Archive for June, 2010
It seems that in every management training session I do lately, the same issue comes up: we’re being forced to do this flex time and telecommuting stuff and it doesn’t work for us. We need our people here in the office. We need them available during certain hours.
I acknowledge that it’s not as easy as saying, “If you manage by results then it doesn’t matter where your people are working.” Some jobs are structured around handling service tasks as they come your way and you really do need someone to be in a particular place at a particular time.
Nonetheless, it often seems to me that managers are acting out of entrenched habits or resistance to change. Open-mindedness is called for. The world is changing, and we must change with it or risk becoming an employer that can no longer attract the best and brightest. Here are some common objections I hear, and my response to them:
1. My people don’t produce anything, they just answer questions and provide support. So I need them to be here during the hours I’ve said they will be available.
Clearly in this case, the hours your people work are critical. You need to be able to publish specific hours to your customers. But does it really matter where your people are working from? Set standards for responsiveness, and then find a way to gather customer feedback. Do your customers tell you that the phone goes to voicemail frequently, or that they leave a message and don’t get a call back in a timely manner? Then you have a problem. The problem is not that the employee is working from home and you can’t see them, it’s that they aren’t answering the phone or returning calls to the standard you have set. Address the real problem.
2. I often call my employee because I need her and she doesn’t answer the phone.
Doesn’t that happen when she’s in the office too? Let’s be reasonable here. Sometimes your employee is in a meeting, on the other line, or in the bathroom. These things happen in the office as well as at home. Set standards, once again. Tell her how soon you expect a call back when you leave a message. Or ask for a schedule of conference calls and breaks so that you know when the best time to call is.
3. I get what I ask for. But how do I know that my employee is really working eight hours a day?
This is really a key point. Who cares if he’s working eight hours a day, if the employee is producing the results you’ve asked for? Is it fair that the employee who works efficiently and gets the same job done in six hours as others do in eight hours gets penalized? They should be rewarded instead. Give them some extra assignments if you think they have extra time. Choose assignments that are “stretch” assignments and will develop the employee, or choose projects that you know the employee will enjoy. That way you get more from them, plus they get rewarded for being efficient.
4. I think my employee takes care of personal business on company time. Sometimes I call and I can tell he’s out in a store or somewhere other than at home.
Again, this comes down to setting standards, communicating your expectations, and then measuring what you get. If your employee is delivering what you’ve asked for and can shop at Home Depot at the same time, why does that matter? If, on the other hand, your customers are telling you that they call and get put on hold while the employee deals with a cashier at the grocery store, then you have a problem. Deal with the real problem.
5. I need my people to work well together as a team and to communicate frequently. They need face time for that.
Perhaps more than any other objection, I acknowledge this one as a true challenge. Teamwork is important, and face-to-face communication is a great teambuilder. Nonetheless, the world is changing. Some teams are entirely virtual and they make it work. Recently I heard a good suggestion from a manager in a federal agency. She said she sets one day a week, Wednesday, as an “all hands in the office” day. Except for true emergencies, everyone must be in the office that day and all routine team meetings are scheduled for that day. For teams that are geographically dispersed, video conferencing is a way to make something similar happen.
I’m opening up a can of worms here, but there really is a generational trend in all of this. Some of us Boomers just can’t get over the fact that we weren’t allowed to work from home or have flexible hours when we were just starting out in our careers. Get over it! If you’re truly managing by results, and you should be in most cases, then you’ll eventually see all these objections for what they really are—excuses and irrelevant noise.
I’m driving a 26-foot truck from Colorado to New Hampshire this week with my friend Allison. I’ve never driven a truck this big before.
At first I approached it as an exploration of a new world. We stopped at truck stops and tried to figure out how things worked in the world of professional driving. It was confusing; at every truck stop there were different rules for the pumps. Sometimes you could pay at the pump but mostly you couldn’t. Sometimes you had to pre-pay and sometimes they wouldn’t let you. There were also some issues with what side you pulled through from and whether it was rude to go the opposite way.
The professional drivers were all very friendly but they didn’t offer advice and we didn’t ask for any. We just kept talking about how we were “truckers” now. When pulling off the highway we yelled “there’s the truck entrance!” at each other, as if this made us something special. One time Allison even told a lady behind the counter at a truck stop that we were truckers. (The lady did not seem impressed.)
