Preventing Work From Home Burnout

In my coaching and consulting business, I hear leaders ask all the time how they can make sure that people are being productive while they’re at home. I especially hear this from those that work in a hybrid office, that is an office where some people work in the office and some people work from home.

Leaders are so focused on this productivity question that they ignore the other side of the equation. This other side of the equation is what is happening to people who are at home. Contrary to a common belief that people enjoy staying at home and that it’s almost a vacation, working from home can be very challenging. I have heard many stories of parents being forced to school and entertain their kids continually, all while trying to work with slow Wi Fi, a kitchen table for a desk, maybe a closet for an office and the inability to walk down a hall to somebody else’s office to get answers.

And the worst of it all is knowing that the people back in the office think they’re all just goofing off. This has an extremely negative and long-term impact on the stay at home workforce. It lowers productivity, increases anxiety and stress. And it causes turnover.

The current situation is unlikely to go away anytime soon. It’s most likely that we’ll be living with work from home and hybrid offices for some time to come. So, what do we do to improve this situation?

Start with being flexible. We often think of flexibility as simply allowing people to work from home. But this is far from the truth. Many companies, for example, will insist that employees are at their computers continually during the workday. Some of them even have high tech monitoring systems to make sure that their workers are always at their computer. While this may be necessary sometimes, leaders should really consider if it is essential to have all their employees sitting at their computer all the time in all situations.  Allowing asynchronous communication, which is being able to respond in their own time frame, can really ease the burden on those working from home while giving competitive advantage to the organization. However, with the proliferation of text messaging and instant messaging, we have created an expectation of synchronous communication.  We expect instantaneous feedback and instantaneous response. Maybe it’s time to revisit this.  Allowing people to respond in their own timeframe really eases the stress.

Be respectful of time and breaks, especially if you’re leading a team that works across multiple time zones. Finding a time that is reasonable for each participant helps enormously, even if that means you must rotate your schedule, so that nobody gets stuck with that dreaded midnight Zoom meeting. Also, make sure you allow time for the work-from-home people to have breaks where they’re not expected to be on. This is nothing more than being consistent with how things work in the office. There are times when people go to lunch have a coffee break, etc.. Allow your work-at-home people to do the same.

Check in with your people. People working from home often feel invisible or disconnected especially if you’re in a hybrid office. Make sure that you are proactively reaching out. Many of the people who work at home aren’t going to feel comfortable just reaching out to you. They will continue to work invisibly unless you proactively reach out to them.

Work from home burnout is a very real danger to organizations today and going forward. Take proactive steps today to head this off and keep your at home employees in a good space.

How to Give Tough Feedback

Giving feedback is an important part of any leader’s job. It’s also one of the most difficult things for a leader to bring themselves to do, especially when the feedback is critical.

There are different reasons for this discomfort. Many leaders worry about whether someone’s going to be angry, or somebody’s going to cry. Or they worry about not being liked or not being popular with their team. And sometimes, they just don’t know what to say.

This often leads to leader trying to mix in tough feedback with positive feedback, like a sandwich. We’ve all seen this. We’ve all had people say, you did a great job, but you could have done this better, but you’re doing a great job still. Almost like they can’t make up their mind.

The problem with this approach is simply, it doesn’t work. Some people will hear the sandwich and focus on the positive; especially if they have a strong ego. They will tune out the negative. In other words, they won’t hear the feedback that you want them to hear.

Others will pick out the middle of that sandwich and take the negative too seriously. And then many will just plain be confused with mixed messages that you’re sending out. None of these outcomes will lead to better performance, which is what you want.

Leaders who truly make an impact with their team follow a three-step approach to giving tough feedback.

  1. They describe the behavior that they want to correct. The key word here is describe. It’s not a judgmental statement. For example, they won’t say ‘you were really careless in submitting that proposal’. Rather they describe the behavior as it appeared. Something like, ‘I noticed that you did not review their proposal before submitting it’.
  2. They talk about the impact of the behavior. An impactful leader will say something like ‘the proposal contained errors which lowered our chances of getting approval’. Now, if this is an ongoing issue, they might also talk about the impact of this issue on their relationship ‘this is creating a trust issue between us. This is creating friction’. It’s important for the person getting the feedback to understand the implications not only on the work itself, but on the relationship that they have with their leader.
  3. They tell the employee what they would like them to do going forward. This should be direct and specific. In the above example, it could be something like asking them to review the proposal before submitting. Another way to approach this is to adopt a coaching approach and ask them what they can do differently to avoid these mistakes in the future. But be careful here. If you have one specific thing in mind that you want them to do, don’t ask them what they would do. You will be putting them in a situation where they have to guess what it is that you want. And it’s not really a fair thing to do to anybody.

