Grading Employees Fails Us All

BT-AB319_RATING_12U_20150420175718Every once in awhile my husband likes to tease me about the fact that I didn’t receive grades, and therefore had no grade point average, as a student at Sarah Lawrence College. Our professors wrote evaluations about our work and the progress we were making in our studies but we never received grades. One of the many things that I have come to value about my education was the privilege I was afforded in attending an alternative high school and a liberal arts college that were not grading students.

Not having to worry about grades meant that we were was able to focus on learning instead of worrying about competing against each other. There was never any thought or concern about grade point average and whether or not we would make it to “the top of the class.” We were fortunate to have been participants in developmental learning environments where students were encouraged to be co-creators of our education. I began thinking about the positive impact that this had on my life when I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal: The Trouble with Grading Employees.

For many professionals receiving a grade determines opportunities for promotion, raises in compensation and annual bonuses. As the article correctly points out, grading is a subjective activity that is often demoralizing. I was happy to read about the Gap’s approach to evaluating employees:

The Gap’s new approach dumps ratings in favor of monthly coaching sessions and frequent employee-manager conversations. But HR executives had to convince leaders that the move wasn’t “sacrilegious,” according to Eric Severson, the company’s co-head of human resources.

For as much as our culture values competition, when we are offered the chance to work (or study, or play) in a cooperative environment, people perform at a higher level.  Having monthly coaching sessions and ongoing conversations relates to employees as creators of their work environments. Relating to each other as co-creators frees us from some of the constraints of the roles we play in the workplace, i.e., employee, manager, over-worked boss, disgruntled worker, etc.

Being a co-creator is one of many things that I love about improvisation.  A well-trained improviser is always focused on making their partner look good.  It’s almost impossible to keep an improv scene going if you are competing to be the funniest, cleverest, scene-stealing person on stage.  Improvisers put their focus on “the other” as we listen and build with whatever our scene partner gives us to create with.

When I read the quote below my response was to say, “Really? I beg to differ!” –

 “We don’t want to be in a place where everyone’s an outstanding,” she said.

The fact of the matter is that we can transform the workplace by self-consciously creating the conditions for developmental learning environments where everyone is an outstanding!

For more about developmental learning environments check out the website and work of my colleague Dr. Lois Holzman, a leading proponent of cultural approaches to learning and development.

Heard Any Offers Lately?

International class

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to train the International Class of the East Side Institute  The students are learning the Institute’s approach to human development and community building; the group included people from Bangladesh, Serbia, and Brazil, as well as the Director of the Institute, Lois Holzman (pictured above). 

We worked on applying the basic tool of improvisation – yes and – to two-person scenes, which helps strengthen listening skills and, most importantly, the ability to build relationships and intimacy.  Because these students are engaged in learning a performance-based methodology they were very eager to both experience and understand how to apply improvisation in their work.

After some warm ups I had the students perform a series of two-person scenes beginning with the words, “It’s Tuesday and…”  As is often the case with improvisation, the scenes began with rather mundane comments and then, with my coaching, the students created relationships and, in some instances, a great deal of intimacy. How did that happen?  It happened by actively listening in order to hear the “offer” that was given and responding to that offer.  As both people feel heard by the other intimacy is slowly created, offer by offer.

My job as the coach was to stop the players to have a look at a missed offer or that someone negated an offer.  I gave the players my offer that they focus on deepening the relationship by accepting and building with each and every offer.

What matters In theatre and in life are relationships. Sadly in our culture we often end up thinking about the next thing to say, rather than actively listening to the other person and responding to them, not to the voice in our heads.

You might be reading this and wondering how this is applicable to a business setting.  As an executive coach who uses improvisation as a tool for growth and development, it is often the case that business people need and want to strengthen their ability to be active listeners.

Managers, in particular, want to develop these skills in order to further develop their team and thereby the team’s capabilities.  We work on creating conversation by slowly building with whatever “offers” are given.  If  team members are making “offers” and managers are negating them (by saying “no but” rather than “yes and”), relationships will suffer and demoralization can easily set in.

