Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Presents and Presence - Holidays and Your Team

As you approach the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, many a manager doesn't think at all about the potential cluster fuck of the winter holidays to come.

The largest percentage of religious belief in the US is Christian, so Christmas and all it's trappings bombard everyone (Christian, Atheist, Jewish, etc.), usually starting after Halloween, but seriously moving into overdrive after Thanksgiving.

This leads to:

1) Folks who do not buy into the holiday or do not observe it being in a different head space than others
2) Statistically higher levels of depression this time of year (regardless of belief, both because of the expected "family" behaviors and the fact that its pretty dark all the time
3) An otherwise dependable work force disappearing to the four winds at random times, often all at the same time.
4) Issues around holiday parties, gift exchanges, decoration, etc. in the work place
5) Workflow issues--trying to find work for folks who remain behind while 2/3rds of the rest of the company is on vacation...you know, the 2/3rds that contains the folks that the remaining folks need to talk to in order to do their work?

My recommendations for addressing these issues are as follows:

--Have a thirty minute or less group meeting in a room that you have reserved for an hour. In this meeting, get promises of time off reports in to you by end of day, end of the week, whatever. Bring up gently that not everyone celebrates the holidays the same way, and ask people to be kind to each other this time of year about their religious or non-religious views. Ask the team to send you suggestions of how you can all celebrate something together, as a team, that has no specific religious affiliations but is fun and bonding and, most importantly, involves being paid to do something fun while on the clock. Take questions from the crowd. Finally, let folks know you'll be here for the rest of the hour if they wish to discuss anything or have any questions they don't feel comfortable raising in the group.

--Get people to commit to the time they will be out (or are likely to be out) by the first week of December, if possible.

--Post who will be out and when on a public calendar--if this means a white board in the area where your team works or the calendar function in Sharepoint (or any other option), have it publicly available where everyone will be. This will help a lot in letting people answer their own questions about when and where their co-workers are.

--After the meeting, drift around and talk to members of the team about a winter celebration. In one-on-ones, get the ideas of what they really don't want to see in such a celebration, as well as what they do. Also fish around for dates that the most number of your team will be present.

--Talk to the folks leaving during the time frame and establish deliverables to be handed off to team members who are remaining. Work with the project manager (or any other group dependent on your team), letting them know about the deliverables, where they are going, when they are going, and the overall vacation time for your staff. For those who remain, make sure that even if they don't get the deliverables they are promised, that they have a backlog of tasks on which they can work, either with other folks remaining and/or on their own. If you, too, are leaving for the holidays, make sure that you have someone "in charge" while you're gone to help make decisions...such as when to call you at home for help. Leave your contact information with the team, as well, when you're out.

--Encourage your team to decorate their space; I like to pick up a bunch of stuff from the dollar store that is basically snow, snow man, moon, stars, santas, icicles, etc. related. Non-denominational stuff. No angels, no crosses, and stars that are clearly non-denominational. If people are okay with it, I'll get each one an ornament as a present and bring in a tree, then we'll take an hour meeting and decorate it with each of their ornaments plus whatever else I've got.

One year, when working on projects for a company that produced Dungeons and Dragons, I got all fairy, dragons, knights, magic users, etc., with which to decorate the tree.

If they aren't okay with a tree (or your company is not), feel free to get fake garlands from the craft store and let folks use them in their cubes and hang whatever you've brought in their cubes with their ornaments. Holiday lights are ALWAYS popular with teams (though not always with facilities--so check before you get them).

Wreaths are also pretty easy to make and non-denominational--purchase a fake fir wreath from the craft store, wrap ribbon around it with a bow, and tie on small ornaments that reflect your team or company. Hang on cube wall or office door.

--After getting input about what they'd like to do as a team, do it. If that's going to lunch as a team, do that. If it's secret Santa, arrange that. I have had the most success with White Elephant parties, provided that the rules of the gifts are very specific: must be under $10, must not be anything that HR would put in your permanent file about, no explosives, etc. As the presents come in, stack them--if you have a tree, put them under the tree. Anticipation of the event is as much fun for some as the event itself.

You are the manager, so manage the event when it happens; that may mean making reservations at a suitable restaurant for all the food requirements of your team. That may mean enforcing the rules of a White Elephant gift exchange. That might mean booking a room for a gift exchange (secret Santa or otherwise). It also means bringing extra presents in case some folks forget, or in case someone's secret Santa is unclear on the concept--the "bad" gift can be whisked away and a new one left in its place (An excellent cook in the group getting "Cooking for Dummies" as a joke might not think it's funny, and that could cause serious problems for group cohesion as well as his/her personal happiness).

