Smile ‘em In and Smile ‘em Out

I was reminded the other day of a story of an elderly woman who would stand at the entrance to her church on Sunday mornings before and after the worship service. She was there every single week simply smiling at everyone who entered. When the pastor asked her what she was doing, she said, “I’m smiling them in and smiling them out. Doesn’t everybody need that?”

This story has stuck with me is because it illustrates one of the universal principles for determining whether anyone is going to be a good match for a job. The people who work most productively with others are those seek to work collaboratively. Therefore, it is essential that you screen for this attribute during the selection process, regardless of the position.

The sentiment, “Don’t hire people and teach them to smile. Hire People who smile,” has been attributed to a number of people. But regardless who first said it, embracing this principle is critical to ensuring productive, long-term hires, especially in customer care positions.

One airline with which I am familiar, used to use to an interesting strategy for screening flight attendants. They would gather groups of applicants into a circle. Then they would say, “Before we get started, let’s have everyone get up a take a minute to tell us about yourself. You can talk about anything you would like to share.”

This, of course, would unsettle some of the applicants. Few people like to be put on the spot like that. But what the applicants didn’t know was that the evaluators in the room weren’t watching the presentations. They were watching the audience. Predictably, some applicants would smile, pay attention and encourage those who were speaking. Others would glance at their smart phones, check their appearance, or generally grow bored with the process.

Which applicants would you want as flight attendants serving your customers? The airline felt the same way. Those with the “others-focused” demeanor were the ones to be hired. How can you adapt this strategy for use in your screening process?

Applicants can have all the qualifications in the world. But if they are not others-focused, they can be an energy drain on those around them and the firm in general. Look around. What can you do in your environment to promote this practice?

The Attributes of an Empowered Employee

Every day, each employee you supervise makes hundred decisions to order to resolve problems and complete tasks. Most are routine and have been executed many times before. This repetition becomes the mastery that’s necessary to navigate the daily work. Then there are those unexpected obstacles that can disrupt your momentum. We all fear making a wrong decision at times, even though we pretty much knew what to react. Most of us possess the confidence move on to a successful solution.

Some people, however, struggle to adapt. Some of this apprehension can be attributed to a lack of confidence to solve problems and make decisions. So, how can you help these individuals develop this confidence? The effort comes down to one word — empower.

The best performers in any work environment exude confidence. They fully believe they are capable of dealing with whatever issue comes up. What does it mean to feel empowered? First, it’s the ability to discern. This means examining the elements of a situation, evaluating what needs to be accomplished and determining the necessary steps. The ability to discern evolves over time as the result of trial and error.

Second, feeling empowered is the ability to manage uncertainty. Uncertainty produces discomfort. Top performers become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Any significant decision involves some uncertainty.

Third, people who feel empowered possess the confidence to recover from what goes wrong. Some decisions don’t work out. Top performers accept that you don’t go through life making the perfect decision every time. When things go wrong, they take a step back, evaluate what happened, and come up with an alternative.

Fourth, empowerment is the confidence to act independently. The best decision-makers take the initiative without asking for permission. They examine the environment for what needs to be done. They think three and four steps ahead. Because of this, they are more likely to be rewarded with positive outcomes. They have a sense of perspective in situations that others may find overwhelming.

The element that connects all of these attributes is confidence. More of society is focusing on blame these days when something goes wrong. As a result, more people hesitate before making decisions They don’t want to suffer embarrassment if a decision goes wrong. In the process, they seek permission before acting, even if they are clear on what to do. This is especially true of those just entering workplace.  So, how can you help people feel empowered? Here are three tactics to try:

Begin by providing clear parameters – Each time you delegate a responsibility, ask the person to explain the instructions back to you. While they’ll get most of it right, you’ll probably find gaps in their understanding. Go back and review what they missed. Reinforce the concept with a bit of practical application. This encourages them to ask questions. Remember, asking “What questions do you have?” is more effective than asking, “Do you have any questions?” Asking “what” lets them know that questions are expected.

