Leadership Barometer 34 Skip the Sandwich

January 20, 2020

There are literally thousands of leadership courses for managers. In most of them, one of the techniques advocated is called the “sandwich” method.

The recommended approach when a leader has a difficult message to deliver is to start with some kind of positive statement about the other individual. This “softening up” is followed by the improvement opportunity. Finally, the leader gives an affirming statement of confidence in the individual.

Some people know this method as the C,C,C technique (compliment, criticize, compliment)

The theory behind the sandwich approach is that if you couch your negative implication between two happy thoughts, it will lessen the blow and make the input better tolerated by the person receiving the coaching.

The problem is that this method usually does not work, and it often undermines trust along with the credibility of the leader. Let’s examine why this conventional approach, as most managers use it, is poor advice.

First, recall when the sandwich technique was used on you. Remember how you felt? Chances are you were not fooled by the ruse. You got the message embodied in the central part of the sandwich, the meat, and mentally discounted the two slices of bread.

Why would you do that? After all, there were two positive things being said and only one negative one. The reason is the juxtaposition of the three elements in rapid fire left you feeling the sender was insincere with the first and last element and really only meant the central portion.

A manager might be able to slip the sandwich technique past you at the start of a relationship. At that point, you do not have a pattern to guide your subconscious thought. Later, if the manager has a habit of using the sandwich, you will become so adept that you will actually hear the second and third part of the sandwich coming up before they are even uttered by your manager.

This interesting phenomenon also occurs in e-mail exchanges. Managers often use the sandwich approach in an e-mail. It might sound like this:
“Your review of the financial information this morning was excellent, Mike. The only improvement I can see is to use more charts and fewer tables of figures to keep people from zoning out. Given your strong track record, I am sure you can make this tiny adjustment with ease.”

If you know this boss well, you can anticipate there is going to be a “but” in the middle long before the boss brings it up. The last part is a feeble attempt to prop you up after the real message has been delivered.

If you received this message, chances are you would have internalized the following: “Stop putting everyone to sleep with your boring tables and use colorful charts to show the data.” You would probably miss the compliment at the start because it was incongruent with the second message, and you would certainly discount the drivel at the end of the message because it was insincere.

It is not always wrong to use a balanced set of input, in fact, if done well, it is helpful. If there really is some specific good thing that was done, you can start with that thought.

Make the sincere compliment ring true and try to get some dialog on it rather than immediately shoot a zinger at the individual.

Then you can bring the conversation to the corrective side carefully. By sharing an idea for improvement, you can give a balanced view that will not seem manipulative or insincere.

Try to avoid the final “pep talk” unless there is something specific that you really want to stress. If that is the case, then it belongs upfront anyway.
Examine your own communication with people, especially subordinates, to reduce the tendency to use the sandwich approach mechanically, particularly if you have to stretch to find the nice things to say.

You may find it hard to detect the sandwich in your spoken coaching, but it will be easier to spot in your written work. The habit is particularly common when writing performance reviews or when trying to encourage changes in behavior.

The sad thing for the boss is that he or she was actually taught that the sandwich technique is normally a good thing to do. That makes it easy to fall into a pattern of doing it subconsciously and not realize that it is actually lowering your own credibility, unless it is used very carefully, because you come across as insincere.

How can you reduce the tendency to use the sandwich approach if you already have the habit?

The first antidote is to become aware when you use it. That means you need to be especially alert when giving verbal input. It also means proofreading notes where you are rating people or trying to change behavior.

When you see the sandwich being used, change it. Give the request for modified behavior with no preamble or postscript in the same breath. Just frame up the information in as kind a way as you can, but be sincere in your words.

Do share a balance of positive and negative things as they apply, but do it naturally, not in a forced, 1,2,3 pattern.

A second way to stop using the technique is to teach others to stop using it. The best way to learn anything is to teach it to others. As you help others see their bad habit, it will remind you that it sometimes shows up in your own communication.

If you can reduce your tendency to use the sandwich approach by 50-80%, you will become a more polished and effective leader.

