I Like Johnny Cash: Tips for Building Relationships


In a workforce with diverse cultures, lifestyles and ages, there can be a tendency for invisible barriers to separate groups of people from one another, or a single person from the group. Relationships form around personal connections. Rarely do relationships form because you only talk about the work project. Two individuals with children at the same school or who like the same sports team, for example, have something natural to talk about at the beginning of a meeting or in the hallway. These initial connections often lead to other common interests, beliefs or values that bring these individuals together. Because we think we know that person, we have a tendency to give them the benefit of the doubt—like we tend to give ourselves. When we believe that someone is like us, we tend to have higher trust in that person.

When your team is in near constant flux, or you find that a lot of people are not your age or have the same life experiences, it can be difficult to naturally find these common starting points to engage and get to know them on a personal basis. The first step is to have a genuine desire to want to get to know other people, and a willingness to let them get to know you. A recognition of this personal barrier is significant. Only if you are truly willing to make the effort, and do so, will these trusting relationships form.

The most common approach, probably because it is most comfortable approach, to building bridges is asking someone else about themselves. What kind of music do you like? Where do you live? Do you have a family?  However, this approach puts the other person in the spotlight. If this is early in a relationship with you, and especially if they are not sure about how you will respond to their answer, they will tend to be very hesitant, thus probably leaving the wrong impression.

It’s better to be the role model by first sharing something simple about yourself and then working to build deeper connections from that introduction. Given the wide variety of options, is likely that your interests in music or movies, are not shared by everyone—or even by anyone for that matter. Therefore, we need to expand and deepen what we share to find that connection.  

“I like Johnny Cash”.

This interest will likely resonate with very few people. However, if I work to explain why I have the interest, then we start to make connections.

“I like Johnny Cash music because it reminds me of my childhood driving with my dad. He always listened to old-time country music from his twenties.”  

While they might not be interested in Johnny Cash, they might be interested in knowing about my relationship with my dad or where I was driving. If you take a risk and offer something a little more in-depth, they will likely reciprocate, maybe to the level you shared, maybe a little less, maybe more.

There are so many interests and life situations (upbringing, family structures, religions, culture and language) that it is sometimes difficult to relate on the surface. There are a limited number of emotions. If we are willing to share how the interests and the life situations make us feel, we are much more likely to make a connection with someone we think might not be like us at all.

If this article has you feeling nostalgic, here’s a little Johnny Cash for you.


Get To Know Your Boss’ Boss


In sales, the mantra is “know your customers’ customers”. Roughly translated, this means that a good sales person helps the customer to solve their problems, and the salesperson’s customers’ problem is their customers. The same mantra holds true for an employee and their relationship with their boss. The purpose of any employee is to solve their boss’ problems. And what is your boss’ biggest problem? Their biggest problem is their boss. To maximize your value as an employee, you should get to know your boss’ boss.

Your boss spends significant time thinking about their boss—as much or more as you think about your boss. Bosses are not really problems, but bosses do create problems that need to be solved. Bosses create good problems like: let’s increase our sales by 10% this year; let’s get this product out the door by tomorrow; or set of a goal of reducing product loss by half.

Getting to know your boss’ boss can help to understand the motivation behind the requests your boss makes of you and your team. Why do we need increase sales by 10 percent? Likely this goal is a response to a “problem” created by your boss’ boss. The increase in sales by 10% is your boss’ response to that problem. By understanding your boss’ boss, you better understand the priorities, motivations and stressors of your boss. By just understanding that your boss has a boss too, this helps you to empathize and more easily support your boss’ requests. Taken further, however, you can help your boss to be better at their job. When you are able to help your boss identify the problems, that is, needs of their boss, before your boss does (or when they don’t), you are making a huge impact on your customer—that is, on your boss.  

