Q: I manage a family owned HVAC company (50 employees). The greatest challenge I face is getting employees to follow simple procedures. Do you have any suggestions on how to change their acceptance of following procedures? What is your thought on using one simple performance measure for each employee that they can impact, but will focus them on following the procedure?
A: I don’t know enough about your situation, or for that matter about HVAC, to provide you with a complete or confident answer. However, just recently a friend of mine told me about some advice he received from a trusted advisor about a situation similar to yours. Rather than focusing on what they should do, try focusing on why they should do it. There is a decent chance that they don’t understand the ‘why.’ So often people lose sight of the reason for a procedure or rule. And depending on their personality type, some people are very reluctant to follow a rule if it has no purpose.
If you give your people a thorough understanding of the reason for a given procedure, then one of three things is likely to happen. First, they’ll change their behavior because they understand the ‘why.’ Or second, they’ll question the why, which will give you a chance to consider whether the procedure makes sense. Or third, they’ll continue to violate the procedure, and you’ll have the confidence you need to help them find a job in another organization that has lower standards.
Q: To what extent do you agree with the old saying 'Hire Slowly, Fire Fast?'
On the hiring front, we often need positions filled quickly and there can be a tendency to rush this vital role, which often leads to disappointing results. And yet the most thorough techniques seem somewhat over the top—you run the risk of losing a good candidate if you mess around for too long and they have several other opportunities.
With regards to firing, you have to act in a caring, compassionate way to employees who just aren't performing, and it's essential to give them regular feedback and opportunity to improve; but at the same time, prolonging their employment when they simply do not gel properly with the core values/culture is unfair to them and can be very expensive/damaging to the company.
A. I agree with pretty much all of what you’ve written here. I think that hiring slowly makes sense because bringing the wrong person into an organization is so costly. Beyond the direct costs associated with orientation and training and eventual termination, there is the greater though harder-to-quantify cost of what it does to the other people in the organization. The cost of a poor cultural fit can be devastating to top performers, both in terms of their morale and productivity, and in terms of risking them going elsewhere to avoid working with difficult people.
As for frustrating candidates by taking too long, I think it’s better to err on the side of losing a good person who is impatient than on hiring the wrong person. Besides, if candidates are more interested in taking a job than in finding the most suitable one, perhaps they aren’t the right fit for you.
Now, as for “firing fast,” I would change that to “confront fast and have the courage to do what is in the best interests of the struggling employee.” That’s not very catchy or pithy, but I think it’s a good way to think about this. Essentially, I’m saying that a manager should never hesitate to speak honestly and directly as soon as they see a potential performance or behavioral issue. Even if you’re not sure, enter the danger and have the difficult conversation. If you find out that your observation or intuition is incorrect, admit it and be glad you looked into it. If you’re right, let the employee know that you want him or her to succeed, and you’ll do whatever you need to do to help.
However, this is where courage comes into play. If the employee continues to struggle and you’re wondering if they are going to make it, broach the subject with that employee. Let them know that just about every successful person in the world finds themselves in a job that isn’t right for them, and if that’s the case, you’ll help them deal with it. Basically, take the pressure off of them, and give them permission to say “I’m probably not a fit here,” or “I can do it, and I want to keep trying.” When in doubt, err on the side of extending grace to that employee.
Now, when it gets to the point that you know, deep down inside, that the employee isn’t going to make it, care about them enough to force the issue. Sometimes an employee will be so intent on not failing, that he or she will stay in a painful and destructive situation for too long. Don’t let that happen. Remember tough love is tough, even for the person administering it. Letting someone linger in pain is not an act of charity or kindness, but a selfish act of cowardice. Ouch. I know this because I’ve done it myself, and it’s not good.
So, I guess my answer is just a long way of saying “I agree with you.”
Q: Help. I’m recovering ‘skillful politician,’ but I seem to relapse at times. I get confused because others experience me as rigid and inflexible and then another group of people experience me as flexible and great to work with. I don’t understand! If everyone experienced me the same that would make some sense, but it seems to vary from person to person and group to group. Is it something with me or, perhaps, something with others or a particular environment that is the changing factor?
I have the heart to help others, and my personality type can’t help but recognize opportunities for growth and make improvements to serve people better but often I get labeled as ‘negative’ or ‘a complainer’ even though my heart is to help make things better as I share issues I notice and present creative solutions.
Everyone else seems fine with mediocrity but not me, so I feel like the odd man out. What can I change and do differently?
A: For readers not familiar with this concept, a skillful politician is a person who has two of the three virtues from the model in my book The Ideal Team Player. A skillful politician is hungry and smart but lacks humility (learn more).
