Call it the “Threshold Test.”
It is a head and heart check triggered as employees arrive at their workplace and approach the door. How do they feel crossing the threshold into their world of work?
Some are pleased, proud, curious, or eager.
Some are angry, fearful, discouraged, or simply numb.
As a manager, you may assume that those in latter group are your low-achieving, low-potential employees. Why else would the threshold test produce such negative results?
The answer may be tough for you to take. The answer may be you.
You, the manager, are the single most significant influence on the outcome of the threshold test. Not pay scales. Not corporate mandates. Not change. For two Gallup Organization researchers, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, that is the focal point of their 1999 book, First, Break All the Rules. Drawing upon surveys of thousands of employees, they concluded:
“The talented employee may join a company because of its charismatic leaders, its generous benefits, and its world-class training programs, but how long that employee stays and how productive he is while he is there is determined by his relationship with his immediate supervisor.”
Frightening, isn’t it? Who wants to bear the burden of every direct report’s displeasure or departure? Don’t organizations, especially journalism organizations, understand and even expect that many of their best and brightest will invariably move up or out? And aren’t journalism’s leaders always going to be faced with managing talented but difficult people who seem nearly impossible to satisfy?
Yes, to both questions. But that answer is far too simple. It may account for the inevitable loss of some employees. But how long good people remain in your employ, and how well they contribute during their tenure, is directly connected to your performance as their manager.
Now, move on to a tougher question. How would those who work for you answer if you asked the following: “What have I done for you lately?”
You could expect some individual variations in the answers. But depending on your managerial strengths and weaknesses, you might hear some remarkable consistency in the compliments or complaints.
Certain competencies, skills, and behaviors are the hallmarks of top managers, even though their styles and personalities may be vastly different. Consider these questions, and how your employees would respond:
1.) Have I shared the big picture and painted you into it?
Those at the top need to present a vision for their team that is clear and compelling. This can’t be corny sloganeering or a simplistic mandate that says, “We will be number one.” Leaders express their vision in ways that make employees proud of their efforts. Warren Bennis, founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, says, “Leaders keep reminding people of what’s important. They manage the dream by keeping the passion quotient high.”
Journalism’s leaders must be extraordinarily strong in communicating a vision; they are, after all, speaking to employees who make their living by resisting spin and seeking truth. It takes a lot to inspire them. But even as they are trained to be skeptics, journalists, at their core, are idealists. They want leaders with vision. They follow those who creatively and honestly articulate it.
2.) Have I clearly defined what is expected of you?
Job descriptions are just a beginning. Yet for many employees, such descriptions become the only guide for gauging their own performance. The best managers define not only an employee’s duties; they clarify the kinds of outcomes those duties should produce. Clarifying outcomes gives both manager and employee a measuring stick that is understood, not assumed.
For example, some managers tell reporters: “I’d like you to be more enterprising.” Nice goal‹but not clear. Try: “I’d like to see three stories each week that you generated from community contacts.” Instead of, “We want you to be more responsive to our readers,” try: “Please answer every e-mail, however briefly, and copy me on the reply.” From those clear expectations you can move on to discuss the steps needed to make it happen. You can see and share the outcomes.
3.) Have I given you frequent, specific praise?
Every so often, you hear someone say, “I had a great boss. She told me to do good work and then just left me alone to do it.” Sorry. There’s more to that story. Research shows that top performing employees thrive on meaningful and continuing feedback. Sincere, specific praise also enables a manager to restate the organization’s definition of quality.
For example: “John, we’ve been talking about improving our reporting on undercovered communities, and your story on voter registration in Hmong families is exactly what we’ve been hoping to achieve.” That goes a lot farther than, “Loved the story, John. Right on target.” Trust this: Newsrooms contain significantly larger numbers of employees who want to be thought of as wonderful, as compared to those who think they already are.
4.) Have I held everyone accountable for quality?
For every manager who worries about looking like a tyrant when it comes to maintaining standards, there are many more employees who believe their colleagues aren’t being held accountable for substandard work. High-performing employees, in particular, want to know that all the members of their team are giving their best.
