Adaptable Communication - A top 10 behaviour at work

Adaptable Communication - A top 10 behaviour at work

During my time scaling a start-up, I interviewed hundreds of people. Over 800 to be precise and hired around 150 of those people.

Each of these people went through a rigorous screening before the face-to-face interview, so it shows how hard it is to find great people – and why hiring is such an important aspect of being a manager. And adaptable communication played a vastly important part in the process.

For roles aligned to agility, management or leadership I ran a simple (and non-scientific) exercise called the Warm and Fluffy test.

It’s become trendy for managers to let people do what they want (and the culture of the organisation tanks), or work on what they want (and sometimes this isn’t even contributing to the business), or to give no feedback about poor behaviours (search toxic workplaces and you’ll find all you need).

At the same time, the command and control and “hardcore” demands that we’re seeing at Twitter is also undesirable. We must treat people like people.

And so, during the interviews I would draw a horizontal line on the white board. At one end I would write “do it my way” – and at the other end I would write “warm and fluffy”. It’s a linear scale from direct tyranny to happy go lucky soft and fluffy. I told you it wasn’t scientific. But it does serve as a great topic starter.

I would ask candidates to mark on the scale where they believe they are when it comes to their communication and behaviours in work.

It was amazing to see how honest many people were – I was expecting them to put themselves in the middle (the safe answer) but people were remarkably honest. They explained why they marked where they did and how that reflects in their work.

The best candidates though, always answered the same way. They marked where their “natural preferences” were but explained that they could move up and down the scale when they needed to.

Top prize. It’s really a micro-non-scientific-test of adaptable communication skills.

You know I put communication behaviours and skills above EVERYTHING else when recruiting and building teams. Communication behaviours are what make psychological safety possible, they help to overcome most problems businesses face and can help to build engaging cultures where people get work done but not at the expense of relationships or other people.

And someone’s ability to flex up and down the scale when needed is a good sign that they understand how important relating and communicating to other people is in the workplace. Of course, in an interview we’ll never have an enough time to ascertain whether that is just a good interview answer or true, but we often dug in a little to find behavioural based answers to re-enforce this position.

Our natural response in a situation is rarely the right way to behave at work.

We need to learn to flex. We need to know when to be harder with our communication or softer. We do this by reading other people, deeply studying the problem at hand, getting to know other people and reading the context of the situation – as well as developing the behaviours needed.

In the comms workshop I bang on about all communication having a purpose, audience and context. Effective communicators understand this and flex accordingly. This warm and fluffy scale represents that idea.

The best people to work with have empathy, can understand other people and have adaptable communication styles to suit the context and the person.

But be careful. When we spend too long in situations using our behaviours that are not overly natural to us (as in, we have learned to operate in a different way) it uses more energy and attention.

The essential first step to being able to adapt is learning to control our natural reaction. Instead of reacting in our normal way we must learn to pause and take the time to respond. Then we must learn to quickly understand the other person, the context and think about what the most appropriate way is to respond.

The more you learn about adaptable communication the more you naturally process this information in real-time. Then we must have the skills and behaviours to adapt – and the energy to sustain it for as long as we need to. And again, the more we learn the easier it is to adapt immediately with little pause, and less use of our essential energy.

And this takes practice. It is hard. It is mostly internal work on our own tendencies to react. And then it is about learning how to respond in a way that may not be our most natural.

But in our world of work if all we can do is be static in our approach to communication we’ll find we can’t work with certain groups of people, or can’t control a situation that needs some control, or we lead with fear, or create a culture that spirals out of control, or simply find everything and everyone utterly overwhelming. Adaptable communication allows us to move and sway with those we are communicating with, increasing our chances of resonating greatly.

The best people to work with are those who know when to move on the scale. They spend time building great relationships and can run that line between being effective and liked all day long. And at the heart of this is caring about other people greatly, whilst realising a business is only alive if it meets its business results.

Good managers know this. They run that line. They flex when they need to. They coach other people in how to do this. And they recruit people who know how to communicate.

If you get this right as a manager you will see business results being hit with engaged staff who are enriched by their workplaces, and you’ll have a much easier job as a manager.