Feeling Boxed In?
by Deanna Hartley | Diversity Executive
She was born in Cuba; she must speak Spanish fluently. He’s a millennial; he must be tech savvy.
These types of statements float around offices so often leaders frequently assume certain individuals possess expertise in certain areas simply because they are affiliated with a particular group.
She’s just back from maternity leave; she must not be ready to take on this project. He has a visual impairment; how could he possibly perform this job?
Perhaps worse, leaders may unconsciously discount certain employees based on unfounded perceptions or stereotypes. Even if this behavior is unintentional, it has the potential to impede successful execution of business objectives.
Patterns of Pigeonholing
Stereotypes are pervasive in North America and in Europe. Catalyst, a consulting company focused on women and leadership, has conducted numerous studies examining different cultural perceptions, and the stereotypes that result from them, around the world. “People tend to perceive that women are more effective than men at what we call ‘take care’ behaviors, things like supporting and rewarding their subordinates. Men tend to be seen as much more effective than women at ‘take charge’ leadership behaviors, things like influencing superiors, delegating and problem solving,” said Jeanine Prime, senior director of research at Catalyst.
Public perception tends to favors men as default leaders because people think they possess qualities that embody effective leadership, which naturally places women at a disadvantage. As a result, women are more underrepresented the higher one travels up the corporate ladder.
“If they do ascend to leadership positions, we often find that it’s in support roles - in HR, in administrative-type roles, which gets back to the stereotype of women being sense as caretakers,” Prime said. “Stereotypes create these patterns that we see when we look at both the level of the position that men and women are occupying and the types of roles.” One specific instance where stereotypical misconceptions can hinder women’s opportunities for advancement occurs when they want to start a family yet also want to progress in their careers, said Wanda Brackins, head of global diversity for RBC Wealth Management.
“When an employee returns to work after having a child, many times the person may be overlooked for large special assignments because the idea is, they now have little to no flexibility given child care constraints and the need to adhere to stricter work hours,” she said. “This perception may stifle employees who would otherwise be relatively assertive or who would be top performers. Neither the company nor the employee benefits because the employee is not motivated to give 100 percent.”
Another example of this type of workplace stereotyping - intentional or inadvertent - can occur with employees who have disabilities.
“For example, an individual with a visual impairment might be interviewing for a position in the IT field, perhaps as a programmer. Immediately the interviewer draws the conclusion that the person would not be good for the role,” Brackins said. “How is this person going to program when they can’t see? Or, if they have some type of functional impairment, how are the going to perform a role that requires motor skills?
“Oftentimes people are hung up on the fact that they don’t know how they would accomplish certain tasks under similar circumstances. These conclusions are drawn without ever asking the person with the disability to explain their process and what accommodations they would require.”
What leaders should do in this type of situation is provide the candidate with the job requirements and have the individual explain how he or she would get the job done. Marci Paino, director of learning services for S2 Learning Ltd., is a member of one of the most talked-about generations in today’s workforce: Gen Y. She said she often has experienced stereotypical behavior - even from senior leaders.
“One stereotypical I experienced quite a bit with a previous boss was being treated like a child,” Paino said. “When I was given a project or activity or task to do, and I asked for some reason behind it or some explanation around it, the response I got often was, ‘Just do it because I told you so.’”
This type of response likely is more appropriate for a parent-child relationship than a working one between colleagues where a mature, reciprocal discussion with respect for each other’s points of view is necessary.
“That’s where the stereotype about Gen Y always questioning everything and feeling entitlement comes from,” she said. “We just want to know the reason behind things, to understand things thoroughly, and that sometimes comes across as threatening because other generations have more of a ‘do what you’re told’ mentality.”
The potential business implications of assuming employees possess a skill set they do or don’t have based on their affiliation with a certain group are far from trivial.
“Let’s say somebody assumes that I speak Spanish fluently just because I’m Latina and I was born in Cuba,” said Graciela Meibar, vice president, global diversity at Mattel, Inc. “They ask me to take care of the translation of an important document for the company, and I’d rather not do it; my professional Spanish is not that great, but my boss insists. “I speak Spanish, but am I the person qualified to translate that document? I do it, and it’s full of errors and mistakes. We waste time; we waste energy, and I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this?’” she said.
