Communicate with Impact: Tips for Leaders

Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager for HR Organization and Professional Development.

Communicating effectively is always an important skill for leaders to demonstrate, but in this time of massive, rapid change it is more critical than ever. The basics, such as clarity, transparency, and being intentional about what you want to convey, all hold true. Authenticity, along with displaying empathy and compassion, will boost the impact of anything you communicate. Here are a few additional pointers that can make a difference:

Consider Your Audience

Executives generally get information first and the amount people know about high levels decisions tends to decrease the further down the hierarchy their position lands. Before sharing information with staff, think about what they have been briefed on so far and start from there. Remember that issues you have been dealing with for some time may be new to others, and they may need a minute to work through their reaction. Also, provide information (if able) regarding what the journey has been to get to that decision. Gaps in communication tend to fuel distrust and make it difficult for employees to take needed action; it’s hard to fix what you don’t understand.

Provide Translation

As a leader, it is important to share (nonconfidential) information you receive that would help your employees better understand the broader context of what is happening within the university. Having this understanding can help people make the sacrifices and changes needed with less resistance. Aside from being insulting, the “because I said so” approach doesn’t help people move forward. So, for example, forwarding that DDC email can be very useful; but that isn’t enough. It is also important to explain how that information relates to your employees. We have been so decentralized that often people see themselves in the vacuum of their unit or even their particular job. Drawing the lines between high-level decisions and their work helps people to understand the broader system and how their role fits. They still may not like decisions that are made, but it is easier to accept what you understand.

Once isn’t Enough

Communications specialists can affirm that if you truly want something to stick, you must repeat the message multiple times, in multiple ways. Leaders need to heed this lesson. If something is important, sending one email isn’t enough. People are inundated with information, so if you want something to stand out make sure you utilize multiple avenues. Send that email, but also weave it into staff meetings, clarify understanding in one-on-one’s, and tie it to other initiatives. Also, if it is important, make sure you utilize language that reflects that it is a priority, and why it matters.

Watch Out for Bias

Bias awareness is always important, and in this time of video conferencing, the potential pitfalls are numerous. While it is common to hear that we are “all in this together,” individual experiences during the pandemic can be vastly different. Socio-economic differences are highlighted in video (unless backgrounds are used), people may be experiencing grief due to sick or deceased loved ones, others may be completely alone and struggle when they hear coworkers discuss family fun. In a recent MSUToday article, MSU professor Amy Bonomi suggests we “approach conversations with sensitivity to differences. Instead of opening with the typical “tell us what your lives are like during shelter in place,” consider framing a question around what participants are noticing about communities around them.”  She also recommends challenging microaggressions. “This can be done by naming microaggressions on the spot or addressing them privately. It is important to share how the microaggression affected you and may have affected others and to provide tools for improving skills.”

Clarify Expectations

When you share information, be sure to clarify if action is needed, and if so by whom and when. Don’t expect people to read your mind, or that they will be clear on exactly what they are empowered to do in response to a need. Also, consider the extent of the need. Is this a simple action? Is it a full-blown project that needs to be managed? If so, what else do people need to know? Is there a budget? Are adequate resources available? Are there deadlines? Will other stakeholders potentially be impacted? Finally, think about whether your staff members currently have the skills needed to be successful. Are they experienced with project management? Are they capable and willing to handle potentially difficult conversations? Many skill-building resources are available at no cost through elevateU and you can reach out to Organization & Professional Development (prodev@hr.msu.edu) for help with development planning.

Emphasize Shared Responsibility

Leaders have a responsibility to share information and communicate effectively, and they should make it clear that employees also have a responsibility to seek information and stay informed. Most have internet access and can be expected to check email at set intervals, read updates from President Stanley and other executives, and periodically check the MSU 2019 Novel Coronovirus site for updates. This shared responsibility allows all to be more prepared for coming changes and increase the likelihood of innovative responses from every level of the organization. Never write anyone off regarding their ability to contribute meaningful options for addressing the issues we face.

There are many effective strategies that leaders and teams across campus have been using to stay on top of changes in this challenging time including things like daily huddles, weekly video conferencing, virtual coffee hours to strengthen relationships, and utilizing Spartan365 to chat, meet, and share content. Leaders are also encouraged to network across the university to share best practices and new ideas. One of the great things about working at this university is that we have many opportunities for shared learning and support. Together, we can do this.

