Assumptions

Have you ever heard that saying “when you assume, you make an ass out of you, and an ass out of me,” or the rough equivalent of that?  Well the older I get, the more I start to genuinely understand the sentiment.  Specifically related to organizations and how people interact within them, assumptions are like a gateway drug to getting really burned out really quickly.  Assumptions coupled with the inability to admit you were wrong, are particularly dangerous.

Image from Clipart

A trusted friend once told me that when people assume, they are filling in a story they have created in their minds with the pieces they don’t know (I believe she learned it from this Brene Brown podcast).  They are literally creating their own narrative.  Sometimes this tale isn’t too far from the truth, so people start to trust their gut and do it more often.  The bad part about making this part of your behavior, is that sometimes you can’t escape.  You create a false reality and assign attributes to people with no basis other than the incomplete story you started with.

This can lead to a level of bitterness and distrust that is hard to come out of.  It can result in you behaving poorly toward these characters you created, and unwilling to see even the slightest hint that they aren’t who you made them to be in your mind.  When this happens, it is up to you as an individual to break your own habit.  You need to look at yourself to determine how you came to those conclusions, and reach out to those people to allow them to tell their story.

I am currently living in one of these little bitterness cycles with some people I work with.  I have been so beat down by their rhetoric and entitlement that I literally can’t see them as anything other than villains.  Today on a call, one of them made some really thoughtful and encouraging comments to which I rolled my eyes.  This is NOT the kind of leader I want to be for my team.  I need to do some work.

I am working to put my beliefs in check and to look inward about my motivations to always assume the worst.  I feel like this opportunity presented itself to me today after a problematic stint of reacting off assumptions (both personally and professionally).  I am grateful to have the opportunity to continue to learn and grow, and that I am humble enough to do the work.  Simon Sinek recently posted a quote on his Instagram that says “Leadership is not expertise.  Leadership is a constant education.” What a beautiful promise of an exciting journey.

I encourage all of you to check your assumptions at the door (aka try not to be an ass), and have the self-awareness to challenge yourself when necessary.  

Speak-up

In a meeting with one of my team members this week she talked about how she felt a little out of her scope of expertise on a call earlier that day.  She is new to her position and we are working on a cooperative research study that requires several different institutions to develop common practices and operations to execute the protocol.  The largest task at hand is a budget that works for all the various sized venues.  She asked to be included on another site’s budget discussion to get some insight on their process.  She reported back that she had so much to contribute to that meeting, they asked her to run the national meeting. 

Image from Clipart

This person has only been in this position for 7 months, and has been learning the ropes faster than I ever could have imagined.  I recruited her because I knew her socially, and recognized her as having a wonderful skillset and temperament to do the job of a research coordinator.  She has quickly become one of my best team members.  She is always so eager to learn and contribute, I honestly hit the lottery with this one.

During the call, she mentioned that she felt intimidated with speaking up.  The other people on the call were (seemingly) seasoned research personnel, so truly she thought she would just listen in.  However, when one of the physicians missed a crucial detail about the protocol, she respectfully chimed in to correct her.  This instance of speaking up opened the door to several more questions, including some on the budget methodology and operations questions.  She answered the inquiries flawlessly, but got off the phone wondering why they wanted so much information from her.  Who was she anyway?

She recognized this as imposter syndromeAdam Grant talks about this frequently on his social media platforms, books, and podcasts.  He stresses the importance of taking this feeling out of “syndrome land,” which inherently has a negative connotation, and normalizing it as something everyone goes through from time to time.  He further encourages us to use it as an opportunity to rethink and grow from the experience.  How exciting is that!

I discussed this sentiment with my team member and encouraged her to speak up more often in these settings.  Not only does she deserve to be here, but her new and fresh approach to looking at these things is invaluable to this large, multi-disciplinary team.  I told her to run the national meeting if she was comfortable doing so, and to be transparent about where she needs more input on some of the nuances of the protocol.  Only good things can come from humility and the genuine seeking of input to make a collaborative project stronger.

I want you to literally take a page from Adam Grant’s book “Think Again” and re-think what imposter syndrome means to you and your work life.  I would be thrilled to hear the results!

