The Gift of Being Heard

March 1, 2018

In this age of extraordinary technological advances and accelerating change, our ability to effectively communicate has diminished severely. This is partly because we are not equally focused on sending and receiving messages. And we don’t listen in a way that demonstrates that the other is being heard.

Despite the many powerful ways we have to connect, our ability to do this well has suffered. Think about how often you text when you really should talk. Or you choose email when you should call because your message requires some back and forth discussion.

Every new technology has to find its ideal purpose and this usually takes some trial and error. Remember when people faxed in their pizza orders? Just because we can text or email, doesn’t mean we should use them constantly and expect success in our communication.

As I wrote in a previous post, these “asynchronous communication vehicles have become the default way for far too many of us to interact with others.” Texting, emailing, and tweeting are all very effective for sending information. But when it comes to topics that are sensitive, require establishing trust or back-and-forth discussion, using the phone or meeting face-to-face is best.

We have become so focused on sending our perspectives, thoughts, feelings, selfies and the latest emojis that we are no longer as receptive to the other side of the communication equation: receiving. While we may feel confident that the content of our message was received, perhaps not the full sentiment.

However, when we can equally focus on the receiving end of a message, we can begin to engage in meaningful dialogue. We can enable true reciprocity. We can immediately see and/or hear the impact our message had on the receiver. And we can immediately respond in a way that effectively continues to move the conversation forward.

When you experience a communication breakdown in a message you initiate, it could be due to the receiver being confused or misunderstanding your intention because you’ve chosen the incorrect medium. If the receiver of your message can’t accurately interpret what you intended, the communication can fail—often miserably.

One reason is that we make a lot of assumptions in our interactions with others, and these assumptions often get in the way of successful communication. With texting and emailing, assumptions are more challenging to combat due to the fact that verifying them requires more back and forth that can seem to slow down the conversation. The nuance of effective communication—even for the most gifted writers—is often missing in text-only communication.

Being a good receiver in communication means you provide the sender with the gift of being heard—very difficult to do via text and email.  And this gift is all too rare these days. If you are able to give it to others, you will be appreciated and likely gain respect from your colleagues and affection from your family and friends.

One of the benefits of calling or talking face-to-face is you can immediately check on assumptions in order to eliminate any anxiety or confusion. You are also likely to pick up non-verbal clues based on tone of voice, facial expressions and body language that can help you determine whether there is congruence between what is being said and how they look and act when saying it.

Don’t underestimate your intuitive power of reading the sender of the message. You are able to pick up many things above and beyond the words. And this is missing in your texts and emails—no matter how many emojis and photo attachments may be included.

Communicating better requires you to become a better listener. This means really focusing on what the other person is trying to communicate. Whenever possible, ensure discussions that warrant it are face-to-face or by phone, and then provide the other person the gift of being heard.

Success in Difficult Conversations

February 8, 2018

In our work lives as in our personal lives we encounter situations that demand initiating difficult conversations. These conversations are not easy, but shouldn’t be avoided because that can often make things worse.

As much as the conflict avoider in us may want to run in the other direction, those who are able to courageously confront the situation are likely to push through the discomfort and grow from it. In addition, the relationship that is demanding the difficult conversation will most likely move forward.

A difficult conversation results when two or more people have: 1) a difference of opinion, perspective, needs or wants; 2) feelings or emotions are strong; 3) consequences or the stakes are high for at least one person. When you’re in a difficult conversation, you may find:

  • There is little safety between participants
  • Emotions are defining the conversation
  • Very little listening is taking place
  • Participants are aiming for a win/lose scenario
  • Participants may be playing a role: victim, aggressor, martyr, etc.

Obviously, this can result in a highly stressful environment. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Use the following steps to be at your best when initiating a difficult conversation:

Stay Calm
Breathe. Try to be present of what you are feeling and what it is you want. If possible, try to determine what the other person may be feeling and wanting. And when you begin the conversation, be certain to communicate your intent up front in order to provide safety for the other person.

Shift Your Perspective
Rather than focus on how difficult the conversation is going to be, try to think of it as a constructive conversation. By initiating this constructive conversation, you are demonstrating the value the relationship has for you. Keep in mind that this is an investment of your time and emotional energy that will benefit you as well as the relationship.

Make a Plan
Have a clear idea of the points you want to make, but don’t write out a script. You should be able to summarize both your perspective as well as the other’s. If you are uncertain of the former, you need to figure it out before initiating the conversation. If you are uncertain of the latter, you should provide ample opportunity at the beginning of the conversation to better understand this. Be careful of assumptions you are making as these can so often derail any conversation, and are especially dangerous when emotions are high.

Prepare to Actively Listen
This means listening to the other person in a way that ensures he or she feels heard. Being an active listener means you make a conscious effort to truly hear what the other person is saying—in their words as well as their body language. Practice holding off thinking about how to respond or interrupting until you have thoroughly heard what they are saying.

Be Compassionate and Demonstrate Empathy
Consider how it may feel to be on the other end of this conversation. Be respectful while they take in what may be very difficult for them to hear. Convey in your words, tone and body language that you truly care for how the other person feels about what it is you are saying. Try to get comfortable with the awkward silence that may result.

Seek a Win-Win Conclusion When Possible
In most cases a successful difficult conversation doesn’t result in a winner and a loser. Therefore, seek out an amicable resolution to the conflict in a way that is satisfying to both parties. This is not always possible, of course, but even when you have to convey bad news such as a job dismissal, see if there is a way to soften the news. Perhaps it is simply providing information about out-placement services, severance package, a solid reference, etc.

Reflect & Learn
When the conversation is over, take a moment to reflect on what went well and what not so well. What could you have said better or differently? There are certainly things outside of your control in a heated conversation and you will need to maintain your boundaries. Don’t take on guilt for the other person’s negative reaction to your news. This requires courage and you will likely be fortified the next time you need to have a difficult conversation.

In order to have a constructive difficult conversation, the steps above should help you navigate them more successfully. In most cases, your efforts are likely to improve the relationship and build your skill at navigating future difficult conversations.

“Twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues,” according to the authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High.

Start by rethinking your difficult conversation as more of a constructive conversation. Remember that whether it is with your family members, friends or co-workers you are directly confronting an issue that has stifled the relationship. Though it is not easy to do, the result of your efforts—in most cases—will move the relationship forward and build-up a powerful skill in you as a leader.

An Attitude of Gratitude

November 21, 2017

Beyond football, eating a big meal, and gathering with extended family, Thanksgiving should be a time of, well, giving thanks. In that spirit, I want to express my gratitude for all that I am thankful for in my life.

First and foremost, I am grateful for my family, and the love and devotion they provide to help me be the best husband and father I can be. My wife and three children are the most important people in my life and, though I sometimes struggle to maintain the boundaries to honor this, I want them to know that I never forget they are my number one priority. I am also grateful to my mother, and my brothers and sisters—though we are scattered across the globe and span the political spectrum from Libertarian to Green Party—we share a common history and remain close in spirit if not in geography.

I am grateful for my friends, many of whom I have been lucky to count as such for more than thirty years. Though we are not always in sync in finding face time, I know I can count on them to keep me from falling out of touch and becoming mere “Facebook friends.” In particular, The 728 Club has been especially meaningful to me as our tradition of semi-annual adventures have sustained and fortified our steadfast friendship. I hope all my friends understand that, although I am not regularly in touch, I am grateful for the continued love and companionship they provide me.

I am grateful for my clients, who continually astound me in the growth they achieve by courageously taking behavioral risks to reach their professional goals. The satisfaction in my work is derived entirely by the level I can help them grow to reach their full potential. As an independent leadership coach and consultant, I measure my success not only by the amount of revenue I generate, but by the level of success I have in moving my clients forward. I am thankful for choosing to work with me, choosing to trust in me, and choosing to take the hard steps necessary to move forward in the growth of themselves and their teams.

I am also grateful for my failures. I know that I would not be the person I am today were I not to have failed and learned by the process. In my previous career, I was once fired from a job and was devastated. I felt the debilitating shame of not being good enough. This was the culmination of previous smaller failures, which ultimately led to some deep soul-searching with regard to who I was and who I wanted to be. In the end, I redirected my focus and embraced the messages I was given in order to redirect my career. The result is I moved beyond career and into what I consider to be my calling, which is so much more satisfying. According to author Eloise Ristad, “When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.”

I am grateful for my persistence and my patience. I am grateful for my resilience. And for following writer Anais Nin’s advice that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

I am grateful for learning to focus on abundance rather than scarcity. Grateful in embracing the somewhat paradoxical concept that true leadership requires the ability to be vulnerable. And learning that the three essentials of leadership are courage, clarity and humility.

Finally, I am grateful for you, my readers. I truly appreciate you reading these posts and hope you find value in them. Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving.

Positive Morning Routine: Why it Matters

September 1, 2017

How do you start your day? It may very well determine whether you reach your goals.

Maybe because it’s back to school time, but I’m seeing a lot of articles, blog posts and podcasts related to “what successful people do every morning.”

All of us currently have a morning routine and most of us follow it without questioning whether it is helping or hampering our efforts to reach our goals. Those who start each day with deliberate, disciplined and mindful practice could very well be more successful in life.

