5 steps to better leadership

FCW has culled the best ideas from business schools for agency executives seeking to improve their game.

mentor and student

Every year, business school professors across the country churn out hundreds of research studies and books on leadership, management, productivity and organizational efficiency. And every year, a select few rise to the top, creating buzz in the business world and giving managers new tools for motivating teams and ensuring success.

Although most management schools study corporate environments rather than governmental ones, the following five tips struck FCW as being equally valuable to public-sector leaders.

grant

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and consistently wins awards for teaching. So when he publishes a best-selling book about the factors that lead to success, you might want to give it a read.

Grant's book, "Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success," examines how interpersonal interactions shape career and organizational success. He identifies three workplace personalities: givers, takers and matchers. Givers enjoy contributing to others without expecting anything in return. Takers get more than they give and focus on their own self-interest. Matchers track favors to maintain an even balance of giving and receiving.

Across all the professions and job functions Grant studied, givers were consistently among the worst-performing employees because they exhausted their reserves and set aside their own priorities out of misplaced generosity. But surprisingly, givers were also found in the ranks of the most successful employees.

"The difference between success and failure is how well you balance concern for others with your own ambitions," Grant told FCW. "A lot of givers think you have to be Gandhi or Mother Teresa. That is obviously not sustainable."

In Grant's research, successful givers looked for strategic ways to help others at a low personal cost and in a manner that fit their expertise and skills. They were also careful to assist other givers and matchers rather than takers. Most important, they asked for help when they needed it.

"A lot of the failed givers were trying to help in all the different ways that people needed it, which turns out to be remarkably inefficient and exhausting," Grant said.

The implications for managers are far-ranging. The advice starts with doing your best to hire givers and cull any takers from your workgroup. Recognize, reward and promote givers whenever possible. Set norms that encourage employees to seek help when needed. And help everyone identify ways to give that match their energy levels, skill sets and workplace style.

"Help people on your team to figure out what are their signature forms of giving that help them and the organization," Grant said.

Consider establishing a "reciprocity ring" that brings together a group of employees to exchange favors. Whether it includes eight people or 100, that structure can more efficiently match the help needed with the unique attributes of the person who will give assistance.

"You can get about 80 percent of the requests fulfilled" with this method, Grant said. "You can immediately go to the person who's best able to help you." Technology specialists can play a role in finding creative ways to use technology to facilitate the exchange of giving, he added.

When identifying givers, takers and matchers, don't fall into the trap of thinking that people who are friendly are givers and those who are dour and skeptical are takers. Constructive criticism can be one of the most important gifts from one colleague to another, although it is not as pleasant to receive as an empty compliment.

"We need to value and recognize the disagreeable givers more," Grant said. "These are the people who are comfortable giving tough feedback, calling out an initiative that senior leaders are championing, and advocating for unpopular and important reforms."

It is also important to continue to motivate givers by helping them understand in a vivid and meaningful way how their work is helping colleagues, customers, stakeholders and the general public.

"In the information technology world, a lot of times you're creating solutions that benefit people who are many steps down the chain," Grant said. "You never get to see or meet those people. That's a major source of burnout."

sorenson

A recent study led by Olav Sorenson, a professor at Yale University's School of Management, examined more than 10,000 employee ideas that a large, multinational consumer goods company had solicited as part of an initiative to spur innovation. The researchers found that managers favored new ideas submitted by employees in their own divisions at a rate nearly 16 percentage points higher than the typical acceptance rate of 42 percent. The bias persisted even when the researchers corrected for the quality of the idea, a finding that bodes ill for workplace innovation.

"Especially in larger organizations, people tend to identify more with the sub-unit they're in than [with] the organization as a whole," Sorenson said. "The problem with that effect for managers is that if you have different bars or hurdles that have to be met from different parts of the organization, you might not end up with the best ideas."

It is not enough to be aware of this effect to counter it, he added, because psychological studies show that people find it difficult to adjust for biases even when they know about them. Instead, organizations should set up structures that adjust for manager favoritism and ensure that new ideas receive a fair evaluation.

For instance, you could create a first-stage evaluation that is always performed within the same workgroup or have central headquarters employees do all the evaluations. Alternatively, you could put cross-agency teams in charge of evaluating ideas, as long as you make sure the teams contain representatives from every division in the organization.

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, any employee can submit suggestions to a portal called Ideas in Action, and their colleagues then vote on them. Any idea that reaches 100 votes goes to the deputy secretary for consideration, but even those with fewer votes can receive feedback from administrators and "idea implementers."

HUD aims to encourage out-of-the box and innovative ideas, Deputy CIO Kevin Cooke told FCW. "We're looking at people really stretching to find new ways of doing things, new concepts, [and] collaborating and communicating at a whole new level."

HUD also has an Under 5 networking group for employees with fewer than five years of service, which has been the source of some new ideas, Cooke said. For instance, group members are working with higher-ups on a new parental leave policy and a better orientation process for new employees. They would also like to develop a survey to provide better and more frequent feedback to managers.

The added benefit of a new employees' group is that those who are new to an organization are less likely to identify strongly with a particular workgroup and, therefore, are more likely to rate new ideas impartially, Sorenson said. "They probably are less biased than those who have been there longer," he said.

Any group or rotation program that brings together people from different parts of the organization will help break down favoritism toward individuals' own units. Rotations also build loyalty to the overall organization, he added.

