How Can You Prevent Dating In The Workplace?

Numerous organizations consider it unprofessional for employees to date each other. Some even have rules against it, accompanied by possible disciplinary consequences. I hope my discussion in this post helps you decide what position you’ll take as a leader.

Whether this is simply an unwritten cultural value or a written rule, here’s the main problem: employee dating cannot be prevented. In an organization where dating is frowned upon, employees go to great lengths to avoid detection. And the dating couple’s friends don’t want them to be punished for this. This group considers it okay to hide the truth about this. There’s a lot of winking (actual or virtual) involved.

Look what’s happening here. Formal cultural disapproval fosters deception and lying, which detracts from building a transparent, high-trust culture. Those who don’t know the truth about the dating — usually management — will justifiably wonder, “What else are they hiding from me?” Once you start down this path it becomes a slippery slope. It becomes easier to condone the next deception. Trust is eroded, which generates more dysfunctional behavior.

Please note. I’m not criticizing couples who hide the truth because they wish to keep their relationship private for personal reasons. That’s their privilege. I’m discussing cases where the couple would be open about it, but are afraid of negative consequences if they were to make it public.

Also, I’m not discussing dating situations that create risks of sexual harassment claims. It’s just plain stupid to date someone if you’re creating the risk of a law suit. Don’t date subordinates. Don’t date superiors. If you intensely want to start dating a subordinate or a superior, eliminate the sexual harassment issue by getting a job in a different organization.

It seems to me the solution here is to make it safe for employees to state publicly that they’re dating. So why would an organization frown on employee dating?

I think all reasons can be reduced to fear at some level. For instance: If their personal relationship is having a problem, they won’t be able to work together effectively. Their loyalty to each other will be stronger than their loyalty to the company. They’ll spend too much work time discussing personal matters. They’ll play favorites for personal reasons.

I have two responses to all these concerns. First, remember that dating cannot be prevented. Second, in any community each person has closer relationships with certain people than he or she does with others. If you have a best friend at work, all of those behaviors can occur. So these undesirable behaviors will occur whether people are dating or not. Dating is not the root cause. The behaviors mentioned in the previous paragraph occur because we’re human beings. As leaders we all have to manage through these situations every day.

Disapproval of dating leads to deception, which erodes trust. Why would you want that?

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

Larry Sternberg

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When Aspirations Don’t Align With Talent, What Do You Say?

During the course of your career you’ll sometimes have to speak with someone who aspires to a certain role in your organization even though she doesn’t have the natural talent to perform that role with excellence. What do you say? How do you help her work through this? That’s the topic of this post.

Let’s agree that if this employee doesn’t have the natural talent for the aspirational role, it’s not in anyone’s interest to cast him in it. The ideal outcome would be that the employee is not given the aspirational role, understands why (even if he disagrees with the reasoning), and remains an engaged contributor in a role with a career arc more suited to his natural talents.

Every situation is unique, so I can’t give you a script. But I can give you some guidelines.

While you’re going through this, remember that people almost always accept the final decision — it’s the process they complain about. Let’s understand there’s no way she’s going to feel good about it in the moment. You’re delivering bad news. So don’t try to sugarcoat this. Be transparent, clear and compassionate. Listen actively. If you sincerely have the employee’s best interests at heart she’ll know that. And she’ll know it if you don’t.

Start by asking this person to tell you why he seeks this role. Listen, listen and listen some more. Give some feedback demonstrating you understand his thoughts and feelings.

Then discuss what the person’s life will be like on a day-to-day basis. Help him visualize it. Remember, our hypothetical involves a person who doesn’t have strong talent for the role. Therefore, it’s likely he’ll be required to engage frequently in activities that he doesn’t enjoy. For instance, suppose an individual performer aspires to become a manager. Does he want to sit in meetings half the day? Does he want to be accountable for the performance of others? Does he want to spend a lot of time on administrative paper work? Does he want to work the hours required in this role? Does he want to confront unacceptable work performance?

