Compassionate Listening Makes You a Better Leader: 7 Listening Tips

When was the last time you really listened to someone? When was the last time someone really listened to you?

Has it been a while? Do you remember how you felt after that conversation? Why don’t we do that all the time? It’s something I grapple with pretty often.

I’m flying back today from Toronto where I was honored to talk Approachable Leadership with a number of leading Canadian companies. By the way, here’s a travel tip. When you cross the border be sure not to tell the border agent that you are an American going up to teach Canadians about leadership. They had to resuscitate my first border agent who nearly died laughing!

If you’ve seen me present the keynote recently you know one of the practical takeaways is our “Recognizing Gaps” tool. This tool helps leaders recognize the tell-tale signs of power distance. One thing I teach is to listen for the signals of a gap. (To learn more about the signs of power distance check out the Recognizing Gaps Tool in our Approachable Leadership Toolkit – it’s also on page 24 of the Playbook).

But it’s not just about listening. It’s about how you listen. Are you “listening” like you’re in a verbal tennis match, getting ready for your next volley? Or are you listening to understand? Are you practicing  compassionate listening?

I came across this term in an article over at Greater Good on the importance of teachers listening with compassion in the classroom. And while the article itself is geared toward teachers and students, the principles apply to to any relationship.

Why is it important to listen with compassion?

Martha Caldwell, author of the article, points to the Buddhist monk Thich Knat Hanh to lay the groundwork for how compassionate listening makes a difference. She writes (emphasis mine):

“The mere act of listening helps relieve the pain that often clouds perception, and when people feel heard, validated, and understood, they are better able to figure out solutions on their own. Deep listening and the emotional resonance it creates calms the nervous system and helps create a state of optimal learning—open and receptive, trusting and calm, yet alert. This is the neurological state we want to cultivate in our classrooms.”

And I’ll add—in our workplace.

I emphasized a few points in that quote that are worth highlighting. First, when we listen we relieve pain. At it’s core, power distance is about fear – many of the folks we lead are afraid to approach us. A leader who fails to acknowledge this or does a bad job of listening ends up creating pain. One who listens relieves pain and fear.

One big reason leaders do a bad job of listening is that they immediately go into problem solving mode (I’m bad about this). If you are spending all the time your teammate is talking trying to figure out how to solve their problem you aren’t really listening. This will come across in your body language. On the other hand if you focus on actually listening very often your teammate will solve their own problem (a solution they are much more likely to buy into and act on).

Finally, listening helps everyone’s mental state. In the keynote I talk about how power distance triggers “flight or fight” reflexes deep in our nervous system. These reactions are often happening subconsciously. That’s why leaders have to be on the lookout for physical, verbal and behavioral signals of a gap. When you really listen you calm the nervous system and create a resourceful mental state for you and your teammate. It completely changes the dynamic.

How do you listen with compassion?

When Caldwell asked a group of students, “What do you need to feel safe with the people in this room?,” the students responded with a list of “relational qualities that embody compassion.” Acceptance. Trust. Respect. Support.

Your employees crave these same qualities in their environment at work and in their coworkers. And why wouldn’t they? People want to feel safe and comfortable with the people they spend more time with than anyone else in their lives.

It’s when your people feel safe that they do their best work. And compassionate listening, cultivating understanding, and creating connections are the best way to accomplish that.

Here are the 7 key components to compassionate listening:

  1. Be fully present. People know when you’re not giving your complete attention. When this happens, you’re doing more harm than good. I find that a lot of the time, leaders want to be better. But they half-ass it. You’re busy. And trust me, I get that. But my point is, if you can’t make time to be fully present, postpone the conversation until you can. Say you’ve invited an employee to open up to you about a struggle, be it work or personal. They do. They think you care. And that makes them feel good. But halfway through you’re checking an email that just popped up on your phone. Suddenly they’re wishing they hadn’t opened up at all. They feel vulnerable, but not safe. And resentment develops.
  2. Know listening is enough. This is a big one. Don’t try to solve a problem unless you’re asked. Most people are completely capable of solving their own problems. What they want more than anything is for someone to empathize with their struggle. They especially want that from leaders. They want recognition for their hard work. And for the dragons they face and slay regularly that too often go unnoticed. Simply put, they want to be appreciated. Do your best to make your employees feel understood and, like Caldwell said, they will be “better able to figure out solutions on their own.”
  3. Respond with acceptance. Nobody wants to feel judged. We especially don’t want to feel judged by those in higher power positions. This increases distance. And I know what you’re thinking. As a leader, part of your job is to assess your employees. Here’s where the line is on that one. Assess their job performance. But give people the benefit of the doubt. Make the “hero assumption” that poor performance is due to an obstacle in the way and not due to a lack of effort. It’s not that you won’t sometimes face poor performers. But you may be surprised how often your own assumptions are contributing to the problem.
  4. Understand conflict as part of real-life learning. Encouraging an environment where people feel safe and free to speak up about their issues or concerns is not going to come without conflict. Conflict is inevitable in life and in work. Don’t shy away from it. Be the kind of leader that embraces it and uses it as a catalyst for positive change. BUT, in the process, make sure both sides feel heard and understood.
  5. Ask authentic questions to learn more. Open-ended questions are much more resourceful than closed-ended questions (questions you can answer in one word). Asking open-ended questions shows more interest and it encourages the speaker to expand on their thought. To share more. Fill in blanks. To reveal their most authentic selves. Furthermore, it helps ensure that you truly understand where the speaker is coming from.
  6. Be gentle with yourself. Real conversations spark real emotions. Within the speaker and the listener. “Accept yourself and your internal feeling responses without judgement. Allow yourself time to process and learn.” This is especially true when what an employee shares with you spurs a realization about your own leadership or actions. We can all do better. But we will do better more often when we more often invite a different perspective than our own.
  7. Treat the candidness of others as a gift. This one is simple. Be trustworthy. Value what people have chosen to share with you as it should be valued.

Compassionate listening is not going to solve all your problems. But it could solve a lot of them. Make time for it. And you will see the impact on your team.

What do you find most challenging when talking with your teammates? Do you practice compassionate listening? Which of the 7 practices are you strong at? Any you could improve? Let us know in the comments!

Why New Leaders Make the “Villain Assumption” Plus 4 Ways to Make the Hero Assumption Instead

Do you ever think, “I just don’t think this person cares about doing good work.” That’s the Villain Assumption.

If you’ve been a leader for any length of time, you know what I’m talking about. Every so often you may be right. But most of the time the problem lies somewhere else. And if you are one of those leaders who seems to always get stuck with poor performers, I’ve got bad news. The problem might be looking at you in the mirror.

If you face a performance issue with a teammate it is important for you to diagnose and help fix it. After all, that’s your job. But the way you go about “fixing” it can have a HUGE impact on whether you solve the problem or make it worse. It all depends on your assumptions. If you assume a team member doesn’t want to do great work you are making the Villain Assumption. And making the Villain Assumption actually creates a steady stream of performance problems!

Why first time leaders make the “Villain Assumption”

First time leaders are especially prone to make the “Villain Assumption.” Most of the time it’s not their fault. It’s in their nature. Let me explain.

When filling new leadership roles at your facility, who makes the cut? Think about it. Is it the ones with proven leadership ability? Or the ones who’ve been there the longest? The ones who you are most familiar with. The guy who has proven he is reliable and can get to work rain or shine. The gal who delivers results over and above everyone else in the department.

(To learn more about how to teach leaders to make the Hero Assumption – plus two other positive assumptions critical to good leadership – check out our Learn and Lead Huddles)

Promoting team members to leadership roles based on these characteristics may seem like a win-win. But it is often a lose-lose. You lose a top producer, so that automatically is hard to replace. Then your new leader struggles. She expects everyone to meet her high (and sometimes inflated) performance standards. This creates expectations that are impossible to reach. When teammates fail to meet the standard the new leader gets frustrated, but she doesn’t have a lot of leadership tools or talent.

