Honest conversations

As a leader-manager, you no doubt want to be open and honest with your team members. Here are some conversation starters.

Especially with new team members, contractors or temporary workers, and with team members whose performance is merely average, explain how you measure the success of their performance. What do they need to achieve? Which tasks are so important, and why, that they need to double check they’ve done them well? What specifically differentiates a star performer from a good performer in your eyes?

Make sure your criteria are measurable, time-gramed, achievable yet challenging and related to the department’s or organisation’s success measures. And make sure the job holder can easily track their success themselves — it’s silly to make people rely on you to tell them whether they’re doing a good job.

Have a frank discussion about the challenges the employee faces in their role. Maybe it’s interdepartmental politics or very tight budget constraints. Discuss how the employee can best deal with them and how you can help the employee work with them. Maybe it’s poorly organised work procedures. How can you streamline them or reduce backtracking and extra work? Maybe it’s lots of interruptions. What causes them? Can you remove or reduce them? It’s these sorts of issues that annoy and demotivate people, devalue their job and diminish their performance. Don’t let that happen.

Find out what the employee needs to be really happy in their work and from you, their leader-manager. Do they appreciate lots of feedback? Consultation? Cordial relationships with their teammates? Flexibility? A stable working environment Do what you can to provide it.

Explain what you most value about the employee and their performance. I once had a boss that found me positive, enthusiastic and smart. But I didn’t find that out until many years later. Shame; perhaps if he’d told me, I’d have stuck around longer!

Discuss how you see the employee’s future and how their job might change. Find out how they see their future and how they would like their job to change. Help them work out what they can do to prepare for the future so they can look forward to it and welcome it. (Remember, we’re talking about honest conversations, so no false hopes and no false timelines.)

People appreciate knowing where they stand. Do your team members know where they stand with you?

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What is leadership?

The cost of poor leadership may be invisible, but it’s huge. So let’s take a look at what ‘good’ leadership is.

Good leadership is a privilege. It’s your chance to add value to an organisation and your customers, and to build a team and develop employees.

Good leadership is a state of mind. When you’re a good leader, you hold yourself (and others) in high regard. You set high standards and expect the best, from yourself and from others. You see positives and possibilities. You pay attention. And you genuinely care about others. When you care about others, for instance, you make sure they have what they need to succeed and you help them develop their skills and reach their goals. You lend a hand when you can; you lend your ears and your eyes when someone is talking; and you use peoples’ names. You make people feel good—about themselves, about the work they do, about being part of your team. You’re free with compliments, praise and welcoming smiles because you know they are worth their weight in gold; they tell people what they’re doing well and where they need to grow.

Good leadership is a set of behaviours. Good leaders, for instance, treat everyone with respect—older people, younger people, bosses, workers and customers alike, and this earns them respect in return. Good leaders are polite to others and considerate of others. They say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and they they‘re available and approachable.

As a bonus to yourself, good leadership is good for your brain. In an earlier blog, I discussed how leadership improves your ability to learn and remember because it strengthens your hippocampus, the horseshoe-shaped structure in your brain most associated with forming, organising and storing memories.

How do your leadership mindsets and behaviours measure up?

Feel happy, perform well

Everyone’s brain has a special circuit for enjoyment, pleasure and euphoria. Let’s call it a happiness circuit. And literally hundreds of research studies have shown that, provided nothing gets in the way, like shoddy tools and equipment or a boss you hate or a dull-as-dishwater job, when your happiness circuit is firing, you do a good job at whatever you’re doing. Happy people are also more creative and solve problems better and more easily. Happy people even live longer.

It makes sense, then, to light up your happiness circuit. Money can buy a lot of things but it doesn’t fire up your happiness circuit, at least not for long. Being smart, according to research, doesn’t make you happier either. Even being young doesn’t make you happier. (In fact, research shows that older people are generally more satisfied with their lives than younger people.)

