Q. Dear Crucial Skills,
Morale in our organization is low due to financial strain. Our leaders are under a lot of pressure, which negatively affects their communication to their employees. Their harsh tone and negativity are not intentional and most employees know it’s not personal, but after a while, it gets really frustrating.
Everyone knows we are struggling, so why not face it with a positive attitude instead of one of intensity or doom? Perhaps I am being overly critical, but I feel like this would lead us to a better outcome.
Feedback here is often quickly dismissed, so how can I approach leadership about this so that they’ll listen?
A. Dear Gloomy,
I have one idea that I hope is useful to you.
Your statement that, “feedback here is often quickly dismissed” really struck me. I think that’s true in lots of organizations, and not because leaders are simply uncaring or insecure. It’s frequently because the feedback isn’t given in a way that connects.
Most feedback is given in the form of “verbal persuasion.” In other words, we use abstract generalizations, logic, or data to try to impress others with our points. For example, you offer feedback like, “You know, I think it would really lift our spirits if leaders delivered positive messages now and again. We know times are tough, but it hurts morale when leaders remind us of it so often.” This is stated as a truism. It’s hard to argue against, but it’s not particularly persuasive.
Imagine a teammate telling you, “We need to take better care of our customers.” Even if you didn’t become defensive, you might not be influenced by the statement. Why? Because it affects neither your motivation nor your ability—the two things that predict how we behave.
By contrast, imagine you share the following with your senior managers. First, you start by making it safe to ensure your intent is clear before you get to the content of your message: “I worry about the heavy emotional load you and the other senior managers carry. We’ve been going through tough times for a while, and I know that must wear on you. I want you to know that we are pulling for you and want to do all we can to contribute.”
Now, here’s the critical part:
“And there is something you and the other senior managers can do to help us stay focused and engaged. You have such an enormous influence on morale here that I’m guessing you aren’t aware of how small things you do affect mood and focus. For example, last week my team received a total of five e-mails from upper management—a typical week. Each reported either a lost client, disappointing industry outlooks, or a budget shortfall. I noticed with each one, a feeling of gloom deepened over our department. After the e-mail about budget shortfalls, our team meeting got derailed for thirty minutes with discussion about how we’re in a death spiral—we can’t spend money, which means we can’t sell as well, which means we lose revenues so we can’t spend money, which means we can’t sell as well, etc.”
What’s the difference in this approach? It uses a story. Stories create a vicarious experience for the listener. Rather than relying on abstract ideas or verbal arguments, they take the listener into your team to help him or her feel the human consequences you are trying to describe. If you pick the right story, and tell it in the right way, you can profoundly affect others’ motivation to change. But stories can do more. They can also influence ability.
For example, you could end with:
“Please know I am not saying you should protect us from the truth. But let me tell you, a month ago when you sent a note asking us to reduce travel, that note felt entirely different. Why? Because your note began with a positive comment that boosted our spirits and gave us hope. You said, ‘You have made enormous progress toward reducing our operating costs. You have pulled off a miracle by dropping our operating budget by 12 percent in the past year. Most changes are the result of creativity and teamwork. I am proud of you.’ I can tell you that this little acknowledgement felt like water on parched ground. I saw three copies of the e-mail with that phrase highlighted in various cubicles over the next few days.”
Now, what happened in this part of the story? You provided specific guidance—a suggestion. You made it clear how your leaders could lift morale, not just that it needed to be done. And you did it in an affirming way by pointing out something your leader did right—a good way of disabusing your listener of his or her concern that you might just want to gripe or insult.
Of course, there is no guarantee that even a well-told story will change leaders’ behavior. But the odds are much higher if you communicate in this way rather than using logic, data, and abstractions.
You’re absolutely right to draw your leaders’ attention to this concern. While times are tough in many organizations, the job of leaders is to build people’s motivation and ability to pursue solutions. If you communicate with stories, you can set a good example by building their motivation and ability to be better leaders!