Archive for April, 2011
I ask participants to make their own ground rules when I facilitate a meeting or training session. But I always ask their permission to add one ground rule to the list: Everyone must say what they really think, as long as it’s relevant to the discussion and respectful of the folks in the room.
There are so many reasons why people often don’t speak up when they have a different perspective. They’re afraid of looking foolish, or of being wrong. They want to avoid confrontation or the appearance of quarrelsomeness, or they think they might hurt someone’s feelings. They don’t believe it will do any good to speak up when they have a different perspective on the issue because they’ve been dismissed or ridiculed before. Or perhaps, worst of all, they just don’t care enough about the team, the issue or the project to put forth the effort of expressing themselves.
The consequences can be severe, however. A team that doesn’t say what they really think lacks creativity and cuts its own potential short. They engage in “group think,” which rarely gets us anywhere in terms of innovative solutions to problems and new ways of approaching things. And they often lack commitment to an agreed upon course of action; everyone nods and says, “yes, that’s a great idea, that’s what we’ll do” and then they walk out of the room and complain to each other that it’s actually a stupid idea. Nothing gets done as a result. Action plans collect dust and the organization keeps on doing what it’s always done. This is the kiss of death for teams and organizations.
When I work with a team in which everyone appears to agree on everything all the time, I tell them up front that I’m concerned about that. Often this manufactured sense of agreement is something they’ve carefully cultivated, believing that it makes them a stronger team, so my message is not a welcome one. I tell them the story about the helicopter crash: Years ago, in an organization I work with frequently, a helicopter was landing in a clearing in order to drop off some employees at a research camp. Later on during the depositions, some of the folks who were on the ground said, “I saw that the rotors were too close to the trees, but I didn’t say anything.” Why not? Because they didn’t think they had the right to say anything, not being helicopter operations experts. They were afraid of looking foolish. And the result was that everyone died.
Marcie Schorr Hirsch, in a Harvard Business Publishing blog article called What Separates the Extremely Successful from the Pack, describes the results of a fascinating research project. She studied 12 sets of matched pairs of executives; in each pair, one was a moderately successful mid-level executive and the other was a high level “extremely successful” executive of the same age, gender, race, educational level and organizational background. She asked them questions to determine what they considered to be success factors and found that they attributed their success to the same sources; for example, 22 out of 24 of them said that being married played into their career success. What differed was the way in which they described how the success factors contributed.
“The members of the extreme talent group — from their optimizing of other relationships without adhering to the limits of job descriptions (why couldn’t a comptroller offer creative ideas?) to their continual reinvention of their career path as unexpected opportunities came along — showed a propensity for creating value in non-obvious ways. They seemed to have a different lens through which they viewed what was going on around them,” Hirsch says. For example, the moderately successful folks said that their marriages helped them because the always had a clean shirt in the closet and never had to pick up the kids from school (all the study participants were men, by the way), but the extremely successful folks said things like, “I learned everything I know about interpersonal skills from my wife.” In other words, the extremely successful folks dug deeper to find the value of their relationships, opportunities and circumstances.
My first reaction: Wow. The possibilities of this idea are endless. Hirsch’s take is that you can teach people to dig deeper in a coaching relationship, with the goal of developing executives toward higher levels of career success. My question is, can you teach managers this perspective in the context of a training situation, with the goal of improving their leadership skills? What if you took a manager with a mediocre track record in mentoring and developing his employees, and tried to teach him to dig deeper for an employee’s potential? A study such as Hirsch’s might provide just the incentive such a manager needs to adopt a new perspective, assuming he was ambitious; in other words, rather than selling this idea as a way to develop employees, sell it as a career development tool for the manager himself. Trickery, you say? Perhaps. But I know I’ll be thinking about this next time I do a leadership course.
We all control our emotions to differing degrees. Or I should say, we control the way our behavior is driven by our emotions to different degrees. But I’ve always maintained that being a frequent traveler provides the best test you could possibly devise for how well a person maintains that control. And I have to believe that even the most emotionally intelligent of us still loses it sometimes while traveling.
