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693: Building Better Relationships through Validation with Michael Sorensen

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Michael Sorensen demonstrates the simple superpower that vastly improves our relationships: validation.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to improve conversations with the four-step validation method 
  2. How we unintentionally invalidate others
  3. How to move past the discomfort of emotional conversations 

About Michael

Michael Sorensen is a marketing executive by day and a bestselling author, speaker, and relationship coach by night. His book, I Hear You, has helped hundreds of thousands of people across the world become masters of connection in business, love, and life. 

Michael has been invited to speak at some of the world’s largest organizations, had his work translated into over a dozen languages, and has even conducted training for the United States Navy. 

 

Resources Mentioned

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Michael Sorensen Interview Transcript

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

Michael Sorensen
Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get your wisdom on validation and the good stuff from your book, I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships. But, first, I need to hear you made your own mattress. What is the story?

Michael Sorensen
Yes, I wonder when that would come up. Your intro or your intake sheet asked for something kind of unique and I started thinking, “Well, what do I not talk to many people about?” It’s that. It’s something I’m a little bit embarrassed of, and I’m a little bit proud of. I’ve got a bad back and I set out a few years ago to find the perfect mattress to try to make that back pain go away, and that’s was when Casper and some of these other direct-to-consumer companies were coming online, and they’ve got free return policies, so I thought, “Why not? How can it hurt to order?” so I ordered that. It killed my back.

I ordered the next one, that still hurt, and I actually ordered seven mattresses and then returned them or donated them before I actually sourced my own foam and cut it up and found a cover for it and all of that just to try to find the mattress that would work best for my body. The irony is I ended up finding one that actually works and I tossed my homemade one but, you know, it’s still fun to build things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I got to know, what was the difference? What did your homemade version and your final version have the others did not?

Michael Sorensen
This is incredibly nerdy. I would take a picture of myself laying down with my shirt off so I could see my spine alignment, and all of them had my hip sagging lower than my shoulder because my shoulders were propping me up but my hips were down so it was creating this curve. And so, I actually got a different density creating the foam for each section and so my shoulders had a lighter foam and my hips had a heavier foam to try to get that optimal spine alignment.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good. And someone made one with that in mind. Is that the…?

Michael Sorensen
Actually, I actually didn’t have that. I just lucked out. It’s the Brooklyn Bedding. They don’t even make that one anymore but it’s just the latex mattress but it was my final…it was probably my eighth mattress actually. I slept on it for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, and I’m still loving it today. I’m not paid to promote it but I probably should be.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m impressed with just the sheer force and persistence that you rocked in arriving at this. And, likewise, you’ve got something that you call a superpower – validation. Tell us, what do you mean by validation? What does it do for us and why is it a superpower?

Michael Sorensen
Yes, absolutely. I find, especially in the workplace, since this is largely a podcast about the workplace, we place a lot of focus on the value of listening, being a good listener, and we talk about how important that it is. I think we all kind of nod our heads and we say, “Yeah, I could do better at listening.” But, really, the main premise of my book and the main thing that we’re going to talk about here today is that the truly good listeners of the world actually do more than just listen. They listen, seek to understand, and then validate.

And that validation, that’s kind of a secret sauce. That’s what, like you mentioned, that I call a superpower because so many people are craving that. And validation is essentially just telling someone, “Hey, I understand how you’re feeling and you’re not crazy for feeling that way.” That’s really the essence of it. And it sounds so simple, it is simple, but I’m telling you, Pete, it makes all the difference in the world because most of us just jump in with feedback or advice or we try to help people, we try to make them feel better when they’re coming to us with a complaint or a concern or a question, when really what they’re wanting is simply to feel heard and understood.

You’re venting, you’re complaining, and you just want someone to say, “Man, that’s tough,” or, “Then what happened?” and ask a few questions to kind of get into it with you. That’s validation. And it makes all the difference in the workplace, in your relationships at home, with your friends and family, because it helps us feel better connected to each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then can you share, whether maybe it’s in terms of a dramatic transformational relationship that went from poor to okay, or to okay to grand, a nice upgrade, or even maybe some data, some studies? Can you share an illustration of just how powerful this is?

Michael Sorensen
Absolutely. I talk early on in the book about a research conducted by Dr. John Gottman. For your listeners who might not be aware of him or familiar with him, he’s a world-renowned marriage and family therapist, and a number of years ago, he and his colleague set out to determine what makes the healthy happy couples of the world stay in a happy long relationship compared to those who separate or divorce.

And I love the study they put together. They decorated their lab, I think it was the University of Washington, to look like a bed and breakfast, and they invited 130 newlywed couples in, and they said, “Spend the weekend here. Just do what you normally do on a weekend. Cook, eat dinner, watch some TV, read the news, whatever it is, while we observe you,” which, I think, is kind of creepy but it’s funny what people will do for money and science.

And as the observers watched, they noticed that throughout the day, these couples would make small seemingly insignificant requests for connection. They’d be sitting there at the table and the wife would look out the window, and say, “Oh, honey, check out that car.” And what they noticed is that the way the spouse could respond in that instance made all the difference in the connection that they had in their relationship.

So, in that particular instance, the wife notices the car and her husband could look out and respond in one of three ways. He could say, “Wow, that’s awesome. I love that color,” positively, and that’s validating, matching her emotion, getting excited with her, stepping into it is validating. The second way he could respond is negatively, of course saying, “Oh, I hate that. That’s the worst car in the world.” Or, the third way is simply passive, just go, “Huh, that’s nice dear,” maybe not even looking up from the smartphone.

And it seems simple but when they went back, they gathered all the data, they started analyzing it, and then they waited six years, and they followed up with these couples, and they said, “How are you doing? Are you still together? And if you are together, are you happily married still or have you separated?” And what they found was the couples who had separated validated each other only 33% of the time. Whenever they would make a comment like that, their spouse would either be passive or even negative about it, but they wouldn’t engage, they wouldn’t connect with them.

Whereas, the couples that were happily married six years later validated each other 87% of the time. Nearly nine times out of ten, those healthy happy couples were meeting those bids or those requests for connection. And I thought that was interesting. At that time of my life, I was in a relationship that wasn’t going so well, and I realized, “Oh, my gosh, it’s because this woman isn’t validating me. She’s not connecting with me in this way.”

And I flipped the page on this article, and apparently Dr. Gottman and his colleagues can predict with up to 97% accuracy whether people will be together and happy or separated years down the line simply by observing these types of interactions. So, I love that study because it made a big difference for me personally in my romantic relationships but, I can tell you, it’s every bit as powerful in the workplace because work is relationships, business is relationships.

Whether you’re a manager, whether you have colleagues, whether you have clients or customers calling in, you’re working with people, you’re talking with people, and we want to feel connected and understood. And so, validation is one of the most powerful ways to build that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, there you have it. So, then you’ve got a particular four-step method for doing the validation. Can you walk us through this?

Michael Sorensen
Absolutely. And I’ll preface this by saying validation is simple. And so, sometimes people look at four steps and they’re like, “What’s this? It seems complicated. Why do I have to do this?” I’ve reverse-engineered this four-step method to try to help people apply it in some of the more difficult situations.

Maybe we can talk later, Pete, about how to validate someone when they’re angry with you or when you disagree with them because I find that’s where a lot of people get tripped up but it actually makes all the difference in the world if you can, first, hold your defense for a moment, listen to them, validate them, and then get in to your side of the story.

And so, the four steps are, first, listen empathically. Like, really listen for the emotion that the person is sharing, not just the words they’re saying. And then once you’ve identified how they’re feeling, the second step is to validate, just identifying their emotion and offering some justification. So, again, if they’re upset, saying, “Of course, you’re upset. You were up all night working on that and they just threw your work out the window.” That’s validating.

Then, step three is where you give feedback or advice. So, again, if you disagree with someone, or if you have a suggestion, you can give advice but it comes after the validation because it allows that person to feel heard and understood first. And then the fourth and final step is to just validate again. It creates a nice little validation sandwich. Following up the conversation whether it was a difficult conversation, then you wrap it up, and you just say, “Hey, thanks again for coming and talk to me. I know these conversations are uncomfortable and yet we got to have them. I really appreciate your candor.”

Or, if it’s positive, your friends are telling you about something awesome that happened at work the other day, and you’re all excited, and at the very end you say, “Hey, congrats again. You worked your butt off on that presentation, I’m happy to hear it went well.” It’s that final step there to kind of tie it all together.

So, again, those four steps: listen empathically, validate the emotion, offer feedback or advice, and then validate again. And you can go through all those in 30 seconds or you might do it several times in a two-hour conversation but it gives you kind of a loose framework and a basic idea of, “Oh, yeah, hold back on the advice, listen, validate, and then get into it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so one of my favorite parts in your book were the demonstrations from like heavy relationship situations and then a toddler exchange, and so it’s nice to show the breadth of it. But let’s take a look, let’s say we’re in the workplace and someone…well, hey, maybe I’ll just take one of the roles and you take one of the others, if that works for you.

Michael Sorensen
Great. Yeah, roleplay. Here we go.
Hey, Pete, how is it going?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it’s fine.

Michael Sorensen
Fine? Just fine?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was working on this process to get things that, well, automated into be way more efficient whenever we’re handling the widgets and, well, it just all went to heck. Absolutely nothing works the way they say it’s supposed to work. People have told me they’re going to get me things and just, straight up, haven’t gotten me the things. The software keeps crashing my computer. It’s basically a total failure.

Michael Sorensen
Oh, geez. Man, I’m sorry. How long were you working on that?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s been about four months.

Michael Sorensen
Four months of work to have it just fall apart at the last minute.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Michael Sorensen
Oh, my gosh, that’s so frustrating.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Michael Sorensen
Are you…? What are you going to do? Do you think you can salvage it or is it going to…you have to throw it all out?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I guess I’m just going to keep calling these people until they finally give me the right answer and, hopefully, that works eventually.

Michael Sorensen
Oh, man, I’m sorry. I hate it when you spend that much time minding on something and then it just falls apart. You would hope that with a product that expensive, people have it figured out, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally.

Michael Sorensen
Oh, man. Well, let me know if I can help in any way. Honestly, I don’t know if I can offer much help but I’m happy to if there’s any way I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, thank you. All right. So, I saw the steps in action. Anything you’d comment upon in that exchange?

Michael Sorensen
Obviously, where it’s kind of roleplay, we’re both kind of stumbling through it.

Pete Mockaitis
Making it up.

Michael Sorensen
But one of the most important things that I encourage people to do is ask a lot of discovery questions early on. If you already know what’s going on in the person’s life and the situation, you don’t have to ask a lot of questions. But if you don’t, that’s really important to make sure you’re validating the right things and that you’re actually understanding.

I’ve worked with some people who they try to validate right away, and so somebody, they just get right in, they’re like, “Oh, that must be so…you must be so angry,” and they’re like, “Oh, no, I’m not angry. I’m actually embarrassed,” and you kind of go through it. So, I asked a couple questions, not a ton, but then, pretty quickly, I was matching your emotion. I was trying to kind of reflect what I was seeing in you, which is, “Ah, yeah, of course you’re upset if you spent four months on that.” And I’ve actually said as much, “Of course, you’re upset because…” and I showed that justification in saying, “Yeah, it makes sense. That’s maddening to go through all of that.”

And that little piece is so powerful because, oftentimes, we, as humans, are taught to kind of bury our emotions, we’re taught to not be upset, and sometimes we tell people as much, like, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m sure it’ll work out,” but that doesn’t usually feel very good. Like, “Well, I am upset. I’m looking for you to see that.” And so, that was that validation piece of me just saying, “Hey, that’s really frustrating, especially if this and that. You would think if they had all this time and money put into it that they would have it figured out.” Those are all validating statements because they are giving you permission to feel the frustration that you’re feeling.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, as you say it, it sounds so simple and yet it feels a little rare. I don’t know if you’ve got stats on this but it seems like we’re all hungry for this and we’re not having our fill, broadly speaking. Is that fair to say?

Michael Sorensen
A hundred percent. And I wish I had stats, Pete, but the stats that I can give you are just looking at the reviews of my book and the emails that I get, the hundreds of thousands of people that are saying, “Oh, my goodness, this is what I’ve been missing.” And it’s all over the board. You see people saying, “I didn’t realize that this is what my spouse was asking for.” Then you see people saying, “If my partner had done this, we would still be together.” Then I get emails from customer service managers saying, “Can you do a training on this? Because I listened to your book and I started implementing it and customers are 1000% happier,” whatever it is.

But, you’re right, it’s so simple but we are craving it and that’s one of the things that makes it a superpower is we’re all craving it, few of us recognize that that’s what we’re craving, but we do recognize that we’re not getting it. And that’s where a lot of relationships kind of hit this rocky point because you’re going, you’ll talk to your boss, and your boss, maybe you’ll express a concern or something, and if he or she just says, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it…”

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Michael Sorensen
…that doesn’t…you’re like, “Okay.” Well, what do you say to your boss? Versus, if your boss says, “Well, help me understand what’s going on,” and they ask a few questions and they get into it. And if you’re upset, and they say, “First off, thank you. I can imagine how frustrating this is given blah, blah, blah” and you sit there and you go, “Yes, they get me.” It makes all the difference in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so let’s hear about things that are wrong things to say. And I love, in your book, you did this nicely. I remember a couple was struggling with infertility, and then someone said, “Oh, boy, yeah, I just look at my wife and she gets pregnant,” and I’ve heard people say that before. And, of course, when you’re reading it in the context of the book, you’re like, “Wow, that is absolutely a horrific thing to say to a person in that context,” and yet people say it because I don’t think they’re tuned in on this wavelength yet. So, “Don’t worry about it, I got it” is another example of, “We’re not going to get into your feelings. This is already handled.” So, what are some other choice things you hear people say a lot that are kind of the opposite of validating?

Michael Sorensen
The invalidating statements, yeah, it’s things like, “Oh, you’ll be fine,” “It could be worse,” or, “At least it’s not…” fill in the blank. As you listen or you’re hearing these things, ask yourself, “Have you ever said this to someone?” Because you’re right, Pete, people say it all the time, where we say, “Oh, don’t worry. Things will just work out.”

I’ve got a couple siblings who are still single and they desperately want to find their person and I can’t tell you how many times, when they come to someone, and I’m kind of the fly on the wall, and I’m like, “How’s dating going?” and they’re like, “Ah, not super well.” And then, almost immediately, the response is, “Oh, I’m sure you’ll find them eventually. You’re a great catcher. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. It’s going to work out.”

And you can see the look on their face, they’re like, “I know that, I’m not stupid, but I’m not enjoying life right now.” It’s kind of hard. I was looking for a little of that validation. Everybody means well. It’s not like we’re trying to be rude to people but we think that’s helping when, in reality, it’s hurting.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I think, not to get too deep into this, but one reason we don’t do it is we’re not aware; two is we think we’re helping. I think the third might be that, for a segment of folks, it’s like, “We’re just kind of uncomfortable getting into all that emotional stuff.” And so, hey, if that’s you, what do you do about that?

Michael Sorensen
Well, to that, I would say, and obviously everyone is different, the situations are different. I still hit moments when I’m like, “I don’t really want to talk about it,” like timid people. Obviously, you have to kind of judge the situation. But this is where I think validation becomes, again, such a valuable tool because one of the key reasons I believe people are uncomfortable in those situations is they don’t know how to help, especially if it’s heavier.

I remember talking to a friend whose parents passed away recently and unexpectedly, and prior to knowing how to validate, I would’ve been like, “Oh, what do you say? Like, really, what do you say because I haven’t dealt with that? I’m not about to think that I can give this amazing advice.” But validation is so powerful because you don’t have to say much of anything, you don’t have to fix it. The fix they’re going to figure out and so validations just gives them that space.

And so, when you talk with someone, I like, Pete, your example how you said, “Okay. Well, ask me how I’m doing,” and you say, “Fine,” because that happens a lot. And, usually, it’s when people kind of want to talk about something but they’re not quite sure you want to so they’ll just kind of say, “I’m fine.” And you can read their body language, and then you get to decide whether you want to follow it deeper, but if you do, you can just ask questions. You can see how they’re doing and you just ask questions and then you validate, and you ask questions and you validate, and you don’t ever have to get into solutions.

With my friend, I just said, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t even imagine,” and I just sat there for a moment, and I let her sit for a second, and she said, “Yeah, it’s brutal.” And I said, “So, how did you find out?” and she explained it to me, and I just, again, “Ahh.” And even with that response, “Ahh” is validating. I didn’t even have to use words there. Again, it’s just showing respect, it’s like, “Man, I see how you’re feeling,” and we were able to kind of go through the conversation. I didn’t give one bit of advice. Heaven knows, she didn’t want advice. She just wanted someone to kind of sit in it with her and feel it.

And so, if you’re a little uncomfortable with these emotional situations, I do encourage you to try, the next time you have an opportunity to try it and try to just validate the person. Ask some questions, respond with the emotion that you can tell they’re feeling. And, to tie it off, you can just say, again, like we did on the example, “Hey, I’m here for you. If you ever want to just talk, let me know.” And they’ll usually say thanks, and then you move on.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. And how do you feel about the “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” because sometimes people hate that? And other times, it seems completely appropriate.

Michael Sorensen
In what context?

Pete Mockaitis
Like, so if it’s tragedy or like they say a divorce, a death, an illness, you say, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” and they’re like, “Oh, I’m tired of everyone saying that.” Like, I don’t know, where do you come out on this one?

Michael Sorensen
Again, it’s very situation-dependent. So, in that situation, if they actually responded like that to me, I’d be like, “Oh, hey, I’m sorry. How can I help?” It’s difficult because you kind of have to roll with the punches a little bit. I was talking with someone just the other day about this and, well, yes, I put validation into a nice clean four-step framework. The reality is it’s more of an artform than it is just a tight framework. It’s not something you can just like pull out a sheet, and go, “Okay. Michael says to say this, and this, and then you’re going to feel better, and then we’re going to ride off into the sunset.”

It doesn’t work like that. It’s a skill. It’s a tool, which means we have to figure out how to kind of use it in the right situations. And so, you’re right, certain people are going to respond to those “I’m so sorry,” or whatever, and they’re going to get defensive, especially if they’re hurt, or they’re going to come back at you, and you can still use validation again.

So, let’s just say that you had said that to me, Pete, again, I’d say, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And if they say, “Yeah, everybody just says they’re sorry, and I don’t want to hear that. I want to move on,” then I might say, “Yeah, I don’t blame you. This is a heavy situation.” And then they might say, “Yeah, da, da, da,” and we can keep going on. But you see how I was even able to validate their frustration at me, and just say, “Wow, okay. Yeah, you know what, the more I think about it, I see how that was hard. I’m sorry for that,” or whatever the right response would be.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, I guess now I’m curious, so, you said at the very beginning, validation basically conveys, “Hey, I hear you. I understand what you’re feeling, and you’re not crazy.” I’m curious, like when folks are crazy, I mean, maybe either literally, that we’ve got like a sort of diagnosable situation, or they are kind of blending their emotions with like the exact wrong answer, like, “My boss is such a jerk, I’m going to march in there right now, slap him across the face, and tell him in no uncertain…” whatever, I don’t know.

Or, someone is like, “I’m so worthless. The world would be better off without me,” like intense, like I’m sure the right answer is not, “You know, you’re right,” not the right move there. So, yeah, in those trickier places where folks are saying something oh-so wrong, how do you think about validation?

Michael Sorensen
I’m so happy you bring this up, and I’m going to preface this by saying that the FBI uses validation in their hostage negotiations. It’s a critical part. And if you think of high-stake situations, you got people in a building threatening to kill them and themselves, and so that’s very much what you’re saying, Pete. You don’t want to just say, “Yeah, do it. Yeah, you’re right. Yeah, your life’s not worth living.” You don’t want to go there. But that’s not quite what validation is and that’s where the four-step method comes into play here.