This type of scenario directly impacts business goals. Not only have resources, time and productivity been wasted, but employees also may become disengaged.
“If you make assumptions about any group without really getting to know the individual at a personal level, you’re not maximizing the capabilities of the individual or the group,” Meibar said.
Further, organizations can risk arriving at the wrong conclusions if its employees make sweeping generalizations about groups of individuals.
“Organizations that allow their talent management processes to be biased by stereotyping risk not being able to assess and evaluate the talent that they have,” Prime said.
“That can create huge inefficiencies and cause the organization to be ineffective because if you can’t evaluate, you don’t know how to deploy, so the wrong people get promoted, the people who need to be promoted aren’t, they become demotivated and you can’t train the correct groups of people. Organizations need to try to avoid stereotyping and prevent bias from creeping into talent management processes because if they do, they can’t fully avail themselves of the best talent in the marketplace.”
What’s tricky is that stereotyping often occurs under the radar, so many organizations are under the false impression that their performance management processes are gender neutral.
“The intention is not to discriminate in application of those processes, but discrimination does occur, and that really speaks to why companies have to be proactive, putting in checks and balances to make sure that women and men have equal chances of succeeding, and that the organization really leverages the best of those women and men,” Prime said.
Whether it’s intentional or not, stereotyping has the potential to adversely affect employee morale and performance.
“A team’s productivity is impacted, especially if it’s one person stereotyping another person with that same team,” Prime said. “It also drives workplace cliques. All of that impacts a person’s emotions, which directly links to them being able to perform. They’re thinking about the drama going on around them; it’s hard to focus on what they have to get done for their jobs.”
Paino said some of her previous employers hosted generational awareness meetings or training sessions during which they presented sweeping generalities of each generation’s characteristics - a format that only served to reinforce stereotypes.
Instead, she said companies that focus on team building activities to showcase how generations are similar might have greater success at helping different generations bond. Tactics to thwart typecasting are essential to move diversity - and the business - forward.
“At the end of the day, what you want to do through diversity and inclusion is truly improve processes, engagement and employee involvement, and you do that by getting to know them on a personal level, getting to know their skills without making assumptions,” Meibar said.
“It’s about developing the soft skills in individuals, especially the leaders because it’s a benefit for the company that you have the right people doing the right jobs, and they’re engaged in doing them.”
That’s why a significant aspect of Mattel’s internal leadership training is on honing soft skills.
“It’s all about maximizing the team, making sure that you, as a leader, are taking into consideration not only the objectives and goals of the team, but also the individuals,” Meibar said. “It’s all about making sure that you’re never making judgments based on your biases or based on your own beliefs.”
One technique leaders can leverage to ensure they judge each employee on his or her individual skills and merit is to encourage dialogue among teams. For instance, before a team of 10 begins work on a project, members can take a handful of minutes to get to know each other.
“I might speak Swahili, but people will not know unless they ask me about who I am,” Meibar said. “Every time we do training, we do little games - and at times people might think we’re being a little silly, but we ask, ‘What’s the first record you ever bought?’ or ‘What do you like to do on the weekend?’ Make sure you’re always maintaining a dialogue that’s beyond the project itself because that’s where the richness of contributions will come through.”
To reduce or prevent potential bias of stereotyping, some companies also put checks and balances in their performance management systems, Prime said.
“One company calls them talent challenge sessions, where people have to defend why they’re recommending John but not Sue for a promotion,” she said. “Research shows that when you have to explain and argue your choices, subjective factors and stereotyping are less likely to occur, so part of it is really encouraging people to think about their talent decisions and why they make recommendations for promotions.”
The Danger of Making Assumptions
Pigeonholing employees based on blanket assumptions because of their affiliation with a group - such as assuming all millennial employees are tech savvy - can have far-reaching consequences that include legal liability and adverse business impacts.
First, leaders may not just be starting with a false premise, they may be setting this employees up for failure, explained Kathleen McLeod Caminiti, partner with Fisher & Phillips LLP.
“It may adversely affect them because they may not have the level of skill you believe they have, which could lead to a skills gap that could affect their performance and ultimately business goals,” she said.
