2014-11-26-gratitude2This week in the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving—a holiday for most, and the beginning of the end-of-year rush. Shopping. Holidays.

For managers and those they manage, it is typically time for the last push to accomplish goals before the calendar year ends.

Despite the frenzy that these next few weeks entail, it is important to slow down at least for a few days to consider all the things we have to be grateful for. Sometimes it is hard to remember them. There are atrocities around the world. The political campaigns offer everyone someone to despise and perhaps no one to champion. The economy continues to sputter uncertainly.

And yet, each of us has people and places and things in our lives that matter, that we would miss if they weren’t there.

I encourage every reader to make a list of what you’re grateful for. If there are people on that list, reach out to them and tell them you’re grateful for the role they play in your life. You may not be able to contact everyone on your list, but find a way to contact at least a couple of people you haven’t talked to in a while. Or someone you talk to all the time, but not about things that matter.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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When the Unexpected Strikes

I had planned to post today another “favorite firing”—a tongue-in-cheek, moral-of-the-story piece about what can go wrong in the workplace and how to reduce the likelihood of future such happenings.

But sometimes reality intervenes. The past few days, with the images of shootings across Paris, have been one of those times.

I was immediately drawn back to September 11, 2001, when I was in a Human Resources role, and we were struggling with how to help employees cope with the tragedies of that day. Now, it is the French who must cope, who must struggle to make sense of the senseless.

It’s important to have a crisis management plan in place. But no plan can foresee everything. Often, all we can do is listen to each other and empathize.

The moral of the story is to be grateful for what you have and who you love. In the moment.

paris eiffel flag

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The Importance of Listening

mgr empeAs I caught up on some reading last week, I came across an article on the Contented Cows website by BIll Catlette entitled “Listening . . . Really Listening,” July 26, 2015. When I read it, I realized I haven’t written much about this critical skill. I wrote recently about the importance of listening for recruiters (see here). But I haven’t written a post just about listening.

When I had been practicing law for about a year, I took my first deposition. I had prepared a very detailed list of questions to ask the witness. After the witness was sworn in, I launched into my questions.

After about half an hour, the more senior attorney with me asked for a break. During the break he pulled me aside and said, “You have to listen to what the witness says.”

He was right—I hadn’t been listening. I asked my questions and got the answers, but I wasn’t listening to the answers, nor was I thinking about whether I needed to follow up to get more information in response to what the witness said. I was using my list of questions as a checklist, not a guide.

It took a lot of practice, but over the next several years I developed the ability to probe a witness’s answers, whether in a deposition or in a less formal interview. I still usually prepared the points to cover in some detail, but I tried to follow the witness’s lead when possible, which typically got me more information.

So I recognized many of the points described in the Contented Cows piece on listening as lessons I learned the hard way. Some of those lessons were

  • take notes, so you know you’re paying attention to what the other person says
  • don’t frame your response or your next question while the other person is still speaking
  • don’t interrupt, and
  • ask clarifying questions.

There’s more in the Contented Cows article than I’ve mentioned here. It’s worth reading.

When have you realized the importance of listening?

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Don’t Give Up on Performance Reviews

332904-2504-4 perf reviewI’ve been following some of the discussion about annual performance reviews—some companies are stopping them; others are hunkering down. I’m not a particular fan of doing annual reviews, because I think performance management has to happen more frequently than once a year to be of much value.

But annual reviews are better than no reviews. The important thing, in my mind, is to have open conversations with your staff members about their performance.

In two recent articles, Steven Hunt of TLNT has covered this topic. As Mr. Hunt points out in How To Ditch Performance Ratings and Still Evaluate Employees Fairly and Accurately, posted October 20, 2015, no company is actually doing away with rating employees. But some are not doing annual performance reviews. They are finding other ways to evaluate and rank employees.

Ideally, I think conversations about performance should happen about once a quarter—and more frequently with new employees. The usual staff meetings between managers and subordinates can form the setting for these conversations. If followed by a quick email to the employee afterward to confirm expectations, the performance conversation is documented in a simple manner that takes little extra time. Much easier than the multiple pages of many companies’ performance evaluation forms.

As Mr. Hunt says in Haunted By Performance Reviews: How Can You Kill Something That Won’t Die?, October 26, 2015:

“The easiest way to rid an organization of the horrors create by a bad annual evaluation process without releasing the evil spirit of informal evaluation is to actually increase the frequency and number of evaluations you conduct. By constantly evaluating employees through the year, the annual evaluation largely ceases to exist.”

And as Dan Pontefract said in Only 55 Percent Of Employees Feel As Though Performance Management Appraisals Are Effective,, March 31, 2015,

Performance management isn’t a score. It’s a frequent, ongoing coaching conversation.”

