One of the most critical skills for a new leader is also one for which many are the least prepared: how to communicate with your team members effectively.
I remember back to the first time I sat down with an employee who wanted to talk about an issue they had. I could hardly wait. I was so excited to help point him in the right direction and to share some of what I thought were my awesome insights at the time. I listened intently, taking copious notes, all while crafting my responses. Finally, the time had come. I proceeded to tell him exactly what he had to do to fix the problem, what his next steps were, what skills he needed to develop, etc. And his response? Was he awed and grateful for my insights? Not so much. He looked at me like I had spit in his coffee. When he finally left the office, I saw him shake his head in a kind of dejected way as he rounded the corner. What just happened? I didn’t realize at the time, but I had learned a hard but valuable lesson that day.
As leaders, we are frequently called upon by our teams. Sometimes by one person, sometimes by several. Sometimes we are asked to mediate a discussion between two employees who are having a disagreement. Sometimes we are asked to observe a performance meeting. Whatever the “who” and “what” of the situation, the common thread is the same: we are there to help others to better their situation. This is where I made my mistake early in my career. Despite my best intentions, I couldn’t get past my own stuff in order to truly see his. And if I wasn’t really seeing him and his stuff, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in you-know-where that I was going to be able to really help him.
The Myth of Changing Your Lens
In a lot of the traditional leadership literature, you’ll read about how everyone walks around with their own set of metaphorical glasses through which they see the world. And if you want to understand someone else’s perspective, simply take off your lens and use theirs. I think if you try to look through someone else’s lens, you’re just looking through a murkier version of your own. Your lens is still there. You’re not any closer to really understanding their perspective.
Despite all this, there are some things we CAN do to help us connect with our people and begin to understand their point of view:
Accept that perspective is reality: This goes back to the lens that each of us has. If we can’t truly take off our own lens, then why do we keep expecting our employees to take off theirs? It’s a waste of time. Once we accept that their perspective is their reality, we can then ask them to open their minds to accepting that others’ perspectives are also their realities. Empathy breeds understanding.
Talk less: Most leaders like to talk. A lot. Don’t be that guy (or girl). Close your mouth and open your ears. You’ll be amazed at how much more you’ll actually hear.
Ask more questions than you give answers: A lot of leaders have a problem with this one. I sure did. I was under the impression that being a leader meant you had to know all the answers. Not true. I’ve come to believe that the best leaders know the right questions to ask, and then help their employees develop the answers.
Check your baggage: The best way to sabotage any communication is to allow your own personal baggage to steer the course of the discussion. We all have baggage, it’s just part of the deal. A few months back, I wrote an article about what leadership ISN’T. One of those things, and I think it’s the most important, is that leadership isn’t about you. Don’t allow your personal baggage to get in the way of you being there for your employees.
Wherever We Go, There We Are
If we have any hope of being a leader that our team members can trust and respect, we need to realize that sometimes the biggest obstacle is ourselves. We bring baggage and we see the world through a unique lens that’s been tuned over the years based on our own experiences (good and bad), and we think we have to have all the answers. It’s time to let go and focus on what’s truly important: being a good listener and being truly empathetic. When we do that, we will be the leader we’ve always wanted to be.