Buffers

As a middle manager, I play the role of buffer between my team and my supervisor or other hierarchical stakeholders.  This is a stressful and exhausting position as I am constantly trying to meet the needs of these two groups while often not taking the time to check in with myself.  Additionally, while managing the expectations and feelings, I don’t feel like I am getting enough actual work done.  This creates an additional burden for me related to performance expectations I have for myself as well as my own job satisfaction.

(Photo by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

A role conflict exists for people like me as we try to manage the ever changing dynamics between these two groups.  How are we supposed to be everything to everyone all the time?  When are our needs being met?  What are our needs, do we even know anymore?  How is this affecting my family?  These are all questions I ask myself when I am overwhelmed with navigating this circumstance.  Sometimes it is so overwhelming that I take one of those beloved “mental health days” just to get a break.

Running away clearly isn’t going to do anything, so what can we do as a cohort (I know there are more of you out there), to relieve this complicated burden?  I have found personally that taking the time to be mindful of the things I can control is helpful.  And just like the serenity prayer says, letting go of the things I cannot change is a big one too.  If I limit what my actual scope of influence is versus what everyone else thinks it should be, I am able to better manage myself, and then I can better manage others too. 

This phenomenon isn’t new.  Just Googling “middle manager buffer,” yields several articles, blogs, videos and podcasts dedicated to the subject.  One article suggests that a proactive personality can serve as a coping resource for people experiencing this conflict.  Another that I found reinforces that sentiment by reframing your position as a conduit or pipeline  for information between these two groups.  This is a tremendous value as so many of us can relate to a time where upper management tries to implement something for the end user that is suboptimal.  In this instance we have an opportunity to put on our advocacy hat to influence change for the better.  THAT is a wonderful thing.

Being a middle manager is rarely rainbows and sunshine, but we are fortunate in that we DO have a seat at the table and are able to make valuable change for the people actually running the show (not the CEOs).  The key to OUR success in this arena is to not go crazy whilst waiting for those opportunities which can be few and far between. 

I encourage you to find your people, stay mindful, and seize the opportunity to make positive change when you see it!

Retention

One of my employees gave notice this week.  When people leave, it is hard.  It puts additional strain on the rest of the team to provide continuity of operations, and it is sad to have people move on.  As she was sitting with me in my office, she said she couldn’t be happy for her new opportunity until she had told me.  That was a strange statement to hear as a leader.  As I sit and contemplate what that meant to me and my leadership, and try to stifle the fear of how that work is going to get covered, I want to share what this person has meant to me during my career.

I started off as an office of ONE, diligently working to grow support infrastructure for clinical research.  Nancy, was the first person I hired to help me in this treasured endeavor.  I recruited her from another office in the school and she was familiar with organizational processes. This was a tremendous value added as I was not equipped to do the strategy and the practical pieces of building this unit.

Nancy jumped on board wholeheartedly.  She helped develop processes, handled the project management with extreme organization (we never missed a deadline), and was hands down the most proficient outreach event planner I have ever encountered.  In addition to these practical skills, she became a trusted mentor.  As a new director, I was constantly challenged with adversity related to the behavior (and entitlement) of seasoned academics.  She reinforced my good decisions, protected my time, and most importantly, told me what I needed  to hear as a new leader.

I came to know just how wonderful and competent she was when she began to take on more than her share of the work, and started to assist with grant preparation.  We worked together to define a new role, and promoted her into it.  She thrived in this new position!  She attended professional development conferences, drafted policies, and became a trusted resource for all of campus.  She was a key contributor to training workshops for new employees, and started to standardize the application process for the school.

Reflecting on all that we built together in the last 3 years, the ONLY feeling I have about her departure is pride.  I am so proud of her.  She has taken this opportunity to create a niche for herself where she can be even more successful.  She made me a better leader. The kind of leader I want for myself. She taught me how to protect myself against people who could take advantage of me, and encouraged me when I felt like I wasn’t good enough.  Her counsel will forever be ingrained in my leadership style.

I encourage you to treasure your people while you have them, and celebrate their prosperity when they leave.  If you are a worthy leader, then their success is your success too.

Photo by Clipart

Happy trails Nancy!  I literally could not have done it without you!

