“Oh, you must be the new person. I wish I had some time to chat, but I’m on my way to a meeting. I think we have a desk here for you somewhere. Have a seat in the lobby till we figure out what’s up.” If that doesn’t make your heart sink as a new employee, nothing will!

If you’ve started a new job more than once, you probably have at least one story about a bad beginning. You showed up on your first day and didn’t have a computer yet, or you didn’t get introduced around, or you spent a few days with nothing to do because your arrival had not been adequately planned for. Perhaps there was no formal orientation session, or perhaps there was, but it was little more than a dry review of employment policies and a tour of the building.

Effective on-boarding is more than a nice touch; it can spell the difference between the success and failure of recruiting and retention. The Partnership for Public Service recently looked at federal agency onboarding and reported that no component of human capital management had been more overlooked than the process of integrating new employees into their work environments. The Partnership report also said that effective onboarding programs can improve employee retention by 25 percent. This can reduce the high cost of turnover that, by some estimates, costs organizations 30 to 50 percent of the annual salary of entry-level employees, 150 percent for mid-level employees, and up to 400 percent for specialized, high-level employees.

It’s tempting to look back and think we can fix such problems by creating a well-structured orientation program and giving hiring managers a checklist. But that kind of approach misses the key point that onboarding and orientation are two completely different things. Orientation is a critical component of a successful onboarding program, but it is an event within that program, and not the program itself. Onboarding, as defined by OPM, is a long-term process that begins before the new hire comes on board, and continues through the first year of employment. It is “the dynamic process of ensuring new employees have the knowledge, skills, and organizational awareness to become committed, effective members of the agency.”

Many agencies have made improvements since then, yet reports continue that onboarding processes remain overly transactional, inconsistent, and lacking integration and accountability. As a supervisor, here are some things you can do to ensure your new employee’s onboarding process continues beyond the new hire orientation period:

• Use OPM’s new hire survey to identify and address the needs of your new employees
• Focus on assigning meaningful work, and discussing with your new employee how that work supports organizational mission
• Hold frequent “check in” meetings with new employees to assess the need for further training and resources, to give formal and informal performance feedback, and to ensure expectations are clear
• Get an early start on the process of creating an individual development plan (IDP)
• Explicitly recognize positive employee contributions
• Provide insight into organizational values and culture; what does it really take to “fit in” in your agency and work unit?

Taking a continuous improvement approach to your onboarding process will pay large dividends in increased employee engagement, accelerated time-to-productivity, and greater employee retention.

One of the greatest challenges faced by many leaders is an organizational climate that supports a “go along to get along” culture rather than a continuous improvement environment. We all have a story about a poorly performing employee who got passed on to us because a previous supervisor found it easier to transfer him than to take the steps necessary to improve his performance.

Performance improvement begins with a willingness to communicate directly, honestly and courageously with an employee who needs feedback. The problem, for many of us, is that direct and honest feedback feels bad. It’s a lot easier to speak up only when we have something nice to say, and never risk confrontation or hurt feelings.

Kim Scott, a corporate coach whose resume includes stints at Apple University and Google, has offered up a useful model she calls “radical candor.” The two axes of this four quadrant model measure a supervisor’s propensity for caring personally, and for challenging directly; or what Scott calls “giving a darn” and “being willing to upset people.” What takes the sting out of being willing to upset people is having a high score on the give a darn axis.

Consider the case of Monica, a career employee with 25 years of experience as a contracting specialist for her agency. Earlier in her career, Monica had been an extremely high performing employee. Her contracts were flawless and her output was above average. Over the years, however, Monica had become bored with her job. A succession of supervisors had passed her over for promotions or lateral moves because they valued her experience and performance so highly they didn’t want to lose her. Gradually, almost without anyone knowing, Monica’s performance began to slide. Her attention to detail suffered, and her contracts along with it. Her most recent supervisor, George, was baffled by the contradiction between Monica’s reputation and the quality of her current work, but he felt it would be impolite to challenge her long-standing record of superior performance, so he ignored it.

The problem is that George is doing a terrible disservice to Monica. Now, not only has she been passed over for promotion by previous supervisors, but she is heading toward being unfit even for her current position, and George is letting it happen. What George needs to do is show, over time, that he cares about Monica’s well-being, job satisfaction and career trajectory; and at the same time, begin to be completely candid about the fact that her work is no longer up to standard.

