5 Ways to Handle Workplace Conflicts

One of the hardest parts of being a leader is having difficult conversations: firing someone, getting into it with a client, apologizing for a mistake, or delivering bad news. Many of us choose avoidance as often as possible. That uncomfortable feeling (in your gut, your hands, in the back of the throat) is a warning sign: tough conversation ahead.

In the book Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, the authors write, “Our anxiety results not just from having to face the other person, but from having to face ourselves.”

Whether the source of the conflict stems from circumstance, a challenge to your identity as a leader, or protecting one’s turf, stemming the tide of personal emotions and dealing in a direct, measured way can let the air out and diffuse conflict effectively.

Here are some methods to use with your team or anyone else in the face of everyday conflict. (…continued)

Click through to read the rest of this piece over at OPENforum.

Give Good Interview: Shotgun Tips (re-post)

Interviewing someone for a job is a curious skill. It’s like cleaning a loaded gun.  You want to be meticulous about each part or you might accidentally blow your head off.

OK, it’s not actually lethal.

But it is a multifaceted skill. It’s intuitive in some ways but it’s also about preparation.  It’s about listening and simultaneously about evaluating what you’re hearing.  First, some useful axioms that I learned early on.

Axiom #1: An interview is a conversation with a purpose. So relax. Thinking of interviewing this way will go a long way towards making you feel and appear more comfortable and take a bit of pressure off the candidate . Be open to giving your impressions, respond to or reflect on what you’re hearing, and repeat things to be sure you understand.  You know, the kinds of things you might do in an actual conversation with someone.

Axiom #2: The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. While I’m biased to reject this notion (who says a person can’t flower?), over time it has proven to be pretty accurate.  Try to put what you’re hearing in this context.  What about a candidate’s behavior, the way he makes decisions or treats other people or comes up with solutions, can you glean from a particular answer?  Look for passions and initiative around those passions (whether in a professional context or not). These are clues for leadership and self-motivation.

To give a successful interview, do these things

Prepare. This may be stating the obvious but be sure you know what you’re looking for. Do a lot of work in advance defining your ideal candidate and the scope of responsibilities and the rest will go smoothly.

Have the position profile in mind but don’t be anal about it. You don’t learn much about a person if you’re just checking off skill boxes.  And you know that ideal candidate you envisioned?  He doesn’t actually exist. So leave breathing room.

Think about the business goals and strategy. Why are you hiring this person the first place?  What gap will the successful candidate fill?  What is the big picture business reasoning for the hire?  Does this person jibe with that?

Think about culture and fit. Always consider a person in the context of your workplace and staff. By the way, this does not mean you should hire someone just like you or your co-workers, but a complementary fit goes a long way towards success.

Your goal is to accomplish two things at once:

  1. Find out what the person has accomplished, how they describe themselves and who they are as people.
  2. Make some judgment about all that. Does it ring true? Are there inconsistencies in what they say and what you observe?  Is the person really aware of who they are, how they impact others, what they have learned?

Frame questions in an open-ended manner. Avoid yes/no questions at all costs.

If you’re interviewing over lunch or dinner, definitely give the dude a chance to eat. It’s polite.

Use “critical incident interviewing.” This is jargon for taking specific things a person has done and gradually peeling back the layers to get to a person’s true contributions by asking subsequent questions.  The aim is to learn how the candidate approaches or manages a situation, problem or challenge, and how he thinks about developing solutions for himself and those around him.

Ask at least one question about a specific incident in which a person used his or her influence to accomplish something. Most organizations work in teams these days and lines of authority often change. The ability to influence is important.

Spend time on values. What matters to the candidate?  What has he accomplished that holds particular meaning for him?

Get a sense of emotional intelligence. How does a candidate manage himself in a given context?  How does he manage others?  What skill does he have in understanding the viewpoint and perspective of others and conveying that effectively in action?

Ask for a brief review of work history with particular emphasis on the transitions from position to position. It’s very interesting to see where someone starts with this question and what details they choose to illuminate about why they made a move.  Ask how your position contributes to the trajectory of their career.

Focus on qualities of leadership. Look for independent thinking, vision, the ability to articulate it so others can understand, emotional maturity, courage and commitment, resilience, integrity, intellect.  Leadership is about stewardship: a sense of responsibility about others and the organization.  It’s about supporting the growth of others.

