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Start the Day Off Right!

post # 149 — August 3, 2006 — a Careers, Managing post

There’s a fascinating (and possibly very important) study conducted by Nancy Rothbard (a Wharton professor) and Steffanie Wilk (an Ohio State professor) on call-center employees. It’s called Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Desk: The Effect of Mood on Work Performance.

They report that the mood you bring with you to work has a stronger effect on work performance than mood changes caused by events in the workplace.

Think about that – if you come to work already in an optimistic or upbeat mood (because of things that have nothing to do with work), you are more likely to be productive, efficient and do better quality work.

This matches my life – if I start out right, I get a huge amount done; but if I start out grumpy I almost never turn it around. The start-of-day mood is disproportionately influential.

It also matches a phenomenon I wrote about 21 years ago in an article called The Psychology of Waiting Lines, where I offered a lesson learned by every waiter and waitress: – Its hard to play catch-up ball. If the customers sit down happy in a restaurant (or diner) it’s not too hard to keep them happy, but if they sit down disgruntled, there’s almost nothing you can do to please them – they are loaded for bear!

There are lessons here for self-management, and also for companies or managers trying to help employees become productive. As the authors point out, people rarely receive training from their employers in the problems they have in their personal lives, yet the moods they develop as a result of these problems may be (may be? – ARE!) a major determinant of employee performance.

So what does THAT say a manager has to be good at? Helping employees deal with personal problems, so that they come to work in a positive frame of mind?

There’s no escaping the fact that the pragmatic conclusion is yes – even though many of us would love to believe it’s not our place to get involved in employees’ personal problems. Ignore this at your peril!

And what about us as individuals? Should each of us develop “start of the day” devices (uniquely tailored for what works for us as individuals) to start the day off right? Some might go for a run, some might meditate, some might just play the following Bee Gees song sequence: “In the Morning” “Words” “Melody Fair.” “Islands in the Stream (Kenny and Dolly version)”( I said it had to be individual, right?)

Seriously, there are two questions for you to respond to: Do you have a personal device or approach to set up the day, and (b) what do you think managers can/ should do to help employees / team-members do so?


Bill Peper said:

Thanks for the great link.

My morning ritual involves prayer and searching the Internet for 3-5 links that will help my clients and teammates perform better. This service is value added, and it starts my day by serving others—a great habit to develop. (I also benefit from the Internet search as well.)

As I spend a good amount of time each day driving, I also use music to start my day. I listen to my two favorite songs, both composed by the brilliant American composer John Bucchino—“Grateful” sung by Michael Feinstein and “Taking The Wheel” sung by Brian Lane Green—usually several times. “Grateful” is simply beautiful and expresses a a great message, while “Taking the Wheel” fires me up and raises my energy level.

As an observation, one’s early morning mood reflects his/her general disposition. Developing an inner attitude of gratefullness, selflessness, and an appreciation for the opportunities the day will present require a conscious effort. Once that mental habit is established, life becomes much richer.

As to your second question, the greatest way to influence a direct report is to care genuinely about his/her well being and demonstrate that concern. Psychologists say that people’s greatest need is to be appreciated, and truly noticing the person involved is the best way to convey concern.

I typically ask, “You don’t seem quite yourself today, is everything OK?” Those so inclined will disclose private information, while others will not. Employees appreciate the opportunity to disclose private information, even if the opportunity is not taken.

Another thing a manager must do is allow an employee to have occasional “bad hair days.” As a human being, no one bring his/her “A” game every day—at least not over the long haul. One of the difficult tasks of a manager is providing some slack for employees on occasion, but not allowing the situation to become an excuse for poor performance over time.

posted on August 3, 2006

Dennis Howlett said:

The answer should be obvious to those who care about their employees but how many managers really do care? I’d guess scant few.

I used to give my staff time when they needed it but the problem with that is unless you’re very careful, you end up acting as an amateur psychologist. I had training in that discipline but your average manager won’t.

There are a ton of issues around attachment and transference which have to be managed. Few employers are suitably equipped and the results could be worse rather than better.

posted on August 3, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Bill, Dennis – what I take away from the combination of your comments is an even greater “awe” at what good managers can do.

Dennis, you’re quite right that most managers are untrained in this, and hence any fumbling attempts to help employees with problems in their personal lives are as likely to hurt as to help.

I’d even go so far as to risk offending your original discipline (I doubt that I could offend you, and don’t intend to) by saying that the answer surely doesn’t lie in trying to educate or “train” managers with courses in psychology, etc.

As we have discussed elsewhere, most of this training is useless, and you don’t turn someone without “interpersonal empathy skills” into someone good at relationships by giving them a course (or even a 3- or 4-year degree!!)

