Do you have anything to share regarding the subject of asking the right questions? Someone once said “Forget the answers; focus on asking the right questions.”
I’ll always remember the mid-1980s commercials featuring Lee Iacocca, then considered one of America’s finest business leaders, banging his fist on his board table and making tough proclamations. But consider the power of well-crafted questions. Statements invite agreement or disagreement. Commands invite rebellion or submission. How are questions different? Simple: Questions engage people. Questions can persuade an audience, align an organization, set direction, or focus attention on the things that enable people to learn.
The Socratic method
On a high school debate team, persuasion happens through fortified logic supported by facts and figures. Most companies work this way, too. You just lay out your logic, present supporting data, and voila—full buy-in is a cinch! … Not. That’s because we’re trained to argue when presented with someone else’s logic. As parents of teenagers can attest, the first reaction to being told what to do is to attack any logic, explanation, or data that isn’t what they want to hear.
Questions provoke answers, however. Ask a teenager “Where are you going?” and you will get an answer. (Most likely, “Out.”) What they don’t do is argue with the question or its assumptions. This is the basis for the Socratic method.
Rather than stating your logic, ask a series of questions chosen to lead your listeners to deduce the logic on their own. This questioning will take longer than lecturing, but you’ll save time in the long run. Your listeners will reach their own conclusion based on your questions. They’ll buy into a conclusion they’ve reached much faster than they will buy in to a conclusion that you just state.
To design your questions, first map out the logic that leads to your conclusion. Be thorough! Since you can’t control peoples’ answers, your data and logic must be airtight. (Otherwise be willing to be convinced when you get an answer you hadn’t considered.)
Here’s an example of the Socratic method in action: Imagine you’re trying to change your culture to judge people based on results, rather than hours worked. You could say this:
“What we really care about is producing business results. Working smarter rather than harder can sometimes produce results. We must reward people who get their results quicker by giving them a bonus based on what they produce, rather than the hours they work.”
You can imagine the response: “Sure we will, Pollyanna. And as long as people are working smart, let’s have them work smart for sixty hours a week.”
Here’s how you might present the same logic as a chain of questions. It takes longer, but it keeps the listener engaged in understanding rather than arguing:
Q: Do we want the business to meet and exceed its goals?
A: Of course.
Q: If we’ve met our goals, who should be eligible for bonuses?
A: Everyone who contributed significantly to meeting the goals.
Q: So what matters is that bonuses be related to each person’s contribution toward the goals?
Q: What if someone figures out a way to work smarter, and reach goals with less work?
A: That would be great!
Q: And that would be as valuable as taking longer and doing it less efficiently?
A: Of course.
Q: So then how we should base our bonus structure?
A: Well… it should be based on working smarter and achieving results.
Using “how” and “why”
One of the biggest challenges in leading an organization is linking big-picture strategy to everyone’s daily actions. It’s all well and good to announce a sweeping vision like, “Our mission is to ensure the health and safety of everyone who uses HealthCo’s products,” but the next day, your facilities person still has to grab a plunger to clear out a clogged toilet. Guess what? She isn’t thinking about the company vision. And once the toilet’s working again, she probably still hasn’t made the connection between what she does and the company’s grand mission. Your job is to help her connect, and you can do it with questions.
In your conversations, ask, “How?” to help people move from high-level goals to specifics. “We want to build the world’s best widgets.” “How?” “Well, first we’ll look up widget in a dictionary. Then, we’ll…”
Ask, “How?” enough and you can go from leadership goals all the way down to the paper clips needed to reach the goals. In fact, most layers of management essentially take their own goals, ask, “How can we reach these?” and use the answers as goals for their direct reports.
Asking “Why?” or “What do we achieve?” does the opposite; it moves from specifics to reasons. We can ask our facilities person, “Why are you fixing the toilet?”
A: “Because people need working facilities.”
Q: “What will having working facilities achieve?”
A: “People can take care of themselves and concentrate on their work.”
Q: “And why do they need to concentrate on their work?”
A: “So they can do good work.”
Q: “And why do they need to do good work?”
A: “To ensure the health and safety of everyone who uses our products.”
Each “Why?” moves to more basic goals and causes. You know your organization is tightly focused when “Why?” eventually leads to the company’s vision, values, or purpose. It’s rare that everyone can link their job to the mission, but boy, is it worth shooting for—it energizes and inspires a workforce even more than stock options in an Internet company.
Create culture using driving questions
Linking jobs to mission sets organizational direction. But questions also drive personal behavior. If your people ask the right questions relentlessly, you can create a powerful culture.
Take Winters Plumbing of Belmont, Massachusetts. The founders have the audacious vision of a billion-dollar plumbing empire. They ask daily, “How can we so satisfy our customers so that they make us the world’s greatest residential plumber?” The answers have led them to reinvent how plumbers are hired and trained, how they dress, what they drive, and how they are paid. Winters just opened a $50,000 training center to help their plumbers keep getting better.