In sales, it’s often the case that if you make your customer more successful (and they understand your role in that success), they will buy more from you. What is the equivalent for an employee and their boss?  As an employee, if you make your boss more successful (and they understand your role in that success), they will ask more from you, give you more opportunities to do more of what you want. To start, you must first accept that your job is ultimately to make your boss successful, and then do good work yourself that supports the team. Finally, go to the next level to look for ways to help your boss shine with their boss. This might mean giving your insight on what you think their boss is looking for, helping them to prepare for a meeting with their boss, or it might be promoting your boss’ success to their boss, even when it’s not asked for. There is a balance between doing your boss’ job and helping your boss do their job better. In most cases. At a minimum, never (only in the rarest of cases) make your boss look bad to their boss. This never goes well for you.

Some people are uncomfortable with this perspective of “helping your boss be successful” as it seems self-serving—and it is when done with such intention. However, “helping your boss to be successful” is also the essence of service leadership. By serving others, you are helping them and helping yourself. No salesperson would deny that.  


It’s Not A Teenage Horror Movie


Sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, adrenaline swelling the veins in your head.  Are you with a bunch of teenage friends walking into a deserted cabin in the woods?  

No, I’m sharing a recent description of how someone felt walking into their performance review!

Like walking into a deserted cabin in the woods, too many people are afraid of what they might find—fear of the unknown–when they walk into their supervisor’s office for the performance review. The statement, “Can I give you some feedback?”, should not elicit fear and loathing in either the receiver or the giver.

How do we avoid eliciting such fear of the unknown in ourselves or in others?  Know the expectations of performance.

Imagine one of your team members, as a growth activity, provides a critical presentation with upper management. You are present at the meeting. In your opinion the presentation does not resonate with the upper management (your bosses). Of course, you feel obligated to “give some feedback”.

What does your team member fear as they walk into your “cabin in the woods”?  If you were not clear about the expectations of that presentation, they fear the unknown. If you were clear about the expectations of that presentation, they may have emotion, but they are well prepared for what is in the “cabin”. Importantly, when expectations are clearly understood, there’s no need to even say, “Can I give you some feedback?”.  Your team member will likely already know they did not meet expectations and will come to you.

If expectations of performance were not clearly understood, and your perceptions of the performance differed, there’s additional trouble. In this situation, you should be nervous. And the other person will most likely walk away feeling as if the feedback was unfair. Unfair because the expectations were not clear from the beginning. When any feedback is given without proper expectations from the start, the feedback is interpreted as “you were pleased or you were dissatisfied”, and your satisfaction is not very useful for maximizing the growth potential of an assignment or improving performance.

With clear expectations from the beginning, it’s almost possible to avoid feedback sessions altogether. With clear expectations, it’s easy for each team member to give themselves feedback. Let them come to you with their measure and ask you for help where they want it.



Maximizing Your ROI on Training Time


Team members are asking for training on new skills that are not even in their job description, or they want to take a course on persuasive communication.  

What is your immediate reaction?

Are they not happy with their job?

That takes too much time away from their work.

They never learn anything anyway.

If your reactions sound anything like this, you should take a look at your role as their manager.

1. The manager plays a critical role to maximize the return on investment (ROI) for training. Too often managers are resistant at worst–apathetic at best–about training for themselves and their team.Your team member may actually want training because they do love their job and want to do more of it and do it better. Don’t assume that learning is a reflection of dissatisfaction. Ask your employees what they would like to be learning about, how they think they will use it. The greatest way to support training and development is to ask these questions before they ask you.

If the subject matter is totally unrelated to their job, be reminded that they won’t be happy in their role forever. They will eventually look for new opportunities, and they will take them with or without your support. In the end, you will take great pride in having filled the ranks of your company with really great people. Wouldn’t that be a great reputation to have?

2. Training and development is an investment of time. But like putting money in the bank, it is not a waste of time. It’s not a waste if you actually invest it properly and enough of it. Before training, use a short period of time to set goals with your team member as to what they want to learn and what you would like to learn. There is a lot to be learned and a lot to be forgotten in a full-day or multiple day program. If they go in with goals, there a pretty high likelihood those goals will be met through, and the impact on that individual and on your immediate team will be greater. Invest a bit more time after the meeting to find out if their goals were met. Learn something for yourself about the content and quality of the program they attended.