--Accept that total hours worked over winter holidays are never exactly what they should be. If these are people you trust and believe in year round, let things go. This is not to say that you should allow them to make a habit of only doing a six hour work day, but if there are the occasional six hour days, or days working from home where less work than you expected got done, don't fret it. Holidays take a lot of personal time for you and for your team. Be flexible. Just don't get run over.

--Enjoy the emptiness of the office. I love to work during the holiday times that most people take off because I get so much done. It's so quiet, and it's an opportunity to take folks to lunch you might not otherwise get one-on-one time with.

--Get a little something for the team; above I mentioned a little ornament for each, though you can suggest they each bring in an ornament from home. In previous years I've given $5 coffee cards or, in one place where I worked, where chairs were were stolen frequently and not returned, I made a set of "chair charms" so people could always get their chairs back. It's not the amount of the gift, it's the thought of it; thinking about people in a positive way when they're not around lifts spirits and creates and strengthens bonds with your team. Even if you're just giving out holiday cards, it works wonders. This time of year is a great time to build and grow these relationships that will make you all more productive and happier as the next year progresses.

So that sums up my holiday suggestions. I hope you all have a lovely Winter holiday and an awesome New Year!

Monday, December 19, 2011

My Elevator Pitch

I was trying hard to come up with a pitch that sort of explains why The (Im)Perfect Manager skill set is a handy one to have in the modern workplace and how it adds value to any team that employs it.

In talking to my friend, who is now also my boss, he suggested I come up with a single PowerPoint slide about it; I upped that, suggesting an elevator pitch.

So, happy holidays and here's my elevator pitch for your perusal:

Companies hire employees based primarily on their skill sets--Development, Test, Finance, Project Management--and their fit within their group and the company. The theory behind this type of hiring is that the secondary skills to do their jobs, like communication and playing well with others, could be taught along the way, as the new employee ramps up to productivity. Have you noticed, however, that's not always the case? That there's one or two people in different groups hard to motivate or get on board with your plans? That sometimes cross-team collaboration could be so much better than it is? Well, that is these techniques can help you: those secondary skills make the world go round, from one improperly translated word that led to the bombing of Hiroshima to the promise and momentum of "Yes We Can."

Anyway, let me know what you think.

Have a lovely holiday, for those who celebrate, and enjoy the quiet in the office for those who don't.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


What are the acceptable reasons to provide feedback to a member of your team (or someone else)?

If you said anything other than "correction" or "praise" then you probably should read on. If you said either of those (or both) you might want to read on, anyway, or this will be a short blog week for you.

Basically, we often want to give feedback because our emotions are engaged in some way. Sometimes its positive, and sometimes its negative. But feedback really needs to be given sans emotion. Emotion can create a confusing context, and make the person receiving the feedback wonder if you're mad at him or her or the behavior you're trying to correct.

And note, I've said it before, but I'll say it again: you're never trying to correct or praise a person, but their behaviors. They can change those. they can see the behavior being praised in another and copy it, but they can't copy being the person who is praised (well, not in a non-creepy, non-stalkery way). Likewise, they personally are not a bad person, because even parents can't correct bad children, per say; they do behaviors that you don't like, just like kids. You need to give feedback to correct the behavior, so that the person can be more successful. See, your job as a manager is to make the people that work with you more successful (as I've said in earlier posts), because it only reflects good on you, and makes for a cohesive and positive team.

When giving feedback, unless there's some kind of potential emergency--"Um, Jane, mouth to mouth should be given from your mouth to his mouth, and not to his ear,"--you want to do it after you've had a chance to reflect on it, but not too far after the incident for the person in question to have forgotten about the event and/or her motivations for the choices that she made. It also gives you time to calm down if you had an emotional response (laughing my self silly is not proper when watching someone nearly kill someone else with inappropriate life saving techniques, but I might need some time to get over the giggles afterwards before I explain my feedback and press on to repair the behavior).

Typically, I give feedback that is potentially constructive (or they might view as negative) privately, and I give feedback that is praise in public. This might mean an email to a boss as well as the employee when praising them, but typically involves a face-to-face private discussion if managing a constructive conversation. Praise is rarely misinterpreted via email, and email is a good way to let someone's boss know they are doing good. Criticism, however, is completely easy to misinterpret in any way other than in person or over-the-phone; with a lack of context, its hard for some people to see you being unhappy with the behavior and not with them personally.

