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 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 57 Time Out

December 6, 2019

The time out signal is a common hand gesture that is rarely misinterpreted, yet there are some subtle differences in meaning to discuss.

Let’s focus in on the different meanings first and then cover a highly useful application of the gesture in an organization setting.

Please stop talking

If another person is babbling on in a private setting or in a group meeting, you can signal it is time to stop talking and start listening by using the time out signal. This is a helpful use when you are having a hard time getting your points out.

The caveat here is that you would use the gesture sparingly. If you made the motion two or three times, it would most certainly annoy the person who is speaking. It would seem like you are cutting off the person.

Also, this use would be ill-advised if you used it to shut up a superior. If the boss wants to talk, it is usually a good idea to allow it.

I need time to think

When a lot of information is being shared in a steady stream, people sometimes need a break for their brains to catch up with the content. The time out gesture would let the presenter know it is time to at least slow down so all people can understand and absorb the content.

This topic is dangerous

You might warn a fellow worker that to pursue a certain line of reasoning is going to backfire. Rather than interrupt the person verbally, the time out signal will call the question and let the speaker know it would be wise to change the subject. You could accompany the hand signal with facial cues that indicate caution, just be sure to verify the right message was received and was not misinterpreted.

Time for a counterpoint

If one person is landing multiple points in support of a one-sided viewpoint and you want to allow some balance, the time out signal will provide that opportunity without saying any words.

Need a break

If, during a long presentation, you or others need to take a bio break, the time out signal can let the facilitator know it is time to take care of the bodily functions. Also, maybe the group just needs to stretch and take in some oxygen.

Call for a vote

If several arguments have been given on a hotly divided topic and you want to call for a vote, the time out signal can get that message out, even while the conversation is continuing.

Need to caucus

During negotiations, it is often necessary to separate teams to discuss strategy. The time out signal is useful for letting the parties know they need to separate for a while.

We are wasting time

Perhaps the most helpful use of the time out sign is in a meeting situation where one person in the room feels the group is spinning wheels going over the same content or dwelling on trivial content when there are more important things to discuss.

This technique is an excellent way to prevent wasting time, but everyone in the group needs to agree ahead of time that nobody will be punished for showing the time out sign. The idea is to establish a group norm that allows the signal to be given by any individual with no negative repercussions.

It is then up to the leader of the group to acknowledge that at least one person has an issue. The first order of business is to thank the individual for expressing a concern, and then find out what the specific concern is.

It may be that the individual wants the group to take a break, or maybe the person feels the current content is not proper or redundant. Get an accurate description of why the person gave the time out signal. This is done by asking open-ended questions.

The leader would then check if others have the same feeling, and if so, make the change. If the person giving the hand signal is the only person interested in changing direction, then he or she needs to be treated with respect for the input but recognize there are other opinions among the group members.

The time out hand signal is a wonderful tool if used correctly, as described above. If used with a heavy hand or followed by ridicule then significant damage to trust is being done. It is up to leaders to set the tone for the correct usage so the method will be a way to enhance trust and transparency over time.

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


Leadership Barometer 27 Be a Mentor

December 3, 2019

There are several ways to tell how great a leader is. One true measure is how dedicated that person is to mentoring other leaders.

A favorite quote on my website is “The highest calling for any leader is to grow other leaders.”

Many organizations have some form of mentoring program. I support the idea of fostering mentors, but the typical application has a low hit rate long term. That’s because the mentor programs in most organizations are procedural rather than organic.

A typical mentor program couples younger professionals with more experienced managers after some sort of computerized matching process.

The relationship starts out being helpful for both people, but after a few months it has degraded into a burdensome commitment of time and energy. This aspect is accentuated if there are paperwork requirements or other check-box activities.

After about six months, the activities are small remnants of the envisioned program.

The more productive programs seek to educate professionals on the benefits of having a mentor and encourage people to find their own match. This strategy works much better, because the chemistry is right from the start, and both parties immediately see the huge gains being made by both people.

