When Brutal Honesty is a Brutal Mistake

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Some people wear it like a badge of honor, something that’s part of their identity. 

“I’m brutally honest.”

“I say it like it is.”

I get the appeal. We generally appreciate honesty and candid communication. We sometimes equate “brutal honesty” with strength of character or integrity.

But the truth is much more complicated. 

Sometimes—many times, I’d argue—brutal honesty is a brutal mistake. 

Let’s be clear: I’m not advocating dishonesty at all. Don’t lie. 

But for those people who think having the words “He was brutally honest” chiseled into your gravestone would be an accomplishment, I have one question: How’s that working for you? 

And related to that, what’s the quality of your relationships with people around you? If I asked your coworkers or other people who know you, would they say you’re approachable? Kind? Easy to be around? 

I think there’s an important distinction to be made regarding the ways in which “brutal honesty” is good and the ways in which it’s bad. 

Good Brutal Honesty

Sometimes there are things that people need to hear but may not want to hear. In those situations, brutal honesty can be appropriate when:

  • It’s really necessary for the good of the other person (it’s not about you).
  • You’re sharing verifiable facts or data.
  • You’re balancing your statements with compassion and empathy.

Bad Brutal Honesty

The “good” type of brutal honesty requires a great deal of skill. And in my experience, it’s rare. More often, brutal honesty can backfire on the deliverer of such “honesty.” In these situations, it’s usually the case that:

  • You’re saying something to make yourself feel better—more righteous, more “correct,” smarter—not to help the other person. 
  • You’re stating an opinion or venting about how you feel—not discussing verifiable observations or data.
  • You’re not considering how what you say will affect how the other person sees you and your relationship with him or her—it's more brutal than it is honest. 

Every time we communicate, we’re not just sharing whatever information we intend. We’re also making an implied statement about how we view the relationship with the other party. That’s why “brutal honesty” can be so tricky. And oftentimes, “saying it like it is” can result in damaged relationships, broken trust, and ultimately end up with the brutally honest communicator becoming isolated because no one wants to interact with him or her. 

Again, honesty is good. But I always try to remind myself that how I say something is just as important as what I say. 

I also try to remember that just because I think something does not mean I have to say it. 

And that’s the brutal truth. 

Human Resource Management and The Great Unlearning

Exciting changes in the world of human resources (HR) abound. As noted by Stephen Barley (University of California Santa Barbara), Beth Bechky, and Frances Milliken (both of New York University) in their recent article in Academy of Management Discoveries, 

“Few people would deny that the nature of work and employment has changed over the last four decades, not only in the United States but in many countries worldwide. Moreover, the nature of work is likely to continue to change as we move further into the 21st century.”

Such changes make HR work continually dynamic, with evolving practices with regard to new technologies, the increasing prevalence of contingent workers, and more. Barley and his coauthors also mention the rise of artificial intelligence and the rise of project-based work as fundamental shifts that will influence careers and even how people think about themselves in relation to their organizations and society. 

These changes alone are enough to keep HR leaders and other executives up at night. 

Yet I wonder if there are additional, perhaps even more fundamental shifts underway that will forever alter how people behave and interact at work. 

Those changes have to do with a recognition of the ingenious beauty of human organizing, the remarkable capacity that we all have to iterate toward something better, and the foolishness—and downright arrogance—that can accompany our best managerial attempts to control. 

Teams and organizations are increasingly finding benefits in valuing: 

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working [solutions] over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

If those values look familiar, you’ve likely seen them in the Agile Manifesto, which includes these values and a set of principles for software development. 

But here’s the thing—these values and principles have been around for decades prior to their articulation in the Agile Manifesto. That’s because they’re based in how people actually work, not in how various management systems of the 20th Century forced them to obey.

As noted in The Wharton School’s Aug. 1 article, Has Agile Management’s Moment Arrived?

“The agile approach is one that uses teams to work through a process designed to respond to unpredictability; that allows for and encourages changes in direction; that gives teams great authority and transparency; and that builds in customer or user response to the end product or service while it is still being developed.”

Because agile management thrives in a state of uncertainty, it is highly likely to continue to spread into other sectors and functions, far beyond that of software development. 

Case in point: General Electric, which has been implementing similar principles for the past few years with regard to its manufacturing—within a program called “FastWorks.”

And given that agile methods, including those advocated by Scrum, are continuing to increase in popularity, I see a tremendous opportunity—and threat—ahead for the world of HR.

Namely, in successful organizations, HR will be a central component of what I’m starting to think of as “The Great Unlearning.”

The Great Unlearning is what’s required of organizations that are fundamentally committed to a different way of working, a way that’s characterized by how humans actually interact best. 

