Fred Schwartz, 'original manager'
by Bud Baker, Contributing Editor
MY LEADERSHIP STUDENTS do a project in which they must interview a business leader. The idea is simple: See how what they've learned in books compares to the experience of real leaders, in real organizations.
Most of the interviewees have titles like “president” or “CEO” so I was surprised one day to see a title I'd never come across before: My student Sandy had interviewed Fred Schwartz, who described himself as an “original manager.” I was skeptical.
“Sandy, I've never come across a title like ‘original manager’ before.”
“Yes, sir, I know. But I asked Mr. Schwartz several times.”
“Sandy, I'll bet you a Coke that isn't his real title. Could he be a divisional manager?”
“No, sir. I asked what ‘original manager’ meant. He kept trying to explain, and finally he said he was manager of the whole Dayton area. Or district. Or something””
“Was it the Dayton region, Sandy? Is Mr. Schwartz a regional manager?”
“Lemme think, sir. ‘Original Manager?’ ‘regional manager’ … Uh-oh … You want that Coke regular or diet?”
Such communication failures are commonplace, in project management as in every other aspect of life. Fortunately there are steps we can take to prevent—or at least minimize—these mishaps.
Four Styles. Experts in communication describe four types of responses in any verbal exchange. Two are desirable, and promote the successful exchange of ideas. The other two will do the opposite, severely limiting successful communication. Let's look at the latter two first.
Got a communication problem? Don't we all. Check out these techniques for elicting meaningful dialogue.
Advising responses sound great at first. We're flattered when people come to us for advice, and we're generally happy to oblige. Only later does the cost become evident. When we advise, we relieve others of their responsibility: their problem becomes our problem. Their personal growth is stunted, as they learn to rely on others rather than on themselves. And if our advice proves unsuccessful, the distance from advisor to scapegoat can be a short one.
Bud Baker, Ph.D., teaches at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, where he heads the MBA concentration in project management. He is a regular contributor to PM Network and Project Management Journal, and is a member of the PMJ Editorial Review Board. Send comments on this column to [email protected].
A second unsuccessful style is deflecting, in which the communicator averts attention from the person or problem at hand. An example is the manager who shies away from conflict by changing the subject to avoid discomfort. A more understandable, but no less harmful, form of deflecting takes place when we try to empathize:
John: “I'm really having trouble with my boss.”
Mary: “Yeah, I've had the same trouble.”
John: “I'm struggling with this.”
Mary: “Your boss is great compared with mine. Lemme tell you about my boss.”
Mary would claim she was trying to show empathy, assuring John that she could relate to his problem. But how does John see it? Is Mary empathizing, or practicing one-upmanship?
Good Styles. Just as advising and deflecting harm clear communication, two styles of response promote it.
The first is probing. Probing responses gain better understanding of the situation. Who, What, When, Where, Why questions are hallmarks of probing. Probing takes time, persistence, patience. Sandy thought he'd probed deeply enough into the job title of Mr. Schwartz. He was wrong.
The last response style, also positive, is reflective. Reflective responses paraphrase the communicator's statements to ensure that the listener has understood them. Reflecting takes subtlety and nuance, or it can sound like numbskull repetition:
John: “Boy, I had a bad day today.”
Mary: “It sounds like you had a bad day today.”
Change Mary's response a bit, add a touch of probing, and see the result:
John: “Boy, I had a bad day today.”
Mary: “Sounds like you're frustrated by your day. What made you so unhappy?”
A POLL ONCE SHOWED that 95 percent of men believe they are above average athletically. We sometimes hold similar illusions about our ability to communicate. But if we can step back a bit, just long enough to consider the need for improvement, an understanding of the four response styles can pay big dividends.
PM Network June 1999