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Fences . . . Make Good Employee Relations.

Wikipedia Fence

Wikipedia Fence

New Manager . . . and a conundrum

Ever had an employee whose motivation--and their subsequent behavior left you . . . puzzled? Have you struggled to find ways to communicate with them, encourage them, even motivate hem to succeed?  Ever given up on an employee?  At some level, most people who perform well enough to be given the responsibility of leadership expect other employees to act like they do—seek out and perform in a responsible way. When those people do not respond in this way, it can cause confusion for the new leader.

I remember an employee I supervised when I was a young manager.  This employee perplexed me.  They were, after all, a professional, with a degree, a license, years of schooling and extensive experience. In my “armchair assessment,” I believed that they were competent in their work and, on a human level, I liked them personally. But one thing persistently was a problem with this employee. They simply could not complete their paperwork. Now this, I realize, is not an uncommon problem in health care.  In fact, I had already experienced professionals who had trouble getting their paperwork done.

I had experienced already, in my short career, employees that had been put on “improvement plans,” given warnings, or their paperwork addressed through continuous quality improvement programs. Most managers, I believe, have at least one employee they have to consistently monitor and remind about their paperwork in my profession. (Perhaps this problem is exacerbated in the helping professions where "doing paperwork" is often viewed as taking away time from "helping people.") But in this particular employee’s case, even compared to other helping professionals, it was extreme.

I sort of thought I understood what the problem was.  The paperwork that was completed, upon inspection, was done to an extreme level of detail. Where my "average" professional would give me a treatment plan with three goals each having two or three objectives each.  This professional's plans had 8-12 goals with as many as 20 objectives under each one! I would have been overwhelmed, dreaded starting such a big task, and probably lagged behind and I surmised that this individual needed some external "motivation" to help them get caught up.  My method, of course, would be to encourage, communicate, and partner with the professional to get this accomplished.

I made efforts to try and communicate and reinforce elements that could fix the problem.  We reviewed the treatment planning process and I emphasized you should have no more than 3 goals with 2-3 objectives. I tracked and reported to each and every professional what paperwork they had outstanding and when it was due. I personally met with this tardy professional and discussed the need to get the paperwork caught up. When this did not fix the problem, I mandated no more than 3 goals and 9 objectives. Nothing worked. the paperwork was not getting completed, I felt stuck.

Of course, not all managers focus on the same things. As a manager, my natural tendency is to try and create "emotional ties and warm connections" in my work groups; the focus of this style is on building consensus, providing support, and valuing openness.  It is what William Schutz (creator of the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation Instrument or the FIRO-B) called "Affection" which he contrasted with a managerial need to express "control" or "inclusion."  Since my attempts at creating a consensual response to "getting caught up" was not working, I had to look to other ways of expressing this managerial need.

Relationships and Leading

Before telling you how developing fences or boundaries helped in this situation, I want to draw a connection to the type of leadership that might benefit the most from this construct. 

Developing strong fences, and defending those fences, is, I think, an element of expressing control. In Schutz’s definition control is not “being controlling” in the sense of bullying, dominating, or playing psychological games. Healthy control is about efficiency, stability, sustainability, predictability, and good outcomes. I leader high in wanting to express control—a good practice detailed manager—will be hands on in creating systems, procedures, and will shepard the on-going activities to keep them on track. Not my preferred managerial style. Being low in Expressed Control, I want employees to be professional—show up, do the job, and have the freedom to make the job their own—these are valuesI like to “express” in working with employees. To be clear, the best employees, to me, are those that respect boundaries without being told and but strong effort into what is best for the team. But, as leaders we need to grow or become ineffective, and this was a moment where"control was now a factor that I found myself in need of deploying—or I would let this one employee’s behavior hinder the team as a whole.

BTW: Knowing a leader's preferences and identifying what they "want" and would "like to express" as a manager (with a tool like the Firo-B) helps identify common challenges this style of leader will experience.  For leaders whose managerial orientation leads them away from a "control" stance to foster an environment of inclusion and/or affection, maintaining good boundaries--fences if you will--and seeing those fences as a beneficial tool and not simply an uncomfortable or even harmful behavior is a challenge.  But, even the most affiliative manager, if he has the courage to face it, will recognize the need for control at times.

Setting Boundaries

Ultimately, this delimma led me to a follow up meeting with the professional. The purpose of the meeting being to set a boundary (establish a fence) on the paperwork issue.  I started by stating the problem (paperwork was not timely), then we established a clear target (completing the oldest treatment plan), added a timeframe (on my desk by Friday at 5 pm) and the resources to accomplish it (you can delegate or ignore other duties as needed to complete this task this one time).

The result? . . . no treatment plan on my desk by the deadline.

What I did get was a message promising to get it done ASAP.  Not good enough.  The end result was another uncomfortable second meeting.  I clarified what we had talked about the week before, asked for an explanation of why the target was not met, explained the delimma I was facing (not doing my job if I ignored this problem), and asked for input.  The professional, after this was all laid out simply said, "I'm not sure I can do this job."  My response?  A sad (remember I think in affiliative and collaborative terms) confirmation, "I'm not sure you can either." I pointed out that we were now at a point where I would have to continue take formal action ("writing up" a formal poor performance plan) and if he could not bring his performance into line with the expectations . . . that it could result in eventual termination.  

The professional chose to resign.

The fences or boundary setting succeeded (in terms of resolving the issue) where my earlier approaches had failed.  Yes, I felt bad. In my “dream world” as a young manager, I thought I would always be able to motivate, encourage and support people to success.  In the real world, it turned out that it was not all up to me. The hardest "shift" in thinking for me was to see how these fences were actually helpful to people—unidentified problems are likely to be ignored and persist. Allowing someone’s poor performance to create resentment for them among their team members and not honestly challenging the employee is, at best dishonest, and at worst, something that is anathema to most people . . “just tell me the truth” is a common value for most people.

If you are struggling with this idea of setting boundaries and the need for control, ask yourself, "How would this have ended, if I continued to simply try to encourage and motivate this employee?"  There were many possibilities, many of which were unpleasant for one or many members of the team. The team itself could continue to become increasingly angry at the underperforming peer . . . and the supervisor. Team members could “escape” the situation and resign. The employee and/or the supervisor could face potential firing for incompetence. The agency, due to the incomplete documentation and effective controls, could lose it’s accreditation due to poor performance on audits. Community funding for the program could dry up—especially if the accreditation was lost. Maybe others as well?

Boundaries and protecting people?

How did this boundary setting protect people? Several ways, including:

  • the professional avoided being fired (they resigned)

  • my role as the supervisor was not placed at risk

  • the team, who were aware of the deficiencies of their colleague, saw that the organization was serious about timeliness being an important aspect of providing our services to clients

  • the professional was able to negotiate the terms of his leaving (although completing the paperwork was a condition that had to be met)

  • the paperwork did get completed (they brought last batch in when picking up final paycheck)

  • the company was protected from liability issues, losing accreditation, funding or facing fraudulent billing accusations

  • the client was "best served" by the files containing all the necessary information for treatment, referral, or historical record purposes

Leaders need to step up and set appropriate boundaries. This also means that the leader, at times, will need to “be the boundary” or enforce the need for the fence being in place. It is a great irony that those who need to have boundaries set are the very people that do not get the need for the boundaries in many cases. Think of it like this, you don’t need a fence with a good neighbor; you need a fence with a neighbor who does not naturally respect their own, and your, boundaries. Remember, employees lie to themselves. People with boundary problems often shift the focus of the problem to something outside of themselves—thus perpetuating the problem unless stopped by something outside themselves.

New managers, especially those who want to express their leadership through terms of affection rather than control, are particularly at risk for trying to continue the tried-and-failed approaches to motivate employees that are underperforming . . . and there by, exacerbating the negative impacts on their team. Like a football team that needs to “establish the run” so they can open up the playbook and get their passing game into high gear, these leaders need to see setting and enforcing boundaries as tools that allow for, and preserve the ability to maintain, healthy relationships within their team. Only then, can the team function to it’s fullest capacity.

A P.S. for Family Business, Non-Profits, and Ecclesiatistical Bodies

This need to develop good "fences" is especially tricky when the organization or business has an emotional component beyond a typical business venture . . . partnerships, ecclesiastical bodies, non-profit service organizations, and family businesses struggle on other levels that a "typical" business venture does not. In these circumstances there is a critical need for help from professionals who understand human systems.

Available eBooks:

Private Practice through Contracting: Decreasing dependence on insurance.

Engaging Your Team: A framework for managing difficult people.

Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business.

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Team Training Needs to be like Music Lessons

My humble set up. Love my Taylor guitar and the discipline of practice and working toward mastery.

My humble set up. Love my Taylor guitar and the discipline of practice and working toward mastery.

Team Training as Music Lessons

If you really want your team training to make a difference . . . fashion them after music lessons . . . not school.

Remember music lessons? You go, have a 30 minute “lesson,” get your assignment, and go home to practice, hopefully daily, some exercise, technique or mastering a piece of music. Similar, but critically different, than the experience of school—at least as I experienced it—where much of the time the focus was on imparting information—through a lecture for example—where the goal was to master content and demonstrate that through regurgitating it on a test. (BTW: I realize that modern didactic approaches are trying to address this singular approach . . . through recognizing different learning styles and more comprehensive teaching processes . . . but let’s allow the simple duality for the same of drawing, what I think is, an important distinction.)

Two Distinct Approaches

Think about the differences in these two approaches . . .

Music Lessons Classroom

Focus is on skill acquisition. Focus on imparting information.

Short, repetitive instruction and daily practice. Lectures, homework and testing.

Narrow focus: scale, song, technique. Broad focus: history, terminology, theory

Emphasis on practice. Emphasis on teaching.

Outcome: improved skills. Outcome: content mastery.

Moving from “School” to “Lessons”

To often, team training is modeled more on a “school” platform instead of a “music lesson” style. I worked for a time for an organization that had an internal “university” for training. Once a month, the managers would get together for training and typically it was some form of “telling us” about something that would help us do our jobs. At best, it was a way to get a break from the daily grind, conduct business during breaks with our colleagues, and impart some . . . some . . . useful information. Many saw it as a “requirement” and generally a waste of time. Did we walk away with new skills? Rarely.

Supervisors and managers are in their positions precisely because they have skills. But that does not mean they have reached mastery. Like a musician or artisan, the skill building process is on-going because every new situation requires the application of skills in a new way. Just like each piece of music is different and the student has to learn how to apply their talent to performing that particular composition.

Practice . . . and Mastery . . . and Superior Performance

Yo-Yo Ma, the world renown cellist, said, “The goal of practicing is to achieve a freedom of the mind that enables one to physically do whatever they want to do. Careful practicing eventually allows one the freedom to be spontaneous, to react onstage to the moment.” I also heard this virtuoso in a live interview once comment that if he missed a day of practice, he would notice. If he missed two days, his teacher would notice. If he missed three days, the audience would notice.

