Listen for What You Can’t Hear

Listening is a disappearing skill. We need to practice and to learn to move beyond what is being said.

The Lost Art

In a world where it has never been easier to shout, shut ourselves in bubbles of likeminded folk and react angrily, listening is becoming a lost art. We no longer listen to understand. If we listen at all, we listen to react.

Many don’t listen because they are wrapped in their ego, their worldview or other distractions from the pressing reality of others. Too many listen only partially to the barest surface of the words said.

Active listening is essential in a world that gives us access to many more diverse opinions than ever. Active listening is an essential tool to navigate complexity and to truly meet the needs of others. We need to engage others as unique people that we mostly don’t know and mostly don’t understand. We need to listen for tone and observe body language.

We need to question. We need to confirm understanding and we need to explore ambiguities and differences, not by accident but as a deliberate part of process of understanding. True active listening will expose our biases and assumptions creating a much stronger foundation for a relationship.

Listen for What You Can’t Hear

The most challenging part of listening is listening for what you can’t hear. What you can’t hear is what never gets said and may not even be discoverable in tone and body language.

This form of active listening involves listening for the architecture of the speaker’s choices, their worldview and their drivers. If that is not clear or is potentially doubtful in what is being said, then this active listening increases in importance.

Listening for what you can’t hear is an exercise of actively engaging with all the clues and using those clues to prompt new questions and new lines of discussion to draw out perspectives. Clues may include:

  • choice of language: language that is more vague or more precise than expected can be a clue to missing information. Choice of words can also signal mindsets, worldviews or intent that require further discussion.
  • gaps of information or missing logic: no matter how favourable the discussion is, gaps in the other party’s logic is a topic that requires further exploration. People get conned because they are told what they want to hear. Deals don’t stick when people make mistakes of fact or logic that they discover later.
  • incongruities: big or small inconsistencies are always worth further exploration.
  • bluffing: Exaggerated confidence is a signal to ask more questions. Always call a suspected bluff
  • unnecessary haste: rushing might be a factor of life but it is a poor contributor to important conversations. Explore the need for haste.
  • delay: avoiding bad news can be a common cause of delay. It’s always better to know and address it earlier.
  • discomfort: intuition is an important tool in any discussion. If you or the other party in a conversation seem uncomfortable, it is worth exploring that experience. Something is amiss. Great understanding is build on trust, not discomfort.

Many years ago I inherited a deal that was being negotiated from a colleague. Our counterparty was super-enthusiastic and really keen to rush the deal to conclusion. My colleague explained it was all good to go and I just had to get it all signed. Everything sounded great.

When I met the counterparty to discuss finalising the deal, I felt uncomfortable about the way he described the partnership. It didn’t quite reflect the terms of the written document. It was a big deal and our organisation needed the deal to close. When I reflected on the discomfort, I realised I didn’t understand why the other organisation was doing the deal on these terms. Rather than ignore that discomfort, I asked a few questions. It quickly became apparent that the counterparty had misunderstood the deal and would never be able to proceed on the terms. Signing that deal would have been a waste of time. We won so much trust and a much better partnership by resolving the misunderstandings before they embarrassed our partner.

We need to be active listeners who seek to understand in all our interactions. The bigger challenge is to learn to listen for what is not said.

#YearofYammer: Yammer as a Platform for the Value of Community

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At Microsoft Ignite 2019, the Yammer product team has debuted its updated product strategy. This strategy focuses Yammer on its core roles, redesigns the user interface and mobile experience and improves integration across the Office365 suite, including SharePoint, Outlook and Teams integration patterns.

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Bringing the Outer Loop to Life:  Yammer as a platform for Community

The Yammer community advocates are passionate advocates of this new product strategy because we have always seen Yammer as a way to connect communities enterprise wide. Much of the debate around Yammer in the wider tech community has been due to lack of clarity of how it plays a role in Microsoft’s Collaboration Strategy.

The Yammer team’s discussion in 2017 of Inner and Outer Loops of Collaboration clarified this role but we are now seeing the product roadmap and integrations focus us all on the potential of these use cases. I am excited we can now begin to accelerate the conversations about the leadership, change and community potential of Yammer.

Core to Yammer’s updated product strategy is an clear statement on Yammer’s core use cases:

  • Communities
  • Sharing Knowledge
  • Leadership engagement

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Photo credit: Amy Dolzine

These use cases align perfectly with the Value Maturity Model (seen above and explored on this blog) and highlight why the focus on adoption of Yammer as a platform for collaboration in community has always been a journey of focus on connection, sharing, solving problems and innovation.

