Expectations

So much of how we experience each other bounces off everything that is left unsaid.

Expectations about how good the movie would be.

Expectations about what was meant when you were told “the meeting will start at 10:00.”

Expectations about how we will dress.

Expectations about what it means to do this job.

Expectations about what it means to work for you.

Expectations about who gets to have good ideas.

Expectations about who gets to say yes, and no.

Expectations about who gets to speak when.

Expectations about how, and how much, to agree and disagree.

Expectations about where we do our best work.

Expectations about whether showing up in person matters.

Expectations about how much care we put into saying “thank you.”

Expectations about what it means to listen, and the relative importance of listening and speaking.

Expectations about how a President is supposed to act.

Expectations about who can and cannot leave the office first.

Expectations about what silence means (in a meeting, when I don’t hear back from you).

Expectations about what you mean when you say “I’ll take it from here.”

 

It turns out that most of how we experience in the world comes from sense-making, and sense-making is a comparison between what happened and the sum total of everyone’s unspoken expectations.

Think for a moment about what this means if you’re working across…anything really: geography, culture, class, religion, age, gender, or even just two groups within the same organization.

More often than not, misunderstandings come from forgetting how different each of our expectations are, and from the mental shortcuts we all take as we fill in blanks (“what did that really mean?”) based all of our unconscious biases.

 

“Brave”

Last week, my wonderful four-year-old daughter had minor surgery to have her adenoids removed.  In the hospital she heard lots of encouraging words from Mommy and Daddy and from the doctors and nurses. The surgery went really well and she was a champion through it all.

The following morning, as I walked into the kitchen she looked up at me with a big smile and said, “Daddy, I was really brave when I went to the hospital.”

“Yes, sweetheart,” I said, smiling back,“you were.”

“Daddy,” she continued, looking me straight in the eyes. “What does brave mean?”

What a sweetheart, and how wonderful it is to be a child where the world is full of questions to be asked.

In this moment she reminded me how often grown-ups will listen to the words we say and keep quiet if they don’t understand what we really mean.

It’s our job, not theirs, to fix this.

And what this means is

Whether you are presenting slides or sending out a dashboard to your Board of Directors, every single time you share numbers or graphs or a table, it’s your job to start with simply explaining “this is what this means.”

Of course, in the best cases your slides and numbers will speak for themselves. And, in case they don’t, or they don’t do that job well enough, it’s your job to make sense of them for your audience.

When giving presentations, adhere to the discipline of “clearing a slide” each and every time: name each axis, or each column, or what that trendline represents. Actually say out loud, “on the vertical axis we have fourth grade test scores, and on the horizontal axis you’ll see January 2014 and 2015 – so we can see the effect of the new teachers’ aides who started in March 2014.”

Some goes for piles of data you send to folks: verbally, or in writing, communicate as if they aren’t going to read the attachment. Because in the worst cases, they won’t, and even if they do, they don’t have the context you have for understanding the story the data tell.

Minimally, this sets people on the right path towards looking at the numbers with your guidance and insight. But what you’re actually doing is framing what the numbers mean, guiding and controlling the story that they tell.

On the continuum of data, information, and meaning, you’re in the meaning-making business each and every time.

What you’re not

This sign is in the window of a great omakase sushi bar in New York.

Eight words and you know what you’re in for.

Saying what you’re against is a great shorthand way to describe yourself.  You tap into all the emotions that the thing you aren’t (whatever that is) created in the years before you arrived.

Of course, you’re limiting yourself to the people who don’t like the thing that you’re standing up against, but that’s probably enough for now.

I don’t love the negativity this approach implies, but at least you’re standing for something and people will grok you pretty quickly.  It’s a start.

Re: Question

Never let an email go out of your inbox with this subject line.  Instead, answer the question in the subject line.

Why?  Why bother being persnickety about such a trivial thing?

Maybe it’s not so trivial.  The subject line is of each email you send is your headline.  Can you imagine if the NY Post’s headline today had been “Re: IMF”  (instead of “French Whine” in reference to Dominique Strauss-Kahn not being given any special treatment by the NYPD.)  Re:IMF doesn’t sell newspapers, and it doesn’t help your email get to the top of the pile.

