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Managing People Archive

Talk About Work Environment and Constraints – Cross the Line

It’s been eleven months that many people are working from home who would ordinarily go into an office. Some people are content with the fancy-on-the-top, jammies on the bottom video-work life, others are feeling lonely and isolated. Some employees have a private, uninterrupted work setting, others are trying to find a quiet place to participate in meetings while a partner and kids are also at home. Working from home amid distractions and loneliness is tricky and we need to be able to talk about it.

Managers, your employees don’t want to tell you they’re struggling, lonely, distracted, or can’t make certain meetings or deadlines. They want you to think everything is fine, that they’re fine. Who likes to admit to their boss that they can’t keep up or are unhappy at work?

If a manager loves working from home and has a quiet, uninterrupted work environment, it may be easy to miss employees’ challenges. Managers need to cross the line and ask questions they otherwise wouldn’t.

Don’t assume employees are fine. Don’t assume employees will tell you if they’re not. They likely won’t. You need to ask and make it easy and safe to tell you the truth.

Managers, ask employees these questions:

  • What’s your work environment like?
  • What constraints are you under?
  • What’s a realistic work schedule right now?
  • What do you want me to know?
  • What do you need?

It may seem like it’s too late to ask. It’s not. It’s never too late. Simply be honest. It could sound something like, “I wanted to check in and see how you’re doing working from home. I want to ask some questions so I can support you. I wish I’d asked before. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

Managers who are willing to tell employees they wish they’d done something differently earn loyalty and trust for showing vulnerability and humanity. Strong managers admit mistakes.

If you’re nervous that employees will delve into arenas that are too personal, set parameters for the conversation. It’s ok to set boundaries when asking questions. You could say, “I want to talk about some of the constraints you may be under working from home. I’m sorry I didn’t ask before. Let’s focus on things I can support you with and stay away from items I can’t help with like finances and personal relationships.”

Then be prepared to help employees problem solve. Maybe employees need a different work schedule or different deadlines or deliverables. Maybe employees need help setting expectations with peers and clients around when they can and can’t attend meetings.

Make it safe to talk about how employees are really doing and what they need to be successful in today’s circumstances. Tell employees that you really want to know, you’re sorry you didn’t ask before, and that it’s safe to tell the truth. Then problem solve with employees. And ask the same questions periodically. Make talking about work environment, schedule, and expectations a regular conversation.


Retaining Employees by Setting Clear Expectations

Organizations are working hard to retain 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 time off and whether or not leaders attend meetings and respond to emails while they’re ‘off.’ Employees observe the late nights that 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.”

Retain Employees

Managers, one of the keys to retaining employees is to communicate expectations. If you’re available while you’re on vacation, but don’t expect 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 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 candidates during the interview process. If working long hours is a criteria for promotion, set that expectation. 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.

Retain Employees

Give Small Amounts of Balanced Feedback

If I hear this one more time I might lose it.

Manager:  “One of my employees has been making a lot of mistakes. He seems disengaged. I’m not sure what’s happening.”

Me:  “Have you talked to him?”

Manager:  “No. Performance appraisals are coming up, so I’ll just wait to give the feedback until then.”

Me:  “When are performance appraisals?”

Manager:  “In six weeks.”

Most people hoard feedback. We wait for the right time, aka when we’re comfortable. That time will never come. The right time to give feedback is when something happens or shortly thereafter. Practice the 24-hour rule and the one-week guideline. Give feedback when you’re not upset, but soon after the event occurs, so people remember what you’re talking about.

Most employees feel as if they’re treated unfairly during some portion of a performance appraisal. Employees receive feedback they’ve not previously heard or receive feedback that is unbalanced – overly positive or negative, or the feedback is so vague, employees aren’t sure what to do more, better, or differently.

Effective performance appraisals are a quick summary of all the performance conversations you’ve had during the year and planning for next year. To have an appraisal meeting that’s a summary of past conversations managers need to meet with their employees regularly and give feedback every time they meet. Giving feedback regularly throughout the year is the most effective management suggestion I can make.

