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The REAL Foundation to a Human Workforce

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I received an email invitation in my In Box recently for a webinar titled, “Recognition as the Foundation for a More Human Workforce.”  I deleted it but then went back to read it in more detail.

One of the reasons I deleted it is that it struck as sending the wrong message.  In fact, it does say “THE” foundation, not just “A” foundation.  All my experience, intuition, and even personal research tells me that this proposition is just plain wrong.

As relating to a “human” workforce, I recalled the piece by Emma Seppal in HBR (“Managers create more wellness than wellness plans do”) that speaks to the power of organizations and leaders characterized by trust, forgiveness, understanding, empathy, generosity, and respect. Is recognition lurking in there? Perhaps, but there is a big difference between recognition that is a daily spontaneous habit and what is viewed as a program.

When I was working with Dana Costar to design an upward feedback instrument for managers, we did a lot of background reading on possible drivers of perceptions of manager effectiveness.  It seemed to us that recognition was fairly far down the list, but recognition did keep popping up. So we somewhat grudgingly did include it as a dimension in our instrument to see how it stacked up when the data came in.

Our results (Costar & Bracken, 2014) on an international sample of 82 leaders showed that Trust is the leading driver of ratings of manager effectiveness, while Recognition fell far down the list. (As an aside, Trust was behind Facilitating Development in ratings of effectiveness as a Coach, but still far ahead of Recognition.)

Lolly Daskal’s blog in Inc. has a list of leadership “beliefs” (characteristics/behaviors) where says “Honoring Trust” is the “first job of a leader.”  But her list includes many other trust builders as well:

  • Leading by Example
  • Accepting Accountability
  • Leading with Integrity
  • Encompassing Humility
  • Manifesting Loyalty
  • Showing Respect
  • Leading with Character

(I see that recognition, “Exhibiting Appreciation” does make the list but is, in my opinion, overwhelmed by these other factors and a cousin to recognition.)

Gallup’s list of critical manager capabilities includes these:

  • They motivate every single employee to take action and engage employees with a compelling mission and vision.
  • They have the assertiveness to drive outcomes and the ability to overcome adversity and resistance.
  • They create a culture of clear accountability.
  • They build relationships that create trust, open dialogue, and full transparency.
  • They make decisions based on productivity, not politics.

We don’t see recognition on this list either, but we do see trust.

Vendors are pushing recognition apps. I believe they fall in the category of activities that are relatively harmless but of little value. If there is harm (besides wasted expense) it is that they, by nature, are targeted only at positive feedback. Then there is a lost opportunity to create awareness of other important behavioral/skill deficits.

I have proposed that “Trust” comes in two forms: Trusts and Trusted. Turned into behaviors that can be defined, developed and measured, they look like this:


Trust is one of those constructs that may be elusive to pin down definitionally, but we all know it and, more importantly, feel it when we experience it. Unfortunately (tongue deeply embedded in cheek) there will never be a “trust” app.  But trust can be “deleted” just as fast as an app with no opportunity to reinstall.

Trust is the real foundation of a human workforce.  Define it, develop it and measure it.  Then your organization has a chance of really being “human.”


Costar, D.M., & Bracken, D.W. (2014). The impact of trust and coaching relationship on manager effectiveness ratings.  In D.W. Bracken (Chair) Manager As Coach: Defining, Developing and Measuring Effectiveness. Symposium at the 29th Annual Conference of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Honolulu, HI, May, 2014.

©David W. Bracken 2016


Manager, Coach, Leader, SuperBoss?? Stop!

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We are confusing ourselves and those employees who hold authority positions in our organizations with a plethora of role labels, each of which is valid and viable, but poorly defined and almost impossible to fulfill at the same time. I give you the examples of Manager, Coach, Leader, and (most recently) SuperBoss.


I have recently discovered Tanmay Vora ( his wonderful pictorial depictions, often of literature he has read and wishes to summarize. Here is one that captures “Leadership” that he himself created in all its complexity.

No wonder our “leaders” are overwhelmed! This is a great list but really are nine different roles with lots of room for discussion, debate and overlap. In the process of having that discussion, we should carve out sub roles and point out that no one can be good at all these things and certainly not do them all at the same time. Even “SuperBosses” are not good at everything, despite the “super” part.

