Archives 2020

Why the negative can be positive

We communicate. We talk to each other. We write messages. As human beings, we exchange information and express feelings. We have several communication channels, and whichever we use, we do it by combining words and phrases to convey concepts.

You probably heard about the fact that words have weight. Whatever we say or write will have consequences: somebody will be happy or sad, will feel confused or enlightened, will laugh or maybe will cry as a result of them. We can hear also in several movies the famous phrase from the Miranda warning: “Anything you say can be used against you in court…” So no doubt: our words have an impact. They often reflect our thoughts and feelings, just as they can have positive and negative connotations.

I heard many times in communication trainings that if we have 2 ways of expressing something, it is more advisable to use the one with a more positive tone. And indeed, it makes sense: economical vs cheap, challenge vs. problem, determined vs stubborn.

Current trends are encouraging this attitude not only in personal life but also in business. We can feel the difference in communication and management styles compared to 20 years ago, and according to the Country and culture, this change can be particularly striking.

But what happens if this strong emphasis and attention to always be positive will distort our message? What if we will be misunderstood?

I was writing in a Facebook Group, asking people’s opinion about training material that I would like to create concerning leadership skills and development. I listed some topics that in my opinion could be interesting and one was about “How to provide negative feedback”. I got some responses, but some people reacted to my way of formulating my sentence, and they suggested it would be better phrased as providing “constructive” feedback instead of “negative”.

In the beginning, I could not understand their point. For me, it was obvious that the word “negative” was related to an unpleasant assessment or opinion to be provided to somebody, and this has to be done constructively, no question on this. But what was the problem of having used the word “negative”? Feedback cannot be “negative”?

At this point, I realised that some people try to be so perfectly “positive”, that they avoid calling things with the appropriate word, so we can seriously lose some attributes of our message.

In a way, it is similar to situations when we feel bad for arguing with somebody. No misunderstandings: arguing is not pleasant, as our communication style can be aggressive and we risk to hurt the other person. But that is part of life, which we know is tough sometimes. We can face challenges, and it is good to recognize them and embrace them as such, even when they turn out to be really difficult ones. The key thing is how we react to challenges. In my view, searching for the solution and trying to recreate the right balance is the correct attitude.

If a person in my team is doing something incorrectly or is performing below the expectations, I have to provide feedback. Constructively, but it will be not easy, because it is about a negative event, attitude or situation. We need to accept this evidence, there is nothing wrong with this. In case there is a mistake, we shall call it a mistake. This will just help us to differentiate mistakes from correct, right solutions. We cannot live without errors, we are humans. Accepting ourselves and others is the first step to succeed in life.

What are the consequences of not using the most appropriate word in some circumstances? If I do not receive correctly a feedback about a mistake of mine, I will probably not focus on avoiding it next time. But I agree on a point: we can convey it with other words. Instead of “error”, we can say “incorrect process” or “wrong solution”, just to name some alternatives. But for a manager, this will not be something “positive” to provide to his team member. It is difficult to give similar feedback. Because if something is not “positive”, as a logical consequence it will be “negative”: exactly the opposite.

In conclusion: as it often happens, the solution is not black or white. Focusing on a positive way of thinking is always productive, it helps us to go ahead. We need to measure our words and try to find the right balance to keep the conversation engaged. However, using sometimes some negative words can be positive: we can emphasise the severity of the situation, maybe it will also give some more “pathos”, some more emotions to the message that will appear more authentic and comprehensive, reaching the originally expected goal.

The boss is… just the boss.

Let me start by saying that what I will write here it is purely my opinion and it does necessarily reflect the reality. It is based on my perception, linked to my experience and also to some feedbacks that I gathered from several people, randomly and with no “scientific approach”. 

When we talk about job types, professions, and we evaluate the knowledge and the skills of the specific worker/professional, we do it usually based on our experience. When we talk about a doctor, we do not know if it is good or bad: we have 50% of possibilities to find a valuable or a mediocre one. The same with a mechanic, or with a teacher, or a butcher: we do not have a preconception. However, with some professions we have: think about the politicians. Without having any evidence, we have a strong bias against him or her. Why? Probably because we heard so many bad things about them: corruptions, scandals, crimes… It is easier to remember the negative things. 

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What about the bosses? The managers… How many good bosses have you had in your career? This is a question that I raised in several Facebook groups in the past weeks, but it is also a topic that during my professional life I experienced several times, during meetings or specific trainings. I noticed that in general, we had less “good bosses” than bad ones. It was not rare that people wrote to me “none”, or just around 33% of all the bosses they had were good. Is this real? How is that possible?

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I had more than 15 bosses during my career, and more or less the ratio of a positive and negative experience is around 50%. This is my experience, but this is not so common.

