Tag : Leadership

10 truths about skeptical employees

I was cleaning my office (!) and found a speech from 18 years ago given by Rod Oldham, of then Bell South, to students at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.  In an age of disruption, some “truths” stay constant.

  1. We’re smarter than senior managers think we are.
  2. We think senior managers are smarter than they are.
  3. We hate it when you make us feel stupid.
  4. We have short attention spans.
  5. We have long memories.
  6. We’re desperate for direction.
  7. We want to be able to think on our own.
  8. We want the company to succeed.
  9. We don’t want to leave.
  10. We want to believe.

Staying away from drama

Last month I  was in a board meeting that went off the rails.

The two-hour session devolved into conversations about personalities, systems limitations,  approval hold-ups by the legal department,  problems uncovered by market research, frustrations with the sales strategy, and a concluding “why do we keep talking about the same problems over and over?”

People left frustrated, exhausted and angry.  Not much of significance had been accomplished. Such a waste of time.

And no wonder. When conversations get pulled into the emotion of drama and problems our primitive brain takes over and shuts off our higher order intelligence, says Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence.   In other words, drama begets drama instead of any useful ideas on how to accomplish what’s at stake.

Interestingly I was in a recent academic meeting  focused on innovation and creativity that also fell into the rat hole of drama, problems, details, and more drama. Guess how creative and innovative that two hours turned out to be?

Quiet Leadership author David Rock suggests two practices that I find helpful.  Agree in meetings on where to focus the conversation: vision, planning, detail, problem and drama.  Wherever possible, keep all conversations focused on vision and planning. In this positive, low-anxiety mental state we’re better able to think fully and creatively

When you have to discuss detail, focus on one detail in a 10 minute chunk. After 10 minutes, we lose our ability to concentrate on that topic, says  John Medina, author of Brain Rules. “You’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done to regain attention and restart the clock.”

I see another opportunity in staying focused on the bigger picture: it is in this positive frame of mind that we’re more able to disagree in productive, creative ways.   Because  our minds are calmer and we’re focused on shared goals in this mindset, we’re able to  intellectually consider and discuss  alternatives.  There’s a higher order of thinking that’s possible during this mental state, say the neuroscientists.

Once we get into drama and pointing fingers at people and problems, dissent becomes dangerous and unhelpful.

Not to mention that there’s no emotional energy left for compassion or creativity.

I’ve taken a new professional vow: keep the meetings I’m in focused on solutions, and out of drama and problems.  Want to join me?

Jackson Pollock painting or chessboard?

Most institutions — be they governments, corporations, education or health care systems — try to run things as if they were playing chess, each move orderly, sequenced.

But today’s word is complex, more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a chessboard.

So Independent Diplomat Carne Ross suggested at last week’s BIF8 innovation conference.

In a complex system it’s almost impossible for top-down leaders to create order, hard as they may try. Order emerges in complex systems from the bottom up, said Carne.

This metaphor is quite powerful to me. Are we leaders fostering participatory environments for people to create the change needed to succeed in an increasingly complex world?  Or are we playing chess, with top down hierarchies moving the pieces?  (And with the  implicit assumption that executives know best?)  Are we saying we want creativity but requiring employees to paint by numbers?

Change is a-comin. Are we brave enough to let go of status and certainty and create new participatory ways to work, to innovate, to prosper?

Strategy discussions: what’s the real issue?

An executive in a recent workshop kept hijacking the conversation by saying, “We just don’t have the resources to do that.” Over and over. Which kept stalling the strategy session.

Here’s how I got the group unstuck. It might be helpful to you when someone uses the common “Yes, but we don’t have the money/people/time” refrain about new approaches or ideas.

“You all are stretched to the limit,” I said. “And let’s remember that we find resources for priorities that are important to us. Things that aren’t so important don’t get funded. Maybe the real conversation here is that this program just isn’t that important to the company right now. Maybe you should together decide it’s not important, and stop frustrating yourselves by bringing it up at every strategy session.”

Radio silence. (And one executive quietly laughing in acknowledgement.)

The group decided that the issue is important and they figured out a way to get a basic approach working within the next few weeks.  It’s not the Cadillac or Four Seasons version, but it begins to provide value and address a real need in the company.