Let’s begin with “SuperBoss”  because it also contains the label “boss,” another label that we can apply to people in positions of authority (formal and informal).  I had the privilege to hear Dr. Sydney Finkelstein speak recently on the topic of “SuperBosses,” coinciding with the recent publication of his book of the same name. Examples of people he uses to describe the profile of Superboss (along with a 360 Feedback behavioral inventory) is quite diverse:  Jazz legend Miles Davis, restaurateur Alice Waters, fashion iconoclast Ralph Lauren, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, producer George Lucas, SNL creator Lorne Michaels, NFL coach Bill Walsh, and hedge fund manager Julian Robertson.  Dr. Finkelstein asserts that a “SuperBoss” can be created (i.e., developed), though I am not sure how many a given business could tolerate.

I had the temerity to inquire during the Q&A as to why he chose to build on the label of “boss” when it has many negative connotations, including associations with the Mafia (think of The Godfather). Was Vito Corleone a good Superboss? Or Michael, for that matter? Dr. Finkelstein shared that his first working title was indeed “Godfathers” but was dissuaded from that course due to multiple problems, not the least of which was gender-related.

Speaking of boss, this graphic has recently resurfaced on LinkedIn and is incredibly BossLdrrevealing. We obviously were not in the head of whomever created it, but it has some useful messages to reflect upon.  On one hand, the Boss is in a position can’t help but generate negative feelings. But note that a) the team is trying to get over a ditch, and b) the Boss is pointing (not whipping), probably talking or shouting, and c) the platform says “MISSION” to infer that everyone knows what is trying to be accomplished (and evidently of some magnitude).

Despite the negative emotions you may have towards this “Boss,” I propose that the Boss is probably of more use than the Leader below, and should be called “Manager.”  In the movie “Gettysburg,” neither Lee nor Grant are out there leading the charge. Each sets the “mission” and assigns others to carry it out, with many “others” required to do so, literally sitting at the rear of the attack.

The time for being the Leader is also important, and sometimes does require both setting the lead by getting on the ground at the front of the line (think “Steward”) , and getting one’s “hands dirty” in the process. What isn’t shown here is the role of the Leader in interfacing with the rest of the organization on behalf of the group, both vertically (upward) and horizontally (both internal and, if applicable, externally).

No wonder our “leaders” (maybe “boss” is better?) are confused and overwhelmed!

And then there’s the Coach. Being a “coach” while leading a team is a totally different set Coach.pngof skills and behaviors from those of Manager and Leader, let alone SuperBoss.  Here’s another great Tanmay Vora graphic from reading the work of Lisa Haneberg.

There is a time and place for a Boss to be a Coach as well, and, as shown here, not an easy set of skills and behaviors to acquire and hone.  These capabilities should be set aside from those of being Manager, Leader and SuperBoss so that they can be communicated, developed, measured and tracked (i.e.,  create accountability) in a clear message.

One thing all four roles (Manager, Coach, Leader, Superboss) have in common is that they each should “inspire action,” (though that “role” surprisingly is not included in the “Roles for Great Leadership” above). Each role does it in a different manner and, in general, with different emphasis on the individual versus the group.

The Forum Corporation published this study on LinkedIn (4/28/16) regarding LdrCompscompetencies for first-level leaders. I would contend that this list further reinforces the need for differentiation of roles and their associated competencies in support of development and assessment:

Finally, I was pointed to this video ( of Joel Trammel who makes the distinction between Manager and Leader (and, for CEO’s, Commander).  He goes on to say that he would prefer an organization full of Managers over having a bunch of Leaders.  Clearly his mental model of “leader” is very specific and has little overlap with that of Manager.

In addition to inspiring action, there are clearly two other common denominators that create the foundation for any kind of positive relationship between Boss and his/her direct reports: Trusted and Trusts.  Being Trusted springs from having integrity, being honest and being consistent. Being Trusting (or Trusts) happens as the boss shows respect and dignity, including empowering the direct reports to demonstrate their own talents. MCL

In a nutshell, we might envision the Manager role as being depicted like this. Here I use the label “manager” deliberately to differentiate it from “leader,” though it does show the overlap with the “coach” aspect of the position. Most importantly, each of the 4 activities and the Trust/Trusted foundation must be described in behavioral terms in order to help all stakeholders understand what they require and how to develop them. “Culture” and “Goals” represent the organizational (contextual) environment that creates alignment for those behaviors.

