Archive for September 2014

Week of September 22, 2014

Quotable (Heifetz & Laurie, on calibrating and communicating expectations)

“A leader must strike a delicate balance between having people feel the need to change and having them feel overwhelmed by change . . . A leader is responsible for direction, protection, orientation, managing conflict, and shaping norms.”  The Work of Leadership, Ronald A. Heifetz & Donald L. Laurie


Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (2011). “The Work of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Calibrate Expectations

During this past winter, I had the unfortunate and harrowing experience of being caught in a snowstorm while driving on a rural two-lane highway, and at one point the visibility became so poor that I eventually ended up stuck in a snowdrift on the side of the road.  It was about 10:00 p.m., and when I called for roadside service to come and pull me out, I was informed that it would be about two hours before they could get to me because of the numerous other vehicles also stranded in the snowstorm.  To make matters worse, it was a bitterly cold night with below-zero temperatures, so I had to keep the car running while waited – which would not have been an issue except for the fact that I ran out of gas about an hour and half later.  At that point, I had the hope that the tow truck would be there soon, until I received a call from the towing service that their truck had gotten stuck in the snow and it would likely be at least another hour.  It wasn’t until nearly 1:00 a.m. that I was finally rescued, but don’t think I felt warm again until at least a day later.

The next day, as I was driving to work, my car seemed to be pulling a little to one side, and when I reached highway speed, I started to feel a vibration in the steering wheel.  I told myself that it had to be the condition of the road because I couldn’t fathom that a snowdrift – a pile of white powder – could have affected the alignment of my tires so much.  But when the vibration was still there later that day and again the next morning, I decided to take the car to the mechanic.  As you might expect, after checking the vehicle, he informed me that it was out of alignment, and needed to be calibrated.

That experience serves as an example of a very important lesson for interacting with people: sometimes their expectations need to be calibrated.  People tend to operate with preconceived expectations, and they generally allow their own expectations, whether conscious or not, to effect their perceptions and responses.  I’ve seen it over and over in marriage counseling, when either spouse in a relationship has expectations that they believe should be met, but often those expectations are unrealistic or haven’t been identified and communicated, resulting in frustration and conflict.  She’s expecting some kind of expression of appreciation when he walks in the door, or he’s expecting some kind of affirmation when she walks in the door; but when they walk through the door, rather than giving appreciation or affirmation, each one waits with an expectation, and when that expectation is unmet, resentment begins to build.

The same happens in an organization, when expectations have not been appropriately identified and communicated.  Customers or constituents expect a certain product, service, or response, and they often have a preconceived idea in their minds of what that product, service, or response should look like.  Employees have an internal (generally unspoken) expectation of compensation, recognition, provision of resources, communication, and so on, from their leaders.  Leaders have an expectation of performance and commitment from their employees.  And everyone has a personal viewpoint on how things should be done, which becomes their expectation.  So when those expectations are allowed to exist without being appropriately calibrated, the result is a “vibration” that causes tension, conflict, frustration, and anger.

That’s why it is important for leaders to calibrate expectations.  It is the leader who is “responsible for direction, protection, orientation, managing conflict, and shaping norms”  (Heifetz and Laurie, p. 65), and who therefore “orients people to new roles and responsibilities by clarifying business realities and key values” (Heifetz and Laurie, p. 65).  If people know what to expect because you have clearly communicated what they should expect, then when those expectations are met, those same people are satisfied and supportive.  Not only have you met their expectations, you have also demonstrated consistency by doing what you said you would do, which builds trust.  And this needs to be a proactive skill, not a reactive response.  Don’t wait until someone is frustrated because you didn’t establish expectations.  Instead, get out in front of it.  When I meet with people, I make it a normal practice to establish expectations for the meeting on the front end, so that everyone knows what we think will come out of the meeting.  At the end of the meeting, I then communicate what they can expect me to do moving forward.  By doing this, I have calibrated expectations to match the reality of what will happen, and the result is a much more cooperative and supportive relationship.

You can and should do the same.  Help people to know and understand what they should expect from you, from your organization, or from an experience.  Calibrate expectations, which will help them to listen better, respond with more support, and walk away more satisfied.

Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (2011). “The Work of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Week of September 15, 2014

What Do You Think . . . happens when we give people a voice?

Our decisions do not take place in a vacuum. Any decision that we make in our organization, whether it is small or large, has an effect on others. It could be something as simple as conducting a survey about a specific department, or as complex as developing a major strategic plan. In any case, people are impacted. I have been guilty of forgetting to keep that in mind when I am doing something that I genuinely believe is good and necessary for the organization, and in those times I have sometimes neglected to include others. In doing so, I have learned that when people are not given a voice, they tend to resist or resent what I am doing. I wonder what has been your experience? In your leadership, what has happened when you failed to give people a voice? Or, from a positive experience, what has happened when you gave people a voice? Please share in the comment box below.

