Friday, October 21, 2016

A Breath of Fresh Air

Aesop's Lions and Oxes

In a recent article from TheStreet, Brad Hall described the eight things Google's Project Oxygen discovered about truly effective management; He wrote:

"As a young PhD student, I read thousands of academic articles on leadership. But one day a friend asked me a simple question on how to coach a struggling manager. I was baffled. I could compare and contrast almost any prominent leadership theory, but I had no idea how to fix the simplest management problem. I realized that I was lost in a sea of knowledge. The more I learned, the less I knew."

Google's Project Oxygen was designed to identify what successful Google managers do. Too often, training departments try to help managers improve their "skills" or "traits." But changing traits is very difficult. Instead, Google chose to teach managers what to do - after doing a lot of very disciplined research.

"The team spent one year data-­mining performance appraisals, employee surveys, nominations for top manager awards and other sources. The result was more than 10,000 observations of manager behaviors. The research complemented the quantitative data with qualitative information from interviews. The interviews produced more than 400 pages of notes, which were coded using standard behavioral science methodologies."

The final result was eight behaviors great managers do that make them great. (I broke one of them apart into two, so now there are nine. -df)

They are, in order of importance:
  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower (don't micromanage)
  3. Be interested in direct reports, personal and work success and wellbeing
  4. Be productive and results ­oriented
  5. Listen to your team
  6. Be a good communicator
  7. Help your employees with career development
  8. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  9. Have key technical skills, so you can advise the team. 

Interestingly enough, these correlate with another list, complied by Professor Jeffrey Pfeiffer in his 1998 book The Human Equation - Building Profits by Putting People First, which he called Seven Practices of Successful Organizations. These are not in any order of priority. Pfeiffer is known for his steadfast commitment to data backed recommendations, not fluffy leadership advice backed by guesses.

  • Extensive training
  • Employment Security
  • Selective hiring of new personnel
  • Reduced status distinctions and barriers across levels
  • Self managed Teams and decentralized decision making
  • Extensive sharing of financial and performance information
  • High performance driven compensation compared to your competition

Sheryl McMillan took it one step further in her July 8, 2016 posting, which began with a re-telling of Aesop's tale of the Lion and the Oxen;

"A Lion used to prowl about a field in which Four Oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four."

United we stand, divided we fall."

Cheryl wrote of how she was once part of a leadership group formed from two merged organizations. Headcount reductions ("right sizing") followed, and all leadership jobs, including her new boss’s, were under scrutiny. The new boss only liked ideas that supported his position. many felt that he didn’t care about others' opinions. As a result, instead of being encouraged to work together for the good of the organization, everyone felt pitted against one another and found themselves protecting their own “corners of the pasture”.

Cheryl observed that in every interaction with your employees, you are either creating a psychologically safe or unsafe environment and gave three concrete suggestions to help build what Simon Sinek calls a "Circle of Safety:"

Actively Seek and Take Feedback

Understand that as the leader, you hold position power and can directly impact the livelihood of your employees. You must make it safe for your employees to challenge you and to give you candid feedback. Share some examples of your own past bad ideas and decisions, and explain the dangers of future one’s going unchallenged. Frequently request feedback and grateful to receive it. Never rebuke what is offered. Instead, restate what you heard and thank the giver for the feedback.

Learn to Listen with Empathy

Learn how to really listen so that your employees feel your empathy. Restrain yourself from reacting and responding before the other person acknowledges that you understand their position. Be curious about their perspective and ask open questions when you need clarification. Having empathy means you understand and respect the other person's point of view even if you end up not initially agreeing with it.

Work is About Relationships

As social beings, we are wired with a strong need to connect and belong. Only when employees feel safe will they pull together as a unified team.

According to a research study published in Harvard Business Review about key leadership competencies, “Making sure that people feel safe on a deep level should be job #1 for leaders.”

Note that none of these points say anything about using your position or authority to direct or order the other person to do anything. Quite the opposite; Your role as a leader is to figure out how to bring the best out in your employees and make a safe space for them to discover and do what needs to be done. (Even the Norwegian Bachelor Farmers.)

Now, go out and ask your people some open ended questions. Listen. Take notes. Thank them for sharing and encourage them to tackle the problem as a team.

You'll be amazed at the results.

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