How to Have Better Conversations

Having a conversation with someone at work with whom you have little in common can feel uncomfortable, maybe even forced. But leaders see significant benefits from learning how to have better conversations—with anyone.

Celeste Headlee: How to Have Better Conversations

A 480 PODCAST

How to Have Better Conversations

36 minutes | March 7, 2023

00:00:00 00:00

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In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, Celeste Headlee, a bestselling author, radio journalist, and former TED Talk speaker, joins us to discuss how to have better conversations as leaders inside and outside of your organizations. Learn how to approach any given conversation thoughtfully, purposefully, and with confidence. 

Beth Almes:

Hi leaders, and welcome back to the Leadership 480 podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes, and today I'm excited to talk about how leaders can have better conversations with anybody. Because as a leader, let's face it, it's not a question of if, but when, you are going to have to connect with, influence, and care about the needs of someone who is nothing like you. And you might disagree with them about pretty much everything and maybe even downright dislike them, but you still got to figure out a way to work with them and make sure you both get what you need. So, I'm so excited to have our guest with us today, and I'm even a little bit nervous because she's the internet's most famous person about having great conversations. Celeste Headlee is joining us, and she is very well known for her TED Talk on 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation.

If you haven't seen it, about 34 million of your peers have so go Google it after this podcast. Celeste is also an internationally recognized journalist and radio host, professional speaker, and author of several bestselling books, including We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, as well as books on race and sexism. So, she is such a wonderful guest to have. Celeste, welcome to the Leadership 480 podcast.

Celeste Headlee:

Thank you, that was an awesome introduction.

Beth Almes:

So, I realize I'm going to sound like I'm about a hundred years old here, but I feel like it's gotten so much harder and more intimidating to just have a conversation with somebody, especially with people we don't know. So many of the opportunities we once had to talk to people we know nothing about in advance have gone away. It's scary now to just pick up the phone or go on a first date with someone if you don't know everything about them in advance.

So, when this comes up at work, and we've got to talk with people we don't know much about and we're afraid of offending them and we don't know their background, our skills might be getting pretty rusty or even nonexistent. So, do you think we're becoming less skilled at the art of conversation?

Celeste Headlee:

Yes and no. Yes, conversation is a skill and so therefore the less you use it, the more those skills will erode. And we are finding all kinds of brilliant and very misguided ways to avoid talking to other people, which is very odd to me. So yes, it is true that the more you send emails, the more you avoid the phone, the more your skills are degraded.

On the other hand, just a few other things to think about. Number one, we are homo sapiens. We are the most sophisticated and phenomenally talented communicators on the planet. So, there's a lot of built-in, inherent talent there that is ready for you to use as soon as you get back to talking. The other thing I will say is that really solid scientific research shows we tend to overestimate the awkwardness of conversations. In other words, when they study this, people tend to talk about how awkward they were in conversations and said the wrong thing and all those other things. And when they quiz the other person who was speaking to them, they didn't notice any of that. They didn't notice anybody being awkward or the wrong things being said. So, we get in our own way a lot and we really tend to underestimate how much other people just enjoy talking to us and are not judging us the way that we're judging ourselves.

Beth Almes:

That's so interesting. It's that, I'm thinking of when you lay awake at night and you're replaying this conversation in your head and you're like, "I said everything wrong. I've totally embarrassed myself," especially when it comes to a work situation. So maybe the other person isn't noticing some of these things, but there are a few things maybe we're doing where we do come off worse than we want to be perceived. So where do a lot of people go wrong in their conversations? How do we mess this up?

Celeste Headlee:

So, the primary mistake people make is by focusing on what they're going to say. Every single interaction with another human being is involved some way in impression management. No matter what you're talking about, even if you're just relaying straight up information, on some level, you're concerned about the impression you're making. And people try to cope with that by really obsessing over the language they use, what they say, coming up with interesting conversation topics in advance and memorizing them or jokes or whatever it may be.

When it turns out that, again, clinical research shows, the more you focus on what you're going to say, the more you come off as unlikable and obsessed and subconscious. But if you focus on the questions you ask the other person, questions have this unique power to make other people see us as likable, to see us as trustworthy, especially follow up questions. Why? Because in order to ask a follow-up question, I had to have been listening. I can't ask a follow-up if I didn't hear the initial response to a question. And follow up questions in particular really make other people find us likable and trustworthy and intelligent and engaged, and it makes them feel heard. So that's the most common mistake people made. Stop worrying about what you're going to say and just focus on what you want to learn from the other person. What questions do you have?

