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Posts from the ‘Leading’ Category

Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace

“He’s our rainmaker.” “He’s the guy that knows the industry inside out.” “He might leave and go to a competitor.” “I’m certain this is an isolated incident.” “His classes are still the most over enrolled on campus.””He doesn’t mean anything by it.” “Hey, it happened at the holiday party and everyone was drinking.” “He’s the CEO. Our hands are tied.”

This is just a short list of remarks made to me when I raised questions about a male employee harassing, molesting or abusing women. No surprises here. Ask any woman and you will hear multiple stories about painful encounters in the workplace. I’ve got quite a few doozies myself. With all the revelations in the past couple weeks, I am disheartened that there are so few solutions being offered. I sense a combination of: it’s always been this way and nothing will change the situation and until men start to act more civilized we can expect more of the same. In my darkest moments, I believe all of the above.

But then I began to think about all the incidents where the right thing happened. As a woman in a position of power as a consultant and a corporate executive, I actually have some good stories to tell. Just like averted terrorist threats, the public doesn’t know about the proper removal of bad actors. The CIA and HR can’t speak openly about what didn’t happen. In hopes that you well intentioned folks reading this blog are looking for some sane guidance, here are some powerful examples of things gone right.

A senior leader turned to me in confidence to reveal that she was being stalked by a male peer. As a consultant, I was a safe and private outside resource. This man was married, she was not. She had willingly entered a brief affair with him but then chose to end it. For six months this man threatened and followed her, making her constantly fearful and anxious. She was seeking therapy and medication to cope. She was reluctant to go to HR because a) she had previously been in a consensual relationship with this man and b) the HR executive was a weak player and unlikely to do anything about it. Both the man and woman were highly respected and valuable to the company. After several conversations with this woman, she agreed to let me speak to the CEO who we both trusted a great deal.

I called the CEO and told him very directly what was happening. Without hesitation, he called in the HR exec and told him to remove the man from the company immediately. There was some strongly worded language about potential criminal charges if he ever bothered this woman again. The man left (with some self righteous indignation) and the woman remained safe thereafter. Her career continued to thrive at the company.

Some time later I asked the CEO why he spun into action so immediately and definitively. “Because it was the right thing to do,” was all he offered. He didn’t doubt the woman’s story and he felt no moral dilemma or squishiness. He did add, “Even though this guy was leading the charge to bring the company into groundbreaking territory, I won’t have someone with such flawed character in this company.”

As the head of HR, a senior leader spoke with me about one of his managers. The manager had come to my colleague to request an office change. Long story short, it was because an affair with his direct report had ended and they shared an office; it was just too uncomfortable for him. (I know, the guy is an idiot as well as a sleaze!) I was legally bound to investigate and participate in several conversations. The one I had with the manager and his boss made me wonder if I was hearing his story right. Yes, he was married. Yes, they had sex in the office. Yes, they had ended the affair. Yes, he believed she still wanted him even though he could not describe any actions or words to back that up. Yes, he wanted to move his office because it was just so very distressing for him.

I did my best to play it straight, ask all the questions I was supposed to, took my notes and thanked him for his candor. When I asked him if he understood that he could be fired for engaging in a sexual relationship with a subordinate he said, “That’s what my wife told me when I mentioned I told my boss about this.” (Seriously, that’s what he said.)

When I spoke with the company attorney about firing this guy, she reminded me that I had the power to just reprimand him without going so far as to let him go. She mentioned the consensual relationship, he came forward, the relationship was over, yadda yadda. I couldn’t believe how much gray area she was painting. I was only focused on protecting the woman in this story. She did not have the power. My duty was to protect her from this man regardless of what had happened in the past. With the complete support of my (male) boss, I fired the guy.

This young up and comer had a reputation in the company of being a bit of a dog. Married with two kids, he was flirtatious with the young women in the company. I didn’t know the specifics but there were lots of rumors. Shortly after his divorce (no surprises there), he was more diligently focused on his work and was in the running for a significant promotion. After much back and forth with my colleagues, it was determined that he was worthy of the new position but he needed to get his inappropriate behavior in line. Just after he was given the new job I called him into my office.