Training and development does not have to be time out of the office. With online learning, coaching, and mentoring, it’s easy to get more information without leaving the work site. However, don’t be tempted to make learning and development something for employees to do “on their own time”. Give them the space and time to do these activities in the boundaries of their work time. Let them freely choose when the best time is to take advantage of independent learning.

3. It’s hard to go through a training or development program and not learn something. It’s very easy, however, to forget it. When the training and development period is over, the emphasis is invariably to catch up on phone calls and emails and “get back to work”. Training and development is work. As a manager, it is your imperative to encourage this attitude and give the team member a bit more time after the out-of-office period to summarize what they have learned, create an action plan and even share it with you and your entire team. In turn this encourages others to take continue their learning and development. This extra bit of learning time and interest will go a very long way to applying what is learned, because that is the true demonstration that something is learned.


The House is on Fire


Q: What do these three things have in common?

Earnings report

Checking the batteries in the smoke detector

Performance reviews and goal setting

A: They all happen on an annual basis. And that’s it.

There’s about as much connection between an individual’s performance and the annual earnings report as there is between the smoke detector and annual earnings.

Yes, an individual’s performance throughout the year has some sort of impact on the annual earnings. Unless it’s the CEO (and that’s questionable), can we really connect someone’s performance to the annual earnings outcome? No.

The annual review is merely convenience—we do this once a year—like changing the batteries. But annual reviews are even less useful. Done only annually, reviews don’t prevent any fires, and they are not indicators of smoke. If there’s a problem and we wait a year to look for it, the house is already burned down! If an employee is burned by the annual review, then it’s too late to save them or your bottom line. Performance reviews should be able to detect smoke, not tell you the house is on fire.

Use a more natural cycle of your business. So, what is the right pace of performance reviews? Quarterly is better, but still feels artificial. Every business has natural cycles to their year or stages to their project. Insert performance reviews in those natural breaks or after every project. Team and individual reviews should be an integrated part of every initiative and should be mandatory. If the initiative takes longer than 3 months, then find a natural place to check in. Don’t wait until the project falls short or fails in order to figure out what’s going wrong.

Collect more and better data. The value of annual earnings reports is the ability to compare earnings year over year. How much value, though, is there to compare this year’s employee performance to last year’s employee performance? Do you actually have good enough metrics to tell the difference? A collection of smaller performance reviews provides that comparative data. Having 5, 6 or 8 performance reviews throughout the year allows for finer and more detailed metrics and allows for comparison from one review to the next.

Don’t be locked into your company’s review process. Even if your organization still only collects data one time per year from you, you are not inhibited from collecting it any time you want. The more you stop, reflect and modify, the better your performance review process will be and the better your team’s performance will be—which is the purpose of the reviews.


Call It What You Want


Last week’s newsletter on more rapid decision-making resonated with many readers. Some comments about rapid decision-making included the phrase, “fail fast”. I found in follow-up replies that many are uncomfortable with this phrase. They were even more uncomfortable with “fail fast, fail often”. Apparently, no one wants to fail. Of course not. Let’s look more deeply at what this phrase is supposed to mean. You can then call it what you like.  

Associated with agile, the fail fast concept is probably most familiar to those in software development:

“in systems design, a fail-fast system is one which immediately reports at its interface any condition that is likely to indicate a failure (1).”

The general approach is to test the software code as soon as possible. If it’s not doing what you think it needs to do, then make changes before moving on. Don’t build more wrong on top of wrong.

Likely, because many startups are software companies, fail fast started and has become an overused phrase associated with the startup culture. In this application, fail fast is intended to mean that:

“businesses should undertake bold experiments to determine the long-term viability of a product or strategy, rather than proceeding cautiously and investing years in a doomed approach (1).”

In this case, the company undertakes a bold experiment on (read tests) a product or strategy. If the product or strategy is not right, they make a change before moving on, avoiding building too many resources into the wrong product or strategy. You can probably see the parallel.

