You may be aware that I am a bit of a Seth Godin fangirl. It takes a great deal of restraint for me to not share nearly every one of his daily blog updates here on my own blog (Twitter is a better vehicle for sharing that sort of thing). Every now and then, though, there is one that is so good that I need to put it up here so that those not yet converted to Godinism read his words of widsom. Like this:
or sleep near a train station.
Don’t ask a cab driver for theater tips.
Never buy bread from the supermarket bakery…
and don’t ask your spouse for honest feedback about how you look.
Don’t do business with a stranger who calls you at home during dinner.
Think twice before you ask your ad agency how many ads you should run.
And never eat the macadamia nuts in the mini bar.
Proximity is not a stand in for expertise.
Think on that last sentence. Equating proximity with expertise is a common stumbling block in many industries. It is rife* in professions where members believe themselves to inherently be Jacks-of-all-trades. Librarians, for example, are extremely prone to this, so are doctors. In these cases, the “proximity” is their professional qualification, and it causes them to look inside their own professional body for people to occupy just about any kind of role necessary.
Going for proximity, regardless what form that proximity takes, is rarely a good strategy.
*Rife, not ubiquitous. There’s a difference.
Have you ever been in the desperately uncomfortable position of having a “buddy” conversation with your supervisor, or being in charge of an employee who treats you more like a therapist than a manager? I’ve never experienced the latter, but know several colleagues who have. The former has happened to me in a few situations, and each time was so writhingly awkward that I never wanted to repeat it again.
That’s the problem with intimate communication among employees within a business. It is its own type of intimacy peculiar to that environment. It matters where people are within the organization’s hierarchy. Even if the organization is relatively flat, there are still underlying pecking orders and relationships that inherently affect the types of conversations that can be held.* Generally speaking, intimate conversations within a business should be just about that – business. It isn’t that we shouldn’t learn about our peers or our supervisors or our employees; it’s that the power structure of a business affects the relationships up and down the ladder. That can change what we are comfortable discussing with our co-workers.
In one industry I worked in, “buddy” type relationships between managers and those working beneath them were encouraged. The idea was that if you could develop a fuzzy, cuddly relationship with your underlings, they would be more likely to be open and honest with you when discussing work.
It was a nice idea in theory. In practice, it muddied working relationships and created a climate of agonizing phoniness. Get-to-know-you conversations with new managers were saccharine in the extreme and did not improve working relationships. People wondered why their managers wanted to know so much about them. Instead of creating stronger and more personal relationships, people began mistrusting the motives of managers acting like their buddy. Would private conversations be shared? Could something they said about their personal lives be used against them?
The difficulty with this approach was that the development of personal intimacy was forced. It was as though merely working with one another in the same industry and the same company meant that you had – or should have – a ‘friend first, manager second’ relationship. If that sort of relationships develops naturally between two co-workers, than that’s great. But it cannot be created quickly in staged situations.
I believe that intimate communication within a business should be about just that – business. You can have intimate conversations and not delve into your employee’s personal lives or play armchair counselor. Intimate business conversations involve discussions where people are able to express their joys, their irritations, and their passions about their work. Fostering this kind of communicative intimacy does not involve becoming your co-worker’s buddy. It involves developing your co-worker’s trust. They need to know that you will allow them to express their feelings and actual opinions without adverse impact on their job or your working relationship. This climate of trust doesn’t depend on your knowledge of their kids’ extracurricular activities or their fondness for off-hours geocaching. It depends on a climate of respect and consideration in which opinions are solicited and considered without fear of backlash.
The type of intimate conversations that happen within a business will change depending on the relationships of the people involved. Conversations held up or down the hierarchical ladder are naturally more constrained than those that happen between equals or peers. Managers are often concerned with revealing too much high-level information to their subordinates. Subordinates are worried about criticizing their managers. There is more opportunity for peers to express their actual opinions to one another, provided they trust the other to not mention those opinions to their supervisors. If the relationship changes, so will the conversations. It is not uncommon for friendships between co-workers to dissolve when one person gets promoted and moves higher up the corporate ladder than their friend. The risks taken when having intimate conversations change are amplified. Conversations end up changing along the same lines as the friendship itself, often becoming more cautious and less open than they were before.