Yo-Yo Ma, Wikipedia

Yo-Yo Ma, Wikipedia

How many leaders dedicate themselves to continuous skill development? How many organizations allow for, or prioritize skill development, as a goal for leaders? In my experience, not many.

Two stand out in my experience. One provided their “point person” to take several weeks each summer for continuous training. Another limited the role of their leader to one primary task in order to have them continue to develop a high degree of skill in that task. In both cases, the results were spectacular. Those two leaders excelled in their roles and it was clear why. The organizational support for their practicing and mastering their talks was remarkable.

Organizations have come to understand the need. They provide coaches, they allow time for continuing education, they promote leadership development. But few, really have a clear focus on creating a “music lesson” mentality and a consistent focus on specific skill development. The well-documented decline in interpersonal skills in the age of social media and virtual relationships among younger cohorts of leaders makes this need an urgent focus for the future of leadership in organizations.

Buy Engaging Your Team: A framework for leading “difficult” people here, or get it for free by joining our email list!



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Old and New . . . A leadership story of attribution errors.

John? Is that you? Photo by  Jenny Hill  on  Unsplash

John? Is that you? Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

Are leaders born or made?

Old Guard and New Vanguard

“Newbie,” John thought as he rounded the track and watched Tyler animatedly talk to one after another runner about his “love” of being a runner. He noted Tyler’s Salmon “Ultra Pro” blue and red shoes, neon-green Fitbit, Rockay running socks, Smart Wool running gloves, and matching headband.John looked down at his own clothes . . . dependable Nike shoes, almost five years old, a no-name line of shorts, tee-shirt, and stocking cap. He’d bet that his whole wardrobe, bought at a “big-box store,” maybe with the shoes excepted, cost less than the price Tyler forked over to Smart Wool.

Tyler barely gave John a thought. Oh, John was always there, this 50-somethingish road-ghoul, finishing his morning run with a few final laps and warm-down on the track. John looked, to Tyler, like a burned-out, uninviting, “road warrior” who wasn’t likely to be a source of encouragement or inspiration—simply someone doing what he did, for some unknown, but internally-motivated reason—without a sense of the great synergy of involvement in a broader running community.

Tyler, a 30-ish millennial, who came to running as a pastime last year, could draw a crowd. His animated excitement—whether talking about his observations on running shoes, the latest on Runblogger, or heart rate variability—was palpable and infectious. Other’s attempting to re-engage with a more active life-style or to develop a love of running loved to come along side and listen.

If pushed, John might admit that he held some distain for Tyler. He might have, in his less charitable moments, thought, “We’ll see how long he lasts.” Tyler conversely may also, if his psyche were plumbed, acknowledge that John, to him, was the embodiment of what he did not want his running to become—one more joyless chore he did because it was “good for him.”

Leaders—Old and New

Too often, this is the picture of leadership—where generational differences turn into “attribution errors;” ie; “John is burned out and no longer has a passion for running!” (Really? How will you look after decades of running?), or “Tyler is a flash in the pan, and not serious!” (Were you not excited when you first started?)

I got to watch this play out annually when I was growing up. As the son of the Academic Vice President of a small college (enrollment of 500) I watched wave after wave of new students come to college, young leaders emerge, and the annual tug-of-war—sometimes in minor ways, sometimes in a noisy visible crash—between the generations play out. I also saw, behind the scenes, the dedicated service of the staff, faculty, and leadership as they sought to guide, harness, and lead these energized and idealistic youth into success—with patience and understanding of the “youngster’s needs to find their own way.” At times it wasn’t pretty.

One student, whose passion at the time was an electric guitar—and today, is a retired grandpa—told me about how my Dad was called out of bed at 3 in the morning due to neighbors complaining about the loud rock music blaring from on campus. My father, all 6’3” probably bristling from head to toe—strode into a performance hall, unplugged the speakers, and announced, “Now, do want to clear out this equipment, or do you want me to confiscate it?” The student admits this led to a “dust up” with my Dad, (which he lost and eventually, decided it was prudent to dismantle the equipment himself). I remember the tears in this grandpa’s eyes when, upon my Dad’s death, he commented that it was my Dad, among others, who taught him, how to be a man of integrity. (BTW- Dad was the source of the greatest leadership act I ever witnessed--doing nothing!)

This week, I was back “home” where I grew up. A guy stopped me, introduced himself, and asked who I was. I told him. “Your father and your brother Kirk changed my life,” he told me. Your Dad’s class and your brother’s example as my Resident Assistant in the dorm showed me something I hadn’t experienced before—caring and strength.” I know. Both of them, my Dad and my brother, would not compromise on two things--caring for the person and following their principles. At least where young men were concerned, they knew how to see beyond the behavior and see the person, in context, and with an understanding of what was needed at that time . . . an encouraging word or a kick in the amp.

Lesson for Old or New (Don’t manage by fear or control!)

Maybe somebody has said what I am writing below, or something similar, somewhere . . . but I couldn’t find it on-line. So here is my shot at a “truism” about what happens too often between the old and new leaders (someone should make into a profound and pithy quote).

“We blame those we cannot understand, attributing to them motivations we create, and judging those motivations insufficient, incorrect, or morally deficient; thus, invalidating their right to choose and proclaiming our right to judge.” ~ Bryan Miller

It take great courage, strength, and wisdom to lead when others think you are headed in the wrong direction. It is when the “heat is on” or a crisis manifests itself that leaders are most severely judged—for good or bad. The disagreements may be the result of something as simple as a difference in age, philosophy, learning history, or other factors—like how loud music should be played at 3 am. Creating respect comes through the strength of presenting a caring and principled approach that will, in the long-run, garner the support and the following leaders need to “grow up” new leaders who can maximize their human systems to reach organizational or team goals.

Additional resources:

Lessons Learned Around the World: People-centered leadership. A. Keith Miller, Major, USAF (Ret.)

Engage Your Team: A framework for leading “difficult” people. Bryan G. Miller, Ph.D.

Contact us with questions. Thanks for sharing and commenting!

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Consultants and Clients shouldn't be Friends!

Three is an awkward number . . . and a good illustration of the challenges of dual relationships!  Photo by  Vidar Nordli-Mathisen  on  Unsplash

Three is an awkward number . . . and a good illustration of the challenges of dual relationships!

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

A Priori . . . Dual Relationships . . . to Conflict of Interest

My background is in the health profession—specifically mental health. Anyone training and practicing in this area is well aware of the limitations on what the profession calls “dual relationships.” A dual relationship is where the professional has both a professional duty to the client and has another relationship which might compromise that duty. It is strictly advised against, could be the cause of an allegation of unprofessional behavior and, at it’s worst, could be the cause of losing one’s license to practice. To say that it’s emphasis as the apex of ethical professional behavior in the mental health world is not hyperbole.

In the consulting world there generally is no such restriction. Consultant regularly seek to be engaged with leaders and develop relationships with decision makers that may turn into clients. They become gold or hunting buddies, spend time at social functions together, perhaps even becoming close friends. In business this is not seen as problematic for many reasons, primary among them is that the client is not seen as somehow vulnerable or at risk of being harmed through the dual relationship. Fair, I think, since business leaders are not, on average, as vulnerable as patients being treated by a professional.

Unrecognized Conflicts of Interest Can hurt everyone

But, does this mean there is no risk? Hardly. Consider this . . . a consultant I once talked to had been invited into an organization by his best friend— a conflict of interest with high damage costs if the project ends badly. He accepted the contract but found, when he got deeply involved in the organization, that there were a lot of issues within the organization, issues that were intimately involved in his friend’s interactions with others in the organization. Awkward!

What’s this consultant to do? Unfortunately, this consultant did not realize the risks, find a way to extricate himself from the contract, and refer the organization to someone who could help with the particular problems they were facing. The result of not doing this was quite dramatic for the organization and there friendship.

Politics may be the most egregious sector for embracing situations that should raise concerns about possible conflicts of interest. I would speculate, for example, based on an article from the Washington Examiner and another in the Post, that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Chief of Staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, may present one example. Reading about the numerous organizations Saikat was involved in—Brand New Congress, Justice Democrats, Brand New Campaign and AOC’s campaign (multiple LLCs and Pacs)— it is hard to imagine how he could avoid conflicts of interest in this complex network. The actual, or appearance, of conflicts of interest—perhaps even rising to campaign law violations—may have led to his resignation.

Leaders Beware!

Leaders—especially leaders of family-based firms, where relationships are particularly vulnerable—need to be very careful about using consultants that become “too close” to the leaders. Danger lurks when consultants and leaders become more than business partners, because . . .

  1. The objectivity the organization needs from the consultant is compromised . . . by the close connection the consultant has with the leaders. Consultants who become too close cannot help being influenced by those relationships. As in a family setting, decisions may be made based on the relationship itself and not on what is best for the organization.

    Consulting relationships naturally have a built-in conflict of interest. If I develop close relationships with the leaders, I may get more work. But consultants need to ask themselves, “What do I care about the most, my business or providing the best service to the organization"?’ Yes, building a friendship may be good for the bottom line but it willfully introduces risk for the leader and the organization.

  2. While you can argue that the close relationship may be a strength, and probably is in good times—trust is heightened, loyalty is built, decisions are informal and quick—often when a crisis hits it can be a big liability. The same strengths of trust, loyalty, informality, can paralyze or misdirect the consultant’s role and exacerbate the problems.

    It is often during a crisis when one of the real dangers of forming a “too close” relationship presents itself. For the same reasons that families can struggle during critical moments—taking away Mom’s keys, putting Dad into assisted living, or estate planning—emotions often cloud good judgement and damage relationships. The consultant’s role as an “objective outsider” is lost when they cross into a close relationship with the leaders.

  3. Consultants that are too close may not address the hard issues—choosing to remain on good terms instead of pointing out problems. Denial, avoidance, procrastination . . . there are many words that describe the tendency to not address problems—even ones that threaten the organization’s existence. Consultants who retain more distance can direct leaders and organizations to confront problems more easily.

    It may not only be at times of crisis that consultants who are “too close” may negatively impact the organization. The closeness also risks avoiding issues early on when they might be dealt with and a crisis avoided.

  4. Most consultants come from business backgrounds and have little awareness of, and no training in, the risks of dual relationships—therefore, they may not maintain good boundaries and avoid these relationships. Any training in conflicts of interest also tends to give them only a cursory overview and little real insight into the potential traps. Ask a consultant to define the risks of dual relationships and you are likely to get a blank look. Ask them about avoiding conflicts of interest and you will get a general understanding of the danger . . . but little depth in what the real risks involve.

