Compassionate Management

First-line managers can reduce stress with compassionate management

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The impact of stress in the workplace has known consequences to both employers and employees alike. Rising healthcare costs, increased turnover, decreased productivity, anxiety, cardiac issues, irritability, and a toxic work environment are just a few examples. Everyone feels the impact of stress at work in some way or form.

In parallel, you have first line managers, who manage over 80% of the workforce, in a position to contribute to reducing at least some of that stress. But the harsh reality is, in managerial surveys, from 45% to 60% of managers say they have not received formal management training.  

There is urgency to equip our first-line managers with basic management training, but also with stress management techniques to manage their own stress and to help their employees to reduce their stress. That’s why I wrote my just-published book, Compassionate Management: Reducing Stress at Work.

As a first-line manager, you don’t have to wait for your employer to pay for your training. It’s great when you can get it – but you can take your destiny in your own hands and learn management and stress management techniques which will help you be more effective in managing yourself, your team and the daily conflict which is a reality in most managers’ lives.

Taking a compassionate management approach is something anyone can do, regardless of the environment of the company they are in. For me, finding my way to compassionate management was critical to my well-being and my self-esteem. I learned, through trial and error as well as through much education (both employer-provided and often self-driven) the critical importance of communication, collaboration and cultivating team members I was leading.

When you create an environment for your team where the team works together, shares ideas and experiences with active communication and collaboration, people feel heard and the level of engagement, participation and motivation go up exponentially. When you add a focus on personal development to that recipe, employee satisfaction and motivation are boosted that much more.

I have found that a lot of good management starts with self-awareness. It’s important to understand yourself and be aware of the impact you have on others. That is the first step towards being able to put yourself in anyone’s shoes, which is an essential foundation of compassion.

Learning how stress works is a good way to start becoming more aware of the impact stress is having in your day to day work life, both on yourself and on your team.  Automatic thinking, which often translates to negative thinking patterns, is a big culprit to increasing stress levels. Once you understand the cycle, it is possible to intervene and avoid letting potential emotional triggers lead you to stress-driven bad behavior.

Learning to communicate effectively – to adapt communication style to your audience, to be an active listener, and to understand how stress and high emotions impacts communication – is also a foundational element for managers.

Creating an environment where communication is the norm and collaboration is part of the team’s DNA is not as hard as you may think, but it does take focus and effort. That’s where having a solid management system comes into play. So many managers have good intentions but don’t have a system in place to ensure that meet both short term and long-term obligations.

Finally, if you don’t take care of your own career, it’s hard to help your employees to do the same. Learn how to create your career vision and career plan, and then share that with your team. In today’s environment of fast-paced change, keeping skills current is an ongoing task you can’t afford to ignore – for yourself or for your team.

In short, compassionate management is all about taking care of yourself as well as taking care of your team. But that doesn’t mean only focusing on the good. It also means addressing attitude and performance issues and helping each individual to give the best of themselves to their job.

You too can be a compassionate manager. Check out the book, or the online course on Udemy, both chock full of tips and tricks but also with individual exercises you can complete to become the compassionate manager you want to be.

Managing your team's workload

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One of the most frequent issues in today’s fast paced work environment is managing workload. Too much to do all of the time or the new task or project that pushes workload to the unimaginable right now, today. As a manager, workload is one of the most important things you will help your team manage and there are plenty of things you can do to that end. Let’s take a look at some simple steps to take.

Let’s start with your overall approach to managing workload. Workload is one of the primary topics you should be regularly discussing with your team as a whole and with individuals. Make sure you ask about workload and keep tabs on who has stretch room and who has a full plate. When you communicate new projects and deadlines, explicitly ask about how this will impact workload and whether there are issues and conflicts. Discuss possible trade-offs up front to ensure that workload does not become an issue. Finally, don’t forget to openly acknowledge exceptional or peak workload periods – recognize when extra effort is needed to get to end of job.

However, no matter the steps we take to try to avoid overload, it still happens. When workload is problematic, start by simply assessing some facts. When gathering the facts, realize that your team members are probably in the throes of frustration and feeling out of control. You can help them check their emotions by directing the conversation to the facts and not the emotions caused by the situation. Look out for negative thinking patterns in comments like “I’ll never get it all done” or “I’m just not good enough” and point out the alternatives.