Rapid Change: Making Your Way Through

This is a guest post by Jennie Yelvington, Program Manager, HR Organization and Professional Development.

Prior to the pandemic, we lived in a time of rapid change. Megatrends like globalization and technological advancements have resulted in a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA). Some find this reality to be exciting, some find it threatening, and now all are faced with the new challenges brought by COVID-19. We are called upon to navigate uncharted terrain and that isn’t easy. Leading through this time and beyond requires strong self-awareness and self-care, along with taking care of those in your charge. Here are some points to keep in mind:

Choose Where to Expend Your Energy

Worry can feel very active and spending time in that space can seem like you are working on something productive; in reality, you are just burning through energy that could be better spent. When you notice yourself worrying about what might happen or stewing about something that happened in the past, stop and ask yourself, “What can I do about it now?”

Consider your Sphere of Influence:

Graphic representing one's sphere of influence. Three circles are centered on top of each other. The smallest circle in the middle represents "control," the next biggest circle represents "possible influence but no control," and the largest circle represents "no control."
  • No Control. If there is absolutely nothing you can do to change or influence the situation, your work is to assess whether you can learn from it, then let it go and refocus on something else. This would apply to things like the weather and essentially anything that has happened in the past.
  • Possible Influence but No Control. If there is a step you can take that may influence an outcome, person, or situation, determine what action you can take to maximize that influence, follow through, and then let it go. Resist the temptation to convince yourself that worrying about it means it is within your control. Release.
  • Control. If the issue you are wrestling with is completely within your control, you are likely looking in the mirror. You have control over your decisions, attitude, and behavior. What self-care practice can you initiate? What can you learn? What can you do to support someone else?  What action can you take that you’ve been putting off?

Prioritize Work for Yourself and Your Team

The priorities you have now might be very different from what they were a month or two ago. Re-evaluate everything on your plate on a regular basis. Is it all still a priority? Are there other items that have bumped higher on the list? What changes had you planned that can now be postponed or slowed because of new priorities?

It is essential to look at time and resources to see if your goals are realistic within the timeframes set. Sometimes, particularly during a crisis, it can be difficult to do this as there are numerous essential projects that have to be done, but don’t just rely on that assumption. Think it through, engage in conversations, and problem solve ways to avoid burning out yourself and others. Consider these additional change strategies from Forbes.

Coping with Change Overload

As outlined by American Management Association, “Since all people respond differently to change, it’s also crucial to consider how to deal with change overload. This can manifest itself in many ways, including employees feeling excluded from the change process, expressing concern over unrealistic timelines, feeling overwhelmed by what they perceive as too many changes coming too quickly, poor engagement, concerns about insufficient resources, and more. Those leading change must proactively establish guidelines for dealing with change overload, and strategize new ways to gain buy-in, remove silos, communicate openly, and eliminate barriers.” Access the American Management Association’s free guide on The Manager’s Role During Change.

Learn from the Journey

As we move through this unique time, don’t lose sight of all that you’ve learned and contemplate what will be useful to bring forward. Have you or other team members learned new skills or developed a new way to collaborate? Did you create a new approach to an old problem? Did you seek input and address a new issue you hadn’t anticipated? Make sure that you document that learning and think about what will be useful as we move past this crisis. Necessity is the mother of invention, so don’t let all that important, creative work go to waste.

Approaching change in an intentional, thoughtful and strategic way can help you and others stay steady and healthy during the experience and beyond. All of us hit points of resistance at times. That is normal and something that can be learned from and worked through. As Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” It will be exciting to see what we build together as MSU moves forward.

Sources:

Managing Change-How to Navigate COVID-19 and the Changes to Come. (2020, April 22). Retrieved from https://www.amanet.org/articles/managing-change-how-to-navigate-covid-19-and-the-changes-to-come/

Connected Through Crisis: Why an Interdependent Approach to Leadership is Vital

This is a guest post written by Jennie Yelvington, Program Manager for HR Organization and Professional Development.

We are part of a large, complex system and a network of teams has stepped up to address the multitude of issues that have arisen at this time. It is clear that no one unit or individual can solve these problems on their own. It’s not enough to just embrace that concept theoretically. We are called to share knowledge and build connection so that we can be as responsive as possible at this critical time. 

