Quality Face-to-Face Time is the Secret Sauce of Good Communications


(Reprinted from November, 2015)

“I was becoming frustrated,” explained a manager, “with my communications with staff at distant sites.  Several times I thought we had agreed on a way forward only to discover they misinterpreted my intentions.”

The manager began backing up his electronic messages with phone calls and while that helped, misunderstandings continued.  Later, the manager added video conferencing which helped but did not eliminate missteps.

“Eventually,” the manager said, “I started visiting the sites on a regular basis to talk personally with staff.  I was amazed at how much better we got at resolving and preventing customer-related issues.  Even though the site visits required considerable time and energy, they were well worth the effort.”

To communicate effectively, visit staff members at their work stations when there is no reason to be there.  Travel to your customer’s locations; invite your customers to your facilities. If you perceive conflicts with colleagues, drag your physical self to their offices and talk with them.

Consider town-hall meeting with large groups of employees.  Encourage them to ask questions and respond to all.  Deliver the bad news as well as the good.

I recall asking a group of employees if their managers ever visited their work areas.  “Yes,” said one.  “But when work is going smoothly, we never see them.  We make one mistake and they come out of the wood work.”

Do not wait until problems arise.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Engage others, preferably at their work stations, on a regular basis.  Face-to-face communication does not guarantee perfect understanding but it vastly improves your odds.

Act as a Catalyst to Motivate Others


“I work hard to motivate my employees,” lamented a manager. “I pay them well, they are trained, and I express my appreciation frequently.”

The manager continued, “I expend a lot of energy pounding the pavement in search of fresh motivational events. We do holiday events, celebration parties, landmark events, hams for the holidays, and end-of-the-year awards.”

Perhaps there is an easier way. Researchers Buckingham and Coffman suggest that managers think “catalyst” as a way to create “ooh” and “ah” performances. From your basic chemistry class, you recall a catalyst is a substance that speeds chemical reactions in other agents.

Actions of catalyst leaders might include asking for opinions, listening, encouraging, energizing, removing obstacles, and ensuring that employees have the tools they need.

Of course, training, recognition and financial rewards are important. However, these tools are ineffective for employees who lack the talent and drive to perform.

Try rolling the cosmetic dice. Find people who want to do what you need and clear the path for them to proceed. As one manager said to a recruit, “If you are looking to me to motivate you, you are probably not the hire I’m looking for.”

Employee Motivation is Not Rocket Science


When asked to identify his strength as a leader, Steve responded, “I’m a motivator.”

“How do you motivate your team?” I asked.

“I encourage my employees to push themselves.  I tell them how important their jobs are. I applaud their efforts. I’m always trying to build them up.”

“How is that working for you?”

“I think it works pretty well.  Not everyone responds the way I would like but I keep encouraging them.  I think most appreciate my efforts.”

Employees said they liked working for Steve.  They described him as “helpful,” “energetic,” and “caring.”

I applaud the efforts of leaders like Steve, and I’m confident that most employees would appreciate working for him.  However, I think a highly motivated work team also requires two additional ingredients.

One, employees’ motors need to be running when they come to work.  It is near impossible to kick-start a low-energy employee into spirited performance.

Second, employees’ must have the natural talents and acquired skills to perform the tasks well.  Long-term commitment to a job requires earned pride that comes only from doing something well.

When these two elements are present, Steve’s methods work great.  If one or both are missing, Steve’s well-meaning approach will likely whiff on motivation.

Rude Behaviors in the Workplace Cost Money


I observed a vice president leading a contingent of visitors into an early-morning meeting.  As the group approached a conference room, the vice president noticed what appeared to be spilled coffee on the new carpet.  A staff member happened to be walking by.  The frowning, vice president gruffly said, “It looks like you need to teach your friends to be more careful with their coffee.”

Studies suggest that, during a work week, about half of employees engage in rude behaviors.  Further, Dr. Woolum and associates, writing in the Journal of Applied Psychology, report that merely witnessing rude behaviors costs the company money.

Examples of rude behaviors include:  crude language, interrupting others, failure to show appreciation, loud talking, checking your phone during conversations, eye-rolls, gossiping and so on.

Apparently, observation of rudeness sets a frame in the brain.  Later, when employees see what may be ambiguous behaviors—not necessarily rude; they interpret the behavior to be uncivil. Employees who perceive rudeness may avoid interactions with others and dampen their commitment to tasks.

In the interest of civility, not to mention the bottom line, leaders would do well to model respectful, courteous and considerate behaviors, while professionally calling out team members who slip up.

Don’t Be a One-Trick Pony


The president selected Johnathon–a no nonsense, high-performer– to lead a low-morale team that had consistently missed performance objectives.

Johnathon announced to his team, “Your performance disappoints me.  You can do better.  I will change what I need to and I expect you to meet all performance metrics.  I will inspect all activities closely and take quick, corrective actions where needed.”

Employees grumbled, griped and blamed failures on unrealistic expectations, vendor problems, a warehouse fire, and bad weather.

Johnathon, anchored like a rock in a sandstorm, continued pressing.  He made changes, terminated a couple of employees, some quit.  The performance needle began vibrating upward.

After a few months, the president said to the team, “You have performed a turnaround beyond my highest expectations.”

Jonathon impatiently asked for even more from the team.  Turnover became an issue again, excuses emerged, and performance stalled out.  Eventually, the president removed Jonathon.

Johnathon’s methods jerked a group of carless whiners into a high-performing team, but he could not sustain the success.  Effective leaders are not one-trick ponies, they adapt.  Structure often turns bad performance into good, but support and freedom is necessary to sustain high performance.

This May Not Work for You, but . . .


Felix said to his manager, “I have an upset customer who claims we should be responsible for repairing a product still under warranty.  However, I think the customer caused the damage by improperly servicing the equipment.”

After listening further, Felix’s manager gave him a specific checklist of actions to take with the customer.

Felix approached the customer and began working through his manager’s suggestions.  The customer remained disappointed and later wrote a nasty complaint on social media.

Later, the manager asked Felix, “Why didn’t you get that issue resolved the way that I told you to?”

Felix responded, “I did exactly what you said. He just wouldn’t listen.”

I recall asking a friend how to get a stubborn horse to take the bit.  My friend said, “Now, this may not work for you but this is how I do it.”  Then he successfully performed the feat while I watched.

Of course, the next day as I tried to execute my friend’s methods, the horse resumed his bad behaviors.  However, I knew that I still owned the issue and did not consider my friend accountable.

Felix’s manager, I believe, should have put qualifiers on his suggestions.  Felix would know that, although the manager offered advice, the customer issue was still his to resolve.

Leaders Set Expectations High–But How High?


Compare the philosophies of two leaders.

“I say the sky is the limit.  I ask my team to do more than what they are capable of doing because I want to get all that they have to give.”

“I try to be reasonable.  I don’t expect my staff to be super humans, but I do ask them to do what I know they can do.”

More than six in ten of my workshop participants think the first leader gets better results.  Considerable research and my personal experiences suggest the second leader accomplishes more.

Before employees commit to going all in for some leader’s high-flying vision, they must believe there is an eighty to ninety percent chance of success.   Unrealistic pipe dreams do not fuel sustained employee effort.

If a team historically performs in the bottom ten percent of an industry metric, I can assure you neither the team members nor the leader has a clue of how to become Number One. Figure out how to get into the top half.  When top-half performance becomes reality, the leader can adjust the expectation to “let’s take aim on the top one-third.”

While moving from a top one-third position to industry leader is hard, members are more likely to buy in because, from where they are, the expectation seems realistic.