In English, leadership, Lessons

Don’t Stay In The Dark

Yesterday was the 11th session of our Dale Carnegie Live Online Effective Communication and Human Relations class. In the second part of the session, one participant gave an inspiring talk on how he recovered from depression after an accident. “Everyone said that even if I was able to recover, I would walk with a limp. That crushed me because that could mean I would never be able to work again. I was so dejected I did nothing but stay in bed,” he retold his darkest hours while holding back emotion.

“One day I read a quote that said, ‘Do not stay in the dark, because in darkness even your shadow leaves you.’ That quote snapped me out of my self-pity. I asked for a pair of crutches and started to learn to walk again.” he said. “Finally my legs healed. I was able to finish my school and get back to work. Now I can walk normally.”

The speech won him an Outstanding Performance Award.

The quote he mentioned haunted me. I looked it up, and I found that the actual quote was different:

“Do not depend too much on anyone in this world because even your shadow leaves you when you are in darkness.”

Ibn Taymiyyah

But the essence is there. Sometimes we lock ourselves inside a terrible situation because we either wait for someone to get us out or because we blame it on somebody and refuse to take responsibility to get ourselves out.

Regardless of which way see it, we lose. Nobody benefits from our staying in a rut. We might as well stop relying on and stop blaming others, pick ourselves up, and walk away.

Previously published as a Facebook post.

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leadership, team

Seven Ways to Help Your Team Stay Focused and Motivated while Working from Home

When you read this article, chances are you are at home, and are taking a break from your work. Many companies assign employees to work from home as a form of participation in government efforts to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

For those of us who are accustomed to working face-to-face with our team in the office, this condition may feel unfamiliar. If usually we can invite them to meet to discuss a problem, now we are forced to communicate with them through telecommunications media.

Some of us have experienced this reality as part of our daily work. We must work with teams that are in several locations, and we have no choice but to use e-mail, text messages, telephone and video conference to communicate with them.

The distance between us and our colleagues can cause several problems:

Disconnection from the team. When working in the same location, we feel comfortable because our team is close. It’s easy to ask for information, and we have friends with whom we can chat. When working in a different location, solitude can make us feel isolated. Although in theory we can interact with our team through digital media, but not infrequently we receive late responses. WhatsApp messages that are not read, phones that are not picked up, emails that are not answered, these can increase stress on remote workers.

Slow decision making. In the same location, teams can gather immediately to find solutions to problems and make decisions. When working in different locations, synchronizing time to meet digitally is sometimes not easy. Instead, we rely on WhatsApp group or Slack or Trello as a place to exchange ideas. Again, not everyone is quick to reply to messages sent through the group.

Getting lost in digital media. Today there are many communication media that we can use. When a colleague said, “I already sent the information.” Then the response would be, “What did you send it through? Email or WhatsApp?” If the answer is WhatsApp, there will be a follow-up question, “Did you send it in a group or directly to me?” If the answer is in a group, then the response is, “Which group?” Although in some aspects digital media made a lot of things easy for us, but in others they may complicate our life a little.

Digital miscommunication. Written messages cannot replace direct communication. Communication between people is more than just words. It also involves non-verbal factors, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and so on. Therefore, text messages that are written in disregard to the correct use of punctuation can cause the recipient to understand the message in a totally different way. What is meant as a neutral message when typed with excessive number of exclamation marks may be perceived as emotional message.

Video calls cannot substitute direct interaction either. First reason is technical obstacles. We may receive sound that is not in sync with the picture, delay in transmission, etc. These technical glitches may cause conversations to be fumbled and unclear. Second reason is the McGurk effect. This effect occurs when there is a mismatch between the words we hear and the lip movements we see. The brain tries to process this mismatch and came up with a different word.  Unclear video images can have this effect, where we seem to hear the word “tomato” when the speaker says the word “potato”.

Dealing with Remote Team

What can we do to create a productive atmosphere when working in different locations? In his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” Dale Carnegie offered several principles that we can use.

1. Become genuinely interested in other people. One nice thing about working in an office is that we have relationships. At lunch, we have friends with whom we can talk about things outside of work, so we feel that we belong. Try to bring this feeling by taking a few minutes every day to ask how our off-site friend is doing and get him to talk about his condition. Encourage all team members to check on each other.

One participant in the Fundamental Leadership Program training class is based in Jakarta. He applied this principle with a colleague who worked on a site in Kalimantan. “Usually we only talk about work,” he said. “This time I called him just to say hello and ask how he was doing. From time to time we exchanged greeting text messages. We became friends, and it is now easier to work with him.”

