Never Say Never

LANGUAGE matters.

As I conduct observation coaching with leaders, I watch for how their words resonate with their audience. Does what they say induce fear? Excitement? Do attendees in the meeting cringe at certain words, or do their metaphors generate inspiration?

Effective leaders use communication as a critical competency to build trusting relationships, align team members around a vision, lead necessary change, and drive action. Communication involves verbal, non-verbal, and intuitive delivery and receiving of messages. It also requires listening and speaking with intention. In support of that, the communication process typically involves five critical steps.

Source: the sender of the message who is communicating
Encoding: the way a sender frames a message into an easily understood format that can be sent and received. This step requires the sender to know their audience and convey their message clearly and concisely to support understanding.
Channel: how you deliver your message (i.e., verbally through a meeting, phone calls, video conferencing, written, emails, memo,s text, and social media).
Decoding: occurs when the receiver actively listens to a message to ensure accurate transmission and interpretation.
Receiver: Receives the message and brings their own perspectives, experience, feelings, and histories that impact how a message is received.

Any missteps, gaps, or errors in these stages can lead to a serious breakdown in the communication cycle. It can destroy relationships, damage trust, and contribute to adverse impacts on business outcomes. In medicine, law enforcement, education, and almost every profession, communication failures lead to lasting negative impacts.

The best leaders maneuver these five steps in a way that leaves their teams feeling heard, understood, and valued. To accomplish this, leaders have a responsibility to ensure they are appropriately using every step of the communication cycle to deliver an accurate message.

Effective communication is difficult for a variety of reasons. Our lack of knowledge around cultural differences, as well as human factors such as stress, fatigue, and communication skills, all play a role in the potential breakdown of communication. Today, there is an emphasis on rapid decision making, and fast-paced problem solving that often involve many parties and differing perspectives.

Given these variables, there are several things to keep in mind to avoid communication breakdown.

1. Avoid Certain Words

There are words that create a negative emotional reaction regardless of the intent behind the word. We certainly do not need to eliminate all these words, but carefully considering your purpose, tone, and the desired reaction can ensure these words do not leave others frustrated or disengaged.

Why
“Why did you do that?” “Why didn’t you just do this?” “Why wouldn’t you just . . .?”
When we start a sentence with why, we are often seeking clarity. However, “why” can cause people to become immediately defensive, guarded and feel they need to justify their actions. In an effort to protect themselves, fight or flight kicks in and you do not get the best response or discussion. While there are times when this is the most appropriate word to bring forth, be cautious about when and how you use it and pay attention to the reaction in others.
Just
This word becomes problematic when we use it in the context of people. For example, “Pat is just our assistant,” “You need to just figure it out,” or “Just wondering if you’ve looked at the proposal.”
When we use the term in these contexts, it can be demeaning and diminishes the role, effort, and value of others. Leaders who inadvertently use this language risk diminishing confidence and value amongst their team members, even when the statement is not sent directly to one of them. Using just risks making others feel insignificant.
But
The dreaded but. “You did a great job, but” “Sorry I’m late, but” or “I wanted to help, but.” When we use this term, often, it negates the phrase before it. When we issue a compliment, followed by but, the listener only hears the criticism that follows, and the previous statement is lost. It can feel critical and take on a tone that lacks accountability.
Often, we can replace the word in our language with “and” instead. This simple switch will elevate how people feel about your comments and feedback. Try it.

2. Be Cautious When Using Idioms

I have made this mistake too many times to count. Recently, I met with a partner from France. I used the idiom, “let me put a bug in your ear,” to share an idea I wanted her to consider. That phrase was unfamiliar to her, and my intention was lost on her.

While idioms seem helpful to make a point, there is also a significant risk that they originated and have a history that is different than your intention in today’s world. Ethic, cultural, racial, or religious idioms that were accepted and used in the past may no longer be appropriate today.

