Thursday, September 26, 2013

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

Why they make managers crazy, and what to do about employee excuses

One-time or infrequent incidents might be understood or overlooked, but managers really cannot afford to accept excuses for ongoing performance problems. In any organization, employees quickly notice when excuses are allowed and by tolerating them, you create a culture of avoidance rather than responsibility.
We hate when someone comes to us with an excuse. We hate having to deal with tardiness, or too many sick calls. We hate when people don’t make deadlines. We hate when people make too many mistakes and don’t seem accountable for their jobs. We hate when people refuse to take responsibility.

While giving an explanation may often be necessary and accepted, making excuses is never acceptable and may only convince your boss you’re not able to handle your job responsibilities. Or possibly even worse, that you don’t really care about your job or the company’s mission.

As leaders and managers, we sometimes see that it’s easier for an employee to come up with an excuse than it is to actually get something done. We need to address excuses and challenge our employees to be better.

Excuses that set our hair on fire
Traffic was bad (or the parking lot was full and I couldn’t find a spot, or……whatever) for the fifth time this month. Really? You know your route to work, you know what times parking is the worst. Plan ahead. The occasional traffic accident is inevitable and no one is going to hold it against you if this happens once in a great while, but you’re an adult, plan for the delays you have a reasonable expectation will occur frequently. If you mmake something like this a habit, honest or not, your boss won’t be too sympathetic.

It’s Mary’s fault, she didn’t give me what I needed. Ok, so this might be both an explanation and an excuse. Don’t wait until the deadline has passed. If you’re waiting for a co-worker to do her part and it’s not forthcoming, alert your boss to the issue, do what you can to encourage that person to get the work done. Blaming someone else will not make you any friends or help you in the future. Managers should also not accept such a situation, either. If Mary, or Joe in another department, has not produced what is needed, check into it. Don’t allow your employees to fail because they didn’t have what they needed to get the job done.

I don’t know how to do this. Admitting you don’t know how to do a task, after the fact, is a surefire way to lose the confidence of your boss. On the other hand, asking for help at the beginning, asking to be shown how something should be done is quite OK and actually desirable. Also, taking the initiative to do some research on your own to figure it out can be a great way to show that you’re willing to admit you don’t know everything (none of us do) and that you’re willing to make the effort to get it right. The other side of the coin is that managers need to make sure their staff has the knowledge, resources and appropriate authority to get the job done. Not doing so is setting people up for failure.

I didn’t know; no one told me. Of course not. We didn’t tell you about the new policy or the old policy or…..whatever. We really thought you were psychic. Seriously, we disseminated this information in twelve different ways (in memos, emails, on the company intranet, in the newsletter, in meetings, one to one conversations, ad nauseum. Please, just read what we give you; listen to what we communicate in whatever form we communicate it. Don’t ever assume whatever it is doesn’t apply to you.

Everybody makes that mistake….. Some people think that mistakes are okay because they might be common. If you’re a good employee, you’re not "common". Double check your work, use available resources to ensure your work is accurate and follows protocol. Even "common" mistakes made frequently will still lower your stature in your boss’s eyes.

Jack is so unreasonable, I can never meet his standards…Difficult people will always be around; you need to get used to dealing with them, whether they be customers or co-workers. You make yourself valuable when you find ways to deal with difficult people. However, if there is someone who is consistently difficult to work with, managers need to address that to ensure work flows smoothly and the team is not stymied in its goals.

What can leaders and managers do to limit excuses and promote accountability and responsibility?

Lead by example. Do not make excuses either for yourself or others and do not allow employees' excuses to distract you from the issues at hand. Take action promptly to address problem behavior. Allowing poor performance because of excuses will simply serve to show staff this approach works and they will do the same thing.

Take no responsibility for and avoid giving advice on employees’ personal problems. You are not responsible for your employees’ personal problems, and in fact, may run afoul of any number of employment laws if done badly. Focus on work-related and performance issues. Refer the employee to the employee-assistance program and/or to HR to deal with personal issues and stay away from the temptation to fall into the counselor or parental role.

