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Is Your Boss A Bully? Or Just A Poor Communicator?

In recent months the topic of bullying has surfaced in my leadership development programs. Although I haven’t thoroughly researched the topic, my observation is that there is an increase in abusive and bullying behavior in the workplace. Perhaps it is related to the economy, increased stress at work, or maybe people are getting more courageous, bringing it to the forefront and are no longer willing to be abused. Even if you are not experiencing bullying, I hope the following will help you to communicate in any of your relationships.

A coaching client shared a recent experience with her boss that went something like this:
“My boss asked me to come to her office. As soon as I sat down she laid into me about how unproductive I was, how my performance had slipped drastically in the past six months, and how I needed to step up my performance or in my next review she would start to document my work with ratings that would put my future career in jeopardy.”
While this behavior is obviously indicative of a controlling, bullying person, how do you determine if this is a bully or a boss that doesn’t handle stress well and is a bad communicator?
Following is a process that I suggest you can use to find out.
Step 1. Don’t communicate when you are in a high emotional state. As I learned from my colleague and friend, Valerie Cade, an expert in workplace bullying, “to be honorable, you have to meet dishonor with honor.” Getting angry or defensive in response to destructive communication is only throwing fuel on an already damaging fire. If you are hurt, angry, or in any way upset by this kind of feedback (and who wouldn’t be), take a few more moments to listen, then give yourself permission to say something like, “Thank you for the feedback. I want to get to the bottom of this, and in order to do so I need to step away and get some perspective. Let’s come back when we can problem solve this rationally and strategically.” Then politely excuse yourself.
Step 2. Get support from a confidant. Allies are trusted friends, colleagues, or coaches who provide perspective, wisdom, encouragement, support, and honesty. It is vital, in the work of leadership, to know we aren’t alone. The most important kind of allies are confidants: people in your life who create a safe space to be who you are, who will listen to your truth and will, in turn, tell you the truth and help hold you accountable. Confidants ask questions like, “What’s going on? What can be learned from the mistakes and failures? Can you learn something for the future? What are your options?”
Step 3. Once you let go of the emotional reaction, schedule a time to meet with your boss to problem solve a solution that responds to their concerns. When you meet next, bring a notepad and ask only one question, “What do you need from me to ensure that I get my performance right, so that you will never again accuse me of these things. I want to understand exactly what I need to do to turn this around.” Then sit and listen and make notes. You don’t have to agree or disagree. The goal is to understand what your boss is asking for. If they need more time to clarify this on their own, then of course, give them the time to do so.
Step 4. If your boss starts to attack you, stop and ask them to clarify what behaviors they are expecting. Reiterate that you are here to solve the problem, to be a part of the solution moving forward, not the problem going backwards. In any of these steps, do not allow yourself to be put into a situation where you are being criticized, demeaned, or bullied. Take charge of the conversation to shift it from criticism to identification of solutions or requests.
Step 5. Once you hear your boss out and list the behaviors they are asking you to change, then negotiate an agreement between you. Conflict comes from unmet needs. You don’t resolve conflict with more conflict. You resolve conflict by getting to the root of the problem. The negotiation process may take a few meetings. Give yourself and your boss the time and the space to carefully clarify the expectations, agreements, and needs for support from each other.
Step 6. Assess Intent. This is the step where the rubber hits the road, where you assess if your boss is a bully. Bullies have no intent to work toward a solution. Bullies have themselves been bullied. They have no interest in problem solving, in helping you find a solution, and in helping you succeed. They only have interest in criticizing, controlling, and manipulating with the intent to bully. You can assess their intent by giving them (with an open mind and a spirit of generosity) a few chances to move toward a solution. Give them the benefit of the doubt in the first meeting. Maybe they are just stressed and are communicating poorly. But if after a few tries they still have no interest in moving toward a solution and helping you understand and change your actions, take the appropriate action toward taking care of yourself. If they are, in fact, a bully, here are a few options to consider:
a.    Get support from a trusted outsider – either an HR manager inside your organization or an outsider who specializes in bullying. Don’t ever attempt to deal with a bully who has positional authority over you on your own.
b.    Take full responsibility for your willingness to work on a solution, and be honest about what you are up against.
c.     You may have to consider leaving your organization. Be sure you have  covered all your bases, documented all of your interactions and done everything possible on your end to resolve the issue.
Please note that these are very general points. If you need support with any of these steps, contact our office for a confidential and complimentary half hour consultation, and we’ll help you find the resources and support that you need.