And if you've never met them before, I guarantee you there's still questions. I guarantee you that someone is wearing something interesting, has a tattoo somewhere, has an interesting job that you don't know anything about or maybe you don't realize it's interesting. I mean, I don't want to speak for you, but this is what hosts do, I always have questions. So, focus on what you want to learn.

Beth Almes:

I think I might start all my business conversations now with, "Do you have a tattoo somewhere that's interesting?"

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah, it's so funny because people will tell me, I'll see somebody's tattoo and I'll say, "What's the story behind that tattoo?" And they'll say, "Oh, there's no story." And then they'll proceed to tell me a super interesting story. Every tattoo has a story, all of them.

Beth Almes:

If there's no story it just means it's an embarrassing one I don't want to tell you.

Celeste Headlee:

But even that's a story.

Beth Almes:

It means I'd prefer not to share. But I think you bring up a great point about it is in a way about impression management, and especially I think when we are in leadership situations at work, and I can tell you I'm guilty of this too, but when there's somebody you've got to impress or you're nervous about, that you're talking to a, I don't know, executive vice president of something and you don't know them and sometimes these are the conversations where you come off the worst. How do you keep yourself in check when you're talking to people you want to impress?

Celeste Headlee:

I would stop focusing on trying to impress them, because that's where people go wrong. If you want to impress them... Okay, so I'll give you an example. I've been a host for National Public Radio on PBS for a very long time, and one of the biggest mistakes that people make when they get into the host chair is by trying to impress our guests with how much they know about their area of expertise, but that's ridiculous. There's no way, if I'm interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson, I'm going to impress him with how much I know about astrophysics. There's no way if I'm talking to Bill Gates, I'm going to impress him with how much I know about business management. So instead, I focus on asking questions they've never been asked before, and that does require homework. I want to hear what is it that this person knows that nobody else can tell me? And that ends up making a really good impression.

I have had conversations with people in which they have literally talked about how smart I am after it's over, and all I did was craft questions, that's it. But it seems counterintuitive, but frankly, the more you worry and the more you focus on the impression that you're making and coming off as smart and coming off as self-assured, the less...let me put it this way, think about the definition of cool. When you were in high school the people that were cool are really the people who don't care. Those are not the people you want to date when you're 25, but in high school that's what's cool. So, think about it that way. Try to be cool in that, not that you don't care, but that you're not worried about how you're coming off. What you're worried about is making that other person shine, giving them a chance to shine.

Talking about yourself, what you know, what you like, the things you believe, we know through neuroscientific research, activates the same pleasure center in the brain as sex and heroin. And so, if you give other people the opportunity to talk about themselves, what they know, what they like, what they believe, they're going to feel great. And so, then they will be impressed with you. They'll be like, "Wow, they are a great conversationalist," but really, you've just made them feel wonderful.

Beth Almes:

You're like, "I've said 10 words and I'm a great conversationalist."

Celeste Headlee:

Exactly. That's exactly right.

Beth Almes:

So, the other area I think puts a lot of leaders on the back foot sometimes is when they're talking to somebody, and they don't immediately relate to them. So maybe they look different, or they just don't share many of their characteristics and they're thinking, "I don't know what to talk to them about. I don't know how to make small talk with this person." And they're afraid of how to talk to them and afraid of maybe even offending them. So, we don't agree about everything. So how do you as a leader start to think about the people you've got to connect with, maybe you have someone on your team who's very different from you and you don't have an easy rapport with them. How do you start to build that up?

Celeste Headlee:

So, I will start by repeating a little bit of what I just said, which that very often when people say they don't know what to talk to somebody about, it's because they're focused on what they can talk about. They'll look at somebody who's very different from them. They'll say, "I have nothing in common with this person, and so therefore nothing to talk about." But if you're less focused on that, what you're going to talk about, as opposed to what could this person tell me, you always can talk about that.