So if you want to realize your dreams, perhaps it’s worth the effort to begin each day with the right physical regimen, mental discipline and emotional attitude. But what should it be?

In a widely circulated video on social media, US Navy Admiral William H. McRaven says if you want to change the world, start off each day by making your bed. This little task provides you with the motivation throughout the day for accomplishing other tasks. And, even when your day doesn’t go so well, he says you will always have the satisfaction of at least going to sleep in a well-made bed.

Dr. Travis Bradberry, co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, recommends the following tweaks to your morning routine in order to be more productive throughout the day:

  • Drink lemon water
  • Exercise or mediate before eating
  • Eat a healthy breakfast
  • Set realistic and achievable goals for the day

On this last one, Bradberry says research has shown that having concrete goals is directly correlated with huge increases in confidence and feelings of being in control. And it’s important that these goals are not vague, but specific to each day as it puts everything into motion.

Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, practices these five items that help him win the day:

  • Make your bed
  • Mediate (10 – 20 minutes)
  • Do 5 to 10 reps of something (less than 60 seconds)
  • Prepare and drink Titanium Tea
  • Write Morning Pages or 5-minute journal

In these Morning Pages, Ferriss suggests responding to the following prompts: “I am grateful for . . . , What would make today great?, and Daily Affirmations: I am . . .“ In the evening, he suggests answering the following: “3 amazing things happened today and How could I have made today better?” This intentional practice can help you focus in the morning and reflect at the end of each day.

Whether you are prepared to switch from coffee to lemon water or Titanium Tea is really beside the point. What’s vital is that you embrace the importance of your approach to each morning in order to facilitate just how productive you’ll be the rest of the day. And you can choose to embrace a discipline that will help you reach your goals.

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect is to ensure you are getting a good night’s rest. This cannot be emphasized enough. If you are not getting enough sleep, you will not be motivated to stick to any routine and you will likely be depleted of the vital energy you need no matter how much caffeine you consume.

Healthy Breakfast

The next should be a given: the most important meal of the day. You must fuel your body with appropriate nutrition to sustain your body until your next meal. You may protest that you don’t have time to prepare and eat a healthy breakfast, and therefore are able to rationalize that at least that Starbucks organic scone is much better than a Crispy Crème glazed donut. The reality is some foods will lift you up and sustain you while others only give you a quick dopamine hit and then leave you flat. Making the time for and choosing the healthier option is your choice.

Exercise/Meditation

Though I don’t feel like exercising in the morning, I’m a strong believer that exercise needs to be routine in order for it to become a habit. Putting it first in the morning ensures it doesn’t get put off or neglected. And by getting your blood pumping in the morning, you will have the vital energy and positive attitude you need to be most productive throughout the day. Gentle yoga or meditation can provide a similar boost without the physical exhilaration you find with a more rigorous workout.

Mindfulness

This could be simply acknowledging what you are truly grateful for at this particular time. Rather than rushing into organizing your brain around your responsibilities and tasks for the day, take the time to acknowledge and, if at all possible, express your gratitude to those to whom you are grateful. Then contemplate how you would approach this day if you knew it was the last day of your life. How can you live more deliberately and mindfully?

When you first wake up you set the tone for how you will approach the day. The more this becomes a positive routine, the more likely you are to maintain it. You may not feel the full effects of it for weeks, but eventually you will begin to notice that your body feels better and your overall disposition is working in your favor rather than against you.

And it may be as simple as making your bed.

Leader as Listener

June 21, 2017

Boilerplate copy on resumes typically include the phrase “excellent communication skills.” But how many people really have them?

Communication is so often thought of as speaking and writing well. While these are certainly important, it is not only the clear dissemination of thoughts and ideas, but also the receptivity and complete understanding of other people’s thoughts and ideas.

Excellent communication skills include the ability to listen really well, and leaders need to do this is order to be successful.

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of connective listening. In their book Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In, authors Mark Goulston and John Ullmen describe this as listening with the intention to fully understand the speaker and strengthen the connection. Connective listening is about listening from their there instead of your here.

Listening is a lot more than hearing the words that are spoken. Body language, tone of voice, inflection and other factors can either amplify, distract or totally contradict the words that are spoken and this needs to be incorporated into effective listening. To become an excellent listener means being able to go to different levels in order to fully understand.

In their book Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence, authors Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins write that in order to improve the ability to listen and engage, a leader needs to master three levels of listening: surface, issues-based and emotions-based.

Level One: Surface Listening

This is listening to hear what is actually being said and taking the words at face value. You do this by making eye contact, nodding your head, and repeating back what you hear. The speaker is then confident that you are following along and engaged in a way that enables the effective transfer of thoughts and ideas.

Level Two: Issues-based Listening

This is the ability to focus intentionally on what really matters. Rather than listening only to the basic facts, you are looking for the underlying message. Reading between the lines, so to speak. This may require asking clarifying questions to get the speaker to expand his or her thinking and say more. The underlying issues are what you are seeking to fully understand.

Level Three: Emotions-based Listening

This is the deepest level of listening that enables you to uncover the real agenda at play. Leaders who listen at this level are able to sense the underlying emotions and motivation behind the issues. They listen to the nonverbal cues, such as the speaker’s body language, tone of voice, and overall mood. You discover the assumptions the speaker is making. Once you understand what’s going on under the surface, you are then able to name and acknowledge it. You can paraphrase what you hear and perhaps add what you sense the speaker is feeling as well. This type of listening requires you to be objective, open and curious. It takes a great deal of effort to be this present. And it takes the courage to name and say aloud the emotions being felt.

Each of these levels is essential for leaders to be effective listeners. The important thing is to practice each so that you can deploy the appropriate level when the situation requires it.

With social media’s focus on “selfies,” “likes” and “followers,” your leadership will stand out if you are able to make the most of interpersonal one-on-one, real-time communications. This means truly engaging by listening more effectively using these three levels.

STEM Alone Won’t Be Enough

May 21, 2017

In education today there is a focus to deliver qualified graduates to take on careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Not only is this where the opportunities are today and likely in the future, but there is a tremendous shortage of qualified Americans to fill the number of STEM jobs currently available.

But a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a STEM field alone may not be enough. That’s because the ability to thrive in the workplace is more often dependent on interpersonal skills that have nothing to do with STEM. These soft skills may include things like cooperation, collaboration, communication, flexibility and empathy.

“Most good middle-class jobs today—the ones that cannot be outsourced, automated, roboticized, or digitized—are likely to be what I would call stempathy jobs,” writes Thomas L. Friedman in his book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in a World of Accelerations. “These are jobs that require and reward the ability to leverage technical and interpersonal skills—to blend calculus with human (or animal) psychology, to hold a conversation with Watson to make a cancer diagnosis and hold the hand of a patient to deliver it, to have a robot milk your cows but also to properly care for those cows in need of extra care with a gentle touch.”

These social skills may have been taught or modeled at home, yet are sorely missing in many workers with STEM careers. Whether people have forgotten these skills or simply choose to no longer demonstrate them in the workplace, it is a problem.

As a consultant and coach working with a variety of people in STEM organizations, I can attest that it is not technical competency or business aptitude that is often missing in many workers. In fact, it is the interpersonal skills that are often frustrating directs, coworkers and supervisors, and hampering the careers of these professionals.

According to a 2013 research study by Oxford’s Martin School, 47 percent of American jobs are at high risk of being taken by computers within the next two decades.

“Nobody cares what you know, because the Google machine knows everything,” Friedman said. The future, he argues, is about what we can do with what we know. It is our humanity and our empathy that make us uniquely different from computers.

This humanity is something we should embrace and use to our advantage rather than downplay as insignificant. It is also the very best way to protect your livelihood from being shortcut by a computer taking over your job.

Showing up in the workplace not only with our technical expertise, but also with compassion for one another is important in order to thrive individually and collectively. This means actively demonstrating cooperation, collaboration, communication, flexibility and empathy. Only in this way can STEM professionals truly reach their full potential.

Managing Conflict in the Workplace

September 14, 2016

Conflict occurs in all relationships. It is natural and it can be detrimental only when it is ignored or not dealt with appropriately.

When handled well at work, conflict can strengthen relationships, and lead to more energy, innovation and greater outcomes. However, when conflict is inappropriately handled in the workplace, it can lead to dysfunction in the form of increased stress, lower productivity and reduced revenue.

One in four employees are so upset by the idea of facing workplace conflict that they call in sick or are otherwise absent from work. That’s the finding from the CPP Global Human Capital Report. In addition, 10 percent of those surveyed stated that a project failed as a direct result of negative conflict, and another third said this negative conflict resulted in someone leaving the company.

Employees in American businesses say they spend on average 2.8 hours each week dealing with conflict, which collectively amounts to $359 billion lost annually to organizations!

Half of all employees surveyed see personality clashes and warring egos as the primary cause of this workplace conflict.

Conflict is unavoidable and therefore we need to learn how to appropriately deal with it if we want to be more effective and productive at work.

