Leadership Barometer 39 Stop Enabling Problem Employees

February 23, 2020

In any organization, there are situations where supervisors accommodate problem employees rather than confront them. Ignoring wrong actions models a laissez faire attitude on problem solving and enforcing rules.

It also enables the perpetrator to continue the wrong behavior. In a typical scenario, the problem festers under the surface for months or even years.

Ultimately escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point when something simply must be done. By this time, the problems are so horrendous they are many times more difficult to tackle.

A common example is when workers stretch break times from the standard 20 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room.

The total duration is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes. The supervisor does not want to appear to be a “by the book” manager, so the problem is ignored every day.

When things get too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a major loss in morale and trust.

I once worked in a unit where one person suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him. The excuse was that his process knowledge was so important to the organization that he could not be fired.

Finally, the situation became intolerable. When they called him in to confront the facts, he had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, “What took you guys so long?”

Following months of treatment, he became sober and was able to go on with his life as a positive contributor. Unfortunately, he was old enough by that time to retire; the organization had acted too late to gain much benefit from his recovery. The problem was clear, yet for years nothing was done.

In every organization, there are situations like this (not just health issues – tardiness, too many smoke breaks, or abusing the internet are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away or fearing that the cure will be worse than the disease.

The advice here is to remember the comment made by my friend, “What took you guys so long?” and intervene when the problems are less acute and the damage is minor. In his case, that would have been a blessing; the man died a few months after retiring.

Taking strong action requires courage that many leaders simply do not have. They rationalize the situation with logic like:

• Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
• Perhaps I will be moved sometime soon, and the next person can deal with this.
• Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
• We have already found viable workaround measures, so why rock the boat now?
• We have bigger problems than this. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from our critical work.

The real dilemma is knowing the exact moment to intervene and how to do it in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group.

Once you let someone get away with a violation, it becomes harder to enforce a rule the next time. You also run the risk of appearing to play favorites when you try to clamp down on other individuals.

The art of supervision is knowing how to make judgments that people interpret as fair, equitable, and sensitive. The best time to intervene is when the issue first arises. As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and only well-justified exceptions.

It is not possible to treat everyone always the same because people have different needs, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize is both appropriate and disciplined.

Be alert for the following symptoms in your area of control. If you observe these, chances are you are enabling problem employees.

• Recognition that you are working around a “problem”
• Accusations that you are “playing favorites”
• Individuals claiming they do not understand documented policies
• Backroom discussions of how to handle a person who is out of control
• Denial or downplaying an issue that is well known in the area
• Fear of retaliation or sabotage if rules are enforced
• Cliques forming to protect certain individuals
• Pranks or horseplay perpetrated on some individuals

These are just a few signals that someone is being enabled and that you need to step up to the responsibility of being the enforcer.

Sometimes supervisors inherit an undisciplined situation from a previous weak leader. It can be a challenge to get people to follow rules they have habitually ignored.

One idea is to get the group together and review company policy or simply ask what the rules are in this organization. Often people do not know the policies, or pretend they do not know, because the application of rules has been eclectic.

This void gives you a perfect opportunity to restate or recast the rules to start fresh. It can be done as a group exercise to improve buy-in. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better.

If you are not a new leader but are in a situation where abuse has crept in, using this technique and taking responsible action can help you regain control and credibility.

The reward for making the tough calls is that people throughout the organization will respect you. Problems will be handled early when they are easier to correct. The downside of procrastinating on enforcement is that you appear weak, and people will continually push the boundaries.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Body Language 68 Shock

February 21, 2020

The differences between facial expressions indicating shock versus those of surprise or fatigue are small.

In this article I will discuss my take on how you can tell these three emotions apart from the shape of the open mouth, along with other cues that point to a specific emotion.

When a person is experiencing shock, the mouth goes wide open, as in the accompanying picture. The mouth is open and makes the shape of the letter “O.” The eyes are generally wide open to the fullest extent and the eyebrows and forehead are pulled up as much as is humanly possible.

This is the classic look of a person who is in shock. I believe there is a difference between a shocked facial expression and one of a person who is surprised. Often a surprise is something that is happy to the person, so I would look for more of a smile while still having the mouth full open.

The second picture conveys the emotion of surprise better than the first one, at least in my mind. Her mouth is open, but there is definite smile involved.

