Wesley was frustrated. His agency was reorganizing again, and he had ideas about how to make the transition smoother for the administrative unit he oversaw. Many of the agency’s offices would be restructured in order to align with their programs instead of their geographical regions, and one of the challenges was to figure out how to maintain consistent administrative support at the same time. Wesley could see a clear path to aligning his people with each of the new structures they would be supporting, but despite the confidence Wesley had in his idea, he didn’t believe he was likely to get anywhere with it. The last time he’d tried to propose an idea it seemed like it had dropped into an abandoned well. In the hectic, overloaded environment of his branch, he didn’t even know if anyone had actually read his emails.

One day during a leadership development workshop, the subject of influencing up the chain of command was raised for discussion. Alana, a well-respected colleague of Wesley’s who worked in IT, told the story of her recent attempts to make suggestions about how her own people could be reorganized.

“I used a technique I learned recently in another class,” she explained. “It’s called ACT, which stands for: Be in Alignment; speak with Conviction; and Take courage to sell your ideas.”
“Tell us more,” the instructor urged, echoing Wesley’s own thoughts.
“Sure,” said Alana. “So in the first step, I recognized that I would probably be best heard if my ideas were in alignment with the new vision our senior leaders have laid out for the reorg. The purpose of the realignment is to harness the power of subject matter expertise (SME) rather than geographical efficiency, because having more SMEs on a particular project will eventually save money through better solutions and fewer mistakes, and will make up for the increased travel expense. So I couched my suggestion in terms of how we could best support groups of SMEs in their specific technological needs.”
“That makes sense,” Wesley said. “And then you make your proposal with confidence and conviction, right?”
“Exactly. I figured if my supervisors heard the passion in my message they would understand that I truly believed in my ideas, and they might take me more seriously. I didn’t rely on email; I asked for a meeting, and then I made sure to convey passion – but not frustration! – through my words, facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.”
“So I guess I see where the courage comes in,” Wesley commented. “Depending on who you were requesting a meeting with, it might be a pretty intimidating experience.”
“Yes, but it’s not just that,” Alana replied. “We all have that inner critic in our heads, the one that whispers, ‘Who are you to suggest such a thing?’ Taking courage means stepping into the mantle of your personal integrity and competency and recognizing that you have an informed perspective which needs to be heard. You didn’t get where you are in the agency without that integrity and competency, and from your boots-on-the-ground perspective you can see things others may not. So put on the cowardly lion’s medal of courage and trust your own ideas!”
“And did your ideas get implemented?” the instructor asked.
“They did!” Alana said proudly. “But I can honestly say that even if they hadn’t, I would have felt better about myself for making the effort and having my ideas be heard. I felt that I was demonstrating real leadership to my supervisors, and I knew they would take note of it.”

Wesley could hardly wait to get out of the classroom and start working on his own ACT plan.

It’s that time of year again. The 2014 Federal Employment Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results are in and agency leaders are asking the eternal question, what can we do to increase employee engagement?

One of the first mistakes organizations make is to identify the lowest scoring items on a survey as the most important areas to focus on. The fact that an item scored lowest doesn’t mean that it’s a key driver of employee engagement or that it identifies a concern of true importance to employees. Sustainable improvements to your organizational culture only happen when there is an environment conducive for the change to take hold; from leadership openness, to employee receptivity, to a shared vision and drive for change. Survey results can be helpful, but there are things you can do to begin a productive dialogue on improving organizational culture and employee engagement without necessarily even seeing your engagement survey results. Consider the following:

• Rather than talking at employees about survey results, structure meetings that invite employees into dialogue with one another and help them to see new possibilities and opportunities for the organization’s future. Pose questions that reconnect them to the “big why” of your organization and let them explore what that might look at going forward. All of us have a desire to contribute to the future of our organization in meaningful ways.

• Creating fertile ground for a shift in organizational culture requires a “safe to speak” environment and frank discussion. Engage in straight talk by always telling the complete truth with transparency; explain the big picture, including why and how decisions are made, what employees can expect, and how decisions help meet goals. No “spin”!

• Seek opportunities to connect employees with the mission in a way that cuts across organizational boundaries and breaks down silos, rather than reinforcing an “us vs. them” mentality. Create opportunities for cross-cutting collaboration, in real time, on matters of importance; avoid artificial “task forces” or “engagement survey work plans.”

• Strongly object to unnecessary bureaucracy, bottlenecks, gate-keeping, and broken processes – demand that everyone focus on keeping it simple.

• Remove the fear that employees have of making mistakes if they try new ways of doing things; leaders must demonstrate their support for creativity, innovation, and failure.

