Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Crisis Messaging in the Hurricane

The lights are back on in my house, and I and millions of other New Yorkers are surveying our immediate neighborhoods, giving thanks for our relative stability, and trying to cope with the surrounding situation.  Two days without power, a section of fence blown down -- I know I got off cheap.

When your only link to the outside world is a battery-operated radio. you tend to pay a lot of attention to what the public officials are saying.  Public officials have  been taking the microphone throughout Hurricane Sandy's onslaught, and I've been giving them good marks for Crisis Messaging. (Click on the link to read my previous post about this subject.)  For people like me whose neighborhoods weren't hit very hard, these briefings have been informative.  But for those who lost homes, cars and livelihoods, they have been a lifeline of hope.

  We're still not out of the storm yet, and the psychological effect will be hard to measure for some time to come.  But well-articulated leadership communication will be essential to achieving normalcy, whether that communication emanates from Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or the head of the local National Guard.

The incredible wind and waves have brought disaster, but our leaders' radio voices reassure us that recovery is possible.  They appeal to our best selves, while they caution us to "not be stupid."  We listen to all they have to say, filtering it for the specific bits of news we each need to know, and the hope we all need to feel.

We don't know a lot.  We don't know how long it will take to reinstate the power grid, the subways,  or the trains.  All are a shambles. We don't know when bridges will be passable.  We don't know the new shape of our coastline.  We don't know when we will see more gasoline tanker trucks pulling into our corner gas stations (with many local fuel pumps displaying Out Of Gas signs, those of us who still have functioning cars are nervous about obtaining the gas to drive them).

Nerves are fraying at the 7-11 and in the Target parking lot.  In some cases, tempers are flaring and harsh words are being shouted.  The voices of our leaders help ground us and enable us to have patience, forbearance and fortitude as we all work through this together.  When Governor Christie chokes up as he talks about the vanished icons of his beloved Jersey shore, our emotions get a push in the right direction.  We are all in various stages of shock, and we need to be kind to each other.

The election signs have been torn loose and scattered by the gale, an almost symbolic sight as we reflect that partisanship has no place in a crisis.  We need to pull together.  Those of us whose neighborhoods are intact need to rally to help our friends who have lost so much.  Our leaders, whichever party they belong to, give us direction and call out our humanitarian impulses.

Whatever the future holds for New York, we will all look back on these first few post-Sandy days as a time when we came to grips with the chaos and coalesced into action.  We did this under the leadership of calm voices that offered solace and sympathy even as they provided structure in the midst of our shapeless fear.

As a communications maven, I'm often critical of the way our top dogs express themselves.  But last night, sleepless in a dark house, straining to follow a press conference through the tinny speakers of my emergency radio, I was grateful for leaders who kept up a constant stream of careful messaging.   It's hard to have your normal yanked out from under you.  Good leaders are aware that their words are anchors for their audience, giving them something to hold onto in the storm.  It's remarkable how strong words can be when they are the ones we need to hear.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Visits My Block

Hi blogfans, sorry, no Manager Mondays post today.  We are enduring the slo-mo blast of Hurricane Sandy here in the New York area -- actually in the whole northeast quadrant of the US.  An event like this tends to make it hard to concentrate on anything else.

Compared to some of my neighbors, like the one in this photo who had a tree fall on his car, I'm actually having a dull time of it.  Would you believe that I just had a crew take down all the trees around my house last week?  Great timing, right?  

Taking a short walk outside just now gave me a feel for the rising winds.  The eye of the storm is 60 miles south of us, but the constant roar of the wind reminds me of the times I used to stand near the  Grumman Aerospace wind tunnel building when a jet exhaust test was in progress.  

Now I'm just waiting for the power to go out, and when it does I'm sure I'll cozy up with a cat and snooze my way through the storm.  Before things go dark I wanted to give this quick post to say I'm fine, I'm 82 feet above sea level, anything that can fly has been battened down or stored in the shed, and my street is miles away from any storm surge flooding.  I have plenty of the essentials: bottled water, peanut butter, crackers, cookies, flashlights, cat food and kitty litter.  Stay safe everyone!  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Following Someone Else's Tracks

Welcome to the last regular post in the Friday Fundamentals series on this Remarkable Messaging blog.

It's not that I'm going away -- or (heaven forbid!) running out of things to say -- but I am starting an absorbing new project next week, which means that I may not be posting blogs with my heretofore clockwork-like regularity.

So in this, my last post in the series, I'm going to hand you off, dear communications lover, to other sources of inspiration.  And the truth is, you don't have to look far.

Do what I do, and check out the magazine rack.

One of my favorite ways to jump-start my writing projects is to get hold of a magazine that targets an audience similar to the one I'm addressing and skim through its pages.  The reason is purely pragmatic.  This is a communications vehicle that is already good at reaching the people I want to reach -- so good that it is able to charge advertisers for the privilege of piggybacking their ads onto the magazine's already-compelling content.  To me, that means that the magazine staff is doing some things right.  From the topics they choose, to the style of voice they use, its editors are able to get the attention of the people I want to win over -- so I think it's worth a look inside to see which of their tactics I can steal, er, emulate.

For example, not long ago I had to prepare for a presentation to a natural foods company.  To get my thoughts oriented, I pored over a few issues of Prevention magazine. On another occasion, I was going to attend a business networking event.  I read through that week's Long Island Business News.

Another bonus: magazine articles always have attention-getting opening paragraphs. If I need some inspiration for how to start a particular communication, I thumb through a magazine and read the lead sentences from a few articles.  By the third or fourth one, I have an fresh idea for how to begin my train of thought.

Here's the truth: wherever you want to take your audience, someone else has covered that territory before.  You can follow in their tracks, and keep out of the quicksand.  

Do it. It's so deviously obvious!

Got a writing gig for a professional group?  Pull a couple of their trade publications off the library rack.  Educated crowd? Grab a Smithsonian from the newsstand.

Young adults?  Moms?  Teens?  Retirees?  Go to Barnes and Noble's periodical section and zero in some typical representatives of your target bracket.  Then take note of which selections they browse, and if you're really brave, casually sidle up alongside them or loom over them as they read to see which articles are grabbing their attention.  It's like that line from the movie When Harry Met Sally: "I'll have what she's having!"

Some other communicator has already succeeded in making this niche group their own.  Find out what that individual does, and construct your own approach accordingly.

Remarkable messaging starts with knowing your audience -- their opinions, values and motivators -- and using that knowledge to establish a bond.  Magazines are doing that bonding every time they publish.  They know a lot, and they've done a lot of the sorting for us.

It's not ripping off. It's researching. So follow their tracks to take your audience to the destination of your dreams.  And if you're really, really good, one day some other writer will be poring over your work, grabbing inspiration from you.  

Keep watching this blog for more tips -- just not on a weekly basis.  I'll post when inspiration strikes.  Onward and upward, my fellow communicators!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Manager Mondays: If You Don't Ask For Feedback...

Welcome to Manager Mondays, where the topic always revolves around effective workforce messaging. Today, it's about why it's important to make sure you have more than one employee feedback loop in place.

"They don't give us a way to tell them how it's going. Then, when we talk among ourselves about how bad things are, they question our loyalty."

