Form Before Substance Sometimes Makes Sense

When managing resources and making business decisions, substance of course always matters – what are the facts, what are the considerations and desired outcomes? But more often than we realize, people experience setbacks and disappointments that have nothing to do with substance. Before we even understand the facts, we misunderstand and underestimate each other, because we bring different thought processes, assumptions, priorities and communication styles to the table. For example, someone may be presenting a recommendation or solution to you, but if they walk through things in a way that is not aligned with your thinking and your emerging questions, they may lose your interest quite quickly.

One of my clients – let’s call her Emily — recently experienced this disconnect (and resulting criticism) when presenting a strategic plan to her boss. Their relationship has an interesting challenge: The more senior person likes to think at a more detailed level and build up to bigger decisions and plans, while the more junior person (my client) is more of a big picture thinker and instinctively begins with broad themes and visions and works down to specifics. In short, the manager is eager to get answers about to “how and when,” and my client prefers to start with “what and why.”

In a three-way conversation with Emily and her manager, I saw the frustration in both of them. Emily desperately wanted to find a way to have more effective, persuasive, comfortable conversations with her manager, and her manager wanted Emily to present information in what he viewed as the right way (his right way) for decision-making. A light bulb went off for me: Emily did not have to try to change her hard-wired way of thinking. She simply had to re-sequence her powerpoint slides and talking points. I suggested they try this approach going forward, and the boss’ eyes lit up. This was a breakthrough for them that has shown meaningful results and continues to be tested and refined.

This breakthrough could happen only because the manager took the time to, and knew how to, articulate his preference for bottom-up analysis, and when prompted by me, admitted to sometimes tuning out presentations that did not answer his burning questions early on. We don’t always get the luxury of insight into a stakeholder’s thought process spelled out for us. But a little due diligence can go a long way!

When you have to bring important information to an important stakeholder – to educate, persuade, influence, etc. – ask around, and consider your own past interactions with the person. Most importantly ask them directly, well in advance, of what big questions or concerns are weighing on them. The way you present and persuade others need not mirror our own analytical sequence or thought process.

I have seen this sort of communication disconnect play out in numerous situations lately:

– someone going through a series of job interviews, unsure of where to focus when describing their expertise and experience to an interviewer and sometimes missing the mark of what is most interesting to the interviewer, because they did not ask

– an executive gauging how much and how frequently to include their division head in day to day information flow, to keep him informed, and learning that he erred on the side of too little sharing, eroding his own influence, in his effort to not waste the top executive’s time

– a manager trying to “sell” some ideas to his colleagues but encountering resistance until he learned to invite more input and use language that shared ownership of the solutions

So, of course the substance matters. Yet even small improvements in personal connections and mutual understanding can yield enormous benefits. As the expression “Ready, Aim, Fire” suggests – after you are ready with your content, take the time to aim it at your particular stakeholders, that means tailor the delivery for them, and then fire!

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