“With this promotion there are some new expectations that I want to make clear to you. You are now representing the company inside and outside of these walls. I suggest you go out and buy a couple nice suits and start to look the part.” He was taken aback but was also aware that I was deadly serious so he suppressed his smirk. “It is an open secret that you have engaged in multiple inappropriate relationships or behaviors with women in this company. That is never going to happen again. You put the company at tremendous risk if you do. Not to mention the harm you impose on these women and the unsafe work environment it creates. If you so much as look improperly at any woman, you will be out of here faster than you can imagine. Are we clear?” His face was red, his jaw slacked open and all his bluster was deflated. He said he understood the gravity of the situation and would abide by the rules. And he did.

What all these incidents have in common are:

  • Unequivocal moral leadership. There is no waffling about right or wrong. A man in a more senior position made advances or threatened women in lesser roles. This is unethical and illegal. Period.
  • The woman is the victim. Even in the case of previously consensual relationships, once the woman ended it she was still in danger. Once it was “no”, she had a right and expectation of safety.
  • Male and female bosses can do the right thing. Sure, it would be great if there were more women leaders who we assume would do a better job of protecting the well being of female employees. I have no idea if that assumption is true. Most bosses are still men and they are capable of being stand up guys.
  • Speaking up goes a long way in effecting change. Without knowing the particulars, when the staff sees a male leader suddenly exit, they understand that this company takes a hard line. This reinforces a culture of greater respect and safety.
  • The bad penny only gets so many chances. I know what happened to all these men (and so many others) when they were called out on their shit and removed from their companies. Some were hired someplace else in spite of some sketchy recommendations. In a short period of time, these men acted badly at the new place and were removed quickly. Even without disclosure up front, these men showed up as exactly who they were. For all their rising stars, they all went down in flames.

Those of us in leadership roles have a duty to listen, believe and take appropriate action. To look askance for the sake of the business or for what harm will come to some predatory man or because boys will be boys…only demonstrates how unfit we are to be in a position of power.

As I was concluding a long term coaching engagement with an executive who was hired away to a new company, we were reflecting on his development journey. He is one of the good guys and I thoroughly enjoyed our work together. In parting he shared this: “When we began, I was a mess. I was in a world of hurt from my divorce, angry at the world and behaving so erratically. I didn’t like who I had become. When I told you that I was ready to date again, you reminded me that I was a man with immense power in the organization and that, under no circumstances, should I date anyone in the company. I don’t think I would have understood that so clearly if you hadn’t said it.”

Again, this is one of the good guys who had successfully groomed his female successor. Speaking up to prevent anything from happening once or again goes a long way towards change.

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Taking the “A” Out of Teams. Anxiety That Is

Over the years, my clients have fretted about managing their teams and wondered if they could ever learn how to be a good facilitator. A new client raised the same question and I finally gathered my thoughts in this letter below.

Dear Simon,

I’m writing this in response to some of the questions that were left hanging after our last session. Specifically, you were concerned about your skills to run good meetings. They cause you stress and you dread them. Your leadership team meetings frustrate you and your staff meetings are a downer. Although you (rightly) have confidence in your listening and relationship skills, you are struggling to translate those abilities into a group setting.

I’m hoping this memo provides some guidance.

First, as the newly installed leader you have inherited a boat load of “pre-existing conditions.” You have some preliminary diagnoses on certain individuals, some working theories about larger systemic issues and some signs of improved health in a few one on one relationships. That’s a good start. What is less clear are the many hidden agendas, axes to grind, real damage and how all these people and issues interact. You are being confronted with an array of all these things every day. Your approach so far has been to deal with them one at a time; relying on your super-spidey interpersonal skills to improve each situation.

Hold onto those abilities and insights. You will need them.

Secondly, teams are interpersonal dynamics on steroids. Lots of steroids! I’ve seen incredibly effective leaders go batty when trying to manage their teams. Have you ever played pinball? (I must admit, I spent way too much time in college seeing how far I could go on one quarter.) You pull back the spring and release one ball. It jumps all over the board and you try to control its trajectory using highly sensitive flippers. The ball bounces hither and yon as you rake up points; successfully navigating the back and forth. Imagine releasing all five balls at one time. Your eyes and fingers dart from one ball to the other, trying to keep everything in play as long as possible and hoping you don’t drop any balls. That’s what team interactions can feel like. Your ears and eyes jump from one person to the next, noticing body language or silence, reacting to tones of voices, wondering when to jump in or sit back, worried about two people colliding or leaving the discussion. Just like pinball, there are moments of excitement or disappointment. You get a free play or game over.

