The Other 93%

Unhappy Discontent Woman And Man Look With Disgusting ExpressionWhether or not you believe Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s oft-quoted research that 55% of communication happens through nonverbals, 38% through vocal elements, and only 7% through the words we use, most people will concede that nonverbals play a major role in communications. So why is it that so many leaders seem to focus only on words and ignore the other 93%?

For starters, open two-way communication gets harder when people are placed in positions of leadership. Most people who report to you will be good students. Good students give the teacher the answer he or she wants to hear, whether or not they actually believe it’s true. After all, giving the “right” answer is the way you get good grades, right? So most people’s words tend to reinforce what the leader is already thinking . . . thus giving a 7% confirmation that everyone is on the same page regarding the best course of action.

But aren’t words more “concrete” than all subjective, nonverbal stuff? In a word, no. When words and nonverbals are in conflict trust the nonverbals, which are often unconscious and reflect true feelings or intentions. (Anyone who has raised a teenager can vouch for the truth of this concept.) People may say what they think they are supposed to, but for the leader who takes the time to “listen” to the nonverbals, there can be a whole host of information being communicated that isn’t being “said.” Whether it is a lack of eye contact, gestures or physical movement (such as someone tapping their foot, drumming their fingers or crossing their arms), how a person positions themselves in the room, or “the look on their face”, your people can say a lot without saying a word.

What can a leader do to make sure you are hearing the full message? Focus on the complete “conversation” taking place, not just the words being shared — by you or someone else. If you are thinking about what you are going to say next, you can miss subtle nonverbal cues that are communicating loud and clear if only you are attentive enough to notice. If a person’s words and nonverbals are inconsistent, ask for clarification — not in an accusing way, but in a spirit of seeking to understand . . . “Joe, you seem uncomfortable/unconvinced/skeptical . . . do you see the matter differently?” And then give Joe the opportunity to share his perspective.

When you consistently loop back with your people in this way, a) they will start to believe that you really do want to know what they are thinking, b) they will feel seen and valued because you noticed something that they may not have even been aware of conveying, and c) you will gain the value of the full message your people are communicating — through words they share . . . and the other 93%.

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Shades of Gray

White Painted Textured Background With Brush StrokesIt seems far too common these days to find headlines that reflect an apparent lack of ethics in leadership. How does this happen? What has led to what some might consider to be an ethics crisis among leaders? Is it power? . . . ego? . . . a lack of morals? Undoubtedly in some cases, it is one or all of these things. In other cases, however, the issue is not so black and white.

Choices between right and wrong are fairly easy. It’s making choices between two “right” answers that gets a bit trickier . . . where each possible choice reflects a core value of the organization, and a decision has to be made regarding which value should take precedence in a given situation. Suddenly, a leader may be faced with a whole lot of gray.

Should decisions be made in the best interest of . . .

. . . the individual or the organization?

. . . short-term or long-term impact?

. . . responsibility or loyalty?

. . . duty, rights, virtue or relationships?

It all depends on where you are standing, the perspective you choose, as you weigh the options.

When external rules or expectations would direct an organization to take a course of action that would not be in the best interest of a specific individual, what is an organization to do? Look out for the individual and risk some degree of sanction for the organization? Perhaps . . . if you used an individual lens. What if such sanction would impact the organization’s ability to serve other individuals in the future, would that change the decision? Does the degree of harm — to the individual or the organization — factor into the decision? So many shades of gray.

Leaders have to deal, often on a daily basis, with the messy reality of competing demands, pressures, expectations and values. Courses of action that may seem clear in hindsight are often mired in a gray fog at the point a leader must choose a path forward. That is simply the reality of leadership. So how does one make the “best” ethical decision?

  • Clearly articulate organizational values and the predominant perspective the organization will use to guide decision-making. For example, “we will act in ways that sustain the organization for the long term.”
  • Engage in transparent dialog to gain a variety of perspectives. At times, a leader may not even recognize there could be other perspectives to consider. Voicing the dilemma, encouraging feedback, and discussing options can help clarify the path forward.
  • Step back from the issue at hand. When you look at any decision too narrowly it can keep you from considering the full implications of a decision. Ethics can be a slippery slope when you look at individual decisions in isolation.

