Character versus Context: Understanding People’s Behavior

I was recently coaching a small sales team and their manager. The energy level of the team was low in comparison with other teams I coach at the same company. Participation was reserved, few people asked questions, and no one volunteered for role plays. If this had been my only experience with this team, I might have concluded that these people are not suited for sales–that they have the wrong character for the job. However, I know this team. This session was the third in a series of five taking place over a few months, and I have worked with the same people in other projects for my client. Something was off.

After the session, I met with the team leader privately and remarked about the low energy level. She explained that of the five members, one had given notice and was leaving in three days to get married, one was to be transferred the following week to a division that she did not want to join, and one had  been struggling to handle accounts alone as a more senior colleague with whom he worked was on an extended business trip overseas.

I am reminded by this that when we observe people’s behavior, how easy it is attribute to people’s character what is really attributable to context. Change the context, and people’s behavior can also change either positively or negatively.
In organizational change, the next time you observe behavior and make a conclusion about character, stop for a moment. Investigate the context. Not all behavior indicates character.

Qualities of Star Employees

Last week I was in Naples, Florida on business. Naples is a wonderful coastal city with great beaches and and even better restaurants. I had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant called Café Lurcat. The Hamachi sashimi avocado salad and the maguro tatami with sesame were exquisite, and the service was even more impressive. We had a waiter named John, who not only attentive and charming, but also extremely knowledgeable about all the wine of the wine list to the degree of an elite sommelier, and how each of the dishes are prepared in the kitchen, where fresh fish is sourced, how the saves are made, and more. He was surprisingly knowledgeable for a waiter. We asked about how he gained all this knowledge, he said he studied it on his own. Learning the wines to the degree he did is not a requirement of his job, but he thought it would make him a better waiter an be able to serve customers better. He also spends hours observing the chefs as the cook and asking them questions so he understands everything about the food and its preparation, all to be able to serve customers better. He loves what he does and is enthusiastic about learning more to be better. He is a star.

Enthusiasm, passion and self motivation make for star employees who delight customers.

So, what about your employees? How many stars do you have on staff? Do your employees improve themselves on their own beyond the requirements of the job simply because they love what they do and want to be the best? Does your company proactively seek people like that in hiring?


JAL First Class

I was flying JAL International First Class from LAX to Tokyo after a successful and productive trip to the United States. I was pretty tired not having gotten much sleep during my trip. About an hour into  the flight, I went to sleep before even having the first meal. I slept continuously until being awakened by a flight attendant one hour before landing. I asked if I could eat before landing. The flight attendant served one item after another, as if she were trying to give me as much as possible from the meals I had missed while sleeping. She was concerned that she had not lived up to my expectations and apologized. She had not had the chance to serve me to the fullest extent of first class because I had been sleeping. However, for me, this was the perfect flight. I had slept continuously through most of it, and landed well rested. I ate a reasonable amount despite limitless offerings of food and alcohol in first class. (I am trying to lose weight and I am careful on business trips.)

When serving customers, it is the outcome for the customer that is important, not the quantity of work you do. In some cases, it is easier to delight your customers with less work than with more.  Don’t feel obligated to thrust on your customers everything you can do  just because you can. Don’t assume that you need to. If your customers are delighted by your service then you have done your job.


Taking responsibility for your own accountability

As a consultant, I coach managers and executives regularly. We all need coaches because like the best athletes in the world, coaches push us to go beyond our current capabilities and do better. They help us confront challenges and fears and overcome them so we can improve.

I hold my coaching clients accountable. When a client agrees to do something before we meet next, I expect him to follow through or otherwise seek help. Recently, a coaching client of mine committed to a change in the way he was managing staff. At our next meeting when I asked  how it went, he told me he didn’t do it. When I asked why not, I got a barrage of excuses–no time, wasn’t sure exactly how to do it, not convinced that it is actually effective, etc. I was not impressed.

Being accountable is not only about achieving what you committed to do, but also being responsible to act when you see you are going off the rails.We all make commitments to ourselves and others and fail to execute from time to time. I tell my clients that this is natural–change and improvement is hard–but I insist that they proactively reach out to me for help when they are going off the rails.  A leader is also often a part-time coach. If you are a leader, you should insist upon the same for your staff when you hold them accountable.

But how about when the only person to whom we are accountable is ourselves? We all have goals we set for ourselves that we would like to achieve. When you go off the rails, which is natural, how do you respond? Do you make excuses blaming other people or circumstances out of your control, or do you seek the cause and try to address it? Do you seek help or advice from other people?

Failure to execute is not a failure in itself. Like I said, change is hard. Success or failure is a matter of how you respond. Hold yourself responsible for your own accountability. Take action for yourself. If you can do consistently, that is the path to improvement and true success.


We Can’t Always Prepare for a Tsunami

was recently told a story about the Japan operation of the Swedish clothing retailer H&M. After the March 11 earthquake, acting CEO Hans Anderson contacted headquarters in Sweden to ask instructions on what to do. There was no plan or policy for the eventuality of a major earthquake with a tsunami and nuclear accident, and so he was told, “Use the company values as a guide and do what you think best.” And so he did. The company’s values including caring for employees and protecting the safety its staff and customers first and foremost. Hans Anderson decided to move operations from Tokyo to Osaka, and offered to pay for relocation of staff and their families if they wished or otherwise allow people to take time off from work. He insisted that all stores and facilities remain closed until they could be inspected and assured of safety, beyond the typical standards applied in Japan.

We cannot create policies and plans for every possible eventuality, whether extreme or part of day-to-day business. However, we can decide the values that make our business great and use the them as a guide to make decisions. If you can do that, your business will be able to ride out the next tsunami or other unforeseen eventuality.


Goals versus Means

You know, the other day I was driving with my wife and son in the car taking us to a gymnastics practice for my son. My wife thought I took a wrong turn and told me. I was certain I had not, and insisted we were going the right way. My wife said no, it was definitely the other way. Now this argument over the best way to go went on for a while until we realized that we each had a different destination in mind. We each thought the gym practice was in a different place. As it turned out, I was wrong and my wife was right as is often the case in these matters.

But this reminded me of what I often see in companies when there is conflict over a decision–people arguing over the best way to do something when there is no common agreement on the goal. For example, it is pointless to have a debate on the best means of international expansion if there is no agreement on the goal of expanding internationally to begin with.

So, when I encounter conflict in decision-making, the first thing I do is identify whether or not the debate is over means or goals. Now if the debate is over means, I then seek to confirm whether or not there is agreement over the goal. If there is no agreement on the goal, we can stop talking about means and refocus attention on gaining agreement over the goal. Once we have agreement over the goal, it is possible to have a rational conversation about the merits and risks of different options for achieving the goal.

So the next time you encounter conflict over a decision, stop and ask whether you are debating over means or goals. Always seek to gain agreement on goals prior to debating means. This will save a lot of time and help with progress toward a decision. It may also help you get your son to gym practice on time.