by Stephen Young
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We’ve all had a conversation with someone who, though they didn’t move an eyelash or a single facial muscle, somehow clearly communicated the message: “The sooner I get away from you, the happier I will be.” On the other hand, a wide smile, direct gaze, and hearty handshake don’t always convey admiration.
Sending the micromessages that convey your intended message requires a deep understanding of how others interpret truth or see through the pretence.
Micromessages can inspire confidence and enable an individual to stretch for higher goals, or they can undermine a worker’s self-confidence and cause him or her to second guess every decision. They have the power to do this with barely a spoken word.
It’s not so much what we say that matters, but what the other person ends up hearing or inferring. We may think we’re sending the exact same message to two team members, but the message they receive may be very different and is affected by the nature of the relationship.
Almost imperceptible subtleties of sending and receiving messages define micromessaging and its power of influence. These micro messages tell us how much we are valued and respected by those who control our destiny in the workplace. Micromessages tell us exactly where we stand and how far we are likely to go. They are as intangible as the medium through which they are sent. Through them, we build loyalty or contempt, commitment or indifference, even inspiration or sabotage. Micromessages are the very soul of leadership, and leadership is the primary driver of performance.
Micromessages influence relationships both up and down the corporate ladder; they are not the sole property of managers and leaders.
Just as you instinctively know how your boss feels about you, she also senses how you feel about her. Though neither of you may be aware of the messages being sent, the recipient unwittingly understands the micromessages and reacts accordingly.
Once we’ve had the time to learn an individual’s style and behaviours, the accuracy of our interpretation of the person’s micromessages improves. Some learn faster than others.
Understanding the behaviours that underlie micromessages will dramatically increase your ability to control them, but total fluency will probably always be just beyond your grasp, as it is for all of us. Millions of years of mammalian behaviour drive us to react by envy, fear, jealousy, anger, greed, love, and countless emotions and instinct, which can be toxic to the effective building of relationships of all types.
Positive micromessaging, on the other hand, can energize employee engagement and impact financial performance for the better.
Observe how colleagues acknowledge one another and establish visual contact, how close they stand, and listened to the inflection of their words. At first glance, such greetings might appear to be repetitive, but when you take a closer look at the gestures, tone, inflection, and gazes, you can catch clues as to where everyone stands. You’ll spot some relationships that are close and personal, and others that appear somewhat strained.
Sometimes even without uttering a word the micromessages of a silent greeting can spell out who is, and who is not, “connected.”
One leadership blind spot is the manner in which questions are asked. Questions often reveal what we want or expect the answer to be.
Typically, the structure of a question falls into one of three forms: the assumptive no, the assumptive yes, and the neutral.
You ask the question the way you want the answer to be. Sometimes questions can be statements and statements can be questions.
Carefully consider the micromessages within the questions you are asked, as well as those you are asking.
Meetings can waste precious time in a circular dance of questions chasing the wrong paths.
At its core, the blind spot of leadership crops up when we say one thing but telegraph something quite different. Our blindness is not linked to intelligence or level. We forget that intellect and performance are not inextricably linked. Some of the smartest people are the worst perpetrators of microinequities. Corporate senior executives are often oblivious to the effects of microinequities because they are rarely on the receiving end of these messages. Actually, what they experience the most are microdeceptions, more commonly known as pandering and brownnosing.
Each of us has attended meeting after meeting with team members we like and admire.
Without ever saying a word, she gets the message you unconsciously but repeatedly send: “Pat, you are so smart. You always cut through all the garbage and get right to the heart of the issue every time. People look up to you. You’re a role model.”
In that same meeting, to someone else on the team you may have sent very different messages. Still void of a single word, he hears: “You really are a jerk. How did you get this job in the first place anyway? This team would be so much better off without you.”
Sometimes just putting the emphasis on a different word transforms the whole meaning of a statement.
I didn’t say she stole the book.
All our lives, we have been told that words are very important. The size of one’s vocabulary is often a sign of intelligence and education. A solid grasp of grammar and word usage is essential for acceptance in most business communities. Industries make millions selling courses designed to improve vocabulary and writing composition skills.
Yes, words are important, but when you compare words to what’s wrapped around them in the delivery, they pale in comparison. The impact and influence of the unspoken messages being sent are even stronger than the words.