Teams can be messy and exhilarating.

Third, facilitating productive team discussions can be learned. Having a good foundation of empathy and interpersonal awareness is the starting point. What happens next requires self-awareness and discipline. Get comfortable with silence and disagreement. Learn to let go of smoothing things over. Trust that others can step up. Learn to hear above the fray and comprehend the non-verbal cues. That’s the short list. (More on how to do this later.) Once you feel adept at these abilities, it becomes a question of patience and good judgment. Sometimes you will need to be the Decider and other times you will need to be the Sherpa. That will become evident.

Facilitation is both science and art. The artful part takes over once you have learned the science.

Finally, these meetings are opportunities for others to get valuable face time with you. For some, that means persuading you on an issue. For others, it means joining with you on key initiatives. Until a team or staff is in the high functioning range, people are not coming together to interact with each other. You are their focus. They are jockeying for your favor and their stature in the organization. It’s a bit ugly and political but that is what happens when a new leader is installed. Who will become your favorite? Your aim is to facilitate their thinking and decision making with each other. You understand the value of everyone’s input and don’t want to set yourself up as the One.

Again, hold onto those ideals. For now, though, you need to recognize the team is at a more chaotic stage of development.

Most leaders in your shoes can relate to your challenge. While the 1:1 encounters may be productive, staff and leadership team meetings feel overwhelming for new leaders. Take a breath, appreciate that this is normal, let some air out of the “urgency tires” and be assured that you will get loads of chances to get this right. Meetings, unlike other organizational activities, are universally disliked. The format and content are tough to make thrilling and the dynamics just make them all the worse. Any one good meeting will be a momentary lift with only a remote expectation that it will happen again anytime soon. So, relax. You can improve this situation slowly but surely.

Let’s start with others wanting face time with you. Layer that with hidden agendas and dysfunctional dynamics. Think of it this way. You are a hard-working Dad who gets home late from the office most nights to your 5 kids who are clamoring for your attention. They will shove each other, tattle, jump up and down, scream in your face or cry just to get to you first. It doesn’t matter if the behavior is polite or not. They will do whatever works to be first, the favorite, the most important. They don’t want to share you with others and they want you to agree with whatever grievance they conjure up. They want you to kiss the booboo and tell them everything is alright. Teams are a lot like families (except we can’t fire our kids).

How would you handle this as a parent? You already understand all these kooky dynamics. You know all about sibling rivalry, discipline, structure and valuing each child. You don’t get sucked into the whining, they absolutely must brush their teeth and, no, they can’t stay up later. Although your team is a group of adults, the same principles apply. Give each one enough 1:1 time so they are comfortable in their relationship with you. (Thankfully, this is one of your strengths.) Create certain structure, guidelines (sic. rules) and parameters that set the norms for expected behavior. As the leader, consistently follow through on those rules, don’t play favorites, listen to each person and don’t allow for misdeeds.

Even if you are not the strictest disciplinarian as a Dad, watch how your wife does it and the positive impact it has on your kids. You will come to see the antics of this room full of adult staff in a whole new light if you use this parenting analogy.

Although it can take years to perfect the art of facilitating great teams, I can boil down the essential science of it into a few bullet points.

  • Forming, Norming, Storming. These are the stages of team development. In the forming stage, everyone is still getting acquainted and trying to figure out who is running the show. Norms are set both formally and informally as protocols are put in place, talkers and non-talkers emerge and the leader’s style becomes apparent. Once the norms solidify, the members will begin to challenge the order of things in the storming phase. If the original norms are strong and/or functional, the group will settle back into good operations until someone new enters, someone leaves or the norms are questioned again. This is just the ordinary ebb and flow of team development. Just when you think things feel stable, you can expect a conflict to erupt. Manage and ride the waves. As the new leader, your team is in full blown storming and looking to you for clues about the norms.
  • Be clear about your own principles. You have already made it clear that you value open discussion and consensus. Communicate that to the team by offering an explicit description of what you do and don’t mean by that. For example, you want to hear from everybody but that doesn’t mean that the conversation can remain open endlessly without a decision. I urge you to do some additional thinking about your principles and see if you want to add or change anything.
  • Structure is essential. Agendas, time management, note taking, follow up on action items and hearing from everyone are good disciplines to install. Lots of dysfunction occurs when there is an absence of these things because the vacuum needs to be filled. People will either be proactive and rush in willy-nilly to play a part or become passive and drop out. Take the reins, provide control.
  • Manage the voices. All teams have folks that will take over the discussion or cut people off or sit silently or shoot down every idea. You job is to ask some to back off and others to speak up. “I’d like to hear from Susan” is a polite way to stop Andy. “Jerry, you clearly have something on your mind” invites the cross-armed scowl-faced one to enter the discussion or to mind his non-verbals better. (Some non-verbals are not just seen. They are palpable.) The more you direct the flow of discussion to equalize it, the safer people feel to join in, the less emboldened the disrupters will feel and the more productive the discussion will be.

