What to say about September 11th, this year, didn’t come to me until I was standing in front of a client’s leaders, talking with them about retaining employees and what they could do to become an even better place to work.
Their office isn’t too far from Shankesville, PA, where flight 93 crashed on September 11th, so they seemed like the right group with whom to share my story. Then I decided that perhaps I should share it with you too.
I bought my first house in Denver in 1999 and went on vacation shortly after closing on the house. Right before I left, my manager told me he had too many direct reports and was putting a layer between us. I’d have a new boss when I came back from my vacation.
Two weeks later, I returned to my new manager and found her to be defensive, paranoid, and irrational – in short, impossible to work with. I did everything I knew to work well with her, calling on our HR department and the EAP counseling available to me, for help. Despite that I led communication skills training for the company and taught conflict resolution, I couldn’t work with her, and let my old boss know I’d be leaving.
I suspect he already knew my new boss wasn’t going to work out (I wasn’t the only person struggling to work with her), and offered me a position in our New York office. He told me that if after 90-days I wanted to return to Denver, I could. Ninety-days in New York with all my expenses paid or unemployment with no plan? The choice was clear. I went to New York and moved into my office in Tower Two of the World Trade Center, where I worked on September 11th.
I’m not proud of uprooting my whole life for a manager I couldn’t work with, and it’s not something I recommend others do. But it does demonstrate the difference one person can make. I never actually lived in that first house I bought. I accepted a permanent job in New York, but wasn’t ready to let go of my life in Denver. So I struggled with the decision of whether to stay in New York or return to Denver, for three years.
It’s normal to question our purpose and wonder if we make a difference. If you ask these questions, consider all the people you work with on a daily basis and how you impact their daily lives. We spend a huge portion of our existence at work, and how we interact with coworkers, customers, direct reports, and vendors impacts their happiness, or lack thereof, in a big way.
Don’t underestimate the difference you make when you smile at someone in the hallway at work, or don’t. When you thank someone for making your job easier, or don’t. When you take the time to teach someone a quicker way to do something, saving him countless of hours, or don’t. Regardless of your title and position in your organization, you impact the people around you in a huge way, every day.
During last week’s training in Pennsylvania, I talked about the four things essential to retaining employees.
Retaining employees –the four things employees need to be satisfied and engaged at work:
- I trust the leaders who run this organization.
- My opinion means something. I am listened to.
- I feel respected (by my manager). We have a good working relationship.
- My work is challenging and interesting. My career is going somewhere here.
If you’re a manager working on retaining employees, spend time with your employees. Ask questions about their career goals. Take the time to coach and give feedback. If you’re a senior leader committed to retaining employees, be visible. Walk around your office(s), addressing employees by name, and asking about their daily work. And if you’re not in a position of leadership, be easy to work with by keeping your commitments, being a short cut and providing information when you can, and offering to help employees who are overwhelmed. Retaining employees is not just a manager’s job. Every person we work with impacts our daily lives more than we know.
Saying no is hard. We don’t want to disappoint or let people down. And yet, you can’t say yes to everything. You can say no and still sound like a responsible, easy-to-work-with, accommodating professional.
Here are four techniques for how to say no:
- Thank the person for asking. “Thank you for asking me.”
Saying “thank you” acknowledges the other person and buys you time to think about his request.
2. Tell the person you need some time to think about his request. Ask, “Can I have a few days to think about it? I’ll get back to you by Friday.”
You don’t need to reply in the moment. I often regret things I agree to without thinking through the request thoroughly.
3. Consider what you really want and are willing to do. It’s much worse to over commit and under deliver than to simply say no or renegotiate requests.
4. Get back to the person in a timely way (when you said you would) and tell him what you’re willing to do.
How to Say No Option One: Simply say no.
Example: “I really appreciate you asking me to write the proposal for the __________ RFP. I’m not able to do that. Can I recommend someone else who has the expertise and will do a great job?”
Don’t give a bunch of reasons for saying no. People aren’t interested in why we can or can’t do something. They just want to know if we will do it.
