Leadership Lessons from Dan Purvis and Jason Smith, authors of 28 Days to Save the World
In 2012, Dan Purvis was busy building a medical-device business. It would be called “Velentium,” which is a combination of the words velocity, momentum, and talent. It’s not just the name that’s creative. From the start, Purvis was also carefully and intentionally designing the culture. The business reason for existing was to support the development of medical devices but the human reason was deeper. In four words, Purvis describes it as: “culture-forward, family first.”
Over the past decade, he’s succeeded in growing the company with intention, and—what’s more—the company played a critical role during the COVID-19 pandemic. As he describes in 28 Days to Save the World: Crafting Your Culture to Be Ready for Anything, co-authored with Jason Smith, Velentium, in partnership with their client Ventec Life Systems, successfully increased production from 100 units of ventilators per month—to 10,000 per month.
Today, the company continues to boom, and they have not lost sight of their aspirations for a people-centered culture. When Purvis talks about the vision to grow to 1000 employees, you will hear him say that the company will “include 1000 families.” Families, not employees, because the whole person is at the heart of every decision. With every business decision, he acknowledges that each employee has many dimensions and roles in life, and the ‘career’ part is just one…
At this past month’s CliffsNotes Book Club, we had the honor of hosting Purvis and Smith. It was one of those meetings that gives you goosebumps and fills your notebook with ideas. I encourage you to read the book, but in the spirit of the CliffsNotes Book Club, where we pass notes to our besties, here are some of my takeaways from the discussion.
And that’s just the CliffsNotes, folks! Check out the book and head to the portal for the presentation notes.
As you watch a professional tennis player preparing to receive a serve, you’ll notice they are in constant motion. Knees bent, they stay on the balls of their feet, shuffling, ready to react swiftly to a serve coming at them at 100+ mph. As we think about what the future is about to serve us, what does that ready stance look like? And what does resilience look like?
The book Imaginable by Jane McGonigal presents an approach for “How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything―Even Things That Seem Impossible Today.” It’s the mental equivalent of shuffling on the balls of your feet, leaning in, eye on the ball…This book was the feature at our CliffsNotes Book Club meeting in April, and we had a great discussion about how future-thinking leads to a higher level of resilience. (Thanks again to Cate Rodman our fabulous facilitator! For Cate’s notes, visit the portal.) What’s more, it is not simply about imagining what the future may hold, but also about promoting actions today to influence a possible future. In the book, McGonigal gives us the tools to help shape the world we want to live in.
First off, why even bother about thinking about the future?
In the book, McGonigal explains that imagining the future is a tool that gets you out of rational thinking and puts you into a more creative space. And we can train the brain to do this—to imagine what is un-imaginable, and to think what is un-think able. The neuroscience is fascinating. As an fMRI scan shows, a different part of the brain is activated when you think about one year from now versus the distant future—e.g., envisioning a scenario 10-years from now.
In our book club meeting, we opened the discussion by sharing one thing that is true about our lives today that ten years ago we would not have imagined. It’s a powerful question to engage a group and demonstrate that we don’t always know what the future will look like. This encourages people to dream about the future to come and be open to potentially crazy ideas or new realities. Afterall, if a crazy reality came true in the past, then why wouldn’t that be possible in the future?
It reminded me of the famous quote from Henry Ford. When asked about customer input, Ford once said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." As was the case for Ford’s customers, they could only imagine more of what they already had for transportation. It wasn’t in their realm of possibility yet to image an automobile. When you are able to tap into the power of your imagination, you open up new possibilities and new realities.
How does this benefit leaders?
In the workplace, it is a skillset that is not just useful for risk management or scenario planning, it’s also a leadership mindset that leads to openness. Looking ahead allows you to be open to multiple perspectives, to juggle options more freely, and possibly to allow you to let go of your own agenda or deeply-held beliefs. The act of imagining can open you up to new, and possibly better ideas. It can also help you connect with people who are different, and it can help lessen your fear of the unknown.
Using technology to facilitate the imagining
At book club, Cate led us through an exercise using Chat GPT to help us do some creative future thinking. She posed some questions and let AI generate some fun responses. We asked ‘what if’ questions such as, “What would happen in a world where there are no more trees?” It was a fun way to use technology to get us out of rational and grounded thinking, and it pushed our thinking to be more creative. Imagining an impossible (or ridiculous) scenario can help you see reality more clearly, and help you prepare for what’s next.
In the book, McGonigal invites us to play with the provocative thought experiments and future simulations such as this one. It sparked a lively discussion in book club and left us all wanting more.
As always, let me know what thoughts this provokes, and what strategies you try to stretch your imagination…tennis whites optional!
For the past few weeks, I have been looking at everything, from my schedule to my closet to my task list, and asking myself a question…
What can I subtract?
At our February CliffsNotes Book Club meeting, we discussed the book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less by Leidy Klotz (if you missed it, check out the notes on the portal). Sally Bloomberg led the discussion and pushed us to identify something we can stop doing, or cut out from our lives, to find more joy.
The book takes a broad look at the notion of stopping things, resetting priorities so they match your values, and intentionally choosing how to spend your time. The author argues that it is our tendency to add, or to take on more, and over time it can result in a cluttered life. It got me thinking about a challenge many of the leaders we support, through coaching and in leadership programs, struggle with…
Some call it “finding balance” and others call it “setting boundaries” or “finding ‘me’ time.” Many dream of taking some time off, a vacation or a sabbatical, to hit reset. While I am a big fan of a true-unplug-vacation, I would argue that the sustainable way to subtract is by looking at your daily routine. Specifically, how do you rework your daily routine, rather than operating in two modes – “on” and “off” – where “off” maybe happens one week a year while at the beach? (Because, let’s face it, a post-vacation glow only lasts so long…)
Reprogramming the daily routine is a challenge for many leaders, and it’s helpful to zoom out and look at some of the factors at play.
We’re obsessed with time-savers, yet…
Tech advances and digitalization have been framed as “timesavers.” Automating our work and the endless list of handy apps seemingly streamline our to-do lists, but we tend to add tasks to fill the space, rather than enjoy the newfound free time.
In the book You Are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz, we learn the four steps to rewire compulsive habits. Originally designed to help people with OCD (read more in this brief article), the steps can help with common struggles in the office such as the compulsion to check email frequently—even when you have the luxury of a block of time for deep work. The curious thing about the findings presented in the book is that people who were able to overcome their compulsive tendencies then faced an unexpected challenge. They needed to manage and actively tend to their down time. If they did not, they were at risk for a relapse.
We’re hungry for info, yet…
Gallup poll data tells us that people feel it is harder to be informed about what is happening in the world now that information is readily available at our fingertips. I am old enough to remember when there were exactly two opportunities to hear the news every day – the morning newspaper and the evening news broadcast. Ah, the good old days. Today, with real-time information on happenings across the globe, we feel less informed. It’s harder to vet news sources for credibility, and it’s harder to keep up with the gushing stream of news. On the social front, we keep up with many more “friends” than we used to, given social media. So while we may know what our third-grade bestie, who we have not seen since she was under 4 feet tall, ate for dinner on Saturday, we feel less connected to friends in real life. Research on how we gather socially tells us that Americans see less of our friends in real life.