Again, first step is listening empathically. So, let’s keep it with the co-worker example and they’re really upset with their boss, and they’re about to march right in there and yell at them, well, let’s just say for a moment, we think that’s a bad idea. So, if we just say, “You can’t do that. You’re going to get fired,” how are they going to respond?

Pete Mockaitis
“Go ahead and fire me. I’m sick of this. This is war.”

Michael Sorensen
They’re probably going to go, yeah, exactly, “I don’t care.” Exactly right, they’re just going to push back, and you can push back, and they’ll push back, and you’re not going to get anywhere. And so, you have to first listen to them, “Well, what happened?” and they vent and they complain. And, again, you can validate there, so you don’t have to validate, you don’t have to say, “Yes, go in and yell at them.”

But if he says, “Well, he called me out in front of everybody in that meeting,” then you could say, “Seriously?” “Yeah, and I’m so…aargh, I’m so angry because I worked my butt off all week.” “Well, yeah, like I’d be upset too.” That’s the validation piece. It’s not, “Yeah, you should go in and yell at your boss.” It’s, “Well, of course, you’re upset given what just happened.”

And so, you keep going through that conversation. You listen, you validate, you listen, you validate. When you can tell they’ve calmed down just a little bit, or maybe they’re about to march right in the door, then that’s when step three comes into play, and you say, “Well, hold on one second. I do have a few thoughts on this. Do you mind if I share it?” Okay, now that intro, that transition to step three is big because it shows respect. If you just say, “Hold on. Don’t do it. It’s a bad idea,” again, they might get defensive and start arguing with you.

But if you, first, ask permission to share your thoughts, most people will say, “Fine. What? What is it? What are your thoughts?” and then you can say, “Maybe yelling at your boss isn’t the best idea. Have you thought about this? Or, have you thought about that?” And what you’ll find is, if you’ve listened and validated first, they are a hundred times more likely to listen to your advice when you bring it up. So, it all comes down to that order.

And, again, you see the same thing in situations where someone is angry at you, you see the same thing in the hostage negotiations. They don’t say, “Sure, kill yourself. Sure, ignite the bomb.” They say, “What’s going on? Where are you…where is this coming from?” and they talk through, they listen, they validate, and they say, “Well, can we just talk? Can we just talk face to face?” And you can see they kind of…The power of validation is to bring the emotion back down so that you can have a human-to-human conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, you know, I remember you talked about FBI hostage negotiation, and we had Chris Voss on the podcast, who wrote an awesome book Never Split the Difference and did FBI hostage negotiations. And I believe there’s a story there in which they just kind of said the same thing over and over again, kind of like, “Hey, it seems like you’re scared that you’re not going to be able to make it out of there, and you’re worried about what’s going to happen to you and your family,” something along those lines, just like repeatedly, and then hours later, the dude just kind of walks out. And so, it’s wild how potent that is.

Michael Sorensen
And that’s why I joke in the book it’s like a superpower. Early on, when I started using this, in my day job, I’m a manager of about 30 people, and I was a very young manager at the time when I wrote the book, and I didn’t know how to deal with certain situations. And as I’ve started using validation, I had some pretty tense conversations, some people yelling at me, some really difficult things, I had made some mistakes, all of that. When I started using validation first, it was shocking at how it made everything easier, and helped me mend relationships, and helped me earn trust and respect.

I had a gal who once worked for me, left the company. A few years later, she was one the beta readers actually of my book. And she actually called me up after she read it, and she said, “I get it now.” She said, “I could never understand why I felt so comfortable talking to you.” And I don’t say this to pat myself on the back, but I say it to illustrate the power it has. She said, “I always felt so comfortable talking to you, and I couldn’t figure out why, and now I get it, and it’s because you listened to me and you validated me. Thank you.” So, it’s powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I’m intrigued by when you made some mistakes, how might validation work in that context? Like, “Hey, I can understand to be really frustrating that this guy…” mainly you, means you have to redo a bunch of things now. Or, how’s that go?

Michael Sorensen
Yeah, really, it just comes down to ownership, and that takes humility. It’s not an easy thing to do but if you do make a mistake, there’s no sense in beating around the bush or making an excuse. That never looks good in work or just in life. So, in the times that’s happened to me, I’m trying to think of a concrete example and I’m drawing a blank right now.

But if we just go with a hypothetical, they come back and they say, “What happened? You told me you would have this yesterday,” and I take a moment and I go, “Oh, shoot. You’re right.” And I just say, “You’re right. I’m sorry. I dropped the ball on that. I’m going to figure it out.” And they say, “Well, it threw off my whole presentation, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” again, there’s a chance to validate. So, they tell me how it affects them, and instead of saying, “Well, you should’ve followed up with me,” it doesn’t look good. I own it. Again, I say, “Aargh, I’m really sorry. I overbooked myself. It sucks to be expecting something I committed to. I didn’t deliver. You’re right. How can I help?”

It’s almost like a parody but it’s honest, and there’s actually, in my opinion, a great respect that comes from that, and strength to say, “Yup, I messed up. I’m going to figure out how to make it right.” And, in most instances, people will come down on their anger pretty quickly when they see you’re not going to fight them, you just say, “Yup, I’m sorry. I see how that affects you. Let’s figure out how to make it work.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. Well, so then you used the phrase, “Hey, I have some thoughts. Do you mind if I share?” asking permission. Any key kind of words and phrases that you like and naturally show up a lot when you’re validating, or some key words and phrases to be banished?

Michael Sorensen
Yeah, so when you get into the validating and such, we’ve talked a lot about that. But if I may, Pete, let’s take it into that step three where you’re giving feedback because that makes a big difference. One place a lot of people trip up, and, again, this is going to sound so simple, but using the word “but” can be quite dangerous when you’re connecting two sentences together.

So, if you try to validate someone, let’s say they’re angry at me, we’ll stick with that example, and I say, “You’re right. I missed it but it’s really not that big of a deal.” Well, I just undid everything. Like, I was going down the path, I was validating, and then I said “but” and that now puts up a red flag in most people, and they’re like, “But what?” Here comes your counterargument, and I say, “It’s not that big of a deal.” Well, woosh, that’s an invalidating statement, and they’re like, “What do you mean it’s not a big of a deal?” and away we go into that cycle.

I’m a big fan of changing that word from “but” to “and.” Now, you still shouldn’t say, “It’s not that big of a deal.” But let’s say, in that situation, I say, “You’re right. I committed to do that, I didn’t. I’m sorry and I wasn’t the only one responsible for it. Can we talk about X, Y, and Z, other ways?” So, there’s the “and” connection point is very powerful, and I get that feedback a lot from people, saying, “Wow, I had no idea changing that one word,” because, for some reason, we, as humans, we really key in on that.

And if someone is saying, “Hey, I really like…” the example I used in the book is, “I like what you’ve done with your hair but…” we go, “Uh-oh, but what?” There’s something else versus “I like what you’ve done with your hair and I like it better the other way.” You still don’t want to hear that but at least it’s a little easier to hold.

And so, when you’re giving feedback to your colleagues, when you’re giving feedback to your friends, or, heck, even your boss, try to avoid the word “but” and just use “and” in there. It actually makes a pretty big difference.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And, I’m curious, if you just don’t feel like you’re relating in any way to their emotion, in terms of you’re like, “I’m mystified as to why you’re so angry or so annoyed by this thing that really seems like nothing to me,” what do you do?

Michael Sorensen
This is where it gets a little tricky because I get this question every now and then. I didn’t address it in the book but in the years since, I’ve really given it a lot of thought. I’ve paid a lot of attention to how I still validate in those situations. First off, I do encourage you to always try to find a way to empathize. Oftentimes, it’s easy to just say, “I don’t care. I don’t care about people.” There’s a lot of value that comes from learning to empathize with people, learning to identify emotions, and that’s a bit of a different topic though.

If, in the moment, you’re like, “Dude, like what’s going on? Why are you so upset about this?” again, ask some questions first. Don’t just dismiss it out of hand and assume they’re being crazy because most people, when you really get into the full picture, act quite rationally. But if you really feel like they’re not, there is still value in, I don’t want to say lip service but, in still kind of going through the motions, and saying, “Yeah, it makes sense that you’re angry. Of course, you would be,” even if inside I’m like, “I don’t really think so,” but it does make a difference still.

Again, it’s not where I recommend going first. Always prefer genuine empathy, but at very least, you can have some sympathy, then you can at least see the emotion they’re feeling, and you can see that they’re upset because such and so and so yelled at them. And that alone can still be valuable and still be helpful to them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. And I guess I’m also thinking about have you really entered into their world? I guess I was recently on a fishing trip and someone was angry that another person had parked nearby our campsite and started fishing. And I actually don’t care that much about the fishing on the trip. They’re just great guys, I like hanging with them, and they go fishing so I go with them.

And so, someone is getting kind of worked up about this. And I thought, “What’s the matter? It’s a big old river or lake.” But I think, as I dove deeper into it in terms of what this person wants most is to catch big fish. It is rare they have the opportunity to go catch fish, and they perceive rightly/wrongly. I don’t actually know enough about fishing but that person’s placement there is going to diminish that, and that there are many other places he could choose from, then I can understand, “Yeah, that’d be irritating that that guy did that when he could just go somewhere else.” But it takes some doing for me to get there.

Michael Sorensen
Yes, it does, and there are times. Again, going back talking about how it’s a tool. It doesn’t mean you always have to use it. I am guilty almost every week of my wife and I’ll get into a little argument, even just have a discussion, and if she gets upset about something, I want to jump to fix it, and “I’m literally the guy that wrote the book on it.” And I’m just like, “You know what, let’s just do this, do this, fix it, and we’ll be done.” And she’s like, “Really? You’re not going to validate me at all?” And I’m like, “Ahh, crap. You’re right.”

But there are times when you have to just kind of pick and choose, and there are times also when you might just jump in. If we stick with your example there of that guy, if he comes up and he’s yelling at you because he wants your spot, you’d be like, “Dude, really? Like, it’s a campsite.” And he’s like, “Well, blah, blah, blah,” you can then choose to validate or you could choose to just dismiss it. If you paid for it, it’s rightly yours. You can walk away, you don’t have to engage with people who are upset or angry, but if you want to, it will work. Nine times out of ten, 95%-99%, I’m making out stats here, but most times it’s amazing how you can calm someone down.

And so, if he’s all upset, you say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry. We booked it.” And he’s like, “I booked it too.” “Well, there must’ve been an issue with that. That’s really frustrating. If you came all the way down here expecting to see this, I get it. Let’s go chat with the front office at the campsite or whatever and let’s see if we can figure it out.” But just that little, “Yeah, if you expected all this and came down here,” that’s validating, and that can help tone it down just a little bit.

I’ll give you an example of, this was a few months ago now but it worked, a certain employee, who’s no longer with the company, placed an order for 40,000 T-shirts that we didn’t need, but he thought we needed them, he thought he was going to be awesome. Well, a few months later, I get a call from another guy in my team, saying, “Hey, just so you know, the T-shirts arrived. This other company who prepared them, they’re expecting payment. I don’t think we owe it to them because we didn’t approve it, so don’t worry, I’m handling it, but you just might hear about it. You might want to know.” And I thought, “Well, hold on one second. Can you send me the email thread? I want to make sure that we’re being honest here. If we said we’re going to order them, we got to pay them.”

So, he sends me the email thread, and I see this back and forth, and it was my guy was being quite invalidating, frankly. He was very kind of traditional negotiation tactics, “Hardline no, not going to happen.” And, obviously, that’s not going to go well on the other end, and it was getting really heated. And so, I actually took over the conversation and I reached out to the guy, and I said, “Hey, do you mind if we hopped on a call?” And his response was very curt, “Yeah, this time.” Period.

So, in advance of the call, I did a little bit of research, and I determined that we actually weren’t on the hook for the T-shirts, but I still wanted to smooth things over. I still wanted to do right by them. So, in advance of the call, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to come right into this, he’s going to come in ready to fight, he’s bringing his A-game, I’m just going to validate him first thing.”

So, I picked up my phone, I gave him a call, he answered, and I said hello, but then, before anything else, I said, “Hey, before we get in, I just want to apologize. This has obviously gone on far longer than either of us want. As I’m digging through, it looks messy, there’s a lot of back and forth, emotions are running high. I apologize for that. I’m hopeful that we can get on this call and just talk man to man and figure something out.”

And, literally, the shock was audible in his voice. He literally stuttered on the other end, he was like, “Oh, ah, okay. Well, what do you have in mind?” And we were able to chat, and we talked through it, and I explained my side, he explained his side, and we reached a resolution that both parties felt good about. It didn’t take long but it had been going on for months, literally months, Pete, back and forth, and tensions were running high. And in about five minutes, I was able to undo almost all that tension and find a resolution with just a little bit of listening and validating.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, Michael, tell me, any final key things you want to share about validation before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Michael Sorensen
I think maybe the last thing I’ll say on it is I think it’s important to point out that when I talk about validation, we’re not validating people’s worth. That’s one thing that sometimes validation gets a bad rap because people say, “Well, validate me. Tell me I’m worthy. Tell me I’m good enough.” That’s dangerous. I’m not talking about that. We’re talking about validating emotions and situations that people are dealing with.

And so, if you have a co-worker, or if you have a family member, or even a spouse, who’s constantly complaining, where they’re always just like, “Hmm, I need more. I need you to tell me that I’m good enough,” that’s a separate conversation, that’s a place for boundaries, that’s a place where having a conversation, and saying, “Hey, I care about you,” or, “You’re my buddy, and…” again, there’s the “and” instead of “but” “…and this isn’t working for me,” or, “I’m not sure how to help you because every time I give you advice, it seems to go in one ear and out the other.”

So, I think it’s an important clarification because I never want people to think that I’m saying, “Well, just tell people what they want to hear. Just tell people that they’re great and everything is going to work out.” Again, validation being a tool, you use it with other tools, and use well that earns you respect, that helps you set boundaries, that helps you earn trust with those around you. And that is why it’s such a powerful skill.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Sorensen
The quote that I go to most often is “Action kills fear.” I don’t even know where it came from or who said, it but I stumbled across it years ago, and I print it out, and I stick it up in my offices because it’s just true. If I find myself kind of getting paralyzed or I’m uncertain about something, just take action, any kind of action, even if it’s just the first step, it unlocks that and allows you to move forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Michael Sorensen
I love The Compound Effect and The Slight Edge. They’re both the same principle, two different authors, all about how small simple things build up over time to great results. And that’s been…that’s, frankly, how I got to writing the book in the first place. I committed to 15 minutes a day at least, and sometimes it would snowball into hours and into weekends on end. But 15 minutes, small simple things got me to where I am today.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Michael Sorensen
we’re talking tech tools. I’m a big fan of the TextExpander.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Michael Sorensen
Where you type in a shortcut or like a snippet, like I type in Cphone and it types out my full cellphone, or Pmail, it’s my personal email. Little things like that to save a ton of time, that and a clipboard manager. So, I copy a lot of things and paste a lot of different things. If you, listeners, don’t use those, you should check them out.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, what’s the best clipboard manager for a Mac in your opinion?

Michael Sorensen
I use Copy’Em. That’s what I found thus far. There’s probably better ones but it works well for my needs.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Michael Sorensen
You can do a lot of form-filling. I don’t know, man. I use it all the time. I think it’s an underappreciated or underutilized little tool.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Michael Sorensen
Well, I spoke to this earlier on The Compound Effect, but it’s just these simple little things every day. So, if I have a goal in mind, or I’m a big goal-setter, I’ll break it down into tiny little chunks that I can’t not do five minutes a day, 10 minutes a day, 15 minutes a day, just to make sure I’m doing it.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you a lot?

Michael Sorensen
Yeah, it was, because I think off the top of my head, that idea that when people vent or complain to us, they usually already have a solution in mind; they’re not looking for advice. They’re just looking to be heard and understood. As I go into the Kindle book, in the most popular highlights, that’s number one. It’s the, “Hey, if someone is venting to you, chances are they don’t actually want your advice. They just want you to hear them and they’ll figure it out on their own.”

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, how do you point them?

Michael Sorensen
My website is probably the best resource or the best place to find me, MichaelSSorensen.com. You can contact me via contact form there, and read a lot of my free content.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael Sorensen
The biggest thing that I’ve learned is, at least what I appreciate most, is people who really don’t use the word “can’t.” I guess it kind of comes full circle. We joked about my building my own mattress. But I’m a big believer that you can do anything. That’s so trite when we say it. I don’t mean in like, “You can be an astronaut,” though you can be. But if you want something, you can figure it out. And it just depends on if you’re willing to put in the time and the effort and the money.

And so, people on my team or at work who say, “No, I can’t do that. Can’t do that,” I hate it because it’s so small-minded. I’d much prefer to say, “Well, we probably could but it would take the world.” I’d rather say, “What would it take? How could we do it?” Even if it’s wild and out there, you’re just, “What would it take? How can we get there?”

My opinion, people bring that into the workplace, that can-do attitude, that “I’m going to figure it out no matter what it takes,” that stands out to me, and I think that is what makes people very successful in life.

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck with validating and being validated.

Michael Sorensen
Thanks, Pete. Appreciate the time. Great chatting.

582: The Five Behaviors That Make You an Indispensable “Go-to” Person with Bruce Tulgan

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Bruce Tulgan discusses how to build real influence and become the go-to person in your workplace.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The mindset that makes you indispensable
  2. Why you shouldn’t stick to your speciality
  3. How to stop juggling and start finishing tasks

About Bruce

Bruce Tulgan is the best-selling author of It’s Okay to Be the Boss and the CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. Bruce’s newest book, The Art of Being Indispensable at Work, is available July 21 from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his website at rainmakerthinking.com.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Bruce Tulgan Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Bruce, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Bruce Tulgan
Thank you so much for having me back on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m really excited to dig into your wisdom. And last time we spoke, which is way back in episode 302, I was impressed with just how real a sense you had for the worker and the crisis of under-management, as you called it at the time. Can you tell us, what’s the lay of the land right now in terms of the worker experience amidst remote work and pandemic, and what’s really going on here?

Bruce Tulgan
I think most people right now are feeling a tremendous sense of uncertainty. A lot of people, of course, are afraid for their health and wellbeing, or the health and wellbeing of their colleagues or their family. I think a lot of people are worried about the security of their jobs. I think in the environment where a lot of people have been furloughed or who have been let go, usually as a result of just economic necessity by employers, are leaving fewer people to do as much work, or more work in many cases, trying to reinvent the work in some cases, or trying to figure out what to do the same and what has to change. I think most people are feeling very vulnerable to a lot of forces outside their control.

And, look, even before the pandemic era, I think, like employers were trying to get more and more and more out of every person. Most people were feeling, I think, like they have to deal with more and more people, up, down, sideways, and diagonal, all over the organization chart. People are fielding requests all day long from their colleagues, not just from their boss and their teammates but from people in other teams and other departments.

So, I think people are grappling with a tremendous sense of uncertainty and over-commitment, and that’s where we find ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And you addressed many these questions even before the pandemic came about in your upcoming book The Art of Being Indispensable at Work. Can you tell us, what’s the key thesis here?

Bruce Tulgan
Yeah, everywhere I go people are saying, “Gosh, I want to be one of those indispensable go-to people but how can I say yes to everyone and everything?” And the result is you get over-committed, and then, all of a sudden, you’re juggling. Pretty soon, if you’re juggling, you start dropping balls. What do you do? You work harder and harder and harder. You try to juggle faster and faster and faster.

So, those, increasingly with the questions that people have been asking me in our seminars, led me to our research. One of the things I’ve been doing for years is studying what I call go-to people. Everywhere I go when I’m doing talent assessments, I ask everybody, “Hey, who are your go-to people?” For years I’ve been trying to figure out, “What is it that these people are doing? Why did they make it to these go-to list over and over and over again, consistently over time? What is it that they have in common? How is it that they don’t get over-committed and don’t suffer from siege mentality, and don’t go from saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ to saying, ‘No, no, no, get away from me, it’s not my job. You’re not my boss.’?” So, it was really an effort to study that data and draw the lessons from it that led to this new book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, do tell, what does make a person a go-to person? And, first of all, what are the benefits of being a go-to person? I imagine job security, feeling good about yourself. But you may have a more research-based answer to that.

