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Turn staff from ‘critters’ into smart thinkers with ownership in their jobs

The brain has two states.

One is the “critter state.” That’s the point at which a person responds like a raccoon or a skunk or any other critter. The focus is survival. It’s fright-freeze-fight-flight thinking.

The other is the “smart state.” And that’s the point where a person is a human being: innovative, creative, collaborative, and emotionally engaged.

In the critter state, people are insecure in their jobs and don’t go beyond basic performance, says Christine Comaford, a Mill Valley, CA, leadership and business performance consultant and coach.

In the smart state, they are confident about their jobs and are ready to take on challenges.

‘You come up with the solution’

A good manager can turn a zoo of critters into a smart staff.

Start by forcing staff to come up with their own solutions.

When somebody asks how to do something, don’t immediately explain how to do it. Handing over the answer is no more than giving an order of “this is the way you have to do it.” And over time, “it creates a culture of order takers,” Comaford says.

Let the staffer come up with the solution. Ask questions such as: What would you do? What might go right if you do that? What might go wrong?

It may be faster and easier “to rattle off the answer,” Comaford says, but for staff to take ownership in their jobs and do more than rote work, the manager can’t be the solver of all problems.

Letting staff find their own answers “is like teaching them to fish,” she says. And the benefits are several.

One is that they remember the solutions and don’t ask the questions again.

Another is that they get a sense of pride in what they do. “They don’t feel like cogs in the wheel,” she explains.

Yet another is that they get a sense of belonging within the office because they are participating in its operations. “Everybody craves that,” says Comaford.

The change doesn’t come overnight, she says. But after about three questions that get a you-decide-it response, a staffer catches on.

What is it you want here?

Another critter-to-smart mind prod is to show staff how to shift focus from the difficulty of a problem to “what outcome do I want here?” and “how am I going to achieve that?”

Suppose a staffer comes in with the problem of an overwhelming flood of work. That staffer is doing no more than bemoaning the dilemma. There’s no effort to solve it. The staffer is in a frozen state.

Move things along with “here’s the problem; now let’s look for the solution.”

Then offer a few suggestions, maybe laying out the priorities for the day and seeing which ones can be given to another staffer and which ones can be done tomorrow. But let the staffer do the deciding. Phrase it all as “would it be helpful if…?”

That pushes the staffer out of the frozen state, because it forces a decision.

Staffer A, I need your help here

The way the manager gives directives also makes a critter vs. smart difference.

When the boss says “my idea is X,” employees hear it as law.

Instead of dictating, invite them to think and participate. And the most effective way to do that is to say “Staffer A, I need your help.” Now there’s participation as well as evidence that the manager values the employee and is encouraging creativity.

A request for help “makes the big person small and the small person big,” Comaford says. It invites the staffer “to rise up and form a strategy,” she explains.

It’s not change; it’s improvement

Another critter cure: Don’t call change by its own name. Call it something else, maybe growth or opportunity.

Change is a scary thing, Comaford says. Yet it’s not the actual change that people fear. “They fear the pain that may come with it,” she says.When people hear the word change they fear the real message is “we’re changing, and you may not matter in that new world,” she explains.

And that puts anybody in a fright-freeze-fight-flight mode.

Don’t tell staff something is a change. Give it a positive spin and call it a betterment or say “we are improving.” People see themselves as part of growth.

Meetings: boring, wasted time

And then there’s the matter of meeting.

“People hate them because meetings are grossly inefficient” and cover a lot of information that could have been emailed beforehand, Comaford says. When people are forced to sit through a useless and too-long meeting, they become critters in a cage.

Make the meetings participatory, Comaford suggests. Leave out things such as status reports that staff can read on their own, she says, and focus instead on “requests and promises.”

Request action: “Staffer A, will you get this finished by Thursday? And then get the promise: “Yes, I’ll have it finished by then.”

And then end it.

According to Comaford, the ideal meeting is no more than 30 minutes. “And 10 would be great,” she says.









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