Four steps to strengthen lean leaders who lack people skills

Friday, June 24, 2016

Founder, Lean Leadership Resource Center, Inc.

First, Sue quit. Then, Laura quit. Then the team sent a letter to HR complaining about Joe. The letter then went to the president of the company. Uh oh.

After investigating the situation by talking with everyone, it’s clear that people appreciate Joe’s knowledge of the industry and he’s really good at problem solving by himself. The issue is that people on the team feel stifled and disrespected. Joe also has a tendency to take his stress out on his team and they are getting more and more upset by it. By now, they feel like they’ve raised the issue a few times, and no one is listening. What should they do?

Over the years, I’ve had many leaders identified as needing to build their people skills. They often are some of the most valuable team members in terms of their technical abilities and length of time in the industry, but their teams don’t like working for them. In fact, the greater the lean transformation, the more dissatisfied the team members become with these leaders.

Why is that? All continuous improvement cultures are founded on empowered teams that are able to solve problems and be coached through a range of skill-building behaviors that make them independent of management. This type of workforce management absolutely requires advanced people skills. Many companies don’t have an extensive number of managers at all levels who possess these skills.

When embarking on a course of action to improve a manager’s people skills, you will need to lay out the plan up front with the manager so he knows what to expect. It’s important to be empathetic and kind, as the situation can be one of the more painful experiences the manager has been through. Finding out your team is complaining about you and that your job may be in jeopardy is scary for anyone. A manager in this situation will typically feel alone and disappointed in herself. While some may lash out, it is important to understand that they are simply trying to protect themselves. Here are four steps that can be used to address this issue.

Step 1. Obtain feedback on how the manager is seen by people around him. Include the employee’s manager and peers as well as other staff members. It is very possible that the person in question exhibits behaviors that she isn’t even aware of but that the entire team has observed. You can obtain this feedback with a written survey or simply gather feedback through in-person interviews.

Step 2. Establish specific behaviors from the feedback that need to be addressed. Once you’ve sorted out the feedback, develop a list of 3 – 5 areas that are specific and actionable for the manager to work on. You will need to coach the manager and encourage him to be truly open to the feedback, listening without commenting and withholding a response until he has had time to think about it. Typically, a 24-hour hold is a good idea.  Once the specific areas are identified, the person needs to establish a practical and meaningful approach to work on the areas. Anytime these are related to skills the person struggles with, just trying to do better isn’t enough.

Step 3. Encourage the manager to obtain support to assist in the effort. Leaders need support to go through this gamut of changes. Obtaining feedback can be challenging and scary. Interestingly, teams will often shift from complaining to helping once they see a leader who is truly working on her people skills.

Step 4. Ensure the improvement effort is long-term as behavior changes take time. Commonly, companies stop addressing performance issues once there is any relief from complaints. With this approach, problem behaviors are likely to return. In addition, having just the absence of some of the more extreme behaviors is likely not sufficient for effective leadership. Ensure there is adequate setup that will last at least a year. Also, schedule follow up sessions to check on how the action plans regarding the 3 - 5 improvement areas are on track and progressing. One way to verify improvement is to re-interview the team members to find out what changes they are observing. The manager can do this exercise himself to maintain his own sense of ownership of these issues.

When it’s all said and done, many times these efforts don’t succeed because the manager may not really want to change or improve. On top of that, she can become so self-conscious or defensive that she struggles to get to the issues that need attention, much less address them effectively. However, if these types of thorough performance improvement steps are followed, leaders are able to turn corner for the benefit of themselves and their teams.


Cheryl Jekiel is the author of “Lean Human Resources: Redesigning HR Practices for a Culture of Continuous Improvement"