Conversely, when leaders make erroneous assumptions they may inadvertently underutilize segments of the workforce. For example, Caminiti said leaders may underestimate older workers’ skills by assuming that because someone is in their 40s or 50s, they are not tech savvy. “You may be leaving a lot of talent untapped because those people may have an interest or experience that you’re not taking advantage of as an employer,” she explained.
Underestimating workers’ skills or not evaluating exactly what those skills are also could lead to leaders making wrong decisions when setting up teams or establishing expectations on how employees should meet business goals.
“Evaluate all your employees based on their actual talent, actual experience, actual training,” she said. “If you don’t do that, it can lead to frustration in the workplace and morale problems, and it could also lead to missed business opportunities or unrealized business goals.”
If leaders rid themselves of stereotypes, it can enable organizations to reach their full potential. That’s why it’s important for diversity leaders to remain proactive in guarding against antiquated or limited thinking.
“Older worker stereotypes include not having stamina, assuming somebody is going to retire because they’re of a certain age, or assuming they might not want to work longer hours or might not want to travel,” Caminiti said. “All of those assumptions may be false, and in those circumstances you are holding back people to the extent that you’re denying them opportunities for advancement.”
In the same vein, if leaders base other business decisions - such as which individuals to let go in the event of a workforce reduction - on stereotypes as opposed to legitimate reasons, it could provide grounds for employees to take legal action.
Gender discrimination is another area where a leader’s stereotypes might expose a company to legal risk.
“Women of childbearing age, or who are married or have children - sometimes the stereotype is they won’t want to travel,” Caminiti said. “Leaders who find themselves saying or thinking, ‘Well, we can’t give women this promotion because they’ll need to take [time] off because of their kids; they don’t have the level of commitment that their male counterparts have’ may have a problem.”
This could lead to discrimination suits in addition to other potentially expensive legal missteps.
“Not only are there lawsuits that arise where managers are making employment decisions based upon stereotypes or preconceived notions as opposed to actual skills and performance, you have the potential for suits for hostile work environment and discrimination, pay disparity. Those types of lawsuits certainly lend themselves to situations where employees are not treated based upon objective performance data, but rather on stereotypes,” Caminiti said.
[About the Author: Deanna Hartley is an Associate Editor for Diversity Executive magazine.]
Four Steps to Manage Workplace Arguments
by Travis Bradberry | Talent Management
Arguments, disagreements and differences of opinion are unavoidable facts of working life. Our inability to see eye-to-eye is so central to the human condition that some clashes stem from our physiology more than our free will.
A recent study published in Current Biology that was conducted by the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience found significant anatomical differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives that contributed to their opposing political beliefs. It appears the human race is built for conflict. So, what’s a talent manager to do?
When your opinions don’t mesh well with those of the person sitting across from you, the mark you leave on the situation comes from how well you understand and manage your emotions - not from what you say to prove your point. When emotions are allowed to run haywire during a disagreement, things discombobulate very quickly and the discussion goes nowhere.
From the boardroom to the break room, arguments will inevitably surface, and the key to enabling employees to handle these situations well is emotional intelligence, or EQ. Employees who are trained to argue with emotional intelligence will accomplish two things:
1. The argument itself will be far more rational and productive.
Removing their strong emotions from the equation by following the steps outlined below will keep them from fanning the flames of discord. Regardless of how agitated the other party is, when someone remains calm, people are forced to lean further in this direction than they would have otherwise.
2. The argument will do less damage to the working relationship.
Disagreements are fine, as long as they are conducted with consideration and respect. When someone explodes with emotion and says things that are better left unsaid, it has a lasting, negative impact on the relationship. However, if the person approached a disagreement with emotional intelligence, it has the opposite effect: It strengthens the relationship by showing the other person respect even when there’s disagreement with his or her opinion.
Talent managers can lead by example: When they find themselves in the middle of a disagreement, they can take the emotional high road for the greater good of the relationship. It’s crucial to avoid being defensive, remain open and practice the following strategies.
a) Ask good questions.