We are predisposed to dealing with conflict in one of five different ways, according to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. These ways are: competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising and collaborating. Each is appropriate for a given situation, but most of us are stuck—often unconsciously—using the same one or two in all situations. And this means very often ineffectively dealing with the conflict at hand.

Each conflict strategy has its time and place, and using the right one at the right time can make all the difference.

  1. Competing is assertive and uncooperative. In this mode you try to satisfy your own concerns at the other’s expense. Competing may be appropriate when you are standing up for your rights or defending your position.
  2. Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative. This is when you attempt to satisfy the other’s concerns at the expense of your own. Accommodating can be appropriate when you need to obey an order or choose to yield to another’s point of view.
  3. Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative. In this mode you are sidestepping the conflict without solving either your concern or the other’s. Avoiding can be used when it may be better not to engage in the conflict at that particular time and place. But it can be especially destructive if you don’t go back and address the issue once you do have the time.
  4. Compromising is intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. Here is where you search for middle ground that partially satisfies each person’s concerns. Compromising may be an appropriate strategy when there isn’t time to explore concerns more thoroughly.
  5. Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative. In this strategy you are seeking a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of each person. This requires the courage to stay engaged with the other person in order to really understand all concerns and perspectives, and to learn from each other’s insights to find an agreeable conclusion to the conflict.

“Each of these four strategies for dealing with conflict can have some success,” writes author Don Yaeger in his book Great Teams: 16 Things High-Performing Organizations Do Differently. “But Great Teams set a standard above the rest by choosing the fifth option—collaborating. This means they do their best to listen actively, consider all points of view, and stress the common purpose and shared values of the organization.”

Understanding which of the five strategies we are predisposed to using most often is key, and then learning the value of the other four and putting them into practice at the right times. In this way, we can better navigate the conflict that will occur with our colleagues.

The collaborating option has huge benefits and it pays to begin using this strategy more often when conflict occurs in your workplace.  This assertive and cooperative strategy enables you to be fully engaged, without fighting, and remain in the arena when it may be easier to flee or capitulate. While it may slow things down initially, it will ultimately result in higher engagement and trust, and, more than likely, fewer conflicts moving forward.

Lifelong (Workplace) Learning

August 25, 2016

It’s nearing the end of summer and time for the kids to go back to school. September should also remind us that lifelong learning is vital in order for each of us to stay relevant at work and vibrant in life.

Whether you are just beginning your career, a mid-level manager or a seasoned leader, everyone should embrace lifelong learning—through formal continuing education, independent study, or deliberate behavioral adjustments. This will keep you moving forward at work and elsewhere.

A Fast Company article a couple years ago titled You’re Probably Making These Five Mistakes at Work pointed out the commonality found in people who may be limiting themselves in their careers. These mistakes are:

  1. Handling upsets poorly
  2. Failing to self-promote
  3. Thinking “me” instead of “we”
  4. Not asking for feedback
  5. Declining to take on new roles

It’s interesting to note how each of these may seem insignificant or you may even feel it contradicts how to be successful in your particular workplace, but for me, they all resonate with wisdom. Each has an element of maturity in them. Each of them points to a particular skill set such as emotional intelligence, courage, humility or communication.

The good news is that all of them can be corrected with a little bit of practice and discipline. This correction is certainly not rocket science, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take significant attention and focus. It can be especially helpful to have a mentor, supervisor, HR partner or colleague to help keep you on track and measure your progress.

Meanwhile, Marcel Schwantes conducted a LinkedIn survey last year prior to writing an article for Inc. Magazine titled 8 Mistakes Managers Make, According to Their Employees. He compiled the list after posting the question: “What is the one mistake leaders make more frequently than others?” The results came in from around the world where he states many employees felt distressed and disengaged. These eight mistakes represent how they “suck the life out of their teams.”

  1. Micromanaging
  2. Leading from a position of power or ego
  3. Not listening
  4. Not valuing followers
  5. Failing to grow themselves as leaders
  6. Lacking boundaries
  7. Not providing or receiving feedback
  8. Not sharing leadership

A great deal of avoiding these mistakes begins with self-awareness and understanding how your behavior is impacting employees. Learning the “soft skills” mentioned above can also be especially helpful.

Sometimes a leader can receive candid 360-feedback that is highly instructive in highlighting concerns. Corrective action can then be taken either independently or with the help of an executive coach. Other times it may take the form of a more heavy-handed directive from another senior leader, superior or HR representative in order to elevate the importance of correcting these mistakes.

Regardless of how you learn about your own mistakes, the importance is in whether or not you choose to change. Changing one’s behavior is not necessarily easy as it takes effort and constant attention.  Much can be learned through articles and books, mentoring and coaching, as well as trial and error with continual adjustments. The change may come about very slowly, but I am certain correcting these mistakes will help you in your career.

Learning begins with awareness and accepting that there is room for improvement. Once you can identify what may be holding you back from being most effective, it is time to identify an achievable goal towards the desired change and build a plan for achieving it.

Lifelong learning means you will never truly graduate, but only continue on your quest toward personal and professional excellence.

Telling the Truth to Yourself & Your Boss

July 29, 2016

Sometimes the most difficult part of being fully present and connected in the workplace requires simply speaking the truth: to yourself and to others.

Because we are often reluctant to be emotionally vulnerable by expressing our thoughts, wants and feelings in the workplace, we sacrifice our ability to fully connect and be most productive. This authenticity requires that we tell the truth, even when it is easier to stay silent.

Speaking Truth to Power

Truth telling is currently in short supply throughout our society, but perhaps most destructively in our workplace. It takes courage and is essential to becoming a strong leader.

This is not to suggest we wear our emotions on our sleeve, but it does mean we should express—in an appropriate and professional manner—when we feel angry, disappointed or treated unfairly. We should be fully honest with ourselves and others in service of improving all our workplace relationships.

In The Courage Solution: The Power of Truth Telling with Your Boss, Peers, and Team, author Mindy Mackenzie offers a formula on how to courageously speak the truth in the workplace. She offers practical steps that require vulnerability and courage to improve your impact on the job and increase your happiness. It basically comes down to the only thing you can reliably change or control in any situation: yourself.

Mackenzie, an HR and organizational development veteran in senior leadership roles at Beam, Inc., Campbell Soup Co., and Wal-Mart, recommends four key areas to focus on beginning with yourself, followed by your boss, peers and team.

Taking Ownership & Accountability

The techniques she offers require that you first take ownership and accountability for creating a work life AND personal life you love. This is a life that brings you increased fulfillment, greater sense of purpose, and more joy and energy to every day. It is your responsibility, and cannot be outsourced or provided by someone else. Accepting and owning this is vital.

“Changing the one thing you can change at will—your own habits, ways of thinking, attitudes and behaviors—will begin to positively transform your experience on the job and the results you achieve,” says Mackenzie. “But it’s not easy and will require you to be courageous. It will require you to tell the truth to yourself first. And that can be uncomfortable, but the upside is definitely worth it.”

Leading Your Boss

You also need to lead your boss, which might be the most daunting part of the solution as this may require a mindset you’re not used to having with your boss. Because you likely report to a boss who may be the most instrumental in your advancement, it is very important that you manage this relationship well. And Mackenzie goes a step further in suggesting you lead rather than manage your boss. This leading requires that you:

  • Intensely study your boss to get to know the human being behind the mask. Be curious and establish a dialogue where you can better know how they operate.
  • Understand the company you work for: the business you are in, how the firm makes money, who the end customer is and how what you do fits into the company’s strategy.
  • Get the boss-employee relationship basics right. Always strive to keep your boss informed and when you make a mistake, be sure to own up to it and provide a plan for fixing it.
  • Make a concerted effort to elevate your thinking to an enterprise-wide perspective. Frame your ideas with a focus beyond your own domain, which will make you appear more like a leader and your ideas more likely to be implemented.
  • Get in tune with your boss by knowing exactly what he or she is wrestling with on a weekly basis. By knowing what your boss is working on, you are more likely to be an asset while doing your own work.
  • Provide honest, positive praise and affirmation to your boss. Be on the lookout for behavior or traits you admire and express that to him or her. Like any good relationship, you need to regularly make positive deposits in your relationship bank account.
  • Be smart by preparing your boss for your pushback, challenges and disagreements. Use the LCS (Like, Concern, Suggest) method to frame your differences so your boss can hear them and positively respond to you.

Throughout all of these it is essential that you tell the truth. Without being truthful, you will undermine their effectiveness and may ultimately sabotage the relationship with your boss.

Showing up and telling the truth in the workplace is not easy. It is certainly not common. If you choose to do so, you will stand out in a good way. You will ultimately be respected. And you will become more of a leader.

Virtually Connected Yet Digitally Distracted

May 13, 2016

Our reliance on smartphones not only enables us to connect with each other at any time and any place, it has also changed the nature of our connections in a profound way. Because we have a phone that connects us to our families, friends, bosses, co-workers, acquaintances, and just about everything else, it has almost become an extension of our bodies.

I remember I used to get so upset while waiting in line for something because when I finally got to the front, the clerk took a phone call and provided immediate service to that person instead of me. Once alerted to this, everyone began calling while they were waiting in line.

