Managers Beware: 4 Ways to Catch the Vague Plague

Whether they’re giving instructions or giving feedback, anything less than absolute clarity kills the effectiveness of managers. Especially silence.

As management expert Kenneth H. Blanchard puts it, “Unexpressed good thoughts aren’t worth squat!”

I used to be a very vague manager. There were several reasons clarity scared me. But lacking clarity made my entire job even more scary in the long run.

In his national bestseller, The One Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard explains why clarity is so important. The secret to effective management, he says, is in learning to give “One-Minute Goals,” “One-Minute Praises,” and “One-Minute Reprimands.” All those communications must  be done clearly. Painfully clearly.

I honestly didn’t realize for a long time that I had trouble being clear. But after my own leader had me read Blanchard’s book, I stopped beating around the bush with my team members. I started giving very direct, concise, clear instructions and feedback. And the results were beyond amazing: Suddenly things started getting done. And on top of that, my new short-and-sweet management style saved me time I’d been desperately needing.

Clarity is absolutely essential to effective management. Seems fairly obvious, right? Yet of the many managers I’ve worked with and learned from, only a very few have escaped the vague plague and wielded the powerful weapon of clarity.

So why is it that we managers seem to be born with the fear of being clear? I’ve seen four big reasons:

     1. We think we’re being smart, cool, and progressive.

Seems like a silly reason, but I’ve been guilty of this. For some reason we think it’s the “progressive” or “modern” way to speak only in generalities, suggestions, and maybes. No absolutes. We have to make way for our employees’ “freedom,” or “personal opinion.” No stepping on toes, no ranking our own voice above others.

Thing is, though, there’s a reason you were chosen to be the leader. Touchy-feely simply doesn’t work in a productive workplace. That does not mean you push people around! And it does not mean you don’t let your team make decisions for itself! But when the team (or a teammate) needs to understand something, being vague, or “subtle,” is not what you’re being paid for.

     2. We are afraid of frustrating our team and being considered unfair.

As every manager knows, the position comes with lots of scrutiny by a prejudiced audience. Being in charge isn’t always fun, especially when you have to make unpopular decisions or give critical feedback. It wears on managers day by day. But there’s an easy way to escape that–at least temporarily: Don’t make decisions and don’t give honest feedback. Be vague. Or silent.

For a while this feels good–like we avoided offending our team, like they’re happy with us. But without strong and honest leadership, teams and projects fall apart–that’s why you were made a manager in the first place. Before long, as things fall apart, your team begins criticizing you anyway (you are, after all, the leader), and what’s worse, your own leaders have a reason to be frustrated with you as well.

     3. We are afraid of having to take responsibility.

If we do give very clear instruction and feedback, we are in a sense accepting responsibility for the outcome. If we say “do it this way,” and it doesn’t work, everyone can point fingers at us. So even though it’s usually not on a conscious level, there’s often a protective mechanism inside us that warns, “Don’t lead clearly or you’ll have to take the blame.”

Maybe we should take one more step back, though, and tell ourselves, “If you don’t lead clearly, you’re going to get blamed anyway.” You just have to choose between getting blamed for mistakes you’ve directed or getting blamed for getting nothing accomplished at all. In the long run, it’s pretty obvious which of those options leads you straight to a demotion.

     4. We are afraid of what comes along with success.

Clarity is a vital piece of success. And success sounds great! Right? Who wouldn’t want it? But here’s the catch: Success brings with it several new things we may not want to face. Finally succeeding may force us to admit we weren’t doing it the right way earlier on. And then it means we had better start doing it the right way all the time, because now we are expected to maintain. And while “success” sounds great, maintaining your best work is definitely not taking the path of least resistance. In fact, it’s a lot easier to just keep “struggling” and being able to blame problems outside yourself.

There’s no simple trick to beat this one. I think it’s the toughest one to deal with. And that’s why it’s also the hardest to see and admit to ourselves. Succeeding means you no longer have any excuse for failing or giving up. Succeeding gives you greater responsibility and means you will be held to a higher standard.

So watch out for those first 3 reasons you might be a vague manager. And remind yourself of their antidotes. But the biggest challenge is that 4th one. You have to decide: Do you really want to succeed?