Here are action steps for you to consider:

1. Focus on Problem-Solving vs. Blame

When information changes at a rapid pace, mistakes will be made by you and others. That is our current reality even though we do our best. Be kind to yourself and others by moving quickly from the initial emotional reaction to a focus on problem-solving and the next steps. In many ways, we are learning as we go, and having a mindset that encourages learning from mistakes with less fear of failure can be helpful. Check out this upcoming elevateU Live Event on May 13 called The Get Better Mindset to learn more.

2. Maximize Strengths

As you go about assigning work at this time, think about who would most easily be able to carry out the work without having to dramatically expand their skillset. Everyone is dealing with a lot right now and efficiency will increase if we line up work in this way. When people do need to take on new tasks that have a learning curve, think about whether there are other colleagues who can help them get up to speed quickly and without judgment.

3. Reach Out to Colleagues

Connecting with colleagues across our networks is important for several reasons. First, it is a morale booster just to make that connection and share experiences. Beyond that, it may fuel new ideas, create opportunities to work together on projects and allow for sharing information regarding needed resources and the changing landscape.

4. Make Sure People Have What They Need

Gallup research late last month showed that only 52% of workers strongly agree that they feel well prepared to do their work. When you connect with your team and your boss, make sure you are sharing critical updates, reviewing material and equipment needs, connecting people with educational support like elevateU, and clarifying expectations in this unusual time. People may not just tell you if they don’t know how to do something. Make it safe for them to have the discussion. Equally important, don’t forget to check in on how they are holding up emotionally during this challenging time. Feelings such as grief and anxiety are common and empathy and compassion from a leader goes a long way.

5. Provide Context

Whether you are talking to your team, your leader, or other colleagues, it is helpful to share context. Starting a new project? Let others know why and what you are hoping to achieve. Assigning a new task? Be sure to share what problem you are trying to solve or need you are trying to fill. Asking your boss for resources? Let them know the impact you anticipate and how it will align with priorities. Sharing this information is likely to generate new ideas, prevent wasted time, and help people feel motivated to be involved.

6. Make Decisions without Certainty

In this rapidly changing time, we can’t stand still. Decisions need to be made without knowing exactly how the long game will play out and getting input from subject matter experts on your team and elsewhere can really help. Focus on doing the next right thing and be prepared to pivot as needed.

7. Deliberate Calm and Bounded Optimism

In the article Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges the authors highlight two important leadership characteristics. “Deliberate calm” refers to the ability to stay steady in a fraught situation and think strategically about how to navigate. It requires humility and being fully present. “Bounded optimism” refers to confidence combined with realism. Excessive confidence despite obvious difficulty results in a lack of credibility and being dismissive of people’s experience. Instead leaders should acknowledge the challenges while expressing confidence that we can find our way through together, and then listen when others offer ideas. Side note: in order to be able to do either of these, you need self-awareness and good self-care strategies. Taking care of yourself helps you to stay steadier and take better care of others. Consider utilizing the many emotional wellness resources available from the MSU EAP and Health4U.

This time calls on us to shift from being fiercely independent and siloed, to embracing interdependence and collaboration. With a shared appreciation for each other’s capabilities and experience, and an eye to how we can best help each other forward, we can meet the challenges before us today and into the future. Perhaps psychologist Erik Erikson said it best: “Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other, and the sooner we learn that, the better for all of us.”

The following books in elevateU may be helpful:

Sources:

D’Auria, G., & De Smet, A. (2020, March). Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/leadership-in-a-crisis-responding-to-the-coronavirus-outbreak-and-future-challenges

Harter, J. (2020, April 17). How Leaders Are Responding to COVID-19 Workplace Disruption. Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/307622/leaders-responding-covid-workplace-disruption.aspx

Leading with Emotional Intelligence: It’s more important now than ever

This is a guest post written by Jennie Yelvington, Program Manager, HR Organization and Professional Development

In these uncertain times, many are struggling to find their footing and feel confident in the new normal. Demonstrating compassion and self-awareness, and effectively navigating emotions (yours and others) are priority skills for leaders at this unique time. It is also important to remember that anyone can be a leader regardless of title, and the current situation provides an opportunity to demonstrate just that.

In the Daniel Goleman book Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence, we learn that “while IQ and technical skills may help you get a foot in the leadership door, it’s emotional intelligence (EQ) that is often the stronger predictor of exceptional leadership. Goleman defines emotional intelligence as a set of skills that enables us to understand emotions—what they are, what they mean, and how they can affect others.”

