Not everyone knows what they’re talking about

I can’t watch presentations anymore. Having been an active Toastmaster for some time, I notice all the speakers’ mistakes. The “uhm” sounds, the non-purposeful fidgeting, the illogical sequence of ideas, the obsolete information. I can barely hear what the speaker is saying.

A layperson watching the same presentation might notice that something’s wrong with it. It’s boring or just not resonating. But they can’t really put their finger on it. Once I explain: “he mixed up presenting an abstract concept with giving concrete advice” they go “ah!”, and confirm “you nailed it!”

Switch to a company doing an employee satisfaction survey. Its results are miserable, so the participants are asked to work out concrete recommendations for what should change. Ask that question separately to line employees and to managers and you’ll get distinctly different answers. Worlds apart.

The employees will tell you all kinds of things, that could be jointly labeled as: more money. Not necessarily in monetary form. The managers will come back with flowed processes, working conditions, credibility, vision, communication flaws, and lastly perhaps compensation, but only as one of many factors.

It’s not that the first group is dumb or greedy. It’s that they cannot really put their finger on what they feel is a problem. Perception takes training, and training takes time and appetite for learning. Not everybody wants to think broadly.

When you set out to improve morale, by all means do include all of the affected employees in the conversation, but:

  • drill down past the first answers (symptoms) to the root cause of issues, don’t just take requests and throw some money at them,
  • explain how the results fit into the broader picture of work, taking the time to educate the people you work with.

It’s democracy with a healthy dose of moderation.

A side effect of such surveys could be discoveries of talent. An employee who speaks, demonstrating an understanding of the broader context, is a good candidate to develop and promote. A manager who does not speak this way, may in turn be in the wrong position.

Solomon was wrong

You get this often when managing people. Somebody, often outside of your chain of command, comes to complain about your subordinate. “He’s stubborn.” “She’s doing this wrong.” “He exceeded his competencies.” and anything else you can think of. What do you do?

There are two natural reactions to this situation:

  1. you go to talk to your subordinate, get her version, decide who’s opinion is correct and persuade the other side to comply.
  2. (with time) you get both interested parties in a meeting, have them discuss the situation and either mediate to find a solution or come up with a Solomon-like compromise that should fit everyone.

Which one is right? Probably neither. The right thing to do is nothing.

When you do react in any of the above ways, you give others permission to shortcut resolving conflicts, by relying on command & control structures to force compliance. Consequently the people you manage will always feel as if you’re not on their side, but are instead giving in to external pressures and opinions. You lose their trust.

What you should do instead is to explain to the complaining party that your subordinate has good reasons to react the way he or she does, and both of you are working their best for the organization. Whoever is coming with complaints should continue to work directly with the other person in question until they reach understanding and a solution.

There are obviously cases of valid complaints, where your subordinate is guilty of misconduct. But 99% of the time you’re working with competent, committed people, who get into conflicts because both sides are devoted to doing a good job. They might simply have different ways of getting there, different definitions of what a “good job” means, or might be placed in an organizational system that naturally sets them against each other.

Once in place, your behavior creates a system and culture where everybody is responsible for keeping good relationships with others whom they cooperate with. It’s the equivalent of what Collin Powell named “mommy’s not here, son, broadly present in the military.

I remember once watching a documentary on Navy Seals training. Whenever a team of them got into conflict they were ordered to walk rounds in the sand, carrying a long, heavy wooden log with a huge inscription “MOTIVATOR”, to understand that they must work together. None of them could carry the log alone.

There are no logs to carry in white collar companies, but there are just as many conflicts. And people need to learn to handle them as grown-ups. It’s a powerful lesson I learned from Tribal Leadership and still often fail to implement in my daily work.