Returning to the Office: How Using SLII® Micro Skills Can Help

As the number of fully vaccinated individuals in the US increases, people are beginning to return to their offices. Many companies are using a “flexible hybrid work model” that has people working from home most of the time and coming into the office just for team-related activities.

No matter how your organization is addressing this issue, now is the time to take a situational approach to leadership. By using the time-tested micro skills of SLII®, you can help people stay on track, regardless of their working arrangement.

SLII® maintains that there is no one best leadership style. This means that the person being led needs varying amounts of direction and support depending on their development level—their competence and commitment—on a specific task or goal.

Using SLII® Micro Skills: An Example

For example, let’s say you manage a customer service associate, Jason, who has been working from home for the past year. In some parts of his job—working with customers, for instance—he shines. You’ve even received emails from delighted customers singing Jason’s praises. In this area of his job, he is a self-reliant achiever and can handle a delegating leadership style, where your main job is to cheer him on. But in other areas of his job—for example, using the company’s new software system—Jason has expressed discouragement. This is where you’ll need to use a coaching leadership style and give him more direction and support.

In a series of blogs over the past year, I described in detail the seven micro skills of Directing and Supporting leadership. Let’s see how you could apply these micro skills to benefit Jason.

Use the Seven Directing Skills

Directing skills are actions that shape and control what, how, and when things are done. These are helpful for people who, like Jason, need help to become competent in a specific area of their job.

First, set SMART goals (specific, motivating, attainable, relevant, timebound/trackable) with Jason to help him tackle the new software system. Depending on your vaccination status and office policies, the two of you might want to do this in person at the office, at least to get things started.

Second, show and tell him how to achieve specific tasks with the new software. This is the approach to take when someone is brand new to a task and you need to set them up for success by demonstrating what a good job looks like.

Third, establish timelines for his learning of the new software system. When will his learning begin? When will it be completed?

Fourth, help him identify priorities related to his work with the new software. Together, make a list of what Jason plans to accomplish and rank them in order of importance. This way you’ll both be on the same page about what Jason will be accountable for.

Fifth, clarify your roles related to his learning. What are Jason’s responsibilities? What are yours?

Sixth, help Jason develop an action plan to complete his learning. This is a step-by-step plan that will show Jason how to begin, what to do, who to consult with, and when to finish his learning plan.

Seventh, monitor and track Jason’s performance. Set up regular, 15- to 30-minute meetings to check in with Jason and see where he needs help.

Use the Seven Supporting Skills

Supporting skills are actions that develop mutual trust and respect, which increase a person’s motivation and confidence. Because Jason has expressed discouragement about the new software system, he needs help to build his confidence and restore his commitment. Here’s how to use supporting skills to give Jason the boost he needs.

First, listen to Jason. Don’t assume you know the challenges he’s facing. Ask him open-ended questions and give him time to answer. Resist the temptation to jump in. Reflect his thoughts and feelings back to him so that he knows you understand what he’s saying.

Second, facilitate self-reliant problem solving. If you find yourself thinking, “Forget it. It’ll be easier and faster to do this myself,” that’s your cue that you need to enlist Jason to step up. Help him brainstorm ways to address his problem and cheer him on as he works to solve it.

Third, ask for Jason’s input. Again, ask questions and assure Jason that his thoughts and feelings count. This will increase his engagement and commitment.

Fourth, provide rationale for Jason. Nobody wants to do meaningless tasks. Explain why the company is using this software system and how his input contributes to the bottom line.

Fifth, acknowledge and encourage Jason by giving him positive feedback on his efforts and praising the things he’s doing right. This is my favorite SLII® micro skill!

Sixth, share information with Jason about the organization—specifically, how learning to use the new software system affects all the other departments and the company’s mission. Help Jason see where his contribution fits into the greater whole.

Seventh, share information about yourself. Telling Jason about your struggles with technology, for example, can give him hope and reduce his stress around the issue.

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You can adapt the above example to whatever leadership situation you find yourself in. Remember to diagnose the person’s development level on a task and match the appropriate leadership style. The key point to remember is:

Leadership is not something you do to people, but something you do with people.

Coaching and Servant Leadership Go Hand in Hand

As many of you know, I’m a huge proponent of servant leadership, which is all about putting your people first—giving them the right amount of direction and support for the task at hand and then getting out of their way so that they can do their best work.

There is an element of coaching in every servant leader’s skill set. In fact, being an effective coach requires four communication skills that are also key elements of servant leadership. Here’s how those skills play out in the workplace.

