Confession: I was a benevolent dictator | SmartBrief


Source: Confession: I was a benevolent dictator | SmartBrief

A good piece on a book I enjoyed and have touched on in another piece called Multipliers.

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.


Building stomach for the journey of tough decisions

A colleague and I did an online course on adaptive leadership this fall.  The course was free (through +Acumen) and supported by generous excerpts from a book called The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.

The general idea is that we need to adapt our leadership to situations and the course guides you through exercises which would help you probe particular areas which might require your adaptive skills.  The work of the course is to separate technical challenges from ones that are more complex and need emotional commitment and engagement.

Some of the  readings that resonated with me were on the execution of tough decisions.

“Tough decisions require that you put your heart into them, nourish the possibilities and then make a commitment to a course of action. If you are struggling with a decision then it is likely that all the options have merit.  Outcomes are usually significantly influenced by factors beyond your control and imagination.  And most decisions are iterative.  You can make a move, take the risk and if things are going well, continue, and if not, take corrective action.  See if you can lighten the load on your decisions and even make better choices because tough does not necessarily mean important – stakes may not be as high as you imagine them to be (versus medical judgements which are high stakes).  Maybe you are just making the next move on the dance floor. Think of a past tough decision and take heart in knowing that you survived whatever decision you made. And if you need to give yourself permission to fail, prepare the ground for your constituents.  Enlist them in giving it a shot – language is crucial – not that you can be counted on to pull this off but rather, perhaps that you are trying something to push the envelope.”


And on building stomach for the journey:

“Building resilience is similar to training for a marathon.  You need to start somewhere…In an organizational context, this can kind of training can take the form of staying in a difficult conversation longer than you normally would etc.[…] To further build your stomach for the adaptive leadership journey keep reminding yourself of your purpose.  Runners look forward, not down.  Saying focused on the goal ahead will keep you from being preoccupied or overwhelmed by the number of steps necessary to get there. ”

“Leading adaptive change will almost certainly test the limits of your patience. […] Impatience can hurt you in numerous ways.  Your raise a question and don’t get an immediate response.  So you jump right in and keep pounding on the question.  Each time you pound, you send the message that you are the only person responsible for that question. You own it.  And the more you pound away, the less willing people are to share ownership of the question themselves.  And if they do not feel any ownership of the question they will have less investment in whatever the resolution turns out to be.”

“You can find patience by tapping into your ability to feel compassion for others involved in the change effort.  Compassion comes from understanding other people’s dilemmas, being aware of how much you are asking of them.  Your awareness of their potential losses will calm you down and give you patience as you travel a journey that may be more difficult for them than for you.”

If you want to take on a patience building exercise:  Recall situations in the past when you have experienced great patience and think about what enabled you to do that.  Perhaps you were patient as your child learned something and you could remember yourself how hard it was for you to learn these skills.   Or you believed that most people survive difficult journeys and mastered needed skills so you had optimism that fuelled your patience.

Beyond measure – The secret sauce that makes excellent teams


(c) Wayne S. Grazio

(c) Wayne S. Grazio


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.

Taking the Stress Out of Stressful Conversations – Harvard Business Review

(c) mikeyp2000

Taking the Stress Out of Stressful Conversations – Harvard Business Review.

To my mind, there may never be enough material out there on difficult conversations so happy to pass on this one which focuses on tactics to reduce stress in difficult conversations.

It’s worth the full read for some of the suggested tactics for particular types of difficult conversations.

General information for all tense interactions:

Be aware of your own reactions to stress so that you can modulate effectively.

Practice what you want to say with a neutral colleague – start with a no holds barred version and then work to dial it back.

Think, in advance, of some key phrases that you could rely on during a difficult conversation so that you can recall them.  Though it sounds a bit contrived, I have to agree with the reason why this is suggested – it’s like CPR training – you can’t always rely on finding the right words under stress.


“Honour your partner” – take responsibility for your own actions which may have contributed to the conflict.

Disarm by stating your intentions – can be as simple as saying,  “I can see how that could have been understood but that isn’t what I meant.”

Fight tactics not people – a good variation on focus on the problem not the person.

Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! | Video on

Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! | Video on

A great  TED talk – a lovely, funny  and passionate talk on why traditional aid models don’t work and how the art of listening and teamwork are needed to fuel entrepreneurial spirit.

Tips for Better Listening based on 7 Types of Listeners

Tips for Better Listening based on 7 Types of Listeners Part One (first three)

Tips for Better Listening based on 7 Types of Listeners Part Two (last four)

A list of seven types of listeners and some strategies to deal with each type.

The articles cover descriptions of each type of listener and what to do if you find yourself in one of the less flattering descriptors.  My focus here is to summarize how the author suggests to brief these types of listeners.

