Our brain is hard-wired to look for things we are interested in and filter out the rest. One part of the brain that causes this is the Reticular Activating System or RAS. The RAS gives us only information that is important to us. How does it now what’s important? Just start looking for something. Need a new washing machine? You’ll likely notice washing machines on sale in this week’s paper. Thinking of buying a new car? You’ll likely see the model you want driving on the highway in greater numbers than you ever imagined. You are not seeing washing machine sales, or an abundance of your favorite cars on the road because of mere coincidence. You are seeing them because your RAS is helping you look for them. If you weren’t interested in those items, they would have normally been filtered out. So what’s this got to do with leadership?
Most of us will agree we have learned valuable lessons from our past leadership role models. Maybe a good supervisor (or a bad one) has influenced your leadership style. We typically pick and choose to adopt good leadership traits from others, while trying to avoid the bad traits. But we should never stop learning from the examples of others. Good and bad leadership examples are all around us every day if we just look – if we just use our RAS.
If look for good and bad leadership examples, the RAS automatically kicks in and I’m usually not disappointed. Recently while in SC, I was impressed by the hospitality of the hotel staff where I was staying (even the maintenance guy and the cleaning lady were super friendly). I complimented the manager on having the good fortune to have such a staff. “Oh, it’s no accident,” he said. “We train a few minutes every day with our entire staff for those results.” Wow! Train for the results you want. There’s something you don’t see put into practice every day. A couple weeks later I was driving on the NJ Turnpike and stopped at a rest area. As I entered the building, I heard a manager yelling at the employee of a pretzel vender for treating a customer poorly. The manager was yelling in front of the customer, and about 100 other people walking by. I could see that both the customer and the employee were embarrassed. I was glad I wasn’t the next guy in line for a pretzel. What a horrible way to deal with employees.
There was a time when I might not have given either of these incidents a passing thought. But I know how important it is to look for good and bad examples of leadership. Once you start looking, your RAS will begin helping you and you’ll begin to notice these examples popping up everywhere. Then all you have to do is apply what you’ve learned.
TIP: Start looking for good and bad leadership examples, and you’ll begin seeing them every day.
Have you ever gone to a seminar or conference, heard some great ideas and tried to implement when you got back to your organization only to hit a brick wall? Have you ever read a leadership book with a new concept you thought would benefit your employees, but when you tried to make the change they fought you every step of the way? Personal and work history has trained people to resist change, and resistance works.
Even if employees spend their day complaining about the way things are, change of any kind is uncomfortable even if it’s in their best interest. So you go to a conference or read a book, and you want to implement your latest idea because it will be good for the employees. But your employees have seen it before – you trying new things. They know if they fight, resist, complain, or even ignore your efforts for a few days that there is a good chance you’ll give up and go back to the way things were.
Most people resist change to one degree or another. So let’s say you want to interact more with your employees. Some employees are going to be slow to adapt to the new you. They’ve seen it before and know that is a strong likelihood that when it appears not to work, you’ll go back to your old ways in a few days. If you stick with it, you may see improved communications, but some will continue to resist. In fact, a few will see conspiracy in everything you do, and feel that your latest efforts are proof of their distorted beliefs. Some employees will never adapt, and continually complain about the way things are while resisting your every effort to implement change.
Those employees exist everywhere. They are like a brick wall, and it’s tiring banging your ahead against a brick wall. Implement new ideas for the betterment of your employees because they are needed or because it’s the right thing to do. Then realize that there are employees (they might even be your silent majority) who after some initial resistance will quietly welcome your new ideas. But acknowledge that there may be some employees who will never buy what you’re selling. Don’t let those “brick walls” stop you or your ideas from making positive changes in your employee’s work environment. Go over or around brick walls so that needed changes occur.
TIP: Sometimes it is easier to go over or around a brick wall than through it.
Employee morale is influenced largely by three factors: work environment; job satisfaction; and interaction with supervisors and coworkers. As a supervisor you have the ability to influence all three – especially their work environment.
Too many leaders think work environment has to do with the condition of the physical workplace (the station), vehicles, or other material aspects of the job. In reality, the work environment is determined to a great extent by the actions of the immediate supervisor. Of course everyone would like a new building, a new office, or new equipment to work with, but even the most caring supervisor may be unable to provide such costly fixes. Material fixes don’t last long as a morale influencer anyway. What does work and what employees do want (even if they won’t admit it) is a supervisor who cares about them.
How do you show employees you care? Make sure they have the equipment to do their job; hold people accountable; recognize people for good work; and show them by action (not just words) that you care about their wellbeing and that of their family. In future weekly tips I’ll explain exactly how to do that, but for now it’s important just to know that it is entirely within your power to show you care.
Know that any change you make in the way you lead or interact with employees is a change in their work environment. Something as seemingly insignificant as going from being overly task oriented (maybe you’re the hardest working policy-writing, budget-planning, it’s-all-about-the-job supervisor you know), to taking a few minutes each day to talk individually with those under your immediate supervision about things that matter to them is a major change in THEIR work environment. And while that alone may not be a cure-all for every problem, it’s a great place to start.
TIP: Any change in YOU is a change in THEIR work environment.
I was asked in one of my seminars if people can ever really change. I said they can if THEY want to. You as a supervisor can change behavior (at least while they are at work), but you can’t necessarily change a person.
Attitude is how a person feels about someone or something. You probably know people with chronically negative attitudes. Maybe it’s their character, or maybe it’s their personality. There are lots of causes of negative attitudes. As leaders, we can even address some of those causes. The problem is that sometimes we focus too much on attitude and not enough on behavior.
If you have an employee who is chronically late for work, always wears a dirty wrinkled uniform, and leaves food wrappers on the counter in the station every night, you might describe such a person as lazy. But telling him he is lazy or a slob or that he seems not to care about anything won’t necessarily get him to change his behavior.
