Category Archives: Communication Skills

But, My Team Gives Me the Wrong Answer

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I use questions to coach my team members, and they provide answers but not always the right answer. As a result, the conversation can appear like an inquisition. It’s challenging, at that time, not to revert to “telling” rather than “asking“.

If you are asking a question and you don’t get the response you want, it’s not because the response is wrong, it’s because you are asking the wrong question. -Tom

Not a Lot of Listening

“The biggest difficulty we have,” Susan insisted, “is communication.”

I nodded. “How so?”

“Well, sometimes it seems we are not even on the same team. I give instructions, I hold meetings, but when somebody has to coordinate with someone else, it always seems like the ball gets dropped.”

“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.

“It seems that when I do the talking, there’s not a lot of listening.”

“And that surprises you?” I smiled.

“No. But, as the manager, I expect my team to listen when I talk to them,” Susan shook her from side to side, impatiently.

“Oh, so this is your team’s fault?”

Susan was no dummy. She sensed I was setting her up. “Well, okay, I know I am 50 percent to blame,” she relented.

“And what would you do differently, if I told you that you were 100 percent accountable for your team’s complete understanding? You, as the manager, are 100 percent responsible for the effectiveness of the communication. What would you do differently?”

What Were They Thinking?

“I don’t understand,” Geoff began. “We had a meeting. I explained the new way things were going to be done. A couple of people asked questions. Everyone on the team agreed.”

“And?” I asked.

“And when I took a look at the work today, nothing was changed. It was done the same as before without the changes,” he replied. “I don’t know what they are thinking.”

“If you want to know what someone is thinking, watch what they do. People say and agree to all kinds of things. As a manager, never mistake what someone says for what they can do or will do. Don’t listen for their agreement, watch what they do.”

Experience Meets Experience

Every conversation can be calibrated. Every conversation has a platform. Seven levels of listening –

  1. Ignoring completely, oblivious, engrossed in your smartphone.
  2. Pretending to listen, glancing up from your smartphone.
  3. Listening selectively, attentive only during downloads on your smartphone.
  4. Listening to respond, smartphone holstered.
  5. Listening to understand, to understand the other person, to understand the situation.
  6. Listening to learn, to learn something new, something interesting, something that matters.
  7. Listening for the intersection where someone else’s experience meets our experience on which we can build trust.

Thinking about your relationships, as a manager, as a friend, as a stranger, as a parent. Where is your intersection with reality?

How Not to Appear as a Control Freak

“I am taking over a new department,” explained Ellen. “It’s not a promotion, just a new department. I heard through the grapevine that some people are off-balance wondering what life is going to be like under my direction. Two people said they might quit. How do I let them know that I am not going to be some micro-managing monster?”

“You could wear a sign,” I suggested.

Ellen laughed. “Be serious. I want to let them know that I am not some control freak boss.”

“It sounds backward,” I started, “but instead of telling them about you, why don’t you find out about them?”

Ellen looked puzzled.

“Look, you may be under the microscope. If you become genuinely interested in each of your team members, you will accomplish two things. First, the focus will immediately shift away from you. Second, asking questions about them will speak volumes about you.”

How to Find Common Ground

“Like I said, I will ask them about the way they see themselves in their role on the team,” responded Julia. We had been talking about her new management position.

“And what if you don’t like what you hear?” I asked.

That was a hard question. Julia started her sentence twice before completing it. “I just have to keep digging. Somewhere in there is a small starting point. Somewhere in there is a small place where we can agree.”

“Is that the point of intersection we were talking about?”

“Yes.” Julia was on a roll. “And I have to find it before we can go on. Sometimes you have to go slow before you can go fast. Until I make that connection, until I find that point of intersection, we are not going anywhere in the conversation.”

“And what do you think happens between the two of you when you find that point of intersection?”

“It’s like a little piece of magic. We get something we can build on and move forward with. Until we find that common ground, all we have are differences. You cannot build on differences.”

Curious Communication

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I have been reading your blog on the recommendation of one of the owners of my company. I am unsure of how to handle this situation. Our company has grown over the past few years and, with that growth, some roles have been re-structured, responsibilities shifted from one person to another. During this time, one of our critical business development processes appears to have shriveled from a lack of attention. It used to be a high priority, driven by the CEO, but now, it is hardly noticed, its momentum slowing to a standstill.

This has caused some concern in middle management, but we are unsure how to approach the CEO without causing controversy. We are not a bunch of whiners, but we think this is important. Somehow, somewhere, the ball got dropped.

Your question leads me to believe that your company culture doesn’t actively create open dialogue, that sometimes agendas, company and personal are driven with only half the story told. There is likely another side to this story. So, how to find this out “without causing controversy.”

Public or private, this conversation has to be held in a safe environment. In 1-1 conversations, I use the following phrase to set up the environment, “I am curious. -followed by the question-.” Curiosity is safe, keeps my agenda out of the explanation so I can truly hear the other side of the story.

