Thursday, April 30, 2009

The pinnacle of learning

I am passionate about leadership; consequently, I am passionate about learning. The best true leaders are life-long learners. With humility, they admit that there are limits to what they currently know and understand, so they are always open to new ideas and insights.

For me, learning is the development of experience, insights, knowledge, and understanding that eventually leads to a change in behavior. Unless and until we do something different, we just have not learned. I know some would take issue with this view, but I like it.

I think a lot of folks confuse the concepts of information, knowledge, and understanding. We often use these terms interchangeably when talking about learning, but they are very different and the differences are important.

Understanding is the pinnacle of learning. We are overwhelmed with information, develop some knowledge, but honestly truly understand relatively few things. We can quote list after list of "whats" and "how-to-dos", but the why remains elusive.

I think most folks want to know how things work. They are obsessed with how to get their employees to do things differently, and often by copying how other “excellent” companies deal with the issue they are interested in. But how is the wrong question.

If all we ever do is copy what others do, then the best we can ever hope to achieve is competitive parity. We will always be playing catch-up with the real leaders in our industry or field.

The right question is why? When we understand why things work the way they do and why our employees do the things they do at work, then and only then do we have the opportunity to create a unique future for ourselves and our employees. Then our competitors will be left looking at us asking “how are they doing that?”

Purse the “whys” at your work like a dog on a bone. Leverage that learning, and create the unique future you want and your employees deserve instead of copying someone else’s present reality.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The merit myth

My state, like many other states right now, is facing a severe budget crisis. Education in general, and especially higher education, is in line to see some enormous budget cuts.

As I follow this issue in the local press, I am not surprised by the suggestion that we need to have a way to reward and retain the "good" teachers and fire the "lousy" ones. This idea is called pay-for-performance or merit based pay and it is very popular.

Sounds like a good idea, right? Wrong. Most people would be surprised to learn that there is virtually no research based support for the efficacy of pay-for-performance.

I personally have never understood the logic behind a system that purposes to label a few people “winners” and the vast majority of people “losers”. I’ve always favored the approach where we encourage folks at work to cooperate with each other and compete against the folks in other companies. When “we” win by spanking the competition, then rewards are shared among everyone.

Bob Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer have done a good job exposing the myth of merit in their books. Here is what Sutton has to say about the competition set up by pay for performance systems in his book The No Asshole Rule:

Alpha males and females turn into selfish and insensitive jerks and subject their underlyings to abuse; people at the bottom of the heap withdraw, suffer psychological damage, and perform at levels well below their actual abilities. Many organizations amplify these problems by constantly rating and ranking people, giving the spoils to a few stars, and treating the rest as second- and third-class citizens. The unfortunate result is that people who ought to be friends become enemies, cutthroat jerks who run wild as they scramble to push themselves up the ladder and push their rivals down.

…..Winning is a wonderful thing if you can help and respect others along the way. But if you stomp on others as you climb the ladder and treat them like losers once you reach the top, my opinion is that you debase your own humanity and undermine your team or organization. (pp 104-105)

The logic of merit is so appealing; one of the reasons why the myth is so pervasive. I must admit that I too advocate an approach to management that is based on identifying and rewarding desirable behaviors. Yet I always preface this advice with the warning that this approach can have unintended consequences in the form of undesirable behaviors as people chase the rewards set before them and forget about the larger purpose of their work.

The key is to make cooperative behaviors a big part of what is expected and rewarded as performance.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The power of kindness

The fourth intentional activity from The How of Happiness is practicing acts of kindness. Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness. The first intentional activity was expressing gratitude, the second was deliberate optimism, the third was to stop overthinking and comparing ourselves to others.

Healthy relationships are very important to our happiness. Happy people have better relationships, so building relationships is a powerful strategy for becoming happier. Being kind to others is a simple and effective way to expand and strengthen our network of relationships. Kindness works for a number of reasons:

· It helps us perceive others more positively
· It helps us perceive ourselves more positively
· It can take our mind off our own problems
· It can lead to a chain of reciprocal positive events. Helping others may lead people to like us more and be more likely to offer us help in our times of need.

Be intentional and strategic in practicing kindness in order to maximize the benefits. Do too little, and you won’t feel anything. Do too much, and you will feel overburdened.

Do something new, and continue to add variety to your acts of kindness. Make it a habit, but don’t let it become routine. And make sure to acknowledge the acts of kindness you witness others doing. If someone treats you with kindness, thank and compliment that person, then consider telling someone else about their kindness. When you are ready, move outside your comfort zone and find someone new to be kind to – it can be as simple as saying “hello” and taking the time to talk to them and learn more about them.

Work can be stressful at times, sometimes daily! If you have a bad day, let it go. Make a deliberate decision to get back to practicing kindness to others the very next day. If you can’t think of anything else, then just bring donuts to work! That always works for me :)

Finally, don’t forget to be kind to yourself. And isn't it interesting that one of the best things you can do for yourself is to do good things for others?

