From Project Management

Why Empathy Needs to Make a Comeback!

A recent study of 15,000 leaders from 300+ organizations across eighteen countries by Development Dimensions International revealed that the conversational skill that has the highest impact on overall performance was empathy.  Empathy however is in decline according to Richard Wellins, one of the authors of DDI’s report.  He pointed to a University of Michigan study of college students which showed a 34-48% decline in empathy over an eight year period.

One reason proposed for this decline is our mobile world.  People are increasingly engaging with people in such brief moments of time that the empathic skill is seldom practiced.  In her book, “Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World”, child psychologist, Michele Borba concurs.  She suggests that as a result of technology, “Self-promotion, personal branding, and self-interest at the exclusion of others’ feelings, needs and concerns is permeating our culture and slowly eroding our children’s character.”

The DDI report also points out that managers spend more time managing than interacting thus limiting their ability to maintain and hone their empathic skills.  According to their study, only 40% of frontline leaders tested either proficient or strong on empathy.

Why is empathy such a valued trait? For starters customers want to be heard and empathizing with your customers’ needs will help sellers determine what they want.  Additionally empathy helps businesses understand cultural differences when operating in diverse global markets.  In many companies collaboration is essential for success and empathy helps to not only foster relationships but also influences our power of persuasion.

The importance of empathy is further confirmed in a study out of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  A three year study of business leaders in the U.S. and other countries identified five attributes that executives must have to succeed in today’s global economy.  Of the five, adaptability, cultural competence, 360-degree thinking, intellectual curiosity and empathy, empathy rated highest.

DDI’s study showed that in terms of relation to job performance, empathy had the greatest impact on engaging with employees, coaching them and their overall performance.  Ray Krznaric, the author of Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It explains, “Empathy in the modern workplace is not just about being able to see things from another perspective. It’s the cornerstone of teamwork, good innovative design, and smart leadership. It’s about helping others feel heard and understood.”

So if you are reading this post right now on your phone and ignoring the person speaking with you, set it down, look into the eyes of your friend/colleague and show them they matter!

Bosses Aren’t Destined To Be Jerks, Jerks Are Destined To Be Bosses

Not everyone likes to be a subordinate and take orders but we are more willing to take orders from some leaders than from others.  Some bosses despite our open mindedness and willingness to give one boss-454867_640 hundred percent, still behave as plain ole jerks.  Jerk bosses are popularized and made notorious by the media through Leona Helmsley like scandals and movies such as Horrible Bosses.  Perhaps we have led ourselves into believing these boss types are corrupted by the power given to them.  Research suggests however that bosses don’t necessarily become jerks but rather jerks are promoted to bosses.

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan Assessments, says that people with narcissistic, self-centered and confrontational traits are more likely to become leaders.  Emily Grijalva, assistant professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management, explains why such people move upward.  She performed a meta analysis of 18 studies involving 30,000 test subjects and found that narcissism is positively associated with attaining leadership roles.  She explains, “When you first meet a narcissist they tend to make a positive impression on you. So if you were to meet someone narcissistic at a party you would probably think they were entertaining or attractive,” but they may also have a lot of, “extremely toxic interpersonal characteristics such as being exploitative, manipulative, arrogant.”  Grijalva further explains that narcissists perhaps more so than others, are going to portray themselves as leaders but as Jeanne Branthover, managing partner at Boyden Global Executive Search, points out, narcissists aren’t imposters but truly have bought in to who they are.

Fred Kiel, founder of KRW International, a firm that develops leadership inside companies, explains that there is a bad notion in the business world that the most effective leader is a “hard-nosed” driver.  Someone who takes action and gets things done is good despite their rough treatment of others.  He notes that this prevalent business school philosophy, embedded into our psyches, could further promote the idea that jerk behavior is desirable.

Are jerk leaders effective though?  Kiel examined the lives of 84 CEOs and compared them according to a suite of traits he developed.  He found that high-character leaders who exhibit traits such as honesty, forgiveness and keeping promises, brought in five times the return on assets to the bottom line than did low-character CEOs.

Emily Grijalva analyzed twenty-six studies across 5,000 participants and found that individuals with high levels of narcissism were ineffective leaders, however her analysis also showed that individuals with low levels of narcissism were ineffective.  The thought is that individuals with low levels of narcissism are insecure and hesitant.  The ineffective leadership ability of mildly narcissistic people may have promoted the belief that narcissism was a desired leadership trait, but Girjalva’s research reveals individuals with only average amounts demonstrate much greater effectiveness than those exhibiting either high or low narcissistic tendencies.

