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Marcus, the chief executive officer of a mid-size consumer software company, was talking with Alex, his chief people officer.

“Not another squishy people stuff consultant,” Marcus groaned. “I’m so tired of hearing about all this woo-woo stuff. It’s not making any difference.”

“You’re not happy with the recent dramatic drop in complaints from our customers?” Alex asked.

“Of course I’m happy with that!”

“You’re not happy with the stellar candidates now applying for our open positions?”

“We’ve never had so many amazing engineers to choose from!”

“These changes are directly a result of the ‘squishy woo-woo people stuff’ seminars we’ve had these last few months.”

“How do you know?”

Learning more about how we work helps everything work better

“Do you remember those employee satisfaction surveys we do every year?” Alex asked.

“How can I forget? No one’s ever happy. Everyone always wants better relationships with their coworkers and managers.”

“Six months ago, we started doing mini surveys every month. The metrics related to relationships with teammates are up thirty percent since we started the ‘squishy people stuff’ seminars.”

“That could be due to anything.”

“I agree that we can’t confirm the change is directly related to what people have learned from the seminars. The correlation, however, is strong. As you said, inter- and intra-team relationships have been problematic forever. However, the chances seem pretty slim that those problems start dropping away immediately after we start teaching people how to have better conversations.”

“Which seminar covered having better conversations?”

“Have you been paying attention at all?”

Differences in how we prefer to work cause misunderstandings

“How many times have you complained about Jim?” Alex continued. “How he clams up when you ask him a question.”

“A lot,” Marcus confirmed.

“Do you remember a speaker in the first seminar covering the difference between talking to think and thinking to talk?”

“Vaguely.”

“And how Jim stood up and spoke about how much time he needs to come up with an answer when someone asks him a question?”

“I remember how surprised I was to see him speaking up in a meeting.”

“Do you remember what happened when someone asked you whether you think to talk or talk to think?”

“I stated authoritatively that I don’t need to do either. I always know what I think.”

“Would you mind if we reviewed that part of the recording?”

Marcus turned his monitor so he and Alex could see it, then handed over his mouse and keyboard. Alex navigated to the training homepage on the company intranet, found the recording for the seminar, skimmed through the recording to find the right spot, then hit play.

Three minutes later, recorded-Marcus was still answering the question. Real-life-Marcus’ jaw had dropped in astonishment.

“I had no idea I talked for that long,” real-life-Marcus said. “I sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about. I said three completely different things and was starting in on a fourth.”

Recognizing how we’re different brings understanding

“This is what the speaker was highlighting. Most of us need time to reflect when asked a question we aren’t expecting. Some of us, like Jim, tend to do that reflection internally. Others of us, like you, tend to share that reflection process with everyone. Interacting with someone who has a different preference than we do can be frustrating.”

Marcus nodded his head slowly, understanding dawning. “I owe Jim an apology. I’ve been second-guessing many of his decisions because I’ve been interpreting his long pauses as indecision and uncertainty. But, really, I haven’t been giving him space to be himself.”

Marcus paused, thinking over what he had just realized.

“Stunned you into silence, did I?” Alex asked with a light teasing tone.

“Stunned myself into silence, more like,” Marcus answered. “Bet you didn’t think I ever shut up, did you?” he continued with a smirk.

“I’ve seen you be quiet plenty,” Alex replied. “And, I know you’re a thoughtful and creative leader. You just haven’t learned the value of ways of being that are different from yours.”

Understanding brings ease

“I’m CEO. I’ve been leading companies for decades. I should have figured this out by now. You must think I’m an idiot.”

“Don’t should yourself. And, while I don’t always understand everything you do, I don’t think you’re an idiot. Nor does anyone else here.”

“Well, I feel like an idiot.”

Marcus and Alex lapsed into silence, Marcus reflecting on the conversation and Alex giving him space.

After a minute, Marcus said, “I’m going to watch the recordings from the seminars. I’ll prioritize the ones to come, too. And, I think I owe Jim an apology.”

“I’m sure he’ll appreciate you sharing what you’ve learned with him.”

“And now I know to give him time to respond after I tell him. I’m sure he won’t expect that.”

This is part one of a series. Marcus will be back next week, a little wiser and humbler.

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