When someone throws objections, get  to the real issue and get out of the endlessly frustrating and unproductive ” why not” objections.

 

CEO Nancy Schlichting: find the disruptive people

“Find the disruptive people in your organization. They have the ideas that will drive change,” said Nancy Schlichting, CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, a $4 billion healthcare organization with 23,000 employees.

Speaking at the BIF8 innovation conference last week in Providence, RI, Nancy shared what has helped her transform an ailing health care system and create innovations in health care such as a new  $360 million health and wellness facility that feels more like a luxury hotel than a hospital.

Transforming healthcare is all about leadership, she said. Her leadership approach focuses on creating an “incredible” environment for every person to reach their full potential.  How she has created such an  environment:

  • Making a large organization feel small.  When the board approached her about being CEO of the health care system she was reluctant to take it because she likes being involved with people and creating working environments that are positive, personal and open-minded. The board assured her that being CEO of a health care would not preclude how she like to lead.
  • Saying yes to unusual ideas, like an employee who wanted to be able to creating fun drawings  on the disposable gowns worn by the kidney dialysis staff. “This woman creates this amazing designs on her own time on the weekends. On Monday mornings the staff can’t wait to see what she has that week for them.”
  • Helping people who are disruptors. These, she says, are the people with the ideas that can help you change and transform. One example she shared: a surgeon who wanted to put health kiosks in churches in the Detroit community.  Doing so has been a hugely successful way to help people learn about health and wellness.
  • Hiring people in with non-traditional backgrounds to help you see things in new and different ways. “This is essential,” Nancy stressed. One example: she hired Gerard van Grinsven, a long time Ritz Carlton executive to be CEO of the new Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, even though Bernard had no health care experience. His “otherness” has been a significant reason the new hospital has been so successful in its ambitious goals. (Here’s a link to a video of Gerard sharing his story about going from high-end hotels to opening a hospital.
  • Bringing together different thinkers. Creative ideas happen at the intersections, said Nancy. Bringing different thinkers together across silos creates better ideas faster.

Hearing her talk I was reminding of the wonderful poem by Kaylin Haught, “God Says Yes To Me.”  Imagine if CEOs said yes, yes, yes to more of their employees, especially the disruptive corporate rebels?

Not only would organizations be able to innovate and change more quickly, a wonderful sense of joy would permeate the workplace — even in high-stress environments in struggling urban areas, like the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

 

The appearance of diversity vs. the impact of diversity

Carmen Medina and I are on a mission to help rebels in the workforce be more successful. We believe these outsider thinkers inside big organizations have the answers leaders need to adapt, grow, thrive, even survive. As part of our journey into helping rebels we’ve been asking ourselves all kinds of questions to understand why leaders don’t listen more to rebels. Yesterday Carmen posted about her recent epiphany on Rebels at Work. Here’s her “aha” about diversity initiatives and rebels.

___________________________________________________

As most of you know, I served for 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency. During my last ten years there, I would attend recruiting and outreach events where I would answer questions about my career at the Agency. Given who I am, I was often asked this question: “Could you talk about what it was like being a woman and a minority at the Agency?” And I always gave the same answer: “Actually, neither of those was as much of an issue for me as just being a different thinker. Somehow I often saw things differently from everyone else.”

I was recalling this last week when I was thinking about what I might say at a couple of events I’ve been invited to speak at associated with Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts this coming week. (It’s actually not a month, but a 30-day period from 15 September to 15 October.) And as I said out loud the previous paragraph, it came to me like the most gigantic “DUH” moment you can imagine. POW! A giant fist bopped me on the  head.

I had gotten it exactly backwards. It wasn’t that being a different thinker was more of a career issue than being a woman or a minority. I was a different thinker in large part BECAUSE I was a woman and a Latina.

 

Q. You mean that it took you until one month before your 58th Birthday to figure that out!!

A. Sadly, yes.

Many sincere attempts to diversify organizations fail because the organization’s leadership does not appreciate that any significant diversity effort is in fact an organizational change effort. It could very well end up being transformational for the company.

