Be kinder than necessary

Picture of sad girl with Plato quote, "Be kind to everyone you meet for everyone is fighting a hard fight."n
Original image by Axel here, www.flickr.com/photos/zaxl4/99863335

I caught a nasty cold that laid me out for the entire weekend and continues to linger as I head into the week. The cold has sapped my energy and left me too much time for rumination and limited ability to do the things that bring me joy, like exercising and connecting with friends and family.

In my leadership class last week, we talked about the optimal positivity ratio where most people, relationships and teams thrive. It turns out that in order to thrive, you need to experience between 3-6 positive emotions for every negative emotion. Being ill has reinforced to me how critical it is to have that same level of positivity personally and how easily it can be lost.

When I am feeling well, my days start with exercise at the Y with supportive workout buddies and meditation with my husband before I head to work. As I drive, I listen to an engrossing novel or uplifting business audio book, or just sing along to some of my favorite songs. Those habits before I get to work help me to arrive filled with positive energy.

This has not been possible in the past week and the absence of these positive rituals combined with my illness has left me tired and down. 

Whenever I get ill, I am reminded of my mother. Multiple sclerosis (MS) took my mother’s energy, mobility, and personality. The cost on the rest of our family was high, especially for my father and youngest brother and sister who cared for her for 15 years while she was bed-ridden. For many years, I was really angry with my mother for not fighting her disease. My compassion for my mother has grown over the years as I have faced my own challenges. But when I am knocked down by a simple cold, I am reminded that I have not really gone through anything close to what she experienced with her MS.

Most of what another person is dealing with is hidden and unknowable to us. So when we are dealing with others at work or home, the mantra, “Be kinder than necessary” is wise. It will help to increase the positivity ratio for both you and the person receiving your kindness. 

Today happens to be World Kindness Day. My challenge to you this week is to increase the positivity ratio in your life and workplace with small acts of kindness.

Reframing Frustrations to Facilitate Difficult Conversations 

Last week at our planning retreat, I wanted to make sure that the leadership team was able to talk openly and constructively about some chronic problems across the teams. I found an exercise from Mark Gorkin that helped do this in an amazingly effective way.

Before we started the exercise, I wanted to shift the way that people thought about frustration. In The Enemy of Engagement, Mark Royal and Tom Agnew assert, “The more loyal and engaged employees are, the deeper their frustration will run in the face of obstacles.” So instead of labeling frustration as bad, we labeled it as a sign of the most engaged and loyal team members. That made it okay to express the frustrations because it meant that you cared deeply and wanted to make things better.

With that framing, each person took a few minutes to identify sources of everyday workplace stress and conflict or to list barriers to more effective and creative team coordination. At each table, we spent ten minutes sharing our frustrations. Then came the creative and team building part of the exercise. We asked each table to draw their frustrations. They could make as many posters as they wanted in ten minutes.

Everyone jumped in with both feet. The teams were working together intently around their posters and there was a lot of positive energy as the teams brainstormed about how to communicate their frustrations in a visual way.

After everyone was done, we created a gallery and everyone looked at all of the posters. Then each group got a chance to explain their drawings. After the explanations, we took some time together to dive into the problem and talk about possible ways to make it better. 

It was intense and uncomfortable.

And very productive and necessary. 

We had conversations about frustrations that spanned years. Information and background was provided that gave the individuals and teams perspective and insight they didn’t have before coming into the room. 

After talking with several different participants immediately after the exercise ended, I discovered that several people thought that getting into the specifics in a group setting felt like blame and was inappropriate. After discovering this, I immediately facilitated a discussion with the entire group about how we could have these difficult conversations with details without blame. Many people indicated that without specifics, the problem was theoretical and not clear. Through the exercise and discussion, we established norms about how we would talk about difficulties that allowed us to get to the specifics.

We still have room for improvement, but this exercise was a good way to prompt and practice having difficult conversations.

What have you done in your teams to hold difficult conversations that are healing and helpful?