Monday, April 27, 2009

The first job I quit

I started working for McDonald’s Corporation in Tulsa the day I turned 16 in 1977. I left the corporation in 1986 to enlist in the US Air Force, where I spent the next 7.5 years of my life. My friends and family thought I was nuts to enlist in the military, but it turned out to be a great move for me because I completed both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees while on active duty and earned the GI Bill money that I would later use to help fund my doctoral studies.

During high school, I worked as much as 30 hours a week at McDonald’s to help my mother make ends meet. The day I turned 18, McDonald’s made me a shift manager. I continued to work part-time for McDonald’s for the next 4 years while I went to school full time at Oklahoma State University. When I dropped out of school at the age of 22, I went full-time with McDonald’s in their management development program.

I LOVED working for McDonald’s. It was a fun job, and the McDonald's I joined in 1977 had tremendous corporate values that I took to heart. Because I worked for the corporation and not a franchise, I envisioned a career path that would take me out of local restaurant management and up through the corporate ranks on a local, regional, and ultimately national level. I thought it would be my lifelong career, and I was excited about the possibilities.

I was a pretty good manager, mostly because I had been lucky enough to work for some very good people. I eventually ended up running a store in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma that was extremely successful. The store was in a great new neighborhood and we had an endless stream of good employees and loyal customers. We had so much money hitting our top line that it was almost impossible for us to not have an excellent bottom line.

I was considered a promising up-and-coming manager and I was hopeful that I would soon be able to make the move from single store management to multi-store supervision – the first real step up the corporate ladder that I so badly wanted.

As a result of doing so well in Broken Arrow, the corporation picked me to turn around their most troubled store. The store had already eaten two managers before I got the job. It was the oldest McDonald’s in the state of Oklahoma. The facilities were run down, and the top line sales had evaporated as the neighborhood around the store had transformed over the years. I knew from my training that wishful thinking was not going to return this store to profitability – it was going to take money to improve the facilities and begin the long process of attracting good employees and customers back to this store.

But my operations manager had other ideas. His name was Tim Rich, and he too had aspirations for climbing even further up the corporate ladder. But for him to look good, my store had to turn a profit that it was just not capable of without cooking the books or cheating the system, which I was not willing to do.

At an end-of-month meeting, Tim put the ultimatum to me. I was told that if I did not deliver a certain profit percentage next month, I would be replaced. He was not asking me to cheat, but he knew as well as I did that the number he asked for was impossible without cheating.

Sound familiar?

For some reason, I did not hesitate. When he threatened to replace me next month, my reply was “Why wait? Replace me now.” He did. In just a few days I found myself as an assistant manager in a different store. And 6 months later, I quit the corporation and was on my way to serve my country.

Less than a year after I quit, McDonald’s Corporation sold the store I was fired from. I was right about that store. I did the right thing by refusing to cook the books or cheat my customers and employees.

By the time I was 25, I had quit my first career - one that I really loved. Although I did not know it yet, I was about to learn that you can quit and survive; indeed, sometimes you need to quit to thrive.

When I joined the US Air Force, once again I LOVED it, and thought I would make a career of it. Yet I would quit my second career about 7.5 years later, for very different reasons, but with even better results.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Is it time for you to quit your job?

One of my favorite books is one that is also not widely read, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders by Ira Chaleff. Courageous followers are interdependent with, not dependent on leaders. We become interdependent by first assuming full responsibility for ourselves. We also have to have the courage to serve purposeful leaders, challenge those whose behavior or policies have wandered off purpose, and to take moral action, including quitting, if necessary.

Chaleff outlines four reasons why we might lead to leave our current job:
1. Personal growth
2. Group optimization
3. Principled action: If we have failed to serve the purpose in some important way, we should be willing to resign the position given us in trust
4. Principled action: If our leader has wandered off purpose and all our attempts to bring her/him back on purpose have failed, we should quickly move on.

I tell my students that I hope they get the opportunity to quit a job for the right reasons early in their careers. They need to know that that can survive quitting and in the long run will actually thrive by doing so.

In her excellent new book, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, Tina Seeling says this about quitting:

Quitting is actually incredibly empowering. It’s a reminder that you
control the situation and can leave whenever you like. You don’t have to
be your own prison guard, keeping yourself locked up in a place that isn’t
working. But that doesn’t mean quitting is easy. I’ve quit jobs that
were a bad match and abandoned failing projects, and in each case it was
terribly difficult. We’re taught that quitting is a sign of weakness, although
in many circumstances, it’s just the opposite. Sometimes quitting is the
bravest alternative, because it requires you to face failures and announce them
publicly. The great news is that quitting allows you to start over with a
clean slate. And, if you take the time to evaluate what happened, quitting
can be an invaluable learning experience. (p. 79).

