Creating Leadership Ripples

For good or bad, our behavior as leaders ripples throughout an organization.

Examples of bad leadership behavior negatively affecting organizations are all too easy to cite.  In the early 2000s, the criminal behavior of Enron executives caused thousands of employees to lose their jobs and led to the dissolution of Arthur Andersen, one of the country’s largest accounting firms. During the Iraq War, toxic leadership in the United States Army led to skyrocketing suicide rates among soldiers.

The fallout from poor leadership can last for years, even decades. Even if they don’t lead to bankruptcies and suicides, poor managerial behaviors reduce engagement, interfere with alignment, lower productivity, and drain human resources.  Research conducted by The Ken Blanchard Companies, together with Training Magazine, found that bad managers cost organizations money in at least seven ways.

The good news is that the ripple effects of positive leadership can also last for years. Consider this story from Dick Ruhe, one of my favorite business consultants:

One time, I had a half-day supervisor training in the spice fields of Gilroy, California. You’ve probably consumed the vegetables and fruit these folks harvest. You’d certainly recognize the company’s logo in your neighborhood supermarket.

The front-line people who worked the crop were happy to have a job. The training venue was on a large garlic farm. The meeting itself was in a relatively small building. The eighteen attendees sat on simple benches, and they stayed involved.

In the course of the day we discussed the qualities of good leaders. During the training, one name came up time and time again: Manny. The conversation basically became stories about Manny. He had quite a reputation. This guy seemed superhuman. But at some point, he had moved away from the company.

The conversation drifted to what the coworkers referred to as “flowers from Manny.” Somebody in the class asked if others still had their flowers. Many people said they did. Some of them even opened their lockers to show them to me.

The “flowers” were actually pink sticky notes on which Manny had simply drawn a smile as a reward for doing a good job. People in the group got emotional when they talked about Manny. I had trouble myself. I felt as though I knew him, even though we had never met.

Manny’s story underscores the importance of positive feedback in helping people reach their full potential. Catching people doing things right doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but the ripple effect of those praisings goes on and on.

While small gestures—like smiley faces on sticky notes—can have lasting positive impacts on organizations, bigger efforts can create legacies. Consider the work of Patrick McGovern, self-titled “Chief Encouragement Officer” of International Data Group and the founder of Computerworld magazine. A positive thinker who ended every meeting with his signature line “the best is yet to come,” McGovern grew his Boston-based technology media firm into a global powerhouse.

The day-to-day choices a leader makes become actions—and those actions create reactions. Think carefully about the ripples you’re sending throughout your organization and make sure their impact is positive.

Apologize Already!

Time and again, I’ve noticed that many of us have a lot of trouble apologizing. I’ve observed this in myself, as well. One reason it’s hard to take responsibility for our bad behavior is because doing wrong is inconsistent with our view of ourselves as ethical people. As a result, many of us avoid apologies like the plague.

What I’ve realized is that difficulties apologizing are tied to pride and ego. When we sincerely apologize, we are taking our egos out of the equation and being honest. We are practicing integrity when we apologize, because we are acknowledging that what we did or failed to do is inconsistent with who we want to be.

Despite the challenges they pose to our egos, sincere apologies are one of the most powerful tools we have. In fact, the act of apologizing is so powerful that Margret McBride and I wrote a book about it called The Fourth Secret of the One Minute Manager.

I try to practice One Minute Apologies whenever I feel I’ve done wrong by someone. In a One Minute Apology, you:

  • Admit your mistake and apologize.
  • Take full responsibility for any harm you did.
  • Make amends by committing to change your behavior.

You might wonder why I don’t say that you should ask for forgiveness at the end of a One Minute Apology. It’s because I don’t think you should. Asking for forgiveness puts the person you’ve hurt or wronged under pressure to decide whether or not to forgive you. With a One Minute Apology, you keep the responsibility in your court. That’s why you end the apology with a commitment to change your behavior instead.

One of the greatest advantages of apologizing is that it gives you an opportunity for completion with that relationship. When you’ve done something wrong and haven’t dealt with it, it hangs over you and drains your energy. When you deal with it, you get closure.

An example from my own life involves Annie, a woman who was Margie’s sorority sister and a classmate of mine from Cornell. Her daughter, who also attended Cornell, was just fabulous. A number of years ago, Annie’s daughter was killed while jogging; they found her body up in the hills.

After that happened, I meant to reach out to Annie and her husband, but I just never did. Even though I was really taken aback by their daughter’s death, I didn’t send them any flowers or a note. I was too busy and never got around to doing or saying anything—and that always bugged me.

A few years later, I saw Annie out walking, so I crossed the street, went up to her, and gave her a big hug. Then I said, “Annie, I just want to apologize to you. When your daughter died, I meant to reach out to you. That was such an awful thing and she was such a great kid. But I didn’t and I feel really badly that I didn’t.” She got teary-eyed and said that she so appreciated my apology. She had often wondered why she hadn’t heard from me. I think we both felt completed.