The driving question filters down to individual plumbers. A non-Winters plumber might ask, “How can I stop this leaky sink as quickly as possible?” They’ll fix a sink. But a Winters plumber will ask, “How can I give this customer a great overall experience?” They’ll arrive well groomed, in a freshly laundered uniform, fix the sink, and even vacuum the area, leaving it better than when they arrived. The right driving question makes all the difference.
As Marilee Goldberg, author of The Art of the Question (Wiley 1997), points out, some questions put us in a judgment mindset, while others stimulate creativity and problem solving.
When things go wrong, you can ask, “What happened and whose fault was it?” The answer may produce great diagnosis, along with a culture of blame and a reluctance to take risks.
Asking instead, “What was the root cause and how can we prevent it in the future?” may produce great diagnosis and encourage brainstorming about prevention.
Be careful to revisit your questions from time to time. A real estate developer I worked with surpassed her dreams and built a $20 million empire, but she was heading towards an early grave from overwork. Every morning, she asked, “How can I make more money today?” Good question for amassing $20 million. Bad question for building a satisfying life once the money’s in the bank.
We live in the so-called “information age,” with a virtual epidemic of people asking for data that won’t impact their actions one bit. They just like having data; it makes them feel secure.
If this describes you, resist! Think before asking. Know how you’ll use the information and whether it’s even the right question. I’ve taken dozens of customer satisfaction surveys that asked, “Did your problem get solved?” An important question, to be sure. But they didn’t ask, “Did your problem get solved after four hours on the phone with poorly trained customer service people who made you want to run screaming into the night?” In fact, the December 2003 Harvard Business Review presents excellent research showing that simply asking, “Would you recommend us to a friend? Why or why not?” could generate better information than a ten-page survey.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of how you can use questions as a powerful leadership tool. Questions can also be used to communicate beliefs, set cultural norms, and push the edges of people’s thinking. But for now, may I offer some questions that will help you make this concept real?
What are your current goals?
How must your organization act to reach those goals?
How can you use questions to persuade, align, create culture, and directly measure the world to help you reach those goals faster?
Do you think an equity-based compensation plan is a good way to motivate employees?
My first instinct was to write, “Yes, of course.” Halfway through my third rewrite, however, I discovered it’s a wickedly complex question. Yes, equity motivates, but the question is what does it motivate? It has to motivate the right behavior for the right reason to be effective. And even when equity does what you want, its hidden gotchas can still cause a train wreck.
What do you hope equity will motivate people to do? You might find easier ways to get the same results.
One popular reason for giving equity is “We want people thinking like owners.” But think again. Most employees don’t want to think like owners; otherwise, they’d be out there starting companies. Besides, one thing owner’s think is, “I will get a huge percentage of the company’s value when it’s worth something.” I have yet to meet an owner who wants their employees thinking that.
We say, “think like an owner” when we mean, “be cost-conscious.” And equity is supposed to do that? I’ve watched company owners take a salary of $200,000 and spend a week and $10,000 worth of management time deciding whether to buy a $500 laser printer for their product development group. When even owners don’t think like owners when it comes to cutting costs, it’s foolish to ask it of employees.
Besides, owning stock doesn’t necessarily lead to frugality. Even in startups, the small expenditures are peanuts. Employees reason (often correctly) that the big expenses—rent, executive salaries, property, plant, and equipment—will make or break a company. And those decisions are big enough that cost is considered as a matter of course.
If the real goal is frugality, skip the stock. Offer people a budget and give them a percentage of any money left in their budget at year’s end. I guarantee you’ll have cost consciousness oozing from the company’s collective pores.
Perhaps “think like owners” means we want employees to get the big picture, use good judgment, and keep the company’s best interest foremost. A laudable goal, but again unrelated to stock. Lack of big-picture thinking is often a leadership void. If you want holistic thinking, share the big picture with people about ten thousand times, coach them to live it every waking minute, and add “gets the big picture and acts on it” to the yearly performance evaluation on which their bonus is based.
Of course, stock is also used to make up for being woefully underpaid and overworked. It motivates until burnout occurs, at which point nothing can rekindle motivation. Given overseas job migration and record joblessness, unemployment fears probably keep people working 100-hour weeks as well as equity could. And if you don’t like to rely on economic bad times to retain people, spark commitment by aligning the culture and work with the people’s values. Equity is optional.
When equity is justified
A closely related goal may justify equity: retaining employees and creating long-term commitment to the company’s success. Stock does this well, especially if they think it will be worth a lot of money someday. Of course, providing meaningful jobs well matched to individual strengths also keeps people around.
You might also give stock to employees so they share in the long-term value they create. If this is your motive, more power to you! You’re a rare breed. Stock is a great way to do this, and I’ve even known private companies to spread the wealth with simulated “phantom stock” granted to employees.
You want people owning stock for the right reasons—but stock motivates different people for different reasons. If someone wants stock in order to get rich in three years, will they make good long-term decisions for your company? Coming from the start-up world, high-six-figure executive motivation puzzles me. Many of these folks jump companies for higher salaries. In start-up land, executives join because they’re passionate about the opportunity and idea. They get $70,000 for thousand-hour weeks, and bend over backwards to make the company successful. It’s beyond me why a big company would pay upper execs ten times that for employment based on money and not a passionate commitment to the company.
