How to Answer the Question You Can't Answer

How to Answer the Question You Can’t Answer

Does this happen to you? You diligently prepare for an important meeting. You cover all your bases.  And then here it comes, the question you can’t answer.

What you say next matters—a lot. It’s tragic to see smart, well-intentioned leaders flounder with a weak answer to a tough question.

Don’t lose credibility by guessing with confidence (e.g. making stuff up and acting like it’s true), talking in circles around the issue (without saying anything of substance), or answering the question they can’t answer with a question, hoping to deflect and distract.

The next time you get a question you can’t answer, try these credibility-enhancing techniques.

6 Simple Ways to Answer the Question You Can’t Answer

  1. Tell The Truth.  Never, ever make stuff up. Forget the spin. Say what you don’t know and offer to get back to them AFTER you’ve done your homework.  If you can’t disclose everything, explain why.
  2. Anticipate and Prepare. Want to get good at tough questions? Make them less tough. Anticipate questions you’ll be asked and put them into categories. Do your homework and get smarter. Dry run your presentation with a few friendlies and ask for their toughest questions. Pre-empt a few tough questions by saying, “Now, if I were you I would be wondering…” Instant credibility win.
  3. Pause. That awkward is likely your issue, not theirs. Better to have a moment of pause with a good answer, than a quick moment of stupidity.
  4. Repeat the Question. Sometimes questions feel tough because they’re long, convoluted or unclear. Summarize the question back in the simplest terms. It will show you are listening, you’ve got them, and give you a moment to prepare.
  5. Don’t Repeat Yourself. Every now and then, people use tough questions as traps. Just say, “I believe I answered that before” with a quick summary response.
  6. Keep Your Cool. Don’t get riled up. Take the high road and keep your cool. Your best answer will never be given from the Amygdala brain. Breathe.

When you role model a prepared, calm and honest approach to tough questions, your team learns it’s okay to not know. And gets better at working on answers together.

how to manage the most difficult stakeholders

How to Manage the Most Difficult Stakeholders

Difficult stakeholders are a chance to grow your influence.

You look at the phone and your heart sinks. It’s the night before you’re supposed to wrap up your assignment and brief the leadership team on what you’ve done. It’s Bruce, a charismatic VP –and one of your difficult stakeholders – calling.

You answer the phone and cringe as you hear, “Listen, I’ve had some thoughts about this project and it’s important that we get it right.”

You don’t disagree – you do need to get it right, but the time for this conversation was a week ago. Now you face telling a key stakeholder “no” or launching a major fire drill to incorporate all their suggestions, rewrite the presentation, and then deal with the fallout from other stakeholders who already shared their input.

The Reality of Difficult Stakeholders

Difficult stakeholders come in many flavors.

Where Bruce was difficult because he wasn’t involved soon enough, you’ve probably had stakeholders who were over-involved; who you informed, but they couldn’t process what you’d told them; who had a different agenda, but never revealed it; stakeholders who never understood what you were doing; others who were just – difficult.

Your success requires you to partner and collaborate with a wide range of people who have a stake in what you do. Navigate your difficult stakeholders well and you can build a career of influence and impact.

One Key Truth About Your Difficult Stakeholders

Nate was the President of a large urban school board. During a tumultuous time of change, David asked Nate for his thoughts on the controversies. Nate replied, “Well, schools are entrusted with people’s children and with people’s money. Those are two of the most important things to most folks. How could it not be controversial?”

This is an important perspective to keep in mind as you navigate your difficult stakeholders. Your work affects them and their success, so it’s natural that they will have concerns about what you do.

They’re not trying to be difficult. They’re trying to succeed.

How to Manage the Most Difficult Stakeholders

1. Choose Effective, Not Right

Leaders often get stuck because they can’t see past their own “rightness” and do the things that will help them be effective and get the results they want. You may have given Bruce a chance to have input earlier in the process, but clearly, it didn’t work.

If Donna’s feeling stressed and asks you for updates so often that it’s slowing down your work, then the way you’ve been communicating isn’t working. You may have been “right” in that you updated her, but you haven’t yet been effective.

Set aside right, and focus on how you can be effective with your difficult stakeholders.

2. Breathe

When you feel overlooked, slighted, ignored, devalued, or taken for granted it’s normal to be angry and ask “Why are they doing this to me?”

Take a moment to breathe and remind yourself that the other person’s actions aren’t about you. They’re trying to do the best they can with what they have. They didn’t wake up that morning thinking about how to make you angry.

If you need to take a few minutes to collect yourself, do it. You’re better off entering the conversation in a calm state of mind.

3. Find Empathy

Empathy is the most effective way to help you become more effective with your challenging stakeholders. Try to see the world from their perspective. When you can understand why they act the way they do, you are in a better position to come up with constructive solutions.

