There is a growing body of research in behavioral economics which shows that we use an irrational approach to decision-making. What exactly is behavioral economics? One of the best definitions comes from British economist, Dan Evans, who said: “Put simply, behavioural economics argues that human beings’ decision-taking is guided by the evolutionary baggage which we bring with us to the present day. Evolution has made us rational to a point, but not perfectly so. It has given us emotions, for example, which programme us to override our rational brain and act more instinctively.” A lack of understanding of how we choose can have profound consequences on our behavior.
Here are some tips on how we can avoid falling into irrational traps so that we can be more successful in both our personal and business life.
1. Understand the pull of partial ownership.
A popular book on behavioral economics is Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. Ariely reports on the influence of ownership in our decision-making. It turns out that we begin to feel ownership even before we actually own something. Let’s say we have a basic cable television service and we are offered a trial version of the “digital gold service” package. Ariely found that in “free trial” packages, owning something even temporarily makes it difficult to give it up later. This also taps into our aversion to loss. The emotions of ownership make us unconsciously decide that the “loss” of digital gold is more painful than spending more money. Understanding the phenomenon of temporary ownership on our psyche can help us approach temptations with greater awareness and caution.
2. Preempt customer revenge.
In his subsequent book, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic At Work And At Home, Ariely explores the need for people to seek revenge for poor customer service and other annoyances. For example, when a customer rep interrupted an explanation to take a personal phone call, and returned to the person without an apology for the interruption, it significantly increased the odds that the person who was treated discourteously did not return an overpayment. Ariely provides a formula for neutralizing the desire for revenge: “1 annoyance + 1 apology = 0 annoyance.” For more insights on customer revenge, see Ariely’s video: “The Case For Revenge.”
3. Choose carefully between social norms and market norms.
Ariely talks about the difference between social norms (which are friendly requests not requiring instant payback) and market norms (which deal with wages, prices, rents, interest, and cost-and-benefits.) A day care center decided to fine parents who didn’t pick up their children on time. The fine violated a prior social contract between the day care center and parents that allowed for being late. When a fine was charged, parents viewed the situation in terms of market norms: since they were paying for being late, they frequently opted to be late. When the day care center decided to remove the fine, the parents continued to pick up their children late. Later pick-ups even increased. We cannot switch from establishing a warm relationship with a customer one day—treating them as family—and the next day, switch to an impersonal relationship because it suits us better. When a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm disappears, and will more likely never return. In other words, it is difficult to reestablish a social relationship.
4. Reconsider your first impressions.
In Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Ori and Rom Brafman report on experiments involving “value attribution”—one of the hidden psychological forces that cause us to make pre-emptive judgments. Value attribution is defined as our inclination to attribute to someone or something qualities based on initial perception of their value rather than on objective data. In an experiment, Joshua Bell, one of the nation’s greatest violinists, wore a baseball cap, and went to a sub-way station, where he took out his $3.5 million Stradivarius and played some of the most challenging pieces of music ever played for a violin. Value attribution caused more than a thousand people to view Bell as just another street musician and to stream past him. First impressions can often narrow our perceptions. It’s smart to catch yourself after you have made an assumption about the value of someone or something based on superficial appearances. Much as this is hard to do in the moment, work on cultivating your ability to have a discerning eye—in other words, reconsider hasty evaluations of others.
5. Know the hidden effects of price discounting.
In an experiment, Ariely assembled a group of students, and offered them a can of SoBe Adrenaline Rush drink, prior to their taking an IQ test. He told them that the drink has a positive effect on their mental acuity. He charged the students $2.89 for the drink. Students performed slightly better on the test than those who didn’t have the drink before the test. He then offered another group of students the same drink for 89 cents and told them that it was heavily discounted. The scores of the students who drank the discounted SoBe dropped significantly. Here again, we see the power of value attribution: It is so compelling that it causes us to alter our perception of a product or service after they have been discounted off their regular price. We now unconsciously value the product or service less than if we had paid full price for it. Does this mean that you should never discount the price of your services? No, but you should carefully consider when it might not be prudent to do so.
6. Offer less options.
In North America, we are accustomed to think that when we are given more choices, we are likely to make a better choice. In a now famous study, Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, presented consumers at a supermarket tasting booth six different jams and a $1 off coupon to encourage them to buy jam. Every few hours, new groups of consumers were offered 24 jam options with the same $1 coupon. It turns out that 30% of consumers who had seen the smaller assortment were able to quickly pick a jam from the store isle and continue shopping. The ones who were presented with a large assortment took longer to decide and only 3% ended up buying jam. While there is no denying that we value having choices, it is also true that choices cause stress and may lead to our inability to choose. In A Better Choosing Experience, Iyengar offers four tips to help businesses with the choosing process:
Cut the number of options.
Create confidence with expert or personalized recommendations.
Categorize your offerings so that consumers better understand their options.
Condition consumers by gradually introducing them to more-complex choices.
7. Beware of those who say: “It will set a precedent.”
All of us have at some point decided not to adopt a decision because someone said: “We can’t do this. It will set a precedent.” This is the wrong reason for abandoning a decision. Whether or not it sets a precedent is irrelevant. As Stuart Sutherland, British psychologist and author of Irrationality, says: “The decision should be made on its own merits.” Guard against discarding what could be a very good decision because of faulty reasoning. Setting a precedent may be a legitimate reason for not adopting a certain course of action, but don’t allow it to sway you before carefully examining the value of the decision.
We need to rethink how we and others around us make decisions, and recognize which repeated decision-making processes don’t serve us well, so that we can start to learn how to avoid them. As Albert Camus said: “Life is the sum of all your choices.” Gaining insights into irrational motives that affect our personal and work lives is a good place to start.
Samuel Butler said: “Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.” We all have an inner voice that tells us when we need to have a difficult conversation with someone—a conversation that, if it took place, would improve life at the office for ourselves and for everyone else on the team. But fear drowns our inner voice. It induces us to procrastinate having the conversation for fear that it might elicit a negative reaction. Meanwhile the offending individual continues to provide substandard performance, missing deadlines and the like; or having interpersonal conflicts, and exhibiting toxic behavior.
The consequence of not facing these issues head-on is costly. A CPP Inc. study of workplace conflict reveals that employees in the U.S. spend roughly 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. 33% of employees report that the conflict led to personal injury and attacks, and 22% report that it led to illness and absence from work. 10% report that project failure was a direct result of conflict. A similar study by Psychometrics in Canada, showed that 32% of employees have to deal with conflict regularly. More alarming is a recent study by Accenture revealing that, even in this challenging economic climate, 35% of employees leave their jobs voluntarily because of internal politics.