When different types of people enter the workforce–women, minorities–many actually become default Rebels at Work, although they often are not aware of their dual identities. People with different backgrounds should bring different perspectives and ideas with them. (Although truth be told, many learn as early as high school to stop volunteering their different ideas when they realize they are not welcomed.) And yet you often hear leaders say: “It’s a shame about so-and-so. Some interesting ideas but he doesn’t quite know how to fit in.” or You have great potential but you need to learn to be more corporate.”

And that’s how diversity initiatives degrade and become more about the Appearance of Diversity than about the Impact of Diversity.

The organization has made space for people who are different but no space for their different ideas. Helping Rebels be more effective at work is in fact a diversity initiative. And increasing the Impact of Diversity on an organization is in fact a Rebel initiative.

Making things

If we made more things would we be happier?

In my research this summer professional people talked of how miserable they are at work,  working harder than ever but not seeming to get anywhere.  With no markers to show progress or few ways to show “completed” projects they feel demoralized, tired and uninspired at the very time we need more creative ways forward.

Is this why more people are painting, making videos, self-publishing, designing jewelry, refinishing old furniture, restoring cars, rebuilding playgrounds, staging community theater, using Pinterest, gardening, taking on home improvement projects themselves?  The feeling of starting something and then having something to show for our work can be so fulfilling.

I found myself recently ogling sewing machines, longing for my teenage days when I would save up money to buy a great Vogue pattern, beautiful fabric and special funky buttons, and then sew, sew, sew, creating something uniquely mine.  When I put on that new dress it was a sense of accomplishment, creativity.

I felt the same way when  I started writing articles for the local newspaper when I was a teenager.  I loved the making of an article — the research, the interviews, the writing, the editing — and then seeing the final finished product in my hands.

Psychology research has found that using our hands to make things decreases stress and relieves anxiety. It has also found that “purposeful creative or practical endeavors” leads to joyful, creative thought.

“When you make something you feel productive, but the engagement and exploration involved in the doing can move your mind and elevate your mood,” explains Dr. Carrie Barron in a Psychology Today article, “Creativity, Happiness and Your Own Two Hands.”

I suppose more of us could make things in our free time, something I’m going to try to do.

As for work, I feel that we have to work harder at giving people a sense of accomplishment.  Does anyone really have an inkling of  “joyful” accomplishment during annual performance reviews, the time when we’re supposed to be able to review accomplishment and plan what’s next? Nope.

Nor do most have any way of feeling like they’re making progress.  Knowledge workers especially face unending  tasks towards elusive fuzzy goals.  We have  big visuals to show how much has been raised to reach the United Way goal, but no way to see how our team or organization is progressing.

Setting the right goals and ways to measure progress is difficult.  This is why so few exist. It takes smart, committed leaders to set those and keep people focused on them.   The focus part is most important. Too often our organizational plans  are  long, long lists of unending priorities.  Employees feel like rats on a treadmill, going faster and faster and not making progress.

  • What if we could make more work a series of doable projects where people could create a finished project in less than three months or less?
  • What if we restored a “making things” mentality to work, rather than a “meeting about things”?
  • What if more people were makers vs. implementers?
  • What if more people had a sense of joyful accomplishment at work?

Let’s try.  I think it might be easier than sewing.

 

 

Without an irritant there can be no pearl

Thanks to Michael H. Samuelson, author and founding CEO of The Health & Wellness Institute, for allowing us to share his 5th observation from his eBook, ” Wellness in the Workplace 2.0: 10 Key Observations from 35 Years in the Field.” His current title is one we love, “Chief Irritant.”

Let’s be honest. It’s much easier—and certainly safer—to sit back, complain, and wait for others to take action than it is to do something. That is, of course, unless you have passion, commitment, laser determination and God on your side.

Well, actually, skip that last one. She’ is on everyone’s side. At least that’s the pitch that supports the military-industrial complex (we should have listened to Ike) and looks nice on all of the banners.

Let’s just stick with passion, commitment and laser determination. When these three driving forces are present you can’t sit still, you can’t wait for someone else, and you can’t shut up. You stir and spit, shout and stomp your feet. You seize the torch that has been passed to you and your generation. You are Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. You take the crown out of the Pope’s hands and you crown yourself. Time is fleeting, daylight is burning, there are causes to advance and worlds to conquer!
“Emperor” too much? Okay. How about CI? Chief Irritant. You are the sand that produces the nacre that builds the pearl. So, let someone else sit back, complain, and wait for others to take action…just below the surface there are pearls in-waiting and you are the irritant that makes it all happen.