That is great advice. I have quit five jobs so far, and while it has been difficult at times, I have always landed on my feet and am better off today because of it. I'm in the process now of preparing to quit my current job if I want to!

And I ran across a new blog the other day that I just love! Rebecca Thorman writes about life and career advice for the millennial generation. Her post “Don’t burn bridges is bad career advice” is right on! I strongly agree with her point that the ability to start over enables unlimited opportunities, and when we have options we are in a stronger negotiating position.

“Work exists for the person as much as the person exists for work” (R.K. Greenleaf).

Let's find our purpose at work, assume full responsibility to serve that purpose, and our work will make us better people.

Friday, April 24, 2009

What it takes to be a career commander

I picked up the book Me 2.0 by Dan Schawbel yesterday and am really liking it so far. I hope to be able to use it in my Entrepreneurial Psychology class this summer because I like the idea of encouraging students to develop their personal brand.

His concept of being the commander of your career really resonates with me because it assumes a high degree of personal responsibility. According to Dan, to be a career commander means (pp. 37-38):

To be an active leader in and out of the workplace
To learn from mistakes and failures, while never holding grudges and always putting bad experiences behind you
To know no bounds and persist against all odds
To stand tall and have a memorable presence
To be an agent of change who seeks to lead by example
To care for others, show respect, and follow the Golden Rule
To take pride in yourself and your accomplishments
To always give back and support those you cherish most

That is extremely sage advice from anyone at any age, yet Dan is a very young man. There is a tremendous work ethic captured by these suggestions.

When Dan advocates “to take pride in yourself and your accomplishments,” I’m pretty sure he would caution against hubris. It is one thing to be self confident and quite another to be self aggrandizing. The ability to speak in a matter-of-fact way about our strengths and skills, as well as our limitations, is the sign of a healthy self-esteem.

If I could add one thing to Dan’s list, it would be to never become a “yes” person. Find your own unique voice at work, and consider it part of your responsibility to continually offer suggestions about what you could do to help improve the work that you do.

There is no substitute for performance, so always deliver more than what is expected of you. But there is also no excuse for acquiescence to bad leadership or ineffective processes. If you run into that kind of stuff, do everything you can to help make things better, but if things don’t improve then don’t hang around long. Shake the dust off your feet and move on.

To borrow from Dan’s military metaphor, always consider yourself in excellence boot camp.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Attitude check

Is your purpose to serve those you have been given the privilege to lead or to be served by your subordinates?

Are you more concerned about maintaining and overseeing your fiefdom, or are you more concerned about partnering with others to build a healthy, purposeful work environment for everyone?

There are limits to what we can achieve when we focus primarily on ourselves. By serving others and teaching them to do the same, we multiple the value of our contribution and ultimately our own reward.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy thinking

The third intentional activity from The How of Happiness is to stop overthinking or ruminating about problems and stop comparing ourselves to others. Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness. The first intentional activity was expressing gratitude and the second was deliberate optimism.

It is very difficult if not impossible to be envious and happy at the same time. The more frequently we compare ourselves to others, the more we expose ourselves to potential unfavorable comparisons. Over comparing ourselves to others can leave us chronically vulnerable, threatened, and insecure.

I honestly rarely ever compare myself to others I work with. I can always find someone that makes more money, has a nicer office, publishes more and higher quality research, and teaches better than me. Instead, I focus on trying to identify the objective standard of performance that I need to achieve to remain competitive in the marketplace. I know how much I need to publish and how well I need to teach to be able to find another good job if I wanted one. I am only interested in the performance of my colleagues in as much as I might be able to learn something from them that could improve my own performance.

And when things go wrong at work, we just have to get over it and move on. But how you move on is critical. Rumination and regret are a waste of energy.

Learn to view failure as a tremendous opportunity to learn. Failure is a signal that there is a gap between where we are and where we need to be. Learning to live with the creative tension these gaps present us are the key to continuous learning and improvement.

In her excellent new book What I Wish I Knew When I was 20, Tina Seelig calls the ability to view failure as an asset the “secret sauce” of Silicon Valley or similar creative environments.

Failures offer learning opportunities and increase the chance that you won’t
make the same mistake again. Failures are also a sign that you have taken
on challenges that expand your skills. In fact, many successful people
believe that if you aren’t failing sometimes then you aren’t taking enough
risks. (p. 72).

Let’s find ways to keep ourselves and those around us encouraged as we learn to transform our problems and failures into success and satisfaction.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Creative tension

I learned the concept of creative tension from Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. It is probably the best business book I have ever read. I think folks that can see the big picture and practice the systems thinking Senge describes in his book will live their lives and lead their organizations fundamentally different and significantly more effective than those that don’t.

