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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.

577: How to Manage and Engage Remote Teams with Kevin Eikenberry

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Kevin Eikenberry says: "Leadership first, location second."

Kevin Eikenberry discusses the small, but powerful changes leaders must make when managing remote teams.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The foundation of successful remote teams
  2. How to measure your remote team’s productivity
  3. Top tips for facilitating better online communication

About Kevin

Kevin Eikenberry is a world renowned leadership expert, a two-time bestselling author, speaker, consultant, trainer, coach, leader, learner, husband and father. He is the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a leadership and learning consulting company that has been helping organizations, teams and individuals reach their potential since 1993.

Kevin also is the creator and content developer of The Remarkable Leadership Learning System, a continual leadership development process focused on developing the 13 competencies of remarkable leaders with virtually delivered content to leaders worldwide. Kevin and his family live in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Kevin Eikenberry Interview Transcript

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

Kevin Eikenberry
It’s awesome. I’m glad to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m glad to have you. And one fun thing we learned about you in stalking you is that you have an antique tractor collection.

Kevin Eikenberry
Well, I have an antique tractor collection. The first question people ask is, “Do you mean like real tractors?” Yes, 13 of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Thirteen real full-size tractors?

Kevin Eikenberry
I also have spread around this office, I have toy tractors of different ages as well.

Pete Mockaitis
So, please, how did this come to be? And what is your fascination with them?

Kevin Eikenberry
Well, I grew up on a farm, and my grandpa u sed to say, “You can take the boy off the farm…” which I largely did, “…but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.” I own the farm I grew up on, started the hobby, if you will, 21 years ago. It became a hobby I shared with my father, and then he passed away unexpectedly and I’ve continued it. It’s a way to connect to my kid-hood, to my adulthood. It’s created a bunch of great memories for me. And, like most things in life, it’s not really about the tractor. It’s about the why underneath it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so do these antique tractors work or is it sort of a mixed bag, more for show?

Kevin Eikenberry
It’s a mixed bag. I have some that people that do this would say are parade quality or show quality. I have others that run, I have a couple that aren’t currently running, but I don’t have any that are like torn apart in 3700 pieces, anything like that.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I, one time, went to a tractor pull, and it was a unique event. So, I grew up in Central Illinois so that’s not so outrageously a thing to do.

Kevin Eikenberry
Completely outrageous, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
But it was interesting to me not knowing much about tractors, how much people got into it, like, “Good pull, buddy. Good pull.” But toward the end, it’s like these tractors didn’t even look like they did farm work. They were more like the sports car tractor.

Kevin Eikenberry
Yeah, exactly. Depending on what kind of tractor pull you went to, they weren’t anywhere close to being an actual tractor. So, my collection ranges from 1939 to 1966, is the range of the tractors.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so I don’t have a poor segue but maybe you’ll give me one. We’re talking about long-distance leadership. And I’d love to know, so you put together this book The Long-Distance Leader. What would you say is the most surprising and fascinating discovery you’ve made while researching and putting it together?

Kevin Eikenberry
So, I think, I don’t think it was the biggest thing I learned during it, but I think one of the biggest things that people can take from it, and, of course, now lots of people are living in this world in a forced way, is that the first rule we mentioned in the book is the idea that it’s leadership first, location second. It’s not that everything changes, but lots of little things change. And, as one of my mentors told me a long time ago, Pete, little hinges swing big doors.

And so, there’s a whole lot of little things we got to get better at, nuances we need to take advantage of and pay attention to that will help us be effective in leading a team when we don’t see them every day.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say leadership first and location second, do you mean in terms of your priority for how you’re allocating your time, attention, resources, and growth? Or, what is the first and the second that you’re getting at?

Kevin Eikenberry
Yeah, there’s some truth to that. There’s some truth to that we need to remember that we’re leaders and be leading. And we’re only leading, by the way, Pete, if people are choosing to follow us, right? So, that’s the first thing I would say. And so, part of the message is don’t get worried or lost in, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t see them. Are they working?” So, don’t get lost or worried about the location, but we must recognize the location, and because of the fact that we’re not in the same place, we have to be more intentional and work harder.

So, in other words, everything we had to do in leading people when they were down the hall, still needs to happen. May need to have more of it but don’t forget what you already knew, transfer those habits to what you need to change and adjust to do it when people aren’t right down the hall.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, in summary then, what would you say is fundamentally the same and unchanged versus, indeed, unique here in the remote world?

Kevin Eikenberry
We’re leading people. They’re all different. They have unique needs, wants, etc., and so we must work harder to understand those things and understand those people so they will still choose to follow. I believe that our job as a leader is to create a sense of commitment and not just try to create compliance. So, to do that at a distance requires us to b e more intentional, more focused, more diligent, because we have to continue to build those relationships.

Some of the things that happen without us even thinking about it at the coffee pot. Someone pops their head into the office, none of that is going to happen when we’re at a distance, so we’ve got to be more intentional and more focused to make those spontaneous things, serendipitous things, happen when they can’t be that way anymore.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then I’d love to hear your take from lots of experience with working with lots of people. What would you say are the top one to three struggles or surprises or challenges that remote leaders, when they start doing it, go, “Uh-oh,” they’re having a tough time with?

Kevin Eikenberry
They have trouble with figuring out, “How are we going to communicate with each other?” and the frequency of that communication. They have trouble, oftentimes, with trusting their teams, which often manifests itself as micromanagement. And they have a lot of trouble with coaching and holding people accountable often. I would say those are three areas that often show up early.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then, well, tell us, what are some of the best pra ctices there in terms of addressing each of these?

Kevin Eikenberry
Well, so the first thing, we can’t create clear accountability unless there are clear expectations. And, foundationally, for us as leaders, and I’ll talk to the leaders and to the team members here for a second, okay? So, we need to, as leaders, be setting clear expectations for our folks. Because if they don’t know what’s expected, how can they possibly deliver? And if you’re on the other side, as a team member, out working from home or wherever, and not seeing your boss, your leader, your manager, you need to be making sure that you know what those expectations are.

So, don’t just say, “Well, they haven’t told me.” Instead, say, “I need to understand them so I need to make sure that I’m clear on what they are.” And once we’re working remotely, Pete, the expectations aren’t just about what needs to be done, but also how we’re going to do it, because so many things that sort of just happen, were obvious when we saw each other in the hallways and we could commit in someone’s office, it doesn’t happen anymore, so we’ve got to make sure that expectations are crystal clear in both directions. And if we don’t do that, we can’t get accountability, we can’t really do coaching until we have that set. So, that’s one of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to get your take there in terms of arriving at those crystal clear expectations transmitted and received, are there any key questions or approaches you use to ensure that you land there?

Kevin Eikenberry
Step one, as a leader, make sure you’re clear yourself, which often isn’t the case. So, just because you think you know and you roll your eyes because they’re not delivering, you can’t even make it clear to them yet, so you got to get out of your head and written down. So, when I’m coaching leaders, in fact I have a conversation with one of them tomorrow, the challenge was, “Okay, tell me what you really do expect. Don’t just tell me. Write it down then we can talk about it, because until you’ve written it down, it’s not clear enough. Thoughts are fuzzy, words bring clarity.”

Once you’ve got it written down, then you can share it with the other person. So, you can’t make it clear to them until it’s clear to you, and seldom is it clear enough. You are too vague and too high level usually, or too close to a job description and not close enough to clearly what we want. I’m not talking about creating a situation for micromanagement. What I’m talking about is creating a set of boundaries and lanes so people know where they’re headed, why they’re headed there, and how they can succeed when they arrive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. So, you write it down, and then you…

Kevin Eikenberry
Then you have a real conversation, which means don’t just go, “Okay, I wrote all this down. Let me email it to you. Any questions?” Don’t do that, first of all. And don’t just say, “Well, let me read all these to you.” Rather, send them, and say, “Hey, I want us to have a conversation, make sure we’re clear on expectations.” And as we’re having this conversation, a lot of people who are listening to us are now maybe 60, 80, 90 days into working remotely for the first time, or leading remotely for the first time, right?

And so, maybe we got by for a while, the honeymoon is over. It’s still okay to have this conversation now, say, “Hey, listen, Pete, I’ve put together some thoughts. I want to make sure we’re on the same page about expectations, so I’m going to send this to you. I want you to review it. It’s meant to be a draft for us to have a conversation about. Then I’d like for us to meet and talk about it. I want to make sure it makes sense to you, it’s clear. Did I leave anything out? Does it leave any questions for you?” etc.

Then when we get on the phone or perhaps on a video call, then I need to start by saying, “So, Pete, what are your questions? What are your thoughts? What’s missing?” Because as the boss, as the leader, there’s a power differential between you and I, right? So, if I do all the talking first, there’s nothing left for you to say.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

Kevin Eikenberry
So, if I want a conversation, I have to engage you in it first or early. The more I talk first, the less likely you’re going to say anything even if there’s a high level of trust between us, even if you are pretty self-assured and self-confident because just of the unspoken nature of the power differential between us.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. So, there we go with the communication. Let’s talk about the trust next.

Kevin Eikenberry
So, the trust piece is, well, people will say, “Well, if I don’t see them, I don’t know if they’re working.” Well, you don’t know if they’re working anyway, right? Just because they happen to be in their office, and they happen to be typing away on the keyboard, you don’t know if they’re working unless you’re looking over their shoulder, which I surely hope you weren’t doing before.

People get lost in activity versus accomplishment. What we want is to accomplish things, not to be busy. I don’t care if my team members take a time in the middle of the day to go for a walk. I want the team to know it, in case you’re trying to get a hold of them, but I don’t care when they do their work. I want the work to be done successfully. And, especially now, we may need to allow people to be flexible about how they actually get it done, if they’ve got other issues like teaching school while they’re trying to work.

So, the reality is if we can stay, as a leader, focused on accomplishments and not activity, we can let go of all this garbage about, “Well, I don’t know if they’re working or not.” Does it make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Absolutely. And it’s intriguing because before, the phrase “work from home” often just sort of had scare quotes in it because I’m always working from home so for me I really mean it. But it’s like, “Oh, I’m working from home, wink, wink, wink.” And so, it’s intriguing there because some folks really aren’t doing much with the activities, but it sounds like where you’re going with this is if the accountability is clear and the expectations are clear in terms of the output and achievements, then it’s like, whether they’re working 10 hours or one hour, they’ve accomplished all that they were supposed to accomplish.

Kevin Eikenberry
It really shouldn’t matter. If people can get their work done in two hours, then maybe you’re not giving them enough to do, or that you’re not using them to their potential. That’s a different subject than what we’re talking about right here. Now, if you’ve got someone who’s working remotely and they’re on a call center, they need to be customer-facing, or they can’t be away from their desks, that’s a different thing. But for many of us who are working from home, that doesn’t matter whether you do it at 2:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m. sort of it doesn’t matter. And as a leader, I should let go of that because what I want is I’m investing in this person to get an output that creates a profitable exchange. And so, as long as that’s happening, that’s what I should be focused on.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’m with you. And let’s talk about the coaching now.

Kevin Eikenberry
Well, so we kind of went to the coaching first when we talked about expectations. I want to come back to the communication in general. They’re connected, of course, but the communication in general is chances are, once you’re working remotely with folks, you’re going to need to communicate with them more frequently than you were before because you don’t have any of the happenstance, and you probably need to be a little more formal about it, and here’s why.

Like, right now, I’m in our offices, I’m the only one here. I’ve been the only here for 60 some days or however long it’s been now, but when there were a couple of people that were here part of the time, then they could see if I was available, they knew if I had a minute or not. Now, they don’t. They look at my calendar, it looks busy, and so they don’t reach out, not because they don’t want to, maybe not even because they don’t need to. And, in part, in my case, I think it’s because they’re honestly thinking about my time.

However, it ends up a phone call that ends up, “Hey, Kevin, I know you don’t have much time. I’ll make this quick.” And all of the conversations then become very transactional. We get no interaction. We only have transaction. And we, as leaders, got to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’ll get back to how to do that in a second. But what we need to do is schedule those times, and we need to be reaching out to each other, talking about, and this is part of the expectations of how, about how often we’re going to interact and have those one-on-ones. Why? Because, otherwise, they’ll not happen. And more of the times we have to be way more intentional about all this.

