Management lessons from summer vacation

Being in close quarters, away from your own bed, pillow, clothes, shower, pots and pans – everything that gives you a sense of home and comfort – can be an extremely stressful time that exposes everyone to each other’s worst behavior. Kind of like a normal project getting close to release. There’s so much to do in so little time, everyone’s been working long hours away from their personal lives, and the cracks begin to show. Having just gotten back from a week-long vacation with family, I thought I’d share some thoughts that occurred to me while watching the animals outside their normal habitat.

  1. Know when you’re in a critical section
    Most of the time, things are going fine. Everyone’s chilling, having a good time, and enjoying each other’s company. Then without warning, everything explodes. This person starts shouting at that one, the other starts crying inconsolably, and suddenly everyone’s at each other’s throats. How did this happen?
    People get tired and cranky. Tiny injustices fester and grow. Teasing comments get taken out of context (or in context), and people lose patience with each other. You need to be watching for signs that emotions are starting to get raw and people are losing control. This means you, too.
  2. Don’t forget to give positive feedback to your stars
    It’s tough being the older child. Everything the baby does – shrieking in restaurants, pooping through her clothes, demanding (and getting) extra dessert – is greeted with admiration and praise. “Did you poop again???” “You’re such a good negotiator!”
    Meanwhile, the older child is the target of constant criticism. “Stop shouting!” “Wipe your hands on your napkin, not your shirt!” “Yes, you need to use the potty before we go on a three hour car ride.” The older child has more language, more cognitive capacity, and it’s easy to spend all of your time making what seem like reasonable demands.
    Take some time to give your eldest a hug and kiss. Tell him you love him. Reinforce positive behavior. Tell him that you’re proud when he spontaneously shares a toy. Make sure he knows that there’s nothing he can do, nothing that can ever happen, EVER, that will change how much you love him.
    Likewise, it’s easy to ignore top contributors until there’s a problem. Don’t assume that they know that they’re doing a great job – make a point of following up on a successful project or strong business result. Tell them you appreciate their working over the weekend to get something in on deadline, or staying late to work on a shared resource off hours. Be specific when you can, but don’t let that stop you if you can’t. Make sure they know how much you value their hard work and amazing results.
  3. You create the culture by how you respond to crises
    Every time I yell at one of my children, or block their way, or restrain them, I’m modeling behavior they’ll use on each other or on other kids. They pay attention to everything you say and do, and how you say and do it, and take your actions as implicit permission to do the same.
    Likewise, people remember how you act when things are at their worst. Are you calm, reassuring, capable? Do you shout? Look for scapegoats? Do you micro-manage? These are the moments that matter, this is how you’ll be judged, and this is where your co-workers will learn what’s considered acceptable behavior. Likewise:
  4. It’s always within your power to fuck up
    All it takes is one bad call to ruin everyone’s day. Unjustly accusing someone of something they didn’t do (“don’t hit your sister!”). Digging in your heels on principle (“I told you that if you did X one more time, you’d lose video privileges for the day”). Taking back a promise (“I know Mommy said you could buy Doc McStuffins Crocs, but they aren’t on sale”).
    It doesn’t matter how much good will, trust and respect you’ve built up – all it takes is one ill-considered comment to demotivate your team, make someone quit, cause a lawsuit, get yourself fired. Think twice before opening your big mouth.
  5. It’s only helpful if it’s help the other person wants
    Having children sometimes shines an uncomfortable mirror on your own actions. It’s hard enough to try to convince a five-year-old that it only counts as “helping” someone else if it’s help that they want (“Let me cut the carrots with the big knife!”). And then I find myself doing something that I want to do, in the guise of helping someone else. It sounds trivially simple, but if you want to help, the best approach is usually just to ask, “What can I do to be helpful?” or “Is there something I can do to be helpful?” or “How can I be helpful?” This lets them decide, which is kind of the point.
  6. Give people a little more time
    It’s an experience we’ve all had – you’re waiting behind another car at a red light, the light turns green, and the other car doesn’t go. You wait, and start getting annoyed, and wait some more, and a fraction of a second before you honk your horn (but too late to stop), they start forward. Likewise, when you have small kids it feels like you’re constantly waiting for them to do something. Put their shoes on. Drink their milk. Go to the potty. Brush their teeth. It’s easy to keep nagging even as they’re doing what you want.
    It’s hard to stop in the middle of a sentence, even if it’s clear the other person already understands what you’re trying to say. And it’s hard to stop yourself from saying something you’ve already decided to say, even if it’s no longer necessary. It’s like there’s a completionist circuit in our brains that won’t let us just stop. Catching myself before I micro-manage is one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn, and lord knows I still screw up. It’s like strugglng to keep holding your breath when your lungs are already on fire.

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