Tony Schwartz describes CEOs as Chief Energy Officers and writes here about his experience of re-orienting a meeting where he was feeding the group many new ideas with enthusiasm, and not receiving the warm welcome he had hoped for. Instead he was hearing about people’s stress and lack of recognition for the work done so far.
My two favourite points in his response:
“Because human beings have a strong “negativity bias,” we pay more attention to our bad feelings than to our good ones. It once clearly served our survival to be vigilant about what might go wrong and that instinct persists. Today, it may serve to buffer us from disappointment, but it also promotes disproportionate and destructive discontent. The simple question “What’s going right?” provides ballast in tough times.”
“The highest skill — whatever your role — is the willingness to embrace opposite feelings without choosing up sides. Acknowledging bad feelings is key to being able to address what’s causing them. Recognizing they’re only one part of the story frees us to notice what we feel good about and grateful for, which helps us to feel positive even in the face of ongoing challenges.”
I’d add a third observation from the first rate materials and training that I have received from the National Managers’ Community in the Government of Canada: Behind every complaint is a commitment. Whereas in my early days as a manager my instincts might lead me to wonder why people were “just being oppositional” when work needed to get done, when now I take the space for explorations of the values that people are indirectly expressing when they are complaining, I have found important information that may provide a jumping off point to a better working relationship. The number one reason that people are complaining: they want sufficient time and space to submit a good product.
I’ve read two pieces recently on the need the need to manage discomfort with uncertainty. Though there is a a good evolutionary reason for discomfort with things that don’t fit regular patterns, many types of work require a certain comfort with uncertainty. They’ve suggested that the MCAT add questions on dealing with ambiguity.
Seth Godin argues that you have to keep “levelling up” and not assume you are ever fully baked and that your knowledge stash would be complete.
Using some extreme examples such as the Waco hostage taking and the rise of the Nazis. author Jamie Holmes talks about the benefits of holding space for grey areas to advance thinking. What I appreciated most was the need to keep alternative perspectives on the table as long as possible because they might present solutions. I also appreciated the reminder that divergent approaches may be seeking the same end game – I tend to crave closure on big ideas and fact checking whereas others crave more perfectly presented documents – same craving with different stripes – closure and certainty.
We get better decisions (if we overfit for the past, this is a poor predictor of the future)
People can actually follow a small number of rules even under great stress.
The gist of the research:
Researchers examined product development teams to see who got the most done and overly rule driven and complicated processes resulted in the wrong products being produced very efficiently while teams with no rules had a great time getting nothing done.
Teams benefited from having a few rules that would guide work but leave flexibility for innovation.
The steps recommended to develop your rules:
Set your objective
Find the bottleneck (it may not be where you think it is – in the example given it was during the hiring process.)
Develop your rules by looking at your own data of when you have been successful and by talking to outside experts.
The hardest rules to follow are the ones telling you when to stop doing something – we are all great at starting something and very poor at stopping.
A very useful piece from the author of Just Listen – one of my favourite books for management reading of the past few years. Some helpful strategies here on what to do when you are struggling to listen to a venter or an over-explainer. Start from the premise that despite the lack of great communications skills, venters may have important things to tell you and that explainers may not be able to leave the belabouring space until they feel you have heard them. For over-explainers in particular, they may be having trouble feeling heard in other parts of their life and the impatience of the listener may actually cause them to delve even deeper into over-explaining.
The advice is essentially the same for both: override your instinct to shut down and ensure that you stay present for their words. The author even suggests that you focus on their left eye – which is connected to the right brain or the emotional brain.
Then when they are finished, say a variation of the following:
“I can see you’re really frustrated/had a lot to say. To make sure I don’t add to that, and to make sure I don’t miss something, what was the most important thing I need to do in the long term, what’s the critical thing I need to do in the short term, and what do I need to get done ASAP?”
After they respond, say to them, “What you just said is way too important for me to have misunderstood a word, so I’m going to say it back to you to make sure I am on the same page with you. Here’s what I heard.” Then repeat exactly, word for word, what they said to you. After you finish, say to them, “Did I get that right and if not, what did I miss?” Forcing them to listen to what you said they said, “because it was important,” will slow them down, will help you stay centered and in control, and will earn you their and your own respect.
Though this formula may not work for every setting, it’s a good starting off place – you clearly had something important to tell me, have I heard you?
The two examples are of a journalist breaking down during reports on the Paris attacks and a judge weeping during a trial. We are all emotional beings and it is normal that we will be affected by our work. That said, we may be in jobs where our expression of our own emotions about a situation might not be a helpful add-on to helping others understand what we are trying to convey. As I’ve discussed before, if someone is enraged with you, a fear reaction can actually cause you to go temporarily deaf – you’ll miss most of what they’ve said (though you’ll get that they were really mad).