How to Say No Option Two: Agree and negotiate the time frame.
Example: “I’d be happy to do that. I can’t do it before the last week of the month. Would that work for you?” If the answer is no, negotiate further. Ask, “When do you really need it? I can certainly do pieces by then, but not the whole thing. Given that I can’t meet your timeline, who else can work on this in tandem or instead of me?”
How to Say No Option Three: Say no to the request but say what you can do.
Example: “I can’t do _______. But I can do ________. How would that work?”
A review of how to say no:
- Acknowledge the request by getting back to the requestor within 24 hours.
- Give yourself time to think about and respond to requests.
- Negotiate requests to your and the requestor’s satisfaction.
- Agree on what you can and are willing to do.
- Keep your commitments.
Saying no is always hard. But it’s always better to say no than to ignore requests, or to say yes and do nothing.
We added to our team at Candid Culture a few weeks ago, so we did what I teach other organizations to do –use Candor Questions to onboard our new team member, and help the entire team get to know each other better.
I sent my team the Candor Questions below and asked them to pick a few additional team building questions for everyone on the team to answer.
- What will keep you working here and what would make you leave?
- What’s the best way to get information to you – voicemail, text, or email?
- What time is too early?
- What time is too late?
- Do you leave your email and/or text alerts on at night/when you go to sleep?
- Would you prefer I send all emails and text messages during regular business hours?
- What frustrates you at work?
- What are your pet peeves?
- What’s something you want to learn, skill or business wise, that you haven’t had a chance to do?
- What’s something you wish I would start, stop, or continuing doing?
We run so fast at work and are so focused on completing goals, we often don’t take the time to really get to know the people we work with. I feel very strongly that asking the team building questions above will help people work better together. We’ll make fewer ‘mistakes’ with each other, and get more done with less stress and more ease. As William Ury said in his book, Getting to Yes, “Go slow to go fast.”
How many times have you sent someone five emails and become frustrated when none were returned? Or you thought an employee was happy, only to be surprised when she quit? Or you needed to talk with someone but couldn’t get her attention, so you walked by her office throughout the day, wondering if it was ok to knock? Working with other people doesn’t have to be so hard.
Taking the time to ask team building questions is much faster than recovering from missteps with other people. Ask the questions at the beginning of anything new – when you hire a new employee, get a new customer, or start a new project. And keep asking the questions as you work with people.
Asking questions about working style preferences and goals is an ongoing process, and it’s never too late. You can ask the team building questions during meetings or just slip them into your conversations. The process doesn’t have to be formal or time consuming. The point is simply, don’t guess what people need and are expecting from you, ask.
I always try to do the right thing. I try to remember and send cards for special occasions. Apologize for mistakes, or better yet, don’t make any. Listen more than I talk. Be a great boss. Keep in touch with friends near and far. Always take the high road. Never lose my temper or patience. Eat healthy. Get fewer parking tickets. I could go on and on and on. In short, I want to be perfect. And I’m annoyed that I’m not.
Lately I’ve begun to realize that my desire to be perfect is causing me stress, diminishing my happiness, and preventing me from pursuing things I really want. So here’s to overcoming perfectionism. I hope the steps here help all of us who are frustrated that we’re not perfect.
Overcoming perfectionism tip number one: When you make a choice, go with it. Don’t second guess yourself.
If you decide to skip a party, networking event, or class at the gym, you have a good reason. Don’t question yourself or say, “I should have.”
Overcoming perfectionism tip number two: Stop thinking that life has to look a certain way.
Maybe you’re in a job that doesn’t challenge you 100%, or you wish you were saving more money. Be careful not to buy into others’ views of how life should be lived. You’re living your life in the way it works for you.
Overcoming perfectionism tip number three: Don’t compare yourself to others.
Comparing ourselves to other people is normal and natural, and it’s the booby prize. There will also be people who are more successful, more fit, and more attractive than us. Those seemingly perfect folks have challenges and disappointments we will never know about.
Overcoming perfectionism tip number four: If you make a mistake, apologize once and move on.