Year of Yammer

Realising the Value in Community

Strong adoption support will be essential to help any organisation realise this value of collaboration in community. The Value Maturity Model and its supporting practices offers a roadmap for community managers to begin to leverage this new Yammer focus, particularly as it becomes more widely available to the organisation through other Office365 integrations.

Here a few key reminders for community managers planning to leverage this new Yammer product strategy:

  • Focus on value in your strategy: Yammer is just a tool to fulfil your strategy. Understand the value you want to create and align your plans around that value. Employees should be engaged in and aware of this alignment. Here is your chance to engage employees directly in alignment to strategic value creation.
  • The best engagement is action: Employee engagement is often the responsibility of employee communications or HR teams. There can be a tendency to see the challenge of employee engagement as one of better communication and employee experiences. It isn’t. Employee engagement is a tool to leverage employee’s capabilities into value creating action. Employee engagement is how you leverage discretionary effort and hidden capabilities to create surprising value. Give your employees the chance to do things to add value. Don’t just talk with them.
  • Employees are leaders too: Leadership engagement is deliberately vague.  Leadership is work. It is not a title or a role. Any employee can lead and given the chance on Yammer they will. The higher tiers of value in the Value Maturity Model represent the distribution of leadership, change and innovation that is possible in community. Make that a part of the plan for community in your organisation.

I am very excited about this Year of Yammer. Let’s create some value in community together.

 

Your Ego is a Liability in Management

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The first challenge of management is not letting it go to your head. Get your ego out of the way and you have a chance to contribute to the development of your team.

Management Inflation

With promotion to a management role comes the first taste of status and power. With increased responsibilities, increased recognition and moving in new circles, it is common for a manager’s ego to begin to inflate. Status is a powerful human experience and shapes a lot of our behaviour and relationships in unthinking ways.

Doubts drop away. Listening declines. Opinions rule. The egocentric view of the manager becomes the reality of the team, whatever the actual facts.  Very quickly everyone is managing the manager.

Smart managers will catch their ego before it gets in the way too much. If you are lucky, your team will have the confidence to burst your bubble. Poor managers don’t notice, feel threatened or push on to defend their power. Management quickly becomes an all consuming ego exercise for them.

No Manager Knows Enough

Whatever the manager’s talents, they can succeed if they are egocentric. The work of the team is the team’s, not theirs. Scaling up the potential of the team is the challenge, not scaling up the manager’s expertise.

Even the most talented manager fails if they fail to leverage the knowledge and capabilities of the team. Micromanagement fails because managers just can’t know enough. The gap between their knowledge and the team’s reality will only demoralise and distract. Critically, they can’t know individuals capabilities and circumstances well enough. Imposing ego on others is debilitating for those people. You are leaving those people powerless in the moment to moment decision making that teams must manage together.

Managers can’t learn and adapt on behalf of other people. A manager wrapped in their own ego can’t learn and adapt at all.

Get Out of the Way and Enable Others

Great managers recognise that they work is the work of capable individuals and teams that learn and grow. Rather than focusing on their own agenda and power, these managers support employees to learn and to work together effectively. They aren’t dictators. They are enablers of higher performance.

These managers use questions, coaching, challenge and inspiration to enable employees to discover their own path to higher performance. They bring employees together into aligned, collaborative and creative teams to achieve more than any individual can on their own. Importantly, these managers take responsibility and create a safe environment for the team to learn and grow, whatever the external pressures. These aren’t easy tasks. Selflessness rarely is.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. – Lao Tzu

Stop

Stop the busy. Take a break.

A late videoconference meeting dropped into my diary today. I had to schedule it on the road to another event. I stopped in a park to take the call. As I waited for the start, the meeting was rescheduled.

I had been given an enormous gift. I went from being overly busy to having time to stop.

In Melbourne today, the sun is out and the park was quiet with only the distant noise of traffic and construction. I decide to take a break on the grass for the half hour of the lost call. I didn’t do email. I didn’t do calls. I didn’t read the news. I stopped and took a break.

This simple break outside let me recharge, find my calm and relax into the work that is to come. I have a much clearer focus for the afternoon ahead now. My body’s and mind’s gratitude tell me that it was overdue.