I'll give you an example. I was at the TED Summit some years back and this Japanese scientist came up to me and said, "I've watched your TED talk a bunch of times, but you never actually say how to start a conversation." And I could see, TED always gives you these giant name tags that have all this information on it...they work great, they look ridiculous, but they work great. And I said, "I see you're from Kyoto. I've never been there; I've only been to Tokyo. So, what is Kyoto like?" And he was like, "Well, you've seen the pictures, the temples, and the cherry trees and blah, blah, blah." And I said, "Yeah, but is it crowded? Tokyo is jam packed, these tiny little apartments and blah, blah, blah, blah. Is that what Kyoto's like?" He's like, "No, no, no, no. Houses and blah, blah, blah, blah." And I'm like, "Yeah, but houses with yards and dogs?" And about five or 10 minutes later I said, "That's how you start a conversation."

You ask them questions; they know the answer to about something they care about. And they're never going to not have an answer to what is your hometown like. They're never not going to care what their hometown is like, and that relieves the pressure from you for coming up to something to say. And just to take this one step further, one of the biggest issues for leaders is the expertise trap. The idea that as soon as you become a leader, or as soon as you become an expert, you're learning curve either flattens out at best or falls straight off a cliff. And that's because as soon as you begin to think that you know, maybe you just know a lot, but usually it's that you know more than other people. Then you're going to approach all your team members as though you are there to tell them to impart wisdom and to guide them and manage them as opposed to coach.

The expertise trap is such a danger, and it leads to group think, it leads to all kinds of really, really bad decisions. So, the way to get around that is to constantly approach your team members with curiosity and understanding that even if you held a job 15 years ago, you have no idea what that job entails now and here's this person right in front of you who's in that job and could enlighten you and really help you out. And if you approach your conversations that way, you will never be short of topics.

Beth Almes:

Wow. So, one of the questions I also have is when we do think about topics at work, there are a number of things right now that feel really explosive around politics, and even things that you would've once thought are very neutral now might feel kind of loaded. Do you think there are topics that should be off limits at work?

Celeste Headlee:

Absolutely not. And frankly, the research is behind me. Banning people from talking about politics backfires in every case study that we have of it. I give you base camp as an example. I mean, we have so much evidence showing that trying to prevent people from talking about things they care about is going to be counterproductive. On the other hand, if you openly acknowledge, "Hey listen, we're at a point in our history in which part of burnout is being fueled by the politics and the real-life situations happening as soon as you walk out this door, we as a company would never dream of pretending like we are isolated in a bubble, and you are not real people with real issues. And so, we're going to give you some training in how to have these conversations without arguing. Let's learn how to converse in a respectful way."

And if people trained them that way, not only would it help because you don't ever have to ban things, but also improving people's conversational skills has just a cascade of benefits, not least of which all of these efforts to improve diversity and inclusion is really just an effort to try to make people work better as team members.

Modern workers have no idea how to function as a healthy team. That is just the truth. And so, if you just are training them in how to be team members, in other words saying, "Listen, let's learn how to collaborate and coordinate, and we don't care if you like each other because it doesn't matter. We're not going to force you to like anybody, you just have to be respectful and collaborate well." That's going to give them all kinds of benefits. But banning those conversations is just going to send morale straight into the toilet and frankly increase your turnover rate.

Beth Almes:

Do you think when leaders do have these...if they touch on difficult topics and things like that, one of the risks there is that, does someone who reports to you feel like they have to agree with you and make sure that, "Oh, well my boss says this and if I disagree, I'm not going to be considered for this promotion or whatever." So, what are some of the things you can do to kind of set the stage to say, "Hey, it's safe to disagree with me here. We are having a conversation. It's okay if you say, 'No, I'm not. I don't agree with you, or I'm not on the same page,'" without there being repercussions?

Celeste Headlee:

So, leaders overwhelmingly tend to vastly overestimate the risks of transparency, and they definitely overestimate the risks of admitting when they don't know something. Not being open about your own mistakes, the things you don't know, and your own uncertainty leads to an erosion of trust. And I can very quickly explain why that is. If somebody always has an answer for everything, we know subconsciously that some of that is BS. We know that, not everybody can know everything about everything. And so, on a subconscious level, we know some of what they're telling us is not fully credible, we just don't know which part. And so therefore we just start to introduce a note of skepticism to everything that they say. Again, sometimes this is subconscious, but we start to lose our trust in what they're telling us because we just can't be sure.

Now, if a leader is that way, if they're constantly pretending like they haven't said the wrong thing, they always know the right answer, that's going to erode trust as well, especially when they're saying things that are clearly tone-deaf, clueless, or just wrong. And this is absolutely the case when it comes to any kind of issue of difference or fairness. There is no possible way that anybody can know everything about all the different cultures and upbringings and gender identities, and there's no way that you can know that.

And so, the way to prevent people from thinking they have to agree with you is by stepping out and saying, "Look, I'm counting on you guys to help me understand this. We all are counting on each other, and if I say the wrong thing, I want you to tell me because I want to get better. And we at this company are invested in growth mindset. We have no interest in being fixed in any way, shape, or form. And that means we're going to need to correct each other and rely on each other, and when you know something and I said the wrong thing, tell me."

And then you have to be the kind of person who responds to feedback in a healthy way, because if you don't, if someone takes you up on that and you use the word gypsy, which is an offensive term, and somebody corrects you and says, "Hey, that used to be acceptable, but people don't use the word gypsy anymore," for example. You have to be the kind of person that does not snap back at them and go, "I know that, I didn't mean it like that," or whatever justification you say, or they will never correct you again. Or you have killed that entire open, transparent, healthy room for dialogue. You have to be the kind of person that welcomes it and rewards it.

Beth Almes:

I love that approach of you've got to be the person who says, "I didn't know that. Thank you for telling me. I honestly had no idea, or I wasn't aware when I used it. It slipped out. That was a mistake, I shouldn't have done it-"

Celeste Headlee:

And thank you, thank you.

Beth Almes:

"Thank you." So, some of this too, right now, there's a lot of anxiety sometimes among different generations as well, because some of it is just different values or ways of looking at things, but a lot of it too is we are literally sometimes not speaking on the same channel. So that's one of the challenges we sometimes see with conversation of maybe an older generation is frustrated that nobody's going to just pick up the phone. Can we please just have this conversation? And someone who's younger might be, they're actually offended when someone calls them back when they sent them a text. They're like, "You don't call when I've texted you." So how do you see people starting to solve the channel divide in where we have our conversations?

Celeste Headlee:

So, I don't pretend I'm cool at all. In other words, my producer, I do a podcast for Slate, and my producer is a Gen Z, and she will text me something and I will send her a voicemail that says, "Hi, I'm texting you because I'm old and I'm trying to annoy you," and then I continue on. But she knows it's because I don't text as fast as she does. For her it's like, "..." and she sent a four-paragraph text. It takes me way longer than that and I'm not interested in doing it.

So, some of it is just being honest about it and taking the shame out of it. Look, there are differences in the way that we grew up. I didn't even get to use a personal computer. Oh, well, that's not true, I was very young, but still, they didn't have smartphones until 2007. By the time 2007 came around, I was 37 years old. So that's just a difference. There's no difference in us as people. We haven't been able to find any evidence that there are major personality differences between generations, but there are differences just in style and culture and the technology for sure. So just be honest about it. Take the blame and the shame and the guilt out of it and just be like, "Look, yeah, I know that you text really fast. I don't. So, I'm going to respond with a voicemail, sorry."

Beth Almes:

Well, it's interesting because I think on the reverse side, one of the things I find different in, whether you're texting or you're on a Slack channel or whatever, but when you're not talking face to face, for those of us especially who are a little more introverted, you have a little bit more time to think about your response and backspace, "Oh no, that's not what I want to say," and things like that, in a way that sometimes I think it can start to take people off guard than when you have to talk to somebody live and respond right this second. I can't respond now or in 30 seconds or in five minutes if I want to. Do you see that time to processing, is that affecting the quality of our conversations without that time to process your response?

Celeste Headlee:

Actually, I'm going to disagree with you here.

Beth Almes:

Interesting.

Celeste Headlee:

The widespread use of any kind of text-based communication is degrading the quality of our conversations. And the reason for that is because communication is just not as effective by any measure when you're using text as it is when you're hearing the voice. I think we should really stop defaulting to video conferencing because we now know after the pandemic a lot more about Zoom and all of the others and how uniquely taxing they are for our bodies and our brains. But the voice phone call is so much more efficient, it is so much more honest. We are kinder, we are more compassionate, we are more likely to cooperate and collaborate when we are on the phone and hear somebody else's voices. There's even research that shows it is the sound of the voice itself that allows us to recognize someone else as a human being.

