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.

Identifying Priorities

Concerned about someone whose performance is off track? Identifying Priorities, the next SLII® micro skill in our blog series, is a directive leadership behavior that helps learners stay focused on their goals.

If you have someone on your team who doesn’t seem to be performing at the level you expect, it’s possible the cause is not a lack of skill or motivation. Many times the reason people don’t meet performance expectations is because the order in which they prioritize their tasks is much different from the way their manager would have them do it. As a consequence, these individuals often are reprimanded for not doing what they didn’t know they were supposed to do. Unfortunately, this is a misunderstanding that happens all too often between people and their leaders.

Areas of Accountability

One of the biggest obstacles to high performance is the problem of unclear organizational expectations and accountability. If you and the person in question haven’t had a recent conversation about identifying and ranking priorities, give this activity a try.

Take a minute to identify and list the top ten priorities, in descending order of importance, that you hold this person accountable for. List the most important priority as #1, the second as #2, etc.

Now ask the person to make a list of the top ten priorities they feel they are held accountable for, also in descending order of importance. Don’t reveal your list until the other person is finished writing.

Now compare the two lists. How much do the lists match in terms of rank and content? If you are like most companies we work with, you’ll find only about 20% alignment between the two lists.

In many instances, managers are surprised to find they are holding someone accountable for results that are completely different from the priorities the person has on their list. Keep in mind that priorities can change rapidly depending on the person’s role and/or the pace of work in your department or organization.

For a more specific example, let’s take a look at an excerpt from Empowerment Takes More than a Minute, a book I coauthored with Alan Randolph and John P. Carlos.

“Have you ever had your employees list ten things they think you hold them accountable for?” asked Janet.

“Why would I do that?” replied Michael. “We tell them what’s expected of them, and they all get annual performance reviews.”

“You may have just diagnosed one of your biggest problems,” said Janet. “Tell me, when people leave their performance review sessions with you, do they feel validated or surprised?”

Michael reflected on the last three reviews he’d completed. “Come to think of it, they act surprised. Two of my last three reviews involved disagreements. The people said they didn’t know they were responsible for certain areas.”

“Since there is often a difference between what people think they’re supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis and what their leader thinks they should be doing, I recommend that each of them make a list and compare the priority of things on the two lists. Let me give you an example of how [it] works.

“A couple who are friends of mine own a convenience store. They were constantly in a quandary as to why things they thought were important weren’t getting done around the store. So they asked their assistant to list the ten things she thought she was accountable for. This is the list the assistant produced.” She handed Michael a slip of paper.

  1. Shrink (inventory loss)
  2. Cash over or short on the register
  3. Stock shelves
  4. Clean rest rooms
  5. Test gas tanks for water
  6. Fresh coffee at all times
  7. Clean parking lot
  8. Organize back room
  9. Rotate stock
  10. Ordering

“My friends, the owners, made a list of the ten things they held the assistant accountable for. It looked like this.” She gave him another slip of paper.

  1. Sales volume
  2. Profit
  3. Customer perception
  4. Quality of service
  5. Cash management
  6. Overall store appearance
  7. Just-in-time inventory
  8. Training employees
  9. Protecting assets (maintenance)
  10. Merchandise display

“When they compared lists, the problem became obvious. And as they told me about it they said, ‘The fault turned out to be ours as leaders. We tell people we’ll hold them accountable for end results such as sales, service, and so on. But the things we talk to them about day in and day out—the things that stick in their minds—are routine tasks.’ They told me they were sending mixed messages. The [prioritizing activity] really helped them to see what they were doing and to appreciate the pain they were causing their assistant as a result.”

The great news is that this exercise can be the beginning of a mutually beneficial conversation where you work together on identifying the person’s priorities in a way that sets them up for success—and confirms to them that you are there to help them achieve their goals.

An aligned purpose and clear expectations are the foundation of an effective work environment. Make sure that people’s priorities are on track and on target. Connect the dots between individual roles and the goals of the organization. When people see that connection, they will put more energy into their work and get more out of it. They will feel the importance, dignity, and meaning in their job. It’s good for them, for you, and for the organization.

Keep watch here for more SLII® micro skills!