Alignment: Where Is The Goldilocks Zone?

Much has been written about the importance of alignment. But lately I’ve noticed that attaining alignment is more nuanced than we usually acknowledge. It’s more art than science. Too much alignment diminishes both commitment and creativity. In the extreme, you’ll get a dictatorship. Too little alignment diminishes focus and wastes productive energy. In the extreme you’ll get anarchy. Dictatorships can at least function. Anarchies cannot. So where’s the Goldilocks Zone? And how does a leader get people into that zone? That’s the art. As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts.

First, you staunchly insist on adherence to your core — your mission, vision and values. This is where it’s okay to use your power. But you’re always going to run into grey areas, situations where it’s not clear what’s the right thing to do. In these cases, before using your power, I suggest open discussion about the various options and how each one aligns with your core values. You might well not achieve alignment through these discussions. But when you do use your power, people who disagree will know that they’ve been heard. It’s usually not the leader’s decision that really bothers people, it’s the process. Transparency has immense value.

If a person frequently feels out of alignment with decisions at this level, if he frequently feels that leaders are not making the right decisions, he should seek another organization.

The more nuanced situations occur when you have a strategy or an outcome in mind, but your people aren’t convinced about it. You might use your power to say, essentially, “We’re going in this direction. I’m happy to discuss your concerns, but we’re moving forward on this.” You’ve made your position clear. You’ve set direction. After you’ve listened, there’s more you should do. You should ask for the order. “I know you have concerns, but please give this a chance. Please support this and we’ll see where it goes. If it doesn’t work, we’ll change it.” You’ve asked for alignment, even though the person has misgivings. At first, you’ll get compliance rather than commitment. Sometimes that’s the best you can do at that point in time.

A frequent variation on this occurs after your people have accepted the direction (perhaps not enthusiastically), and they aren’t in alignment about how to move forward. Of course, as the leader it’s your obligation to suggest an approach. But there will be times when people just don’t feel good about the approach. They don’t align. They might comply with your direction, but both their commitment and engagement are low. This is very much not the Goldilocks zone.

When you’re in this situation, I assure you it doesn’t feel good to them. The first thing you need to do is acknowledge that it doesn’t feel good to you either. You need to state your commitment to figuring out an approach they can support. You need to listen to them and make changes. And you need to keep making changes until you find something they’ll support. This can be frustrating for all involved. If you believe in your strategy, you need to have some intestinal fortitude. Acknowledge the frustration, stay committed and ask them to stay committed to figuring it out.

There are times when you’re better off finding a direction or an approach your people will voluntarily embrace, rather than forcing your ideas on them. You can’t use your power to push people into the Goldilocks zone. So here’s where the art comes in. Knowing when it’s time to stop pushing people in a certain direction and instead become aware of what direction they want to go. And embrace it. Align with them and see what happens. You might learn something.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Why Do Rational Arguments Fail?

Persuasion is an important element of leadership. Leaders in business, politics, and community service organizations are constantly persuading people (including employees) to get behind their ideas for creating a better future. Rational arguments fall short because our decisions and behavior are heavily influenced by emotions. This is why negative political campaigning is so pervasive. Fear is a very powerful motivator. It often overrides rational behavior. It might be distasteful, but it works.

Leadership is about improving the status quo, and improvement involves change. Rational arguments should be put forth, but expecting people to act rationally is folly. We must accept the central role played by emotions and use that knowledge to persuade people to voluntarily support our ideas.

In the absence of persuasion, by the way, a leader must resort to raw power. And the use of power will gain compliance, but not commitment. The more a leader resorts to power, the more she diminishes her legitimacy. It’s a short-term strategy.

Change always involves risks, and fear of the unknown is ever present. Part of the leader’s job is to en-courage her followers. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is moving forward despite the presence of fear. To en-courage is to motivate people to move forward — to take risks and move into the unknown.

A rational argument, a business case, provides justification, but it doesn’t create the energy necessary to move forward. A leader’s self-confidence and genuine caring attracts others. Her passion and determination are contagious. Her belief in the capability of her team is empowering.

Are you using your emotions to en-courage people to move forward despite their concerns and fears?

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Are Your Customers Interrupting You?

Don’t you think the title question is ludicrous? Our purpose is to serve customers, right? When we start thinking they’re interruptions, we’ve become misguided. But what about employees who interrupt us? Do we treat them the same way we would treat customers?

Many leaders say that employees are their internal customers, but in too many cases that’s just empty language. When a direct report “interrupts” you, do you respond in the same way as if a customer asks for your attention? Do you stop what you’re doing (e.g., reviewing your numbers, writing an email) and give that person a warm welcome? Do you, by your actions, convey that he or she is more important than whatever you were working on?

