Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Keep a Work Journal

Actions to take: Keep a daily work journal. In it, note any conversations of significance you had during the day and any particularly valuable actions you took. 

My Human Resource Management professor once said "If you take nothing else from this course, remember this: keep a daily work journal where you track every important thing you do and every important conversation you have." He was adamant about it. When I started my next job, I kept a daily journal. For several months, I did not really see why I was doing it. Then, about 4 months into my position, my boss rolled out a new assignment. I needed to provide a monthly report on my activities: successes, failures, challenges, plans, etc. The work journal immediately began paying off. I could tell that my coworkers were stressed about this assignment at the end of each month and took hours trying to come up with things to say. Meanwhile, I was able to produce my report in about 45 minutes. I got feedback that mine were the most robust and informative that she received each month.

That experience, however, is just a side benefit to the real value of keeping a work journal. At some point in your managerial career, you will be subtly but persistently interrogated about some aspect of your job. This will probably be in regards to a poor performer. HR will want to know every detail of your work with that employee. They will be looking for gaps, for shortcomings in your management. In this situation, or situations like it, effective documentation practices will save you. 

Each time this has happened to me, I was able to give specific dates for each and every conversation related to the issue--not just when I spoke with the employee, but dates when other employees complained about them, dates when specific incidents occurred, dates when I spoke with my boss or others in the chain of command about it. Along with those dates, I was able to supply details about the interaction at hand. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to say to HR, "This is not just me trying to remember six months later. Here is what I wrote down about the conversation that day, so I am very confident that this is what happened." There is no describing the satisfaction you feel when HR is struck nearly speechless by the comprehensiveness of your notes.

This is not hard to do, and it doesn't require anything fancy. Just keep a work journal. Mine is a word document with the date, then a bulleted list, then the next date, its bulleted list, and so on. In it, make a short note of every important conversation and any particularly valuable actions you took that day. Some days will have just a few bullets, some will have ten. Many bullets will just be a single line of text, 5 to 10 words. Occasionally, you'll want to write a few sentences. For very important staff performance issues, I recommend documenting those conversations separately in greater detail, though you'll want to note that the conversation happened in your journal. For all of your entries involving other people, Write the person's name, perhaps their title, and anything else that might be useful for finding it with Ctrl+F several months later. Here is an example journal entry:


  • Usual morning duties. Greeted staff. Updated schedule due to call-in. Did daily pre-opening meeting.
  • [Peer, Head of X] emailed to ask for advice about staff goals. Emailed back some thoughts.
  • Weekly 1-1 with Alexis
  • Weekly 1-1 with Elena
  • Received positive feedback email from [Superior, Director of Y] following report submission: I “did a lot of good groundwork to get everyone clear on the issue” plus a few other positive remarks
  • Discussion with [employee] who was frustrated. Having trouble dealing with “entitled customers who need everything done for them.” Discussed strategies. Made note to follow up 1-1 next week & 4 weeks. Possibly assign training.
  • Updated supplies budget spreadsheet. On track to hit target within 1%.

The usefulness of your work journal will crop up in little ways elsewhere in your work. You'll need to remember the name of this or that external partner you talked to back in March, or the context for some project an employee proposed 8 months ago. Your journal will be a great resource in jogging your memory. Peers, employees, and the chain of command above you will be impressed with your uncanny ability to recall details. They will think you have some kind of super power, when in fact you are just doing a very simple thing that takes no more than 15 minutes a day. 

Monday, January 25, 2021

One-on-Ones are Scheduled

Actions to Take: Set up routine, standing times for one-on-one meetings with each of your staff. Communicate those times clearly, ensuring that your employees are well aware of when they are meeting with you. Also communicate those times on a calendar that the entire team can see (your own Outlook calendar is fine).

To be a truly effective boss, the most important thing you can do is build a trusting relationship with each employee. By far the easiest way to do that is through routine one-on-one meetings. recommends that those meetings are scheduled, 30 minutes, weekly, and rarely missed, with the first half of the meeting spent on whatever they want to discuss and the second half for whatever you want to discuss.

I once had a boss who worked in the same building, several floors up. She had a habit of dropping into my office space unannounced "just to chat." I was caught totally flat-footed the first few times she did it. I couldn't think of a thing when she would ask what I had to talk about. I eventually learned to keep some evergreen topics on hand to pull out at a moment's notice, but they were never timely. It was more a case of me managing up than seeking genuine managerial advice from her.

One time she led off with, "So what's the most important thing on your schedule this week?" For the record, I think this is a great question for bosses to ask. It opens up the conversation and gives you a sense of your employee's prioritization. In this case, the circumstances made it dreadful. Imagine the scenario. Your boss shows up in your office unannounced, asks to speak with you with the door closed, and immediately asks what your most important priority is for the week. How could this be anything other than some kind of test? My mind was blank as I tried to figure out what important thing I was supposed to be doing that I had forgotten about. The seconds dragged on painfully as I stumbled through some kind of answer. It turns out that she meant it honestly and casually, but it absolutely did not feel that way at the time.

This boss's heart was in the right place. In retrospect, I see that she was just trying to build rapport. She was new to managing people that weren't in close physical proximity and came up with this as a strategy to overcome that obstacle. I suspect that she thought an "official meeting" would feel weird and stuffy.

Folks, schedule your one-on-one meetings. I do not care if you are not a meetings person or your organization is not a meetings culture. It is the most important element of a successful one-on-one with your employee. More important than doing them weekly, more important than having the employee go first, and more important than avoiding cancellations. 

Think for a moment about the purpose of all meetings. Why don't we just talk about everything the moment it occurs to us? Meetings are a specific time, with specific people, to discuss specific topics. When you schedule them, you give people the chance to prepare. Once you get the ball rolling on routinely scheduled one-on-ones, some of your staff are going to truly impress you. They will come in with a list of five to ten topics every week. They will bang through those items with marvelous efficiency. You will start crossing things off your list because your employee covered them during their half of the meeting. These same employees will draw a blank, or maybe come up with one or two things to say, if you cold call them with an open-ended question about their work.

There are a few other benefits to scheduling. First, you are signaling their importance. Even if you work in a rabidly anti-meeting culture, something gets scheduled. I am willing to bet those things are the most important things, organizational imperatives that must be done. When you schedule one-on-ones, you are saying, "this is important enough, you are important enough, that I will carve out specific time to chat with you every week." 

