Schachter Consulting

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Helping Leaders and Their Teams

Minimizing Ambiguity

August 3rd, 2015

Is the widely cited job competency, “tolerates ambiguity” a misguided aspiration? It seems reasonable at first blush; we want workers who can get stuff done without much handholding. Granted. But, what about the underlying assumption, i.e., that ambiguity in an organization is something to which we’re okay resigning ourselves. Is that worth so blithely accepting?

Too Much Tolerance
In my view, there’s been too much tolerance of ambiguity. I have two qualms. First, it allows a belief that as long as leaders hire well, they are excused from key leadership responsibilities like articulating an inspiring vision, setting clear goals and providing direct feedback. Second, it lulls professionals at all levels into the misapprehension that demonstrating a bias for action will excuse under-developed ideas, sloppy work or lack of stakeholder engagement.

Many senior leaders I have observed overestimate the quality of their communication. That is to say, they tolerate their own ambiguity. My work typically includes one-on-one meetings with a leader and her team members. Frequently, in separate, successive sessions, they will speak to me about the same live issues. Obviously, strict rules of confidentiality preclude my even slightly acknowledging to either when this happens. It is remarkable how many times an exasperated leader can’t understand why her direct report hasn’t acted on the “fairly clear message” she seems genuinely convinced she delivered. All the while, her subordinate expresses to me fear-tinged frustration with not knowing what the boss wants.

Let’s now consider the case of early to mid-career professionals. Recently, I saw this in an advice column for soon-to-be minted MBAs preparing for job interviews. “[O]ne piece of feedback I have received from recruiters is that they need people who can deal with uncertainty and are able to work and make decisions with limited amounts of information.” Really? Let’s unpack this. Why should a hiring manager want someone new to the organization – possibly relatively inexperienced and with little immersion in the company’s culture and processes – to make decisions with limited information? Maybe because the managers directing these recruiters lack a desire to actively lead their new hires? I don’t know.

Moreover, isn’t it true that as bosses we don’t truly want subordinates who make just any decisions on their own and with limited information. We want them to make the decisions we would have made. And, when they don’t, we scratch our heads in puzzled annoyance. Sound a bit too familiar? My advice to imminent graduates hearing this from recruiters is to redirect their resumes elsewhere. Most organizations notice when employees make decisions that turn out badly. And, let’s be real: under-informed decisions tend to under-perform.

A Modest Proposal – Minimize Ambiguity
Tolerance is a virtue when applied to how we treat others’ differences, resolve conflicts and open our minds and hearts. I’m all for that. Ambiguity, on the other hand, is an often temporary and remediable condition. Like a skin rash, it’s something to overcome; not tolerate.

I propose the new competency, “Minimizes Ambiguity.” It might include some of the following underlying behaviors to espouse, demonstrate and measure:

For leaders –
– Articulates clear objectives
– Sets out available resources
– Explains manner of oversight
– Provides direct and comprehensive feedback, both positive and constructive

For all professionals –
– Seeks, obtains and incorporates existing organizational knowledge
– Seeks clarification when information is limited
– Identifies key stakeholders, gauges their wants/needs & performs regular check-ins
– Proactively shares information broadly and transparently
– Seeks agreement and commitment to promote win-win approaches

As I suggested above, the distilled essence of the “tolerates ambiguity” competency is that we seek workers who can get stuff done without much handholding. While that makes inherent sense, independence should not come at the expense of scrupulous preparation and top-quality work. The saying is “80% and go.” Not 40%.

Let’s retire the “tolerates ambiguity” competency and replace it with “minimizes ambiguity.” It’s time.


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Taking Feedback

September 23rd, 2013

In the 1980’s, Joe Jackson (the porkpie hat one, not the shoeless one) lamented, “Though, it’s oh so nice to get advice, it’s oh so hard to do.” While I’m pretty sure he was singing about romantic relationships, I know he was addressing behavior change and he might as well have been describing feedback at work.

There’s a lot of attention paid these days to senior leaders delivering feedback. Quality, quantity and frequency. I’ve written on the topic, myself.