This is a powerful concept. If we are genuinely striving for excellence, then there will always be a gap between “the way things could/should be” and “the way things are”. How we deal with that gap is critical.

These gaps create tension in our lives. We don’t like the feeling that we are not what we could be or should be; consequently, we are highly motivated to close these gaps so that we can return to a state of satisfaction with ourselves.

The first way to close these gaps is simply to avoid them. If we don’t continually strive for excellence, for something different and better, then we never have to live with this tension.

Another way to deal with the tension is to pull the goal down to meet our current reality. We talk ourselves into believing that things are “good enough”, and even if they are not, there is certainly nothing we could do about it anyway.

The best way is to learn to live with the creative tension as we pull ourselves and our organizations UP toward the goal. The challenge is that it takes TIME to close these gaps – sometimes a lot of time. There are some things in my life that I have been working on for decades. I’m better than when I started, but I still have a way to go and the goal is worth my continued investment of time and effort.

If we are going to strive for excellence, we have to learn to live with creative tension. It’s the only way to continuously learn, grow, and improve. We owe it to ourselves and to the people we have been given the privilege to lead.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The fundamental act of leadership

More than three decades ago, James MacGregor Burns won a Pulitzer Prize for his book entitled “Leadership.” If you have a passion for leadership, you should read this book. The ideas he wrote about thirty years ago are what I label today as “contemporary.”

For Burns, purpose is paramount.

Some define leadership as leaders making followers do what followers would not
otherwise do, or as leaders making followers do what the leaders want them to do; I define leadership as leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations – the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations – of both leaders and followers. (p.19).

It is entirely legitimate for followers to have expectations of leaders. It is the responsibility of leaders to become aware of and care about the expectations of their followers; however, I believe followers have a responsibility to communicate expectations to their leaders even if leaders do not initiate or invite the exchange.

Leaders don’t define purpose; rather, they identify the need for purpose and champion its power to motivate people to perform.

The leader’s fundamental act is to induce people to be aware or conscious of what they feel – to feel their true needs to strongly, to define their values so meaningfully, that they can be moved to purposeful action (p. 44).

Love it!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fairness matters

One of the most important concepts I teach my students and try to practice myself is organizational justice. I think fairness is HUGE. The two types of fairness I focus the most on are distributive justice – fairness of the outcomes – and procedural justice – fairness of the process or procedures used to determine outcomes.

Procedural justice is the more important of the two.

For example, research shows that perceived fairness of procedures used to allocate pay raises is a better predictor of satisfaction than the absolute amount of the pay raise received.

Here are some things you can do to improve your practice of procedural justice:

· Be transparent: Put ALL your cards on the table for ALL your people to examine ALL the time. We don’t trust people that we think are hiding things from us. And we don’t trust leaders that cut secret backroom deals with their favorite folks.
· Be unambiguous: Describe in simple, matter-of-fact ways what you want your folks to do. Make sure your expectations are clearly and specifically stated. For example, if it is important to you that your folks be “on time” for work, clearly state what you mean by “on time”.
· Be consistent: Now that you have clearly stated your expectations and policies, make sure they apply to everyone, all of the time.
· Be correctable: If for whatever reason your policies or expectations are not working, change them! Change them for everyone, and put it in writing.
· Be inclusive: As much as possible, make sure everyone that is going to be affected by a decision is given a chance to provide input. We can live with our leaders making decisions we disagree with – as long as we have a voice.

Remember, as leaders we are always on stage. Our people watch everything we do and say for clues about what to expect from us.

Abandon yourself to fairness – it will have a powerful affect on you and the folks you have been given the privilege to lead.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Accept Responsibility for Yourself

Yesterday I expressed my strong belief that followers have a responsibility to hold leaders accountable for their behavior and policies. Even if our leaders don’t invite this shared accountability, it does not relieve us of our responsibility. If we don’t practice this attitude and behavior as a follower, we won’t encourage it in others when we are given the privilege to lead.

Right relationship is built on the foundation of personal responsibility. We simply can’t enter into purposeful partnerships with others at work if we are not first assuming full responsibility for ourselves. Challef nails this concept in his book The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders:

“By assuming responsibility for our organization and its activities, we can
develop a true partnership with our leader and sense of community with our group. This is how we maximize our own contribution to the common purpose. Assuming responsibility requires courage because we then become responsible for the outcomes – we can’t lay the blame for our action or inaction elsewhere. But before we can assume responsibility for the organization, we must assume responsibility for ourselves” (pp. 37-38)

Unless and until we assume full responsibility for ourselves, we force others to assume responsibility for us.

We can’t hold a paternalistic image of our organizations and our leaders. That creates dependent, not interdependent relationships and relieves us of the need to be fully responsible for ourselves.