Bruce Tulgan
Yeah. Look, if everybody always wants to go to you, this gives you an incredible source of power that other people want to work with you, other people want you to want to work with them. And so, I wanted to see, “Well, what is it about these folks?”

It didn’t take long to realize that it was a true service mindset. People who they really want to add value in every interaction with others. They really want to add value. They focus on, “Hey, here’s what I can do for you not what I want from you.” And so, it sounds very selfless but, of course, that is exactly what leads to over-commitment syndrome, right?

So, that was the conundrum, right? How do you make yourself a go-to person and serve others consistently without succumbing to over-commitment syndrome? And what I came to realize was what makes it seem like an unsolvable puzzle, is actually the key to the solution, that it was the people who realized that, first and foremost, you have to fight and defeat over-commitment syndrome. You have to resist the over-commitment syndrome because if you say “Yes, yes, yes” to everyone and everything, you end up doing nothing for anyone ultimately because you make lots of unnecessary mistakes. You get into all kinds of trouble.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, this is resonating in terms of that’s what makes an indispensable person is just that they want to add value, they genuinely care. We’ve heard this sort of theme in a number of ways, from a number of guests. They’re not so much motivated by climbing the ladder, being the top dog, looking awesome. They just really do believe in what they’re doing and want to help people and achieve those objectives. So, cool. So, there we have it. That’s the thing that makes them indispensable and, yet, they also have to then play defense against the tendency to overcommit to do everything for everyone at all times. So, how is that done?

Bruce Tulgan
Well, I started calling this the peculiar mathematics of real influence because it’s become conventional wisdom that if you don’t have authority you have to use influence. And I try to figure out, “Well, what do people really mean by that, use influence?” Often, what they really mean is stand-ins for authority. And what is authority? Authority is control over rewards and punishments. Authority is a position, power, whereby you enforce the rules using rewards and punishments. That’s what authority is.

Influence is power you have without position. But this leads a lot of people down the wrong path because, “Are you supposed to badger?” Sometimes people deputize themselves, right? They go over your head, or they go to their boss, or they try to play the quid pro quo, “You do this for me, I’ll do that for you. You don’t do this for me, then maybe I’ll withhold my support for you in the future.” Sometimes they try to flatter and ingratiate themselves. But none of these things build real influence.

The reason I call it the peculiar mathematics of real influence is it’s an asset that you have but it lives in the minds of other people. My influence with you lives in your brain and your heart, right? And so…

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I feel powerful.

Bruce Tulgan
Right. So, that’s why the mathematics are so peculiar because if you try to badger, or bribe, or threaten, or bully, or ingratiate yourself, or go over somebody’s head, you lose real influence. They stop rooting for you, they root against you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. That kind of sucks.

Bruce Tulgan
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d like to not think, if possible.

Bruce Tulgan
Yeah, so you might get your way in the short term but in the long term, you do not build up your influence in other people’s hearts and minds. So, the way you build up your influence in other people’s hearts and minds is by conducting yourself in a certain way. And I call it playing the long game one moment at a time. It’s doing the right thing in the short term so that, in the long run, more good things happen for everyone. That you try really hard in the short term to conduct yourself in a way that makes things go better for everyone over time.

And so, as a result of that, you build a track record of making good decisions. You build a track record. Nobody wants to hear no to their requests. So, so many people they say, “Yes, yes, yes” to please you in the short term.

But a lot of people, they’re saying, “Yes, yes, yes” because they’re trying to please you right now. I always tell over-promisers, “Mark my words, you will be known for whether you deliver on that promise ultimately, so you might make me happy in the moment, but if you over-promise and don’t deliver, that’s what I’m going to remember.”

Whereas, in fact, you don’t have to say yes to everything. What you have to do is take people’s needs seriously, you have to engage with the ask, engage with the request, give it respect and due diligence. And what you want to be doing is trying to do the right thing for the right reasons every step of the way. And this is what builds up your real influence. When you become known as somebody who’s adding value in every interaction sometimes by saying no. You’re adding value in every interaction.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, this just reminds me of my marriage in terms of often what is needed is empathy and listening as much or more so than swooping into action and fixing things, and it also takes less time but more maybe mental effort in terms of remembering, “Ah, yes, this is what I need.” And so, I liked when you said that in terms of respecting the request, you’re sort of you’re taking it seriously, you’re honoring it. And I can kind of just imagine, I’m thinking about my buddy Pat right now. He seems to exemplify a lot of the things that you said here, in terms of you’re really listening, you’re interested, you’re curious, you’re kind of saying, “Oh, so what’s the implications of this? What’s at stake? What makes this hard? What have you tried so far?” I guess having that kind of conversation and then offering, hopefully, something that’s somewhat helpful along the way even if it’s not you, goes a long way.

Bruce Tulgan
That’s exactly right. So, what sets apart the go-to person who’s indispensable? It’s the person who’s most likely to help you get your needs met on time, on spec, in ways that build up the working relationship rather than damage it over time, right? So, the people who are most consistently likely to help you get your needs met, that’s why you keep going back to that person.

You go to somebody who says, “Yes, yes, yes” and doesn’t deliver, you stop going back to that person. You go to somebody who only has no in their repertoire, you stop going back to that person. You go to somebody though who is all about trying to add value. So, let’s say you come to me and say, “Hey, look, I’ll offer that you do this for me and I’ll do that for you.” If I’m a go-to person who’s really trying to build real influence, I’m going to say, “Look, if it’s the right business decision, if it’s aligned with the chain of command and the mission, if I can understand the ask and I’m the right person to do it for you, if I can do it, if I’m allowed to do it, if I should do it, if I’m good at it, if it’s one of my specialties, or it’s something I can get good at, if it’s something I can get done for you, I’m going to do that because it’s my job, not because you’re going to offer me a quid pro quo.”

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Bruce Tulgan
Be the person other people don’t want to disappoint not because of where you are on the org chart but because of how you conduct yourself, how you treat people, and the role you play in the workplace.

So, that’s the peculiar mathematics of real influence. Sometimes you got to take the bullet by saying, “No, I’m not going to do that for you” and making somebody unhappy in the short term, or, “Yes, I can do that but in a month, not right now.” But, over time, you build the reputation. So, that’s why I call it the peculiar mathematics of real influence because the more you really serve others, the more power you have in that they want you to succeed, they want to do things for you, they want to do things with you, they want to make good use of your time.

So, there’s five steps that we identified that sort of come out of that way of thinking. And the first step is, if you don’t have authority, align with authority. So, there’s still somebody in charge, so it’s, “Oh, hey, work it out at your level.” Well, wait a minute, step one, make sure you understand what’s required, what’s allowed, what’s not required, what’s not allowed. So, first, you’ve got to go vertical before you can go sideways or diagonal.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you say align with authority, in practice that just means something like, “Hey, boss, we’ve got this request coming. It seems helpful.”

Bruce Tulgan
In a way, it does. Because, look, you’ve got three choices if you’re trying to work things out at your own level, right? One, you sort of say, “All right. Hey, let’s proceed until apprehended. Let’s just do this and let’s hope this is the sort of flipside of better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” But, often, if you proceed until apprehended, you have a lot of work to undo because, it turns out, “No, that’s not what we wanted you to do.”

Another possibility is that you escalate every disagreement, right? And then the other possibility is that somehow you try to use some kind of stand-in for authority, like a quid pro quo or some other form. But what makes the most sense is to go over your own head first. And so, yes, it’s, “Okay, boss.” But here’s the thing, sometimes people will say to me, “Well, does that mean that I have to go to my boss before I work out anything at my own level?” And the answer is only if you’re not already aligned with your boss.

So, you want to be that person who already knows what your boss would say. You’re so aligned that you almost could speak for your boss. And if you have people who report to you, should they have to come to you before they work things out at their own level? Only if they’re not exactly sure what you would say. So, that vertical alignment becomes an anchor. But I put it there first not that every single time you are going to work things at your own level you should go over your own head but, remember, you’re not going to be in a position to work things out at your own level unless, first, you have really good vertical alignment.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that’s excellent. We’ve heard from Mary Abbajay about managing your manager and how that’s so critical to have those conversations up front in advance, what’s important to you, what are the top goals, what are the least priorities, etc. So, are there any other particular key questions or things to cover with boss that go a really long way in terms of getting that vertical alignment?

Bruce Tulgan
Yeah, here’s what you want to be doing. Number one, you want to be making sure you know mission, priorities right now, ground rules, action steps, so that’s where you want to be getting alignment. And then, today, tomorrow, this week, what are our execution priorities? And, also, you want to be feeding information up and down the chain of command about anything that’s changing in the boardroom, or anything, “Hey, here’s some frontline intelligence,” that can help your boss stay in the loop on the other end of the spectrum.

So, you want to be having regular structured conversations with your boss. If anybody reports to you, you want to be having regular structured conversations with the people who report to you. That’s the vertical anchor, right? Then you’ve got guardrails, and then you got to create structure and alignment sideways and diagonal. And here’s the thing, so much sideways and diagonal communication comes in meetings but a lot of it comes in relatively unstructured informal communication.

Much of what we have to say to each other all day at work is asking. Much of our ongoing dialogues are making requests of each other. And so, sometimes this happens in the middle of a Zoom team meeting with cross-talks, sometimes it’s a text or a call. When we used to work together in offices and other workplaces, it might be stopping by one’s cubicle, or a hallway conversation.

And so, one of the things that we identified that these go-to people do is once they have vertical alignment, and they’ve got their guardrails, they know what’s not up to them, that leaves a lot which is basically everything else. So, then step two is know when to say no and how to say yes. And that’s really not creating a bunch of cumbersome bureaucracy but it means putting some due diligence into how you take an ask or a request and make sure you really understand it. Tune in to other people’s needs, tune in to the ask, and then make sure you really understand it.

If somebody starts to make a request, stop them and visibly take notes. Ask good questions. Make sure you really understand what they’re asking. That’s a great way to respect somebody else’s needs and tune in to their ask. And then, know when to say no, “Can I do this? Am I allowed to do this?” And then, “Should I do this?” which is that’s the tough one, right? “What’s the ROI on this?” And sometimes the answer is, “Not yet,” or sometimes the answer is, “I’m not sure. Go back and fine-tune this ask so I can give it even more due diligence.” Sometimes it’s, “Yes, I could do that in two weeks,” or sometimes it’s, “Oh, you know who could do that for you is this other go-to person I know.”

So, steps one and two are align vertically so that, step two, you can give every ask the due diligence it deserves. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that to be a go-to person you’ve got to say, “Yes, yes, yes, yes.” No, every good no frees you up for a better yes. Now, yes is where all the action is. Yes is where you have an opportunity to add value. But don’t waste your yeses.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the image that comes to mind for me here is like just a venture capitalist in terms of there are many, many deal opportunities that come across their desk, but the right answer tends to be say no to the vast majority of them to say yes to the ones that are just right. And even then, still, most of the yeses are not fruitful in terms of creating value but, boy, a few of them are plenty fruitful so it works out.

Bruce Tulgan
Yeah. And, look, it is an investment decision. It’s how you’re going to invest your time and energy. You can’t do everything so it’s a matter of if you’re going to beat over-commitment, you have to get the right things done. You can’t do everything for everybody so you have to do the right things.

So, step three in the process is work smart. And what that means…

Pete Mockaitis
Before you we go from there, working smart, I’d love to hear, do you have any pro tips on how you recommend articulating a no when necessary?

Bruce Tulgan
Yeah, look, a lot of people say, “The secret is knowing how to say no.” I have racked my brain and I have looked at data from hundreds of thousands of interviews, I cannot find a proper sugarcoating for no that makes it taste good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Bruce Tulgan
So, I think, yeah, you got to learn how to say no is kind of a red herring. The trick is knowing when to say no. And when to say no is when yes will turn out to be a disappointment, when yes is going to turn out to be the wrong answer. That’s why it’s playing the longer game because your no’s are as valuable as your track record of making the right decision on no. No is a huge favor. No, at the right time, is a huge favor because the ask was half-baked. So, we might say yes and go off in the wrong direction, “No, no, no, let’s fine-tune that ask a little more before we say yes.” Or it might turn out that this was not a priority and it’s going to take up a huge amount of opportunity costs.

No and yes are all about opportunity costs. You want a yes to lead to a productive collaboration where you’re going to make an execution plan and execute on tangible results that end up adding real value. So, every bad yes is a squandered opportunity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s well-said. And I agree that there is no way that you can say no, that I found, that makes everyone say, “You know, thank you so much, Bruce. That’s amazing.” So, maybe if you can’t make it taste good, how do you make it taste the least bad? So, if you had to tell me no right now, Bruce, “Hey, Bruce, could you give a thousand copies of your book for free to our audience? I think that’d just make a huge difference for them and they’ll really appreciate it.”

Bruce Tulgan
Well, see, I’m going to consider that one, but let me take it as one that I would have to say no at the outset. So, what I would say there is, “Oh, hey, I need to know more about that ask. I need to know who are those audience members. How do you anticipate we get it to them? What’s the upside?” You have to ask a bunch of good questions. So, the first part of helping somebody swallow a no is asking lots of questions to understand their ask, not to humor them but to really investigate the opportunity.

Then the next part is you say, “Oh, hey, I can’t do that for the following reasons, right? Gee, I could feed my family tomorrow or I could give you some books. I’d love to give you some books but I got to feed my family.” That’s, “I can’t. I don’t have the resources so I’m not allowed to.” It could be if you’re one of my government clients, I am not allowed to do that because that’s a violation of law.

But let’s say we get past the, “I can do that for you, I’m allowed to do that for you, I’m just not going to because I’ve balanced I evaluate this is not my top priority.” So, I might say, “Hey, I shouldn’t do this because it’s actually a bad idea.” And then I might try to talk you out of it which could end up being a big favor to you, “I don’t think you should pursue this idea.”

It could be I say, “Hey, I might be able to do this in a few weeks or a few months, so if you’d be willing to stay in dialogue with me, I’d be willing to revisit this down the line. Now I’m not stringing you along. If I know the answers, know I’m going to tell you no.” But maybe the answer is, “Gee, if you’re bound and determined to do this, get books and give them to a thousand of your listeners, I’d hate to miss that opportunity, so let me see if there’s some way I can make this happen.”

Another might be, “I’ve developed another go-to person and I could do a huge favor for that person because that person happens to have an extra thousand books, and I bet that person would be thrilled to have this opportunity to give those books. So, I’m going to put the two of you in touch. I’m going to do you a favor by introducing you to that person, I’m going to do that person a favor by introducing that person to you, and you’re going to proceed.”

Worst-case scenario I say, “Hey, let me explain what I do. I sell books not give away books. So, if down the road you want to buy some books, I’m your man. Or what I normally do is seminars, so if you need someone to do a seminar, hey, I’d still love to work with you.” In other words, what you want to do is be authentic. And so, when you’re saying no, you’re explaining why, you’re trying to help the person come up with a solution to their need maybe. At the very least, you’re saying, “Hey, I want to understand what you do. Let me explain what I do. Maybe somewhere looking around the corner, there’s a way that we could be valuable to each other.”

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love to hear, what are some of the best clarifying questions to really respect the request and do a great job with this? One of my favorites, as we’re talking through this, is something along the lines of, “What are you hoping to achieve by getting a thousand books out there for free to listeners?” Because that’s sort of like sparks all kinds of potential ideas and opportunities. Do you have any other kind of go-to questions, huh, go-to questions for go-to people, that help you do a great job of clarifying?

Bruce Tulgan
Yeah. So, I think it’s useful to come up with the objective because then you might find out that the person hasn’t crystallized the ask very much at all if you can help them meet their objective with a much better ask, right? But I think basically what you’re trying to do an intake memo which is really building a proposal from the inside out. So, what you want to know is exactly what’s the deliverable. So, in a way, that rhymes with the objective, “What’s the deliverables exactly that you want?”

And then, “What’s going to be required of me? What part of this can you do? How can you help me help you? How can you help me help you help me help you?” You can keep going on that track. But, “What’s the timeframe? Let’s estimate the resources that would be needed, the obstacles. Whose authority do we need? Where are we going to get the resources? What’s the time horizon? What are the steps along the way? What would be the sequence of steps and ownership of each step?” You want to build a short proposal inside out, even if it’s on the back of an envelope or on a napkin.

Pete Mockaitis
You know what’s so funny about this, as I imagine how this plays out, even if you ended in no, they’d be like, “Oh, this is kind of a buzzkill because we’re really excited about the progress we’re making, but at the same times, as a result of having spoken with you, I am enriched and en-valued, if that’s word, and better off because now I have some more insight and clarity on what I’m up to and what I should go do, so even though you told me no, I am better off for having asked you.”

Bruce Tulgan
I think so. And even if you already had it crystallized, doesn’t it tell you how I do business? Doesn’t it tell you that I’m serious about trying to help? I’m serious about understanding what you want, and I’m serious about trying to do what I can in the conversation, and maybe following the conversation to operate in such a way that it adds value for you. And so, a big part of this is slowing down so that you make good use of other people’s time, show other people that you’re serious about adding value.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. All right. Well, please, continue. Step three, work smart.

Bruce Tulgan
So, step three is work smart, and sometimes people are like, “Oh, yeah, work smart. Got it. Never heard that one before,” right? But the reality is a lot of people think that to be a go-to person you just gotta keep working and working. What is the go-to person? They’re just the one who can outwork everyone. And, in fact, if that’s your only strategy, you’re going to burn out.

So, then some people will say, “Oh, well, work smart. Well, what does that mean?” Well, on one level it means do the things you’re already really good at, do the things you can do very well, very fast, with a good attitude, you know you can deliver on that. The problem is that most people don’t have the opportunity to only work in their area of passion and strength, right? So, “Oh, not good at that. Sorry. I’d like to but I’m committed to working smart so I won’t be able to help you with that.”

And so, what I tell people is there’s a lot of tasks, responsibilities, and projects you’re going to have to do that might not be something you’re already good at, or that’s in your area of passion and strength. But if that’s true, slow down and get really good at it. Don’t just wing it. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t keep trying to, “Oh, you know, I’m so busy that I don’t have time to stop and get good at it.”

If you’re so busy that you don’t have time to stop and get good at it, you are in a pickle, right? So, you gotta stop and get good at it. Learn best practices, “Oh, this is how I do it.” Is it? Well, is that the best way? Maybe you need to learn, “No, no, I’ll figure it out on my own. I don’t want people to see me learning. They might think I’m not competent.” Well, they’re going to think you’re not competent if you pretend to know how to do it and then make it up as you go along and reinvent the wheel, then you’re going to seem not competent.

One of the ironies is that people who are really good at stuff know that people who learn in plain sight are probably the ones who are going to get good at stuff too. You’re not showing yourself to be less competent by learning in plain sight. Again, you’re showing the kind of person you are. Like, so, look, if you ask to do something, I go, “Oh, that’s my specialty. I can already do that very well, very fast, with a great attitude and deliver for you.” Okay. But if it’s not my specialty, and I say, “Gee, I keep getting asked to do this, let me tell you, that’s not my specialty, but it’s going to be one of my specialties soon. I’m going to learn best practices, I’m going to study, I’m going to master them, I’m going to develop repeatable solutions to the most common problems and issues and needs, I’m going to create job aids to guide me.”

