Friday, April 20, 2012

Your Employees Are Reading Between The Lines

Robert Lee Frost was a guest speaker at Syracuse University back in the 50's when my father was doing his undergraduate work.  During the question and answer period, a student asked the famous poet about his meaning of a particular line about the wind, and whether it could be correctly interpreted as having been intended as a metaphor for death.  Mr Frost answered, "No".  He was actually just talking about the wind.  The line had come to him as he was sitting on a high school baseball field, watching an early spring training session.  The wind was blowing.  Spring winds are cold.     

My dad laughs as he tells this story.  After hours of analysis in English classes where he and the other students had scoured each line of text for its hidden, deeper meaning, it turns out the poet meant exactly what he said.  Nothing was intended between the lines.

Whether you know it or not, this same analysis occurs in your organization every day.  Or at least it does if you haven't built a culture of open communication and trust.  Reading behind the lines is a learned behavior.  English students learn it in class.  Employees learn it on the job. 

If you want your memo interpreted exactly as it was written, here are a few tips. 
  • Know the organization's vocab history - In last year's memo, did "restructuring" mean work was shifted around, a reorganization, or actual staff reductions? If it meant layoffs even one time, it will always be so for those who lived it in your organization, and that's what they will read between the lines next time they see that word. Chose your words carefully so that they match your intentions and aren't misconstrued due to past history.
  • Don't forget what you've already said - Make sure your communications refer back to prior messages. Call it out if something has changed and explain why. Failure to connect the dots causes suspicion and confusion.
  • Maintain an active dialogue with your team - Whether you're the CEO or a front line supervisor, you need to be in an on-going two-way conversation with your team.  Group discussions allow people hear information at the same time and with the same words.  The team is less likely to make assumptions about what you write or say if they have up-to-date data and a chance to ask questions on a regular basis.    
  • Don't shy away from sharing bad news - Increasingly, employee feedback indicates that they want to hear both the good news and the bad from their leadership.  It's an opportunity to educate the whole team on the challenges of running a business and let them participate in finding the solutions.  If they know they'll hear both sides of the story, they don't have to go looking for the secret meaning of each memo.  They'll trust that you're going to tell them what they need to know, good and bad.
  • Keep your influencers in the loop - Make sure your non-management influencers (the subject matter experts, the senior team members, the change agents) are informed early on so they can assist you in shutting down or redirecting misconceptions at the water cooler.  People listen to their peers, especially those they trust and look up to.
  • Write to the level of your audience - Leave the eloquent language to the poets.  Your messages should be clear, using the language of the reader.  Employees think you're hiding something when you don't say it straight out.
I leave you with a verse from the Robert Frost poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time".  It's a beautifully stated description of what an April day is like here in the Northeast.  No need to read between the lines.  The wind is cold.

“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bringing Habits Into Our Awareness

"The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" is a new book by Charles Duhigg.  This video shows the author describing the "habit loop" of Cue-Routine-Reward with a personal example of a habit he wanted to change.  The habit loop is covered much more extensively in the book at both the individual and group levels.   

One of the things I found most fascinating from "The Power of Habit" was the research on how our brains can convert a sequence of actions into an automatic routine.  One example given is the process of backing a car out of the driveway.  When we're first learning to drive, this takes a great deal of concentration, but after a short period of time, we're hardly giving any thought to it at all. 

Or consider your drive to work in the morning.  You listen intently to the radio for today's news headlines, create a mental checklist for the workday ahead, and replay yesterday's board meeting in your head, all while simultaneously keeping your vehicle on the road, driving within a reasonable speed, avoiding the potholes and pedestrians, headed in the proper direction until you safely reach your company parking space.  Most days, you hardly remember anything about the actual drive, yet your brain just completed an incredibly complex sequence of activities. 

In coaching, we'd refer to that state of mind, when we're on autopilot, as being out of awareness.  That's where habits live, out of our awareness.  The first step to changing a habit is to become aware of it in the first place. 

In his video (and the appendix of the book), Charles describes an undesirable state - being 8 pounds overweight, and gaining.  He wants to lose weight, so he starts by reviewing what routines, or habits, are part of his day that could be considered for change.  A thoughtful review like this is typical in a coaching engagement.

What I like about the habit loop is that once a routine is identified, the model can then be applied to populate the associated reward that the brain was craving, and then the cue that triggered the brain to begin that routine.  This provides a tangible diagram, bringing the unseen into awareness where it can then be adjusted to drive the desired change.  Again, this is part of the coaching engagement, to identify the rewards and the cues in order to take action.

As anyone who has tried to make a significant change can tell you, awareness of a habit is just step one.  It takes well targeted action to move forward, with personal accountability, repetition, and often, support from others.