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Bare Bones Leadership (and Teamwork!)

“When the going gets tough, the tough get bare.”  (I said that.)
In my work with coaching clients, we constantly strive to get back to basics.  I find that those of us who stray from the basic best practices have more issues as team members.  So, I landed on the notion of Bare Bones Leading.  My upcoming nuggets will explore this theme.  Would love to hear your feedback.

One example of getting Bare is centering.  Here’s a story…..
Judith managed an accounting team of seven. Once in a while, Frederick, who was charged with accounts receivable, would barge into Judith’s office ranting about someone in sales not providing the appropriate information for billing clients. As Frederick would begin with personal shortcomings of particular salespeople and descend further into Judith’s inability to “fix the sales department,” Judith would initially feel stress and shades of doubt about her ability to manage conflict. Then she would consciously return to center by sitting and squarely facing Frederick and asking him to pause so together they could break Frederick’s concerns into addressable items that were showing up as a bucket full of frustration on his part.

In Bare, we operate from the centered position. This is not just physically centered. Rarely do we get into physical pushing matches in the workplace. It is emotionally centered. Most of the pushes we get from team members are emotional pushes. “Why are we switching to Form M when Form K worked just fine?!!” This is an emotional shove.

Physical centering helps with emotional centering. Get out from behind the desk. Face the other person head on. Give him or her your full attention. Be the anchor.

The most direct way to communicate is between two centered people facing each other, sitting or standing, looking into each other’s eyes. No covering up. For most people, this is awkward. For some it is excruciatingly honest and authentic and scary. Many of us fear that our built-up emotional indirectness will become exposed and yes, it’s uncomfortable.

So, why bother? Would you think twice about joining a company whose CEO demands that all meetings be conducted with people fully centered and looking into each other’s eyes? Maybe. But it’s not a stretch to foster a work culture where team members are more direct with each other, where they create emotional centering by using tools that clarify intentions and set unambiguous expectations with measurable outcomes. Hence we strive for balance, for operating from a centered position.

In a potentially conflictive situation, one centered person is better than no centered people. The centered person has a better chance of bringing the other person to center. Two flailing people may never reach balance without third party intervention.

You Really Do Know 

“Anlyan, you’re either lying or you’re stupid.”
Hm.  I had to think about that one.
“Lying means everything you are doing is a lie.  You’re a phony.  Stupid means you don’t know the difference.”

It was the voice of Harold Guskin (who is now acting coach for folks like Glenn Close and Kevin Cline), the scene study teacher at the New York University Theatre Program.  It was my turn to participate in a scene that another student and I prepared, and I was acting my heart out, or so I thought, when Guskin stopped the scene and challenged me.
Lying or stupid.  I got it.
At that moment, I could check “stupid” off the list.  Deep down I really did know it.  I had just surrounded myself with a lot of protective layers.  Also, I was lying like crazy.  I was holding back, uncomfortable standing in front of my classmates.  I wasn’t committing myself to this role.

In coaching sessions, I often ask questions to which clients answer, “I don’t know.”  But they do know.
Me:  “What role are you playing in this encounter?
Client:  “I don’t know.”
Me:  “You really do know.”
Client:  “I really don’t.”
Me:  “You really do.”
Client:  “I guess I get so uncomfortable around this person that I get defensive and then what I say comes out rudely.”
Me:  “Can you tell me more about that?”

The point is, almost always, we really do know.   We have just piled defense mechanisms on top of some uncomfortable situations or relationships to try to make them bearable, yet we only make them worse.  The first step toward bringing my A-Game to work (to my life, really) everyday is to know what I am bringing to each scene we are playing around an issue, possibly a conflictive one.   Do I know my A Game from my B or C Game?  I really do.

Note:  Think about actors such as Cline and Close who are at the top of their game, yet hire an acting coach.  Why would they do that?


Eagle Stress, Turkey Stress

My father had a sign on his desk that read, “It’s hard to soar like an eagle if you are surrounded by turkeys.”
As a coach and consultant, I have worked with a variety of teams. The benefits of seamless teamwork are a joy to behold and, as it turns out, healthy.  The toll of fractured team performance is disheartening and, as it turns out, can be unhealthy. Let’s look at the effects of both.

Meet Team Eagle

They work well as a team – they trust each other, they have each other’s backs.  A client challenge arises, outcomes are a bit unclear, anxieties set in.  But team members band together.  And in the end, the team triumphs.
 In the end, the client has been successfully served.  Backslapping occurs, anxious moments are recounted as badges of honor.  In victory, they go home satisfied, anticipating the opportunity to co-tackle the next day’s issues.  Life is not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good.
 High performing organizations play out such scenarios everyday.
 The antithetical parallel is also played out daily.

Meet Team Turkey
A similar client challenge arises.  Team members don’t trust each other, don’t communicate openly.  Anxieties set in.  Backstabbing occurs.  Tempers flare.  Preferred outcomes are not only unclear, they are likely unattainable.  In the end, the client’s need is served but the client  is unhappy with the process.  Knowing their process is broken, team members go home, look for something to kick, and dread returning to work the next morning.  Life is far from perfect.

