From the April 2009 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

April 1, 2009

Formulas for Success: Position Disposition

Are you setting up your staff to succeed, or fail?

Like snowflakes, each individual is unique and has singular value and beauty. But sometimes, feeling "different" can contribute to a cycle that marginalizes individuals within your business. Managers have the responsibility to recognize and foster the potential of each member of their organization.

Do you remember the moment when you discovered that you were different from other people? This provocative question was posed to a group of managers at Pershing, LLC, who were participating in a diversity and inclusion training program to help us find the undiscovered gems within our company.

On first glance, it may seem difficult to achieve great diversity in relatively small businesses such as most advisory firms we serve as an independent custodian. But as the instructor played out the question of "when did you discover you were different?" I realized that I needed to broaden my understanding of diversity. In our class, most people instantly recalled the moment they became aware that they were taller or shorter, fatter or thinner, smarter or dumber than others. Some had distinct recall of when they realized their accents were different, or that they did not celebrate Christmas, or that they didn't eat meat.

What hit home for each of us was the next question: "What were some of the immediate negative, emotional responses you had upon discovering you were different?" These memories were also vivid: withdrawal, anger, embarrassment. The words, the gestures, the laughter behind their backs, the teasing--they all returned in a rush. Many in the class remembered how others stereotyped them, and how this affected their participation, motivation, and attitude.

Regression to Be Mean

How does your feeling of "difference" impact your life today? Do certain situations trigger reactions such as defensiveness, sarcasm, or an unwillingness to participate? Do you remember ever having a manager who did not seem to give you a chance because of where you got your degree or how you looked?

Managers and owners of advisory firms take note: chances are high that people who work for you have had similar experiences. Moreover, there is an even greater probability that this baggage is inhibiting those employees' ability to perform to their potential. Negative feelings about oneself contribute to low morale and low self esteem--two factors that play a giant role in individual productivity and performance.

For years now, advisors have been lamenting the difficulty of finding good people. How odd that is, considering the number of qualified people looking for jobs. Are the people you interviewed really not talented or hard working, or are they being mismanaged? If that is true, why?

Answers to this question depend on each individual situation--but as a rule, most managers tend to favor certain "go-to" people, leaving others to sit on the sidelines. Those regarded as go-to people typically demonstrate urgency, accountability, and an orientation toward results. Unfortunately, many associates in our businesses seem to exhibit the opposite traits.

Aside from wondering why you retain underperforming people, it is interesting to consider the positive impact you could have on your business if you discovered how to help these individuals find their drive to perform at a higher level. Perhaps they are holding themselves back, and your tendency to ignore them becomes a self-fulfilling cycle.

Think about it: do the "underperformers" come to work experiencing being "different?" Is this impacting their work?

Of course, you don't know what drives their behaviors because you are not a psychologist. But it's possible that people who are feeling different are transmitting their feelings of hostility or withdrawal in the workplace because they are repeatedly and continuously marginalized. In reaction, you conclude that they are difficult people or just not capable of performing at a level you consider acceptable. The cycle continues.

Ironically, these workers may be so consumed with proving themselves that they never focus on improving themselves. When you reflect on your own difference and consequent negative reaction, you can begin to empathize with them. In many cases, their sense of being different may be too great to overcome--but this is where great managers emerge. At some point, underperformers need your help to be positioned for success if they are going to be meaningful contributors to your business.

Proper Positioning

Reflect on your own challenges, such as mastering a sport, speaking in public, or learning calculus. Remember your frustration and the frustration of the coach or teacher in trying to get something through your thick skull. Remember, too, ineffective managers who did not teach but dictated the task or provided only negative feedback. They may have dismissed your background or experience as not being adequate for a job you really wanted to perform.

When this "negative positioning" occurs to individuals who already feel different, it reinforces their impression that the manager is penalizing them because of that difference. You might recall an experiment conducted in the late 1960s by Jane Elliott, a third grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Elliott became so distressed that she decided to teach young students about the impact of discrimination. Acting with authority (she was well liked and respected by kids and parents alike), she brought to class a large book which she claimed had been written by a very famous scientist who had determined that brown-eyed people are naturally uncooperative, incapable of learning at a satisfactory speed, and unlikely to succeed. She separated the class into brown-eyed and blue-eyed students, then cited examples of negative behaviors by the brown-eyed kids that "proved" the scientist's thesis. The stunning and immediate reaction of the brown-eyed kids upon hearing they were inferior--they became distracted, slow to learn, and hostile toward the blue-eyed kids--is remarkable to watch on video.

This was a powerful example of negative positioning. Brown-eyed children were positioned as inferior to their classmates, and the weight of the teacher's authority made this even truer.

Within our businesses, we unconsciously may be doing the same thing--not because of a person's eye color, but because of perceptions developed about them for any number of reasons. Just as with Elliott's brown-eyed students, this negative positioning can hobble their confidence and motivation. As a manager, we work around these individuals instead of including and monitoring them. Many advisors I have met always believe they can do something better and faster than their associates, and often start repeating a dirge about the incompetence of people today.

"Positive positioning," on the other hand, supports individuals and gives them opportunities to learn. Most of us have had managers or teachers or coaches who propped us up and believed in our potential--how this helped our overall disposition. It's no coincidence that confidence grows with this support, creating more opportunities to take risks, learn, and contribute.

On the other hand--just like the brown-eyed children--those who tend not to be regarded highly and who do not get presented with opportunities, lose their confidence and motivation and develop a negative disposition. As managers, we find ourselves working around those people instead of including them in a meaningful way.

Lessons on Inclusion

To be effective in positively positioning your associates, it's important to:

o Be clear about the definition of the task

o Give the individual enough responsi- bility to perform the work

o Communicate the desired outcome

o Be available for consultation

o Teach and mentor the individual throughout the process

Before embarking on specific acts of delegation, examine your relationships with your associates and honestly assess if you are giving each of them sufficient opportunities to learn and grow. Look at how you currently distribute assignments in your firm to see if all the plums are awarded to the "usual suspects." If so, broaden access to opportunities so others may participate. Then provide adequate communication and mentoring to support individuals in living up to your expectations.

When you have the chance, get to know your associates and what is driving their behavior for good or ill. Avoid stereotyping individuals based on how they look, their socio-economic status, their education or lack thereof, their sex, or how they talk. Stereotyping prevents you from discovering how they can make a meaningful impact on your business.

As another exercise in expanding your management skills, choose someone in your firm you don't know well and who is different from yourself in some important way. If it is someone with whom you have regular conflict and around whom you are uncomfortable, force yourself to engage this individual over a sustained period. Obviously, you must be sincere if you want to understand what motivates them. Pay attention to your reactions as well--share real conversations and consciously look for ways to expand your positive interactions with this individual. You may be surprised by what you learn.

Even in small businesses, a diverse work force brings different talents to the table. When you allow that diversity to drive change, the change will drive better results.

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