Archive for December, 2009
Much has been written lately about the benefits of volunteering, and how it can help job seekers make valuable connections in their job search. I’d like to add a point to that discussion, which is that even volunteering for an organization that seems, at first glance, to be entirely unrelated to one’s field, one that you would join “just for fun”, can be a valuable experience. Besides the networking you might do, new job-related skills often come from unexpected places.
I have volunteered for a mountain rescue team for the past seven years. When I first joined, I did it because I thought it would improve my backcountry skills and I would get a lot of free training that would help me get better at the sports I do, as well as be safer at them. All this has come to pass, but it’s the least of the benefits I now talk to other potential recruits about.
First, you’d be surprised who volunteers for a mountain rescue team. Yes, we have some young ski bums, ski patrollers, fire fighters, paramedics and kids taking a year off after college before they “get serious” and look for a job. But we also have two commercial pilots, a retired Shell Oil executive, a retired Navy captain, an IT manager, a real estate broker, a retired rocket scientist from the Navy (he tested ship defense systems), a civil engineer, and I could go on and on. That’s a lot of connections in a lot of different industries and professions you could make.
Second, as a trainer and consultant in the field of leadership development and teambuilding, I’ve learned perhaps more from my mountain rescue team than I’ve ever learned in corporate situations from my past. The need for teamwork and leadership on a mountain rescue team is crystal clear compared to other organizations. Everyone knows exactly what the goal is and what kind of teamwork and leadership will make or break us. Benefits and consequences are immediately obvious. Either we find and save the guy or we don’t. Everyone knows they can’t do it alone and we must communicate well, have complementary skill sets and work together to make it happen. Someone must lead us and be proficient at all the basics of management and leadership; they must inform, equip, direct and control us, but they must also inspire us, because we’re not getting paid. If we’re not inspired, we don’t show up.
You might think I’m making a plug for you to look up your local mountain rescue team and volunteer for them. But actually, if your local mountain rescue team is anything like ours, they don’t need people. We just created a new training program to try and screen more people out, because we’ve got more interest than we can handle. Another indication, perhaps, of how valuable the experience can be to your career and how it might help you in your job search.
As I get older and branch into different areas in my career, I notice a trend in how people handle internal and external communications; it became particularly obvious to me when I became the public information officer for a local non-profit organization. Most people approach information from one of two inherent mentalities: That information must be controlled, in order to limit damage and maintain status quo; or that information should be put out there in as many creative ways as we can find, to move the organization forward.
In the PIO world, it’s pretty easy to figure out who comes from which perspective. When something potentially negative happens, the reactive PIO’s ask themselves, how do we limit access to journalists? How do we shut them out and make sure they don’t find out what we don’t want them to know? How do we keep this one piece of information to ourselves? Meanwhile, the proactive PIO’s are calling their media contacts and inviting them over.
Next time something needs to be communicated in your organization, especially something with potentially negative consequences like a layoff or reorganization, ask yourself this question: do I immediately look for ways to do “damage control”? Do I decide that certain groups or individuals should get less information than others? Do I look for ways to conceal some of the information?
Or do you treat it like a PR opportunity? People who treat everything like a PR opportunity ask different questions. They ask, how can we get the most out of this? How can we grow from it, profit from it, or educate ourselves and others from it? How can we make it bigger and better? How can we use it to move forward?
History and current events are full of examples of people who tried to limit or hide information and ending up shooting themselves in the foot: politicians who tried to hide affairs or ethics violations, CEO’s who tried to hide mistakes, and on a smaller but closer-to-home planet, HR executives who tried to pick and choose which parts of the organizational structure to communicate and which to hide from employees.
Perhaps an even better example can be found in the rise of social media. Some companies have embraced it; others have worried that they must find ways to control it, write and enforce policies, and limit employees’ use. The companies who control it almost always end up with a PR nightmare on their hands. The companies who embrace it are using it to strengthen their brand and their relationship with their customers and communities.
Perhaps that brings out a larger point: information can’t be fully controlled in this information age. We must accept that while you can have some influence on the flow of information, ultimately, it has a life of its own. It’s like kids trying to dam a river; the water finds another way to flow around the dam, and it might not be the way you want it to go.
