Why Do We Care?

Have you ever been told that you were too emotionally invested at work? Maybe you’ve been chastised, ridiculed or patronized for being too concerned about your team members as individuals…

Good managers understand and appreciate the fact that the needs of the organization are paramount where profitability and customer service are concerned, but the best managers also recognize that without employees, the organization would cease to exist. They are individuals who show up in support of the organizational goal. They come with lives, families, professional aspirations, feelings and thoughts all their own. The positions they hold with the organization and the work they perform may represent one aspect of their lives and being, but certainly not the whole. When we as leaders begin to recognize that we are purposefully positioned to uplift and support them, the workplace may experience a resurrection of the dying culture of loyalty.

The Leading Edge: In 2017 at the MIT Commencement address, CEO of Apple, Tim Cook offers this advice: “People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.”

Empathy training for managers was on the rise during that time and in a more recent survey of 150 CEOs, empathy was recognized as key to success by over 80%.  This tells me that there is enough evidence to reconsider the importance and dismissal of emotional intelligence in the workplace.

As leaders, how do we shift from a culture defined by aggression and/or competition to a culture of empathy? First, it’s important to admit that it is leadership who has created and continues to endorse the existing social norms and organizational behavior. That said, it must be leadership who recognizes that what was socially acceptable for so long must change for the health and growth of the organization. Keep in mind that with this admission and accompanying decision to upend culture, backlash is inevitable.  Wait! It’s just the reality check phase.

Keep reading… Good news is on the way. New expectations will begin to clash with what had been acceptable behavior, creating confusion, misunderstanding and maybe even a little chaos. Those who had supported and adhered to the previous culture may feel betrayed and subsequently label your new leadership attempts as hypocritical or worse – out of touch.

Is a culture shift worth the drama and pain which will precede progress? Absolutely! Consistently working with existing social norms can change organizational culture.

In his book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World”, professor of psychology at Stanford University and author Jamil Zaki notes that just as people conform to bad behavior, they also conform to good behavior. Here are a few ideas for using this priceless insight to your advantage:

Practice! Empathy is “more of a skill than a trait”.  If it doesn’t come naturally, persist with practice. Not only can empathy be learned… it’s contagious.

Promote New Norms! No longer should the loudest voices dominate the conversation, create toxicity and hijack the perceptions of others. Only true leaders can draw attention to the new norm, starving the old of attention and rewarding the new.  

Identify Your New Culture Leaders! It’s important to note that these may not be the most popular or the most powerful people in the organization, but they are the most connected and therefore the most influential. When it comes to disseminating information, ideas and values, others look to and listen to them. Zaki refers to them as the “unsung influencers” and they can usually be found within. Recruit and co-create the new culture model with these individuals; allowing them to help you shape the culture as they champion the common cause. I would take this co-creation relationship a step further and request that these individuals keep you and each other accountable to the new culture norms for lasting positive results.

It will take time and it won’t be easy but, in my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the risks. You may discover that your chosen co-creators of culture are part of the empathetic majority. Wouldn’t that be a pleasant surprise!                            

Wishing you empathy and much success! 

COMM Envy

When Finish Lines Blur and Goal Posts Wobble…

Now and then I will provide content for those in positions of leadership to consider entitled: Leading Edge

With the increasing use of technology in organizations, and the changing climate of workplace transience or redefinition in some cases, an interesting interview question has been added to the list for mid-level professionals…

How do you “handle” (process or manage) “ambiguity”?

Ambiguity, by definition, denotes instability, doubtfulness; uncertainty of purpose, meaning or intention. I find the question itself more interesting than the variety of answers it may prompt. In my mind, the question posed by the interviewer begets another question: Why does the “ambiguity” exist in the first place? As one who believes that an interview serves to inform both parties involved (the potential employer and the potential employee), the interviewer’s question makes me wonder how effectively the organization communicates with its team members in general.

Explaining and managing ambiguity in a way that is productive and efficient for team members may require some insight for the existing lack of clarity and is not the same as managing change. In my experience, I’ve found that teams often embrace next steps or change more readily when they understand where we are as an organization and how we got there. Our team members may have questions; the answers to which can set them at ease and even influence forward mobility in the direction of the desired change. Team members may also provide helpful insight into process and procedure implementation; taking ownership of the project and managing the change alongside you. 

