Leadership Barometer 72 Listens Deeply

November 21, 2020

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. These are not good for diagnosing problems or specifying corrective action, but they can tell you where you stand quickly. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Listens Deeply

It is said that managers have the worst hearing in the world. Many employees lament that trying to talk to the boss is like trying to reason with a rock. Yet most managers would put “listening skills” as one of their stronger traits. How come there is often such a wide gap between perception and reality? I believe leaders do not recognize that listening is a very complicated and multi-step process that starts in the mind of the speaker. Here are the steps.

1. Speaker’s mind has a thought
2. Speaker translates the thought into words
3. Speaker says the words
4. Words are conveyed to the ear of the listener
5. Words are heard or not heard as sent
6. Tone of voice and body language of the speaker are factored in
7. The message that was heard is translated into thought
8. The thought is translated into the listener’s mind

If any one of those eight elements is corrupted in any way, then the message has not been received accurately. Of those eight steps, which ones cause the most trouble in communication? It is steps 5 and 6. Reason: While most people are “listening” they are actually occupying their mind preparing to speak. So what actually enters the ear is not what the listener actually believes has been said.

The interpretation of the tone of voice and body language is a huge area of miscommunication. With a slight movement of the eyebrows, mouth or a tilt of the head, the meaning of the entire message can be misinterpreted.

Why the problem happens

The culprit here is that we have a disconnect between how fast a person can talk versus how fast we can think. We can think many times faster then we can talk, so the brain has excess time to process other things while waiting for the words to arrive.

We actually multi-task, and our thoughts zoom in and out of the stream of words heading toward our ears. We believe that we have caught all of the content, but in reality we only grasp part of it because we are occupied thinking up our response or trying to interpret why the speakers pupils were dilated.

The best defense for poor listening habits is what is called “reflective listening” or sometimes called “active listening.” This is where we force our brain to slow down and focus on the incoming words in order to give the speaker visual and verbal cues that we really understood the message.

The art of reflective listening is an acquired skill, and it takes a lot of practice and effort to be good at it. If you doubt that, just try listening to someone for 5 minutes straight and concentrate on absorbing every word such that you can reflect small parts of the conversation throughout the 5 minutes. It is exhausting.

For leaders, the need for listening is even more of a challenge. We have to not only hear and interpret the words, we have to understand the full meaning. This means not only must we take in the verbal input but also properly interpret the vast amount of body language that comes along with it. Since there is more meaning in body language than in words, it makes listening an even more daunting task.

Most leaders do not take the time and energy to internalize what is being conveyed to them because they are so preoccupied with getting their message out to others. This leaves them totally vulnerable to misunderstandings that cripple the ability to build trust.

When you add the ego response which most leaders have an ample supply of, it is no wonder employees feel they are not being heard. James O’Toole had a great line for this in the book Transparency. He said, “…it is often the presence of excessive amounts of testosterone that leads to a loss of hearing.”



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 84 Zoom Boom 1 Eye Contact

May 11, 2020

This is the first of four short articles highlighting the differences from in-person body language and body language when using a virtual platform.

Clearly, having the ability to see the faces of individuals, particularly in a group setting, is far superior to having a conference call where people cannot see each other.

However, it is wrong to suggest that the virtual experience is just as good as actually being in the same room as the other people. It is not.

This series of short articles will highlight areas where we need to recognize the limitations, even while we enjoy the benefits of the various platforms for virtual meetings.

The first area is eye contact. The most critical connection between people when interfacing in person is eye contact. When you look at another person’s eyes, you can detect how sincere and authentic the person is.

We read the eyes of other people all the time without even being conscious of the depth of information contained in them. We may have a first meeting with an individual and come away with a cautionary feeling about him by the way he made eye contact.

In “The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers sings, “He said, Son, I’ve made a life out of readn’ people’s faces, knowin’ what the cards were by the way they held their eyes.”

Most people in organizations do not take it to that extreme, but we do take away a huge amount of data by watching other people’s eyes.

In a virtual setting, it is often difficult to even see the other person’s eyes. First of all, if the person is wearing glasses, the glare from the reflection of the screen or ambient light at least partially blocks a clear view of the eyes.