Then this morning, while trying to figure out the incomprehensible rules of yet another set of gas pumps in Joliet, Illinois, a driver at the pump next door came over to help us and gave us some advice.
“You know, you should really use the diesel pumps over on the auto side,” he said. “Sometimes the diesel at the truck pumps is more expensive because of the road taxes we pay.”
Allison and I looked at each other in dismay. “But we’re a truck!” Allison protested.
“Well, those other pumps are for the smaller trucks,” he said. “The private ones.”
Smaller trucks. That stung. We thanked him and went on our way, but the trip was not the same after that. Were we really a truck, or not? It seemed we were only a truck when it came time to pay the higher fees at the toll booths.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far:
1. Inclusiveness is a great thing but you can take it too far. Don’t try to include people in groups they don’t really belong to, especially if it will cost them dearly. And don’t assume you’re a member of the club just because you wear the jacket.
2. The world of professional driving is worthy of great respect. Truckers are courteous, friendly, helpful, and very skilled at what they do. Sometimes we just sat and watched them back their enormous vehicles into tight spaces, admiring the confidence with which they maneuvered.
3. Next time I need to move, I’ll hire movers.
A recent article in Harvard Business blogs (Why We Shouldn’t Hate HR by Bill Taylor) commemorates the 5th anniversary of the infamous 2005 Fast Company article Why We Hate HR, and challenges the original author’s thoughts about why the title of his essay seems to name a fundamental truth. The real problem, Taylor says, is that organizations don’t make the same investment of creativity and rigor in the human element of business that they do in R&D, marketing and finance. Successful organizations are focused on getting “wildly talented people” in the door and then encouraging them to form productive partnerships.
I don’t disagree in the least. In fact, I would even add an example to Taylor’s list of successful companies (he talks about Cirque du Soleil, Pixar and DaVita); Zappos is another company that has focused on the human element as the chief success factor in its business and seen a payoff as a result. They’ve done it by translating the trendy term “engagement” into something simpler and more intuitive: a definition of “employee happiness,” which the company then strives to achieve through meeting intrinsic motivational needs like a sense of purpose, progress and relatedness.
Having said that, I think there is another perspective on why we hate HR, especially when it comes to smaller companies. It’s a simple one: we ask HR to walk an impossible tightrope as a member of management who must also advocate impartially for employees. We set up our HR people for failure. No one trusts them as a result.
Recently I worked with an organization in which the hourly HR staff had just organized and certified a union. When the training director told me about it, I was both horrified and fascinated. “How could that be?” I asked the training director. “Wouldn’t that bring up all sorts of conflict-of-interest issues?” She shrugged. “We certainly think so. But it remains to be seen how this will play out.”
I thought about it all the way home. Even the HR people don’t trust HR! Not to mention they don’t trust senior leadership; and senior leadership will undoubtedly not trust HR in the future. What a muddle it will be to redefine the role of HR in that organization now that they’ve thrown a third party into the mix. Questions will arise in the handling of every issue; who is HR representing? Who has access to confidential employee information and how will it be used? What are the hidden agendas? Thinking about it just boggles my mind.
It seems clear to me that if the HR profession is to fight its way out of its PR problem, it will take a complete redefinition of roles and responsibilities, as well as a bigger investment of energy and resources on the part of an organization’s senior leadership.
In an article on the Harvard Business Publishing site, Trina Soske and Jay A. Conger argue that leadership development programs fail for two reasons:
1. They focus on the individual instead of on a leadership group
2. They focus on behavioral competencies instead of on situational factors like how the leadership group is responding to competitive threats or shifts in strategy or other organizational specifics.
I couldn’t agree more, especially with #1. The authors hit the nail on the head when they say, “The complexity, interconnectedness and transparency of today’s organizations mean that no one individual can get much accomplished by themselves. Most challenges and opportunities are systemic. Leadership is distributed and change now requires a collective sense and a coordinated set of actions.”