If relationships within a business affect conversations, and conversations are affected by the relative power held by workers, how do you know when you are having an intimate conversation with a co-worker? Look for the degree to which they express emotion. Will they openly express excitement or nervousness? Consider the degree of risk they take when talking to you. Are they willing to challenge your opinions or ask for explanations of your decisions? Pay attention to the content of their statements. Do they make lots of “I” statements and use strong emotive words like “I believe” or “I feel”? These are markers that the person you are talking to trusts you to consider the meat of their points without taking personal affront to what they have to say. This is hugely advantageous; if the people you work with know that they can challenge and debate with you, and then listen to you in return, then you know you can have intimate business discussions with them. These conversations foster a worker’s passion and buy-in, and can result in productive and challenging exchanges that could hugely benefit the company.
Don’t try to force friendship. That won’t always result in intimacy. Try, instead, to create trust. Trust is the absolute foundation for intimate conversation with the people in your organization.
*Let me make the following very clear: when I’m talking about the kinds of conversations that can be had, I’m referring to conversations that are fairly “normal” in nature. If someone is having non-work issues of a nature that require them to have a serious, personal discussion with a peer, supervisor, or other colleague, than that conversation needs to happen. It should be treated with the utmost respect and discretion.
Today’s post is much shorter than usual.
When engaging in business, in communication, or in anything else, please remember the following:
Shortcuts rarely are.
Terrible grammar aside, the above is very, very true. Shortcuts rarely save you time. They rarely save you money. They rarely spare you any work. In fact, saving any of those three things via a shortcut happens so infrequently that you should count on spending more time, more money, and doing more work than you would have if you just did it the right way the first time.
With the recent tragic news regarding the suicide of BC teen Amanda Todd, attention has been renewed on the topic of bullying both in media and in casual conversation. Bullying does seem to be more prevalent now than it has been in recent years (possibly due to the potential for 24/7 harassment over internet social platforms). Much of the focus on bullying is on teens, and generally they do partake in the more explicitly vicious forms of harassment. It strikes me, however, that adult bullying is also on the rise.
Seeing as we spend a substantial number of our waking hours at our jobs – and that many workplaces merely feel like adult-populated versions of high school – the workplace becomes prime bullying territory. I personally know many people who have been specifically targeted for workplace bullying. This bullying typically came from a manager or supervisor with a higher status than their target. While teens openly taunt, mock, harass, and attack, workplace bullies are slightly more subtle than that. In addition to a more sophisticated bullying approach, workplace bullies are often protected by their superior rank within the organization. Several of my personal acquaintances have been harassed by a workplace bully in the following ways:
All of the above circumstances occurred in organizations in a dysfunctional work environment. This should not come as a surprise; workplaces cannot be functional when employees are the targets for such actions. What does surprise me is that many managers and supervisors – especially those who engage in bullying – believe that their tyrannical management methods will create a dutiful, compliant, diligent workforce. The managers I witnessed first-hand engaging in this behaviour seemed mystified when employees avoided talking to them or communicating with them any more than absolutely necessary. They admonished employees for not talking to them, citing platitudes such as “my door is always open.”
These workplace bullies operate under considerable delusion. Firstly, they believe that their behaviour is acceptable. Secondly, they have absolutely no clue that they are responsible for the most fundamental and damaging type of organizational communication breakdown: erosion of trust.
Really effective communication occurs when the parties trust one another. We inherently listen to and share with people who we believe have a common interest and who we trust will act in a manner agreeable to us. Bullying erodes trust more quickly than any other action I can think of. Even habitual lying will not do as much damage as bullying if the habitual liar is generally likable. We want to think that the likable liar is telling us the truth, so we give them the benefit of the doubt. We know the bully will continue to victimize us or others, and so we instantly distrust anything they say. We know that no matter what they do or say, we cannot trust them or their motives. Add the behavioural dissonance when a bully says that their door is always open but will use anything you say against you, and you have a recipe for a closed, non-communicative organization.
When employees within an organization do not feel they can comfortably talk to their managers or with one another, dysfunction sets in. People cannot effectively work when they cannot comfortably share information. The end result is poor performance and high turnover, which is costly at best and ruinous at worst. If a manager feels that they need to rule with a strict hand and through malicious tactics, they should be prepared to have their subordinates leave them out of the loop. They should also be prepared for employees to quit after a fairly short period, and – if the bully’s own supervisors have even one iota of sense – for their own tenure at that organization to be brief.