In the end, interviewing is a pretty harrowing experience.  You’re spending a relatively short time with someone to then hand over the keys to the kingdom.  “Here, watch my kid.”  If the basic skills are evident, spend most of your time on issues of integrity and propensity for leadership, the things you can’t easily teach.

CC licensed drawing via DailyPic’s flickr page.

6 Ways to Build a Team of Do-ers and Decision-Makers

The death of strategic planning has been greatly exaggerated. But it’s true that we’re at a moment in time where top-down planning is less and less effective. Rather than set a plan and rigid parts to have others deliver on it, as a leader it’s more efficient to set strategic direction and then hand over incremental decisions to smart specialists. In Linchpin, Seth Godin uses the example of the fast and complex Japanese transit system which operates on schedule and on budget, not by top-down directive, but by a large pool of empowered employees making the best decisions in the moment. “Letting people in the organization use their judgement turns out to be faster and cheaper–but only if you hire the right people and reward them for having the right attitude.“

Construct an organization built for good decision-making and rapid iteration.

1. Set the table. As with the tipping point, there’s always a lot of behind-the-scenes greasing before the big visible result. Make sure you’re developing a culture that features baked in autonomy and rewards independent thinking and teamwork.

2. Hire leaders (or linchpins). Lots has been said elsewhere about how best to hire proactive employees but here are two favorite tips. 1) Learn “critical incident interviewing” and, like the cleaning products company, Method, 2) Hold tryouts.

3. Celebrate improvisation. In order to learn how to be spontaneous, it’s important to create a hierarchy that leaves room for failure. Think of good decision-making as a skill to be fostered in your organization just as you might keep employees up to speed with new technology or processes. It might even be a good idea to incentivize failure to encourage innovation.

4. “Brand” your mission. Every team should be be well versed in its purpose. A brand is purpose distilled to its essence. Is your mission as simple to understand as a good brand? If not, work on it. Do this relentlessly so that your employees are guided at all times by the team’s mission.

5. Allow freedom of movement. Employees never cite money as the #1 factor in determining work happiness. #1 usually has something to do with autonomy and freedom. If you encourage cross-functionality, knowledge sharing, openness on projects, you create an atmosphere of respect and openness.

6. Encourage side projects. Successful main projects almost always started out as side-projects. Think about it. I know of one company that held an internal product competition. Think about ways you can get employees solving problems that may not be directly related to their roles.

Use These 5 “Weird Rules” To Boost Innovation

The right approach for routine work is almost always wrong for creative work. We look at 5 weird ways to boost your creativity from Stanford professor Robert Sutton.


Ten years ago, Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton wrote a book on how to manage for maximum creativity called Weird Ideas That Work. After studying some of the most innovative people and companies, Sutton concluded that what is right for routine work is consistently wrong for creative work. The best way to manage for creativity, he discovered, is to simply take every tried-and-true management trope and do the opposite.  Armed with this epiphany, he laid out his “Weird Rules of Creativity.” Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Find some happy people and get them to fight.As a manager, one tactic might be to allow an employee to state his case for a project or innovation – then invite team members to dissect it. Getting smart people tovigorously debate their ideas, Sutton contends, is one the quickest methods of exposing technical flaws, and paves the way for innovation. ()

(Click through to read the rest of this article at OPENForum …)

Self-delusion is One of the Greatest Inventions in Human History: The 2013 99U Conference Recap #99conf

“Self-delusion is one of the greatest inventions in human history.” – AJ Jacobs on how to “act your way into a new way of thinking”

The Benefits are in the Seams

The 99U Conference is my favorite conference of the year. The smaller size and bias towards action turn out creative types striving for excellent work who are making big ideas happen. This year’s conference was different for me, since I was there primarily to conduct Office Hours and hopefully catch a few speakers if they aligned with my official duties.

As Scott Belsky, co-founder of Behance, stated in last year’s opening address, “The benefits are in the seams,” meaning the real paydirt at a conference like this is meeting new people, having conversations, and reveling in the other spontaneous moments not on the official program. And he’s right.

