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June 16, 2008
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Ocular Insubordination

“Watch where you step!” said Xolani. I nodded and looked down at some of the largest piles of manure I ever recalled seeing — not that I usually keep track of such things.

  Our group of seven then stopped as Xolani asked us to look carefully at the manure — again, not a typical request. By the time we finished a brief lecture on the deeper meaning of rhino poop, the Rosenberg family and two young, British newlyweds had been schooled in the proper method and manner to recognize the difference between a white rhino and a black rhino.

We learned from careful observation what the eating habits were when the particular rhino involved had last been in the area and a variety of other fascinating rhino tidbits. We moved on for the rest of what was a very exciting learning experience complete with adrenaline rush. That experience was a walking safari in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.  We learned to observe, and from that learning we were enriched.

Every elected or appointed public official — not to mention moms, dads and spouses — spends a lot of time in meetings or one-on-one communication efforts. We speak before large crowds or with an individual colleague. We have messages we hope to deliver, and we hope they are delivered clearly and in a way that causes an intended response.

We may have a discussion, for example, on the need to trim a budget, with the hope that our colleagues will agree with our vision of what needs to be done, why, what time frames to follow and how to know when the particular goal has been met. 

Professionals in human resources encounter people whose behavior at work or performance on the job is less than we expect, hope and require. As a result, not only is every manager a coach, but every successful manager must also be a communicator and an observer of responses. 

Some responses are easy to identify. They include falling asleep in the middle of a presentation — hopefully not yours. They include people leaving early or playing with their cell phones. Now we live in a world where “smart phones” allow us to also send text messages, play games, check the weather reports in Alaska, watch the stock market as our deferred compensation portfolios shrink and much more.

All of these are ways not only to evade paying specific attention in a conversation or communication, but also they are important signs for an observant speaker or a leader to recognize and respond to. 

Perhaps the most obvious of these signs, especially to the parents of teenagers, was shared with me by my new friend, trauma surgeon, Dr. Niamh Harrington.  It may be thought of as “ocular insubordination.” In this model of response, the person we think is receiving the communication may roll their eyes, look away, glare or otherwise use their eyeballs as WMDs.

They are commenting, reacting and otherwise sending out signals thinking that the other party might not ever notice. They may be communicating with other people in the room through the function of their eyeballs, or they may be spending precious moments of life thinking about the 7,812 places they would rather be at that particular moment. All of this communicating can occur without saying a word, without making any other gesture and without most other people in the room noticing. 

However, when the speaker is observant and perceives what is occurring, a great lesson is offered in the course of ocular insubordination. Many speakers, especially in small group meetings or family settings may respond with a direct and negative reaction — shouting or attacking the person — but hopefully not physically. We have rules about such things in the workplace. 

In effect, over-reactors may be saying “How dare you not offer uncompromised attention to everything I’m saying for as long as I’m saying it!”   However, there are other, better and more productive responses. 

One of them is to focus more attention during the presentation on the very person whose ocular behavior was noticed in the first place, move toward that person, engage them visually, maintain eye contact, send an indirect message to them that you have observed the behavior and are concerned about it.

Another approach is to realize that maybe the message they are sending is very important to you as their speaker. Maybe you are droning on far longer than you should. Maybe the message you’re delivering is not clear or is inconsistent. Worst of all, maybe it is personally embarrassing or offensive and you may not even realize it. 

Finally, the leader can simply ask that the owner of those eyeballs to meet afterwards for a private discussion. At that point, the leader-turned-coach can ask what might have been wrong in the meeting, what might have led the person to appear disinterested or hostile to what was being said.

A sharp observer will not only ask those questions in the hope of drawing out from the other person what they might be feeling. Just as importantly, the leader may be able to hear and learn about how her own message may not be as clear as she thought, might be on the wrong track, or, in fact, that her presentation skills might be sorely in need of improvement.

In other words, observing as you journey through a meeting, or a safari for that matter, is a key tool available to a leader to maintain contact and a positive relationship with the audience — whether the audience is your 14-year-old daughter, your boss, people who report to you or a thousand people in an auditorium.

The best leaders are the best listeners. The best listeners observe and recognize that every leader has to be an HR manager and a thoughtful observer in order to create the charisma that leads to success at work and in life. Observing (including careful listening) is as important in the study of rhino poop as it is in developing your own career!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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