Provide the authority – Sometimes, we delegate responsibility and just assume the person understands the parameters about spending money, making exceptions and so forth. Then we become frustrated when they ask lots of questions. Instead, express authority using these three steps:

  • First, explain that they may feel some uncertainty about making these decisions, at least initially. You might say something like, “You’re probably going to feel a little uncomfortable making these decisions at first. I know I did. But don’t worry, I’ve got your back.” This will ease their concern.
  • Second, provide examples of the decisions where they may hesitate. Show them the process for resolving them. If you have worked this job in the past, make a list of the typical decisions you made and explain how you made them. Create a matrix or cheat sheet they can consult when they’re working independently.
  • Third, step back and watch what happens. It is a natural urge to jump in when you see someone about to make a mistake. Resist that temptation. If they begin to believe that someone will save them every time something is about to go wrong, they will become fearful of acting or become careless.

Reinforce the process – Rehearsing and reinforcement are critical. Some people will embrace these principles right away. Others will take more time. This is generally more about emotion than intellect. In other words, they understand what they’re supposed to do, but uncertainty is holding them back. How do you get them to do this? Try these tactics:

  • Tell them that you understand their apprehension. Everybody’s been there. Reinforce that you’ve got their back. If something goes wrong, you’ll work together with them to resolve the situation.
  • Work with them on each of the processes they need to master. A good way to do this is by posing situations and case studies, based on their experiences and your experiences.
  • Observe as they start to implement. Check in periodically, but be careful not to make the decision. It is a good sign when they start pushing you away, because they have built the confidence to act on their own.

When the people around you feel empowered, they will make smarter decisions and feel inspired to work confidently and independently.

 

Managing a Boss Who Makes YOUR Decisions

Casey, a young colleague of mine, complained recently that her supervisor continually makes decisions about issues he has delegated to her. This is includes such things as spending her budget and forgetting to tell her and making commitments on her time and letting her know after it’s already be scheduled.

Since this supervisor held her position immediately before being promoted, he knows it inside and out. As a result, it is second nature for him to simply act, rather than taking the time to nurture her development. Besides, many colleagues still think of him as being in that role. So, they still go to him with their issues. Being a new professional, she reasonably assumed that he would act in a logical manner. If he delegated a task, shouldn’t he let her complete it? Unfortunately, that is not happening in this case.

Casey is getting an uncomfortable dose of reality about one of the vagaries of management – the boss who doesn’t let go. This type of scenario is not confined to entry-level jobs, of course. It can happen at all levels. It just gets more nuanced further up within the organization.

Sadly, I’ve heard this story too many times. The incidence of less-than-consistent supervision pervades lots of organizations. As a result, we sometimes break the spirit of enthusiastic newcomers. If this happens enough, these emerging contributors develop a jaded sense about supervision in general. Over time, this becomes very costly if not addressed through effective management training and coaching.

Like you, I feel for Casey. We have all had to navigate at least one manager and their inconsistent ways. So, here’s what I suggested. See if you agree.

Begin by taking a breath. Casey needs to be careful not to let her frustration overtake her perspective. No one likes to have their authority undercut or circumvented, especially when it comes to scheduling and budget. That said, this is an evolving relationship. Since her supervisor held her position just prior to being promoted, she needs to accept that there will be difficulties like this until they reach an understanding about boundaries.

Have some empathy. Since he was recently promoted from her position, this makes him a new supervisor. As much as she is stretching to learn her position, he is stretching to learn how to be a boss. Those new to supervision sometimes lapse back into doing the job they were comfortable with. Why? Because it provides a sense of comfort and security. Unfortunately, it also gets in the way of establishing the parameters necessary for a healthy supervisory relationship. If Casey is patient, much of this issue will probably subside as her boss gets busy with his new responsibilities.

Define the specific issues needing to be resolved. Casey will need to prioritize her concerns. She’s not going to be able to “fix” her supervisor. These issues are best handled one at a time. If she marches into his office with a list of concerns, it won’t go well. She needs to choose her battles. Which is more important right now, for instance, control over her personal schedule or control over her budget? If she is observant, by the way, she can learn about how to manipulate the budget, something she probably has little experience with.

Develop an approach that is supervisor-centered. While Casey is the one with the issues, she is asking her supervisor to change his ways. This is not something easily accomplished. We are all a product of our habits and routines. She’s going to have to convince him that these changes will be for his own good. It will save him time. It will reduce his heartburn. It will provide opportunities for him to establish better relationships with the other people he supervises. It will also make him look good when his boss sees that Casey is thriving in her job independently.