Going back to Barley and his coauthors’ recent work, in addition to discussing fundamental shifts in the world of work, they also astutely highlight how most of management knowledge and practice comes from research and assumptions developed decades ago. They write: 

“… it is surprising how little organization and management studies have had to say about the phenomenon. Our field’s lack of attention to the ways in which work is changing is problematic because organization studies and organizational behavior grew out of industrial sociology and industrial and organizational psychology in the 1960s and 1970s.”

For HR leaders, The Great Unlearning means that they will have to undo much of what we have taken for granted as management dogma. For example, if an organization does much of its work based upon project-based teamwork, what might that mean in terms of:

  • The employer relationship—will there be much of a need for permanent employees in the future?
  • Compensation—what is the value of hourly wages if results are truly project-based?
  • Recruiting and selection—how do you find people who can perform in an interdependent, team-based environment?
  • Development—how do you help the millions of workers who are deeply accustomed to traditional ways of working adapt to new structures and ways of working? How do you help an organization nurture a culture in which new values matter more than those of the past?
  • And much more. 

The Great Unlearning for HR also includes HR as a profession taking a hard look at itself in the mirror. Although people have been preaching—rightly, in my opinion—about how HR needs to transform for the past two decades (Dave Ulrich’s 1998 Harvard Business Review article comes to mind), has it really happened?

In most organizations that I know, HR is still the compliance department, the place where you go to find out about your benefits, the people who give you stuff to sign. In today's business environment, HR must unlearn its own ways of working. HR must also help organizations unlearn the behaviors that have been taken-for-granted by employees since the Industrial Revolution. 

In short, it seems that The Great Unlearning for HR includes both a threat and an opportunity for HR leaders. 

It’s threatening for HR leaders who prefer to maintain the status quo. 

It’s an opportunity for HR leaders who are willing to take the risks necessary to make their organizations primed for the future. 

What’s Your Unfair Advantage?

In one of the early episodes of the StartUp Podcast—which features Alex Blumberg, formerly of This American Life and NPR’s Planet Money—he meets Chris Sacca, a renowned former venture capitalist and entrepreneur. 

Blumberg painfully bumbles through an attempt at pitching his business idea to Sacca. Believe me, it was bad. I found myself embarrassed for Blumberg just listening to it in my car. Then, Sacca follows by showing Blumberg how he should have pitched it. 

And within Sacca’s formula for pitching a startup, he reveals what I’ve come to think of as a highly useful concept for not just startups, but for leaders, teams and organizations of any size. 

That useful concept? 

It’s the idea of the “unfair advantage.”

For Sacca and startups, the unfair advantage has to do with the specific reasons why the person or team will win at whatever it’s trying to do. This could be prior success and personal connections, it could be patents or other coveted intellectual property, it could be some other magical combination of timing and resources. 

Thinking about your unfair advantage as a startup company is useful because it forces you to think about and clearly identify your strengths and how they fit into the strategic environment or market into which you’re trying to enter. Knowing that, you can capitalize upon your strengths as you wade through the extreme ambiguity and uncertainty of starting a new venture. From Sacca’s perspective as someone who would fund startups, clearly articulating one’s unfair advantage is helpful because it generates confidence in those around you. It’s a powerful sales tactic. 

But the idea of the unfair advantage is highly valuable beyond the world of startups and pitching ideas to potential investors. 

Knowing and using your unfair advantage, in fact, has a lot to do with one of the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles. Specifically, number 10 in that list of 11 principles is “Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities.”

That’s one way of saying it. Another way is “Know your unfair advantage and use it.” 

Nearly every person, every team and every organization has at least one area of excellence. It could be a special skill, a way of operating, an area of knowledge—the point is that this “unfair advantage” comprises that entity’s unique capabilities. It’s the genius that makes you or your group special. 

If you know and use your unfair advantage—or “employ your command in accordance with its capabilities—you’ll be laser-focused on those activities that you or your team does well. You’ll seek opportunities that align with those strengths, using them add unique value. 

So for leaders, this idea has a few implications. 

First, it’s important to know what you do well as a leader. Knowing your weaknesses is important, but at some point in our lives, we’ve also got to know and focus upon our strengths. Capitalize upon them. Find opportunities to let your strengths shine. 

Second, it’s important to know your team—what can your department do that’s different from the rest of the organization? How specifically do you create or add value? Knowing this can help you when you’re working with other leaders inside your organization to assign roles and responsibilities. 

Third, at the strategic level, all organizations should continually refine their sense of how they’re unique. What can your organization do better than any other organization in the region? In the world? Take those unfair advantages and run with them. Bake them into your strategy and infuse them into what your organization actually does on a daily basis. 

If you do, you’ll be employing “your command in accordance with its capabilities,” setting it and those whom you serve up for success. 