I’ve spent most of the past week flat on my back fighting a vicious sinus infection. Unable to string together a single coherent sentence in written or spoken word, I settled for laying on the couch watching lousy television and feeling sorry for myself.
Much of that layabout time was spent watching old episodes of the BBC Dragons’ Den. I love that program in all its iterations – the BBC version, the American version (called Shark Tank), and my personal favourite, the Canadian version. Taken with the usual heavy grain of reality TV salt, the programs are a great little lab to study human posturing. It is equally interesting seeing the potential investors’ responses to the business pitches or the individuals themselves. I’ve often heard the investors say that while they are interested in the business, they have no faith in the person presenting the pitch and don’t want to invest in them. On the other hand, I’ve also seen them take risks on early-model or only partially formed businesses because the individual pitching it was so compelling.
So say it with me together, boys and girls: likability matters!
It matters so, so much. You know those people who for some reason can say the most outrageous and insulting things, and people continue to delight in their company? They’re likable. What about those people who, no matter how intelligent or correct their statement may be, will still raise the ire of everyone in the room? They probably aren’t likable, and probably couldn’t say anything that would please their present company.
A big factor for likability is openness and candor. Often a lack of likability is due more to a chilly or withdrawn manner than actual social awkwardness. There was an especially good example of the impact of likability from the series’ third episode. Despite the stuffy, angry, uncomfortable, exhausted haze through I was viewing the program, I became very excited about this particular clip. It is a case study in why a chilly demeanor will get you nowhere when trying to persuade others, and why it is rarely – if ever – a good thing to hide information.
I have to link to the entire episode, but the bit to watch is the disposable outdoor furniture pitch, which runs from 30:30 to 41:08:
What a frosty presentation! I’ve seen people get away with making far ruder retorts than that woman and yet who don’t put off the investors as much as she did. Dragon Rachel actually tells the woman flat out that a big portion of her refusal to invest in the idea is down to the woman’s behaviour: “You don’t come across as very likable…”
Developing your likability is a big, involved topic, but if you are looking for a place to start, start with warmth. Invite and welcome people into your speech and your ideas. Err on the side of too much openness rather than taking the cagey, secretive route. The difference in reception can be astounding!
The definition of ‘professionalism’ is as varied as the contents of people’s bagged lunches. What we consider professional will vary greatly depending on our personality, experiences, education, and frame of mind at any given moment.
Some days I see ‘being professional’ as being capable of effortlessly moving from one group of colleagues to another while maintaining an engaging flow of intelligent, insightful conversation. On these days I feel like a corporate superstar, capable of handling even the most demanding conference. Other days, ‘being professional’ means not launching myself across a table and throttling a fellow meeting attendee. On days like that, the best policy is usually to avoid saying anything much and, if possible, get out of as many human interactions as I can.
There are some markers of professionalism, however, that I consider fairly universal. One of them is the use of an open, friendly attitude towards your clients or colleagues. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes this is difficult. The ability to instantly produce a genuine (or genuine-looking) smile helps enormously with this task. Being friendly and taking an interest in the other person will get you much further than adopting a flat, expression-free aloofness, no matter how much you think such behaviour conveys expertise and knowledge.
Another marker is writing style. The use of emoticons, excessive exclamation marks, unnecessary double quotes, and other such devices can distract the reader from your actual message. It might make you sound overly emotional and slightly unhinged. At worst it makes you sound like a teenage girl. There is never – ever – any need for smiley faces in business emails or communications.
In terms of my personal tastes for projecting professionalism, I like to see a person’s capacity for self-control. Self-control doesn’t mean lack of expression – far from it. Easy expressiveness tells people what state of mind you may be in and opens up communication. Rather, I mean that the individual is able to refrain from expression excessive excitement or excessive disappointment. The level of excitement displayed should be proportional to the issue at hand. For instance, I don’t like seeing people reach massive states of thrill when they learn of a new initiative that may possible happen if all the conditions are right. I’d rather see genuine interest tempered with a rational discussion of the likelihood of those conditions being reached. Once the conditions are ripe and the project is actually initiated, then the excitement can build.
What sort of behaviours do you consider markers for professionalism?