Stuck in the middle: How today’s leaders are navigating the transition back to the office, while honoring their team members’ needs and the business needs
You’ve likely seen illustrations that depict the sandwich generation, where many are caring for aging parents at the same time as raising their own young kids. This sandwich is reminding me of a dynamic at play with today’s leaders. Leaders are stuck in the middle between what their team members are asking for and what their company is mandating. As many organizations are returning to the office, and in some cases mandating in-person office and meeting time, leaders are looking to honor what their employees want and need, and adhere to the company policies. The transition back to the office is causing leaders pressure to lean into what feels like competing needs.
How do you hold that balance between what employees are asking for and what the organization needs? This balancing act is not unique to the transition back to the office after months of telework. And it’s not new to leaders. It also shows up in career conversations, where you have to find that sweet spot between an employee’s talents and passions and the direction of the business. Yet a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, our resources are spent.
Stuck in the middle is not a good place to be, but how are the best leaders handling it?
Polarity Map: Here’s a tool that can help.
I have shared before how polarity thinking can help you navigate a situation in which there are seemingly two opposing forces or poles. Knowing how to identify the polarity, and understanding the upsides and downsides of each pole, will help you lead through the tensions.
As you consider the company policy, the poles may be Customization and Standardization.
On the one hand, you run the risk of making too many exceptions for individual team members, and on the other hand, you run the risk of being too rigid and adhering to the rules for the sake of the rules.
Every employee’s situation is unique, and may require some customization or flexwork arrangement. Sometimes you need to advocate for the team member, and push back on the policy. Other times, you may need to help coach someone out, if they are no longer a fit for the organization. Knowing the polarities at play will help you navigate the situation.
Here are some considerations…
As with so many leadership challenges, it starts with asking the right questions. Leaders need to get curious. Ask questions re their team member’s individual needs, and how they are working best, in what environment. Some people can’t wait to go back to the office. Others have a stomachache just thinking about it. Get in tune with each person’s needs.
Many companies are writing clear and precise policies about returning to the office. Behind these policies is an attempt to demonstrate and help ensure the team can get the work done, safely. Familiarize yourself with these policies and understand why they’re in place. Talk with your senior leaders if you disagree with an approach and ensure you’re aligned with your management team.
Beware of the traps!
If you are overly focused on one or the other of the poles, you are going to be at risk of falling into a trap. As I work with leaders during this time of re-entry to the office, here are some of the traps I have been hearing about:
1. Making Magic
What I have heard: Many companies are now requiring that their employees return to the office. With this new emphasis on standardization, some employees are resisting and feeling a lack of concern for their individual needs. They’re pushing back and saying that there must be a “reason” to meet in person, and expecting the leader to make it “worth their while.” Managers have said they’re now feeling this new pressure to come up with the magic formula to keep employees satisfied when working in-person.
What you can do: Lean into customization...but not too far. Don’t fall into the trap that you, as the leader, have to come up with the magic plan to make it worth their while AND honor the fact that they are expecting customization in how they now operate as a team in-person. Instead, work in partnership with your employees to create a customized plan. Ask what they need to make it worth their while (customization), and ask them to contribute the process, too. Perhaps your team decides to have designated outdoor collaboration sites or they want to arrange potluck lunches. Whatever the plan is, develop it together and share the responsibility for the customized workplace they desire.
2. No Time to Meet
What I have heard: Another potential risk is making too many exceptions for individuals on the team. If you’re over-accommodating to the needs of individuals, you may end up in a situation where no one can schedule a meeting because everyone has a unique schedule, with no overlapping time between 9 to 5. This may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s a real example.
What you can do: Lean into standardization. Let the team know the boundaries and expectations and the importance of creating standards across the team in order to be most productive. Engage with the entire team to set team agreements on what will work best across the team. They may decide that everyone comes in on Wednesdays or when you’re off the clock, you make exceptions to attend certain meetings. The more the team engages to develop these agreements, the more likely it’ll stick.
If you’re feeling stuck in the middle, the polarity map can be a great tool to help you get unstuck. Draw a sideways figure eight on a paper and jot down your own pressures and fears. Think about the questions you can ask to help get clarity and to help find the right balance.
Webinar on Leading Remotely
Which comes first, happiness or success? Secrets from positive psychology to help you exceed your own wildest expectations.
If I told you that I have a secret that will instantly make you 31% more productive, would you want to try it? What’s more—there’s no cost, no nasty side-effects, and nothing illegal. You in?
The secret is positivity. Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that taking on a positive mindset can boost productivity by 31%. If you have a positive mindset and you face a difficult situation, you see it as a challenge not a threat. Neuroscience tell us that when you’re in a positive mindset, your brain releases dopamine, which turns on the learning centers. It increases your capacity to see the possibilities, to creatively problem-solve, and to get through it, whatever 'it' is.
So which comes first, success or happiness? Many people think you have success and then happiness will follow. Instead, it’s the opposite. You choose happiness, then success follows.
If it’s that easy, then how do we flip the switch?
In this TED Talk by Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, you'll learn few tips.
Exercise, meditation, and a daily gratitude practice are among the strategies.
Not sure where to start? One of the tips is something you can try right now.
Take a moment and jot down three things you are grateful for. Every day for 30 days, jot down three more. Each day, your list must be three new things. You will quickly accumulate a long list and increase your capacity for appreciation. You’re rewiring your brain for happiness.
Check out Achor's book or the 12-minute TED talk for more details and inspiration. What helps you to flip the switch?
Are you still unclear on how to further Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in your organization? Start where you are…
It was Arthur Ashe who said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” It’s been over a year since the death of George Floyd. In the workplace and beyond, more and more people feel the urgency to make positive change, and to do their part for social justice. In my work with leaders, I find that many are informed, motivated, and outraged, but remain unsure of their next steps. The quote from Arthur Ashe is a great one. Start where you are. What could that look like for you?
Here are three ways to start where you are...
