Communication breakdowns can be a real pain in the …

Published on Fri 6th Jun 14 by Enda Larkin

“Zoo worker in gorilla suit shot with tranquiliser dart during ‘escape drill’ because no-one told the vet it wasn’t real”

This recent headline from one of the trashloids tells of an incident in a zoo in Tenerife where an employee was shot with a tranquiliser dart. The employee, dressed in a gorilla suit, was taking part in a drill to ensure that adequate plans were in place should a gorilla escape for real. Astonishingly, nobody had informed the vet and in the confusion he shot the man. Joking aside, the victim is apparently in a bad way as a result so let’s wish him well.

(Update: it has since emerged that the story might not be all it seemed but it makes for a good intro regardless of its veracity)

In all walks of life, communication is important and breakdowns in communication can literally (or should that be possibly) be a pain in the rear end. And in different ways, communication failures at work can cause suffering, albeit usually non-physical. While clearly there are many dimensions of organisational communication to consider, the focus here will be on two specific elements:

  • Back to basics on communication
  • Styles of communication

Before addressing these two areas, however, it’s important to highlight again a broader issue about human interactions and particularly how some people seek to project themselves when they communicate in groups. Interesting research related to this issue, which I have referred to before, was conducted by Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff from the University of California, Berkeley,(1) which offers some valuable insights into how some people think and behave when interacting in groups.

Using two simulated work-related experiments, and controlling for variables such as the influence of gender that might have influenced the results (they only constituted all male or all female teams), Anderson and Kilduff showed that in group situations the more dominant individuals consistently exerted higher levels of influence over the remaining participants. (No surprises here.). In the first exercise, 68 graduate students were divided into four-person teams and given a fictitious task to complete in a defined time period. After the teams performed their work, the members of each group rated one another on both their level of influence on the group and, more importantly, their level of competence. The work sessions were videotaped, and a group of independent observers performed the same evaluations, as did Anderson and Kilduff.

Following the first exercise, all three sets of judges came to the same conclusion: that those who spoke more frequently and offered more suggestions were subsequently perceived as being the most competent. (Again, nothing too surprising there perhaps.) What was most revealing in the study was that the dominant characters continued to rate highest amongst their team mates and the independent observers even when the suggestions they made were no better – and sometimes were far worse – than others.

In a second study, conducted with a new team of volunteers but following the same team format as previously, the exercise was based on the ability to solve maths problems; the idea being that some degree of competence would be required in maths to enable participants to speak up, and as such it was assumed this would influence who became the dominant players within the groups. Yet again, the researchers found that those who spoke up most frequently were subsequently described by their peers as leaders and were considered to be the maths experts in the groups. But, the researchers proved that, in fact, these dominant individuals were neither the smartest nor the ones who offered the most correct answers – what they did do was offer the most answers.

In a nutshell, this study highlighted that the more dominant an individual appears to be (and that doesn’t have to be in an aggressive manner either), the more likely their peers are to assign attributes of leadership and competence to them. A lot of people in my experience, including managers, work from similar beliefs about dominance; they know that if they project themselves as the strongest or brightest person around then few will challenge them. And they partially do this by hogging the limelight in group communication scenarios where they seek to dominate interactions. It is worth reflecting upon whether this is something you do personally, or allow others to do to you.

1. Back to basics

Effective managers are always great communicators. And they see the value in having regular and structured communication with their people, individually and collectively. That said, they are less hung up about the quantity of communication than its quality because they know that the more meetings employees have to attend, or the more time they spend in meetings, the more pressured they are likely to feel. Double those feelings if those meetings are badly run and unproductive. As a result, top managers make sure that what they do in terms of communication – across a variety of channels – is not only structured and ongoing, but productive too.

Effective communication is a challenge at the best of times but the workplace, with its multitude of distractions, pressures and personalities raises the hurdles exponentially. Add to this mix the one or two individuals who choose not to listen, or intentionally misinterpret (and then misrepresent) what you say, and the difficulties faced when seeking to communicate well at work are many and varied. Still, the best managers take many of those challenges in their stride because they intuitively understand that when it comes to communication, how they say things is just as important as what it is they have to say in terms of making an impact. They know too that when they communicate with others, be that one or many, the messages flying back and forth have two important elements – content and context. They understand that content relates to the words they choose, while context – the emotional part – is about how those words are transmitted and relates to tone and body language.

Content

Any number of problems can arise in relation to content, from using inappropriate language for the audience in question to overuse of meaningless jargon like all that ‘going forward’ and ‘leveraging’ gibberish. Recently, I was at a meeting discussing a potential problem when one of those sitting around the table suddenly chimed in that “we need to get air cover on this one” and the rest nodded in agreement, as if we were all sitting in a bunker in Afghanistan. I mean, spare me. Plain English, please. What is also worth highlighting on the content issue is how it takes some people so long to actually get the words out, or where others have a tendency to use 20 words when five would suffice, that type of thing. My point? It’s important to be clear, concise and get to the point in a timely fashion.

Context

Context includes your tone and body language (discussed below) and, as is widely known, all the research shows that this far outweighs the actual spoken word in terms of impact. Tone is often misused in communication situations, from those who don’t speak loud enough to others who mistake shouting for power of argument. Raised tone can, of course, be appropriate on occasion to emphasise annoyance, or even just to get a word in when others believe in talking over you, but as a rule shouting detracts from your message, as people wonder why you are being so ‘emotional’ and in doing so likely miss the gist of what you have to say. Shouting also gives the impression that you lack self-control so for a variety of reasons, even when you are justifiably annoyed, a firm tone works best. Of course, the level of your voice is just one tonal issue, there are plenty more concerns, such as pace, pitch and pronunciation as well as being too curt or even too formal/informal depending upon the circumstances.

That said, it is important to bring passion to the points you make – appropriate to the circumstances, naturally. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about overdoing the emotion, but it’s important to show real passion in your tone of voice in a way that is relevant to the topic and the audience. Put a bit of feeling into it.

With regard to body language, there are a multitude of potential sins. When transmitting messages your body language should always reinforce what you are saying, not detract from it; and especially in situations where you feel somewhat nervous or intimidated, you need to work to get things right.

All of us should constantly work on our ability to communicate, but we don’t always give these basics the attention they deserve. This is partially down to the fact that communicating is seen as a natural activity, something that we learned to do when we were young and now that we’ve ‘mastered’ it, there’s not much more to be done other than a bit of tweaking here and there. Unfortunately, what we don’t always realise, or admit, is that as well as the good things we have learned, we have also developed bad communication habits along the way, about which we may not even be aware. Others are, however. And if you watch managers in action who are poor at getting their message across, it’s usually fairly basic stuff that they are getting wrong. So, in conclusion here, you should never stop focusing on the nuts and bolts of how you communicate so that you are constantly developing and improving in this vital area.

2. Styles of communication

As a manager, you will naturally be communicating with people in a variety of ways on a multitude of subjects, hopefully using different styles that are appropriate to the matter or scenario at hand. While this style issue is again not something that you probably give a whole lot of thought to, it’s worth reflecting upon because how you use different styles of communication has a major impact on how effective you are as a communicator and as a manager. The diagram below shows the different styles that you can adopt to communicate with your team:

comm1

Generally, how you communicate can fluctuate from a Direct (Informing and Discussing) model to one where you seek to Engage (Influencing and Consulting) people in order to win them over to your ideas, and you can do so using one-way or two-way styles. These are all valid approaches and can be used as follows:

In terms of the Direct Model:

Informing At times being a manager means that you have to make decisions, or implement those taken by your superiors, which are not open to debate. In such circumstances you need to inform your people – and while you might let them blow off steam, or you will naturally explain the finer points of what’s planned – there is really no point in getting into a detailed discussion with them about the matter because they simply have to accept that the decision has been made. It’s out of their control. A team briefing is another good example of where you might apply this style – it’s largely one-way and you are informing them on work-related matters, or you might also use this style of communication when you need something to be done in a hurry.

Using the informing method is perfectly acceptable you are not being aggressive in how you apply it, and if you don’t think that informing equates to railroading, whereby you close down any discussion on the matter.

Discussing – If you only rely on the informing style all the time, which is essentially a one-way approach, then this becomes very limiting because your people need more input than that if you want them to fully engage. So, at times you need to adopt a ‘discussing’ style where people can explore issues in detail with you. You may not change, nor may you be in a position to change, decisions made, but you are at least prepared to discuss at length the views and concerns of employees about those decisions, and where possible tweak them in response. Again, this is a perfectly acceptable style in the right circumstances and meetings are a good example of where you would be deploying it.

In general, the Direct model of communication has its limitations in that, even where discussion is possible, by and large decisions have already been made and employees really don’t have all that much input into them. To counterbalance this, on other occasions, rather than impose ideas and decisions on your people, you need to shift to an Engage approach to how you communicate and within that you can again apply two styles:

Influencing –  Influencing is a one-way style which involves convincing others that an idea or decision is the right way to go. With this style, you use persuasive arguments to win people over. A good example of where you might use this approach is in trying to convince people that a change you are proposing is for the best – it’s not a case that you are telling them this is how it will be, but rather the onus is on you to try to inspire and excite them about what you want to happen. This is such an important approach for today’s manager that it is dealt with in greater detail below.

Consulting - A consulting style of communication is where you fully engage with your people to discuss issues, explore options and collectively agree on the best way forward. Some managers are uncomfortable with this style of communication as they fear they might lose control in such circumstances, or that things might get out of hand in some way.

While the four styles of communication outlined above are clearly not complicated, applying them in practice can be far more challenging. Naturally, the Direct styles are easier on you in the sense that they allow you to retain high levels of control over the interactions. However, the reality of the modern workplace is that the influencing and consulting styles of communication are far more prevalent now than they were even a decade ago, and all managers need to be comfortable using them.

Particularly, you should focus on your ability to influence and persuade others because that’s the style you will likely need to use more frequently in future. Think of it this way. In general terms, as alluded to earlier, employees are less willing to accept being told what to do all the time and that’s now an established trend in the world of work. It’s not going away. More pressingly, you will require greater flexibility from your people in the months and years ahead, and will want them to go beyond the call of duty on occasion, but you cannot force them to do any of those things. Equally, your superiors will be keeping a tight rein on budgets so to get the resources you want will require you to make a strong case in support of your demands. All such instances will require you to influence and persuade others. It’s also important to understand that your ability to do so is not really a separate set of skills at all – there are techniques of course such as how you frame and then make persuasive but your capacity for bringing others around to your point of view will be based upon a number of key factors:

Your ability to ‘connect’-  When seeking to persuade others it matters greatly whether you can truly connect with them. This is not to imply that you can only bring others around to your way of thinking if they like you, or feel a bond with you; nevertheless, changing opinions certainly becomes easier if the people you are trying to persuade (one or many) feel some form of connection with you. And you will connect with people on the following basis:

  • Credibility – you need to have credibility in the eyes of others if you hope to exert influence over them.
  • Trust/Integrity – if people don’t trust you, or if you are seen to lack integrity, then you can forget about influencing them in a positive way.
  • Passion and enthusiasm – as touched upon earlier, without these qualities your ability to influence others is going to be severely restricted.
  • Empathy – unless you can put yourself in the shoes of others, you will find it very hard to develop arguments that respond to others’ needs.

