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.

 

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?

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.

Examining Self-Doubt

We had our first Wiser Way book club and we talked about “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. It is a powerful, enjoyable, and thought-provoking book. As part of the discussion, we talked about the habit loops in our lives.

One of the participants talked about how he had a habit of self-doubt. I asked him to explain what he meant by that. He said that when he completes a piece of technical work that he confidently feels is done well, he has found that if he can have a bit of self-doubt, he is curious enough to recheck his work and has been able to find and correct errors.

This comment has stuck with me because I have defined self-doubt as bad and something to be avoided.

My definition of self-doubt is rooted in shame. It is when my inner voice starts saying, “Who do you think you are? You are not going to be able to do that. You are going to look like a fool!” For many years, it was my mental habit when I have felt challenged or exposed.

The difference in these two definitions of self-doubt is that one is grounded in humility and the other in humiliation. Humiliation leads to lashing out, blaming others or yourself, and limits your effectiveness.

One of the points in the book is that you cannot eliminate a habit, but you can replace it with another one. So, I have been working for several years to replace my habit of negative self-talk with openness and curiosity. This is similar to how my colleague described his habit of humble self-doubt. It means being open to learning and examining your assumptions.

When I am at my best, I have replaced that old script with a new one. It says something like, “I am not sure how this is going to turn out, but it will be fun to experiment. This is an opportunity to make a positive difference for others. What am I going to learn from this?”

The problem is that my old negative self-doubt habit crops up from time to time. I have found it in spades this summer around writing this blog. It has taken some time for me to recognize and replace the old mental habit. To do that, the most important driver for me is my belief that I have an obligation to help others be courageous leaders, which means I need to lead by example and be honest about how things are going. When I allow myself to be authentic and vulnerable, it not only is more effective, it is a lot more fun.

So, my challenge to you this week is to examine your mental habits related to self-doubt. Are they supporting you becoming the person you want to be?

Slow Down When the Ride Gets Rough

Photo by Andrés Nieto Porras  https://www.flickr.com/photos/anieto2k/ Creative Commons 2.0 License

 

My recent car problems have highlighted how the energy you bring to an interaction affects the outcome. I am not a complete Pollyanna as my story will show. Things do not always go as planned, but our reaction to unexpected bumps makes all of the difference in how our story unfolds.

I had an appointment one rainy morning, so I rushed to my car and was shocked when it didn’t start. After rescheduling my appointment, I settled in to wait for the AAA service to come and jump start my car. After my initial frustration, I felt grateful that it happened on a day where I had the time to take care of it. The service guys were terrific and helpful. It turned out to be the starter and not the battery, but the technician pumped up one of my tires that was low and called for a tow truck. The tow truck driver was able to get the car started by hitting the starter (who knew that would work?) and I drove down to the dealership thinking the car would be under warranty.

It wasn’t.

The 3-year warranty had ended a couple of weeks earlier. The service center agent was apologetic as he called to give me the news and the price of repair. He told me that he had talked with his manager and they had requested an exception from Honda corporate and was told that it wouldn’t be covered. I wasn’t angry or even annoyed. This is a change for me. In the past, I would have been outraged and been aggressive in pushing to get the repair covered. Instead I felt like it would work out. I told him to go ahead with the repair because I needed the car.

When he called to tell me it was ready, I asked him nicely to document the steps that he and his manager had taken so that I could write to corporate Honda and let them know that I was dissatisfied. I have loved my Honda Accord and we are a Honda family. The last five cars we have purchased as a family have been Hondas. I felt that it would be a compelling story for my appeal.

The manager called a couple of hours later to tell me that the repair had been covered. I was elated and felt great about how I had interacted with all of the people who were involved. I saw how the positive energy I felt had translated into a positive outcome. If the story ended there, it would be great, but more bumps were ahead.

After driving the car home, the electronic locks on the door were not working and neither was the fob. Since leaving my car unlocked didn’t seem like a good idea in the city, I manually locked the door and shut it. Just to make sure I could get into the car again, I tried to unlock it with the physical key and couldn’t get into the car. This is the point in the story where my old behaviors kicked in.

I was furious!

I kicked into panic and action mode. I angrily called the dealership, told them it was their fault, and asked what they could do for me. They suggested calling a locksmith. I googled to see if others had experienced this. I called my husband to complain. I started to try to figure out when I was going to have the time to fix this problem, which made me even more panicked and angry.

