Believing that our expectations alone would bring us what we want, would be delusional — as though condition 1 and 2 were not required. It’s obvious when we talk about coffee — I can’t just expect a cup of coffee/happiness to “poof” into existence, I have to take the necessary steps to make it.
We are all competing in an attention economy. From pings and dings to blinks and rings, companies and content constantly compete for our limited time and attention. How do great leaders turn down the noise and tune in to the messages that matter most? What does it take to be heard above the noise? And how do we create communication that cultivates community and connectedness in a distributed, distracted world? To address these questions, we started an interview series called “Can You Hear Me Now?: Top Five Strategies Leaders Use to Diminish Distractions & Win in the Attention Economy.” As a part of this interview series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Amanda HarNess.
Amanda is the Founder and CEO of Business Excelerated. As an advisor and consultant, she helps leaders and owners to shape high-performing organizations that grow faster and easier. Her three-pronged approach focuses on goal-based planning, effective leadership/management, and high-performing teams. She collaborates to investigate and identify the dysfunctions in an organization, strategize goals and plans, implement solutions, and evaluate progress along the way. She also knows some really good dad-jokes, and every word to every song ever written (almost… kinda).
Thank you for making time to visit with us. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is one of your most memorable moments, and what made it memorable?
Howdy! This was a fun exercise in flexing my memory. I tapped into some of my friends and colleagues to see what they would say too. And something that struck me is that for many people, their most memorable moments were either funny, embarrassing, or attached to an accomplishment. And while I could most certainly share a number of embarrassing moments, I think I will choose to share about a time that I was proud of an accomplishment.
In 2016 I went on a backpacking adventure with a friend. We had a group of people we would often backpack with around California (where I am from), and my friend Kevin and I decided we wanted to do a big trip overseas. So, we planned to backpack the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB). This is a 10-day trip that circles around Mont Blanc, the highest mountain range in the Alps. The tour covers 110 miles starting from France, into Switzerland, through Italy, and back to France. You start in a valley every morning, ascend up to a peak during the day, and descend back to a valley for the night — rinse and repeat. It was rigorous, sometimes scary, totally encapsulating, and hard in all the ways that make us better.
One thing that sticks out to me is the moment we climbed up a col and saw the backside of Mont Blanc (as we had started on the front side days before). This moment still inspires me to take a deep breath. A breath that says holy-shenanigans I can’t believe we did that, and that was so friggin’ majestic. It’s a moment you can describe, but can’t totally share with anyone if they weren’t there to experience it.
I hope that sharing this moment encourages you to pause and think of a moment like that for yourself. One that will never be replaced, may make you catch your breath, and will bring a smile to your face every single time.
What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?
One of the most unexpected twists in my career is that after leaving a former employer, I was invited back as an outsourced consultant for one of the hospitals I used to work. Here’s the fun story behind that.
My first career was as an Occupational Therapist, and I worked in the medical industry for a little over ten years. At one point in that career, I was a therapist for a world-renowned hospital. One that provides specialty care and is known for changing the lives of its patients and families. Well, during the years that I was an O.T. I was also in leadership and director level roles where I was engaged with department-specific and facility-wide growth initiatives, including when I worked for that hospital.
All of those years of experience is what lead me to pursue the expertise in business growth that I hold now. When I chose to leave the healthcare world and start my own consulting firm, I was driven to leverage my education and experience to help healthcare organizations and service-based businesses to grow faster and easier without sacrificing excellent care or service. It’s a “have the cake and eat it too” methodology!
A few years into my consulting business I was invited to be a consultant on a project with the hospital I mentioned above. When I left that hospital, it was bittersweet and through this project I discovered that I could still give back to a place that I truly believe in, just in a new capacity. It was an opportunity for me to continue to support the hospital and therefore still make a positive difference in their patient’s lives.
According to a recent Harvard Business School study, the most essential communication skill for leaders is the ability to adapt their communication style. How do you adapt your communication style?
It makes sense that adaptability is an essential communication skill for leaders because it has been found that miscommunication is responsible for 70% of errors in organizations, and a lot of times this happens because a leader tries to approach every employee the same way and expects them to respond the same. A word for the wise, you’ll pull your hair out doing that. One way that I suggest leaders create adaptability, and a skill I use myself, is to listen to understand rather than wait to respond. This allows a leader to utilize the most basic active listening skills in a more effective way.
Most people learn active listening skills when they are children in school. Those skills are primarily defined by paying attention and responding appropriately which are pretty subjective. What that means to you may be very different than what it means to me. But listening to understand rather than waiting to respond is much more specific.