It is a mutually-supported organic system rather than an activities-based approach with forced meetings and burdensome paperwork.

The protégé benefits in a mentor relationship in numerous ways.

Here is a list of some advantages you get from having a mentor:

1. A mentor helps you learn the ropes faster if you are new to the area.
2. A mentor coaches you on what to do and especially what to avoid.
3. A mentor is an advocate for you in different circles from yours.
4. A mentor cleans up after you when you have made a mistake and helps protect your reputation.
5. A mentor pushes you when you need pushing and praises you to encourage further progress.
6. A mentor brings wisdom born of mistakes made in the past, so you can avoid them.

I contend that in any good mentor relationship both the mentor and the protégé benefit from the relationship.

How does the mentor gain from it?

1. The mentor focuses on helping the protégé, which is personally satisfying.
2. The mentor can gain information from a different level of the organization that may not be readily available by any other means.
3. The mentor helps find information and resources for the protégé, so there is some important learning going on. The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.
4. While pushing the protégé forward in the organization, the mentor has the ability to return some favors owed to other managers.
5. The mentor gains a reputation for nurturing people and can thus attract better people over time.
6. The mentor can enhance his or her legacy in the organization by creating an understudy.

Encourage a strong mentoring program in your organization but steer clear of the mechanical match game and the busywork of an overdone process. Let people recognize the benefits and figure out their optimal relationships.

A good mentoring effort improves trust in both directions.

I believe there is a shortage of excellent leaders, but I also believe with the proper mentoring and support, a majority of professional people have the innate capabilities to become good, if not great, leaders. So what is missing?

The real shortage is a lack of mentors for future leaders. Reason: most highly effective leaders are consumed with trying to optimize things in their current environment, and they neglect the activities that would develop other leaders.

If you are not happy with the number of excellent leaders in your organization, ask why there are not more leadership mentors.

Get some help to train all leaders not only to be better at their function, but to step up to the challenge of growing other leaders for the future.

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 55 Evasion

November 23, 2019

When we were kids, and our mother asked us if we ate the chocolate chips, we would squirm and look away.

Our mother would say, “Look at me when you answer.” Of course, Mother could tell by the chocolate stains all over our lips that we had done it. We did not want to “get in trouble,” so we tried to evade rather than answer the question with a bold face lie.

Let’s start the discussion with a realization that not all evasive actions are the result of something sinister going on. There are plenty of times when it is improper, illegal, or unkind to answer a question directly.

Being evasive is not always a bad thing. It is highly situational and also highly personal having to do with the trust level between individuals.

For example, the question may come up relative to a rumor of a personal nature that needs to be kept private. It might be the result of a leak about a merger, where a direct answer would result in possible incarceration.

The rest of this article deals with a situation where an individual tries to get out of a tight spot by avoiding a direct answer to a question. Usually this condition is easy to detect, if you know the gestures and are alert to them. We used these moves as children, but in reality, they are practiced all of our lives.

The adult version of evasion goes on daily in organizational life and in many situations regarding public officials. If they are asked a direct question that they do not want to answer, the evasion is completely obvious by looking at their shifty eyes.

A perfect example of this body language was recently provided by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when he was asked on September 22, 2019 on camera by Martha Raddatz about a July 25th phone call between President Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine.

Martha asked the Secretary of State, “What do you know about those conversations?” Pompeo evaded, while lowering his chin, looking down, and shifting his eyes from side to side, “So…you just gave me a report about an I.C., about a Whistle Blower complaint, none of which I have not seen.” He did not reveal during that interview that he was actually on the phone call. That fact came out a couple weeks later.

Secretary Pompeo undoubtedly had a reason for not sharing everything at that particular moment on national TV. The point is that his body language made it obvious to people watching that he was evading or holding back something.

You also can see the evasive look in the eyes of CEOs who do not want to answer an embarrassing complaint brought up by an employee in a Town Hall meeting. You can witness it when a school board president tries to duck a question about some reported missing funds.