This is exactly why my own training and consulting practice focuses on onsite instructor-led training and facilitation for teams or work groups, despite the continuing protests in the learning and development field that this is an outdated model for learning. When you send individuals to training—successful training that is—they come back with a new paradigm and a new vocabulary for expressing it. When no one else in the group gets what they’re talking about, that new paradigm slowly fades away instead of producing behavioral change. There is no reinforcement for the new language and new worldview, and perhaps there is even a sense of poking fun about it. “Jay’s using those big words again, you can tell he’s been shipped off to leadership training.”
When you send teams or work groups to training, on the other hand, they are able to put their new concepts and ideas into practice as a group, and can reinforce each others’ new behaviors and collectively apply strategies for using the ideas to tackle specific organizational needs and challenges.
I believe this applies to nearly any type of training you might provide, whether it be customer service or diversity or communication skills or supervisory skills. Even so-called “hard skill” training topics can benefit from this approach. Send your entire administrative staff to learn a new computer software together and they’ll learn more because they’ll be able to help each other with individual learning challenges and they can pool their ideas about how to use that software to improve operational efficiency.
What are your thoughts? Does your organizational believe in leadership as a team sport? Why or why not?
Years ago, after a period of intense reflection, I realized something about myself. When I looked back at the less successful ventures in my life, nearly all of them could be attributed to a failure to read the culture of a particular organization or group of people.
My worst job experience ever was at a company that had a very strong culture around dotting i’s and crossing t’s. I had come from an entrepreneurial company where everything was, in the words of a colleague, “loosey goosey.” Creativity and risk-taking were rewarded, and lack of attention to detail was often forgiven or perhaps not even noticed. I failed to read the tremendous shift in my new organization and failed in the job as a result.
But the examples I can come up with are not limited to organizational ones. I remember a boyfriend whose family I never really fit in with. At the time I couldn’t put my finger on why it wasn’t working, but in retrospect, there was a crucial event at a birthday party for my boyfriend’s sister. I got bored with the cocktail party chatter so I jumped in a lake with my party clothes on to make the kids laugh. The adults at the party were horrified. In my family, a group of veteran practical jokers, jumping in the lake in a dress would be considered mildly amusing but certainly not radical. In my boyfriend’s family it meant there was something “not quite right” about me.
Culture, which I define as “the way we do things around here,” is so powerful that it shapes our judgment of a person’s character, whether we recognize it or not. The fundamental attribution error comes into play in such situations; instead of recognizing that someone is acting in a way that makes sense to them, given how they see their situation, we attribute behaviors that don’t make sense in our culture to bad motives. I didn’t jump in the lake because that was considered a fun thing to do where I came from; I did it because I wanted to upset everyone, or perhaps I was drunk. I didn’t miss the details at my old company because I saw a big picture that I considered more important to focus on; I did it because I was a sloppy person who didn’t care about messing things up.
When you follow a simple rule, to always ask yourself “why would a reasonable person do that?”, I think you open doors to recognizing the impact of culture on a person’s behavior. And then you give them the benefit of the doubt instead of further alienating them from the group through the expression of judgment.
And the lesson for me, a perpetual cultural misfit, is to always think about how my behavior will be read in light of the culture I’m in. That’s a journey with no end.
In a recent article by Susan Cantrell and David Smith, How the recession has changed the face of talent management–for the good, the authors argue that tight budgets have forced companies to offer customized rewards and internal employee-created training options instead of lump sums of cash and formal classroom training, and that this is a good thing for employee engagement.
I appreciate any efforts to find a silver lining in the impact of the recession on today’s workforce. And I agree that most employees prefer customized options and individual choices over a one-size-fits-all approach. What I’m not sure about is that this is really happening on any sort of large scale.
It might be that the article is written for an HR magazine in the UK. Here in the US, I’m seeing employers cut their efforts as well as their expenditures.
It would be great if we were really spending extra time being creative about motivation and development, offering lower cost options that better serve individual needs; it’s like when your younger sibling made your Christmas gift for you instead of buying it. Maybe she knitted you a pair of socks or a sweater in your favorite colors. You knew she did it because she couldn’t afford to buy something at the mall, but it was touching that she spent extra time to create something meaningful for you. And in the end it probably better served your needs than some manufactured product from the mall would have. But what I’m seeing is stressed-out short-sighted managers looking to cut costs everywhere they can and spending too much time putting out fires to make Christmas gifts.
What about you, are you seeing a silver lining?