As modern leaders, we often run too fast to notice that what we mean does not always match what we say. A lack of thoughtfulness when communicating creates a gap between what we intend to communicate and what is heard, which can sabotage effective work teams and destroy employee morale.
Let’s look at a couple of examples. I spoke with a senior executive of an organization once who shared his company’s leadership philosophy: Hire slowly, fire quickly, and focus on the top three metrics. From the leadership perspective, they are proud of the “hire slowly” part because it suggests that they are thoughtful in their approach to hiring, resulting in fewer firings and greater retention. Ironically, as my team delved deeper into the organization, we learned that the emphasis for the folks two levels down was on the “fire quickly” part. They lived in perpetual fear of being unexpectedly canned. It created a culture of blame and suspicion and dampened creativity. Employees became order takers instead of innovators, doing just enough to stay employed.
Another well-meaning executive set out to communicate to a team member how much she valued his work. She informed him that she’d planned to add him to a special project team, but was ultimately unable to do so for various reasons. Rather than feeling valued, the team member felt rejected and disappointed by this news. The executive’s approach could have also been misconstrued as self-serving, attempting to gain favor with a hard-working employee that could benefit her down the road, but leave nothing on the table for him. Think about it. How did he benefit from being informed of a role he couldn’t get?
When leaders speak with employees, it’s important to hear those messages from their vantage point. Put yourself in the shoes of a new hire, an employee with 1, 5, 10 years of service, or someone being asked to retire early. How would you interpret the message you’re receiving?
Effective leaders use filters to refine their message down to the most palpable version, making it easier for the recipient to digest.
What do I mean by filters? Consider this. If you are unsure of how your message will be received, take the time to test it on a small group or a trusted colleague. Their feedback acts as a filter, helping to strain out pieces of the message that could potentially be destructive. Asking questions like, “What message did you hear when I said this?” can help you identify opportunities to clarify miscommunication.
Also, consider recording your message on your favorite voice app. Then, play it back. While this doesn’t replace peer feedback, it’s eye-opening to hear our thoughts played back to us. If you cringe, so will they.
Leaders on the move can often only hope that their words are being received the way they intended. But if you want to be sure, a healthy habit is first to slow down and then, watch your body language and the facial expressions of others as you deliver a message. If you are delivering good news, but your employee’s face appears blank or disappointed, that could be a red flag that you’re off target. If you’re laughing and they’re not, that’s a good sign that the situation may not be funny, at least to them. Or, if you’re leaning in, and they’re leaning out, you’ve lost them. Don’t be in such a rush to talk that you miss the deafening silence in the room.
Finally, maintain an open communication policy where feedback is encouraged and expected. No one communicates perfectly all the time, so take that pressure off yourself. But don’t use that as an excuse not to show up and bring your best self to work every day. Become the kind of leader that people know they can talk to and you’ll win them over. The best gift a team member can give to you, and you to them, is feedback.
Are you struggling with effectively communicating with your team? Let's talk.
Showing Gratitude for the Gift of Feedback
May 6, 2019
Relationships, Creating a Force for Good
August 8, 2018
Most of us have experienced a technically competent leader, possibly an expert in his or her field, who seems to consistently miss the mark when it comes to emotional intelligence (EI). EI, sometimes also referred to as “EQ”, is the ability to express and control our emotions and our ability to understand, interpret and respond to the emotions of others. A leader with low EI is unable to regulate their response to external triggers or exhibit concern or interest in those tasked with following their lead. They are often characterized as demanding and aloof, lacking empathy and rarely show gratitude for the effort and work of others, but quickly pounces when they are off target.
Sound like someone you work with? Each one of us has at least one story of someone in our career who blew us off, humiliated us in a meeting, micromanaged our work, broke a confidence, threw a chair in a meeting…okay, maybe not that one specifically, but something that metaphorically can feel that extreme. Leaders with low EI are often highly capable at doing what the job requires yet unable, or perhaps, unwilling, to demonstrate care for others. They may be volatile and unpredictable when under stress. They are less likely to concern themselves with the emotional well-being of those on their team and others.
The costs to an organization of low EI leaders, particularly in executive roles, can be substantial. Yet, they are often dismissed as a cost of doing business , rather than a risk to the business. The good news is there are meaningful ways to quantify the impact of low EI and also effectively manage the behavior.
Let’s take a closer look at what some of those costs are:
The compounding effect of working for or with someone who has low emotional intelligence is that it’s much more difficult to be at our best when we’re adapting to and avoiding these dysfunctional behaviors. Someone with low EI in a leadership position will have the resources and power to make decisions that can cascade tension, drama or worse in the workplace.
