Ask the Expert: V3 Issue 2

1. As a Department Leader I find that my team members even though empowered to do so, leave all the decision making to me and this sometimes results in unnecessary delay.  How do I address this problem?

Empowerment can facilitate team development but can be a failure if not introduced correctly. It is critical that …

  • You know what you wish to achieve through empowering team members: For instance you may want to increase sales or customer satisfaction or operational efficiency.

  • You ensure your team members fully understand what is expected of them: For example how much authority will they have to sanction customer refunds and replacements.

Next review how you have empowered your team members. Typically empowerment not only means “giving of authority” but also “making able”.  Check if your team members have the ability to exercise the authority given to them. If not make them capable before kicking off the empowerment process. Training in problem solving and decision making, will help them make sounder judgments. If the members of your team are capable of doing more in terms of problem solving and decision making and would enjoy taking on additional responsibilities then plan how to begin the empowerment process along with your team members. Ensure you have thorough knowledge of each team member’s skills and the tasks they perform in their current role before agreeing upon SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time bound) empowerment objectives.  Rewards for the team must also be agreed upon at the planning stage. It can be in the form of praise, bonus or salary increases.

Conduct periodic reviews to determine whether the objectives are being achieved and assess the benefits team has obtained. Do team members experience greater job satisfaction because they need less supervision and enjoy stronger support from their peers and colleagues? Do you have more time to plan for the future or work on strategic initiatives? Is there an improvement in the speed of decision making? Do not be disheartened by an initial failure. Discuss with your team and identify what went wrong and how it can be put right. Your objectives or timelines may have been too ambitious or there might be an unidentified training need or lack of motivation.

Be prepared for the change in your role on account of empowering your team. You must focus more on developing people, articulating the team mission, creating a climate of risk taking, providing appropriate resources, ensuring effective two way communication and promoting openness and cooperation across the team.


 2. I have team members in my team who are demonstrating different levels of performance. How best should I manage each set of performers and what support should I extend to them to ensure each group delivers to their potential?


Yes, you are absolutely right in saying that different types of performers need to be handled differently. There are basically three categories of performers. 80 percent of employees demonstrate average performance by meeting their goals. 10 percent of employees are excellent, demonstrated by consistently exceeding their goals. The remaining 10 percent of employees are at the bottom, reflected through regularly failing to meet their defined goals. Let’s look at how you need to raise each set's performance levels differently.

  • Coaching the top 10%: Your star performers don’t need much help in achieving their goals. But you must focus on harnessing their productive energies. Discover their motivations and tap into applying their talent in ways that will enhance their contribution to the organization. For instance, you might select your top 10 customer service agents and have them design the customer service training. Or you might make them mentors to new joinees. You need to create a win-win situation for them and the organization.

  • Managing the middle 80%: Within this group, some have the potential to be star performers. Your attempt should be identify such people and help reach their potential. The performance conversation for this group should focus on understanding the barriers inhibiting them from moving to the next level of performance. By diagnosing the barriers, you can develop mutually beneficial solutions to maximize their job performance. You must facilitate the removal of these barriers and assist the team members toward consistently achieving their goals. If the team member is asking questions, sincerely wanting to improve and has had some success, do continue to mentor and train them. Do your best in giving the person every opportunity to be successful.

  • Improving the bottom 10%: Your approach for this set of team members should be to have a performance improvement plan. The plan should include specific goals, with due dates and measurable outcomes. It should also be made clear that if they don’t achieve the goals, there will be consequences viz., continuation of the plan, suspension or termination. Alternatively assess the poor performer’s’ strengths, weaknesses and personality to see if he/she is better fit for another role. A creative person might not be a good fit for sales but can become a star performer in product management. You need to be open, flexible, innovative and supportive with such team members.

You can provide recognition to even a poor performer when he/she achieves the goals set in his/her improvement plan. But basically provide positive feedback to all team members when they achieve their specific goals to keep them motivated and engaged.


3. I lead a team of front office representatives. One of the representatives does not listen to me and takes every issue for resolution to my manager instead of coming to me or working with her other team members? My manager has clearly told her that she reports to me and needs to talk to me. But the officer is still escalating matters to my manager. How can I deal with this situation?


There are two things happening here. Your team member is not following the team norms and your manager is undermining your ability to lead. Clearly what the manager has told this team member has not had any effect. You need your manager’s support and help in dealing with both the problems.


Begin by holding a discussion with your manager. Ascertain your authority level in the department. Between the two of you figure out the reasons for the team member’s behavior and try addressing the root cause. It could be her not having accepted you as a team leader because she feels she herself is a senior member. In that case you could look at involving her more in team decisions etc. But basically both you and the manager need to decide on a plan of action to deal with this employee. Also agree upon what actions of this team member are unacceptable and the consequences for the same.


Next hold a discussion with this team member. Share the details of the consequences that will occur if she demonstrates certain behaviors as you and your manager have laid out in your plan. Explain to her that her behavior is going to determine the next steps in her career. Ideally the manager should not hold another discussion with her and in future should direct all her queries and issues for resolution to you. Stick to the plan of action agreed upon with the manager and regularly review progress.


Finally you need to also help this team member integrate with other team members. You can hold a meeting of all the team members to discuss how your department is dependent on all of you in achieving common goals. Highlight the strengths of each of team member and how you would like to leverage those strengths to make your department the best.

Now, Discover Your Strengths: Book Review; Nov'07

Title:Now, Discover Your Strengths

Author:Marcus Buckingham, Donald O. Clifton

Publication details:  Pocket books, Great Britain, 2005

Number of pages:262 pages


To motivate your team members to give superior performance you must correct their weaknesses right? Wrong! As per the book “Now, Discover Your Strengths”, focusing on their strengths is far more effective in achieving success than eliminating their weaknesses. Based on interviews conducted by Gallup of over 1.7 million employees the authors introduces a positive approach for discovering, focusing and using strengths and talents to create personal and professional success.