Today, two people can be having a very serious conversation, yet when someone’s phone beeps with a text or other alert, the conversation is interrupted (whether or not someone looks) and no longer are the two fully engaged. Our connections are no longer as in-depth because research has shown that even having a phone within sight keeps people from venturing as deep. Knowing that at any moment what you say can be interrupted, keeps you from making yourself vulnerable.

According to Sherry Turkle, author of the new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, this age of technological innovation enables us to always communicate, yet we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We have become distracted so much that we can’t be with others without turning to our phones. Research found that each of us look at our phones on average every 6.5 minutes. I suspect it’s an even lower number with younger people.

Loosely Connected vs. Fully Present

Rather than be fully present with the person physically before us, we are choosing to stay loosely connected to those in our wider circle for fear we may miss out on something or not respond quickly enough to their request. Why have we become such slaves to our technology?

“Technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” writes Turkle. We choose to connect minimally with lots of people at the expense of losing the ability to connect deeply with someone. And this decrease in real conversation is leading to a serious lack of empathy.

How does this translate to the workplace?

Ben Waber and Alex Pentland from the MIT Media Lab developed a tool called a “sociometric badge” that allows researchers to track employees’ movements as well as a range of measures about their conversations: who they talk to, for how long, on what topic, with what pace of speech, with what tone of voice, and how often they interrupt each other. This badge can analyze intimate aspects of conversation such as body language, interest and excitement, and the amount of influence people have on each other.

This helped quantify what was previously unquantifiable and the results were as follows:

  • Face-to-face conversation leads to higher productivity and is also associated with reduced stress;
  • Call centers are more productive when people take breaks together;
  • Software teams produce programs with fewer bugs when they talk more;
  • The conversation effect doesn’t work the same way for online encounters.

“We think of productivity as . . . sitting in front of the computer and banging out emails, scheduling things; and that’s what makes us productive, but it’s not,” Waber says. What makes you productive is “your interactions with other people—you know, you give them new ideas, you get new ideas from them; and . . . if you even make five people a little bit more productive every day, those conversations are worth it.”

Unitasking vs. Multitasking

It’s hard to think of a meeting where people aren’t looking at their phones at the expense of conversation and paying attention. We have all accepted this practice because it is a sign of multitasking, which is still widely viewed as a good thing. I suspect there will be a renaissance of unitasking in the same way that mindfulness is gaining momentum. You can’t multitask and be mindful.

Perhaps our current fascination with smartphones is due to their still being relatively new and one day we will see them simply as the tools that they are meant to be. The phone will then be put back in our pocket or purse until we see the need to access it when we are good and ready for it. And while smartwatches and other wearables are on the market to further distract us, I hope we don’t forget that in the end it is the individuals in our lives who matter most. And fully connecting with each of them is much more meaningful than virtually connecting with many others.

Achieving Work-Life Balance

April 13, 2016

One of the biggest reasons for stress is the inability to find balance in our lives. Perhaps the focus on seeking work-life balance frustrates many of us because the equation is all wrong.

Work is not simply one thing. It may be intellectually stimulating, but may not provide any physical stimulation and in fact may be counterproductive to good health. Or your job may be physically exhilarating, but not provide any emotional satisfaction. Perhaps it does satisfy your heart, but it doesn’t lift your spirit.

Even the notion of when we are at work has changed because technology enables and employers expect us to be within reach all the time. Gone are the days when doctors, IT professionals, and firemen were the only people with pagers to make themselves immediately available. Smartphones enable us all to be “on call.”

It’s clear that work and life are no longer separate the way they used to be and this undoubtedly adds to our stress. However, there are ways we can find balance and reduce the stress.

Let’s first acknowledge that work is an integral part of life, and the more you try to separate it from family life, the more frustrated you may become.

There are also four component parts in each of us: body, mind, heart and spirit. Each of them are equally important and, for balance, should be fully integrated in our lives—both in work and separate from work.

Body – This is your health and well-being nourished through physical activities that bring you energy and vitality. It includes the fuel you ingest to stay fit and healthy, and the rest you get to be at your best.

Mind – This is the mental and intellectual stimulation you need to keep you engaged. For many, this is where you are focused while at work, but perhaps not entirely. You may also have or should have hobbies and other pursuits to keep you cognitively stimulated away from work, which may ultimately result in you being more engaged while at work.

Heart – This includes the people and activities where you experience the highs of love and joy as well as the lows of sadness and despair. It is our emotional selves that are every bit as present at work as they are everywhere else in life—only some may want to deny this. Every relationship, both at work and away, requires that our emotional selves to be present.

Spirit – The spirt is perhaps the least tangible and understood of the four as it can be the people, activities, groups, communities, religious practices, time in nature, meditation or many other things that put you in touch with something greater than yourself. It is no less valuable than the other three and requires our attention.

Each of these components is important in order to find balance and reduce stress. In fact, if you feel stress in your life right now, it is likely that one of these areas is being neglected. Figuring out which it is and then filling it will help.

So, you may be saying I don’t have time for the body or spirit. My life is too busy to workout, eat right or get enough sleep. Oddly enough, perhaps you do make time to binge watch Netflix while eating fast food late into the night. And you may say the spirit part might be important, but you’d rather watch sports than go to church, volunteer at a food bank or take a walk in nature. That’s certainly your choice, but it’s not that you don’t have time. You don’t make time.

We have always had 24 hours in each day, but the advent of electricity enabled us to stay awake much later resulting in a reduction in the amount of rest we get. The invention of the TV enabled us to passively watch instead of actively read reducing our intellectual stimulation. And the availability of email and social media reduced our actual face-to-face interaction, which cut back on opportunities to connect more deeply and emotionally.

Rather than seeking more waking hours in the day, rethink how you spend them. If you find your spirit bucket is the one that is empty, making time for a quiet 30-minute walk by yourself can help. You may complain that this is not “productive” and therefore you run instead. But this is counterproductive. While it may help fill your body bucket, your spirit bucket will remain depleted.

Spirit is probably the part that is most difficult to quantify and easiest to ignore, and maybe it becomes more important the older you get. Whether you are young or old, your ability to nurture the spirit will enable you to become more calm and centered to handle stress.

The body needs exercise, the right fuel and plenty of rest in order to function properly. We can’t innovate and imagine if our brains aren’t stimulated by what interests us. The opportunity to regularly connect deeply with other people at a heartfelt level is equally important. And our ability to unplug and be alone with our thoughts is vital to the soul.

To achieve work-life balance, seek to nurture the four component parts of your being. When these are equally tended to, you will find balance both at work and in life.

The Compassionate Leader

April 2, 2016

The current tenor of the Republican presidential campaign has got me thinking about the lack of compassion expressed by our so-called leaders. It wasn’t that long ago when George W. Bush campaigned using the phrase “compassionate conservatism,” though you might argue he never really governed that way.

For some reason the term compassion has become divisive and reserved for discussion of those who have fallen through the safety net and only the “truly needy.” It’s as if compassion should be conveyed only as a last resort and for a small minority of us. The fact is we all need compassion at some time and we should all feel compassion for others when they need it.

“Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism,” said Hubert H. Humphrey. I hope we haven’t gotten to the point where there’s no room for compassion in our capitalism.

Whether in politics or business, leaders who demonstrate compassion are more likely to connect with and gain lasting followers.

Feeling compassion in the workplace means staying in touch with your own feelings as well as those of others, which can result in more accurately understanding and navigating all your workplace relationships. Compassion is a leadership trait that should be demonstrated by leaders at every level within an organization.

That’s because research has shown that those who experience compassion in the workplace feel more positive emotions and are more committed to the organization. When bad news is delivered compassionately, workers are more likely to remain supportive of the organization. And when you act with compassion at work, you can increase your satisfaction and lower your overall stress.

Compassionate leaders put people before procedures, they courageously say what they feel, and they lead with sincere and heartfelt consideration for others.

Perhaps the most important tool of compassion is empathy, which is the ability to understand what someone else experiences and reflect that understanding back to them. Empathy is also a vital component of what it means to be emotionally intelligent.

According to Brené Brown, Ph.D., author of Rising Strong, the prerequisite for real empathy is compassion. You can’t respond to someone empathetically unless you are willing to be present to their pain, which requires compassion.

“It’s important to note here that empathy is understanding what someone is feeling, not feeling it for them,” writes Brown. “If someone is feeling lonely, empathy doesn’t require us to feel lonely, too, only to reach back into our own experience with loneliness so we can understand and connect.”

But don’t confuse empathy for sympathy. As Brown further explains, when someone says, “I feel sorry for you” or “That must be terrible,” they are standing at a safe distance. Rather than conveying the powerful “me too” of empathy, sympathy communicates “not me,” and then adds, “But I do feel for you.” This does not have nearly the impact empathy provides.

For you to demonstrate empathy inside an organization, you must have the foundation of compassion.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean taking on and solving other people’s problems. Nor does it mean you have to agree with the actions that got the individual into a particular situation. And being compassionate doesn’t mean you don’t hold the individual accountable.

What compassion does mean is noticing another person’s suffering, connecting with him or her both cognitively and emotionally, and then responding in a caring and proactive fashion. You can be compassionate by agreeing to disagree, yet still hold the person accountable.

