The lights are on but no one’s home

Years ago, I participated in a training exercise I’ve never forgotten. To this day, it makes me queasy with discomfort!

The trainer asked us to pair up and one person in each pair was to leave the room for a couple of minutes. I went out. While we were out, the trainer instructed those remaining that when their partners returned, they were to engage us in conversation and listen. BUT – they were to offer no sign whatsoever that they were listening. No eye contact, no nods, no grunts, no nuffink.

I can tell you, I found the absence of those non-verbal ‘encouragers’ not only extremely off-putting, but actually quite distressing.

Two things happened very quickly:

  1. I reached the firm conclusion that my partner was an absolute dork.
  2. I dried right up.

Normally, as those of you who know me know, I can talk the hind leg off a donkey, but with someone sitting opposite me, just sitting there like a lump and doing absolutely nothing, I completely lost my train of thought. I began rambling wildly. And then I ground to a halt. I was most uncomfortable to say the least.

That made me realise, in a very visceral way, how important it is to not just ‘sit there’ and listen. We need to do something.

So here are six small but crucial things to do when you’re listening to someone:

  1. Make eye contact.
  2. Nod.
  3. Say ‘uh-huh, ‘I see’ and ‘mmm’ a lot.
  4. Repeat a key word or phrase.
  5. Orient your body towards the speaker.
  6. Lean slightly forward towards the speaker.

That way, you won’t find your conversational partner drying up and thinking you’re an absolute dork.

The link between achievement and self-esteem

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The jury is in but divided, but more about that later.

However, the jury is in on which comes first, self-esteem or achievement. Some scientists noticed that providing lots and lots of empty praise — giving every kid in the race, including the last one, a trophy — leads to inflated but baseless self-esteem. It can even have the opposite effect to what the providers of lots and lots of meaningless praise intend. The researchers found that kids with unrealistically high self-esteem might be more willing to enter dangerous territory, like cheating, experimenting with drugs and stealing.

It’s also been shown that telling kids they’re smart, whether they are or not, makes even the genuinely smart kids less willing to apply effort, preventing them for reaching their full potential. These genuinely smart kids end up thinking that putting in effort to learn means they aren’t smart and they become more concerned with protecting their reputation as smart, in looking smart then being smart.

So, to have the sort of high self-esteem that’s worth something, you need to achieve worthwhile goals first. To do that, you need three things:

  1. You need to put in effort and understand that trying hard does make a difference.
  2. You need willpower to keep putting in the effort. We’ve talked about the importance of willpower before and the good news that it’s just like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.
  3. And you need something called self-compassion, which is different from self-esteem. While self-esteem often involves the need to be special and above average, when you have self-compassion you don’t compare yourself to others and you can cope realistically with mistakes and failure without them crushing your self-esteem—after all, everyone makes mistakes and falls short sometimes.People with self-compassion tend to look after themselves by exercising more and eating more healthily for instance. They have learning goals rather than performance goals and learn for it’s own sake, not for grades or to impress people.

These three qualities — effort, willpower and self-compassion — are what help you achieve and your achievements build genuine self-esteem. Once you’ve earned your self-esteem, you are likely to be happier, more optimistic and more motivated than people with low self-esteem, and less likely to be anxious, depressed and negative. You’re not going to be an obnoxious person with an over-sized ego based on nothing, either.

The bottom line is, earn your self-esteem through your achievements, not from just be ing handed a trophy for merely running in the race.

And as for the which came first, the chicken or the egg, well, that’s still a conundrum. Some scientists say the chicken did because two non-chickens mated and, via a genetic mutation, produced the first chicken. So the chicken came first. But other scientists say the egg came first because two non-chickens mated and via that same genetic mutation, produced the first chicken. But their logic is that since it was a chicken inside the egg, the egg came first.

Add ten years to your life

A study from the Mayo Clinic proved that an optimistic attitude can extend your life by up to 20%. For most of us, that’s more than ten years. And not only does a rosy outlook help us live longer, it helps us enjoy our lives more. That’s because optimists are generally more active and mentally fit in their later years than old grumps.

Probably the easiest way to increase your positivity quotient and with it, your longevity and happiness quotients, is to surround yourself with other optimists, because good spirits are catching.