Keep your eye on the bigger picture. This is the first of what will be many supervisory relationships Casey will experience. Each one is a learning experience. Patience can be in short supply among new professionals anxious to make a difference. The best leaders and decision-makers discover that preparing well, anticipating others moves, and supporting their bosses priorities is the best way to navigate organizational culture and advance their own careers. Casey can either embrace this or resist it. Hopefully, she will embrace it.

What do you think? Is my advice on target? What would you add? What would you modify? I, and she, would like to know. Comment on the post or e-mail me at bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net.

Managing Decision Fatigue: Sources – Symptoms – Solutions

You probably know the feeling – it’s mid-afternoon and you’re just tired of thinking. Or maybe you’re in the middle of a meeting and you’re beginning to zone out. Perhaps you’re in the sixth virtual conversation of the day and you’re paying more attention to everyone’s background than you are to the decisions being discussed. Maybe you’re in the supermarket staring at the toothpaste and wondering why all these choices are necessary.

Decision fatigue has become the new drain on today’s daily performance. Truth is, decision fatigue has always been around because it is the result of what happens when glucose levels in the brain become depleted. But in recent years, the impact of this mental drain has become so much more intense because of the number of decisions we are compelled to make every waking minute.

Can you can you successfully manage the decision fatigue draining your energy and impairing your thinking?  Yes! To do so, however, it helps to examine both the sources and symptoms first. Only then can we discuss solutions. Allow me to do so using a three-step framework: Sources – Symptoms – Solutions.

The Sources of Decision Fatigue

Every time you make a decision, your brain consumes a bit of the blood glucose (sugar energy) produced by the body from the foods you eat. Deciding whether to turn left or right in the parking lot consumes little glucose. Analyzing data and producing a report consumes a lot more. This is why you feel drained after doing so. It’s also why you shouldn’t make significant purchasing decisions after focusing on an important task. Your brain won’t have the glucose energy to maintain proper focus to make a disciplined choice. The sources of decision fatigue fall into five categories:

First, there is work, which is composed of all the decisions you make during the day. This includes everything from significant choices to nuisance decisions such as navigating phone menus, clicking out of browser pop-ups, declining “convenience” options built into software applications and endless updates that developers promise will improve our user experience. (yeah, right!) On top of this, the pace of work, for many, has become more pressure-filled because of our 24/7/365 society. The same is true because of globalization and the endless demands for instant outcomes. Mix in the general competition for attention from social media and other forms of digital messaging and the brain has trouble processing this constant procession of decisions, both large and small.

Second, there are consumer sources. This consists of everything you buy, from food and personal care products to Netflix packages, apparel, big screen TVs and the car or truck you drive. Frankly, it’s business’ job to sell you the products and separate you from your money. The number of ways they attempt to do this, however, has exploded over the past few years. Research indicates that consumers don’t like too many choices, but it also shows people buy more when they’re confused. This is why your head hurts when attempting to purchase complex items like a cable subscription.

Third, there is social media. This includes all the platforms most of us use daily to connect with each other and keep up on what they have to say. These applications have become such an integral part of life for so many, they deserve their own category. Millions have been invested in making sure that users remain continually engaged, whether it is the never-ending scroll feature or the continual pop-ups that offer assistance, advertisements or the diversions we have come to know as click-bait. Add to this a design that ensures you will never see the same page display a second time, and these companies have created billions of users afraid to close the app. Each one of these sessions, of course, includes hundreds of decisions about what to read, what to click, and how to respond.

Fourth, there is news and entertainment. These have blended together so much that they really fall into the same category. As much as entertainment should be a source of relaxation, research has shown that the overwhelming number of choices confuses viewers resulting a sort of mental surrender for many. When it comes to news, it is important to remember that CNN, FOX, print media and the others are NOT in the business of keeping us informed. They are in the business of making money. Hence, the long-time industry motto, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Bad news, polarization and stories with manipulated narratives stress readers and viewers resulting in decision fatigue. At the same time, there is a sense of being left out if you don’t keep up.

