Focus on Improving; Not Becoming Perfect


“Many of your staff members describe you as a perfectionist,” I reported to a manager.

“I know,” he said.  “I want one hundred percent of our customers to give us an “outstanding” rating.  I want every project delivered on time.  I want no errors.  And I want one hundred percent attendance.”

“You will never get all of those things.”

“I know.  My team does a good job but I want them to be the best.  I think by asking for perfection, I actually get more.  They know I do not tolerate mistakes or violations.”

Members of the team responded with comments like, “No matter what we do, you can never please him.”  “Why should we work through lunch and stay late?  He’ll find something wrong anyway.”  “Even when we do a good job, he always points to things we could have done better.”

Perfection is a fairy tale.  A fact check showed that performance metrics had not improved in two years under this “perfectionist” manager.  Morale was quite low and a couple of good-producing younger employees had left the company.

Employees are more engaged and more productive when leaders focus on getting better—not perfect—just improve over the last period.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?


According to the Labor Turnover Survey, about 3.5 million employees quit their jobs every month.  The average tenure for employees in their workplace is less than five years—longer for older employees, shorter for millennials.

Most job offers look pretty good from a distance but not all turn out to be so.  Still, few employees treat a job change like major surgery.  As one said, “If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just look for another.”

I think the analysis of whether to go or stay boils down to two basic issues—the work itself and the boss.

Concerning the work:  Do you like what you are doing?  Does your job allow for personal growth?  Do you value the mission of your company?

Concerning your boss:  Does your manager respect and appreciate you?  Is your manager interested in your development?  Do your opinions count?

If the answers to these questions are compelling “yes’s,” I suggest that you lean heavily toward staying in your current situation.  Still, I understand moving for opportunity.  Although I’ve chosen to remain with my current organization for more than forty years, I did change jobs seven times in the first eight years of my career.

 

 

Do Your Employees Know Exactly What You Think of Their Work?


Janice’s manager said to her, “You seem frustrated.  Are you OK?”

“I’m not always sure where I stand,” Janice responded.

“How so?”

“I turn in my work and I get another assignment.  If something is unacceptable, I get it back; but I don’t know if accepted work barely made the cutoff or set a new standard.”

“Janice, your work consistently meets and even exceeds my expectations.  I guess I assumed that you knew how much we value your contributions.”

I ask workshop participants, “How did management evaluate your work product last week?’’    Most have a general idea such as “OK, I guess,” or “not a good week.”  But few can respond with precise confidence.

I think most managers can increase employee engagement by giving frequent and precise feedback.  Look for opportunities daily or weekly to report to employees exactly what you think about their work.  Offer more than a simple “thank you.”  And avoid willy-nilly phrases like “good work,” or “not quite what I expected.”

Try cutting the deck a little deeper with more precision language such as, “top ten percent,” “that’s about a six,” “bottom half,” and the like.  All employees should know at all times how their work product is valued.

Why You Should Write Down Team Objectives


Great leaders reach their annual goals, meet or surpass quarterly objectives and insist on hitting weekly metrics.

Teams that show up and work hard will achieve a lot.  Teams that strive for specific objectives (outcomes) achieve more.

Yet, when I ask managers and employees to list the top three objectives for their teams, surprises bubble up.  I combine the individual lists and the result looks like a hundred-car pile-up.  Items fight with each other, general (often meaningless) statements emerge from the deep, and important outcomes disappear into the mist.  Literally no one agrees on the priorities.

Confusion abounds in spite of the fact that companies have systems for identifying, communicating and tracking objectives.

If you want to send a bat signal to your team, write down three objectives you want the team to achieve by quarter end.  List three measurable targets for each objective.  Communicate this list to your boss and employees.  Monthly, attach a symbol (green, yellow, red) to each objective to signal how the team is doing.  Discuss progress, or lack of, briefly in regular meetings.

To galvanize a team, members most know what defines success and they must receive timely feedback (scores) on how well, or poorly, they are doing.

Is It Better to “Think” or “Act” When Problems Arise?


Adrian and Stephanie approach problems differently.

“First, I like to determine the root cause of the problem,” Adrian said.  “Then, I like to brainstorm alternatives, evaluate them and make a plan. During execution, I may adjust the plan.”

Stephanie said, “When a process erupts, I quickly put a patch on it.  If my first impulse fails, I try something else.  I just continue experimenting until a solution finds me.”

Adrian, by moving logically from one stage to the next, exercises linear thinking.   Stephanie’s approach is less logical and more iterative.  Which is better?

Tom Wujec gave many groups an assignment to build a tower out of spaghetti and tape to support a marshmallow.

Not surprisingly, the best performing teams in Wujec’s experiments were architects and engineers.  However, kindergartners consistently outperformed business school students.

Business students, relying on linear thinking, spent a lot of time methodically planning and assigning team member responsibilities.  When the plan failed during execution, they went back to the drawing board to regroup and revise.

Kindergartners simply began trying different actions without planning (an iterative approach). When an action failed, they quickly tried another.  Their “try it and fix it” approach produced a better product in less time.

 

Are You Teaching Your Employees to Fad Surf?


Prior to an all-hands meeting, an employee commented sarcastically to a peer, “What’s it going to be this time?”

“Whatever it is,” the peer responded, “the vice president will assure us that it will improve sales, cut costs and cure cancer.”

Rumors of a new program launch had been racing through departments like a grass fire in a wind storm.

Perhaps the employees should not have been so skeptical.  But they clearly remembered several previous aborted improvement efforts.

“Higher-ups” often are not fully aware of the extra work burden created by the latest catholicon.    And when managers are prone to latch on to the new “whatever,” employees quickly engage in what Professor Robert Sutton calls “fad surfing.”  That is, employees make minimum commitments to show cooperation but do not engage enough to ensure eye-popping success.

Program failures prompt managers to search for the next lever; starting a cycle of: (1) roll out a new program with great fanfare, (2) experience disappointing results, (3) regroup and center on another, even better, remedy.

When a new program flounders, management should not be so quick to search for lightening in another bottle.  A refocus on the fundamentals—hiring, training, supervision, recognition—might be the better cure.

 

Accept This Fact: Career Success is Very Dependent Upon Your Boss


Which is more accurate?

  1. My boss is more dependent on me.
  2. I am more dependent on my boss.

About seventy percent of participants in my workshops say, “My boss depends more on me than I do on him (her).”  This view, I think, may over state the role of the subordinate in the relationship.

Of course, higher-level managers depend on subordinates to fulfill their responsibilities.  And bosses, in some cases, may not even be able to perform their subordinates’ tasks.  Still, the boss has a lot of influence—much more than most of us would like to think.

Recall a time when you worked for a bad boss.  No doubt, you experienced a lot of frustration.  Compare that to an experience with a good boss.  Job satisfaction and career success are much more likely when working for good bosses.  Face it, you are very dependent upon your boss for a good work life.

Good bosses mentor and help staff members grow.  Bad bosses stress and frustrate all.  When considering a position, be sure to evaluate the boss carefully.  If you are frustrated at work, the boss still gets a pay check; you may get an ulcer.