2. Be a good listener. Make understanding the other person as your first goal in communication, before making yourself understood. When meeting via video call, take the time to check whether what you understand is in line with what the other person meant. Say for example, “Let me check my understanding. You are saying that our client has agreed to buy thirty units of this product, on the condition that the price is reduced by ten percent from the initial offer. Does it sound right to you?”

3. Don’t criticize, condemn or complain. One thing that makes people reluctant to communicate with us is when they see us as someone who is more likely to catch what’s wrong rather than what’s right. That could be one of the reasons we receive delayed replies to our text or email messages. Being critical is important to minimize costly mistake. Being critical ALL the time may cost us relationships with others. When receiving a message or listening to a colleague, instead of criticizing immediately, it would be a good idea to ask probing questions to understand the other person better.

One of our class members applied this principle to his superior. Before taking the class, he would criticize his boss for anything that he felt lacking. Later he tried to refrain from doing so and listen more. He found that his relationship with his boss was improving, and he got better support at his job.

4. Begin in a friendly way. This is the way to winning enthusiastic cooperation from your colleagues. Nobody likes to be boss around. When people are being told what to do, they feel what is known as psychological reactance.  This reaction cause people to resent instructions and become less productive. Instead of directly telling people what you want, start with a friendly tone. We can use something like, “Hey Joe. I sent you an important email yesterday. You were probably very busy and missed it. Your opinion is important to me and I would like to hear it before I make my decision. Would you mind having a look at it now?”

5. Try to honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. Being in separate locations often mean different situations. What seems easy for us, may not be so readily implementable for our colleagues. Before implementing a plan, it would be a good idea to bounce ideas with our off-site colleagues. What risks do they see? What challenges they are facing? For this plan to succeed, what actions do they think needed to be done first?

6. Admit faults quickly and empathically. Being human, we are not immune from making mistakes. Jeff Bezos, founder of the giant online retailer Amazon.com, looks for people who can admit when they are wrong and change their opinion. According to him, smart people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they had already solved, open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradiction and challenges their own way of thinking. Bruce Lee, the legendary martial arts actor once said, “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” Admitting mistakes is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of courage.

When people who are used to working in the same location are forced to work separately, mistakes are bound to happen. Being apart from the team, it is easy for someone to hide their mistakes. Hidden mistakes have big consequences. Show your team that it is not shameful to come forward and own up to one’s mistake. When you realize that you made a mistake, admit it quickly to your team, and explain what you are going to do to correct it. In that way, you lead by example, earn your team’s respect, and strengthen trust in your team.

7. Give an honest and sincere appreciation.  An article in Psychology Today recounted the experiment done by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino. They compared the performance of two telephone fundraising teams. One team had the Director of the Annual Giving visited them and thanked them personally, while the other team did not. The next week they compared the number of calls made by the teams. The first team who received appreciation placed 50% more calls than the second team. 

Being in separate locations means our team needs more support. We can take the role as their emotional cheerleaders. A simple thank you can make them feel appreciated. Or better yet, announce any achievement your team member made to the whole group. Send a congratulatory email copied to everyone in the team or use the team’s WhatsApp Group for that. How about taking them to lunch? Or if they are home bound, why not send them a dinner voucher they can use to treat their family?

When working remotely, make sure you always build a warm relationship with your team, and keep the communication channels open. This way, they feel the support and attention they need to stay focused and motivated.

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In English, Personal Reflection

The Broken Award Trophy

The Friday night award dinner was over. It was time for dancing and fun. We wore Batik, long sleeved dress shirts in Batik patterns which in Indonesia enjoys the same status as a suit. We found it awkward to hit the floor in our Batik, so we decided to go to the mezzanine.

A lot of people were out there as well, to get away from the loud music and the dark room. Some friends came up to us to congratulate us for the Gold Cup award we received this year. In return we also congratulated other award winners that we met.

As we were chatting happily, our CEO Peter Handal emerged from one of the ballroom doors. Jolly and amiable as usual, he was soon surrounded by people who wanted to have their pictures taken with him. He was retiring from his position in Dale Carnegie. For people who came from far ends of the globe like us, this would be our last chance for a photo op with him.

I was holding the box containing the heavy crystal award in my hands. We were just getting ourselves ready for a picture with Peter. Suddenly I felt the box became a lot lighter. There was a loud crash and tinkling. When the surprise was over, all that remained of the trophy was just scattered crystal shards of various sizes.

