Excuse Me, Are You Bleeding?

March 5th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Building Relationships, Management No Comments »

keyboard“How can I get the cynics on my team to be more positive?”

“How can I find more time to manage my growing business?”

“How can I get my very junior staff to understand important developments on a project so they make the right choices going forward?”

What do these three questions have in common? The problem was unwittingly caused by the leader through an unconscious choice I’ve dubbed “style bleed.” Style bleed happens when you let a style that works well in one setting to bleed over into other settings, where it contributes to the very problems you want to solve. The challenge with style bleed is seeing when it’s happening.

In the case of the leader whose team was filled with cynics, the style came from years of working with regulatory agencies for pharmaceuticals. For two decades she had anticipated and responded to their demands as the drugs slogged along through the regulatory process.

With regulatory agencies – to say the least – there’s not a whole lot of dialogue, debate, or negotiation. It’s not as if she could say, “Well, if we provide this document in the exact style you want, we’ll expect you to give a little on this other document.” After two decades, she had become a master at anticipating, thoroughly preparing, and responding to non-negotiable demands.

Guess what happened when she interacted with her direct reports? Sure enough, the style that made her so successful with agencies flopped in a setting in which her job was to develop a team. Her interactions with them involved no dialogue, no debate, and no negotiation, though to her it felt like they did. Her team had checked out in terms of making their own decisions, and even in terms of checking their own work, because her instructions weren’t clear, but she would always fix whatever didn’t meet the expectation she hadn’t clearly articulated.

It took a lot of effort on her part, but as she began to consciously choose a different style for internal interactions than she used in external interactions, the team began to open up, and performance began to improve.

In the case of the manager seeking more time to grow his business, the style bleed came not from work, but from a longtime passion. A gifted pianist, he had practiced daily and performed often for the past eighteen years – which was twelve years longer than he had been in the workforce! Musicians practice untold hours before performing, and sometimes perform a piece only once, after hundreds of hours of working on it. The idea that you must practice, hone, and perfect your work before putting it out there greatly influenced his style at work.

Once we uncovered this style bleed, he began to assess each task, large or small, by whether or not it was truly similar to a high-stakes performance, and to target a more realistic personal standard for tasks that were less high-stakes and simply needed to be dispatched quickly and efficiently. This saved him hours in each week, which he could apply to the most important demands of his growing business.

In the case of the junior staff members who never seemed to understand important developments on a project, the projects were massive lawsuits and the leaders were two legendary trial attorneys who led the teams through complex, multi-year cases. The style bleed in this case was easy to spot – with great enthusiasm and remarkable intellectual power, they would quickly and unconsciously turn an announcement about a case development into a debate between them, each turning to the staff to make his point, as if they were the jury.

It was certainly exciting compared to a more typical staff meeting, but their very inexperienced staff members couldn’t follow it. They needed simple and straightforward explanations, not stunning displays of debate worthy of Perry Mason. However, in the presence of these two powerful and imposing men, nobody was going to speak up to say, “I don’t understand. Can you explain it in very simple terms?”

Once we discussed this style bleed, they were able to resist the temptation to turn meetings into trials when sharing basic and important information, and other attorneys and managers were able to jump in from time to time with explanations for the staff.

Do you see how easy it was for you to spot the style bleed in each of these leaders? Do you see how difficult it is to spot it in yourself?

Are you having trouble achieving a goal? Is style bleed one of the reasons? Here’s how to find out, and what to do about it:

Ask yourself where your standards and assumptions about your behavior came from. Go way back – these assumptions can be shaped in childhood, and it’s not always as deep as family trauma. In the case of the musician, his assumptions were shaped by the demands of the performing arts, which influenced him from the age of twelve, and which were a very positive aspect of his childhood.

Ask yourself if that’s really, truly the standard for the task at hand, or the best assumptions to make in this particular context. A different context often calls for a different style.

Ask your coach, boss or colleagues (or all of them) for perspectives on the appropriateness and effectiveness of your style. Often we don’t see style bleed ourselves because it’s hard to see unconscious assumptions and standards. It’s dark in the unconscious, and another person can often help out with a flashlight.

Try something different! Several years of a tight job market made a lot of people habitually gun-shy about personal risk at work. However, if style bleed is contributing to your frustrations or concerns, the only way to address it is to try a different style.

What are your thoughts about style bleed? Let me know in the comments!

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The #1 Change to Make in 2014

January 3rd, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Building Relationships, Communication No Comments »

In 2013 I issued my first ever year-long challenge to readers: to dramatically and intentionally improve your listening skills, one month at a time. It was the #1 change to make in 2013. This year, we’re going to take the challenge up a level and focus on dramatically improving your skill and confidence in building relationships.

This competency gets an absurd amount of lip service in comparison to the actual degree to which it’s practiced. Yet without exception, the most successful and happy people with whom I’ve worked all focus ongoing attention on building relationships.

As with 2013, I’m breaking it down into 12 new habits, one for each month. We’ll take it in these bite-sized pieces so that you can get completely comfortable with each one before adding the next. Ready? Let’s go!

January: Focus, focus, focus. Since this is a developmental process, we’re going to target it. Make a list of no more than ten people with whom you want to build stronger relationships in 2014. This is important, because the list will be the basis for our work. Let’s call them your Treasured Ten.