1) Fully leverage your people data
If you are in an organization that sends out a company-wide survey annually or every other year, you have valuable data right at your fingertips. Most managers will receive their team or business unit data, skim through the results and perhaps review the pluses and deltas with their leadership team. Lately, however, I’ve noticed a trend of managers getting curious. Even when the results are positive, leaders are willing to dig in further and slice and dice the data to uncover patterns.
In one case, a leader had received high ratings and still decided to investigate further. To his surprise, when he analyzed the data differently, there was a clear gender discrepancy in a handful of items. He reached out to MCG, and our associates conducted focus groups and engaged with the leadership team to implement specific strategies. The focus group themselves were powerful and appreciated by the staff. Staff were grateful that their leader cared enough to examine their results and get to the core of important issues. (In fact, one participant sent a personal thank-you, grateful for the opportunity to have such an open discussion with the team.)
Action: Even if you receive high ratings on an engagement survey, get curious and examine your company-wide data to see where you can improve.
2) Assess the organizational mood
Our book club discussion this month focused on the book Reinventing Diversity by Howard Ross. One of the most useful takeaways was Ross’ list of “12 Building Blocks for Culture.” It’s a really powerful list (see an abbreviated list of questions below).
In particular, I was captivated by #6 on the list, “organizational mood.” Two questions Ross proposes for this area are:
Mood is similar to “climate,” and emotions are the weather, or what’s going on throughout the organization. As a coach and facilitator, I will be asking about mood to see what comes up for people. It’s an accessible way to enter into what can sometimes be a difficult conversation.
Action: Incorporate questions about organizational mood into your 1:1 or skip-level meetings.
12 Building Blocks for Culture
With sample questions
3) Be flexible
In the book, Ross also talks about “cultural flexibility.” It is a systematic approach to incorporating an awareness of diversity and skills related to diversity into everything an organization does. I see this as integration.
Even in mature organizations, it’s important to notice where diversity skills and awareness of diversity is missing. Years ago, one of our MCG team members worked at a university with a big international focus. Many of the biggest majors had global curriculum, more than 20% of the student body had completed high school outside the U.S., and each semester hundreds of students studied abroad. Yet the post office on campus struggled to find the charge code to send a package internationally, and the employee phone lines (this was in the days of long-distance calling codes), did not allow for overseas calls. These were small annoyances, but examples that illustrate how an initiative must reach all corners of an organization in order to truly demonstrate cultural flexibility.
Action: Re-evaluate your processes and systems from your customer’s perspective, and notice what aligns (and doesn’t align) to your company’s DEI strategy.
This blog post begins with some desk-side Karaoke:
“You gotta know when to hold em…know when to fold them…know when to walk away…know when to run…”
(Sorry if it's now stuck in your head the rest of the day!)
I'm known in my family to constantly make up words to songs but, for some reason, Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler is one song that I memorized by heart when I was younger and haven't forgotten. I know it's cheesy but I always get the chills when he sings, "...in his final words I found an ace that I could keep." This song has been on my mind lately because of the book we reviewed last month in our CliffsNotes Book Club. We discussed Maria Konnikova’s book, The Biggest Bluff. It’s the story of a researcher who sets out to learn poker—to really master it—and through that experience, we learn a great deal about managing your emotions, bias, self-discipline, decision-making, and more. (A special thanks to Judy Dickinson for the awesome presentation!)
Why Poker? Poker, more so than other games, mirrors life. To win, you need a balance of luck and skill, much like in real life. Also, you have to make decisions in poker as you do in real life, with limited information. You can see your own cards, but what are the others holding?
I jotted down a few takeaways that are particularly useful for my work with leaders.
To learn more about the book, check out this Atlantic article, this NPR article, and the notes Judy prepared, on the portal.
What have games taught you about life?
Let’s face it. We’re busy. It’s easy to fall into the autopilot of DOING, and not remembering to check in with yourself to ask – Am I also LIVING my values?
Last month’s book club session was on Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. It is the kind of book that speaks to you whether you’re seeking a new job, facing a transition, or just in need of a personal check-in. The authors, Stanford Design Program professors, packed the book full of activities that are both fun and drive tremendous personal insights. (Check out the notes on the CliffsNotes book portal for more info.)
Build a Compass
One of the activities I found particularly useful is to build a compass to create alignment between what you believe in, and what you are actually doing. (The discussion of 'alignment' made me remember the game Tetris. We get so much satisfaction from creating these continuous lines that stack up so beautifully!) The compass activity is in three parts:
Hypothetically speaking, someone who values fun and connection and wants to create lasting family memories may be out of alignment when she can't manage to take more than two days off (and works for herself) and can't keep up with the laundry let alone plan a family vacation for winter break... you know, just as a hypothetical example. Seriously, though, we all get out of alignment, it's to be expected. These are the types of exercises to help us pause every now and then and get back on track. And it's important to focus on what action you want to take moving forward rather than get caught up on evaluating the past.
Maybe select one small change to get back in alignment. What would that look like?
After all, you’re a leader in your life—not just in one aspect of your life.
Leadership at Work & Beyond
The discussions about designing your life brought me back to how important it is to think about leadership in all domains of life. After all, you’re a leader in your life—not just in one aspect of your life. As I often say, it’s about leadership ‘at work and beyond.’ In working with leaders for decades, I find that this notion really resonates. It’s about being authentic and it’s about finding every opportunity to learn and grow.
I rounded up some related posts on this ‘and beyond’ concept. Read on for more:
As always, let me know what resonates.
Book club this month was a real delight. We heard from Bruce Mau, author of MC24: Bruce Mau's 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change in your Life and Work.
Watch the video of the highlights here!
In the book, Mau maps out his methodology and process for design, which has touched a wide range of projects in various industries. The 24 principles are both practical and thought provoking.
The first principle is: “First inspire. Design is leadership. Lead by design.” I have dedicated the past two decades to leadership development. This principle resonates with me because it gets to the core of leadership, which is about inspiring others.
As a leader, how are you inspiring others to think big and have the confidence and courage to act on their ideas?
