Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Good Employee, Bad Employee

In a recent blog post, I discussed the characteristics of good bosses and bad bosses (see Good Boss, Bad Boss), primarily from an employee’s perspective. Since turnabout is fair play, it is only fair to discuss the characteristics of good and bad employees, from both a boss’ perspective, and from fellow employees’ perspectives. So let’s look at a variety of important employee attributes, and for each, the notable characteristics shown by good employees and bad employees associated with these attributes. 
[It may also be useful in this regard to take a look at my Herding Cats series of blog posts. These examine a wide variety of employee personality types. [See Herding Cats: The Art of "Managing" Knowledge Workers, Herding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist Bastard, Herding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social Butterfly, Herding Cats 4: "Wally" & Prima Donna, Herding Cats 5: Solid Citizen, Valued Expert & Rising Star, and Herding Cats 6: Complainer/Whiner, Eternal Optimist, Chesire Cat, Loner, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole]

  A good employee has the capability to carry out assigned jobs and to complete them satisfactorily and completely.
  A bad employee does not have this capability, and won’t inform his boss of this fact. This wastes time to properly complete the activity, and requires additional competent people to be assigned, adversely affecting their assigned tasks. Therefore, a bad employee affects not only themselves, but others as well, jeopardizing the project.

Intellectual Curiosity
  A good employee has the intellectual curiosity to examine the job assigned, identify the work required, and to go beyond that to identify potential problems or issues that need to be addressed by them or others to properly and successfully complete the job. This employee proactively analyzes not only the job at hand, but helps to address observations or concerns beyond his/her immediate needs.
  A bad employee looks solely at the job assigned, doesn’t think about the issues it may raise or its impact on himself or others. This person may carry out the job assigned, but the impact on others or on the overall project may cause significant problems that could have been addressed much earlier and more effectively.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Good Boss, Bad Boss

Throughout your career, you will undoubtedly have numerous bosses. Some will be good, some will be bad. Very few will be outstanding, and hopefully, very few will be outstandingly bad. I will discuss the characteristics that you should look for in a good boss, and those to look out for in a bad boss.

Early in my career at Bell Labs, lo those many years ago, I had the tremendous privilege of having the best boss I’ve ever had, John Sheehan. John was a strong manager with an outlook that has stuck with me throughout my life. His governing philosophy was, “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you’ll do!” See the link for more. I’ve tried to emulate his approach throughout my career, generally to very positive effect. 

Shortly after working for John, I had the misfortune of working for the worst boss I’ve ever had, who I won’t name. This boss was a petty tyrant, mean, spiteful, vindictive, credit stealing (see Stolen Credit - It’s Not Just About Credit Cards!), and overall a terrible boss. I’m actually grateful for having had the experience (despite the living hell of working through it). It demonstrated so forcefully what I would strive to never become, particularly after working for John, who showed so positively what I absolutely wanted to become. This bad boss set a negative example so bad, that all my other bosses, and many other assorted managers I’ve known, all showed much better characteristics than this one bad boss ever did (see Learn from Good Role Models; Learn More From Bad!). 

Overall, the learning experience of working with such a variety of bosses and boss types has been truly educating, helping to learn what works, what doesn’t, what to emulate and expand on, what to reject and avoid, and how to be as effective as possible in doing your own work and in helping to successfully direct the efforts of others. What follows are some thoughts on the characteristics of good bosses and what they can do to improve the lives of their employees, and what bad bosses can look like and how they undermine the work of their employees (see Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well).

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Make a Decision!

You’re in a stressful situation where you, your group, your organization, and/or your company can proceed in a number of possible ways. The alternatives seem clear, but those in authority appear unable to make a decision on which way to go. They want yet another study, to gather yet more data (although the data seem clear), to bring in yet another specialist to review the situation, or myriad other delaying tactics. There reaches a clear point by when a decision must be made, and this point has passed. It is time for someone, anyone, to make a decision, so efforts can move forward! What’s wrong with these people!

This is an all too common situation in many organizations today. Those with the responsibility to make decisions seem reluctant to make them, adding delay to an already tight project plan and schedule. 

So why won’t people make decisions when such decisions are clearly required, when they are clearly the ones with the responsibility?

  • Fear of making the wrong decision:
    The person tasked with decision-making is concerned that he/she may make the wrong decision, forever branding him/her as a poor decision-maker, and as someone whose judgment cannot be trusted.