Perhaps Bruce is juggling three major strategic initiatives that consume his attention. He lives in the mental world of opportunity and “What could be” and doesn’t feel tied down by arbitrary due dates. He also cares – a lot.

Maybe Donna is a CEO looking at the bottom line and concerned about the volatility of your three biggest customers. Last summer you stuck with a supplier longer than you probably should have and quality suffered. She didn’t hear it from you but got a call from one of those big three customers asking what was going on.

If you’re not sure what the world looks like from their perspective, you can always ask. eg: “What is most important about this assignment? I want to make sure we nail it – can you help me understand how this fits into the big picture?”

4. Seek Self-Awareness

After empathy, this is another vital element of navigating your relationships with your difficult stakeholders. Moreover, they’re not the only “difficult” person in the mix. From their perspective, you might be the difficult one. As David is fond of saying, “We are all someone else’s knucklehead.”

We worked with a smart financial controller who was running into problems with key stakeholders because his answer to every question was an intricate, detailed, analytic exploration of twenty years’ history of the subject at hand. Naturally, his answers frustrated stakeholders who just wanted to know if the new policy would take a week or a month to implement.

The controller cared. He thought the background would be helpful to others the way it was helpful to him. When he realized how he was coming across, he could choose a different style.

5. Help Them Win

Once you know what your difficult stakeholders want, try to work with them in a way that helps them achieve their wins. Donna’s win is hanging onto those three customers. How does your work contribute to that outcome? How can you give her the confidence that you understand and are working to make that happen?

As Zig Ziglar famously said, “You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.”

6. Inform Intelligently

Different people need different information – differently. Remember, you want to be effective, not right. It does no good to send a monthly email when you know your key stakeholder receives information verbally and can give you a response quickly if you’ll just walk down the hall or pick up your phone.

Do they need the full backstory or a quick summary of what happened and what you need? Do they want hourly updates or a weekly summary? Give people the information they need in the way they need it and your relationship will improve.

This is where many leaders get caught in the trap of being “right” but not effective. Just because you sent an email doesn’t mean you’ve communicated. See how Karin learned this the hard way

7. Plan Engagement

When you know that a key stakeholder is likely to engage too late, too often, or not at all, you can plan an intentional way to get their attention and input.

For someone like Bruce, who you know will wait until the last minute to get involved, move the finish line. Specifically, seek him out eg “Bruce, can we talk for five minutes – you’ve got something valuable to offer here.” Tell him how much you value his perspective, and that you would love his input. If he doesn’t have thoughts now, give him a deadline that still allows you to get it done. This conversation is best in person or by phone/video conference.

Yes, it takes a little extra effort compared to the wiki where everyone else is contributing, but the alternative is that dreaded phone call the night before. Savvy leaders know their stakeholders and get them involved when it makes the most sense.

8. Ditch the Diaper Drama

If you’re new to this concept, we’re talking about getting real and speaking the truth.

Sometimes the best way to address a difficult stakeholder is to have a connected, real conversation. Some examples might include:

“I noticed that you withdrew your support for the decision we agreed to last week. I want to rely on our agreements with one another – I’m curious, what’s going on?”

“It seems like we might not be on the same page here. I want to make sure we both succeed here. I’m curious about what success looks like from your perspective?”

Your Turn

Navigating and managing difficult stakeholders takes empathy, awareness, and practice. This is where you can distinguish your leadership or descend into a whirlpool of frustration. Leave us a comment and share your best strategy for engaging with difficult stakeholders.


Creative Commons photo by Russ

The Surprising Way to Focus Your Team on the Fundamentals

The Surprising Way to Focus Your Team on Fundamentals

Why focus on the fundamentals?

When I was defending my master’s thesis over 25 years ago, one particularly snotty professor (who had never actually worked in an organization outside of academia) leaned back in his chair and smirked, “It strikes me that research of this type is ‘either trivial or obvious.'”

At the time I was hurt, frustrated, and I thought my advisor (who had spent many late nights with me pouring over the data) was going to throw a chair at him.

I’ll spare you the defensive rant here, but I will share how those four words still haunt me every time I step on a keynote stage or pull the research together for our new book.

What if this approach is “trivial or obvious?” What if they’ve heard something similar before? What if this just confirms what they already know?

Is what I’m saying truly helpful?

The Surprising Value of Obvious Insights -Adam Grant

And today, I stumbled across Adam Grant’s article in the Sloan Management Review, The Surprising Value of Obvious Insights.

The article is definitely worth a read, but if you want a quick spoiler here’s what Adam said on LinkedIn.

When people are resistant to change, instead of pitching new ideas, lead with obvious ones. I’ve learned that once you validate some intuitions, you earn the legitimacy to challenge others. You don’t have to say something new if you say something true.

And my response.

