About geraldgraham

Professor, author and management consultant.

“Equal” May Not Be “Fair”

“I think it important to treat my team members fairly,” a manager said to me.

“I agree,” I responded. “ Can you give me an example of how you do that?”

“I avoid singling out team members.  I praise the team rather than individuals.  I recommend similar merit increases for all—we succeed or fail as a group.  I rotate the most popular vacation times.  Everyone gets the same training opportunities. I ask team members to take turns performing menial tasks.”

“Do you recommend similar rewards, perks, and privileges for all team members?”

“That’s my goal, exactly.”

As we discussed further, I attempted to explain that equality of outcomes is not the same as fairness.  Fairness means we apply the same rules and standards of judgements to all team members.  That is, policies and performance metrics should be the same for all persons doing similar work.

However, some team members because they have greater skill, experience or internal motivation contribute more to the mission that others.  I believe it is unfair to treat high- and lower-contributing team members alike.    

I do not judge the less contributing members to be of lesser value as a person; they simply have contributed less value to our team.  Fairness is consistent application of standards, not equal distribution of rewards.

“Courage” is Essential for Leadership

A team, working on its mission to reduce the cycle time for their lengthy vendor assessment process, gathered data on several options. Eventually, most team members began to coalesce around the option of deleting two specific steps in the cycle.

Jaron was not convinced and said, “Removing the two steps creates additional risks and doesn’t save much time.” 

Most members argued aggressively against Jaron’s position, but Jaron did not back down.

“What do you propose?” the leader eventually asked.

Jaron described a different model for assessing vendors and supported his suggestions with data. Only one member nodded agreeably. Most remained opposed.

The meeting ended with no resolution. However, at the next meeting Jaron again presented his model supported by additional data; and after a lengthy and enthusiastic debate, the team reluctantly agreed to evaluate Jaron’s idea.

Jaron’s model proved effective in three test cycles and management adopted the new way. Later Jaron reflected, “I respect my peers and wanted their approval. I was extremely uncomfortable taking a stand against them, but I just could not agree with a solution that I thought was inadequate.”

It takes courage to preserve in the face of strong opposition from your associates and it is an essential leadership attribute.

Why Training May Not Work

“I have trained a team member on his job tasks many times, and he still cannot perform the tasks reliably,” a frustrated manager said to me.

“Over what period of time, has the training occurred?” I asked.

“At least two years, probably longer.”

“How much training does it take most persons to learn to perform these tasks?”

“I’ve never had an employee that took more than ten hours of training to perform well.  After two months on the job, most everyone produces good results.”

“Why have you continued training and retraining the person for two years?”

“I just thought, sooner or later, he would catch on.”

Unfortunately, some managers believe that additional training is the cure for all subpar performances.  The fact is no matter how simple the task, some will not be able to learn to perform well. 

Good performance requires training, experience and innate ability.  Managers recognize the importance of training and experience, but some do not accept the innate ability requirement.  Thus, they continue training when it is obvious the training does not produce results.  

If, after reasonable training and experience, a person is not performing job tasks acceptably, it is better for all to transfer or remove the person.

The Value of Frequent, Direct Feedback

“Do you report to a good leader?” I asked participants in a workshop.

About forty-five percent raised their hands.

“How does your leader earn the designation of good leader?” I asked.

A participant reported, “He gives frequent and direct feedback on my performance.”  The participant continued to explain that he had just completed an audit of a client’s records.  Two days later, the leader sent an email listing five strong points and two items to improve.  Shortly after, the leader met in person with the team member to review his comments.

I asked participants, “How many of you get frequent, helpful feedback on completed job tasks?”  Only eighteen percent raised their hands.

A common lament is, “When my work is going well, I seldom hear from my leader.  I make one mistake and my boss approaches me at the speed of light.” 

Another participant reported, “My leader continuously communicates her assessment of my work, even on the less significant tasks.  Fortunately, most of her comments are positive; but if she thinks I need to improve on something, she is quick to tell me.  Because of this, I am usually able to produce exactly what my boss expects.”

Solutions Create Issues

A manager said to me, “Because we were not getting enough details from persons applying for jobs in our division, we added more features to our job application software.”

“How are the new features working?” I asked.

“Better. However, applications came to us with ‘data missing’ notices. Our tech people modified the software to require applicants to input all data requested prior to submitting.”

“Did that cure the issue?”

“Yes. All applications contain the information requested but there has been a decline in persons applying.” 

When you read labels on medications, whether prescribed or over the counter, you will notice a listing of potential side effects. The same principle applies to resolving issues in the workplace. Few, if any, solutions resolve matters cleanly. Put differently, most solutions create unintended consequences.

Workplace issues are often exceedingly complex. The question should not be, “Will the proposed solution resolve the issue?”  Rather, you should ask “What unintended spin offs will the recommended fix likely create?”  And “On balance, will we be better off with the newly created issues?”

Failure to include anticipated “side effects” into the evaluation of proposed solutions will surely result in unanticipated disappointments.

How to Make Data Dumps Useful

A frustrated manager commented, “Every morning I get three spreadsheets of data that includes customer inquiries, products shipped by brand and territory, average purchase per order, remaining inventory days, daily inventory shrinkage, and many other items.”

“We are in the age of ‘big data,’” I responded. “Are these reams of numbers helpful?” 

“It’s too much. There is information that is helpful, but I must scan through a maze of columns and rows to isolate what I need. Most days I don’t even open the file.”

“Have you voiced your concerns to the data collectors?”

“Yes, but I have had little influence over the process.”

In his 1982 book, Megatrends, author John Naisbitt wrote, “We are drowning in information but starving for knowledge.”  Naisbitt’s insight is even more true today. To make sense of the flood of statistics invading your hard drive, consider the following.

Decide on the data that is most important for tracking progress toward you team’s mission. Learn the location of the data so that you can quickly locate it. Extract the data, or color the critical numbers in green, and distribute to your team on a regular (weekly) basis. In team meetings, report and briefly comment on the 3-4 most important data points. Evolve and modify as needed.

How to Clarify Misunderstandings

Are you sometimes surprised by reactions of a team member? Of course, we are. Why? Because we perceive things differently. For example,

Team leader:  (routine reminder) “Can you get me a status report on your project by 12:00 noon on Tuesday?”

Team member:  (frowning) “As I have said, the project is on schedule! I don’t know what you are worried about.”

The leader made a routine reminder without underlying motives. The team member interpreted the reminder to be lack of confidence in meeting the deadline. That is, each party perceived the request differently. When in doubt about another’s perception, consider reporting what you perceived, giving two interpretations, and asking for clarification. For example:

Reporting:  “I understand you are on schedule. Your comment suggests that my question upset you.”

Interpretations:  Did I misunderstand or did it appear that I was doubting your ability?

Clarification:  Can you help me understand?

When another perceives our actions differently than what we intended, the most common reaction is to further explain what we meant. The implication is, although not necessarily intended, the other party misunderstood.

A better approach is to ask the other party to clarify what was received and try to understand.