We’re encouraged to continuously improve, yet…
The often-cited research, popularized in Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, on how it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert also included data on downtime. In addition to the hours of practice, it also takes 12,500 hours of “deliberate rest” and 30,000 hours of sleep/naps in order to become an expert. The downtime is as important!
So back to the initial question, what exactly can we subtract? Here are some ideas and questions to get you started. But please pile on! (Oops – I should be encouraging subtracting!)
What To Subtract Today
As always, let me know what ideas this inspires and what’s working for you.
I hereby triple dog dare you to do work differently. But don’t fall into your own trap.
You know that feeling when you hear a word for the first time, and then in the span of a week it shows up three or four times, as if it’s always been there, right under your nose? For me, what keeps showing up in my client discussions, reading, and research is the notion of doing work differently, or not accepting business as usual. It’s about putting people first while also doing meaningful and profitable work, rather than focusing on profits at the expense of people’s well-being.
What is Doing Work Differently?
To some, it means creating more opportunity for collaboration, flattening the hierarchy, and pushing down decision-making. The January CliffsNotes Book Club book Beloved Economies by Jess Rimington and Joanna Levitt Cea offers several examples – check out the book notes on the portal and my recent blog).
It's also about taking away the noise (bye-bye, meeting-packed days!) and trusting people to do good work—with minimal or no supervision. This episode (39 min) of the Wisdom from the Top podcast with Basecamp founder Jason Fried is a great example. This wildly successful company has always had a small remote team (approx. 50 people), and one of their practices is to ensure people have focused time to work—meaning a full 8-hour day to work, with minimal meetings. There are no shared calendars, and there is no practice of “grabbing time” on someone’s calendar to talk.
It’s also about redefining wealth. Many organizations have adopted the “triple bottom line” as the primary success factor where they consider profit, people, and planet. What’s interesting, however, is that typically decisions are still driven to increase profit. For example, wellness programs are established but the rationale is that when you have healthier employees, they’ll be more productive and therefore you’ll get more out of them. It’s challenging to find an organization that truly honors all three equally. One of my longtime clients Capitol Benefits is an excellent example, and their strong retention and engagement is no coincidence.
And yet for others, “doing work differently,” means making space for people who would otherwise not have a chance at an interview, much less a career. Busboys and Poets, a unique restaurant/bookstore/events space with several locations in the Washington, DC, area, is a great example of this. It’s their practice to “ban the box” on the employment application question that asks applicants to declare if they have a criminal record—which ensures all applicants have a fair chance.
Rethinking your practices on decision-making is an example of doing work differently that many leaders can implement at their team level. And it has a huge impact on team effectiveness. Whether you are a senior executive or a frontline leader with a small team, you likely have discretion to design your decision-making process.
Now, a reality check. It's easy to idealize an environment that does work differently and, in doing so, we may not consider that there are pitfalls to avoid. So let’s look at this more closely. I want to help you make positive changes and make sure that you don’t swing the pendulum too far over to the other side...
Doing Work Differently | Hierarchy AND Collectivism: A Hybrid Approach to Decision-Making
I have been looking at this topic in terms of the polarities—or seemingly opposing forces—at play. Let's look at "Hierarchy" versus "Collectivism."
Many of us have already experienced the downsides of working in a hierarchical environment. Perhaps you experienced that you weren’t involved in decisions, didn’t have a voice at the table, and weren’t bought in to the vision. Naturally, if you have the ability to do work differently, you may think, “When I lead a team, I want to include everyone in all decisions and value all perspectives.” Which seems great at the surface level, but what happens when you lean into this approach too far?
Then there is the collectivist model...If you are too inclusive in decision-making, you may find yourself in a situation where every tiny decision needs to be socialized. Organizations that are overly collaborative tend to move slowly, and the result can be frustration or missed opportunity. Also, when everyone has a chance to weigh in, you may have difficulty making a final decision. Are votes needed every time? What about contentious issues?
Being aware of the pitfalls will help you navigate through this polarity to get the best of both approaches. Here are a few tips based on what I have seen work in several organizations over the years.
Tips for Doing Work Differently, and Getting the Best of Both
Organizations that do decision-making effectively and make it collaborative tend to:
Questions to prepare you to do work differently. Ask yourself:
Have you ever read a book that continues to rearrange things in your mind long after you turn the last page? The book Beloved Economies by Jess Rimington and Joanna Levitt Cea is that book. It has challenged everything I know about work, about employee engagement, and even about the role of leadership. The core premise of the book is that the current economy, “in its lovelessness,” focuses on financial profits while compelling us to work in ways that make it harder for most of us to have the time, energy, or resources to be together in the ways that make life good. What’s more, it’s all by design—so why not set out to re-design it?
That’s right, re-design…The goal of this book is to help transform the way we work. They make the distinction between innovating on what’s known and truly transforming or reimagining work. And that’s why, weeks after I read it, I can’t stop imagining what’s possible!
Wait! How did we get here?
The authors set historical context for several things we “take for granted” in many work settings in the U.S. They argue that, deeply embedded in the world of work, we find practices that reinforce the belief that everything operates best when controlled by a few. Moreover, seemingly innocuous practices such as spreadsheets to track inventory and calculations such as depreciation schedules can be traced back to the days of slavery and plantations in the U.S. south.
Reimagining Work: Where do we start?
In the book, the authors introduce concrete ways that people have successfully broken out of the mold from “business as usual” to a “Beloved Economy” workplace. They offer these ideas as inspiration and ask this question:
If you work in a company where you trust your employees and treat them with respect, how would you design the systems differently?
Although I know many of us feel that we are not in a position to reimagine our workplace, I challenge you to think of small changes that might have a large impact. Here are a few ideas that come to mind to get your brain going…
Reimagine accountability. Our current practices of spreadsheets and status reporting can be over-emphasized in organizations where trust is low. What accountability measures do you put in place when you hire and work with highly competent, motivated people? Maybe in those environments, it’s not a focus on what you’re working on, it’s more about what should come off their plates or be reprioritized. The manager is coming from a place of support in helping others get the right work done, rather than a place of blame when things are not getting done.
Reimagine career pathing. If you take a look at the “jobs” or “careers” tab on the websites of many large organizations, you’ll find reference to pre-defined career paths and tracks. But is it the responsibility of managers or an organization to lay out a career path for an employee? The underlying assumption is that the employee is not capable of determining their own path. Each person is unique in what they bring to the table and an organization may not even have a career path that would leverage a person’s potential. What if instead of the manager carving out the path, the manager learns to be an exceptional career coach? They can ask questions that will bring out the best in the employee so their strengths are being leveraged and identify the needs of the organization at the same time.
Reimagine authority. In many organizations, the senior leaders make the critical decisions, especially when a project needs to pivot or change drastically. This then often causes a ripple effect down to the people who are working on the project day-to-day. Rarely do senior leaders engage with the “workers” to ask their opinion on changing the rate or scope of work. What would it look like if the people engaged in the day-to-day were asked their opinions on how to handle major changes to the scope of a project? Imagine if you were considerate of the impact the change has on everyone involved and create a forum where people could voice their opinions before announcing a big change in the project?
