Ian discusses how building commitment is a key skill for successful leadership, especially during these times of increased uncertainty.

Full Transcription below:

Two centuries ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Every organization is the extension of one man’s shadow”. This is a commentary on how critical leadership is. In a previous episode, we talked about the leadership equation.  Excellent leadership is: clarity times commitment.

We’ve just had an announcement from our leadership in Ireland of the new restrictions pertaining to Covid. And whilst there’s some clarity around the restrictions, there’s certainly some confusion. However, more than that, there seems to be a standoff between our Taoiseach and our Tánaiste around the handling of this, which seems to me a breakdown in their ability to arrive at a full agreement.

This questionable clarity, with an erosion of commitment, leads to one thing, which is residue, which we talked about in previous episodes. They say the fish rots from the head. And the impact of residue amongst the population, based on the government’s decision or performance, is a disenchantment, and a growing anger and anxiety, mixed in with a lowering commitment to the restrictions that have been asked and the behaviors which results in, unfortunately, an ever increasing metric around the Covid numbers.

As a leader, if you don’t, or can’t, onboard everybody before arriving at a decision, expect to pay the price with a loss of commitment.

So that’s what this episode is going to be dedicated to, this whole idea about building commitment. Because I guess we’ve all been in this situation before in a meeting where we arrive at a decision. At least you think you’ve arrived at a consensus decision, and you wonder why a week later, two weeks later nothing’s happened, nothing’s being done or, worse still, some people who apparently nodded and agreed to the decision have been actively undermining the same decision. And if ever we needed to create buy-in and commitment from our stakeholder parties and the people around us, now is absolutely the time. We need buy in from our teams, from our peers, from our suppliers, from our clients, and we certainly need buy in at home. This chaos is not built for solo performance. We need those around us help solve today’s problems and also create tomorrow’s future.

So to help you with the rest of this episode, I’m going to ask you to think about at this moment a relationship where you’re currently struggling, where there’s a challenge, where there’s an impasse, where there’s a difficulty, where there’s tension, or friction, or complexity. Just choose one person, one relationship, with one context. This is going to be your context for the rest of the episode. Pause, if you need time to reflect, or maybe just select one of the many that come instantly to mind. So, let’s imagine, you’re person A and the person you’ve chosen is person B. Between you and the other person there is a gap. And as transport for London continually, repeatedly, remind us, we need to mind the gap. The reason for us to come together is either to resolve a problem or an issue, or to make a decision. In some way we may be stuck, and that might be because we’ve reached an impasse on an issue or on the other side, it may be that we’re in uncharted waters, which is very common at the moment and we need a resolution.

So what do you do to get commitment? The first thing you have to realize is that both of you are bringing a different context to the table. Your context will include your point of view on the issue or your story around the subject, your needs, which include your hopes and your fears, your values, and any residue that has accumulated in advance of this interaction.

Person B, the person on the other side, has got exactly the same, except it’s all different. They’ve got their own story, their own needs, their own values, and their own narrative around the residue. The first mistake that leaders typically make in trying to get buy-in is around the mindset of how they prepare for the conversation. The most frequent approach by a leader in this situation is to try to convince, persuade, coerce or, in summary, their mission is to win. All too frequently I see this manifest itself where leaders use their positional power to impose a solution in this situation and wonder why they face a lack of commitment or a lack of performance on the other side.

Instead of approaching the conversation with a mindset of proving I’m right, a far better mindset to approach the conversation is how do I find a solution that’s mutually agreeable? By making that the mission of the conversation at the very outset in your preparation you, by definition, have to approach the conversation differently. The breakdown in commitment is more often a fault of attitude at the start, as it is skill in the conversation.

So in order to prepare to find a solution and make that the mission of the interaction, the way to go about doing it to begin with is to imagine a box. I’m going to call this the conversation box. And into the box you want to invite as much data as you can. Data from your side, but also data from their side. After all, if the quality of the results that we get is dependent upon the quality of the data that we use, then surely more data is better than less data.

Moreover, people may tolerate your solution based on your data at best, but they will act upon and embrace fully a solution that includes their data. In order to fill the conversation box you need four tools that will assist you. By using these four tools or skills appropriately, I’ve never in a quarter century of working in corporate organizations, and working with people, and working in coaching, discovered a situation where you don’t come up with a better solution than either party or maybe a different solution than either party first imagined.

The first thing you need to do is you need to enquire. And this enquire, by the way, is spelled with an E, which is different from the inquire that is spelled with an I. The I inquire is around an inquest or the Spanish Inquisition, which nobody expects. And the spirit of inquire with an I is one about blame and fault. That’s why a steward’s inquiry at the races is about finding which jockey was at fault for the riding infringement.