During the talk, Mau shared that leadership is having the ability to envision a future and systematically execute the vision. Design has a methodology of leadership. It's about changing the context. It's about applying design principles to work through our most complex challenges.
See what I mean by inspiring others?
What I’ll remember most about the session is that he’s a great storyteller and speaker. Here are just a few of the ‘Mau-isms’ that stuck with me:
I received the book as a birthday gift and will be going deeper into his concepts and the world of design. If you missed it, check out the video recording (30 min). So intriguing!
Also: What to do if you too often hit snooze on problem-solving, strategic planning, and other ‘important’ work—because of ‘urgent’ work
There are few things that coaches and facilitators (two ‘hats’ I wear throughout the workweek) love more than questions. Questions are the sharpest tool in our toolboxes—razor sharp, because we are always honing them. We know that how you frame a question impacts how the brain receives it. You can imagine my delight when, at book club this month, Laurie Shellenberger shared a new question set from the book Upstream by Dan Heath. In the book, Heath introduces the concept of “upstream thinking,” which is a way to look at the source or drivers for a problem, rather than the consequences of it. It’s a structure to consider complex and costly problems (e.g., Medicare spends a fortune on hospital visits that could be prevented). As you look at your most important strategic issues, consider Heath’s questions.
Questions for Upstream Thinkers
Problem-solving questions from Upstream by Dan Heath
1. How will you unite the right people?
2. How will you change the system?
3. Where can you find a point of leverage?
4. How will you get early warning of the problem?
5. How will you know you’re succeeding?
6. How will you avoid doing harm?
7. Who will pay for what does not happen?
How to Make Time to Look Upstream – Separating the ‘Urgent’ from the ‘Important’
As much as I love Heath's questions, I realize it’s only half of the plan. It’s one thing to have a great set of questions. It’s entirely another to carve out space and time for the ‘Upstream’ conversation. In other words, if you really want change to happen, you have to invest in time for strategic conversations. This is where I see many of my clients suffer.
Plan as we may, there’s always something unexpected that creeps up. It can be a challenge to handle urgent needs and carve out time for strategic, long-term priorities. I get it! The most effective leaders plan for both the urgent and important tasks (both planned and unexpected). Here are three simple steps to help you get started in managing this tension so you can make real change happen.
Step 1: Audit
From a workload perspective, survey yourself and see how you are spending your time. This may be a quick calendar audit exercise. As you look at the months ahead, ideally you have a healthy mix of items including:
Step 2: Analyze
As you look at how you’re spending your time, ask yourself, “Does each item have a purpose?” Gain clarity on the purpose and value of everything on your calendar. If not, what can be done? You want to get to a place where you make time for an offsite or strategic planning session and have peace of mind that you’re handing the “urgent” items in daily huddles, etc. Relentlessly edit your calendar to make this happen.
Step 3: Act
Aside from the 'edits' mentioned above, taking action could look like this:
At Work and Beyond
Yes, please try this at home! This approach works at work and beyond. If you were to map your personal and family time to the purpose and value, what would you find? Ask yourself:
You know the steps! Walk through them. Pro tip: You might not want to call your family members ‘stakeholders,’ but you can do a verbal dance around that.
Let me know how you’re doing managing the ‘urgent,’ and how these tips help. As always, keep the feedback coming!
“How do tangible things create an intangible feeling of joy?” This is the question Ingrid Fetell Lee explores in the book Joyful, our January book club discussion topic. I have been “joyspotting” in the weeks since the discussion, noticing how even seemingly mundane things like a bundle of colorful new markers on my desk can spark a moment of joy.
(It was a great discussion, and you can check out the notes on the In the Know portal. Also check out Ingrid Fetell Lee’s TED Talk.)
While the book focuses on visual queues or environmental factors that spark joy, I have also been noticing joy in other places. In meetings, for example, there’s something indulgently delightful about a surprise moment of connection.
My team and I work to create these moments through activities such as icebreakers and even a creative way to do round-robin introductions in an otherwise perfunctory, predictable meeting. It could be the creativity, the unexpected “break” from the agenda, or a combination of all of the above…but it surely is joyful. If you were to measure the audio volume in a meeting, you’re sure to hear laughter (and overall less multi-tasking/more engagement) as well. As one client reminded me this week, these fun activities also go a long way toward building relationships and trust, in case you need a bottom-line driven reason to invest the time in a seemingly “off topic” agenda item.
To help you get started, and because we all need to spice up our Zoom game this many months into the pandemic, here’s a fun list of icebreakers you can try out. Let me know how it goes!
Icebreaker Recommendations for Your Next Virtual Meeting
We are all working hard to keep Zoom exciting. I recently pulsed a group of coaches and facilitators and added to my bag of tricks. Here are a few you may wish to try.
Happy New Year! When I was a kid, 2020 was THE year of the future. I can remember a school assignment where we were asked to write about the year 2020. Influenced greatly by The Jetsons, I imagined flying cars, eating pills instead of food, and holograms everywhere. Little did I know at the time that the reality of 2020 is that I would rarely ride in a car (let alone a flying one), I would be eating way too much real food (and taking pills to help me sleep), and attending endless Zoom meetings (which, I guess is pretty close to holograms so maybe I got one prediction right). Thinking about the loss of loved ones, it is hard to think about anything positive in 2020. Yet, I am wrapping up the year with a sense of resilience and growth. Here are some personal lessons and reminders from 2020:
I hope you can sift through the hardships and the heartbreaks of 2020 and find some glimmers of hope and happiness. Wishing you and your family all the best.
“How the @#*! am I going to get through this?” It’s a question I hear a lot these days—from the leaders I work with and also (admittedly) from the voices in my own head. It’s not the kind of question that generates creative brainstorming and explore-the-possibilities thinking. While it does not feel good in the moment, it’s these situations that build resiliency for the future. All you need is one seed of hope.
