11/16/2011 05:49 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2012

Train Your People -- Without Them Realizing It

I can make lasagna from scratch. Chicken parmigiana too, and several other complex dishes. But I can't tell you how; I don't know until I begin. That's because my parents taught me to cook without teaching me.

My parents, you see, are talented chefs. And for the better part of my childhood, we lived in a house that had a breakfast bar facing the kitchen. Since I was -- ahem -- a chatty kid, on many evenings I sat at that counter and talked with one or both of my parents as they prepared a meal. I didn't realize that I was learning to cook by osmosis.

Had I known, I probably would have resisted. In fact, on several occasions, my Mom or Dad tried to teach me. "You should know how to do this," they would declare in a parental tone, and either invite me to help or begin narrating some boring chopping or sautéing process. In response, I would immediately tune out or disappear. Thinking back, my parents could easily have used "come learn to cook" to get rid of me when they wanted to have a private conversation. Maybe they did.

Still, for every time they scared me off by offering to teach me, there were probably five or ten instances in which they didn't. Usually, they interacted with me in other ways. They allowed me to pilfer food from the cutting board, asked questions about my day, and laughed as we teased each other about a variety of silly things. It was during those moments that I learned what they were doing, and it's those moments I remember now when I break out the ingredients and intuitively know how to use them.

If kids dislike lectures, adults despise them. If kids tune them out, adults resist them with force. So I tell this story as a reminder, not for chefs with their kids, but for leaders and managers with their teams. Whether or not your people are learning anything from what you're saying to them, rest assured, they're learning from what you're doing. And just like teenage-me, sitting at that breakfast bar, they might be learning without either one of you knowing it.

Rather than worrying about this, or ignoring it, I suggest that you use it to your advantage. Your ability to model patterns of behavior that support a higher-output, lower stress workplace is one of your greatest assets. Consider a few suggestions, taken from my book Make Work Great, of what you might choose to role model:

First: Speak about output, not about process. I've written before about the tremendous power in monitoring the content of your conversation. When you tell employees how busy you are, how many meetings you have, and how full your calendar is, you teach them that success lies in chaos and busyness. On the other hand, when you speak only about the useful output you're producing, and how their output relates to your own, you show them that they provide value to you and the organization through their output. By subtly encouraging them to spend more of their own informal conversations on output instead of process, you also nudge them away from gossip, toward productive conversation about what they're trying to accomplish.

Second: Discuss why work matters. When employees work on things that don't benefit the company, they waste time and money. When they work on things that don't engage them, morale and output can suffer. Work will always include some wasted time, and some undesirable work. Both should be acknowledged. If you speak regularly with your employees, both about how their work matters to the company, and about how it provides personal incentive to them, you'll increase their sense of ownership of their work. At the same time, you'll encourage their sense of commitment to you and each other. Of course, you can't promise to make everyone productive and happy all the time -- such a promise is a recipe for disaster. But just by having the conversations, you will learn which work is most important, and which people are most inclined to do various parts of that work. As a manager, that kind of knowledge can only help.

Third: Take time to plan meetings carefully. When a leader or supervisor calls a meeting, the whole staff watches to see how it is run. A well planned, carefully run meeting shows that the leader respects employees' time. By extension, this means he or she expects them to respect each others' time as well. A poorly planned gathering, such as one held solely to save the manager the trouble of speaking to people individually, sends the opposite message, that "my time is more important than yours." That kind of message is not only disrespectful, but also problematic; imagine what happens in the group when everyone takes up the same attitude toward each other.

I learned how to cook by role modeling alone. I didn't know I was learning, and my "teachers" didn't get credit for the teaching until long afterward. Your people learn how to work in the same way: from you, through your actions, without knowing it's happening. Your influence, though invisible in the moment, is substantial.

You can create a workplace in which people take ownership of useful work that matters to everyone involved, and treat each others' time and effort with respect. Or, you can create one in which people pass blame, avoid responsibility, and try to place themselves ahead of everyone else. Just remember that you make your choice not through what you say, but what you do.

Whether you like it or not -- and whether anyone notices or not -- the rest happens by itself.