Scheduling also reduces fear. My anecdote above described two problems, broadly speaking. First, I was unprepared, and second, I was alarmed enough to totally misinterpret her question and assume the worst. (She was a perfectly pleasant human, by the way. Not in the least bit imposing or intimidating. But she was my boss.) When you schedule one-on-ones, your employees will know what they are. They be not guessing to themselves, "what's going on here?" They will understand that this is just the routine chat with the boss. They will be mentally prepared with topics, and they will be emotionally prepared for the interaction.

Here is the ideal setup for scheduling one-on-ones:

  • You have set a standing time each week for each of your employees. I meet with Carolyn on Tuesdays at 3:00, I meet with Calvin on Wednesdays at 9:00, and so on. If something gets in the way, no problem, just reschedule for later in the week. Having a set time saves an enormous amount of work. Scheduling each independently is a hassle that will almost certainly cause you to miss them from time to time.
  • That time is clearly communicated to the employee. The whole point is to give them time to prepare. If you are doing a standing, recurring meeting, then you are all set except for reschedules. If you are scheduling each one independently (which I do not recommend), you must communicate the time for the one-on-one at least a few days in advance. 
  • The calendar is visible to the rest of the team. It is generally good practice for the team to know when and where people are doing important tasks. Anyone who works customer service has a front-desk schedule, for instance. It helps avoid gaps in service. Just the same here, when your employees generally know how your time is committed, they are less likely to interrupt or cause scheduling conflicts.
  • One-on-ones are not scheduled on Fridays. First, people do not like a lot of meetings on Fridays. More importantly, you have nowhere to go if a scheduling conflict arises. Bumping it to the following week (i.e. rescheduling this one for Monday, then have that week's meeting the same Friday) does not work well. People operate on a weekly basis.

That is all there is to the scheduling element of one-on-ones.

The average boss talks with their employees as topics occur to them, whenever is convenient for the boss. They don't schedule meetings because they want to keep things casual and not exert their "boss power" too much. Better bosses know that those average bosses are having the opposite effect, causing their staff unnecessary stress and having far less effective conversations because of it. Better bosses schedule one-on-ones.

Friday, January 22, 2021

If It is Important, Say It Many Times

Actions to Take: Accept the fact that repetition is a requirement for effective communication. Do not get cynical, just live with it. For important things, say them multiple times across multiple channels of communication. 

I managed a supervisor who prided herself on process development. She would work out a detailed solution to a problem as soon as she became aware of it. This supervisor would then write up a comprehensive explanation of the change and sent it to staff. Every time this happened, I knew what to expect at our next one-on-one meeting. She would spend her half of the meeting in frustration that her staff doesn't pay attention to her and doesn't follow instructions. 

There were a couple problems with her approach. For instance, I would argue that she should not have been working out comprehensive solutions to team problems on her own. But this post is not about her process development technique--it is about her frustration. She was annoyed with the her staff. She should have been annoyed with herself. 

Sometimes you will hear a manager joke, "If you tell someone a thing 5 times, they'll claim they heard it once." It is typically said with annoyance, frustration, or wry cynicism. That boss is making fun of their staff, or the situation, or the organizational culture that allows people to get away with ignoring their boss (ironically failing to realize that they are the ones who have most influence over this).

Almost every time you hear this or a comment like it, the manager is violating management rule #2. They are imagining that this error is something unique to people below them in the chain of command. They are assuming they do not make this mistake themselves. I guarantee they are wrong--just ask their boss. 

We all miss important information on the first pass. There are very good reasons why.

First, most information is irrelevant to our particular position. As a manager, I am signed up for all sorts of email lists. Perhaps one in fifty of these emails has information I need to know. The majority of the content is useless to me. That is true for the information your employee receives as well. Yes, the information from you probably has a higher hit rate than one in fifty. You would be surprised at how little of it actually relates to any one person though. In one of my library management positions, I took to sending a weekly "FYI email" to staff. I decided to review that behavior from the lens of our lowest level employee, the person whose job primarily consists of shelving books. I looked at 6 weeks of FYI emails. Approximately 15% of the items were directly relatable to their jobs, and only about 40% mattered even tangentially.

Second, we all prioritize. You want your employees to ignore some information that comes their way. It shows that they are making judgment calls about how to best spend their time. Surely no boss would argue that their employees should give the all-staff "wellness check" email blasts the same energy and focus as an email describing the launch plans for a new service. In the shelver example above, I inadvertently taught my employees to skim my emails and assume that the content generally would not matter to them. 

Third, we usually do not understand the importance of a thing the first time we hear about it. It takes time and thought to comprehend exactly how a new piece of information will change our work. This is especially true when we are wading through a sea of mostly irrelevant information, distracted by the tasks that actually matter to us. It is very easy to skim past an important change without picking up on its relevance. 

Again, all of us are guilty of this. If you are not guilty of this, you are not busy enough. Or you do not have your priorities in order, and you are spending way too much time reading unimportant emails "just in case." 

Therefore, change your perspective when you notice others missing important information. "If you tell someone a thing 5 times, they'll claim they heard it once" is not a complaint. It is not an excuse. Think of it instead as a proverb to help remind you to work harder and communicate more. Think of it like any other workflow issue. "Sometimes the cloud storage file path gets lost and you have to restart the computer." It would be great if we didn't need to do this. Things should work the way we want them to. But refusing to restart the computer because it should work differently is immature thinking. It would be great if everyone understood and absorbed every piece of information you communicated the first time you communicated it. That is not reality. Accept reality and adjust your actions accordingly.   

