Category Archives: communication

A Case for Being a “Nice” Boss

‘Nice’ is not a word that is often used to describe successful leaders. But, it’s really all about how you look at it.  This post, from 2012 attempts to shift the perspective about ‘nice’ from one of weakness to one of strength.

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My uncle, now deceased, used to have a little wooden plaque hanging on the wall of his den.  It read, “It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice”

I was reminded of this the one day when I caught myself being not nice to a young man who was conducting telephone surveys for an insurance company.  Specifically, I allowed my disdain for unsolicited telephone surveys to affect the way I spoke to him.  That wasn’t fair.  And it definitely wasn’t nice.  So I apologized and then did my best to separate my dislike for the survey from my empathy for someone doing an honest and thankless job.

It occurred to me then that nice, at least in corporate settings, is often the victim of our contempt and in fact frequently equated with weakness.  The perspective is that people who are nice are pushovers. They lack character. They are spineless, maybe even incompetent.  When we ask people to describe a leader, they invariably say things like, strongdecisive, visionary, and courageous.  Rarely are they characterized as ‘nice’.  Indeed in some organizations we even expect our leaders to bring with them a measure of unpleasantness.  It goes with the territory.  After all, they are busy people. ‘Nice’ doesn’t get the job done.

But to me, ‘Nice’ gets a bad rap.  In fact, it has an important role to play in organizational success.  It could also use some repositioning in terms of the way we think about it.

So let’s try it.

What if we decided to equate ‘nice’ with strength instead of weakness?  What would it look like?  Well, here’s what I’m thinking about that:

When “nice” = “strength”…

It would look like Kindness  ~ We’ve all heard it.  “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” It’s an old American proverb with an enduring ring of truth.  And really, it takes just as much time to be mean as it does to be kind.

It would look like Truthfulness ~ Here’s where ‘nice’ grows teeth. Sometimes engaging in difficult conversations and telling people what they need to hear to make better choices is much nicer than avoiding or misleading them.  Often, taking the easy way out is very far from being nice.

It would look like Respect  ~ To me, respect asks us to behave like adults and treat others like adults too.  There is no room for condescension or patronizing behaviour in my definition.  It’s simply not nice.

It would look like Generosity ~ Generosity is often about letting go of something we’d rather keep for ourselves.  It is a demonstration of regard and a vote of confidence.  It takes strength.  And, it’s a nice habit to adopt because generosity can be catching.

It would look like Clarity ~ Being clear about what we need and what we expect is part of the package, especially if we intend to use those expectations as a benchmark for performance appraisal at some point.  Otherwise, it’s not fair and especially not nice.

It would look like Empathy ~ Seeking to understand how things are for others is a primary role of the leader.  It’s the way s/he “tunes in” to the work environment and engages people, not only in conversation but also in playing a willing part in fulfilling the organizational purpose.

It would look like Civility ~ Good manners are certainly part of being nice.  We may think we don’t have time for this. We are too busy.  I assert, however, that for workplaces to be ‘livable’ they must include courteousness.  People work better together when they treat each other well.  It’s as simple as that.

The truth about being “nice” is, it really doesn’t matter what you call it.  It’s not about the word.  It’s about the behaviour that the word suggests.  If we choose to look at being nice as a weakness, we will continue to discount its value in the workplace.  We will cling to the notion that “nice ‘guys’ finish last” and  keep on accepting objectionable behaviour from leaders who believe it.

So let’s remember those words from the American Playwright, Wilson Mizner, ~ “Be nice to the people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down”

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

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Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, Leadership Values, Uncategorized

Getting the Questions Right

This post, from September, 2011 examines the power of questioning as an effective leadership tool.

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My brain is all clogged up.  I’m trying to write a blog post and it’s coming out like the Sermon on the Mount. I hate when that happens.  Sermons have their place but am not ordained to deliver them.  Besides, to me, one well-placed question is worth a hundred sermons.  In fact, one well-place question can be just the lubricant a clogged brain needs for the wheels to get going again.

So maybe I’m onto something here.  Maybe it is that leaders who feel they must have all the answers would be better off if they focused on the getting the questions right instead.

What are the right questions?  Well, that’s a good question in itself isn’t it?

