Archive for February, 2010
Earlier this week I posted a blog entry on several Linkedin groups called “Respect Looks Different to Different Generations”and the ensuing discussion, especially on the Training and Development group, was fascinating. Two different conversational threads developed. The dominant conversational thread was about multi-tasking. In the original blog entry I had used the example that to older generations, texting or typing during a meeting or class was considered disrespectful; but to the multi-tasking champions of Gen Y, it did not mean that a person wasn’t listening. Several people challenged that idea, citing a substantial body of research that says no one can effectively multi-task. Jay Foley in particular made some educational points about how we mistake “serial mono-tasking” for multi-tasking. From there, the commenters either talked about the ineffectiveness of multi-tasking, or in some cases, insisted that typing during a meeting is still disrespectful no matter what your generation or perspective.
The other thread was from people who gave further examples of how different generations defined respect differently. Here were some of the more interesting points:
- More experienced (and probably older) workers want to have their experience recognized and respected, whereas newer (and probably younger) workers may want to be valued for their creativity and fresh ideas.
- One commenter gave an example of talking to a younger worker from the south on the phone and being told that she considered it disrespectful for him to call her “ma’am”!
- A language example: to the younger generations, “phat” means attractive but because of its pronunciation (fat) older folks are likely to find it offensive.
- Older workers may find it disrespectful to be called by their first name.
- Listening might be a sign of respect for all generations, but the way you listen might vary.
A really interesting point came from Leslie Orr, who said that the way Gen Y’s process information and ultimately how they read is different from older generations. She used the term “snacking” to describe it. Older workers, she said, had to sit down to “meals” which meant getting their information via meetings and libraries. The younger generations can “snack” from databases and online services filled with just enough “food” for the moment. If we follow this thought to a logical conclusion, it explains how a Gen Y participant in an all-day meeting might find it difficult, perhaps even painful, to sit through the day and stay engaged without other forms of input. Some commenters talked about part of the problem being that perhaps meetings are not engaging enough; but Leslie’s ideas suggest that it goes beyond that, to the very structure and type of meetings we hold.
So what’s the answer? Does everything in the training world need to move to e-learning platforms, even topics like communication, teambuilding and interpersonal skills? That doesn’t seem possible to me; it seems like we have to be able to find a compromise, a way to hold traditional ILT and in-person meetings that still takes into account the “snacking” habits of the young. I am unwilling to accept the contention of a few commenters who railed about the disrespectfulness of younger workers and insisted that their own way of disseminating information was the only respectful way. Older generations have been complaining about younger generations for thousands of years, and as my friend Peter Grannis recently pointed out, perhaps this is partly due to jealousy; they will outlive us after all, and they can still run up the stairs without back pain. But there have to be some things we can learn about working together that don’t involve unilateral value judgments and refusal to change the way we do things. What do you think?
Respect looks different to different individuals, of course. But I’m particularly fascinated by how generational differences influence our concept of respectful behavior in the workplace.
During a recent generational diversity workshop, I asked the participants to share their pet peeves on the topic. One Boomer woman was painfully candid about hers; she said, “If you’re younger than me, I don’t perceive you as an equal. So I expect you to call me Mrs. so-and-s0, and if you don’t, I can’t hear anything you say after that.”
As I learned reading the class evaluation sheets later, some people admired her for so clearly and boldly explaining her thinking to us, and others were offended by what she said. My own feeling is that while she might have found a more diplomatic way to express her feelings, if we don’t all learn to put this sort of information on the table with our teammates and colleagues, the negative impact on workplace culture and performance is very real. Many of us do stop listening once we perceive that we’ve been “dissed”, and teammates that aren’t listening to each other aren’t performing at their best.
So how do you get teams to have these sorts of conversations? Here are some thoughts:
- Set up a framework within which to discuss it. A class on generational difference is a perfect example, but there are other ways to do it. Hold a round robin at the beginning of a team meeting, for example, in which people are asked to share “pet peeves” that may be impacting the norms of the team or the effectiveness of communication.
- Make it safe to discuss it. As a leader or facilitator of a team, talk about the differences in views about respectful behavior in a way that makes it clear you are not placing value judgments on behavior, but merely exploring differences.
- Give examples that help people see how common it is for the picture of respectful behavior to change over time. Talking about how a member of the Traditionalist generation might set up a meeting (formally, in advance, by written request) in comparison with how a Gen Y might set up a meeting (informally, by dropping in on someone) can paint a clear picture for teammates that helps them see beyond their own hot buttons.