This was the way one of my friends -- I'll call him Tom -- recently summarized conditions at his workplace.  He was disgusted by the fact that a new process had been launched a few weeks ago, and not one boss had asked anyone for feedback about it.  The people on the shop floor were stressed and anxious about the changes.  Problems were popping up with increasing frequency, but they had to deal with them in a vacuum.  There was no way for the front-line workers to report the issues to the people in the back office.   Their immediate manager was too busy coping himself to listen to their warnings.  When they did get through to him, he seemed reluctant to comment about the problems.  So Tom and his co-workers muddled along, inventing their own solutions.

Do similar scenarios ever occur in your workplace?

If your organization lacks forums for employee feedback, you could be one step away from losing your top talent.  Or maybe you already are.   

Tom wants to do his job well.  The new process is presenting him with a lot more constraints for executing his responsibilities.  He is frustrated by those constraints, but he lacks resources to deal with them, and there is no way to pull in the big guns and address them.

Tom thinks his manager is afraid that if he brings bad news about the new process to the executives who authorized it, he'll look disloyal.  So the manager "encourages" his team to make the best of it, then pastes a smile on his face when he goes into the weekly management meeting. Tom and his co-workers know they won't get traction from talking to their boss, so they talk among themselves instead, and the tone is decidedly negative.

The especially sad part about my friend Tom's story is that he's one of the best employees at that company.   He has considerable talent, he's consistently reliable, he's a team player, and he contributes a lot of value toward the bottom line.  On a social level, Tom is normally a very positive person, so when he's looking down, it's a morale-buster for everyone else.  But at Tom's place of business, sadness itself is seen as subversive, so Tom is already being singled out as a troublemaker.

It will come as no surprise to learn that Tom is thinking seriously of quitting.  He knows he has valuable skills, and he feels that they are being short-circuited. He wants to be able to help his company grow, and though he does see his bosses' unapproachable attitude as a personal affront to his dignity, he is more concerned that it's a roadblock to productivity.

Once again, my motto holds true:

Healthy organizations attract healthy people; 
Unhealthy organizations attract unhealthy people.

Tom is not being too sensitive.  He's being insightful.  Employees who care about the mission are often the first ones who abandon the company when their opinions are stonewalled.  And to tell you the truth, companies that shut out employee feedback don't deserve employees like Tom.  On the other hand, employees who don't mind perpetuating mediocrity will put up with bosses who don't listen to them, because they weren't about to start talking anyway.  But are those the employees that any company wants to hold onto?

Address Your Fear Of Feedback 

This week, do a systems check of your feedback forums.  Ask yourself: if I worked for me, would I feel free to give feedback to me?  Hold yourself accountable if the answer is anything other than a solid "Sure!"

If you find that you need to set up more avenues for employee feedback, here are a couple of ideas I recommend:

1.  Hold Instant Opinion Polls at team meetings.   Give everyone three colored index cards:  green, yellow and red.  Explain that green means "I think it's great,"  red means "I think it's not good," and Yellow means "It's complicated."  You will mention a certain company-related topic, and  employees will have three seconds to think.   Then you will call "Vote!" and everyone has to hold up the card that fits their basic feeling about the topic. 

Try this game first with a topic that everyone likes, such as a popular company perk (the employee discount at retail enterprises, for example).  Then get into more loaded territory.  When you get a show of cards that indicates mixed opinions about a topic, stop and invite people to explain why they feel the way they do.  Handle the resulting discussion with respect and neutrality.  Give everyone a chance to articulate their feelings.  

2.  Hand out Gripe Amnesty Tickets.  Tell your team that they can each come to you with a gripe that they otherwise might not think about mentioning because it's too trivial, too specialized, or whatever.  Say that they can "redeem" their ticket any time within the next month.  Explain that one of your goals for 2013 is to make it easier for people to do their jobs by helping them overcome their pet peeves, and this is a chance for them to help you fulfill your goal. 

3.  Pass out a short Survey Of The Week.  On random Mondays, stick a survey on everyone's desk or in their mailbox.  It should contain no more than three of four questions about a particular topic.  Again, start with a harmless topic, such as "my new haircut."  Keep the surveys anonymous, and keep the answers simple -- don't ask for essays!  Include instructions about how to fill it out, indicate the location of the drop box where employees can put their completed ones, and specify the Friday deadline.  Promise a group reward on the following Monday if everyone participates, such as a drawing for a gift card.  

4.  Hold an "Ask The Expert"  Q & A conference call.  If you have a remote workforce, this is a good way to include them on the feedback loop, especially in the aftermath of any significant new changes.  The objective of the call would be to allow everyone to ask any questions they have about the new policy, procedure, initiative, etc.  Have one of your company Subject Matter Experts on the line to answer questions -- for instance, the engineer who designed the new product, or the Finance Department person who knows the rationale behind the new banking procedures.  As you monitor the call, jot down any recurring themes or issues that staff brings up -- then use the last ten minutes to turn the tables and ask the callers a few survey-type questions about how things are going.  (This is a great way to not only elicit feedback but also increase staff's buy-in for the change, assuming that the "Expert" is credible and articulate.)

There are many other ways to gather feedback, but these four methods have the following advantages:
  • Friendly and fun.  If fear is in the air, or if resentment is rumbling underground, you need to make sure feedback-gathering feels as harmless as possible.    
  • Topic-specific.  Employees need to know exactly what they're being asked about.   
  • Time-sensitive.  The feedback must be received and processed within a quick time-frame.  At the rate things change at the job, a lag time of more than a week means that comments will likely be outdated by the time they're sorted.
  • Stigma-free.  If people can voice how they feel without worrying about the consequences to their reputation, they will usually do so.

However you may choose to gather feedback, make sure it's a regular activity, and make sure that there are always multiple ways for employees to have their voices be heard.

The main objective of feedback-gathering is to sustain an open workplace communications culture where people feel neither stilted or stifled.  I wouldn't want to give you the impression that you will ever get any especially-juicy revelations from the feedback-gathering process, although you very well may.  You might get good ideas for process improvement; you might get early warnings about bad trends; and you might also get a bunch of crackpot comments from people who have their own pet soapbox issues and will use any means available to push them.  That's all part of the drill.  The truth is, you're staging feedback-gathering to give more than to get.  And the commodity you are giving is reassurance: that employees matter, that their perceptions are valued, and that their struggles deserve to be recognized and resolved.

Don't force your staff to walk around with pasted smiles on their faces.  If you do, some of those employees will soon walk somewhere else --  out the door.  And they will be the ones you least want to lose.

By the way, notice that I don't include the time-honored "Suggestion Box" as one of my feedback-gathering options.  That's because no one I've ever met has found a way to make employee suggestion boxes actually work!  Are you the exception? Then leave a comment here, please, and enlighten the rest of us!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: For a Punchy PowerPoint, Pose A Problem

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, the place to find simple ways to upgrade your communication skills.  Today it's about an easy trick that guarantees improved audience engagement for your PowerPoint presentations. 

But wait --

Oh my gosh! 

That guy in the picture is being ATTACKED BY BEES!  Hundreds of them!

What's he going to do?  Where will he go?  


Hold on.  Is your attention focused now?  Are you reading this, wondering where I the author am going to take you next?  Are you curious about the outcome?  Concerned about that poor guy?  If someone told you to stop here at this point and exit the blog, would you resist?