I’m thinking that the right questions are those that do two powerful things:

They stimulate curiosity and exploration ~ Not all questions are going to do that.  Some simply call for answers that are already known by someone.  The really good questions are those that have everyone scratching their heads, thinking about possibilities and going into explore mode.

They get to the heart of the matter ~ I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in meetings where people get royally bogged down in discussions that go absolutely nowhere.  Sometimes, in those situations one simple question can turn the tide, stop the noise and bring about an “oh, yeah” moment that puts the meeting back into production.

What does it take to get good at getting the questions right?  Here’s what I think:

We have to be interested in what is being said.  That’s kind of an obvious one; otherwise, what’s the point?

We have to learn to suspend judgment, be willing to listen more and talk less.

We have to practice.   Asking a powerful question is an art.  Like any other art it takes work.  We’re not always going to get it right so practice, (while not always making perfect), will certainly move us closer to the highly competent arena.

Finally, what are these questions?  Well, let’s start with what they aren’t

They aren’t complex.  Sometimes we can get all bound up in making our questions sound authoritative, profound or deeply intellectual.  In my experience, a question like this usually comes out like, blah, blah, blah with a question mark at the end of it. If no one understands the question, it’s not likely that people will find it appropriately stimulating.

They aren’t necessarily perfect ~ If a question comes from a place of curiosity, even if it is only partially formed, it can spark conversation and get juices flowing enough for others to complete it and move on to explore something that they may not have otherwise considered.

So, just to get you started, here are some sample questions that I think are pretty powerful:

How will we know when we have it right?

What are we not saying? (Aka the elephant in the room question)

Who must we involve?

What is more important?

What do we really want?

What are we really saying?

What would happen if we did X instead of Y?

These are just a few questions.  And yes, they are the kind that coaches ask of their clients.  If you are a leader, you are also a coach.  Trust me, you are.  And if you don’t think so, think again.

So now I’m curious.  When people are stuck how do you help them to move on? What questions do you use to get the conversation going?  Do you have a favourite question? What is it? What does it do?

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Filed under communication, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Uncategorized

Customer Service and a Tale of Woe

Many of us who write a business-oriented blog speak from our experience and employ whatever expertise we may have to promote good leadership and good business practices. The customer experience is often a measure of how well these elements are being carried out. This week’s post is about me and about my experience as a beleaguered customer of a certain company.  It’s a bit long but I hope you hang in there with me.

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Once upon a time there was a woman.  She was an ordinary woman and one who, like many others, had her share of challenges.  Lately her challenge was helping her husband find his way back from a major stroke, one that had left him unable to properly use his body.

The stroke had changed both of their lives in a significant way and the woman wanted her husband to regain some of his independence, for both their sakes.  So she started looking for a mobility scooter for him, one that was light enough for her to lift into the back of their car and also allow her husband to travel around the neighbourhood by himself if he should have the inclination.

She looked locally, but initially thought perhaps the scooters she saw were going to be too heavy for her to lift.  So she looked on the Internet…as you do.

She found Summit Mobility Products, a company located in Center Line Michigan.  Their scooters seemed to hold the possibility of being useful to him and manageable for her.  And so, at the cost of US$1,598.00 plus $160 for shipping, less $45 “instant rebate” she ordered one

It arrived promptly, on or about July 25, 2012, a shiny new Lexis Light scooter.

The woman and her husband were both excited about it and the independence it promised but when the she removed it from the box and assembled it, it proved not to meet their needs.  It folded up as promised but felt awkward and the battery was too small for the scooter to effectively cope with the hilly neighbourhood.  So, they decided to send it back.

The next day, the woman phoned the company and spoke to a very pleasant young lady who said she would be happy to receive the scooter and refund its cost but could offer no suggestion as to how the woman might get the scooter back into the original package and no mechanism to help her facilitate the return shipping.

Feeling somewhat abandoned but undeterred, the woman arranged for a local shipping company to repack the scooter professionally and send it on its way back from Vancouver, Canada to Michigan. The cost for this was more than double the amount charged to ship it to the woman in the first place but she had other priorities and so was anxious to deal with the matter expeditiously.