People want to be heard; if they don’t feel heard, frustration rises. Managers can beat frustration to the punch and ask the other party to elaborate on his or her point of view. Even if the other person has already gone on and on about his or her opinions, it’s critical to ask good questions about what he or she thinks and why he or she has reached these conclusions. Managers must control their own feelings as needed and focus on understanding where the other person is coming from. By asking for input, they will show that they care about the other person’s opinions and have an interest in learning more about his or her beliefs. This act establishes respect as the foundation for the discussion.
b) Resist the urge to plan comebacks and rebuttals.
A person’s brain cannot listen well and prepare to speak at the same time. Managers must use their self-management skills to silence their inner voice and direct their attention to the person while he or she is speaking. The key is to focus their energy on what’s required to engage in an emotionally intelligent discussion or argument. When they do the opposite - by focusing on winning the argument, or at least sneaking a barb in - they are engaging in an unproductive habit.
c) Help the other person understand your side of things.
Now it is the manager’s turn to help the other person understand his or her perspective. This is an important step because people are usually happy to voice their opinions, but they do nothing to bridge the gap between their perspective and how the other party sees things. Managers can describe their discomfort, thoughts, ideas and the reasons behind their thought process. They must communicate clearly and simply, and avoid speaking in circles or in rhetorical code. This ability to explain their thoughts may not win the other party over, but it will certainly garner their respect.
d) Keep in touch.
Any resolution to an argument is not going to come in the heat of the moment. Managers can demonstrate a high degree of emotional intelligence by checking in with the other person once the dust has settled. The idea here is to see if the other party is satisfied with how things are being handled and to determine if there are any new avenues both parties can explore to reach common ground.
[About the Author: Travis Bradberry is president and co-founder of TalentSmart, a provider of emotional intelligence tests and training products, and author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0.]
Perfecting Performance Management
by Marc Effron | Talent Management
Few talent processes are as powerful or as widely despised as performance management. The steps to align employees with corporate goals, coach them to higher performance and assess their accomplishments often elicit an unending stream of complaints from managers and employees alike. Talent managers should ignore the siren’s calls to eliminate the performance review, and instead create a process that’s guided by science, easy to use and features clear accountability.
Thanks to 60 years of psychology research, we have information to set goals that create higher motivation and drive performance. Science tells us that:
1. More difficult goals produce higher performance:
We increase our effort as a goal becomes more challenging. The old performance management maxim of “three regular goals and a stretch goal” doesn’t cut it. Today it should be four stretch goals.
2. Goals motivate better when they coincide with self-interest:
When we believe a goal can help us earn, learn or realize other personal objectives, we’ll be more motivated to complete it. This doesn’t mean employees should set their own goals. In fact, allowing them to do so can easily reduce the power of the first point.
3. Fewer goals are better than many:
The more goals we have, the less effort we can give to each. Science doesn’t tell us the right number of goals, but my experience is few of us have more than five truly important goals in any given year.
Many parts of the typical performance management system add complexity to the manager’s life without adding value. You can eliminate many traditional bells and whistles to make your process easier and more efficient for your managers.
4. Encourage a one-page goal setting and review form:
We can all agree it’s not about the form, but a complex, difficult-to-use form can poison the process for both managers and employees. The only form elements supported by science are a goal statement, metrics and a section to evaluate results. Anything else you want to include should be considered guilty until you prove it innocent.
5. Kill the labels:
Fancy classifications such as “valued contributor” or “star performer” complicate the message you’re trying to send to employees. Simply tell them they exceeded, met or partially met their goals last year.
6. Precision does not equal accuracy:
Especially popular in scientific and engineering cultures, the precise, formulaic calculation of a performance score gives managers comfort but adds absolutely no value. It is impossible for a manager to accurately measure the difference between a 3.7 and a 3.8 performer. Eliminate the calculation, and force managers to consider the totality of accomplishments and assign a rating.
Even the most well-intentioned manager might not always complete performance management in the time and fashion you require. Two powerful levers can help.
a) Time-bomb communication:
We can help managers do the right thing by making our expectations visible. At key points in your process - goal setting, coaching, reviews - have your CEO or HR leader send a message to every employee covered by performance management detailing the process and expectation.
