Asking for Input

In my last several blog posts, I’ve been writing about SLII® micro skills—leader behaviors that help direct reports get things done while increasing their motivation and confidence. In this post I’ll focus on Asking for Input—a supportive behavior that not only develops mutual trust and respect between leaders and direct reports, but also benefits the organization.

Why should a leader regularly ask direct reports for their input? There are multiple reasons; I’ll talk about three of the big ones here.

Asking for input engages your direct reports.

The Gallup organization—famous for its employee engagement research—has long recognized that one of the primary reasons employees become disengaged is because they feel their thoughts and opinions don’t count. This disengagement has a significant negative impact on productivity and the bottom line.

The leader who charges ahead and makes decisions without asking for input from followers contributes to employee disengagement. A study conducted by John Izzo, author of Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything (Berrett-Koehler, 2012), found that the number one reason employees don’t take more initiative at work is that their leaders fail to get their input before making decisions. This is right in line with our own research on organizational change. When those who are being asked to change are not asked for their input, the change is likely to fail.

Whether it’s on a small project or a large change effort, the principle is the same: by asking for input, leaders can turn disinterested employees into an engaged ones.

Asking for input sets up a mutual, two-way conversation.

In the old days, leadership was regarded as a top-down conversation. The assumption was that the leader was the one with all the answers and the people doing the work were merely “hired hands.” Today, we recognize that leadership is more of a side-by-side endeavor, where both leader and direct report work together to create results.

By asking for input and listening well, leaders create connectedness and build trust with those they lead. A climate of trust leads to more productive employees and a healthier organization. In our research of more than 1,000 leaders, 59 percent of respondents indicated they had left an organization due to trust issues, citing lack of communication as a key contributing factor.

Asking for input also reduces the chance of miscommunication. For example, suppose you’ve just given instructions on an assignment to a direct report. To ask for input, you might say, “I’ve been talking for a while and would like your feedback. Why don’t you recap for me what you’ve heard, so I can make sure I’ve given you the direction you need to be successful?”

Asking for input stimulates people’s best thinking.

Not only does asking for input improve employee engagement, but it also taps into people’s inherent intelligence and creativity. Let’s face it: direct reports often know more about their jobs than their managers do. They also have far more power and potential to contribute to the organization than leaders often realize. From the 3M Post-It® Note to the Starbucks Frappucchino®, stories abound about employee innovations that went on to become multimillion-dollar revenue earners.

But even when focused on everyday projects, asking for input invites employees to participate in problem solving and contribute their expertise. The positive results are two-fold: The employee has more job satisfaction and the organization benefits from the employee’s knowledge.

If leaders don’t ask for input—and value that input—they may be hurting their organization more than they know. Keep in mind that when Steve Wozniak was an engineer for Hewlett Packard, he tried five times to get management interested in his idea for a personal computer. Wozniak finally left HP, teamed up with Steve Jobs, and founded a little company named Apple. Talk about a missing out on some good input!

In the coming weeks, I’ll be covering the remaining SLII® micro skills, so watch this space!

Direct Report Brand New to a Task? Show and Tell Them How to Do It

In my last few blog posts, I’ve covered one Directive and two Supportive leadership behaviors—micro skills commonly used by SLII® leaders. In this blog post, my focus is on Showing and Telling How, another Directive leadership behavior. Directive behaviors are actions that shape and control what, how, and when things are done.

As part of our company’s SLII® training, we teach that when someone is new to a task or goal, they need specific direction from their leader. One aspect of this direction involves the leader showing and telling the direct report how to do the task correctly. After all, if someone doesn’t know what a good job looks like, how can they be successful?