Reimagine relationships. We often hear in organizations how important it is to build a network and maintain relationships, but it’s often for the purpose of gaining something in the end. In other words, there is a means to an end. In Beloved Economies, people build relationships because they genuinely care and are curious about another person. What would happen if you took someone out to lunch or had a quick virtual coffee with someone in your organization whom you don’t work with, and have nothing to gain from? Perhaps you take out a new employee for coffee, even if they will never intersect with your work. Or, perhaps connect with an employee outside of work who may live close by but your roles would rarely have a reason to connect. What else could you gain from building new relationships? Maybe it’s simply a good laugh, or a mental break, a moment of pause, or a joyful celebration. Think of ways to connect for the sake of being human, not necessarily for productivity.
Check out the portal for notes on this eye-opening book, and let me know what ideas this discussion sparks for you.
As a coach and organization development consultant, I spend many days facilitating group discussions with people who have never met and/or who don’t know each other well. Often one of the goals of the sessions is to help accelerate relationship-building, and icebreakers are an important tool to meet that goal.
But I hate the cheesy ice breakers!
I am always listening for good questions and, like many facilitators, am a collector of them. I thought it would be fun to share some, and after decades of facilitating group discussions, to give you insights into my criteria for what makes for a good icebreaker question. And, they’re not just for the workplace. Try them out during the holidays with family and friends, too!
What Makes for a Great Icebreaker Question?
The best questions…
Icebreakers to Try with Family, Friends & Coworkers
Should you feel inspired, here are a few that check all the boxes and will set you up for success!
What is a Diving-Board Moment, anyway?
The last one on the diving-board moment is a fun one I picked up from this article, and it requires a bit of explanation. Here’s how to set it up…
Imagine we are making a documentary about your life: What is the opening scene?
Think of a pivotal moment in your life and describe it. For example, when actor Reese Witherspoon asked Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant what the opening scene in his documentary would be, he said he’d be a teenager, standing at the top of the high-dive, trembling.
Grant had been a competitive swimmer for much of his youth, yet the high dive was scary. Today, he is the author of best-selling business books on the psychology of leadership, a wildly successful podcast, and numerous resources to help leaders thrive. As he tells the diving-board story, you can imagine where he got the determination and self-discipline to push his limits and conquer mind over matter.
As you think about your diving-board moment, the ideal story will take us to a real moment in your life when you overcame odds, realized something about your strengths, or defined for yourself an important core value. Fun question, huh?
What are some of your favorite ice breaker questions?
Remember how we started the pandemic nearly three years ago with so much uncertainty? If I had to draw a cartoon of myself in the spring of 2020, I'd be sitting under a mountain of used Clorox wipes asking a series of never-ending ‘what if’ questions! And at the same time, those of us who wanted to be forward-thinking and strategic were determined to look ahead and make sense of the mess (no offense, past-self, I know you were doing your best!).
At some point I lifted my head up from the sewing machine where I was making cloth face masks and asked, “How do we want to emerge from this pandemic?”
It was a noble question. The years that followed have provided us with some answers, but many of us are still stitching it together.
So how do we want to emerge? I can throw around some buzz words like “resilient,” but to be honest I am jumping to a more practical thought: I’d like to hold onto the best “innovations” of the pandemic while learning from the others.
And speaking of buzz words, fast-forward to April 2021, Adam Grant’s NYT article made us all feel seen. He gave us the vocabulary that described what many of us had been feeling in the first year or so of COVID-19. It was not burnout, it was not depression, it was not grief—it was “languishing.”
The opposite of languishing? Flourishing. For many, the period of “languishing” was over a year ago, but how exactly do we get to flourishing?
I know it’s a controversial topic, but I think a big part of the solution, and the transition to the “flourishing” phase, is in continuing to work remotely.
I have been working remotely for the past decade, and it was not until the forced shut-downs in 2020 that many others began to do so. Many of my clients struggled with the transition, and many organizations were impatient to bring people back to the (physical) office as soon as they could do so safely. Why the rush? “We’re losing something,” many clients would say. When pressed, they’d express concerns about losing engagement and even an eroding organizational culture.
This episode of Freakonomics Radio on “The Unintended Consequences of Working from Home” spotlights the impact of hybrid/flexible work. Currently, about 15% of U.S. workers are fully remote, and 30% are hybrid. The research presented in the podcast shows that the flex or hybrid model seems to boost employee happiness and productivity. Yes, BOOST. Yet, many of our clients are still tweaking the policy and/or dealing with resistance as a result of the move back to the office.
No surprise – this discussion came up at our CliffsNotes Book Club meeting this month. Cate Rodman presented highlights from the book Human Kind: A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman. (For Cate’s notes, check out the Cliffs Notes Book Club portal.) As the title suggests, the book provides the history of humans from the standpoint of how we are social beings, how we have evolved to be collaborative, and how increasingly rely on technology to do so. While it is not focused on the present-day work-from-home era, the discussion certainly got me thinking about it.
Specifically, the challenges that surfaced are
To me, getting a handle on those challenges will get us closer to flourishing. I know a lot of people are grappling with this, and as such I will share some tips that work for me and some of my clients.
Tips for how to make the most of working remotely
What would you add to the list? What’s missing to help you get to a point where you are truly “flourishing,” pandemic or not?
US vs. THEM – Critical Questions to ask to turn ‘high conflict’ into ‘healthy conflict’
Any time people get together there is bound to be conflict. Yet we are living at a time when society is divided, and many people lack the skill needed to handle conflict head on—and with respect for all involved. At the CliffsNotes Book Club this month, we discussed Amanda Ripley’s book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.
In the book, Ripley distinguishes between ‘high conflict,’ which is divisive and charged, and ‘healthy conflict,’ which is useful, curiosity-driven, and can lead to deeper understanding.
She also talks about the factors that ‘accelerate’ conflict, one of which is identity. Identity is a complex, layered concept. I am a woman, a mother, a wife, an entrepreneur, a soccer-mom…I could go on and on. And each of my ‘labels’ connects me to groups of others.
It’s similar in the workplace. We are not just part of a work team (i.e., our ‘seat’ in the org chart), we are connected to many groups. I could be a new hire and ‘in’ with a group of employees who started with me. I could be at headquarters and identify with people who are co-located more so than I do with employees at the smaller, regional offices. I also might identify with my generation or alumni group.
I mention this because identity unites and divides. It shapes our worldview and contributes to bias. As Ripley discusses, group identities give us structure, fill us with pride, and encourage peace. At the same time, they can ignite or exacerbate conflict.
As I often teach in my diversity courses, it’s not about eliminating your biases, it’s about bringing them to a conscious state so you know when they’re working for you—and, potentially, against you.
When you do find yourself faced in an ‘us vs. them’ situation, pause and acknowledge what biases might be getting in the way.
The book provides a question set to help shift to a curious mindset and move through conflict. The questions below are essential for any leader to have in their toolkit.
Questions to increase your curiosity
1. What is oversimplified about this conflict?
2. What do you want to understand about the other side?
3. What do you want the other side to understand about you?
4. What would it feel like if you woke up and this problem was solved?
5. What’s the question nobody’s asking?
6. What do you want to know about this controversy that you don’t already know?
7. Where do you feel torn?
8. Tell me more.
What questions would you add to the list?
Your self-awareness is only as good as your vocabulary – What we need to know about labeling our emotions
If I say the phrase, “Use your words,” you probably immediately picture a young parent and an upset toddler. I know I said it often when my boys were young, as we tried to empower them to name whatever it was that was troubling them. The rationale is that, putting a label to an emotion accesses rational thinking, which in turn can create calm.
