The Language of Success, For Boom Times or Bust

Some people believe that the New York Stock Exchange’s Richard Grasso and the New York Times’s Howell Raines were forced out because they didn’t bother to update how they conduct themselves in these troubled times.

Could it be that professional arrogance, denial and self-aggrandizement are bad for business? If you read the business news, you already know the answer. As a business coach, I see it every day.

People who behave today just as they did during boom times are at risk of losing everything and gaining little. On the other hand, executives who comport themselves as most did before the roaring 1980s and 1990s are thriving. Here are five easy rules of the road for executive style that have again become prerequisites for success at the top. Each has to do with empathy.

1. Instead of selling yourself or your service, listen and ask questions. Conversations are again about achieving goals, not about ourselves. In “Talking from 9 to 5” (Quill, 2001), language expert Deborah Tannen notes that most professional conversations have a specific agenda. Sometimes it may be a hidden agenda. To be successful, you have to discern exactly what that issue is. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting time, frustrating others and eventually finding yourself out of the loop.

Today, you have to pick up quickly on that agenda and demonstrate even more quickly that you can contribute to achieving the goal. For example, if you go on a sales call or job interview, you may immediately determine that the agenda is to reduce costs. You may have to ask a few short questions about the firm’s particular situation. Based on the answers, make recommendations, giving brief reasons why you believe they will generate results the firm needs.

2. Clients, customers, bosses, subordinates and boards are bound to get emotional — particularly when performance or jobs are on the line and stress is high. It’s an opportunity to be helpful. Make it your business to understand and work to resolve the issues that are bending everyone out of shape. That’s empathy.

The ability to properly size up a situation and move quickly toward a solution was once the enviable characteristic of just a handful of top salespeople and founders of successful new businesses. Now empathy is a prerequisite for everyone who wants to function well in the workplace. Successful people recognize that they must tune in to the psychology of the moment.

One of the most effective ways to achieve empathy is what some psychologists call “mirroring.” When you mirror someone’s emotions, you make a gut assessment about the feelings of the person you’re dealing with. Is that person preoccupied, thrilled, disappointed, overwhelmed, joyful, or optimistic? Then you respond in a way that acknowledges that emotional state. For instance, you might say, “You’re very busy.” Or, “Congratulations on the new account.” Next, attempt to relieve the pain or increase the pleasure. “What I’m offering might give you more time.” Or, “I help successful companies become more successful.”

3. Like it or not, body language has once again become more formal. Gone are the dot-com days when executives could comport themselves in professional life as if they were home on the couch. A degree of personal decorum is today more desirable, because it signals that you’re alert to the challenges in the current business environment. One salesperson I coached is convinced he didn’t get his dream job because his body language might have been too relaxed.

Be aware of your posture and gestures. The trick is to come across as poised and alert, yet comfortable and confident. Common sense should tell you that with too much formality you could wind up looking like a martinet. Nobody loves a martinet. CNN’s Moneyline anchor Lou Dobbs combines traditional business decorum with the self-confident air of enduring success.

4. “We” and “you” have replaced the self-absorbed “I.” In his book “Trust or Consequences” (Amacom, 2003), public-relations expert Al Golin emphasizes that in this era of low trust, people are looking for signs that someone actually cares about something other than him or herself. The self-serving that permeated the boom 1990s — the set spiel, canned answers, unmasked greed, lousy listening skills and outright indifference toward customers — is a sure way to alienate people who can help you become or remain successful.

Both Jack Welch and now Jeff Immelt at the General Electric Co. have constantly reminded GE employees that if they want to know how they are doing, just ask the customer. GE employees listen and their results show it.

Pitching new business? Instead of talking about yourself and your accomplishments, try, “How can I help?” or “Tell me what your issues are and how you think I might be useful.” Just completed a project or assignment? Be sure to acknowledge everyone who participated and give credit where it’s due.

Human-relations guru Dale Carnegie drove home to his students that the most important person in the universe is that other person. What does that other person want? In his classic “How to Win Friends & Influence People” (Pocket Books, reissued 1990), Mr. Carnegie observes: “The desire for a feeling of importance is one of the chief distinguishing differences between mankind and animals.” Paying close attention to the psychological needs of others pays off. After all, they are the people who can buy your services or products, hire you or lay you off.

5. Simple language is replacing buzzwords. Much of the jargon, ranging from “value added” to “staying on message,” was from a smug era when many professionals believed that they had all the answers. It’s evident that the executives who spoke this lingo most passionately didn’t have all the answers. Managers are returning to common language.

For example, instead of claiming that they can “add value,” savvy consultants might simply state, “My experience in the front lines of retail company X’s human resources can help you reduce turnover here. My guess is that could save you $1 million a year.”

What if the economy recovers and the U.S. experiences another boom? The answer is simple: Don’t fall back on old habits. Listen, be helpful, carry yourself with professional comportment, skip the buzzwords, speak simply, and work hard for the other guy.

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Business, Career