  • Fear of being viewed poorly by others:
    The person tasked with decision-making is truly uncertain, unwilling to say so, and is concerned that others will recognize his/her uncertainty and view it as a weakness.
  • Fear of adversely affecting their position in the organization and/or their potential for advancement:
    The person tasked with decision-making is more concerned with his/her own position in the company and with climbing the corporate ladder, and is afraid that this decision may limit his/her position or advancement opportunities (more so than whether the decision is right or wrong).
  • Fear of blame:
    The person tasked with decision-making is more concerned with being blamed for a poor decision than with making a well-reasoned decision and bearing the consequences of that decision. He/she would prefer that someone else make a decision than he/she get personally blamed for a poor decision.

I’m sure you can come up with a list of other reasons/excuses why people refuse to make timely decisions. The excuses don’t change the fact that a decision is needed, and can’t be delayed any further.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

You’re part of a team working on a critical project with a tight, but you think achievable, delivery date. In order to deliver on project commitments, each team member must deliver on their parts of the whole, and in the time-frames specified. Each team member has a role to play in the timely delivery of his or her parts for the project to come together properly. Each member’s role may change at different phases of the project. At some points, you may be tasked to lead specific efforts. At other points, you may be tasked to follow the lead of others. At yet other points, you may not have an assigned role, pending the delivery of others’ work efforts, and in such cases, it is often necessary that you simply get out of the way. What often dooms a project is when one or more members of the team do not carry out their assigned roles, whatever those roles may be. What can also doom a project is when team members inject themselves into roles they have not been assigned, adversely affecting the roles and delivery of others. It is critical that each team member, based on his or her role, needs to lead, follow, or get out of the way!

When a project plan is developed, one person or a small team is typically tasked with developing the project plan. This person or team usually has, through experience, an understanding of what is required to bring together all the many pieces necessary to complete the project, in the necessary and proper sequence, and with the necessary and proper resources (see Take the Time to Plan). It may be possible to have some team members work independently on some portions of the project while the project plan is being developed, but that, in itself, should be part of the project plan. Others may be able to do some background research on the project, but this should not influence the project plan development.

Once the project plan is complete and approved as necessary, it is up to those involved to carry out their roles through the various stages of the project. Specific people’s roles may vary throughout the various stages, or may remain the same. It is essential that people understand the various roles and what these mean in the various stages (see Leadership Is Not Just For ‘Leaders’).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Are We There Yet?

When you’re working on a project with high visibility and a short time-frame  you’ll often receive “help” from many others looking to see whether you’re done.  How can it possibly take so long, they’ll think? It wouldn't take nearly so long if they were doing it, they’ll think (see No Job Is Hard For The Person Who Doesn't Have To Do It!). Some will stop by every day (or every hour) to ask whether you’re done yet, or to demand to know why you’re not done yet. Some help! You spend as much or more time defending your efforts as it would take to finish the job. Others will offer to “roll up their sleeves and jump in to help you to get things done”, despite the fact that they may know little about the details of what you’re doing and would take valuable time away from doing the job just to get them up to speed in ways they might actually be able to help (see Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth!). All of these people are a bit like kids at the beginning, middle, and end of a long trip continually asking (yelping at) their parents, “Are we there yet?”

Bowing to pressure to get something out before it is ready can lead to disaster, and pressure to get something out can often backfire (see The Schedule Estimate Extortion Game and If Your Want It Bad, You’ll Get It … Bad!). Sure, the customer may be happy to see something on time, but that happiness will quickly turn to disappointment and even anger when they see that what they get doesn't work properly or is of poor quality. There are hundreds of project management proverbs that hit at different aspects of this situation (see Project Management Proverbs). [Proverb: “The bitterness of poor quality lasts long after the sweetness of making the date is forgotten.”] Regardless of how you couch the specifics of what you’re delivering, if it isn't right (to them), the caveats you raise about what is being delivered will be instantly forgotten. [Proverb: “The conditions attached to a promise are forgotten; only the promise is remembered.”] And you only get one chance to make a good first impression! (see You Only Get One Chance To Make A Good First Impression!).  

The reality is that it takes time to bake a cake, and it similarly takes time to properly complete a project, whether large or small. And adding people to a late project almost always makes it later. [Proverb: “It takes one woman nine months to have a baby. It cannot be done in one month by impregnating nine women!”]. Or, [Proverb: “Any project can be estimated accurately, once it’s done.”]. Or, [Proverb: “Too few people on a project can’t solve the problems; too many create more problems than they solve.”].

