Monday, July 25, 2005

Care About Subtleties

Knowing that the leaders around you are watching the details around them should give you pause: one of the details they are paying attention to is you. In this way, the details of what we do matter. In fact details matter to precisely the people we care most to satisfy: the other leaders around us. The details of our behavior matter not just to the leaders around us, but also to everyone who interacts with us. Here are some examples of the kinds of subtle details you should pay attention to in your work:

  • The clothes you wear influence how you are perceived. But don’t default to a suit and tie. You should dress with an eye to what the people you are working with will respect.
  • Neatly format and spell check every document you create, even email. A sloppy document to an attentive leader is the same as wearing a wrinkled t-shirt on a sales call.
  • Be respectful of everyone. Simple acts of politeness, such as saying please and thank you, are noticed, but not nearly as much as not saying them is noticed. One of the more frequent reasons I see for people expressing anger at work is, “I worked extra for them and they didn’t even say thank you.”

People judge you more quickly on these kinds of details than on any large victory or even a large failure. And the impressions they form from these details last much longer too. While we remember historical figures for their acts of greatness or infamy, we remember the people we interact with based on more personal impressions. Think about someone you know and respect, then ask yourself why. Is it because of a big success or because of the general way they comport themselves? Before you answer, try to think of someone else whom you know with similar credentials, but whom you don’t have similar respect for. It’s not the actions, but the details that make the difference in your respect.

You can do the same thought exercise with people you know who have had some large failures. Some you will respect and others you will not. The difference lies in the details. Those details determine how much you “like” them. I use the word “like” because that’s often what it comes down to. If you like them, then you will celebrate their victories and lament their mistakes. If you don’t like them, you will naysay their victories and laugh at their mistakes. It’s the subtle details of their every day behavior that set this tone.

A key element of your success as a leader is based on the strength of your reputation. And perhaps the most critical element to building your reputation is the everyday details that people see from you. These subtle details can be a bigger influence on your reputation than the big events of your career.

When you have a good reputation, every aspect of your interactions with other people goes better. People are more supportive of the people they respect. This benefit can not be undervalued. Its impacts are subtle but powerful. I once counseled someone trying to build back his reputation. When he made a good presentation to his team, he got no end of questions and second-guessing. If a more respected peer had made the identical presentation, it would have gone without a hitch. It didn’t come down to his presentation, but to his reputation.

My un-respected friend couldn’t understand why every part of his job was harder than it seemed to be for his peers. He didn’t understand the impact of all the subtle things he did on his reputation. He was quick to get frustrated, and this tended to make him defensive: a negative feedback loop on his behavior. Ultimately, he cared too much about what people though of him, so that his own ego got in the way of people “liking” him.

Another way that subtleties matter can be understood by noticing that most big achievements are made up of a multitude of tiny steps. This is particularly true of the social changes needed to effectively lead.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Chinese proverb

Take for example, the common leadership job of instilling a vision in a team. Every experienced leader knows that this isn’t done by one inspiring speech to the team. That speech is part of the process, but the most important parts are all the subtle ways a leader pushes the vision. None of the encouragements, lobbying, reminding, or presenting by themselves make any significant difference to the overall acceptance of the vision. Taken together, though, they form a history of subtle changes that instills the vision.

Another familiar example is changing the culture of a group. I once had a group that thought of its products as secondary to the other products being delivered to the customer. As a result, they didn’t have pride in their work nor did they think much about innovating or delivering added value. There was no way that I could change that group culture by holding an inspirational meeting and telling them to believe differently. Social changes like these always take time and people tend to be resistant to attempts for quick change.

Obviously, the first step to this change process was to formulate a vision of the change I wanted to happen. The culture I wanted to instill in the group was that their product was critical to the success of our customers. I attacked this problem in some direct ways like stating the idea in team meetings and adding it to a proposed group mission statement, but the team had no direct evidence that these words matched our customers’ reality.

The more subtle approaches made a bigger impact. The first subtle approach was repetition. Every politician and advertiser knows that if you repeat anything often enough it becomes true. Another subtle approach is to make the idea feel like it came from the team. Every time someone on the team said something that was similar to the idea, I would point out how it supported the vision, “That’s just like the idea we were talking about where our group is critical to customer success.” Notice also the subtle difference in saying “we” verses “I.”

A more valuable subtle approach was to sell the vision to the rest of the company and to our customers. At every opportunity I would share that my team was “starting to understand that they were critical to our customers’ success.” Some customers verified that idea or gave me examples to take back to the team. Where they were skeptical, my phrasing of “starting to understand” allowed them to correct me or think harder about the idea in non-confrontational ways.

The team got the evidence they needed when they started to hear customers and other groups within our company echo the sentiment of this cultural change. It took about nine months for the message to echo back and another three to six months for the team to own it as true. After that and many other subtle actions, their sense of pride in their work and their desire to innovate and add value went way up.

To make that change in our group culture required a long process of many subtle actions. Any one of these actions would seem useless toward moving us toward the goal. Many leaders would consider them futile efforts toward impossible change. Considering the small cost of such efforts and the value of taking no action, there’s really nothing to lose by trying. But, the patient leader will find that the more valuable results take time and attention to subtle actions.


Mike B. said...

Your comments about group culture are interesting. I'm sure you intend to expand upon them in latter postings. One aspect I'm struggling with is arriving at the right degree of assent and dissent within the group. At first blush, a group that "pulls together as a team" would be the easy favorite. But I've read recently that "controlled conflict" within groups is an ultimately more productive style. I've even read that a "culture of mavericks" can be highly creative and productive, so long as there is also a common acceptance of limits to dissent. What do you think? It's easy to endorse a balancing of approaches, but this might be easier said than done. What's been your experience?

Ken Flowers said...

I find that groups without dissent at the surface often hide resentment below the surface. Pulling together as a team shouldn't have much to do about dissent. Effective teams tend to have good boundaries and accountabilities, and above all, trust. With trust, peers can kibitz without threatening each other. And with trust, suggestions can be heard and not followed without insulting a peer. The limit of dissent is the level of trust and respect the team has built with each other.

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