In this way your compassion helps the individual, the organization and yourself.

I’d like to think we’re seeing an increase in compassionate business leaders who sincerely value the welfare of their employees, customers and surrounding community. This kind of leadership will lead to more engaged employees, satisfied customers, a healthier community and ultimately greater shareholder return.

Why Hire an Executive Coach

October 9, 2015

Companies used to engage executive coaches to help fix toxic behavior demonstrated by their top leaders. Today, most coaching is instead deployed in order to develop the capabilities of high-potential performers, including directors and senior managers. Coaching is no longer seen as an aspirin, but as a vitamin.

An ever-increasing pace of change requires leaders to quickly develop while on the job. Professional development programs or training that take the leader out of the organization to focus on general theories rather than the immediate day-to-day challenges are no longer sufficient.

Using 360-degree feedback is a valuable way to gather data and report back to the individual leader. This feedback has been found to stick better when the leader works with an unbiased external professional to create sustained progress based on that feedback.

Coaching provides a way to use the feedback as a springboard to formulate actionable S.M.A.R.T. goals and an individual development plan to bring about sustained behavioral change. Working in close partnership with a coach, the leader can then be given direction and support as well as be held accountable to meeting these goals.

There are now nearly 50,000 professional coaches worldwide representing about $2 Billion in revenue, according to a 2012 ICF Global Coaching Study.

Coaching is no longer limited to C-suite executives in big companies as those of all size and type now realize the importance of raising leadership capacities of high performers throughout the organization.

Many reasons exist for hiring an executive coach, including:

  • Uncover blind spots
  • Improve leadership presence
  • Improve communication skills
  • Improve interpersonal skills
  • Make sustained behavioral changes
  • Assist with a new leadership role
  • Help navigate rapid company growth

Bottom line: a coach can assist whenever you desire to grow as a leader.

A coach can be professional development expert (e.g., leadership development, emotional intelligence, performance management) who provides guidance, insight and challenges your thinking. The coach serves as a confidant and trusted advisor on whom you can fully rely upon. When the coach is external, he or she can serve as an objective outside resource to deliver tough messages those on the inside may not be able to do.

The best coaches serve as partners to their clients not because they know the specific details of your particular business, but because they know people, relationships, organizations and how to bring about behavioral change. They can help you with the interpersonal aspects of leading.

A coach can be especially helpful when you are struggling to best manage yourself when you engage with others.

But you also need to be ready to be coached. Those who are coachable are able to readily share their experience. They know their strengths and are able to accept their weaknesses. They are also capable of taking behavioral risks.

Making behavioral change is hard because it’s not instinctual and it is counter to the way we normally behave. It also becomes especially challenging when under stress, which is when it also matters most.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects to consider when choosing to hire a coach is whether the sponsors can be counted on. There may be no better link to coaching effectiveness than whether or not leadership either those above or along side the client are on-board with and supportive of the coaching effort.

As Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan wrote in an article titled “Leadership is a Contact Sport,” leadership is a relationship not between a coach and “coachee,” but between the leader and colleague. It is vitally important that those stakeholders surrounding the one being coached are involved in order for coaching to succeed. Coaching cannot exist in a vacuum.

The ultimate goal of coaching is not dependency on the coach or his or her colleagues. The goal is self-reliance and therefore the one being coached needs to be committed and disciplined.

When there’s a good match between leader and coach, clearly defined goals, a roadmap that leads to behavioral change, commitment to the process, and supportive, involved stakeholders, coaching can be extremely valuable in making more effective leaders.

Successful Behavioral Change Linked to Values

September 23, 2015

Nothing will make people change their behavior—no matter how detrimental—until they can see how it is in conflict with their own value system. That alone motivates us toward successful change.

As a leadership coach working with mid-level managers, directors and C-suite executives, much of my work is helping clients change their behavior in order to become more effective leaders. And changing one’s behavior is hard work.

That’s because our behavior is a part of our identity and we defend it by saying it has worked for us to this point. Why change?

Besides, we don’t have to think about our behavior; we simply react. Therein lies the problem. Instead of reacting, we need to take time to respond.

Reacting is action without thought. Responding is action after thought. Unless you’re on the basketball court with the shot clock running down, you probably have a few moments to contemplate your response before acting. Take this time to contemplate your usual behavior, and then perhaps alter your natural and instinctual way of reacting to respond more appropriately.

But this resistance to change is also deeply rooted in our individual value system.

In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith wrote: “We obey this natural law: People will do something—including changing their behavior—only if it can be demonstrated that doing so is in their own best interests as defined by their own values.”

Our values ultimately guide all our actions and they largely determine the decisions we make. Therefore, as a coach, it’s important for me to identify those behaviors that are out of alignment with the leader’s values in order to secure buy-in.

Goldsmith found that the higher one goes in an organization, the more his or her issues are likely to be behavioral.

In fact, he lists more than 20 such behaviors that even the greatest leaders need to stop doing in order to be more effective. These include things like: 5) Starting with NO, BUT, HOWEVER; 9) Withholding information; 16) Not listening; 17) Failing to express gratitude.

These detrimental behaviors often remain hidden because, while they may be obvious to others, they can be a blind spot for the leader. And we have become very adept at seeing only our best selves.

We judge ourselves based on our intentions and we judge others on how they make us feel, according to social psychologist John Wallen. This disconnect from seeing how our behavior impacts others can keep us from being aware of our blind spots.

The blind spot is an area a coach can help uncover and provide a roadmap for how to change. Results from a 360 analysis and other assessment tools enable the leader to gain perspective and challenge his or her previous assumptions. After seeing and accepting the data, he or she must then commit to the behavioral change.

Without this commitment, no measurable improvement is likely to occur. That’s because no one can make us change our behavior unless we want to. And that’s why the direct link must be made to the individual’s own values.

This link to our own sense of who we are and what we represent motivates us to change like nothing else. When a coach points out how the detrimental behavior is in direct conflict with the leader’s own values, it can help fire up the desire and commitment to make the change.

Integrity is a word thrown around a lot in job interviews and on corporate value statements, but to really live with integrity means to act according to the values, beliefs and principals you claim to hold dear.

You cannot behave in a way that is counter to those values, beliefs and principles without the risk of jeopardizing your integrity. Your behavior is therefore a direct reflection of just how much integrity you truly have.

When our behavior undermines our leadership effectiveness, it’s time to see and accept the compromised connection to our values, and commit to change. Only then can we succeed in making real change in our behavior that will lead to a successful outcome.

Misguided Notion: Pursuit of Happiness

August 6, 2015

“The Constitution only guarantees you the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” — Benjamin Franklin

Most parents when asked will tell you that all they want for their children is for them to grow up to be happy. However, happiness is elusive and ephemeral. What makes us happy one day will not sustain us the next.

So much in life is transitory and we fail to accept that what we want, what brings us pleasure will continually evolve. Despite the fact that most of us claim our favorite foods, movies, music, books, etc. will remain consistent over time, research has shown that even our taste in these things change as we grow older.

A life in pursuit of happiness is like a life in pursuit of wealth—one of the results perhaps, but it should not be the focus. Instead, the focus should be meaning.

A for-profit company’s mission should not be about making money, but it should certainly be one of the results. Their mission statement should instead include something meaningful such as delivering a product or service that enables customers to do something faster, better or cheaper than ever before. If the company is successful, profits will result.

The same is true for individuals with regard to happiness. A meaningful life is one that is in some way in service to others or in something larger than oneself, and this will likely result in happiness because happiness is a byproduct of a life that has meaning.

“Feeling happy is not enough,” says Paul Shoemaker, author of Can’t Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World. “People need meaning to thrive.”

“There is a tension between a meaningful and a happy life,” says Shoemaker. “They’re not mutually exclusive, but if you are going to tilt one way, tilt toward meaningful because, done with sustained commitment, a meaningful life can eventually lead to a happy life. I’m not sure about the other way around.”

According to research conducted by the Journal of Positive Psychology, there are key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. These are:

  • Happiness is considerably more short-lived and fleeting than meaningfulness.
  • Happiness is largely present-oriented, where meaningfulness involves integrating past, present and future.
  • Having sufficient money to purchase objects of desire is important for happiness, but makes essentially no difference as to whether a life is meaningful.
  • Challenges may reduce present happiness but are linked to much higher future meaningfulness.
  • Happiness is linked to being a taker rather than a giver; meaningfulness is the opposite.

The research also found that those with a purpose—specifically meaningful goals having to do with helping others—rated their life satisfaction higher (even when they felt personally down and out) than those who did not have any life purpose.

Another study found that people who put the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction about their life, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms than people that had their priorities elsewhere.

Feeling happy is not enough because meaning is essential to a valued sense of one’s purpose in life and in community.

The great leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith, author of Mojo: How to Get it, How to Keep it, How to Get it Back if You Lose it, says there are five things that really matter in the lives of successful people. In no particular order these are: health, wealth, relationships, happiness and meaning.

