Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Asking Tough Questions

In staying with the team theme from my previous posting... Have you ever observed in a meeting a team member who asks tough, yet constructive, questions? But these tough questions seem so extreme and to-the-point that others feel put-off by a certain candidness? And does the post-meeting water cooler banter revolve around how to exclude this certain toxic team member from subsequent meetings?

Well, if you agree on the need for detoxing your team you may want to reconsider. According to Diane Coutu (May, 2009 Harvard Business Review interview, "Why Teams Don't Work") teams need "someone who can help the team by challenging the tendency to want too much homogeneity, which can stifle creativity and learning." Coutu calls these folks "deviants."

We may perceive a deviant's motive as wanting to make waves for the sake of making waves. But in reality, they may have the only objective, and perhaps outsider, point of view vital to a project's success. Bottom line: deviants ask "why." So, before we get bent out of shape at our next team meeting over tough questions let's step back and ask ourselves: Why did this tough, yet valid, question just make me uncomfortable? And besides, haven't we all at some point thought of a deviant question at a meeting but were too uncomfortable to ask it?  Not so for your deviant team member.... are you a deviant?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Performance Consistency & Stereotype Threat

Have you had this experience: You observe a star team member performing well with the rest of your team but notice they perform differently, or even clam up, when you interact with them? Could it be your management style? Maybe. But for those of us having a few years experience under our belt managing people we typically adjust our interactions based on the individual. It's when this fails we are left to wonder about possible causes of inconsistent employee performance.

Here's an interesting angle on the issue I came across while listening to NPR. In "How Stereotypes Can Drive Women To Quit Science" the story brings to light something called "stereotype threat," explaining that "when there's a stereotype in the air and people are worried they might confirm the stereotype by performing poorly, their fears can inadvertently make the stereotype become self-fulfilling."

So, if you rule out management style, it could be a psychological phenomenon on the part of your team member. You may want to keep "stereotype threat" in the back of your mind as a possible cause for inconsistent performance and think of a charitible way to approach the situation. Perhaps asking your team member what you can do to help them perform better might be a good place to start in quashing any insecurities or misconceptions they may have about you or themselves.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

People Management Skills

Lately I've been thinking about people management skills and its importance for fostering teamwork. And how great managers and leaders foster trust in their teams to succeed in achieving their goals. I've also been thinking about how the university environment may need some nurturing when it comes to people management. Although this may seem too bold a statement, I'm speaking from personal observations and - don't get me wrong - I really enjoy working in the university environment. It's an inspiring workplace being in the midst of ever accumulating knowledge and diversity.

A university is also a unique workplace. I mean "unique" not just compared to other non-university workplaces I've experienced, but unique because there are three interacting employment spheres: 1. Faculty, 2. Administrators, and 3. Staff. These "spheres" can be viewed as general roles and so, respectively,  the people in these roles are: 1. faculty only, 2. both faculty & staff, 3. staff only.

What does this have to do with people management skills? To start, defining these roles sets the backdrop for those of us reading this who haven't worked at universities and to point out that the administrator role can be filled by both faculty and staff (typically: faculty administrators aligned with curricular administration, staff administrators are with business administration).  Therefore, because staff administrators may have private sector work experience (and related people management skills), this post aims mostly at faculty administrators who've only worked in university environments.

So, in this university environment I've observed a disconnect between administrators (faculty appointed to administrator roles) and teams they manage (faculty and/or staff.) It's a disconnect with the interpersonal relationships that allows teams to flourish. For example, a disconnect between a Dean and her faculty could be that the Dean follows an analytical and formulaic approach to faculty interaction; a "one size fits all" approach. However, this practice discounts faculty's individual styles and assumes two things about her team:  that everyone has identical attributes and everyone's attributes are the same as hers.  We can also apply this to a VP and his administrative staff. If ignored, this disconnect can manifest into the dysfunction of teams and low morale. So why this disconnect? I provide two possible causes:

  • Administrators lack people management experience
  • Administrators feel challenged

Administrators lack people management experience 


Ok, this may seem too obvious a reason but it can be argued that faculty administrators do have people management experience. To illustrate, let's suppose the following statement is true: at one time all faculty administrators had mentors (managers) as young faculty (staff) and worked in collaborative environments (teams) on their way to being tenured (results), i.e. faculty were managed like staff and worked in team environments to produce results. Given this important formative experience, I find it interesting this managing/teamwork/results dynamic typically doesn't translate to their new administrative role. To be fair, most faculty don't have the same management experiences those of us who've worked in the private sector have had. However, by the time in their careers faculty become administrators they've been a mentor (manager) and the mentored (managed) at least once. Wouldn't this be a useful experience most faculty could draw from and apply to their new role?