Before we look outside, to initiate values-based, purposeful action to improve processes or to challenge inappropriate behavior in others, we simply must look inside ourselves first.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Shared accountability

What is your first reaction when you hear someone at work talking about accountability? If you are like most people, your gut reaction is probably negative. Accountability all too often ends up as a search for someone to blame and punish when things go wrong.

But that’s not the way it should be. Accountability is an essential aspect of right relationship.

At its best, leadership is shared among leaders and followers, with everyone
fully engaged and accepting higher levels of responsibility and accountability
to each other
(Daft, 2002)

In our current paradigm of leadership, we don’t have any problem with the idea that leaders hold followers accountable. Followers expect to be held accountable. Highly effective leaders share their expectations with followers, help enable them to meet or exceed those expectations, and then administer the rewards or consequences that were earned.

On the other hand, it is a huge paradigm shift to think that it is part of the follower’s legitimate responsibility to hold the leader accountable. Yet for right relationship to exist between leaders and followers that is exactly what has to happen.

The best leaders invite their followers to hold them accountable.

And the best followers have the courage to hold their leaders accountable even if they are not invited to do so.

When leaders and followers are purposeful actors (as opposed to egocentric actors), shared accountability is considered necessary rather than threatening.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Deliberate optimism

The second intentional activity from The How of Happiness is cultivating optimism. Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness. The first intentional activity was expressing gratitude.

Optimism does not mean pretending that we live in a perfect world and ignoring or discounting the challenges and troubles we currently face, have faced in the past, and most likely will encounter in the future. Optimism is all about anticipating a positive future in the midst of our current circumstances. To be optimistic means that we expect things to go our way.

“Being optimistic involves a choice about how you see the world. It doesn’t mean denying the negative or avoiding all unfavorable information. It also doesn’t mean constantly trying to control situations what cannot be controlled. Indeed, research shows that optimists are more, not less vigilant of risks and threats (they don’t have their blinders on), and optimists are very much aware that positive outcomes are dependent on their efforts (they don’t wait around for good things to happen).” (p.111)

As I write this, I’m not sure if I will have a job three months from now. The state I live in and work for is experiencing a severe financial crisis and there are massive budget cuts proposed for our university. Yet I remain optimistic, not that the politicians will do the right thing and save the university and my job, but that whatever happens I am going to (eventually) land on my feet. I don’t pretend that my situation will not involve potential hardship and sacrifice, but I have an overwhelming confidence that I will survive this challenge and emerge better prepared to overcome the next one life sends my way.

Optimism is not the same as hope. Hope involves focus on a very specific valued goal and the specific ways and means to achieve that goal, while optimism is broader and involves a more open time frame. Hope is usually described as more affective (how we feel) while optimism is more cognitive (how we think) in nature.

So while I am optimistic that whatever happens with the university budget I am going to land on my feet, I am hoping that I get to keep my job because I like it.

Let’s stay optimistic at work and in life by purposefully reminding ourselves of our strengths and virtues. One way to do that is through an exercise called Reflected Best Self. Find people that know you well and that you trust to give you an honest opinion and ask them how you add value and make a positive contribution at work. Take their feedback and construct a portrait of your best self, a list of your strengths and virtues. Take this written portrait and put it in a place where you will see it every day (e.g. near your home computer, on your bathroom mirror, on the kitchen cabinet).

Now construct some specific goals on how you can leverage your best self to enhance your organization’s purpose. Let’s put the focus on how we can help and encourage others. Write those goals down and once again, put them in a place that you will see them every day. When you accomplish those goals, make new ones.

Expect something positive to happen to you and those around you when you practice these habits.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


One of my favorite books on leadership is Leadership is an Art by Max De Pree. His philosophy of leadership really resonates with me. I use a number of his thoughts and quotes in my presentations on leadership.

Here is something he wrote that I must admit I have not focused much on, but seems especially relevant these days:

"Leaders must take a role in developing, expressing, and defending civility and values. In a civilized institution or corporation, we see good manners, respect for persons, an understanding of “good goods,” and an appreciation of the way in which we serve each other.

Civility has to do with identifying values as opposed to following fashions. Civility might be defined as an ability to distinguish between what is actually healthy and what merely appears to be living. A leader can tell the difference between living edges and dying ones.

To lose sight of the beauty of ideas and of hope and opportunity, and to frustrate the right to be needed, is to be at the dying edge.

To be part of a throwaway mentality that discards goods and ideas, that discards principles and law, that discards persons and families, is to be at the dying edge.

To be at the leading edge of consumption, affluence, and instant gratification is to be at the dying edge.

To ignore the dignity of work and the elegance of simplicity, and the essential responsibility of serving each other, is to be at the dying edge.

…. To be a leader means, especially, having the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who permit leaders to lead." (pp, 21-22).

Can you tell the difference between “living edges and dying ones?” When the pressure appears to be on, which one will you take a stand for?