Fast forward a few years, the notion of learning to properly label your feelings was the central topic of our CliffsNotes Book Club discussion last month! However, this time it was a much more nuanced discussion of all the gradations of emotions, in all the Pantone varieties possible.
Atlas of the Heart
Brené Brown’s latest book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, is a resource to help us access the language we need to better understand our feelings. Every feeling. In the book, she pries apart emotions that are sometimes confused such as jealousy and envy, and helps us distinguish and separate the terms.
Whether you’re three or thirty, the words we use every day help us make sense of the world around us. When it comes to naming an emotion, having access to a specific term to name a feeling means having the ability to move through it. What Brown tells us is that, when we don’t notice or appreciate the differences between envy and jealousy, or joy and awe, we miss an opportunity to learn about ourselves and to connect with others.
But What’s Happening in the Brain?
Of course there’s brain science behind it. When you label a feeling, you are accessing the rational side of your brain. Labeling helps you re-gain control. You’re shifting away from the emotional reaction and toward the thinking reaction. This is particularly helpful in times of anguish or anger, but it can be useful to build self-awareness of any situation.
This Mindful.org article by Mitch Abblett speaks to the neuroscience and provides context for the original research. From the article, “Matthew Lieberman refers to this as ‘affect labeling’ and his fMRI brain scan research shows that this labeling of emotion appears to decrease activity in the brain’s emotional centers, including the amygdala.”
A Simple Application
A simple action you can take is to prompt others to help them label their own emotions. If a colleague at work or friend outside of work comes to you with a challenge, try taking a guess at what they might be feeling. You may say, “What you’re describing to me sounds like [insert emotion]. Is that how you would describe it?”
The best part of this strategy is that it does not matter if you’re right or not. By simply offering one possible emotion, you offer a starting point that helps the person clarify what they’re experiencing and helps them get closer to an accurate label for the emotion. They can then talk through what it might be, and that can make all the difference.
In my previous post, I talked about dynamic leadership and why it is important, considering the ever-changing environment and the increasingly complex issues that today’s leaders face. We, at MCG, also believe that to become a better, more impactful leader, one has to commit to continuous and consistent development.
MCG’s leadership philosophy is based on the premise that leadership is an ongoing cycle of awareness, insight, and action. It is a journey and not a destination.
So, how can you, as a leader, make your journey a meaningful one?
First, you need to build a deep self-awareness, which is the foundation of leadership. It is essential for self-control, decision-making, creativity, learning, growth, and self-fulfillment. Also, learning how to understand the people around you is essential. Awareness of others enables you to consider the perspectives of your team members and apply that understanding in interactions with them. Finally, you must be constantly aware of the context – environment and the system in which you work – and adapt your behavior to what the situation requires.
Gain insight on new knowledge, information, and perspectives
Further along on your leadership journey, when you see the results of your behavior and decisions, it’s essential to analyze them and gain insight into how your own or your team’s behaviors impact others.
Act by applying new behaviors immediately
If you realize you made a mistake, take action to recover and improve. Inevitably, you’ll be faced with situations you’ve never been in before, and so you’ll need to apply a new behavior or skillset. Moreover, a pre-set destination may change at any time. Occasional detours and going off track will happen. What’s crucial is to be able to recognize those missteps early and do a course correction. There is nothing wrong with being an imperfect leader as long as you’re continually learning and growing. Let your team guide you along the way. You just have to be open to hearing the feedback and experimenting with new behaviors.
Wash, rinse, and repeat
There is no end game. Being mindful and intentional about your leadership is never ending and sometimes, you need to hit the reset button several times in one day. Know that it’s a process and learn how to recover gracefully when things get tough.
What techniques or strategies do you use to keep yourself on track as a leader?
As the world around you keeps changing, perhaps it’s time to rethink your leadership approach and style. If you’re still relying on old leadership techniques, how effective and relevant do you think they are?
In the not-so-distant past, leadership was viewed as a static phenomenon. It was often closely associated with a fixed leadership style, a certain set of behaviors, and skills that could (and should) be honed to perfection.
Even today, we witness emerging leadership approaches with set-in-stone criteria for good leadership. Such approaches are based on the underlying assumption that there is the right way to lead, which might look convincing on paper.
In reality, given the fast-paced work environments and the myriad of complex situations they face, leaders cannot address the challenges with a single approach to leadership, no matter which leadership theory it is backed up by.
To be able to navigate the challenges and shift along with the environments, leaders must be constantly aware of themselves, the people around them, and the system in which they work. With continual awareness of self, others, and situations, leaders must develop multiple skillsets and move between them dynamically and fluidly based on the needs of the environment. Another common assumption underlying conventional leadership approaches is that leaders should aim for perfection.
I find that striving for excellence may be counterproductive and result in situations when leaders become risk-averse, compliant, and highly stressed. Instead of teaching leaders to strive for perfection, we teach course correction. In other words, we assume techniques and approaches don’t always work. We teach leaders to be resilient and stay solution-focused when (not if) they go off-track.
Finally, it’s important to shift from an “either-or” to a “both-and” thinking. For example, I believe that a leader can be both directive and collaborative, and both approaches have upsides and downsides.
All in all, MCG’s philosophy is built around the idea that the dynamic approach to leadership allows leaders to find the right balance and learn how to surf the waves of change, unpredictability, and ambiguity.
What leadership approach resonates with you the most?
In my previous post, I talked about the things that great parenting and effective leadership have in common. In a nutshell, they both boil down to having a vision, inspiring others to be their best, leading by example, and building trust.
So whether you are a parent managing kids at home or an executive developing a team at work, you are a leader. In the end, leadership skills are life skills.
The more aware and intentional you are about how you show up as a leader in different life settings, the more effective (and happy) you’ll be in life – instilling a sense of purpose and well-being in others around you.
So how do you bring the science of leadership to life outside the workplace?
You can take the principles of Connected, Valued, and empowered from the Dynamic Engagement model and apply them to any domain of your life. Let’s take parenting as an example.
Feeling connected. Kids have a natural psychological need to connect and belong. When it comes to family dynamics, the sense of belonging and the feeling of being cared about are the most obvious. However, with everyone's busy schedules, it's sometimes hard to carve out time to connect.
Make it a habit to spend some quality time with your little ones. It doesn’t have to be a long time period. All you need to do is be fully present (i.e., turn off your devices). Whether it’s a family dinner, a date night with the kids, bedtime talks, or walks in the park, be there for your child, listen to them, and take an interest in what’s happening in their life.
Feeling valued. Children want to be recognized for their abilities and contributions. Consider how they contribute to the family, regardless of their age (e.g., they add humor, keep everyone on schedule, are always sharing/looking out for someone, bring energy, etc.). Notice their everyday achievements, especially when they are working hard toward a goal or doing something out of the ordinary.
Feeling empowered. Kids also want to feel that they have a choice. Based on their age, think of ways you can allow your children to make their own decisions. Also, allow them to perform tasks independently, without hovering nearby and giving instructions. Don’t rob your children of the opportunities to be autonomous.
I know it’s easier said than done, as applying leadership skills does require self-awareness and intentionality. But when you continuously practice leadership behaviors across domains, you will see how your life will change for the better.
I’m curious, how are you already honing your everyday leadership skills?
Parent as leader - How to carry your leadership skills with you in all domains of life
If leadership is defined as the process of social influence that maximizes the efforts of others and leads to positive outcomes, should it be limited to the workplace?