Of course there are exceptions, such as when you’re dealing with an emergency. But let’s not focus on the exceptions. The basic issue here is whether you treat employees like valued customers. Be brutally honest with yourself. When an employee asks for your attention, do you really demonstrate the same sense of urgency to understand what that person needs and then act to fulfill that need? Whether you do this or not, you’re sending a message about how important that employee is to you.

What message do you want to send?

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Can You, Do You Forgive Your Employees?

Last week my post was entitled, “Do You Owe Someone An Apology?” We looked at the benefits of seeking forgiveness. This week we look at the benefits of giving forgiveness. I’ve worked with leaders who have a very hard time with this.

The opportunity to forgive can only arise when an employee has screwed up. He’s done something perceived by the leader to be wrong or unacceptable. And let’s assume that this screw up was not trivial; it caused a problem. Here are a couple of real-life examples.

In the role of consultant, I was working with a Senior VP of HR  to implement a new company-wide HR initiative. We designed and executed a pilot to test our process. One step in the pilot process required me to consult by phone with the General Manager and HR Director at each location. The pilot worked quite well, and the Vice President decided to roll it out to all company locations. As we rolled it out, I took the initiative to set up consulting calls with each location. Well… that made the Vice President angry. A control freak,  she wanted to control these calls. My calling the locations directly was completely unacceptable to her, and she had me removed from the account. To this day she has not forgiven me. I’ve seen her do this to other people over the years. Someone does something she doesn’t like, and she writes them off. She has a very hard time forgiving.

This next example involves possibly the biggest screw up of my professional career. My boss and mentor at that time was Phil Lombardi, VP of HR for Hyatt Hotels. He gave me the assignment to create a video training program for employees, which he would present at the annual General Managers meeting. I hired outside experts to write, direct and produce this video and the accompanying training materials.

When Phil presented the program, the General Managers universally hated it. To a person, they stated emphatically that they would not implement this program in their hotels. When I recovered from the shock, at the earliest opportunity, I tendered my resignation to Phil. He told me he had just tendered his resignation to the president. The president did not accepted Phil’s resignation and Phil did not accept mine. He forgave me, and he never mentioned it again.

Leadership is all about relationships. If you don’t forgive, the negative feelings you retain will infect your relationship with that person and taint the way you treat each other, thereby undermining your success. Furthermore, there’s a lot of evidence that carrying those feelings around is very bad for your health. See this article by the Mayo Clinic.

Look, we’re all going to screw up at times. We’re human beings for goodness sake. We all need forgiveness. If you don’t forgive you’ll be seen as petty and mean spirited. You’ll drive up turnover, undermine your chances for success, and cause your health to deteriorate. Who needs that?

As a leader when you forgive you increase loyalty and appreciation from others, increase your moral authority, model truly exemplary behavior, improve your relationships, improve your health and increase your chances for success. Who wouldn’t want that?

Life is short. Whatever it is, get over it, let it go. Everyone will be glad you did.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” Mahatma Gandhi

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Do You Owe Someone An Apology?

I’ve worked with plenty of leaders who just can’t bring themselves to admit when they’ve screwed up in some way. And because they’re in a position of power, everyone who reports to them adjusts to it because they have no choice. These leaders just can’t say, “I’m sorry.”

Think about customers for a minute. When you’re dealing with an upset customer, and you’re trying to make them happy, you know that in many cases just saying, “I’m sorry” and meaning it is all the customer needs. Of course you want to fix whatever went wrong, but the point here is that sincerely apologizing almost always diffuses the situation. I’ve made numerous apologies to customers when we didn’t do anything wrong. I’m sure you’ve done this, too. Why? Not because the customer is always right. We do it to retain the customer. We want the relationship to continue. We want the customer to know we sincerely care about them.

In my former career, Horst Schulze taught me this, “Guest satisfaction is not about whether you spill the soup on the guest, it’s about what you do after you spill the soup.” A service recovery situation gives you the opportunity to demonstrate how much you care. In some cases, your relationship will actually be better after the unfortunate event.

Okay, now let’s think about employees. If you make a wrong decision, if you’re in error, do you own it? Do you apologize? Do you make amends? In other words, do you genuinely treat your people as you would treat a customer? That is, after all, the point of using the phrase “internal customers” to designate employees.