The first thing you want to do is assess whether the problem is temporary (caused by a peak in workload) or whether it is an ongoing situation.  How you seek to resolve the problem will be different if you have a temporary issue. This can be assessed by simply asking the question – is this an ongoing issue, a periodic one or an exceptional situation?

Some industries and job roles have natural peaks and valleys. It’s important for everyone to recognize natural peaks and valleys and accommodate them as much as possible.  As a manager you can encourage your employees to think somewhat differently about their work schedule. Perhaps during peak times, they can put in more hours which can be recovered during the valleys. Make sure that there are accommodations for employees to take time to recharge their batteries during the down times. It is important to help the team level set on what the job will require in general – and peaks and valleys can be a part of that.

But just working more during peak periods is not always enough. There are a few areas to explore to understand the situation. Think about the flexibility which is possible in deadlines. Consider who on your team might be able to help during this crunch time.  Make sure there isn’t a specific personal situation which is adding to the issue. If there is, figure out how you can help by reassigning tasks or creating more space for the employee to handle their personal crisis.

Here are some questions you can use to discuss the situation with your employee. These questions focus on the temporary problem – we’ll get to the more systemic issues later in the article.

  • What are the projects and tasks that you have on your plate?

  • What are the deadlines to these projects and where do they conflict?

  • What is the priority level of each of the key tasks/deadlines?

  • Are there tasks which can be pushed out to after the peak workload has gone back to normal?

  • What day to day things can you stop doing to make time?

  • What can you reprioritize personally to make more time, temporarily, to get the work done?

  • Who might be able to help with some of your tasks?

  • How is your personal situation impacting your capability to manage the peak workload?

  • How do you plan your different tasks and projects and manage your time?

Helping your team to learn how to prioritize (and reprioritize!) is an essential skill. Some recurring tasks can be left undone for short periods of time. Some meetings can be skipped with little to no consequence. Work with individuals who aren’t sure how to assess and help them learn how to do it themselves going forward.

Finally, you’ll want to check in on how your employee is planning and managing their time. Some people don’t have any kind of system and easily become overwhelmed when faced with what looks like a mountain of tasks. Spend some time to help team members with this issue to list all their todo items, assess the time needed to get them done, and plan out exactly when they are going to get them done. Explain how they can leverage their calendar or a to do list or project management tools to manage their time more effectively.

Discussions about systemic issues with workload are a bit different.  There are two different angles to look at : what the employee is doing and how the job is being done.  Following are some specific things for employees to assess for discussion:

  • Assess how you are spending your time – compare key tasks vs responsibilities/objectives

  • How are changing organizational priorities impacting your workload?

  • Are there any potential process improvements which could lighten your workload?

  • Assess the meetings on your calendar – what is your role? Are you necessary to the call? Are there meetings which are not a good use of time which can be eliminated?

  • What are some things you might stop doing, things you can spend less time on?

  • How do you plan your different tasks and projects and manage your time?

Ask the employee to prepare an assessment of these areas and then sit down to have a conversation about it. Take a close look at how the employee is spending their time relative to their job responsibilities. Are they focusing too much on any specific task or aspect of the role? Have changing priorities made focus on certain tasks less important? Have changing priorities added new tasks but taken nothing away? In that case, spend some time brainstorming what tasks can be stopped.

If your team member is in a similar role with similar workload as other colleagues who are better managing their time, you might ask someone to buddy with the struggling person to help them re-balance their workload and suggest ways to optimize their time. Remember too that each individual has their own work pace. Some people need more time to accomplish tasks. If this is an ongoing issue with an individual, it might be time to consider a different role for them which carries less workload. But before you make that decision, consider whether your team members who are getting it all done are sacrificing their personal lives and simply putting in hours beyond the normal workday.  If everyone is either struggling to get their jobs done within the normal workday or putting in lots of extra hours to get it done, it’s time to reassess roles and responsibilities and work capacity to ensure that you are not over burdening your team.