As simple as this seems, many leaders have a problem with showing and telling how. Why? Because they believe it’s inconsistent to manage some people one way and others a different way—so they choose a leadership style they are comfortable with and use it all the time, on everyone. But suppose a leader’s preferred style is Delegating—assigning a task to a direct report and then leaving them alone to figure it out. That style simply won’t work on a person who has no idea how to do the task. The leader is setting the direct report up for failure.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you hire a smart, likeable, outgoing person to sell your service or product. They possess many of the qualities a great salesperson needs, but no actual sales experience. On the other hand, they have a positive attitude and they’re eager to learn and committed to being a successful salesperson. In terms of sales, according to SLII®, this person is an Enthusiastic Beginner who needs a Directing leadership style.

Knowing this, you give your new hire specific direction about everything that has to do with sales. You go with them on their first sales call. You have detailed discussions—even role play with them—on how to close a sale. You show them what experienced salespeople do and let them practice in low-risk situations. You create a crystal clear picture of what a good job looks like, and you remember the importance of checking for understanding all along the way. Throughout this showing and telling process, both you and your direct report know that you are setting them up for success.

As an SLII® leader who uses all four leadership styles as well as the Directive and Supportive micro skills, you are building meaningful connections with your team members—and you’re inspiring them to take on the new challenges of our ever-changing world.

Watch this space in the coming weeks for introductions to more SLII® micro skills!

Helping People to Develop Problem Solving Skills

In my last blog post, I wrote about Setting SMART Goals, a Directive behavior. In this post we’ll talk about Facilitating Self-Reliant Problem Solving, a Supportive behavior.

To refresh your memory, Supportive leadership behaviors are things you do that develop mutual trust and respect with your team member, resulting in increased motivation and confidence.

If you want the people you’re leading to be strong and resilient, you have to teach them how to solve their own problems. This can be one of the hardest challenges for leaders, because most of us have risen to our positions by being great problem-solvers. We’re good at identifying problems, coming up with solutions, and making improvements. However, those very strengths can be weaknesses when it comes to developing resilient team members.

Resist the urge to rescue team members by providing them the answers to problems. Instead, ask them open-ended questions to lead them through the process of solving the problem on their own. Follow these steps:

  • Ask them to define the problem in one sentence.
  • Help them brainstorm options of addressing the problem.
  • Ask them to list the pros and cons of these various courses of actions.
  • Cheer them on as they work toward solving the problem.

Many leaders shun this approach because initially, it requires an investment of time and energy. If you hear yourself thinking, “Forget it—it will be easier and faster to do it myself,” you’ll know what I’m talking about. I guarantee that the time you spend helping people develop problem-solving competence will save you time in the future by building bench strength on your team. Once you encourage people to tackle tough problems, you’ll be amazed by the creative solutions they’ll find.

An example my coauthors and I wrote about in Leading at a Higher Level concerned the management team of a large organization that was struggling with a severe traffic problem on the road leading to its location. The road crossed four miles of protected wetlands, so it could not be widened without significantly impacting the environment. Each morning, the traffic leading to the site was backing up the entire four-mile length of the road, adding an hour to commuting time. The resulting delay and aggravation caused a significant drop in productivity.

Three years earlier, the management team had hired traffic consultants to solve the problem. The consultants’ attempts to a devise solution failed miserably. As a last resort, management decided to assemble a team of their own employees to brainstorm solutions. The employees met twice a week for a month, at which time they provided some practical recommendations.

The simplicity of the employees’ recommendations surprised management. For example, they suggested that trucks be prohibited from making deliveries to the site between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. Since there were many deliveries to the site at this time, putting this suggestion into practice immediately removed some of the slowest, most cumbersome traffic clogging the road. That and a few other recommendations resulted in an almost instantaneous improvement in the traffic flow.

This story brings home one of the key benefits of practicing the SLII® Supportive skill of Facilitating Self-Reliant Problem Solving: tapping into the creativity and talent of your team members. As I’ve often said, the people who report to you aren’t just hired hands—they have brains, too!

