Unity in Times of Crisis

When we’re separated, we need to get it together.

Remember the good old days when we used to worry about the distant future, instead of what’s going to happen tomorrow?

I’m only being a bit sarcastic. The truth is, when we are worried about the future, instead of panicking, we make a plan. But when the next few weeks are looking a bit wobbly, there’s a temptation to do anything to fix it, right away. Especially when we are feeling isolated from our colleagues and worried that no one is doing anything. That misdirected energy invites all kinds of mischief.

Here are two observations (among many) that we’ve realized during this pandemic:

First, it is more unsettling to worry about the present than it is the future. Of course, when something you can’t control starts squeezing your revenue stream, the sense of urgency can be crippling. But beyond that, I believe that it’s unsettling for most executives to worry about the present because we’re in uncharted territory.

The fact is, we usually have the here-and-now figured out, so that it’s just a matter of executing the plan. We have people to do that and they’re good. Conversely, the need to rethink current business plans and operations, when we are used to strategizing for the future, just seems wrong. And that’s the nature of a crisis, isn’t it — something that disrupts our here-and-now.

The second observation is that the importance of unifying our leadership teams increases in direct proportion to the difficulty of making it happen. Thanks to all of the live video conferencing apps available now, it’s relatively easy to invite everyone on your team to check in on a regular basis. We can even design custom Zoom backgrounds. The hard part is acting with intent to schedule regular conferences and make them mandatory.

This may feel pedestrian, but failure to communicate creates a vacuum that people will rush to fill. In the absence of unified direction and continuous recalibration, many people will invent their own narrative to fill the void. Others will get antsy and try to take action. Even those acting with the best of intentions (to say nothing of the paranoid) will busy themselves with work that may be redundant, counterproductive or completely at cross-purposes to the part of the plan someone else is working on.

In both cases, uncertainty is the enemy, and the best way to preempt that is with intentional, proactive orchestration. Make sure everyone is playing in unison, that they agree on timing, and on who is playing which part. Discuss and ensure agreement on what the final composition will be when everyone does their part.

Speaking for my own executive committee, we are absolutely confident that the future holds incredible opportunity for our industry and our company in particular. What keeps us up at night is the constant plan-revision process necessitated by today’s business uncertainty.

On some days, it can feel like trying to climb up the down escalator — it’s hard to see meaningful progress. That’s when alpha-dog leaders are tempted to just take things into their own hands.

But good intentions can have bad outcomes. That’s why we agree to make our weekly check-in call a priority. We can evaluate progress, offer encouragement or insight, and help course-correct the plan as necessary.

It’s vital as leaders that we don’t let physical separation pull our teams apart. Be intentional about finding the right cadence to keep the team connected. Keep the roles and goals clear. And be sure to orchestrate so that everyone performs at their personal best. Then, insist on unity.

Are You Avoiding Me?

Office conflicts are rarely as damaging as the effort to avoid them.

Conflict avoidance can seem like good “adulting,” but sometimes it’s as effective as hiding in bed with a blanket over your head. I get it. There are times when we are just not ready to grapple with a thorny issue that someone keeps pushing in our face. When everyone on the planet is stressed out, we may not trust ourselves, or them, to be our best selves. We’re afraid things could turn ugly. So, we start by ignoring the issue, and end up ignoring the person. In these days of social distancing, this is easier and more dangerous than ever.

As I’ve blogged about before, there’s merit to performing “decision/action triage” in order to control and assign a time frame to issues we’re not ready to deal with. But, that requires that we also engage with the person forcing the issue in order to agree on a time and place to work through it. Simply avoiding the issue, and the person raising it, is never a good option. In fact, by trying to do nothing you can force two negative outcomes.

First, conflict avoidance hurts organizational health, which is grounded on open communication — especially at leadership levels. If we simply avoid conflict, we lose the opportunity to fully understand what’s at issue and perhaps correct a misconception (our own, or the other person’s) that could hurt the business. We can’t fix what we don’t or won’t understand.

Secondly, when we avoid people because we don’t want to hear them, we create a vacuum in the narrative that they will eventually fill. They’ll start to tell themselves stories to make sense out of your behavior — e.g., you hate me and want to sabotage my career, you are an idiot or a psychopath, or you don’t really believe a post-pandemic recovery is possible. People will make up explanations that are probably much worse than the actual truth. If you don’t tell someone why you are avoiding them, their behavior will never improve and your relationship will suffer.

If you are avoiding someone who is intent on having an uncomfortable discussion, own it. Call them up; set the agenda yourself and arrange for a face-to-face video chat. Sometimes we just need to be vulnerable and hear what we don’t want to hear. Conversely, if you are sure someone is avoiding you, consider what you could do to diffuse the situation. Don’t assume the worst. Leave them a message asking if there’s a way to schedule a discussion, or if there’s a better way to seek resolution. If we cultivate the habit of being discreet and thoughtful when we share uncomfortable information, people are more likely to hear us.

Social distancing is cool, but let’s do what we can to avoid avoidance.

Don’t Assume I Can’t Handle It

Trusting others to know what’s best for them.

Managers are required to make decisions that affect the careers of their direct reports. It just goes with the territory. But all too often, with the best of intentions, we default to our assumptions instead of consulting with the individual in question.  It’s scary how often this happens and how many of us are guilty without realizing it.  Even worse, you’d think that gender bias would no longer figure into the formula. But it does.

