The world of communication issues

Have you ever heard someone complaining about a communication issue he had with another person? Have you ever felt that your partner in communication exchange just messes things up and he is responsible for all the misunderstandings? Have you ever heard a manager getting angry that his subordinate didn’t understand what he told him? If your answer is yes, then you were witness of a common pattern. We tend to blame others for not being able to communicate with us and we forget that in every communication there are two sides and therefore two sides to blame if things go wrong.

Communication between two peers

If there are communication issues between two peers then as a rule of thumb you can say that it is always fault of both of them. You can sometime find that one is more cooperative and communicative than the other but it still doesn’t change the fact that there are many things that the person could do to fix the communication, rather than giving up saying that the other person is impossible to talk to.

So how to approach communication with a peer who doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in successful resolution of a debate? The basic question to ask is what drives his behavior. We all want to be liked, we all want to be successful, we all want to help others and it is usually fear that we will lose one of those things that prevent us from “being reasonable”. So the solution to your problem is to create a safe environment where thoughts can be shared freely without a worry that they will be used against you.

There are various ways how to do that. One of the easiest is to start with show of trust on your part and be the first one who shows his cards. At the same time you need to reassure the other person that you are interested in mutually agreeable solution and you are not shooting for win-lose scenario. You need to be transparent and act trustworthy enough that other will sincerely believe that you are interested not just in your goals but also in his and that he can trust you. As Kerry Patterson writes in a book Crucial Conversations: “The best don’t play games”. They know that dialogue is the free flow of meaning – with no pretending, sugarcoating, or faking. They step out of the content of the conversation, make it safe, and then step back in.

The only person in the conversation you have real control over is you so ask yourself “What do I want from this conversation for myself?” “What do I want for the other person?” and “What do I want for our relationship in the future?” These questions should you guide for your next steps. And don’t be afraid to voice them aloud.

“Maria, I see we have run into a stalemate. I would like to get a chicken for lunch and I hear that you would prefer fish. Chickens are important to me but it is much more important that we maintain a good relationship going forward. So let’s talk about what options we have for lunch so we are both satisfied.”

And what if the other person doesn’t want to talk at all? It means that trust is broken, feelings are hurt and you need to be humble and start with apology.

“Maria, I’m sorry for pushing you to eat chicken. In no way did I want to ridicule your taste in fish.”

The key in having a good conversation between peers even on the most difficult topics is to leave your ego out of the equation, be open, but also firm as you are shooting for a mutually agreeable purpose, for a state when both parties in the conversation will leave the table with a good feeling about the outcome.

Communication between a boss and a subordinate

The same applies also to communication between people who are at different level (being it social, seniority, organizational). Though the question of who to blame and who should be the one responsible for successful outcome is much simpler here. If there is a communication issue between a manager and his subordinate it is simply fault of the manager. He acts from position of power, he has the means to make it work and he should have also the skills. And still it has happened to me couple of times in my career that manager came to me and complained that a person on his team doesn’t listen to him. The manager’s hope was that I will talk to the person and somehow fix him. How peculiar. In such situation you should provide him with good feedback and coaching on how to work with his team but in no way should you get involved. A manager who is coming regularly with this sort of problems to you is probably a wrong person for the job. If people don’t listen to him it means he is not managing and not leading and thus not belonging in that role.

If you are the boss, then you need to figure out how to make things work and if even after all your genuine effort things don’t improve then maybe just maybe there really is issue with the team member. Issue, that gets fixed only by him not being a team member anymore. Very good indication usually is that this person has similar communication issues with other people within and without the team.

The actual ways how to fix communication issue between manager and a subordinate is at the end the same as between the peers. The solution should be always triggered by the boss but if it happens that you are the subordinate you can still use the same techniques it will just cost you a bit more effort to get there and you may not be able to do it at one go as your boss may need time to reflect on the situation before he or she is able to admit that there is effort needed also from his or her side.

Twitter type summary: “In every communication there are two sides and therefore two sides to blame if discussion turns into argument.”

How do you deal with communication issues in your team? How do you deal with misunderstandings you have with your team or your boss? How do you make things work?

So you’ve got a remote boss. Tricky…

We live in a super connected world where organizations span across geographies and cultures. Every day in the office we meet colleagues, partners and customers using technologies such a phone, email, video conferencing and we must learn how to work with them even if not sitting face to face. One of the most challenging situations is reporting to a remote manager. How do you make the most of such arrangement? How do you ensure you are really connected and you get job done? How do you ensure your boss understand what you are doing and can appreciate your efforts? In “So you’ve got a remote team. Tricky…” series of articles (Part I., Part II., Part III.) I talked about how to manage remote teams, and today I will look at the same problem from the other side – how to be managed remotely. It should be no surprise that it all boils down to good communication. What do you communicate about?