It can also be very intimidating to give feedback for both the receiver and the giver. However, if you are managing people, it's part of your job to help them be better and more productive workers. So, feedback comes with the territory. To get over the feeling of intimidating, make yourself a small list and follow it when talking to them. If they react negatively to your discussion, remind them that its the behavior you'd like to see changed, and that you are only giving them feedback because you actually like them, personally (or at least like working with them). Remember: it's not about you v. them, it's about you and them v. the behavior that may be holding them back.

I would also say to be careful with praise, too. Some people do not do well under the spotlight. Get to know folks and find out if they can handle public appreciation; if not, you might want to keep it private so they know you know, but don't have to worry about other people knowing and judging.

So there you go: one of the most powerful tools in a manager's toolbox: feedback. Use it wisely, and with as little emotion as possible, and you'll see amazing results over time.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Musing in Meetings: Stay on Target

Ever attended a meeting about Underwater Basketweaving, only to have it devolve to trying to solve the problem of what underwater medium is the best for any kind of weaving?

Ok, probably not. But the gist is that a lot of meetings go off topic; oftentimes, the topics are way off topic: people's pets, plans for the weekend, personal crusades, love of puppets, etc. Sometimes, they wander within the realm of the topic--as noted above, underwater mediums--but don't accomplish the actual purpose of the meeting, which is Underwater Basketweaving.

In previous "Musings on Meetings" I've recommended an agenda as a method for making a good meeting. An agenda can help, but doesn't always constrain attendees. The more creative or motivated (or both) an attendee, the more often they are to go off topic. Further, their off topic remarks or thoughts are useful work...just not useful to the work of the meeting.

I have three tricks that seem to get positive results in keeping a meeting on target (if you don't count the agenda as one of them).

Option 1: Redirection
Just like kids get distracted by shiny objects and suddenly are no longer interested in walking to the park to play, adults have that happen, too. With a kid, you separate them from the item that has their attention, at least momentarily, remind them of their commitment to the original task, and redirect them there with promises of how much fun they'll have once they get there.

Works relatively similarly for adults. Stop the conversation as soon as you notice the derailment, remind them of the purpose of the gathering and what, by attending, they've agreed to discuss, and then enforce the message of the meeting by reminding them of the good that will come out of it. For example, fewer upcoming meetings, faster ability to complete work, going to lunch earlier, etc. People like to think that they make good commitments and decisions, and redirecting them back to the commitments and then validating the choice to make the commitment is a great way to get them back on track and keep them happy. No one likes to be bossed around (kids or adults) and this is a way to help them get the work done while still feeling good about the work and you.

Option 2: Alternative Options
Sometimes you can't nip it in the bud fast enough, or its really good thoughts/meaningful work, but not work that you need to do right now. In this case, I like to tell folks, "This is an interesting thought, let's spend two more minutes on it and let me get some notes down, and then I will schedule a follow up meeting." Then that's what I do--let them have 2-3 more minutes of the topic, take notes on open questions and new ideas, and then stop them and redirect them back to the meeting, reminding them you'll schedule another meeting (or talk to the person in charge of that set of topics) to schedule another meeting so that they know that it won't be lost and that they can talk about it, just not right now. Giving them a few moments to empty their brains of what they currently find exciting/interesting can often make the subsequent conversation significantly better (since they know they can work on those other problems at another time, and they've been validated in their interest in that other topic).

Option 3: Combine Option 1 and 2 and Documentation
Sometimes you need to let people talk, but you also need to get them back to topic. Combining 1 and 2 and documentation, will do that for you. After the meeting, you can remind people that the second subject will be discussed later, and what steps lead to that discussion. You can also include your notes from the meeting about both topics.

Option 4: Give Up
Seriously, give up is an option. If it's late on a Friday, the day after a late night ship, ten minutes before lunch...the list goes on of times when attention spans wander and you have to calculate the return on investment of trying to get them to focus or just let them go and reschedule the meeting. Never discount the value of giving up, but never fail to submit the next meeting invite, if you give up, the same day you give up. You don't want folks feeling like their lack of participation will dictate whether or not certain problems get discussed and solved, but you don't want them to try and solve problems if they aren't all there.

These tricks often work pretty well when you're not the one who called the meeting, as well, though I'd be sure of the strength of my relationship with the meeting organizer before horning in on the organizer's territory. Sometimes they are relieved by your help, other times, annoyed. Best to talk to them before it comes up and there are no surprises--well at least between you two--in the next meeting, which may wander to Atlantis or the future of the server farm.