Misery Enjoys Company

 I often ask people, “Do you like your job?” For all of the hours we spend in our life working, I hope for an enthusiastic “Yes.” Yet a majority people roll their eyes, look down and shuffle their feet, or let out a heavy sigh before they respond, “no”. They may deflect or change the subject and don’t respond at all.

Early in my career and more recently as a consultant, I’ve been tasked with the challenge of figuring out how to let someone go. I have found, the problem tends to be a single employee making everyone else in the workplace miserable. By the time I am hired for this, typically a breaking point has occurred.

When one person brings everyone down, similar to a family unit or a physical body, the longer they remain, the more systemic damage they leave behind. When employees are berated and unhappy, the system gets poisoned and leads to negative ROI, inefficiency, low morale and apathy.

What do we do with the toxic person who feels compelled to belittle, judge and criticize everyone’s performance and/or personality? We must remind ourselves that their behavior is their problem, and not ours. The longer we remain in the environment and enable the behavior, the harder it is to believe we are not responsible. Try to stay centered and confident. Resist the urge to get defensive or reactive.

People who are easily threatened by others invite viral ambiguity. I’ve encountered far too many supervisors who are so busy worrying that colleagues are out for their job that they accomplish little (then are upset when the suspects get the job done for them). If they are not already anxiety prone, then being in a supervisory position delivers said anxiety. Note to self: write a blog entry addressing why some personality types should (and others should not) be supervisors.

Of course, there are also (different degrees of) control freaks. These folks can generally be the easiest to manage. We have all been micro-managed at some point in our professional lives. When people start telling us what to wear, how to talk, what to eat, etc., we must separate and sit somewhere else. If the boss is the offender, collaborate with other targets to devise a solution. Try to anticipate demands and stay several steps ahead. Regular progress reports will keep them at bay. Sometimes control freaks have sound ideas about organization, systems and processes and are valuable contributors. They are the easiest to reason with. If they try to control something, offer them a compromise. They are usually smart enough to consider it, as long as the process and end result gives them some control. We can retain control by firmly setting boundaries. Never try to directly control a controller. It’s rarely a win.

There are circumstances where I would suggest that colleague’s band together to approach human resources. Be careful to do this as a group after the problem has been documented over a period of time and after an attempt to resolve the issue directly or indirectly. However, the results can be unpredictable. Perhaps HR will take the person aside and talk to them about their behavior, maybe they will keep a close watch on that person’s actions and interactions, or they may do nothing at all. If nothing is done, or if things don’t change after a period of time, take care of yourself. If you are unhappy, unproductive, or overwhelmed, what will happen if you stay and do nothing? Positive change is usually not as hard to achieve as we anticipate.

Remember that respect is as important as money. Effectively addressing personnel problems is one of the highest forms of respect for your team members and organization. When one person negatively impacts others, whether it’s a supervisor or co-worker, those who can change those dynamics need to pay attention. It’s easier to look the other way than it is to address the problem, but no one should be allowed to suck the energy and enthusiasm out of a department or company.

Focus on the end result. We need to pick our battles and acknowledge that sometimes we are better off walking away from a discussion or a project. Always winning will not get us anywhere. Be kind (make it a mantra) and, with a firm tone of voice, make a change if you’re able to, or walk away and focus on the job. Immediate band-aids include limiting your interaction and avoiding getting lured into or caught up in the bad behavior. Adopt disparaging body language-don’t look them in the eye or turn and walk away. “Time to get back to work” will be enough.

Why consider a focus group?

Focus groups take us outside of our comfort zone. Consisting of interview questions, a group of people are asked about perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes towards ___________ (fill in the blank). They provide the kind of objectivity that we need to consider or reveal something that we would not have thought about on our own. They are a useful method to inform decision-making, strategic planning, and resource building, and often add a human dimension to impersonal data. Focus groups are also a great way to measure the relevance and viability of a new project or initiative.

Before defining a new market or developing a new product or idea, a focus group can affirm or challenge assumptions, provide data that could lead to a more cost-effective journey, or yield unexpected and halting results. If that’s the case, a focus group may offer an idea of segments that are worth pursuing vs. segments that are not profitable.

Carefully organize a focus group of individuals who are committed to and affected by your service or product. Ensure that the participants have a sufficient awareness of the topic to impart useful information, yet are diverse enough to provide a variety of perspectives. Build and leverage the group neutrally and appropriately. New ideas or concepts might surface. The prepared and experienced moderator will be ready to respond to surprises as they arise.