Look, we have measured text-based communication in every way to Sunday, and the idea that a text is the same or even similar to a phone call, it's just not true. If you're exchanging just straightforward information, totally fine. If you needed to send an agenda or a document, absolutely use your email. But for everything else, the voice is not only more efficient, I mean, it's going to take you less time, but it's just a better, clearer communication.

Let me put it to you this way, I asked a scientist at one point if it was possible after all these years of evolution of focusing so much of our energy, our biological energy on becoming incredible communicators through our mouths and our ears, if it would be possible for text, for written communication to equal verbal communication at any point? And she said it's possible in five to 10,000 years.

Beth Almes:

Wow.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah, you just...okay, let me put it to you another way. Have you ever called up a friend and they just said, "Hello," and you said, "What's wrong?"

Beth Almes:

Yes, my mom. Yeah, mm-hmm.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah, that is how quickly some very sophisticated information is relayed to us in less than a second. We are designed to pick up on sounds in the voice, in the breath, that we cannot pick up on in any kind of written communication. Written communication is a very recent development. The voice is so powerful that they have machinery, they have technology that can listen at all times to a pilot's voice and detect signs of fatigue 30 to 60 minutes before the pilot themselves feels any kind of tiredness because it's reflected in our voices. So, I mean, I could go on, we could just spend the rest of the time talking just about this, the power of the voice, but texting, it's just not the same.

Beth Almes:

So, do you think body language has anything to do with that as well? And I'm thinking of, you mentioned that video conferencing, it can be very taxing at the same time without the video, you don't see someone's facial expressions, things like that. And then as well, you also hear arguments right now for people to return to office that, if we're going to collaborate, we need to be together in person, we need to be reading each other's body language, looking at each other's faces. Do you think that that really matters to the quality of the conversation or not so much?

Celeste Headlee:

I mean, in-person conversations are the platonic ideal. If we were in the same room, then all that stuff would matter, but video conferencing is not actually giving you all that accurate of information when it comes to, we call it kinesics, your body language, your eye contact, et cetera, et cetera. And there's a bunch of different reasons for this. I don't want to get all wonky on you, but I will just say that, for example, in video conferencing, eye contact is an illusion. In order for me to look straight at the camera, I can't be looking at you. So, what you're seeing in my eyes is not my eye contact with you. It's me staring pretty blankly into the aperture of a camera. And our brains will try to fix that all the time.

Our brain is trying to merge the picture of you that's on one screen and the camera that I'm looking at. It's trying to fix this. Also, there's often a very tiny consciously imperceptible lag in time between the movement of your mouth and the sound of your voice, and our brains are trying to fix that also. Cognitively speaking, it's an incredibly high-cost activity, and we do not get the biofeedback that we get being in person. So no, we're not getting that body language. What's more is are you standing up, or are you sitting in a chair? Are you at a desk, or are you loose in a room? We're sitting in a very constrained place when we're on a video conferencing call, and so you're not getting my natural body language.

So yeah, I mean, I don't want to come down on video conferencing, that absolutely has its place. The recording of this podcast is one of those things. I teach workshops on video conferencing, it works great. I do some of my speeches virtually, that works great. But in terms of conversation, you really need to just pick up the phone.

Beth Almes:

And do you think that...so I mean while in-person does have a certain amount of value, do you think it has to be in place for people to build a-

Celeste Headlee:

No.

Beth Almes:

So, a resounding no.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah, absolutely not. And frankly, I really wish that people would not use their gut instinct to make these kinds of decisions that affect people's lives. It makes common sense to think, "Oh, we'd collaborate better if we were all in person all the time, enough of this remote work. Our problem is morale. We don't have cohesiveness in teamwork." That's probably not what's causing lowered morale and the cohesiveness of your team. And so, before you start assuming it's because people are remote, find out if that's really what's behind it, because there's no reason why people working remotely would lead to less cohesion unless you don't know how to work remotely. You may be doing it wrong.

And I just would really wish people would be evidence-based rather than gut-based. Your gut is going to fool you, it's going to steer you in the wrong direction all the time. And so, look into it, find out, maybe it is, it's possible there's a company where the remote work is not working for them for one reason or another, but that's not necessarily the case. You can have incredible collaboration and cooperation even if people are spread all over the world, you just have to do it right.

