Leadership Blog Part 18 & 19: Leading with Language – At Any Level

Over the years I have considered myself fortunate to have had two successful careers, one as an environmental professional in cultural resource management ([CRM] where I am now) and one in archaeological publishing (my past life). During my time in publishing, I collaborated with archaeologists all over the world as a book editor and production manager, which taught me, ironically, important language skills I needed to succeed in a 100-percent remote setting. Some skills I learned through trial and error, and some I learned through formal training. I found, however, as I transitioned back to CRM those skills were entirely transferable but poorly understood. But I was excited to bring this new way of communicating and leadership to the field by practicing several simple language principles that can be practiced no matter what position you hold: listen first-talk last; assume good intentions, not bad; eliminate the ego; avoid deficit language and be appreciative.

Listen First-Talk Last

Listening first simply means to gather data by letting everyone on the team talk through the logistics, issues, and nuances involved in the project. It means waiting for the right time to provide input and holding one’s own thoughts idle for a bit. Over communicating can stifle team members who might not feel psychologically safe. Watch for these instances and ask questions rather than state what you already think.  Embrace variability.  Encourage as many viewpoints as possible.  Team members feel valued and validated when they are heard and their ideas amplified.  When this happens, they will be motivated to commit rather than simply comply.  In Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say—and What You Don’t, author David L. Marquet examines the difference between embracing and reducing variability. He believes when seeking solutions, such as during team meetings, variability is an ally.  He explains, however, that people typically gravitate toward the first or strongest opinion in the room.  When this happens, when just a few team members speak up, Marquet calls this a low Team Language Coefficient (TLC).  Successful collaborations have high TLCs because everyone is empowered to voice their opinions, and the leader in the room waits to hear them all before asking questions.

Assume Good Intentions, Not Bad

As always, teams are made up of a mosaic of personalities.  Within this mosaic, for example, it could be that self-regulating isn’t everyone’s strong suit.  When this happens, focus on what is said, not how it is said.  What is the solution being offered?  How does that solution fit into the bigger picture?  Check yourself to make sure you are not reacting but listening and pausing for all of the information/variability being offered.  Look for the kernel of what is true. Don’t dismiss an otherwise brilliant idea because it wasn’t delivered eloquently.  Avoid making assumptions about another person’s intentions, especially when collaborating.  Be aware of your own unconscious biases and potential ability to villainize someone who brings diversity of thought and style to your group.  Leading is not about you or me.  Don’t be limited by your own ego.

Eliminate the Ego

Eliminating the ego is a skill that frees up cognitive resources that can then be made available for problem solving, relationship building, and ultimately for the creative solutions that lead to successful outcomes.  It is the foundation of good collaboration.  Even if you are the team lead, it is fine to say “oops, my bad” once in a while.  Validate your team for making a good catch.  Often, in technical professions, there are so many changes to a document happening at such rapid paces, it is impossible to avoid introducing small errors that remain hidden until the last minute during a technical review. The review itself is a collaboration and can often become a battle of egos internally and externally.  Let it go.  Putting one’s ego first means reducing TLC, relying on biased assumptions about other’s intentions, and ultimately sticking to decisions that may not be effective.  David L. Marquet points out that in this last scenario, you may get compliance, but you won’t get commitment, the internal driving force that self-propels people to go above and beyond expectations rather than doing the bare minimum.

Avoid Deficit Language and Be Appreciative

Deficit language is inherently negative and demoralizing, especially when directed at people in front of people.  It is a productivity buster.  Telling people what NOT to do does not communicate what you want them to do.  So they guess, they consult with others, or they try to follow exactly as they are told, none of which produces results.  An appreciative leader clearly communicates what you DO want somebody to do and weaves in positive feedback either from a past situation or from another situation on that same project.  It validates not just the team’s language, it recognizes the importance of relationships and investing in people.  It also eliminates those negative assumptions about other’s intentions, which is absolutely critical if your aim is to free up cognitive resources to focus on the job at hand.  In Appreciative Leadership: Focus on What Works to Drive a Winning Performance and Build a Thriving Organization, Diana Whitney, Amanda Trosten-Bloom and Kae Rader define appreciative management style as the “relational capacity to mobilize creative potential and turn it into positive power – to set in motion positive ripples of confidence, energy, enthusiasm, and performance.”  The point?  Leadership is relational. Language is relational.  None of us operate in a vacuum.  There are “ripple effects” to our language, spoken or not.

In closing, these skill sets are cumulative.  To proficiently avoid deficit language and use an appreciative management style (i.e., listening, assuming positive intentions, eliminating the ego, and increasing variability and diversity of thought) are foundational to creating deeper, more diverse team relationships. Not only have I had the good fortune to have built two successful careers in my life, I have also been very fortunate to experience the high caliber of collaboration and leadership styles in the NAEP, that reflect my own ideas about what great collaboration means.  The audience for me, therefore, is really the many rising junior scientists/early career professionals, no matter what the discipline, to whom I often try to model these behaviors.  And who will hopefully find value in my lessons learned as they communicate their way through and up the ladder of their successful careers.

Jerryll Moreno

NAEP Leadership Development Committee

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