You want people emotionally invested in the company’s success. You can get that investment by giving them meaningful work in service of a worthwhile goal. Hire people who believe in what you’re doing and match them to jobs. If you want to reward their commitment, then give them stock, but make it crystal clear you’re rewarding their innate involvement, not trying to buy it.
Although you can’t expect stock to give people an owner’s attitude, some people really do think like owners once they own stock. They take pride in the company and commit 100 percent. They save money, talk up the company, bring in great employees, and sacrifice to help it succeed. If stock motivates someone to do the Right Thing because they identify with the business, give them that stock today!
Of course, some people think equity will give them control. They believe it will give them a voice. If that’s someone’s motivation, think twice. Other than institutional investors and founders, no one will have enough stock to wield power. Besides, if someone wants control and can’t get it by presenting a lucid case through normal channels, do you really want them trying to exert control through shareholder meetings?
Avoiding the stock gotchas
So stock is a great motivator if it makes employees act like owners, rewards emotional commitment, or shares the long-term wealth. But even in those happy circumstances, granting stock is fraught with peril. In many cases, stock recipients have no idea how to value it and have expectations far out of line with reality.
Stock can stop motivating when reality sets in. We hear “stock” and think, “this is it, baby—billionaire in three months!” If you’re using stock to motivate sacrifice, you better make sure it’ll justify that sacrifice. In twelve start-ups over the last twenty-five years, I’ve seen just how worthless stock can be. If someone waits too long and sees the pot of gold evaporate as the company tanks, equity-based motivation turns to equity-fueled cynicism.
In pre-public companies, stock can be granted, but it is worthless without an IPO or acquisition. I owned stock in a private company for almost twenty years before it was finally worth one-tenth of what I’d originally hoped. Even if a private company gets acquired or reaches the IPO stage, major shareholders may make out OK, but little shareholders can get screwed. It doesn’t do wonders for morale. Resumes begin circulating.
Stock has a place in motivating employees, butcheck out alternativescarefully.
When the money does come through, jealousy can rear its ugly head. For some weird reason, the further people are above the “game over” amount, the more they care about who has what. Those who’ve stuck it out through thick and thin resent making far less than the founder when a company goes public.
If a company is planning an IPO or acquisition, they’ll lose the “you’ll get rich from our stock” effect once they’re on the other side. In that case, motivation based on something other than stock had better be in place.
Public company gotchas
Gotchas aren’t just for private companies. Big public companies have plenty of gotchas, too. There’s rarely a link between someone’s work and share price. Stock makes a nice bonus for people, but it doesn’t affect their performance because no one can figure out how to have an impact. So stock is a nice reward while the share price rises. When the price falls, though, the company has to resort to motivating with good old-fashioned salary.
Warren Buffett doesn’t believe in linking market price to performance. He won’t give options to top managers. He says a manager can do nothing and stock prices will still rise at a company’s return-on-equity, as long as the company can reinvest in its existing business. Executive options become worth millions, even though the recipients are just taking up space. Buffett instead gives managers ample yearly bonuses, contingent upon their producing actual results above ROE.
Even though top managers are given tons of stock, ostensibly to align their interests with the shareholders, the reality is that large and small shareholders don’t have aligned interests. The top company executive who holds ten million shares of stock would sure like the stock to be worth $10 per share, but still scores a home run even if the price drops down to $1. The smaller shareholder with 10,000 shares, however, cares a lot more about that price. Will the top manager do what it takes to make the smaller shareholder rich?
Vesting also makes people do crazy things. Companies don’t give stock all at once, they “vest” it over time to ensure people will stick around. The gotcha is that it works. They’ll grant 5,000 shares over five years, and the employee gets 1,000 shares each year. Disgruntled employees in a successful company end up with the perverse incentive to stick around until their next vesting date. They happily poison morale, radiate misery, and doom projects while waiting for their stock to vest. In this scenario stock has motivated retention too well; a little less retention would be a good thing.
So where does all this leave us? It leaves us realizing that stock is complex. It motivates, but often for bad reasons. Even when the reasons are right, hidden gotchas can turn it into a negative depending on later events. Stock has a place in motivating employees, but check out alternatives carefully. You may find other motivators work just as well and leave everyone happier in the long run.
Stever Robbins is founder and president of LeadershipDecisionworks, Inc., a national consulting firm that helps corporate companies develop far-reaching leadership and organizational strategies to sustain growth and productivity over time. You can find more of his articles at https://www.steverrobbins.com.
The managing director heads an organization with three vice presidents under him. For the last two years the company has been run this way and has been successful in turning around.
With reorganization on the agenda, it is proposed that one of the vice presidents be appointed as the CEO. This has led to resentment among the other team members. The fallout has been demotivation horizontally and vertically. What could be a “win-win” solution for this issue?
Ego, ego—who’s got the ego? Power, control, ego, and pride seem to account for the lion’s share of business behavior. Emotions at the top are propagated throughout the ranks; problems below may simply reflect problems at the top. So let’s start at the top in fixing the situation.