3. Avoid Absolutes

“Nobody does it better,” or “I have the best employee/team.” Again, while this is often used to elevate those close to us, it generally has the effect of alienating others and diminishing their skills and abilities. Additionally, terms like all, none, must, never, only, always can be hooks. They have no exceptions and do not leave room for error or discussion. They can be taken as condensing and make others feel inferior.

The words we use matter, especially in a leadership role where our teams regularly react and listen closely to what we share. Start paying attention to the reactions you receive when speaking and cut out the words and phrases that are spurring a negative response.

* * *Leading ForumLaurie Cure is the President and CEO of Innovative Connections. Her focus is consulting in strategic planning, organizational development, talent management, and leadership, including change management and culture evolution. With more than 25 years of leadership experience, she has dedicated her career to delivering strategic visions, working with executives/senior leaders to drive organizational outcomes, and researching and publishing on important industry issues and topics. She is the author of Leading without Fear, about overcoming fear in the workplace. You can connect with her on her website and on LinkedIn

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How to Find Your Edge

Edge

WE’VE HEARD that hard work is the secret to success. But all too often we see that hard work is not enough. What then?

We need an edge.

Laura Huang explains just how to gain that advantage in her insightful and encouraging book, Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. “Certain people seem to be endowed with a unique advantage in which they can execute faster and better and get the things they need, because they are positioned in such a way that others help them move forward. You can create your own edge and open doors—wide-open doors—for yourself.”

Having an edge makes hard work go further. Those that have an edge, Enrich, Delight, and Guide to make their Effort go further.

We must put in the work, but “when you create an edge, you create tailwinds that help you capitalize on your hard work more effectively.” We all face biases, prejudice, and harmful (to us) perceptions and attributions. But these can be the key to overcoming the adversity and roadblocks we face. “for most of you,” she writes, “it will be about positioning yourselves as an antidote to stereotypes, which will allow you to guide the perceptions of others, delight others, and ultimately will result in others seeing the unique value you can provide.”

Enrich

Huang begins with Enrich because it is the foundation of our edge. To do this, we begin by finding our “basic goods.” Those basic things that make you, you. “Creating an edge starts with pinpointing your basic goods and defining your circle of competence, and operating inside that perimeter.” It’s how you enrich.

Your history and your story are part of your basic goods. Don’t underestimate where you’ve been planted—grow there.

Our constraints provide us with a unique way to enrich when we own them—when we use them to see differently. “Don’t let the constraints that others create prevent you from identifying the problem for you, and hence the solution for you.”

Delight

Getting the door to enrich is made possible by our ability to Delight. Delight opens the door, so we can enrich. It’s how we deliver our value.

What is delight? It is the unexpected. “When we delight, we violate perceptions, but in a benign way. Delight unsettles and challenges beliefs about your context, grabbing the attention of gatekeepers and making way for you to show how you enrich.”

There is value in planning to delight, but it is important that you stay flexible and be looking for opportunities to delight. “Authentically delighting in situ requires you to be constantly fine-tuning, as well as constantly attuned to how you can shape situations to present the opportunity for your talents and core competencies to become apparent.”

Delighting requires you to have an opinion or point of view—being authentic while having the audacity, or the stomach, you might say, to take a bold, surprising stance.

We all have the capacity to enrich. But when you are able to also delight, that is where the real magic happens. That is how you allow them to let you in, and how you build your edge.

(As an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, Huang offers a great section on the advice she gives the students and entrepreneurs she coaches on the high-concept pitch, the two-sentence pitch, and the extended pitch. She states that “no pitch should be longer than one minute—after that, you should be in full conversation mode.”)

Guide

Once in, we Guide how others perceive our work and our worth. “It is inevitable that we will be affected by how other people view us and how they perceive us when we are merely trying to ‘be ourselves.’” We should keep in mind too that other’s perceptions of us are to a large extent about them.