Organizational change can often be exciting when communicated properly and is almost always inevitable, assuming that growth is your goal. Though uncertainty can be presented in efforts to meet the needs and exceed the expectations of a growing and changing consumer base, when processes and procedures are not thoroughly identified and when effective communication to all internal stakeholders is lacking, there could be unexpected consequences – which include confusion, miscommunication and undue stress for those tasked with carrying out the change.     

Leading Edge:  7 suggestions to decrease tension related to change and foster cohesion  

  1. Maintain Focus: The vision or mission of the organization should remain squarely in focus as change is considered.
  2. Inclusive and Purposeful Meetings: Strategic planning teams should include all internal stakeholders; any teams or departments affected by or expected to support the change. Surround yourself with people who know their areas better than you ever could.
  3. Set Clear Expectations: Internal stakeholder expectations should be discussed and clearly defined during planning sessions. This is time consuming so patience cannot be forfeited.
  4. Posture for Success: Adequate training should be scheduled for all internal stakeholders, especially those responsible for conveying the message to or providing services for the consumer. The more prepared the frontline individuals are, the more secure your consumer base will be.
  5. Consumer Messaging: Positive, clear, concise and consistent messaging should be disseminated via all messaging platforms. This messaging will not only ease market tensions but will attract new business if your change is unique.
  6. Make Time Your Friend: Timelines should be realistic, allowing for thorough due diligence operationally and as it relates to human and financial resources.
  7. Define Success:How do we know when we’ve arrived? What does it look like – specifically?

Instead of settling for ambiguity (which can result in a waste of resources), we as leaders can establish a plan to reduce the anxiety and stress common to change and empower the people around us by making them integral to the strategic planning process. Team… play from the top – down.

Leaders Communicate

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded that you don’t care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
~Colin Powell

Visionaries are considered a rare breed. They have an ability to see a completed project or a successful event when others see an empty whiteboard or a vacant lot in an undesirable part of town. When they attempt to communicate vision, they are trying to bridge a divide; between skill sets, personalities, socioeconomic status or even world view. For this effort, they are admired and often receive a PASS for not being able to effectively and strategically communicate, what they can so easily envision, to the masses. They thoughts and ideas are seen to somehow transcend the rest of humanity; making them unable to illuminate the path for those who willingly carry the torch across the finish line.  

While visionaries are credited for their innovation and inspiration, those who are fully committed to assisting them in meeting these common goals struggle to see their part in the bigger picture. So, the problem seems to be two-fold. Rather than ask questions or raising thoughts or suggestions, managers and team members hear the words of the vision, take it at face value and set about to interpret the strategy, processes, policies, procedures and oversee the people who will make the dream a reality without adequate understanding.

One reason this can happen is that many organizations have nurtured a culture which discourages questions or alternate opinions. Somehow asking a question makes you less of a team player. Another reason managers fail to speak up might be because no one else is asking any questions; therefore, you assume that everyone else must know something that you don’t. Remember 5th grade when the teacher would ask… are there any questions? No one raised their hand, but you discovered the next day when the assignment was due and few students had completed it correctly that you weren’t the only one with a question… and that your question had the same answer that others needed to know but failed to ask.

I have had the pleasure of working with many directors and managers who are excellent communicators and who have become quite adept at “managing up”, in efforts to keep the organization’s vision moving forward. Unfortunately, their influence only goes so far. They run out of meaningful answers to their teams’ questions, because process and procedure details are unclear. Once managers receive the vision direction, they need time to digest the information for meaningful dissemination. Motivated to remain productive in their collaborative efforts with the leader, the lack of understanding causes managers to revert to saying something that my generation vowed never say to our children… Because I said so. Those words aren’t used, of course, but the phrases are just as ambiguous.

As much as I would love to see effective and meaningful communication become a grass roots movement or a bottom-up revolution that overtakes the top tiers of leadership… in general, that’s not how organizational change takes place.

Colin Powell, one of our country’s greatest assets (in my opinion) saw his role in the lives of US military members as an important one. Leaders such as he are willing to put forth the same effort that is expected of those they lead; displaying a personal commitment to ensure meaningful, goal-oriented communication organization-wide. There are several ways to begin this growth process as a visionary leader.

