Uncovering the True Narrative
You think you know. Your team has their tasks to complete, their roles to fulfil. You know where they are working – may even be able to picture their kitchen/ bedroom or what ever happens to be their ‘office’ space right now. You might be keeping track of their progress and may well be pinging emails or talking via video.
But do you really know that is going on behind the scenes? Even when you’re sitting in the same space (whether that’s physical or virtual) and discussing the same project, the true narrative for others that underlies what they share and you see can be so well hidden.
Take the example of two employees, Carl and Jenny. They hear the same message from you but their individual perceptive based on their experience and the subtle differences in how you communicate with them differently, makes all the difference to their internal dialogue:
You “What are your thoughts about X?”
Carl: I can’t tell the truth; I will be laughed at/ judged/ criticised/ ignored
Jenny: Great! My opportunity to share my idea, even though it is a bit wacky!
You: “Can you bring that date forward?”
Carl: I’m not really being asked; I’m being told to get it done, on top of everything else.
Jenny: That will be ok as I’ll be able to negotiate what else can move so that I can fit it in.
You: “I noticed your camera and mic weren’t on.”
Carl: They don’t trust I was actively engaged. Typical micro-management.
Jenny: Fair point – I forgot to explain why. And I know that cameras can help us connect.
Our Unique Narrative
We’re all shaped by previous experience whether that’s about our behaviour, performance, appearance or any other aspect of ourselves that subconsciously invites a reaction from those around us. As Ciaran Thapar observed recently when reporting about the difference between being black and white, Carl and I experience unequal versions of the [same] city.
Substitute the world ‘city’ for world or organisation. And I’m not just talking about race or belittling that as a comparison. I’m referring to the fact that unless we are aware of each other’s individual stories, we struggle to empathise. And without empathy, our relationships are misaligned and that affects trust. You don’t need me to spell out that without trust, we aren’t engaged.
So, we have to learn from others to understand their world. That means strengthening our radar for noticing what’s not quite right and what could be better by asking questions like:
- What are your thoughts about X? I value your feedback as we’re feeling a bit stuck. Let’s put all the suggestions on the table, however controversial, to really open up our thinking. Let’s remind ourselves of the ground rules about being respectful and honest.
- How does it feel working at home? Are you find opportunities to get away from your desk (maybe walk and talk on the phone)? Are you managing to set work hours that suit you and stick to those? What are the downsides? What would make a positive difference? What do you need from me?
- What’s going on for you this week at home/ with your family? How is X finding the lockdown? How are you managing not going to your usual club/ seeing friends?
In other words, show you are interested and care by asking, giving time and asking more. Think about the last time you asked “How are you?” and paused to hear the answer and the spent a few minutes exploring that in a bit more depth. Or did you accept the “Fine thanks/ busy/ good?”
Be a Conscious Leader
Because you will have modelled the truth in what you’re saying, in other words, really hearing feedback, showing empathy and acting on feedback in a sensitive way, you will be authentic. Trust is built on authenticity; when you get this right, you know that you have a relationship with your team that is about respect, development and progress.
Our organisational assumptions, unwritten rules and personal biases preserve unsaid traditions that maintain inequality, whether that’s about the difference in power between a boss and employee, the confidence and ability to speak up, or a fear of judgement. There really is no time like the present to make a conscious decision about what type of leader you want to be for your team or company.
Ask yourself the question about where you fit on this scale.
And then ask your employees. Consciously decide who you want to be and identify three things you can do over the next week that will demonstrate that. And stay on your path; others’ brains will be programmed to know what to expect from you so if you choose to change, it might take a while to get noticed. But it will be worth it.
If you’re struggling to identify three things or to make the breakthrough you want, get in touch and I’ll help you get to the place you want to be.
Ref. Fear, Fury and a Failed State, Ciaran Thapar, GQ September 2020