Don’t let workload become the bug bear of your department. With regular attention and focus, you can help your team to prioritize and focus on what’s most important and not just what seems most urgent.

Managing job and career ambiguity

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A poorly defined job role or lack of clear path for evolution can create uncertainty and significantly decrease motivation and engagement. As a manager, you are in the hot seat to ensure your employees don’t have job ambiguity. In addition, there’s a lot you can do to help your employees deal with career ambiguity.  Let’s take a look.

Job ambiguity

With digital transformation and an ongoing search for increasing productivity and effectiveness, job roles are changing at a furious pace. Often, roles change with no formal documentation. New tasks are introduced, new priorities are added but seldom is anything explicitly taken away or deprioritized.  The result can be chaos and confusion for employees who feel like it’s impossible to get it all done and can’t see their way clear to fixing it. Uncertainty is one of the primary threat triggers of stress, and this kind of situation can create frustration which can grow into anger and hopelessness.

But job uncertainty isn’t just a result of changing work conditions. This type of ambiguity can happen not only because of changes in the workplace, but also when an employee moves from one job to another or when there is no formal job description defined for a role.  As a manger, you are directly responsible for dealing with job ambiguity. Here’s what you can do to avoid and address it with your team.

The most important thing you can do is to ensure that there are clearly defined and documented roles and responsibilities. What is the work that needs to get done? What are the primary outcomes that the team member is responsible for? Every team member should have a clearly documented job description which outlines their responsibilities.

But in addition to what needs to get done, how things get done is just as important. What are the key steps in the process? Who does the employee need to work with at each step in the process?  This usually isn’t part of the job description, but important processes should also be documented, or at least discussed with the team.

When changes to priorities and process occur, work with your team to put the changes in context for each role on the team. If the changes impact the entire team, you should discuss it as a team as well as working with each individual. Some key questions to work through are:

·         How will the change impact each role?

·         If new priorities are being added, where do they fit with the priorities already established?

·         What can be deprioritized?

 For people who are new to a role, it’s critical to take the time to ensure they understand the role and what is expected of them.  Sit down with them when they are getting started and walk through it. If they have peers who do a similar role, assigning a “buddy” can be helpful. Provide opportunities on a regular basis in the first few months for the team member to ask questions and get clarification as they become familiar with the role.

Career ambiguity

Career ambiguity happens when there is no clear path for growth. Some (usually large) organizations have career paths defined with very specific steps and even learning to follow. But most people don’t have that luxury, and even when these paths exist, many people will simply focus on their job without prompting. As a manager, there are many things you can do to allay career ambiguity for your team members.

Start by having regular conversations with each of your team members about their career goals. This is an area where employees often need coaching. You can help your team member think about what they want next in their career by asking pointed questions about what kind of tasks, responsibilities and accomplishments they would like to evolve towards. You can help them to think through the steps in creating a career vision if they are up to the task.

Once you have an idea of how your employee wants to evolve, you can work with them to create some career goals and an action plan to get there. Help them think about what skills they need to get there and what types of activities they can do to acquire them. You may be able to help with stretch assignments or with other project-based opportunities. Share with them the importance of a learning plan, mentors and sponsors in achieving their career goals. You may be able to help identify learning opportunities and introduce them to potential mentors or sponsors.

Not all employees are interested in creating a career vision and plan. That’s ok. For these employees, you’ll want to find other ways to keep them motivated and engaged.

All in all, first-line managers are the best positioned to help employees avoid job and career ambiguity. Make sure you take time out of the fire drills and business priorities to focus on this important topic on a regular basis.

Managing organizational change

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Organizational change is inevitable, and we all need to deal with it occasionally. But when you are a manager, you’re responsible not only for yourself, but also for helping your team navigate the changes. Everyone knows change creates stress, but did you know that organizational change is one of the top workplace stressors? The good news is there are lots of things you can do to ease the way for your team.

Announcing change

We’ll talk about two types of organizational change in this article: reorganizations and process change. Regardless of the type of change going on, it’s important for you to share changes as soon as you can to avoid rumor and anxiety. Whenever you are announcing change, you should focus on why the change is happening, the impact to the organization and finally, the impact to your direct team. Some changes will create more emotional response than others. If the change is emotionally charged for you, work on managing your emotion by focusing on the facts and the ways you can help.

