Thursday, March 13, 2014

Building Our Leadership Skills Part 1… Empathy, Perception, and Responsibility When Communicating

In the middle of writing another post I started to write about this topic, and realized that it deserved it’s own post.  The question is this…

If you are talking to someone, and your intention is to, in a relatively soft way, ask them to think about changing some behavior… and they take it as harsh criticism… who is at fault?  

Who is responsible for how communication is heard?

My money is on you saying ‘they took me the wrong way’.  If you listen to the people around you speak, that is definitely what you will hear when something like this happens.  Someone’s feelings are hurt, and the person who did the ‘hurting’ will state that the other person took them, or what they said, the wrong way.  “I didn’t mean to say that”!  or “That’s not what I said”!  Followed by “they took it the wrong way”.

I’m here to tell you that “they” did NOT take you wrong.  YOU said it wrong.  That’s right…  You, the person doing the communicating, are responsible for how your words are heard.  100% responsible.

Yes, I can hear you now…  That’s  crazy!  You don’t know the people I work with!  I said it in a quiet voice, and they heard it the way they wanted to hear it.  Go on.. get it all out.  All done?  Good…

Now… let’s talk about this.  As leaders we know that empathy is a mandatory skill.  Some of us have it in spades, while others have to work at it, and stay on our guard to be sure we are picking up on how the person we are communicating with is feeling.  Whether it’s natural for us or not, we must understand how the other person is feeling, and how they are reacting to what we are saying.  We need to be picking up, second by second, whether the listener is taking what we are saying the way in which we intend.  We can see facial expressions and body language, in addition to their verbal responses to what we are communicating.  If we get anything other than exactly what we expect to get, it’s our responsibility to fix it right then and there.  I should add here that it takes emotional intelligence to be sure of exactly what we intend.  It is certainly possible that we are harboring a grudge against this person, and deep down our intention could be to hurt their feelings.  We'll move forward with this discussion with the understanding that this is not what is happening.

If, in our example, I might pull a team members aside, and in private tell them that I think they came across a little disinterested to that customer.  The customer had a kind of a smirk on his face as he walked away.  And, I simply ask that my team member understand how sometimes we can come across in ways other than we intend, so please pay attention to customer’s facial expressions… if the customer doesn’t leave you with a genuine smile, it’s a sign that something didn’t go as planned, and if so, please check in with them to be sure they are leaving you genuinely happy.  Simple, right?  Not so much… 

After working in Leadership roles in restaurants, retail outlets, and upscale grocery stores over many years, I have given this exact feedback to many dozens of team members.  Many of the hourly employees in these workplaces are younger people, working with the public for the first time.  Focusing on the customer enough to pick up on their reaction to what we say, or how we say it, is something we all have to learn.  Most of us need to hear it out loud, and often more than once.  In our late teens/early 20’s we are easily distracted and providing outstanding customer service may not be the most important thing to us.  Does that mean these young people have heard this type of feedback before?  Does it mean they welcome feedback that will make them better at their job, better at life in fact?  No… no it does not. 

For many people new to the workplace this kind of feedback will be heard (at least at first) as harsh and ultra critical no matter how it is delivered.  That does not relieve me of the responsibility for how it is heard.  It’s up to me, the Leader, and person delivering the communication, to see how it is taken and if necessary say it differently until they get it in the way I intend.

This happens just as often with adults as with younger team members.  Once we are into our 20’s and older I’ve found it’s pretty normal for people to feel that they’ve got it all figured out.  If they haven’t heard that some behavior is a problem by then, it’s not their problem, it’s your problem!  Aging does not necessarily mean becoming more open to feedback.

What will help in this process is being consistent in your Leadership, expecting the same commitment to service (or whatever) from every team member, always delivering feedback in private, giving feedback promptly, keeping your emotions in check, properly indoctrinating your new hires so they know your standards up front, understand that you will be giving them feedback like this, and understand that you care about them and their goals, and always providing the best example for them yourself.  Over time these things will help build trust between you and your team members, and when you speak to them they will come to know that it comes from a place of respect, and is not meant to be derogatory or hurtful.  See Hiring part 15 for more on indoctrination...

The next time you start to say “they took it wrong” you will know that something needs to be fixed.  Do it right away.

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