Second, people rarely look directly into the camera when working in a virtual meeting. They are focusing their attention on the pictures of the other people or data displayed on screen. Depending on where the camera is placed, that may cause the person to rarely show his eyes.

Direct eye contact between any two people in a virtual meeting is extremely rare.

Third, when there are many people in the meeting, each image is so small that it is hard to see the expression in the eyes. You can gather some information, but it is not nearly what would be seen if you were meeting in person.

What to do

If the information in the eyes is less than ideal, you need to substitute other factors to understand what is going on with the other person. Tone of voice will let you know if the person is feeling happy, angry, sarcastic, confused, or several other emotions.

In addition, pay attention to what the other person is saying. Is she being negative, grumpy, and hostile, or is she buoyant, happy, and flexible?

Body position can give you a clue to the attitude. Is the person sitting up straight or slouched over holding her head up with the palm of her hand?

Facial expression is another tip off to what is going on with the person. Even though the eye contact may not be ideal, you still have the ability to read what is going on. Look for clues in the configuration of the mouth and the eyebrows.

You can ask open-ended questions that call for the person to reveal how she is feeling at the moment.

I will explore other differences or compromises in future articles.


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


Leadership Barometer 44 Rapport

March 29, 2020

 

We all know that the first few seconds when meeting a new person or client are critical to the relationship.

Malcolm Gladwell referred to the “thin slices” of meaning we interpret subconsciously when meeting someone new. His contention is that a relationship is basically established after just a few seconds, so it is important to know what to do and what to avoid doing in this critical period.

While we know the vital importance of body language and tone of voice, few of us have received any formal training on what things to do and to avoid to maximize the potential for good rapport and trust.

The overarching objective is to let your natural personality and essence shine through as well as be sincerely interested in learning the qualities of the other person. This means making sure all the signals you send are congruent with your true nature and being alert for the full range of signals being sent by the other person.

While there are entire books on this topic, I wanted to share six things to do and six things to avoid from my own experience and background.
Note these items are somewhat mechanical in nature. They are not intended to replace the good judgment in any instance but are offered as tips that can help in most cases.

Things to do:

1. Be yourself

Trying to force yourself into a mold that is not your natural state will not translate well. Regardless of your effort, you will unwittingly send ambiguous signals that will subconsciously be perceived as you trying too hard to establish rapport.

2. Shake hands (assuming you are not in the middle of a pandemic).

In most cultures, the hand shake is the touch ritual that conveys major content about both individuals.
Each person is sending and receiving signals on several different levels in the few moments it takes to shake hands.

Learn how to do it right, and do it with the right attitude. The handshake should project what is in your heart.

Note, there are many myths about handshakes. For example, a “firm” handshake has historically been thought to send a signal of competence and power.
If the firmness is amplified to a bone-crushing clamp, it actually sends a signal that the crusher is insecure, because why else would someone crush a hand unless he thought it was necessary to appear powerful.

Remember this simple rule of thumb, if the person can feel the handshake after it is over, you have gone too far.

3. Make good eye contact

We communicate at many levels with our eyes. It is important to really see the other person in a natural and pleasing way.
Here is a tip about eye contact while shaking hands. Try to see through the eyes into the soul of the person you are meeting. Inside the other person’s head is a wonderland of possibilities, and the window to that information is first through the eyes.

4. Smile

Make sure it is appropriate to smile (although sometimes a somber expression is more appropriate – like at a funeral). The caveat here is that the smile must be genuine, not phony.

Learn to smile from the eyes by picturing an oval from your eyebrows to your lips. Show your teeth, if they are in good shape. This really helps the warmth of a smile.

Be sure to maintain eye contact while you are smiling. The peripheral vision of the other person will allow him or her to appreciate the smile. Consider the duration of the smile, because too short or too long of a smile can send mixed signals.

5. Give a genuine greeting

Most people say “how are you” or “nice to meet you.” Those greetings are not bad, but they do pass over an opportunity to show real enthusiasm for meeting the other person. Reason: these greetings are perfunctory and overused.