So, what if you are not in software development or in a startup? In an attempt to be more creative, innovative and fast, large established companies often talk about having a startup mentality and bring this jargon along without teaching individuals in the company what it really means and how to apply it.

Fail fast isn’t about the big decisions, it’s about the little decisions. Note the relative scale in both examples above—the assessments are done on a small part of the whole. The company is not taking a bold experiment on the whole company—only one part of the company—a product or a strategy. The software is tested as soon as possible, not when it is complete.

How long do you spend working on a vision, a set of strategies or a project plan before you put it out to your group? Are you trying get it perfect first? Are you afraid to be wrong? Do you find that you become overly invested in your ideas because “I spent so much time on this”? This is an example of not failing fast. Do you find you wait until you’ve spent a week collecting data before you ask someone if you are doing it right? This is an example of not failing fast.

As soon as you think you have a few ideas, or you’ve given the new data collection process a good effort, get some feedback. Ask others if you are on the right track or if they see any opportunities to improve. So, you learn you are reporting data in the incorrect units. Good to know. Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to correct a week’s worth of data?

There’s no formula for when to get feedback. Ask for feedback on potentially small problems before being wrong would be a big problem.

Try calling it “Frequent Feedback”

Fail fast is about learning fast and modifying fast, not about quitting fast.

When a company learns a product is not quite right, they don’t close the company. They probably don’t even abandon the product. They likely modify the product based on what they learned. If a software developer finds a problem in today’s code, they don’t throw it away and start over. They usually find the error and edit. The editing is not random. The editing is based on what they learned from testing the software.

In the same way, when you put out various versions of your strategy, you will get feedback, and you will modify the strategy according to the feedback. You will not quit your job, just throw it all away and start over, or make random changes.

You are asking for the feedback in order to learn something. Be open to the feedback and be prepared to change. You do not have to agree with the feedback (you are the Decider, they are the Consulted). However, if you find that you are not willing to pivot your approach because it would require you to alter too much previous work, this is an example of not failing fast. If you feel like you’ve invested too much time in the process to change your mind, this is an example of not failing fast.  

Trying calling it “Early Learning” or “Directed Modification”

You are not alone in finding this  “Fail Fast” difficult.  In the book, Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future, authors Leonard A. Schlesinger and Charles F. Kiefer (2) suggest.

“In the face of an unknown future, entrepreneurs act, more specifically, they:

  • Take a small, smart step
  • Pause to see what they learned by doing so; and
  • Build that learning in to what they do next.”

How about getting feedback today? Just share what you are working on with someone and ask for their feedback.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fail-fast
  2. Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future, 2012


Consensus– The Silent Killer


In the long-drawn out attempt to achieve agreement on a decision, your opportunity has died.

A common outcome of flattened and complex organizational structures is the tendency toward gaining consensus before taking action. The organizational structure itself does not inherently require consensus-style decision making. Rather it is the individual working in these organizational structures that feels the need to achieve consensus, because more people are aware of the decisions. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the “need for consensus” becomes a cover for procrastination resulting from a need for more information; fear of making the wrong decision, or fear of political ramifications of the decision. Consensus is a way to disperse accountability for a decision across a group—to not take responsibility for a decision. My decision becomes our decision.

The downside of consensus decisions is the time it takes to achieve the decision, and the final often-compromised decision tends to be less than the best decision. The timing is wrong and, often, so is the solution. Of course, there are benefits to involving others in a decision—first ideas, biases and groupthink are challenged; accuracy of the choice is often improved; outcomes can be more creative, and generally a greater level of commitment is achieved.

Having more people involved in making a decision does not mean that everyone has to actually make the decision. For most decisions there should only be one decision-maker—and that person is the one who is accountable for the decision. The key difference between participation and consensus is the timing of others’ involvement.

Consider the players in a decision; how and when they should be involved:

Decider—that’s you. The one person who actually makes the decision. As the decider, you are accountable for quality of the decision (what and when you decide) and implementation too. After the decision is made, there are:

Approver(s)— almost always there’s going to be someone who needs to approve your decision. It’s not your peers, or your team who approves it. This is your boss or your customer.