The scooter made its way to the U.S. border during the first full week in August 2012. The woman waited for word of its arrival in Michigan.  No word came.  She phoned the shipping company who advised her that unfortunately “they” (meaning an entity other than themselves) had lost the paperwork required for the scooter to cross the border.  The paperwork had to be re-submitted.  The woman waited some more.  When she called the shipping company again she was advised that US Customs had refused the package because it required a medical device listing number.  Efforts were made both by the shipping company and the woman to provide such a number. Summit Mobility advised that the scooter was not a medical device and therefore would not have such a number.  Much wrangling between the woman, the shipping company and Summit Mobility ensued.  In the meantime the scooter, (nicely re-packaged and ready to go), went nowhere… for seven months.

Eventually, the shipping company and Summit Mobility successfully identified the much searched for Medical Device Listing Number and it appeared that the light was finally green for the scooter to go on its way…for an additional cost of course.

By now it was March 2013 and the woman, concerned about the long delay in getting the scooter back to Michigan, called Summit Mobility and talked to a Manager there.  She reminded him of her story and asked him to confirm that if she undertook the additional cost to send it would he receive it and refund the money she had paid for it?  His response was positive.

On the strength of his assurances, the woman gave the shipping company permission to proceed.  This time the package passed through the US border without incident and arrived at Summit Mobility on March 26, 2013.

The company confirmed receipt of the scooter in good order and indicated their promised intention to refund its cost (less shipping costs of course).

To date, in spite of copious phone calls and e-mails, the company has failed to reimburse the woman.  Further, they have not returned any of her phone calls.  From time to time she does catch the Manager at his desk.  Each time he confirms her home address and assures her that “the cheque is in the mail” or the Visa Account will be credited.  Nothing.

On occasion, she will call and a pleasant person will transfer her to the manager.  On those instances she is often sent to voice mail instead.  Each time, she leaves a message.   She makes it a point to be polite.  At no time does she receive a return call.   On another occasion, the manager referred her to someone in the accounting department. But the accounting department does not return her calls or respond to her e-mails either.

Might she have done something differently? Of course she might.  She might have chosen to save the costs of shipping the scooter back to Michigan by selling it locally.   In light of the events that took place, she would most certainly have been better off financially had she done that. However, her choice in this instance is not the point.   She sent the scooter back after assurances from the company that she would receive a refund for its cost.  They have confirmed its receipt and yet have failed to send her the money she is owed.

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Of course I’m the woman in question.   And having sent the company a final e-mail summarizing my experience with them and outlining my expectations one more time without a response, I’m ready to try something different.

So, if this story resonates with you in any way, I’m  asking you to send a copy of this blog post to Summit Mobility Products via e-mail.  If you feel inclined to add your own short message as well, I would be most grateful.  I only ask that you do so with the utmost of courtesy.

The company’s e-mail address is info@summiteasy.com.  The Manager I spoke with is Mike Flosky.  His email address is mike@summiteasy.com.

The truth is I feel  more than a bit foolish about my decision to stubbornly send the scooter back to the company in spite of the difficulty and additional cost involved. But,  I rather think this story reflects more badly on Summit Mobility Products ‘ integrity than it does on my lapse in judgment.  I’d like to find a way to send that message to them loud and clear in the hope that it will encourage them to do the right thing.  Care to join me?

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An Update ~ October 23, 2013:  For those of you who have been gracious enough to read, and empathize with my tale of woe, I’m very pleased to tell you that I have now received the refund I have so long sought.  This is, in no small part, due to so many of you who took the time to comment on the post; e-mail the company; and in some cases do both.  It appears that my words alone were simply not enough.  Your words, together with mine made a powerful difference.  Thank you for your time and your generosity.   It will be long remembered. 

Sincerely

Gwyn

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Filed under communication, Customer Service, Leadership

Making Key Distinctions ~ Not Just The Facts Ma’am

This post, from 2011, touches on the importance of critical thinking and its role in the process of decision-making.

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Lately I’ve been pondering on the importance of critical thinking as a vital leadership skill.  When I talk about critical thinking I’m referring to a conscious, deliberate and focused mental practice that allows us to uncover accurate information on which we can make sound judgments and take meaningful action. So, it’s a big deal.