Hopefully your answer to at least some of those questions is Yes.  Take a snapshot of your own state of mind right now, regarding the story of the bee attack.  That's the state of mind that you want all of your PowerPoint presentation viewers to have by Slide 3 of any presentation.  You want them to be fascinated, bought in, and fully engaged.

How often do your PowerPoint decks achieve that goal?

(But what about the bees? Don't worry, I'll get to them eventually.)

I'm bringing you through this little demonstration to illustrate the tip I'm going to tell you about today.  Basically, it is this:

Setting up a counter-intuitive or unexpected problem in the opening moments of your PowerPoint can prevent snooze-watching and ensure that your audience stays with you and gets the point.  

If you don't recognize the term snooze-watching, that's because I just made it up.  I think it's an accurate description of the way many people approach PowerPoint.  They settle back, prepared to be bored by pie charts and clip art.  The awful truth is, most of the time their expectations are right on the money.  Companies don't invest enough time training their managers on how to put together PowerPoint presentations, so they usually come across dorky and dull.  (In fact, judging by the way colleges and other learning institutions approach classwork and assignments, it seems as if they think that the only good PowerPoint is a godawful PowerPoint, which just validates my opinion that the main agenda of most American educational facilities is to Perpetuate The Myth... but that's the subject for another blog post.)

Back to you and your next battle to keep the whole conference room from dozing off.  If you are facing an audience that's used to snooze-watching their way through meetings -- or if your presentation is scheduled after lunch -- you really need to wake things up on the screen.  And I'm not talking about importing cutesy YouTube clips or New Yorker cartoons.  Unless those are laser-focused and completely congruent with your topic, they can be deathly distracting, or (worse) cast a patronizing pall on the proceedings. At any rate, you can't start every PowerPoint with a sleeping cat falling off a sofa.  (What were we saying about dorky and dull?)

I'm also not talking about visual elegance, supercharged graphics or killer slide composition, though if you want to enhance your PowerPoint presentations as a whole, I do recommend improving your skills in those areas.  There are plenty of other blogs that can help you there (such as this one -- click here).

No, I'm talking about coupling an age-old movie plot device that never fails with a slick messaging tactic that always works.  The equation looks like this:

Set Up Conflict + Unexpected Twist = Riveted Audience

In the movies and on TV, the opening conflict scene is a time-honored tradition.  That's because it's effective.  Within the first few minutes of any drama or action flick, a mini-story unfolds that gives the audience a dissonant jolt and makes them care enough to keep watching.

In their book Made To Stick, Chip And Dan Heath agree with this premise.  They devote a whole chapter to how Unexpectedness can capture attention, hammer home an idea, and make it memorable.  Why haven't you read this book yet?  Get your hands on it!

Sorry I seem to be digressing so much.  I'd better get back on topic and stay there.  Yeah, and those bees are still on my mind, too.  Don't worry, we're getting to them.

The Unexpected Conflict Opening is an easy concept to grasp.  Just think about how every Law And Order episode starts.  Some poor unsuspecting New Yorkers find the body, right?  And in an unexpected place, right?  (After twenty seasons of Law and Order, we loyal viewers aren't shocked when a stiff shows up -- but it's still fun to play Where's Dead Waldo in the first few seconds before the camera reveals that episode's crumpled cadaver.  In fact, after watching one of those weekend cable LAO marathons, I find myself peeking behind trash piles in trepidation as I walk down New York's grittier side streets.  Seriously, has the bottom of every stairwell in Manhattan been bathed in bloody pulp by now?)

In the same way, your PowerPoint needs to grab attention in its opening moments by setting up an unexpected conflict of some kind.   Not a murder, of course (let's leave your feelings about the project out of the discussion for now), but more like a conflict of concepts, or a clash of ideas.

Of course, all PowerPoints do address some kind of question, such as:
  • How will our company proceed with X?
  • What are the results of project Y?
  • What are the features of product Z?
But that's exactly the question you don't use in your rollicking kickoff.  It's too obvious -- too expected.

I like to take the main premise of my PowerPoint -- its key objective -- and question its very validity.  My Unexpected Conflict Opening for each of these presentations would translate like this:
  • Does our company really need to proceed with X?
  • Is it worth this audience's time to even hear about project Y?  
  • Is product Z actually a stupid idea to begin with?
Let me give you an example.  And no, I haven't forgotten about the bees.

The Bad Health Tease 

In a presentation I delivered yesterday about a company's employee wellness incentive program, I started by introducing myself and the topic, Such-And-Such Worksite Wellness.  (Sorry; it's proprietary material, so I can't be more specific.) Then I immediately asked my audience how they all were feeling.  When they said fine, I pressed them:

"Really?  You're all okay?  You're feeling tip-top?  100 per cent?"  

After getting multiple affirmatives from everyone (and pushing them perilously close to their annoyance threshold), I continued: 

"Well that surprises me, because you're all employees, right?  And we know that most employees are not where they want to be with their health."

Do you see how that sets up a dissonance right away?  I then continued by changing the slide to reveal a montage of smiling employees, doing their jobs.  I continued:

"In fact, the very need for an employee wellness program is puzzling to me.  After all, employees are a capable group, as a whole.  They do their jobs competently.  They cross things off their To-do lists.  Give them a project, and they're on it.  They keep the company on track.  Yet their own health goals are often off track.  In fact, you might say that though they're experts at driving the business, when it comes to driving their own goals... "

At this point I changed the slide to reveal a picture of a car plummeting off a high rocky ledge into oblivion. I continued my narrative:

"They are driving off the cliff!  Hey -- are those some of your employees in that car?"

Nobody was snooze-watching at this point.  I had used a counter-intuitive conflict to set up my approach to a possibly-boring presentation topic -- the features and benefits of a corporate wellness program.  I had done so in an unexpected way that now had everyone's attention.  

In case you missed it, there were actually four conflicts in my little set-up:

1. Why do we even need an employee wellness program?
2. If employees are so capable, why are they a mess with their health care?
3. Are you guys even telling the truth about your health status?
4. And then there was the car-off-the-cliff slide, which was unexpected and counter-intuitive in its juxtaposition with the previous slide of smiling employees. The image was a subliminal tension-producer, and when I coupled it with my provocative tease question about who was in the car, I invoked the ultimate conflict: life versus death.

By the third slide, the audience was hooked in so many ways that the rest of the presentation was a cake walk.

Punch Up Your Powerless PowerPoints

If you've read earlier posts on this blog, you know that I'm somewhat jaded when it comes to the whole PowerPoint format.  I think:
  • it's been overused and misused.  
  • its very structure is too plodding and predictable.  
  • it tends to quell conversation and kill collaboration.
  • it widens the gulf between presenter and audience.   
Most of us have been so exposed to all of these viral PowerPoint shortcomings that by now we've developed PowerPoint resistance.  Snooze-watching is just one way we cope with our chronically-lowered expectations.

Yet we must still use PowerPoint.  It's effectively established as the standard presentation mode of the business world, and it's not going away any time soon.  In fact, the new PowerPoint 2013 version is waiting in the wings for launch, and you can even install a preview version  to explore it. (But anything you create with it will need to be delivered via your own laptop for the time being, plus you'll also also need to install an extra empty operating system to house it if you want it to co-exist with your current PowerPoint software --so this test installation is a step that I for one am not prepared to take.  Let me know what you think if you try it.)

