Scott Downs is the Director of Corporate Giving and Media Relations for the North Museum of Nature and Science in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Prior to moving into the non-profit sector, he was publisher of a regional business journal, daily newspaper and parenting magazine. Downs spent three decades in the media, working in management, sales and marketing in the newspaper, digital, radio, television and outdoor industries. He has an M.B.A. from the University of Illinois, and a bachelor’s in communications from Temple University, in Philadelphia.
Meg Garavaglia: Have you always been a good listener?
SD: I think I’ve been a good listener for most of my life, simply because I’m interested in people, and I’m interested in their stories. I enjoy different perspectives. I remember as a kid, sitting around the dining room table after dinner, with my parents, siblings and whatever guests happened to be joining us – and coming from a family with six kids, there was always someone joining us. I just loved to sit and listen, particularly when I was younger and I was with a table full of adults. Sometimes, you pick a few things up; other times you’re just entertained. I suppose that’s what got me listening from an early age.
As I got into sales and then later management, I discovered listening is a critical skill. You need to be an active listener, paying attention to what people are saying, but also steering the conversation with good questions – particularly open-ended ones. My challenge is because I often hear something and then my mind wants to go off in multiple directions, thinking, ”What about this question …,” or “This idea might work …,” or “How about this for a solution,” or just, “Why?” I make an effort to fight my instinctive response, and let the other person talk. I’m better off hearing what is said, making sure I understand it, retaining it and continuing to move the conversation forward by listening.
Think about a time you’ve been at a cocktail party and met somebody for the first time. You have a really enjoyable conversation, then go on your way. Later on, and you think about how much you liked that person, and you really don’t know much about them. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll often realize it’s because you were doing most of the talking. People like to talk about themselves. So if you can recognize that and help facilitate it by being a good listener who asks thoughtful, open-ended questions, you’ll find others to be responsive. You’ll also discover it’s easier to steer the conversation, directing it where you’d like for it to go.
MG: In what ways do you guide the conversation?
SD: When a natural break occurs in the conversation, it’s the perfect time to go deeper – just ask, “Why?” – or pivot and circle back to a question you wanted to ask, or a thought you wanted to share. As a leader, I often know the direction in which I’d like the conversation to go, and the outcome I’d like to have. In order to do that, you need to persuade people. Being a good listener can provide you with information that will be critical while making your case.
Sometimes, you need to let the conversation take its natural course and then reel it back in so you can make your point. If you interrupt or change the subject too bluntly, the people you’re conversing with may perceive you to be disinterested, or even worse, combative. It’s not a successful tactic for managers.
You need to approach a conversation with a plan, but then you’ve gotta play the game, maybe do the dance. Good dancers know when to lead and when to follow. Good conversations are the same – there’s always going to be some give and take. That’s a really big part of it. If people feel heard, they’re going to be a little bit more inclined to trust you, to follow you.
MG: Why do you enjoy leading teams?
SD: I like to help people succeed. I like to help them grow. One of my mentors once told me a good leader helps others achieve things that they didn’t know they were capable of. That seems to be a pretty good assessment of a good leader – if you’ve helped others surprise themselves with their own accomplishments. Another One measure of a good leader is whether they have helped those on their team move on to greater roles and responsibilities, bigger successes and brighter futures. If you can help bring that out, you’ll be tremendously successful.
To start, you need to learn what makes people tick, what motivates them. Too often, we paint in broad strokes about what we think should motivate others – particularly when we’re leading a team. It’s easy to make generalizations, and a common mistake can be assuming others want the same things we do. We each have our own unique motivators. While there may be some common ground, everyone has their own individual needs, goals and circumstances. Assuming what motivates us is the same as the people we’re managing is flawed from the beginning. I’m accountable to others above, lateral or below me on the organization chart. Our motivators are bound to vary simply because we sit in different seats on the bus.
Fundamentally, we all go to work to make money, to some degree. But there are certainly many obvious extrinsic motivators, as well as a variety of intrinsic and intangible ones too. And everyone weights them differently. A good manager understands what they are for each member of his or her team. This diversity can work for you, and make your team stronger – if you know how to use each of your human assets effectively. The trick is having to manage the group fairly and consistently, while customizing your style, and tactics, to the individual.
MG: How do you manage conflict between people in your team? How do you create a culture that allows open communication and minimizes conflict?
SD: There are a few things you have to do. First of all, you have to be a good communicator, and you need to be honest with people. That means not just explaining things in a way that makes sense to you. Consider your audience. How will they perceive and receive what you’re trying to convey? It can be clear as a bell to you, but if someone’s level of knowledge or perspective is a little different; if their circumstances, professionally or personally, are not the same as yours; if you are not motivated by the same things, what’s heard may be very different from what you intend. So you need to speak to your audience. At the same time, you have to do so with respect to your position as a manager, leader, or supervisor. You need to be clear and set the right tone.
To minimize conflict, everyone should have a voice – at the appropriate time. Sometimes they need to be smaller voices, depending on the circumstances or context. But, if everyone has a clear understanding of the mission, objectives, goals and expectations, then you’re starting from a fairly healthy place. Occasionally, conflict will arise because people disagree. That’s natural. Sometimes folks just rub each other the wrong way. Once in a while, it makes sense to interject a bit of controlled conflict. It can be a healthy stimulus to provoke thought, or even get a meeting back on track. Effective managers can recognize good conflict from bad. That disagreement in a meeting over an idea can be a healthy thing, if you don’t allow it to escalate. Instead, you may re-channel the energy into a productive “what if” session and come up with a better solution. But conflict can also be something that’s just getting in the way of the real point of the meeting or the conversation.
When I see negative conflict in a group setting, the first thing I try to do is isolate it. I don’t want it to escalate, and I’d rather not have a conversation with two people in front of ten. So I try to quell the immediate issue and move the meeting forward. Then, afterwards I’ll circle back privately with the individuals as soon as possible. Together, more often than not – and ask what happened. I try to find out what’s on their minds, and understand each perspective. This is where it helps to know your staff, and whether there’s an underlying issue before the conflict even occurred. To do that, you need to not only know your team, but you need to be well-connected to a few key people on the team. The ones who can keep you informed of the temperature – whispers, rumors, new developments, old wounds. Smart managers have their go-to people who know what’s happening when you’re not around – and they trust and respect you enough to share.
I like to try to address the conflict head-on — not necessarily in a negative or accusatory fashion, unless it’s warranted. There are some behaviors that are just not acceptable, and you have to be pretty firm and rigid when those circumstances arise. But, assuming it’s just a disagreement (they happen) or a situation somebody just ticks somebody else off, you need to get to the root of the problem. You can be a middleman and broker a truce. Let those involved in the conflict settle the disagreement. It doesn’t need to be a protracted negotiation. We all have other things to do. But if you can accomplish that, as opposed to dictating the terms of the truce on your own, you’re more likely to resolve the issue for good. Another thought to remember, and I’ve said candidly, many times, is that you don’t have to like everybody you work with. You don’t have to be friends, but you do have to treat everyone with respect, and not be detrimental to the team. Conflict drags down the whole team, so even if one person happens to be right, they may still be doing more harm than good.
MG: That is a really good point. Being right doesn’t always justify the emotional tension.
SD: Absolutely. Sometimes the best way to be right is to keep your mouth shut. It’s usually not a life-or-death matter. Sometimes, you just need to keep your mouth shut and wait for a more appropriate time to deal with a conflict or an issue.