From “En Garde” to Guard Down. No Epees Required! | Penetrating Arm’s Length Relationships

Have you ever watched modern fencing? It’s a fascinating Olympic sport of controlled swordplay—the “act of defending.”  Fencing garb is pretty intimidating: a tough nylon or Kevlar jacket, plastron (under arm protection), knickers, a chest protector (just for women!), gloves, and a mask—all puncture resistant. Fencing is serious business.

So how about the “fencers” you work with? The people always in the act of defending themselves. The ones doing everything they can to avoid punctures to their brand, persona, egos, and position security.

They work hard to stay at arm’s length from us. That’s not a problem until we need them to get our work done.  

Diffusing defenses is our best offense.  

Accommodating “off putting” behavior by co-workers and bosses just enables them. When colleagues and bosses want to keep us at a distance they will:

  • Become inaccessible
  • Always be in a rush
  • Be unapproachable, dismissive, negative, and critical
  • Give off negative body language: scowls, crossed arms, stares
  • Reject our work 

We generally assume that these behaviors are signs of arrogance, superiority, power plays, or egotism. We often take it personally, believing it’s an insult to our capabilities, value, or style.

We’ll never find out the truth until we penetrate the barriers they put up.  

Understand your opponent before you strike your position! 

People will keep us at arm’s length for a lot of reasons. It may be because we:

  • Are unknown to them, untested, and unproven
  • Haven’t demonstrated our trustworthiness
  • Appear to lack savvy, know-how, or good judgment
  • Act with too much deference, uncertainty, or cockiness
  • Have a prior affiliation within or outside the company that creates unease
  • Present a disconcerting work style, way of speaking, or appearance 

We need to figure out what’s getting in the way of the relationship. Start by:

  • noticing what triggers their defenses
  • getting insights from others who have experienced similar reactions
  • talking to colleagues who have gained the kind of relationship you want 

You don’t need pointed weapons to pierce their defenses. Try approaches like these instead:

1. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Be your best authentic self with them. No one let’s his/her guard down when we puff ourselves up, oversell our capabilities, overplay our eagerness, and make exaggerated promises. 

2. Find a way to break the ice through laughter. Share a funny moment that involved you. This is not about telling jokes: It’s about helping them to laugh with you by being a wee bit self-deprecating.

3. Share interesting information. Ask a penetrating question. Make an observation and ask for his/her insight. Help him/her talk to you about work-related subjects that matter to them.

4. Deliver good work and make an appointment to get their feedback. Generate dialogue, seek an honest critique, and respond with appreciation.

5. If all this fails, confront. Give forth a resounding “en garde! (get ready!)”

Here’s what I did when I was at my wits ends.

  • I told one boss to stop scowling at me every time I suggested an idea. (That made him laugh and ended his use of his “look” with me.)
  • I declared to several union stewards that open dialogue was the only way we would get things done. (That opened communication channels and kept them open.)
  • I used “impact on the bottom line” questions to gain support by knowledge experts for one of my projects. (That converted them to collaborators.)  

Every touch scores a point.  

Too often we allow people to keep us at bay. Accepting with their barriers inhibits our growth, stalls our productivity, and chokes our courage.  

Building good relationships is an art. Being business fit means knowing how to get from arm’s length to engagement. No need for swords and Kevlar. Just some good old-fashioned conversation will do!

What’s been your experience with a boss or colleague who wanted to keep you at arm’s length? How did you break through? Your tips will be very helpful. Thanks.

Clueless Leadership! Can You Bear It? | The Perils of Non-Communication

Do I have to say it too? “Communication is the backbone of good leadership.” Hasn’t it been said enough already? Aren’t there enough books, training programs, and speeches out there to drive home the point?

Then why are so many people in leadership positions clueless? Why don’t they communicate well, at the right time, and with the right message?

It must be faulty wiring.

There seem to be four extremes. Leaders who:

  • Have nothing to say
  • Don’t know what to say or how to say it
  • Talk but say nothing

It’s so frustrating. As employees we need and want information that positions us to do great work, make sound decisions, and support the company. It’s what builds our morale, loyalty, optimism, and willingness to do more.

Unfortunately, we often work for people who hoard what they know, believing that their value and influence are connected to their “insider” information.

When leaders are disconnected from us, they often have no idea about what information we find useful like:

  • The state of the business
  • The attitudes of customers
  • The competition
  • Our performance
  • Career opportunities
  • New products, equipment, and services
  • Processes and policies 

When these leaders aren’t tuned into us, we’re left out.

The light only comes on if you throw the switch. 

