Machiavelli had it Right

Machiavelli had it right.

You may have heard the Machiavelli quote before:

“There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making others understand that telling you the truth will not offend you…”

It’s a good quote, and it fits right in with a lot of modern, warm, optimistic management.

But that little ellipses leaves out the risk and outcome of this approach.

The full quote is:

“There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making others understand that telling you the truth will not offend you, but when every one may tell you the truth, respect for you disappears.”

You know how this feels. You have complained to a friend about how everyone feels like they have the right to comment on your job. Everyone tells you what to do even though they have nowhere near the training, expertise, and hours spent on your project.

Let’s take a page from Machiavelli, and update it for today. How do you walk this line skillfully? How do you hear the truth you need to hear, but maintain respect for what you bring to the table? With three principles.

  1. Listen to everyone.
  2. Be clear about boundaries and when people are overstepping.
  3. Do as you please.

1 – Listen to everyone.

In today’s multi-disciplinary world, a critical perspective often comes from unexpected places. Answers to problems cannot always be identified within the perspectives of your own discipline. Further, and speaking from the perspective of customer experience, there is always another emotional context to consider.

People are going to give you their opinion. You can’t effectively shut them down without wasting political capital. And since people have a deep need to be heard, listening to them will often gain favor that you can use.

So listen to everyone, but limit the time and energy you spend on everyone’s opinions. You’ll need the time to…

1.5 – Consider carefully the opinions of a few.

While this idea does not stand on its own, it’s a nuance that the first principle needs to work.

You need to have a few people on any large project or decision whose input you weigh against your own. You need to be open to changing course because of what they offer.

Be certain to get these perspectives from sources that won’t just tell you what you want to hear. Consider a trusted friend who is unafraid to tell the truth, an expert on the subject, an outsider with no stake, an opponent who has different motives.

Whose advice you need to seek depends on the circumstances, but your decisions will be better for the insight you receive.

2 – Be clear about boundaries and when people are overstepping.

This takes tact.

“John, I appreciate your input. There are several factors I am looking at, including the ones you mentioned.”

“Yes, Lisa, I can see why you would say that. Alternatively, I want to make sure we are attending to …, which is why I went this way.”

Here, the use of “I” and “We” is very important. Use “I” when you are establishing your authority in the matter and setting bounds. Use “We” in conjunction to build bridges and remind everyone of shared priorities.

Setting boundaries is never easy. But good boundaries are the difference between realizing your own vision and merely implementing the vision of others.

3 – Do as you please.

You are in your position because you are the expert at it relative to everyone else. Your mandate is to take the risk and make the call. At the end of the day, no one else’s advice matters if you didn’t deliver, so make the decision that you believe will let you accomplish your vision.

Listen, be clear about boundaries, do as you please. You’ll hear the perspectives to sharpen your own insights, and establish yourself as the leader in your role.

Discipline Won’t Take you That Far

It’s a new year. With that comes resolutions and new intentions. And with that comes the tendency to think of ourselves as fundamentally different than we are and to over-leverage the idea of discipline to get us to where we need to go.

Look, you are a disciplined person. You’re reading a blog on leadership when you could be looking at kitten videos. (Don’t do it, stay here a moment longer. The kitten videos will be there when you get done.)

The thing is, discipline is in extremely limited supply for all of us. There is a lot of cognitive psychology and neurobiology behind this, and it’s an interesting study. But the short version is every decision you make and every time you stay an impulse of yours, it taxes you. You are depleting a limited reserve of decision-making ability. It will be a little harder to make that next decision well. It will be a little harder to resist that next impulse. And that stacks up through the day with only food and sleep recharging your capacity.

If on December 10th, you had the capacity to make 100 quality decisions per day, then on January 1 you don’t have the capacity to double that. Much less the 10x required to meet the list of things you set up for yourself for the perfect year.

Rely on discipline and you ensure your failure, building a habit of failure around your intentions.
So what do you do? You know you want to make improvements in your life, but discipline won’t get you there. There are alternatives.

Passion – People do all sorts of hard things because they are passionate about them. Most of us know someone who is a long distance runner. We think of them as really disciplined people. But if you are really close to them, you know it’s not just that. They are addicts. They’ll run when it’s cold and when they are hurt, facing additional injury. Discipline doesn’t get you there. Passion does. Finding your passions is one of the hardest and most vulnerable pursuits you can undertake, but the rewards are unparalleled.