Being direct with your feedback and focusing clearly on a behavior you want them to work on, is a far more effective way of driving results than beating around the bush and trying to spare their feelings. Incorporate that into your feedback approach and you will see much better results!

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How can I make sure my employees are really working from home?

This is one of the most common questions that I get in my coaching consulting practice. How can I make sure my employees are really working from home? How do I know they aren’t messing with their children or doing laundry or cleaning out the refrigerator? My answer is usually something along the lines of ‘well, are they getting the necessary work done?’ While this is a good enough answer, the topic does merit more discussion.

At the root of this question is trust. Somehow, it seems that people we once trusted when they were down the hall, are now called into question when they’re at home. The same people! Some of this lack of trust is merited.  During the scramble last Spring to somehow make work from home actually work, obligations were missed. When you combine this with general anxiety about the virus and the economy, technology difficulties, shifting office and home expectations, we can see why trust was eroded initially.

But why does it persist? Let’s dive deeper. In order to have trust in their colleagues, people need to believe two things.

First, they need to believe that others are competent, that they will deliver and that their delivery will be of high quality.

Second, they have to believe that their colleagues have good intentions, high integrity, and have the company’s best interests at heart.

For these beliefs to be present, people need to see what their colleagues are doing and why they are doing it. And they need to see that they will continue to do it. They need to see that they’re reliable. In a remote environment, there is less opportunity to see these things in action. This lack of evidence makes it difficult for trust to exist psychologically.

So, now that we know the issue, what do we do about it?  Chances are working remotely is not going away anytime soon, so how do we learn to live with it?

I’m going to start with what not to do, and that is monitoring. There is a trend out there to try to increase monitoring, either through technology, or through continual check ins. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. Any leader who thinks they can track all of their employee’s behaviors is deluding themselves. Not to mention the fact that people will naturally spend their time figuring out ways to beat the monitoring system. And on top of that, monitoring creates high stress and anxiety for the employees. A recent study showed that 49% of employees are experiencing more anxiety when monitoring technologies are put into place. This is certainly not something that is productive. It’s not something we want in our culture.

Now that we know monitoring doesn’t work, what does work? The good news is that psychology provides us some tools.

First, become trustworthy yourself. Research has consistently shown that the more that you trust somebody else, the more that they will trust you in return. So, turn this around and make it work for you as a leader. Develop your employees’ trust in you so that you will have the confidence that they will reciprocate.

The next thing to do is communicate often as leaders. We usually communicate when things are changing. We’re pretty good at that. Something new comes up, we let people know. But with the pace of change coming so fast, you also have to make sure that you communicate about things that aren’t changing. When you do this it reminds people there is stability.  Having this knowledge of stability goes a long way toward building trust.

Finally, recognize that everyone is different when it comes to trust. Some people tend to trust right away. They’re naturally trustworthy. Others need evidence.

The bottom line is that remote work isn’t going away anytime soon. And being able to build trusting relationships with your people will be crucial in the coming years. Put in the effort and you will gain more and more comfort with remote environment.

Span of Control

A hot topic that comes up a lot in my coaching and consulting work and an area where I do a lot of work with organizations, is span of control.  How many direct reports should I have?

What is Span of Control?

Span of Control refers to the number of direct reports that you have within an organization. The more subordinates, the larger span of control. Conversely, fewer direct reports means a smaller span of control.

Span of Control in Management and Leadership

In an era of flatter and flatter organizations, the full implications of span of control are often overlooked. Organizations often focus on putting as many people as they can underneath a manager. It’s a much more complex and important decision. Having a wrong span of control can really create deep and significant issues in an organization.

Having a span of control that is too small, will lead to higher costs and extra layers creating an organization that can be disjointed, slow and misaligned. On the other side of the coin, having too large of a span of control can lead to underperformance, lack of quality, lack of good quality leadership time, and turnover.

What is a Manageable Span of Control?

What is the magic number? The reality is, there is no magic number, it depends on circumstances.  When determining how many direct reports a leader should have, there’s four key questions to consider.

