Management expert Mark Scureman approaches every job and every problem with three basic assumptions:

  • People are different.
  • Life is complex.
  • No one is perfect.

Then he asks himself, “If all these things are true, how can I move the organization forward?” If you’re a consultant leading a diverse team of tech types, these simple truths are all too apparent.

Scureman, a former U.S. Army Colonel who conducts training around the United States on quality, self-directed work teams, communication, and leadership, recently led a seminar at the University of Louisville titled, “Effective Management for Supervisors: How to Get Results Through Others.” He offered advice for leading a team, communicating effectively, and developing mutual trust and respect despite these three assumptions. Here’s a snapshot of the topics he covered.

Attitude is everything
If Scureman could choose a team based solely on one criterion, he’d pick attitude.

“If you give me somebody with the right attitude, I can teach them the skills,” he said. “If you give me somebody with really great skills and a bad attitude, I’m dead in the water.”

Getting a bead on your team’s attitudes can be difficult. To find out if you’ve successfully created a “culture of teamwork,” ask your team these questions:

  • How do you feel about your job?
  • How do you feel about your company?
  • How do you feel about your work group?

The answers to those questions can be plotted in a cube (see Figure A) that illustrates your team members’ responses: Do they feel competent, valued, trusted? Do they feel as if they are truly part of a collaborative team?

Figure A

Ask your team members to be honest when answering these questions, and if their answers aren’t high on the scale, ask how you could raise the score. If you can’t get to the “quality corner,” you’re bound to have problems, he said.

“It’s amazing that we just sit there with people who have really bad answers to these [questions] and think we can make something happen,” he said.

Lead and they will follow
If you’re a project leader and an unexpected hurdle blocks your progress, how do you react? If you stop, bewildered, so will your team. It’s up to you to forge ahead, finding ways around project roadblocks.

Scureman illustrated this point by talking about a group of ants that he found in his home one morning. He noticed that they followed one another in a straight line, and that when the leader turned, the rest followed exactly in his footsteps. When Scureman placed his finger directly in the leader’s path, the ant simply went around it, and the rest followed.

“If an ant can do that, why can’t I get my people to do that?” Scureman asked.

Team members will take their attitude cues from their leader. If you have a negative outlook and every hurdle seems to paralyze you, perhaps you need to adjust not only your attitude, but also your expectations about the project’s success.

“If your expectations are that it isn’t going to happen, I guarantee it isn’t,” Scureman said. “And your staff is going to take their expectations from you.”

Good communication: Don’t assume you’re understood
To illustrate that even the best communicators can misunderstand one another, Scureman related a personal anecdote about his experience with Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. While attending a seminar led by Covey, Scureman snapped a photo of the author with a good friend, Tammy King. He disagreed with something Covey said during his presentation and was moved to write him a letter about it. He included the photo and added the following request to his letter:

“Enclosed is a photo of you and good friend, Tammy King. You used her glasses [during your presentation]. Would you be kind enough to autograph the photo and return it to me?”

Covey responded to Scureman’s letter and returned the photo. He signed it “Keep blessing lives, Mark.”

Until he reconsidered his wording, Scureman didn’t understand why Covey signed the photo to him instead of his friend. After looking at it more critically, he noticed that he hadn’t been specific about to whom the photo should be autographed.

The lesson, Scureman said, is not  to assume you’re understood. Words are imprecise and have subtle nuances. Besides, you never know if the other person is really listening.

“We assume that we’re all on the same sheet of music all the time, and when we find out we’re not, what’s our tendency? To get mad,” he said. “The only way to solve this is to keep a constant open dialogue.”

Even when you have your team’s attention, you must realize that most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, Scureman said. They listen with the intent to reply. They filter everything through their own paradigm and experiences, so that what they hear may not be what you said.

Another impediment to clear communication is the fact that people have a tendency to “tune out” from time to time.

“Shame on me if I think you’re hanging on every word I’m saying,” Scureman said. “And yet we put out the word and expect everyone to understand.”

Improve your skills by practicing clear communication and listening with the intent to understand.

“The way a dentist gets good at the drill, and the accountant is good at math is practice,” he said. “What was the last time you actually practiced communicating?”

Develop mutual trust and respect
If you’re wondering what your team wants from you, ask. If you think that’s terribly obvious advice, then why aren’t you doing it? asked Scureman.

The most common answer is, “listen to me,” Scureman said, and listening is one skill that helps you develop mutual trust and respect with your staff.

“When it comes to developing mutual trust and respect, I am convinced the model is very simple, but actually doing it takes a lifetime,” Scureman said. “[It’s the] whole foundation of any relationship.”

Scureman asserted that scoring high on Mark’s Trust and Respectometer, shown in Figure B, would ensure that your team sees you as trusting and respectful.. The two greatest attributes of a good leader, according to the Respectometer, are competence and benevolence.

Figure B

To be trusted, you have to learn to trust others, Scureman said, and, “I guarantee you you’re going to get burned along the way.” However, he said that, contrary to popular belief, the overwhelming majority of people you work with are trustworthy and fall into the category of List A people (see Table A).

Table A
List A people: List B people:
Are responsible “Give an inch, they’ll take a mile”
Want to contribute Do just what is required
Want to do good work Think, “it’s just another job”
Want to succeed Don’t really give a damn
Work toward success Are here today, gone tomorrow
Can be trusted Can’t be trusted

Once you know someone is a “List A person” you can exploit it in positive ways by offering them challenges and opportunities, Scureman said. To recognize the benefits of trust and respect, “Think about how hard you work when you feel like you’re trusted, and how hard you work when you think you aren’t trusted,” he advised.

Goodwill can save your neck
Developing respect can be challenging. It also might be the only thing that saves you when you fail someday.

Scureman recalled the instance of renowned golfer Fuzzy Zoeller and his insensitive comments regarding fellow sportsman Tiger Woods in April 1997.

When his racially tinged remarks hit the news, the media really went after him, Scureman said. “Fortunately for Fuzzy Zoeller, what they discovered was that he was one of the most respected men on the whole circuit. They found out that when other golfers needed help, Fuzzy Zoeller would help.”

Woods, who admitted being shocked at Zoeller’s comments, eventually accepted Zoeller’s apology and remarked upon his reputed goodwill in a statement to the press.

“I respect Fuzzy as a golfer and as a person, and for the many good things he has done for others throughout his career,” Woods said. “I know he feels badly about the remarks. We all make mistakes, and it is time to move on.”

What would have happened to Fuzzy if he hadn’t built up all that goodwill, Scureman asked? The lesson for team leaders is to “ask yourself, what are little things that I can do over time that show goodwill?” Scureman said.

How do you establish “goodwill”?

What special extras and incentives do you offer to your team to stay on their good side? What do other project managers do that you think is “going overboard”? Send us an e-mail or post your comments below.