How do you show that you care? By asking genuine questions about the employee’s personal and professional goals; “having her back” on important issues; and making yourself consistently available for discussion and support. Once Monica can trust that George has her best interests at heart, she will be ready to hear that her performance is no longer what it once was.

It’s time for us to stop thinking in binary terms about being nice versus challenging performance. You can do both at the same time. And as a supervisor, it’s your job.

No matter how good your relationship with your boss, there will always be times when you disagree on an issue and wish you could influence her in a different direction. Perhaps you feel you have more subject matter expertise on a particular project and know a better way to move forward than what your boss is proposing, or you have an idea about how to improve a process that your boss doesn’t see the value in. Or maybe the issue is more personal; you feel the boss is micro-managing you, taking credit for your work, or treating you unfairly in the distribution of assignments. How do you persuade her to see things differently without labeling yourself as a difficult or argumentative employee? Here are some steps:

• First, avoid the “fundamental attribution error,” which leads us to attribute negative intentions to someone we disagree with. Whatever your boss is doing, chances are that he isn’t doing it to drive you crazy, but rather because he genuinely believes it is the right course of action for that particular situation. If you begin with the perspective that he has negative intent, you may shut down further options for influencing him.
• Next, follow Stephen Covey’s fifth habit: Seek first to understand, and then to be understood. In other words, ask good quality questions and actively listen to your boss in order to understand her perspective before you begin any effort to change her mind. Another way of saying this is to inquire before you advocate. You should seek to understand the big picture—the organizational factors driving your boss’s perspective that you may not be aware of–in addition to the smaller picture, which includes the relevant history, values, biases, needs and concerns of your boss. Ask questions like, “How do you see this issue? What brought you to this decision? What are the considerations I may not be aware of?”
• Once you feel you understand the boss’s perspective, consider what you know about his personality and behavioral style. Is he a detail person or a big picture person? How direct is his communication; does he seem to prefer a straightforward confrontation, or does he avoid conflict? Does he usually want just the facts, or does he tend to pay attention to the emotional side of an issue? Does he get straight to the point, or spend time making small talk and building rapport first? Tailor your communication style to match his needs, and then make your pitch.
• Once you’ve begun to advocate for your point of view, make sure to keep a respectful tone and an even keel. Don’t let frustration or anger put your boss on the defensive and derail your efforts. Allow plenty of time for your boss to ask questions and make objections, and address the objections in a neutral manner, allowing for the possibility that you may not have considered all the angles.

Finally, should your efforts be unsuccessful, know when to quit! Prolonging the discussion when it’s clear your boss has made up her mind will only hurt your future efforts to influence her. Consider that you may have laid some important groundwork in establishing yourself as a person who speaks his mind in a thoughtful way, and make sure you don’t damage your ability to do so again in the future. Take stock of what you’ve learned during the discussion, and don’t be afraid to try again when the issue is truly important to you.

As leaders we believe in the importance of creating a culture of inclusion in our organizations, a culture in which everyone feels part of the team and able to contribute to the mission. We know that inclusion leads to engagement leads to higher productivity and increased business success.

But what happens when upping your standards of inclusion requires a radical change to the organizational culture, to the “way we’ve always done things around here” for years, decades, even centuries? Here are some key points to keep in mind as we strive to address this challenge:

1. Radical organizational change happens when we can clearly make the case that our mission demands and depends on it. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, writing for Harvard Business Review, explains how the Army could be successful in graduating two female soldiers from Ranger school this year only after the case for radical change was recognized back in 2010: “Commanders needed more knowledge and more understanding to gain an advantage on the battlefield. And yet male soldiers could not speak to Afghan women or enter their quarters without causing grave offense in the conservative, traditional societies in which they were operating. Without female soldiers, half the population’s knowledge would remain out of reach.” How can you connect your own inclusion efforts with your organization’s mission to make the case for change?

2. Leadership courage will be required. A leader with the courage to defy convention was at the forefront of many history-making organizational changes. President Truman decided to desegregate the military via executive order in 1948; President Obama put legislation in motion in 2010 to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell.” Without courageous decision-making by leadership, needed organizational changes may take much longer to bring about.

3. Support and encouragement may be needed, and leaders must set the example. When team members see managers making an effort to help new employees succeed, they will feel safe doing the same. Creating a culture of inclusion despite significant opposition and a long history of resistance is not easy, and we can’t get there by doing what we’ve always done. It is harder to succeed when we perceive others want us to fail, so leaders must reach out and embrace those we seek to include. Sometimes just a pat on the back and an offer to be available for help will do the trick. Other times leaders may need to make a concerted effort to open up resources, provide funding, or lead support groups.