When someone is in the wrong fit for her talent she’ll experience a lot of stress, which will cause physical and emotional problems. Personally, I don’t want to be a party to that. I’m comfortable saying, “I don’t think that role is the best fit for you. I don’t think you’ll like doing those activities, and I don’t think it’ll be good for you.”

If there is a role in which this person can excel, discuss the importance of that role in the company. Help her understand why she’s better suited for this role than others. Help her visualize the difference she can make and the growth she can experience as you invest in her strengths.

If it’s clear to you that the person will never get that aspirational role, don’t lead him on. I’ve said to more than one person, “Honestly, I don’t think that’s in your future here. I think we have associates whose talent is more suitable for that role, so I think you’ll be out-competed when opportunities open up. I know this is hard to hear, but I want to be honest with you.” Don’t lead him on.

In these types of situations, you’re going to win some and lose some. On several occasions I’ve lost good employees who went to companies that were willing to give them that aspirational role. I have no regrets. Because the alternative — giving them the role — is worse for them, worse for the company, and worse for the customers.

Thanks for reading. And thanks to my associate Cami Wacker for suggesting this topic.

I’m sure some of you have additional suggestions, and I’d love to read them. We can all get better at this.

Larry Sternberg


Are You Having Enough One-on-One Meetings?

For very good reasons we invest a lot of time in group meetings. But we need to recognize that the most important, powerful and meaningful meetings are one-on-one. You can verify this insight by thinking about your life experience. For instance, think about how you close a sale or develop future leaders through mentoring. Think about the last conference you attended. Did you derive more value from the keynotes and breakouts or from people you met at the conference? Think about how things get done in your organization, or in your life.

I invite you to review how much one-on-one time you’re investing. And most importantly I invite you to review with whom you’re investing this time. Are you investing enough one-on-one time with your direct reports? With top performers? With others who are important to the organization?

Many of us, unfortunately, are too busy to rely on happenstance to present one-on-one opportunities. We have to be more intentional. We have to schedule them. And changing your routine in this way might well require you to eliminate some activities in order to make time for these meetings.

However, here’s the payoff. You powerfully demonstrate to the other person that he or she is significant to you, you enrich your relationship, you enhance engagement, you learn more about their aspirations and needs, you move initiatives forward, and you achieve better alignment. What’s not to like?

In fact, I challenge you to identify another practical, easy-to-implement strategy that will deliver all the benefits discussed above. I know this approach requires a huge investment of time, but the payoff is worth it. Why not give it a try?

Thanks to Dr. William E. Hall for articulating this insight. And thanks to my friend Keith McLeod for suggesting this topic.

And thanks to you for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg


Are You Helping Your People Or Just Criticizing Them?

Last week I attended a board of advisors meeting at a prestigious university, which has a highly regarded four-year program to prepare students for careers in a particular industry. The members of the advisory board are all executives in businesses related to that industry. Approximately 25 executives attended this conference. It was readily apparent to me that each member had a sincere desire to improve both the university’s program and also to improve the ability of the industry to serve its customers. And they were committed to constructive collaboration in order to achieve these goals.

Several professors delivered presentations about industry research projects they had recently completed or were underway. The board members asked questions, took part in discussions, and were otherwise engaged. But after the presentations board members expressed a degree of disappointment that the school’s research projects did not have enough relevance and practical value to people actually doing business in the industry. My impression was that there was consensus on this point.

The board then discussed various strategies to ensure that future research would be more relevant. To mention just one idea, perhaps a subcommittee of the board could review proposed research projects and issue opinions about relevance. The issue of academic freedom came up, and it became clear that the kind of research projects that helped the careers of professors frequently was not the kind that industry executives would consider relevant and practical.

Then something interesting happened. The conference leader asked the board members what research projects would be relevant, practical and helpful to industry executives.

Cue sound of crickets chirping.

Perhaps it’s not so easy to identify relevant research topics in this industry.