Advocacy

Photo by Clipart

The subject of advocacy has come up a lot recently so I figured it must be the universe telling me to write about it.  As a leader, advocating for your teams is crucial to keep that hard-earned trust you have been building. Through modeling this behavior, you create a culture that empowers individuals.  This equips them to take on challenges with a creative mind and new thinking.

The need for advocacy has never been more important than now.  As we come out of the pandemic, and folks are being asked to return to the workplace from their home offices, it is up to leaders to understand where there people are, and be their voice in the appropriate venues.  Often the front line administrators are not privy to these discussions so they need to know they have someone to speak on their behalf.

I had an example present itself to me at work recently where an email went out from a department chair to their administrators which indicated that they WILL be returning to the office on April 15th as long as they had been vaccinated.  Remember the informal network of admins that gets things done from my first blog? Well they got ahold of this information and were understandably upset at the prospect.  I assured them that I had no plans to rearrange the current work modalities of our unit, and that the Dean was aware of this as well.  A collective “Whew” was exhaled.

First, this email mandate clearly came from someone who was seriously disconnected from their department.  There was no consideration made for school aged children, fear, or the fact that they are likely getting their work done just fine where they are.  This leader wasn’t just closed minded, but lazy too.  Had they taken just a small amount of time each week they probably would have had a better idea about the mindset of their people. 

Advocacy works both ways – you need one too.  We forget that as leaders because we are so focused on being the best for their teams.  As middle managers, it is crucial to have our issues heard at the higher levels.  I encourage you to find your advocate and communicate openly and honestly with them on the things that bother you.  The overall leader deserves to hear the things they need to hear to make the organization better.

Advocacy builds resilient organizations who are more likely to work harder and stay longer.  They are loyal because they trust that their views matter, and that somebody who can do something with the information will hear it. Advocacy increases out of the box solutions to common problems.

I encourage you to keep your eyes open for any opportunity to advocate for your teams.  You have worked so hard to get them to trust you, don’t take it for granted.

For vs. With: How are you showing the value of your team to others?

When talking about what you and the people you work with, how do you refer to them?  Do you say, “I work with Johnny…” or “Johnny works for me.”?  The distinction might seem small but it is so important.  If you are really a team, then you should refer to them truly as collaborators.  Relaying the value of your team in even this small way can speak volumes about what kind of leader you are.  More importantly, the difference can be indicative of how you truly feel about them and interact with them as a leader.

Recently I caught myself saying one of my best employees worked for me. Immediately after the words left my mouth, I thought about the impact of that statement and how it didn’t really reflect her contributions to the successes of the institution we work for, or to our individual successes as professionals.  More importantly, I thought about what she would think if she had heard me refer to her that way?  Would she notice?  Maybe not, but why take that chance?

As a leader, it is important to take even the smallest opportunity to show the value of your teams to others.  These small tokens build trust and foster relationships beyond supervisor and subordinate.  In a previous blog, I talked about the benefit of bringing different types of employees to the table.  What I didn’t mention is how to continue to foster these collaborations through maintaining trust.  This gesture helps to do just that.

Photo credit: RD.com

In another blog on recognition and appreciation, I discussed the importance of giving genuine recognition and doing it for the right reasons.  Making sure you are aware of the manner in which you refer to your teammates in any setting is a subtle nod to this.  It shows you are mindful of your impact and are aware that words matter.  Hopefully they will see you behaving this way and follow suit, setting off a cascade of free recognition throughout your organizations.

 Show your team the respect they have earned and make sure they know you are truly with them and committed to their success.  Drop me a comment to tell me some other examples of these tiny gestures and subtle ways you are working together!

Make your partner your partner

As my job became more and more demanding (and I started to feel the pressure to prove myself), I began to take my husband of 10 years for granted. He works from home (so the pandemic life was really no different for him).  He has been with me for my whole professional life.  He was the one who got me to go back to school when I was 25, and allowed me the opportunity to be a full-time student for a while.  He really is quite wonderful, so why was I treating him like he was and adversary?