The subject of your email is a trigger for people to read your note (or not), to read it immediately (or not).  Tweaking this is one more way to avoid letting your message get lost in the shuffle.

A guy I know puts my name in the subject line of every email he sends to me.  It’s pretty weird, pretty far outside of regular email norms, but I absolutely know when an email is just to me and when it’s to a group, and it makes a difference in how I respond.

So, for kicks, a list of norm-breaking email suggestions:

  1. If you are the author of an email, make the subject Tweetable.  (NOT “Question” but instead “Should we move the launch date up a week?”).  Flex those 140-character-or-less authoring muscles for something more useful.
  2. Have as few people as possible receive every email
  3. Especially when you ignore #2, establish that you want replies from people in the To: line.  Cc: means “I’m just letting you know.”
  4. If someone has written a vague, general email subject line, change it.  Reply to “Question” with “Moving up launch date [Re: Question]”  This way the email is still searchable under the original subject plus it’s more clear to everyone what’s going on
  5. When an email thread veers off to a totally different topic, start a new thread or change the subject line.  Having a conversation about a potential promotion in a thread whose subject is “Re:Staff Retreat” is just plain inefficient.
  6. If threads are getting really long, pick up the phone instead (yes, that counts as an email tip)
  7. If a conversation has become irrelevant to some people, drop them off
  8. If #7 makes you/them uncomfortable, move the people who are being dropped off to Bcc: and say in the note: “I’m moving Pankaj and Sarah to Bcc: and the rest of us will continue the thread.”
  9. Make your emails shorter
  10. Write each email as if the time of each of the person reading it is valuable – because it is, even if being loose with these sorts of things feels like a hassle to you.

I wish all the popular email programs made it a default to have the cursor jump to the subject line when you hit “Reply.”  In the meantime, my answer to “Re: Question” is “No!”

Sign everything you send out

I was trading emails with a nonprofit CEO when the question of newsletters came up.  Specifically, who should his organization’s quarterly newsletter come from / be signed by since it’s not written by him?

We’re all busy, there’s a lot to get done, and really what people want is to hear what the organization is up to, right?

Well, no, actually.  That’s wrong.

The temptation not to sign and not to write your own communications is huge, but signing emails from “Us” instead of from “Me” is just a way of hiding from real work, real narrative, and real connection.  It’s an excuse to strip out all personality and tone and opinion and controversy, to iron out the bumps and smooth over the edges, because it feels safe to do so and you’ll offend no one.

How many times have you seen this one?

Dear Sasha,

Thank you so much for applying for this job/school/prize.  We received thousands of applications for this position, and while we were very impressed with your application and experiences, we will not be proceeding with your candidacy at this time.

Sincerely,

The Place You Wanna Work / Go to school / Whatever

But a person rejected your application, right?  A person made the decision not to grant the interview.

Same story with your newsletter – written by a person, and received by a person (probably an important one to your organization).

You can pretend that it’s somehow OK to impersonalize it because you’re not willing to do the hard work of standing out and speaking in your own voice.  You can pretend that people have a box in their lives called “newsletter” or “updates” and somehow by sending this out you’re checking that off for them.  But I suspect you’re doing that because on some level you’re not convinced that this thing can be really valuable – for you or for them – or because you’re afraid that it will be worse to stand out and fall on your face than it will be to blend in.

It turns out that all that smoothing out and ironing out only guarantees that you’ll fade into the dull background noise in someone’s inbox, that you’ll never create something worth sharing.

So sign everything you write with your name, with a real return email address to which you will respond (or if that’s not practical, to which another human being will respond signing his name).

I bet that simple act of owning up force you to make a cascade of good decisions.

One thing

Most of the time when you send an email, that’s how many things you can get someone to do – if you’re lucky – so that’s all you should ask for.

One things are:

  • Watch this video
  • Read the attachment
  • Come to this event
  • Can you answer this question?
  • Can we meet?
  • Thank you

One things aren’t:

  • Can you give me some advice and can we meet?
  • Here’s an update and also would you read the attached
  • Thank you and could you do this other thing?

When you ask for two things, at best you’ll get one of them, and there’s the risk (thank you + would you please…) that by combining two you end up with none.