Leading with Trust

Dysfunctionally Connected Workplaces – 3 Ways to Build Trust and Human Connection

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Never in history have we been so technologically connected to each other in the workplace. Email, instant message, text message, and social media have enabled us to be in constant and immediate communication with each other. Yet record numbers of people are disengaged on the job and distrust their organizations, senior leaders, and coworkers.

We are dysfunctionally connected.

Based on research from the Pew Research Center and The Ken Blanchard Companies, 81% of employees say their leaders don’t listen well and 82% feel they don’t receive helpful feedback. Only 34% say they meet with their boss weekly and 28% never or rarely discuss future goals and tasks even though 70% wish they did. If that wasn’t depressing enough, consider that 64% of employees say they want to talk to their boss about problems they’re having with colleagues but only 8% say they actually do.

We are dysfunctionally connected.

“The typical workplace is at risk of becoming dysfunctionally connected,” says Ken Blanchard, author of more than 55 business books and world-renowned leadership expert. “People crave a deeper human connection at work. They need to feel a more personal and authentic connection with their managers and their peers that goes beyond what technology can provide.”

Creating trust and human connection starts with conversation. We have to detach from technology and actually speak to each other…you know…the old-school way of establishing a relationship. Demonstrating care and concern for others—being connected—is one of the four elements of a trusting relationship. It’s a critical requirement for any successful relationship in the workplace. Here’s three ways to build trust and true relational connection:

1. Have a people focus – People are more important than things. Don’t get so wrapped up in the busyness of your job that you neglect to build authentic relationships with others. Take interest in the lives of your colleagues and appreciate the diversity that everyone brings to the organization. Ask people what they did over the weekend, how their kids are doing, or what hobbies they enjoy. And here’s a novel idea – instead of sending a colleague an IM, get out of your chair, walk down the hall, and actually have a discussion!

2. Improve your communication – I love the line from the movie Cool Hand Luke when the prison warden says to Paul Newman’s character, Luke, “What we’ve got here, is failure to communicate.” That could be the motto for today’s workplace. You can build trust and connection by sharing information about yourself, and if you’re a leader, about the organization. Examine the frequency and ways in which you communicate and make adjustments if needed, particularly when it comes to giving and receiving feedback. Most importantly, listen. Simply taking the time to listen to people and truly empathizing with their concerns is one of the most powerful trust-building behaviors you can employ.

3. Recognize people’s efforts – Whenever I conduct training workshops I ask participants to raise their hands if they receive too much praise and recognition on the job. No one has ever raised a hand. The truth is that most people are starved for genuine appreciation for the work they do and a simple word of “thanks” or “attaboy” go a long way toward building trust and commitment. Learn how people like to be recognized and rewarded and find ways to catch them doing something right.

The leadership styles and practices of managers are key drivers of trust and engagement in the workplace. Last week, The Ken Blanchard Companies announced the release of The SLII® Experience, a new learning design for its flagship product Situational Leadership® II (SLII®), the world’s most taught leadership model. Learning to flex your leadership style to the needs of your followers, giving them what they need when they need it, will lead to high-trust relationships that foster the kind of connection and engagement that people crave in today’s workplaces.

Three Critical Skills for Managing the Overextended Workforce

DoingMoreWithLess“Doing more with less.” I cringe whenever I hear that phrase because it feels so punitive and unsupportive, and if you’re a leader, I suggest you completely eliminate that phrase from your vocabulary. Whenever you utter those words to your team, your people feel like you don’t understand their circumstances and it erodes trust and confidence in your leadership. They think you just don’t get it.

I’ve found three strategies helpful in dealing with the challenge of doing more with less:

1. Communicate the reality to your team – Share all the information you have about your business, including the good, bad, and ugly. Let people know what’s going on. Information is viewed as power, and if you withhold it from your people, they view you with suspicion and think you’re untrustworthy and power-hungry. People without information cannot act responsibly. People with information are compelled to act in the best interests of your organization.

2. Create a high-involvement strategy – If you’re sharing information with your team, the next step is to solicit their involvement in helping solve your business challenges. Ask for their ideas and gather their input. Who knows better how to solve your pressing business issues than the people who are doing the work on the frontlines? There is an old saying that goes “People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.” Get your people working with you, not against you.