The short answer is, stress.  I treated him poorly because I was under a tremendous amount of stress.  Pandemic stress, imposter syndrome stress, not feeling like I was being a good wife and mother stress, etc. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that he was willing to share some of my stress burden with me.  He was willing and able to understand some of my struggles.  My problem was not really allowing him to be there for me, and more importantly, with me.

Something I learned in graduate school was to make your partner your partner, and this stuck with me.  Sheryl Sandberg discusses this in her book Lean In.  She describes the importance of having open and transparent communication, making decisions as a team, and modeling gender equality.  Having such a steadfast partner at home was something that I was taking for granted.  I could have been leaning in to his sound advice all along.

I have since learned to make my relationship a priority., At times it can be exhausting to always be “on”, but recognizing the reasons why it is important is a valid motivator.  If you are giving your best at work and then shutting it off at home, you are wrong.  There is no more deserving audience of your greatness than your spouse and your family.

I just took a mini break from work and completely unplugged, with my husband.  There was no internet so we were just with ourselves.  I used this opportunity to reconnect and reestablish a precious relationship that is really my home base.  This simple realization gave me a tremendous sense of gratitude. 

Photo taken atop “Tinkers Knob” in the Sierra Mountains.

Being married to someone who is similarly driven is challenging, but the rewards are huge.  I am grateful to have such a worthy sounding board in my favorite place.  When my work life gets crazy, I have a very safe place to go to recharge.  I have a wonderfully exciting job, but nothing beats really sharing my life, and its challenges with someone I trust so completely.   

I found this article from a reliable source as particularly helpful for providing prospective can help with balancing your work with your relationship.  If anyone is struggling with bringing their partner into the fold of their (sometimes) professional chaos, I encourage you to take a look.  Having a stable baseline from which you can launch your brilliant career is essential for success. 

Email Civility

Email is a helpful tool which has enabled employees to stay connected and facilitate work, especially since the pandemic.  Recently, it has become a form of work in itself in regards to the intended and interpreted tone of any given email.  In addition, responding to email before and after hours has been shown to produce anxiety which is harmful to not only the employee, but for their family and colleagues as well.  As if the obligation to stay on top of emails wasn’t enough.  Incivility in email correspondence has existed since the rise in popularity in the 80’s, but now that it is a primary mode of communication the abuse is unavoidable.  How do we protect ourselves and our teams from email incivility?

We all have been cc’d on an email string that started out as a simple question and through 3-4 more people getting cc’d in, has become this huge mess of a thing with the overwhelming tone of “someone is going to burn for this form not getting filled out correctly!” Where did this conversation go wrong?  How did it go from “Hey, can I get a status on this?” to “Off with their heads!” in mere minutes? The main problem with email, is that it is impossible to determine tone or intent from just text, leaving it up to us to fill in the holes with speculation, which is dangerous. 

You can do your part to influence how people receive your emails by building trust with your colleagues ahead of time.  I touch on the importance of this in my last blog about relationships. If you are honest and transparent with your colleagues, this is the behavior they will come to expect and trust, which makes interactions over virtual means much more enjoyable and productive.  Doing work ahead of time can have huge payoffs down the road.

I have found when I am an unwilling participant in the email mob, I am compelled to respond in two ways.  On one hand, I want to jump on the bandwagon and rabble rouse with the rest.  I seldom act on this urge (thankfully), but it is there.  My usual response is to protect the target of these bullies (which are usually administrators), and redirect the conversation to actual solutions vs. accusations.  After all, are we going through all this trouble to actually get something done, or do we just want to hear ourselves talk?

https://www.askideas.com/arguing-with-idiots-is-like-playing-chess-with-a-pigeon-funny-chess-meme-image/

This tactic has been helpful for me when I am on the receiving end of one of these nastygrams too.  Will it be worth it to me to get down in the weeds and argue, or am I better off just getting to the point of the matter to resolve the situation and move on?  The answer is clearly the latter.  The BEST part of this is that nobody has to accept fault.  We just move to get the task accomplished.  Clear the noise and pave the way.  It takes the emotion out of what should be an emotional situation, gives me the control over my reaction, and gives the end result to the jerk who wrote the initial email, and we can all move on with our lives.