Another easy thing you can do is put your attention onto what is going well and what is good in your life. Now, for some people, that’s kind of hard. If you’re working in a toxic environment or burdened with working long hours just to keep up, keeping the chin up can be a challenge. Other people are just naturally pessimistic.

Whatever the cause, if you tend to see the glass half empty rather than half full, here’s what to do: Recognise a negative thought when you have one and immediately replace it with a more positive thought. You might reframe it, for instance, or take your mind to a happy place for a minute to reduce your stress level. Be diligent about this because after three weeks, it will have become a habit.

Are you a hard core pessimist? You might also need to take five minutes at the beginning of every day to actually write down something you’re looking forward to that day. And take five minutes at night to jot down five things you’re grateful for, maybe simple things like the great weather or your pretty garden, or big things, like your health and your family. Those two easy actions will dramatically boost your outlook on life and with it, your longevity.

The bottom line is: Our thoughts create our life, so, to live a long and happy life, think happy thoughts. It might sound simple, but it’s powerful and it works.

Plus, you’ll be a better role model to your team and your family.

 

Do you walk your talk?

We all know people who say one thing and do another. The manager who says: ‘I believe in participation’ but fails to listen to people’s ideas and suggestions. Translation: ‘I don’t believe people have ideas or suggestions worth listening to.’ Or the manager who says ‘My team is first rate’ but constantly checks up on them and avoids delegating work. Translation: ‘I don’t trust my team so I need to keep an eye on them.’

Are those managers hypocrites? Maybe. I think there are three more likely reasons they say one thing and do another:

  1. They really do value participation or think their team is great but their core beliefs–their hearts, which guide their day-to-day actions, haven’t caught up with their heads yet.
  2. Participation and saying positive things about your team may be part of the organisation’s values and culture but they aren’t part of the manager’s values or core beliefs. So the manager gives lip service to the company talk, but but doesn’t walk it.
  3. A stronger value or belief overrides the manager’s weaker value of participation or belief their team is great. Maybe the organisation punishes mistakes and the manager values staying out of trouble more than trusting the team to do its work or come up with sound suggestions.

Whatever the reason, failing to walk your talk costs you credibility, trust and respect. The trouble is, people generally don’t know when their deeds aren’t matching their words. It’s the ‘blind spot’, and we all have them.

So what to do? Here are three ideas:

  1. When you trust the people you work with enough, you can ask them for some honest feedback.
  2. You can listen to your words and spend some time quietly reflecting on whether your actions match them.
  3. You can consider whether your own values match your organisation’s values and when they don’t, you can start polishing up your CV.

Walking your talk is an important part of integrity and authenticity. It gives your formal authority legitimacy, without which, your leadership is … well let’s be honest here … doomed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The art of subtle coaching

Coaching is one of every leader-manager’s most important activities. You’re probably most familiar with coaching to improve already-good performance by gently tweaking someone’s behaviour to further enhance their results. My Describe–Explain–Suggest model is one way to do this, and my Flag–Example–Benefit model is another. Also useful is the Intent–Outcome model, where you help someone compare and contrast what they intended by their behaviour or actions with the actual outcome and then help them find ways to bring their intention and outcome closer together. Socratic questioning, where you help people find their own insights and solutions is another powerful coaching technique. (You can find examples of these models and techniques in Chapters 16 and 26.)

There’s another, more subtle type of coaching that I learned by reflecting on the way a former boss, Chris (let’s call him), coached me. It was my first job out of Uni, where my referent group was still that of uni students and I therefore dressed in ‘student uniform’ rather than ‘business attire’. Not a good look; enough said.

When we went to industry meetings together, Chris would introduce me like this: ‘This is Kris Cole, our safety and training officer. She’s very professional.’ That’s all, ‘She’s very professional’.

Chris was embedding a description of myself in my subconscious as being ‘very professional’. It affected my behaviour and yes, it affected the way I dressed, too. Without consciously realising it, I gradually began to grow into Chris’s description of me.

(You may be wondering why he didn’t just tell me, ‘Kris, you look like a mess; please fix up your image’. Well imagine my reaction to that: I can tell you right now I’d have crossed my arms, stamped my foot, pouted a bit and said, ‘It doesn’t matter how a person dresses; it just matters how well they do their job!’ I’d probably have tossed my hair, too. No, the direct approach would definitely not have worked. The subtle approach did.)

