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Don’t Hide Behind Your Customers

First published nationwide in the Business Journal Newspapers, August 2021

Earlier this year, my wife and I needed to replace our dual wall oven because the old one decided to run 100 degrees off the temperature we selected. We like to support local businesses, so we bought from a family-owned company in our area. Getting a new oven is like getting a new car, you take every precaution not to spill anything on or in it, but you eventually forget to put a sheet pan under the lasagna dish and end up with a gooey mess at the bottom.

We set the upper oven to self-clean (you can’t do both ovens at once), and headed to the living room. Twenty minutes later we heard a loud noise like shattering glass. My wife said, “That sounded like the oven door glass breaking.” Sure enough, the glass had shattered into a thousand pieces. We called the store, and they said they would order new glass panels and get them installed. A day later, my wife said, “You know, our oven could have been made from a whole batch of bad glass. We should check the lower oven.” Once again, she was right, and the now the lower oven was filled with shattered glass.

The problem is not that we got an oven with defective glass doors. A reasonable consumer knows that defects will arise, and it is not the retailer’s fault. It is annoying, but as long as the manufacturer and the retailer fix the problem, that is the best anyone can do. The problem came with communication from the retailer. For each stage of the process—reporting the issue, determining a resolution, setting repair dates, and follow-up—we had to contact the store instead of the store contacting us. Days would go by without us knowing whether a replacement part had been ordered, knowing when to expect delivery, or when the repair would be made. When a technician did arrive, he said the wrong part had been ordered, and it they would have to start over. He promised to let us know when to expect the replacement part (for the replacement part), but days went by with no word. Again, we had to initiate communication with the store.

For the final e-mail, I did an internet search and found the president of the company. I included him in the e-mail to the store manager and the repair department, describing the break-down communication within his company. We eventually heard from a customer service rep, who apologized and said they were working to find a resolution. She promised to call back with any new information. It has been a few days, with still no word. I checked online reviews of this company and every complaint echoed the same sentiment; a lack of communication. On the review website, the company responded to each complaint with “We are so sorry…”

Customer-Initiated Communication

If the customer has to track you down to get the information they need, you have already failed. Most customers understand that things break and that issues will take time to resolve. They just don’t want to feel like they have been forgotten. Even if there is nothing to report, check in and let them know that you are still working on it.

Apologies Are Worthless

The old adage, it is easier to be forgiven than to be given permission is a lie. Family members appreciate apologies, customers do not. There are a number of great research articles on this phenomenon, check them out. And, if you find that your staff is having to apologize repeatedly for the same problem, the issues lies with management.

Who Does the Customer Hear From?

If I send a complaint to Amazon, I don’t expect a call from Jeff Bezos. But the customer only hears from a nameless, faceless, customer service rep, don’t expect to gain a loyal customer. I included the president of this retailer on the final e-mail for two reasons, 1) as a fellow business owner, I wanted him to know about an issue in his operation, 2) I wanted to see if he would step up or hide behind his staff. He chose the latter. The bigger the problem is, the higher up the ladder the customer expects to hear from.

Initiate the conversation so you can control it, and don’t let your staff be your shield.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

When to Use Your Voice Instead of Your Thumb

The Silent Generation (aka Traditionalists), those born before 1946, still make up about 2% of the American workforce. It seems that a lifetime of grit and self-determination makes it hard to hang it all up and go sit on a beach somewhere. Baby Boomers, born between 1946-1964, make up 25% of the workforce. Generation X, 1965-1980, accounts for 33%. Millenials, or Gen Y, 1981-1996, make up 35%, and Gen Z, 1997-2012 are beginning to make their appearance in the office at 5%. But if you are a business leader, I wouldn’t ignore the impact that the youngest working generation could have on your organization. (I say working generation because those born after 2012 are only a decade away from jumping into the water themselves, we just haven’t named that group yet. My vote is Gen Alpha. If that term gets used, I want full credit.)

 

We have all heard the statistics about how Millenials have become the largest section of the workforce, but Generation Z accounts for over 25% of the nation’s population, and these two groups share a commonality that makes managing them a challenge: their love of technology. Generations Y and Z have grown up trusting technology to such a degree that navigating human interaction, especially in the workplace, can be a unique endeavor for them. As an expert in human interaction, I find this especially intriguing.

The first mistake any leader can make, especially leaders who are from an older generation, is to assume that, because younger generations communicate largely through digital means, they lack the ability for live interation. To assume so is ridiculous. Barring atypical mental conditions, every human brain is designed to interact best when eye contact, facial expressions, and non-verbal signals are present.

Rather than simply dismiss digital communication as inferior to live, business leaders must educate staff as to the advantages of each. Digital Pros: allows the recipient flexibility as to when they respond, allows for better tracking of information, eases the pressure on the recipient to respond immediately, does not require coordinating schedules. Cons: Lacks emotion, does little to build or maintain relationships, high risk of misunderstanding meaning or intent. Live — Pros: better at resolving sensitive issues, builds relationships, more efficient use of time, easier for the brain to process. Cons: more difficult to coordinate schedules to meet, less comfortable for introverts.

Given the advantages of each style of communication, saying that one is superior to the other is like saying a hammer is better than a screwdriver. But what do you do when live communication is needed, and your staff is less than eager to engage? The difference between generations when it comes to technology vs. live communication comes down to three factors: familiarity, trust, and fear.

Familiarity: Too many leaders demand that employees pick up the phone or schedule in-person meetings without first giving the employee ample practice beforehand. Psychologists identify the three steps necessary to change human behavior as Awareness (first being aware a change is needed), Commitment (agreeing to make the change), and Practice (the opportunity to practice the new behavior in a safe environment before putting into practice in the real world). If you want staff to engage in live communication, set up practice sessions first. Throwing people in the water to sink or swim only works if they get to start at the shallow end of the pool.

Trust: It is reasonable for those who grow up trusting technology to distrust live communication. To overcome this, you cannot claim that live communication is always better. Discuss what is needed from communication at the time, and which method will deliver the best results. Trust is established when the reasons for an action are clear.

Fear: The one thing digital communication is best at is protecting the image of the sender. When you have all the time in the world to craft your message, you are safe. The greatest fear all humans share is looking foolish in front of others who matter to them. Take away the fear by first building the skills of face-to-face.

A balanced approach to these two means of communication—and an organized effort to build the skills needed for both—is the best way to capture the skills of every generation sharing your workspace.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

We Will Laugh About This Someday

As in-person meetings have begun to resume, a comment I have heard frequently from staff members is, “It feels like I haven’t laughed in over a year.” This comes as no surprise. Given that the past year has brought us a global pandemic, social unrest, racial tension, and financial insecurity, there does not seem much to laugh about. But the comments I have received were not mild observations about missing a good laugh with friends, they were cries of desperation. People are realizing that they were missing, not just something fun, but something important. Given how laughter affects business, leaders should take note.

 

Researchers have discovered that the main purpose of laughter is not to signal that something funny has happened, but to foster agreement. Laughter is meant to support something that has been done or said. Inversely, if you make someone laugh, they will in turn agree with you. It is nearly impossible to disagree with someone with whom you have shared a laugh. As such, the ability to incite laughter is as important a skill in business as analyzing a P&L. Laughter also acts as a sort of mental lubricant. Immediately following a laughter episode, people can solve complex problems more easily and create innovative solutions more quickly.

So how do you go about bringing laughter back when there has been so little to laugh about lately? The first step is to recognize how laughter is suppressed. There are many factors necessary for laughter to exist; one of which is Permission to Laugh. We cannot laugh unless we feel we will be accepted by those around us. All it takes is one person saying, “I don’t think that is anything to laugh at,” and we are shut down. The power of the group is so important that people are sixteen times more likely to laugh at something when they are with others than when they are alone.