One way is to surround yourself with team members who compliment your skills – people who are smarter than you are in their areas of expertise. Let others help you see the vision from a variety of perspectives and articulate it in ways that make it easy to be owned by everyone. This action helps in creating buy-in and developing unity among team members across hierarchical levels of the organization.

Second, make yourself vulnerable by delegating important assignments to these individuals within the scope of their expertise. Be sure to include strategists on the team – people who can provide win-win opportunities during the process. Managers are valuable in moving the vision forward as well as accurately and effectively conveying the mission perspective and purpose to those who are on the front lines (servicing customers directly).

The outcomes of these activities will be evident as purposeful and clear strategy and process align with the vision to produce positive and sustainable results. I’m excited to hear your experience so leave me a comment to let me know how it goes.

COMM Envy

Meaningful Communication (Part 2)

“…innovation… requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people… get their feedback and understand their needs.” – Bill Gates

As mentioned in my last post, creating space for meaningful communication starts with YOU; but without participants who share the common goal of resolving an issue, while moving the organization toward positive outcomes, there is little chance for true communication (meaningful or otherwise) to take place. Strategic planning and problem resolution often require innovative thinking; identifying alternate possibilities, understanding the various aspects of a situation and bringing new ideas to the table. Ideas and suggestions are neither right nor wrong; but in daring to be labeled wrong… you run the risk of being right.

Ingredient #2: Strategic Team Building

Choosing team members is an essential aspect in setting the tone for meaningful communication. Decisions made and mandated in a vacuum are often detrimental to the health of an organization; negatively affecting employee morale, consumer confidence and financial viability.

Each team member should represent at least one “touch point” (area of contact with the customer or process) identified in the situation under review. In general, all team members, regardless of their function, should have the common goal of protecting the mission of the organization by aligning processes, procedures and personnel action to meet the stated objectives. With clear objectives in mind, each should freely present theories, ideas, concerns and suggestions in efforts of reaching an optimal solution. But, as an individual member, knowing why you are at the table helps to prepare you for your role in the process.

“Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”  – Vince Lombardi  

Example: If a customer service issue has yielded several online complaints, initial team members may consist of representatives from these touch points: operations, customer care, supervisor/management, and consumer data solutions. After reviewing the situation and hearing from each team members for perspective, it may be concluded that the customer complaints are not the result of process inadequacies. In that case, a new team with a different function may need to convene. This time, representatives may include human resources, supervisory or management presence and the employee(s) implicated in the complaint data.  

Gleaning from a variety of perspectives in a given situation is an important element in making targeted process and/or personnel adjustments and finding sustainable solutions to facilitate optimal outcomes. Partnering with individuals who are not afraid to share their perspectives and who have the organization’s goals and objectives at the forefront of their decision making is often a luxury… but meaningful communication starts one person at a time.

In situations involving widespread organizational change, the “one person” at the helm is ideally the leader of the entire organization. Senior leaders who value what their team members bring to the table are more successful than those who attempt to be expert in every area. Trust in your senior leadership and trust in your management team often starts with a decision; and is a topic for another time. For now, …

“Collaboration is a key part of the success of any organization; executed through a clearly defined vision and mission and based on transparency and constant communication.”  – Dinesh Paliwal

Meaningful Communication

“Love is that condition in the human spirit so profound that it empowers us to develop courage; to trust that courage and build bridges with it; to trust those bridges and cross over them so we can attempt to reach each other.” ― Maya Angelou

Welcome to COMM Envy!

Sustainable, legendary, temporal, functional, iconic… What kinds of bridges will you build?

The dissemination of information is often force fed as a substitute for thoughtful, meaningful communication. The function of these two actions couldn’t be more different. The conveyance or dissemination of information is often meant to be impersonal, with the goal of making something known, while requesting or requiring no response. Meaningful communication may start with the dissemination of information, but its delivery is provocative and purposeful; in anticipation of and literally requiring a response to validate its existence. In high school or college, you may have been taught to start a conversation with an open-ended question (requiring more than a YES or NO answer), which is a great! Without a response, our attempts at communication will hold less meaning for ourselves or others.  