Here’s the difference. When you listen to understand (paying attention) you are fully engaged in what the other person is saying, and you are not worried about what you will say next. What you will say next (responding appropriately) will be the right thing because you listened with intent and can see the whole picture. If you don’t listen to understand you might only hear half of the information and then run on assumptions. Often times if you’re waiting to respond you are not really listening and instead you are in your own head worried about forgetting what you want to say next.
Using this communication tool effectively opens opportunities for building respect. When people feel like you respect them enough to take the time to understand them, they return respect. And relationships built on respect and reciprocity generate long-term success. Boom-shaka-laka!
Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?
Our culture of increasingly distributed workforces leaves more room for miscommunication than before. And one of the areas I see this show up is in the tactical side of communication, or how information is shared. This is especially evident when more information is passed in written form than verbal. With increased use of emails and instant messaging apps, we are losing the nuances of body language and tone of voice that provides clarity in communication and information transfer.
These gaps in communication lead to misunderstanding, misinterpretation, costly errors, bottlenecks in a process, and disappointment when expectations are not met. It can seem easier in the moment to send a quick written message, but it has become so much more important to think past that moment. To take the time to determine if something needs to be communicated in a different way in order to avoid problems and see the desired result.
I saw a mug the other day that said “I just survived another meeting that could have been an email.” And while we can all laugh and relate to that, my million-dollar idea might need to be a mug that says, “I just received another email that should have been a phone call.”
This concept shows up for many clients when onboarding new employees into a remote workforce. It takes a lot of time to develop relationships where we can imply tone of voice and potential underlying meaning behind written words. In most cases, we only get to that point with family and very close friends. And yet we expect this ability to be present among new teams as soon as they join the business. As if we expect that any person should be able to receive written information and completely understand what we mean. But we must remember that what one person may write as a request, another may read as a passive aggressive demand. I am sure all of us can think of a time when someone misread just a text message and we had to clear up a misunderstanding, let alone the complex communication that occurs at work between many people and across many moving parts.
Relying heavily on written communication also creates bottlenecks in a process — a waiting game of receive and respond. When all the while if someone were to have a quick phone call or video discussion then questions can be asked, decisions can be made, and stalls can be avoided. So, in order to seek the most clarity when communicating among a distributed workforce, my recommendation is that leaders and their teams establish guidelines around how information is to be shared and when to use written versus verbal communication.
We often discover what works by experiencing what doesn’t. Tell us about a time when your communication didn’t lead to the desired results and what you learned from the experience.
This type of question always makes me think of a client I worked with a few years ago. Together we identified some members on his team that we wanted to guide in improving performance. We approached this with the intent of providing several methods of support, and to communicate clear expectations and accountability measures. The owner of this company then had performance review meetings to deliver the support plans and expectations. The intention was to retain these employees, increase their fulfillment, and improve engagement.
Most of the reviews went really well. One of them, however, did not end the way we expected. This employee became very upset and explained a great amount of offense to the idea that their work was less than satisfactory. They were very dissatisfied at the idea of change and were unable to agree with the identified areas for improvement. By the next day this employee decided to resign, and the employer was shocked and disappointed because the employee had been with the company since the very beginning.
Well, this resignation quickly turned out to be a very good thing. We found that this employee was in a position to hide a large number of errors that had been occurring, some of which included financial mistakes. They had also been perpetuating a toxic culture among their team which had gone unrecognized. Within 3 weeks over $15,000 dollars in errors was recovered, engagement within the team had risen without the toxicity, and clients even expressed relief because they had negative interactions with the employee too.
The result from this communication was intended to generate employee retention and improve performance, and instead uncovered some underlying and systemic problems. The silver lining is that the struggle of losing a trusted team member provided even more benefit than anticipated.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are struggling to have their messages heard and actioned?
When you feel unheard and tempted to pull your hair out, jump into a place of curiosity. There is always a reason behind a problem and getting down to the “why” of an issue is my favorite thing. Uncovering and resolving the underlying cause of a problem is what creates positive change. Being curious requires you to ask questions, which helps you identify opportunities, and then leads you to take action toward resolution.
Being curious helps you to discover why you come upon resistance or find yourself on repeat. Curiosity will serve you on those days that you not only feel like a broken record, but like one of those “well worn” records you find in a dented box at a used-record store. As children we are naturally curious, and we ask “why” all the time, and then we lose that trait. But when we had it we learned a lot, so ask questions. Unless you ask enough questions, you are at risk of assuming. And we all know what that does (ass-u-me…).