Each business operation is coloured by the cultural context in which it operates. The same pressure from the top that might improve individual worker performance in Singapore might have the opposite effect in Ireland.
Holding your body erect and puffing out the chest might be necessary for a boss to command respect in a Latin American culture, but the same stance could be read as bullying or arrogance in Ireland. Conversely, a slightly shy, round-shouldered American executive who always looks down might be judged an unworthy opponent, and therefore ineffective, in more macho cultures.
Each of us carries patterns of behaviour and interpretation that take decades to learn. It is our cultural template. Everyone intellectually knows that behaviours vary across geographic regions, but when we actually find ourselves thrown into a culture vastly different from our own, intellect meets reality and we briefly go into culture shock.
We develop an ethnocentric bias we are hardly aware of, driving how we filter the behaviours of everyone we encounter. Simply stated, most of us believe our way is “right,” and we tend to judge others by how they measure up to our standards.
When you step into a new job, you need to learn how the regional and corporate cultures manifest themselves in that environment.
Businesses spawn jargon, style, behaviour, and other cultural norms, which individuals joining the organization need to learn and decide whether to conform to. A new hire’s compliance to the cultural norms signals to others that he or she is a member of the “tribe,” someone “in the know,” and connected.
Conformance should never violate personal values. If the conformity is within the range of acceptability, it can be leveraged to enhance the business experience.
The real power of diversity is the skill of identifying what is unique about each member of the team and applying specific developmental and motivational strategies that amplify each performance. Until you are able to identify the unique characteristics that motivate people differently and apply that awareness as a catalyst to generate maximum commitment, support, collaboration, loyalty, and performance from the entire team, you cannot be a truly great leader.
The definition of diversity includes factors like the way you talk, how long you’ve been with the company, how you dress, wear your hair, and even whether you have a tattoo, none of which help define the quality of what you bring to the organization. However, they do, in many cases, alter how well you are accepted and treated at work. These judgments, which we all make at one time or another, serve to divide us into ready-made camps of “Them” and “Us.”
People see us and promptly put us through a series of mental filters or checklists. The body we arrive in is what people most readily see: our race, gender, age, attractiveness, and other items that define our visible profile.
Let the checklist operate as information only. Remove it from your filters and use the precision of micromessages for your lens instead. Assess tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, proximity, and eye contact, a person’s choice of words, syntax, and nuance, along with all indicators of what the message is conveying beneath the words themselves.
In the workplace, we have a responsibility to ensure that all are given the messages, conditions, and environment to perform to the fullest of their potential—and to unlock talent that runs the risk of being underutilized. The practical application of the power of micromessages is not about being nice. It is about sending messages that are clear, direct, and fair.
Every micromessage a manager sends affects an employee’s perceptions of the company. These perceptions greatly influence how effective that employee will be while working for the company.
If you really want to see microinequities in action, you need to go no further than everyday business meetings. You make a suggestion and it is met with a very bland, ho-hum response. Then, fifteen minutes later, someone else offers the same half-dozen as “six” and suddenly it shows profound insight. Of course, sometimes the reason for this phenomenon has to do with the quality of our communication. Our delivery certainly influences how others hear what we say, but there are often other influences at play. Many times those influences have to do with who is doing the talking.
Micromessages are the central thread in every form of communication, including electronic communications. Our e-mails, voice mails, instant messages, phone conversations, and virtual meetings are all fully loaded. Everyone has had the experience of receiving an e-mail that made you furious, only later to learn you completely misinterpreted the message.
When that happens, the one important lesson to remember is to ask questions. Misunderstandings can be cleared up when you identify and clarify differences in business practices or communication styles.
The following microadvantages top-ten list can be a pivotal catalyst for turning around problem relationships.
Use these ten steps to improve your use of micromessages for a positive impact:
1. Actively solicit opinions
2. Connect on a personal level
3. Constantly ask questions
4. Attribute/credit ideas
5. Monitor your facial expressions
6. Actively listen to all
7. Draw in participation
8. Monitor personal greetings
9. Respond constructively to disagreements
10. Limit interruptions
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A lot of problems would disappear if we talked to each other more than talking about each other.
The stuff we say without saying.
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