Being from Texas, I know “bull”. This article is no bull, but it will talk about cows. Even if you did not click to hear about cows, stay with me. I think you’ll enjoy the story. You’ll also find five suggestions for your role as a leader to increase productivity and decrease the stress that you as a leader may be causing by your actions or inactions.
A couple of years ago while facilitating a class on leadership at Cornell University, one of my participants described the challenges of leading his family business. Although I’m no expert in animal science, over the past five years as a partner with Zoetis PeopleFirst, I’ve coached many leaders of large operations in veterinary medicine, animal husbandry, and dairy production. These clients lead family operations that have grown significantly over the years and have much complexity. No longer are these “mom and pop” farms with just a few cows, but thousands of cows, much government regulation, and many employees coming from different cultures and languages. Turning a profit is much more difficult, requiring increased controls and a focus on operational efficiency.
During lunch the leader described his challenges. He said, “Rodney, it’s not the handling of cows I have problems with; it’s handling the people!” His peers at the table nodded in agreement. He added, “With the cows, they get used to a routine, a schedule, and as long as you keep that routine and keep them well, they produce.” I asked, “When is it – and why is it – that the cows don’t produce for you?” The answer was pretty clear that when they were sick or were diagnosed with mastitis, they don’t produce the quality milk needed, but the other answer was even more revealing. “We do everything we can to keep the cows from getting anxious or too excited because when they get anxious, they don’t produce”, he said. I asked, “What gets them anxious or stressed?” Again, it was clear. “Noise, changing a routine, trying to handle them aggressively, putting them in a pen with cows they have not socialized with before; these are a few reasons. And the cows are much more cooperative when you guide them rather than try to forcefully manipulate or control them.”
I appreciated this description and replied, “Funny how much people are like the cows. The cows don’t like to be handled. People don’t like to be handled either. When people are anxious or stressed, they don’t produce. When you guide rather than manipulate, people are much more cooperative.” A nervous laughter ensued at the table as they acknowledge that they spend ample time with the cows, ensuring they have what they needed to produce, but when it came to spending time with the people these leaders found it much more challenging to spend time guiding, supporting, and ensuring that the employees remained engaged and confident. Instead, they admitted that they with their people they were often impatient and critical and many did not necessarily want to spend more time with them; after all they were running a business and expected these people to simply do their jobs.
In my work as an executive coaching and facilitator, I’m often amazed at how unaware leaders are of how they impact their employees, and how their actions or inactions contribute to many of the people issues that they face.
For example, we know from research and experience that the absence of information creates more stress than when you give misinformation. Really? During change, leaders often withhold information, wanting to get all the facts, so they hide in their offices, sharing nothing. If the change is already creating anxiety, the lack of information actually makes it worse. If the leader could simply bring the team together and share, “Here is what I know, here is what I don’t know, here is what we are working on”, it would go a long way of helping people feel a sense of confidence, even during uncertainty.
Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote in their best-selling book, The Leadership Challenge, about a group of soldiers that had just completed several weeks of intensive training. The soldiers were all told they could become part of a special, elite unit. Although they all had to complete a 20 kilometer march, they were placed in four different group, each group getting different information. The first group was told, “This is a 20km run, and you will get feedback on your progress at each kilometer you complete.” The second group was told “This is the long run you’ve heard about.”, and received no further information about the goal or feedback on how far they had left, until the very end. The next two groups received misinformation. Group three was told that the run was 15 km, but were given regular feedback along the way and were given correct information about half way through. Group four was told they were to run 25km, and were also given regular feedback and then the correct information along the way.
Which group do you think had the greatest amount of stress or distress? When I ask this in my workshops, many will answer group three or group four, believing that misinformation would have a great impact, especially with group three who discovered they had to go a full 5km further. With all four groups, during regular intervals along the run, officials measured the amount of cortisol and prolactin in the blood, which are indicators of stress and distress. What they discovered was that group two – the group that received no information or feedback for the full run, had significantly higher levels of cortisol and prolactin, indicating distress.
So we know that the business world is no the military, and most of you don’t manage cows. Yet this story confirms what Kouzes and Posner suggest:
“Without immediate and precise feedback,
the learning process ends, and mediocrity emerges.”
At the Caleb Consulting Group, our experience and evidence-based approach suggests that leaders must demonstrate the following five guidelines to increase productivity in times of change and stress:
- Establish your own non-anxious presence
- During times of change, communicate more frequently, by a factor of ten!
- Provide feedback that is immediate, precise, clear, and concise
- Recognize the small wins
- Inspire a shared vision of what the future looks like
Below you will find some suggestions for each of these five guidelines.
And this is no bull.
Thanks for reading.
- Establish Your Own Non-Anxious Presence
Every day, there is a network at play in your organization where people inform each other of how you are going to show up that day. They pick up on your mood and inform each other if this is going to be a day of wrath or day of joy. It’s their instinct of survival. When you became a leader, you became less of their buddy and more of the person they now talk about around the water cooler. An anxious presence creates more stress for everyone, and your tone and non-verbal communication has significant impact. So, before you arrive and begin barking, get yourself centered by asking yourself, “What emotions am I experiencing today, and what mood do I want to portray to those I wish to lead?” If you are feeling stressed, go ahead and “name it”, and place it on the sidelines for now. That way, you don’t ignore it, but you acknowledge it and recognize that as a leader, you must portray confidence in yourself and others. Just taking 3 minutes to quiet yourself, breathe, name your emotions, and deciding the mood you want to portray can alter the day for everyone.
- During Times of Change, Communicate More Frequently, By a Factor of Ten!
Harvard’s change management expert, John Kotter, suggest that during change we actually under-communicate our vision of the future by a factor of 10. This means of course that we must increase our communication during change when people are most anxious about what is ahead; their primary question is usually, “What about me? How does this impact me?” By communicating more frequently – even when you don’t have all the answers – you help people with a sense of direction and help them focus on things within their control. We all have to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, but as a leader, your job is to provide as much clarity about the future as possible.
- Provide Feedback that is Clear, Concise, Immediate, and Precise
In my executive coaching, I do lots of assessments, especially by asking stakeholders for feedback about those I am coaching. Most often, leaders get some of the lowest scores on giving regular feedback. Much like the soldiers in the four groups completing the same 20km event, if you don’t give immediate and precise feedback, the learning process ends, and you will get mediocrity. Try identifying a specific behavior that someone is demonstrating that you’d like to see improvement. The more you can describe the behavior you observe today and the impact that is having, as well as having a conversation with the person about what new and improved behaviors might look like, the more productivity you will get. Even when people are not meeting standards you expect, clear, concise, immediate, and precise feedback is appreciated and gets people moving in the right direction.
- Recognize Small Wins
In those same assessments, we often find that many leaders give more criticism than praise. I find that there are gender differences here; men (and especially older men) grew up with a paradigm of giving less praise – if it was expected, you should not have to praise. Women tend to be more nurturing and supportive, but trust me when I say that many of the high achieving, more aggressive and successful women that I’ve coached can be brutal when giving corrective feedback; and research shows that women still are judged more harshly than men when they are more aggressive and critical. But regardless of your gender, the behaviors for recognizing others is the same; find the behavior that you want to reinforce, catch someone doing it, and provide specific praise about what they did and the impact it had. This can be in private, but where you want to reinforce it with everyone, do it publicly.
- Inspire a Shared Vision of What the Future Looks Like
This skill is similar to what we described in the over-communication category, but goes even further. The late Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Habit Two as “Begin With The End in Mind”. First, we envision the future in our minds, then we create it in practice. The problem when we lead others is that we have a vision in our minds that we ourselves understand, but we fail to share and inspire others in that vision. As a leader, it is useful to share your stories of the future you see for your business, what culture you would like to create, what keeps you up at night, what obstacles and opportunities you see, and where you need help. Even more important, allow others to participate in envisioning the future. It’s perfectly fine to establish your big picture and key goals, but you will inspire your team if you allow them to contribute to that vision and share their thoughts on how to make it happen. After all, aren’t they the ones who you will need to implement it? Your employees will execute what they buy-in on. Enlist and listen to their input, and you will see greater results!
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Thank you to the following contributors to this article:
Mallory Maltsberger (Bachelor of Science, Animal Science, Texas Tech University, 2014)
Lee Ray (Bachelor of Science, Animal Science, Texas A&M University, 1973