Substandard performance and unmanaged conflicts will adversely impact your bottom line. Businesses are losing billions of dollars because leaders have not stepped forward to deal with these difficult workplace issues decisively before they get out of hand. One way to step forward is to have the difficult conversation early on before the problems escalate and damage morale, and the business.
If you are unsure how to best approach this crucial conversation, here are some tips to guide you:
1. Be clear about the issue.
To prepare for the conversation, you need to ask yourself two important questions: “What exactly is the behavior that is causing the problem?” and “What is the impact that the behavior is having on you, the team or the organization?” You need to reach clarity for yourself so that you can articulate the issue in two or three succinct statements. If not, you risk going off on a tangent during the conversation and end up having an unfocused discussion. The lack of focus on the central issue will derail the conversation and sabotage your intentions.
2. Know your objective.
What do you want to accomplish with the conversation? What is the desired outcome? What are the non-negotiables? As English philosopher, Theodore Zeldin, put it: A successful conversation “doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.” What are the new cards that you want to have in your hands by the end of the conversation? Once you have determined this, plan how you will close the conversation. Don’t end without clearly expressed action items. What is the person agreeing to do? What support are you committed to provide? What obstacles might prevent these remedial actions from taking place? What do you both agree to do to overcome potential obstacles? Schedule a follow up face-to-face meeting, phone call, or email to evaluate progress and definitively reach closure on the issue at hand.
3. Adopt the right mindset.
Spend a little time to reflect on your attitude towards the situation and the person involved. What are your preconceived notions about it? Your mindset will predetermine your reaction and interpretations of the other person’s responses, so it pays to work on approaching the conversation with the right mindset. The right mindset is one of inquiry. A good doctor diagnoses a situation before reaching for his prescription pad. This applies equally to a leader. Be open to hear first what the other person has to say before reaching closure in your mind. Even if the evidence is so clear that there is no reason to beat around the bush, we still owe it to the person to let them tell their story. A good leader remains open and seeks a greater truth in any situation. The outcome of adopting this approach might surprise you.
4. Manage the emotions.
Most of us were likely raised to believe that emotions need to be left at the door. We now know that this is an old school approach that is no longer valid in today’s work environments. It is your responsibility as a leader to understand and manage the emotions in the discussion. The late Robert Plutchik, professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, created a Wheel of Emotions to show that emotions follow a path. What starts as an annoyance, for example, can move to anger and, in extreme cases, escalate to rage. We can avoid this by being mindful of preserving the person’s dignity—and treating them with respect—even if we totally disagree with them. In some cases, you may have to respond to a person’s tears. In the video “How To Handle Tears At Work,” Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, provides several strategies. These include acknowledging the tears rather than ignoring them, offering the person a tissue to give them a chance to gather their thoughts, and recognizing that the tears communicate a problem to be addressed.
5. Be comfortable with silence.
There will be moments in the conversation where a silence occurs. Don’t rush to fill it with words. Just as the pause between musical notes helps us appreciate the music, so the periodic silence in the conversation allows us to hear what was said. It gives us an opportunity to reflect. It lets the message sink in. As Susan Scott says in Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success At Work And In Life One Conversation At A Time, “let silence do the heavy lifting.” A pause also has a calming effect and can help us connect better. For example, if you are an extrovert, you are likely uncomfortable with silence as you are used to thinking while you are speaking. This can be perceived as steamrolling or overbearing, especially if the other party is an introvert. Introverts want to think before they speak. Stop talking and allow them their moment—it can lead to a better outcome.
6. Preserve the relationship.
A leader who has high emotional intelligence is always mindful to limit any collateral damage to a relationship. It takes years to build bridges with people and only minutes to blow them up. Think about how the conversation can fix the situation, without erecting an irretrievable wall between you and the person.
7. Be consistent.
Ensure that your objective is fair and that you are using a consistent approach. For example, if the person thinks that you have one set of rules for this person and a different set for another, you will be perceived as creating favorites. Nothing erodes a relationship faster than perceived inequality. Employees have long-term memories of how you handled situations in the past. Aim for consistency in your leadership approach. We trust a leader who is consistent because we don’t have to second-guess where they stand on important issues such as culture, corporate values and acceptable behaviors.
8. Develop your conflict resolution skills.
Conflict is a natural part of human interaction. Managing conflict effectively is one of the vital skills of leadership. Have a few, proven phrases that can come in handy in crucial spots. For more tips on how to handle conflict, read my article: No Batteries Required: 8 Conflict Resolution Tips.
9. Watch your reaction to thwarting ploys.
In a Harvard Business Reviewarticle, Sarah Green lists nine common mistakes we make when we conduct a difficult conversation. One of these mistakes is how we handle thwarting ploys, such as stonewalling, sarcasm, and accusing. The best advice is to simply address the ploy openly and sincerely. As the author says, if the ploy from your counterpart is stubborn unresponsiveness, you can candidly say: “I don’t know how to interpret your silence.” Disarm the ploy by labeling the observed behavior.
10. Choose the right place to have the conversation.
Calling people into your office may not be the best strategy. Sitting in your own turf, behind your desk, shifts the balance of power too much on your side. Even simple body language such as leaning forward towards the person rather than leaning back on your chair, can carry a subtle message of your positive intentions, i.e.: “We’re in this together. Let’s problem solve so that we have a better workplace.” Consider holding the meeting in a neutral place such as a meeting room where you can sit adjacent to each other without the desk as a barrier. Don’t exclude the coffee shop.
11. Know how to begin.
Some people put off having the conversation because they don’t know how to start. The best way to start is with a direct approach. “John, I would like to talk with you about what happened at the meeting this morning when Bob asked about the missed deadline. Let’s grab a cup of coffee tomorrow morning to chat.” Or: “Linda, I want to go over some of the issues with XYZ customer and some concerns that I have. Let’s meet tomorrow morning to problem-solve.” Being upfront is the authentic and respectful approach. You don’t want to ambush people by surprising them about the nature of the “chat.” Make sure your tone of voice signals discussion and not inquisition, exploration and not punishment.