And here’s the other part, you got team members who are thinking you don’t trust them. So, we hear all the time, “Well, my boss is just checking up on me.” Well, if we pre-scheduled a rhythm for these conversations then it’s not going to feel like checking up, it’s checking in, because we’ve already decided we’re going to have this conversation. Kevin didn’t call or Zoom you or Slack you because, in this moment, he decided he wanted to figure out what you’re doing. We decided that at 10:00 o’clock on Friday we’re going to chat. Does it make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That makes sense. And so, then with the coaching portion of that chat, do you coach differently remotely than you do when you’re in person?

Kevin Eikenberry
Well, I would say a couple of things. Number one is whenever possible, use the video cameras because we’ve got more cues from the communication perspective, we have better sense. You and I had that better right now than if we were only on the phone.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Kevin Eikenberry
It’s certainly a lot more than if we were only doing it via typing, right?

Pete Mockaitis
What the audience doesn’t know is that we’re looking at each other.

Kevin Eikenberry
We are looking at each other.

Pete Mockaitis
But that’s not…

Kevin Eikenberry
I’m looking at your bookcase, and you can’t see mine, you can’t see one of the eight in this office because it’s off to the side. But the point is that if we’re going to coach, we need to make it as close to face-to-face as we can, as much as we can. That’s the first thing. The second thing that I would say about the coaching piece is that every time we have a one-on-one, there are opportunities for coaching because coaching isn’t just about, “You’re screwing up and we need to fix it.” Coaching is also about, “You’re doing awesome. And how can we do even awesome-r?” Right?

So, all coaching is, “How do we help people continue to advance in the direction of a desired outcome?” And so, I think that we ought to be, as we create this rhythm, have the opportunity for coaching to not be an event but an ongoing process.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good deal. Thank you. Well, so you mentioned, you rattled off a number of tools, Zoom, Slack, etc. I’d love it if we could touch that for a moment in terms of you’ve seen a lot of stuff. What do you think are some of the greatest tools available?

Kevin Eikenberry
Well, first of all, it’s always a danger for me to say ones out loud because then people say, “Well, that’s not the one we use.”

Pete Mockaitis
And they’re changing, what people are using.

Kevin Eikenberry
And they’re changing, right? So, we’re writing this new book called The Long-Distance Teammate, we had this long conversation, “Do you use those words?” In the last three months, Zoom has become a verb, right? A lot of people have never heard of it until a few months ago. But I would say this, chances are you already have tools that will work just fine. What you need to do is two things. Learn how to use them beyond the 20% you got, and then use the right tool for the right thing.

So, for example, there’s good times to use email and there’s better times to use your instant messaging tool, be it Slack, or Microsoft Teams, or whatever it is. So, the point is it’s not like, “Well, I think Slack is better than Microsoft Teams.” It doesn’t matter. Pick one. Don’t let there be in-squabbling about, “Well, I like this better than that one.” Pick one, set clear expectations as a team about when we’re going to use which tool for which job, and then use them for the right reasons not because it happens to be the one you like.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, could you maybe give us some category of tool, good use for it, and bad use for it?

Kevin Eikenberry
Email is not for a conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Kevin Eikenberry
All of us have been in the third email in, right? That’s not going well. Someone needs to pick up the phone or do something else, right? At some level, as long as you and your team, or you and your organization, have agreements, that’s the most important thing. Have agreements about how you’re going to use which.

But let’s just take your instant messaging tool versus your email. Now I’m talking about how we do it. If it doesn’t need to be responded to in the next hour or two, email is fine. And we’re not expecting people to automatically respond to an email that quickly. We’re a little more so with Slack than with email in our case, our instant messaging tool that we use.

So, shorter, synchronous, instant message. Longer, really needs to be asynchronous or could be asynchronous, email. That’d be one way to look at it. Another thing is if you’ve got multiple tools that you can use to do video, for example. You’ve got a Zoom thing. Like, in our case, because we work with clients all over the world, we’ve got, like name them, we got them all.

But we, as an organization, say that when we’re communicating with each other, it’s either this one or this one, not all of them. One of these two. And for the most part, if we’re having a two-person conversation, excuse me, it’s Zoom. If we’re having a larger team, it happens to be GoToMeeting. That just happens to be how it’s evolved for us. The most important thing is know how to use your tools, know how to use most of their capabilities, and then get agreement with everybody about how you’re going to use them.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say, you mentioned 20%, like we only know 20% of how to use Zoom or a given tool, what are some sort of features that most people are just leaving on the table? Like, “Did you know you could do this? You can. Maybe start doing that.”

Kevin Eikenberry
Here’s a simple one. If you’re in a meeting room, in a conference room, you’ve got a whiteboard or flipchart and you’re using it, maybe not using it as well as you could but you probably are using it. Pretty much all these tools have that. Are you using it there? Do you know how to use it there? One example. Do you know how to, if you’ve got a Brady Brunch screen with 12 of you, or whatever, and that’s driving you nuts, do you know that you can change it so you only see the active speaker?

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Kevin Eikenberry
There’s two simple examples. We could go a lot further but there’s two simple examples.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, when you mentioned asynchronous communication, there’s email. One of my favorite tools for asynchronous communication, personally, is Loom with a screen-recording videos that are super zippy. Anything else that maybe is not on most people’s radar but should be?

Kevin Eikenberry
I don’t know that I have. I mean, there are some pretty cool tools, or bunch of them. There are some pretty cool tools that allow you to shoot quick videos that you can then include. I will give you one that you may not know. Did you know that you can send someone a video message in LinkedIn?

Pete Mockaitis 
Oh, yes. I do.

Kevin Eikenberry
At least, as far as I know, you can still only do it with your mobile device. You can’t do it from here, but you can send someone a more personal note. So, that’s probably more for networking, or staying connected with other people, or for sales and marketing roles within your team, there’s an example. I’m always open to finding new stuff, but I’m always concerned when people just keep hopping, “Oh, we got to try this. Oh, we got to try this. Oh, we got to try this.”

Let’s see what we’ve got and what works with it before we start looking because, again, a lot of times we’re not using the capabilities of what we’ve already got, and we create some amount of…especially the larger our team or organization, we create a whole lot of new angst and spinning of wheels by introducing new tools before we use the ones we got.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. And so, when it comes to knowing how to use them and using them well, part of the game is to just be aware of the features that are in existence when you click different popups and dialogues and submenu items. And I think, beyond that, there’s also how we conduct ourselves as humans when, say, on a Zoom or video call. Can you lay out some best and worst practices that we should be aware of?

Kevin Eikenberry
Before we got there, I want to say one more thing back to where we just were, and that is the way to learn these tools is two things. Watch other people using them well. And, number two, don’t try to figure them out when you’re live. Go into the tool and practice. This sounds so simple but people don’t do it. You’ve all been in a meeting, “Well, how do you do this?” And someone else is trying to tell someone else how to do it. You could’ve taken 10 minutes ahead of time and already figured it out without the stress and the pressure, and wasting everybody else’s time.

So, to your other question now, how do we behave on a Zoom call? Is that kind of the question?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, I mean, I think there are some sort of givens that don’t need to be articulated. But, at the same time, there are other stuff that you’ve probably seen hundreds of times that annoys you like crazy. So, spell is out for us, what should we start and stop doing?

Kevin Eikenberry
Well, the first thing is people need to be focused on what they’re doing, and multitasking is a myth, and we shouldn’t be trying to do it. And so, one of the many reasons I love people having their webcams on is it’s harder for them to multitask. I mean, it’s pretty obvious if they’re looking away or doing something else, right? So, on my team, webcams are on, mute is off. In other words, unless you’ve got ambient noise that doesn’t allow it, or in the past, you’re in an airport, you’ve got a barking dog, the reality is I want your mics open, if at all possible.

Why? Because that helps you stay more attentive and stay more connected, and it helps the meeting be more natural. It’s never going to be quite the same. There’s still the hesitations and the interruptions and all that stuff, but we take a lot of that away, people are talking, “Hey, you need to go off of mute,” and we lose all of our momentum and all of our rhythm.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so true.

Kevin Eikenberry
So, set some clear ground rules as a team about how you’re going to do some of those things, first of all. Next thing is put a background behind you. And you can do all those things if you don’t want people to see where you’re at. You can do all sorts of things to change that. But, more importantly, is set yourself up, if at all possible, so you don’t have light behind you so we can see you.

We don’t need to look like you’re in witness protection, you don’t have to have professional lighting, but you just need to orient yourself so that when you look at yourself, can you see your face just like you want to see everybody else’s. So, those are a couple of simple little things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what I love about that mute tip so much is that, one, it’s counterintuitive. I think everyone thinks, “Oh, I should mute it so that I’m not annoying everybody.” And, two, it’s sort of like I think people already have some resistance associated with speaking up. And there’s all this research which suggests that just removing a little bit of friction just can go a long way in driving behavior. And so, if you want more people to participate and have more engaging interactive exchange, well, that mute button is providing just one more little bit of friction to make it less comfy.

Kevin Eikenberry
“Oh, I can’t find the mute button,” blah, blah, blah.

Pete Mockaitis
“I have a thought but it’s not that important and I’m going to have to reach for my mouse to unmute it, so I’m just going to hold it back.”

Kevin Eikenberry
Yeah, like when you say it like that it sounds kind of silly, but the reality is it’s friction.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s true, how we work.

Kevin Eikenberry
It’s friction in the system. So, let me give you a tip around this for the leader and as a member of the team, because even if you’re a leader, you’re in a bunch of meetings that aren’t your meetings, right? So, first, as a leader, you need to, if you want people to engage, we said this earlier on a different topic, if you want the team to engage, you’ve got to engage them early. If you don’t engage them early, the longer you do the talking, the less likely they will engage so you’ve got to engage them early.

And the second thing you need to do, as the leader, is facilitate better, which means more directive in terms of asking for input because, again, there is friction and there’s reasons, “Oh, wait, I’m not sure. I think someone else is going to say something.” That friction exists in the room, but when we get on Zoom or in a video conference setting, it’s enhanced. So, I will say, “So, hey, we haven’t heard anything from the marketing department yet,” or, “How about someone on the West Coast or in Pacific Time?” or

I was teaching a two-hour virtual session earlier today, and I had some people that, for some reasons, had to be on mute. And I said, “Hey, James, I’m going to give you a chan ce to get off mute. But before that, Keith, what do you think?” What I want to do is set him up to succeed in sharing something valuable, and ask questions that they have answers to. Like, “What do you think? What’s been your experience?” those kinds of questions will happen, help.

Now, if I’m on the participant side, it’s not my meeting, recognize that chances are the leader wants you to participate, “Oh, that’s true.” Assuming that’s true, then be a little more proactive, be a little more bold. What might feel like you’re jumping out on a limb, probably isn’t. It’s probably actually helping you be more, what I would call, ethically visible. You’re not trying to grandstand. You’re just trying to contribute. And so, don’t be afraid or, to say that in a positive way, I encourage you to be proactive and share your thoughts when you have them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I like that. So, let’s see, I want to make sure I get some tasty morsels that caught my eye in your book. You said, “Leading successfully requires understanding not just what they’re doing but what people are thinking.” How do we pull that off to get that understanding of what people are thinking?

Kevin Eikenberry
Well, we’ve got to have more conversations. Let me go back to one other thing about the conversations we need to have, especially remotely. let’s say, Pete, you and I are having our weekly one-on-one call. The first thing I need to do is not dive into my list. First thing I need to do is start with a little bit, and maybe one minute, maybe three minutes, it depends on the person and the relationship with that person, I want to start with, “So, how is it going? What’s happening?” And, especially during this whole COVID thing, that’s been a super important point. We need to talk about something besides the work first so that we start to create the sense and continue to nurture the relationship, number one.