We deny other people permission to laugh based on what we consider to be inappropriate targets of the humor, or improper timing. Since laughter cannot exist without a target of the humor, we must avoid sensitive subjects. As for timing, there is an old saying, comedy is tragedy, plus time. We manage tragic events by looking back at them humorously. How long it takes for an event to be acceptable fodder for humor depends on the impact of the event, and each person’s personal attachment to it. The phrase, “We’ll laugh about this someday” applies to everyone differently. Of course, some events should never be the source of humor, no matter how far in the past they reside.

What does all this mean to a business leader. First, a good leader not only sets the tone of a group, he or she also clarifies the behavior expected from its members. For instance, sexual harrasment usually begins with an inappropriate joke, and leaders who tolerate such humor signal that they will tolerate more than just tasteless words. A leader’s role is to step forward and acknowledge whatever elephants are in the room. A leader sets the boundaries that the group must respect. Children do not play a game of tag without first deciding that running past the tree in the front yard is out of bounds. Humor has the same requirements. We feel more comfortable to laugh when we are sure we will not step out of bounds.

The next task of a leader is to give permission to laugh. In acknowledging the stress the group has endured, the leader can say, “I know that we have (issue) on our minds lately, but we will not let that get in the way of us enjoying life together.” It is vital that leaders not shy away from the weighty matters that take up space in staff members’ minds. Employees need to know that issues are respected, and therefore not the target for humor, and that their need to laugh together is equally as important.

Whether your business has remained in-person throughout the pandemic, or if you are re-introducing yourself to faces you have only seen on Zoom for the past year, don’t let the weight of the world’s ills take away the real reason people work in groups; to laugh together.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

The Cost of Doing Business

First published nationwide in the Business Journal Newspapers, May 2021

Now that the pandemic is turning a corner, the big question is whether employees should return to in-person workplaces. Even though there are definite benefits to distance working, many business leaders are being short-sighted about this issue. After the initial shock of working from home wore off, many employees reported that they preferred it. Not having to commute was at the top of the Positive column. Not only does avoiding an hour of driving each way allow more time to get work done, but rush-hour commuting is rated as one of the greatest stressors for the human brain. The brain has the capacity to manage most difficult environments to limit their impact on our mental and phycial health, but the unpredictability and uncontrolled nature of rush-hour traffic eludes every trick the brain has to mitigate the effects.

Another benefit employees report is that they get more work done when not having to deal with the constant interruptions, lengthy meetings, and chaotic nature of a typcial workplace. These employees report feeling more productive in a distance-working arrangement. So, with lower stress and higher productivity, why would any business leader want to bring folks back to the office? The answer is based in two realities: 1) we need to endure short-term pain to enjoy long-term gain, 2) although leaders should always seek employee feedback, you must be careful not to trust everything you hear.

Humans are wired as a social creature. Almost everything we do relies on interaction with others. New and innovative ideas are produced most often through random, unplanned interactions. Chance meetings with people, especially those outside your immediate sphere, enhance creative thinking, and create solutions to problems; solutions that evade someone working solo. This cannot happen in a Zoom-based meeting environment. Yes, there are hassles involved with going to the office. You must actually dress for work (not just from the waist up for a video conference), you have to commute, you have to navigate busy environments, and you have to sit through meetings when you would rather be finishing that spreadsheet. But, in the long run, those things end up being good for us. They not only provide vital mental stimuli, but they connect us as teams and provide much-needed spontaneous feedback.

Recently, psychologists are reporting an increasing number of patients who suffer from Cave Syndrome; or the urge to stay at home and limit outside contact. The longer people are disconnected from the outside world, the less likely they are to want to re-engage when restrictions are lifted. Lack of social stimuli can cause the brain to shut down its social interaction processes. Once someone has disconnected from human interaction, even the thought of speaking to a stranger becomes stressful. Think of the last time you chose to send an e-mail or text when you knew that a phone call would have been a better option.

I have spoken to hundreds of employees who say that talking on the phone is one of the greatest stressors they face. Why is this the case, when not so many years ago a simple phone call was no big deal? Because we have chosen ease over effectiveness. We have allowed the comfort of the process to overshadow outcome. If we allow the urge to take the easier path to guide our business decisions, we will pay the price in the long run. Productivity may seem high, but only in terms of tasks completed, not the quality of the work performed. Retention will suffer because there will be no one to whom we remain loyal. And innvoation will most surely suffer.

It is easier to be single. Your life and your schedule are your own; you answer to no one. You eat what you want and never have to argue over who controls the TV remote. But, even with all the work and hassle that go into maintaining a long-term relationship, people with life partners report greater overall happiness and longer life spans. The reason is simple, good outcomes take work. Yes, in-person work can be a pain, and there is certainly evidence to show a blended model is worth considering, but if you want to get the real work done, being in the same room is worth the cost.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Religion: The Unspoken Word in Business

Much of the recent research into how healthy workplaces operate reveal that when employees feel respected for who they are as human beings—not just positions within the company—they are more productive and stay with their employer longer—often turning down better opportunities. Some have mistakenly attributed this shift in workplace expectations to Generations X and Z, with their focus on social conscience, equality, and inclusion, but the truth is, every human being, regardless of age, performs better when their personal values are respected. The reason is simple, people don’t choose their work based solely on the work itself. They choose a career because it supports their values. People need a reason to get up every morning and go to work, and that reason is rarely because they want to complete a work-related task.

 

Given this fact, it is not only unfortunate that many business leaders know too little about the lives of their staff, it is counterproductive. Working groups that are more familiar with other team member’s personal lives display higher levels of trust, resolve work issues more quickly, and produce more ideas than teams who simply work together. Recently, I was working with a company to establish more deep-seated relationships when one employee said, “The managers at our company are so afraid of employees getting into arguments that we are not allowed to discuss politics, religion, sexual orientation, or any controversial social issues.” When I asked why, they said that arguments had broken out in the past, so the managers decided it would be easiest to just keep workplace conversations focused only on work, going to far as to discipline employees for discussing issues not approved of in the employee manual.

It was, of course, a simple fix. But the result was low morale and a life-less work environment. The company also had a higher-than-average turn-over rate. When I asked the employee what was most important in her life, she said, “My faith. I am a very religious person.” When I asked if she ever spoke about her religion at work, the entire group became visibly uncomfortable. Here was the most important facet of this woman’s life, and she had to check it at the door every morning. Faith, spirituality, religion, or personal moral codes are easily the important driving force in human life. Rarely does someone engage in an act of any kind without thinking about the right or wrong behind it. Faith and religion are certainly not the basis for most businesses, but to ignore its impact on your workforce is to turn a blind eye to a major driver of human behavior.

According to the Pew Research Center 46.6% of Americans consider themselves Protestant Christians, 20.8% are Catholics, with smaller percentages of other Christian denominations. America is also home to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Sikhs, Shinto, Jains, Indigenous, Atheists, Agnostics, and those who have spiritual beliefs, but are unaffiliated with any organized religion. Even though some people wear their faith on their sleeve, while others keep it to themselves, not to acknowledge that these beliefs affect working relationships, decision-making, and ethics is a mistake.

Many business leaders avoid discussing religion in the workplace because they fear offending those of different beliefs, but that is a narrow view of the place faith holds in people’s lives. Some people are afraid of asking about the Bat Mitzvah of a fellow employee’s daughter because there might be an Atheist present. Do you really think the Atheist is unaware of the existence of Judaism? People are not insulted by the fact that people hold differing beliefs, they simply want their own beliefs respected. Yes, there are religious beliefs that stand in direct opposition of other religions. And sometimes discord has led to distrust, or even violence. But those instances represent a minority. The majority of people are capable of accepting diverse views on faith. Silence is far more damaging than respectful disagreement.