Once you make that perspective change, the rest is easy. Just start communicating important information multiple times and follow up with your staff. Here are a few more details to guide you:

  • Schedule yourself: If you do not already routinely think about timing your information rollout to the team, start. Here's how it might look: "I'll send out a team email about this on the 4th. I'll give a quick reminder about it on the 7th and 10th during our 5-minute all hands meeting. Then I'll follow up in one-on-ones the week of the 13th." Don't just think this through. Put reminders in the relevant places for each of these actions (e.g. your calendar reminders, your notes for the daily all hands meeting, and your one-on-ones follow up notes file). 
  • In multiple formats: Different people absorb information differently. Notice that the example above has an email, a group setting, and an individual setting to communicate the same information. Some people will get it immediately from the email. Others will feel the social pressure when it gets mentioned in the group meeting ("Does everyone else already know this?"). The rest will benefit from exploring the information in a one-on-one. These methods also reinforce each other within a single individual. A person might get some questions answered in a on-on-one and go back to meticulously read over the initial email, for instance.
  • Ask for questions: Asking for questions is good practice in general. It also prompts people to attend to the information. The first time you ask for questions, people may have none because they don't actually know what you're talking about. Maybe they skimmed it, but didn't pick up on the important details. When you ask for questions, you communicate the idea that they should have thought about it enough to generate some questions. 
  • Check for understanding: Ask them questions about it. Ask them to put the change into their own words or describe for you how it will impact their particular work. This will feel like a "gotcha" if you do it poorly. You can avoid that by giving being genuinely casual about it, giving them a pass where possible, and following up with encouragement to be ready next time. Or you can stop just short of asking the question, for example: "If I asked what the giveaway prizes are for the upcoming promotion, how many of you would know the answer?" 

There is a psychological element to this strategy as well. We naturally talk more about things that are important to us. Repetition is a useful signal even if you are confident your staff already got the message. Covering the topic multiple times, multiple ways will encourage them to realize, "I should give this some real attention. We talked about this same thing 3 weeks in a row. The boss is probably going to talk about it again next week. I need to be prepared for it." 

Most bosses assume that their job is done once they have sent out the information. Better bosses understand that it is our responsibility to ensure that staff have received the information. A very simple method for achieving that goal is to communicate important things many times. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

What's in a Meeting

It is important to be aware of and honest about our flaws and biases. To that end, I have an obligation to tell my readership: I like meetings. 

Have you ever spent time thinking about what a meeting is, what defines the concept in a work environment? It is a specific time, with specific people, to discuss specific topics. How gloriously efficient is that? Let's make sure everyone knows when it is happening. No one will suddenly find themselves in a conversation they did not know they would be having.  Let's get the right people in the room, the ones who need to be part of this discussion in order to have the best possible outcomes. Let's tell everyone what we will be discussing. That will help them direct their thoughts and be ready to engage in deep, meaningful discussion and analysis. In an even moderately busy work environment, meetings are an absolute necessity for getting things done with our limited time. They are a truly wonderful invention.

Okay, if you live in the same world I do, the concepts "gloriously efficient" and "meetings" have never crossed your mind together before. 

Let me revise the statement I made at the top of the post: I like the idea of meetings. Most meetings are terrible, nails-on-the-chalkboard frustrating, in no small part because they could be so much better. It is like taking a bite of a cookie and discovering it was made with salt instead of sugar. And then being told that you have to eat the whole thing, once a week until you retire.

Meetings are successful when they achieve the definition above, when they specify time, specify people, and specify topic. Virtually every bad meeting is bad because it fails to achieve one of those three elements.

Specify topics: I know of a friend who attended an all day meeting once per month (6.5 hours not including breaks). The agenda would often have items like "updates from x, y, and z departments" or "management activity." Now, I'm sure the organizers of the meeting knew what that meant. It was totally unhelpful to my friend, however. To successfully capture the "specify topics" element of a meeting, you must do so for everyone in attendance. The goal is that people come prepared to meaningfully engage. That may mean discussion, taking down notes to execute a new process, coming to a decision, etc. Regardless of the activity in the meeting, people must prepare themselves in advance in order to be successful. Put time into crafting your agenda. Consider how topics will proceed. Give your attendees a real sense for what will be discussed. 

Specify people: It matters who comes to a meeting. You will get wildly different engagement out of the same person, with the same amount of preparation, depending on who else is with them. Small groups elicit more candid input. More levels of management in the room will increase formality and make people more careful of what they say. Same goes for having unfamiliar people in attendance. 

I worked at an organization that had a monthly meeting for all site managers--the bosses who supervised the front-line customer service staff at each location of the organization. There were 10 site managers. This meeting routinely had almost 25 people in attendance. That is standing attendance, not guests. There were the 10 site managers, their 3 bosses, their boss, 7 managers of other departments in the organization, and 2-3 subordinates to the site managers. The meetings were dreadful. Almost every topic was met with stone silence or milquetoast agreement. There were just too many interpersonal relationships to track, too much potential for saying something wrong. Only the most confident or the most ignorant attendees felt comfortable stating their opinions. The organizers had totally lost the plot when it comes to specifying people.

Specify Time: This element is more encompassing than it seems. It is not enough to say "the meeting starts at 9:00" or even "the meeting starts at 9:00 and ends at 10:00." Specifying time means setting clear expectations about how every moment of the meeting will be used, then enforcing that expectation. Virtually all meetings, even the productive ones, fail to fully achieve the element of specifying time. A good agenda can get you half way there. You must actively facilitate the meeting to get the other half. This means tabling topics when necessary, articulating the purpose of each agenda item, drawing out the quiet attendees and reining in the talkers, and, above all, sticking to the times you set. 

There is a great deal more to cover with meetings. Many other topics, and this is only a brief overview of what it truly means to specify time, specify people, and specify topics. For instance, "specify people" also includes giving people clear indications for how to act in meetings, providing feedback regarding engagement, and so on. For now, take a moment to reflect on your meetings. Look for ways to more fully achieve these three elements in the ones you run. 

If you enjoy the content of this blog, please share it with coworkers, employees, friends, or whomever else might benefit from it. My thanks if you do.

Monday, January 18, 2021

A Better Way to Give Feedback

Actions to take: Do not change anything about how you give feedback yet. Wait until the core series of posts about feedback is complete before rolling out your new way of giving feedback.

The first post on feedback argued why managers need to provide far more feedback than they are currently giving their staff. This entry will begin the discussion of how to give consistent, frequent feedback.

The easiest, most effective way to give more feedback is to adhere to a verbal model, a formula that you will always follow when you articulate what your employee should do more of or do differently. The best model I have found looks like this: "Hey Ben, can I give you some feedback? When you make sure to explain why changes need to happen, it helps people connect with the change and follow the new plans. Keep it up." Or "Hey Ben, when you don't explain why changes need to happen, people are more skeptical about them and less likely to comply. Can you work on that?" 