Seven Ways To Enlarge The Lives Of Others – The Work Of The Best Leaders

“Believe in your heart of hearts that your fundamental purpose, your reason for being, is to enlarge the lives of others. As you enlarge the lives of others, your life will be enlarged. And all the other things we have been taught to concentrate on will take care of themselves.”   – Pete Thigpen, Former President, Levi Strauss

Not long ago, I had the privilege of touring the plant of a client who hired me to help improve the culture of his organization. As we wandered around, the CEO introduced me to everyone we came across – in the halls, the offices, the labs, and on the shop floors. But he didn’t just know everyone’s name and title. He made a point, whenever possible and appropriate, of making a brief – and positive – comment about everyone. When he introduced me to the janitor, the caretaker’s eyes widened and brightened as the CEO told me how he puts pride into everything he does and that he’ll be greatly missed when he retires next month after more than a quarter century of service. Every employee smiled as they were introduced and the CEO said something positive about the unique contribution they individually made to the well-being of this company. This CEO understands a fundamental responsibility of leaders: to enlarge the lives of every one of their employees.

As I think of my own staff, I realize that I often take them for granted. I give them work to do, put pressure on them to deliver on their accountabilities, and attempt to give them support to do their work. But do I actually make a conscious effort to enlarge their lives? We all get into our routines, our habits, our mundane patterns. In a world of incessant demands, it is easy to lose touch with the people around us and the real work of leadership.

Here are seven ways to enlarge the lives of others:

  1. Care. Enlarging the lives of people isn’t a technique. You can’t fake it. People will see right through you. We all get busy and forget to notice people. Your staff will forgive you for forgetting. What they won’t forgive you for is not caring. Enlarging the lives of people involves caring about people, not manipulating them. People are uplifted and better by being around people who care about them.
  2. Serve. Serving means having a commitment to people’s growth as much as finding the resources to help them get their job done. Serving means making the success of others more important than your own. Serving means making others look good and being willing to not take the credit. Great leaders know that you can’t necessarily make people happy, but you can help them take pride in themselves and their work – by seeing their worth, beyond what they may see in themselves.
  3. Make Time. Enlarging the lives of others takes time. Take time to learn names. But more than that, take time to learn about what matters to people you serve, the names of their family members, and the kind of things they do when they are away from work. Leadership is more than just wandering around. It’s tuning in. It’s paying attention. It’s being in touch. Carry a notepad and make a note of what’s important to the people on your team.
  4. Challenge. If you are going to enlarge the lives of others you have to push them beyond their comfort zone. You have to set a standard that stretches them. And you have to encourage them. “You can do this;” “I trust you;” and “I believe in you;” are enlarging statements. Then model the way. When was the last time you encouraged someone to go beyond what’s easy? When is the last time you did something for the first time?
  5. Accountability. Collin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, once said that “everyone on a team knows who is and who is not performing and they are looking to you as the leader to see what you are going to do about it.” You don’t enlarge the lives of people when you let them off the hook or hold back from having the difficult conversations. Set clear standards and hold people accountable. It enlarges the lives of everyone.
  6. Safety. Enlargement is about creating an environment where people can grow. Bruce Lipton, a cellular biologist, says that a cell has only two options in life: to grow or to protect. If the cell perceives its environment to be toxic it will go into protection mode. When it perceives its environment to be nourishing, it will enlarge. To enlarge the lives of others, you must create an environment that is physically and psychologically safe – safe to work without harm, safe to make mistakes without fear, safe to be honest without retribution, safe to be yourself without judgment.
  7. Appreciation. Appreciation is about acknowledging (both privately and publicly) effective, productive action. Appreciation is recognizing people when they take special care in a delivery, when they go out of their way to fix a glitch in a product, when they make a customer feel extra special, when they send the order out early, when they go the extra mile. Appreciation isn’t empty praise. Appreciation is genuine recognition when someone makes a difference. It’s about catching people doing things right rather than succumbing to the seemingly natural tendency to criticize. Say thank you. What you appreciate, appreciates.

When you are mindful and intentional about making these actions a habit, the lives of people around you will naturally enlarge. As you help people grow in this way, it will inevitably come back to you in the form of commitment, loyalty, and results. As you enlarge the lives of others, your life and your organization will be enlarged. And all the other things we have been taught to concentrate on really do seem to take care of themselves.

OPTIMAL HEALTH Maximizing Organizational Capacity Through A Well Functioning Aerobic System

As a former competitive distance runner, I learned that there is a difference between health and fitness. Health is when all the systems in your body are functioning optimally, especially the aerobic system (your bodies capacity to use oxygen). Indicators of health are energy, endurance, and calmness. Fitness, on the other hand, is the ability to perform a particular athletic activity. Fitness is about speed and strength: a well-functioning anaerobic system.