Take a break. Find 10, 15. 20 or 30 minutes. Go lie on some grass and stare at the sky.

The productivity boost is worth it.

PS Hayfever tablets recommended.

Too Busy to Be Bold

Busyness is a major problem in business. Everyone is busy. Oddly, we also have a problem of conservatism and lack of ambition. Everyone is busy playing it safe and fulfilling the routine tasks that always accumulate. The result is a massive waste of human potential.

We need to be less busy and be more bold.

Too Busy

It’s not hard to be busy. Everyone is busy.  The workload is everywhere. Modern communications generates volumes of information and an urgency of response. Many of these communications by social platform, instant message or email are social filler or merely procedural.

We can now bring people together from around the world at a moments notice. Meetings can take up the whole day. Badly run meetings waste enormous amounts of valuable work time.

Broken processes proliferate and people continue to execute them. The work and the fixes pile up making more busy work for everyone addressing the resulting issues.

Without clarity of what is important and what is merely urgent we can feel like we are failing to keep up. The psychological stress of falling behind on all the repetitive low value work is huge. That stress also makes people more likely to be risk averse. If you are already behind, why would you take on new risky tasks. We miss the chance to do more with our human potential and to reap the rewards in personal and organisational value.

We are also falling into the trap of making our work easier to eliminate. If we spend all our days on busy tasks, we aren’t delivering our human potential. It is easy for people to see that work as better automated. Robots don’t have to fall behind. They can do the busy work scalably.

Be Bold

Many people see the path to success as having a perfect strike rate. If they are 100% successful, then they will be rewarded. That’s not how it works. To be 100% successful you have to focus on the sure thing, the low value tasks and you will be working as one of the undifferentiated mass of qualified candidates. The differentiation that delivers success comes from taking the risky shot.

What would really happen if you didn’t reply to every email? If the initial email was better dealt with another way, replying only compounds the issues. Take another approach. Release your time to do better. Have the risky conversation that helps you and others to do better.

What would happen if you walked out of wasteful meetings to do better work? Sitting there only increases the pressure on everyone else to remain. Send a signal that you value your time and are making better decisions. Risk offending the meeting organiser to save everyone time and create value.

What would happen if you challenged or changed a broken process? Some times all it takes is one voice to highlight an issue and remove the work and rework with a simple fix.

If you know you can succeed on every task you are doing, why are you doing them? The greatest value in life comes from and with risk. Delegate or reassign or stop tasks that are inevitable successes for you. Give them to someone for whom they represent a challenge and an opportunity to learn. Take on a task that has a chance of failure instead. Risk failure to do something that others think can’t be done.

If these simple changes are too hard for you in your current role, is it time to change to something newer and riskier? Find a role that enables you to develop your potential through new and challenging work. Risk taking your talents to market if they are being wasted.

Your personal growth and greatest personal reward comes from being bold with your talents and capabilities. Conservatism and busyness will consume your life.

Personal Success Requires a Personal Goal

Personal success requires a personal goal. Obvious really. However, people commonly seek to avoid clear targets to avoid the risk and disappointment of falling short. Losing a realistic goal means losing engagement, the ability to learn and inviting intervention. We don’t have to impose targets externally, but we can ensure that people set their own goals.

Underselling Yourself

Target setting in many organisations is often a weak process. We all know the games that are played to set low or vague targets. Many employees prefer the idea that they have no targets at all, at least at first.

Experience suggests that unclear (or low) targets generally results in new and different pressures for employees. Because the targets are unclear for an employee’s work, they have undersold their value.  That results in:

  • Lower engagement: when it is unclear the value that an employee is delivering, that employee is the first to know. Engagement suffers when an employee can’t be clear how the work that they are doing is contributing to the organisation’s outcomes
  • Greater oversight and intervention: Nothing attracts interventionist managers more than uncertainty and potential underperformance. If the performance can’t be assessed by stakeholders then they are much more likely to call for an intervention at the expense of employee autonomy.
  • Inability to prioritise: We all have too much work. There’s always too much to do. Without goals there is no way to prioritise what to do and what not to do. This can lead to a dynamic that impacts both engagement and brings on more intervention.

Measuring Stick

We all learn and improve based on feedback. You need a measuring stick to assess what could be done better or differently. Without some form of realistic expectation for the work set in advance, measurement of the work is harder.  Declaring success becomes a subjective exercise or often simply that the task was completed delivering the outcome it achieved.