Fortunately, Emotional Intelligence is something that can be learned, and we have many resources in elevateU to help you do just that, including the following:

  • To get a basic understanding of emotional intelligence, you can view the following brief videos from author Travis Bradberry: Emotional Intelligence Defined and Emotional Intelligence can be Learned
  • In the course Leveraging Emotional Intelligence you’ll learn from bestselling author Marcus Buckingham and others about the components of EQ, why it is particularly important for leaders, and how to build related competencies.
  • The Harvard Business Review audio book Power & Impact: Emotional Intelligence explains “how wielding power affects your emotions and decision making and helps you avoid the traps that lead to negative consequences. With the latest psychological research and practical advice from leading experts, you’ll learn how to use soft power to persuade others, fix unhealthy power dynamics in your team, use compassion to connect better with others, and remain ethical in your choices and actions.”
  • If you like learning with more of a gaming component, check out the Challenge Series exercise Emotional Intelligence at Work. You will be placed in the role of product manager and will need to make choices as to how to respond to different scenarios.
  • Last but not least, don’t miss the Live Event offered through elevateU on Thursday, April 23rd, titled The Power of Insight: How Self-Awareness Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. Organizational Psychologist and best-selling author Tasha Eurich, whose research reveals that when leaders make the brave decision to improve their self-awareness, they become empowered to bust through barriers, make better decisions, and engage and motivate their teams.

These are just a few of the options available on this topic through elevateU. To see a more complete list, type “emotional intelligence” in the search bar on the home page.

Whether you are in a formal leadership role, aspire to be, or are interested in leading from wherever you work, strengthening your emotional intelligence can boost your career, facilitate team functioning, and strengthen the organization.

Leading Through Uncertain, Rapidly Changing Times

This is a guest post written by Jennie Yelvington, Program Manager, HR Organization and Professional Development

March brought unprecedented change to this large, often slow-moving organization, and it is easy to see why it might feel overwhelming at times. Each day brings new information and impactful changes that leaders must influence and enact without much warning. Additionally, each of us must manage adjustments in our personal lives. Making a proactive effort to take care of yourself will be critical to handling these times effectively with your staff. Staying calm, forward-thinking and encouraging requires you to not allow yourself to become depleted.

You know what this involves: get enough sleep, eat nourishing food,  exercise, and do other things that help to sustain you. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll have no capacity to take care of your team and the organization. I am confident that this upheaval in our daily routine will change us in ways we can’t yet imagine and perhaps for the better. Creativity and innovation are often born out of times when we can no longer do “business as usual.” In addition to doing the work of the day, don’t forget to bring humanness to your leadership with these tips for success:

  • Be patient with yourself and others as we navigate this new terrain and recognize gains made, however small.
  • Acknowledge and grieve losses, sharing empathy and compassion as we find our way through.
  • Strengthening our connections is more critical now than ever, so help each other to learn new technology and overcome barriers. Share knowledge and seek help from your peers across the organization.
  • Make an extra effort to connect with your team. Utilize Microsoft Teams to hold daily virtual meetings, share information and provide encouragement. Or just pick up the phone.
  • Learn something new as a team. Have team members “host” the ideas.
  • Stay connected with people who cannot work remotely. They are important to the overall success of your organization and when things get back to normal, you will need them. Think about how you can stay connected in new ways. Try mailing letters or cards.
  • If you are a higher-level leader, providing support for your Chairs and front-line supervisors is critical. Make sure you are connecting with them on a regular basis.
  • Create structured meetings for all and consider one-on-one meetings and small project/team meetings to enhance communication. It’s OK to just “talk.” It is vital, more than ever, to increase positive interactions.

The following paradoxes outlined in the article Leadership Confidence in Times of Uncertainty by Dave Ulrich may be helpful to consider:

  • Avoid the extremes of either over-reacting or under-reacting or as a thoughtful sage once said, “run with patience.”
  • Care for both the individual and the organization.
  • Balance the need for decisive action (be bold) and the need for thoughtful value-based decisions (be calm).
  • Respond to the short-term challenges of the moment and anticipate and plan for the long-term implications.

Along with the obvious challenges, this is also a time of great opportunity if we can remain open. In the Forbes article, Leading In Times Of Uncertainty: How To Engage Optimism And Focus When Nothing Seems Predictable, H.V. MacArthur reminds us that we have a number of options that uniquely present themselves at this time, including:

  • The ability of your team to experience the flexibility that comes from using remote work options.
  • Opportunity for team members to catch up on work and upcoming deadlines.
  • Time for your business to do proactive planning and strategic thinking.
  • An opening for up-skilling team members through training and development.