As a trainer and facilitator, I try to learn model these ideas. For example, in my generation we always considered it standard to lay a ground rule before a session: turn your pagers and cell phones to vibrate and put away your laptops and PDA’s. One thing I’ve learned recently about Gen Y is that they’re multi-taskers, and just because they’re texting away doesn’t mean that they’re not listening. In fact, they might even be taking notes from the class on their PDA’s. I no longer have a rule like that; now I just ask them to “stay engaged with the class”, and leave it up to them as to what engagement looks like.
What examples do you have of respectful or disrespectful behaviors as influenced by generational perspectives? I’d especially like to hear any that relate to conducting training sessions or facilitating meetings.
Roger Martin began an interesting series of blog posts on Harvard Business Publishing this week. In the first, he explains that all human beings seek happiness in a sense of community, and that the three components of that sense of community are: 1. We are a valued member of 2. a community that we value, and 3. that is valued by members outside the community. Happiness depends on how many legs of the triad we can check off; Al Qaeda members, for example, are only medium happy because while they are valued by a community that they value, the rest of the world thinks they should be jailed or executed. Business executives seek the same sort of happiness, and in the 50′s and 60′sthey were able to find it in the companies they worked for because of the role these companies often played in serving local or national goals, providing great products and great jobs, and the sense of civic duty that was more common in the WWII era. Now, however, a company’s only goal is to maximize shareholder value, and this creates inauthenticity in that it asks the company to serve the needs of a faceless, nameless group of people whose goals are short-term and insubstantial, and to do so by manipulating numbers and financial reports.
Executives long for that sense of community whether it is authentic or not, Martin says, so they “drink the coolaid of shareholder value” and try to content themselves with what they can get.
If we think about this in a modern-day leadership context there is no shortage of spectacular examples; I’ll lump them all together and label them “Enron”. What I find even more interesting, however, is to consider the question of whether this helps explain the rise of the team concept in the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s. If managers could no longer find an authentic sense of community in their membership in the larger organization, it makes sense that they would have sought it in smaller groups organized around mission, vision, values and goals, and thus hierarchical organizational structures would begin to flatten and matrix themselves increasingly.
This reinforces a sense that I’ve always had that if you want your employees to be happy, you must find a way to give them a sense of belonging to a community. Zappos gets this, with their four-pronged definition of employee happiness: perceived progress, perceived control, meaningful relationships and connection to a larger vision. If you can no longer create these elements in relation to a company’s broader mission (because that mission is merely to increase shareholder value), you must create it in the smaller context of teamwork. You must build teams that give your employees a sense of connectedness with each other and alignment with an organizational goal that feels authentic. Money, benefits and perks cannot replace this; employees might stick around for these, but they won’t pour their heart and soul into the work for them.
In the secondof Martin’s posts, he goes on to explore the demons who played a role in the rise of shareholder value: business schools who taught the new credo, Wall Street bankers and analysts who recognized and incentivized it, consultants who advised companies on strategies to get there, and the financial press who looked for the story in all this. It will be interesting to see where Martin’s next post goes exploring; the question in my mind is, what’s a soul-less, community-starved, modern day executive to do?
Patrick Lencioni, in Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, says that great teams often form around crisis. There’s nothing like a financial disaster or other organizational threat to bring people together and get them working cohesively.
So why then, in this time of economic stress and widespread downsizing, aren’t our teams performing at a higher level? Because it takes more than just the occurrence of crisis; you need to harness the power of that crisis through your management’s communication and goal-setting systems.
Take this scenario as an example. A severely stressed hospitality company decides it must eliminate 40 positions at the corporate level. The senior leadership team meets in secret, each executive choosing its most dispensable positions to sacrifice. One Friday morning, employees are summoned to the HR office one by one, and they all leave holding the same manila envelope. Other employees sit and watch. They gossip at the water cooler, speculating about who is next. Later that afternoon, an all-employee meeting is held, and each executive gets up and reads from a speech carefully prepared by the HR director, who has warned them not to deviate from the prescribed language. They say things like, “We regret the loss of these fine employees, and thank them for their long service to the company. We do not expect any further layoffs at this time. Now we need everyone to pull together and work like a team in order to make our company stronger.” Blah, blah, blah. The remaining employees are nervous, confused and resentful. They know corporate doublespeak when they hear it. And they don’t believe management’s half-hearted assurances that there will be no more layoffs.
Recent studies have posted some alarming statistics around scenarios like this one. In December of 2008, Leadership IQ found that 75% of employees who watched their colleagues get laid off said that their own productivity had declined, and 81% said that service to their customers had also declined. Cigna and the American Management Association did a study showing that layoff survivors had a 100% to 900% increase in medical claims. And Right Associates did a study in which 70% of managers reported that layoffs were followed by lower employee morale and lower trust in management.
How do you combat what organizational psychologists call “layoff survivor syndrome”? Leadership IQ, in the above-referenced 2008 study, found employees’ perception of certain qualities in their managers to be key: approachability, visibility and candor.
