I’ve enjoyed reading through a book of commencement speeches this week called “Way More Than Luck”. Most moving to me was the one given by Madeleine L’Engle to Wellesley College in 1991.
She recounted how she was placed in a school which valued sport participation and she wasn’t able to contribute due to having been born with legs of two different lengths. For some reason, her home room teacher equated this with a lack of intellect and completely gave up on her. Madeleine withdrew from her schoolwork and began to dedicate herself to her own writing in Grade three. She eventually switched schools and ended up with a first-year teacher who considered it part of her role find and affirm in each person, that which is intrinsically valuable. The teacher tasked her with writing a sequel to the Odyssey.
I liked this reminder that people can rise to challenges but that your attitude about whether you think they can is crucial.
A recent article from the Harvard Business Review, People won’t grow if you think they can’t change, elaborates the point drawing on the fixed mindset versus growth mindset work of Carol Dweck. Not only is a growth mindset important to see the potential for people to grow, a fixed mindset may prevent you from seeing the progress an employee has made (and may also well prevent an employee from seeing the progress you are making) thus calcifying a difficult relationship.
What was also poignant about reading L’Engle’s commencement speech was that L’Engle’s teacher acted as a force multiplier for her by taking a task that she was willing to do on her own and asking her to stretch and build on it. I dipped into a book called Multipliers earlier this year on this theme. While “diminishers” are apt to believe that work can’t get done without the help of a manager are more likely to shut people down with sharp remarks, “multiplier” managers can get two times more work from their people if they can build on their employee’s existing talents – things they can do with minimal effort, things they do without being asked and things that they’d do readily without being paid. What is perhaps most liberating about multipliers is that they generate pressure to create the best work (and create the space that this could occur) without creating stress. They rather generate the belief that the impossible is possible.
L’Engle admits that her sequel to the Odyssey likely wasn’t that great but the suggestion to attempt it seemed to help plant the seed for her momentous career in writing.
We are in March madness for finishing our year end appraisals in the public service so this is timely. I don’t think that it would be a surprise that giving feedback that may not be well received is stressful for anyone – managers or clients or friends. It’s a skill I will be working on for the rest of my life. And though I have benefitted greatly from this book on Difficult Conversations which I consider a management bible, I have likely gotten as much benefit from cross-discipline study on empathy and compassion.
I was more disheartened to see here that the issue could be framed as widely as communicating writ large and that giving credit or recognition were sources of significant difficulty for so many managers.
That said, I am a very introverted person by nature and I would suspect that there are many other introverted managers out there learning new communication patterns to align with this role.
What has helped me most was likely deliberate practice for all types of communications. Something greater than “just do it” though that is half the battle.
A former coach asked me to put a post-it on my computer to remind me to initiate more phone calls over emails – it was a good move. I got so much more useful information at the margins of those conversations then I had ever planned that it became a habit.
For recognition, I have been influenced by this excellent book, and I now prepare so I can be very clear on why a person’s contribution is appreciated. I’ve watched train wrecks where someone freestyles it and the wrong person is congratulated for something and soaring moments where significant and long-standing contribution is paid meaningful tribute.
For difficult conversations, I (over) prepare to try and understand the issue, the effect on the team and what my role is in the situation. For these ones, the most difficult preparation is to remember to both stay on message and roll with the punches. You may want to jump in at the deep end and be aware of your own reactions to stress so you can have strategies to moderate in advance.
And for any communication that I’d find a challenge, I try to create my own feedback loop as to what went well and what I can do better in future. Lastly, I benefit from remembering while I am learning that learning to receive feedback is its own skill.
The general idea is that we need to adapt our leadership to situations and the course guides you through exercises which would help you probe particular areas which might require your adaptive skills. The work of the course is to separate technical challenges from ones that are more complex and need emotional commitment and engagement.
Some of the readings that resonated with me were on the execution of tough decisions.
“Tough decisions require that you put your heart into them, nourish the possibilities and then make a commitment to a course of action. If you are struggling with a decision then it is likely that all the options have merit. Outcomes are usually significantly influenced by factors beyond your control and imagination. And most decisions are iterative. You can make a move, take the risk and if things are going well, continue, and if not, take corrective action. See if you can lighten the load on your decisions and even make better choices because tough does not necessarily mean important – stakes may not be as high as you imagine them to be (versus medical judgements which are high stakes). Maybe you are just making the next move on the dance floor. Think of a past tough decision and take heart in knowing that you survived whatever decision you made. And if you need to give yourself permission to fail, prepare the ground for your constituents. Enlist them in giving it a shot – language is crucial – not that you can be counted on to pull this off but rather, perhaps that you are trying something to push the envelope.”
