On Being Human

After a tough day at work, or a rough day of deadlines, we tend to placate ourselves with reminders that our work, however important, is neither brain surgery nor rocket science. Ok, so I’m not my brother the radiologist, or my sisters the engineers, but with a job function that shapes how a brand communicates online, my work still tends to follow me after hours.

The communications industry has, over the years, contributed to a broader culture of people pleasers. As a perfectionist and overachiever, you’d think this would be a natural fit. Disappointing someone, or falling short in any which way, even if only by my own perception, can sometimes feel like getting that one B+ amongst an otherwise suite of straight As.

The reality is, though, when you’re your own worst critic, it’s easy to get lost in someone else’s reaction, feedback, or otherwise unfavorable opinion. Reading between the lines of an e-mail, a phone call, or worse yet a text, can set off a destructive spiral of self-deprecation.

I sometimes wonder if the solution is really about work-life balance more than anything. If we powered down, would we think a little more about what we say, how we say it? Would we be more enthusiastic if we unplugged after hours? Setting boundaries is definitely part of it — how people should speak to you, when they can reach you, what you’re actually able to do and responsible for — all of these elements contribute to a transparent — and most importantly respectful — working relationship.

Instead of devaluing the work that we do, it’s important that we remember to instead find ways to move on and move forward. After all, we’re all human, right?

 

The Feedback Funnel

Giving bad — or even “clumsy” — feedback reflects just as poorly on a manager as responding to feedback defensively does on a direct report. Feedback is crucial to career growth, and at its core is a very good thing. Receiving feedback shows that your work is being recognized and acknowledged, and that someone in a leadership position is invested in your success.

Part of making feedback feel natural is making positive and negative (stings just as much when we dress it up as “constructive criticism”) feedback more routine.

  • Be Direct: Speaking directly to the source — the person for whom the feedback is intended — is a sign of respect. Trafficking feedback up to a senior leader without having shared it directly with the employee shows a lack of commitment to your working relationship, and signals that you’re not interested in fixing the problem. Reserve the red flag for repeat issues.
  • Schedule Regular 1:1 Meetings: Feedback shouldn’t be saved for a performance review, and isn’t always appropriate to share during team meetings. Block off time on your calendar for your team members to regularly engage with you, and use this time to address any issues that might require more attention.
  • Celebrate the Small Wins: I’ll never stop championing the idea of small win recognition. I don’t necessarily believe that negative feedback should always be couched in a positivity sandwich so to speak, but regular positive feedback helps foster productivity and pride, as well as trust and respect between a manager and direct report.
  • Focus on the Future: Feedback is often hard to stomach because it’s related to one particular issue versus being communicated as part of a bigger picture for improvement. When giving feedback, or even when processing it from the receiving end, consider the role it plays in the broader context of your work so that you can demonstrate ongoing improvement.
  • Foster Two-Way Communication: Giving feedback means you have to be willing and open to receiving it. Soliciting feedback from your direct report(s) or even from lateral colleagues will make you a better manager.
  • Be Available: It’s easy to settle into a closed-door comfort zone, but it’s critical to over-communicate your availability to your team so that they know you’re there when the desire for feedback or guidance may be more abrupt and off-the-cuff.

Building an Engaged Team

The phrase “employee engagement” can be far-reaching; workflow communication tools (think Slack, Yammer or Lync), internal social networks (Facebook at Work, Chatter, Voice Storm or Gaggle), newsletters and training programs could all qualify as employee engagement tactics. Some organizations employ a host of these tools, deploying them in tandem to build an internal community that exists outside the formalities of e-mail. While an engaged employee doesn’t necessarily create a happier employee, it’s certainly a start.

Recalibrating an entire corporate communication framework won’t be easy, and it’ll probably takes months (if not longer) before it feels like you’ve reached the new normal.

Take baby steps (H/T to Dr. Leo Marvin), and start with what you know.

  • Be critical. Map your way to a solution by being open and honest about what your company needs. Outline organizational weaknesses and strengths. Gathering this feedback and insight directly from employees will only make your engagement more effective.
  • Understand the difference between engagement and retention. Don’t confuse retention efforts like in-office perks, discount programs, etc. as engagement efforts; let’s be honest, free snacks and drinks make us more tired than they do motivated and empowered.
  • Build functional focus groups. Bring groups of employees (at all levels!) together to hear from them — what would they use? How do they communicate offline? What would they not see value in? In addition to help shaping the suite of tools used by an organization, listening to employees will also help shape the way you serve content for sharing, informing everything from word choice and format to frequency and calls to action.
  • Set realistic goals. Having a strong employee engagement strategy won’t necessarily help put a stop to turnover and cross-office drama, but it will help build a more informed, transparent organization-wide communication system. Know what you expect from employees, and what they expect from you. Over time, you can use metrics from your tools to refine and optimize your approach.
  • Remember to recognize and reward. Tools aren’t cheap, but recognition is. The time it takes to publish a motivational, congratulatory or other such shout out on an internal communication channel is negligible, but the recognition of a small win could have long-term productivity benefits.
  • Create guidelines that encourage participation. Inviting employees to contribute to company-wide channels might seem harmless, but fear of censorship and moderation might be roadblocks. Establishing clear community guidelines (no profanity, bullying, etc.) will help set clear, non-intrusive boundaries without hindering contributions. Employee engagement tools also tie in nicely to broader corporate incentive programs. Have a company store? Encourage shares and submissions for credit toward a purchase.