About ten years ago, one organization I worked in tried the type of calibration sessions that Mr. Hunt mentions in How To Ditch Performance Ratings and Still Evaluate Employees Fairly and Accurately. Our discussions were painful. They were painful for the managers, and they were painful when the feedback was communicated to the employees. We called the bulk of our employees (the middle 70%) “valued”—which as one person later said, wrecked a perfectly good word forever.

A year ago, Mr. Hunt wrote in Performance Management: We Won’t Fix The Problem By Ignoring It, August 4, 2014:

“We will know we have truly fixed the performance management problem when company leaders are able to accurately identify the most valuable employees in the organization, and can explain this decision to other ‘less valuable’ employees in a manner that inspires them to improve their performance and does not lead them to give up hope, quit, or call their lawyers.”

Now that is a worthy goal. Most likely, we will still be striving to attain it in another ten years.

Here are a few more good articles on performance reviews, in addition to those cited above:

How to Handle Performance Reviews, by Rose Opengart, July 27, 2015

10 Productive Things HR Can Do Instead Of Performance Management, by Heather Nelson, July 31, 2015 (TLNT)

Why Annual Performance Reviews Suck And How Gaming Can Fix Themby Thomas Moradpour, February 19, 2011

What do you think is the best way to motivate average employees in your organization?

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Time Management is YOUR Problem

Its about Time Series III’ve written before about discretionary time—the concept of having time that you control and using it for your own priorities.

That concept has hit home for me again recently. I have a new project that I am trying to squeeze in on top of all my other projects. This new endeavor takes five to ten hours a week for about eight weeks. That’s a lot of time to find. What can give? I’m cutting some activities, streamlining others, hoping a few matters have deadlines with some flexibility.

This week I also read an article on LinkedIn by Shane Atchison entitled, “Schedule for the Unexpected,” Oct. 21, 2015. Mr. Atchison recommends scheduling one hour of flex time for yourself every day. That’s time you deliberately leave free to deal with the daily crises that always seem to arise. I’ve had a few of those recently, while trying to cram in my new project.

When I worked in corporate roles, I used to ask my administrative assistants to save me two hours of “work time” every day. They could move the time around without consulting me to accommodate meetings I needed to attend. But they couldn’t cut into those two hours of unscheduled time without asking me first, unless it was my boss or the CEO who wanted my time.

This system worked pretty well. There were obviously times that I had to give up my work time, but most days if I had two hours in my office, I could keep up with phone calls, email, make dents in major projects, and still leave the office by 6:00pm feeling like the next day was manageable.

So I’m thinking now that, once I get over the hump of this current project, I need to do a better job of scheduling flexible hours each day for myself. Now that I work for myself, it is harder to make time for long-term priorities when there are so many short-term issues that arise each day. The problem is the same as when I worked in a corporate role—but I no longer have an assistant to guard my time.

I have to guard my time myself. If I don’t manage it, no one else will.

What tricks do you use to manage your time?

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When Are Apologies Worth the Risk?

MP900387517I recently listened to a webinar sponsored by the American Bar Association section of Dispute Resolution on the power of apologies. The speaker was Ken Cloke of the Center for Dispute Resolution.

I’m familiar with apologies in the context of mediation, but beyond mediation, most of the literature on using apologies to resolve disputes is in the medical and domestic relations fields, not in the context of more general litigation or in resolving non-legal disputes. This webinar gave me the opportunity to reflect on when apologies might be helpful in a variety of disputes.

Mr. Cloke said that to be effective, apologies must

  • Contain an acknowledgment or recognition of the harm that was done,
  • Include a sincere expression of regret, and
  • Not offer any defenses or rationalizations for what was done.

According to Mr. Cloke, the apology must be be authentic and cannot legally hedged or circumspect. If the apology is defensive, it could be worse than no apology at all.

Before I go further, I want to make it clear that most of the thoughts in this post are my own. Please do not attribute anything to Mr. Cloke, and I apologize if I misstate anything he said.

1. What Impact Will It Have on Pending or Potential Litigation

Most lawyers—and I am one—are leery of apologies. Lawyers typically advise their clients not to offer apologies. There are many reasons for this reluctance, the foremost being that if a party to a lawsuit issues an apology that admits any facts or accepts any responsibility for wrongdoing, it can be an admission against interest which is then admissible as evidence in the lawsuit.

But there are exceptions. Most notably, if the apology is offered in the context of settlement discussions or mediation, then it is usually not admissible. Also, many jurisdictions now have statutes that specifically state that statements of sympathy for injury to another person is not admissible as an admission against interest. Some of these statutes are limited to the medical context (i.e., a doctor expressing sympathy that a family relative died), but others are broader.