Assuming leads us to accidentally focus on the wrong thing, or try a solution that will not actually work, or place blame where it does not belong. Being curious and asking enough questions, however, will lead you to gain complete insight and ultimate truths that guide you toward resolutions and forward momentum. You are steered to take actions that are healthier and effective and ultimately shape trust, respect, and teams that understand your message.
You see, people are really cool and inspiring. We see people do amazing things for each other and together every day. But people are also hard and weird, and often have their own agendas. So you have to be curious in order to be able to understand why we are the way we are — why we do the things we do. If you feel like you are beating your head against a wall trying to be heard, create momentum, and see action, then pause to assess and ask questions.
Be curious enough to give yourself a balcony view so that you can understand a “why” and relieve a perpetuated problem. If you are curious enough, the truths you uncover will probably be inconvenient, may sometimes be uncomfortable, and are always solvable.
Leading a distributed team requires a different communication cadence and style from leading a team in person. What are five strategies any leader can deploy to improve communication and clarity when leading a distributed workforce? Please share a story or example for each of you can.
1. Build rust through authenticity.
With a distributed work force it can be difficult to remain connected. And we have seen the importance of remaining connected become even more apparent in the last three years. In this time, we have also seen a lot of questions arise around what environments create best productivity (such as remote vs in-office). Well, I argue that performance is more important than productivity. In short, high-performing teams are productive AND they add an extra layer of influence on organizational success because they are invested and focused on goals (not just output of work). And trust enhances a team’s performance.
Trust can be hard to build with a distributed team. But it is very much worth the time to establish because studies show that employees who perform under leaders they trust suffer less chronic stress, have more energy at work, and are more fulfilled… which fosters performance.
Most of the time, we (as humans) develop an abstract form of trust between one another on an instinctual basis before our thoughts even register. When we first meet someone our “gut” gives us a signal telling us whether or not we can trust that person — whether or not we detect a level inauthenticity. We don’t easily trust something that feels fake.
Well, this is where I recommend leaders start to build trust among distributed teams — through authentic leadership. And “authenticity” might feel like a buzzword but let me add something important. Authenticity does not have to be complete vulnerability and transparency (that can make authenticity feel threatening). More simply, authenticity means that you are seen as relatable. Relatability creates a sense of security for others and leads to confidence and trust because they understand more about you and not some facade.
A team that relates to its leader, and to one another, develops a deeper sense of connection and understands that they do not exist within a vacuum (which can be easy to feel when you are distributed).
2. The subtle art of being candid.
There are times when you just want to speak your mind. When you are frustrated or flabbergasted or surprised (not the good kind), and a little voice inside advises otherwise. I am an advocate of speaking honestly, but usually this little voice causes us to hesitate and is suggesting that there is another way to say what we mean (that’s not quit so harsh and potentially damaging).
Especially when we have distributed workforces and rely on communication that is not in person, what you say and how you say it has a massive influence on the way it is received by the person who is hearing it. Even on a video call we are not able to read one another’s body language the same way we are in person, and things can be misread and misinterpreted much easier.
So being very clear, thorough, and deliberate about what you say and how you say it can save you from a lot of headaches with remote work forces. It’s the difference between being candid and being blunt. Candid is honesty with respect. Blunt is saying what’s on your mind without regard for how the other person will receive it. It’s the subtle art of being clear and concise, without saying exactly what’s on your mind.
“Help me understand” is one of my favorite tools when I’d really like to say exactly what is on my mind, but instead I choose my words (how I say what I say). For example:
- When you want to say, “What were you thinking?!”
- Choose to say, “Help me understand what led you to that decision.”
- When you want to say, “Are you kidding me?!”
- Choose to say, “Help me understand why that happened.”
It’s a subtle nuance and a choice of words that has a great impact. The subtle art of not saying exactly what’s on your mind takes conscious practice, and a little bit of self-control in heated situations. Being candid rather than blunt will make a huge difference in the success of your confrontational conversations among distributed workforces. Which is something I talk more about in the next leadership strategy!
3. Systems of accountability.
There can be a lot of temptation to micromanage (even accidentally) when your teams are distributed. And “micromanage” has a negative connotation because it doesn’t usually produce the result you are looking for and can even makes situations worse.
So when we don’t have our whole teams in-office, we have to find more productive ways to be sure people are doing their work — to hold them accountable. Improving accountability systems will improve performance and it requires effective communication. Two areas in daily work that are related to accountability and effective communication, are delegation methods and confrontational conversations.
