Successful Supervisor 59 – Improve Online Communications

January 7, 2018

Supervisors are increasingly called upon to communicate with crews online rather than face to face. This may be due to people working in other locations or working on different shifts. Communicating effectively online is a very different process from communicating face to face.

I wrote an entire book on this topic, entitled “Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online.” In this brief article, I want to share a dozen tips for improving online communications.

Overarching consideration: Use the right mode of communication – often email or texting are not the right ways to communicate a particular message.

1. Do not treat online notes like a conversation. In normal conversation we use the feedback of body language to modify our message, pace, tone, and emphasis in order to stay out of trouble. In e-mail or in texting, we do not have this real-time feedback.

2. Keep messages short. A good email or text should take only 15-30 seconds to read (texts as little as 2-3 seconds) and absorb. Less is more in online communication. Try to have the entire message fit onto the first screen. When a messages goes “over the horizon,” the reader does not know how long it is, which creates a psychological block.

3. Establish the right tone upfront. Online messages have a momentum. If you start on the wrong foot, you will have a difficult time connecting. The “Subject” line and the first three words of a note establish the tone.

4. Remember the permanent nature of e-mails. Using email to praise helps people remember the kind words. Using email to be critical is usually a bad idea because people will re-read the note many times.

5. Keep your objective in mind. Establish a clear objective of how you want the reader to react to your note. For sensitive notes, write the objective down. When proofreading your note, check to see if your intended reaction is likely to happen. If not, reword the note.

6. Do not write notes when you are not yourself. This sounds simple, but it is really much more difficult than meets the eye. Learn the techniques to avoid this problem.

7. Avoid “online grenade” battles. Do not take the bait. Simply do not respond to edgy note in kind. Change the venue to be more effective.

8. Be careful with use of pronouns in email. Pronouns establish the tone. The most dangerous pronoun in an online note is “you.”

9. Avoid using “absolutes.” Avoid words such as: never, always, impossible, or cannot. Soften the absolutes if you want to be more credible online.

10. Avoid sarcasm. Humor at the expense of another person will come back to haunt you.

11. Learn techniques to keep your email inbox clean (down to zero notes each day) so you are highly responsive when needed. Adopting proper distribution rules in your organization will cut email traffic by more than 30% instantly.

12. Understand the rules for writing challenging notes so you always get the result you want rather than create a need for damage control. Proofread all notes carefully. Think through how the other person might react from his or her perspective rather than you own.

Your organization has a sustainable competitive advantage if:

• You live and work in an environment unhampered by the problems of poor online communication. This takes some education and a customized set of rules for your unique environment, but the effort is well worth it.

• Employees are not consumed with trying to sort out important information from piles of garbage notes.

• Your coworkers are not focused on one-upmanship and internal turf wars.

• Supervisors know how to use electronic communications to build rather than destroy trust.

For supervisors, once you learn the essentials of e-body language, a whole new world of communication emerges. You will be more adept at decoding incoming messages and have a better sense of how your messages are interpreted by others. You will understand the secret code that is written “between the lines” of all messages and enhance the quality of online communications in your sphere of influence.

Training in this skill area does not require months of struggling with hidden gremlins. While supervisors often push back on productivity improvement or OD training, they welcome this topic enthusiastically because it improves their quality of work life instantly. Four hours of training and a set of rules can change a lifetime of bad habits.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Successful Supervisor 34 – Communication Improvement

July 9, 2017

The “VAK” Model (Visual, Auditory, or Kinesthetic) is a wonderful technique to improve communication that any supervisor can use once she has picked up the necessary skills.

Its origin goes back to some studies done in the 1970s by behavioral scientists Bandler and Grinder, who proposed that humans have preferred ways of learning information.

The model was part of a much larger system called Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). The VAK Model hypothesized that each person has a preferred channel for taking in information: either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (movement, as in learning by doing).

The VAK Model is often used in teaching to ensure that people with different learning styles have the same opportunity to learn. It can be used in business and personal situations to establish rapport and increase understanding in communications.

The ideas have been debated by scientists over the years, and I have found the VAK Model is very helpful when it is applied to communications in business.

In the 1980s, Neil Fleming expanded VAK to include Reading and Writing, so the model became VARK. With all the acronyms, it sounds like a little “hocus-pocus,” but the concept is very simple and amazingly powerful.

The idea is to find out what “channel” is the one that the other person prefers and flex your communication style to use that method of transmitting information. Rather than walk through the theory of why this can be helpful to a supervisor, I will share a story that illustrates the point.

