388: How to Not Suck at Managing with Aaron Levy

By January 11, 2019Podcasts

 

 

Founder of Raise the Bar, Aaron Levy, shares four key habits that improve team performance.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why must managers suck
  2. How and why to listen better
  3. Examples of powerful questions

About Aaron

Aaron is the Founder and CEO of Raise The Bar, a firm focused on helping companies address the problem of millennial turnover.

Aaron is an ICF Associate Certified Coach, a Thrive Global contributor, an 1871 mentor, the Co-Director of Startup Grind Chicago and a member of the Forbes Coaches Council. He has educated, coached, and consulted over 5,500 business leaders, helping them to define goals, create action plans, and achieve sustained success.

Aaron is on a mission to transform the manager role – by empowering each manager with the tools, skills, and training to be leaders of people who unlock the potential of their team.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Aaron Levy Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Aaron, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Aaron Levy
How are you doing Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, doing well, doing well. I think the first thing we need to cover right away is your morning habit of listening to Disney music. What’s the backstory here?

Aaron Levy
I have just always been a fan of Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, the Disney classics. For some reason it puts me in a really good and happy mood. My wife kind of … will take the iPad around the house as I’m blasting some Disney music or lately it’s also been Queen. Anything that has good, high energy that just is fun to listen to in the morning.

Pete Mockaitis
Are there some particular Disney tracks that are at the very top of your list?

Aaron Levy
Oh, you’re getting particular here. There is. There’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which is one of those where it’s like the soundtrack of Lion King a little bit. That’s a fun one in the morning.

Pete Mockaitis
Particularly the high-pitched pieces.

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I would sing or hum the tune for you, but I’m pretty tone deaf, so I don’t think anybody listening would really understand what I’m talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s hear now about your company, Raise the Bar. What’s your story here?

Aaron Levy
How far back do you want me to go? Do you want me to give you a little bit of the background of it and why we started it or just the high level?

Pete Mockaitis
I’d like to know your current problem that you’re tacking and how you do it.

Aaron Levy
Yeah, so that goes back just a slight bit. It goes with the idea and the curiosity I’ve had around why when people know better don’t they do better. Why is there this gap between knowledge and action? It’s something I’ve always been fascinated by.

It’s the same reason why only 8% of people ever accomplish their New Year’s resolutions. It’s not because they don’t know what to do. It’s because they don’t actually do it. That was something that I spent the early part of my career studying the science of why do people do what they do, of how do they move efficiently and effectively from knowledge to action, and why do some people do that and other people not.

As I started to see that throughout my career and as I started to play out and look at the research and say how does it work in real life, how do people actually move from knowledge to action? I had the good fortune of working with thousands upon thousands of leaders in our first organization. In doing that what I got to see is what really works and what doesn’t. More importantly, I uncovered what filled me up, which is helping people unlock their potential.

Pete, the reason I’m giving you kind of this long-winded thought process is because what I started to see around me when I got clearer on my purpose in life, which was to help people unlock their potential, was a bunch of my friends not doing that, a bunch of people around the world not doing that. I saw that in terms of people jumping from job to job to job.

It didn’t really matter how much money they were making, if they were at a really cool fast growing start up, if they were in San Francisco or Chicago or if they were working with their best friends. They were either planning to leave their company or already leaving their company.

What that told me and what I saw there was two things. One was this group of individuals who are not satisfied, who are not fulfilled, who are not tapping into their full potential and organizations who want their employees to be at their best. If your employee is at their best, you’re succeeding. It’s good for you as an organization. I saw this two-sided problem.

What I started to realize is what’s the one biggest factor or point of leverage within any organization to impact the engagement and potential and growth of an individual employee? That’s the manager position. Unfortunately, most managers suck.

The reason most managers suck is because we promote them because they’re good at what they do, but not because they’re good at leading people. Those are two very different skillsets. What we do at Raise the Bar is we say that doesn’t have to be the case. We help empower managers to be better leaders of people by giving them the tools, and skills, and training.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s a bold statement, “Most managers suck.” I guess depending how you are assessing/measuring that, I think it’s defensible with the data and the research. Let’s hear a little bit about that research in terms of, that’s the missing link and the driver behind attrition and great managers are the key to getting great retention. Can you share some of the research behind that?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I would say the first thing, there’s studies by Gallup that talk about how one in every ten managers actually have the tools, skills, and training to lead people. They’re soft skills. They’re skills like listening, asking powerful questions, holding critical conversations.

