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.  

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