It is, of course, such a big deal that it requires much more than one blog post to examine. But, it occurred to me that often, one of the things that gets in the way of our ability to think critically is the way we process incoming information particularly as it pertains to the rather fuzzy distinctions we tend to make between facts, inferences, opinions and assumptions.  So, in this blog post, I think I might be able to at least shed a little light on that.

Let’s look at the definition of each of these words:

Fact is something known with certainty that can be objectively demonstrated and verified;

Inference is an interpretation of events that provides explanations for situations in which all of the facts are not available or yet to be determined;

Opinion is a subjective statement based on personal beliefs and;

Assumption is a supposition or idea that is unsubstantiated by fact or conscious reasoning.

To the critical thinker, the goal in processing new information is to get as close to fact as possible.  Facts are hard evidence.  I think it safe to say that the farther away we get from fact, the less reliable will be our evidence.  As such, it is an important leadership skill to be able to clearly identify sources of information and put them in the proper perspective.  This does not mean that facts are the only basis on which leaders will make a decision. However, it does allow them to place value on the information received and guide the decision-making process accordingly.

Here’s a simple example of what I mean when we draw conclusions based on our personal observations.  It comes from a course that my colleague and friend, Maureen Hannah and I developed on the subject of critical thinking.   It is a schematic meant to illustrate the possible conclusions that could be drawn from available information.

I think that consciously discerning between fact, inference, opinion and assumption makes room for clarity in decision-making.  As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “ Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts”

What do you think?

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Filed under building awareness, Building Relationships, communication, Leadership Development, Organizational Effectiveness

360 Survey On the Wall…I Hardly See Myself at All

This post, from January 2012, challenges the 360 degree feedback process first popularized in the 1990s. Too often, rather than use such a  process as a springboard to having important conversations, we make the process itself the focal point thus diminishing its usefulness. 

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I’m not a big fan of surveys.  That includes, (dare I say it?), the 360 degree performance assessment type survey.  I know, they are meant to be a useful tool but to me, no matter how carefully put together they are, the result is rather like a distorted mirror in the Fun House, not very clear and not particularly accurate.

On the face of it, 360-degree assessments present as simple processes; something like the one Bob here is undertaking. (The clip is 62 seconds)

The trouble is, there are often a number of factors at play that skew the results one way or another.  Here are only a few examples of what I mean.

  • When Bob’s boss asks him to complete a survey at a time when Bob is not best pleased with him, his objectivity flies out of the window and his responses are coloured by the way he’s feeling at that moment in time.
  • Bob would like his colleagues to complete their survey about him favourably so he completes their surveys favourably too.  It’s kind of a quid pro quo thing. You know?
  • The questions all ask Bob to respond by choosing from a range of ratings from poor to outstanding.  While he has a pretty good idea what each rating means to him, he has no idea what they mean to others and what standards they work from when they complete the survey.
  • Even though there may be room for Bob to explain his ratings, usually he doesn’t, because frankly he doesn’t have time.  He still has more surveys to complete for several more of his colleagues. So he just ticks the boxes and hopes that will be enough to satisfy the process.

So, while I agree that “good information helps Bob make better decisions”, the information gathered from a formal 360 process runs risk of being inaccurate and therefore, not really that useful.

The question is, what is Bob to do?  How will he find out how he’s doing if there is no formal process to tell him?

To me, the answer lies in his willingness and ability to consistently focus on three things:

How he talks to people and how he listens ~ If the communication between Bob and his Boss; Bob and his colleagues and; Bob and his team is honest, clear and empathetic, there will be enough trust among them for him to simply ask how he’s doing without having to go through a formal and anonymous process.

How he builds relationships ~ in my mind, the health of any business relies on its ability to build relationships.   This requires people like Bob to work well with those around him; to understand their challenges; help them; and solicit their help too.  Building relationships ensures that the quid pro quo among colleagues has meaning that goes beyond the notion of “I’ll tick your’ like’ box if you’ll tick mine”.

How much he cares about helping others to learn and grow ~ In my book, people who spend time coaching and providing learning opportunities so that others can be and do better usually know when they are doing well.  For them, great performance comes from their ability to help others deliver great performance too.  If Bob were to do this, he would have no need of a formal feedback structure.  He would be giving it and getting it.  Every day.