All leaders are paid to have productive conversations and remove barriers to good work in order to achieve outcomes for the organization. But leaders suffering from low EI are the barriers. Their presence on the team delay or reduce productivity by creating distractions and fueling dysfunction, as well as negatively impacting learning and development.
Low EI isn’t just a people issue. It has a direct impact on the financial health of the organization. Lower productivity, higher turnover, increased stress, waning engagement, reduced creativity, fewer productive meetings and conversations, and low morale, to name a few, all correlate to low emotional intelligence.
We tend to discount these costs because the solution to addressing this behavior might be difficult conversations and organizational disruption. It may mean losing a talented senior executive who can’t seem to keep his or her department staffed. But if you add up the hours (yours and others’) spent on dealing with drama, re-work, turnover, stress and burnout in the organization, you’ll conclude that avoiding those uncomfortable conversations is costing your company dearly.
3 Ways to Improve Emotional Intelligence
For leaders, if this dynamic sounds familiar to you, then you're taking the first step toward solving the problem. Being self-aware means that you have a pretty good idea, from feedback and experience, of what your emotional triggers and derailers are. Knowing how these “blind spots” affect others is a product of asking for and genuinely listening to feedback:
Self-management means taking steps to actively change dysfunctional behaviors, not making excuses about this being who you are. You may need someone else to help you work through the steps above, as being honest with ourselves isn’t always easy. Executive coaching is a great resource for helping leaders struggling with low emotional intelligence to identify and adopt more productive and positive behaviors to reduce the cost of low EI in the workplace.
Have a question not covered here? I’d love to hear from you. Please send me a note.
Relationships, Creating A Force For Good
"Forget the failures. Keep the lessons." - Dalai Lama
Take a moment to recall how you felt when you realized that you’d failed. That something you attempted to do didn’t work and had significant consequences, on others and yourself. At that moment, you find yourself standing at the intersection of risk and reward, where your success as a leader teeters on your ability as a leader to recover and move forward. That’s not an easy move to make for any of us. Our tendency might be to take the safer road to avoid the pain of ridicule, the humiliation of scrutiny, or the perception of our incompetence.
And yet we know, at least intellectually, that without some failure in life, we won’t grow, and world-changing creations like electricity, medical advances and flight would never have happened, right? Insulating yourself from failure stifles your growth as a leader and cripples your ability to navigate and course correct when (not if) the environment creates turbulence for your organization.
Taking risks and being willing to fail begins with our mindset. While some people seem to be wired this way, the willingness to take risks is a skill you can develop, whether you are an entrepreneur, executive or rising star. Here are a few suggestions:
Embracing failure requires courage and intention, but mastery of it develops resilience. As leaders, we run the risk of missing opportunities for greatness and innovation by dumbing down our work to what’s safe and comfortable. Be determined to fail forward.
Have a story about a failure that paved the road to your success? I’d love to read it. Send me a note.
Showing Gratitude For The Gift of Feedback
May 6, 2019
Shredded Dog Beds and Coaching Yourself Through Obstacles
July 15, 2018
High-performing leaders have a drive and work ethic that makes them seem superhuman. Instead of leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, they skip over weekends in hot pursuit of success. These goal-oriented doers and thinkers live, eat and breathe their work. They attack challenges and devour opportunities masterfully and consistently, with little doubt in their ability to do so.
Sadly, this is also the group that often misses the warning signs. It may be illness and extreme fatigue, or super-sized anger laced tantrums or unexplained crying episodes. Sleep becomes evasive, and even small issues can become overwhelming. I know. I’ve been there and done some of that. When you’re on fire for what you do, the work can become consuming. And without some downtime to rest and refuel, reflect and reframe…to think…we will move from swimming to drowning over time.
The Benefit of Self-Care
Despite all of research that promotes sleep, healthy eating habits, and exercise as proven ways to help us live longer and lead happier, more resilient and productive lives, we still rather “push through the pain” to accomplish more in a day, or a lifetime. While we can rationalize that some stress is good to challenge us to the next level, too much stress and poor stress-management skills will eventually cause our mental and physical health to suffer a set back.
