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It’s all about the HOW and not the WHAT

I have found in my executive coaching, that many behaviors that executives want coaching on are generationally based. In the 80’s, it was how to lead boomers who wanted it all and thought they knew it all, so the struggle was for the traditionalists to learn how to give up some control. The struggle with Xers is for leaders to understand that the work ethic they, as boomers, embraced is not what this generation prescribes to.

I have found in my executive coaching, that many behaviors that executives want coaching on are generationally based. In the 80’s, it was how to lead boomers who wanted it all and thought they knew it all, so the struggle was for the traditionalists to learn how to give up some control. The struggle with Xers is for leaders to understand that the work ethic they, as boomers, embraced is not what this generation prescribes to. With Nexters, we are learning that their tech savvy approach to most issues leaves many of their leaders in the dust and both sides are finding it hard to communicate. The one thing that I have found that transcends all generations and cultures, no matter what, is HOW the message is delivered. We do not focus on the HOW enough.

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Most of the leaders I engage with are generally right in a message they want to deliver to an employee. They even believe they are being helpful and mentoring when they think about the fantastic wisdom they are about to impart. Then they open their mouths and it backfires. Let me share a story about a President of a company who recently walked through one of his operations and found several company infractions. This is a company that has young, highly committed managers, who are often under constant deadlines with high priority initiatives; they must continually interact with demanding customers and these managers had been under a period of enormous stress.

Once the President completed the walk-through, he sent a seething e-mail, telling all his managers what poor managers they were. The message included the following: “What are you doing? You certainly are not managing your operations. Everyone better get on the stick or you will be looking for alternate employment.” He then went on to list the infractions and what needed to be done about them; that part was helpful. Unfortunately, the management team did not get to the helpful advice. They were too busy reacting to HOW he delivered the first part of the message. His WHAT, in the second part, was right on target and helpful. His HOW was wrong, so wrong, that his WHAT never got heard. So I am sure you can imagine the rest. Managers were blaming, complaining and criticizing. Morale went down. As the behavior continued, turnover went up; and all this happened because of the HOW.

So yes, this is a dramatic example, but take a moment to think about the last difficult conversation or conflict you were in. How much time did you focus on the WHAT, compared to how much time you focused on the HOW? As human beings, many of us are conflict-averse. This means when we are in conflict, we just want to say what the problem is and get out. We want it to be over; however, whatever relief we might feel from having said our piece, is overshadowed or worsened by the effect of our words. The WHAT of our message is easy. We know what is right and we want to say it and move on. The HOW is hard. The HOW takes insight, thought, time and guts; we need to deliver our message, but say it in a way that an audience can hear and will then be encouraged and motivated to change or to take our suggestions.

Let’s take Alec Baldwin’s recent inappropriate voicemail left on his daughter’s phone. All of us as parents can relate to being frustrated with our children at times. (I, for one, can think of more than one occasion when I might have been tempted to call my son a not-so-nice name.) The release of his frustration was so unacceptable, that who knows how deep the damage will go, or if there will ever be repair.

It is not just our voice that speaks to the HOW; it’s also our body. I swear Al Gore lost the election, in part, because of his stiffness. His body language did not match his message. The effect left people cold and concerned that he would not be able to relate to the American people. The good news for us and for Al Gore is that the HOW can be learned. Al Gore was totally different in his film, An Inconvenient Truth. He was so in touch and relaxed that the HOW helped him win an Academy Award.

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What about your HOW?

Are you, as leaders, concentrating on your HOW consistently? Do you look for ways to not only be right, but be effective as well? Choosing to be right and choosing to be effective are not always the same. You can be right all day long (and imagine often that you are), but if you want to be effective, it may mean giving up what you believe is right and finding a better way to communicate your message. If you asked your team, would they say your delivery of your WHAT leaves them with understanding and feeling motivated? Remember that these conversations take planning. They are not shoot-from-the-hip dialogues. Really think about WHAT you want to say and then HOW you want it to be heard. Understand what you want the outcome of the conversation to be and work backwards. If you know what you want the result to be, it will be easier to plan your HOW.

Try this:

Plan to have one conversation each day where you focus on the HOW. Put it right in your calendar, so you don’t forget to have it. Like most things, once you start this, it will become a habit and the HOW will become natural and you will need less planning and reminding.

One more thought:

The HOW seeps into all aspects of our life – conversations with spouses, children, significant others, friends, siblings, bosses, co-workers, employees, mothers-in-law and so on. Try your new HOW on all of them and see what happens. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

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Grace Andrews • Executive Coach/Corporate Healer • President, Training By Design • Boston, MA • gandrews@training-by-design.com • www.training-by-design.com