I am arguing that you should put every piece of day-to-day feedback in that format (major issues and recurring problems are a different story that will be covered in later blog posts). Some managers give me the side eye when I propose that they use the same structure, time in, time out, to give their staff performance feedback. They say that it will feel weird to do, staff will notice them doing it, that it will feel robotic, and that they won't be able to sound genuine. 

I'm not blind to this. I know there are downsides to using a structured format for feedback. Those complaints are all true. We will discuss strategies to mitigate them in future posts, but I do not deny that these downsides exist. The first one is probably the biggest hurdle: it feels weird. Readers who never try out this formula or try it out for only a month or so and give up: most of you will stop or never start for that first reason. 

To engage in frequent feedback, to do most of the things that this blog recommends, you will have to be a little bit bold. The whole premise of is that most bosses are not doing these things. By definition, you are going to stick out a little. I encourage you, have the confidence to take that step.

The benefits of using a formula vastly outweigh these concerns.

  1. You will actually give feedback on a regular basis: For the things we do often, we naturally establish a routine. It works in reverse as well. If you create a routine for something, you are much more likely to start doing it routinely. You will never manage to give frequent, consistent feedback without developing some kind of rote structure to it. You might as well choose the one that works best.
  2. You won't freeze up: Feedback is awkward. Most bosses avoid it like the plague unless it is a big issue or big success. How many of you have stumbled through giving feedback to an employee? Or how about this: how many have gone into a conversation fully intending to mention an issue and decided in the moment, "I should just save it for later"? Having a structured format for feedback is going to dramatically reduce those false starts.
  3. Your will focus on the message, not the phrasing: With the phrasing already in place, half of your work is done for you. There isn't a single manager who hasn't asked themselves, "Now how am I going to address this?" Use the formula. You won't be struggling with "how do I broach the topic" or "how can I put this." I know very well how tense it can be to give corrective feedback. In those moments, we need every helping hand we can get. Free up that mental space by having your plan already in place.
  4. Staff will notice: Yes, this showed up in the cons list above. It is secretly a major benefit to using a model. The purpose of feedback is to inform future behavior. Actually making a change to the behavior is the employee's task, not yours. The employee needs to recognize it as feedback! They need to be aware that you are communicating an expectation, not just saying something nice or complaining about their work. Using a structured format is the single easiest way to ensure that your employee recognizes your feedback as feedback.

I gave a couple examples of the formula earlier in the post. Let's abstract that into a generic structure that you can use for your own feedback. First, ask the question. Then, say "when you do X, it has Y impact." Finish with some version of "can you work on it" for corrective feedback or "keep it up" for positive feedback. 

Each of these elements exists for very good reason. Each will have their own blog post explaining how important they are. Here are those explanations in very brief:

  • The Question: The purpose of feedback is to advise on the employee's future behavior. However, the employee's behavior is up to them. There is no reason to give feedback to someone who is not in a state of mind to receive it. Therefore, we check to see if they are interested in hearing feedback in that moment.
  • When you do X: The phrase is "when you do X" not "when you did X." It is future-oriented, talking about what happens, not what happened. Also, our phrasing describes a category of behaviors, not a single event. We may be referencing something that recently happened, but only in order to discuss the future.
  • It has Y impact: This step is the most challenging to compose well. It can be difficult to properly articulate why something is a problem (or why it is a success). Sometimes, it is so self evident that you draw a blank. Other times the problem is subtle. I urge you not to skip this part of the feedback formula. This step is what encourages long-term growth. This is what the employee is missing. People know what they did, obviously. They do not know how others are perceiving it. This part of your statement helps them see from your perspective.
  • Can you work on it/Keep it up: This is the reinforcement element of our formula. You are instructing the employee to do something in the future. We define feedback as communication that informs future behavior. Without this part, you are not giving feedback. You are just describing their work. 

We have more ground to cover yet: what to give feedback about, when to give feedback, where to give feedback, who to give feedback to, and how often. Look forward to posts on each of the four elements above, these questions, and many other topics to help you on your path toward effective performance feedback with your team. 

Most bosses give very little performance feedback to their employees. Some manage an occasional comment while stumbling through the awkwardness. Better bosses have a plan for how to give frequent, consistent performance feedback to all their employees every week.

Friday, January 15, 2021

One-on-Ones: The Basics

Actions to take: Make sure your one-on-one meetings have each of the elements listed below. Wait until the core series of posts about one-on-ones is complete before rolling them out. 

The initial post about routine one-on-one meetings with your direct reports explained why they should be your first priority and enumerated the benefits of doing them. Future posts will walk you through each element of conducting one-one-ones in great detail. This post will bridge the two. This post serves as the general framework to help you picture what these meetings will look like once you are doing them on a regular basis. 

Conceptually, it is simple to do one-on-one meetings. You will conduct regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with each of your direct reports, likely on a weekly basis, likely 30 minutes long. In practice, it is difficult to do them well. There are dozens of elements that make up an effective one-on-one meeting and just as many pitfalls to ruin them. Let's start with a quick overview of the most important elements. Each of the following bullets will get its own post that will review the concept in greater detail and give you more specific instructions: 