Your ability to build a compelling case A basic assumption when seeking to influence others is that you can make a strong case which creates a win–win situation for both parties, or as close to that goal as you can achieve. In other words, you will rarely be able to give the other party everything they want or expect, but what you propose must meet their needs to some extent and not solely yours. In terms of framing a balanced case, consider the following points:

  • Be clear on who has the power to deliver what you want and who can put obstacles in your way.
  • Understand others’ frames of mind and identify what needs your proposals can satisfy for them:
    • What are their expectations and demands in relation to the issue at hand
    • What problems might you be able to solve for them with your offer
    • What opportunities might arise for them if they follow your lead
    • What are their likely objections and how might you respond to them?
    • Plan your pitch: in advance, think how to get their attention quickly, stimulate interest and how you will emphasise the benefits accruing from your proposals. Define those key outcomes in terms that will be meaningful for them – be specific not vague.

Your ability to make your argument – Of course, it goes without saying that having defined your case, you then need to make it in a way that really influences others and that challenge applies both in formal and informal settings. All the points made earlier about content and context of communication apply fully here too of course. Also, as you make your case:

  • Engage people as you progress, build support as you go – don’t wait until the end for a ‘yes’ or no’ answer. For example, even getting people to agree that they are unhappy with the status quo shifts them a little in the direction you want them to go.
  • Do not attempt to oversell your proposals – read the situation continuously and when you feel you have done enough, ask for their response. Make that call for action.
  • Be ready for objections – listen to them when raised and address those concerns by offering tangible solutions.
  • Clarify agreement and next steps before ending.

There is research which shows that, in general, people are strongly influenced by experts, or those who can show they deeply understand a particular subject. Therefore, when interacting with others, successful influencers tend to play up their knowledge levels regarding the matter at hand in order to increase their impact. Of course, the danger here is not to do so in a manner that is perceived as condescending by those you are seeking to win around; coming across as an arrogant know-it-all definitely won’t help, so you always need to find the balance appropriate to your audience.

Given the changing dynamics of work today, you are called upon as a manager to influence your people far more often than someone in your position may have needed to do even 10 years ago, so it is something you should seek to master if you haven’t already done so. Yes, it is harder to ‘sell’ than ‘tell’ but it’s infinitely more productive in the long run.

The focus here has been on how to make yourself better understood by using various communication skills, styles and techniques to your advantage. Communication is such a vital part of what you do as a manager, and no matter how long in the tooth you are, there is always room for improvement.

Enjoy your day!

References

(1) Anderson and Kilduff, ‘“Why Do Dominant Personalities Attain Influence in Face-To-Face Groups? The Competence-Signaling Effects of Trait Dominance.” (2009) 96 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, pp. 491-503.

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“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing”

Published on Mon 12th May 14 by Enda Larkin

In 1984, Bill Cosby approached ABC TV in the US seeking to pitch a new show about an upwardly mobile black family. ABC executives thought about it for a while but eventually turned him down. The rest is history, of course. Cosby later sold his idea – The Cosby Show – to NBC where it remained the number one show for four straight years, was a ratings winner for much longer, helped to lift NBC to first place nationwide and was the most profitable series ever made.

Every manager makes bad decisions from time to time, so missing out on one series, no matter how successful, is going to happen at some point to a TV executive. That said, poor management decision-making is a bigger problem than you might think across large and small businesses alike. In his important book, Why Decisions Fail,[1] Paul Nutt highlighted just how problematic it is by reporting on a study of nearly 400 business decisions made by senior managers in medium to large organisations which resulted in the alarming statistic that half the decisions made were not up to scratch because “either they were not able to withstand the uncertainty, conflict, or change common in the work environment, or they could not elicit the buy-in necessary to make them stick.” This kind of indictment of managerial decision-making crops up in study after study; it’s not an isolated finding, nor is it an exaggeration to say that many decisions fail in the workplace.

In Nutt’s findings, the causes of the bad decisions included:

  • The decision-making process itself was flawed; in addition, little analysis was undertaken as to the shortcomings within the process meaning that the same failures occurred time after time.
  • Decision-makers based many decisions on prior commitments. In other words, they arrived at a conclusion first and the decision-making process was designed to justify that conclusion. Essentially, they put the cart before the horse.
  • Decision-makers spent time and money on the wrong things, tasks that did not add value to making the best possible decision.[2]

Given the importance of decision-making for any manager, this is an area of competence well worth reflecting upon. One commonly asked question here is what role does, or should, gut feeling play in decision-making? So, that’s perhaps a good place to start.

1. Gut feeling is good … or is it?

You may already know that in the weeks and months immediately after the attacks of 9/11, air travel within the US fell by up to 20%, whereas road travel increased dramatically. People, out of fear, and perhaps as a result of the mass hysteria that understandably took over at that time, followed their gut instinct and chose not to fly; this was likely to be the safer option they assumed. As it happened, that wasn’t accurate. Not by a long shot. Travelling long distances by car is infinitely more dangerous than covering the same distance by plane. All the statistics confirm this. What’s more, Gerd Gigerenzer, a German expert on risk, later calculated that over 1,500 additional Americans died on US roads in the year after 9/11 than would normally be the case.[3] It turns out that the ‘gut feeling’ decision – avoid flying at all costs – was incorrect in this instance because it was largely driven by fear; those who took the rational decision and believed that flying was actually likely to be safer than before, due to heightened security, turned out to have made the better choice.

To a greater or lesser degree, we all use gut feelings to support decision-making. And we all know too that we should not over rely upon it, especially when it is driven by irrational forces. Particularly in business life, depending solely on intuition can prove fatal. Still, we all have examples of decisions taken in the past which were based on instinct alone and that turned out to be great choices, so is there any guide to help us to decide when gut feeling is good?

Andrew Campbell and Jo Whitehead, directors of London’s Ashridge Strategic Management Centre, writing in the McKinsey Quarterly, provide some guidance on that question.[4] The authors make several interesting points. First, the general thrust of their article is that we cannot prevent gut instinct from influencing our judgements, but what we need to do is to identify situations where it is likely to be biased and then strengthen the decision-making process to counterbalance the resulting risk. In other words, to protect decisions against bias, we first need to know when we can trust our gut feelings and be confident that they are drawing on appropriate experiences and emotions. According to Campbell and Whitehead, there are four tests to assist in this:

(a) Have you experienced similar (and comparable) situations before?

They provide an example to illustrate this test. General Matthew Broderick, an official at the US Department of Homeland Security, made a decision on 29 August 2005 to delay initiating the Federal response following Hurricane Katrina. He did so because he had previous experience of hurricanes and felt that it was worth waiting to see whether the levees had been breached and, as a result, how much danger people really faced in New Orleans. He felt that, as he was familiar with hurricanes in the past, he knew what he was doing. Unfortunately, Broderick’s previous experience with hurricanes was in cities above sea level. His delayed response, based on his gut instinct, proved disastrous because it did not result from analysing like-for-like experiences. Familiarity is important because our subconscious works on pattern recognition; if we have plenty of appropriate memories to scan, our judgement is likely to be sound, but they have to be comparable experiences.

(b) How effective were past decisions taken – do you know, did you get the necessary feedback?

Previous experience is useful to us but only if we have actually learned the right lessons. When we make a decision, our brains ‘tag’ it with a positive emotion – recording it as a good judgement. However, only subsequent feedback can verify whether it actually was or not. According to Campbell and Whitehead, the question is whether we always get that feedback. There are lots of reasons we may not. Perhaps we change positions, or even companies, before the outcomes of our decisions can be measured. We may simply move on without knowing, or checking; or, it might result from the fact that some managers have people around them – intentionally or otherwise – who filter the information they receive, or protect them from bad news so they might not actually get the feedback they need. As a result of such factors, we could continue to believe that a past decision was the correct one and naturally this feeds into future gut decisions we make.

(c) What are your emotional triggers associated with this decision?

All memories come with emotional triggers, but some are more highly charged than others. A simple example was again used by Campbell and Whitehead in their article to highlight this key consideration. If a situation brings to mind highly charged emotions then these can unbalance our judgement. Knowing dogs can bite is very different from having had a traumatic childhood experience with dogs. The first will help you interact with dogs in a positive way: you always know to be a bit wary. The second can make you afraid of even the friendliest dog to the extent that you are frozen by irrational fears; this is similar to what happened in the case of the post 9/11 travel decisions mentioned above. In terms of potential impact on decision-making, a second example here could be if you had been unfortunate enough to lose significant amounts of money on property investment in the past, and the emotional effect that would likely have on you. How might such a loss influence your ‘gut’ decisions in relation to any future property investment opportunities that were to arise?

(d) Do you have any inappropriate personal interests or attachments associated with this decision

When there is a personal connection to the outcomes of a decision then this has implications for whether we can trust our gut instinct. Campbell and Whitehead offer the following example. If you are trying to decide between two office locations for your company, one of which was much more personally convenient, you should be cautious, as your subconscious will have more positive emotional associations for the personally more appealing location than the alternative. It is for this reason that it is standard practice to ask those with self-interest in a particular decision to refrain from voting.

The authors’ conclusion is that unless your gut decisions can pass all four tests then you need to strengthen the decision process to reduce the risk of a bad outcome. They also add:

“If we are to make better decisions, we need to be thoughtful both about why our gut instincts might let us down and what the best safeguard is in each situation. We should never ignore our gut. But we should know when to rely on it and when to safeguard against it.”[5]

2.  Improving how you think about issues

If you analyse your typical day, what opportunities do you have for ‘thinking’ time, in the sense that you can sit quietly and refl ect at length upon an issue without disruption? Not a whole lot if you are like most managers. In fact, for many, the only meaningful time for refl ection comes aft er the day’s work is done, when they are tired and least primed for thinking effectively. So, the first thing you can do to improve your capacity for thinking is to actually make time and space for it. A second step is to broaden how you think about matters at hand, and this can start when you involve others in the decision-making process. Too often we make decisions in isolation because it is quicker, or doing so enables us to retain control, but no single individual has the capacity to make all important decisions successfully on their own. Input from relevant parties is always valuable, and the bigger the problem, the more input needed. When you are collectively exploring any problem or challenge, in terms of broadening the thought process, you need to try to take a more ‘holistic’ view of the matter. By nature we all have different ways of looking at issues: rational or emotional, optimistic versus pessimistic, unimaginative or creative. Added to that, certain individuals are more comfortable with facts and figures while others thrive on uncertainty and gut feeling. The trick when making decisions is to try to bring as many of these perspectives as possible into play, and this can be achieved by using a variety of questions to stimulate your discussions and analysis.