Let’s re-write the scenario. This time, the HR director conducts a workshop for company managers prior to the layoffs. The workshop includes an in-depth discussion of “layoff survivor syndrome” and its effects, strategies for employee communication, and specific action planning around post-layoff teambuilding. After the layoffs, managers spend significant time walking the halls, checking in with employees, and having candid one-on-one conversations with them about the company’s restructuring and the leadership team’s vision for the future. Instead of a script from HR, each manager has a set of objectives , and is free to communicate in whatever way he or she chooses, as long as those objectives are addressed. The objectives include:
- Conveying a vision of the company’s future, and how each employee fits into that vision
- Reaffirmation of the company’s mission, goals and values
- Expressing appreciation for the contribution of all employees toward the company’s mission, goals and values
- Answering questions and concerns candidly
- Not making any false promises or assurances about the unknown, including whether there will be more layoffs in the future
- Treating employees as intelligent adults, rather than naïve children
Several weeks after the layoffs, when the dust has settled and managers have had a chance to speak with all of their direct reports and answer questions, a series of team meetings are held. Managers facilitate but do not control these meetings. Roles and responsibilities are realigned, by the team members themselves, to address the new staffing structure. The action plans that are forged during these meetings have the personal commitment of each employee, because they were created through team member’s free and informed choice. A new, collective vision gradually emerges. And as the pain of missed colleagues and survival guilt fades, the team faces its future armed with a clear picture of its value to the organization and its role in the company’s success.
During a board meeting of a non-profit rescue group I volunteer for, one of our incident commanders requested money for leadership training. “We spend thousands on field skills training for our members,” he pointed out, “but our mission coordinators have never had any kind of training in how to be better at communication skills, managing resources, making decisions and leading our volunteers.”
The debate that followed was frustrating, and alas, entirely predictable. People said things like, “Back in my corporate days we had to undergo that kind of training all the time, and it never produced any results.” Of course, these types of statements were always preceeded by, “no offense to Anna”, since they know what I do for a living. The people making these statements were people whom I call “the party of no” on our team; folks who are resistant to change, to new ideas, to feedback, and to projects they see as frivolous. It’s hard not to react to such discussion by pointing out that leadership training can’t have an impact when minds are closed and participants are completely unwilling to learn about themselves or change behavior.
But I also recognize that the problem has more to do with mental models and the language we use to describe things than it does with individuals. A few days ago, a lively discussion began on a Linkedin group for learning professionals. The discussion was entitled, “Can we please stop calling things like customer service skills, sales skills, emotional intelligence, etc. “soft” skills?” As of this morning it had already attracted 53 enthusiastic commenters, nearly all of them in agreement with the premise. Some good suggestions were made, such as renaming these skills “business skills” or “professional skills”.
Reading Peter Senge’s The Dance of Change, I came across this quote from Philip Carroll in a discussion of creating a learning organization at Shell Oil in the mid-nineties: “I hesitate to use the word ‘training’ in this context. Training takes place through repetition and manuipulation; people can be trained to build computer programs and run seismic records, but not to deal with completely unpredictable circumstances. Thus, we have tried to foster learning instead of training.”
The problem is not just the language we use to describe the skills, but the very terms we use to describe the process of acquiring them. And the discouraging point is that this discussion has been around for 15 years already. What does it take to change the paradigm? I’d love to hear any success stories you might have from your organization.
A key point in teaching conflict resolution skills is that you must separate the people issues from the problem. That doesn’t mean you can ignore the people issues or the emotional content; on the contrary, it means that these are so important you must deal with them first, or you won’t be successful in solving the problem.
I’ve been thinking about how truly difficult that is. Sometimes, once you separate out the people issues there’s nothing left. The whole problem was based on people issues. Have you ever listened to two people arguing about something and thought, they seem to be arguing for the same thing, and just using different language to describe it? It’s because there is such a lack of trust and empathy between them that they can’t see beyond it. Strip away the people issues and there’s really nothing to disagree about anymore. They think they’re in disagreement because the relationship feels bad.
The solution would seem to be fairly simple. Work on the relationship, right? Explain your emotional perspective and inquire into the other person’s emotional perspective. Work to restore trust by establishing a common purpose, a shared goal.
The difficulty is that one person must take that first step, and that requires putting ego aside and making yourself potentially vulnerable to the other. We tend to assume, in cases of a bad relationship, that the other person’s intentions are bad. It’s not that the person is doing what she thinks she needs to do, given the situation she sees herself in; on the contrary, she’s deliberately trying to set me up, make me look bad, call my competence into question. If I open myself up to her, she’ll make me look even worse.