When Good Stress Goes Bad
At the 2008 Institute of Medicine Annual Meeting, I saw a presentation by Bruce McEwen, Ph.D., Alfred E. Mirsky Professor, Head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at the Rockefeller University. Google him. His sweet spot is the protective and damaging effects of stress mediators.
In his work, two stress mediators Dr. McEwen highlights are
1)   Autonomic Nervous System activity
2)   Output of Adrenalin and Cortisol
Let’s look inside Team Eagle.  In Acute Stress situations, the stress mediators move immune cells to tissue where needed, improve the brain’s attention, and increase one’s capacity to store important and life-protecting information.   Through these changes, the body maintains stability.  That’s right – stability through change.  It has a name:  allostasis.
       The folks in Team Eagle experienced this.  They were stressed but improved in the above areas.
Team Turkey experienced something else:  Chronic Stress Response – which over time induces over-activity of the Autonomic Nervous System and increased cortisol secretion.  According to McEwan, these combine to suppress the immune system, impair immune cell mobility and function, dampen our ability to keep track of information and places, affect spatial and verbal memory, impair excitability of and promote atrophy of nerve cells.
Whew.  That’s not all.  They may also experience elevated levels of sugar in their blood (hyperglycemia), rise in insulin levels with greater incidents of Type 2 Diabetes, and gradual demineralization of bone.
Stark contrast to Team Eagle.
Your team practices are likely somewhere between Team Eagle and Team Turkey behaviors.
      Are you ready for the coaching question?  What is the stress culture on your team and what role are you playing in it?


What is Normal in the Workplace These Days?

  • Why do we hold onto top performers who disrupt the team?  What is the cost?
  • Have you ever had a team member who was brilliant in some respects but was abrasive to the point of fostering extreme stress in teammates?
  • What is the value of keeping the disrupters on board in terms of lost productivity and lost employees?
  • At what point do the liabilities outweigh the benefits?

On the large stage, it was Scott Forstall from Apple and Steven Sinofsky from Microsoft who were finally dismissed.  Both were brilliant contributors to their companies yet both were the anti-team player.  Media reported that each man’s staff was very loyal to him.  Yet, in both cases the men’s peers found them difficult to work with and both companies lost senior team members because of friction with these men.  Interpersonal friction is but one element.  In traditional organizations (those more distanced from the entrepreneurial culture), “normal” employees question why the company tolerates and enables behavior that is otherwise not within the accepted norms.  Apple and Microsoft, by keeping these men on board, made a declaration that abuse was okay because the guy was important.       In these times, it is likely that successful start-ups have founding members who are “geeks,” members of our society who were traditionally excluded from the People Magazine set.  Beyond normal geekdom – citing Mark Zuckerberg, Craig Newmark (of the list with his name), Charles Schwab, John Chambers (Cisco) and Steve Jobs – the Schumpeter Blog in The Economist* explores the notion that a number of successful entrepreneurs perform outside the accepted norms (an early strength) in that they are somewhere on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, dyslexic or have Attention Deficit Disorder. As these companies mature, the condition may be seen as a liability by those “normal” people who come aboard to fill traditional roles.  As the company grows, the myopic, creative genius is vastly outnumbered.  He, absent people skills, surrounds himself with loyalists and protects the fiefdom from the “normals.”       The longer he is enabled, the sharper the decline in constructive organizational values and the more damage is done while others struggle to cling to their personal values.  (See my earlier blog Eagle Stress, Turkey Stress on chronic stress syndrome.)  No mission, vision or values statement can trump the de facto culture growing like mold around this person and his team.       The earlier the higher authority (CEO or board) reads and acts on this scenario, the less damage and the shorter the recovery period. Steve Jobs, as you will recall, was ousted by the “normal” people but returned to Apple when his board determined that his creative genius outweighed his abusive tactics. This exception has influenced the new normal in our culture.       I still advise my clients to consider the notion that there is someone in the creative talent universe of their industry who also has people skills and leadership skills and understands that in this Good to Great era, those who work together flourish together longer.  My clients have a choice.       So, here is the coaching question:  Are you enabling a situation involving an otherwise talented team member who is so disruptive that you are negatively impacting outcomes?  Is he or she worth it?  I’d like to hear from you. 
*Schumpeter, In praise of misfits; Why business needs people with Asperger’s syndrome, attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia Jun 2nd 2012 | from the print edition of The Economist.


Are You in the Zone?

How often have you really been in the zone with your teammates?