One of the interesting questions we explored in the International Class training is whether you can say “no” when you are playing a “yes and” game/scene.  As is often the case with rules, once you’ve mastered “yes and” it is possible to say “no” in a “yes and” manner.  In other words, if your team member makes a suggestion that you cannot accept, for whatever reason, there is a way to accept that offer without negating the suggestion and thereby the person who suggested it.

By working hard to have a positive “yes and” response – by virtue of putting your focus on the other – everyone feels appreciated and heard.

The Best Managers are Performing Ahead of Themselves

Lately I’ve been observing how people approach the role of manager.  Given my training as an actress and improviser, I often think of roles in theatrical terms.  Sometimes people get “cast” as a manager but they haven’t played this role before, nor have they had any training (rehearsal) for the demands of developing and managing a team.

My training in the social therapeutic method introduced me to Lev Vygotsky, an early Soviet psychologist who greatly influenced the field of human development.  Vygotsky talked about performing “a head taller” than we are – I love this image.  For those of us who find ourselves having to manage others, we often have to do things that seem impossible, given our limitations.  Managing people requires great emotional intelligence, honesty and impeccable listening skills.

Recently I’ve read a couple of wonderful pieces about managing people that appeared in the Harvard Business Review – I love these titles and encourage you to read what these authors have to say:

If You’re Not Helping People Develop, You’re Not Management Material

Employees Who Feel Love Perform Better  

These articles, wonderful as they are, don’t say much about the “how” of developing into a great manager, although they give some steps to take, which I wholeheartedly support.  What I’m most interested in is the performance required to allow oneself to give a team the support they need to develop, which is one way of understanding what is meant by “love” in this context.  In speaking to people about their experiences with managers, they often describe the close bonds that are forged when someone takes the time and effort to give to their people.

Some people end up as managers by default and, not surprisingly, they put all their focus on what they from their people, rather on what their people need from their manager. This is an impossible situation, as an effective manager’s mantra needs to be “give, give and then give some more”, especially if you want to help your people develop. (Hint: You might have to develop!)

Sadly in our culture the act of giving is not often cultivated.  After all, we live in a culture that is all about getting.  So most of us who manage teams of people have to perform a head taller than we are in order to give, especially in the moments when we are frustrated, disappointed, or let down by someone on our team.  This is where performance becomes a wonderful tool, as there are countless performances to be created at these moments!  As human beings we are all wonderfully creative when it comes to performing (think back to when you were a child).  The work I do with my clients is all about creating a character, a role, a performance for these challenging moments (this is how you can perform ahead taller and this is how we grow and develop).

Creative imitation is a good way to begin. Is there a mentor from your past, a role model, even an actor who you admire and can imitate?  What I mean by “creative imitation” is to create your version of this person, using them as inspiration to perform a head taller than you are.  Perhaps you steer clear of conflict – is there someone to imitate who is fearless in the face of conflict?  One of my clients decided to perform as Meryl Streep in Iron Lady, which allowed her to perform as a strong woman in situations that would normally intimidate her.

Next time you have to have a tough conversation with a team member, or you feel the frustrations that comes with being a manager, be a head taller than you are … perform (and develop)!

Becoming a dependable boss

I recently read an excellent post by Daniel Goleman on LinkedIn titled “Teams need a dependable boss“.  This paragraph jumped out at me:

People who feel that their boss provides a secure base, Kohlrieser finds, are more free to explore, be playful, take risks, innovate, and take on new challenges. Another business benefit: if leaders establish such trust and safety, then when they give tough feedback, the person receiving it not only stays more open but sees benefit in getting even hard-to-take information.

I agree wholeheartedly with what Goleman has to say about the impact of a manager who supports her/his team to grow and develop.  Allowing people to be playful might be the best thing that a boss can do to foster an environment of innovation, team work and discovery.

In my coaching work with professionals I often say that the most difficult role in the workplace, the most challenging work, is managing people.  Too often managers relate to people as though we could leave our emotional responses to each other outside of the office.  The most talented managers embrace the totality of the people on their team – they don’t shy away from intimacy and the caring it takes to have hard conversations.  Some managers can make strong demands because they have created an environment in which they are trusted.

This performance is not one that comes easy to people.  It demands a constant focus on the totality (the environment), the work and on “the other” (the team), even when the manager is feeling her/his own limitations.  It is not a knowing performance, it is a discovery.