They accomplish the greeting mechanically, but they do not establish a high emotional engagement.

You might try a variant like “I am excited to meet you” or “how wonderful to meet you.” Be careful to not get sappy: see caveat number five in the second list below.

6. Ask the other person a question

The typical and easiest thing to do is say “tell me about yourself,” but you only would use that if there was adequate time for the individual to take you from grade school to the rest home.

A better approach is to consider the environment around the person. There will be a clue as to what the other person might be experiencing at that moment. If you link in to the emotion with a question that draws out the other person, you have established dialog that is constructive.

For example, if you meet a person in a hotel lobby who is dragging two suitcases with his left hand, you might say while shaking the right hand, “have you been traveling all day?” or “can I help you with one of your bags?”

Doing these six things will set you up for a good first impression provided they are consistent with the situation and your persona, but there are extensions of these same six things that should be avoided or you may blow the opportunity.


Things to avoid:

1. Do not work too hard

Other people will instantly recognize at a gut level if you are putting on an act to impress them. If your natural tendency is to be a slap happy kind of salesman when meeting people, try to turn down the volume on that part while maintaining a cheerful nature.

2. One handed shakes only

The two-handed shake, known as the “politician’s handshake,” is too invasive for a first meeting. It will cause the other person to emotionally retreat as a defense mechanism.

It gives the impression that you are trying to reel in a big fish. Speaking of fish, also avoid the dead fish handshake. A firmly-flexed vertical hand with medium modulation is the best approach.

Be sensitive to the fact that some people avoid handshakes due to physical reasons and do not force the issue or embarrass the person.

Other than the handshake, there should be absolutely no touching of any other part of the body. This means, do not grab the elbow as you walk toward the elevator, do not put your hand on or playfully punch the shoulder of the other person, even if he is a “good guy.”

Obviously, stay away from touching the legs or knees of any other person when sitting.

3. Avoid too much eye contact

Anything over 70% of eye contact during the first few minutes will cause great anxiety in the other person. A fixed gaze will send signals that are ambiguous at best and threatening at worst.

The best approach is to lock eyes for a few seconds, then move your gaze on something else, perhaps a lapel pin or name tag, then return eye contact for a few seconds more.

If you are a male meeting a female, avoid giving the up and down “checking her out” pattern, as most women find that highly offensive.

Another caveat with eye contact is to avoid looking around the room during the first moments of meeting another person.

Make sure the person recognizes you are focused 100% on him or her, even if the timing is fleeting.

4. Do not smile as if you are holding back gas

If you try to force a smile, it will look as phony as a bad toupee. If you have a problem warming up to a new person with a genuine smile, try envisioning the person as having a check for a million dollars in her purse that she is about to give you.

In reality she may have things inside her head that could be worth much more than a million dollars to you. Consider that possibility and be genuinely happy to meet the person. It will show on your face.

Do not go over the top with enthusiasm in your greeting – The greeting must come straight from the heart to send the signal you want. Your greeting should not gush or be drawn out like an Academy Award performance like, “Oh darling, how simply marvelous to meet you” – kissy kissy. You could make the other person want to vomit.

5. Avoid talking about yourself
Hold up on discussing your interests until cued by the other person. The natural tendency is to think in terms of this new person’s relationship to your world.
Try to reverse this logic and think about wanting to know more about his or her world, so you can link in emotionally to the other person’s thoughts.

If you ask two or three questions of the other person, he or she will eventually ask a question about you.

6. Listen more and talk less

Try to keep the ratio of listening versus talking to roughly 70-30% with the weight of your attention on listening. The highest rated conversationalists are the ones who say the fewest number of words.

By doing the six steps I have outlined while avoiding the extremes on the second list, you will have a good start to a new relationship. You will have planted the seeds of trust well. After that, you need to nurture the relationship continually to allow the seeds to grow to maturity.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.