Depending upon the specific issue, such questions might include:

Rational

  • What do we know about this? Where’s the evidence for that assumption?
  • What has happened in the past when comparable decisions were made?
  • What will this cost? What will the projected return be?
  • Can we aff ord to do/not to do this?
  • What might we have missed out on here?
  • Do we have all the facts we need?

Positive/Negative

  • What opportunities does this present us with? What other potential might arise?
  • What benefi ts will this bring?
  • How can we maximise those positive outcomes?
  • Why can’t/shouldn’t we do this?
  • What prevents us progressing on this? What’s the downside?
  • Why won’t this work for us?
  • What could happen if we get this decision wrong?

Emotional

  • What’s your gut feeling?
  • How excited are you about this?
  • What’s scary about progressing with this?
  • Why not just stick with the status quo?

Creative

  • What other ways could we approach this?
  • What’s new in this area?
  • If you had a blank sheet of paper, how would you design this?
  • In a perfect world, how would the solution work?

This questioning approach encourages you to consider all angles associated with any potential decision of importance that you might take, and it doesn’t require a genius to understand that individuals and teams that do take the broader view tend to make sounder and more resilient decisions than would otherwise be the case.

3. Have a decision-making process

As with any important management activity, decision-making should be structured. Along with applying an approach such as the holistic questioning model above, your route map for making decisions should be clearly defined. The following framework is widely used:

Establish all the facts

  • Explore the problem in detail; consult, investigate, research and analyse it from all sides until you have the full picture.

Consider all the options

  • Identify a range of potential solutions; brainstorm all possibilities.

Evaluate the effects of each option

  • Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages associated with each option, benefit analysis for each.
  • Identify the downsides for each alternative and how they might be mitigated.

Select and implement the best option

  • Select the best option and plan its implementation.
  • Monitor progress and ensure that any blockages to implementation are dealt with effectively.

Measure impact.

You might not suddenly become a better decision-maker overnight, but you can increase your potential to do so. Making time for thinking, investing in it as a process and using tried and tested techniques, will help you, and your people, to broaden the parameters for how you examine given subjects; after all, considering all the constraints you operate under these days, every decision you take has to be a good one. And you don’t have to be Einstein to understand what he meant when he said “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

A good starting point is to be curious about how you think and make decisions at present.

Enjoy your day!

References

[1] Nutt, Why Decisions Fail: Avoiding the Blunders and Traps That Lead To Debacles (Berrett-Koehler 2002).

[2] Reprinted with permission of the publisher from Why Decisions Fail: Avoiding the Blunders and Traps That Lead To Debacles, © 2002 by Paul C. Nutt, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, CA.  All rights reserved. www.bkconnection.com [This is the citation they wanted for the extract]

[3] Gigerenzer, “Dread Risk, September 11, and Fatal Traffic Accidents”, (2004) 15 (4) Psychological Science, pp. 286-287.

[4] Campbell and Whitehead, “How To Test Your Decision-Making Instincts”, (2010) March McKinsey Quarterly.

[5] Campbell and Whitehead, “How To Test Your Decision-Making Instincts”, (2010) March McKinsey Quarterly.

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One bite at a time …

Published on Thu 20th Mar 14 by Enda Larkin

“It’s like a madhouse,” he explained.

“I turn up every day with great plans to get things done, and before I know it the day has passed me by and I’ve yet to get to any of the important stuff. It’s never-ending. No matter how late I work, even if I take stuff home, I still never seem to get on top of things. If someone asked me what I do every day, I’d say I was trying to eat an elephant. . .and getting nowhere.”

This was a friend of mine, a relatively senior manager, explaining to me his frustration at the fact that most of his time at work is devoted to urgent tasks but not necessarily important ones in terms of delivering on what he is supposed to achieve. We sat and talked about the issue over a pint or three and I could sense the stress this was causing him. Unfortunately, as is similar in all the cases I come across, there isn’t really any magic answers to the workload problem and part of the solution will always be improving personal time management skills, but that’s not the specific element I want to focus upon here.

The discussion with my friend got me focused again on that all too common clash that occurs between what is urgent and what is important at work. Sometimes they overlap, but more often than not the pressing concerns are addressing immediate or short term problems without necessarily have any lasting long-term benefits. Of course, the urgent and the important both have to be managed but, sadly for most managers, 80% of their working day is often devoted to activities that couldn’t really be considered critical in terms of strategy execution, or other vital management responsibilities.

Here are some general thoughts which I think can help any manager faced with the elephant eating problem:

Narrow the Focus
Funnily enough, in terms of trying to improve the current situation, a useful starting point is often to step back and really consider what actually falls under the ‘important’ umbrella. In asking my friend the very same question, the list of activities he recounted to me in response was simply too long for it to be considered truly important. Not everything can be deemed important in my mind, and you should consider creating a new category – ‘imperative’ – which are those few things that take precedence over all else.

In my experience, all managers could benefit from narrowing the focus of what fits into the ‘imperative’ category. It is a proven fact – thanks to the law of diminishing returns -that the more goals you have the less likely you are to achieve them, because lack of focus equates to lack of effectiveness which in turn means you do a bit of what is required across many areas, but not enough to really make a difference. So, your first step has to be to define what your key goals are – define the imperative. This may require you sitting down with your boss, and yes that’s likely to be a tough discussion, but you have more chance of success if you don’t begin it with statements like “I can’t do all of this…” but instead open with something like “I could be more effective if…” At the end of the day, a business, department or individual that has too many goals, or too broad a description of what is important, is living in a fantasy world.

Plan back from the goals
Goals are of course only realised through focusing continuously on the specific actions necessary to progress towards them and it is during the whirlwind that is work-life for most people that the battle for effectiveness (in terms of achieving goals) is won or lost. A number of years ago I developed a tool called The Goal Achievement Framework which I use msyself and a number of managers have told me it has helped them in this regard.

To achieve your goals, you need to define the imperative activities and tasks that move you in the right direction and then you must be both efficient and effective in moving towards them. Efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing. Efficiency comes from having some approach to planning, such as a diary, which you adhere to daily and as stated above, time management is always an important consideration in terms of achieving what you need to achieve. That said, being efficient is only part of the equation, as you can actually be efficient without ever achieving your goals. The following framework can help you:

This framework provides you with an easy to follow mechanism for working towards your goals and whilst it is nothing earth-shattering, it works well because you spend time defining priority goals from the start and subsequently plan the imperative activities required to achieve them. The framework also combines efficiency and effectiveness. You become more effective, as you start thinking first about your goals and are consciously moving towards them. You become more efficient, because you define the key activities and tasks that need to happen to reach your goals and enter them into your planning system to ensure they happen.

Shed the less important activities
This is an area that I have written about a number of times before, but I make no apology for rehashing old ground because I see delegation as being one of the critical issues in terms of management productivity. If I had a penny for every time I heard managers, and not only those at senior level, tell me that they “wished they could delegate more” I would be a very rich man indeed. And, apart from my own direct evidence, lack of, or poor delegation is a widespread concern in business life and is certainly a well-documented phenomenon and any number of studies show that delegation is a problem for many managers young and old. But as my friend acknowledged, there are only so many hours in a life, or so much patience in the wife, that in order to get time to focus on the imperatives, then you have to shed some of the less important tasks.

In my experience, there are a number of reasons why any particular manager won’t delegate, or does so poorly, and these can range from being a control freak to a lack of understanding as to what delegation actually entail. As a manager, you are accountable for others and there will be many duties and tasks that you will allocate to them in the normal course of the day. If these tasks fall within the remit of the employee in question then this is just part of your role as manager: if the employee has to do it, then it’s not delegation, it is allocation. The main concern in terms of how you allocate work is that you do so fairly, communicate your expectations effectively and ensure the employee has the necessary skills, knowledge and motivation to do the work in a manner that reaches your expectations. Most of what you do in terms of managing workload is actually allocation not delegation. At the other end of the scale are tasks that you should do – they are part of your remit – but you hate doing them, so you might fall into the trap of offloading them onto others. This is abdication and is not good practice, for obvious reasons.

Delegation lies somewhere in the middle. It involves passing an important task, which you are ultimately accountable for, to someone else. They don’t have to take it on board, but do so for a variety of reasons which may include that they are ambitious and want to learn, or that they are simply just talented and helpful. Of course, the only value from delegating arises if you use the time you free up from having to do that task to focus on something more important. In seeking to become a better delegator, consider the following points:

Analyse your job – what are the tasks that you could delegate to others and, if you did so, how could you use the time saved more efficiently to focus on imperatives?

Select the right person – not all employees want to be delegated to so you need to define the right person and ask them if they would like to take on the task. You cannot force them to do it, as it falls under your remit. By the way, pulling rank on someone or using your position to subtly intimidate an employee into accepting to take on what is in reality part of your workload is never a smart move in the long term and will usually come back to bite you.

Delegation is a process – you need to recognise that when you first delegate the task, you are likely to lose time not gain it. This is due to the fact that if it is an important and meaningful activity then you will have to spend time with the individual to train and coach them. As part of that, you need to communicate how to do it, explain the outcomes required and support them initially as they get to grips with it.

Delegate authority relevant to the job – if the task requires your employee to request support and assistance from others, it is important that you communicate to all concerned that you have delegated responsibility to them for this task; otherwise, he or she may be faced with difficulties when requesting that support.

Monitor and review but don’t micro-manage – as you remain accountable for the task, you will always follow up to make sure it has been completed to standard, but once you are confident that your employee is competent at it, don’t stand over his or her shoulder constantly – this means you haven’t actually delegated the task and will likely lead to them feeling frustrated or believing that you don’t trust them. It goes without saying that you should offer praise for a job well done.

Track your progress
Measurement is naturally a critical activity in terms of measuring progress towards your goals but too often the focus of measurement systems is on what could be called the ‘lagging’ measure – i.e. the end-result, without enough attention paid to the ‘leading’ measures – those which drive the outcomes seen. But if you think of it, by the time you get the lag measure at the end of any given period, it’s too late to do anything to change the outcome. It could be considered akin to trying to drive a car by only looking out of the rear-view mirror.

Think of a non-work example here. If you wanted to lose weight, standing on the scales at the end of each week will give you a result, but if you don’t like that outcome, there’s nothing you can do about it until the following week. It would be much better to continuously focus on lead measures such as ‘number of calories in-taken daily’ or ‘number of hours spent exercising’ – if you get those measures right during each day, then you will see the positive result at the end of a week because there is a direct correlation between those lead measures and the lagging result. So, as well as lag measures related to your goals, you must define what the lead measures are associated with them, and then focus your efforts on getting those lead results right on an on-going basis.

