Don’t overlook the power of authentic conversations

I was participating in a meeting of the senior leadership team of a leading technology company. The leaders were discussing important strategic and operational topics that are critical to the future of their business.

At some point, I looked around the table and at least 50% of the leaders were looking down at their smartphones, probably responding to emails or something like that. In fact, throughout the entire meeting, this was pretty much the case. This is not an isolated dynamic for this team or company. It is pretty much the norm in most or all meetings of most teams and organizations.

From time to time the CEO would stop the flow of the conversation, put his foot down, and ask everyone to get off their phones in order to fully be present in the debate. At times he even expressed frustration with this people’s lack of attention to the conversation. However, nothing seemed to really change. The leaders would lift their heads up for a few moments, they would say something like: “I am listening and fully participating…” which, of course, was complete baloney because no one can be fully present in two important conversations simultaneously, only to go back to emails when the debate went on.

It was exactly the same in another larger meeting in another company with more than forty managers. However, every time one of the participants spoke in an authentic way, with passion from their heart, whether an authentic expression of frustration, fear or enthusiasm, it shifted the mood, spirit, and attentiveness of the entire room instantly. Everyone stopped all side activities, raised their eyes from their devices to the person speaking, and fully listened and were present to what was being said.

In one instant, when the group was discussing how to bring to market a new service, one of the managers who was an introvert yet highly respected stood up and expressed her frustration about the fact that for the longest time she had single-handedly handled this service without the support of her colleagues. In fact, she expressed her experience of “having felt alone for a long time…”. As she was speaking the room turned silent. Everyone was fully attentive in the moment in this rare and powerful conversation. After she completed and sat down others started to stand up and share their authentic feelings too. Her authentic expression gave others the courage to do the same and the meeting became much more authentic and powerful, with fewer distractions and focus on emails.

I have witnessed many similar examples of strong group attention and engagement in meetings and conversations when people showed the courage to share their genuine feelings about things like: “uncertainty about the future”, “fear of failing” and “excitement about a new direction”.

It is a known fact, that if you want to enroll, engage and/or mobilize people to any cause speaking from your heart in an authentic way makes a bigger difference than lecturing, preaching or scolding. I have learned this as a parent too.

In a corporate environment courage and authenticity are rare, but when they occur they transcend seniority and authority. In other words, even the most junior employee speaking the truth about a challenge or opportunity with courage and authenticity can make a bigger difference than a senior manager who says all the right corporate things. I have seen it many times.

So if you want your meetings to be more effective and powerful, and your people to be more present and engaged give people plenty of opportunities to express themselves, and most important – encourage, promote and recognize courageous, authentic expressions and conversations.


Can your team handle tough conversations?

If you want to know how powerful your team is, just see how team members deal with sensitive and tough topics.

Sensitive and tough topics are any subjects that require the leaders and team members to put their own personal feelings, egos, and agendas aside for the greater good of their company or team.

It could be anything as big as deciding which team to invest in, which team member to promote or re-allocating people and budgets from one leader’s team to another. It could be something as trivial as giving honest feedback to colleagues, your boss or subordinates about poor performance.

When it comes to sensitive and tough conversations the line between big and small topics becomes blurry because people often tend to take even the most insignificant topics personally, which leads to out of proportion reactions and behaviors.

In powerful teams, members never lose sight of the bigger picture. They put their team and company first and they always strive to do the right and the best thing for the collective cause.

In powerful teams, people don’t hold back their punches when it comes to discussing and debating the tough and sensitive topics. Teammates may fully ‘go at it’, push back and disagree with other team members, but they continue to listen to each other, consider each other’s views and they never cross the line of interacting in a disrespectful way.

At the end of the conversation or meeting when the team or their boss makes a decision all team members genuinely align, own and support the verdict, whether in their personal favor or not. When they go back to their respective teams they represent the decision as their own in a united front with their colleagues.

I have seen some great teams that exemplify this behavior. However, I have also seen many teams that don’t. I think it would be safe to say that most teams don’t do a great job in dealing with tough and sensitive topics.

Take for example the senior leadership team of a large technology company. The company experienced serious growing pains after achieving the best performance year in their entire history. As a result of their sudden surge of business, they simply couldn’t keep up with the demand. They were not set up for the next level of service and support.

Instead of coming together to find a solution and make the necessary changes to accommodate the growth the senior leaders blamed each other for the crisis. Finger pointing led to defensiveness and the hostility grew. There was even a traumatic screaming match in one of the leadership team meetings, which resulted in some leaders outright stopping to speak with other team members.

It took the leaders a long time to turn things around, and the process left internal and external scars. Key customers felt frustrated by the fact that the company didn’t deliver its obligations on time, and managers and employees felt frustrated about the petty and immature manner in which their leaders handled the crisis.

In a completely different example, the senior leadership team of the HR function of a large global company was having an honest discussion about the state of morale of their wider team, including how to motivate their staff after several rounds of company layoffs. The leaders invited a few next level managers to the meeting in order to describe the state of affairs, especially to their boss who they felt wasn’t as connected to the reality of her organization.