So what do you do when the powers that be are standing over you saying, “Are we there yet?”

The best approach is to notify people in advance of the time you expect it to take to get the job done right. Don’t set unrealistic expectations that the project can be completed properly by taking “shortcuts” (see Unrealistic Expectations), or base your schedule on sunny day scenarios that have little likelihood of coming true (see Sunny Day Scenarios). And let them know that constant checking or poking or prodding will only distract from completing the job. Show them your project plan in advance and make it clear what needs to be done by whom and in what order and with what dependencies (see Plan Based On What You Know, and On What You Don’t!). As long as you are following the plan, they should stay clear and let you and your team do your jobs. Assure them that you will provide them with frequent and honest updates of status, issues, resolutions, and outlooks, and then follow through on that commitment.

When you move off of the plan they will have valid reasons for questioning you, as long as they have not been the reason you are off the plan. Be forthright about what has happened.  

Sometimes, it is indeed the result of poor planning on your part and you need to fully accept responsibility and do whatever can be done to get the project back on track. Accept the responsibility, and the blame, when it is your fault. Then identify what needs to be done to complete the project in the best ways, whether you will retain the responsibility or hand it off to someone else. Do everything in your power to make that happen.

Sometimes, however, external circumstances or totally unforeseen circumstances come into play and nothing you could have done can compensate or correct the source of such problems (see When Bad Things Happen to Good Projects, and The Best Laid Plans … and Then Life Happens!). In such cases, analyze the impact of the unforeseen circumstances and devise a plan to work around or through them to reach the goal in the best possible way.

Whatever the causes, when your project goes off course, or preferably when you can see in advance that it is about to head off course, seek help in places where help can really be useful.

There is a clear need to be on top of the project and anything that will prevent reaching the goal of completing it on time and with high quality. Your role is to make that happen, despite the many obstacles. The better you can stay on top of all the issues, foreseen and unforeseen, the higher the probability of reaching that goal, and the lower the likelihood that you will be pestered with questions like, “Are we there yet?”

Copyright 2012 Workplace Insanity, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Leadership Is Not Just for "Leaders"

Leadership in any organization is critical. We normally think of leadership as originating from the designated “leaders” in management in a company, with high level leadership coming from higher levels of management and more specific and detailed leadership associated with specific group activities coming from the appropriate down-the-line management levels. It is important for management at any level to demonstrate leadership, but the reality is that leadership is not just for “leaders”. Leadership actually comes at every level in every organization from official “leaders” all the way down to entry-level employees. Don’t look only to your “leaders” for leadership. When you identify something that needs to be done, deal with the problem directly and show leadership yourself. Somebody has to show leadership; why not you?

So what is leadership? Here are a few quotes that may be useful:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
– Peter Drucker

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”
– Peter Drucker

“Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.” 
– Stephen Covey

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” 
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

“A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better.”
– Jim Rohn

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Do Jobs Right – Assign the Right People!

How many times have you observed a situation where, when a job needed to get done, the manager checked to see who was available, and simply assigned the job the first available person, whether such a job assignment to that particular person made sense or not? [See Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well]  Sad to say, this is an all too common occurrence, and the result is often predictable and disappointing, if not downright disastrous. While such behavior may be somewhat understandable in the case where a new need suddenly arises, there are still better ways to address such circumstances. In cases where planning for a new project is being undertaken, such behavior is inexcusable.

First, let’s talk about what I mean by the “wrong person” or the “right person”. The “wrong person” is not meant as a pejorative term for a specific individual. It only has meaning in the context of a specific assignment. The “wrong person” means that the knowledge, background, and experience of that specific person are not a match to the requirements and needs of a particular assignment. You wouldn’t want a road worker to perform brain surgery (or at least I wouldn’t want a road worker to perform surgery on my brain, no matter how nice a guy that road worker is), or ask a brain surgeon to do road work with a jackhammer (where he could damage his highly trained hands and fingers, the “instruments” of his profession). You want to match, to the degree possible, the skills, talents, and capabilities of the individual to the requirements and needs of the assignment.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Unrealistic Expectations

You’re just getting started on the development of an exciting new product or program. The product/program definition isn’t really flushed out yet and the real magnitude of the project is not understood, but everyone, including you, is energized about the prospects of what this new product/program can bring to the company. Senior management says they really have to have this product/program by a certain date in order to have the impact they would like. They ask you, as a manager or team member, if this can be achieved. Optimist that you are, not knowing all the details, and making some assumptions, you indicate that it may be possible. Congratulations! You have just set unrealistic expectations that you can be quite certain will not be met!