Suddenly your previously high performing team is now failing. Teammates are frustrated and bickering. They don’t have a leader who meets them where they are and builds them up from there. Instead they have a leader who is making the Villain Assumption and starts treating the team like a bunch of slackers. Your new leader, who is also frustrated and lacks good tools, falls back on what she knows. She jumps in to show the team “how it’s done.” This just creates more hard feelings. Not good.

In addition to this common “no-win” scenario, leaders face another challenge. Disengagement. Consider this:

50% of new leaders don’t really want the position. And 60% underperform in the first two years.

That’s a sobering statistic. About half the time someone accepts the position because it’s a promotion. They want the pay raise and the chance to move up. They like being acknowledged. But they don’t really want the job, which really hurts their engagement. This in turn hurts their motivation to build up their leadership toolkit. So they struggle. Many don’t make it.

This costs you a talented producer. It creates all kinds of unnecessary drama (and the lost productivity and turnover associated with that). Then you end up right back where you started, struggling to get a new leader in place.

That’s why we must make sure that we choose new leaders not based on their performance as an individual contributor. We must choose them based on their proven leadership qualities. 

While there can be a benefit to having a high performer in a leadership role, it is not anywhere near the most important factor. High performance and leadership are two separate sets of traits. They sometimes show up in the same person. But often they don’t. How do you tell whether the person you’re considering is likely to succeed as a leader?

  • People who are emotionally intelligentWho on your team is great at reading the room? Who have you noticed often fills the role of confidant when a coworker is struggling? You want leaders who are self-aware, able to keep their emotions in check, and able to connect with a lot of different personalities.
  • People who are good listeners and empathetic. In order to be a great leader, you must be able view your coworkers as humans and not cogs in the machine. Employees work harder for leaders who support them. And they have more confidence to do better work when they have leaders who show understanding.
  • People who are patient. To be a great leader is to be a great teacher. And this is bigger than teaching processes. Or how to do a job. It’s about teaching the why behind the job. And it’s about figuring out just what one individual “student” needs to perform his best. Someone who gets easily frustrated when others struggle to “get it” is not going to be a successful leader.
  • Look for people who make the Hero Assumption. This is less obvious. But look for people who don’t “run down” teammates who are struggling. People who look at the glass half-full when they notice someone who is having trouble. Someone who pitches in and helps out, not to show off how great they are at performing the job but to help teach others how to up their game. People who are encouraging.

Nobody wakes up in the morning thinking they are the villain in their own story.

This mindset is the how a leader develops the Hero Assumption.

Believe that your employees want to do great work and you are much more likely to see it happen. Believe they don’t care? That’s probably what you’ll see.

This isn’t just a bunch of leadership psycho-babble. The Pygmalion effect is real and has been measured in numerous studies. When you make the Hero Assumption you program your brain to do two very beneficial things. First, your brain subconsciously looks for evidence to prove the assumption true. You know how after you buy something new you start seeing it everywhere? That’s your subconscious at work. Assume your people want to be great and you’ll start noticing it.

More important, your behavior and conversations will change. When you make the Hero Assumption you will automatically approach potentially touchy leader conversations the right way. Your words and behavior will telegraph that you are not judging your teammate. As you look for obstacles that are getting in their way, they will sense that you believe in them. They’ll be ready to roll up their sleeves and prove that your faith in them is justified.

The Hero Assumption is a way to create a self-fulfilling prophesy in your team. So is the Villain Assumption. To paraphrase Henry Ford, whether you believe your team is full of heroes or villains, you’re right. The kind of team you want to lead is up to you!

Have you ever had a leader who made the Hero Assumption or Villain Assumption about you? How did it feel? How did it impact your performance? Let us know in the comments!

The Future of Work: 5 Ways Leadership Will Change in an AI Economy (Part 2)

There are 5 ways work will change in an AI economy

In our last post we looked at the ways AI and new technology is likely to impact our workplaces. Bottom line: work will change a LOT over the next 5-10 years. As I said in the last post, this means we have to “level up” our leadership skills. One of the best articles I’ve seen on the key skills needed for the new economy suggests 5 critical ways work (and leadership) will change in an AI economy. Here they are:

1. The corporate ladder will transition into a corporate lattice.

“Rather than moving in one direction, ambitious employees will be able to move sideways, tapping into new networks.” We’re already seeing this with the rise of the gig economy. And with millennials in the workforce who want careers with more flexibility and freedom to operate.