With that backdrop, in book club last month, Chris Westbrook led a discussion on Leadership in Turbulent Times by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. In the book, the author presents details of the leadership journeys of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson. She talks about how these four American leaders recognized leadership qualities in themselves and how they showed up as leaders to others. (Check out the portal for Chris’ discussion notes.)
It was interesting to hear about how, while the four presidents’ leadership styles were different, there is a lot of overlap in leadership behaviors and traits such as their storytelling ability, political acumen, empathy, and ability to learn from their own mistakes.
But perhaps what was most eye-opening for me is hearing about how these four presidents each faced major adversity and hardship early in life, such as professional humiliation, loss of loved ones, and health struggles. In a word, they were resilient.
Reflecting on the presidents’ challenges, the discussion naturally turned to the “how the BLEEP are we going to get through this?” question. The pandemic is on everyone’s minds, and it is no wonder any look back at history and the seemingly unbelievable challenges in the past can inspire both fear and awe!
When I work with leaders who are feeling stuck, I invite them to do a little digging. Each of us has overcome something in life, at some point. Taking time to access your success stories allows you to draw on that strength, and move forward—in those moments when the weight of the problem is holding you back. This is our personal reservoir of resilience. It’s what gives us the hope we need to manage the struggle du jour, get clarity, and recast a vision. We all have these seeds of hope, but we don’t all honor and recognize them.
Yeah, exactly! That! That’s the seed of hope. Hold onto it. You got this!
"Good grief." It's times like these that no one better than Charlie Brown can put into TWO (G-rated) WORDS exactly what is on our minds. Whether you have school-aged kids at home, are helping to care for loved ones, are managing challenges at work or are looking for a job, (or some combo thereof) we all have a WHOLE LOT going on. When we emerge from our TV binges—Charlie Brown holiday specials, or whatever else provides a few moments of mental respite—we find ourselves juggling so much on the home front, that it can be hard not to bring it to work.
At book club this month, we discussed Mike Robbins’ Bring Your Whole Self to Work. The book provides perspective on, in a nutshell, how we work best when we can be ourselves. Every workplace out there has a culture, a set of written and unwritten rules for success, and some are better than others at allowing for employees to be authentic. Robbins urges us to be authentic and share about ourselves—that is, open up about what really makes us tick—when we enter the doors of the office, or the Zoom meeting room, as may be the case for most of us these days.
The discussion we had at book club is related to something I often speak about in coaching sessions and in trainings. We all have some basic psychological needs that, when met, make us feel more motivated and more engaged.
As an aside: This holds true for adults and kids alike. That's why the principles that we teach leaders in the workplace also work for relationships outside of work.
“Feeling empowered,” for example, is one of the three foundational needs in the Dynamic Engagement model, along with "feeling valued" and "feeling connected." The underlying psychological need is related to control. When people feel they have a sense of autonomy, they feel they have control over their decisions. When a person feels that they are not in control, they could end up feeling helpless and spiral downwards quickly.
The challenge for leaders is learning how to step in and set guardrails/structure for others while also stepping back and allowing people to create/innovate. Many leaders struggle with this tension and often ask for tips on how to delegate. However, we suggest before jumping to the mechanics of learning how to delegate, you think about why it may be hard to delegate. It's worth investigating some time thinking about why it may be so hard for you to let go. In working with so many leaders over the years, I've heard a variety of reasons as to why people struggle with delegation. For example, some people struggle because they don't want to risk damaging relationships and burdening others by putting more on their plates. While others don't fully trust that their employee is capable or able to think critically about key decisions. And, then there's some who simply don't want to give up control. We work with leaders to look beneath the surface and uncover the why. First address the why, then address the how. We encourage you to do the same.
The next time you're feeling overwhelmed, see if there's a way to delegate to others (in your professional or personal life). And, if you find yourself hesitating to delegate to others, pause for a moment to think about the why and address those challenges first. As always, we love hearing from you and finding out what works. Keep us posted!
I recently met with a client who had completed the DiSC personality assessment for the first time. So naturally I asked, what insights or learnings have you applied since taking that assessment? The answer was surprising. She said, "Honestly, I've been so busy, I have not have much time to do anything differently." I was confused by this comment at first, and then realized why. The DiSC is a mental model. From my perspective, the most powerful piece of the DiSC model is that it helps one understand and appreciate differences. It's not about carving out the time to DO something, it's literally about thinking differently about others. Having more empathy, being more open to a new viewpoint, or, if you really want to go out on a ledge, actually agreeing to a different approach that you typically wouldn't support. After explaining this to the client, she replied, "So you're saying, it's not that I have to DO anything...I need to BE different."
That's it! Well, at least that's the first step and then, once your mindset changes, your behaviors shift, too. This concept of reflection and challenging your own assumptions (rather than focusing on immediate action) was also the message I walked away with after hosting a community discussion on Race and Racial Inequity.
It's a good rule to follow, in general: When you receive the gift of some big insight, sit with it for a minute.
Taking the First Step: Self-Reflection and Education
Three months have passed since George Floyd was murdered. Many people are thinking to themselves, what I have done to change my ways? How am I contributing to change or taking action?
I recently came together with a group of people who have these same questions. It was our intention to reflect, regroup, and move forward. Led by facilitators Dana Karp and Anita Hinton, this group was thoughtful and smart and motivated and had feelings of being both hopeless and hopeful.
We all listened to this interview with Brené Brown and Ibram Kendi, author of the 2019 bestseller How to Be an Antiracist, and then shared our responses to these reflection questions:
You'll notice that the questions were crafted around reflecting on one's own reactions, thoughts, and emotions. This was very intentional. The facilitators have learned that any movement or action must begin with self reflection and education. Once you do that, you will get clarity on actions to take.
It was a great model for a difficult discussion. We first broke into smaller groups where people felt free to be more vulnerable and then we engaged in a large group discussion with almost 50 people on the call.