For example, Missouri now has a statute, Section 538.229, that states:

“The portion of statements, writings, or benevolent gestures expressing sympathy or a general sense of benevolence relating to the pain, suffering, or death of a person and made to that person or to the family of that person shall be inadmissible as evidence of an admission of liability in a civil action. However, nothing in this section shall prohibit admission of a statement of fault.”

This is similar to the law in many U.S. states. By contrast, in Scotland, the law is much broader and states:

“In all civil proceedings, an apology made outside the proceedings in connection with any matter – (a) is not admissible as evidence of anything relevant to the determination of liability in connection with that matter, and (b) cannot be used in any other way to the prejudice of the person by or on behalf of whom the apology was made.”

In Scotland, then, a person who might be sued has far more leeway to apologize than most potential defendants in the U.S.

Before considering an apology, it is critical that you know what the law is in your jurisdiction. Consult an attorney if the matter is already in litigation, or even if you suspect that litigation could arise from the conduct for which you might apologize.

2. How Far Can You Truthfully Go?

It is also important to think about how far you are willing to go in offering an apology. Ken Cloke made it clear that apologies that are not deemed sufficient by the other side can in fact make matters worse. It is critical that the apology be sincere and show your understanding of the impact your actions had on the other party.

But are you willing to apologize unequivocally? Maybe you disagree on the facts with the person requesting an apology. For example, if you are accused of running a red light, but truly believe you had the green light, you can’t very well apologize for running a red light and causing the accident.

By contrast, if you acknowledge you were driving inattentively, and you know your inattentiveness contributed to the accident, perhaps you can apologize for your inattention. But such an apology might not go far enough, if the other person believes himself to be wholly innocent and you believe his inattention contributed to the accident also. As stated above, your apology must not be hedged. Getting defensive during your apology is probably worse than silence. Trying to apportion blame is probably not a good idea, unless you are responding to an apology to you, in which case accepting part of the blame might help resolve the matter.

So before you apologize, think about whether you understand how what you did impacted the other person. Do you regret what you did? Do you only regret how the other person experienced what you did? Your apology must be authentic.

One good question to think about that Mr. Cloke suggests is: “If I had 20/20 hindsight, would I still have done what I did?” If not, maybe you have a basis for apologizing.

But again, work with your lawyer so you know the impact on any legal claims.

3. Is There a Relationship At Stake?

I believe there is a place for apologies in disputes, particularly when there is an ongoing relationship between the parties. That is probably why apologies are often helpful strategies in domestic relations matters, particularly where a divorcing couple will need to continue to parent together for many years.

MP900341467In the business context, relationships might also need to survive the current dispute. Sometimes an apology can help resolve an employment dispute. A senior manager might say, “I am sorry that your supervisor harassed you. That was contrary to our policy, and should not have happened. We are committed to providing you and all employees with a safe place to work, and he is no longer employed.”

Or important supplier or customer relationships might be salvaged with a strong apology. For example: “I am sorry that our supplies were delivered to you late last month. We didn’t live up to our commitment, and we recognize that you in turn missed deadlines with your customers. We have learned from our mistake and are instituting improvements in our order processing.”

So, particularly if you are in a dispute with an ongoing partner, discuss with your colleagues and attorney whether you can show that the relationship is more important to you than saving face or winning a courtroom battle. Take responsibility for your errors.

In summary, consider apologies as one way to resolve disputes, when the dispute is new and perhaps has not yet escalated. But be careful, and talk with your attorney first.

Have you ever found an apology to be helpful in resolving a dispute?

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Remember: Every System Is Perfectly Designed To Get the Result It Gets

vwOne of the most popular posts on this blog has been Change the Organization’s Design to Get Different Results; But Be Careful . . . You Will Get What You Design, from November 12, 2012 — an oldie, but goodie. The point of that post was that every organization is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.

I can’t help but read the newspaper these days with that thought in mind.

  • The Constitution designed our Congress and President perfectly to minimize any chance of action when there are significant differences between our parties. There’s no reason to blame Republicans for not letting President Obama have his way, nor to blame the President for not going along with Congress. This is how our system is designed.
  • There is something in the organizational design of Volkswagen that permitted cars to be programmed to violate the U.S. emissions standards, whether it is rogue engineers who were not adequately supervised or managers who deliberately turned their backs on the violation.
  • The combination of lax gun control laws and a reluctance to monitor the mentally ill is designed to lead to repeated mass shootings.

You may agree with the result (many people believe that passing fewer laws is a good thing) or you may disagree. But you can’t disagree with the truism that the system is designed to get the result it gets.

Most of these systems are complex, and changing one aspect of the system may or may not change the result. But what is certain is not changing anything will permit the same results to continue.

What other examples do you see of organizations getting the results they were designed to get?

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