Listen to Learn

When we think of the characteristics of a great leader, being a good listener is always one of the first that come to mind. Why? Because people appreciate a manager who cares about what they think. When you begin a conversation with someone, eliminate distractions so that you will be present and focused. Open your mind to their ideas and perspectives. Resist the temptation to interrupt—allow the person time to think before they speak. Pay attention to nonverbal clues such as tone of voice. Restate your impression of what the person said, or wait and summarize the full conversation at the end—so that they know you understand their point of view. Think of this as listening with the intent of being influenced.

Inquire for Insight

This is about drawing out ideas from the person you’re having a conversation with. Use well thought-out questions to seek information, opinions, or ideas that will help you understand exactly what the person is saying. Open-ended questions encourage communication; for example, “Can you tell me more about that?” Clarifying questions (“when” or “how”) check for understanding. Prompting questions (“what”) promote deeper thinking. 

Tell Your Truth

As a leader, sharing information can help people make decisions in the best interest of themselves, their department, and the organization. Sometimes telling your truth can be uncomfortable—but remember, people without accurate information will often make up their own version of the truth, which can be more negative than reality. Before sharing information, think: Will what I have to say help them succeed? Will this problem resolve itself if I don’t say anything? Could this information help the person avoid obstacles so that they can succeed sooner?

Express Confidence

Toward the end of a coaching conversation with a direct report, let the person know you appreciate them and have their back. Expressing confidence is the best way to build their self esteem and give them feelings of belonging and empowerment. Acknowledging people’s efforts and letting them know in specific language that they are doing a good job will go a long way toward both individual and team engagement.

Being a leader who serves and coaches gives you even more opportunities to establish and build trust with each person on your team. And here’s a bonus: also helps them get to know you better. Leadership is a pleasure when you know you are building meaningful relationships with your people.

You Don’t Have To Do It All Yourself

As a leader, do you feel like you have to do everything yourself—that you can’t count on anyone to take on some the things that need to be done? Perhaps it has occurred to you that you need to delegate some of your work. Why haven’t you? Is it because no one is ready to assume those responsibilities and you don’t have the time to train them?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s time to reconsider your leadership philosophy. Too many leaders make the mistake of thinking that they are at the top of the hierarchical pyramid, responsible for all the planning, organizing, and execution, while their people are below them, responsive to their directives. While there is nothing wrong with the pyramid as an organizational chart, thinking and operating with this top-down approach can lead managers to believe that they must do all the heavy lifting.

The key is to turn the pyramid upside down, so that your people are responsible. Your job is not to do all the work yourself, but to roll up your sleeves and provide people with the direction, coaching, and support they need to accomplish the goals you’ve agreed to. This way, both you and the people who report to you will be successful.

At this point a lot of people say, “But I don’t have time to provide direction, coaching, and support to all the people who report to me!”

Don’t worry; you don’t have to spend all your time working closely with all your people—only those who need your direction and support to develop their competence and commitment. In time, they will become independent, self-motivated, and high performing—freeing you to focus on other priorities.

We call this approach SLII®, the leadership framework outlined in Leadership and the One Minute Manager, a bestseller I coauthored with Patricia Zigarmi and Drea Zigarmi. The book teaches leaders how to set clear goals, diagnose people’s development level on each task, and match their leadership style to the development level of the person they’re leading.

Notice I said “diagnose people’s development level on each task.” Even experienced managers can fall into a trap of seeing people as beginners, moderately competent, or highly experienced. Assuming that because people are experts in one aspect of their job, they’re experts in all aspects can lead to poor performance. Most of us have areas where we’re still learning and need leadership.

For any task, people can be at one of four development levels, depending on their experience and commitment. Your job is to identify and understand those levels and adjust the direction and support you give accordingly. Here’s a brief overview:

Level 1: Enthusiastic Beginner. Appropriate Leadership Style: Directing
Enthusiastic beginners are eager to get started on a task, even though they have not demonstrated expertise. For this task, regardless of the status or tenure of the person being led, the leader needs to provide specific direction about goals, show and tell how, and closely monitor performance so they can provide frequent feedback on the individual’s results.

Level 2: Disillusioned Learner. Appropriate Leadership Style: Coaching
This level usually sets in after an individual has been unsuccessful at a new task. Enthusiasm turns to discouragement and insecurity, and the leader needs to provide direction on how to attain the goal or finish the task. The leader should explain why, solicit suggestions, and begin to encourage involvement in decision-making.

