First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end. Aristotle
Many of us, when setting goals, have been exposed to the popular SMART acronym as a guide for our goal-setting. In the standard approach, goals are defined as “good” if they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound.
The more I work with leaders, or teams establishing strategic or tactical plans, the more I believe that while these elements of a goal are ok, they may not cover everything. For example, while a goal may be specific, it is not uncommon for it to still be difficult to understand. We can write a “specific” goal that still has too many elements, or is couched in a language that is hard for our team to grasp. Relevant is a wonderful characteristic as well, but is a broad concept to work with. The question may still linger, “relevant in what way?”
I fully recognize that suggesting a different acronym to follow is just this side of heresy, but I’m going to give it a go anyway. If SMART goals are working for you, then please keep using them. But perhaps you want to consider not just making your goals smart, but instead making them STRONG.
Simple: For a goal to be useful, it has to be understandable. By “simple” I don’t mean it has to be elementary, but it needs to be focused on a single activity and outcome and phrased in a way that is clear to those who see it. Goals that have multiple parts are hard to understand and are difficult to deliver since the employee is unsure of what part of the goal is most important. Goals that are loaded with jargon, or specialized language, are difficult to access. A simple goal for one person may be an overly complicated goal for another person so this is a relative term based on the individual and the task at hand.
Timely: For a goal to be useful it also has to be relevant to the situation at the moment. Each goal should have an importance that is immediate. If you truly want me to make this goal a priority, I have to see how it plays a role in our success right now. This doesn’t mean that all goals are short-term goals, but they need to have a connection to the current moment. If the goal is set for 24 months from now, I need to understand why it is identified as a goal today
Realistic: For a goal to have its desired effect on performance, it has to be seen by the recipient of the goal as somehow possible to achieve. Unrealistic goals create demoralized troops. This is a point of negotiation. If you see the goal as realistic and your follower does not, you need to take the time to explain your thinking in a way that they can see the same reality you do. This does not mean the goal has to be easy…just possible. Our goals should stretch us and push us to achieve more than we think possible at times. But if I don’t see any reality between the current situation and the one you want with the goal, I will likely not engage.
Objective: For goals to be strong, they must be viewed as unbiased and objectively measurable. One of the definitions of “objective” is “having a real existence.” If you want me to attempt to achieve a goal, it has to be termed in a way that it is real. “Making people happy” is not an objective goal. “Improving customer satisfaction” is if I can define what it looks like. If I can define what the goal looks like when achieved, then I have (or can have) a measure attached to the goal.
For some people, this specific element just sounds like another way of saying “measurable” in the standard SMART approach. While an objective goal IS measurable, and should have measures associated with it, I would argue that the focus here is on the concrete nature of the goal, not the measure itself. Telling me that a goal is to achieve a 5% increase in profitability doesn’t tell me anything about the action, it only tells me the expected outcome. The measure may technically BE a goal, but it doesn’t have any essence until that is turned into additional goals that get me there
Necessary: Useless goals are the bane of high-performance. For a follower to be motivated to achieve a goal he or she has to see the value of the goal being pursued. Goals need to be provided in a context of understanding so that employees understand not only the specifics of the goal, but also the goal’s importance in the bigger picture. The necessity of the goal can be a strong performance driver, especially for employees who are personally committed to the overall success of the department or organization.
Grand: Goals need to be aspirational. They need to represent performance that requires ingenuity and persistence. They need to be challenging. Remember that I suggested they are realistic, which means they are not SO grand that they are unattainable. But realistic does not mean that it’s a piece-of-cake…it just means that it is doable. Grand goals are goals that stretch us to grow in ways that mediocre goals do not. Grand goals can be exciting, if they are agreed upon by both the leader and the follower.
Whether SMART or STRONG or some combination of the two, goals that are imposed on people tend to be less successful than those that are established with people. A goal-setting session should be a dialogue…the actual establishment of the goal should be the outcome of the dialogue. “Gifting” your employees with their goals creates confusion about what you mean and what the priorities are. But a goal-setting session where each individual has the opportunity to share in the crafting of the objective can be inspirational in itself.