One day I got a call from a veterinarian with a large and small animal practice.  At the time I was doing a good bit of veterinary practice management consulting.

He told me that he thought he had a problem I could help him with.

“What’s your situation?” I asked.

“My associate veterinarian is leaving at the end of his one year contract,” he explained.

“I see. What’s unique about that?”

”He’s the tenth one to leave in ten years,” he replied.

“Do you know why?” I asked.

“No. That’s why I’m calling you.”

So I went and I watched and asked questions. It didn’t take long to see that the owner was a man who wanted no part of management. He just wanted to treat animals, particularly farm animals. He didn’t want to deal with employees, so he never engaged with them.

The silence of the lambs tells the story.

While conducting my practice walk-through, I saw the associate veterinarian and the technician in the operating room where they had delivered twin lambs by C-section. The ewe’s incision was being closed and the tech was on the floor trying to give CPR to the two lambs. She needed help.

I put down my papers and got down on the floor with her, taking one of the lambs and blowing into its nostrils, trying to get its lungs to work.

While the young veterinarian, the tech, and I were giving our all, the owner walked into the OR, looked at the ewe and at us. He then turned and walked out, never saying a word. No encouragement. No suggestions. No solace. Nothing.

In spite of our efforts, both lambs died. The ewe had been in labor too long. We were all distraught, though relieved that the ewe lived.

In my consulting report, I gave a straight-forward description of the factors that likely contributed to the departure of those ten associates. Ultimately, the owner closed his small animal practice to become a crop farmer, providing veterinary services to farm animals on his own. He realized his limitations and refocused on doing what he loved and did best.

It’s a pity when leaders don’t see how their inability to communicate negatively impacts their employees, themselves, and the business. So much time and energy are lost.

Follow the clues. Solve the mysteries.  

Poor communicators are costly to their companies. They waste time, cause errors, drive away good employees, and gum up the works. To be business fit we have to communicate effectively. It’s the backbone of staying connected, attracting a following, and taking the lead. When things aren’t going quite right for you, look at how you’re communicating. You’ll never regret it!

Have you had a clueless boss? Was communication his/her issue or something else? We’re dying to know!

Beware of “Bring Me Another Rock” Managers!| Clarify Direction. Provoke Decisions.

They make us think we’re the problem. We produce work our managers assign and they throw it back.

“Revise this,” they say.

“What am I missing?” we ask.

“It doesn’t quite address the issues,” they answer. “When it’s right, I’ll know it.”

We go back to our desks deflated, believing that somehow we’re just not grasping things. We still don’t have a clear idea of how to “fix” anything.  We start to worry that our career will suffer because of this.  We’re bummed.

Take heart! It’s not about you! 

Let’s look at the logic: You get an assignment from your boss. You’ve asked clarifying questions about what is expected and taken notes.

You do the work, checking it against the direction you received. You even ask questions along the way to make sure you’re on the right path.

But when you submit your work, you’re told to rework it. After you make those changes, you’re told to make new ones—again and again!

In all likelihood, your boss is figuring out his/her direction on the fly, using the work you’re doing to put the pieces together.

These managers keep us busy turning over and retrieving one rock after another until they see the one they think they’ve been looking for.

I’ve had bosses like this and it’s maddening. Why? Because the boss has you jumping though hoops as a result of his/her inability to:

  • Provide clear direction
  • Make timely decisions 

“Bring me another rock” managers (BMARM) are costly. 

They spin everyone’s wheels. A spinning wheel makes no progress. In business that means spending time and money getting nowhere.

In addition to frustrating you, these managers frustrate the business like this:

Hiring Fiascos 

The BMARM needs to fill a vacancy. S/he writes a job posting and human resources posts it. Qualified candidate interviews are scheduled but no one is selected. The BMARM tells HR the candidates “aren’t quite right.”

Question: “What are you looking for in a candidate?”

Answer: “I’ll know the right person when I see him/her.”

So HR keeps providing additional candidates (rocks) until the manager finally figures out what s/he really wants the job to be. The issue is the manager’s inability to decide on the scope of the job and his/her failure to make good management decisions in a timely way.

Requests for Proposal 

A manager needs to contract with an outside service. Prospective bidders receive a request for proposal (RFP).  Significant time and cost go into developing these bid submissions.

Managers who don’t really know what they want float RFPs with general specifications, believing they’ll know “when they see it” which is the best choice. In some cases, when they “suspect they see it,” they will request additional information (rocks).

Often these RFP’s get deferred or cancelled. If accepted, they can be fraught with difficulties because the BMARM wants to keep modifying the terms.

A manager’s inability to make decisions is a serious problem.