We think leadership is innate. Someone either has it or doesn’t. Do you think someone learning how to model on Excel is innate? Do we think someone learning how to financially project or forecast is innate? No, it’s a skill. Now, it’s a hard skill. That’s one of the things that we talk about. We train on soft skills.

That is kind of when we first think about the defensibleness of that statement that I made of most managers suck. Again, it’s not their fault. They just don’t have or aren’t given the skills. Harvard Business Review has this report where 69% of managers are actually uncomfortable communicating with their employees.

Pete Mockaitis
I saw that. That just still blows my mind. I read the whole thing.

Aaron Levy
Yeah, right? We could dive – these are just stats – but we could dive so much deeper into it. The three primary drivers – I did a lot of my initial research on what’s really going on here. Why are specifically the Millennial population, which is the largest population of the workforce. They’ve over 50% of the workforce now. In the next ten years they’re going to be close to 60 or 70% of the workforce.

We started to say, what’s the driver for this generation? What are the drivers that keep them in the workplace? What I started to hear in every leave story – because I started gathering the leave stories from people – why are you leaving, why did you leave, why are you planning to leave – it was one of three or all of three factors, which is one, “I want purpose or impact in the work I’m doing.”

It doesn’t mean I want to be doing humanitarian work across the globe. It means I want to know that the work I’m doing actually makes a difference towards this organization’s larger goals, just want to know that I’m making some sort of a difference.

The second one is “I want to feel connected to my team, to my company, to my boss.” Both of those have ties into the research and science of Richard Ryan and Ed Deci and their theory on self-determination theory. In that there’s the need for relatedness, connection to people around you.

Then the third thing that people are looking for, and Millennials specifically, is growth. I want to feel like my company cares deeply about my growth and development. If you just look at it from a logical perspective, who has the biggest influence on your individual growth from the organization? Who has the biggest influence on your level of connection to your team, to your company, to your boss? It’s your boss.

That’s the person that holds your growth and can be your coach. That’s the person is usually – and every organization is a little bit different – but I would say most of the time is directly responsible for your growth and development plans, for your performance reviews, for all of the things that are involved around your growth, your connection to the company, and showing you how your work makes an impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m sold. Then in terms of how to not suck, you mentioned four essential habits to be better leaders: the motivate, the evaluate, the communicate, and the serve. Can you orient us a little bit to how did we come up with these four and how do we do them better?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, there’s nothing crazy special about these four. What I call these four, I call these actually the traits or the outcomes that great leaders produce. A great leader if you look – you can look at all the leadership books that are out there, all the thousands of books. It’s kind of what we did when we looked at the science and the studies. We whittled down into what do great leaders – what are the traits of a great leader? What makes a leader great?

You say, well, their ability to motivate people. They can really motivate people. They’re masters at evaluating people, situations, environments. They can determine who to plug in, where, what to do, who’s on the right project, who’s on the right team, what’s going on. They communicate directly. They realize that in order to lead, you actually have to serve others. Leadership is an act of service.

Those are great outcomes. Those are great traits of leaders, but, Pete, you don’t go into work on Monday, you don’t just say, “I’m going to go motivate today.” It’s not an action that you do.

What we’ve done is we’ve said okay, if those are the powerful traits of leaders, where most people focus their energy and attention, what we’re going to focus our energy and attention is what actions done over and over again lead to motivation and how can we focus our energy on the actions that happen every day that you produce every day that will lead to somebody feeling motivated?

That’s the act of listening with intention/attention. To ask powerful questions, you actually or to evaluate you first need to ask powerful questions. To communicate directly, you actually need to set up the foundation for psychological safety and give clarity so that direct communication can occur. To serve, you actually need to hold critical conversations.

What we focus on at Raise the Bar is, what are the actions applied over and over again that become habits, which will enable you to lead powerfully in any situation/environment? Whereas most people focus on, okay, let’s motivate and let’s talk about the processes and the toolkits that you can use to motivate, as opposed to what are the skills, what’s the underlying skill that helps people feel motivated?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk about those underlying skills for getting people to feel motivated. You mentioned the listening with intention and attention. How’s that done?

I love the point you brought up about it not being an innate skill. I’m thinking about my little one-year-old at home here and thinking about other – it might be a skill you just expect people to have by the time they get to you, but that’s not the same as it being innate.