Asking employees to define in advance the goals they will achieve with a task is a key exercise in planning and prioristing their work. The targets don’t have to be set externally. Employees can nominate and defend their targets with the evidence and lessons of past performance. They can also be a part of the process of reviewing whether the aggregate of their and their teams’ efforts is enough. This changes the target setting process from one that is parent-child to one that is adult-adult.

Engaging in a rich dialogue around realistic expectations for future work and the lessons of past work provides the best foundations for autonomy and engagement of employees. It also accelerates the organisational learning process.

 

Value depends on Values

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I have recently being doing work in and around the not-for-profit and mutual sectors. What is clear to those organisations is often lost in the wider business market. Value depends on values. If we want to accelerate value creation, we need to found our efforts in the expressing the values of the organisation. If we have challenges realising value, we are wise to look to values as a potential barrier.

Found Connection in Purpose & Values

Purpose is the core reason the organisation exists. In connecting people across the organisation, it is essential to leverage this rationale and invite employees to connect their personal purpose in pursuit of this value to others.  Purpose will also be an expression of the shared values in the organisation.

Values are an important part of this alignment. Enterprise social collaboration is a megaphone of organisational values, not the ones on the poster, the real values in action across your organisation. If you want to focus on fostering the value that flows from collaboration, you will want to reinforce the constructive values and address any negatives.

We are now clear that psychological safety is a key enabler of collaboration. Shared expectations within and across teams in an organisation help create this environment of safety to share, criticise and take risks. Those shared expectations are the values in action in your organisation. This is culture – the expectation of interactions.

A key step in setting up connection is working with executives, champions and other leaders to foster the visibility of the positive behaviours. Showcase the best of your values and help employees to move towards positive change.

Another key issue that improves psychological safety and demonstrates constructive values is leveraging the new collaboration capability to share with openness, authenticity and a reduced power difference between senior executives and other employees. The greater the power difference in interactions and the less transparent senior executives are the more uncertain employees will be of the value of contributions. Values will be shaping the value creation from day one.

Values Enable Scaled & Agile Change

Values shape how quickly organisations mature the value of their collaboration. Highly valuable collaboration depends on employees having the encouragement and ability to address issues and realise strategic goals together.

The four drivers of value in collaboration, growth, velocity, effectiveness and protection, each depend on the ability of employees to identify, share and come together to create solutions that improve the organisation’s performance of its strategy. Without constructive values, this work by employees will be blocked, deferred or frustrated.

This work demands organisations practice values that support this value creation by employees:

  • Openness: Is the organisation and its people open to hearing the good and the bad? How is feedback taken and actioned? Does the organisation listen to all voices – powerful and quiet, internal and external?
  • Integrity: Does the organisational conversation reflect the practice of integrity by employees? Is there a realistic view of what is going on? Are employees misleading each other?
  • Recognition: Are the efforts of employees celebrated? Are good outcomes and bad outcomes discussed openly recognising the contributions and the outcomes?
  • Generosity and Reciprocity: Do employees give of their ideas, time and talents? Are those gifts reciprocated by the organisation and other employees?
  • Autonomy & Initiative: What degrees of freedom do employees have to initiate change? What impetus is there for employees to take action without waiting for others or waiting for instruction?
  • Trust: are employees trusted to make change for the better?

Values play a key role in shaping the potential value creation by employees in collaboration. Through all stages of the Value Maturity Model we need to foster more constructive values in action.

Anticipatory obedience

From Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny

Don’t obey in advance. Anticipatory obedience is one of the greatest constraints on the degrees of freedoms for employee-led change and innovation in organisations.

Our Problem of Anticipatory Obedience

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do. – Timothy Snyder

I read the paragraph above, in Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a book about authoritarianism in politics. It immediately hit home, not in the political context but in a corporate one.

One of the big barriers to employee-led change and innovation in organisations is employee’s desire to see explicit permission to act. Part of this is a response to psychological safety issuesPart is a lack of freedom to act.

However, much of the challenge is anticipatory obedience. Employees anticipate the most draconian constraints on their action and effectively bring them into place. They anticipate organisational concerns and prevent them from occurring.