So the next time you have something to communicate, ask yourself this question: am I looking for opportunities? Or am I trying to do damage control?
I’m a volunteer on a local mountain rescue team and for years, our process for prospective members has been, well, “loosey goosey” to say the least. People show up at our Wednesday night meetings and I hand them a new member packet with various checklists inside, telling them that we have a “self-guided process” and that they are free to complete the requirements at their own pace. Of course we offer them lots of training along the way, but it is a completely unstructured process in the sense that they are simply attending whatever training happens to be offered to our regular active members at that particular period of time.
Six months ago, we realized that our team was getting too big and that if we continued on this pace, missions would become cumbersome. We decided to create a more structured training process for prospective members, with more stringent requirements, reasoning that this would screen out people who were not really serious about joining the group because of the increased time commitment. We spent a couple of months putting the new program together, and it consisted of 24 hours of training including an orientation session, four skill-based sessions, and a final field practical structured as a mock rescue mission. Prospective members would be required to attend every session in the program, or else be released from the program and left to try again next time. We were confident that this would leave us with only the “serious” contenders, and cut down on the number of new members to actually become active on the team.
We ran our first class just recently, and to our surprise, we graduated 13 new members last week; the largest group of new members we have ever welcomed to the team in a similar time period.
And then it dawned on me; how on earth could I, a training professional, have thought that creating a structured program would screen more people out? On the contrary, a structured program was exactly what prospective members wanted and needed in order to feel like qualified, contributing entrants to the team. In the old system, people felt ignored and uncertain as to what was expected of them. In the new system, the increased time commitment was not a negative for most people; it was a positive, because they got the knowledge and skills they needed to feel like a real part of the team. They also got to know us and one another, gained a better understanding of our culture, and resolved some of the anxiety that comes with being thrown into a new group of people who all generally ignore you and seem to think that you’ll figure it out on your own.
How often do you see small to mid-size companies doing just what we used to do? There’s probably a formal orientation program most of the time, but after that, managers and supervisors figure that the new employee will learn “how we do things around here” by osmosis. Maybe the new employee is loosely assigned a mentor or a fellow employee to follow around, but there is no real structure to the learning experience. This can create tremendous anxiety as the newbie tries to figure out not only what is expected of him/her in terms of performance, but also what informal behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are not.
I’ve had a valuable lesson reinforced by this experience. Structured learning experiences are critical for anyone new to an organization. As for how we’re going to limit the growth of our team, I guess we have to go back to the drawing board on that one…
We all talk about how diversity can engender creativity and innovation in a work group or team, but my observation is that in many organizations, we seek out diverse members and then put infrastructure in place that homogenizes the team. Here are five ways to harness the power of your team’s difference:
1. Use methods of capturing new ideas that are accessible to everyone, regardless of culture or communication style.
When you begin a meeting by saying, “Does anyone have any ideas?” what you will get is the ideas of the outspoken members of the team. Teammates whose cultural norms or communication style tend to make them more reserved, and who feel they must interrupt in order to get a word in, may remain quiet and never share their thoughts. One way around this is to start meetings with a “round robin”, in which each person is allotted time and expected to say whatever is on their minds.
2. Celebrate difference in ways that allow everyone to learn about and appreciate each other.
Create a culture of curiosity on your team by setting the example. Ask people about their backgrounds, their cultures, their beliefs. Share what you find interesting about them with others. When problem solving, think about whose unique set of experiences might best allow for a new and/or useful perspective on the issue. And of course, make sure that you don’t plan events that screen people out. Don’t do a team luncheon during Ramadan, or order roast beef sandwiches for an office lunch when you have a teammate who is a vegetarian. The more you learn about each other, the easier it will be to avoid these sorts of faux pas.
3. Find ways to encourage people to break out of comfort zones in their interactions with each other.
Here’s another area in which you can set the example. Don’t go to lunch with the same people every day; make a point of asking someone you don’t know well and have less in common with to have lunch with you, or to join you for a Friday happy hour. Seek different people to ask for their opinions on issues. Don’t get in the habit of always talking to the same people around the water cooler on Monday mornings about how your weekends were. Mix it up as much as you can.