After some moments of silence, one board member offered five ideas, but I didn’t perceive a high degree of enthusiasm for any of them. Not one other board member, including me, offered an idea — including the two or three people who had been most vocal about their disappointment on this topic.

As leaders we have to be better than that. We have to actually help. If we can’t offer any coaching, ideas, resources, alternatives or some other form of help to those in whom we’re disappointed then we should quit criticizing them for not doing better.

As leaders, if we can’t help people find a better way, we’re not doing our jobs.

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

If you would like, you might want to check out Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking.

Larry Sternberg


High Talent Team/Weak Supervisor — What Now?

A client asked one of my associates what a senior leader should do when she finds in her organization a team of highly talented employees being supervised by a weak supervisor. Furthermore, what can the team members do?

Let’s talk about some options available to the senior leader. In all cases, the very first activity for the leader should be root cause analysis. Why is this supervisor so weak? One possibility is that this supervisor was recently promoted to his very first supervisory role. He might have great potential, but he hasn’t been trained or coached properly. He’s making rookie mistakes. So the answer is to provide coaching in real time. The senior leader (or her designee) must be willing to give this supervisor a great deal of access. The supervisor must be able to receive just in time coaching about how to handle upcoming situations and to debrief recent situations (whether they went well or not) to extract the lessons learned. The senior leader can also recommend books, blogs, and other learning activities. This is a significant investment of time, but a high talent rookie will grow rapidly, and the organization will enjoy a terrific return on that investment.

Another possibility is that the supervisor in question simply is not a talented supervisor. In this scenario my hypothetical supervisor has been a supervisor long enough to tell whether he has the natural abilities necessary for the role. Low talent supervisors cannot effectively manage high talent employees. Coaching will not yield a return on investment here because the potential for growth doesn’t exist. The coach will be asking the supervisor for behaviors he does not have in his repertoire. In some instances the behaviors suggested by the coach will actually feel unwise to this supervisor. The best option in this scenario is to remove the supervisor. The senior leader should make an effort to understand the talents and strengths of this person and should investigate whether there’s a different role for which this person is better suited. But he must come out of the supervisory role. If the senior leader does not remove him, the talented employees on his team members will leave.

What can the team members do? In the first instance, the talented rookie, they can give the new supervisor a chance. Talented team members can usually spot potential in a new supervisor. They’ll see very quickly that this person cares deeply about them and wants to meet their needs. (These are two characteristics of a highly talented supervisor.) They should help him help them. I’m thankful that a group of executives did this for me in my first assignment as a hotel general manager. Without their generosity of spirit and willingness to help me grow, I would not have succeeded.

In the case of the non-talented supervisor, the team members need to stick together, engage in peer to peer coaching, and mutually support each other. They should remind themselves frequently about the organization’s mission, about the successes they’re having, and about the difference they’re making in their customers’ lives — despite the shortcomings of the supervisor. They must have faith that the senior leader is not deaf, dumb and blind, and they should hang in there.  Because things will change.

One of the most important life lessons I’ve learned is this: Despite the fact that you cannot even imagine how a particular situation might change, it does anyway.

Thanks to my friends Mark Epp and Keith McCleod for independently recommending this topic.

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

Larry Sternberg


How Can You Strengthen and Expand Mentoring In Your Organization?

My associate, Jessica McMullen, brought to my attention a thoughtful, well-written article by Lindsey Dunn entitled, “Mentoring is Critical to Organizational Longevity — So Why Is It Such a Struggle?” She suggests that, “… great mentorship requires two broad things: demonstrating great leadership so that others can learn from your behavior, and championing others.” In this post I add my thoughts about great mentors and what you can do to foster more and better mentoring in your organization.

As I’ve written in previous posts, performing at a high level of excellence in any endeavor requires the aptitudes, gifts or talents relevant to that endeavor. Mentoring is no different. One can acquire the competencies to mentor others at some undistinguished level of performance, but excellence requires the foundation of aptitude.