Case in point: you assume that because a woman is pregnant that this isn’t a good time for her to take on a promotion. In fact, it might not be, but if she’s earned your consideration, hasn’t she earned the right to weigh in on her own career? Likewise, I’ve heard managers assume that, because an employee’s spouse has a thriving career, they’d be reluctant to take on a job that would require a move. Again — why is it so hard to ask?  Maybe they’d like to move closer to relatives. Maybe they’re ready for a change. Or they can arrange to work remotely. The point is — you don’t know, because you didn’t ask.

As managers, we must make daily decisions about how to best deploy, motivate and reward employees. That doesn’t make it our right to presume we know best when it comes to personal decisions in their lives. Engage the employee in the discussion about a future opportunity and see if something can be worked out. Don’t take it off the table until they say “no, thank you.”

Oddly enough, we sometimes do the same thing with clients. We may have a new product or service that we know they’d put to good use, but we don’t make the offer because we assume they can’t afford it. Or that they’ll resent the sales pitch.  Or even that they are too traditional to appreciate the value of the new technology you are reluctant to offer them.

Relationships are built on trust and it begins with us. If we don’t trust people enough to ask them to consider decisions that affect their own lives, how can we expect them to trust us? Rational people make rational decisions. Don’t presume; ask.

Serve AND Protect Your Customer

Looking out for the customer’s best interest is always best.

{A Note to Readers: This is another in a series of guest blogs focused on Customer Experience from the amazing Katy Wild. Working with Katy, I can always expect to learn something; I trust you will, too. ~ bph}

You hear it everywhere – in the news, from executives, your supervisor, from well-known business gurus – serving your customer is the key to company success. But you don’t often hear that there is a responsibility to “protect” customers, which can also solidify that relationship.

bph-blog-post-art_serveprotect_header

The team at our customer support center reviews orders to ensure that customers don’t order a 10’x10′ carpet for a 10’x20′ space, or a 42″ high table with low chairs. Our audio-visual experts take pride in recommending a different technology or software to a customer wanting a specific “wow” reaction. Stepping in with these actions serves the customer well by providing what they need – but also protects the customer from unwanted surprises and disappointments.

I observed this on a different level recently in a store in my neighborhood specializing in shipping packages. I was there to return a package and walked right up to one of the counters where the store manager greeted me warmly. The second counter was only a few feet away and was occupied by a customer that was obviously not having a good day.

He was loudly broadcasting to the clerk about his dissatisfaction with a utility company. I didn’t get the complete story, thankfully, but the more the clerk was trying to help him with his request to send a certified letter, the more agitated the customer became. The store manager quietly apologized to me for the situation and continued to process my package.

But when the clerk gave the upset customer the price for his transaction, the volume became louder, laced with colorful language, which turned to anger. Seeing the escalation, and how uncomfortable it was becoming for customers who had walked in and were being subjected to this exchange, the store manager excused himself from me and did something remarkable. He apologized to the upset individual, said he was sorry that they were not able to provide what he needed, but if there was something else they could do for him in the future, they would love for him to return to the store for assistance.

In a flash, the customer was taken aback and didn’t really know what to say but “Okay” – and left the store with no further outbursts. That manager protected the customer by allowing him to save face in a heated moment by offering to serve him “better” at a later date, protected his employee from further abuse, and protected his customers from feeling trapped in a rather hostile environment. No small feat, and his actions were most definitely noticed and appreciated.

Want to keep your customers coming back for more? Continue to serve your customers with your best efforts, but make it personal by protecting them as well.

It’s not about you….

Sometimes the strategies we use in dating apply directly to our business relationships—other times, not so much. In personal relationships, it makes sense to seek people with similar interests. In business, how you feel about someone is irrelevant… because it’s not about you.

Its me

Consider this dating trope: “He/She is not my type.”  It’s shorthand for, “I really don’t want to invest any more time in getting to know this person.” You can get away with that in your personal life – but in business, it’s not an option. Few of us get to choose our colleagues or our clients, but it’s our job to collaborate with them. The sooner we realize that it’s not about “me,” and focus on what “we” can accomplish, the better. In fact, successful leaders actually seek out people who complement their own weaknesses.

This is where behavioral science can come to the rescue. Most of us have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the Predictive Index, or a similar personality test. It may be tempting to dismiss these indicators as mere psychobabble. But I’ve since seen the value of these useful tools. By helping us understand and identify the many variations in personalities – our own and those with whom we work – it’s easier to understand what motivates people and what value each brings to the party.

Self-awareness is the key to personal growth; how can we improve if we don’t understand our own weaknesses or at least understand our “default” positions? Plus, understanding what “type” we are helps us interact with “other types.” For example, if I am more of a data-driven analyzer, I may have to work harder to appreciate the value of intuitive, theoretical thinkers. But once I understand where we are all coming from, I may be able to inform or refine their loose concepts with solid, strategic insights. In fact, proponents of the MBTI system recommend including different personality types on committees and work groups so that the various approaches are represented. The result is a more balanced, considered solution.

And here’s the thing – once you truly understand that YOUR approach isn’t the ONLY correct approach, you’ll be surprised at how everyone around you seems so much more cooperative. Funny how that works.