E-mail is the LEAST EFFECTIVE tool for communication. I’m always surprised by how many leaders make decisions, sometimes BIG decisions, and then communicate this via email. Make sure that you build in time in your meetings if you are making announcements and decisions for people to understand the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) and how it will impact them. But also to hear from them.
We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools, and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools, and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Libby Robinson.
Libby Robinson is the Managing Partner of Integral, an award-winning leadership, executive coaching, and advisory company working with Fortune 1000 companies globally to create cultures of encouragement, trust, and enthusiasm. A former Wall Street Banker, aerospace engineer, and National Champion Equestrian, Libby has worked for 26 years with senior leaders globally, helping to bring more mindfulness, resilience, and greater capacity to brilliant and ambitious leaders.
Integral uses a multi-disciplinary approach to foster deep personal change in leaders and to evoke “conscious leadership” cultures for their clients. Libby’s latest venture has been to launch BackFeed+, a new app that helps individuals and organizations get better, faster feedback using a method backed by the latest neuroscience data about how individuals can receive feedback with less stress. Anyone can download the BackFeed+ app for free, wherever you get your apps. For more information, check out www.backfeedapp.com
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Yes, when I was 23 and working on Wall Street, in theory, I was living the American Dream. I was living in New York City, making more money than my father ever had, had private cars to drive me home. It “looked” good, but I was miserable. I didn’t enjoy the highly competitive internal politics of investment banking back in the “Liar’s Poker” days. I didn’t have anyone in the bank that mentored me, and I didn’t have a good enough social network where I could express my concerns, frustrations, and of course, hopes. In those days it was a sink or swim environment, and eventually, I felt like I was sinking.
As I started thinking about changing careers and getting my master’s degree, I came across the discipline of Organizational Development. This was an area I was fascinated by — focused on the human side of business, about the structures of business and being able to look at organizations like an open living system, instead of a mechanistic model and to bring out the best in people using systems thinking, neuroscience and attention to things other than the “widgets” the business was selling and shareholder value. I was hooked.
I went on to study Organizational Development and Transformation at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where I met some of the most amazing thinkers in Systems Thinking, Psychology, Mindfulness, Deep Ecology with a cohort of amazing people from around the world. I’ll always remember that Ramchandra Gandhi, the grandson of the guy we think of as the Gandhi, came over to my house one day to say hello and get to know the student population. The classes at CIIS were heady and deep and totally changed my thinking of what I was “supposed” to do to be successful and happy.
But, my days on Wall Street did bring me two good things. I was so miserable in my personal life that I began therapy. I talk about this openly because I believe corporations are the dominant paradigm of our time and often induce (consciously or unconsciously) the suffering of their people because of the way they are structured and led. I often see very successful leaders that when coached, reveal just how much suffering they endure.
The second good thing that working in New York brought me was that I found a “personal mastery” workshop company that was really about helping people “wake up” and become more mindful. It was a little like an emotional boot camp, but it taught me some amazing life lessons and I credit that and the therapy with transforming my life forever. It was so beneficial to me that I even brought my father and stepmother into the work, and it changed their lives too.
You see, the first step to becoming a transformational leadership coach started by realizing I was not happy, I was suffering. This is the beginning, a potential entry point to mindfulness.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
While I was on Wall Street, and as I started doing more personal mastery work, I began helping facilitate outdoor team building sessions for an outdoor adventure company. It got me out of my blue suit and heels and into the outdoors with people. The company worked with both adult groups and children and one weekend in June, I got to work with a group of 11-year-olds. This particular group of kids was sassy and super smart. They were able to solve complex collaborative problems that would take a group of adults an hour to solve (or give up trying to solve) in minutes.