Focus on solutions. Recognize that the behavior has already happened, and no amount of excuses will change what has already occurred. Inform the employee that you are less interested in the reasons why the problem occurred than you are on fixing the problem and preventing it from occurring again. Emphasize that the employee is responsible for ensuring that the problem behavior does not continue.

Ask questions. Determine the root cause of the problem. If an employee indicates he didn’t have time to complete a project, ask, "When did you start working on it?" or "How did you prioritize your time?" Or, if an employee says, "No one from the xyz department returned my email" you can ask, "Did you try calling them?" or "Did you let me or another manager know this?"

By asking the right questions, you’ll be able to demonstrate—without having to actually say it—that many excuses aren’t really reasonable. But beyond that, asking these types of questions will communicate to your employees that you’re not just going to accept excuses, but that you’ll work to resolve the issue with substance.

Take action quickly to deal with the problem behavior (I know, I’m repeating myself, but this is important). This makes it clear to the employee and others within the organization that consequences exist, regardless of excuses.

While it’s important to focus on responsibility and accountability for getting the job done, don’t ignore legitimate issues. Managers can use these instances to provide development opportunities and advice. Offer time management strategies that have worked for you; make resources available for learning new tasks, technologies or procedures (while making the employee responsible for utilizing them). In other words, ensure your staff has the knowledge, resources and appropriate authority to do the job.

Ultimately, as a leader or manager, we have to answer to someone as well. Don’t let excuses force you to have to make excuses to someone else later.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Leading With Your Values

"Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny."
Mahatma Gandhi

Most organizations have a mission/vision/values statement. It may include concepts such as integrity, quality, respect, teamwork, customer service or innovation. Often companies prominently display their values on plaques, posters, business cards, marketing materials and annual reports.

Our personal values get us going every morning, help us choose the friends we’ll have, the relationships we’ll build, and, the groups and organizations that we’ll work for or lead. Our values influence every decision and move we make, even to the point of how we choose to make our decisions.

Defining Values-Based Leadership
Values-based leadership has been defined in many different ways, but is primarily defined as leading by example, doing the right thing for the right reasons and not compromising core principles. Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, Inc., remarked, "The only thing that works is management by values. Find people who are competent and really bright, but more importantly, people who care exactly about the same thing you care about."

But when values are ignored and people don’t live by them, they have no meaning. Even worse, the atmosphere becomes hypocritical and toxic, and employees may lose respect for both the organization and its leaders. It is one more reason people aren’t engaged with their work.

When values are incorporated into action, however, people feel purpose, direction and connection with their job and their organization. When employees connect to company values they have even more commitment, higher productivity, and better engagement with each other and customers or clients.

Leaders must take responsibility for their organization’s values and for making sure their employees share in those values. This is never easy. It’s one thing to agree with lofty words and concepts; it’s quite a bit different to turn them into action. Leaders, at all levels, are responsible, and need to be held accountable for, ensuring that employees not only know what the values are, but how to put them into action; how to behave and perform in day to day activities to live the organization’s values.

How do leaders put values into action? What steps does a leader need to take to clarify what is needed to lead with values?

Know your organization’s values: Think about what the organization’s values really mean to you and to your leadership style. You need to know which of your behaviors demonstrate those values.
If your organization’s beliefs and principles don’t have meaning for you, you won’t be able to make them meaningful for anyone else. Do your values, beliefs and principles mesh with those of your organization? In some cases they won’t. We don’t often see our personal set of values in terms of things like customer service or teamwork. But, the personal value of having respect for others does fit in with these organizational values.
It’s essential to make sure that an organization’s values translate into behavior and performance.

Walk the talk: Show your employees what the organizational values mean through your actions and behavior. People learn by observing their leaders. Bringing values to life is a behavioral issue. You’re a role model for your employees.