@Adam Grant This is so true, and an important read. Your example of new hire onboarding is spot on. Most managers know the basics. If you asked, “Do you think it would be helpful to take your new hire to lunch on the first day?” I imagine most managers would say “yes.” But how many actually do that?  In our work with organizations, one of the concepts we share that seems totally obvious is what we call a “check for understanding” (essentially have the employee share back what they heard you say to ensure that they’re picking up what you are putting down). 

Not earthshattering. Not new. But when we go back and see which behaviors were most transformational and had the biggest impact on results, pretty much in every program we do, “check for understanding” is in the top 3 (even among very senior teams).

This concept was so basic to me that as we were writing our book, I argued with my co-author David Dye that it was just too simple to put in. I gave in. We kept it in. And as it turns out, that was helpful to folks.

When it comes to helping leaders grow, we’ve found that its so important to ensure the fundamentals are in place, and not to assume that because managers KNOW the basics, that they actually lead that way.

A Surprisingly Easy Way to Get Your Team to Focus on the Fundamentals

Which got me to thinking about you.

What if your team already knows what to do?  What if what you really need to take your performance to the next level is not new ideas, but executing well on what you already know?

Here’s an easy focus on the fundamentals exercise you can try with your team.

A check for understanding per se.

Pick a topic and ask for their best thinking on the topic. What do they already know how to do?

  • Ask a group of team leaders, “What are the fundamental management behaviors that if we did consistently every day would take our performance to the next level?”
  • Talk with a group of contact center agents, “What do our customers want most from us? What can we do on every call to ensure we provide that?”
  • Brainstorm with a group of service technicians, “What makes for a great service call?”

Give everyone sticky notes or index cards and ask them to come up with the most foundational truths they believe about the topic (and write down one idea per card).

Then have them work together to group the fundamental truths into themes.

Pick the fundamental truths that everyone agrees on, and then start a “How can we?” conversation.

If we know this is what works, how can we ensure we do this every day?

Your turn. What’s your favorite way to keep your team focused on the fundamentals?

how to respond when you can't use an idea

How to Respond When You Can’t Use an Idea

When You Can’t Use an Idea, Pivot to Get More Ideas

“I need people to think.” Mattias, the CEO of a mid-sized human service provider, leaned back in his chair and sighed. “They have all kinds of ideas that just don’t work. The market’s changing and it’s like no one gets it. I hear you, I should listen, but what do I do when I can’t use an idea?”

Have you ever been in Mattias’s shoes? Your team has all kinds of ideas, but they’re ill-informed, off-target, or are just bad (it’s okay–just between us, we know it may have been a bad idea.)

The problem when you can’t use an idea because it’s bad or won’t work is that it’s often the first idea someone has. If you respond poorly to the idea you can’t use, you won’t get the ideas you can use.

This was Mattias’s problem. When people brought him an imperfect idea, he would get frustrated, tell them why it wouldn’t work and shoo them out of his office. They never came back.

Six Ways to Respond When You Can’t Use An Idea

1. Say Thank You

You get more of what you encourage and celebrate, less of what you criticize or ignore. If you want people thinking more deeply, thank them for it (even if it’s not quite as deep as you would have liked.)

Eg: “Thank you for taking the time to think about what would create a better experience for our customer. I really appreciate you putting your thoughts together and thinking deeply about this.”

2. Explain What Happened

Share the process. If you were able to trial their idea, focus-group it, or do anything with it, let them know what happened. What problems did it run into? Were there competing priorities? Did the solution break down or prove impractical during testing? Take a few seconds to respond and close the loop. It will energize the person who shared their idea–even if you couldn’t use it.

3. Clarify Your Focus

When you consistently get ideas that are off target or don’t support strategic priorities, it’s a sure sign that you haven’t communicated those priorities clearly. Clarify the answers to these questions:

  • What matters most right now?
  • What ideas will help most?
  • What will good ideas achieve when you put them to work?

Eg: “Our priority for the next quarter is to achieve 100% on-time delivery. We need ideas about how we speed up our QA process without compromising quality along with suggestions to decrease order assignment times.”

Use 5×5 communication when it’s important – share key messages five times, five different ways.

4. Ask How It Works

If you’ve shared the focus, checked for understanding, and someone brings you an idea that seems way off target, resist the urge to chastise them. Instead, use it as an opportunity for a micro-coaching session. Ask them how their idea will help achieve the goal. Taking a moment to be curious can help uncover great ideas or help a team member understand what a great idea looks like.

Eg: “Thanks for thinking about this with us. Can you walk me through how your idea would help us achieve 100% on-time delivery?”

You’ll get different answers to this question. Some will say, “Oh, I hadn’t really thought it through.” In which case you can reply “I’d love to get your thoughts one you’ve had a chance to think it through.”

At other times, they might surprise you with a linkage or explanation that you didn’t see.

5. Share Information

When you can’t use an idea, the problem might be that the person doesn’t have enough information to make a good suggestion. What information can you add that will help them think more deeply about the issue?