When you are describing change to your team, you should focus on opportunities created by the change. Of course, there may be threats and down sides to the situation. Be realistic and honest about the level of difficulty in the change. But even if you don’t agree with the changes taking place, you need to let the team know that your job is to put them in place. So, you can, and should, discuss the “elephants” in the room – but you should shift the focus to what is going to happen going forward instead of dwelling on the downside.

Reorganizations

Reorganizations create a lot of stress. Rumors can fly for weeks, even months sometimes, when major reorganizations are in the works and people can have a lot of time to speculate. Managers don’t always have a lot of time before public announcements. But whenever possible, you should communicate role changes privately before any public announcements. Then, of course, talk to the team about the change and impact to the team. If everyone is not aware of the impact for themselves personally, don’t give details about individuals. Let the team know when you’ll be communicating the new organigram for the team.

Get time with each of your team members to discuss personal impact. If you have new team members joining the team, you’ll want to spend a bit more time with them. Have a discussion about their experience and skills. Share your management style and principles with them and let them know how the team works together. In situations where employees have been moved around a lot due to reorganizations, you’ll want to reassure them as best you can. Often, just taking the time to have such a discussion can go a long way towards reassuring anxious team members. Formally introduce them to the team. Ask everyone to share their roles and something about themselves.

A discussion with the previous manager of team members moving into your team is an important step. Get an update on their perspective, the team member’s salary and performance. For team members moving to other teams, you’ll want to debrief their new managers in a similar fashion.

Finally, if your own manager changes, prepare a clear view of the team, key projects, known issues and your management system. Enquire about their management system and start getting to know their communication and leadership style. Help them get to know you as well by sharing your career trajectory and key skills – both those used in your current role and any untapped skills you aren’t being called on to use currently.

Don’t just assume that once the change is introduced, everything will work fluidly. Keep an eye on how things evolve. Some people adapt quickly and easily to change, others need more time and encouragement.

Process change

Digital transformation is disrupting legacy work processes and how things get done. New processes are meant to be more efficient and effective. The reality is, process change can have the opposite effect for some time before it is understood and becomes deeply rooted. As a manager, you play a key role in easing this transition for your team.

When you are communicating the change, it’s helpful to name a focal point who will share new information, become the “team expert”, and collect questions and issues. That could be you or it could be a member of your team. You can also assign specific topics to individual team members and have them share back what they learned with the rest of the team.

Make sure you are sharing the training documents for the new process. If there are multiple things under transformation in parallel, you may want to provide recommendations for your team for prioritization. Help the team understand where they should focus first, and the best way to get started. That can take the form of a structured training plan or a less formal set of recommendations.

Keep a pulse on what’s working and what isn’t. If there is a company focal point for the change, keep them informed of the major issues and barriers to progress.  Keep the team informed – either through direct participation in updates or by recapping for them. Identify the experts on the new process and help your team to connect with them when appropriate.

In the era of Agile, process change often comes in increments and new processes may be rolled out before they are completely ready for prime time. Frustrations will run high when process change interrupts and hinders daily business needs. Help your team to level-set on what is possible and what is not. Identify the impact and make sure your management is aware. Encourage the team to focus on what they can do and help them troubleshoot overcoming new obstacles.

Finally, talk to your peers and other managers who are managing the transformation. Share the experience your team is having. Learn how other teams are overcoming the obstacles. It’s empowering to know that you aren’t alone, and your team members should understand the level of difficulty being experienced across the organization. It’s not about whining about how hard it is – it’s about realizing that the issues are understood, and that the situation will evolve.

Change is hard. But as a manager, you can make it easier for your team by the way you handle it. Communicate. Stay involved. Keep the team focused. Step by step, change becomes routine again.

Fostering collaboration

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Collaboration is essential to the success of multi-discipline and multi-departmental projects. It serves to provide different types of perspectives and expertise on any given problem or project. Indeed, it enhances the effectiveness of problem solving when done well. It also provides great opportunities for learning and growth.