Here are some basic role definitions:



Manager Ensures that day-to-day work requirements are achieved in alignment with organizational goals and values.
Coach Partners with an employee to define and implement effective solutions for problems and/or ongoing work processes.
Developer Partners with an employee to identify needs for short term and long term (career) development, and implements plans accordingly.
Leader Coordinates across team members, represents the team vertically (upward) and horizontally (work groups, customer) to ensure alignment and motivation.

Both the supporters and attackers of our Performance Management systems know that supervisors universally need to be better at providing feedback and developing their direct reports, all while accomplishing organizationally-driven performance requirements. This is a complex set of skills and behaviors that are best taught and developed on the job. That is done most effectively when sub roles are clearly defined, both for the benefit of the supervisors and the DR’s.  We need to choose our labels carefully and ensure consensus when we describe a “boss.”

©2016 David W. Bracken






WAIT (Why Am I Talking)

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I first came across the WAIT acronym in a Facebook discussion my daughter “liked” from a blog about parenting. My daughter (and husband) have two daughters, ages 7 and 5, so commiserating with parents with similar demographics can be useful when there is no instruction guide (other than grandparents, hah). WAIT stands for “Why Am I Talking,” and it was an interesting take on how to interact with young children when (like many/most managers) we want to “be in charge,” “be the expert,” and “have the last word.”  And, in the process of doing all those things, of course we are not listening, let alone trying to understand.

I was reminded of WAIT recently when reading a LinkedIn posting by Ted Bauer that pointed me to this ( by Art Petty, who suggests a 10:1 ratio of listening to talking in order to be a more effective manager.  A 10:1 ratio is pretty radical! I have more typically seen an 80/20 ratio in the context of good coaching. But why not aim high!

I’ll tell you why: because it is so antithetical to the mental model most of us have when we think of “coach” or even “parent.”  But let’s stop (i.e., stop talking) for a few minutes and think about all the possible benefits of WAIT.  A few of these relate to Marshall Goldsmith’s list of negative behaviors in his great book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

  • We never learn anything when we are talking (LBJ and others…)
  • It diminishes the felt value of others when they are not heard
  • It also diminishes the real, actual value of others when their knowledge is not used. As a GM retiree is famously reported to have said, “For 30 years they paid me for my body. They could have had my mind for free.”
  • Our initial need to talk often causes us to state an opinion or make a decision we regret based on insufficient information or analysis. In Jerome Groopman’s book “How Doctor’s Think,” he reports that, on average, a physician will interrupt a patient describing her symptoms within eighteen seconds. His study of malpractice leads him to conclude, “Sometimes the key to success is uncertainty,” that is, don’t decide too quickly.
  • We may be angry or upset. We all know from experience that these are not good times to be talking without “counting to 10.”
  • It feeds our need to be “right”, and in our mind we are right and always will be if others don’t tell us we are wrong. We hate being wrong because we have been brought up to be “right” (e.g., get straight A’s).  See this great TED talk:
  • It feeds our need to have the last word, regardless of how little value it adds.
  • We actually may not know what we are talking about.

Oh, yeah; and then listen.

WAIT!  (your turn)

Written by David Bracken

February 12, 2016 at 3:47 pm

Empathy Is a Choice

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There were two items in this Sunday’s New York Times that had “empathy” in their title:  “Empathy is Actually a Choice” ( in the Review section, and, “Is Empathy in Your Resume” ( in the Business section.

The first article is a summary of some research on empathy that supports the stance that empathy is not an immutable personality trait or reflex emotion, but instead is a set of behaviors that can be changed.  As the author states, “… empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.” (Emphasis added)  The article speaks to some of the challenges in getting people to show more empathy, starting with lower empathy from leaders in high positions (perhaps due to the perceived cost of empathetic actions) and towards people of different race.

