What Is Bailing and Bruising Costing Your Organization?

If there’s been a theme to the conversations I’ve had with clients this year, it’s the growing cost they’re experiencing related to this bail-bruise dynamic. For one client, it undermines their inclusion and engagement efforts, effecting their ability to retain and compete for talent. With another, it undermines their innovation efforts. For a third privately-held company, it is complicating an ownership and leadership change. For a fourth, it’s a drag on their performance goals. So what is this bail-bruise dynamic, and what can you do so it doesn’t undermine your success as well.

We see bailing and bruising as being on opposite ends of a candor continuum. They represent a conversational version of the fight-flight response.

People whose “fight” response gets triggered in a conversation are likely to bruise, to dominate a conversation and speak in stronger, more unilateral language that can shut others down:

“That will never work…”

“Of course you’d take Maria’s side against mine…”

(Sarcastically) “Oh, that’s a GREAT idea…”

Bailing on the other hand is the conversational version of “flight.” When people worry that they’ll get challenged, shot, down, or lose face in some way, rather than speak up they acquiesce or remain silent. But (contrary to what bruisers may believe) silence doesn’t equal consent. When people withhold their judgement and ideas they withhold their commitment too. That’s why this dynamic is so damaging and costly to organizations. The lack of psychological safety becomes a black hole for engagement, inclusion, and innovation efforts.

The challenge for organizations struggling with the bail-bruise dynamic is to move into the candor zone depicted in the graphic above. People often associate candor with “brutal honesty,” but real candor has a more welcoming tone. The American Heritage Dictionary defines candor as “frankness or sincerity of expression; openness,” and “freedom from prejudice; impartiality.” It’s derived from the Latin word candēre meaning to shine which is the same root for “kindling.” I like to think of candor as the kindling that sparks teams to engage with each other and the challenges they face in fresh, authentic ways.

To move from bail-bruise ends of the continuum into the candor zone three things need to happen.

Bailers need to speak up.

Bruisers need to speak more professionally.

Everyone needs to listen.

People are often surprised to see listening as a key ingredient of candor; we mostly think of candor as being about what is said. But listening is actually the key to the process. Sincere and open listening invites bailers to speak up, knowing that their ideas and reactions will get a fair hearing. Listening also invites bruisers to stop pushing their agendas so hard since listening acknowledges and validates their perspectives as well.

If this style of interacting—professional speaking and skillful listening—sounds easy and conflict-free, it isn’t, at least not when teams are discussing things that really matter. Just because people are listening doesn’t mean they agree with what they’re hearing. High-candor conversations may actually seem messier and more chaotic – after all, the bailers are now speaking up, adding more competing ideas and dissenting opinions to the mix. And even though these ideas and opinions are stated and discussed professionally, individuals still have strong feelings for some ideas and against others.

Here’s the difference between candor-rich conversations and the norm. Everyone is engaged. Everyone’s perspective is heard. Everyone is open to others’ points of view. Even if their ideas didn’t win, participants feel their contributions helped shape the conversation and their commitment to the outcome is higher because of it.

Candor isn’t a panacea and it isn’t the only variable in creating more engaged, inclusive, and innovative teams and cultures. But I don’t know of any team or organization that’s been successful in these areas without strengthening their candor. Even Jack Welch, the hard-nosed CEO of General Electric in the 1980s and 1990s, is a believer in this way of relating. He devotes an entire chapter to candor in his 2005 best-seller Winning. When teams practice candor, he writes “more ideas get surfaced, discussed, pulled apart, and improved. Instead of everyone shutting down, everyone opens up and learns.” That’s what inclusion, engagement, and innovation are all about.

He didn’t stop there: “Any organization—or unit or team—that brings more people and their minds into the conversation,” says Welch, “has an immediate advantage.”

If you’re looking for an advantage yet are struggling with the bail-bruise dynamic in your organization, give me a call or check out Ridge’s Candor Playbook. It includes tips for bailers to speak up, for bruisers to speak more professionally, and for everyone to listen more openly.

Good luck, and thanks for listening!

Why Training Fails (And What To Do About It): Part II

I’ve been in the training business for a long time and have seen many reasons training fails – the design is weak, the content isn’t relevant to the audince, the delivery isn’t effective, the timing is bad, the wrong people are selected, the training isn’t reinforced… The list goes on.

