Today leaders and their teams are operating in an unprecedented time of stress and distraction, not just on questions related to their business but also to their personal and family’s safety.
In seemingly ordinary times before the coronavirus pandemic, we accepted that workplace stress was inevitable due to things like keeping up with the rapid growth of technology and business competition. We also understood that distraction was a problem, with research showing as much as 70% of employees are distracted at work by information overload.
But today, as leaders manage teams amidst the uncertainties of health and work, they must overcome a whole new set of challenges. One challenge, in particular, is the difficulty in managing people while following the company’s mandatory stay-at-home policies.
Thankfully a lot has been written to help leaders run virtual meetings and engage employees remotely. But successfully leading others during a time of physical distance requires going much further than that. As an executive coach to many leaders managing remote teams, I’ve recognized that the ones who really “get through” to their people are the ones who are intentional about the mental and emotional connection in every interaction.
To ensure a successful connection with your colleagues during this time of distraction and distance, you must practice an essential concept, taught by my colleague and one of the world’s preeminent business thinkers, Michael Bungay Stanier: the art of staying curious.
Why staying curious longer is critical for leaders now
When I reflected on how leaders can create a deeper connection with their colleagues in this distant workplace, I reached out to Michael because his expertise is in helping companies and managers excel through implementing coaching behaviors in their everyday interactions.
Many people know him as the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company, and he is best known for his groundbreaking book The Coaching Habit, which took the leadership world by storm a few years ago.
Last month, Michael’s latest book, The Advice Trap, came out, and it provides a powerful message for today’s executives. The lesson is that if you want to achieve greater success and a more sustained impact as a leader, you must shift from giving advice to becoming more curious in every interaction.
Curiosity, or the ability to place your attention and interest on the other person even when you have the urge to command them around your desires, creates the pivotal shift from a mentally distant interaction to a meaningfully connected conversation. And the costs of a distracted, distant conversation are incredibly profound when compared with the benefits of interactions that genuinely engage.
As Michael told me, “Our brains crave certainty, so when we are talking with each other, we each are falling into a default operating system of assessing whether the conversation is becoming a threat to our sense of security or not.”
So, if you want to connect effectively, be it with a direct report who is underperforming or a colleague who is not holding up his or her part of an agreement, the way to get through to the person is by offering safety and well-being. You must give the employee a sense of certainty before you expect him or her to help your need for it.
Unfortunately, many leaders do the opposite and fall into the trap of first tending to their own needs for certainty. In the process, they start believing they got their point across, or that their advice got through, when in fact they created more distraction and resistance in the other party by not being curious just a bit longer.
The 4 factors behind deep engagement
My favorite concept in Michael’s books is what he calls the TERA quotient, in which curiosity, instead of dumping advice on others, is the cornerstone.
In times of stress, as we are experiencing now, Michael tells me, “the brain is looking for a way out.”
Take, for example, your employee who is now sharing his workspace with his kids, worried about his 401K amidst the pandemic, and feels terrible because he hasn’t exercised in several weeks since his gym closed.
When you start rattling off a list of directives in your weekly one-on-one meeting, you may ease your stress about holding him accountable. But you also leave him with more pressure, potentially causing your employee to resort to resistance behaviors (passive or apparent) to find any possible exit from the tension.
To truly engage this colleague, your job is to create more safety in his brain and invite him to lean into the conversation rather than fight it or flee it. And you can do this by employing micro-behaviors that increase the TERA quotient, fostering a meaningful space for the colleague to work through stress and worry.
In encouraging a more productive, engaging interaction, you gradually “seal the exits,” as Michael says, and keep the employee’s brain from checking out on you.
Let’s look at each component of the TERA quotient to better understand how to better engage your colleagues next time you interact with them.
Tribe (T: “Are you with me, or against me?”).
Your colleague, or anyone you interact with in work or life, is making constant mental assessments of whether you are on his or her side or not.
In The Advice Trap, Michael provides examples of phrases and behaviors anyone can use to immediately demonstrate that you are with an employee, not against him or her. However, I was able to experience the impact in real time as we spoke via video conference last week.
As I began the Zoom call with Michael, I immediately sensed his warmth because he made a friendly joke, rather than entering the conversation as a famous author in an interview for a business publication.
I had to conduct the video call from my car, and upon seeing me in a driver’s seat, he said, “Wow, where are you — in your private jet?”
His gentle humor and affability created a relaxed setting for us to talk from the very start. And as we will discuss soon, this particular comment served to raise the “R” (Rank) component of the TERA quotient as well, in that he chose to see me as successful, not beneath him, even if just joking about having a private jet.
As the call progressed, Michael continued to demonstrate that he was on my side, supporting my getting to know his views, not expecting me to be deferential to him.
For instance, he nodded as I spoke, kept eye contact with me, and remained focused, making a video call seem no different from an in-person conversation. Furthermore, he was standing when we spoke, moving back at times to create some natural comfort rather than dominantly facing the camera.
Also, he often smiled: something I have coached leaders to experiment with more. It’s amazing what a genuine smile can do from a stranger or an authority figure to invite a better interaction.
It’s worth noting that Michael is an extremely personable and humble person all the time, so this was not an act. But it’s proof of why he can disarm anyone he meets, and how you can benefit from adopting similar mindsets and behaviors.
Expectation (E: “Show them the future”).
In our craving for certainty, our brains want to know what is about to happen. And when we can’t see what will take place, we tend to disengage.