Keep him in the loop

If someone sits at the other side of the world it is obvious that he or she cannot really follow what you doing on daily basis. Your boss just cannot stop by couple of times a day to ask how you doing and help you out. You need to make sure that he gets the necessary information that he would have access to when sitting in the same location and provides the necessary guidance. What usually worked for me was to have an agreement with my boss (or my team when I’m in the manager role) that I will keep him in the loop on anything that is big enough that he might be interested in it, he may need or he may be asked about by other people. And the mantra here is “more is better than less”. I would keep him in cc: of my emails if the topic could be of interest to him and at the same time I make it pretty clear that I don’t really expect him to read it. The idea is that he will have the information available on short notice when he needs it even if it is in the middle of my night. This way he can also praise, provide feedback, and all that without the burden of micromanaging.

I used to have this agreement with my first manager at Siemens. I would keep him in cc: of the emails that could be relevant to him but he wouldn’t read it unless I flagged the email as important. For the rest, we would meet once a week and use his unread emails from me as a guideline of what has happened during the week and talk about it and answer questions. The advantage for him was that at any point he would have easy access to data when asked for it by his managers or business partners. Similar approach would be to use some collaboration website and keep the data there, though that means more conscious effort.

Ask for clarifications

When you get a task make sure you understand it. The most performance issues in global teams come from the fact that the goals and expectations are either not set at all or are set too vaguely and both parties have a bit different understanding of what the outcome should be. So when you get a task from your boss you can do two things to ensure you really got it right. First, ask “Why?” As I wrote in “What problem are you trying to solve?” by asking this question you will understand what is the motivation behind the task, what is the big picture and it helps tremendously to set the framework so the chances are that you will not do something that would go against it. Secondly, try to paraphrase how you understand the task. If you repeat the description of the task in your own works it will help you understand what is requested and at the same time it gives your boss a chance to react in case you are off the mark. If the task is critical enough you may even give your boss a high-level outline of what your steps will be. The idea here is not to seek permission but to ensure you understand the objectives.

Remind him that you exist

Out of sight, out of mind. If you are in a remote location and your boss don’t see you every day in your cubicle chances are you are not on top of his mind and you simply need to remind him that you exist. Even though it should be primarily his job to ensure he stays connected with his team you can always help him to achieve it. Don’t wait for your boss to setup regular meetings, just push yourself to his calendar. Don’t wait for him to ask questions, just pro-actively keep him informed. And there is nothing wrong with reminding him some of your successes in case he may not see them. Have you got kudos from your customer? Just forward it to your boss as FYI (For Your Information).

Ask for what you need

Never assumes that your boss knows what you need. Be very clear on what tools, budget or support you need to achieve your goals. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you don’t understand something or if you need help with getting cooperation from people in the team or other departments. Your boss has better leverage and will be able to help you with things that would otherwise seem difficult or impossible.

Educate on your culture

The chances are that in global teams your boss comes from different country, has different cultural and educational background and may not always understand how things work at your site. It is your responsibility to help him understand that. You should always strive to give him a glimpse into how are his comments, decisions and actions seen in your culture. Just make sure you do it the right way. Saying “this will never work in my country,” is definitely not the way to go about it. It is not constructive, it is not helpful. You should formulate your feedback in a way that will help to provide understanding of what the natural consequences might be. If you have examples from the past that would illustrate what you mean then even better. For example, in Czech culture there is this negative notion that bigger guys/countries would “decide things about us, without us.” It is an important cultural aspect that is good to be shared with your boss and explain that if the decision about the team will be done without getting them involved the natural consequence is that it will not be accepted and people will spent weeks being distracted by complaining about it.

Understand his perspective

Always try to understand why he is doing what he is doing. Why would he say such a thing? Why would he believe something? Why would he act this way? Try to understand the “why” and then act appropriately. And stay positive. If you want to have a healthy relationship and work with your boss as a team it is important to have the mindset that anything he does comes from a sincere believe that it is the best thing to do for everyone involved. You should always assume that there is a positive motivation behind his behavior. If you keep this mindset it will help you to understand why he acts in a certain way and it can help you to realize how you can help and what information you should communicate.

Help him achieve his objectives

If you understand his perspective you should be also able to provide him help to achieve his goals. Yes, your boss is here to help you achieve your objectives but if you understand what his goals are and align with them chances are it will help you both to perform at higher level. The natural consequences of this relationship are that both of you over-achieve, your work well together, both of you get more opportunities for growth and have a good mutually beneficial relationship.

Provide feedback

It is always difficult thing to provide feedback to your superior but nevertheless you should strive to build such a relationship that you can do it. And again, this is primarily responsibility of your boss since he acts from the side of power but you can always do at least something to help him create such environment. If your boss feels you are loyal, you care not just for yourself but also for the company and him, chances are he will be willing to listen and receive well intentioned and well formulated feedback.