No matter.  The beauty of the Unexpected Conflict Opening is that it works with whatever version of PowerPoint you're using.  You can create the tension you need to keep your audience engrossed without any special formats or features.  It's the power of the story. 

Use the example I've given above to doctor the opening of your next PowerPoint show.  Try to:
  • Kick off with questions that question assumptions
  • Toss out an unexpected problem that goes one level deeper than what your audience is expecting;
  • Establish a dissonance between ideas
  • Link your thought flow to something counter-intuitive.
About the guy being attacked by bees: all he did was run about fifty feet down the path, and the swarm left him alone completely.  That's because most bees are territorial, and when they attack, they're only protecting their hive.  With bees, moving a short distance into new territory makes all the difference.  

Similarly, it's just a short distance between perpetuating those annoying PowerPoint Blahs and achieving perfect PowerPoint Buy-In.  You can bridge that distance with your first three opening slides.  A well-crafted Unexpected Conflict Opening can carry your audience's engagement right through to your very last paragraph, just like my bee story has kept you reading right up until now.  Gotcha!  

Now go and do likewise, my intrepid PowerPoint paratroopers!  And leave a comment to tell me how it works out!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Manager Mondays: Deliberate Dialoguing, Part 3: Park Your Snark

Welcome to Manager Mondays, your weekly virtual focus group about tweaking workforce messaging for better results.  For this latest in our series of Deliberate Dialoguing, we draw from my background in motion picture production to sound a cautionary note about negative comments.

During my professional stint as a film editor and screenwriter, I met many fascinating people who could have been colorful characters in a movie -- except they were behind the camera, on the production team.

The directors were the most entertaining.  Their word was law on the movie set, and as the bosses, their style permeated everything.  They each seemed to have a larger-than-life persona.  Perhaps from years of needing to dominate movie sets, their aura tended to dominate any environment the moment they walked into the room.

And then there were my favorites: the cameramen. They were the ultimate pragmatists.  They were there to get the shots, and get them they would -- sometimes in spite of the person in the director's chair.

Though always patient and reserved on the set, true camera jockeys are artists, comedians and stunt men, all rolled into one.  (You have to be when an assignment requires you to squat on a high rooftop ledge all day, swatting away pigeons as you compose flawlessly-framed shots of the action below.)

When Camera Guys Analyze

I loved those wild men and got to know them well, because after each shoot, they would come to watch the rushes* in the confidential darkness of my editing room.  There, I listened as the cameramen pitilessly deconstructed the director.  It was always interesting to hear their wise-cracking commentary as they discussed the dynamics of the movie set and poked fun at the guy with the bullhorn.

Sherman was a director who was known for two things: barking irritable commands at everyone, and boasting about his glorious cinematic achievements every chance he got. In his stories about his years as a Vietnam war correspondent, he made himself out to be a cross between Walter Cronkite and General Patton.   His attitude was: "I'm awesome, and you're not." The crew did what Sherman said begrudgingly, but didn't take him very seriously.  As they reviewed his footage later and recounted his escapades on the set, there was plenty of eye-rolling.  The camera guys endured Sherman's bluster and bravado, and they even gave him good marks for his cinematography, but they didn't respect him.

When Bob was directing, he acted like everyone's back-slapping best buddy to their face, then talked trash about them behind their back.  He played favorites, using smirks and sarcasm to pit one crew person against another. His attitude said:  "I'm playing you." The crew had Bob figured out. They did their jobs professionally when he was in charge, but they didn't go out of their way to help the results look good.  When we looked at the shots later on, they'd point out ways that they could have improved the camera angle or captured the action better -- but they would never think of making those spontaneous recommendations at the shoot.  "Bob said do it that way, so we did," they shrugged.  As an editor, I could see the difference, and I grieved for the wonderful lost shots that could have been.

Then there was Warren -- a humble kind of guy, not flashy or loud.  When he was directing at a location, he'd describe the scenes to be shot that day, and say "What do you think?"  Then he would listen to the crew's suggestions.   His words and actions said to his team: "I value you." The guys behind the camera would sometimes snipe affectionately about Warren's quirks, but they were glad to work with him.  I always found Warren's footage the easiest to edit because the shots were creative and well-constructed.  They were tight, lean, and functional without being flashy. They were obviously the product of teamwork.

Warren once said that he made it a rule not to gossip about other people.  He told me that he tried to live by this quote:

"Great minds talk about ideas; 
average minds talk about events; 
small minds talk about people."  

Warren was not a flamboyant director. He worried over costs and budgets when other directors were spending the client's money with abandon.  While shooting on location in some far-flung locale, the rest of the crew would spend the evenings hitting the bars, but Warren would retire early to his hotel room to read a book.   Warren's eye was on the mission, not his own reputation.  In general, he wasn't the kind of boss that the cameramen wanted to party with -- but he was the guy they trusted.  

What kind of director are you on your movie set?  What are your words and actions communicating to your team?  If you could hide in a back room and eavesdrop on your crew, what would you hear them say about you?

If your employees are rolling their eyes at your attitude, there's no way they'll put their best efforts on the table for you.

So how do you improve the dynamics of your dialoguing?

Park Your Snark

Snarky comments may be fun to toss out, but they damage trust.  And by snarky I mean anything loaded with negative attitude.  Comments that are irritable, patronizing, self-absorbed, provocative, sarcastic or rude don't have a place in your workplace conversations.  Park them at the door.

As you work on improving your two-way communications with employees, clean out your bad habits:
  • No gossip -- ever.  Remember Warren's motto: talking about people is the sign of a small mind.  
  • Keep banter gentle and affectionate.  Don't let it get out of hand and cause ripples of insecurity among your troops.
  • Stop the crankiness.  Get yourself a cup of coffee, take some deep breaths, and do whatever else you need to do to stop acting like a diva and start acting like a pro.  Barking might make people jump at first, but in the end it only makes them want to muzzle you. 
  • Don't excite rivalry at the expense of collaboration.  Healthy competition has a place, but never promote ill-will within the team.    
  • Never use sarcasm or smart-aleck humor. The workplace is no place for sitcom dialogue.  What works on The Office doesn't work in your office.
  • Adopt a No Put-Down Policy -- except towards yourself.  It's never appropriate to hide behind the immunity of your higher position to tease, voice derision, or make jokes at someone else's expense.  However, do look for ways to indulge in mild self-deprecating comments about your own foibles and mistakes.  By doing so, you'll establish a culture of transparency and pave the way for others to openly own their mistakes, too.
  • Verbal abuse is not the way to do performance improvement.  If you have performance-related feedback to give, do so in ways that help the person get better at their game.  
  • No ego-strutting.  How do you feel when you're forced to bask in another person's boastful glow?  Well, that's how your troops feel, too. Nothing pushes people into a state of detachment more quickly than their boss showing too much attachment to his or her own awesomeness.  
Whenever you engage in dialogue with your employees, you have a priceless opportunity to build your relationship with them and fuel your organization's success.  Show respect for them by being sober and attentive.  Focus on their well-being.  You have the power to help them do their jobs better and fulfill the mission.  Don't dilute that power by indulging in a momentary conversational cleverness that could have relationship-damaging consequences.