The third way to prevent this problem is to encourage the teachers of “Management 101” to stop suggesting this technique in the first place. It is not an effective method of changing behavior.

Instead teach leaders to give both positive and corrective feedback in a natural way and only include sincere and specific praise, never force something to butter up the other person.

People have a keen ability to sniff out insincere praise, especially if it is just after being corrected for doing something wrong.

Robert Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust


Body Language 63 Fist in the Air

January 17, 2020

The gesture of putting one’s fist in the air is a very common one, but it can cause misunderstandings if you do not couple it with corroborating signals.

Part of the confusion is that the different meanings are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. For example, the fist-in-the-air gesture at a football game would normally be a way to cheer on your team to victory, while if there were protesters outside the stadium, that same gesture could signify rebellion, hatred, or anger.

In order to ascribe the correct meaning to the fist-in-the-air gesture, you must factor in the context in which it is given and most importantly the facial expressions that accompany it.

When this gesture is seen in public, it is normally part of a group activity where many people are giving the same signal. It is possible to observe the gesture on the part of just one person, but that is rare.

In this brief article, I will describe several applications where the fist in the air might be observed along with the most likely message being sent.

A cheer of support

A fist in the air can be a supportive gesture among team members similar to a high five. It means we are all together, and we are united in a common cause. We support each other and cheer each other on with the gesture.

For example, you might see a sales team at their convention use this gesture when it is announced that the team met the aggressive sales goal for the year. Everyone would enjoy the year-end bonus as a result of reaching the challenging goal.

Appreciation

You can witness the fist in the air gesture among adoring fans at a rock concert. You will see many people in the audience highly animated jumping up and down with their fists in the air as they sing along to the lyrics.

Defiance

You can also see the fist in the air at political or social rallies. The connotation here is still that we are united in a purpose, but in this case it is often a negative form of protest.

In the Workplace

Workers can display their anger over a new policy being introduced by having many people in a meeting start showing their fists in the air.

At times like this, the leader who is conducting the meeting needs to see the anger building up and make a preventive statement before the gesture is taken up by most of the workers and it becomes like a mob scene.

For example, the leader might see one person starting to put his fist in the air and say something like:

“I know this is not going to be a popular move, but I wanted to share the information with you candidly as early as possible, because you have a right to be informed of the action. You also have the right to understand the reason this action was unavoidable. I will explain some ways we can get through this difficult time together.”

Warning

A fist in the air done by an individual may be a warning to keep physical or emotional distance. The idea here is to tell the other person to back off or face a possible sock in the jaw. The gesture may be accompanied by a shaking of the fist as the wicked witch did in “The Wizard of Oz.” As she shook her fist she cackled, “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too.”

In a work setting, you can avoid this kind of acrimony by having acceptable behaviors identified in advance. If the whole team has agreed to treat each other respectfully, then the threats or warnings will be fewer.

Hate

When the gesture is coupled by a stiff arm, it is more serious and an indication of extreme prejudice against a person, group, or ideal. Another dead give away for this attitude is the facial expression. If the person looks angry, then chances are he is expressing some form of hatred.

The news showed an example of that at a White Supremacists Hate Rally at University of Virginia in 2017. Many of the marchers had their fist in the air as they chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

I once witnessed a large group of union workers with their fists in the air to express frustration and lack of trust with the management group. This public display of extreme disapproval was a major setback for the organization. It took months of effort to rebuild the respect of these workers.

The lesson here is to intervene with corrective measures before the frustration boils up to the point where people are shaking their fists in the air. Once people start using this gesture, it is a long and expensive road back to stability.

There are numerous examples of organizations that have pushed workers too far experience the push back of rebellion. The antidote is to build and maintain a culture of trust so that people feel heard and appreciated all along. That way the resentment never builds up to the boiling point.

Resolve or unyielding

When coupled with a clenched jaw and slight scowl, the fist in the air signifies an unyielding posture to what is going on. I am reminded me of the lyrics to a song, “I Won’t Back Down,” by the late Tom Petty:

I’ll stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down.