So here’s a question for you. If you give feedback to a friend or colleague, and they disagree with your perspective or don’t take it well, is the fault for the communication breakdown the fault of the feedback giver or the feedback receiver? On the one hand, many of us don’t want to hear negative feedback about ourselves and immediately go on the defensive when somebody gives it to us, even if it’s in our best interest. On the other hand, it is possible to give somebody feedback who neither agrees nor is particularly open to the feedback we’re giving.
I have had this experience during the last few weeks and the personal research shows one thing. I’m not particularly good at receiving feedback I don’t agree with and I am not good at all receiving feedback that is couched in anything that sounds like, “somebody said to me,” or “other people see it this way.” My kneejerk reaction is to respond as if the feedback giver in this case is simply not owning up to their own opinion. That, plus the fact that I can’t clarify or respond to an unnamed source, pushes a button for me that is difficult to unpush. I then become fairly unreasonable and instead of simply saying, “I see, thanks” I tend to go somewhere beyond annoyed and respond in a way that is neither particularly professional nor personally rewarding.
I honestly take responsibility for this, but it makes me think that those of us who coach and teach about giving feedback tend to always take the point of view that if the receiver of feedback is defensive, it is their problem because they aren’t open-minded enough to listen to our well-intended comment. But as I’ve experienced this a couple of times in the last few weeks, I think there is a principle we tend to ignore: The giver of feedback, rather a manager, a coworker, or a friend, has no more or less of a right to give the feedback than the receiver has to ignore it or be offended by it. The balance of responsibility goes both ways and, as I’ve preached for years, intent has very little to do with it. I don’t know your intent, I only know your behavior, and if you intended to be helpful but I took it as offensive, we have both started down a miscommunication path. If I intend to explain myself and you take it as being petty and defensive, the same thing is true.
The problem is that we communicate ourselves into the mess which means we somehow have to communicate ourselves out of it. And we tend to continue the communication about the content of the interaction rather than about the communication breakdown. So here are a few suggestions when you find yourself in this predicament.
- Stop the conversation about the content long enough to deal with the conversation about the communication. Falling into, “yes, but you were wrong” kinds of comments are still about the content and are going to simply exacerbate the problem.
- Accept that there are at least two parties involved, neither of which probably handled the situation perfectly. That means that the odds are highly stacked that you are likely to also be part of the problem, no matter which of the parties you are.
- Figure out what it was about the delivery or the reception that went wrong. In my case it is almost always that I don’t know when to stop talking and just let things go. In other cases it might be that the timing was off, or the phrasing was too personal. Accept that, if the other person perceives it that way, then it actually WAS that way.
- Stop being righteous. As I said, my problem is that I tend not to stop talking when I should stop talking. That’s because I know I’m “right,” and I am determined to make sure you know that I’m “right” and eventually concede. Feedback shouldn’t be about winning and losing, although once it feels personal, it can go there easily. Ask yourself with each comment whether or not the process is being helped. And if not…stop talking.
- The final one is tough, at least for me. Own your own hurt feelings and let it go. If you were giving the feedback with the best interest of the other person in mind, and they lash out at you, remember that this was always a possibility when you gave the feedback in the first place and that they are likely responding to their own hurt feelings in the process. If you feel angry at the beginning of the process, remember that the person has taken a chance in giving you the feedback in the first place. A little benefit-of-the-doubt goes a long way in both directions.
There’s an old saying about the First Rule of Holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. There are times when the best intentions place us in an awkward, no-win situation. When you’re there, stop digging. Figure out which is most important…that you make your point or that your relationship stays whole. If it is the latter, then you might have to drop the issue regardless of how wrong you think the feedback is or how hard you were trying to help. Once the relationship is broken, it is a much harder task to repair. And in most cases, the content of what is being discussed just simply isn’t worth letting the relationship deteriorate.
