Leadership hack 002 – Leadership – it is not about you

“People spend 99% of the time thinking about themselves. Actually, that’s probably a little low,”

Liam Scott, speechwriter

Could this statistic be correct?  While the evidence base for behind this particular claim is questionable, there is some research that does support the view that people spend the majority of the time thinking about themselves (see Scientific American).  Understanding the implications that people have a high self-focus is essential, especially for leaders (see Daniel Goleman).

As a leader, understanding that the same information can be interpreted very differently helps improve alignment by preventing misunderstanding.  Both life experience and current situation have a large impact on how people process and frame information.  For example, a university student doing part-time work in a restaurant chain is unlikely to have access to all the information a CEO had when making a decision to cut staff. So when staff cuts are announced, there will be an information disparity between the CEO and the waitress.  The CEO will have difficulty ‘un-remembering’ all the information that she had when making the decision, and so when communicating the cuts in staff, the underlying thinking and data may be omitted (or ignored).  The result would be that the different parties have very different perspectives on the cuts to staff, which may lead to friction and confrontation.

Empathy is key to avoiding misunderstanding and confrontation. Taking the time to understand other people’s experience and situation, will allow you to understand how they are likely to frame the information you are trying to communicate.  You can then establish whether you are using the right information, or whether a different approach is needed.  However, modern technology and social media, make communicating as a leader is even more complex.

Much of your communication as a leader now addresses multiple audiences.  A daily ‘stand-up’ may involve a handful of people, an ‘all hands’ company meeting may address a few hundred, and a tweet or blog may address thousands or millions of people.  Therefore, it may be impossible to understand the experience and situation of everyone, and then tailor your message for each.  As a result, you will need to prioritise your most important audience and then tailor your message to them.  However, you should not ignore your other audiences.  You do not want to alienate them, cause offence, or create a backlash.  Therefore, you need to ensure that you message only reaches your key audience (difficult), or adjust your message to take into account your wider audiences (slightly less difficult).

To summarise, communication is difficult as people will interpret the same information differently, depending on their experience and current situation.   With individuals and small groups, you can improve they way you communicate by putting yourself in your audience’s shoes.  This empathy will allow you to ensure that you are using the right information in the right way.  You must also be aware that everything you now do as leaders, has multiple audiences.  As such, you must ensure that your message is tailored to your critical audience, without causing unintentional consequences with everyone else.