You can see that there is a wide spectrum of possible meanings to a fist in the air gesture. You must be alert to the circumstances and the facial expressions to pick out an accurate meaning.

If you sense frustration building up, take special care to mitigate the damage before people start shaking their fists or you will be in for a long recovery. If you have managed to build trust by reducing the fear in your organization, you are less likely to need to take remedial actions.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Leadership Barometer 33 Downsizing Tips

January 13, 2020

Every organization deals with downsizing occasionally in a struggle to survive difficult economic conditions. These times are true tests of the quality of leadership.

In many cases, downsizing leads to numerous problems in its wake, especially lower trust.

The most crucial shortage threatening our world is not oil, money, or any other physical resource. It is the lack of enlightened leaders who know how to build trust and transparency, especially when draconian actions are contemplated.

We are in need of more leaders who can establish and maintain the right kind of environment. A serious problem is in the daily actions of the leaders who undermine trust, even though that is not their intention.

The current work climate for leaders exacerbates the problem. The ability to maintain trust and transparency during workforce reductions is a key skill few leaders have.

Downsizing is a unique opportunity to grow leaders who do have the ability to make difficult decisions in ways that maintain the essence of trust.

Thankfully, there are processes that allow leaders to accomplish incredibly complex restructurings and still keep the backbone of the organization strong and loyal. It takes exceptional skill and care to accomplish this, but it can be done.

The trick is to not fall victim to the conventional ways of surgery that have been ineffective numerous times in the past. Yes, if you need to, you can cut off a leg in the backwoods with a dirty bucksaw and a bottle of whisky, but there are far safer, effective, and less painful ways to accomplish such a traumatic pruning.

One helpful tool in a downsizing is to be as transparent as possible during the planning phase. In the past, HR managers have worried that disclosing a need for downsizing or reorganization might lead to sabotage or other forms of rebellion.

The irony is that, even with the best secrecy, everyone in the organization is well aware of an impending change long before it is announced, and the concealment only adds to the frustration.

Just as nature hates a vacuum, people find a void in communication intolerable. Not knowing what is going to happen is an incredibly potent poison.

Gossip and rumors generally make the problem bigger than it actually is, and leaders find themselves dealing with the fallout.

Human beings are far more resilient in the face of bad news than to uncertainty. Information freely given is a kind of anesthesia that allows managers to accomplish difficult operations with far less trauma. The transparency works for three reasons:

1. It allows time for people to assimilate and deal with the emotional upheaval and adjust their life plans accordingly.
2. It treats employees like adults who are respected enough to hear the bad news rather than children who can’t be trusted to deal with trauma and must be sheltered from reality until the last minute.
3. It allows time to cross-train those people who will be leaving with those who will inherit their work.

All three of these reasons, while not pleasant, do serve to enhance rather than destroy trust.

Don’t humiliate people

Another tip is how to break the news to someone who will be terminated. One way to handle the situation is to ask yourself how you would like to be treated if the situation were reversed. Would you like to be paraded down the hall to pack a box with your possessions and escorted outside the gate and forced to hand over your keys and badge?

Many enlightened leaders have handled the separation in a more humane way. They break the news to the individual and share that the employee needs to find alternative employment. They may even offer assistance with ideas on where to look and offer for a reference.

Then, the employee is not immediately escorted off the premises, but is allowed to pack things up over the next several days and say good bye to friends and work colleagues. Some employers have even experimented with letting the impacted worker use the facilities and equipment for a short while during the job search.

HR managers will quickly point out the risks of having formerly employed workers on the premises, and it is true that the person needs to understand that if he or she is disruptive in any way, then the leaving will be immediate.

The idea is that when you treat separated employees with respect and kindness, even when the news is not good, they respond with a better attitude, which generally improves the outcome.

The more powerful result is that the employees who are not leaving are also impressed by the way these former colleagues were treated. That factor tends to bolster morale a bit for workers who are now asked to take up the slack.

Full and timely disclosure of information and thoughtful exit processes are only two of the many tools leaders can use to help maintain or even grow trust while executing unpleasant necessities.