• Create consistent and honest messages about future vision and initiatives, resource realities, and employees’ connection to the day-to-day work and vision; explain how decisions are made and consistently ask for employee feedback. Don’t surprise employees with bad and/or last-minute news; be completely transparent about upcoming and ongoing changes and share more information.

The top things you can do to build engagement within your own unique organizational culture may vary depending on what you identify as your key drivers. The important thing is to avoid the temptation to pick the low-hanging fruit from your survey results, and opt for taking steps to continuously build employee engagement instead.

1. the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens
2. the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.

It’s a typical work day. You begin working on email at 8:00. Suddenly it’s 9:30 and you’re rushing to get to that 10:00 meeting. Because the client is late and there is too much to discuss, you don’t get out of the meeting until noon. You grab a sandwich and get back to the office, check email and voice mail, return phone calls. The time is now 2:00. Your colleague, Sally, comes in to report a disaster with a client. You leave everything behind for an emergency meeting to deal with the crisis. At 3:00 you finally settle in to begin work on your to-do list, but your colleague John comes by—he is so funny, and has a great story to share with you about his weekend. You glance at your watch and now it’s 3:30; you’d better check email again. At 4:00 you look at your list and the papers on your desk and begin doing those small tasks that can be done quickly. At 5:30 you race out of the office to pick up your kids. At 9:00 pm you check email again to see if anything urgent has happened. At 11:00 you lie in bed, feeling exhausted and a bit unsure of what you accomplished that day–but you sure were busy!

Each of us has a different idea of what makes for a perfect day, but for most of us it includes being able to accomplish our top priorities, and having both the time to build relationships with colleagues and clients and the time to deal with unexpected urgencies. Most of us want to go home at a reasonable hour, leaving all work behind and feeling satisfied, organized and motivated for the next day. The key is to strike the right balance between planning your day, and quickly adapting to the external influences that threaten our plan. That’s resilience—the ability to have your day stretched out of the shape you originally planned for it, and yet be able to bounce back and still accomplish your goals.

The first step in creating a perfect day is having a clear vision of what you want it to look like. You can’t take control of your daily work life unless you know exactly how you want to change it. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help create that vision:

1. What would you accomplish in a ‘perfect’ day?

2. How many hours would you work daily?

3. What individuals (both internally and externally) would you further develop business       relationships with?

4. How much uninterrupted time would you have during the day?

5. How much time would you spend corresponding by email and phone?

6. What other aspects would make it a ‘perfect’ day?

7. How would you feel at the end of day?

Now use your calendar as your guide. Block time out for email and phone, relationship building and uninterrupted task time. With each and every request for your work time commitments, there should be clear negotiation on the appropriateness of the task and time it will take place. Thus you are not really saying no; you are merely negotiating how you say yes. Perhaps the two-hour meeting someone has sent you an invite for should really only require your presence for an hour; perhaps the committee you’ve been asked to chair would more appropriately be led by someone else and merely advised by you. Be assertive in your negotiations and more proactive and intentional in planning your day, and you will build resilience to better manage the inevitable time management challenges that come your way.

The Q12, Gallup’s well known employee engagement survey, consistently shows the same two questions to be the lowest-scoring items across organizations in 116 countries:

• In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work

• In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress

After all our efforts in leadership development and management/supervisory training over the years, how can this be true? How can it still be so difficult? We can point to the discomfort giving feedback often causes; the fear of confrontation, or of hurting someone’s feelings, or of engaging in a contentious back-and-forth that produces no real behavioral change. In the case of positive feedback, we can point to task overload. But often there is also simply a lack of tools.

In earlier blogs, we’ve shared a model for giving feedback. These six steps, when followed, allow leaders to give feedback quickly, clearly, and respectfully. You should aim to get from step 1 to step 3 in less than a minute.

1. State your concern and the reason for it. “Mary, I’m concerned that you’ve been late for work often; this has caused Collin to have to cover for you when people need information from your area, and he doesn’t have time to focus on his own responsibilities in the morning.”

2. Describe the specific observation. Be sure to describe behavior, rather than putting a negative label on that behavior. “You were an hour late last Wednesday, and more than an hour late on Monday and Tuesday this week.”

3. Ask for reaction/feedback. Pause and ask why. Determine if the issue is role clarity, ability or willingness. Or is there perhaps a personal issue? “Is there anything that I should be aware of?”

4. Ask for a solution or provide a suggestion. “I understand you’ve been having trouble sleeping. Is there somewhere you can get help with that? Would you like a referral to our EAP?”