I had run out of tricks and things to do with them, and we were about 30 minutes early to the rendezvous point with the other groups. There, in front of us was a big grassy knoll. It was a perfect summer day. We stood looking at the hill and with wild laughter and screams, like an instantaneous group decision, we charged the hill and then proceeded to roll down it. Again, and again. And all I could help thinking was, “Someone is paying me to roll down this hill! This is fantastic! More work like this please!“
So, this was the moment that I knew it was possible to find joy in one’s work. And part of my life’s calling is to help people find the work they love, what the Indian philosopher Jiddhu Krishnamurthi (and also the Buddhists) call Right Livelihood. Each person in this world has a gift or service to give to this world. The trick is to find yours.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My life lesson quote is: “Relationships Precedes Results”. This is one of our principles at Integral. So many of us are striving after results, teams, leaders, organizations. But organizations are simply “networks of conversations” whether they be in person, on Slack or Zoom, email, or any other tool. But too often, we forget that for every achievement in our lives, there was inevitably another human being — another relationship that nurtured or challenged you, to get there. We do not achieve in a vacuum. So think about your biggest achievement in life. Whatever it is you will see that there was someone, a family member, a teacher, a mentor, a leader that helped you succeed. So, I help organizations today shift their attention to relationships to transform their ability to deliver results. And I help leaders remember to be humble, grateful, thankful, and to celebrate successes, their own and others as necessary “practices” in a leader’s toolkit.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I plucked up the courage to quit Wall Street and got accepted to the Organizational Transformation program at CIIS (California Institute of Integral Studies), I hardly knew anyone in San Francisco. So, I haunted the halls of my department those first few weeks — a lot. The Director of the Program at the time, Mary Curran (a former nun) gave me a part-time job and started to use me on some of her own consulting work. She was the first person to refer me to work in the field of Organizational Development. Her kindness, compassion when I made beginner mistakes and helpful suggestions made me believe that I had made the right leap. I had found my work that was like rolling down that grassy knoll. She even used to let me borrow her car! She was my first real mentor, and I am forever grateful.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides a great opportunity, but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
Sure, there is so much nuance and context that can get lost when we are all sitting in front of our screens all day long. Having people together means there is a chance we will “break bread” together — have a coffee or eat lunch. It is often those informal moments where insights and learning can happen. We can notice if someone is having a bad day more easily or we can celebrate small wins with a short break. Being together is fantastic and even remote teams should have a chance once or twice a year to come together, even if it is in some modified form. This is essential to deepen relationships and trust. And trust is the currency of results.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
Our teams at Integral have almost always worked remotely. But the key challenge I see is distractions. Not everyone has lots of space at home, or quiet, or great broadband. Remote workers can experience more stress not having a “place” to go and juggling the distractions of the kids, the tv, what to make for dinner, the dog. There is research that shows that while most people think they can multitask, neuroscience does not bear that out. We are best when we can focus on one thing at a time. I’ve now set my computer to only get mail and notifications when I want it to versus coming in whenever there is something new. That’s one less distraction. Another challenge is that we are so “Zoom scheduled” that I’ve found that some teams have tons of meetings but then no time to do the actual work. I encourage teams to look at their operational rhythm and see if there are meetings that could be a weekly e-mail instead. Does everyone have to be there? Make sure each day has a built-in time of no distractions. For example, I have what I call “parallel processing time” where one of the team and I are on Zoom, but each working on something separately. We can stop and ask each other a question, if we need help, or just make a comment, but it’s a type of quiet working together — even when we are separated. The last (but not the only) challenge of remote work is the isolation people feel. The emotional strain of not being connected to our “work tribe” can take its toll. Often in remote workplaces, unless the leader makes it a practice, people are less likely to ask for help. This can create a vicious cycle and destroy trust.
So, while CFO’s may be eyeing how much they can save by not having brick and mortar offices anymore, they might want to consider the many advantages at least occasionally of having a place where teams and leaders can come together and realign. I think the Offices of the Future will change dramatically in the next few years and we will see a greater blending of home and office, with meetings being done while walking, with innovation sessions outside of 4 walls and a flip chart. Organizations will start creating “encouragement cultures” and looking at the ROI of what I’m calling Total Wellness.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Here are my 5 things You Need to Know:
- Start every meeting with a “check-in”, this can be as simple as “Tell us 1 thing you are proud of this week” or “What’s something you are looking forward to doing this weekend”? If those are too long (you can limit people to 30 seconds or a minute, you can just ask, “What’s one word that describes how you are feeling right now”? Or on a scale of 1–10 where 1 is terrible and 10 is I’m awesome. Leaders that do this consistently, have a better “temperature check” on their people and can mitigate surprises. You’d be surprised what people reveal that you will be glad to know. It is a practice of mutual empathy and deepening relationships. (Note: If you are having multiple meetings on the same day with the same team you don’t have to do a check-in each time. But a new day, new check-in. And the leader doesn’t always have to think up the question! Let team members take turns picking a check-in question.)