Do they need budget data or to better understand how their work fits into the bigger picture? Maybe they need comparative data from other departments or process.

Give them the information they need to think more strategically.

6. Invite More Ideas

Once you’ve clarified the focus and given them more information, invite them to keep thinking and to share what they come up with.

Eg: “Thanks for thinking about this with us. We tried a similar idea last year and ran into a problem – the QA team wasn’t learning about projects with enough lead time. If you have thoughts about a way to implement your suggestion and solve the lead time issue, I’d love to hear what you come up with.”

Your Turn

When you get an idea you can’t use, it’s an opportunity to help people think more deeply and to get even better thoughts. Leave a comment and share your best suggestion for how to respond when you get an idea you can’t use.


Courageous Cultures survey

Do you treat team communication like pornography?

Are You Treating Team Communication Like Pornography?

Unclear expectations for team communication kill productivity.

When we work with leaders to help them build more effective organizations, we do a quick assessment of their team communication. Let’s check in on your team: How would you answer the following two questions?

  • Do we have clear, shared expectations regarding timely responses to emails, voice messages, and texts?
  • Do we respond to emails, calls, and texts in a timely manner?

If you’re like most leaders, your answers are “no” and “sort of” as in:

  • “No, we don’t really have shared expectations regarding timely responses.”
  • “We sort of respond in a timely manner – mostly to texts, but not as much with emails and calls.”

The problem is obvious: how can you get back to people in a timely manner if no one agrees what that means?

It’s like the famous definition of pornography US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used: “I know it when I see it.”

Team Communication Frustrations

The problem with using an “I know it when I see it” standard for your timely team communication is that people have widely varying expectations for “timely.”

For example, Mary expects someone to return emails within four hours while Joe believes 24 hours is responsive. Now Mary is frustrated and feels disrespected, Joe missed an opportunity for a colleague to see and value his work, and the work languishes.

Another common example is instant messaging. Shantel closes the chat app to finish a project and meet a deadline. In the meantime, her colleagues discuss a project and choose a new solution without her input. When Shantel asks them why they didn’t consult her, they say, “It was all on the thread, we thought you’d chime in if you had anything.”

You can avoid this wasted emotional energy and lost productivity when you help your team or organization create shared expectations for team communication.

Ten Minutes of Clarity, Weeks of Productivity

There is no perfect set of communication expectations. What will make the most sense for your team and the work you do? It usually only takes ten minutes to discuss and establish shared communication expectations.

Here are a few examples of team communication expectations:

  • We will reply to texts at the next available opportunity, but not between 7:00 pm and 7:00 am.
  • If the phone rings after 8:00 pm it is an emergency and we need to take the call.
  • We will read and reply to emails within 24 hours.
  • If an email requires a response, note that and the timeframe in the subject line.
  • We will check and return voicemail once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
  • We exchange information with chat and project software. We will save decisions for voice conversations.
  • We do not respond to email or texts sent after 7:00 pm or before 7:00 am unless flagged as an emergency.

Your Turn

Clear shared communication expectations allow your team to focus, eliminate misunderstandings, and raise morale. Leave us a comment and share a best practice for communication at work.

3 problems with open door policy

3 Problems with Your Open Door Policy and What To Do Instead

An open door policy doesn’t get you what you need to lead.

The intent behind your open door policy is good: a door that is figuratively always open to encourage transparency, open lines of communication, a standing invitation for your employees to bring you issues that affect them or their work.

The intent is good, but the reality is more complicated. In fact, your open door policy may be causing your team more harm than good and limiting your leadership.

3 Problems With Your Open Door Policy 

1. Your Door is Literally Always Open.

An open door policy doesn’t mean you are constantly interruptible. Constant interruption prevents you from thinking deeply and serving your team in the ways only you can. If you allow a constant barrage of “Gotta minute?” to obliterate your day, you won’t be able to lead your team anywhere.

An open door policy doesn’t mean your door (if you have one) is literally open all the time. We helped one senior leader overcome this challenge by defining 90 minutes of deep-think time in the morning and again in the afternoon where everyone committed not to interrupt anyone else unless it was an emergency.

That may not work in your setting, but the principle is important. How can you give yourself and your team the space to focus?

2. You Don’t Get All the Information You Need.

Your people know things you need to know. They can spot problems before they spin out of control. They know what irritates your customers. They’ve already created micro-innovations to be more productive and better serve your customers. They’re your greatest asset – but only if you hear what they have to say.

Problem-solving innovation isn’t going to walk through your open door. [Tweet This]

Most of the information that will walk through your open door are complaints. There’s nothing wrong with this necessarily. You need to be aware of problems – especially those that create a hostile workplace.

An open door policy isn’t enough. Occasionally, you’ll have someone walk through your open door with a great idea. I’ve had it happen. But most of the great ideas will stay locked in your employees’ minds.