Here are some characteristics of people who have the potential to become great mentors:

They can spot potential in others
No leader can mentor a great number of people at any one time. Therefore, the leader must make good decisions about how (and in whom) he or she will invest their time.

They receive intrinsic satisfaction from cultivating true mentoring relationships
Just being in this kind of relationship is genuinely enjoyable in and of itself. This is like a musician who loves playing music — just for the joy of playing. In a true mentoring relationship the parties enjoy each other’s company. Consequently, they look forward to spending time with each other. Often (but not necessarily) they become good friends.

The mentor gladly embraces the risk of being the mentee’s champion
The mentor takes a stand. Make no mistake about the professional risk involved here. The mentor personally endorses this individual, and this endorsement is based on a profound conviction about the potential of the mentee. Strong mutual loyalty emerges.

The mentor intentionally seeks opportunities for the mentee to develop his or her potential
The mentor proactively seeks assignments that will challenge and stretch the mentee to grow into their potential. Often, the championship mentioned above is important for securing these opportunities.

The mentee’s development and success is deeply fulfilling for the mentor
Development is the goal. Success is the by-product. The mentor is proud of the mentee’s accomplishments and knows that he or she has contributed. This is similar to a parent’s pride in the child’s successes.

As Ms. Dunn points out, true mentoring relationships cannot be assigned. They must emerge organically, based on the intentions of both parties. In true mentoring relationships, both parties grow.

So, how can you strengthen and expand mentoring in your organization? The most powerful strategy is to select and promote more executives and managers who have the potential to become truly excellent mentors. Take a hard look at your selection criteria. If excellence in mentoring isn’t on your list, there’s a clue about why you don’t have more and better mentors. In selection, if you hold out for executives who enjoy mentoring and are good at it (they don’t grow on trees, by the way) you won’t need a formal program. They’ll do it because they enjoy it.

Do you recognize and reward the good mentors in your organization? Is it addressed in performance evaluations of mid-level managers as well as executives? If not, there’s another clue.

So you can have all the mentoring training you want. If you don’t select people who are high potential in terms of mentoring talent, if you don’t recognize and reward it, and if you don’t include it in performance evaluations — you won’t make much progress in your goal to strengthen and expand mentoring in your organization.

Thanks to my associate, Jessica McMullen, for suggesting this topic.

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

Larry Sternberg



Are You Investing Too Much Time Mediating Relationships?

In my last post I focused on the importance of chemistry in the workplace. In this post I address a related issue, poor relationships between employees.

Relationship problems exist in every organization. When I first became an HR director, I invested a huge amount of time mediating and refereeing relationships. And my fellow managers joined me. Employees would come into my office — every day — to complain about being treated poorly in any number of ways. These types of complaints did not amount collective bargaining issues or violations any laws or regulations. They were more like, “Mom! Marcia’s staring at me again!”

In that organization, it was expected that I would meet with the parties to make judgements about who was at fault (often they both were), and what each should do differently to improve the relationship going forward. Including supervisors, we’d often have three or four people in these meetings. AND this was considered a completely appropriate way to spend our time.

Does this sound familiar?

The most glaring problem with this approach is that it does more harm than good. There’s a lot of finger pointing, and the negativity is magnified by all the focus on the problem. When the meeting’s over everyone feels worse, and the relationship doesn’t improve. We were completely unconscious. We just kept doing it.

I’ve since learned that we were enabling those employees to avoid speaking directly to each other about their issues, and to transfer to us the responsibility of solving their problems.

As a leader you can make a different choice. You can stop investing time mediating relationships. You can insist that people take responsibility to solve their own problems. You can insist that they speak directly to each other, without third parties involved. If you do this you’ll, 1) stop making things worse, and 2) invest more time on things that actually add value. That’s a win/win strategy.

Thanks to my wife, Salli, for suggesting this topic.

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

Larry Sternberg