I often feel badly for ‘mistakes’ long after they’re over. The other person is likely to have forgotten about the incident long after I’m still feeling guilty.
Overcoming perfectionism tip number five: Worry less what people think.
Human beings are wired for survival. Most people are so worried about themselves; they’re not preoccupied with you. So do your thing and assume the rest of the world is not watching.
Overcoming perfectionism tip number six: Try new things and be willing to make mistakes.
We won’t have anything different if we don’t do anything different. Learn a new skill, try a new way to solve a problem, and be willing to look silly and fail.
I’m hoping the tips above provide both me and my striving-to-be-perfect comrades some freedom. By suggesting you live your desired life, I’m not saying ignore responsibilities, be rude, or put yourself first all the time. I am saying that living life the way you think it should be lived, versus how you really want to live it, will diminish your personal happiness and satisfaction. And as far as we know, we only go around once.
Organizations are working hard at retaining employees. Employees are watching how their organization’s leaders and managers work, and often make career decisions based on the hours the most senior people keep. Not a recipe for retaining employees.
Many employees pay particular attention to how often managers and senior leaders take vacations and whether or not leaders attend meetings and respond to emails while they’re ‘off.’ Employees observe the late nights leaders and managers put in and the emails sent at 11:00 pm and on the weekends. I’ve heard lots of employees say, “If I need to work like my boss works to get ahead in this organization, I’m not interested.”
Managers, the key to retaining employees is to communicate expectations. If you’re available while you’re on vacation, but don’t expect your employees to do the same, set that expectation. If you send an email outside of regular business hours but don’t expect employees to respond until the next business day, tell them so. They don’t know. Many employees assume that if you email them at night, you expect a reply.
Instead of allowing employees to make assumptions about what managers do and don’t expect, set clear expectations. Be overt and clear. Tell employees, “I work most evenings and weekends, but don’t expect you to do so. And I work these hours because I enjoy it, not because I have to. If I email you outside of regular business hours, I am not expecting you to reply.” Retaining good employees begins during the interview process, when initial expectations are first set.
Managers, if you expect employees to check and respond to emails outside of regular business hours and to be available while on vacation, tell them. If working long hours is a criteria for promotion, set that expectation preferably during the interview process. It’s completely fine to expect long hours and for employees to be accessible outside of regular business hours. There is nothing wrong with either expectation. There is only a problem if employees don’t know that’s the expectation.
Employees, if your manager emails you outside of regular business hours and she doesn’t tell you whether or not she expects you to reply, ask. Simply say, “I often receive emails outside of regular business hours. How will I know when you need me to reply?” Likewise, if you notice your manager emails you on vacation, you can say, “I typically hear from you when you’re on vacation. Are you expecting me to check in while I’m off?”
The need to ask questions and set expectations goes both ways. Don’t wait to be told. Ask.
Managers and employees, ask these Candor Questions about working style preferences to aid in retaining employees:
- How do you feel about being contacted outside of regular business hours?
- If I need to reach you over a weekend or in the evening, what method is best?
- Would you prefer I text you so you don’t have to check your email outside of business hours?
- What time is too early and too late to call, text, and/or email?
Ask more. Assume less and make retaining employees easier.
When I led leadership development training for a large mutual fund company we offered a lot of training focused on helping people have hard conversations. Over time I realized that despite that I’d bought and offered the best training programs I could find, the training wasn’t helping. Managers didn’t give enough feedback and when they did give feedback, employees were often left confused, wondering what they needed to do differently.
I decided that what was missing was the conversation before the crucial conversation. It wasn’t that managers didn’t know what they wanted to say, many managers felt they couldn’t say what they wanted to say. There wasn’t sufficient safety or permission for giving feedback, so managers said little or delivered messages that were so vague, employees were left wondering if there was a problem. This is when the idea for Candid Culture was born.
If you’re struggling with giving feedback, I doubt it’s the message that’s the challenge. The distinction between being able to tell the truth (as you see it) and saying nothing, is the quality of your relationship.