This post is one in a series that I’m doing on all 11 of the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles. Here are all 11 of those principles:

  1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement (read more)
  2. Be technically and tactically proficient (read more)
  3. Know your people and look out for their welfare (read more)
  4. Keep your people informed (read more
  5. Set the example (read more
  6. Make sure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished (read more)
  7. Train your unit as a team (read more
  8. Make sound and timely decisions (read more
  9. Develop a sense of responsibility among your people (read more)
  10. Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities
  11. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions

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Develop a Sense of Responsibility Among Your People

It was a new organization, a new unit in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and someone—in his infinite wisdom—put me in charge of it. One of my first tasks was to make some sort of sense of how to organize the 55 members of the loosely defined group into an arrangement that would divide the work in a relatively sensible way and allow for an efficient and effective flow of communication. 

I had some specific ideas. In fact, I had a clear picture of what I thought would work. 

Yet I paused when deciding how to proceed. And instead of announcing my plan and telling everyone to get in line, I chose a different path. 

I gathered the six people next-highest ranking people and gave them an overview of where we needed to head. I told them that we needed a workable structure and what I hoped that could do for us. But I didn’t tell them the details of my plan. Rather, I told them that I’d give them 30 minutes to discuss among themselves, and that I’d check in on them toward the end. 

They sat down around a table positioned outside my office. Leaving them, I went into my office and closed the door most of the way, leaving a small crack so I hear just enough of what they were doing to know that they were making progress. 

After a few moments of slightly stunned silence (this was apparently an unusual approach for all of them, particularly in this rank-driven, military context), they started to talk to each other. They went through a few different ideas, and then began to converge on a working model. 

When the 30 minutes were up, I went out to see how they were doing. One of them proceeded to outline a plan that was, in large part, the same as what I had already thought up on my own. But it wasn’t “my” plan anymore. 

It was their plan. They developed it; they owned it. They now felt an obligation to carry it out—a sense of duty that I’m sure far surpassed what they would have felt if I had simply given them an order. 

It cost about 30 minutes, but it resulted in a sense of duty among them that allowed me to take a step back and watch them put it into action. 

It took no convincing, no cajoling, no pleading, no threatening. It was, after all, their plan, and they wanted to see it succeed. 

In short, they now had a little bit greater sense of responsibility than they had 31 minutes before. 

“Developing a sense of responsibility among your people” is number nine of in the U.S. Navy’s list of 11 Leadership Principles, and one way to do that is through empowering other people to create and implement solutions—like I did in the example above. A sense of responsibility has to do with a feeling of obligation or duty to getting the job done and for the collective success of the team. When people on a team have a sense of responsibility, they require much less oversight from supervisors, they get the job done the first time, they proactively anticipate issues and they work faster. 

Here are a few other ways to develop a sense of responsibility:

  • Explicitly—and frequently—discuss the “big picture” of what you’re trying to achieve as a team and give examples of how people’s contributions fit into that. 
  • Clearly define your expectations, and while doing so, discuss what categories of actions are well-suited for proactive behavior. For example, if your team is supposed to serve a particular customer, define where the team has latitude in making that customer happy. Can they throw in extra products or services to reward customer loyalty? Can they spend extra time getting to know that customer’s needs? 
  • Properly incent behavior that demonstrates a sense of responsibility or ownership. These might be financial rewards, but nonfinancial ones—and even accurate, timely verbal recognition—are often rather powerful too. 
  • Do nice things for your team, tell them you care about their well-being and value their contributions. When people do nice stuff for us, we’re generally programmed as humans to feel obligated to reciprocate by doing something nice in return. In the workplace, this reciprocation often takes the form of higher performance and commitment to the group. 

Although it requires the leader or manager to relinquish some control, developing a sense of responsibility, in the long run, can make for a much more productive and efficient team. 

This post is one in a series that I’m doing on all 11 of the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles. Here are all 11 of those principles:

  1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement (read more)
  2. Be technically and tactically proficient (read more)
  3. Know your people and look out for their welfare (read more)
  4. Keep your people informed (read more
  5. Set the example (read more
  6. Make sure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished (read more)
  7. Train your unit as a team (read more
  8. Make sound and timely decisions (read more
  9. Develop a sense of responsibility among your people
  10. Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities
  11. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions

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Is Micromanagement Really That Bad? Making Sure the Task is Understood, Supervised and Accomplished

 One of the courses I’ve taught to both graduate and undergraduate business students is “Managerial Skill Development.” And among other high-energy theatrics that I employ during our class meetings, I typically ask students to think about the best managers they’ve ever had and the worst managers they’ve ever had.

I then ask them to share some of the characteristics of these “best” and “worst” managers. The answers have become highly predictable. You probably wouldn’t find many of them to be surprising.

Their “best” managers tend to (among other behaviors):

• Be supportive

• Show an interest in their development

• Know what they’re talking about

• Have good organizational skills

• Communicate clearly and frequently

 

Their “worst” managers tend to (among other behaviors):

• Be selfish

• Lash out in anger

• Have a low level of competence in their field

• Be disorganized and scattered

• Confuse people through inadequate or inaccurate communication

Additionally, there’s one phrase that people always mention when talking about their “worst” managers.