Which leads us back (one more time) to saying that getting managers who can really make a difference all comes down to the selection process in appointing managers, looking for those rare people who can (as Pete Friedes describes it) be both good at requiring (having a task focus) and good at relating to people (treating them as human beings.)

Personally, I KNOW all this but it doesn’t make me good at doing it. I know that, when there’s a performance issue, I should yell sometimes, and stroke at others, but I never quite know which I should be doing. If you’re not a a natural, this is hard stuff to learn, and virtually impossible to teach.

posted on August 3, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

I know you’ve made this analogy in previous articles David, but the first thing that crossed my mind in reading this post was the similarity between this scenario and scenarios that coaches of sporting teams (and individuals) face.

Is there something to be learned from the sporting arena? Both are striving to get the most from their “players”, but the stakes are so high – and transparent – in the sporting world, that more attention seems to be focused on it.

Sports coaches use a variety of methods to motivate their charges – visualisation, pep talks, meditation. In the dim distant past I played sport at a pretty competitive level, and when you look at the high performance sportsmen and women of today, they have a plethora of support people working to get the most out of them, from coaches to trainers to sports psychologists.

Of course the notion of a business coach is not new, and clearly they don’t (always) wake up beside you in the morning to give you some motivating words, but does this article not add more weight to the proposition that business coaches and other “external” support people may be worth the investment? Maybe we need a “task manager” to guide our activities and a “motivation manager” to manage our mood!

posted on August 3, 2006

Bill Peper said:

For those not familiar with Peter Friedes, he wrote one of the best management books ever written, The 2R Manager: When to Relate, When to Require, and How to do Both Effectively. It has terrific assessment tools and provides concrete suggestions for all managers, those who tend to be relaters by nature and those whose focus on the requiring aspect of managing.

David, I cringe when I read references to “naturals,” individuals zapped with freakish abilities denied to virtually all mere mortals. It almost always signifies that a cop out is on the horizon.

An analogy can be made between providing feedback to a direct report and the ability to draw well. Most of us, while great artists in kindergarten, never develop our drawing skills, classify ourselves as “not artistic at all”, and marvel at those “naturals” who can create beautiful sketches at will. Betty Edwards’ work (particularly her best-seller, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) conclusively proves that virtually anyone willing to learn how to draw and disciplined enough to complete some related exercises can learn to draw surprisingly well. Through effort and self-discipline, almost anyone can join the ranks of the “naturals” at drawing.

The real issue is whether a manager is willing to work at communicating well with others at work, not whether that manager was born with a special Drucker chromosome. Here are the essential management skills, as identified by a top professional in this area (who shall remain nameless):

•Act as if not trying is the only sin.

•Act as if they want everyone to succeed.

•Actively help people with their personal development.

•Always do what they say they are going to do.

•Believe in, and keep the faith with, what they are doing.

•Do what is right, over the long term, for clients and for their people.

•Facilitate, not dictate.

•Give credit where credit is due.

•Manage people in the way that works for each individual, not just in they way they want to manage. Good managers don’t have to be chameleons, just adaptable.

•Deliver bad news in a non-threatening, non-upsetting way.

•Remember what people tell them.

•Understand what drives individual people.

•Respect confidences.

•Show enthusiasm and drive.

•Take work seriously—not themselves.

•Walk the halls and know all the people.

•Let people know them as human beings, not just as managers.

Of course these skills can be taught and coached effectively. The same is true with skills involving interactions with direct reports. These skills can be taught, provided the employer places value on ensuring that managers possess these skills; and managers can learn these skills, provided the individual managers want to improve these skills. It all boils down to desire.

One does not need to climb mountains and consult Buddist monks to improve management skills including interactions with direct reports. But one is almost certain to remain an average (i.e. largely ineffective) manager without a determination and effort to become better at relating to others at work..

Here is a formula to try:

1. Read “The 2R Manager” and try all of Friedes’ suggestions for 6 months without fail.

2. During the same 6 months, Read “Leadership and Self Deception” by the Arbinger Institute and apply the lessons of the book without fail.

3. Make a serious effort to be introspective when evaluating interactions with others, and seek feedback and good coaching on management skills.

4. Repeat the exercise until communication skills improve.

As to David’s point about never being quite certain whether to yell or stroke, does that render the task immune to improvement? That uncertainty is, for better or worse, inherent in all human interactions, and this is an area where there is rarely one “right” or obvious answer.

I don’t know about David, but I faced this same kind of communication dilemma after marrying as the managers described in this blog. I was never sure how to communicate with Sharon. [I wrote and performed a stand-up comedy routine several years ago, “My first year of marriage as electroshock therapy”. The audiences loved it, but my wife did not find it funny in the least.] As a result of enormous effort, love, commitment to vows, positive reinforcement techniques, our communication has improved dramatically (although I still often do not have a clue about whether to yell or stroke when we have a disagreement.)