Many years ago, I was teaching a Leadership Course at Syracuse University. I had just completed a module on the VARK technique, complete with how you can determine the preferred communication channel by listening to the words a person chooses when talking normally.

Before the class met the next session, a young female student approached me and said, “It works! That VARK system you taught us really does work.” As the class started I asked the student to tell the story to the entire class.

She said, “After our last class, I went to see my calculus teacher. I am having a problem getting the feel of double integrals. I understand everything he is saying in class, but I just cannot make it happen by myself.” Notice the student said she could not get the “feel” of the content (indicating that she is a kinesthetic communicator).

She indicated that she and the professor seemed to be on two different planets in terms of communicating and that both of them were starting to get annoyed.

She said the professor was getting red in the face and finally put his hands on his hips saying “I just don’t see what your problem is.” BINGO! A little bell went off in her head that she was listening in Kinesthetic, but he was a Visual communicator.

She immediately went to his white board and drew the sign for the double integral. She pointed to the place in the process where she was not visualizing the right thing to do. (Note: she shifted her communication mode from Kinesthetic to Visual by drawing on the board and using the word “visualizing” as opposed to “feeling.”

The student related that the professor “melted and became like a puppy dog.” He said, “Oh, that is what you are not seeing, let me show you.” She said that in 5 minutes he had explained it so she understood it forever, and they parted the best of buddies.

For any supervisor or manager, having the ability to flex your own communication style to match the person you are trying to reach is like a magic potion.

The trick is to pay attention to the words the other person uses to describe what is happening. Within a sentence of two the other person will tell you his or her preferred channel by the phraseology.

For example, if you hear the following words, they give away the channel to use:

I hear what you are saying – Auditory

This feels a little dumb – Kinesthetic

He was texting my best friend – Read/Write

I don’t see your point – Visual

We have a procedure on that – Read/ Write

Looks like I will see you at the meeting – Visual

That sounds easy to me – Auditory

He was experiencing a deep depression – Kinesthetic

Also, it is important to pay attention to a person’s actions and patterns.

When you tell them something, do they remember it? — Auditory

Or do they have to write it down? — Visual or Read/write

Can they learn from watching you do something? — Visual

When they have to learn something new, do they have to do it over and over until it finally “sticks? — Kinesthetic

The first order of business if you want to become a master of this technique is to determine what your own preferred channel of communication is. It may not be obvious to you, but if you simply go back and read some of your notes in your “sent” file, you will quickly determine your channel.

We all use all of the modalities in daily life. The trick is to determine which is used the most and your pattern of usage. Also, think of your learning style. Do you learn best by listening, watching, reading, or doing?

It may be different depending on the subject. Doing this type of self-analysis will help you understand how you communicate and learn as well, saving you time in the future.

The second step is to look for situations where the communication with a particular individual seems to be not as smooth as it should be (by the way, I just gave away my preferred channel by using the word “look.”)

If you can see (again, I give it away here) a potential problem, then pay attention to the specific phrases the individual is using. Once you determine his or her preferred channel, try flexing your normal mode to play into the way the other person receives information.

You will immediately see (once again) a huge improvement in the ability to communicate with this individual.

You can play this little game without the other person even knowing you are doing it. It’s kind of fun, but it does take time and practice before you will observe improvement. People can be complex in their approach to their world. Keep with it, and you will have great rewards.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Trust Lubricates

April 25, 2015

dripping oilI have been studying and writing about trust for over 30 years. Today as I was responding to a ping back in LinkedIn, I thought of an analogy that had never occurred to me.

Trust acts like a lubricant in that everything works better and runs more smoothly when trust is present.

I am a mechanical engineer by training, and I know how lubrication lowers the coefficient of friction which allows machines to run better and not overheat.

Let’s explore this metaphor and see how it applies to our everyday life. Here are six ways trust acts like a lubricant.

1. Trust makes communication work better

When people are at odds with one another, they often do a lot of talking but very little deep listening. As the differences of opinion, become more apparent, the tone and volume become more heated, just like a shaft would sound if the bearing had gone dry. The scraping and screeching will just get worse until the whole mechanism freezes up.

2. Trust smoothes the roughness

People are often not very kind to each other. We can be rather egocentric and usually think about what is best for number one. We can become abrasive like rough sand paper when other people advocate something that would not be optimal for us. Trust helps fill in the low spots and smoothes out the roughness so people can interface with less friction.

