I had a manager tell me once that the toughest part about his job was knowing what he didn’t know.
That worried me as a younger HR pro (he had almost 30 years of experience) but it made me realize that experienced or inexperienced, we all have weaknesses that don’t allow us to see the whole picture the whole time. And in most instances, nobody is going to tell you about what you don’t know until the mistake has been made.
That got me intrigued about the book recently released by Alexandra Levit called Blind Spots: 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. I thought it would be great to interview her about how those in HR can help those who don’t know what they don’t know.
A Q&A with Alexandra Levit
Lance Haun, TLNT: One of the topics you covered was the trade off between individual expression and fitting into corporate culture. While your advice is geared towards employees, what advice would you have for employers who are struggling to balance this as well?
Alexandra Levit, Blind Spots: My advice for employers is to spell out – either in written policy or verbally during orientation activities – exactly what is acceptable appearance and conduct in that culture. Employers often tell me that the rules are unspoken and that new hires are expected to figure them out.
This is not a good approach. You can emphasize that you want employees to have the freedom to express themselves within limits, but at the same time, you must communicate protocol if you want it to be followed.
TLNT: I enjoyed the chapter on how being good just isn’t enough. How can employers help employees cope with the realities that self-promotion, politics, and networking might have as much to do with success at work as their actual level of skill?
AL: Managers must build visibility into employee goals so that everyone recognizes the importance of making sure your work is being seen by the right people. One goal, for instance, might be that an employee is going to present the results of her recent project to senior management by the end of the quarter. Goals like this speak to skill acquisition (i.e. public speaking), but they also highlight the self-promotion element.
Evaluating employees objectively
TLNT: Much of what we talk about on TLNT has to do with performance management. What things do you think managers commonly miss when evaluating employees in the workplace?
AL: Too often, managers don’t put themselves in a position to evaluate employees objectively. They don’t track concrete goals and results, so they are relying on a subjective view of the employee’s performance based on whether they like the report personally, or whether they look like they’re working hard.
TLNT: Another issue you address is this idea of rapid ladder climbing and how it can actually be frowned upon (something I’ve seen myself). How do you walk that edge between being ambitious and engaged rather than a person who is always looking for their next move?
AL: Good question! I believe in the basic principle of trying to excel at your job and generate outstanding results regardless of your official title. If you do this and make sure the right people know about it, promotions will come naturally.
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You can also take it upon yourself to start taking on responsibilities associated with the next level without insisting that you be immediately rewarded for it. Provided there is a space for you to move up, a promotion will be a forgone conclusion.
The problem with mindless ladder climbing
TLNT: Can employees be coached out of ladder climbing mode or do hiring managers need to screen this trait out during the recruiting process?
AL: A good manager can coach an overly driven employee by emphasizing that she has plenty of time to move up and that she should enjoy her time at her current level, when she can focus on acquiring critical skills and doesn’t have to worry about the future of the organization every minute.
TLNT: You also write about the fact that, even with a global recession that has tried to slash unproductive jobs, that there are still not enough doers in organizations. How can executives fix this?
AL: Employers must make sure they’re not too top-heavy, and that individual teams have one or two senior people (preferably who don’t do the same job) with a group of junior people reporting to them. The more senior people you have on one team, the less that actually gets done because the senior people are so busy arguing about strategy and direction.
TLNT: Lastly, you write about how people often aren’t paid the same for the same work and some of the funky compensation practices of corporate America. What’s the biggest lingering compensation problem impacting workers and how can HR executives fix the issue?
AL: From my research, it appears that the biggest compensation problem is a lack of standardization in compensation for the same role. This causes all sorts of problems, from salary compression for tenured employees to gender discrimination.
Although it can be controversial, I personally like salary banding, and I believe that an organization’s compensation team should constantly update bands according to market conditions and adjust individual salaries accordingly.