Informed—in a complex organization, communication is critical. These individuals are to be informed of your decision, especially when it impacts their future decisions. The informed should also include your consultants (see below) so they know how you used their input.

Executor(s)—a sub-group of the informed, this is the person or the persons who will actually carry out the decision. The executor can be the decider (you) and/or one or more consultants. Consulting the executors is pretty good way to increase their buy-in.

None of these 4 groups are mutually exclusive. You, however, are the only decider.

For the purpose of emphasis, the consulted are discussed last. However, the consulted are the first to be involved in a decision. Clarity around the roll of the consulted is where we separate group participation from consensus decision-making; where we achieve the benefits of involving others and of faster decision-making.

Consulted—these individuals are involved prior to the decision. The decider consults others to collect data, which might include the consulteds’ opinions. The decider must be persuadable by data and opinions but is not obligated to be persuaded.

Don’t confuse consulting others with giving them permission to be a decider. Keep it clear in your mind and in theirs. Consultation of others can create ambiguity for the decider, which may drive a decider to not consult at all. This choice in-turn results in all of the benefits of participation to be lost.

It is critical in a conversation with consultants that the decider allows individuals to give their insight, but it does not make them a decider. By consulting with others, you gain the benefits of being challenged; making more accurate and creative decisions, and increased buy-in on the final decision. Consulting others prior to a decision does take some time, but it does not impede progress like it does trying to get everyone to agree to a decision before a decision can be made.


Kids These Days


I don’t think I learned about it in Junior High, and if I ever did, I don’t remember. Helping us to write a letter to the editor this weekend, my youngest daughter pulled out a little philosophy to teach her parents about making a persuasive argument. Her words from Aristotle clearly define the properties of influential communication that all leaders need to follow. Ethos, Pathos, Logos.

Ethos in modern terms is the leader’s credibility. Credibility is based on three factors: Competence, good intention and empathy. Ethos is usually described as being achieved during the presentation through verbal and non-verbal gestures. This might apply if the speaker is a total stranger (writer, guest speaker or actor). However, for a leader, the audience is bringing in lots of information about you already. Therefore, credibility is achieved (or lost) before you start speaking. You will not overcome that judgement by dressing up or suddenly choosing sympathetic words in this one moment. Persuasion begins long before you need it.  

In the case of pathos, the leader must know and be sensitive to the value and belief systems of the team. What is important to them? What is their emotional state about the situation? What does this change, for example, threaten?  We often refer to this as empathy–the ability to relate to someone else’s situation. Importantly, feelings affect judgement. Which means that pathos comes before logic—emotion before logic. Too often we start with the logical argument and have not prepared the mind to receive it.

The logical argument is the last and least important aspect. Given a belief in your competence and intention, and your careful attention to my emotional state, I am ready to follow you. Your logical statements need only tell me how and where to get started.


….To Love and to Cherish, Till Negative Feedback Do Us Part


Negative feedback may not work like we think it does. Neuroscience has already us shown that our brain perceives social threats in the same way as it does physical threats. Being social animals, our brain’s response to physical threat and social threat is fight or flight.

A recent study at Harvard Business School used a real company to follow 300 employees who received the normal peer-feedback that we all receive at work. Their observations were that the response to negative feedback was, whenever possible, to go work with someone else who would confirm their own positive view of themselves, their ideas or performance. This is not surprising. The normal human response is to surround ourselves with people whom we feel less threatened—no matter how subtle the threat.

The idea behind performance reviews, and feedback in general, is that to grow and improve, we must hear about those negative aspects we may or may not know about ourselves. The working hypothesis is that brutal honesty motivates us to improve. When in fact, given the choice, there are multiple outcomes of receiving negative feedback—like choosing to work with someone else. If we can’t run, we likely fight, or, we are learning, the inability to escape is a source of stress that can lead to anxiety and depression.