Let the spitting begin! Caution:

Sophocles was right, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.” As I have stated before, there are times when the boon, the prize, the newly found wisdom you bring to “fix things” is rejected. No matter the treasure, it is still disruptive in a world that knows not, or little, of its existence or value. What you may view as “The Answer” may well be viewed by others — particularly those in control — as the newest problem (read: YOU) to be dealt with, swiftly.

It’s no fun being spat upon. Trust me, on this one. I’ve been there. I’ve stimulated copious amount of spray, toweled off, and lived to irritate again. Being a CI is not always an easy ride but I like to modestly think—modestly—that along with picking up a few dents in my armor, I’ve also triggered the formation of a few pearls here and there…

10 Ways to Succeed as a Chief Irritant…Without Really Trying

1.    Fasten Your Armor (you’re going to need it)

2.    Pursue Your Need for Popularity Elsewhere

3.    If You’re Not the Boss, Find a Champion in the “C” Suite

4.    Practice “No-Oblique-Speak”

5.    Compromise on Tactics…Not Ethics or Integrity

6.    Irritate Without Judgment or Arrogance

7.    Beware the Ides of March (et tu ______ )

8.    Have a “No Jerks Allowed” Rule…Embrace the Spirituality of Imperfection

9.    If you think everyone around you is a jerk…Look in the Mirror

10. Repeat after me, “Spit is Good”

5 questions about rebel thinkers

Eric Pennington recently interviewed me for his Epic Living blog. Here’s the conversation. Click here to see the original.

Why do rebel thinkers so often feel miserable inside of their organizations?

Three overwhelming reasons. Restlessness, loneliness, and self-doubt.

We’re a restless bunch, always seeing new ways to do things better, easier, faster, better. Yes, I say better twice because we’re wired to keep raising the bar on excellence. Needless to say our ideas and relentless energy often exhaust or threaten our colleagues and bosses. So people often keep us at arm’s length, even those who appreciate the value we bring. This can feel lonely and lead to self-doubt, “Why aren’t they moving now on  this idea? Am I off base? Am I not communicating the value well enough? Is it me or is it the idea? Why can’t I just slow down and take it more slowly like everyone else? Do I belong in this organization?”

What value do most rebel thinkers bring to the table?

 Rebels have the courage to name the elephants in the room, see new ways to solve problems, bring outside ideas into the organization, and be the first to try new approaches.  My research has found that rebels call out problems others are afraid to (92%) and challenge assumptions and sacred cow practices (92%), both of which are essential to real innovation, but often shunned in organizations.

The other overlooked value rebels bring is devotion to duty. Rebels care more about their organizations than most people. That’s why we ask the difficult questions that most people feel more comfortable avoiding, and risk being snubbed for suggesting unpopular ideas.  We want our organizations to be the very best and we believe that our colleagues and we have what it takes to achieve more than our competitors.

(see the following chart for more)

GoodvsBadRebels
Why are many managers afraid/intimidated by rebel thinkers?

We tend to trigger three threats that are wired into every person’s pre-frontal cortex, including those of our bosses.  Our ideas often threaten managers’ sense of status, certainty and autonomy.

An overwhelming number of managers believe that they are supposed to create the strategy and have the answers — and employees are meant to execute on those ideas. Not question them. I’m the boss. I’ve got the senior vice president title. Hence, I know more and you should respect me for it.  It sounds silly in this day and age of empowerment and collaboration, but protecting our status can lead all of us to act in illogical ways.

We humans are also wired to crave certainty. So when we rebels present innovative ideas that have no best practice precedents or haven’t been Six Sigma’d we trigger fears about certainty. Managers worry, “How will we know this will work? What if we make a mistake?” You get the picture.

The last threat is autonomy. Our managers like doing things their way. To suggest something different is to violate their sense of control and autonomy over what they know and like.

What are the consequences of not engaging with the rebel thinker?

Missed opportunities, a complacent corporate culture, and a talent deficit.