Administrators feel challenged


In what way do I mean they "feel challenged?"  Timothy F. Bednarz's posting When Building Trust, Avoid These Six Behaviors brings up an interesting point. He writes, "Lack of trust in the workplace stems from areas that managers are often challenged by."  I'm going to stretch the meaning of this phrase and replace "area" with "staff" so that it reads: "Lack of trust in the workplace stems from staff that managers are often challenged by." If this is true it begs the question: Why would they feel challenged by their staff? Or, in what way do they feel challenged?

Here's a possibility: I've observed and discovered at least one administrator who treats non-Ph.D. staff as inferiors rather than team players. Why is this? It could be that because faculty spend many years earning their Ph.D. they may feel superior to others who haven't. Perhaps they see this as a rite of passage they hold over their staff? And what happens when someone they manage offers successful solutions or different perspectives they themselves didn't come up with? Perhaps this is where the lack of trust stems from? And summarized as "I can't trust their input because they don't have a Ph.D.?"  To be fair, I'm interpreting "feel challenged" more like "feel threatened by."  And what I find interesting is that in the private sector not everyone in management has a Ph.D (let alone the same background as one another) yet they trust their teams. But, in the university, faculty nurture and mentor their students (who don't have a Ph.D.) yet fail to do the same for their staff.


Do administrators lack people management experience? Perhaps, but remember: administrators as young faculty were managed like staff and worked in team environments to produce results.

Do administrators feel challenged? Perhaps if they don't trust non-Ph.D. holding staff, but remember: At least one time in their careers faculty nurture and mentor a student who doesn't have a Ph.D.

These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.  To feel challenged or threatened by those you administer is to lack people management skills. And when armed with these skills the challenging or threatening feelings can cease to be. My point was to illustrate an area where administrators may fall short and that administrators can apply past student mentoring experiences to their current administrative role; a kind of built-in solution they can tap into.

And finally, to help administrators nurture their people management skills here are a few more suggestions to make it possible:

Shift in Leadership Culture - University administrators may not realize they lack people management skills and the challenge lies in making them aware. Senior leadership with the help of HR can raise awareness to the importance of people management skills and the role these skills play in the success of the university; i.e. changing the belief that the people management/business part of the administrator role is less important than their greater role. 

Workshops, Readings, Discussions - For new administrators, an orientation making them aware of management duties and skills is a great place to start.  Refresher workshops for seasoned administrators would be helpful too. Senior leadership can recommend management skills readings and offer opportunities to discuss best practices and share their management experiences.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Teamwork Tips - "So, what's your take?"

A good leader will draw from their team's collective knowledge. 

So, you have an issue or problem to solve and at a loss for a viable solution? Are you not quite sure if the solution(s) you've come up with are sound? Well... a great sounding board to get you through these situations is your team.

Here's what you can do: pose the problem to your team (or team member if you're a two person team) and then ask, "so, what's your take?" I'm willing to bet that 99% of the time you'll find that someone on your team offers a viable solution, if not valuable insight leading to a viable solution. Or, you might find that collectively your team tosses their ideas among themselves hashing out a solution right there on the spot.

I know to most of us this is a no-brainer. However, I've found in my current workplace managers and leaders don't call on their team for anything but to serve them and their immediate office logistical needs. This post is aimed toward these types of leaders... to the ones running their office more like a fiefdom than a team.

So, what's your take?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Leadership as a Quality

Alright...  After reading Steve Keating's "Managing or Leading" post ( I'm going to get philosophical for a moment about leadership.

Keating's premise is "If you're doing it for business, it's managing. If you're doing it for your people, it's leading." While there's some truth in this statement, it's not completely true. Distilled definitions like these only serve to extend the myth that leadership and management are mutually exclusive. It also serves to extend why people are over-focused on the process and not results. Results require people who are well managed through leadership. 

  • A manager who only focuses on processes will not have results because no one is leading the people who create results. 
...and from this we can say that:
  • A manager whose head is buried in process minutia will have no team because a team needs a leader in order to remain a team.

Let's think of it this way:

  • Leadership is a quality. (It exists in all roles: front-line to CEO)
  • Leadership cannot exist on its own and must be associated with a role. (a brain cannot exist without a body)
  • Those who are considered "leaders" are in a management role. (supervisors, team leaders, CEO's... these roles all "manage" per se.)

And finally, let's stop separating leading from managing and managing from leading, and look at it this way: Businesses are people. We can only (as Keating puts it) do "it for business," only if (as I put it) "we do it for people first."