My friends, there are so many headaches that can be avoided if you use delegation and communication more effectively. Delegation is complex, but it does not have to be complicated. Here is a basic recipe to ensure everyone is on the same page:
- Provide clarity and thoroughness of information, and offer opportunities for questions.
- Openly define the level of permissions and autonomy allowed.
- Determine if this person will be trying to meet expectations that only exist in your head.
- Be sure you don’t create a moving target of success (or what I call “changing the rules after the game has started”).
Secondly within systems of accountability, leaders need to be able to have confrontation without someone feeling shame or reprimanded. When you are discussing someone’s accountability and by the end of the conversation they feel anything akin to scolded, punished, or lectured… Well that will later turn into fear and shame. We as humans fear feeling ashamed and will avoid it at almost any cost. And your employees can cause a lot of harm if they have avoidant behaviors in the workplace.
Everyone makes mistakes. Some are small and some are massive. And the accountability conversation you have with a team member should hold the same amount of weight as the problem. But, if you intend to keep your employee onboard given the situation, then here is an approach to making the conversation constructive, even if it is a doozie.
- Stay calm and meet in private. Respond to the situation rather than react with emotion.
- Outline your intention for the conversation. Be specific and do not dance around the subject.
- Open your perspective and be curious. Remember the difference between really listening to someone, and waiting your turn to speak.
- Then put the matter in perspective for them. Take your turn to help them to see your perspective on why this is important, how it affects the team, and any prolonged consequences.
- Set future expectations. Not only expectations related to their role and responsibilities, but also for how you expect them to handle this type of situation in the future (and how you intend to support them in carrying that out).
- Move forward. Once the conversation has ended (unless there is a repeat offense) let the matter lie.
By applying this approach, you should be able to avoid damaging conversations, build trust, and see productive changes in accountability among your distributed workforces.
4. Communicate clear expectations
The success of most relationships is all about managing expectations. This includes personal and professional relationships. And when we are leading distributed teams that innately create larger gaps in communication, we must include very clear expectations in our communications.
Why are expectations so important? Because we as humans have a natural tendency to attach out terms of happiness to fulfilled expectations. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but there are two more conditions that must also be met. There is nothing wrong with this if we (1) have a reason to believe that fulfilling an expectation will make us happy, and (2) we take the necessary steps toward fulfilling those expectations.
Believing that our expectations alone would bring us what we want, would be delusional — as though condition 1 and 2 were not required. It’s obvious when we talk about coffee — I can’t just expect a cup of coffee/happiness to “poof” into existence, I have to take the necessary steps to make it.
But for whatever reason, it is less obvious to us when our expectations involve people (like our teams). It is unrealistic to believe that just expecting our teams to behave the way we want will actually make them behave that way. (“poof”).
When we attach our terms of happiness to the expectation that other people will behave the way we want, simply because we asked them to, we set ourselves up for disappointment and resentment. And a leader with resentment is not an effective one.
The most valuable thing you can offer your team is to not make them guess what you want them to do, or what you expect of them. Setting and communicating more effective expectations will lead you to shape high-performing distributed teams because everyone will be clear about their role on the boat and will be rowing in the same direction.
5. Avoid the fingers crossed method
Something I see many leaders, entrepreneurs, and business owners survive on is their grit — a mix of determination and passion. But in business, what these people are really doing is running on the “Fingers Crossed Method,” and “fingers crossed” is not an effective or sustainable plan.
“Fingers crossed” looks a lot like hope, and hope is a powerful thing. It gets us through really tough times and helps us to envision a future that is brighter than our current circumstances. At the same time, we must understand that we play a greater role in making that future a reality, than just maintaining hope.
“Fingers crossed” are two words are spoken by a leader who knows there are opportunities available but has struggles with the implementation or execution.
- Fingers crossed this remote work thing all works out.
- Fingers crossed everyone still gets along.
- Fingers crossed the team finally gets it this time.
- Fingers crossed I can get a little time-off before I burn out.
Developing a business strategy, and executing it well, creates a 30% greater chance for growth. That’s pretty significant. If you are a growth driven organization then you need to know where you want to go, how you will get there from where you stand, and how your teams will help you arrive successfully.
This is what I call being “long-term oriented and near-term focused.” And this is another opportunity to avoid micromanaging, increase accountability, and communicate expectations. Allow your remote teams to function well together and support you achieving company goals. Sharing your plans allows your goal-oriented high-performers to know what is happening right now, what that means for the future of the organization, and how they play a role as individuals and a team.
What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competing for attention?
