Overcoming Fake Talk

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What People Wished Their Leaders Knew

During my years as a consultant, I have often had people say to me, “I wish my leader knew …” to which I would encourage the individual to speak up and raise an issue of real concern so things might improve. When I did this, I often got the following responses:

“It won’t make a difference.”

“I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“It will just make them mad.”

Whatever the excuse for not speaking up, I noticed that most people were afraid of the consequences. Perhaps they thought negative things would occur because of the team atmosphere. However, I found that it didn’t matter whether those consequences were perceived or real; they were real to them. One thing I knew for sure, there was a whole lot of fake talk going on — conversations that didn’t address what mattered most and which negatively affected results.

Consequently, I thought it might be worthwhile mentioning some of what I heard in an attempt to broaden the perspective of leaders who deal with complex business challenges and who are tasked with solving problems. Listed below are a few of the challenges people mentioned that they had experienced with their leaders:

  1. “I can’t read their mind.” Sometimes we just assume that someone has understood us just because we thought we were clear. Because we understand something, doesn’t necessarily mean we have been clear in the way we have explained it. Asking questions to clarify our clarity and their understanding will insure execution of what we expect. Ask questions to verify expectations.
  2. “I wish they’d stop making promises that I can’t keep.” Some leaders know so little about what some of their people do that they don’t fully understand how long and what kind of detail are required to meet certain deadlines and objectives. Checking with those who will actually do the work will help set realistic objectives and expectations. Make a commitment only after checking with the people who will do the work.
  3. “I wish my leader would stop making commitments that the company can’t keep.” I heard this complaint most frequently in the aerospace industry where a company was under contract to build a product for a client. It was not uncommon once a contract had been signed for a client to make a number of additional requests to the existing contract. This phenomenon is referred to as “scope creep.” The client wanted to add a number of “bells and whistles” but still wanted the project to come in under budget, ahead of schedule, with quality construction, and totally safe at the price that was originally agreed upon. Such behavior put massive amounts of pressure and stress on individuals to meet the additional expectations in addition to the agreed-upon objectives. Checking parameters, available resources, cost factors and time commitments become the basis for effective negotiation. Don’t promise what can’t be delivered just because you think it can.
  4. “I wish my leader understood how changing priorities impacts everything I do.” This might occur because of the failure on the part of the leader to understand the particulars of what someone is doing. If there isn’t a conversation about off-loading one task for another and what needs to take precedence over time, then people become frustrated. In this situation, the frustrated party also needed to seek clarifications about specifics. For some reason, they were afraid to do so. Think through, identify priorities, and clearly establish a plan for the individual.
  5. “I wish they knew that their priority is not at the top of my list.” Sometimes an individual may work for a number of different leaders on various projects. It is often common for all of the leaders to know what the person is working on, but the leaders never talk among themselves and decide the priority of the projects to be completed. This situation leaves the individual with the task of deciding task priority and then having to defend themselves if they violated someone’s expectations. Get clear on project priorities.
  6. “I wish my leader would allot enough time to get things right the first time.” When I inquired about this statement, the individual actually told me that they had tried to address this situation, but they were told, “We really never get things right the first time, but doing something is better than doing nothing. Besides, we usually have all the time we need to get it right the second time.” This is an interesting way of solving problems and allotting resources. One can only wonder how much time and money were wasted in getting it right “finally.” Plan and decide to save time and money by allowing sufficient time and resources to get things done correctly the first time.
  7. “I wish my leader took more time planning and thinking through the cost of things.” When I asked for the situation behind this statement, I was told that this leader would often make budgeting decisions when planning large projects without asking for input. Then when a project overran the specified budget, the leader would blame everyone for not working efficiently. Ironically, this happened numerous times and yet, no one above this leader ever addressed their behavior, and the folks below always ended up taking the blame. Don’t be afraid to ask for input.
  8. “I wish my leader would ask my opinion rather than assuming what I think and then telling me I am wrong.” The individual who shared this statement told me that her leader said that he just assumed what she was thinking and decided that she was wrong before he ever asked for her opinion. He told her this after she asked him why he never asked for her opinion. Often the people who do the work know more about what isn’t working than their leaders do. Taking a moment to ask for people’s opinion or to solicit their understanding of complex problems can pay huge dividends. Don’t assume everything you think you know.

Obviously, the individuals on the receiving end of such behavior have some responsibility to share their concerns and make requests that would make their work more efficient. For whatever reason, they didn’t feel comfortable in doing so. Taking the time to be clear, checking the time and resource commitments of those who will do the work, and being clear about priorities will greatly help. Additionally, planning and effective decision making can be greatly enhanced by soliciting the ideas and input of those doing the work.

If you include others in the processes of planning the work you will not only establish value for their contribution and expertise, but will also improve the quality of your results. Only then will the “I wish’s” that take a toll on your effectiveness go away.

