Coach’s Corner Blog

Manage Like the Four-Eyed Fish: 4 Questions to Help You Look Above and Below the Surface of Things

July 7, 2014 by Leave a Comment

Four-Eyed Fish

I recently heard about the existence of a four-eyed fish named the Anableps (pictured above). They originate in southern Mexico to Honduras to northern South America. They have two eyes that are raised above the top of their head and are divided into two different parts so they can see above and below the water surface at the same time. See, you learn something everyday!

But what in the world could the existence of a four-eyed fish have to do with improving my ability to manage?

Well, when you think about the world of management, especially in today’s crazed work environment, the volume of tasks and the expectations of getting it all done immediately can make it very difficult for us to keep up. For those of you who manage the work of others you have a trifecta of challenges on your hands – people, process and performance (more on these here):

  • Performance: You’re responsible for the outcomes of the work that you and your team are performing. There are issues of quality, quantity, timeliness and usually revenues, and at least a budget, to maintain. This takes a significant amount of effort to keep up with all the variables that impact these measures and how they are accounted for.
  • Process: You and your team work with various processes all the time. Some of these are determined by the organization, like financial and other reporting mechanisms. Some are more under your control or influence as a part of how you and your team do what you have to do. It takes a great deal of focus to understand how your processes can result in increased productivity and performance. Given the complexities of many operating systems and the fact that new features and improvements are constantly being made, this is a significant challenge as well.
  • People: A client of mine likes to say that you hire employees, but human beings always seem to show up instead. Many managers have spans of control that are often too broad to keep tabs on the accomplishments and needs of each of their staff, especially when the challenges of staying on top of performance and process are added to the mix.

So how in the world does a four-eyed fish have anything to do with these working realities?

In my description of the fish’s eyes, I mentioned that it can see above the water and below the water at the same time. This is an adaptation so that it can eat insects which are readily available on the surface of the water, as well as being able to consume diatoms and other small fishes from below the surface. These foot-long freshwater fish flourish by being able to take advantage of both sources of nutrition.

Today, one of the key workplace issues is a level of disengagement that many employees feel and much of this can be traced to the fact that managers are so challenged with performance and process, that dealing with people issues gets short shrift.

People get “under-led” because managers either don’t know how to manage people that well or all the other “stuff” – performance and processes – is allowed to consume all their time. It’s not unusual to find managers that are really good at handling things, not people.

I would suggest that managers look below the surface at all that “stuff” pretty well. But what I would like to do is challenge managers to use the other part of their vision to look above the surface and focus more effectively on the people they are trying to manage.

To do this, managers will have to allocate at least some time each week to either thinking about each person that reports to them, or better yet, chatting with them about their work world. You know how much you hate it when you have to write and review everyone’s performance in a few days, once per year? Space it out and make it a regular part of your work week.

Here are four key questions I would suggest you consider:

  1. What part of your duties do you like the most and why?
  2. What part of your duties do you have the most trouble with and why?
  3. What is the one thing I could do to help you learn and grow?
  4. If I were able to provide #3, how would it help you, the team and the company?

As the manager, when you engage in dialogue about these things, your employees will expect you to be paying attention and probably agree to respond in some fashion. This is where the managing employee part gets difficult and is often why managers tend to avoid this if possible.

You may feel you don’t have much power or control about changing anything to assist any individual employee, but here are a couple of ideas to get you started:

  • Just ask questions one and two together. You can plan on doing this for each of the members of your team and use that information to re-balance workloads so the people get to do more of the things they like and are good at. If you find some common themes about the more challenging parts of the duties, you can investigate training or one-on-one support for those who need help. You may even be able to ask the member or members of the team that are the most skilled in these areas to provide the training. That can look good for their annual review and perhaps their resume.
  • Question number three is something that each employee should be asked at least once a year. Again, if you find common needs among the team, everybody wins. But remember that access to information, exposure to other parts of the organization or leading a small effort can be opportunities that provide a lot but cost little. Just be sure that you follow up on everything you say you will.
  • Question number four is critical in helping the employee understand the interrelationships between what’s good for them the team and the organization. They may not care of the impact beyond themselves, but you need to help reinforce the connections and to enhance their understanding.

So elevate your line of sight, look above the water, above the insanity or the general everyday hubbub that is your work world. Be sure that the people who work for you are the focus of these efforts.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I know what each person on my team really likes about their work?
  • Do I know where they struggle?
  • What can I do to help?

I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Photo Credit: Alex Lomas / CC


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