Habit – Do you remember your drive into work today? The way you put on your makeup? How you made the coffee? All these items don’t typically require you to use your decision-making ability because they fall below the cognitive threshold. You just do them. New habits are hard to form, and the difficulty is compounded when trying to learn many new habits at once. But the good news is we’ve got this one down to a science, more or less. A good place to start is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Use a little discipline to turn something into a habit and you can keep it up without all the downsides.

Design – Do you keep your phone on your nightstand beside your bed? Is it one of the first things you look at in the morning? There isn’t a right or wrong answer to that question in my opinion, but the two go together. If your phone is close to you when you wake up, you’re going to take a look at it, and that’s how your day starts. How would your life change if you put your phone in your top dresser drawer or left it in the kitchen when you went to bed?

People – When you are trying to change your behaviors, other people are dangerous and unpredictable influences, but they can be very effective allies. If you are a part of that “book” club that mainly drinks wine and no one reads the book, that’s fine. But be prepared to have a glass of wine…or four. Sign up for a volleyball team and now you’ve got 5 other people who are going to be upset with you if you bail and make them forfeit. The people you surround yourself with have a significant impact on your accomplishments. Choose who you spend time with.

These are four ideas to get you started. If you try all four, you’ll fail. Choose one. Start there. Set yourself a reminder to come back to this article in 90 days. Review how things worked for you, and pick another.

I’d wish you good luck with your 2019 goals, but you don’t need it. You need good design, good habits, people that help you improve, and passion.

feeling is first…

During a discussion with my wife about an issue at work, she dropped one of the touchstones we share. All she said was, “Feeling is first,” from a poem by E.E. Cummings.

But why am I talking about a poem in a space about leadership and customer experience?

Because you will never be a better _________ than you are a person. You can fill in that blank with any role you play. You will never be a better leader, boss, spouse, parent, coach, or teacher than you are a person. You have to invest in yourself, and in your whole person, to be the best you can be at any other role.

And I do mean a whole person. Granted, you get to define what a whole person means to you personally. But it’s pretty easy to agree that a whole person is more than just their corporate role and more than just their trade. I have met plenty of individuals who are well-steeped in the business books of their field. But their knowledge is almost entirely comprised of other people’s ideas in a limited domain. They are robbed of the cross-interactions of ideas and the synergy of different perspectives.

...although he had never sought power, he had always had it... it was a power born of excellence, not manipulation. 

-Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

I read and watch a lot of science fiction. To me, good sci-fi brings us face to face with a “what if”. That “what if” has helped me to be open to new ideas. While it’s hard to draw a line from a sci-fi book to a specific business initiative, it’s easy to draw the line to the perspectives I hold that shape the way I lead. I learned the power of excellence from Ender’s Game. I learned that unpredictable outcomes are a result of complex processes from Asimov’s Robot series. I don’t just know these concepts from a textbook–I feel them.

So, to be a better ______, invest in yourself. Be a better person by resisting the need to tie your specific pursuits to a business pay off. Accept that you are worth the investment in yourself. No one can prescribe what that investment in yourself looks like for you, but I can give you a few of the things that helped me.

  • Art – I am fortunate enough to live in a city with a great art museum. I make it a point to get immersed there several times a year. To be honest, much of the art I view is beyond me, but I never walk out of a gallery quite the same as I walked in. For a quick dip, check out: Google Arts and Culture
  • Literature – It’s important to read for business, but it’s important to read for you too. I alternate between the business book I’m currently reading and something to feed my person. Audiobooks are a great alternative if sitting still and reading doesn’t work for you.
  • Activity – Do something you enjoy that is active. But I’m serious, enjoy it. Many of our greatest thinkers have been advocates of long walks. Skating keeps me sane. Find your active passion.
  • Media – Watching YouTube videos gets a bad rap. While you can certainly waste time there, some of the best and most intriguing material is on Youtube. If you are not watching Crash Course, well, you should be.
  • Sleep – If you aren’t getting adequate sleep, and you can only do one thing from this list, sleep is the priority.

Strive to be the best person you can be and to continue to improve yourself. The rest will fall into place.

Assets and Allies

It’s just you and me, let’s be honest. It’s fun to have an archenemy. Someone who is opposed to you and all that is good and just. Someone you can have a righteous cause against. Enemies make us feel alive and give us purpose. It’s important to have enemies.