Goldsmith suggests that in order to find more happiness and meaning in your life, both at home and at work, you need to spend less time on activities that are simply surviving, sacrificing and stimulating. And you need to spend more time on activities that are considered sustaining and succeeding. These provide both short-term satisfaction (happiness) and long-term benefit (meaning).

Perhaps Victor Frankl, author of the best-selling Man’s Search for Meaning, said it best: “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy.”

Whether it’s finding your “Can’t Not Do” or your “Mojo,” meaning is essential. Meaning is required for sustained happiness. Change your focus from yourself alone to something bigger than you. Change from short-term satisfaction alone to include long-term benefit.

You will catch sustained happiness only when you attach meaning to your pursuit.

The Sarcastic Leader

June 20, 2015

Can you be sarcastic and become a great leader? Though you may gain some friends and even form a small following with this type of humor, you ultimately will not be a strong leader. Sarcasm will hinder your overall effectiveness.

Sarcastic people may defend their sarcasm because it can help create levity and ease tension in certain situations. And while this may be true in the short term, it can also have unintended long-term consequences.

Growing up I was led to believe sarcasm was a respectable form of humor. It was only later that I discovered sarcasm is really passive-aggressive communication that can undermine trust. Oscar Wilde called sarcasm the lowest form of wit.

Defined simply, sarcasm is when someone says something that everyone knows is untrue in order to draw attention to its ridiculousness. It is typically a sharp, biting or cutting remark, which requires face-to-face vocal communication and is context dependent.

Sarcasm can also make someone feel superior in situations where they perceive they have little control. Though an occasional biting comment can spark a good laugh, frequent sarcasm tends to reflect dissatisfaction that may be rooted in what psychologists believe is anger and hostility.

Sarcasm ultimately offers only two outcomes: it can instantly kill a relationship or slowly erode it. That’s because sarcastic humor typically depends on the derision of a person, relationship or circumstance. The fact is sarcasm requires a victim.

This certainly doesn’t make sarcasm the kind of trait we look for in leaders.

Leaders need to be trusted, focused and decisive; sarcastic humor undermines all three of these.

Sarcastic leaders can’t be trusted because, as a person with authority over others, your words carry added weight. Making fun of someone through sarcasm—even in a light-hearted way—can have a subtle effect causing the people you lead to doubt your trust in them, undermining their trust in you.

Trust is difficult to earn and takes a long time to rebuild. Don’t let yours be damaged for short-term levity.

Leaders need to be focused and not ambiguous. Sarcasm relies heavily on tone of voice, body language and other nonverbal cues to be properly understood. That’s why sarcastic comments are typically lost when done over the phone or in writing.

Sarcasm allows one to claim some sort of authority without actually taking responsibility for what is said. Lack of a focused message means your leadership is compromised and sarcasm only accentuates this.

Decisiveness is also a necessity in leaders and sarcastic comments are typically directed on problems rather than solutions. Being decisive requires moving beyond the problem no matter how ridiculous it may be. Pointing out the humor only delays finding a constructive way to fix it. This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun seeking solutions only don’t use sarcasm as it will only further delay your decision-making.

Sarcasm breeds negativity by discouraging others to focus on what’s wrong rather than on how to fix it. This is the opposite of what a leader should do.

Next time you’re faced with a ridiculous situation and a sarcastic remark comes to mind, hold back and see if you can respond more proactively instead. You may not get the immediate endorphin rush you’re used to, but you will find the way you’re perceived by others will ultimately be more respectful and help build stronger relationships.

Leaders look long term and don’t require the immediate rush of laughter to build their confidence. Focus on solutions rather than problems, nourish relationships without negativity, and always seek to build trust with your co-workers.

Find a way to bring levity into the workplace without sarcasm. It’s better for you and for the organization.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/5799872822″>National Sarcasm Society</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Emotional Health for High Performing Teams

February 19, 2015

Why is it when we put together a group of highly capable individuals to form a team, this “whole” doesn’t necessarily exceed the sum of its parts?

Obviously, teams won’t always exceed the collective contributions of the individuals, and sometimes these teams can backfire and produce even less.

“It is relatively easy to find talent; it is hard to form teams,” wrote David Brooks in The New York Times. “In hiring I suspect most companies and organizations pay too much attention to the former and too little to the latter.”

Selecting talented individuals without consideration for how they interact with others is a risky proposition, since so much of what we do in organizations is done in collaboration with other people.

“The key to success is not found in the individual members, but in the quality of the space between them,” according to Brooks.

This space between members has to do with emotions, and individuals must be emotionally healthy to work together properly. As I’ve written about in previous posts, one’s emotional intelligence is vital to workplace success.

In fact, Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, found that 67% of all competencies deemed essential for high performance were related to emotional intelligence. Furthermore, one’s emotional intelligence mattered twice as much as one’s technical knowledge or IQ for this high performance.

This emotional intelligence is magnified on teams since the effectiveness of team performance relies so heavily on the interaction between team members.

Effective teams are those with trust, open and effective communication, respect among members, a common goal, and interdependence. These are foundational in fostering healthy conflict, collaboration, cooperation and creativity to find innovative solutions to challenges.

Getting to this solid foundation requires the emotional health of each individual because our ability to self-reflect, self-regulate and empathize with others determines to what degree we are able to work together effectively.

Instead of using familiar and workplace-safe words such as “empowerment” and “team-based” and “motivation,” I think it’s time we accept that our feelings are not something we lock away in our private lives or keep at home during the day. Our emotions—both the positive and negative—are with us everyday and everywhere we go.

Accepting and honoring these emotions does not mean no longer acting professional or giving up all rational thought. Instead, it means embracing the gift these feelings provide us in order to work effectively with others and be more productive.

Fear, anger, frustration and other negative feelings can undermine group dynamics. For teams to function at a high level it is therefore important to shift these and harness optimal emotions such as joy, passion, even excitement to provide energy and enthusiasm.

The most optimal emotions can stimulate innovation and productivity because they enhance the competencies of quickness, flexibility, resilience, and the ability to deal with complexity, according to Jackie Barretta, author of Primal Teams: Harnessing the Power of Emotions to Fuel Extraordinary Performance. These optimal emotions can then transform any team into a high-performance engine where people function with sharper minds, find creative solutions and everyone operates at their peak.

This does not mean faking positive emotions in order to overcome negative ones. You need to remain congruent with your feelings. But it does mean paying attention to those negative feelings that may be hampering your team.

In her book, Barretta provides a “Fear Release Guide” to reduce fear and negativity. Many of these techniques rely on a high level of trust for team members to feel comfortable sharing their emotions with other teammates, and this is key in order to shift to optimal emotions.

When that fear and anxiety are replaced with joy and playfulness, a team finds it easier to dream up elegant solutions to satisfy customers and deliver long-term value. Barretta defines positive emotions as heartfelt emotions that you can actually feel by the way people speak about their job, their team and their company.

Heartfelt emotions can dramatically impact our ability to interrelate with others, and learning how to navigate them in ourselves as well as those around us can greatly influence our success on teams.

Researchers at HeartMath used sensitive magnetometers to find that the electromagnetic field emitted by our hearts actually extends beyond our physical body to those around us. We automatically and unconsciously sense the heart fields of other people. And this provides valuable information for how well or poorly we function as a part of a team.

If your team is not currently functioning at a high level, perhaps it’s time to take an emotional assessment. What is the predominant feeling in the room? Maybe it’s time to shift away from fear, anxiety or frustration in order to improve your team’s effectiveness.

Resilience: A Recipe for Success

July 9, 2014

We all face adversity in life and, like the proverbial hand we’re dealt, the most important thing is what we do next.

Effectively bouncing back (or forward) from a failure, tragedy or loss determines our resilience, and that resilience may contribute directly to our ability to succeed.

In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, author Malcolm Gladwell investigated why so many people at the top of their profession were found to have deprivation and struggle earlier in their lives. Could it be that the very adversity they faced was in fact the catalyst to help them reach such heights?

Among other things, Gladwell found that those who struggle early in life may have an advantage at taking on challenges others shy away from.

And in a new book titled Supersuvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, authors David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz illustrate how people who have suffered great trauma and tragedy are able to accomplish extraordinary feats.

These “supersurvivors” are people who dramatically transformed their lives after surviving a trauma by “accomplishing amazing things or transforming the world for the better.”

The authors learned through interviews with these supersurvivors that certain delusions can be healthy, forgiveness can be good for the body, and reflecting on death can ultimately help lead to a better life.

The authors provide five key characteristics of these supersurvivors:

1. Have a sense of “grounded hope”
Better than positive thinking, supersurvivors adopt a way of thinking called “grounded hope,” which the authors describe as “an approach to life involving building one’s choices on a firm understanding of reality.” This provides for a foundation for supersurvivors to bravely ask “now what?” rather than wait for something to happen.

2. Are delusional, but in a good way
Great ideas are often considered delusional at first and yet those who are determined enough to persevere through ridicule or skepticism are the one’s we hold in such high esteem for bringing great ideas to fruition. Supersurvivors often need to push back on those well-meaning people around them in order to thrive. Without some delusional thinking, these supersurvivors may find recovery intimidating or even impossible.