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Six Questions to Help You See More Clearly and Increase the Power of Your Presence

Years ago during my first job in corporate America, I experienced firsthand the power of presence. There was a woman in my department that everyone referred to as “Crazy Mary.” I thought such a reference was uncalled for—until I had an experience with her.

One day she called me into her office to review the progress I was making with a project she had assigned to me. She was more than cordial as we discussed my work and reviewed the milestones of the project. I remember thinking as I left her office how kind and considerate she had been. Then the very next day, she came to my cubicle and demanded that I follow her immediately to her office. When I entered her office, she slammed the door and began to yell and belittle me for the very accomplishments that she had complimented me for on the previous day. From then on, I began to recognize the subtle anger and seething frustration that lurked just below the surface of her congenial demeanor. It made sense that everyone feared and avoided her at all costs. I continued to observe her emotional outbreaks that spanned the spectrum from Dr. Jekyll to Mrs. Hyde until I left that company.

Last year when I wrote the piece entitled, “How Do You Strengthen Your Presence?” I stated that presence was the “the vibe, energy, frequency, or power that emanates from us.” Shortly thereafter, a magazine editor wrote me a note and told me that she thought that I knew more about presence than I was telling. She challenged me to write more on the topic when time permitted, so here I go.

I agree with Aristotle, who said that to be a good speaker, a person has to be a good person. There are plenty of great speakers out there. They are articulate, they seem to choose exactly the right words, and they know how to turn a pleasing phrase. Yet when it comes to touching our hearts, moving us to action, and providing us with a larger vision of who we are and what we can become, their message can seem hollow. There is something that seems to be missing or just doesn’t resonate. To pick up on who they really are and what they really think, we must be self-aware enough to recognize the vibe that they portray or exude. Unfortunately, a lack of awareness allows such speakers to have more sway with most of us than we should allow.

You bring the essence of your presence with you everywhere you go. It is the part of you that emanates from you and reflects the type of person that you are, the way that you think about life’s experiences, and the people that surround you. In a very real sense you are what you think, and it comes out in the way you speak and treat others. Consequently, to increase the power of your presence and the influence you have on others, you must change and improve who you are at your core.

Much like a garden that needs constant weeding and tending to produce desired results, we need to become more aware of thoughts, attitudes, and judgments that can derail our success. If you are interested in becoming more aware and making some changes, here are a number of questions that you should quietly consider when you have a moment to reflect.

What do your feelings tell you about yourself?

Are you angry or frustrated much of the time? Who or what sets you off? If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? You can easily rate your answers to these questions by asking yourself, “On a scale of one to ten, how frustrated am I with my family members, my coworkers, or myself?” Those parts of your life or your relationships that are most irritating and have the highest rating will come out in the way that you deal with others. What you experience in your external world is a reflection of your internal world. Understanding what is going on with yourself is the beginning to changing how others experience you and the results that you create in your life.

How do you view your work?

Is your work fulfilling? Do you run to work and walk home? Do you feel like you are making a contribution to the success of the organization and to others? Occasionally people have told me that they didn't choose their job, their job chose them, and they do not find it satisfying. If this is how you feel, and if you can't afford for whatever reason to change jobs, then you have to either find something to be passionate about in your job, or you have to change the way you view your work. Either way, changing the perspective or changing your own view will breathe new enthusiasm into what may have turned into a dull routine.

How do you view the people that you work with?

Notice that I didn’t say “the people who work for you.” If you view people as valuable assets that add greatly to the quality of your life and what you are trying to accomplish, then that will come out in the way that you treat them. If, on the other hand, you view people as tools who do your bidding or as people that you must tolerate as part of the job, then that attitude will show up in the way that you treat them. If you haven’t gotten to know your people on a personal level, perhaps you should invest some quality time in doing so. Forging personal connections will give you a degree of understanding and empathy that you may not have had before.

How do your people view you?

Do people engage with you? Do they ask for your advice? Do they tell you immediately when things don’t go as planned? Do you offer your support to help them succeed? Are you included in their informal activities? All of these questions are intended to help you notice whether people feel comfortable enough to approach you when they need to or when they really don’t have to. If you notice that you are excluded or if you have excluded yourself, you might try to understand why. You can do that by looking at your behavior or by asking someone that you know will be honest with you about how people view you. Trust and loyalty are important team ingredients, and they are built by connecting with others and letting people know that you value and support them.

What challenges do you have when it comes to communicating with others?

Most of us know what we don’t do well when it comes to communicating with others. This week a participant in a training asked me to help him get his emotions under control with the people at home. We know what we struggle with because we usually struggle with it over and over again. Get clear on what you need to work on, make a plan, find someone to support you, and take steps to improve what you have left unattended for far too long.

What should you change about your leadership style?

Last year I wrote an article entitled “Four Leadership Tips That Will Make Your People Adore You.” The article actually lists ten different items that we identified that people adore. You might want to go look at the list to identify some steps you can take to improve your leadership of others.

