Archive for January, 2011

Leaders Encourage the Growth and Development of their Employees

Being part of a family is an important source of security for people. Another important source is feeling that you have mastery in your environment. People like to feel like they know what they are doing and that they can accomplish their tasks. Yes, it’s true, people really want to grow. As a leader, you want to be right there supporting the growth and development of your employees.

On one level this is technically smart for your organization. You want your people to be improving their knowledge and skills for their task accomplishment. Well trained people do their jobs technically better and faster. Mistakes are reduced and there is greater organizational efficiency.

But there are more important less tangible benefits to encouraging employee personal growth and development. Offering opportunities for professional development is another way to show you care for your staff. When workers perceive that you are interested in their growth they feel you have their interest at heart. They will give back to organization both technically and with their hearts. They will perform better and do it with greater self direction and autonomy.

One leader described how she conducted the annual evaluations of her team members. She asked them about their development goals for the coming year. She encouraged them to think about their training in terms of their career goals, five, 10, and even 20 years into the future. From her point of view she owed it to them as their leader to help them make sure that in 20 years they had 20 years of experience, not one year of the same experience repeated twenty times over. You can bet her employees appreciated her.

A key part to encouraging employee growth is making it safe for people to take some risks, and make some mistakes. People are amazingly afraid to fail. Fear of failure is the biggest deterrent to growth. Consequently, you as a leader support people and avoid being critical. Of course, it is the trick of leadership to simultaneously maintain your supportive presence without letting go of accountability.

Tom DeMaio, PhD


Leaders Create Work Families

People come to work primed to view their experience on the job through the perspective of family relationships. They look at their leaders and see their parents. You can ignore this basic human response or you can find ways to make use of it for the good of the organization, maybe by trying a little organizational ju-jitsu.

Most people have a strong drive for attachment and security; being part of a family is as good as it gets. Leaders create a family-like atmosphere by pulling people together and encouraging a sense of belonging. They build teams where everyone can contribute their unique strength to further the goals of the company.

From my experience building teams facilitates people feeling more connected to each other. As people become more and more committed to their work family, they begin to share a common sense of purpose—and that’s a very powerful driver of performance. People feel free to act more independently when the team is functioning as a family. It’s not like they go off on their own or anything; they are just more willing to step up on their own initiative and help achieve team goals. This is the autonomous functioning that you want from your employees.

Leaders make it a point to treat everyone fairly, honestly, and with respect. They set the tone for the family. This helps minimize sibling rivalry, er, I mean employee competition.

Great leaders also require that there be expectations. These expectations are developed jointly by the team and individuals. Everyone buys into the notion that they have important work to accomplish. And, like good parents, leaders encourage the growth of their team members. They want team members to mature and eventually join and replace them as leaders.

I am using the term work family to distinguish it from the biological family. Leaders create a family-like atmosphere in the work environment, while simultaneously helping everyone keep their eye on performance and the need to achieve organizational goals. That’s the ju-jitsu part. Leaders are not parents and work teams are not families.

The leadership implication of our third principle, that people working together tend to replicate family structures and dynamics, is that leaders create a family-like atmosphere in the workplace.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

Leadership Makes People Feel Emotionally Safe and Secure

January 20, 2011 2 comments

People are most productive in an emotionally safe and supportive atmosphere. From a leadership point of view, this means that it is critical to make sure people feel cared for in ways that are meaningful to them.

People come to work looking for security. They are happier and more productive if they feel someone cares. Leadership conveys to people that they are cared for and that things are going to be okay. This is not false optimism, but a feeling that there is safety by virtue of common effort through your leadership.

Leaders make sure the people on their team know that they matter. Leaders listen to them when they have something to say and follow up when they say they will. Leaders stand up for their team when the chips are down. They look for opportunities to praise and encourage. Leaders nurture. And the great thing about this is that these activities cost essentially nothing.