Finally, there’s You and Others, or relationships. This category includes family, friends, colleagues and everyone else with whom you relate on a regular basis. Each of these relationships requires its own set of decisions based on how you interact, along with past experience. Each one of these decisions requires the brain to consider dozens of factors, consuming boatloads of glucose, especially for those relationships you find more challenging. Just as a large report or presentation can consume a lot of sugar energy, the same is true with the lengthy or intense conversations you have with one or more people over a beer. At the end, you feel tired of thinking because your brain has had to pay attention while developing what to say in response, based on your past experience with these individuals.

As mentioned before, many of these decisions have been a part of life since the dawn of time. But in recent years we have added social media, the options that come with menu-driven software, and an explosion of consumer choices in pretty much every product category. According to research from Roberts Wesleyan College, adults are now making an average of 35,000 decisions per day. As a result, there are five symptoms that hinder our thinking and impair our daily performance.

The Symptoms of Decision Fatigue

First, there is continuous partial attention, which forces our minds to constantly dart back and forth from micro-decision to micro-decision, each one costing us a bit of glucose energy. This darting becomes cumulative over time and the reason why we wonder what happened to the productivity of the day. Have you ever said to yourself, “I know I made a lot of decisions, but I didn’t really accomplish anything?” When the brain is not given a change to replenish itself, glucose levels become so depleted that you can actually feel your thinking shutting down.

Safe Decision Syndrome is the fear of making any decision that might result in a mistake, an unfortunate outcome, or perhaps correction or discipline by a supervisor. With the number of decisions we are required to make these days, the possibility of this happening has gone way up. Those who have been “burned” by one or more of these situations become overly cautious about making any decision that is even tinged with uncertainty. Most times, they just stop unless they have explicit permission to act.

Third, there is menu-driven thinking, which is an over-dependence on digital cues. The advent of computer software has brought with it increasingly sophisticated ways of guiding, some would say manipulating, our thinking and choices.  Whether it is telephone menus, airline reservation sites, or the screen in your car’s dashboard, we are thinking less and being led more. Some might argue that menu-driven thinking reduces the need to think, thereby saving mental energy. The price of this, however, is a deficit in creative and critical thinking especially among many of those coming of age in this digital society. When they are compelled to make decisions with an uncertain outcome, the associated stress of doing so consumes a tremendous amount of glucose.

Fourth, there is the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). This has become a juggernaut in both social media and marketing. The fact that a sizeable number of people interrupt their sleep to check their mobile devices illustrates the way FOMO has become a major factor in fostering decision fatigue. As with any other digital interaction, the fear of missing out requires dozens of decisions throughout the day, each one consuming a bit of the blood glucose so essential for attention and concentration.

Finally, there is the sense of manipulation we develop when we feel like we’re being led to a particular outcome, even though we’re being told we have complete control. Sadly, this has become pervasive throughout society because of digital technology. As a result, we expend more blood glucose trying to game the systems that are trying to maneuver us into pre-ordained choices. Having to anticipate these processes for even simple purchases or decisions draws our focus and energy away for more significant issues. Feeling like you’re settling or surrendering results in an underlying sense of distrust in all these systems.

The Solutions to Decision Fatigue

Over the past several years, I’ve identified more than 30 strategies for battling decision fatigue and continue to discover more as I interview effective decision-makers. Here are three to get you started.

First, begin each day with something that will you give a sense of completion. Admiral William McRaven has become known for his ten rules learned during Navy Seal training. The first of these is “make your bed,” a simple task but a good way to start the day. For me, it’s posting an inspiring thought on Linked-In. Others with whom I have spoken have a ritual that helps center their thinking before diving into what needs to be done. What do you do every morning to top off your energy before commencing the work at hand?

Second, work at eliminating unnecessary decisions. I spoke to an executive who told me of assuming the leadership of a manufacturing plant. Being a first-time plant manager, he dutifully studied all the reports that arrived in his in-box, sometimes late into the night. But one day it dawned on him that no one ever asked about these reports. He started asking those generating them about their purpose. He was told that his predecessor was a “numbers guy” and couldn’t seem to get enough data to analyze. So, this manager sat down one morning considered the value of each report. Then he eliminated all but two, saving him a couple of hours of work a week. Effective decision-makers are constantly looking for ways to consolidate, delegate or eliminate decisions for both themselves and those with whom they work. How about you?