Phillip De Ridder, co-founder of The Board of Innovation, says that one of the ways for corporations to do this is through a series of “intrapreneurship” programs. These programs encourage employees to “think and act like entrepreneurs within the confines of their company.” Zappos is a great example of a company who has integrated this dynamic in their workplace. (For more, read our article on Creativity and Frontline Employees here).

2. Job loss to robots will be major. 

Jerry Kaplan is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and teaches a class on AI at Stanford. He believes that robots and intelligent computers “are going to have a far more dramatic impact on the workplace than the internet has.” Recent reports concur. A 2013 study by the Oxford Martin School estimated that “47% of jobs in the US could be susceptible to computerization over the next two decades.” And a study by the McKinsey Global Institute predicted that by 2025 “robots could jeopardize between 40m and 75m jobs worldwide.”

3. The human cloud of freelancers will continue to creep in. 

Websites that match employers with freelancers are growing at a remarkable rate. In fact, the McKinsey study estimates “that by 2025 some 540 million workers will have used one of these platforms to find work.” The benefits of companies using these services are obvious. It’s cheaper. You pay by the project. Employers save in healthcare costs, additional taxes, and providing benefits.

However, the ultimate effect on the economy is still unknown. Some argue that because some of these sites include a bidding process encouraging the lowest bid to prevail, wages will go down and inequality will increase. I personally think these fears are overstated. While many will pick the lowest bidder, these sites also drastically reduce barriers to entry, especially to historically disadvantaged populations. And if you’ve ever used a freelance site you know that price is only one place where freelancers compete and that often you get what you pay for.

4. Technology will be used to monitor staff. 

The most common application of self-monitoring involves health (you probably have a monitoring device on your wrist or in your pocket). Companies are encouraging their staff members to wear devices that count things like steps, calories burned, hours slept. The idea here is that not only will an effort to improve one’s health lower healthcare costs for the organization. There’s also quite a bit of data on the effects of overall health on workplace performance. In 2014, around 10,000 companies offered their staff fitness trackers.

Health is only one application of these technologies. There are many others. And some of them get downright Orwellian. But there are many positive possibilities. While you can use these technologies to increase productivity and efficiency, they can also be used to decrease stress, fatigue and improve safety and quality.

5. The age of retirement will climb. 

This expectation has less to do with technology and AI and more to do with the fact that people are living longer. The average life expectancy has increased globally by six years since 1990. Governments are having a hard time funding pensions for the longer-living population. Also, people are struggling to save for their longer retirement. The most important lesson leaders can take from this is to not give up on your older team members. Provide programs that help your older workforce continue to adapt to the changing landscape of work.

How these changes will impact leaders – and how Approachable Leaders can ease the transition.

Being a more approachable leader can help our teammates handle all five of the changes listed above. Additionally, focusing on your own approachability is a great way to help ensure you are building skills that can’t be replaced by AI or a machine.

The transition from the corporate ladder to lattices and dealing with turnover.

I agree that this is a change that’s happening right now. And the fact is, flatter organizations and changing teams more frequently calls for stepped up front-line leadership. Leaders need to have ongoing (not just once a year) conversations about development and options for learning and applying new skills.

[Tweet “The best leaders embrace change and turn frustration into a growth opportunity.”

This is also the best way to make sure your team is building skills to deal with the disruptions coming. A lot of jobs are at risk. As a strong leader you should be thinking about roles you lead that could be at risk and thinking about how you can prepare the people in those roles for higher demand skills. Develop your talent. You do this by asking good questions. In particular, our development question: Where are you going?

Freelancers are people too. How can you be an approachable leader to them?

