Monday, August 01, 2005

Turning Human Stress
into Productivity, Baseball Style  

They say I have to get to know my ballplayers. That arithmetic is bad.
Isn't it simpler for the twenty-five of them to get to know me?
-- Birdie Tebbetts, Manager of Reds, Braves & Indians

Managers trying to get the most out of people sometimes forget their interactions are human & personal as well as boss-to-report. When achievement is most important, they are both likely to be under the most stress, but that's when setting the staffer up to succeed is the most important. But in those key situations, managers too often allow their own stress to pour over the staffer, & that undermines performance.

Baseball has great lessons for managers in getting the most out of employees in stressful situations, part of the Second Base skill set in the MBB Model. No place on the field is more the center of attention during stressful times than the pitcher's mound and the interaction between pitcher (the inevitable initiator of action) and those who are trying to get a grip on the situation. Sometimes you have to keep people loose, and sometimes you have to shock them out of the dream state the stress has put them in with a sharp tongue-lashing or teasing gesture.

The Seattle Times' Larry Stone delivered a wonderful feature yesterday about on-field chat and also a sidebar with Ten Great Moments in Chat.

Here are a few of the better mound interactions (neither was just about the conversations on the mound, so you'll need to read it to catch all the good content).


Manager using humor as pointed but emotion-free reprimand

Casey Stengel was a purveyor of memorable mound quotes. One time, Tug McGraw begged Stengel to let him stay in a Mets game.

"Let me pitch to one more man," McGraw said. "I struck him out the last time I faced him."

Replied Stengel: "Yeah, but the last time you faced him was this same inning."

It will always be necessary for a supervisor to be willing to reprimand a staffer for his work, but in many cases, especially the most stressful, it helps to be able to use humor or other tactics to soften the blow while also keeping the content clear. It's not always possible, but Stengel's model is a perfect example -- it's humor, but it doesn't let McGraw off the hook. At the same time, he hasn't eroded their ability to communicate. I wish I was that fast.

Supervisor waking up an unconscious report

Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price tried a unique form of motivation as a Class AA pitching coach, when a talented-but-erratic M's prospect named Ivan Montane was struggling in a game — not an unfamiliar occurrence.

"I remember going out and asking him how he was doing," Price said. "He said he was fine. I said, 'Well, you know what, Ivan? I'm not fine. You're two more bad outings from me being back in A ball. You're pitching me back to A ball.' "

Here's a supervisor using strong language and strong concepts about real consequences. There's a pinch of humor in it, but this pitcher has no excuse to miss the tart intent. You need to have this in your toolbox, though it works unevenly with different personalities. Some, not many, just don't receive anything but the most simple, straightforward, "you stink and I need you to change in the following ways..." And some people are hypersensitive -- I knew a man and two women who would burst into tears if I had said to them what Price said to Montane, and that does neither side any good.

Co-worker keeping staff loose even while presenting serious information

Perhaps the richest source of baseball conversation, however, takes place on the mound {snip}Any number of folks, from the catcher to the infielders to the manager to the pitching coach, can choose at any time to trot on over for a chat, like two neighbors hanging over the fence.

Of course, it's usually far more businesslike than that, with important mechanical and strategic information being exchanged in dignified fashion. Or not. Dodgers pitcher Tom Candiotti was amazed once when Mike Piazza went to the mound and conducted the entire discussion using his Beavis voice from "Beavis and Butt-head."

Big organizations usually hate contributors who act like Piazza. What they fail to understand is that that part of his personality is inseparable from the part they like -- as with any very successful hitter, he's going to make an out over 60% of the time, and so he chooses to make a joke out of adversity to maintain an even keel for himself. Here's he's trying to do the same for Candiotti. I've attended evaluation sessions with clients where the supervisor said something like, "Mike, we really like the way you contribute here, but you have to stop being such a clown". In four out of five cases, the day their employee stopped being a clown would be the day his contribution would go down.

Co-workers who both perform and try to help are people perform better are assets.

Supervisor breaking the tension of the key contributor

Tigers pitching coach Bob Cluck is a proponent of using the light touch with pitchers, who are often struggling at the time of interaction. {snip}

During a stint with Houston, Cluck racked his brains for the right thing to say to former Astros pitcher Mark Portugal after he gave up three home runs on three successive pitches against the Reds — each one setting off a pyrotechnics display at Riverfront Stadium. Houston manager Art Howe directed Cluck to go to the mound, so he came up with this mood lightener:

"Hey, Porchie, the guy with the cannon called. He said, 'Slow down, I can't reload that fast.' "

Concluded Cluck: "He laughed. It loosened him up, and he went on to win the game. Sometimes, one of the big things a pitching coach does is slow somebody down."

and this one

When (Bryan) Price got in a jam while pitching in the minors, his pitching coach, Dave Schuler, strolled out and told him, "You ever try to count the number of light towers? It's hard, because you spin all the way around, and you're never sure where you started."

"Then he walked off the mound," Price recalled. "That was it. There was no baseball. I'm guessing it was an effort to get my mind off the peril I got myself into, and break the tension. And it worked."

Here are two valuable techniques. In the Cluck example, he has a contributor who's struggling but who he basically trusts. He just turns a meltdown into a joke in the hope that his charge can take a deep breath and go back to performing at his "normal" level. I love doing that with natural high-performers in a jam, though I don't always have the necessary fast comeback at hand.

The Schuler model is just trying to reboot the staffer's concentration so instead of falling below the event horizon, the staffer can get a little perspective and re-eastablish his mindset. Absurdity, or a brain teaser or riddle are all techniques that can work with a staffer who ends up hyper-focused or is obsessing on something.

Not one of these techniques (except perhaps the Schuler) works for every staffer. But you should keep all of them in your toolbox. The straight-ahead "you are failing & I need you to change in the following ways" is necessary, too, though not as often as it actually gets used.

Put these in your perople-management repertoire. Experiment with your staff. Get more like baseball. And you'll get better.at what you do.

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