  • Regularly Scheduled: Set a specific time that becomes the standing meeting time for each employee. Some managers like to sprinkle them throughout the week; some prefer to have a "one-on-ones day" for all their direct reports. Either strategy is fine as long as the following conditions are met: 1) it is a standing, recurring meeting and 2) the employee knows about the meeting and meeting time. This is perhaps the most important aspect of your routine one-on-ones. The post dedicated to the "regularly scheduled" aspect will delve deeply into why it matters so much.
  • Rarely missed: This is your most important meeting. Do not cancel these meetings frivolously. Do not allow interruptions more than you would during any very important meeting. There are two major reasons. First, you are signaling to your employee "this is important and you are important." Second, you will learn that these meetings are just really useful! You will not want to lose one. I do not exaggerate when I say that most of you job will get done in one-on-one meetings once you get them rolling.
  • Weekly (for most staff): The vast majority of managers and employees should meet on a weekly basis. Work and life happen on a weekly basis. People think on a weekly basis. When you ask someone about their work, they probably know the most important thing from last week, this week, and next week. They will have to consult their calendar for anything beyond that. Anything done every week starts to feel like just part of the job (which we want for these meetings). Anything done less frequently never quite feels routine. Do your one-on-ones every week. 
  • First half is employee's meeting: This meeting is not for you. It is for your employee and for the relationship between the two of you. Demonstrate that by always having the employee lead. It is "their meeting" in that they decide what will be discussed and for how long. The post dedicated to this element will enumerate the many, many ways that bosses can mess up this part of the meeting.
  • Second half is your meeting: Treat this meeting like it is the most important meeting you will have this week (it is). What do you do for important meetings? You prepare. Have a list of topics written up before the meeting. Spend some amount of time considering how to approach certain topics, not just what you need to cover. Consider their likely reactions and plan your follow-up. This preparation is fairly easy to do once you get the swing of it. For you as well as your employees, the routine will integrate itself into your daily work.
  • 30 minutes: 30 minutes is the sweet spot for getting what you need to out of this meeting. For executive-level positions in large organizations, your employees' jobs may be complex enough to require an hour each week. However, the flip side is not true. No position should have meetings shorter than 30 minutes. Despite how much these meetings will seem like they are about the job, remember, the purpose of the meeting is to strengthen the relationship. Do not attempt to build meaningful relationships in less than 30 minutes a week.

Hopefully you are beginning to visualize how these meetings would go and what you and your employees will get out of them. As I alluded to above, each of these topics requires more detailed study. There are many other topics to cover as well. This is a starting point. Subscribe or check the website frequently for future posts to coach you through the process of creating meaningful meetings with your team. Any boss can do a one-on-one meeting with their employees. Better bosses take a thoughtful, considered approach in order to make those meetings valuable.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Announce Before You Implement

Actions to take: Notify people about any significant change with a time buffer before it takes effect. A good rule of thumb is 4 weeks in advance of the launch date. Do this even if the change is an obvious improvement that needs to happen. Follow the week-by-week process described below for maximum effectiveness.

In one of my past jobs, central planning pushed out a change to our closing announcements. I managed a branch of a large library district at the time. Upper management let branch managers know and gave us the scripts with a launch date the next evening. The fallout from such a simple change was fascinating to watch. The fact that I even use the word "fallout" to describe staff reaction should tell you something. It was a mess. Staff were annoyed at just about every aspect of the change. The timing for when we did announcements didn't work as well. The announcements were full of marketing language about our services instead of a clear closing message. The wording was hard to say. It read fine, but when you tried to say the words out loud, they didn't flow well. One of the closing announcements was too long. The PA system would cut you off unless you spoke at top speed. The complaints went on and on. It wasn't just my branch. I checked in with a few other managers. Their staff were equally annoyed about it.

I choose this example because it is mundane. Mundane enough that I felt a little silly describing the problem to my own boss. Nobody really cares that much about closing announcements. Yet, somehow, this was all the talk for weeks after the rollout. Regardless of how mundane or silly an issue is, people react badly when they are caught off guard by change.

We all hate it when our boss suddenly announces that we're doing things differently. They always miss about ten obvious problems. They don’t think about the impact to other aspects of the job. They don’t realize that the change is going to mess up something else. Even when it is probably a good idea, the boss rolls it out when it is still just and idea, not a plan, and it goes terribly.

You are that boss. We are all that boss. We all fall into this trap due to perspective blindness. You are at a certain level of the organization, with access to certain information and a certain understanding of various situations. Your employees are at a different level with different access and different perspectives. It takes intentional, repeated effort to keep that in mind. You are not maintaining that awareness as well as you think you are. You are not modifying your behavior and communication to account for it as well as you think you are.

To you, your decisions are not a big deal. To you, the change make obvious sense. To you, the plan is all worked out. From your perspective, it is reasonable to make a positive change as soon as possible. It is going to improve things, so why wait to do it!

  • For your staff, the decision is a big deal. Keep this in mind: most managerial decisions do not change the boss's work, they change somebody else's work. It matters more to them because it directly impacts them in a way that it does not directly impact you. They have more emotional stake than you. They need more time than you do to accept the change.
  • For your staff, the change does not make sense. They have been doing it this way for years. The current way make sense. If the current way didn't make sense, we would have already changed. Furthermore, you have been living with this idea in your head for at least some time. You've worked out why it needs to change. They have not lived with the idea like you have. You need to spend time showing them that the change makes sense.
  • For your staff, the plan is not all worked out. They will have "what if's" and "what about's." Stop assuming you’ve got the details figured out. You missed at least one important question that needs to be answered. You missed at least one consequence of this change. In the extremely unlikely event that you have planned a perfect change, you still need to give your staff time to examine it and come to that same conclusion.

There is a straight forward solution to all of this. You must announce before you implement any change. When you announce a change for the first time, stop saying “starting today” or “this week” or “effective immediately” or worst of all, leaving out the timeline altogether. 

You should virtually never provide the first announcement about a change less than a week before implementing it. It is possible that, for some very simple changes, you staff could acclimate to the change that quickly. For anything even moderately important, I recommend a 4-week announce-before-you-implement process:
  • Week 1: Announce the change to your team and to anyone else impacted by the change. A future blog entry will go in detail on effectively announcing change. In brief, your announcement should explain why the change is necessary, describe exactly what is changing, and describe the change process. Bosses often don't appreciate the difference between "the change" and "the change process." The change is what it looks like when all is said and done. The process portion is about the transition, including information on who will be affected, how they'll be affected, how we will overcome those effects, and on what timeline this will all happen.
  • Week 2: Follow up on the announcement. Discuss it individually with each of your staff (this is a great candidate for a topic in your weekly one-on-one meetings). Find out their opinion of the change. Learn who is for it, who is against it, and why. Listen seriously for issues you may have overlooked.
  • Week 3: Respond to information from week 2. Your staff may very well have pointed out issues or aspects of the change that need to be addressed. You may end up tweaking your plan. It is important to respond to staff comments even if your plan is exactly the same. Explain to them directly why their feedback has not changed your mind.
  • Week 4: Begin rollout. After the previous 3 weeks, your staff should now be fully prepared for the change. If you have done your job right, the vibe you get from them will be along the lines of "let's get on with it already." Since you know from week 2 who is on board and who is resistant, you will be able to monitor for problems much more easily. You will also be able to judiciously select who should do what during implementation (for instance, not pairing two resistant staff with each other).
This is not complicated stuff. The difficulty isn't in whether or not you can do it. The difficulty is in whether or not you will. As the anecdote at the top of this post demonstrates, you do not know which changes need this level of care. We are perspective-blind. Stop trusting your gut. Instead, just assume that someone below you will have problems with any change you roll out. For that reason and all the reasons listed above, provide your team the heads-up that you wish your boss afforded you.