Freelance talent will become more integral to teams. How do you leverage the advantages of “on-demand” talent while keeping the advantages of a team? The common denominator is the same: connection. The same skills you use to connect with coworkers are great for building connections with freelance talent. As an added bonus, your freelancer’s other clients probably won’t do a good job of this. Which means you’ll get better, more reliable service and a “go-to” resource you can rely on to deliver.

That point on workplace monitoring rings a little too close to George Orwell’s 1984 doesn’t it?

Don’t make your team feel like “big brother” is watching. That induces anxiety and decreases connection – the opposite of your intended goal. Resist the urge to monitor everything that can be monitored (or at least using an app to do it). Instead focus more on the original monitoring app: conversation. A less intrusive (and much more effective) way to “monitor” your team is to just have a great relationship with them. Ask them how they’re doing. Do they have what they need? What would make work better? Show that you care. Be approachable and you’ll know a lot more about what’s going on in their lives. And you’ll results will improve along with your connections.

Dealing with multiple generations.

If you’ve read this blog for long you know “generational profiling” is a pet peeve of mine. Don’t worry about which age-group “bucket” someone fits in. Instead, connect with the person. A person late in their career will have different development needs, horizon, goals, and things to offer the team. Or not. Figure out what each individual on your team has to learn – and to teach. Again, you do this in conversation.

One thing is for sure. The next 5 years are going to be full of change and  frustration for leaders and their teams. The best leaders will learn to handle frustration, and embrace the chance to turn frustration into a growth opportunity. A growth opportunity for yourself and your team.

Any other tips you can think of to prepare other leaders for the future of work? We’d love to hear any of other facts or tidbits on how things are changing. And what you think leaders should do about it? What has worked for you already?

The Future of Work: 5 Ways Leadership Will Change in an AI Economy

Do you worry about what the future of work in your job or industry looks like?

Me too. Every day some new technological revolution is announced that promises to transform an industry. The difference between today and, say, 10 years ago (ancient history in Internet years) is that I believe that the promises about the future of work will live up to the hype.

To say today’s pace of change is breakneck doesn’t really do it justice. It is easy to imagine that the way we manufacture, transport and purchase goods and services will be hard to recognize 5 to 10 years from now.

Autonomous vehicles will completely disrupt the logistics business. All of the hours we spend in traffic today will suddenly become available for other things (I’d guess mostly time on whatever the next Facebook is). We will have same day delivery of about anything we can think of. Some things we’ll just print at home or at a local store.

Virtual reality will become so realistic that our entertainment will also transform. Who needs movie theaters or amusement parks when you can just put on some goggles and transport yourself into a new world? Movies and video games will continue to converge.

Change means destruction AND creation.

Leaders must prepare for both. Artificial Intelligence will automate more and more tasks that are done today by humans. Machines will become as effective as humans at an astonishing number of tasks, disrupting service industries like healthcare, education, insurance, banking, law, and many others. (China acquired over 160,000 robots in 2015). Many more jobs we consider “high skilled” will go away or become “low skilled” and less valuable.

At the same time new jobs will be created. They’ll require completely new skills. The good news is that the way we educate is also likely to transform. This is good news for lifelong learners. It is bad news for traditional education providers and for people who aren’t interested in learning new skills – many people will become unemployable in jobs that can support a family.

I’ve been doing some interviews with clients and thought leaders over the last month or so researching my next book. We inevitably end up talking about the pace of change and how it is likely to impact their industry. It will be a big topic of conversation at the upcoming CUE Conference. (Not signed up yet? What are you waiting for?)

How will automation and artificial intelligence change the future of work and leadership?

It is easy to look at all these possibilities and get pessimistic. Major structural changes to the economy create major disruption (like when the world shifted from primarily agricultural to an industrial economy). But these changes also create tremendous opportunity. As leaders we must focus on taking advantage of the opportunities and helping our teammates adjust to the massive changes.

Ironically, all this technological change actually increases the importance of human connection and strong leadership skills. After all, these are the kinds of things that will be impossible for machines to do. This means we have to “level up” our leadership skills. One of the best articles I’ve seen on the key skills needed for the future of work suggests 5 critical ways work (and leadership) will change in an AI economy.

