Leadership Barometer 17 Optimize Communication

September 23, 2019

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Optimize communication

All of us communicate all of the time. When you add the body language to what we say, there is a steady stream of communication all day, every day. So why does communication always surface in the top 2 of every employee satisfaction survey as the most significant problem facing an organization?

The sad fact is that most leaders are not that good at communicating, even though they work very hard at it. Let’s first look at the symptom from two vantage points.

The leader feels nearly overwhelmed with the need to communicate. In fact, the leader is communicating from the moment she logs on in the morning until she turns out the light exhausted at the end of the day.

All work is a steady stream of explaining what is happening, reinforcing good work, explaining how poor attitudes are not helping, discussing the new product roll out, etc. So it is a frustration when people feedback that there is “never any communication” going on. Wow, what a slap in the face.

From the worker’s perspective, the signals that are coming through are not consistent and often incomprehensible. They long for information in a format and frequency that computes to them.

The messages heard are not consistent with the messages sent by the leader. There are frequent surprises where a vacuum in communication is followed by a “gotcha” announcement.

The battle for excellent communication rages every day in every organization. Let’s take a look at some of the root causes of poor downward communication to uncover some opportunities for improvement.

1. Frequency – the span between communication on key issues is more tricky than meets the eye. The old rule of “the more the merrier” is really not the best policy.

When you constantly say the same message in the same format, eventually people tune it out, and you might better not have said anything because nobody is listening anymore. Yet, the other extreme is worse, if your touch points are so infrequent that people have forgotten the context of the message, then they will listen and hear, but not understand.

So what is the antidote? How do leaders find the sweet spot? You need to let feedback from people be the volume control on your outgoing communication. Most of this feedback comes in body language – often in group settings.

2. Boring Message – I have seen really good leaders who tend to drone on in a monotone style that puts everybody to sleep. So, all the information is given, but everyone is zzzzd out, and there is poor communication.

The best way to avoid this is to watch for the MEGO effect (short for My Eyes Glaze Over). When people get that look, you need to stop and ask a question. Get the audience back with you.

Change the cadence, even use 5 seconds of silence to get the group conscious again. Get people up on their feet or engaged in a question for discussion among small groups. The energy needs to be on a conscious level for people to grasp meaning.

I know the CEO of an organization that communicates with a deck of 50-100 PowerPoint slides. After the third slide, everybody in the audience is politely staring at the screen with the facial appearance of listening when in reality they are absorbing none of the information.

The antidote here is to get the CEO some basic training on PowerPoint no-no’s and make sure he doesn’t sleep through the class.

3. Not what I said – Some people hear what they think you are going to say, even if you say something else. Their predisposition leaves them incapable of absorbing the actual words and meaning.

It reminds me of the old Archie Bunker quote, when he says to his wife, Edith, “The reason you don’t understand me, is because I’m talking in English and you’re listening in Dingbat!” During any presentation, test with your audience if you are getting through the fog. You may need to learn to speak in “dingbat.”

4. Too complex – In an effort to be complete with communications, many leaders are their own worst enemy. People can only absorb and internalize so much information at one time.

Exactly how the information is conveyed has a lot to do with how much can be presented at any one time. Make sure each communication effort has only two or three key points and these are repeated at least three times in the presentation.

Test afterward if people really understood those three key points. Use illustrations when possible, and consider the different learning styles of your audience.

5. Management Speak – Leaders often talk in a kind of language I call “management speak.” They need to understand that the average shop floor person does not relate to ROI or references to Maslow. Make sure your communication is on a level where people can readily grasp the message.

However, be very careful to not “talk down” to people on the shop floor. They are not dumb; in fact they are incredibly smart. They just use different words, and you need to use their language as much as possible when communicating messages to them.

Resist the temptation to “dumb down the message” so they can understand. Instead think of using the right language. Just because they do not know Latin is no reason to treat them as ignorant.

6. Shifting messages – It is not a static world, so a valid message on Wednesday may be the wrong one on Friday. The problem here is that leaders are cognizant of what transpired as the current message morphed into something different.

Unfortunately, the shop floor people are not up to speed on the shifting sands. All they experience is a confusing message that is not consistent. Actually, this problem is more pervasive than leaders recognize, and it is a key reason why there is such a disconnect.