Okay, let me start by saying that I really appreciate your vulnerability around having struggled with being a skillful politician in the past. That is hard to admit and it’s admirable that you can do that. I also think that this vulnerability will be the key to taking on the challenge that you currently have.
I would probably advise you to find a great coach to work with you so that you can get to the bottom of this issue about why different people perceive you differently. That will be key. It’s hard enough for us to develop ourselves when we are crystal clear about our weaknesses, but when we hear different messages, we need to gain clarity if we want to avoid feeling schizophrenic.
At the risk of sounding like I can diagnose your situation based on your question alone, let me just say that you may need to figure out how to temper your frustration with what you call mediocrity in others, and raise your level of empathy for why those people may be satisfied with lower standards than yours. Perhaps they do accept mediocrity. Perhaps they are unclear about what to do. It might be an environmental issue that is bigger than them. Whatever the case, trying to understand your teammates and understand why they do what they do will probably go a long way toward interacting with them in a way that makes them see you as a problem-solver and a helper to them, rather than a complainer. Again, that is just my two cents based on limited understanding of your situation.
Whatever you do though, don’t stop being vulnerable. Be the first to admit your limitations, and that will make others more open to your feedback about theirs.
Q: This is my challenge, which I hope makes the cut. I’m a VP of a public service organization. Our Senior Leadership Team has five members plus the CEO. All of us are highly collaborative except one member. His highest priority is sucking up to the CEO, and he does very little to be a team player or to collaborate or meet deadlines with the rest of us. When the CEO is out of the office, the team member rarely even comes to work (“working at home”). His behavior severely damages the team dynamic, and we have very low trust on the team overall since the CEO is oblivious to the problem (or doesn’t care). When people ask the CEO for advice, he just says that we should force this guy to do his job. I’ve tried a lot of things, but nothing seems to work (going out to lunch with him to build rapport, introducing team norms, reading The Speed of Trust and implementing exercises from it, etc.). I’d love your ideas.
A: Good for you for trying to improve this situation by taking some risks and reaching out to the difficult team member. Unfortunately, the likelihood of success in these efforts is relatively low precisely because the CEO isn’t dealing with the situation. The first piece of advice I’d give you is to find out whether the CEO doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Those are two very different scenarios.
If he doesn’t know, then please tell him. However, I’m guessing the CEO is not completely in the dark about this. Many CEOs and senior executives would do anything to avoid having to confront a difficult team member, especially a senior one. The truth is, until the leader takes on these destructive behaviors, others have little chance of success.
That means someone on the team, perhaps you, will have to take the risk of helping the CEO understand why this situation is so problematic, and why he needs to have the courage to deal with it. One of the better approaches I’ve used is asking the CEO if he understands the impact that this one executive’s behavior is having on the rest of the team and the organization at large. I’d also like to ask him how he would feel if one or two of his best executives left the company. This often gives a reluctant executive a jolt. The prospect of losing a model team member because you are not confronting a difficult one is something that no one likes to consider.
Now, if the CEO is unwilling to do this, and continues to insist that everyone else needs to coach the difficult team member, I’d say that you have identified a pretty significant limitation in the CEO’s repertoire and that you’ll need to consider that limitation as you ponder your future. I’m not saying you would have to leave, but you’d have to find peace in knowing that your leader isn’t willing to do his job. That may be a situation that stimulates a career change at some point in the future for you.
Q: I have employees interested in researching and applying emotional intelligence research for themselves and their teams. I encourage grassroots initiatives in many situations (that I will also help model, support, grow, etc. as seems appropriate). I love the Personal Histories Exercise from The Advantage. It's easy, safe enough, resonates well with people, and leads to good discussion. I'm curious if you have other suggestions for similar, proven, engaging, team exercises to help push/pull/nudge individuals and teams towards more openness, awareness, vulnerability, etc. related to the benefits of strengthening emotional intelligence.
A: Beyond the Personal Histories Exercise, which is so simple and yet surprisingly effective, there are other ways to help people get more vulnerable and open with one another. The best ways seem to use behavioral models that allow people to be honest about their strengths and weaknesses, but without feeling too exposed. I’m thinking about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DISC, Social Styles, and a number of others that I’m less familiar with. The reason these are effective is because they are 1) accurate (they really help people discover and describe their true tendencies), 2) judgment-free (there are no right or wrong types), and 3) practical (they provide a framework that can be applied in the real world, as opposed to something that is too academic or theoretical). When we work with clients, we do the Personal Histories Exercise (PHE) first, which is quick and relatively easy and then move to the behavioral tools I mentioned above. Finally, if you’re looking for more exercises that are similar to the PHE, I like to ask people to describe the worst job they’ve ever had or the most embarrassing moment in their lives. These exercises allow them to be vulnerable, but without going too deep too fast.