 

The Power Pose

I lead a busy – albeit boring – life. As an under-30 Vice President in the agency world, I’ve spent a lot of time on my personal brand, and creating a career of confidence. But I’ll let you in on something not-so-secret: I don’t really believe in the “power pose.”

Non-verbal behavior, as social psychologist Amy Cuddy dubs it, can be telling, sure. But does it tell all? That’s where I’m not so sure.

In relationships — both business and personal — we read into body language — a limp handshake, stiff posture, blank stare — to assess a person’s character.

My goal isn’t to discredit, or even to offer a head-on challenge to the highly credentialed work that Cuddy has done. I do believe, though, that we don’t focus enough on the verbal communication of power in business.

Communication skills are age-agnostic. Some of the most seasoned business people I know have vocal quirks that, if I didn’t know them as well as I do, might spark skepticism about their abilities. Filling sentences with “you know” or “um,” awkward inflection or vocal breaks, and reciting facts as questions — these are mostly breakable habits that can impact a professional impression.

So perhaps it’s not about achieving the perfect power pose, but instead, finding the pose and other nonverbal cues that best complement, enhance or correct your verbal communication skills.

I’ll Stop to Collaborate. But Are You Listening?

People like me are everywhere. Young, ambitious, digitally-savvy professionals who churn out strong, creative work that yields impressive results. But are people really listening to us?

I often describe myself as driven; my career is always top-of-mind, wedged somewhere between my health, my dog, and my husband. A self-starter and leader by nature, I’m also no stranger to collaboration. In fact, I thrive off of it. I’m also among those who call out companies that create collaborative, creative facades by way of a measly open workspace.

Collaboration is among a long list of jargon to describe how people work, but what does it really mean? When I collaborate with a team, it means that I respect each person, their ideas and the physical time they’re investing in our work. From an agency perspective, time is truly money — hours are classified as either billable or non-billable, and without respect for time, and by extension, respect for process/protocol, the system can easily fall out of sorts.

In the same way that I won’t ever apologize for my success, I also won’t apologize for my thirst for order. I’m not a textbook “creative” — a term I have to put in quotes because I oh so seriously resent it. If you never establish a process, the collaborative energy is broken from the start; expectations aren’t set, people aren’t held accountable, and there’s no room for anyone to develop and earn a sense of ownership of their work.

Establishing a bit of structure isn’t a bad thing, but it does require sincere effort and commitment. It’s critical to stop before you even start to ensure that you’re listening to each team member so that they feel empowered to take on their brunt of the work with clear direction and a strong support system.

Vanilla Ice may be a failed rapper, but his “stop, collaborate and listen” lyric is a call to action that is often overlooked. Oh, and I should clarify, Ice is not back with a brand new invention.

Talking About My Generation

While I’m sometimes guilty of using industry jargon (a practice which has inspired physical jargon bells in my office), I really cannot stand buzzwords.

Public relations may have deep roots, but as far as industries go, social media is a relatively new speciality area, and when it emerged, so too, did a smattering of descriptors for its target demographic.

Calling me a “millennial” — and worse yet, an “older millennial” — will summon the most cold-stone serious of stink-eye stares from my otherwise shayna punim.

The phrase millennial casts a wide net — it technically accounts for some 75 million people born between 1980 and 2000. Farhad Manjoo put it best when he said:

Although millennials are now the largest demographic group in the country (sorry, boomers), and though they are more racially diverse than any other generation in American history, they are often depicted on TV, in movies and music, and in the news (including The New York Times) as a collectively homogeneous cliché.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in corporate America, especially in the technology industry, which has long been obsessed with the dubious idea that young people are in the cultural vanguard.

Don’t get me wrong, I think I’m pretty fabulous, but I would never dub myself a cultural vanguard. Not even close.

I wince at the thought of being part of a generalized cultural clump that discounts the diversity of my generation. And, as Manjoo goes on to explain, “there’s a glaring problem with these and other efforts to go after the younger among us: Millennials aren’t real.”

I couldn’t agree more. My passionate disdain isn’t just in reaction to a perceived misnomer, but more so because of my larger beef (or tofu) with the closed-mindedness of generational marketing.

I lead a team of social strategists, and while the clue may be in their title, everything they (really “we”) do is rooted in strategy — a practice that’s very foundation is dependent on understanding the target audience.

Caging an entire segment within the confines of broad generational rhetoric is lazy, and it’s high-time to un-teach it. We live in an age where mapping out a sophisticated set of personas — or personality types that your content should speak to — is conveniently at our fingertips, just a few taps away. Alongside the rise of the social strategist has been the role of digital analyst, a function that every digital team should have. These are the people that offer credibility to what would otherwise be healthy hunches with strong strategic intent.

With the data available, it’s downright irresponsible to rely on generational marketing to guide any sort of smart thinking and most importantly: authentic, relatable stories.

I guess my problem is that I expect more — from myself, my industry and even consumers. I expect us to think of ourselves as deeper than “boomers” or “millennials.” I’ve been called a lot of things — and yet somehow, millennial irks me most. I’m a communicator, a wife, a dog-owner, a pescetarian, a Michigander and more; my age doesn’t define me, and yet because I’m young and grew up in tandem with the booming tech industry, I get stripped of what makes me standout.