Actions speak louder than words. Most of your employees will follow your lead. No one is perfect, however. When problems or crises catch you off guard, your immediate reaction might not align with your personal or organizational value system. But you can take a step back, and ask yourself, "What guidance do our values provide for handling this situation?" You can make corrections to show that you are concerned with doing the right thing according to the values your organization promotes.
Teach values to your employees: You have to make it very clear that you expect your employees to live by your organization’s values. An effective way to teach values is through asking questions. When you ask people what they value, you can point them in the right direction. Asking questions can help people learn how to apply critical thinking skills on their own

Remove barriers to working with values: As a leader, you need to smooth the way for employees because there will always be obstacles and barriers to values-driven performance. You need to identify roadblocks, eliminate or minimize them, or show them how to deal with those that can’t be removed.

Reward and recognize those who live the values: Most leaders know that effective feedback must be specific and timely. It’s not really effective to tell someone that he or she is doing a great job. What does that mean? Instead, you can say something like, "I saw you go out of your way to help Mary yesterday in order to solve a problem. That’s a great example of our organizational value of teamwork (or customer service, or quality) in action. I appreciate what you did."
Smart leaders actively search out opportunities to catch people doing something right and thank them for doing it. Recognizing and rewarding behavior that’s in line with values is the single best way to ensure that it continues. Recognition for specific, desired behavior or performance is far more effective than more generic rewards, such as years of service or attendance.

Redirect those who aren’t living the values: This is one of the more difficult aspects of leading and managing. You must hold people accountable when they are not living the values. There will always be some who don’t want to get with the program, and you have be the one to deal with this problem or everyone suffers. If you don’t, you’ll lose credibility and the respect of others, and the organization and its customers will suffer.
Exploring the reasons they are doing what they are doing (or not doing) and why they choose not to live the values can provide valuable information and lead to a change in behavior. Some reasons employees may not be acting in line with your values may be:

  • They don’t know why the values are important.
  • They don’t know what they should be doing to live/work with the values.
  • They think values are for other people, not them.
  • They don’t get rewarded for living the values.
  • Nothing happens when they don’t live the values.
  • Quite simply, they don’t like the values and refuse to live them.

As a leader, this presents the opportunity to engage them in some meaningful conversation about what is important to them, how their personal values can align with the organization’s, and how their personal behavior is in conflict with organizational values.

The really difficult part is when disciplinary action is in order. Be specific and timely about what behaviors need to change. Redirecting people who are not living the values is one of the most important things a leader must do. To do so is to ensure your credibility and to reinforce the importance of values.

Every member of your workforce is responsible for values-driven business practices, but they look to you for examples of how the values translate into action. You set the tone. When you take a cavalier attitude to values or lose sight of them, even temporarily, you give your employees permission to do the same.

For a person to succeed in any organization, he or she has to understand what is really important to the company, its values. We do this by looking at what’s rewarded, observing how people get ahead and who gets promoted, and watching and listening to what senior managers do and how they spend their time. Unfortunately, too often what senior managers say and what they do are ambiguous or contradictory.

Why are values so important? Most of us would like to believe that what we are doing makes a difference to others and that our work is important. People aren’t motivated when they feel that what they are asked to do is worthless or contrary to their fundamental beliefs and values. Also, most of us also want to feel that we are valued as people, not just as employees. We want to be respected for who we are, not simply for what we do. We also respond positively to being around others who share similar beliefs and with whom we can build relationships.

As business leaders work to accomplish the organization’s goals, it’s important to remember that values endure. They are absolute, unchanging and non-negotiable. In a world where change can be dizzying, values offer us touchstones to define our actions, our decisions and the manner in which we treat others. These factors represent the fundamental basis upon which we shape our ability to lead.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Soft Skills for Managers

And why they’re important

Managers and supervisors are normally responsible for coordinating and organizing work activities, planning and allocating resources, as well as managing people. While they need certain specific, technical skills, it is often the "soft" skills that are the most critical as well as the least understood, and the hardest to master. Soft skills are the attitudes, personality traits, characteristics, habits and behaviors one displays when working with others.