Many times during my running career, in an effort to get fit, I compromised my health. My ambition was stronger than my capacity. Injuries, low energy, and a decreased immune system were some of the outcomes of this imbalance. As I matured as an athlete, I discovered that in order for the body to work effectively, health and fitness must both be present and in balance.

Unhealthy people fall mostly into two categories: those who are inactive and over-rested, and those who are over-trained and under-rested. Studies are now showing that both inactive people and over-trained athletes exhibit essentially the same symptoms:

  • Low energy
  • Chronic fatigue
  • A depressed immune system
  • Circulatory problems
  • Susceptibility to injuries
  • Hormonal and insulin imbalance

The only difference between the two groups is that inactive people tend to have an excess storage of fat, while over-trained athletes have an insufficient storage of fat.

I use this metaphor when helping leaders improve organizational effectiveness and achieve regenerative success. To succeed long-term, both health and fitness are necessary in organizations and in life. It can be said that leadership represents health, while management represents fitness. Thus, different indicators measure an organization’s fitness and it’s health:

Organizational Fitness                        Organizational Health

Strategy                                                          High Trust

Expediency                                                    Flexibility

Marketing                                                      High Energy

Performance                                                 Endurance

Operational Excellence                              High Morale

Profits                                                             Employee Engagement

Technology                                                    Low Turnover

Organizations focus on the fitness side of the equation when ambition exceeds capacity. Fitness is also easier to measure than health. Managers are reluctant to examine health because it’s hard to quantify and it can point to failings of leadership. An over-emphasis on organizational fitness and an under-emphasis on organizational health will result in imbalance. Indicators of organizational imbalance and ill-health include: exhaustion, disengagement, high turnover (or worse, people “quit and stay”), distrust, an over-reliance on employee engagement surveys and an under-reliance on conversations, lack of focus, inflexibility, and unclear priorities.

To gain some balance and improve your organization’s health try some of the following strategies:

  • Spend less time in front of your computer and more time in front of people.
  • Narrow your priorities. Bring more focus into your work.
  • Start talking about your espoused values, and, more importantly, how you can live them – in concrete behaviorial terms.
  • Whenever you take on more work, ensure you have the resources and the capacity to get it done.
  • Start taking people for coffee, and stop taking them for granted.
  • Catch people doing things right. Shine a light on success.
  • Talk with people, not to Listen more; talk less.
  • Tell more stories, especially when they focus on success.
  • Appreciate good people and good actions. Recognize. Acknowledge. Cherish.
  • Replace entitlement with gratitude.
  • Decide that all blame is a waste of time.
  • Bring a servant mind-set to everything you do.
  • Get more rest.

PEOPLE ARE WORTH IT – Connection As A Path To Leadership

Dad once looked down an assembly line of women employees and thought, “These are all like my own mom – they have kids, homes to take care of, people who need them.” It motivated him to work hard to give them a better life because he saw his mom in all of them. That’s how it all begins – with fundamental respect. – Bob Galvin, speaking of his father, founder of Motorola

Leadership is about connection. It’s not just a rational, analytic process. If you are going to influence people; if you are going to get past compliance to genuine engagement; and if you are committed to creating an environment that produces the results you need, you have to reach people’s heart. If you simply give your employee a job description or list of expectations that are required to do their work without a sincere interest in them as a person, you relegate your people to simple “task-doers,” rather than genuine contributors. In order to lead, people need to know you care. They need to know you have a vested interest in them as a person, a genuine commitment to their wellbeing that goes beyond what they do or what they achieve.

What this means is that in order to engage people, you not only have to know yourself and have a high level of engagement in your own work, you also have to be engaged with the people you are attempting to engage. The first condition of leadership is connection.

Making a connection with employees begins by asking and sincerely seeking to understand the fundamental engagement question: “What do each of your employees need to be motivated?” Because every person is unique, it’s most likely that each employee will have a different answer to this question. If you don’t know the answer, then you are just guessing. And the risk of being wrong is too great. It’s much better to simply ask the question and set out to discover the answer.

Before he hires people, a leader in a long-term care organization asks the engagement question this way, “What are you passionate about? What would excite you to come to work here?” In his world, answers deal with interests in areas such as end of life challenges, dementia, HR/labor relations, and health and safety. He then asks: “How can we, as an organization, help you develop that passion?”

After listening to their response, he concludes with: “If we can help you develop that passion within your role, do you mind being a resource, coach, mentor, etc. for others in this organization?” Over many years, he has yet to have anyone say no. He then sets out to help them develop a plan that will grow their area of interest and contribute that talent to the organization. In this leader’s view of engagement, you have to give people a sense that they are needed and find a way to connect to their unique talents and passion. His motto to engage people (employees and residents alike) is to give them both a voice and a choice.