That’s how you professionalize what you do. Find the best practices, create repeatable solutions, get good tools. So, anything you find yourself having to do regularly, professionalize, and then you make it one of your specialties because once something is one of your specialties, then think of any minute or hour you spend on one of your specialties, you’re going to add more value with less likelihood of failure than something that’s not one of your specialties.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Bruce Tulgan
So, there is a kernel of genius in working in your area of passion and strength, there’s a kernel of genius in, “Hey, that’s not my job,” because, really, what somebody is saying is, “Gee, every minute I spend doing that, I’m not going to be adding optimal value.” But everything you professionalize and make one of your specialties is another thing you can do very well, very fast. So, specialize for sure, but when something comes up that’s not your job, you got to kind of put it through the following routine.

First, is it something that really shouldn’t be your job? Like, “This is a wild goose chase,” or something like that, right? Like, “Well, wait just a minute. I’m not even sure if anyone should be doing this.” Or is it something that’s not your job, like the paperwork part of almost anything. Well, I always say to people, “Actually, that is your job so you should professionalize the paperwork part to it.” Or is it like, “Well, it’s not my job to take out the trash.” Well, that’s what I call “Somebody has got to do it, so don’t be a jerk about it.” And, okay, maybe you don’t have to be the goffer, but maybe you’re like, “Okay, I’m the guy. Sure, I’ll be the one to take out the trash,” and you do it really well.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I remember when I was the junior person on the team in consulting, we needed lunch, someone had to get lunch, and the delivery apps were not proliferating at the time the way they are now, and so I did it but I did professionalize it and it was appreciated because I kept disappointing people, they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t want beans in my burrito.” It’s like, “By golly, I’m just worked a full-blown burrito spreadsheet, and you’re just going to circle what kind of rice, what kind of beans, what kind of meat, and then we’re going to pass that little printout around, and then I’m going to Chipotle, and then no one’s disappointed anymore.” And they loved it, like, “Ha, ha, ha. Great.”

Bruce Tulgan
Exactly. And it’s like, “Oh, I’m the lunch guy.” Well, wait, no. What you’re showing people is, “I’m willing to be the guy to get lunch and there’s nothing I do regularly that I just wing it and make it up as I go along. That’s just how I do business, is I professionalize the things I do.” And the funny thing is, also hidden is these other things that are sort of close to your job that, “Hey, maybe that could be another specialty.” Or, okay, it’s far away from your job, but, “Hey, maybe that could be one of my specialties.”

The funny thing is there’s a tension between spending most of your time on your specialties and then paying attention to the things that are not your job because those are your opportunities to actually expand your repertoire.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well-said. And I tell you what, I really appreciate when I talk to someone and they say, “You know, I don’t know how to do that yet but I am excited to learn or to come up again and again. I just need to nail this down.” And so, I appreciate that. And I guess sometimes the answer is, “You know what, actually, we need it perfect and we need it fast, so maybe you’re not the right choice right now but you could be some weeks, some months down the road.” And other times it’s like, “You know what, that’s the best yes I’ve gotten out of everybody I’ve asked. I’ll take it.”

Bruce Tulgan
I’ll take it. Right, exactly. And, by the way, so you’re putting people on notice that, “Let me be clear, I am a professional but this is not one of my specialties, but I’ll take a crack at it. But be on notice that this is my first go around, or whatever it is,” and it’s one of the reasons why job aids, repeatable solutions, and best practices captured in checklist and stuff like that, checklist is a good example, because, “If I haven’t done it in a while, maybe I’m rusty. The job aid is going to help. If I do it all the time, the job aid might keep me from going on autopilot. If I can’t do it, and I need someone else to do it, and they’re like, ‘That’s not my specialty,’ I say, ‘Oh, here’s a job aid,’ that’s going to help you learn a lot faster.”

It also will help me educate my customer and state, “Let me just show you so you can understand.” Job aids come in really handy when it comes to trying to get someone new up to speed faster on something that isn’t their specialty.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, you’ve reference job aids numerous times, and I contextually can glean that this is a document that contains useful information about how to do a job. Can you expand on what are the components or key elements of a great job aid document?

Bruce Tulgan
Yeah, a job aid is anything that helps you follow best practices, apply repeatable solutions, or draw from repeatable solutions, to extrapolate for a problem of first impression, or a past work product that gives you a jumpstart on making a new work product.

Pete Mockaitis
So, this could be a checklist, it could be a process map, it could be an instructional video, it could be some example deliverables, just sort of anything that, hey, it’s going to do the job.

Bruce Tulgan
Yeah, a checklist is a classic example, a plan is a classic example. Sometimes surgeons use a job aid which is that somebody uses a magic marker to put an X on the right spot so that they don’t cut on the wrong side. That acts as a job aid and it comes in handy.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. All right. So, that’s working smart. What’s the fourth?

Bruce Tulgan
Step four is finish what you start. And people will say, “Oh, I’m always so busy I’m always juggling. I’m double and triple-booked for meetings,” as if that’s a badge of honor. And I tell people, “If you’re double or triple-booked, that means you can’t decide what meeting to go to. And if you think you’re multitasking, there’s no such thing. And juggling is what you’re actually doing because multitasking is a fiction. What you’re actually doing is task-shifting.” And some people do it really fast, that’s why I call it juggling. But if you’re always juggling, you’re bound to drop the ball.

So, one of the things we wanted to look at is the people who were able to have a really busy schedule and an ever-growing to-do list but they still get stuff done. And what we identified was that the people who get the most done are the people who break work into smaller chunks and break their execution time into bigger chunks. So, it’s bigger chunks of time, smaller chunks of work.

And so, the drill is simple. Look at your schedule every day but find the gaps in your schedule, your “Do not disturb” zones for focused execution. And then look at your work and your to-do list, and plug in doable items, doable tasks, doable chunks of work in those scheduled gaps. So, what you’re looking at, so you know there’s 168 hours in a week and nobody is making any more of them. But, in fact, if you create scheduled gaps in which you execute on concrete results, and start with the highest-leveraged concrete results, then you are actually manufacturing time for yourself because what you’re doing is you’re obviating unnecessary problems, you’re obviating problems hiding and getting out of control, you’re obviating squandered resources, you’re obviating work either getting done wrong or not getting done, you’re obviating holding other people up.

So, high-leveraged time is setting someone else up for success. High-leveraged time is avoiding an unnecessary problem. High-leveraged time is planning for optimal use of resources. High-leveraged time is if there’s a set of steps that need to be done in sequence, and one of them takes time up front, so I call it preheating the oven, is a great example, or putting the bread in the oven before you make the salad. It’s sequencing. Those are all high-leveraged execution times, and that’s how you start to create more and more scheduled gaps for yourself in which you can get more and more concrete results done.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like the notion of the oven, or it’s sort of like getting something in motion so that it’s moving while I’m doing other things.

Bruce Tulgan
Exactly. So, it’s giving somebody instructions, it’s cleaning the machine, sharpening the saw, what Covey would say, sharpening the saw. It’s high-leveraged time. But you got to execute, execute, execute. So, people who don’t make time for focused execution, they’re the ones who are always busy but never finishing things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And the fifth step?

Bruce Tulgan
Is keep getting better and better at working together. And there’s so much finger pointing, and so much politicking in the workplace, and that’s because everyone knows relationships are where it’s at. The problem is, yes, the relationships are key, but if the work goes wrong, the relationships go sour. And if the work keeps getting better and better, the relationships get better and better. So, I always tell people, you know, take time to review and look around the corner together.

Every time you get a task, responsibility, or project done with somebody, stop. Don’t go into a conference room and blame. Don’t whisper behind people’s back and finger-point. What you do is go to your collaboration partner, and say, “Hey, here’s what went well. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And let’s look at how we can work better together going forward, and let’s look around the corner and plan the next collaboration.” So, it’s basically taking a continuous improvement approach to relationship management.

So, when people say, “It’s all about the relationships and networking,” that doesn’t mean making best friends and politicking or undermining the people you don’t like. It means taking continuous improvement to working relationships and things will go better and better and better. And if you do that, if you align up and down the chain of command, and then put structure and substance into your sideways conversations, if you make good decisions about yes and no by really tuning in to the ask, if you professionalize what you do, work smart, finish what you start, and you keep fine-tuning how you work with people, then people notice how you conduct yourself.

The ones that people keep going back to over and over and over again, the ones everyone wants to work with, the one everyone will want you to want to work with them, that’s what they do, that’s what go-to people have in common. And when you do that, sometimes people will say to me, “Well, the problem is I’m the only go-to person here.” Well, are you sure? They say, “Well, if I work in a greater organization, well, that would make it easier to be a go-to person.” Well, sure, if you work for a greater organization it makes it easier. But it turns out, if you conduct yourself this way, you become a magnet for other go-to people. It becomes much easier to find go-to people. And if you can’t find them, build them up. They will remember.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Bruce Tulgan
Stephen Covey says, “Remember, you can’t take a screwdriver to somebody else’s head and tighten the screw or loosen the bolt, but you can control how you respond to other people.” And Covey called that being response-able. So, that’s one of my favorites.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Bruce Tulgan
Well, how about Pavlov? Thanks, Pavlov, I’ll do that again. I always tell people, if you reward people in close proximity to the performance in question, then they’ll say, “Thanks, Pavlov. I’ll do that again.”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Bruce Tulgan
Well, right now, I guess my only tool is this studio we’ve just created. It is now my portal to the world because if you’re in the business of selling hot air to auditoriums full of people, this is not the best time. And so, we’ve created a production studio so that we can deliver our research services and our training and consulting services right from this portal to the world.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Bruce Tulgan
The best place to go is RainMakerThinking.com or I’m told you can link in with me at LinkedIn or @BruceTulgan on Twitter.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Bruce Tulgan
Every single interaction you have with people, stop focusing on what you need or you want from them, and focus on what you can do to add value. Focus on what you can do for other people, and you will build up the most valuable asset you possibly can have, which is real influence. You will build that up. And just remember that the bank is the minds and hearts of other people. So, stop focusing on what you need from other people and start focusing on what you can do for them, and you will become very rich in real influence.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Bruce, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all of your adventures and all the ways you’re indispensable.

Bruce Tulgan
Thank you. Well, you’re great at this. You make it so easy and you make it so much fun. And thanks for bringing out the best in me here.

581: How to Empower Teams in Difficult Times through Coach-like Conversations with Michael Watkins

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Michael Watkins says: "You're not there to provide answers or solutions, you're there to help facilitate a process... of discovery."

Michael Watkins shares the new conversations leaders need to have in order to empower and support their teams during difficult times.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The question all leaders must ask during a crisis
  2. Why you don’t need to solve problems to be of value
  3. The best thing to do when conversations get emotional

About Michael

Michael Watkins is the co-founder of Genesis Advisers, a global leadership development consultancy based in Boston, Massachusetts, specializing in transition acceleration for leaders, teams and organizations, where he coaches C-level executives of global organizations. He is the Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the IMD Business School. He has spent the last two decades working with executives—both corporate and public—as they craft their legacies as leaders and was ranked among the leading management thinkers globally by Thinkers50 in 2019.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Michael Watkins Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Michael Watkins
It’s great to be back, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s great to have you. Boy, I think it’s been about four years. You were episode 29 back in the day. What have you been up to in four years?

Michael Watkins
Well, it’s been interesting, right? So, still at IMD, still doing a lot of work on leadership transitions, still running the consulting company, coaching a lot of CEOs these days, which is absolutely fascinating because, of course, going into a new job right now is just so different than it was before; writing some stuff on onboarding people remotely. But probably the most interesting work has been around the crisis and how people are responding to it, how companies are responding to it, that’s really been the most interesting stuff in the last sort of two-three months.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes. And tell us, what have you discovered in your observations, in your research, in terms of what’s new, what’s different? How is work a different ballgame?

Michael Watkins
So, there’s a few different dimensions to that, Pete, and maybe we can unpeel them a little bit, right? The starting point for me getting really interested in this work was I was sitting with an executive team, and it was a senior C-level executive that I was coaching, and she had her team together to sort of talk about the crisis and how things were doing, and doing a little bit of a check in, and they were all kind of expressing their gratitude for, like, “Hey, look, this hasn’t been so bad for us really, but when we look at our people, I mean, look at a level down below that, there are some really different level of magnitude of impact on lots of people.”

And one of the leaders in the room said, “We need to understand, as a leadership team, that we’re in the same storm but we’re in very different boats.” And that was, I think, a very interesting phrase. He knew it wasn’t an original phrase and I tried to kind of track it down. But that got me thinking a lot about just how different the impact, Pete, is on people by age, by stage, by industry, and so I started doing a little bit of writing about that. We also did a pretty big survey through IMD looking at some of the impacts, and so a survey of 600 or 700 leaders across the globe, looking at how they were being impacted.

And one sort of related finding that was really interesting was that it’s the middle tier of leadership that’s really being hit the most by this. The junior people are doing reasonably okay, the senior people are doing reasonably okay, And our theory about this, basically, is, “Look, you’re a part of a two-career family, people you know are losing their jobs, you’re trying to manage the kids at home,” so that was kind of an interesting piece of research and writing. And I want to help leaders think about what’s the impact on their people and begin to coach those people in a reasonable way.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say hit hardest, is this just like on the questionnaire that says, “Hey, I am experiencing a great difficulty,” and we see like those responses are kind of the strongest there? Or what do you mean by hit hardest precisely?

Michael Watkins
So, the way we framed the question was, “To what extent is the crisis creating negative impacts for you at work and at home?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Watkins
And so, what we saw that was really interesting was the biggest impacts for work, the work side, were senior then middle then lower level. But the biggest impacts on the home front were the lowest on the senior because often their kids are gone, they’re pretty well off, somewhat higher at the bottom but it was the middle tier that was really suffering at home, and that’s, I think, not surprising in some ways once we thought about it given the pressure that you’re facing if you’re dual career, with kids, trying to manage some of what’s going on right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. And so then, you field out this whole COVID-19 stress index, and what kind of insights can we glean from that in terms of, let’s say we are in the middle, it’s like, “Hey, we’ve learned it sucks to be you”? Okay, well, that’s one insight. What else do we got?

Michael Watkins
No, it really sucks to be you. Let’s be clear, right? So, look, I think the biggest insight here was that senior leaders needed to understand, first of all, at much a deeper level than typically they do, what’s going on with their people. And they need to be willing to coach those people in a way that they probably have never coached them before, and they need to get over the terror of opening up that box of kind of “What’s going on with you really, Pete? Like, what’s really going on here for you?” Because normally, most leaders in normal times, they don’t open that box up very often, and they don’t dig into sort of, “Where are you energetically? Where are you in terms of what’s going on with you right now? How much capacity do you have to really deal with more?”

The context was, by the way, the team was trying to decide how hard to push on the transformation. They’re like, “Yeah, we got everything under control. We did this, we did that. We reacted beautifully to the crisis. We’re feeling great about things. So, hooah!” And this is something else we could talk about, Pete. The crisis is actually accelerating a lot of transformation in ways of working and digital, we can talk about that a little bit, so let’s just drive. And there’s kind of like a, “Well, wait a minute. Let’s take stock of how much energy our people really have and try to understand and factor that into our thinking about how rapidly we’re going to try and push this whole process forward.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there’s so many fun directions we can go. And I want to talk about that notion of “How are you doing really?” is not something that people go into very often in terms of sort of a work context. So, I want to learn all about that in terms of to what extent should we, “Hey, work is work, and home is home, and people need personal lives”? To what extent is it optimal that colleagues engage in that discussion? Let’s start with that. Tell me this, how often do you think we should go there?

Michael Watkins
Well, I think we should go there now a whole lot more as leaders than we normally would because this is not normal times, and there are such major differences in the impacts this is having on people. And I guess I start with a very pragmatic point of view, which is you want to try and get the best out of your people right now. That’s part of your role as a leader is to mobilize and focus and to sustain the energy of your people. It’s core to what leaders fundamentally do.

Under normal circumstances, we create this kind of reasonable division between work and life, and we tend not to dive too deeply into people’s lives because, in general, we’re not responsible as leaders in a business for those lives. And you know people are going through things, they’ve lost a spouse, they’ve lost a child, they’re going through financial difficulty, and, depending on the leader you are, you may open that selectively for certain people. If you are someone who’s a real high performer, Pete, “Here’s Pete. Pete’s a real high performer but something is not right. His performance has dropped off pretty significantly. He doesn’t look like the Pete we know, so maybe we’ll peel open that box a little bit and maybe we’ll say, ‘Look, we’re going to give you a little time to get through this divorce, this situation.’” That’s the norm, the way it was before.

Now, almost everybody, when you get down a level or two in organizations, is in some form of challenging situation right now. If you think about the people at the very top of organizations, in general, they’re not going to lose their jobs; in general, they’re financially secure; in general, they’re living in safe places, but so many of the people below them in the organization, none of those things are true. And so, what would’ve been an exceptional thing that you might’ve done, Pete, to open up that box and, “Pete, how are you?” I think it’s become what you normally need to think about doing. Doing those check-ins with your people, seeing where they are, just for the simple reason that you want to try and push that organization forward, continue to get work done.

Like the team I talked to, that chief quality officer, knowing how much she can push forward with something without crashing the organization, crashing people, it’s just, to me, is a very different situation. most leaders are not equipped to open that box up on a fairly broad basis with a lot of people. In fact, they’re often terrified, Pete, about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I want to talk about how you open the box well and how you deal with the internal terror. But, first, if we could maybe get a preview of the prize to be had when you go there, could you share with us a cool story about a leader, a team, who made the shift and saw some cool results?

Michael Watkins
Yeah. So, this, I’ll keep with the example I gave you because I think that what happened, it was fascinating what happened, which is the CQO, the chief quality officer, she said, “So, how are we doing?” And the first person out of the box basically just kind of bared their soul not about their personal challenges, but about some of the challenges that a couple people who were working for them were facing. And there was this kind of like silence, kind of this “Huh,” kind of everyone else sort of when she finished, there was this kind of like, “Wow, I didn’t think we were going to go there. I thought it was like the usual check-in where we’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, everything is fine. Things are going great. Working on this now. Everything is good.” But it opened the floodgates of a lot of dialogue about the differences in what some significant people were facing.

And this person was, “We didn’t know they were high risk. We didn’t know they had a mother who was living in an old-folks home in the midst of a fire zone of virus.” You got to understand the things, right? And so, there were decisions made about how quickly and in what way to push forward with that transformation that were very different than what would’ve happened otherwise, Pete. There was a decision, “Hey, we’re not going to quite push with the pace we thought. We’re going to buy ourselves more in the direction of asking for volunteers, for people to step up and do things, rather than start to assign roles and responsibilities.” And, to me, it was just fascinating how different the response could be if you had people who, as leaders, were tuned in to some of the emotional reality of what was going on.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s cool. Well, then it sounds like that team had a greater appreciation, understanding, camaraderie, bond there, and just didn’t put people in terrible burnout-type situations by demanding that they step on the gas full steam ahead when there’s not much in the tank available to do that.

Michael Watkins
Oh, exactly. Right. Exactly, Pete. And I think that if you ask sort of what’s the longer-term benefit of that, it creates a greater sense of cohesion, it makes people feel connected to the organization and not so alone, it’s an expression of humanity. We don’t expect humanity necessarily in business organizations but it turns out that there are humans in business places, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Michael Watkins
So, yeah, to me that was just kind of fascinating. And then the other point you were getting at a little bit was, “Okay. So, wow, I’m going to open the box. I’m going to sit with Pete and three or four of his peers on my leadership team, and I’m going to open the box. And, Pete, how are you really doing?” And you’re going to start with level one of, “I’m fine. Everything is good. Yeah, challenging times. It’s good. But when the going gets tough, the tough gets going, you know. Ah, I’m fine.” “No, Pete, how are you really? Because I’ve seen, to my eye, it looks like there are some challenging things going on for you.” “It looks like, whoa, you actually are asking me what is happening for me?”

And there may be a little bit of time and you may have to do it a couple times, but pretty soon there’s a real discussion going on. Now, you might ask yourself, “What’s the benefit of that?” And you might ask yourself, “That sounds like the work that a coach would do, or a therapist would do, to open that little box up. I’m neither of those things. I’m a leader. I’m not a therapist and I’m not a trained coach. And a kind of this scary thing for me.” And think about it, Pete, why is it frightening to do this?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess, as I’m putting myself in that shoe, well, one, I guess it could just be anytime something is new, different, unfamiliar, there is a weirdness or awkwardness associated with, “Oh, we’ve never really talked like this before, so this is…” So, it’s just weird because it’s new. That’s one thing. And then I think the other thing is, as a leader, I kind of want to be able to provide all of the answers and resources and solutions, and when you sort of go into a different domain or arena, I may very well have really nothing to offer, and that feels uncomfortable as well, like, “I can’t give you what you need.”

Michael Watkins
Well, so I think that you just nailed the second one. I think there is, “Uh, this is different,” but it’s really that second insight, Pete, that’s so crucial which is, “I’m used to solving problems. Part of the reason why I’m a leader is because I’m really good at diagnosing and solving problems. And so, my inclination to a situation like this is to try and fix your problem. And so, if you present a problem to me, I’m going to feel like I’m responsible for solving that problem, and I can’t.” And so that’s part of that. Part of it, too, is, “If I open this up, what happens if Pete really starts to show his suffering? What if, all of a sudden, I’m confronted with a Pete who’s really suffering in front of me clearly? How do I respond to that?” So, I think it’s a combination of those two things.

And so, the implication is that you need to kind of really shift your mindset a little bit as a leader away from thinking that the way you’re going to add value in this situation is by solving the problem, to where it’s thinking that just by opening up the conversation, you’re creating value here. Simply giving you a forum, Pete, to talk about what’s really going on with you, express your emotions, feel like someone cares to some degree about what’s going on, recognize what’s happening, that’s what needs to have happen here. But, for most leaders, you nailed it, the terror is, “I’m going to be confronted with a problem that I don’t know how to solve.”

And, by the way, when you’re trained as a coach, one of the most important things I think you learn is that you’re not there as a consultant, you’re not there as an advisor, you’re not there to provide answers or solutions, you’re there to help facilitate a process. A process of discovery, a process of learning, a process of connectivity. But there’s lots of leaders who don’t, have never really been trained, and perhaps think that they can’t do that, or they worry a lot.

I talked to someone recently about this, they said, “It’s like if I open this up, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to close it. I don’t know where this is going to take me. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to manage what flows out of that box at me.” And I think, again, the advice I give to people is, first of all, you don’t have to be a trained coach to deal with this but you do need to adopt a different mindset, and that’s a mindset of curiosity. It’s a mindset of inquiry. It’s not a mindset of, “Let’s frame your problem and solve it.”

And you need to accept that you may not accomplish much in terms of solving the problem in the moment. But that, even by showing that degree of humanity, even by allowing that person, allowing you, Pete, to begin to express yourself to some degree about what you’re really up against, you’re creating what psychologists would call a secure base, a place that this person can anchor themselves. And, in times like this, the role of the leader in providing a secure base for their people, it’s essential. And you can imagine, too, what happens if you’ve got leaders who don’t create secure bases for their people in times like this.

By the way, this is another part of the conversation. I actually wrote an article after listening in on this meeting. I was just so fascinated by the dialogue. And there was another leader who said, basically, “We have to show them, them being our people, that we have the backbone and strength to lead them through this, but the heart that lets them connect and know we care.” And, to me, that was just such a brilliant articulation of the tension that you feel as a leader in moments like this, because I can’t just go all soft and gushy on you, like, “Oh, poor Pete. That’s terrible. Let me hold you, Pete.” There are limits, obviously.

To be a secure base for you in a moment like that, you have to feel like you can trust me, that I’m going to lead you and the organization towards promising directions, that I’ve got the emotional capacity to deal with what’s happening, but you also want to feel like there’s some connectivity. And this is the way to begin to create that kind of connectivity. Does that make sense, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And so, I’d love it if we could get a little bit more of the verbiage, or not that it’s a script, but I imagine there are often some keywords, phrases, expectation-setting, follow-up, bits of dialogue, that come up again and again. So, one example you shared was, “How are you doing really?” Any other things that…?

Michael Watkins
“What’s going on for you?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “What’s going on for you?”

Michael Watkins
“What’s on your mind?” And not accept the first answer necessarily, “Okay.” “Yes.” You saw a little bit in that interaction, “Yeah, I hear that things are basically okay on the work front but it feels like there’s more going on for you.” And then the person on the other side of the table, you in this case, has a choice. They can say, “No, everything is really fine.” And, at that point, you’ve done the work you need to do as a leader. You’re not there to try and force people into revelation. That’s not your job. Your job is to create a safe space within which that person can share things to the degree they feel comfortable doing so. But the key is not to necessarily accept the surface answer but to maybe open that box up a little bit more.

And there’s other things you can do. You can share a little bit about what’s going on with you. Social psychologists, there’s lots of good studies that have been done on what’s called the reciprocity dynamic. I do a favor for you. You feel obligated to do one for me. It works in a funny kind of way with self-revelation, Pete, which is if I engage in a little of self-revelation, you can feel like it’s okay. Now, I’m not going to say, “My life is a mess, Pete. I can’t begin to tell you how bad things are.” That’s not what I’m saying. But you could give an example of someone, “So, my brother-in law just lost his job. It’s really challenging right now.” And the key here is to be willing to demonstrate a little bit of vulnerability yourself in the name of creating that secure space, again, within which that dialogue could begin to take place.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, let’s say that we do go there, we open it up, and then some, I guess, the fears are realized, yup, some big problems have emerged that you can’t do much about. Let’s say, “You know what, it’s just like…” Let’s just say, “Hey, my marriage has been kind of tense and rocky before the crisis. And then when you add in all these extra obligations and difficulties and challenges, now it just seems like we are really at the breaking point.”

Michael Watkins
So, first of all, “I’m really sorry to hear that because it’s coming at a really tough time for you.” And the second thing is, “Are there ways that you can get support that might help you through this? Who are you able to talk to about this? Are there resources that you can start to bring to bear?” You can begin to ask questions that are about creating a context within which perhaps they begin to see alternative ways of looking at the situation, “Is there another way to look at what’s going on? Are there alternative perspectives you might explore about what’s happening here?”

And, again, there’s no rocket science here. It may be that you help someone just get a little bit different of a view. Maybe you help someone think, “Hey, wait a minute. There is someone maybe that we could talk to about this. There may be someone in the family system that can help us think about this a little bit.” You might ask, “Have you talked to each other about it? Do you feel like you’re communicating well about it?” And, again, none of this is about you solving the problem, Pete. It’s about you enabling a thinking process to go on, and a feeling process to go on, and may take people in a potentially productive way.

And, by the way, you don’t have to go too far down this road necessarily, and it may be a few different conversations that lead to this, or they may just walk away feeling like, “Hey, at least someone was listening.” Does this make sense to you?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve got you. Thank you. Yes, that is good. And just to reassure listeners, Katie and I are doing well. That was an invented example. Not to worry.

Michael Watkins
But you say you’re doing well, Pete. But do you feel like everything is going on…? I’m teasing you. I’m teasing you. We’re not going to do this.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, hey, I was going to say, well, we could do it. I think demonstrations are valuable. Well, I talked to Marcia Reynolds, who’s a great coach, on the show. We went into this a little bit. But I do, I feel like I have less, I think, capacity is a good word, in terms of I’m a bit less zesty, energized, fired up. I have a harder time doing a 10-hour workday in terms of real work than I used to. And so, a lot of times things just seem too hard, like little things. Like, “Oh, I should maybe clean up this office a bit.” It’s like, “Oh, it just sounds so hard. I should go to that pile of mail there.” It’s like, “Oh, geez, that’s too much.”

So, there’s been some of that in this midst of feeling kind of I’m an extrovert, I like to see my people and have some adventures. And two plus months of deprivation on that front, in church, I miss that. they wear on you, and so I’m feeling less zesty and less capable of cranking out great work hour after hour. But I do like that I’ve gotten pretty good at prioritizing, it’s like, “This is the stuff that really, really, really, really matters,” and I’m kind of managing to be consistent in executing those things.

Michael Watkins
So, there’d be a few different directions we could go. And, by the way, we’re kind of a little past the leader stuff and into the coach stuff now, and that’s okay, right? You can have a conversation that revolves around a little bit of what you just did, which was sort of the good and the not so good, and try to see that there are different perspectives about what’s happening, that it’s certainly not all bad. I certainly don’t feel like everything that’s happened is bad. There’s some been real positives. So, how do we sort of explore that a little bit?

I’d be asking you whether there are things that you’re doing that are consistent with your values and do you feel like you’re creating value with what you’re doing. And I can tell you do, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah.

Michael Watkins
For sure. I’d be talking to you a little bit about your energy probably, which is sort of what you’re describing is a situation within which the normal things that energize you, especially as an extrovert, may not be as present for you. There are some different ways to deal with that. One is to accept it, “Okay, I’m going to have a little less energy right now. I’m not going to beat myself up about the fact that I didn’t deal with that little pile of stuff today.” Or there could be a discussion about, “Are there alternative ways of replenishing your energy?” Maybe even a discussion about, “How in tune are you with your energy level?”

Now, we’re sort of past what I would expect a typical leader to do in a situation like this. What I would expect a leader to do in a situation like this is at least open up a discussion, create a space within which some conversation can happen, demonstrate that secure base, that you are a secure base for this person to some degree, and maybe you can offer them some ways of thinking about things in somewhat different ways, or seeking out other sources of support. I think, as a leader, you can go. Beyond that, you’re into the realm of coaches and perhaps even therapists, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s helpful. Thank you. And it paints a nice picture. I want to address the fear or concern that, “Uh-oh, if I open this box, maybe I can never kind of bring it back.”

Michael Watkins
Let’s imagine the worst case happens. So, I say to you, Pete, “How are you doing?”

Pete Mockaitis
And I say, “Fine.” Okay.

Michael Watkins
And then I say, “You know, Pete, it seems there are some things you seem to be struggling,” and you just break down completely in front of me, which can happen. And it’s not a male-female thing. It could be that you’re under so much pressure and so much stress that at that particular moment it all comes crashing in on you, and you break down in front of me. I mean, I can’t imagine anything that’s a whole lot harder than that, to see somebody having to just crash on you.

Pete Mockaitis
Full on crying, yeah.

Michael Watkins
What do you do in a moment like that? You wait and sit with the person. You’d be present with them. You give them the space to recover. You engage them in a way that you can tell they’re willing to be engaged with. I think the bottom line, Pete, is that there’s kind of an overblown fear here, that if I’m in the presence of such powerful emotion, I’m not going to be able to deal with it. But the reality is I don’t think it’s that.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. I buy it. I’m with you. And then, I guess, I imagine that it’s overblown fear. It’s not going to continue forever. I guess maybe the fear is that if you’re going on for two hours, like, “How can I…?” how to say, like, “Well, we’re done now.” How do we bring it to a close?

Michael Watkins
“Pull yourself together, Pete,” you know. Start the Patton solution, right? The General Patton solution comes in. Like, that’s not going to happen. It just isn’t. And if it does, then you’re dealing with someone who probably needs some real therapeutic support because they’re depressed it’s probably better that you know that, honestly, and you can suggest that maybe they need to do it. You also need to deal with the next-day phenomenon, too, which is they come to work the next day, and they’re kind of embarrassed by what they shared.

And you kind of got to be thoughtful about making sure that they understand that whatever was revealed was okay. You haven’t lost respect for them. They’re still a valued member of the team. Because I’ve seen this happen, I’m sure you have too. It’s kind of you do something, you make a revelation and then you go back, and then you kind of go, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I shared that with Michael. What must he think of me?” And so, you’ve got to be aware of the residences, the waves that kind of flow out of something like this.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

Michael Watkins
But, again, there’s nothing rocket science here, Pete. It’s just kind of this whole humanity but we’re not used to as leaders necessarily playing that role.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, thank you, Michael. So much good stuff. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Michael Watkins
No, I think that’s the big point. I think the other thing that I’m finding interesting these days is how organizations are kind of how organizing to thrive as we come out of this, so that’s been another stream of work I’ve been doing because the tendency at times like this is to really focus on the crisis, focus on trying to deal with the financials, trying to retrench, you get into survival mode. But I see some organizations that, even though they’re in the midst of that, you’ve already got leadership that’s beginning to think about, “What might after that is going to look like?”

I’m working with a big healthcare system right now. It’s been pretty fascinating because they’ve been very badly hit, as you can imagine by what’s happened. And the healthcare systems have taken a double blow, Pete. On one hand, they are the frontline of what’s going on with COVID-19, and so they’ve got frontline caregivers that, as you can imagine, are going through really tough stuff. They’re mobilized into trying to deal with this crisis. They’re trying to find the equipment. They’re doing all this stuff that they’re doing. And, on the other hand, their largest sources of revenue are being demolished because people aren’t coming for office visits. Some of them are doing better with virtual stuff. They haven’t been going for surgeries, and so they’re kind of watching their financials just go, right?

Now, you can imagine that the response would be, “Oh, my God, we need to focus just on the financials. We need to focus on those caregivers. We need to retrench.” But what I found fascinating with this particular organization is the extent to which they have kind of pulled out aside some energy, some leadership energy, and devoted that leadership energy to imagining how they are going to reimagine key parts of their business to really propel themselves out the other side of this. And I think that’s pretty rare but it’s pretty fascinating how they’re doing it. And if you think about the value of doing that, they will be in so much better a place when they come out the other side than they are right now.

And I’ll give you an example of something they did. There’s lots of little examples. So, the crisis breaks, and all their offices are closed, all their primary care practices are done, all their elective surgeries are cancelled, and there’s COVID-19 in the area. This is a big healthcare system in the southeast U.S. And, all of a sudden, they’re getting deluged by calls from people who are saying, “I think I might have COVID-19. How do I…? What do I do? Well, can you see me?” And so, sort of day one, when this happened, when it broke, they got 35,000 calls.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Michael Watkins
Thirty-five thousand calls, okay? Now, how do you respond to something like that? One answer is you don’t take the calls. They’ve got a lot of people who are very worried. But what they did was just fascinating, and their chief strategy officer in this organization is a real visionary. He happened to have some great connections with Microsoft, and they knew that they were building these AI chatbots for healthcare. And, within two days, they had a functioning screening chatbot that would basically triage people to determine whether or not they really were likely to have COVID-19, and if they did, they would then take them to the next phase, which was a virtual care that fortunately they built the platform for that.

That system, in the first month and a half, handled more than a million and a half calls. Now, you can say, “Hey, that’s a great reaction to the crisis and very innovative.” But they then took it one step further. They said, “Okay, this is really what the future is going to look like from this, so we’re going to use this to learn about our customers. We’re going to use this to pilot this technology. We’re going to lay the foundation to take this in a number of different diagnostic directions even as we’re dealing with this particular issue.” And, to me, that’s what differentiates an organization that’s operating in that reimagined mode and not just in that reaction mode. And I personally find that pretty fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly. And it’s a lot more fun, as I’m imagining being in that workplace in terms of like, “Okay. Well, hey, we got a capability now to handle a ton of incoming calls that we didn’t have before. That’s great. We’ve got a capability to do virtual appointments now, which we didn’t have before. Okay. Well, now what do we do with these sort of like two new toys that we have to play with in the marketplace to really help patients and financially stabilize?”

Michael Watkins
But I think I would add to that, Pete, think of what it takes from a leadership foresight point of view to devote some of your time and energy in the midst of something like this when, literally, all hell is breaking loose to reimagining the future even while that’s happening.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it takes some fortitude, and you’ve got to kind of…

Michael Watkins
Discipline, my God.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you want to do this but you force yourself to go do that.

Michael Watkins
Yeah. And, to me, this is just…as you know, I’m fascinated by great leadership, and I think that these two examples are examples of ways in which the crisis is driving new types of great leadership whether it’s at the micro level with the coaching and the stuff that we were talking about, or it’s at a more macro strategic level when you’re seeing people who have the foresight not just to react but to reimagine in parallel. And I think we can talk lots more about things as the crisis is accelerating in terms of transformation, ways of working.

Well, same healthcare system but another discussion with the HR chief of staff. Before this broke, this is a 70,000-employee healthcare system. They systematically discouraged work from home, systematically, because they had a culture that basically had a belief in it that, “If I couldn’t see you in the office, you weren’t working.” And, all of a sudden, they’ve got a quarter of their workforce working from home 100% of the time. That’s accelerated the way they will work in the future by five years, more. They’re already putting in place new policies, they’re rethinking their real estate needs for the future.

And, again, it’s just part of that foresight, that reimagine and don’t just react piece that I just think is really so fascinating. But we’re seeing lots of examples of things where something that could’ve taken five years or more and a half is happening in the space of months if you’ve got leadership that is willing to kind of embrace it. Not just react but engage in that reimagination and actually devote some energy to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Watkins
Maybe not a quote but I have a mantra, so maybe that’s a little bit in the same ballpark as a quote. “Every day is a new adventure.” And that adventure can be a great adventure, a fun adventure, or it can really be a hard thing you go through. But, in these days, you’ve got to expect change. You’ve got to expect challenge. You’ve got to expect that you need to be resilient against those things and, indeed, embrace them to a degree.

And then the quote that I’m thinking about, I guess, goes back to the discussions we had about the first 90 days and leadership transitions in the last session we did, the work I do there, which is, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Pete Mockaitis
I believe you shared that on episode 29.

Michael Watkins
Yeah, exactly. That’ll take us back. It’s a little bit of a time warp for you.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Michael Watkins
So, I was trained at Harvard Business School originally many, many years ago. And as part of the doctoral training that we went through, we studied classic studies of human behavior, and there was something called the Hawthorne experiments. Basically, they were early studies that were done on productivity where they basically took a factory and they tried different things to see if they could make people more productive. And they’ve crunched the data, and in the end, what do you think they discover?

Pete Mockaitis
I think, as I recall from the Hawthorne experiments is they tried to change something, like the light, it’s like, “Hey, it’s better.” And it’s like, “Oh, wait, maybe it’s not.” And it’s sort of like I think what they’re finding was people just liked feeling that you were listening and trying things with them.

Michael Watkins
Exactly, Pete. Well, that’s great that you know that. Not many people know about that study.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Michael Watkins
But the bottom line was that it was the simple act of paying attention to people and making them feel like they were part of something, that was what grew performance. It wasn’t the amount of light. So, to me, that was a really seminal kind of insight that came from that particular piece of research.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And how about a favorite book?

Michael Watkins
I’m very interested in strategic thinking these days, and so I’m going back to some of the original literature that was done about decision-making and how people actually make decisions as experts.

And so, it’s funny you say this, there’s a book, I’m going to pull it out from under my computer right now, believe it or not. It’s almost like I had a prop ready for this, called Naturalistic Decision-Making. And this is a book that probably no one but me could love but it’s absolutely fascinating. Because if you think about it, it’s really all about what is the foundation of human expertise? What is it that makes us reasoning, thinking, decision-making creatures? And it’s not that we run like computers. It’s that there’s something about the way our brains work that allows us to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Michael Watkins
I’ve used mind mapping some and I’ve found that’s a pretty productive way to do things. I’m looking at a tool right now so I’m a little bit advertising it here. I’m in the process of taking my first 90 days program at IMD fully virtual with coaching and a bunch of other stuff. And so, figuring out how to make virtual sessions really interactive and not just the standard one more Zoom call. There’s a tool called MURAL.

It’s a really interesting way to kind of do visualization in real time with different kind of sub-tools associated with it, and I’m going to be experimenting with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool.

Michael Watkins
I just think it’s a really cool thing. I don’t know about you but I get so tired of Zoom. Like, please, not one more Zoom call. I think there’s real challenges in how you continue to motivate teams when you’re operating in an environment like this. We’re way past finding it interesting to do this, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Like, “Oh, this is interesting. It’s like I can see you. Wow!” We’re over that.