The average boss works to give their team the relevant details about a change and considers that a job well done. Better bosses announce before they implement. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Case for More Frequent Feedback

Actions to take: None at this time. Wait for future posts that describe a better way to give feedback before changing your managerial behavior. 

This is the first in a series of posts on how the better way to give performance feedback to your team. The bulk of this post explains why you should be giving more performance feedback. Future entries in the series get into the details of how. 

Assuming your boss did it in a polite, respectful way, would you want more feedback about your work performance?  

When I ask this question, about 70% of people give an unequivocal “yes.” Another 20% or so will say yes if reassured that their boss would indeed be respectful about it. Interestingly, these figures do not change when you specify negative (AKA corrective) feedback. People get more skeptical that their boss could do it well. Nevertheless, most people are very interested to hear what their boss thinks they need to change about their work. Consider yourself for a moment. Imagine I told you that your boss had two thoughts about your performance, one positive, one corrective. Neither is a particularly big deal. However, your boss would be happy if you kept doing the positive thing, and they’d be happy if you changed your approach regarding the corrective thing. First, do you want to know? Second, which would you choose if you only got to hear one?  

The vast majority of you just thought “yes, I would want to know." A significant majority of you would opt to hear the corrective feedback over the positive feedback. Here is an important truth: most of your employees feel exactly the same. Keep Management Rule #2 in mind while we are discussing feedback. It should come as no surprise that you are not special when it comes to wanting to know what your boss thinks of your work. Your employees are as mature as you are, as invested in their work, as interested in developing their skills, as committed to getting the job done. Think this to yourself: “My team wants more feedback than I am giving them. They crave a better understanding of how I view their work.”  

Some of you are not sold that your employees want more feedback from you because you are not sold that you want more feedback from your boss. We are accustomed to the way things are. Through years being minimally managed, we have inoculated ourselves against the idea that it is good and useful to have a full picture of what our boss thinks of us. Let me show you that you do indeed want more feedback from your boss using the following thought experiment. Think of one of your employees. Think of something they do that annoys you a little. It’s not a big deal, but they’d be more effective if they stopped doing that, or started doing it differently. Guess what, your boss has something like that for you. Do you want to know what it is?  

The last two paragraphs are an argument for why it would be nice to give your team more feedback. However, “nice” doesn’t drive our actions in the workplace, effectiveness does. Luckily, nice and effective happen to be on the same team when it comes to feedback.  

Benefits of more frequent feedback: 

  1. Better, more effective work: This one is obvious. We’re not giving feedback about nothing. We’re giving feedback about 1) the things we would like to see more of, or 2) the things we would like our employees to do differently. If you’re fixing more flaws and reinforcing more successful behaviors, you will see better results from your team. This is huge. It is a compelling enough reason all on its own.  
  2. Self-assured staff: People avoid doing things, even obviously beneficial things, out of uncertainty. For instance, how many of you have held back from sharing ideas or information because you were worried about how others might interpret it? If you are the type who doesn’t get self-conscious about that sort of thing, can you think of coworkers who are? Imagine instead, the very first time you shared an insightful thought or link to useful materials, your manager says, “When you share relevant information about our topics, it helps us make more informed decisions. Keep it up.” After such feedback, a person knows for certain that they should do more of that behavior in the future. 
  3. It is your job: Okay, this stretches the definition of “benefit.” It is just too important to leave off this list. As a manager, your first, most important priority, is to manage. It is a cliché that bosses don’t do any work themselves, they just sit around telling other people how to do their work. But that is how things are supposed to go (though I wouldn't phrase it so cynically). Our job, our work, is to make our employees more effective. Performance feedback is one of the best tools you have to accomplish this goal. 
  4. Easier (and better) year-end appraisals: If you start giving frequent performance feedback, and tracking it when you give it, year-end appraisals become very easy. It is as simple as gathering the feedback you gave an employee over the course of a year, sorting it into whatever categories your company has for rating performance, and using the feedback as your basis for judging employees’ work in those categories. This is also better, more accurate, and less biased than the way you currently write your appraisals. (A later blog entry will delve into more detail about the connection between feedback and year-end appraisals.) 

With so many reasons to do a thing, you would expect it to be a universal managerial behavior. Of course, it is not. There are enough incentives not to give feedback that we could fill half a dozen blog entries: it is awkward, it is uncomfortable, the employee might argue, it goes badly when I try, there is tension afterward, my manager doesn’t care if I do it (or, my manager sees it as micro-managing and is maybe a little threatened by my willingness to be an engaged boss). For these reasons and others, bosses tend to avoid feedback conversations except for big successes and big problems. Better bosses push through the awkwardness and do the job.

Finally, when I say “more frequent performance feedback,” I am likely talking about much more feedback than you currently give your staff. One distinct piece of performance feedback per employee per week is a good starting place. That may sound like a lot. It is actually very easy once you develop the knack. 

As with my previous post about one-on-ones, I do not recommend that you make any changes without a clear plan of action. You’ll likely startle and confuse your employees. A bad false start could spoil them and spoil you on consistently giving performance feedback ever again. Stay tuned to this blog for what will likely be dozens of entries on a better, more effective way to give performance feedback.  

Friday, January 8, 2021

One-on-Ones: the Most Important Thing You Do

Actions to take: None at this time. Wait for future posts that explain how to effectively conduct one-on-one meetings with your staff. 

This is the first in a series of posts on conducting effective one-on-one meetings with your staff. The bulk of this post explains why one-on-ones are so important. Future entries in the series get into the details of how.

As a manager, job number one is to build and maintain strong relationships with each of your employees. This isn’t a platitude. I mean it literally. If you are not spending more time on this task than any other, your priorities are off course. 

