Help Giver or Help Seeker? Let Gratitude Fuel the Ride

I’ve always been at odds with the adage: “Good guys (and gals) always finish last.” It implies that being a team player, going the extra mile, or helping coworkers is a negative career strategy.

Often we’re warned that if we’re too generous with our time and talents at work, we’ll get taken advantage of. Well, maybe, but it’s worth the risk.

Most of us lend a hand because we:

  • Can’t help ourselves; it’s how we’re wired, raised, or compelled
  • Can put our knowledge and skills to good use
  • Care about the person or group in need
  • Enjoy collaborating, teamwork, and a new challenge

Our initial desire to help doesn’t usually consider the downside. We step up because it feels good.

The double-edged sword

Helping goes two ways: we give it one day and need it the next. We may go for long periods without needing help, but we’re pretty sure our time will come.

I’m as guilty as the next for resisting offers of help for reasons like:

  • I don’t want to be a bother
  • My need isn’t that important
  • I think I can take care of it myself (when I really can’t)
  • I’ll wait for something “really big” down the road

So I refrain from asking when I should, even when others are offering help.

At the same time, I’m eager to help someone else. I love nothing more than frantic phone calls from friends and clients who have some new craziness at work to figure out. This gives me a chance to provide help as a gift, my act of gratitude for their confidence and friendship.

Counted on or counted out

To help and be helped bind us. At work we need each other to:

  • Get the work done
  • Avoid being blindsided
  • Build our knowledge and skills
  • Create and innovate

We need coworkers we can count on and they need us too.

The other day I was thinking about the “helpers-in-waiting” in my life. These are the professionals I can call anytime with a question or a problem–special people who know who I am and care sincerely about helping me like my attorney, my accountant, my computer specialist, my personal physician, and my large and small animal veterinarians.

These aren’t people I talk to every day or month or year, but when I need them, I really do and  pronto. They don’t have to drop everything when I call, but most of the time they do. That raises my gratitude level and they know it.

A help-seeker’s gratitude expands when the help giver:

  • Acknowledges the need and responds quickly
  • Does a thorough job done and gives sound advice
  • Is fair and trustworthy
  • Communicates information and answers questions clearly
  • Takes a warm, pleasant approach and even shows a sense of humor

The help-giver’s gratitude comes from the help seeker’s:

In a business environment, no one is obligated to provide selfless help just because someone is paying for services. I know plenty of highly paid individuals who don’t provide help that generates gratitude. In too many cases, their help creates resentment.

Be kind, be helpful

In my view, the good guys and gals finish first. They attract a community of like-minded people who help because they want to, promoting a spirit of gratitude that is contagious.

Each day we need to reach out to others while expressing thanks to those helping us, in even the smallest ways. Recognize helpfulness in an email, a voice mail, a word in passing, a greeting card, an invitation to lunch, a “how are you doing” inquiry, or an offer of support. Gratitude costs nothing and makes a big difference.

Thanks for taking the time to read this and other post posts here. Believe me, I am enormously grateful for your interest, your comments, and your support.

Photo from smiles 7 via Flickr

Uncovering the “I” in Team—Lessons from the Phillies’ Big 4 Pitchers

Roy Halladay (Photo from SD Dirk via Flickr )

You’ve heard it said, “There’s no ‘I’ in TEAM.” It’s a kind of soft warning about the potentially negative effects of personal self-interest on the ability of the team to succeed. 

At work we see it when certain team members only support actions that favor their positions, impose their views, and seize opportunities to increase personal visibility. It makes for big problems. 

Uncovering the inevitable “I” 

You can find the “I” in TEAM under the crossbar. Look at the “T” and you can see the “I” hidden in plain sight. 

The reality is that every team is made up of Individuals. They’ve been selected for the team because they bring essential and unique capabilities. 

Great teams capitalize to the max on these capabilities. After all, isn’t it the sports teams with the best players that routinely win championships?

 Everyone comes to a team with talent. Members generally know what their strengths are and why they’re needed. That’s when we discover the most about how they see their role on the team, for better or worse. They may showcase attitudes like: 

  • I’m the expert in my area, so don’t question me. (Self-centered “I”)
  • I’m eager to learn from the group and expand my capabilities. (“I” for the team)
  • I know the outcome I want and will exert my influence to get it. (Self-interest “I”)
  • I want to bring out the best in the group by doing my best. (“I” for the team

Individual talent is a resource, an asset to the team. As team members, we’re there to pool, align, and/or deliver our talents at the right time and in the right way to advance the team’s collective goals. 