Think about the people – personal and professional – who can say anything to you. These are the people who can tell you that the person you’re dating is wrong for you, that a piece of clothing is not flattering, that you disappointed them, or dropped the ball. You may not enjoy getting the feedback, but you’re able to hear what they have to say and take it in, because you know they care about you and have your best interests at heart. You trust their motives. When you trust people’s motives, they can say anything to you. When you don’t trust people’s motives, there is little they can say.
If you’re struggling to give feedback, evaluate your relationship by asking these three questions:
- Does this person know that I have her back under any circumstances?
- Does this person trust me?
- Does this person know that I accept her just as she is?
If the answer to any of the questions above is no, it’s not giving feedback you’re struggling with, it’s the quality of your relationship. Work on building trust with this person and you’ll be able to say whatever you feel you need to say.
Here are five steps to building trusting relationships:
- Get to know people better than you know them now. Download free conversation-starting Candor Questions to have these conversations.
- Tell people you want them to succeed and demonstrate that by being supportive of their efforts.
- Don’t be judgy. No one likes to be told that she is wrong.
- Set the expectation that you will give both positive and negative feedback when appropriate, because you want the person to win. And if you remain silent, you are of no help to the other person.
- When you deliver feedback, be extremely specific. Feedback that is specific will be received much better than vague feedback, which is typically judgmental.
When people know that you respect and want good things for them, you have a great deal of freedom to speak up. When people don’t trust your motives, giving feedback is almost impossible. The recipient will become defensive and dismiss whatever you say, rationalizing that you don’t like her and never have.
Worry less about giving feedback –for now. Instead, build trust. Get to know people better, then work on giving feedback.
If a friend asked you to do something, you did it, and she didn’t say thank you, you’d probably think twice the next time she asked you for something. The people you work with are not different.
If you don’t say thank you to employees, they too will stop doing things you think are important. Human beings thrive on recognition and relationships. We need both to survive. And when we don’t feel connected or appreciated, we find appreciation elsewhere.
If you think saying “thank you” to the people you work with is unnecessary, consider this example. An overwhelmed employee feels strapped for time. She produces a 30-page report every month that takes hours of her time. No one has ever talked with her about how the report is used and why it’s important. So when she is overwhelmed and decides that something needs to go, she stops doing work that appears not to add value—the 30-page report. It turns out the report reflects her department’s results and is reviewed by the CEO, CIO, CFO, and COO. Oops.
There are managers who think that a paycheck is enough of a thank you to employees (old school) and that any other thank you to employees is unnecessary (this doesn’t work). Human beings want to make a difference.We don’t like doing tasks we perceive as not being impactful. So tell the people you work with that their work matters by saying thank you, and how you say thank you matters. Saying, “Thanks for doing such a great job on that project” doesn’t go nearly as far as saying, “Thank you for taking over the Briggs proposal. You shepherded the proposal from beginning to end and made sure no detail was overlooked. You made all of us look good and we would not have won the business without you.” Like all feedback, specific feedback is meaningful and drives future behavior. Vague feedback feels inauthentic and doesn’t tell the recipient what to replicate in the future.
Onto why it’s important to say “I’m sorry.” Some people think that saying you’re sorry puts you in a weak position and that you will lose employees’ respect. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Strong people admit when they’re wrong. Weak people can’t admit mistakes.Admitting fault ingratiates you to other people. Refusing to take responsibility alienates you.
It’s very frustrating to work hard and never be told “thank you.” Likewise, it’s upsetting when people don’t apologize for dropping the ball and making mistakes. It’s so easy to say “thank you” and “I’m sorry,” and it costs nothing. The more you demonstrate appreciation for the people you work with and take responsibility for your mistakes, the harder people will work on your behalf.
Being in the wrong job feels terrible. It’s not unlike being in the wrong romantic relationship, group of friends, or neighborhood. We feel misplaced. Everything is a struggle. Feeling like we don’t fit and can’t be successful is one of the worst feelings in the world.
The ideal situation is for an underperforming employee to decide to move on. But when this doesn’t happen, managers need to help employees make a change.