Meet regularly with your employees. If you never meet one-on-one with employees, start meeting monthly. If you meet monthly, meet twice a month. If you meet twice a month, consider meeting weekly for 10 to 30 minutes.

Below is a one-on-one meeting agenda, which the direct report leads:

  • What is the employee working on that’s going well?
  • What is the employee working on that is not going great, but she doesn’t want your help?
  • What is the employee working on this isn’t going great and she wants your help?
  • Give each other feedback: What went well since you last met?  What could be improved?

**  Give and receive feedback on the work and on your relationship. This will be hard the first few times you do it but will become easier with each successive conversation.

Ask your employee to create a meeting agenda. Take notes during the meeting and keep your notes. The summary of these meetings becomes your annual performance appraisal.

Regardless of whether or not you’re meeting regularly throughout the year, you can only give small pieces of feedback during the appraisal meeting. Discuss three SPECIFIC things the employee did well during the year and three things she should do next year. People can’t focus on more.

Consider how each of your employees should impact your department and your organization’s annual goals. In that context, determine the most important things each employee did to contribute to those goals this past year and what she should have done more, better, or differently? That’s your appraisal. Not more and not less.

During performance appraisals, force yourself to focus on and present ONLY the most important behaviors and outcomes, and your employees will bring the same focus to the ensuing year.


Build Others’ Confidence by Saying Less

One of the hardest things I ever did was to hire someone to care for my infant son. “Here is the person most important to me in the world. Keep him alive.” I had no idea how difficult it would be to trust a relative stranger so implicitly. And as a result, let’s just say I was not the easiest parent to work for.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I wrote sixteen-pages of instructions on how to take care of my kid. And I gave that ‘booklet’ to a nanny with much more childcare experience than I had. When I heard my son crying, I would tell myself not to walk into the room and check on him, knowing it undermined the nanny, but I did it anyway. When the nanny sent me an update of when my son last ate, I replied telling her when he should eat again, even though I knew she already knew that. Yes, I really did these things.

Each time I over instructed, monitored, and advised, I regretted it. I knew micromanaging our nanny made me difficult to work with, which is not how I wanted to be. It reminds me of a comment an old boss said to me after we interviewed a candidate for a job together. He said, “Shari, your job as the interviewer is to make the candidate feel comfortable and ensure she leaves feeling good, regardless of how well or poorly she interviewed.” During the interview, my face must have said anything but, “I want you to feel comfortable and you’re doing a great job.” His words stuck with me and I was reminded of them each time I over managed our nanny.

build confidence

Many people attend training on how to manage others. I’d suggest we also look at how we manage ourselves. How does working with you make people feel? Do your questions, requests, and interactions make people feel more self-confident and valued, or do people feel questioned and undermined? Do you pick your battles? Do you give just enough direction but not so much as to squelch the other person’s ideas, initiative, and spirit, especially when the stakes are high?

As you know, I’m evaluating how I do these things too. We are always a work in progress.

Here are four ways to build confidence in the people you work with:

Build Confidence 1: Ask people for their ideas and implement those ideas whenever possible. And if you aren’t open to others’ ideas, don’t ask for them. It’s better not to ask for ideas than to ask when you’re really not interested.

Build Confidence 2: Ask for and be open to others’ feedback. People will be more receptive to your feedback when you’re receptive to theirs.

Build Confidence 3: Say “thank you” regularly and mean it. Give specific examples about what you’re thankful for.

Build Confidence 4: Admit when you’re wrong. Strong people admit mistakes, weak people don’t.

People can work with you, around you, and against you. Earn loyalty and respect by respecting others’ talents and knowing when to take a step back.

build confidence

Stop Expecting People to Change

I read a quote a few months ago that struck me – “It’s so hard to change yourself, what makes you think you can change someone else?” This seems so true. And yet, how much energy do we invest trying or at least hoping other people will change? We want our not-so-forthcoming manager to give regular and helpful feedback, our Halloween candy stuffed selves to prefer celery over chocolate, our not-so-affectionate partner to become a cuddler.