Monday, April 13, 2009


Yesterday I closed my post on excellence with the question “Are you encouraging or discouraging excellence?” Said another way, are we helping those we work with to have the courage they need to pursue excellence, or are we thwarting that courage?

In his book The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders, Ira Chaleff defines courage as “the ability to step forward through fear.” He goes on to say:

• Courage means accepting responsibility
• Courage often means nonconformity
• Courage means pushing beyond the comfort zone
• Courage means asking for what you want and saying what you think
• Courage means fighting for what you believe

Man, I love this.

Through our words and our actions, let’s not warn others that they better “sit down and shut up” when they want to make suggestions on how to improve inferior or broken systems at work. Let’s help others step forward through the fear of striving for excellence.

Whether leading or following, let’s strive to encourage, not discourage, those around us.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Excellence is a form of deviance

From Robert Quinn’s Deep Change:

Excellence is a form of deviance. If you perform beyond the norms, you will disrupt all the existing control systems. Those systems will then alter and begin to work to routinize your efforts. That is, the systems will adjust and try to make you normal. The way to achieve and maintain excellence is to deviate from the norms. You become excellent because you are doing things normal people do not want to do. You become excellent by choosing a path that is risky and painful, a path that is not appealing to others. (p. 176, emphasis added).
As a leader, do you reward deviance in your people or do you reward conformity? Are you surrounded by people that tell you what you want to hear or people that tell you what you need to know? If no one ever comes to you with bad news or suggestions for improvement, there is a reason for that – YOU. Although your rhetoric may say something else, your behavior is saying something else and your followers have gotten the message loud and clear.

Pfeffer and Sutton (2006) identify the talents of wisdom in four types of folks that help sustain organizational learning.

Noisy complainers: Repair problems right away and then let every relevant person know that the system failed
Noisy troublemakers: always point out others’ mistakes, but do so to help them and the system learn, not to point fingers. They are purposeful and not egocentric.
Mindful error-makers: Tell managers about their own mistakes, so that others can avoid making them too. When others spot their errors, they communicate learning – not making the best impression – is their goal.
Disruptive questioners: won’t leave well enough alone. They constantly ask why things are done the way they are done. Is there a better way of doing things?

Most folks look at this and think “oh hell no!” But these are exactly the types of people you want to surround yourself with. These folks are focused on excellence and are not afraid of the external sanctions that are trying to get them to conform, to “sit down and shut up!” They are purposeful actors that are focused on their role in promoting continuous system improvement because it is the right thing to do.

Do you practice excellence or the mediocrity of conformity? Are you encouraging or discouraging excellence in others?

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Power of Expressing Gratitude

Expressing gratitude is the first intentional activity from The How of Happiness. Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness.

Robert Emmons see gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”

According to The How of Happiness, some of the reasons why expressing gratitude might increase happiness are as follows:

1. Grateful thinking promotes the savoring of positive life experiences
2. Expressing gratitude enhances self-esteem
3. Gratitude might help people cope with stress and trauma
4. Gratitude encourages moral behavior
5. Gratitude can help strengthen existing relationship and build new ones
6. Expressing gratitude can make us less likely to compare ourselves to others
7. Gratitude can act as an antidote to negative feelings and emotions
8. Expressing gratitude can help us avoid hedonic adaptation

Is there someone you work with that cares for you, has helped you or made sacrifices for you, has enabled your career to progress, or simply just puts a smile on your face when you see them or talk to them? I hope so! If not, can you think of someone that is just really good at what they do? Or can you think of a purposeful leader that helps others understand why what they do matters?

Think about these folks and appreciate what they are doing. Give them a call, write them a note, send them an e-mail, or stop by in person and express your sincere gratitude.

Make a habit of doing things like this, and consider keeping a record of journal or your activities. As you practice this intentional activity, expect to see an increase in your own happiness.

I’ll post more of these intentional activities suggested by The How of Happiness so stay tuned.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Leadership Metanoia

Here is one of my favorite ways to think about leadership. Leadership is:

An influence relationship among leaders and followers who intent real changes
that reflect their shared purpose (Daft, 2002).

I love this. It is an entirely contemporary way to think about leadership. For many of us it will require a radical shift in thinking - metanoia - to accept. If we buy into this thinking, we have to change our behavior as leaders, which I believe will make us more effective.

Here are the main things I see about this way of thinking:

Influence: Always remember, leadership is about power. What are we willing to do to get power? What are we willing to do to keep it? What do we do with it when we have it? What are your beliefs about the differences, if any, between those that have power and authority and those that do not? I am increasingly convinced that our power paradigm defines our character and behavior as leaders.