Dodge the rock pile! 

Inquiry is your best defense again the request for rocks. When given an assignment, be relentless about clarity. Here are a few things that you need to get straight from the beginning. Ask:

  • What’s driving the assignment? Who’s invested?
  • What’s the purpose? The time frame?
  • What’s the scope? The boundaries?
  • What actions are expected? 

Turn these answers into a written project overview and get your boss to give the okay before you start. Each time there’s a change, write it down and validate it again with your boss.

Protect yourself.

The object is to minimize your rock collecting. If it happens anyway, you will, at least, have a clear record that what you did was based on approved direction.

I’ve been in this boat and have had projects that went nowhere. But I was always sure that the non-result was no reflection on me. Feeling business fit always made my load feel lighter.

Do you have a BMAR manager that you had to deal with? How did it go? Any tips to share?

Whose Job Is It Anyway? | Set Boundaries. Create Accountability.

I loved that TV game show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” emceed by Drew Carey from 1998-2006, featuring masterful comedy improv artists like Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, and  Wayne Brady.

In each episode, the performers were given surprise, off-the-wall situations to enact, making up dialogue off the top of their heads. They had to take on peculiar roles and follow weird rules. The pace was frenetic. Their creative antics were hilarious. And the winner, that Drew selected, was the comic who did the best job meeting his unstated expectations.

Your job is your role.  

Supervisors assign performance expectations. Employees act on them. There’s feedback along the way to make sure everyone is on the same page.

But then things break down and supervisors find themselves:

  • Catching careless employee mistakes and fixing them
  • Double-checking work before it gets released
  • Answering endless how-to questions on routine tasks
  • Uncovering neglected office procedures
  • Facing push-back on performance feedback 

Many supervisors struggle with holding employees accountable for their work. When it’s time to address weak performance, they feel bad about doing it.

Whose work is it anyway?

When employees don’t deliver what’s expected, they shouldn’t be able to win. But they do win if their supervisor:

  • Does the work for them
  • Catches their mistakes for them
  • Answers all their questions
  • Coddles them when their work is slipping 

When supervisors are doing work that belongs to their employees, in whole or in part, the company is paying two people to do the same work. No business model survives that way. Boundaries help everyone succeed.

Gotta know your lines! 

Unfortunately, boundaries can blur easily. It starts with incidents that seem so innocent, so minimal, and occasional. But they creep up on you.

So you have to keep your guard up and your “lines” ready. Here are typical scenarios that most supervisors face:

Situation 1:  Martha comes to your office (in fact, interrupts your work) to ask you the latest information on a company policy while her customer is on hold. She’s been trained on the policy and how to access the company’s on-line FAQs.

Your lines: “Martha, you have access to that information. Please tell the customer you will find it and call him back in 15 minutes.” 

Situation 2: John is responsible for ensuring that there is sufficient inventory to cover monthly demand. He failed to meet that standard again this month. In his own defense, he told you that his suppliers were not delivering on time.

Your lines: “John, this is the third consecutive month that inventory has not met demand. I need to review the initiatives you will put into place to deal with suppliers? Please prepare a written plan for me to review and discuss with you before noon on Friday.” 

Situation 3: Sylvia’s performance has been declining in two areas: meeting monthly internal communications deadlines and launching a social media marketing team. During your feedback session, Sylvia argues with you, defending her performance.

Your lines: “Sylvia, I have described my expectations for these areas of your performance. I have just  given you specific examples of work that has fallen short. I hear the justifications that you are giving me but that doesn’t change my expectations. I want you to succeed here and am willing to support the efforts you make. I would like to meet with you again tomorrow and talk about what specific steps you will take to improve.” 

Let your boundaries propel accountability.  

As a supervisor, you are accountable for the collective output of your work group. But each employee is accountable for his/her own work. Your job is to ensure that accountabilities are being met by being supportive but without taking on their work. Being business fit means staying focused on what needs to be done and by whom. When your employees know whose job it is, your job is a lot sweeter!

Were you ever in a situation where someone tried to off-load their work to you? What were your lines? How did everything resolve itself?

Think You’re Not Good Enough? Look Around! | Evolving Self-Confidence

I often hear this: “I don’t have enough:

  • experience for that job
  • knowledge to lead a team
  • years with the company to advance
  • know-how to start my own business.” 

Exactly, who says we aren’t good enough? Most of the time, we’re the guilty party.

Doubt is our enemy.

Negative self-talk is often riddled with self-doubt. We look at what others are achieving, compare ourselves, and question whether we have what it takes. We self-assess against standards that we invent before we know what the real expectations are.