One does not need to know with precision whether to yell or stroke in a given situation. But the manager does need to commit to acting with the right attitude and providing the best feedback possible at all times. This attitude of wanting and taking steps to improve in this area is the true key to success. Eventually the skills will improve, and the manager’s accomplishments will be almost assuredly discredited, as he/she is obviously just a “natural” in this area.

posted on August 3, 2006

David (Maister) said:


posted on August 3, 2006

Dennis Howlett said:

David: I think we’re probably in agreement at one level but not at another. You’re right about the necessary fundamental attributes. You’re also right that such people are few and far between.

But when it comes to the training element I’m torn. As I’m sure you know, psych falls into a small number of major categories with many nuances.

The problem is that professionals are divided as to what works and what doesn’t. Each school of thought has its adherents and often it is hard to get them to recognise the other’s point of view, something that goes back to Freud and Jung. So much for empathy eh?

The reality is that what works for one person doesn’t work for another. What seems equally true is that recognisable empathy comes from having walked in the same shoes as another individual. It’s one of the reasons that 12 Step programs are so (relatively) successful compared to other forms of ‘treatment’ – in my opinion. Sorry to use value laden language but I hope it makes sense.

However I am not with Bill on this. I find it is almost impossible to rely on a single set of formulaic ‘rules’ that work universally. In that sense, it isn’t easily taught. But I would not go as far as to say ‘useless.’ It clearly works for Bill but makes me shudder. Especially when couched in language that implies a guarantee of success.

That could be because of cultural differences. I find for instance that Americans tend to operate much more easily on the basis of rules than Europeans. That’s a speculatiove perception on my part based on observing Americans over some 13 years. It also informs my views about things like Enron & KPMG – there were rules to be broken and some of the guys did just that. There’s a string of those examples, some more extreme than others.

As to the don’t know whether to yell or stroke – now you’re into my territory. What I believe we really want to do is read the mind of the other person so we can come up with an appropriate response. Anyone who has the key to that one has my undivided attention.

I don’t think it is possible. The other person may not know there’s an issue and even if they do may not be able to artiulate it. There may be layers that need peeling through to get at the essence of the issue. Is it really possible to reliably interpret the ‘signals?’ Sure – but managers haven’t got all day to figure that stuff out.

Therefore, if there is any doubt, my sense is the best thing to do is shut up and listen.

Even so and despite our differences on this, it’s well worth the discussion.

posted on August 3, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Bill, Dennis, as I struggle to see what we all have in common, one theme I see emerging is the centrality of the manager having the right attitude, the right orientation, the right self-image as to what the role is and what’s expected.

All thre of us also end up with phrases that truly ARE value-laden – reluctantly or eagerly.

The key pont we share is that if the right attitude is there, (and only if that’s so)) a manager can avoid ineffective “universal rules” while still being able to develop and learn the skills, as Bill teaches us.

With the right attitudes, you can learn how to do this and get better. Without it, you can’t.

Which brings us to the next primal question: can you teach attitudes?

posted on August 3, 2006

Bill Peper said:

Tim, Dennis, and David:

I appreciate your thoughtful comments. David, it might be best to start a new thread on this topic, as we seem to have drifted away from the original topic. This is an important topic.

While attutudes can’t be “taught” in a traditional sense, they certainly can be impacted. One of the central tasks of a manager is to creat a culture and atmoshpere that elicits a positive attitude for the employees.

In terms of interpersonal relationships, the actions of the manager can significantly impact the employee even if the employee is not committed to improving the relationship. Although written for the marital context, the principles of Susan Page’s brilliant book “What One of You Can Do to Bring the Two of You Together” have much to teach us in this area.

I do not believe that there are a single set of rules that apply universally in every relationship. Those managers I have encountered who are willing to work at interpersonal skills have been capable of doing so.

If good instruction (albeit in book form), focus, introspection, feedback, and experience do not improve the manager’s interpersonal communication skills, he/she should not be a manager.

posted on August 4, 2006

Ian Welsh said:

I will simply note that my morning attitude can be effected by the job – by the day before, or by anticipation of the day to come. It isn’t always about personal issues. I’ve had jobs where I would go home, dream I was at work when I was sleeping, go in, rinse and repeat.

While personal issues can be the problem – waking up dreading the work day is, in my esperience, more often the problem.

Where it isn’t, yes, the manager has to get involved in the employee’s private life – or fire them. But if you’ve got an employee who was very good and goes bad… well, very good employees are worth trying to save, in my opinion.

And if you do offer that help – if you do get through the crisis, the relationship (and what you can expect and ask) is often immeasurably strengthened.

Treat people as whole people, not work units, and you’ll generally be rewarded.

posted on August 4, 2006