The challenge for business leaders is how to foster a workplace where employees’ faith, or non-faith, can be welcomed and supported. As with all things, a good leader sets the tone. Asking others about their beliefs, sharing your own viewpoint, and honoring others’ beliefs sends a message that open conversation is not only safe at work, but an important part of having people work side-by-side every day.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Want Loyalty? Educate the Customer

I have been a loyal customer of a few businesses over the years, and it is not because they charge less for their products or services, or because they do a better job than the competition. It is because they make me smarter. I contacted one recently, a heating contractor, about a furnace in one of my properties. The property is over twenty years old, and any furnace that is over two decades old is on its last legs. How do I know this? Because I Googled it. When I searched the internet, the first page stated an average of 16-20 years. And, like 92% of users of the internet, I didn’t look past the first page. Why bother? Everyone knows that the top of the first page is the most accurate. Except it is not. In fact, even the most trusted sources of information on the internet can be highly flawed. And the average user does not often know the difference. That is where you and your staff come in.

 

Research has shown that customers remain loyal to companies that are considered a trusted source of information. Researchers have confirmed that being considered an expert in your field within your marketplace is one of the best tools of marketing. But the key word is known. The customer doesn’t really care how much you know, they care about how much your knowledge can serve them. You cannot keep your knowledge to yourself.

Take the furnace company I referenced earlier. When I called about my elderly furnace, they could have just set up an appointment to sell me a new one, but I would have eventually discovered their trickery. Not only would they have lost me as a customer, but they would have lost everyone I could reach on social media and beyond (I have been known to hire a skywriter to voice my displeasure). Instead, the rep said, “I know the internet says your furnace might die, but I have seen furnaces that were 25 years old and still cooking. No need to panic. I have you in the system, so when the unit does go out, we can get you a new one in no time.” My trust in the company grew because, not only did they help me avoid spending money, but they gave me information which made me a smarter customer. Now, there is no way I will go to any other company.

I spoke to another company about a new oven my wife and I just bought (yeah, it’s been a year of failing appliances). When I spoke to the rep, I told her that the temperature in the oven was uneven. It would start out higher than the thermostat setting, and then drop lower. She was a pleasant rep, but she made two errors. First, she said I needed to leave the thermometer in the oven for about 30 minutes because it can take a while for the read to be correct. Second, should the temperature still be off, she kindly offered to e-mail me instructions on how to recalibrate the temperature settings.

After more research, I discovered that all ovens, even new ones, fluctuate during the first half hour of heating because they are adjusting to heating elements turning on and off. After 30 minutes, the temperature in the oven evens out. Had she told me that, she would have had a much calmer customer, and one that would trust her more in the future. She gave me one bit of information, but didn’t fully educate me on the issue.

The second error came when she offered to e-mail me instructions on recalibrating the oven. I said, “No thanks. I am sure there is a YouTube video that shows how to do it.” She agreed, and that was that. She should have said, “You are probably right, but let me send you the e-mail anyway. You never know if the information you are getting is correct, and I want to save you the time of searching for it.” The truth is, my YouTube search turned up no results.

In every contact, make sure that your company is the source of information for your customer. Information makes for a happy customer, and a loyal one.

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Who is in Control?

by Stevie Ray

First published in the Business Journal Newspapers, January 2021

Right now, in America and across the world, every business leader has one thing on their mind, “How can I keep my staff focused and productive during one of the most stressful periods in history?” Your business might be afflicted with changing sales patterns, distance working, and economic upheaval, but the greatest threat to your company is rising stress levels among your staff. Stress doesn’t just make people feel bad, long-term stress decreases mental acuity, creative problem-solving, communication skills, and cognition. Add increased rates of illness, and the impact of stress will certainly be seen on your P&L.

 

Some companies deal with stress with a let’s push through this approach. That approach does work, but only for Acute Stress. Acute stress is short-term, like a traffic jam or a heated argument. The human brain is designed to manage acute stress. However, chronic stress—negative events that last a few hours each day over a period of weeks—is beyond the brain’s ability to mitigate. When in chronic stress, the brain engages in the General Adaptation Syndrome. This syndrome has three stages: Alarm Reaction Stage: the fight-or-flight response, Resistance Stage; the body attempts to repair itself. If stress does not dissipate, this stage can cause irritability and poor concentration, Exhaustion Stage: a draining of physical and emotional resources, resulting in burnout.

Rather than employ quick pick-me-ups—which boost morale only briefly—leaders should consider the issue of Locus of Control, a term in psychology which refers to where control is thought to originate in someone’s life. People who feel an Internal Locus of Control believe that the events in their life are the result of their own actions. People who feel an External Locus of Control feel that events are the result of the world acting upon them. Even though both types of people experience the same event, those with an internal locus of control experience less stress, recover from the negative events more quickly, and are more productive.

To be clear, it is not who actually has control over their environment that matters, it is those who feel in control who do better in life. If a child gets good grades and you say, “That is wonderful. You are naturally smart,” or “You are so gifted,” you are fostering an external locus of control. The positive outcomes are a result of factors outside of the child’s control. However, if you say, “You must have worked very hard to get those grades,” you are fostering an internal locus of control. Children who feel an internal locus of control go on to choose more challenging work, and excel at future tasks. Those with an external locus of control shy away from difficult challenges, and get lower grades. In short, it isn’t the size of the challenge that causes stress, it is the belief in the individual that they have control over their situation that allows them to succeed.

It is easy to see the comparison between school children and your staff. How well your staff can face potentially stressful challenges goes beyond effective training, and the tools they have to perform their job. Those two factors certainly do play a role in employee satisfaction and success, but the ability to employ those factors depends on whether the employee feels in control of their life. The great thing about locus of control is, we don’t need to actually be in control, we just need to feel in control. In studies about stress and productivity, those subjects who were able control even minor decisions fared better. In one study, subjects were placed in a booth and told that an uncomfortably loud buzzer would sound every few minutes. Some subjects were given a button and told that they could choose when the buzzer would sound. Other subjects had no control over the buzzer. Both groups were subjected to the same negative stimulus, but those with the button reported feeling no stress at all.

Rather than saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” give your staff a feeling of control by asking their input, take a vote rather than issue a directive, allow them to make as many decisions as possible, no matter how insignificant. Controlling everyday decisions puts the power back into their hands, and helps them navigate the stressful waters ahead.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

The Mortgage, the Noodles, and the Airline

By Stevie Ray

First published in the Business Journal Newspapers

December, 2020

“I am so sorry. We have been experiencing an extremely high volume of business.” Those were the first words I heard from a mortgage company I am using to refinance properties that I own. I had contacted them in early October, seeking to take advantage of dropping interest rates. It was now December, with no closing in sight. This meant I would pay another month of the original mortgage, costing me a lot of money. I sent an email to my broker, detailing how much capital their mistake had cost me. He kicked the matter up to his boss, who assigned someone else to resolve the issue. This person apologized, offered an excuse for the delay, and promised to finish the refinance quickly. After another missed deadline, I contacted my original broker again. This time I said that, since their company caused the delay, they should discount their fee to accommodate for my loss. He agreed. I am still waiting for a closing date.

 

Jump now to a take-out noodle restaurant. My wife and I ordered online for pick-up at the store. When we get home, my wife’s dish was not what she ordered. She called the restaurant, and the young man said, “Oh yeah. Sorry, we’ve been really busy. Your order is right here if you want to come and pick it up.” She drove back to the restaurant, where they handed her the correct order. Nothing else.

What do a mortgage company, a noodle shop, and most businesses, have in common? A keen focus on attracting new customers, and a poor job of keeping them. Millions of dollars are wasted on advertising to get customers in the door because front-line staff are not trained in how to keep them.

When Gordon Bethune took over Continental Airlines in the early ‘90s, the company was the worst in the airline industry. Two trips to bankruptcy court, a revolving door of CEOs, lagging sales, and appalling passenger satisfaction ratings meant he was in for a long, hard job getting the company back on track (yes, I used a train metaphor for an airline). Within one year, the company was not only profitable, but rated as the top in the airline industry.

