Messiness, meaning and engagement

It was a movie moment right out of I Robot: the logic was irrefutable.

At an all-hands meeting, Brad, the two-hundred employee firm’s president,  spelled out the newly-revised process — created by a small hand-picked team of three people — for manufacturing the company’s flagship product. No process detail had been omitted. Every possible process contingency had been evaluated and factored in. The work flow sequencing was precise, scientific and measurable in every aspect. The logic was irrefutable. Continue reading


5 Strategies for Teamwork at the Edge

Today’s guest post is from Dennis N.T. Perkins, author of Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race, CEO of Syncretics Group, a consulting firm dedicated to helping leaders and teams thrive under conditions of adversity, uncertainty, and change. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, he successfully completed his first Sydney Hobart Race in 2006.

Dennis PerkinsImagine navigating a tiny boat through a sudden, violent storm at sea — with winds roaring at nearly 100 mph and waves soaring to 80 feet — to not only survive, but triumph over formidable competitors in one of the world’s toughest ocean races. Continue reading


Dear Self-absorbed Boss…

Three nearly identical stories shared with me in just two days. Three stories of individual and/or group anguish, trauma, frustration, annoyance, confusion and heartbreak caused by narcissistic control-freak bosses. Stories that made me really sad.

Bosses like this aren’t self-aware or open to feedback, so no amount of pixie dust will help them listen despite how much we have to tell them or want to help them.

Because you need your job and because your boss doesn’t listen to your opinion anyway, let’s try a different tack. Continue reading


Does your CEO care if employees are dissatisfied?

Every month, two to five people quit the small manufacturing company, heading off to a new job.  Concerned with costs and time involved in the revolving door of recruiting and training, the company decided to do an employee survey to see why people were leaving.

Wages and benefits weren’t an issue. People believed they had the right tools, equipment and training to do their job. Continue reading


Address Email Overload, Don’t Eliminate Email

Today’s guest writer is David Grossman, consultant, speaker, author, one of America’s foremost authorities on communication inside organizations, and founder and CEO of The Grossman Group, a Chicago-based communications consultancy focusing on organizational consulting, strategic leadership development and internal communications for Fortune 500 clients.  For more information and resources related to the 2012 Work-related Email Perception Study click here.

Workplace email. We love it, we hate it.

It’s the most commonly used communication tool in virtually every organization today. Yet as leaders we know all too well the serious ramifications of email overload for both individuals and our organizations: increased stress, reduced productivity and efficiency, impacts on work-life balance and so much more.

Consider this: Continue reading


6 ways to build a supportive environment for giving feedback

When starting your own big thing, you’ll encounter times when giving feedback is necessary. When doing so, keep in mind what Jack R. Gibb calls supportive behaviors.  Using this supportive approach allows you to create a safe climate so defensive responses are reduced.

Professor Gibb has this to say about defensive behaviors:

“Defensive behavior is defined as that behavior which occurs when an individual perceives threat or anticipates threat in the group. The person who behaves defensively, even though he also gives some attention to the common task, devotes an appreciable portion of his energy to defending himself. Besides talking about the topic, he thinks about how he appears to others, how he may be seen more favorably, how he may win, dominate, impress, or escape punishment, and.or how he may avoid or mitigate a perceived or an anticipated attack.

Such inner feelings and outward acts tend to create similarly defensive postures in others; and, if unchecked, the ensuing circular response becomes increasingly destructive. Defensive behavior, in short, endangers defensive listening, and this in turn produces postural, facial, and verbal cues which raise the defense level of the original communicator.”

6 ways to build a supportive environment for giving feedback

Description. Focus on describing very specific behavior so the person can repeat the behavior if it’s positive or isolate it if it’s negative. Be non-judgmental.

Problem Orientation. Focus on the task not on the person! Most importantly, focus on behaviors they can change versus labeling them “good” or “bad.”