12. Train other leaders on how to handle the difficult conversation.
Handling the difficult conversation requires skill and empathy, but ultimately, it requires the courage to go ahead and do it. The 19th century American politician, William Jennings Bryan once said: “The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear and get a record of successful experiences behind you.” The more you get into the habit of facing these issues squarely, the more adept you will become at it. It will take your leadership skills to the next level.
Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s leading executive coaches said: “I regard apologizing as the most magical, healing, restorative gesture human beings can make.” In his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall lists the refusal to express regret and to apologize as one of the top 20 transactional flaws performed by one person against another. These apply equally at work and at home.
More and more today, we are seeing the value of moving away from the Teflon type leader to a leader who can summon the courage to say “I am sorry.” Leadership is fundamentally a relationship, and an apology, when it is warranted, is an investment in the future of the relationship—whether it is with a co-worker or a customer, a superior or a subordinate.
If you view apologizing as the equivalent of swallowing a bitter pill, consider the benefits. Apart from it being the right thing to do, apologizing increases customer loyalty and retention. The Nottingham School of Economics studied the effect of an apology on disgruntled customers after they were let down. They found that more than twice the number of unhappy customers are willing to forgive a company that issues an apology over one who offers them a monetary compensation. Other studies show that malpractice suits, for example, drop when doctors apologize. Even in bankruptcy situations, those who apologize to the judge fare better financially. The benefits of apologizing are evident in all spheres of our professional and personal lives.
Most people don’t know how to apologize effectively. A sincere, but perfunctory statement such as “Sorry about that” just doesn’t do it. Here are some tips for doing it right:
Follow the five-step apology process.
1. Say you are sorry.
2. Clearly state what you did wrong.
3. Acknowledge how the receiving party must be feeling.
4. Express your sincere regret.
5. Promise not to repeat the behavior.
Here is an example of how this might sound: “Bob, I am so sorry I abruptly cut you off at the director’s meeting. This was very rude on my part and I know it angered you. You have every right to be angry with me. I regret this. I assure you that this will not happen again.” Spoken from the heart, this type of apology can go a long way towards repairing a relationship that might otherwise be irretrievably broken.
Eliminate the word “if.”
We have all heard, and made, these types of apologies: “If I have offended you, I am sorry.” We might as well say: “I don’t see how I could have offended you, but if you are so sensitive to have been offended, then let me be a big man (or woman) and issue an apology.” This is most likely to be received as a second insult even though this is not your intention.
Don’t give any excuses.
Much as it is tempting, refrain from giving an excuse for the offending action. Excuses dilute the strength of your genuine regret and shift the focus away from the needs of the aggrieved party to your own need to save face.
Make it brief.
Belaboring the apology is a natural effect that stems from our anxiety in having to confront an unpleasant issue. Be aware when this happens so that you can stop yourself. When you express genuine regret, you don’t have to use too many words. The longer you talk, the more you are likely to weaken the impact of your apology.
Don’t delay an apology.
Apologies have a “best-before” date: delaying an apology spoils its positive impact. Those who apologize even before a situation is discovered, boost their authenticity in the eyes of others. Transparency is a trustworthiness meter, especially in our low credibility zeitgeist.
Sometimes, our need to be right may cloud our decision-making process. Consider the price tag of being right in relation to its effect on the relationship. Is it worth it? In that regard, one of the best definitions of what an apology is comes from Kador. As he puts it: “I define an apology as a willingness to value the relationship more than the need to be right.”
Institute a policy for handling apologies to customers.
Train your employees to understand the value of effectively dealing with angry or disgruntled customers. Take an inspiration from Starbucks LATTE Method for dealing with complaints. As reported in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, Starbucks baristas are trained to respond to complaints by listening (L), Acknowledging (A), T (Taking Action), Thanking (T), and Explaining (E). Note that the emphasis is first on listening and only lastly on explaining what happened. Can the LATTE method, or a variation of it, help you ensure that a disgruntled customer will want to continue to do business with you?
Apologizing is the simplest of skills to acquire and yet, the one that is rarely taught. It’s about learning and practicing emotional literacy. It should rank high up in importance with financial literacy as prime training for everyone.
Frank Barron, professor of psychology, said: “Never take a person’s dignity: it’s worth everything to them, and nothing to you.” Preserving one’s dignity is the implied meaning in the expression: “to save face.”
The phrase originated in China where it is referred to as “lose face.” Simply put, a person who loses face feels that his status is diminished and that he has lost the respect of others. In our harried schedules, it is easy to unwittingly cause someone to lose face in front of their peers. This can be caused by a dismissive gesture from a senior person, public criticism from a stressed boss , or derision from a colleague, even if meant in jest. These are dispiriting incidents to the person on the receiving end.
In A Leader’s Legacy, James Kouzes and Barry Posner state: “We will work harder and more effectively for people we like. And we will like them in direct proportion to how they make us feel.” Treating others with dignity and respect is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do. A lot of productivity is lost with employees being consumed for the rest of the day after they have received a condescending email, or have been treated offhandedly in a meeting.
Being respectful lies at the heart of collaboration. Here are a few tips to ensure that treating others with dignity and respect is more than lip service:
Don’t hijack a subordinate’s presentation.
When you attend a subordinate’s presentation, don’t butt in and take over the conversation. If you must provide your input, do so but be mindful of the person standing there. At some point, turn the focus back on her; at a minimum, allow her to provide the concluding remarks to her presentation. To you, these actions may seem insignificant, but they are not to the person who spent days preparing for the presentation. Many people feel vulnerable when making a presentation to peers or in front of their boss. In these anxiety-prone situations, the threat of losing face looms large.
Be mindful of the “Red Pen Syndrome.”
This is the irresistible urge to correct someone’s work, even in insignificant details. One of your team members submits a report that they spent the entire weekend working on and you return the draft with a bunch of red marks for commas, or a rewritten sentence that could have easily stayed as is. This is unnecessarily deflating to the individual.
Stop using sarcasm.
I once saw a bumper sticker that said: “I am not good at empathy. Will you settle for sarcasm?” There is a kernel of truth in this humorous sticker: It is impossible to be both empathetic and sarcastic at the same time. Empathy is valued currency in any relationship. When you set out to make a sarcastic remark, consider the effect it has on the person at the receiving end. A laugh at the expense of another is a cheap laugh.
Make “respect” a corporate value.
