Climate Change


According to Daniel Goleman in his book Primal Leadership, an organization’s climate — how people feel about working at the company — accounts for 20 – 30% of performance, So what drives climate? According to Goleman, “Roughly 50 – 70% of how employees perceive their organization’s climate can be traced to the action of one person: the leader.” Hmmm . . . so I guess if some climate change is needed in your organization, at least you know where to start.

I’m not suggesting that life in your organization has to become one big party. However, counter- intuitive as it may be for some, peak performance isn’t all about the numbers either. It is the balance of head and heart that leads to maximum outcomes. Unfortunately, far too often the “soft stuff” gets pushed to the side when the going gets tough, to the detriment of all involved. Why do you think Harvard Business School researcher John Kotter wrote a book called The Heart of Change or Kouzes and Posner supplemented their well-know book The Leadership Challenge with another book called Encouraging the Heart?

The “soft stuff” matters.

Leaders have an oversized impact on organizational climate because people take their emotional cues from those with roles at the top of the organizational chart. If the leader “looks stressed” . . . if a typically outgoing leader is suddenly withdrawn . . . people notice. Leaders’ words are given more weight . . . their positive or negative outlook on an opportunity ripples throughout the organization. Climate can also be enhanced when a leader recognizes and accurately articulates the challenges staff is experiencing. Organization climate isn’t about “happy stuff.” It is about a leader’s attunement to, and resonance with, staff members. It is about a leaders’ emotional intelligence — his or her self-awareness and social awareness, self-management, and relationship management. It is not about leadership style. It is about being in sync with your people, and they with you.

So what should you do if you sense the need for a bit of climate change within your organization? For starters, get real . . . with yourself and your people. (They know when you’re faking it anyway, and you just lose credibility when you try.) It’s okay to say, “Things are tough right now.” But follow it up with, “and here’s how we’re going to get through this.” Ask for input and then really listen, don’t just wait to talk. Connect the dots for your people, point out what is important and tell them why.

Organizational climate isn’t about them — those people and variables outside your organization. It is about us, and you as a leader set the temperature. Need a change in climate? Lucky for you, you know where to start.

Mirrors and Windows

Woman Standing By Bedroom Window And Opening Curtains

Recently I was flipping through the channels on television and ran across a makeover show. The episode started with an individual dressed in (my opinion) outlandish attire who described the image she thought she portrayed. The host then showed a picture of the person to a series of individuals on the street and asked their impression. No surprise, the observations of others were much different than the individual’s perception of themselves.

It’s easy to look at someone else and chuckle at their apparent lack of self-awareness of how they come across . . . but what about you? When it comes to perceptions of your leadership style, do you spend more time looking in the mirror, thinking it’s a clear reflection, or do you open the window to feedback from others on how they see you as a leader.

We all have blind spots. Not intentionally, of course, but we know what we intend to portray and that is the frame of reference we start from in “seeing” ourselves. It is our mirror, and it usually reflects back what we are looking to see. Windows, now, are a different thing entirely. They don’t reflect, rather they are designed to let you see through, and the view can be totally different. I remember a time when members of my leadership team took a behavioral assessment, and each person’s “results” were shared with the entire team. In discussing the assessments, I made the comment that I thought most of mine was on the mark except one specific aspect that didn’t seem accurate. Almost in unison, my team responded, “Yes it does!” Hmmm . . . that was an unexpected but enlightening view from the window. Guess my mirror wasn’t entirely clear after all.

The tricky part about getting a clear view from the window is that people have to feel safe enough to share their perceptions of your leadership. If everyone reflects back to you the exact image you have of yourself, it’s possible that they are cautiously holding up a mirror rather than opening up a window that might let in a bit of fresh air. How can you tell the difference? Ask the right person. Come on, you know who will tell you want you want to hear and who, if truly given permission, will honestly share what they see.

The goal, of course is for the view to be the same whether reflected the mirror, or seen through the window. The best way to accomplish that? Start with the window.

Walls and Bridges

It seems the political season starts earlier with each election cycle. As wearing as that may be for some people, and all partisan issues aside, it does provide interesting case studies in leadership styles and effectiveness. One observation that gets reinforced for me time and again . . . walls stir emotion and bridges get things done. Let me explain.

Walls (I’m talking figuratively here . . . absolutes, lines in the sand, “I will never” . . .) are great for fanning the flames of passion. They get the party faithful fired up and ready for battle. That is why you see so many walls being thrown up during primary season. Regardless of party, primary candidates tend to lean toward absolutes. The thing is, at the same time they are fanning the flames of passion for those who agree with their position, they are also fanning the flames of those opposed to the position. While that may make great political theater, in many cases it also creates additional barriers to achieving the very thing the candidate purports wanting to accomplish, because they start by focusing on points of opposition (walls) rather than points of agreement (bridges). Once the election is over, to make significant strides forward, people usually need to find a way to focus on common ground, and build bridges to connect differing perspectives. For bridge-builders, getting to the final destination is more important than taking one specific path to get there, even if that means taking down a few walls along the way.

So transfer those same concepts to your organization. I’m not necessarily saying walls are always bad — sometimes there truly is a non-negotiable — but there should be a lot more bridges than walls. Most of a leader’s energy should be focused on getting to the final destination, the mission. And if taking a slightly different route to get there allows more people to get on board and support your efforts, the mission probably benefits in the end. Yes it will take longer, and if your ego is invested in a particular route it may smart a bit, but focusing your energy on finding common ground and building bridges not only benefits the issue at hand, it also bolsters people’s confidence that they can trust you to listen to their voice moving forward. And with that type of synergy, leaders can build momentum over time to accomplish even more.