If you do want it, be a clear leader. Speak clearly–simply, directly, and honestly. No more beating around the bush. No more mister nice guy. No more of the vague plague. Your team needs your clearest guidance.

As a leader, even of yourself, what are some ways you’ve learned the importance of clarity?

3 Big Ways Your Listening Helps Others

“We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we may hear more and speak less.” – Diogenes Laertius

I often get to the end of a conversation only to realize I did all the talking. That’s one of the most disappointing feelings in the world to me. It certainly felt great in the moment to think only about myself, but  I bored my friend half to death. I may have even damaged the relationship.

It’s one thing to have the great friend who occasionally gets you to open up and talk your heart out, get something big off your chest. It’s another thing to be always talking, never listening. I’m afraid I do too much of that in my personal relationships lately.

But one thing that helps is realizing that being a good listener isn’t just for my own sake–it does a few powerful things for the person I’m listening to. So here are 3 reasons why I’m working on listening more and talking less:

   1. It makes the speaker feel personally cared for.

Author Bryant H. McGill explains: “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” People need to feel cared for. To feel that what they think really matters to someone. That someone loves them deeply enough to truly listen and care.

It’s easy to “care” about someone, knowing that taking care of them brings you some satisfaction, some fulfillment–like if you’re their leader, their parent, their counselor. But it’s harder when the “care” doesn’t make you feel like a big deal. The challenge is caring for someone on a completely equal level.

I need to know that someone doesn’t just care about me because they feel good when they do, or because I pay them to. I need to know that someone who doesn’t have to listen to me wants to listen to me, just because on the simplest and most unconditional level, they care about me.

     2. It enables the speaker to listen in return.

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood,” says Ralph G. Nichols. “The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

Have you ever had someone try to convince you of an idea without really listening to you in return? It’s annoying and frustrating. Why would you trust someone to have well-rounded views if they do not show interest in listening carefully to your own views?

On the other hand, when someone listens intently to everything you have to say about a certain subject, it is much more natural to trust their judgement and trust their response. They have demonstrated a willingness to learn, which makes them a more likely source of wisdom. And they have shown that they really understand your own viewpoint, which makes their reply much more likely to actually engage your own ideas in a constructive way.

Listening carefully and thoroughly to someone enables them to trust your wisdom–to listen when you respond, because you understand and appreciate their own thoughts.

     3. It encourages and empowers the speaker.

You have a lot more power over people than you may think. You have the ability to enhance someone’s self esteem and confidence and help them maximize their potential. And you can do it by truly and intently listening to them.

“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing,” G.K. Chesterton noted. Have you ever been talking to someone who is acting like they’re listening, but you can tell they’re just waiting for you to finish so that they can have their say? It’s like a silent kind of interruption. That kind of listening doesn’t help boost someone’s confidence or self esteem at all. In fact, it makes the speaker feel pretty lame.

But when someone seems to be hanging on your every word, you feel absolutely incredible. You feel like what you’re saying is important, like you are important, like you make a difference.

There is nothing more discouraging to a speaker than realizing his audience is just waiting for him to finish. But a captive audience is incredibly empowering.

Careful, connected, enthusiastic listening empowers the speaker to greater self-confidence and therefore greater achievement.

This week, I’m going to work on listening. I’m going to consciously approach every conversation I can with the goal of speaking a lot less. And I’m going to ask my girlfriend to keep reminding me (probably going to regret that).

And I’m not just doing it because it’s good for me–I’m going to do it because it helps others.

I’m sure you’ve worked on becoming a better listener before. What did you see it do for your relationships? Please share some ideas! :)

Balancing Your Purpose

Hey guys! I want to share something with you I’ve been learning lately–it’s helping me a lot!

I’m learning that I need a balance between three states of activity: Learning, Creating, and Enjoying.

Receiving, Giving, and Appreciating.

The less balanced those are, the more stressful my life. When I’m experiencing too much of one kind of “purpose,” I find myself asking, “What’s the point?”

The more balanced they are, the happier I am. When I learn, create, and enjoy in balance, I feel fulfilled.

Has anyone else experienced this?

