Chapter 8: Future-Focused Communication – Changing the IT Leader's Mindset – time for revolution rather than evolution

CHAPTER 8: FUTURE-FOCUSED COMMUNICATION

In the last chapter we looked at how we can refocus our efforts on outcomes by ensuring that the language we use is future-focused and outcome-oriented. We saw how the skilful use of questioning is a key leadership tool, and how we can structure conversations to achieve our ends better. In this chapter we will look at ways to help you ensure more effective communication in all its forms.

Communication is the lifeblood of any organisation. Without effective communication, nerves don’t communicate with musculature, our heart doesn’t know to pump faster during physical exertion, and so on and so forth. It is the same with organisational life: without effective communication people become demotivated because they don’t see the results of their efforts; they don’t know what is expected of them or understand their purpose within the greater context of the organisation as a whole. Silos develop, departments work at best in isolation and at worst in competition; the whole thing becomes disjointed and productivity suffers.

As Transactional Leaders, much of our focus is on work product, closing down options and making decisions, ensuring that processes and procedures are followed, monitoring lines of code generated, etc. As a consequence, our style of communication has been to tell people what to do based on our experience of what has worked in the past and what is considered to be ‘best practice’. We give out information on a ‘need-to-know’ basis and we encourage expediency in decision making. The aim is to increase efficiency, to make things happen at a pace; we don’t, however, often step back to consider whether we are doing the ‘right’ things. Are we trading effectiveness for efficiency, quality for quantity? The result is simply more of the same.

For the Transformational Leader, communication is the means by which we bring focus on innovation rather than on stability, foster divergent rather than convergent thinking and inspire people to action rather than simply tell them what to do. Communication is not just about the words we choose, it is about the images and emotions we create in people’s minds, the possibilities we open up when we share our hopes and dreams, the confidence and trust that we inspire when we provide access to privileged information and the role modelling we provide through our actions.

Communication style

 

From

To

1

Using language to describe

Using language to create

2

Sharing information selectively

Ensuring open access to information

3

Encouraging agreement and consensus, seeking rapid closure

Encouraging people to share diverse assessments

Table 11: Transformational Leadership – change of emphasis

In our research into IT leaders who had progressed beyond the ranks of IT and made it to the position of CEO, we found that they all displayed common traits that marked them out as good to great communicators. Broadly speaking, there were seven tactics or techniques which they all appeared to have in common: networking, sharing themselves and their time, actively listening, open-mindedness, always speaking well of others, a well-developed sense of humour and, perhaps most importantly, being adept at adapting their communication style to match the style of the receiver.

Let’s look at each of these factors in further depth:

1   Networking – place networking and building relationships at the very top of your agenda. On average, the IT leaders in our study spent 50% of their time networking and building relationships! Very simply, they talked with everybody and anybody they came across.

2   Sharing yourself and your time – be generous, help others when you can, share knowledge and information, be prepared to disclose a little about yourself; all without expecting anything in return. Such behaviour will encourage others to open up and share with you; you may be rewarded with that nugget of wisdom, that germ of an idea or simply someone to call upon when you need help at some future time. As they say, ‘be nice to people on your way up because you might meet them on your way down’.

3   Active listening – next time you are having a conversation with someone just stop for a moment and consider what you are doing when the other person is talking. Are you really listening and absorbing what they are saying or is part of your brain formulating your response or the next question? Develop your empathy and sensitivity toward others, give them feedback that you are listening and interested, and encourage them to share more. Remember, we are all equipped with two ears and one mouth. Perhaps communication should be undertaken in similar proportions?

4   Open-mindedness – facilitate diversity and encourage debate and the sharing of different assessments; don’t be too quick to judge or criticise, accept and take an interest in the views and ideals of others.

5   Always speaking well of others – if you air negative views about one person to another, how does that person on the receiving end of your views know that you are not doing the same about them behind their back?

