Monday, September 10, 2012

Manager Mondays: A Communications Culture of Respect

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a weekly series of posts about good workforce messaging.  Today we're serving up a mild and mellow brew of ideas about everyday speech patterns that convey respect.

In his thought-provoking book, How Starbucks Saved My Life, Michael Gates Gill describes his transformation from Madison Avenue marketing mogul to broom-wielding, bean-grinding barista.  Along the way, he makes some staggering discoveries that change his perspective about work, life, and happiness.

One thing Gill realizes very early into his tenure at Starbucks is the difference in the communications culture there. For one thing, he notices that his boss, Crystal, never raises her voice at the workers, no matter how aggravated she becomes.  She also never uses crude "street language" to get her point across, and she corrects workers who do.

Gill comes to realize that these small disciplines are meant to uphold the Starbucks "uncompromising principle" that is posted on the wall: "To create a great work environment and treat each other with respect and dignity."

Have you set similar boundaries for yourself regarding your workplace communications style?

As a new Starbucks "Partner," Gill is especially struck by another universal trait of the Starbucks world: whenever anyone wants anyone else on the team to do something, they always ask rather than demand.   "Can you do me a favor?"  "Would you mind restocking the condiments for me?"  "How about working the register today?"   Communications that could have been barked as mandatory commands are gentled into the form of open-ended requests.

Gill observes that this simple choice of sentence format -- phrasing direction as a question instead of an imperative -- makes a profound difference in the atmosphere at his Starbucks store:  "There was never an order given."  He concludes that this practice empowers everyone to care more about each other.  By contrast, he becomes more and more aware of the times when he wants to revert to his "old habits of wanting to be in control, to get people to do things I needed them to do."  Instead of yielding to those impulses, he begins to absorb the concept of teamwork  as he learns to give and receive respect.

Gill notes, "Crystal and my partners at Starbucks... had given me a chance to work and live and see things a new way.  The least I could do was help them by not reverting to my old, prideful, control-freak self.  Yes, I had to admit, I had been a control freak... I had loved ordering people to work overtime or change a headline or even bring me a cup of coffee. I had been a real bad boss.  It was time to be a real good Partner.  I promised myself that I would not get so pumped up with ambition or a crazy self-righteous pride in anything I did that I lost my perspective again."

Ambition?  Crazy self-righteous pride?  Both of these attitudes can take root and manifest themselves all too easily in speech patterns, particularly when one person has a little bit of power over another. It especially shows up in the way some employers give commands to employees.

I have a term for this kind of speech.  I call it "Deal With It" messaging:  the boss issues the edict from on high, and the underlings just have to deal with it.

Would your team say that's your default messaging style?

"Yeah.  So what?" you may shrug.  "They do have to deal with it.  They should get used to the fact."  Maybe you're among the majority population of bosses who assume that it's their right to sound "bossy." If so, be my guest.  But as a workplace communications maven, I have to tell you that the ego-boost of such verbal arrogance comes at a huge cost. You may get legal compliance, but you'll never get loyal camaraderie.   Workers are much less likely to go above and beyond for a boss who makes them feel below and beneath.

On the other hand, asking people to do something, instead of telling them, tends to defuse the polarization that comes with power.  It does so in three ways:

1.  A request implies face-saving limits to authority.  Asking for a person's Yes is a sign of respect for his or her right to say No.   You're not a slave owner, or a dictator. You may own the conditional power to command, but you do not own the absolute power to control.  A request tacitly acknowledges this.  It can elicit the same obedience as a command, but it allows the requested to retain his or her human dignity.  (This is the Starbucks rationale that Michael Gates Gill presents in his book.)

2.  A request results in a voluntary verbal commitment.   "Would you be able to do this?" requires a clear "Yes" or "No" answer in response.  On the other hand, "Do this!" does not. Why does this matter?  Two reasons.  Externally speaking, once a person verbally agrees to take action, that person can be held accountable for follow-through.  Internally speaking,  in the minds of most people, when they agree to take action, that action moves one step closer to reality in their mind's eye -- so it becomes more likely that they will actually do it.  In both respects, the requested person assumes greater ownership of the outcome.

3.  A request loads the pipeline for greater levels of compliance.  Anyone who's done any sales training knows that a person's Yes is a powerful thing.  Sales dialogues are intentionally structured to elicit as many Yeses as possible so that, at the final close, prospects are so used to saying Yes that their final Yes falls right into place.   Asking for action instead of demanding it has a similar effect.   Workers who are given the choice to say Yes to a task will react more positively to the task.  They will also be more predisposed to saying Yes the next time, and the time after that.  A string of verbal commitments given to a series of requests can result in a strong habit of  behavioral compliance.  From the worker's point of view, compliance given to requests feels more evenhanded -- founded on mutual benefit, not merely forced by arbitrary mandate.  It leads to patterns of positive behavior that are powered by an ongoing authentic relationship, not an authoritarian chain of command.

Got it?  Okay, we're out of all that deep psychological water now.  Let me just underscore the idea of respect by saying that, without it, you won't get far in the workplace.  One of my tenets of training design goes like this:

Authentic respect brings enduring results. 

By this I mean that, if you as a leader want the best performance from your people, you need to cultivate respect for them in every way you can, and convey that respect to them in every way you can.   

Do you take the iconic value of respect seriously enough to consistently:
- moderate your voice tones so you never raise your voice?
- limit your workplace to strictly G-rated vocabulary?
- phrase your commands as requests?

If not, now might be the time to revise these aspects of your everyday communications strategy.

Sometimes it takes a major career plummet, the way it did for Michael Gates Gill, before we become aware of how caustic we can sound to those we lead.  Don't wait for that to happen to you.   Don't be the kind of person who needs to have her house of cards fall before she realizes she's been playing the "boss" card way too frequently -- or who has to lose his dictator status before he realizes that everyone is deserving of dignity.

How Starbucks Saved My Life  illustrates many concepts that Starbucks has used to build a dynamic and accountable team culture.  I recommend it!  It's a quick and engaging read for anyone, but especially for anyone in a leadership role who is concerned about improving their team's performance.  A word of warning, though: the performance that you find needs the most improving could be your own!

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