Much like I might expect him to be able to do algebra, be able to set up and solve for X when we’re trying to figure out how many calls we have to make or whatever to achieve a sales outcome, but it’s not innate. They had to learn it somewhere. I think a lot of us have not learned this listening and that motivates skills. How is it done and how do we learn it?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I’ll try and be as quick as possible because this is done over a whole month module that we do. Here’s a couple of things that I love that you said out of that.

One is we assume it’s an innate skill, but it’s not, like algebra. Algebra you’ve practiced. You’ve had someone look over your shoulder and give you tips on what didn’t work and what worked. You’ve gone home and you’ve done homework and you’ve messed up and you’ve taken tests on it.

When was the last time you took a test on listening? When was the last time you had a conversation recorded and analyzed by a peer or a coach or a teacher? For most people in the world, the answer is never. For a very few, where negotiation is a part of their job and they have to, where coaching is a part of their job. I’m a certified coach, so I had to do that.

I sucked at listening too. I’m still not great. I’m getting better at it hopefully because I’m practicing it on a daily basis. But most of us think we’re good listeners. The same thing as if you ask a room of 100 people how many of you think you’re a good driver and everybody raises their hand. Not everybody in the room is a good driver.

If you ask the people how many of you think you’re a good listener, most people raise their hand. But when you ask them when was the last time you’ve practiced the skill of listening, when you’ve had it assessed, when you’ve really dove into the science of listening, most people haven’t.

The first thing that we have people do or one of the first things that we have people do once they get this awareness that “Okay, maybe I have some area to grow here,” is we have them look for what we call their listening blind spot.

What I mean by a blind spot is it is a habitual thought or behavior pattern, something that your brain has been doing over and over again thousands upon thousands of times and it is what your normal, natural tendency is when you show up in a conversation.

For example, my listening blind spot is I’m listening to make a connection. Anytime I’m talking to somebody, I’m trying to say, “Oh yeah, you’re from Michigan too. I have my sister from Michigan here.” I’m trying to make connections to everything. That was really great for me in my career to connect me to people and endear me to others, but that also holds me back from being a powerful listener.

Others, plenty of my clients have, “I’m listening to find out if I should be paying attention.” “I’m listening to solve the problem.” “I’m listening to figure out the next step that I have to do.” “I’m listening to see if this person needs help.” We’re all listening for some reason and that is your blind spot. Until you’re aware of it, you can’t do anything about it.

We often tell people to really get clear on what your blind spot is because that blind spot is something that’s going to hold you back until you’re aware that you do it. Change – this is where we focus on the science of behavior change. Change doesn’t happen unless you’re aware.

What we first do is build awareness around how do you typically listen so that you can notice it and in future situations look at it from afar and say, “Oh, okay, I’m doing it. Crap, I’m doing it again. Okay, well, I noticed I did it. Now let me do something else.”

Pete Mockaitis
I think some listeners will be like, “Well, what else is there?” if I’m listening for connection when you need to make a connection and listening to solve a problem when we’re solving problems. What would be the ideal if these are our blind spots and not the optimum?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, that’s a great question. We think okay, that’s moving us forward, but what you’ll see is you’re not actually with the other person in the conversation. Rarely are you actually sitting and listening with attention to what the other person is saying and with simply the intention of having them feel heard or of supporting them.

Instead of trying to problem solve when you’re with somebody, instead of trying to listen to solve something – oftentimes I come home and my wife will tell me something and the first thing I’ll do is try and solve it. That’s not what she wants. She just wants to be heard. She just wants to know that I’m here and listening to her. That’s some training that I’ve given myself over the years is actually just sitting there without any need to move forward and just being.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a nice – that has an emotional resonance to it. There’s no need to move forward and to just be. Then how do they get the memo that you – that they’ve been heard, that you really understand where they’re coming from and why whatever it is matters to them or what they’re worried about or excited about? How does that get conveyed?

Aaron Levy
When was the last time you had a really powerful conversation with a friend or family member?

Pete Mockaitis
We’ll say Christmas Eve.

Aaron Levy
Wow, that’s close. Good. Did you feel heard?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Aaron Levy
It’s as simple as that. You notice when you’ve felt heard. There doesn’t need to be a sign post. There doesn’t need to be anything else. When someone feels heard, one, they’ll share more. They’ll open up more. They’ll give you more.

