From our perspective the next step is self-regulation (including mood/ego management, flexibility in leadership and communication style, moving beyond your comfort zone when a situation/person requires you to do so etc.). In this article we will focus on step 3 – Sensory Acuity. This is your ability to observe others and how they are responding to you. It is about learning to recognise a person’s emotions and, as a result, getting a greater insight into what drives a person’s behaviour.
In a coaching session, when a manager describes an interaction with a direct report, peer or their own manager, we will always ask: ‘And what was the response you got?’ Usually this is met with a blank look and ‘I don’t know’.
This missed information is often vital to knowing if someone is in agreement, if they are being truly collaborative, if you have been able to influence them etc. It can give you an insight into ‘Is the response congruent or is my gut feel telling me they are feigning agreement to get out of the meeting as quickly as possible?’.
What we naturally do is unconsciously pick up ‘hidden signals’ such as changes in facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. If we feel close to the person, have good rapport with them and think we know them quite well, we will usually be quite good at translating these hidden signals into understanding their emotional state in the moment.
But this natural process does not work anywhere near as well with people who are very different from us and with whom we have a, let’s say, ‘clunky’ relationship. Our unconscious interpretations of why they are responding in a certain way will more often be wrong, which can result in giving up trying to understand them and resorting to blaming a personality clash for not getting along.
Whilst a personality clash may correctly identify the root cause, the response of giving up on understanding them is inappropriate in the workplace, especially for managers of diverse teams, and results in managers missing vital cues about the person’s behaviour. We constantly come across managers who describe this exact scenario to us and the resulting consequences are that they feel the other person is ‘too hard to manage’.
A lack of sensory acuity, empathy and understanding of behaviour often leads to friction and ongoing costs, such getting frustrated and dismissive. Over time this and other consequences will lead to a deterioration in the relationship and make your leadership less effective. Our observation is that managers with low sensory acuity are, with a few exceptions, less effective leaders.
So how can managers develop the sensory acuity they need to engage their whole team and influence and collaborate more effectively with peers and managers?
The first step is to decide not write the person off and instead decide to take a genuine interest in them. This can be done even if you have written off the person previously.
Secondly, we need to decide to be fully present in any 1-on-1 conversation that matters. This means paying attention with all our senses and temporarily parking the swirl of thoughts in our head. Staying fully present will bring the unconscious cues we receive to the surface and allow us to ask better questions in the moment.
In order to stay fully present in the moment in these meetings, we can’t be worried about what to say (next). Hence we have to do our preparation upfront and have mapped out what we want to say and how to say it. This is good practice for any important 1-on-1 meeting, but too often we don’t make the time to prepare adequately and try to wing it.
With proper preparation and presence you will start noticing those hidden signals that you have previously missed or dismissed. You will primarily notice them in the form of ambiguity and incongruence.
Ambiguity is the time-honoured way of avoiding commitment. ‘Can you finish the report by tomorrow?’ ‘Probably.’ Probably yes? Probably no? Depending on what? In conjunction with the person’s body language and past track record you probably know what ‘probably’ really means in this context. But are you acting on that (unconscious) knowledge?
How about continuing like this: ‘OK, that makes me a bit concerned. You know that in the past we have spoken about you missing deadlines. So it is a bit of a red flag when you say probably. I need this report by COB tomorrow, so under what conditions can you fully commit to finishing it by then?’.
The other hidden signal to watch out for and challenge is incongruence, a mismatch between the words being said and the body language and/or tone of voice. In our example the initial response might have been ‘Yeah, sure.’ said in the tone of a throwaway remark without conviction and not making eye contact.
You know you can’t trust the agreement you got, so you need to challenge: ‘Hmm, that didn’t sound convincing to me. You know that in the past we have spoken about me having to chase you up when you don’t tell me that you are not going to complete something by the agreed deadline. I need this by tomorrow, can you commit to that?’.
The best way to start increasing your sensory acuity is to watch someone you need a better relationship with in their interactions with others. If you attend meetings together, that’s the perfect time to watch how they respond to people they get one well with and how they respond to people they don’t have a good relationship with. What does either response look like? What triggers emotional responses or inappropriate responses? When do they engage/withdraw? How do they use ambiguity to get out of commitment or accountability? What types of incongruence can you notice?
Over time, you will be able to vastly increase your sensory acuity and your understanding of the range of responses of other people. Coupled with your genuine desire to figure out what drives behaviour, you will gain a much clearer picture of individual motivations and behavioural preferences.
Ultimately this will lead to better relationships, better performance management and collaboration with less friction. It will allow you to resolve conflict before it escalates and greatly increase your ability to influence and negotiate successfully.
This learning process can be accelerated with the help of a coach. We have seen massive shifts being made by managers committed to learning sensory acuity in just 3-4 sessions.