The True Magic of the “Aha”

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By Kristen Wheeler

I recently prompted workshop participants with the question, “When is casual too casual?” Answers erupted in rapid succession, sparking side conversations and engulfing the room with collegial jeers and animated denials. We enjoyed good laughs about wearing ear buds and singing out loud in the office, we spent some time on wardrobe reminders (thank goodness I wore a belt that day!), we reminded each other that jokes and humor have a slippery slope, and we respectfully addressed personal spaces and barriers.

The discussion was part of a newly designed workshop titled, “Business Etiquette, The Danger Zones.” A workshop that is packed with every-day practical tips and reminders for success in the workplace—and while I will admit that none of the material is “rocket science,”—it is amazing just how many “aha” moments our clients walked away with. (We provide clients with one blank card and ask them to write down any “aha” moments they have during the workshop.) One of the participants commented, “Good times build bad habits and these are good times. We have become a bit less professional chalking it up to a more casual business style now-a-days. We should not forget the little things, or they will become the big things.”

Are you familiar with the research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation, and Stanford Research Center which unveiled that 85% of success in the workplace is attributed to soft skills, leaving only 15% of success attributed to technical skills? Did you also know that they continued their research and discovered that 80% of people who get fired are let go because of issues dealing with lack of soft skills, not technical skills? That is astounding. And yet, most workers dismiss soft skills like, “yeh, yeh, I got that.” Or, they hold technical positions and shortsightedly think that soft skills are just fluff for people aren’t as technically skilled.

As part of our surround-strategy approach when working with clients, I assigned pre-work to stimulate thinking prior to arrival and then started our session with an activity centered on the assignment—how to master your first impression. Research shows that people sum up an opinion within the first four minutes of meeting you. What you say, how you dress, your body language, and your hygiene is critical. And once those opinions are formed, they are very difficult to change. First impressions have an impact on our personal reputations—and each employee’s reputation builds a collective reputation for our employer. How we present ourselves, our image, is a reflection on the company for whom we work.

The dialogue that swirled while sharing tips for making a great first impression broke the ice and paved the way for deeper discussions pertaining to verbal, non-verbal, and written communication. One manager asked how to help his direct reports, who are less experienced, handle situations when clients begin to over-power meetings. Great question. It immediately brought to mind a recent TED Talk I had listened to by Amy Cuddy titled, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.”

We are familiar with the notion that our body positioning speaks volumes to others, but we are just now coming to realize that our body positioning actually governs how we think and feel about ourselves as well. This is true. When we hold our body in positions of power, i.e., put our shoulders back, chin slightly up, straight posture, stand up…basically “make ourselves big,” we begin to feel empowered. I suggested working on power positions to feel strong, and to also relay that message of strength to others. One participant then spoke up and shared a similar story offering his tricks that have helped him navigate occasional power struggles. I saw a reflective look as his colleague listened—a look that hinted at, “thank goodness it’s not just me.”

And that was when I had my “aha” moment. As the facilitator of the workshop, I am just the conduit helping to connect team members. While we were brought together to brush up on custom designed topics pertaining to business etiquette, the true magic of the workshop occurs when colleagues make a new connection, building trust in each other and opening the door to future collaboration. Yes, the content covered was important and each participant grabbed some nugget of information to put in their pocket and take with them, but the true impact of our time together will be felt down the road. When someone is grappling with an issue and decides to walk to a different department and knock on the door of a colleague who once shared a common challenge.

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