Creating a safe learning community

“What does respect mean to you?” by retrokatz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I am teaching a leadership class at Temple for the first time. Since I agreed to teach the class, I have been vacillating between anxiety and excitement. It is definitely outside of my comfort zone and I have been worried about whether I am good enough. Since overcoming feelings of inadequacy and stretching has been at the heart of my leadership journey, I realize that I am not only the teacher, but this is an incredible opportunity for me to learn how to be a better leader.

The first class was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. After a quick summary of the structure of the class, I asked the entire class how we could create a safe learning community. Using the 1-2-4-All Liberating Structures, we established as a group how we would act and support each other on our growth journey. The list that the class created together was more comprehensive and better than the list that I would have created. They wanted to be able to be open and vulnerable and know that others would listen without judgment, as we practiced living the leadership principles that we would be learning.

Then we spent the rest of the class getting to know each other by telling our core stories. We arranged our chairs in a circle and each of us shared three core stories from our life and what we had learned from those experiences. 

Several people in the group got emotional, including me. We were sharing deeply about our struggles and our ability to overcome those struggles. We talked about health challenges, close relationships, death of loved ones, physical injuries and having to give up our identities of who we thought we were when unexpected challenges arrived. 

It was one of the most powerful experiences that I have ever had. There was so much wisdom and leadership in that room that had already been developed. I was reminded again that leadership is not about telling others what to do, but about creating an environment where the best ideas can surface and be shared.

At the end of the exercise, we talked about how differently we felt about the people in the room and the implications for leadership and life. As I was leaving the room, I realized that I don’t necessarily know the core stories of the people that I work with on a daily basis, and I am not sure how to do that in a safe and non-invasive way. 

I would love to hear about how you have created safe learning communities.

 

Constructively Dealing with Doubt

Photo by Oleg Magni

The CIO conference, that I attended last week, was filled with memorable speakers and people. One of the themes that weaved its way through the conference was how to deal with doubt, both from others and from yourself.

My first day at the conference was not pleasant. To be fair, it had more to do with me than the event or the other attendees. I felt out of place, an introvert at an extroverted event. I was not alone. It was a technology conference with many other introverts. After striking up a very interesting conversation with another CIO in the lounge about the challenges and rewards of running a global business, he thanked me for starting the conversation, admitting that he was an introvert and not comfortable starting a conversation. That made me smile, considering how I had been feeling most of the day.

The next morning, I woke up and through meditation and yoga was able to reground myself in my purpose. I was attending to become a better leader and to help develop other positive leaders as well. That purpose and focus transformed the rest of the conference.

My renewed outlook was rewarded when Fletcher Previn, the IBM CIO, spoke at lunch. As he described the scale of what he was responsible for and how he revamped the organization of 12,000 IT professionals after being named the global CIO, I was impressed and inspired. He also looked incredibly young and the first question from the audience was how old he was, reflecting what most of us were wondering. He handled it with incredible ease, flipping the question and asking the man how old he thought Fletcher was. When the man replied under 30, he just said he was older than that and then joked, “I am surprised as you are that I am the CIO of IBM!” I was intrigued that his immediate reaction was that the person who asked the question doubted his capability and competence. My reaction, which grew as I heard him speak about his approach to the organization and people, was awe mixed with a bit of jealousy.

The final day was an exclusive day for Women CIOs and I was glad that I decided to stay. I met some incredible women and the highlight of the conference was listening to Nicole Malachowski talk about her journey as an Air Force pilot. She was the first woman Thunderbird pilot. She described several times when her self-doubt almost stopped her as she experienced both doubt and encouragement from her peers. She also talked about how it would make her feel bad when people put the qualifier of “woman” in front of her job title when introducing her. That changed when she joined the Thunderbirds and understood that being a woman in that role opened up possibilities for the girls and boys who lined up to get her autograph. Before one of her airshows, she was talking with four girls when an angry young man approached her and told her that she shouldn’t be talking to the girls and that he hoped she crashed. Remarkably, she was able to recognize that she was there for the girls, so was able to control her anger and focus on the girls. If you get a chance to hear Nicole speak, take the opportunity because she is a great story teller.

These experiences reaffirmed that doubt is universal and each of us often deals with doubts imposed by others or ourself. How we decide to act when that happens is a choice. So my challenge this week is to notice when you hear doubt from yourself or others so that you can consciously choose how you will act when it happens.