Friday, June 22, 2012

Potential Hires: Are They Team Players?

Okay, show of hands: How many of us have hired employees who didn't turn out to be team players? I bet most of us raised our hand. And most of us experienced this at least once or maybe even twice before. But if the count's higher then you might find this posting helpful.

Here's what I do to avoid expending valuable time and resources only to discover late in the game a new hire isn't a team player: I get a good read from potential hires during their initial interview. I do this by passing the ball to them in the first few minutes, and then I get them to pass it back. I avoid asking them directly if they're a team player because the aim is to get them to demonstrate team player characteristics. To do this, I:

1. Summarize the position and give them the option to end the interview if they feel they're not a good match. I ask them directly: "If this is something you don't see yourself doing you can end our conversation right now." Offering this option demonstrates you trust their judgement.  I find this a helpful gauge putting them in an immediate judgement situation. Some seemed surprised by it while others are thankful for giving them the option to bail.

2. Engage them in their potential role: I show them exactly what they'll be working on in a manner that obliges them to ask questions. For example, I'll give them a brief hands-on training with the system they'll be using. As I'm doing this I engage them in questions and scenarios related to their role. It's a good way to see how they tick when they ask you follow-up questions. (If they don't actively participate I probably won't hire them.)

3. Make them comfortable: I try to see how they communicate as they might in casual conversation. I chat about interests on their resume or topics outside of the work-world they're passionate about. As I mentioned in my last posting I've hired a great team member after chatting about our common cooking interests. Also, getting them to talk candidly about a past job (beyond the job description and duties) is a good ice-breaker... especially if it's a job they weren't particularly fond of. I'll even share my past work related horror stories to get them to laugh! I find if they're comfortable, they'll ask questions. This is key to observing how they engage with others.

I realize we all have our own interviewing styles and these suggestions might not be the best fit for your work environment. What might work in a start-up or non-profit might not translate to finance or an assembly line. But no matter the tact, providing an opportunity for potential hires to demonstrate team player characteristics in the initial interview is a great place to start.

Friday, June 15, 2012

New Managers: Know Your Existing Employees' Skill Sets

After reading Eric V. Holtzclaw's post  Keep Your Best Employees: 5 Steps  I got to thinking about manager/staff dynamics in university settings... and this question came to me:

Would you hire someone without looking at their resume or interviewing them?

Not likely... but a similar situation can happen in the university setting: it's typical for a department to have an administrator, say a VP or Director (manager) and a few admins (staff). After a few years or so the manager moves on to another position while the staff stay in place supporting their new manager; typically necessary for maintaining procedural continuity and institutional history. The new manger might ask about how the office operates in relation to the greater university but may instead  focus on office logistics  (e.g. "you will place all calls for me", "you will set memos on my desk a certain way...") and perhaps map out a few workflow choreography protocols. This transition happens without getting to know existing office staff skill sets.

To illustrate, here's an experience I had: a new manager was placed in our office who briefly met with me but didn't ask for my resume, past work experience, or ask about skills or working styles. It was a, "Hi, nice to meet you. Oh, I hear you like music..." Fast forward a few years and I'm placed on an institutional-wide project implementation team and tasked with hiring the data entry team. My manager assumed I had no experience and proceeded to micromanage the hiring process. Early on I explained that I had many years experience interviewing, hiring and managing people in the private sector; this of course was on my resume she didn't ask for. But my explanation didn't sink in immediately and I had to keep reminding her for weeks and weeks... and still I couldn't shift her thinking away from her preconception of me.

Bottom line is this: Managers run the risk of compromising their role and the office's mission by failing to get to know their existing staffs' skill sets.

Here's what I challenge new managers do with their existing staff:

1. Review and discuss their staffs' resumes and past job experiences, including past experiences in the current office.

This seems like a no-brainer but new managers can fail to do this. This step is the starting point for the two points below.

2. Sit candidly with staff one-on-one and make an effort to get to know them, both skill-wise and personality-wise.

Making the effort to reach out to staff is key to garnering their trust. Ask them to explain situations where they applied their skills to positive results.

3. Ask staff questions about themselves; this is a great way to see how they communicate.

When I  conduct interviews I begin by chatting about current events or an interest listed on their resume... This way you can see how they truly communicate using a comfortable topic.  I've hired a great team member beginning their interview with a chat about cooking!

To be fair, all this presupposes a manager is willing to see their staff as a team and, unfortunately, managers can have an uninformed preconception that their staff's purpose is only to serve them.  Who knows? These managers might be pleasantly surprised by increased office performance results if they invest a little time strategizing how best to utilize their staff...  a simple challenge at best.