There is no easy answer to manage your way through the mire that is often daily work life, but shifting the emphasis even a little away from thinking of urgent-important to a focus on urgent-important-imperative then you can at least pinpoint those activities that cannot be ignored.

During our chat my friend asked me did I know how to eat an elephant? Given that he had just downed his second drink, I went along with the odd question, and answered no.

“One bite at a time.” he said.

That’s a bit like what you have to do in terms of reaching your goals.

Enjoy your day!

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The Shape of Things to Come…

Published on Mon 20th Jan 14 by Enda Larkin

I have recently had an article published in the Hotel Yearbook…it’s an amalgam of some topics I’ve written on here before, but I think you might find it useful – it should be of interest too, even for the many non-hoteliers amongst you.

You will find the article by clicking on this link:

The Shape of Things to Come

Enjoy the read!

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To win customers, win your employees first…

Published on Sun 24th Nov 13 by Enda Larkin

“Loyal employees in a company create loyal customers, who in turn create happy shareholders. The process sounds easy but it is not, and it has defeated some of the bigger organizations of the twentieth century.’

I like that quote, attributed to Richard Branson, and have used it before. Those words sum up very well a key challenge for any manager today. Few would argue that success today in any business is dependent upon having great employees, but achieving that aim remains somewhat of a Holy Grail. Today; the challenge of getting the most from your people is more likely to be framed in terms of ‘employee engagement’ and the goal of course is to have every one of your employees giving their all for you on a daily basis. Clearly, not everyone can be engaged to the same degree but in most businesses there is ample scope to raise employee engagement levels, to some extent at least, and the returns for doing so are not insignificant. Today’s post will help you to consider some practical issues about employee engagement so that you can apply the principles to your own business.

What is engagement and why is it important?

It is vital from the outset to have some clarity as to what we actually mean by employee engagement. Unfortunately, the term is in danger of becoming another of those overused management buzzwords which gets bandied about with as many different definitions available as there are opinions on the subject. In fact, Google the term and prepare to be bamboozled by the variety of views on offer. But strip away all the hype and employee engagement is a relatively straightforward concept. First and foremost, an engaged employee is someone who is satisfied in their job. In other words, they enjoy working for you. But satisfaction, whilst welcome, is never enough because a happy employee doesn’t necessarily mean a highly productive one. An engaged employee, therefore, is not only satisfied but is also very committed to the business (or at least to their boss) and they translate that commitment and satisfaction into higher productivity on a consistent basis. In short, engaged employees deliver more and ultimately that’s why it is such a critical issue.

As employee engagement has gained prominence in recent times so too has the wealth of research circulating on the issue and the findings are quite startling. Here are some snippets of available research.

  • The Gallup organisation conducts a respected employee engagement survey, known as the Q12, which segments employees into three categories: engaged, not engaged and actively disengaged. At this stage they have reviewed more than 25 million responses to the survey and found that:
    • 30% of full-time employees in the U.S. are engaged, whereas 20% are actively disengaged. This means that the bulk of employees are not as engaged as they might be. For me, this is a form of ‘presenteeism’ – people are turning up for work, and doing what is required maybe, but certainly not giving their all.
    • Gallup have also found that businesses in the top 25% in terms of proportion of engaged employees have significantly higher productivity, profitability, and customer ratings with lower turnover and absenteeism and fewer safety incidents than those in the bottom 25%.[1]
  • The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in the UK consistently finds that only 35-40% of employees in their surveys can be categorised as being fully engaged.[2]

In working with hundreds of companies over the past twenty years, I have frequently seen this under-engagement problem in practice. Obviously, I am not suggesting that the bulk of employees are unproductive – it’s simply not possible to survive in any job today without delivering to some extent – but the majority of employees I encounter are certainly delivering less than they potentially could. All owners and managers are seeking new external opportunities to grow the business, which is vital; but if you think about it, there is a clear potential within most companies to raise engagement levels and that is an often overlooked opportunity that over time would make a tangible impact on the bottom line.

Before moving on, it is important to highlight the issue of ‘actively-disengaged’ employees. Although always in the minority they do exist and such individuals are not just disengaged but actively acting out that unhappiness. Sometimes they are the in-your-face types but they can also be quite subtle in their approach; in either case they cause untold damage if allowed to. Therefore, as a first step, it is advisable that if you have even one actively disengaged employee you should address that problem as a priority. To do so, you should begin with an attempt to coach them to better performance but ultimately if they don’t improve then it can be necessary to move on to whatever disciplinary procedure you have in place. Tolerating even one actively disengaged employee, amongst other things, will damage the level of engagement of others.

What can you practically do to raise the engagement of those employees who are under-engaged at present? You will not be surprised to learn that there is no magic pill or quick-fix here and the nature and variety of the work on offer always has a role to play. However, research shows that there are a number of common sense factors which directly impinge on engagement levels seen and the following eight questions will help you to consider how they apply at present in your business.

1. How effective is leadership in your business?

In seeking to build employee engagement there is often a temptation to look towards the employees first, but research indicates that the quality of leadership is probably the primary driver of engagement on a day to day basis. People may be employed by organisations but they work with and for managers and can interact with their immediate boss for up to 2,000 hours in any given year. If the quality of that relationship is poor, then an employee will likely be under-engaged. That is not to imply that the manager’s role is to create a happiness camp at work, far from it, but he or she does need to have the range of attributes and skills necessary to bring the best out of others in the modern workplace. It is not a cliché to say that ultimately employees respond to personality, not hierarchy.

2. Does the culture within your business support engagement?

Usually when I raise the issue of culture with owners and managers I can immediately see their eyes glaze over. And undoubtedly culture seems like a fairly abstract concern during pressurised times such as these, but like it or not, it remains a vital consideration when talking about engagement. Whilst there is naturally no ‘right’ culture, there are certain environments which build engagement whereas others do the opposite. Managers can play an important role in building a culture which draws employees in rather than pushes them away. One of the common factors seen in businesses where engagement levels are high is the fact that employees as genuinely seen as partners in the business and not simply there to do a job.

3. How effective is your recruitment process in terms of the nature of employees it attracts?

Like any process, you can only work with the raw materials you have. In this case, your efforts to engage employees will be helped or hindered by the type of employees you recruit. Unfortunately, even today, there are some companies  that still don’t pay enough attention to the effectiveness of their recruitment processes. The major flaw I continuously see here is that many employers, particularly in SMEs, remain overly focused on assessing what an individual can do, and spend too little time on exploring who they are. In short, skills can be trained, but addressing attitudinal shortcomings is far more difficult and if you are not consistently attracting employees into the business who have the greatest propensity for engagement then you are in trouble from the start.

4. How well do your employees understand what you are trying to achieve?

I will avoid using terms like vision and mission here because I may push some readers over the edge, but it is an unavoidable fact that you cannot expect your employees to buy-into what you are trying to achieve, if they don’t at a minimum understand what that is. Again the evidence shows that understanding the bigger picture is a vital foundation stone upon which engagement is built.

Clarity is a vital element in engaging employees because any potential lack of understanding across a whole host of work-related issues causes unhappiness which in turn fuels disengagement.

5. How effective is communication in your business?

Linked to the above point is the issue of on-going communication. Nothing destroys engagement levels more than employees feeling, rightly or wrongly, that they are being left out of the loop on matters that affect them. There is a proven correlation between communication and the levels of engagement seen and where communication is regular, open, two-way and more importantly effective, employees tend to be more engaged. Think of past instances in your own career. When you learned after the fact, how did that make you feel? Not good, most likely, and that in turn negatively impacted on how you viewed your boss or the business as a whole.

6. How involved are employees in decision-making?

There is often a fear when I promote the view that employees should be actively involved in decision-making that I am somehow suggesting that the tail should wag the dog. It’s nothing of the sort. There are many aspects of operations such as service quality, cost saving, work processes etc., where your employees possibly know than you do simply because they live on the front line every day. Yet, I frequently see managers making decisions about how things should be done operationally with little or no involvement from the employees on the ground. Again, you don’t need to be an organizational psychologist to understand the damage to engagement caused when employees perceive themselves as being there to ‘do’ but not to ‘think’.

7. How are employees rewarded?

It is obviously important to consider the issue of rewards when talking about employee engagement. First off, pay levels, whilst undoubtedly important, do not drive engagement. The pay component is what could be called a satisfier, in the sense that if an employee feels underpaid then they will be dissatisfied and disengaged, no matter what you do. But even when an employee is reasonably happy with their pay scale, that doesn’t always mean they will be fully engaged. In any case, the two certainties about the pay issue is that employees always want more and there are always limits to what you can afford to offer. If pay was the sole driver of engagement, then we would probably have to give up on the concept. Thankfully, research shows it isn’t.

In short, pay always has to be competitive, but in terms of engagement what matters most is how valued employees feel. This sense of value can, at a basic level, come in the form of praise and recognition for work well done, or it can derive from performance-related monetary rewards which recognise their above the line effort.

8. How well do you monitor and measure performance at present?

This monitoring and measurement of performance are important concerns around the employee engagement issue. To begin with, on a day to day basis, if certain team members are allowed to underperform without consequence this serves as a de-motivating factor for engaged employees as they question why they should bother. Few would disagree that monitoring individual and collective performance is vital but with the shedding of management layers in recent years, I notice that employees are frequently left unsupervised for long periods in some businesses.

The second concern here is how individual performance is measured. For those employees in your business who do shine in comparison to others, and are genuinely committed to the cause, how is that measured and subsequently rewarded at present? Too often, and again this applies particularly in SMEs, performance management is somewhat ad hoc and the top performers don’t really see any tangible benefits for their extra effort which naturally erodes their level of engagement over time.

The points raised here are undoubtedly basic, but don’t make the mistake that they are any less important because of that fact. Engaging employees is not rocket science and at its core is about initially attracting the right people to your business and then doing a variety of the ‘right’ things with them whilst they are with you. Frequently I hear it said, and even in these difficult times, that there is a lack of engaged employees or that “employees just don’t care anymore” as I have heard it put. I disagree with such generalisations. In my experience, the problem has more to do with the fact that there is a shortage of places where engaged employees want to work.

Enjoy your day!


[1] State of the American Workplace – Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders. GALLUP.

[2] CIPD Employee Outlook Surveys

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Can you really engage others?