A university chancellor, I work with, conducts frequent “brown bag” lunch sessions with students at his campus. The “brown bag” aspect removes the formality, and creates a more candid dialogue.

You might create a small “brown bag” affair, with an intimate group of “curious” managers and invite the CEO. One of my rules is “no surprises,” so the invitation should be clear to the CEO that you are there to find out the current Vision of the Business Development activities of the company. There is likely a reasonable explanation for this shift in focus.

You might find this “brown bag” affair becomes a regular event, once a month, once a quarter, and quite soon, will impact the culture of the company to promote this kind of curious communication.

Lost In Translation

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

In your Time Span workshop, you talk about the breakdowns in communication that can occur when a manager skips a layer, for example a Stratum IV manager working with a Stratum II supervisor. How can you tell when you have a lost-in-translation issue?


Communication breakdowns can occur for many reasons. Elliott Jaques, in his Time Span research often found, that problems we attribute to communication breakdowns or personality issues, turn out to be a misalignment in organizational structure.

A Stratum IV manager and a Stratum II supervisor are typically working on goals with markedly different Time Spans. Even looking at the same problem, their analysis will be different. The Stratum II supervisor may piece some of the elements together while the Stratum IV manager looks to see how this problem impacts other related systems down the road. Indeed, they may describe the problem using different words (terminology).

The S-II supervisor may wonder what the S-IV manager is talking about while the S-IV manager wonders why the S-II supervisor cannot see what is altogether clear. They use different words and see the world in different ways, creating that lost-in-translation syndrome.

But, your question was, how can you tell if this is Lost-in-translation? More importantly, how can we recognize the difficulty and what steps can we take to prevent it or cure it?

Underperformance of any kind indicates a problem. Any time performance does not meet expectation, there are three places to immediately look.

  • Is it a problem with the performance?
  • Is it a defect in the expectation?
  • Is there a problem with the communication of the expectation?

If it’s a problem with the communication, then lost-in-translation could be the culprit. And the accountability lies with the manager. It is (always) the manager who I hold accountable for the output of the team member.

What needs to change? What managerial behavior needs to change? I see two steps.

  1. The manager should recognize the time span framework of the team member. Here is a quick set of diagnostic questions – “What is the task? When should this task be completed?” The response from the team member is a clear indication of the Time Span the team member has in mind. This Time Span is impacting every decision surrounding this project. The adjustment for the manager is to speak in terms of the other person.
  2. The manager should examine the language (words) being used to make sure the meaning of the words is common and clear. During a task assignment, I will often ask the team member to take written notes and feed back to me their understanding of the work instruction. In there is confusion, it can generally identified in this step.

It is the manager I hold accountable. The manager is 100 percent responsible for the communication in this lost-in-translation issue.

100 Percent Responsible

“But, what if my team just doesn’t want to listen to me?” Susan protested.

“And, how does that make you, as the manager, less responsible for the communication?” I asked.

“Yeah, but, if they don’t want to listen, how can I make them listen?”

“Indeed, how can you make them listen?”

Susan stopped, this wasn’t going anywhere. “I can’t make them listen. If they don’t want to listen, I have to figure out how to get them to want to listen.”

“That’s a start. Remember, as the manager, you are 100 percent responsible for the communication. So, how do you get them to listen in the first place?”

“Well, I guess I have to talk about things they are interested in. I have to get their attention.”

“And since you are 100 percent responsible for the communication, that is exactly where you should start. Speak in terms of the other person’s interests.”

I Sound Like My Mother

“I tell them what to do and all they do is argue,” complained Cheryl.

“How does that sound?” I asked. “Pretend I am running the line. What mistake could I make that needs correction?”

“They always forget to inspect incoming materials for quality. They just dump the parts in the bin. This company hired me to prevent quality errors. It starts by inspecting the incoming plastic parts,” Cheryl explained.

“So, I take a box of incoming plastic parts and I dump them into the bin for assembly, but I don’t check them for quality, first?”

“Exactly,” said Cheryl. “You can’t do that. I personally inspected all the incoming parts from yesterday and now you have them all mixed up. What were you thinking? You will have to pull all the parts out of the bin and re-inspect every one. We have a 20 percent failure rate on finished goods and it’s all your fault.”

“What kind of response do you get?” I queried.

“Oh, they say they never had to inspect parts before I came along, or that they didn’t make the damn parts so it’s not their fault. I can’t seem to get them to take responsibility. They sound like little kids. -I didn’t do it, not my fault.-”

“So, if they sound like little kids, what do you sound like?”

“What do you mean?” Cheryl became quietly curious.

“If they sound like children, do you sound like a parent?”

Cheryl stopped cold. She was ticking the conversation back in her head. “My goodness, I sound like my mother.”

“And when you sound like a critical parent, what kind of response do you invite?” I asked.

“When I sound like a critical parent, I invite them to argue with me?” Cheryl’s question sounded more like an answer.

“So, we have to figure out a way to correct the behavior without inviting an argument.”