It sounds like what you really want is a healthy company. A healthy company needs a healthy executive team, and we all know what that looks like: The CEO has the respect and cooperation of the team. The team works well together, with each member bringing their top strengths and competencies to their jobs.
You need to align your executives behind a common vision of what a healthy executive team is. Gather your quarrelsome veeps for a heart-to-heart behind closed doors. They need to clear the air and then align behind a team they can all fully support.
Make sure everyone understands the common goal
Your executives must agree on the goal that’s really before them: creating a leadership structure that lets the turnaround continue and flourish. They’ll be tempted to include a goal like, “reach an accommodation where we three get what we want.” While that’s win-win for the individuals involved, it neglects the fourth player: the greater life form known as The Company. The company’s health affects everyone else working there. Keeping the company well fed and happy is more important than the personal whims of the vice presidents.
In the book Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001), Jim Collins’s research shows that business leaders build the greatest companies when they put company interests ahead of personal interests. If each VP defines winning as “I get to be CEO,” then win-win is impossible. But since your VPs are surely great CEO material, they all know that a healthy company is the goal, not personal status and power. So make sure they abandon the goal of win-win and instead shoot for healthy leadership structure.
Your executives should keep one thing in mind: If the CEO slot hasn’t actually been awarded yet, their behavior now is part of their audition. If they’re tanking company morale because it looks like they won’t get the job, they’re demonstrating their unfitness for the position.
Introduce the brutal truth
The brutal truth, part one: When three people vie for the top spot, two won’t get it. Period.
The brutal truth, part two: The execs must work as a team and support each other. If they won’t, some of them will have to go—and it won’t be the CEO. All three were happy being VPs when they joined; it’s their elevation of one to CEO that’s causing the problem. The passed-over execs need to find a way to support the new corporate structure or leave. There’s no place in an executive suite for members who won’t do their job.
(Oh, yes… If they leave, don’t give them severance! By punting on the hard work of forging a strong team, they’re not earning their salary, much less anything more. You don’t want to send the message that divisiveness is a great way to collect a golden parachute.)
If they decide they want to stay and forge a strong team, it’s time to help them redesign their attitude.
Clear the air of emotional crud
Your executives may spend their time posturing rather than facing the tough emotions that underlie the situation. They need to confront and resolve the real emotional issues in order for the team to function.
Sometimes, just the chance to voice disappointment is enough. Emotions are often most troublesome when they don’t get to run their course. We may consider some emotions (discouragement, worthlessness) so mortifying that we never learn to acknowledge and move past them. But blocking an emotion before listening to it rarely lets us move on gracefully.
Ask your execs to use their feelings to get to their underlying motivations. This can get into sensitive stuff, so they can do this privately and just bring the result to the meeting. Have them recognize and acknowledge their feelings about the situation. Then have them ask, “What is this emotion trying to tell me?” They can follow this thread to find the real issue underlying the bad morale. That issue can then be brought to the group for discussion.
This section is based on my experience with emotions, not on any therapeutic or counseling models. I’m assuming your morale problems come from “everyday” emotional reactions. Severe emotional issues may require therapy. Here are some examples on how I might respond to these emotions.
I feel jealous. Jealousy means someone else has something that you want. Wallow in it for a few minutes, and then realize that someone else’s good fortune isn’t your misfortune. Behind jealousy is “I’m not getting what I deserve.” Sadly, that might be true. Welcome to reality—life isn’t fair. Maybe you deserved the CEO spot, maybe not. Either way, jealousy isn’t healthy for you or the team. You were happy as a VP before. Be happy now. If you can’t, consider therapy or coaching. The issue for the group: how to make sure that each person feels he or she is getting the rewards he or she deserves.
I feel betrayed. Betrayal means someone didn’t fulfill a promise. Who promised what? Be precise. If the board promised you’d be CEO and they didn’t follow through, you may have a legitimate complaint. If a board member mentioned you were in the running, you may have read a promise into that. Talk through the promise and subsequent events with your alleged betrayer and clear the air. Often, however, betrayal is a neat smokescreen for emotions like discouragement or worthlessness, which may be more awkward to confront.
I feel discouraged/small/worthless. Feeling discouraged means you aren’t getting results, and you’re internalizing the cause. Does being passed over for CEO mean you’ve hit your competence limit? Not at all! Promotions are only vaguely related to competence, even in the best of times. We’re raised to believe that every little thing that does (or doesn’t) happen to us directly reflects our ability as human beings. The real world is more complex and usually a lot more arbitrary. If three equal candidates compete for one job, two must be passed over. It’s not about competence; it’s about only having one job opening. The issue for the group: how to identify the executives’ competencies and meld them into their jobs.
I feel contempt. Contempt comes from believing that someone is incompetent in an area you’re super-competent. If you think the new CEO is an incompetent boob, you won’t buy in to the direction, strategy, or tactics he or she is setting. It’s time for persuasion! The issue for the group: Make sure the strategy reflects the entire team’s expertise and buy-in. Spend some time airing doubts, questions, and concerns. Create something that you can believe in. If you can’t, though, it’s time for separation. An executive’s job is to help a company succeed. While the current CEO’s plans may not guarantee success, executive friction, in-fighting, and sabotage will virtually guarantee failure.