People are who and (largely) how they are. Even with lots of effort, coaching, and even counseling, it’s hard to change.

work well with others

As someone who leads a training and development company, it feels risky to write this. I’m concerned that my words will be misunderstood. So I want to be sure I’m clear. People can learn new skills. Managers can learn to coach and give feedback. People at all levels and in all roles can learn to communicate differently. Everyone can learn to use new technology. But we don’t fundamentally change who and how we are. People who hate to public speak aren’t likely to wake up tomorrow clambering to give presentations to thousands of people. People who don’t like crowds aren’t likely to want to spend every weekend at large sporting events when they resume.

What I’m really trying to say is, stop trying to get something from someone who can’t give that to you. If you work for someone who never provides feedback, no matter how often you ask, get input from someone else. Lots of people can provide you with helpful information if you ask for it and make it safe to tell you the truth. If you’re chastising yourself for not being more athletic, accept that you like to read, and buy yourself a new book.

Instead of trying to get something from someone who can’t give it to you, get what you can from that relationship and get the rest of your needs met elsewhere. And tell others to do the same. I had someone working for me a few years ago who was extremely sensitive and didn’t do well receiving feedback. I tried to accommodate her needs and preferences, softening my messages, picking my battles, and in the end, giving less and less feedback. And it was exhausting. Eventually, I said to her, “I’m not the right manager for you and this is the not right company for you. It’s not a good fit. You won’t be happy here, and I want you to be happy. Let’s help you find another home.”

I’m not telling you to get a new job. I’m telling you to be realistic in your expectations of yourself and others. The most powerful thing you can do is to be yourself and let others be themselves. And if you don’t like how or who someone is, hang out with someone else.


Don’t Give Feedback via Email, Voicemail. Pick Up the Phone.

You get an email that annoys you, hit reply, type up your thoughts, hit send, and feel instant regret. We’ve all done this. We’re frustrated and we let the other person know.

Feedback via email is always a bad idea. You don’t know how the recipient will read and interpret your message. You can’t manage the tone of the message or give the person a chance to respond. And more often than not, he’ll reply equally frustrated. And now the non-conversation begins –back and forth, back and forth.

Email is for wimps and voicemail isn’t any better! No texting either. End the madness and pick up the phone or take a shower and meet via video. Things are resolved most quickly and easily by talking about them.

I’m consistently surprised at how much feedback is delivered via email. And it’s only gotten worse with people working virtually. I’ll admit to occasionally being guilty of it too. I’m in a hurry and I want to get something done quickly. Or my emotions get the best of me and I feel compelled to respond to a situation quickly. So I send an email or a text message that I know I shouldn’t send. Then I regret it and spend the rest of the day apologizing and feeling badly for communicating impulsively.

If we want people to want to work with us and perform, we need to consider how our actions impact them. Yes, it’s easier to send a quick email or text. But it invariably annoys the other person and damages your relationship. People can work with you, around you, and against you. If people want to work with you, they’ll work harder and produce better work.

Never underestimate the human ego, which is easily bruised. You are ALWAYS dealing with someone’s ego. When someone (anyone) calls our competence into question, we get defensive. Becoming defensive when receiving negative feedback or when someone questions us is a gut reaction. Not becoming defensive takes a great deal of self-management and is unusual.

Slow down. When you need to give feedback, ask yourself what you want the other person to do. Then ask yourself, how do I need to communicate to get the result I want? Then pause, breathe, and pick up the phone.


Effective Performance Appraisals – Raise Performance and Morale

Most people would rather get a root canal than participate in an annual employee performance appraisal.

The reasons employee performance appraisals are so difficult is simple:

  1. Most managers don’t deliver timely and balanced (positive and negative) feedback throughout the year.
  2. Many employees don’t ask for regular feedback.
  3. Too much information is delivered during the annual employee performance appraisal.
  4. And as crazy as it sounds, managers and employees haven’t agreed to give and receive regular and candid feedback.