Narcissists, aside from having poor management skills, may hire managers just like them which exacerbates the problem of ineffective leadership in the managerial ranks of an organization.  A fraternity of jerks at the top makes people miserable to the point of leaving.  Inverse to this, narcissists may also hire people who prefer being subordinate and bossed around.  Such hiring does not improve the situation. Left unchecked by subordinates willing to challenge them, the overly confident narcissist boss may make reckless decisions.

As Dr. Chamorro-Premuzi points out, “In general, bosses perform pretty poorly.  If you look at large corporations in the past five years on average they have all fired 15% to 20% of senior leaders.”

Remember, even if someone dresses nicely, exudes success, charisma, confidence and a can-do (possibly bombastic) attitude, they may not be presidential….er, I mean managerial material.  They may be a narcissist.

Motivating Employees: The Lessons We Learn from Flappy Bird

If you have no children you probably know little about Flappy Bird, a supposedly insanely addictive app available for mobile devices which was removed from Google Play and Flappy BirdiTunes in February by the developer.  At the time of its removal the app had been downloaded at least fifty million times and was generating an estimated $50,000 a day (A DAY!) for the young Vietnamese developer who still lives at home with his parents!  Badgering complaints from the app’s many users over how the addictiveness of the game was ruining their lives is the primary reason he removed it.  But don’t worry about the poor kid; he is still making plenty of dough from all the ad impressions still generated by the fifty million plus users who downloaded it before he pulled the plug.

The ridiculous amount of money he is making and why he shut it down is not important.  Why people went so gaga over such a rudimentary game is.  The game’s objective is simple.  You control a bird as the name suggests and you must simply navigate your bird through a series of pipes that extend from the top and bottom of the screen.  Tap fast and your bird soars upward.  Tap slow and he plummets.  The graphics are about as advanced as what your 90s’ Nintendo system provided.  There is no sprawling 3-dimensional fantasy world or crime infested city through which to navigate.  Flappy bird uses no special weaponry nor does he possess any flashy powers.  He simply flies up or down across a 2D cityscape.

So why do so many people continue to play the game for hours at a time?  Because they Flappy bird game overhave a goal and that goal is to beat their previous record.  With each pipe through which your bird successfully passes, you get a point but if your bird dies you start back at zero.  As frustrating as the game is, users simply won’t put down their devices.  They are ensnared by a challenge and reward system.  When they break their high score their phone let’s them know it and they can show off their achievement to their friends.

What does any of this have to do with motivating employees?  Well, convential wisdom tells us that the more monetary incentives you provide the more motivated your workers become.  While cutting pay may de-motivate a worker, doubling pay has not been proven to improve motivation.  In fact psychology research shows that rewards provide only temporary conformity.  Teresa Amabile, a Harvard professor, has found through her experiments that a sense of progress is necessary to staying engaged.  An evaluation of the diaries of 238 workers across seven companies showed the following:

“….making progress in one’s work — even incremental progress — is more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation than any other workday event.”

Now you get it right?  Flappy Bird is addictive because users have the chance to progress each time they play even if just a little.  That sense of accomplishment which often is absent in the workplace gives us a rush of sorts.

Amabile’s suggestion to help create a sense of progress is to provide workers with goals, necessary resources to accomplish those goals, and then support each worker with emotional support and respect.  And, I would add, create a feedback loop to provide workers with progress reports.

If you doubt this then explain why a kid with a $50,000 a day income and growing, basically quits?  The reason; he had no more goals, he had no emotional support and he received no respect.

A List Not About Leadership but About Leadership Lists

If you’re a frequent blogger you know that coming up with original material is not always leadership signeasy.  If you are a Tweeter, finding content about which to Tweet every 30 minutes is not so simple either.  So as you scour the web I’m sure you’ve encountered a few subjects that have been done to death.

For example, leadership lessons.  I love when I see lists on leadership lessons because I love to Tweet about them or post them in my Linkedin activity feed.  Unfortunately as I dig deeper into the content of what I’m posting on leadership perhaps all I really am accomplishing with my social posts is to pollute our cyberspace with the smog of overdone content.  Take a look at the recent posts below and you’ll understand of what I speak.

From Business Insider:

The one thing you need to know to be a great leader. 

Okay, if this is the one thing I need to know then I can stop here and never read another leadership list from Business Insider again right?