Twitter type summary: “Any relationship is a two way street. Don’t just sit and wait for your boss to walk to you, but go and meet him in the middle.”

What are your tips and tricks when working with a remote manager? How do you ensure you have what you need to do your job and that you are successful?

Human brain, the biggest liar of all times

The human brain is a marvelous piece of natural technology.  It has many features but there is one that is truly unique and distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  It can imagine things. The rest of the animals living on this planet need to see, hear, touch, and experience the world around to be able to react to it. We, the human beings can do all of that in our minds. Over the last couple of millions of years mother nature provided us with a part of brain called frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex. That is the part of the brain responsible for imagining and to be really effective it uses the same areas of brain we use when we see or hear things in real-time. That allows us achieve so much more than other animals but it also makes a powerful tool for feeding us misinformation and makes us puppets to our own cheating minds. In this post I will present couple of ideas described by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness illustrated by everyday examples we all experience.

Our cheating memory

Our brain has a limited capacity to store information so it created a neat way how to do it. It stores just the highlights, just the key points from what we experience and not every single detail. When we want to retrieve that memory it gets the key points and extrapolates the rest. As you would expect it extrapolates the rest based on what we experience today and not what happened in the past. And not just on what we experience today but also on how we feel at that particular moment. This means that we essentially remember things the way we want them remember today.

For example do you remember how you felt when you tasted some food for the first time? I love to eat sauerkraut. And I also know that when I was young my mother always had to push me to eat it as I didn’t like it. Regardless how much I try to remember how it tasted back then and why I didn’t like it… I just cannot. Does the phrase “I don’t understand how I could ever live without this” ring a bell? At the other hand a food I really despise is sweet rice. Last time I ate it was when I was a child and I remember that I didn’t like it. I have no idea why. I didn’t taste it since then. My brain stored just the most basic information “sweet rice = no good” and no details around.

Our cheating imagination

The same as with the past memory applies to imagining our future. We focus only on the big picture and we don’t think about details. That is why we often overpromise on what we can deliver. We will just think about the highlights and will not think about all the small details around it.

A typical example for always busy people is to promise someone that we will have a dinner or beer with them on Friday next week. In our mind we see this picture: I just finished work at 5pm and together with friends head for dinner, get our favorite food, enjoy the conversation, and have a good time. Then Friday comes. We realize that the last meeting at work ends 5pm sharp and we need some more time to finish other tasks, it is raining outside and the weather is nasty, we are not particularly hungry, a customer just yelled at us and we are not in mood for a laugh and tomorrow morning we need to get up early to take our kids for a trip. We forgot about all these small details when imagining the future a week ago and now they are very real and visible so we pick up a phone and call our friends that we cannot make it. These little things were planned long time ago, our brain just didn’t take them into account when imagining the future. And the worst part? Our brain is cheating even now, because if we ignored him and went for the meal with friends we would have a great time…

Our brain protecting our feelings

When something bad happens to us our brain finds ways how to minimize the bad feelings about it (it finds excuses). This seems like really useful feature but it doesn’t explain why we still feel bad about some things. The trick lies in another aspect of how the brain works. It is more sensitive to changes than to total magnitude of an event. When the change is big enough, or the situation bad enough it triggers the internal psychological immune system. The brain then starts coming up with positive explanations to limit the negative impact on us and makes us feel a bit better about it. When the change is small, or just minor annoyance this internal system is not triggered. As a result we sometimes over-react, feel unreasonably upset with small things while coping much better with major disasters.

Just think about situation when some major project didn’t go as you planned, or you really screwed up. What has most likely happened was you coming up with explanations like “It wasn’t really my fault as I didn’t have all the information and no one supported me.” “I wasn’t really too interested in the project anyway, and we are better off without it.” And then compare it with situations when you get really angry with waiting too long in a line at the counter in super market or using bad language about the car ahead of you that took too long to get moving at the lights so you missed the green and need to wait two more minutes.

Since we are talking about things that irritate us let me make one more statement. We tend to remember unique situations more than common ones. And because of that our brain makes us think that they happen more often than they really do. So next time you get to the coffee machine in the office and it is out of coffee beans so you need to refill it and you say to yourself “Not again. Why does it always happen to me?” just consider the number of times it actually didn’t happen to you. You feel that it happens every day, but if you would start a diary and always make a note you would discover that it is just your brain lying to you and in fact it doesn’t happen that often as your mind makes you believe.

Our brain trying hard to make us happy

Our brain constantly tries to make us happy and altering the past in a way to protect us. When we make a decision our brain will find ways to justify that decision as the best one. As Daniel Gilbert notes “It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience.” This is the reason why we feel anxiety when having to make a decision but feel relieved once the decision is done. In fact in majority of situations we feel really good about the decision made and we like the results and the more time goes on the more sure we are it was the best decision of our life.