The second NYT piece is from the Corner Office column, this time an interview with Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of Slack, and earlier Flickr. In Stewart’s responses, he calls empathy an ability, but then goes on to describe how it is manifested in simple behaviors, such as showing up on time and being courteous (a series of behaviors).  (Also check out the 3 questions he asks of job candidates and see if you would pass.)

Often the choice is based largely on the person simply knowing that there is a choice to be made and what the organization’s preferred response is supposed to be. That often comes in the form of Values statements.

In the context of this blog on 360s, ultimately, much of what we include (or should include) on feedback instruments comes down to basic behaviors that are choices, not abilities or skills that require training or development plans. Many of them, like showing up on time, are simple choices of whether to do it or not. They are also observable, a basic requirement for inclusion on feedback instruments if we don’t want raters to be mind readers.

Typical leadership competency models are a mix of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA’s)  that usually do justify inclusion in selection and/or training processes, such as Communication (as defined as an ability, not a choice whether to communicate) and Values such as Teamwork, which is really a choice of whether to support others or not.  Another example that we see in some competency models is the contrast of Decision Making (that can be trained in the context of problem solving processes) versus Decisiveness, the “choice” to make a decision or not.  We should distinguish within our leadership requirements which variables are KSAs (Communication, Decision Making) and which are “choices”  (Teamwork, Decisiveness).

Back to Empathy, most of us agree that a good starting point for creating empathy is to listen.  (I wrote on this topic once before:   In The ManagerCoach© upward feedback instrument, we ask direct reports whether their manager listens more than talks during coaching; it’s the lowest scoring item overall and a very consistent finding.

Getting leaders to listen more and talk less typically requires some awareness, beginning with breaking down the stereotypical view that most managers have that it is their job to have all the answers and to make sure those around them know that.  There is a time when a manager needs to be in the “Director” mode, such as in crisis situations or when the employee is new to the task (as in the Situational Leadership Model of a person low on task maturity).  But I believe that the preferred and most commonly used type of coaching should be what I call the “Activator” mode where the manager and employee engage in mutual problem solving, creating trust and mutual understanding.

One tool we use to create more listening is the WAIT acronym, that is, to ask yourself, “Why Am I Talking?”  Not long ago, I saw a blog where a mother was proposing using that same tool as a parent.

Another argument for enhanced listening is referenced earlier in the finding that people have difficulty in showing empathy for people of a different race.  When I was an undergraduate, I took a seminar (about 15 people) on nonverbal communication.  One of the most impactful exercises we performed was to go into a room alone with cue cards that had emotions written on them (Happy, Sad, Angry, Fear, Surprise, etc.) and take a “selfie” (certainly not what it was called then). Then a week later we were shown pictures of various people in the class and had to judge which emotion they were showing.   You got scored as an actor and as a judge.

The seminar membership was not very diverse, but we did have one African American male (big football player) and an African American female. While I don’t recall how I did as a judge or actor, what I really remember most is that I could not differentiate his various emotions but the woman of the same race could.  This is very anecdotal, but I believe (and have seen) that my experience is reflective of the larger populations.

In the context of listening as a means to the end of creating empathy, understanding and trust, it is even more critical when we are hampered by not having accurate access to nonverbal clues that is likely when conversing across races.  There is other research that not only supports that observation, but branches out to other types of differences between the two parties in an exchange.

The author of the research summary adds this other insight:

…when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded; it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.

This additional research finding gives us even more ammunition for positioning abstract constructs such as empathy not as fixed personal attributes but as behaviors that can be changed by creating awareness and alignment, and providing incentives (including accountability). We are doing ourselves as developers of leaders a disservice when we attach labels to groups of behaviors (e.g., Emotional Intelligence) that potentially cause unintended consequences such as, a) believing the construct it an unchangeable characteristic, b) leading to unclear definitions (sometimes by shear laziness), an c) assuming the “group” cannot be deconstructed and improved one behavior at a time, i.e., the sub behaviors are highly correlated (which they probably are not).

Once the choice is made whether to perform a behavior or not, then there can be some guidance/training to further refine it. For example, if the choice is whether to thank and/or recognize someone, we need to motivate the person/leader to do so. Once he/she has made that decision, we can help them to consider various ways of doing it that fit the situation and person.

But first the choice must be made.