Whether you are managing a flower shop or a team of engineers, let everyone know that respecting others is a non-negotiable. Better still, add it to your performance review process—what gets measured, gets done. Above all, model the way yourself. As Michael Hyatt puts it in Leadership and the Law of Replication, “Like it or not, you will replicate yourself. Your followers will adopt your behaviors, habits, and—if you have a strong personality— even your mannerisms.” Bad behavior at the top has a contagious effect.
Know how to give feedback.
A good leader lets his people know what they did wrong without causing them to lose face. John W. Gardner gives us this insightful advice: “If you have some respect for people as they are, you can be more effective in helping them to become better than they are.” Provide corrective feedback that does not diminish the person and you will achieve greater results in changing someone’s behavior. (For tips on how to take the sting out of critical remarks, see my article: The Criticism Sandwich: A Stale Idea.)
Allow those who lost an argument to save face.
Neuroscientist David Rock states that “Many everyday conversation devolve into arguments driven by a status threat, a desire not to be perceived as less than another.” When you win an argument, let the other person exit with grace. Be inwardly content that you won the round and move on. Watch out for the irresistible “I told you so” when someone fails because they didn’t follow your counsel or adopt your proposal. In victory, especially, being magnanimous shows generosity of spirit.
Arrive to meetings on time.
If you habitually show up late for meetings, you are sending a not-so-subtle signal to the person running the meeting that you don’t respect them enough to be there on time.
Align your actions to your promises.
Research shows that over two thirds of customers leave a business, not because of price or quality, but because of service: How a customer is treated when things are not going well is remembered long after the issue itself is forgotten. For example, if you have a policy that you accept returns of merchandise, is this done gracefully or in a begrudging manner? Be vigilant, in particular, of the classic response to a customer complaint: “This has never happened before.” It’s the type of response that can result in the customer walking out the door for good.
Assess your employees’ behaviors towards all stakeholders.
Take some time during your day to quietly observe how your managers treat their direct reports. If what you see gives you cause for concern, consider having everyone take a 360-assessment that can raise awareness. An example is The Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) which assesses 30 behaviors, one of which is “Treats others with dignity and respect.” Research shows that employees of leaders who score high on the LPI are significantly more engaged in their work than employees of leaders who score low.
Research at the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University discovered that social or emotional pain is as real and intense as physical pain. The same brain networks are activated when a person experiences a physical injury as when they go through a painful emotional experience, such as feeling humiliated, or losing face. While a physical wound can be stitched and repaired, a social wound can linger invisibly for a long time. It can have adverse effects on employee morale and motivation, without your even being aware of it.
Some employees rest before they get tired. Others perk up in the parking lot, at 5:00 o’clock. Some have quit long ago, but have forgotten to tell you. All of these employees show up to work every day and give you the minimum effort to stay afloat. Some eventually leave, taking with them their knowledge, experience, and on the job training. We call these employees “the disengaged.” A study shows that disengaged employees cost United States businesses $11 billion annually. The global situation is not much better: fewer than 1 in 3 employees worldwide are engaged.
Many business owners and enterprise leaders try to cope with the disengagement by sending employees to accountability training. Accountability training typically focuses on important topics such as creating SMART goals, clarifying expectations, empowering employees, establishing regular progress reviews, and giving appropriate feedback. But a year later, even though everyone is now well trained on the accountability cycle, the needle of engagement has not moved. Why is that?
That’s because leaders need to look behind the curtain at the more prevalent causes for disengagement which may have little to do with lack of accountability training. Gary Hamel, professor at London Business School, and one of the world’s top 50 Thinkers, puts it this way: “By far, the greatest untapped source of wealth and potential in any organization is all those people who have chosen on that particular day not to bring their imagination to work, not to bring their passion to work, not to bring their initiative to work. . .and the capabilities that we need most of our employees, their imagination, initiative. . .are exactly the capabilities that are most difficult to command. You cannot tell someone to show initiative or to be creative. . . those are literally gifts that people choose to bring into work every day or they don’t.”
As Hamel says, the question a manager needs to ask himself is not “How do I get people to serve my company?” but rather, “How do I create the work environment and a sense of purpose that literally merits the gifts of creativity and passion?” Hamel provides several tips, which include dramatically reducing the level of fear in organizations; depoliticizing decision making (so decisions are the result of good ideas and not political power); democratizing information (so information is not used as a political weapon), and reducing the power of traditional hierarchy.
If you struggle with disengagement and a lack of accountability, here are few other tips to help you:
Take a good look at all the leaders in your organization. Research shows that one of the most important factors that impacts employee engagement is the relationship with one’s immediate manager. Evaluate all of your leaders, from the back office supervisors to the Vice Presidents—everyone who is directly in charge of others. There is no doubt that people flee bad managers. So, what do good managers do? A worldwide study of engagement showed that the managers who fuel engagement exhibit these specific behaviors: they are personally involved, they delegate and utilize their employees’ talents, they don’t withhold recognition, they actively foster a sense of community and belonging, and they provide feedback and coaching. Does every manager in your company do this?
Institute a reverse accountability program. This idea comes from Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, a global provider of IT services. The company is recognized as the number one best employer in India. One of their core values is the belief that all managers are equally accountable to their employees. To put this into practice, all 5,000 leaders in the company undergo a reverse 360 assessment. This gives employees a chance to evaluate their managers, for development purposes. All 80,000 employees worldwide can access the results on the web. You can hear more about the success of this approach in Nayar’s video interview with Karl Moore, Associate Professor at the University of McGill.
Answer these 12 questions. The Gallup Organization developed a 12-point gauge of conditions that best predict employee engagement. These are 12 simple but powerful questions that every manager should consider. They include questions such as “At work, my opinions seem to count” and “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.” Would everyone in your shop be able to answer “yes” to these questions? The full 12-point list is available in Feedback For Real, a Gallup Business Journal article.
Understand what drives people. If you are an old school manager, you may be thinking that the carrot and stick approach is the best way to control people and push them to be more accountable. As Daniel H. Pink discovered in Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us, once basic financial needs are met—that is, once people are paid adequately for what they do—what truly motivates people is Autonomy–the need to direct our own lives, Mastery—the urge to continue to get better at something that matters and Purpose—the desire to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. Get to know your people on a human level: focus not only on knowing their strengths, but also on what their unique drivers are so that you can tailor your approach for best results.
Offer a cafeteria of motivators. If tight budgets due to current economic constraints prevent you from offering the compensation that people require, consider offering other motivators. A recent survey of employees showed incentives that can work for some people. These include a flexible schedule, an opportunity to make a difference in their jobs, telecommuting, challenging work, academic reimbursement, and even having their own private office. All of these are low cost incentives to consider.