    Should the consultant attend the company party? Do they become “golf buddies” with the leaders? Do they circulate in the same social circles as the leaders or go on vacation together? If you are asking yourself, “What is the harm in that?”—then you may not have a deep understanding or the risks of dual relationships.

  5. A consultant’s loyalty, or other factors, in close relationships may prevent them from walking away from a toxic issue. In other words, a consultant with less involvement may, due to some over-riding disfunction in the system, may choose to “not help” by walking away. This “walking away” may be what the organizations needs to address a chronic issue they have been avoiding. Sometimes this separation is needed to help leaders or organizations grapple with the issue and bot become depended on others to fix issues they will not/ can not address.

    It’s a hard reality, but sometimes a helper needs to walk away. Some individuals, and organizations, in chronic conditions will not turn away from their “addiction” until they have no choices left. Consultants, at times, need to—for the sake of the organization—walk away. If there are unethical practices, persistent poor judgement, hidden abuses, the consultant can enable and support real damage by continuing to prop up the leadership and the organization. The proper course may be to make the problem overt and disengage from the organization.

It is easy to assume that the turbulence of dual relationships can be navigated safely. In truth, despite the hidden risks and undisclosed damage, they often are accepted eagerly (see the political-organizational hegemony in the U.S. for example). But the predominance of these arrangements do not suffice for “best practice” in consulting and do not protect the leader or the organization from its harmful effects.

Contact the author.



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Reclamation . . . part 2

Another view of some of the wood . . . notice the reclaimed shelving and original Depot floor mixed with the new quarter-sawn oak cabinets and Maple “butcher block” counter top in the foreground. Oh, yeah, then there is the Flair stove . . . made in 1964 by General Motors. But that’s another story!

Another view of some of the wood . . . notice the reclaimed shelving and original Depot floor mixed with the new quarter-sawn oak cabinets and Maple “butcher block” counter top in the foreground. Oh, yeah, then there is the Flair stove . . . made in 1964 by General Motors. But that’s another story!

Reclaiming Employees — Part 2

I recently wrote a post about reclaiming wood . . . and . . . well, retaining employees . . . valuable ones who may have some flaws. (I also shared several pictures of projects I made out of the reclaimed redwood from an old deck.) If you read that post, you know that I, for one, have learned to find value in trying to reclaim things . . . be it wood or employees. But let’s talk about what it really takes to engage in a reclamation project . . . because

Reclaiming is not the easiest path . . . if your focus is short-term solutions not quality ones.

Reclamation is not a quick or easy process! As an example, in reclaiming wood from the old deck I mentioned in the first post I had to . . .

  1. Tear apart the deck.

  2. Pull all the nails, screws, scrape off glue, etc. and cut off and discard pieces with imbedded metal.

  3. Plane the rough boards to reveal the wood underneath the weathered/stained exterior and further reveal any parts of the boards that were damaged or unusable..

  4. Carefully choose boards that would work for each project—boards that had the right length of “good wood,” ones where the knots or knot holes would not interfere, boards that matched other boards to minimize additional ripping, cross-cutting, etc.

  5. Remove rotting areas, broken spots in the board, places where the board had split, been notched, or ripped to be narrower than other boards.

  6. Re-plane, rip, and/or cross-cut then sand as necessary so the boards were be properly sized and ready to used to build the project.

Finished baton case.

Finished baton case.


Six steps to get these boards usable “like new” boards. Obviously, you wouldn’t go to this much trouble for just “any old boards”—boards that have little of no value. It’s often easier and better with “poor quality” boards to just tear out and replace. But often, people tear out old wood (or employees) that have great value and replace it with something of inferior quality. Why? Leaders may see employees as “expendable.” Either because they haven’t learned to value the older, more valuable resource or they don’t have the “know how” or tools to turn the old wood into a beautifully restored piece of usable lumber. Other leader’s just don’t want to go to the trouble because, once again, reclamation in the short term, takes more time and effort.

Years ago, I ran across a “leader” who recommended that leaders taking on a new team or organization find the one “indispensable” employee and fire them. The point being that no one is above the team or organization. I get the point. I abhor the practice. Maybe there are times where the arrogant, self-serving, “hero” types are causing so much damage to a team that getting rid of them is the only option. But, in my world, an employee once seen as ”indispensable” in the past should be given the opportunity, and tools, to change before being terminated. To do otherwise is reprehensible . . .and poor leadership.

It may “fix the problem” for the moment, but in the long-run this leadership practice will only be tolerated in environments where the leader has strong control, and incentives, over the employees. If the leader doesn’t possess this strong hold, employees will begin to undermine the leader who will have lost their respect and trust—or they will simply move on. Often this leads to s “simmering resentment” a loss of trust and an eventual “eruption”—often immediately after experiencing some sort of crisis—reduction in revenue, job injury, key employee resigning—just when the leadership needs to count on employee support.

What do you do for a door stop when you live in an old Depot? A railroad spike of course! Here’s one more use of the old redwood.

What do you do for a door stop when you live in an old Depot? A railroad spike of course! Here’s one more use of the old redwood.

The best defense is a good offense
— Jack Dempsey

Steps in reclaiming a valued employee.

So what exactly is involved in reclaiming a valuable employee?

  1. It starts with robust honest conversations and deep listening. Communication is one step that most leaders think they do well . . . and often the one they neglect the most. In woodworking you need to carefully inspect the wood. With employees you need a very rigorous process to really understand the experience of the employee. As we have demonstrated in other posts, people generally listen very poorly. Leaders are no exception. To resolve long-standing issues your understanding must go beyond the surface. You need to really “get in their shoes” and understand the territory of this particular employee. Any progress on this journey must start where the employee is now.

  2. It validates the employee’s experience but challenges them to present their best effort. Employees will change their behavior if confronted or threatened. But they will sustain those changes only if they feel understood and challenged to move toward what most of them want . . . to be their best, most successful, selves. Remember, employees tell themselves stories about themselves that my enable or exhibit their performance. Sustainable change starts where the employee is now. Leaders who generally manage and make decisions can be effective. Great leaders though inspire employees to give discretionary effort to making their teams the best.

  3. It sets clear goals. You won’t get there if you don’t know where “there” is. Don’t assume the employee knows what changes they need to make. Spell them out. An honest dialogue with a focus on the employee’s value—and the need of the team or organization to have that value realized, is critical. It is here that you can acknowledge that the employee may not want to strive to reach the goals—they may be burned out, have personal issues impending their performance, or other outside factors may influence their motivation. This is the time to determine if they need to move on or if they will engage and be a part of the reclamation process.

  4. It takes investing in time, resources, training, etc. If they are willing to focus on the challenges and goals, give some thought to what it will take for the employee to successfully become an engaged part of the team. Do they need more mentoring or coaching? A new work challenge? Reassignment/ More resources or training? Just like “cleaning up” and preparing the old boards, valuable employees need to be “prepped” for their new purpose.

  5. It requires frequent and consistent monitoring. Unlike boards, people' have complex motivations. Employees that agree to setting goals, who seem to be open to re-engaging, may through their behavior prove that they are not. Remember, employees lie. A leader needs to stay in close contact through this process. Is the employee making effort? Are they improving their fit into the team’s needs?

  6. It requires transparency from the leader. Leader’s need to model and demonstrate the behavior they want to see from the employee. Honesty, integrity, and courage to be truthful. Traits that world-wide demonstrate good and affective leadership. They need to speak “truth” meaning both highlighting the value of the employee (not playing games) and clearly defining how they are performing at any given time (timely feedback). No employee, if they are reasonably emotionally and mentally healthy, should ever be surprised by how the leader sees their performance—they should already know given the feedback they have received from their supervisor.

If a leader sees the value in trying to reclaim valuable employees, there will be some significant steps involved. The leader will need to exercise patience but also close monitor, continue to communicate, and evaluate the progress of lack of progress. Yes, they will likely have moments when the thoughts of “just buying new boards” float up in their minds. But as I mentioned in the previous post, once a leader has successfully completed a reclamation project, the leader will, themselves, have changed and will know the value of restoring old boards.




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Reclamation . . . Old Wood/New Wood; or Is that employee worth it?

I love the reclaimed depot wood we put on our cabinet ends. The picture doesn’t do it justice.

I love the reclaimed depot wood we put on our cabinet ends. The picture doesn’t do it justice.

Leaders, like a builder, can choose to get new employees or work with the old ones. Employees with issues can be seen as disposable—out with the old and in with the new—or as valuable resources worth working toward reclamation.

A Change

I have found a new joy in reclaimed old wood. Old redwood to be precise. Redwood salvaged from a deck that provided the framework for a porch that had deteriorated over time. It surprises me a little bit—this joy of working with tis old wood—because I’ve always been favorably predisposed toward “new.” Maybe it’s my history of allergies. Maybe it’s laziness. But I always enjoyed building with new wood—from scratch if you will—rather than recycling something old . . . and often not being happy with the result. But now that’s all changed.

The destruction phase. If you look closely, you will see our Melodrama sign (to the extreme left) later in our shelving picture on the—mostly—completed porch.

The destruction phase. If you look closely, you will see our Melodrama sign (to the extreme left) later in our shelving picture on the—mostly—completed porch.

The Wood

It started with a tear-down-and-rebuild project. We live in an old converted train deport. An amazing amalgam of construction. One hundred year old “bones” and newer additions make up the primary building. One of the features we loved was the “four-season porch” on the back. That porch, not in great shape when we bought the property—and poorly built originally—had deteriorated to the point that it needed to be torn off completely or rebuilt. Tear off and rebuilding . . . again not my favorite. But, it had to be done. The next couple of years, with the guidance and assistance of my contractor, consisted of working on weekends on this project, and after finishing the major work with the contractor, I am still working on the finishing touches as I write.

Redwood boards. Planed and ready to use for projects! You can see the discarded metal wagon box in the background. See the redwood wagon below!

Redwood boards. Planed and ready to use for projects! You can see the discarded metal wagon box in the background. See the redwood wagon below!

The porch was built on top of a redwood deck. Well, it was partially built on a redwood deck. The builders had cobbled together a porch stoop (by the door to the right) and a deck (covering the rest of the porch)—which allowed the whole structure to settle unevenly—there was even a metal stand probing up one part!—and helped the general deterioration. We tore out the whole underlying structure, including the redwood, as part of our rebuild.

Now, if you aren’t into wood, you should know that it is expensive to buy redwood today. When I started building shelving from this wood, I priced new redwood to see how much it would cost to build one of the shelves and found that the wood, alone, would cost me close to $500 to buy new. Now that gets a guy’s attention and makes him look at the reclaimed wood in a totally new light!!

Here are some of the shelves and other Christmas projects—vase stand, and guitar neck rests. Notice the same sign in the background that was in the earlier tear-off picture. No floor yet. Finishing the walls first.