Similarly, the Office of Personnel Management's Center for Leadership Development seeks to broaden managers' circle of influence by introducing them to the leader-member exchange theory, said Suzanne Logan, the center's director and OPM's deputy associate director.

"As human beings, we are more comfortable working within our established circle," Logan said. "It's easy for us to reach out to people we have learned to trust, and it's easier for us to give to them. That larger circle is probably a circle that you should be paying attention to. They may report to you or are peers you need to work more effectively with. They may be people at other agencies or workgroups that you should be interacting with but you overlook."

 

shaw

The line manager might have the toughest job in any organization. He or she is squeezed between the demands from above and the complaints from below, with little power to completely respond to either level. So it shouldn't be a surprise that the quality of middle managers is a huge factor in a team's performance.

A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research evaluated worker productivity by analyzing more than 6 million on-the-job measurements and found that replacing a bad middle manager with a top-quality one increases the output of a nine-person team by a larger margin than adding a 10th employee. Workers with better bosses were also less likely to quit.

"These bosses do matter, and they earn their pay," said Kathryn Shaw, a professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business and co-author of the study. The researchers found that two-thirds of the difference in gain from a better boss was due to the supervisor teaching employees work skills or habits. They estimate that the average boss is about 1.75 times as productive as the average worker.

The research rings true in the workplace, Logan said. "I find, even within my small organization, the criticality of that middle group," she said. "They are the ones who are most aware of the needs that are going on. They can find problem areas quicker than I can."

Moreover, with the baby boomers getting ready to retire, middle managers will soon become senior leaders. Federal agencies need to invest in that segment of the workforce to ensure the future vitality of their organizations.

berger

Chances are your organization has a social media policy that governs the use of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn on work computers. But have you thought about the social influence that happens off-line? A new agency initiative can tank if nobody jumps on board. Recalcitrant employees can drag their heels and hinder a restructuring or new program.

Researchers have found that word-of-mouth sharing and face-to-face gossip are even more powerful than the type of sharing driven by mouse clicks. From a decade of studying social influence, Wharton Professor Jonah Berger has distilled the six factors that drive ideas or products to be shared and become contagious:

Social currency — whether sharing something makes you look savvy, noble or appealing to the people with whom you're sharing.

Triggers — what makes you think of a product or how often you are reminded of an idea. For instance, every Wednesday, you're reminded of "hump day" and you're more likely to search for GEICO's camel commercial, Berger said.

Emotion — we share when we're angry, anxious or awestruck.

Public — how observable something is, such as the moustaches supporters grow during the month of "Movember" to raise awareness of prostate and testicular cancer.

Practical value — how much the product might help others save time or money, or improve an experience.

Stories — making your idea, message or product unforgettable by embedding it in a compelling story.

"Technology professionals are highly focused on the best technology, and they assume because it's the best, if they just spread information about it, people will adopt it," Berger told FCW. "That's not how a lot of new product adoption works. Using word of mouth and understanding consumer behavior [are] really important in getting things to catch on."

Take the "trigger" element in Berger's framework. If you want people to turn off their computers when they leave the office or use a particular kind of software, they not only have to agree it's a good practice, they also have to remember to do it. If you link the desired behavior to something visible or memorable in the environment, that will trigger them to comply.

"These ideas have some really important insights for governmental messaging [and] how to get messages across in ways that will change behavior," he said.

Logan said she welcomes fresh ideas that could facilitate change management and breed "the ability to come in with an idea and create a spark of interest and create those early buy-ins to get some people interested enough to take a risk."

hill

If you find being a leader challenging, you're not alone. Even when budgets are robust and the hiring pace is swift, managing people is one of the toughest jobs around. Right now, it is especially painful.

And it's supposed to be that way, according to Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill, co-author of "Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader." The process is slow and painful, you learn by trial and error, and only gradually can your new personal insights change your behavior and shape your leadership style into a successful one.

The three imperatives that Hill identifies as critical to your success are managing yourself, managing a network and managing a team. You must accept your role as boss and embrace the need to accomplish your goals through others. You have to understand your organization's power structure and build a network of relationships to navigate the environment. And you have to inspire the individuals on your staff to come together.

"These are tough times for leadership," Logan said. "How do you handle issues when things don't go the way you expect they might? The times we're in, we're getting thrown some things that are very different than we expected."

The challenging environment has her reaching for an oldie but a goodie: "Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading" by Harvard University's Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky. The book is a practical guide to adaptive leadership, the notion that effective leadership moves beyond technical management and encompasses the willingness to challenge people and engage their ability to adjust to a new set of circumstances. It involves recognizing that whenever there is change, there will be resistance.

"The vision we have for our organization is to develop visionary leaders to transform government," Logan said. "The ability to move into the transformational leadership role is important."

Linsky and Heifetz detail four types of resistance: marginalization, diversion, attack and seduction. And they have suggestions for addressing and building skills to counter each one. For instance, maintain perspective and hold steady in the face of change, or orchestrate the inevitable conflict at a time and place that will lead to the outcome you seek. They also acknowledge the importance of understanding your internal drivers and managing your own competing priorities.

"It is very, very difficult to change an organization that has become extremely comfortable in its culture," Logan said. "How do we get people looking out with confidence and able to step out in this unknown world we're living with, to be prepared for the cycle that always comes, the pendulum that swings back?"

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