Managers, by definition, get their work done through other people. It is our job to steer the work of other individuals by communicating with them about that work. We do this by talking about the work, asking questions about their tasks, giving feedback on the effectiveness of what they are doing, coaching them to do more and different things, getting their opinions on changes to make, etc. It is not too much to say that management is communication.  

We can communicate basic things with anyone. You can get across some points even if you do not speak the same language. However, most of us are not lucky enough to work in a place where pointing and grunting get the job done. We communicate about some delicate, complicated stuff. In an effective environment, managers truly make sure that they know their employees’ thoughts and opinions. That is not an easy thing to do. It is not enough to send an email asking, “Does anyone have anything to add about this?” How many times have you gotten an email like that, had an opinion (maybe a strong one), and decided it is not worth it to give your honest thoughts? There is risk in voicing your opinion. Some people are comfortable taking that risk on a regular basis. Most people view it as sticking their neck out, at least a little. And they worry that their neck might just get chopped off. The only way to overcome that fear is by building a genuine relationship with each of your employees. 

The solution is to schedule regular (likely weekly) one-on-one meetings with each of your employees. There are other ways to build relationships. Most of them don’t get anywhere near the effectiveness of a routine one-on-one, or they are so time-consuming as to be irresponsibly inefficient.  

I did not come by this understanding easily. When I began as a manager, I had no idea how badly I was managing. People seemed to like me, and I didn’t realize that I could be vastly better at my job. Almost all managers are like this. At almost every job I’ve worked, I have been on my own until a major issue comes up. It has been perfectly normal to go a week or two without having any discussion with my boss. It is a typical management method. 

It is also extremely ineffective. As a boss, every time you need to touch base with an employee for any reason at all, it is a talk in their minds. Does your heart beat a little faster when you see that your boss is calling your office? Is this true even though you generally like them as a person? It is true for most people. Because of that, both employee and manager tend to only exchange polite small talk until some issue requires a real conversation. 

There is a different, better way. Once you establish a genuine relationship with your employees (and build a regular time in your week to discuss literally anything they want), communication dramatically improves. The flood gates will open. You will get a proper understanding of your employees’ skills, weak areas, ideas, ambitions. They will begin expressing their opinions on work processes in a safe, low-key environment. You will have a vastly better understanding of their work. When you need to ask an employee to change course, the conversation will be easier. When you make process changes, you will get less push-back. The entire team just starts functioning.  

When done correctly, the value of regular, scheduled one-on-ones cannot be overstated. I have done them and not done them. I have had bosses who do them and those who do not. I have done them with a team only to be told to roll them back. I have heard from colleagues who have experienced the same. I have seen firsthand exactly what happens while the manager is doing weekly one-on-ones, and I have seen how much the communication withers away when they are put on hold.  

Hopefully, you are fired up after reading this post. Hopefully, I have convinced you that this is a better, smarter way to manage. My recommendation is that you not change your managerial behavior at this time. Do not make a change when you recognize the problem; change once you have the solution. This blog will outline the process for conducting effective one-on-ones in great detail. Look forward to many posts on the subject. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

You Never Have to be Tough: Management Rule #4

Actions to Take: Remove any trace of your own negative emotion from interactions with subordinates. If you are having emotions you cannot sublimate, delay the conversation. Prepare for hard conversations in advance. Practice what you plan to say and how you plan to say it. 

When I discuss respect in my first orientation meeting with a new employee (stay tuned for blog entries on orientation meetings!), one of the things in my script is, “There is never a place for yelling, or threats, or using power with the goal of invoking fear. Speaking in anger to someone is never acceptable.”  

How many of us can clear that bar, never speaking in anger in the workplace? It was very difficult for me early on in my management career. Something would happen that I disagree with, or an employee would make the same mistake over and over. I would get frustrated that things weren’t the way they should be. Does that sound familiar to anyone reading? Consciously or not, I sometimes used that emotion as a tool. It can be extremely effective to wield a little bit of anger, frustration, or even just annoyance to get your point across.  

You don’t learn until later that you are being extremely effective, but you are having the wrong effect. Study after study has shown that fear leads to avoidance behaviors, not corrective behaviors. You are teaching people 1) not to get caught and 2) not to work with you. 

You might be thinking, “What’s this about fear? I’m not a scary person. Even if I’m a little upset, there’s nothing scary about me!” Bosses are not people. Don’t get me wrong, you are a person. However, your employees don’t think of you as “you.” When they introduce you to someone, they will say “This is Ben, my manager” not, “this is Ben, nice guy” or “this is Ben, human being.” For them, you are the boss first, a person second. 

When I tell you to erase negative emotion from your interactions, I am asking you to do something that is unnatural. When you’re talking about grim, serious things, it is natural to communicate that grimness and seriousness in your tone and demeanor. When you’re talking about something that frustrates you, it is natural to sound frustrated. You might even think that you need to keep that emotion in your voice in order to communicate the negative impact of their actions. 

As a manager, you don’t get the luxury of acting naturally in these situations. When you are dealing with people who are subordinate to you, body language and tone of voice have 1,000 times the weight that you think they have. Even though we all have bosses, even though we’ve been on the other side of the desk, we still never really get it. You cannot overestimate how much of an impact a “tough” attitude will have on a subordinate. If you think you are lightly tapping your employee with a little frustration, they will feel a hammer blow of anger knocking them off their feet. 

When your body language and tone are anything less than relaxed and light-hearted, staff will be focused on your mood instead of your words. If it’s serious enough of a problem, they won’t hear the details. Their blood pressure will rise, their hearts will beat in their ears. All they will think is, “The boss is mad. I messed up. I made the boss mad.” They are not going to accurately gauge the extent of the problem. They are not going to focus on solutions to the problem. They are not going to be thinking of questions to ask you that might help fix the problem. They will go into fight or flight, and you will either end up with a very short meeting that feels somehow incomplete or a very long argument. 

There are managers who defend the tough guy approach, claiming that it is exactly what they want. They will smugly say, “you better believe I didn’t hear about any more problems again.” Well, they are right about one thing, they didn’t hear about any more problems. Fear makes people hide things. It doesn’t make them correct things. And it certainly doesn’t make people want to come to you for help in fixing the thing.  