6   A well-developed sense of humour – humour is an essential ingredient in the workplace: it diffuses tension, bonds people, aids creativity and understanding and oils the wheels of conversation. It increases the impact of your words, makes you more interesting to listen to and makes others feel good. People are more likely to want to associate with you, to consult or ask your opinion, to buy your ideas or proposals and to confide in you.

7   Adapting your communication style to the language of the receiver – some people like lots of detail and data, other people prefer a very concise, big-picture view. Some people prefer you to be businesslike, direct and to the point, whereas others prefer you to be personal and to acknowledge their feelings and values. Using these two opposing dimensions gives us four different styles of communication.

It is this last point that is perhaps new and most difficult to master. We will explore this in greater detail below. We will use the understanding of personality types, introduced in Chapter 2, to illustrate how people process information and how, by adapting your style, you can be more effective at getting your message home.

Adapting your communication style to the language of the receiver

The following analysis is based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological type. His theory describes a number of opposing dimensions, two of which are of fundamental importance in relation to communication style. The two dimensions are:

1   Level of detail – some people like lots of detail whilst others just want the big picture or ‘headline’. In MBTI terms this is described as sensing (S) vs intuition (N).

2   Basis for decision making – some people base their decision making on objective logic whilst others base their decision making on subjective values and the impact of their decisions on the person or people concerned. In MBTI terms this is described as thinking (T) vs feeling (F).

These two dimensions are used to generate the matrix in Figure 9, which describes the four resulting ‘types’ of people, each with their own style and needs.

Figure 9: The four personality types

The pragmatic types (Sensing, Thinkers) like facts and are cautious not to go beyond the facts. They rely upon their five senses to guide them, and favour literal interpretations of that data. They make decisions through logical analysis of the data and other empirical evidence, evaluating the pros and cons of all possible options. Their objective is to reach fair, reasoned and rational conclusions.

The theoretical types (Intuitive, Thinkers) like ideas, theories and concepts. They read between the lines and value the interpretation of such insights. They need to have an answer to the big ‘why’ question. They rely upon gut instinct and sixth sense in their decision making, intuitively knowing the answer or way forward. They pursue their chosen course of action with confidence and certainty. Their objective is to make sense of the world by making connections and building mental models; they seek to find ways of helping others to see in different ways, to bring clarity from disorder.

The idealistic types (Intuitive, Feelers) like the figurative and the symbolic. They are ingenious and creative and are interested in the complexities of communication, the patterns underlying immediate facts and theoretical relationships. These insights are focused on human relationships. Their interests are focused on future possibilities, things that have never happened but might be made to happen, or truths that are not yet known but might be known if we ask the appropriate questions. Their objective is to make the world a better place; whatever ‘better’ constitutes in their view of the world.

The sociable types (Sensing, Feelers) are also interested in facts, but facts about people rather than facts about things. They are grounded in the present reality and focus their efforts on practical benefits for individuals. They value collegiality and harmony, are approving and uncritical, and exercise sympathy and sentiment in their decision making. For them, values and emotion determine what they consider to be right. In their decision making they will take into account the impact of their decisions on the people concerned. Their objective is to make the world a nicer place.

Communicating with the types

In the words of George Bernard Shaw: ‘The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished’. Communication is not a one-size-fits-all problem; what works for you is not necessarily what works for the person next door. If you can learn to tailor your communication and speak the language of the recipient you are far more likely to engage your audience and ensure that your message is received as you intended. The first step towards becoming more effective is to develop a deeper understanding of the needs of each type.

•   The pragmatic types (STs) need structure, data, the specifics – what, when, why, who, how and where, and clear guidelines. You should tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them it, and then tell them what you have told them. This is the approach that is advocated in the self-help books; self-help books tend to be written by pragmatic types, so they offer sound advice for people of this type but not, unfortunately, for the other types. The pragmatic types like bullet-point lists, graphs, pie charts, bar charts, tables and the like. If you use graphs, the axes must be labelled properly, numbers must add up; if there is any error in the arithmetic your whole message will lose credibility. You must have all the relevant information, but only relevant information, not data just lobbed in there for good measure; it must be pertinent and significant. Start at the beginning and work logically and systematically through your analysis to a proven QED conclusion. Be practical and realistic and offer evidence that what you are suggesting has worked before for others in similar situations.