Providing nurturance and security comes in a variety of guises. Whether it is making sure the team has a welcoming work environment, being concerned about individual welfare, or responding to concerns, leaders convey that they care, and that it is safe. And people read this quality in a leader through subtle cues and practical effort. It is not easy to fake.

But what do you as leaders get out of the arrangement? It is not just a one way arrangement with effort emanating from you. It is something more basic, more fundamental than performance. It’s trust. When leaders provide the security employees need, they trust you to lead them. They commit themselves to the mission of the organization and act as autonomous persons contributing to optimal business outcomes. That trust makes your job so much easier. I’d say it is win-win for both sides.

Remembering that people are most productive in an emotionally safe and supportive atmosphere determines that your fundamental approach to your staff will be nurturing. You will commit yourself as a leader to actively care for your people. You will naturally provide support and encouragement on a personal level and through the programs of your organization. You will insure the safety and security of your workers. And, no matter what, you will avoid any hint of rejection all the while connecting emotionally with your people.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

A Foundation for Leadership in the Workplace

Leading people requires that you understand the nature of people and their needs. This is why, as psychologist/business consultants, Lee Hersch and I have tried to carefully delineate the six most important psychological principles needed to understand people in the workplace. Leadership is not just a list of good things to do; it is a coherent approach to addressing what people need so they will be motivated and work productively with you.

Leaders who don’t understand the psychological responses that people bring to work, who fail to incorporate these fundamental psychological insights in their approach to management, will never be able to harness these responses to meet their organization’s goals. They are always going to underperform. Smart leaders will use these basic facts of life as a starting point, adjust their leadership strategy appropriately, and create a more productive, more motivated workforce.

Grounded in the latest thinking from evolutionary psychology, our first principle states that the brain works from the bottom up. Human responses reflect the underlying design of the brain, which has been fine-tuned over hundreds of thousands of years for survival. Primitive emotions like the need for security take precedence over higher order rational processes.

Put simply this means that if you expect people to act in purely rational ways, you’re kidding yourself. People are people, not Vulcans. Leaders not only know that people have their rational and irrational features, they relish in it.

What moves people is not a rational argument about the good of their organization, but the passion people feel for their organization (or team, or country, or other personal connection). Leaders engage the passion of their people for a cause. Passion provides meaning, energy, and commitment.

Fundamentally, leaders don’t fight human nature; they accept people. The acceptance makes leaders safe and comfortable for those around them. The acceptance allows a positive passion to develop and lays the foundation for all the other components of leadership.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

Principled Leadership

Working as a psychologist/business consultant I am continually fascinated by leaders and the actions of leadership. Leadership makes all the difference in an organization; great companies are led by great leaders.

When I review the literature and talk to leaders, I generally find leadership defined as a list of things to do and ways to be. These lists are usually derived from the intuition and experience of a wise person, or from leadership research. Surely there must be some underlying framework from which leadership principles can be derived.

As Lee Hersch and I wrote The People Side of Business, it became clear to us that leadership activities can be derived from an understanding of the basic needs of people. When you understand what people need in the work environment you can formulate what is needed to lead them. Great leadership is about behaving in a way that takes into account how people are psychologically constructed and what they need to survive and thrive.

From our point of view the six principles we have outlined form a framework for leadership. The framework makes people leadership a coherent set of activities and ways of being. Let me explain.

1. If you understand that the brain works from the bottom up, and that people are driven by irrational internal forces, you will come to see that the foundation for leadership is acceptance. Acceptance is the critical building block for trust and for people being willing to utilize your leadership.

2. When you believe that humans need nurturance to feel safe and function at their best, as a leader you will provide nurturance to your employees. You will convey that you care for each of them as a person and as an essential part of the organization.

3. Realizing that humans see their relationships through the lens of family experience, you will build a family-like culture in your work environment. It will encourage you to build teams and support mutuality throughout the organization.

4. Since people want to learn and grow, and since their development is great for the business, you will encourage the growth and development of everyone. You will foster autonomy in your employees and provide opportunities for advancement.