I feel hopeless. Hopelessness just means you’ve stopped anticipating future success. So start now! Create a rich image for yourself of how you can make your current position a job that really lets you shine. The issue for the group is how to make that happen.
I feel anger. Anger means you feel threatened. It often comes from fear: fear of survival, of being unworthy, of loss, etc. Dig around for the underlying fear. You can handle some fears on your own. If you feel your survival is threatened, a little financial planning may make it obvious that a $200,000 salary is a tad above the poverty line. Some fears can be brought to the group. If you fear you’ll lose respect because you weren’t promoted, the issue for the group would be: How can you be sure you are still portrayed and treated respectfully?
I want more money, status, and control. Who doesn’t? If you can’t marry into it and didn’t get this promotion, stop griping and start building. Complete the turnaround and help grow the business. Growth brings more money, status, and control automatically. If that’s not enough, reopen compensation negotiations. If you’re only in it for the cash, it’s worth rethinking the fit between you and the company. The past few years have given us dozens of examples where executives who care only about the dollars can kill the business faster than any competitor.
Create a team they can align behind
Once level heads have prevailed, everyone has to ask the hard questions: Can I support the new CEO’s plans and strategies, and can I commit wholeheartedly to my current position as I do so?
If anyone answers “no,” it’s time to start negotiating graceful exits. At the end of the day, an executive who can’t get behind the company must be traded in for a better model. They’ll make decisions for their own best interests, and not for the business’s long-term benefit. “It’s all about me” behavior can be fine at manager or director levels but, especially during troubled times, it can tear your company apart at the leadership level.
Your situation is a tough one. The vertical morale problems will probably be OK once the top levels get sorted out. But this is a case where it’s not about what’s rational; it’s all about emotion. The top team has to settle its issues and back the CEO to heal any rifts in the company. The CEO has been chosen. Strong emotions are natural, but the solution is to use them to identify issues that can be addressed, and then move on. Whining changes nothing, and certainly doesn’t build a healthy company. It’s time for the team to buy in or say “bye-bye.”
Do I have to believe in what I am doing in order to be successful at it?
The power of belief is the stuff of legend. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy must defeat the Wicked Witch of the West to build enough belief so the magic ruby slippers will send her home. But in real life, belief involves both more and less than Dorothy endured. Depending on what you’re doing, belief may be optional. But even then, belief makes life much easier. And if you’re leading an organization, belief is one of your most powerful tools.
When you believe, it comes out in your body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Even great liars can’t fake it for very long; they always give it away somehow. Poker players call this a “tell.” It’s how you know someone’s bluffing. They may shift in their seat, play with their ring, or otherwise reveal a lack of sincerity.
You’ve seen it in personal life. When my significant other invites me to the ballet, I say, “yes” in the interest of domestic harmony. But the insincerity of that “yes” is loud and clear. When we go out to an event we’ll both enjoy, though, we both know it, and it strengthens the relationship.
It’s the same in business. When people don’t believe, their relationships fade a bit. A mid-size company had employees who had only contempt for the CEO and his business practices. Watching them give job interviews was a hoot. Candidates asked, “How do you like it here?” They replied, forced through a fake smile, “It’s a great place to work. I love it so much.” They gave conflicting signals, and the interviewees knew something wasn’t right.
Usually, other people notice the lack of belief but don’t consciously know how to interpret it. They may think you don’t trust them, or you’re distracted, or the deal at hand is a fraud, or that you’re just distant. But however you slice it, they won’t feel a strong connection, because you’ll be holding back.
If success demands good relationships with customers, vendors, and employees, a lack of belief can be a problem.
Belief brings commitment and persistence
Is there anything you love so much you’d do it every day and enjoy it every time? I’ll bet it’s something you believe in. When we believe in a vision, we have the energy to keep pursuing it. We do what it takes to help bring the vision to life.
If your company is treading water, creativity and persistence may be optional, but for growing companies and companies in competitive environments, innovation and problem solving are keys to success. When you believe in a possibility of achieving something, you’ll bring your full creativity to bear and will pursue it relentlessly. When things go wrong, you’ll be out in front with new ideas, schemes to hatch, plans to make, and alternatives to pursue.
A nonprofit’s board met for a day to brainstorm strategy. Their organization wasn’t doing as well as they wanted, and they needed some serious survival plans. People sat around coming up with a vague thought here and there, but the conversation went nowhere. Finally, a member spoke up: “I just don’t believe in the goals we’ve chosen.” After lively discussion, the group chose new goals that everyone believed in. And suddenly, there weren’t enough flip charts to hold all the new ideas.
When you doubt the organization or its goals, it’s an ongoing struggle to stay motivated. You think, “This must get done, even though I don’t believe it’s the right thing to do, or a worthwhile thing to do.” Naturally, you’ll disengage and just go through the motions—what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Much of your energy goes to fighting the tension between “must do” and “don’t believe” instead of going directly to finish the task.
When you’re completely aligned, you’ll be at your best, body and soul. If it ends up that you don’t reach the goal, it won’t be for lack of trying!