Eradicate unfairness. Fairness is treating people equitably without favoritism or bias. A sense of fairness is hard-wired in us—nothing de-motivates us faster than working in situations where getting ahead is not a function of what you know, but who you know. A recent study shows that the number one reason people get sick is perceived unfairness at work. The emotional hurt associated with unfairness triggers the same neurophysiologic pathways present in physical pain. My article Monkey Business: Fairness in the Workplace provides seven tips to help you promote fairness in your team.
Does all of this mean that accountability training doesn’t count? On the contrary, knowing what constitutes accountability in your workplace is important; however, accountability training on its own is not the panacea for what is wrong with the engagement scores in an organization. For that, leaders need to step back and build a great place to work. They need to pay attention to a fundamental, and often overlooked truth about people: How people feel, profoundly impacts whether or not they will go the extra mile for you.
How successful we are at selling ourselves, our products and our services depends on our ability to stand up and be heard. What often prevents us from telling our story successfully is not our inability to articulate what we do, or how strongly we believe in the value of what we offer. Instead, it is simply the fear of speaking in front of an audience. Being nervous while presenting can put a dint in your credibility and have an adverse effect on achieving your business goals.
To manage the fear of speaking in public, you need to first understand the root cause of the fear. One of the best explanations comes from Scott Berkun, in Confessions of a Public Speaker. Berkun says: “The design of the brain’s wiring—given its long operational history, hundreds of thousands years older than the history of public speaking . . . makes it impossible to stop fearing what it knows is the worst tactical position for a person to be in.” That worst tactical position is standing alone, in an open place, with no place to hide, without a weapon, and facing a large group of creatures staring at you. As Berkun puts it: Being in this situation, “meant the odds were high that you would soon be attacked and eaten alive. . . Our ancestors, the ones who survived, developed a fear response to these situations.”
Understanding that our brain can’t tell the difference between a real threat (a pack of wolves about to attack you) and an imagined threat (a group of your peers watching you present) is the first step to overcoming the fear. This awareness can help you manage the “false alarm” that happens in the absence of real danger. How so? As you feel your heart racing when you first start your presentation, you can consciously and deliberately interrupt the fear response with a quick deep breath and a rational thought: “This is just a false alarm.” The more you get into the habit of interrupting the fear response as soon as you feel it happening, the quicker you will prevent it from being your default response every time you present in front of a group. You must ingrain in your mind the thought that the fear of public speaking is simply a misfiring of the caveman “fight or flight” fear response and that you can overcome this.
Here are some practical tips to help you manage performance anxiety so that you can focus on your key messages:
Re-frame the questions you ask yourself. When you worry before a high stakes presentation, you may have a tendency to ask yourself negative questions, such as “What will happen if I forget my material?” or “What if I mess up?” This form of self-talk is like throwing gasoline in a room on fire. All it does is heighten your anxiety. Replace these negative questions with positive ones. Take an inspiration from Seymour Signet, a specialist in helping people overcome public speaking anxiety. He advises to ask yourself: “What will happen if I knock it out of the park?” You can view more of Seymour’s tips in his video “Ask Yourself Good Questions.” Give this a try; it will calm the noise in your head.
Practice as if you are the worst.When you know your material well, there is a tendency to get sloppy when practicing a speech: you might flip through the slides, mentally thinking about what you are going to say, without actually rehearsing out loud exactly what you plan to say. This results in a presentation that is not as sharp as it could be and might cause you to be nervous once you have 100 pairs of eyes staring at you. You can also forget some important sub-points and key sound bites. Avoid this by practicing out loud and verbalizing your complete presentation. For a high stakes presentation, do this at least five times, at spaced intervals, to encode your material in long-term memory.
Practice your transitions. It is also crucial that you practice your transitions—the words that link one idea in your presentation to the next. These are easy to forget if you don’t practice them and you end up with a staccato presentation. Transitions are the silken thread that guides your listeners through your story. Here are some examples of transitions: “Now that we have established. . .”; “This leads us to. . .”; “My next item is particularly crucial. . .”. If you don’t practice correctly, you will end up practicing your imperfections from one presentation to the next.
Memorize the sequence of your slides. Knowing the sequence of your slides so that you can anticipate and announce a slide makes you look in control. This will increase your composure as you know where you are going next. Nothing erodes your credibility faster than having to look at a slide to know what you have to say next. Being perceived as credible boosts your confidence and reduces your anxiety and the fear of failing.
Create a back up slide for some of your answers. One reason people often experience anxiety before a presentation is the fear that they will be asked questions that might be difficult to answer. Don’t get caught off guard. Think carefully of what potential questions might arise and rehearse your best answers. Go one step further by creating slides for some potential questions about complex issues. You can include in your slide important information, numbers, stats, or even a pertinent graph or pie chart that would be helpful to the audience. If such a question arises, it is quite okay to say: “I anticipated that you might be asking this question. Let me display a slide that will clearly show. . .” Rehearse some of your answers to questions with the same care as you rehearse the presentation.
Visualize Your Presentation. A study at Harvard University showed the value of visualization in developing a skill: Two groups of volunteers were presented with a piece of unfamiliar piano music. One group was given a keyboard and told to practice. The other group was instructed to just read the music and imagine playing it. When their brain activity was examined, both groups showed expansion in the motor cortex, even though the second group had never touched a keyboard. Visualization is a powerful mental rehearsal tool that peak sports performers use regularly. Einstein, who is credited with saying that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” used visualization throughout his entire life. Take advantage of this tool and visualize yourself successfully delivering your presentation. Concentrate on all the positives of your presentation, and visualize the entire talk, in detail, from your introduction to your conclusion.
Stop seeing your presentation as a performance. Instead, as Jerry Weissman puts it “. . . treat every presentation as a series of person-to-person conversations.” The more you remind yourself of this, the more you will be able to shift your focus away from the fear-inducing thought that you are required to perform.
Take some deep breaths. This simple advice cannot be emphasized enough. When you are nervous, you breathe rapidly and shallowly. This is telegraphing to the audience that you are not confident. Slow and measured breathing is a sign that you are in control. Before you go to the front of the room, concentrate on taking a few, slow breaths. Repeat this a few times. When you start to speak, remember to pause and breathe after you make a point. Psychiatrist, Fritz Perls, said it powerfully: “Fear is excitement without the breath.”
Try ‘power posing’ before the presentation. Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy discovered that simply holding our body in an expansive pose for as little as two minutes results in a higher level of testosterone in our body. Testosterone is the hormone linked to power in both animals and humans. At the same time, the expansive pose lowers our level of cortisol, the stress hormone. In her TED video presentation, Cuddy shows a number of expansive poses, such as spreading your legs, placing your hands on your hips, or striking the CEO pose: legs resting on desk, and arms behind your head. You can apply this advice before a presentation to lower your stress level and give yourself a boost. Instead of hunching over your notes or Blackberry, find a spot where you can have some privacy and adopt an expansive pose: make yourself as big as you can by stretching your arms out and spreading your legs, or stand on your tiptoes with your hands in the air. Give it a try.
Pause Frequently. In “The King’s Speech,” a movie about the true story of King George VI, one of the successful strategies the speech therapist uses to help the king overcome his stuttering is the use of pauses. Pausing helped the king regain his composure whenever he was gripped by anxiety. The same strategy can help you. When you feel anxious while presenting, consider pausing more frequently. A few strategic pauses between points have a calming effect.
Come to terms with audience expressions. Your anxiety level is increased when you misinterpret the audience’s facial expression. In normal conversation, we are accustomed to getting feedback from the listener: a nod or a smile, here and there, that signal approval. But when we present, audiences listen differently. They are more likely to give the speaker a blank stare which does not mean that they don’t like what they hear; more often than not, it simply means they are concentrating on the message. This is especially true of members of the audience who have a preference for introversion.
You can access further tips for managing presentation anxiety in my book, Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques For Effective Presentations. There is a Japanese proverb which says: “Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.” Put your mind on developing your key company messages and crafting your story. Replace time expended on worrying with time spent on preparing thoroughly for your presentation by knowing your material cold, and practicing it beyond the point of pain. Then go out there and win them over.
Someone once said: “The greatest wastes are unused talents and untried ideas.” If there is one kindness you can do for yourself, it is to take a good look at which of your talents have been dormant for too long. What ideas you have been putting off? What worthwhile projects are languishing in dark corners? The unattainable is often the untried.
Talents that are not cultivated become corroded. The longer our talents stay concealed, the greater the chances are that they will be irretrievably lost to us and society. You may be considering starting a new venture, or expanding a current one. You may have been dreaming of writing a book, developing an app for the iPhone, or creating a blog of the best biscotti recipes in the world. What are you waiting for?
If you need a kick in the pants to get started, follow Seth Godin, an iconic figure for all of us, and for small business, in particular. Watch the video of his latest book, The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? In it, Seth encourages us to make art. He defines art as what we do when we’re doing our best work, work that touches others.
This applies equally if you are wearing a business suit or a smock: whether you are a manager in a large enterprise or the owner of the corner stationery store; whether you are a doctor who treats patients with empathy, or a barber who takes a snapshot of his clients’ haircuts so that he can remember what delights the client. Seth’s book exhorts us to stand out, not stand in; that is, not settling for the easy, the comfortable, the safe. It’s the only way to do our best work. Doing our best work, as the author puts it “is available to anyone who has a vision that others don’t and the guts to do something about it. Steve Jobs was an artist. So were Henry Ford and Martin Luther King Jr.”
If you lack the courage to take the leap and accomplish what has been on your mind for a long time, here are some tips:
Don’t doubt your talents.
Some talents may be hidden because of an innate humility. We compare ourselves to others in our domain and wonder: Who am I to be playing alongside the giants? Comparisons are mental shackles that keep us imprisoned in the safety of the average. Don’t hide your talents. You have a responsibility not to waste your gifts. As Benjamin Franklin said: “What’s a sundial in the shade?”
Get comfortable with being wrong.
Sir Ken Robinson said: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come with anything original.” How many times have people advised us not to fear failure. Do we take this advice? Or do we retreat in the cocoon of safety? The price we pay for playing it safe may be too high.
Stop trading on old knowledge.
If we want to accomplish anything, we need to continually update what we do. An advertisement from The Boston Consulting Group reads: “There are no old roads to new directions.” We become stale when we continue to do the same thing over and over. A professor who uses the same lecture material every year fails to give his students the best of his cognitive abilities. A manager or business owner who prides himself on being “old school,” may deprive himself of the opportunity to learn the art and science of engaging a modern workforce.
Don’t refuse a job that was never offered.
Years ago,I was debating whether or not to attend a job interview as I wasn’t sure that this was the right position for me. At that time, I learned a lesson from a CEO I used to report to who offered this advice: He said: “Never refuse a job that wasn’t offered to you.” I attended the interview, was not offered the job anyway, but I made a human connection with my interviewer that later resulted in a consulting assignment. Don’t prejudge a situation. Go and explore. You can always say no later.
Give people an opportunity to blossom in their talents.
Do you make an effort to see the hidden talents in those who do the work in your shop? Do you give them a place to stand and shine? Do you allow them to sign their work? One way to shine the light on people is to give them some autonomy in the way they do the work. Take full advantage of the talents everyone brings to the table and make an effort to give people projects that they can knock out of the park. See what happens.
Practice ‘intelligent disobedience.’
I have written previously about intelligent disobedience, a term that describes the opposite of blind conformity: it’s about using your judgment when an established rule or policy hinders rather than helps your organization. It’s about allowing front line staff—those closest to the customer—to make a decision, on the spot, in order to right a wrong with a customer, even if doing so, goes against an established rule. If you run your own small business or lead a team in an enterprise, consider adopting some of the tips listed in the article so that you can create a place where people have more autonomy. It will make you stand out as a courageous and remarkable leader.
Write a book.
There is a saying that goes: “Everyone has a book in them.” What expertise or ideas do you have that can be turned into a book to help others? Writing a book can help you sell yourself. In 5 Reasons You Should Seriously Consider Writing a Book, Michael Hyatt says: “A book is the best marketing tool you could ever have. It makes an introduction. It opens doors. It prepares the market for the other products and services you offer.” If you don’t know how to get started to write your book, a useful resource is Guy Kawasaki’s most recent book, APE – Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How to Publish a Book. This book will provide you all you need to know about self-publishing and selling your book.
Go on an inspiration binge.