3. Are willing to be helped by others
Trauma can create feelings of isolation and may make survivors reject the very people who most want to help. Remaining open to the support of friends and family can result in positive emotions, which can ultimately make you stronger. “The people in our lives really matter,” Feldman and Kravetz write. “Many studies have shown that aspects of social support appear to provide a buffer to the emotional effects of trauma and other negative circumstances, helping to protect some people from mental health symptoms that haunt others.”

4. Know the power of forgiveness
Though many traumas are man-made, moving beyond feelings of hatred, anger and resentment can help people move on with their lives and rebuild inner strength. It is this ability to forgive that enables us to fully accept what has happened and move forward. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Without forgiveness there is no hope.” Supersurvivors don’t hold grudges, and they forgive themselves and others.

5. Find strength in something larger than themselves
For several supersurvivors featured in Feldman and Kravetz’s book, faith was a determining factor in helping to overcome trauma. Some feel God literally called out to them, while others find a set of beliefs help ease suffering. Whatever their belief system, these people are able to tap into the power of a connection with something larger than themselves. “For some, religious beliefs and practices are comforting, buffer the damaging effects of trauma, and galvanize personal growth,” Feldman and Kravetz write. “Faith seemed to help people cope and to strive for better days, even when a logic dictated the opposite.”

Resilience is an extremely important leadership quality as it determines how one responds after a crisis. This resilience can indicate whether a leader truly has what it takes to lead an organization through challenging times.

Is there some setback, trauma, failure or loss that has held you back? Or did it propel you forward instead? Don’t underestimate the power and transcendence of resilience.

Strong Leadership Requires More Humility & Less Hubris

October 10, 2013

As our congressional “leaders” fail to settle differences to negotiate a deal to keep the United States government open and resolve the debt ceiling crisis, I am troubled by our failed leadership in Washington.

This leadership is failing because the representatives of “we the people” are firmly grounded in their positions (or those they are beholden to) rather than doing what is right for our country. This leadership is made up of politicians focusing on ideology instead of the practical matters of governing. This leadership is weak because they demonstrate far too much hubris and too little humility.

Hubris is running rampant throughout our society: Witness the fact that we pay so much attention to celebrities’ ideas on government matters. Cable news programs present well-quaffed talking heads’ spouting their opinions as if they are facts. And we as a people willingly choose infotainment instead of intellectual discourse.

CNN recently brought back Crossfire not because there is actually any useful information being exchanged, but because people shouting at each other apparently encourages the right demographic to tune in and watch.

This hubris, especially in the modern definition of the term, is about overconfident pride and arrogance. It reminds me of how the United States education system is falling behind many other nations in every category other than confidence. Our students may not know the correct answer, but they sure take pride in themselves anyway.

Pride that blinds does not demonstrate strong leadership. In fact, it does the exact opposite.

What if instead of accepting this hubris we demanded our leaders to act with more humility? Though often presented as a weakness in our society, humility is being studied as an important trait that can enhance leadership effectiveness.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, called Level 5 leaders those who attained the top spot in the hierarchy of executive capabilities identified in their research. Collins described these top leaders as those who “build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

Recent research by J. Andrew Morris and Rob Nielsen suggest that humility is multi-dimensional and includes self-awareness, openness and perspective taking—emotionally intelligent traits proven vitally important to strong leadership.

Humility is one of those traits that are found in the greatest of leaders throughout history, though are not necessarily found in those who rise to fame in business or politics. That’s because to be humble doesn’t necessarily play well in the media. Being humble does not enable egotism and perhaps most pertinent today, it doesn’t create controversy.

Though hubris may attract more attention because it appeals to our basest interests and may serve to confirm our suspicions regarding inept and corrupt politicians, I believe this can’t continue. At some point Americans will stop blindly supporting those politicians and candidates who demonstrate such a lack of courage. We will no longer support those who pander to us voters while serving their more powerful financial backers. We will demand authenticity and integrity.

In the same way business leaders must prove their abilities through results, the same should be said for our political leaders. Arrogance and overconfident pride are not traits that get results and they are not traits to effectively run a company or a country.

Evolving Role of the Middle Manager

August 9, 2013
“I would rather have a first-class manager running a second-rate business than a second-rate manager running a first-rate business.” — Jack E. Reichert

Middle managers are essential to business, but their role is being questioned in this new business era.

Last year nearly 11 million employees identified themselves as middle managers. This represents 7.6% of the total U.S. workforce, which has recently been on the rise but may begin to slow in the future.

The Wall Street Journal recently did a series called “Managing in the Middle” on the role middle managers serve in organizations—a role that is evolving to meet the challenges of the faster pace of change, technology and a new work ethic.

They profiled a high tech company with nearly 40 employees, who only recently promoted an employee to become their first manager. As reported in this article, “. . . at startups, where speed and autonomy are prized above all else, managers are often dismissed as archaic, or worse, dead weight.” Some firms dislike the term “manager” so much that they instead refer to them as “leader” or “person primarily responsible” (PPR).

This lack of respect for managers may be due to an evolving work ethic inspired by the Millennial generation of workers. Rather than be managed by someone else, these young, digital natives like to be empowered to get things done without a chain of command or corporate bureaucracy standing the way.

Some might argue that unregulated individual contributors cannot possibly know all the different ways decisions on elements of a project may negatively impact the project as a whole, other projects or the entire organization. And there can be no cost consolidation or process innovation if someone isn’t looking at the intimate details of how projects can work together better.

Middle managers now need to do more of the work as well as supervising others. In many cases, it is the supervising part of the manager’s job that is least likely to be measured and evaluated, and as a result this gets the least attention.

Supervising others has always been a complex task requiring many so-called “soft skills” that enable one to effectively lead others while also navigating the political environment within the organization. This includes being able to effectively manage not only downward, but also upwards and across the organization.

The challenge is that middle managers are not always given the tools needed to succeed as most are promoted to management positions based on their work as individual contributors. In many cases they achieved some technical expertise and this gave way to a promotion that didn’t always include management training or mentoring on the additional skills managers need.

Some common responsibilities for middle managers across industries are:

  • managing day to day operations
  • firefighting and troubleshooting
  • addressing ill-defined problems
  • developing others (as well as themselves)
  • championing innovation and facilitating change

All of these things still matter, but how has the manager’s role changed over the years? Here are a few examples:

It used to be that the middle manager position was the only pathway to career advancement. A middle manager learned to take on greater responsibility and supervise other people because this is how he or she could demonstrate leadership qualities while delivering quality products or services.

Employees now demonstrate their skills and abilities as individual contributors while working collaboratively with others. They need to take on a more strategic perspective to see beyond their own scope of work and how this impacts others and the organization as a whole.

In the past a middle manager needed to hold individual employees responsible for completing quality work on time. This was done through various forms of direction and measurements, and then communicated at annual performance reviews if at all.

Now individual employees need to hold themselves accountable for their part on the project, and to communicate with other team members to ensure the work is done well and delivered in the right timeframe.

It used to be that middle managers were Baby Boomers or Generation Xers who managed others in their generation or younger folks. This maintained a hierarchy and made it clear who was in charge with deeply-held respect for this authority.

Now in many organizations, middle managers are just as likely to be of the Millennial generation and managing those their own age as well as those older than themselves. Respect is something that is assumed equally up, down and across the organization in a more casual environment.

The role of the middle manager will continue to evolve. And it’s up to those in these positions to embrace these changes in order to thrive. This means continual learning, collaborating, communicating, mentoring and accepting the ambiguity of the position.

Though this quote is attributed anonymously, I think it is particularly poignant. “If you want to manage somebody, manage yourself. Do that well and you’ll be ready to stop managing and start leading.” Exactly!

Knowing Your Weaknesses Makes You Strong

June 1, 2013

“There are three essentials to leadership: humility, clarity and courage.” – Cha’n Master Fuchan Yuan

In a recent Wall Street Journal article Famous Job Interviews Through the Ages, Joe Queenan states that asking job applicants what their weaknesses are is a stupid question.

“This is a rude, intrusive question, and nobody should be required to answer it,” Queenan says. “It is a trick question designed to put the applicant at a disadvantage.”

Although Queenan’s article is meant to poke fun at how famous historical figures would answer many of today’s standard interview questions, it’s clear that he seriously thinks there is no value in questions such as the above.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Open ended questions like what are your weaknesses can indicate a level of self-awareness, which I believe is very important. Being able to articulate your mistakes and failures demonstrates that you may have learned something from them rather than simply been successful at hiding them.

As any journalist knows, there is an art to asking questions that get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes direct questions are best and sometimes it’s better to take a more nuanced approach. Regardless, if you want to really judge whether someone is up to the task at hand, you should ask open-ended questions that enable the candidate to reveal who they are.

Leaders who know their strengths and weaknesses and can articulate them to others effectively demonstrates the self-awareness necessary to lead others. This ability also indicates a certain amount of humility and perhaps this is something missing in our leaders more than any other trait.

Queenen goes on, “ . . . the presumption that people have weaknesses is un-American. It is defeatist and sad. The whole point of being American is to feel invincible, that one is incapable of being improved upon.”

This reminds me of the U.S. education system compared with others around the world. While our students are no longer among the strongest in mathematics and other disciplines, we remain highest in our confidence.

