How to Lead: Be Interested, not Interesting

Last week, we learned that great leaders are those that can create psychological safety within their teams. These teams outperform others where psychological safety is lacking no matter how talented, creative, educated, etc the individual team members are. We learned that it is important to create trust & respect in team members, and this in turn creates a feeling of safety. You can read more about this here.

This week, we will go into what it takes to actually create this psychological safety. My proposal is contrary to much of what pop culture portrays as leadership. There are images of high powered corporate CEOs and world leaders. YouTube videos and articles on the Internet talk about how to be charismatic, how to persuade people, how to convince others, etc.

Learning these skills have been akin to getting superpowers. The quality of relationships has gone up substantially for me, and I hope you can get something similar out of them.

Be Interested

At its heart, the core principle of leading your team (of coworkers, family members, friends) is to be interested in each of them as a human being. This is stepping away from the rampant neediness of making every conversation about you, your needs, your opinions, and your take on something. You might think that this can make leading others challenging if you cannot direct people, command them, persuade them, push them. But that is not the case.

Trying to do all of the above pushes people away. When we wish that the other person would just learn [x] or do [y], we give up our responsibility to others.

Challenge: Hold a conversation for 5 minutes with people throughout your day, without making it about yourself. If they ask you a question, answer it briefly and then move it back to them. What you find out might shock you.

Here are the actual four micro-skills of a leader:

  1. No unsolicited opinions
  2. No relating
  3. No judgement/Remain neutral
  4. Get small commitments

I have adapted these from Richard Himmer’s excellent book Listen & Lead. Let’s try to understand them in turn and see why they are so effective. As always, these ideas are based in research and personal experience. I challenge you to try even one of them for a month and not see a dramatic improvement in your personal life and professional life.

No Unsolicited Opinions

Simple economics tells us that the higher the supply, the lower the price it will get. Most of us spend all our time sharing our opinions with others, and then we wonder why no one accepts it. Try going a full week, or even a full day without offering any opinion to anyone in your team, your friend circle, or your family. You will be shocked at how little people want to hear your opinion.

In other words, pushing your opinion is the same as persuasion, manipulation, or pushing others. When you are focused on being interesting to others, you are attached to being right. This is a recipe for a lot of pain. When we seek to understand first and make the conversation about the other person, our opinions (if asked for) are accepted more fully because we took the time to understand the other person.

Challenge: Have conversations this week where you do not offer any of your opinion unless you are asked for it. See what happens. Notice how often people ask for it.

No Relating

We are taught to immediately seek commonalities, build rapport, and make that the basis of a relationship.

“You like The Big Bang Theory? I like that to! Great, now we can cooperate.” Someone we are taught that this is a great way to build trust and respect.

But what happens when someone hasn’t watched The Big Bang Theory? Does that mean there is nothing in common? And what about connecting with someone who is very different than us? Increasingly, we are learning that diversity in our teams helps generate more creative ideas and builds a more resilient organization.

Instead, we must abandon the idea of relating to others and instead make it entirely about them. Give them the space to be themselves and ask questions to get to know them, whether you can relate to them or not. This is much more constructive towards building psychological safety, trust, and respect.

It can be a fascinating journey to learn about something new, instead of rehashing and building a rapport on the same tired 2-3 things that we always do. This may be uncomfortable at first, but it is significantly more powerful.

Not to mention a lot more satisfying. There is a joy in building a fresh relationship when it is focused entirely on them. When we aren’t pressured to find common ground and relate, we give ourselves and the other person permission to be themselves.

Challenge: Next time you meet someone new, make the conversation about them and don’t worry about relating to them. Seek to understand them. You may notice how this builds a stronger “rapport” (actually, it’s a safe space filled with trust and respect) than doing it by relating.

No Judgements/Be Neutral

Neutral? No Judgements? Isn’t this being like Spock? Not necessarily.

If you tried not offering your opinion, you know how little people ask for it. And when we offer our judgements (positive or negative), we make the conversation about us and our perception as opposed to the other person.

Instead of exclaiming when someone wins the job promotion, it’s more thoughtful to ask them “what’s it like to be promoted?” or “what did you do to earn this promotion?” This story is a heck of a lot more interesting. And your approval or disapproval doesn’t need to enter the picture.

We also know that communication is mostly non-verbal. Only 9% of our communication is verbal anyways. The rest of it is based on our intonations and our body language. When we remain neutral, accepting and open to whatever the other person has to say, we allow for a greater connection, and we are able to understand the other person a lot more. When we taint it with our enthusiasm or displeasure, we make the other person withdraw. Now we’re back into offering opinions/relating/judging.

Challenge: The next time someone is sharing a story of a perceived triumph/failure, hold your tongue and don’t share your pleasure/displeasure/support. Instead, probe deeper and understand them more. You might learn that they were not seeking your judgement (positive or negative) anyways.

Get Small Commitments

What happens when you’ve done all this to understand the other person? Now you’re in a position to lead them by asking for small commitments. To teach them through questions, not by telling them.

Instead of telling our employees, we have taught them with neutral questions to explore answers on their own. We have guided them through this process. They have been included along on the journey. They have not been pressured, pushed, or manipulated along the way. They have been empowered.

As leaders, we often demand the world from others (because often we demand that from ourselves as well). But when we give others permission to be themselves, because we’ve taken the time to understand them, because we’ve earned their trust and respect, our leadership is accepted with a greater willingness.

From the above process, incorporate the best ideas in your vision as a leadership. By involving everyone deeply in the process and creating a positive environment of trust, we can now focus on action. We don’t have to agree on everything, relate on every level. But because we’ve given them the space to share, and have sought to seek understanding before being understood, we can get things done without friction.

What sort of action? Small actions. As I’ve spoken about in my review of The Slight Edge (one of my recommended books here), small simple easy actions leads to big results.

We must ask for commitments for small actions, small commitments from our team members and build from there.

Counter intuitive? Yes. Effective, also a strong yes! I understand that a lot of this goes against popular ideas on what leadership is. My approach over these last two posts focuses on listening first, then leading. It focus on understanding the other person first, before directing them. It focuses on creating psychological safety first, instead of ‘managing’ people.

Much of what’s wrong with the corporate culture today is because we treat humans as objects and have become obsessed with our own self-importance. But there is also increasing pressure to perform, to get things done. We need a different way to think about the topic of leading as a whole. That’s what we will explore on next week’s post.

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