My study of leadership over the past several decades indicates that the situation is not hopeless. We simply need to teach leaders the benefits of building an environment of trust and transparency and how to obtain them.

Robert Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust.


Leadership Barometer 62 Victory

January 11, 2020

The common “Victory” gesture is well known to us all. Habitually, we interpret the signal as one of strength and impending or realized victory.

There have been times in history where the victory sign, made by showing the first and second fingers in the shape of the letter “V,” had a different meaning. It is important to know when you are dealing with the common gesture versus some more esoteric flavor.

For example, the familiar usage to indicate victory is normally made with the palm of the person making the gesture facing toward the viewer. When the palm is facing toward the person making the gesture, it can have a completely different meaning. When coupled by an upward jerking motion of the forearm, it means “up yours.”

In Sports

We see the Victory sign made by athletes in every facet of the sports world. It is normally directed at someone out of earshot, and it simply means “we won.” It can also be shown before the contest, and in that case it means “we are going to win.”

In Politics

People running for office will often flash the victory sign in rallies as a show of confidence that they are going to win the race. You often see the gesture used in Congress when one side of the aisle is intent on prevailing over those nasty people on the other side.

Who can forget how Nixon frequently used the Double V with both arms outstretched. He even used it as he was boarding his helicopter immediately after he resigned from the presidency.

In War

The victory sign has historically been used when one side has won a battle. Who can forget the US soldiers riding through Europe flashing the victory sign at the end of WWII. Similarly, we recall Winston Churchill showing the victory sign as a way to instill confidence within the people of England that they would ultimately prevail. His famous admonition given at the time was “Never, never, never, quit.”

In Klingon

Of course, there have been variations on the victory sign, like the one on Star Trek when Mr. Spock would show the “Vulcan Salute” with four fingers split two on each side of the letter “V.”

The meaning of that gesture was very different from the single victory sign. It meant “Live Long and Prosper.” One interesting thing about that gesture is that it can be hard for some people to make it. I believe that is why Sheldon Cooper on “The Big Bang Theory” was so prone to use the gesture. It made him feel superior, because not everyone could do it. Can you?

In School

School children, and even adults often will use the victory gesture to signal another person across the room that they just aced a test.

Upside Down V

This gesture is not used a lot, but when you see it, the normal connotation is that our team was successful at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. There is no pride in this gesture at all.

It also has the negative connotation, because you have to make the gesture with your palm facing yourself. It is very uncomfortable to make the upside down “V” sign with your palm facing away from you. If you doubt that, try it now yourself.

The simple hand gesture of forming a letter “V” with two fingers is one of the most common forms of body language. Curiously, this gesture, unlike many others, is not highly susceptible to misinterpretation when going form one culture to another. You can use the signal often and anywhere, and rarely will you be misunderstood. In some parts of the world, the gesture is used a lot more than others.

For example, in Japan the gesture is used by young people who are being photographed. The gesture even has a name in Japanese: they call it “pisu sain.”

Go ahead and use this gesture freely, but just make sure your palm is toward the observer rather than toward yourself.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Body Language 60 Behind Your Back

December 27, 2019

When you have your hands behind your back, it can be interpreted in several different ways. It often is interpreted as apprehension or frustration. Some people link the gesture with anger. You really need to look for additional signals to interpret this gesture.

When shaking hands

Normally we shake hands by extending the right hand forward to meet the other person. There are special circumstances, like a surgery, that force a different approach, but the usual configuration is with the right hand forward. What we do with the left hand is optional and may provide some insight.

According to body language expert Bill Acheson, what you want to see is the non shaking hand moving forward and slightly upward as the other person approaches. That shows a positive desire to meet you, according to Bill. He describes and demonstrates the movement in the referenced video.

What you do not want to see is the other person hiding his left hand by putting it behind his back or in his pocket. That shows a negative feeling toward you.

When you are hiding a secret

When you hold one or both of your hands behind your back, it is often interpreted as having something you are trying to hide. Generally the gesture is figurative, but it could actually be literal, as in when a man hides flowers behind his back as he rings the doorbell of his girlfriend.

