Overcoming Fake Talk

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Criticism is Not Feedback: Seven Questions for Understanding the Source of Your Frustrations

The summer between the second and third year of law school is the most important for finding a job after graduation. I was fortunate to secure a fantastic internship with a law firm that specialized in disaster litigation in the Western United States. I learned a lot during that summer and really enjoyed my experience. However, my supervising attorney severely lacked the communication skills fitting someone of his position. One of the most demeaning things he did was to refer to me as “Dumb - - - -.” He used this disparaging term any time he addressed me. After enduring several months of such talk, another managing partner heard him use this label and asked him to stop referring to anyone in the office in such a manner.

What was most baffling about this experience was that his contempt for me was unfounded. I worked hard and did great work. I even won a writing competition within the firm that allowed me to travel with a group of attorneys from the firm to travel to Puerto Rico to work on a major disaster case involving a fire which destroyed a major hotel.  

I have often wondered why this brilliant attorney would refer to me and others in such derogatory terms. I am sure that there are a number of reasons. Perhaps that’s how he was treated when he was a young law clerk. Or, maybe he thought that motivation through fear was the most effective way to move people toward new heights of achievement. Or, maybe his view of himself or others was so abysmal that his directions and expressions toward others reflected the dark side of his view of humanity. Unfortunately, I will never know, but for an absolute certainty, I can declare that referring to anyone in a demeaning, belittling, or derogatory fashion does not inspire, uplift, or motivate anyone. And being disparaging does not necessarily improve results.

Feedback is absolutely essential for improving performance, increasing accountability, establishing responsibility, and achieving the desired results. How we speak and act toward others is essential to creating what we really want. Although I know the example above is extreme, I believe that we could all do a better job of becoming more aware of how we interact with those with whom we live and work. Sometimes we may let our frustrations and emotions get the best of us and sometimes we may be entirely unaware of how we come across. I hope that you will take the opportunity to reflect on how you are viewed by others and make whatever adjustments and improvements are needed to improve your communication with others.

Here are a number of questions you might ask yourself to heighten your awareness, improve your interactions, and achieve more positive results.

With whom and when are you most frustrated and why?

Take some time to identify specific interactions with certain people or situations that tend to be frustrating or irritating. Once you have identified troubling situations or interactions, you can explore the reasoning behind your past results. You can’t manage or improve what you don’t recognize as ineffective. Asking yourself why you become frustrated will help you surface the thinking that is driving your behavior. Objectively look at the situation.

How do you view the people you interact with most frequently?

This question is along the same lines of the question above. Answering it honestly will help you become more aware of how you perceive certain people. If you find that you view them in a negative light, then you need to focus on their strengths and provide them feedback about what you would like them to improve about their performance. People love to know what they do well and what they could do to improve. When you provide feedback to help them improve in a respectful way, they will value your interest and commitment to their growth and development. Become clear about the negative assumptions you hold about others and turn your attention to the positive.

Are you clear and specific about what you want and why?

If you are too vague in your communication with others, it puts them in the position of making a “best guess” about what you really want. If they don’t know what they should do or exactly what you want, they will often do what they think is best, not asking for clarification for fear of looking bad, ignorant, or inattentive.

Also explaining why you are asking someone to do a particular task helps to eliminate any second guessing or doubts that may arise out of their own misunderstanding. It is also an opportunity to mentor and coach them if they are unsure about their skills or abilities. Check the clarity of your directions by asking questions.

Do you provide people with the resources they need?

Sometimes people are unwilling to reveal that they really don’t know how to do what you are asking them to. They may need training; they may not have time given other tasks on their plate, or they may need certain materials and equipment to complete these tasks. Sometimes people don’t know exactly what they need to complete the project until they actually take the time to think through and identify what they made need to do a certain task until they actually have to do it. When thinking about resources from their perspective, it is helpful to ask them what they may need to get them thinking and anticipating their needs. Get clear about resources.

Do you understand people’s view of their own deficiencies?  

Learning about a person’s view of their own performance can be quite revealing. You will come to understand that they either possess an inaccurate view of what they think they do well or that they have an inaccurate view of what they think they don’t do well. If they underestimate their strengths, then you know that perhaps you are not providing enough positive feedback when their performance meets your expectations. If they overestimate their abilities, you will want to create a plan to help turn their weakness into strengths or reduce liabilities. Understand people’s view of themselves and help them to see their opportunities.  

Do you encourage people no matter how they perform?

When you encourage people that do well, you will get more of the same. When you encourage people that don’t do well, you are sending the message that you have confidence in their ability to learn, grow and develop. So often the only time leaders talk to their people is when they haven’t performed as expected. Look for opportunities to recognize positive performance and encourage people’s efforts. Express positive beliefs about people and their ability.

Are you providing the feedback that people need to improve?

If you repeatedly continue to not get the results that you want, then you need to explore how you contribute to your lack of results. Examine whether you have provided specific information about processes, procedures, desired behaviors, concrete goals and objectives, deadlines, or anything that will eliminate doubt about what is required.   If you provide specific feedback and take the time to help people be successful, you will ensure that you will achieve more of what you really want. Provide feedback about what may not be working.  

