Robert Vipperman, senior vice president of HR and Innovation at Alex Lee, Inc., shares two piecesof advice that he has put to use in the workplace
‘Deal With It’
Most families have some sort of motto or rallying cry. Some are clearly stated, while others are implicit. In my household, something you would frequently hear was, “Deal with it.”
The author of this little gem was my mother. She was, and is, a very kind person who just happens to have a sharp tongue. She served up the ‘deal with it’ nugget on a pretty regular basis. (This mantra had an even more visceral variation, ‘suck it up.’)
Complaining was not met with much sympathy. The tables were always quickly turned to, “So what are you going to do about it?” While I left the house for college very much sick of hearing anyone saying ‘deal with it,’ this little aphorism taught me several things that have been helpful at work.
First, take personal accountability for problems. And you are always some part of the problem. Problems and mistakes are daily parts of our work lives. When something goes wrong, we usually own at least a piece of the issue. A steady diet of ‘deal with it’ pushed me to see that I needed to quickly understand what I’ve contributed to a problem, then own it and help fix it.
Several weeks ago, a peer of mine sent what I considered to be a ridiculously politically driven email. I became indignant. I confronted the person with a bit too much intensity. It turns out that I overreacted. I was part of the problem, and I apologized.
Second, don’t complain. And if you do, have a solution. In your next staff meeting, count how many times you hear participants raise concerns without solutions. I’d suggest that this sort of free-form complaining drains the effectiveness of individuals and teams.
When I was an executive coach, I saw a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) take this head on. His Chief Information Officer kept complaining about how difficult a project was and how it just couldn’t be done. Without missing a beat, the CEO said, “If your job is easy, I could just hire a monkey to do it.” Edgy, but funny and on target.
‘Don’t Drink Hateorade’
And now on to the next generation. I’m lucky enough to have a 16-year-old stepson with whom I’m close. He’s a bright and funny kid who already has taught me a lot.
One night at dinner, we were discussing some of his school friends. I thought I was simply conveying a realistic critique of the players discussed. Eventually, he just sighed, looked at me and said, “OK, but watch the hateorade,’” a reference to a pattern of consistent negativity.
After I quit laughing, the power of his point dawned on me. I was being way too critical, and I was really not aware of it. Several months of reflection have gone into his caution. Here are three lessons that came out of it for me.
First, watch the tendency to make snap judgments, particularly about people.There’s lots of research on just how quickly we assess each other on features like competence, trustworthiness, attractiveness and the like. But slowing down and being deliberate about assessing others is almost always beneficial.
My worst hiring choice to date was a result of a snap judgment. The candidate was bright and polished. Their background and self-reported skills were impressive. And they failed in the job within the first nine months. I hadn’t slowed down to leverage the insights of others, and I had trusted my initial impression far too much.
Second, balance critique with empathy.Having been professionally trained to assess others, assessment became my favorite tool in my corporate toolkit. Too much so. I liked figuring out what made people tick, their drivers, strengths and weaknesses, etc. And I’m not bad at it.
But a lot of times, assessing people isn’t the point. Understanding them and helping them succeed is typically much more relevant and a lot more appreciated by the people involved. No one likes being under a microscope, but most of us like being helped.
Third, be mindful of the power of words, particularly when in a leadership role. This is a work in progress for me. In any leadership role, we are always ‘on.’ Our teams take our words and behaviors as guideposts for what is appropriate and valuable. Among my weaknesses is the desire to be irreverent to powerful players in corporate situations. Sometimes this is effective, and sometimes it is really, really not. But it’s a form of the ‘hateorade’ that I really (used to) love.
One time this year, I saw one of my strongest players stick their neck out in this vein, poking insightful but ill-advised fun at a much more powerful player in the organization. And I winced, knowing not only that they would be slammed for this, but that I’d modeled this behavior a dozen times. It reminded me to keep a more vigilant eye for when my example is less than appropriate.
So, I needed to suck it up and watch the hateorade.
Robert Vipperman is Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Innovation at Alex Lee Inc. He was featured in Issue No. 5 of Forefront magazine.