Employee performance appraisals don’t have to be the worst day of the year.

Here are four steps to ensure employee performance appraisals are useful and positive:

  1. Managers and employees must agree to give and receive balanced, candid feedback. Don’t assume the agreement to speak honestly is implicit, make it explicit.
  2. Managers, be honest and courageous. Don’t rate an employee a five who is really a three.  You don’t do anyone any favors. Employees want to know how they’re really doing, no matter how much the feedback may sting.
  3. Managers, focus on three things the employee did well and three things to do more of next year. Any more input is overwhelming.
  4. Managers, schedule a second conversation a week after the employee performance appraisal, so employees can think about and process what you’ve said and discuss further, if necessary.

The key to being able to speak candidly during an employee performance appraisal is as simple as agreeing that you will do so and then being receptive to whatever is said. And don’t make feedback conversations a one-time event. If you do a rigorous workout after not exercising for a long time, you often can’t move the next day. Feedback conversations aren’t any different. They require practice for both the manager and employee to be comfortable.


Giving Feedback – The Right Time is Now

Most of us wait to give negative feedback until it’s the right time, aka the recipient won’t get upset. Or we wait, hoping the situation will resolve itself. If something is really an issue, the likelihood of either happening is pretty slim. The right time to give feedback is shortly after something happens. I’ll offer up the 24-guideline and the one-week rule. Wait 24-hours to give feedback, if you’re upset. But don’t wait longer than a week.

giving feedback

The purpose of giving positive or negative feedback (I like the words upgrade feedback) is to motivate someone to replicate or change a behavior. That’s it. Feedback is supposed to be helpful. If you wait longer than a week to give either positive or upgrade feedback, the person isn’t likely to remember the situation you’re referencing and the purpose of giving feedback – to change or replicate a behavior – will be lost.

Here are four practices to make negative (upgrade) feedback conversations shorter, less painful, and more useful:

Giving feedback practice one:  Agree to give and receive feedback at the onset of relationships. Do this with everyone you work with – direct supervisors, direct reports, peers, internal and external customers, and vendors. If we’ve done How to Say Anything to Anyone training for your organization or you’ve read the book, you got the specific language to have this conversation.

Giving feedback practice two:  Prepare for feedback conversations by writing down what you plan to say and then delivering the feedback to a neutral person. Ask that person to tell you what she heard and what her expectations would be, based on what you said. Confide in someone either at your level or above at work or someone outside of work, to keep the gossip to a minimum. Ask for confidentiality.

Giving feedback practice three:  Tell a neutral person about your situation, and ask what she would say to address the situation. Everyone but you will do a better job at giving feedback. Feedback conversations become hard when we’re emotionally involved. The guy working at the 7-11 will do a better job than you. Seriously. It’s our emotions and concern about the other person’s reaction that makes feedback conversations challenging.

Giving feedback practice four:  Agree to do a weekly debrief with the people you work closely with, and follow-through. Answer the questions – what went well this week from a work perspective and what would we do differently if we could. Answer the same questions about your working relationship. Giving feedback about your relationship will be hard at first.  It will be easier the more you do it. Be sure to say “thank you” for the feedback, regardless of what you really want to say. One of the reasons giving negative feedback is so hard is we wait too long. Shorter, more frequent conversations are better than long, infrequent discussions.

Giving negative feedback doesn’t have to be so hard. Follow the suggestions above and remind yourself that the purpose of giving feedback is to be helpful. If you were doing the wrong work, you’d want to know. And others do too.

giving feedback

Hire and Fire for Attitude – Hiring Employees

“He does great work but is really difficult to work with.” “She produces great results at the expense of people.” I hear these complaints all the time. I feel like people need permission to hire and fire because of fit. So here it is, it’s ok to hire and fire people who don’t fit your culture. You can find people who do great work and who interact according to your company’s values, and you deserve to have both.