This is a key way in which the culture of an organisation can have a restraining effect on employees ability to collaborate, innovate and change. In Vaclav Havel’s essay the Power of the Powerless, he describes how the act of a greengrocer putting a slogan in the window in a totalitarian regime reinforces a culture of obedience, even if the gesture is empty and merely one of avoiding issues. That sign is a signal to others to tow the line. The greengrocer hides his own wishes and others follow the external signals. If everyone is participating in anticipatory obedience, others follow. Havel says

‘individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system’

Importantly, this obedience and its related reticence to act is often taken by managers as a lack of capability or motivation demanding more command and control. Employees who failed to take their chance to make change find others take their freedom away.

Collaboration and Agile Change

The power of fostering collaboration and agile change for employees in organisations is that it challenges management to allow the right degrees of freedom to fulfil strategy and to create value. It also shows employees that there are alternatives to anticipatory obedience.

Collaboration and agile change also bring managers, stakeholders and other employees into dialogue around the challenges and opportunities in the organisation. Closing the communication gaps and speeding the flow of information helps make employees clearer on what the strategy, goals and degrees of freedom in the organisation are.

When fear rules the system, we don’t make change through announcements or even great strategy. We make change by doing differently repeatedly until others notice and follow along.

The Leadership Stencil

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A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves – Sun Tsu

Leaders often think that their leadership legacy will be the areas that they touch in an employee’s life: goals set, advice given, directions, training given and problem solving. However often the greatest mark a leader makes is where they leave room for an employee to show what they can do.

The Leadership Stencil

Think of your greatest career achievement. It is highly unlikely to be where you met an externally determined goal in the way specified by your manager. Career achievements are often where you show yourself potential that you weren’t even sure you had going in, where you grew in the process of the work and where you went beyond what everyone else expects.

Like a stencil, leaders need to provide the surrounds for employees to fill in the colour and build the picture of what they can do. Leaving empty space for employees to explore, to make choices, to grow and to develop is what great leaders do to engage and inspire their employees.

Lots of discussion of engagement forgets that engagement is about leveraging employee’s discretionary efforts and untapped potential. If employee’s lives are entirely specified, directed and inspected by their manager there’s no room for discretion and no value in extra effort. Engagement withers from disuse.

The key here is that like a stencil leaders make choices as to where they leave space and where they provide support. The goal is to guide employees to produce the right success on their own terms, not to abandon them to their fates.

The degrees of freedom in the white space are how employees work out what is possible for their own contributions.

Brittle Organisations

This weak I was asked a powerful couple of questions:

  • What defines an organisation that is beginning the descent into entropy and collapse?
  • What signals can we spot early of this process?

After some reflection, my answer was that a brittle organisation is one that has begun to turn inwards. When it no longer has external stimulus & engagement, it is exposed to the process of entropy.

Here’s a process by which organisations become brittle:

  1. Loss of curiosity: Once an organisation loses its sense of curiosity, it diminishes the value of external signals in favour of internal conversations. Curiosity may decline because of success, pressures of work or other cultural factors but the impact is always the same. Signals of the need to learn and adapt are being sent but the organisation starts to pay less attention and ask fewer questions.
  2. Excuses: Once curiosity drops, the organisation tends to begin a process of explaining away signals and issues of underperformance. Accountability to external stakeholders erodes as the organisation becomes increasingly wedded to its rationales and excuses.  An employee or stakeholder seeking to hold others to account or to make change now needs to work through layers of excuses.
  3. Cognitive Dissonance: If the signals from the outside are weak and the excuses are strong, an organisation can arrive at a place of cognitive dissonance.  Employees have to choose between what they might see or hear outside the organisation and what is believed internally. The pressure to conform is strong and many people will choose to rationalise the internal beliefs.
  4. Learned Helplessness: Argue with employees enough about changes or lessons that they see in their work and they will learn that change is not possible. Learned helplessness takes over where employees may individually know that a change is required but they assume nothing can be done.
  5. Lack of Trust and Agency: When employees behave as if change can’t be made, organisations commonly take away the power to make change. Performance focus becomes stricter and more oriented to compliance because trust is collapsing and accountabilities are breaking down. This creates a focus on internal accountabilities over external delivery. Collaboration and innovation break down. As employees move away from responding to their circumstances and more tightly follow policy and process,  the organisation loses its last exposure to external stimulus.

This process is not irreversible or inevitable. It can be stopped any way down the chain by refocusing the discussion in the organisation in three ways:

  • Turn outward
  • Discuss externally focused accountabilities
  • Restore agency and trust