Know your values and priorities, openly discuss the tough decisions, and look at the big picture. The answer still may not be black and white, but taking these steps can help a leader reduce the shades of gray.

Time to Act

time to act ext on wooden cubes on a wooden background“It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”

I’ve seen this insight, and variations thereof, credited to a number of different people — probably because of the innate truth of the statement. And yet, how often do we as leaders get so hung up on developing our plans . . . to change the culture, to launch a new initiative, to pursue a strategic direction . . . that we never really get around to doing anything.

Now let me be clear, I am a big proponent of plans (as anyone who works with me can attest). According to Google, the definition of a plan is “a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something; an intention or decision about what on is going to do.” The end result of the effort is to do, to act . . . not to create the perfect plan!

Have you ever had a plan thrust on you from some external source and thought the concept probably made a lot of sense to someone sitting in an office somewhere, but from a practical application standpoint it was not possible/made no sense/had numerous unintended consequences? Yep. What do you think the chances are that someone has ever had that thought about one of your well-crafted plans?

That is why it is better to view plans as fluid, living documents. Get a basic understanding of your end goal, get the project rolling, and then adapt as you get new information. Act your way into a new way of thinking. Because here’s the deal . . . there is no way to anticipate all of the variables you will encounter at the beginning of an initiative — no matter how much time and effort was put into developing the plan. Detailed plans may make us feel better . . . rigidly sticking to them, however, may actually diminish our results.

I can’t tell you how many times we have encountered totally unexpected opportunities because we acted, and then were willing to adapt our plan along the way. Hear me loud and clear, adapting a plan doesn’t mean the plan failed . . . it means the plan moved you to the point that you had new information with which to make a better decision.

Get clear on your end goal — your intent — and then yes, identify the best that you know at the time, along with the unknown but important variables, to develop a plan. Don’t expect it to be perfect. Expect it to be enough to start, to move you in the right direction. And then . . . it’s time to act.

Chocolate Covered Cherries

Three Cordial CherriesMy Grandma Duncan loved chocolate covered cherries. To say I did not would be a sizeable understatement. Every holiday, as she opened the dreaded candy box and urged me to have one, I just knew that ball of syrupy sweetness was going to get bigger and bigger in my mouth as I chewed, threatening to totally gag me. Looking back, I’m fairly certain the fretting beforehand was much worse than the candies (although my throat still tightens at the mere mention of them). Call it the “chocolate covered cherry effect” . . . the anticipation — and angst — of a looming challenge has caused many a leader to choke.

We’ve all been there. Expert predictions/trends/new rules foretell of significant disruptions to the way your organization functions . . . and stewing about the looming shadow of uncertainty only causes it to grow in your mind. Chocolate covered cherry effect. The more you chew on it, the bigger it becomes.

Certainly, you should identify and carefully consider the challenges before you. The key is how you approach it. The chocolate covered cherry effect happens when you get stuck on what the challenge is going to do to you. A much more effective, and energizing, leadership strategy is to identify what you will do to move past the challenge, and maximize the resulting opportunities.

The thing you focus on grows. Do you want to focus on the challenge — the chocolate covered cherry — or do you want to focus on what you can accomplish when you move past it? A few tips for those interested keeping their challenges in perspective:

1) Thoughtfully consider the challenge, gather input from multiple viewpoints, and then make a decision. You will rarely have all the information you would like. Get enough and then decide. The longer you chew on it, the bigger the challenge feels.

2) Remember, you know how to do this. I have eaten a number of chocolate covered cherries in my life, and none of them killed me. You have faced, and conquered, challenges before. Recognize that you have the skills to move through it.

3) Take it a bite at a time. Part of what can make challenges seem so overwhelming is that you often can’t see how you’ll get all the way through at the outset. That’s okay. Start eating away at the challenge. The path will become clearer as you go.

4) It’s worth the effort. In the grand scheme of things, the chocolate covered cherries were a small price to pay compared to the joys of holidays with my grandparents. I would have missed so much if I couldn’t see past that challenge to possibilities that came with it.

The thing you focus on grows. And I certainly don’t want that to be the chocolate covered cherries. What about you?