Enquire with an E is underpinned by a completely different essence, and the simplest way to explain it is curiosity. In both cases, obviously, you need to ask questions to enquire, but the tone of the questions are completely different. And the purpose is also different. To Enquire with an E, in this context, you need to suspend your own judgment and ask questions of the other side to explore their side. This isn’t what typically happens in these situations. Typically the questions that get asked are questions that are loaded or leading. And as soon as leading and loaded questions come out, the limbic system, which we talked about much earlier in the episodes, which is on high alert already, is only going to react by fighting back, closing down, or freezing.

So keep the questions open and be curious about the reply. By the way, when you are in a conversation, and somebody is asking you a question, can you tell the difference between whether they’re genuinely interested in the answer or whether they’re just asking you a question to lead you to the conclusion that they want? Can you tell the difference? I’ll bet you can. And guess what, other people are almost as smart as you.

The second thing you need to do is you need to hear, H E A R, which is different to listen. Because you can listen without hearing, but you can’t hear without listening. And the quality of the listening that you require is one which is intense and which is active. And what you’re listening to do is, again, without judgment, you’re listening to fully understand their story, their side of the bridge. The combination of enquiring and fully participating in hearing their side and being committed to understanding their side encourages them, when it’s done authentically, to share their story, share their data, and be honest from their side. The measure of whether you  been successful in hearing is whether, by the end, they feel that they’ve been heard. Again you’ll notice, it’s not about your intention, it’s about the impact on the other side.

The third thing you need to do is, and this is the piece that typically gets missed even by people who are very skilled in this area, you need to acknowledge. What that doesn’t mean is that you repeat back to them what it is you’ve heard them say. All that smacks of is somebody who’s just being on a training course. It comes across as inauthentic and people feel like they’re being techniqued.

Remember, this limbic system which is operating is very smart, and it’s trying to figure out if your friend or foe in 5% moments like this. So if you’ve enquired well with curiosity, and they feel heard because they’ve felt comfortable enough to share their side without your judgment, what you need to then do is you need to acknowledge their concerns, their points of pain, their fears, what’s at risk for them, the impact or the implication of what’s happening, or the change to them. And two other things. What frequently pops up is the good intentions that are behind what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, how they’ve acted. There’s always good intention. So if you can acknowledge what the good intentions are or were. And also they’ll often talk about the effort or the strain that they’ve put into something . By acknowledging all of these things it has the simple impact of helping to empty their cup and create capacity.

If this is so obvious, why doesn’t everybody just simply go around acknowledging? The biggest reason for this, apart from the fact that people don’t have an awareness to do this and it’s obviously not an easy thing to do, is that there is some implication that if I acknowledge your side, and your story, and your concerns, and your fears, and what’s at risk for you, and your efforts, and your good intentions, that somehow that means that I have to agree with it. Let me be clear. By acknowledging it doesn’t mean agreement.

Now that you’ve created capacity, there’s the opportunity for you to share your fourth tool, which is straight talk. This is where you share your side of the bridge, your story, your implications, your good efforts, your good intentions. And it might not need to involve everything that I’ve mentioned. It may simply be that you are just speaking up where before you might not have spoken up. You’re going to be honest about your side, and you’re going to say what you see.

For some people it takes great courage to do this if they haven’t done it before. And the conversation becomes intense. Using these four tools appropriately,  in the appropriate order, to what the conversation needs in any given moment. And this fills the conversation box with data from both sides.

With two limbic systems on either side of the bridge that are both calm and, most importantly, committed, this helps to avoid, or even tidy up, residue. And, as I mentioned a little earlier, I’ve never encountered a situation where, skillfully deployed, the approach has not yielded an outcome which was alternative or even different to what either party first, where they first started. I hope some of this or some element of this might help you with that relationship, that conversation, that you selected out a little earlier in the episode.

So this is week 20 or episode 20 of the podcast. And what’s been very interesting and very gratifying is the number of people who have connected with me, on LinkedIn particularly, from all over the world.

And I’m very interested and curious to know, after 20 episodes, if you’ve got something you’d like to say in terms of what’s working for you, what you like, what you don’t like, any feedback. This is really something that’s designed to help anybody who’s listening. So if there’s a way in which it can be done better, or you want to reinforce what’s already working well, please do get in contact. Just connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know what’s working or what could work better.

Until next time,

stay safe.

Stay sane.

Stay connected.