There are many soft skills that can be useful in different situations. But, which are the most important? The answer can certainly depend on your particular work environment. In addition to effective communication skills, including active listening, the ability to delegate and leadership (inspiring others to follow you), here are the skills that in my observation can be the most beneficial.

Critical Thinking

Much of a manager's time is spent solving problems, so the ability to think critically is one of the top soft skills managers need. Critical thinking skills allow managers to evaluate and analyze problems in order to come up with effective solutions.

Decision Making

The ability to make quick decisions is critical to succeeding as a manager. Decision making skills come into play when deciding on which employees to hire, which strategies to implement and what steps to take to solve problems. Understanding the benefits, risks and consequences of a decision can help you make the most appropriate one.

Time Management Skills
The one resource we never seem to have enough of is time. To succeed as a manager, you must use your time wisely. In addition to the ability to prioritize and to delegate, you have to be able to maximize what you are able to get done in the time you have. Then you have to help ensure that your employees carry out their duties as well. You have internal customers and may have external customers; effectively managing your time is essential to serving your customers.

Emotional Intelligence 

EI is normally defined as the ability to understand, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others; the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. As a successful manager, you need to be great at engaging, listening, understanding others, while making yourself understood. Self-awareness and the ability to recognize other people’s emotional patterns allow managers to adjust the way they communicate.  Or, to use an old cliché: It’s not what you say sometimes but how you say it. And I’d add, when you say it and to whom.

Constructive Appraisal 
People make mistakes. They also do great things. A manager must be able to provide feedback in either case. If your staff members perform well, showing appreciation and recognizing their efforts and successes goes a long way towards building an effective team. It also gives you the perfect opportunity to provide them with tips for further improvement. If an employee screws up, you need to be able to provide constructive or corrective criticism. It’s a chance for the employee to learn and grow; not a time to ridicule and disparage.

Everyone has weaknesses. To become a good manager you should be able to evaluate yourself. This means being aware of your own weaknesses. Know your limitations and find ways to work around or improve them.

Good Manners
Your employees pay attention to how you interact with everyone. As a manager, you’re expected to be a role model for employees. You must maintain good manners and proper business etiquette in all your dealings and communications. On the phone, in e-mail or speaking face to face, you should be courteous, professional and understanding. Your goal is to make your employees and colleagues feel comfortable around you and trust you. Poor treatment will simply lead to distrust, lack of respect and poor performance. 

Managing Discipline
Despite our best efforts, conflicts will occur, and people will sometimes behave outside of acceptable norms. Being able to deal appropriately and effectively with conflict reduces the risk of negatively affecting the workplace. Further, a lack of discipline in an organization can reduce the motivation and production of all employees.

You must do what you say you’ll do; walk the talk. It is equally important for your peers, subordinates and your boss to believe they can depend on you. Without that, you will not have the support you need to accomplish the goals of your organization.

The quality of being open, honest, and sincere is so important. Tell it like it is. Don't sugar coat things. Don't say what you think someone wants to hear. You don’t want to leave people guessing what you really mean; if they have to guess, they’ll often make it up as they go along, and that isn’t productive for anyone.

Work Ethic
You were hired to do a job, just as your employees were hired to do a job. Do you do it? You should be one of the hardest working people on your team, if not the hardest working. Do you deliver what’s necessary both within your team and to other teams?

Mental Agility/Flexibility
The ability to think and draw conclusions quickly, as well as the ability to mentally adapt quickly and fluidly with a changing environment. We all know how quickly business circumstances can change. Goals change, needs change, the environment changes. Managers need to be able to adjust to change and make decisions quickly.