And the second thing is I encourage all of my team members, and I encourage all of our clients to do the same, if we know we’re having a weekly one-on-one, or whatever the frequency is, I’m always creating a list of things that I can save for that conversation with you, and I’m asking you to be doing the same. So, everyone in my team calls it the Kevin list. So, I always start with, “So, what’s on your Kevin list?” If I go first, we may not get to theirs. If I’ve got something we got to get to, I make sure we get that done. That’s not a problem. But, really, what I’m after here is to get more of their thinking earlier.

So, if I start finding out what they’re wondering about, what their questions are about, I’m getting a better chance to get inside of what’s going on for them, what their worries, concerns, anxieties are. And by really creating conversation, then I have a chance to ask those questions to learn more and to be more observant about those things as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. And by having this running list, you also reduce all the other options, they’re all bubbled together.

Kevin Eikenberry
That’s a whole episode right there, Pete, about how we manage our time and the productivity around that. There’s no doubt about it. If we both know that we’re meeting on a regular rhythm, and the rhythm for me with my team members isn’t the same for each person based on who they are and the role that they play and the five or six other things. But if we know that, then if something comes up that goes to the top of the list and we need to talk, of course we talk.

But by having that regular rhythm, there’s a lot of things that it doesn’t have to be, “Oh, by the way, I just thought this as I come down the hall,” and we are both interrupted. You were interrupted and so was I, right? Now we just put that down, we’ll get to it, it’s all good. If it’s really urgent, we’ll talk about it. No problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. All right. In chapter nine, you have a golden suggestion for working with others. Did we already get it? Or what is it?

Kevin Eikenberry
not do unto others how you want to be done unto. It’s do unto others how they want. So, in other words, always focus on “What would work for them? How can I communicate it in a way that will work for them not what I would want, but what will work best for them?” So, it’s shifting, it’s still thinking about it’s more empathetic, more outwardly-focused approach.

Pete Mockaitis
And how does one get to that understanding? I imagine you have to ask, you have to discuss your preferences and needs and habits, and how things flow well for another.

Kevin Eikenberry
Hopefully, if you’ve been leading a person for a while, working with someone for a while, you’ve started to figure some of that out. If that question that Pete just asked you, “Oh, I’m glad he asked that question,” then it’s probably time for you to step back and be a little more observant, number one. but you can come out and ask, “Hey, I’ve been doing it this way for a while, Pete. Is that working for you? Would there be a better way than that? Hey, when we had that exchange, I didn’t feel like it went super well. It felt maybe I was misinterpreted. Can we talk about it? I want to make sure what I could’ve done differently or better.”

So, we can do all those kinds of things, of course. We should be asking for feedback, Pete, to help others get better. But there are other tools, too, like whether for you and your organizations, it’s Myers-Briggs, or if it’s DISC, that’s what we happen to use. But some sort of a tool or assessment or model that gives us all a sense of where people are in general is helpful. We don’t want to put people in boxes but those kinds of tools can be helpful too.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then how do you think about politics in the world of remote leadership?

Kevin Eikenberry
Well, people think, sometimes people think about politics as a negative, right, “Well, I don’t want to play office politics,” or they think, “Well, I’m remote, some people are in the office and I‘m not, so I can’t play those games.” So, I don’t think you want to make that such a negative thing. The human condition is that we make decisions based on who we know and what we know about them. So, I think building relationships and trying to keep our conversations in a positive vein, and not getting into all the gossip stuff, of course, is very helpful. But I wouldn’t cast a pall over the word politics. We can be seen, we can be effective, we can be influential without it being scummy. How about that?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you.

Kevin Eikenberry
I don’t think I ever said the word scummy on a podcast before, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
We break ground. We’re innovatives over here. Well, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Kevin Eikenberry
No, you’ve asked great questions.

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

Kevin Eikenberry
James, the book of James, chapter 1 verse 2, “Consider it pure joy, brothers and sisters, because…” now I’m going to paraphrase the rest “…because through trials and challenges, we have the chance to grow in the Church.” So, I think especially now, that when there seems to be challenges around us, if we consider it all joy, to say that there’s good that will come, we must look for it. And even in the challenge is opportunities for us to grow.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you give us a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Kevin Eikenberry
Well, I’ll just mention one that was in The Long-Distance Leader and also will be in The Long-Distance Teammate. Bettina Buchel wrote a piece that talks about richness versus scope in communication. The idea is that the richest communication is the face-to-face, nose-to-nose, across the table conversation, right? But that is not much scope, it’s just two people right now, that’s all there is. Scope is something like a mass email. It has a tremendous amount of scope but not much richness. And so, using the idea of richness versus scope and trying to balance those to help us pick which communication tools might help us is a useful model.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Kevin Eikenberry
Okay. I knew this was coming and it’s an impossible question. I read probably a hundred books a year and so, on one hand, I would say the one I’m reading now, but instead I’ll give you three.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Kevin Eikenberry
And they’re all old, right? The Bible, Think and Grow Rich, and How to Win Friends and Influence People would probably be where I’d go. All of them have had, and continue to have impact on me. They all are examples of timeless principles that we can continue to apply even if context changes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite tool?

Kevin Eikenberry
You know, I knew you were going to ask me that question, and I’m going to say, I’m actually going to say LinkedIn, and maybe because, I’ll say it for two reasons, number one is I’ve been fortunate and blessed to have the chance to work with them and have some LinkedIn Learning products, and so I love it from that perspective. But here’s the thing, of all of the social media channels, at least for what I see. There’s a much higher ratio of useful versus noise. And I think maybe people overlook it a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
I agree. And how about a favorite habit?

Kevin Eikenberry
Reflect. We have a tremendous amount of opportunities to learn from what we have experienced, both what has gone well and what hasn’t, and most of us don’t take near enough time to reflect, not only on what happened, but what to do with it now that it has happened.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget that you have shared that really seems to connect and resonate, and gets quoted back to you often?

Kevin Eikenberry
I think I say this a lot, that there’s a big difference between deciding and doing, and the difference is action.

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

Kevin Eikenberry
Well, they could certainly go to LinkedIn. They can go to KevinEikenberry.com. We’ve got a number of websites related to the various books and all that stuff. But if you can remember how to spell my name, you can find us. I hope you do. I hope you let us know how we can help.

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

Kevin Eikenberry
Yeah. When you were a kid, your parents asked you a question every day, and if you’re a parent, you’ve asked this question of your kids regularly, but when was the last time you asked yourself this question, “What did I learn today?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Kevin, thank you. This has been fun. I wish you lots of luck in all of your long-distance leading.

Kevin Eikenberry
Thank you so much, Pete. It was a pleasure to be with you. Thanks for having me.

560: How to Resolve Conflict and Boost Productivity through Deep Listening with Oscar Trimboli

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Oscar Trimboli says: "The most important thing to listen to is what's not said."

Oscar Trimboli explains how to increase your impact through sharpening your listening.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The magic phrases powerful listeners use
  2. How to expertly listen for what’s unsaid
  3. One question to ask the people you disagree with

About Oscar:

Oscar Trimboli is an author, host of the Apple award-winning podcast Deep Listening and a sought-after keynote speaker. He is passionate about using the gift of listening to bring positive change in homes, workplaces and cultures around the world. He is a marketing and technology industry veteran with over 30 years’ experience across general management, sales, marketing and operations for Microsoft, PeopleSoft, Polycom, Professional Advantage and Vodafone.

Oscar lives in Sydney with his wife Jennie, where he helps first-time runners and ocean swimmers conquer their fears and contributes to the cure for cancer as part of Can Too, a cancer research charity.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Oscar Trimboli Interview Transcript

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

Oscar Trimboli
Good day, Pete. I’m really looking forward to listening to your questions today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m looking forward to listening to what you have to say. So, we’re talking listening and I want to sort of start off with a real strong why. Could you give us sort of like the case or a study or an example that reveals really what’s at stake when we listen well and what can be possible, and when we don’t listen well and how we’re suffering?

Oscar Trimboli
30th of December, Wuhan, China, Dr. Li has said to a group of his medical professionals, he’s an ophthalmologist, that he’s worried that the patients he’s seeing at the moment have SARS-like symptoms showing but it’s worse. And he publishes that on the local social media app that they use, and that gets seen by the Chinese government. And the next day, he’s visited by the Chinese government officials and told to recount what he said and everything he said is wrong.

And everybody ignored him, nobody was listening to him. And, as a result, we have the coronavirus that’s completely changed the world in 2020. That’s one of the costs of not listening. So, the costs of not listening can be quite significant. And in a lot of workplaces, Peter, people whose opinions are different, who may be seen as far out or different, they’re ignored, whether it was on the Deepwater Horizon’s oil rig in 2012 where a whole bunch of people, 11 got killed because engineers weren’t listened to.

But, also, the global financial crisis. Dr. Rajan was presenting a paper at Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 2005 and actually predicted where the global financial crisis would play out but, again, he was ignored. He wasn’t listened to. Millions of jobs, billions of dollars of savings, and all of that variety. They are some of the big costs of not listening. In our workplaces, it creates confusion, it creates chaos, it creates conflict, it creates projects that go overtime, it creates lost customers, and it creates great employees who leave because their managers don’t pay attention to them. So, they are just a couple of the costs of not listening.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Oscar, you are nailing it. Yeah, those are huge costs. And so, we’re looking at listening then in a pretty broad perspective in terms of not just you and I in a conversation, and me absorbing what you’re saying, but the extent to which I am even accepting, adopting, choosing to acknowledge your views as valid, true, and possible.

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah, listening is the willingness to have your mind changed. Listening is the openness to hear what’s unsaid. Listening is making sure you’re listening with your head as well as your heart. And I think a lot of us think of listening as one-dimensional. We think of it as monochrome. We think of it as a very, very simple thing, but listening has got lots of nuance to it.

And, for many people, one of the exercises we always talk about in our workshops is go and listen to and consume media, it’s a podcast, it’s a TV show, go and read a blogpost from somebody you fiercely disagree with, and notice what’s happening in your mind while you’re fiercely disagreeing with them, because for a lot of us we get blocked by our own assumption filters.

My daughter-in law, when she was 21, she’s a Judo player, and Judo players have this incredibly high tolerance for pain, Peter, in a way I can never understand, that you would literally have to choke them before they would stop fighting on the mat. And Jen got hit by a car while she was riding her bike to training, and she was completely devastated because she had spent a lot of money saving for that bike, and that bike was her means of transport in an Olympic year. And she literally picked up the bike, put it on her shoulder, with a broken ankle, by the way, and went to a local emergency room and was treated by a doctor.

And the doctor was confused why Jen brought the bike into the ER because that bike was more important to her than her ankle at that moment. But what I’m curious about right now, Peter, is in your head, describe the doctor.

Pete Mockaitis
Describe the doctor. Well, I guess I was really visualizing the scene of your daughter with the bike and kind of limping, and so I’ve got very little on the doctor. The doctor, I guess, is inquisitive, it’s like, “Hey, why did you bring your bike?”

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah. But, physically, gender-wise, height, weight, what sort of doctor are you visualizing right now?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, not much. He’s kind of faceless, I saw just more sort of like the white robe. But I guess if I were to kind get more into the picture, well, I kind of see my buddy, shoutout to Johnny, he’s a doctor, and so he looks like my buddy Johnny, who’s in his late 30s. He looks a little bit like the Property Brothers if you’ve ever seen that TV show, so that’s what I’m picturing.

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah. And the doctor that saw Jen was 5’4” and an Indian woman. And, again, so the point of the story is, yeah, the bike and all of that, but a lot of us go into conversations where we have our own assumptions from our own experience base that filter how we listen, and we’re not even conscious of these things that are getting in our way when it comes to listening. And a lot of that is really initially caused by our internal distractions as well as our external distractions. A lot of us have our cellphone going, or a laptop, or some kind of tablet, something like that. So, we got all these external distractions but we’ve also got these internal distractions as well.

And, for a lot of us, we don’t even know it’s happening. We just aren’t even at that point of consciousness because we’re so distracted coming into the conversation. So, for most of you listening right now, it’s happening now. You’re distracted while you’re listening to Peter and myself. You might be commuting. You might be preparing a meal. But your mind is wandering in a completely different direction.