Rebel thinkers see risks and opportunities earlier than most people. This is a tremendously valuable competence in age of such rapid change and smaller windows to seize and capitalize on opportunities. One way to look at rebels is as your “intrapreneurs” bringing entrepreneurial thinking, speed, and competitive instincts inside the organization. They spot ideas and see ways to make them real.

The other consequences are that shutting out rebel thinking sends a signal to the organization that creativity, diversity of thinking and change are not welcome. When that happens, your best talent usually leaves, and the culture becomes complacent. Not rocking the boat. Accepting good enough as good enough.  In today’s hyper competitive world, few organizations can survive with a “good enough” approach.

What is most surprising about corporate rebels?

Rebels are not motivated by formal recognition or financial incentives, nor are they “troublemakers.” They’re self-motivated to want to make a difference to their organization and to solve things that are not working as well as they could. My research found that just 27% want formal recognition. What they do want is to be asked their opinions more often and be invited to work on teams to solve specific issues. They don’t want to just talk about ideas, opportunities and problems, the want to make things happen.

The second surprising thing is how many closeted rebel thinkers there are in companies. People are yearning to do more – and they know more about what to do than most executive teams realize.

Bathroom confessions, leadership truths

 

“Lois, I need to tell you something,” she whispered nervously as I walked into the ladies room. Then she quickly searched the stalls to make no one from her management team was there.

“I know why the workshop isn’t working,” she said with conviction.

Now I was on high alert, having walked into the bathroom frustrated and discouraged about the leadership workshop I was leading. The topic was on how to lead meetings so  that healthy conversations and differing points of views could be aired to arrive at better decisions. But the energy in the workshop was low and the engagement almost non-existent. Was it the material? Was I having an off day? Do these people not have meetings? Could I turn this around after the break or should I just end it  and put all of us out of our misery?

“It’s trust,” she whispered. “I’m fairly new here and can see the problem. But no one sees it because they confuse friendliness with trust. I have to go. Please, never, ever tell anyone I told you this.”

Yowza. Having worked with this client before I never would have thought that trust was an issue.

Organizational silence = shutting off ideas

After the break I started the session with “organizational silence” research from NYU Professor Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison. (Here’s a great article by Professor Morrison; the chart in this post is from her as well.)

“Perhaps what’s really at play here is nothing about how to lead meetings. It’s about your organization. Meetings simply mirror the culture. In most organizations silence is pervasive because leaders are afraid of negative feedback and harbor beliefs that they know more than the rank and file, and that employees can’t be totally trusted.

“Moreover,” I continued, “We leaders are often trying to protect our status and sense of certainty. People speaking up shake up our status and we often inadvertently shut them down. If not in words, then in our body language.”

Radio silence.

Then one brave young man raised his hand. “Yes, it feels kind of unsafe to say anything at our  meetings. I don’t get the sense that people really want to hear my point of view.”

Then people started talking.  After two and a half hours we were having the real conversation.

How often do we all silence others because of our fears and beliefs? What harm does that do to our companies?

The hidden causes of maintaining silence

“A troubling aspect of the dynamics that create and maintain silence is that they are hidden from view and often unrecognized” says Professor Morrison.  “Management may see that employees are not engaged, but may assume that it is because they are self-interested or not motivated.”

I’m still reflecting on the workshop to understand the real issues.  I have come to one important realization: these executives may have taken away nothing about leading meetings that matter, and it doesn’t matter. What they did come away with is a recognition of that organizational silence exists in their company and it’s not a good thing.

How to break the silence? Professor Morrison offers these suggestions:

  • Don’t shoot the messenger: In terms of prevention, managers must work hard to counteract the natural human tendency to avoid negative feedback. They must not only seek out honest feedback, on a regular basis, they must also be careful to not “shoot the messenger” when they receive bad news.
  • Create safe climate: Managers must also work hard to build an open and trusting climate within their organizations, one in which employees know that their input is valued and that it is safe to speak up.
  • Really want to hear it: If employees sense that those above them do not want to hear about potential problems and issues of concern, they will not talk about them. Managers must recognize this dynamic and convince employees that they do want input.
  • Replace top managers: One way to create such a change (of open communication) is to bring in new top managers. This will not only enable the organization to break from its past, but will signal to employees that there is a commitment to changing the status quo.