The managers were blunt. They painted a dire picture of HR managers and employees who felt uncared for, demoralized and disconnected from headquarter and the senior team.

The leader thanked the managers for their honest feedback, but when they left the room she turned to her leaders and scolded them for allowing their managers to feel and express such negative feelings and views. It was apparent to all that the head of HR took everything the managers said personally. Needless to say, the level of fear increased exponentially from that day on, and the ability of this senior team to discuss and address the real tough and sensitive issues decreased.

Let’s be honest, addressing the tough and sensitive issues in a productive, constructive and respectful manner (no matter what), takes leadership maturity and courage.

Unfortunately, too often there isn’t enough of these qualities even in the most senior teams.

 

Why are people so afraid of bluntness?

What is wrong with being blunt?

Most people generally tend to avoid being too blunt. However, in many organizations bluntness is non existent and in most organizations Ambiguity and Vagueness are an epidemic.

I couldn’t count the number of times I have been in a meeting about an important topic and someone rambled on and on without getting to the point, or someone expressed their opinion and still no one understood what it is, or someone said they had the solution only to continue to highlight the problems, which everyone already understood to begin with.

People tend to talk a lot without saying much!

I see this behavior at every level of the organization, from the most senior executives to the lowest level employees. In fact, sometimes it seems that the higher you go in the corporate ladder more politically correct and vague the communications.

People seem to associate bluntness with negative qualities such as disrespect, carelessness and offensive and hurtful behaviors. I understand why people have these perceptions.

Most people tend to be blunter when they are upset, frustrated, resentful or fed up with something or someone. In these emotional moments, people tend to express themselves in a more compulsive, abrasive and less thoughtful way. We also tend to regret things we say or the way we say things more often when we are upset.

However, when you check the word blunt in the Thesaurus it gives you:
frank, honest, straight, candid, no-nonsense, forthright and straight-talking.

What is wrong with these synonyms? If we all had more of these qualities we would probably be much more effective; we would probably move things faster and waste less time on BS.

Bluntness is relative. Some cultures like Belgium and Australia for example, pride themselves with their bluntness. What is considered blunt in Asia is considered cautious and/or politically correct in the UK or the USA.

Also, even though generally speaking most corporate cultures don’t encourage or tolerate bluntness, different corporate cultures have different levels of tolerance.

I have seen teams that can address even the most sensitive challenges like peer reviews, budget and resource allocation and promotion decisions in the most open, honest, direct and blunt manner without anyone leaving the conversation feeling offended, upset or diminished. In contrast, I have seen more examples of manager and/or employee who mustered the courage to be blunt only to get criticized, sidelined and even fired for inappropriate behavior or not being team players.

The level of bluntness in a team depends on its leader; his or her personal courage and comfort level with frank, honest, straight, candid no-nonsense communication, as well as their ability to instil a safe and productive environment in which risk-averse, honest, straight, candid, no-nonsense communication is accepted and adopted by all.

Some leaders don’t have the courage to create a blunt environment because they are afraid that some of the bluntness may be pointed at their lack of leadership resolve, authenticity, transparency and/or effectiveness.

If the leader is blunt, but he or she doesn’t create a safe and productive environment around them, people will become afraid and behave in cautious and politically correct ways. Needless to say, team productivity, effectiveness and morale will deteriorate.

Alternatively, when team members want to be frank, honest, straight and candid but their leader is politically correct and risk-averse, there will be a greater likelihood of political, passive-aggressive behaviors and dynamics.

Whatever the culture, in order for frank, honest, straight, candid and no-nonsense communication to be productive and impactful, it has to be based on a genuine foundation of respect and trust.

When people feel that they are not judged by their bluntness, but rather they are viewed and respected based on their commitment, performance and results, they are less likely to experience blunt comments and interactions as a danger or threat.

When people trust that their leader and team members are in it together and they always have each other’s backs, not just when it is easy or things go their way, they will be excited to participate in and contribute to making their team environment more frank, honest, straight, candid and no-nonsense.

So, if you want to create a more frank, honest, straight and candid team environment, don’t shoot down or shut down blunt communications. Rather, create a greater team context of respect, trust and partnership among all team members. The stronger foundation you build the bolder your communications will be.

And, of course…. You will have to be courageous to do this!

Are you staying on top of your communications?

Recently I wanted to get some additional phone and TV services from my cable provider, so I called them up and after being passed along from one agent to another I finally asked to speak with a supervisor. 

After hearing my frustrations and needs the supervisor apologized and promised to take care of all my needs quickly and effectively. There was one item that he couldn’t get for me in our call so he gave me his personal email address and again he pledged to get back to me ASAP with the resolution.

Several days passed and I didn’t hear from him so I emailed him a few times and eventually he responded, again apologizing for the delay and re-promising to get back to me soon. When I asked him “Why didn’t you get back to me?” he respond with “I didn’t have anything to report…”.

How many times have you been in a situation in which someone promised you to get back to you about something important and they didn’t or they took too much time to get back to you…. OR you left someone a message or email to call you back regarding a matter that was important to you, and they simply didn’t call or email or only did so after a very long time?

People don’t seem to get it. Responding to communications, getting back in a timely manner and overall being in communication is not merely about providing information. It is about establishing and strengthening your brand – especially your commitment, care, reliability, credibility and integrity. It is about building trust and partnership with others for whatever you are dealing with now, but also for future interactions and opportunities.

I frequently hear parents tell their kids “Please get off your device!” My wife and I do it too. I have a dear friend who is a very successful real estate broker. When we go out to dinner together he is constantly on his phone dealing with some deal or another. We constantly ask him to get off his phone and be present.

It has never been easier to communicate, yet the degree of lack of communication all around is astonishing.

In his book Fifth Generation Management, Charles M. Savage described this paradox in the following way:

Although people are able to communicate across the hall or around the world at the speed of light with computers networks, human distrust slows real communication to a snail’s pace”

Why are people generally so bad at being in communication?

Here are some likely reasons:

  1. If you are on top of all your communications you may gain a reputation for being an effective, reliable and accountable leader. As a result, people may have higher expectations of you and even ask you to do more things for them.
  2. If you manage all your communications in a timely and impeccable manner you will create clarity around you about what you stand for and what you will and won’t do. This may make some people happy but disappoint others. It takes courage to be straight about who you are and what you can and can’t be counted on.
  3. If you manage your communications clearly and effectively more of your focus and time will be spent in a committed mode – on delivering what you promised to yourself and others. You may feel as if you have less commitment-free time or control over your own personal priorities and schedule.
  4. Being in communication often leads to deeper intimacy and trust with others. As rewarding as this may be, intimacy is not always comfortable.

If you want to hide or stay smaller, you will probably continue to not be effective at staying on top of your communications. However, if you want to be a powerful leader and someone who is known for keeping his or her word as well as getting things done, being in communication will be your natural mode. In fact, you won’t be able to sleep at night when you are not on top of your communications and relationships.

By the way, let me make it clear – I am not talking about being perfect at it. No one is perfect and perfection is not even a worthwhile benchmark (a topic for another blog…)

If you are that person here are a few principles to follow:

  1. In your communications always make clear promises, write them down and circle back on them with the people you committed to, or the people who are expecting your commitments to be delivered.
  2. Promise when you will get back to people and get back to them on time, even if you haven’t finished the task or you don’t have much to report.
  3. If you haven’t been in communication with someone that is important to you for a while, be in communication with them every so often, even just to say hello and see how they are doing. Always keep the channels of communication open and current with people who have been, are now and/or will be important for you personally and professionally.
  4. If you promised to get back to someone on a certain date or you know or suspect they may be expecting that, communicate with them even just to tell them that you haven’t forgotten and you will get back to them by a new specific time.

Be in communication and stay in communication. If you screw up, don’t beat yourself up, just be in communication about the fact that you haven’t been in communication, apologize and promise to do better in the future…. And then live up to that.

                         

What are you out to prove?

Being a leader means adopting a certain point of view about people, circumstances, opportunities and challenges. It means being oriented around perspectives and conversations that promote and generate new possibilities and effective action, rather than cynicism, resignation and excuses. It means always being the champion for “what’s possible” and “how can we make it work” rather than “why we can’t…” and “why it won’t work…”.

Every point of view is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Have you ever noticed that when you have a point of view that something isn’t possible you always gather evidence and proof of your circumstances and environment to support and prove that point of view? And, if you change our mind, even 180 degrees, and adopt a different point of view, you will immediately find new evidence and proof in the exact same environment and circumstances for your new point of view?

If you have a strong point of view that one of your team members is lazy and uncommitted I am sure you would have a lot of data points to prove it; things like: he keeps coming to work late and leaving early, he seems distracted most of the time and his output is not very good compared to his peers. However, if you learn that this person is going through a major personal tragedy in his life – he lost his significant other to cancer and another family member is unwell – that new information may completely change your mind. Suddenly, you have a new sense of empathy and compassion for your team member. In fact, you now reflect on recent events in a completely new light. Perhaps he isn’t lazy at all, he is just temporarily immobilized. Anyone in his shoes would behave the same…

With every thought, comment and conversation we are constantly promoting and proving one point of view or another. Sometimes we do it consciously, but most of the time we are not aware of doing it at all.

If you have a negative or cynical point of view about an area that is important to you, you may have the point of view, something like: “I won’t get what I want…“, “Things don’t work out smoothly and amazingly in life, at least not for me…” and “Some people are lucky, just not me…“. Perhaps without realizing it, you would constantly be promoting and out to prove that point of view. It will be reflected in your thoughts, comments and conversations.

Every time things don’t work out you may say or imply things like “you see, I knew it.” or “you see I told you so.” And, if someone criticizes you, you may come back with “I am not negative, I am just being realistic!”. This is a common rationalization and justification for cynical people. And, every time something great does happen, you may view it as a “one-off” or something to be “cautiously optimistic” about.