So, I wanted to give a commercial break to the neuroscience of listening, if that’s okay, Peter. Right now, I speak at about 125 words a minute. You’re a little quicker, about 150, and if you’re auctioning cattle, you’re at about 200 words per minute. But you can listen at 400 words per minute so you fill in the gaps because your mind gets bored and your mind is distracted. So, this is the 125/400 rule that says, “I speak at 125 words a minute, you listen at 400.” And if you don’t notice this gap, you’re going to drift away.

Now, it’s okay. I do it myself when I spend all day training people on how to listen, but the big difference between me and anybody else is I know when I’m distracted before you do, so I come back into the conversation much faster. So, it’s really, really important if you understand the neuroscience of listening, that I speak at 125-words a minute, you listen at 400, you’re going to get bored and distracted. It’s okay. You just come back in. And we’ll talk about some tips later on about how to notice and what to do about it when you drift away.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. And I heard another stat about how we can think even faster than the 400 words per minute. And I guess when we’re thinking, we’re not even thinking in subvocalized words there.

Oscar Trimboli
No. You’re absolutely right.

Pete Mockaitis
Because I’ve tried that in prayer, like I would think the Rosary prayer as fast as I can think the words, and it’s quick. It’s quicker than like a talk, yeah. But it’s still maybe it is around 400. It’s not much beyond that.

Oscar Trimboli
On average, it’s 900 words a minute you can think at. That’s nearly double your listening speed. Some people can do up to 1600 words a minute think, and right down at the other end of the Bell curve is about 600 that, welcome to the speaker’s problem. And this is why it’s critical that everybody understand the most important thing you need to listen to is what’s not said. I know it feels like Yoda just stepped onto the podcast. How do you listen to what’s not said? But it’s really critical.

If you understand the neuroscience of speaking, you speak at 125 to 150 words a minute, you’ve got 900 stuck in your head, that means the likelihood that the first thing that comes out of your mouth is what you mean, that’s 11%. One in nine chance that what you say as a speaker is what you mean. Therefore, if you want to have a powerful conversation with somebody, you want to get the next 125 words out, and the next 125 words out. And if you can get to about 300 words out of their thoughts, you’re probably getting closer to what they mean.

And this is another distinction, Peter, when it comes to listening. As a listener, it’s not your job to make sense of what they say. It’s your job to help them make sense of what they’re trying to say. Now that’s a really big difference, and what that means is most of us, our mind is like a closed washing machine. We’re in wash mode when we’re thinking, and it’s sudsy, and it’s agitated, and it’s like the water is dirty, and we’re moving but we’re not making progress. And the minute the rinse cycle comes on in a washing machine, out flushes all that wonderful clear water, and that’s exactly what it’s like when you speak.

Your mind is wired differently while you speak, while you think, and you make much more sense of what you say by saying it aloud than saying it inside your own head. So, powerful listeners will use these magic phrases. Michael Bungay Stanier did a wonderful job of talking about a couple of these on past two episodes ago for you. And he talked about the phrase “tell me more,” “what else,” and, “use silence.” These are three powerful techniques in that moment where you ask somebody “What else?” Something magic happens to the human mind.

And, Peter, tell me if it’s happened for you. People kind of tilt their head, they’ll breathe out, and they’ll say, “Well, actually, you know what we should talk about?” or, “Peter, you know what’s really important for us right now? Not what we’re talking about. I need to talk about this.” And for a lot of people, they’re out there nodding because it’s a real-life experience. But most of us just talk to the first thing they say rather than trying to understand what they really want to mean.

And if you’re in your role, whether you’re a manager or you’re working with your manager, making sense of what people mean, not what they say, makes work quicker. You work on the important things that have impact, not the transactional things, and listening helps you get to the result in a much quicker way, with a much bigger impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful. And so then, the points you’re making with those numbers associated with the first 125 word in the first minute, there’s 11% chance that that’s what I really want to say, you’re saying it’s so important to not just respond to that and we’re off to the races. “You’ve spoken for a minute therefore I know what we’re talking about and I’m going,” but rather draw it out for a few more minutes, and then we’re going to get at the good stuff. And we save time because instead of spending, I’m just going to make up numbers, instead of spending 15 minutes talking about the thing that’s not the thing, we can spend five minutes listening to get the real thing, and then go from there.

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah. And in a lot of modern workplaces, we’re dealing with issues that are really complex, that don’t have just single or binary responses that are possible. Whether you’re in a creative role, or you’re in software development, or you’re in professional consulting, it doesn’t matter what profession you’re in, if you’re in the medical profession right now, there’s so much complexity and multiple and exponential vectors that you’re dealing with on a topic.

The likelihood that the very first thing that either of you talk about is the result or the possibilities. Whenever you’re stuck in these binaries, if you’re arguing A versus B, or one versus two, or red versus blue, the critical thing to ask yourself the question is, “What’s the third possibility? And what’s the fourth possibility?” And that’s only going to come about by listening.

On the days where we’re just doing tasks that require us to think one step ahead, we have to anticipate many things today in the imagination economy, because we’ve kind of moved from the information economy to the imagination economy, and our imagination can open up so many more possibilities. And that’s why one of my favorite quotes from Peter Drucker is, “The most important part of communication is listening to what’s not said.” And if we spent some more time there, the confusion, the conflict, the chaos in our workplace would go away.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s get after a little bit more how one does that effectively. So, there’s not jumping at the first minute, there’s kind of more encouragement of “tell me more” and “what else.” What are some of the other best practices that can get us to identifying and listening for what’s not said?

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah, I think we have to wind this way back, Peter, and start at the very foundational part of listening. And you can’t listen to anybody else till you listen to yourself. So, the very first part of listening is listening to yourself. Most of us turn up to a conversation with a radio station playing in our head that’s a completely different frequency to the conversation we’re just about to go into. We’re going from a meeting to a meeting, we’re going from a phone call to a phone call, and we’re still processing the last thing that was in our head.

So, getting ready to listen is more important than actually listening. In our database, we do proprietary research ourselves, 1410 people who are listeners, who have put up their hands, and said, “Help! Help! We need help in improving our listening.” We’ve been tracking them for two and a half years. And 86% of them say the thing that gets in the way of listening is not how they’re having a conversation with the speaker. Eighty-six percent of them say what’s getting in the way is the distractions before the conversation commences.

And some of those distractions are a story that they might have in their head about, “Oh, well, the last time I had a conversation with Peter was really wacky and the conversation didn’t go so well. And what’s he going to show up here because he’s a really unpredictable character?” or, “The last time I had a conversation with Peter, it was really, he is really dense and detailed, and I really didn’t make sense of it.” And you’re turning up to that conversation in that posture, and that’s your internal distraction, let alone your external distractions.

Most people walk in with their electronic devices of some sort, whether it’s a phone call, whether it’s a meeting, whether it’s a team meeting, we’re distracted internally and externally. So, I would always encourage people to do three things to get ready, to get that foundation right, when it comes to listening.

Step number one. Remove the electronic devices. And if that sounds like cold turkey, then put them in flight mode, that’s my big request. Just put them in flight mode so you remove the dings, the bings, the buzzes, the beeps, all those notification things that are going to come across your devices. Tip number two, drink water. Most of us turn up to a conversation with a cup of coffee only. I’m not anti-coffee, I’m not pro-coffee. I don’t have a position on coffee. Drink water. A hydrated brain is a listening brain. Or Red Bull, I don’t have a position on Red Bull either, Peter.

A hydrated brain is a listening brain. Now, why does it matter? The brain is only 5% of the body mass, yet it consumes 26% of the blood sugars. The best way to get your brain operating in a place that’s optimal for listening is to drink a glass of water every half an hour. So, a hydrated brain is…

Pete Mockaitis
Is it 8 ounces, 16 ounces, or how big is this glass of water we’re drinking every half hour?

Oscar Trimboli
However big your glass is. Most people don’t even drink water, Peter, so I’m not really worried about the size of the glass.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m thinking if you’re awake for 16 hours, are we talking about 32 glasses of water?

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah, so a properly hydrated high-performing corporate athlete should be drinking about two liters of water a day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Oscar Trimboli
So, most people go, “Wow, that’s quite a lot of water.” But if you’re exercising effectively and you’re moving through the day, two liters of water is enough. So, a standard can of whatever your favorite soda is about the size of the glass I’d be thinking about right now for anybody there. So, hydration is really critical because a lot of people say when they concentrate during the process of listening, their brain hurts. They walk out of a conversation, they literally hold their head, and that’s got nothing to do with the act of listening. It’s got to do with the fact that they’re dehydrated. So, if we’re hydrated, we’re going to be in a better position.

And the third thing is just it sounds so basic. Take three deep breaths. And I’m not talking yoga pose kind of breaths. I’m just saying, in through your nose, down the back of your throat, all the way down to the bottom of your diaphragm, and then back out through your mouth. And for me, the way I make this practice simple for me, if I’m going to see a client, Peter, when I cross the lobby in a building, I’m going to switch off my phone the minute I cross the lobby, put it in my bag, go into the elevator, put my back against the elevator wall, take three deep breaths. And by the time I come out, I’m going to reception, they offer me a refreshment, so I always ask for a glass of water for me and the guest.

And in that moment, my mind is ready to start to listen. We’re going to get onto the techniques of what happens during the dialogue shortly. But it’s so critical that we all understand you need to be ready to listen. Most of us aren’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, some hydration, some deep breaths, and you’re sort of prepping the…I’m kind of imagining like if you’re painting a wall, it’s like there’s the prep, and then there’s the application of the paint. So, in the prepping, you support or else you’re not going to get a great end result there. All right. So, let’s say we’ve done that. Good news, we’re ahead of the game. What do we go forward with in the actual conversation?

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah, a lot of us spend too much time in the first kind of conversation thinking about what we’re discussing. And one of the things that sets up a great conversation is how.

Pete Mockaitis
How we’re discussing it?

Oscar Trimboli
How we’re discussing it. What would make a great conversation for us today? By the time we’re finished, what would you like to do? Now, all the research we’ve done, Peter, is on the workplace. I always put this by “Beware” announcement, “Please do not try this at home with your loved ones. They’ll see right through it.” It’s really critical. When I speak, most people come up to me or ask me questions from stage, saying, “Oscar, how do I get my wife, my husband, my partner, my loved one, to listen to me?” And men tend to listen to fix, and women tend to listen to feel.

Pete Mockaitis
Fix? I’m going to fix this?

Oscar Trimboli
Yes. So, men are very solution-orientated. So, a “how” question is, if you come home during the day, like this is a thing that transformed my relationship with my wife. In the early days, she’d go, “Oh, this is what happened in my day,” and I’d go, “Oh, yeah. Did you try this?” And she’s like she would get so furious because I was trying to fix it. She just wants to be listened to. And what I do now is I simply say, “Is this a conversation where you want me to listen or is this a conversation where you want some suggestions?” And 99 out of a 100, it’s just to listen, but in the odd case, she goes, “Yeah, I’d like some alternatives.”

And the same is true in the workplace. Most of us don’t agree out front how the conversation should be orientated. Is it a brainstorming conversation? Is it a conversation where we’re looking to make progress? That context is always king. But most of us don’t take the time to create the context at the beginning. What would make this a great meeting for you? What’s an outcome you would like to achieve from this meeting? Then we can actually get into the dialogue and explore the five levels of listening that we can kind of sequence as we go into that conversation, around listening for context, and listening for content, listening for the unsaid, and, ultimately, listening for meaning.

I would say this, there’s a lot of big people out there saying really important things about it’s crucial to understand the why. And when it comes to listening, why can feel judgmental. When you ask a lot of why-based questions at the beginning of a dialogue where you have low trust or low relationship with somebody, please be careful. Whether it’s FBI hostage negotiators I’ve spoken to, or telephone-based suicide counselors, why questions are loaded with judgment where when you ask somebody, “So, why do you do that at your company?”

