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!

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