If you need an extra nudge, carve out a few minutes daily, when you have a break, to read articles, or watch videos of people who did not waste their talents, but instead, put those talents to use—sometimes against all odds. Here are a few to start you off: Have a look at this powerful photo of two brave men of the Single Leg Amputee Sports Club of Sierra Leone chasing for the ball in Freetown. Watch this video about a group in Paraguay who found a way to create music from what we discard as garbage. And don’t miss this video of the late philosopher and author, Alan Watts, asking: What If Money Was No Object?
This post first appeared in my business column at AMEX.
There are literally thousands of books and articles written on the most desirable qualities of a leader. They run the gamut from adaptable to zealous. But one quality, above all, is fundamental to anyone who aspires to be a good leader. And this is simply to be a mensch. Whether you are a corporate, entrepreneurial, or political leader, being a mensch is the most important yardstick of great leadership. It is the true measure of any man or woman.
Mensch is a German word meaning human being, or person. In Yiddish, the word mensch has deep connotations. It describes a man (or a woman) of integrity, a decent person—one who always chooses to do the right thing in all of his undertakings. The guiding compass of a leader who is a mensch is “do no harm.” We have an innate sense that tells us when we are dealing with a mensch: it’s a person who will not try to cheat us, deceive us, or undermine us in any way. A mensch is a person in whose presence we feel safe.
Two of the hallmark qualities of a mensch are a disposition to be kind to others, and a genuine caring for one’s fellow man. A mensch has deep compassion: he understands the suffering of others and seeks to alleviate it. If there is one description that sums up what a mensch is, it is, that a mensch doesn’t have a pocket sized heart. To be called a mensch is the greatest compliment one can give you.
In his blog, Guy Kawasaki provides 5 tips on how to be a mensch. Here are a few more:
1. When someone has wronged you, continue to treat them with civility.
It’s the ultimate mark of a mensch.
2. Give way more than you take.
Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” It is the mensch way.
3. Genuinely acknowledge others.
Taking the time to give sincere praise shows a generosity of heart. It is high octane fuel for the soul.
4. Default to kindness.
The biggest deficit is not monetary—it is the lack of kindness in our interactions with others.
5. Embrace diversity.
Every person is a world. The uniqueness of each human being makes our communities a more beautiful place. The legendary Louis Armstrong referred to this as “the colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people going by.” See that rainbow.
The Roman philosopher, Seneca said: “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” Every day of our lives, we have an opportunity to show up as a mensch. Perhaps this is the most important resolution for the New Year for all of us.
This post first appeared on my business column at AMEX.
George Herbert said: “Good words are worth much, and cost little.” One such word is grace. Grace is a sense of fitness and propriety. It is also a disposition to be generous and helpful. It is a word we don’t hear too often in business, except perhaps when someone has fallen out of grace, or behaved disgracefully. Grace is a golden link which binds us to others, and it applies to all of our relationships, whether it is dealing with our employees, colleagues, clients, family, and friends. It is also the link of civility that connects us to strangers. Grace costs nothing but it buys us a lot of goodwill.
In our harried and busy lives, it is easy to view grace as a quaint notion and brush it aside. As Seth Godin says in a video with Tom Peters, if you are a small business owner, you may need to cut corners in order to save money, so you take a shortcut, or you treat people in a way that you don’t want to be treated. This may seem like a shortcut but it doesn’t pay off in the long run.
How can we bring grace in all of our dealings with others, and make it one of our hallmark traits? Here are some helpful reminders:
1. Give without grudge, or don’t give at all.
Do you bend over backwards to please demanding clients by giving them discounts and special treatment, but then include veiled complaints in the bargain? Do you under price yourself and often remind the client of this? Do you help a colleague but find opportunities to let that person know of your reluctance to do so? All of these behaviors may be justified, if you feel that you are being taken advantage of. So, simply refuse to do it. But if you decide to do it, then do it gracefully, without displaying your grudge as a badge in all of your interactions with that person.
2. Know the difference between disagreeing and being disagreeable.
Debates and active disagreements are a healthy part of a well-functioning team. But some people get carried away in the heat of the moment, and, in throwing out someone’s argument, they also throw away any goodwill in the relationship. What you see as your passion, may come across to others as your anger.
3. Temper your sense of justice.
Our sense of justice is made up of thoughts and feelings about what is fair and unfair, what people owe us, and what we deserve. Sometimes, this makes us react with a lack of grace; we become incensed when our rights have been infringed upon. But, as author Judith Martin aptly put it: “You do not have to do everything disagreeable that you have a right to do.” We can decide to behave gracefully when someone rudely cuts us off in a line up, and quietly let them go ahead. We can give someone the right of way when it is clearly not their turn. We can give up arguing a point even when we know logic is on our side.
4. Develop your social skills.
While we don’t set out to intentionally offend or ignore someone, it is easy to slip in small things that matter to people. For example, don’t mention an invitation around those who have not been invited; always criticize in private; don’t forget to draw attention to those who have worked behind the scenes to make an event or project successful; go out of your way to welcome newcomers; help loners to feel a part of the group.
5. Don’t be angry with the front line staff.
Problems with cumbersome or absurd company rules, procedures, and policies are not the fault of the front line staff. The line up at the store is long because management has cut down on staff. The clerk is refusing to give you a refund because her manager has not authorized her to do so. Take your complaints to the right person.
6. Thank someone for a business referral.
It’s uncanny how many people land a business deal thanks to a referral but never get back to the person whose kindness helped them. Whether or not you closed the referred sale, send an email to thank the person and briefly update them on what happened. If you closed the sale, consider sending a small gift, or a hand-written note. Here is a company that provides creative, business referral thank-you cards.
7. Guard against using ungracious expressions.
“Hi there” is an ill-conceived email salutation of our times. How much more gracious it is to use the person’s name. Here are a few other expressions that lack grace: “Thank you, anyway”; “Whatever”; “And I should care because?”
8. Be graceful in every room in your life.
Do you show up differently in the boardroom, than in the staff lunch room? Do you treat the Chairman differently than you treat the charwoman? Everyone is entitled to be treated with courtesy. The mark of a gentleman (or gentlewoman) is how they treat someone who can be of absolutely no use to them.
9. Show grace under fire.
Being cool and calm under pressure is something that we admire, especially because it is so difficult to do. One way to do this is to raise your awareness of your patterns of frustration. What are some of the situations that regularly exasperate you? Who are the people who get under your skin? Develop strategies to cope with these life events. Self-awareness precedes self-management. Some jobs require people to work under tremendous pressure. Watch this video on how to stay calm on a trading floor, for example. The tips apply to all jobs.
