Monday, March 24, 2014

Are you sure you really know what your followers are trying to tell you?

Humans are really good at pattern recognition. Malcolm Gladwell popularized this concept when he wrote about “Thin Slicing” in Blink. Thin Slicing is when we find a pattern with only minimal information. Jung called universal patterns archetypes and Shakespeare captured most of them in his playsIndeed being able to notice patterns to identify what is important is not only critical to our survival but saves time and is an aspect of great leadership.  I have always been amazed by how truly excellent leaders can quickly hone in on the one detail that matters out of millions of details to ensure their company’s success and make the right decisions. 

Unfortunately, there is a down side to this survival mechanism.  Neil deGrasse Tyson summed it up well in the 3/23/14 episode of Cosmos noting that humans are so habituated to pattern recognition they also see patterns where there aren’t any. He called them false patterns.

What does this have to do with leadership you might be asking at this point?  Everything - from the ability to hear what your people are really trying to tell you, to judging performance, to hiring, to understanding how well the corporate strategy is keeping up with the market and competitors. Thin slicing works particularly poorly when we are communicating about complex or new things – things that represent an adaptive challenge to an organization and a leader.

Technological innovation is one of the main forces that push organizations to change products or processes or, in particularly disruptive cases, markets.  Imagine a conversation between a leader and a technical project lead asking for resources for an expensive innovation that is not yet proven or a conversation between team members trying to decide under a deadline how to test the latest multimillion-dollar mousetrap.  It’s common in these high-pressure situations to miscommunicate.  We look for familiar patterns and think we are on the same page with the people we are talking with when actually we are in different universes which at a minimum is very frustrating.  In my work with teams and leaders, I see this all the time. There are many, many reasons why people miscommunicate but between leaders and their teams there are a couple of reasons especially worth noting.

The first is the dynamics of power and authority that all leaders and followers contend with. Leaders put their organizations in a petri dish just as followers experience leaders as if through a bullhorn and magnifying glass  - everything is amplified.  A leader we will call “Joe” is passionate about his business and hard driving. However, his passion can feel like a hammer to his people. When he poses a question – a true question – his team takes it like an order.  And Joe is a caring leader and his team still has this reaction. Other leaders who are not as caring do things that are much more threatening to their teams – like putting down contrary points of view or worse the individuals who pose them or interrupting their subordinates or changing the subject when they are being disagreed with.  When this happens real communication stops and knowledge sharing becomes one way - top down - which is the death of innovation and the road to low performance.

The second dynamic that gets in the way of real communication has to do with our assumptions about the meaning of words. We think we know exactly what the other person is trying to communicate because we understand each word they said.  However, when complexity is high and the topic at hand is novel, our unique understanding about what words mean gets in the way of true understanding. The reason is because when we first learn a word, we learn it in a unique context as a toddler, which means there are as many variations on the meanings of words as there are people.  I can mean it one-way and you can take it another. Anyone who has experienced a long-term relationship knows all about this. Add in differentiators like education, geography, culture, professional field, and level within the organizational hierarchy and you can see how it is a wonder we understand each other as much as we do. 

What can leaders do to better understand what their people are trying to tell them?
  1. Practice inquiry.  Ask questions and keep asking. The old rule in Six Sigma is to ask why five times to really get to the heart of something.  This is what inquiry does – it helps us understand what someone else really means.
  2. Go slow to go fast. Slow down and cultivate patience. Inquiry requires leaders build in time to be able to ask why or what or how and have the headset where they can gauge if they truly understand the concept being communicated. This is nearly impossible when on the run from meeting to meeting. Building in time to be able to think together with followers especially on critical aspects of the business will pay off more in the long run than anything else.
  3. Listen actively. Check for meaning by paraphrasing to ensure you really do understand.
  4. Don’t interrupt. Interrupting another person conveys one message – that you are important and they are unimportant. This is a highly demotivating message to send your followers (remember the bullhorn?).
  5. Be curious and check your assumptions.  Don’t assume you know what a person is saying before they finish a sentence. If your attitude is one of curiosity and you are able to put aside ego, stress, pressure or whatever it is that gets in the way of you being able to fully listen to your followers, you will hear more and learn more and be able to do more. 
  6. Optimize the available brainpower in the room by creating more opportunities for informal communication.  Often organizations are good at hiring great people. Then because of formality and hierarchy and the limitations of the leaderships’ soft skills, companies are not able to capitalize on the combined talent and expertise of their employees. Pioneers like GeoCities and Yahoo! understood the power of informal communication in the design of their corporate cultures that emphasized access to leadership, transparency about the business successes and failures and placed a high value on creativity and unique ideas that could bust through the status quo.
  7. Cultivate relationships and care about your followers. Know that it’s not about you it’s about them. When you do this you will listen to your followers under the assumption that they have something important to say that you don’t already know.  This positive regard for them will go a long way to cultivating relationships and the bonds of trust needed to optimize the collective intelligence required to compete in today’s volatile markets.


  1. Hi Dr Stanley, I love Neil deGrasse Tyson, I'm on episode 2 of Cosmos so I look forward to this section in the next one!

    You bring up a very important point and a conversation that I have been having a lot lately with friends about the true meaning of words. They shift throughout our life experiences and through changes in culture and it creates more and more misinterpretation. I find myself really paying attention to the words people use and that I choose to convey meaning. I don't think I have ever used a dictionary/thesaurus so much in my life as I do now (I suppose some of it is age related inability to recall the word I'm trying to think of).

    This brings me to something you pointed me in the direction of, one of the principles of appreciative inquiry. I am finding more and more that using positive language framing of issues as opportunities helps diffuse perceived negativity in many situations and start an upward spiral. Perhaps a caring leader like "Joe" could use this principle and would get less of the negative reaction to his questions. Leaders may get to hear and understand even more of what their members really want to tell them when the inquiry is madevin a positive frame.

    Thanks again for a great post and making me think!

  2. Hi Darlene, I agree with you about the power of focusing on what's working versus only and always problem solving. Critique is important but if criticism is all an employee hears it is not only demotivating but also not informative about what high performance looks like.

    Thanks for the feedback on this post! Glad it made you think. ;-)


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