Collaboration is more than just teamwork. Teamwork requires knowing your role, the steps to do it and who and when to hand off. Collaboration requires sharing perspective, opinion and experience. Without collaboration, a group of people is only as strong as each person’s individual contributions. A collaborative team however, represents more than the sum total of its members.

As a manager or project manager, collaboration starts with you. The first step to fostering collaboration is to solicit it yourself. If you are open to listening, understanding and applying others’ expertise, you can leverage their strengths. When you have a new project, idea, problem, take it to the team and ask for input. Encourage questions and facilitate brainstorming sessions to solve problems. Demonstrate by example how you strengthen your decision-making with others’ expertise. Be careful, If you invite other’s opinions but consistently ignore them, the team will be likely to mirror your behavior and stay entrenched in their own views.

Sharing expertise is the most empowering benefit of collaboration. Encourage it by establishing where expertise lies in the team. Who is the expert in key tools, processes, and skills? Communicate that expertise to the whole group. Ask experts to give their input when their domain is involved. Invite experts, in your team and in others, to share their expertise with the broader team. When new tools and processes are established, ask for a volunteer to become the focal point and expert.

Provide a forum to share best practices. When you see something particularly well done, innovative or effective, ask the team to create a best practice and share it around. But don’t only share successes. Share stories about issues and problems so the team can learn from past mistakes and help solve current problems.

One of the critical elements in collaboration is trust. Trust that a person, team or group is fully sharing knowledge, will do what they say they will do and has no hidden agendas. Reputation and personal experience govern trust in general. If you have a reputation for being a straight shooter and a good listener, open to discussion, you’ll begin new collaborations with an advantage of additional trust. If you are known as closed minded and unwilling to discuss or negotiate, you’ll find others less willing to work together.

Collaboration can also get out of hand. Not every topic needs to be debated and decided on in a group. Determining what decisions, problems and projects require collaboration and which ones don’t is an important first step. Where you, or your team, have ALL the expertise required to make a decision - no collaboration needed! If problems and projects require cross functional expertise, you’ll need to have the perspective of other teams and disciplines – thus collaboration.

When you are bringing together large groups, there are a few ways you can manage collaboration so it does not get out of control. Establish the expertise of each person in the group at the outset. When decisions present themselves, explicitly designate the experts who will have the final say/decision. That could be a combination of a sponsor/project manager and an expert, or several experts. The larger group can be asked for input and should be given an explanation on the key points which influenced the decision.

Finally, when very diverse groups meet together on a regular basis, it’s key to establish an agenda for meetings and clearly define what topics will be covered and decisions are needed.  This allows collaborators to know when they can safely bow out of a meeting where their expertise is less in demand.

It’s quite amazing to see a team start to get more autonomous about problem solving – going to one another for insights and advice before coming to the team’s or project’s manager. It takes some time to instill an overall sense of collaboration in a team. If you’re just getting started, be patient. It’s up to you to start by setting the example and then encourage others to follow suit.

Authenticity and vulnerability: walking the tightrope

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We all wear a mask to some extent when we go to work. We want to put forward our best selves. We put on our work uniforms (and yes, even those of us who don’t wear a formal uniform still have our “work clothes”), comb our hair, put on our makeup and show our professional faces. Being authentic at work can be daunting. What to show, what to keep for ourselves?

Say what you think

There are many ways to be authentic. One is to say what you really think instead of sticking to a company “party-line” or blindly agreeing to other’s ideas. Share your thoughts and experience, and especially your ideas for different ways to do things. Make sure you are providing productive feedback though, and not just griping. It’s worth speaking up with a different opinion if it comes with a different solution to solve the problem. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates an alternative opinion or solution being proposed. You’ll find some leaders open and others who expect their team to simply fall in line. Listen and learn who your boss is and how he or she prefers to hear opinions, thoughts and ideas.

When I have to deliver news which I know is uncomfortable, I share my own discomfort with the situation. Just because are required to do something as a manager or an employee does not mean you are comfortable with it. I have always tried to be open about what I think about things personally at the same time as I demonstrate, professionally, that I expect us to all move forward despite our discomfort. It’s a fine line to walk. As a manager, you represent decision-making authority, even if you didn’t make the decision. Showing your team compassion for the impact of the decision while taking concrete actions to implement it is not an impossible conundrum, but it is a little tricky. 