Yikes! When Rewards Undermine Your Intended Outcome

Over the last several months, I have been working with a passionate group of team members to design a recognition program to reward  staff who exemplified the Wiser Way principles of curiosity, collaboration, positivity, execution and integrity. We wanted the program to enhance the positive and other-focused culture that we have been actively working on.

The team was incredibly creative. We named the program “Feather in your Cap” and designed feather bookmarks and pins that people would get when they received recognition from a number of peers for each principle. We had visions of electronic badges and gamification that would encourage people to participate in the program.

Our first hint that something was wrong was when we reached out to a small group of team members to help us collect feedback on the idea. We showed them the program and asked them to lead the discussion at their tables at the all staff meeting where we rolled out the program. The feedback was clear. The staff was  concerned about how the rewards would be distributed and whether people would feel demotivated by not being recognized. The biggest concern was fairness. People thought it was going to be a popularity contest. Some suggested committees to make sure the nominations were evaluated consistently. Many people said they just wanted monetary rewards.

The design team was discouraged. We made a few tweaks and thought hard about how we could address staff concerns and make the program be more positive. The leader of the group found a video about rewards that go bad. As we met to discuss the feedback, I had a moment of insight. We were rewarding the wrong behavior and instead of promoting, we were undermining the culture we had been so intentionally creating. The rewards were promoting self-focus and competition instead of the Wiser Way principles of curiosity, collaboration, positivity, execution and integrity.

So we did a pivot.

We shifted to entire focus to appreciating others.

We named the new program “Cheers for Peers” and removed all physical rewards. In the new program:

  • Everybody has the opportunity to give appreciation to everyone
  • Each person controls how engaged he/she want to be
  • Focus is on giving, not getting and on others, not self
  • There is opportunity to foster a positive environment

We created a channel on our portal to allow anyone to submit a cheer anytime they want for anything big or small. There is a public gratitude board that shows all of the cheers. There is also a tab that privately shows each individual how many times they have recognized others, the badge they have earned for cheering others, who they have recognized the most and who has recognized them the most. The most important rewards are the feelings you get from recognizing others and being recognized.

After we had developed the new program, we brought the same small group together to see their reaction. The response was incredibly positive with none of the concerns from the previous iteration of the program.  

The day after we showed the small group, we opened up the channel quietly on our portal and immediately they started sending cheers across the organization. We will be rolling out the program across the organization this week and it feels so much better than the original program we designed.

I have learned how easy it is to get the incentives and rewards wrong. And how important it is to test ideas before putting them into practice.

Have you ever had a similar experience when the incentives you implemented undermine the intended outcome? How did you know and how did you adjust?

The Cost of Complaining

It seems so normal to sit around the office complaining about others. While it might feel great to blow off steam and get others to sympathize, few of us consider the incredible cost to ourselves, our colleagues and our organizations of indulging in this behavior. This week, I have been acutely aware of the impact of complaining as I indulged in complaining myself and witnessed the impact of other’s complaints on my team.

The cost in terms of time is enormous. While many of us may justify a rant about another department or colleague as troubleshooting or clearing the air, the truth is that most of the time we repeat our complaint to whoever will listen and far past the time when the offense occurred.

In addition to sapping time, complaining also saps energy and potential.

The more we complain, the less hopeful we feel about being able to change a situation. How often do we just shrug and say, that is just the way that Sam or Sally or that department is and there is nothing we can do to change the situation. As a leader, the repercussions of complaining are amplified based on the position you hold. But, independent of position of authority, chronic complaining can destroy teams and make work miserable for you and everyone around you.

The effect on the recipients of the complaining is even more deflating. When they inevitably hear about the complaints or feel the animosity from others, they lose energy, focus, and motivation. The tragedy is that many people don’t feel that their efforts are wanted or appreciated at work and so they invest their energy and passion where it will be appreciated. When we focus on the things we don’t like about someone, our animosity and frustration grow. We discount their strengths and talent and are not able to see their potential.

The following advice about complaining from Robert Biswas-Diener in “The Three Types of Complaining” is invaluable.