And on building stomach for the journey:
“Building resilience is similar to training for a marathon. You need to start somewhere…In an organizational context, this can kind of training can take the form of staying in a difficult conversation longer than you normally would etc.[…] To further build your stomach for the adaptive leadership journey keep reminding yourself of your purpose. Runners look forward, not down. Saying focused on the goal ahead will keep you from being preoccupied or overwhelmed by the number of steps necessary to get there. ”
“Leading adaptive change will almost certainly test the limits of your patience. […] Impatience can hurt you in numerous ways. Your raise a question and don’t get an immediate response. So you jump right in and keep pounding on the question. Each time you pound, you send the message that you are the only person responsible for that question. You own it. And the more you pound away, the less willing people are to share ownership of the question themselves. And if they do not feel any ownership of the question they will have less investment in whatever the resolution turns out to be.”
“You can find patience by tapping into your ability to feel compassion for others involved in the change effort. Compassion comes from understanding other people’s dilemmas, being aware of how much you are asking of them. Your awareness of their potential losses will calm you down and give you patience as you travel a journey that may be more difficult for them than for you.”
If you want to take on a patience building exercise: Recall situations in the past when you have experienced great patience and think about what enabled you to do that. Perhaps you were patient as your child learned something and you could remember yourself how hard it was for you to learn these skills. Or you believed that most people survive difficult journeys and mastered needed skills so you had optimism that fuelled your patience.
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.
A useful addition to the literature on communications at work.
The author suggests that there are three general reasons for crying at work:
– a “formidable manager”
Inspiring fear or even respect through expressing power doesn’t form any part of my conscious management style (in fact, quite the opposite) but, sadly, I am not overly patient by nature and moments extreme frustration have brought out my most strident behaviour as a manager making people cry and I feel dreadful about this.
I have also been told that people have cried off site because a disconnect in the direction I was giving and what they needed from me. In the latter case, I was able to eventually clarify that I had no further direction to give. A part of high level competency in our world is advancing projects on generalized direction and creating products that no one has ever seen before. Moving away from templates can make our otherwise often bureaucratic work invigorating though it can also be de-stablizing. But, I don’t want people to feel destabilized and unsupported. On this experience, I have now gotten better at saying, I given you all that I know, just put some ideas down and we’ll work through this together.
– the intersection between personal and professional
As I have written before, I will now solicit and give general information on the goings on in personal lives to help understand how emotions might modulate over time and better understand that a bumpy patch does not mean that someone is fundamentally unsuited for a certain work environment.
– organizational culture and differences.
This includes personal management style and meeting people where they are. I’ve just finished Bob Sutton’s book Good Boss, Bad Boss and he would counsel that it is OK to show flashes of anger to really get a point across. I prefer the “pick a face” approach. I find with high performing teams, their own desire to perform well will be sufficiently bruised by the most moderately presented feedback that there is no need for extreme emotion. That said, I think it is true that as elaborated in the Talent Code, having a boss you respect enough to want to please and feel a bit intimidated into doing so, doesn’t harm but help. You stay on your A-game and you work on being prepared to present.
Will we be able to utterly avoid ever crying at work as the author suggests, I doubt it. I was informed of the sudden death of my father at work and I did want to know this as soon as possible but falling apart at work was a consequence. People were lovely and supportive on that day and the days to follow.
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.
It has a useful reminder that the emotions of the leader are contagious and they set the tone for the room telling us if we should we celebrate or go to fight or flight mode.
Where I’d like to read more is how to work with empathy as an inexact science. We can never really know how people are feeling just through observation. We can ask how people are feeling and why and we can get farther but limits remain depending on how good people are at articulating how they are feeling (I have been in workshops where they handed out lists of emotions to help people name them).
We are then also limited by trying to make a bridge between what is being expressed and our own life experiences to that we can be truly empathetic. In my own work life, I can usually find a time that I have felt a similar emotion to what employees are expressing to get farther along the empathy continuum. That said, even all of this works well, my first instinct will often be to offer how I might advance the situation given my own experience. This may not be the most helpful use of empathy – maybe it is better to use this information with a certain discipline to create the space for employees to create their own way forward.