  1. How much actual work does a leader have to do? By actual work I mean what kind of deliverables do they handle personally. Are they responsible for a lot of individual work? Or do they spend most of their time on managerial and leadership tasks? Large amounts of individual work would indicate a smaller span of control is needed.
  2. How standard is the work that their employees perform? Is a leader managing a department where everybody does virtually the same work like a manufacturing line or an accounts payable department? Or are the workers doing a variety of different things? Generally speaking, the more standardized the work, the larger the span of control can be.
  3. How independent are the people that the leader manages? Is a leader involved heavily in a day to day, minute to minute kind of stuff, or do they only get involved with exceptions? The rule of thumb here is, the more independent people are, larger the span of control can be for the leader.
  4. What is the learning curve for new people? How long does it take for them to become self-sufficient? And how much work does it take for the leader to help bring them up to speed? The longer the learning curve the smaller the span of control should be but with one caveat. Having a team with high tenure and low turnover will lessen the importance of this question.

The bottom line is that although it is tempting when designing your organization to pile on a lot of direct reports it’s important to take a rational, thoughtful approach to making these decisions.

Getting this right will make a huge difference in effectiveness of your organization, and the success of your business. Take the time to look at the spans of control of your organization today. You will no doubt learn a few things. And you may even find that the true cause behind some of these nagging people problems that just never seem to go away.

Key to Innovation in the Workplace

Today’s topic is innovation. Innovation can mean breakthroughs, disruptions, or it can be as simple as basic everyday process innovations. Whatever the type of innovation, one thing is for sure…. the ability of a business to continue moving forward advance its capabilities is a key component of success for that business.

Is your organization an innovation-friendly workplace?  What does it even mean to have an innovation friendly workplace?

Well, the key to having an organization that is ready to innovate is to create an environment of psychological safety, a place where people feel safe to take risks and to be vulnerable in front of each other.

I know this might unfortunately run contrary to what many of us have been taught as we’ve gone through our careers. Too many of us have been exposed to bosses and leaders and organizations who lead by fear. Many have been exposed to entire cultures, based on a belief that fear and greed are the best ways to motivate.

This could not be further from the truth. Think about it. When people feel afraid are they going to give it their all? Will they be open to sharing their ideas or will they be playing it safe? Will they be avoiding risk for fear of losing their job, or being called out or being embarrassed and humiliated?

Psychological Safety

The thing is that in a fear based environment, people play a defensive game. They focus on survival. They don’t focus on winning. The good news is that leaders can create an environment of psychological safety. It starts with trust. People need to trust that their leaders and organizations have their best interests at heart. And this has to happen through visible actions, not through vision statements, core values, missions, or even through best intentions. It has to be through actions and behaviors.

The other really important thing here is that leaders need to consider how they handle failure. Too often, failure becomes a time for recriminations. It’s a time for hunting down someone to blame. It’s a time for covering your ass. Psychological safety and in turn innovation is created when leaders look at failure through the lens of learning instead. How could the failure have been avoided? And what are we going to change going forward so that we prevent failing in that same way again?

The bottom line is that creating this environment of psychological safety will enable an innovative culture and will help you and your organization ensure that you are agile enough to be competitive in an increasingly changing marketplace.

Show Your People the Love

Today’s blog post is a special Valentine’s week edition. In honor of that, today I’m going to talk about love in the workplace. Now, wait! This is not what you’re thinking. There’s no need to go running to human resources just yet…..

What I’m really talking about is showing your employees love. We spend so much time in the workplace, would it not be better for everyone if they felt that they were cared for and loved—and returned that love? What a great way to bring employee engagement into your business.

Here are six ways that you can show the love.

  1. Get to know your employees. Empathize with your employees. Both in their day to day jobs and also in their lives outside of work.
  2. Recognize talent and performance. When people excel, recognize them. Show appreciation and gratitude and encourage them. Be intentional about this. Make it part of your daily tasks to make sure that you allocate the time to do this continually and consistently.
  3. Show up for your employees. Don’t hide behind your door. Take it a step beyond open door policies, be that person that they can go to when they need help both on the job and in their personal lives.
  4. Be present when they come to you. Put down the cell phone. Look away from the email. And most of all, listen to what they have to say.
  5. Help your employees grow. Provide them with developmental opportunities. This can be a traditional training class of course, but more importantly make sure you’re giving them exposure and experiences that will truly help them grow. This exposure is a very effective part of leadership development.
  6. Encourage their interests. Allow them the opportunity to pursue those things that they are passionate about, both on the job and off it. Ask them about these things and engage in a dialogue with them.

Doing these things and showing your employees the love will help create a workplace that you can be proud of. A workplace that you personally look forward to coming to every day.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Developing High Potentials

Today’s topic is how to grow your high potentials. This is an area that I am excited about, because it has such an impact on a business, not only in the future, but also right now. Having been a high potential for much of my career, and having reached a top spot in my profession, I have personal knowledge, interest and passion around this topic. And, having been responsible for the development of hundreds of high potentials, I’ve got a little bit of experience as well. This is a topic that could really take a long time. There could be a whole course that I teach about this, and someday there might be, but today, I will give you some quick pointers.