While those are surely important considerations in creating successful training outcomes, there are two other strategic factors that aren’t often considered in the performance design process. The first factor, covered in my last post, is the importance of choosing the right performance practices to develop. If we get this wrong than we’re training people in the wrong things. The Performance Consulting model created by Dana and Jim Robinson is a one process to make sure leaders and L&D professionals select the right practices that influence the outcomes organizations want.

The second strategic factor is choosing the right strategy to develop those practices. Too often training is the default process for development, even when other methods that could be more effective. The  video below overviews options for broadening our thinking about developing those practices, building on BJ Fogg’s work on behavior design. I hope it’s worth 10 minutes of your time.

If you have any thoughts or reactions, feel free to join the conversation by commenting below. Thanks!

Why Training Fails (And What To Do About It): Part I

The ultimate goal of training – and leadership for that matter – is to develop employees’ performance. The better people perform, the better the organization performs.

When thoughtfully deployed, training is a great lever for improving performance. The problem is that it is rarely thoughtfully deployed. There are many places training can go wrong – the content may not meet learners’ performance needs, the delivery method (online, classroom, etc.) might be a mismatch for the desired outcomes, there may not be any performance strategy in place to reinforce the learning… These and other problems compromise any performance gains training could offer.

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is that organizations often target the wrong performance standards to begin with. That’s the first thing we need to get right and that’s what this week’s video is about. It’s just over 5 minutes long. Whether you’re a leader or a trainer, I hope it helps you think differently about how to pick the right performance standards to develop.

If you’re so inclined, feel free to join the conversation and add a reply. Thanks!

Developing Strengths BETWEEN People

If there’s one quote that sums up what my life’s work has been about thus far, it’s this one from incomparable Peter Drucker: “Management is about human beings. Its task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”

There’s so much in those few words. As leaders and L&D professionals, how do we help people become capable of joint performance? How do we really help them discover, use, and grow their strengths—for their own sakes as well as for their team’s and the organization’s?

I put together this 8-minute screencast to share my thinking about those questions. Feel free to add your thoughts to the comments below.

What Makes Someone An Extraordinary Communicator?

Last year I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Paul Jones, CEO of Magneto Communications, a training firm that helps people be more efficient, effective, and influential in the way they write. Paul’s blog includes interviews with thought leaders on the topics of influence and communication. I’m honored to have been included. Here’s an abridged version of that interview:

Paul Jones: Who, or what, taught you the most about communication, Jim?

Jim Bolton: I grew up in a family where communication was the family business; my dad wrote his best-selling book People Skills when I was a teenager. He half-jokingly says he wrote it to figure out how to deal with me. I’ve also had a number of great mentors along the way who taught me how to connect with others in a meaningful, authentic way. These days, it’s my teenage daughters who keep me honest.

PJ: Nature or nurture? Can people learn to be great communicators, or must you be born that way?

JB: Without any scientific basis, I’d say 90% nurture. Communication is about tuning into others. This comes easier for some people. The same is true with athletes or musicians; some start with better talents and abilities. But that doesn’t predetermine greatness. The greats work at being great. Through learning and continued practice, anyone can become a highly skilled communicator.

PJ: What makes someone an extraordinary communicator? What characteristics, personality traits, experiences or otherwise ‘add up’ to make them so?

The Risk of Everyday Communication

Ten or so years ago I got a call from a global consulting firm that specializes in risk management. They help clients around the world manage financial risk, cyber security, corporate misconduct, and fraud potential. So why were they calling Ridge? To help manage a risk they observed in their own organization: everyday communication.

I had never thought about communication as a risk in that way (or our training as a risk management strategy). But sometimes communication errors can be catastrophic.

In 1972, an air traffic controller noticed that a plane was losing elevation as it approached Miami International Airport. He radioed the plane and asked, “How are things comin’ along up there?”—not the most effective way phrase the question given the seriousness of the problem. The crew, unaware of any issue with altitude, assumed the message was in reference to a landing gear problem they had just fixed. They radioed back, “OK.” Moments later, the plane hit the ground and 101 people lost their lives.

In 1961 President John Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba after he was told by military analysts that it had “a fair chance of success.” Kennedy assumed that “fair chance” meant “good chance.” Years later the author of the report said that, in his mind, a “fair chance” of success meant 3-to-1 against success. Hundreds of lives were lost and it remains what US News and World Report called “one of the worst blunders of any new president.