Eventually, this crisis will pass, and we will move to another new normal. Focusing now on how we are taking care of ourselves, each other and the organization will influence how we come out on the other side. We have been encouraged by the compassion and determination expressed by our colleagues across the organization—continue that good work. While you’re at it, consider sending us your thoughts and suggestions on what is working well so we can share them more broadly at ProDev@hr.msu.edu.

Sources:

MacArthur, H. V. (2020, March 17). Leading In Times Of Uncertainty: How To Engage Optimism And Focus When Nothing Seems Predictable. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/hvmacarthur/2020/03/16/leading-in-times-of-uncertainty-how-to-engage-optimism-and-focus-when-nothing-seems-predictable/#5ebb3fed47e2

Ulrich, D. (2020, March 12). Leadership Confidence in Times of Uncertainty. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/leadership-confidence-times-uncertainty-dave-ulrich/?trackingId=2Xa4HAlp8xcOpEp3RFH/DQ==

Are You Ready to Lead?

This post was written by Jennie Yelvington, Sr. HR Professional for Organization and Professional Development.

Are you interested in moving into a formal leadership role, but not sure how to get there? The first step is to examine whether you have and are exhibiting the types of skills necessary to be successful in the role. That assessment can help to inform your development plan, prepare you for more responsibility, and highlight your capacity to others.

The following behaviors will help you demonstrate leadership ability no matter your current role:

  1. Identify your goals, discuss with your supervisor, and actively work toward them. Leaders need to be continually learning and developing themselves to maintain self-awareness and deal effectively with change and complexity.
  2. Take on stretch assignments. Look for opportunities to lead projects or initiatives, serve on committees, suggest improvements, and provide value added service.
  3. Learn about the university and how it functions. Leaders need to consider how issues impact not only their unit, but also their department, college, and the university. Familiarize yourself with issues impacting higher education, attend events that allow you to hear other leaders speak, and network broadly to better understand the landscape. While it is normal to think about how a situation impacts you personally, leaders place a priority on what best suits the mission, goals, and values of the organization.
  4. Strengthen your “people” skills. Effective leaders know how to engage and motivate their team, work collaboratively with their peers, and influence the leaders above them. Being empathic, listening for understanding, communicating effectively, and handling difficult conversations are baseline skills that every leader needs.
  5. Be a problem solver. Rather than complaining about issues you see (or ignoring them), develop and share ideas for addressing them. Ask good questions and get input from others who are involved and impacted as you attempt to identify possible solutions. Even if your ideas aren’t implemented, you build your capacity to solve problems and demonstrate that you are capable and proactive.
  6. Understand your biases and demonstrate inclusion. It is easy to always turn to our “go to” people who think like we do, but that isn’t generally the best approach. We all have biases, but once we understand them we can consciously work to include others who might offer valuable, different perspectives.
  7. Model professionalism. Dress in appropriate attire for the role you would like to secure, handle problems and disappointments with grace and maturity, move quickly from venting to sound action, keep up on skills necessary for your role, avoid engaging in gossip and redirect others who do, consistently follow through on commitments, be respectful of the others’ time and opinions, be actively supportive and helpful to your colleagues and leaders.

Talk with your supervisor to get their perspective on how you are doing in the above areas. HR Organization and Professional Development offers several instructor-led courses that can help you strengthen capacity in these areas. Find all current courses on the HR website and consider taking the following courses:

  • Honing Your Emotional Intelligence
  • Communicating and Influencing Up
  • Essentials of Project Management
  • Process Mapping and Analysis
  • Crucial Conversations
  • Crucial Accountability
  • Sustainable High Performance
  • Thriving Through Change
  • From Distracted to Productive
  • Everything DiSC: Behavior Styles at Work

In addition to instructor-led courses, current staff and faculty have access to elevateU, which offers free access to eBooks, videos, and online self-paced courses to help build your leadership skills. Learn more about elevateU on the HR website and try these leadership-focused learning opportunities through elevateU:

For more career advice, read this interview with Sharon Butler, Associate Vice President of Human Resources. Butler shares lessons she’s learned about becoming a great leader and, more specifically, addresses how women can get ahead in the workplace.