Published on Wed 23rd Oct 13 by Enda Larkin

Recently, I attended a work dinner: you know the type of thing, a room full of business people on a Monday night, most of whom would rather be elsewhere, but one or two thriving on the opportunity for ‘networking’ (which of course is not a crime, except in the case of some people who think that networking actually means finding out early if you can do anything for them, and if not, ignoring you for the rest of the evening). Anyway, I’m side-tracking. At our table was a guy who without doubt was the biggest loudmouth I have come across in a long time. Not only was he heavy on the volume, but he spoke only about himself (which is a crime in my book). Thankfully, I was at the other side of the table but it was hard to ignore his antics, and it seemed to me that he viewed those around him as merely being there to provide a platform for him to bring himself into the conversation. Each time anyone raised any topic, he somehow managed to turn the focus back to him. Even from across the table it was a fairly painful experience, but for those either side of him it must have been utter torture – credit to them, though, none  lost their cool with him which I would certainly have done had he been beside me. It was interesting to see the speedy exit that the people on his side of the table made once the meal was over.

Anyway, the incident got me thinking about communication in general and particularly how important it is in any work scenario to have the ability to truly engage others. Okay, the above scenario didn’t happen in the workplace, but I frequently encounter managers who lack the ability to engage others and it causes them untold problems, so I would like to focus on that issue today.

On the subject of engaging others, our self-focused friend reminded me about some interesting research on how dominant individuals interact with others. Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff from the University of California, Berkeley, (1) once completed a series of exercises which I think offer some valuable insights into how some people think and behave when interacting in groups. Using two simulated work-related experiments, and controlling for variables such as the influence of gender that might have influenced the results (they only constituted all male or all female teams), Anderson and Kilduff showed that in group situations the more dominant individuals consistently exerted higher levels of influence over the remaining participants. (No surprises there, perhaps.) But read on.

In the first exercise, 68 graduate students were divided into four-person teams and given a fictitious task to complete in a defined time period. After the teams performed their work, the members of each group rated one another on both their level of influence on the group and, more importantly, their level of competence. The work sessions were videotaped, and a group of independent observers performed the same evaluations, as did Anderson and Kilduff. Following the first exercise, all three sets of judges came to the same conclusion: that those who spoke more frequently and offered more suggestions were subsequently perceived as being the most competent. (Again, nothing too surprising there.) What was most revealing in the study was that these dominant characters continued to rate highest amongst their team mates and the independent observers even when the suggestions they made were no better – and sometimes were far worse – than others.

In a second study, conducted with a new team of volunteers but following the same team format as previously, the exercise was based on the ability to solve maths problems; the idea being that some degree of competence would be required in maths to enable participants to speak up, and as such it was assumed this would influence who became the dominant players within the groups. Yet again, the researchers found that those who spoke up most frequently were subsequently described by their peers as leaders and were considered to be the maths experts in the groups. But, the researchers proved that, in fact, these dominant individuals were neither the smartest nor the ones who offered the most correct answers – what they did do was offer the most answers.

In a nutshell, this study highlighted that the more dominant an individual appears to be (and that doesn’t have to be in an aggressive manner either), the more likely their peers are to assign attributes of leadership and competence to them. A lot of people in my experience, including managers, work from similar beliefs about dominance; they know that if they project themselves as the strongest or brightest person around then few will challenge them. And they partially do this by hogging the limelight in group communication scenarios where they seek to dominate interactions. It is worth reflecting upon whether this is something you do personally, or allow others to do to you.

Anyway, I think this study provides a useful context for any discussion about engaging others and certainly being a loudmouth know-it-all is one way not to do things. For the rest of today’s post, I’d like to start by focusing on some fairly basic aspects of how we communicate because in my experience, it’s actually the basics that many people get consistently wrong in the world of work.

It’s not rocket-science

Effective managers are always great communicators, simple as that. And they see the value in having regular and structured communication with their people, individually and collectively. That said, they are less hung up about the quantity of communication than its quality because they know that the more meetings employees have to attend, or the more time they spend in meetings, the more pressured they are likely to feel. Double those feelings if those meetings are badly run and unproductive. As a result, top managers make sure that what they do in terms of communication – across a variety of channels – is not only structured and on-going, but productive too.

Effective communication is a challenge at the best of times but the workplace, with its multitude of distractions, pressures and personalities raises the hurdles exponentially. Add to this mix the one or two individuals who choose not to listen, or intentionally misinterpret (and then misrepresent) what you say, and the difficulties faced when seeking to communicate well at work are many and varied. Still, the best managers take many of those challenges in their stride because they intuitively understand that when it comes to engaging others, how they say things is just as important as what it is they have to say in terms of making an impact. They know too that when they communicate with others, be that one or many, the messages flying back and forth have two important elements – content and context. They understand that content relates to the words they choose, while context – the emotional part – is about how those words are transmitted and relates to tone and body language.

Content

Any number of problems can arise in relation to content, from using inappropriate language for the audience in question to overuse of meaningless jargon like all that ‘going forward’ and ‘leveraging’ gibberish. What is also worth highlighting on the content issue is how it takes some people so long to actually get the words out, or where others have a tendency to use 20 words when five would suffice, that type of thing. My point? It’s important to be clear, concise and get to the point in a timely fashion.

Context

Context includes your tone and body language and, as is widely known, all the research shows that this far outweighs the actual spoken word in terms of impact on engaging others. Tone is often misused in communication situations, from those who don’t speak loud enough to others who mistake shouting for power of argument. Raised tone can, of course, be appropriate on occasion to emphasise annoyance, or even just to get a word in when others believe in talking over you, but as a rule shouting detracts from your message, as people wonder why you are being so ‘emotional’ and in doing so likely miss the gist of what you have to say. Shouting also gives the impression that you lack self-control so for a variety of reasons, even when you are justifiably annoyed, a firm tone works best. Of course, the level of your voice is just one tonal issue, there are plenty more concerns, such as pace, pitch and pronunciation as well as being too curt or even too formal/informal depending upon the circumstances. That said, when seeking to engage others, it is important to bring passion to the points you make – appropriate to the circumstances, naturally. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about overdoing the emotion, but it’s important to show real passion in your tone of voice in a way that is relevant to the topic and the audience. Put a bit of feeling into it.

With regard to body language, there are a multitude of potential sins. When transmitting messages your body language should always reinforce what you are saying, not detract from it; and especially in situations where you feel somewhat nervous or intimidated, you need to work to get things right.

All of us should constantly work on the basics because they impact heavily on our ability to engage. And if you watch managers in action, like I frequently do, you find that those who are poor at engaging others are usually falling down on some fairly basic things.

The second area I’d like to focus on today is the different styles of communication you can use to better engage others.

It’s all about style

As a manager, you will naturally be communicating with people in a variety of ways on a multitude of subjects, hopefully using different styles that are appropriate to the matter or scenario at hand. While this style issue is again not something that you probably give a whole lot of thought to, it’s worth reflecting upon because how you use different styles of communication has a major impact on how effective you are as a communicator and as a manager. The diagram below shows the different styles that you can adopt to communicate with your team:

Generally, how you communicate can fluctuate from a Direct (Informing and Discussing) model to one where you seek to Engage (Influencing and Consulting) people in order to win them over to your ideas, and you can do so using one-way or two-way styles. These are all valid approaches and can be used as follows:

In terms of the Direct Model:

  • Informing – At times being a manager means that you have to make decisions, or implement those taken by your superiors, which are not open to debate. In such circumstances you need to inform your people – and while you might let them blow off steam, or you will naturally explain the finer points of what’s planned – there is really no point in getting into a detailed discussion with them about the matter because they simply have to accept that the decision has been made. It’s out of their control. A team briefing is another good example of where you might apply this style – it’s largely one-way and you are informing them on work-related matters, or you might also use this style of communication when you need something to be done in a hurry.

Using the informing method is perfectly acceptable once you are not being aggressive in how you apply it, and if you don’t think that informing equates to railroading, whereby you close down any discussion on the matter.

  • Discussing – If you only rely on the informing style all the time, which is essentially a one-way approach, then this becomes very limiting because your people need more input than that if you want them to fully engage. So, at times you need to adopt a ‘discussing’ style where people can explore issues in detail with you. You may not change, nor may you be in a position to change, decisions made, but you are at least prepared to discuss at length the views and concerns of employees about those decisions, and where possible tweak them in response. Again, this is a perfectly acceptable style in the right circumstances and meetings are a good example of where you would be deploying it.

In general, the Direct model of communication has its limitations in that, even where discussion is possible, by and large decisions have already been made and employees really don’t have all that much input into them. To counterbalance this, on other occasions, rather than impose ideas and decisions on your people, you need to shift to an Engage approach to how you communicate and within that you can again apply two styles:

  • Influencing - Influencing is a one-way style which involves convincing others that an idea or decision is the right way to go. With this style, you use persuasive arguments to win people over. A good example of where you might use this approach is in trying to convince people that a change you are proposing is for the best – it’s not a case that you are telling them this is how it will be, but rather the onus is on you to try to inspire and excite them about what you want to happen. This is such an important approach for today’s manager that it is dealt with in greater detail below.
  • Consulting – A consulting style of communication is where you fully engage with your people to discuss issues, explore options and collectively agree on the best way forward. Some managers are uncomfortable with this style of communication as they fear they might lose control in such circumstances, or that things might get out of hand in some way.

While the four styles of communication outlined above are clearly not complicated in theory, applying them in practice can be far more challenging. Naturally, the Direct styles are easier on you in the sense that they allow you to retain high levels of control over the interactions. However, the reality of the modern workplace is that the influencing and consulting styles of communication are far more prevalent now than they were even a decade ago, and all managers need to be comfortable using them because they help you better engage with your people – and the better you engage others, the more effective you will be no matter at what management level you’re at.

Enjoy your day!

 

References
(1) Anderson and Kilduff, ‘“Why Do Dominant Personalities Attain Influence in Face-To-Face Groups? The Competence-Signaling Effects of Trait Dominance.” (2009) 96 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, pp. 491-503.

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The Planning Dilemma

Published on Tue 8th Oct 13 by Enda Larkin

We believe a healthy society requires healthy and responsible companies that effectively pursue long-term goals. Yet in recent years, boards, managers, shareholders with varying agendas, and regulators, all, to one degree or another, have allowed short-term considerations to overwhelm the desirable long-term growth and sustainable profit objectives of the corporation. (1) 

These are the opening lines in a call-for-action produced by the Aspen Institute, a respected international educational and policy studies organisation with a mission to foster leadership based on enduring values. Backers of the call included luminaries like Warren Buffett, James D. Wolfensohn and Bill George, plus a host of other leading international business, academic and political figures. This represents one of the many voices now railing against the folly of short-termism.