4. We must showcase the impact and achievements of the change, and link them back to the mission. In other words, how did difference make a difference? Sometimes this means collecting statistics, and other times it means telling success stories. Opponents of allowing women in Special Forces units were swayed by the story of an important piece of intelligence found in a baby’s diaper in a women-only area. When the advertising industry began to hire and promote women and people of color, they were better able to sell products aimed at women and people of color and open up new markets they hadn’t previously considered. When the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated wider doorways, accessible sidewalks and interactive street crossing signs, we found these conveniences benefited everyone and not just people with disabilities. What stories can you tell about how increased diversity and inclusion on your team helped you to understand and serve the needs of your diverse customers more effectively?

One of the most uncomfortable challenges we face as leaders is to manage our hidden biases. We all have them, regardless of how sincerely we consider ourselves champions of diversity. They come from our life experiences, the values we formed during childhood, and the sense-making tendencies of our brains, which make up stories to filter and interpret our experience whether we like it or not. These biases run the spectrum from fully unconscious to semi-conscious to explicit, and they explain why we are drawn to certain people, indifferent to others, and perhaps even repulsed by some. Overweight people must be undisciplined; young people are entitled; Asians are math whizzes; New Yorkers are obnoxious; all veterans have mental disabilities; people with tattoos or piercings have questionable lifestyles; men are more assertive and women are more compassionate. Take a good hard look at the assumptions operating beneath the surface of your conscious thinking and you will find these kinds of biases, no matter who you are.

Our biases can come out of hiding in insidious ways. Sometimes they manifest in something called “micro-messages,” a term coined by Dr. Mary Rowe of MIT. In the course of studying the impact of bias on education, Dr. Rowe defined micro-messages as small, semi-conscious messages we send through a combination of verbal and non-verbal behavior that may tell someone either that we value them or that we don’t. When these micro-messages accumulate and form a consistent pattern, they may become micro-inequities or micro-advantages.

What’s important to our efforts to become better leaders is not that we try to deny or rid ourselves of bias, but rather that we bring them to the surface, name them, and ensure they don’t impact our behavior in negative ways. This might sound easier than it is. If you unconsciously believe, for example, that Hispanic people have a lesser work ethic than other groups, how likely are you to micromanage, over-discipline or fail to support your Hispanic employees? If you have a hidden bias that tells you middle-aged white men are entitled, might you pass over your white male employee more often when giving out choice assignments? If your unconscious bias makes you uncomfortable around gay people, isn’t that likely to make you less approachable with your gay employees?

More subtly, if you fail to recognize these hidden biases you will probably smile less at certain employees, make less eye contact, and spend less time soliciting ideas from them. These micro-messages will eventually add up to a micro-inequity that is deeply felt and impacts performance, but seems too trivial to address. No one wants to go to their boss and say, “Hey, you come in here every Monday and ask Joe how his weekend was, but you never ask me.” We’re afraid the response might be, “You’re too sensitive! Get back to work.” On the other hand, over time, most of us will recognize and feel the difference in how we are treated, and it will have an impact on how we feel about our jobs, our supervisors and the organization. Eventually we will become demoralized and demotivated, and perhaps even start searching for another job.

Micro-advantages can have a similar impact. The black supervisor who shouts, “You go girl!” at her black employees; the manager from Penn State who raises the school football team cheer with his employees from the same alma mater; the team leader from Los Angeles who uses regional slang with her employees from California–these leaders may be making some team members feel included at the expense of others. It’s only natural that we feel more comfortable with certain people, but if we want to create a culture of inclusion we must take care not to let it be felt as a micro-inequity by others on the team.

Are you ready to tackle your own hidden biases? Here are some steps to take:

• Become more aware of your biases, and don’t be afraid to name them. Consider taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT) at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ to help you understand your specific biases.
• Spend time consciously examining your behavior to ensure it doesn’t reflect any of your biases. Solicit feedback from those you trust to be honest with you.
• Become more aware of how you come across non-verbally. Are you sending micro-messages you’re unaware of? If you’ve never observed yourself interacting with others on videotape, seek opportunities to do so. You’ll learn a lot.
• Make a conscious effort to send positive micro-messages to people you feel less comfortable with, and make sure to include them in team discussions and activities. Get out of your comfort zone.

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.

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.”