- E-mail is the LEAST EFFECTIVE tool for communication. I’m always surprised by how many leaders make decisions, sometimes BIG decisions, and then communicate this via email. Make sure that you build in time in your meetings if you are making announcements and decisions for people to understand the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) and how it will impact them. But also to hear from them. As an old tenet of communications goes, Tell them what you are going to tell them, then TELL THEM, then tell them what you’ve told them. Another way to do this is to involve them in the decision-making, get them to discuss the improvements and risks, then solicit buy-in. Often, I have ideas in my head and then those have improved considerably when I bring in my team to input before the final decision is made.
- All work and no play make everyone DULL. Make sure you help everyone find some “informal routines” — like our parallel processing, above. Find creative ways to get co-workers involved in each other’s lives, but sharing a passion, sending photos of their garden, making them more than just a talking head on a screen. I like to send little, inexpensive gifts to my team, every once in a while, so there is a little surprise for them. Someone a baker? Encourage sending cookies for sharing virtually when you celebrate your next milestone.
- Encourage people to ask each other for support. Neurologically, endorphins get released when we can help someone or give something back. It makes us feel good. Good remote workplaces encourage individuals and teams to reach out when they are stuck or unmotivated, to find the gurus or just a co-worker to bounce an idea off them. If you teach people that they are applauded for asking for help, they will learn to do it more, learn to say no when they really can’t, and get better at making offers that will move the whole team forward. Recently, I asked someone in our team to be proofreading a set of weekly slides, and she confessed to me that this would be hard because she was dyslexic. I had no idea and of course, we were able to find someone that was better suited. Because she felt it was okay to say no and to say why we both had a win out of that conversation.
- Set Team “Ways of Working” standards and review them at least twice per year: I am always fascinated to see how many teams do not stop and take the time to co-create ground rules of how they operate with each other. For example, what is considered an acceptable turnaround time to respond to emails or other team communication. Immediate? 24 hours? 3 days? 1 hour? Should we work in the evenings or on weekends or is it okay to truly shut down? How are decisions actually made? How do we resolve a breakdown in communication or a dispute? Do we How often do we step back and look at our own functioning as a team and how we can improve it. Some simple “team hygiene” can make an average team turn into a high-performing team. The key is to learn how to create, build and rebuild trust. Remember, trust is a currency of high-performing teams and results. The more you have, the faster you can go.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones, or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
Integral’s staff have been working remotely for almost two decades, so we’re old pros at this. I think the toughest thing has been living through a collective trauma together of COVID and not being able to do our regular get-togethers. When it was clear we were all going into lockdown for the first time in March 2020, all I wanted to do was see their faces and not talk about work. We are fortunate to be in a business where we all use our own cell phones and have quite good business cybersecurity. I think that in the face of crisis, our workaround “relationship preceded results” came into full force. People really went above and beyond the call of duty in getting our programs shifted to online platforms, the Finance team helped us retool our business model and my motto has always been “Health and Family come first”.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
Honestly, none of them. Neuroscientists will tell you that our brain is chemically altered when we are in the physical presence of others. We can sense “emotional resonance” more easily and hormones like oxytocin and serotonin are activated more easily in the presence of others. So, while the digital transformation is upon us and we should embrace it, let’s not believe that it is only positive. Remember that it is a substitute — not a replacement for real relationships. Humans are social beings and we should create our technologies to encourage the best of our social nature.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
Beam me up, Scotty. Teleportation would be great frankly. But if I have to choose it would be a type of immersive digital multi-dimensional room where we could all bring ourselves (and not avatars). Where we could sit on couches or be around a conference table. Think Oculus without all the heavy equipment. I would also like a snarky, Iron Man AI companion, Jarvis to chair meetings, clarify decisions and priorities and remind us what we said we would do. Nicely, please.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
I think we must have our philosophers and ethicists and psychologists and other luminaries come together to envision a future where technology serves us but also frees us from the need to be constantly on our devices and connected. I think we’ve gone overboard on having to constantly communicate with each other, our clients, our market. We must be able to make it easier for people to find their signal (and ours) amongst the noise.
I’m a fan of anything that (given my priorities and values, not Netflix or Amazon choosing for me) will make my life easier. While there continues to be a proliferation of communication platforms one “to bind them all” might sound sinister but potentially useful if the users retain control.
Incidentally, I’m vaguely enjoying Clubhouse, and wonder how that might get combined with something like LinkedIn.