But I have a challenge for you. Reframe the way you think about self-care. Instead of seeing it as a sign of weakness, esteem it as essential to your success… a superpower even. Just think about it. How much better would you be if you had a good night’s sleep most nights? What if you started Monday morning with a hot cup of coffee because you like the taste not need the rush? Imagine the increased productivity you’d experience, the fresh ideas, and better insight into problem-solving, or just being a nicer person to be around. These are all wins, and perhaps the following self-care tips can help you get there:
The Choice is Yours
We may not want to admit it, but we do have a choice. We can choose to try one of the self-care tips mentioned above or choose to continue burning the candle at both ends. In one of my recent favorite books, “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown, I read that successful leaders make decisions every day with attention to the “important few.” Clarity and focus for the rest of an organization won’t happen if leaders are unable to discern the important few, and without that focus, teams will become overwhelmed, confused and unduly stressed.
Choosing our priorities and being conscious and present to what and why we are choosing to say “yes” or “no” to something, allows us to right-size our commitments and create more successful and realistic outcomes. It feels awkward at first to change our adrenaline-induced to-do list to something more focused and “less than,” but in time, you’ll settle into a rhythm. Opting to be home for dinner a few nights a week, for example, and leaving the office by a particular time to help you get there should help you learn to increase your efficiencies and right-size your workload.
Time to Act
It’s not easy to change habits, and often successfully changing a habit begins with a choice to do one thing in the direction that you’d like to change. You might start with the following questions:
Jot 1-3 ideas down and schedule time on your calendar to try these new moves in your life to see what reduces stress, increases your ability to creatively think, and improve your health.
I’d love to hear how you are benefiting from choosing to make self-care a priority. Send me a note.
One of the most challenging things that we do as leaders is to give and receive feedback. It has been my experience as an executive coach and former leader that no matter how well crafted, feedback can be difficult to deliver in a way that builds trust and supports the development of your team, and yet it is a large part of our daily lives. Most assume that feedback is always negative although, by definition, it is simply the evaluation of your behavior, and can be either negative or positive. But for this post, let’s assume that the feedback you’re facing right now falls into the “needs improvement” column.
Glass Half Full?
As the saying goes, “negative feedback isn’t always bad and positive feedback isn’t always good.” If a leader is continually praising those around him or her, the assumption is that everyone is knocking the cover off the ball and there’s no need for improvement, which is unlikely and a missed opportunity to challenge and develop people. Negative feedback, however, provided in the right context and with the right delivery and intention, is perhaps one of the best ways to elevate the performance of your team and set them up for long-term success. Great leaders find a way to reframe feedback from a judgment of who we are to an input mechanism for growth and development.
But what if it’s you, the leader, under the microscope? Are you prepared to receive feedback from peers, subordinates and supervisors in an open and curious way, or do you tend to go on the defensive when critiqued and shut down? Providing and receiving feedback requires transparency and a level of vulnerability that make most of us uncomfortable. But if you manage to channel the courage to give and receive feedback, and empower those around you to do the same without the fear of retaliation, you cultivate an honest dialogue the leads to better performance for both you and your team.
How to Receive Feedback
Here’s a bit of reality. Imagine that you start asking your direct reports for feedback, like, “What do I need to start doing, stop doing or continue doing to improve our working relationship?” Maybe one brave member of your team tells you that you need to stop scheduling so many meetings during lunch because that’s his only time to take a break during the day. As the leader, you have to decide if you are willing to hear the feedback and willing to change the behavior. If you aren’t willing to change the behavior, would you consider alternatives such as creating another opportunity for him to have a break later in the day? It is important to remember that giving and receiving feedback is only part of the equation. Demonstrating that the feedback has been heard through action creates the change.
Consider these tips for receiving feedback:
It is often said that feedback is a gift. Sometimes, it may feel like a gift you want to return, but I encourage you to hold on to it, open it up, and see the benefit it can be to you as a leader. It also takes non-defensive behavior to clearly articulate gratitude for the feedback and courage to be clear about what behaviors would be more effective, even if the corrective behaviors fall in your court. Embrace the art of feedback as one of your leadership super powers to be practiced and flexed to develop and engage others in pursuit of high performance.
As leaders, expectations are high. Team members depend on you for inspiration and guidance. Senior leaders look to you to perform and contribute. So you take everyone’s order and serve it up on a plate. Day in and day out, those revolving requests keep you on your toes and off balance until one day --- crash! Does that broken plate represent someone’s disappointment or your liberation from a task that was not fruitful? Let’s talk about priorities.
Setting priorities is essential to managing expectations and accomplishing tasks at the right time and in the right way. The ability to do so is critical to your development as a leader and the reputation you build as one.