I believe that leadership goes way beyond the office walls. Practicing leadership skills in everyday life can help build better relationships with family, neighbors, and community members.
The leadership principles of Connected, Valued, and Empowered from MCG’s Dynamic Engagement model can also assist parents in their attempts to become nurturing mothers or fathers.
At first sight, this might sound counterintuitive as parents may believe they need to leave all work-related skills at work. However, applying these principles to the parenting arena is highly beneficial, as raising children can be compared to leading others in the business setting. And here’s why.
We’re not saying to treat your employees like children and treat your children like employees, but rather notice how you show up in challenging situations both at work and at home. What better way to grow as a leader than to experiment with leadership behaviors across all domains of your life?
Do you, as a parent, think of yourself as a leader?
Have you ever been called a control freak? Many of us associate the word “control” with something negative, and we don’t really like dealing with controlling people. As leaders, we’re told not to focus on controlling things or others but rather focus on stepping back and letting others take the reins.
Where does this sense of control come from, and is it really all that bad?
Autonomy is a psychological need based on the idea that people are empowered when they experience a sense of choice and endorsement in a task (Deci and Ryan 2008). This means that individuals gain a sense of intrinsic motivation from engaging in tasks. There are many theories as to where this comes from in human evolution, one being the most obvious that when we are oppressed, we suffer, and humans do everything in their power to avoid pain and suffering.
In the Psychology Today article, “The Desire for Autonomy,” author Alex Lickerman, M.D., states that we are hardwired to desire autonomy. Even internal pressures like guilt or shame, let alone external coercion, affect a “healthy” sense of control. That’s why empowering is all about giving your employees both decision-making responsibility and ownership. When people feel they have a sense of autonomy, they have an increased sense of well-being.
You can strengthen your team’s autonomy and empower employees by delegating familiar, everyday decisions to those closest to the core question or issue. By doing so, you can also take a lot of decision-making off your shoulders! Being a leader does not mean you are the sole person that has to make all of the decisions. You have a team of highly qualified, intelligent people… So leverage them!
While providing autonomy is positive, try not to fall into the trap of stepping back too much. When this happens, task leads may veer in the wrong direction or make decisions that aren’t aligned with the overall strategy.
Remember that delegating tasks is not an “all or nothing” phenomenon. Based on the other person’s skill set, experience level, confidence, and past successes, you as the leader can determine the level of frequency required to check in along the way to ensure the project is moving in the right direction. Also, keep in mind that the task lead may have a different approach or process, but you’re checking in on the end results.
Here’s a challenge for you. Next time, during your 1:1 meetings with your direct reports, ask them, “What am I currently doing that you feel you could and would want to pick up?”
You don’t have to agree to it on the spot, but it opens the door for a conversation. You’ll learn about their areas of interest for their own growth and potential areas for you to let go of. It’s amazing what happens when you let your team guide you into the area of autonomy and empowerment. If you give it a try, let us know what happens.
Why is it important to feel valued and appreciated at work? And how to make that happen...
In my previous post, I talked about belonging, the sense of purpose derived from feeling connected to something bigger, and why belonging is not only good for employees but for businesses too.
Our psychological need to belong goes hand in hand with a need for appreciation. As we contribute value to the whole, we want to be recognized for it. We need those around us to validate our ideas, achievements, or opinions. In other words, we want to know what we do matters.
William James, who is often referred to as the father of American psychology, said that the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.
Genuine appreciation lifts people up and gives us a sense of security and energy. Moreover, gratitude and recognition activate “gratitude” circuits in our brain, releasing dopamine and serotonin - the neuro-chemicals linked to intrinsic motivation in goal accomplishment and better mood.
And how does feeling appreciated translate into performance at work?
A 2013 survey of 12,115 workers worldwide organized by The Energy Project and the Harvard Business Review found that employees who have more supportive supervisors are 1.3 times as likely to stay with the organization and are 67 percent more engaged.
Moreover, employees who derive meaning and significance from their work reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and were 1.4 times more engaged at work.
Research by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada indicates that the highest-performing teams boast a 5.6 ratio of positive comments, i.e., nearly six positive comments for every negative one. But the average for the low-performing teams was 0.36 to 1, with almost three negative comments for every positive one.
These findings conclude that appreciation and acknowledgment are part of the secret sauce for building strong, thriving teams. However, it’s important not to confuse this with empty praise that you often see with corporate rewards programs. Appreciation and acknowledgment can be as simple as a two-sentence email acknowledging someone’s efforts on a specific task and sharing the positive impact. You’d be surprised how much that acknowledgement means to someone, especially those working remotely or those less visible in the organization.
How is appreciation promoted in your organization?
Do you ever catch yourself thinking about the cliques or groups that are formed at work? Sometimes it may feel like your manager hangs around the same offices or plans golf outings with the same people. It may feel like favoritism. At the surface level, you may feel silly feeling a little jealous or excluded but underneath the surface, there’s a very good reason why this radar is going off in your head. When you’re in the “in-group,” you feel that you belong.
But why is the sense of belonging important? It’s been deeply-rooted in our DNA.
In her paper The origins of belonging: social motivation in infants and young children, Dr. Harriet Over states that, back in the day, humans could survive in adverse environments and gain access to food, shelter, and protection from attack only through cooperation with other tribe members. Exclusion from the tribe meant inevitable death.
Today, humans can survive even in individualistic cultures, and our "tribe" is limited to our immediate family and colleagues at work. But much like thousands of years ago, we yearn to be accepted and included by those around us. The sense of belonging makes us feel happy and fulfilled. Belonging to a group also increases our self-acceptance, which is an important factor in coping processes, especially in difficult situations (Thoits, 2011). Furthermore, people's resilience is directly and persistently influenced by a sense of belonging (Scarf et al., 2016).
Companies, too, can reap significant bottom-line benefits when employees feel like they belong. According to the 2019 Harvard Business Review article by Evan Carr, Andrew Reece, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Alexi Robichaux, high belonging was associated with a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. For a 10,000-person company, this would result in more than $52 million in annual savings.
MCG’s Dynamic Engagement model is built around the sense of belonging, or feeling connected, as one of the three foundational needs, along with feeling valued and empowered. I’ll elaborate on the other two needs in my next posts.
In the meantime, I’m curious what does belonging look like in your workplace? And, what do you do as a manager to create an inclusive environment?
Which is better, candor or diplomacy? How polarity-thinking can help you manage the up and down sides of both.
Competition and collaboration. Work and rest. Candor and diplomacy. The business world is full of polarities to handle. Yet, is there a way to do it right?
According to Dr. Barry Johnson, the best way to manage polarities is to supplement either/or thinking with a both/and approach. While ‘either/or’ thinking requires you to choose between the two polarities, ‘both/and’ thinking allows you to navigate between them freely.
Now, to better understand how polarities work in practice, think of Candor and Diplomacy. I believe, as multicultural and diverse workplaces emerge daily, it is imperative to consider.
What defines a candid person?
Candid people value being direct and honest in conversations and letting others know where they stand. However, if they overdo it, they may unintentionally push people away and others may not feel comfortable speaking up.
Upsides: Colleagues know where leaders stand.
Downsides: Colleagues might feel alienated and afraid to voice their own opinions.
Fears: Not being truthful and maintaining integrity.
What defines a diplomatic person?