To get the information you need to make the best decisions, you’ve got to intentionally go ask for it. Most employees are busy doing their jobs. They may not even realize they have experience or wisdom worth sharing. If they do have insights, they may believe you’re not interested in hearing them, no matter how many times you talk about your open door policy.

Take the initiative and seek out the information you need. Regularly ask your team how things are going, how you can help them to do their job more effectively or serve the customer, or what’s getting in their way. Ask them to teach you how they do their work.

3. You’re Not Strategic.

The final leadership problem with an open door policy is that it puts you in a reactive mode. You’re not thinking strategically about what will move your team or the business forward. You’re waiting and responding to the issues that come to you.

I’m not suggesting that you don’t respond to problems that people bring to you. Rather, if you’re leading strategically and moving things forward, you are more likely to have surfaced and solved these issues long before they surface as complaints or distractions.

Most employees aren’t asked to think strategically in their normal work, so the problems they bring you won’t be strategic either. To help your team think strategically, give them the information they need to make strategic decisions. Help them understand how the business makes money and impact and how they’re work contributes to the bigger picture. Facilitate Own the UGLY discussions to help find the game-changing opportunities and challenges long before they would walk through your open door.

Your Turn

Your open door policy can be a foundation for trust, transparency, and communication, but there’s a danger if you let it make you passive and reactive. Leave us a comment and share How do you maintain a strategic focus for your team and solve problems before they become bigger problems?

one easy way to have more influence

One Easy Way to Have More Influence

More influence isn’t always about what you say.

I knew Gary wasn’t happy.

During my first time in a mid-level management role, one of my team leaders was clearly struggling. He looked frustrated, sounded frustrated, and it didn’t take a genius to know something was bothering Gary.

So I asked if I could get him coffee and hear what was on his mind.

He sipped a cappuccino and shared his troubles: he’d been disrespected and abused by a senior manager, his team wasn’t doing as well as he hoped, he wasn’t sure the company’s vision matched his own, and so on.

Gary appreciated my invitation to coffee and the opportunity to be heard. Then I tried to be helpful.

He was halfway through his first issue when I interrupted and offered solutions, tried to help him see the issue or person differently, or pointed out where he might be responsible.

Finally, he looked at me and said, “David! You asked me how I was feeling and what’s bothering me…quit arguing. I’m just trying to answer your question.”

He had a point.

A Common Influence Mistake

Gary might have needed help, or it could be that just talking through what was bothering him would do the trick. Your team may need help, but you won’t be able to help them if you make the same critical leadership mistake I did.

I didn’t keep my mouth shut long enough. I wasn’t truly present with Gary. I had jumped ahead to my own response.

Most leaders think of influence as talking – or maybe leading by example. We see rousing speeches in movies, we remember key pieces of advice we’ve heard from our mentors, and we know we have something worthwhile to share. However, when you think of influence only in terms of what you say, you leave out the most critical piece:

Listening.

A Columbia Business School study found that when it comes to influencing others, your listening skills outrank your verbal ability. It makes sense. Listening builds trust and helps you get the information you need to offer your conversation partner what they most need.

When it comes to helping someone, good intentions don’t make the difference. Effective action, what you do that works, means everything. I’d intended to help, but in my youthful rush to show what I knew and be valuable, I’d missed the most important thing I could have done.

5 Ways to Listen Influentially

Your team needs you to regularly ask, “How can I help?” When you ask, be sure to really listen. Here are a few tips to improve your listening skills and build your influence.

1. Put down the phone.

Seriously. Put it on silent, put it face down or stash it in a bag. Get rid of it.

You simply can’t give someone your full attention with the mental stimulation of email, voice messages, and texts. Put it away and focus on the person.

2. Maintain eye contact.

Don’t be creepy, but maintain eye contact. For that time, there is nothing else going on and no one else in the world, but the person you’re talking to.

3. Empathize

Empathy communicates that you understand how the other person feels. You’re not agreeing or sanctioning – just recognizing their emotions. For example:

  • “That must have been frustrating.”
  • “Sounds like you felt like no one else cared?”
  • “That would be upsetting.”
  • “Wow – you must have been excited.”

4. Summarize

Before going any farther, take a moment to check for understanding about what the other person said. Use your own words and ask if you’ve got it right. If not, ask questions or encourage them to help you get it. Fully connect with their emotions and thoughts. Until you’ve done that, you haven’t listened.

5. Ask permission.

Once you’ve fully connected to the emotion and the thought, if you feel you have something helpful to add to the conversation, ask permission to share it. This is a huge integrity move and demonstrates tremendous respect for the other person.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Something like, “I appreciate you trusting me enough to share those things. Would you be interested in hearing ways you might address that or is it enough to get it off your chest?”

Your Turn

When you fully connect and have acknowledged the other person’s dignity, then you’re in a position to be truly helpful. Leave us a comment and share a time when you were influenced by a powerful listener, or your best practice to ensure others are heard.