The takeaways for everyone were unique, of course. I can only speak for myself. I commit to keep pushing myself into the uncomfortable conversations and continue to educate myself on the things I didn't even know I didn't know. Inspired by our discussion, I ordered the young adult book, Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram Kendi, and read it on our vacation last week in the hopes that I could pass this on to my High School and Middle School aged children. The authors jokingly repeated that, "This is NOT a history book" so the young adults would actually read it. But I assure you, this was the best history book I've ever read. So eye opening to the impact and intention of policies that I knew nothing about. This book helped me to see the systemic issues that were in place long before the U.S. was even established.
Diversity Resources to Check Out
The other powerful outcome that resulted from this group was a list of resources generated by this group. Click on this link to access the list of suggestions ranging from podcasts to books to movies all in service of educating ourselves further. And, if you have other recommendations to add to the list, let me know... I'm continuing to add to it and will keep the list updated.
“Move over bacon, here comes something leaner.” If you were watching TV in the U.S. in the 1980s, you may recall this commercial for Sizzlean. (And you’re welcome for the trip down memory lane.) It came to mind as I participated in the virtual Mindfulness Summit and watched the session on “Choose Compassion over Empathy.” The topic is something which my brain framed as “Move over empathy, here comes compassion.” Based on neuroscience research, there is discussion that empathy can lead to emotional exhaustion, whereas a focus on compassion can lead to a sense of love and affiliation. There’s a move to focus on cultivating compassion. This blog post has a brief summary of the research.
I haven’t read all the research behind this discussion in depth, but I’m struck by the “either/or” mindset at play. I also found it interesting that compassion, as they propose, is the action of doing something for the person, even if it’s simply sitting with a person who is in need. The action, rather than feeling (as is the case with empathy), is what contributes to the goodness.
I can understand why engaging empathy is potentially problematic if when one is overusing empathy to the neglect of something else. I’m not convinced, though, that you can feel compassion if your body doesn’t first pick up on empathy. I’ll use a real example from my family. When my son was very little, he had a hard time reading social cues. We had to teach him that if someone else gets hurt, you say, “Are you OK?” And then if they’re not, you might follow up with, “Can I get you some ice?” This may seem robotic, but it was a very important part of the process to help our son begin to connect the dots, and connect with people. We worked with him to know that, when you see others suffering, you respond, you reach out…
I think what’s behind the recent empathy/compassion debate is that people are viewing empathy as getting too wrapped up in another person's emotions and then not taking action and/or not setting the appropriate boundaries to protect yourself from burnout. In other words, taking on another person's suffering. While I agree that it’s a real risk, the upside (when leveraged well) is that empathy allows you to see another person’s point of view. Compassion is what happens as a result. To me it's more sequential.
Set me straight on this, will you? Would love to hear about your experiences.
Many people are now asking, what can I be doing to support Black Lives Matter? From a workplace point of view, one way to make a difference is to do work differently. Go about the same work, tackle the same problems, but do it in a way that may be more inclusive than you have done in the past.
Earlier this month, I facilitated a book review of Creativity Inc., written by Pixar’s co-founder, Ed Catmull. After accomplishing his career goals of making a full-length, animated feature film, he then turned his efforts towards a new goal – creating an organizational culture of creativity. He views creativity as the magic that brings people together and produces exceptional outcomes. At Pixar, he made it his primary goal to explore, analyze, experiment, and evaluate how to build a culture of creativity. Even if you don’t work for an exceptionally creative organization, there are many things you as a leader can implement—or simply experiment with—on your own team. This creative mindset leads to an openness to experiment and do work differently.
Some Nuggets of Inspiration from Ed Catmull of Pixar Animation
Check out the book for more, or check out my discussion summary on the In the Know book club page.
What’s coming up for you? I challenge you to experiment and think about what you have influence over to create a more inclusive and diverse working environment. Let us know how you’re doing work differently.
As offices across the U.S. are preparing to re-open, in full or partial capacity, many organizations are grappling with how to make a smooth transition ‘back.’ But what does that look like? Readiness checklists, cleaning protocols, and safety guidelines, no matter how clear and well researched, just won’t be enough to help with the human side of reboarding. How can leaders help employees feel safe, connected to the mission, and engaged?
In recent weeks, anticipating these questions surrounding the transition back to the workplace, I started a collaboration with my client, Patty Starr from Health Action Council and Amy Swanson. We reached out to a group of individuals who have experienced significant life transitions or who have lived through disruptive life events—to see what they could share with us about what helped or hindered them, and what supported them as they transitioned out of the crisis period. For example, we talked with Andrew who was at the epicenter of the SARS outbreak in 2003, and Assem who was a child in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Their reflections and stories were powerful and insightful. We then worked to translate the lessons learned to today’s workplace—to help leaders looking to build a reboarding plan.
Five Core Tactics
Our findings are presented in an article entitled Reboarding: Learning from the Past to Prepare for the Future and a related webinar, where we shared additional stories and insights that didn’t make the editor’s cut.
We identified five core tactics that are key to a successful reboarding plan that puts people first. These are:
Check out the article for the full write-up.
Communicate, Connect, and Co-create
As we shared the five tactics in the webinar, the audience was most curious to hear more about the third tactic, “Communicate, connect, and co-create.” In our interviews, we heard about the importance of communication in each person’s story. We were reminded of a best practice that all good leaders know: Communicate immediately, frequently, and consistently. And another one: Don’t cancel your one-on-one meetings with staff!