  1. Identify your high potentials. Make sure that you know who your real high potentials are. High performance does not necessarily equal high potential. I’ve seen this mistake over and over and over again. The reality is that most high performers are high performers because they are in their wheelhouse. They’re really good at performing at that level and doing what they’re good at. When you’re trying to determine who is going to be a high potential, performance is only a part of it. You should also be looking for people that master things quickly and have an appetite for more. High potentials will also be the ones that have interpersonal relationship strengths, big picture perspectives, and a make it happen, results oriented mindset.
  2. Ask them what they want. Be open about it and ask that they be open with you. Development planning should be a dialogue. It should be between both people, open, transparent, talking about what is needed by the organization and what is desired by the high potential.
  3. Invest more in your high potentials. I’ve seen many times in my career where leaders will basically have this need or this desire to give everybody the same exact amount of developmental resources, money and time. They want to treat everybody equal because they think it’s a fair thing to do. That is absolutely not what you should do when it comes to developing your people and especially developing high potentials. Think of your developmental resources the same as you would any other corporate resource. Spend it where you will get the most return.
  4. Help high potentials identify their blind spots. This is a great spot for coaching whether it be by their leader, others in the organization, or outside coaches. High potentials, by definition, have a lot of strengths. But they also have blind spots. As a leader you can and should shine a light on these blind spots and help your high potentials identify them and keep their career on track.
  5. Get your senior executives involved. This is great for aligning the high potential with the direction of the company. Another benefit is that it provides visibility. It allows a high potential to interact with senior leaders to understand what they’re looking for, what it takes, and just what the whole situation is like. Also, it helps senior leaders and senior executives get to know the high potential. They’re going to be playing a big role in the advancement and development of that high potential. So, having that visibility is very important.
  6. Get your high potentials out of their box. Get them out of that job box area and expose them to bigger things—the department, the company, and even outside the organization and industry. Let them see what’s out there so they can then take those perspectives and apply it to their own situations.
  7. Let them take risks. Make sure you stretch them. You want high potentials willing to put themselves out there and take chances. Don’t set them up for catastrophic failure, but by all means challenge them, push them and allow them to fail and learn.

High potentials can be a real differentiator for your business. They can make a difference not only in the future, not only with succession plans, but they can make a real impact on your business right now. So put some investment in your high potentials and you will set yourself up for success both now and later.

Out of the Box Leadership Development

I have spent more than 25 years working on leadership development (I know this comes as a shock since I look so young….but there you have it). I have learned that there are so many different ways to go about this and none of these ways is right or wrong. It all just depends upon the circumstances.

Today, I want to focus in on one area. I want to talk about an aspect of leadership development that is often overlooked… what I call ‘out of the box leadership development’.

What does ‘out of the box leadership development’ mean? Think of your current job as a box. You spend most of your time in that box, following a job description, working on your personal goals, etc.. While obviously this is what you are being paid to do, you can develop your leadership skills further by stretching and getting out of ‘the box’.

Start by looking at things not from only the box that is your job, but from a departmental standpoint. Walk in the shoes of others in your department. Spend time understanding what others on your team are doing. This will help you gain appreciation and trust for others in your group and will help you understand a slightly bigger picture.

Once you have spent time in your departmental box, I want to take you to take the next step and get out of that department box. Step into the whole organization box. When you do that, you’re going to learn what other people in the organization are experiencing. Your perspective will get even larger, you will start seeing things from the view of a top line executive.

Once you have stepped out of those boxes, there is an even bigger box to step out of. To truly grow as a high level leader, get outside of your organization. This can be within your industry, or even better, outside of your industry. There are many different ways to do this. Some examples include organizations such as chambers of commerce, industry organizations, or mastermind groups. Once you’re really able to step out of that organization box, you can really grow.

Think about what happens when you are growing within your organization. You are surrounded by people who do a lot of different things, but they’re all still working towards the same goal, they still face more or less the same types of issues. When you are able to step out of this box you’re going to be exposed to a broader array of problems and opportunities. It will create a great foundation for you to solve an even wider range of problems, by applying a diverse set of knowledge to your own issues. In other words, you will be expanding your toolkit!

My challenge to you this week is to think about leadership development in a different way. Think about how you can get outside of your box now and start truly growing.