Such people typically value learning from diverse perspectives and engage in consensus-driven conversations. However, if they overdo this approach, they may end up in analysis-paralysis where people talk in circles and decisions are not made.
Upsides: Colleagues are comfortable sharing their opinions.
Downsides: There is no clear decision or action.
Fears: Damaging relationships or others feeling alienated.
Candor VS Diplomacy: Which one is best?
Everybody likes clarity. Yet, anchoring yourself to one of these poles will not do any good. If you do, you may have short-term success without any long-term gain or worse, will end up with a team who feels deflated and unmotivated.
Understanding that both poles have pros and cons will help you find a "both/and" solution.
You need to acknowledge the downsides of your preference and the upsides of the other side. Leveraging both candor and diplomacy may provide a structure for healthy debate where people candidly share their points of view and are also curious and open to acknowledging and validating other perspectives. This approach of leveraging the upsides of both poles allows for the greatest outcomes to be realized.
There are an infinite amount of polarities that exist in the leadership space: Mission and Margin, People and Task, Delegate and Do it Myself, Reactive and Proactive…
No matter what polarity you find yourself in, to embrace a both/and mindset, one must increase their tolerance for discomfort and risk. One must accept vulnerability and address their own fears to achieve optimal results.
What polarities do you often wrestle with? What creative tensions show up for you as a leader?
How to build and maintain a strong organizational culture, and why you need to start today
How significant is your company's corporate culture compared to its numerous strategies, competing tasks, and priorities?
If you're a small startup with a few people united by a common goal and values, you might not think about culture much. Furthermore, you may be unaware of its importance. However, as your business scales and outnumbers 150 employees, you may come to a point where you feel that the way you do things is not being passed on to all new hires, and your culture is diluted.
Many of MCG’s clients come to us for advice on how to hold onto their culture as their business grows. And no surprise here – a strong, unified culture allows businesses to identify and differentiate themselves from competitors, attract talent, and drive employee engagement, which serves as a foundation for better business outcomes.
Gallup’s studies across 192 organizations showed that work units in the top quartile in employee engagement outperformed bottom-quartile units by 10% on customer ratings, 22% in profitability, and 21% in productivity.
Investing in your employees and culture does pay off. But where to begin the journey of designing or rekindling a great corporate culture, especially when your business is scaling?
Here are a few best practices to consider.
Although following these strategies may sound challenging, dedicating your time and resources to maintaining a strong organizational culture is vital to improving performance. Where is your organization on its journey?
How do you help team members see the upsides and downsides of seemingly opposing views, to find a solution
Whenever your team members hold conflicting opinions on an important business issue, how do you ease tension and come to a decision? The ways of resolving such situations I hear about include trying to reach a consensus through voting or by accepting the most reasonable point of view. Yet, when an issue seems unsolvable, organizations may end up asking a senior executive to step in and impose a solution or postpone decision-making altogether. However, leaders with good conflict management skills often see a bigger picture at play. They see both the upsides and downsides of each side of the conflict and try to find solutions that leverage both upsides.
This conflict-solving strategy is the most effective as it looks at problems through the lens of polarity thinking. Polarities are seemingly opposing yet interdependent energy systems supporting each other. For example, light & dark, change & stability, individual freedom & common good are equally important in life. When leveraged well, those energies create harmony.
Yet, we’re only human and tend to get stuck in a binary way of thinking – “Should we do X or Y?”, “X is good while Y is bad”, etc.
What comes out of it, and how can we navigate the challenge of great dilemmas?
Barry Johnson, the author of And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma, says that tying effort to one polarity almost guarantees failure because of the inevitable problems arising from focusing on that polarity alone.
For example, by focusing on cost only within the interdependent pair of “cost efficiency” vs “service excellence”, we are likely to lose customers because of poor service.
Therefore, it’s crucial to make a shift from “either-or” to “both-and” thinking. Teams should acknowledge the opposing view and be open to the fact that the other party has something to offer. However, when one is at odds with another, we often see only the downsides of the opposing view. It takes an open mind and a level of leadership maturity to engage with the opposing party & the bigger picture.
To leverage polarities, Johnson provides the Polarity Map™ – a tool that allows reframing problems.
To fill out a polarity map, teams put down the seemingly opposing views – representing two poles. In the upper quadrants, members write the positive results made possible by focusing on each pole. In the lower quadrants, they come up with the negative outcomes that happen when over-focusing on each of the poles.
For great results, companies need to go after the benefits of both poles and minimize the downsides mentioned under each of the poles – instead of focusing on whose opinion is better.
How often do you get caught up in “either-or” thinking? How do you come to an agreement when faced with opposing views at work or in family situations?
We all know exercise is good for the body, but are you also exercising your brain? If ‘gray matter’ matters to you, do you rely on brain-training apps to keep your mind sharp?
The MCG team has looked into research conducted on brain-training apps and cognitive decline prevention, and these some the science-based findings that I thought you might find interesting.
While there are dozens of apps that promise to sharpen memory, improve cognitive function, and hone attention and focus, scientists say that such claims may be exaggerated.
According to the scientific community of the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development, there is no compelling scientific evidence that brain games reduce or reverse cognitive decline.
While it is true that some brain games may improve specific aspects of behavior and can even change related brain structures and functions, they do not always translate to enhanced real-world broad abilities.
When people perform a particular brain game, their performance on that specific task does improve. However, it does not lead to a general improvement in memory, thinking, or problem-solving. For example, doing crossword or Sudoku will make you good at doing those puzzles, but it doesn’t improve overall brain function. Although scientists say that cognitive-enhancement games are no magic bullet, many app users consider such games to be great brain boosters.
A 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggests that the positive results from brain games may be explained by a placebo effect. However, some studies on the efficiency of computerized tasks do inspire hope. Findings from the COGITO Study reveal that younger adults who practiced 12 different tasks for 100 days showed general improvements in their abilities of reasoning and episodic memory – and some of the positive changes were seen two years following the study. In other studies, older adults have reported that they felt better about everyday functioning after cognitive training.
And the greatest news is, that because our brain is remarkably plastic, even an aged brain has a capacity to change. In the article titled The aging mind: neuroplasticity in response to cognitive training (see article), Denise C. Park says that the human mind is malleable throughout the life span. By training your brain like a muscle, you can reverse its decline.
What’s more, ‘brain fitness‘ can be enhanced with physical exercise, learning something new (like a foreign language), and new experiences.
So what do we make of all of this contracting evidence on training the gray matter in our brains? Our conclusion, for now, is that brain training games won’t do any harm but if you’re looking for a real boost, find experiences/activities that are intellectually challenging and do not become a rote process.
What’s your experience using brain training apps?
Reimagine our imagined world: How the stories you tell yourself shape your world
One of my favorite sayings is “When your story stops working, make up a new one.” I honestly don’t remember whose wisdom I am repeating, but it is so powerful on many levels. First, it implies that we are constantly making up stories to explain the people and the world around us.
Second, it puts you in the driver’s seat as the chief storyteller. The world does not happen to you. Rather, you get to create the world around you.
The book Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow talks about how our brains are continuously taking in stimuli and filling in the gaps to make meaning and constructs. Everything we observe is literally made up in our minds. So, what is real?