You can achieve exactly the same result by simply asking them, “How does the approval process work at your organization?” as opposed to, “Oh, why does your company do approvals that way?” Same question, very different orientation. And I think, for a lot of us, what we’re not listening to is the actual way we’re dialoguing ourselves, and we need to be asking more how- and what-based questions, and a lot less why-based questions as well, Peter.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. You know, it’s so funny, as we were talking, my phone is sort of buzzing, and it’s like, “What? I’ve got it on Do Not Disturb,” but it was an emergency notification about fixing clothes with the coronavirus. So, anyway, even when I’ve set it to Do Not Disturb, distractions, interruptions can emerge. But point well-taken with the why question puts you on the defensive, it’s like, “Well,” you feel like you need to justify it, and you’re more likely, you kind of dig into it, so excellent. Well, then, can you bring us deeper, then, into these five levels of listening?

Oscar Trimboli
Well, a lot of us are taught to listen to content level two. So, level one is listen to yourself. Level two is listening to the content, and that’s interesting. Most of us are listening for words and, occasionally, body language, but a lot of time we’re not listening for state, we’re not listening for where people’s energy is at. And I’m not doing that from a woohoo perspective, but I was working with Peter who was…complex merger he was undertaking about two and a half years ago, and he was just going on and on about how frustrating it was, how unfair it was, that he shouldn’t be running the integration. The company being acquired, why are they asking him to do that?

And something just shifted in his head, and his shoulders moved a little bit more upright, and he just kept going on and on and on and on. And I went back, and I said, “You know, Peter, when we’re talking about that, you did this with your body.” And he looked at me, and he went, “Wow, I didn’t think you noticed.” And I said, “Well, when you shifted, your whole body moved.” And he said, “What I did in that moment, Oscar, was I realized I was listening to myself, and I couldn’t stand what I was saying, and I made a decision that I have to take responsibility for the merger.” And I said, “So, what decision have you made?” And he said, “I’m completely responsible for everything going forward.” I said, “But you spent the next seven minutes still complaining.” And he said, “Yeah, I guess I’m habituated into that right now.”

But for most us, our heads are buried in our laptop, or our cellphone, we wouldn’t have noticed that. So, looking at somebody from pretty much from the shoulders up is really critical when it comes to listening to content. When I talk about listening for context, this is really critical. Most of us don’t understand the backstory to any conversation. We turn up like we walked into a movie theater 35 minutes into the movie, and we’re trying to figure out, “Who are these characters? And what’s the plot? And when they’re all laughing, what am I missing out on?” And most of us don’t take the time to simply say, “Can we get back to the beginning? When did this all start?”

And, slowly, by putting those pieces of context into place, it’s not important for you. Yes, you’ll make sense of it, but it’s more important for them. So, one of the powerful questions that you always want to ask is, “When did this start?” But for a lot of people, whether you’re in sales, or professional consulting, and all of that, most of the time you’ll take a brief, but you only take the brief at that point in time, “What we’re looking to do in the future is X, Y, Z.” That’s interesting. But what’s really important is, “How did they get there?” And if you just take one moment to ask that question, that context will create a beautiful landscape for you guys to dialogue on that makes sense for everybody. You know all the actors in the movie now, and you can make sense and laugh at the punchlines like everybody else does.

We spent a bit of time at level four talking about what’s unsaid. And then level five is listening for meaning. What’s the meaning that they’re making from the conversation? I was working with a pharmaceutical company about four years ago. Have you ever walked into a building, Peter, where you feel the tension dripping out of the elevator ducts, out of the air-conditioning ducts? It’s like there’s just this tension in the room. So, that’s the organization I was walking into. I was asked to speak to the people leader community in this organization, and 20 minutes in, I just felt the room. There was this tension. And I turned to the managing director of this manufacturing pharmaceutical plant, and I said, “Look, with your permission, I’d just like to try something different.” And he gave me the most dismissive look, and said, “Well, if you must.”

Pete Mockaitis
If you must.

Oscar Trimboli
Now, I said, “I’d prefer to do it with your permission,” and he said, “Oh, go ahead.” And all of this is going through my head as well, “I’m not getting paid for this.” And I said to the room, “Hey, look, just turn to the person next to you and tell the person next to you what movie is going on in this manufacturing plant right now.” And the room explodes into laughter, and they’re all chatting away, and the tension is completely broken.

And the CEO steps up on stage next to me, puts his hand behind my back and switches off my lapel mic, and basically looks me straight in the eye, and said, “This is not on brief.” And I said, “Mark, can’t you feel what’s going on in this room?” And he says, “I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.” I said, “Look, just give me five minutes. We’re going to bring the room back and we’ll try to make sense of what’s going on because something is going on here. There’s a lot of tension in this room. And if not, just kick me offstage.” And he goes, “All right. Look, I’ll trust you.” And he went back down and sat down.

Now, what you’re going to imagine, it’s like popcorn in the room, everybody is bouncing off each other. And every time somebody announces what movie is going on, the room explodes into laughter like popcorn in a stove. And the movies they were coming back with was like Die Hard and Titanic and Towering Inferno. You imagine the disaster movie that we’re talking about. And what happened next was amazing. That CEO, who looked at me with disdain and disgust, came up, pointed at me, and told me to go and sit down in the chair in the corner, and I thought, “Oh, wow. This is a bit of a moment. I’ve never been told to get offstage.”

He stood up there in front of the room and did something that completely changed my perspective on leadership. He stood up and said, “I’m really sorry that coming to work feels like a disaster movie for everybody here. We’ve been trying to solve this problem for three weeks. I need your help. I don’t know all the answers. What I’ve learnt today is something that changed my mind. And for the balance of our time together, I’m going to invite Oscar back up on stage to see if he can help us navigate through this issue.”

And I was stunned in the humility, I was amazed in the eloquence, and the invitation for me to come back was exciting, and I simply said to the room, “Who aren’t we listening to right now?” Peter, honestly, I didn’t even know what the issue was. All I knew is they thought it was a disaster. And it was that permission slip to say, “What movie is going on?” that helped the room create meaning for what was going on.

Now what they discovered was there was a pipe that a frontline worker had told the business about six months ago that required maintenance but he was ignored. And in our discussion about “Who aren’t we listening to?” they said, “People in the production line,” because these were all pansy-pants, Six Sigma, chemical engineers, Masters, PhDs, and they were all trying to solve a problem that was seemingly solved within a couple of days, and then it would come back a couple of days later. But it was a 35-year old line veteran who had worked on exactly the same line for 35 years who had pointed out six months ago, “This pipe needed maintenance,” and he got frustrated because he got shot down, and said, “We can’t afford to slow production down for just that pipe.” That was costing them tens of millions of dollars in backed-up stock because they couldn’t go through quality assurance because of impurities there.

So, I think, ultimately, for all of us, every conversation is not going to be a $10-million conversation, Peter, every conversation is not going to be the coronavirus, every conversation is not going to be the global financial crisis. But if we go in with a willingness to have our mind changed, there’ll be less conflict, chaos, and confusion in our personal lives and in our work lives. And that’s something worth fighting for.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, there’s a lot of great stuff there. And I love those particular questions in terms of “Who aren’t we listening to?” and “What movie is playing right here?” because then I think that can, you’re right, that is like a lighthearted way to get after…

Oscar Trimboli
Tell the truth.

Pete Mockaitis
What do you see? Is it a disaster? Is it a romantic comedy? Is it Office Space? Like none of us are really doing anything. Is it Up in the Air? It’s funny because that can spark a lot of things. And so, I’m curious, and I wanted to ask this at the beginning, but I’m glad you brought it up again. When listening is the willingness to have our minds changed, and you’d say read something from someone you completely disagree with and notice what’s happening in your brain. Well, so, let’s say we do conduct that exercise, or we are just talking in real time with a real person saying something we wildly disagree with, what’s the right way to run our brains to manage it in terms of it’s like, “Oscar is full of malarkey. That’s ridiculous. Has he been to my workplace?”

Oscar Trimboli
It’s even simpler. We’ve all got an uncle or an aunt at Thanksgiving table that we know we’re going to disagree with. Every year they say the same things, and we all think they’re crazy, and they all think we’re crazy too. And simply asking them this question, “When did you   form this perspective? When did you first form this opinion? When did you first…?” whatever it is. It will short-circuit their mind because their mind is literally on a rotating play. It’s that list in your music play that just is on repeat over and over and over again, and nothing is going to break that circuitry unless you go, “When was the first time that happened to you?”

So, I was talking to a family officer. So, a family officer works in very large private companies, typically with the founders, and they were very frustrated with the founder around the way they thought about cost control. To say they counted the pennies would be wrong. They want to make sure that we’ve not only counted the pennies, but we’ve stored the pennies. That was the kind of description we’re getting about the founder. And I simply said to the family officer, “Go back and ask them when they first formed this opinion.” And they went back to the story and explained that in the ‘50s there was a rationing in the UK, petrol wasn’t easy to find, there was no fresh fruit, and there was this whole story.

And the founder, in that moment, said, “Times are very different now.” And then he smiled, and he said, “Times are very different now. Maybe it’s time for me to loosen up a bit.” And in that moment, that family officer was able to change his mind by going back and asking him the question, “When did you first form this perspective?” Because in helping people go back in time, they can notice the distance between that event and now, because a lot of those events that create that play track, Peter, they’re very seminal, they’re very foundational, they’re very emotional. They’re in the part of the brain that’s in the primitive part of the brain and they’re stored really deeply.

And us arguing with somebody about why they’re wrong on that topic, you’ve got about as much chance as flying as a human without a plane as convincing somebody who’s got a deep-seated emotional experience that they’re wrong. You have to ask them the question when did they form that opinion, and it will take them back to that moment. And give them permission to pull that memory out and choose. They might choose to keep it, but in a lot of times they’ll throw it away and go, “Hey, time to change,” or, “This situation is different,” or, “Maybe we can explore something a little bit more.”

So, when you get frustrated with someone you deeply, deeply disagree with, and you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to just speak to them, just ask them when did they first form this perspective. That will help change your perspective but, more importantly, theirs.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, Oscar, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Oscar Trimboli
Look, I just always want to reinforce that if you just focus on removing the electronic devices, if you hydrate and drink a glass of water every 30 minutes, and if you breathe deeply, you’ll be ready to listen. And when you’re ready to listen, you’ll be able to make a big impact, and impact beyond words, because for most us, we’re trying desperately to listen to the other person while there’s a big, big radio station playing on in our head, Peter. So, devices off, drink water, take three deep breaths, and that’ll put you in an awesome position for the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And now, how about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Oscar Trimboli
Consistently, it would be Peter Drucker’s quote around communication is an illusion, and the most important thing we don’t listen to in communication is what’s unsaid. And that kind of triggered a whole bunch of research for me, and started the journey for 1410 people to go, “What am I not hearing?” when it comes to my research around listening. And he passed away about three years ago, but he was a prolific writer, he was a prolific person who led a lot of corporate thought, and he’s somebody who thought about things deeply.

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

Oscar Trimboli
My favorite research was where in 1993 in Ottawa, Canada, they discovered that if you breathed and if you listened, they had 414 students paired off, and they had a little device connected to their fingers to measure their oxygen, their current O2 rate. And what they noticed is that people with a higher O2 rate were having more productive conversations, which was interesting. But what was the most interesting was, the most productive conversations, so they were self-rated by the students, the most productive conversations, the O2 level was synchronized. So, people were literally breathing at the same rate. So, that was something for me.

That’s why I always say to people, in one of our listening exercises, “Hey, how did you go with your breathing?” And they always go, “Oh, yeah, I did the three deep breaths and it was great.” And I said, “Did you notice the breathing of the speaker?” And most times they’ll say no, but those at a high-level of consciousness might say yes, and they go, “I realized I had to slow down the speaker’s breathing.” And I said, “How did you do that?” And most people will say, “Well, I just asked them to slow down.” But the really expert role model, great leaders, literally just slowed their speaking down, which slowed down the heartrate in the body, which got the oxygen up.

So, those kinds of studies where you’re integrating both the physiology of listening with the actual impact of listening from Canada in 1993, that research to me is just amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Oscar Trimboli
I’m a big James Clear fanboy at the moment. I’ve been reading Atomic Habits probably once a month at the moment for the last 14 months.

Pete Mockaitis
A habit itself.