3. Trust helps us find win-win solutions

When we have a difference of opinion, we often dig in our heels, knowing that our perspective is the correct one. We all wear a button that says “I AM RIGHT.” Trust helps us see that there may be more than one legitimate way to look at an issue, so we have the opportunity to invent creative solutions that work better for both parties.

4. Trust keeps the temperature down

A major function of a lubricant is to lower temperature. The reason mechanical parts overheat without oil is that there is no way to dissipate the heat. Oil in a car engine allows the cylinders to continue their momentum without freezing up. Without oil, a car engine would overheat and seize up quickly, thus destroying the engine. With people, trust wicks off the overheating of emotions and allows people to disagree without being disagreeable.

5. Trust polishes relationships

The bond between people will be very strong and supportive when trust is present. Just as lubrication keeps the oxygen away from surfaces that could tarnish or rust, so trust keeps acrimony from destroying the love and affection people have for each other. When trust is high, personal relationships sparkle just like highly polished metal.

6. Trust acts as a preventive

In the stress of everyday pressures, it is easy to become inflamed or at least anxious. Trust is a kind of balm that soothes the nerves and allows people to be calm in stressful situations.

Knowing you have my back gives me more confidence that all will be well. Just as we use grease to prevent stored parts from rusting, we can use trust to keep us well mentally.

In any organization, if you have high trust, the entire organization is going to run smoothly like a finely crafted machine.

The trust provides all of the wonderful properties of a lubricant. Work to develop higher trust within your organization.

Face to Face

February 7, 2015

Portrait of a young woman with beautiful hair and blue eyesWhen leaders work with teams, it is easier to grow and maintain trust when the teams are in the same location.

The ability to observe body language in face to face encounters makes communication rich and precise. Granted, people working in close quarters do have a propensity to drive each other crazy at times, but amid the squabbles, team rapport and association do develop.

Team cohesion and communication can be enhanced when people are in the same location.

Over the past four decades, organizations have become less centralized. It is a rare group that does not have some component or a sister group in a different location.

Groups that are spread out in different locations, even in just adjacent buildings, become polarized from each other easier and eventually identify with their geographical counterparts more than the people at the other location.

Does that mean that communication has to suffer? How does a leader effectively manage a virtual team and facilitate the ability of geographically separated teams to communicate well and build trust?

The decentralization trend has been counterbalanced by the rise of instant communication enabled by advances in software and electronic technology, especially the rectangular goodies we all carry.

Even though people are spread out all over the world, the ability to communicate to anyone on a moment’s notice means that communication could actually be superior to what we experienced a decade ago. But will it be?

The increased volume of messages may be offset by the problem of lack of face to face communication.

In an old study (circa 1965), Albert Mehrabian at UCLA tried to measure how much meaning we get when communicating face to face from 1) the words used, 2) the tone of voice, and 3) the facial expression.

His experiment was confined to communication about feelings or attitudes, but the results were that only about 7% of meaning comes from the words. The remaining 93% of meaning came from things that are not present in electronic texts or e-mails.

While there have been additional studies since the 1960’s, the general conclusion remains that the words represent only a small fraction of meaning when two people converse.

Unfortunately, words are all we have in e-mail, chats, or texts, except for those wonderful emoticons that can give a tiny sliver of what a true facial expression can convey.

Using texting technology as a substitute for face to face communication has tradeoffs that need to be understood and agreed upon.

As the younger generation refuses to look up from their devices even to glimpse the person sitting next to them, preferring to text rather than speak, the quality of communication may be lower in the future unless we specifically find ways to enrich the pattern with good quality face time.

Video chat and video meeting technology can be keys to regaining the personal touch in communicating between locations. Here the visual element can be preserved, and a permanent record kept of interactions.

Don’t forget the telephone! It adds the audio element, the tone of voice and emphasis that can tell us so much.

How can a leader effectively use technology to build trust and cohesion in a decentralized team environment?

• Clarify a strategy for how communication should be optimized for their particular team dynamic.

• Ensure all team members are trained to use all the different communication methods properly and have the proper equipment to use it easily.

• Have a well understood policy for when to use each type of communication. What sorts of communications need a permanent record? When is it important to be able to see a person, face to face? Some decisions are not clear cut, but it is important for the leader to teach the team what to consider when making the choice of how to communicate.

Model the behavior you wish to see.

We have so many different types of communication available today. Use them wisely, and teach your teams to do the same to have more cohesive decentralized teams.

A resource you might find helpful is my friend Nancy Settle-Murphy, who writes a blog titled “Guided Insights.” If you are a leader trying to maximize communication in a virtual group, I highly recommend taking a look at her work. She often has creative and pragmatic advice to add to the things you may already know.