It is really a common human reaction when we get caught with our hand in the cookie jar to attempt to deflect attention in the hope that we can avoid having to admit the awful truth. Yet, in being evasive, we clearly lower trust and make it more difficult for people to believe us when we do ‘fess up to something.

In fact, the evasive gesture is so common that many of us just let it slide by and do not recognize we are getting at best a partial truth. You need to be alert to catch it because it goes by so quickly.

Look for this gesture when an individual is asked a direct question and hesitates before answering it. Particularly, watch the eyes to see if they are shifting back and forth or looking sideways. Also, watch the chin to see if it is lowered slightly.

When you see these two gestures along with a long hesitation in answering a direct question, it is likely the person is being evasive. Once you suspect that, you can probe carefully to find out what the person is trying to cover up.

Rather than take an accusatory stance by saying something like, “Okay, what are you trying to hide here?” give the person some leeway, but try to share the rationale and make the probe a positive thing. For example, you might say, “It is vital that we know what was going on with Jake if we are to be successful at helping him, so I would appreciate you being candid about what happened.”

This is a time to use your Emotional Intelligence to manage the specific situation well to obtain a positive outcome. The objective should be to come away from the conversation with an enhanced level of trust between you and the other person.

The specific approach will vary widely based on numerous factors, such as the incoming level of trust between you and the other person, the reason for trying to evade, the number of other people involved and their relationships. It is not the intent of this article to cover every possible scenario and give advice. The idea is to recognize the body language associated with evasion and be alert for it.

If the person does open up with more information, you can then reinforce the behavior with some kind words like, “Thanks for leveling with me on this, Mike. I know it was not easy for you to do it.” If an assurance of confidentiality about this issue in the future is appropriate, then state that as well.

In many cases it is possible to transform an evasive action into a trust-building exchange if you handle it well, depending on the circumstances and the relationship between you and the other person.

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


Leadership Barometer 25 Drive Out Fear

November 18, 2019

Number eight of Deming’s Famous 14 Points was “Drive Out Fear.” In just three words, the long-deceased quality genius put his finger on the most important concept in building and maintaining trust.

I have a favorite quote that I use on my website: “The absence of fear is the incubator of trust.” It seems a little backward to describe the lack of something to be the cause of something else, but I really do believe that is the case. When there is low fear in a culture, trust will grow spontaneously, like the mold on last week’s bread, only in this case the mold is good.

If we turn the logic around, there are a number of positive leader behaviors that do cause trust to grow.  If you think about it, these behaviors are easy to name.  Consider the following (incomplete) list:

  1. Do what you say (walk your talk)
  2. Act in a consistent manner
  3. Treat people with respect
  4. Honor your commitments
  5. Be honest
  6. Be transparent
  7. Admit mistakes

We know all these things, and we could list hundreds of behaviors that contribute to building trust on a daily basis. They all work, and yet the power of each one is significantly blunted if the general environment is one of fear.

If you are a leader, of course you need to model the seven behaviors above, along with the others I did not name, but doing that alone will not get you to the promised land.

You need to create a culture of low fear, and you will see the impact of the other behaviors is like they are all on steroids. So the question becomes, how does a leader create a culture of low fear?  The answer is simple, but most leaders have a difficult time doing it, which is the reason trust is so low in most organizations.

You lower fear when you make people glad when they bring up a contrary opinion to what you thought was right. Of course, people need to bring up the disconnect in a respectful manner as opposed to an obnoxious way.  When you make people glad they brought up their concern and reward them for doing that rather than punishing them, it lowers fear within your group.

You make it safe for people to tell you things that you perhaps did not want to hear. I call the behavior “reinforcing candor,” and I believe leaders who have the ability to exhibit this behavior consistently will build the highest trust organizations.

Since high trust is linked to outstanding performance, morale, and low turnover, the benefits of learning how to reinforce candor are immense. This set of behaviors become the super sauce of excellent leadership.  Learn how to reinforce candor; for sure you will become an elite leader.

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