Addressing the troops can be fraught with pitfalls. A psychologist offers tips on how leaders can boost teamwork by using situation-appropriate styles of speaking.

Michael Fitzgerald, Contributor

January 31, 2013

5 Min Read

2012 Salary Survey: 12 Career Insights

2012 Salary Survey: 12 Career Insights

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Anybody who manages people has to have some ability to figure out what motivates them. In fact, playing psychologist is one of the most important tasks C-level executives must perform -- CIOs probably more than most, because IT touches almost every part of modern business.

So, Mr. CIO, how well do you read people? Probably not as well as you'd like, says Art Kleiner in the January issue of Strategy+Business. "The ability to read a room and act accordingly is considered a rare and special gift, innate and not teachable," he writes. "Many people who have this gift admit that they don't know how to teach it to others."

Kleiner makes this observation in Building the Skills of Insight (free registration required), a Q&A with organizational psychologist David Kantor, author of Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders. Kantor is a "systems therapist," which sounds like a new role in IT, but actually means he is a psychologist who specializes in how groups of people work together.

[ Wondering what makes techies tick? Read 4 Misconceptions About Managing Techies. ]

"In any situation, unseen, unspoken connections among people influence everything that happens," says Kantor. "Leaders are typically not aware of these connections, and they can't be, unless the right conceptual lens is available."

But fear not, CIO, because Kantor has developed a communications model to fix this problem. He builds on what he calls "the speech act," which he breaks into three categories: vocal action, content and rules.

He says that when we talk, we engage in four types of vocal action: mover, follower, opposer or bystander.

In the article, Kantor illustrates with these simple examples:

"You can move: Start something new, such as saying, 'We need to spend less time in these meetings.' You can follow someone else's move, by agreeing with it: 'Yes, I've been concerned about the same thing.' You can oppose the move by raising objections or trying to stop it: 'I don't think that's right. We need time to cover every topic on the agenda.' Or you can step back from the situation and stand by (or as I call it, bystand), reflecting on the actions being made, without agreeing or disagreeing: 'Ian wants shorter meetings, Ralph wants to keep them the same length. What does everybody else think?'

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A gifted communicator knows how to sequence these into compound actions. For instance, if you're dealing with fierce opposers, you don't start off by opposing them. You bystand first. 'I see how concerned you are about this decision, and it's having an effect on the group.' Then you follow. 'I think you have reason to be concerned.' Only then do you move. 'It seems to me that we've got to change our decision and address your concerns, but we can't lose the momentum of the original plan either.' Three different actions: bystand, follow, move."

Kantor says we choose from three types of content: affect, power or meaning. Again, his illustration is simple and straightforward:

"Some acts of speech are in the affect domain; they involve words of feeling, seeking an increase in connection and intimacy. 'This decision seems pretty heartless. I wonder how people will feel about it.' Other speech acts are in the power domain, using words about getting things done, and their purpose is increasing competence and efficacy. 'Who's going to make sure that there's follow-through here?'

Then there is the meaning domain: words about truth and reasoning, and content involving analytics and philosophy, with the goal of a higher understanding. 'It is critical that the results reflect our standards for accuracy.'"

Finally, Kantor says we use three types of rules to establish our credibility: open, closed or random. He explains:

"People have different views of the best way that human conduct should be regulated. All the governance structures in the world can be boiled down to three types. The open system is consensual and unregulated until it hits a point of action, and then an authority, chosen by the group, decides. A representative democracy is an open system. In the closed system, authority rests with position -- the closer you are to the top of the hierarchy, the more authority you have. This system is highly regulated; a military regiment, for example, is a closed system. In a random system, authority remains with those who take and use it; the group continues to expand, experiment, and move. Jazz bands are random systems, and so are most teams of innovators in an R&D department."

Kantor's three categories combine in 36 ways. For someone who found it hard to parse the mere 16 types of personalities presented by Myers-Briggs, harnessing 36 types of statements sounded daunting to me. On the other hand, Kantor's system is focused not on the personality behind the expression but on what is said, and how we react to it. That might be simpler. Kantor says business leaders can train their teams to adopt his model, reshape the way they talk, and measure whether it improves results.

It reminds me of a different take on the "reflective listening" techniques we were encouraged to develop in my early management training classes. It always looks easier than it turns out to be in practice. But for CIOs who want to see better teamwork emerge, Kantor's ideas sound like good ones to check out.

InformationWeek is surveying IT executives on global IT strategies. Upon completion of our survey, you will be eligible to enter a drawing to receive an Apple 32-GB iPad mini. Take our 2013 Global CIO Survey now. Survey ends Feb. 8.

About the Author(s)

Michael Fitzgerald


Michael Fitzgerald writes about the power of ideas and the people who bring them to bear on business, technology and culture.

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