These are some of the basics. Sometimes I think that people get anxious or overwhelmed about facilitating teams because it feels scary. If you go back to the pinball imagery, it can be daunting. But if you can think of it more like parenting, something that is more familiar to you, you might minimize your concerns. We’re not born knowing how to be a good parent, but lots of on-the-job training teaches us over time. The same will happen for you with your team.

 

 

 

 

The Conversational Leader

Remember that course you took in grad school about listening and engaging in good conversations? Oh right, there was no such course. Not in grad school or any school before that. If we are lucky, we learn how to have a decent dialogue through good role models or supervisors along our way. Sadly, most of us do our best and call it a day.

And then there are those folks we call “naturals”. They are people who are comfortable asking interesting questions, waiting through long pauses, listening intently to responses, asking follow up questions to probe more deeply, sitting back calmly while conflicting ideas emerge, hearing what people have in common and making everyone feel heard and valued in the process. Do these people just pop out of the womb like this? Or are these skills that can be learned? And why is this important to being an effective leader?

This seems to be the focus of much of my work lately.

  • “I know that the staff just wants me to tell them what to do but I’d rather have a conversation about the issue.”
  • “We’ve had enough conversation on this topic. Now I just want to decide and move on. When is it okay to shut it down?”
  • “My style is much more conversational but I have to get up in front of larger groups to deliver our key messages. I just don’t like the bullet point driven type of communication.”
  • “I’m much better at one on one talks than conducting team meetings. I can’t keep track of all the dynamics when there are more people in the room.”
  • “I believe in consensus building for all the big stuff. But the staff seems frustrated by having to have long conversations.”
  • “I’m very comfortable letting the dialogue meander and when there are long pauses. But I can see that others are very uncomfortable. Do I have to lead these meetings differently? Or how can I get the team more adept at hashing things out?”

Although I have worked with plenty of introverted and socially awkward leaders who are very effective, those that can engage in productive conversations fare much better in the eyes of the staff. What any of us want in our interactions at work is to be heard in a respectful manner. Sure, we’d also like to get our way and for you to see how brilliant we are but we can settle for being heard. What’s more, we do our best work and have a good attitude if we know that our leaders have respected our point of view. This is why it is an important skill to develop.

For those of you who struggle with easy, productive dialogues, think about the person across from you as a storybook. There are interesting story lines, unexpected plot twists, nuanced descriptions and new chapters all waiting for you. You ask a question and hear part of the story. That makes you curious to know what happens next or what new idea or character enters the scenario. Or you hear a passage that makes you sit and think or evokes some emotional response. Although we don’t interact with a book, learning about someone else can be as reflective as reading.

Many of us are reactive rather than reflective in our conversations. That causes quick, often short sighted, responses that creates tension. Listening has stopped. Respect may not be felt. Withdrawal or aggression may ensue. Conversation has turned into combat.

But if you think of dialogue as learning the story of someone else, you can shift away from how awkward you feel. When we read, we want to know what is going to happen next. When we listen to someone else, we can ask questions to learn more. We don’t have to think as much about responding in a smart and clever way. Instead we can think about reading the next chapter.

Being adept at authentic conversation is a critical leadership skill. Creating space and dignity for others to tell their stories, to share their ideas and to feel respectfully heard is essential in developing a healthy organization. If you have received feedback that you don’t do this well, see if you can think of people as interesting novels that you are dying to read.

 

 

 

 

The Value of a Number Two Person

Current thinking suggests that a Chief Operating Officer or a Chief of Staff or an SVP of Corporate Strategy are all roles that are expensive, create an unnecessary layer at the top and not obviously valuable to the CEO or organization. What are the other executives to make of such a role? A gatekeeper, no line responsibility, no accountability to the bottom line, a cost center? In all the ways that an organization is measured, how can you quantify the outputs of any of these right hand roles? When budgets are tight and there is slashing afoot, these are some of the first people on the firing line. I think that is horribly shortsighted.