Level 3: Capable But Cautious Performer. Appropriate Leadership Style: Supporting
Once a person has demonstrated skill with a task, the leader and the individual make decisions together. At this stage people may be competent but still need the leader to bolster their confidence and motivation. The leader’s role is to listen, draw out, encourage, and support.

Level 4: Self-Reliant Achiever. Appropriate Leadership Style: Delegating
Once an individual becomes an expert at a task, the leader allows the individual to make most of the decisions about what, how, and when. Because the individual can achieve goals with little direction, the leader’s role shifts to valuing the individual’s contributions and supporting their growth.

It’s Worth the Investment Take time out of your busy day to check in with your people, diagnose their development level on each goal-related task, and give them the leadership style they need. By doing so, you’ll not only empower them to accomplish goals, you also will set them up to assume greater responsibilities. When you look at it this way, you don’t have time not to give people the leadership style they need!

Day-to-Day Coaching: The Best Way to Help People Get an A

An effective performance management system consists of three parts: performance planning, day-to-day coaching, and performance review.

Most organizations, unfortunately, devote the greatest amount of time to the third part of the performance management system: performance review. This is where manager and direct report sit down and assess the direct report’s performance since the last annual review. Over the years I’ve heard HR leaders boast, “You’ll love our new performance review form.” I always laugh because I think most of those forms could be thrown out. Why? Because they tend to measure things nobody knows how to evaluate, such as initiative, willingness to take responsibility, or promotability. When people don’t understand how to win during a performance review, they focus most of their energy up the hierarchy. After all, if you have a good relationship with your boss, you might have a higher probability of getting a good evaluation. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but it’s certainly not an effective way to manage performance.

Many leaders in organizations do a good job on performance planning and set very clear goals with their people. But then what happens to those goals? Most often, they get filed and no one looks at them until it’s time for their annual performance review. Then everybody runs around, bumping into each other, trying to find the goals.

So which of the three parts of the performance management system do you think managers are least inclined to spend time on? You’re right: day-to-day coaching is the most ignored of the three—yet it is the most significant aspect of managing people’s performance. Why? Because the most important feedback—praising progress and redirecting inappropriate behavior—happens on an ongoing basis.

In our book Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A,” WD-40 Company CEO Garry Ridge and I discuss in detail how an effective performance management system works.

The book was inspired by my ten-year experience as a college professor. I was always in trouble. What drove the faculty crazy more than anything was how, at the beginning of every course, I gave students the final exam.

When the faculty first found out about it, they came to me and said, “What are you doing?”

I said, “I’m confused.”

They said, “You look it.”

“I thought we were supposed to teach these students.”

“You are, but you don’t give them the final exam ahead of time!”

“Not only will I give them the final exam ahead of time, what do you think I’ll do throughout the semester? I’ll teach them the answers so that when they get to the final exam, they’ll get A’s. Because life is all about getting A’s.”

I tell you this little story because it is a great metaphor for an effective performance management system. Here’s why:

  • Giving the final exam at the beginning of the year is like setting goals during performance planning: it lets people know exactly what’s expected of them.
  • Teaching the answers is what day-to-day coaching is all about. Check in with each person on a regular basis. If you see or hear about someone doing something right, you don’t wait a year to congratulate them during their performance review—you give them a praising on the spot. If they do something wrong, you don’t save your feedback for their review—you redirect them right away to get them back on track toward their goal.
  • Finally, when people get the final exam again at the end of the year—their performance review—they will get an A: a great evaluation.

After learning about this philosophy, Garry Ridge implemented “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A” as a major theme in his company. He is so emphatic about this concept that he has been known to fire managers of poor performers rather than the underachievers if he learns the managers did nothing to help the person in question get an A.

When a performance management system is done right, there are no surprises at performance review time. Team members have stayed focused on their goals and know what a good job looks like—because their manager has connected with them throughout the year with day-to-day coaching to ensure they get an A. Now that’s performance management.

Building a High-Trust Work Environment

Building trusting relationships is one of the most important elements of being an effective leader. The good news is that turning around a low-trust environment isn’t rocket science. It starts with performance evaluation. If you are evaluating your people’s performance with a judgmental mindset, I guarantee you are eroding trust.

But if you partner with your people to set clear goals, and then provide day-to-day coaching to help them reach those goals, you’ll build high levels of trust—and that leads to higher morale, increased productivity, and improved engagement. And, as a leader, the constant communication you have with team members makes the performance evaluation part of your role much easier.

Remember, placing an emphasis on judging performance instead of coaching performance will create a low-trust environment. Setting clear goals and working side by side with your people to help them do their best will not only build trust and create effective teams, but also form the kind of working environment where people flourish.