We were also reminded to avoid making assumptions or jumping to conclusions in the face of panic. How does communication help? We need to reach out and talk—and listen—to hear what is top of mind for others, and then develop shared goals. Goals that fit the new normal. Goals that we are all invested in. Here are some highlights from the discussion on communication:
As I shared in the article and webinar, across all the interviews, the resounding theme was resilience. So many of the people we interviewed reflected on the COVID-19 crisis and said, “It’s gonna be okay” or “We’ll get through this.” Perhaps it was the perspective of knowing that the pandemic is not their "first big" crisis. Perhaps they are drawing on their resilience reserves. The words they shared are words I’ve heard in so many other contexts in my life, but they have a particular significance to me now, coming from this group of strong people I admire.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to need to do nothing more than stay home during the COVID-19 crisis have been finding ways to bring the world to us. Whether it’s a virtual Tai Chi class, a virtual Seder for Passover, or a virtual happy hour, we have been stretching the functionality of our collaboration tools such as Zoom and Webex in exceptionally creative ways these past few weeks. Yet I am hearing from many of you that facilitating an online meeting--Wait! Wasn’t that what this software was designed for?—can somehow feel more daunting than leading a virtual scavenger hunt! I have been facilitating online meetings and trainings for years and wanted to offer some of my tips for maximizing a meeting. First off, the start of the meeting is critical! It’s important to engage everyone early on. When you get all the voices in the room early, you are more likely to hear discussion throughout the meeting.
Facilitating Online Meetings – How to Start a Meeting
When you start a meeting, your first order of business is to help everyone make the transition away from whatever they were doing prior to the start of the meeting—so they can be fully present for the meeting. Just as you would if everyone were walking into a conference room, you want to greet and connect with everyone. The right meeting opener will help to set the tone for participation and discussion. Whether you have time for a quick check-in or a more elaborate icebreaker, you will want to do something that:
Facilitating Online Meetings – Quick Icebreakers to Help You Start a Meeting
In the chat feature, ask everyone to type one word that comes to mind for them right now. “Everyone, please type one word in the chat. It could be how you’re feeling, it could be related to something you were just doing… it’s up to you.” The only rule is that it is only one word. You can then call on a few people and ask them to elaborate on their word.
Ask a quick opening question using the chat feature or whiteboard. (The question should be easy to answer and not sensational. Don’t make people think too much!) Here are some opening questions related to being quarantined:
-What is your favorite show to binge watch?
-What was a great movie you watched recently?
-What’s one dinner you’ve made and would be willing to share a recipe for?
-How many hours of sleep did you get last night?
-What part of the house do you enjoy cleaning the most?
-What’s one thing you miss now that you are quarantined?
-What’s one thing you love about being quarantined?
-What virtual games have you played with friends / family?
Before the meeting begins, prepare a slide that has a set of pictures representing different moods. You can pick emojis, photos of people, or photos of animals. Ask the participants to annotate (either using the stamp or arrow) the image that best represents their mood.
Grab an Item
Ask everyone to grab one item that is in close range to their computer. It could be something in their pocket, on their desk, on the floor. Ask them NOT to grab their phones. Have each person take turns holding up their item to the camera and explaining what it is. Note: This activity works best with a group of 10 people or less.
Cell Phone Challenge
Have each person find a picture or a text message on their phone that speaks to some aspect of their life outside of work. Have each person go around and hold the picture up to the camera or read the text message aloud.
Two Truths and a Lie
Ask one person to share three statements—two truths and one lie. As the person is sharing the information, you use the annotate feature to write it down on the whiteboard or on a blank slide. Then ask the group to go to annotate to either use stamps or the arrow to select the statement that is a lie. This works well for a series of meetings. You can ask for one person to go at the beginning of each meeting and repeat this until everyone has taken a turn.
You got this! Let me know what works best, and where you get stuck.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Over these last few weeks, I’ve had some powerful discussions with leaders about how they may need to show up differently during times of crisis. And, in fact, years from now your staff will likely remember you by how they were treated and supported during the COVID-19 crisis of 2020. As a leader, you have the opportunity to make a lasting positive impact on others right now. Here are some tips on what to try out, or do differently.
Get Connected – Tips for Leaders in Times of Stress, Remote Working, and High Distraction
These are crazy times. With so much uncertainty in the world around us, and a sudden change to the routines that (while stressful under “normal” circumstances) may be a huge source of comfort, many of us are feeling distracted, off center, and all around awful. For those of us lucky enough to continue to work (and earn income), we may be pushed to take our leadership skills to the next level, at work and at home.
Try out some of these tips to get connected, and check back to let me know what’s working.
Is there anything AI can’t do? From helping medical researchers better predict who is at risk for certain diseases, to helping teachers spot a plagiarized paper, to helping us get where we need to be with traffic apps like Waze—we have come a long way in just a few years.
There’s no question that AI has helped us solve a number of “complicated” problems, but it’s no match for the world’s most wicked, “complex” problems.
In today’s world, tried-and-true strategies may be ill suited to dealing with the biggest challenges of the future. This month at the CBODN Book Club we discussed the book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph In a Specialized World,” by David Epstein. In the discussion, we talked about the distinction between “complicated” and “complex,” and a related concept of “kind” and “wicked” types of environments. Here's the breakdown...
There are many examples of “wicked” problems in the business world. In such a fast-changing environment, you need a broad and varied background to understand it, and to thrive in it. Per the central premise of Epstein’s book, you need “range.” In the book, Epstein shares examples of successful people who “sample” a variety of experiences, including different jobs or sports, gather broad knowledge (a “range”), and go on to reach great heights in their careers—sometimes later in life.
How can you create “range” – for yourself and your team?
As a leader, what can you do to equip yourself and your teams to develop “range?” There are a few strategies I often recommend to the leaders I work with.
What other ideas do you have?
It’s the pot calling the kettle black, ‘2020 Edition.’ The other night, my son Drew was in his room watching videos. I asked him to shut down 30 minutes before bedtime and come find me so we could unwind together. Research shows that avoiding screen time before bed helps you rest better, so we try to follow that rule at home. When Drew came to find me later that night, what was I doing? Watching a video. (For the record, I was screening a video that I needed for a leadership training program. But still…) BUSTED!
As parents we are always looking to help our kids develop healthy habits—and to model healthy habits. This article from The Atlantic talks about the impact of parents being digitally distracted, or “technoference.” The perception is that “kids today” are tech-addicted. But are we looking at ourselves?