Even if you aren’t in a leadership position, ask three fundamental leadership questions in relation to anyone you serve (customers, clients, external stakeholders):

  • What are you doing to get to people’s heart?
  • What are you doing to make a connection to your employees, those you serve?
  • What are you doing to uncover your employees’ passion and talents?

In her book, “Kids Are Worth It,” Barbara Coloroso, the world-renowned parenting expert, says parents need to create a home environment that provides six critical life messages:

  • I believe in you.
  • I trust you.
  • I know you can handle life situations.
  • You are listened to.
  • You are cared for.
  • You are important to me.

It’s no different for employees. To be engaged, we all need to work – and live – in environments that support these fundamental messages.

What’s your way of connecting? What worked or did not work for you?

Are You Connecting?

The other day a flight attendant asked me if I was connecting. This is a good question to ask yourself every so often. “Are you connecting?”

Life depends on connections, and the quality of your life depends on the quality of your connections. Every system depends on connections. Circulatory systems, nervous systems, organizational systems, ecosystems, family systems. Connection is to relationship what breathing is to life. If you can’t make a connection, not much else matters.

While we all, at some level, understand the importance of connection in our lives, what exactly does it mean to be connected? Like beauty, it’s hard to describe, but you know when it’s there. There’s a difference between communicating and being connected. “Everyone communicates,” writes the leadership guru John Maxwell, “but very few people connect.” Today, with all of the high-tech tools such as email, text messaging, Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter, we are certainly in better contact with each other, but are we better connected? High tech requires an equal high touch. With all this capacity to be in contact are we actually making contact? In this high tech, so-called “connected” world, do we feel more loved; more supported; or more at peace with others and ourselves? Do we live with a stronger sense of community? You can’t fully connect without looking a person in the eyes, hearing their voice, reaching their hearts, and knowing them as unique people with needs, values, and dreams. Technology is a great tool to stay connected; it’s not such a good tool to get connected.

Connections have a life of their own. You can actually stifle connections like you can a living organism, or you can breathe life into them.

Here are some conditions for connections to flourish:

  • Focus: Identify the ‘significant seven’ stakeholders in your personal and professional life. A stakeholder is a person who depends on you or upon whom you depend. You will have a list of ‘significant seven’ in both your personal and your professional life. Take an honest inventory of how connected you are with these people and how much personal investment is needed at this time. Don’t confuse peripheral relationships with significant relationships. Think about who will be with you at your deathbed.
  • Understanding: Your goal in connecting is understanding, not necessarily agreement. Connection isn’t the same as agreement. You can agree without connecting, just as you can connect without agreement. What are you doing to really listen to the people in your life? Empathy is a critically important aspect in connecting. To see a quick review of empathy take a few moments to look at a three minute video with the words of Brené Brown: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
  • Accountability: Take accountability for your own emotions, reactions, and needs – in all your relationships. See all blame as a waste of time.  Ownership breeds openness. Take a careful inventory of yourself: Are you a person who can be counted on? Do people experience you as accountable? Do you take 100% responsibility for your life? Have you stopped hiding behind such statements as, “They need to listen better”? No, they don’t have to listen better; you need to communicate better. Nobody but you cares about the reason you let someone down.
  • Disconnect: You have to disconnect to connect. Turn off your devices at times during the day. Leave your cell phone in a drawer when you are with the important people in your life. Disconnect to connect. Create time and space to be together without interruptions. I find it interesting that in our society, the value of pets – who cannot use technology yet are completely present -is increasing along with the value we place on technology.
  • Rituals: Regularly scheduled dates, breakfasts, teas, and uninterrupted, unstructured time to hang out and just be with the important people in your life all allow connections to grow. Don’t worry about making it “quality” time. Sometimes it’s quality; sometimes it isn’t. Just be sure it is time. Connection is a four-letter word: t-i-m-e. If you want to know how your connections are, look at what is scheduled in your planner.
  • Be Vulnerable: Develop a habit of sharing your challenges, your fears, your dreams, or your insecurities with the important people in your life. Connections strengthen with vulnerability by sharing what is going on in your life. Conversations are the path to connection. But remember, connection doesn’t have to be big or dramatic. It simply has to be consistent and honest.
  • Presence: Listen carefully as you feel with people. What are their dreams? What matters to them? Don’t just deal with people. Feel with people. Before you can touch a person’s heart, you have to know what’s in it. The best present you can ever give another person is to be present in the present.
  • Slow down: Slow down in order to focus on the people you meet. Practice walking through crowds slowly. Whether clients, customers, or colleagues, take a few minutes to stop and listen. Everyone has needs, values, and dreams, and people generally like to talk about themselves. Focus on being interested rather than being interesting. I learned from my daughter who taking a course in agriculture that the most valuable tool on a farm is a five-gallon pail. Turn it upside down, sit on it, and observe the animals.
  • Tune in. Listen for messages that people send without talking. Words aren’t the only way to connect. We communicate with our eyes, our body language, our unspoken messages. Practice tuning in by spending time in nature or with animals. Once again, you have to slow down to tune in.
  • Authenticity: Make time to reflect and connect with the voice inside of you. You can’t connect fully unless you have a good sense of self-worth that comes from being true to yourself – in the service of others. As you live in accord with your values, your self-respect grows, and connections with others strengthens. Connection with others begins with a connection to yourself.