Relationship among leaders and followers: This concept was almost completely absent when I first started studying leadership almost 30 years ago. Traditional leadership thinking is very leader-centric, but to fully grasp the opportunity found via relationship requires a radical paradigm shift. Leaders and followers perform different roles, but in right relationship both roles have equal value and importance. In right relationships, leaders and followers both assume responsibility for creating interdependent relationships with each other. In right relationships, both leaders and followers neither create nor accept dependency.

Real Change: If we are not interested in real change, then we don’t need leadership; management of the status quo will suffice. Leadership identifies the need for real change before we reach the point where our current way of doing things exposes us to competitive peril. Through leadership we hold ourselves accountable for working together through the mess, uncertainty, fear, and excitement of consequential and evocative change.

Shared Purpose: I love this concept and have previously blogged about it here and here. Purpose is the reason why we do what we do; it lives in the hearts and minds of those that serve it. Purpose is the currency of leadership because it authorizes followers to make decisions and take action in our collective best interest. But how do we get to a shared purpose? For purpose to be authentically shared, it must arise through relationship, via dialogue among leaders and followers. We can’t tell each other what our shared purpose is, but we can discover through right relationship.

Do you know leaders and followers that practice leadership like this? If so, what are the results, both for the organization and for the individuals? If you are not practicing this kind of leadership and followership, why not?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Golden Rule at Work

Yesterday, I posted my blog entry about the book The Go-Giver in the morning, and then at 11 am, I attended a presentation on campus by Bob Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini was of course excellent, and the talk got my wheels turning on a number of things, including my most recent blog post.

In my blog yesterday, I wrote that there is no research evidence to support The Five Laws of Stratospheric Success, but as I listened to Cialdini, I was reminded of his first “weapon of influence” – reciprocation. Cialdini’s rule of reciprocation is based on solid research and might indeed provide some related support for The Go-Giver’s principles of value, compensation, and influence.

The rule of reciprocation says that we will usually try to repay in kind what another person has provided us. This rule permeates all manner of exchanges across every human society.

While we feel a powerful sense of obligation to give to others that which we have received, it does not require us to ask for what we have received in order to feel obligated to repay (p.30). Furthermore, the rule of reciprocity is so strong that it overwhelms liking as a weapon of influence.

If we create situations where others are indebted to us, they will feel a strong obligation to reciprocate in kind that is not dependent on how well they know and like us.

This principle is supported by credible social science research.

When it comes to our relationships with others, what goes around really does come around. Do unto others, and they will do unto you in kind.

Imagine that.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Value in serving others

I recently picked up an interesting little book called The Go-Giver. It is written in short story format, so it is a pretty fast read and well worth your time. If you like the concept of Servant Leadership, you will like this.

In it, the author identifies what he calls The Five Laws of Stratospheric Success. They are of course not “laws” at all, but I find them very appealing as principles for how we should conduct ourselves in business. The five “principles” are:

1. The Principle of Value: Your true worth is determined by how much more you give in value than you take in payment. (For an example, see here)
2. The Principle of Compensation: Your income is determined by how many people you serve and how well you serve them.
3. The Principle of Influence: Your influence is determined by how abundantly you place other people’s interests first.
4. The Principle of Authenticity: The most valuable gift you have to offer is yourself.
5. The Principle of Receptivity: The key to effective giving is to stay open to receiving.

There is no real evidence that if we practiced these principles as a system our success would be guaranteed. There is no simple formula or recipe for success – sorry. But all of us have some set of underlying principles guiding our behavior, even if we have never made the effort to identify what they are.

If you are not satisfied with how you are operating right now, and you are willing to do something about it, give these principles a try. You might not make a million bucks when you put these into practice, but I have a hard time seeing how your relationships with others would not end up significantly more enriched.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Ever wonder why some folks always seem so happy?

There are a lot of self-help and positive psychology books out there, and most of them are garbage. But not The How of Happiness. This one has value because it is based on real research.

Here is an excerpt from the book that we need to pay attention to:

…50 percent of individual differences in happiness are governed by genes, 10
percent by life circumstances, and the remaining 40 percent by what we do and
how we think – that is our intentional activities and strategies. The
secret of course lies in that 40 percent. If we observe genuinely happy
people, we shall find that they do not just sit around being contented.
They make things happen. They pursue new understandings, seek new
achievements, and control their thoughts and feelings. In sum, our
intentional, effortful activities have a powerful effect on how happy we are,
over and above the effects of our set points and the circumstances in which we
find ourselves. If an unhappy person wants to experience interest,
enthusiasm, contentment, peace, and joy, he or she can make it happen by
learning the habits of a happy person. (p. 64).

Happiness is a daily choice.

Do you work with any people that you consider consistently happy, day in and day out? Think not only of those that seem to be just over-the-top happy, but those that are simply content and at peace with themselves and those around them.

What are they doing different than anyone else? Can you find an explanation for their happiness? Consider simply asking them “what is your secret, why do you always appear to be so happy?”

