Listening and silence

Have you ever noticed that the words ‘listen’ and ‘silent’ are made up of the same letters? They might look the same in a lot of other ways, too, but they’re really very different.

How do you listen when you’re fascinated with what someone is saying? I bet it’s quite different to the way you listen with ‘half an ear’ when you’re not interested, but just being polite and keeping silent.

When you simply keep silent, you end up listening like a stunned mullet and that’s guaranteed to bring a conversation to a pretty rapid halt. Genuine listening involves your heart, your eyes and your mind, as well as your ears.

That’s hard work and it doesn’t come easily to most people. But it’s worth making the effort because real listening, as opposed to silence, does three precious things for you:

  1. It helps you build better relationships.
  2. It helps you find out what’s really going on and what people really think, which makes you more influential and persuasive.
  3. Listening carefully to someone obliges them to listen carefully to you: the better you listen, the more others listen to you.

So how can you listen, as opposed to just keeping silent? Here are three essentials:

  1. Put your own thoughts on hold, even when you think you have something more important to say and even when you disagree with what the other person is saying. Try to crawl inside their mind and see matters from their point of view. Listen for their thinking and the logic and feelings behind it.
  2. Get your body language right. As they say, when your eyes wander, your mind wanders, too. Without facing the other person directly, which can be interpreted as confrontational, orient your body to them at roughly right angles and don’t fidget.
  3. Show you’re listening with a few nods and grunts – ‘Ahhh’, ‘Uhum’ , ‘Mmmm’ …

With a bit of practice, anyone can be a not-so-silent listener.

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How to give feedback

Leader-managers owe it to employees to let them know their contributions are appreciated and how they could contribute even more effectively. No doubt you agree.

But do you get hung up on the word ‘feedback’? Don’t. Banish it from your mind and replace it with the word ‘information’. That way, you aren’t thinking ‘complaints’ and ‘criticisms’ but ‘insights’ offered in a caring, helpful way. Caring, helpful insights are indispensable to healthy workplaces and work teams.

This means banishing negative general comments and body language that implies ‘Oh, no – not you again’. Sarcasm, rolling your eyes, ignoring people or their efforts, and even heavy ‘hints’ fall into this category. It also means banishing telling people they’ve done something ‘wrong’ without explaining how to do it ‘right’.

Instead, motivate and lift people’s spirits with positive general comments that show you’re glad to be working with them. When you want to make sure what you’re commenting on is repeated, be specific – say what you appreciate and why you appreciate it. That builds and maintains first-rate performance.

When you want to help someone contribute more effectively, be constructive. Provide practical information that can help the person lift their performance.

So here’s your challenge for this week: Tell each of your team members something that you appreciate about the way they work and contribute. In a different conversation, show them how they could tackle a task to achieve a more effective outcome. (To find out why to separate your positive and constructive comments, see my blog Why the ‘sandwich technique’ for feedback doesn’t work.)

The people you’re stuck with

Sometimes they’re family members. Sometimes they’re people you work with. Sometimes they’re neighbours. They’re the people you wouldn’t choose to spend time with, but you need to.

Worrying about them or even allowing yourself to be annoyed by them is a waste of time and mental energy. Far better to overcome your annoyances and learn to work professionally with them, even though you wouldn’t choose to socialise with them. Much better for your career, your job satisfaction and your job performance. Here are four tips:

  1. Don’t take their behaviour personally. Maybe they’re having a bad day or maybe they have worries at home. Provided they behave pretty much the same with everyone, understand it isn’t about you.
  2. Look for their strengths and good points. Everyone has them. Recognise and acknowledge their abilities and find ways to put their expertise to good use.
  3. Maintain your professionalism at all times. Communicate with them constructively, not angrily or sarcastically – don’t let them dictate your behaviour.
  4. Stay focused on your work goals and what you want to achieve. This takes your mind off how annoying they are and helps you get on with doing what you’re paid to do – your job.

Is our industrial relations going to go full circle?

Between Federation in 1901 and 1983, social justice guided how we managed our economy and workplace relations. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) acted as an independent umpire in workplace relations and based wages and working conditions in part on what it thought was a fair, or living, wage. This meant that, in the interests of fairness and a reasonable standard of living, some people in some occupations were paid more than their contributions were worth.

By 1983, the world had changed dramatically since Federation. The government of the day decided that we needed to make big changes in our workplaces to survive in the global marketplace. It began a gradual move towards decentralising workplace relations and allowing the market to determine wages and working conditions. This began as a joint effort between the government and the unions – remember The Accords?

By 1996 when the Liberal Howard government took over from the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, two of the three pillars of Australian workplace relations, tariff protection and centralised wage fixing, were all but gone. The third pillar, the AIRC, was about to go. The new government further deregulated the labour market and replaced social justice principles with economic rationalism. The role of workplace legislation moved from social fairness and protection to promoting the efficient functioning of labour markets.