Bethune made some smart business decisions, such as cancelling unprofitable routes, but the change he made that caused the greatest impact (and got the greatest push-back from his peers), was to trust the front-line staff to handle customer service issues, and to give them the power to do whatever it took to please the customer. If a passenger had a bad experience, whoever had contact with that person—flight attendant, gate attendant, ticket clerk—not only had permission to make things right, but they also had the tools to do so—whether it was an upgrade to first class, a free meal, or free airline miles. Other business leaders told Bethune that front-line staff could not be trusted to handle delicate customer service issues, and “they would give away the farm.” To the contrary, staff at Continental respected the need for the company to make a profit. In fact, they discovered that most upset passengers were satisfied with a free ice cream cone from the food court. Just like a free rice-cereal treat from the noodle ship would have been enough for my wife. Tiny costs can reap huge payoffs.

When I speak with front-line staff at workshops or conferences about customer service issues they say, “It’s not our fault,” and “What are we supposed to do about it?” These attitudes point to a failing of training, as well as management. The fix involves simple rules.

Rule 1: Whoever deals with a customer must be empowered to fix the problem.

Rule 2: Never give the customer a reason or excuse for your failure.

Rule 3: Never let a mistake go by without offering something to make up for it. Create a list of possible amends for staff to refer to when needed.

Rule 4: If the customer must tell you how to make things right, you have failed at your job, and you should not expect to see that customer again.

Trust your front-line staff to solve customer problems. Otherwise, you will spend a lot more money to find new patrons.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

A House Divided

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I wonder what Abraham Lincoln, who borrowed this Biblical quote for his speech in 1858, would think of how divided his house become. Name the issue—mask wearing, distance learning, public gathering, businesses re-opening—and the civil discourse has lost its civility. Don’t even start a conversation about the presidential race, immigration, or reproductive rights. America has dealt with such issues before, but rather than divide us, they united us in a common cause. Of course, it was a lot easier to get people to make sacrifices when we face a shared enemy. Today, we lack a distinct them to make us us. Also, decades ago we didn’t have social media, broadcasting our every thought to the world. Things were a lot easier when you didn’t know who your co-worker voted for. You could go about your day assuming they were nice, intelligent people.

I have worked with organizations that tried to decrease tension in the workplace by instituted rules about which subjects were off-limits for discussion. This never works. That practice doesn’t teach people to play nice in the sandbox, it removes the sandbox; leaving behind resentment. Guiding teams through hot-button issues takes a leader who understands what triggers to avoid, and which practices foster respect.

The first thing to recognize is that people who have firmly held beliefs rarely change their minds. When confirmation bias sets in, we only accept evidence that supports our case. Don’t blame yourself for not getting through to the other person, or blame them for being stubborn. Just recognize this most human of frailties and move on. If confirmation bias has not set in, there may be a chance for productive dialogue. Let’s start with what to avoid:

Don’t Spout facts

When you trade statistics back and forth, you are essentially saying, “I am smarter than you.” This  only causes them to dig their heels in further.

Don’t Shame

The “Don’t you feel bad about yourself?” approach is all over social media. The fact is, if someone felt bad about an opinion or action, they would have changed their mind before talking to you. Trying to shame someone into coming to your side of the argument only results in greater distancing.

Don’t Circle the Wagons

Gathering like-minded people to support leads to feelings of satisfaction and victory, but only in the short term. Ultimately, this approach results in tribalism; a highly unproductive quality.

What to do instead

Do Find Common Values

To find common ground, tie your discussion into what you know the other person values. If someone says wearing a mask strips them of their rights and freedoms, don’t tell them they are wrong. Recognize that they are concerned about personal rights; and that’s a good thing. Talk about how wearing a mask could be seen as an expression of their rights, rather than the loss of them. In the end, people discover that their values are more aligned than they thought, they just choose to express their values differently.

Do Talk About Consequences

When people make decisions, it is because they are predicting an outcome. Rather than try to convince someone their facts are wrong, talk about the consequences of different actions. Avoid predicting world-ending consequences in an attempt to force someone’s hand. Keep the consequences grounded in reality. If someone’s actions are likely to result in a laundry list of bad outcomes, there is a greater chance that you can discuss different options.

Finally

Allow for Incubation

We all want other people to listen to our argument and say, “Wow! You’re right.” Good luck waiting for that to happen. Whenever the human brain gets a shock—a surprise, new information, a change of plan—it needs time to absorb it and process. That usually takes overnight, which is where Let’s sleep on it came from. While we sleep, we go over everything we experienced that day and we awake a new perspective. Don’t push people to admit to they are wrong. Give them time to incubate.

A good leader doesn’t pretend teams will work things out for themselves. Divisiveness leads to resentment, destroying cohesion, retention, and productivity. Lead team members toward cohesion, no matter what side of the fence they’re on.

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Be Creative, Debate

Now that the pandemic is settling in for a longer run than expected, many businesses are having to shift from let’s wait this out to what do we do now? Some organizations have the option of simply delivering their existing goods through different channels—drive-thru service or patio dining for restaurants—but if your company is more complicated than burgers and fries, it is time to get serious about creative options. That led me to dust off some old tips about brainstorming.

 

Most brainstorming sessions are at best, unproductive or, at worst, exercises in frustration and futility. The fault lies in following out-of-dates methods. Individuals have been shown to be every bit as capable as teams at developing creative, workable solutions. So, why have teams brainstorm in the first place? The answer is, groups can create a higher volume of ideas in the same period of time, and when a group creates a solution together, there is greater buy-in; the idea is implemented with more enthusiasm than if the solution is handed down from on high.

The goal of brainstorming is twofold; a high volume of ideas, and creative breadth. Creativity is measured by how far away from the norm an idea is. The best way to achieve both conditions might surprise you; debate. Most people have been taught that brainstorming is only possible if team members follow the rule that every idea is a good idea. This rule goes back decades. Alex Osborne, and advertising executive in the 1940s wanted to codify the methods used by his staff when developing creative advertising campaign. Upon observation, he noted that his team seemed to be more productive when they agreed with each other. So, he formed the every idea is a good idea rule, and we all believed the rule to be gospel truth. The problem is Osborne didn’t test his assumption. When the rule was researched recently, it turns out that Osborne was only partly right. The first obstacle to the rule is, it is impossible to treat every idea as a good one, because some ideas stink. To agree with a stinky idea is disingenuous, which destroys the trust of the team. Teams can’t create if they don’t trust each other. Second, agreeing with every idea shuts down the critical thinking centers of the brain. We have all been in meetings where the leader said, “Every idea is a good one. Who has one?” The very notion causes uncomfortable silence because it is saying, in a sense, “Leave your brain at the door.”

When groups were used to test the brainstorming process, a third of the teams were told to agree with every idea presented, another third was told to debate each idea on its merits and defects, while the final third (the control group) was told to employ no rules at all. The group that had the highest volume and most creative ideas was the debating group. The next most productive was the control group. Surprisingly, the least productive group was the one that agreed with everything.

Osborne was correct in recognizing that bluntly telling someone that their idea is stupid will shut down new ideas, inhibit group participation, and destroy productivity. So yes, we should avoid completely blasting someone’s idea. But respectful debate does the opposite. If I think someone’s idea is unworkable, and I say, “Charlene, I just don’t see how we can make that work. Tell me why you think it is a good idea,” it invites my team member to dig further into her idea. If my challenge is an invitation to mix it up, mentally, it sparks creative thinking; not only in Charlene’s brain, but in the rest of the team’s brains as well. The act of Charlene defending her idea causes greater brain activity in the group.