When I listened to the recording of last month’s book discussion on Sapiens by Yuval Harari, the facilitator of the session (and good friend), Tommy Zarembka really got us thinking. Tommy introduced the concept of “imagined order.” Yuval describes imagined order as “based neither on ingrained instincts nor on personal acquaintances but rather on belief in shared myths.” A few coaches on the call commented that they help their clients step away from being in the myth and notice the myths in a different light. This approach helps clients change their mindsets and achieve new results. For example, if someone believes a myth that they’re not good enough and will never succeed, they may begin to focus on the times when they were successful and begin to disrupt this myth about themselves. As the coaches were explaining this concept of disrupting a myth, Tommy asked, “So coaches, let me ask you, are you saying that you’re helping your clients reimagine another imagined myth?” Brilliant question! To which I say, “Yes!” It’s all made up in our minds anyway, so why not choose the story or myth that is going to bring you the most joy, calm, and happiness?
How do you change your story?
This notion of being able to create a new story is so simple, yet extremely powerful. This can change someone from feeling helpless to hopeful. This technique, if you can call it that, not only works to help you change your own view but can also work when dealing with ‘difficult’ people around you. Many years ago, I was co-facilitating training for a group of 20 people, including one woman who had a very negative disposition. From the moment she walked in the training classroom, the coffee was too cold, the room was too hot, she had to take the bus home because of car troubles, etc. It was an endless complaint session, and we still had 20 minutes before the workshop even started!
I turned to my colleague and said sarcastically, “This is going to be a fun day.”
To which my colleague replied, “Must be hard to live that way.”
My story about this person is that she was a complete grouch and poor me was going to have to manage her negativity all day while trying not to drain my energy in the process. My colleague, however, choose a different story. One of empathy, to think how much energy the woman must spend worrying and noticing and absorbing all the negative things happening to her. Hearing my colleague’s story, my entire attitude towards this ‘difficult’ person changed. Suddenly, she wasn’t my problem to own, manage or try to fix. Instead, I felt bad for her, but allowed her to own her own negativity. I was able to let it go and focused on the other 19 people who were very engaged and ready to get the day started.
The best part of our imagined order or myths, as Yuva Harari labels it, is that it is just that, imagined.
What stories are you holding onto that no longer serve you?
What new story are you ready to make up?
“Stop trying to change hearts and minds. Change the behavior!”
This is the advice guest speaker and author, Minal Bopaiah, shared during our CliffsNotes Book club session last month. Minal was addressing change in DEI and speaking about what works in her experience.
For me, being trained as an Organization Development consultant for 25+ years, this was a complete “mind blown” moment. We are trained to focus on mindset shifts to obtain sustainable change. The thinking is, when you view the world differently, you’re willing to access new/different behaviors.
Minal’s point was that most DEI efforts are intended to change behavior, norms, and ways of interacting. However, it may take ages to win some people over with their “hearts and minds” on certain DEI topics, and some may never agree! But, if they can agree to change behavior to align to the new values and expectations, then that’s progress. I’m not ready to ditch the whole mindset shift thing completely, but I understood her point. It got me wondering if sometimes I overemphasize the importance of a mindset shift to the neglect of behavior change.
The Challenge: Getting Better at Time Management
Take time management as an example. Whether you are an executive who needs to learn to get out of the weeds, a new parent who is suddenly juggling a career and a young family, or someone who is simply poor at time management, getting better at time management is a change that many of us would love to make a reality.
This topic touches us all, and it’s one that requires a “tune up” from time to time over the course of your career. In meeting with clients recently, I am finding that many organizations are taking a fresh look at their processes and group norms for in-office days, work travel, and collaboration overall as their organizations are returning to the office after extended telework due to COVID.
The Key To Improving Time Management: Look at Your Systems
As I reflected further, I realized that some of the best strategies that I use to manage my own time have required changes to my everyday processes and behaviors. Almost two decades ago, I took a course called “Getting Things Done” with the David Allen Company (No, I don’t get a commission). I learned some basic email tricks in that program that I still use to this day! Here are a few:
If you’re looking for sustainable change or buy-in over time, I still believe that mindset plays a large part and, focusing on small actionable behaviors are valuable. It could be exactly what you need to get the momentum going.
Still Unsure Where To Start? Here is Some Inspiration
I recently read a McKinsey article with the best title ever, “If we are all so busy, why isn’t anything getting done?” It’s a great quick read that offers some recent examples of how organizations have rethought processes and implemented “radical” ideas like no-meetings days. One of my clients actually implemented this idea and they went one step further, they removed meetings for one FULL WEEK! True story! Is it time to re-imagine how you work?
What small behavior shifts have you made that have made a big impact?
How to Avoid or Address Subtle Acts of Exclusion, and Create the Kind of Work Environment Where Your Team Can Shine
“I feel like I am walking on eggshells.”
This is something I commonly hear from clients who are afraid of saying the wrong thing in a work setting. Even the most seasoned leaders want to avoid missteps, and as a result they tend to avoid conversations that feel “risky.” Of course, this is at odds with what works in many high-functioning organizations—on the one hand, open, respectful dialogue about sometimes “hard” topics, and on the other, the psychological safety that allows for people to feel comfortable opening up, and being vulnerable.
I was thinking a lot about the “eggshells” at our recent CliffsNotes Book Club meeting. Last month’s book was Subtle Acts of Exclusion, by Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran. The title of the book is the new phrase for what we previously called “micro-agressions.” The newer phrase avoids “micro” which can mean insignificant, and “aggression” which can imply the intent to harm. With acts of exclusion, it’s not about the intent, it’s about the impact.
In the book, the authors push us to think about the risks of speaking up versus not speaking up. (And that’s where you crunch the eggshells.) In my work with leaders at all levels over the past three decades, I have met many big-hearted, capable people who avoid such conversations. Many things can get in the way of the kinds of conversations that may seem awkward, but that lead us to deeper, more meaningful connections. Here are three common barriers, and ways to address them.
Tips for Leaders – Avoiding or Addressing Subtle Acts of Exclusion
1. “I want to be authentic at work, and I feel I am being silenced or cannot talk about certain topics.”
Reality check: It’s not about limiting your authenticity—it’s just that you can’t be a jerk, at work or anywhere for that matter. Acts of exclusion are seemingly small comments that can make others feel left out, or less than. For example, going around the room and asking “how many children do you have?” versus “does anyone else have young kids?” is a simple reframe that can set the tone for group dynamics in that conversation and beyond. It’s okay to mention your own children. It’s not okay to assume all others have children.
Decades ago when we talked about “political correctness” people took away the understanding that they must circumvent certain personal topics or discussions in a professional setting. And this can make people feel as if they cannot be themselves. I would argue that in most places of work you are encouraged to share about yourself, provided you do not impose your values on others and provided you avoid making assumptions about others. For example, it’s wonderful to wish a new mom “Happy Mother’s Day,” but perhaps avoid wishing all women the same. Just pause and think first.
2. “Sometimes I just don’t know what to say.”
When something comes up that could offend you or others, something that you know you “should” respond to, but you are speechless, what do you do? I find that it helps to have a reaction prepared—to avoid a speechless moment. A question such as, “What makes you think that?” can draw the person out, without condoning what they have said, and give you time to regain composure and react.
At Book Club, we talked about how terrible it feels to be caught off guard, and how it can be especially hard to advocate for someone in response to an act of exclusion you might be witness to, but that might not directly impact you. As a group, we brainstormed possible phrases to have ready, for when you need them. For example, here are a couple to keep in your back pocket.