Developing a presence that moves people and inspires them to follow you and trust you is well worth your effort. The challenge is to become more aware of what you think and how that translates into how you speak to and treat others. Learning to see yourself as you are seen will help you improve your effectiveness as a person and as a leader.

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How to Cut Through Fake Talk to Increase Employee Engagement

Will had worked hard for the company for about two years.  Not once in that time had his manager spoken with him about his development. Somewhat concerned, Will approached his manager and asked if they could discuss his career development. The manager said, “I’ll have my assistant reach out to you next week to schedule some time together.” Nothing happened, so Will brought up the issue with his manager again.  This time the manager scheduled the appointment himself about two weeks out.  When the time finally arrived, the manager canceled the appointment about an hour before the meeting.  Frustrated, Will rescheduled the meeting, but his manager missed the meeting to attend a “more important” meeting with the CEO. Will put his resume on Monster.com and in two weeks, he was gone.

I never found out if Will’s manager was ill-intended or if he was just not well organized, but his actions spoke louder than his words.  Everyone is busy these days.  Priorities change, meetings have to be rescheduled, and some fires just won’t wait.  But the fake talk Will’s manager engaged in and his inability to manager his schedule and keep his commitments led to the loss of a stellar employee.

The old adage around personal engagement used to be, “Managers trump companies!”, meaning that individuals joined a company, but left their boss.  In the last several years, the high engagement of an organization’s employees has drawn even more attention. Recent research on engagement shows that high engagement drives financial results. Additionally, the notion of engagement has come to encompass more than just the people skills of a manager. Employees are engaged by an ever increasing number of factors that serve to attract and retain quality performers.

Before providing you with a number of factors that increase employee engagement, it is important to understand that each element has at its foundation the ability to hold REAL conversation rather than what I call Fake Talk.  Fake Talk would include any conversation where the desired result is not achieved.  In order to create and address the factors that create a highly engaged workforce, a manager has to be able to explore and identify the needs of each employee.  Here are a number of questions that will help you assess the quality of engagement that you or your organization provides. 

1.    Are your mission and values clearly stated?
Employees are constantly asking themselves, “Do I fit in here?”  The “fit” question is answered for employees by the presence of clearly defined goals and priorities, by leaders who live the company’s espoused values, and by knowing that they can make a contribution.  Younger employees want to know that the work they do, while being demanding, will be fulfilling.  Employees are highly engaged when they know that they will be able to add value, innovate, and collaborate toward a mutually beneficial goal.

2.    What is the quality of the work environment?
This factor includes not only the physical working conditions, but also the culture within which the work is done.  The work conditions need to be modern with up-to-date equipment.  Employees want the company to understand what physical obstacles exist and be working on removing them.  They also value transparency; they want to know what is going on.  Employees also seek flexibility in how and where they complete their work.  Finally, they desire effective teamwork, trustworthy peers, and fairness of treatment. All of these conditions contribute to the culture of the work environment.
3.    Are there opportunities for talent development and upward mobility?
Companies that provide opportunities for individuals to grow and develop either through training or varied work assignments retain employees who clearly feel that the organization is interested in them and their professional growth.  Obviously employees are also interested in opportunities to advance their careers rather than being stuck in a dead-end position where they do the same thing over and over again. Employees want opportunities to learn new skills and advance based on their expertise.  Variety of assignments and opportunities to grow are highly valued by today’s employees.

4.     Are you hiring the right people?
Individuals want to work with a more diverse workforce who is capable, interested in doing the assigned tasks, and are fully committed to the company’s goals.  They also want to know that people are hired based on their ability to fit the company’s culture and to perform the requirements of their position.  Some of the latest research indicates that peers can have a greater impact on employee commitment and retention than individual managers. Hiring competent people that will work and play well together impacts employee engagement.

5.    Is the leadership committed to the success of the company and its employees?
Leaders need to lead and support the people that work for them.  Employees want to know that their leaders will support them, trust them, and coach and develop them.  They want their leaders to be part of building an organization where the work is exciting, fulfilling, and fun, rather than only “engaging” or talking to them from time to time.

6.      Does the company take care of its people?
Employees want to know that the benefits and compensation are fair and commensurate with similar positions in other companies.  They want to know that rewards and bonuses are calculated based on contribution and performance and not a system where only a small percentage of people may be recognized and receive a performance bonus based on predetermined norm.

Employee engagement encompasses more than having effective communications skills. Managers and leaders must effectively articulate a clear vision and live the values that are tied to what people do.  The quality of the work environment is created by the leader who knows how to speak and treat people with respect and who inspires others to achieve their full potential.  Likewise, an effective leader believes in and invests in the development of his or her people and spends the time and money to make growth happen.  REAL Talk leaders know how to hire the right people through the questions they ask and what they come to understand about high potential candidates.  Finally, leaders who are committed to the company and the success of their people speak and act in such a way that there is no doubt about their commitment and what they are trying to achieve.  A leader’s ability to hold REAL conversations is critical to all factors that impact employee engagement which ultimately determine the company’s financial success.


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