Get Out of the Way

No More ConceptSometimes as a leader, we create barriers to our own progress, and if we — and our organizations — are to maximize our potential, we first need to get out of our own way. Yes, I’m sure that you can easily think of a leader whose confidence appears to outpace his or her ability. Let’s just work with the assumption that those individuals are not likely to invest time in reading this leadership blog . . . and so for those who are reading, it seems quite plausible that you may at times underestimate your unique capabilities. Still unconvinced? Ask yourself . . .

  • Have you ever gone to a conference session and thought I (or my people) know all that and more/have more hands-on experience/could do that in my/our sleep?

 

  • Have you ever become aware of an organization that implemented a program you had considered but never acted on, that is being lauded as “ground-breaking”?

 

  • Have you ever believed a course of action could be really impactful, but after a few “no’s” you convinced yourself it would never happen?

 

  • Have you ever read a book or article that articulates something you have known for years but thought it sounded too simplistic so you never shared it?

 

  • Have you ever ignored what your gut was telling you because some “expert” recommended you move in another direction?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then chances are that you are selling yourself and your organization short, and you might want to consider getting out of your own way.

I am not suggesting you should adopt a self-congratulatory style or take on undue risk. I am suggesting you strive for what Jim Collins refers to as Level Five Leadership — personal humility coupled with professional will. Many leaders have one or the other. If you are heavy on the humility side (in many ways an admirable trait), that may at times keep you from shining a light on your organization’s unique capabilities and expertise. In other cases, there may be a tendency to think that others know what you know (not true) or assume that because something seems basic/logical/self-evident to you that others recognize it as well (also not true). If any of these things have a ring of truth to you, maybe it’s time to get out of your own way.

How? Start small. Share what you are thinking. It doesn’t have to be complex or perfect or groundbreaking (although it might be). Don’t try to be all things to all people. Get clear on your vision and then go all in — as only you can. Don’t let the fear of standing out, or being criticized hold you back. Sometimes one of the biggest barriers to our organization reaching its full potential is closer than we realize.

Get out of the way.

Listen up!

bigstock--Listen upIt seems that listening is becoming a bit of a lost art, to everyone’s detriment. Without the ability to listen, we doom ourselves to never moving beyond the limits of our current thinking — and such thinking is limiting, regardless of how we might like to convince ourselves otherwise.

Listening is different than hearing. According to Merriam Webster, hearing is “the process, function, or power of perceiving sound.” This definition made me think of Charlie Brown’s teacher . . . waa wa waa wa wa. Yes, in today’s 24/7 environment, there is more sound out there to perceive than ever before. But are we listening, or do we simply see people’s mouths moving and filter what they are saying as good or bad . . . as supporting our position or challenging it?

Webster defines listening as “to pay attention to sound, to hear something with thoughtful attention, give consideration.” Giving consideration is a very different thing from perceiving sound. Which do you do most often?

Giving consideration isn’t about being “wishy washy,” or politically correct, or not having a strength of your convictions. To the contrary, the willingness to listen — really listen — requires a great deal of confidence. Are you confident enough to give thoughtful attention to a different perspective, and perhaps adjust your thinking a bit as a result? Are you confident enough to strive for the “best” in a situation rather than being “right”? (Best is about others, right is about you). Best comes from considering multiple perspectives . . . from listening . . . before you make a decision.

Leaders who don’t listen — who filter out input from anyone who doesn’t see the world as they do — often end up on an island of their own making, cut off from a large expanse of perspectives, insight, and potential. Islands can be cozy places, but they limit how far you can go. As a leader, if you find yourself on such an island (which happens more easily than you might think), what can you do? Listen.

Listening builds bridges. If all you are hearing is people who agree with you, then you need to ask for diverse perspectives. Seek to understand. Listening is not about waiting your turn to tell someone why he or she is wrong. It is about giving consideration, walking a mile in their shoes. Ultimately, you may not agree with the person or perspective, but by listening you start to build a bridge off that island. You expand your possibilities for future success. You lead.

Maybe it’s time to listen up.

Getting to the Other Side

Wooden footpath stairway in mystical deciduous forest disappeari

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The longer I have been on this leadership journey, the more profound this Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. quote becomes, largely because I have seen so many well-intentioned people just stop and hang out in the muck and confusion of the “complexity” rather than continue to push through to the simplicity on the other side. Maybe for some people, it is easier to remain mired down in the intricate details because that provides the cover for continued information gathering and considering of options rather than committing to a decision that might be the wrong one. For most leaders, however, I think they just don’t realize that simplicity is an option. It is.

Make no mistake, “getting to the other side” is not an easy task. You can’t just go there first. The simplicity on the other side is not the novice’s basic understanding, which is found on “this side” of complexity. It is recognizing the layers and complicated variables of the situation — most clearly understood by walking through the midst of it — and then distilling the multiple scenarios, contingencies, and possibilities down into a path to the other side. And there is a path, but it will only become obvious when you are intentional about looking for it.

Following are a few pointers for the journey:

  • It will feel like a “hot mess” when you are in the midst of it. This is where a bit of experience helps. Once you have made the journey a time or two, it is easier to trust the process (okay, maybe not easier, but I have learned to repeatedly remind myself . . . trust the process!). I have yet to get to the other side without first feeling like I would never get there. This is usually because I try to shortcut the journey and find the path forward without walking all the way through the complexity. Keep forging ahead.

 

  • Get all the layers and variables down — in writing — before you try to consolidate your thinking. There is something about getting everything in print, with input from multiple sources, that allows you to see patterns that elude you when simply talking or rolling things around in your mind. Don’t try to categorize as you go, just get it all down. Trying to fit everything into a box too soon can result in missing points of connection.

 

  • You can’t rush the process, and you need a deadline. Yes, I know this seems contradictory. In my experience, the deadline is necessary to push you through the process, but you also have to let things “percolate” for a while. Sleep on it. Leave it alone for a bit. Then come back to the information and trust that a path will emerge.

What needs simplifying in your organization? The journey may not be easy, but it is absolutely worth the effort. See you on the other side.

Explore!

Traveler Exploring Map With Compass In Sunny Forest In The MountPerhaps one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is to think they have the answers . . . that they are experts . . . because then they quit trying to figure out what they don’t know. That is when leaders get blindsided by the “unknown unknowns”  — unexpected developments that never occurred to the leader, and that can totally change an organization’s reality. Basically, to quote a wise colleague, “Once you think you’re an expert, you’re sunk.”

If you are in a position of leadership, there will be plenty of people who will treat you as if you are an expert. They will ask your opinion, turn to you for solutions, and move forward based on what you tell them. In a situation like this, it is easy to start believing that your job is to provide the answers. It’s not. Your job is to ask the right questions . . . to be an explorer, not an expert.

Explorers seek out the unknown, forge new paths, find new connections, and ask “what if” and “why not.” Experts were convinced the world was flat and so quit looking for other possibilities.

Explorers can certainly have expertise — they just recognize that it is something they have, not someone they are. Explorers use what they know as stepping-stones. Their experience is a gateway to new discoveries, not a box to live in. When you are an expert, new information can challenge your credibility. When you are an explorer, new information is simply another piece of the puzzle.

If the expert chair suddenly feels a bit confining, how does one become an explorer? For starters, get out of the chair and try the following:

  • Identify your organization’s assumptions and reframe them as one possible reality — then look for others.
  • Ask staff throughout the organization what you should be thinking about.
  • Talk to a range of people outside your industry, listen to what they are thinking about, and consider how those ideas translate to your organization.
  • Think bigger than is reasonable. (i.e., ask someone to name something that is not possible, but would be really cool if it was — that kind of bigger).
  • Ask open-ended questions with no pre-conceived notions of the answer.
  • Don’t answer/respond/qualify. Just listen, reflect, inquire, and listen some more.
  • Repeat.

Finally, remember, exploration is a continuous journey. It is not a destination, which once attained provides a comfortable perch from which to dispense expert wisdom. It has ever-changing terrain and new vistas around each bend. It’s about discovery and insight, and yes sometimes stumbling or veering a bit off course. And it’s the only way to get from what we know today to what is possible tomorrow.

The world has plenty of experts. Be an explorer.

