Unintended Messages

Originally Published February 8, 2017

As a leader, you are sending messages all the time. Unfortunately, sometimes the message you think you’re sending is not the message that people are receiving. How does that happen? It all comes down to intent and context – your intent and their context.

You know what you are trying to accomplish — your intent. But unless those you hope to lead are mind readers, they may see your “what” but not your “why.” For example, you may have some team members you have not been spending as much face time with as others (the what). Your intent (the why) may be that you know they are doing a great job, and frankly they just don’t need that much guidance from you (in other words, you think you are sending a positive message) or maybe there is another “hot spot” that requires more of your attention (a neutral message), or it just doesn’t occur to you that your actions are sending a message at all (hint, you are always sending a message).

Depending on their context — their past experiences, perception of the current environment, personality, what they have going on outside of work — your people may interpret the “what” (in this example, not spending as much face time) as a negative rather than the positive or neutral message you intended. They might interpret your “what” as meaning that you see their role as less important, you are not as excited about what they are contributing to the mix, or something else entirely.

How can you make sure that the message you think you’re sending is, in fact, the one your people are receiving? Tell them your intent. Such an easy way to avoid an unintended message, but one we leaders often overlook. We tell ourselves that, “they know you  . . . (trust them . . . need to focus your energies on a unique opportunity . . . fill in the blank that applies to you). I’m here to tell you, that whole expectation of mind-reading staff really doesn’t work out so well. Tell them your intent.

And how are you supposed to know the myriad of factors (the context) that may impact how someone interprets your actions? Well for starters, once people understand your why, many of what you would consider to be “misinterpretations” are easily cleared up. When you tell people your intent, one of three things can happen 1) something that made no sense to them now does; 2) they have the opportunity to ask questions, share their perspective or offer an alternate suggestion; or 3) they still have a different interpretation of your message, but at least you are aware of it and have a chance to respond.  Simple step . . .  big impact. 

What unintended messages are you sending to those you hope to lead?

When It All Comes Together

“I love it when a plan comes together.”

I recognize that I am seriously dating myself by acknowledging that phrase takes me back to the 1980’s television show “The A-Team.” Uttered with a smirk of confidence by Col. Hannibal Smith, at the successful conclusion of efforts whose outcome appeared anything but assured, his words are a reminder that reaching an important goal is often messy and includes unintended twists and turns. That is why it is so critical for everyone on your team to be crystal clear on, and committed to, the identified outcome.

Far too often we focus on the plan, the steps we intend to take, rather than the intended end goal. Now, I am a big believer in plans . . . as a starting point, as our best thinking at the beginning of an effort. That said, I can’t think of a single major initiative that played out exactly as I thought it would when I was working on the plan. I have written before about the importance of the military concept “Commanders Intent,” which clearly identifies what success looks like so WHEN things don’t go as planned, those involved can make the best decision at the moment.

As a leader, where is your focus . . . on the plan or on the target? We have to be able to model that when the variables change, our plan may also need to change. To do that, however, we have to keep our eyes on the horizon, not solely on the next step in our plan. And, we have to give our people the autonomy to do the same. Often times, they are closer to “the front line.” They are aware of important information that we can’t see from our vantage point. In your organization, do those on “the front lines” feel safe enough to speak up when they identify a barrier to success? Do you listen to them when they do?

The trouble is, we tend to fall in love with our plans. We convince ourselves that, as a result of our wisdom and experience, we have it all figured out. Except we usually don’t. What if, instead, we considered our plans to be the starting point and we let our people know that we expected that plan would have to change over time? How much easier would it be for them to speak up if you as the leader clearly communicated that it was their job to look for possible pitfalls and to identify alternate routes to your intended destination?

Much of the excitement and energy on The A-Team came as a result of how the team creatively changed course when Plan A (or B) was no longer feasible. There may be fewer pyrotechnics in your organization than on a TV show, but the same type of energy and excitement can be unleashed when you trust your team to find the best path forward. And when that happens, feel free to smirk and proudly announce, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Strong Enough to Change Your Mind?

Somewhere in our finger-pointing, judgmental, “either you’re with me or you’re against me” culture, changing your mind in the face of new information has come to be viewed as “waffling,” or lacking in a strength of convictions, when actually . . . it’s just smart. It takes confidence and integrity to sincerely consider perspectives that are different from your own, to acknowledge the credibility of someone advocating for a view that is counter to what you have experienced. And yet, that is what the best leaders do.

I was recently in a meeting where a group of high-performing individuals, all with different roles and perspectives, assessed the same set of information. I assumed their conclusions might differ slightly, but on the whole would be fairly similar to my own. I assumed incorrectly. And as I listened to their rationales, there were some areas where I changed my mind. In others, while I still advocated for my initial perspective, I at least had an appreciation for how someone might see the situation differently.

Now granted, in this instance I was working with individuals who all had the same end goal. There is less risk in considering alternative points of view when there is a common understanding of what constitutes “success.” But what about those situations where what you are advocating for appears diametrically opposed to what someone else sees as the “right” solution? Ah yes, that takes much thicker skin. In such cases you are likely to be pummeled from both sides — those who want you to wholly “come over” to their perspective, and those who feel you are abandoning a shared understanding of the situation. In many cases, a willingness to sit in that discomfort is what leads to a path forward.

You see, we shout about the what of a situation, but it takes someone willing to listen sincerely and non-judgmentally, to peel back the rhetoric, to find the “why” of each position. And once you understand the why of each “side” (which are usually not the same) you can begin to craft a path forward that takes each perspective into account. The goal here is progress, not perfection, for there are as many definitions of perfection as there are people seeking it.

And for the cynics out there, yes, there are occasions where someone’s position appears to fly directly in the face of some of your deeply held values and beliefs. I’m not suggesting that you compromise your values. I am suggesting, however, that if you take the time to truly try to understand someone’s rationale there is a strong likelihood that you will find some measure of common ground, or at the very least a better understanding of how a smart, respected individual might advocate for a position that is different from your own.

Leading through conflict is not for the faint of heart. Where some would dig their heels in, leaders must be willing consider alternate paths forward. The question is . . . are you strong enough to change your mind?

Structured Flexibility

Structure and flexibility may seem to be at opposite ends of a continuum, and yet for organizations to thrive leaders have to foster both approaches. One provides stability, the other fosters growth, and you want both of those things, right? So how exactly does one go about building both structure and flexibility into your organization? 

For starters, it is good to think about how you are wired as a leader. Do you lean toward structure or flexibility? Not sure? Ask your people. They know. And before you start second-guessing yourself, being pre-disposed to either structure or flexibility is not a bad thing. Both are needed, in different quantities at different times. Knowing your tendencies, however, can help you make sure there is a counterbalance of perspectives on your team.

So if structure and flexibility are at opposite ends of a spectrum, can they both exist in an organization at the same time? Absolutely. Organizations have found lots of ways to do this — through R&D, pilot projects, or departments/divisions focused on innovation while the rest of the organization follows more tightly structured ways of operating. With today’s increasingly volatile environment, however, it has become more and more important to incorporate both approaches into your daily operations. One way of doing this is by implementing a “guard rails” approach.

Guard rails provide boundaries of functioning. Think of it like bowling bumpers you might put in place for small children. There are lots of ways the child can get the ball down the lane, but the bumpers keep the ball from going too far in either direction and ending up in the gutter. In your organization, guard rails may take the form of budgetary constraints, timelines, and/or outcome expectations. Beyond those structural guard rails, however, you can provide maximum flexibility for how the ball gets down the lane. The structure is in the what, the flexibility is in the how. This is where things can get uncomfortable for the structure people . . . just because we have done things a certain way, with successful outcomes, for many years (the how), that doesn’t mean continuing in that vein will help us achieve our goals in the future. The pain point for the flexibility people can be the “width” of the guard rails, which may feel constraining when they are pursuing a totally new approach that may not fit with “old” ways of thinking. 

Based on a leader’s style, he or she may have a natural tendency to sympathize with one end of the continuum or the other. Don’t settle for an either/or. It is possible to find a productive balance. All it takes is a bit of structured flexibility.

Help With The Hard Stuff

When you agree to take on a leadership role, you are agreeing to deal with the hard stuff. Most of us realize that. The part we tend to miss is that we don’t have to deal with the hard stuff alone. Sure, we tell our people that they shouldn’t carry the burden by themselves, and yet, when they see us doing just that they are more likely to mirror our actions rather than our words. What about your credibility, the respect that others have for you, especially those who hold you up as a role model? I’d be willing to bet that they would prefer to follow a real live person, warts and all, than some artificial picture of leadership perfection.

Looking to others for support doesn’t necessarily mean baring your troubled soul to those who report to you (although, that may be appropriate in some situations), but it does mean that you need to build a network of friends/family/colleagues with whom you can be vulnerable – before you need to lean on them. Peers who understand the complexity of what you are dealing with, who can provide fact-based encouragement or call you on your stuff, whichever is warranted at the moment. People with whom you can dump your load, sort out the stuff that isn’t helpful, then pick up the rest and forge ahead. I hope one or two faces are coming to mind for you as you read this. Sometimes, a specific situation brings such allies to the surface, but more often than not your active cultivation now makes reaching out when you need to much easier.

At the risk of sounding like I am contradicting myself, if a trusted advisor is not readily available at a critical crossroad, try voicing your concerns out loud and consider how you would advise a colleague in a similar situation. Difficult situations tend to grow when they are rattling around in your head, and it becomes much easier to “catastrophize” the possible outcomes. Giving voice to the dilemma before you, or writing it down, is a bit like letting the air out of the situation. It becomes more concrete, less driven by emotion, and the risks or fears tend to be brought down to size. I’m not suggesting they will disappear — some decisions or actions carry a level of risk even when considered in the most level-headed of ways. It is still advisable to run your conclusions past a trusted colleague before acting, but serving as your own sounding board can work in a pinch.

When you are a leader, you will encounter difficult situations. The real question is . . . do you have the confidence to seek out the wisdom of others, and ask for help with the hard stuff?

Different Devils

I recently had a chance to be a part of the studio audience for a podcast interview with Stephanie Chung, Chief Growth Officer for Wheels Up, and former President of JetSuite. One of the questions the interviewer asked was something along the lines of, “Now that you have broken through so many barriers as a woman, and woman of color, to reach the highest levels in your organizations, has it gotten easier?” Her response struck a chord. She looked the interviewer right in the eye and simply responded, “different level, different devil.”

It is so easy to lure ourselves into to thinking, “when (so and so) happens, this will get easier.” When I get the next promotion . . . when the kids get back in school . . . when I finish this project . . . This kind of passive, victim thinking will only lead to frustration on everyone’s part. Maybe it is not supposed to get easier. Maybe we are supposed to get better. At prioritizing, at  being selective in what we commit to, and learning to say no to someone else’s worthy project so we can say yes to our own.

Different levels also require a different lens. As you “move up” in an organization, you will likely be moving from near-term project-specific tasks to long-term strategic initiatives . . . different devil indeed. No longer able to check most items off your do-do list as completed, the strategic approach means days where you have no idea if you actually made progress or not (and you know what the devil will be whispering in your ear). It is dealing with a myriad of opinions, and laying ground work that may take months or even years to come to fruition. It is encountering “pull your hair out” frustration and set-backs that few if anyone is even aware of, and yet that command large portions of your time.

With the right attitude, however, you can call the devil’s bluff. Because each successive level gives you the opportunity to expand your impact, to shape the future of your organization in ways that would not have been possible if you hadn’t chosen to look the devil in the eye and say, “step aside, I’ve got this.” As you move from one level in your organization to the next, things will not get easier. You just get better. You learn new skills, grow a thicker skin, and develop the relationships and connections that can help you, and your organization thrive.

Different level, different devil? You bet. So stare that devil in the eye and keep moving. You’ve got big things to accomplish.

Hearing Shark Music

Shark music. It is a term we use in our work with traumatized children and families. Picture yourself walking down a meandering wooded path . . . the birds are singing, wildflowers blooming, and you imagine lovely upbeat music in the background. So peaceful. Now consider the exact same scene, except music you hear is the soundtrack from Jaws. Instead of skipping happily through the woods, you are peering around every tree, wondering what is about to jump out at you. Feel yourself tense up? What felt carefree in the first scenario now feels ominous, requiring hyper-vigilance on your part. Shark music.

