Merge's Blog

Monthly Archives: June 2011

Obstacles are opportunities in disguise

Sunjay Nath, CSP, is known as the Human Performance Architect. He works with groups and individuals to help them improve their performance through empowerment and leadership.  And today he has graciously agreed to be my guest blogger.  Sunjay is a proud daddy and constantly marvels at the lessons he learns from his little ones.  Here is one recent situation that vividly illustrates how obstacles are in fact stepping stones to something bigger and better.

We are blessed enough to have a 21-month old and all the experiences and learning that go with him. Everyday, as I watch him grow and discover the world, I realize he is teaching me just as much as he is taking in – and this has been going on since before he was born.

In our bedroom we have a tree that sits in a pot and the pot is just slightly shorter than our son. And months ago when he first discovered it, it was just as tall as him. The problem is he is fascinated with this tree. More specifically, he is fascinated with the taste of the dirt around the tree! Now, my wife and I thought it would be a great idea to place some sort of obstacle to prevent him from having access to the tree.

We looked around his massive stack of toys and found the perfect solution. We call it, “Toy Mountain.” It’s a plastic mountain that has ramps and such on it that is supposed to be used for little to cars to boot around. It was the perfect solution for a couple of reasons. First, and most importantly, it was large enough to block his access to the tree. Second, it was one of his more favorite toys at the time and it served as a great distraction to help him forget about the wonderful tasting dirt. Continue reading

Overcome workplace negativity by challenging extreme language

The subject of workplace negativity and what to do about it comes up repeatedly in my practice.  The biggest problem with negativity is that it is contagious, which means that it usually starts with just one or two situations or people, but then, if left unchecked, rapidly spreads throughout the department or organization.  So leaders everywhere are constantly asking me what specific concrete things they can do to avoid negativity or at least limit it from spreading.  In previous blog posts, I have offered the following proven solutions:

Here’s another option: challenge extreme language.  This means that you must have the presence of mind to object when you hear your employees use extreme words such as always or never.  Challenge the person: ask what s/he meant by using the words always or never.  For example, if you hear your employee Rebecca say “There’s no point in offering feedback to other departments, it’s never listened to,” stop her and ask the following question.

“Rebecca, what do you mean when you say never?  The last time Amy and Peter from the team offered a suggestion to the Accounts Payable department, it was acted on and they changed their procedures.”

Or you could say, “I think never is a pretty strong word Rebecca.  When it was your idea to stagger our opening hours, I investigated that option thoroughly.”

My point is that negative people will often use extreme words in their conversations for emphasis and impact, because it generates sensationalism.  But as a leader, you can’t let this slide.  You have to challenge those extreme words, because if you don’t, there is a danger that incorrect beliefs will grow and expand, and before you know it, the myths will begin to take on the appearance of facts.  Negative people view the glass as half-empty instead of half-full.  It’s up to you to point out the half-full, instead of the half empty.  So challenge extreme language.

Have you challenged situations of extreme language in your workplace?  Why or why not?

Voicemail IS a productivity tool IF used appropriately

Voice mail can and should help improve your productivity, not worsen it.  It is just like any other business tool: if used appropriately, it CAN enhance your efficiency AND that of others calling you.  The key word here of course is “appropriately”.  In the latest May-June issue of CGA Magazine, I outline specific changes you can make to both the greeting that callers hear when they phone you as well as the messages you leave for others.  Read the article – Voicemail etiquette: Taking productivity from mediocre to masterful.

And of course, as always, I’d love to hear your opinions.  How do you feel about voicemail – friend or foe?  What approaches have you take to make it work for you?

Giving negative feedback: stay future-focused

If you’re in a position of formal leadership, then one of your responsibilities at some point or another, like it or not, will be to give negative feedback to an employee.  And it’s a task that no one looks forward to.  Let’s face it: people’s natural reaction to criticism is defensiveness, and when that happens, getting your message across becomes even more difficult.  So your goal in giving negative feedback is to convey your message in a way that not only achieves the desired behavior change, but also reduces or eliminates the likelihood of the other person getting their back up.  Ultimately, it all comes down to how you put your thoughts into words.  Last October, I told you about one small modification that you could make in your language to achieve accomplish this – focus on facts instead of opinions.  Here’s another adjustment you can make to increase the likelihood that the other person will listen to what you have to say and take positive action towards correcting the offending behavior – stay future-focused.  If you were to say to an employee “you’ve been late three times this week,” the conversation will quickly bog down into specifics – which day was the employee late, by how much, and of course a litany of excuses why.  Far better to head that off quickly by following it up with “I realize that you may have very good reasons for your tardiness this week, but I’d like to focus on what you and I are going to do to prevent it from happening again.”  Force the conversation towards the future rather than the past.  Even if you do end up talking about the past, make sure that the discussion does not conclude until you have talked specifically about behavior change in the future.

