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Heidi Grant Halvorson: Why competence and warmth are two key c-suite communication skills

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Why do business executives and their IT counterparts often appear to speak a different language? And is it possible, technical and industry-specific terms aside, for CMOs and CIOs to improve how they communicate with each other to uncover shared goals and a collaborative path on how to reach those goals? Heidi Grant Halvorson, social psychologist and bestselling author, believes that leaders can pinpoint how they might unwittingly communicate the wrong message and apply the latest neurological discoveries that explain behavior in their professional lives. Halvorson has researched behavior in the boardroom; she is associate director for the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School and the author of four bestselling books, including Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. Her newest book, No One Understands You and What to Do About It, explains some of the tricks of our basic neurology. Here, she shares how C-level executives can improve how they relate and collaborate with others in the C-suite who might represent a very different function.

Why is there so often a disconnect between IT and the rest of the business?

Part of what makes IT-business collaboration challenging is that our brains are hard-wired to be distrustful of those we see as “other.” Neuroscience reveals we break people into “in-groups” and “out-groups” based on their perceived similarities, and our brains use different neural pathways to store and process information about those groups. Information about our in-group is assigned to the same part of the brain that processes information about ourselves, but information related to an out-group is assigned to an entirely separate area. So, on a neural level, we do think in materially different ways about those not in our tribe.

Organizational silos exacerbate this, especially since IT and business are rarely integrated from a structural point of view. To bridge those divisions, successful leaders go to great lengths to talk about the goals of the whole organization, sharing insights and success stories from different groups in ways that create a common, corporate identity, with shared goals and a unifying culture.

In your new book, you say humans are poor at gauging how they come across to others. Why?

Research going back 30 years shows that our intuition about how we come across to other people is often wrong. We think we’re projecting competence, for instance, because that’s what we’re told matters in a professional context, but instead we come across as cool and maybe even as a threat. Too often in a work setting, we fail to signal warmth, a quality our brains equate with trustworthiness. Our basic neurology is primed to give us a fast read of whether a person is a friend or a foe, and whether they have what it takes to act on their intentions. So our goal as good communicators is to project both warmth and competence.

It sounds like our brains are over-simplifying things. What’s going on there?

It’s simply our brains’ way of being efficient. Our day-to-day encounters are full of noise. The person you’re talking to has to filter through that noise to get a signal on who you are and your intentions. In most cases, we cannot afford the time to analyze every nuance. We’re not going to work that hard because it’s sufficient simply to get the gist. Good communicators turn up the volume to send out the clearest signal they can about their intentions. And research shows the most important traits to signal are that we can be trusted and that we care.

How can IT leaders clarify the message they’re sending to their CFO or CMO colleagues, especially if as a CIO they are discussing highly technical terms?

It starts by understanding the lenses that shape perception. They are trust, power and ego. The “trust” lens looks at whether one is an ally or a threat. The “power” lens assesses how much influence we believe another person has over us. And the “ego” lens gets at how a person affects one’s sense of self: do they make me feel good about myself or insecure? Once we understand the science of perception, we can do a much better job at the art of communication to convey our intentions more clearly and build stronger relationships.

Evidence shows the most successful people are those who project both competence and warmth. Those qualities together are what inspire others. And it’s not fuzzy bunny warmth, instead, it’s about asking questions about another person, being loyal and honest and principled. I tell people in sales and leadership positions to begin every conversation with a question about the other person, questions like: how are you doing, what are you working on, what are your concerns? It is such a powerful way to break down barriers. It’s really about expressing empathy, smiling at people, or acknowledging someone else’s difficult time.

Technical people are often given a bad rap for their communication skills. Why do you think that is?

Business people generally have very little understanding of what IT is doing. They don’t have the expertise to understand it, so they don’t appreciate the nuances or the complexity. And because the business side of the organization has traditionally held more power, they’ve had less incentive to put themselves in IT’s shoes and instead expect IT to come to the table and do the translation for them. But IT people have often come up through a different development path, one where presenting a business case, negotiating internal politics, and managing large-scale change have not been the predominant training. Those are very different skill sets. So, it’s asking a lot of IT to articulate in plain terms the enormously technical and layered activities they’re tasked with running.

The need for companies to digitize is changing some of those dynamics, shifting the power base and giving business a reason to understand at a much deeper level the strategic value that IT brings. That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing more professionals taking on hybrid roles—people well-versed in the needs of both the business and IT and with a background in both. With digitization becoming an increasing part of every executive’s role, I think we’re going to see the traditional communication barrier between IT and business shrink markedly over the next several years.

If you aren’t a natural communicator, can you fake it till you make it?

You don’t have to be a great communicator. In fact, very few us are. The great skill in conveying good intention is listening, showing interest, asking questions, and responding like you mean it. The humble CEOs and CIOs are the most effective—the ones who are pushing others to achieve while they orchestrate quietly in the background. To understand what persona you project, the single best thing you can do is to ask someone you know and trust to answer this question: “If I didn’t know you better, I’d think that you were….” The attributes shared can be a powerful way to draw our attention to potential rough edges in our behavior that we’d like to change.

What if the first impression goes sour?

First impressions are stubborn. Correcting a bad first impression, like dieting, takes time and effort. It takes a lot of evidence to update our opinions. What you want to do is overwhelm the person with evidence that the one misstep was an aberration. Find ways to work closely with that individual, pitch in on assignments, and keep piling on examples of positive behavior until your perceiver can no longer tune it out. If people already know you, an occasional blunder or off-impression is quickly forgotten. It’ll weigh more heavily on you, but most others will have put it out of their mind nearly immediately because the balance of evidence on who you are far outweighs that single, less-than-on-your-game incident.


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