  • Avoid dampening your mood by complaining only rarely
  • Complain only in instances where you believe it will effect real and positive change
  • Consider whether affirmation or some other strategy will work instead of complaining
  • Limit your exposure to complaining by limiting your exposure to complainers

Energy is the most important asset that we have as individuals and organizations. How does complaining impact your energy? What strategies have you found that reduce complaining in yourself and your teams? A great article to read for ideas is “The Next Time You Want to Complain at Work, Do This Instead.”

Appreciating Illness

Photo by Tracy Dekalb

As soon as the holiday break started, I got sick. This is not unusual for me. I remember this happening when I was in college. I would come home after finals and sleep seemingly endlessly for days before I felt fully recovered. Even now that I have a job that I love and don’t have the stress of finals, I still experience a similar letdown in my body when I get vacation time.

I am impatient with myself when I get sick. Over the holiday break, I insisted that I keep exercising and pushing myself. The result was that my sickness lasted for most of the break and, although I finally started to recover just before the new year, the cold came back in full force my first full week back at work.

The hardest part for me about being sick is my internal voice beating myself up for not doing more. Some of my reaction to being sick is related to how I view myself. I pride myself in how busy I am and how much I can get done. When I am not busy and checking things off my to-do list, I feel guilty and worried that others will be disappointed in me.

Another thing about being sick is that I feel less capable. It scares me when I can’t remember words and names, which honestly has been something I have struggled with for years. However, when I am sick, I feel inadequate and worried.

I also have the expectation that if I am purpose-driven and taking care of myself, I shouldn’t get sick at all. This belief is silly since sickness is just part of being alive. It means that I have been viewing being sick as a sign of failure of my body and spirit.

So instead of fighting being sick like I did over the break, this week I decided to be very intentional about how I responded. I tried to listen to my body. I didn’t exercise all week. I slept more, read a couple of novels, and did very little extra. I also spent a lot of effort to understand and rewrite my stories about sickness.

As I took the time to really unpack my thinking, I realized that many of my negative feelings about illness come from watching my mother succumb to MS. When my mother was diagnosed with the disease in her mid-forties, she went to bed for the next seventeen years. My Type-A mother who ran our neighborhood changed completely and was unrecognizable to me and my sisters. I was so angry with her for giving in that I have been fiercely fighting any sign of illness in myself. What I realize now is that it was her reaction to the disease, not the disease itself that was so distressing to me as her daughter.

That insight alone was worth a lingering cold.

I am feeling better and am intensely appreciative of the miraculous ability of my body to heal itself. The next time that I get sick, I hope to remember that the downtime will help my body repair itself and that my reaction to the illness will be an opportunity to better understand and become the person I aspire to be.

What has been your experience with illness?  How has it contributed to your growth as a person and leader?

What do you love about yourself?

One of the reasons that I like yoga is that it combines movement and meditation and often the instructors can open my mind along with my body. This definitely happened for me this week. I just started a new yoga series on my Gaia app called Every Day Yoga.  At the end of one of the sessions, the instructor encouraged me to reflect on what I loved about myself as I started my day.

The challenge startled me. I realized that it was hard for me to do. I could immediately identify what I didn’t like about myself.  The middle age ring around my hips was at the top of the list. As I pondered my reaction, I realized that I did not even let myself ask the question because I thought it was arrogant to contemplate what I loved about myself.

I took the challenge seriously and answered the question. I described what I liked about myself as if I were talking about a friend. This was something that I had never even tried before. It only took a couple of minutes, but it changed my entire outlook for the day. I felt a deep sense of joy and satisfaction as I openly acknowledged what I love about myself.

I know that I am often my harshest critic. Research shows that the highest functioning teams praise each other 5.6 times more often than they criticize each other. It seems that for each of us to function at our highest level, that ratio should also apply to our internal voice. Given how hard this small thought exercise was for me, I realized that I do not give myself that level of positive reinforcement.

What is your reaction when you ask yourself what you love about yourself?

 

See Stress as an Opportunity for Growth

Photo by Christian Kortum (CC2.0 License)

As part of my transition to Philadelphia, my husband and I just bought a house. I love the house because it is in the trees and every time that I drive into the neighborhood, it feels peaceful and like I am coming home.