Michael Watkins
Exactly. Like, we’re so past that. And so, how do you continue to sustain energy in situations like that? How do you build teams? It’s not easy to build teams and sustain teams and sustain culture through this. And so, tools like MURAL, I think, are really valuable because they introduce a little bit of a creative dimension as well into what can be a fairly sterile set of interactions.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Michael Watkins
So, the easiest way to get to me always is LinkedIn just on my profile Michael Watkins. I manage my own messaging and it’s a great way to do that. Otherwise, I’m a professor at IMD. So, if you go to the IMD Business School website, IMD.org, I’m there. And then Genesis is my consulting company. But, really, if people want to connect with me, LinkedIn is probably the best way to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael Watkins
Yeah, I think, to me, this is so much about what are learning about ourselves through the process of living through these times. What is it that we’re really truly learning about ourselves? What actually are we going to do differently when we come out the other side? I’m not, as you know, a pessimist exactly, Pete, but people talk a lot about the new normal at the end of this. I think it’s possible there won’t be a new normal at the end of this, that the world could be a much more challenging place for a long period of time as we continue beyond this. And so, to me, developing the resiliency to manage what is to come is maybe the biggest challenge we’re going to face.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Michael…

Michael Watkins
Sorry to end with this note. Sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate your candor.

Michael Watkins
Like, “Oh, right, Michael. A real downer for the end.” But I actually think it’s exciting. I think it’s exciting to think about how we adapt, how we truly adapt, and what we truly learn from all this.

Pete Mockaitis
Right on. Michael, it’s been fascinating hearing your latest insights. Please keep up the great work.

Michael Watkins
All right. Thanks. Great to see you again, Pete. Thanks for having me back.

Episode 538: How to Size People Up and Predict Behavior to Build Better Relationships with Robin Dreeke

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Robin Dreeke says: "It's not how you make people feel about you. It's how you make them feel about themselves."

Former FBI agent Robin Dreeke shares how sizing people up can help you build trusting, strong relationships at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The overlooked activities that build healthy work relationships
  2. The six fundamental principles of trust
  3. The code of trust that builds relationships

About Robin:

Robin Dreeke is a best-selling author, professional speaker, trainer, facilitator and retired FBI Special Agent and Chief of the Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program. He is the founder of People Formula, an organization that offers Advanced Rapport Building Training and Consultation. Robin has taken his life’s work of recruiting spies and broken down the art of leadership, communication, and relationship into FIVE Steps to TRUST and Six Signs of who you can TRUST.

Since 2010, Robin has been working with large corporations as well small companies in every aspect of their business. He graduated from the US Naval Academy and served in the US Marine Corps. Robin lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

About Robin Dreeke

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Robin Dreeke Interview Transcript

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

Robin Dreeke
Thanks for having me. What could be a better podcast than that? That’s awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Yeah, I like it. It’s just clear. Like, “Okay, I know what we’re getting here.”

Robin Dreeke
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you, boy, I’m sure you have a lot of stories. So, maybe, could you kick us off, to get things rolling, with an exciting story coming from your time as the chief of counterintelligence behavioral analysis at the FBI? Feel free to omit any classified details but, yeah, what can you share with us?

Robin Dreeke
I think it’s probably easier just to say, in broad spectrum, what my job actually was, and I can go into different stories but they’re all roughly the same. My job was to recruit spies.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Robin Dreeke
And I always called it the toughest sales job on the face of the planet because, in a nutshell, I’m selling a product, and my product was US patriotism. And so that, these days, can be a tough challenge as it is anyway. Anyway, my client, and all my clients, were foreign intelligence officer that worked for other countries to get our intelligence on behalf of their countries, and so that’s my client. So, the first challenge in my life was I’m selling a product of American patriotism to people that generally do not want to buy that product.

Pete Mockaitis
From their perspective, they might call it treason, if you will.

Robin Dreeke
Absolutely, it would be. See, I always call it just buying a product. I like to soften it. And then the second challenge is, so who are these intelligence officers? Ninety-nine percent of the time, intelligence officers are foreign diplomats under diplomatic cover at establishments across the country. Most of them are at the embassies in Washington, D.C. or the consulates of the mission to the United Nations in New York, or any of the consulates around the country, so they’re diplomats.

And so, as diplomats, they’re actually, they have rights and privileges that no one can mess with them, especially, by law and treaty, it was illegal for me to initiate contact with them. So, the first challenge is I’m selling a product that they probably don’t want to buy. Second challenge is it’s illegal for me to actually approach them and try to sell the product. So, that was the great challenge especially if you have a type A personality, you know, a hard charger like myself where you think you have to convince people of things, you’re going to really fail majestically at this.

And so, it really comes down to selling the toughest product, and really selling any product in the world, it’s the simplest thing, all you have to do is figure out the priorities of the other individual, of the things that they need, the resources that they’re looking for. And if I offer resources in terms of those priorities, they’re willing to buy them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that is intriguing. And, wow, boy, there’s so much to go on there.

Robin Dreeke
Anything you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Were there particular angles or offers you made that seemed to work frequently?

Robin Dreeke
So, I would say the most common priorities, because I always talk in terms of priorities of others, because here’s a truth of life, human beings are exceptionally predictable, and they’re predictable because all human beings are always going to act in their own best interests, which is safety, security, and prosperity for themselves and their families. My job, and the job of anyone, is just to figure out what they see from their perspective as success and prosperity, and then you see if you have resources in terms of that. That’s all we do when you work in sales. You’re trying to understand the priorities of someone else and offer them resources whether it’s goods, commodities, or services in terms of those priorities and see if you can come to an agreement.

So, the same thing with selling my product. I’d say, by and large, the most predominant thing that foreign spies were looking for was safety, security, and prosperity for their children. You know, it might’ve been a dying wish of a father or a grandfather that their grandchildren wouldn’t grow up under the regime that they grew up under, that it was not a safe place to live, that it was biased or unfair. Whatever it was, that was a priority for theirs, was that their children would not grow up in that kind of environment.

And so, that’s something that I have resources that I can offer in terms of those things if they wanted to immigrate here or to some other country. And now my priorities, where I wanted to understand what their goals, objectives, and the things that they’re trying to take from our country, and so that’s where you come to an agreement, or not, that, “Hey, you have priorities and resources, I have priorities and resources, can we have an accommodation?” That’s pretty simple.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. Well, now, I want to spend most of our time talking about sizing people up. You’ve done a lot of thinking, writing, and research on this topic. And maybe, first, I want to just address, is that even a fair and appropriate thing for a human being to do, to size someone up? Isn’t that like judge-y, you’re judging them, and that should be not done? Or what do you mean by that term and how would you distinguish it?

Robin Dreeke
Yeah, it’s a catchy term because it catches your eye, but the first thing you find out when you dive into this book, or anything else I’ve written or done, is that it has absolutely nothing to do with judging.
And part of that is, as human beings, we’re also genetically, and biologically, and socially coded to want to belong to meaningful groups and organizations and to be valued by those same organizations. And so, I always tell the story about years ago when I was in the Marine Corps, I was a horrible…I am not a natural-born leader. I am a natural-born narcissist, you know, it’s that type A personality. I thought being successful in life was, “How do I make myself look good and get ahead?”

And I remember the first time I was ranked against the other second lieutenants of my first squadron I was in, I was ranked last. I believed everyone’s born with at least one gift. At least, at that time of my life, I was at least born with enough humility to say, “All right, I’m doing something wrong.” And I went to my major and asked him, I said, “What am I doing wrong?” And he says, “You just need to be a better leader.”

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, thanks.”

Robin Dreeke
“That’s easy. All right.” I said, “Great. How do I do that?” And he goes, “Well, just make it about everyone else but yourself. Be selfless.” And I’m like, “And I wasn’t doing that? All right. Specifically, how do I do that?” And he couldn’t tell me because he was a natural-born leader, he’s just being who he was. And so, all these years I’ve tried to figure this out, and I have. So, how do you make a conversation about everyone else but yourself? How do you demonstrate value and affiliation to others? It’s simple. If you build into your language one of these four things in everything you say and everything you write, the entire conversation becomes about them and they’re genetically and biologically being rewarded chemically in the brain for it.

Pete Mockaitis
Bring it on.

Robin Dreeke
Yeah, you seek the thoughts and opinions of others. Because we only see the thoughts and opinions of others that we value and we want to affiliate with. Second, you talk in terms of their priorities. And we’ve already been talking about the importance of priorities. You talk in terms of their priorities, of what’s important to them, because if you’re not talking in terms of their priorities, they’re being polite at best. They’re not paying attention.

Third, you validate them non-judgmentally. And validation just means that you’re seeking to understand them at a deeper level, and not necessarily agreeing with them but seeking to understand them without judging them. And, fourth, if appropriate, you empower them with choices. Again, you only give people choices if you value them and you want to affiliate with them.

So, when you build one of those four things into everything you say, write, and do, the other person’s brain is chemically rewarded for engaging with you because you’re demonstrating that value and affiliation. So, that’s where it all started, is that very granular look at it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is helpful. And I love your vantage point where you’re coming at it from in terms of, “No, really, how do you do that?” So, you had to break it down and to arrive in that. So, I think that is really connecting, resonating, making sense in terms of, “Yes, I do like it when people do that. And when I do those things with others, they respond well.” Let’s hear about the third one – validating non-judgmentally. What are some of the best ways you go about doing that?

Robin Dreeke
So, the best ways about doing that is you ask them challenging questions. Like, not challenge like challenging, but what kind of challenges they’re having in their lives, discover their priorities. Try to get deeper about understanding how they think the way they think, the experiences they’ve had, the background they have, how they grew up, I mean, if they’re at liberty to share all these things with you. But seeking to understand how the other person seeks to build affiliations with you and others, and how they see the world through their particular optic.

It’s basically building a curiosity into yourself about others. Because when you build that curiosity in, instead of judging, ask yourself why. Why did they think the way they think? Why do they believe the things they believe? Why do they perform the way they perform? Without taking a side on it, just seek to understand it. Because when you have congruence between the word you’re saying and the emotion you have, that makes it genuine and sincere. So, it’s building in that curiosity because that’s what validation ultimately needs in order for it to be effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So, that’s how that’s done. And then I’d love to get your view. So, the subtitle of your book “Sizing People Up” is “A Veteran FBI Agent’s User Manual for Behavior Prediction.”

Robin Dreeke
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
So, boy, there’s so much there associated with behavior prediction. Could you maybe kick us off there by talking about what’s perhaps the most counterintuitive thing about behavior prediction that you’ve discovered in your years of work?

Robin Dreeke
So, when we look at the title “Sizing People Up,” hey, it’s about to be judge-y. No, the whole purpose is so I can reasonably predict what you’re going to do in every situation so that I don’t get emotionally hijacked, and I don’t have negative thoughts, feelings, or emotions towards you because I had an expectation that was unreasonable based on what you’re reasonably going to do.

Because, again, it’s about building trust and building relationships, because without relationships, you’re not going anywhere. There’s not one person in this world that achieves anything without at least one other person being part of that team or being that inspiration or coming up with that idea and helps you move forward. So, this is all about building healthy relationships.

And so, from there, I think probably not the aha moment in this. But what happened was, when I started really focusing on others and trying to build trust by making sure my behavior was aligned with was good for building trust, I started realizing that, “Wow, I’m focusing on this other person and I’m starting to be able to predict what they’re going to do because I’m so focused on what their needs, wants, dreams and aspirations, priorities are, I know that they’re always going to take actions in terms of those things, which makes them start to become very predictable in what they do.”

And we’ve all heard this too. We’ve all heard the expression, I believe, there was a definition of crazy, doing the same thing, expecting different results. Well, when you reverse it, when you see someone else doing the same things two, three or four times, you can reasonably expect they’re probably going to do it five or six times the same way.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Robin Dreeke
So, that’s part of this whole equation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Intriguing. Well, so then that adds up in terms of in immersing yourself and understanding their perspectives, needs, wants, priorities, values, you in turn are able to predict kind of where things are going. So, then can you share with us, how do you come to gain that understanding? What are the kinds of things you’re watching for, listening for, asking in order to develop that profile?

Robin Dreeke
Sure. So, I came up with these six signs that a lot of human beings, we’re all intuitively doing this, but when you can place a label and meaning on it, it actually allows you to do it quicker and more accurately and more cognitively without subjective observation. And so, I call that new car effect. By placing on labels on anything, you start recognizing it quicker. So, the same thing when you buy a new car. All of a sudden, as soon as you buy that car, you start recognizing that same make and model going down the road or in a parking lot without even trying to because it has a meaning and value to you.

And so, the first one, the first sign for the six signs for this, the first sign is a sign of vesting. In other words, are the use and language and behaviors that demonstrates that they’re actually as much vested in your success as they are on their own? Because if they’re demonstrating that, well, that’s pretty predictable that, “All right, I can probably reasonably predict that they’re going to continue to do that.”

The second sign is longevity. Are they using language and behaviors that’s demonstrating that they actually are seeing the relationship as long term versus short term? The third one is reliability. Are they demonstrating both competence and diligence in the task at hand or what they’re assigned to do? Competence is do they have the skills appropriate for what it is they’re doing? And diligence, do they have the energy and tenacity to follow through on it?

Actions, sign four. And we’ve already talked about this, actions, these past patterns of key behaviors. Have you observed them multiple times doing something a certain way so you can reasonably predict they’re probably going to continue to do it that way if not better? Five is language. Are they using language that’s demonstrating that they’re valuing you as much as yourself? And so, this is where we reverse it. I said before, when you include one of those four things in everything you say and do by seeking thoughts and opinions, talking in terms of their priorities, validating without judging them, and giving them choices, are they likewise doing that to you or are they using that language when talking and discussing with you?

And the sixth sign is stability, emotional stability. During times of stress and discontent and whatever comes along, do they have the ability to maintain emotional stability and thoughtfulness, or do they over-emotionally react to things? Now, each one of these six things, you don’t have to have all six to predict behavior. But what you do is you’re pretty much trying to key in on, because everyone has got strengths and everyone has things that are working well for them, so you’re just kind of keying in.

And what you’re doing is you’re establishing a baseline of what you can reasonably expect in all these areas from people and see what the results are. And then, all of a sudden, and so you’re setting that expectation at a reasonable level. The analogy I love to use is, because this takes the place of that intuitive “I like someone so I can trust them,” because liking and trust and predictability are vastly different because just because you like someone doesn’t mean you can predict what they’re going to do or trust them.

So, the analogy I use is flying. I’m a small pilot, I do angel flights. I volunteer for that stuff, and I have a great friend. I have a great friend that I trust with my life because he’s a great guy but he’s not a pilot. And because I trust him, it’s not like I can throw him the keys of the plane and say, “All right, I trust you to fly this plane.” No, because you don’t have competence in that area or reliability, so they’d kill us. So, I like making this very predictable behavior so you can reasonably manage expectations of others. So, again, you don’t set the bar too high so they don’t meet it and then you get angry or discontent toward them.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, essentially, when you say predictable, it’s sort of like reliability. I guess there’s some distinctions here. So, it’s predictable in the sense of I might not know, be able to predict the exact sentence out of their mouth, or the exact choice that they’re going to make amongst the sea of options they might not be even familiar with yet, but they can be predictably, I guess, relied upon if they have these things going on to follow through and not disappoint, or backstab, or betray, etc. Is that kind of where you’re going at?

Robin Dreeke
Absolutely. And in certain lanes as well because one thing I love to try to do is just because I can’t count on you or trust you/predict you in one area, I don’t want to hold that against them in another area I don’t allow one thing to ruin a relationship. Because I can’t trust you to fly a plane doesn’t mean I’m going to not like you or distrust you in all these other areas because you have displayed massive trustworthy and predictability in these other areas. So, I’ll definitely engage you in those lanes. So, this is just helping you manage your expectations in specific areas so that, again, the purpose of it is to maintain those good, healthy, strong professional relationships so that everyone can move forward together.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. Well, so those are the indicators that I’m watching out for, and if I have those things then we’re likely to feel good that things are going to be followed through upon reliably in a predictable way, so that’s great. And so then, I’d like to get your take on when we’re trying to go about building that trust and rapport and relationship with folks, how do we make that happen?

Robin Dreeke
We do it the same way. First, we demonstrate it to them. So, I have my process called the code of trust which is my behaviors that I’m trying to do and exude to inspire them to want to align with me as well. So, the first step in that is you need to understand what their goals and priorities because that’s what makes this a leadership kind of thing because I always believe everyone is a leader. Because any time you have a goal and objective you’re trying to achieve, and you have a methodology in which to get there, which is about, “How do I get people to align with me and come along?” that’s leadership.

And so, the first one is to understand what it is you’re trying to achieve. And part two of that is, “How can I inspire someone to want to do that to be part of this?” So, step two of it is understand the priorities of others so that I’m making sure I understand what those priorities are, so I’m giving labels and meaning to mine, I’m giving labels and meaning to theirs, so their brain automatically starts aligning these things together.

Step three is understand their context, how they see their world through their particular optic. And when we’re understanding context, we’re discovering their demographic, their orientation, their thoughts, their beliefs, their gender, all these things. We’re understanding how they see the world through their point of view. And this is also where we’re starting to understand to build affiliations with others because we have commonalities in these different areas because, again, we’re trying to demonstrate value and demonstrate affiliation.

And then, step four, we want to make sure we’re using, that I’m using the language they’re looking for, that’s the same thing as the language in sign five of “Sizing People Up” and that is, “Am I seeking thoughts and opinions, talk in terms of their priorities, validating them, and giving them choices?” And, finally, I put this all together and I’m crafting, “How do I demonstrate to them that I see who they are, I see their priorities, and I want to be a resource for them.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Certainly. Well, that is a lot going on there. Could you perhaps tie it together for us in terms of a whole scenario and story with regard to, “All right. I was trying to pull this off with this person, and here’s what I observed and said, and how it unfolded”?

Robin Dreeke
Sure. So, right from the book, I remember when I was first a newer agent in New York, this was like right after 9/11 in New York City when I’m serving there. One of my potential confidential human sources, the people that are helping giving us information, he was brand-new to me, he’d been cooperating with the FBI for about 25 years, he had 16 guys like me before me come along, and he was really known as pretty cantankerous guy, kind of an alcoholic, but he had some great access and some great information.

And so, he had come to me and said, “Hey, I have someone that might be, that I think is going to be a good use for you in the FBI and for national security because associated, he’s a relative of a foreign leader in the Middle East.” And so, at this point, I had to quickly assess, “Does this guy…can I trust him? Because this is urgent information potentially and normally it takes time.” And vetting of information, over a period of time, and once you do this, but when you don’t have time, I had to really zero in. And, luckily, though I had a good mentor and a guide, and his name is Jessie, and we went through this process where we’re asking ourselves, “All right. What kind of language? Why is he doing this?”

And one of the things that he was actually doing was he had immediately taken a liking to me just because he liked teaching, mentoring, and guiding others, and so he actually literally started tying and using language of tying, wanted me to be successful because he enjoyed helping the United States. And so, the only way he knew he could help and serve the United States was if I was successful. So, he was actually using language by saying, “Hey, Robin, if we do this and we can solve this problem, we can hopefully identify some foreign actors that can help us, then you’re going to be successful because your success is my success.” So, that was the first thing he did was demonstrating that vesting sign.

And the second one that really struck me right away was the longevity because he was actually talking in terms of not what we’re going to accomplish just today or tomorrow. We actually, when you work in the world of counterintelligence, some of these operations take years and years and years. I mean, heck, the day I retired after 21 years, there was some operations I had started in the first couple of years of my career that are still going. And so, he used that language. He talked about things that would go on much longer than just when you hunt a bank robbery or something, and you solve the crime and you move on. He was talking in terms of how we can come up in lots of things over long periods of time.