Self-confidence is as much about being willing to explore an opportunity as it is about being able to execute an assignment. All too often, we worry about our ability to do a job before we understand what it is.

Doubt cannot be allowed to rule.  

The antidote to doubt is reality. Not some “reality” you imagine but the reality that exists.

Start by looking around. Who is doing the work that you think you’re “not good enough” to do as well or better?

Look hard and long at those people. Watch exactly what they do and say. Pay attention to the actual results they produce. Examine their work closely. Find out what others are saying about it.

Then ask yourself, “Can I produce work like that or better?”  My guess is that, in most cases, your answer will be, “Sure.”

If you’ve been reading my posts for a bit, you know that I spent many years as a commercial horse breeder. I knew nothing about it when I started.

Before I bought my farm, I had doubts about whether or not I could care for horses on my own since I’d had no knowledge or experience. The owner of the barn where I’d been boarding warned me, “You could kill those horses if you don’t feel ‘em right.” That rocked me.

Then I stopped to think about her and the other people I’d met who were in the horse business. I asked myself, “Is there any reason to believe that the people in this business are smarter than I am? Do I have good people to advise me when I have questions?” The answers were obvious.

Self-confidence is not arrogance. 

Arrogance is when you act like you know everything. Self-confidence is about believing in yourself. It builds courage, keeps you moving forward in spite of setbacks, and enables you to seize opportunities to grow.

You find self-confidence by looking positively at yourself, acknowledging what you can do. You build self-confidence by testing your capabilities.

The biggest mistake we make is telling ourselves that we have to be the best at something before we are “entitled” to be self-confident. In fact, we just have to be as good as the situation requires.

Role models are everywhere. 

If your self-confidence is a bit shaky, it’s time to look around and see who’s out there doing what you want to do with capabilities similar to yours. In the past four months, I watched these two confidence-building situations unfold:

1.) A Gen Y college grad, who hated her job, started a blog, made professional on-line contacts, was recognized for her writing talents, started freelancing, and just got a full-time job.

2.) An experienced marketing professional was downsized, couldn’t find another job, talked to independent contractors about how they worked, informally looked for clients, blogged about her “start up” experiences, got great advice, opened an office, and saw her business start to grow.

Self-confidence evolves. Every step you take helps you build your truly capable self. You can mentor, volunteer to lead a team, give speeches, deliver training, start a hobby business, or cover a temporary vacancy at work.

Every step you take to become business fit builds your self-confidence. If you haven’t had a chance to learn the seven smart moves, perhaps now’s the time. Your self-confidence is your success engine. Without it, we don’t move very far or very fast. Vroooom!

How has your self-confidence been tested? What were you able to do to overcome your doubts and move ahead? Thanks for helping out!

Stuck? Try Getting Out of Your Own Way! | Overcoming Risk Aversion

Mistakes are a bummer. We don’t like being on the receiving end (like when they don’t’ “hold the onion”) or on the doing end (like when you miss a due date). Some mistakes have greater consequences than others, but we never quite know how great. 

Mistakes lurk, so be heroic.  

Keep working. Get stuff done. Make decisions. Choose options. Make your best guess.

You’ve been given a job to do…so just do it! No one else is.

Business is a machine. It thrives on forward motion created by people doing things that need to be done.

Your life is a business too. So, you need forward motion to find a job, navigate a career, and position your future.

Every time we take action, we leave ourselves open for both mistakes and success. Most of the time, the success odds are in our favor!

Trial and error is a good thing. It’s one way we figure things out! 

So why do we obsess so much about maybe “doing it wrong?” Unless the consequences of a mistake are death or financial ruin, there’s little reason to defer action.

Now, I’m not proposing that we act without thinking, planning, and considering consequences. I am proposing that once we’ve done reasonable thinking, planning and considering, we act. (Haven’t read Seth Godin’s, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? It’s time.) 

When we don’t act, it’s often because we fear:

  • Negative judgments by others (our who and why never explained)  
  • Looking stupid or naïve (the rationale, basis, and likelihood unstated)
  • Disappointing ourselves (the result of a bar we set too high)
  • Becoming trapped (our baseless belief that situations control our future)
  • Personal loss—(the notion that there is some concrete price to pay

These fears will paralyze us if we let them.  

Shackles you choose are still shackles. 

The relentless pursuit of approval and permission coupled with the endless need for more information, discussion, and analysis becomes self-imposed career imprisonment.

Analysis to paralysis is what it’s often called. It happens when you believe you need just one more bit of information, insight, and affirmation before you’re safe enough to act.