The only way for this to work is to recognize the difference between argument and debate. An argument is a back-and-forth It won’t work, Yes, it will test of wills. The winner is usually the one with more authority. For debate to be productive, it must be robust and respectful. During brainstorming, workplace hierarchy must be suspended. In fact, sometimes having more experience in a field prevents examining a issue creatively. It must be openly acknowledged that everyone must have an opinion, whether positive or negative. And, if Tim from the sales department is always shooting down others’ ideas, some people are just not wired to think up new ideas. However, if Tim is told that he can still be critical, but now must do it in a way that sparks healthy debate, you access Tim’s talents without sacrificing every else’s. A good leader guides the process and keeps debate productive. If a team member says, “That will never work,” the leader must ask why. Keep digging until the answer sparks even more debate. Now go do what hasn’t been done yet.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Leading Through Toxic Stress

When the pandemic first struck, I penned a column about leading during times of emergency. The style of leadership needed during a crisis is wholly different than during periods of stability and certainty. Now that the pandemic is months old, without a clear end in sight, business leaders must turn their focus from leading during a crisis to helping teams manage the damaging mental effects of stress. To do this, it is important to know exactly what stress is, what causes it, and how the brain best manages it.

 

Stress is measured by the severity and duration of an unpleasant experience. If the event is severe enough, and lasts long enough, stress can cause harm to the brain; this is called chronic or toxic stress. During an everyday stressful event, the body releases cortisol; a hormone that helps our body chemistry to return to normal once the event has passed. Cortisol also helps regulate blood sugar, and controls the hippocampus, where memories are processed and stored. If stress is prolonged, too much cortisol causes the hippocampus to go out of whack, inhibiting our memory. Stress also causes the prefrontal cortex—the thinking center of the brain—to shrink; causing loss of cognitive function. While the prefrontal cortex shrinks, the amygdala—the reactive part of the brain—grows; making us even more susceptible to stress.

The brain can take almost any situation and adjust to it as the new normal. What is stressful at the outset can, a few months later, be considered perfectly acceptable; with a notable exception. The brain cannot seem to deem acceptable situations that are unpredictable and/or uncontrolled. Tragic events are eventually managed by the brain because we have control over how we deal with them, and there is a certainty about the outcome. One of life’s everyday stressors has never been shown to be manageable by the human brain is rush-hour traffic. Because we cannot control the traffic, and our time of arrival is always uncertain, no matter what calming techniques we try, rush-hour traffic sucks.

Luckily, the damage caused by stress can be reversed. The brain can regrow neural pathways and re-form new ones; a process called neuroplasticity. The younger the brain, the greater the plasticity, but older brains can regain function and manage stress by engaging in healthy activities. This is where good leadership comes in. Too many leaders think that stress can be managed simply by keeping their staff focused. “If we just focus on the work, and put our shoulders against the wheel, we can push through this crisis.” Yes, having something to focus on keeps the brain from wandering into destructive thoughts, but that is only a small part of managing stress.

We have all heard that regular exercise is healthy for the brain; and exercise has been shown to markedly reduce stress. However, beyond encouraging staff to get out of the chair every now and then, there is little a leader can do to facilitate exercise. There are two other stress relievers that managers can manage; social interaction, and purpose. Social interaction has been long ignored for its impact on productivity. In fact, many leaders consider social conversations to be anathema to getting work done. Recently a client said to me that her greatest frustration about video-based meetings was that “too much time was spent on people catching up on personal stuff.” The fact is, personal stuff in conversations has a positive effect on work output. It is not an interruption to work, it facilitates it.

The second stress reliever is just as important; purpose. The brain hates uncertainty and unpredictability because those conditions prevent accomplishing something that has meaning. So, focusing on the good work being done is a great stress reliever. A good leader can manage the current situation by 1) encouraging social interaction, 2) focusing on what the group can control, instead of lamenting over what is out of reach, 3) keeping doomsday predictions out of the conversation, and 4) exalting every achievement. A accomplishment that would have been considered small in the past takes on new light in this time where every purposeful action can keep stress at bay. Toxic stress is not something people can just get over. Good leaders take steps to conquer it.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Camera, Camera, On the Wall

Now that the country is re-opening, a lot of companies—and employees—are considering making distance working a part of their operations. A CNBC poll discovered that 43% of Americans want to work at least partially from home. I have reservations about the disconnect distance working may cause in the workplace. Random interactions have proven to account for the majority of creative ideas, and not being in the physical presence of co-workers risks disengaging a workforce that has already been suffering from dismal engagement scores for years. But, since the trend is upon us, I offer a few suggestions to make one element of distance working better—video conferencing.

 

In the past few months of conducting my business via video, every client has complained about how frustrating it is to try to have meaningful and productive meetings using Zoom, GoToMeeting, or any of the other apps that I wish I held stock in before the pandemic hit. Here are some reasons why, and what to do about them.

Full attention. When you are in the physical presence of another person, your thoughts may wander now and then, but for the most part, you are focused on the speaker. During video conferences, however, far too many people fool themselves into thinking they can work on a side task during the meeting. After all, all you have to do is mute your microphone and nod your head every now and then. Truth one; you’re not fooling anyone. Truth two; multi-tasking is a myth. The cerebral cortex, where our thinking and processing occurs, is a sequential organism. It can only focus on one task at a time. The only time you can truly multi-task is when one of the tasks involves no thought. For instance, you can read a book while listening to music, but only if the music has no lyrics. During a video conference, focus on the meeting!

Emotion. If you think people are uncomfortable giving a speech in front of a group, try putting them in front of a camera. For the past few months, I have watched people on computer screens who look like they swallowed a bottle of Thorazine. The only thing moving was their mouth. No facial expression; no life. The human brain is tuned to read signals during interactions. It uses those signals to interpret meaning, and stores information based on that meaning.

The brain doesn’t listen to words, it interprets signals. Video conferencing must have more to it than just people talking. This is why in-person meetings are more productive; there is simply no way to duplicate the brain’s reaction to face-to-face interactions. If, however, you can’t be face-to-face, at least try to duplicate the experience. Be mindful of  facial expressions, bring your natural sense of humor to the conversation, vary your vocal pitch, and employ gestures while you speak. Even sitting up in your chair without resting against the backrest does wonders to add presence to your delivery.

Limit screen-sharing. If you hate watching someone flip through PowerPoint slides during a meeting, it isn’t any better during a video conference. The purpose of a meeting is not just to share information, it is to engage the group, foster agreement, and build momentum. This is done through talking, not reading a slide. The only slides that should be used are those that are absolutely necessary for the meeting to remain productive. All others should be sent in an e-mail for participants to review on their own. Respect the true purpose of a video conference; to engage the team.

Finally, remember what news anchors are taught; the camera is your audience. When someone is speaking during a video conference, you do have to look at their face on the screen, but when you speak, look directly into the camera. It is unnerving to watch someone speak who is looking down. If someone did this during a live conversation, you would say, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” The same holds true for video.

I have a few more tips, but I will save those for the video that accompanies this column. If you must communicate on-screen, make it as close to in-person as possible.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

You Know What I Heard?

As first published in the Business Journal Newspapers

May 2020

If there is one thing that I have learned during the COVID crisis, it is who to avoid. The people I have learned to tune out fall into two groups; the You know what I heard? group, and the I can top that group. Both groups have only one goal; get people excited, worried, or distracted. These groups are in constant battle with the other group; people who focus on facts. The challenge for people who focus on facts is that they are not as exciting to talk to. It is the same with news programs. Some of them just deliver facts, while others just want to keep you watching. If business don’t control the first two groups, there are long-term consequences.

The You know what I heard? group spreads whatever crazy theory they just heard from Facebook, Twitter, or their Great Uncle Chuck. Conversations start with, “You know what I heard? I heard that the Albanians created the virus in a secret lab because they want to steal Montana from the United States!” This group never has any good news to share because good news is boring. Also, psychologists and sociologists have discovered that people who spread bad news are actually viewed by peers as more socially powerful than people who share good news. It is a strange quirk of human behavior that explains why we give so much of our time to doom-sayers.