The world continues to change. With the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, computer are predicted to take over millions of jobs in the next 15 years. (See my blog How not to lose your job to a computer.) As a result, people are beginning to talk once more about a living wage. The argument is that since computers will perform so many jobs, a lot of us won’t need to work. But we’ll still need money to pay the bills and live a good life. This is where the living wage comes back into the picture. Paying people whose jobs are taken over by computers a living wage will free them up to do creative work, entrepreneurial work, voluntary work, research work and so on. People can ‘follow their dream’ once they’re freed from the need to earn money. In the end, life could be pretty good.

Help people through change

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: Change is all around us. Society, the marketplace, the economy and technology are all transforming with dizzying speed. For instance:

  • Australia’s economy has become a service and knowledge economy, which means organisations don’t gain their value from their machinery and equipment but from their people. Organisational wealth comes from successfully storing and using knowledge to create innovative products and services and develop innovative, sustainable, value-adding and profitable systems.
  • Our definition of what a family unit is continues to change.
  • The capabilities of information, communications and bio and nano technologies (e.g. motor the size of a pinhead) continue to soar and promise to transform our lives.
  • Globalisation makes it easier for epidemics to wipe out or temporarily disable a significant portion of our population and wipe out all or part of an organisation’s supply chain.

And that’s just a sample of what’s going on around us. The world is changing so fast that standing still doesn’t exist – we’re either moving forward and making progress or we’re going backward. In fact, the speed of change is speeding up, and right now is the slowest we’ll ever experience it.

To survive, never mind thrive, we all need to stay on top of the game and better still, stay one step ahead. We all need keep up to date with trends so we can more easily adapt as everything around us changes. Perhaps more than anything, we need to keep learning – about the area and industry we work in, about the technology we use, and about new ways of doing things.

Don’t change the rules

Maybe you’ve spent time in a European country or North America. If you drove or even crossed the street, how hard was it to get used to driving on the right or looking right before crossing the road? Hard, right?

There’s a good reason for that. Yes, old habits die hard. And more than that, the first rules we learn (‘Look right, look left, then look right again’) are exceedingly ‘sticky’. That makes them not just hard to unlearn, but really, really, really hard to unlearn.

Unlearning something and learning something else to replace it is frustrating. It’s mentally exhausting. That’s just one of many good reasons to hire trainable people rather than people with experience – your rules and procedures are likely to be slightly different and therefore, require unlearning and re-learning. Old habits die hard and the longer we’ve had them, the more effort and the longer it takes to replace them. To help new starts perform well, hire people who haven’t done the specific tasks they’ll be doing in your team.

To help your team perform well, don’t change rules without a compelling reason. (This applies to your customers and your family, too. It does not apply to continuous incremental improvements.)

There’s enough change to deal with without creating more change unnecessarily.

 

Toxic bosses Part 3

Over the last two weeks, we’ve considered how to recognise and survive working for control freaks, hollow superstars, wily politicians and narcissists. This week it’s how to survive working for dictators and bullies. They all prove boss is a four-letter word.

Dictators take being the boss into the stratosphere. They take no questions and give no explanations. They issue orders and tell you what to do – even when they don’t need to. They play their cards close to their chests, they solve your problems and everyone else’s problems, too, and they make all the decision themselves – even those you’d like to be involved in and could help with.

Some dictators simply love the sound of their own voice. Some can’t bring themselves to trust their followers – any of them – even though their poor followers probably are trustworthy. In the minds of dictators, their only option is to continually drive people and push them hard to do an honest day’s work.

Here are the two secrets to working for dictators:

  1. Remember that their ‘don’t trust anyone’ view of the world is their problem, not yours.
  2. Don’t give into the temptation to become as lazy and irresponsible as they seem to believe you are and just sit back and let the dictator do all your thinking for you.

The best thing to do, I think, is to keep your head down, do your work, and look for a new leader who doesn’t turn ‘boss’ into a four-letter word.

I’ve saved the most toxic boss of all until last – the bully. Bullies pick on one or two of their weaker followers and entertain themselves by abusing, belittling and berating them, assigning them impossible tasks with ridiculous time constraints and generally setting them up to fail.

And here’s the rub – to everyone else, bullies are often charming, and clever enough to hide their bullying ways from everyone but their victims. In fact, people usually find it hard to believe that a bully boss really does intimidate, terrorise and persecute anyone. That’s what makes them so dangerous.

If anyone out there is the victim of a bully boss, do not be conned into believing that you’re the failure your boss is making you out to be. Keep a record of the bullying treatment you receive (dates, times, locations, what was said, anyone else who was present). These records can help you see, clearly and objectively, that you’re not to blame and you may be able to use these records as proof of your boss’s toxic behaviour towards you.

My suggestion is that you find another leader as fast as you can, someone who inspires you and helps you achieve feats you never knew you could achieve. Look for someone who is talented and has high, but realistic, standards, who will give you constructive feedback, set challenging targets and expect a lot of good work from you. Above all, look for a leader who makes you feel energised and confident.

(I trust you didn’t recognise any of the characteristics of toxic leaders we’ve discussed over the last three posts in yourself. If you did, you know what to do. Change your ways and learn to be a real leader-manager.)