Finally, chunk your time. I’ve interviewed several executives who divide their time into 15- or 30-minute segments. Then they assign the decisions they need to make to those segments. This is especially useful if their days is filled with requests from others. Not only does it compel those asking the questions to better organize their time, it forces the decision-maker to act, rather allowing the issue to drag on or be postponed. Even if you cannot do this for the entire day, simply dedicating time chucks every morning or afternoon will enable you to focus without the endless distractions. Don’t worry. The people around you will get used to it. If you have a boss that wants you available at every whim, sell him or her on how you can get more done if you compartmentalize some of your time.

When battling decision fatigue, the goal is NOT to better manage the 35,000 decisions we might face every day. It is to REDUCE the number of decisions we make. In other words, fewer decisions equals less blood glucose consumed. This leaves more sugar energy for focus on the most important issues.

Knowledge is Not Power If You Don’t Share It

The phrase, “knowledge is power” is commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon in the 1600’s. Regardless of its origin, some people interpret this statement as an entreatment to collect information for the purposes of building control and influence. After all, if you know it and someone else doesn’t, you have the power.

The best decision-makers recognize, however, that there is a critical corollary to this principle; You cannot leverage this knowledge if you do not share it. Leaders who keep secrets unreasonably, make those they lead suspicious of their motives. Managers who refuse to empower others with reasonable authority, engender resentment, distrust and employee turnover. The same thing is true of researchers, policymakers, and anyone else who trades in the currency of knowledge. Those who openly share their knowledge, with proper discretion of course, enjoy the trust and support of those around them. When challenging times arise, it is these people who rush to aid the decision-makers making tough choices.

Granted, the journey to this philosophy can be uncomfortable. First, there is our natural tendency to want to hold on to something once you’ve got it, whether this is property or influence over others. Then there’s the issue of trust. Will those with whom you share the knowledge use it appropriately and help you achieve your goals and objectives?  Finally, there is the discomfort fostered by the establishment of a new habit or practice. It’s just so much easier to remain in your comfort zone and do what you’ve always done. This is true, by the way, whether you’re a front-line supervisor or senior executive.

But no has one ever achieved the levels of success and influence society applauds by hoarding knowledge. So, how do you go about making this transition?

Observe and learn from those who do so. Consider the best decision-makers you know. How do they disseminate their knowledge and information? With whom do they share it? On what basis do they make these choices? If you don’t know, ask them. The best thinkers are usually happy to share their strategies. That’s how they developed their skills and insights. To open the conversation, you might say something like, “I’ve admired how you seem to use your knowledge to lead others. Might I buy you a cup of coffee sometime to find out how you do it?”

Decide what will be most helpful to share. Consider the knowledge you use to do your job. Who might benefit from knowing it as well? Sharing your knowledge allows you to delegate tasks, thereby saving you time and allowing you opportunity to learn new things and make new connections. It’s been said many times that the only way one moves up within an organization is to find a suitable replacement for your present position. The only way you can do this is by sharing your knowledge. Besides, if you covet information, people will eventually find ways to work around you. You don’t have to be an open book, by the way. In fact, oversharing can send the wrong message.

Begin incrementally. As I mentioned above, adopting this approach can be uncomfortable. You might be nagged by the thought that you’re giving your power away to others. Start by assigning the little tasks you should not be doing anyway. Train the appropriate person on how to perform the task. Then empower them by saying something like, “This task is yours now. Make your own decisions. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, but I am expecting you to make it your own.” If it is a considerable task, they might be uncomfortable at first. But if you persist in empowering them, they will embrace the authority.

Leveraging knowledge is how the best decision-makers empower others, leverage their time, enhance their personal power and achieve their goals. What can you do to implement the three strategies above to leverage your knowledge?

Making Decisions When the Boss Won’t Share

I was chatting with a woman during a seminar break. “All of what you’re saying sounds great,” she said. “But my boss provides information on a need-to-know basis. I don’t know if he’s insecure or doesn’t trust me. I just spend lots of time asking for what I need to know rather than him giving me all the details at the beginning. I feel like I’m playing Mother-May-I all the time and it’s irritating as hell.”