The short answer here is to give your teams permission to set boundaries for themselves, and do this by demonstration or leading by example. Start with these two questions: 1) Do you spend much of your day putting your work on the backburner to help others? 2) Do you have a habit of quickly jumping in to answer emails or questions from your team members, when it’s time for you to be ‘heads down’ in your own work?
If you answered yes to either of these then you are sending mixed messages. Being in a position of leadership, you may feel that you need to be actively in-tune with the team and what they need at all times. And while your desire to always be available to help is admirable, it very well may be sending mixed messages and destroying productivity.
From your modeling, the team is learning that no matter what they are doing they should also keep an eye on their emails and messages in case they are needed. At the same time, you as their leader set expectations around their productivity. Being constantly available and being focused are contradictory and confusing. “What do you want from meeeeee?!”
Did you know that trying to focus on more than one thing at a time reduces your productivity by as much as 40%? And the average desk job employee loses about 2 hours a day to distractions and interruptions (that adds up to over a full day of work every week). So do you want them to focus, or do you want them to be available?
Here’s how you can lead by example and show them what boundaries you want them to embody (aka. give them permission). 1) Set some actual rules around when it’s time to work, and when it’s time to read through messages. 2) Create boundaries for being able to protect your own time to work (such as turning off desktop notifications) and allow them to do the same. 3) Establish agreements on how to triage and prioritize internal needs and client needs, because sometimes things come up and we do have to shift our focus.
As a bonus, being less available (when appropriate) will encourage your people to be more independent and solution oriented which is a step in the right direction to being able to fully delegate — Woot woot!
What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?
There is a communication phenomenon that occurs daily, and that is the gap between what you say and what someone thinks you meant. And that explains why sometimes the actions they take look different than what you asked for. When this happens, we become baffled and our expectations are not met (remember the connection between our expectations and our happiness).
With that in mind, the overall crux to communication is — Perspective. Understanding the role that perspective plays for yourself, among your other leaders, and throughout your teams is a key piece of advice I want to hand off to you. All of your employees come to you with their own thoughts, opinions, and knowledge based on life experiences (just like you). These experiences shape our perspectives and therefore the way we receive information and respond.
Perspective is what creates the “game of telephone” effect. Those times when you think you’ve been pretty [expletive] clear, and yet somehow ‘they just don’t get it.’ Often this is because there was a gap in communication created by perspective. It’s that gap between what you said, and what they think you meant.
This gap results in miscommunication, errors, and costs in time and energy (and sometimes actual dollars). These turn into feelings of frustration, resentment, embarrassment, and disappointment. And these will not support you in communicating clearly or being an effective leader. When a leader really understands the perspectives of their team members (and themselves), they are able to drive engagement and performance by communicating with intention and clarity — which supports the organization in succeeding and growing!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Oh, this is a fun question (mmwahaha). I hear a lot of organizations emphasize team development. And while that is admirable and often based on the people-first position of servant leadership, I advocate for a leaders-first approach.
In many ways the success of an organization is a direct reflection of the leadership that oversees it. Success in employee performance and retention, success in customer experience and retention, success in scaling and growth, etc. So, we can correlate that it is in a company’s best interest to invest in the development of its leadership because enhancing leadership first offers trickle-down effects that support the organization from now into the future.
One could argue that it’s the people of a company that drive growth and progress. And I would add that leadership is what shapes these thriving and high-performing teams. A high-performing team has a greater influence on the organization’s success because they are taught how to focus on goals and achieve results together. They have critical thinking skills, ask questions, offer ideas, communicate, and collaborate. These teams meet expectations consistently, and exceed expectations when opportunities require it. So if an company wants to shape these high-performing teams that support the growth of high-performing organizations, then they need to start at the top with enhancing leadership first.
As an added point to consider, people in leadership have usually been around the organization a while and plan to be for a while more (promotion is often seen from tenure and/or experience). People on teams can come and go a little more frequently. So with a leadership first approach, no matter what turnover occurs within teams or how many new employees you add from growth, leadership can continue to apply and reapply what they gain and learn over and over. Its kept knowledge. This creates sustainability and scalability, and empowers the organization for the long term. It’s a solution that sticks. And that’s my favorite kind.
How can our readers stay connected with you?
LinedkIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/amanda-harness-business-excelerated/
Subscribe to LinkedIn Newsletter:
Email: [email protected]
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.
You are all doing some amazing things here. It has been a pleasure and an honor to be a part of this. I really appreciate how you bring the voice of leaders to the world and appreciate you having me.