There are a Few Core Leadership Skills That are Mandatory

Wait a second! This says there are a few leadership skills, not just one!  What gives?

9 Leadership Traits to Look for In New Hires

Hold up! Now I don’t need to look for just “one thing” in my new hires nor a few but nine?

Bloomberg Chairman: Why the “And” Factor is the Real Key to Great Leadership.

The “And” factor?  So this is truly the real key to leadership right?  It isn’t the “one thing” in the first list, the few in the second or the nine in the third correct?  Please stop messing with me!


6 Surprisingly Useful Leadership lessons from the VMAs.

So evidently Miley Cyrus and Lady GaGa must know about the “And” factor.  Who knew they were so business savvy?

5 Leadership Tips for Introverts

Screw you extroverts, you don’t get a list!

The Most Important Leadership Skill You’ll Ever Learn

I’d raise hell on this one but technically this is the most important “skill” and not “lesson”.  I’ve got my eyes on you though Inc.

5 Classic Movies, 5 Leadership Lessons

What? “Go to the mattresses” didn’t make the cut?  What kind of list is this?!

10 President’s Day Leadership Lessons

Wow even federal holidays are teaching us about leadership!

Between Venus and Mars: 7 Traits of True Leaders

Oh, here we go!  This list is for “true” leaders, not all you posers reading the other lists.


5 timeless leadership lessons

When you go to this post they actually have a link pointing to additional leadership lessons from Machiavelli.  When you click the Machiavelli link it provides yet another link to more leadership lessons learned from growing up in New York.  Machiavelli grew up in New York?

Leadership Lessons from Meryl Streep

I love you Iron Lady but I don’t believe you sanctioned this list.

Leadership Lessons from Alaska Airlines

I’m a human so I don’t think planes can teach me anything about leadership.

From Forbes:

5 Leadership Lessons: Listen, Learn, Lead

Five, but the headline lists only three?

3 Juicy Leadership Lessons from….Boardgames?

How about this for a lesson, DON’T buy Baltic Avenue!

The Big Lesson About Leadership from Steve Jobs?

This isn’t one lesson, the key lesson, or the most important lesson, it’s the BIG lesson!

Leadership Lessons from LeBron James – 2013 Version

The 2013 version? Crap, I’m still using LeBron’s 2012 lessons!  No wonder I got no game in the office!

Miracle on the Mississippi: 10 Leadership Lessons from Helena

Okay, I’m gonna have to draw the line on taking leadership lessons from a city.

For the record I love visiting every one of these publications online.  I just wanted to paint a picture for you of the leadership madness occurring online.  Now I’m off to write a new post, “Eight leadership lessons from Dom Deluise.”  Stay tuned!

The Definition of Insanity

The definition of insanity, according to some, id doing the same thing you have always done and expecting a different result. A post over at The HR Capitalist titled “But Kris, That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It!” deals with just such a situation in a real work environment. Teams, just like individuals, get stuck in a rut. It is easier to just keep doing things the way we have always done them, and sometimes it can even work well. That is why we create policies in the first place. If we never take time to look at our policies and procedures, decide what works and what doesn’t, and make necessary changes we are likely going “insane”.

Don’t Confuse Effort With Results – Part 3 – Rethink

Last time I wrote about using your desired result in combination with your time table to help define your methodology. By now you should be well on your way to completing your project successfully. Being on your way isn’t the same as arriving and that is why I am writing this third and final post in the series.

Even when you define your goals correctly, set a reasonable time table, and have an excellent methodology in place there are times when your project’s success will come into question. The reason for this is simple but it was a huge surprise for me. You don’t know everything! No matter how much planning you do, you cannot anticipate everything. Natural disasters, budget cuts, layoffs and a host of other problems can send your project into a tailspin. Even simple issues like poor communication can set a project weeks behind.

How do you tell if your project is making a wrong turn? Go back to the time table. See where you should be at this point in the process. If you are halfway through your project and you haven’t met at least half of your goals you aren’t on track. This is the reason setting a time table is so important. If you didn’t have anything to reference you could go along for some time not realizing anything is amiss. Think about it like driving in heavy fog. You can see only a few feet in front of your car so by the time you see an obstacle in the road you have only seconds to turn the wheel before you crash. On a clear day you would have seen the obstacle from a much greater distance and easily navigated around it. Having your plan in place clears away much of the fog and gives you much more time to correct your course.

