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How To Reach Employees Who Aren’t Getting Your Message

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

All too often, leaders feel as if they’re sending smoke signals into a black hole while receiving little or no response from employees. Or they wonder why workplace disagreements persist and grow, even when they believe they’ve made their positions clear. Despite having impeccable logic and all the facts on their side, they still may not be able to accomplish what they want.

During these times of frustration, says Lee Carter, President of Maslansky and Partners and author of Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Matter, it’s all too easy to decide that employees who disagree or won’t get on the same page with us “are bad people… [when] we’d be better in so many different ways… if instead of getting defensive and judgy, we start getting curious about where is that person coming from.”

It’s hard to get to a meeting of the minds or even begin an effective dialog if the parties are holding rigid positions. According to Carter, “Generally speaking, if you go in knowing that you’re right and they’re wrong, that’s a recipe for a disastrous conversation.” She described four different ways it’s possible to reduce the negative tension and start a productive conversation.

Understand yourself and where you are. Because we derive so much of our personal sense of significance from our work, no matter how logical we may think we are, our emotions are being constantly triggered by day-to-day events and people’s reactions to us. Carter explains the import of various emotional states at work: “If you feel anger, that indicates there’s a problem that needs to be solved.… [E]xcitement and joy …indicate you’re doing something good that you should keep doing…. And then there are inhibitory emotions, such as shame, anxiety and guilt” which can prevent you from taking action, interacting skillfully, or moving projects forward.

Get curious, consciously and with intent. When you ask questions, even of yourself if you don’t have direct access to the employees, you slow your mental processing and dial down your level of emotional reaction, so you won’t jump to conclusions as quickly. Carter interviewed Dr. Jenny Susser of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, and learned that because of the way blood flows through the brain, “You can’t be both curious and emotional at the same time. The same part of your brain that processes extreme emotion also processes curiosity, so it’s just physically impossible… Start by asking yourself, ‘What is it that the people that I’m talking to think or feel already? Is that really what they are motivated by? … What do they think about the organization? What are they most concerned about?’” Put thoughtful effort into trying to recognize employees’ points of view, the challenges they face and the things that they’re most worried about.

Deliver content to others the way they need to hear it. Leaders need to know their team members well enough to identify which approaches will help them communicate effectively to each one. It can seem like a lot of work up front, but “if you give people feedback in the way that they need to get feedback, they’re going to give you 110% and everybody’s going to be more satisfied and do their best work” whether they need to receive that feedback annually, at the end of every project, or every single week. It’s worth the investment, because when employees are disengaged or dissatisfied “they become toxic — and they’re either going to stay in your organization and be toxic and bring other people down or they’re going to find someplace else to go and then you’re going to need to retrain and keep getting new people.”

Stick with it and keep communicating. When employees don’t buy in or actively disagree, leaders can become frustrated and even resentful. But Carter emphasizes, “We often say that if you haven’t gotten nauseous from repeating your message, it probably hasn’t even begun to get traction. If you are leading an organization through change, if you’re leading in any direction, you have to repeat your message over and over and over again.” Leaders can feel that they ought to be able to move on to new work after planning, drafting and presenting important organizational messages, and they may not want to bother anymore when they don’t see acceptance from employees. Carter suggests rethinking the situation, because “If you’re trying to communicate something and it’s not getting heard by the people that you’re trying to communicate to, it is definitely not their fault. It is your fault. You’re responsible for somebody hearing what you’re trying to communicate, and so you have to stay curious rather than getting upset or frustrated that they’re not hearing you” and find different ways to express the message.

Many leaders complain that they communicate and no one gets the message, or that they get pushback, or sometimes no response at all. These leaders can reduce their frustration and increase their effectiveness when they focus on staying self-aware, get curious about their audience and the reasons behind their reactions, tailor their messages specifically to audience members’ needs and keep up a steady drumbeat of ongoing communication.

Onward and upward —


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