Measuring Morale

April 13, 2013

scaleCan you measure morale accurately by simply walking into a room and observing people? I think you can. In my courses, I often ask participants to tell me the best way to measure morale. Most of them come up with the idea of an employee survey or some other form of lagging indicator, like turnover rate. While both of these techniques are useful, I think there is a far faster and more accurate way to measure the morale of people in an organization, and you can do it while there is still time to take corrective actions. All you have to do is observe the individuals, and they will give ample clues as to their morale.

Here are seven ways to measure morale by watching and listening to what people do:

1. Posture

If people are standing with one hip raised, that is a sign of a poor attitude. It is a hostile gesture where the individual has a chip on his shoulder and he is daring you to knock it off. If people are sitting in a slouched-over configuration, that may be simple fatigue or it may be they feel beaten down and fearful when managers are around. If you walk into a room and people are sitting around a table leaning back with their arms folded, you can immediately sense these folks are dug in, grumpy, and not happy. The most sensitive areas for posture are in the shoulders and the position of the spine. I once walked into a restaurant to meet up with a colleague for a chat. She was sitting in a booth with her back to me and did not see me approach. All I could see of her was the back of her head and the upper 6 inches of her shoulders. I accurately determined before seeing her face or hearing her voice that she was in crisis mode due to a family tragedy.

2. Gestures

When people are together, watch the gestures. If they are doing a lot of finger pointing as they speak, there is a hostile environment. If their hands are most often open with palms up, that means they are open to ideas and suggestions. Watch to see if the gestures remain the same as managers come in the room. For example, if people are having an animated conversation about some outside event but clam up both verbally and with gesturing when the manager walks in, it is a sign of either fear or apathy. Certainly hostile or vulgar gestures are obvious indications of poor morale. The best display of good attitudes is if the gesturing remains the same when a manager approaches. People are comfortable and not threatened by this leader.

3. Facial Expression

There are thousands of facial expressions that have meaning, and many of these are specific to the culture in which they are used. The eyes and mouth hold the most information about attitude. For example, when a manager is giving information, if people roll their eyes, the meaning is that they believe the manager is basically clueless and is wasting their time. If they are tight lipped, it is normally a sign of fear and low trust. The most positive expression for morale is a slight smile with bright open eyes and highly arched eyebrows. This expression indicates interest and openness.

4. Tone of voice

When people speak, their tone will give away how engaged they are in the conversation at hand. Apathy is easy to spot with a kind of roll-off of words in a low pitch that says “I don’t care.” If the voice is stressed and shrill, that usually connotes fear of some type. Anger is easy to detect as the voice becomes choppy and the pitch and volume go up dramatically. The sneer also can be detected as people take on a mocking tone when they mimic other people. Medium voice modulation with good diction usually means good engagement and attention.

5. Jokes

When people make jokes at the expense of the other people, it is often thought of as just kidding around. The fact is, there is always some kind of truth underlying every dig. So if people are mocking a manager for always showing up late to the meeting, it may cause a chuckle, but it actually reveals that people believe the manager has no real respect for them. Some groups are world class at making jokes at the expense of team members. I maintain this is a sign of poor rapport that will show up as lack of good teamwork. This poor behavior can be easily stopped by just coming up with a rule that we will no longer make jokes at the expense of others.

At one company where I was teaching, the rule about not making jokes at the expense of others was the third behavioral rule on their list (I always have groups create such a list). It was easy to extinguish the bad habit because we just allowed people to hold up three fingers whenever anybody violated the rule. The poor behavior, that had been going on for decades in that organization, was fully extinguished in less than one hour.

6. Word choice

When people are honestly engaged in positive conversation and are making constructive observations or ideas, it shows high morale. If they undermine the ideas of others or management, it shows a lack of respect that has its roots in low morale. If the leader asks for a volunteer and you can hear a pin drop, that is a different reaction than if three hands go up immediately. People with high morale spontaneously volunteer to help out the organization. They respect their leader and truly want him or her to succeed because they know if the leader is successful then good things will happen for them.

7. Reinforcement

In a culture of high morale, people have a tendency to praise each other and seek ways to help out other people. When morale is low, everybody is in it for themselves and will discredit the ideas or desires of other people to preserve their own status. Leaders who know how to build a culture where individuals spontaneously praise each other for good deeds can foster higher morale by that emphasis alone.