Notice that the person is showing her teeth whereas the person in shock will tend to not show teeth. Of course, the surprise could be something negative, but that happens in a minority of cases.

With a negative surprise, there would still be an open mouth, but the expression would resemble more of a frown. That is actually pretty rare.

If you look up pictures for the emotion of surprise, you will see that nearly all of them are showing a smile, and the majority of them have hands to the face in some way: often holding a cheek or even both cheeks.

In the case of fatigue, you also see a wide open mouth, but with a yawn the hand is usually attempting to cover the mouth and the eyes are shut tight, whereas with surprise or shock the eyes are fully open.

A yawn can originate in different ways.  Often it is a form of mirroring the gestures of others.

I am sure we have all caught ourselves yawning immediately after another person has done the same thing.

Another cause for a yawn is insecurity or doubt.  If we are anxious about something, we will tend to yawn a lot more. Notice yourself yawning while sitting in the waiting room at the dentist.

With all three of these gestures, the mouth is wide open, but the ancilliary cues give us enough information to interpret the emotion correctly.

What is of interest here is that you need to assemble various bits of data in real time and put together a mosaic of the cluster of signals to interpret an expression accurately.

Several different emotions involve an open mouth, so you need more data than just that fact to understand what the person is experiencing.

The last statement holds true for all types of body language gestures. The particular one in this article is a case in point how slight differences can mean entirely different things, and you need to be alert to look at the whole picture.

There are two ways you can use this information professionally. First, you can ask the right questions based on an accurate reading of the other person’s emotions.

For example, you might ask, “Why do you find that statement to be shocking?” Alternatively, if you see a smile in connection with a wide open mouth, you might ask “What about what I just said is surprising to you?”

A second way you can use this information is to make note of your own body language in specific circumstances. Are you confusing other people when you yawn as opposed to reacting with surprise?

In other words, keep track of how accurately you convey your true emotions with your gestures.

In every case, you need to use Emotional Intelligence to make an appropriate reflection of how you are interpreting the gestures. Doing that will enhance the trust other people put in you and thereby strengthen your relationships.

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


Body Language 67 Afraid

February 14, 2020

A person who is experiencing fear may show it in several different ways with his or her body language.

In this article I will highlight the most common ways people express fear without speaking. First, we need to understand that there are an infinite number of different sources and magnitudes of fear.

You might be afraid that the rumor you heard about a layoff this month could be true. Depending on your seniority and several other factors, you could be afraid of losing your job.

On the other extreme, I may be convinced there is a thief with a gun in my apartment about to enter the room where I am trying to sleep.

The type and intensity of the body language signals will depend not only on the reason I am afraid but also my current ability to tolerate uncertainty and not show it. This spectrum of signals makes the interpretation of one’s body language signals a chancy endeavor.

As with all body language, when trying to interpret what you see, you need to take into account several factors:

1. Is there a cluster of signals that all point in the same direction? If so, that will greatly enhance a correct diagnosis

2. Is this person from a culture different from the one I am most familiar with? Although fear is a primal feeling, how it is expressed in body language can be unique to a specific culture. The likelihood of misinterpretation goes up dramatically if you are observing a person from a different culture than your own.

3. Is the observed body language as a result of a specific stimulus or is it a habitual pattern for this person?

4. If there is a specific stimulus, is the reaction immediately following the stimulus, or is there a delayed reaction?

5. Is the person picking up and mimicking another person who is making an overt signal of fear? If so, the gesture may not be genuine; it could be an imitation.

6. Is the person making an attempt to hide the emotion, or is the reaction obvious to everyone?

7. Is the person consciously attempting to look a certain way or is the reaction an unconscious and authentic gesture, at least at first?

These are the main factors that will influence the specific gesture in reaction to fear. Here are some of the common facial and body reactions to fear that we have all seen at some point.

Contorted Facial Muscles

The narrowing of the eyebrows and wrinkling of the forehead is a pretty good give away that the person is experiencing fear. You need to be careful though, because the same facial contortions are common with anger. Look for more corroborating signals.

Hands to the mouth

Usually both hands will go to the mouth when a person is experiencing high fear. It may take the form of symbolically biting the nails, or it may be to actually cover the mouth and eyes. The person is trying to disappear from sight.