As soon as the You know what I heard? guy opens his mouth, the I can top that guy has to step in with even worse news; “Oh yeah? Well I read that we are going into another Great Depression that will last until the year 2032!” If sharing bad news gives a person power, then topping that news puts the next guy at the head of the pack.

If leaders don’t pay attention to these behaviors, the potential damage goes beyond people just getting worked up over a Zoom meeting. While disasters can sometimes be a kick in the pants; causing employees to focus and dig in; focus caused by emergencies is short-lived. A cheetah’s twitch muscles allow for lighting fast speed upon take-off, but cheetahs can only maintain that speed for a short distance; which is why the steady galloping gazelle gets away. Long-term dour predictions give employees an excuse to do the minimum needed to get by. A What’s the point? attitude is the biggest productivity killer of all.

Research has discovered that people who can best weather unpredictable situations—and avoid the accompanying long-term stress—all share a unique ability. The ability to determine the likely outcomes to situations on a percentage basis. Instead of letting the reactive part of the brain get all worked up, they use the mathematical part of the brain and ask themselves, “What percent chance does each possible outcome have of coming to fruition?” Once they determine that Outcome X has a 55% chance, Outcome Y has a 30% chance, and all the other outcomes follow, the reasonable person devises plans for each outcome.

However, there is an obstacle when trying to engage the mathematical side of the brain, and it isn’t what you might think. People sometimes avoid this exercise because they say, “You can’t predict with any accuracy the likelihood of any outcome, so what’s the point?” But the reason people avoid this reasoned approach isn’t because it lacks accuracy, it is because it isn’t satisfying. (Besides, the majority of percentage predictions are often quite accurate, because mathematical probabilities are based on data, not emotion.) But no one wants to have coffee with someone who spouts percentage probabilities. But, it is a leader’s responsibility to encourage just that kind of thinking in employees.

In my last column, Leading in a Time of COVID, was about how the Command and Control style of leadership is most effective during times of emergency. Now that the emergency has settled in, and long-term effects will start to show up in teams, leaders need to step in and quell the You know what I heard? and I can top that talk and help employees manage fear and stress by imagining all possible outcomes, and knowing how they will be a part of the solution for each of them.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Leading in the Time of COVID

It is one thing to keep employees focused and engaged when times are normal; try doing it during a global pandemic. Not only are people isolated—which cuts them off from the usual channels of stimulation and connection—but the uncertainty of the future takes a drastic toll on every employee. The current crisis calls for specific types of leadership, but not just one approach will work. Ironically, one style of leadership that has been under attack for years, is just the kind needed right now; Command and Control.

 

Also called Top Down Leadership; Command and Control was the predominant leadership style in place during the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. The belief was that, if the approach worked in the military, it should work for business. Since there was little research to refute this belief, the military-is-good-for-business philosophy flourished. It was later discovered that, not only are there over a dozen styles of leadership that are effective in business, even the military doesn’t adhere only to the top-down management style (they routinely employ consensus and team-think when needed). The truth is the type of leadership that works best depends on what kind of team you are leading, as well as the situation the team is facing.

The situation that most calls for Command and Control is an emergency. When the ship is sinking, there is no time to call for a vote. But it isn’t just expediency that demands a top-down approach, it is the psychological state of the team. I recall a scene in a movie where a young naval officer is thrust into the captain’s chair in a submarine after most of the crew is killed. When a sailor continually presses him for a plan of action, the new captain snaps and says, “I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers!” An older, wiser skipper takes the young captain aside and says, “Don’t ever say ‘I don’t know’ to your crew again. Those three words will kill a crew deader than a depth charge. You are the captain. You have to know.”

This is not to say that leaders should be barking orders and ignoring input; it is a reminder that the type of leader that is needed right now is one that knows; a leader that is decisive. Going in the wrong direction might be risky, but it is much less risky than not picking a direction at all.

Another critical lesson also comes from the military. It involves Distributed Teams; people who work in separate geographic locations. Some companies deal with this challenge as a matter of course, but most are facing it now for the first time. The military has researched how a leader can best  command troops  that are located thousands of miles away, often in a different country. The one action taken by successful leaders of distributed teams was communication that was frequent and spontaneous. The longer an employee goes without contact with the leader, and fellow employees, the worse the results. Also, regularly scheduled meetings are not spontaneous; so, they provide less benefit. Check in on your staff—one-on-one if you can—but make it often and make it a surprise.

Finally, the first casualty of crisis is humor, and prolonged periods without the healing power of laughter are dangerous for humans. One critical condition that must exist for people to laugh is permission. Before people laugh, they look around them to first see if laughter is considered acceptable. That is why people are sixteen times more likely to laugh at something if they witness it as a group, rather than seeing it alone. Prolonged crises, like we are experiencing with COVID-19, can seem to make the very act of levity a crime. Now is the time, as a leader, for you to include humor in communication. Let people know that they are not being insensitive to the situation by releasing tension through laughter. In fact, one of the greatest benefits of laughter is the release of tension, which help mitigate dangerous toxins that are fostered by prolonged stress.

The best way to relieve your own sadness is to force yourself to help someone relieve theirs. This is the most important job of leading in a time of COVID.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

The Hidden Dangers of Social Distancing

A colleague of mine recently talked about the need for people to experience group interactions by saying, “Every now and then, we all need to breathe the same air.” With the emergence of COVID-19, social distancing—the safe distance between people that inhibits the spread of the novel coronavirus—certainly challenges that need. Other practices—e-learning, telecommuting, and virtual meetings—all mean the same thing, don’t be around other people. While these measures are crucial to ensuring the health and safety of the community, business leaders should keep in mind the unspoken danger of physical distancing; emotional distancing.

 

Human beings are singularly wired to be social connected. As much as that seems obvious, there is more to it than simply our preference for the company of others. When I say singularly wired, I mean that no other mammal on the planet is built to socially connect the way that humans do. In fact, scientists have discovered that being able to think and react as a group, rather than just a gathering of individuals, is the one advantage that has kept humans alive; given that we are easily the weakest animal on the planet. The discovery of our unique ability to connect with other human brains around us has led to a new field of neuroscience; social neuroscience. Rather than study the workings of individual brains, social neuroscience studies how our brains are wired to connect with other brains to create mutually beneficial outcomes (the study of positive mob mentality).

Depending on how much social interaction a person has built into their daily lives, short-term social distancing will not likely cause harm. It is absence makes the heart grow fonder in action. But, long-term social distancing results in one of the most harmful states the brain can experience; isolation. Isolation causes changes of sleep patterns, which can affect cognition and overall mental health. The lack of brain stimulation inhibits problem-solving skills, and it diminishes the ability to interact effectively in the workplace. And don’t be fooled into thinking that this only applies to extreme cases, such as solitary confinement. Even the recent focus that certain generations have had on hand-held devices instead of face-to-face interaction has seen a dramatic impact on communication skills.

It has long been known that the lose of a spouse has greater detrimental effects on men than on women. It was only recently understood that this is because women tend to have broader social networks upon which to rely when their spouse is no longer in the picture. Basically, after the loss of a spouse, women gather, while men sit alone. So, isolation among employees will not only affect their cognitive abilities, but damage their long-term health as well. The need for interaction is so strong that many workplaces are reporting heightened feelings of isolation even among employees who work side by side. I visited one such office, where employees stared at their computers all day. They were so disconnected that it seemed foolish to have them come into the office.

During this time of necessary social distancing, I urge business leaders to create as many opportunities for safe interaction as possible. Sure, many aspects of your operations can be maintained by individuals sitting at home, and you won’t likely experience the downsides of this right away. In time, however, the effects will be felt; and you might not think to trace the problem back to an isolated workplace. And it is important that the social interaction occurs with those close to the work being done. It is good that a staff member has social interaction with family or friends outside of work, but that interaction will not always translate to better performance at work. It is crucial that consistent social interaction be maintained between staff members.