Spontaneity. Give feedback immediately when you see the behavior, and make it relevant. Assure you don’t have any hidden agendas.

Empathy. Make sure you show your concern for others. Take the perspective of the person to whom you’re giving the feedback.

Equality. Own your comments, yet be willing to participate with the other person to define the problem. Come from a place of equality by de-emphasizing differences in power and/or ability.

Provisionalism. Be tentative and flexible. Demonstrate your willingness to consider alternate points of view and courses of action.  Use phrases like: “We could…One way we might do that is…or I think this is what is happening.” Remember things are not always what they seem.

Give positive feedback when you can and always give feedback because it truly is a gift.

Image from TW Training. See more of Amy’s insights at StartBIG.



Solving Cross-Cultural Communication Problems

Today’s guest post is from Ethan F. Becker, co-author of “Mastering Communication at Work” (McGraw-Hill) and President of The Speech Improvement Company.

Why isn’t your international business thriving? Why are you still running into problems with your international counterparts telling you “yes” one day and then not following through the next? After working with clients in South East Asia since the 1990’s, living in Malaysia with my family for almost a year, conducting research, and coaching senior leaders in some of the area’s largest organizations, I’ve gained insight into the conundrum facing so many international teams: problems with cross-cultural communication. I’ve explored both the communication psyche of senior level executives and the perspectives of multiple organizational levels of employees.  Doing so, I’ve discovered the root of many of these problems as well as a simple solution.  

The Problem

Many issues with cross-cultural communications arise from breakdowns in verbal and body language. Consider:

  • A manager from India who is speaking to a colleague from the United States may come across as condescending and arrogant without knowing he is conveying that attitude. The Indian feels he is simply showing confidence; to his American colleague, he is being offensive. The American doesn’t respect the manager. How likely is it that the two can form a productive working relationship?
  • A man from Singapore meets with a woman from the United States, and they discuss research. To him, research means that if three people agree on a topic, it’s a fact. To the female, research means paying a firm $50,000 to call and poll people for a month. They leave their meeting in agreement that they will research a new product and then go to market with it.  However, they never discuss the meaning of the term research.” What do you think will happen when they meet again at the end of the month for a progress check?
  • A manager from Germany delegates a critical job to an Asian subordinate. Upon the due date, the work is not done.

“Where is the work?” asks the manager.

“It’s on my desk,” replies the subordinate.

“Is it done?” queries the manager.

“Yes,” replies the subordinate. “

“Can I have it?” asks the manager.

“Yes,” replies the subordinate. “

“So where is it?”

“On my desk.”

“So why is it on your desk?”

“Because I’m still working on it,” replies the subordinate.”

“But you said it was done!” exclaims the manager.”

“Yes.” Replies the subordinate.” At which point the manager became frustrated, associating the “yes” replies and the absence of work deception or incompetence. The reality here was the subordinate was fearful of having to share bad news with a source of authority. How can the German manager foster an environment where the Asian subordinate is comfortable enough to transcend her upbringing about disappointing authority and being honest?

  • A woman from Malaysia meets with a man from England to design an event for their company. The man from England discusses the “take-aways” from the event, meaning the lessons people learn and retain. The woman from Malaysia believes “take-aways” are the hand-outs and gifts people take away from the event. Do you think the meeting is a productive one or simply causes confusion?

The Fix

There’s a three-part fix for cross-cultural communication problems:

1. Paraphrase. Repeat what others say in your own words to confirm your understanding.

2. Define terms. When it’s your turn to speak, invest time in creating common definitions of terms; and it’s okay to stop the flow of the meeting to do so. Taking time upfront to define terms and meaning saves time and energy later on. Be patient, and plan for extra time for this.

3. Never assume. Don’t take it for granted that everyone uses terms in the same way. Tone of voice may suggest understanding, but that isn’t proof that both of you are on the same page.  Always double-check.