I’ve dealt with this question any number of times. I’ve also been a victim of it. I suspect she’s right. Most of this information hoarding comes from one or two sources, insecurity or a lack of trust. Regardless of its origin, it saps productivity and fosters employee turnover. After all, who would want to work in that type of environment?

Given clear direction and the necessary information, most employees can complete assignments and make decisions without asking endless questions. After a while, they come to understand their supervisor’s style. They discover the boundaries of their authority and how decisions are typically made within the organization.

Sometimes, however, a task is delegated without the necessary information or resources. I have found this is especially true when it comes to budgets. This is the boss who assigns a task but requires the person performing it to ask for approval for even the smallest amount. Solution? Ask the boss what your spending authority is. Even the most tight-fisted or insecure boss will be compelled to give a number. If they don’t, they know it will make them look controlling or distrustful.

If, over time, that spending authority turns out to be too limited, the person performing the task can always go back and ask that it be increased. The best way to do this is by pointing out the number of times the boss has had to be interrupted to give an approval. If this becomes a nuisance for the boss, he or she might even increase it without being asked.

Another flavor of this are the bosses who delegate tasks or authority, but then interfere. They make commitments without informing the person they have delegated the responsibility to. They spend money without letting this person know. Sometimes they show up at meetings where they aren’t needed and undercut this person’s authority simply by being present. Solution? Begin with the words, “I’m having trouble.” You might say, “I’m having trouble completing the project because I’m not sure who you’ve made commitments to.” Or you might say, “I’m having trouble staying on top of my budget because I don’t know what you’ve spent.” Then follow up by saying something like, “Can you help me find a way to make sure we’re on the same page?”

No one feels comfortable challenging or trying to correct the boss. Using the phrase, “I having trouble” is a diplomatic way of saying, “Please help me by getting out of the way.” You may find this difficult the first couple of times you do it. So plan out your approach and rehearse it out loud with someone you trust. In essence, you are managing your boss and that’s okay. At one time or another, all bosses need to be managed.

Finally, there is the boss who wants to be in on every decision. This can be the most maddening since it telegraphs distrust even if it isn’t. The boss may be simply curious. But that’s not how it comes across to the employee. Solution? Say, “I’m a bit confused about how far my authority extends.” Typically, the boss will say something like, “Tell me more” in response. That opens the door for you to provide three or four specific examples where you felt reluctant to make the decision since your boss was in the room.

Once again, approaching the boss in this manner requires some planning, rehearsal and confidence. Consider the different ways the boss might react and prepare for them as well. All of this takes some effort. But the alternative is to remain this decision purgatory and no one wants to do that.

Have other dilemmas like this? Send me an e-mail at bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net. I’d be happy to help.

 

 

 

At What Point Does Digital Technology Harm Employee Development?

A recent article in Vertical Distinct describes how Amazon.com uses digital technology to regulate its workplaces. The company has come under scrutiny a number of times because of its hyper-focus on improving productivity. It is understandable that productivity would be a focus in an environment filled with repetitive and monotonous tasks. At what point, however, does this focus become counterproductive? More globally, what impact do these practices have on the development of decision making and critical thinking skills among those who work for the company?

Amazon currently employs 850,000 people in the US and throughout the world. The vast majority of these individuals will move on to work at other firms over time. So, what happens if Amazon’s hyper-focus on productivity on prevents these employees from honing the skills essential to thinking independently in future work environments?

Imagine hiring a twenty-something who has spent the first five years of his working life in an Amazon distribution center where his every step and action is programmed and regulated. If you ask him to think for himself, he may not know what that looks like. Will he have developed the workplace problem solving skills one might assume of someone in their twenties? Multiply this challenge several million-fold over time and you begin to see the significance of the dilemma.

Firms hiring Amazon alumni would be wise to consider this fact during selection. No firm wants to spend extra resources teaching basic thinking skills and workplace resourcefulness. Amazon is not solely responsible for this phenomenon, of course. But as goes one of a nation’s business leaders, others are sure to follow.

