Expand Your Business Reading List

IMG_3805I’ve been reading a lot of literary fiction this year. I always enjoy escaping into a different world, meeting diverse characters and the underlying complexity that informs their choices. Storytelling that challenges me to understand a different perspective or imagine another person’s motivations doesn’t just fulfill my leisure pursuits it stretches my mental muscle. And there’s proof that it does just that!

A 2013 study by researchers at The New School in New York City found that people who read literary fiction improve their empathy. These readers have a greater capacity for understanding social behaviour than those who solely read non-fiction or genre fiction. And we all know how important emotional intelligence (EI) is to being an effective leader.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman brought widespread recognition of the concept of EI when his book was published in 1995. He argued that the most successful leaders had greater EI, or the ability to recognize their own and others’ emotions and use that information to adapt their approach and work styles.

So, I propose the at-work book club with a twist. Sure, it’s valuable to consult the latest productivity tome or a bio from a well-respected leader, but add literary fiction to the reading list. Expose yourself to challenging characters who push you to alter your perspective and think about how you’d manage a scenario outside your sphere.

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True Leaders Don’t Need False Bravado

I just returned from a week in a tropical paradise, contorting my body into various poses at the guidance of a yoga teacher. What does a yoga vacation have to do with business or communication, you ask? Well, during the course of the week I was reminded of the importance of vulnerability in building relationships and leadership presence.

Our teacher, Monica Bright, was helping 17 women in need of a break to “relax and rejuvenate”, as was the name of our Mexican retreat. Several of the participants on this retreat were new to yoga or had never practiced with this instructor. She had the challenging task of establishing trust in a very short period of time. We would have just seven days together and were immediately spending three hours a day being led in our yoga practice by a … stranger.

Yet by the end of the week, Monica had created such a rapport that those new acquaintances (myself included) were dedicated followers and wishing they could attend her regular classes — in Chicago, just an hour and a half flight from Toronto for yoga. How did she do it? By opening up, sharing herself and being vulnerable.

She regularly shared examples of her struggles and how she was continually growing from her experiences. She recognized the value she saw in learning from all of us, her students. She opened up and was courageous in sharing her emotions. In return, we all felt safe to ask questions, seek guidance from her, and be ourselves. We trusted Monica’s leadership.

The ability to gain trust is so important for new leaders in business and those leading through times of change or uncertainty. Everyone expects you to be knowledgeable. Competence is decided by a board of directors or a hiring manager. Trust is more tricky.

You need to establish trust on an individual level. The best way to do that is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Yes, it’s important to celebrate successes, but acknowledge your mistakes and what you learned from them. When problem-solving with your team, it’s OK to say, “I don’t know, let’s figure this out together.” Own up when someone else is better suited to managing a specific customer, and ask to learn from them. Seek external guidance when your gut is telling you something doesn’t add up.

In a world that’s currently consumed with the false idea of perfection, it’s the warts that make us authentic, approachable, and trustworthy. Be vulnerable and you may find yourself greeted with this: “Namaste.”

Resolve to improve non-verbal communication

The start of a new year brings resolutions for many people. In recent years there’s been a bevy of literature about habits: how to set positive habits, break bad ones, increase your willpower. As a communicator, I see the influence that people’s habits have on how they are perceived. In the business world, it’s of particular importance for leaders to understand how their habits may be affecting their efforts.

If actions speak louder than words, then your unconscious behaviours have tremendous impact on either confirming or negating the messages you share with your team and organization. Consider changing up these every day habits to better support the outcomes  you desire:

  • To foster a culture of innovation and creative problem-solving, ditch your friends. Well, at least at meetings or training events when there are other people present. Take advantage of opportunities to spend time with new people and have unique conversations that may lead to creativity. Sit at a different table!
  • If you’re pushing for transparency and a more approachable leadership team, forego the podium when giving presentations.
  • Trying to encourage employees to give and receive feedback more openly? Develop a new feedback habit: ask two people you normally wouldn’t approach for feedback on an idea before going to your usual suspects.
  • When you’re trying to develop a more collegial and connected team, take a look at your daily routines at the office. Could you enter by a different door so that you walk past people you don’t usually greet? Eat lunch in the cafeteria once a week rather than dine at your desk.

Your workplace habits communicate a lot about you and your priorities. Changing some of these simple behaviours can help send the right message to employees. Lead by example and, with time, others will follow suit.