4. Teach teammates how to communicate with respect.
Language is important, and many people care about what terms are used to refer to them. Some may prefer “black” and others “African American”; some like “Hispanic” and others prefer “Latino/Latina”. Teach your teammates that it’s OK to ask, as long as it’s done respectfully. Don’t minimize this as a matter of political correctness because to many people that sends a message that it’s not really important and we’re just being fussy.
5. Resolve workplace complaints and conflicts in ways that seek increased communication and understanding.
When appropriate (i.e. when not involving potentially serious legal issues) treat complaints about workplace behaviors as opportunities for teammates to learn more about each other. Instead of conducting individual interviews in a “hush-hush” manner with the goal of documenting and disciplining, put the parties in a room together with a competent facilitator and help them learn about the differences that caused the conflict. Help them reach agreements with each other on their own.
What other ways have you found to leverage diversity on your work teams? Please share some tips and stories.
Every organization I’ve ever been involved in seems to have the same challenge: no one wants to give each other honest feedback. When someone’s behavior bothers us, we talk about it around the water cooler, behind the person’s back. We assume that the person in question already knows that his behavior bothers us and has chosen not to do anything about it; perhaps he is even doing things to annoy us on purpose. Why? Because his intentions are bad, of course. Giving feedback won’t do any good because this person wants to have a negative impact.
When you put it in those terms, the assumptions we make about each other really are silly, aren’t they?
Of course that’s not the only reason we don’t give each other feedback. It’s also sometimes because we don’t know how to do it without hurting feelings or inviting an uncomfortable confrontation. We need a model for giving effective feedback that doesn’t ruffle feathers. Here’s the situation-behavior-impact model:
- Describe the situation in which the behavior took place
How often do you hear someone say, “You always do that!” What does “always” mean? When did I do that exactly? So for example, “Last week during the staff meeting, you interrupted me in the middle of a sentence. Today in the staff meeting you did it again.”
- Describe the specific behavior that you want to address
Good feedback consists of clear, specific description of the behavior you’re giving feedback about. It does not consist of your judgements or conclusions about that behavior. So for example:
“You raised your voice and said that Sally wasn’t getting the job done and you would have to do it yourself” instead of “You were too controlling”. This works just the same with positive feedback too: “You smiled at everyone and praised them for a job well done” instead of “You’re a good manager”. “You’re a good manager” makes someone feel good, but it doesn’t really give them any useful information about the behaviors you want to see repeated. And with negative feedback, it’s critical to be objective and depersonalize the feedback; otherwise, you put people on the defensive and they will stop listening.
- Describe the impact to you, others, the team or the organization
Why are you describing this behavior? What negative or positive consequences did it have? So for example, “That caused us to lose the client” or “That caused Ned to want to stay with the team and work even harder”.
The key to all three steps is specific, objective, non-judgmental description. When and where did the behavior take place, what did it consist of, and why are you bringing it up? If you cover these three basics, you’ll have given someone food for thought. On the other hand if you’re vague about the details, you leave that person free to make up her own story. “Oh, she must be talking about the time I was late because my mother was sick. That only happened one time and everyone understood, so that’s no big deal.” Even worse, if you voice a conclusion, you take the person’s attention off the target and lose any impact you might have. Now they’re thinking about how to defend themselves instead of about the feedback you just gave them. ”Did she just say that I’m not detail-oriented? How dare she? What about the time she turned in that report without waiting for the final numbers and everyone starting reporting the wrong data to our customers?”
You don’t have to be a manager to benefit from mastering the skill of giving good feedback; team members and colleagues need to be able to give each other feedback too. The model also works well for personal relationships. Try it next time you need to work through a behavioral problem with your spouse or children!
Whitney Johnson’s article Can Nice Girls Negotiate? on the Harvard Business Publishing website made me mad. Not because I disagree with her; it’s her topic that gets me fired up: the never-ending world of double standards around gender.