In the coming days and weeks I’ll share with you some of the intentional activities from The How of Happiness that we can all practice to improve our 40 percent of the happiness pie.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Do you know what drives work performance? Part 2

In an earlier blog I identified what may be the single best predictor of work performance – general mental ability. The take-away was that we should focus on designing jobs that ordinary people can excel at instead of searching for extraordinary people to do the job.

Do you know what the two next best predictors of work performance are?

Job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Research suggests that a sound measurement of overall job attitude is one of the most useful pieces of information an organization can have about its employees (Harrison et al. 2006).

The five most common things people have degrees of satisfaction with at work are pay, opportunity for promotion, supervision, co-workers, and the work itself. Of these five, supervision and the work itself may be the most important. Some of the things that affect commitment are job satisfaction, participation, job security, and the characteristics of the work itself.

I think this is great news! We have direct control over the most important things that will help our folks perform better. First, we should build unique, purposeful relationships built on a foundation of trust with all of our employees. Then we partner with our employees to create a work environment where everyone can thrive.

Build relationships with your employees, ask them what they think and seek their suggestions on how to improve the work they do, and then involve them in implementing those changes.

Stop blaming employees for poor performance. Fix those crappy systems!

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Land of Excellence

Just ran across this quote from Robert Quinn’s book “Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within.” Love it

Most of us seek quantum leaps in our performance levels by pursuing a strategy
of incremental investment. This strategy simply does not work. The land of
excellence is safely guarded from unworthy intruders. At the gates stand two
fearsome sentries – risk and learning. The keys to entry are faith and courage.

Are you pursuing excellence or mediocrity in your personal and professional life? You don’t need to stand with your toes on the edge of the precipice to learn and grow, but you need to be close enough to feel the breeze on your face.

Leader of the Year

Imagine that tonight you will be honored as Leader of the Year. Hundreds of people will gather to pay tribute to your contributions to your family, your colleagues, your organization, or your community. Several people will make speeches describing your performance and your character.

What words or phrases would you most like to hear others say about you? How would you like to be remembered tonight? What descriptions would make you feel the proudest? If you could write these tributes to yourself, what would they say?

These descriptive adjectives and phrases may well be lofty and ideal. That’s OK. The greater the clarity of, belief in, and passion for our personal standards of excellence, the greater the probability we’ll act in concert with them.

If you have trouble writing your tribute, you might start by reflecting on your answers to some of these questions:

What do you stand for? Why?
What do you believe in? Why?
What are you discontented about? Why?
What are you passionate about? Why?
What keeps you awake at night? Why?
What’s grabbed hold of you and won’t let go? Why?
What do you want for your life? Why?
Just what is it you really care about? Why?

Write your brief tribute to yourself.

Show this tribute to 5 people you trust to give you honest feedback - a friend, colleague, or family member. Based on their feedback to you, revise your tribute.

Now, is there something missing from your tribute that you would like for others to be able to say about you? If so, what can you do to make it happen?

Adapted from Kouzes & Posner (2007). The Leadership Challenge

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Purpose rocks; mission sucks

I love purpose and have blogged about it here previously.

Yesterday the local newspaper published my letter to the editor about the purpose of the university. I stated that my university has not published a statement of purpose, which is not unusual, but that ours might be similar to that of the University of Texas at Austin, which is “To transform lives for the benefit of society”.

I got an e-mail from a colleague I respect a lot that read my letter and suggested that our university actually has published a statement of purpose. Well, that is NOT a statement of purpose. It is the classic mission statement that describes the what, where, and how of what we do but does not provide a concise statement of why we do it.

I hate mission statements. Mission statements are the currency of bureaucrats and managers. The only people they inspire might be the small, select group of people that helps to write them. They are almost completely worthless as a guide to daily behavior.

Mission statements are buried in planning documents or gather dust in plaques on the wall.

I love purpose. Purpose is the currency of leadership. When people clearly understand why what they do (i.e. their mission) matters, then the purpose becomes self-authorizing and can serve as powerful guide to daily behavior.

Purpose lives in the hearts and minds of those that serve and are served by them.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Do you know what drives work performance?

Ok, boss, let’s see if you know this one. I ask this question when I do my corporate training and when I teach my MBA class and it is very rare that anyone in the room knows the correct answer.

What is the single best predictor of work performance across many occupations studied in both the US and many different cultures?

The answer is general mental ability. It’s measured in a variety of ways, but the underlying factor is intelligence. (Pfeffer and Sutton, 2000)

So what are the implications of this?

Should our focus be the search for extraordinary people to do the job, or should our focus be designing the job so that ordinary people can excel?

I like the second option, especially when labor markets are tight.

Partner with others to build healthy, responsible organizations where everyone can thrive.

Stay tuned – sometime soon I’ll identify the #2 and #3 best predictors of work performance and we’ll see if the implications are similar or different.