7 Icebreaker Questions to Melt Frustration and Build Trust

7 Icebreaker Questions to Melt Frustration and Build Trust

Done well, an icebreaker can be valuable & strategic.

If the word “icebreaker” conjures up images of toothpicks and marshmallows and other fluffy activities that feel like a waste of time, you’re not alone.

We’re not huge fans of icebreaking without meaning.

But before you throw your ice out with the ice water, consider this. What if you began your team meeting with one strategic question to get your team talking about a topic that really mattered? After all, great meetings accomplish more than the task at hand, they make the team stronger.

Why not give it a try? Pick one question and send it out in advance with your meeting agenda so your introverts have a minute to think. And then open your next meeting with a bit of connected discussion on that topic. You’ll get the team talking about ways to make the team stronger, and as a bonus, you might be surprised how much more smoothly and efficiently the rest of the meeting goes.

Here are few to get you started.

7 Icebreaker Questions to Start Your Meeting

What one strength do you bring to the team that you wish others would truly see and appreciate?

Why it’s important: Whenever we ask this icebreaker question in one of our training programs, there’s always a lot of emotion behind the answer. People want to be seen for their gifts and the contributions they bring to the team. And almost everyone feels overlooked about something. By asking this question, you give people an opportunity to share something they are proud of. And of course, most of the time, the rest of the team will chime in with some affirmation, “Oh YOU ARE really good at that! Thank you.”

What is the most important thing you are working on this quarter? How can we support your success in this arena?

Why it’s important: Getting your team talking about their MITs is one of the best ways to build alignment and support. This question is particularly useful in teams where there are conflicting priorities. Often team members are reluctant to ask for help because they know “everyone is busy.” Try carving out a little space for teams to ask for the support they need, and watch how quickly people jump in with ideas of how they can help. Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that can save a lot of time and get the team working better together.

Who went out of their way to help you this week? What did they do and why was it so helpful?

Why it’s important: There’s a 2-for-1 benefit on this icebreaker. Of course, it’s always good to give people an opportunity to say “thank you.” And, if you send this out in the agenda the week before, no one wants to be the guy at the meeting that’s not mentioned. Chances are the team will be a little extra focused on supporting one another that week. It will feel good to be recognized for it, AND you get more of what you recognize and celebrate, so the cycle continues.

How do you like to be recognized when you do something notable?

Why it’s important: The best recognition is specific, timely and most importantly, meaningful to the receiver. The best way to know how people like to be recognized is to ask. When you ask in front of the team, you give everyone a chance to hear and reinforce the point that celebrating success is everyone’s job and that different people receive encouragement in different ways.

What’s one aspect of your job that really frustrates you. What’s one idea you have for making that easier?

Why it’s important: This is a great way to get your team to eliminate FOSU and shift to a “How can we?” mindset. Everyone’s frustrated about something. Healthy teams talk about what’s not working and work together to find solutions.

What’s your very best idea (or best practice) for improving the customer experience (can also include internal customers)?

Why it’s important: In almost any team we ever work with, there are FANTASTIC best practices taking place and GREAT ideas, that people are just moving too fast to share. If you want your team to share best practices and share their ideas, ask.

BONUS: Click here for more ideas on uncovering your team’s best practices.

What’s one area where you would like more feedback from this team?

Why it’s important: It’s really hard to give your peers unsolicited feedback, and most people don’t. But if you invite people to ask, then the door is open, and team members are more likely to share.

Your Turn

Leave us a comment and share: What ideas do you have for great icebreaker questions to melt frustration and build trust?

 

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6 steps help team navigate change

6 Smart Steps to Help Your Team Navigate Change

Change is Inevitable, Strategic Change is a Choice

It’s a hard truth that confounds many leaders: continued success requires continued change.

But change isn’t easy. For most people (and therefore most of your team) it’s more comfortable to do what you did yesterday than to do something new today.

One of the critical roles every leader plays is to help their teams to navigate change successfully. Not just change for the sake of change, but strategic change that achieves breakthrough results.

Transforming results requires every heart and brain working together. Change requires confidence and inclusion, not selling. When you take your audacious vision and make it feel real, practical, and achievable, your team will be energized and ready for what’s next.

1. Establish a clear vision

Be crystal clear about what you want to accomplish. Communicate and reinforce your vision through every medium possible. When you’re sure everyone’s got it, communicate even more. It’s important to explain the reasons behind a change as well as to identify the specific behaviors you need from employees in each role.

2. Be honest about the benefits

The notion that all that employees care about is WIIFM—what’s in it for me?—is BS. Sure, employees want to know what’s in it for them. They equally want to know what’s in it for you and for their customers.

It’s not enough to be clear about the “What?” – they’ve got to know the “Why?” as well. In the absence of information, people often jump to the most pathological conclusion. Leave out key information and they fill in the blanks with assumptions (e.g., “the next thing you’ll do is downsize.”) They want to know that you’ve thought this through with your brain and not just your pocketbook.