One of the key success factors for leaders at all levels is the ability to communicate to others. We spend a lot of time in this blog talking about interpersonal elements of communication and leadership, but the fact remains that it is the rare leader that can avoid making some kind of group presentation. In fact, by definition, leaders have to communicate to groups of people at a time. There has been a lot of study and writing on the act of oral presentation so it would seem that there’s probably not much more we need to learn, eh? As leaders we know we need to “Tell ‘em what we’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em and then tell ‘em what we told ‘em.” At least that’s the conventional wisdom. The problem of course is that being redundant is not only sometimes very boring it is also not a guarantee that our message will have any impact at all.
I generally have an immediate suspicion of conventional wisdom anyway. Typically it became conventional wisdom over a long period of time and is so general as to be not of much use. At the very least, conventional wisdom tends to be…well…conventional. In other words, average is not what we’re after here so perhaps we need to try a little harder. Recent evidence in brain research of participants listening to speakers gives us some ideas as to how we might make presentations to our followers more powerful. Here are three ideas for example that are not likely to be intuitive or in your basic speech workshop:
1. Focus on multiple processing: Very often leaders approach communication to groups of people as information dumps. A few charts, a bunch of numbers, and that’s about it. Then they wonder why nobody seems to remember what they said. Research however indicates that the more diversity in the presentation, not just with information but with our senses, the more likely we are to retain the information. Most speakers stick to audio and visual, but are there some ways you can bring your message alive by activity within the group. Can you pass out an object or have them engage in an activity to illustrate your point. The more ways they have to experience the information the more likely they are to retain it.
2. Be “level” with the audience: Of course we have been trained to do this through a story or joke or whatever else we throw into the introduction of the speech, but connecting with the audience is really about being a credible and trustworthy source. Be real and authentic. Avoid acting out the power position. For example, if these are employees within your company or department do you really need a formal introduction? Do your assistants really need to be visible to everybody all of the time? Come down the hierarchy for a while and really speak with your folks.
3. Tie into existing knowledge: While every presentation should have a unique component (otherwise, why are you doing it?) participants can make meaning of your discussion more easily if it is related to stuff they already know. Whether it is a continuation of an earlier presentation, connected to current events, or even product related, it is helpful to overtly tie your new information to previously understood content. The more you can help the audience make the connection, the less cognitive effort it takes for them to figure it out on their own. One thing stands out above all others when it comes to making presentations with impact. If you are not considering your audience in the process of creating your speech, you will not be as effective as you could be.
Speaking is all about the audience. If you have others who are creating your speech, make sure that they are doing it from the perspective of the receiver. No matter how powerful a leader you are, if you stand there and tell us what you think is important, without considering what is important to us and how we can best understand the information, your presentations will fall short every time.
There has long been a debate when looking at the effective organizational approach to change. The question is this. For effective change to take place, does one first change the organizational structure and systems and then adapt a strategy (and human strategy as well) to fit the new structure and system, or does one start with the strategy and mindset changes and then adapt the systems and structure to fit it?
This is one of those interesting leadership questions because, if you have an answer, you probably believe it is the only logical answer to have. Of course my answer is one of those amazingly frustrating answers for many people. I believe it depends on the change being instituted and the context of the specific leadership and organizational challenge.
In my opinion, it is possible for a full scale and successful change initiative to be instigated by the recognition that current systems, hierarchies and processes are either producing less than desirable results or, more likely, are not creating results quickly enough. This is a carry over from the industrial age that we haven’t quite settled yet. Systems that create efficiency and run at the lowest cost are not necessarily the same systems that create the greatest speed or quality. As I’ve written here before, the obsession with cost reduction has created many organizations that now find themselves able to do things inexpensively, but without innovation or speed to market.