The ideal group size is 8-12 participants. Fewer than 8 may lead to inconclusive or misleading results. More than 12 may be intimidating to folks who are typically introverted or lead to group thinking. Sessions typically last between 1-2 hours.

Have an agenda and make sure that participants understand the purpose of your research. They should be aware of what is expected of them, how long the session will last, and any promotional incentives to participating. It’s helpful to provide a meal or a snack and perks like branded pens and pads. Gift certificates are always a gracious way to reward attendees for their honest feedback.

Remember to maintain a focus on the group. Pun intended. Momentary chaos means that we are doing something right! An effective facilitator will be able to steer people back to topic and notice when the collective needs more (or less) information than what has been provided. We want everyone to participate and to challenge not just our perceptions, but also each other’s.

Fresh, original research keeps a company relevant and interesting. The shelf life for data and new ideas is growing shorter and shorter. Consolidate a summary and provide the results as an added “thank you”, when possible. If your focus group talks about a confidential beta project (inform at first approach), you don’t need to share the results. As soon as possible, we should act or react to what we’ve learned.

If we are not engaging, we are invisible. Be human and interesting. Invite employees, customers, vendors and anyone who could benefit from the product or service to share their opinion on how we’re doing. A focus group is the perfect method. Be ready for good and bad surprises… Brace yourself.

Infinite Vision can help you from start to finish with a focus group, or at any stage where we can leverage your knowledge base and capacity with ours. Contact us to get started: Christine@infinite-vision.net.

Position Yourself

Yesterday, I said to a friend over breakfast, “I’m meeting with a consultant today to talk about how to consult.” Puzzled, he asked, “How can she be a consultant if she does not know how to consult?” I smiled—point taken—and explained, “She’s been the head of a large corporate human resources department for 30 years. They recently gave her a pink slip (happening too often— a future blog). With her knowledge and experience, becoming a consultant is a logical next step since other companies have asked her to advice them in that capacity. What she does not know is how much to charge, how to draft proposals and contracts, whether she should opt to teach, train, mentor or advise.” As I finished that sentence, he was still scratching his head. This proved my point—we should not be confused about what we do or how we do it.

No matter what we do, there are so many players in the field that staying on target is more important than ever. Be succinct and summarize what you are saying, especially if your audience does not live in the world that you are referencing. What is interesting to you might seem useless to someone else. Don’t banter on too long; you will lose them if they are ready for whatever comes next.

Focus on your audience. Deliver what they want and need to hear in a way they will understand. Be careful to break down acronyms at first mention if you reference them. Explain trade words and phrases. Watch and note reactions and feedback. Have an open mind; everything is data collection. Your casual conversations, positive or negative, could impact strategy. Determining, refining and implementing strategy is what will make you stand out to consumers. You need to take the time to think through each stage of development.

“Position” yourself. I think I heard that term for the first time back in the 1980s, or was it the 1990s? Positioning is a concept that never went away. All markets are exceptionally crowded and customers are often confused and overwhelmed by many options. Determine your target market exactly—focus on a small niche or two with growth potential. Most importantly-be smart and efficient about finding customers that love what we sell and clear about what we do!

The Individuality of Your Company

When I was growing up, my mother would talk to everyone. She would make conversation or joke around with people in the line at the bank, grocery store, post office—while pumping gas, bidding at an auction, getting her hair done—absolutely everywhere. It embarrassed me in middle school but I understood by the time I finished high school. People love to talk about themselves and she was smart to ask questions and engage people.

The cashier at the grocery store, the next door neighbor, a company CFO or the parent beside you at PTO meetings might know the person or might be the person who will get you to where you need to go. Everyone you meet is important. Did we hear that for the first time from our parents or from a kindergarten teacher? We can learn something from, and share something with, everyone we encounter.

In the workplace, listen to people’s stories—celebrations and concerns. Each employee and customer is an individual, with a name, birthday and unique set of ideas, thoughts and opinions. Face-to-face conversations, interactive interviews and engaging, customized quizzes encourage and foster individuality and innovation. Each “team” is made up of individuals. In our quest to be consistent and work together, let’s not forget that everyone has something to offer. Harmony can only happen when people sing in different keys.

Networking happens inside and outside of work. Each person at your lunchroom and boardroom table represents a unique set of insights and experiences. I hope that you are cultivating a culture that enables your team to share their insights, experiences and ideas. When you allow colleagues and employees to define a strategy, it reflects the individuality of your company.

Fishing for Lobster, it’s who you know!

