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The Federal Coach

Four leadership lessons from American Idol

Fox's "American Idol" recently kicked off its 10th season with new judges and a new batch of hopeful contestants.

Although I know many people don't like to admit that they watch "America Idol," I am not one of them. I not only like the amazing singers and the ones who make me cringe, but I take in a number of leadership lessons hidden within the show.

That's right--leadership lessons from "American Idol."

Specifically, federal managers can learn from the crucial conversations that the judges--Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler--have with each singer about their performance.

Now that the top 24 finalists have been selected, the judges must have honest, direct and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about whether contestants are likely to achieve their hopes and dreams. For many federal leaders, these are just the type of conversations that they try to avoid at all costs.

So, what can federal managers learn from the likes of Randy Jackson about how best to approach and handle difficult conversations? Here are a few tips to help get you started:

Make your motivations clear. Randy typically begins his feedback with a disarming, "You know I like you, right, dawg?" This opening lets the singers know that the critical feedback he's about deliver is intended to help them improve their performance. Without that indication of intent, singers could be left thinking that Randy just wants them off of the show. As a federal manager, you need to state your intent clearly with employees before diving into difficult conversations. Are you trying to help them improve their performance, position them for a promotion or otherwise achieve their career goals? Start the conversation by letting them know your motivation upfront.

Focus on facts first, not feelings. Even though I get tired of Randy telling the singers that they're "too pitchy," this feedback is based on fact and not on their sense of style or personality. When beginning what is likely to be a difficult conversation, it's better to start with the facts before the feelings to help establish a common understanding of the problems that you and your employees can work on together to overcome.

Bring the box of tissues. There's a lot of crying on "American Idol." We're all human and even the most professional among us can become emotional when confronted by a situation that we don't really want to discuss or when told something we don't want to hear. As a federal manager, it's important that you prepare for your employee's emotional responses as well as your own. When you find your employees reacting emotionally, try to slow down and take a few minutes to allow them to compose themselves. Ask if the employee is prepared to continue; and if not, I suggest taking a break and returning to the conversation an hour or two later. Be sure to resume the conversation and complete what you need to cover.

Close with clarity. While simply having a difficult conversation can be cathartic, it's not enough. You need to close with a concrete set of next steps. Too often, I find that the "American Idol" judges fail in this regard. Instead of finishing the conversation with, "Do better next time," you need to delineate your expectations and a time frame for accomplishing a set of goals. Otherwise, you run the risk of having the same conversation again in the future.

I also encourage you to check out the book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler, which offers helpful advice for how to handle difficult conversations with confidence and skill. I would also be interested in hearing the stories of how managers have successfully held crucial conversations with employees. Please post your comments here or email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

And check back on Wednesday, when I speak with Fred Dust, a partner at IDEO, a global design consultancy. You can also receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @RPublicService.

By Tom Fox

 |  February 28, 2011; 12:00 AM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Avoiding federal manager burnout | Next: How government can innovate: Lessons from Fred Dust of IDEO


Please email us to report offensive comments.

For my dissertation research, I interviewed leaders who were known for raising "undiscussables" - issues swirling around the workplace but not voiced to an authority who could resolve the concern. The data from these interviews demonstrated that these leaders held core values about doing good and built authentic relationships so that when the need arose to discuss these sensitive issues, they had generated a climate of trust. They also exhibited psychological courage in their willingness to raise these issues for the good of the organization. And these leaders utilized, what I call, "compassionate truthtelling", talking about the issues in a way that people could hear and respond.

Posted by: lfk60 | March 3, 2011 8:47 AM

I stumbled across this article and my first thought was, are you kidding me!?!

Then I pondered it for a bit and realized...

No really, are you kidding me!?!

Federal job descriptions are perhaps some of the most detailed of their kind in any employment arena. A federal worker knows exactly what is expected of him or her, and through continual training, is reminded of that task throughout his or her career. There is no ambiguity.

Processes and procedures are engraved in stone, off-times imposed with literally the force of law. Additionally, each candidate should be hired with the educational or experiential background that provides the knowledge of general functions appropriate to the task. The only alteration of those experiences involves modifications specific to the individual setting, group, or department.

Further, recall the phrase "it's not in my job description." That is a running joke in the non-union private sector. It is a way of life in the federal hierarchy. Public unions have seen that jobs are so narrowly defined that, again, there is no ambiguity in what ones task is.

Any federal employee who is not completely aware of what their task is, how to perform it, in what time frame, and what their employment limitations are is either too stupid, lazy, or insane to be working to start with. But we are all human. If someone does not quite grasp the task at hand, ship them off for remedial training. Once.

If they don't cut it at that point, dump them and find someone who CAN do the job.

The federal government needs to be run better and more efficiently that any private business entity. Why? Because it's not your money to waste.

Posted by: crisp11 | March 1, 2011 6:11 AM

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