So we can put money, brains and youth to one side. Let’s talk about Aristotle instead. He believed that happiness comes from what you do, as in, for instance, good deeds and making the most of the possibilities open to you. That means you can take control of how happy you are, or at least the 50 per cent that isn’t down to your genes. Even if your genes dispose you towards gloominess rather than gladness, you can still ramp up your brain’s happy circuit.

What you do, what you think, how you view the world around you and how you respond to life’s events can either light up your happiness circuit or damp it down. So pay attention to what you do and how you do it. Pay attention to your thoughts. Pay attention to how you respond to events. Make sure you’re lighting up your happiness circuit for better performance.

To help the people in your work team perform better, talk about what they can do to light up their own happiness circuits. Develop a team culture that includes praise, thanks and consideration. Take time to have some fun while you work together and share a laugh. When someone achieves a goal or does something to boost the team’s morale, make it a ‘high five’ moment.

The happier you and your team are, the better you can perform – together and individually.

Building a culture of trust

Do you want to build a culture of trust in your team? Here are eight neuroscience-backed ways to do just that. The eight behaviours below  aren’t just common sense; they also release neurochemicals in peoples’ brains that build trust and other good things like engagement, job satisfaction, loyalty, motivation and productivity.

  1. Say thank you and show your appreciation. This works best just after someone reaches a goal or does something you want them to keep doing.
  2. Set clear and specific goals that are challenging, but make sure they’re achievable. This generates moderate stress that releases neurochemicals that help people focus and that strengthen social connections, helping people work well together.
  3. Let people work in their own way as much as possible. Knowing how to do a job and deciding how best to get on with it is motivating and promotes innovation. Bringing the team together to use the learning cycle in an after action review often leads to continuous improvement, too.
  4. When you can, let people select the projects they work on. That way, they work on what interests and inspires them most, leading to job satisfaction and high performance.
  5. Keep people informed about the organisation’s goals and strategies. Unless people know they’re working for an organisation that has its act together, their stress levels increase and their ability to work as a team deteriorates.
  6. Build relationships with your team and help them build relationships with each other. They don’t all need to be best friends, but they need to know each other as individuals to work well together and they need to care enough about each other that they don’t want to let their teammates down.
  7. Help team members develop personally and professionally. The best performers are well-rounded people, so show consideration for their work-life balance or work-life blending and don’t work people so hard that they have no time for personal rest, recreation and reflection.
  8. Don’t pretend you know everything. Ask for help when you need it; it’s a sign of a secure leader whose main aim is to perform well and help their team perform well.

As you can see, these eight behaviours aren’t difficult or even particularly time consuming. You can find out more in the Jan-Feb 2017 Harvard Business Review in an article by Paul Zak called ‘The neuroscience of trust’.

How to give feedback

Leader-managers owe it to employees to let them know their contributions are appreciated and how they could contribute even more effectively. No doubt you agree.

But do you get hung up on the word ‘feedback’? Don’t. Banish it from your mind and replace it with the word ‘information’. That way, you aren’t thinking ‘complaints’ and ‘criticisms’ but ‘insights’ offered in a caring, helpful way. Caring, helpful insights are indispensable to healthy workplaces and work teams.

This means banishing negative general comments and body language that implies ‘Oh, no – not you again’. Sarcasm, rolling your eyes, ignoring people or their efforts, and even heavy ‘hints’ fall into this category. It also means banishing telling people they’ve done something ‘wrong’ without explaining how to do it ‘right’.

Instead, motivate and lift people’s spirits with positive general comments that show you’re glad to be working with them. When you want to make sure what you’re commenting on is repeated, be specific – say what you appreciate and why you appreciate it. That builds and maintains first-rate performance.

When you want to help someone contribute more effectively, be constructive. Provide practical information that can help the person lift their performance.

So here’s your challenge for this week: Tell each of your team members something that you appreciate about the way they work and contribute. In a different conversation, show them how they could tackle a task to achieve a more effective outcome. (To find out why to separate your positive and constructive comments, see my blog Why the ‘sandwich technique’ for feedback doesn’t work.)

