The Forgotten Team Member – October 2020

Sorry, no video for this column

I rarely write about my background in improvisation because most people only equate it with its most familiar form; comedy. However, when improvisation, or improv was in its early stages of development in the 1930s, the intent was not to create a new form of theater or comedy, but to create a new way to teach. For millennia, training and education has relied on the lecture-based format, but lecture has been proven time and again to be the least effective means of educating. So, in the ‘30s, a group of educators, psychologists, and sociologist gathered to find a solution, and they discovered that hands-on, experience-based teaching was far more effective.

Improvisational techniques grew out of that movement. Much later, theater grabbed a hold of these techniques as a training tool; and later, comedy improv was borne. When Stevie Ray’s Improv Company was founded in 1989, we decided to focus on both sides of improv; training, as well as comedy. This business model calls upon me to be a comedian one night, and a corporate trainer the next. I’m told that being a Gemini helps. It was after a recent performance that I was reminded of an important lesson in fostering good teams.

Even as comedians, we take comedy seriously. Every performance is followed by a debrief. The troupe gathers and discusses every element of the show to look for areas of improvement. Improvisation is unscripted, so the performers make choices on the spot; some good, some not. As in any business, there are the public-facing members of the troupe, and the behind the scenes members. As is also true of many businesses, the choices that are the most discussed are the public-facing ones. Did a performer’s choice make the audience laugh? Did the choice fit our brand? (We eschew profanity or shock humor.) Every decision is examined for improvement.

The habit of only focusing on public-facing decisions can be expected. If your goal is to please the customer, the choices that affect that outcome are important. But doing so causes us to miss crucial areas of growth, because we miss the decisions made behind the scenes that also have a powerful impact on the customer experience. One of those people in an improv troupe is the Technical Director, or TD; the person in charge of sound and lights. In traditional theater, the sound and lighting is decided during rehearsal; no decisions are made during the performance. But in improv, the sound and lighting are created on the fly. And the TD shoulders the responsibility of the timing of the entire show. In classic improv (like what you see on the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?), the performers are not allowed to decide when an improv piece is done. The TD decides when an improv is finished, and signals to the audience by blacking out the lights. When the lights come back on, the troupe moves on to the next improv piece.

Comedy is certainly all about timing, but the timing of the black-outs in an improv show carries ten-fold the weight. A black-out that is a few seconds too soon kills the energy of an improv piece. Black-out too late, and the perfect climax to a piece is lost. The greatest improv performance can be destroyed by a poorly timed black-out. So, why is it that a typical post-show debrief has almost no discussion about the choices the Technical Director made concerning black-outs? I have been an improv professional for nearly forty years. I have been a producer, director, and performer, as well as a technical director; and I can say from experience that the only time my black-outs were mentioned during a debrief was when I made a poor choice; when I ruined what would have been a great show. You would think that my years in the Tech Booth would make me more aware of the need to include the crucial behind-the-scenes decisions in company discussions, but I still end up focusing only on public-facing members of my company.

Do you focus only on public-facing staff? Sales, customer service, or consultants? Be sure to include the people behind the scenes pulling the lights switch. Their decisions can make or break how the public sees the rest of your team.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

A House Divided – September 2020

“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 Spouting 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 keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Be Creative; Debate – August 2020

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 keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Leading Through Toxic Stress – July 2020

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 keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Camera, Camera, on the Wall – June 2020

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 keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

You Know What I Heard? – May 2020

Sorry, no video for this column

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 keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Leading in the Time of COVID – April 2020

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 keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

The Hidden Dangers of Social Distancing – March 2020

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 keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

The Windows to the Soul – February 2020

“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 keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

I Can’t Stress This Enough – January 2020

Sorry, no video for this column

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 betterthan 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 keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

0
    0
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop