With a Master’s degree in education and a history of building solid programs in schools since 1991, Alan Feirer established Group Dynamic as a leadership training business that started in district classrooms and soon branched into businesses and organizations. We recently caught up with Alan to pick his brain about workplace dynamics and how leaders can get the most out of their employees.
Tell us a bit about your background. Why are you so passionate about group dynamics in the workplace?
It began in 1996. I was despondent. Poor me. “My people” weren’t engaged. They didn’t get me. They weren’t loyal or receptive. They were leaving me, and it wasn’t my fault. They just needed more time to get to know me. Except…My boss Fred said, “They are fighting you.” My colleague Jo said, “They’re tired of you acting like their ‘King’.” I even called a predecessor, Jim, to ask, “What’s their problem?” Jim was too diplomatic to hold up a mirror. So, I started reading and researching to solve this problem. You know what it was – me.
I started reading anything I could get my hands on. I took notes, outlined, highlighted, and made charts to track what the commonalities were between all of these thoughts. Those notes, charts, and scribbles evolved into a model that saved “my people” from me. Passionate, motivated, and cheered by the success of that model, it became a curriculum that I started sharing with others. After about 12 years, I started doing it full time as a vocation.
I am passionate about group dynamics, effective leadership, and effective teamwork because that seems to be “the thing” that holds anyone back. If a business is not thriving, profitable, or as efficient or effective as it could be, the solution is almost always the interactions between people. If we can get leaders to use the best possible tools to lead, then we can break down barriers and solve personality problems or deal with past issues so we can move forward. That tends to make a bigger difference than anything else.
Since Group Dynamic was established in 1998, could you tell us how leadership training has evolved over the last two decades?
Leadership training has changed surprisingly little over the past quarter century. A book that’s from a quarter century ago, The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner, is still one of the most important books ever written on leadership. Something that’s always been the case is people talking about generational differences; we just use different languages for it.
There are two other evolutions that I think exist:
- There’s a lot of attention in recent years being paid to strengths-based training, like the StrengthsFinder by Gallup and Tom Rath.
- In the past, it’s been more about addressing people’s weaknesses; now, it’s about getting people in the right place and capitalizing on their strengths.
There’s truth to that, yet I think it’s a little lacking. I think we should give people credit that they want to know where their weak points are, and know that anyone can grow and develop. I had some serious weaknesses and blind spots as a young leader in the areas of humility, listening, and pausing. If I – and those who worked with me – had just shrugged our shoulders and said, “Well, Alan’s always going to be a bad listener, he’s always going to think he has all the answers, so let’s only use his strengths,” I don’t think my business would be working if that situation had transpired. It was only by correcting my weaknesses that I’ve been able to build a successful business and become effective at what I do. Another evolution of leadership training – for better or worse – is that it’s possible now to do virtual training. And that’s too bad, because if we’re training in soft skills, we need to understand that it’s going to be less effective virtually.
How is the DISC system different from many of the other personality-based or behavioral-centered training programs?
DiSC is both deep and immediately graspable. It has a lot to do with observable behaviors; things we see in ourselves, things we see in others, and things we can adapt to and make little changes ourselves to do things differently. That’s why I’ve seen it work quite well when solving problems between people.
There are other valuable systems that are more psychological and have more to do with motives, like a Myers-Briggs type indicator or colors, which are based on the psychology of Carl Jung. These are very valuable in journeys of self-discovery, mindfulness, coaching, and one-on-one, but they’re less observable so they’re less immediately grasped if you’re working in a team. There are also a lot of folks who love StrengthsFinder too. Again, they don’t quite help us to understand how to adapt or shift in order to correct situations with others if we are in conflict. That’s why I think DiSC has more to offer.
If a business leader were to say to you, “I’ll be able to easily tell when my team is not cohesive when I see team members bickering or arguing,” how might you respond?
My response would be, “Will you please describe that bickering and arguing for me?” and see what we learn from there. It could just be that that type of leader is sensitive and likes to avoid issues, so they might see people who are simply disagreeing about issues as bickering and arguing. It’s a real illusion that unhealthy conflict looks like bickering and arguing. Unhealthy conflict looks like, “Well, that’s Jennifer’s idea, anybody else got anything? No? So, we’ll go with that one. Anybody got a problem with that? No? Well, that was easy.” That’s artificial harmony. It tends to be a situation where a team is not cohesive, and a leader will fool themselves into thinking that things are fine because they see harmony on the surface.
If people are disrespectful when bickering and arguing, then that’s a different kind of dysfunction or lack of cohesion that should be dealt with. However, if people are passionately voicing different points of view and nobody is taking it personally, that’s when you have cohesion. You can tell when your team is not cohesive if there’s way too much artificial harmony, and yet you can see two or three people huddled together in the break room or next to their car in the parking lot having a further conversation.
Do you have any advice for leaders on how to be candid with an employee or team member without hurting their feelings?
My advice is before worrying about being candid about a negative thing, build a fantastic relationship first. Have one-on-one meetings or do team building so people get to know each other on a human level. Then make it clear to people that when something is wrong, we’ll talk about it and we’ll move on. Establish that as the norm. Build into your agreement with your team that regular and frequent constructive criticism is normal and acceptable, it’s part of what we do around here. We dish it out and we take it.
Also, make sure you constantly point out things when they’re going well and tie those positive behaviors with their outcomes. Instead of saying, “Jill you do great work.” Say, “Jill, when you get the TPS reports in a day early, then Sam has an easier time getting the audit reports done.” Tie a positive behavior to a positive outcome, and you’re in a mode of regularly letting people know that they’re on the right track with their work.
Then you use that same kind of approach – low-key, direct, candid – and tie the negative behavior to the outcome. “Bill, when you groan in front of everybody every time I ask you if you’ve turned your TPS reports in, it makes it seem like you’re not the team player that I know you are. Will you please stop groaning every time I ask you to turn in your TPS reports?” Or, “Hey, Bill, when you turn in the deliverable a couple hours late, it actually slows things down for Matilda. So in the future, please make sure that it’s turned in on time if not earlier, or warn me if there’s going to be an issue.”
The best way to be candid is to make it about the behaviors and their outcomes. It doesn’t come out of the blue. It’s a part of a solid foundation of solid relationships and positive feedback that’s also very specific. If you are worried you are going to hurt someone’s feelings, you can start by saying, “I’m concerned you might take this personally, and it might hurt your feelings; however, I’m about to tell you something that’s on the critical side, so be ready for it. It’s what we do around here.”
What’s the most in-demand leadership skill today that is also the rarest?
I think it’s the ability to be specific and frequent with feedback that’s both positive and critical. That’s the thing people are asking for from their leaders, and that leaders think they already do a good job of. Maybe that’s not the rarest skill, but rather the hugest blind spot. I think another in-demand skill is the ability to evaluate and solve problems. Instead of waiting for a crisis, throwing up your hands, and saying, “uh oh,” you stay thoughtful and mindful, you have a broad range of experiences, you do a lot of listening, and you know what’s going on so you can anticipate a potential problem. Then if that problem arises, you get proactive. This kind of problem solving and proactivity is also a rare thing that everybody is looking for in whomever they hire, whether they are a leader or not.
What types of differences in leadership approaches should be taken when managing a six to eight person team versus a 40 to 50 person group or department?
First of all, if it’s really one leader to 40 team members, create some middle management either formally or informally. That’s too many people. If you really do have to lead 40-50 people and don’t have many people to help you, then it becomes extremely important to use systems and to understand how to create as many efficiencies as possible. If you’re working with 6-8 people, think in terms of management, like getting things done, communicating tasks, looking for deadlines. While you’ve also got your eye on the prize, you’ve got a vision – and people understand what everybody’s working toward.
When you’ve got a 40-50 person team, it’s important to make sure that all those people feel included and important without spending an undue amount of time on that. You might not be able to have a one-on-one meeting with each person, but you could meet with team leads, who could meet with their team members individually.
You would need to do a lot of listening. Just saying “your door is always open” doesn’t work in this situation, because with that many people, they’re all going to think you’re too busy and their deal isn’t big enough to bring to you. So you have to be more proactive in terms of reaching out and seeking information on what’s going on or you can quickly become out of touch.
Finally, name one thing that most businesspeople can start doing today to help them become better leaders.
I’d say go to two or three people you trust – who you know will be real with you – and ask, “How’s it going? Is there anything I should know? What’s something that I’m not aware of right know that I need to know either about what’s going on or about my approach?” Then listen to the answer. Make it safe for them to answer that question. If everybody who leads would take a moment to do that and really listen, you could have a big transformative effect.
One other thing I’d suggest: institute weekly 30-minute one-on-one meetings with everyone who reports to you, and let them talk first. Ask them, “What’s going on? What do you want to talk about?” Let them bring up whatever comes to mind. Maybe they saw a great film that week, let them talk about it. About 10 minutes in, share what you want to discuss with that person. Then in the final 10 minutes, close the conversation with talking about what’s next task-wise.