Now this one change in language isn’t going to magically make these negative feedback discussions effortless.  But it will move you in the right direction.  In future blog posts, I’ll share some more ideas.  But for now, I’d like to hear yours.  What are some of the specific things you say or do to increase that likelihood that the feedback you offer to others is heard and acted upon?

Good listening: be aware of mental and physical barriers that can get in the way

Last November, I blogged about the disparity between how fast we can talk and how fast the human brain can process information is a major contributor to poor listening (see Good listening: it’s about staying “checked-in”).  But what else can get in the way of active listening?  Well, mental and physical barriers can as well.  One example of a mental barrier is a phenomenon called self-focus, which is the endless conversation that occurs inside our heads.  Whether it is what needs to be picked up at the grocery store on the way home, a mental composition of an email note that needs to be sent out that afternoon, a thought about what to have for lunch, or just plain ol’ daydreamin’, this internal talk pulls us away from the dialogue in front of us and causes us to not listen as well as we should.  Criticism is another example of a mental barrier.  Human nature is that when we are criticized, we tend to get defensive, and defensiveness immediately impairs listening.  On the other hand, physical barriers have to do with our environment.  One universal example is noise.  It’s harder to listen and stay focused in a noisy environment where there are many other loud distractions to pull us away from the discussion at hand.

An essential component of effective communication is good listening.  So when it’s important to listen carefully, it’s well worth being aware of the physical and mental barriers that can get in the way and make communication harder.

So what do you think?  What else gets in the way of good listening?  What have I missed?

The piss-off factor. How some managers do stupid things

Sometimes I just don’t GET it.  There are times that I really struggle to understand why some managers make bone-headed moves, why they do stupid things that accomplish nothing productive for the organization but instead piss their employees off!

A long-time reader of this blog called me the other day to tell me about a situation he recently observed in the company he works for.  A junior employee, let’s call her Samantha, has been working temporarily at another company location, helping to implement a new software system in the organization.  To save money, the company has a policy that employees are only allowed to return home once every two weeks, which means that Samantha must spend the in-between weekend away from home.  While she is not compensated for this weekend away from home, the company does cover her hotel, meals and other incidental expenses at the distant location.  You may question whether this is fair or not, but it is the arrangement that Samantha has agreed to, and she seemed satisfied with it … well, until just recently.  You see Samantha submitted her latest expense report to her manager in which she claimed just a little over $100 for dry cleaning and laundry for one two-week trip.  Soon after, her manager called her into his office to advise her that upon review by the management team, $100 seemed “excessive” for laundry, and that she needed to reduce her expenses in this area.

Are you kidding me???  Continue reading

Exceptional leadership arises from adversity

Last summer, I had the opportunity to explore China, and one of my stops was the National Museum in Beijing.  While there, I marveled at the porcelain collections from the T’ang and Yuan dynasties – strikingly attractive pottery that was beautiful and sturdy, yet practical and delicate at the same time.  Turns out that this amazing porcelain pottery actually started life as your basic clay pot.  Porcelain is just clay and rock – kaolin, or china clay, mixed with pegmatite, a coarse type of granite – and water.  But what I saw in China certainly didn’t look like clay and was definitely not as frail and brittle as baked mud.  So how does a simple clay pot go from plain and fragile to porcelain that’s tough and strong, you ask?  The answer: heat – incredibly high heat – approximately 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or 1,200 degrees Celsius that turns the brittle clay into a strong mixture of glass and mullite.

As I learned about the process of creating porcelain from clay that day, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to growth in leadership.  Just like the white-hot heat of the kiln converts basic clay into strong porcelain, it’s the tough situations and the difficult experiences that crop up in the day-to-day workplace that grow average leaders into exceptional leaders.  Whether it’s an overflowing schedule or a myriad of deadlines; a thorny discussion about poor performance or a difficult conversation about body odour; a shortage of staff or an excess of complaints; it’s the “heat” that toughens and strengthens you and takes you from average to exceptional.

Worth remembering the next time you’re facing a tough day at work!

Use social media to stay relevant to your customers and employees

If you’re a regular subscriber to my blog, then you know that I have long-believed that leaders today cannot ignore the impact of social media in the workplace.  In fact, I blogged on this very subject just last July.  Social media is a fundamental shift in the way that people communicate with one another, and therefore it has enormous implications for how you should recruit, motivate and lead your people.  And in the long-term, social media is changing how your clients and customers select and buy your services and products.  In fact, it is exactly this that prompted me to start this blog back in September 2009.  Recently I was asked by Outlook Magazine to share my story about why and how I chose to enter the sometimes murky world of social media.  You can read the entire article published in their Spring 2011 issue.

Do you have a presence in the places that are frequented by your current and future employees and customers?  What are you doing to make sure that you continue to be relevant and significant to your stakeholders as your market demographics shift?