Chris subtly coached me in other ways, too. He’d pass on rules of thumb that I could easily follow. He’d relate illustrative personal stories or examples that gave me mental scaffolds to generalise from, to use to analyse problems or to make sense of experience. He thought out loud a lot, giving me insight into a really smart manager’s thinking processes and showing me how to consider matters from various angles before reaching a decision.

That was all incredibly valuable. But what I most treasure was the way Chris highlighted the positive, so I felt good about myself and willing and able to do my best work. I would like to think that every leader-manager makes time to regularly highlight the positive in people and give them something to grow into.

Is your boss a micro-manager?

Some people are naturally detail-oriented. Some get nervous when they don’t feel fully on top of things. Others just like to tell people what to do. There are lots of reasons a person can become a micro-manager.

So how can you cope with a boss who provides so much guidance and support that your productivity suffers? Here are some ideas.

Micro-managers need to know what’s going on, so provide plenty of information, even to the point where you think it’s overkill. Find out the sort of information your boss most needs in order to feel comfortable (action plans, analyses, examples, facts, figures, summaries …) and provide it.

Agree priorities so that, should your boss concentrate on trivia and unimportant details, you can keep your attention on vital, value-adding work. When you need to, explain that you plan to attend to the other work as soon as you’ve completed the high-priority work you’ve agreed.

Meet your deadlines. Keep your boss well informed as you reach each milestone on the way and what your next step is. Make sure that next step is one you can complete before your next update, so that your boss can see clear progress.

Of course, there are two good reasons a person becomes a micro-manager:

  1. the employee is new to a task and on a steep learning curve
  2. the employee is under-performing.

Ask yourself whether either applies to you and whether you’re the only one being micro-managed. When that isn’t the case, do everything you can to help your boss relax and feel confident that you’re both on the same page.

 

 

Two all-important three-letter words

There is a three-letter word that creates arguments and another that creates cooperation. The first is ‘but’ and the second is ‘and’. Who would think one small, simple word has the power to damage relationships and spoil conversations, and the other to make them more satisfying and effective?

‘That’s a good effort, but …’                                 ‘That looks fine, but …’
‘You did a good job, but …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, but …’
‘I take your point, but …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, but …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, but …’               ‘That’s one option, but …’

Do you see? When you hear the word ‘but’, you know bad news is coming. The ‘but’ butts away the positive information preceding it. It’s a verbal hammer that signals disagreement.

Are you thinking of substituting ‘but’ with ‘however’? Forget it. ‘However’ is just a three-syllable version of ‘but’ and sends the same signals.

Substitute ‘but’ with ‘and’.

‘That’s a good effort, and …’                                 ‘That looks fine, and …’
‘You did a good job, and …’                                  ‘I can tell you tried, and …’
‘I take your point, and …’                                       ‘We’ve received your order, and …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and …’               ‘That’s one option, and …’

Hear the difference? ‘But’ blocks.  ‘And’ builds. With ‘and’, you’re working with people, not pushing against them. ‘And’ allows you to offer an improvement suggestion while acknowledging the good job that has been done.

‘That’s a good effort, and something else you could try is …’
‘That looks fine, and one way to enhance it might be to …’
‘You did a good job, and it would be fantastic if you could also …’
‘I can tell you tried, and you’ve made good progress. One thing for next time is …’

‘And’ also shows you’ve listened and heard.  It helps prevent arguments because it allows two points of view to stand and acknowledges and extends what the other person has said.

‘I take your point, and another thing we could consider is …’
‘We’ve received your order, and in order to process it, I just need …’
‘I understand what you’re saying, and here’s another way to look at it.’
‘That’s one option, and another might be …’

 

Substituting ‘but’ with ‘and’ can be a hard habit to break, at least it was for me, but it was well worth it. Communication becomes much more cooperative. It also becomes much more clear without muddying the waters with the mixed message ‘but’ sends.

One more thing: Much of the time, you can simply substitute ‘and’ for ‘but’. But (yes, here’s some slightly bad news) sometimes, you need to reconstruct the sentence and make your point differently. When that happens, the reworded statement is invariably stronger, more cooperative and more effective than the original version. And it’s definitely worth the effort when you want more agreements than arguments.