Developing clear priorities for yourself and your direct reports starts by identifying what’s important. What needs to be done first and why? Does the outcome of that task impact other outcomes down the road? For example, if you rely on the relationships between your department and another to complete projects, one of your priorities might be to focus your team on building that relationship. Or, does your review of a report impact a team member’s ability to submit a work request? If so, that task may take precedent over another colleague’s request that is a “nice to have” but isn’t urgent. Congratulations, you’ve just gotten rid of a plate!
How to Set Priorities
It can be difficult to set priorities. At times, everything sounds important and you find yourself buckling under the pressure. You struggle to filter out the most urgent tasks and end up focusing on the easier ones that could have waited (that’s human nature, right?).
But give yourself a break. Understanding what’s important takes time and careful thought to develop. Often, it’s a team effort. One way to develop priorities that are clear, actionable and supported is to carve out time to create a draft list of priorities, then discuss them with others, perhaps your boss and peers, to be sure that you are in alignment with their priorities and the priorities of the organization. Negotiating priorities is a good way to get stronger buy-in and awareness in the organization.
Once you’ve identified a short list of what’s important, discuss this with your team and identify the “urgent” requests and fire drills that unnecessarily create more spinning plates that get in the way of being able to focus on the important priorities.
If your organization struggles with this, consider creating alignment meetings at the executive level or other conversations to calibrate and negotiate priorities to keep everyone focused on what is important right now, what might be changing, and where the executive team is either supporting or distracting the workforce. At the executive level, distractions and fire drills have impact on so many more people that deviating from what’s important becomes much more costly in time, energy, frustration and lack of execution.
At a personal level, creating your priorities and making sure that they are in alignment with your commitments as a leader will help you align your team and reduce your spinning plates to a manageable number. Decide what “urgent” activities you will not engage in, and have conversations with others who create them and make requests. Learn to ask for what you need and say “no” to things in a way that supports the relationship with others and also makes your priorities clear.
Keep this in mind.
Keeping multiple plates spinning is possible, as long as you know that the plates that are spinning are the important ones, and you have clear understanding and buy-in from others. Limit your plates and you will be much more successful in executing on the commitments that you’ve made and the priorities of the organization.
You’ve recently heard the news about C-suite executives, high-ranking government officials and others who lose their, well…composure… in high stakes situations. It’s difficult to discern cause and effect in those situations, and yet there is compelling evidence that lack of sleep, persistently high levels of stressful and complex decisions and situations, and poor habits of self-care will all contribute to low levels of resilience for any human being.
Resilience is that ability to bounce back and maintain elasticity, and it’s related to all facets of our lives – body, mind, heart, spirit, however you want to articulate your complex self. It doesn’t matter if you are an entrepreneur, celebrity, physician, knowledge worker, executive, parent, leader, follower, or any human being – resilience is a capability that we all need.
Resilience in our bodies means that – through repeated practice – we’ve trained our bodies to recover from injury. Two of the best practices for physical resilience are a thoughtful yoga program and well-designed physical training that suits your goals and capabilities.
Resilience in our minds helps us adjust quickly to the shifting sands of reality – those unexpected (yet inevitable) events that can derail a sound mind if we are rigid and unprepared. Preparation and planning are generally part of what you do at work and in life, and those practices serve a purpose in helping you move forward toward a goal or outcome that you want. If you have planned well for a vacation, for example, a change in weather or an equipment malfunction is easier to manage.
Notice what you are attached to in terms of beliefs and habits, and what you are avoiding. That self-observation will provide you with insights to adapt your way of thinking about a situation that may ease your stress, give you better options and reduce the likelihood of coming unglued in an unattractive, unproductive way.
Resilience in our hearts and spirits protects us against emotional injury and makes recovery faster and easier. Having a strong sense of self-worth, powerful faith/attitude and compassion toward others are all indicators of emotional resilience.
Learning by doing – practicing – through meditation or taking time to reconnect your mind, soul and body throughout the day, can build resilience for the times when you experience a crisis, or when you are under fire for a length of time and you have to show up cool under pressure. Without practice, it will be tough in the moment to wrangle your emotions and physical responses to respond as your best self.
If you want to begin a resilience practice, keep your eye on the word “practice.” As in, “it’s not going to be perfect” kind of practice, the kind of practice that is never truly “done.” As with anything in life, practice leads us to levels of mastery, not willing ourselves. You won’t lose 5 pounds by just thinking about it. You’ll need to reduce your caloric intake and exercise more. That’s the practice.