5. Develop an action plan for change. “I’d like to see you start arriving by 8:00 am consistently, and if you have an absolute emergency that prevents you from being on time, please call Collin and let him know what time you expect to arrive. That way he can let customers know when to call back.”

6. Express your support. “And if there’s anything I can do to help you, please let me know. I know it must be very difficult to be tired all the time.”

Perhaps the most important step is asking for a reaction, truly listening to the response, and accurately diagnosing the cause of the issue, rather than relying on the initial assumptions we made. If we assume an employee is making lots of mistakes on reports because s/he is careless and sloppy, and we don’t ask any questions, we may miss the important point that the employee lacks relevant data analysis skills and needs training. Or perhaps the employee believes it is a colleague’s responsibility to proofread the report and catch any errors in the data. The “fundamental attribution error” often causes us to assume that another person’s intentions are bad. Instead we need to be willing to question our assumptions and look at situational factors that may be causing the behavior.

If giving constructive employee feedback still seems challenging, remember you are giving your employees a gift. In the words of Thomas G. Crane, author of The Heart of Coaching, “Feedback is the primary way in which professional athletes learn about barriers that limit their performance…From athletes, we can learn to love feedback as a way of growing and developing to our full potential.”

“But that’s ridiculous!” Ralph sputtered, interrupting Mariah in mid-sentence. “I’ve been following the same reporting procedure for ten years! How can it suddenly be wrong?”

“It’s not so much that it’s ‘wrong,’” Mariah explained patiently. “It’s just that we need to be more thorough. Our public has changed over the past decade and they demand more information, faster, and with a wider scope. Most of what goes into your reports could be found on the internet.”

“You seem to have a bias against me,” Ralph responded, barely controlling his anger. “I’ve noticed it since the day I was moved into your branch. You treat me differently than the other public information specialists and I’m not the only one who has noticed it.”

As managers and supervisors, we’ve all been there before. An employee has been performing below standard on a particular task for as long as anyone in the agency can remember. Rather than seeking to improve the performance, previous supervisors have passed the employee along to other work units, sometimes even giving glowing references. What do you do when you need to give constructive feedback to someone who has been led to believe she is performing at or above standard?

Mariah knew she needed to start the process by giving objective, behavior-based observations to Ralph, and she used the six steps for giving effective feedback, but the employee blew up and challenged her. Given that Ralph had never received any feedback before, perhaps Mariah should have anticipated such a reaction.

Here are some steps to handle a tense situation in which your feedback is not accepted:

1. First, consider options for an appropriate time and place to meet with the employee. For example, if your office is visible to the rest of the team, forcing someone to make a public march to the “principal’s office” may start you off on the wrong foot. Perhaps meeting in a coffee shop would be better.

2. Then acknowledge the reality of the situation at the very beginning of the conversation, before the employee has a chance to become emotional. “I’d like to give you some feedback on your current reporting procedure. It may be the first time you’ve been given this feedback, so I understand it might be surprising or frustrating for you to hear.”

3. Observe the employee’s non-verbal signals carefully and watch for signs of an emotional response, so you may be better prepared.

4. Once the employee expresses anger, denial or defensiveness, shift from making observations to asking questions. “I see you don’t agree with my observation. Can you tell me more about how you see it?” “Can you walk me through your perspective?” “Can you tell me how you view this differently?”

5. Manage your stories. You may have been telling yourself that the employee was aware of the issue and deliberately chose to skate along at sub-par performance levels, but now is the time to question your assumptions. If the employee has never received feedback before, it’s very possible she has no idea she’s considered underperforming. Give her the benefit of the doubt, and listen actively as she begins to describe how she sees it.

6. Remember to remain respectful. Once a person perceives a lack of respect on your part, it will be difficult if not impossible to ask him to pay attention to your message.

7. Seek common ground to build on, and let the employee retain a feeling of control. Each of you may assess the employee’s behavior differently, but there are likely to be points of agreement, especially when it comes to the goals of the position. Use that to steer the employee toward a commitment. “It sounds as if we both agree that the public’s needs have changed. How do you think can we better address those needs?”

8. Make sure to explicitly link plans for improvement with clear objectives, and discuss any relevant metrics that might be used to measure success. “Let’s revisit our customer survey results at the end of this year to see if we’ve moved the needle on meeting our objectives in public education.”

9. End the conversation on a positive note. “It sounds like we have a plan. I appreciate your willingness to consider my feedback, and I know you want the best for our team. Let me know what else I can do to support you in making the changes we’ve agreed on.”