Last week, I moved from my rental in the city out to the house in the suburbs. It is something that I have been looking forward to for months.

The transition has been more stressful than I anticipated.

After spending a year and a half sleeping through the constant noise of the city, I couldn’t get to sleep the first night. It was so quiet. The unfamiliar sounds in the new house sounded so loud against the absolute stillness. I finally feel asleep around 3am and woke up exhausted. In my anxiety to catch the train, I smashed my hand in my back door as I was rushing out of the house and was bleeding as I figured out how to pay for parking at the train station. When I got to campus, I realized that I left my cell phone at the house.

After work, I stopped at the hardware store on the way home. I successfully navigated to the store without my phone directing my every turn. Getting home though was not as easy and I ended up driving in circles as I tried to figure out the winding roads and rely on landmarks. When I finally got home, I spent several minutes searching for my house keys because I was tired and flustered.

That was the short description of the first day in my new home. I’m still adapting as every small task requires focus to complete. I have to establish a whole new set of patterns and habits. In addition, there are constant irritants of things not working as I expect them.

Through the stress, I have been asking myself what lesson I am going to learn from what is happening. That focus on growth has shifted my thought process. I have been observing how I am reacting and the stories I am telling myself. I have been able to stop myself from going to blame and anger and frustration.

I was able to fully put this principle into practice on my latest incident in the new house. I was quite pleased with myself for figuring out why the garage door openers had no power until I realized that I had locked myself out of the house. After assessing my predicament, I determined that I would be able to get into one of the doors by removing the hinges from inside the garage, but I didn’t have any tools. So in my stocking feet, I walked next door to introduce myself to my new neighbors and asked for help. Fortunately, my new neighbor had the tools I needed and was also kind enough to come over to help me break back into my house. I was able to laugh about it even as it was happening, realizing that it was a memorable way to introduce myself into the neighborhood.

Through all of this, I have had an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I am still able to learn and change. Growth requires putting yourself outside of your comfort zone. Recognizing the stress that comes with change as a growth opportunity has been helpful for me. My challenge to you this week is to ask yourself what you are going to learn the next time you feel stress.

Waking Up to the Power of Intention and Contribution

It has been over a year since I became the CIO at Temple University and it has been an incredible year of self-growth as well as positive change in the organization. The Wiser Way program that we created has a been a big part of the culture change to empower and develop leaders at all levels.

Subash Reddy Karra just finished the Wiser Way program and described the personal effect that the program has had on him in this way, “Before I was always focused on what kept me up at night. Now I am focused on what gets me up in the morning.” He also described how the first exercise of crafting a mission statement initially felt like a joke. That mission statement is now guiding his daily habits and improving  his life as he lives more intentionally.

I have had several meaningful interactions with Subash recently as he reached out to me to express gratitude for the effect that I have had on him personally. One of the new habits he has established as a result of the program was sending a personal gratitude letter at the end of each month. I was the lucky recipient of his letter this month. On Thanksgiving morning, he sent a beautiful letter that lifted me up so much. Here is an excerpt:

“Thank you for putting in place changes that are always empowering employees like me (professionally/personally) and stretching me to dream bigger things to accomplish that I could never have thought of in the past.

The work you do not only impacts CS employees but also Temple University and we can only hope that the impact you make creates a chain reaction in others to do the same. Thank you so much for letting me be part of that experience with you. If you ever need an example of people coming around to the power of intention and contribution, please count me as one more example.”

We continued the conversation during the final Wiser Way session. Subash talked about several changes that he made in his personal life as a result of the program. He returned to regular yoga practice and instituted planning rituals to establish personal and professional goals. He indicated how the flexible work policies that we established allowed him to make these foundational changes in his life. He described himself as moving from a zombie state to waking up.

As I listened to Subash relate his gratitude and the extent of his personal change, I was astonished. Subash has always been a valuable and productive leader on our team. The culture we are creating is unleashing more of his incredible potential and he is feeling so much more joy and energy.

Subash’s journey is inspiring to me and gives me the courage to continue my work of developing positive leaders and organizations. That is what gets me out of bed every morning!

I would love to hear your personal transformation stories. How have you applied the tools and concepts from the Wiser Way training?