To be clear, I am not telling you to laugh when you are giving someone a formal performance reprimand. That would be emotionally tone-deaf. We are not trying to baffle our subordinates by having an attitude that is totally jarring to the topic matter. We are trying minimize the impact of our emotional state in the discussion. When you’re talking about an issue, you want your direct reports to be thinking about the issue, not about your mood.  

Therefore, you deliver negative or difficult information the same way you deliver any benign information. Use a tone and body language that is similar to average, every day tone and body language. For most people, that’s mostly-neutral-leaning-to-light-hearted. Stay relaxed, stay positive, and do everything you can to keep your mood off their radar. You will get a more productive and more honest conversation. 

How do we manage to do that? It is not as though we can flip a switch that shuts off our negative thoughts. Just the opposite—negative thoughts tend to be intrusive, repeating themselves in our minds whether we want them or not. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Remind yourself of Management Rule #1. Assume Positive Intent. It can be extremely powerful to convince yourself that, whatever actually happened, your employee (or whoever) meant well. 
  • Remind yourself of their good work. If you are about to have a difficult conversation with your employee, odds are it is about a performance issue. It can be easy to get tunnel vision about it. Before the meeting, step back and think through their positive attributes. What great qualities do they have? What aspects of their work do you appreciate? What things about them as a person are good and likeable?  
  • Practice what you’ll say. I encourage managers to literally script out their most difficult conversations. And why not? We script out presentations. We plan staff meetings. We craft and re-craft emails to roll out new procedures. These conversations are more important and have more long-term impact on your effectiveness than any of those. Give them more thought and energy than your other work, not less. 
  • Practice how you’ll say it. Unlike a staff meeting or project rollout, you likely have some emotions about this topic. You need to take the extra step of considering how you will say the things you need to say. Record yourself in a dry run and listen back. It is not hard—we all have smartphones or a computer. I especially encourage you try recording yourself when you get that first impulse to address some issue or frustration. It will take exactly one listen to realize just how much emotion is leaking out. 

Try these things. Manage your emotions, and I guarantee you will get better results and a more positive work environment out of your team. Remember, better bosses never have to be tough. 

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Things I Want from My Boss are the Things My Employees Want from Me: Management Rule #3

Actions to TakeRoutinely review your work in this context. Take extra time plan your approach for tough situations. Do not reduce the golden rule to simply “be nice.” 

I won’t be saying anything groundbreaking in this post. “The things I want from my boss are the things my employees want from me.” That is just the golden rule, rephrased for management. So how did it land on a very short list of managerial rules? 

This is one of my managerial rules because it is such an obviously good thing, yet it is not obvious how to put it into practice. We learn about the golden rule in kindergarten (in the United States, at least). Yet most people have an incredibly difficult time adhering to such a simple idea. It is not automatic to treat people the way you would like to be treated. We will send an email about that tricky disagreement instead of speaking to someone directly. We will doggedly adhere to written procedures, saying that our hands are tied. We will brush off problematic behaviors instead of giving feedback. We do these things even though we would want a chance to speak face-to-face, we would want flexibility on the rules, and we would want to know if we are messing up. The golden rule isn’t natural. 

Applying this rule to your work leads to some unintuitive results. For instance, most bosses think “I’ll jump in and help with the work” when employees are having a tough time. Examine that behavior for a moment. Let’s say you are struggling to manage a difficult employee. What do you want from your boss? Do you want them to literally take over the supervision of that employee? Maybe that sounds attractive in the moment. When you think through the implications, though, it is a terrible way to go. That problem employee will see you as incapable; you will not learn anything new; and your boss will have to take on your work, which is not a good look. 

We really want assistance in fixing the underlying problem, not help putting out the fire that is already there. You want support and coaching to manage that problem employee effectively on your own. By the same token, your employees don’t really want your direct assistance when things are tough. They don’t want you taking over their jobs. They want you to find ways to make their work better, more effective, so they can do the work themselves. Yes, you may need to lend a hand to get through a spike in work, but your main focus should be improving things to prevent those spikes in the first place. 

Well-meaning parents and kindergarten teachers sometimes fail us when teaching the golden rule. It is often reduced to a lesson about not hitting or saying mean things, effectively becoming a replacement for “be nice.” Do not fall into this trap as a manager. If your only goal is “be nice,” you will fail in your responsibilities to your employees. Respecting others is of utmost importance in the workplace. “Respect” also mistakenly becomes a synonym for “be nice.” If you respect someone, then you respect their professionalism enough to give them tough news. You respect their abilities enough not to take over their work. You respect their maturity enough to be honest with them.

Bosses need help treating their employees the way they want to be treated. Here are some specific actions you can take to be a little bit better at applying this managerial rule:

  • Routinely schedule time to review individual aspects of your job in the context of the golden rule. Ask yourself “Am I going about this the way I would want my boss to go about it for me?” Are you considering employees’ ideas as deeply as you would want your boss to consider yours? Are you giving the same scheduling flexibility you would want from your boss? Are you engaging in your employees’ work the way you would want your boss to engage with your work? 
  • Before tackling a tough conversation, take a walk and think about how you would want the situation handled if roles were reversed. Spend time imagining something similar happening to you. Think about what feelings you would be feeling, decide how you would want to be treated in light of that. 
  • Think about your boss’s shortcomings. Assume your employees think that you have the exact same shortcomings. When you have the thought, “I wish my boss would do more [blank],” do more [blank] yourself. (Apply this advice selectively. If you are an over-the-top bombastic personality with a stoic boss, you probably don’t need to be more bombastic with your employees.) 

As a final caveat, do not let yourself or others corrupt this rule. A smart aleck might say “I would want my manager to stay out of my business and just let me do my job” or “I would want my manager to let me take long lunches and ignore it when I come in late.” No, they don’t. That same person would certainly want a manager to intervene if a coworker did something that bothers them. They certainly want the manager to fix someone else’s performance problems. No one gets to apply this as a “just for me” rule.  

After reading this blog entry, I hope you will take a moment to reflect. Ask yourself, “What am I getting (or not getting) from my boss? Am I giving (or failing to give) the same thing to my employees?” This rule can be applied to virtually any managerial behavior. You can almost always improve upon any plan of action. Just take the time to consider it in the context: “am I handling this the way I would want it handled for me?”  

Popular Posts