  1. The “Preoccupieds”:  You can ask if this is a good time to talk.
  2. The “Out-to-lunchers”:  Check in periodically to see if they are following what you are saying.
  3. The “Interrupters”: Suggestion here is to let them continue with their interruption because they won’t be listening to you otherwise.  You can then bring to their attention that you have been interrupted by saying:  “As I was saying…”
  4. The “Whatevers”: Consider asking questions to increase involvement.
  5. The “Combatives”: Focus on the future and how to do things better.
  6. The “Analysts”: If you are speaking to an “Analyst,” you might begin by saying, “I just need to run something by you. I’m not looking for any advice.” “
  7. “The Engagers”:  “This is listening at the highest level. Their listening skills encourage you to continue talking and give you the opportunity to discover your own solutions and let your ideas unfold.”


10 Things Bosses Wish They Could Tell Employees | LinkedIn

A good post, though I can’t agree wholeheartedly with all of it  – in particular, in our world, I feel that we are well remunerated so I can’t honestly say that I want to pay everyone more.  But more vacation, a wholehearted “yes” on that one.

I do love this bit in particular though which reflects how I am feeling on a not so good day about my attempts at being a leader:

“Leadership is like a smorgasbord of insecurity.

I worry about sales. I worry about costs. I worry about facilities and employees and vendors and customers and… you name it, I worry about it.

So occasionally I’m snappy. Occasionally I’m distracted. Occasionally I’m tense and irritable and short-tempered. It’s not your fault. I’m just worried.

More than anything, I’m worried about whether I can fulfill the trust you place in me as your boss.”

via 10 Things Bosses Wish They Could Tell Employees | LinkedIn.

Support Your Team… Quietly – Kevin Ochsner – Harvard Business Review

Support Your Team… Quietly – Kevin Ochsner – Harvard Business Review.

A fascinating article on why we might embrace strategies to support employees that would focus on implicit support more than explicit support.

Specifically, the studies cited show that for people in stressful situations (studying for bar exams, giving an important speech), where people try to give support by giving advice (explicit support), this is less effective than implicit support forms.  These  forms of implicit support would include listening, telling the person that they have the situation under control and maybe indicating that the support person has been in similar situations and might be well-positioned to give support as requested.

Why is implicit support more effective – this goes back to the key ideas in Daniel Pink’s seminal book “Drive.” This kind of support leaves the person in the stressful situation autonomy to “fix” it as they see fit and thus more empowered.

“By conveying the belief that the person you’re coaching can cope with the situation, and offering yourself as an indirect example of how one can fail but find ways to succeed, you can communicate that they are competent while still imparting guidance. As a result, you can support their sense of self-control and lessen anxiety at the same time.


If you want to explicitly help others with their emotions, think twice about jumping in to fix their problems or telling them that you’re there to help. Look for ways to help people see for themselves that things will turn out ok, provide a shoulder to lean on when requested, and offer advice indirectly without calling attention to the fact that they seem to be buckling pressures of a tough day at the office.”

Seth’s Blog: I know what you should do

Seth’s Blog: I know what you should do.

More good stuff from Seth Godin. His point here – no we don’t know what other people should do, we only know what we would do in the same situation. He links this to empathy and I’ll make another connection to things going on in my life.

As those close to me know, I am embarking on a significant training undertaking over the next few months to learn about the disciple of being a management coach.  Much of the practice is the leap of faith that, in many instances, we can support people to finding their own ways out of dilemmas, situations etc.  While this won’t be the case all the time – there will be urgent situations, there will be situations where a lack of information is the issue – I am looking forward to exploring the limits of this empowering presumption in the coming months.

Oversharing Part II

In the second post on the theme of “less is more”, a link to a blog post that summarizes a key point in Marshall Goldsmith’s book “What got you here, won’t get you there: How successful people become even more successful.”

The author makes the link between the unintended disconnect between the desire of some managers to add value who then unwittingly decrease engagement.

He recounts how an employee might bring a great idea to the manager and the manager may “[R]ather than saying ‘great idea’, — being the brilliant, technically gifted person I am, I may well say, ‘That is a very good idea. Why don’t you add this to it?’ “

He posits that the quality of the idea may go up 5% with the suggestions, but that the commitment to its execution may go down by 50% because it is no longer the employee’s idea because the manager has made it their idea.

This might be hard to stomach for some as it may be a knock on their own identity as managers.  However, there is much other value that can be added by managers that won’t run as much risk of decreasing engagement, including advocacy for employees’ ideas.

When Should You Keep Your Ideas to Yourself? – Marshall Goldsmith.