Can this confidence and feeling of invincibility therefore override our weaknesses? I suggest it cannot and we would be foolish to think it can.

While I am all for building confidence in ourselves, I think doing this at the expense of acknowledging our weaknesses can be problematic. It can also lead us into trouble because we end up hiring the wrong people, listening to the wrong pundits, and following the wrong leaders.

Think of the overly confident CEO who takes a company down the wrong path leading to bankruptcy and lay-offs. Or a President of the country who takes our soldiers into harm’s way in wars he is confident about.

While focusing on weaknesses too much will never get anyone hired, those who are aware of their own weaknesses are more likely to deal with them. A CEO would hire others with strengths to complement his or her own competency. A President could include expert advisors capable of telling the leader of the free world when he or she is mistaken.

Any employee worth hiring should be aware of and capable of articulating their weaknesses. As much as we all want to hire confident employees, don’t minimize the importance of humility in them. Employees who are aware of and can articulate their weaknesses are stronger employees.

Will Data Help You Hire Better Employees?

April 26, 2013

The cost of hiring and retaining workers can approach 60 percent of a corporation’s variable costs, so it makes sense to manage this extremely well. Can big data and software help do this?

Nearly two-thirds of all workers are paid hourly in America and about half of them change jobs every year. Companies can save a great deal of money if they can better determine who will perform well and stay in these jobs.

Evolv is a company that monitors recruiting and workplace data in order to help companies decide who to hire. They have analyzed and studied millions of data points from more than 30,000 hourly employees.

Among their findings are that those who fill out online job applications using a browser that they had to deliberately install like Chrome or Firefox, perform better and change jobs less often than those who used Microsoft’s Explorer—the default browser that comes with most computers.

Evolv also determined that those who work in customer service at Xerox are more likely to stay on the job if they live near their workplace and can get there easily. And that those who belonged to one or two social networks stayed on the job longer. Using data such as this during the hiring process, Xerox was able to reduce attrition by 20 percent in an initial pilot program.

Using software and data to help determine viable candidates seems to make sense, but relying on algorithms alone can be a mistake. Like with any data, it can only be as good as the people who determine how to gather it, design the queries and analyze the output.

Think about your workplace. I’m certain you can think of people who may not have all the standard qualifications, educational background, and necessary experience that may be required to do the job. And yet, these very same people may be among the top performers. Are they only outliers who shouldn’t be considered or would it be a mistake to install a system that would deliberately miss them in the recruiting process?

My bet is that these people didn’t get the job through the normal HR channels because they likely would have been rejected by resume scanners and other data-driven software.

Data mining for people acquisition is not limited to hourly wage employees.

Google uses “people analytics” to better hire innovators who are so crucial to them as well as every other company. The way Google sees it, accurate people management decisions are the most important and impactful decisions a company can make.

And all these people decisions are based on data and analytics. They are applied with the same rigor Google applies to engineering decisions. It’s hard to argue with Google’s success: on average, each of their employees generate nearly $1 million in revenue and $200,000 in profit every year.

You can read more about Google’s analytical approach to human resources in an article by HR thought leader Dr. John Sullivan.

But the notion of putting such analytical decision-making above the relational issues human resources is typically relies upon seems ludicrous.

Aren’t these outliers more likely to be the very innovators many companies say they are really looking for?

So much of the hiring process is based on instinct and attentiveness to the relationship because human beings are not made up of ones and zeros. While our ability to do a certain task is something that can very often be quantitatively measured, our ability to work cooperatively with others, verbally communicate effectively, and generate creative solutions cannot always be quantitatively measured.

Think about how schools in China are now trying to teach out-of-the-box thinking so that their students can become more innovative like Americans.

There are so many subtleties in the hiring process that could ultimately miss great prospects through filtering software.

Let’s not lose sight of the importance of instinct, relational attunement and qualitative evaluation that cannot be determined via data and software analysis.

Grown-up Responsibility in the Workplace

April 11, 2013

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is intended to inform, entertain and hopefully inspire you to take action towards improving your own or your group’s behavior in the workplace. While the information is based on the experience and expertise of the author, he takes no responsibility for the accuracy nor for any damages incurred from deploying this information.

What happened to the notion of personal responsibility, and when did this no longer become a requirement for being a grown-up?

As a parent of young children I find I am constantly signing waivers so my kids can participate in various physical activities. All these legal agreements have similar language that essentially disavows those providing the service from taking any responsibility should my child get injured while participating in the activity.

These disclaimers are even found in preliminary report cards. Here’s what came home the other day with the grades for our middle schooler:

DISCLAIMER: This system is provided as a convenience. Grades and other information provided by this system are not official records and may or may not be accurate. Neither this institution . . . . or its affiliates accepts any responsibility for information provided by this system and/or for any damages resulting from information provided by this system.

These disclaimers are not limited to the activities of our children, of course. More and more of the products and services we purchase every day come with a limited liability notice so the manufacturer or provider cannot be held responsible should their product or service come up short or result in an injury or death.

I know this is done in order to protect organizations from lawsuits but perhaps this has gone too far. We have become such a litigious society that no one wants to be held liable in the case something goes wrong. The cost is just too high.

But, of course, things do go wrong. In fact, they go wrong all the time and as a result of so many waivers, it is difficult to hold anyone responsible.

My concern is that this lack of organizational responsibility is infecting each of us individually. How long before we send our children to school with a waiver for teachers to sign stating that in no way are we as parents to be held responsible for our children paying attention while in class. Absurd? I hope so.

What about the workplace? As an employee, you may want to be given full responsibility and then held accountable for the results you are asked to achieve. Instead, maybe you are given only partial responsibility, yet still held fully accountable. This can often make the task frustrating if not impossible to accomplish.

If employers gave their employees more responsibility, would they achieve more results? It seems obvious that some would and some would not. In the same way parents provide teenagers with increasingly more opportunities and responsibilities, the same method should be applied to employees. Provide employees with opportunities to achieve success a little at a time. There will no doubt be setbacks and mistakes, but there will also be growth and eventually greater results.

I think many employees would embrace more responsibility and do their best to fully meet the obligations so they could get more respect and career advancement opportunities. And with more responsibility comes greater challenges and opportunities for learning, which includes mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes, but how we deal with our mistakes says a lot about our character as well as how we accept personal responsibility. Denying our own contribution to what went wrong or blaming others is only failing to live up to what responsibility entails.

Responsibility requires that we each own our part in what goes wrong. And instead of attacking others who may have made a mistake, attack the problem that led to this and seek immediate ways of correcting the mistake without pointing figures. Then look for long-term solutions to avoid anyone making the mistake in the future.

And take responsibility not only for the task, but also for the relationship. We all need to work with other people to get things accomplished. Owning up to your mistakes will demonstrate your leadership aptitude as well as protect the relationship, which is vital for cooperation, collaboration and effective teamwork.

Taking responsibility has become all too rare in today’s leaders. If you want to stand out and continue to grow in your leadership capacity, begin by embracing responsibility and behaving like a grown-up.

Getting Along to Get Things Done

November 8, 2012

The election is over and it is time for our elected officials to get to work. The American people have spoken so our leaders can stop campaigning and start governing. And governing means doing what we elected them to do, which is to get things done.

Our politicians need to follow the lead of President Obama and New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie who recently overcame ideological differences to work cooperatively and deal effectively with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. The so-called looming “fiscal cliff” now has the same immediacy and perhaps greater severity to more people’s lives.

Living in this especially contentious time, we as a people seem unable to have a meaningful and respectful dialogue in order to better understand each other’s position.

In their book You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You’re Still Wrong by Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess, the authors present how a stanch conservative and a die-hard liberal can appropriately converse and agree to disagree.

“We have thus reached a point where conservatives are more interested in what Bill O’Reilly says about liberals than what their own liberal neighbors say about themselves,” write Neisser and Hess. “Likewise, many liberals ‘know’ about conservatives from reading updates on Huffington Post as opposed to getting to know actual conservative acquaintances.”

Rather than seeking to truly understand each other, we look for shortcuts from partisan media, make assumptions based on stereotypes and all too often take as fact what the pundits pontificate about. This leads to further misunderstanding and deeper resentment.

Authors Neisser and Hess explore the notion that despite political differences of people on the left and the right, many share a deep desire to work for the greater good of society. In a divided congress, it is essential that our politicians are able to do this.

It is also necessary for the rest of us to stop thinking in terms of competition between the blue and red teams, and start working together to build bridges of understanding. This understanding should demand that our elected officials no longer persist in simply holding firm to their positions, but instead find ways to compromise for the benefit of all.

Divisiveness cripples our politics, but also the rest of our lives. Only through working together in spite of conflict can we get to a shared place of understanding and growth. This requires being open and trying to really appreciate the other’s perspective. It requires having respect and taking responsibility for maintaining a positive relationship.

These traits of being open, listening for understanding, and working hard to fully appreciate the other’s perspective are vital to all our relationships. At work, assumptions you make about your colleagues will continue to keep you divided and conflicted. If instead you try to find common ground and see others for who they really are, you will be rewarded with a more congenial workplace where things are getting done.