Even in a work setting, when you don’t fill the quiet space with your talk and you actually let someone fully answer a question, what happens is they get to get their thoughts out. Because as human beings we think at 1- to 3,000 words per minute. We listen at 1- to 300. Listening is inherently difficult.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. The other interesting thing is we think at 1- to 3,000 words per minute and we speak at about 1 to 200 words per minute. The  process of getting something out of your brain and then out of your mouth to sound the way you want it to sound, doesn’t work well for all of us, which is why we need some more time to get it out, which is why we need to give people the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas. You’ll see they feel more engaged, they feel more heard.

For the salespeople that are listening to this, if you ever just shut up and listen in a sales conversation, oftentimes they’ll say “That was a great conversation.” You’ll say, “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything.” Yeah, that’s what happens is people feel like they’ve had a really good conversation because they finally had a chance to feel heard.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s interesting you’re saying it’s not about doing the “Uh-huh. I see. Oh.” It’s not about chiming in with those little ‘I’m listening’ thingies, so much as they just pick up on it when it happens.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Here’s the other thing is we do an activity. It’s hard to take us through it right here, but we do an activity that helps people trigger a way to be and a way to show up with intention, with attention. We kind of trigger that individual.

What happens I would say 95% of the time with the leaders that we work with is we don’t tell them the verbal cues to give, we don’t tell them to talk or to not talk as a listener, we don’t tell them how to sit. Yet, as I walk around the room once we’ve triggered this, to a T, almost every single person that’s listening is facing the other person, is looking at the other person in the eyes or looking at their face.

They might even be talking a little bit as a means to continue the conversation, but not as a means to fulfill their agenda. They’re there with the other person’s agenda in mind.

What really happens is those cues can show you things, but don’t just follow those cues as markers, actually show up and be there with the intention of hearing the other person, of being with the other person, of – for me what I talk about is if my purpose in life is to unlock people’s potential, then the intention I set is hey, I’m here to unlock somebody else’s potential.

That might mean shutting up and letting someone speak. That might mean interjecting. But that means fully being here and being focused and not thinking about what’s going on around me, not thinking about the next conversation I have. I put all distractions away. I put my phone on silent. I’m just there with the other person.

Pete Mockaitis
Aaron, I’m afraid I cannot let you off the hook. Let’s take a crack at to the extent that it’s possible in this medium, what’s this exercise?

Aaron Levy
Okay. The first and most important thing of this exercise is getting really clear on what is your, what we call your commitment to the world. That is a much bigger question than most people want to answer in a podcast, in a workshop, anywhere in life because they think it’s this big hairy, scary thing.

But the truth is that each of us have a purpose, each of us are connected to it whether we know It or not. It’s not something that we have to go out and find. It’s actually something we have in here. There’s this great quote by Seneca that says, “You can have all the wind in your sails, but if you have no harbor to sail to, then you’re going nowhere.”

What we focus on very early on is getting really clear on “Hey, what is your commitment to bring to others, to bring or the world?” For somebody it might be to bring the truth. For somebody else it might be to show others what integrity looks like. For me, it’s to help unlock your potential. When you get that, when you actually connect with that, what happens is you feel like you have this much stronger connection and dial in to who you are and why you’re here.

What you’ll find and what you can look for and how to find that is to think about what are some of the most proud moments of your life, what are some of the most significant experiences, what are some of the things that piss you off the most or even what was a conversation where you felt you were really at your best with somebody else?

Oftentimes those all tie back to a couple common themes. It might tie back to sharing love with others. It might tie back to bringing honesty to the world. It might tie back to speaking up for people who can’t speak up for themselves. But it’s usually something subtle and simple.

When it resonates with you, for those of you who are listening, so you’re just thinking about it, I know it’s not an easy task to just listen to a podcast and come up with your commitment. When you do or when you come on to something, it’s like there’s a resonance in your whole body. When that happens, that’s what we actually…then before a listening conversation we trigger.

We practice connecting with the neural pathways that say this is my commitment and we build signs along those neural pathways so that you can more easily trigger that before a conversation with somebody else.

Pete Mockaitis
You said build signs, what’s that mean?

Aaron Levy
We’ll go a little bit into the science of human behavior. When we talk about building a new habit, in your brain it’s creating a neural connection, but what it really looks like is going into a ten-foot high field of grass and walking through the grass and paving a path. Not paving a path with a road crew and construction crew, but paving a path by walking down that grass and matting it down.

But it’s not going to happen if you do it just once. You have to hundreds of thousands of times. The more you walk down it, the more easily findable that path is. Instead of just walking down the path and matting it, what we do is we put signs. We say, “You’re going in the right direction,” or “Nope, you’ve lost your way. U-turn.”

