Tag Archives: management

Letting the team decide

Do you manage by consensus? Do you invite your team to come together to make decisions? Not all decisions, of course, but the many choices that — while not mission-critical – affect the team’s day-to-day work and its esprit de corps.

I admit that managing by consensus isn’t my preferred style. But having worked on teams where members are invited to participate in decision making, I’ve come to see the advantages:

several hands claspedBuy-in: When the team chooses, its members are much more likely to be comfortable with the choice – and with the results of that choice.

Empowerment: Team members feel like their opinions matter, like they’re being heard.

Results: Because it represents the team’s collective wisdom, often the decision is better than anything you would’ve come up with yourself.

Making it work

Before you try managing by consensus, you have to cultivate the right environment to make it work. From my observation, here are some ways to do that.

Assemble a team that’s knowledgeable and trustworthy. You’ll be better able to empower the team when you trust their wisdom and their motivation.

Sometimes – most times, in fact – you won’t get to pick who’s on your team. People are assigned to you, or they come onto your team through reorganizations. What then? You might have to start slowly, until the team (with your encouragement) has established that level of knowledge and trustworthiness – not to mention establishing the ability to trust each other.

Create a framework in which managing by consensus can take place. Obviously, the team can’t make every decision. Decide up front what’s not negotiable, and what kinds of things you’re comfortable letting the team decide. Some of the non-negotiables will be handed down from Corporate. Others will be areas where you have latitude, but about which you feel strongly. Examples might be working hours, or basic rules for professionalism and mutual respect.

Give up your need to be in control. When I’m the person in charge, and I know I’m accountable, this one is hard or me. I can solicit advice, I can ask for feedback – but my buck stops here” mentality makes me want to call the shots. Yet I’ve learned, as I said earlier, that letting the team decide often results in better outcomes than when I decide things myself.

Make sure everyone has a voice. Insist on a culture where one or two people don’t dominate, where everyone feels like they have a chance to contribute. If someone becomes too vocal, or isn’t vocal enough, remind them in a one-on-one conversation that everyone is expected to contribute and everyone has a right to be heard.

Realize that sometimes it’s messy. Life becomes more complicated when you’re no longer calling all the shots. Sometimes, when you ask the team to make a choice, it takes them a while to figure out what they want. There might be strong disagreements along the way, and even healthy disagreement can cause stress. Although you might have to play the role of facilitator, or even referee, resist the temptation to lapse back into the role of boss.

Have you worked successfully on a team where decisions were made by consensus – either as the leader or as a team member? What were the factors that contributed to that success? What benefits came from using the managing-by-consensus approach?

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Recapturing community and security

The vast Roebling Mill, near Trenton, New Jersey, produced thousands of miles of steel cable for huge public-works projects like the George Washington and Golden Gate Bridges. At its peak, around World War II, it employed 5,000 people.

Most of those employees lived in a planned community, also called Roebling, in red-brick houses that had been constructed by the Roebling family expressly for their workers to live in.

The loyalty was palpable

When you were part of Roebling, you walked to work beside your neighbors along the leafy streets, through the gate house and down the hill to the factory site. Afterward you walked back together. Perhaps you stopped at the (subsidized) general store or at one of the taverns before going home to your family.

You were part of a community in every sense of the word.

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The town of Roebling (foreground) and the steel mill in their heyday (Source: Hagley Digital Archives)

Today the mill buildings are gone, although the town with its brick houses and leafy streets remains. The stories of the mill and its people are told in the Roebling Museum, located in the old gate house.

The stories describe a remarkable esprit de corps, a strong bond between co-workers and neighbors who took great pride in their work, whose families gathered together on front porches, whose children competed together on the town’s sports teams.

When you were part of Roebling, the loyalty — yours to the company, and the company’s to you — was palpable.

Nothing lasts forever

When I visited the Roebling Museum earlier this month, those stories reminded me of my first few years at IBM. There I was steeped in a corporate culture that emphasized longevity and two-way loyalty. I never sang songs from the IBM hymn book, but some of my older colleagues had.

On the annual opinion survey, we were asked whether we agreed with a series of statements — one of which was I am confident that, as long as I do a good job, there will be a place for me at IBM. The hoped-for result was that all of us would mark Strongly Agree.

After a while they quietly took that statement out of the survey. After another while, for many of us, the statement proved to be false.

Nothing lasts forever. The Roebling Mill closed for good in 1974 after years of decline. IBM’s first layoffs (sorry, resource actions) took place in 1993. My pink slip came in 2002.

Trying to recapture a little of the old

I’m not suggesting that we can, or even should, return to those days of unswerving loyalty, of living in the safety of the corporate cocoon.

Still, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the other direction.

Do you work in a place where you feel really connected with your co-workers, with a shared sense of mission and a shared pride in what you do?

Some of you do work in a place like that. But many of you don’t. Perhaps some of you have never experienced what it’s like.

Do you work in a place where you know that your employer has your back, that they care about you as a person and as a professional?

Again, while some of you do, I’ll wager that many more of you don’t.

Community and security

While it’s foolish and naive for workers to believe that the company will always take care of them, there’s value in identifying yourself with a company and in bonding with co-workers.

And while there are no guarantees, there’s also value in knowing that as long as you do a good job, the company will do its best to ensure that it has a place for you.