And the other thing I thought was really good with him was he was emotionally stable. Every time a new situation would pop up, he immediately went into what I call science experiment mode. He immediately came up with cognitively thinking about, “All right. So, here’s where the situation is. What’s the cause and effect if we do this? What’s the cause and effect if we do this?” I mean, one way he demonstrated that to me is, I remember, every time, especially in this very scenario, we’re going to introduce me to this contact of his that was going to help us on a major problem, and we role-played it. He was big on role-playing things out because he was very cognitively thinking, “All right. If we say this, what’s going to be the reaction? He said this, what’s going to be his reaction.”

So, that’s where I first started to get exposed to, I mean, we’re doing this intuitively because he’s teaching and training as I’m teaching and training him, but when I took that step back years later, and looked at, “What were we actually doing? Why did I trust him?” Because he was demonstrating these signs.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s great. And so then, I’d love your view, if you think about sort of typical workplaces, maybe they have a little bit less life or death, or, you know, nation versus nation impacts, but what are some of the best simple actions you think people can take at work day in, day out that demonstrate these things well?

Robin Dreeke
Sure. I can give you some positives and negatives on this because I think we’ve all experienced this in workplaces. So, if you’re looking in the work environment, is your boss, how is he regarding you? When he or she is communicating with you, are they demonstrating that they’re vested in your success with the company? Are they actually giving you opportunities to learn, to grow, to take on new challenges, or are they keeping you shunned away? Are they not engaging you? Are they keeping you out of group meetings? Are they keeping you out of discussions because you’re not part of it? So, are they vested in you? That’s a great sign whether things are going sideways or they’re going well.

Longevity. Are they using language and they’re using behaviors and taking actions that demonstrate, and they see you here for the long haul? Are they putting you in those long-term training or managing programs? Are they putting you in for advanced placement things? Are they giving you opportunities to grow and expand because they see you here for the long haul?

Their actions. Are their actions towards you consistent or are they erratic? Again, go back to the language again. Are they engaging you and valuing you by seeking your thoughts and opinions, talking in terms of what’s important to you, and validating you without judging you, and then giving you choices along the way? So, those are just a few of them but it’s very easy to see these things in the workplace, and I think we all have.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. Well, so then I’d love to get your view in terms of you mentioned some of those behaviors that are not desirable. When folks are actually making an effort to do these kinds of things, do you see any sorts of mistakes or roadblocks are popping up that make it hard for folks?

Robin Dreeke
Hard for folks to…?

Pete Mockaitis
Hard for folks to invest and build these relationships and demonstrate these things for others.

Robin Dreeke
I think the underlying thing that undermines all of us in many situations is our own ego, vanity, and sense of superiority.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Robin Dreeke
Yeah, so I have these three core anchors I believe very firmly in, and that will enable us to accomplish anything that we’re seeking to do and achieve in life. Now, number one is I’m always asking myself before I open my mouth, or send an email off, is, “What I’m about to say or do going to help or hinder that healthy professional relationship?”

Number two, “Am I open, honest, and transparent with my communication because I can’t have that healthy relationship without open, honest, and transparency in communication?” And my third is, “I’m an available resource for the success and prosperity of others without expectation or reciprocity.” And so, that’s where that ego check comes in place, “Am I doing this for self-gain, at the cost of other people, or am I actually doing it to be a resource for others?” Because if I do that, and I have no expectation or reciprocity, that’s because we’re suspending our ego, we’re suspending our vanity, and we’re being a resource for others.

Now, when you do this, what’s the likelihood of reciprocity? Very high because, again, we’re genetically coded to want to reciprocate things given. But if you do it with the intent of that, then our own priorities start leaking out of our language. Remember, if we’re talking in terms of our priorities and they go and overlap with someone else’s, their mind shuts down.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Well, tell me, Robin, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Robin Dreeke
No, I think that covers it pretty good. You know, healthy, strong, professional relationships are absolutely the key to everything. And this is exactly how you do it. And the purpose of “Sizing People Up,” which is really predicting people’s behavior, at the core, is, “How can I make sure that you’ll never let me down?”

Now, here’s a great thing. If you fall short of that bar I set because I took all the time to understand what I can reasonably predict you’re going to do, then something happened in their lives, something went sideways. And so, now you can be a resource again to discover what priorities shifted and, again, you’re managing their expectations and you’re being there for them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Can you give us an example of that shift? Like, a life thing happened which caused a shift, and then you’re responding. How might that play out?

Robin Dreeke
Oh, probably the most common ones I’ve seen where you got colleagues at work and you know exactly what to expect they’re going to do in every day in every kind of situation. And, all of a sudden, their performance falls off and you’re like, “That’s weird.” And instead of getting angry at them, you figure something went wrong, or something is going on, whether it’s a sick child, someone in the family, kids are failing out of school, their own health, there’s something going on with their own health that they’re not sharing. So, it’s just understanding that, “All right. It’s not them. There’s an outside influence that is coming into and impact them.” And so, instead of getting angry at them, you automatically go into the mode of, “All right. What’s causing this?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s just sort of a beautiful way to live in terms of if something undesirable is coming forth from a colleague, to not just assume that they’re no good but that there’s something up and how can you help.

Robin Dreeke
It keeps life very common, very simple. There is no doubt. That’s why I love doing this because my frustrations that I had at work and things not going my way or people not doing the things the way I want them doing, when I started really living this and understand this and practice, then it’s all that evaporated. It just went away because you understand, you just understand people and why they do what they do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I liked it how you zeroed in on your frustrations evaporated away. And so, can we get another example perhaps of, all right, there’s some behavior transpiring, it’s frustrating you, how you took a step back and came to understand some things, and then how did frustrations disappear?

Robin Dreeke
Sure.Basically, I was trying to sell my product to someone that didn’t want to buy this product. I wasn’t even allowed to go talk to the individual as I couldn’t get my boss’s bosses to approve us doing this.

And so, in those situations where you’re trying to do something and get something done but you’re being roadblocked by an individual, what people generally do is they start pounding on that individual or pounding on that situation, and that’s where all that frustration, anger, and resentment starts building in, and I think we’ve all experienced this. Sometimes you get so frustrated that the last minute you say, “Screw it,” and you let go. “I’m done. I’m not doing this.”

[30:04]

And when you do that, all of a sudden you see the answer in a different area, “Oh, wow, it’s easy if I just went over here, here’s where the answer is. Here’s how I can do it.” And where did that come from? It came from another relationship, they moved you to the area or the thing you wanted to do. So, the thing I do now is as soon as I feel a roadblock someplace, I always give a little push, I call it. Let’s say if a door comes up in front of me, or the thing I’m trying to do, or the thing I’m trying to accomplish, and if a roadblock comes up in front of me and a door slams, I’d give a little push on the door with the way the direction I’m trying to go, but that door is closed.

The first thing I now do, instead of starting to beat my head against the door, I take a step back, I talk to the healthy people in my life, all the other relationships, and I say to them, I state to them my purpose, “Hey, folks, here’s where I’m trying to go, here’s what I’m trying to accomplish. Does anyone else have any ideas about how to get over there?” And that’s where the magic happens because, inevitably, someone else comes in with a great idea I never thought of in a million years, and you’re through that door, all because I wasn’t trying to beat it down by myself in a direction that wasn’t meant to be. You take that step back, you maintain good cognitive thought, and you think about the relationships you have, the strong healthy ones, to how to get through.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Robin Dreeke
The favorite quote is probably “The Man in the Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt but I’m going to keep it even simpler than a long one. So, years and years ago, when I was still in the Marine Corps, everyone in life gets these little profound things dripped on them without even realizing it. I worked for this colonel, and he once said to me, he said, “Captain, never tell me no, only tell me yes. But tell me what it’ll cost me.”

And what he was saying was very profound. He goes, “I don’t want to hear no. I just want to hear yes. But what I want is choices. Tell me the cause and effect, the cost benefit analysis of every choice you’re offering me.” And so, that is a great way I thought of framing, “How do you communicate with someone?” Don’t start with a negative. You start with a positive, “Yes, we can do this. If we do it this way, it’ll cost us this. if we do it this way, it’ll cost us this. If we do it this way, it’ll cost us this. Which way do you want to proceed?” And the great thing about this is if we only give people choices that we actually like as well also.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, lovely. Thank you. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Robin Dreeke
Probably the study that Harvard University did in the spring of 2012 where a lot of the scientific basis in neurology came where a lot of things I’m talking about. And that is what they did is they wired up people’s brains, and what they found is when they wired up their brains, and they found that people on average share their own thoughts and opinions and talk about themselves roughly 40% of every single day.

And when they’re sharing their own thoughts and opinions, basically testing the world around them for, “Do you accept me for what I am not judgmentally?” When they’re sharing their thoughts and opinions about themselves, dopamine was being released in their brain. Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, blood stream. In other words, pleasure centers in the brain are firing when we’re sharing our thoughts and opinions with others because we’re testing, “Do you accept me?”

So, now, if you can take your 40% and give it over to someone else so they can share their thoughts and opinions more, and then you add those four things we talked about, especially validating those thoughts and opinions, their brain is chemically rewarding them for the engagement with you because you are demonstrating to them their value, their affiliation, and it’s good for their survival.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Robin Dreeke
I’m a lover of history, and David McCullough is my favorite author. And so, I love every single book he put out, but the first one that got me hooked on him was “1776.”

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I’ve just read excerpts, I was like, “Oh, my God, this is thrilling.” Like, I kind of know how the story goes and yet I’m riveted. I should just hunker down and read the whole thing.

Robin Dreeke
And, also, the last book I read by him, I love to death. I’m going to actually read a couple more times, and that’s “The Wright Brothers.”

Pete Mockaitis
That keeps coming up, actually, on the show.

Robin Dreeke
Does it? Good. The story of powered aviation. It’s riveting. What amazing human beings. All the people I’ve read about, just amazing human beings overcoming odds.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Robin Dreeke
All the books around me of all the great people, I try to emulate. My tool is my mouth and sometimes it really gets in my way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Robin Dreeke
Oh, probably going to CrossFit. I’m getting older and trying to keep everything healthy, that’s it. Also, because it’s a very nice social group I hang out with there.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they repeat and quote it back to you often?

Robin Dreeke
Probably it’s not how you make people feel about you. It’s how you make them feel about themselves.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Robin Dreeke
To my website, it’s probably the hub of where to go and start from, and that’s www.PeopleFormula.com. Lots of videos on there of me doing keynote speeches, other great podcasts like yours, and lots of videos on YouTube, and I also have a free online course on there. Others will be coming out. Don’t worry, I won’t try to upsell people too much. And you can also have links to all my books on there as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Sure thing. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Robin Dreeke
If you want to start down the path of really making these stronger connections, identify three people personally, and three people professionally in your life that is tied to the things you do as you’re trying to achieve. And with each one of these people, make sure you identify at least one strength in each of them, and start identifying top three priorities of each one of these individuals.

Because when you start identifying strengths and you’re seeking to understand what their priorities are, your brain is going to naturally start aligning how you can be a resource for them. And when you start doing those things, they’re going to start noticing, “Wow, this person is actually here for my success and prosperity,” and it’s going to start changing your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Robin, thank you for taking the time, and keep up the great work you’re doing what you’re doing.

Robin Dreeke
Hey, thanks, Pete. I can’t thank you enough as well. Thanks for sharing.

528: Building High-Performing Teams through Psychological Safety with Aaron Levy

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Aaron Levy says: "The right type of leader you can be is actually just being yourself."

Aaron Levy discusses how to encourage your team to give and receive more honest feedback.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The deciding factor of high-performing teams
  2. How to make feedback less intimidating
  3. Four ground rules that allow teams to thrive

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.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Aaron Levy Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Aaron, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Aaron Levy
Thanks for having me on for a second time, Pete. I’m really happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m happy to have you. And another fun fact we learned about you is you take some cold-water plunges in the wintertime. What is the story here?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, it’s been the last couple of years. My coach for his 60th birthday said, “For my birthday, you’re going to come plunge with me in the lake.” And I swim with him probably May through August, September, early October. He said, “We’re going to go for a plunge in November-December.” I said, “What?” He said, “It’s for my birthday.” I said, “Okay. You only turn 60 once so we’ll do it.”

And we got in, and we plunged, and it became one of those things that is there’s not really much better way to start the day than plunging into Lake Michigan and getting this just cold but also really refreshing feeling. So, I try and do it a couple of times a week and go in for a couple of minutes so I don’t get hypothermic, and it’s just a really nice refreshing way to start the day.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s funny you used the word nice because it sounds like torture to me. Explain.

Aaron Levy
Well, it is a little bit painful and it’s a mental challenge, and I think that, also, what’s interesting about it, as someone who does triathlons and racing, that whole sport is a mental challenge, and so you kind of love once you get into the water, it’s all leading up to it, but then once you’re in and you’re shoulder deep in water, everything slows down, and you can slow down your heart rate and your breathing. You just calm down. And you don’t want too calm in there for too long but you definitely calm down for a minute or two. It’s the leadup that’s much more crazy, I think, than the actual plunge.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I was going to say, are you sure that sensation isn’t you dying?

Aaron Levy
No, I’m not entirely sure it’s not me dying. We’ve done it enough times where we’d play with that, like, “Okay, at two and a half minutes at this temperature, that’s too much time.” Like, your whole body chatters for 30 minutes afterwards, “Okay, I was in there a little too long.” So, we learned to figure that out on our own.

But it’s just one of those things that’s really refreshing. And people ask me, “Well, what’s the science behind it?” And I say, “You know, the science is hit and miss. There’s cryotherapy, professional athletes going in ice baths after sporting events or races, and so it’s kind of following along that path. It’s very similar to that, but I’m not going to claim I do this for science. The reason I do it because it’s exhilarating, it’s fun, and it’s refreshing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s intriguing and it’s come up before, so thanks for indulging us there. I want to say congrats. You have completed your book Open, Honest, and Direct: A Guide to Unlocking Your Teams Potential, so that’s cool. I think I want to go deep on a particular vein of it, but maybe you could give us sort of like the broad zoomed-out message, sort of what’s the main thesis of this opus here.

Aaron Levy
Yeah, the main thesis is that it takes work to lead people, and we are usually promoted into leadership roles because we’re good at doing what we’re doing, not because we’re good at leading people. And so, the path that this book takes is actually it takes all the steps we work with leaders on, is, “What does it take to be an open, honest, and direct leader? How do you listen? How do you ask powerful questions? How do you create this base for psychological safety to occur? And how do you ultimately realize…?”

I think one of the hardest messages of the book to realize is that feedback is a gift, and the act of giving it, even in a critical conversation, or sharing something that just might not feel good to share because you might be worried about hurting somebody else’s feelings, actually might be the best thing that that person needs or you and your team need, or all of the above need.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, there’s lots to that and it certainly resonates and rings true. So, I want to talk in-depth about psychological safety, which is a theme that’s in the book and in your work. And so, first, how about, just so we’re all on the same page, can you define that term for us and why does it matter?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, the way I think about it when we think about psychological safety is it’s the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up, raising questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Aaron Levy
I can give you more of an analogy though if that helps as another way to think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we’ll take it.

Aaron Levy
So, the way I tend to think about it is imagine you’re walking through, you know, you’re trying to not be sure who you can say what to. Like, this person, if you say that to, they might blow up at you. This person you say that to, they’re going to respond to it in a different way. This person is going to be passive-aggressive, and it’s like you’re walking through a field where there’s a series of landmines all around you and you’re not quite sure where those landmines are.

And so, you’re walking through the field slowly, unsure of what you say, and if you do it the wrong way, or if you say it with this tone, or if you email it in that way, that you’re going to get punished, or humiliated, or put down. And it’s just not hyper-efficient. It’s actually the opposite of efficiency because you’re slowly walking through that field as opposed to, in business, what we really want to be doing is moving at a rapid pace together towards the same direction.

And so, the lack of psychological safety is like you’re walking through a series of landmines.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that is a nice, well, maybe not nice, it’s a clear and illustrative metaphor, maybe kind of a spooky one as you really put yourself in the position. And so, I hear you that the belief that you’re not going to be ridiculed, etc., that sounds like a pleasant thing to be going on. But there’s really some excellent science behind psychological safety and the results that that unlocks for teams. So, can you refresh us on that as well?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I think the most interesting thing about this came when I started to look at Google’s Project Aristotle. And when you look at Google’s Project Aristotle, it’s really a study where Google said, “Hey, we want to figure out what are the key ingredients for a high-performing team, what makes teams perform well.”

And their initial hypothesis was, “Well, it’s the right mix of people with this personality style and that personality style. We have the right mix of introverts and extroverts. We have the right mix of talent.” They thought that was the case. But when they did their research and they looked at teams within Google, but they also looked at meta analyses of other studies on teams, what they found was their hypothesis was totally wrong.

And two of the most important factors to drive high-performing teams had nothing to do with the people on the teams at all. Initially, I was baffled, and then after I had a chance to kind of absorb that and think about that concept, the performance of a team has nothing to do with the people on the team at all. The cool thing about that is that means that you, as a leader of a team, actually have the opportunity to impact the performance of any team that you’re working on immediately.

And the two factors that show up and came out of this Google Project Aristotle was the need for psychological safety in the workplace and also clarity. Both of those things combined, “Clarity on where we’re going, how we’re working together, and safety, and I feel comfortable in my ability to do what I need to do to work.” And that might mean asking a question without thinking it’s a stupid question, that might mean challenging my boss because we need to challenge his idea and not just accept the norms. That’s actually what drives team performance.

So, it’s not really a thing that we talk about in our leadership training, or with our clients, or in any of our work as a way to just feel good. The reason we talk about psychological safety is because it is one of the top factors which drives team performance and better outcomes within a business.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, it’s really interesting how I can really think about all kinds of conversations where there’s really some interrelationship there, which means psychological safety and clarity, because you might be afraid you’re going to be ridiculed and, thusly, you don’t ask the clarifying questions necessary to arrive at your clarity. And, in reverse, it’s like if you don’t feel clear about where you’re going, you’re feeling kind of anxious and edgy, like, “I hope this is maybe the right thing,” like the whole time that you’re engaging in conversation and hunker down and doing your work solo.

Aaron Levy
The balance and the play between the two are so, so important. And I say any great leader, their role is to provide context and clarity. Clarity on where we’re going, what we’re doing, how we’re going. And context as to why we’re doing it. But the underlying thing in that is, all along that way, people need to feel safe.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then let’s get into it. The psychological safety, how is it earned and gained and built? And how is it lost in terms of sort of real-life day-to-day exchanges, interactions?

Aaron Levy
Yeah. At the highest level, it is gained and lost through consistency. So, if you are not consistent in the way you show up, Pete, as a person with your family, with other people, they won’t know what to expect from you and, thus, psychological safety is lost. However, if you’re consistent in the way you show up, you are setting yourself up to say, “I know if I do this, I’m going to get this response.”

So, what you’re doing is you’re setting yourself up for psychological safety. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to guarantee you’d give it if you’re consistently yelling at people when they ask you a question. That’s not psychological safety, but it’s consistency in a few things. And so, I share consistency at the start because that’s probably the most important thing to remember. It’s not, “I just try, I’m going to share a couple of things that we talk about doing.” But it’s not trying to do one of those things or two of those things once in a while and seeing how it works. Psychological safety is created over a long period of time where you’re consistent in the actions that you do.

And so, one specific example of that is when you give feedback in person, right? And when I say in person, I don’t mean literally it has to be face-to-face with the other person. It could be over the phone or via a video chat. What I really mean is not giving feedback via Slack, via Instant Message, or text message, or email because it’s just not the highest fidelity mode of communication.

The best example I think about is, it’s like if you ever have that text message where you’re texting with somebody, and then you feel like they might be frustrated, and the text bubble comes up, and it seems like they’re about to text too but then it goes away?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Aaron Levy
And that’s the worst. “What’s happening is? Is he mad at me?” and then you go into the office and it’s your boss. So, you’re looking for your boss, and he walks in, and he walks right by you, you’re like, “Wait. He’s definitely mad at me. I’m in trouble. I did something wrong. I must’ve said something wrong in his email. What’s going on?” You build this whole story.