Some teams constantly operate in the zone.  Some do so only when the going gets tough.  Some never get there.
What if everyone’s safety depended on everyone else?  Would you check your ego at the door, communicate in a transparent fashion, and back each other up?
I often think about the correlation between survival dependency and teamwork.  When I am cycling long distances I join my fellow cyclists in the practice of drafting in a pace line.  When we ride into a strong headwind, we tuck down and ride twelve inches or so from the next cyclist’s rear wheel.  Under really tough conditions, we trade pulling every mile.
Certain behaviors are important to get maximum efficiency and avoid accidents.  You pedal steadily, do not overlap wheels, call out and signal when slowing, stopping or avoiding road hazards such as potholes, gravel or road kill.  Chatter is minimal because it uses energy.  The goal is to get a great workout and don’t get hurt. There’s nothing like it.  It’s exhilarating.
Effective medical teams are in the zone in the emergency room, operating room or intensive care unit.
Crews on aircraft carrier decks operate in the zone guiding, fueling, arming and servicing jets in a constant loop of conversation and verification according to research conducted by Gene Rochlin et al in their report, The Self-Designing High-Reliability Organization: Aircraft Carrier Flight Operations at Sea.*  Said one senior officer in the Air Division:
“So you want to understand an aircraft carrier?  Well, just imagine that it’s a busy day, and you shrink San Francisco Airport to only one short runway and one ramp and gate. Make planes take off and land at the same time, at half the present time interval, rock the runway from side to side, and require that everyone who leaves in the morning returns that same day. Make sure the equipment is so close to the edge of the envelope that it’s fragile. Then turn off the radar to avoid detection, impose strict controls on radios, fuel the aircraft in place with their engines running, put an enemy in the air, and scatter live bombs and rockets around. Now wet the whole thing down with salt water and oil, and man it with 20-year-olds, half of whom have never seen an airplane close- up. Oh, and by the way, try not to kill anyone.”

       That’s operating in the zone!  Meanwhile, back at the office, we get to relax and often we toss barriers in our way so that we don’t have to operate efficiently.  Who needs a zone when there is little chance of getting hurt?  The stakes are much lower.
Or, are they?


 Why Would I Want Feedback?!!

Some team members don’t like to solicit feedback from the staff (or clients) because they don’t know what to do with the feedback.  If you ask for it, you have to do something with it.  That’s more work.
But what is the cost of missing the signs of the need to adjust to, react to, and make sense of what is happening around your organization?
Yes, soliciting and addressing feedback and input takes time, but there are three answers to make it more effective for you and your team members from across your company.  They are:

·      We hear you.  Thank you for bringing this to our attention.  We will implement this suggestion (or address this concern) and here are the details.

·      We hear you.  Thank you for bringing this to our attention.  We are interested in implementing this, but we cannot do so right now and here is why.  (Budget, other resources, full plate, strategic plan, etc.)

·      We hear you.  Thank you for bringing this to our attention.  We discussed this issue (idea, suggestion), and we decided not to implement it, and here is why.

Team members are heard, listened to and engaged in dialogue about matters they care about. See and hear through the eyes and ears of all team members to learn what is happening at the far corners of your organization (no matter the size) and your market. And through their input, you will expand your organizational wisdom way beyond your core team.


The Bad Person Bucket

Do you have a Bad Person Bucket where you toss people you don’t want to deal with?  It could be a Bad Teammate, Bad Producer, etc. Bucket.
We sometimes toss people there to make it okay to not have to face them.  If they are bad people, it’s okay to not interact with them.  They aren’t worth it.  Sound familiar?
This is called the fundamental attribution error.  It’s easier to attribute one’s behavior to a personal disposition rather than a situation.  She’s a bad person.  When we do this, we take a brick off the Common Good wall.
By the way, the capacity of the Bad Person Bucket is one.  You only get to use it one time.   There may be a bad person in your company.  He may be on your team.  But the chances are that the dragnet your company uses to screen people – HR qualifying, background and reference checks, exhaustive interviews by you and your team members – was effective.  A bad person may have slipped through.  It happens.  So you get to use the bucket.
After that, you have to face the music.  You will need to effectively get the other person to engage in dialogue to contribute to the goals you and your team have committed to achieve.
So, don’t waste your Bad Person Bucket capacity.  And, by the way, if two or more truly bad people make it through the dragnet, you need to retool your dragnet.


Changing the Course of Events Through Setting Expectations and Closing the Loop

The more I train and coach teams and individuals, the more the practices of setting expectations and closing the loop on communicating those expectations emerge as key practices.  These are where the rubber hits the road.  Yet, on a grand scale, they are unrealized and overlooked.  When presented, they are often feared.
Fear is an emotion that emerges when faced with the unknown.  From managers who aren’t setting expectations I usually hear, “I don’t want to appear pushy” or “I don’t understand what I can and can’t do or say.”  They are paying a steep price in team distress and inefficiency of process.         Let’s break this down.  Setting Expectations and Closing the Loop may involve declarations, offers, requests and/or promises.  The following elements can be found in each of these speech acts:

  • A speaker
  • A listener
  • An action to be carried out
  • Conditions of satisfaction
  • A specified time for fulfillment
  • The background of shared obviousness
  • Trust and sincerity
  • Competence*

* Newfield Network

Through these speech acts, we change the course of events so that something that was not going to happen actually occurs.  We generate contexts so that certain events will take place or will acquire meaning.  Setting expectations and closing the loop create a known.  The organization sets goals.  One or more of those belong to each person working there.  Usually, goal achievement depends on teamwork to change the course of events.
A goal is an idea until an expectation is set and agreed upon.  The goal is imagined to change the course of events for the better.

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