Let’s take some personal examples. I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle of the scale. I can be a great person to sit next to on the plane, but on a really bad day I can also be a desk agent’s worst nightmare. A couple weeks ago I had one of those rotten days where I got lost on the way to the rental car return, ran through the airport thinking I was late, and then discovered my flight was massively delayed by weather. The gate agents and flight attendants were surly and the flight was packed full. It wasn’t my regular airline so I had a middle seat. When I finally boarded I couldn’t find space in the overhead bins, but there were two bags in the bin over my seat that were bigger than regulations allow. As the flight attendant announced that anyone with oversize bags would need to check them with her, I looked around to see who was trying not to make eye contact with me and I identified the culprits. Then I let one of them have it. “I think it’s a shame that I can’t find space for my bag because you’re taking up enough space for two,” I snapped at her. She protested that her bag used to fit but now suddenly, mysteriously, it didn’t any more. The other travelers seated around her busied themselves with their magazines and I gave up. If the flight attendants weren’t going to enforce the rules, how could I? As I sat down I heard another traveler making fun of me for being so cranky and my face flamed. He was right, of course. I was just being cranky. The problem is that it doesn’t feel like that at the time; it feels like I have a legitimate complaint that should be aired.
This week I had a day where everything went right. The plane was on time, I found a great restaurant in the terminal, I had a good seat, and there were two friendly women in my row. When the flight attendant took drink orders I asked for a glass of wine and handed over my debit card. The woman next to me said, “Oh, I have so many drink coupons and I never use them. Take this,” and she handed it to the flight attendant for my drink.
Later when the flight got turbulent, the other woman in my row was clearly very nervous. She didn’t have anything to read so she stared out the window, gripping her arm rests. I ripped an article about the royal wedding out of my Newsweek magazine and handed it to her, and then I chatted with her for a while to take her mind off her fear. It made me feel so much more human than the time I yelled at a passenger about the size of her bag. And I thought, why don’t I remember how it feels to be the good guy every time, and let that feeling drive my behavior?
I don’t have the answer to that question. I just know that sometimes I’m the good guy and sometimes I’m the bad guy. The trick is to keep working on it.
Recently I led a team building session for a federal agency group in which the team’s manager had a bad sarcasm habit. He used sarcasm for everything—to make points about the work load, to highlight his people’s weaknesses, even to talk about challenges the team was dealing with in getting the job done. He didn’t see it as sarcasm; he called it humor and he and the team often talked about how important it was to have a sense of humor on their team.
When I left, one of my parting comments was that sarcasm should never be used to say something important, because no one would take it seriously and feelings might be hurt in the process. Sarcasm, I told them, was often used as a protective mechanism to give what might otherwise be constructive criticism. If they recipient gets it, great; if he doesn’t get it or is offended by it, you can say, “hey, I was only kidding, can’t you take a joke?”
Then last week I read a great column in the Vital Smarts newsletter by Kerry Patterson, called “Confronting Workplace Sarcasm.” I wish I’d seen this before my team building session because Patterson captures the point perfectly: sarcasm is “humor at its worst—humor used as a tool for taking shots at people, but done in a way that maintains plausible deniability,” he says, adding, “it’s actually quite difficult to defend your right to take cheap shots, dole out insults, and cut people down—all in the name of humor. Trust me. You never want to be the defense attorney when sarcasm goes to court.”
Remember being a teenager? Sarcasm equaled wittiness and sophistication for many of us when we were fifteen or sixteen. Our parents were stupid, stodgy and boring, and sarcasm was the best way to make fun of them. What it comes down to is that some of us grew out of it and recognized sarcasm for what it is, and some didn’t, perhaps because they were good at it and continued to get laughs out of others. It’s not that the folks who continued to use sarcasm as a tool have bad intentions. It’s that no one ever told them that it isn’t really funny. It’s time for all of us to step up and do that now.