A lot of your performance at work is determined by the fundamental mindset you take with you into every interaction. If I was to point to one secret weapon I use in just about every business interaction I have, it would be "tactical empathy". I wrote a blog it earlier this year and I defined the term as follows:
Tactical Empathy: The purposeful application of empathetic thinking to improve communication outcomes.
If you missed that blog and want to learn more you can find it here. In it, I walk through three ways to improve the way you communicate by purposefully applying empathetic thinking. In today’s blog I’m going to focus more on how I actually apply this advice in specific work scenarios. My hope is when you find yourself in these situations you’ll remember this advice and have the tools to improve your performance.
The overarching rule – the advice I received – is to start every interpersonal work situation by assuming the other person’s (or group’s) perspective. Most of us walk into work (and life) situations with our own perspective as the predominant context. The lesson is, if you start every interaction by adopting your counterpart’s mindset and context, you’ll end up with much more positive outcomes.
Far too often we go into meetings, presentations, one on one’s with our boss, and we focus on our agenda. We talk about our goals, our priorities and later wonder why the other party never fully embraced it. We often leave the interaction feeling great and then wonder three weeks later, why the other person seems to have forgotten it. Does that sound familiar?
Here are a few other classic situations that indicate you’re probably too focused on yourself and not enough on your counterpart:
In your weekly one on one with your boss, she doesn’t seem to pay attention
Your boss rarely remembers what you’re working on and needs constant reminders
You deliver plans to other teams but they never really embrace or take action on them
You tell your staff members what you expect of them but they just don’t seem to listen
Surely some of these sound familiar to you. I see them all the time. We all do. But most of us blame the other party instead of ourselves. In my experience, this all stems from an overly self-centered focus. It’s a mistake I try to avoid at all cost. More often than not, when people seem to not understand or to forget or to not fully embrace, it’s because you have failed to present the information using their perspective. Whether you realize it or not, you tend to project your own priorities and context on them and then wonder why they aren’t embracing it with enthusiasm. Don’t fall into this trap.
Here are three specific examples, from my experience, where you can take the other person’s perspective first, and see immediate benefit.
Updating Your Boss
A large percentage of the questions I get from coaching clients and subscribers revolve around how to better communicate with a manager. In my own professional life, I observe staff members and colleagues mishandling one on one meetings and management updates all the time. I hear things like:
I can’t get my boss to pay attention to what I’m doing
My boss didn’t care about this for two months and all of a sudden its urgent
I don’t think my boss has any idea what I’m working on
I thought I was doing great work, turns out my boss doesn’t agree
These are all variations of the same problem. It’s really easy to blame your boss for not understanding or not paying close enough attention to your priorities, but in my experience you should start by looking inwardly. The former approach is just too passive. Most of the time there are specific things you can do differently to present information to your boss in a way that will make her care, make him take notice.
My recommendation is to start all updates and one on one meetings with your boss’s perspective in mind. What does she care about most? What are his objectives? How must she be feeling? How does he like to consume information?
Far too often, employees take a very self-centered perspective when presenting information to a manager. They send way too much information. They speak in technical terms that aren’t easily related to priority business goals. They speak about activities instead of outcomes. They present problems instead of alternative solutions. Before you go into your next one on one with your boss, try to relate what you’re doing to her priorities. Create your update or report using a context he can relate to. Focus less on expressing yourself and more on helping your boss understand and appreciate.
Saying "No" to People
This is always a tough one, and depending on what part of the organization you work in, it can be a big part of your life. Learning to say “no” is one of the most difficult skills to develop. I get a lot of questions about the right way to “push back” or how to “learn to say no”. All of us want to be helpful. Saying “no” creates anxiety in us. We don’t want to build a reputation for being difficult. We don’t want people to perceive us as poor team players. So we tend to just say “yes” and then do whatever we can to deliver. The problem with that, in my experience, is you end up working on too many things, your quality suffers, and in the end you develop the very reputation you were trying to avoid. Then the question becomes, how do you say “no” more often without putting your reputation at risk?
The answer to this question, as you may surmise, starts with adopting the other person’s perspective. The first thing I do when I need to say “no”, is to acknowledge the validity of the request and express that I genuinely want to help them. I’ll say things like:
“I can tell how important this is to you, and I really want to help you accomplish your objective.”
Once I’ve demonstrated that I’m taking their perspective and want to help them, I try to provide a view into my perspective so they can develop empathy for me just like I’ve done for them. I’ll say something like:
“What you may not realize, is that my team is focused almost exclusively on three priorities right now; X, Y and Z. And as a result, we’re over-capacity. So I think we’re going to need to get creative in how we go about helping you.”
What I find, when I approach saying “no” in this way, is that more often than not the other person is happy to brainstorm alternative approaches or timing. At the very least they leave our encounter feeling positive in the sense that they know I want to help them but just can’t do it exactly how they had envisioned.
Saying “no” is never easy. There is no magic solution to make it positive. But when you approach it by starting with the other person’s perspective and creating an empathetic exchange, you can, at the very least, ensure they will leave the encounter feeling positively about you. This will preserve your reputation even when you can’t accommodate every request.
Working on Multi-departmental Projects
Projects taken on by a single team almost always seem to be more successful than projects taken on by multiple teams working together. Maybe that sounds obvious to you. Unfortunately, in a company, it’s not a scenario you can avoid. Just about every large transformational project requires cross functional cooperation. It’s like the group work you did in college … you hate it, but you have no choice.
Quite honestly, I dreaded group projects in school. My temptation was just to take over and do as much of the work myself as I could. But that strategy is flawed. It might work in a University class where you’re producing a relatively simple product, but it fails at the scale of a complex enterprise.
The secret to working more effectively with other teams in my experience, is to put yourself in their shoes right from the outset. At the beginning of the project you should spend less time expressing yourself and more time trying to understand their perspective.
What do they stand to gain from this project?
What does success mean to them?
What are they afraid of?
Once you’ve had an honest exchange of perspective, and it’s all out on the table, you’ll find teams start working more collaboratively and less competitively. They’ll share information more readily. They’ll be more helpful. They’ll be more conscious of your needs since you are more conscious of theirs. This may sound more like couples counseling than career advice, but it’s been extremely effective for me.
Taking the other party’s perspective is one of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever received. I apply it to every aspect of my work and personal life. Negotiation, relationships, projects … it has endless applications. I hope you give it a try and let me know how it works for you.