No one intends to set unrealistic expectations, but it happens all the time. Everyone wants new products/programs and projects delivered yesterday, with outstanding quality, even if they don’t have a clue about the amount of work involved in delivering a quality product/program that is aligned with critical business objectives. Team members are pressured to estimate what it will take to develop a product/program that is not fully (or even mostly) defined. When that estimate, for a still mostly unknown product/program, is viewed as too long (which is almost always the case), they are asked to pull time out of the schedule (see The Schedule Estimate Extortion Game). Then, as the product/program definition starts to come together, additional features and functions are identified and are determined to be mandatory. It is realized that the resources needed are not currently available. However, the end date (that was very broadly estimated in the first place, and then shortened by pressure applied early and continuously) is not allowed to be modified, unless it can be pulled in. Assumptions and caveats are forgotten. [What happens when you "ass/u/me"? You make an "ass" of "u" and "me"!]  When your team leader tries to adjust the date, he will then hear from his leaders, "I didn't set the date, you did!" Many other departments become dependent on that date, and when you can''t deliver, it is entirely your fault. Then it turns into "Floggings" (see Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!).

How can unrealistic expectations be avoided or at least reduced?  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Is Anybody There? Does Anybody Care?

Have you ever felt that yours is a lone voice in the wilderness, crying out but not being heard, or if heard, not being listened to? As humans, we have a need to interact with others, to speak and be heard and listened to, and to listen and understand what is being said and to respond. Without such interactions, we feel alone and isolated, and this can be terribly frustrating and demoralizing. In the workplace we usually work as part of a team, but sometimes it is a team in name only, and meaningful interaction among the team members is minimal or non-existent. Such a situation should not be allowed to start or grow, for it can have negative consequences to the work of the team, and to the success of the company.

The title of this blog post comes from the musical play “1776”, which tells the story of the founding fathers leading to the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Most of the founding fathers are in Philadelphia discussing the situation with England. George Washington, however, is the General in the field sending back dispatches and urgent requests for help in manpower, supplies, and more, most of which have been unanswered or not acted upon. Washington perseveres, but in one of his messages he asks, “Is anybody there?  Does anybody care?” He feels alone and isolated from his ‘team’ and seeks their help, but gets no real acknowledgement or assistance.

Unfortunately, all too often, employees in the workplace feel the same way – that no-one hears them or listens, and no feedback is provided.  This is a dysfunctional situation that must be remedied (see Dysfunctional Families). Everyone contributes to make such a bad situation exist, and there are roles for everyone to play to reverse such a situation.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dysfunctional Families

Families are a wonderful institution. Typical characteristics of families include unconditional love, trust, understanding, support, care when a family member is ill, empathy, forgiveness, and much more. However, family members can sometimes love each other, but not like each other very much. Family members know how to hit each other’s hot buttons and annoy, anger, and really tick each other off. When carried too far, this can lead to dysfunctional families.  We all know what dysfunctional families are. We see them all of the time on TV.  Many TV sitcoms are about them. Many reality shows parade them, particularly those showing families with children out of control and parents unable to control them (i.e. unable to act as parents). We often see them in our neighborhoods. Perhaps your family itself may be dysfunctional. They are often caused by clashes of personalities, by real or imagined slights, by one family member getting too involved or not involved enough in another family member’s interests, by insufficient or too much control, by being too rigid or not rigid enough.

All well and good, but what can this possibly have to do with the workplace? Well, companies are “families” too. In fact, most people spend more time with their company “family” than with their own personal family. Company “families” have many more “family” members, so the opportunities for tension or conflict are magnified many-fold, in fact probably exponentially. If personal families of 3 to 6 can become dysfunctional, it should be no surprise that company “families” of tens or hundreds or even thousands of people become dysfunctional. When things do become dysfunctional, the effectiveness of the company as a whole, not only your specific organization, is adversely affected, to the detriment of the company. So “family” relations are critical to the success, or possibly even the existence, of the company.