When to Use Your Voice Instead of Your Thumb – June 2021

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

We Will Laugh About This Someday – May 2021

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

The Cost of Doing Business – April 2021

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

Religion: The Unspoken Word in Business – March 2021

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

Want Loyalty? Educate the Customer – February 2021

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

The Mortgage, the Noodles, and the Airline – 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 keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

The Forgotten Team Member – October 2020

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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.


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.

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