Being playful is a wonderful tool for creating an environment of risk-taking.  The ability to make mistakes, fail and try again is essential to innovation and growth for individuals, teams and companies.  A dependable boss is the manager is constantly keeping an eye to the environment in which her/his people are working. The dependable boss fosters an environment of play.

Improvisation is a wonderful training ground for these skills.  The basic tool of improvisation is “yes and” – we embrace any “offers” that come our way and we build with them.  We listen intently and actively.  We trust our partner/s; we make our partner/s look good.  We don’t know where something is going; we embrace the process.  We are dependable!

If you are a manager or are developing as a manager I encourage you to perform in new ways that might surprise the people who report to you/work with you – make some discoveries and play!

Can the workplace be joyful?

In discussions with various executives I’ve been hearing a lot about their difficulties building positive relationships with work colleagues and/or with their teams.  This very crucial element of our work life — relationship-building — is often ignored or under-valued.

Managers can forget that the people they manage… are people.  We are a social, relational species.  The social environment that is created in the workplace can foster innovation, creativity and collaboration or it can foster demoralization, competition and isolation.

I’ve been reading the myriad of articles about Steve Jobs that have appeared this week.  In creating this blog post I was reflecting on this quote from Roberto Verganti’s HBR blog post, Steve Jobs and Management by Meaning :

“Managing by meaning” is recognizing that people are human: they have rational, cultural, and emotional dimensions, and they appreciate the person who creates a meaning for them to embrace.

An executive shared with me that she is tasked with building a team within a corporate culture that is very individually oriented where competition rules.  As is  often the case in this type of corporate culture, managers do not step back and think about how to engage their team members.  There is very little listening going on and it’s often the case that managers engage in sarcasm or are overly critical in trying to move work forward.  As she puts it, “everyone is speedy and every conversation is rushed.” The emotional dimension of who we are as human beings is so often left out of the equation. Play, improvisation and performance are a critical tool in creating the conditions for collaboration and creativity.

Here’s a valuable quote from Lois Holzman’s book Vygotsky at Work and Play:

One of the values of bringing improv to the workplace is its potential to impact on conversation, not only to minimize such unpleasant exchanges but also to give people a method to transform it into something closer to the creative meaning-making activity it is with babies (but in an adult- and workplace-appropropriate manner).  This is exceedingly difficult for adults to do with any consistency.  To get good at it requires a lot of practice, not only in speaking but also in listening, because in ordinary conversations, including those at the workplace, people tend to listen very selectively to what others are saying –  to hear something they agree or disagree with, to assess the “truth value” of what is said, to size up the speaker and try to figure out what she or he “really” means, to plan a comeback, to hear the pause that signals “it’s my turn now” – or all of the above.  “Yes, and” exercises are the main way improvisors practice listening.

Saying “yes and” instead of “no but” is how we build with each other.  It is a recognition of the “we” who work together to accomplish whatever needs to be done.  Listening is a critical tool, as is a recognition that how we say what we say impacts on “the other” – the “creative meaning-making activity”.  Having our focus on “the other” or the “we” is where creativity and collaboration lives. We are meaning-makers. Perhaps this is what Verganti was referring to in saying that Steve Jobs was “managing by meaning”.

Another executive I’ve been working with shared with me that he attended a company-sponsored communication workshop where there was discussion about the fact that people have different personalities and styles of working.  He became aware that he could get better at understanding how he needs to talk to someone and anticipate how they will hear what he’s saying. If a colleague is very analytically-oriented, he cannot come at them with a 30,000 foot view idea — he needs to come to them given what they need and how they see.  We are developing his performance to improve his ability to talk and listen in a new way.

Can the workplace be joyful?

In my work as an Executive Clown I teach executives the value of pointless play and improvisation so that they can utilize the improvisors tool-kit everywhere they find themselves (including the workplace) to live more productive, creative, joyful lives.

Yes and…

Creating the environment for a happier workplace

On June 30th I will be leaving my position of 15 years as a retained executive search consultant to begin a new career as a freelance professional in the field of recruiting, training and coaching.  Since I’ve started this blog I’ve read many articles and postings about the workplace, productivity, innovation and other areas of study under the umbrella of human capital issues.  All of this is very much on my mind.

