Sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves that effective leadership really is all about people.
I occasionally look back through my archive of communication materials to remind myself of important ideas and interesting observations. I rediscovered this interview with Gary Smith, President and CEO of Ciena, next-gen software and telecomunications company from October 4, 2015 (New York Times).
Look for how he draws leadership inspiration from his personal life. Experts (like DLM Communications, as a totally random example) can share with you great techniques for effective leadership, but learning them through your personal experience is often the best way to drive them home, to make them meaningful to you.
In this interview, you can see Smith’s leadership approach evolve from analytical observation to personal connection.
Here is an edited version of that interview…
Tell me more about your parents. How have they influenced your leadership style?
My father was particularly influential. He never said a bad word about anybody, and I’ve taken some lessons from that. He was always very positive, and he did it naturally. He’s not confrontational at all and will do anything to avoid a confrontation.
My mother was a little more confrontational and very direct when she needed to be. I’ve taken a little bit of both of them, and part of the skill is to know when to pull on the different levers. It’s very situational.
What are some other leadership lessons you’ve learned over the years?
Early on in my career, I was told, “It’s all about people.” I got it intellectually, but it took me quite a while to really get it. It really is all about people, and if you get that right, the other stuff will get addressed. But you have to work at it all the time.
Culture takes an awful lot of time and effort, and it can be destroyed very quickly, because it’s built on trust and respect. You’re respecting the individual and what they do, and you’re trusting them, and they’re doing the same for you. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like personal relationships.
How do you hire?
I tend to focus more on whether the person is the right fit for the company. So I’ll ask questions like What do you truly enjoy doing? How can I tell if you’re having a bad day, and how does that manifest itself? What are the things that really irritate you, and what do you do about it? What’s it like to work for you? How do you interact with your peers? What do you do if you don’t agree with the direction of the company?
If you are a leader in a new role, or veteran manager, take a look at role models in your life – what you respect about them, how they deal with people, what they think of you. The lessons you need to elevate your approach to communication leadership are all around us.
How do you get down from an elephant? You don’t, you get down from a duck!
I don’t remember when I first heard that joke, but I still love it. First of all, the word “duck” is just funny. (Science has proven, “if you’re going to tell a joke about an animal, make it a duck!”) Second, switching context is a classic comic technique, as when Henny Youngman coined the decidedly non-feminist one-liner, “Take my wife, please!” referring to her both as an example of something, and also a plea.
Like jokes with a twist, communication is all about context. Tone, intention and bias all influence the probability of an effective conversation. “I’ll take care of it!” means one thing in a restaurant, and quite another when talking to the local crime boss.
There are essentially five forms of context that can influence interpersonal communication.
That is, nothing you say happens in a vacuum. You are not alone on an island where your words only affect yourself. You are surrounded by natives who want to know your intentions.
Psychological context is all about who you are and what you bring to the conversation. Most people aren't troubled with day to day interactions, and there’s no way to alter your innate personality anyway. But, even on the best of days we are often required to temper our real thoughts and phrase things to be more palatable to the listener. We might be feeling a little grumpy, but we also know it’s easier to catch flies with honey than demand they fly into the bug zapper.
That’s when you need to be aware of how you might be affecting other people and alter your approach accordingly. Debbie Downer, the classic buzz killer character on Saturday Night Live, is an example of someone who DOESN’T recognize the negative effect she has on people. And of course, as anyone who brings home remnants of a stressful work life can tell you, it can sometimes be a real challenge.
I saw a sign in the office of a high school guidance counselor, posted as a reminder to students whose youth and hormones sometimes play havoc with their better judgment: “Check yourself, before you wreck yourself!”
There are a few layers here and it’s no wonder communication can get so complicated. Effective relational context depends on an agreement of who you think YOU are, who THEY think you are, who THEY think they are, who YOU think they are.
Thus, it is about your reaction to other people. A comment from a stranger might lead you to be defensive, whereas the same comment from a friend you might take as informed advice.