The antidote is for leaders to be extremely cognizant of any small change in the message over time. Make sure you bring people up to speed on the background for the change if you want them to grasp the true meaning.

7. Electronic Communication – Leaders have shifted to a much higher percentage of communication virtually. It is not in the scope of this short article to go over all of the gremlins in this mode of communication. It took me 300 pages in a book to describe how leaders fail to navigate the minefield of successful online communication.

Suffice to say this is an area of great peril. Unfortunately, most leaders think there is little difference between communicating face to face versus online. There is a huge difference (I outline 8 major differences in my book).

An example may help here. Most people view an e-mail like a conversation. You have information coming in, you process it, and then send information out. Just a conversation, right? Wrong! When we talk to people face to face, we are constantly modifying the message, cadence, body language, and the words based on the real-time feedback we are getting.

Online, there is no feedback while the message is being sent. It is all blind, and we have no way to correct things if we are off track. Thinking of online communication like a conversation is extremely dangerous.

8. Communicating at the head level – Good communication does not occur at the “head” level. Sure, we use the mouth to speak, the ears to hear, the brain to interpret, the eyes to see, etc. Real communication is deep in the gut.

When you have internalized the message fully, it goes well into the body. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have communicated with someone because you have talked and they appear to have heard it. Verify what was taken in at the gut level.

Those are just 8 ways of improving communication. Actually there are hundreds of them, this article only scratches the surface. But, if you focus on these few important considerations, you can really improve your communications with people.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.


Body Language 43 The Bully

August 30, 2019

The body language for a bully is usually rather extreme and often unmistakable.

Keep in mind that the definition of bully behavior exists first in the mind of the person being bullied. The person who is being aggressive often does not even realize how gestures might be interpreted.

In this article, I will use the male pronoun when describing bully behaviors and a female pronoun to indicate a person who feels threatened by the bully. I do this to simplify the writing format to prevent using the he or she format all the time.

Just recognize that bully behavior in the real world exists with both genders.

Bullying has become a key concept in our society. We see forms of it in every area from kids on the bus to Congress, from the boardroom to the barroom.

We universally abhor the behavior in school kids, yet we often see it practiced every day as adults.

Body language can contribute to bullying for several reasons. Here are some signs to watch out for:

Pointing (as shown in the picture) is usually a hostile gesture. Whenever you point a finger at another person, recognize that you are putting her on notice that she had better listen.

Your jaw is simply another way to point. As the man in the picture juts his jaw forward, he greatly increases the hostility of his action.

Size is important in bully body language. You can see a bully on the playground puff himself up to appear larger than the other kids as he seeks to gain advantage. The same behavior can be seen in animals. Chickens and birds of all kinds will puff out their feathers as an aggressive move warning the other birds to back off.

Facial color is another key factor in bully body language. As the bully becomes intense, his face is going to flush and show all kinds of signs of agitation. All of this is intended to diminish the power of the person being bullied.

Tone of voice is huge for the bully. His words are anything but soothing. They become acerbic and short. He may become bellicose or inflamed. All of these things are aimed at making the other person feel inferior.

Hair standing out is another telltale sign of aggression. It is the same with animals of all species. To gain advantage, animals try to look bigger and puff out their fur.

Virtual bullying is becoming much more common as electronic communication has become ubiquitous. This is especially true for younger people who communicate a larger portion of the time online.

Cyber bullying has become a huge problem in our youth, but it really occurs at all ages. One of the reasons it is so prevalent is because the bully is not facing the other person directly; the input is given remotely.

We know the incredible destructive nature of bullying because all of us have been bullied at some point in our lives, and we know it does not feel good.

We know bullying leads to suicide in rare cases, especially in children, because they do not know how to cope with the powerless feeling of being bullied. They would simply rather die.

Parents can bully children, and that makes it even worse. People who were bullied as children can be triggered when bullied as adults by authority figures.

It is also true that each one of us has been guilty of bullying another person at some point. If you wish to deny that, you need to think harder. Some of us have played the role of the bully more than others. Some people have it down to a fine art.

Organizational bullying is not confined to verbal abuse or strong body language. It also occurs when headstrong managers or supervisors become so fixated on their own agenda that it renders them effectively deaf to the ideas or concerns of others.