The message should describe the process, timing, what employees should expect from their manager and what managers should expect from employees. You’ve handed the manager a ticking time bomb and given him or her easy instructions to defuse it.
b) Forcing/guiding/managing a distribution:
Highly controversial but increasingly popular, providing strong guidance for performance distribution is a response to the chronic inflation of ratings seen in most companies. If properly challenging goals are set, a reasonable distribution should be achieved. But until managers are fully competent at this activity, the training wheels provided by managed distributions are a helpful tool.
Spend one hour today thinking about how you could decrease complexity, increase transparency or drive more accountability in your performance management process. You don’t need to redesign the entire process; simply chip away factors that are causing the most pain. It’s the most powerful thing you can do to improve your company’s performance.
[About the Author: Marc Effron is president of The Talent Strategy Group and author of One Page Talent Management.]
Setting the Strategy Is Just the Beginning
by Ladan Nikravan | Chief Learning Officer
The execution of strategy is dependent upon executives and team members on the front line being clear about the organization’s priorities and how they must act to achieve the stated objectives. To be successful leaders, executives need to be as diligent in guiding strategy execution as they are at setting and communicating strategic direction.
“The classic pitfall in executing any kind of strategy is not properly engaging your leadership and broader employee population on what it is that you want them to do,” said Rommin Adl, executive vice president at BTS, a strategy implementation consultancy. “Lack of alignment, mindset and capability are leading barriers to effective execution. It is very straightforward: If your organization doesn’t get what you want them to do, [is] not passionate about doing it, and [does] not have the proper skills to execute, chances are your strategy is dead in the water.”
Despite the great amount of time and energy that goes into such strategy development, many companies have little to show for their efforts. Research by consultancy Marakon Associates has found that on average organizations only deliver 63 percent of the financial performance their strategies promise.
A 2007 study by OnPoint Consulting on the gap between strategy and execution reported that 49 percent of leaders surveyed perceived a gap between their strategies and execution. Of this group, 64 percent did not have full confidence that their company would be able to close the gap.
“A good strategy includes proximate objectives whose accomplishment lie within the organization’s capabilities,” said Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. “That by itself is a huge step toward execution. When executives define strategy in terms of financial or other performance measures, the gap between these goals and their accomplishments is really a failure of strategy. However, it’s often blamed on execution.” Successfully achieving execution takes more than clarifying and communicating the organization’s strategic direction. A good business strategy also addresses problems and challenges.
“Too many so-called strategies are all hope and forward-looking projections,” Rumelt said. “A strategy acknowledges the frictions and difficulties. It is those difficulties [that] shape it.”
He added that a good strategy sets priorities as well. “A good strategy addresses the issue of focus or choice,” he said. “Many organizations try to ring many bells at once and consequently do not coordinate enough energy on any one bell to actually get a good, solid ring. Good strategy focuses energy on what is critical.”
In May, a survey by consultancy Aon Hewitt of 1,328 employers nationwide reported 56 percent of respondents indicating leaders play a vital role in meeting business goals and profitability targets and delivering service. Forty-four percent said they play a vital role in retaining talent. However, only 12 percent of respondents said their leaders are extremely effective at meeting business goals. Further, the survey discovered that almost half of the leaders surveyed do perceive a gap between their organizations’ ability to develop and communicate sound strategies and their ability to implement those strategies.
The leader’s job is to create the vision for the enterprise in a way that will engage its people’s imagination and energies. This gap is a hindrance to business performance, and the solution is additional learning.
Seventy one percent of respondents in a recent survey conducted by BTS and business association The Conference Board considered the biggest threats to strategy execution to be lack of understanding, commitment and skills.
According to BTS’ Adl, the way to build these skills is through learning initiatives that allow leaders to test the strategy implementation via hands-on experience.
“Through immersion in a risk-free environment, leaders can practice executing the company’s new strategy, make mistakes and gain firsthand experience in what superior execution looks and feels like,” Adl said. “The outcome is powerful alignment, ownership, motivation and confidence to make the strategy happen back on the job. Traditional event-based learning programs do not provide the opportunity to practice strategy execution, especially compared with applied experiential learning programs, but there may be an opportunity among learning and development practitioners to improve their business acumen and become better partners to senior executives in the strategy execution process.”
[About the Author: Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine.]