Google co-founder Larry Page once famously hung up copies of documents showing the dismal financial performance of the AdWords search engine (now known as Google Ads). Across the top of the documents he wrote, “THESE ADS SUCK.” It was only a matter of days before team members tackled the problem and improved the service, which now generates the bulk of Google’s $162 billion earnings.

While I might not use Larry Page’s leadership communication style, I appreciate the way he facilitated self-reliant problem solving by pointing to the problem and allowing his team to discover a solution. Now, if he’d told his employees, “you suck” instead of “these ads suck,” that would be a different story!

So far we’ve covered two Supportive and one Directive micro skills of an SLII® leader. Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring more of these micro skills, so stay tuned!

A Fresh Look at SMART Goals

If you are familiar with SLII®, our company’s leadership model for powering inspiring leaders, you know that effective SLII® leaders are highly skilled in the two primary areas of leadership behavior: Directive and Supportive.

We define Directive leadership behaviors as “actions that shape and control what, how, and when things are done” and Supportive leadership behaviors as “actions that develop mutual trust and respect, resulting in increased motivation and confidence.”

In my last blog post, I wrote about Listening, a Supportive behavior. This time I’ll be refreshing your outlook on Setting SMART Goals, a Directive behavior.

What is a SMART Goal?

The concept of SMART goals has been around for decades. Different people and organizations may have slightly different ways of explaining the letters in the SMART acronym. Our twist on this familiar concept is the order in which you should write the goals, which is: S, then T, then R, A, and M. I’ll explain as we continue.

S is for Specific. A goal should state exactly what you want to accomplish and when you want to accomplish it.

T is for Trackable and Timebound. Performance standards, including a timeline, must be in place to enable frequent tracking of each goal. Are you making observable progress toward goal achievement? What will a good job look like?

So first, you decide exactly what you want to achieve—S—and then determine how you are going to track or measure progress toward goal accomplishment—T.

Once the S and T are in place, use the other three SMART criteria—the R, A, and M—to check if the goal is truly SMART.

Relevant. Is this goal important? Will it make a difference in your life, your job, or your organization?

Attainable. A goal has to be reasonable. It’s great to stretch yourself, but don’t make a goal so difficult that it’s unattainable or you will lose commitment.

Motivating. For you to do your best work, a goal needs to tap into either what you enjoy doing or what you know you will enjoy doing in the future.

Example #1: A Personal Goal

The first example is from the book Fit at Last: Look and Feel Better Once and for All, which I wrote with Tim Kearin, my good friend and personal trainer. Although my initial goal wasn’t exactly SMART, it was specific: I envisioned going to my 50th class reunion at Cornell and hearing my classmates say, “You’re looking good!” My less critical goals were to be able to do the limbo and to learn how to tap dance. (Again, maybe not so SMART.)

Fortunately, Tim helped me write the following goal. It’s rather long but it is SMART and, I’ll admit, a big improvement over the goals I had written.

SMART Goal: In one year, through an effective eating plan and exercise program with guidance, support, and progress tracking from Tim Kearin, I will weigh less than 200 pounds. I will gain 1 inch in height through posture-specific exercises, reduce my neck circumference and chest circumference by 1 inch, reduce my waist measurement by 5 inches and my hip measurement by 4 inches—and get rid of my “fat pants”.

This goal is Specific (we knew what we wanted to happen and by when); Trackable/Timebound (I knew Tim would keep great records and set a reasonable deadline for completion); Relevant (health is more important than almost anything else in life); Attainable (I knew I needed help and Tim was the perfect trainer for me, and our numbers were realistic); and Motivating (I looked forward to feeling better, looking better, living longer, and having healthy numbers for future doctor visits).

Example #2 – Career-Related Goal

The second example is taken from a recent Indeed.com article and involves a person with their eye on a promotion.

SMART Goal: I will earn a promotion to senior customer service representative by completing the required training modules in three months and applying for the role at the end of next quarter.