“They micromange.”

“They’re micromanagers.”

I get it—no one loves having the boss poking around in every detail of a project. It can be rather annoying, feel like a waste of time and leave you with the impression that he or she doesn’t trust you.

But I wonder if all micromanagement is really that bad? 

In other words, might there be good micromanagement and bad micromanagement? By labeling all micromanagement as bad and demonizing the entire concept, I wonder if we run the risk of being too far removed from the work, advocating a managerial style that could allow people and projects to go much too far in the wrong direction without necessary course corrections.

My amazing colleague Mike Richardson makes this distinction between good and bad micromanagement. So does the U.S. Navy, in a way, in one of its Leadership Principles.

That principle—number six of 11 in the list—is “Make sure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished.”

Another way we talk about this principle in the Navy is through the concept of “intrusive leadership.”

In some ways, both “micromanagement” and “intrusive leadership” sound horrible. Yet think again about some of the great managers and leaders you’ve had in your career. Chances are that they were also the people who asked you tough questions. They pushed you to new levels of performance and attention to detail. They didn’t necessarily take it at face value when you said that you knew what were doing or when you reported the status of a project.

Instead, they probed. They ensured that you were both on the same page regarding the nature of what needed to be happen, where you were in the process of finishing it and that you both had the same definition of “done.”

Great managers and leaders aren’t always there just to make us feel comfortable. Many times, they’re there to help us come to know what we never considered. They’re there to guide us even when we don’t realize we needed guidance. In the words of President Ronald Reagan, they “Trust, but verify.”

Considering two factors can help when deciding how much we trust versus how much we verify. Those two factors are (a) the nature of the task and (b) the level of experience of the people performing the task.

If the task is routine and the people are highly experienced, managers can be much more “hands off.” If the task is unusual and the people are inexperienced, however, managers might need to be much more involved. When there’s a mix (e.g., a routine task and inexperienced people or an unusual task and experienced people), managers will likely need to exhibit a balance of “trusting” and “verifying” during the life of the project or task.

Of course, “bad” micromanagement does exist. My thought is simply that there’s value in not going too far in the other direction, toward a style of management in which a lack of communication and oversight leads to inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

Namely, it’s a good policy to “make sure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished.”

This post is one in a series that I’m doing on all 11 of the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles. Here are all 11 of those principles:

1 Know yourself and seek self-improvement (read more)

2 Be technically and tactically proficient (read more)

3 Know your people and look out for their welfare (read more)

4 Keep your people informed (read more)

5 Set the example (read more)

6 Make sure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished

7 Train your unit as a team

8 Make sound and timely decisions

9 Develop a sense of responsibility among your people

10 Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities

11 Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions

 

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Life is About Interactions

“Quite a few years of life have strengthened my conviction that each and everyone's existence is deeply tied to that of others: Life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions.” – His Holiness Pope Francis

One benefit of my unusual career path is that I’ve had the chance to interact with and learn from numerous people across the worlds of business, academia and the military. 

I’ve listened to top executives describe their triumphs and their challenges, both personal and professional. 

I’ve worked alongside some brilliant researchers, who opened my eyes to new ways of seeing the phenomena of human behavior in organizations. 

I’ve followed and led military professionals whom I’ve trusted with my life because I knew they trusted me with theirs. 

I’ve been lucky. 

Another benefit of these diverse experiences has been the realization that time marches on without ceasing and material success is fleeting (and grossly unimportant in the grand scheme of things). What’s important is how you treat people and how you make their lives a little bit better. 

What’s important is to remember that in every interaction with our fellow humans we have the choice to breathe life and hope into that situation or not. 

Every interaction is a chance to do that. And those interactions themselves are often fleeting. We have a few chances here and there to encourage a coworker. Moments to recognize someone for a job well done come and go in a flash. Even the opportunities to help people or their organizations with our products or services are often momentary, hinging on a few key conversations to build trust and understanding.

But any insight or perspective I’ve gained pale in comparison to those shared recently by His Holiness Pope Francis in his TED talk, which focuses in large part upon the importance of our interactions. 

In his talk, he speaks to all people—regardless of their faith tradition. 

He highlights the value in recognizing our human interconnectedness: 

“None of us is an island, an autonomous and independent ‘I,’ separated from the other, and we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone.”

He praises creativity combined with both courage and a respect for the past: 

“Good intentions and conventional formulas, so often used to appease our conscience, are not enough. Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face. The ‘you’ is always a real presence, a person to take care of.”

He reminds us of the power of hope in the face of despair: 

“Through the darkness of today's conflicts, each and every one of us can become a bright candle; a reminder that light will overcome darkness, and never the other way around.”