Email incivility will continue to exist unless there is a huge culture shift in many organizations. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.  YOU can control how YOU respond which is all you really need to maintain.  Hopefully if you are consistent in this behavior, others will follow, and the culture will start to change too.  If not, you were able to stay on the high road despite the odds, and the view is always better from the high road.

Take in the sights from the high road my friends!  What a view!

Relationships

A female leader I really admire said something so simple, yet so profound, that I felt the need to write a blog about it.  This urge was reinforced when I had a real life work experience related to the sentiment.  She said, “If you build good relationships, you will never need to negotiate.”  Insert mind blown emoji here!

The key to being successful is in building relationships.  They are literally EVERYWHERE.  In our families, at our jobs, in our schools, with our friends.  You cannot escape them.  So what makes relationships good? In my experience, being honest has been the cornerstone in building my best relationships.  Honesty builds trust and trust builds loyalty. 

I spoke about integrity in my last blog. The story there was about having the integrity know I did something wrong and the courage to admit it.  Similarly, it takes courage to be honest in difficult situations.  The reward for just doing the right thing when challenged to do so, priceless.

I had the opportunity yesterday for an honest moment with a distant colleague (she works in another department).  We were working on a difficult transaction which required several layers of approval and wasn’t specifically in line with policies.  We went back and forth over email, and the last one she sent me seemed a bit curt.  I emailed her back and told her how much I appreciated her, the work she does, explained that I wasn’t trying to be difficult or circumvent processes, and apologized for making a difficult transaction harder for her.  She wrote back thanking me for my candor and for considering her position.  She committed to helping see the transaction through, and reinforced our collective commitment to the mission of the institution. 

https://pscs.org/blog/2019/04/16/pscs-life-relationships-matter/

This might seem like a trivial example, but think about the long term effects of this small action.  Because I have shown my colleague who I am and how I operate, she will have a better understanding of my motivations, and we will be able to work better together on future projects.  If she has a question or concern, she can contact me knowing I will give her a straight answer.  Additionally, I have earned a great resource for incidental questions and a direct line for feedback where appropriate.  The feedback is coming from a now trusted source, and is therefore more likely to be acted upon rather then tossed aside.  Overall, interactions and transactions will be far more pleasant and efficient.  Doing just a little work to build this relationship and future trust will be something I can bank in perpetuity.

I encourage you to watch this short YouTube YouTube video by Simon Sinek on honesty vs. values and the effects the two of those elements have on organizational culture.  How does this resonate with you?

Integrity

I behaved poorly at work today and tried to cut a corner.  Have any of you ever done that?  For the sake of time and frankly, after being bored of a conversation and eager to get back to the task at hand, I said something I shouldn’t have regarding circumventing a process.  Thankfully, the person I was working with had integrity, and went another way.  After the conversation, I was left feeling pretty disappointed with myself.  How could I do that?  I write a blog about championing administrators and here I was giving them a bad name.

The good news is, this misstep doesn’t define me.  I was able to recognize my flaw, show gratitude for my colleague for her behavior, and use this instance as a lesson.  I recently read a tweet from Adam Grant about not letting your mistakes define you .  What an important message to know.  It provides us with an escape route from a poor decision, and an opportunity to do better the next time.

Disclaimer; this only works if you are able to recognize and learn from the mistake.  Had I just chocked my lapse in judgement to stress, I would not be sitting here writing this blog.  I likely would have continued to behave in my ego, made more bad decisions, and jeopardized my relationships with my co-workers.  Further down the road, I would start to lose trust and not be able to lead effectively. 

http://www.aleanjourney.com/2016/11/leadership-starts-with-integrity.html

I have found that looking inward first, before attributing fault to something external makes me a great leader.  It is kind of like seeking first to understand and then being understood for myself (Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is marvelous).  If I can’t understand where my motivations lie, how can I expect anything from others? 

Integrity goes hand and hand with humility in leadership.  These two character attributes provide the foundation for trust and understanding to be built in organizations.  When faced with challenges, I come back to integrity and humility and ground myself there.  I have found that when I am leading from this honest place, I cannot go wrong.

Challenge yourself to behave with ever increasing integrity at work.  I would love to hear how it works for you. Drop me a comment.