So okay, maybe I’m being a bit Utopian.  I know there are still many organizations that struggle with all three of these things.  It is not an ideal world.  I’d like to think though that rather than relying on complicated and expensive 360-degree performance processes to guide them, more workplaces will spend their time talking, listening and simply building relationships well enough to make them unnecessary.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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Leading with Emotion

This post is from 2011.  I was inspired to write it after watching an interview with someone who is never ashamed to show emotion and is highly successful in engaging and inspiring others to excel. 

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I “grew up” working in a very large organization which, for the most part, was notorious for its, um, conservative culture.  In my early experience, this meant that emotions, when expressed at work, were largely met with disapproval.  There were a couple of exceptions of course.  Anger was one.  And the other was fear.  Together these two sentiments, along with their not-so-distant cousins, irritation, exasperation, disgust, nervousness and envy formed a large part of my early working environment along with apathy, the place of neutrality where it was relatively safe but not very inspired.

I think we have learned a lot since those early days.  Thank goodness.  More and more we are encouraged to bring our whole selves to work with us.  More and more, leaders are seeing the benefits of doing the encouraging.

I’m wondering though to what extent business organizations are taking this concept of giving other emotions, like love, joy and surprise greater space and actively incorporating them into their everyday culture.  I know there are some. Zappos.com comes to mind for one. But, I ‘m thinking there are more that still squirm when considering the notion of bringing these perceived softer, and potentially messier, sides of humanity to work and giving them pride of place.

So, I tried to find somewhere where leading with emotion has worked a kind of magic that can, potentially be translated into any organization no matter the focus or the product.

I came up with Celine Dion.  Okay, I’m imagining some eyes rolling in an upward direction here.  Celine Dion is not everyone’s cup of tea.  She is often portrayed and perceived as overly dramatic, too effusive and excessively ostentatious. But hey, who better to study when considering the impact that overt emotion can have on organizations than someone who does it in a big way?

Ms Dion and her husband Rene Angelil operate their own company. M. Angelil is President and Manager of (wait for it) Feeling Productions. In 1999 they entered into a partnership with Cirque du Soleil to produce the Las Vegas Show, A New Day. At $300 million, it was reportedly the biggest contract ever negotiated in the history of the music business.  And they did it practically on a handshake.

Here is the beginning of the story of how A New Day came about.  Although it may be tempting, I urge you not to skip watching it because there are clues in here about the power leading with emotion can have on a company of diverse people with diverse interests. Pay particular attention to Celine as she meets the show’s dancers for the first time.  Listen to what the dancers are saying about her and the show. What emotions are at play?

Here is what I am learning from this:

I don’t have to be perfect to be inspiring

In fact I expect that the opposite might be true. Imperfections especially, if I am self-deprecating about them, have a way of making me more human and perhaps more forgivable.

I do have to acknowledge the value that others bring and…tell them…often.

What is more encouraging than having someone say something like, “You changed a bit of my life today”? To me, that’s pretty powerful.

One small gesture of appreciation can lead to very big things.

Celine’s back stage gesture to the cast of Cirque du Soleil triggered a set of events that otherwise might not have happened.  Genuine enthusiasm, admiration and pride for the work of others are powerful motivators.

As a leader, my positive emotions can be even more infectious than my negative ones.

I just have to call upon them more often by looking first for what’s right , not what’s wrong.

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What stood out for you?  If there is one take away here that will help you engage and inspire others, what would it be?

(Please note, the use of the video clip is in no way an attempt to infringe on copyright.  It is being used here solely to serve as a learning instrument)

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Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, motivating & Inspiring

Leadership: A Case for Being Nice

This post, originally published in January, 2012  touches on the idea that certain words evoke  images that can colour our attitudes and behaviour.  “Nice” is one such, often much maligned, word.  

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My uncle, now deceased, used to have a little wooden plaque hanging on the wall of his den.  It read, “It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice”

I was reminded of this the other day when I caught myself being not nice to a young man who was conducting telephone surveys for an insurance company.  Specifically, I allowed my disdain for unsolicited telephone surveys to affect the way I spoke to him.  That wasn’t fair.  And it definitely wasn’t nice.  So I apologized and then did my best to separate my dislike for the survey from my empathy for someone doing an honest and thankless job.

