What if one new daily practice could bring your team higher morale, better performance, and more loyalty?
Good leaders make it a priority check in with their people on a regular basis to ensure they are on track, in good spirits, and have the resources they need to do their job well. But is the standard “check-in” enough? As a leader, are you asking your direct reports the right questions?
Bruce Tulgan is an advisor to business leaders and a sought-after keynote speaker. He's the best-selling author of many books including Not Everyone Gets A Trophy, It's Okay To Be The Boss, and my favorite, The 27 Challenges Managers Face. He is also the Founder and CEO of Rainmaker Thinking. I recently interviewed Bruce for the LEADx Podcast show where we discussed the right way to manage your team. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: You say there's an under-management epidemic. What do you mean by that?
Bruce Tulgan: We've been doing research on the front lines of the workplace for 24 years. Some number of years ago, I began to tune into this phenomenon that there seemed to be this problem hiding in plain sight in just about every workplace, which was that leaders, managers, and supervisors were not doing enough high-structure, high-substance communication with their direct reports. They weren't providing enough high-structure, high-substance guidance, direction, support, coaching, spelling on expectations, keeping score, troubleshooting, problem solving, holding people accountable, and recognizing and rewarding people when they're going the extra mile.
Readers are busy and sometimes they don't want to do the hard work of managing and reading. Sometimes they don't really know how to, or they think they're not good at it, or they haven't been properly trained, or they're doing what comes naturally instead of what works best. For a lot of reasons, most organizations, if there is this problem hiding in plain sight that most of the leaders are not doing enough high-structure, high-substance communication. There are huge costs and problems that occur that didn't have to occur. Problems get out of control that could have been solved easily. Resources are squandered. People go the wrong direction for days, weeks, or months without realizing it. Well-performers are able to hide out and collect paychecks. Mediocre performers mistake themselves for high performers. High performers get frustrated and think about leaving. Managers find themselves less able to delegate responsibilities, tasks, and projects because they're not doing the hard work of the structured communication.
Managers talk to their people a lot, but it's usually touching base and interrupting each other, and monitoring email, meetings, and then the occasional firefighting instead of the regular structured guidance, direction, support, and coaching.
Kruse: How often should we be checking in with people? What does that look like?
Tulgan: By the way, management by walking around is a great start. The question is, what do you do while you're walking around?
What some managers do is they go, “How is everything going? Is everything on track? Any problems I should know about?” That makes them feel like they're in dialogue with their direct reports, but those questions are all invitations to wrap up the conversation quickly. “How's everything going?” The answer I'm looking for there is, “Fine.” “Is everything on track?” What I'm looking for there is, “Yes.” “Any problems I should know about?” What I'm looking for there is you will take care of it. Then it's like, “Hey, let me know if you need me later. I'm always available.” Then we interrupt each other all day long.
That is what passes for management. Walking around is great, but you want to have the routine, you want to have structure. What that means, the most important thing about structure is that it's regular, it's consistent, it's ongoing, and both the manager and the individual contributor know the conversations going to happen and prepare for it. That's the most important thing that we know it's going to happen, that it's regular, that it's ongoing, and that we both prepare.
Everybody's different. Right? Some people, they need much more guidance and direction. You've got to meet with them every day for ten or fifteen minutes to point them in the right direction. Some people, maybe every other day is enough. Some people, once a week. Some people, every other week is enough. Not only that but for some people, what you need to do is go over their to-do list. For some people, what you're doing is helping remind them about something they're trying to get better at. For some people, what you're doing with them is you're always working on an extra mile project. For some people, the reason you're talking to them is they're so good, you're trying to learn from them, “Hey, tell me what's going on out on the front lines? What do you need from me to keep you going in the right direction, and to clear obstacles for you, and get you the resources you need?”
Every conversation's different both in substance and structure, right? The structure is regular, ongoing, and we're both preparing and we know that it's an ongoing dialogue about your performance and about what you're doing all day to add value. My job as a manager is to make sure expectations are clear, to be giving you regular feedback, to be helping you plan the resources you need and how to navigate through obstacles, and to be helping you keep score, and also, of course, troubleshooting and problem-solving. By the way, it may be a moving target. Maybe one week, it's every day. Then for a while, it's every other day. Sometimes, once a week is enough.
Kruse: You’ve catalogued 27 challenges in the book. Pick one that managers encounter. What's the advice you give for solving that challenge?
Tulgan: Well, I guess the most fun one, I would say, is dealing with attitude problems. This is that thing every manager will tell you, “Does attitude matter?” Oh yeah, it matters a lot, right? Every manager will tell you it's a little hard to define, and it's a little hard to monitor and measure. How do you help somebody that has a bad attitude and then try to break it down? What's manageable is not how people feel on the inside. What is manageable is the thoughts, words, gestures, and behaviors on the outside. I try to walk managers through that. “Okay, when you say this person has a bad attitude, let's be more specific. Let's describe them. What is it they're doing?”
Some people complain. Some people are debaters. They debate everything into the night. Some people, I call them ‘stink bomb throwers.’ They just throw something really negative into the scene. Some people are porcupines, “Get away from me,” right? Some people are ‘entanglers.’ They want to get everyone else entangled in their stuff. These are the people, sometimes, who participate in everyone else's break.
There are all these different kinds of attitudes that are difficult in the workplace. I try to walk through, “What has our research shown are some of the ways managers can help employees demonstrate a better attitude on the outside even in they're not feeling it on the inside?”
Kruse: I always like to encourage our listeners to take on challenges. Give us a challenge, or a little exercise, that we could do today.
Tulgan: Well, I'll tell you, my advice is to make a list of all the people who report to you, people who rely on you as a leader, manager, supervisor. Maybe ask yourself, “When's the next time you're going to sit down and have a 15-minute one-on-one with each of those people?” Then maybe pick one and say, “What should I try to help that person get better over the next couple of weeks?” Then, “Okay. How often should I meet with that person? Maybe everyday or every other day? How can I build a dialogue with that person where I try to help that person get better at this thing?”
Try that as an experiment. Do that for a couple of weeks with one person and see the impact. Then you might start thinking, “Wow! How have I been telling myself I'm reading people when I haven't been doing this?”
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.