Few executive roles have a broad view of the organization. Finance, HR, communications and strategy do but there is very specific functional expertise attached to those jobs. Although they may serve the whole system, they don’t necessarily have deep knowledge of the day in-day out work. CEOs reach out to the functional heads to get answers but who helps weave all the parts together? Sometimes the CEO can do that but his/her attention is diluted because of all the external responsibilities. Also, s/he may not get the most unvarnished data upon which to draw conclusions because of the status differential between the CEO and those on the ground.

How can the CEO know: if the strategy is being well implemented, if the critical priorities are on track, if various departments are operating productively, if the latest change initiative is taking hold, if there are pockets of resistance or rebellion, if there are under utilized superstars or if there are projects that should be ended? Back in the day, a Number Two person had the scoop. Since the early 2000’s those roles have been disappearing because consultants were claiming it was just an expensive extra layer with no obvious value.

I propose that it is time for the pendulum to swing back in favor of a right hand wo/man. Here’s why.

  • Organizations need connective tissue. Try as they might, breaking down silos is still a big problem for organizations. Few leadership teams achieve a holistic, systemic approach to how they operate on a day to day basis. I’m not talking about those annual budget and strategy meetings; I mean getting the work done. Whatever collective agreements get made, everyone goes off into their own world to manage their slice. A great Number Two person sees across all these functions and helps create internal partnerships that aren’t obvious, knows who needs extra support and how to get those resources, steps in where necessary to keep things moving forward and tinkers around the edges. S/he has the broadest and deepest knowledge of the operations and people and can stitch pieces together to get the right things done.
  • Individuals need a sounding board. There needs to be a safe place/person where people can vent, problem solve out loud and be less censored. This person keeps the confidences, is highly respected and trusted, tries to get people to work out issues and then sends them away to go forth and be productive. HR can be used this way but a Number Two is more immersed in the business and is granted more credibility.
  • Someone needs to understand the politics without playing politics. Organizational dynamics can be infuriating, a time suck and unproductive. Someone who is perceived as neutral (the “ollie ollie oxen free” zone) can make useful suggestions to people about navigating the shark infested waters or how to steer clear of them. S/he can help individuals avoid career limiting moves or redirect attention to the important stuff. Best case scenario, Number Two can reach out to political animals and counsel them on how disruptive their behavior is and what to do instead.
  • The CEO needs a close advisor who has the true pulse of the place. If there is a Number Two, it is safe to say that the CEO has selected the person because they can work well together. S/he trusts this person to speak up when it is important, address annoying but critical issues away from the CEO, push back and challenge him/her, serve the whole organization rather than a small fiefdom, be a sounding board, offer early warning signs of trouble, share insights about morale and tell the truth always.
  • Without having a horse in the game, the Number Two serves the organization. Rather than bringing in the quarterly sales numbers or successfully launching a new product or orienting 35 new employees, there are no specific numbers this person must hit. Instead, s/he is helping others achieve their numbers. While divisional heads may use this as a way to dismiss the value of a Number Two, the organization at large is well supported by this person. In other words, everyone wins.

Can all this value be quantified? Nope. Do organizations know what they are missing without this person? Not particularly except for those mythic stories that float around the building about that long gone Chief of Staff who made the place hum. Do organizations understand what they are getting when they have a Number Two? Sometimes. Sort of. So if you can’t quite name it or measure it, how can you assign value to this role?

Have we really arrived at a place where only those things or people that have a numerical value are prized? Have we reduced the world of work to all numbers? Have we become so robotic that if someone isn’t directly contributing to the bottom line then they are fluff or overhead? I call bullshit. One of the greatest things a strong Number Two does for an organization is connection. Connection between people, projects, teams, functions, goals, opportunities, overlapping strategies and initiatives. Connection that closes the gaps between competing priorities and scarce resources. Connection to bring a wide swath of people together to solve extremely difficult problems. Connection between levels and across departments. Connection between people or activities that seem diametrically opposed. Connection to make the right stuff happen throughout the organization.

So before you consider eliminating a Number Two role in your organization because you can’t exactly define what this person does and what numerical value to assign, please stop. This may just be one of those positions that is not a commodity but can be Priceless.

Bring Your Humanity To Work

Something happens to us as we age (besides all the aches and pains!). We forget, rewrite, “dis-remember”, ignore or otherwise change the narrative to our own life stories. A hard beginning turns into “not that bad”. A perfect family turns into “I had plenty of hard times too”. There are fewer nuances and more absolutes and denial. By the time we are well into our careers, we have forgotten about many of the life experiences that gave us our membership cards into the human race. Those cards that are good at any organization regardless of background, race or gender. Those cards that define what we all have in common.

We have all felt “less than”. Maybe you were the smallest in your class or not very athletic or crappy at math or from a poor family. You were teased or ostracized at school. Or you were compared to an older sibling who was so much better than you were. You struggled to make friends because you felt too different because of circumstances far beyond your control. Feeling less than became seared into your psyche.

We have all felt like we just didn’t fit in. There was always an in crowd and you didn’t meet the criteria. Or you actually did meet the requirements but it didn’t match how you felt inside. Or there was something “different” about your family; a chronically depressed mother or alcoholic father or the non-dominant religion of your neighborhood or a sibling that died. You didn’t have vocabulary for this then but you just knew that when you went to your friend’s house to play, it wasn’t anything like your home. Instinctively you understood that it wasn’t a good idea to invite friends to your house.

We have all battled insecurities and fears. Whether born from reality, imagination or normal development, growing up means facing constant testing of self worth and self confidence. Am I smart enough to pass the test? Will I have a date for the prom? Will I get into college? Why are all my friends better and smarter than I am? Everyday is groundhog’s day as we attempt to calm those inner voices.

We all have dreams. When I grow up…. I will overcome all these worries and challenges and be so awesome! I’ll make enough money to own a house and buy one for my mom, too. I’ll discover something amazing that will help all of humanity. I’ll get out of this shit-hole-of-a-town and never look back. I’ll have a “normal” family. There is a time and place on the horizon that will be so much better. Or we will replicate exactly all the wonderfulness that was our childhood by moving next door to mom and dad.

We all excel at some things and not others. We were too young without enough life experience or context to know that no one was good at everything all the time. Still, we looked at those around us and believed that was absolutely true about those superstars we compared ourselves to. If we soared at math but couldn’t conjugate german verbs we graded ourselves as inferior. If we were great writers but lousy basketball players, we sucked. In time, we all come to appreciate that everyone, including ourselves, do some things really, really well. Maybe even better than others.

We are more fortunate than someone else. We have no control over where or to whom we are born (unless you understand reincarnation). It’s just the luck of the draw that I grew up in Detroit with the family I landed in and you are from your clan in London. We had different circumstances and experiences because of these random beginnings. No matter how badly things went down for either of us, we will encounter loads of people who had it so much worse than we did. We don’t understand this while we are growing up except for all those refrains to finish what was on our plates because there were starving people in Africa. It takes leaving the familiarity of home to understand that people had it better and much worse than we did.

These are just a few universal truths about the human condition that have the potential to allow empathy and compassion to emerge in each of us. But too frequently we forget about these formative experiences once we are doing well in our professions. Once we have attained a level of success it tames our inner worries and what replaces it is a callousness that separates us from our humanity. What happens next, I believe, is sad and preventable.

We twist those memories of feeling less than and not fitting in into revenge fantasies. Where we once felt so dejected, we now play the part of bully and coolest, smartest kid. As leaders and team mates, we make others feel like shit because we never want to be the runt again. We use our position or power or just nastiness to subject people to the same mistreatment we experienced so long ago. From one angle, it can be seen as a triumph over past wounds and feelings of powerlessness. From another, it is becoming the hated tormentor of the past to avoid any further pain.

Fears and self doubt have a funny way of showing up in adulthood. For some of us, the dialogue in our heads is exhausting! Pick your words carefully, don’t be too aggressive, don’t be too passive, speak up early and often, ask for forgiveness instead of permission. We can self monitor 24/7 in an attempt to talk away our anxieties, to look and sound smart, to be better than others, to never let them see us sweat. When this doesn’t work we get defensive, go on attack or withdraw. These are only slightly more sophisticated coping mechanisms than the ones we used as kids.

It is uncanny how much we still hunger to conform/fit in and it is no surprise that most companies are set up for just that. The norms favor stereotypical white male behaviors so heaven help the rest of us who don’t fall anywhere near that map. We hide those stories, beliefs or traits that make us different or unique; growing up poor, the death of a parent, dyslexia we overcame, living a life of extreme comfort, missing a year of school because of a serious illness. If people of color and women could transform into white men it would be so much easier to erase all those barriers!

Our childhoods are spent yearning to fit in and be like everyone else. We bust into adulthood intent on becoming our own unique person and standing out from the crowd. Organizations allow for only a certain amount of nonconformity so we are back to the same dilemma: how do I fit in around here.

What we don’t have as children that we do have as adults is a very sophisticated brain that is capable of complex thoughts, self reflection, analysis and rationality. Do we want to connect to others in the company from a place of shared humanity or do we want to replay old tapes? In the early version of the story we were small or victims or left out. In the sequel, we become the victors (or Vice Presidents). Like all superheroes, we can use our powers for good or evil. We can see each colleague as valuable, with an interesting tale of ups and downs, with big dreams and some crazy skills. Or we can see people as representatives of all our past hurts and take a turn in the bully-pulpit to exact our revenge.

We all have a choice about how we want our stories to evolve. Do you say to yourself each morning as you roll out of bed, “I want to operate from a place of compassion in hopes of getting great work done today”? Or do you sound more like Brain when Pinky asks, “What do you want to do today, Brain?” “Take over the world!”

Monologues and Dialogues

Pop quiz. Which would you rather….

  • Sit in an hour long meeting just listening or speaking up when you have something to say?
  • Being told by your boss how you are performing or having a conversation about how things are going?
  • Work on a team with a leader who doles out directives or contributing to the planning and shaping of the project?
  • Attend a conference where you soak up the expert’s wisdom or having a chance to ask her questions?

Chances are you would rather be more engaged but you still appreciate taking in information too. If you scored yourself “it depends” then you see this as situational. Good answer. But I guarantee that most of us spend way too much time on the receiving end of a monologue that we are desperate to shut off. “Make it stop” is what we are screaming in our heads. Politeness is what we display. After all, we still want a job when this person comes up for air.

Set aside the experts we love to listen to for a TED talk. Think about daily work situations. Remember a time (probably 5 minutes ago) when someone dominated a conversation; s/he cut others off, talked over people, didn’t ask a single question, displayed arrogance or aggression. What did you make of this behavior? This person is insecure, loves a good fight, has no emotional intelligence, needs to be the smartest person in the room, needs to show you that s/he is the authority on the topic, is just a royal pain in the ass? It doesn’t actually matter which of these conclusions are true. It is more about the lasting impression this person leaves. We will ascribe all kinds of crazy to him/her. And we will try to minimize our time with him/her. The reason: grown-ups and professionals do not appreciate monologues when dialogue would be so much more effective.

Monologues have the impact of cutting off conversation. Almost all work is more dynamic and productive when there is dialogue; the back and forth exchange of ideas and questions to arrive in new spaces that weren’t there at the beginning of the conversation. Monologues don’t go anywhere. The language tends to be “I this” and “you need to that”. It is experienced as condescending and frustrating. When you try to interrupt the lecture with questions or different opinions, you quickly realize this is fruitless or painful. “You don’t know what you are talking about” or the person not even acknowledging that you have spoken.

People who see themselves as The Expert or The Smart One favor monologues. What could we lowly knuckleheads offer? Of course, this masks insecurities and comes off with loads of arrogance. Sadly, they don’t appreciate that most of us know that the smartest among us never have to broadcast it.

Some people prefer to be constantly in charge and in control of the environment; further signs of psychological vulnerabilities. This presents a dilemma for everyone else who is hungry for collaboration and shared responsibilities.

The bottom line for those who are more comfortable delivering monologues and cutting off all conversation is that they have low tolerance for being challenged. They fear being diminished or stupid or unable to respond to a new thought. Their anxieties loom larger than any likely reality so their behavior persists. It’s a shame, really.

The ability to engage in a lively dialogue can be the envy of these one-way communicators. A good leader asks questions, is curious about others and their ideas, enjoys riffing and generally finds other people interesting. They have a ton of experience that indicates that conversations and debates yield better solutions, ideas and outcomes. They also know that professionals are more satisfied under these circumstances.

If you are someone who struggles with dialogues, get some help. Engage a coach or mentor who can teach you some of these skills. If you sense that this is a life-long pattern that taps some deeper sore spots, get a therapist. Chances are your friends and family don’t enjoy this behavior any more than your colleagues do. Something is holding you back from truly connecting with others. Figure out what that is and fix it. Work (and life!) will be so much richer and more fulfilling if you do.

The Understated Leader: Part Three

There are hidden gems in all our organizations. They are the people who consistently do great work, play well with others, ask good questions and listen attentively. What they don’t do is make a lot of noise. That is not part of their DNA. It’s a shame that those horn blowers suck up our attention. We end up missing out on amazing stuff happening all around us.

I’ve written here https://getrealleadership.com/2014/12/22/the-understanded-leader-contd/ and here  https://getrealleadership.com/2013/09/03/a-great-example-of-an-understated-leader/ about The Understated Leader in the past. This is a low ego, highly collaborative and not flashy person who is productive and admired. For this post I want to focus on two key strengths these folks have that all organizations need so much more of: leading effective teams and facilitating innovation.

Take a look around your organization and identify those teams that work especially well. They are energized, flexible and crank out good results. You see the members collaborating easily, laughing and getting down to business. They are proud of small and big wins and examine setbacks. What would you say about the formal leader of this type of team? What behaviors do you observe?

Understated leaders tend to manage teams by:

  • Guiding rather than directing or inserting themselves
  • Assuming the collective skills and knowledge of the members will get the job done
  • Being a resource rather than a driver
  • Asking loads of questions to draw out the ideas of the members
  • Facilitating team feedback and reflection
  • Deferring praise away from self and onto the team

These leaders have a fundamental belief that the best work gets done through teams of people. They coach members about how to work well together and are reluctant to intervene when things get jammed up. They value both the interpersonal skills required to collaborate as well as the improved problem solving and outcomes when more heads are in the game.

Shift focus now to how creativity and innovation take place at your organization. Are there people with special roles for that job? Is everyone responsible for it? Are some leaders more prone to new ideas and new ways of doing things while others take the “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” approach? Does innovation happen unexpectedly or is it baked into the way the business is conducted? Are some staff frustrated with the lack of invention while others feel constant pressure to be creative?

When it comes to Understated Leaders, you will often see them approach innovation in these ways:

  • Challenge teams to go further, push the envelope, anticipate what happens down the road
  • Look for the best answers and input rather than the easiest or quickest or cheapest one
  • Anticipate people’s responses to the new thing and plan for the transition
  • Entrust teams to solve big issues rather than select one or two subject matter experts
  • Tap people from across and up and down the organization to invent something new or solve problems
  • Pose challenging questions for the team to address rather than take over the process

Much like their point of view about teams, these leaders know from repeated experience that answers to tough issues do not start and stop with themselves. They may feel ultimately accountable but they do not feel that they alone can solve the problem or identify what the next new thing should be. They are adept at framing the challenge, encouraging expanded thinking and new inputs and helping the team reflect on what is/is not working.

Clearly, leading teams and leading innovation require similar skill sets. And Understated Leaders are particularly proficient in these areas. It is this humble, engaging, facilitative and challenging style that works so well.

But what do you see when you look around your organization at the state of both team work and innovation? Probably a smattering of Understated Leaders but mostly more traditional leaders. I define traditional leaders as: out front, take charge, results driven, declarative statements, direction setting, strong presence. You know, the stuff we all read about in the management literature. There is a time and a place for traditional leadership, that’s for sure. But when it comes to teams and innovation, a very different style is more effective.

And here is where the rub is. We pay way more attention to traditional leaders than we do to the quieter ones. Both may raise their hands but we gravitate towards the noise. Both may get results but a closer look will usually reveal a more productive process and more stimulated and enabled staff with the Understated Leader. Both leaders may praise their teams’ accomplishments but only one will do that without ever using the word “I”.

For those of you who are in the position to dole out great assignments, I urge you to open your eyes and ears to the folks all around you who are not tooting their own horns. Listen to what staff say about working with various leaders. Pay attention to the level of engagement and enthusiasm or pressure and anxiety staff feel. Look under the hood of the reported results; make sure you blow away all the smoke and mirrors to see what is really there.

Rather than always gravitating towards the obvious shiny objects take a chance on the more hidden luminous assets.

 

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