It occurred to me then that nice, at least in corporate settings, is often the victim of our contempt and in fact frequently equated with weakness.  The perspective is that people who are nice are pushovers. They lack character. They are spineless, maybe even incompetent.  When we ask people to describe a leader, they invariably say things like, strongdecisive, visionary, and courageous.  Rarely are they characterized as ‘nice’.  Indeed in some organizations we even expect our leaders to bring with them a measure of unpleasantness.  It goes with the territory.  After all, they are busy people. ‘Nice’ doesn’t get the job done.

But to me, it gets a bad rap.  In fact think it has an important role to play in organizational success.  I think too, that it could use some repositioning in terms of the way we think about it.

So let’s try it.

What if we decided to equate ‘nice’ with strength instead of weakness?  What would it look like?  Well, here’s what I’m thinking about that:

When “nice” = “strength”…

It would look like Kindness  ~ We’ve all heard it.  “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” It’s an old American proverb with an enduring ring of truth.  And really, it takes just as much time to be mean as it does to be kind.

It would look like Truthfulness ~ Here’s where ‘nice’ grows teeth. Sometimes engaging in difficult conversations and telling people what they need to hear to make better choices is much nicer than avoiding or misleading them.  Often, taking the easy way out is very far from being nice.

It would look like Respect  ~ To me, respect asks us to behave like adults and treat others like adults too.  There is no room for condescension or patronizing behaviour in my definition.  It’s simply not nice.

It would look like Generosity ~ Generosity is often about letting go of something we’d rather keep for ourselves.  It is a demonstration of regard and a vote of confidence.  It takes strength.  And, it’s a nice habit to adopt because generosity can be catching.

It would look like Clarity ~ Being clear about what we need and what we expect is part of the package, especially if we intend to use those expectations as a benchmark for performance appraisal at some point.  Otherwise, it’s not fair and especially not nice.

It would look like Empathy ~ Seeking to understand how things are for others is a primary role of the leader.  It’s the way s/he “tunes in” to the work environment and engages people, not only in conversation but also in playing a willing part in fulfilling the organizational purpose.

It would look like Civility ~ Good manners are certainly part of being nice.  We may think we don’t have time for this. We are too busy.  I assert, however, that for workplaces to be ‘livable’ they must include courteousness.  People work better together when they treat each other well.  It’s as simple as that.

The truth about being “nice” is, it really doesn’t matter what you call it.  It’s not about the word.  It’s about the behaviour that the word suggests.  If we choose to look at being nice as a weakness, we will continue to discount its value in the workplace.  We will cling to the notion that “nice ‘guys’ finish last” and  keep on accepting objectionable behaviour from leaders who believe it.

So let’s remember those words from the American Playwright, Wilson Mizner, ~ “Be nice to the people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down”

What do you think?

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Filed under building awareness, communication, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development

4 Barriers to Effective Communication & What to Do About Them

Communication is a big deal.  And, getting it right is an ongoing challenge for everyone.  Maybe that’s why this post, originally written in 2011, has received the most visits of all other posts on this blog.  Its’ message provides only a small piece of the communication jigsaw puzzle but, you never know, it just might be a corner piece.

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I’m wondering how many words have actually been written about communication. Suffice it to say there have been a great many.    I suppose it is because we haven’t cracked it yet, this ability to convey messages so that what we say is heard in the way we mean it and conversely what we hear is received in the way it was meant.   Indeed, the road to clarity always seems to be under construction.

Even if we try to simplify our communication processes, barriers come up that can sabotage the message and render it ineffective by the time it gets to those who must act on it.  There are a lot of reasons for this.   Here are four that come to mind for me.

Cultural Barriers

There are many factors that make up what we refer to as “culture” but to me, cultural difference is about attitudes and beliefs that come from our personal environment and experience.  As such, two people could get the same message but interpret it in two entirely different ways simply because their frames of reference and language differ.

Here is an example from a Scandinavian advertising campaign.  It was developed for the vacuum cleaner Manufacturer, Electrolux, then interpreted and  used, without modification, in the company’s American campaign.  It read, “Nothing Sucks like an Electrolux”  

What To Do

  • Consider the cultural makeup of the intended audience.
  • Seek to understand where there are differences.
  • Fashion the message to ensure that it says what you mean and also takes those differences into account.