Belief impacts morale—especially for leaders
The biggest issue with belief is morale. Most of us just aren’t very happy when doing something we don’t believe in. We might resign ourselves to it, but futile resignation isn’t exactly a fun place to live day by day. Furthermore, it’s probably not going to bring out your best.
Psychologist Marty Seligman relates in his book Authentic Happiness (Simon & Schuster 2002) that we’re happiest when using our personal strengths to overcome challenges, all while doing something we believe makes a difference. Did you catch that last part? People are happiest in a job they find worthwhile. In fact, people often work harder for fewer rewards for causes linked to deep belief.
If you’re in a leadership position, it isn’t just your morale that will tank; everyone who works for you will feel it, too. A leader whose heart isn’t in it is deadly to a group. Even the group members who want to commit will feel like they’re committing to a phony cause.
People watch leaders to know how to behave. They don’t listen to their leaders; they watch. If you’re listless, if you’re holding back, if you’re putting in 50 percent effort, they’ll know, even if you don’t. Your behavior will signal everyone around you to disengage.
In coaching, this comes up over and over. An executive wonders why their team isn’t performing. I’ll ask, “What would a high-performing team look like?” They’ll tell me, showing all the enthusiasm of a slug on a salt lick. When I point out the discrepancy, we suddenly recognize that the team is performing—exactly to the belief level of the executive. Change the executive and the team changes as well.
After all, if you don’t believe, how will you be able to recruit and lead a team who does?
Sometimes, you don’t need belief to succeed
So sometimes, believing is critical to success. But plenty of jobs don’t depend on forming deep relationships, working with commitment and creativity, or leading people. If you’re in a transaction-oriented environment, belief is probably optional. And let’s face it; front-line retail jobs rarely require belief. Those jobs have massive turnover, and no one expects spiritual engagement from a fast-food checkout person.
But I’ve been talking only about belief, when you also asked about success.
Many people think success means making a lot of money, getting a lot of status, and having a lot of power. It turns out they’re wrong. Studies on success show that above subsistence level, more external “stuff” doesn’t mean more happiness. People who feel unsuccessful keep finding new ways to feel that way on different playing fields. “I don’t have the money for a new TV” becomes “I’m not getting a high-enough return on my investments.”
The people who really feel successful get their success as much from the process as the end results. Yes, they may want money, power, and status. But they get it in ways they enjoy, so they feel successful all along the way. Really thoughtful people use a “balanced scorecard” approach, and consider friendships, community, family, and, yes, doing something they believe in as essential ingredients in a good life.
Warren Buffett, history’s most successful investor, says he invests because he loves it. Even as a kid, he counted vending machine bottle caps to understand what was selling. His love led to persistence, skill, and finally, billions. He lives a modest lifestyle with his wife in the house they bought forty years ago. His joy comes from living, not having. He could have power, status, and huge skyscrapers bearing his name. But he wouldn’t enjoy that. For him, success is eating at McDonald’s and drinking Cherry Coke—well within the means of us non-billionaires. And, of course, investing, which he’d be doing it even if it didn’t pay.
So can you make money without believing in what you’re doing? Sure. In relationships, creativity, and culture building, belief helps. But either way, only you can answer the real question: Do you need belief to feel successful? And if the answer is “yes,” what are you waiting for?
How should we think about the importance of diversity, and how best to understand and value cultural differences?
Diversity, the misunderstood child of the Age of Aquarius and Political Correctness, is an incredibly powerful tool for an organization. Diversity brings thoughts, feelings, and cultural knowledge that benefits decision making, marketing, operations, culture-building, hiring, firing—just about everything a business does. But its true power comes out only when diversity starts at the top and pervades the business. Alas, most businesses score dismally when it comes to understanding and using difference.
In my experience, many diversity programs are really anti-harassment programs. Someone says something offensive about a different race, gender, religion, geographic origin, or sexual orientation. The diversity police jump in and mandate “diversity training.” It’s a good thing they jump in—inaction sends the wrong message and can bring big lawsuits—but the motivation and the training many times boils down to, “Don’t say these things because people get upset.” In really enlightened companies, diversity training happens before it’s needed, so that first incident can be avoided, too.
Don’t get me wrong; diversity training can produce some effect. The true bigots who don’t intend to change at least know now which conversations to save for behind closed doors. People who are ignorant but care will be able to change a bit. But don’t expect much benefit beyond a decline in harassment.
What is diversity?
Diversity takes many forms. We mostly notice and legislate the visible stuff: people have different skin color, talk with different accents, wear different clothes, have different (dis)abilities, are different ages, have same-sex partners, practice different religions, and use different hands when they write. Most discrimination targets the visible stuff, and many anti-harassment programs help people understand that despite surface differences, deep down all people are worthwhile and valuable.
Surface diversity is what we deal with when we wish to avoid problems. We teach people to value the person within. But it’s the diversity within that brings great benefits. Inner diversity includes the Psych 101 stuff—different personality and work styles, brain dominance, etc. More subtly, it includes different thinking styles and different fundamental assumptions about the way the world works.