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah. And he’s got a quote in there that you don’t rise to the level of your goals. You’re pulled to the level of your systems. I’d say James’ book is a well-put together book, but it’s also, I’ve read a lot in 35 years, probably one of the best written nonfiction books I’ve read.

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

Oscar Trimboli
It’s really a basic one, it’s one called TextExpander, Peter.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. They’re our first sponsor, and I use it daily.

Oscar Trimboli
Oh, I would say eight to 12 times a day, TextExpander is saving me five to 10 minutes a day. And whether it’s a quick comment or reply to something, or just common phrases that I use, and things like that, it’s just a brilliant tool to kind of automate my brain. I love TextExpander.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Oscar Trimboli
My favorite habit is really simple, and it’s changed dramatically in the last three weeks because of what’s happening. But on a Wednesday night, I swim or I run. I run in winter. I swim in summer. And Saturday morning, I run or I swim. I don’t meditate but I think running and swimming is my meditation. these physical habits are really important keystone habits to everything else that happens in my life.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share, that you’re known for, and people quote back to you often?

Oscar Trimboli
Yeah, but it’s a quote from Yoda, “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” and it’s something that can either set you free or frustrate you because sometimes I work really hard on the wrong things, and I have to realize later on that they weren’t the right things. And sometimes it’s the right thing to do and I just need to try a little harder to break through.

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

Oscar Trimboli
Just go to the ListeningQuiz.com where you can figure out what kind of listening villains get in your way, and a very personalized three-step plan what to do about it as well at ListeningQuiz.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Oscar, it’s been a ton of fun. I wish you lots of luck and many enjoyable conversations.

Oscar Trimboli
Thanks for listening.

559: How to Unify, Motivate, and Direct Any Team by Picking a Fight with David Burkus

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David Burkus says: "Put to words the vision that's already in people's hearts and minds."

David Burkus discusses how crafting a compelling vision in terms of a fight can inspire your team to action.

You’ll Learn:

1) The three kinds of fights that inspire

2) A simple trick to greatly boost motivation and efficiency

3) The secret to getting along with the coworker you dislike

About David:

One of the world’s leading business thinkers, David Burkus’ forward-thinking ideas and bestselling books are changing how companies approach innovation, collaboration, and leadership.

As a skilled researcher and inspiring communicator, Burkus’ award-winning books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and his TED Talk has been viewed over 2 million times.

A renowned expert, Burkus’ writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, USAToday, Fast Company, and more. He’s been interviewed by NPR, the BBC, CNN, and CBS This Morning. Since 2017, Burkus has been ranked as one of the world’s top business thought leaders by Thinkers50.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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David Burkus Interview Transcript

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

David Burkus
Oh, thanks so much for having me. Great title for a show, by the way. I just need to say that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Yes, well, I like it clear. So, that’s what you’re getting here. I understand one thing that you’re awesome at is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and you got a blackbelt. What’s the story here?

David Burkus
Yeah, so I have been doing Jiu-Jitsu since probably 2016. Like a lot of people, I have that exact same story of college student, etc., go to Blockbuster when it’s still around and rent one of those old UFC DVDs and watch this guy named Royce Gracie destroy everybody. And, suddenly, you’re going, “What is this weird art from Brazil that everyone is talking about?” So, you go to the first class and get just like beaten to a pulp, but you go, “That was so much fun.” And if you keep doing it for 13 years, eventually the hand you a blackbelt. You get to be not terrible which is about what I would rate myself now.

Pete Mockaitis
Blackbelt equals not terrible.

David Burkus
Yeah, yeah. There are some people, like one of our coaches has been doing it for, let’s see, he’s probably 50 so 40 years and he’s still pretty fit. So, you’d think that you could beat up an old man, but you really can’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, David, do you have any pro tips if, let’s say, someone is at a grocery store and they’re buying the last roll of toilet paper or hand sanitizer, and then someone attacks you, what do you advise?

David Burkus
Well, the first thing would be to not get in that situation, right? Distance is your friend. So, the more that you can, I think, have situation awareness about who that guy that’s been eyeing the toilet paper awkwardly is and realize, “This is a situation I need to walk further away from,” that’s really your friend. That should be the biggest goal. I think a lot of people end up jumping. I mean, you watch it now but you also watch it during Black Friday shopping and things like that. People jump into confrontation way too quick. Keeping space from people is your friend.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, that’s advice for personal safety. Now, when it comes to rallying a group of folks, you advocate that people pick a fight. What do you mean by this phrase?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, pick a fight, referring to… it’s a bit of a double meaning, right? So, I believe that, fundamentally, we’ve had these conversations about purpose for probably two decades now and, yet, a lot of people are still really bad at saying what the purpose of a company is. We do mission statements or we try and start with why. We try and do all those things and it doesn’t really rally people the way it should.

And so, I believe, fundamentally, when you look at the research that one of the best ways to give a clear and concise and motivating statement, a purpose, is if you can frame it as the answer to the question, “What are we fighting for?” As a leader, if you can do that, and individually if you can do that, it just seems to, like you said, rally and motivate people a bit more.

But here’s the key, you have to choose your fight wisely. So, that’s the secondary meaning, you also have to pick the right fight which is almost never competitors. For the average employee, you’re almost never motivated by, “I work for Coke, and I want to destroy Pepsi.” “I’m probably going to go to work for Pepsi one day,” or something similar. So, you have to pick what is that higher purpose, that bigger thing that you’re striving for, that’s what the right fight looks like.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s interesting. So, we’re fighting for something as opposed to against something. I guess maybe you could fight against something if it’s like intrinsically evil, like poverty or disease.

David Burkus
Yeah. The way that I phrase it is, “What are we fighting for?” not “Who are we fighting?” right? It’s not about the other because, again, you see. I mean, we’re seeing it right now as we’re recording this. This was totally unintentional, by the way, but we’re seeing it right now. This is arguably the first time in world history that every country in the world is fighting for the same thing and we’re all fighting against the same thing, and it’s sort of that proof of concept. There’s not time and situations like this for little squabbles over which country is right and all this sort of stuff.

And the same thing happens organizationally when you have that true sort of purpose worth fighting for. Those little silos, politics, turf wars, they all get squashed to that larger purpose. So, that’s why I really emphasized, it’s, “What are we fighting for?” not “Who are we fighting?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, when you’re picking what you’re fighting for, we got some pro tips and pointers already in terms of not who we are fighting against. And so, maybe paint a picture for us with an example in terms of maybe if you’ve seen some cool transformation stories or some contrasts like, “Here’s an example of an organization that’s fighting for something and it works great. By contrast, here’s an organization that’s not quite doing that, it’s not working so great.”

David Burkus
Yeah. So, my favorite example, and one we talk about in the book, of changing that fight midstream, because it’s easy to see, “Okay, this startup has this sort of big fight-based mission,” but it’s a lot harder to do with an established organization. But in the late 1980s and throughout the entirety of the ‘90s, a gentleman by the name of Paul O’Neill took the reins at Alcoa, which is an aluminum-manufacturing plant. They make a lot of different types of aluminum. Fun fact, they make the aluminum foil that goes around Hershey’s Kisses, or they did for a really long time.

And what they were running into when Paul O’Neill took over, stock price was declining, their efficiencies were declining, I mean, it’s a normal 1980s, 1990s story of losing out to offshoring and manufacturing in developing countries and that sort of thing, and a lot of people were wondering, “What are you going to do to turn this company around?” And the way O’Neill describes it, he says, “Part of leadership is to create the crisis,” but he knows the crisis of a declining stock price isn’t going to rally anybody. The crisis of “We need to be more efficient” isn’t going to rally anybody.

So, he chooses, as his fight, safety. He gets up on the very first day of his tenure at this press conference and says instead of, “Here’s how we’re going to increase profitability or shareholder value, etc.” We’re in this era where CEOs basically go right to buy-backs and try and back stock as a cheap way to raise the stock price. He doesn’t do any of that. He says, “I’d like to talk to you about worker safety. I’d like to talk to you about the number of people that lose a day of work because of preventable accidents and I intend in my time at the leadership of Alcoa to go for a zero-accident company.”

Now that’s unheard of in manufacturing but that’s something worth fighting for. It speaks to that sacred value of who’s to the left and to the right of you. And, ironically, if you make a plant more safe, you make it more efficient anyway, so he knows that there’s still this goal, “We’re going to turn the company around,” but just turning the company around doesn’t rally anybody. He chooses to name the enemy. And in this case, the enemy is safety, because if we beat that enemy, we’ll find a lot more things that we accomplish along the way as well.

In his time, by the time he retired in the late 1990s, the stock price had increased fivefold. The company ran more efficiently. Alcoa now is like a pinnacle of safety. There are other manufacturing plants that go to Alcoa to learn how to be much more safe. But, before he came, that was never a concern. It was an acceptable cost of doing business. It hints at the first of like the three templates of fights that I outline in the book. I call it the revolutionary fight, which is when you say, “This has been a norm or a standard that the industry does, and we refuse to accept it as normal any longer. We don’t find it acceptable.” In Paul O’Neill’s case it was safety, “We don’t find some level of acceptable loss acceptable anymore. We’re going for zero.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that’s a revolution. While we’re at it, what are the other two?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, the other two, the underdog fight, my personal favorite fight because I’m from Philadelphia and we’re the city of underdogs, is about not necessarily about what the industry is doing but how you’re perceived by the industry. Sometimes it’s by competitors, other times it’s by critics, etc. You leverage the underdog fight when you can point to a way that people are disrespecting your team, disrespecting your company, or underrating it, and you can point to why they’re wrong. And this is really key, you need two things. It’s not enough just to be criticized because they might be right. You also need a rebuttal. You need rejection but also rebuttal for this one to work.

And it turns out, I mean, this is, like I said, I’m from Philadelphia. We know the Rocky story. Our favorite sports hero is a fictional character who lost a boxing match. New England gets Tom Brady. We get a fictional character who loses a boxing match. But it turns out, more modern research has shown that that really, that desire to prove the critics wrong, even in a business context with the way people frame their careers, the way people frame whether or not going into negotiations, like salary negotiations, etc., the more that you can frame that narrative, that this is about proving the haters wrong, the more you can actually inspire and motivate somebody. So, that’s the underdog fight.

And the ally fight is, I think, one that a lot of organizations look at because if they’re really a customer-centric organization, this is an easy one for them because the ally fight is not about our fight at all. It’s not about what we’re fighting for but we can point to a customer or some other stakeholder who is engaged in a fight every day, and we exist to help them. We exist to provide them what they need to win that fight.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, so I’m picking up what you’re putting down here in terms of these are kind of visceral, emotional, maybe even primal human things here in terms of like, “No more,” for the revolution or, “We’re going to prove them wrong,” like the Rocky story, or, “We are going to help someone who’s in need of our help,” and you sort of tap into that heroic action there. So, yeah, I’m digging this. So, then can you give us some examples? So, we got Alcoa in terms of, “Hey, efficiency in plants and let’s lower costs and stuff,” doesn’t do it as the way safety does. Can you lay out a few more to make it all click into place?

David Burkus
Yeah, a few more from the revolution or from the underdog or the ally?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s take them all.

David Burkus
So, my favorite revolution story, this isn’t actually in the book, so this is new for you, is I have this around my phone, and you can see it but everyone else is just going to have to like Google it. There’s a company based out of Vancouver called Pela Case, they make cellphone cases. The difference between them and every other cellphone case is theirs don’t sit in a landfill for 10,000 years when you get a new phone. If you throw it in a compost pile, it will decompose within 10 years. It’s totally biodegradable if you compost it.

So, their revolution is there’s this whole consumer goods company that finds using petrochemicals and creating plastics totally acceptable because we need to lower cost or whatever. It’s an acceptable norm that they’re using this thing that’s destroying the environment. They refuse to accept that. You ask anyone who works for Pela, “What are you fighting for?” they’ll tell you they’re fighting for a waste-free future. They’re never going to change consumerism. We’re not going to get people to, it’s not like a plastic bag, you can’t reuse it, right? As soon as there’s a new cellphone with a different design, it’s hard to reuse that case. But we can change what’s consumed to itself be waste-free.