Models of life are often models of business. We could consider this blog entry a work-life parallel, but our lives should not be defined by one or the other. We should be working toward lives that work seamlessly, rather than parallel.

Rockland, Maine is known as, “The Lobster Capitol of the world.” I spent time on an island earlier this month off the coast of Rockland with some friends. Mike and Dana–my Island Family–had settled in and greeted me warmly when I arrived.

The week prior, Dana had talked to a Rockland friend whose daughter, Amanda, and husband, Josh, co-captain a lobster fishing boat. With the prospect of fresh lobster in mind, she immediately texted Amanda:

D- “Hi Amanda, your mom gave me your number. For the month of August, we will be on Treasure Island. Houseguests will be coming and going, of course they will want fresh lobster! Could you help us out once a week?”

A-“Hi Dana, my husband and I can help you. We fish near the pb buoy.”

D-“Where is the pb buoy?” (I wondered, “What is a pb buoy?” Dana knew what it was, but not where.)

A-“The Penobscot Bay buoy, off the coast of Vinylhaven.”

D- I would love 16. I like shredders about a pound and a quarter-ish.” (When Amanda gave Dana a location, she gave her directional tools. She quickly rebounded!)

Early Thursday morning, Dana texted Amanda,

D-“What is the name of your boat?”

A-“The boat is Ours and Hours.”

D-“I will head out that way in a bit and look for your boat.”

Later that morning, we set out on our adventure in the island boat. The trip to Penobscot Bay proved interesting. Dana called the water around us a “jelly bean sea”. Hundreds of lobster trap buoys dotted the sea with more colors than a 64-count Crayola Box. The colored “beans” bounced as we sped toward a big white boat we decided had to be the “Ours and Hours”. Then we get a text.

A-“Big red boat”

The crew in the white boat must have been slightly alarmed by our chase. We were lucky they didn’t call the Coast Guard!

We found the big, beautiful “Ours and Hours” and witnessed Amanda and her crew pull lobster crates and open them quickly and efficiently. Lobsters have to be a designated size; if not, they are returned to the ocean. We watched a significant number of the smaller ones get tossed back into the sea.

We thanked everyone for a great experience and turned our boat toward home.

Eight more guests came up for the weekend. We enjoyed the sweetest lobsters on earth, laughed about our white boat chase, and bragged about our newfound lobster friends. The next day Dana texted Amanda:

D-“Good morning! We had fun meeting you out in the bay. You have a beautiful boat! If you are going out to haul today could you put aside another 20 shedders/pound and a quarter-ish? Thanks!”

This was a delicious win/win!

The parallels and take-aways:

  1. Explore your network—get to know the people around you.
  2. Make your inquiry clear and succinct.
  3. Respond with clarity. Do not use acronyms unless the meaning has been established. When giving directions, assume the person/people you are talking to have never been there before.
  4. Be polite and respectful. There is no excuse; it’s easy to do.
  5. Ask the other person if they understand or have questions. Remember, they are not in your head.
  6. End the conversation with clear expectations and outcomes.
  7. Follow up quickly if it’s a relationship that you would like to establish and cultivate.

We take the simplest things for granted. On the flip side, it takes a few very simple steps to ensure clear communication and leverage a great experience for everyone. Most importantly, get to know your network. The person you need to know is closer than you think!

Do you experience your employees or do they experience you?

Do you experience your employees or do they experience you?

Both are equally important.

As a manager, executive, or business owner, make awareness of the ever-evolving expectations of your team a priority. As often as possible, experience their experience. If understanding a dynamic is elusive, take the time to figure it out. When you admit that you don’t know something and add “but I would like to learn” you earn respect through your authenticity and integrity.

As important as online and social interactions have become, live conversation remains the benchmark for timely feedback and trust-building.

Let’s take it a step further. If your employees, who are “living” your products and services every day, exhibit new or different expectations or perceptions, what does that say about your company? Do these expectations or perceptions match those of your customers or will they soon experience something similar? Could your employees’ perspective impact customer perceptions or actions? If you want your company to stand out, rely on your employees to discover personal, original (and probably unexpected) new benchmarks, enable them to “own” it and let them generate buzz!

Ask questions. Be a curious journalist. You are writing your story every day. Whether your employees play a leading or supporting role, they are as much a part of the story as you are. Build and leverage these relationships strategically and effectively.

Personalization creates an effective and loyal customer experience. It’s as important for you to personalize your employee’s daily experiences as it is for your customers to perceive their personalized importance. Build a company on respect, accountability, and appreciation for individual and team contributions. Your customers will sense this and respond in kind.