Put in plain language like that, it’s easy to see how silly we are sometimes. Do we really believe that our colleagues get up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll go to work and try to cause as many problems as I can”? Do we really believe that our co-workers are trying to hurt us on purpose? In many cases, we do believe it. We need to start asking questions like, “Why is so-and-so really doing that? How does he see his situation? Why might he think he’s being forced to act that way?” In other words, give each other the benefit of the doubt. Only then can someone become willing to take that first step, that plunge into vulnerability. Only then can you fix the relationship, and see if there’s really a problem to deal with underneath.
No, I’m not talking about home ownership or winning the lottery. I’m talking about our national presumption that you can be anything you want to be, as long as you work hard enough.
When I first joined my local mountain rescue team in 2003, I wanted to be a good rescuer. That meant, in my mind, that I would need to develop well-rounded technical skills for field missions. For years, I tried to bend my mind and body around skills that didn’t play to my strengths. I spent seven days in a Rigging for Rescue class, struggling to understand the physics behind load strengths and safety ratios, only to forget how to tie a basic bowline knot a week later. I spent three days in Swiftwater Rescue Technician class, nearly drowning myself in the process of towing one of my teammates to shore. I spent another three days in a snow science class, learning how to assess quality and energy in snowpack for avalanche forecasting purposes, and ended up so baffled that I was convinced I should stay in my house all winter.
It took about four years for me to finally find my niche on the team. It didn’t happen until I ran for a position on the board of directors, a position that was responsible for the human resources and public relations functions of the team. Suddenly, I went from vague discomfort with my role to complete engagement and enthusiasm. I couldn’t stand to miss a mission or a training event. I reveled in bringing new members into the group and talking to them about our team culture. I wrote rescue stories for the local newspaper and organized public events for backcountry safety education. I edited the team’s newsletter and developed new communication programs for internal information sharing. Search and rescue became the most enjoyable, exciting, worthwhile thing in my life.
It wasn’t until I read the Gallup organization’s excellent work around strength-based organizations that I fully understood why this was to be. We continue to hold the belief in this country that you can be anything you want to be. The logical conclusion of this belief, for some people, is that you must identify and do battle with your weaknesses, rather than capitalize on your strengths. Our work teams often make this mistake, looking to “fix” team member’s deficiencies rather than create synergies by filling those deficiencies through another member of the team.
That’s why identifying the skill sets, knowledge, personality traits, and talents of each team member is a critical piece of teambuilding. Only when we truly understand how each team member is different, what different strengths they bring to the team, can we create synergy.
One of the discoveries, for me, of reading Gallup’s work came from their definition of “strengths” or “talents”. We tend to think a talent is something big, something rare, like athletic ability or being a mathematical genius. But Gallup defines it as a “habit of thinking, feeling or behaving”. By that definition, we all have multiple talents. We just need to discover what they are. For example, the online Strengths Finder 2.0 survey I completed identified one of my strengths as “input”. People with a talent for input, according to the survey, “have a craving to know more”, and “like to collect and archive all kinds of information.” That’s the kind of thing you want to know about your teammates; I’m the logical person to assign the reading and research to on our next project, right? Another of my talents was identified as “achiever”, which means someone who “takes great satisfaction from being busy and productive.” That explains why, on any team I’ve ever been on, I tend to be the one who keeps us moving forward when something is about to stall us.
Knowing this kind of information about your teammates is just as important as knowing who has the best report-writing skills or knows the most about analyzing market trends. A team is defined as a group of people who are mutually dependent on one another to achieve a common goal. It follows that true synergy will be gained only through a thorough understanding of the strengths or talents of every team member, and how they fit together in pursuit of the team’s mission.
And to think I almost drowned myself trying to figure that out.
I’ve seen a lot of discussion posts on Linkedin lately from people considering whether to make a move into the consulting world, and asking for advice on the topic.
There’s no question that in this economy, it’s been tough for a lot of us. But whenever I see the discussion come up, I think about what I love about it and it brings a smile to my face.
Last week, I went from working with a defense project team in the south on their communication skills, to delivering a customer service class for a health care company in New York, to facilitating a teambuilding session for the general counsel’s office of a government agency in Washington, DC. Who else has such a stimulating and varied schedule? I visit and learn about all types of organizations, public and private, in all types of industries. Everywhere I go I meet new people, make new contacts and get new perspectives. As I help people develop their own learning capacity, I learn tremendous amounts myself. The job is never stale. It makes me realize that I could never work in a field where I wasn’t constantly learning and experiencing new things.
I know Thanksgiving is in November. But shouldn’t it really be a holiday that comes whenever we take a moment to reflect on what we’re grateful for? How about you, what are you grateful for in your current professional situation?