3. Dial up support for your people – Listening is a great first step in letting people know you care. Take time to understand their frustrations and challenges so you can make better informed decisions. Another way to support your people is to jump in the trenches with them and help them get the work done. Why do you think the President always tours disaster areas, picks up a shovel, and helps workers for a period of time? He does that to send the message that we’re all in this together and he’s not too busy to lend a hand. Being visible and present is key to supporting your team. There’s no way your team is going to follow you if you’re missing in action when the bullets are flying.

On Wednesday, May 8th, 9:00-10:30 a.m. PST, I’ll be one of three speakers conducting an online workshop on this topic of “doing more with less” and managing the overextended workforce. Motivation expert Susan Fowler will be speaking on “Motivating Yourself and Your Team During Stressful Times” while leadership speaker Ann Phillips will address “What Leaders Can Do To Recognize and Head-Off Employee Meltdowns.” I’ll share “How to Become the Kind of Leader that Others Trust.” I hope you’ll be able to join us!

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Five Keys to Being a Super Bowl-Caliber Leader

Jim and John HarbaughOne of the intriguing factors in the matchup of today’s Super Bowl XLVII is that the coaches of each team are brothers. John Harbaugh coaches the Baltimore Ravens and his younger brother, Jim, is coach of the San Francisco 49ers. It’s the first time in Super Bowl history that siblings have coached against each other. The chances are slim that a coach will reach the Super Bowl during his career, and it’s even crazier that in this case we have two brothers achieving this career goal simultaneously.

The coaching profession provides many wonderful examples of what it takes to be a successful leader in the workplace. If there was a “leadership” Super Bowl, what would it take for a leader to make it to that game? What characteristics, traits, or behaviors would transform an average leader into a Super Bowl-caliber leader? I thought of five important keys:

1. Integrity – Success starts on the inside by being a leader of integrity. We’ve seen numerous examples of people who have cheated their way to temporary fame, but lasting success comes from living according to a set of honorable values. Integrity displays itself when you make ethical decisions, follow through on commitments, treat people with respect, and are honest and trustworthy in your dealings with people.

2. A commitment to help others achieve their goals – The most successful leaders understand that their personal goals get fulfilled when they help their people achieve their goals. People don’t want to follow self-serving leaders. They want to follow leaders who empower them to achieve their own goals and the goals of the team. As one of my favorite coaches, Bo Schembechler said, it’s all about “the team, the team, the team.”

3. Communicate effectively – You can be an intellectually brilliant leader, but if you can’t communicate effectively with your team, your success will be limited. Great leaders share information about themselves and the organization on a frequent basis. They share information broadly and expect people to handle it responsibly, whereas insecure leaders hoard information in an effort to retain control.

4. Smart and disciplined – Super Bowl-caliber leaders are smart – they’re good at what they do. They constantly work to improve their craft and they take a disciplined, focus approach to applying their knowledge to their work (that’s wisdom – applied knowledge). You can’t reach the Super Bowl being content to rest on your laurels. You have to keep learning, adapting, and striving to be your best.

5. Rally people around a common goal – You’ve probably heard the saying that if you think you’re leading but no one is following, then you’re simply out for a walk. At its core, leading is about getting a group of people to move in a common direction to achieve a goal. It doesn’t really matter what the goal is – winning a football game, providing excellent customer service, or manufacturing cars on an assembly line – leaders have to channel the collective talents and energy of their team members into a common purpose.

Those are my five keys to being a Super Bowl-caliber leader. I’m sure there are many more that could be added to the list. What are your thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment with you suggestions.

Enjoy the game!

Building Trust in Performance Reviews – Four Ways to “Meet Expectations”

Performance ReviewWhen it comes to building trust through performance evaluations, do you “meet expectations?” The beginning of the year finds many leaders busy preparing and conducting annual performance reviews for their employees. I don’t know of many leaders who are overjoyed at the prospect of spending hours compiling data, completing forms, and writing evaluations for their team members. Most leaders I speak to look at performance reviews as a tedious and mandatory chore they’re obligated to complete and they can’t wait to have the review meeting, deliver the feedback quickly and painlessly, and get on with their “real” work.

With that kind of attitude, it’s no wonder why performance reviews are a dreaded event, both from the supervisor’s and employee’s perspective! The reality is that performance reviews are one-of-a-kind opportunities for leaders to build trust and commitment with their followers. Having the right supporting processes and systems in place are helpful, but regardless of your organization’s approach to performance management, you can build trust with your team members by doing these four things:

1. Deliver candid feedback with care – One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a leader is to sugarcoat your feedback to an employee. Your employees deserve honest and sincere feedback about how they’re performing so that they have the opportunity to improve, otherwise you are handicapping them and limiting the capabilities of your organization by accepting sub-par performance. Unfortunately, many employees don’t hear about their poor performance until the situation has become critical and they’re put on a performance improvement plan. A look back through their personnel file reveals a series of performance reviews where they’ve met standards and suddenly they’re surprised with this bad news. There shouldn’t be any surprises in a performance review. Through regular conversations during the year, the employee should have received regular feedback about how they’re performing relative to their goals and competencies of their role. I think most people know if they aren’t performing up to snuff. Your people will trust and respect you more if you’re honest with them about their performance.

2. Listen – Don’t do all the talking during the performance review. Yes, you have to review their performance and deliver feedback, but you should also take the time to ask your employees how they felt about their performance. Ask open-ended questions like: “What did you learn this year?” “What would you do differently?” “What did you feel were your biggest successes?” Soliciting the thoughts and opinions of your employees sends the message that you care about what they think and that you don’t assume you have all the answers. You’ll learn valuable insights about what makes your people tick and you can use that information to help plan their future performance. Lending a listening ear is a great way to build trust.

3. Focus on the future – Wait…aren’t performance reviews about reviewing the past? Yes, they are, but in my opinion the real bang for the buck is using that information to focus on growth and development opportunities for your people. Learning from the past is essential, but it’s only valuable if we apply it to the future. What training or education is needed? What are some new stretch goals that can be established? In what ways can the employee leverage his/her strengths with new opportunities? Demonstrating to your employees that you are committed to their career growth builds trust in your leadership and commitment to the organization. Don’t miss this valuable opportunity by solely focusing on the past!

4. Ask for feedback on your leadership – I’m not suggesting you shift the spotlight from your employees to yourself and hijack their review in order to feed your ego, but I am suggesting you ask them two simple questions: “Am I providing you the right amount of direction and support on your goals/tasks?” and “Is there anything I should do more or less of next year to help you succeed?” One of your primary goals as a leader is to accomplish work through others. Their performance is a reflection of your skill as a leader so it’s only appropriate that you use this time to recalibrate the leadership style(s) you’ve been using. It may come as a surprise, but have you thought that the reason why your people aren’t achieving their goals is because you’re not leading them properly? Make sure that’s not the case and get feedback on how you’re doing. Asking for (and graciously receiving) feedback from others is a trust-boosting behavior.

Performance reviews don’t have to be a painful, tedious, mundane task. If you approach them with the right mindset, they can be prime opportunities to build trust with your followers which in turn will help them, and you, to not only meet expectations but exceed them!

Addressing Poor Performance is a “Moment of Trust” – 5 Steps for Success

Addressing poor performance with an employee presents a leader with a “moment of trust” – an opportunity to either build or erode trust in the relationship. If you handle the situation with competence and care, the level of trust in your relationship can take a leap forward. Fumble the opportunity and you can expect to lose trust and confidence in your leadership.

Now, I’m the first to admit that having a discussion about an employee’s failing performance is probably the last thing I want to do as a leader. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for both parties involved. I mean, come one, no one likes to hear they aren’t doing a good job. But the way in which the feedback and coaching is delivered can make a huge difference. The key is to have a plan and process to follow. The following steps can help you capitalize on the moment of trust and get an employee’s performance back on track.

1. Prepare – Before you have the performance discussion, you need to make sure you’re prepared. Collect the facts or data that support your assessment of the employee’s low performance. Be sure to analyze the problem by asking yourself questions like:

        1. Was the goal clear?
        2. Was the right training, tools, and resources provided?
        3. Did I provide the right leadership style?
        4. Did the employee receiving coaching and feedback along the way?
        5. Was the employee motivated and confident to achieve the goal?
        6. Did the employee have any personal problems that impacted performance?

2. Describe the problem – State the purpose and ground rules of the meeting. It could sound something like “Susan, I’d like to talk to you about the problem you’re having with the defect rate of your widgets. I’ll give you my take on the problem and then I’d like to hear your perspective.”

Be specific in describing the problem, using the data you’ve collected or the behaviors you’ve observed. Illustrate the gap in performance by explaining what the performance or behavior should be and state what you want to happen now. It could sound something like “In the last week your defect rate has been 18% instead of your normal 10% or less. As I look at all the variables of the situation, I realize you’ve had some new people working on the line, and in a few instances, you haven’t had the necessary replacement parts you’ve needed. Obviously we need to get your rate back under 10%.”

3. Explore and acknowledge their viewpoint – This step involves you soliciting the input of the employee to get their perspective on the cause of the performance problem. Despite the information you’ve collected, you may learn something new about what could be causing or contributing to the decline in performance. Depending on the employee’s attitude, you may need to be prepared for defensiveness or excuses about the performance gap. Keep the conversation focused on the issue at hand and solicit the employee’s ideas for solving the problem.

4. Summarize the problem and causes – Identify points of disagreement that may exist, but try to emphasize the areas of agreement between you and the employee. When you’ve summarized the problem and main causes, ask if the two of you have enough agreement to move to problem solving. It could sound something like “Susan, we both agree that we need to get your defect rate to 10% or below and that you’ve had a few obstacles in your way like new people on the line and occasionally missing replacement parts. Where we see things differently is that I believe you don’t always have your paperwork, parts, and tools organized in advance the way you used to. While we don’t see the problem exactly the same, are we close enough to work on a solution?”

5. Problem solve for the solution – Once you’ve completed step four, you can then problem solve for specific solutions to close the performance gap. Depending on the employee’s level of competence and commitment on the goal or task, you may need to use more or less direction or support to help guide the problem solving process. The outcome of the problem solving process should be specific goals, actions, or strategies that you and/or the employee will put in place to address the performance problem. Set a schedule for checking in on the employee’s progress and be sure to thank them and express a desire for the performance to improve.

A moment of trust is a precious occurrence that you don’t want to waste. Using this five step process can help you address an employee’s poor performance with candor and care that will leave the employee knowing that you respect their dignity, value their contributions, and have their best interests at heart. That can’t help but build trust in the relationship.

Four Ways To Build Trust Through Better Listening

It’s easy for leaders to fall into the trap of thinking they need to have the answer to every problem or situation that arises. After all, that’s in a leader’s job description, right? Solve problems, make decisions, have answers…that’s what we do! Why listen to others when you already know everything?

Good leaders know they don’t have all the answers. They spend time listening to the ideas, feedback, and thoughts of their people, and they incorporate that information into the decisions and plans they make. When a person feels listened to, it builds trust, loyalty, and commitment in the relationship. Here are some tips for building trust by improving the way you listen in conversations:

  • Don’t interrupt – It’s rude and disrespectful to the person you’re speaking with and it conveys the attitude, whether you mean it or not, that what you have to say is more important than what he or she is saying.
  • Make sure you understand – Ask clarifying questions and paraphrase to ensure that you understand what the person is trying to communicate. Generous and empathetic listening is a key part of Habit #5 – Seek first to understand, then to be understood – of Covey’s famous Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
  • Learn each person’s story – The successes, failures, joys, and sorrows that we experience in life weave together to form our “story.” Our story influences the way we relate to others, and when a leader takes time to understand the stories of his followers, he has a much better perspective and understanding of their motivations. Chick-fil-a uses an excellent video in their training programs that serves as a powerful reminder of this truth.
  • Stay in the moment – It’s easy to be distracted in conversations. You’re thinking about the next meeting you have to run to, the pressing deadline you’re up against, or even what you need to pick up at the grocery store on the way home from work! Important things all, but they distract you from truly being present and fully invested in the conversation. Take notes and practice active listening to stay engaged.

My grandpa was fond of saying “The Lord gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.” Leaders can take a step forward in building trust with those they lead by speaking less and listening more. You might be surprised at what you learn!

The Great Communicator – Four Ways Ronald Reagan Built Trust

On Tuesday, November 6th, those of us in the United States get to participate in the great American experiment of democratic self-government when we go to the polls to cast our ballot in the presidential election. One of the key roles of the President of the United States, and for any leader in general, is to inspire trust in his or her followers. Few have done it better than Ronald Reagan, the “Great Communicator.”

The first time I was old enough to vote in a presidential election was in 1984 when Reagan defeated Walter Mondale in a landslide, earning 525 of the 538 electoral votes, the highest total in history. Reagan communicated in such a way that allowed most Americans to trust and follow him and to believe in the direction he wanted to take the country. Far from being an exhaustive treatise on the Reagan presidency, here’s four ways that Reagan built trust through his communications. Leaders in any organization at any level can benefit from applying these principles:

He had clear values – Whether you agreed with him or not, Reagan had very clear values that drove his actions. His view on the supremacy of individual freedom and the limited role of government was clearly articulated when he said, “I hope we once again have reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.” Trusted leaders have a keen sense of their own personal values and are not hesitant to communicate them to their people and make decisions in alignment with those values.

He helped people believe in themselves – Reagan’s belief in the capabilities of individual Americans inspired a sense of confidence in people. When he used phrases such as “It’s morning again in America” or “America is back and standing tall,” he communicated a sense of belief in Americans that had been lacking in prior years. Leaders build trust with their people when they express their belief and confidence in them. Don’t ever let an opportunity go by to build someone up.

He had an authentic sense of humor – One of Reagan’s most endearing qualities was his sense of humor. He, along with other successful leaders, knew how to take his work seriously but himself lightly. Reagan frequently took heat for being one of America’s oldest presidents yet he didn’t become bitter about the criticism. He said “Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying.” Leaders will always be successful when they focus on being a first-rate version of themselves rather than a second-rate version of someone else.

He had a clear vision – Reagan frequently talked about America becoming the “shining city on a hill,” a vision of American exceptionalism, a vision of America reaching its full potential in all aspects of its existence and being an example for the world to model. In his farewell address in January 1989, Reagan said. “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still…”

Regan’s vision for America captured the hearts and minds of its citizens and tapped into an innate need that every one of us has; the need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. One of a leader’s primary responsibilities is to clearly articulate the vision of his or her team. Why does your team exist? What is your mission? What are you trying to accomplish? Answer those questions and clearly communicate them to your team and you’ll take a big step toward creating a trusted and loyal followership.

Frankenbossnoun; 1. A mean boss that terrorizes his or her employees; 2. A boss whose behavior closely resembles that of a half-brained monster; 3. A jerk.

With Halloween just three days away, I told my wife that I wanted to write an article about the bad, clueless behaviors that make a leader a “Frankenboss” (see definition above). Sadly enough, it only took us about 3 minutes to brainstorm the following list. If any of these describe your leadership style, you might want to take a look in the mirror and examine the face that’s peering back at you…you might have bolts growing out the sides of your neck.

You might be a Frankenboss if you…

1. Lose your temper – Some leaders think by yelling or cursing at employees they are motivating them. Baloney! Losing your temper only shows a lack of maturity and self-control. There’s no room for yelling and screaming in today’s workplace. Our society has finally awoken to the damaging effects of bullying in our school system so why should it be any different at work? No one should have to go to work and fear getting reamed out by their boss. If you have troubles controlling your temper then do something to fix it.

2. Don’t follow through on your commitments – One of the quickest ways to erode trust with your followers is to not follow through on commitments. As a leader, your people look to you to see what behavior is acceptable, and if you have a habit of not following through on your commitments, it sends an unspoken message to your team that it’s ok for them to not follow through on their commitments either.

3. Don’t pay attention, multi-task, or aren’t “present” in meetings – Some studies say that body language accounts for 50-70% of communication. Multi-tasking on your phone, being preoccupied with other thoughts and priorities, or simply exhibiting an attitude of boredom or impatience in meetings all send the message to your team that you’d rather be any place else than meeting with them. It’s rude and disrespectful to your team to act that way. If you can’t be fully engaged and devote the time and energy needed to meet with your team, then be honest with them and work to arrange your schedule so that you can give them 100% of your focus. They deserve it.

4. Are driven by your Ego – The heart of leadership is about giving, not receiving. Self-serving leaders may be successful in the short-term, but they won’t be able to create a sustainable followership over time. I’m not saying it’s not important for leaders to have a healthy self-esteem because it’s very important. If you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s going to be hard to generate the self-confidence needed to lead assertively, but there is a difference between self-confidence and egoism. Ken Blanchard likes to say that selfless leaders don’t think less of themselves, they just think about themselves less.

5. Avoid conflict – Successful leaders know how to effectively manage conflict in their teams. Conflict in and of itself is not a bad thing, but our culture tends to have a negative view of conflict and neglect the benefits of creativity, better decision-making, and innovation that it can bring. Frankenbosses tend to either completely avoid conflict by sweeping issues under the rug or they go to the extreme by choosing to make a mountain out of every molehill. Good leaders learn how to diagnose the situation at hand and use the appropriate conflict management style.

6. Don’t give feedback – Your people need to know how they’re performing, both good and bad. A hallmark of trusted leaders is their open communication style. They share information about themselves, the organization, and they keep their employees apprised of how they’re performing. Meeting on a quarterly basis to review the employee’s goals and their progress towards attaining those goals is a good performance management practice. It’s not fair to your employees to give them an assignment, never check on how they’re doing, and then blast them with negative feedback when they fail to deliver exactly what you wanted. It’s Leadership 101 – set clear goals, provide the direction and support the person needs, provide coaching and feedback along the way, and then celebrate with them when they achieve the goal.

7. Micromanage – Ugh…even saying the word conjures up stress and anxiety. Micromanaging bosses are like dirty diapers – full of crap and all over your a**. The source of micromanagement comes from several places. The micromanager tends to think their way is the best and only way to do the task, they have control issues, they don’t trust others, and generally are not good at training, delegating, and letting go of work. Then they spend their time re-doing the work of their subordinates until it meets their unrealistic standards and they go around complaining about how overworked and stressed-out they are! Knock it off! A sign of a good leader is what happens in the office when you’re not there. Are people fully competent in the work? Is it meeting quality standards? Are they behaving like good corporate citizens? Micromanagers have to learn to hire the right folks, train them to do the job the right way, monitor their performance, and then get out of their way and let them do their jobs.

8. Throw your team members under the bus – When great bosses experience success, they give the credit to their team. When they encounter failure, they take personal responsibility. Blaming, accusing, or making excuses is a sign of being a weak, insecure leader. Trusted leaders own up to their mistakes, don’t blame others, and work to fix the problem. If you’re prone to throwing your team members under the bus whenever you or they mess up, you’ll find that they will start to withdraw, take less risk, and engage in more CYA behavior. No one likes to be called out in front of others, especially when it’s not justified. Man up and take responsibility.

9. Always play by the book – Leadership is not always black and white. There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to being a leader and the best ones learn to use good judgment and intuition to handle each situation uniquely. There are some instances where you need to treat everyone the same when it comes to critical policies and procedures, but there are also lots of times when you need to weigh the variables involved and make tough decisions. Too many leaders rely upon the organizational policy manual so they don’t have to make tough decisions. It’s much easier to say “Sorry, that’s the policy” than it is to jump into the fray and come up with creative solutions to the problems at hand.

10. You practice “seagull” management – A seagull manager is one who periodically flies in, makes a lot of noise, craps all over everyone, and then flies away. Good leaders are engaged with their team members and have the pulse of what’s going on in the organization. That is much harder work than it is to be a seagull manager, but it also earns you much more respect and trust from your team members because they know you understand what they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis and you have their best interests in mind.

I’m sure you’ve had your own personal experiences with a Frankenboss. What other behaviors would you add to this list? Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room

At the root of many of our interpersonal or team conflicts is a failure to communicate. Sometimes the problem is that information isn’t shared broadly enough and people become resentful because they weren’t included. Other times we say things that come out wrong and people are offended, even though we may have had good intentions behind our message. Regardless of how the situation was created, if we don’t take the time to thoughtfully address it, the miscommunication evolves into the “elephant in the room” that everyone knows is present but isn’t willing to address.

Recently I worked with a client where the elephant in the room had been present for nearly a year. The issue within this team had led to a fracture in what were previously very close relationships, had tarnished the team’s reputation within the organization, and was causing strife and turmoil that was affecting the team’s performance. Everyone on the team knew the elephant was in the room, but no one wanted to talk about it.

To break the communication logjam and get the team back on the path to restoring an environment of openness, trust, and respect, I used a facilitated discussion process called Heart to Heart Talks, adapted from Layne and Paul Cutright’s book Straight From the Heart. If the participants are committed to the health and success of the relationship, and approach this process with a desire to be authentic and vulnerable, it can be a powerful way to discuss difficult issues and allow everyone to be heard.

The process involves three rounds of discussions and the speaker and listener have very specific roles. The speaker has to use a series of lead-in statements that structure the context of how they express their thoughts and emotions. In order to let the speaker know he/she has been heard, understood, and allow additional information to be shared, the listener can only respond with the following statements:

  • Thank you.
  • I understand.
  • Is there more you would like to say about that?
  • I don’t understand. Could you say that in a different way?

The first round involves a series of “Discovery” statements designed to create openness among the participants and to learn more about each others’ perspectives. The speaker can use the following sentence starters:

  • Something I want you to know about me…
  • Something that’s important to me is…
  • Something that’s challenging for me right now is…

The second round comprises “Clearing” statements that allow for the release of fears, anxiety, stress, and to increase trust. The speaker can use the following sentence stems:

  • Something I’ve been concerned about is…
  • Something I need to say is…
  • A feeling I’ve been having is…
  • Something I’m afraid to tell you is…

The third round involves “Nurturing” statements that create mental and emotional well-being in the relationship. These statements allow the participants to put closure to the difficult issues that were shared and to express appreciation for each other that sets the stage for moving forward in a positive fashion. The speaker can use the following phrases:

  • Something I appreciate about you is…
  • Something I value about you is…
  • Something I respect about you is…

The facilitator can structure the process in a number of ways, but the important thing is to establish a rhythm for each round where the speaker gets a defined amount of time to share (using the lead-in statements) and the listener responds after each statement. It’s important for the listener to respond each time because it sets the proper rhythm for the discussion and validates the thoughts being shared by the speaker. The speaker should be encouraged to share whatever comes to mind without censoring his/her thoughts or saying what he/she thinks the other person wants to hear. If the speaker can’t think of anything to share, he/she can say “blank” and then repeat one of the sentence starters. Encourage the participants to keep the process moving and the thoughts will flow more quickly. At the conclusion of the three rounds, it’s important to close the discussion with a recap of the desired outcomes and any action items the participants want to pursue.

As “Captain”, the prison warden in the movie Cool Hand Luke, famously said to Paul Newman’s character, “What we have here is (a) failure to communicate.” That’s often the case when it comes to interpersonal or team conflicts, and using the Heart to Heart process can help people confront the elephant in the room that everyone knows is there but is afraid to discuss.

Bears QB Jay Cutler on Body Language – A primer for leaders on what NOT to do

This past Thursday night my wife and I watched the Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers football game. At one point in the game, Jay Cutler, quarterback for the Bears, was shown on the sidelines striking a pose similar to the one on the right. I made a comment to my wife about Cutler having the worst body language of any player in the NFL, and the more I thought about it in the context of trust and leadership, the more I was reminded of the power of our body language to either build or erode trust in relationships.

Even from his days playing college ball at Vanderbilt, Jay Cutler has caught flak for the negative vibes he puts off because of his mannerisms and facial expressions. Although he’s heard the feedback, either he’s had difficulty modifying his behavior or he simply doesn’t care to change. Either way, Cutler’s example provides an excellent case study for leaders on what NOT to do when it comes to communicating through body language.

Don’t let your body language…

Say “I’d rather be anywhere else except here” – The faraway look in your eyes, frowning, restlessness, or checking your watch and phone are all classic signals that tell your colleagues that you’d rather be anywhere else except with them. It’s easy for leaders to get preoccupied about pressing deadlines or situations, but it’s important to stay present in conversations and communicate your interest by leaning forward, paraphrasing what you’ve heard, and making steady eye contact.

Imply that you’re blaming others and refusing to take ownership of your own performance – Literally throwing your arms up in exasperation over someone’s mistake or reacting indignantly in an effort to cast the blame of your mistake to someone else are surefire ways to erode trust. People don’t like to be “thrown under the bus,” so the next time you get ready to point your finger at someone, remember that you have four fingers pointing back at you.

Show that defeat and discouragement has gotten the best of you – Leaders will undoubtedly face times of struggle and loss. The true character of a leader isn’t revealed during the good times when the team is winning, but in the bad times when the losing streak occurs. Keep your head held high, shoulders back, and walk with a purposeful stride. Your team will gather strength and confidence from your behavior and follow suit.

Communicate smugness and indifference toward people – That little “know it all” smirk that forms on your face, which seems to come particularly easy for leaders with large egos, is a death knell for high-trust relationships. Most people can tolerate a sense of arrogance from someone if they’re able to back it up with performance results, but demonstrating a lack of respect for others by rolling your eyes, smirking, or folding your arms in disgust or impatience turns people away from you forever.

From the moment of a first impression to the repeated behavior of ongoing interactions, the way you communicate with your body language plays a critical role in building trust. Don’t unintentionally erode trust by letting your body language communicate things you don’t mean. It’s awful easy to develop a bad reputation and it’s extremely hard to turn it around. Just ask Jay Cutler.

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