With this direction for my own career I am thinking more and more about what it takes for people to have a better experience in the recruiting and onboarding process; I am concerned that people I place have a good experience at their new company in their new role.  And the same goes for hiring managers and human resource professionals – how can everyone involved have a better experience?  I’ve seen how organizations value or under value talent acquisition and whether or not there is a commitment to the process and activity of recruiting and developing talent.

Although I wholeheartedly agree with the “tips” below for having a “happier” life I would add that it takes time and energy to create an environment for people to have a more joyful experience at work vs. individuals trying to make work a better place for themselves.  Managers have to grow in new ways.  They have to develop and take risks and try some new things (like creating the space for employees to take breaks for exercise, breathing, laughter, play, improvisation … whatever is relaxing).  An overly critical manager who rarely gives praise to his/her team and expects them to work without a break, without thought for what the office environment is like, will need to develop beyond the role/performance of manager that she/he knows (behavior) and create a new performance.  That is where development resides – in the new performance (vs. behavior).

I am a developmentalist.  I’ve spent many years as a builder of a broad based and performance-oriented movement for human development and social change.  I bring this perspective and activity to my work as a recruiter, coach and trainer.  In the same way that development is often not present in discussions about education, it is no where in the discussions about the workplace.

Hopefully we will soon see articles on the Harvard Business Review’s site about developmental approaches to a more productive workforce but in the meantime enjoy these helpful (albeit individualistic) ways to make the workday more joyful – I’m all for that!

The Happiness Dividend by Shawn Achor (HBR):

  • Write down three new things you are grateful for each day;
  • Write for 2 minutes a day describing one positive experience you had over the past 24 hours;
  • Exercise for 10 minutes a day;
  • Meditate for 2 minutes, focusing on your breath going in and out;
  • Write one, quick email first thing in the morning thanking or praising a member on your team.

Gratitude, focusing on positive experiences, exercise, meditating, and random acts of kindness are all ways to change the pattern through which your brain views work.

Praise the people!

Here’s an interesting question: Why Does Criticism Seem More Effective than Praise? 

Sadly most of us think criticism yields better performance. That’s never made much sense to me.

In the theatre – whether I’m in a play or performing improv – too much criticism can be stifling and creates self consciousness that inhibits creativity, and I’d add that it stifles productivity.  Its demoralizing.

Actors know that often a great performance is followed by an average performance.  At work we can perform at the top of our game one day, or when we are engaged in a particular task, and less so at other times.

It’s so easy for us to forget that we are only human (we are not Watson!).  We criticize (and judge) people; we all do it (too) many times a day.  Sometimes we don’t even realize or mean to be critical, but we are.

If we perform in new ways and focus on the positive, if we give praise, give positive feedback, if we give – we might just find more joy in our workday and every day.

Give praise to the people!

Funny … that’s empowering!

I was reading a Management Type of the Day from Harvard Business Review – “Find the 3 Ingredients to Job Satisfaction” – and thinking about “mastering what you are good at”.  

A good manager develops their employees’ strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses.  Having once worked for a manager who criticized my work but never appreciated or praised work I performed, I know how demoralizing that can be.  I don’t think this only applies to the boardroom.  I would say that it is something to live by in how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the world.  

It’s easy to focus on the hardship in the world we live in and it’s easy to focus on people’s weaknesses and rush to judgement.  On any given day we can surely focus on the things we did that were “wrong” – an interaction with a colleague, a harshly worded email, a rushed phone call that we regret.  The challenge is to build on the positives, what IS working in the world, in our lives, in our work.

When I am collaborating with someone who sees my strengths and builds upon them it is empowering – and visa-versa.  It is an improvisational scene in which we build on the offers our partner gives, rather than negating them.  Creativity and innovation arises from this activity.

As a performer of improv comedy humor is one of my strengths, with all of the interpersonal capabilities that go along with my improvisational tool kit.  I have found that using humor and improv in variety of business situations is incredibly valuable and, in my opinion, is under-utilized.

Here’s a wonderful video that exemplifies the playful use of humor in a business setting – enjoy!