And then there are the horror stories we’ve all heard about doctors operating on the wrong part of a patient’s body. The Checklist Manifesto, an excellent book by author and surgeon Atul Gwande, is the result of Gwande’s efforts to boost the quality of care while minimizing the risks of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and mistakes made in hospitals around the world.

The errors in these examples are small and easy to make, yet the results were tragic. But it wasn’t these kinds of mega-mistakes the risk management firm wanted to guard against. It’s the small, imperceptible, everyday costs of poor communication they wanted to manage. Continue reading

How Listening Overcomes “Bad Apple” Behavior

A few years ago I tuned into This American Life, the radio show and hugely popular podcast hosted by Ira Glass. Just as I turned it on, I heard Glass conclude a story this way:

 

“If listening is all it takes to overcome bad behavior… If listening is more powerful than meanness, sloth, or depression… It’s like a trick from a children’s story, a golden rule kind of lesson that seems way too after-school-special to possibly be true. But by listening to each other, trying to understand each other, we can get to the point where no one can ruin things for everyone else.”

 

What?! Having studied and taught the power of listening for years, I had to know the rest of the story. After some digging I found the episode (if you’re interested in listening, it’s the first 12 minutes). In it Glass interviews Will Felps, now a Senior Lecturer in the Business School at the University of New South Wales. Glass was interviewing Felps for a show whose theme was “ruining it for the rest of us.”

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Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Confronting performance problems, giving tough feedback, being candid about smoldering conflicts, delivering bad news: these are the impending conversations that keep you up at night, or that you wake to in the morning. They occupy your mind while you’re trying to do other work. You wonder, “How am I going to bring it up?” Your mind makes movies about what will happen, with you in the leading role: confident, wise, compassionate, firm. But at the end of each film, you still feel uncertain about how you’ll break the news in reality, and how you’ll deal with the other person’s reactions. When you finally do bring it up, you still feel unprepared. Things rarely go as you expect; it’s a wild ride with an uncertain ending.

If you are reading this in hopes of finding the silver bullet for difficult conversations, you won’t find one, because there isn’t one. No magic words will make the conversation easy or end happily ever after. But not saying anything simply makes things worse—and blurting things out can leave a bloody trail to clean up later. What makes the biggest difference is how you get your mind and your words ready for the conversation. With thoughtful preparation and three simple but powerful actions, you can raise difficult issues directly and create a playing field where they can be resolved in a professional way.

  • Manage your self-talk.
  • Speak objectively about behavior and consequences.
  • Listen more than you talk.

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A Way To Win the Peace After the Election Is Over

Regardless of who is elected President tomorrow, one thing is certain: the divisions in the United States will be stronger than ever. Our nation is fragmented and increasingly self-segregating. We’re driven toward and seek out like-minded people. We have less tolerance for people with differing values and beliefs. We talk about others’ positions as if they’re inherently wrong, not that they have different opinions that are worthy of understanding.

Our elected representatives reflect this division. Not so long ago they would make fiery partisan speeches yet, outside of the spotlight, work with their adversaries to get things done. Many in Congress had respectful and warm personal relationships with their political opponents. This seems to have changed. Fewer of our representatives are willing to collaborate with people of different parties. The animosity once reserved for speeches has become personal. Little work of consequence gets accomplished because people with different values and ideas won’t work together.

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“What We’ve Got Here Is Failure To Communicate”

This famous line from the classic film Cool Hand Luke is unfortunately more prophetic than we might like to admit. We think of communication as a straightforward process: I talk, you listen, you talk, I listen, we understand each other. What’s so hard about that? Sometimes communication actually is that straightforward, but often it’s not.

The Bay of Pigs provides a dramatic example of communication gone wrong. When President John F. Kennedy asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their opinion on the invasion of Cuba in 1961, he was told that the proposed operation had “a fair chance of success.” The Joint Chiefs didn’t explain what they meant by “a fair chance;” Kennedy presumed it meant a “good chance” of victory. Years later the author of the Joint Chiefs’ report said that, in his mind, a “fair chance” meant 3 to 1 against success. Because of this misunderstanding, the President approved the ill-fated attack that caused unnecessary deaths and led to a historic foreign policy debacle.

People commonly assume that misunderstandings, as happened between Kennedy and his advisors, are quite rare. But the process of human communication is actually highly susceptible to error. Here are three ways communication can go off the rails when we interact with each other:

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