It’s about both us and the team. Our contributions are measured (or should be) by how we use our talents for the benefit of the team. That’s what separates the team-player “I” from the self-server “I.” 

Consider Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Hamels 

Cliff Lee (Photo from artolog via Flickr)

The Philadelphia Phillies 2011 baseball team has been led by pitchers Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels. 

In a wonderful article in The Morning Call newspaper, Mandy Housenick writes about those pitchers: 

“It’s the most-feared foursome in baseball. Among them are 59 victories this season, a collective ERA of 2.71, 821.1 innings pitched, 17 complete games and seven shutouts….” 

So you’d think the big four would be full of themselves. Not the case, according to Housenick, even though they are different from each other in personality and game preparation style. She writes: 

 “…they continue to learn from one another. Sometimes they chat about pitch sequences; other times they’re reminded just how important it is to be confident and stay focused… 

As competitive as this group is, as much as it hates losing and as eye-popping as each individual’s career stats are, there’s no alpha dog among them, no attention-seekers, no braggers.” 

Roy Oswalt (Photo from Matthew Straubmuller via Flickr)

That’s the key, isn’t it? Accomplished individuals realize that achievement is a function of the hard, relentless work they do. But they also know that without a team to play on, nothing is realized, no goals are reached, and no career is built. 

Housenick shares this quote from Roy Halladay: 

“‘If you’re gonna have four guys that are gonna go out and pitch well, you can’t have guys that get caught up in what they do and what somebody else does… You really do have to pull for each other.’” 

The team of “I’s” 

Halladay’s right: We need put our best work forward and pull for each other. That’s how we improve so we can leave our best individual and collective marks on the team’s goals. When we make it only about us, we’ll likely lose out and take the team with us. 

Cole Hamels (Photo from from SD Dirk via Flickr)

Teams enable us to use our talents to impact a wider arena, where the stakes are higher, opportunities greater, and support closer at hand.  Putting our “I” to work for the team can increase our chances of winning.

Leader Alert: Beware the Downside of Being the Big Cheese

One day you’re following direction and the next you’re giving it. Promotions to leadership positions are watershed moments.                    

If we’re not careful about how we wear our new leadership mantles, we’ll find ourselves isolated. 

The chilling effects of deference 

Employees try to figure you out as soon as you become the big cheese. 

New leaders, even when they’re colleagues we’ve known for years, are inevitably suspect. 

Most employees will likely play it safe until they understand how you will conduct yourself and deal with them in your new-found power position.    

The result is deference—submission to your requests and courteous yielding to your direction. 

Here’s how deference reveals itself: Your employees 

  • Wait for you to talk first
  • Ask, “What do you want?” questions
  • Tend to wait and see how you’re leaning before weighing in
  • Routinely check in with you before acting
  • Shut down the informal information pipeline to you
  • Are extra careful about what they say, holding back on input and feedback 

The consequences of deference may be elusive at first, but, in time, you’ll feel their sting when you realize you’re: 

  • Out of the loop with your employees because no one lets you in on the scuttlebutt
  • Unaware of the disruptions your decisions and direction have caused
  • Disconnected from the needs of your own employees
  • No longer considered a member of the team, even though you’re its leader
  • In this alone, that you’re employees have positioned you to hold the bag

Check yourself 

Deference will isolate you. That means you need to understand what you’re doing, consciously or subconsciously, to attract it. Then you need to undo it. 

Remember: You now have position power. Employees understand that you are expected by the business to act in its best interests which can, at times, be in conflict with theirs. 

Great leaders need to earn the trust and confidence of their employees through: 

  • Humility and openness
  • Consistently balanced and fair decision-making
  • Timely actions and ability to minimize obstacles
  • Respectful treatment of employees 

You can’t undo crippling deference until you understand what’s contributing to it. The major factor is fear: Your employees know that you can

  • Make or break their career progress
  • Impact their work assignments
  • Hurt them with your assessment of their performance; impact their salaries
  • Influence their stress levels, self-confidence, and self-esteem
  • Direct them to adopt work processes that are ineffective 

Smart employees are careful about how they treat their leaders because a lot is at stake. 

Break the pattern

Smart leaders recognize the signs of deference and take action. They: 

  • Ask employees for their ideas and concerns at meetings and privately, waiting for their answers, acknowledging and rewarding the value of counterpoint
  • Demonstrate trust by doing what they say they’re going to do
  • Communicate openly and regularly on all topics
  • Roll up their sleeves and engage with employees where they work, inquiring about their issues, needs, and frustrations
  • Involve employees in problem-solving by delegating responsibility and authority
  • Ask for ideas from employees before offering their own 

Slice the cheese 

Leadership is a balancing act. We need to understand that “good” power is about influence not about control or self-aggrandizement. Misuse of leadership power takes on a life of its own and deference can feed it negatively. 

Our job as leaders is to make sure that we keep everyone in the game. It’s essential to lead effectively so others want to follow, but not in silence. We need them to voicing their ideas and feedback without fear.

Every team needs a leader and every leader needs a team. When we give a little slice of influence to each player, we increase our collective chances of winning. 

Photo from The Wu’s Photo Land via Flickr

New Employees Can Mean Trouble | Managing Team Chemistry

A filled vacancy starts with optimism. The boss is high on what the new employee can add to the team. Existing employees are relieved they didn’t have to absorb more work. 

Bosses usually start with an announcement before the person shows up. Employees hear about the new hire’s capabilities and experiences. They often hear high praise for how s/he will strengthen the team. Enough already! 

New employees mean change.   

Adding someone new to the mix changes its chemistry. A new teammate comes with unknowns like his/her: 

  • Personality traits, moods, ability and willingness to collaborate
  • Work ethic, skills and knowledge, learning curve
  • Personal aspirations, competitiveness, trustworthiness
  • Performance standards, communication style, principles

Existing employees are full of curiosity and questions, even if the new employee is someone they know or know about. Each will feel out the new person in their own way, deciding what kind of relationship they will try to build. In turn, they may also modify or adjust their relationships with others on the team. 

Everyone adjusts their alignments in some way. 

While this is going on, the boss is being watched to figure out: 

  • What is his/her relationship with the new employee?
  • Does the newbie enjoy any favored status?
  • Might the boss change his/her opinion of existing team members based on the way the new employee is accepted?  

By the natural order of things, the team dynamic starts to recalibrate. The pecking order is revisited. When supervisors don’t manage this change, they’re asking for trouble. 

Focus on the team 

Existing employees often feel diminished or even set aside when someone new comes on board. We often feel that we need to compete with this new person to show the boss that we are as good or better. 

The supervisor’s job is to create an environment where employees work effectively together, as a unit. That includes keeping a keen eye on the collective chemistry of the team, intervening when relationships aren’t what they need to be. 

Every time a new employee is added, the chemistry changes. It can be obvious immediately or surface gradually. Supervisors who guide these changes never miss a beat. 

Steps to take 

Smart supervisors take advantage of staff changes to refocus the team by following steps like these:

1. Gather the team together for introductions. 

  • Introduce the new employee and review their role.
  • Have each team member introduce themselves and summarize their role.
  • Comment, as the supervisor, on the value each contributes. 

2. Schedule a team meeting to revisit and update position descriptions. 

  • Explain the importance of keeping position descriptions current.
  • Have employees suggest description changes/additions/clarification.
  • Lead discussion to resolve issues and incorporate revisions.
  • Finalize description updates. 

4. Schedule a team meeting to review the status of work group goals. 

  • Share accomplishments to date and goals at risk.
  • Engage the new and existing employees in discussion about how they can/need to assist/support each other around specific goals.
  • State that you’ll be meeting with the new employee to finalize their individual goals so they align with the work group’s goals. 

5. Where useful, arrange for the new employee to spend time with each team member to learn about their work first-hand. 

The primary chemical element is you 

As supervisors, we are the first chemical element put in the beaker. The way we introduce and engage new employees demonstrates our recognition of how good chemistry can solidify a team. 

Supervisors who don’t understand or care about team chemistry will likely experience an eventual explosion. 

Show your team that you care by the way you manage their chemistry. There’s nothing better than elements that bond together to create something good. Avoid the big bang!  

Photo from Horia Varlan via Flickr


10 Wake-up Call Questions for Employees in Denial

Employees just tune it out. They stop hearing the company’s messages about sagging profits, increased competition, and high operating costs.   

Even as supervisors, we start to believe it’s probably just a scare tactic to get employees to work harder.  So we tune out the implications when our employees need us to lead. 

Look reality in the eye 

No one wants to be caught at work with their proverbial pants down. That means, as supervisors, we need to pay attention to what management is saying. 

As the supervisor, you’re the one expected to communicate what’s going on to your employees. You’re the messenger and sometimes the message isn’t very palatable, even to you. 

Even if your employees act skeptical, push back, or become dismissive, communicating what you can (some things may be proprietary) is a must.  

As a supervisor, your job is to get and keep the attention of your employees. You need to make sure they understand the realities of the marketplace and how they might be affected. 

You are their teacher and guide to their future success. So when they are at risk, you need to focus them on ways they can influence their future. 

Some work groups become particularly vulnerable when a business is feeling the financial squeeze—human resources, marketing, IT, customer service, finance—because some of their services can be subcontracted. 

These employees often feel the need to justify their cost-benefit to the company. Their tendency is to become defensive rather than to take the offense. 

Smart supervisors refocus their employees what their collective value to the company can/will be going forward. They help them self-assess and then reinvent themselves with their eyes wide open. 

Promote inquiry and vigilance. 

Here are ten questions every supervisor should work through routinely with his/her employees to wake up awareness and excite new ideas as part of planning and goal setting, no matter what conditions the company faces. 

In a working session or as part of routinely scheduled meetings, resolve each question through open discussion: 

1. What business are we in? For example, is it… 

  • Delivering training programs or promoting more effective performance?
  • Trouble-shooting software or building a tech savvy workforce?
  • Answering customer questions or building a loyal customer following? 

2. If our work group no longer existed, who would notice or care?  

       Employees in other work groups, customers, regulators, suppliers, no one

3. How are we perceived within and outside the company? What’s our brand? Are we… 

  • Sought-after specialists or just an after-thought
  • Customer-oriented or internally focused
  • Innovative leaders or status quo protectors 

4. Whose support do we need?

       Executive leadership, other department managers, internal clients, key customers,   regulators, media, each other 

5. How do we expand our influence?  

     Increased visibility, relationship building, collaborative activities, high quality work 

6. What do we need to do better?  

     Improve skills, output, processes, communication, trustworthiness, service  

7.  What’s at stake if we don’t retool/reposition ourselves?  

     Dissolution, downsizing, absorption into another department, loss of funding and/or   influence 

8. How much time do we have to get it together?  

     A year, six months, a quarter, asap! 

9. What do we need to do now?  

     Answer our unanswered questions, gather more data, generate more ideas, build a plan, distribute assignments, engage others, implement actions, debrief results, continue to improve

10. Who’s accountable for what? Make assignments.

     You as supervisor, individual employee team members—everyone has a part to play 

Work together—as a team! 

It’s been documented frequently, through workplace studies, that most employees trust what their immediate supervisors say over anyone else in the company. So what and how you tell them make a big difference. 

The more successful you are showing your employees how conditions in the company are likely to impact them, the more engaged and willing they’ll be to follow your lead. Do this and you’ll see resistance decline and teamwork increase.   

Try asking your employees these ten questions. You’ll be amazed at what you hear.

Photo from Minarae via Flickr

No Taste for Team Building? Try A Dish of the Black Eyed Peas!

I always dreaded it—team building training, like the one where you fill out a profile and learn whether you’re a lion or a fox. 

Then you stand around the room with the other “animals” like you and talk about how to work together better. I guess that meant without eating each other for lunch. 

I’ve also been to outdoor courses where everyone collaborates to solve a physical problem, like getting the team to stand together on a wooden box without falling. That was awful for my friend, Joe, a super respectful guy who inadvertently grabbed my breast when I started to fall. He blushed so hard I was afraid he’d pass out. 

Not only did I attend these programs but I also arranged them over the ten years I was the company’s training manager. Sadly, I never saw any sustained team building come about. 

The work builds the team. 

Last week NBC’s Today Show had a “Today Goes Viral” series, designed to drive social media sharing of video clips. The Today Show anchors invited noted YouTube video creators to work their magic with them. 

For the series finale, the Today Show cast and crew came together on their own to film a music video to “I’ve Got a Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas. The video had to be shot in one continuous take, mirroring what had been done by students at the University of Quebec. 

This was a never-done-before undertaking for the Today Show’s150 coworkers. Because the goal was to film it in one uniterrupted take, everybody had to perform their part correctly or they’d have to start over. 

As you will see in the link, staff members wore black t-shirts showing their job titles, had  specific song parts to lip sync, and could “perform” in a way that showcased their personalities.

They were all in it together. As you can see, a lot of great things happened to build their team, allowing each person to make an indelible contribution to something unique. 

Teams thrive when the goal is clear. 