Sadly, this phenomenon contributes to the learned helplessness we are already complaining about in society. Learned helplessness is fostered by three factors that have combined to create a sense of personal dependence rather than personal resourcefulness. First, there is menu-driven thinking or the over-dependence on digital menus and technology. Regardless of age and experience, we are all manipulated by these systems. This is especially true for digital natives.

Second there is the belief that everyone is entitled to success as they define it. An example of this are “trophy kids, along with educators and others who believe we shouldn’t keep score during games because the loser may have their feelings hurt. Third are the enabling managers who answer endless questions, rather than compelling their people to develop the critical thinking skills to “figure it out” independently. Effective decision skills evolve over time as life’s obstacles are confronted and overcome. Much of this takes place on the job.

Some managers reading this might argue, “My job is not to teach critical thinking skills. My job is to get the most out the people I supervise.” While this feeling is understandable, one must wonder where the threshold lies between productivity and workforce development as a responsibility to both workers and the marketplace in general.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? No. Rather than a solution, there is more likely to be an on-going tension between the desire for productivity and profit and responsibility to the greater good. There are, of course, consequences if there becomes an imbalance in this tension. If too much focus is placed on productivity and the bottom line, employers will experience high turnover and heightened tension between management and those it employs. (We have recently witnessed a bit of this at Amazon.) If the focus is placed too much on employee development, then productivity and profits may be impacted.

What are your thoughts on this conundrum? I would like to know and so would others. Post your comments below or send me an email to bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net.

The Four Word Phrase that Improves Decisions

At one point or another, a store clerk or customer service representative has probably said it. You thought you had asked a simple question. Maybe it was about getting the discount one day past the sale. Perhaps you were returning an item you discovered was damaged. Maybe you just wanted to switch colors. In all of these cases, the person across the counter responded with, “Let me check with my manager.” You probably thought, “Why can’t this person just make a decision?”

This kind of response is not limited to customer-facing situations. In any workplace, there are individuals who seem to check with the manager anytime there is even the slightest possibility of a mistake or misinterpretation. They distract us from our own work, engender a sense of paranoia, and drag down productivity.

In most cases, these people know what decision to make. It’s just that they fear something that nags more and more of us these days – blame. In other words, they don’t want to get in trouble if something goes wrong. Chances are, they’ve witnessed someone else getting reamed for an understandable mistake. Perhaps that person followed the procedure exactly and something unforeseen happened. But rather than taking time to examine the situation, the supervisor descended on them with “What did you do wrong?” They not only felt bad, they felt humiliated.

When everyone else saw what happened, they said to themselves. “I’m not taking any chances. I’ll ask every single time if there’s a possibility of something going wrong. I don’t want to get chewed out for an innocent mistake.” When this happens enough, the entire culture becomes overly cautious.

So, if you’re a manager who has to overcome this kind of cultural apprehension, what do you do? Use one four-word sentence — “I’ve got your back.” This simple phrase accomplishes three objectives. First, it assures everyone that they’re not going to be blamed for good decisions if things go wrong. Second, telling people, “I’ve got your back,” reinforces a sense of trust in the workplace. Third, when you tell people, “I’ve got your back,” it provides you with the opportunity to compel them to start making those decisions about which they are hesitant. We need more independent thinkers. This is a good place to begin.

Not everyone will buy into this approach at first, especially those who have been burned by a “what-did-you-do-wrong” supervisor. But if you are patient, persistent, and supportive, the cultural paranoia will begin to recede. Granted, this will not work with everyone. There will always be a holdout or two. But this may be more because they are lazy decision-makers than concerned about the risk of blame. How do you address that? I’ll save those insights for another post.

Making Decisions When There is No Right Answer

Yuval Levin, writing in The Wall Street Journal recently, made the observation that, “To govern, at least at the level of the presidency, is to make hard choices among competing options with incomplete information.” While he was referring to the decisions made at the top of our political leadership, the principle is the same in many other environments.

One of the insights I share with my audiences is that decisions don’t have answers, they have outcomes. Yet the menu-driven environment we live in these days is making us think otherwise. You can open up a browser, type in most any question and access hundreds, if not thousands of possible solutions within .6 seconds. Surely, one of them will solve your problem. But there’s the rub – which one?