There is no reason to be demeaning and belittling of others or their efforts when they don’t perform as expected. Being vague and highly disrespectful will not get you what you want. In fact, you may create more of what you don’t want while damaging relationships, destroying discretionary effort, undermining trust, and eroding the organization’s culture. Answering some of the questions above will help you to avoid your frustrations while improving the performance of those who work for you. After all, your results are determined by the conversations that you hold.

What else have you found that helps you get results?  

How Can You Increase Innovation through Collaboration? 9 Tips for Successful Change

During the last several weeks, I had the opportunity to speak to a wonderful group of leaders at a very large company in the Midwestern United States about how to increase innovation through collaboration. This singular organization is trying to change its culture by involving its individual associates in making a difference to the success of their business by improving any process that directly impacts their customers. Such an endeavor is not only admirable, but absolutely essential to their future viability in the marketplace.

Any change of this magnitude is always fraught with challenges because people often meet change with resistance. As I told my audience, “People don’t like it; people don’t understand it; and they won’t like you for trying to implement it.” Why? I am sure there are many reasons, but we often resist doing new things that we are not particularly good at or which may be new to us. We also may resist when we don’t know what the personal or professional consequences of our performance may be.

Collaborating with others when trying to change or improve anything is the key to making successful change occur and to getting the results that you are trying to create. Here are a few tips that may help you to look at change from a different perspective when trying to influence others to change their values, beliefs, and behaviors which in turn will deliver the desired results.

  1. Engage them. You have to interact with the folks to understand what they are thinking about what you may be asking them to do. After all, they know what is working and what is not; they know what frustrates them and what does not; and they know what could be improved and what should not. You will never understand what you need to know unless you to talk to them.
  2. Suspend your thinking. When people don’t agree, our natural tendency is to push back on them. You need to set your thinking aside and listen to what they have to say. Being open to their perspective is critical to understanding the thinking that is driving their behavior. You can’t change anyone’s behavior without first understanding the thinking that creates it. If you are more interested in making your points and sharing your reasons for change, they will not hear you. Listen to them first.
  3. Listen for values. When people become emotional or when they start complaining, you need to recognize the positive value that is hidden behind the emotion or complaint. For example, if someone said, “This is just one more thing that you are asking me to do to serve our customers!” The values in this statement are, “I value serving our customers” and, “I want to do what I do well.” Unfortunately we usually meet the objections of others with more pressure to get what we want which ends up creating more resistance. Listen for the values hidden in their statements.
  4. Confirm the value. Rather than pushing harder, you want to confirm or acknowledge what they have told you. For example, you might respond with, “You are absolutely right. It is important to serve our customers well. And I understand that you want to do that to the best of your abilities.” Making such a statement theoretically puts you on the same side of the issue. It acknowledges athe value that is important to them. This creates openness in them to what you are about to say next.
  5. Explain the details. The details in this instance are the rationale or reasoning behind the change that you are asking them to make. For example, it might sound like this, “If we change the way that we are completing this customer request, we can reduce the time it takes to meet that request to one day instead of our current average of 43 days. This will increase customer satisfaction and be a major selling point in acquiring new customers. No one in our industry can do this faster than we can.” In this instance, explaining the benefits to them and the customer will help them let go of the past and move into a new way of performing.
  6. Tell stories. There is power in the facts. Wherever someone has been successful in the organization, you want to look for opportunities to tell those stories repeatedly particularly to those people who are resisting a change effort. Communication research states that most people don’t understand a concept until they have heard it seven times. Telling positive stories is a great way to supplant the negative stories that people may make up as the justification for not doing something new.
  7. Explain the purpose.  Any time change is introduced, it often requires different or new activities or tasks. It is important to explain why you are asking people to do something different or even add to what they are already doing. If people don’t understand the necessity of doing something else, they will make up their own negative rationale for not engaging in the new activity. Remember that in the absence of data or facts, people often draw their own conclusions that are erroneous. Explain the “why.”
  8. Commitment to the individual. Directly asking people to be part of something new and important establishes value for their individual contribution, knowledge, and expertise. People are motivated when they understand how they make a difference. Ask them to participate and help to make the contribution that you want them to make. Ask for their participation and commitment.
  9. Express Appreciation. For many people it takes courage to express disagreement when asked to do something that they do not understand or don’t want to do. Their feedback is really a gift that will help you to understand where they are coming from and what you must address to help them move forward. Be sure to thank the person for their candor and willingness to express their views. Doing this sends the message that you value their perspective and will help them to feel safe to share their concerns and questions in the future.

Successful change in any organization requires the involvement of every member. Change takes time and patience because of the varying degrees of commitment and perspective that each individual may offer or possess. If you will follow these simple tips, you will increase the likelihood that change will occur. However, you must be positive and persistent and look for daily opportunities to engage and encourage others. Through you efforts to help others to see and understand the benefits of the change, people will eventually get on board.

How have you successfully implemented change in your organization?  What has worked well? Let us hear your thoughts.

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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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