And what I think is really telling, they just did this about six months ago, they launched their second product which proves that their focus is on this waste-free revolution idea, because their second product has nothing to do with cellphone cases, which no strategic advisor would ever say. You have this little niche inside of electronics, inside of smartphone case, the next thing you do is make an iPad case or something else. No. Their next thing was sunglasses because that’s the next thing that’s consumable that they could tackle, right? We buy sunglasses in May. We’ve lost them by September. So, if we can trust that they’re biodegradable, somebody finds them, they get put in that landfill, they’ll decompose, they’ll biodegrade eventually, then at least we’re making it waste-free even that. We’re never going to change consumerism but we can change what’s consumed to make it waste-free. That’s my other favorite revolution story.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and that reminds me. You talk about it doesn’t seem like a strategic adjacency from the classic strategy matrices type of thinking, but from that fight, that purpose perspective, that makes total sense. And I’m reminded of Pat Lencioni who we had recently, talked about a company and their purpose, why they were founded, was to provide good work opportunities for people in the community, and so they did roofing, but they’re like, “Hey, man, if people didn’t want roofs, we could shift to landscaping or concrete, that’s fine.”

And so, that might not seem like, I don’t know, the same skillset or whatever, but it fits in from that perspective and it continues to be inspiring even when there’s a shift afoot. So, that’s pretty handy. Well, so then how do we, let’s say, I’m thinking if we zoom into maybe an individual contributor or someone who has a small team, how would you recommend…I’m just going to throw you into the fire here. Let’s just say, “Hey, you know, we’re a marketing team, and what we try to do is get a lot of impressions, and conversions, and brand awareness, and our story out there.” And so, these are the kinds of the things that we measure and so maybe that’s a little bit flat from a fight perspective. How might we go about tapping into the power of the fight?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, the first thing, like if you’re running a small team, for example, the first thing you got to do is figure out which of these fights will most resonate with your existing people. This is actually the big misconception with a lot of the leaders that I work with is that you, as the leader, get to declare and cast the vision. It doesn’t work that way and it never really has. You get to put to words the vision that’s already in people’s hearts and minds but they haven’t really thought about enough. And so, there’s that idea. What’s going to resonate the most with you?

If you’re an individual, again, I think it’s thinking about each of these in turn and figuring out which of these narratives. I know a joke that I’m from Philly, but the truth is, the way that I’m wired, that underdog fight is actually what inspires me, motivates me to get to work, etc. And then you got to choose what stories you need to be exposing yourself to, to keep that up.

So, let’s say you choose the ally fight, for example. You’re that marketing team, you find out what the ally fight, meaning it’s, “Yeah, we’re measuring progress with impressions,” but what the larger company does can be framed inside that ally fight, then you have to figure out, “How can I make sure that I’m seeing evidence of that finished product?” This is, I think, the big problem in a lot of motivational research inside of organizations is that very few people inside the organization actually get to experience what, in psychology, we call task significance. They actually get to see the end-product of their labor and get to see how it helps people.

Adam Grant sort of did a lot of research on this about 10 years ago and reframed it. It’s what he called prosocial motivation, the idea that if you’re working to help people, you’re more motivated. But even task significance, even if it’s one of the other types of fights I think is hugely important. So, I think the biggest thing you can do, once you figure out what resonates with you, is, “How do I make sure that I’m catching that material, that I’m catching success stories from clients? If it’s the ally fight, how do I catch stories about what’s going on in the industry and why we’re doing differently so that I’m seeing that on a regular basis?”

Because most of us in the day-in, day-out, especially if our performance metrics and things like that, or how many impressions we get on random websites, we lose sight of that larger thing. And so, if you’re the only one that can do it for you, do it for you. If you’re running even a small team, that becomes one of your job, it’s how do you curate those stories. It’s not your job to cast the vision. It’s your job to curate those stories.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. That’s good. Well, that reminds me of right now is, hey, we’re speaking on the podcast and all I really see is you, and then I see impressions, downloads, etc. in my platform. So, we had a 10 million downloads celebration in Chicago, which is informal, we had some folks over for dinner. And then I’ll just give a shoutout here, we had a couple from Alabama, and Andrew told me that they started listening to the show on the way back from a funeral, and they were listening to kind of a heavy audiobook, like Tom Clancy, I think terrorists and stuff, it’s like, “You know what, let’s just mix this up and change it to something,” and then heard the show, it was really upbeat and it was useful and inspiring, and it keeps coming back. And so, I thought that was super awesome that, one, they valued it enough to drive from Alabama to Chicago just to have dinner. So, that was super cool.

And to remember that, these numbers, we talk about impressions, translate into human beings who are having an experience that is empowering and worthwhile and, boy, that can resonate hugely if it’s in sort of medical care. But even in smaller matters in terms of, boy, I’m just looking around my desk, a candle that makes for a nice intimate, positive experience for someone who’s having dinner or praying or just setting a mood that’s more pleasant for everyone there. And if you’re marketing candles, I think that does connect and resonate a whole lot more than, hey, 12,400 people saw our Facebook ad about our candles.

David Burkus
Yeah. You know, I totally agree. A lot of organizations, too, will rather than even create impressions, will just label growth, “This is how we’re growing and therefore that.” But growth isn’t a sense of purpose, right? That’s like saying, “Hey, we’re driving 65 miles an hour. Now we’re driving 70. We should all be excited.” Where’s the car going? Tell me more about that. And I think that’s incumbent on if you’re in any leadership role, even if it’s a small team, but it’s also incumbent upon us.

One of the practices I’ve had, admittedly it’s easier to do when you’re an author, but one of the practices I’ve had is to develop what I used to call the win folder. I don’t know what it’s currently called. I should look on my desktop. But it’s basically when people really do send you those thank you emails. I drag them into a folder so that when I need them, I can pull them back. We get those for any of our work.

Even if our work is the impressions and somebody elsewhere in the company said, “Hey, thank you so much for this. I know this project was rough. And look at this success.” When they give you that sort of thank you email or that success email, find a way to keep that because that’s going to be the easiest way to give yourself that reminder is to keep looking back on those sort of things because those are…I mean, we like to think that an organization’s customer are just the people that spend money with them. But your customers are everyone in the organization who benefits from the work that you do. So, finding ways to capture stories from all of them is hugely important.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely, yes. Well, why don’t you go ahead and tell us about a win that keeps you inspired?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, I have a bunch of them. So, I was a full-time business school professor for seven years, and this started as a non-digital, right? We taught business, and I taught a couple of the sales classes. We taught about thank you notes, and people actually listened to me and started sending them. So, I had a little box that was full of those thank you notes. Now, it’s been electronic. Probably my favorite one in the last six months or so, and this is why it comes to the top of my mind, is my prior book was called Friend of a Friend, which is a book about how networks inside organizations but also if you’re looking for a job,  or you’re in sales and trying to find more clients, networking works as well.

And I got an email from a woman who was totally dissatisfied with her job in PR and moved to New York thinking, “I was a PR major, this is where I’m supposed to go to get into film and television and news and media and all that sort of stuff,” and just hated it, loath it. Walked through Barnes & Noble, found the book, which is great but also a little depressing because I wish people like that would already know I exist, but that’s a whole other dilemma. Found the book, read it, and sort of started to develop a plan of action for moving into that world of fashion. And now that’s the world that she’s in. I have no idea why fashion appealed to her, but if you’re already in New York, it’s not a bad place to transition from media over to because it’s also based there.

And, literally, it was two emails. She sent one, I sent one, and then I think she sent one back. I have those two emails in my computer about her job transition over time. I look at it, especially when I look at the sales numbers for Friend of a Friend and we have an off week. I go back and I pull emails like that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. Thank you.
Okay. So, then by contrast you say that it’s not so effective for the leaders to go offsite and go figure out and cast a vision or a mission statement. You say that they’re often terrible. What’s the story here?

David Burkus
Yeah. I mean, I think they all start well-meaning. The process that we use to develop a lot of them is really flawed. So, we go off to an offsite, usually we start with sort of a draft, we start with what we do which is just not necessarily why we do it but just what we do. Like your example of the roofing company, it’s not really why we do it, it just happens to be this is the business that worked best for the people we have. But we start with that description of what we do, and then everybody turns into like college English professors or parliamentarians and starts debating the specific wording, where this comma goes.

The first thing we need to do, because we care about everybody, is we need to make sure that everybody gets represented. And so, we talk about shareholders, and customers, and stakeholders, and the community, and a ton of different people. And then it’s not enough to say what we do, we also have to say how we do it, so we throw in buzzwords like synergy and excellence and innovation and all of that sort of stuff. And the end result is a phrase that ends up, and it’s way longer than the answer to the question, “What are we fighting for?” part of the reason for the question is just cut through the crap of a mission statement and tell me what you’re fighting for. But it also becomes incredibly difficult to even remember.

I have literally been in the room with CEOs of companies, and said, “What is your mission statement?” and seen them like look under the table, at their phone, or they have to look up their investors, or About Us page of their website to find it because we’re all excited when it came out two years ago and we put it on a glass plaque. But if it doesn’t actually inspire people, using one of the three levers that we were talking about, it gets very easily forgotten.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. Well, now I’m intrigued. So, some people might say, “Well, you know, that’s really great for any number of those examples, safety with aluminum, candles, writing books.” Have you seen some folks do a bit of connection to a fight in maybe an industry or a set of activities that would seem like the opposite of inspiring? Like, “It’s really hard to find a purpose here but, by golly, these guys did it and it worked for them.”

David Burkus
Yeah, there’s a couple different there. One of the big things we’re seeing is, like you said, I, after I wrote the book, became aware of a company in Cincinnati called Jancoa that is very similar, they’re a janitorial company, but their whole thing is to help people get settled. Usually, folks that are trying to climb the socio-economic ladder, or immigrants, etc., trying to find and get them settled and move on, so there’s that idea that what we actually do isn’t necessarily all that important, so there’s that idea.

But then there’s other things that people do or sometimes it’s supplied to you from the business model that makes what you do not necessarily all that important. Now, if I’m getting it, something that might be behind your question, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody properly leverage a fight and say, “We’re going to do evil,” right? “But we’re going to call it the revolution because the rest of the industry does good.” And this actually is an example that’s coming into my head but it reminds me of we were just talking about mission statements. Sometimes if you’ve got a good fight that you’ve adopted, the mission statement isn’t actually all that important.

So, there’s a little company, you may have never heard of them, they’re called Hershey, the Hershey Company, they make this candy. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. And for a long time, actually, they had the worst mission statement I’ve ever seen. Their mission statement was literally “undisputed marketplace leadership. That’s our mission. In this industry, we aspire to that.” And, thankfully, they changed it over time mostly because people, like me, criticized them for a really long time. But the truth is they didn’t need that mission because their fight has been a part of the company DNA for a lot longer than that. Not a lot of people know this, but if you work at Hershey you definitely do.

Milton Hershey, before he died, set up a school for biological and societal orphans, the Milton Hershey School. It’s literally almost across the street. You basically, if you go to Hershey Pennsylvania, you have the headquarters of Hershey, Hersheypark, which is an amusement park, and then on the other side of Hersheypark is the school right there, all sort of laid out. Almost along the same street. And this isn’t like a corporate social responsibility, “We give some of our profits to this school that Milton started.” When Milton was preparing his estate, when he was getting ready to die, he set up a trust for the school and willed his shares to the trust. So, the trust and the school is still the majority shareholder of the school. It’s not the profits that fund the school. The trust owns the school. Milton Hershey School owns Hershey Foods.

And so, they could get into any industry they want at this point as a company, and there’s a lot of different divisions now, they’re in entertainment, they make a lot more than just chocolate, all of that sort of thing. So, I think they’re probably my favorite example of a company that you could go into any business, and as long as the trust still owns the primary business, you could change your mission statement to whatever you want to because the sense of purpose that people are going to feel is that ally fight, “What are we fighting for? We’re fighting to give those kids an education.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, so we talked about the fight a lot. I’d love it, adjacent to that or complementary to that, do you have any other best practices that make a world of difference when it comes to motivating a team?