Another way to think about relational context is how you perceive each other's social status – given your relationship, what are your mutual expectations. On the improv stage we use this idea all the time as a shortcut to character creation. If I come in as the king, the best way to support that idea is for you to come in as a peasant. That relative social status is universally recognized. Then we can get to the comedy!
When the owner of a company is stopped at security and says, “Do you have any idea who I am?”, until that point the real relational context was unknown. Now the situation requires a quick rejiggering of expectations, something often difficult to do on the fly.
You obey your boss because, traditionally, she has a higher social status. Whereas, at home with your partner, hopefully, there might be some discussion. This is the concept that allows us to know the best supervisors are the ones who create a greater sense of partnership by fostering a more equal status.
There's a lot more going on in conversations than people generally acknowledge. So, on the one hand it can make things incredibly complicated. But, on the other, almost all of it is under our control. We'll look at the remaining factors – and more Monty Python clips – next month!
My last post looked at a study by social psychologist Amy Cuddy who discovered that “warmth and competence” are the two traits we most desire to see in other people. If you look at the Fancy Chart below you can see Pity and Envy are two emotions we often feel when faced with the spectrum of those two factors. The other two are Contempt and Admiration.
Contempt – the intersection between “cold and incompetent” – is one of those feelings we usually reserve for people who we feel have wronged us with seemingly no remorse. They have acted, or chosen not to act, selfishly and with complete disregard for consequences.
It's a pretty fair guess that the most despised person in America as of this writing is pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli. He was publicly branded a pariah after it was announced he had raised the price of a life-saving drug from $13.50 per pill, to $750.00 per pill, overnight. News commentators wore out their thesaurus looking for synonyms for "contempt." It's a natural instinct when you hear something so seemingly callous, justified or not.
Cuddy found low-income or state-supported populations often fall into this category. If you are suspicious that poor people aren't doing enough to get themselves out of poverty and perhaps taking advantage of the system, you will likely have little empathy for them. And as Cuddy points out, this is a normal emotional reaction.
But, as we all know from our rocky office and romantic relationships, acting purely on emotion usually doesn't end well. It's pretty clear regularly feeling contempt is an unhealthy way to view the world. You can't stop forming a first impression – humans after are all emotional creatures – but you can give the benefit of the doubt. When a client tells me how angry they get at stupid managerial decisions, I advise them to take a breath and not assume incompetence. Few people are deliberately inept and out to get us. Likewise, think about the last time your feelings were hurt and after talking it out you admitted, “Oh, that’s not what I thought you meant.”
Tom Hanks is often referred to as “the nicest guy in Hollywood.” He's won multiple Golden Globes, Emmys, Oscars and a whole bunch of other awards for his undeniable talent. As an actor myself I think: that guy is super nice and super talented! I want to be that! When I get my first Emmy I'll let you know how it's going.
Sticking with the Star Trek theme from the previous post, Captain Picard is considered one of the most admired diplomats in the galaxy! His command of language and alien societies combined with warmth and agreeability are undeniable. And Vulcans aren't the only one who thinks so! I recommend an excellent book by Wess Roberts, called “Star Trek: Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Take two minutes to see the master at work.
Do you remember your favorite mentor or teacher? Chances are he or she was both smart and made you feel good about yourself. I think of Mr. Quirk, my high school Advanced Composition teacher. He knew writing better than anyone and got people excited about it. And he always had time for a chat when we ran into each other in the library. I admired him. That experience informs how I interact with my students today.
Amy Cuddy’s study shows us what first impressions we make on people. The good news is since we know what qualities affect that perception – warmth and competence – we have an opportunity to make sure we stay nice and cozy in the “Admiration” quadrant by monitoring our behavior and increasing those qualities. Practice your presentation or interview, show a genuine interest in other people. Take command of your starship!
Not everyone can come across as a lovable 'ole teddy bear. But, we do have the ability to change how people perceive us and focus on the most positive aspects. In a previous post I considered the social and professional value of attempting to “be the type of person you would like to meet.” This is about perception.
