Leading like a Vending Machine


Do your staff keep expecting you to have all the answers and solve all the problems? Do you wish they would show a bit more initiative and try to solve their own problems? Does the constant flow of requests from your team add to your daily pressure and work load? If you answered yes to any of those questions, perhaps you are leading like a vending machine. Over the years I have  coached many leaders who experience this issue. I coined the phrase "Vending Machine Manager". 

Staff come to the Vending Machine Manager and punch in a request "B4". The machine shakes and rattles a bit. There's a couple of clunking sounds. Out of the flap pops the perfect answer or solution to their problem. It's cool and it's sweet. Next time they have a problem, they remember how easy it was. How cool and sweet it was. Back they come. They punch in "A9", and walk away satisfied. Before long, the Vending Machine Manager has a constant flow of traffic wearing out the floor in front of their work station. "D7", Clunk, WooHoo. "F2" Clunk, WooHoo. "B6"Clunk, WooHoo. On and on it goes - and your workload continues to grow.

From a survival point of view, humans are designed to find the easiest return for energy expended. The Vending Machine Manager plays straight into the hands of that design. To change the dynamic you need to move from dispensing answers to building capacity. Work with your team to build their own knowledge and skill. Make them experts in their own right. If you keep vending, they'll keep coming. Change the game!

When the game is over move on

I was talking to a colleague who has a rapidly growing business in entertainment. They manage artists, bring shows to Perth and create venues for great content. She's a great leader with a clear vision for her business. Her team are excited about creating it with her. With growth come several inevitable challenges for leaders. Systems have to move and evolve to keep up with where you want to get to. As the team grows, vision and leadership become more important, and simultaneously more diluted - Getting good and consistent messaging to staff and the market about what you are doing is critical. Growth also means that there may be times when staff who were a good fit when you were a different size, no longer are.

My colleague was describing a couple of conversations she had with staff who had been with her a while. In the early days, they had been awesome - Productive, switched on and enthusiastic. But that had waned.  She had spent considerable time with them attempting to recreate how it had been but nothing seemed to be working. Motivation continued to drop and they were starting to get in the way of progress.

She decided to have a straight conversation about the expectations they each had for the business and the role to see if that would lead anywhere productive. End result, the person left and was relieved. The staff member had been feeling obliged to stay with the business - feeling she would let the owner down if she left. She'd been excited about it when she first joined and had been a big part of creating the success. The rapid expansion was hard for her though, and she really liked smaller teams than this one was now. She found the constant evolution and growth stressful and wearing.

When they had an open conversation about what the owner needed from staff, and how her staff felt about the environment, it became clear to them both that it was time to move on. For the business it has been like taking a foot off the brake. A new person has joined with skill and enthusiasm for the current business, rather than what it once was. No doubt the person who left is also feeling relieved.

Situations like this are often stressful for everyone involved. It's easy to become victim to unspoken expectations and assumptions. Our perspective gets bent out of shape, and sometimes that results in conversations like this one becoming adversarial when there was no need for that.

Actions we can take:

Employers/Leaders/Managers - Set up clear expectations for people and roles early, and check in with them often. Use as many opportunities as you can to deepen you/your teams understanding of the expectations. Create an environment where conversations about what we expect and whether those expectations are being met are safe and regular. Don't let things fester. If there is tension, friction or conflict do something about it as soon as possible - most big problems start out a small ones.

If you work for someone else - Be bold about asking for clarification of what the business expects from you. If your ecxpectations are not being met, raise the issue and explore it. Don't let things fester. If there is tension, friction or conflict do something about it as soon as possible - most big problems start out a small ones.

For both - If it's time to move on - do it.

Banking for the Future

What's it like being on the team you are on? The experience can be dynamic and productive. A great team performs well, exceeding the results that any one member could achieve. Other teams get in their own way. When the objectives are not clear and people are not pulling their weight, a team can add work and confusion. 2017 has been dominated with discussions about teams for me. Leaders and team members have been tackling the ingredients for high performance and also dysfunction. Over the next few weeks I'll share a series of insights about teams from both sides.