Even if it feels like more work, have regular conference calls and group video meetings. It might feel like a time waster, but even a brief conference call check-in—without a set agenda attached to the conversation—can help combat the effects of isolation. After all, most face-to-face interactions don’t come with an agenda either. Always having a check list to get through can add even more stress to the interaction, erasing any benefit of the experience.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

The Windows to the Soul

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” “Don’t you eyeball me!” Two phrases that demonstrate the dichotomy of eye contact. European cultures consider it rude not to look at the person who is speaking. However, many Asian cultures consider it intrusive and disrespectful to give too much direct eye contact. Add to the equation the brain’s unique way of processing input, and suddenly knowing where to focus your gaze during a conversation becomes a risky endeavor. One fact about the brain helps explain why eye contact is fraught with complexities. The fact is: one of the most challenging acts the brain can engage in is communicating with nonfamilial persons.

People who are not part of our immediate social group are almost always considered a threat by the brain. Unfamiliar people are difficult to communicate with because we don’t know how to read their vocal tone, body language, or facial expressions. Eye contact is tricky because humans are a product of both evolution, and socialization. DNA wires us to behave in accordance with how our ancestors evolved. However, the brain is a malleable organ, and will rewire itself according to social influences and personal experience.

When it comes to eye contact, many people unknowingly use it incorrectly. For example, say you want a colleague to open up about a sensitive issue. You sit down across from him so you are facing each other. To encourage conversation, you look directly at him and say, “Go ahead. Tell me what you think.” In this case, direct eye contact is detrimental. Throughout human evolution, people have spent their waking hours either walking side by side, working side by side, or eating side by side. Very few shared experiences involved sitting and facing each other. Directly facing another person signals either formality or familiarity. Formality certainly does not foster openness. Familiarity is a good for any relationship, but it is a tenuous feature in the workplace.

Parents are given the advice that, if they want their child to speak freely, engage in an activity that requires focus; so, you and the child aren’t sitting looking directly at each other. This might seem impossible in a work environment, but it can be done. Steve Jobs was well known for having walking meetings. Instead of sitting across from his desk, you and he would stroll around the grounds of Apple headquarters. Walking side by side eases tension, making communication easier and more productive.

I used this technique when I was asked to deal with a particularly challenging executive at a retail giant. This woman was known for her harsh demeanor; sometimes exploding at employees during meetings. When I arrived at her office, she said, “I’m glad you’re here. There is a lot of crap going on around here I want to discuss!” I said, “Great. I want to hear it. Let’s walk while we talk.” With that, I turned on my heels and strolled out of her office. If we had sat across from each other, the resulting constant eye contact would have increased the tension; risking bringing contention into the conversation. As we walked side by side around her building, she certainly didn’t become sunshine and roses, but she did mellow out enough that we could come to an agreement about how to proceed.

Other research has discovered that some companies have three people attend employee evaluations; the employee, the manager, plus the manager’s boss. The manager’s boss doesn’t sit next to the manager; with both of them staring down the hapless employee; he or she sits next to the employee. With the employee and big boss sitting side by side, the eye contact is directed back at the manager. This simple shifting of focus signals to the employee that this is a collegial meeting; meant to discuss goals and outcomes, not a meeting to put the employee under a heat lamp.

This is not meant to suggest that all eye contact is bad. Regular checking in with others in a conversation with glances and visual acknowledgement is crucial to effective communication. However, it is important to maintain awareness of whether the type of eye contact you are employing is generating the results you want. The eyes are called the windows to the soul. They are also windows to a good working relationship.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

I Can’t Stress This Enough

As published nationwide in the Business Journal Newspapers

When I am asked to work with a group of employees, I am often tasked with introducing a new set of behaviors that the company wants followed. Lately, the inevitable response from employees has been, “How am I supposed to do all this new stuff while trying to keep up with my current duties.” The problem is so pervasive that I am often warned by leaders ahead of time to be ready for this kind of push-back. This is a signal that leadership has a problem. They are aware enough of a problem that they warn me about it, but they haven’t fixed it. And the problem is stress.

The first step is to recognize the kind of stress your employees are feeling. Situational stress is the occasional sweat you feel when faced with a challenge. Adrenaline and cortisol flood your body; your muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, and all bodily systems are tuned up for a showdown. This kind of stress is actually beneficial. It helps us focus on a challenge rather than run from it. Situational stress is not the problem; chronic stress is.

The problem with the human brain is that it has trouble distinguishing between a physical threat and an emotional one; so, it treats all stress the same. And prolonged periods of physical stress lead to depression, anxiety, loss of sleep, memory loss, and cognitive impairment; not to mention physical ailments affecting weight, heart disease, and the autoimmune system. Any leader can see how chronic stress has become the biggest killer of workplace productivity since Facebook.

Here is the simplest way to understand stress, and why many leaders don’t effectively manage for it. Pick up a glass of water and hold it at arm’s length. How heavy is it? Probably not much. Now hold that glass of water for four hours. How heavy is it now? Stress is not the weight of an issue or a task, it is the cumulative effect of that weight over time. Many leaders determine likely stress levels on employees by evaluating individual tasks, without considering the cumulative effect of everything the employee must accomplish each day. Leaders also mistakenly believe that an occasional employee happy hour is enough to solve the problem. Yes, bustin’ out every now and then is a good way to blow off steam, but the brain responds better when we mitigate stressors rather than provide momentary excitors. In short, it is better to lower pain than heighten pleasure; mainly because pleasure doesn’t solve the problem, it only masks it.

Another challenge to leaders is figuring out why two people can have the same experience and only one experiences stress. The mistake is to think that one person can handle stress better than the other. It is true that some people are better equipped to handle long-term pressure without developing chronic stress, but it is not a measure of their fortitude, it is an outcome of several circumstances. One stress mitigator is a person’s overall outlook. Scientists have discovered that parents pass on their happiness quotient to their babies through DNA. The brain is not born as a blank slate, and DNA kicks off the way we view the world. Luckily, we can change this outlook throughout life through conscious effort.

Other stress mitigators include physical health, emotional control, and the level of knowledge and preparation one has concerning the task at hand. But, two other factors are equally important for leaders to manage: support network, and sense of control. The interesting thing about these factors is that perception is just as important as reality. If a person perceives that they have people in the wings ready to support them in times of need, they feel less stress; even if they never have to use those support folks.

Notice that sense of control mitigates stress just as much as actually having it. To humans, perception is reality (just look at politics, lately). If an employee feels more control over his or her situation, stress levels drop. This is great news for leaders who are already good at asking employees for input; and listening when they give it. If you are a leader who isn’t good at involving your staff, I would be stressed about it.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Get Used to Watching Yourself

If you never have to stand in front of an audience and deliver a presentation, you can stop reading. For the rest of you, I am often asked, “Should I bring notes on stage, or script my presentation word for word?” As with most of life, the answer is never simple. Before I get into the meat of the issue, let’s dispense with one question right off the bat. Unless you are giving a legal deposition, never script your presentation. The two most common reasons people script speeches are: they are too nervous to face the audience and talk, or they are worried about forgetting important points of information.

 

If you are uncomfortable facing and audience, reading off a script won’t make you appear any more comfortable. In fact, because you are trying to follow words on a page, you are more likely to stumble when you fall off script (which always happens). If you are worried about forgetting something, bring notes on stage. If you have key words to follow, your natural conversational tone will take over, and you will appear more genuine and authoritative; and the notes will make sure you tick off important points as you go.

There is another important reason not to script presentations. When we write, we use more words than when we speak; we also use different vocabulary. It is rare that someone can read a prepared speech and not sound canned. The result is a disconnect from the audience, and a loss of trust on the part of the listener.