It’s not to say there’s no value to negative feedback, but negative feedback must be offered in the right context. Some practices might suggest balancing positive and negative feedback; the old sandwich method of positive-negative-positive, or even the 10 to 1 ratio of positive to negative due to the weight with which we perceive negative feedback. It’s not about balance or keeping tally.  

Rather, we need to know our value to the organization, the team, to the person giving the feedback in order to use negative feedback as a motivator. Managers, and all of us, need to regularly express the value that others bring to our work, life and the relationship whatever the form. Then when you give me feedback, I am less likely to run or fight.

This is the general idea of personal commitments. In the context of a healthy marriage, for example, negative feedback is taken in the way it was offered—as an opportunity to improve. Not only is there trust in the relationship, there is a relatively positive and affirming relationship in which the feedback is given. When I am told to pick up my socks, I don’t go looking for another partner.

A neat part of this study was to allow people to write for 10 minutes about the values that were most important to them. When this was done prior to receiving negative feedback, the shopping around effect of negative feedback almost completely disappeared. Affirmation of ourselves is always genuine (in our mind). Which shows that our affirmation of others must be also be genuine for the threat of negative feedback to be reduced.

The compounding problem of running away from negative feedback toward those who will not criticize is that we will never receive the necessary feedback needed to improve. We know that when everyone in the group thinks the same, there is never improvement—which is one form of change.

It’s a paradox. For negative feedback to work, an employee needs to feel both valuable, and a need to improve.

For more on affirmation and appreciation, see “The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace” by Gary Chapman and Paul White.


Own or Lease


A recent survey by the American Management Academy indicates that one-fourth of all employees do not take “ownership” of their job. Much is written about how managers can help increase that number. I’d like to turn that statistic around and say that three-quarters of employees take ownership in their job—and write a little about too much ownership.

What is ownership? The idea of ownership of your job is ownership in a psychological sense, not in the sense of employee-owned. When an employee owns their role it is because they have a sense of belonging in that role. It fits them like a glove either because the role has evolved to fit their needs and style, or the employee has adapted to fit the role. They feel natural. In a similar sense of feeling natural, ownership is increased when the work done in that role feels aligned with a larger purpose of the team or of the organization. If a role doesn’t fit, we don’t really want to accept or admit that it is ours. Ownership comes after some time in a role, when there is sense of confidence, a sense of control. Collectively, this is autonomy. When an employee is free to decide what, how and when to do various tasks in their role (as it fits the larger purpose, of course) they have a sense of ownership.

The benefits of ownership are that employees will give more thought, take more care, be more motivated, take more initiative and take responsibility when they own their role. There is an internal sense that “I have to do this right”. These employees are proud of the work they do. Employees with ownership will take accountability for making sure the work gets done right, because they are also willing to accept the accountability when it doesn’t. We want that.

The downside of ownership however, is that it’s hard to give up something that gives all of these great feelings. Eventually, owners can become too independent from other team members, and personally too dependent on their role. If someone has too much ownership, this person is less willing to hear anyone else’s suggestions for modification of how they do their job. When it comes to organizational change, the “loss of ownership” is an often-heard reason for resistance, even if those words are not used. The words used are “I don’t know where I belong.” “I don’t know how my work fits in anymore.” “I don’t have any control.” It is often those who have been in a role for the longest time that have the most difficulty with the organizational disruption—or giving up their role. “I own this role—who are you to take it away?”

Striking a balance between the advantages and disadvantages of ownership is not simple. The best metaphor I can think of is that employees should see it as leasing the role. While the car lease is not the ideal metaphor, it guides the start of a conversation.  In a lease, the role and its responsibilities in all senses belongs to the employee for the length of the contract, but there is a time limit to the contract. On the upside if they take good care of it, the employee can trade it in for a newer and better model.

Do those who lease feel less “ownership” than owners?  Would you feel less responsible and accountable in your role if you knew you would have to give it up in 3, 5 or 10 years and do something else? Would this be healthier for organizations?