Or… are you the type of leader I described in the first paragraph? That type of leader wants to hold employees accountable, but won’t be accountable to his employees. I don’t know what’s gained by this behavior, but I know what’s lost. Respect. Your employees are not under the delusion that you have no flaws, that you don’t make errors. But if you don’t own your errors, they’ll draw the conclusion that YOU are under that delusion. Thus the loss of respect. If you’re that type of leader, apologizing is about power, not about caring.

It’s one thing to have power; it’s another thing how you use it.

Do you owe someone an apology?

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Too Much Drama?

This morning I’m thinking about drama. It’s distracting, it’s time consuming, and it involves a lot of negativity. We’re certainly not going to get rid of it. Because we’re human. We have moods, we make mistakes, we mistreat each other, we judge each other, we make mountains out of mole hills, we catastrophize, and we worry. As leaders, we must be aware of how much drama we’re causing directly or enabling.

Here’s an example of time-wasting drama. I had a human resources director tell me that one of our waiters had HIV, but she couldn’t tell me the name due to the confidential nature of the information. I asked why she was telling me this, what did she hope to accomplish? She said, “I thought you needed to know.” She was just trying to create drama and cause me to worry. Our conversation was a distraction and a total waste of time. I did not follow up on it.

So raise your awareness. Recognize when you’re being sucked into a drama. Ask yourself whether it’s really a good investment of your time. Sometimes it is, by the way. I’ve worked with top performers who generate some drama. If I had ignored it, they would rightly have concluded that their concerns were unimportant to me. So in those cases I was happy to invest my time. Top performers always merit additional time, effort and tolerance. You might have a friend at work who’s going through a tough time, accompanied by some drama. This is another situation in which it’s a great decision to invest time even if all you can do is listen and express support.

But you might have people in your organization who generate more drama than work. You might even have a Drama Club. If you reinforce that behavior, you’ll get more of it. Refuse to participate. Ask yourself a tough question: Are they worth it? Would your organization be better off without them?

And for goodness sake, recognize when you’re the one generating the drama. Ask yourself why you feel like having this conversation, repeating this gossip, or whatever drama-related activity is. Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish. If you don’t find good answers, cut it out. Do something productive.

Remember this. As the leader, you set the standard. If you initiate drama or if you enable it, you’ll be certain to have more of it, distracting employees, wasting productive time, and damaging morale.

As always, thanks for reading. I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Why Do You Care Where A New Idea Comes From?

Most of us (probably all of us) care where a new idea comes from. If it comes from someone we see as a respected authority on the topic, we immediately believe the idea is worthy of serious consideration. If it comes from a 21 year-old, brand-new employee we might not give it as much weight. Or, God forbid, it comes from a new-hire who just joined us from a competitor. In that case we might even be very defensive. So the subject of this post is: To what extent should the “where” or the “who” influence how we respond to an idea?

This topic comes up for me because I recently focused on the fact that in many organizations, experienced new-hires attract criticism when they say, “In my former company we did X, and it really worked well.” If that new-hire came from a highly successful company, they might discuss their former company frequently, particularly just after they’ve come on board. For some reason, many leaders find this annoying. Sometimes, in fact, these new-hires are told to quit mentioning their former company.

I suggest that leaders should welcome these statements. When we make people feel like these statements are unwelcome, we’re shutting out opportunities to learn. Do we think that we have nothing to learn from other organizations? These new-hires are sharing best practices (or at least practices that are better than the ones they’re seeing in our organization). What’s the danger? Where’s the harm?

Not only should we welcome these statements, we should give them serious consideration. Let’s not react with fear-based responses. Let’s not immediately dismiss them as, “Not a fit with our culture.” Let’s discuss these ideas on their merits. Let’s give them a try. If the actual practice is not a fit with our culture, is there a way to implement the fundamental idea in a way that does fit?

Here’s an example. I know of an organization that, as part of their initiation, gets new employees drunk. That doesn’t fit the culture of my organization. But properly done, a good-natured and fun initiation is a great way to welcome new hires. It can send the new-hire a positive statement, “You’re one of us.” I have some suggestions on the blog post How do you Welcome New Team Members.

Think of it this way. Suppose you’re just walking down the street and you find an idea written on a piece of paper. You’re with a couple of associates who work with you. There’s no way to know who or where this idea came from. Some of you immediately think the idea’s worth pursuing, and some of you don’t. Your only course of action is to discuss it on its merits.

We can approach ideas from any employee with the same mind set. Even though an employee might have no experience, we can still show respect by discussing it on its merits. In many cases we can give it a try. If we respond with statements like, “We tried that,” or “Based on my 20 year’s experience, that won’t work,” nobody learns anything. If we engage in open-minded discussion, or if we try the idea, somebody will learn something. It might be you.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg