May 20, 2012
You're doing it wrong.
OK, that might be a slight generalization of the way many workers feel about their leaders. But I don't think it's far off, and I conveniently have some data to back that up.
Consider these numbers from a new survey by Harris Interactive and talent management company Development Dimensions International:
•34 percent of workers don't think their boss is effective.
•60 percent say their boss sometimes damages their self-esteem.
•Half of workers say their boss doesn't ask for ideas about how to solve problems.
There's clearly a problem here, and it's not that humans who obtain the title of "boss" immediately become insufferable jerkfaces. The root of the problem is Communication. (That's Communication with a capital "C" and that rhymes with "B" and that stands for "Boy, does my boss stink.")
Pete Weaver, senior vice president of leadership solutions at Development Dimensions International, said he sees bosses and managers focused too much on knowledge and not enough on skill — in other words, we have smart, well-educated leaders who aren't adept at delivering information.
"The ability to lead people means having skill at communication and interactions," Weaver said.
While we are all equipped with mouths and minds and a shared language, we tend to be rather bad at communicating. That's true in all realms, from family life to the workplace, but failures to connect can be particularly pronounced in a boss/employee relationship.
I spoke with Ben Benjamin, a communications consultant and co-author of the book "Conversation Transformation," which examines an array of "destructive communication patterns."
"Everybody who talks communicates, but most people communicate badly most of the time," Benjamin said.
One of the most common mistakes business leaders make is asking leading questions, like: "Do you really think people will buy that product?" or "This is what our main focus should be, right?"
These questions are part opinion, part inquiry. They leave the employee with two crummy choices:
Give the answer you think the boss wants, even if it's not what you think.
Give an answer the conflicts with the boss' thinking, which can feel risky and uncomfortable.
Leaders — and employees, as communication is a two-way street — need to recognize how flawed it is to phrase questions this way.
Instead, ask broad questions that are open-ended and solicit information or opinions. Or ask narrow ones that elicit facts or a simple yes or no.
If you're on the receiving end of a leading question, Benjamin suggests addressing it in two parts. If somebody says "Don't you think we should wait a few weeks?", say something like, "It sounds like you think we should wait a few weeks and you want to know if I agree. Is that correct?"
Another major communication pitfall is the yes/but question. Yes, I like this advice column you're writing, but are you sure you should've used the word "jerkface?"
Benjamin noted that this question format is, in essence, a scolding: "It's really arguing with the person rather than saying something specific. If somebody says, 'That was a really good job but …,' you know something bad is coming. It doesn't feel good to be in that situation. It's a yes and a no at the same time — a contradiction."
The "yes" part of that response is acknowledging that you agree in part with the other person. So when you feel tempted to use a yes/but response, first find ways to build on the areas where you can both agree.
Then raise the conflicting concern you have. Benjamin said it's best to do that by asking a broad question, one that encourages the other person to work with you to solve a problem.
Here's an example:
"I'd like to punch Rex Huppke in the stomach."
The classic yes/but response would be: "Yes, he probably deserves a good stomach-punching, but you might get arrested or hurt your hand on his rock-hard abs. "
A better approach might be: "Yes, I too would like to stomach-punch Rex Huppke. It sure would feel good to let that smart aleck have it. It would probably be pretty cathartic. Can you think of a way we could do this without getting in trouble?"
The broad point here is that — regardless of the conversation — bosses and managers need to put more thought into the things they say. Think forward a few steps. Consider how your phrasing might come across to the people who look to you for guidance and reassurance that they're doing a good job.
Changing conversation habits isn't easy.
"It takes time to retrain people's brains," Benjamin said. "You're not going to learn tennis or basketball by watching it or reading about it. You've got to practice, practice, practice."
Weaver, whose company did the survey on bosses, said leaders need to become "unconsciously competent" at communication, reaching the point where they automatically react intelligently and empathetically in the heat of the moment.
"All of this is trainable," he said. "Leaders, even if they aren't that good now at engaging their employees, can become better."
So give some thought to the way you speak, bosses. If you do, there's a pretty good chance we'll do a better job of listening.
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