Huang says we should look for patterns in our life—what rhymes. “Don’t go for absolutes go for directionality.” This is very helpful. Rather than adopt labels, we should identify directions for three reasons:

Going for directionality, rather than absolutes, helps you manage the impressions of others and guide their perceptions. You can be more fluid and adaptive.

If you go for general directionality, you’ll be more likely to avoid striving for goals that don’t leverage your strengths and that make it harder for you to create advantages. Self-awareness, in and of itself, is an elusive goal. We never really know ourselves, the best we can do is to find general directionality.

And finally, going for directionality allows you to simply move toward something that feels right, while already finding ways to cultivate an edge.

Self-awareness is knowing what we put out there and how it will be perceived by others. “Guiding entails being purposeful in helping others frame the attribution that they make about us.”

Don’t let them make assumptions. Give them the data points so that they can draw the trend line that you want them to see. Tell them, rather than allowing them to guess, about your future potential.

By providing directionality, you determine what is meaningful for them to know.

Effort

Effort works with the edge you are creating to inform you of the things you should be putting your effort into—things that you can enrich, delight, and guide. It’s in this combination that your effort then works harder for you. “Effort reinforces your edge.”

The optimal conditions for creating an edge are those in which bitterness and regret do not restrain you; they embolden you. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. Acknowledge and accept this, and you have already begun to create your edge. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, and that life is not fair. But you put in hard work plus, regardless. Don’t let success define you, but don’t let failure define you either. Play the long game, not the short one.

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Teaching By Heart

DESPITE what the title Teaching By Heart might imply, it is really a book about servant leadership. It is a journey into self-awareness so that you can serve those you lead or seek to influence in spite of your self-doubt, anxieties, and insecurities. It is a remarkable book and a perfect means to refocus your leadership development this year.

Professor of management and organizational behavior at Harvard University, Thomas DeLong, writes, “I’ve found that the best teachers are also leaders, and the best leaders are also teachers.” I completely agree, and it is easy to see the parallels.

Using himself as a case study, DeLong generously shares what goes on in his head and heart as a teacher. He shares what he has observed how in a teacher’s “best moments, they can life people up, and in their worst, let them down.”

You will learn what it takes to teach and lead better. You will gain a better understanding of yourself. Through his introspection, you will come away with a better grasp of your own patterns of behavior. You will understand the need to ask yourself: “What is it that I do consistently that assists me living and teaching, that leverages my talents in unique ways? Just as important, you need to understand those emotional or behavioral patterns that sabotage your efforts to make a difference.”

As teachers [and leaders], we focus more on our inadequacies and failures than on our strengths and accomplishments. I’ll deconstruct why this is so. I will walk you through the heaven and hell of teaching by dissecting and analyzing what I’ve experienced in the Harvard Business School classroom.

After thirty-five years of teaching, DeLong still has anxiety about teaching. To counteract the doubt and anxiety on the days he teaches he must get into the classroom early. “Rather than listen to irrational thoughts and feelings, I need to engage with the ‘enemy.’ I need to look students in the eyes and engage. I need to get out of my head and be interested in something other than my thoughts and feelings and insecurities. The pattern that surfaces is he either/or syndrome. Will I leave the classroom with a feeling of either success or failure? So even if you aren’t a teacher who is wrapped up in your own doubt and insecurities, you should know what your patterns are—the tendencies and habits that either serve or disrupt your effectiveness.”

“As the instructor, you need to increase the probability that your students will see and experience and feel what you want them to experience.” This doesn’t just happen. This is a challenge for teachers and leaders.

Self-Awareness and Growth

This self-awareness is a negative and a positive—a negative because it caused me to beat myself up continuously over my real and imagined shortcomings, a positive because it helped me become cognizant of my patterns.
By remonstrating with myself over my actions, I hope I decrease the chances that I’ll repeat this bad behavior. I still might. But I trust that I will do it less.