Here are some of the shelves and other Christmas projects—vase stand, and guitar neck rests. Notice the same sign in the background that was in the earlier tear-off picture. No floor yet. Finishing the walls first.

From the salvaged redwood I have built a few sets of shelves, a child’s wagon, a dozen or so guitar head rests (for changing strings), a bunch of guitar picks, one flower-vase frame, and a conductor’s baton case. Mostly these are for gifts, partly for fun. I could show you lots of pictures . . . but I’ll limit myself to one more, that should make the point.

Some of the smaller projects. Mostly the redwood. Some ebony, maple, too.

Some of the smaller projects. Mostly the redwood. Some ebony, maple, too.

Leaders and People

All this . . . chaos? . . . effort? . . . history? . . . came to mind recently when a business owner, who was told about our process of helping organizations with their “people issues",” asked, “Why don’t they just fire them?” This sentiment, “just fire them,” sounded eerily like my attitude about wood. Just buy new wood! It’s easier. There are no problems to deal with . . . like there are with old wood. Old wood is too much trouble.

Some leaders see the world in much the same way. They would rather start over with a new employee than struggle to find a solution to their managerial problem. They minimize issues within their culture, system, or leadership that contribute to the problem. The propose superficial fixes and ultimately blame the employee for not changing. These decisions reveal the leader’s true values.

Yes, every leader has to face the fact that sometimes the only choice is to let someone go or do harm to the team or organization. But, as a leader, are you eager to adopt an “out with the old and in with the new” attitude?

I have worked with a few leaders who, a review of history or observation, revealed a pattern of employees passing through a “constant revolving door.” Rarely do these leaders see these decision as driven by their own ego or their behavior and that of the organization as the constant in this pattern. They don’t understand how lies that effect employees and leaders. Communication suffers along the way. They may struggle to see the value of mistakes in creating strong teams. They believe that failure is always bad. Other leaders see value in preserving the value of seasoned employees. They recognize that an investment in these employees may provide a superior long-term benefit.

Yes, working with the “old wood” means you have to engage with the wood in a more rigorous manner . . . trim some damaged wood away. You have to pull nails out of the boards so you don’t ruin a set of planing knives. You will make more cuts to find the solid, usable part of the boards and to reveal the pretty original grain. Finally, you will also have more cut-offs to discard.

Seven Reasons Leaders Should Focus on Retaining Employees

But there are good reasons not to start over with new wood . . . or a new employee.

  1. New wood isn’t the same as old wood. Anyone who has been building for more than 20 years knows that the wood you buy today at the big box stores isn’t the same quality as old wood. Fast-growth, sap-wood, poorly dried, cheap lumber dominate the industry. Old wood has dimensional stability, strong grain, color, hardness, and character.

    In most circumstances, employees also gain value over time. They have institutional knowledge, they have experience with the trials and errors of the past. They have awareness of what it was like before the product was available. They have relationships with coworkers, vendors, and customers. Finally, successfully “reclaimed” employees can become the biggest champions of the organization and leadership.

  2. There is a cost . . .to buying new. My father-in-law continues to “whittle-away” at a big block of Desert Ironwood from Mexico that he bought years ago for a little over $100. That one log has been part of projects for more than 20 years. Today, a 3/8" thick, 1.75" wide, 5" large stick will cost $12-15 plus shipping . . . if you can get it at all. A log like my father-in-law’s would run close to $1,000.

    Those who study business also talk about the high cost of employee turnover in organizations. The impact on “onboarding,” training, and other “real costs” may be secondary to the impact on the culture, morale, leadership trust, and other “soft factors” that, while critical to success, are less frequently measured. The big problem is, most leaders don’t have an easy cost comparison when deciding if firing an employee is in the best interests of the organization and many minimize the impact on the culture of the team—especially if this is perceived to be a pattern of the management.

  3. The old wood has a unique attractiveness —because it’s old wood. Part of the beauty of working with this old wood is the blemishes . . . the nail-holes, checked areas, and uneven coloring. It leeks “used,” but when the wood is cleaned up, trimmed, planed, sanded, and finished, it is more beautiful that a more “perfect” new board.

    “Reclaimed” employees can have this save value. When we do interviews in an organization we typically take a plant tour. We request a guide—an employee who is not a “company ‘Yes!’ person” but who is also not the company critic. When leaders guide us to the right employee for this guidance . . . often someone with a reclamation story about the company . . . other employees’ trust in that individual helps us get very honest information about whatever issues we are seeking. The “stability” of this employee (see below) promotes trust and creates the opportunity for an open dialogue that is priceless to the organization. Other employees see the value in this employee and trust their reliability, know their past history, and see the openness about the organizations past challenges . . . and their faith in the leadership.

  4. Old wood has known attributes where new wood has unknowns. Once again, old wood is far from perfect. But, you do know what you are likely to encounter in working with the wood. That’s worth something. New wood may have a high moisture content and tend to cup, warp, or crack. Old wood, once reclaimed will remain true to form, stable, and increase its value. New wood is an unknown. It may age and become cherished old wood or it may warp, crack, or fail.

    As we noted above, a reclaimed employee, in the same way is a “known” commodity. Other employees develop a respect for the employee that has come through challenges to remain a part of the organization. They trust someone who they know has not always “had it together” and see themselves in the real story of that employee. They note the optimism and faith the employee chooses to place in leadership despite the past. A new employee may have those traits, but it is an unknown risk at the time they are hired.

  5. There is a unique satisfaction to reclaiming old wood. Sustainabllity, history, value, reduction of waste, or character and beauty . . . there are many reasons that reclaiming old wood is satisfying. In the same way, there is nothing like developing, challenging, and supporting employees to be their very best . . . and then seeing that benefit the team or organization.

    Many leaders are, in fact, very open to the idea of trying to “reclaim” employees. There are several challenges however that can make this fail. This, in itself, could be it’s own post, for our purposes, suffice it to say that a poor understanding of human behavior, a weak commitment to reclamation, a lack of consistent attention over time, fear that it will fail, poor communication or planning . . . these are but a few reasons that it may not succeed without a clearly implemented and monitored plan.

  6. Developing a love of old wood opens up new possibilities. Living in an old Depot was daunting at first. The prospect of reclaiming a structure that had been turned into apartments—with it’s three kitchens and six bathrooms—did not sound like fun. But, tearing out the old porch, finding the redwood, and beginning to use this resource has created possibilities where none existed before. The cabinet ends pictured at the top for example. These boards were, in my estimation, a merely a nuisance, piled up in the attic . . . old, dusty brown boards that I was going to have to deal with at some point. Now, after several layers have been stripped, the boards planed down into quarter inch panels, the rotten parts cut away . . . they are a real center point of our remodel.

    In the same way, I have seen leaders that were burned out, dreading coming to work, contemplating leaving their position, who after working through a process of reclamation, were, once again, energized, excited about the next challenge, feeling more optimistic about their role and the organization. As the saying goes, “Success breeds success.”

  7. Working with old wood changes the woodworker. Maybe it’s obvious. The old wood/new wood dichotomy is not new. What has changed is me. Once the woodworker opens him or herself up to using old wood, the world begins to change. Board piles are interesting, seeking out businesses that reclaim wood becomes a passion, helping to tear-down old properties becomes a treasure-field to explore. One sees the cheap woods of modern building. There rekindles a joy in the old, the weathered, the sturdy.

    One of the best reasons to be inclined, first, toward reclamation when it comes to employees is that it changes the leader. (A good reason to try and “reclaim” leaders as well! Because they can be more valuable.) No, a desire to focus on reclamation will never preclude firing a bad employee. We have mentioned several times that not all the old wood was kept . . . the bad parts of the board were cut off and discarded . . . the point here is that by taking a positive view toward reclaiming the old many boards can be salvaged, materials have a longer sustainable life, and the leader becomes a more functional, well-rounded, and energized leader.

They put the wagon to immediate use! But it’s not about the wagon, is it? People . . . that’s what it is all about!

They put the wagon to immediate use! But it’s not about the wagon, is it? People . . . that’s what it is all about!

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Employees lie

Photo by  Kristina Flour  on  Unsplash

Employees lie.

How does that statement strike you? Do you respond with, “Yeah, of course!” Do you want to argue that “people are mostly good and wish to be honest?” Do you find yourself wanting to fall back on platitudes like, “Everyone tells white lies?” Do you believe that your context—a family business, church, for-benefit organization—makes your employees different?

As a leader trying to understand employee behavior, the most important question to pay attention to may not be, “Do employee’s lie?” But “Who is it that employee’s lie to?”.

Context

I grew up an a small midwestern town where you knew everyone in town—at least by reputation, even if you didn’t know them personally. If you didn’t know exactly “who they were” all it took to find out was a quick query and you’d soon find out. . A person’s reputation was regarded as paramount in that small town context. In that context, everyone saw others through the lens of “who they are;” meaning, of course, how their reputation had them labelled. From a sociological point of view, this it could be argued, was both helpful and harmful at the same time. But the good and bad of that societal epoch we will not debate here, I simply mention this context to paint for the reader the idea of the community in which I was raised.

Within that microcosm, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family with parents who had integrity. Their private persona was no different than their public one, that as, they were who they appeared to be. The persona the public saw was actually who they were in private.

As a child in my home there was no confusing duplicity by my parents, no behavioral “skeletons” in the home closet, no hidden addictions or unexplainable emotional, cognitive or behavioral anomalies. I was blessed to grew up around people whose behavior, thinking, and emotions were predictable and reliable. Thus, my parents modeled a trust-worthy lifestyle (For example, see my post on the Greatest Act of Leadership) and I grew up trusting people and assuming that others were much the same. In short, I learned to trust too much.

Public school, particularly the washboards (waterboarding?) of “middle school” began to make me aware of the myopathy of this view, that people could be trusted. Fellow students, I noticed, were not always honest, self-critical, or displayed integrity. Amplifying my surprise, I learned that, many times, their parents did little to model better patterns than their children. Still, most of the people I “hung around with” had good models for parents and didn’t display “really bad” behavior. The others, were easily labelled, relegated to the “proper” recitative category, and dismissed. So, some residue of trust remained.

While life continued to educate me in terms of human behavior, It wasn’t until later—probably when I was working on my master’s degree—that I really had to come to grips with the variability in the true “nature” of humanity, good and bad. Or if you don’t like the terms “good” and “bad” perhaps you prefer, “useful” and “dysfunctional.” A step in the process of understanding the full variability of people’s behavior was discovered it in a Tennessee penitentiary.

Interviews with Inmates

As a student, we had to go interview people in many different contexts. One of them was in prison. Our professor gave us a list of questions to ask, in each context, during the interviews. The first question we were required to the prisoners was, “Why are you here?” So, I made the drive through the razor wire, past the towers, and into the interview room, and dutifully asked the question.

