One Phrase Worth Rethinking

I recently had a discussion with a young lady that was exasperated at an ongoing conflict she was having with a co-worker. The conflict started on a separate project several months ago and now they were working on something new together and all he could do was put her down and make her feel stupid and insignificant. Since in this case they had no choice but to work together, she was exhausted and highly stressed at the idea of having to go through this with him again. I asked her if she had spoken to him directly about her concerns in light of this new project. Her response was a very common phrase:

“I shouldn’t have to.”

Her reasoning was that they had spoken before and that she had made herself crystal clear yet already he was starting to give her “those looks” again that indicated how useless he thought she was. Since they had talked about this before, she felt he ought to know how that these looks and the tone of voice he used were condescending and insulting. She was emotionally exhausted having to be on his team again.

You can see there is a lot for our young lady to get her head around about her own accountability, but look at that last sentence again. “He ought to know how to act in this situation.”

I have seen many people (myself included) brought to a complete halt by the “I shouldn’t have to” mentality an interpersonal conflict situation. “I shouldn’t have to” assumes (a) “rightness” on the side of the person saying it and (b) some kind of justice that exists between us and all of those with whom we have relationships. In fact, when it comes to conflict situations, “I shouldn’t have to apologize” is one of the most common walls erected to resolution. It means, “I am not to blame, she is, therefore it is she who needs to apologize.”

The problem is that “I shouldn’t have to” is often entirely irrelevant. The real issue is whether the potential outcome of DOING it would outweigh the protection of pride involved in NOT DOING it. And that’s what “I shouldn’t have to” is often about. It is my own ego interpreting the situation as if taking whatever action this is will put me in a subordinate position. And that position becomes more important than the actual resolution of the issue.

Of course there are times where the situation has become extreme enough that you have to put your foot down and say enough is enough. This is an example of ownership of your role in the situation and taking a stand. Unfortunately, “I shouldn’t have to” is a phrase of inaction…it sometimes represents why we are not going to do something in the specific situation that might, in reality, make a difference.

Before deciding that I just don’t understand the jerks you work with (and I don’t…but they aren’t that different from jerks others work with…trust me), ask yourself a couple of questions before sticking to your “shouldn’t have to” plea.

  1. What are the consequences of action versus inaction? Is it possible that doing what you “shouldn’t have to do” might break the stalemate?
  2. Is it possible that you are now trying to make a point rather than trying to solve the problem?
  3. Is it possible that the other party doesn’t realize that you are waiting for them to do something? How would they know?
  4. Is it possible that your stand is based on a lack of confidence rather than real justification?

And by the way, don’t let me sound too righteous here as this is a trap I fall into as frequently as anybody. I often have to ask myself who I’m helping and whether or not it is really worth it. The big question for me is often, “Is this really a principle I’m standing on or is it pettier than that?” If it’s pettier, it might be worth doing it, even if you shouldn’t have to.

Make your SMART goals STRONG

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.


Welcome to the Tribe. Really?

staffI have recently had the great opportunity to join a Chamber choir in my hometown. Yes, I know that reflects the tremendously exciting life that I live, but it’s fun. It’s also an interesting study in how groups work. In fact, the similarities to this highly talented, but volunteer group are amazing when you compare them to the work place. See if you can relate:

This choir has been together for many years and has a really tight group of very talented singers. On an individual basis, each of them is a truly delightful person. But as a group, there is a “membership effect” that makes it difficult for new members to assimilate.

For one thing, a fairly large percentage of their repertoire is made up of songs that have been performed at some point in the past. This common experience prompts reminiscing which, by definition, excludes anybody who was not around when the piece was originally added to the list.

There are also many rules that are not formally presented in any way but are discovered with time. Some are small rules—when to open the folder, when to sit during a performance, or whether or not a bottle of water can be on stage. Some are large rules—do we actually start rehearsal on time, how do you speak to the conductor, how hard do you practice.

Learning all of these rules is part of becoming a member of the group. The more forthcoming group members are about the rules, the faster a new person becomes a member of the tribe. The harder it is to determine what are the norms of the group, the harder it is to be accepted.

How many barriers do you have in accepting a new member to your team? More importantly, do you have time for a long acclimation process or do you need them to be collaborating and working with each other quickly? Chances are, if you leave the team to it’s own devices, the assimilation of new talent can be a long and costly process.  The longer it takes, the more the new member questions whether or not this is a team they want to run with. One of the first rules of any organized group of people is to preserve their identity. A new member challenges that preservation.

Orientations are great and you should keep doing them in order to let the new people know what the basic rules, policies and procedures for their position are. Even more important is to arrange opportunities for the new folks to learn the hidden rules. If you’re the boss, some of these rules will be hidden from you as well since your membership is specified by a role.

Arrange time for lunch or dinner between new team members and the rest of the team. Don’t gang-team them though…as a group the members will be more likely to inadvertently show how different they are rather than similar to the new person. Arrange for some casual one-on-one team with various members of the team and the newbie. If you really want to do it right, figure out who the leader of the tribe actually is (it’s not you by the way) and make sure that this person gets some alone time with the new member.

As the leader of the team, you can’t really force the process of assimilation of new members. You can, however, create an environment where new members are welcome and given every opportunity to connect with not only the team, but the individual members on the team. It may take a little time, but it will pay off in employee satisfaction and productivity fairly quickly.