Contrary to popular belief, 'the lone genius' locking themselves away and coming back with the magical solution to all of our problems is a myth. Unfortunately, it's a myth that is especially persistent in the design community. We've been told that there are magical unicorns that understand all of the problems and know all of the answers. We 'ooh' and 'ahh' as they lift the veil and reveal their latest and greatest product. A product that seems near effortless for them to create, the result of things simply 'clicking.' We hate to break it to you, but that's not how it works. We've helped over 300 companies big and small design and develop sites, products and services, and it's never as easy as the keynote portrays. It's time people know how the sausage is really made.
The truth is that teams are intrinsic to designing and building amazing products. This includes everyone that supports the design of the product. But this presents a ton of challenges. As design leaders, we haven't necessarily had the training and mentors to be effective leaders. It's a very different thing to go from being an awesome designer to an awesome leader. While it's easy to make progress when you're working solo, it can be extremely difficult to work with a group of people in an effective way.
Guiding teams to be productive and generate consistent results requires that design leaders learn how to communicate in a way that drives action. With our focus on empathy, you would think this is an easy skill to master, but it isn't. Empathy will only get you part way. There are several other tactics we can employ to help us build trust, grow influence and keep our teams productive. Here are five small things you can start doing today to improve your communication as a design leader and guide your team to big wins:
1. Get to know your people
If you have the luxury of being in a smaller team you have the opportunity, scratch that, the obligation to get to know the people on your team. As you do this, you'll soon realize that everyone is in different places in their life, and that people can't separate home life and work life as well as they think they can. Stress from outside of work can manifest itself at inopportune times. While we as professionals should keep this to a minimum, it happens, we're human. Putting forth the effort to help a team member stay on track and work through their projects during a stressful time will win you loads of trust and goodwill.
Building trust is important for a number of reasons. Most people like to feel some sort of attachment to the people they work with, especially those they work under. This isn't to say you need to be best friends with everyone, but it helps to be a little candid. Talk about mistakes you've made in the past and what you've learned. Above all else, have a sense of humor. Laugh at yourself. If your team sees you as human, they'll be more willing to trust you and open up when they experience problems. Trust begins with you.
2. Do the work
I think we've all had the experience of that one boss that had no clue about how long things took or what went into what they were asking. How did it feel working for them? Did you respect them or even like them? Probably not. A boss with outrageous expectations and no understanding of what it will take to meet them doesn't extract the best work out of their team. On the contrary, they usually find their team will purposely underperform out of sheer resentment. Not good.
As a leader, you should have a clear understanding of everything you ask your team to do. Ideally, you should have hands on experience. There's no faster way to lose respect from your team than not understanding the work and having unreasonable expectations. Now, this is not to say you have to be an expert, but you should take an interest and learn as much as possible.
Anyone who comes into a managerial role and has no interest in learning about what goes into the work they demand usually ends up with a bitter team and zero respect. So get your hands dirty. Learn as much as you can about everyone's roles, ask lots of questions, and become as familiar as possible with the process it takes to get everything done. Doing this will help you speak from a place of understanding, make sure your expectations of people are reasonable and earn you the respect of your team.
3. Check in
As a leader, it's your job to make sure that your team is productive. The problem is that it's rarely ever as simple as telling someone to do something and coming back moments later to see it finished perfectly and on time. Projects can be complicated and things never go to plan. In addition to that, people encounter all kinds of roadblocks, both external and internal that can bring momentum to a screeching halt. The solution? Check-in regularly with your team.
Are you thinking of the boss character in Office Space? Don't. That's not the kind of checking in we're talking about. These interactions should be positive and built on a foundation of empathy and trust.
Ask what each person is working on, have them actually show the work to you, and ask them how they're feeling about it. It's not enough to just ask 'How things are going?' and leave it at that. You won't get any meaningful answers, and you may not even receive the truth. Remember, people don't always voice when they are stressed or overwhelmed. You'll have to be perceptive and pay attention to things like body language. There's a difference between the look of someone who's concentrating and someone who is drowning in stress. If you've built up enough trust with your team, they'll open up about what's on their mind and you'll have a chance to coach them through it. Do this right and they'll feel supported by their team and you'll earn more trust. Everybody wins.
4. Tell them the 'why' behind your requests
You want to know a great way to get people to do what you ask them to? Tell them why it's important. People want to know that what they're devoting their time and talent to is going to result in something positive. Explaining all of the details, and multiple times, will help keep everyone on board.
We've all been there, you ask 'Does anyone have any questions?' *Crickets*... So much silence. People will not always let you know if they don't understand or are confused. When it comes to this awkward moment, think of what questions people may be thinking and ask them yourself. When people are well informed and see how their contributions fit into the whole, they put forth their best work.
Did you know there is a difference between 'hearing' and 'listening'? Hearing is the act of perceiving sound. During the course of your day you 'hear' thousands of things. Planes flying over head, the buzz of an airconditioning unit, the squeak of office chairs, etc. Listening is different. Listening is paying attention to draw meaning from the sounds you are hearing. Listening requires effort.
It is absolutely critical that you, as a leader know how to listen. Believe it or not, not everyone has been taught how. The first step involves letting people talk without interrupting them, learn to hold your tongue and listen. Another helpful strategy is to take notes and ask questions. Lastly, don't worry about having all the answers right then. A good leader knows that sometimes people just need to get things off their chests. Ultimately, it's your responsibility to make sure that the work environment is a place where people feel they can share what's on their minds.
Strength In Numbers
No matter how talented we may think we are, teams, not lone geniuses, are at the heart of great product design. When groups of people are in sync and working towards the same goals, their potential for impact is nearly unlimited. Improving internal communication removes roadblocks, boosts morale and fosters camaraderie to strengthen your team. Implementing these five tactics will help you grow your influence no matter what your position within a company, and guide your team to big wins!