Linguistic Barriers

Variance in expression or colloquialism is common even among those who speak the same language.

When my parents brought our family to Canada from England, there were a lot of expressions we used that were interpreted differently in our new country.  This once placed my mother in an embarrassing situation when she was sitting around a table with her co-workers one day discussing the time they each got up in the morning to get ready for work. When it came to my mother’s turn to speak, she said, “My husband knocks me up every morning at 7:30”.

It was only after the laughter had died down did someone explain to her the North American meaning associated with what she had just said.

What To Do

  • Minimize the use of slang and idioms when delivering the message
  • Keep the language used in the message simple and as free as possible from business speak or (dare I say it) sports metaphors.
  • Make clarity and simplicity the goal over showcasing linguistic ability.

Biases

We all have them.  Bias is, after all, shaped by our experiences and who we are.  It becomes an obstacle to effective communication though when we consciously or subconsciously choose to speak only to those who are more likely to understand and agree with us.  It’s natural.  But in leadership, it is also important to extend the reach of our message to those whose biases do not necessarily align with our own.

The workplace, for example, now employs more than one generation of people.  Each generation has its view of the world.  Each generation also has its challenges.  And yet, the messages you send must finds ways to reach and engage everyone to be effective.

What To Do

  • Acknowledge your own biases first
  • Look through the lens of those who are least likely to align with your views
  • Listen.
  • Fashion your message to include something that everyone can relate to.

Assumptions

It was Oscar Wilde who said, “When you assume, you make an ass out of U and Me”  

Assumptions sabotage effective communication and have the potential to lead everyone down unintended paths.  For instance, you may assume that because people are nodding while you speak, they understand and agree with what you are saying. Similarly, if you invite questions about your message and get none, it would be easy to assume there are none.   The truth is, few people will risk the potential embarrassment of being the only one who doesn’t agree with or understand your message or doesn’t know what to ask.   To assume they do would be a mistake.

What to do

  • Work on the basis that all your assumptions could be false
  • Make your assumptions known to others to determine their validity
  • Anticipate questions and concerns that could come out of your message and bring them up to encourage conversation

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Communication barriers are always going to be with us because humans are complex beings. That’s what makes understanding and being understood such a challenge…and sometimes a great source of fun. Like this…

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

(Please note the video clip is used here for illustration purposes only and in no way meant to infringe on copyright)

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Filed under communication, diversity, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Leadership: 5 Ways to Build & Sustain Battery Power

Human energy is a precious commodity.  It fuels creativity and  extraordinary accomplishment.  It is worthy of active consideration and is especially critical to good leadership.  This post from 2011 explores some ways of preserving and generating energy both for leaders and  their organizations.

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You are now running on reserve battery power”.

That’s what my laptop informed me the other day.  Rather whimsically, I wondered what it would be like if we had similarly obvious warnings built into our bodies with little red flashing lights designed to tell us exactly when we were about to run out of juice.

I don’t expect my laptop to go on forever.  I know, from time to time I’m going to have to connect it to a power source so it can build itself up to full strength again.   The irony is, I don’t always do this for myself.  I suspect this may be true of many of you as well.  For some reason, we believe ourselves to be capable of expending unlimited amounts of energy without attending to the restoration process with equal dedication.

I believe that leaders are particularly vulnerable to this kind of energy depletion.  Some will say that people depend on them to be there.  They expect them to be present to make decisions, lead the charge, and champion the cause.  The demands on them are such that there is no time to think about holidays or recreation that doesn’t involve a client, a supplier or a prospect.  They can’t afford to be seen as tired or weak and must find ways to soldier on no matter what.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it.

Here’s another.

In order for any organization to successfully fulfill its purpose and achieve its goals, it must learn to recognize, nurture, and manage its collective energy.   This means that everyone involved, including the leader, must take responsibility for not only the generation of human energy in the workplace, but also its ongoing replenishment.