When it comes to making decisions, it is human nature to seek safety. In other words, “Which one of these possible solutions will be the right one?” But when we think this way, we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking about the right answer, we should be asking about the best answer. “Best,” however, implies that we have all the information necessary to make the decision. But here’s the bottom line – YOU WILL NEVER HAVE ALL OF THE INFORMATION!

In some cases, this is compounded by competing options that both sound reasonable. Perhaps each one represents an opposing, but valid viewpoint. Maybe you will feel bad no matter which one you choose. Perhaps each one triggers your emotions, but for different reasons. Maybe you know there will be “blowback” no matter what you decide.

I don’t have a three- or five-step solution to this issue. No one does. But after studying effective decision-makers for more than a decade, here’s what I’ve observed:

  • They use their intuition to decide when they have enough information to make the decision. Attempting to gather all possible data ends up in analysis paralysis. Once they feel at peace with what their “little voice” is telling them, they move on to the steps ensuring effective implementation.

 

  • They record their reasoning. The best decisions-makers recognize that memories are fleeting. It’s best to create a record of what they decided along with why they made the choices they did. This is helpful if their reasoning is called into question legally, by a supervisor, or perhaps the greater community. They can also reference this record as they make related decisions in the future.

 

  • They anticipate objections. They don’t do this with the expectation of having a response that will mollify every unhappy stakeholder. They do this more to demonstrate that those objections were taken into consideration during deliberations.

 

  • Once they have acted, these individuals don’t dwell on the decision. Instead, they become focused on ensuring proper implementation. If problems arise, they are right there to make adjustments, explain reasoning, and ensure compliance.

 

  • They refuse to allow others’ frustrations, anger, even irrationality to make them rethink the decision. The best decision-makers recognize that management and leadership are not popularity contests. There will almost always be unhappiness among some whom the decision affects. These individuals accept that you can’t be all things to all people.

The best decision-makers make the hard choices. The easy ones have already been made.

Ready – Fire – Aim Revisited

Back in the 1980s, the phrase “ready – fire – aim” was popularized by management experts as a solution for growing companies at a rapid pace. More recently, business titan, Jeff Bezos, was quoted as saying, “Being wrong might hurt you a bit, but being slow will kill you.” If you think about it, both observations make the same essential point – make a decision! You don’t, however, have to be a Wall Street wizard to apply this principle.

Several years ago, I had dinner with Jay, a successful friend of mine. He had just attended a day long retreat for colleagues running multi-million-dollar companies. I asked him what he had taken away from the meeting. “See-do,” he said. I asked him to explain.

“As we went around the room sharing ideas, one of the things I noticed was that every one of us, talked about a usable idea we had discovered and every single one of us had attempted to implement it immediately. Not all of them worked out, but I was stuck by the fact that none of us hesitated or overthought the concept. In other words, we saw and we did.”

I have tried to live by that principle ever since. It’s not easy. Our always brain wants to protect us. Therefore, any time we introduce uncertainty into our routine, it begins to flood our thinking with all the reasons this new idea could be harmful. To make matters worse, it releases the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol into our nervous system making the feeling of uncertainly all that more intense. Since no one likes discomfort, our first instinct is to draw back and be careful. Unfortunately, this reaction has one of two effects: 1) It discourages us from acting all together or 2) It compels us to analyze the idea to death, in a desperate attempt to remove all the risk. There’s even a term for this – analysis paralysis.

Successful decision makers, like Jay, acknowledge this and act anyway. Might there be some initial discomfort? Probably. Is there a chance for the decision goes wrong? Sure. But if you continue to make decisions and learn to manage the discomfort, you’ll be further ahead over time even if you make lots of mistakes.

What’s the great idea you have been tossing around for the past few days, weeks, or even months? Uncertainty of outcome prevents most of us from becoming more successful than we are, no matter how we measure this. Do you need to have a clear plan for implementation? Yes. Do you need to have your resources in place? Sure. But don’t spend so much time getting ready that you never act on the opportunity. Success is about making decisions, not over-analyzing them out of fear. Put your discomfort aside, pull the trigger and enjoy the adventure.