10. Know what to do when you fall from grace.
We have all, at one time or another, lost our temper, or reacted ungraciously with someone. It takes a big man (or woman,) to pick up the phone and say: “I am sorry, I was rude with you at the meeting.” Often, it’s not what happens, but how we subsequently deal with what happens, that determines whether or not a relationship is permanently eroded. Most people are reasonable and willing to forgive when we show sincere regret. As Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” A quick and siincere show of contrition signals to the person that we respect them enough to make ourselves vulnerable.
Being graceful is one of the most human acts available to us. How easily we can make our workplaces and our world a better place simply by deciding to be more graceful in all of our interactions with others. Grace is a sacred word. Let’s aspire to grace and make it a household word in our lives.
The ability to speak in a way that creates an emotional bridge that connects us to others is one of the most admired qualities of leadership. A person who has mastered this is said to speak in “the leader’s voice.” The leader’s voice is captivating: it makes the audience want to lean in to listen to every word that person has to say. What does it take to be that voice in the room, to speak in a way that qualifies as authentic leadership communication?
This article will provide some of the core principles for elevating a speech from a mere recital of facts into a more powerful communication. Recently, we saw a good example of this in the brief, 5-minute speech that President Obama delivered to his campaign staff the day after the election. The purpose of the speech was to thank the campaign workers for their efforts in helping the President win the re-election. Rather than the perfunctory “I couldn’t have done it without you,” or “you were a great asset to winning the campaign,” Obama delivered a thank you speech that was evidently straight from the heart. What exactly did he do that makes this an exemplary piece of leadership communication?
Authenticity, Humility, and Optimism.
First, there were three enduring leadership qualities that came through loud and clear: authenticity, humility and optimism. All three are hallmarks of any effective leadership communication:
Obama’s authenticity shines as he talks about his early days as a community organizer and his desire to make a difference: “I didn’t really know how to do it. . . a group of churches were willing to hire me. . . and I didn’t know at all what I was doing.” Authentic, personal communication is vital for any leader who seeks to connect with his constituents.
Humility is a very attractive trait in a leader. It is the antithesis of hubris, the excessive, arrogant pride which often leads to the derailment of some corporate heroes. Mark W. Merril said: “Humility does not mean you think less of yourself. It just means you think more of others.” That’s precisely what Obama illustrates in his speech. He tells his audience: “You are so much better than I was. In so many ways, you’re smarter, and you’re better organized, and you’re more effective.” He goes further by stating that “the work that I did in those communities changed me much more than I changed the communities.”
Leaders are purveyors of hope. They can see around the corner and instill in people the hope and belief that tomorrow is better than today. That’s precisely what Obama does several times in his short speech. He says: “I’m just looking around the room and I’m thinking wherever you guys end up, you’re just gonna do great things.” He expresses an optimistic view of the future that awaits his staff long after their work as his campaign staff has ended: “And whatever good we do over the next four years will pale in comparison to what you guys end up accomplishing for years and years to come.”
Speak on Three Channels.
In Voice Lessons: Applying Science to the Art of Leadership Communication, Ron Crossland tells us that the most effective communicators use three channels to boost the impact of their communication: the factual, emotional and symbolic. Too often, leaders speak only on the factual channel, but facts alone rarely inspire. It is the emotional and symbolic channel that powers a leader’s communication and helps him or her convey important leadership messages. Obama’s speech is a particularly good example of a leader who is gifted in using the emotional channel, in an authentic manner.
Communicating on the emotional channel is a two-part process: first, a leader needs to speak about his emotions, about how he feels about his topic. We admire those who are cool under fire, but we don’t connect with a leader who is dead cold. A poker face is good for poker, not for inspiring others. People want to know what their leader feels; it creates transparency, it brings us closer to those we lead and engenders trust. The emotional channel dominates Obama’s speech to his staff. He expresses his own emotions which center around confidence and admiration for his staff, and genuine gratitude for their efforts and loyalty: “I am absolutely confident that you are going to do just amazing things in your lives;” “I am really proud of you;” “You guys won’t disappoint me.”
The second part of the emotional channel is your constituents’ emotions. It is having the empathy to understand and recognize the emotions of others in the room. On that score, Obama refers to their hard work and shows that he genuinely understands who they are, what they have done, (“you all are just remarkable people”) “and most important, what they will accomplish in the future: “Your journey is just beginning…You’re just starting.”
The symbolic channel taps into the power of symbols (or metaphors,) and storytelling. Here too, Obama’s speech fits Ron Crossland’s framework nicely. Obama uses several metaphors: He refers to the indomitable spirit of people as “the grit . . . of ordinary people.” He also borrows a metaphor from Robert Kennedy when he refers to the “ripples of hope that come out when you throw a stone in a lake.” This is a particularly apt metaphor that would resonate in a roomful of young people. He also honors his audience by making them the wellspring for his own hope and fortitude. He refers to them as “the source of my strength and my inspiration.” He tells them that they had an uplifting effect on him as he grappled with difficulties: “You’ve lifted me up, each and every step of the way.” Another powerful metaphor.
Storytelling, a major component of the symbolic channel, is a powerful leadership tool. This is echoed by Terry Pearce, in The Mastery of Speaking as a Leader. Pearce provides three rules for powerful leadership communication: speak on topics you really care about; incorporate personal experiences that have formed the basis for your beliefs, values and convictions, and structure your speech as a story. One could say that Obama’s entire short speech is a personal story about his dream to make a difference—starting from his efforts as a 25-year old community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, during the Ronald Reagan era, to where he is now: “I felt that the work that I had done, in running for office, had come full circle. . . , because what you guys have done . . . means that the work that I’m doing is important.”
Finally, throughout his speech there is a sense of history: “What you guys have accomplished will go on in the annals of history, and people will read about it, and they’ll marvel about it.” As Terry Pearce says in his book, Leading Out Loud: Inspiring Change Through Authentic Communication, “leadership communication is about growth and change, words that contain a past, a present and a future—a story line.” We can clearly follow the thread of this story line in Obama’s speech. He adds meaning to their work and this is another requisite for a successful leadership communication: leaders need to connect the dots for people and help them see the greater purpose for their work.
In today’s climate, especially, it is important for leaders to speak in a way that connects with people, a way that engenders loyalty and commitment. Authentic, personal experiences, empathy, a hopeful vision, stories and metaphors are powerful weapons in a leader’s arsenal. They are the megaphone for the leader’s voice.