Community and security. I’ve worked in situations (like those early days at IBM) where I’ve felt like I had a lot of both. I’ve also worked in situations where I had essentially none.

I can tell you which one is better.

So, as managers and leaders, how can we give our workers a healthy, realistic sense of community and security?

Here are a few ideas. I hope you’ll add more ideas in the comments.

  • Let your people know that you value them for the people they are, not just for the work they do. Recognize that some of them might be hurting, having been betrayed by a previous employer they thought they could trust.
  • Invest in your people’s professional development. When you pay for someone to attend a training course, you’re saying that you can see them contributing in the long term, not just on the present project.
  • Let your people have fun together. Even if their families don’t gather on front porches, you can help create an environment where they feel connected by things other than their day-to-day work.

As workers, how can we increase our sense of community and security when there seems to be too little of both? Perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post.

I’d love to hear your story of community and security: how you’ve coped with losing them, or maybe how you’ve lost them and managed to regain them.

In praise of the ebullient worker

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Ozzie Smith doing his thing at the 1985 World Series (source: Sports Illustrated)

Have you ever worked with someone like Ozzie Smith?

Before really big games, the Hall of Fame shortstop delighted his fans and teammates by doing backflips on the field. In every game he played, his gestures and body language made it clear that he was enjoying himself. His joy spread to everyone who watched him — except, maybe, fans of the opposing team.

Have you ever worked with someone who delights in their work and spreads joy through the workplace? If so, you’re lucky. There are far too few people like that. I call them the ebullient workers.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about:

  • The clowns, who love jokes and pranks but never take anything seriously and can’t be counted on to pull their weight. A clown’s act might be appealing at first, but before long it becomes stale — no matter how good the jokes are.
  • The showoffs, who take delight in their work but at the expense of rival workers or even teammates. The showoff’s delight isn’t really in their work — it’s in proving that they’re better than everyone else. Instead of sowing unity, showoffs sow division.

If you’re an ebullient worker

Good for you. Keep it up. You might ask “Keep what up?” because your ebullience just comes naturally. You have a rare gift of bringing light and life to the workplace. Don’t let anybody or anything — frowning colleagues, disapproving bosses, a stifling corporate culture — extinguish it.

Sometimes, unfortunately, that means that you’ll need to find another place to work. That’s a steep price to pay, but it beats losing the passion you bring to your job every day. Continue reading

Seeing the deep-space view

Do you recognize the bright stars in this scene? You’ve almost certainly seen them: they’re the 3 stars of Orion’s belt. But I’ll bet you’ve never seen them like this.

The photo, featured last week as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, is a composite of several long-exposure images taken from a remote location in the Canary Islands.

In this deep-space view you can see the 3 familiar stars along with hundreds of fainter stars and other structures like the Orion Nebula and (near the leftmost of the 3 stars) the Horsehead Nebula and the Flame Nebula.

If you go outside right now and look at Orion’s belt, whether or not you can see anything besides the 3 stars, all of that other stuff is there too. It’s always there, even though it might be hidden from the observer.

The deep-space view

I’ve found that the professional world is the same way. Whenever I look at a situation involving people and projects on the job, I can be sure there’s more than what I can see at first glance.

Here’s an example: In a former job I chatted with a manager who’d recently been hired to run one of my company’s branch offices. She was glad to be there, she said, and anxious to start improving processes and efficiency. She was already sure that the writing team at that location would need training in the tools and processes. Continue reading

Think you’re smarter than your boss?

Awhile back, Amy Gallo wrote in the Harvard Business Review about What to Do If You’re Smarter than Your Boss. I recommend Amy’s article because it’s really about what to do if you think you’re smarter than your boss.

There were two instances in which I thought I was smarter than my boss. Both times, it turned out I was wrong.

Walt: the rustic

Walt (not his real name) was a born-and-bred Southerner, with an easygoing style a and an accent straight out of Mayberry. Still in my twenties, having just moved to North Carolina from “up north,” I quickly pegged him as a rustic.

Walt managed another team at first, but in time I was moved over to his team. I actually thought that while he was nominally the boss, I could pretty much handle things as I saw fit and he’d never be the wiser. (I was a cocky young pup, wasn’t I?)

Once I began working for Walt, and I was able to see him close-up, things changed. Continue reading

When a good worker struggles

This one’s personal. It’s the story of one of the biggest leadership challenges I’ve ever faced: a good employee whose performance declined but who didn’t (or couldn’t) admit that she had a problem.

Broken pencilsJenny (not her real name) was one of the best pure writers who ever worked for me. She came to me highly recommended, with a history of success both at work and outside of work. When she joined our project, her subject-matter experts quickly came to love her: she was congenial, she asked good questions, and she respected their time. She showed enthusiasm and a positive, can-do attitude.

Soon after we began working together, Jenny told me that she was going through a difficult divorce and adjusting to life as a single mom. She needed a flexible schedule, to accommodate the kids’ activities. We agreed that she could do much of her work at home and in the evenings. I avoided scheduling meetings and important calls in mid-afternoon when she picked up the kids at school. The arrangement suited everyone, at least for a while.

Then she started missing deadlines. She’d assure me that a chapter would be finished by Friday. Then on Friday she’d ask if it could wait until Monday, promising to work over the weekend.

I asked her if things were OK, if she could use some help. The answer was always the same: I’ve got this. I can handle it.

But she wasn’t handling it. Continue reading