Monday, July 30, 2012

Manager Mondays: Why You Should Share Your Backstory

Welcome to Manager Mondays, where it's all about communicating more effectively with employees.  This time, it's literally all about you.

The Summer Olympics are underway, and its viewership is reported to be the highest ever among American TV watchers.  Not just for the main events, either.  We're also glued to our screens for little-known events such as synchronized diving and skeet shooting, happily absorbed as we learn terms for feats and maneuvers that we never knew existed before this moment.   

Right now I'm watching the Japanese beach volleyball team get another Side Out.  And as I spectate, I wonder: Why are we caring so much?  What keeps us in such a prolonged fever pitch of Olympic interest?  After all, if any of these sports had been displayed in any other venue a month ago, we'd have changed channels quicker than that overhead serve the Japanese guy just hammered. So what makes all this random competition so compulsively riveting now?

Experts are saying that our sustained interest in everything Olympic is due to all the personal history we're being told about each of these athletes. For example, I just heard about how the guy playing on the American beach volleyball team has a rare medical condition that he only recently discovered by accident, when he took his wife for a check-up and the doctor happened to look at his arm.  So now I simply have to watch him play. I was going to turn off the TV to finish writing this post, but not any more.  Suddenly I care about this guy.  A few more spikes and he might need oxygen or something. Mr. American Volleyball Man may be 6 foot 9 inches tall and able to bench press three of me, but doggone it, now I'm kinda worried about him.

That, right there, is the reason why Olympic sports broadcasts don't just provide so-called "color" commentary  --  they make that commentary positively, iridescently, day-glo.  We hear everything they can dig up about every athlete, because backstories create emotional involvement.  And emotional involvement is what keeps us engaged and paying rapt attention -- even when the station goes to commercial break.

As Olympics-watchers, we're especially moved by the stories of athletes overcoming tragedy.  We're interested in what athletes do in their downtime, but we really want to know how how they keep going when they face personal setbacks.  Their real stories offer real truths that feed our inspiration.

The same is true at work.  If you want your staff to care, add some personal color commentary to your communications.  Tell some anecdotes.  Disclose some facts about yourself.  Give some history.  Explain how you overcame.  You'll get more love if you let down your guard and let your people find out a little more about you.

Of course, there are dangers to this approach, too.  There's such a thing as TMI.*  The goal is to build rapport, not be a bore.  And some stories from the past, like frat parties and failed driver's tests, might not help build your image as an inspiring leader.  But that's no reason to keep your distance.  

Here are some tips to navigate the world of self-disclosures: 

Do's and Don'ts for Sharing Background Info

Keep it short.  A woman who mentions that she ran a charity 5K last weekend gets accolades.  A woman who goes on to talk about that 5K for the next five minutes gets pegged as a self-absorbed superior do-gooder fitness freak.  There's a word to describe a boss who believes all his workers are, or should be, fascinated by everything he does and every opinion he voices.  It's called narcissistic.  Don't be that guy.

Keep it unobjectionable. Be sensitive to cultural differences, generational divides, and the limits of civil discourse. Not everyone wants to know what you new tattoo looks like, why you chose it, and where it is located.  Still fewer people want to actually be shown it.  (By the way, this kind of TMI moment is as good a reason as any to limit alcohol consumption at office parties.) 

Keep it interesting.  Describing your latest battle with the slugs on your backyard tomato plants may not be fascinating fare for non-gardeners.  However, your fight to get the squirrels out of your attic might be the kind of hilarious escapade that passes into legend.  How to tell?  Give your story idea a test drive with your friends before you launch it at work. 

Keep it "Everyman." Once I was on a non-profit task force whose chairman was a huge restaurant aficionado. He liked to talk about his outings to  expensive steak places and other five-star eateries.  At the time, I was a single mom who dreamed about affording an outing to Chuck E. Cheese. I learned to slip away from those meetings before my resentment could boil over or my depression could bottom out.  

Keep it relevant. When you kick off the budget meeting with an amusing tale about your child's lemonade stand, it can introduce an adorable "aww" factor and boost your humanity quotient.   It can also pave the way for an analogy later on: "I just don't want us to spend all our cash on lemonade mix and then run out of paper cups."

Keep it real.  The reason you're sharing your backstory is to build rapport.  Real situations from your real life will resonate with your staff.   But keep it positive, too -- otherwise people may think you're out to get sympathy.  

Keep it appropriate to the current emotional climate.  Let's say your whole department is seething with anger about the new no-overtime company policy.  Is this a good time to reminisce about buying your first new car?  Probably not.  However, sharing your stories about how the company got through a previous austerity cycle might be a helpful reminder that tough times are usually temporary.    

Be interested in other peoples' backstories, too.  If you want people to care, you need to show that you care about them.  Be curious. Strike up a conversation.  It's not considered intrusive to ask people how they manage their commute to work, or whether they have any plans for the weekend, or what they're going to do on their vacation.  Asking such questions might also lead to some unexpected common bonds.  (Who knew that Nate the new guy grows tomatoes, too, and makes a killer slug repellent from seaweed?)

Your Backstory Is Your Philosophy

When we give people a glimpse of our non-work world, we fill in some blanks about ourselves that help others "get" us better.  Anecdotes reveal priorities.  People at work want to know that their boss can understand their needs and struggles. When the college diploma on your wall draws a comment, and you  tell about how you earned it at night school while working as a furniture mover by day, that story resonates with anyone who's ever stretched to meet their goals. By telling them about your life, you show that you can relate to theirs.

In a deeper way, people can feel better about following you when you demonstrate that your life has structure and purpose in ways to which they can personally relate.  That lemonade stand story is more than cute; it shows that you're emotionally invested in your family.  It tells about how you handle power, and about the value you place on relationships. All of that context helps people respect you and care about making you proud and happy.  People up their performance when they have a boss they feel good about pleasing -- not one they feel they have to keep appeasing. 

Your self-disclosures also reveal what you think is important or praiseworthy.  The "Cab Driver Who Couldn't Find The Airport" story that you tell when you return from the business trip is not just a humorous tale; it's also an indicator of how you react to poor performance.  And when you ask your employees, "In a situation like that, do you think it's worth it to send an email to the taxi company?" you invite a discussion about values and responsibility that goes way beyond casual coffee break conversation.

We're All In This Together

Candid comments about our personal lives can add color to our working relationships.  They can level the playing field and alleviate tension. Remember, the objective of telling your backstory is to increase rapport and help your team view you as a real person, not some kind of reclusive power-monger.  The more they can share in your story, the more likely they'll remain open to your leadership.

At the same time, letting your team know more about you gives them permission to be more of who they really are.   Injecting a little of the real you into your work conversations can be a way to acknowledge, and encourage, everyone's common humanity.  And that's one way to maintain a healthy workplace culture.

Think back to the times in your life when you felt the most open with bosses or other authority figures.  You probably remember some personal facts about them.  Maybe you can recall their favorite pastimes, music preferences, or movie celebrities.  Your memory might also contain some facts about their background and career path.  How did you find out those things?  They shared their backstory.

In fact, if you had a really comfortable relationship, you might even remember their favorite Olympic sport. That reminds me: it's time for women's synchronized diving.  Did you know that both girls on the American team collect rubber ducks? Go Team USA! 

*TMI stands for Too Much Information, an expression that means the inappropriate sharing of facts that might best be left unspoken.  See tattoo comment above.

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