed to express to my team?”
An important piece for me to have read this year – I work with a hardworking and understandably tired team.
The best bits in my opinion:
“Help your team understand what matters most. Be frank about what can be lost without sacrificing your mission. Candor strengthens resolve. Empowering “less than perfect”, energizes the front lines.”
“Provide a little leave: “Your highest performers won’t complain. They’ll take on more, and work longer hours to get it done. You may not even know they’re tired. Initiate the conversation. Establish regular check-ins. Make it okay to politely question your asks.”
Manage your own stress: Stress rolls down hill. Get a grip.