So, if you can’t script a presentation, how do you improve your speaking skills? An effective tool comes from an unlikely source; stand-up comedy. Comedians have the same challenge as speakers, they must remember important points in their presentation, and yet they must appear to be speaking off the top of their head. Comedians use what is called a set list; a list of key words that take them from one piece of material (called a bit) to the next. The best comedians take honing their craft to the next level. They record their act, then afterwards they transcribe their set word for word; essentially creating a script after the fact. This allows them to examine their act on paper and look for better word choices, clear up unnecessary or meandering segments, and rearrange material for better flow.

Besides reviewing their act on paper, disciplined comedians also watch themselves on video. They look for distracting mannerisms. These are usually repetitive movements that people aren’t aware they are doing unless they see it on screen. They watch for movement and physicality that either supports or detracts from their message. Anyone who has seen themselves on video can attest that it can be very uncomfortable. Few people like the way they look or sound on tape, so good performers must develop an objectivity; the ability to look at themselves on screen as if they were an audience member. Gaining objectivity helps us improve our style without getting rid of the things that make us personable.

Years ago, I was acquainted with a successful news anchor. He reached the top of the #14 media market in the country, and was eventually hired in Los Angeles, the #2 market. I asked how he gained the skills to be a top-notch news anchor, and he said, “I review every single news broadcast I deliver. I evaluate my performance as if I were someone sitting in his or her living room and I ask myself, ‘Would I like watching this, or would I turn the channel?’” I thought about what my friend said, and I thought about the thousands of conferences I have attended over the years. I thought about how many speakers made me want to change the channel.

Few comedians, or news anchors, follow through with the discipline of transcribing their performance and reviewing themselves on tape; but the best ones do. I do it every so often, and every time I do, I am surprised at what I learn about my performance. Even if you can’t transcribe and review yourself after every presentation, do it as often as you can. It is the only way to make sure the audience doesn’t want to change the channel.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

One Thousand Punches a Day

This is a monumental year for my company; it is our 30th anniversary. I know, you see my photo or videos in the Business Journal and think, “Stevie, you don’t look a day over forty!” I stay out of the sun. When people find out about the big 3-0, they invariably ask how we kept our little enterprise going for three decades. This is especially pertinent given the statistics of business survival. According to the Small Business Administration, 30% of new businesses fail in the first year, 50% during the first five years, 66% during the first ten; with only 25% making it to the fifteen-year mark.

 

As a born talk, I try to come up with sage advice to others who ask about our longevity, but I always go back to the wisdom of previous generations. A lot of that wisdom comes from outside the world of business. I have been practicing martial arts for over forty years and I use the lessons of ancient martial arts to guide much of what I do in life. I say ancient martial arts to distinguish it from the trophy-hunting practice often seen today. I learned the most valuable lesson for business on my first day of karate training.

When I first walked into a karate dojo in 1977, my teacher, Mr. Okamura, was an older Japanese man. Like most young men, I was eager to learn the high-flying antics of movie stars like Bruce Lee. When I asked Okamura what I had to do to become an expert martial artist he said, “Practice one thousand punches every day.” I stared at him. How could practicing the simplest of techniques help me become a master? I asked, “When do I learn the flying kicks, the spinning kicks, or the secret death blows?” (Note: there is no such thing as a secret death touch.) Okamura sighed and said, “Someday, you will learn those, but they are worthless.”

Okamura explained, “It is unlikely that you will ever need to use your martial art to defend yourself; but if you do, it will be in a moment of fear or panic. If someone attacks you, you have no time to think; you must act. Fancy techniques require thinking. In a real situation, you will only have time for either a quick punch or simple kick. In that moment, you must deliver your technique with power and precision in a split second. If you practice a simple punch or kick one thousand times every day, the technique will be there when you need it. If you scatter your training across every technique available, you won’t master anything. Better to master one thing than be average at many things. He who chases two rabbits gets no dinner.”

I can’t say I have always heeded Okamura’s advice, but it has served as a guide when running my business. I even wrote a book, One Thousand Punches a Day. I identify simple acts that I think will grow my business, and I employ them every day. These simple acts could be five e-mails or calls to prospective clients, or follow-up contacts with previous clients; every single day. And, when I am tempted by some plan that promises to jump my business ten-fold, I treat it like a spinning jump kick; I may learn it some day, but I can’t rely on it when the chips are down. I also remembered when Okamura said to have a good teacher who would examine how well you punched; and make corrections if needed. There is no point in practicing something every day if it isn’t getting you anywhere.

There isn’t a business alive that doesn’t survive on simple acts performed every day. Focusing on simple acts is a challenge. It is tempting to shift our attention to a new and exciting technique, rather than continue plugging away at what works; but focus is the key to a successful business. It is also hard to keep one thousand punches a day in mind when we are surrounded by stories of billionaires who created mega-companies overnight with one cool new idea; but those people are like Bruce Lee. You can’t duplicate them, and they don’t come along very often. Better to have a simple punch that you can rely on.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Why We Argue

I like to keep my wits sharp. To do this, I often listen to debates on my computer while performing mundane tasks at work. The debates cover every issue you can imagine; immigration policy, foreign affairs, education, you name it. As you might expect, there are experts on both sides of the issue armed with reams of documents. As you also might expect, neither side gives an inch. No matter what either side says, the other team remains cemented to the notion that the opposing team is mis-informed, ill-intentioned, or outright evil.

 

This particular program polls the audience prior to the debate, and then again afterwards. The winner is not the team with the highest number of followers among the audience, but the team that changed the most minds. As in our two-party political system, there are people on both sides of each issue, and there is a percentage of undecided voters. In politics, most strategists acknowledge that there is little chance of converting a Republican to a Democrat, and vice versa; they focus on the independent voters. But, the teams in the debate program are hoping to change everyone’s minds. And indeed, when the results are displayed at the end of the debate, I am pleasantly surprised as to how many people began the debate voting for one side, yet changed their vote based on what they learned.

How does this relate to business? There isn’t a day that goes by in any company without some sort of debate. The problem is most debates bear little fruit. People typically come to the table with a point of view, and facts to defend their position. A lot of talking occurs, with very little listening. Most people are just waiting for the other side to stop talking so they can make their point. If one person makes a point, and the other person doesn’t agree, the strategy is to re-state the position; louder. We humans seem to think that the only reason other people don’t agree with us is that they didn’t hear us the first time. Then, when the other person says, “I heard you the first time,” we re-state our position, using different wording. (Perhaps they heard us, but just didn’t understand our version of English.)

I can’t think of a bigger waste of time for the American worker than debates during meetings (other than surfing Facebook to see photos of your friends on vacation). Bad debates can cause long term damage to working relationships. When people agree with us, we view them as smart and well-intentioned. When people disagree with us, we don’t trust them even if they are correct. This not only makes for poor teamwork, but poor decision making. Many times, decisions are made based on facts, but on which decision will cause the least amount of grief among the team.

If I were looking to hire people, I wouldn’t hire the experts who fervently present their case and stick to their guns, I would hire the people who either had the courage to admit that they were undecided in the first place, or those who had the ability to change their minds. These are the kinds of people who demonstrate respect for various points of view, and who keep their ego out of the equation.

Examining one’s ego is a crucial part of leadership; since our ego does more decision-making than our intellect. A neuroscientific study examined why people become so angry when their beliefs are challenged. It was discovered that, when a firmly held belief is challenged, the same parts of the brain activate as when we are threatened with physical harm. In short, the brain feels that a challenge to our beliefs is the same as a challenge to our very safety. It is no wonder that, when arguing an issue, people will scream, sweat, and pound the table. Their brains are preparing for a fight that goes beyond words.

How does a leader handle this? When a difficult issue is at hand, remind the group that they need to distance themselves from the issue. Treat ideas as facts, not a representation of the person discussing it. And remind the group that how they debate will carry into how they work together once the debate is over.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.