And he suggests that humility is central to avoiding the corrupting nature of power: 

“Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other. There is a saying in Argentina: ‘Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach.’ You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don’t connect your power with humility and tenderness. Through humility and concrete love, on the other hand, powerthe highest, the strongest one—becomes a service, a force for good.”

Such insights have numerous implications for us in the workplace, particularly for those who hold positions of authority. We must never forget that leadership is fundamentally about our relationships—and our effectiveness is often a function of the quality of our interactions with those around us. 

Watch the full TED talk here

 

What Everyone in HR Needs to Know About Change

Models for planning and executing organizational change abound—for example, Kotter’s eight steps, among many others. These models are helpful in highlighting many of the critical aspects of organizational change, and I highly recommend immersing yourself in them. 

That being said, I find that such models often deal more with planned organizational change than with unplanned or continuous organizational change. 

And in an increasingly turbulent world, it’s important for human resources (HR) professionals and the HR function overall to take a more fluid, proactive and strategic approach toward change. The realities of the business environment continue to drive changes within organizations, and it’s time for HR to get up to speed. 

From what I’ve observed and experienced in HR during the past decade, the HR profession has an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to how organizations adapt. But we in HR may need to consider organizational change from a slightly different angle. We must start with connecting with the organization’s strategy, and we can then use that direction to guide what we do. Furthermore, we’d be well served to think about what we do a little bit differently, adopting some of what’s working well elsewhere, to get things done quickly. 

Specifically, those of us in HR would benefit from the following regarding our approach to organizational change:

1. Know your terrain. 

It’s critical for HR professionals to understand their environment, or their terrain, both within and outside of their organization. While it’s important to know what people in HR care about, it’s even more important for HR people to know what their top leaders outside of HR care about—what are the main concerns of the c-suite? We in HR also must start thinking much more than we do currently about the environment outside of the organization—where does your organization compete? How does it win? What are the big trends in your industry, and how can HR address them? These questions and others like them allow HR professionals to better understand what’s ahead and anticipate change. 

2. Think like a startup. 

The ambiguity of working in a startup is extreme. Everyone has advice; most of it seems plausible, yet some of it is contradictory. Yet you must forge ahead and create that which has never existed. Given the nature of startups, it’s worth thinking about how they deal with ambiguity and change to see what lessons we may glean for HR. I advocate for a more strategic, proactive, entrepreneurial and agile HR function that will quickly add value to the business. In addition, startups can deal with change in a more iterative fashion, taking some of the lessons we know from design thinking to develop fast prototypes, test them and continually improve—instead of letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. 

3. Embrace agility. 

As organizations attempt to cope with a turbulent business environment, they may need to move from continually seeking equilibrium to being nimble. Agility, generally speaking, is the capability to sense and respond quickly to the forces of change at all levels within the organization. HR would be well served to assess its own agility, along with the agile capabilities of the organization overall. But agility isn’t about reckless flexibility. Rather, we all need some “North Star” to cling onto as our organizations adapt and evolve. As such, HR can help provide stability through working with top management to clarify and communicate continually its core values. Additionally, “agile HR” involves moving from some of our tried and true dogma (e.g., job descriptions) to practices that reflect how people actually work (e.g., project and team charters). 

I see the next 10 years as ones in which HR will likely go through a number of dramatic shifts—because if it doesn’t, it may become a victim of accelerated obsolescence. And when it comes to remaining relevant through a different understanding of change, having an increased focus on (a) knowing the terrain, (b) thinking like a startup and (c) embracing agility will serve the HR function and those who work within it well. 

I’ll be discussing these topics in much more detail next Tuesday, April 18, from 3 to 4 p.m. EDT in a webcast with the Human Capital Institute. Click here for more details.

I’d love to have you join the conversation. 

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Keep Your People Informed

By nature, we humans continually seek to reduce the uncertainty and ambiguity around us. We’re all different to some degree, of course, but we generally like to know what to expect each day, and we like to have clarity about what’s going on. 

As a result, we’re information seekers. 

We look for cues in what people say and how they act. We try to figure out what’s important and what’s not important in part through the words and actions of others. 

And when we don’t have much information to go on—for example, when our direct supervisors don’t communicate with us on a regular basis—we tend to fill in the gaps. 

We guess. 

We assume.

We interpret—and sometimes contribute to—rumors among our peers. We do our best to reduce our own uncertainty and ambiguity. Sometimes that works. 

Sometimes it doesn’t. 

That’s why keeping your people informed—number four of 11 in the list of the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles—is so critical to being a high-quality leader and manager. 

In my experience, both firsthand and in working with other leaders, managers and the report to them, it’s easy to fall into some variation of the three types below when it comes to keeping their direct reports informed. 