The article is about studies showing that women who negotiate for more money are promoted less and paid less. The reason for it can be summed up thus: quoting the findings of psychiatrist Anna Fels, “when we are giving something to someone else, we are feminine; when we are asking for something from someone, we are not.” In other words, Johnson says, women negotiating are pushy, whereas men are just being proactive. If we ask for what we want, we’re not “nice girls” because the definition of a nice girl is one who is attuned to the needs of others and puts them above her own needs.
The obvious point that Johnson doesn’t bother making is that the feminine ideal of a nuturing person who exists to serve others is clearly derived, at least in part, from our concept of maternity. That makes me wonder, do those of us without children suffer some form of this unconscious bias merely by virtue of not being mothers, and being perceived as having put career before family?
This is really just a new spin on an age-old double standard about women being bitches and men being assertive, in my mind. The question is, what do we do about it?
Johnson makes the point that we should negotiate anyway, because the worst case scenario is that we get turned down but we know more and can take appropriate action. Lest you be tempted to interpret that as “Now I know my boss is a jerk, so I can start looking for another job,” let me point out that the research shows that this bias applies to the decision-making processes of women managers as well as men. To me this just underscores the fact that this is an example of hidden, unconscious bias that is created and sustained by our educational norms, pop culture, mass media, etc.
I agree with Johnson that we need to go for it anyway, because I think what we most need to do is expose this double standard for what it is. By talking about it we get people to recognize their hidden biases and the impact they can have. We can only do this if we’re willing to put ourselves in the very situations we want to expose.
Have you had an experience that relates to this issue? I’d be interested to hear about it.
A fascinating article in last week’s edition of Newsweek explores why Israel produces more successful tech companies and more cutting edge technology than anywhere else in the world. Read the article here.
Much of the answer, according to authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer, lies in Israel’s mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It’s certainly a counter-intuitive idea, but here’s how it plays out:
1. The IDF is deliberately short-staffed at senior levels, creating a flat, nonhierarchical organization which requires decision making and responsibility at the lowest levels.
2. Because rank is almost meaningless, soldiers are taught to question authority, to be open to challenging, debating and probing.
3. Soldiers are taught to be “jacks of all trades” when it comes to military technology. “”If most air forces are designed like a Formula One race car, the Israeli Air Force is a beat-up jeep with lots of tools in it,” one pilot is quoted as saying. Emphasis on multidisciplinary skills allows for creativity in combining radically different technologies and disciplines in the business world.
4. Recruits must work with others of different cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. American universities may throw together diverse pools of students too, but once on campus they are free to form cliques as they choose. In the IDF, they must work closely and intensely with each other, and many lasting connections are made, “inculcating young leaders with a sense of social range.”
All of this adds up to college entrants who are older, wiser, more experienced and more serious about their education. They’ve experienced high-level decision making, they value diversity, they question and challenge the status quo, and they have the foundational skills for innovative thinking.
All of this made me think of a quintessential experience that many European and Australian youths experience before college: traveling around the world. When I was 36, I backpacked through Asia and Africa for six months, staying in youth hostels and traveling low to the ground to experience the culture of the countries I visited. This is an unusual thing for Americans to do, but very typical of kids from other developed countries, who generally do the “backpacker thing” between high school and university, or perhaps between university and their first jobs. It produces many of the same qualities that the IDF does for young entrants to the business world; increased maturity, a more global perspective, a better understanding of how to leverage diversity.
I also remember that during my travels, I was always annoyed when I met young Israeli backpackers in the hostels where I stayed. They seemed loud, brash and disrespectful to me (I know what you’re thinking—an American traveler criticizing others for being loud and brash!) I have a different perspective on that now. In the business world, the prize does not go to those who quietly settle for the status quo; it goes to those who question, challenge and think outside the box.
For all the globally vaunted quality of our universities here in the States, we don’t create cultural experiences for our students that simulate the experience of serving in the IDF or traveling around the world. We teach them to treat their professors with respect, accept the wisdom and experience of their elders, and specialize, specialize, specialize.
If higher education is not offering the skills and experiences that make for competitive advantage in today’s knowledge economy, then corporate learning programs must step up to that challenge. I saw a survey recently that asked what types of programs are missing from corporate universities, and a top item was “training in creative problem solving.” Boomers are retiring and Gen Y’s are entering the workforce in droves. What are you doing to address this need in your organization?