"You have to bank for the future and trust that will get you through the challenges"

Picture this:

The sector you are in is facing the largest change it has seen in 40 years. There's widespread optimism about the change, but also lots of confusion. The big picture looks compelling but for some individual staff and customers it's not great. People are looking for answers and they are not always available - not because anyone is trying to mislead - simply because many things are still on the drawing board. The nature of jobs is changing. Employees are dealing with their own uncertainty while facing a barrage of customer uncertainty and angst. 

One leader reflected on the unofficial nature of some of the teams he is leading. Groups of people who are held together more by relationships and common ground, than because they are an actual team. He spoke of "banking" trust and reliability. Doing the right thing consistently. Following through on promises. 

In an environment that is totally relationship based these are the only tools available to make the team perform. They are powerful tools and in a more formal team setting they often get overlooked.

How do you build trust within your team? I reckon the most powerful way to influence trust is to consistently do what you say you will do. Regardless of whether you are a leader, or a team member, backing yourself in this way creates a sense of certainty and reliability around you. "Banking" credit in relationships will help when the team faces challenges. 

Rude = Expensive

I looked across the track at the small collection of gear I had packed for this advanced survival exercise. It was nearly dark and I was being patted down to ensure I had nothing other than a pocket sized survival kit on me. I glanced nervously at my eight companions as our gear was thrown into the back of a vehicle. We were handed an envelope and our instructors drove into the gathering darkness, leaving us alone. We opened the envelope and read our instructions, "You are somewhere on one of your 3 maps ... ".

In hindsight the next three days were characterised by hasty decisions and poor communication as we struggled to come to terms with our circumstances. We also lashed out at each other - verbal sparring as we vented frustration about our external circumstances on each other.

Over the 20 years I worked as a survival instructor it never ceased to amaze me how easily individuals and groups could be made to feel they were at threat. In that state, people are more reactive than normal and results definitely suffer. It's amazing how rarely people pause to consider the best course of action.

In the modern work context a sense of threat is not unusual either. Most workplaces experience some level of uncertainty. Mostly it's from circumstances beyond our direct control. One possible reaction is rudeness to the people around us. I can certainly think of more than one occasion when my conduct was not as good as it could have been.

Rudeness in itself is enough to make people feel at threat. It damages psychological safety (How safe people feel). And it doesn't have to be extreme (or deliberate) to have an impact.

  • Raised voices
  • Harsh words
  • Intimidating body language
  • Slammed doors
  • Banter and sarcasm
  • Side conversations and excluding people
  • Disregard for people's time
  • Sending emails, taking calls, checking watches while you should be listening to someone
  • Not following through on things you said you would do

Over the last two decades, Christine Porath and colleagues have researched rudeness in the workplace. They clearly identify many impacts on individuals, teams and bottom line. A recent article in HBR summarises their findings and others in the field. If you want the detail you can find it at hbr.org/2017/01/how-rudeness-stops-people-from-working-together

How we treat each other is largely a choice. We can choose to be civil, even in the most demanding environments. It's one of the few things that we have direct control over which has a massive and positive impact on our team environment. It's an easy way to directly impact cohesion, trust, productivity and engagement. It also takes effort and attention.

All of us have moments where we crack or fray and resort to rudeness out of frustration. Perfect politeness is not the goal. But in situations when we accept rudeness from ourselves and others it gets worse, not better. Increasing levels of incivility become the norm of 'how things are done around here'. Looking at Porath's research, it's way too expensive on almost every measure to allow that. And it's on the rise.

Reflect on how you, your team and your business conduct themselves when some of these common stressors occur:

  • Giving or receiving feedback about performance
  • A new deadline, or urgent of piece of work
  • A customer complaint
  • The photocopier crapping out in the middle of an urgent print run
  • An interruption when you are in the flow of work
  • New (and probably onerous) requirements from an external regulator, customer or market
  • A long day to meet a deadline
  • Scope creep
  • A financial loss
  • Personal pressures from outside work like a puking kid, unexpected bill, or relationship problems
  • Something not going to plan

Here are four things you can do to influence how cohesive and effective your team is. A single individual can influence others by paying attention to these things. It's even more effective when whole teams (or organisations) decide to remove rudeness from their environment.