This goal is Specific (the person knows exactly what they want and when); Trackable/ Timebound (completing training in three months and applying for job the following quarter); Relevant (important to rise to a new level and make a difference in income and stature); Attainable (training first will provide skills to qualify them for the promotion); and Motivating (exciting career move, new challenge, higher pay).

Example #3: An Organizational Goal

The third example of an effective SMART goal is taken from FitSmallBusiness.com regarding employee training.

SMART Goal: Confirm that 90% of team members have completed new inventory management software training by the end of third quarter.

This goal is Specific (the company knows exactly what they need and when they want it); Trackable/Timebound (90 people will need to complete training, deadline set for end of third quarter); Relevant (important for entire team to merge together to new platform, which is more efficient than current platform); Attainable (majority of people have completed training, which is web-based and easily accessible); and Motivating (eager for better overall productivity, motivated to get the rest of the team trained).

Remember—all good performance starts with clear goals. If you don’t know what you want to accomplish, there is very little chance you will get there. So whether it’s for your personal life, your work life, or your organization, make every goal a SMART goal. It’s the best way to ensure success!

6 Practices That Will Make You a Better Listener

As we begin to come out of the coronavirus pandemic and run smack into the turmoil around continuing racism in our country, I think it’s a good time to review an essential leadership skill: listening.

So often the key to overcoming a difficulty—whether it’s in the workplace or at home—is to stop talking and start listening. I often like to joke that if God had wanted us to talk more than listen, he would have given us two mouths.

Yet few people have mastered the art of listening. Why is this seemingly simple skill so difficult?

Research published by Wendell Johnson in the Harvard Business Review examined one way the listening process goes wrong. Johnson found that because of how our brains work, we think much faster than people talk. As we listen to someone talk, we have time to think of things other than what the person is saying. As a result, we end up listening to a few thoughts of our own in addition to the words we’re hearing spoken. Usually we can get back to what the person is saying, but sometimes we listen to our own thoughts too long and miss part of the other person’s message.

To sharpen your listening skills, learn to apply the following six practices.

  1. Resist the Temptation to Jump In. Sometimes people need time to formulate their thoughts. Particularly if you’re an extrovert, control the impulse to finish people’s sentences or fill silences with your own opinions and ideas.

 

  1. Pay Attention to Body Language. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Watch a person’s face and body movements. Are they avoiding eye contact? What about the tone of their voice—do you hear confidence, eagerness, or perhaps irritation? Be aware of clues that their silent behaviors provide, while being sensitive to your own nonverbal signals. For example, is your body language encouraging someone to continue with a conversation, or silently telling them to stop?

 

  1. Ask Questions. This is not about interrogation or control. Use well thought-out questions to seek information, opinions, or ideas that will help you understand exactly what is being said. Use open-ended questions to encourage communication; for example, “Can you tell me more about that?” Ask clarifying questions to check for understanding; for example, “When did this happen?” Ask prompting questions to encourage deeper thinking; for example, “What do you think caused this to happen?”

 

  1. Reflect FeelingsAcknowledge any emotions the person is expressing and show them you understand by restating their feelings back to them in a nonjudgmental way. This demonstrates that you not only understand their message but also empathize with their feelings.

 

  1. Paraphrase. Again, resist the temptation to respond with your own thoughts. Instead, restate in your own words what the person said. This demonstrates that you heard what they said and assures that you heard them correctly.

 

  1. Summarize. State in a nutshell what was communicated during the entire conversation. Don’t worry about repeating the exact words. What’s important is to capture the main points and general sequence of what was said. This is where you want to reflect the speaker’s conclusion back to them to indicate that you understand.

 

These practices are not easy—they require time and effort to master. But once you do master them, you’ll build more satisfying relationships. You’ll also avoid a lot of the errors, frustrations, and inefficiencies that come from unclear communication. Think of how our homes, workplaces, nation, and world could change for the better if we all learned to listen to one another.

Listening is one of the seven supportive micro skills of an SLII® leader. Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring more of these micro skills, so stay tuned!