Our next post will look at how the future of work – and leadership – will change in an AI economy. We suggest 5 ways work will change, and some of the key leadership skills you’ll need to get ahead of the curve. Stay tuned for that.

What do you think AI and machines will mean to your workplace? What keeps you up at night when you think about automation? What opportunities do you see? Are there frustrations or gaps in your current job that technology could fix? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Simple Positive Affirmations for Work to Transform Your Team

Are you a Gen-Xer or a Millennial?

I’ve got a sure-fire way to tell: what do you think of Stuart Smalley? My Gen-X readers either laughed out loud or rolled their eyes (or both). My Millennials scratched their heads. (Oh, who’s kidding who, my Millennial readers hit the Google, watched YouTube videos of his best positive affirmations for work, and then wondered out loud why he looks so much like a U.S. Senator).

I’ve been talking about positive affirmations for work a lot more than usual the last few weeks. That’s because I’ve had the pleasure of teaching our Learn and Lead Huddle on Execution Habits to two groups of SHRM leaders.

What do positive affirmations have to do with good execution habits?

A lot. The last thing we work on during that Huddle is a daily journal process I recommend. The journal process (what we call an Action + Leadership Journal) is part follow-up and follow-through system, part note-taking process, and part journal.

Each day we ask learners to start a new page and take a couple of minutes to focus on one thought or habit for that day (these change each week). Then they write down three things they are grateful for in their life. Why do that? Because a grateful person can focus and execute a LOT better than one who isn’t. It also tricks your brain to look for positive things around you – that’s a great way to reinforce the Hero Assumption.

I’m speaking from my own personal experience. I can tell you when I fall off the wagon on my own journal (it happens) I am less productive. But this isn’t just my opinion. I recently ran across an old article from Eric Barker that reminded me that there is a lot of science that backs up the importance of positive affirmations for work.

The article, “How Five Post-it Notes Can Make You Happier, Confident and More Successful,” is full of great advice. While I use a journal instead of post-it notes, these habits are game-changers.

Here are the affirmations Barker recommends:

  1. One post-it to list three things you’re thankful for (this is on the top-left section of our journal page for each day). When we keep a record of the positive things in our life, we tend to feel better about our lives. We are HAPPIER.
  2. A post-it to make note of two accomplishments you’re proud of. I include things like this in my daily gratitudes but re-reading the article made me pull out my bio and jot down a to-do to update my profile on LinkedIn. Seeing this post-it every day makes you more CONFIDENT.
  3. One post-it to jot down something you’re looking forward to. In an interesting finding, one study concluded that “anticipation can actually be more pleasurable than getting the thing you’re anticipating.” This relates to what we teach leaders about The Progress Principle. Having something to look forward to makes us more OPTIMISTIC.
  4. A post-it for one memory that makes you feel good. Research shows that being nostalgic can add a feeling of meaning in your life (I wonder if watching Stuart Smalley affirmations on YouTube counts?) Reminiscing on good times makes our lives more MEANINGFUL.
  5. One post-it to write down the name of a person you admire. “When we stare at someone we want to become and we have a really clear idea of where we want to be, it unlocks a tremendous amount of energy.” This from Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code. Increase your focus and your energy and you will be SUCCESSFUL.

How does this approach to positive affirmation for work make our team better?

When I think about qualities I want to have in my own team, I can’t imagine a crew that would be more successful than one that is happy, confident, optimistic, finds meaning in their life and work, and feels successful. Folks who feel this way are productive. They get along with coworkers. They speak up when they need to.

As a leader, you are your team’s biggest cheerleader. Never stop rooting for them. Root for their success at work and at home. You WANT the people who work for you to be happy, confident and successful.

Encourage these qualities and you will see less turnover. You will see more enthusiasm. And you will watch your team grow. And in turn your organization will grow.

Not sure where to start? Lead by example. Start a journal practice or put some post-it notes up on your monitor. When someone asks what you’re up to tell them.

What do you think? Could a journal or some post-it notes transform your team? Are you ready to give it a shot?