I’m more and more convinced that as I work with top notch professionals who are putting out their best every day, it’s enough to say “this didn’t quite hit the mark” to make your point in most cases.
I liked that the exchange in this article made it clear that though expressions of emotions can occur involuntarily or justifiably in a work context the emotions don’t make the essential message any more true:
“…[W]hile a reporter’s emotions may pay testament to his humanity, they should not be mistaken for the path to a deeper truth.”
I’m enjoying the new series of short books (long essays really) put out by the TED group. These are single topic books that you can buy for your kindle for approx $10-$15 Canadian. I’ve enjoyed all that I’ve read including this first one called “Beyond Measure.” The book is a good and easy read but I’d welcome a longer treatment of the topic – it’s an important one.
The thesis on this one is that great teams are made by something difficult to measure and this is a strong work culture. The author calls it the secret sauce of organizational life. Culture is comprised of small actions and though often beyond our control as managers, it is happily non-linear in its spread.
You can create a strong work culture by building trust in an environment that generates the best ideas.
Unhelpfully. our brains like efficiency and search for matches including in hiring when we tend to hire mirrors of our selves not people who will help us be windows to the outside world. This means we don’t get the best ideas.
To generate a stronger team culture where new ideas are introduced including ones that will run against the grain, we need courageous leadership. This is a culture that will see people calmly raise issues and concerns. Unanimity is a sign that participation isn’t really whole-hearted. (She uses harrowing examples of plane crashes caused by bad work cultures and lack of communication, to illustrate this point).
She makes a good point there is often more give in most systems than we’d expect for raising new ideas. The challenge is to solicit discomforting data which will help us elaborate what we’d see if we were wrong. She uses a great example of US intelligence sniffing out the end of the cold war in her text. Basically, the top gun had been told that the cold war was in full force but when he stated probing if contrary data was available he found it. (meat being stolen from trains with no state recourse).
Hearteningly, she tells us what it takes to get collective intelligence in a team: ensuring each person speaks an equal amount of time, getting a group that is socially sensitive (to needs of others, group dynamics) and groups that include more women (this is thought to be linked to the second element).
The higher the social capital of a group, the better it can deal with conflict. The capital is created through a culture of trust and the ability to build on good ideas to make them even better.
Finally she cites “Project Oxygen” the study Google did on what makes a good manager. Subject matter expertise was found at the bottom of the list which was a surprise to many. At the top, good managers were ones who believe in and care about their staff and take an interest in their lives and allow employees to sort things out by asking them questions instead of giving direction.
I deeply admire Seth Godin’s ability to pump out blog posts daily on crucial topics.
This is a great treatise on how panic corrodes good work places. We don’t become better workers when we panic but worse ones.
Panic fuels the fight or flight reaction and actually makes us deaf.
“The answer to, “should we panic,” is always no. Always. Panic is expensive, panic compounds and panic doesn’t solve the problem.”
Panic also gives the message that we don’t have what it takes to overcome the hurdle or that we are headed for catastrophic outcomes.
My former coach Charles Lemieux created a teaching tool by taking the results of a survey on how the best companies do business and had simplified the key concepts into single words. For immediate supervisors, the word was “hope.” I think that panic, at least in the moment, erases hope and we abdicate our role as leaders when we give in to it.
The crux of the advice is that as tempting as it is to vent (belittle, demean) and make yourself feel better in the guise of holding people accountable, it’d be better to focus on how to help the person perform better.
Where Bregman really hits the nail on the head for my money is the remind us that high performing employees already feel your disappointment acutely when you express that something hasn’t hit the mark. You don’t need to spend more time on the disappointment piece but rather on how to build confidence to hit the mark the next time out. This is through building trust that you can get across the finish line. Best piece of simple advice, take four deep breaths before you react in the moment to figure out how to recalibrate to give your employees what they need to get over the next hurdle.
Some good tips here on managing stress on the spot.
– Identify your stress signals so you can react appropriately.
– Re-frame stress as an occasion to focus on something important that matters to you.
They also mention taking three deep breaths before you respond. What I’ve found is that I may have time for just one but it is the equivalent of when we say “3-2-1, pause” at the end of a tutoring session. One deep breath is often enough time to think instead of react.
I’ve also found the benefit of doing a quick check to see if a decision or feedback is really required on the spot or not. If not, no harm in asking to pend a decision when you’ve had more time to think on it.