It’s true that communication problems can crop up in non-multicultural environments as well. Yet in multicultural environments, the chance of communication problems is significantly worse. However, if you are prepared, you can avoid costly communication breakdowns and strengthen productivity by using these three simple steps.

Pay attention to the fix, and you’ll thrive. Don’t use them, and you’re wasting valuable time.


5 Ways to Defuse Unruly Others (and Yourself, too)

No one in the coffee shop could doubt that the fellow in the three-piece suit was having a bad day after hearing him berate the barista for the poor quality of the crema on his espresso. Then it got really outrageous when the barista slammed him back. Had both individuals been a little more self-aware, this public ugliness could have been avoided.

Customers, co-workers, and bosses can, and will, be angry, demanding, rude and short-tempered. (Hopefully, not all the time!) Yet giving in to the urge to respond in kind results in a battle of wills that goes nowhere – fast.

So what should a hard-working guy or gal do when faced with these situations?

5 Ways to Defuse Unruly Others (and Yourself, too)

Recognize but don’t respond to the anger. Seth Godin offers some great advice. “Acknowledge the anger. You don’t have to agree with it, but in order to have a chance at making it go away, you need to empathize with the person’s anger. You cannot negotiate with an angry person.”

Manage your responseThe Mayo Clinic suggests taking ”a break from the person you’re angry with until your frustrations subside a bit.” Go to that happy little place in your mind for a moment. (I have a friend who pictures cuddly puppies when dealing with irate customers.) Walk away. Ask a colleague to finish the transaction especially if you’re at the breaking point.

Don’t fan the flames. If leaving the situation temporarily isn’t an option, speak slowly and softly to the upset individual. Be friendly, not condescending, so the situation doesn’t spiral out of control. Bacal & Associates, specialists in customer service, says, “Escalation doesn’t have to happen. It is important that you be aware of your own behavior in contributing to this cycle, particularly because you will suffer any fallout that a crisis brings. When the situation moves to crisis, probability of violence increases, as does the probability that the person will cause unpleasantness after they leave.”

Avoid the urge to offer advice. Resist your desire to tell the upset individual to “just calm down.” Angry people aren’t looking for or willing to listen to advice. Your well-intentioned help could actually escalate the already difficult situation.

Monitor your body language. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, notes that our facial expression accounts for 55% of how our spoken message is communicated. Avoid activities like frowning, making a fist, placing your hands on your hips or sighing as they can send negative messages which further irritate an already angry person.

What other things have worked for you when confronted with angry customers or colleagues?



Dear Leader: My Name is Important

They were a small organization (by revenue and headcount measures) with a relatively new big problem: escalating turnover. The ever-increasing turnover was sapping their intellectual capital and employee morale. As one might expect, the owner hoped for a quick and low-cost solution.

A few interviews and focus groups later, a very low-cost — in dollar terms — solution was readily available. The leadership team was both shocked and abashed by the findings. Shocked by the brevity, abashed by the contents.

Employees wanted only two thing. Two simple things that meant the world to them. Two simple things that had slipped away as the company grew larger. Their asks and reasons:

Please acknowledge me. I know, boss and senior team, that you’re busy and have important work to do. But you used to say hello or shake my hand or even just nod in my direction. When you did that, I felt valued and a part of things. These days, there’s no hellos when we pass on the shop floor, not even any eye contact. That makes me feel like I’m just another piece of equipment, like I’ve lost my value and don’t mean anything to you or the company. Make me feel a part of things again.

When you do talk to me, get my name right or don’t use one at all. I don’t expect everyone on the senior team to know my name, but I know some of you do know it. So it feels belittling when you call me Bob when my name is George. Even my name badge reads George. I’d rather you call me “buddy” rather than get it wrong. Getting my name wrong says to me that I don’t matter and you don’t care.

The solution is certainly a no-cost one in terms of cash outlay. However, there’s a personal cost to the leadership team to make an effort to balance task completion with relationship building.

I’m hoping they make the investment. What say you?