This video experience speaks volumes about team building: 

  • There are no small parts—everyone impacts the end product.
  • Working together generates energy and produces the best result.
  • Self-expression and uniqueness make the outcome richer—so wear that boa, bring your funny hat, ride your unicycle, and turn that backflip.
  • Age excludes no one—the Boomers, Millenials, Gen’s X and Y make it happen together.
  • Trusting in each other to deliver on cue tightens the bond.
  • Celebrating the collective result and recognizing each individual’s contribution create a lasting marker. 

When the music in the video is over, everyone is gathered in Rockefeller Plaza singing a cappella but with a twist. Instead of the Black Eye Peas’ lyric, “Tonight’s gonna be a good night,” the group sang, “Today’s gonna be a good day.” If anything can build a team, that line surely summarizes it.

Take a fresh look 

If your team is flat, resistant, or non-collaborative, try looking at the work rather than the personalities. Most of us do work that can become pretty mundane. But there are things that can bring everyone together. 

Ask yourself, “What excites my staff?” Is it the chance to visit customer sites in small teams? Working together on a new marketing, product, or program idea? Arranging an event to recognize internal customers, a company milestone, or completion of a special project? 

Maybe creating a team commitment to building their collective “business fitness” would be interesting. Coworkers could identify areas they want to grow in, come up with creative ways to get there, and then help each other. Let it become a kind of group employee development commitment,  a “The Biggest Winner” program.  Whatever the strategy, try to build your team around the work that binds people together and enjoy the energy it creates.  Today is gonna be  good day!

What team building experiences have you had? Anything you want to recommend? Thanks.

When You’re Guessing, Say So! | Leadership Honesty

Finally! It’s your break-through assignment—the chance to lead a project that breaks new ground.

Leadership alert!  Find out whether that ground is hard or soft, rocky or sandy, dangerous or solid before you go too far. Figuratively speaking, you’re now the company’s excavator. Time to get fitted for your hard hat!

Everyone’s counting on you! 

New initiatives come with high expectations. There’s often a lot of hype and eagerness around a new effort but shaky consensus about:

  • Scope—how big or small it will be
  • Resources—the money, personnel, and time to be invested
  • Impacts—the effects it will have, both positive and negative, over time
  • Deliverables—the reports, analyses, communication, and products
  • Roll out—when the effort will be completed and implemented 

Once you’re designated project leader, all eyes are on you. You will likely start out assembling an in-house team. You may get to hire independent contractors or collaborate with experts within your industry or in higher ed. Every one you assemble is counting on you to lead the way.

The hard realities 

Getting selected to lead a new project team is a major opportunity to demonstrate your capabilities. It broadens your visibility and expands your brand. So you don’t want to blow this!

There’s pressure because it’s a “new” initiative. No one has led a project like this before. There have been other new projects, but not with the parameters you’re expected to meet.

That means you’re on foreign ground. No one knows exactly how this project needs to be done. You can ask advice from others, but ultimately you have to figure out what to do.

This can be a lonely and unnerving spot to be in. 

What’s a Project Leader to do? 

Provide structure, first. Then provide process. That’s the surest way to keep your team going in the right direction and your eye on what is and isn’t getting done.

This is what you need:

  • A “charter” for the project that is approved by whomever is senior to you, stating the scope, owner (you’re the leader), expected outcomes, your decision-making authority, budget, and deadlines
  • A detailed action plan with specific accountabilities for each team member and deadlines
  • A budget and system for tracking expenditures
  • A reporting mechanism for the team and you to use that keeps the project owner and/or company at large informed 

Everything on a project, however, won’t go according to plan. Things get messy and uncertain.

Draw on your team and your honesty

If you pretend you know what to do (when you don’t), then give a directive and are wrong, you will lose the confidence of your team and boss.

This is what has worked for me at a crossroads:

  • Meet with your team and/or the owner of the project.
  • Summarize the options/choices on the table.
  • Describe the “what if” scenarios you’ve considered
  • Ask for their input
  • State the course of action that you have decided is best.
  • Ask once more for input and then act. 

I have always told both my teams and my boss, when it comes to complex new initiatives, that ”I’m making this up as I go along.” I say this because it’s honest, helps manage the expectations of the team, and motivates everyone to do their best to make things work.

Embrace calculated risk-taking

Breaking new ground means developing something that never existed before. No one knows how it will turn out. It’s the tried and true business best practices that help us find our way.

That’s why our business fitness is so important. The seven smart moves give us the insights and the relationships we need face uncertainties and keep moving ahead with confidence, even when we’re unsure! Now fire up that backhoe!

What missteps have you seen that have affected a new project/program? What should have been done? I always love your comments!