The first step in helping an underperforming employee move on to something where s/he can be more successful is to accept that giving negative feedback and managing employee performance is not unkind. When managers have an underperforming employee, they often think it isn’t nice to say something. Managers don’t want to hurt employees’ feelings or deal with their defensive reactions. In fact, when we help someone move on to a job that she will enjoy and where she can excel, we do the employee a favor. We set her free from a difficult situation that she was not able to leave out of her own volition.
I get asked the question “how do I know when it’s time to let an employee go?” a lot.
Here’s what I teach managers in our managing employee performance training programs: There are four reasons employees don’t do what they need to do:
- They don’t know how.
- They don’t think they know how.
- They don’t want to.
- They can’t. Even with coaching and training, they don’t have the ability to do what you’re asking.
Numbers one and two are coachable. With the right training and coaching employees will likely be able to do what you’re asking them to do.
Numbers three and four are less coachable and are likely not trainable.
When you’re confronted with someone who simply can’t do what you need them to do, it’s time to help the person make a change.
The way you discover whether or not someone can do something is to:
- Set clear expectations
- Observe performance
- Train, coach, and give feedback
- Observe performance
- Train, coach and give feedback
- Observe performance
- Train, coach and give feedback
Welcome to management.
After you’ve trained, coached and given feedback for a period of time, and the person still can’t do what you’re asking her to do, it’s time to make a change.
Making a change does not mean firing someone. You have options:
- Take away responsibilities the person can’t do well and give him other things that he can do well.
- Rotate the person to a different job.
Firing someone is always a last resort.
Sometimes we get too attached to job descriptions. The job description outlines a specific responsibility that the person can’t do. So we fire the person versus considering, who else in the organization can do that task? Be open minded. If you have a person who is engaged, committed, and able to do most of her job, be flexible and creative. Give away parts of the job to someone who can do them well. I’ve also seen employees who were failing, thrive in a different job. Organizations that are flexible survive; organizations that are rigid do not.
Let’s say you’ve stripped away the parts of the job that an underperforming employee can do well and she still can’t perform effectively. Now it’s time to make a change.
Here are some words to use when having the difficult ‘it’s time to move on’ conversation:
“I really want you on my team and to be successful in our organization. Over the past six months, we’ve had several conversations about the parts of your job that are a struggle. We’ve taken away responsibilities that aren’t a fit for you and have replaced those responsibilities with things that seemed like a better fit. And yet I can see that you are still struggling. I’m very sorry to say that it’s not appropriate for you to continue to working here. Today is your last day.” Depending on your organizational culture, can also say, “How do you want to handle this? You can resign or we can let you go. I’ll do whatever feels more comfortable for you.”
This is a difficult conversation that no manager wants to have. Yet I promise you, this conversation feels better to your employee than suffering in a job in which s/he can’t be successful. After you’ve set expectations, observed performance, and coached and given feedback repeatedly, letting someone go is kinder than letting the employee flounder in a job in which he cannot be successful.
I’m taking golf lessons, which should frighten anyone within 100 feet. Every time the instructor explains something new, he asks me, “Does that make sense?” “Does that make sense” is a common clarifying question, that many managers, trainers, and instructors ask, but it’s not a good question for two reasons.
Reason number one: If an explanation doesn’t make sense to me, I’m the idiot for not ‘getting it.’ It’s not that the instructor hasn’t been clear, I just ‘didn’t get it.’
Reason number two: The question doesn’t force me to speak. “Does that make sense” is like asking a shopper in a store, “Can I help you?” We all know the right answer to that question is, “No, I’m just looking.” This is a similar to when someone asks, “Are there any questions?” The right answer is “no.” And when people say “no,” the person who asked the question often says, “good,” affirming people for not asking questions and making it less likely that questions will be asked in the future.
Here are some clarifying questions that will force people to talk and won’t make them feel stupid for asking questions. Instead of asking, “Does that make sense,” consider asking:
- So I know I’ve been clear, tell me what you heard me say.