These are just seven ways you can identify the morale of a group simply by observing what people are doing and saying. You can go to the trouble of a time consuming and suspect survey, but you do not need to in order to measure morale. Measuring turnover or absenteeism will be an accurate long term reflection of morale, but by the time you get that data, the damage is already done. You have often lost the best people. By observing people every day and making small corrective actions along the way, you can prevent low morale and build an environment of higher trust. In that kind of culture, productivity will go up dramatically.


Communication Complexities

October 14, 2012

Most of us have played the campfire game where a bunch of kids sit around the fire and pass a message from one to the other. It never fails that the message coming out at the end bears little resemblance to what was started.

The same kind of phenomenon is going on when two people try to communicate. There are many steps in the communication process, each of which might be pictured as an individual cub scout sitting around the fire. Here are ten steps that happen each time we say something to someone else:

1. I have a thought that I want to convey to you.

2. I decide how I am going to convey that message to you with my choice of words.

3. I send the message according to my interpretation of how my words will translate my true intent. (I will discuss tone and body language below.)

4. The information goes out from me through the air in sound waves.

5. You then pick up some portion of those waves depending on your level of attention and your physical ability to receive them. You never get them all.

6. You process the information based on your interest in what I am saying and your current level of distraction.

7. You make an interpretation of the information based on your biases and filters about how you perceive the world and what you were expecting me to say.

8. You make a decision how to translate the input into reaction thought patterns in your brain.

9. You make a determination about what you are going to do with the information.

10. You then give some external reaction, comment, or action based on your thoughts.

In each of these steps, there is the potential for tiny modifications of the original thought. Each modification may seem insignificant, but just as in the case with the campfire game, if you add up all of the minute changes, the final meaning may be quite different from the original one.

If the communication is reasonably good, then the thought in my head would be planted in your head roughly intact. If one step in the process modifies the input slightly, the starting point for the next step will be different, and a significant distortion in the final received message is likely.

When you add in the infinite variety of signals included in tone of voice and body language, the complexity goes up exponentially. The complexity involved in getting the words right is a significant challenge, but studies show that the words contain only a tiny fraction of the meaning we get. In 1967, Albert Mehrabian measured that when talking about feelings or emotions, only about 7% of the meaning is contained in the words we use. The remaining 93% of content is in the tone of voice and body language.

If I say to you, “You couldn’t have been any better in that meeting this morning,” the message you will receive is highly dependent on my voice inflection and body language. The same words can have very different, even opposite, meanings.

Body language is so complex because we send signals on many different levels subconsciously. The meaning you get will be colored by my skill at accurately projecting the intent behind the communication and also your skill at picking up the signals and decoding them correctly. There may be cultural differences as well that can make the interpretation even more complex. That is why knowledge of and appreciation for the complexities of body language are essential for good communication.

When you consider the complexity of this process, it is not shocking that a fair percentage of meaning in direct communication does not even hit the target area, let alone accomplish a bulls-eye. I think it is amazing that we get as close as we do.

When miscommunication happens, it is a natural reaction to become frustrated and even angry. We may jump to conclusions about the worthiness of our partner in communication. We say things like, “You are not speaking so I can understand your message,” or “You never listen to me,” or “You just don’t pay attention to what I am saying.” All of these scape-goating expressions may make us feel better by putting the blame on the other person, but they do not identify or rectify the root cause.

What is needed when message content becomes garbled is a sense that the inevitable straying off message has occurred. It is not necessarily the fault of either person. It just may take more than one attempt to communicate a message. To mitigate the problem, we need to patiently verify the message internalized is the same as the message sent. That takes a verification step, either verbally or with body language. Since the original communicator is 100% sure of what he or she thinks was said, it seems redundant to go through a verification ritual, but it is really necessary, especially for important messages.

When communicating with another person, keep in mind the complex process that is going on. Use your powers of observation to detect possible visual or verbal cues that the communication did not work as intended. Try to not blame the other person, because the truth is, it is a system problem, and you are also part of the system. Work on improving your own system both on the sending side and the receiving side.