Meaningful Communication (my personal definition)… that which makes a difference; leads to positive and purposeful results; presenting value to the table of ideas, forging a path of free-flowing conversation which makes way to suggestions that reveal solutions, which may have been long masked by opaque and seemingly debilitating thoughts or obstacles.

Have you ever been in a conversation when someone says exactly what you need to hear, in a way that you needed to hear it? The words satisfy your head and melt your heart all at the same time. It’s like cool rain on a hot day… or a breath of fresh air in the Shanghai smog on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s the type of interaction that can turn a day full of heavy, mundane, treadmill-like tasks into a weightless and exciting adventure. It can transform a web of complicated problems into a colorful tapestry waiting to be unraveled.  I know it sounds unrealistic… but it’s happened to all of us. The question is… How?

Meaningful communication can only take place in an atmosphere deemed to be non-judgmental; a safe space, conducive to positive interaction and mutual respect. Ideally, the scene should be free from penalty, blame, shame, anxiety or comparison. Participants should remain firmly planted in the present, with common goals and objectives focused on solving issues of relevance to all.

This may sound utopian, especially since we are all flawed and unable to manage some of these inner emotions all at once… But our inability to obtain perfection isn’t an excuse for us not to improve our current state.  Besides, wouldn’t you like for more of your meetings and interpersonal encounters to yield this kind of response?  Just think of the increased clarity of purpose and productivity you and your teams would experience!

Meaningful communication starts with listening for what we haven’t heard before; then opening our eyes, minds and hearts to the possibilities represented… not only by what we’ve just heard… but also by what we’ve just experienced.

Does that mean we should bow to the whisper and whim of everything we hear? Of course not. To communicate meaningfully doesn’t mean that we will always agree. It does, however, require self-awareness and mutual respect for the thoughts and ideas of others. It’s also important to note that we will be tempted to run away from inner growth rather than toward it. My advice: extend patience… with yourself and with others during this journey. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Run your race, hydrate and keep moving forward. You won’t regret it.

Still reading?

Great!

Let’s start by gather the ingredients.

Ingredient #1: YOU  

Meaningful communication cannot take place without an investment from you. Don’t panic – I’m not trying to sell anything here.  I’m talking about your willingness to listen… and in some cases to change; to be exposed to and maybe even embrace fresh perspectives, to respect the expertise of those around you – giving up on the idea of being the smartest person in the room, putting yourself in their place and allowing yourself to become vulnerable where you may lack experience, wisdom or insight. You can create an environment for meaningful communication to flourish.

Maybe you have biases which cause you to hear from certain people in certain ways, or not to hear from them at all. This is sometimes called selective hearing.  We all have biases and recognizing them is essential to honing your communication skills. Ask yourself: Did I hear what was said or did I hear what I think she/he meant based on previous experience?  Is it possible that I could be hearing a change in attitude or a different thought than was conveyed last week? Is the change real or is this just a fleeting attempt at empathy to be followed by more of the same?

Hearing and listening are two very different actions. Hearing implies the engagement of the physical ear and the mind. Listening on the other hand further engages emotions. It requires a level of interest in and empathy toward the person with whom you are engaging. Similar to my earlier example, not only do you hear and understand, but you begin to feel what’s being said. Some refer to this as hearing with your heart.

Example: If a family member, friend or colleague says something that you know is out of character for them, as someone who knows them and as someone who cares about them, you can consciously filter the comment (take it with a grain of salt, so to speak – not allowing it to affect you personally) and reach out to them in conversation to explore the potentially deeper meaning.

What about your own thoughts and ideas? Are you able to relate them to others without fear of manipulation, scrutiny or rejection? Deciding that what you bring to the table is both valid and valuable may be the beginning of your journey to create opportunities for meaningful communication in your circles of influence.  

Recommendations for the week:

  • Be patient with yourself and others. We have trained ourselves to be independent rather than interdependent. Communication may not come naturally as a result.
  • Remember:  You add value!
  • Listen for what you haven’t heard before and seek to understand.
  • Speak with the intent to build bridges, not walls. No one is an island. Let’s start by nurturing ourselves as we prepare to engage in meaningful communication with others.

Ingredient #2… Next Week