For some reasons, apparently, we do not really like our boss. We accept it. We have to. But we would not invite him or her to a private party. We have movies like “How to kill your boss”. It is similar to the neighbour, somebody that is by default “always annoying”.

These are not scientific statements. There is no business study behind it, but I think there is no need for it: we all know what I am talking about.

I will not give a clear answer to the reason because it would be arrogant and pretentious at the same time, but I will try to find some connections and possible explanations for this fact. 

If we think about it, being a boss, a people manager, is not necessarily a profession. It is more a title that we can deserve and gain during our career. We have bosses everywhere: in a retail store, in a hospital, in an office. This boss can be a salesperson, or an engineer, or a doctor. He is managing other peers that have similar knowledge and profession. So the nature of this position is to “say to the others what to do”. This is the starting point of the problem. 

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Having a hierarchy, having a manager is necessary: we need rules, we need direction, otherwise we risk to get lost in the sea of individual solutions. It is natural and efficient: one person who decide for the others. This exists also in nature: in case animals are living in social communities, they always have a leader. The great difference is that in nature the leader is selected based on required skills: the alfa individual has to be the strongest, the bravest because will be the one who will defend the others.

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Of course with human beings, especially in a civilised society, this works differently. If the leader is not a real leader, people will start simply to “get used” to it, but they will not like or accept him. This is because by nature a leader needs to make decisions, and the team has to follow. But we are smart, we have feelings, and if the boss does not own the right skills, it will simply not be trusted. Unfortunately, this happens frequently, and these are the instances when we have 2 main, typical scenario: the boss will get frustrated, insecure and will leave, “escape”. The other option is that will become autocratic, a despotic manager who will force his views, his opinion and ideas, and will repress anybody who will not agree.

In conclusion, based on my experience mentioned in the beginning, I strongly believe that people don’t like their bosses because they had bad experiences, and this is linked to managers that were not acting as leaders. They haven’t had the right skills or they have not used them. They acted incorrectly because they thought “this is the right way to do it, to have authority”, or simply because they are not the right people in the right place, and they should not lead people at all.

The function of the boss is sensitive and fragile: tell others what to do, eventually how to do and when. It can strongly make the difference how a manager does this: it is something that they can learn if they want. Often there is no time for this, because “they need to deliver”: training is time-consuming, expensive and organisations are only focusing on the result. Another big mistake is assuming that a “good expert” will be good also to manage a team. 

These wrong concepts are creating unpleasant situations when a manager does not know how to be a manager, how to lead the team, and people will get frustrated and “hate their boss”. They will not be motivated, their engagement will be zero and performance/quality will drop. Organisations would be surprised what a different world would be out there if we would have leaders instead of managers. It requires investments, but it is worth it.

Team Leader & Operational Knowledge. Needed or not?

In my opinion, this is an underestimated question in several organisations. Should the Team Leader know in details the technical part of the operations, the transactions, the processes? 

For the members of the team usually, this is the baseline for becoming a manager of the group. They will probably reply that it is essential. Other people are more convinced that a Team Leader should only “lead”. Technical knowledge is not needed, it is more important the communication with the stakeholders and development of the team members.

Who is right?

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When I started my career, I was first as a member of the Team and became the Leader later. This is quite typical, and in this case, there is no question. However, when you start with a new one as a Team Leader, this question becomes important to be solved. How shall you focus your energy? Should you learn the technical details, or should you focus on managing the people?

During my career, I needed to handle several Teams. Once, I decided to avoid the transactional part of the job and I gave more importance to resolve the escalations and talk to my Team. It was time well spent, but after a while, I realised that I could not help efficiently my Team, I could not understand completely their difficulties and frustrations without “seeing it with my eyes”. I needed to understand the details of their job, to give them solutions and improve the way of working.

However, it is not so simple. Balance is essential.

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I have seen some Team Leaders being fully immersed in the operational job and neglecting their tasks as a manager, not giving attention to the people. This is counterproductive.

I believe that a good Team Leader has to know well the operations, why the people are working in a certain way, why they do what they do. Which systems are they using, or which transactions in SAP, what kind of reports are they running and for which reason. Everything is important and has a reason, and the Leader has to know what is that. If there is no apparent reason, that process should be questioned. But to be on that level, we have to be aware in details what is going on in our Team.

It does not mean that every day the Team Leader has to do the same operational job that the others are doing. He/she has other activities to perform, he/she does not need to micromanage. 

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This means that in the beginning, the new manager has to spend some time with these details, allocate energy to get a more deep insight into the activities of the Team, to lead it efficiently in the future. However, he/she needs to give the same importance also to the managerial activities.