Three Common Approaches to Keeping Your People Informed

Type 1: The Quiet Majority

Many leaders and managers fall into this category, but they probably don’t realize it. But if you ask their people, they’ll likely be quick to say that they don’t hear enough from their supervisors or other leaders. The Quiet Majority comprises those leaders and managers who think that they’re communicating enough with their direct reports. They share a few updates when they deem it necessary; they provide comments and direction at staff meetings. By many accounts, they’re doing OK. The problem is that they simply aren’t communicating enough or through enough channels simultaneously to make their people (a) feel involved, (b) understand how they fit into what the team or organization is trying to achieve overall or (c) have enough of an idea about what could happen in the future to anticipate and plan accordingly. 

Type 2: The Firehose

Firehose leaders and managers are on the opposite end of the communication spectrum from the Quiet Majority. They, often under the best of intentions, provide an excessive amount of information to their people. This may come in the form of excessively numerous forwarded e-mails, long meetings or phone calls that come so frequently that they become a serious distraction and hassle. A frequent result is that people start ignoring information that’s provided because it appears to them that there is no clear prioritization of the communication they’re receiving. 

Type 3: The Data Bomber

Some other leaders and managers are what I like to call “Data Bombers.” These people may be part of the Quiet Majority for some periods, but then they sporadically subject their people to a deluge of information. Whereas the Firehoses maintain a continual stream of excessive information, the Data Bombers do so in a more punctuated fashion. A potential result of data bombing your people is that they’ll get confused about what pieces of information are truly important and which ones are not, as they’ll have limited ability to sort through the data bombs as they arrive. Other employees may set aside their current priorities to sort through the data bomb and make sense of it, potentially resulting in delays in making progress on their projects.

A Better Way

It’s tough, but keeping your people informed can be more effective if you consider a few of the following:

  1. Assess your communication. Many of the people in the Quiet Majority think that they’re communicating enough with their direct reports, but their direct reports think otherwise. You can find this out through a simple anonymous survey, supplemented perhaps by directly asking a sample of your people. Ask them if they’re receiving enough communication from you about the strategic direction of the team or organization, about potential changes that affect their work and about personnel-related matters. Also ask about their preferred channels of communication—e.g., your use of e-mail, meetings, memos, phone calls or others ways of passing along information. 
  2. To avoid becoming a Firehose, actively consolidate, summarize or interpret information prior to sending it to everyone. If you’re forwarding information to your people via e-mail, consider including a sentence at the beginning that states the people to whom the information most closely applies. Is it everyone, or just a few specialists? Also, keep in mind that when you treat everything as news, nothing is news. So it behooves you to be selective in what you choose to pass along to your people. 
  3. Whenever you encounter a new piece of information that affects what your team does or what some of your direct reports do, ask yourself the following questions: (1) What do I know?, (2) Who else needs to know?, (3) Have I told them? If you apply these rules consistently, you’ll avoid having a large backlog of information that will require you to deliver a data bomb. 

Clearly, keeping your people informed is an art that you’ll need to hone continually depending on the information you receive, the nature of your team and the preferences of your direct reports. There’s no magical solution, but by assessing your communication practices on a regular basis and actively working to help reduce uncertainty and ambiguity as appropriate through your communication, you’ll be on the right track. 

This post is one in a series that I’m doing on all 11 of the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles. Here are all 11 of those principles:

  1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement (read more)
  2. Be technically and tactically proficient (read more)
  3. Know your people and look out for their welfare (read more)
  4. Keep your people informed
  5. Set the example
  6. Make sure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished
  7. Train your unit as a team
  8. Make sound and timely decisions
  9. Develop a sense of responsibility among your people
  10. Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities
  11. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions

Find this thought provoking? Leave a comment, like and share!

Getting Better Does Not Take Genius or Shiny Things

“Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”

- Atul Gawande, Better, p. 246

Health care in rural India would shock most of us in the United States. As Dr. Atul Gawande describes in Better—his fascinating book about improving performance in health care—many hospitals in rural India are overcrowded and under-resourced. The demands upon their services continuously outstrip their resources. 

They continuously must do more with not just less, but in some cases with nothing at all. They must improvise. They must make use of what is available and do their best. 

Despite their circumstances, these doctors and other healthcare providers innovate. They quickly move from case to case, sometimes sending patients themselves to purchase commonplace medical supplies. And they develop much broader areas of knowledge and skill than most doctors in the United States. For example, Gawande describes his astonishment at the ability of the surgeons in these crowded hospitals and clinics to perform chemotherapy, a task typically reserved solely for oncologists. 

Certainly, the overall quality of health care is better in the United States than in the places that Gawande describes. He readily acknowledges as much in the book, and he provides numerous examples from within the United States of what it takes to get better in the practice of medicine. His chapter on improving outcomes for cystic fibrosis patients is particularly gripping.

As someone typically on the outside of the healthcare industry looking in, I see three specific lessons from Gawande’s observations that apply to organizations and teams of all types, in all sectors, in all industries. 

First, getting better requires perspiration and an obsession about, not surprisingly, getting better. Getting better is sometimes less about big ideas than it is about doggedly executing the little ones. 