We put signs and markers along the way so you’re able to identify, “Hey, am I taking the right action or the right path to know if I’m going in the right direction.” We do that with people by saying “Hey, this is what it feels like to be connected to your commitment.  This is what it feels like in your chest, in your body, or this is a word that you can connect to it.” What we’re doing is putting three words, ‘unlock your potential’ that’s a sign for me to connect to what I do and why I’m here.

Did that give you some explanation? I know we’re kind of getting deep into – I don’t always in conversations like this dive this deep into the science of behavior change and commitment and purpose ….

Pete Mockaitis
Oh Aaron, you know just what to say to make a podcaster smile. Well, good. I appreciate it. It’s good. We’re talking about all right, you connect to your purpose. You take some deep reflection and maybe a little bit of time to arrive at what’s inside. You land at hey, well, what’s really meaningful to you and what really upsets you. You’re there.

Then I’m hearing you want to get to that place, connect to that sort of state of resonance, like, “Oh yeah, I’m jazzed about my purpose.” You want to get there just before a listening session.

Aaron Levy
Correct. The thing is, this is practice. If you want to get there before a conversation where you know you’re going to want to show up and listen, whether it’s a one-on-one you have an employee, a conversation you’re going to sit down and have with your partner, anything where you know.

There’s plenty of other situations where you’re listening but you’re not prepared for it or you’re not thinking about it. What we’re not trying to do here is we’re not trying to say be a better listener in every single situation ever once you’ve practiced, once. Just do it better everywhere. We understand that you don’t learn how to ride a bike by just riding it once and you perfect it. You fall a bunch.

What we try and do is say let’s set yourself up for success by having a couple conversations a week. Maybe one or two where you know, “Hey, I want to show up kind of in this state. I want to remove all distractions. I want to know what the purpose of this conversation is.” I want to know the agenda or the desired outcome of the conversation from my perspective and the other’s perspective.

That way I kind of removed all of those distractions of where are we going, of what do I have to do next, and you’re able to show up with that person. You do that a couple of times really well and you start to get those signs. You say, “Oh, this is what somebody else says,” or “This is how they show up,” or “This is how a conversation can go when I’m really listening.” Then we put those signs up.

The more signs you put up, the more you take the path, the easier it is to go back to it so that eventually the more you practice, it becomes habitual and you’re just doing it as opposed to having to think about doing it. But again, what we start with is the couple of actions that done over and over and over again will lead to habit.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess what I find interesting is let’s say your purpose is to give voice to the voiceless for example. That gets you fired up. You’re like, “Yes. This is the thing.” That’s a great way to feel and great way to be. But that is also helpful in a context of listening. I don’t know. Can you connect the dots for me here?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, yeah. Oftentimes people will say when we talk about this or we think about it, because right now we’re thinking about it, we’re not being with this idea. We’re thinking about, how does this apply?

Oftentimes a leader will say to me, “Well, if I want bring the voice to the voiceless, then oftentimes what I’ll do is I’ll be speaking for them or I’ll be taking what’s going on with them and trying to share it right away or trying to dig into it as much as I can.”

I say, “Yeah, that’s what you think will happen, but I promise you, go back to that state, go to that state of being the voice for the voiceless and what happens when you show up in that state with any person, whether it’s the voiceless or somebody who has a voice, you will show up differently.” It’s hard to explain. It’s kind of magical. But when you step into that space, what ends up happening is it empowers you to really be with somebody else.

I know when I show up wanting to unlock someone’s potential or understanding that, I’m just there with them. I’m engrossed with attention and intention towards who they are.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I think the connection may be, speculating here.

Aaron Levy
Go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
That your purpose – this has come up a number of times, we talked about purpose – it’s always one way or another to help people. There’s a service bit to the purpose. No one’s purpose is ever “I am going to become a mega billionaire.” That’s not really a resonant purpose. It might be fun and exciting. But I guess the purpose things are service-oriented.

When you’re listening, in large part, the game in terms of the being side of things is that it’s not about you. You’re taking yourself out of it and you’re being of service to another person. In a way that’s kind of – if I’m thinking through this – that could be sort of like your linkage there. It’s like, “I’m getting into a resonant serving mode and that is a state that is highly conducive to listening.”