Every business owner or manager understands the need to step back and look at the bigger picture on a regular basis, to think strategically and then to plan accordingly. In fact, few would disagree that looking to the future is vital. No, there is no argument on that front; a critical role for any senior manager is not to get caught up solely with the nitty-gritty of the here and now but rather to focus too on what’s potentially out there on the horizon. Sadly, that’s not how the reality of business life works for many managers. In fact, here’s a flavour of some of the challenges I have heard raised in recent times:

  • Looking out onto the horizon becomes difficult when you have over 200 emails bombarding your inbox every day – many of which are pointless, but all need to be read, or at least scanned through.
  • Looking out onto the horizon becomes difficult when cutbacks in management numbers over recent times now means that you spend much of your day doing work that others used to do.
  • Looking out onto the horizon becomes difficult when your day is continuously hijacked by one meeting after another, so much so that you often only get down to your own work just as everyone else is heading home.
  • Looking out onto the horizon becomes difficult when you have to face the board every four weeks and justify last month’s numbers.

These are just some of the real and practical challenges that I have discussed with various managers as they rightly bemoaned the fact that whilst they are supposedly paid to think and act ‘strategically’, much of their focus has to be on short-term performance. In fact, the paradoxes of planning can also include:

  • The need to focus on a longer term vision yet decide what needs to be done in the short term
  • The need to use hard data for decision making yet allow room for intuition
  • The need to consult widely and involve others without allowing the process to become unwieldy
  • The need to be optimistic when planning yet retain a strong sense of realism
  • The need to set specific goals and targets but remain adaptive to the changing environment
  • The need to make profit the key outcome from the business but not the only rationale for it.

These are some typical challenges faced by all managers and regardless of the difficulties associated with planning, lack of future focus is extremely damaging for business performance. To address some of the problems associated with planning, today I will focus on a simple model which can help any manager integrate strategic and annual planning in a meaningful way.

Insights Matter

First, before you can do any form of planning, it is simply not possible to do it well without insights; and insights come from having multi-source data to support decision-making. In other words, you need to really understand your current position  in relation to all aspects of the business before you start focusing on planning for the future. This, in part, involves looking internally at your strengths and weaknesses in terms of all aspects of business performance, such as financial, marketing, employees, products and services, etc. It also entails being externally focused and identifying opportunities and threats with regard to the economic environment, industry and market trends, customers, competitors and so on. You cannot devise plans of any kind if you don’t know how you are performing at present.

A Simple Planning Model

To provide a simple framework to guide your planning efforts, the first point to make here is that any planning you do needs to address five critical dimensions of the business:

No matter what business you are in, everything of importance falls into one of these dimensions and it is vital to ensure that you have an integrated plan that addresses all five components. The SOAR Planning Framework has the following stages:

  • Understand the Strategic context for all planning efforts (Define Strategic Goals)
  • Focus on desired Outcomes first (Identify sub-goals for the coming year)
  • Define the main Activities to realise those outcomes (What actions are needed this year to achieve the sub-goals)
  • Track progress and Results

It is a straightforward model but captures best practices and addresses important issues such as avoiding short-termism, lack of follow through, lack of ownership of targets etc. In greater detail the planning framework has the following components:

Strategic Context

  • Be clear about the vision and mission for your business
  • Understand the strategic context – the 3/5 year plan – Identify key strategic goals.
  • Define past successes, and outline the broad priorities for the business in the year ahead across five dimensions (Finance, Marketing, Customer, People and Operations).

The strategic context should guide absolutely everything you do and when you plan each year you do so on the basis of moving towards your strategic goals:

Outcomes defined

  • Focus first not on what needs to be ‘done’ in the coming year, but specifically on what must be ‘achieved’ against each of the five dimensions – (Finance, Marketing, Customer, People and Operations) – Begin with the end in mind.
  • To do that, set specific and measurable sub-goals for coming year under the  dimensions.( If a strategic goals requires X to be achieved in three years, then what has to be delivered in the coming year).  ‘Less is more’ here and it’s important not to have too many sub-goals.
  • Think about what measures of success will be applied to each goal?

Activities agreed

  • Define the key tasks associated with achieving each sub-goal – brainstorm the range of things to be done
  • With the key tasks defined for each sub-goal, think of the relationship between them. Must certain tasks be completed before others? Are some tasks more challenging than others?
  • What resources are required for these key tasks?
  • Finally, schedule in when these tasks are to be completed. At this stage think Q1, Q2 etc.

Results tracked

  • Use the measures identified earlier to track progress towards the sub-goals on an on-going basis
  • Undertake a more detailed review of progress against the actions and expected outcomes on a quarterly basis.

This SOAR model a simple but effective planning framework which combines key elements of more complex models such as EFQM or Balanced Scorecard but avoids over-use of terminology that might put people off. It helps to create meaningful links between strategic goals and what you are aiming to achieve in the coming year (sub-goals). In addition, this approach will encourage all senior managers within the business to become more goal-oriented across the five dimensions – Financial, Marketing, Customer, People, and Operations.

You could even use this basic two-page template to capture the plans across the five dimensions:

Page 1

Page 2

Whatever planning model you adopt, don’t underestimate the importance too of measuring progress along the way and that’s why attaching measures to each of your annual sub-goals is so important. Here’s a thought on measurement. In Corporate Governance Matters, a book by two leading Stanford professors, (2) a case study is provided to highlight how managers of a fast food chain got things wrong on the measurement side of things. From their experience, the senior executives in the chain understood that customer satisfaction was an important driver of profitability and they ‘knew’ that low employee turnover was a key driver of satisfaction – so the managers used employee turnover as a key performance measure and as a result allocated a lot of resources to keeping that figure low. But, when they later received detailed performance results for restaurants across the chain they found that some outlets with high employee turnover were amongst the most profitable and others with a lower turnover had poor profitability. Detailed statistical analysis of the results later showed that it was actually turnover amongst restaurant managers and not employees as a whole that made the difference to customer satisfaction and therefore to profitability. Be sure you measurewhat matters most in your business.

There is no pretence that creating winning strategic and annual plans for your business is easy, but the planning process itself should not be so shrouded in complexity that only a few within the company actually understand it, or know how they can meaningfully contribute. It is a process that should involve everyone in the business, in a manner appropriate to their level and expertise, and integrating strategic and annual planning should be part of what you do every day, not separate from it. In my experience, when planning is something that only a few managers ‘do’, or when it’s only discussed a couple of times a year, then that is problematic. Strategic and annual planning  should be the lens through which you view all aspects of your business and against which you hold all discussions or make all decisions.

Enjoy your day!

References

(1) The Aspen Institute (2009) ‘Overcoming Short-termism: A Call for a More Responsible Approach to Investment and Business Management.’ September 9, 2009. www.aspeninstitute.org

(2) Larcker and Tayan, Corporate Governance Matters: A Closer Look at Organizational Choices and Their Consequences, (1st edition. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011).) Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

 

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The Change Challenge…

Published on Tue 17th Sep 13 by Enda Larkin

When you look at all the various functions, activities and processes that make up your business, or area, you already know that there are lots of things that could be changed and improved over time, but sometimes the fear of change puts us off taking first steps – and after all, if something isn’t broken, then why fix it? That makes sense, but change isn’t necessarily about fixing things, it is about making things that work well at present, work even better. Part of the problem with change is that there are varying – often polar opposite – views on what factors can most influence change initiatives but today’s post highlights some widely accepted drivers of success when it comes to change.

You already know that managing change is tough. Given your existing experience of change, you will be aware that especially where large-scale transformations are concerned the potential for problems is enormous, often beating the best of managers. This aspect of management performance – handling change that is – has received enormous attention over recent decades and you might imagine that the success rates in terms of positive outcomes from change programmes would be dramatically better as a result. But this does not seem to be the case at all and time and again studies show that change management failures are significant. In fact, the figure of a 70% failure rate is widely bandied about. One useful McKinsey study in this area asked executives to judge the success of change programmes in their business which for the purposes of the research were defined as “a coordinated program, in companies or business units, that typically involves fundamental changes to the organization’s strategy, structures, operating systems, capabilities, and culture.” (1) The executives were asked to judge the effectiveness of their transformations based on two descriptions of success:

  • One was how effective the change process had been in leading to improved profitability, return on capital employed, market value, and so on.
  • The second was how well the change process had “laid a foundation for sustaining corporate health over the longer term.”

Based on the first metric, just 38% of respondents indicated that the transformation was “completely” or “mostly” successful at improving business performance, and on the second only about 30% were satisfied that the change process had improved their organisation’s health and sustainability. About one third of those managers surveyed also said they were “somewhat” successful on both counts in terms of key change processes. Worryingly, 10% indicated that they had been involved in change processes that were “completely” or “mostly” unsuccessful.

This is just one study which shows that managers continue to struggle with the change issue and should emphasise for you the need to pay very close attention to any such initiatives within your business, particularly those that are larger in scope, or require major surgery on how things are currently done; the bigger the upheaval the more attention needed. In my experience, there are a number of common problems that arise when seeking to manage change, especially those of magnitude, and you should reflect upon the points ahead to consider how effectively you manage change at present:

Lack of clarity about the rationale, purpose and destination of the change

This unfortunately is a common problem whereby a disconnect forms between what George W would have called the ‘deciders’ of change and the ‘implementers’ of it. This gap can take a number of forms: sometimes, senior executives in the business are very clear as to why a change is necessary and what it should deliver, but there isn’t the same degree of understanding at middle management level; either they don’t get the vision, or are not convinced of the need for change in the first instance. This is obviously problematic because it is ultimately that tier of management who are charged with executing the change. At times, the gap in understanding can exist between management and employees and this too can clearly create problems.

For change to succeed, or at least to raise the odds of success, from the outset all parties need to have a common understanding of why it is necessary and what the expected outcomes are likely to be. That is not to say that all will agree with, or indeed like, that rationale but they should at least be aware of it. And regardless of the nature of the proposals, change has to be ‘sold’ to some degree; sure, you can try to railroad changes through but that will only lead to significant overt and covert resistance. People do not like to feel powerless over issues that directly affect them. In addition, it is also important to highlight that change must lead to tangible benefits, if employees are expected to support it – where they don’t see any positive outcomes you will always face an uphill struggle.

The idea is good, but the execution is poor

Even when a common vision for the change exists, and there is general support for it, its implementation can often falter due to failings across a number of interconnected dimensions:

  • Lack of planning or organisation, which results in haphazard execution or insufficient resources to support the transition.
  • The change process drags on too long, or stalls, and as a result the benefits aren’t seen which means that there’s lots of pain, but little gain.
  • Blockages that arise are not dealt with and employees lose faith in the new way of doing things. Such obstacles, if not quickly resolved, allow the resistors to claim the proposal is flawed and this can lead to a wider erosion of belief in and/or support for the desired changes.
  • Communication is poor leading to uncertainty and frustration; or in the absence of clear direction from managers the ‘void’ is filled by rumour or blatant mis-information by those opposed to the change.