Having a good operational knowledge has several positive effects:

  1. It will help to find inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement.
  2. It will help to assess better the skills of the Team members and coach/develop them.
  3. It helps to set realistic goals and expectations. KPIs will be meaningful.
  4. It supports the leader to build authority in a natural way.
  5. It will engage the members of the Team. They like to work with somebody who is fully clear about their job
  6. It gives more satisfaction and motivation to the Team Leader, he can connect better to his Team.

It is never too late to start this activity. It should come naturally in the first period when the Leader is appointed, but if it happens on a later stage, the positive effects will still be valid.

Have the courage to say “I do not understand!”

Communication is an essential part of our life: not only in the business but also in our personal life. We spend our day among people, and even if the Covid19 is limiting our social distance, we still need to interact with others, listen to them, exchange opinion, provide useful information, learn, teach… We are social beings.

The quality of communication will have a strong impact on the result of the interaction. I cannot emphasise more that in a new “normality”, where we need to work virtually with people, what we say is crucial. Day by day we attend virtual meetings, calls, webinars, one to one discussions… and we are missing the metacommunicative part of it.

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I am sure I am not alone (especially for people like me, non-native English speakers) to have experienced cases when we do not understand what other people are saying, for instance, during a call. This is even more common when 3 or more people are attending. Imagine the typical situation: we are listening, we are concentrating, and for whatever reason, we are missing the point. Maybe because of language barriers, maybe because the line is not fully clear, or maybe because the speaker is not expressing clearly his concept. Whatever is the reason, the result is the same: we do not understand.

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The first reaction is the “self-reassurance”: there are other people in the call, also my boss or my colleague is there, for sure he/she will understand, and I can clarify later. Fine. I am safe. The problem is when there is a big chance that some actions will be expected from us: but we are still missing the first part of the conversation… And then the worst, a question comes to us… The second reaction: let’s gain some time. We reply to the question with a question: “What do you mean?” And I am sure there are other and other tactics. In the worst of the cases, a new meeting will be set up because somebody has not understood something in the first meeting. It is like a chain reaction, and it is totally inefficient. And why? Because we have not said from the beginning “Sorry, I do not understand!”

Of course, I am not referring to cases when we have a strong language gap, because that is more difficult to be fixed. However, I have been very often in situations when I was not alone in the meeting, I had no clue about what we are talking about and then it turned out that the others had my same problem… but nobody admitted it!

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To mention positive cases, I was feeling so relieved when during the meeting, a person more experienced than me (for instance, my boss) stopped the conversation and simply said: “Sorry, but I do not understand.” That is great.

I always admired people who had no fear or shame to show in front of others that “they have limits, and they need some support”. Clarifications like this can really help to improve the quality of communication. I really believe that an initial explanation will remove a lot of pain for the future part of the conversation. So do not feel worried, and have the courage to say “I do not understand!”

If you liked this article, please share with me situations that you experienced, when an initial clarification changed completely the outcome of the conversation, or when this has been missed and the meeting went in a totally wrong direction.

The power of meetings – 5 tips before scheduling one.

Meetings are part of our professional life. We spend a substantial part of our day in attending to these events: for managers and executives, this can easily be 50% of their time or more.

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During the current Covid19 period, this is usually limited to virtual meetings, but as we have the advantage to work remotely, we are losing the advantage to easily interact with our colleagues, managers, people from other departments. We are forced to hold more conferences than needed in the past and for this the effectiveness of the event is crucial. But this is just one side of the story. The preparation for the meeting is as important as holding it.

These are the 5 tips that I suggest you consider before starting to schedule one of these events.

1. Is it really needed?

I have seen meetings scheduled for really simple and obvious questions. Do not misunderstand me – meetings can be powerful. But it is wise to think about the topic and rethink again: can we solve this alone? Can I take the action alone? Is it really needed?

2. Create a meaningful subject and description

It seems obvious, but in the end, this is the first sentence that the invitees will see. It is good to write a clear subject that reflects the real nature of the meeting. I really like to add a brief description to the meeting: the “PPP” can help. Purpose, Process and Payoff. People will have a clear idea of what is going to happen.

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3. Relevant people only

Review consciously your audience, and invite relevant people only: who can really contribute? Are all these managers really required? Just think about it.

4. Do not forget the attachments

This is a powerful tool. Most probably the meeting will include some documents to be reviewed together, or it will refer to a historical fact. With the proper attachment, your attendees can prepare in advance. An additional remark: please avoid what I call a “Matryoshka Attachment”. For sure you have seen one: you have an email attached, which opens another email, and another one, which will include the excel file you need. Simply attach the excel that is required.

5. Challange the duration

Do you really need 1 hour? In my experience, 90% of the meetings are scheduled for 1 hour. Try to fit in 30 minutes: people will be more engaged, and if needed, you can still schedule a followup.