On Knowing Students

I am freer as a teacher if I feel I know the students on some level, better able to adjust and adapt o their requirements. My hope is to turn their mindset from one of certainty to curiosity where their assumptions can be tested, confirmed, or revealed to be false.”

The Power of Covenant versus Contractual Relationships

As leaders, we create a covenant with those we lead. A covenant is a good way to think about a leader’s relationship with others. Three elements make up the covenant leaders make with their people. “I promise to set direction with you, to secure your commitment, and help you execute. If I do these things, you’ll succeed and so will the company. This is the covenant leaders establish with their employees, and it drives performance far better than salary and perks.”

Teachers create this covenant with students in much the same way leaders do with employees.

First, students must know that they are in safe, competent, understanding hands. The first dimension is built on faith.
Second, students need to know that teachers care about them and their work. They learn this through feedback, interactions in the classroom, and observing them interact with their peers.
Third, students must feel like they are learning and growing and developing. They need to know that they are being stretched and pushed and challenged with new knowledge, that their assumptions are being tested, and they must gain new knowledge about themselves.

Contractual relationships are transactional. It’s all cognitive. “Contractual leaders and teachers worry about their image, how they are perceived by their boss—a manager or department head. They possess little empathy for others because their goal is to survive where they perceive themselves to be unwelcome.”

Reflections

The ideas expressed here are valuable to leaders in many roles—parents, teachers, pastors.

One of my goals for the students is to have them stand back and face their own life path. An underlying assumption is that the students will do less harm if they are aware of why they do what they do. They will hurt themselves and others less if they understand the purpose and path they are on. I don’t pretend that they should have an answer, but I would like them to be asking questions about their journey before, during, and after the experience at HBS.
As I gaze out the window and reflect, I question whether I’m helping students become more adaptive. Will they make it through their next crucible with greater resilience? Can they maintain a clear head in times of crisis? Do they become paralyzed with fear? Do they wait for someone else to save the day? Are they unable to be the people they were before they experienced the hardship? I want them to be able to keep tough feedback in perspective. I want them to be able to be direct when a tough conversation is necessary?
We need to have “road miles” so that we, through the process of elimination, understand the intersection between our values, motivations, and needs.
I try to highlight that we need not only to focus on the integration of work and play, of home and work but to be more aware of the quality of life we create with those who are near and dear to us.

Avoid Focusing on the Negative

If we use external criteria to define success or happiness, we will come up short, given the powerful influence of our negative-remembering reflex. Everything gets distilled and reduced to one reflection or observation. The technical term for this cognitive process is asymmetric effect with a negative bias. It holds us captive in everyday life.
I find myself returning to the internal dialogue that reminds me of my negative or self-doubting narrative than my self-affirming story. I find that my negative voices are louder than my positive ones, and so I lose confidence and my classroom persona is diminished—I am unwilling to push myself as a teacher, failing to try something new or push boundaries, since these classroom behaviors all carry risks.
The goal, then, is to remind ourselves that we possess a positive story, not just a negative one.

Three Guiding Questions

DeLong offers three guiding questions that will help guide our efforts to be authentic and genuine:

1. How do I experience others? What do we believe about others? The answer will inform how we interact with others.

2. How do others experience me? How do I portray myself to others?

3. How do others experience themselves when they are in your presence?

Teaching By Heart is a very relatable book that all leaders should read. Leadership comes in many forms, but we all deal with the same issues. DeLong’s journey will help.

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Empathy-Driven Leadership

EMPATHY? Isn’t that for directors of nonprofits and starry-eyed Millennial entrepreneurs with idealistic dreams? What good is empathy in an uber-competitive, saturated marketplace where leaders need to capitalize on every opportunity to stand out? The Empathy Edge definitively answers these questions showing how for-profit leaders can use empathy to gain the upper hand.

Contrary to popular belief, compassion and empathy are actually huge assets in the business world. What if leaders could shift the cultural mindset around what gives businesses a competitive advantage and recognize the benefits of being more human? Not only would they build smarter businesses, connect more deeply with their customers, and become stronger leaders, but also maybe, just maybe, our world could become a little bit better.