So the next time something you’ve done wrong is hanging over you, don’t let it eat at you. Challenge yourself to take ownership and see firsthand how powerful a One Minute Apology can be.

Catch People Doing Something Right

When was the last time you praised a direct report, a colleague—or your boss? I’ll bet many of you can remember when you praised a direct report, but you may have to think long and hard to remember the last time you recognized the efforts of a peer or leader.

Catching people doing something right is a powerful management concept to use with direct reports. It can also be a great way to build trust and camaraderie with others. Think about the last time you were recognized for your efforts. I’ll bet you felt pretty satisfied and encouraged to keep up the good performance. No matter what your role, you have the power to ignite that same reaction in others.

Keep in mind that the most effective praising is specific. Don’t just walk around saying “Thank you” to everyone, or even “Great job.” Those phrases become relatively meaningless when people hear them all the time. For example, saying “Thanks” to the colleague who provided help with a project doesn’t have the same effect on them as if you said “Thanks, Renee, for providing the data I needed to finish the quarterly report. I couldn’t have presented it at the board meeting today without your help. I know I can always count on you. I’m so glad you are part of this cross departmental team.” A few simple sentences like this don’t take long to deliver, but they can have a lasting positive impact.

And don’t forget to let your boss know that you think they are doing a great job, too! It’s easy for direct reports to picture their managers getting plenty of positive feedback from their own bosses. But stop and think about how meaningful it would be for a boss to hear this statement from a member of their team: “Thank you, Jessica, for passing along that information from the last board meeting. It really helped me understand the strategic direction of the company and the role I can play in helping achieve our goals.”

The next time you see great performance from a team member, a colleague, or even your boss, let them know that you noticed. Give it a try—I’m sure you’ll see how much stronger your relationships become!

Leadership is a Partnership

Leadership is not something you do to people. It’s something you do with people. I have believed this statement my entire career—and it might be even more important now than it was 35 years ago. Workforces are more diverse, workplaces are less centralized, and technology continues to revolutionize how business is conducted and how people communicate. The most successful leaders are the ones who partner with their staff.

Partnership starts with clear and frequent communication. Leaders must establish a rhythm or consistent schedule of discussions with team members. I suggest that leaders meet at least once a week, for 30 minutes with each direct report. That might sound like a lot of extra work, but I guarantee if you spend this time you’ll create trusting relationships with your team that will improve morale and productivity in your department.

Use these meetings to work with your team member to set clear goals, to praise progress on tasks, to redirect efforts if necessary, and to celebrate the completion of each project. It is critical that the leader and team member participate equally in these meetings, speak their truths, and listen with the intent of learning something—not judging.

Some of you reading this might be saying, “This isn’t new information.” You’re right it isn’t—but it is such a simple truth of leadership that I want to remind people again and again. You’ve probably heard me say that the information I provide for leaders is just common sense. But I also say that my philosophy isn’t always commonly practiced.

My goal is to have every leader start having these important conversations with their teams. I urge you to partner with each team member to help them be successful. So, I provide this reminder for you to be a leader that makes this common sense, common practice. You’ll soon realize how a small investment of time spent partnering with your people will build a stronger, more self-reliant team.

First-Time Manager Challenge: Providing Feedback and Re-Direction

Today is a big day for our company—we are officially releasing our new First-time Manager program based on the essential secrets of The New One Minute Manager.

It’s a great one-day program designed to address some of the key challenges people face when they step into a leadership role for the first time—including how to set goals, praise progress, redirect behavior when necessary, and conduct effective performance review sessions.

One of the challenges we zero in on is providing day-to-day feedback and coaching—especially when it involves redirecting behavior that is off-track.  Typically, new managers receive very little training in this essential skill, and without training they often struggle—either coming on too strong and alienating people, or spending so much time beating around the bush that the team member doesn’t have a clear sense that a change is even necessary.

When someone makes a mistake, you need to tell the truth so the person changes the behavior—but make sure you speak in a caring way. Also assume the best intentions. The best way to do this is to talk to your direct report about what you observed and make sure their goals were clear to them at the time. Once you both determine that the goals were clear, check out the facts leading up to the re-direction, to make sure you both agree on what happened. Discuss the impact of the behavior, and then reaffirm the person in a way that is meaningful. Let the person know they are better than their mistake and you have confidence and trust in them.

Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40 Company, states it this way: “It’s important to maintain the balance between being tenderhearted and task oriented.” As a leader you must be able to re-direct behavior to keep people on the right track while also respecting their dignity. Remember—when you share feedback it is never about you or the other person; it is about the behavior. A leader’s job is to constantly help people be the best they can be.

What are some of the other challenges you’ve seen new managers struggle with?  Share them in the comments section below.  I’d love to tap into our collective wisdom and begin to identify more of the challenges new managers face and some ways to effectively address them.  With approximately two million people stepping into new management roles each year, it’s important we help them—and the people they serve—get off to a great start!  Share your thoughts below and I’ll use them as jumping off points for upcoming posts, tweets, and comments.