Monday, April 16, 2012

Creating the Right Environment

I saw some precise, accurate and absolutely meaningless advice the other day, and it is worth sharing because you need to avoid providing similar advice or, worse yet, leadership.

One article, which was very well intentioned, offered that you should ‘provide a work environment where people feel comfortable talking about problems and issues at work, particularly when their dignity has been challenged.’ Another offered that ‘as the leader,’ you should ‘conquer your stage fright.’

Both are absolutely correct, and provide nothing of value to anyone. Of course you should have a work place where people feel free to speak, that they can report problems, that they are treated with dignity. And of course the leader should get over his stage fright. The question is: How do you do these things?

None of the answers are easy, but here are some simple behavioral points that every decent leader shares:

Talk to your people. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with people in a crowd, start with just one or two, make the setting informal – the coffee machine is a good place to start – and keep it simple.

Listen to your people – really listen. Don’t listen for opportunities to speak, listen to them and let them tell you what is on their minds, what is troubling them. If it makes it easier, take notes; they won’t be offended.

Speaking publicly, even to small numbers of people, can be very intimidating. If you are uncomfortable, remember to practice, keep notes, and keep things simple until you develop more confidence. And remember to smile. There are always a few jerks in the crowd, but most people will empathize with you. It gets better with practice, so force yourself from time to time to speak in front of people. In the end it will be an invaluable skill.

Dignity is hard to provide and convey – and easy. Remember the golden rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated. When in doubt, do what would make your grandmother pleased with your behavior – yes, it’s that simple. If you would feel glad about telling your grandmother that you did ‘X, Y and Z’ for/to one of your employees, then it is a good bet it’s OK. (Assuming your grandmother isn’t Ma Barker.)

Particularly following a crisis of some sort (a death in someone’s family, a severe illness, or worse some sort of violent crime committed against one of your people), remember to do two things at once: show them the same level of concern you would show to a member of your family – make yourself available to talk to everyone involved, visit the hospital, always attend funerals. You won’t know what to say, and it will probably be very stressful. No getting around that. Being there is enough. But you need to be there. And make certain that the company is doing what it can legally to aid and assist those hurt or involved in the crisis.

Crises will develop, no matter how hard you want to avoid them. Your role as ‘the boss’ is as likely to be defined by how well you handle crises and the people in the office as by anything else you do. There are no absolutely right answers, but your best guide is to simply remember to treat people the way you would want to be treated.


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