It took me a few seconds to finally grasp what happened. I broke the award! That was the moment when I felt to be most stupid. How could I be so careless with something so valuable? The appreciation of one year’s hard work from our team, gone!

I was apologizing profusely, I said, “I’m very sorry,” over and over again. With his hand on my shoulder Peter said, “It’s not your fault, Stephen.” And then he lifted his face to everyone and said, “It was my fault. I tapped him on the shoulder and he reacted. I’ll have it replaced. I’m sorry.”

In the middle of the commotion, Dave Wright approached us. He is the President of Dale Carnegie of Austin, and his team won a Silver Cup award tht night. He stretched his neck out to survey the damage, and asked, “What’s that? You broke your award alredy? Is that a Gold or Silver? A Gold? You can use our Silver for your photo. They’re similar, right?” He graciously handed the crystal trophy to us, and the photo took place after all.

On Monday night, we were retiring to our room at the airport transit hotel in Incheon. I habitually took my phone and opened my email. I found one message from Peter. He said that he had arranged for a replacement trophy to be mailed to us, and that I should not let that incident affect me. It was his fault that he tapped me on my shoulder and startled me to drop the award. Before that, he shared, he dropped his watch on the bathroom floor and broke it. “You can say that this is Peter’s curse.”

I imagined that he had a big grin and a big twinkle in his eyes as he wrote that.

I spent a lot of time in our 20 hour trip from Atlanta to Seoul to revisit the incident. I was angry at myself for being such a bungling idiot. It was a simple logic to hold the box at a slanted angle to keep the award from toppling out. Somehow I stupidly held it upright.

After I was done criticizing myself, I began to think about the people that offered their help. About Peter who took the blame and offered to replace the award, even though I was so sure it was wholly my fault. About Dave who offered to loan his team’s award so we could somehow took a group picture with Peter. I have never seen so much kindness in the face of a mistake in my life.

I wrote back to Peter. “If there was a purpose behind this incident, it is so that we could see kindness from others. From you, from Dave. And if anyone ask me what I remember best about you, I would tell them about this incident to illustrate the kind, warm and friendly person you are.”

Instead of a misfortune, this has become a beautiful parting gift from Peter to me. I will never forget that day.

Thank you Peter for being a great leader for us. Have a wonderful journey ahead.

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In English, Personal Experience, Personal Reflection

Being The True You

Yesterday, at the closing of a sales training class for one of our major clients, the host trainer from the client graciously asked participants to say a few words for me, as the external trainer. This is not something that I expected, and being a naturally introverted person, this also put me in an awkward situation. I know that most of the time any participant would be glad to share some appreciative comments, to which I am grateful (though frankly it may prove to be difficult to keep a humble face and not feeling smug at the same time).

But of course some participants chose to differ. They took the opportunity to give me a piece of their mind. Publicly. If receiving praise is somewhat embarrassing for me, then getting a ‘constructive feedback’ in public is almost beyond description. Nevertheless, I appreciate every opportunity to learn and to improve myself. 

One especially critical participant stood up to speak. I could almost feel my heart skipped a beat in anticipation to what he was going to say. He started to summarize some positive words from other participants about me, like ‘is always smiling’, ‘never criticizes’, ‘welcomes humorous interjections’, etc. And with a knowing smile, he added, “But that is the way he is in a class. We don’t know how Stephen is outside the class.’

I wasn’t in any way bothered by his comment. It was actually a good reality check. 

We sometimes put a different face for different audience. At work, we may put on a professional face when dealing with clients and customers. We treat them courteously, we listen to them, and we welcome whatever sharp words customers say as far as they concerned to the services we render to them. 

Once we get back at home, we put on our real face. We get irritated when our spouse ask a question or require our help. We put aside courtesy and criticize our loved ones without regards to what they feel. We may be more likely to pay better attention to the people on TV, who don’t care about us, than to our spouse who want to have a conversation with us.

I consider that comment to be a reminder for me to be genuine, to be the same person wherever I am. 

Jack Welch has this to say about being an authentic person. He says,

“The most powerful thing you can do is, well, be real. As in not phony. As in grappling, sweating, laughing, and caring. As in authentic.”

That is how a leader can influence other. Not just by being a great communicator, but also by showing his/her true self and values.

Dale Carnegie had this to say about building rapport to people around you, and to influence others: 

“Be a good person skilled in speaking.”

The first rule in being a good communicator is to be a good person first. Anyone can be a fluent speaker. But can we maintain integrity to be true in whatever we say, or we still tend to put on a different self? 

That is one question I keep asking myself. 

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