Monday, August 27, 2012

Manager Mondays: Sending Your Folks Into New Situations

At this time of year in the United States, children are starting the new school year.  It's a memorable occasion for most families. I have photos of my own little ones as they first stood at the school bus stop, red tags pinned to the front of their new school outfits to show the world that they were brand new kindergartners.  They are smiling and brave.  But there is a fragility reflected in those little faces, too.   Years later, I still marvel at the staunch way they climbed into the school bus, and at the focused intensity on their faces as they marched forward and forgot to look back to see me tearfully waving goodbye.  

Do you remember your first-day-of-school experience?  Take a moment, right now, to think back.  Remember the familiar comfort of your home and the taken-for-granted safety of your family unit.  Then think back to the emotions that you felt as you thought about walking alone into that big, big building called School.  What were the fears that haunted you most?

Your memories of your own first day of school can inform your management-employee communications today.    

My elementary school was just a few blocks from my home.  A beautiful building, it was perfectly proportioned for small children, and I felt totally at ease there -- except when I went to Art Class.  This was held in a big room downstairs in the basement.  The teacher, Mr. Boyer, was very nice.  All went well until he showed us the art supply closet the first day.  At its far end, a stark corridor lined with huge white pipes receded into the dark.  Ominous clanking noises came out of that black nothingness.  

I hadn't even come to terms with the monsters in my own basement at home yet.  How was I supposed to relax and draw pictures when, in the closet a few feet away, unknown terrors lurked down that passageway to hell? 

Life would have been so different if Mr. Boyer had taken a moment to tell us about boiler rooms, radiators and steam expanding metal.  But he was an Art teacher, after all.  I'm sure he had a lesson plan to follow, and explaining the physics of heating systems to small children was not included in it.  So for the first months of school, Art Class was a nail-biter for me.  

I'm sharing this reminiscence as an illustration of what we often forget, now that we are the ones in authority: firsts are fear-inducing.  

Whether it's taking on a new assignment, stepping into a new role, or being promoted to a new level, there are plenty of "first days" in the workplace.  Firsts mean change; and change, even good change, has a tendency to distort one's inner reality and call up one's deepest insecurities.  It's a basic tenet of psychology that, as human beings, we suspect monsters in the closet whenever we march into a new situation.   

As a leader, you're the one to whom your team looks for reassurance and guidance whenever they enter new territory.  Are they getting it?  Or are you a Mr. Boyer, so intent on your action plan that you are oblivious to their fears?  

You need to have checkpoint conversations with your team when you assign them new tasks.  This needs to happen whether they seek you out or not.  If they don't get a chance to air their worries, they may be distracted by uncertainties or constrained by false assumptions.  And that can hurt performance and have bad consequences for the end result.  

Assume that any employees starting something new are probably experiencing the jitters -- even though they may be getting on the bus all smiling and brave.   Make it a priority to have a first-day-of-school conversation with them.  Ask how they're feeling. Give them some tips.  Invite them to come to you with any concerns.  Ask them to put a meeting on the calendar next week to catch up with you about how it's going.   Commit to being available.  Give them autonomy, but be their back-up. 

Remember what the grown-ups in your life told you as you got ready for your first day of school?  Don't talk in class.  Stay in your chair.  Be good.  Share.  Do what the teacher says.  If you don't understand something, raise your hand and ask a question.  Bring your lunch money.  Take turns.  Don't take off your shoes at recess.  If you have trouble doing something, ask for help.  Remember your room number. Stay in line. Don't worry. The teacher is nice.  School is fun.  You can do it!

Not everything they told you mattered.  But some of it did.  A lot.  Some of it made you feel prepared, and capable, and aware of the pitfalls.  Some of it made you feel ready enough, and even smart enough, to go through those big doors and do what you needed to do to be a big kid.

How do you communicate reassurance to your troops when a new initiative gets underway?  Do you stage an official kick-off meeting, or do you just have casual hallway conversations?  Do you give a loose verbal sketch of what's expected, or do you create a formal written job description?  Is your communication perceived as empowerment, or a mere pep talk?

When you send someone into new territory, it helps the overall project immeasurably if you can help that person feel that they are entering an opportunity zone, not a danger zone.  Take time to clarify, encourage, inform, and reassure.  Express belief in their ability.  Set them up with support. You'll be setting the project up for success.  

No basement monsters ever really showed up in my art room.  But the fear of them clouded my creativity, and colors my memories to this day.  Take the time to communicate with your team and kill off any monsters that might impair their performance.  Find the source of their fear, then seize the chance to say, whenever you can, "It's only steam in the pipes."   They'll thank you, and their creativity will soar as they march forward to master the unknown.

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