A gesture of openness with the hands is with the hand extended slightly forward with palms up. Keeping the hands out of sight begs the question, “what is he hiding from me.”

At ease

In the military world, when soldiers are asked to assume the “at ease” position, it means to put both hands behind their back and stand with feet apart in a comfortable stance. The connotation for some people of putting their hands behind their back is an indication of standing in a relaxed position.

Don’t know what to do with my hands

For some people, the hands behind their back is simply that they are feeling awkward at the moment and do not know what to do with their hands. You can see this movement often with shy children when they are put in the spotlight.

Defenseless and Vulnerable

Hands behind the back leaves the solar plexus, the one part of the body that is not protected by a skeletal structure,open and vulnerable. It can, therefore, be a signal of submission.

The gesture of putting hands behind one’s back can have so many different meanings that, like most body language signals, you need to consider the circumstance or look for other corroborating gestures before trying to assign a specific meaning to the gesture. Also, just as with nearly all body language, the meaning can be specific to a particular culture.

For example, when you are meeting a businessman in the Netherlands, you should avoid standing with your hands in your pocket and never leave your left hand in your pocket while shaking hands with your right (1).

Once you start looking for it, you will see examples of the hands behind back gesture in many social and business settings. Just remember that you cannot assume a precise meaning to this posture without further information. For sure something is going on, but you will need to explore a bit to determine exactly what it is.

(1) Kiss Bow or Shake Hands by Morrison, Conaway, and Borden 1994

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Leadership Barometer 30 Assume Best Intent

December 23, 2019

Assuming best intent is a simple concept that can save a lot of grief and acrimony in any organization.

Human beings have a curious way of jumping to conclusions when something done by another person does not track with our own expectations.

We jump to assign blame and think of all the evil things that might be behind the action.

In doing so, we fail to take into account a myriad of alternate scenarios that might explain the paradox as being something more benign. We have all experienced this phenomenon, and there is a simple antidote. Assume the best intent rather than the worst.

A place to view this phenomenon most easily is in e-mail communication. One person will dash off a note and leave out a critical part of the background for an action.

The person reading the note will say to himself, “Ed is clueless. He obviously is out to try to embarrass me with these statements. I don’t care if he is having a bad day or not, he has no business making these statements without getting his facts straight.”

So, what started out as an innocent note from Ed, turns into the fuel for an e-grenade battle. The response coming back to Ed assumes the worst intent, so it is far off base in Ed’s mind. Ed writes back a blistering note, and we are off to the races.

Several days later, after numerous notes and escalating distribution lists some manager steps in and asks these two feuding juveniles to stop the food fight. All of this acrimony and conflict could have been avoided if the recipient of Ed’s first note assumed the best intent rather than the worst.

He would have gone over to Ed’s desk and said, “Your note was confusing to me. I am not sure I follow how you concluded there was no information coming out of my group.”

Then Ed could have explained how that was not his message at all, the words just did not convey what he was trying to say. This gives Ed the chance to write a simple note of apology and clarification, which he is happy to do because he was approached in an adult manner.

This technique is helpful for all forms of communication, not just the online environment. If we teach people to assume the best intent whenever there is a disconnect, it prevents people from going off on each other inappropriately.

This action creates a significant reduction in conflict, and since conflict often gets amplified in the pressure cooker of the work environment, this little remedy can save a lot of hurtful turmoil.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.


Body Language 58 Embarrassment

December 14, 2019

We have all experienced embarrassment at some point in our lives. It is part of the human condition, and it cannot be avoided.

There are an infinite number of reasons for being embarrassed. I will describe some typical categories of embarrassment, and reveal some typical body language signals that often accompany it.

If you are the embarrassed person, then recognize you are probably making these gestures without even being aware of them. If you are conscious of your own body language, you may be able to be less obvious about your embarrassment.

If you are witnessing a friend who is embarrassed, then recognize the symptom from these gestures and see if you can help the other person feel less shame.