3. Start small

Don’t advocate for an idea or change that’s half-baked or full of flaws. Test it first with a small group, take their feedback seriously, and get it right. It’s tough to regain credibility. “Oh yeah, I admit it stank before, but now it’s better,” only leaves people wondering why some bozo made a choice to sing praises for an idea, system, or process that was full of problems in the real world.

Even if it looks great on paper, your boss is sold, and it worked well in the IT war room, field test the change first.

Yes, this takes time. Go slow to go fast.

Take the risk of making some waves to make it easy for your team. You might be slower out of the gate than others, but when you get it right and everyone owns it, you’ll sustain your results and be ready for the next change.

4. Establish easy-to-access listening posts

This is perhaps the most important part. Really listen to what your people tell you. Respond to feedback with solutions, not selling. When you fix something, communicate it back using the 5×5 method – 5 times, 5 different ways. Ask, “How can we address this and make the change serve its purpose?”

5. Leverage reluctant testimony

Share as many testimonials as you can, especially from people who were doubtful at first. Get your most excited employees showing how your new idea, system, or process changed their world. Your most influential stories will come from the least likely suspects: the sales guy who never bothered with this stuff before, the new rep who’s now running circles around the old-timers because she uses the new system, the supervisor who got his entire team (including the union steward) performing acrobatics with the new process.

6. Involve the team in key decisions

No one wants stuff done to them, or even for them. With them goes a lot further. Ask employees, “What’s working well and how do we leverage it? What enhancements do we need? Where should we head next?” All these questions go a long way. Include employees by involving them in your change efforts.

Your Turn

Leave a comment and share with us your best leadership strategy to help your team navigate change.

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Employee Engagement - Avoid Tremendous Leadership Mistake

Employee Engagement – Avoid This Tremendous Leadership Mistake

Employee Engagement – Play the Game, Don’t Game the Score

When you see low employee engagement scores, what is your first reaction?

I spoke with a company executive who was upset with his engagement scores. “The numbers are horrible,” he said. “Can you help us with some team-building?”

I replied, “Probably not.”

He looked at me with a combination of shock and amusement.  He wasn’t used to consultants telling him they didn’t want his money.

“Okay, tell me why not?”

It’s not that I wasn’t willing to help – of course, I would. But when morale stinks, employee engagement scores are down the drain, and your people are upset, team building isn’t the solution.

In fact, it’s a tremendous mistake that will almost always make things worse.

Start With Why

Low employee engagement scores are the symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. Leaders who are Winning Well focus on playing the game, not gaming the score. That means they don’t try to manipulate the score with team-building, pizza, or incentives – they stay focused on the critical behaviors that drive performance and results.Employee engagement - play the game don't game the score

Employee engagement is no exception. Focus on the score and you’re lost. Instead, play the game: focus on the behaviors that create the score.

When I asked the executive why his people were upset, he wasn’t sure.

As we dug deeper, we discovered that there were significant breakdowns of clarity and commitment. There were problems communicating major organizational changes, one mid-level manager who had become territorial and was needlessly frustrating other departments, and front-line leaders who were driving talent away by scaring people into performance.

Fix The Real Problem

Don’t try to motivate your way out of a mess. Fix the mess. (Tweet This)

For this executive, that meant apologizing for the communication problems, getting the right information out to everyone, listening to and addressing the concerns his people had about the new process, and taking aside the territorial manager for some one-on-one coaching and accountability. Then he invested in leadership development for his front-line leaders and we worked with the middle-level managers to reinforce the front-line leaders’ new focus on results and relationships.

Don’t use team-building in response to problems or low morale. Fix the communication problems. Improve the process issue that prevents people from doing their job.

Icing On The Employee Engagement Cake

Team-building is often loathed and panned by employees and managers alike because it can be such a waste of time – a well-intentioned, but a completely ineffectual response to a problem that takes real work to solve.

Done properly, real team-building is the icing on a good cake.  It takes a solid foundation and makes it something truly special.

Imagine trying to spread frosting on a cake that is only half-cooked. You’d a have a nasty, goopy mess that ends up in the trash. You can’t frost a half-baked cake and you can’t use motivation or team-building in place of fundamentals.

Your Turn

Leave us a comment and share: How do you make sure you’re not trying to “motivate your way out of a mess”? Or if you’ve got a particularly awful example of this mistake at work, you can share that too.

Communicating With Executives When Your World's on Fire

Communicating With Executives When Your World’s on Fire

When your world’s on fire, and you’re working around the clock to survive, it feels like the last thing you have time for is formal updates. And of course, the bigger the fire, the more the senior team needs to know what’s going on. What’s the secret to communicating with executives efficiently so you can stay focused on critical operations?