Let the People Speak

I have discovered that the book of Ezra is chock full of lessons and illustrations on leadership. Back in June of this year, I posted a lesson on team leadership (Ezra’s Model of Team Leadership) from chapters 7 and 8. In my study of the book, I have also found application to many other leadership principles and concepts, like strategic planning, overcoming obstacles, building motivation, and more. One particular lesson, which is illustrated in the events that take place in chapter 10, verses 7 through the end of the chapter, specifically speaks to a leadership principle that I blogged about last week, called Give People a Voice.

If we walk through the passage verse by verse, what we see is a great picture of the importance and value of leaders giving people a voice in the process. Verses 7 and 8 set the stage, describing how Ezra gathers everyone together. A proclamation is sent throughout the area instructing people to come to a central location for what will be an important meeting. They are given three days to arrive and gather, and the proclamation includes a rather severe ultimatum to ensure that people come. The important components that are immediately evident for our understanding of leadership are these: 1) make sure to include those who will be affected, so that the ones who will be impacted have an opportunity to have a voice; 2) provide a time and place for the dialogue to take place, making sure that the availability of those invited is taken into consideration; and 3) provide a motivation that underscores the importance of the meeting, increasing the likelihood of the right people being there.

Once gathered together (v. 9) – and notice that the attendees recognized the importance of this discussion – Ezra stood in front of everyone present and briefly explained the basic issue and the needed outcome (vv. 10-11). In their case, it was the sin of unfaithfulness to God, requiring confession, repentance, obedience, and separation. The example it provides helps us to see that people need to have a clear and understandable idea of what the issue is and what the outcome needs to be. Before people can give input, it is the responsibility of the leader to communicate and summarize so that everyone involved can understand and engage. And clearly, Ezra did this well, because the response of the people (v. 12) was a resounding “Yes! We are on board and we will do it!”

At this point, the people are given the opportunity to speak into the situation (vv. 13), and the discussion that ensues is a wonderful representation of the importance of giving people a voice. They have heard the issue and the needed outcome, they have expressed absolute support, but they also recognized that there are some factors that need to be considered in the process, because those factors will affect their ability to accomplish the goal. In their stituation, they identified the problem of volume – how many and how much (“there are many people,” and “there are many of us who have transgressed”) – and the problem of physical circumstances (“it is the season for heavy rain”). Very often, it is those who are on the ground floor and in the trenches who are best able to understand what is being faced and how it will impact those involved. The leader may be the one who is best able to “zoom out” and see the big picture, but once you “zoom in,” the people who are carrying out the work of the tasks may be best able to see the details and provide input. They will see things that you miss, and so if they are not given the opportunity to speak, you may be creating obstacles that can greatly hinder the likelihood of accomplishing the goals.

But it didn’t end there. The people knew the obstacles that were causing a challenge, so they were able to offer ideas to solve those issues (v. 14). They proposed a solution that addressed the problem of volume and allowed for the disruption caused by the physical circumstances. Because they were empowered to speak, they got behind the leadership and took ownership of the issue and the solution. Their solution, based on their first-hand knowledge of the circumstances, included identifying representative leaders, arranging a schedule and time frame, establishing a process, and clearly communicating the purpose. This provides a great example of the result and benefit of giving people a voice. When they have the opportunity to participate and contribute, they buy in and take ownership. When that happens, you will have their support and involvement and have a much higher probability of accomplishing the tasks. And keep in mind, because they may have the best picture of the details, they can provide valuable input into a workable solution.

Verses 16 through the end of the chapter reveal that the leaders listened to the people and took their input into consideration when determining the action steps. They then followed that established process, completed the plan, and achieved the goals. But before that happened, verse 15 points out an interesting side note: the proposed solution did not have unanimous support. Several leaders of the people opposed the idea, including at least one spiritual leader. One of them, Meshullam, is also mentioned in Nehemiah 3:4 as someone who was helping to repair the wall in Jerusalem, so I don’t think these individuals were opposed to the goal, just to the process that was proposed. This gives us a good picture of how the process operates in organizations (and how the body of Christ operates): there will likely never be full agreement on anything, but giving the people a voice will bring the best ideas, and it is then the responsibility of the leadership to filter the responses, seek God, and determine the direction. As Seth Godin says in Tribes, “Listen, really listen. Then decide and move on” (2008, p. 128).

Ezra’s leadership shows us the value of giving people a voice. If we don’t do the same, we only make our job more difficult. So I say, “Let the people speak.”