** This may sound harsh and like micromanaging in writing, but the questions can be asked in a supportive and non-judgmental manner.
- Just so I know how I landed, what do you think I’m asking/expecting you to do?
- What do you think you need to do?
- What are you planning to do?
I was talking with one of my clients a few months ago. She was very upset because she told one of her employees what to do and he didn’t do it. Frustrated, she said, “He knew what to do, and he didn’t do it.” I asked her, “How do you know that he knew what to do?” She replied, “I told him what to do and when I asked if he had any questions, he said no.”
Her situation is a common one. The right answer to “do you have any questions” is “no.” And we’re surprised when we swing by the person’s desk two weeks later to get a status update on the project, and he hasn’t started working on it yet.
Here are some additional examples of clarifying questions and delegation questions. These questions will force people to speak, providing a clearer sense of what people know and are likely to do.
- What questions do you have?
- What are you planning to do first? If the person answers this question appropriately, ask what he is planning to do next. If he doesn’t answer the question appropriately, step in and give more direction.
Provided you trust that the person knows what to do, give a tight deadline and ask to review the person’s work in a few days. Give people some freedom, but not enough to waste a lot of time and go down a fruitless path. Delegation is something few managers do well and the root of many missed deadlines and frustrations in the workplace.
The golf instructor should be asking me:
- What did you learn today?
- What are you planning to do as a result of what we’ve covered?
- What techniques did I ask you to follow?
- Let me see how that form looks?
- What questions do you have for me?
If he asks me these clarifying questions and forces me to do the things he is asking me to do, he will know what I know and am likely to do on the golf course. All he knows right now is that I’m poking fun of him in a blog post.
Figuring out if a candidate will like and can do a job is fairly straight forward, figuring out if a candidate will like working in your organization is much harder.
A clear and specific job description should tell a candidate whether or not a job’s responsibilities are things she can and wants to do. What’s much harder to determine is whether or not the candidate is a good culture fit with the organization. Will she be comfortable working with the organization’s employees and in the organization’s culture, and will other employees be comfortable working with her? It’s hard to figure that out during a 60 or 90-minute conversation, during which both interviewers and interviewees are on their best behavior.
Some companies use personality assessments to assess culture fit. Others have lots of people meet with candidates. I’m fond of the job shadow interview, which very few companies do.
If you’re really serious about a candidate, why not invite her to spend a day or a half day in your office participating in a job shadow interview. Candidates can attend meetings, have lunch, hang out in the break room and hallways, and meet fellow employees during the job shadow interview. Candidates and employees are more likely to let their guard down and be themselves outside of a formal job interview. You want to know the person you hire as well as possible. You don’t want to hire someone who turns out to be very different once she actually starts.
Hiring and training new employees is the most costly thing most businesses do, so slow down and invest more time. Before you make a candidate an offer, ask the candidate if she would be willing to spend half a day in your office participating in a job shadow interview. That invitation could sound something like, “We really like you and think you’d be a great fit. Before we make you an offer, we wonder if you’d be willing to spend an afternoon (or a day), sitting in on some meetings and job shadowing a potential peer. Would you be interested in doing that?”
Candidates, you’re interviewing and assessing an organization just as the people in the organization are interviewing and assessing you. You won’t be successful or stay in a job very long if you don’t feel at home in the culture. If a hiring manager makes you an offer and you are seriously considering it, ask to job shadow interview for a half or full day. That request could sound something like, “Thank you so much for the job offer. I’m very excited about the possibility of working for you! I want to be sure that I’m a great fit and vice versa. How would you feel if I spent a morning or afternoon attending a few meetings and job shadowing someone on the team? This will give me an even better sense of the organization and make sure this is a great decision for both of us. What do you think?” I can’t imagine any employer outside of those working on government, classified information saying no.
Taking the wrong job and hiring the wrong candidate is costly. Slow down and make better hiring decisions by giving candidates a chance to experience your culture with a job shadow interview, when people aren’t on their best behavior. You’ll make better hiring decisions and save lots of time and money in the process.