Highlights for me included seeing the book for the first time, meeting Sean Blanda, Associate Editor of 99U, chatting with Mark McGuinness, Elizabeth Grace Saunders and John Cadell, hanging with my friend Dan Blank and his pal Christina Rosalie (who smacked me upside the head with a question that won’t go away), and attending the speakers’ dinner, where I had a chance to have real conversations with some the amazing minds behind this year’s conference like authors Cal Newport and AJ Jacobs, Leah and Kevin Busque from TaskRabbit, photographer Jeff Sheng, and Charlie Todd from Improv Everywhere. Whew. So inspiring.

Time for Office Hours

But it’s all about doing stuff, and at this year’s conference I was part of an experiment: 99U Office Hours. Sponsored by OPENforum, attendees were offered one-on-one coaching from four 99U writers in short ten minute bursts. Attendees could choose from one of four areas of focus: Time Management, Risk Taking, Productivity for Creatives, or Client Management.

Over the course of two days, I coached 33 conference attendees on Client Management issues, covering a wide swath of challenges. As a business growth, hiring, and leadership development professional by trade, I found that many of the topics discussed generally overlapped with organizational, productivity and leadership issues.

I missed seeing most of the conference speakers in favor of my coaching duties. But like every conference you take away what you put into it and the experience of talking with conference attendees in a personal way was so rewarding. Overall, Office Hours elicited good feedback and powerful themes of the stuff creative professionals and business owners are truly concerned with as they strive for excellence and manage the day-to-day. It was a focus group on steroids.

Here are some of my takeaways from 99U Office Hours. Do they apply to you too?

The conference attracts attendees who are dynamic, professionally focused, and intent on getting even better. I’ve attended past 99U Conferences so I was prepared for quality: smart, self-aware, and ambitious professionals. But I was surprised at just how inquisitive, prepared, thoughtful and open Office Hours participants were. It allowed us to actually accomplish something useful in just ten minutes, to identify a real issue and begin to chip away at it.

It’s normal to seek validation before jumping jump into the unknown. Many Office Hours participants seemed lit up by a big idea for a new business direction, a new set of clients, or a new product, yet lacked the gumption or know-how to jump right into it. They were asking for permission or validation for the idea. (I was happy to oblige.) In most cases, it was a huge ambitious goal that would be more approachable split into smaller chunks. At any rate, my advice was uniform: just start. You can tweak or build upon it as you go.

The rift between creative professionals and more traditional business roles is real, and navigating it is hard work. Again and again, I encountered challenges associated with the working relationships between creative professionals and their business counterparts. The two are suspicious of one another, with incongruent motives and competing measures for success. This kind of challenge goes for all teams where personalities, intentions, and styles clash. It’s a matter of building a common mission, committing to teamwork, and developing clear consistent communication.

Dealing with clients is mostly a matter of managing communication and strengthening one-on-one relationships. Speaking of communication, most client issues tend to be about relationships. On several occasions, I heard stories about people working comfortably on a project for a client, when the project was killed or stalled inconceivably by a high-level person sticking their finger in the pie. It’s helpful to find champions of your work on the client team and educate them on how to communicate with their bosses about the work. Also, it never hurts to meet the decision-maker early; start that relationship with the higher-ups so when issues arise you can talk them out.

Selling and delivering quality work is one thing, but honing your process for delivery and building a platform is where the magic happens. Any discussion of client management includes the big business development question: how do I get more of the clients that I love to work with? There’s no easy answer. But having a platform for what you sell–an integrated philosophy or worldview that is consistent with your work–really helps, as does differentiating and selling your delivery process along with the end result. I found myself recommending Jill Konrath’s book, Selling to Big Clients over and over.

Huge heartfelt thanks to everyone who participated in Office Hours at this year’s conference. I’m grateful to be able to talk about the stuff that matters. I really hope it was at least a tiny bit helpful.

It was a gratifying experience for me, and feedback was great, which is why I am going to continue the practice of Office Hours in some capacity this summer. Sign up for the Even Better list or just email me indicating your interest and I’ll be sure to let you know when Office Hours are officially unveiled.

What do you think. Are short mentoring or coaching sessions useful in a conference setting? Is it possible to accomplish anything in just 10 minutes? Let me know in the comments.