“What are the most important things that a leader can do?”
— Wondering in Wichita
This post is the fourth and final response to the question from Wondering in Wichita. We’ve talked about the importance of mindset, the importance of having a systems perspective, and the importance of defining reality continuously.
The final piece is a very specific strategy – to recognize that it’s the nature of teams and organizations to connect with each other in order to get the work done. And when we connect with each other in these social systems, there tends to be quite a bit of negative thinking, feeling and complaining. It’s the nature of the beast. We have a negativity bias and we move towards that in all our conversations.
Even with the best of intentions, we move into what I call “communities of complaint” where we connect with each other emotionally, but it’s around complaining. So I want to give you a strategy that I call explaining not excusing. That means that you give yourself permission and you give your people permission to explain what is going on for them, but not excusing what their behavior is or what their mistake was or what happened. You explain not excuse, and start using that language with people. Ask them, “Are you explaining or are you excusing? If you’re explaining, come on in, I want to hear more. If you’re excusing, we have to have a different kind of conversation.”
This strategy opens up the doors for people to say what they need to say, but it’s in the framework of explaining, of giving you context and information as opposed to excusing their behavior. It’s very powerful.
There are three pieces to the “explaining, not excusing” strategy:
1. Practice the 60/40 Rule
The 60/40 rule is the idea that when you are in conversation with one of your people, you spend 60% of your time listening and 40% of your time speaking. In other words, the person on the other side of the conversation actually has 60% of the bandwidth of that conversation. You really want to work on your listening skills. I know that’s almost counterintuitive when we think about leadership. We think about leadership being: I need to say things, I need to do things, I need to be active. But a lot of leadership is about being strategically and actively passive in response mode as opposed to engaging mode.
2. Don’t Solve Problems
Learn how to listen to problems without solving them. This is a lesson I learned early on in my own leadership career. I was called out by one of my direct reports when she presented a problem to me and I immediately went into solving mode. She said, “Danny, I really just need somebody to listen.” She was a Ph.D. student in psychology and I was not. So she really understood what was going on. It’s a lesson I want you to learn as well. You don’t need to solve it. You need to listen. You need to be able to accept, hear, and respond empathetically.
What does empathize mean? It means that I come into the space with you to see, feel, and hear what you are seeing, feeling, and hearing. And I remove my judgment from it. It’s really just about being in that space with you. So don’t get it confused with sympathizing. Sympathizing is feeling sorry. It’s putting our own lens on what this other person is going through. We don’t need to do that. What we need to do is actively listen. I repeat back to you what you’re saying. I use the chicken head response. I’m nodding a lot. I stay in empathy.
If you missed any of the prior blog posts in this series, I encourage you to take a few minutes and listen to them. You’ll find the first one on defining reality here, the second about having a systems perspective here, and the third about mindset here.