I know what it’s like to learn, learn, learn–never give back, never enjoy. It feels rather self-centered after a while. What’s the point of learning, after all?

I know what it’s like to create, create, create–never learn, never enjoy. Pretty soon you feel like a hypocrite. If you cannot experience the fruit of creations, how can you believe yours will be of value to anyone?

I know what it’s like to enjoy, enjoy, enjoy–never learn, never create. It feels good for a minute, but give it a day, a week, a month, a year. Soon the pleasure becomes a void of purposelessness–torture.

When I begin feeling stressed, it is usually because I am not being who I want to be. When I feel like I am not being who I want to be, I usually realize I have been forgetting to receive, forgetting to give, or forgetting to appreciate.

When I bring them back into balance, I feel the weight of selfishness, hypocrisy, and pointlessness lift from my shoulders. And I feel the energy to live what I believe.

I have been learning to lead myself purposefully, keeping in balance receiving, giving, and appreciating–learning, creating, and enjoying.

How about you? What have you learned about finding balance in your daily activities?

7 Reasons You Need to Try Impromptu Speaking

I was sweating. Biting my lip. Fidgeting with my hands and feet. Crossing and uncrossing my arms. I started breaking out in hives. Itching everywhere. Felt like I was going to pass out.

Finally I started speaking. I managed to choke out some half-words. Tongue-tied. I started to panic. I stopped making eye-contact. Couldn’t handle it. Stared straight at the crumpled quotation in my hand. Quickly read it out loud.

“. . . I think . . . umm . . . I agree with this quote . . . aaaand that’s the end of my speech.”

My first impromptu speech lasted about 10 seconds (or about 60 if you count the time I stood there waiting). I was scarred for life. I wanted to go home. Wanted to cry. Wanted to curl up in a ball and never show my face again.

Fast forward 2 years, I was in Virginia competing at the national championship. I heard my name called and stepped into an over-flowing room for a six minute impromptu speech. I was beyond excited. Sure, plenty of nerves, but it was a good kind of rush. Thrilling. Received my speech topic. Grinned. Perfect. Gave my speech. Nailed it!

And now, every week at a local Toastmasters club, I play an eye-contact game, tailored to each different emcee, trying to get called on for an impromptu. Because now, almost ten years after my first attempt, impromptu speaking makes me feel on top of the world.

So here are 7 reasons why I want you to try impromptu speaking. It may not be for you. But until you try, you’ll never know what you might be missing.

    1. Trying impromptu makes you humble.

I was kind of a hot shot as a kid. An intellectual hot shot. I knew it all. I was smarter and better than you. . . . that is, until the day I tried my first impromptu speech. If you want humility, try doing impromptu speaking for the first time.

    2. Learning impromptu gives you discipline.

Because it is such a struggle, because it can be so discouraging, even painful–practicing impromptu speaking is a very tangible way to learn how self-discipline and diligence can transform your life. It’s a safe outlet for exercising the power of discipline and watching it make you more effective.

    3. Impromptu speaking puts skills in perspective.

The smartest person can stand up and completely bomb an impromptu speech. Which is a good life lesson about the fact that many valuable skills take a lot of hard work and dedication. Skills are not as much about your natural talent as they are about how hard you’re willing to work on them.

    4. Impromptus teach you to think quickly and clearly.

Time after time, I practiced coming up with an entire clear and powerful presentation with less than a minute of prep time (sometimes with none). But I had no idea just how well that was preparing me for the professional world. I owe to impromptu speaking most of my abilities to interview well, give good presentations, speak effectively to customers, manage strategically, and sell products. It also makes writing and preparing speeches and presentations a whole lot faster.

    5. Impromptu makes you present.

When I have speeches to prepare, I never write them out or even outline them in much detail anymore. I just quickly list the basic points, support, and illustrations I’m going to use. When you read a speech, or recite a memorized one, it’s very easy to get distracted and to become fairly mindless. Not only does that make your message feel less sincere to yourself, it also makes your listeners (whether in a speech or a conversation) feel a little disconnected. Impromptu keeps you deeply engaged. Your speech becomes genuine. It gives you a powerful presence.