Once you realize your project is not on track it is time to rethink. This is where people often drop the ball. If I see that my project is running behind I immediately think I just need to push harder. Work longer hours and make my team do the same. Sometimes this works, there are times when you can jerk the wheel hard to the left and miss the obstacle in the road, but sometimes you just get thrown into a skid and you are in a worse position than before.

I saw this happen to a friend of mine who is a contractor, lets call him Ted. Ted successfully won a contract to build a water pipeline to a huge new development. As part of the contract the city offered a sizable bonus for finishing the project early. In fact the size of the bonus was calculated based on the number of days the project was completed before the due date. The opposite also applied. Each day the project went past the due date brought greater penalties. After 2 months everything seemed to be going very well. The weather had been agreeable, the equipment was working very well with only occasional maintenance, and the materials had been readily available. Unfortunately Ted overestimated the pace they could set. Even with everything going well they were nearly a week behind schedule.

Watching his profit disappear before his eyes Ted panicked and made a huge mistake. Ted broke the news to his crew that they were going to start working 14 hour days on the weekdays and 10 hours on Saturday. There weren’t any cheers, but no one complained either, they just went back to work.

For the next two weeks things were really moving. Ted was excited his plan was working, well until that next Monday. On the third Monday after Ted had announced his plan, 2 of his senior crew members didn’t show up. He called them several times to see what was going on and finally he got an answer. They quit. They got a job with another contractor, they just couldn’t take the 80 hour weeks. After this everything started to fall like a house of cards. More people quit, more new people were brought on. Finally about 3 weeks before the due date, the site foreman quit. Ted ended up coming in two weeks late and taking a huge loss.

If just working harder isn’t the solution to putting a project back on track what is? To answer that we have to go back to goal setting. We have to look at our desired result, time table, and methodology all over again. If, like in Ted’s case, your desired result, and time table cannot change you have to change your methodology. Ted could have hired more people, taken a crew off another job, or purchased equipment to make the job go faster. Other times, when time is not your biggest constraint, you can adjust the time table and extend the completion date. Sometimes you are constrained by time and money so you have to change your desired result. This is the kind of concession most people don’t want to make.

Often people perceive any kind of change to their desired result as a failure. Many, rather than change their desired result, give up completely. This is a costly mistake because even failure is a great learning experience. If you underestimate your budget, or overestimate the pace you can set you can at least bring the project to completion, recognize your error, and be much more accurate the next time. Simply giving up robs you of the experience and growth you could have gained, and the confidence you could build in your own ability.

Don’t Confuse Effort With Results – Part 2 – Methods

In my last post I discussed goal setting which is the first step on the path to success. I mentioned that goals have to be measurable and have a time table associated with them. This week I am going to discuss the reason behind the time table requirement.

Once you know what your project needs to achieve you have to figure out how to get there. Believe it or not there are an infinite number of paths that will take you to the same end result. The real question is how long will it take and how much will it cost.

The first step to determining your methodology involves realizing your time constraints. I’m sure everyone has heard the expression “fast, cheap, good pick two”. For the most part this is very true and it is something you always want to keep in mind when deciding on your project methodology. Imagine you want to take a trip. The first thing you do is decide where you want to go. I have always wanted to go to Alaska so lets go with that. So what would you normally do next? Most people will say, book my tickets, or find a hotel. If that is the case you missed a few steps. Before you can book a hotel room you have to know when you are going to get there and how long you are going to stay. I have one week of vacation time, and I’m going to take it in late July. See that is pretty easy, but guess what just happened? I just helped define how I was going to get there. In case you missed it here is how it happened. I live in Southeastern Virginia and there are a number of ways I can get to Alaska. I could drive, take an airplane, or take a cruise but when I decided I only had a week of vacation time driving and taking a cruise went right out the window.

The next step is to determine your financial constraints. What is the budget for this project? What products, software, or services will need to be purchased for the successful completion of the project. If you don’t think about these things now you will be kicking yourself later. Lets go back to our vacation example. My vacation savings are currently at $3000.00 and I need to plan for airfare, hotel accommodations, and food at the very least. Round trip tickets are going to cost me $809 for coach. I looked at first class but that comes in at $2202 so that is out of the question. Did you catch that, my financial constraints helped further define my methodology.