What about receiving and dealing with feedback? How good are execs at that? My anecdotal observation in organizations suggests not very. This means lost opportunities for the self-awareness, professional growth and relationship-building key to leading large, complex organizations.

It’s hard to take.
First, let’s broadly define “feedback” as someone calling to your attention anything negative about your behavior. Technically, it could also be something positive, but – let’s be real, here – we’re pretty good at hearing that stuff. The negatives are tougher. You might recognize and agree with it and that hurts. Alternatively, you may disagree with the substance, finding it wildly unfair and off the mark. Worse yet, you may not trust the motives of the person delivering the message and that further complicates it.

There are predictable reactions execs demonstrate to feedback. Driven types tend to feel irritation and ignore it. Expressive types feel stung and are likely to lash out. Amiable types tend to feel ashamed and try to make nice, while analytical types might feel confused by what they heard and retreat inward.

Take it anyway.
Suffice it to say, self-justification, angry outbursts, self-effacement and withdrawal aren’t particularly “leader-like” behaviors. When someone offers you constructive feedback, take it. Proceed under the assumption that the giver is well intentioned and that the substance is more-or-less accurate. That is to say, she is providing you with information intended to get you to change your behavior in order to produce better outcomes for the work group, for the organization, for her, or even, for you. Listen to learn. Why? Because whether or not her point is correct, she believes it and is trying to help. Graciously affirm her as a person and consider what you’re hearing. At a minimum, she will find you trustworthy as a peer or leader and your work relationship will improve. That helps stuff get done.

Besides, if she’s correct, don’t you need to know this about your performance? The odds are that everyone else already does. You might be the only person who doesn’t. Yikes.

And, if it’s incorrect? You’ll still know what she thinks and, having built trust by listening, you’ll be in the position to correct her understanding later.

When a direct report comes to you with feedback, it’s particularly important you take it. He’s doing you a favor bringing it to you and not somewhere else. It isn’t easy delivering a tough message to your boss. This is your opportunity to model the behavior and set a norm with your directs for how they should behave with those reporting in to them.

Motives don’t matter.
What if your feedback giver has bad intentions? First, this is rare and you should be slow to make this judgment. Second, it’s still a gift and worth hearing. Motives don’t matter; it’s either substantively accurate or inaccurate. If it’s accurate, you’ll want to address it, right? If your objective is to improve organizational performance then you must. On the other hand, if it’s inaccurate, it’s still useful data to you. This person is trying to provoke a response from you, whether an externalized action or an internalized feeling. At least, you’re now in the position to see him coming and be your best self.

What do you do in the rare event of negatively motivated feedback? The same as when it’s positively motivated: demonstrate magnanimity, of course. You can hear a message and, with Buddhist detachment, smile and neither internalize nor own it. The truth is, it’s quite unnerving to someone to see that you are above his or her intended harm. Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” Jokes aside, you’re better off because of it. You communicate to the detractor that you are grounded and have confidence in your motives, values and objectives. Japanese home run champ Sadaharu Oh credited the pitchers he faced with half of his success. “The opponents and I are really one … An opponent is someone whose strength joined to yours creates a certain result.” Let your result be great performance fueled by organizational trust and strong individual relationships.

Here’s how to take feedback.
Convinced yet? Try these four simple steps:
1. Listen. Truly take in what your colleague says without judgment. It’s probably harder for him or her to say it than it is for you to hear it.
2. Clarify. Ask questions to fully understand the specifics.
3. Summarize. Demonstrate you heard the message by restating it.
4. Thank. A sincere thank you will reassure that you’ve taken it in and appreciate the opportunity to improve.

In conclusion, give as much attention to receiving feedback as you do to giving it. You, your team and the organization will benefit.


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Avoiding the Defection Anxiety Trap

January 26th, 2012

If you have a talented direct report with a history of success who’s now struggling, chances are it’s the role.

High performers tend to be consistent. They’ve risen through their organizations demonstrating competence in successive roles. Sometimes it’s technical expertise. Even more often, it’s their tendency to work hard and demonstrate agility navigating unfamiliar terrains. The common disclaimer, “past performance may not be an indicator of future results” is truer of investment vehicles than people. Past performance actually serves as a pretty reliable predictor.