I reflect on this as a mom, but also in general. Is technology helping me? How do I keep myself in check? And what is the issue, actually? Is it about maintaining self-control like the Stanford marshmallow experiments of the 1960s? Is it about interpersonal connections and not letting the presence of a phone on a table disrupt intimacy in a conversation? Or is it about mindfulness and managing distractions?
Probably all of the above! But phones seem to pose the biggest challenge! Why are they so irresistible?
Staying Focused in the Age of the Smart Phone
In this episode of Brain Games (begin watching at 1:50), we see a group of adults participating in a focus group. The premise is that they are asked to set their phones aside in order to maintain confidentiality for the focus group—and they won’t be compensated for their time if they break the no-phone rule. (Of course, as it turns out, the experiment is about adults’ abilities to resist the urge to grab their phones. There actually is no focus group.) To complicate matters, the participants are left in a room while the facilitators seemingly troubleshoot some technology issues. And what happens? The group gets antsy. Then, the phones start ringing and buzzing. What a temptation! How many of the participants are able to stick to the no-phone rule? 80% of the participants grabbed their phones. Incidentally, as it turns out, a phone ringing is one of the most irresistible noises.
But the thing is that we check our phones even when they don’t ring. We’re rewarded every time we reach for them. Each refresh of the screen provides us with information—an update on the weather, a “like” count on social media, or a text message. These rewards are addicting. No wonder we don’t put the phones down!
How well would you have done in the focus group?
Strategies for Staying Focused & Listening Deeply
At Mendelow Consulting Group, we are always looking for ways to help leaders engage more fully with their staff. One of the most effective strategies to engage with others is to be fully present when listening. It seems so simple, yet so many managers miss out on the chance to connect because they don't shut down their email reminders ("ping") or because they don't let themselves "snooze" their mental to-do lists for enough time to talk with a colleague.
We brainstormed some more listening strategies at last month's "Cliff Notes" Book Club discussion on The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Shafir. The basic premise of the book is that being a good listener is about being mindful, and in large part, about noticing the distractions (both internal and external factors). Here are some steps to follow:
For a short summary of our discussion of The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Shafir, check out the In the Know portal.)
And, who knew that Michael Franks’ 1983 hit, “Don’t touch that phone”, would be so relevant in 2020!
Would love to hear what ideas this topic sparks for you…
‘Best of the Bookshelf’ List – What to read and watch in 2020 to stay on top of trends in leadership, business, and psychology
“Hindsight is not 20/20. It’s 20/200.” This means, when we look back at events that happened, we start crafting narratives. That’s way deep, right? It’s because of insights like these (I am quoting a CBODN Book Club participant) that I spend the first Wednesday of every month at CBODN Book Club. They are my peeps! (And I don’t mean that in any kind of exclusive way. You’re welcome to join us!)
It’s no secret that I love staying on top of trends am hungry for the latest research in neuroscience, leadership, and psychology—and that there’s NEVER enough time to read ALL the books. For this reason, about 20 years ago now, I started a "Cliff's Note" club format for our book club. In other words, it's a book club where there's no pressure to read the book to participate. Instead, the presenter prepares a talk about the books and shares the highlights and insights with the rest of us—who get to sit back and soak it in. (It’s a great format, and the discussion summaries are posted to the In the Know portal each month. Check it out!)
Well, that’s the format for every month except for December. In December, we sit around a big table covered in sugary treats and share books, articles, podcasts, etc., that have caught our eyes recently…or that we remember fondly from years past. It’s our ‘Best of the Bookshelf’ list and it’s too good to keep to myself. Here’s a sample platter…for the full buffet, head to the In the Know portal.
What to Read in 2020 - To Stay In the Know
Leadership & The Presidency
The Case for Listening to Others
This time of year, our screens light up with offers to create meaning and connection. Check out the Vertellis card game that offers conversation starters to make the most of a family gathering. And here’s a fabulous free option from NPR: The Storycorps “Great Thanksgiving Listen” campaign encourages us to record an interview with an elder. The suggested question prompts include, “What are you most grateful for?” and “How do you want to be remembered?” Most importantly, the instructions emphasize the interviewer’s job—to listen.
It’s all about something we focus on a lot at Mendelow Consulting Group: connection. We have an innate human need to connect and belong. We see this at home and at work. The literature reinforces what we already know:
The Case for Listening to Yourself
In last month’s CBODN Book Club, Pamela Krist led a discussion of Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game.
Sinek talks about ‘finite’ games, where the goal is to win, and ‘infinite’ games where the point is to keep on playing while constantly adapting and improving. Sinek also talks about the concept of “Infinite Life” which means leaving things better than you found them, positively impacting those around you, and building trusting relationships.
One of our colleagues in the discussion shared a coaching activity she often uses – she asks clients to write their own obituary or (less morbid!) their own retirement plan. This is a reflection activity, which is really a prompt to pause and listen to yourself. (Of course, it might also encourage you to share with others, have a break-through discussion with your boss, etc.) Some similar writing prompts that may resonate with you are:
And, as always, let us know what ideas or insights this inspires for you…Like Dr. Fraiser Crane, “We’re listening.”
“Root down through your legs and feet. Then, lift through your torso. Raise your arms and let them sway with your breath. Notice if you are gripping your toes…” (Hope you read that in your best yoga teacher voice.) Yoga devotees spend a lot of time getting grounded in the physical body. Anyone who has ever attempted a balancing pose like “tree pose” knows that some days are better than others—and not to pass judgment if your “tree” is particularly shaky. Tree pose can be a metaphor for being grounded, or feeling centered, in life. You are rooting down and also reaching up, with an open chest and heart. At its core, the practice is about acceptance.
Rogers references this paradox in his book On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. It came to mind this month during the Chesapeake Bay Organization Development Network Book Club discussion on the book Scaling leadership by Robert Anderson and William Adams. The authors present a model in which they discuss “Creative” and “Reactive” leaders. In a nutshell:
During our book discussion a question came up, "How do you give feedback to someone who is “reactive,” such that he/she can hear it, understand it, and be open to making the necessary changes?"