Aaron Levy
Pete, if this was a game show, I’d be like dinging the bells. You got it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

Aaron Levy
You’re spot on right there. No, that’s exactly right. What you’ll have and what people often get caught up on is “Well, my purpose is to bring in more money,” “to make money,” “to generate wealth.” We have this all the time. Yet, the challenge is the question that I often ask people is “When you have all the money that you want, what will that give you?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. Okay.

Aaron Levy
Someone says, “So I can provide,” “So I can serve somebody else,” but then it goes to the real core.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I got you. That’s cool. All right, so you get in that state, it seems like that’s the whole ball of wax there when it comes to listening well? You get there and then you just shut up and put your attention on the other person?

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Here’s the interesting thing is a lot of the work that we do is quite simple, but it’s not easy to do. We can boil it down into understand your blind spot, what holds you back from listening, get really clear on what triggers you to listen well, remove distractions and show up and do it. But it’s not so easy to do because behavior change is not an easy thing.

That’s where we focus on deliberate practice, which is the focus that we don’t often spend enough in some of these soft skills. It’s not just doing it once, but doing it once with kind of like training wheels on and your parents next to you. Then taking the training wheels off and riding your bike and falling and scraping your knee.

What happens is when people try these skills in the real world and they fall and they scrape their knee, is they say, “That didn’t work. I’m never going to do it again,” or “That felt uncomfortable. I’m never going to do it again.”

What we encourage and what we design in our work with leaders is that’s not an option. They actually have to go out and apply it in real life after applying it in our workshops. Then in real life they figure out what doesn’t work, what does work. Then they get on a call with their coach. Their coach will diagnose and work with them to understand what worked and what didn’t.

So often leaders say, “Wow, this blew up in my face. This was really bad.” Well, great. You’re supposed to fail because you’re going to learn from that. But the second thing is when we diagnose in a coaching session, they realize that out of the ten elements that they had or out of the conversation, only 30% wasn’t really that good. 70% they got was amazing was they learned something new about somebody else.

They learned something new about a team member. They learned that a team member is planning to leave and this is why they’re planning to leave. It’s not a great outcome, but it’s better than not knowing.

The 30% of what didn’t work was either the setup, was their patience in it, was the close out. We work with them to understand and to diagnose and to debrief and to really reflect on what worked and what didn’t work because that’s where learning happens. It’s what we call a learn, apply, reflect. You have to learn the skill. Then you have to apply the skill. Then you have to reflect. You do that over again and that’s deliberate practice.

Pete Mockaitis
In the … of listening, is there any part of paraphrasing, summarizing, is that in the mix?

Aaron Levy
Not necessarily, no.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Aaron Levy
It can be depending on the conversation. It can be, “What I heard you say, Pete, is,” but it’s not necessarily part of it because every conversation’s a little bit different. We don’t set people up for just a specific type of conversation. We say show up and listen in any conversation.

You show up this way, sometimes there doesn’t need to be a paraphrase. Sometimes you don’t need to say a word and someone just needs to be heard. Sometimes you do need to paraphrase and you need to recap after a one-on-one or after a performance. You can say, “Hey, what I heard you say is this. These are the action steps we’re going to take.” Sure, but that’s not necessarily the action every time after listening.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s good. Well that was fun. We talked a lot about listening. I guess we can’t cover all four after all. But that’s – we’ll have to have you back. All right, let’s talk about asking powerful questions. How’s this done?

Aaron Levy
I’ll try and be quick with it. If you want to dig deeper, I’m happy to dive into it fully. Asking powerful questions is really the key to exploring, to evaluating situations. It’s done by understanding one, we have biases as human beings.

If you look at the research by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, kind of if anyone’s ever heard of the book Moneyball, that idea, that concept of Moneyball, of the way our brain can lie to us when we look at a baseball player, just because we look at their sexy stats versus the stats that really are impactful, those are called biases and heuristics.

Our brain has tons of these biases to make life easier for us so we don’t have to think. We kind of take shortcuts as a brain, so we don’t have to think through everything we do in a day. But those shortcuts hold us back. Those shortcuts confirm what we think we already know about a person, a situation, an event.

This is by the way, my hardest skill to work on because I like to move quickly. In moving quickly, I assume and when I assume, I confirm what I thought I knew, but I’m not right necessarily. I used to get myself, especially earlier in my career, in a lot of trouble doing that. I’d make a lot of mistakes along the way because I’d assume something and I’d move fast. It doesn’t mean you can’t move fast. It means you need to check your biases.