Lift the mask

Authenticity also comes from lifting up the mask a little and letting people see your personal life. Sharing stories about your favorite hobby, or about time spent with your spouse or children, your vacation, all enable people to see a personal side to you. You become more relatable to people who have something in common with you. And that’s part of how trust and relationships are built. The other part comes, of course, from delivering professionally.

Be vulnerable

Another aspect of authenticity is vulnerability. Admitting to others that you are human and capable of mistakes requires humility and vulnerability. To me, that’s a big part of vulnerability – being honest about your personal responsibility in things. Yes, I made a mistake…..and here’s how I am going to fix it. And here’s how I am going to avoid this ever happening again. Apologizing is a powerful tool, but it is much more powerful when accompanied by an action to counter the mistake.

Read the situation

I’ve gotten mixed advice over the years about admitting mistakes, or admitting that I don’t know something. Part of that is definitely from working in a Global culture. Some cultures admire the capability to admit mistakes and others are more focused on maintaining “face”. So, know who you are talking to and decide if you can “lift the mask” and show your face or whether you need to maintain the perfect professional face.

But it’s not just who you are talking to but what’s going on around you. The HBR article, The authenticity paradox, gives two examples where authenticity and vulnerability did not work out well. Admitting that you need help is one thing. Appearing like you can’t handle your job is quite another. In addition, authenticity is not an open invitation to refuse to grow in uncomfortable ways. Like everything else, there’s a time and a place for authenticity and vulnerability. Be sensitive to the context of your situation and the personalities of the people around you.

This blog was first published at Forbes.

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Communication styles

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When you are emotionally charged and passionate about your work, it’s easy to cross the border from passionate to pushy. When you’re passionate, you are enthusiastic, eager, fervid, emotional, and heartfelt. When you’re pushy, you are overbearing, domineering, aggressive, and forceful. How can enthusiasm deteriorate into aggression?

Accepting “good enough”

Many years ago, I was part of a team of marketers in Europe. Our team was made up of people from many countries in Europe and this American. It was almost all women, with one, very quiet, very discreet man. Marketing was undergoing (yet another) transformation and job descriptions had been changed.

Resolving conflict – start by managing your own stress

Complex work environments give rise to a broad range of handicapping emotions: frustration, overwhelm, worry, blame to name a few. These emotions can trigger a stress reaction which activates adrenalin and cortisol, causing a physical reaction which can then impact our behavior.

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As we push through career challenges and look after our families, many of us neglect to take care of ourselves. I know how it is. You’re not eating so healthy since you are often on the run. Getting exercise is a happy ideal that you never have the time for. You’re catching up on work after hours. You’re not sleeping enough.

Managing unrealistic goals at work

Are you tearing your hair out over unrealistic goals at work? Humans have a need for fairness and autonomy (control). As one of the top workplace stressors, unrealistic objectives and demands make us feel overwhelmed, but also angry and powerless. But what can you do about it? 

Working with people you don’t like

We’ve all had to do it – work with someone we really, really don’t like. It can be both physically and emotionally uncomfortable working with people you don’t like. Dislike can be triggered by physical appearances, unconscious bias, attitudes or opinions, even the sound of someone’s voice. Generally speaking, we dislike what we can not relate to and what we do not approve.

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Influencing without authority is a critical job skill for project managers. Keeping the cats herded requires a combination of strong project management and communication skills. When you combine that with influencing levers, you can master the most complex projects. Here are five ways to influence without authority.

Compassionate management – make your team a place people want to work

As a manager, you set the tone for your team. Your management style drives how the team behaves collectively. And it can change the way people behave individually as well. Putting people first is rarely the focus in a shareholder/profit driven economy. But there is a growing movement for something more humane. Compassionate management goes beyond managing the mission. It’s about managing the people.

Creating a management system

Whether you are building a new team or launching a new project, you’ll need to establish a management system to keep things on track. If you are stepping into an established role, you will want to evaluate the management system that already exists.