Arms outstretched

Another gesture of fear is a kind of blocking motion made by outstretching the arms in front of the person with palms facing the thing being blocked. Here, the idea is to put up a figurative wall between yourself and the offending person, animal, or thing. In this gesture, the head may be lowered and shoulders raised as we cower in fear. The posture is to make yourself a smaller target.

Behind an object or blanket

Children will often express fear by hiding behind something, like a couch cushion or a blanket, then the gesture is to peek out ever-so-slightly from behind the safety of the screen. Adults often hide behind other items or excuses. If one is afraid of the outcome of an effort, the fear may be manifest in procrastination.

Open mouth

The mouth is usually open when a person is experiencing high fear. The idea is to give a symbolic primal scream, even if the sound is inaudible. People in fear do not look tight lipped, instead they normally will be showing their teeth.

In a business environment, be alert to less obvious, but symbolically equivalent signs of fear in a person. Reach out to determine the nature of the fear and attempt to engage the person in some dialog about it.

The verbalization of fear and the brainstorming of ways to mitigate the angst are both ways to calm the person down. Helping another person who is in mild fear regain his equilibrium is an excellent way to build rapport and trust.

Adults develop patterns to help them deal with fear in ways that may not show in overt body language. They use compensating actions, and if you can recognize these signs, you can address the underlying cause to help the person, even though no specific physical signals are evident.

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


Leadership Barometer 37 Five Mistakes Using Data

February 10, 2020

The Great Quality Guru, W. Edwards Deming had a lot to say about how managers use data incorrectly and waste the resources of an organization.

It was part of his philosophy of quality which he called “profound knowledge.” He stressed a number of mistakes typically made by managers when handling data. Here are some of the problems along with the antidote for each misuse.

Mistake 1 – Assuming variation is a result of special cause variation when it is really due to common cause variation.

Common cause variation is when a system is in statistical control with small random type variation occurring.

The only way to tell if a system is in control is to consider all the data, usually by plotting it, and finding out if the data variation is within certain defined bounds, called “control limits.”.

If it is in control, then for managers to ask people to explain the variation is simply a waste of their time. People will dutifully go off and try to find out what caused the variation, but the answer will be only a guess and not valid information.

When one or more data points go outside the control limits of normal variability, then there is a special cause. In these cases, it is not only possible but vital to determine what caused the variation so it can be controlled and eliminated in the future.

Most managers fail to determine if a signal is due to special cause variation when they ask underlings to explain what happened. This causes a large waste of effort and time and it lowers trust.

Mistake 2 – Assessing the capability of a process based on the most recent data point.

It is tempting to react to the most recent data and ask people to take corrective action based on that. At home, we might say, it’s cold in here, why not turn up the heat?

But just because it is cold at the moment does not mean the system needs to be adjusted. It may be the low point of the cycle that is in common cause variation. In which case, if we turn up the thermostat, we are doing what Deming called “tampering.”

Tampering is defined as moving the set point of a system experiencing common cause variation in an attempt to reduce the variation. In fact, it can be demonstrated that “chasing” the perfect setting will result in a large increase in the variation of the process. It is better to leave things alone.

Many of us have experienced this when sitting in a meeting. All of a sudden someone will say, “Whew, it is very warm in here” and turn down the thermostat. Ten minutes later people in the room are reaching for their sweaters because they are chilled, so up goes the thermostat.

All day long people fiddle with the darned thermostat and swear at the heating system. The problem resides in the fingers of the people playing with the setting, not the furnace control. They are tampering, which results in roughly double the temperature variation than if they just left things alone.

Mistake 3 – Interpreting two points as a trend

This flaw is ingrained so deeply into the fabric of our thinking that we rarely even realize how stupid most statements of movement really are. Every day we read in the paper or hear on the news something like the earnings for Company X are up by 20%. We think that is a good thing. Rubbish!

All it means is that in comparison to four quarters ago the earnings are 20% higher. It says nothing about the actual trend of the data. For knowledge of how the company is doing, we need to plot the data and consider the quarterly earnings over something like 8 consecutive quarters. Only then we can know what is really going on.

Many advertisements for products are based on the faulty logic that two points make a trend. When we hear that interest rates on mortgages is down by ½ point, that is a symptom of two points equaling a trend. We really cannot use that data to imply what has been happening to interest rates in the past or is likely to happen in the future.