Include at least one person who isn’t in a position to help you nearly as much as you can help him or her. This is good generosity karma. Also include people who are in a position to help you as much as you can help them, so you don’t get stretched too thin. This is good self-preservation karma!

Why no more than ten people in total? We want a number you can stick with for a whole year, applying each month’s challenge to each relationship, and more than ten can get mighty cumbersome when you’re working on new habits and skills. You may find that as the year goes on, you remove some names, and perhaps add others in their place. That’s o.k. Situations change, and sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

February:  Set a simple goal and metric for each relationship, or to keep it super-simple, one over-arching goal and one metric for the whole process. What gets measured gets managed. How will you know you are strengthening each relationship? What signs will indicate this? Those signs can be your metrics. You’re not measuring product performance; this metric can be soft and still be useful to you!

March: Arrange to see each of your Treasured Ten in person, preferably over coffee or a meal. That’s right, I want you to kick it old school and see your Treasured Ten face-to-face. If you are not in the same geography and don’t expect to travel soon, set up a Skype call. Learn what challenges they’re facing, what they’re excited about, and what they need. Share your own challenges and what you’re excited about, too. Be sure to use open-ended questions, which are questions that can’t be answered in one word.

April: Take at least one action to help out each person. If you’re unsure if something you have in mind would be welcome, ask. It can be an action that only takes 5 – 10 minutes, or maybe it’s something bigger. Great relationship-builders create a huge “bank balance” of goodwill long before they ask for anything in exchange. If you have issues with over-helping, this will be a tougher one to manage, but you must master this, because generosity and selflessness are hallmarks of successful people. They are not stingy with their help. They don’t hold it close to the vest. They worry very little about getting screwed, because they know that for every one person who will take advantage, there are 100 who won’t, and the 100 are well worth the rotten experience of the one jerk.

May: Introduce them to people who can help them, or have a mutual interest, or ideally, complementary needs. You’ll need to develop the habit of always asking yourself who might like to meet whom in order to catch the best opportunities for your Treasured Ten.

June: Keep every single commitment to them, even the teeny tiny ones. For example, when I get going in a creative meeting with a client, I sometimes lose track of some of the follow-ups that were discussed, but maybe not committed. I decided to stop being too embarrassed to ask and instead, starting sending a follow-up email asking for their recollection of how we left it.

By “teeny tiny” commitments, I mean things like following up even when you don’t absolutely have to, but you said you would, even if it was over your shoulder as you walked away. For example, I sometimes meet with near-strangers who want my advice, because a lovely client has requested it. Each time, I say to the near-stranger, “All I ask is that you follow up and let me know how it went. Will you do that?” One hundred percent of them commit to do this, emphatically. Approximately two percent of these people actually do it. The others disappear. The 98% go down in my esteem. The two percent rise.

July: Think of your Treasured Ten beyond the main environment in which you know them. For example, does one of them have a child who’s starting to look into colleges that provide the best education for a particular major? Ask friends in your network who hire in that profession which schools they would recommend and why. Share the information, but only share names and contact information with permission.

August: Donate your money to their causes, assuming it’s a cause you’re comfortable supporting. Anyone who’s ever volunteered for a charity walk-a-thon or community fundraiser knows how much effort goes into getting people to sponsor them and put money in their bucket. Start setting aside some money to support those who are willing to dedicate their limited free time to a good cause, even the people who aren’t your Treasured Ten. The timing of these requests can be hard to anticipate, so with money set aside, you’ll be ready from this month onward.

September: Repeat the month of March. Call each person or arrange to see him or her in person, preferably over coffee or a meal, or via Skype if you live far apart. While it may not be feasible to see every person you’d like to see twice a year, it’s certainly worth the investment to make sure you see your Treasured Ten this often. If you’ve seen all of them recently, congratulations! You can kick back this month and just continue your habits from the other previous months.

October: Write a recommendation on each person’s LinkedIn profile. Granted, you can’t do this if you haven’t worked together, but perhaps there’s something else you can do in fifteen minutes or less that’s a good deed for their business or career. Write a Yelp review for their local business. Buy their product and if you like it, share your enthusiasm on the appropriate social media. You get the idea.

November: Be there when it’s tough. Over the course of a career, everyone has ups and downs, and some of them are very dramatic. When one of your Treasured Ten suffers a big blow (professional or personal, or both), many, many people will scatter. Don’t be one of those people. In fact, come in a little closer. Do what you can to help, even if it’s as small as continuing to meet up for coffee. Granted, tough times can come any time, not just in the month of November, but I had to put this somewhere. In the season of Thanksgiving, be thankful you can be there to support them.

December: Think of something you appreciate about this relationship, and share it with the other person. For example, whenever a client is the inspiration for a Traveling Light column, I let him or her know. They often have a great time reading the article and seeing how I’ve disguised their identity. I’ve placed this habit in December because it is when we are most likely to reflect back on the year and think of these moments, but you can also do it as the situation arises.

Remember to take it in baby steps, adding one technique to your relationship-building toolkit every month. By 2014, you’ll be closer to ten wonderful people, and you’ll reap the rewards of personal and professional satisfaction.

Let me know how it goes in the comments below.


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