They become like a steamroller and push their agenda with little regard for what others think. In this area, there is a fine line between being a passionate, driving leader who strongly pushes his agenda versus one who is willing to hear and consider alternate points of view.

The key to reducing bully behavior in yourself is to recognize when you are doing it. For many people, it is just a habit they are unaware of. Catch yourself in the act of bullying another person and soften your tone toward caring and appreciation. You will see a much more cooperative response to your input and build higher trust with other people.

It takes practice, but we all can learn to reduce the tendency to bully other people.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on https://www.leadergrow.com/articles/categories/35-body-language 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.TheTrust 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 600 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.


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.


A Virtual Birth

February 24, 2013

PopeIt is a story as old as mankind itself. You plant a seed in a moment of passion, and initially nothing visible occurs. Hidden microscopic changes have been made that will play out over the subsequent nine months. Slowly, over time, you are able to detect changes, growth, anticipation.

At first the signs are slight and hard to see, but later on, the changes are obvious to everyone. The gestation period takes roughly 280 days, and as sure as the sun rises in the east, a major event occurs. All of this is no surprise. We know what to expect, and nature works like clockwork.

Well, strangely enough, it happened to me, but I really was not expecting it, since I am male. There was a degree of divine intervention, as I will explain. Lest you think I am some kind of freak of nature, let me explain that the “explosion” I experienced after 284 days from planting the seed was virtual. It was a result of an article I published on May 5, 2012.

The article was entitled “Situational Emotional Intelligence.” The gist of the article was that each one of us experiences Emotional Intelligence in unique ways. We are all different, and it stands to reason that no two people will react the same way to external stimuli. Further, I tried to make a case that each of us will react differently to situations depending on the exact context of each situation. Emotional Intelligence is “situational.” The concept was interesting, but not very profound.

One of the illustrative examples I used in the blog was Rev. Edward Salmon, a corporate contract negotiator who became a Jesuit priest and the head of a Catholic high school in my city. His response to everyday emotional situations as he worked in the two different contexts was dramatically different, as you might imagine.

At the time, I received several favorable comments on the article, which is my typical pattern. I monitor the traffic to my blog daily in an attempt to find out how to improve my offerings for the future. It is very interesting, because sometimes I will think an article is extremely insightful, and the returns will be business as usual. Other times I will put out what I consider a more routine article, and the analytics will light up as a result.

I have noticed that two conditions give rise to the most traffic. Either I have made some kind of a contribution that is really helping people, or I have written something that has annoyed a lot of folks. You learn to take the good with the bad. The blogosphere not a place for people who cannot take criticism.

The article on “Situational Emotional Intelligence” had produced the typical response, and I was happy with the numbers. Over the next few months, my traffic began to grow from the normal average of about 80 hits per day to more like an average of 120 hits per day. One might think of this as me just getting heavier with the years (which I admit is actually happening), but my analogy with the gestation period is not complete without a significant amount of belt loosening.

As I am writing this article, it is February 13, 2013. Today is exactly 284 days from the planting of that seed last May. When I opened up my blog at 6 a.m. to check on the stats from yesterday, I expected to see roughly 20 hits, which would be a normal return for that hour of the day. Instead, I saw over 200 hits had been recorded overnight. This shows up as a viral explosion on my returns chart: kind of like a birth.

Immediately I went back through the analytics to find out why my current article was driving so much traffic. I discovered that the bulk of the hits were not from my current article at all, but were for that article I published 284 days ago – exactly the amount of time for the human gestation period. What was going on? Then it hit me.

There was a world event that happened on Feb.11th that would seem to have little connection to my article on Emotional Intelligence. On that day, Pope Benedict announced he will step down for health reasons. I was still trying to fit the puzzle together in my mind when I went back and looked at my keywords. One of them was “Catholic.” Ahh, that single keyword was the trigger for a large spike in my blog traffic today. It may have been automated search bots rather than individuals, but the spike in traffic is still notable.

I wanted to share this story because it illustrates that you never know what future events will trigger a wave of responses based on the entire field of your content. Everything we say or do has some potential to sway future events in ways we can never predict. I think that makes life really interesting.

I will leave it up to you as to whether the gestation period of 284 days was simple random chance or if there was some guidance from a stronger hand. The only disappointing thing is that apparently I have not lost much weight as a result of the birth.