Mistake 4 – Looking for blame rather than root cause

When something goes wrong, managers often focus on who messed up and why rather than what aspect of the system was the root cause so it can be fixed. They think if they can pinpoint the culprit and punish him or her that will eliminate problems in the future.

Actually, the reverse is true. By trying to find a scapegoat, people tend to hide the truth and work to pin blame on other people to protect their own interests. That leads to infighting, conflict, and other disruptive behavior.

Mistake 5 – Too much automation of process data.

This issue is counter intuitive. One would think that data plotted and interpreted by computers would be superior to that plotted by hand.

In fact, data where people have been involved in the process is more useful, because people have the ability to spot peripheral issues and correct them where a computer will just keep logging rubbish.

When people rely on the machine always being right, there can be disastrous results because, at the root of it, the machines are controlled by people, but once programmed, people tend to rely too much on the machine and forget to check for sanity.

That situation is how pilots occasionally fly into the side of a mountain, because they rely too much on the dumb auto pilot and forget to watch where they are going.

When we take the time to use data correctly, we normally build higher trust within an organization, because people are not being asked to resolve a figment or ghost of a real issue.

These 5 mistakes are the most common ones. There are other symptoms of how managers use data incorrectly to the detriment of their organization and the people. The antidote for each of these problems is to make sure managers are educated on these flaws and modify their behaviors to avoid the pitfalls.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Leadership Barometer 36 Organization Development

February 3, 2020

OD is short for Organization Development. This is not a new term. Behavioral scientists have been writing about Organization Development for over 40 years. The science has evolved into many different approaches all aimed at the same objective: to enable massive improvements in organizational performance through specific and planned interventions.

I have been involved with hundreds of OD efforts over the past decades. Some of these have resulted in the desired improvement. Some have not. In this article I will reveal some green lights, some caution (yellow lights), and some things to stop doing, or red lights.

Let’s review four major types of OD interventions (there are others, but they are usually variations or combinations of these four):

1. Action Search
2. Appreciative Inquiry
3. Future Search
4. Whole System Intervention

Although the objective of each of these techniques is the same, the viewpoint and methodology for each is different. I will give my personal views of the strengths and problems with each method from my experience. All of these methods can work. The trick is to match the leadership style and organization culture so that the one selected has the best chance of success in a particular case.

Most OD work is performed with the assistance of trained facilitators. They have the professional training to lead groups through the chaos of change to arrive at the objective. Managers who attempt a “do it yourself” approach to OD work often create more turmoil and make things worse. This is especially true if the leadership dynamic is part of the problem (which is usually the case).

OD work is tricky. It requires the skill of someone trained in this field. Headstrong managers who decide to undertake massive organization change without help are like critically ill patients trying to remove their own appendix. It is not a smart strategy. The flip side is that the effort needs to be owned by the manager rather than the consultant. Leaders who abdicate their responsibility to be the spiritual leader of the organization pay for it with lower trust.

Action Search

Most organizations contemplating an OD initiative, do so because they are not satisfied with how things are going. If the current trajectory of business is meeting or exceeding goals, there is little impetus for change. The Action Search approach takes on a somewhat negative spin from the outset. The idea is to determine what is wrong and fix it quickly.

The first stage is to gather data. What areas of the business are falling short? How can these be changed to perform better? Unfortunately, many efforts using this technique become “witch hunts” where management looks for scapegoats. The process becomes one of uncovering ugly issues, followed by defensive tactics by those in charge.

Most of us have participated in this type of intervention. It takes place on a regular basis in some companies. Ask yourself how successful these programs have been in your experience. Do they produce positive change, or simply mask more underlying issues while creating interpersonal chaos? My experience indicates this technique should be used only under very tight constraints with ground rules supporting solid values. That does not happen very often. Hence, using Action Research has a real potential to backfire if not managed extremely well.

Appreciative Inquiry

This approach is the mirror image of the “action research” technique. The process starts by asking what is working well. Groups focus on what is going right rather than what is going wrong. The idea is to find ways of doing more of the right stuff, thus providing less reinforcement for doing the wrong stuff.

This is a much more pleasant process. It feels good to focus on strengths. It also provides a benchmark for improvement. The danger is that groups who are failing miserably can deceive themselves into thinking all they need do is clone the few bright spots to succeed.