Back to School

Back to school background with books pencils and apple over chalkboard

We are officially in “back to school” season, where young people are returning to the classroom to, hopefully, expand their horizons. What about you as a leader? Is there a season to your learning? Do you actively seek out new information, or do you know all that you need to know to lead effectively? Even if you think learning is important, where does it fall on your priority list . . . really?

One of my takeaways from Andy Stanley when he spoke at the recent Global Leadership Summit 2017 was to be a student, not a critic. He spelled it out quite simply. “The moment you start criticizing, you stop learning. When you stop learning, you quit leading. When you quit leading, all the other leaders under you will go somewhere else.”

Pretty compelling case for being a student.

The question then becomes how best to do that. Stephen Covey highlighted how in #5 of the 7 Habits — Seek first to understand. Be curious. Ask questions . . . not to grill people who have a different perspective, or to prove them wrong. Ask with a sincere desire to understand. In fact, better than simply asking “Why?” (which at times can come off sounding like a dare or some kind of test), what if you instead stated, “Help me understand why you think that.” That change in phrasing shifts the onus from them proving that they are right, to you making the effort to grasp their perspective. It moves the conversation from one of defense to one of offense.

It makes you a student, not a critic.

And ultimately, students win. They win the best ideas, the best people, and the best long-term results. As Andy Stanley pointed out, “closed minds close minds.” If you as the leader are not open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, your people won’t be either. And even if you have the perfect solution for today’s challenges, guess what? The challenges of tomorrow are going to be different and will require different solutions.

Interestingly, the more successful we are, the harder it becomes to remain a student. Everyone is patting you on the back for all you have accomplished, you see the good that has resulted from your efforts, and it becomes pretty easy to feel like you have graduated. You’ve got the “straight A’s” to prove that you know what you’re talking about. Yep, sure enough, you aced yesterday’s test. Just don’t forget . . . there will be another, different, test tomorrow.

Maybe it’s time to head back to school.

Drink Up!

Water splash poured into a glass, blue background, refreshing, fLast week, I had the opportunity to spend two days absorbing nuggets of leadership wisdom from top experts at the Global Leadership Summit. Simulcast to hundreds of sites throughout the world, this annual showcase of leadership thought leaders provided a fire hose of insight and encouragement for the leaders in attendance. One fellow attendee, who follows this blog, commented that she couldn’t wait to see what I wrote about this week. Clearly, there was much rich content to chose from, but my biggest take away was not what any one speaker said, but what I felt during the event.

I felt thirsty. Well, actually, I didn’t realize I was thirsty until I started to drink in the suggestions, support and insight offered by those who took the stage. It’s not that I, and probably many of you, don’t have a full awareness of the need to drink in new knowledge and refresh one’s thinking. It’s just that we are so busy with the day-to-day tasks of leadership — of supporting others, striving toward important goals, and positioning our organizations to respond to the challenges before us — that it is easy for leaders to unwittingly go extended periods without replenishing themselves, and building up their reserves.

So how do leaders make sure that they stay “well hydrated” in terms of their own growth and development?

First and foremost, they need to give themselves permission. This sounds simple, but many leaders are wired to meet the needs of others first — taking a “leaders eat last” perspective — and it feels less urgent and/or selfish to prioritize time for growth and reflection for themselves. It’s not. There’s a reason that airlines advise parents to put on their oxygen masks first

Secondly, it needs to be a regularly scheduled — and guarded — time on your calendar. It is one thing to pencil it in, but if you approach your own development as an optional appointment that can be bumped at the first sign of a conflicting demand, it simply won’t happen. You will always be too busy.

Also, it is important to shake things up from time to time. I do a lot of reading and reflection on leadership topics. It is less common for me to listen to podcasts or attend seminars. Perhaps that is why the summit was so impactful for me last week — it was like using a different muscle, and so the information stuck with me in a different way.

Finally, I think the answers we are searching for as leaders shift along with our circumstances. As Heraclitus noted, you never step in the same river twice. The opportunities and challenges before us change from day to day, and so we become thirsty in new and different ways. Thankfully, there are lots of ways that we as leaders can stay hydrated. We just have to recognize the importance of staying hydrated . . . and then drink up.