Like learning anything new, patience is a virtue. Doing even an imperfect practice is much better than no practice. This is on-the-job training at its best, and most of your daily experiences are opportunities to practice resilience – managing a difficult co-worker, establishing a new vendor relationship, calling a plumber to your house on a Saturday night.
One of my mentors, Doug Silsbee, was a pioneer in presence-based leadership. His teachings began simply with a focus on prioritizing time and space each day and creating a goal for your practice. Doug challenged us to ground at least 10 times a day. That means breathing, feeling your feet on the floor and reshaping your posture to settle yourself for a few minutes. Your calendar can be a tool to remind you to practice.
Try to schedule a couple of 10-15 minute walks each day just to clear your mind and reconnect with your body. Notice if you are feeling emotionally triggered and think about why that might be. Jot notes down in a journal and keep track of when you need to practice more in order to avoid being triggered.
Practice often makes for more practice, and the goal is not to be perfect, but to practice consistently in a way that moves you towards more clear and focused thinking, a calmer emotional state and more awareness of how others are responding to you. That in and of itself will build resilience.
Relationships are complicated, right? So let’s break this down a bit. Working relationships are not so much about whether we go out to dinner together after the workday, but more about mutual commitment. If you and I are committed to each other, we are more likely to support each other, hold each other accountable and pull in the same direction to accomplish our goals. Trusted relationships can become a powerful force for good in an organization, as more people moving together in the same direction will get there fast. People pulling and pushing against one another will never get there at all. I need you, and you need me, to be successful.
The single most important relationship-building tool is frequent and honest two-way conversation. Great leaders insist on a regular and honest exchange of information and teach their team members also to insist on it. Without this exchange, the conversations that aren’t had, those missed conversations, become an invisible dark force that inhibits relationships.
Imagine all of the conversations that you would need to have with a colleague on a cross-functional project. When the two of you come together, each with expertise in your respective functional area, you have to transcend your expertise and complete something larger than both of you. Combining your skills, personalities, behaviors, approaches and knowledge for the greater good of a successful project can be a feat that would challenge the Yoda in all of us. A large dose of conversation is the secret ingredient to achieve something that is magical and effective.
In order to develop a great working relationship, you have to be committed to staying in conversation with someone even when the going gets tough - even when you show up in your functional cape and forget your team wardrobe. Committing to each other’s success in order for the relationship to work means someone might have to give more at times than the other. Sometimes you have to adapt behavior to show up in a way that invites participation from the other. Sometimes it means being willing to apologize when you don’t uphold your commitments.
Use the force of two-way conversations and mutual commitment. Learn how to build strong working relationships where success belongs to everyone involved.
Obstacles, distractions and things that get in our way are part of the norm of life, both at home and in the workplace. Recently, my sometimes well-behaved Weimaraner (large, needy and extremely affectionate dog) decided to shred her bed in the middle of the night, leaving the mess for me to discover the next morning when I had no additional time to spare before a demanding client meeting. This is life, right?
How you coach yourself through the obstacles of life can mean the difference between having a meltdown, spinning your wheels, or successfully navigating the obstacle and moving forward. Building self-awareness and being open to not having all of the answers are two tools for working through obstacles, especially at work.
Recently I worked with a client who is facing some very real obstacles to completing a project because of functional silos that exist in their workplace. The walls seem to be pretty tall and thick in some places, and the environment is territorial. You may have experienced this in your own organization. You and your department might even be “those people.”
Working through, around or with obstacles is a lot of what we are called to do in our work as leaders. It could be called problem solving or teamwork or team building or living in chaos, and in today’s VUCA world (the acronym for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), it is the norm.
Here are a few tips to consider when coaching yourself through these challenges:
Leadership lessons and inspiration can be gained from everyday experiences, whether we are participating or observing. While not automatic, we can choose to look through the lens of inspiration, and that lens can move us to change and grow, or sometimes just keep going. Most recently, I was inspired by the run for the Stanley Cup by Nashville’s local NHL team, the Predators. Here are a few things that I took from the experience:
Certainly bringing the Cup home would have been an amazing end to this story, and yet we celebrate the Predators' demonstration of commitment, focus and integrity, as well as the great sense of fun that they brought to each game. Their best inspired the rest of community to be committed and bring our best. It wasn’t perfect, indeed, yet spectacularly successful none-the-less. It was a nearly ideal leadership experience, and was certainly inspiring enough to consider what worked well that could be applied in other work environments. How can you bring these lessons to your team?