This is an interesting proposition. Leaders are in a position to influence how we think about the relationship between empathy and industry. Still, a sea change like this is hard-won. So, what’s in it for the leaders themselves?

Benefits of Empathetic Leadership

When you start to explore the benefits of empathetic leadership on a deeper level, it becomes difficult to see empathy as anything other than essential for competent leadership. Highly empathetic people (or HEP’s) recognize the pain and suffering of others as a problem in need of a solution. This is the foundation of every good business model. Further, without empathy, leaders can’t build a team, inspire followers, or elicit loyalty.

Among the benefits that come to empathetic leaders, whether they are entrepreneurs or c-suite executives, are the following:

Empathy is a catalyst for entrepreneurship or innovation
Empathetic leaders engender loyalty among both customers and employees
Empathetic leaders make good decisions because they are adept at processing information
Empathetic leaders are agile and connected and
Empathetic leaders are adaptable

The benefits of empathy for individual leaders are many, and this list likely only scratches the surface. But it’s clear that empathy is a core leadership skill.

Now you may be wondering what it takes to be (or become) an empathetic leader. You may recognize empathy as an innate human trait, and as with all human traits, there is a spectrum of strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are naturally “gifted” when it comes to being able to relate to others’ experiences, while others are naturally lower on the empathy scale.

The good news is—no matter where you find your natural tendency—empathy, like other leadership skills, is something we can learn, cultivate, develop, and teach to others. In the book, you will find seven simple ways to train yourself to lead more empathetically. Here are four of the most actionable steps you can take:

1. Practice Presence.

When you feel constantly scattered and spread too thin, it may seem like you can’t find even five minutes in your busy workday to take a break. But if you can’t ground yourself, how can you expect to be able to consider others’ perspectives? When you’re present with yourself, you’ll have a fighting chance of being present with others. Create space for a daily practice of meditation or simply sitting in silence. Even a few minutes will help.

2. Listen More, Stay Humble.

Empathy requires a mind that is open to listening to people’s experiences, stories, and perspectives. When you really listen, you aren’t tempted to jump in and offer advice or make demands. Instead, the tendency is to pause and look for patterns before providing relevant feedback. Empathetic leaders embody a servant’s mindset staying humble and looking for common ground with colleagues, employees, and customers.

3. Be Curious.

The ability to put yourself in the shoes of those you’re leading requires being genuinely curious about where they’re coming from. Authentically empathetic people have never met another person from whom they couldn’t learn something. As a leader who may be tasked with teaching others, it’s easy to feel disconnected from the part of yourself that is constantly curious. But if you look carefully, you’ll find it’s still there. Reconnect with your curious inner child, stay open, and watch opportunities come your way.

4. Get in the Trenches.

Empathetic leaders are hungry to understand their staff better. There’s no better way to understand someone else than by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them and experiencing exactly what they experience. If you deem a job “beneath” you or a “waste of your time,” consider the message you’re sending to those doing this job. Try a colleague’s job, work the customer support phones, or go on a sales call. You’ll be surprised by what you learn about your company, your employees, and yourself.

* * *Leading ForumMaria Ross, the founder of brand consultancy Red Slice, believes cash flow, creativity, and compassion are not mutually exclusive. Maria has authored multiple books, including The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success. She has spoken to audiences ranging from The New York Times to BlogHer and has written for numerous media outlets, including Entrepreneur.com.

* * *The Empathy Edge expertly weaves together engaging stories and compelling interviews with leaders who embody empathetic leadership. Maria Ross’s talent as a storyteller is rivaled only by her ability to offer straightforward, practical steps for executives and brands that want to increase productivity, find financial success, and integrate emotional intelligence. The big takeaway: when empathy and compassion lead, incredible success—both professional and personal—follows.

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