On the other hand, organizations that have flat structures, few complex processes and an innovative mindset are not immune to dealing with change. Many of these innovative companies (Google, 3M, Apple) have come to recognize that their cowboy mindset worked well in good times, but did not prepare them for the more team-oriented approach that may be necessary today. Yes, these companies have had teams forever, but the kind of collaboration that is necessary now is so entirely cross functional and focused that few organizations are accustomed to it. These aren’t organizational design issues…these are internal issues. In these cases, the mindset has to change first, and the design will follow.
I believe what is most important is the manner in which the change process is approached. First of all, we should quit acting as if the “change process” is a unique and perhaps frequent stand alone event. In the current environment, change is not separate from leadership…it IS leadership. Second, for either design driven or internal driven change to work, stakeholders have to be enlisted early in the game. We have become a complex environment and diverse perspectives will provide the framework for understanding what and how change will enable the new corporate.
Finally, we have to get away from believing that there is one way to either make change happen or even to describe the phenomenon that occurs during change within an organization. We have become comfortable with approaches and theories that date back to a much more stable and industrial age. For change to work, leaders have to have open minds and hearts and be willing to understand that they don’t understand.
I know most of you regularly read the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health so forgive me if I repeat something you already know here. (Actually, I don’t read it either…it was a citation in a Bloomberg News story). Anyway, a group of researchers from Sweden found that those who suppress their anger in the workplace are more likely to suffer from heart attack or die from heart disease. Especially among men, the act of simply walking away or trying to ignore an anger-inducing event can be detrimental to long-term heart health it seems. So, of course, those who have reported on this story suggest that rather than walking away, the cause of the anger should be confronted fairly quickly and directly.
This is not the first study that has made this kind of link between concealed strong emotions and stress-related illness. It makes sense. If I am frustrated at work and nothing happens to relieve this frustration, then all of the physiological (and psychological) symptoms of stress will eventually have their toll. However, the point is not to share the fact that you are angry. The point is to deal with, and remove or offset, the stressor.
There is an entire generation or so that believes that health comes from the free expression of emotions. It is almost an entitlement belief—I have this emotion, I have a right to this emotion, and I have the right to share this emotion with you. The problem is that this is a very limited solution and one that has great potential to backfire. Express a negative emotion, whether it is frustration, annoyance, disbelief and the like, is almost guaranteed to provoke a negative response in the receiver. Focusing on your emotion alone creates an environment of blame and, while you may think you feel better in the end, it is rarely productive.
An alternative is to “own” your emotion but express your concern and issue. By owning how I feel about something I am recognizing that it is not YOU who made me feel this way. Your behavior has prompted something in ME that makes me feel this way, but you aren’t the holder of my emotions. You may, however, be the source—or part of the source—of the problem. With productive conflict and respectful confrontation, you can relate to your boss, peers or employees that you are angry or unhappy or upset. But more importantly, you need to address the activities, behaviors or outcomes that are prompting stress for you.
It is easier to describe productive conflict than it is to actually do it, but here is what it looks like:
1. Dialogue rather than debate. The purpose of the conversation is not to win the conversation but to come to a mutual understanding about the issues and the consequences of those issues (for example…your anger, disappointment, whatever).
2. Describing rather than dramatizing. Unleashing emotions is often an attack mode that provokes a defense and personal response. Describing your stressor in terms of what it is or what they do makes it possible sometimes to defuse the highly charged energy around a topic long enough to make headway on getting it solved.
3. Collaboration versus competition. The way we chose to express our concerns sometimes is as if we need to “win” the conversation. Winning usually means the other person has seen the “truth” and admitted that they are wrong. This approach does nothing for changing the culture to one of greater engagement in general. Collaboration, on the other hand, assumes that we are both interested in solving the issue without humiliating each other.
While these ideas are easy to read, they are difficult to put into place if they are not habitual already. The way to start is to decide one thing…for example, collaboration versus competition. Check yourself when you find that you are making a simple matter a competition. Take a minute just to reflect on whether or not this is how it should be. Small changes can make big differences.
June 30, 2014