Any change process is a project that must be managed and as with any project, planning, organisation, leadership, communication and motivation are needed; in their absence, change processes will likely fail or at least under-deliver. In general, you should make sure that the implementation of any change process is time bound, as dragged-out change can be disheartening. Get the pain out of the way as quickly as is feasible. Also keep people actively involved in aspects of the initiative so they have things to do, or to contribute to the process. Don’t have your people standing idly by watching the change happen – make them part of it.

Focusing too much on process and not enough on people

Of course it is essential to address the issues raised above by having a structured approach to managing the change, with necessary plans, processes, timelines and resources in place to support the transformation. But too often, and despite this point being flagged frequently by change management experts, the people side of the equation is overlooked or at least not given the level of attention it deserves.

Reactions to change vary widely and the culture within an organisation can play a role here too. Some people thrive on it, others are wary but willing, and there are those who can really fear and resist change. Often managers, who are generally more open to change in any case, can forget that employees have an attachment to the status quo, and therefore a vested interest in retaining it, and for them change represents a loss before it can ever lead to a gain. As a rule, times of change can be stressful and failing to deal with the natural human reactions associated with it can stymie progress.

An important point to recognise here too is the need to get the informal leaders onside as early as possible as they can help to bring other employees with them. Equally, watch out for any bad apples you might have around the place as they can have a field day if you let them during times of change. And this can apply regardless of whether the change process is viewed positively or negatively by the main body of employees; disgruntled individuals see that change initiatives, by their very nature, create uncertainty, and even fear, and this represents an opportunity for them to disrupt implementation, or at least create unnecessary hurdles.  As an example of this potential problem one US internet services company recently found that a number of its clients’ accounts had been hacked and information such as passwords altered leading to widespread service disruption. After investigating the matter, senior management found that the source of the problem was not external as expected, but rather had been caused by a disgruntled employee who was upset at a change initiative taking place within the company.

Taking your eye off the ball

Change takes time to really bed down, and a common fault with many initiatives is that they receive a lot of management attention at the outset but that can slowly wane with time as their focus is drawn elsewhere. A change process is never compete until employees and other stakeholders see it as the norm, are fully committed to it and have long since left the ‘old way behind’. For a big change, that could take years to achieve and you need to stick with a transformation process until the very end if you really want it to have the desired impact.

I think you will agree that these are common challenges that arise when seeking to implement change of any kind – there are many more – and such issues can be magnified as the scale of transformation increases.

To conclude, the points addressed here on change management may be straightforward in principle, but based on the available research on the success rate of change initiatives, clearly something frequently goes astray in companies when change is at play. Therefore, given that change is a prominent feature of business life these days, with that trend set to continue, in order to maximise the potential for success of your efforts in this regard, you should reflect upon how you can agree and follow a coherent approach to change management that addresses commonly identified failings, yet remains flexible enough to deal with evolving issues. In addition, by thinking more about the human side of things, you will be in a better position to sell change in a positive way, to anticipate likely problems and proactively respond to them; focusing on the twin ‘process-people’ dimensions of managing change will increase your chances of attaining positive results. And apart from dealing with changes that are imposed upon you, in conjunction with your people, you should always on the lookout for ways of improving what you do so that you are never standing still.

Enjoy your day!

References

(1) Isern and Pung, “Organizing For Successful Change Management: A Mckinsey Global Survey”, (2006) June, McKinsey Quarterly.

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A fresh look at service quality…

Published on Mon 2nd Sep 13 by Enda Larkin

I have possibly lost some readers already with the title of today’s post, and whilst service quality isn’t always the most exciting of topics, it certainly is a critical one in terms of business performance and as such is one I like to revisit from time to time. To set the scene for what lies ahead, recently I had to change a flight and the process went something like this.

  • I logged online, entered the booking reference etc., and changed the flight. No big deal. Easy peasy. Then, when it came to make the final small change - to the seat allocation – for some reason there was a glitch in the system and this wasn’t possible. No problem you might think, except that the flight change couldn’t be confirmed until the seat was selected. It was a bit of a chicken and egg situation. But these things happen.
  • To resolve the matter, I rang the local ‘reservations’ office of the airline and the efficient but not overly friendly assistant took my flight details, brought up the reservation in front of her, but explained that although she could ‘allocate seats for new bookings, she could not do so for changed bookings’. This seemed entirely inplausible to me, but she was adament about it and said that I would have to ring the main central reservations number for the airline. Hmmm.
  • So, I rang that number, was promptly dealt with by a really great employee who sorted the whole thing out in less than 20 seconds.

Now, you may be wondering what this has to do with anything, but bear with me because there is a real point to all of this. If you take those three individual ‘Touchpoints’ or ‘Moments of Truth’, you could say that from a customer’s perspective, one was great, one was average and the other poor. The key question is though, how would you rate the overall experience if it had happened to you? My view was that it was a frustrating experience, but one which was saved in the end by a great employee. 5/10 maybe. This got me thinking about how we view and manage service quality today in most businesses.

Clearly, there must be an emphasis in any service environment on getting the specific moments of truth right – and I’m all for that – but I do feel that, at times, this focus on individual elements leads to less attention being paid to the overall experience or journey. I could recite a million examples of what I mean here, and you no doubt could too. As one sample, think of the following scenario: let’s say you were staying in an hotel and the following things happened during he visit. The reservation was handled perfectly. The check-in was only average. The room was great. Dinner was memorable. Breakfast was only okay…and so on…in other words, there was a fluctuation in the quality of the individual moments of truth during your visit. But which of those touchpoints would carry the greatest weight for you in terms of your overall evaluation? Hard to say, isn’t it, because each of us rates the various aspects of the experience in different ways. My point is that unless the totality of the experience is at a high level then your overall rating is going to be less than it might otherwise be.

The other concern I have with focusing too much on individual components of the experience is the impact it can have on employees. On occasion, I have seen what I would call ‘silo’ thinking creeping in on this issue, whereby people focus only on the parts of the experience for which they are responsible and not necessarily the other elements. You might think that approach should work well; after all, if each group of employees gets their part right, then shouldn’t the combined effect be that the quality of the experience overall is high? Perhaps, but not necessarily. If employees think only of their element there may be opportunities missed where they could help enhance other parts of the overall experience. For example, let’s return to the hotel scenario. If I was working on reception, I might check you in perfectly when you arrive, doing all the things required of me to get that moment of truth right. I could even take your dinner reservation if that was part of our stated procedure. In other words, I am doing all I am supposed to do – and doing it well – so I’ve done my bit. And to some extent that’s very true. However, If I am really thinking about how I can enhance your overall experience, then there are many other things I could do: like telling you about what specials were on that evening, or letting you know the positive things that other guests had told me about the restaurant and so on. My point here is that when people are overly focused on their area, and their moments of truth – which, to a point, is necessary of course – they miss opportunities to contribute to the wider guest experience.

There is a growing acceptance of this need to be more broadly focused in terms of service quality. In a recent McKinsey & Company article which also appeared in the Harvard Business Review entitled, From Moments to Journeys: A paradigm shift in customer experience excellence (1) the authors make some very important points on this issue, based upon various research studies they conducted across industries/sectors as shown in these extracts from the article:

  • “For example, in the cable and satellite industry, satisfaction rates tend to drop dramatically after the first few months of a customer being with the company. Yet customer satisfaction with specific interactions over the same period can remain high. For one cable company, overall satisfaction dropped 40 percent, while service interaction feedback remained strong.”
  • “A bank account representative in the branch, an insurance claims agent in the field, and a wireless phone service representative can all report high and rising marks with specific “moments of truth” interactions, without a commensurate impact on the overall experience or the loyalty of that customer.”
  • “Customer Journeys are consistently better predictors of value. They do a better job than the touchpoint approach of predicting a customer’s willingness to recommend the company to others or to renew their business.” (See exhibit below)

I think these are important insights and I would suggest, regardless of what industry or sector you are in, that you review your existing approach in this area and consider whether you might be focusing too much on individual moments of truth at the expense of the experience overall.

Unfortunately, in my experience, when I address this specific issue with senior management their eyes often glaze over, as it seems to be more of an operational matter. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that they don’t recognise the importance of the subject, it’s more a case that they feel it’s best addressed at another management level. That’s perhaps understandable, but I would suggest that you read the McKinsey article referenced above (see link below) and identify just how strong the correlations are between focusing on the overall customer journey and the returns in terms of business performance.

So, what can you practically do to shift from a focus on moments of truth to one on the journey overall.

Define the journey

Obviously you are likely to have done this already, and naturally any business has a whole series of touchpoints. For each of those you should have a clear service goal in mind and, as I said in previous posts, you also need some mechanism to communicate the ‘correct way’ of performing each of those tasks without ending up with reams of paper everywhere. So, I am not making the case that we forget about the individual elements, but rather the next steps are intended to consider how you can expand this approach to increase the focus on the journey overall.

Develop cross-functional teams

To avoid the silo issue mentioned above, I would suggest that you create service quality teams comprising employees from different parts of the business. Their goal should be to look at the journey overall and define ways that they can help each other maximise their impact. Again, going back to the hotel example, you might have employees in accommodation explaining to reception how they can help them deliver a better experience and vice-versa. This of course links back to the age-old Internal Customer Concept which many companies use at the start of their quality management process but then over time it gets forgotten about. Cross-functional teams should be meeting on a monthly basis at least and all the time they should be focused on getting the individual moments of truth right, but also thinking too of how they can collaborate and support each other to enhance the overall experience.

Reward mechanisms

One thing I frequently notice when the results of quality audits, or even mystery customer reports, are circulated is that employees in any given department immediately look to see how their section has scored. If they have performed well, then they are happy and to be honest they care less about the overall score. “We scored better than….” is often the language used. Whilst this is natural in some respects, and is again evidence of the silo thinking, it is often further compounded in some companies in that they reward by department or section based on such scores. Much better, I think, to reward, or not, against the overall result, or overall customer satisfaction levels, rather than by department.

Job rotation

Again this is far from a new idea and simply means allowing employees from one department to spend a short while working in another so that they have a better feel for what it is that others do. Sure, it takes a bit of organising to do so, but the returns are great in terms of better teamwork, communication and in the context of today’s post, better awareness of how each section contributes to the overall the customer journey.

Spheres of influence

One area that I’m working with companies on at the moment is to get employees thinking about their ‘sphere of influence’ in terms of service quality, as opposed to a narrow lens about their job or their department. To explore this further, let’s go back to a hotel example for convenience. I might work on reception and of course I need to be focused on that area. However, my ‘sphere of influence’ in terms of overall customer satisfaction expands far beyond the front desk. In so many different ways I can influence the customer’s overall experience by informing, selling, listening, passing on information and so on. Even as I walk about the hotel, when I pass customers on the corridor, at that particular time they are directly within my sphere of influence – and even offering a greeting is making some contribution to their overall experience. I am finding that, whilst again none of this is earth-shattering stuff, employees are responding well to the sphere of influence concept and once you begin to define just how broad their spere of influence is, then they recognise that there are many many ways for them to think beyond their own department.

