Empathy & Authenticity First

I once worked with a manager who never had a negative thing to say about anything.  Everything was always, “amazing”, “super”, or “exciting”.  Her belief was that this fostered a positive culture and encouraged happy team members.  Many of us that worked under her were not so sure.  The thing was that her communications with us and others did not come across as authentic.  It’s as if she was putting on a face and her real thoughts lay behind it.

This was especially pronounced in meetings.  There were never any problems, difficulties, or reasons something might not work.  These were all classified as “excuses”.  Was your location poor yet you still had similar sales targets to every other store?  Well, then you needed to “get creative”.  Were you short staffed and HR had not provided you with any interviews in over a month?  Well then, you should find your own people.

These answers are not necessarily wrong.  The advice is useful and great leaders do get creative and find their own solutions to problems rather than getting dejected by difficulties.  However, the problem was that people did not feel understood or valued.  By not empathizing with the team first, it was as if our manager didn’t care about our situation and certainly didn’t seem to understand the challenges we faced.  This also resulted in an eventual failure to even bring up challenges.  In this way, communication break-downs resulted and the manager couldn’t make accurate predictions or judgments as much of the information needed to do so was missing.

As leaders, we want to encourage forward thinking, solution-oriented, and accountable teams.  But, our teams are still human and humans are emotional, not logical.  We often don’t want answers or advice first, we want to be understood.  Listening to your team, empathize with how they feel and how they understand the situation.  Once that connection has been created, then you can start looking at solutions together.  Sometimes as leaders we forget that we are part of the solution, not just the person dispensing advice from on high.

Whether it’s from my own experience or from watching others, I’ve noticed time and again that the leaders with the most authentic communication, the ones who understand their teams before pitching in to find a solution, are the ones that inspire the greatest results.


Own the Email

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One of the most frustrating experiences at work is when you send a routine email or request for support and it comes back to you as “that’s not my job” or even worse, no response after several follow-ups.  Finally, when you get a hold of them on the phone or track them down face to face, they state that it wasn’t they weren’t responsible for that, so didn’t bother to respond.   This lack of ownership and teamwork is a culture killer.  It should be everybody’s job in the organization to help get things done and it often takes longer to type an email saying it’s not your job than to forward it on to the correct person for help.

Countless times when I get these kinds of responses from people, it turns out it actually was their job or that the person they thought was in charge of it was not.  Not only are they wasting your time, but they are depriving themselves of finding out the real answer.

Helping a person solve a problem not only creates goodwill in the organization, but it creates organizational learning.  Something as simple as forwarding the email onto the correct person and ccing the original sender both lets the sender know who to go to and both people will be part of the response so they can assist further should the same situation arise again.


Influence without Authority

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Even as leaders, we often don’t actually have the official power to accomplish what we want.  We are tied to other departments, 3rd party organizations, and managers of all shapes and sizes.  One of the hardest things for me to learn as a growing leader was how to get things done without actually have any decision-making power or authority in various areas.

The very interesting thing you learn is that the strength of your idea and usefulness to the organization is probably one of the most unimportant factors in accomplishing a task.  It depends much more on if you communicate the information in a way that makes people want to hear it and the strength of your relationships which determines how much they’re willing to support your idea.

I once had a manager tell me that you should want the outcome of any conversation for that person to want to hear more.  While this is not always possible, it’s a good rule of thumb in trying to get things done.  One savvy trick I quickly learned when working for a very large organization was to send feedback, suggestions, and ideas up through people with influence.  Maybe you don’t have your manager’s ear, but your friend in accounting might.  Sending the idea through your friend rather than yourself makes it more likely to be heard and your friend gets some credit too if the idea is successful.  The truth is, your relationships are much more a key to your success than any ability or knowledge you possess.


One Message – Part 2

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Words speak louder than actions.  Do your actions match your words?  It’s easy to send mixed messages without even realizing it.  Like many managers, I like to tell my team that I have an open door policy and they can talk to me whenever they need to.  Yet, in one of my past roles, few people would come to see me or they would come once the situation had escalated too far.

I had to stop and ask myself why this was happening, so I reached out to my team for feedback.  The most common response was that, “I always appeared in a hurry, like I had too much to do”, so my team didn’t want to bother me.  While I certainly often had a very full plate, I realized part of that was because I was getting feedback or hearing problems after the fact.  I made a conscious effort to slow down and appear relaxed, even if I had a million things on my mind.  Staff started to feel more comfortable in approaching me and the work environment was more positive for everyone.

There are many ways we can send mixed messages.  Maybe it’s where we spend our time the most, or what how frequently we email on a given subject.  I once had a manager tell me that supporting our teams was our top priority, but I never received a single email about supporting our teams.  Instead, I received frequent emails about sales numbers.  His words didn’t match his actions.

Over the years, I’ve learned to be very conscious of my actions and how they connect to the messages I am trying to promote.  Do you have any similar lessons you’ve learned in your work experience?


One Message

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There is nothing more frustrating than being told different things by different bosses and then having each one try to hold you accountable for their conflicting instructions.  As leaders, it’s essential that we communicate well with the other leaders in our organization and that everyone is on the same page.  This ensures organizational efficiency, reduces stress, and provides a clear direction for getting things done. Resources are limited in any organization and we have to work as a team with other leaders and other departments to create the best possible outcome.  Also, nothing looks more unprofessional than leaders giving conflicting instructions or working towards disparate goals.  Having regular leadership meetings is one of the best ways to avoid these situations and reach agreements with other leaders and other departments.