Win your Oscars honestly.  Never allow yourself to cross the line into the Snarky Zone.  If you do, take it from me: you'll miss your best shots.

* The term rushes refers to the developed rolls of motion picture film that used to come back from the lab after a shoot.  They were so named because in the early days of movies the cameramen would hand their exposed film rolls to couriers and tell them to rush them into development.  When they arrived back, people would rush to a screening room to view them and see how the footage turned out.  With the arrival of digital cinematography, the drama of viewing the rushes is now gone, replaced by instant replays on the set.  

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Forms Are Forms of Communication

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals. a weekly series dedicated to helping you improve your basic communications skills.  Today we find out how to get optimal results from surveys, questionnaires, and sign-up sheets as we look at best practices for intuitive form formatting.  

Does this topic seem unrelated to boosting the effectiveness of communications?   If so, I hope to convince you otherwise.  In my experience, forms are usually the gateway to other interaction.  As such, they can be a great tool to set the tone and establish future  expectations -- or they can thwart a budding relationship before it has a chance to start.

Consider this story:

Confusion At The Rally

Recently a non-profit organization that I support staged a recruiting event to expand a volunteer program.  As I milled around with other prospective recruits, the director passed out copies of a two-page screening questionnaire.  He asked us to fill in the form completely and hand it in before the meeting started.

We gamely set about filling in the blanks, and there were many.   The questions covered our skills, past experience, hours of availability, and reasons for volunteering.  All of these were structured as fill-ins, e.g. "Describe your past involvement with XYZ Organization."  But there was one problem: there were no writing surfaces available in the small anteroom where we all stood.  People struggled to write cogent sentences while aiming skittish pens at the floppy papers in their hands.

When the doors opened to the main auditorium, we dutifully began to hand in our papers and sit down.  About a third of us had done so when someone noticed that the forms didn't ask about contact info.  The director announced: "Please add in your phone and email address on the top sheet."  Many people had to scramble to retrieve their papers and comply.  Everyone scribbled their info hurriedly, once again leaning against nothing.

I can only imagine the nightmare when staff later tried to decipher all that shaky handwriting. How many emails bounced back? How many phone numbers were entered incorrectly because an 8 looked like a 6?  How many carefully thought-out replies were unusable because they were just plain illegible?

More to the point, how did this poor execution of the first activity of the evening dampen everything that came next?  People were buzzing in that anteroom, and the tone of their comments ranged from confused, to frustrated, to angry.  Was the rest of the program able to undo that first impression of disorganization?  I would say that quite a few of the attendees were  inconvenienced enough to remember the experience of the botched questionnaire more vividly than any of the night's later elements.

Have you ever experienced a similar escapade?  If so, you know how it can suck the enthusiasm out of everyone.

Respectful Intel Gathering

Information-gathering documents may seem mundane, but they matter greatly, for three reasons:

1. Forms require peoples' effort, time and attention.  Therefore, they need to be tailored to do as much of the work as possible, to ease the burden on the respondents. Some ways to do this:

a.  Use rankings or multiple choice selection whenever possible.  Most routine questions can be handled with a list of possible responses.  For example: "How many years have you worked here?  Circle the answer that applies:  Under 1 year;  1 - 5, 6 - 10; 10 - 15 (etc.)..."

b.  Pay attention to sequencing.  Start with simple questions, then go into the ones that take more thought. This will warm up your respondents and help them give you their best answers. Similarly, if your questions suggest a timeline, organize them to flow from past, to present, to future.  (Try not to follow a future-oriented question like  "What are your goals?" with past-oriented questions such as  "What is your highest level of education?")

c.  Provide the basic amenities to show people that you are thinking of their comfort and ease of use:

  • Give people tabletops, clipboards or other writing surfaces.  
  • Pass out pens that work and fit the page space requirements (Flair pens can leave a broad, blurry swath that's hard to decipher; pens with hard points inflict puncture wounds on the paper.)  
  • Make sure to give adequate horizontal and vertical space for fill-in answers.  People don't write in 10-point font size!  
  • Distribute forms with clear instructions about how to complete and return them. 
  • Give the questionnaire an appropriate title and include your organization's name so that, even when a person finds it in the bottom of a tote bag a month from now, it will be clear where it came from.
  • If they will be mailed, always put the full mailing address on the forms themselves.  For forms that are taken to be filled in later, it's also a good idea to include a contact person's email address and/or phone number for questions.

2.  Forms gather information for later use.  Therefore, you need to set boundaries, for yourself, for your respondents, and for the people who will be inputting the data.  Ask yourself:  What is need-to-have, and what is nice-to-have?  What might be considered confidential in nature, and how can you address concerns about privacy issues?  Other points to consider:

a.  Define all the contact info you need and ask for it clearly.  If people are not already searchable on a shared network, you will need to be extremely vigilant to obtain pristine email addresses and phone numbers for your contact list.

  •  Provide clear prompts and good-sized, well-defined fields for contact information so answers are complete and readable, no matter how rushed the respondent is or what the penmanship quality is.
  • Include detailed instructions and sample answers as guidance, especially for phone numbers and email addresses.  It's amazing how many folks still leave out their area code in the phone number field, or just write "SuzieQ88" in the email address field and forget to fill in their last part ("").
  • Ditch phone designations such as Home, Cell, and Work.  Instead, include check boxes for Preferred Phone Number and Secondary Phone Number.  Everyone has voice mail, so don't bother with Day or Evening.  
  • Bear in mind that even brilliant people make mistakes and need to cross things out and rewrite their answers, so leave plenty of blank space between questions for this kind of maneuver, and have extra forms handy for do-overs.  

b.  Will you use this information to generate an attendance sheet, a contact list, name tags, labels, or a membership roster?  Make sure to have respondents put their first name and last name in separate fields.  That way when the data is entered into a database, you can sort it alphabetically either way.

b.  How and where will the information be filed, stored, retrieved, and implemented?  Design your form so that your end users find it easy to use.  For example, if the information will be entered into a database, try to have all answers appear on the right side of the page, so data entry can be done quickly.  If the forms will go into a paper file, think about how the file will be organized, and put the most vital organizing information in the top right corner where it can be seen quickly when the file folder is opened.

3. Forms leave impressions.  They cause people to form opinions about your organization, your mission, your culture and your capability.  Tweak them so that they communicate good things to your audience.

a.  Explain why you're asking for information. You don't have to write a thesis paper for this.  It can be as simple as: "Help us get to know you better by answering this brief survey."
b.  Avoid vague questions. Instead of asking, "What type of tutoring program interests you the most?" it's much better to say, "Please circle the age groups and subjects that you prefer on the listing shown here. If you don't find what you're looking for, circle Other and write it in on the blank line provided."
c.  Phrase questions as requests, not demands.  "Please tell us about your past experience in this field" sounds a lot friendlier than "List qualifications here."  This will give the form a softer edge and help people stay engaged as they fill it in.

Above all, show respect for everyone by stepping back and reviewing your form from the user's point of view before you send it to print.  Check its content:

  • Is it clear what we want?
  • What could be said better? 
  • What ambiguities or implications need to be reworked?  
  • What can be left out now and found out in follow-up communication?