Employee Engagement Surveys – Not The Whole Story

I’m not against employee engagement surveys. I’m just not in favor or our over-reliance on them for an accurate picture of an organizational culture. Reading employee engagement surveys is like reading a newspaper or watching the news. It’s interesting, there’s an element of truth in them, but it’s not the whole picture. It’s more of a photograph, a small spectrum of what’s actually happening. Surveys turn your organization into a noun, while conversations make culture a verb, a living breathing entity. Surveys give you a sense of what’s going on, but you always have to go further if you want an accurate picture. Here are some suggestions for using surveys more effectively and appropriately:

  1. Don’t use surveys to abdicate leadership. While thorough surveys provide excellent data and get you started with a snapshot of your culture, don’t rely on surveys alone to do the job. You also have to get out of your office, wander around, and be in touch with people. Ask them how they’re doing and what they need. Then listen to what they say. If you use the excuse that “people aren’t honest with you when you do that,” that’s a good indication you haven’t been out of your office enough to build trust. To be committed to culture, leaders need to be out of their office about half of the time or they just aren’t leading.
  2. Shorten your surveys. People are getting surveyed out. I’ve seen employees answer low because they are angry about having to do so many surveys! Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne (www.eepulse.com) is designing employee engagement and 360 Feedback surveys that take three minutes to complete. Dr. Welborne believes that you can get pretty much all the information you need in about three minutes. She might just be on to something.
  3. You don’t have to survey everyone to get an accurate picture. Television ratings are not determined by calling every single person watching TV. Pick a good cross section of people to survey and give the rest a break. Switch it up so you aren’t surveying the same people every time.
  4. Don’t mistake climate for culture. Climate is how people feel about the organization and their work (what you get from an employee engagement survey). Culture is what causes them to feel that way. Employee engagement surveys may tell you what the climate is, but they don’t necessarily get to the culture. Every culture has both the “visible” culture and the “real” culture. The real culture is what people talk about when the boss isn’t there. If you want to find out about the real culture, don’t send surveys to your employees. Send surveys to your employees’ spouses or best friends. Culture is measured by what people talk about when they get home from work. Ideally, we want to build a level of trust so people would have the same conversation whether the boss is there on not. You can only get the real culture by getting into the cafeteria and the hallways and listening to what’s going on, and more importantly, why it’s going on.
  5. Never ask a question about something you don’t know how to fix and you aren’t prepared to fix. Every survey question implies a promise that you are going to take action based on the answers you get. And if you break that promise, things will get ugly. I like Mark Murphy’s (Leadership IQ) experiment as an example of how this works. Tonight at home, make some popcorn. Then ask your spouse if they want some and when they say “yes” just ignore them. Now multiply that by a few thousand and you’ll see what we’re talking about. Don’t use surveys to abdicate leadership accountabilities. You must live your values, and have a way to ensure that this happens at every level of your organization. Your actions as leaders define your culture more than your value statements do. Actions really do speak louder than words. The goal is to align your actions and your value statements. The more you connect with people and really listen to what they say in a variety of ways, the greater your chances of bringing your claim and your reality into alignment.
  6. Remember that culture is a shared responsibility. Culture isn’t something that you do for or to people. Culture is something you create together. We institutionally deny the fact that each of us – through our perceptions and our choices – is actually creating the culture that we so enjoy complaining about. Deciding that I have co-created the world around me – and therefore I am the one to step into healing it – is the ultimate act of accountability. Check out my website www.irvinestone.ca/assessments for an instrument that assesses both the manager’s and the employee’s responsibility for creating a workplace worth working in – using and adapting the Gallup Q12 Employee Engagement Survey.