At this point I have to address the elephant in the room. What happens if I can’t make the numbers work? If you can’t make the number work in the planning stage your goal is unreasonable. Yesterday I read a post on Linkedin asking if it would be reasonable to expect an inside sales rep to make 300 cold calls in an 8 hour day with a 30 minute lunch. It sounded very high to me so I did the math. A person would have to dial a new call every 1.5 minutes. I tested out how long it took me to dial my home number and get to the third ring, about 20 seconds. That would leave about 70 seconds for introductions, the pitch, and setting an appointment. That doesn’t even consider how long it will take to make notes for the call, update the CRM, and get the next record. This is obviously an unreasonable goal.

If we determine our goal is unreasonable, the next step is to determine why. In our previous example the goal was to make 300 calls in 7.5 hours. The method was to use one inside sales rep. We have three choices; we can change our desired result, change our time table, or change our method. If we lower the desired result of 300 calls to around 100 calls we are extending the call time to 4.5 minutes which is much more achievable. If instead we extend the time table to 12 hours we extend the call time to 2.4 minutes which is at least in the realm of possibility. Finally we could change the method by adding more salespeople.

Again we have to go back to looking at time constraints and financial constraints. If time is our primary constraint, 300 calls per day must be made, then our best bet would be to adjust our method and hire more salespeople. If money is our primary constraint, we can only pay 1 salesperson, then we should probably modify the number of calls we are expecting. If we are constrained by time and money, 300 calls per day must be made and we can only pay 1 salesperson, then we need to get creative and reevaluate everything. Revisit the reasoning behind the desired result and the time table. In the end something has to give. You cannot set a goal that is unreasonable and just expect success, doing so will just doom you to failure.

Hopefully this has been helpful. Check back soon, the next post will be about measuring your progress.

Don’t Confuse Effort With Results! – Part 1 – Goals

For whatever reason when I am working on a project that is not succeeding my first thought is that I am not working hard enough. Hard work is a requirement for success, there is no doubt about it. Our culture is loaded with proverbs extolling the value of hard work ie. “the early bird gets the worm” and “sweat plus sacrifice equals success”. Maybe that is why people so often expect success because they are working as hard as they possibly can. I have a newsflash for you IT DOESN’T WORK!

What is success?
Success is defined as the following:

  1. The favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors.
  2. The attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.
  3. A successful performance or achievement: The play was an instant success.
  4. A person or thing that is successful: She was a great success on the talk show.

For our purposes lets just take the first definition as it encompasses everything else on the list. From the definition it seems that success is not a nebulous concept, rather success is reaching a set goal. This is the biggest problem for most people, they have not defined the goal they are trying to reach, hence they never feel successful even when things are going fairly well.

Set Goals
Setting a goal is the first and most important thing you should do when beginning anything. If you don’t set a goal, how will you ever know when you are done? If you are never done, how can you begin something else? This is where most people trip up, they have a general idea of what they want to accomplish, but they haven’t set up any real goals. Goals have to be specific and measurable, they also need to have a time table associated with them. Without a time table it is impossible to measure how near or far we are to achieving our goal. If I decide I want to double my income it may seem like I have a goal, but I’m only half way there. The reason is pretty simple. If I want to double my income in the next 6 months it will take a very different strategy than doubling my income over the next 10 years. Determining a time table helps me define my strategy. Defining my strategy helps me with the next step in setting the goal, determining if the goal is reasonable.

Not Optimistic Or Pessimistic Just Realistic
Goal setting is not just about deciding what you want to achieve and when you want to have it completed. You also have to look at your goals and decide whether or not they are achievable. Lots of people doom themselves to failure at this step. A very optimistic person will probably overestimate their success and set goals that far exceed their capability. Here is a statement that we have all heard, and some of us have probably said. “There are over 300 million people in the US, if we only sell to 1% of them that is 3,000,000 sales!” Venture capitalists hate to hear statements like this because it means you haven’t done your research. Your target market is nowhere near 300 million people, even if it was there is no way you could do enough advertising to reach them all. If you try to set your goal based on the idea that you will sell 1% of the US population anything you are pretty well doomed to fail. On the other end of the spectrum people who are overly pessimistic are likely to go with a different approach. They are likely try to do everything on their own to keep costs down. This sounds like a great idea until you realize that you are losing sales because you are doing the selling, marketing, product development, etc… and don’t have enough staff to meet demand. Don’t set goals based on your gut, do real research. Find out how long it took other people in your industry to ramp up, seek advice from experts in your field, do absolutely everything you can to understand how and when you will achieve your goal.

Next time I’ll post about what to do once you have your goals in place.