According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, “warmth and competence” are the two positive traits we most desire to see in our fellow humans. And they are not insignificant. She states these first impressions account for “80 percent of our overall evaluation of people.”
When we meet someone for the first time we are unconsciously asking, “Do I like this person or not?” We answer by making a snap judgment based on those two factors, the relative strength of which informs how we feel about that person.
The four basic responses are contempt, pity, envy, and admiration. Can you guess which first impression would be the most advantageous? Let’s look at two of them and see how they play out in the real world.
Cuddy explains “pity” best in a summary article of her research in Harvard Magazine:
“The warm/incompetent quadrant…evokes an ambivalent emotion: pity, which fuses compassion and sadness. People are more likely to help groups in this cluster, like the elderly, but also much more likely to ignore and neglect them, says Cuddy. Furthermore, the more strongly one subscribes to the warm/incompetent stereotype, the more likely one is to both help and ignore such people. “It depends on the situation,” she says. “If you’re at a backyard barbecue, you’re more likely to help the elderly person. In the office, you’ll probably neglect them.”
That is a fascinating observation which can have direct consequences in the workplace. Obviously, intentionally or unintentionally avoiding anyone in an environment where collaboration and communication is valued can have a negative impact on your work and others. Or, at the very least create unwanted anxiety in either party. But, with a little self-awareness and motivation, one can take positive action – the opposite of neglect – and improve your interactions with those marginalized parties. Recognize your feelings and behaviors and go out of your way to be more inclusive. Remember that birthday party in the 6th grade you weren’t invited to?
At the other end of the warmth and competence spectrum “…groups seen as cold/competent evoke envy…it involves both respect and resentment.”
Let’s look at the Star Trek universe, one of the best of all universes. Commander Data, the silver-skinned android on board the starship Enterprise has many times saved the crew from imminent disaster by completing complex tasks much more efficiently than his humanoid counterparts. Many times his companions expressed a desire to have his exceptional skill sets. And yet, in the earlier episodes, he was utterly unable to understand simple concepts such as friendship or loss which sometimes estranged him from members of the crew.
Seeing the value of emoting warmer connections, he eventually created an “emotion chip” that allowed him to achieve a much greater level of human empathy.
During a particularly harrowing adventure, Data turns the chip off so as not to be distracted by his new feelings. Play this 28 second clip to hear Captain Picard's response.
Unfortunately, not being made of gyroscopes and circuitry you and I do not have that luxury. At the same time, our empathy does allow us to recognize how we are perceived by others, to “change our minds” and our actions to demonstrate a greater warmth. This is something that can be taught. Inexperienced managers, brusk CEOs and emotionally detached presidential candidates – think Al Gore and Hillary Clinton – see the value of this and are often coached to show more compassion and humor.
If we are aware of how we come across we have the tools to change people’s perceptions. Next month we’ll dig into the factors surrounding “admiration” and “contempt.” No spoilers, but it will have something to do with mermaids and the most despised man in America!
The Myers-Briggs personality test is a process by which one performs a self evaluation and the result tells you which of 16 different personality types you fall into. There are many similar evaluative tests such as the Predictive Index or Traitify which attempt to mirror the same quantitative outcome, but Myers-Briggs is by far the most popular.
Although the test can be applied to many social and personal circumstances, it is most often used in the workplace in an attempt by the management to reform poor employee communications. In theory, the implementation of this process can create more agreeable collegial relationships.
Introspection and awareness of your personal communication strengths and foibles can be very helpful. Likewise, it can be satisfying to gain insight into how a colleague generally processes information. Defensively, anxiously, or excitedly, for example. You can alter your approach based on their expected reaction.
I have taken many such tests over my career and found them fascinating in theory, but cumbersome in practice. There is no denying that improving communication with friends and co-workers can have an empowering and positive effect on relationships. But personality tests, by definition, can create categories that isolate people from one another. They define perceived personal limitations and encourage you to consider how your personality type should interact with the opposing personality type. This approach is often mechanical and belies the natural human desire to find agreement regardless of “type.” As I tell my students when they are looking for a shortcut to success, “I would rather work the skill than find a work-around.”