David Burkus
Yeah. So, the task significance piece, I think, is a huge one. I think the biggest one that we are probably in dire need of in this world of virtual work that we’re about to face is, I think, we don’t often tell people how best to interact with us. Like, if you think about the majority of research that you read on people inside of teams, how you interact with your coworkers, etc., most of it is like, and I’m guilty of this, most of is content about how to deal with that coworker that disagrees with you, how to deal with this coworker that you can’t get along with, etc.

I think we’d be a lot better if we thought about us as the problem, and we actually presented to our team, “Hey, here are my little idiosyncrasies.” So, like mine is I’m very easily distracted not by little shiny things, but you’ll say something and then I’ll think about the ramifications of it, and you’ll keep talking but I’ll be over here thinking about how that affects some downstream issue. Like, it’s just I’m a systems thinker like that, and you may have to catch me up at times. You may also find me super excited about an idea that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about but it sparked in that meeting.

So, I try and present to people, “These are the little idiosyncrasies of how I work.” I’ve sometimes heard this described as an owner’s manual for yourself. What if you created an owner’s manual for yourself and gave it out to the rest of your team, and said, “Hey, based on people that used to work with me in the past and my own introspection, these are the things you can expect, strengths and weaknesses, so that we can get a little more clear”? I think that goes a whole lot further than just reading a bunch of listicles about, “How do I deal with a coworker that we disagree with?”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And it’s so powerful in terms of that display example of vulnerability invites others to do the same and just can go so far in building trust and camaraderie and all kinds of good things.

David Burkus
Yeah. Oh, no, I totally agree. I had this situation, in the spirit of trust and vulnerability, I’ll actually share this from two days ago. I was in a back-and-forth, more chat-based debate with somebody that’s, we’ll call him a colleague. Like a lot of the work that I do now is we don’t work for the same company but we’re working for the same mission, be it getting the book out or whatever, and we’re arguing back and forth.

We’re saying something, and he said, “Sorry, this was harsh, whatever,” and I said, “No, I wasn’t offended,” and then I immediately hit him back with, “No, actually, that’s a lie. I was but then I reminded myself of this.” And I forget what the this was but it was basically like, “No, in that moment, I really was angry at you for like 45 seconds but I got over it and here’s why.” And I don’t think he had ever had somebody actually say, “Yeah, you made me angry and I got over it because I care more about this project,” right?

So, those little, I think, displays of vulnerability, I think, are hugely important. I do want to caution here around vulnerability and authenticity that it’s also not an excuse to be a jerk. Like, this owner’s manual is not, “Here’s all the things you can expect about how I tell it like it is.” Right, this is not what we’re talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
Sometimes I’m going to scream at you.

David Burkus
“Sometimes I’ll just throw things and walk off.” No, that’s not what we’re talking about. But we are talking about, “Hey, here are the things I know about what it’s like to work with me, and some ways that I found are easiest. Here are my flaws so that we can work around them.” And, hopefully, that inspires a conversation. That works a whole lot better than like, “Let’s all do a book club, or let’s all take a personality test and talk about our differences.” I don’t know that those go all that far but that vulnerability and open sharing definitely does.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I think the tools whether it’s Myers-Briggs or StrengthsFinder, any number of things out there, can be a fantastic starting point in terms of like, “Yes, this is highly resonant for me, and so I will share it.” And it’s interesting, you mentioned that that person had never had anybody admit that they were upset or offended. I think that’s a whole other ballgame. But there have been some times where people have said that they did this thing, and they said they’re sorry, and I really was kind of ticked off, and I said, “Oh, I forgive you.” It’s like people are used to hearing that, and they’re like, “Actually, that feels more intense.”

David Burkus
Right. You’re supposed to respond with, “No worries,” or, “Oh, it’s no problem,” or whatever. Like, “No, it really was a problem, but I forgive you because I care about you.” Yeah, and it’s the same deal with like I learned this from my kids and like parenting books, which is, ironically, more relevant. Most of them are more relevant to the workplace than they are to parenting. But one of the other things around emotions is it’s always okay to say your emotion. It’s never okay to blame somebody else.

So, when we work on with our kids, you can never say, “Mom, you’re making me mad.” You can say, “I’m mad.” You can say you’re mad at me as much as you want, but you got to take responsibility for your emotion. And then when you say you’re mad, I’ll help you. That might be because I have to apologize, or that might be I need to help you calm down, whatever. It’s totally cool to label your emotions. But I think we’re in this game where we only got half of that in the corporate world where we were talking about you’re not suppose to use you-statements, use I-statements. We ended up just saying nothing instead, and we just kind of mask those emotions. So, people say, “I’m sorry,” and we say, “No worries,” and that’s a lie on both counts because they’re not sorry and we’re still angry.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s true. Well, hey, man, labelling emotions when we’re working out with our two-year old who’s been doing a lot of screaming, maybe you heard some, and so we got these emotion flashcards which are really helpful in terms of the different happy, disappointed, sad, angry, and that’s been going far. We also say, “Johnny, can you please stop screaming?” And then when he does, we clap, and he likes being applauded.

David Burkus
Oh, I like that. I like that. Mine are not two but I might still steal that. For my coworkers, I mean, not for my…

Pete Mockaitis
“Will you stop screaming?” All right. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

David Burkus
No, I think to bring it all together, I think emotions, again, are a powerful thing in the workplace, and we’re just sort of realizing that. And that’s one of the reasons I think this purpose thing, like you said, it’s almost primal, this idea of a fight because it taps into that emotional level. Purpose is great but if it’s just logically apparent, we see how AB equals C, and C is a good thing in the world. That’s not as motivating as let’s tap into that actual emotion of, “Here’s an injustice I need to fix,” or, “Here’s a critic I need to prove wrong,” etc. So, ironically, we hit from both angles, that power of sort of emotions that work used properly.

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

David Burkus
Yeah, one of my favorite quotes. I mean, I’m trained as an organizational psychologist, even though I always wanted to be a writer. And one of my favorite quotes from that world is W. Edwards Deming, “In God we trust, all others bring data.”

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

David Burkus
So, I talked about it a bit in the pro social motivation piece around, and some of Adam Grant’s studies. You probably heard these, because I know you and you’re smart, around the doctors and handwashing, very timely study for right now but also the call center workers and spieling the beneficiaries. But I feel like we need to shine more attention on a lot of those studies because one of the things you realize right off the bat is that organizations are pretty terrible at sharing those stories, at sharing those wins and those people who benefit from work. So, it’s a popular study already but it’s not popular enough.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And for those who have not heard it, now is your chance to popularize it. What should they know about it?

David Burkus
Oh, yes. Sorry, we’re all getting nerdy here. I apologize. I shouldn’t assume. So, Grant, while he was a Ph. D. researcher at the University of Michigan, the first study of this was a call center study looking at…especially if you’re going to a state school. I went to grad school at OU, and the very first thing I got in terms of any communication from the University of Oklahoma was a call from a student trying to raise money for scholarships. Every large school has these call centers where we’re just calling alumni asking for money all the time. And I appreciate him because they’re trying, they’re working, these are kids who were trying to pay their own way through school. Talking to them is a bit like talking to the Cat in the Hat, or the Green Eggs and Ham guy. I forget it. It’s Sam. It’s a bit like talking to Sam-I-Am because it’s like, “No, I don’t want to donate a thousand. No, I don’t want to donate in a box. No, I don’t want to donate $20 worth of fox.”

So, Grant looked at this, I mean, it’s incredibly sort of draining job, and Grant looked at it and thought, “How can we increase that task significance piece, leverage the pro social motivation?” is the term that he would use. And so, he designed this study where, basically, everybody in the call center got put into three groups. One group got an extra 10-minute break one day, another group, during that 10-minute break got to read letters from students saying how much they appreciated the scholarship that they earned because of these call center efforts, and the third group got to meet an actual student. So, they went to the breakroom for the normal break and there is a student who describes how the scholarship helped him, how he wouldn’t be able to afford to go to the University of Michigan without it, etc.

Interestingly enough, there’s no effect in group one or two. Obviously, there’s no group in group one because they just got an extra break. But group three made more phone calls afterwards for a number of weeks, raised more money per phone call. None of these groups received any training on how to be a better salesperson, anything like that. It was just the sheer motivation to, “I can put a face and a person to who I’m helping. I know what I’m fighting for at this point. I know it just feels like I’m on a phone call but I’m fighting to help keep those kids who would otherwise not have it, stay educated,” had a dramatic effect on their motivation with no other interventions.

So, Grant wrote all this up in a series of follow-up studies, too, and kind of labeled this term pro social motivation, which I think, personally, like I said, I think it needs to be more popular, talking about extrinsic motivation at all time, we’re talking about intrinsic. I think we’re going to start talking about pro social motivation like it’s a third lever of that level of motivation, that it goes alongside these other two.

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

David Burkus
One of my favorite books is by an intellectual hero of mine named Roger Martin, it’s called The Opposable Mind, and it’s about how, especially in business, but even in life, his thing was when we look at a lot of different mental models of how a business should operate, for example, it’s low cost or differentiation, or we look at how you interact with customers, either speed of service or quality of service, a lot of times those models that seem opposed are not actually opposed. And it’s the leader or even the individual contributor that can find a way to integrate those two models and leverage the strengths of both, that’s why it’s called The Opposable Mind, that can really thrive and create something new.

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

David Burkus
This is going to sound super, super low-fi, my absolute favorite tool is Facebook Messenger. I don’t know why. I feel like there’s a lot of stuff you can do in iMessages or Slack, but there’s a little bit more you can do inside of Facebook Messenger, but then there’s not all the other disruptions. And what I like about it is I probably could figure out how to do this better on my computer. But what I like about it is I can get at it from just about anywhere. I’m on my tablet, it’s auto-installed there. I’m on my phone, it’s there. I’m on my desktop, it’s sort of a click away. So, I never could get messages to work the way it should. I know that seems weird but that’s probably how I interact with more colleagues and that sort of stuff. And I don’t use Facebook for anything else. I literally only have Messenger on my phone.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome?

David Burkus
So, we talked about kids already so I’ll tell you this one and yours is at the age where you could start this. My wife brought this into our daily kind of shutdown routines. So, apparently, when she was growing up, it was a common question they asked on the dinner table. Our life is such that we have more family breakfast than we have family dinners, so we didn’t ask it there. But before we go to bed, we ask both of our kids, “What was the favorite part of your day?”

And when the oldest was about three, maybe three and a half, he started asking it back to us and wouldn’t let us put him to bed until we gave him an answer too. And so, that little, now we’d call it a gratitude practice and all of this sort of fluffed-up stuff, but I really just like that question, “What was the favorite part of your day?” Let’s spend 30 seconds and go, “What was the favorite part of today? What went absolute best today?” And so, we still do it. Now, they’re eight and six, but we still do it almost every night. We probably don’t remember every night but we still do it pretty much every night.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s a particular nugget you share that you’re known for?

David Burkus
I like to say that I’m trying to make the experience of work suck a little bit less, and I do that in a variety of ways. Pick A Fight is one of them, a lot of the other books that I’ve written, but we also put out a lot of content, just like you said, about how to interact better with coworkers and show motivation. I think work, the big grand overarching theme, or my personal fight, is that work is far more important to think about work-life balance as just the number hours because toxic work will drag itself home, and positive work will make homelife better as well. So, we need to be talking about the experience of work in a way where people leave it more energized than they came.

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

David Burkus
I would point them to the show notes for this episode because you do an awesome job of writing up all those show notes with all of these little lightning-round questions. And if you’re listening to this, you already know where that is. And, let’s be honest, both of our names are a little hard to spell so no one is going to remember that. I’d send you to DavidBurkus.com but you’re already listening to the show. You know where the show notes are. Find me there.

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

David Burkus
Find your fight. Look at the tasks that you do and the story that would resonate the most with you, and find a way to frame it, and remind yourself of that story all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. David, this has been a treat. Thank you and good luck in your fights.

David Burkus
Oh, thank you. Thanks so much. Thanks for fighting for people to have a more awesome job.