One caveat . . . this sounds easy enough when you read it in black and white, but it can be much harder when you are directly impacted by a specific situation. For example, when yet another unfunded mandate gets added to your contract expectations, it is much easier to focus on the negative impact to your organization and dig your heels in (a wall that says the funder is the bad guy/doesn’t care about the mission) than it is to stop and ask about the funder’s intended goal and see if there is another way to get there that you can live with. Will the diehard “walls” think you are weak or waffling? Maybe at first. But over time, it is hard to argue with how far you can get when you’re willing to build a few bridges.

Leadership Lessons from Matthew Quigley

quigley-down-under-selleckPhoto Credit:

No, you didn’t miss some new best-selling leadership book. Matthew Quigley is the lead character from the 1990 Western “Quigley Down Under.” I’ve mentioned previously my belief that sometimes the best advice/nudge/new perspective comes from places you’d never expect it — in this case, from a 25 year-old movie. I was recently walking through the room where my husband was watching this throw-back Western. I’ve always liked this movie, and one line in particular has stayed with me from the first time I saw it — in fact it has become a bit of an inside joke with a former colleague of mine.

At the end of the movie, when Quigley has vanquished the bad guy with a Colt revolver —in spite of his vocal preference for a rifle — he walked up to Marsten (said bad guy) and delivered the classic line, “I said I never had much use for one. Never said I didn’t know how to use it.” With apologies to those who do not appreciate a good Western, Quigley’s statement brings to mind one of the challenges that, sooner or later, all leaders will face.

We all have a preferred leadership style. Regardless of that style, on occasion, we will likely have to make a decision/take an action that is not in keeping with our preferred way of operating. For example, I consider myself a fairly collaborative leader. When working with outside organizations, my preference is to identify the mutual goal and work toward a win/win. In the vast majority of cases, I think this is the best strategy. Over the years, however, there have been a small number of instances where I had to draw a line in the sand. I felt so strongly about the decision that I was willing to walk away rather than compromise. No bluff. Of the two instances that specifically come to mind, in one case the organization was able to meet our requirements, in the other case we walked away.

Just because taking a hard stand is not my preferred leadership style, that doesn’t mean I don’t need to know how to do it. I have a stewardship responsibility to work toward the best interests of my agency, and sometimes that means working outside my comfort zone. (Never outside moral our ethical standards, just outside my comfort zone.) So how do you know when it is time to take a different approach? For me, when I have done my best to be collaborative, and the stakes are too high to allow compromise; when I have considered every alternative, prayed for wisdom, and my gut keeps leading me back to that thing I really don’t want to do; when a decision-point is upon me and inaction is not an option . . . well, let’s just say I never said I didn’t know how to draw a hard line.

How about you? There is undoubtedly some facet of leadership that you “don’t have much use for,” which is not at all the same as saying you don’t need to know how to do it . . . after all, you never know when you might need to “Quigley-up.”

Knowing when to get into the weeds

Explorer in the weeds

Years ago, I was at an outdoor retreat with members our leadership team, and the individual leading our team-building activities asked that all 8 or 9 of us stand on a small plastic table cloth. The object of the activity was to flip the table cloth over without any of us stepping off the plastic. As you can imagine with that many leaders on a single small square, there were a variety of suggestions of how to accomplish the task. We squished. We wiggled. We debated. And finally, when it seemed we were making no progress, I decided it was time to get into the weeds. (Have I mentioned that patience is not my strong suit?!?)

I squatted down amongst everyone’s feet to get a better look at the options and then came up with a strategy. One-by-one, I would grab a foot, pick it up, flip a corner of the tablecloth, and put the foot back down. Although there were a few times I was pretty sure I was going to end up with someone landing on my head, we eventually managed to completely flip the table cloth without anyone’s feet moving off the plastic.

Some months later, one of my colleagues on the team commented that the activity was a good example of how I lead . . . when I couldn’t figure out a solution from where I was standing, I got down closer to the action. Yes, there was a risk that I would be stepped on, but I knew that was the best way to move the team forward. To this day, I consider that one of the best compliments I have ever received regarding my leadership style.

Sometimes, you simply have to get into the weeds to help your team find a solution, or so you can gain a dose of reality from the troops on the ground. How many times have you received an edict, or directive from “on high” (be that an external regulator, a state agency, fill in the blank) that probably made a lot of sense to the individual sitting in some distant office writing it, but was impossible to implement because of a variable that was not considered? Hitting a little closer to home, what is the likelihood that you have been the author of such an grand plan (written from the comfort of your office) and your staff were the ones shaking their heads because of something that was obvious to them, but you neglected to account for? Guilty as charged. But hopefully I’ve learned.

Seriously, how hard is it to take the time to look at a project from the perspective of those who will be impacted by it? They are likely to have insights that you will never have. We have tried to do this through Process Review Committees, where the staff closest to an issue make recommendations for a solution, with director level staff considering the recommendations, but not creating them. We’ve had “What in the World Were They Thinking” meetings, where staff could ask questions about a parts of a change initiative that didn’t make sense to them. We’ve held focus groups prior to making tough decisions that would affect staff, to get their input on things they would like us to consider when making the decisions.

Do we get it right every time? Of course not . . . but one thing I’ve learned . . . when staff recognize that you are trying to consider an issue from all angles, they are much more likely to give you a measure of grace when you miss something. They are much more likely to let you grab their foot and move it to a different place on the plastic square, if they are confident that you have their best interests in mind. And they don’t gain that confidence by what you say. They gain it when they occasionally see you hanging out in the weeds.