Tips to Avoid Being Micromanaged

December 14, 2013

Stop doing thatMost of us have been in a situation where we have felt micromanaged. We were given something to do, but then badgered about exactly how to do it. This happens more in low trust groups, and it often creates a further degradation in trust.

We usually fault the manager for this problem because he or she is the one barking out the minute and detailed orders on how to do the job.

I have a theory on micromanagement. It is not entirely the fault of the leader who is intrusive into the workings of employees. I believe the employees are at least partly to blame in many cases.

Reason: I used to work for a leader who was known as the king of all micromanagers. He basically tried to run everything by telling people exactly how to accomplish their tasks. He was an excellent leader otherwise, but people always dinged him on being way too intrusive.

I learned about his reputation before ever going to work for him. During my first few weeks, I went way overboard in my preparation.

I would anticipate any potential question he might have and be prepared with data to support my conclusions. When he would suggest something to try, I usually could say, “it has already been done.”

I would communicate my plans to him every day (including weekends) and ask lots of questions about what was wanted.

He never had an opportunity to get to me because I always got to him first.

After a while, he basically left me alone and did not micromanage me very much for the next 25 years. We got along great, while he continued to micromanage others.

This experience led me to create a list of six tips you can use to reduce the tendency for a boss to micromanage you. Granted, this will not be 100% effective in all cases, but these steps can really help reduce the problem to a manageable level. Note: I will use the male pronoun here for simplification, but the same concepts would apply for both genders.

1. Try to anticipate what the manager will suggest

Work to understand the point of view of the manager, and figure out the suggested methods so when he says, “Do it this way,” often you can say, “That’s exactly how I am doing it. Or you might say, I tried doing it that way, but it created too much scrap, so I am now doing it a better way.

2. Be sure you are clear on the expectations

Often the manager has been somewhat vague on the precise deliverable. Before going off to do a task, take that extra time to verify what the boss really wants in the end. If it is a long or complex set of activities, see if you can get some sub-goals that you can deliver along the way.

3. Get to the boss before he gets to you

This technique really helps when you have a voice mail or text connection with the boss. Get familiar with the timing of communications and preempt the instructions with a note of your own. For example, if the boss has a habit of catching up on his micromanaging tasks during the lunch hour, simply provide an update to him at about 11 a.m. every day.

4. If the boss is getting intrusive, surprise him

It stops a micromanager dead in his tracks when he tries to tell you how to do step 3 and you tell him you are already on step 8. Step 3 was done yesterday, and the results were supplied to him in his e-mail inbox. The boss is blown away that you made so much progress.

5. Seek to build a trusting relationship with the micromanager

If the boss really trusts you, it means there will be less worry on his part that you will do things incorrectly. That means you are left alone to do things your way.

6. Call him on it

The boss needs to understand that for you to be empowered and give your best effort to the organization, you need to be free to use your own initiative. I knew one employee who brought a set of handcuffs into the office. Whenever his boss would try to micromanage him, he would just get out the cuffs and slip them on. The message was loud and clear, “if you want me to do this well, don’t tie my hands.”

My rule of thumb on micromanaging is that credibility and communication allow you to manage things as you see fit. Lack of credibility and communication often lead to being micromanaged.

Dreaming of Future Communication Technology

November 2, 2013

Beautiful cyber woman with computer mouse isolated on white bacSmart phones are ubiquitous these days. If you walk around any campus, you will be hard pressed to find a single student who is not using one. Most of them are texting or chatting while they walk, drive, eat, go to the bathroom, and I suppose, make love.

I have no idea where this trend is going to lead our society, but it is interesting to speculate. As students graduate and move into the workforce, it is going to mean interesting shifts in technology used on the job.

Generation Y, also called the millennial generation, is the fastest growing demographic in the workforce and will make up 75% of the working population by 2025.

The next generation is going to be digital almost from birth, as over 80% of individuals born today have some form of digital footprint by the time they reach age 2.

What really astounds me is that the millennial generation is moving away from voice communication in the direction of more texting. I thought we would be relying less and less on the juxtaposition of letters typed in from a keyboard layout that was invented by Christopher Sholes over 150 years ago.

Imagine, as I am typing this article, I am placing one letter next to another with occasional spaces in order to form words. The words combine into sentences, and that is how we get meaning.

Inevitably, we will move away from letters and use images and audio, or just thoughts, to communicate ideas. It will be a huge relief not to have a keyboard anymore.