5. Because people need structure to shape and motivate their behavior, you will make sure each person knows their roles and job expectations. You will insist that everyone knows where the organization is headed. You will share the rewards (and consequences) of their performance.

6. Given that humans are individually different, you will welcome diversity of ideas and of people. Each person can find a unique way to contribute to the organization.

In my next posts I will discuss leadership based on the six principles.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

Managing Yourself with the Developmentally Impaired Employee

Managers call me in to help them deal with developmentally impaired employees because they are flat out difficult to supervise. But, before we can work on the employee problem we often have to work on the reaction of the manager. As you may have experienced, these employees can be exasperating and push all your buttons.

You know how the flight attendant tells you to put your own oxygen mask on before you take care of your kids? Well, you need to have your oxygen mask on when dealing with these stressful workers. What does this mean? It means you need to breathe slowly, and see the problem as an unfortunate occurrence in the work environment. No matter how hard you try, some of these people will get hired into your organization and not perform.

Managers tend to take the response of the impaired employee personally. After all, managers are supposed to be responsible for the performance of their people, right? When a worker is stubborn and uncooperative it feels personal. “They are deliberately refusing to listen to me!”

But it is not personal; these employees don’t really listen to anyone. In fact, they often react in opposition to supervision from others. Many of them grew up parented in a way that would make anyone react. So, it takes a bit of self confidence and comfort in your management skin to implement a plan.

Having a plan and believing in it can help you breathe better. The plan is a carefully administered program of clarified expectations, support and encouragement, monitoring, and specific consequences. Such a plan can always work. The plan gets the employee on track or gets them off the bus. Either solution has to be acceptable to you. Your job is not to save anyone, but to ensure (through support and structure) the necessary high performance of your organization.

So, if you have one of these employees, I encourage you to be compassionate. You can be concerned for the employee and the company. “I’m sorry something is wrong, but your performance and the expectations for your job are not matching up. I’d like to help you perform in a way that is good for our organization, and allows you to stay with us.” If the employee can’t recover and perform, then their employment should be terminated.

Take time to breathe, implement your plan, and don’t take the employee reaction personally. When you handle the developmentally impaired employee in this way, you can orchestrate a healthy outcome and be proud of it.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

Dealing with the Developmentally Impaired Employee

The most vexing problem of business managers – the one that prompts a call to consultants – is the developmentally impaired employee. Managers use different names for them, but they are the ones who don’t follow rules, make excuses for failed performance, argue when corrected, and are counterproductive. What do you do?

The first task of management is to make sure the employee is not reacting to significant problems in the work environment. Toxic work environments bring out the worst in people. Some people are particularly sensitive to work environments that are controlling or hostile. Healthy work environments that utilize our six people principles help employees be at their best.

Next, your most important tool is to have a tight structure which clarifies outcome performance for all employees. Only when performance requirements are defined can you hold people accountable. You should normally be sitting down with all employees (and especially the problematic ones) to review how their work matches against expectations. The discrepancy between expectation and performance clarifies the change needed.

Perhaps half of the problem employees will respond to clarification about needed performance. Some will quit. But, impaired employees tend to have selective filters that make it almost impossible to assimilate negative feedback. They respond defensively because any feedback that challenges their inflated self-concept is intolerable. It’s common for them to refuse to sign performance improvement plans because signing would force them to acknowledge that a problem exists. It is not uncommon for them to respond to interventions by filing a grievance.

During the process it is critical that you use the same approach you would with any employee—providing support, encouraging professional development, and insisting on accountability. You should apply your organizational rules and structure in a very clear, consistent, and impersonal way. Remember, it is not personal. These people are struggling and are their own worst enemies.

Those who do not respond to a balance of active support and structure will need to be let go. The organization requires that only people who are willing (and able) to work for the common good stay on board. It is also a disservice for the impaired employee to be enabled to act out at work.

Of course it is always valuable to consult with human resource specialists to make sure you’re following correct procedure. If the employee fails to change and you have been steadfast in your process, grievances will be successfully overcome.

Tom DeMaio, PhD