Little did you know, as you’re building that whole story, is you’re reading this feedback via text message, which isn’t a high-fidelity mode of communication, you’re building a story that he or she is mad at you for something that happened in the text message. But, really, they were just going from one meeting to another, and in between meetings, they really had to go to the bathroom, so they don’t even see you. They just walk straight to the bathroom.

And when we don’t give feedback in person, over the phone, or via a video chat, we’re losing that level of understanding the situation and we build a story around it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, this reminds me. This has come up once before on the show. If you’ve seen the Key & Peele text message confusion sketch, it is priceless. It’s not quite safe at work because of the language, but it’s hilarious and illustrates that point, how we can sort of read things in and misinterpret, and when folks truly have completely different intentions and things that they’re trying to communicate there. Okay, that’s one practice then, is offering feedback in a live, real-time environment.

Aaron Levy
Here’s the tip around that, too.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Aaron Levy
If an email or a text message is taking you more than five minutes to craft, like you’re typing it and then you delete because you’re like, “Oh, that sound passive-aggressive.” Typing it in again, deleting, you’re not really sure how to respond? Don’t send the email. It’s called the 5-minute rule. Just pick up the phone and call the person, or walk over their desk.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And what I love about that, I guess the nuance to that 5-minute rule is it’s not so much you have a lot of content to share. I guess if that’s the case, I’d recommend Loom. I love that screen recording stuff. They need to sponsor the show one day. Anyway, I love Loom for screen recording instant videos, so sharp. But it’s taking you more than five minutes not because there’s a lot of in-depth content but because there’s some emotional stuff there, “Ooh, I don’t know if that’s going to land this way. Hmm.” Like, those are the things that are making it get stretched out.

Aaron Levy
And that emotional stuff isn’t going to be conveyed well via email.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Aaron Levy
So, don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m with you. I’m with you. Okay, so we got the sharing. That’s one consistent action you recommend for building the psychological safety is sharing those feedback points in real-time live environments, in person or in Skype or something, or phone. What are some of the other key consistent things that make all the difference in building up psychological safety?

Aaron Levy
Avoid using absolutes like “always,” “never,” “can’t,” “won’t,” “don’t.” The truth is when you use absolutes like that, it just adds a layer of judgment to a situation that likely isn’t true and will most often lead to someone else being defensive on the good side or the bad side, “Pete, you’re always late.” You might look at me and say, “Aaron, I wasn’t late for this meeting and I wasn’t late for last meeting.” And I’d have to say, “Oh, you’re right. Pete, three meetings this week that you’re a part of, you were late.” That you can’t deny, but always late? That’s just probably not true.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m right with you there. And so, it’s also a bit more honest. I’m thinking about the book Nonviolent Communication now.

Aaron Levy
Oh, amazing book.

Pete Mockaitis
In terms of just it’s an observation as opposed to judgment, and there’s a huge distinction and ways that you can sort of drift on over into the judgment territory and be evaluative in use of one of those absolutes. It’s so funny, it’s tempting to use an absolute about absolutes, “Never use absolutes.” Oh, no, I just used an absolute.

Aaron Levy
I was about to say every time. Most of the time when I deliver this and share this with leaders, in my head I’m having this dialogue of, “Watch out for the absolutes, watch out for the absolutes. They’re going to catch you in an absolute.” Because it’s such a big part of our language and the way in which we communicate, we communicate through themes and stories that we see on TV and in the world, and we communicate through absolutes. And both of those actually limit the truth of what we’re trying to say.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Well, keep it coming. Keep it coming, Aaron. What else, career practices?

Aaron Levy
What else? One of my favorites is simply be specific. Share what actions worked or didn’t work when you’re giving someone feedback. So, don’t share who they are or who they aren’t, right? “You need to care more.” “What do you mean I need to care more? What tells you that I’m not caring enough?” And when we break this down with leaders as they start to share this in our trainings, and they say, “Well, what tells me that they don’t care is the last email that they sent to a client had three spelling errors in it.” Okay. So, instead of telling your employee to care more, which has a lot of judgment, has a lot of weight, just tell them that what you expect of them is to send client emails without grammatical errors in it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that because, well, one it’s just very specific and actionable, and you can run with that and be enriched as a professional by hearing and adapting to that feedback. I would love to get your pro take on it in terms of do you want to share the context associated with the why behind that? Because, in a way, that might sound evaluative and judge-y.

So, I would say, “Hey, please make sure that you double-check your email so that you don’t have these sorts of typos go out. I noticed in this email these three typos. And my concern is that can create the impression that we are sloppy, or inattentive to detail, or rushing over on our side.” So, in a way, I’m giving you some context and some why behind my request. In another way, it sounds like I might be into evaluation, judging territory that they might trigger defensiveness. What’s your take?

Aaron Levy
“Well, so you did it twice unknowingly, so I’m going to give you a little bit of a reframe, take it or leave it. One of the things that you did, even at the start without noticing likely, was I want you to double-check your emails.” That’s assuming that whoever sent that email didn’t double or triple, quadruple-check it. I’m someone who can triple-check an email and still have plenty of grammatical errors in it. And so, I could look at that and hear what you say just from the start, and be like, “Well, I did.”

So, here’s a reframe of how to say it, “The expectation is, when you have a client email that goes out, it has zero grammatical errors. The impact of having grammatical errors is they think small errors means we have errors in other things that we do and it decreases our chance of working with them again.”

So, your ask was, “Hey, can I share this specific feedback and can I give a little bit of the impact of this specific impact?” Yes, you can totally give the impact of this specific feedback. I would just make it as insular as possible. What I mean by that is, as you and the experience focus, as opposed to saying, “When you do that, everybody on the team gets pissed at you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Aaron Levy
“When you send that email, the impact is I don’t trust that you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do,” right? That is my judgment and evaluation, but, hey, I asked you to do something and send an email on time or send an email with no errors, and you sent an email late with errors. Now, I don’t trust that you can do what you say you’re going to do, as opposed to the rest of the team was pissed off at you. Because that is throwing too much judgment out there to the group.

And I know this sounds like nitty-gritty if you’re listening to it. As much as you can think of, “How can I just be specific about what actually didn’t work and the honest impact of it?” The honest impact is, “We’re worried that we might lose a client when we send them work like this.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yeah, I like that in terms of it’s clear, it’s like, “This is the expectation for these underlying reasons or philosophies,” and then it gets more personal in terms of, let’s take a look at this example email, and let’s hear that part of the conversation.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. And so, sometimes with feedback, you don’t need to give the impact because they get it. it’s just especially when you do it in the moment or timely. It doesn’t need to be spur of the moment but it should be within one to three days. That’s one of the other things that’s really important. If you give feedback a week, two, three, six weeks, a month later, the person might not even remember what it was about, “What email are you talking about? What did I say in that client call? What did I do in that meeting? I didn’t even notice.”

When you give it in the moment, or within a couple of days, people are able to observe, understand what they did, and change it. So, if someone on your team is a salesperson, and they made a mistake in a sales call, and you wait two weeks to tell them about the mistake, how many sales calls are they going on making the same mistake over and over and over again?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely, and it just doesn’t feel so great. I’m thinking about reviews in particular. It’s like surprises on the review that might happen nearly a year after the fact, it’s like, “What?”

Aaron Levy
Here’s the analogy I play with that just because it’s almost stupid-funny when you think about it. Think about Tom Brady and the Patriots, and I say Tom Brady not because I like Tom Brady but because he’s one of the more recognizable football players, athletes in the world. So, he gets into the huddle, there’s two minutes left in the game, and he’s getting the play calls into his helmet from his coach, and he’s talking to his teammates, and he’s hearing what’s going on, and he lets them know the play, and they all break and they spread out into the field, and he sees the defense, and they’re moving around, and his offense is looking at him.

And then he sees this wide receiver, and he’s not in the right spot. And he looks at him, he goes, “Oh, I don’t know. Should I? Well, we’re going to have a review of the game on Monday. Maybe I’ll tell him to move over on Monday. You know what, we’re almost at the end of the season, we’re going to do our annual reviews at the end of the season, so I’ll tell him that he’s not in the right, or I could just send him an email, too.” We would think that’s ridiculous. That just doesn’t happen. Tom looks at the guy, and he says, “Move over!” He might even say, “Move…” insert swear word “…over!” And the receiver doesn’t think twice of it, he needed to know how to be in the right spot so that they could move forward towards a common goal together efficiently and effectively.

Yet, in the workplace, we do that. In the workplace, we say, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just send him an email. Well, I waited too long to send that email, so I’ll tell him when he have a debrief on this client. Well, I didn’t do it then because we didn’t have time, so I’ll just do it at the annual performance review.” That’s not helping anybody grow. That’s not being consistent. And so, one of the really important things is actually just to be timely when you give feedback so they know when to expect it.

On our team, one of the things we do is we have a feedback debrief in between each workshop that we do. I actually have to send one out to the group on the last workshop that I did yesterday and the day before to say, “Here’s what worked. Here’s what didn’t.” If I only sent an email out when things were going really well, or when things were really bad, then people would be afraid when they got an email from me, and they’d say, “Oh, no. Is this…what did we do wrong?” But the consistency is each session that we have, each week that we do it, people will know, “Here’s the email. You know to expect something that worked, something that didn’t work.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s huge and powerful. And I’m thinking about this football analogy in terms of, yeah, you’re right, that would be ridiculous to think about giving feedback in that way. I guess I’m also thinking about my experience of when I’m working with sort of creative types, like, “Hey, we’re making a logo, or we’re doing whatever,” I find it so interesting is when I share feedback in terms of, “You know what, that white space, it just seems like it’s so tight, it’s kind of uncomfortable, whatever.”

And it’s funny because sometimes I think that I sound kind of weird talking about design-type things, or art-type things, or I was talking to my audio people, it’s like, “I think my voice sounds a little robot-y at times. I don’t know if it’s being processed in a certain way.” And so, they appreciate it, like, “Oh, that’s great. Thank you. Yeah, I’m really going to dig into that.”

And so, as opposed to I guess that it’s just rare that I work with someone in my kind of creative capacity and they get really defensive or angry or irritated, like, “How dare you? You don’t sound robot-y. We mastered your voice perfectly,” or, “You don’t know jack about logos. What I made is excellent.” What do you think that’s about in terms of the mindset if it’s a football player or a logo designer versus an office professional? And why sort of feedback is often not given the same way and often not received the same way?

Aaron Levy
Well, I think you’d find it interesting if you go to that same logo designer and sit in in one of their internal meetings or discussion with a boss about a project, because I think it’s not that certain types of people do or don’t do it. I think, yes, that does happen. It’s also the culture and the team by which we operate and agree to do it. And so, it’s kind of part of the agreement with the client if you’re doing something creative with them that there’s going to be a bunch of iterations in the process, right? Iteration is part of the process.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go, yeah.

Aaron Levy
Yet, are we agreeing to iteration when we’re determining the next steps to go forward or the strategy as a business, or when we’re trying to figure out how to be better at sending client emails? Are we agreeing to iteration? And that iteration, that understanding that there’s a back and forth, that’s how you get to the best possible outcome that you need feedback from all points of view and different perspectives to get to the better outcome is something that is often missing.

And that’s also why when you’re able to create psychological safety, that’s one of the things that drives team performance. It’s what’s missing from a lot of teams, is the ability to feel like, “I can give that feedback and can say what needs to be said even if I’m a first-year person in this company, and I’m saying it to the senior director.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I like that a lot that it’s sort of, like, “Are we agreeing to have these iterations?” Like, “Is there an expectation of iteration?” Oh, is that trademarked yet, Aaron?

Aaron Levy
It’s not. It’s not. It’s a good one.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s see, maybe it needs to be, one of us. Is there an expectation of iteration or is there not? And so, if someone is sharing something and they kind of think, “Well, hey, I’m a genius. I’ve got it figured out and this is the way forward and what we’re going to do, and you all need to respect that.” And then they get challenged, like, “Oh, hey, what if we did this?” Like, “No, Aaron, actually, I’d like to do it the way I said I wanted to do it,” like a little snippy there. It’s like, “Oh, okay. Note to self: Don’t speak up. I don’t feel psychological safety.”

And then, yeah, I think you’ve nailed it there. It’s, “Do we or do we not have an expectation of iteration?” And I think, for the most part, it’d behoove us to have that about most things. Is that fair to say in your view?

Aaron Levy
I’ll give you the way in which I think about it. I go on a daily basis to meet with new groups of people and do, we’d dive into trainings. And most of the time, they’re 20 or 40 hours over the course of 6 to 12 months, but sometimes it’s just a day, or a day and a half, or it’s an hour. And even in that amount of time with a group that I’m just working with the first time, I create a set of agreements with them and we establish agreements for how we’re going to work together in this room.

And one of the agreements, to what you said, Pete, is do the next hard thing. And what we mean by do the next hard thing is challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zone, speak up, try things out and make mistakes, challenge me. And so, in doing that, the expectation is someone to raise their hand and say, “You know what, Aaron, I disagree with you.” That’s what we look for because that’s how you breathe and grow great learning and great development. It’s how you process information. It’s not supposed to all be clean and logical. It’s supposed to be a little bit messy.

And so, when you ask, “Is that something that should happen all the time?” Yeah. Let me just extrapolate. If I’m doing that in an hour of session with a group that I’m meeting with once, imagine what you could benefit from if you’re doing that with people you work with on a daily basis.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so what I’m loving here is that you’re so gung-ho on these agreements. I’d love to hear what do you find are some of the top agreements that make a world of difference in unlocking high performance?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I think the number one agreement that makes the world of difference in high performance and also, in my mind, just the world a better place, and the way in which I describe it is it’s called embracing a beginner’s mind. And I go back to this quote by Gino Wickman from the book Traction where says, “The mind is like a parachute. It has to be opened for it to work.”

And if we’re not coming into a room, a situation, an environment with our minds open to different possibilities, then we really have a narrow perspective. And when you have that open perspective, it just creates so much more possibility, so much more growth, so much more learning, so much more development, so much more opportunity.

And so, that is the key indicator of success with employees on my company, with leaders that we work with, with clients that we work with. If they have that, which we seek out of all those different constituents, then success will be there, and high-performing teams will thrive if you have, at least, a beginner’s mind. So, a beginner’s mindset is the biggest one in my mind.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s a great one. And lay on another one or two for us.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Act with authenticity and humility. The way in which I describe this is it’s almost like you can sit back in your chair and you can finally take a breath. You don’t have to put on a mask of the work you. You don’t have to be the leader that has all the answers. You don’t have to be the Steve Jobs who is brash and rude, or the Bill Gates who is measure three times then cut once. The right type of leader and the right type of contributor you can be is actually just being yourself.

Trying to be somebody else, being inauthentic, people see through that. We’re trained at understanding and seeing facial expressions and emotions, whether we know we’re trained or not, we’ve been doing it since we’re little kids before we could even talk. We can understand facial expressions and body language.

And so, when we’re inauthentic, it feeds and it breathes to other people. And so, being authentic, and humble, too, not just braggadocious, but also humble and having some humility to how you show up in this world is one of those things that is just freeing. It kind of unlocks and releases this mask that a lot of us tend to put on when we go into work and want to be awesome by trying to be awesome, as opposed to being ourselves, embracing beginner’s mind, doing the next hard thing, and doing the work.

Pete Mockaitis
Good stuff. Aaron, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I would say one of the agreements that I constantly bring up is assume positive intent. Oftentimes, when we’re in the workplace, we can read an email or a text message, we go, “Oh, why did she…?” And think that somebody else is out there trying to hurt you, and we constantly go like it’s a battle, like people are trying to hurt us, that we’re working with.

The truth is that most people are just trying their best to do their best. And they might’ve made a mistake, they might’ve done something to really just figure something out, and if we can assume that everybody is doing their best, assume positive intent, it’s going to make the team that you work with a lot happier to be on.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Aaron Levy
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. And in that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Aaron Levy
I’ve really enjoyed the Bloomer’s experiment. Do you want me to dive into it or just a high level?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s hear a sentence or two and the setup and the results.

Aaron Levy
Yeah. What they did was they looked at a group of students and they randomly assigned certain students to be high performers or bloomers, and another group of students to be non-high performers. They just picked them out of a hat basically. They didn’t tell the students that they were labeled as high performer or not but they did tell their teacher.

And as they looked at the course of the year and saw what happened, what they realized was the people labeled as high performers dramatically outperformed, statistically significantly outperformed, the non-high performers. And what’s interesting is, again, the students didn’t know. But who knew? The teachers.

And what the teachers did, subconsciously, is they gave more energy and attention and focus. They actually just spent more time listening and hearing those students that they thought were high performers. The coolest thing about this, to me, is the question that comes out of it, which is, “What if we treated everybody like a high performer? What would be possible then?”

And so, that’s something I keep in my mind and have our leaders think about, “What if instead of treating your high performers like high performers, what if you treated the other people in your team like they have the opportunity to be high performers? How much better would they do? How much more would they grow? How much better would your team do as a result?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, this reminds me of – what’s that educational teacher movie, Stand and Deliver?

Aaron Levy
Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And Jaime Escalante, he says that students will rise to the level of expectations. And I think there really is some truth to that. Thank you.

Aaron Levy
You’re welcome. Totally. Yeah, thank you for asking that. That’s just a fun one that I’ve really enjoyed lately.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Aaron Levy
I’ll go with a recent book that I just really, really enjoyed, which is Give and Take by Adam Grant. I took a while to read it because I thought I knew what it was about, it’s about givers and takers. But it’s just diving into it more. It talks about, really, the way in which we show up with other people and what we get when we give.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, I like the way you said that. It took you a while to read because you thought you knew what was in it. I’m in the same boat. So, I’m putting you on the spot. Can you share with us an insight that you didn’t have until you actually read it as opposed to just thinking you already knew it?

Aaron Levy
Yeah, I’ll share one insight. It’s actually from a study by Elliot Aronson, it’s called The Pratfall Effect. And in it, what came out of this was, as a giver, or just as a person, you don’t always have to have the right answer, you don’t always have to be perfect. Actually, what the studies show is you’re liked more if you make some mistakes, if you screw up a little bit. As long as you’re still seen as competent, if you screw up a little bit, you’re seen more as human and so people like you more.

So, if you’re a lawyer who has a stutter, that actually could improve your likelihood of winning a case. And so, that’s just something I wouldn’t have imagined was in Give and Take, and it was. And the way it was explained and shared and the stories behind it, Adam Grant is awesome. I’m just a really big fan of the way he thinks about the workplace, the way he thinks about people, and the way he shares stories.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Aaron Levy
So, I have been using, just lately, honestly, lately, the Google Tasks button. And so, Google Tasks is on my phone, Google Tasks is on my calendar and on my email, and it’s just really easy to just put things in a checklist. For a while, I would email myself, “Do this, do that,” and I’d had it come to my inbox after out for a day with 20 emails from Aaron to Aaron that just has a different task, and it was silly. And so, just compiling them in a simple to-do list. The thing I like about it is in the place I work so it comes up right in my email.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Aaron Levy
Meditating.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they repeat it back to you often?

Aaron Levy
Feedback is a gift.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Aaron Levy
They can go to RaiseBar.co or the book website which is OpenHonestandDirect.com. On there is a whole toolkit of some of the tools we actually talked about today.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Aaron Levy
Yeah. Pick one thing from today’s conversation and practice it and aim for consistency over the next week. So, just one thing that you took away, whether it’s waiting five minutes and having a phone call as opposed to drafting an email, or it’s practicing avoiding using absolutes. Work on being consistent on just one thing, that’s my call to action for people listening.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Aaron, it’s been fun once again. Keep up the good work and keep raising the bar.

Aaron Levy
Oh, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for having me on.