“They got the wrong person,” one said. “The judge had it in for my family,” said another. “I got set up,” a third told me. “No one else got sent to prison,” a fourth told me. The pattern was unmistakeable. It clearly wasn’t their own fault that they were in prison!

At first, I felt confused by their answers. “Could this be true?” I asked myself after the first few interviews. Could all these people be in prison for the reasons they state they are in prison? Had I, somehow, drawn a sample that was somehow skewed and not representative of the population in the prison—a population obviously deemed responsible by the judicial system? (Later I found that this pattern occurred across all grad student interviewers, which bolstered my conclusion that this might be descriptive on the population.)

Next, I decided they were lying to me. The excuses and blaming was stretching all bounds of credibility. “It can’t be true that all these inmates are here due to the action of others alone,” I began to think. While some explanations were more plausible than others, most had the characteristics of a thin veneer masking a much more complex surface—and one that certainly held some personable responsibility. “Yep, that’s it, I concluded. They’re lying.”

But . . . .

As I observed their behavior, I also noticed that there were few “tell tale” signs of lying. The eye-contact was steady. Their manner compelling. No flickers of guilt. A ready answer for any possible contest to their preferred story. I began to edit my summary judgement. It wasn’t only that these inmates were lying. They weren’t “simply” lying to me, no, I concluded they were in fact lying to themselves—and believing the lie.

I was not surprised later to find research that said that criminals, compared to other populations in the community, tend to have high levels of self-esteem. They think of themselves as good people—better than most. This belief persists, even when society has deemed that they have done something worth of incarceration.

People labelled “Employees”

Inmates are people of course. So are ones labelled as employees.

This phenomenon, of lying to oneself, is not limited to inmates. Although “criminal minds” may take the “cat-bird’s seat” in the pervasiveness of this self-deceptive trait—it still demonstrably exists in smaller quantities in many others. Some teenagers for example, will blame everyone, except themselves, for the consequences of their decisions and actions. These “oppositional” teens may, or may not, be headed into criminal behavior but the thinking is reminiscent of the mind-set of the inmates and maddeningly resistant to parental “reasoning.”

But it is not limited even to populations we might define as “oppositional.” More normative populations exhibit it but in different ways. What about a individual with low self-worth? Or one with a super-inflated ego? Well, a close examination reveals that they too lie to themselves! Only the outcome is different. The first, blieving that they have little value, are unlikeable, doomed to failure, they act on those beliefs and co-create that self-fulfilled outcome. Giving up on tasks, assuming others know more or could do it better, self-sacrificing to the point of martyrdom. These employees may avoid engaging at work due to their own self-doubt, and thus are not providing their very best to their teams or organizations. While the second, keep the focus on themselves and create an erosive effect on their team.

Here we are not talking about common reasons communication fails (we’ve written about that elsewhere) or problems with the “creating a positive employee culture” but ways that individual employee’s beliefs constrain their ability to become high achievers within a team.

Leadership and Employee Lies

So, what’s to be done? Well, if you are a leader, trying to evaluate your team, ask yourself, “How is this particular employee lying?” and “What does this lie do for them?” Then ask, “How does this lie prevent them from being their very best?” Then begin to find a way to help the employee confront their own lies about themselves and to begin to again, grow and learn.

(Be careful here. Understanding human motivation and behavior is quiet complex. Still, every leader has the need to evaluate employees. The question is, will they do it well or poorly? Evaluations can be a subtle way to blame and shift the focus away from the leader. Thus, our final comments, below, on item 10 in our list of ways employees lie to themselves! If this still doesn’t make sense, check out our post on leadership and facts.)

[Jimmy Carter lacked] . . . the passion to convert himself from a good man into an effective one, to learn how to do the job. Carter often seemed more concerned with taking the correct position than with learning how to turn that position into results. He seethed with frustration when plans were rejected, but felt no compulsion to do better next time.
— James Fallows, The Passionless Presidency, The Atlantic, May, 1979

Okay, here we go . . . Ten lies employees tell themselves . . .

  1. I am well-aware of my own strengths and weaknesses. Few people develop good self-awareness without considerable “work” and an outside viewpoint. Coaching, mentoring, training. Self-awareness should be a continual process. (Have an employee who is not real self-aware? Here are some extra tips for dealing with a Maverick.)

  2. I am not a good/capable/smart/effective employee. Some employees fears stop them from continuing to grow. They hide, avoid, or give up rather than to strive, learn, and grow.

  3. If I fail, I am a bad employee. Some fall trap to a perfectionistic mind-set. Do things right and you will succeed. Fail and you will be a failure. The truth is we all strive to not fail but our failures or mistakes can be some of our best means to improving.

  4. Being open or sharing feelings makes me look weak. While no one respects someone who “over-emotes” and makes work a personal counseling session, that doesn’t mean being cold, distant, and aloof is better.

  5. I am a very valuable employee—more valuable than most. While “confidence” can be a good thing—event if it may be a beneficial myth—if it borders on arrogance or narcism it can be destructive to a team. If it is an unrecognized bid for control then it works to undermine leadership if not addressed.

  6. Playing it safe, avoiding conflict, and taking no personal risks makes me a good employee. Some employees “hide.” By playing the “yes person” and appearing to be a team player they are protecting themselves and not providing their full input into the team.

  7. I am good with people. I am a good listener. Any conflict is due to other’s poor behavior. It is remarkable how some employees, despite conflict or problems consistently “swirling” around them, can maintain the belief that they have good or even superior skills with people. But they do.

  8. I am not good with people. Despite the fact that I have a following. The opposite of the item mentioned above, some employees struggle to see that they have good people skills and may even be an informal leader within their team.

  9. People will “get over it” if I lose me temper or am reactive. Employees whose behavior is unpredictable, impulsive, or reactive often believe it is a virtue. Comments like, “It least everyone knows where I stand” or “I don’t play games” cover up the fact that others accomplish these same outcomes without the behavior that is damaging to the team.

  10. A final lie you should examine—once you’ve finished assessing your employees . . . is this, “What lies am I telling myself?” This may be the most important analysis of all. After all, “I’m the boss, this doesn’t apply to me!” may be the biggest self-deceit of all.

    (P.S. Here is a personal story you might like on teams and trust: My Coach is the Coach of the Year! Trust and Team building.)




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Hydrant Repairs . . . and leadership values

Here is the refurbished hydrant! Ready to water the orchard, blueberries, and garden areas. Pre-repair picture below.

Here is the refurbished hydrant! Ready to water the orchard, blueberries, and garden areas. Pre-repair picture below.

Repairing, not replacing, Yard Hydrants

Repair or Replace? On my “to do” list this summer is fixing a couple of frost-free hydrants. To get technical, one is a Woodford Y34 that is starting to leak and the other a Woodford W34 that tends to freeze in the winter (see below). These two hydrants were put in roughly 15 years ago and only now are we having some minor issues. Interestingly, they are not our oldest hydrants. We have three that were already installed when we bought our property, 18 years ago, and which are at least 5 years older. But, the two hydrants with issues that I am repairing are the most used hydrants on the property and perhaps it is this fact that has led to the issues.

Notice, I said “repairing” and not “replacing.” Why? Why am I attempting to repair and not just replace them? Well, not because of aptitude or confidence, in my ability to fix mechanical things, that’s certain. I have never install— or fixed—a hydrant before and, if you are a regular reader of my blog you’ll know, I am not particularly mechanically inclined. But . . . I am cheap . . . and I don’t like the feeling of paying 3-4 times more than it’s worth to have someone else do the work if I think it is possible that I can accomplish it with a little—hopefully not irrational—faith and a willingness to take on small risks.

So, this kind of “new mechanical test of my adequacy” is, admittedly, threatening to my psyche. Fraught with danger . . . I struggle how to approach these tasks and minimize the nagging anxiety of failure hanging over my head. Do I order lots of extra parts to make sure I have the right ones? Resign myself to making multiple trips back and forth to the store? Try and figure out exactly what I need and order only the parts I think I need? Each of these options are laced with potential for feeling like I have failed. Extra parts? Waste of money. Multiple trips? Berating myself for not being smart enough to analyze the needed parts correctly. Exact order? What if I don’t have the right parts and have to delay the repair. Each feels like a failure, looming, like the foreboding outline of a turkey vulture, just waiting for death.

Yes, I know this is part of my irrational expectations for myself—is it too much to ask to just succeed, each, and every time . . . without too much trouble? An irrational product of a brain conditioning over time to fear even minor set backs. My healthier “mind” knows that even people who have good mechanical aptitude may have these issues and even do these same things . . . they just don’t appear to define it as proof of their ineptitude the way my brain does.

But this post is not about repairing my irrational thoughts and beliefs, but about how repairs reveal a leader’s values. (BTW, If you have the same unrelenting standards for yourself, like I do, you might want to do yourself a favor and read what I learned watching a choir make mistakes).



Here is the Woodford parts bag for the repair.

Here is the Woodford parts bag for the repair.

Choices Revealing Values

Lucky for me, that You Tube exists today! You Tube is often my source, or security blanket, for mechanical courage. So, one of my confidence boosting activities, is to watch videos, often times several, of repairs that I am attempting. Seeing the repairs made on the videos makes if much more possible for me to step over the threshold of fear and get started on my own challenges.

But repairing the hydrants reveals something about me and my values . . . here are some of them and, as it relates to leadership, I want to focus on the last one—wanting something that is common.

  1. Yes, I’m cheap. I don’t like “wasting money” that doesn’t have to be spent. So, I am inclined to repair things if possible unless there is a clear advantage to replacement. I know not every one shares this value. Some want “new.” Fine, but I”ll take value, old or new, over “shiny” and “trendy.” Personal preference or value.

  2. I prefer good quality over “new” and often trust that older items have escaped some of the present cheapening of manufacturing that does not make new parts, especially on the cheap end, better than old ones.

  3. I like learning and becoming more mechanically competent . . . even if I’m afraid of “failing.”

  4. I derive a strong sense of success seeing the results of overcoming my fears and items in good working order.

  5. I want a popular quality name brand. I don’t want something that is unique, hard to find, an outlier. This is not true in other areas of my life. I like something different, unique, unusual. But not when it comes to hydrants. I want easy to find parts, An item that won’t be hard to repair or replace. There will be on-line advice on how to operate, fix, or replace. (Seven different You Tube videos so I can find one with the right tools, procedures, etc. that make it “doable”) These are the things I value. So, I have Woodford hydrants—one of the oldest and leading manufacturers of hydrants.. (If I was installing hydrants in a place like Mata Mata, New Zealand, better known as Hobbiton, I wouldn’t want Woodford. But then again, I’d probably be hiring someone else to manufacture and install them!)




Imagine my Woodford hydrant here? It would definitely look modern, out-of-place, and would spoil the magic.

