Every year at this time, like many of you, I set my career goals for the coming year. I find it motivates me and helps me get off to a strong start. My first step when planning for a new year is to start by reflecting back on what I observed in the previous one. I think about what I did well and what I could have done better, and I also think about what I saw in the people I work with and manage and coach.
I saw a lot of positives in 2016. I continue to be amazed by how much depth people are developing in their functional disciplines. As a collective workforce we really seem to be embracing a spirit of continual learning, which I think is a great thing. On the other hand, there are some areas I still see many people struggling with. Not so much in any particular functional discipline, but more so in the soft skills.
There was one soft skill in particular I observed to be lacking when I think back on 2016. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon by any means, but it did seem to be a recurring theme throughout the year. I’ll spend some time explaining why I feel it is such a deficiency and then give you some tips I’ve used to improve in this area myself.
The number one skill deficiency I observed in 2016 was “tactical empathy”. You don’t normally hear people talking about empathy as a skill per se. We typically think of it as a virtue - something you either have or don’t have. But in the business context, I’m not sure this is actually the case. That’s why I’m referring to it as “tactical” empathy: The purposeful application of empathetic thinking to improve communication outcomes.
Empathy comes into play in many areas of life and business. But the area I’m going to focus on is business communications – presenting, planning, meeting, brainstorming, aligning. This is where I saw empathy to be in profoundly short supply in 2016. I’m going to make an argument that you can, and should, work to think more empathetically in the workplace, and that this is a “skill” that could make the difference between achieving your career goals and not.
In business communications, you don’t normally hear people speak about empathy. Rather, we tend to focus on brevity. You’ll often hear people talking about keeping things brief when presenting to an executive … presumably that’s where the concept of an “executive summary” comes from. We’ve all heard horror stories of co-workers not getting off the first slide when presenting to the management team. Terms like “a ten-thousand-foot view”, “dumb it down” and “tops of the trees” seem to be ubiquitous business communication best practices. These well intentioned nuggets of conventional business wisdom have been passed on from one failed presentation to the next. But in my opinion they’ve also oversimplified things to the point of being inaccurate.
The original intention of this advice was almost certainly not to actually dumb everything down, or to cut out every slide after the table of contents and stick them the appendix. What I think they were really trying to tell us is how important it is for us to be empathetic with our audience – to see things from their perspective – to set context in terms they actually care about. And yes, many executives are short on time or don’t want to delve deeply into execution details … but that isn’t what defines the entirety of their perspective – there’s much more to it than that.
This is where I see so many people failing – managers and individual contributors alike. And I’m not just talking about big presentations and plans – this lesson applies to just about every business conversation you’re having with people who have a different frame of reference from you: Presentations, planning sessions, brain storming, performance reviews, goal setting … honestly just about anything you do at work requires a higher level of tactical empathy than you’re likely putting forth right now.
What I see, as opposed to empathy, are people taking a very self-centered view of their work. They talk about things from their own perspective. They talk about THEIR goals. They outline THEIR observations. They speak in technical terms only THEY are comfortable with. They seem focused on impressing people by their technical competency instead of focusing on helping people understand and align. They forget that the fundamental purpose of communicating with other people is to help THEM.
Tell me if any of these sounds familiar to you:
A manager presents her web site plan to the leadership team. She talks about all the visits and downloads and engagement it’s going to get. Some people nod, some people glaze over, some people seem skeptical. Unfortunately, the management team are focused on revenue and profit and retention, not visits and likes and downloads. Now they are skeptical and the marketing team feel like the company doesn’t value them.
The CRM or Data Scientist or IT professional presents for 30 minutes about new data processes and fields and workflows for a system. People in the meeting all nod, ostensibly in agreement, but in reality to avoid having to admit they don’t get it. Nobody really understood. Two years later you still have unfollowed processes and crappy data.
The sales manager is on his weekly forecast call with the CEO. In his report he talks about how he met with Bruce over at ACME company and next week he’s going to talk with Jim. He expounds about individuals, future meetings, and generally how bullish he is about the opportunity. Then he can’t understand why the CEO loses patience with him and scolds him in front of his peers.
These are three examples I see all the time. I’m sure you see many just like them. There are an infinite number of others. But you might not have ever stopped to think about what they all have in common. Ultimately these aren’t mistakes in functional competency. These people surely have great skills. The website was great. The system was well conceived. The deals are likely to close. That’s not the issue. What’s getting them into trouble, and what will ultimately prevent them from achieving the highest levels in their careers, is empathy – they are unable or unwilling to put themselves into the shoes of their audience when they communicate.
