As I See It: The Management Challenge
October 18, 2021 Victor Rozek
Imagine coaching an athletic team under the following conditions: Some percentage of your players do not practice in your facility. You have minimal contact with them, and even less influence over how, when, and how long they practice. Building and maintaining team cohesion is almost impossible. There’s a chance some of your players may be unavailable at some point during the season, and your training facility could be closed for an unspecified period of time. Yet you are still expected to win.
That’s roughly the situation in which managers find themselves. Some percentage of their employees probably still work from home or will again soon. Contact with them is limited and must be scheduled, eliminating spontaneous in-the-moment communication. Those who do come to work risk the possibility of either catching or spreading covid classic or one of its less survivable variants. Even if that possibility is low, the stress it creates among certain employees will be high. And, depending on where your enterprise is located, you can expect one or more flavors of climate-related turmoil at some point during the year. Disruptions, whether meteorological or medical – or both – are almost a certainty. Yet managers are still expected to produce.
This is the new abnormal normal, and management has little choice but to adapt. The question is: What virtues will help managers navigate this uncharted wilderness of disruption and uncertainty?
The first is flexibility. As the saying goes, “Blessed are the flexible for they shall never be bent out of shape.” Flexibility allows adapting management processes to fluid conditions. Start by reexamining everything from performance reviews to team building strategies; planning and budgeting priorities, training, staffing considerations, realistic goal setting, energizing remote employees, and all the rest. Review contingency and disaster recovery plans. Share them with employees before they require implementation, and test them sooner rather than later. In short, everyone needs to understand their roles and responsibilities if the facility is damaged or key employees are unable to get to work.
IT managers typically have some combination of technical acumen and people skills. But those abilities are not necessarily equal. Most managers have a strong suit on which they rely. People managers will be more challenged because some of their staff will be isolated off-site. Whatever personal connections they were able to create under normal circumstances, whatever opportunities for inspiration or guidance they usually provide, may not be available. Leadership generally profits from proximity. Lacking that, clear communication is a must.
The predicament, even for good communicators, is that only about 7 percent of the meaning of a communication is derived from words. Most of the information we intuit about both the message and the messenger originate from sources beyond the dictionary meaning of language; 38 percent is derived from tonality – volume, inflection, pitch, pace. Is there congruence between the words and the way they are delivered? Does the delivery betray or support the content? Tonality over Zoom tends to be somewhat inauthentic as people sitting still, staring into a camera, tend not to behave as they normally would. Plus, over half of the meaning of a communication, a full 55 percent, is derived from observing physiology. That includes posture, body movement, gestures, eye contact or avoidance, breathing rate, flushing, facial expressions including micro expressions which we may recognize, albeit subconsciously, as emotional tells and indications of truthfulness or deceit. As valuable as Zoom has become for conducting business, much essential information is lost when we are limited to viewing faces on a laptop, framed in tiny Zoom windows.
Technically inclined managers will tend to discount the need for face-time, but that would be a mistake. In times of prolonged stress or crisis people want reassurance and connection with the familiar. The successful leader will take the time to connect individually with staff in whatever way possible. At a time when record numbers of people are retiring, quitting, or looking for new career opportunities, demonstrating loyalty to employees will be more productive than the expectation that employees remain loyal to a bloodless abstraction called “the company.”
The critical task facing management is creating and maintaining rapport with employees; a task made more manageable when both parties are speaking the same language. Rapport makes collaboration and cooperation possible. But we each experience the world in different ways, and based on how we’re organized, certain words hold more meaning. With rare exceptions everyone has a dominant learning modality and each modality has its own language. These modalities are based on what are called Representational Systems, which are simply different sensory channels we use to collect and interpret information.
There are four predominant representational systems: Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Auditory Digital. (A small percentage of people are organized around Gustatory or Olfactory systems, but these are secondary systems for most humans.) One of the quickest ways to build rapport, is to speak the language of the listener’s preferred representational system. And that preference will be revealed by their use of telltale predicates.
For example, a visual learner will use visual predicates: “I see what you mean.” “That’s clear.” “Not a bright idea.” “I get the picture.” “This looks good.” “I take a dim view…” For a person using a visual representational system, being seen will be much more important and meaningful than being heard. And one of the best ways of letting them know they are seen and understood is to respond using visual predicates.
Likewise, people with auditory preferences will want to be heard, not seen. They will pepper their speech with phrases like: “I hear you.” “Loud and clear.” “Sounds good/sounds like….” “That rings a bell.” “Barking up the wrong tree.” Replying to an auditory person by saying “I see what you mean” may be interpreted in their system as not being heard or understood at all.
Kinesthetic folks will use body-centered language: “Stay on your toes.” “I got a handle on it.” “One step at a time.” “Heading in the wrong direction.” “Get a grip.” “Let that sink in.” Kinesthetically organized people will have a tough time with trainings held on Zoom. For one thing, they have to move in order to learn. For another, they have shorter attention spans and while they are easily interested, they get quickly bored.
Auditory-Digital learners do not use any sort of sensory language. They want the facts without embellishment and believe themselves to be reasonable and rational. Their predicates will include words such as: “Evaluate.” “Inform.” “Study.” “Research.” “Organize.” And, “Statistically speaking,” They want to see the evidence, charts, figures, graphs, reports. They often choose fields like computer science or accounting where there is little room for interpretation. They live in a binary universe.
Of course, few people use only one representational system. Their speech and writing (emails are a good source) will usually be flavored with several. But if you pay attention, a favorite or dominant system will emerge. Understanding how people are organized and responding in kind is particularly effective for improving communication and building rapport, especially when communicating remotely. And, it will make managers more flexible communicators.
Trainer and consultant Alexander den Heijer famously noted: “When I talk to managers, I get the feeling that they are important. When I talk to leaders, I get the feeling that I am important.”
Flexibility, Communication, and Rapport, three tools that will help employees feel important in this time of disruption and uncertainty that cries out for exceptional and caring leadership.