After reflecting on this question, I uncovered an underlying question of: How do you first help another person gain confidence in him/herself, so the person is able to receive and solicit feedback? (Back to tree pose!)
Being grounded allows you to hear feedback and not respond negatively or defensively to it. Being grounded also goes hand in hand with having confidence. But...building confidence is tricky. As I watched my son struggle with issues of confidence when he was younger, I went on a mission to try and figure out how to help others gain confidence.
Good leaders inspire people to have confidence in their leader. Great leaders inspire people to have confidence in themselves. - Eleanor Roosevelt
Here are four key activities you can do as a leader, both at home and at work, that will help to instill confidence in others.
Strategies for Helping Someone Build Confidence
What experiences have helped you grow confident? Please share!
Being quiet can be confused with a lot of things—including being hesitant, lacking confidence, being introverted, or even being shy. We place a lot of value on ‘airtime’ in our culture. Think about expressions like, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Leaders are coached to “find their voice”—to put their ideas out there, and express a point of view. But what if your role in the organization or on the project team does not authorize you to lead loudly? What if you don’t have “the box” on the org chart or the mic at the front of the room? Jocelyn Davis has some ideas about how to be a “quiet leader.” And she’s referring to anything but being hesitant, shy, or disengaged!
At the CBODN Book Club this month we discussed The Art of Quiet Influence Timeless Wisdom for Leading without Authority. Drawing on classical sages such as Buddha, Confucius, Rumi, and Gandhi, Davis shows us that anyone, not just bosses, can learn how to use influence without authority. Here are some of the ideas about influence that Davis presents in the book:
To Davis, a “Quiet Influencer” is someone who sets their ego aside to engage a group. They lead from behind or from within. Most importantly, they demonstrate mindfulness.
One of the quotes that resonated most with me was, “The leader does not try to master other people. Instead their energy is focused on mastering themself. The greatest power is to have power over themselves in service of the greater group.”
I have been working with leaders for 20+ years, and one of the most difficult transitions I observe is the shift from an individual mindset to a leader's mindset. Even if the leader understands intellectually that he/she does not need to have all of the answers or all of the power, in practice the leader may still influence the dynamic and the outcome by offering their point of view or by interjecting their opinion.
Why? They often don’t know another tactic and are simply relying on past success. In the past, the leader may have had influence as an individual contributor by offering his/her expertise. Now, as a leader, if he/she doesn’t offer expertise, then how else can he/she influence?
If you go one step deeper, the leader may question, “What is my value or identity if I don’t have expertise to offer?” After exploring this at a deeper level, leaders begin to see that even if they do have the “perfect” answer, it may still not be beneficial to share it. Other factors are at play, such as:
When zooming out to consider the bigger picture, a leader gains situational awareness and decides how and when to interject, support, question, and drive forward as appropriate for the situation. In the end, a leader who practices the techniques that Davis describes will not only be successful as an influencer, but will also have a much larger impact then they ever could have imagined.
It’s cliché to talk about a career as a “journey,” but it’s so true. Many of my coaching clients are 20+ years into the careers, well established as SMEs, and still wanting to make a change. And what’s wrong with that?
The answer is at the intersection of four circles...
There’s a simple Venn diagram that can help tremendously if you need clarity—at any point in your “journey.” You have to do some soul searching and research, of course, but if you find the answers to four questions, you find that sweet spot. What are the questions?
What do you love?
What are you good at?
What can you be paid to do?
What does the world need?
The overlap is your purpose or “Ikigai.” It’s a Japanese concept that means “reason for being.” I was reminded of this beautiful model at the recent Learning Leaders Conference. Thanks to long-time learning leader Kimo Kippen who shared the model in his talk at the event.
At Mendelow Consulting Group, we’ve surveyed thousands of managers. We’ve crunched the numbers. Engagement boils down to three things.
Employees want to feel a sense of belonging or connection,
to feel valued for their work,
and to be empowered to make decisions.
That’s the secret to a happy employee, who in turn is giving their all to the organization. And, it turns out, it’s the secret to any relationship at work or at home. In our research, we have gathered input on three fundamental factors--
And, none of these elements operates in isolation. They’re all connected and are in motion at any given time. The Dynamic Leader graphic above shows all three elements intertwined by three intersecting infinity loops. When my son saw this image, he immediately said, “Oh, you created a fidget spinner.” So, we present to you the Fidget Spinner of Life.
Let’s look more closely at each of these, and how they show up at work and at home.
When he defined the hierarchy of needs, Maslow hit on a critical insight that unites humans: we are social beings. Our predecessors lived in tribes in order to survive. Today, we still rely on our communities and are social beings—even at a time when loneliness is an epidemic. (Side note, if you haven’t read the research on social rejection, check it out. It triggers the same reactions in the brain as physical pain.) Feeling a sense of connection at home and work is critical to our overall well-being. For example…
We also need to feel valued. Not simply recognized, but truly valued. The core question one asks him/herself here is, “Am I making a difference?” Whereas connection is focused on the interpersonal relationships, feeling valued is focused on skills and competence. In other words, one may question, “Do my contributions (skills, strengths, etc.) contribute in a meaningful way?” Soliciting feedback from the people who see us in action, and whose opinions we most value, will in turn help us feel valued. And, delivering feedback to others, in an honest yet supportive manner, will enhance engagement. Here’s what that looks like at work and at home…
We give “control” a bad rap (think “control freak” or “micromanager”), but we humans need to feel a sense of control. Without it, we feel helpless, and in extreme cases this can lead to depression and despair. How do you help those around you feel empowered? How do you balance your own need to be in control with others’? Here are some ideas…
The interplay of feeling connected, valued, and empowered is so powerful that it is the framework we use to help leaders grow in their role, and prepare to take on a broader role. Let us know how it rings true for you!
P.S. If you are looking for more insights on how organizations promote their values, check out the brief summary of our discussion from this month’s CBODN Book Club focused on the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. The book talks about a “soulful revolution,” one in which employees are engaged and organizations are enlightened.