•   The theoretical types (NTs) need the overall rationale; they need you to answer the big ‘why’ question, to reach new understanding. The theoretical types like models, theories, concepts, but don’t bore them with too much detail. If you need to give them a list, ensure that it contains no more than three items. You should appeal to their intellect and imagination and give them a chance to input to the vision and add their own ideas. Start with the future and then work backwards, showing how it fits into the bigger picture. Ensure that your theoretical base is sound and demonstrate your own credibility. In the eyes of theoretical types, credibility does not come from experience in your field; it comes from things like gravitas, charisma and presence. The theoretical types tend to be the most arrogant of the types because they know they are right, but often this certainty is based on very little factual information. Therefore, by definition, they will always have a better idea than you, so don’t present them with a fait accompli conclusion; always give them room to manoeuvre and input their own thoughts and ideas – they desire to co-create. Be prepared to be tested; the theoretical types may dive into some detailed questioning, not particularly because they are interested, but rather to check out your thought processes and that you have done your homework thoroughly.

•   The idealistic types (NFs) need to be inspired. In order to achieve this you will need to do the following:

  Get to know your idealistic type to give you a chance of engaging with their personal values

  Paint pictures and draw analogies that have meaning

  Be passionate and enthusiastic in your presentation

  Genuinely believe in what you are proposing because if you don’t your idealistic type certainly will not

  Share your visions and your dreams

  Engage their imagination and involve them in the process; remember, ideas are their forte

  Show how it will enhance relationships and play to people’s strengths, and ultimately ...

  ... how it will contribute to the ‘greater good’ of humankind.

The idealistic types are primarily interested in global causes rather than the needs of individual people; hence individuals can be expendable for the greater good. Don’t conflict with their personal values, shower them with facts and data or give them detailed lists. As for the theoretical types, lists should be kept to a maximum of three items.

•   The sociable types (SFs) need facts and detail, but facts and detail about people. Before launching into the business at hand, build a relationship with your sociable type first, get to know them on a personal basis and find out what is important to them. Talk specifics, real people, and real examples; be clear and explicit, don’t just imply. Demonstrate immediate and practical results for people, and how each and every individual will benefit. Engage in a proper two-way conversation, and be prepared to actively listen and learn from them and modify your own conclusions accordingly. Don’t talk at them, don’t patronise them, but do show them respect. Don’t ask them for off-the-wall ideas, but do ask about practical realities.

Being sensitive to the needs of others

So what does this mean in practice, and how can we adopt our style to be more sensitive to the needs of our audience? Here is some practical advice:

If you are a pragmatic type (ST)

When dealing with the theoretical type (NT) you will need to:

•   reverse your normal style – start at the end with your idea, proposal or conclusion

•   remove most of the detail and back up with a few key high-level facts

•   keep lists short – no more than three items.

When dealing with the sociable type (ST) you will need to:

•   get personal and engage them in a genuine two-way conversation

•   talk about Fred, Joe and Harry – avoid impersonal words such as ‘human resources’ or ‘workers’

•   demonstrate caring and empathy towards people.

When dealing with the idealistic type (NF) you will need to:

•   inject passion into your dialogue and demonstrate that you truly believe in what you are saying

•   focus on the idea or concept, not the detail of how you arrived at it

•   use imagery and metaphor to impart your message.

If you are a theoretical type (NT)

When dealing with the pragmatic type (ST) you will need to:

•   reverse your normal style – start at the beginning and work sequentially, step-by-step, through your analysis to a proven QED conclusion

•   offer proof and evidence that it has worked for others

•   make sure all the numbers add up; be accurate and precise and give all relevant information in support of your case.

When dealing with the idealistic type (NF) you will need to:

•   inject passion into your dialogue and demonstrate that you truly believe in what you are saying

•   use metaphor and imagery rather than theory to impart your message

•   ask your idealistic type for their input – remember, they have ideas too, and also feelings.