I witnessed an example of this, years ago, and it was ugly. One business unit was on the verge of extinction, so they did a three-day exercise in appreciative inquiry. By the end of the exercise, they were celebrating, dancing, and singing about their wonderful opportunities while they were actually going out of business. Six months after the crepe paper, helium balloons, high fives, and “jive dancing,” they were all looking for new jobs.

I believe appreciative inquiry can be much more powerful than action research, but it needs to be tempered by reality. A combination of both methods can avoid a kind of “Pollyanna” view of reality.

Future Search

In this process, the focus is on the vision rather than the current state. The idea is to get groups engaged in defining a compelling view of the future. When compared to the present, this allows clarification of the gaps between current practices and organizational goals. Outstanding vision is the most powerful force for all individuals and organizations. Here are some comments on vision from my book (Whipple, 2003, p27).

Without a well-defined vision, the organization has no true direction. It is like a ship without a rudder, sailing around at the mercy of the wind, hoping to find a safe port with little chance of reaching one. Creating vision is absolutely essential for any group because it gives a common direction and provides a focus for energy.

Not all vision statements are helpful. Some are relegated to plaques on the wall and ignored. This is a tragedy because an uninspiring vision breeds apathy and is worse than no vision at all. If people point to the vision statement on the wall and say, “that is where we are supposed to be going but they don’t act that way,” you are in trouble.

Getting a great vision is not a 15-minute exercise. Some groups spend months working on developing a good vision statement. The process can get convoluted and burdensome if not handled correctly. If you are adept at facilitating group discussions, you may conduct this yourself.

If not, a professional facilitator would be worth the investment. As the leader, even if you feel qualified to lead the discussion, you still may want to hire an outside person so you can become one of the people developing this material. The danger if you lead the discussion is that you could influence it too heavily.

In general, if a leader brings in a consultant to facilitate a discussion or to assist with a particular instrument or skill set, there is usually a high value.

If the consultant is brought in to get into the trenches and do the dirty work of leadership, it is often a disaster because the consultant can undermine the leader. The leader calls in a consultant and says, “Things are a mess around here and I’m under a lot of pressure. Performance is horrible recently and morale is way down. I haven’t time to fix the problem because I am overloaded just trying to run the business and I have to attend all these management meetings. I need you to assess what is wrong and recommend a program to get back on track. If my team buys into your recommendations, we will let you handle the program.”

This leader probably has lost the ability to lead the organization effectively. As the consultant mucks around trying to understand problems, significant negative energy is unearthed but the consultant doesn’t have the authority to fix these issues. Meanwhile, the leader is “busy running the business,” and being micro-managed by superiors. Morale and performance go down even further until, finally, the leader is simply forced out.

This is why it is important for the leader to be the driving force in creating a vision for the organization. It cannot be delegated to a consultant or even a high-ranking lieutenant. The leader is responsible for making sure the vision statement is clear, compelling, memorable, actionable, and real.

Key ideas for developing a good vision statement:

• Most importantly, make sure your vision tells everyone where the organization is going. A nice sounding phrase that doesn’t have pull makes a poor vision. For a football team “We will be number one in the league within 3 years” is a better vision than “We will improve our position in the rankings every year until we become the top team in the league.”
• Avoid grandiose sweeping statements that are too broad. “We will become the best in the world at computer technology” would be too general and vast for a good vision statement. A better example might be “Our superior microchips will gain 90% market share with computer manufacturers in 5 years.”
• Make sure people can connect their everyday activities to the vision. “Every interface is a chance to bestow great customer service” would allow everyone to view daily activities with customer service getting top billing.
• Keep it short and powerful. Avoid long lists of items that sound good but don’t create a picture. For example, being “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent” may be a good motto for the Boy Scouts, but it would make a terrible vision statement.
• Select colorful words that inspire rather than describe. “Our greeting cards melt the heart and transform the soul” would be superior to “Our greeting cards are better because they make people feel great.”
• Keep it short. The fewer words the better. “Absolutely, positively overnight” is better than “Our packages are guaranteed to arrive by the next day or your money back.”
• Use special words to emphasize your most significant point. “We will never, ever, run out of stock” is better than “We promise to keep our customers needs met by always having stock on hand.”
• Don’t try to be abstract or cute in order to grab attention. “We have the softest software in the nation” might be a slogan helpful on Madison Avenue, but it makes a lousy vision. Instead try “Software delivered on time, every time!”