And frankly, the upsides to that, the way that team members often feel a lot more autonomy, they feel that they get a better work/life balance, in many cases, as long as you're not overloading them with meetings, those are nothing to be sneered at, especially in this age of burnout. So, demanding that everybody come into the office, I think in almost every case is extremely wrong-headed.

Beth Almes:

So, one of the things that people often talk about they feel like they have lost in remote culture, but it's not just true in remote culture, it can be true in any work conversation, so often we feel very focused on the need to have a productive conversation. You need this, I need this, we've got to decide this, which is fine, we do have to do those things. But there's also the pleasure of the conversation in part to build our business relationship, but in other ways of just, it's a moment for human connection.

And I should say that I'm also simultaneously reading your book on Do Nothing, which is revelatory and how we work in all those kinds of things. So, I know this is another era of your research, but there's some time for just, we have a conversation, there's no purpose, we're just talking. So how do you recommend people start to think about their business conversations and things? This is a chance for us to connect with people that we might not otherwise have met and start thinking about these as a chance for enjoyment versus just, we've got to get through this and work together.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah, I mean, listen, you're going to take, as long as a conversation is not hostile or competitive in tone, you're going to get a benefit out of it. It's going to be good for you. And the other thing I would say is about trying to turn everything productive, I mean, you're reading Do Nothing, you know how very problematic that is. But let me just focus on one thing, which is that in order for you to make everything productive, it would require you to know every possible option of what you could learn during the course of that conversation. You only know what you know, and so sometimes it takes a little bit of expiration to find the unexpected, to discover the surprises that may be lurking.

If every single conversation is directed, that's how you end up with group think. That's how you're like, "Well, this is what I need to know, don't tell me anything else but what I need to know." But there may be things you don't realize that you need to know until suddenly it's a crisis. So yeah, you have to see these conversations and bring with them a certain amount of curiosity, just curiosity to learn interesting stuff.

What is it that I haven't asked.... One of the questions I often ask people at the end of interviews is, "What have I not asked you that you expected to talk about? What should I have asked you?" And those kinds of open-ended questions, what is it that I'm missing, are really going to help you. That's how you become the kind of leader who people enjoy talking to, that they feel comfortable going to them with situations. Maybe it's just like, I have a feeling something's going wrong here. That may never be expressed if every conversation has to be productive. People may never wave those yellow flags instead of red if you have made this stricture that every conversation has to be directed, time limited, and productive. So, leave things open for people to muse. Remember that deep thought is rarely productive or directed. Deep thought ambles, deep thought explores, and deep thought is curious, but deep thought is what drives innovation and creativity.

Beth Almes:

I really love that point of view around you have something to learn and that you may not have known about this other person or their views, because I do think a lot of times, maybe not consciously, but leaders might enter a conversation saying, "I want this to be a good conversation. I'm going to tick off a number of topics we should avoid because I know this person votes this way, or they are a person of this identity, or we don't share the same background on school, so they're probably going to feel differently about it." And so, you kind of shut down in advance on so many topics, and you may find out something totally different about that other person and they may surprise you.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah, absolutely. And surprise is one of the most enjoyable things ever. Only lawyers ask questions they know the answer to. If you're not a lawyer, stop doing that. You need to be curious. Look, think of it this way, number one, you already know everything that's going to come out of your mouth. So, the only way you're going to learn things is by what other people tell you. That's number one. The other thing I will say is that if you stop being curious about things, if you stop allowing other people to surprise you, then you are missing out on the vast majority of topics that are never going to cross your desk. It's just like our curated social media feeds. Because there's benefits to curating those feeds, but also it means that we're pretty much only seeing the stuff that we think is related to us, that we like, that is similar to us, we are so rarely going to be truly surprised.

And don't underestimate surprise. Surprise is great. I love finding out I was wrong. I realize that not everybody has that opinion, but I have found over the course of my life that finding out that I was wrong about something has so often taken my life into way more interesting and frankly productive directions than just finding the evidence for why I'm right.

Beth Almes:

Oh, that's so fascinating. And as a leader, it opens so many more doors to you of how to do things more effectively, better innovation or whatever, because you would've never thought of that maybe on your own. That's so interesting. So, I have to then take a page out of your book and ask you, what else should I have asked you about how leaders can have great conversations? What did I miss, or what do you think most leaders miss?