Getting better requires a relentless desire—the discipline, diligence, persistence—to perform basic tasks perfectly. It also requires a relentless desire to push the bar higher, to refuse to accept the status quo as good enough. This style of leadership might be what some characterize as “micromanaging” and “intrusive.” Yet it’s often the hard-working, hands-on leader who pushes performance to new levels. It’s the leader who knows that perspiration is often just as (if not sometimes more) important than inspiration. 

Second, getting better requires a focus on the basics. I often find that executives can become distracted by “shiny things”—be they technologies, fads or other attractive diversions. And yet, many times all they need to succeed are the basics. They don’t necessarily need the fancy new enterprise software they heard about at a trade show; they don’t necessarily need to pivot toward a new strategy. Instead, they may simply need to understand the basic resources their people need to do the job well or to execute their current strategy with gusto.

As Gawande describes when talking about his experiences in India: 

“More than one doctor told me that it was easier to get a new MRI machine than to maintain basic supplies and hygiene … Having a machine is not the cure; understanding the ordinary, mundane details that must go right for each particular problem is.” (p. 242)

I had a similar experience while serving as an adviser to the Afghan National Police in 2013. A human resources information system was being built for them—at a huge expense. Yet most of them couldn’t read. And those who could read would have likely preferred some really great filing cabinets, folders and paper office supplies over a complicated computer system. 

Third, getting better requires courage. People aren’t going to like it when you question their standards or performance. People aren’t going to be happy when you push them out of their comfort zone. People aren’t going to like it when you perform at a level that makes them look bad. 

So you’ve got to decide: Is it worth it? And if it is, go for it, with a renewed appreciation for diligence and perspiration, a focus on the basics and listening to your people, and the courage to forge ahead even when you think people might get upset or when you’re just plain scared. 

Find this thought provoking? Leave a comment, like and share!

Siri, Drive the Kids to Soccer Practice

Siri, Drive the Kids to Soccer Practice

Touchscreen ordering at McDonald’s. Self-checkout at the grocery store. 

Programmable logic controllers that guide manufacturing processes. Industrial robots that weld, assemble and, even, inspect. 

And perhaps one that really sparks widespread imagination: driverless vehicles. We probably have some time before we can get a positive result from telling our iPhones, “Siri, drive the kids to soccer practice,” but

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What Leaders Can Learn From Mr. Olympia

What Leaders Can Learn From Mr. Olympia

Imagine that you’re about to interview for the job of your dreams. Or that you’re about to give a high-stakes presentation. Or take an important test. Or simply focus on getting a few things done in the next hour. 

What are you thinking? What are you telling yourself in your mind? 

If you’re anything like 8-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, you’re telling yourself, “Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it.” 

Coleman is widely considered one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, which is impressive enough, but what I find compelling is how he talked. In particular, how he

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Are You “Rewarding A While Hoping For B?”

Are You “Rewarding A While Hoping For B?”

Incentives matter. Rewards motivate people to behave in certain ways. Using incentives, therefore, is one great way to influence the form, direction and intensity of how people act. 

Goals also matter. They help us clarify where we’re headed and how to focus our efforts. Setting difficult, specific goals, therefore, is one of the best ways to motivate yourself and others (see the numerous studies on the topic, particularly those by Gary Latham and Edwin Locke). 

But goals and incentives can—and sometimes do—run amuck. 

And when that happens, it’s often in the form of

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On Human Connection, Vulnerability and Leadership

On Human Connection, Vulnerability and Leadership

Years ago, as a young junior officer in the U.S. Navy, a few hundred of my peers and I shuffled into a large auditorium to hear an admiral speak. I don’t remember his name or his title. But I remember one phrase, one nugget of “wisdom” that he provided. 

He said, “Leaders are people who know stuff.” 

At the time this seemed like a simple, yet compelling insight. And it’s certainly the case that one source of people’s power and influence over others can be their expertise. In many situations, we follow those people who know the most (or at least seem to know the most) about how to solve problems. 

We also tend to follow people who have definitive answers. People who are decisive, outspoken, direct. 

But such tendencies grossly oversimplify the heart of leadership and what it means to connect with our fellow humans. 

The implication of treating leaders and leadership as being about “knowing stuff” is that to be a leader, you need to have all of the answers. You need to know more than the people you’re trying to lead. And your knowledge, therefore, gives you the right to tell those people what to do. 

Sorry, admiral, but this conceptualization of leadership is as sophisticated as my 3.5 year-old son—whom I caught wiping his nose on the couch cushion yesterday. 

Clearly, 

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What’s Your “To-Don’t” List?

What’s Your “To-Don’t” List?

Some people really like to create lists. Often, these take the form of things “to do.” Some people even get such satisfaction from crossing items off of their to-do lists that if they accomplish something that wasn’t on their list, they’ll write it down and immediately cross it off. 