Your employees are your most important audience. They leave each workday, go back into their personal lives and either love or hate the company. No-one remains undecided for long and those opinions are shared and ultimately impact the bottom line. If you are watchful for perceived or real cultural shifts, your employee audience will remain engaged, highly receptive and loyal.

A job is usually a necessity. Strive to foster a work climate where your employees view their jobs as a positive choice. As often as possible, on a routine basis (weekly, monthly or quarterly), ask each of them how they are, what you can do for them and how your company integrates with their lives. Depending on the size of your company, you may need to train your directors and/or managers to do this. If that’s the case, make sure the responses get to you. Customizing your own system of “managing up” will ensure that everyone knows they matter.

Employment Engagement Modeled!

I visited Dog Orphans in Douglas, MA last week. What a great model of employee engagement!

Their employees and volunteers are totally there for the dogs and puppies in this no-kill shelter. They know each name, personality and special need. With a little imagination, that’s not so hard to duplicate in businesses and organizations.

Be the company that rises above the noise

The ability to differentiate “music” from “noise” is an important key to success.  

Know your audience.

Truly get to know the needs and desires of your customers. Don’t simply sell or provide a service. How do our customers define noise? What can we provide that they need? What can we do that they can’t? If we are consistent, relevant and impactful, we will recognize and respond to each of those questions quickly.

Genuinely listen, understand, and focus on goals and outcomes that will solve problems. This is seldom simple or easy. Keep in mind that noise may indicate important shifting trends or changes in customer needs. When you slow down enough to figure out what matters, you are more likely to come up with the kind of succinct, original solutions that will inherently leverage many moving parts.

Social Media has become an important tool in staying informed and current. Today, people expect us to intuitively know what they need; and those needs change quickly. Whether perception is reality or reality is perception, there is a digital divide between generations, cultures and other customer segments. The more we connect digitally, the more we feel disconnected in person. We need to be present in both worlds. If we are not dedicating time to listen to and be attentive to both sides, we will miss opportunities.

Be the company that knows what customer’s need. When the noise rises, determine what happened, fix it, learn from your mistake/s and proceed with the confidence garnered from informed options and the resulting decisions. Build a community and a network that celebrates when we get it right (and accept that no one always gets it right).

Whether we are owners, employees, vendors or customers, we need to triage incoming messages and signals and expect the same of the companies and customers with which we engage.

Promote and inspire music but address the noise effectively and we will benefit from opportunities and loyal relationships plus grow a company that will be competitive, memorable and sustainable.

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Respect Is As Important As Money

Passion and hard work often result from the affirmations employees hear from their boss, manager and colleagues. Workers don’t just crave a paycheck; respect is as important as money!

Appreciation can motivate employees to work harder. Saying “thank you” or “good job” is easy. There are countless ways to show respect and support for employees and co-workers.

The most memorable supervisor I’ve worked with was a Vice President who consistently said, “I hire people who are smarter than me in what they do best.” He encouraged his staff to try new things, to “think outside of the box”. His response, when any one of them asked for approval was, “I trust everyone in this office. The request you should be thinking through is what support you’ll need from everyone else.” Seldom did anyone fail; when that did happen his response was, “You did a good job. Let’s look at what we learned and do better next time.”

We add value to people’s lives by genuinely listening to them and regularly expressing gratitude and respect for who they are and what they do. When that happens, we open doors to a happier, more efficient, communication-driven team. Building this culture also paves the way for a smoother, more sincere conversation when harder conversations have to take place.

A study by the online career siteGlassdoor, revealed that more than 80 percent of employees say they are motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation for their work, compared to the less than 40 percent who are inspired to work harder when their boss is demanding or because they fear losing their job (survey link below).

Respect is frequently demonstrated through recognition. It’s as easy as recognizing someone and their accomplishments at a team meeting or in a company newsletter, in a trade publication or a local newspaper. Purchase $25 gift certificates to local restaurants and retail stores and award them monthly to folks who have earned the awards through performance or other preset benchmarks. Distribute company pens, pads, mousepads, baseball hats, T-Shirts, etc. to every employee every quarter to inspire respect and build pride.

Companies should function as communities. Respect is a necessary element for this to be possible. We spend many hours of our lives working. A company’s greatest return on investment is the satisfaction of their employees. Whether you are a CEO, owner or employee, respecting and appreciating the people around you will change your life as well as your workplace.


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