Celeste Headlee:

So, okay, we have to be honest about a few things when it comes to leadership, and I would encourage leaders to stop being afraid of transparency. Stop making your decisions with your executive team and no others. I highly recommend a book called The Wisdom of Crowds but let me just boil this down to you. Most leaders fail, statistically speaking, the majority of leaders fail. And we need to be honest about that and understand that if you are a leader, statistically speaking, you are going to fail. So rather than constantly thinking of yourself as part of the minority who are succeeding and everybody else is the failure, start asking yourself, in what way am I failing? What am I missing? What are my blind spots? And how can I open up my decision making to the largest group of people possible? For example, we know that mergers and acquisitions are much more likely to succeed if a company makes their decisions on that issue by simply polling everyone who works for a company, double digits, more likely to be successful.

Human beings are group thinkers. We are a hive mind. That is how we do our best thinking. And yet, leaders have this tendency to narrow and narrow and narrow the number of decision makers down. And I highly encourage you to stop doing that. You are so much more likely to make decisions that you may not like but are better and going to lead to better outcomes if you open it up. And be brave, be courageous, and open it up to everyone. The janitorial staff. I'll give you just one example from the book, The Wisdom of Crowds, and other places that cite it. At one point, the US government lost a submarine in the Atlantic Ocean, and they brought in the best experts they could find to figure out where the submarine was. Could not find it. So, one of the people on the team said, "You know what? I'm just going to take a poll."

So pretty much, like just everybody, he just started asking people, "Here's the map, here's the last we had of the submarine. Take a guess where it is." And he took the average of the answers, and they found the submarine. That is how beautifully we are designed to think as a group. And a diverse, independent group of thinkers is going to be more accurate, more innovative, less error-prone than even your most highly paid and experienced consultant. Open it up.

Beth Almes:

I'm just happy they didn't say, "Nope, we didn't lose a submarine. Nobody look at it." So at least they started with actually trying to find it. So, the last question I'll ask you, Celeste, is one that I do ask everyone on the show, but can you tell me about a moment of leadership in your life that changed your perspective? So, whether it's something that was positive, and you said, "Hey, this inspires me to go further," or even something negative of a moment of leadership that you're like, "Okay, I'm going to do something different in the future than that." A moment of leadership that changed your life.

Celeste Headlee:

So, I'm going to remove all the identifiers from here, but I think one of the biggest...early on, when I was very first becoming a leader, and almost nobody actually trains people in leadership. They send them to leadership school, but actually giving them the nuts and bolts of how to be a coach as opposed to managing people, that's very rare.

And I remember I got really angry because my team had missed an important deadline, and I'm sitting there berating them, and one of the people on my team said, they started laughing, and I was like, "I'm super angry right now." And he's like, "Celeste, you shouldn't lead by fear. You are not very convincing angry. No offense, but you are going to have to find another way." And it was an eye-opener for me in terms of how different the perception of us is outside our bodies as opposed to in. And that, you know, I could have taken offense, I suppose it was a negative insult, but I just laughed and was like, "Oh God, I had no idea." He's like, "You kind of look like a Muppet when you're mad." And you know-

Beth Almes:

That is frank feedback.

Celeste Headlee:

... frankly, it is, but it was helpful. He was not wrong. And at that moment, that's when I realized, I want to be the kind of leader that people feel comfortable telling me when I'm screwing up or when something's not working for me. I don't want to be the kind of leader that people don't tell them if they have toilet paper sticking on their shoe or something. I need to be the kind of person where the risk to that is low, because otherwise they won't tell me.

Beth Almes:

Oh, that's a fantastic story. And you certainly don't want to be someone who ends up becoming CEO and does interviews and you end up looking like a Muppet in your interviews when you're furious.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah.

Beth Almes:

That was good. Thank you so much for an amazing conversation today. I certainly felt the pressure, so hopefully from every podcast now on, I will get better and better following your advice in this episode. So, thank you for spending your time with us today. I loved having you on the show.

Celeste Headlee:

Thank you, I really appreciate it. And good luck with all the other interviews to come.

Beth Almes:

And thank you to all of the leaders who took their time out of their 480 minutes today to join us. Remember to make every moment of leadership count.