Check its formatting:

  • Is it intuitive?
  • How easy is it to fill in?  
  • How much time will it take? 
  • How easy will it be to read and process the filled-in answers? 
A Gateway to Great Things -- Or Not

If you think that application forms, screening forms or other questionnaires are too mundane to be considered messaging, think again.  Forms ARE communication. Moreover, they guide and facilitate subsequent communication.  If you treat them in a cavalier fashion, your casual approach will come across as contempt, and you'll never know the full impact of that ripple effect.  That's because an unknown percentage of the people who don't like your form, simply won't fill in your form -- leaving no trail behind -- and leaving all other communications efforts high and dry.  

Do you value the information you seek?  Do you value the people you seek it from?  Then take the effort, time and attention to create the best vehicle possible to get it.     

Monday, October 8, 2012

Manager Mondays: Deliberate Dialoguing, Part 2: Ask For Feedback The Right Way

This post is another in our Manager Mondays series about crafting intentional relationship-building communications to prevent polarization.  If you haven't read the first post on the subject, click here to do so.

What happens when you ask an employee a question?  

If yours is a polarized workplace, you probably get awkward pauses and averted eyes at first.  Then you get a neutral comment, a "safe" stock response, or remarks that seem unnaturally bright and chipper, like the one  depicted in this wall mural.

People don't want to tell the boss the truth.  They're worried that doing so will make them the scapegoat.

A story is told about the first American astronauts who were guests aboard the Soviet Mir space station.  They were appalled to find broken instruments that had been fixed with the aerospace equivalent of duct tape and baling wire.  When they asked their cosmonaut counterparts why they hadn't requested replacement parts, they were told that problems generally weren't reported -- because if they were, the cosmonauts doing the reporting were blamed.  It was assumed that the breakdown happened on their watch, and they could face disciplinary action for failing to perform maintenance correctly.

If questions from the boss are viewed as ticking time bombs, no wonder people don't want to engage in dialogue!

In a workplace where systems and equipment are expected to run perfectly, humans are the only target when things go wrong.

Does that describe your organization?  Does your upper management automatically assume that people are the problem?  Do you?

If so, you will continue to have a hard time engaging your employees in dialogue.  When you do corner them, you will continue to get no-answer answers.  They aren't stupid!

The way to reverse the trend is to start giving the impression that you are more interested in fixing problems than blaming people. And that means you must ask questions that invite analysis without implying blame.  Wording is extremely important here.

The #1 Question Technique That Gets Results

Here's a questioning strategy I recommend because it builds one-on-one relationships as it breaks new ground in management-employee relations.  And oh yes, it usually gets reliable answers.

1.  Set up a conversation. Start your interaction in a friendly, casual way.  Never ask a question "cold."   Start with an affirmation (see last week's post) or a neutral observation about a project that states a very obvious fact without any judgmental overtones.  This might be a comment about a project's state of completion, or a recent observable trend. It should include a time reference.  Some examples:  "It's been about a month since they finished installing the new machines."  "Job orders have picked up the past two weeks."  "You were at that department meeting the other day."

This type of opening comment gives employees the context of your upcoming question in a non-threatening way.  It helps them pull their thoughts away from what they were just concentrating on, and zero in on what the heck you are talking about.  Don't forget, you may have had your question in mind for a while, but for your employee, it's coming out of the blue.  Engaging the employee with light commentary will give them a chance to focus on the topic at hand and start framing their response.

2.  Make "face contact." After your comment, pause the verbal communication and take a moment to communicate non-verbally via your facial expression.  Your expression needs to be upbeat, curious, energetic, and focused on the employee.  If you don't know the type of expression I'm talking about, just picture how you would look at your best customer if he or she walked through the door right now.   That's right.  You need to treat your employees as though they were your best customers when you talk to them. That means not only making eye contact, but making a connection.  And if you're looking dull, distracted, or down your nose at them, your conversation is likely to be relationship-damaging, not relationship-building.  So practice in the mirror if you have to!  Then, keep your face working full time as you go on to the next step and...

3.  Ask the Universal, Neutral, Open-Ended Question.  I am very proud of this question.  It's such a winner -- but it's so deceptively simple, you might be tempted to scoff at it.  That said, here it is (and I wish I had a dramatic drum roll sound effect to accompany it):

"How's all this working out for you?"

I have worked very hard to perfect this question over the years. Giving it to you is like giving you a magic lamp, because if you set it up correctly, it will grant your wish for real, honest feedback.  

Look at it again.  Do you see what's going on here?  You are giving the employee an opportunity to talk about his or her experience within a receptive, constructive context.  That employee might still clam up -- and if so, you have more relationship-building to do -- but by now he has had a chance to mentally check in with the topic (step 1), and received your non-verbal permission to talk freely (step 2), so it's highly likely that the next words you hear will be heartfelt. 

4.  Pay attention!  Your role now, in case you haven't figured it out, is Support Person.  You will hear the employee's comments from a support provider point of view.  in his eyes, you are not the boss now -- you are the Person With Pull who might be able to help solve a problem.  

Once the employee starts talking, you can keep him talking as long as you stay in this role, and treat the employee as the expert.  Listen. Respond to show that you're listening and empathizing: "I see."  "I understand."  "That sounds like it was tough for you to do."  "Wow, that must have been surprising."  Restate the points that are made to make sure you understand them correctly.  But do it all in that friendly, attentive, talking-to-the-customer tone.

4. Refrain from weighing in.  Keep building the relationship by remaining non-judgmental.  Don't object, defend, or explain -- just keep listening. Respect and value whatever is being said as the reflection of that person's experience, whether you agree with it or not. When the person has reached the end of his or her comments, ask follow-up questions if it makes sense to do so, but concentrate on only two things:
  • Which parts of the process are helping the employee do his job?
  • Which parts of the process might need to be clarified or changed to help the employee do his job?
Honest employee feedback is a gold mine.  Keep the moment going so you can mine all the information you can.  Decide whether it's valid later.  Right now your task is to keep the conversation going and let the employee give you all the treasure he can.

5.  Thank the employee.  No matter what has been said, you need to show appreciation to the person who said it.  Even if it was information you already knew, giving it to you was an effort.  Say, "That's good feedback for me.  I appreciate it."

6.  Supply answers or assurance of support if you can.  If you have detected a cry for help in the employee's remarks, address it right away.  Reaffirm that your goal is to help the process work the best for everyone, then give direction or offer input in your role of Support Person and/or the Person With Pull as a way to help the employee address the issues and do his job well.  Even if the crux of the matter lies outside your sphere of responsibility, commit to a follow-up action if you can: "I'll check into it when we have our task force meeting next week."  