But here’s the thing, no one at work is your enemy if you are a leader. Making an enemy out of a person is wasteful, and you can’t afford it. Even that person who undermines you or costs you a promotion–not your enemy. The real people you work with are not all good or evil. They have their own priorities, their own desires, their own context. I’m not saying they are saints, and they may even be a genuinely “bad person”, but that doesn’t make them your enemy. That story is too simple. Beware of simple stories.

Instead, the people you work with fall into two categories: assets and allies. Allies will spend some of their capital or resources to help you achieve what you are after. It is assumed that you’ll do the same for them, but it’s not a tit-for-tat relationship. Where to find allies, how to build them, and how to pivot with them is a separate discussion. You will have precious few in your career. Value them.

Everyone else is an asset. They have different goals both personally and professionally. They have different values and codes. They have different methods of pursuing and achieving their results. It is your job to understand each of these and use them to your advantage. When you know the intricacies, you can add a portion of their resources to your own.

Three Scenarios:

Win  / Win: This is where you want to live most of the time. You understand your own goals and your assets’  goals. You arrange things so that achieving your goal in whole or part helps them achieve their goal. This is made even more effective if the inverse is true at the same time, i.e. if your asset fails to support your goal, it will harm their own objective.

Win / Lose: This happens when your goal and your assets’ goals are mutually exclusive. If you are willing to be creative, this is rarely the case. There is almost always a way to turn a situation into a win / win. If you find yourself in win / lose often, you’ll lose your assets quickly, as this situation always strains your relationship and spends political capital. If the situation has to be a win / lose, you need to take active steps to help your assets save face and mitigate their losses. Total surrender, total defeat is indelicate. Save your assets.

Lose / Lose: In some situations, you and your assets are both going to lose. External forces have conspired against you. Much as before, this is about saving face and mitigating loss. Prioritize saving the most capital you can. Sometimes this means every person for themselves, but more often small expenditures on your part in times of crisis can accrue favors that pay off later, multiple times over.

Enemies are a luxury you can’t afford to permit yourself. Value your allies, protect your assets.

Pick Fewer Battles

Pick your battles. Pick fewer battles. No, fewer than that.

While it is difficult to quantify, managerial talent is a limited resource. As a manager, you cannot observe, counter, and address all behaviors. You have to choose.

Further, the people you lead cannot make changes on multiple fronts at once. Most of the time, all of us, however ambitious, can only make small and incremental change.

The task of a manager is to identify which changes lead to the most positive outcomes and iterate through the process as rapidly as the recipient can manage.

Contact center work provides easy illustrations of this. A common case is an employee who takes too long to process calls compared to the norm and at the same time fails to provide the customer experience your organization expects. Coach to both and fail at both.

The better path lies in identifying behaviors that are likely to improve both the employee’s efficiency and customer experience delivery while having a conversation that’s focused on a single goal. For example, “John” needs to take additional time understanding the needs of the customer by listening more. You know this will likely lead to more efficient answers delivered correctly the first time as well as improved customer experience. But if you tell John they need to give better customer experience and speed their calls up by 2 minutes, John is likely to become more curt rather than more engaging.

But let’s be clear: John needs to fix both. As a manager, you must iterate quickly to reach the goals. A coaching plan is going to look aggressive with nearly daily contact.

Monday AM Coaching conversation – 30 mins. Identify behaviors, secure commitment to attempt modified behavior
Monday PM Evaluate effectiveness – 30 mins. Did John try? Did it work?
Monday PM Deliver feedback – 10 mins. Reset expectations if needed, praise for accomplishments in effort and outcome
Tuesday AM Reset intention with John – 10 mins.
Tuesday PM Evaluate effectiveness – 30 mins. Did John try? Did it work?
Tuesday PM Deliver feedback – 10 minutes. Reset expectations if needed, praise for accomplishments in effort and outcome

Keep it up. By Wednesday or Thursday John should be getting this down so much it’s a habit. It would be harder for them to go back to their old ways than to keep doing the new behavior. As soon as the first behavior is secured, start on the next one.

And you have to do this with multiple employees simultaneously. So you need to think carefully about who gets your managerial bandwidth and what you can accomplish with it.

Think about all the opportunities to coach and develop your employees. Write them all down in order of most impactful to least, then tear off the bottom two-thirds of your paper and put it in the shredder. What you’ve got left, plan it out and follow through.

The value you have as a leader is often determined not by what you do but by what you choose to leave undone.