Imagine my Woodford hydrant here? It would definitely look modern, out-of-place, and would spoil the magic.

Values and Leading

Recently, someone was telling a business owner about how we help repair human systems in organizations. He struggled to explain to her how we use intensive interviews, focus groups, executive reports, action plans, on-going consulting and coaching . . . to help leaders, teams and employees. Her response? “Why don’t they just fire them?” He retorted, “Sometimes you have an employee so valuable that you want to give them a chance to succeed.”

Now, any of us who have managed large groups of employees know that, regrettably, there are many times where firing someone is the solution that is needed. For me that demarcation line of an employee being “workable” or “not workable” is tied to things like integrity, safety, and honesty. An extreme example will make the point; for most leaders, in most situations, an employee who threatened other employees would be a cause for termination. Stealing, falsification, absences without leave . . . there are plenty of examples. But, most situations, involving people are not this clear.

So, I don’t want to be too hard on this owner. I don’t know what he was thinking . . . maybe it was about a situation most would consider a fire-able offense . . . or what situations he has encountered where repairs were made or were successful.. But I would propose that there are times, many times, when replacement is just not the best option. Let’s consider these from a view point of general principles.

  1. You know that the overall product is good and of high quality. It just needs some upkeep or repair and it will work well for many more years. The cost, in this case, of replacement often exceeds the repair. In business terms, terminating an employee, advertising and recruiting, hiring, on-boarding . . . there are a lot of potential costs to turnover that must be accounted for in the decision. In human terms, what impact does firing someone have on the culture, the motivation, and production of the other employees. For every action there are reactions—positive and negative—that should be considered. There also may be the value of being fair, forgiving, loyal, or other values that make a leader want to factor in past years of good performance.

  2. Replacing sometimes leaves you with an inferior product. Sometimes you just can’t get a good quality replacement or the cost to get the same quality “part” is too high. What do you lose when the experienced employee leaves? What if you can’t get a quality replacement? I recall the impact on an organization who fired a Child Psychiatrist in a rural setting. It was very difficult to find someone to relocate under the circumstances. The organization would up paying for a locum tenens Psychiatrist out of Boston for an extensive period—I’m sure that did not help the bottom line. Similarly, I run a 1948 Ford 8N tractor to do a lot of my shredding/mowing partly because the cost to replace it would be very high.

  3. Replacing a part when the new part undermines the entire system. There is an ancient phrase, “You can’t put a new patch on an old wineskin.” At times a new part is “too much” for the old system. Often organizations bring in a new leader because of problems but if nothing has been done to deal with the underlying issues, these new leaders often either fail to make significant process or are “run off” Then the organization or team is often labelled as “toxic” and failure becomes an expected “explanatory fiction” of the “way it is” making transformative change extremely unlikely.

  4. Replacing a part when it’s role is more than just it’s functional value. I mentioned the Ford 8N tractor earlier. The truth is, it is more than just a tool. It is my father-in-law’s tractor, passed down to his daughter, and an item around which many family memories have been made and core family values have been reinforced. That farm-born independence, hard-working, care for your equipment, cherished memories of past accomplishments . . . Maybe, someday, this tractor will pass out of our family’s ownership, but I don’t see it happening for the next generation or two for sure.

As a leader, conveying a belief that 1. your employees at their core possess good qualities, 2. that replacing them will not automatically lead to a better product, 3. that the system will react tot the seismic shift as an employee leaves, and 4. that employees and their relationships within the organization are not just a transactional exchange of function and remuneration can go along way to creating a valued culture where high performance can be built. It is not the “be all or end all” but it’s a good start.

Repair or replace? What ever you as a leader decide it will express your values and may define how you are perceived as a leader. Keeping a defective hydrant is frustrating, and discouraging to those interacting with it, and it may lead to more damage of the system. It needs to be replaced. But sometimes, really understanding the problem, taking it apart, and replacing the deteriorated bushing, refreshing the old hardened rubber with new, and a little paint gives you something more valuable, and less costly, that buying new.

Here’s my close up before the repair . . . so I can remember how the handle linkage goes together!

Here’s my close up before the repair . . . so I can remember how the handle linkage goes together!

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5 Reasons Communication Fails

Photo by  Cayla1  on  Unsplash

Photo by Cayla1 on Unsplash

I sat at my kitchen table. where I was eating breakfast, staring, dumbfounded, at the woman, whom I did not know, who had just burst into the house. She saw me, and demanded, “What are you doing here?” “I live here, it’s my house.” I stammered, vexed at her demanding tone, and surprised by her brashness. Afterwards, as she stomped out, I knew she had “heard my words,” but really wasn’t listening and certainly didn’t get the point.

What is the problem?

  • Parents know that if they can get their kids to listen they can provide valuable guidance.

  • Teacher’s know that if students listen they will learn, grow, and be inspired.

  • Doctor’s know that if patient’s listen their health can be improved.

It’s obvious, the problem, often, is getting people to listen. Isn’t it? So, based on this belief, parents spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get kids to hear what they say; teachers continually train, and plan, and work to help kids learn; and Doctor’s worry about compliance with their recommendations and helping patients heed their advice. Yes, getting others to listen is a problem . . . but often it it’s not the right focus and certainly it’s not just for kids, students, and patients!

Yes, getting others to listen is a problem, but . . . and here is a big but . . . it’s the good listeners (parents, teachers, and doctor’s) who have the most influence on those they are trying to “get to listen.”

Too often, Communication is handicapped, not by the intentions or efforts of the listener—as if patient's want to have bad health, students want to remain ignorant, or kids want to make bad life choices—but because of a basic human error of “attribution.” In other words, the “expert”—parent, teacher, doctor—assumes that they are independent from the problem, and therefore, the problem must be the other person. Those doggone “others” are, it is assumed, just not properly motivated—they are willful, distracted, resistant. But, in reality, the experts tell us that people are always motivated . . . by something . . . it may be to avoid conflict, feel less stress, get attention, have less work and more fun . . . or something else that impedes their performance. Yet, even when people say they trying to listen and understand, rarely, are they “simply” motivated to really listen.

Listening, often shows up in lists as a critical skill for those trying to influence others but rarely is it a skill that’s value is demonstrated by tenacious practice or active training of this particular skill. But, then again, remember, most of us think we possess this skill and the speaker may not be anymore aware of their lack of motivated listening than the person they are trying to help. The truth is, communication is harder than people think it is and they are often unaware that the real problem is their own poor listening and communication skills.

An Example

As I said, in my three decades of working with people, I find that secretly, most people—no, not all, but most—believe that they are at least adequate or even good listeners and thus have few communication problems. But the reality just does not bear this out. Give someone a random sequence of data, say numbers to keep it simple, and ask them to repeat them . . . “59387274” . . . most people will struggle. It’s not a memory thing. It’s attention, emotion, and a lack of skill. Give them a “grocery list” of 18 items, with one repeated 3 times, and 60% and 75%, respectively, will remember the first and last item; 80% will remember the item repeated three times; almost no one gets the whole list correct; and, interestingly, a full 20% will include a common grocery item (like bread) that wasn’t on the list at all!

Now ask these same listeners to listen to and remember (track) complex information . . . in an emotionally charged environment . . . and their performance will drop even more precipitously. Oh, they’ll may the major point(s). But they’ll miss significant information related to the context of the conversations and the more subtle details that make the difference between “hearing” and “understanding.” Without that high level of understanding, their strategies to get others to listen and influence them are more likely to fail.

By contrast, if you run into an exceptional listener, you may not overtly label that expertise, but you will know it . . . because you leave conversations feeling really heard and understood. You may even find yourself starting to soften toward their views when expressed. Not a common experience.

So, why don’t we listen better? Why does communication often break down? Here are five common reasons.

5 Reasons Communications Fail

1. We don’t value listening. To be honest, few people are there to really listen they are to tell. "Waiting your turn to speak." Listening is work. Telling is, often, easy and many times fun. Listening requires effort and may cause us to reconsider our position. Listening can lead to genuine conflict, recognizing we have differences with the speaker where telling may gloss over those divisions. However, telling often leads to conflict over “surface issues” instead of real divisions. Listening promotes griping and dissatisfaction.

2. We are impatient or assume listening is a simple process. “I heard you,” we often state, at the very moment the other person is not feeling heard. We don’t recognize the miscommunication when constructs are not defined and assumptions about the meaning of words (think “hose”) are made.

3. Our minds are already made up and our attitudes stink. “I don’t need to listen. I already know what they are going to say.” Ever hear that one? How condescending that must feel to people whose future thoughts and verbalizations are redacted to simple characters as if they cannot have independent or unique thoughts or change their opinions. Nonverbals often signal true intent—and it is often not a “posture of wanting to hear.”

4. We just don’t get it. The people with the highest need for improvement—the poorest communicators—often are the least aware that they need new skills. Often they have a general lack of emotional intelligence. For example, one morning I was sitting at my kitchen table eating breakfast. A woman, whom I did not know, burst into the house, saw me, and demanded, “What are you doing here?” (I must pause to say we lived in a very small community, so knocking and entering among friends is not uncommon.) “I live here, it’s my house.” I replied, vexed at her demanding tone. “Where are Jim and Elna?” she demanded. “We bought the house from them, six months ago, and they moved across town.” I stated, feeling a rising irritation over her brazen attitude. “Why did they do that?” She quiried. “I guess you’d have to ask them.” I pointed out. “Humpf” she snorted, turned, and walked out. There was no apparent embarrassment at having burst into my home or interrupting my breakfast. No awareness that cross-examining me about my presence in my own home may have been “over the top.” No apology for her mistake. Nothing. Just verbal demands and then, a swift exit. I found out later that I had just “met” a woman who was infamous in our town for her poor social behavior. Not surprised. It’s the same principle as “you only need fences with bad neighbors who, likely, don’t think you need fences” in other words, good neighbors respect your property for the others, you need fences.

5. There is no focus on skill building. If I “played around” every day on my piano would I become a skilled piano player? No, I would not. Maybe someone with a true musical “gift” could learn this way but an average person would gain some skill . . . but never become a master. Because people “dabble” everyday with communication many come to believe they have expertise. Repetitive misunderstandings, conflict, communication failures of various types does nothing to challenge this fallacy. To master a critical skill, be must engage in intentional and focused practice not just “play around.” Few—outside those whose training, education, or interest in communication—have undertaken this challenge.

Organizational Learning

One of the most fun activities we do as consultants—and what our client’s have identified as the highest impact exercises we do with teams—is to have the workteams attempt to complete a task or game that relies almost entirely on communication. One example is having the team deactivate a live “bomb” where a team member is the only one who can see and manipulate the bomb while other team members can only access the manual that explains how defuse the armament. The only way to succeed constantly at this task is to communicate well. The team quickly becomes aware of the difficulty of communication and how their conditioned behaviors—even if well intentioned—can cause the team to fail. With each round, we tease out the assumptions, defenses, and behaviors that impede the team’s performance—including team members who are not actively participating in the solutions.