There are already many voice recognition programs that allow one to speak and get the message typed out, but that is embryonic because it ultimately still involves the juxtaposition of letters.

With the proliferation of visual devices, there will be more images and fewer letters in the future. The devices will not have to be held in one’s own hand, and kids will not have over-developed thumb muscles.

Imagine the logical progression where the information is projected into the inside surface of one’s glasses so there is no need to hold a device at all. It could be semi-transparent so the user could see where he or she is going but still “chat” with others.

Computer-screen glasses are already available from Google Glass and thought to be only a few years from the mass market.

Eventually there would be no need to text or type anything because a chip in the temples of the glasses would interface with brain waves so the tiny micro computer could know and transmit what a person is thinking, but only if the person wants to have that information go out. Imagine the fun hackers would have with that feature!

There would be no battery as we know it required to power the device. It would be powered by solar batteries or in cloudy areas by tiny nano-turbine generators powered by alcohol. To recharge the device, you would simply put a single drop of alcohol in a port every 3-4 days, and you would never run out of “juice.”

Improved technology will ultimately lead to a kind of “wordless” communication where thoughts are coupled directly into one person’s brain from another person’s brain.

That trend would eliminate the need for any kind of screen.

Where images are wanted, the molecules in the air a short distance in front of a person could be made to vibrate in such a way as to form a 3-dimension color image, sort of like a hologram.

Each person could decide whether he or she wanted others to be allowed to view the image or if it was for private viewing only. That decision would be communicated by “thinking” the distribution.

These dreams may seem unrealistic, but the convergence of video technology and nano-technology is enabling many devices that already approximate the pieces of the system I have described here.

I do not think it will take more than about a decade to put all the pieces together into an actual system. For example, we already have technology that allows individuals who have severed limbs to “think” a prosthesis to move, and it does.

Nano-generators are already invented and are being used in devices today.

The future of communication is going to be a wild ride; even with the most recent gadgets, we are really in the “cave man” phase of what is possible. Stay tuned and be flexible!

Announcing a Downsizing

July 21, 2013

AnnounceThe need for excellent leaders grows more urgent every day. I believe 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. We are at an all-time low in terms of the number of leaders who can establish and maintain the right kind of environment. The outrageous scandals of the past few years are only a small part of the problem. The real cancer is in the daily actions of the many leaders who undermine trust with less visible mistakes every hour of every day.

The current work climate for leaders exacerbates the problem. Most organizations have been forced to take draconian measures in a desperate struggle to survive. In these environments, the ability to maintain trust and transparency often is eclipsed by the extreme actions required to keep from going bankrupt. This conundrum is a unique opportunity to grow leaders who do have the ability to make difficult decisions in a way that maintains the essence of trust. One of the most complex situations occurs when there is a need to trim the current workforce. While there is no one formula that fits every situation, here are some ideas that might prove helpful if you are in that situation.

When a downsizing is going to be required, many managers wrestle with when and how to break the news to the work force. On the surface, it feels like the safer thing to do is to procrastinate on announcing the difficult news, which may be directionally the wrong way to go for the long term health of the organization.

Thankfully, there are processes that allow leaders to accomplish incredibly disruptive 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 back woods with a dirty bucksaw and a bottle of whisky, but there are far less painful, safe, and effective ways to accomplish such a traumatic pruning.

One tool is to be as transparent as possible during the planning phase. In the past, HR managers have insisted that the risk of projecting a need for downsizing or reorganization might lead to sabotage or other forms of rebellion. There are also legal considerations with premature divulging of information, so there is a balance that must be considered. 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. 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. Human beings are far more resilient to bad news than to uncertainty. Information freely given is a kind of anesthesia that allows managers to accomplish difficult operations with far less trauma. This can be helpful 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, and 3) it allows time for the people who will be leaving to train those who will inherit their work. All three of these reasons, while not pleasant, work to enhance rather than destroy trust.

One caveat is that pre-announcing a downsizing may cause some of the best people to go job hunting elsewhere. The wise manager understands this and makes sure the critical resources know their situation is secure. It is better to have a forthright discussion about the situation and future than to have people making assumptions based on speculation.

Full and timely disclosure of information is only one of many tools leaders can use to help maintain or even grow trust while executing unpleasant necessities. The method is not universal for every situation and culture, but it will have merit in many situations and should at least be considered as an option. My study of leadership over the past several decades indicates the situation is not hopeless. We simply need to teach leaders the benefits of trust and transparency and how to obtain them.