Boo Hoo

As a kid, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays… until we moved to the country when I was seven and there were no doors within walking distance. Then Halloween was just my brother’s birthday. (Happy 56th today, Mike!).

When our children were little, it was an annual treat to take them around our neighborhood and go to ‘only houses with lights on of people we know.’ That ended last year. When I asked our 13-year-old this weekend what she was wearing, she said, “I want to stay home and hand out candy.” Guess my next opportunity to celebrate this fun occasion is with grandkids, whichever decade that might be.

Some folks at our church don’t allow their young kids to trick-or-treat. After all, they say, it’s a holiday rooted in darkness, filled with satanic undertones, totally pagan. Perhaps. Maybe. OK. However, I don’t think little Johnny or Susie – age six – think wearing a Lightning McQueen or Angry Bird costume this year has anything to do with celebrating the devil. (Although they might get scared if someone dressed as a presidential candidate walks past them on the sidewalk.)

To me this is more of the same ‘everybody gets a trophy’ mentality that is pervasive in our society. ‘Lexi played soccer, and at the party afterward our wonderful coach gave everyone a medal and said each one was the team’s MVP, and Jen, the soccer mom, got a trophy for all the kids, and Tom, Adam’s father, made goals for everyone to practice in the off-season.’ Wow! Imagine if these eight-year-olds had actually won a game.

It’s a big world. Most of it is good. Part of it is bad. There are Buzz Lightyears who want to save mankind… and Big Bad Wolves that want to devour it. Your role as parents isn’t to shield your children. It’s to teach them the difference between good and bad – and to protect them until they’re old enough to make their own decisions. Sheltering doesn’t help them learn. Teaching everybody wins isn’t dealing in reality. Those acts – done mostly to hide from your own fears of what might happen – simply delay the inevitable until young adults are unprepared to deal with what they encounter in daylight and darkness.


Confrontation Station

One impressive thing I find in working with large organizations – those with HR departments – is a focus on conducting regular performance reviews with employees. Many of these include creating development plans to help direct reports improve in needed areas. Smaller companies? Not so much. It seems every time I ask a small business owner, “When was the last time you conducted employee reviews?” the answer is, “I need to do that.”

There are two sticking points that seem to get in the way of accomplishing this important task. One is time. That’s a given in both large and small organizations. There is always something else to do. Who has hours available to review eight or 10 people? The other challenge is strictly internal: aversion to confrontation.

Most of us simply don’t like to address hard issues. After all, if we call someone out on a behavioral trait, several things could happen: 1) They could react – with anger, with tears, with the silent treatment; 2) They could leave – it’s easier to move on than to change; or, 3) They might not like us – and who enjoys being the bad guy. Makes sense that the way to prevent any of this is to avoid the issue altogether.

Of course, then there is no growth and you continue having employees with the same challenges. You’ve substituted frustration for confrontation. A better way is to change your mindset. Instead of thinking of employee reviews as a ‘time to point out what Susie does wrong’ exercise, look at them as the opportunity to have a candid and open discussion around how to help Susie improve.

If you’ve never done reviews, here’s a simple process to implement them:

1) Spend one hour thinking about your employees’ individual strengths and opportunities for improvement – make notes on each person (a common form would be a good thing to use);

2) Schedule a 30-minute meeting with each employee, letting them know the purpose is to help them identify ways to be a better contributor and to seek their input on how you can be a better leader… and when you get together allow them to share first (you may have to prompt them with a few ‘What do you do best?” and “How can we improve?” questions);

3) Acknowledge their answers (no need to defend your shortcomings or respond to their suggestions, just say thank you and let them know you’ll consider), then share your thoughts – be sure not to focus on just negative things… complement their positive attributes;

4) Agree to two or three things they want to improve over the next three-to-six months – then check in with them every few weeks to see how they’re doing… following up is essential to keeping them on track.

Take this approach and you’ll see reviews are more about helping your employees grow and learning ways you can better serve them. Instead of confrontation, you’ll discover cooperation.


Small Step, Big Results

Part of my coaching work with executives consists of conducting feedback interviews with 10-12 of their supervisors, peers and direct reports. This provides insight into the perceptions of those who know the person being coached in a working relationship. Typically, three or four underlying behaviors arise that clients seek to improve during our coaching sessions.

While it’s better to have a detached third-person – like a coach – explore areas around what are Susie’s biggest strengths, where are ways Billy can be more successful and describe John’s communication style, you can do this on your own.

Choose a few folks who you interact with on a regular basis and ask them to sit down and share how they see you… giving them permission upfront to be candid. Listen closely to what they’re saying, taking a few ‘headline’ notes without being absorbed in capturing every word. Be sure not to react to anything you hear. This isn’t an exercise in right or wrong, good or bad; it’s exploratory research and a chance to learn.

These conversations should last less than 15 minutes. End each one by asking is there anything else I should know that would help me be a better leader? Then simply say thank you. There’s no need to accept, reject or negotiate any of their viewpoints. After you talk to everyone review your notes and look for patterns where you could do better. Chances are if there’s something you need to change more than one person mentioned it. Choose two or three that are important to you, and put together a self-improvement plan.

Circle back to tell each person how much you appreciate his or her helping you, and share the first things you’re going to address. This lets them know it wasn’t just a conversation that ended without action. Finally, select one person to serve as your accountability partner to ensure you stay focused on achieving change, and schedule brief ‘check in’ updates every few weeks for several months. Soon you’ll start seeing a better you.