A manager said to me, “I am responsible for selecting new products to sell in our retail outlets. Since there are many options and it is hard to predict which items will sell best, I ask my team members for their input.”
“Do you usually get agreement on which product lines to buy?” I asked.
“Almost never do we get strong agreements. In fact, sometimes our meetings drag on much longer than I like as members become strongly invested in debating their opinions.”
“Then, how do you decide?”
“Eventually, I just have to make the call.”
“Do your team members accept your decisions?”
“For the most part. I tell them upfront I want to hear their opinions; but since I will be accountable, I want to reserve the right to make the final decision.”
Although we hear a lot about participative decision making, most important decisions are made by individuals. Of course, wise leaders seek counsel from experts and those responsible for executing decisions. Both experts and practitioners, because they have differing experiences and values, seldom agree completely on complex decisions.
A good model is to approach your team with a suggested, tentative decision; seek their feedback and select options that improve the decision.
Although frowns, gestures, and tone make up much of the meaning in intense face-to-face communications, words still matter. Professor Jim Detert, in his book Choosing Courage, identifies phrases that are more likely to inflame rather calm intense communications.
Below, I have paired phrases to consider avoiding with other ways of stating similar expressions.
Avoid: Clearly, you did not read my report on this issue.
Better: I understand you have a different opinion. May I summarize the information I used to support my view?
Avoid: I would never make such a statement.
Better: That sounds unlike something I might say. My intention was to . . .
Avoid: You should be more specific in your status reports.
Better: I feel more confident in my understanding when your status reports include dates and numbers.
Avoid: Your continued negligence in responding to customer inquiries really makes me angry.
Better: I think our mission is better served when customers receive timely responses.
Avoid: Your interpretation is wrong and in clear violation of our policy.
Better: My reading leads to a different interpretation, can you fill me in on what you base your view on?
In general, avoid phrases the other party might interpret as attacks and replace them with attempts to better understand.
Dennis puts off assignments and rushes to finish them at the last minute, often with errors.
Dennis’ manager said, “I’ve spent a lot of time with Dennis. He does well for awhile but always seems to slip back into his old habits.”
How much coaching does it take to cure Dennis’s missteps? When should a manager realize that additional training and retraining is ineffective?
On rare occasions, low performers will blossom after many hours of coaching and mentoring; but face it, not every employee can be effectively coached. Here is a reality check—you are more likely to hit three jackpot symbols on a slot machine than you are to change persistently, low performers into reliable, go-to team players.
Why? The cause of low performance is more likely a talent issue than a motivation or training issue. Even the simplest tasks require some level of talent—knack, genetic disposition, gift—for reliable performance. And you cannot train talent.
How do effective mentors know when to continue coaching and when to look at other options? As the saying goes, “Water where the flowers grow.” If employees show quick and sticking improvements, carry on. If not, continued coaching equals frustration for both parties.
“How was your week?” I asked a manager.
“Not so good.”
“Were you dealing with demanding customers?”
“No. But I spent a lot of time with three of my employees who either made mistakes, missed deadlines, irritated co-workers, wasted effort on low-priority tasks or all of the above.”
In surveys, I’ve asked hundreds of managers who have recommended termination of an employee if, after reflection, they thought it was a mistake. Almost one hundred percent say their recommendation to terminate was sound, even after months or years have passed.
My observation suggests that we seldom terminate nonperformers too early, but we frequently allow them to linger too long. Time is a leader’s most important asset, and time spent coaching, cajoling or coddling nonproductive team members is seldom a good investment. And some studies show that marginal performers take almost twenty percent of their leaders’ time.
The old slogan of “manage employees up or manage them out” may sound harsh but is probably a good practice. Of course, coach and train employees to get better (manage them up). For those who perform below standard but do not improve, work with your HR partners to remove them (manage them out).
In a meeting, Johnathon lashed out at a Jose, “You had no authority to tell the customer the item was under warranty. It clearly is not. Your response made the customer mad. Now, he is filing a complaint about me.”
Jose’s face reddened and he angrily responded, “Don’t blame me for that. I told the customer no such thing. You were rude. That’s why he is filing a complaint.”
Experiments by Michael Blanding, written in HBS Working Knowledge, suggest that anger makes a wrongly accused person look guilty. While there may be reason to be upset when falsely accused, voice tone and nonverbal expressions are likely to carry more weight than facts.
Jose may have been more convincing if he had maintained his composure and responded in a calm voice with something like, “Johnathon, I see you are upset by the customer’s complaint. Can you fill me in on the details? My hope is to clarify the situation and resolve the customer’s issue.”
Previous research has well documented the impact of voice tone and nonverbals on how others attach meaning to verbal expressions. This appears to be particularly true when responding to false accusations.
Most of the CEO’s executive team seemed pretty charged up about the new, ambitious branding campaign.
“Do you really think we can pull this off?” he asked his team.
There were many head nods, smiles and comments such as, “It’s a winner.” “Very doable.” “I wouldn’t want to be our competition.”
At an informal gathering later, a colleague asked the chief marketing officer, “Do you really think the CEO’s plan will be effective?”
“Seriously, I have my doubts,” was his response.
“Why didn’t you say something in the meeting?
“I did not want to be seen as an anti-team player.”
Psychologist Irvin Janis, long ago labeled the danger of stressing harmony among teams as “groupthink.” In the interest of functioning as effective team members, some individual members falsely express their support for others’ ideas. This reduces dissenting opinions and sometimes leads to bad decisions.
To avoid meandering into a groupthink culture, leaders can regularly:
- honor disagreements,
- aggressively seek contrary views,
- designate a member to play the role of devil’s advocate, and
- seek opinions of outside experts.
Additionally, leaders may separate evaluations and decision making. That is, designate one meeting for evaluating options and a second meeting for making the decision.
“I know your schedule got slammed last week,” a manger said to a colleague. “I hope this week will be better.”
The colleague answered, “I have a lot of deliverables this week also. I am just trying to keep my head above water.”
“I am in the same boat. I think everyone has a full plate.”
Now, check out a restructuring of this exchange to go something like this.
“I know last week was a tough. Do you think this week will be any better?”
“I think so but I’m not sure. There are just too many uncertainties.”
“I heard that. Is there a particular uncertainty that worries you most?”
“Yes, a major customer is inquiring about advancing a delivery date. That one worries me.”
“Really. Is it the same customer we had trouble with last quarter?”
In the first conversation, the greeter inquired and then began telling his story, “I’m in the same boat . . .”
The second conversation began with a question and followed up with two specific questions based on the colleague’s response. A recent Harvard study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that a sincere question and two specific follow-up questions made the other party feel more respected and appreciated.