How to hide your nerves

If you get nervous speaking to your boss, making a presentation or speaking up in a meeting, you are most definitely not alone. How can you prevent your jelly legs, sweaty hands, stammering voice or mushy brain from spoiling the great impression you want to make? Here are some ideas:

Remember that your body language is a dead give-away of nervousness. To look cool, calm and self-possessed, try to remain still without being stiff. Avoid shifting around or constantly moving your weight from one foot to the other when you’re standing or jiggling your leg or twisting your chair from side to side when you’re sitting.

Avoid fiddling with a pen and constantly grooming your hair. Keep your hand movements open and relaxed, not extreme, jerky, sudden or quick. Sit or stand straight and hold your head up, and look people in the eye when you’re speaking to them.

When nerves strike, you’ll probably start breathing quickly and shallowly, and high up in your chest or even in your throat. That works against you because it stops oxygen reaching your brain and your brain needs oxygen to think clearly. It also weakens your voice and causes your words to come in awkward fits and starts. Relax by taking three deep breaths. This calms you and delivers oxygen to your brain so you can say something sharp and interesting. It also strengthens your voice, making you sound confident.

Speaking of your voice, relax your throat to lower your pitch to sound more credible. A high-pitched voice makes you sound nervous, overly excited, immature and/or unconfident, not to mention shrill, while deeper voices sound more confident and competent. And avoid the upward inflections. Statements that sounds like questions lessen your believability.

Take care to speak clearly so that people don’t have to strain to hear you–most won’t bother. Speak from deep in your diaphragm rather than high in your throat so that your voice has volume and richness.

And smile. A sincere smile, as distinct from a nervous grimace, releases endorphins, the ‘feel-good’ chemicals, that can raise your confidence. Plus, smiles are catching, so you might set up a ‘virtuous circle’.  Plus, a smile makes you look more interesting and approachable. Plus, when you’re smiling, more people want to listen to you.  All of which puts your nerves on the back seat.

Anyone can hide their nerves. You may need to concentrate to do so at first, and keep reminding yourself what to do, but after a while, cool, calm and confident body language soon becomes second nature.


When to speak up and when to shut up

Sometimes, silence is golden. Sometimes it isn’t. When deciding, consider two things: the point (or the issue) and the relationship. Ask yourself which is more important. When they’re both important, it’s worth investing time and patience to speak up and reach an agreement you’re both satisfied with. When neither is important, speaking up probably isn’t worth the effort.

Smoothing over differences of opinion that affect the way you work together and sweeping problems under the carpet generally lead to continued and even worsening problems. Silence is golden here only when the issue is unimportant or the relationship is vastly more important than the issue. Otherwise, silence, especially when it’s at the expense of something that is important to you, when it makes you feel uncomfortable and when it negatively effects your team or its results, is almost certainly a poor choice.

On the other hand, remaining silent when you cannot win is golden silence. Consider your other options first, though–you’ll feel better about your decision to not speak up that way.

Even when it seems you both want something different, speaking up can be a good idea. Some differences are only superficial and there is often more than one path to a goal. You can usually work through the issue so that you both end up with a solution that works for you both. Look for common goals and common ground, by, for example, zooming out to the bigger picture or zooming in to a more detailed picture.

When the irritation is about someone’s personality: their quirks, traits, habits, mannerisms, or their general personality style or approach, it’s generally best to hold your tongue. You can’t change someone’s personality to suit yourself, so overlook these differences or learn to live with them. The exception is when a team member’s quirks or habits impinge negatively on the rest of the team; then you need to speak up and point out the effect you observe their behaviour to have on the team.

Disagreements over values are usually quite difficult to resolve, making silence a golden possibility. The best action is often to recognise that everyone is different and you can’t change another person’s values any more than they can change yours and you may need to respectfully agree to disagree. The exception is when a team member’s values run counter to your team’s or organisation’s culture or rules and regulations, such as matters to do with ethics or working when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. These are important issues and you must speak up.