For the manager, that means you’ve made performance outcomes clear for everyone. You’ve made consequences for performance shortfalls clear as well. You provide coaching to help underachievers have their best shot at success. But you do not do it at the expense of the time you should be spending encouraging, growing, and even learning from your highest performers.
5.) Have I set a tone of optimism?
Whether you know it or not, a spotlight follows managers around the workplace. Your tone, your temperament, your movements are all center stage, like an interpretative dancer’s. Your audience of employees continuously reads meaning into the dance.
What messages do you send? Are good things happening here? Are we solid in the face of adversity? Is what we do important to our consumers? Does our leader believe in this team? How you carry yourself, look people in the eye, keep your door open or closed, speak of the future instead of the past can make a difference in whether your followers think they are headed in the right direction. Leaders have a variety of styles. But the strongest among them set a tone that is pervasively positive.
6.) Have I set a tone of creativity?
There is a difference between setting important standards and demanding total conformity. Good managers know the difference. They hire people with talent and high standards and turn them loose to be creative. High-performing employees aren’t satisfied with carrying out assigned tasks successfully; they want to be the birth parent of new ideas.
Managers who give them that license are likely to be rewarded with both delightful innovations and dopey failures. Can you accept failures as graciously as you accept great ideas? Ask any high performer about a fabulous failure and you will hear two stories: the first is about “how I went astray” and the other is invariably about “the boss who loved me anyway.”
7.) Have I set a tone of integrity?
Do your people know what you stand for? Are your journalistic ethics strong? Do you keep your word? Do you have enough self-knowledge to detect when your emotions are clouding your judgment, and to get back on the reasoning track? Do you value diversity? Do you seek out opinions different from your own? Are your employees comfortable telling you that something you’ve done has caused a problem? Do you apologize when you make a mistake‹publicly as well as privately?
8.) Do I listen?
Most of us don’t. Oh, we hear what the other person is saying. But even as their words are coming out, we are already preparing a response. There’s another kind of attention that some call “deep” or “active” listening. It is a skill you can learn with patience and practice. Don’t confuse it with nodding your head and giving the impression you are interested.
Deep listening involves putting that turbocharged answer machine in your brain on “pause.” Invite the speaker to tell you more by asking questions in an encouraging way. Repeat what you heard them say. Now here’s the harder part. Listen with empathy. Social scientist Daniel Yankelovich, in his new book The Magic of Dialogue, says meaningful communication can’t take place without it:
“The gift of empathy — the ability to think someone else’s thoughts and feel someone else’s feelings — is indispensable to dialogue. There can be discussion without participants responding empathetically to one another, but then it is discussion, not dialogue.”
9.) Have I provided the tools you need?
Are you an advocate for the tools your employees need to do their best work? This does not mean you are a failure if your news organization isn’t a state-of-the-art showplace. It means choosing equipment as though you used it yourself each day — empathetic shopping, if you will. You can encourage your employees to “manage up” their ideas about equipment selection, maintenance, and usage to you, especially if you are not a tech-head.
Pay particular attention to the needs of those who work in areas where you’ve never toiled. People with attractive offices may seem oblivious to the needs of the boiler room. Don’t let that be your staff’s perception of you.
10.) Have I encouraged and modeled the value of learning?
Never underestimate the value of learning as a reward for good employees. Just as high-performing employees get a thrill from developing new ideas, they also thrive on discovering them. Training opportunities are valuable perks.
Never assume your best employees are so good they wouldn’t want to learn more. In fact, it is just the opposite. Your best are often eager for intellectual challenge. You can reward and retain them by providing meaningful learning opportunities. At the same time, you as a leader, should also be a learner. Show your employees you have plenty to learn and a desire to feed your mind. They’ll respect you for it.
Were you able to answer “yes” to the questions in these 10 key areas? If so, chances are good that many of your employees are scoring strong positives on that “Threshold Test.” They are smiling as they open the door to the workplace you lead — and not surprisingly, so are you.
*Originally appeared in the Winter 2000 Poynter Report