Other strategies to keep in mind when engaging in two-way Deliberate Dialoguing:
  • Continue to avoid blame.  If you hear "She did this" or "He didn't do that," ask a question to defuse the finger-pointing and bring the focus back to the process. "So you're saying that some people are having a hard time with ____?"  
  • Ask permission before you share the employees' comments.  Keep in mind that if they've divulged information to you alone, in a one-to-one conversation,  they may assume that it will be kept confidential.  When you want to take it further, explain your reasons for doing so (and these should focus on improving the process or resolving the issue), then let the employee choose between going on the record or remaining anonymous.  
  • Don't penalize the employee for sharing -- in any way.  Don't make them late for lunch or take up their whole coffee break with your questions.  Above all, don't make them do extra work: "Can you summarize what you just said in an email and send it to me?" (Imagine how that will play in the inter-office grapevine!  Good luck getting any comments the next time you go fishing for them!)
  • Respect that people are speaking off the cuff.  Cut everyone a lot of slack, and say so: "I know I haven't given you time to think about this.  I'm just looking for your gut reaction."  
  • End the conversation by linking it to a mutual objective.  If you haven't already done so, make your purpose clear: "I'm trying to make sure we can meet our company goal of ______." 
  • Invite more input.  Say, "If you think of anything else, here's how to contact me..." then give your availability and how to best get in touch over the next few days.    
To empower quality relationship-building conversations, you need to stay intentional.  Make systems and processes the focus of trouble-shooting, not people.  Your people are your most precious problem-solving resource at work.  By engaging in Deliberate Dialoguing, you can ensure that this resource is available to you when you need it the most.  So remember my guiding motto:

"Aim, Don't Blame."

Friday, October 5, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Do The Dreaded Outline

This week's Friday Fundamentals considers the outline: one of the best -- and least appreciated -- tools in a communicator's toolbox.

Most of us Americans seem to have an instinctively negative reaction to creating an outline for our writing projects.  I strongly suspect that this is because from the time we were middle school students we were taught to hate outlines or hold them in contempt.

My own seventh grade English teacher, Miss Montesano, turned making an outline into a dreaded exercise. (She had a similar effect on my reading of A Tale of Two Cities and Johnny Tremain.)  In Miss Montesano's class, outlines were merely another brand of hated homework assignment, composed in a cloud of confusion, submitted for grading in the same state, and received back with apparently random red marks sprinkled all through them.  They seemed to have no relationship to actual finished writing projects, other than protracting their agony.

Throughout high school, the outlines I was compelled to use in English classes retained the same aura of mystery, if not meaninglessness.  Then, in college, my film screenwriting professor, Mike Lawrence, dismissed the idea of an outline outright and actually said that getting mildly drunk before starting to write was a much better conduit for creativity.  (Many of my classmates, all under legal drinking age, were happy to put his scholarly advice into practice. Personally, I stuck to writing sober, possibly explaining why I graduated Summa Cum Laude, and they didn't.)

Outlines Meet the Real World

I had to land my first job in professional film before I resurrected the outline idea.  It started with annoyance.  Our production team had been given a script that just didn't make sense.  When I tried to follow it in the editing room, it wasn't working.  The script was trying to go in one direction, but my camera crew's footage was going in another.  What was wrong?  I sat down and dissected the script, remixing its ideas into a new master plan that would allow the scenes to actually build a cohesive story and send the message we wanted to send.  There!  That was WAY better!  Why couldn't the screenwriter have said it this way to begin with?

Cranky and tired, I looked at the comments and  arrows scrawled all over my script, then at the neat hand-written notes on my pad.  A distinct wave of deja vu shimmered through me.  This was Miss Montesano's outline!

Charmed, I tried using an outline for the next script I wrote.  Not bad.  I used outlines for magazine articles I authored.  Decent.  I tried an outline for the Star Wars novella I was attempting to write.  That time it didn't work -- but neither did the novella -- so maybe that meant that the outline really had worked.  It was actually telling me the truth when it looked me in the eye and said, "This stinks."  Either way, I felt I was onto something.

So my first suggestion to my fellow American communicators out there is this:  Ditch all your assumptions about outlines.  If you're approaching outlining from an outsider's perspective, it might help to be aware that  many of us have been duped.  Here's the reality:

An outline is not an assignment.  An outline is a present.

It's a present you give yourself.  It's your own custom-made map to take you where you want to go.  It's a compass that helps you stay on the path and out of the ditch.  It's a menu for the buffet of your own imagination, telling you what's for dinner.  It's a pickup truck that holds all the bulky building blocks of your thoughts so you can drive them around and deliver them where they belong.  It's an aerial view of your journey, a satellite picture that shows you what's behind, what's ahead, and where you go from here.

Are you outline-challenged?  I understand.  I care.  That's why I want you to do this before you go any further: reread that last paragraph.  Pick whatever image works best for you.  Then make that image your mascot as you continue to read.  Got it? Great.  Let's keep going.

Besides being practical, an outline's other main benefit is emotional.  Many of us writers start to unravel about a third of the way into our writing.  The clarity we thought we had has slipped away, replaced by stark anxiety.   Like the fear of dementia that floods you when you can't find the car keys you just had in your hand, writers will often take a momentary concentration lapse and telescope it into a dire indicator that their talent has utterly deserted them, as they always suspected it would.

So, perhaps most important of all, an outline is an anxiety-reducer when a project starts to get murky or complicated.  Once you have an outline, then no matter how you may feel in whatever stage of a project's development, you can retain the feeling that you're already halfway to the finished product.  Just look at your outline, get your bearings and keep going.

Not Your Seventh-Grade Outline

I do feel the need to tell you that, for planning your own projects, you don't have to use the crazy outline format that many of us were taught.  Roman numerals? Alternating letters and numbers?  Capital, lower case,   and strings of little i letters?  Not needed.  The thing is to find a way to sequence your information that works for you.  Sometimes my best outlines are doodled flow charts with arrows, or strings of Post-It notes on a blank section of my office wall.  I also like Word documents populated with text boxes or tables.  Word's cut and paste shortcuts make it handier to outline on the computer, but if you are a pencil-to-paper type of thinker, by all means construct your outlines on a legal pad out on a park bench in the autumn sunshine.

An outline is an inspiration tool.  It's the Navajo dream-catcher of literary devices.

The next time you're ready to give up on a writing project, don't give your fears the upper hand.  Instead, go for a walk.  Have a conversation with yourself about what the main idea is, and how you might illustrate it.  When you feel ready, start capturing whatever thoughts seem most solid to you on paper or screen.  After you record what you think will be the key points, start playing with the order. The pieces will fall into sequence soon enough, as you start to shape the big picture.

That's all there is to an outline.  It's not a grit-your-teeth kind of thing --  whatever the Miss Montesanos in your life have told you to the contrary.  It's a great way to find freedom within structure, and give yourself a solid platform upon which to practice your artistry.

Got an assignment that has your wheels spinning?  Get yourself an outline.  And remember, no alcohol is required!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Manager Mondays: Deliberate Dialoguing, Part 1: Say What They're Doing Right

Welcome to Manager Mondays, where we focus on how to achieve and sustain remarkable workforce messaging.  Today we're starting a new series called Deliberate Dialoguing, all about having intentional relationship-building conversations to prevent workplace polarization.

Readers of this blog have heard me talk about polarization before.  It's a condition where the workplace is divided into two subcultures. In a typical polarized environment:

  • Managers view employees as necessary cogs in the machine, and interact with them perfunctorily, but don't go out of their way to "make nice."  Why should they?  They even avoid making eye contact if they can help it.  
  • Employees see management as unapproachable, unfriendly, or even hostile.  There's a baseline assumption that the bosses are hiding something -- and it's something bad.  Their posture towards management tends to become passive, defensive,  secretive, or even destructive as a result.

Does your on-the-job atmosphere feel like mutiny is in the air? 