The authors consider the following two assumptions on which they think most organizations are built flawed and provide alternate assumptions they think are right.
“Each person can learn to be competent in almost anything.
Each person’s greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness.”

The statement “Spontaneous reactions, yearnings, rapid learnings and satisfactions will all help you detect the traces of your talents.” is quite useful for zeroing in on our talents. The book maintains that while with sufficient practice we might be able to learn different tasks well, we will never be great in these areas unless we have a natural innate talent for them.

Each copy of the book contains a unique ID code that allows you to take a Web-based interview (StrengthsFinder) that is fairly easy to take. This analyzes your instinctive reactions and presents you with your five most powerful signature themes like Achiever, Activator, Empathy, Futuristic, or Strategic. Once you know which of the 34 themes you lead with, the book shows you how to leverage them for powerful results at three levels: for your own development, for your success as a manager, and for the success of your organization.

The book reinforces a lot of unique ideas first published in Marcus Buckingham’s best selling book “First Break All The Rules”, ideas like manager being the most influential person for an employee’s stickiness to an organization, individualization (treating individual employees differently rather the same way to take care of their individual needs) etc.

It also provides a step by step strength based approach for developing and managing 3 HR processes viz., selection, performance management and career development. Here, I found some of the suggestions to be radical but credible. For instance in performance management system it talks about every manager holding a “strength discussion” rather than a “development discussion” with his team member. While the former is focused on how the employee’s strengths can be utilized at work, the latter typically focuses on areas of improvement. However, industry data of how companies have applied it practically for HR processes and benefited would have been useful for HR practioners.

This resourceful book is easy to read with its short concise chapters, varied examples and interesting case studies.  The report of my signature themes was a little too brief, nevertheless very useful.

If you are wondering is it OK to ignore our weaknesses then do note that the book does acknowledge that any weakness which comes in the way of superior performance needs to be minimized. For instance the book gives the example of Bill Gates. His genius at taking innovation and transforming them into user friendly applications is a “strength” whereas his ability to built an enterprise in the face of legal and commercial assault as compared to his partner Steve Balmer, is not. So he selected Steve Balmer to run the company allowing him to return to software development. Thus, the important message it imparts is…. “Capitalize on your strengths… and mange around your weaknesses.”

Ask the Expert: June'07

1. I lead a team of 5 people and I feel giving my team members feedback on their work can help improve the effectiveness of the team. But I am not sure how to do it the right way. So far my experience of giving feedback especially negative one has not been too good.

You are absolutely right; feedback can improve performance of team members which in turn will improve the effectiveness of the team as a whole. By giving negative feedback in a constructive way you can ensure that your feedback is meaningful to your team members. Some guidelines for that are:-

  • Be specific than general. “You made a good presentation” is general. “You managed the audience questions well” is specific.
  • Describe behavior only, do not interpret/evaluate. “You did not complete implementation as per schedule and delayed it by a week” is descriptive vis-à-vis “You are irresponsible” which is evaluative.
  • Provide feedback immediately after the occurrence of behavior.
  • Be focused on behavior that team member can change.
  • Do not mix negative and positive feedback. Examples of both are:-
    • Mixed:  “You did the project well, but you did not take any initiative to try out things.”
    • Unmixed: “On the positive side your project execution was good. You did it with no customer complaints. In the areas of improvement, you need to work on conducting handover training to the satisfaction of the users.”
  • Stimulate suggestions for improvement.
  • Stop if emotional issues surface and deal with them.


2. I know it is not right, but I am jealous of my colleague who is my competitor at work. How can I deal with this?

Being envious of others is a natural reaction and helps in pushing ourselves further to do better. But getting jealous about it and as a result creating negative energy in you is not helpful. It is a good thing that you are aware that it is not a helpful emotion.

Write down what makes you jealous of the colleague. Write down your own accomplishments.  Question yourself – “Are you working smart and hard?” “What behavior of your colleague is bringing him success?” “Are you leveraging your skills, and exceeding your targets?” With some self reflection you will be able to chart out a plan on what needs to be done for you to become as successful as your colleague.

If your colleague succeeds does not mean you cannot succeed. There is enough work and opportunities for everybody to do their bit in today’s corporate world as long as you are willing to work for it. Use all the energy spent in being jealous to do more and better at the work place. Also getting to know the person better may make you realize he/she is just like you and that you could actually be friends and learn from each other.


3. Two of my team members do not get along with each other and this is creating a lot of negative energy in the team. Shifting one of them to another team is not an option right now. As the team leader can I do something?

Yes, you can definitely take some steps to improve the situation.

  • As a first step analyze their recent conflicts, take inputs from their peers, and understand the dynamics at play.
  • Then individually counsel the two people involved them. Let them know how their conflict is affecting the team. Tie issues to business results so you focus on events or behavior not on personality traits. Even if people do not get along they can still work together effectively. Understanding reasons for their not getting along will help. Talk about what you have observed or know has happened, not about something someone else heard or saw.
  • Next step would be to set up a joint problem-solving approach to resolve the conflict.
    • Ask the team members involved to present their view points objectively.
    • Get agreement from them on the problem that needs to be solved. Say things to make them feel you want to solve the problem, not lay the blame. Have each of them generate possible solutions.
    • Get commitment on what each team member will do to solve the problem.
    • Summarize and set a follow-up date to make sure they are working together effectively.