Results are often considered more important than the seemingly ‘softer stuff,’ how people got those results. And it often doesn’t feel legitimate to want to get rid of an employee who treats coworkers poorly. We question ourselves thinking, “Maybe it’s not that bad? Perhaps I’m being too sensitive?” Or, “He does great work and is really reliable. Maybe I need to get over that he throws me under the bus in meetings I don’t attend?” “It’s really hard to find and keep good, reliable, employees. I should just suck it up.”

What if employees who treat coworkers and direct reports poorly or don’t practice your organizational values aren’t good employees? People don’t want to work for a manager who is knowledgeable but mistreats people. And likewise, people don’t want to work with people who are super friendly but do no work.

Some organizations evaluate employees both on the results they achieve and how they get to those results. That makes perfect sense.

Here are six tips for hiring and firing employees for fit:

  1. Share your organizational values and behavior practices overtly when you interview candidates. Make it clear that people who don’t follow those practices won’t be happy or successful in the organization.
  2. Create an opportunity for candidates to do an extended practical interview, during which they can get a feel for what the culture is really like, outside of a formal sit-down interview. Then give candidates an opportunity to opt-out of a job because they didn’t feel they fit in during the practical interview.
  3. Trust yourself. If you find it off putting that a coworker raises her voice at you, gossips about you, or takes credit for your work, trust yourself.
  4. Set clear expectations around how employees, coworkers, vendors, and customers are expected to behave when doing business with your organization. And be willing to let internal and external customers and suppliers go because they aren’t willing or able to follow your behavioral practices.
  5. Coach and give feedback on how people achieve results.
  6. Let employees go who don’t respond to feedback on interpersonal behaviors. Or let them know it’s time for them to look elsewhere.

Suffering at work is optional. You deserve to work with people who reflect your organization’s values.


Exit interviews are too late

Lots of organizations do exit interviews after employees give notice. Exit interviews can be a source of helpful information. Employees have little to lose after they’ve quit, so they’re likely to speak candidly about their work experience. But asking for feedback after an employee has quit is a little (a lot) too late. The time to ask about an employee’s working experience is every 90 days, if not more frequently.

Employees quit. It’s a natural part of doing business. And some turnover is healthy and helpful. Surprises, however, are not helpful and are unnecessary. Turnover should rarely, if ever, be a surprise. The writing is always on the wall, if you ask the right questions and make it easy to speak freely.

exit interviews

Most employees are concerned about giving feedback when their input is negative. Employees at almost every company cite “a list,” and those who speak up, end up on it, and then mysteriously leave the organization. Mind you, no one has ever seen the list, but employees at all types of organizations are certain it exists.

If you want to reduce the turnover in your organization and increase employee engagement and satisfaction, ask for feedback regularly, and make it easy to speak candidly.

Five ways to get your employees talking before they quit:

  1. Ask for feedback at the end of every meeting. Simply ask, “What are you enjoying about your job? What are you not enjoying?” Or ask, “What makes your job easier? What makes your job harder?”
  2. Manage your responses to feedback. The easier it is to tell you the truth, the more truth you’ll get. Employees are afraid of their manager’s reactions. Resist the urge to become defensive (which is very difficult to do). Saying, “I’m sorry that was your experience. Thank you for telling me,” goes a long way. Employees will breathe a sigh of relief and are more likely to speak candidly in the future.
  3. Replace one satisfaction survey with roundtable discussions during which a leader or manager asks a small group of employees for feedback. Live conversations build trust and loyalty. Written surveys do not.
  4. Help employees who aren’t a good fit, exit the organization. Don’t wait for poor performers or employees who aren’t a good culture fit to leave. Help misplaced employees find a better match. The right employees raise performance and morale, the wrong employees destroy both.
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Just because you asked for feedback, doesn’t mean you have to act on that information. Employees don’t typically expect all of their requests to be met. It’s often enough just to be able to speak and be heard.

Keep doing exit interviews, and add quarterly or monthly requests for feedback. Talk with people over the phone or in person. Ask one or two simple questions to get the other person talking. Manage your face. Smile. Say “thank you” for the feedback. And watch your employee engagement and satisfaction rise.


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