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The Blind Side of Motivation A Short Lesson in Perception

January 22, 2010
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Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Motivating Employees, Strategic Planning, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
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During lunch on a recent business trip, four men were seated at a nearby table.

Immediately, one man emerged as the obvious supervisor of the group. How could I tell? He did all the talking. The others did all the listening.

The supervisor started in before the water was even brought to the table. He leaned forward, arms crossed in front of him, and began to talk at the others. His brow was furrowed and his voice crisp and commanding as he peered over the top of his glasses at them. Everything about him shouted that he was in charge.

When someone finally did venture out and pose a question, the supervisor just raised his voice and talked right over the top of him. He said, “Well, that is not going to happen!”

While I wasn’t close enough to hear the entire content of the conversation, here are some of the snippets I jotted down on my napkin:

“ ... it’s not gonna fly!”

“ ... never tell anyone ... ”

“ ... we’re all in this together ... reflects on all of us.”

“ We’ve had them for 20 years ... ”

“ Don’t get on board and then criticize ...”

“This is a lot harder than you think!”

“If you don’t remember anything else from today, remember this ...”

At first, I thought this was to be a casual team lunch. But I soon realized that the other three men had been invited so the supervisor could coach and counsel them about some recent issue. However, it quickly became apparent to me that this supervisor was not getting the results he desired.

The men sat back in their chairs, crossing their arms over their chests. With their heads slightly down, they watched the supervisor through cautious and guarded eyes.

It began to dawn on me that there is a huge difference between our intentions and how others interpret our actions.

After pondering this event, I think there are three lessons to be learned.

First, this supervisor’s intent was to correct and motivate his staff. Yet he seemed unaware of how he was coming across and seemed blind to their reactions. Had he been watching their body language, he’d have noticed them leaning back and disengaging.

So the lesson is, if we acknowledge we have a blind side, we’ll be more attentive to how others react to us—and modify our communication style as needed.

Second, the supervisor probably believed he was doing a good job by executing his duties with authority. Unfortunately, his team’s body language told another story. He was being perceived as a ranting tyrant, especially when he pointed and gestured with his hands to make his point.

The lesson is, we are not always perceived the way we see ourselves. Again, tuning in to the nonverbal communication signals of others can help us be more successful in getting our points across.

Third, the supervisor’s intention was to coach and change the behavior of his team. The way it was interpreted, however, was that he was being critical, overbearing and dictatorial.

No one spoke. No one dared ask for clarification. Everyone looked defensive and bewildered.

My guess is that when they went back to the office, nothing changed (except that the staff made a wider swath around the supervisor whenever they saw him coming). So the lesson is, we should try to imagine what it would be like to be listening to us!

Then, if we think more about the end result we want (before we engage the tongue), we will take a more effective approach. As a result, we will enjoy a harder-working and higher-achieving workforce.

How do we get insight into how we’re being perceived? Become the master of asking questions. Listen more, talk less.

Ask how others see the situation. Learn to build trust. I’m quite confident that if this supervisor had approached his team by asking for their input and ideas, he would have had much better results.

Our goal should always be to bring out the best in others. We can accomplish that by making our team feel like their input is valuable—that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

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