The blind spot here – each of these skills has a blind spot – the blind spot here is your confirmation bias, is confirming what you already think to know based on the information at hand versus challenging your beliefs and exploring if there’s other information to be learned.

The trigger to actually start to ask powerful questions is looking at a three-year old kid. A three-year-old kid is someone who is constantly curious. They have this genuine desire to explore, to learn more. They say, “What is that about? How does that work? Why are we doing this? How does this work?” In doing that what they’re doing is they’re exploring. They’re exploring the world and unknowingly asking powerful questions.

The trigger to asking powerful questions is to let go of your assumption that you know the answers and be curious and ask yourself, “What don’t I know here?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good question. Can you lay on some more favorite go-to questions for us?

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Here’s the thing, Pete, I won’t, because when I went through my training and I said I want to learn how to ask powerful questions. Just give me the list. I’ll do it. I was great at – give me a checklist. I’ll follow them. I’ll ask those questions in my coaching sessions. I’ll ask those questions with clients. Great, I’ll be done. Everybody wants a list.

Unfortunately, powerful questions, there is no list of them. There is no pure this is a powerful question or it’s not because powerful questions have to happen in the moment. They have to happen in context. You might have a question and then you ask it at the wrong time or the wrong person or in the wrong context and it’s not powerful at all.

What I will tell people is, which are really good tips for you is although why questions might seem to be very powerful, why has just a natural response to people that can make them defensive or make them think too far into the question. Instead of asking why, ask what or how. Instead of “Why does this matter to you,” “What about this matters to you? What makes this so important?”

It takes an extra second to change a why question to a what question, but the why will throw somebody off a little bit. I encourage you to use a what or a how. Don’t use a yes or no question. “Did you like this?” “Did you have fun?” “Was this meaningful for you?” Likely, not powerful questions, not guaranteed, but likely not powerful questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Fair enough. I won’t press for the list, but maybe if you could regale us with a couple examples of questions that you have asked multiple times or been asked multiple times that seem to do the trick.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Here’s a couple. What’s the impact if nothing changes? What would that look like to you? What’s so important about this? Those can be powerful questions, not guaranteed, but they’re simple, they’re clear, they’re concise, they’re open-ended. The thing that I can’t tell you which they are or they aren’t – this is kind of a checklist for powerful questions: simple, clear, concise, open-ended – is I don’t know if they’re in the moment. I don’t know if they’re in context.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s helpful. Thank you. Well, so could you maybe give us the-

Aaron Levy
What’s driving you to get this list of powerful questions?

Pete Mockaitis
What’s that? What’s driving me?

Aaron Levy
What’s driving you to get this list of powerful questions?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh my purpose to develop and disseminate knowledge that transforms the experience of being alive.

Aaron Levy
There you go. Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Fired up. Ready to listen. Although, that’s a lot of words if you’re talking about simple. Let’s hear maybe when it comes to the communicate and the serve pieces, communicating directly, holding critical conversations, do you have sort of a quick sort of a do’s and don’ts that you might share within these ballparks?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I’ll give quick for communicate directly. There are tips for communicating directly, which are important, but not nearly as important as laying the foundation for direct communication to occur. What that is is that’s creating psychological safety. Psychological safety is this feeling of I can say something without feeling like I will make a mistake or speak up, without feeling like I’m going to be made fun of or ridiculed.

When Google’s project, Aristotle, looked at what makes high performing teams, they looked at okay, let’s look at teams that are the best team members, let’s look at teams that have the best individual – what they found was that it had nothing to do with the individual’s themselves. It had to do with the team. It had to do with psychological safety.

Do people feel psychologically safe to speak up, to say something, to challenge ideas? Do they have clarity about what they’re going after and how they’re working with each other? What are the expectations of this team? The two things we talk about are how to build those.

The first way to do that is to create a set of team agreements. Really that’s just as a leader of a team, it’s getting really clear on what are your expectations of how other people on this team should show up and work with you. If they’re not clear to everybody on the team, they should be clear. They should be communicated. People should align on them and connect with them and be able to resonate with them.

That’s what we talk about for direct communication. It’s really creating the foundation for direct communication to occur.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, how about on the serving, holding those critical conversations?

Aaron Levy
Yeah. It’s putting together all those other pieces really well. It’s listening. It’s asking powerful questions. It’s having a direct communication conversations set up beforehand because sometimes it’s just giving feedback.