DLM uses group mind and organic communication practices derived from traditional and improvisational theater. This allows one to stay in the moment, to listen, remain positive and find common ground by discovering constructive agreement. It’s experiential, not analytical.
Also known as the “Yes, And Technique,” this universal tool applies regardless of your communication environment and where people fall on the personality matrix. As you sharpen the effectiveness of your personal interactions it becomes second nature, and the differences revealed by testing become less important.
This comprehensive and natural philosophy encourages behavior we should all employ as a general principle. As mentioned in a previous post, this approach actually gives you the tools to be the change you want to see in the world, not simply define the things you want to change.
Ever fall off a bike?
Often the best way to alter unhelpful behavior is to first recognize the change you want to make, commit to improvement, and then practice the solution until it becomes second nature. Going from ignorance of a problem to unconscious perfection is often referred to as the “Four Stages of Learning.”
This model appeals to my avidity for the step by step process, even in the creative realms. I tell all of my theater students the same thing – you can’t accidentally become a better performer. Improv requires being open to crazy and unexpected ideas. Messing around and being playful during rehearsals is part of that. But eventually, you need to flex a specific muscle and intentionally decide to move from a lower level of ability to a higher one. It’s not just practice, it’s practice with purpose.
Unconscious Incompetence ("I didn't even know I was doing that!")
Many habits are so ingrained we don’t even realize we are doing them. I’ve noticed in my work that men often pace when they are feeling anxious. Young women in particular sometimes stand with their ankles crossed for the same reason.
When I was 9 years old my older brother broke me of a lingering childish habit. He said, “Every time you put your thumb in your mouth, take it out again.” I had literally been doing it my entire life and he had to point it out for me to stop. Fortunately, he had found the quick fix. (Years later I used the same technique on a student who constantly put his hands in his pockets.) One of the challenges of improving behavior is knowing where to start.
Conscious Incompetence ("Ugh, why am I doing that!")
I recently worked with an accomplished but quiet woman who was fighting against a lifetime of reinforced introversion. Growing up in Russia, she dutifully adhered to the principle of a common proverb, “’I’ is the last letter of the alphabet.” (Indeed, the letter ‘я’ or “ya” does come last in the Russian alphabet.)
She was raised believing it was culturally inappropriate to draw attention to herself. At this stage of her improvement she recognizes her stumbling block and actively tries to buck that trend by speaking up, looking people in the eye and offering a firm handshake.
It helps to be self aware during social interactions. Things like texting or checking your watch during a face to face conversation, or talking over someone in a meeting and other seemingly innocuous actions can have an eroding effect over time. Understanding these marginalizing behaviors as they happen will help you “live edit” your interactions.
Conscious Competence ("This is the way we wash our hands!")
This is where all of your thoughtful observations start to pay off. Where you begin to think, “Ok, I’m doing this thing now!” When I teach presentation skills to students they practice walking into the room, planting their feet firmly shoulder’s width apart, introducing themselves and smiling before they begin.
It’s a step by step process but delightfully simple and the perfect plan to overcome the pacing, fast talking and anxiety often associated with public speaking. You know you are doing it – you are fully aware of your motions. Like the first time you rode a bicycle.
Unconscious Competence ("I am awesome? Thank you, I hadn't noticed.")
And like learning to ride a bicycle, you eventually stop stressing about how to push the pedals. No one wants to think to themselves, “I need to smile now.” But the repetition and positive feedback – like not crashing, literally and figuratively – encourages progress. That once awkward action becomes second nature. You have become the master of your own behavior!
Humans are creatures of habit but are also very adaptable when circumstances require. So when you embark on your decision to be more assertive in your professional life, or become a more powerful presenter, or practice a more empathic style of management, remember to practice. And not just practice, practice with purpose!