Communicating With Executives: Lessons Learned

It was 2012 and  I was leading the outsourced call center channel at Verizon Wireless when we found ourselves in the middle of a literal firestorm.

The Waldo Canyon Fires were raging through Colorado Springs and were wreaking havoc on the Garden of the God’s adjacent to the call center which had 1100 human beings taking Verizon calls. Just across town, we had another call center which, with just a quick shift of the wind, would also be in the path of the fire. Most of the homes in the area had been evacuated and the firefighters had turned our call center parking lot into a base camp for fighting the fire.

First and foremost we had employee safety concerns. Was everyone accounted for? How could we best support those in distress? Who needed help? How would we communicate?

The next concern, of course,  was the massive operational impact of 20% of our team not able to get to work, and the growing wait times, frustrated customers, and the downward customer experience that comes from the cocktail of angry waiting customers and overloaded humans doing the best they can.

What’s our capacity at other centers? How fast could we cross-train the specialty functions that were handled from those centers? Could we bus employees to the nearest centers? How much overtime could we squeeze out, and for how long? What if the centers were destroyed? Could IT pull off a temporary center or a work at home strategy? How would we keep customer data safe in a scene like that? How should we modify our HR policies during this time? The list was long…and complicated.

We were doing the best we could, my team had been working around the clock. Everyone was completely exhausted.

The C-suite needed an update.

So I scrambled. I quickly pulled together all the details. I summarized our HR and cross-training strategies in an email. Sent another update on the IT concerns. Then another email with the real estate contingency plans.

My phone rang. It was the senior leader headed into the meeting for a C-level briefing.

“Karin, I’ve just searched my email for the name Karin Hurt. Oh, lots of emails here. Now guess what I’m doing now? Highlighting them all and hitting delete…yup now they’re all gone.”

She continued.

“I get that your world is literally on fire and what you and your team are doing is very important. I trust that you’ve got it handled. But I can’t handle all this info. I’ve got five other major issues to read out on and I’ve only got 20 minutes.

Send me a new email with five bullet points. Tell us how you’ve got this under control and what else you need.

5 Questions to Answer When Communicating With Executives in Times of Crises

I was crushed. We were working hard! I wanted the C-level team to understand the brilliance of our plan and to see how hard the team was working. But at a strategic level, what they needed most was to know: What happened?  So what? What’s next?

If you find yourself in the midst of a firestorm, here are 5 questions that can help you form your executive briefing.

  1. What happened?
    Consider this a newspaper headline. What happened and what’s the current and potential human and business impact?
  2. What have you done?
    Summarize key actions, timelines, and impact.
  3. What’s next?
    Outline next steps and timelines
  4. What’s in jeopardy?
    Ditch the Diaper Genie™ and be real with what’s at stake and what could go wrong, as well as the downstream impact on other projects and business priorities.
  5. What do you need?
    Where do you need help? What additional resources or support do you need?

Of course, you need to be prepared with all the details and to engage in deep discussion of why you chose your path and other options you considered. But a strong executive summary will save everyone time, get you the support you need, and and let you get back to what matters most– fighting the fire.

Your turn. What are your best practices for communicating with executives in times of crises?

Photo Credit: Creative Commons DIVDSHUB

how to dramatically improve team communication

How to Dramatically Improve Your Team Communication

The best way to improve your team communication is to talk about it. Most team frustration stems from expectation violations, not just about what we’re communicating, but how. It’s always inspiring to see a team carve out some time, shut the door, and have a reflective, candid conversation about how communication is helping and hindering progress.

Here’s a Winning Well team communication check-list we use with our clients and in our virtual leadership programs.  You can download a FREE formatted of the tool here. Team Communication Check-in.

Winning Well Team Communication Check-in

We encourage you to use this tool with your team and let us know what you learn and what you do next.

Confidence

  • We encourage one another to “Ditch the Diaper Genie” and celebrate when we speak with respectful candor.
  • We solicit and encourage new ideas.
  • I feel encouraged to stand up for my point of view.

Humility

  • We “Own the U.G.L.Y.” and schedule time to talk about what’s not working and how we can improve.
  • We have a proactive strategy for soliciting “full-circle.” feedback up, down and sideways.
  • I admit when I’m wrong.

 Results

  • We clearly communicate our expectations of one another and frequently Check for Understanding.
  • We hold one another accountable (and have I.N.S.P.I.R.E. conversations as needed).
  • I know what I need to do to succeed on this team and what the team needs to achieve to succeed in this organization.

 Relationships

  • Our meetings help us achieve results and build relationships.
  • We have clear, shared expectations regarding timely responses to emails, voice messages, and texts.
    • Email Timeframe: _______________
    • Voicemail Timeframe: _______________
    • Texts Timeframe: _______________
  • We respond to emails, calls, and texts in a timely manner.
  • On this team, I can say what I need to and I will be heard.

Your turn. What are your favorite ways to communicate about communication? What would you add to this tool?