Spread the cheer

Last week I told you about a friend with a time-consuming and costly email habit. Today I’ll tell you about another friend who is so positive and complimentary, she is a total pleasure to be around. Her co-workers love her, her friends adore her and her family are devoted to her. I’ve watched her closely over the years and here are what I thin are her three secrets to not just making everyone love her but also (and this is pretty cool, too) just about always getting exactly what she wants.

First, she never criticises anyone. She always says how nice you look, what a great job you’ve done, how much she appreciates what you do — you get the picture. Then, if there’s anything she’d like to see changed, she offers one tiny suggestion — after asking if you’d like to hear it, of course. And it’s always a good suggestion, and nicely worded, so people are happy to oblige.

The second important thing she does is never to wait until the end to say Thanks. When she’s training someone, for instance, she shows her what to do and as she’s doing it, she’s encouraging her by saying how well she’s doing and how quick she’s learning. When the trainee gets a bit of confidence and does something without being asked, she thanks her for taking the initiative and says what a great job she did and how much she appreciates the effort.

She calls this her Cricket Fan Principle: How would the cricket players feel if their fans waited to cheer until someone gets a century or the team wins the whole match? The answer is, of course, demoralised. It’s demoralising and bad for performance not to hear any support when you’re working hard and making progress.

Her third secret is maybe not-so-secret, but it, too, works a treat. Manners. Simple manners. Please, Thank you, How was your weekend? Manners help people work and live together effectively.

Three tiny little things that make an enormous difference.

The blame game

You’ve probably seen the diagram of a small circle, labelled ‘Things you can control’ with a larger circle around it, labelled ‘Things you can affect’ and a much larger circle around that, labelled ‘Things you can neither control nor affect’. That huge outer circle includes things like the weather and the economy. In the ‘Things you can affect’ circle are matters like your family’s happiness and the results you get at work. In the ‘Things you can control’ circle is basically yourself: your behaviour and your attitude.

That diagram of three circles leads us to Denial, Blame, Excuses and Responsibility. So imagine this: You’ve had a hard day and you’ve finally made it home and are sitting comfortably with your feet up, trying to chill out. The kids are in the kitchen and you hear a crash, tinkle, tinkle. ‘What happened?’ you ask. And what’s the response? ‘Nothing!’ That’s Denial; something has clearly happened.

So you say, ‘Don’t tell me nothing! I heard something break!’ And you hear ‘It wasn’t my fault, it was his fault.’ That’s Blame.

So you say, ‘I don’t care whose fault it is–what happened?’ And you hear, ‘The bottle was slippery and it fell out of my hand.’ That’s an Excuse.

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear, ‘I dropped a bottle. I’m just getting a mop to clean it up.’ That’s taking Responsibility.

Quite a few adults have turned Denial, Blame and Excuse into something of an art form, which means they focus not on the little inner circle of Control, but on the big outer circle of No Control. So nothing changes.

Let’s take a look at the first refuge or the irresponsible: Blame. Someone slips on the pavement. Do they blame the council for not sweeping up fallen leaves or do they take responsibility for not taking care how they’re walking? Blame is a great defence mechanism. It preserves your sense of self-esteem by avoiding admitting to your own shortcomings. But you’ll keep slipping on leaves.

Someone leaves the sausages in the frying pan too long and they burn. Do they take responsibility for being distracted or do they blame their partner for not doing their share of the housework so they have to multitask. Blaming others is great when you’re in attack mode. And it’s great when it’s easier to blame someone else rather than accept responsibility. But you’ll just start an argument and keep burning the sausages.

Blame is also handy when you think you can lie and get away with it. ‘I didn’t drop the bottle and leave the mess behind.’ Then you cross your fingers and hope no one saw you drop the bottle.

Of course, not everything is our responsibility. But when it is, we need to step up to it. The more we play the blame game, the more we lose. And the less we learn.

Managers, team leaders and parents take note: Step up when you need to. And teach your team members and your children to step up, too.