The marketing manager needed to start her presentation by setting proper context – the leadership team’s context. If she’d started with their priorities i.e. revenue, customer retention and profitability instead of downloads and visits and engagement, she would have hit a homerun instead of striking out.
The IT guy needed to reframe his presentation so it would be meaningful to an audience who aren’t data experts. Instead of talking about fields and tables and processes, he needed to start with their perspective and connect system changes to relevant business outcomes.
The sales manager needed to speak in terms of forecast probability, transaction size, timing, and help he required from the executive team – not tell stories and speak in vague terms about his feelings about the opportunity and the individuals involved.
While it might seem obvious when reading it now, I see these mistakes being made just about every week, and at just about every level in the company. Despite all the improvements I see in functional skills, this is one soft skill I see almost no improvement in.
I am not immune to this either. I try to be purposefully empathetic whenever I’m communicating at work to make sure I have the correct perspective – and it helps. Here are three tips that have helped me get better in this area.
1. Always start by relating to the other person’s goals and objectives.
When most people start presenting or speaking in a meeting, they dive right in. They’ve got something to communicate and they want to be as clear as possible and hope there isn’t a lot of push back. That’s what we’re conditioned to do. A good presentation, for most people, is one where they get through the material smoothly and people don’t vehemently disagree. But that ISN’T a good presentation. A good presentation or meeting is one where the people you’re speaking with are able to relate what you’re doing to their priorities, they can understand it, actually care about it, and ultimately take action to support it. If you find yourself having a lot of meetings where you walk away thinking everything is ok but then very little actually materializes … this could be the issue. My recommendation is to make a point of starting your business conversations and presentations by talking about the priorities and objectives of your audience. I can be as simple as:
“John, I know your team is focused on getting the customer retention number up to 97%. I’d like to talk about how the new project we’re working on in Services may have an impact on that. Then I’d like to chat about how we can work together so both of us can get a win.”
It takes 30 seconds and a tiny bit of effort to understand the priorities of your audience, but it can make all the difference in the world to make them care about what you’re doing and ultimately lend support to it.
2. Stop trying to impress with your functional proficiency. Impress with your ability to communicate.
I see this one a lot lately. It’s as though we’re all walking around with some serious insecurity issues at work. For whatever reason, we’re more focused on making ourselves appear like experts than we are about actually getting alignment or communicating effectively. I frequently sit in meetings where I have to stop the speaker 10 minutes in and explain that I have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about or why we’re even speaking.
What is particularly concerning, is that while a senior leader may have the confidence to admit they aren’t following or don’t understand, many employees aren’t willing admit they are clueless to what is being said. So these meetings go on and on. We nod and acquiesce. But they ultimately go nowhere, projects stall, people get frustrated.
I have to remind myself all the time to focus on helping my audience understand and embrace what I’m speaking about rather than focusing on impressing them with my depth of knowledge. I recommend starting the meeting by reaffirming, in your own mind or to the group, that the goal of the meeting is to help them understand and embrace what you’re speaking about.
3. Bring the audience into your thought process instead of just telling them your opinion.
Tell me if you’ve had this experience: You work on a project for a month. You do all the research. You do all the analysis. You present it to your boss and she can’t seem to fully embrace it. Then she goes back to the very beginning, works it all the way through herself and comes to the same conclusion you originally did. Sometimes this happens in the course of a single meeting and other times it can take weeks or months to resolve itself. It can be really frustrating and it makes us feel like we’re not trusted or valued. We end up thinking of our bosses as micromanagers and resenting them.
One thing I like to do to avoid this situation, is to spend less time in my presentations sharing the results of my work and more time walking the audience through the steps I took to land where I did. I don’t do this just for big presentations either, I spend a lot of time trying to bring people into my thought processes and decision making framework. I find it easier for people to align or agree to something when they feel like they really understand the logic I used to draw the conclusions in the first place.
My recommendation is to make a point helping your boss or other audience members understand the process you went through to land on your recommendations rather than just presenting results and hoping they can align.
We can all get better at our jobs. We can improve our functional skills. We can put forth a more consistent effort. There’s no question about that. But hard work and functional competency will only get you part of the way. Important to be sure, but they aren’t, in and of themselves, guarantors of success in the workplace. This is why I spend so much of my time observing the approaches and attributes many people overlook or make light of. Some people call them “soft skills”, others lump them (mistakenly) into the category of office politics. Whatever you want to call them, there are things we can all do to improve our chances of finding success at work that go beyond the functional capabilities of the roles we hold. The good news is, developing these skills, like tactical empathy, in addition to developing your functional skills, can give you the opportunity to go much further in your career than you may have imagined possible.