    6. Impromptu speaking makes you feel accomplished.

Face it, public speaking is listed by Americans above death as the greatest fear. And if you think reciting a memorized speech is scary, try giving one with no preparation. But all that just means overcoming this fear makes you feel incredibly accomplished and empowered.

     7. Impromptu speaking makes you better at communication and persuasion.

Mastering the ability to speak strategically and powerfully, in the moment, without time to prepare–that mastery will make you incredibly adept at communicating and persuading, in every situation, for the rest of your life. That is a skill worth having!

Impromptu speaking is a discipline, a sport, and a skill worth mastering!

The first time I was asked to do an impromptu speech, I literally panicked. The world closed in around me and it brought me to tears.

But after only a year or two of practice, I was in love with impromptu speaking. It changed who I was, how I felt about myself, how effectively I communicated.

Do yourself a favor and try it. But if you’re going to try it once, commit to yourself to try it at least 5 times. Know that your first couple times you’ll be miserable. But by that fifth time, you might just start feeling the thrill of being a quick thinker and effective communicator.

Beating Unintended Discouragement: Talk It Out in Your Head

I came from a family with lots of people who didn’t hesitate to say what they really thought. My girlfriend, on the other hand, came from a big family in which teasing meant nothing but teasing. So to me, her good-natured teasing felt a lot like criticism. Neither of us was being unkind or unfair–we just knew two different languages.

We finally realized what was going on when, after being hurt by comments she’d make on a fairly regular basis, I would finally tell her how I felt and learn that she had meant something completely different from what I had interpreted–something fun and light-hearted.

It’s Going to Happen

On some level, though, no matter what you’re used to, what someone means completely harmlessly (even positively) may sometime trigger feelings of hurt, offense, or discouragement.

One of the toughest challenges I have had to overcome is being easily hurt by people’s words, even when hurt is not intended. That’s tougher to do when you don’t realize the intended meaning wasn’t actually offensive. So it doesn’t hurt to clarify. The more you clarify in a relationship, the less misunderstanding there will be.

But the fact remains, sometimes what someone meant positively will feel negative to you.

I used to think there was no good solution, and I just had to pick the lesser of two evils: I had to voice my offense and make someone uncomfortable, when I knew it may not have been intended. Or else I had to bottle it up and pretend like the words weren’t discouraging me. But if you’re willing to be weird like me and talk to yourself, there’s a much happier solution!

How it Happens

Say you’re a new member of a sales team. You’re new to this industry, learning the ropes as you go.

“I just pitched our new product to Mr. Johnson for his business,” you say. “He said he wants to sign up, so I sent him an email explaining the next steps he should take.”

“Ha! Let’s see if he actually follows through!”

You chuckle along with your co-worker, because even though you really have no idea why he’s chuckling, you don’t want to make things more awkward.

Feeling a little unsure, you reply, “Yeah, who knows,” and you head back to your desk.

What did he mean? Why did he laugh?

Insecurity and embarrassment play their annoying little game in the back of your mind.

Did I sell it wrong? Should I not have offered it to Mr. Johnson?

There are any number of possible reasons your co-worker might have laughed and said what he did. Maybe he’s noticed you’re not getting much follow-through on your selling yet. Maybe he thinks you shouldn’t have sent the email. Maybe he knows something you don’t about Mr. Johnson. Maybe he even tried selling that product to Mr. Johnson already, but Mr. Johnson is bad at following through. Who knows, maybe your co-worker was simply distracted by something on his computer and tried to respond without thinking.

Our anxious and paranoid minds like to assume the worst, or at least fear the worst. So even if you know in your head he might not have been belittling you, you’ll still feel the possibility enough to be discouraged.

Distinguishing the Feeling from the Intended Message

So the first step is to untangle your feelings and anxieties from the actual message. All you know is that for some reason your co-worker thought the situation amusing and expects Mr. Johnson may not follow through. Does any of that actually imply anything negative about you?

Next, it helps to ask yourself how likely it really is that your co-worker would laugh at the attempts of a new salesperson (keep in mind your co-worker has been there before and knows how hard it is to start selling a product for the first time). If you were in his place, is there any way you would laugh at your new team member? Besides, if you were going to laugh about him, you probably wouldn’t do it to his face. And it probably wouldn’t be as personal and malicious as all that.

Finally, it helps to realize that even if your co-worker did mean it negatively toward you, how your co-worker feels about the situation has very little bearing on your person or success. You are putting yourself out there in uncharted selling territory, which by default will come with many rejections. So if anything, you are to be congratulated.

You can use these thoughts and others to argue yourself out of offense and assumptions.

How to Beat the Comment Mentally

So here’s how to keep from getting discouraged when someone (friend, co-worker, spouse, whoever) says something that accidentally leaves you discouraged.

Let the conversation play out in your head.

You don’t have to express insecurity or assume you did something wrong. If he really has valuable feedback for you, let him give it (it might help to invite feedback in general at a different time, when you’re not feeling or expressing discouragement).

You don’t have to take offense and ask for an explanation. That wouldn’t do much good.

Instead, you can play out the rest of the conversation in your head. Something like this.

If he realized how that sounded, I’m sure he’d say, “Oh, I’m sorry! That didn’t sound like I meant it!”

“Oh that’s okay,” I’d assure him, “I didn’t figure you’d just laugh at me. So what do you know about the situation I don’t know yet?”

“Oh, I’ve been bugging Mr. Johnson about that product already. He keeps promising to follow through, but never actually does it.”

Ah, I see. What a relief. “Should I not try to pitch things to him anymore?”

“No, no, you did exactly what you should have! Don’t stop. You never know when a ‘no’ will become a ‘yes.’ It’s actually great that you’re selling even when you’re not sure.”

How much better do you feel now? Of course, that may not have been the reason behind your co-worker’s response. Maybe he did think, “This new guy has no idea who he’s selling to!”

Well what then? Does that have to discourage you? Try playing out that conversation, too.

I don’t really appreciate that. I have to say something. “What’s so funny?”

“Oh, you just obviously don’t know Mr. Johnson. So your sales pitch probably won’t go anywhere.”

Goodness! I don’t think he realizes how that comes across. “Gotcha. Well I’m sure I’ll get more familiar with our clients, but in the meantime I don’t mind taking chances, because I expect lots of my pitches to fall through. It’s just the name of the game. As a matter of fact, I’d really appreciate anything you can tell me about the clients I’m working with.”

He looks embarrassed now. He must realize how unfair he was. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry, I didn’t mean to discourage you from selling. I just know Mr. Johnson already. But yeah, it’s good you’re so eager to sell. I wish I had a little more guts, too. I’d love to give you tips about our different clients. Hey, how about when you’re selling to a client you don’t know much about, before you give your presentation, check with me and I’ll let you know if I have any info for you.”

That makes sense. Maybe I should have checked first. But like he said, at least I have the guts to be a salesman. “Sweet, I’ll definitely do that! Thanks for your help!”

“Yeah, keep up the good work!”

Why it Works

You see, no matter what the comment originally meant, it is highly unlikely that someone you are close to (co-worker, spouse, friend) actually meant to hurt or discourage you.

You could play out the conversation in your head with almost any meaning assigned to your co-worker’s original comment, and end up realizing that an honest discussion would almost certainly lead to agreement and encouragement.

Of course, sometimes it is more helpful to actually have the conversation. Sometimes you may need to really tell someone how they made you feel and that you’re worried they meant it in a hurtful way. Especially if you don’t yet know the person well enough to trust that, at the end of the day, they want to be kind and helpful.

But there are some instances where, instead of “making a big deal out of it,” a simple mental exercise can put your mind at rest. If your wife says something that sounds like it might be a little mean, there’s no need to take offense. You know her better than that–play out any version of the conversation you like: She’ll end up supporting you. (It might be helpful, though, if it’s a frequent occurrence, to let her know how it sounds and makes you feel when she makes certain comments.)

Don’t you think a lot of offense and arguments would be avoided if you just communicated to yourself what you know about the situation and about the person who accidentally discouraged you?

Don’t you think if instead of brooding over a discouraging comment, you made yourself think logically about the whole thing, you would beat a lot more discouragements and find yourself far more confident and empowered?

At the end of the day, though, even if someone did mean it as negatively as your paranoia tells you–they were probably wrong. You probably shouldn’t live for a critical person’s approval. Just keep up the good work!