However, you can stand for a drastically different point of view, such as: “Life works and I can and will have what I want in my life, with no compromises…”. In this mindset, your life will be oriented around proving that point of view. Every time something great happens to you, it will serve as evidence – “you see, life works for me…”. Every time something doesn’t work and you don’t get what you want you will view it as a “glitch” or a “one-off.” You will try to learn something worthwhile from the mishap to validate and strengthen your point of view.

We often say “I can’t believe what I see“. But, in fact, we don’t believe or disbelieve what we see. We see what we believe or disbelieve. We don’t really see with our eyes, we see with our point of view. That’s why two people can participate in the same “physical” circumstance or situation and experience it drastically differently, often contradicting.

One of my clients (the CEO of a small but ambitious Marketing company) took on a significant change initiative to elevate his company’s brand, client base and market share from sixth to third in his marketplace. After a lot of hard work, his team lost a mega bid after making it to the final shortlist of two companies out of eight. While many of his team members were upset and discouraged by the loss, the CEO felt extremely proud and encouraged by the fact that for the first time his team made it that far in such a lucrative opportunity. For him, the fact that his team made it to the top two, even though they lost at the end, only signified proof that they were in fact on track to achieve their goal.

If you accept the premise that you are constantly out to proving your points of view, and therefore your points of view are always self-fulfilling prophecies, you have a choice about what point of view you will promote in your comments and conversations.

Contrary to what many people may think there are no “right”, “true” or “correct” points of view. There are only “empowering” or “disempowering” ones; points of view that enable more possibilities, ideas and dreams, and ones that shut down possibilities, ideas and dreams, and explain and justify why these can’t and won’t come true.

I recommend building a life that reflects the point of view: “I am going to have it all“.

I can tell you from experience that being out to prove that things work is much more exciting than proving that they don’t.

What point of view are YOU out to prove in your life?  

If you don’t have goodwill, you don’t have anything

When making agreements with others what is more important, having an ironclad contract or an atmosphere of goodwill to live by?

Obviously, the right answer is “both” However, hypothetically, if you could only have one, which would it be?

Any agreement is only as good as people’s intentions to live by it. That is the reason when there is lack of goodwill people say: “This agreement is not worth the paper it is written on.”

People are so smart. They know how to go through the motions and pretend like they are committed to an agreement while doing the minimum to live by it. They always have excuses and blame circumstances and others for their lack of compliance.

Yes, you could always carry out legal or disciplinary measures if people don’t comply with the written letter. In some situations, especially when you don’t care about a positive future relationship with that person, that may be the right way to go.

However, in a team environment where you still have to work, partner and collaborate with that person the next day, that approach won’t be optimal.

Take for example the story of two senior executives who were the heads of the two most important divisions of a global technology company. Their divisions had to collaborate on a daily basis in order for the company to succeed, but they didn’t. The reason being that the two executives didn’t get along. Needless to say, this caused a great deal of conflict, tension, and dysfunctionality in the company, and it hurt business performance and results.

The executives were intelligent senior people. They understood the negative consequence of the status quo both in terms of undermining results, as well as in the toxic atmosphere it created within their team members. However, they couldn’t get over themselves and their personal issues in order to interact with genuine respect.

They brought in a professional mediator who worked with them for more than a month to write up a contract outlining how they and their respective organizations would behave and treat each other. The mediator pulled teeth to do this, but through sheer determination was able to produce a coherent contract, which both executives signed.

Do you think this ended the issues?

Of course not. The back-stabbing innuendos, lack of sharing information, subtle competition and trashing each other with customers and other undermining behaviors continued. In fact, they were even fiercer.

In contrast, take another two executives in a different company – one was the head of enterprise customers and the other of small business customers. Given the nature of their customers, they had disputes on a regular basis about which customer belonged to each of them and which deal should be counted against each of their sales quotas. But, they never made it or took it personally. They always worked it out. Sometimes one of them won and another time the other did. They kept it as amicable and fair that they could without having anything written between them. They also went out of their way to help and recognize each other. It was 100% goodwill.

When goodwill is 100% authentic it doesn’t matter how detailed or ironclad the contract is. But if you don’t have goodwill at some level it doesn’t matter how clear and detailed the contract is.

So, in conclusion, it is better to have 100% goodwill and 60% ironclad contract, than 100% ironclad contract and 60% goodwill.

 

Success through Rigor, Clarity and Responsibility

I received a few reactions to last week’s blog about not expecting what you haven’t been explicitly promised. Explicitly being the key word here. One of the comments said: “How do you deal with situations where someone promises you something, you expect it and it doesn’t happen?

The dynamic of people requesting and promising is often not as clear-cut and straightforward as people think, expect and describe it to be. In fact, it is rife with pitfalls, misunderstandings, and upsets. I have learned from experience that when disappointed people describe breakdowns as: “They promised and didn’t deliver!” there is almost always more to the story than that.

I want to share a few basic tips that may help you navigate this area more effectively:

1. Be committed to rigor and clarity. It will prevent misunderstanding:

I have seen so many times, in situations of conflict or dispute, person A insisting that person B promised to do or deliver something and simply not doing so, while person B denies that they ever made the promise in the first place.

Both sides feel resentful. Each side believes their version of the story represents the facts and truth. However, in many cases when both parties stepped back, looked under the hood and tried to view the situation objectively they realized that not bad faith or bad intent caused their heartache, but rather the lack of rigor and clarity in their initial interaction.

When requesting or promising there are three potential places where things could go wrong:

  1. What you are asking or what you are promising is not clear enough and not understood and agreed to in the same way by both sides. Often, instead of spelling it out people assume the other person knows exactly what they are asking or promising. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen that approach leading to misunderstanding and disappointment.
  1. The time frame of the promise is not clear. For example, a manager asks for a promotion, more resources or more budget for a strategic project, and his or her superior commends the effort and promises to make it happen “Sometime in the near future”. The manager leaves the exchange feeling excited and confident they will get what they have requested in the next thirty to sixty days and when it happens after six months he or she feel resentful that the promise was not met. Again, I have seen these types of misunderstandings many times.
  1. The level of sincerity and intent of the promise is not explicit. When you make a request and someone responses with “I’ll do my best” or “I don’t see any reason why not” don’t make the mistake of taking that as a promise. A promise is clear, explicit and unconditional. This doesn’t mean that a promise is a guarantee and therefore will always be fulfilled. However, when someone says: “I promise,” “You can count on me” or “You have my word” that represents a much stronger, sincerer and more committed intention to do what they said. People often avoid this level of clarity because it is uncomfortable and they fear it could lead to the realization that they may not get what they want.

2, Check-in, follow up and support the promise while it is being delivered:

When someone promises you something and they are in the process of working on it, your job is not over. You want to stay engaged and involved throughout the duration of the delivery cycle as a committed and vested partner in order to keep the promise alive. This interaction will look different depending on the nature of the promise and person you are dealing with. Sometimes it may mean checking in on a frequent basis. At other times, it may mean looking the person in the eye at the onset to get a sense of confidence that they really mean it, got it and will follow through.

Again, people avoid this type of interaction because it is disruptive and uncomfortable. They fear it could lead to the realization that they may not get what they want.

3. Manage undelivered promises with integrity:

No matter how sincere the promise, it is never a guarantee. Things happen and people who promise sometimes fail to deliver or change their mind. If you understand and accept that simple fact, you will be in a much better place to deal with promises.

The good news is that for the most part, people know ahead of the deadline when they are not going to deliver what they had promised. But unfortunately, people seem to have no problem not doing what they said, they typically just have a problem being upfront about it ahead of time.

The deficit in courage to acknowledge and take responsibility for promises that are not going to be delivered often goes both ways – to the one promising and the one being promised to.

Have you ever been in a situation in which someone promised you something, you had a feeling they may not come through, and still you avoided confronting them about it?

Regardless of position and role; whether you are the boss, a peer or a subordinate – if you are not going to deliver on your promise, letting others find out at the last minute and be surprised is not acceptable. It undermines trust, credibility, team confidence, team strength, and success.

If you can’t deliver what you promised, communicate in a timely and responsible manner. Then the two of you – together – can figure out alternative solutions and routes to rectify the situation or take a different course.

People want to fulfill their commitments and succeed, but they also can handle the truth, even if it is unpleasant. By interacting with rigor, clarity, courage, and responsibility you are giving respect, enabling success and fostering personal growth.

Stop expecting what you haven’t been promised

Having hopes, dreams, and expectations is a good thing, for the most part. However, sometimes having expectations can be a source of disappointment and frustration.

We have expectations in most areas of our life. At work, we expect our boss and colleagues to treat us a certain way. And we expect that things that are not working well in the work environment will get addressed and fixed in a timely manner.  In our personal relationships, we expect our partners to treat us lovingly, and with respect and generosity.

In fact, if you self-reflect I am sure you’ll see that most of the time in most key areas you have clear images and standards about how things should be and what they should look like.

Sometimes we explicitly express our expectations to others. However, more often than not we either describe them in diplomatic ways or drop hints or simply not say them at all.

When our expectations aren’t met, we tend to get upset, disappointed, frustrated. resentful, and angry. We also tend to complain and criticize those who didn’t do what we expected.

If we are honest with ourselves, we may realize that in many cases – perhaps in most cases – our disappointments are not based on the fact that someone explicitly promised something to us and didn’t deliver, but rather on our own personal expectations, standards, hopes and wants.

We often complain about things that we have no legitimate claim over because no one promised us those things. If someone did promise something to us and they didn’t live up to their promise and deliver, we would have the right to complain, but absent that premise, regardless of how strongly we feel that “they should have done it”, our expectations remain just that…

I was coaching two senior executives in a successful technology company. They were the heads of the two biggest sales divisions in the company. These two sales divisions had to collaborate on daily bases in order to pursue, close and execute deals. However, they also needed to abide by clear role definitions, in order to avoid stepping on each other’s toes in the marketplace. Striking that balance often proved challenging. The two executives had very different management styles and temperaments, which often caused them to clash when they had to deal with the inevitable challenges, disputes, and disagreements between the two divisions. Needless to say, their level of personal trust and communication wasn’t high.

They had many complaints about each other, which they often voiced even with their subordinates – about lack of honesty, courtesy, respect, transparency, and collaboration.

One of the executives kept complaining about the fact that his colleague was not including him in new opportunities and leads in a transparent way. But, the other insisted he was doing his best to do so. When I asked if they have created clear and explicit expectations about how to work together, and if they had made specific promises to each other on what they could be counted on for, the frustrated executive said “No” and added

“This is basic stuff. My colleague should know how to communicate and how to include me”

– as if there is some universal truth about how to work together effectively.

Once the executives learned to make specific requests for what they needed from each other, rather than merely expect the other to behave according to their standards, things started to work much smoother.

The good news is that there are effective and empowering ways to turn unfulfilled expectations and illegitimate complaints to effective and accountable actions and results. Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Every time you are frustrated, disappointed or upset about unfulfilled expectations in any area, ask yourself:
  • “Are these my expectations OR did someone actually promise these to me?”
  • If someone actually promised you something, don’t complain. Instead, hold them to account. You have the right and responsibility to do so.
  • If you want an expectation to be fulfilled in a certain area, look for someone who can promise what you want and explicitly request it.

It can be very energizing to have dreams, hopes, and desires as long as you don’t get trapped in the vicious cycle of unfulfilled expectations. You can start by simply abiding by the simple commonsense rule:

Stop complaining, being disappointed or upset about unfulfilled expectations that nobody explicitly promised you.

Don’t ask if you don’t want to hear the truth

I was attending a senior leadership team meeting of one of the key functions of a large global technology company. The function’s leader, in his attempt to improve the team’s alignment with, and in support of the business, leader undertook a significant organization structure change, in which he created new departments and made changes to existing ones.

The leaders were discussing the reorganization that had been announced and purpose of the conversation was to review the list of team members who were going to move from one team to another as part of the change. Needless to say, for many of the leaders, this was not an easy or comfortable conversation. Those who were losing team members felt somewhat upset and those receiving people felt somewhat guilty.

The function head was eager to drive the transition as fast as possible, but in his haste, he left some of his leaders behind. By that I mean, that quite a few of his leaders didn’t fully understand and buy into his change. The leaders who were not on board still moved forward with his plan but they dragged their feet in every decision and as a result, deadlines were not met and overall things moved slower than the function head had wanted.

The function head was frustrated and so were his leaders. In the meeting, he reiterated his plan and then he asked his leaders: “Do you get it and does all this make sense?” It was clear that what he really meant was: “What do I need to do to get you on board to start owning and driving the change?!

The question was a legitimate one, but even though the function head kept his cool everyone could sense the frustration behind his words.

There was an awkward silence at first, which was broken by one of the leaders who usually spoke up first reinforcing to the function head in a politically correct way, that everyone was on board. The meeting went on with the agenda.

It was painfully obvious to me – and I believe to everyone else in the meeting – that not everyone got it, not everyone agreed and not everyone felt it made sense. But, people didn’t say a word.

My question to you is:

When is the last time you heard a team member respond to the question from his or her boss “Do you get it and does it make sense?” with:

“No I don’t get it and no it doesn’t make sense. In fact, it is a bad and unnecessary idea!”

I have seen team members feel and think this way, but rarely to never have I seen them say it out loud.

Why?

Because justified or not, they fear retribution. Telling your boss that he/she is wrong; that they don’t get it and that their idea is dumb or unnecessary, is not something most people do at any level of any organization.

In most teams, there isn’t a safe enough space to have these types of authentic and courageous conversations. So, when the boss asks a bold and direct question, even if he or she means well, they will most likely always get the politically correct, diplomatic and cautious answer. People will say the right things, but they will most likely continue to find ways to pretend like they are on board while continuing to drag their feet and pay lip service to the change.

Unfortunately, I see too many leaders and managers who don’t seem to get this. As a result, they ask the same types of naïve blunt questions, they get the same politically correct answers and they leave these interactions feeling good about the outcome, even though in reality nothing really changed.

So, if you want something else to occur, either address the unsafe space and change it, or simply don’t ask if you don’t want to hear the truth.

Are you having or avoiding the courageous conversations?

The senior leaders of a large and successful technology company I was working with wanted to improve their overall effectiveness as a team, including their communications and meeting productiveness.

The leaders acknowledged that their conversations and meetings were not effective and that included:

  1. The short-term fire-fighting always took over meeting’s agendas and the team never got to discuss the more strategic topics of opportunity and change
  2. When the leaders did get to the discussions the same few team members always dominated the conversation and other team members felt unable to contribute
  3. The team debated issues endlessly without reaching conclusions, alignment and decisions
  4. Important decisions that affected everyone were made behind the scenes with the same few inner circle team members, and
  5. When the leadership team did make a collective decision (especially change-related) leaders often didn’t comply, follow up and/or reinforce these.

The senior leaders were frustrated with their colleagues in the team. However, for the most part, they all blamed their boss, the CEO, for not making the meetings productive, and not empowering his senior leaders to make the key decisions.

Meanwhile, the CEO was even more frustrated. He expected his leaders to communicate, collaborate and work together behind the scenes between the meetings in order to address and resolve issues, align on strategies and plans, and hold each other to account for decisions that were made in prior meetings. Instead, the senior leaders were escalating all the tough issues to him, expecting him to resolve and make the tough decisions, even on issues the leaders were fully capable of and empowered to solve.

Because the leaders were not having the important and often tough conversations among themselves the leadership team’s meetings were unproductive because most of the time was spent reviewing and reacting to updates and reports, as well as confirming decisions and talking about other mundane topics that could have easily been handled between the leaders elsewhere. Needless to say, the leaders were complaining about these meetings too.

In short – The leaders were simply avoiding having the courageous conversations.

I see this dynamic at all levels of seniority in most (perhaps all) organizations. Leaders want things to change, they want more empowerment, responsibility, involvement and authority, but they are not willing to step up and have the courageous conversations that come with the territory of higher responsibility and empowerment.

Yes, courageous conversations can often be messy, unpredictable and uncomfortable; they could cause tensions, conflicts and even deteriorate trust temporarily or permanently. But the cost of avoiding them – for the leaders – is not being able to provide leadership, make the difference and drive change. And, for the organization, the cost is not functioning on all cylinders.

So, how do you change this?

It starts with leaders owning up to their avoidance of the courageous conversations and perhaps also to their lack of courage. It takes authenticity and courageous to admit that you haven’t had courage. Most leaders won’t do this. Instead, they typically come up with circumstantial excuses and justifications such as “it wasn’t the right time for the conversation,” or “We were too busy to talk today” or “I need to get them in the right mindset”.

Admitting that you have been avoiding the courageous conversation is a courageous conversation in itself, so it is a great start for generating change. Honesty and ownership always bring about fresh beginnings, which afford us the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment. In this case, it is our commitment to being a courageous leader.

That may be enough to get you back on the horse. However, being a courageous leader is a new space for you, you should make a list of some practical actions and practices a courageous leader would carry out and then take on the commitment to start behaving accordingly, even if you have to “fake it till you make it” in the beginning.

The great thing about being a courageous leader is that it is completely within our reach; we have the entire wherewithal to step up to this standard. It is simply a matter of making the choice, taking the stand and getting into action consistently.

The four Es of making a difference with others

If you manage people or if you are simply trying to make a difference through coaching, mentoring or supporting someone you care about, I would like to share with you some thoughts about four distinctions you should focus on.  I refer to these as – The Four Es of Making a Difference

ENABLE:

The dictionary defines enable as “To give someone the means to make something possible

So many people get resigned and give up too quickly when they face big challenges. They view their obstacles as bigger than them, so instead of staying the course to overcome their obstacles they quit or simply go through the motion, which is worst.

In fact, too many people fail because they give up, rather than because they give it their all and fail trying. If you want to make a difference, your job is to enable them to achieve the things they want to achieve but they don’t think they can.

As you listen to the person you are coaching, ask yourself the following questions in order to determine your input:

  1. “Do they trust themselves to get the job done – even if they don’t know how or they haven’t been successful in the past?
  2. “Do they trust themselves to overcome whatever challenges and obstacles come their way?”
  3. “Do they believe they are big enough – bigger than their challenges and circumstances, or are their challenges and circumstances bigger than them?”

Make sure your conversation with them leaves them bigger than their circumstances and challenges.

EMBOLDEN:

I didn’t know this word even existed in the English language until I checked the dictionary, which defines embolden as: “To give someone the courage and confidence to do something or behave in a certain way

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather acknowledging and embracing the fear and living up to your commitment anyways. You could say that fear is the pre-requisite for courage. No fear, no courage. Courage is often the most important ingredient in overcoming any challenge or adversity, pursuing any opportunity or achieving any success. Unfortunately, lack of courage is also one of the most frequent reasons for why people don’t have what they want. If you want to make a difference, your job is to empower them to be as courageous as they need to be in order to fulfill their commitments and dreams.

As you listen to the person you are coaching, ask yourself the following questions in order to determine your input:

  1. “Are they being courageous?”
  2. “Are they taking courageous actions?”
  3. “Are they willing to do whatever it takes to have what they want?”
  4. “What are they afraid of?”

Your job is to show the person you are making a difference with that (1) they are able to achieve their commitments, (2) they need the courage to do so and (3) they are completely able to be courageous, act courageously – to bring forth courage.

ENERGIZE:

The dictionary defines energize as “To give vitality and enthusiasm”

Most people react to circumstances. If things go well, they are happy and energized. If things don’t go well they get discouraged and de-motivated. Most people expect the circumstances, including others to give them energy and excitement.

Winston Churchill said:

“Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”

The most powerful people self-generate energy and positive attitude in the face of anything. Self-generating commitment, optimism and hope is real power.

As you listen to the person you are coaching, ask yourself the following questions in order to determine your input:

  1. “Are they self-generating positive energy, inspiration and motivation for themselves and others around them?”
  2. “Are they indulging in self-pity or victim mentality?”
  3. “Are they present to the cost of self-pity and victim mentality, and do they want to change that?”
  4. “Do they feel able to generate optimism, hope and commitment, even in the face of challenging circumstances?”

