The Other 93%

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Leaders

bigstock--174355768No one intends to be a bad leader. And yet, it seems there is no shortage of individuals in positions of leadership who fall short of what we would call a “good leadership.” There are plenty of resources out there that outline the traits of a good leader, but far less focus on what happens to result in someone being considered a bad leader. Knowing what to avoid, however can be as instructive to a leader as knowing what to strive for.

Fundamentally, there are two kinds of bad leaders — those who are ineffective, and those who are unethical. Ineffective leaders may have noble ends in mind, but they fall short on the means they use to get there. Unethical leaders may be very effective (in that they accomplish their intended goal) but the ends they are working toward, or the means they use to get there, may be illegal or immoral.

Let’s start with the ineffective leader, because they are far more common. These individuals are working toward a noble cause, they just are not able to achieve the results needed to get there. Why? I’m sure we could fill pages with the ways that leaders are ineffective, but let’s start with the big “Cs.”

  • Communication. This is probably the number one reason why leaders don’t succeed. They fail to clearly communicate their vision. That doesn’t mean they don’t talk a lot, it just means they aren’t conveying a clear, concise, consistent message.
  • Culture. Ineffective leaders often don’t focus enough on “the way we do things around here.” Expectations, accountability and transparency can slip off course pretty easily if not tended to. If the leader doesn’t really listen, treat people with respect or live out the organizational values, the culture will follow suit.
  • Courage. It is hard to make the decisions that lead to success. There is risk, and pushback, and uncertainty, and sometimes it feels safer for a leader to stay in a comfort zone and not rock the boat quite so much. Such a leader might not accomplish the ultimate goal, but they’re still plugging away, right?!!

While many of us think we would never fall into the unethical category, it can be a bit of a slippery slope. To what degree to the ends justify the means? There are also several “C’s” on the path toward unethical behavior, and each step in this direction makes the next one easier to take.

  • Conceit. When leaders start to believe that they know better than anyone else, that they are smarter, and above the rules that apply to everyone else, they are starting down a dangerous path.
  • Callus. Unethical leaders have little concern for the impact of their actions on others. They see “collateral damage” as the cost of success, because their goal is more important than the impact they may be having on others.
  • Corrupt. By the time an unethical leader reaches this point, the other two C’s have often convinced them that there is a justifiable reason for their inappropriate, immoral or illegal activities. Few leaders start here, but sadly some end up here.

When you “C” it this way, perhaps the lines between good leaders and bad don’t seem quite so clear cut. Bad leaders provide a cautionary tale for those of us striving to be good leaders. We just have to be willing to “C” the difference.

Cheerleader for Change

Executive Cheerleader fIf you ask a successful leader to identify his or her primary job responsibilities, it is probably unlikely that “cheerleader” would make it onto a top five list. . . . but maybe those same leaders would be even more successful it if was.

From my perspective, strategy and organizational culture are two of a leader’s primary responsibilities — in effect, how can your organization position itself (change) to better fulfill your mission, and how can you motivate employees to embrace that change. Hmmm . . . sounds like a job for a cheerleader for change.

Change is hard — necessary to survive in today’s fast-paced environment, but hard none-the-less. If we as leaders can’t clearly and enthusiastically state, repeatedly, why a change is necessary, the task becomes even harder. Leadership expert John Kotter states that most companies under-communicate their vision by at least a factor of 10. Maybe there is a reason that cheerleaders repeat the same chant (or vision) over and over again.

Okay, so I’m sure some of you are thinking that being a cheerleader sounds a bit too “foo-foo” for a serious leader like you. Really? Kotter’s research also shows that 70% of all change efforts fail, and one reason is that leaders don’t get enough buy-in, from enough people in the organization, for the initiatives to succeed. How do you get buy-in? Clearly and enthusiastically state the goal, and then repeat it, again . . . and again. . . . and again.

It’s easy for people to get excited at the beginning of an effort, when the expectations are high, and the roadblocks are not yet apparent. It’s when you are a few quarters in, when the unexpected barriers and the crises du’jour zap your energy that you need to rally the troops around the importance of the effort. A good cheerleader can motivate a discouraged crowd to get back into the game, to stick with the effort through the inevitable ups and downs, to reach a successful conclusion.

For better or worse, as a leader, you set the tone for your team. If you are distracted, or visibly concerned, or lose enthusiasm, your team will too. That’s not to say you should fake enthusiasm. Rather, you should be so committed to your end goal that a few bumps or detours don’t dampen your resolve to reach your destination. I’ve yet to experience a project that went exactly according to plan, but when the goal is important enough, you find a way to get there. You have to be the cheerleader who challenges the team to dig deep and find another way around whatever is blocking your path.

Sometimes the difference between a successful change effort and an unsuccessful one comes down to the enthusiasm and determination of the (cheer)leader.

Limber up. It’s time to cheer!