Management

The final point I would make here is that often unintentionally managers too are overtly focused on their area, with less of a concern of what’s happening elsewhere in the business – and this too translates into how they view service quality and customer satisfaction. There are a myriad of reasons for this of course, ranging from the obvious fact that they are judged on how their area performs across many dimensions including service quality and again they are often rewarded for results in their section as opposed to the overall picture. Removing this silo-thinking amongst managers in relation to service quality is just as important, if not more so, than eradicating it amongst employees and I think that managers collectively should be judged on overall satisfaction ratings within the business and not just what they achieve in their area. Trust me, by doing so, you quickly sort out any slackers in this regard because the better managers won’t tolerate a colleague letting the side down.

I’ll wind things up now by saying that I recognise that today’s post hasn’t perhaps been the most riveting, but changing mindsets and approaches in this area will be a critical success factors in what is an increasingly competitive environment. If you think about it, post-recession, those businesses in any industry which are still around are the better performers so there may be less players in some sectors but they are hardened competitors, so competition is only going to strengthen. In that world, being truly customer-centric is naturally going to be one of the differentiating factors, and only by a collective focus within the business on the ‘overall service journey’ and not solely on individual elements of it, can you really be totally customer focused.

Enjoy your day! 

(1) From moments to journeys: A paradigm shift in customer experience  excellence - August 2013 | By Dorian Stone and John Devine http://csi.mckinsey.com/knowledge_by_topic/consumer_and_shopper_insights/consumer_experience_journey

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Improving your interview skills…

Published on Tue 27th Aug 13 by Enda Larkin

There’s an interesting video on YouTube about two FedEx employees carelessly tossing packages into the back of the truck. It’s worth a look if you haven’t already seen it and you’ll find it at the link below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gV8520YLceM

This is not the first time that FedEx has received unwanted media attention due to employee actions, you may remember that last year one of their people was filmed tossing a package from the driveway onto the front steps of a house. They are certainly not alone when it comes to underperforming employeee and like all companies, they suffer from the common problem of having the odd bad apple here and there within the business.

Thankfully, the majority of employees are honest, hard-working individuals. Everyone has off-days, but the bulk of employees I encounter actually like their job and want to do it to the best of their ability. That said, some employees either don’t fit in, or fail to rise to expectations for various reasons and then there are those, albeit a very tiny minority, who consistently fall well below expectations. You will from experience already be well aware of this fact and the question, and focus here, is how do these various under-performers, from the mild to the severe, sneak under the recruitment radar with such apparent ease and frequency?

It is partially explained by the fact that there are individuals out there who thrive in an interview setting to the extent that they can pull the wool over our eyes. However, from what I have seen, the main reason why managers are so frequently caught out in terms of hiring people who later disappoint has more to do with the fact that the recruitment process itself is frequently mismanaged in companies. This may sound harsh, but it is a reality and particularly so where small or medium enterprises are concerned. And, as an aside, when you hear the term ‘head count’ (which in reality is farmyard terminology) widely used in business circles to describe employee numbers, you do wonder how some managers actually view their people generally, but that’s perhaps a separate issue. Although there has been a vast improvement in the quality of recruitment generally over the past decade or more, it’s still far from a perfect process in some organisations and given then risks, and costs associated with poor recruitment, this is not something that can be ignored any longer.

1. Failures of recruitment
Effective recruitment involves a comprehensive process, as shown in Figure 1 below, with many interlinked steps. Of course, the primary goal of the process should be to attract a pool of suitable candidates for any given post and then to ensure that you get the best of what’s available. And that’s how you should approach this activity, in a positive light, as a quest to find people who fit with your organisation and the role to be filled. However, you also have to accept that it’s a process which is intended to keep undesirable employees out too, and that’s the focus which will be taken here and you need to do everything in your power to minimise the potential for ‘bad apples’ to slip through the net.

Figure 1 – Overview of the Recruitment Process

Even if all these steps are managed to perfection, you will still get caught out occasionally – it is a human activity after all – but just less often. The intention here is not to focus on all elements of this process, but rather to concentrate on the aspect of it that is likely to be of most relevance to you, namely the interview phase. You will no doubt be frequently involved in interviewing for new hires, at various levels, and even if you are very experienced in this area there is always room for improvement. In fact, studies have shown that whilst veteran interviewers tend to believe they are good at selecting the right candidate, that level of confidence is often unfounded; experience is, after all, only of value if you have been doing the right things.

An important reason why some managers make poor selection decisions following interviews is that their focus is still too much on what someone can ‘do’ – their skills and competences, as opposed to who they ‘are’ – their personal qualities. Of course, a balance between both facets is evidently needed, but sometimes there is too much emphasis placed during the interview on exploring the doing bit at the expense of delving into the candidate’s personality. But when you really think about it, you can quite easily determine what skills someone has from their CV, so the focus in terms of recruitment, and especially during the interview phase, should actually be to figure out whether a candidate is the right fit for your business. Ultimately skills can be learned, but it is far harder, I find, to teach someone not to be a jerk, so you should use the interview to understand, as best you can, what type of person you are really dealing with.

In seeking to recruit any new employee, you therefore need to consider both what can they do and who they are. In relation to the latter, it is only through having a clear picture in your mind of the type of person you are looking for that you can ever hope to have any chance of finding the most suitable individual from the pool of applicants available. Many businesses today have developed employee profiles that can help to pinpoint a range of traits and characteristics associated with key positions in the organisation, and if you don’t currently have such tools, then ask yourself: on what basis are people being hired for various posts in your company at present?

Armed with a clear image of the ideal candidate, you can then more usefully prepare for interviews by devising a set of questions (and exercises if appropriate) based on that profile, which will help you to better know the person sitting in front of you. What’s more, by using a simple weighted evaluation form – also based on the profile – each candidate can then be benchmarked against the ideal characteristics required.

2. Making the most of interviews
The intention is not to now go step-by-step through the interview process, as you will likely have had some form of training on this area before. If you haven’t, then you should definitely consider getting some because every new person you bring into your team has the potential to make it better, or a lot worse, so the consequences of poor interviewing skills can be lasting. Rather, this section explores some targeted points relating to the structure of the interview and the technique you use. Before getting to those specific aspects of interviews, consider the following general tips on preparation. These points may seem simple, but it’s amazing how often they are still overlooked:

  • Always prepare fully for interviews in advance: You will often see an unprepared interviewer reading through a CV for the first time during the interview and this is certainly bad practice, so don’t do it. You should review the CV or application before the interview.
  • Prepare the interview area: Choose a private setting, not too formal, where you and the candidate can both concentrate. Holding an interview in your office is not ideal for many reasons, including that it’s your ‘turf’ which means that you are going to be more relaxed in that environment and the candidate is likely to feel under greater pressure. It is also the place where you will potentially face most distractions which can disrupt the interaction. Don’t underestimate the importance of the location you choose in terms of providing the right environment which brings the best out of the candidate and affords you the greatest opportunity to concentrate.
  • Prepare an interview plan: Incorporate into your plan the structured questions you develop based on the profile of the ideal candidate, and on the requirements of the job.
  • Limit the number of candidates: Try to limit the number you agree to see in any one day so that you stay fresh and alert for all candidates.

With those preparation tips in mind, when holding the interview, there are many different interview structures that can be followed but let’s keep things relatively straightforward and examine the interview from three phases: Beginning, middle and end.

The Beginning
Clearly, at the beginning of the interview, there are certain things you need to do. To start with, it is often useful to meet the candidate at reception personally and escort them to the interview room, as you can learn a lot about someone in those few minutes – their levels of confidence, how at ease they are with small talk and so on. Sometimes, as soon as a candidate enters the interview room, they can slip into ‘interview mode’ so on the walk up you can often get glimpses of the candidate’s true self.

To kick off an interview you will of course want to put the applicant at ease, and to let them know how the interview will be structured, whether it’s part of a wider process and so on. A relaxed candidate will perform better.

The Middle
The bulk of the interview should be devoted to finding out about the candidate. That sounds obvious, but the reality in many interviews is that the interviewer does too much talking; work through your questions and let the candidate speak. Apply the 80/20 rule: the candidate talks for 80% of the time. That obviously does not mean you let them ramble on incessantly, you should probe and test (but not interrogate) their responses to get behind what are often rehearsed answers of one kind or another. As a rule you should:

  • Begin with general questions moving to the more specific.
  • Use your question technique to explore background, attitudes, suitability, etc. relevant to the job description, and more importantly to the employee profile you are seeking.
  • Use a variety of behavioural and situational questions relevant to the role.
  • Follow your interview plan, and do so as closely as possible for all candidates asking them the same or similar questions. It is only through this approach that you can actually evaluate suitability against a common standard.

This exploration phase of the interview in terms of timing should clearly form the main component. The general question also arises as to how long an interview should be and it’s very difficult to suggest a set time but, in reality, for any position, interviewing for less than 30 minutes is not advised – and if you find you have candidates who are ruled out very early in the interview, then you might need to look more closely at the effectiveness of your screening process. As a rule, interview fewer candidates, for longer. For any management position, you should be looking at a first interview lasting up to one hour, and having a couple of interviews as part of the process.

Also keep in mind that as you assess the candidate they are also making judgments about you and the organisation, so you need to come across as highly professional – after all, you want the person you do select in the end to have a positive view of you when they turn up on day one.

The End

Once you have obtained all the relevant information you need, you should then allow the candidate to ask you questions about the position, ensuring that you:

  • Outline the job description in greater detail, giving an overview of their potential role in the company.
  • Discuss salary if not mentioned already; provide them with details on the pay and conditions associated with the position.
  • Answer any remaining questions.
  • Ask to check references and give a timetable for the decision and how they will be notified.
  • Thank them.

Once a candidate leaves, allow time before seeing the next applicant in order to review their performance and prepare a written evaluation, and weighted rating, against the defined criteria. By doing so, you will have a set of completed evaluations at the end of the day and will be better able to identify the higher-scoring candidates, rather than trying to remember who was who throughout the day. Also, take a break before the next interview so that you are fresh and ready to be as attentive as possible.

Sure, the majority of points covered here about interviews are fairly straightforward, and indeed most are well-known, but despite that fact, research and first-hand experience shows that they are not consistently applied by many managers. Your primary goal for interviews should of course be to find the best candidate available, so it’s important that you approach this important management activity from that perspective. However, if you consider the damage that even one bad hire can do to your business or department and how much time, effort and money you have to expend to clean up the mess afterwards – all of which are scarce resources these days – then that should also encourage you to pay more attention to ensure that you are not being hoodwinked by unsuitable candidates.

Enjoy your day!

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