Your job is to inspire the person you are making a difference with to self-generate a different outlook of optimism and hope, as well as energy, passion and enthusiasm – unconditionally.

The best way to do that is to infect the person you are making a difference with, through your own energy, passion and optimism, in your interactions with them. Don’t merely speak about it, demonstrate it in your own behavior.

EMPOWER :

The dictionary defines empower as “To give someone the authority or power to do something”

Personal power is measured by how quickly someone can transform their vision into reality or achieve what they want. There is a science and art to creating a vision and strategy, as well as executing and achieving it. Most people fail in the science part – they lack the patience and rigor to articulate their vision, to create a robust plan or to do what they said effectively in order to execute and achieve it.

As you listen to the person you are coaching, ask yourself the following questions in order to determine your input:=

  1. “Are they clear enough on their vision and what they want?”
  2. “Do they have a robust enough plan and strategy to fulfill their vision?”
  3. “Are they taking sufficient action to turn their vision, possibilities and commitments into results and reality?”
  4. “Are they doing what is needed and what it takes?”

Your job is to empower the person you are making a difference with to do what it takes to create and achieve their vision and commitment.

Obviously, all the Es are interlinked and it is often hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. However, if you keep the four Es in front of you as you are communicating with, and trying to make a difference with someone you care about I am sure the conversation itself will present many opportunities to bring these distinctions to life.

It’s always the time for straight talk!

I was coaching two senior executives in improving their trust, collaboration and communication. They were the heads of two businesses that had to work closely together. In fact, the success of the entire company depended on it.

They were both seasoned, effective and knowledgeable executives who commanded large organizations and achieved great results. Both were highly respected within their respective teams as well as among their peers.

However, they had very different personalities and styles, and they had an acrimonious relationship for a long time.

Even though their team members had to work closely together, the two executives went out of their way to minimize their interactions and limit them to mission-critical activities. Many times they dealt with issues, conflicts and opportunities via email rather than walking down the hall to each other’s office to talk.

While the business continued to push forward, the two executives continued to avoid dealing with their personal conflicts, lack of trust and overall contentious relationship, even though it negatively affected the people under them, as well as the overall effectiveness of their company.

When I talked with each of them alone, they always had blunt criticism and negative comments about each other, as well as an ear-full of stories and examples to justify and back-up their sentiments. But, when the three of us got into a room together, their accusations always seemed watered down and they were no longer communicating in a straightforward, bold and honest way.

In addition, every time one of them criticized the other in front of me, I would ask them, “Have you told your colleague how you feel and what you want/need?” and if the answer was “No!” (as it often was) I coached them to go do so.

On several occasions when one of them would report: “We had a blunt conversation and I told my partner exactly how I feel and what I want,” the other would contradict the story and say: “We talked, but we didn’t discuss anything new.” It was as if they were living on different planets… definitely living in different conversations.

When I have challenged leaders for not communicating directly, openly or authentically sometime they would fess up and acknowledge: “I know! I chickened out at the last minute…” But, many times they attribute their lack of following through to the circumstances: “We didn’t get to it…”, “We didn’t have time…”, “It wasn’t the appropriate time…”.

I see this type of dynamic happening in organizations all the time. People can engage in straight talk with me, but then when they talk to the person with whom they have a problem or need to have the blunt and direct conversation, they sell out and water the communication down.

Does that ever happen to you?  Why does this happen?

From my experience, this happens due to one of the following reasons:

  • People are not clear about what they want to say. When people ‘beat around the bush’, stumble on words, or when they are ‘lost for words’ it is often simply because they don’t know what they want to say. Many times, people enter conversations feeling confident about what they want to say, but then during the conversation, they become overwhelmed or simply realize their thoughts are still half-baked and unclear. Some can power through it and use the chaotic space of the conversation to form their thoughts. However, many don’t feel comfortable doing this.Many times people are unclear about what they want to say because they haven’t taken a stand. It’s not that they are confused. It’s that they haven’t made a choice about where they stand. The minute you become clear about what you believe and want, you always find an appropriate and effective way to say it.
  • People are not willing to own what they have to say. Sometimes, expressing what you feel and/or what you want could be uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Perhaps, you don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings or you are afraid that if you say something tough they may retaliate with something that will hurt your feelings too. Perhaps you feel guilty for having such strong criticism or emotions about another, or you are simply trying to avoid conflict. When people are not willing to own how they feel, their feedback or what they need, they tend to not speak up or water down their communications.
  • People lack the courage to express what they want to say. At some basic level, communication always boils down to personal courage. First, having the courage to be honest with yourself about what you feel and want. Then, having the courage to express what you feel and want to others without filters. Also, having the courage to be open and vulnerable, including listening openly with your ears and heart to what someone else is saying and receiving their feedback.

So, next time you find yourself stuck or lost in a conversation ask yourself: “Am I really clear about what I am trying to say?” or “Am I avoiding owning what I have to say?” This will help you move forward.