Have you ever felt like you’re good at your job but your boss doesn’t get you? Here’s a story about Mary, who told me she loved her job but wasn’t sure she could stay because her boss, the CEO, was so hard on her. She suspected he didn’t think much of her, and she guessed he would fire her in the next year if something didn’t change.
Mary was a bright and well-regarded senior executive in a large international firm. Often the only woman in the room at leadership team meetings, Mary excelled at thinking on her feet and handling the fast-paced, detailed questioning that was the hallmark of her company’s culture. She had received early criticism for being too passive with her opinions, and had successfully shifted to a more outspoken style over the past year. Her recent performance reviews from both her team members and her superiors were positive, with the exception of the CEO, who continued to write comments such as, “Mary needs to step up and be more of a leader in senior level meetings.” Mary was frustrated by these comments because she noticed that often when she spoke up in a meeting with the CEO, he behaved as she describes here:
“When I start talking, he will often interrupt me to ask for supporting data on some detail. Even if I have the answer, his interruption knocks me off my train of thought. And if I don’t have the answer, then he’ll go around the room asking others for the information while I stand there, feeling like a fool. I’ve seen him do this to others, too. He seems to enjoy pitting us against one-another and fostering fear of humiliation.”
From Mary’s point of view, her boss was putting her in the impossible situation of expecting her to speak up and then derailing her when she did. She felt she couldn’t please him either way. Feeling stuck in this distressing bind, she was considering leaving her otherwise-successful position.
It would be easy to conclude that Mary’s boss is, in fact, a jerk who sets out to create stress and competition among the senior executive ranks. But does it make sense that a CEO would intentionally set out to undermine his rising leaders? Not really. If this isn’t a case of deliberate corporate sabotage, what other explanation is there for the CEO’s behavior?
I had a few questions that gave me key information about the situation:
- What is the setting for these meetings where the CEO interrupts you?
Mary replied, “There are usually about 12 of us in a boardroom around a conference table.”
- Is there anyone calling in to the meeting on speakerphone?
“Yes. Our European team calls in on the speaker in the center of the table.”
- How long into the meeting do you typically start talking?
“About 30 minutes.”
- What happens before your turn to speak?
“The European team usually reports their numbers through the speakerphone”
- Any accents?
“Yes. Many different ones. In fact, the CEO also has an accent. English is not his first language.”
With this added context, a different understanding of the CEO’s disruptive questioning comes into focus. Viewed through the lens of Language Processing, his behavior makes more sense.
Here’s what was really going on with the CEO:
-Not a native English speaker. The CEO is not a native English speaker, so his receptive LP (ability to efficiently understand words spoken to him) is inherently compromised when listening to English.
-Long time listening to accented English via speakerphone. The first thirty minutes of the meeting consist of listening to accented European English speakers via a speakerphone with no video. Listening to accented English without the ability to see the face of the speaker and read lips puts a much higher demand on the brain’s receptive LP. In other words, it takes far more mental energy to understand accented English via speakerphone than non-accented English in person. Add to this the fact that the CEO is a non-native English speaker, and the mental demand is even higher.
-Drained mental energy by the time Mary speaks. By the time Mary is speaking, the CEO’s mental energy for simply understanding the words being spoken to him has been drained for thirty minutes, further decreasing his brain’s ability to process Mary’s words.
– Higher pitch of Mary’s voice is harder to hear. Mary is the only woman; her speaking voice has a higher pitch than a man’s voice. In general, higher-pitched voices carry less well and are harder to understand. Being accustomed to more resonant, louder male voices, the CEO’s brain is potentially further taxed by the acoustic profile of Mary’s speech.
– CEO interrupts Mary to catch up with processing. The fatigued CEO struggles to comprehend what Mary is saying, but he probably isn’t consciously aware of this. He either perceives nothing is wrong, or he might feel vaguely irritated by Mary. He reflexively interrupts Mary and asks a question, thinking he’s clarifying a point. In reality, he’s buying his brain time to catch up with processing her words.
– CEO interrupts others to catch up with processing. The CEO has a pattern of interrupting people with picky questions. This habit is attributed to the CEO’s desire to embarrass or intimidate people. Unless he’s a sociopath, it’s very unlikely that the CEO truly wants to make others feel badly. He is much more likely to be using his interruptions and questions to temporarily stop the flow of overwhelming auditory information, again buying his brain time to catch up with processing.
Mary’s negative reaction to the CEO’s interruptions can also be viewed through the lens of Language Processing.
Here’s what’s really going on with Mary:
– High stakes meeting creates performance anxiety. Mary is in a high-stakes environment with pressure to perform. This pressure creates added stress on both her expressive and receptive language processing. The more stress or anxiety a person feels, the worse their brain processing gets.
– Mary’s speaking ability is stressed. Mary’s expressive LP, her ability to get her thoughts out into spoken words, is under high stress while she is presenting in the meeting.
-Mary’s ability to rapidly understand questions is stressed. When the CEO interrupts her, her brain has to rapidly shift to receptive LP to comprehend his question. This ability to comprehend the question may be slower than usual due to the stressful situation.
-Mary’s ability to pull up answers and say them is stressed. Next, Mary’s brain must very quickly pull up the appropriate information from memory to answer the CEO’s question, and then get that information formulated into spoken words before the CEO looses interest and asks the next person. The higher Mary’s stress, the more slowly her expressive LP system will work, and the longer it will take her to answer.
– Mary interprets her brain processing stress as negative CEO reaction. When a person’s language processing is not keeping up with the surrounding conversation, the person experiences a sense of irritation, anxiety, or even anger. Most people don’t realize that LP is the source of the negative feelings and will blame other people for being boring, annoying, rude, etc.
Once she was armed with an understanding of her own and the CEO’s Language Processing styles, Mary was able to stop taking the CEO’s behavior personally. This led her to be less stressed in meetings, which improved her language processing and ability to answer questions. She also began delivering her information in short bullets to make it easer for the CEO to process. After making these changes, Mary found the CEO interrupted her less, she answered his questions better when asked, and she began to feel more confident in meetings. Her next review from the CEO was glowing, and she’s had a great relationship with him since.
Have you experienced what seems like personal stress with your boss or others? Many interpersonal challenges at work and at home are due to unrecognized Language Processing glitches. These brain-based communication snags are commonly misinterpreted as personality problems or intentionally difficult behavior. Understanding our own LP style and the LP styles of those around us is the “secret sauce” to improved communication, relationships, leadership and more.
The best is yet to come.