So, from this perspective, what does it mean for the leader, in practical terms?  Well, here are some things that come to mind for me:

As Leader:

My job is to become dispensable

We all like to be needed but we do no one a service if we strive to make ourselves indispensable.  If this should happen, it means that as leader, I have not done a good job of training, mentoring, coaching or encouraging those around me.  As such, not only will my own energy be depleted quickly but the energy of others who are capable and eager to do more.

I must find ways to create flexibility in how we do things.

It’s easy to follow a well-worn path when it comes to how things are done.  The trouble is that the path can easily become a rut and that has a way of sucking the energy out of everyone.  Finding, and accepting, alternative ways of working, presents an opportunity to keep the workplace vital and the people in it creatively free.

I must make time for rest and quiet reflection

Some continue to believe that if they are not engaged in doing something, they are achieving nothing.  I believe that periods of rest and quiet reflection restore energy and give rise to creativity that cannot possibly come from a tired mind.

I must make room for fun, laughter and celebration

Simply put, a good laugh does wonders for the energy levels in any room.  Uncontrived celebrations and fun can do the same.  Life and work are full of little absurdities just waiting to be appreciated.   Energy soars when people laugh.  And it costs nothing.

On a cautionary note there is a cardinal rule associated with this. Laughter at any one person’s expense is unacceptable.  It’s mean.  And, rather than infusing the environment with energy, this kind of laughter will defeat the purpose by vacuuming it out.

And finally:

I must remember that I am human

When we are in charge of something, it’s easy to get carried away with our sense of importance.  We begin to believe in our own indestructibility.  We push through our tiredness; ignore our aches and pains and work through our illnesses.

It’s a mistake.  No one is that important.  Really.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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Filed under communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Management, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

Leadership and Straight Talk

This post is from June, 2011

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I happened across a movie the other day called Straight Talk.  It’s about a young woman who was accidently hired by a radio station to be an Agony Aunt.  This young woman, (played by Dolly Parton), was delightfully guileless and dished out her unadorned advice with clarity and good humour.   For example, her counsel to one caller who was obviously playing the martyrdom card went something like this: “Get down off the cross honey, somebody needs the wood!

It made me smile.  And, it also made me think about how important straight talk is in leadership.

Straight talk in organizations, when delivered with sincerity, tends to achieve understanding quickly. It brings clarity to confusion.  It allows for quicker problem solving. It values truth.  It builds trust. It grows integrity.

And yet, in so many organizations, we are incredibly bad at it.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this.  I suspect most of them have something to do with internal politics, bureaucracy, or perhaps a belief that the more complicated or obscure the language, the more important the message.

Whatever the reason, to me, creating an environment that values candid and respectful discussion is a leadership imperative and a key to building sustainable organizations.

So how might we go about establishing this straight talk environment?  Well, it could begin with establishing some principles, not unlike these:

Principle # 1: Talk to the Organ Grinder, not the Monkey

When we talk to the wrong person (or people) about something, we often do it to gain support or sympathy for our position.  It doesn’t usually solve anything and can create ill feeling and unnecessary speculation.

Principle #2: This organization is a jargon-free zone

I’m a fan of simple language. Business jargon (or any kind of jargon for that matter), may sound more intelligent or important but it has this tendency to get in the way of understanding.

Principle #3: Feedback goes stale. Serve while fresh. The longer we take to share information with each other, the less value it will have for us.  Ask permission… then deliver it when it’s fresh.  For one thing, it’ll be easier to remember and that usually makes it more useful.

Principle #4: People are not punished for speaking their minds

Often people are reticent to speak up for fear of ridicule or some other subtle form of punishment.  Taking the hammer out of the communication toolbox allows for more open and meaningful conversation.

Principle #5: Everyone has something important to say.

Adherence to this principle makes a promise to those who may be reticent to speak up, that their opinions count.

Principle #6: Listen first…talk later.

Listening is part of having respectful and candid conversations.  It allows for good questions.  Good questions invite thoughtful answers, which in turn, increase the quality of conversations.

Principle #7: R-E-S-P-E-C-T in this organization is an important noun and verb

This principle (otherwise known as the Aretha Franklin principle) pretty much speaks for itself.  Without it, the chances of establishing a culture of straight talk are pretty dim.

What do you think?  What would principles would you add?  How do you achieve straight talk in your organization?

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Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, organizational culture