This process of game-playing, typically creates a “low-threat” environment, The perception that “it’s just a game,” can lower apprehensions about engaging as a team (in front of peers and often with the bosses in the room) and this then sets the team up to talk about their real strengths and also the growth areas they need to focus on as a team. Peers often identify strengths in other team members. Individuals, themselves also self-identify their own strengths and often even publicly state their own need for growth in a particular area.

The critical factor here though is not “raising awareness” or even “teaching” it is having the teams experience and practice the skills. Afterwards, they will need continued repetitions of practicing the skills to make this a habit leading to reliable and sustainable success . . . but it is incredibly fun to be there as it begins and to promote this skill development as they begin to experience deeper listening and better communication.

Enjoy this? Let us know it helps us target content to what you want. If you liked this you might want to check out our post on the proper relationship of mistakes and learning.

P.S. — Do we use “P.S.” anymore? Two things. One, if you have questions about how to help your team feel free to contact us. Two, if you are a professional “people person” and want to learn about using games in training, we occasionally do free trainings on our process. Let us know if you are interested.

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I'm a fanatic . . . about culture . . . but it better be real!

Yep, I could be  that guy!  I’m that far gone . . . . Photo by  Martin Reisch  on  Unsplash

Yep, I could be that guy! I’m that far gone . . . . Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

I admit it. I’m a fanatic. No not a ranting, in your face, zealot. I’m from the midwest after all. Our zeal is a little more tempered. Stoic. Nice. That reminds me, our state once thought the best tourism tag line for our state was to promote this . . . “Nebraska, nice.” Ugh. Doubt it helped much. Anyway, back to me, the fanatic. I bear all the hallmarks of being a “true believer,” I have the gear, I study carefully everything about my passion, I’m drawn to others who share a similar love for the object of my obsession, I’ve done it all . . . except the tattoo. But then again, I’m from a different generation and, again, midwestern.

So, what is it that I am fanatical about? Well . . ., before I tell you and some of you sign off—concluding that your passion is not mine, and thus irrelevant—let me say, this post is not about the object of my fan-dom (fan-dumb?) but about the power of culture You see, the entity upon which my interest is focus is, right now, not worthy of such devotion. Ouch. It hurts to even admit that, I’m such a homer when it comes to college football.

The truth is the truth however and it is undeniable that my beloved team—the Nebraska Cornhusker football team, or “the Huskers” for short—has been awful. Last year? 4-8. The year before? 4-8. Dismal. Yet, this team has a top 15 recruiting class this year. They have been projected to finish in the top 20 by a number of prognosticians. Enthusiasm is high among the fans. Hope is abundant. What gives? Well a change in leadership but perhaps even more importantly the establishment of a new culture.

You can feel it. In the way the players talk, in the way they play, in their belief in the team and coaches and their willingness to voluntarily commit their discretionary effort to the team’s goals. Just watch their body language. A few years ago, under a different coaching regime . . . we won’t name names, I saw players on the side lines with their heads down, looking away or even pushing past . . . and thus avoiding . . . coaches who were trying to talk to them. It was not surprising when, over time, they began to look like they weren’t united in trying to win and the results began to mirror that disconnect. My observations were confirmed when a friend, and former division I quarterback, made the same observation, “You can tell they don’t want to play for this coach,” he said, “Just look at how they act when they come off the field.” Finally, someone close to the program also stated it. “They lost faith in the coach.”

So what has given this new culture its legs? Not success . . . not yet. Unless it’s the reputation of past success which these leaders have or the progress being made. But, success in the present? No. The team started out 0-6. The first time in the history of the program. Amazingly, the team continued to fight. They appeared to improve over the course of the season. They fought no matter what the circumstances and even looked better when they lost. It was clear that they “had each other’s back” and the team was, in fact, a Team. Having played both for teams that were not united or had a successful culture as well as teams that were very high functioning (including a national coach of the year) here are a few observations (from an outsider’s view) of what has made this work.

  1. The leaders have a deep understanding of—and deep connection with —the broader context of the program and how to utilize the context to promote success. The Coach grew up in Nebraska. Population 1,325. The “Walk On Program” here at Nebraska—the recruiting of local kids—is at least as important as the getting the “blue-chippers”—highly ranked recruits— in the context of Nebraska football. He gets this. He praises the fans and the culture as being “like no other” and highlights its strengths—joking about how “blue-chippers” think they’ll see a football stadium in the “middle of a corn field.” Early cohorts talked about valuing the walk on program but in practice . . . they didn’t get it.

  2. The leaders demonstrate a commitment to one thing—success. I hear statements like, “We are going to be good.” or “ We’ll see if he can contribute.” Even doubts, “Some may not be with the program” It’s clear that the goal is the focus and they believe reaching for that goal will help everyone who buys in. You could call it the “while no one is an ‘expendable crewman’ . . . some are more expendable than others.” But the message is clear. This is about being successful as a team. You can “get on board” or not but it is the single clear focus of the program.

  3. Hard work is the route to success. How do you go from 4-8 two years in a row to the 13th ranked recruiting class? Hard work. Weight training. Husker Power. Strength Coach Zach Duvall. The coaches have not shied away from saying that players were not where they needed to be. In fact after the final game to our Iowa neighbors, the coach said it hurt to see that they were bigger and stronger than we were. How’s that for honest clarity? Yes, the coaches are careful to allow that there are many paths to success (that other coaches may have tried) and that previous coaches may have had a different focus and emphasis, but it’s clear that the team did not meet their criteria for strength, speed, and commitment. It’s also clear that anyone wanting to be a part will dedicate themselves to these attributes.

  4. Finally, over everything else, the emphasis is on people. The clear message—and one that resonates as not just being "coach-speak”—is that this is about the players. Helping them become better men. Developing their potential. Becoming a close-knit group and having fun together. Yes, fun. In fused in everything is this belief that hard work, dedication, team chemistry, and success is fun and worth the effort. The mission is not just winning on the field it’s being successful as a person.

In Coach Frost’s own words . . .

As I was writing this blog, an Omaha World Herald article by Sam McKewon came out where Coach Frost talked about the importance of culture. Here’s part of what Frost was quoted as saying . . . “Culture eats scheme for breakfast . . . I can put the guys in the best scheme, the best offensive plays, the best defensive plays we can come up with. But at the end of the day, if we don’t have . . . people holding each other accountable, and we don’t have our team making smart decisions and grinding and working hard, [i.e.; the right culture] I’m not sure the best scheme in the world matters.”

Frost boils it down to two factors, 1. players making decisions in the best interests of their teammates, and 2. a desire to excel and no fear of failure.

Will this, ultimately, lead to the success the coaches want? If we’re talking wins . . . it’s unknown. In fact, due to the variables at play in such an endeavor it could be argued that their is no way to determine what causal factors lead to success on the field. Fair enough. But if you just look at the players behavior, other on and off the field, you can already see a clear and vital difference. It’s clear that this focus on culture has brought a new energy, a willingness to commit voluntary effort to succeeding, and cleared aways a number of hurdles that were detrimental to success. A strong culture, at the very least, increases the likelihood that success is possible—in athletics and in business.

P.S. I was told by someone who worked with transportation for recent Husker teams would leave the bus “trashed” when they got done with a trip. Not anymore. The Coaches, from the first, made players clean up after themselves and appreciate the service they were being given. Coaches talk about representing the state, university, and each other. The message is clear—even in this minor detail, “We will treat people, including ourselves, with respect.” Sometimes it starts that small to build a great culture.

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The Slippery Slope of Facts . . . as we are Conditioned to Know Them . . .

Beware of the facts! Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Beware of the facts! Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The Slippery Slope

Circa 1975. I was starting high school (Yes, I’m that old!), and with a particular interest in all things science, I looked forward to delving further into physical science, chemistry, and biology. I was intrigued by the things I had already learned about the world and how science could help us understand the world. Little did I know that the facts I learned then . . . would change! To wit:

  • The electron “is the smallest particle in the universe.”

  • We are facing a new ice age.

  • We only have 50 years left of fossil fuel.

  • We will be unable to feed the world population by the year 2000.

Today, science tells us . . .

  • Quarks are smaller than electrons.

  • We need to be worried about global warming . . . no, . . . wait, . . . climate change.

  • We still are going to run out of fossil fuel . . . and besides it is destroying the Ozone.

  • Water is going to become a major crisis for the world.

I’m not here to dispute or challenge the scientific dogma, old or new, or the merits of each of these theories, I just note it to say, “the facts have changed!” Some would argue, correctly I believe, that this change is exactly what science is supposed to do! Change as new knowledge and better models are discovered. I agree. But others would see a more sinister pushing of agendas that might have other motives. Perhaps this too is true.

In either case, it illustrates that far too often theories are confounded with proven facts. My teachers, in 1975, made this error. Presumably they had been taught that scientific theories and data are only consistent with projections and are not, in and of themselves, facts . . . but that is not how it was presented. It was presented as a scientific certainty. It proved not to be true and it is still happening today.

Blame it on lazy thinking, poor educational systems, a lack of higher education . . . what ever you will, but again I am not hear to debate those theories but to talk about the slippery slope of facts as it relates to business.

Businesses, Organizations and Facts

One of the greatest challenges to helping businesses and organizations change is what “they already know.” Einstein encased the problem of “knowing” succinctly in his oft quoted adage, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” When working with leaders one of the tell-tale signs of whether an “outside consultant” can help is if they are willing to have what is known challenged and if they are actively looking for new ways to approach the problems. If not, they are doomed to repeat the cycle that produced and sustain the problem.

Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? The problem is, most leaders think they are open to questioning the facts as they know them—and I think they honestly believe they are. However, too often, years of conditioned responses makes them resistant to change.

The Power of Conditioning

To illustrate the power of the conditioning, I will at times, after meeting with them for some period of time, raise my hand and extend it toward the leader. Instinctively, they will raise their hand to meet mine. Then I ask them why they did that . . . “well, you wanted to shake hands,” they reply. “Did I? Did you?” I set this up after we have talked a while specifically because a handshake is not expected at that time. We didn’t just meet and it’s not time for the social practice of shaking hands, but the leader didn’t consider if some other response would be better—other than a passing thought of confusion— or if the gesture could be something other than an expectation of a hand shake; they are just responding to years and years of conditioning.

Leader’s lead in ways they have been conditioned to lead. Do the facts lead them to exert control? To lead by being inclusive? To work for warm relations and a collegial approach to team building. Why? Too often, they really can’t explain their approach because, like the handshake, it is an unconscious and conditioned response.

But it works! Until it doesn’t.

