Improve Casual Encounters with Three Sincere Questions

“I know your schedule got slammed last week,” a manger said to a colleague.  “I hope this week will be better.”

The colleague answered, “I have a lot of deliverables this week also.  I am just trying to keep my head above water.” 

“I am in the same boat.  I think everyone has a full plate.” 

Now, check out a restructuring of this exchange to go something like this.

“I know last week was a tough. Do you think this week will be any better?”

“I think so but I’m not sure.  There are just too many uncertainties.”

“I heard that.  Is there a particular uncertainty that worries you most?”

“Yes, a major customer is inquiring about advancing a delivery date.  That one worries me.”

“Really.  Is it the same customer we had trouble with last quarter?”

In the first conversation, the greeter inquired and then began telling his story, “I’m in the same boat . . .”

The second conversation began with a question and followed up with two specific questions based on the colleague’s response.  A recent Harvard study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that a sincere question and two specific follow-up questions made the other party feel more respected and appreciated.

Do Not Expect Perfect Harmony Between Your and Your Leader’s Methods

“I wish he would be clearer about how he wants this analysis done.”

“She tells me to use my judgement and then disagrees with my decision.”    

“He asks for too many status reports.  They take a lot of my time.” 

These are just a few of the hundreds of responses to my question, “How do you think your leader could improve?” 

Face it.  We are complex beings with wide varieties of behaviors.  Get any two employees, even high performers, together for two minutes to discuss their leader and you can be sure they will find something that irritates them.

So how do you handle the differences between you and your leader?  Do you become aggressive and openly defy decisions?  Sulk and become distracted?  Continuously whine to others and lobby against the leader? 

Do you act professionally by offering other options when you disagree while willingly accepting your leader’s methods? 

A departing staff member once said to me, “I enjoyed working on you team.  I did not agree with all your decisions or methods, but I don’t agree with everything my spouse does either and that has worked out pretty well.”

Put differently, if you were the leader, would you hire someone like yourself?

Beware of “Social Loafing” in Teams

Janus said to me, “Approval of some decisions requires signatures of eight team members.”

“How does that affect you?” I asked.

“Well, a lot of documentation accompanies each decision; and to be honest, I don’t always scrutinize everything.  Sometimes, I just sign it.” 

“Do you worry that you might support a bad option?”

“Not really.  Seven other highly-qualified people are involved.”

Janus engaged in social loafing; that is, he shirked his responsibility and relied on other team members to fill the void.

Max Ringlemann, a French engineer, coined the term “social loafing” decades ago because of a rope pulling experiment.  In groups of two, three and eight, Ringlemann asked participants to pull a rope.  Members in larger groups put in less effort than individuals in smaller groups.  

Social loafing in work groups may slow decision making, impact performance negatively and create frustration among team members.  Studies of students’ group projects show rampant vexation among some due to others failing to do their “fair share” of the work. 

To reduce social loafing in work teams:

  • include only members whose skills are required,
  • identify specific and measurable objectives,
  • set a hard deadline, and
  • assign five or fewer members to a team.

How to End Conversations in a Timely Manner

An acquaintance said to me, “I need to talk to Calvin about his progress on a compliance report, but I procrastinate because conversations with Calvin are lengthy.” 

Another person reported, “When I attempt an in-depth discussion with Duane, I leave the meeting uncertain about whether we have understood each other.”

Do either of these examples sound familiar?  Juan Siliezar, writing in the Harvard Gazette, described a study by Adam Mastroianni, a Ph.D. student in Harvard’s Psychology Department which reported only two percent of conversations ended when both parties wanted them to end.

In almost half of the cases, conversations extended longer than both parties desired.  In a display of politeness, parties in two-person conversations appear to continue talking, not because they have more to say, but because they are unsure of the other’s intentions.  Persons said their conversations ended too soon in only about ten percent of the cases. 

Many discussions pose a dilemma.  Individuals are busy and wish to communicate efficiently but prolong conversations unnecessarily. 

How can you resolve this issue?  Try this.  When you believe you have what you need, say something like, “That sounds good to me.  Are you OK with it?”

Followership: Avoid Hallway Attacks of Your Leader’s Decisions

Part 3 of 3 Parts

Helena, the district manager, went into the retreat with a strong position against a reorganization plan the vice president was proposing.

“This new plan will flatten our organizational structure, reduce our overhead and allow us to be nimbler,” the vice president proposed. 

Helena responded, “As the plan keeps the same number of people, I don’t see how we reduce overhead.  A new customer-response team will likely meet our immediate needs much better.”

Following lengthy debates, the VP prevailed in his proposal.

“Afterwards,” Helena commented, “I had a problem.  My team knew I was against the VP’s proposal, but the VP clearly expected us to support it.”

Rule 1:  When you disagree with your leader’s decision, listen with an open mind and try to understand and accept the leader’s position.

Rule 2:  After the meeting, when others approach you and voice their disagreements, respond with something like.  “Look, the leader has made a decision, I am committed to its execution and it would be better if you took the same position.

After tough decisions, too many team members accelerate stress by continuing to campaign against the decisions in hallways and parking lots.  Effective teams bury their opposing tactics and channel their energies toward executing the plan. 

Followership: How to Present Opposing Views to Your Leader

Part 2 of 3 Parts

“I understand what our leader is trying to do, but he does not know our history.  His proposal will fail,” an employee said to me.  “Are you saying team members cannot disagree with their leaders?”

“No,” I responded.  “Effective leaders encourage competing opinions.  Healthy, passionate parleys often lead to improved decisions.”

The intent is to offer divergent options without dividing members into opposing camps that muscle up for win-lose standoffs.   Consider two rules for respectfully disagreeing with your leader.

Rule 1.  Present your views as an alternative rather than creating a blunt force against the leader’s position.  For example, “I see your point.  Here is another option for addressing the issue . . .,” or “I understand but I’m still having trouble with . . .”

Avoid zero-sum phrases such as, “It won’t work.” “You are going to fail.”  “Others won’t support it.” “You said . . .”

Rule 2. Acknowledge the leader’s right to make the decision.  Introduce your disagreement with, “I’m going to do what you ask me to do but I’d like to suggest. . .” 

All team members have a right to have their say but not a right to have their way.      

Followership: Embrace the Leader’s Vision

Part 1 of 3 parts

“Why are you cutting costs in this area?”

“I don’t think we should be opening a new facility at this time.”

“If you would allow us to fill our two open positions, we could achieve our objectives.”

These comments were directed toward the leader (only four months into the role) during a contentious staff meeting.  The new leader was proposing strategic changes.  And, as you might expect, some of the staff members were not buying in.

Followership Rule 1:  understand the leader’s vision.

Effective followers focus on understanding—not attacking—the leader’s vision.  As the saying goes, real leaders ride the horse where they want the horse to go.  Listen and observe.  Remain open.  Strive to fully understand what the leader is trying to accomplish.   

Followership Rule 2:  if the leader’s vision is legal and ethical, get onboard.

It is normal for team members to have opposing ideas about what to do and how to do it.  But continuous whining, arguing and resisting only increases the likelihood of team failure.  Productive followers embrace the leader’s vision; they lean into the leader’s decisions; they operate off the same playbook.  To paraphrase the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, if you cannot be a good follower, you cannot be a good leader.