Then I stopped myself and took a deep breath to stop the freight train of thoughts. After composing myself, I walked back out to the car to experiment. I was curious about why my physical key wouldn’t open the door when it would open the trunk. When I was calm, instead of panicked, I was able to notice that the key unlocked the door in the opposite direction than I was expecting. Instead of turning the key away from the edge of the door to unlock it, you turned the key toward the edge of the door. This is completely opposite of how most keys work.

My anger and frustration had blown a relatively small problem into an enormous problem. I lost my capacity to be curious and open to assessing the problem. And I was spreading my negativity and anger to others, which made them less likely to be able or willing to help.

I called back the dealership, apologized for panicking, and made an appointment that was convenient for me to get the problem fixed. The dealership fixed the blown fuse that was causing the problem and I drove the car for a week without any issues.

The next week, my sister came into town to help me look at houses and I took the day off. We went out to start our day and my car wouldn’t start again. I was frustrated, but not angry. I knew that we had resources to do what we wanted to do that day. We Ubered to our house-hunting appointment and had the real estate agent drive us around. We had a great time and a fabulous lunch before heading home.

After we got back, I started the process of getting my car towed back to the dealership. Ironically, I had to reschedule the appointment I missed on the first day of my car woes for late that afternoon. I wasn’t too worried because I had a couple of hours before I needed to leave. However, when the tow truck wasn’t there in the promised time slot, I was getting worried about making my appointment.

At this point, my sister asked me why I wasn’t angry, saying that she would be furious in my shoes. I was able to tell her I knew personally that getting angry made things worse and left me less able to think. My recent experience confirmed that things worked out when I was able to put positive energy out during stressful situations.

I called AAA to request that my sister, who is not on my membership, wait for the tow truck, while I went to my appointment. When I told the agent my sister’s name, she exclaimed in delight that she had a sister with the same first and last name! After that, it was easy to get the exception made and my sister had a enjoyable interaction with the tow truck driver when he got there.

My car was fixed again by the Honda dealership. It turned out to be a faulty wire in the new starter. My car has been working well for a couple of weeks. I find myself feeling grateful every time it starts.

So now, when I find by blood boiling, I remind myself of how sure I was that I was locked out of my car and take the time to calm myself to get to a place where I can be curious and open to exploring other solutions with the belief that things will work out.

My experience is that things do work out in seemingly miraculous ways. My challenge is for you to replace your anger with the positive belief that things will work out this week and see what happens.

 

Why forgiveness is important at work

CC2.0 – Photo by BK – https://www.flickr.com/photos/pictoquotes/22339160723

I have been studying about forgiveness lately and thinking about the role that it has in the workplace. Many of the books that I have been reading are about forgiving major acts of violence or hatred. My experience is that work is filled with a series of minor irritations that hurt our feelings and violate our sense of justice. When we dwell on these irritations, we get stuck in a negative space, which is why forgiveness is important.

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” – Martin Luther King

Early in my career, I was a systems engineer providing technical consulting to prospective customers who were considering purchasing my company’s software. During one memorable interaction, an engineer at a customer site was condescending and quite rude to me. As I left that appointment, I was upset and angry. I did not want to take that feeling home with me although as replayed the interaction, my feelings of outrage increased rather than diminished. It was a profound spiritual experience for me when I felt those feelings of anger and frustration melt away and be replaced by peace as I a made the conscious effort to let it go and forgive.

I see lots of opportunities for forgiveness at work:

  • Stop repeating the negative stories about a person, group, or system.
  • Stop complaining about not getting credit for work you did.
  • Stop obsessing about whether you said the right thing in your last meeting or how you could have done something better.

Let it go.

Energy is our most precious resource. An attitude of forgiveness at work allows us to stop sapping our energy with negative feelings and frees us from the past so we can focus on the present.

I loved this definition of forgiveness that Oprah Winfrey recounted hearing from a guest on her show.

Forgiveness is “giving up the hope that the past could have been any different. Letting go of a past that we thought we wanted.”

Forgiving doesn’t mean that others treating us poorly is right or that we don’t speak our truth about what happened with that person. It does mean that we stop focusing on what “should have been different” that holds us as a prisoner. Forgiveness is not for the person who wronged us, it is for ourselves and our own well-being. To extend forgiveness is to find freedom.

My challenge for you this week is to look at where you are holding on to a desire for the past to be different and practice forgiving and see how liberating it is. I would love to hear your stories about how you have been able to forgive.