The soundtracks in our heads have a major influence on our actions. Jon Acuff highlighted that point recently when speaking at the Global Leadership Summit, as well as in his book Soundtracks, The Surprising Solution to Overthinking. Acuff noted that thoughts playing in the background of our mind have a significant impact on our actions. How much time do you waste thinking about something that happened in the past, making assumptions about why someone acted in a certain way or what you should have said? Or conversely, how often have you delayed taking an action because the soundtrack on repeat in your head is . . . “this is probably a dumb idea” . . . “I have to get this perfect” . . . “what will (insert name of person whose opinion is important to you) think if I do this?” How much time and energy have you wasted on self-imposed shark music?

Just like in movies, we often don’t even notice the music in the background, even though it is impacting our reactions. The good news? Once you intentionally start to hear the the tune in your head, you can make a decision to change it. Rather than the paralyzing “I have to get this perfect”, you can choose the soundtrack of, “This is a good place to start, and we can adjust as we go.” Instead of perseverating about what someone meant by their comment, you can switch to “I need to ask them to clarify their comment.” Replacing even a single negative soundtrack can save time, renew your energy, and propel you to action.

Take a moment to consider . . . what tune about yourself, your leadership abilities, has been playing on repeat in your head? Acuff notes, “if you listen to any thought long enough, it becomes a part of your personal playlist.” Is your playlist serving you well, or is it littered with shark music about yourself or others?

You get to choose your playlist. Is it time for some new tunes?

Finding Leadership Inspiration on the Bookshelf

I am a reader. Like pretty hard core. I have a library in my home, along with large bookcases in both my work and home offices, all filled to overflowing. Yes, I know I could get e-books or audio versions, and have, but there is nothing quite like holding a book in your hand and uncovering just the nugget of insight you need to address a current situation. Because of the value I place reading and learning, I am often asked if I had to suggest just one or two books to someone, what would they be? Hard question. Depends on the person and the situation. There are a few authors, however, whose ideas and approaches have made me a better leader.

Jim Collins

Good to Great is his classic, and should be required reading for any leader. Two of his concepts that are especially important for organizations are the hedgehog concept — what are you passionate about, what can you be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine. Do that. The second is the Stockdale Paradox, which is to be brutally honest about your current sitation AND have an unwaivering faith that you will prevail. He has also written a corresponding monograph on Good to Great in the Social Sectors but that should be read as a companion piece to the book, not a stand alone. If you’re not a big reader, Collins also has numerous articles and podcasts (as well as other great books) where he shares his insight.

John Kotter

Like Collins, it is hard to pick just one Kotter book to recommend, however Leading Change is definitely high on the list, primarily because 70% of major organizational change efforts fail. Yep, 70% — that’s not a typo. Kotter takes you through eight steps that bolster your chances of success. It seems so easy when you see it in print, and yet so hard to be patient with the process when you are in the midst of it. One big takeaway — we tend to under communicate by a factor of 10! Just because you think you have “said it” a lot (probably to lots of different groups who each have heard it one or two times . . . when they may or may not have been paying attention) doesn’t mean the message is clear. If you’re not in the midst of a change initiative, pick up What Leaders Really Do, which is a master class on the difference between leadership and management — both of which are critical for success, but require different skills and abilities.

Max DePree

Leadership is an Art is my favorite of DePree’s books, perhaps because it was my first exposure to his approach to servant leadership. Unlike Collins and Kotter, who are scholars and researchers, DePree was chairman and CEO of Herman Miller Inc., widely recognized for it’s innovation, management and a best company to work for. DePree’s view on leadership is that “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must because a servant and a debtor.” And also, “In a day when so much energy seems to be spent on maintenance and manuals, on bureaucracy and meaningless quantification, to be a leader is to enjoy the special privileges of complexity, of ambiguity, of diversity.” 

These three barely scratch the surface of my recommended reading list, but they are a great place to start. What books brought you important nuggets of leadership insight? There might be just a bit more room in my bookcase . . .

Is it Worth the Risk?

Act or don’t act. Push back or bite your tongue. Nudge from the inside or blast from the outside. Wait your turn or do an end run . . . How do you choose the best response in a given situation? How do you know if a bold action is worth the risk, or if it is better to take a quieter or more clearly marked path? There is no right or wrong answer, but there are some considerations that may help you determine how to respond in the moment.

1. Is this an on-going issue or is it more singularly focused? 

A one time situation may not warrant taking a significant risk. You might not agree with the approach or specific decision, but if it is an isolated incident you may choose to save your “confrontational chips” for another situation. If, on the other hand, it is an on-going issue that will affect you on a day-in-day-out basis, the potential “reward” may outweigh the risk. In such cases, acting more quickly can save you considerable pain and suffering. If it’s going to happen sooner or later, you might as well pick sooner.

2. Is it going to damage a relationship that is important to you?

Sometimes, focusing first on the relationship rather than the issue prompts you to offer a measure of grace or consider a different perspective than you otherwise might. Perhaps a private conversation is called for rather than a public statement. Are you willing to invest the time and effort into seeking common ground? Is taking this immediate risk worth the set-back to a long-term valued relationship? This isn’t about “selling your soul” or making ethical compromises, but rather pausing long enough to honor a shared history and consider the ramifications of damaging that.

3. Is this your fight, or one someone else wants you to take on?

In our increasingly polarized world, there are plenty of people trying to convince you that you “need” to take a stand on a particular issue. Do you? You can have an opinion and take actions that support that opinion without becoming a poster child for a particular issue. I am not saying you should not take a public and vocal stand on something, but if you take a stand on everything, how might you reduce your influence for those things you care most about?

The final litmus test is listening to your gut. When your head has rationalized a more (or less) subtle or confrontational approach but your gut keeps nudging you to take a different stand, I would take a good hard look at what your gut is trying to tell you. It is often the voice of your wisest self.

Increasingly, leaders are being pressured to take positions that may or may not serve their, and their organization’s, long-term best interests. Chances are, you will get pushback regardless of your decision. The choice is yours . . . is it worth the risk?

Speaking Truth to Power for Long Term Gain

There has been much written about speaking truth to power, however, much of it has been relating to making a single bold statement or move. While there is a time and place for such pronouncements, far more often a more subtle, long-term approach increases the likelihood of embedding the change you seek. For the most impatient change-makers, this may feel like “pandering” or watering down what “really needs to happen.” Having tried it both ways, I have found the long game to be far more successful (even though I have rarely been accused of being patient). What exactly does “the long game” look like?

1. Clearly articulate, for yourself, what you are trying to accomplish. Is it being treated as an equal with a longer tenured but less “cutting edge” colleague? Is it persuading the organization to take a new approach, or try a new technology to improve performance? Is it trying to shift the focus from short-term gains to long-term impact? Resist the urge to respond solely to individual interactions (hard as it may be) and keep your focus on moving toward the long-term goal. Sometimes that means enduring seeming set-backs that position you for greater progress in the future.

2. What is the source of the “power player’s” resistance? What does he or she “lose” (at least in their mind) by embracing your ideas? Do they have legitimate concerns that you need to consider? Is there an unrecognized “gain” for the organization or the power player that you can point out? Not sure the answer to these questions? Ask. Change agents who are willing to be collaborative, to tease out and respond to legitimate sources of resistance, have the greatest chance of moving the dial toward long term change. Does this take longer. Yep. Lasting change is a long game.

3. You don’t have to start by playing every card. You may know that a more senior leader agrees with your position, and if pushed to would most likely back you up. However, if your goal is to move the whole organization forward, doing an end-run at the start of the effort is only going to build unnecessary pushback. Working to overcome resistance only strengthens your position, and allowing people to save face and/or to come to the inevitable outcome themselves does much more to build trust and a collective effort moving forward.

4. Level heads prevail. When people are pushed to change, emotions get involved. Frustration can spark, people can say harsh things, unfair or even untrue things. It is hard not to react. That is why it is good to remind yourself (in advance) that the level head “wins.” Make an impact based on the strength of your argument, not the emotional ferver of your response. At an empasse? It is perfectly acceptable to respond, “I am sorry you feel that way. I hope you are able to reconsider your position in the future,” and then walk away.

The road to lasting change often starts with one brave soul speaking truth to power. And if it’s that important, it is worth taking the time to be strategic in your approach. So make a plan, then step forward and speak up. We need change-makers like you.