Problem: There are unknowns, surprises, and discoveries in every decision.  It’s the “successful people” who come up with winning discoveries and get credit for them, even when it all started from mistakes they made.

The people who end up in the best careers often got there by stumbling through jobs that took them to places they never imagined, both good and bad. They just kept moving along and discovering things while doing quality work.

You can’t become a success when you stand in your own way, waiting for analysis and approval to open doors.

Please, let this be like you. 

Karen was a call center support specialist who knew I needed a call monitoring feedback system fair to our reps. On her own, she found out what other companies did, discussed the law with Legal, and drafted a process for me and my boss to consider, all in short order. A smart, gutsy move for her career.

Herb was a union guy, servicing electric meters. He wanted to move into management but didn’t have the best credentials. He bid on a mobile exhibit job covering a 10,000 square mile area. During the interview, I asked him to write an essay about why he wanted the job. That threw him, but he gave it a go, not knowing where this “no job security” position would take him. In time, he became a respected marketing manager…not bad!

Believe in yourself…because you should! 

Look around. The success you want is within your reach. You just need to be willing to reach for it! The more actions you take, the more ground you gain. Business fitness is about building momentum toward your goals. So pull on your best sneaks and hit the trail!

What fears have held you back along the way? How did you reduce or overcome them? Any advice is a real gift!

Supervisory Courage or Cowardice? | Handling Employees With “Attitude”

Do you have one of these? An employee who’s negative, resistant, complaining and blaming, or uncooperative. One is bad enough, but more than one can be unbearable.

What you resist persists. 

Confronting behavior problems is no fun, but it’s a supervisor’s job! Employees with “bad” attitudes won’t get any better when the supervisor:

  • Ignores them
  • Makes excuses for them
  • Accommodates the them
  • Accepts them
  • Rewards them by giving in 

The hard reality is that supervisors need to TALK to these employees about what they are doing and why.

That “talk” word makes many a supervisor’s blood run cold. They often don’t want to face that employee, don’t know how to conduct or control the meeting, or aren’t clear about the outcome they want.

So they keep putting off the confrontation until work is compromised, other employees are negatively affected, and their effectiveness as a supervisor is questioned. The problem persists!

Start by trying to understand the cause. 

To get the ball rolling, supervisors needs to accept two premises:

  • There is an underlying reason why an employee’s attitude is “bad” and the supervisor needs to find that out. 
  • The employee owns his/her attitude problem. The supervisor is responsible for mitigating its negative impact on work group performance.   

Too many supervisors feel that they need to defend themselves when they confront. Remember: It’s the employee’s attitude that is causing the problem.  The onus is on them to improve, not the supervisor.

Take charge. 

Don’t delay. Meet with the employee as soon as you observe the unwanted attitude.  Start by identifying the unacceptable attitude/behavior you have observed like:

  • Negative or accusative statements
  • Work not submitted on time or according to instructions
  • Fault finding with other employees or the supervisor
  • Defensiveness or being dismissive of others
  • Bullying or actions that incite conflict 

State the specific instance(s) where you personally observed the attitude or behavior. State the impact that these behaviors have on the work.

Ask, “What is driving your attitude/behavior?” Then listen. Ask for clarification until you understand what’s behind it all.

When you think you’ve got it, say, “I want to be sure I understand what your reasons are. I heard you say____. Is that correct?”

Solutions are both art and science. 

To get behavior change, there is an element of negotiation and a bit of compromise. Supervisors need to reinforce exactly the behavior they expect and how they know when they are getting it. You need to make that clear up front.

The next step is to ask, “Are you willing to make the effort to change?” If the answer is “No,” then you need to tell the employee that his/her job will be at risk.

If the answer is “Yes,” then ask, “What will you do to turn your attitude around? How can I, as your supervisor, help/support you?” The employee commits to action and the supervisor to support.

Next you schedule specific times when you will meet to discuss progress. To start, that’s at least weekly. As things improve, less frequently.

The employee needs to understand that you expect to see significant improvement within a 3 month period. Along the way, you’ll be restating your expectations and giving specific feedback.

The effort and consequences must be real. 

The time supervisors invest in an employee with a “bad” attitude is significant. The reward is a positive turn-around. However, not everyone will change, so termination of employment is a potential consequence.

When you invest time in employees who are difficult, you also make an impression on your good employees. They will see that you care, observe what it means to supervise, and accept the fairness of the outcome.

Business fit supervisors are prepared and ready to face and resolve tough challenges. It’s no picnic but it’s worth it!

What experiences have you had supervising or working with an employee with a “bad” attitude? Did you know the cause? What happened to him/her?