It’s easy to assume outer diversity signals inner diversity and vice versa. Not necessarily. A professor once remarked within my earshot, “Never again will most of these students be somewhere with such diversity of race and geographic origin. And never again will they be somewhere with such uniformity of thought and attitude.”
Inner diversity gives the biggest bang for your buck. Personality and behavior style profiles are widely used to help groups identify and talk about inner differences. Not only can the distinctions help explain why people clash, but used in team building, they can help you balance the skills needed to finish a project. For example, one profile distinguishes “people people” from those who are task and process oriented. If you were designing a customer service call center, you would involve both profile types so your systems are efficient but also give a good interpersonal experience.
Profiles can also help match people with jobs. Using profiles, some companies discover all top performers share common attributes. With that knowledge, they can do a better job matching. If Myers-Briggs ESTJs make the best salespeople for your organization, your chronically dissatisfied engineer whose profile is ESTJ may become a huge resource if given a chance in sales.
Cultural differences and deep learning
Though personality diversity is valuable for team building and job matching, even different personalities from the same culture will share a common set of cultural assumptions. The invisible diversities of culture, religion, and value systems are where you can reap real business benefit.
Cultural differences are where you discover the most basic assumptions that you’ve never even questioned. This causes problems; questioning deep assumptions can feel very threatening. So threatening, in fact, that reactions are defensive bordering on violent. But if you can manage the emotion and create a safe space to play “what if,” you may find your thinking changes dramatically.
A reader wrote in last month, “Americans work 50 percent more per week than people in my country and take four weeks fewer vacation, yet they don’t get more done than we did in my country.” America has cultural assumptions about working a lot and measuring it by face time. A foreigner can point out that there’s another way. An American company that listens and learns might be able to offer six weeks of vacation and short hours to attract outstanding employees. (And I know of at least one company that has done this.)
The Dalai Lama points out in his book The Art of Happiness that Eastern cultures believe in reincarnation. As such, they approach even daily tasks very differently. So I tried it (believing, that is, not reincarnating). Believing in future lives removes a lot of my daily stress in this one and also gives me a much longer-term time horizon. Suddenly, consuming my grandchildren’s oil seems like a bigger deal, because those grandchildren might be me, reincarnated!
A company that explores a reincarnation belief might end up taking a long-term view on their products. Seventh Generation does just that. They produce environmentally friendly household products. Their cultural source isn’t reincarnation, however. The name refers to the Iroquois Confederacy practice of considering consequences seven generations out.
Cultural differences can hint at new markets. Gloria Estefan recognized that the American music business is highly English-centric and has built her own business empire in America’s Latin and Spanish-speaking populations—populations almost invisible in mainstream media. The wildly popular reality TV show, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” has helped the mainstream world enjoy “gay sensibility,” with USA Today reporting (March 3, 2004) that sales for products mentioned on the show soar as much as 300 percent.
Challenging an assumption doesn’t automatically point to opportunity, but it’s a start. A European colleague proposed hiring me to speak in his country. I asked, “Where should I stay? What are the good areas of town?” He was amused. “A very American question!” he proclaimed. “Have you ever considered a town might have only good areas?” Um, no. I never had. Even before our current fear-filled time, “bad areas of town” were a given. Knowing it’s possible prompts me to ask how to make it happen. Is there a business there? I don’t know. But an urban planning or civil engineering firm might find a few trips overseas could trigger some great ideas.
Some of the ways to extract diversity’s benefits:
Identify previously overlooked cultural markets.
Create new products for existing markets.
Change corporate culture to attract a different employee mix.
Form relationships and making inroads internationally.
Get things done in better ways.
“Comfy” diversity programs held for compliance reasons that skirt the real issues waste time and money. Your leadership challenge is to draw out the differences and help the group safely explore what those differences suggest about the business. You might find new opportunity, but either way, it’s simply the right thing to do in an increasingly diverse workforce. It helps people feel valued and more worthwhile, and at the end of the day, why do we even have business if not to have more worthwhile, valuable lives? That’s my underlying assumption, and if it isn’t yours, your first diversity assignment is to try it on for size.
A leader can be brought down by a single follower’s actions. How can a leader reduce the risk?
We dream great dreams and set goals so huge we need organizations to achieve them. Where people organize, leaders emerge. We want to be those leaders.
Leaders become the focus of an organization’s results. When things go right, leaders get the credit, glory, and money. Jack Welch receives the praise, but his accomplishments took 305,000 employees twenty years to produce.
When things go wrong, leaders can take the fall. The Middle East peace process is regularly derailed by disgruntled people largely acting alone, and it sets back the efforts—and eventually credibility—of the leaders by decades.
Good decisions minimize risk
One way to decrease downside risk is by helping your people make good decisions about what and what not to do. Sales programs teach that decisions are made with emotion. Logic is only used to justify the decision. So you’ll have to work with the emotions of your organization. (By the way, this is why I believe the current compliance fad won’t stem unethical business behavior. Compliance is about setting up and following rules. Rules are left-brain, logical thinking. Without addressing the underlying emotional drives, the pressure to win by any means possible will eventually resurface.)