Know anyone who does that? (Sometimes, that’s me. I’ll admit it.) 

These types of lists are great. They help us stay apprised of what needs to happen in various parts of our lives, both professionally and personally. My weekly to-do list helps me immensely in providing structure to my week. 

But there’s another kind of list that can be helpful. It’s one that can be particularly helpful for those whose work has reached a level of complexity that’s overwhelming, a level of busyness that’s forcing them to do everything at a level of mediocrity that’s highly dissatisfying. 

That list is

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The Courage to be Agile and Pivot

The Courage to be Agile and Pivot

My morning routine gives me comfort. I get up at the exact same time almost every day. My coffee maker is set to turn on 15 minutes earlier, so I go downstairs, pour my coffee and fill my 1-liter water bottle. I then head to my home office and get oriented for the day’s activities. 

After about 40 minutes, my coffee cup and water bottle are empty. Then, it’s time to get ready for some exercise. That lasts for about an hour, after which comes the remainder of my tasks to prepare for the day prior to the stampede of our four soon-to-awaken children. 

And so on. 

These are comfortable routines; they are generally productive habits. 

But sometimes habits can become too comfortable. We can stick to routines for the sake of sticking to the routine—when in fact, change is necessary. 

For example, 

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Sometimes, Be Less Predictable

Sometimes, Be Less Predictable

“I’m going to leave the room. When I come back, you will each need to be able to introduce five of your classmates to me.

"You have five minutes, starting now.”

This is frequently how I start a class at its first meeting of the semester. Sometimes, but not always, I stick my head back in the classroom after a minute or so if I don’t hear robust conversation and yell, “Get talking! You have three more minutes!”

The outcome is predictable. It’s a breath of energy and fun that kicks off the semester in a wonderful way. 

But the action itself is certainly not predictable. And that’s part of why it works.

Most of the time, 

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Orienting New Employees Starts Well Before You Meet Them

Orienting New Employees Starts Well Before You Meet Them

My fascination with the military—and the U.S. Navy, in particular—started before I was 10 years old. And during the decade between then and when I was commissioned as an officer in 2002, I acquired a whole set of ideas about what actually being in the Navy would be like. 

These ideas came from books, movies, stories from veterans and myriad other information sources around me. 

Some of those ideas turned out to be accurate; others weren’t. For example, most of what you experience on a day-to-day basis in the U.S. Navy—especially if you’re a ship driver like I was—bears little to no resemblance to Maverick’s job as a fighter pilot in the 1986 movie Top Gun. 

But other patterns of behavior such as respect for rank structure, commitment to teammates, and aspects of selfless leadership that I’d learned about turned out to be 

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Can Leadership Prevent Mistakes?

Can Leadership Prevent Mistakes?

"While I was in the middle of the room, the attic floor and beams collapsed onto the second floor crashing down to the first floor where I was standing. The time between us entering the building and the time of the collapse was no longer than 90 seconds. I was knocked to the floor and was trapped under the debris. I suffered a head injury and a torn patellar tendon. The contents of the upstairs ended up in the first floor room and I could have been killed. By my judgment, approximately 80,000 gallons of water was pumped into that structure and we were ordered in anyway. This was after a previous call to evacuate 45 minutes earlier. This should not have happened!"

Mistakes happen. Sometimes, those mistakes hurt or kill people. I’ve studied them among fire fighters, who sometimes experience events like the one described above (which comes from Report 07-0001036, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2014). The mistakes that people in the fire service and other high-risk occupations make often have important safety implications. In other industries and occupations, mistakes may not hurt or kill people, but mistakes often derail projects or anger customers. They create conflict and they degrade the quality of what we make or do. 

Mistakes aren’t exclusive to any industry or sector. 

Mistakes also almost happen. These close calls or near misses—when discussed well and integrated into a learning program—can serve as powerful wakeup calls for people and teams.

Regardless of whether we’re talking about mistakes or near misses, learning from the past to improve future performance is

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Your Most Precious Resource

Your Most Precious Resource

I recently heard someone quote a deceptively insightful short poem. Titled, “How did it get so late so soon,” it’s one of many gems penned by the late Theodor Geisel, and here it is. 

"How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?"

Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss, captures here the feeling that I get frequently when I think about seasons ending, new years beginning and everyone (including me) aging. 

It’s not just about nostalgia; it’s not just about how even a 100-year lifetime is but a flash in the course of history. 

It’s more than that. 

It’s about how there’s one thing

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Why People Just Don’t “Get It”

Why People Just Don’t “Get It”

“This is important,” I said. “But it’s not hard, and I only need you to do this for a minute.”

He looked at me from under his furrowed brow, not convinced. 

“Please. Everyone else is smiling for the picture, and we want you to smile too.”

Still no luck. Just a strange noise of stubborn disobedience, something akin to a growl mixed with a whimper. 

Such went my pathetic attempt at 

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