Your technical skills may be what got you in the door and hired, but those skills are no longer enough. Or maybe they were never enough. Developing and improving your soft skills will allow you to be a more effective manager, and will help your employees be more successful.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Who Gets Hired?

And who gets promoted?

Well, according to a new CareerBuilder survey, it doesn’t always, or only, depend on one’s education, experience and hard skills. But, we knew that, didn’t we?

The study polled over 2,000 hiring managers and human resource professionals. They asked if given two equally qualified candidates, what would make them more likely to choose one over the other?

Fit is important and that depends on your office culture. So, for 27% of the respondents, the one with the better sense of humor will more likely be selected. And community involvement would tip the scales for 26%. If the applicant is viewed as better dressed, 21% would select that person (I would have thought that would be a much larger percentage.)

A bit more surprising were some of the other responses. 13% would choose the more physically fit, and 8% would give preference to the candidate who’s more on top of current events and pop culture (tell me, how were those VMA awards?).

But, this assessment of fit (or personality and behavior) doesn’t end with the job offer. When deciding who to promote, other factors are often considered as well.

Most managers and HR pros cringe when confronted with someone who says "that’s not my job". That’s a pretty obvious bar, and 71% of the respondents confirm that feeling. Of course lousy attendance, lying at work or taking credit for someone else’s work will also torpedo your chances at climbing the corporate ladder.

A little less than accurate or honest on your expense account? Yeah, 55% say that’s a red flag. And leave the gossiping at the door, since 46% say if you’re the office gossip, your chances for promotion are pretty limited. Swearing at work doesn’t help you much, either (dang, I need to be more careful!)

And if all the other horror stories about romance in the office don’t work for you, 8% of managers said they wouldn’t promote someone who dated a co-worker.

What’s the good news? Let your manager know you want to be promoted! 33% responded that they’d be more likely to promote someone who has voiced their desire in the past. So, speak up!

"Fit" is really a hard concept to define or explain. It will differ depending on industry, profession, geographic region and the individual organization. We often know it when we see it, or don’t see it as the case may be. We can also tell if someone "gets it" or when they don’t.

Only you can determine what your culture is, and whether or not an applicant will fit in. However, there are a few things you can look at to help you figure this out. Ask yourself, and others in your organization:

  • How do we get our work done? Are we more independent or more collaborative?
  • How do we tend to communicate? Verbally or in written form? Do we wander down the hall, or do we use email?
  • What types of people tend to be successful here? Individual contributors or team players? People who are proactive or more responsive? Introverts or extroverts?
  • How do we make decisions? Group or is it more hierarchical?
  • What are our meetings like? Serious? Lighthearted? Tightly or loosely structured?
  • What happens when people don’t perform well?
  • Do we provide flexible work schedules or allow for telecommuting, or do we prefer people to work set hours?
  • Do we expect management (at any level) to be available or accessible after normal hours?
  • How do we dress? Business or business casual? Something else?
  • How do we have fun? Do we have fun?

Look at your organization’s mission, vision and values. Think about what characteristics go along with your core values. What is important?

Once you can better define your organization’s culture, you need to interview for fit. Asking behavioral based questions is the best way to determine fit. Some examples:

  • Describe for me the environment in which you feel most comfortable. How do you like to be rewarded or recognized?
  • Tell me about the most difficult person you have ever worked with or for and describe how you managed that relationship.
  • Tell me about a time when you were a member of a team and the team didn’t meet its goals.  What was your part and how did you contribute to the effort? What was the end result?
  • Describe how you went about learning and then fitting into the organization’s culture in your previous job.
  • What has been your greatest success or challenge in fitting in to an organization’s culture?
  • Describe for me a situation in which you were in a group that had "personality conflicts." How did you handle yourself?
  • How have you gone about resolving personality conflicts in past positions?

There is never a perfect formula for hiring, or promoting, the right person. But taking into consideration your culture and your values can help and will increase your chances.