As leaders, our focus should be on behavior – in this case unacceptable behavior. As a supervisor, you absolutely can stop him from being late. You can point out the appropriate start time, and if need be you can point out the consequences for being late again. The employee can change his behavior either because of his respect for you as his supervisor (you have built a trusting work relationship and he doesn’t want to disappoint you again), or he change because he knows there will be consequences for failing to comply. Either way, how he feels about it – his attitude – is really much less important than making sure the behavior (his performance) meets whatever standard you as a supervisor deem appropriate.
TIP: Focus your efforts on your employee’s behavior, not their attitude.
When I was in the Coast Guard, I spent two years stationed aboard the tall ship Eagle. Although the ship was a sailing barque, it did have an engine (we named it Elmer), and I worked in the engine room. The way the engine worked on the Eagle was this. When the ship was under sail, the propeller shaft was disengaged from the engine and spun freely so as not to create drag. Sometimes the engine would be running, and sometimes not, but when we were under sail it had no effect on the forward movement of the ship. But if the Captain ordered the engine to be engaged, we pulled a heavy lever called the Sail Clutch which engaged the propeller shaft to the reduction gears connecting it to the engine.
Imagine your organization as that ship – an organization you want to move forward. Your leadership efforts are like the engine – good old Elmer, and your employees are like the propeller. It doesn’t matter if the engine is at full speed, unless the engine is connected to the propeller it will not move the ship. If you are working at full speed but not connected to your employees, you’ll fail to make any progress. By the way, no one will stop you. They’ll just let you keep on running at full speed wasting your energy for no purpose. You need to find your own sail clutch to engage your employees. Find a way to connect your hard work with their potential. The best sail clutch to engage your employees is clear, assertive communication. Don’t leave room for guessing.
Engagement happens with individuals not groups. It happens one day at a time, not overnight. Find out what is important to them. Have conversations about that even if it’s not work related. Listen, really listen. No multi-tasking while they are talking. Look them in the eye when you are talking to them, not over your shoulder while you’re typing on your computer. No trying to tell better stories. They don’t care about your stories. If they send you an email, please respond (even if you don’t think it’s a question). Get out of your office and go to their work area to reduce formality. A better connection always occurs when you go to them rather than waiting for them to come to you. Ask questions, and then ask follow up questions. It’s not that hard, but it does require inititive – yours.
One third of high school graduates never read another book in their life after high school. Over 42% of college graduates never read another book after graduation. With so few readers, is there any wonder that there is a leadership vacuum in the United States? I read non-fiction books all the time, and still feel I don’t read enough. I constantly scan Amazon for new leadership related books, and visit bookstores when I travel to my presentations, continually searching for that new concept or idea I can pass along to my audiences. If you want to become a committed student of leadership (and you should), you need to read – a lot. You don’t always have to agree with the whole book or any of it for that matter. There is no requirement to “Drink the Kool-Aid” as some might say. Just search for those little gems – those tiny take-a-ways that might make reading the whole book worth your valuable time. Sometimes it’s just a single page or a sentence – maybe an abstract concept, but there’s almost always something of value in any non-fiction book you read.
I learned the importance of reading leadership books from people like Gordon Graham – one of my law enforcement leadership mentors. Gordon even gave me advice on how to read leadership books, and that advice was reemphasized by one of my favorite authors and fellow National Speaking Association member – Larry Winget.
In his book “Shut Up, Stop Whining, and Get a Life” Larry offers some great reading suggestions. I’ve summarized Larry’s ideas here and combined them with Gordon’s and my own. Here are seven basic rules for reading leadership books.
- Buy the book. Don’t borrow it from the library or a friend. They’re not that expensive. They are simple a tool, and you need your own tools.
- Mark it up. Use a highlighter to mark those sections that are important to you. Use a pen to write in the margins. Always read your books with a highlighter and pen.
- Don’t loan anyone your books. See rule #1. You’ll probably never get it back, and if they follow rule #2, it will have highlighted sections that are important to them and not you.
- Read several books at one time. It’s OK to have bathroom books, travel books, and books on the night stand all at the same time. Some books (and locations) are more conducive to a very short read, and some are better for a long read (like on a plane). Be a sponge and soak up the information wherever you are.
- If you decide the book has nothing to offer you, don’t be afraid to stop reading that book part way through it. Just pick up a new book and start fresh. You don’t have to force yourself to complete really bad books. Time is too valuable and there are too many good books to read.
- Set aside reading time each day. An hour is ideal, but even 15 minutes is better than nothing. Everyone can find some time during the day whether it’s an official “reading time”, or just a few minutes at breakfast, at bedtime (or in the bathroom).
- Go through your old non-fiction books once each year. Just read the highlighted parts, and the notes you wrote in the margins.
To download a free PDF version of my Leadership Reading List, go to www.ronglidden.com/contact-info.html
Chief Ron Glidden
Have you ever worked with a morale killer? You know who I’m talking about – those people who suck every bit of enjoyment out of your job. They can be found everywhere – in every size organization. They thrive on negativity and promote low morale. They cause reduced productivity, burnout, stress, sick time abuse, employee turnover, conflicts between coworkers, and negative interactions with the public. They drain your energy and your budget. They exist for lots of reasons, but the sad truth is we allow them to spread their poison in our organizations because we hate confrontation – at least with coworkers and subordinates. We may have to tolerate negative attitudes (we can’t write a policy that forces everyone to be happy), but when attitudes evolve into unacceptable behavior, real leaders draw the line. Don’t tolerate behavior you determine to be unacceptable in your workforce. If you want to improve morale, you must hold people accountable.
Chief Ron Glidden (Ret.)