Twitter type summary: “Human brain has an incredible power of imagination. And it uses that power to feed us misinformation and faulty facts.”

Do you have stories to share where your brain has failed you? Have it ever happened to you that you realized you remember things differently than they happened?

The never ending learning

It is a dream of many kids who have to go to school every single day. They sit in the class rooms and dream about holiday or possibly about getting out of school and be like grown-ups and start working, make money and never need to learn anything again. Unfortunately, life is not that simple. In fact when you get out of school the real learning just starts. We have to learn every single day and if we want to be successful in our professional careers and keep up with the brave new world we live in, we need to spend some conscious effort in learning new things.

It is not HR’s responsibility

Over the years I’ve been managing teams I heard very often that “HR should provide some training”. When I asked what are the developmental needs of that particular individual the response often was “I don’t know, just tell HR to give me a list of training and I will pick some.” The implication here is that I don’t really know what I need or what I want, just give me something… anything. I will then go and sit through some class that will most likely be irrelevant, boring and bring me nothing except of the feeling that the company “gave me training”. This is the most common waste of money many companies would do.

HR (Human Resource) departments are here to provide tools and guidance. They are not the almighty beings who will just miraculously push the right knowledge into your head.

It is not manager’s responsibility

So if not HR, then I guess it should be the role of the manager, right?

Wrong. Manager, who works with you on daily basis, understands what skills you have today, what is required for the job and what skills you may need in the future. Your manager is in a unique position to help you identify the skills gap that you need to bridge. The manager is here to provide you with opportunities so you can learn on the job. The manager can provide regular feedback and course corrections and can work with HR group to provide the tools or training you need.

However, even the manager can do very little when you are not willing to learn.

It is your responsibility

It is a responsibility of each and every of us to take ownership of our own personal development. You cannot blame the HR or your manager that you are not growing and not learning anything new. It is your responsibility to provide the effort, seek out new opportunities to learn and go above and beyond your current duties. Learn on the job, learn from colleagues, learn from external mentors, and learn from books or articles in the magazines and on the web. Let me give you two examples from my life.

When I started by career as a software developer in 1999 I would buy any book I could get my hands on that could give me better insight into technologies I worked with (C++, PHP, Perl). I would spend nights browsing (and often contributing) to various community forums for developers, learning from others and sharing my knowledge. I would spend weekends digging into the technologies, building small apps to test the limits, trying new things and figuring stuff for myself. I really wanted to be good at what I did. I didn’t need a manager or HR department to “send me on a training” and I didn’t expect them to.

And then I moved to management and as a professional manager and a leader the learning started all over again. I would read tons of books on leadership, I would enroll to MBA, I would enroll to coaching and leadership training courses, I would spent time reading what other leaders say about managing people, I would even experiment with my teams (lucky them) and try different ways how to manage people and I would volunteer for new managerial challenges to learn on the job and to push the limits of what I can do. I would keep open mind and really dedicate myself to be as good professional manager as possible. And I still do it even today. And that takes effort, willingness, dedication and perseverance.

What to learn?

So where should you spend your time and effort? What are the things to learn? In majority of the jobs it is always a combination of different things but in any leadership role it boils down to these five skills:

  • Company basics (you really need to understand the culture, the values and what the company stands for to be able to lead other people and achieve company goals)
  • Technical (you need to have the necessary technical skills related to the function of the group you are heading; for example finance, HR, IT, sales, operations, R&D)
  • Management (another sort of technical skills, this time focused on getting things done through other people; for example project management background is pretty handy for most of the management jobs even if they are not directly project management related)
  • Communication (every leader needs to communicate, in fact that is the major part of the job so invest your time in improving your communication skills or even language skills when in international environment)
  • Leadership (this one is the most difficult to learn and will take time to master, in fact it is a life-long journey; leading people, influencing others, inspiring teams is more art than science and thus needs to be continuously improved and adapted and cannot be learned on any training course; the only way to learn it is by continuous everyday practice)

Some of them are easy to get from your boss or HR, some of them will need a mentor, some of them a good book or hands-on experience and some of them just the right mind-set and lots of patience and perseverance.

Just remember that whatever help you get is always just a beginning. For example, you participate on a training focused on improving presentation and public speaking skills. It will give you the theoretical background, if it is good it will also give you a chance to practice in safe environment and provide you with some feedback so you know what to improve. But if you want to really improve this is just the first step and then you need to regularly get in front of people and talk. That is the only way you will really develop the skill and ensure the training wasn’t just waste of your time and money.

Twitter type summary: “It is a responsibility of each and every of us to take ownership of our own development and never stop learning.”

How do you learn? And more importantly why do you learn?