The initial thoughts often contain the seeds of the eventual finished product. Craft these thoughts into words and images. Sometimes a picture or logo can be enough to communicate a vision, like the Rock of Gibraltar for Prudential Insurance. Other times, it can be a slogan, such as Wegmans Market’s “Every day you get our best” or General Electric’s “We bring good things to life.” The expression needs to have “pull”; it must provide forward momentum.
Communicate the organization’s values and vision to everyone in it. Do this well and often, as it forms the basis of everything to come. Frequently demonstrate your alignment with the vision by naturally working it into conversations. You might say, “Well, let’s call the customer and tell them about this situation. After all, our vision is to put the customer first.”

Whole System Intervention

This is a kind of zero-based approach to OD. In this case, the activities of the organization are viewed through a “systems” approach. The emphasis is on getting a critical mass within the organization to redefine the business. Processes become the focal point for redesign efforts. This is less threatening than the action research technique because of focuses on the “what” and “how” rather than the “who.”

The challenge with a systems approach is that can get pretty complicated. In systems thinking, we try to understand the interrelations between things. This is opposed to the usual linear way of thinking – If we do one thing it results in an effect. In systems thinking we need to understand not only the direct effect of actions but also the side effects. If leaders are unhappy with performance, they need to look at their system because it is perfectly designed to give exactly the result they are getting. Trying to untangle what is hurting the system and streamline the process for a better result can get convoluted.

The four OD interventions described in this article are the cornerstones for organizational improvement. They need to be applied with care and judgment to be effective. When OD activities go awry, the “cure” is often worse than the “disease.” With the health, or even survival, of the organization at stake, it is important to do this work carefully with the assistance of an expert.

The preceding information was adapted from the book The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Body Language 65 Fist Bump

January 31, 2020

Did you ever go to shake the hand of another person and get a gesture back that the other person would rather do a “fist bump”?

I am doing a lot of that this week, because I have a bad cold and don’t want to spread more germs than I have to.

According to Wikipedia, the “fist bump” or “pound” can be traced to boxers instructed to touch gloves at the start of a contest. The modern gesture may have arisen spontaneously on city basketball courts and was popularized by basketball player Fred Carter in the 1970s.

Barack Obama

Back in the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama launched a media storm when he nonchalantly fist bumped his wife Michelle. “Obama’s Fist-bump Rocks The Nation!:” The Huffington Post exclaimed. “Is the fist bump the new high-five?” NPR’s Laura Silverman asked.

The fist bump gesture is useful in many circumstances not related to the health of one or both of the people who are meeting. It is intended to be a friendly greeting or celebration move. Let’s take a look at the rules of engagement and some precautions for fist bumping.

Relative power

One reason the fist bump is a helpful gesture is that when done correctly there is equal participation and transfer of power between the two people. A hand shake is subject to all kinds of subtle interpretations based on which person has the hand on top, how much pressure is used, how long the hand shake lasts, and a few other considerations. I have written about handshake protocol in another article titled Strange Handshake.

The fist bump is quick, equal, and not easy to manipulate. It is intended to be a tap for both people rather than a major forward thrust.

Position

The fist bump is almost always done with the knuckles on top and the fingers curled under below the palm. Both parties make the same movement at the same time. A sideways fist bump, with the thumb on top, while sometimes seen, might easily be interpreted as a hostile gesture, so avoid doing that move.

Having the knuckles on the bottom and the curled fingers on top would look much more like a gut punch, so that should be avoided if you are interested in conveying the usual meaning of a fist bump, which is “you and I are buddies.”

Transfer of bacteria

According to one study, the fist bump transfers only about 10% of the amount of bacteria as an average handshake. The reason is that far less surface area of each person comes in contact when doing a fist bump. The fist bump is also much faster in terms of contact time than a handshake. So from a standpoint of better hygiene, the fist bump is significantly better than a handshake.

Awkward moment

The awkward moment with a fist bump is when one person extends his or her hand to shake hands and the mirror image is not an extended hand but a fist. In this case, it is wise to join the fist bump gesture rather than hold out for a full handshake. The person extending the fist has a specific reason for doing that, and you need to honor that reason, whatever it is.

The fist bump will likely never completely replace the handshake, but it is gaining in popularity each year. It is best to get used to the gesture and roll with it rather than fight the trend.

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


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.”