Consider the last conversation you had with someone who managed to drone on and on without getting to the point. You probably wondered where the conversation was going and mentally checked out, if you didn’t already interrupt the person out of frustration.
Today, when you are managing employees or collaborating with colleagues, help them see where you’re going, by employing phrases that keep them from checking out and wondering about your intentions. This approach can dramatically increase their level of engagement and willingness to follow your lead.
For example, you may preface a question with an explanation of why you’re asking it, to pre-empt any resistance or confusion. Say, “This might be a difficult question, but … ” or “I’m just curious, why do you …”
Another example of setting a clear expectation is to say how much time you will take in your part of a conversation, to prevent the other person’s falling into distraction, given her other obligations.
With leaders who are about to meet a busy customer or colleague, I coach them to avoid jumping right into the content, and instead frame the agenda and check in on how much time available.
Instead of going right into the conversation, ask: “I know we have only 15 minutes; do you have a hard stop at 12:15?”
Just asking this question puts the other person’s mind at ease before launching into the dialogue. It lets the person know that she has a say in how long this conversation is going to go while she is processing dozens of other needs in her mind at the same time.
In my call with Michael, we also had moments where I could increase the TERA quotient by indicating where I was going with my questions or how I was tracking with his answers. At one time, I had to move my hand over the screen to switch off certain pop-ups while he was talking.
In the process, my eye contact was off, which, to any observer, would appear that I was distracted, and then could potentially distract the person as he was trying to engage. Aware of this, I interrupted him to say, “I’m sorry, I’m toggling between some buttons here, but I’m listening, and please continue.”
This simple sentence might seem unnecessary, but it went a long way in ensuring that Michael and I kept our engagement high. It helped me meet Michael’s mind’s expectations of what this talk should achieve and how he would feel about it, despite unwanted distractions.
In the same way, if you want to avoid losing the attention and positive engagement of the person you are speaking with, open your awareness to how you may be causing further distraction and talk honestly to it.
Rank (R: “Raise them up”).
The next component of the TERA quotient relates to our human need to feel as if we are perceived as equals, if not superior.
When you are holding virtual meetings with your direct reports as a team or in a one-on-one session, you already hold power in the interaction. But you also begin at a disadvantage because your employees join the interaction with hesitation. You can’t be sure whether they are going to engage profoundly or just say and do whatever is necessary to exit gracefully and fast.
To truly get through to your people, you must consider raising their rank in the interaction. Show some vulnerability to bring yourself down a bit, perhaps by sharing some of your missteps or a more human side to your imperfect life. Or remind them of their importance, particularly to you and the team. You might say, “You’re a major factor in our success, and I want to hear your suggestions.”
As I had mentioned earlier, light humor and even self-deprecation can go a long way, particularly when you hold the apparent power in the interaction. When Michael and I started our video call, and he saw me conducting it from my car, he could have chosen to make me feel uncomfortable by judging me and saying something like, “Where are you? Don’t you have an office?”
Instead, he chose to raise me up by asking if I were in my “private jet.” It was subtle and a joke, but immediately disarmed me of my hesitation about having to speak with him amid a hectic morning where I had to find a quiet space outside the home.
These seemingly minor tactics make a significant difference in the ability to connect with people and are even more needed now when everyone has other consuming stressors.
Autonomy (A: “Give them the choice”).
As much as we want certainty in our lives, we also want freedom of choice. To increase the engagement of others you interact with, remind them of the say they have in what happens by giving them options rather than commanding them.
To be sure, you can’t provide endless choices when you need to move big things forward, but offering up moments of autonomy to choose can keep employees engaged with you.
For instance, when I coach leaders, I know we have a broader agenda we must adhere to, relative to the goals we established on their action plan. But I always begin each session with a question like, “What is the most important thing we should talk about today?”
This inquiry introduces the permission for them to drive the interaction forward and take ownership of what we will achieve, which ensures a proactive mindset rather than a disengaged stance.
When Michael and I spoke, we both honored each other’s autonomy by providing choices as to how I would write about his work.
He didn’t impose rules upon me about how to present his book or which sections to highlight. He asked me what interested me the most, and I shared with him that not only is the TERA quotient my favorite concept in his writing but that I also genuinely believe we are in a time now when this teaching is so relevant.
At the same time, I never approached our conversation without offering choices that would keep him interested in sharing more with me. Michael is a highly successful thought leader and writer, and just because he agreed to speak with me about his work didn’t mean that we immediately would feel connected in the conversation.
For that reason, I also asked him questions like, “I’m sure you’ve done a lot of press already for the book; what are some aspects you’d like readers to know about that you haven’t shared yet?”
Or, I posed options to him by saying, “I like the TERA quotient concept as well as the Foggifiers concept in your book; do you have a preference as to which I should elaborate on in my article?”
As a result of both of us presenting choices to each other, we respected our autonomy and connected in a highly enjoyable and meaningful way.
Develop a deeper level of trust despite distance and distraction
If there ever was a time when deep engagement with colleagues is more necessary, yet more challenging, it’s now. With social distancing and even more mental distraction keeping teams apart, you must resist your need for control if you want to be effective.
Tap into your curiosity about others in every interaction, just a little longer. Increase your self-awareness during each conversation, staying ready to adapt as needed to increase the TERA quotient, encouraging a safe space for others to connect with you.
Most of all, don’t be deceived into thinking you are getting through to people when they say what you want to hear or do all the right things in front of you. When you are genuinely curious about someone else, you may invite him or her to say the things you don’t want to hear. But in the process, you will create a deeper, more enduring level of trust.