When dealing with the sociable type (SF) you will need to:

•   get personal and engage them in a genuine two-way conversation – don’t patronise them or talk at them

•   ask open questions and probe gently, actively listen and encourage them to do most of the talking, be patient and gentle

•   avoid global and/or impersonal jargon such as ‘downsizing’ and ‘rightsizing’.

If you are an idealistic type (NF)

When dealing with the theoretical type (NT) you will need to:

•   focus on models and theories rather than pictures and images

•   make sure you answer the big question why ...?

•   toughen up a little.

When dealing with the sociable type (SF) you will need to:

•   start with the facts and the here and now;

•   don’t over-generalise, talk about specifics and demonstrate that you care about individuals

•   avoid big intuitive leaps.

When dealing with the pragmatic type (ST) you will need to:

•   reverse your normal style – start at the beginning and work sequentially, step-by-step, through your analysis to a proven QED conclusion – provide all the relevant facts and figures

•   focus on the tried and tested rather than the novel approach

•   don’t become over-evangelical about your cause.

If you are a sociable type (SF)

When dealing with the pragmatic type (ST) you will need to:

•   keep it businesslike – don’t get too personal

•   focus on the hard facts rather than the effect on the people and their feelings about it

•   conclude with the impact on the ‘bottom line’.

When dealing with the idealistic type (NF) you will need to:

•   focus on the idea, not the detail behind it

•   talk global people – humanity at large – rather than individuals; remember, in the mind of the idealistic types individuals are expendable for the good of the masses

•   use imagery and metaphor to impart your message.

When dealing with the theoretical type (NT) you will need to:

•   reverse your normal style – start at the end with your idea, proposal or conclusion

•   focus on the model or theory and the results and objectives; avoid too much detail and keep it businesslike

•   be direct and to the point – don’t hesitate or waffle – toughen up a lot.

Adding an extra dimension

Some people get their energy from internal thought and reflection, whereas others get their energy from the outside world of people and things. The former are, in MBTI terms, referred to as Introverts (I) and the latter as Extroverts (E). When asked a question an extrovert will give you an immediate response; they will articulate their thought processes first before the final idea. An introvert, on the other hand, will pause for thought and think through what they want to say and how they are going to phrase it; they often avert eye contact whilst going through this thinking process.

Communication problems can arise: extroverts don’t easily deal with pauses and silences, and, therefore, when an introvert pauses for thought, the extrovert will leap in and fill the silence and finish the sentence. This behaviour will encourage introverts to resort to e-mail communication because it gives them the time to think things through.

Bearing that thought in mind, let’s now turn our attention to e-mail communication. As a general rule, introverts tend to write longer e-mails than extroverts. Introverts tend to put the whole story in one e-mail, which is well structured, well thought through and complete. Extroverts, on the other hand, construct one-liners which are more conversational in style and encourage a response. Many extroverts suffer from a common weakness – shortness of attention span – the consequence of which is that long e-mails get left ‘for later’, but later often doesn’t happen and therefore they don’t get read at all. So when introverts resort to e-mail communication in response to interruptions from extroverts they send nice long e-mails which the extroverts don’t read because they are too long. The result is a communication breakdown or failure!

When communicating with extroverts, ideally talk to them face to face; if this is not possible then phone them – e-mail should be used as a last resort. Be open and friendly and give them immediate feedback. Don’t give them the heads-up on an issue; extroverts need to take action on an issue immediately, all you will do is give them time to fret and fidget. Don’t ask them to spend too much time working in isolation.

When communicating with introverts, ideally put things in writing. Respect their time and space give them the heads-up on an issue; introverts need time to think and reflect so don’t expect an immediate response.

E-mail communication

A few simple rules will significantly enhance the effectiveness of your e-mail communication.

•   Ask yourself: ‘is this the most effective method of communication for this particular message’ – consider the sensitivity of your message, the receiver’s communication preferences and their physical proximity.