But if something’s really critical, that means that there is an impact of not having the conversation. It’s understanding that feedback is a gift and by not giving someone feedback, you’re holding them back. You’re not serving them. In order to serve them, you might have to tell them that they’re not doing well or that assessment didn’t work or they’re not the right fit for the team. Things that you feel people won’t be able to necessarily recover from.

The truth is human beings are creative, resourceful and whole. They are able to. If you hold them to this higher standard, then they live up to it. When we see them as needing fixing or being broken, we don’t see that feedback as a gift. When we see them as whole, we can actually start to give feedback and it can be a gift. Whether they see it as a gift now or in ten years from now, that is some of the most important things that you can do.

We talk about that as a leader is having that conversation. Now we have a two-part process for doing it, for stepping away from the critical nature of the conversation and reflecting on what’s actually happening. But the most important idea and concept from that is feedback is a gift. There’s a quote that I love is, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well I was just going to ask for some favorite things, including a favorite quote. Sounds like you got us going there. Now could you share a favorite study, a piece of research that you found helpful?

Aaron Levy
Man, there’s a lot. I’m reading the book Give and Take right now by Adam Grant. In it there is a study about the importance of giving people energy and attention whether or not you think they are high potentials.

It’s a study that they did with students. They told certain teachers that, “Hey, these students are rock stars. They have – they’ve done really well in all these pre-tests and so they are –“ I don’t know the word that they used – “they’re all-stars.” Then they said, “These students aren’t.” Then they tracked where the students and how the students grew and how they performed over the year.

The people who were identified as all-stars performed 50% better than the others. Well, what happened was they weren’t actually all-stars in any shape of way you define it. They had just defined them that way for the teachers. What the study started to show was that the people inherently then give them more energy and attention because they think they have the potential to achieve into it.

What I took from that is as leaders if we see the potential in each of our employees, whether we think one is a high potential or the other’s not, if we see them all as high potentials, what we do is we elevate all of their games to a certain level, to a new level that we didn’t know was possible.

Instead of holding them back by giving them less resources, less energy, less support, we naturally do. We don’t even realize we’re doing it. If we hold everyone to that higher standard, what we’re doing is we’re giving them a chance and we’re giving ourselves a change to better equip ourselves and our team.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite-

Aaron Levy
I can’t remember the name of the study. Sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no problem. It is ringing a bell. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Aaron Levy
Meditation. Yeah, it’s something I struggled with figuring out. How do I find ten minutes in my day to just do nothing? Yet, it is the one of the more powerful, impactful tools. It trains your brain to slow down. It trains you to be. When you’re trained to be, you can listen much better because you’re just being with somebody else.

If anybody asks me what’s the one thing you should focus on doing, I would say it’s meditation. You look at the most successful people in the world and lists of them and look at their habits, to a T everyone does some sort of – not everyone, but a lot of them do some element of mindfulness or meditation in their lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your clients?

Aaron Levy
Well, the first one is that feedback is a gift. I’ve already shared that and I’m going to stand with that one because that one takes a while for people to resonate with. Someone might hear it now and then think about it two years from now, but it’s really remembering that it is a gift, that the only way people can improve, the only way you can get better is if they know what’s working and what’s not working.

It’s like the analogy that I use is if you shoot a basketball in the dark, one, basketball will be no fun, and two, you’d never get back because you don’t know where the ball goes, you don’t know what happens. But as soon as you turn the light on, you can get some visual cues. You can get feedback in the moment, live on what’s working, what’s not working.

As a contributor to your team, as a leader of your team, as a friend, if you’re not giving that feedback, what you’re doing is you’re turning the lights off on your employee, your co-worker, your friend, your family member and saying “Figure it out in the dark.” It’s really this idea that giving that feedback is a gift for that person. It’s turning a light on. Whether they enjoy it in the moment or not, you can give it with tact and grace, but don’t withhold it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Aaron Levy
I would point them to RaiseBar.co, R-A-I-S-E-B-A-R.co. It’s where we actually host our boot camp. All of the stuff that we’ve talked about are through two full-day workshops at a boot camp that we lead leaders through.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Aaron Levy
Yeah. If you are pessimistic or a naysayer about this idea of getting clear on your commitment or everybody having a commitment, sit on it, think about it, explore it, look at what fills you up. You might just find your commitment.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Aaron, this has been a whole lot of fun. I wish you and Raise the Bar tons of luck and success and keep up the good work.

Aaron Levy
Thanks so much Pete. It was a blast talking to you.

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