Navigating this climate of mutual distrust, and trying to get business done within it, is an energy-sapping and efficiency-killing endeavor.  Smart companies try to stem that drain before it starts by initiating active measures to bridge it.  The trouble is, some of those measures are too shallow to address the real issues.  How will employee engagement programs ever warm up your workplace if they are kicked off by an HR department that is regarded as having a cold heart of stone?

If you want to weed out the seeds of polarization before they poison workplace culture and productivity, the best way to do it is to prevent those seeds from being sown in the first place.  I don't care how many softball leagues you sponsor, how many drawings for a free iPod you hold, or how many company picnics you stage, the roots of polarization will continue to grow until you change management behavior.

Good news!  You can go a long way to get everyone back on the same side by employing certain specific, intentional communication strategies at the management level.  I call this concept Deliberate Dialoguing, because it cultivates two-way communications instead of top-down communications, AND it sure doesn't happen by accident.

Deliberate Dialoguing is the process of engaging in informal conversations with your direct reports that strengthen bonds and allow interchanges of ideas and opinions to flourish within a safety zone of respect.

If you lead people on the job, you can become proficient at Deliberate Dialoguing, no matter what your circumstances, and reap the rewards of increased employee responsiveness and collaboration.  You can do this even if your company doesn't recognize the value of relationship-building communication, or offer you, as a manager, specific training on how to do it.  Just keep reading this Manager Mondays series and you'll get a toolkit of tips that you can put in practice. And you will love the results!

Of course, all of these tips are based on respect.  If you have an attitude of contempt toward those you lead, that will always influence your non-verbals and trump any verbal strategy you might attempt.  Because, as they say, "Actions speak louder than words."  So before you try any of these ideas, you need to do an internal audit to check your own respect level regarding your direct reports.

Here's a three-question self-evaluation.  Take it now.  Just use your gut reactions.  Go!

Respect Spot-Assessment

Thinking about the people you lead and work with, read each statement below and indicate whether you agree or disagree:

1.  I believe that their lives are as valuable as my own, and I can honestly say that I do not mentally put them in a separate category or caste.
 __ Agree Totally       __ Agree Somewhat       __Disagree Somewhat        __ Disagree Totally

2.  I believe that they are capable of displaying unique skill, talent, judgment and insight that can contribute value to our enterprise as well as to me personally.

__ Agree Totally       __ Agree Somewhat       __Disagree Somewhat        __ Disagree Totally

3.  I know that they deserve to be treated the way I myself would want to be treated if I were in their position, and I hold myself accountable to do so.

__ Agree Totally       __ Agree Somewhat       __Disagree Somewhat        __ Disagree Totally

If you could not agree totally to all three statements, it may be too soon to try your hand at Deliberate Dialoguing, since it depends on having a measure of empathy and genuinely caring about people.  I suggest you look at your answers and take measures to discover why your attitude is the way it is, perhaps discussing this issue with a mentor or trusted adviser   (If your lack of respect is based on employees' bad performance, you need to think about how to address it from a performance improvement standpoint.  If it's for any other reason, you need to think about how to address your own "humanity shortfall"!)

If you could totally agree to all three statements, then here's the first tip for weeding out polarization:

Deliberate Casual Affirmations: I DIG What You Did

Start to establish new communication patterns by engaging in friendly, reassuring mini-dialogues that center around standard procedures and well-known performance goals.  

1. Make a list of things you can catch people doing right.  What are five or six key behavioral expectations that are important to your enterprise?  Whether they involve regulatory compliance, procedural standards, or current high-priority business directives, these should all be observable behaviors that should show up in the course of your troops' regular assignments.  For each one, ask yourself: What will good execution look like?  Put them on your radar, then get going.

2.  Go out on Positive Patrol.  With your list in mind, carry on with your day, but watch for instances when people are doing those key things they way they should be done.  I know that as a manager it's your job to notice the trouble spots -- but if your aim is to reduce polarization, you need to ditch your inner critic for a while and listen to the glass-half-full side of your personality.  Re-calibrate your sensors to look for the bright spots as well. Your troops need to be reassured that you're not just out to play "Gotcha!" all the time.  They need encouragement.   So benignly walk your beat, asking yourself, "What's on the plus side today? Where are things looking up?"  When you spot a behavior that fits that description, make a note, and take action. 

3.  Say that you DIG what you see.  Approach the person who performed the behavior with a big smile. (Note: your smile should always be bigger than you think is necessary!)  Then give him or her your focused attention as you say these three things:
1. What you saw they Did (state the observed behavior)
2.  Why it was Important (link the behavior to an outcome that is in line with the company mission)
3.  How Great it made you feel (your personal gratification in observing the behavior)

4.  Leave on a positive note.  After you give this quick casual affirmation, retreat. Leave the person glowing.  You can wreck the effect in a heartbeat if you follow it with a "But..." comment that injects a negative note.  No matter how innocent the circumstance, or how slight the comment, if you follow an affirmation with a correction, guess which one the person will remember?  Resist that impulse.  Instead, if you want to follow up your DIG comment with anything else, make it a question.  And make sure it's the right kind of question.    (But that's intruding on the subject of next week's post, so tune in again next week for more details!)

You're OK, I'm OK, We're OK 

As an example of the DIG approach to giving affirmations, let me relate a true story of a real-life casual affirmation that I witnessed myself just the other day.  A friend of mine, Carol,  recently got a new job managing a retail establishment, and I met her for lunch at her new store's cafe.   As we toured her part of the sales floor, Carol paused to smile and greet a cashier by name.  "I've noticed what a difference you've made in these displays by the register," she told her.  "You've really straightened them up, and they're always restocked. Good displays sell, and it's great to see that you're taking the extra time to keep things looking so fresh."

>>>  Did you see the elements of the DIG formula embedded in those remarks?  If not, go back and read through them again.  This time I'm sure you'll find them.

How do you think the sales clerk felt when she heard her behavior affirmed in this way?

I'll tell you: her whole face changed and she became much more animated as she replied that yes, she had done some changing around, she liked to experiment, and she was just trying to do what looked good.  Carol resisted the temptation to give more direction at this point.  Instead, she sailed off with a smile. Later, the same clerk rang up my purchase with an increased energy level and an added gleam of interest in her eye  -- or at least that's the way it seemed to me.

Casual affirmations help employees own their good execution.  Casual affirmations also set behavioral benchmarks that stick in employees' memories and become internal job aids to help them hold themselves accountable to their own level of excellence, and self-correct their behavior later on, as needed.

But the most important role of the casual affirmation is to establish an environment of appreciation, which strengthens the bond between managers and employees and defuses any polarization that might be brewing. 

Carol and I talked about the healthy organizational culture at her new company, and how different it was from her last job, where politics ruled the day and good managers like Carol were held to ill-defined standards and often browbeaten into mute desperation. Carol said that at her new job, her supervisor made it a point to give recognition daily, telling every one of his direct reports what was working especially well or where he was seeing improvement.

My friend Carol's own body language reflected that change in her environment.  At her old establishment, she had always seemed aggravated, her face pinched and her posture stooped.  Here, she looked five years younger and walked with a lightness of step.  Even her hair looked bouncier.

Which just goes to show that giving and getting encouragement can not only defeat polarization but also have a positive ripple effect in many other unexpected ways as well.

Can you DIG it?

We've only just begun.  More about Deliberate Dialoguing next week. Until then, feel free to leave a comment!