Silence can be golden when you hold your tongue to wait until the time is right before speaking up, or until you can find a quiet place to talk or until the other party has time to talk. Unless, of course, it’s a workplace dignity or safety issue, in which case you must speak up straight away because these, too, are important issues.

With important issues, then, particularly those that concern team members or others you see often and want to make sure you can work well with, or issues that concern work performance, silence is definitely not golden. In these cases, silence is not a way to show leadership or to build great relationships and it certainly isn’t a way to build a productive team.

Management, like life, often comes down to choosing your battles. Make your choice based on the importance of the issue and the importance of the relationship. And when you decide to speak up, do so with kindness and tact. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Show you’re on the same side by sitting next to, not across from, the person you’re speaking with; when that isn’t possible, sit at 90 degrees. This simple action powerfully puts you–literally–on the same side and makes the conversation progress more smoothly. Make your joint goals explicit and use the word ‘we’ a lot to show you’re in this together.


Best practice, or just another fad?

New and innovative management thinking that stands the test of time tends to become the new ‘baseline’ to which all organisations must comply sooner or later in order to remain in the game. Customer service, for example, was once a genuine differentiator of companies but is now expected, and what was once considered ‘great’ customer service is now the baseline. Other new approaches that have significantly effected the way we run organisations and manage people include management by objectives (MBO) and total quality management (TQM). Using ‘big data’ and offering smart, connected products are soon to join such ground-breaking practices.

But wait: in some organisations, MBO, TQM, and other initiatives such as Six Sigma, re-engineering and supply-chain analysis that became successfully embedded in many organisations, were mere ‘flavours of the month’ in others.  How can that be? The answer is clear: Initiatives that are potentially valuable and ground breaking don’t work in organisations that ‘dabble’. Dabblers:

  • don’t bother to train employees properly in the initiative
  • don’t win the commitment of the organisation’s leaders
  • don’t persevere with an initiative long enough to make it part of its culture
  • make them an add-on to peoples’ probably already-demanding workload, so they’re just another ‘chore’
  • don’t allow the initiative to create deep, genuine change to its culture or operations
  • don’t take the initiative seriously enough to measure properly or reward people for coming ‘on board’ with it.

Some best practices work and organisations move on. Once an organisation has re-engineered its operations from ‘go’ to ‘whoa’, for example, it needs to find another ground-breaking way to retain a competitive advantage. Once every organisation is doing it (customer service and TQM, for example) the next iteration of it must be found.

Other initiatives are just plain fads and always will be. Upside-down organisation charts and calling employees ‘associates’ spring to mind here. Oh yes, and ‘There’s no I in Team’. You can recognise fads because they’re simplistic and prescriptive: Do this one thing and watch the magic happen–whatever your industry, the size of your organisation, the nature of your business–no need to adapt it to suit your needs! Fads peddle a one-size-fits-all Answer. They’re filled with big words, jargon, overblown phrases and bumper sticker exhortations and slogans. They do nothing to change the core of an organisation, the way it really operates, interacts with its customers, suppliers and stakeholders.

Fads like these are easy to spot. Leave them alone. When you want to adopt a best practice initiative and ensure it works, don’t dabble.

The best way to take notes

I’ve just been reading a study which shows that, despite the increasingly common practice of taking notes on a laptop, taking notes the good old-fashioned way–by hand– dramatically improves your understanding of the subject.

While you may remember as many facts when you take notes on your laptop, you don’t glean the all-important conceptual understanding. Ergo, since management is largely about concepts rather than facts, the last thing you want to do is take notes on your laptop!

The authors of the study think that the reason is laptop note takers pretty much transcribe the lecture, while longhand note takers process the information, select the important bits, and put it in their own words before writing them down, all of which increase learning.

When you’re taking notes, then, don’t’ try to capture everything the lecturer is saying. Instead, think about the lecturer’s message and write it down in your own words.