  1.  Aim - to treat each other well in spite of the pressures you face. Work on respect and integrity. Even when there are hard messages to deliver or receive, do it politely.  
  2. Recognise - the kinds of situations that tend to push your personal buttons. What about the team? Start spotting rudeness and noticing its impact. Also recognise that different people have different levels of skill around rudeness. It's much easier to avoid if you have had lots of examples through life of people who handle adversity without getting rude. 
  3. Clarify - the kinds of behaviour that you want to see, and the ones to avoid. Also the situations that may trigger rudeness. Be as specific as you can. Discuss it politely away from heated moments. Talk about what you will do when you see, experience or perpetrate rudeness. Discuss how you might raise the bar and hold each other to account. Explore where the line is between healthy banter and rudeness for your team. When people do something you consider rude, give a clear example of both the behaviour and its impact on you.
  4. Apologise - when you notice something you did or said had a negative impact on others. Do it whenever you know you have crossed the line, however small the crossing might be. Accept other people's apologies with grace. Remember it is unlikely to be perfect, cut each other some slack.



Why take your team outside?

I had an interesting conversation with a corporate client last week about Outdoor Team Building. We were reminiscing about the late '80's and early '90's when adventure based activities were popular as a company team building event. People in their droves swapped suits for bush clothes and paddled, climbed, swung, paint balled and built their way to team success.

Most activities like this have a similar formula - a problem that can only be solved/overcome by a team who can innovate, communicate and cooperate. It's a solid formula. Most workplaces are attempting to create teams that do just that. So why did these programs all but disappear?

  • One size fits all - Despite being highly flexible about activities and locations, the vast majority of operators ran the same program, regardless of the client. The place and activities might change, but how and why it was done remained much the same.
  • No connection - The potential links between activities and the people doing them were poorly explored. It was fun but didn't relate to the "real world".
  • Missed opportunities - Most programs were staffed by technically skilled young people who knew the activities inside out. Some had leadership experience, but mostly in the outdoors. Few had business experience. Activities were often debriefed in very superficial ways. Canned debriefs included sweeping, generalised statements like "So you see, communication is really important". Participants were given opportunities to reflect on behaviour, but few tools for any significant change. In the worst of programs, teams were actually worse off. They had seen and confronted ineffective team behaviour, and left the program aware, disgruntled and unsupported.

NOTE: These are generalisations. There were and are a few excellent companies providing such activities that do an awesome job of all the above.

So why do I recommend companies take their teams outside?

I just wanted to pass on my gratitude and appreciation for the planning, facilitation, insights, activities, catering and all the other experiences and knowledge created over the 2-day bush retreat. I’m sure I’m not the only one who gained a lot from it including how to use a compass correctly!

The additional resources you gave us are perfect. I set up meetings with each Area manager to work on improving my unit’s service and delivery to them. I am confident that the questions and guidance you provided will assist in us understanding our customer needs and focusing our resources correctly.
— Senior Manager - Bush Retreat
  • Different environment - Stepping out of the familiar work setting changes everything. Hierarchy seems less important. The pace naturally slows. Corporate language and formality drop away. Habitual ways of relating to each other are reset. Communication improves. Silo walls get torn down.
  • Perception expands - Physically people's eyes move from short intense focus to broad soft focus. As teams renegotiate their way of being together, previously unspoken assumptions about "the way things are done around here" get some conscious air time. Collective and self awareness rises. 
  • It's restorative - A growing body of research shows attention, cognitive function and productivity all rise as a result of being outside. Stress, mental fatigue, depression and anxiety all reduce. Almost every company I have worked with is attempting to address one or more of these issues continuously in the workplace.

The bush is no magic bullet, but a well thought out and delivered outdoors program can have massive and lasting effects. If you would like to discuss how you might use some outdoor time this financial year, feel free to be in touch.