People take emotional cues by watching their leaders. They don’t listen to speeches. They don’t read laminated wallet-cards espousing values. They learn how to act by watching you, especially when you’re off-balance and your guard is down.
So first off, give your own values a good spring cleaning. The last few years have shown us business leaders who have acted immorally, unethically, and sometimes illegally to succeed in business. If you set a bad example, people will follow, you’ll get into trouble, and frankly, you’ll deserve it.
Do you charge occasional personal expenses to the business? Do you develop a blind spot when your company violates a little regulation here or there? “After all,” you’ll say at your arraignment, “it’s no big deal. Everyone does it.” Beware! Your organization will be watching and magnifying the values you demonstrate. So clean up your act now. You don’t want John Grisham turning your story into a best-selling novel.
You want your company infused with clear, consistent values that people can use to make decisions. Johnson & Johnson’s credo clearly spells out J&J’s values: customer well-being, employee well-being, community well-being, and shareholder well-being. In that order. It’s so clear that every employee can use the credo to know when to act, and when to stop. Given the credo, J&J’s famous Tylenol recall makes complete sense.
Propagate values via stories
People learn values through stories. The way a story’s hero behaves tells listeners what values are Good. The Evil Villain demonstrates Bad Values.
Businesses develop myths that illustrate their values. Nordstrom’s devotion to their customer return policy shines in the story of an employee giving a customer a refund for returning tires, even though Nordstrom’s is a clothing store. A FedEx employee made good on the overnight promise by renting a helicopter in a storm to deliver a single package on time. These are the legends that convey the important values.
Telling stories isn’t enough. Watch for people who embody good, values-based decisions and give them public recognition. Celebrate not only their results, but the values they’ve shown while getting the results.
On the other side, come down quick and hard when someone knowingly crosses the line. If it’s bad, it’s a firing offense. And don’t reward the right outcome when it’s reached by doing the wrong thing. If a salesperson makes quota by lying to customers, don’t say, “Shame shame” and still pay their bonus. That’s a mixed message, and a mixed message sends no message. Your salesperson—and everyone else—will notice the bonus and ignore the shame. Only pay them for the sales they brought in ethically. If they quit, celebrate; that’s one unethical salesperson who won’t be landing you in jail. If they shape up, celebrate; you’ve made a difference. Either way, you’ve sent a powerful message that doing things right is important.
Discuss decisions to surface values
Of course, you’d rather just hire good people to begin with, people who act with integrity once they’re on board. You can’t just ask someone in a job interview what their values are and expect an accurate answer. Most people don’t know their values. But decisions are where values kick into action. So ask candidates open-ended questions about past decisions (recent past behavior predicts future behavior fairly well). Their answers will imply values. If they don’t have relevant past experience, hypothetical questions are next-best. “There’s a regulation that is keeping you from doing your job. Everyone knows the regulation is there for historical reasons only, breaking it won’t hurt anyone, and it will result in great profits for the firm. What do you do? How do you justify your decision to your manager?”
These are process questions; they ask for reflection on how things get done. Encourage regular process discussions. They get people used to thinking about what’s OK and what’s not. If business is fast-paced or requires big risks, openly questioning how business is happening make it more likely to bring outside-the-bounds schemes to light early.
Ignoring process and focusing solely on outcomes is dangerous. It’s one way to encourage deliberate tomfoolery. In reports of Enron’s collapse, Jeff Skilling never told employees to act unethically. He simply demanded extreme results and made it clear any behavior was acceptable to produce them. In the recent Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the alleged command to “soften up” prisoners for interrogation turned into torture. A simple process comment could have avoided the scandals: “By the way, here’s a copy of the Geneva Convention. Stay within these bounds.”
Your goal is to get people feeling accountable for their own actions and making value-aligned judgments. Trader Nick Leeson brought down Barings Bank through ongoing fraud. In his book, he’s amazed that his bosses didn’t stop him. Yes, their oversight was shoddy. But their preparation was even worse. Those bosses never cultivated Leeson’s feeling of personal accountability for his actions. Even after serving prison time and writing his book, he was still looking to them to be his conscience.
You grow personal accountability by treating people as adults. Discuss their decisions frankly. Make them understand you’re counting on their good judgment. Give them authority, but only when you’re confident they can use it responsibly. If things go wrong, hold them accountable for recovery and learning from the mistakes. And beware of micro-management! Telling people every detail of how things must get done lets them run on automatic, rather than take responsibility for making the right choices.
If you haven’t the luxury of being sure of people before handing them the reins, try surprise “decision audits” from time to time. Drop by a project, ask about recent decisions, and discuss how those decisions were made. Don’t micro-manage, but simply take in information to understand how values are playing out. Have your managers hold similar audits, and as long as they’re taken seriously, you’ll build a culture that expresses your values.
Ultimately, that’s the best you can do. A leader will always be responsible for the sins of the followers. Alas, that’s the nature of the job. We can tell people the rules, but we minimize our risk through values as well as rules. By modeling clear values, discussing them, and incorporating them into the way decisions get made, we can make it much more likely our organization will do the right things.