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
No, I’m a big fan of the “digital detox” for leaders. We are facilitating leadership strategy sessions and retreats as a necessary antidote to this digital 24/7 “on-demand” world. While I am a big fan of technology in service to humanity, for the most part, I think it can make leaders utterly dependent and fuzzier thinkers.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
I am deeply troubled that we are not looking more at our ability to connect and solve problems collectively. While we have the Mural’s and the Miro’s of the world as collaborative tools, are we helping our societies connect, empathize, support, and free others? Is technology in service of ending world hunger or addressing climate change? I think our Unified Communications needs an emotional anchor, where we are not just teaching our children to swipe left or right but helping our brains evolve, to be better thinkers, creators, and socially and morally better than we are today. Let’s find technology that helps us be more human. Find me that — and you’ll have a fan for life.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
Luckily Integral’s work is all about connecting with leaders at a deeper, more transformational level. Listening — the other and just as important “other side” of communication is our bread and butter. And listening creatively, compassionately and with curiosity and challenge is something that is highly valued. Yes, of course, we went 100% virtual but we are seeing the pendulum swing toward connecting in person. Technology may help us move faster, but sometimes it is necessary and useful to “go slow to go fast”, as we say.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
Aha! Yes, I can, and it’s a shameless plug for our new app, BackFeed+, for better, faster, feedback, based on neuroscience. As a Master Certified Coach, I’ve spent thousands of hours debriefing 360 reports (which should be permanently retired, IMHO, as a development tool) and watching how people respond to “anonymous” feedback or even feedback from a boss or colleague. HBR has even written a cover article on the “Feedback Fallacy”. And here again, the neuroscientists have basically understood what goes on better than the HR leaders. When someone, says ‘may I give you some feedback?’ right after your presentation or unexpectedly, your brain automatically goes into threat mode. It turns out that feedback is best given via audio or video when the person is at choice about when they actually hear it, not when you decide to give it to them. What’s also true is that the feedback I proactively seek out is more likely to be appreciated and acted upon, versus unsolicited or anonymous feedback. Anyone can download and use BackFeed+ for free.
Short of that, I would say that most people use feedback about “the other person” as an indirect way of getting their own needs met. So before, you decide to give someone feedback, ask yourself — “what need do I have did that person not take care of? What would I like more of in the future from them and why? — That feedback is more honest about the giver. Are you truly serving the person you are giving your opinion to? Or are they just not doing it as you would do it. Do you want “mini-me’s” or true creative and diverse thinking?
If you are truly wanting to develop someone, then contract/agree to that. Ask them in advance if they would like you to provide feedback. Be a mentor. And be of service to them. People are a lot like plants, they need water and sunlight in the form of genuine connection, empathy, and encouragement. Giving them a little bit of nourishment through “catching them doing things well” and appreciating it will create more enthusiasm and proactive, positive team members.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
- Have a meeting where everyone is outside walking while running the meeting.
- Ask one person to show us something they love about their home or their local town at the start or end of a meeting.
- Have a Friday meeting that is about celebrating small successes or birthdays or something that has nothing to do with work.
- Play Pictionary or other virtually collaborative game once per month.
- As a leader, tell people the story of why what they are doing together is important and why you personally care. Use a metaphor and allow others to build on that metaphor.
- Look for that moment in the future when you can bring this team together.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Though I am capitalist, I believe we need to create momentum and systems to foster an “enlightened capitalism”. It would take the enormous power of entrepreneurship and markets and bring what I would call “stakeholder profits” not only “shareholder profits”. With a minuscule fraction of a cent “better society tax” we could have the hedge funds and financial billionaires play a big role in recreating a society with dignity for all, health care for all, education for all, using the best of our technological systems to evolve our ability to be mindful at a systems level. But I’m sure we could find creative ways to incentivize companies to become more “enlightened” in nature. Capitalists should exist as creativity can be heightened sometimes by investment. But let’s noodle together and have more diversity of thought to create better business models for improved social outcomes. Otherwise, what is work for? And what is the future of work?
These are the questions worth asking and encouraging your teams to think about as well.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find our “tribe” at Integral here.
You can find me on LinkedIn at Libby Robinson, MCC
I’m on Clubhouse on the weekly Integral Leadership Dojo and Twitter @LibbyRobinson
And get better, faster, feedback www.backfeedapp.com
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.