•   Get the length right – extroverted theoretical types have the shortest attention span of all; statistically your CEO is likely to be one of these. They will read an e-mail until the point they think they know what you are writing about; they will stop there and take whatever action they think appropriate. Therefore restrict your e-mails to one question only when dealing with these types as any subsequent questions will go unread.

•   Use an effective tone – this is even more important than with face-to-face communication as you haven’t got body language to soften a blow or harsh word. Tone is the personal touch that compels a reader to react positively or negatively. An effective tone will encourage co-operation and consideration. An ineffective tone will do exactly the opposite. Consider the following examples:

  I am mailing you to remind you about our follow-up meeting scheduled for tomorrow at 11 am; last time we met you kept me waiting for 20 minutes, I do not expect to be kept waiting this time.’

  I just wanted to check that we are still OK for tomorrow at 11 am. I appreciate that you are very busy and wish to thank you for your time. I understand that you have many back-to-back meetings so please let me know if you need to adjust the time of our follow up.’
How would you respond if you received either of the above messages in an e-mail?

Writing reports

The most important part of any report is the executive summary. The majority of IT people have no problem at all with the body of a report providing more than enough detail and data. However, most executives will only ever read the executive summary and, if inspired, skim through a little of the body of the report. If the executive summary doesn’t hit the spot, all the effort dedicated towards the body of the report has been wasted. The executive summary must be a genuine summary of the whole of the report; it must be sufficient for a busy executive to grasp the issue and make a decision. The executive summary is not an alternative term for an introduction. Executive summaries should:

•   establish the purpose of the report and why it is important or of interest

•   summarise the current status in relation to the topic of discussion

•   explain precisely your key message and/or findings

•   state what you want to happen and what actions you want taken, by whom and by when.

Assume you’re writing for someone who is very busy, and very impatient. Assume he or she will be asking: ‘What’s the point? What do I do with this information?’. Apply the ‘so what?’ test to everything you write.

If excited by the executive summary, your reader may dip into the body of the report. Make it easy for them, make it inviting; use space, structure, bullet pointing, bold type, numbering, short sentences, paragraphs, etc. Text that is too dense is the quickest and easiest way to switch a reader off. Take the opportunity to put key messages in section headings.

Key ideas from this chapter

This chapter has been about communication and recognises that in organisational life everything gets done through human interaction. The Transformational Leader has to focus on communication capable of creating the future rather than providing life-support for the present.

1

Place networking as your number one agenda item; dedicate a certain amount of time to this activity each and every day

2

Consider your own style of communication and your interactions with others. Are you a pragmatic, theoretical, idealistic or social type?

3

Pick a key stakeholder with whom you don’t easily connect. Determine their preferred communication style; make a list of the steps you can take now to improve communication with this individual. Put your plan into action

4

Consider what you have learned from this activity and extend this approach to your other key stakeholders

5

Work on adopting an effective tone in all your acts of communication, whatever the vehicle

Table 12: Five key actions for future-focused communication

Reflection

Think of personal examples where you have faced fundamental difficulties getting your message across:

•   Did you merely repeat the same message in the same way but louder?

•   When presenting to a group, did some individuals get it whilst others did not?

•   Do you end up talking at cross-purposes from time to time?

•   Do you ever get frustrated with others and wish they would get to the point, or do you get frustrated with people who come up with vague, poorly constructed strategies and are not interested in the practical realities?

Now take a look at:

•   A presentation you have recently put together – is it of one predominant style, and if so, which?

•   Review some of your e-mails; how long are they?

•   Take a look at a report you have written recently; is your executive summary a genuine summary of the whole report, does it provide pointers to the issue and key findings?

More food for thought

•   Anthony Stevens, On Jung, Penguin (1990).

  A very good book if you want to learn more about Jung.

•   Gordon Lawrence, People Types and Tiger Stripes, Centre for Application of Psychological Type (1996).

  This book gives an explanation of how type shows up in everyday life, especially in learning and teaching.