I’m not really being critical of leaders. We all operate on conditioned responses. it’s what makes the world operate smoothly. My mind is not cluttered up with analyzing each and every “handshake” to determine what to do. I don’t have to think when the brake lights come on ahead of me, my foot automatically moves to the brake pedal.

Leaders are elevated to their positions because their conditioned responses are affective. An impulse to shake hands when one is extended to you is a social “grace” that eases the awkward meeting of two people. But, ever know someone who keeps wanting to shake hands? I did.

One school I attended had a student I’ll call Gary. Gary had a habit of shaking your hand, then repeatedly reaching out again, through the conversation, to shake your hand again. Alternately, he would simply continue to grasp your hand and not let go. Talk about awkward. What do you do? Many people, myself included, tried passive ways to try and extricate our hand, or avoid the multiple handshakes. Some, I have no doubt, avoided Gary. I’ll admit, I at times, wanted to as well. Those additional handshakes when unwarranted, creates an awkward barrier to further relationship building.

I personally was stuck by the “facts” as I knew them. One, people interacting with Gary had certainly “indicated” — with their behavior and words — that this handshaking behavior was unusual and an unwanted behavior. I had personally witnessed another student respond with “Let go of my hand! What’s wrong with you?” Two, Gary probably did not need anyone else making him feel like he was a “problem” and “unliked” and that “knowledge” had not stopped the behavior. Three, I wanted to be a good person and treat people, even if their behavior made me feel uncomfortable, in a respectful way. Accommodating Gary’s strange behavior did no harm and actually was helpful. Right? The facts, as I viewed them, led me to be passively engaged with Gary and ignore what was really happening . . . that Gary’s behavior made me, and many other’s uncomfortable, and to “be kind” — pretending I was not uncomfortable and not talking directly to Gary about these facts with kindness and the real respect he was due.

The solution came in the form of an older, and wiser, man — a school professor. A man whose interaction with Gary I got to witness. After shaking the professor’s hand, Gary, predictably, extended his hand, again, to the professor. “Why do you want to shake my hand again?” the professor asked. His voice was quiet. His tone warm and sympathetic. I had no doubt that if Gary had suddenly come up with an honest and insightful answer—”I’ve never felt like people like me and shaking hands make me feel accepted” or “I’m sorry I have a compulsion and it sometimes gets the best of me” — the professor would have been willing to shake his hand a second time. Unfortunately, Gary looked uncomfortable. He stammered out an answer or excuse, and shuffled away.

Afterward, I notice that Gary’s handwringing exercise diminished. Had he considered what the professor had asked? Had he learned something about himself and the conditioned responses he had learned? I don’t know. I do know the problem was largely resolved.

The professor, in my view, was the one person I witnessed who had the courage to be both kind and honest. He was not thinking about how Gary would view him or how it might affect how others would view him as a professor. He did what was in Gary’s best interest, period.

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P.S. Ironically — isn’t life funny? — the day before I finished this post, I had another “handshaking” incident. a young man I know and admire, but who suffers from a significantly anxious temperament, was bidding me goodbye. In that process, over 5-10 minutes, he extended his hand at least three times. Caught off guard, I shook it each time. Now, the challenge is, “Do I talk to him about it?” Chances are the answer will be, “Yes!”

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Mr. Rex and Ego?

Photo by  Vern Ooi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Vern Ooi on Unsplash

The Best Team Players? They know It's not about them.

Those of you who participated in athletics know that, as an athlete, you get to experience a lot of real time "psychology on display through behavior" as player's egos become involved in competing. Hopefully, for most people, the need to "stroke one's ego" gets resolved by the time we reach adulthood . . . but not always.

A few yeas ago I was playing "noon basketball" with a cadre of guys at a local gym. One of the amazing things about this group was that two of the most talented players were over 70!  Yes, 70! By "most talented" I don't mean that they had the most stamina, speed, or leaping ability when compared to the younger players,  but boy did they have skills and the experience to be a great asset to whatever team they played for.!  Both still played on traveling teams against player across the nation. Very impressive.

One of the players, I particularly liked. He was very laid back, competitive, yet encouraging to other players--a guy who was confident enough to play well himself and encourage the best out of others, both those on his team and the opponents as well, a real team-player. The other? Let's just say . . . that it didn't take a Psychologist to tell that his game was a little bit more about stroking his ego than just having fun competing--not that ego doesn't play a role for most of us at some level, some people just hide it more reliably. :)  Anyway . . . let's talk about .

The Day The Ego Demanded "it's Due!"

We were playing one day, as usual, when a new player joined us. His assignment was to guard Rex. Now, a new player, especially a younger one, would have no reason to believe that this would be a difficult task. After all, this is your grandfather--someone your should be able to outmaneuver, out jump, and out hustle. But Rex was an athlete, with a capital A. He could make shots all over the floor and from "way downtown"--far distant from the basket.

His favorite shot was a hook-type delivery off a drive to his right. Those of us who had played with Rex for a long time knew that the best strategy was to overplay his right side, and force him to go left where, although still capable, he was far less dangerous and effective. It was common knowledge and everyone who defended him more than once knew this.

The new player who joined us that day, however, didn't know this. As he tried to guard Rex, this septuagenarian shark, repeatedly drove right and drained the basket . . . time after time . . . scoring easily and, I think, frustrating the younger man's increasingly strenuous attempts to stop his scoring. Finally, the younger man, once again, beaten to the delivery of the shot, exclaimed, "Rex, you are unstoppable!" Rex beamed. But, unfortunately for Rex, the moment didn't last. 

Another player, let's call him Doug, who was known for his less-than-sensitive-candor, impulsively reacted. "It's not hard to stop Rex," he commented dourly.  "That's easy. He can't go to his left."  A statement, that over-simplified guarding this athlete, but never-the-less did communicate the best approach to stopping Rex's game. An awkward silence hung in the air, as players absorbed this Doug's "attack" on Rex's abilities and demonstrated Doug's own need to stroke his ego "against" a player, in Rex, that definitely had superior skills. Some glancing at Rex, uncomfortably, and wondering how Rex would respond.

Well, Rex wasn't one to let such blatant disrespect to pass. He said nothing, at first. I was surprised, but remained watchful.  The next time Rex's team had the ball, Rex, playing point guard, took the ball, drove to his left, executed his signature hook shot, banking it into the basket off the backboard, the pointedly directed a comment to Doug, "So, I can't go left huh?"

Flashes of Junior High School

"What is this, Junior High School?" The thought flashed through my mind.

So, Rex proved he could go left. Doug was "put into his place," and Rex's ego could remain intact--although why it was threatened so much by the comment remains unknown. Or so it seemed for a moment. Doug, unfortunately, didn't have the wisdom to let it go either, and the rest of "noon ball" was marred by a general pensive, irritation punctuated with some general aggressive playing and "bad will."

The funny thing is, for all the posturing egos on display, that day . . . nothing had really changed. We all still knew that the best strategy, when guarding Rex, was to force Rex to go left. No one thought less of him as a player, since all players have strengths and weaknesses to their game. And we were all sure that Doug would continue to comment on things that others would think but definitely not say. While Doug would rush in to fill the void. We also knew that Doug, no matter how long he played--would he even be playing in another 30 years?--would never be as good as Rex.

What did change was that it was clear that Rex's ego was tied up in his ability as an athlete (and so was Doug's, but that's another story) and that Rex would get defensive, react with somewhat controlled anger, if challenged . . . and this trait, could be turned against him, by unscrupulous opponents. That Doug, or others, could easily "get under his skin" with just a comment despite the fact that he was a great player. I can imagine some competitors I have played against in competitive venues, making comments,  "What's the matter, can't you go left?" and goading him into "proving them wrong" ---thereby taking him out of his best game and using his emotion against him—and disadvantaging his team.

Ego vs. Team

When Doug made his comment, and Rex visibly reacted, my intuition and experience told me that Rex would have to prove himself by forcing the next shot . . . going left. He did, and it worked, he made the basket. But what if that had not been in a "pick up game" but in a game that counted for something. Was that the right time and place to take the shot?  Maybe. Would a defender, as I did, anticipate his need to go left and position himself to block or alter the shot.  Possibly. But ego doesn't consider what is best for the team only what is demanded to keep the ego intact. 

Rex, it appears, didn't trust the team. He didn't believe that that everyone already saw him as a superior player--even if they recognized that he preferred shooting going to his right. He probably was fearful that others would "believe" John's view or that perhaps it would make it harder if the young man guarding him forced him to operate going left. Some subconscious fear drove his need to respond. Ultimately, however it was driven by his own fears about himself and his ability.

Another ego and it's effect . . . a starter on one of my high school teams "lost it" when his shoe came untied and the coach didn't call a time out to let him fix the problem. He responded by kicking his shoe off, sending it flying over the bench, and starting to hack (foul) other players. He fouled out of the game in the first quarter. I have never seen such a ego-driven temper tantrum quite like it before or since. Playing the rest of the game without our number one point guard and a great shooter certainly did not help the team and we lost the game.  Those whose ego strength, to continue the use the Freudian term, isn't sufficiently strong will not be able to laugh at themselves, apologize, admit mistakes, or put the team first.  They may be very talent and accomplished but, in some fashion or another, they will always be a one man show.

Leaders, Employees and Ego

When consulting with organizations you inevitably will run into people whose ego is a barrier to them being the best leader they can be. Whether as an employee or a boss, their fragile self-worth will manifest itself in defensiveness, rejection of valid criticism, and a stubborn refusal to examine mistakes and learn from them.  Often, these are very bright and accomplished people who has skillfully found ways to mitigate some of the negative effects--perhaps they are superficially charming, or hard working, or they maintain and aloof distance--but, like Rex, everyone knows of the ego-weakness and how it effects their work and the organization as a whole.

Attempts to point out the weakness results, again like Rex in the story, in them proving (at least to themselves) that the have a strong ego and the problem is not them but is the problem of the person pointing out the impact of their behavior.  

You can spot this trait often when a person "flip-flops" on responsibility when they can no long dismiss it. So, if problems are pointed out by another colleague or employee this person may simply dismiss it, or aggressively refute it. But if the problems amplify to the point the behavior is threatening the organization and they are forced to face their behaviors . . . the "Ego-challenged" person will admit a problem, superficially take responsibility for it, perhaps even apologize (if necessary) and verbally agree to a need to change.

But watched closely, and over time, they will reverse course . . . reverting back to their baseline, ego-protecting view, that "the problem isn't me."  When this happens, you can be sure that you are dealing with someone who, to reach their full potential, has a need for significant work on the ability to take constructive criticism, be self-critical, and learn to grow.  In Patrick Lencioni's words They suffer a lack of humility . . . thinking, albeit somewhat subconsciously, more about themselves that the good of the organization. In those moments it is, once again, all about them.

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