Exactly how you go about that depends on the relationship you have with the other person and your own Emotional Intelligence to do or say things that are helpful. That approach will build more trust with the other person.

You did something unwise

This is the garden variety of embarrassment. It occurs when someone points out that you just did something stupid, or when you just realize it yourself. The body language signals include blushing, lowering the chin, sometimes a shiver, slight raising of the shoulders, mouth expression pulled back on both sides. The sum of body language expressions is to make yourself look as small as possible.

The other response is to cover the mouth and eyes with your hands, as in the picture. It is like you are trying to disappear from sight.

You are late

When you arrive at a meeting that has already started or you are otherwise late for an event, you likely experience some form of embarrassment. In most cases you will attempt to sneak in and sit down with as little fanfare as possible. Sometimes you are forced to make a public apology and try to explain your tardiness with some feeble excuse. It is best to just admit your mistake and try very hard to not make a habit of it.

If you are habitually late for commitments, it will lower the trust that other people have in you. In extreme cases people may start referring to you as, “The late George Peters” behind your back. That’s not a good thing.

You are caught taking the last cookie

Food, and consuming too much of it, are often the cause of some embarrassment. You go ahead and eat the cookie, but you really don’t enjoy it very much. You are trying hard to make the evidence disappear as soon as you can.

Realize that people are generally observing the actions of others, and trying to sneak some extra good stuff will lower their trust in you.

You forget someone’s name

This is a common cause for embarrassment that all of us experience from time to time. The level of embarrassment is significantly higher if you know the other person well and just forget the name for a moment. Normally, at a time like this you will make leading gestures for the other person to talk so the tension can be broken. As the other person talks, you often will remember the name and say it at the earliest possible moment.

Don’t get hung up if you occasionally do this; just recognize it happens to all people. Others will cut you some slack unless you keep doing the same thing.

Personally, I find some names trip me up more than others, When I find a person whose name I tend to forget, I try to create an analogy or connection that leads me to the name. For example, I once knew a person named Jack, and I often would struggle when reaching for his name. I started picturing him having a flat tire and needing a car jack to fix it.

You did something that you immediately know is wrong

In these situations, it is common to bang your forehead with the palm of one hand. The connotation is that you are trying to knock some sense into your brain while you ask yourself, “how could I be so stupid?”

You trip or walk in a funny way

Here the problem is one of balance. You are trying to act distinguished and composed, but you just nearly fell flat on your face because you tripped over your own feet. In these cases, it is normal to make a kind of shrug motion and put on a silly face, like a clown. The connotation is “What additional clumsy motions can I find to entertain you?”

The same body language occurs when you make a clumsy move while dancing or making a grand entrance down a spiral staircase. You may try to act like a buffoon to get out of the embarrassment.

Your fly is down

Clothing malfunctions provide endless opportunities for you to be embarrassed. You make the correction but try to do it with as little fanfare as possible. Then you quickly change the subject.

When you notice a clothing issue with another person, it is often best to just ignore it unless you know the person very well. Use the golden rule when deciding whether or not to suggest a correction. Ask yourself if the situation were reversed, would you want the other person to tell you that your shoe is untied?

You spilled the gravy

Often embarrassment can occur at the dining table as you are trying to act refined but the soup dribbles down your chin onto the tablecloth. The general reaction to this is to distract people from focusing on you. You try to deflect attention in a different direction while you clean yourself up and move a dish to cover the spot on the tablecloth.

I was once at a formal luncheon, and someone asked me to pass the salad dressing. As I picked up the dressing, I was paying more attention to the conversation and did not recognize that the dressing was in a gravy boat that was on a tray. The vessel was top heavy with the dressing, and the whole thing tipped over, splashing the dressing all over the table, and several of the people sitting near me. Now that is embarrassing!

There are hundreds of examples in life where we have to deal with embarrassment. The best advice is to recognize that everyone else in the room has experienced these problems at some point. Just get through the awkward moment and do not dwell on the mistake. Unless you habitually do clumsy things, most people will cut you some slack.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”