These phrases buy you time, point toward the issue, and open up a discussion on what transpired. They hit the “pause” button on the conversation. They also allow others time to chime in.
3. “I don’t want to make it worse, and I know I have blind spots.”
As a leader, people are watching what you do and say—and what conversations you avoid. You are the keeper of the culture and you are modeling what leadership means in your organization. That said, this is an honor not a burden.
I always say, it’s not about perfection, it’s about course-correction. Having the courage to open up a discussion that may feel awkward or messy is part of professionalism in today’s world. And not doing it could have a long-term negative impact on the relationships and team dynamic. My advice? Acknowledge the challenge, demonstrate that you’re in learning mode, and ask for feedback. Say something like, “This is out of my comfort zone, but the conversation is important. Can we talk about this for a minute?”
For more tips, and notes from the book club discussion/highlights from the book, head over to the portal.
Headed back to the office? How Polarity Thinking™ can help you navigate this change for yourself and your team
The struggle is real. So many of my clients right now are focused on navigating re-entry to the office. For some, it’s about “active inertia,” the notion that it’s hard to shift back to picking up dry cleaning and paying for tolls after so many months of working from the dining room table in your sweat pants. For others, there are very real concerns about COVID, the variants, etc.—and very different levels of comfort with health and safety protocols. As I reflect on the push / pull factors, it’s noteworthy that many of my clients are doing just fine working remotely. They have gotten into a good groove with collaboration tools, and engagement has not suffered. Yet what I am hearing is that many organizations are concerned about the long-term effects that remote working will have on culture. There’s fear that new hires won’t acclimate, and that over time people may lose their sense of connection to each other and to the organization. There’s something about in-person face time that serves as glue. And there’s fear that things are getting unstuck.
How to look at a complex challenge—map it
When faced with a layered and complex challenge, I know it's time to pull out one of my favorite, most versatile tools, the Polarity Map™. Polarities are a way to help you reframe a “problem” and consider the upsides and downsides of the two seemingly opposing forces at play. In some cases it’s helpful to do a simple “pros and cons” list, and consider upsides and downsides of a choice. Polarities, however, are more complex and nuanced, and they get you out of “diagonal thinking,” an either/or mindset, and into a “both/and” mindset which opens up creativity and possibilities.
At CliffsNotes Book Club this month, the architect of Polarity Thinking™, Dr. Barry Johnson, spoke about his book And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox, or Dilemma. For a primer on polarities, find notes and the recording on the portal. Also visit Barry’s Polarity Partnerships site.
Laura Mendelow and Dr. Barry Johnson
When considering the return to the office, what is the polarity at play
Two years into the pandemic, the polarity I am helping many clients see and navigate is a focus on culture versus a focus on results. For many, the central question is: How can you scale culture -and- maintain results -all while- we are navigating hybrid work and return to the office (whatever that looks like for your organization)?
As we consider return to the office, I mapped the two poles as ‘focus on culture’ and ‘focus on results.’ Ideally, we want to spend more time in the ‘upsides’ of each, where you’re productive -and- engaged.
The positives of focusing on culture are what you’d expect to see among the “great workplaces” award winners, namely:
The positives of focusing on results are what investors want to see, and also make for stability and job security. These include:
Understanding the polarity at play, and what the upsides and downsides of each pole are, will help you navigate the flow between the two poles. As I talk with leaders about the map, it allows the conversation to shift away from the rules and COVID protocols, and focus on the bigger picture goals, and how each person contributes. It’s a plug-and-play discussion starter for a team meeting and can spark a wonderful idea-storm with solutions specific to your organization. Let me know how it helps your group!
At last month’s book club meeting, we discussed a book that was out of the ordinary for our “CliffsNotes” Book Club that typically focuses on business books. We featured Braiding Sweetgrass Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
On the surface, the book offers no immediate lessons for CEOs or up-and-coming frontline leaders. Yet we were all mesmerized and found immediate ways to apply it to our work as coaches, facilitators, and leaders. Most interestingly: the book was written in 2014, but it’s recently getting a lot of attention—and it’s now a best seller.
The book is beautifully written and has many great lessons; however, what captured my attention is the larger narrative. Why are so many people paying attention to this book, and why now?
It's a book about lessons from indigenous people and Mother Nature. How is it that now we are finally waking up and acknowledging the beauty, strength, and benefits of connecting with earth?
One reason that I'll offer, and of course this is just a hypothesis, is that in this fast paced, highly-technical world, with advances in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, we want to get back to our roots. We’re craving it. Through the lens of polarity-thinking, I see the tensions of “Being” and “Doing.” Perhaps as a society, we're (finally) recognizing that we're leaning too far into the “Doing” and have ignored the “Being?” Here's what it looks like on a polarity map, with "Doing" and "Being" as the two poles.
Being & Doing – Through a Polarity-Thinking Lens
Let’s look at “Doing” and “Being” from a polarity perspective, and consider the upsides and downsides of each end of the pole.
On the one pole of "Doing,” people are collaborating with partners across the world and dreaming up innovations they never knew were possible. New AI systems allow us to work faster, smarter, and more efficiently. We have WiFi, we connect to work on all of our handheld devices, and we have the flexibility to work from home, which reduces commute time and further increases productivity time! There are so many upsides of “Doing!”
That said, we've already seen, and many of us feel, the downsides of overusing this pole... We're burned out. Many of us have no boundaries from working from home. It’s a 24/7 work week, we experience information overload with access to news as it happens all around the globe, and we’re expected to be everything to everyone. There’s no pause for life’s mishaps and for many a 3-day weekend is a “vacation.”
Perhaps the pull and appeal to this book is that we're reaching out to the other pole. We’re connecting with the appeal of “Being.”
The upsides of “Being” are about coming back to our roots, slowing down, appreciating the beauty right in front of us...A focus on “Being” redirects you to not put all of your energy into improving, fixing, changing, but instead to carve out time for thinking, observing, and paying attention to appreciating what is. It’s about leveraging what already exists—and connecting back to our purpose and our meaning.
Sometimes all it takes is finding a “Sit Spot.”
There was an exercise I once heard of called having a "Sit Spot." This is a spot in nature, outside your home or place of work (somewhere you visit regularly) and for 5, 10, or 15 minutes a day, you just sit in that spot and observe. You may notice the same squirrels running by, or the same song that birds sing to alert others when you walk out the door, or the way things look different based on the time of day or weather. By just simply sitting and observing you recognize all that is around you. You share this home with others; it is just as much their home as it is yours.
“Being” also has downsides. Perhaps we don't operate in this pole as often because of the fear of leaning in too much. We fear becoming complacent, lack of energy, no ambition, no drive, etc.
How do you leverage the best of “Being” and “Doing?”
With a polarity-thinking lens and Mother Nature lens on, I wonder how we can best lean into both ends of the poles, to get best benefits of both “Being” and “Doing?”
Most of us are already great at "Doing" but what are some ideas to lean into "Being." Here are a few ideas to start. Many came from the Braiding Sweetgrass discussion at Book Club.
How to Leverage “Being” at Work
How to Leverage “Being” at Home
If you are interested in learning more about polarity-thinking, join our April Book Club session (April 13, 2022). We are so delighted to have the author, Dr. Barry Johnson, join us and engage in dialogue on his book 'And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma.' To register, visit the Book Club portal.