Inadvertently Setting the Trap

For many senior leaders, experience had demonstrated that highly motivated, highly able performers (let’s call them “stars”) are hard to come by. Worse yet, they’re harder to keep. The good news is stars are independent. The bad news is . . . well, they’re independent. I’ve observed numerous execs – itching to ward off a dreaded, imagined defection – preemptively try to “promote” a star. Two well-worn maneuvers: (a) creating a brand new role; or (b) cobbling new accountabilities to the star’s existing job. Each is intended to project an aura of ascendency and warrant more generous comp and perks. Good intentions. Bad ideas.

In one case, the Office of the CEO had a star business unit head it wanted to warehouse for a few years in readiness to replace an EVP that was due to retire. The in-between role they created for the star was meant to serve as a clearinghouse for information between levels. Instead, it merely added another review layer and wound up a bottleneck for decisions and action.

In another instance, a COO handed his star Chief Marketing Officer responsibilities in Decision Support. It was a discipline in which she lacked grounding and the painstaking learning curve interfered with her making a serious contribution while still performing her marketing day job.

In both of these cases, the role changes destabilized the organizations by confusing expectations, boundary management, and accountability for multiple stakeholders.

Both were seen for what they were: interim gigs to support career aspirations instead of helping workflow and results. Both stars underperformed and their reputations suffered.

 Avoiding the Trap

Before you inadvertently set this trap for your unwitting stars, test your “promotion” against each of the following criteria:

1. There are Clear Lines of Authority and decision rights for all work;

2. The role is Value Added to the existing structure; and

3. The job is easily Describable in a few sentences.

If your new-and-improved role can’t pass this test, let it go. Consider, instead, tapping into your star’s set of drivers. Typically, this includes some combination of interesting work, autonomy, and professional development. You, raise the topic.  Disclose your defection anxiety right to them. Jointly work out a plan. There’s no need to blow up anything to keep your talented direct reports onboard.


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More Collisions, Less Friction

October 5th, 2010

In the latest edition of Boston University School of Management’s alumni eNewsletter, there’s a piece about “Tech, Drugs, & Rock ‘n Roll.”  TDRR was a night of networking and presentations bringing together “leading venture investors, industry professionals, research scientists, students, and budding entrepreneurs from BU and elsewhere” held this July.  BU has committed to establish itself as Boston’s new entrepreneurship hub, seeking to integrate disparate expertise to solve diverse challenges.  BU’s Office of Technology Development (OTD) Managing Director Vinit Nijhawan framed the challenge inspiringly: “Our goal is to increase collisions and reduce friction in bringing ideas to market.”  An elegant formula well applied.

Here’s another great case in practice.  In 2007, University of Pennsylvania Health System launched an initiative called Unit Based Clinical Leadership (UBCL) to drive better patient outcomes.  The imperative was to reduce variations in patient care.  They elected to form UBCL teams consisting of a physician, nurse, and quality coordinator who would together make interdisciplinary medical rounds.  The approach succeeded at tackling multiple challenges, including lowering – at this point, nearly eliminating – Blood Stream Infections while wringing significant cost savings.

From a third distinct industry, here’s yet another.  Back when current NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg ran Media empire Bloomberg L.P., he designed its then Midtown headquarters with the express intention of sparking interaction to generate information sharing and new ideas.  Two examples: the elevators opened on only the middle of six leased floors so that  everyone would interact, passing through the same doors when arriving at and leaving work.  Second, there was a food court brimming with free food and beverages to attract workers into chance encounters to hash out their ideas.  Today this media powerhouse boasts annual revenues topping $6.6 billion.

So, whether your organization is splintered in silos, you’d like to elicit wider stakeholder input, or you’re simply looking for some breakthrough ideas, the common elements in these cross-industry cases provide some working guidelines for application:

  • Bring together people from differing, complementary disciplines
  •  . . . in live, physical proximity to each other (no conference calls, please)
  •  . . . engaged in real-time problem definition, ideation and decision-making
  •  . . . taking the leap of faith the time will be productive enough to justify everyone’s presence.
  • Where might you apply these guidelines to increase collisions and decrease friction in your organization?


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