There is no easy way to create safe corporate cultures and inviting and accepting differing points of view. I believe it’s a practice. Like practicing your golf swing, tennis serves, meditation, drawing and patience.

We’re never done. We can only be aware that we need to be aware.

Beliefs of extraordinary bosses

What are the management secrets of successful CEOs? Geoffrey James interviewed the best of the best and found they share eight core beliefs. The full article is over at Inc Magazine. Here are the eight beliefs:

  1. Business is an ecosystem, not a battlefield.
  2. A company is a community,  not a machine.
  3. Management is a service, not a control.
  4. My employees are my peers, not my children.
  5. Motivation comes from vision, not fear.
  6. Change equals growth, not pain.
  7. Technology offers empowerment, not automation.
  8. Work should be fun, not mere toil.

I like all these points, but #3, 4, 5 are my personal favorites. Yours?

Mobilizing support by being disruptive

Last week I flipped through the University of New Hampshire alumni magazine when it came in the mail, scanning my class notes to see who died, re-married, got an interesting new job. Another page caught my eye. “Being Disruptive — in a Good Way”  by UNH president Mark Huddleston.

Mark explained that he had heard Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, speak at “The Future of Public Universities” conference — and that speech “wowed” him, and inspired him to begin creating a  disruptive new educational model for UNH. A model that would help more students learn — for less.

What if we allowed online instruction to provide, where appropriate, the foundational knowledge, and directed students’ time on campus toward learning activities that maximize the benefits of these mentor relationships?

As online instruction improves, might we not devote more class time to teaching methods that take real advantage of students’ time together, such as team projects, discussions and critiques?

The article went on to talk about UNH’s new eUNH initiative to identify ways to use online learning to improve teaching and help students progress faster.

Aside from being intrigued with disruptive models, here’s what I liked about Mark’s article. It mobilized me to want to write a check to support the university.

Few of us want to work for — or financially support —  organizations that are plodding along, doing the same things well. We want to be inspired by leaders and organizations that create new ways to support visions we care about.  And who have the courage, leadership skills and discipline to move forward despite often formidable opposition.

(Sadly, last April the New Hampshire chapter of the union American Association of University Professors gave a 129 to 72 “no confidence” vote in his leadership.  The change involved in disruptive innovation inevitably threatens some who would like things to continue as they have been.)

  • If you want to mobilize supporters, do more than more of the same.
  • When a leader has the courage to create disruptive models, step up and support him or her. It’s lonely being a game changer.

Now to write that check…

Safety first

One factor distinguishes corporate cultures where creativity, trust, progress and and expedient problem solving abound.  It’s safe to think differently, voice ideas that challenge the status quo, bring up the elephants hanging around the conference rooms.

If the environment doesn’t feel safe to employees, no amount of team-building exercises, awards for creativity, financial incentives for “employee suggestions,” or expensive organizational culture and/or innovation consultants will make a difference.

None.

As humans our brains are wired to perceive threats faster than our logical minds work. When we perceive these threats we retreat, just as we would run if someone were physically threatening us.  (For more on this topic, check out David Rock’s excellent book “Your Brain At Work.“)

People are afraid to speak up at work. They’re afraid they’ll sound dumb, make someone upset, get in trouble with their boss, maybe even get fired.  This fear not only stymies good ideas it can cause tragedy.

The story of  NASA’s Challenger space shuttle is legendary.  People were afraid to speak the truth. And those brave engineers who did were eventually over-ruled by senior executives whose emotions were tied up around fears about “looking bad.”  There were no ill intentions on anyone’s part. But clearly people didn’t feel safe dissenting forcefully enough to stop the shuttle, and the leaders were listening to logic and not hearing in-between the lines. They didn’t sense the engineers’ fears and concerns.  Listening to someone’s words but not the feelings expressed in those words  is half-listening.

11 ways to create safe organizational cultures

The challenge — dare I say leadership 101 requirement — is for leaders is  to create the conditions for safety, model that behavior, and require all leaders to do so as well.  Easier said than done.  We’ll dive into this in more detail in future posts, but here are 11  pragmatic ways to create safety in everyday work meetings and conversations.

  • Open meetings differently:  To encourage everyone to feel comfortable participating, open a meeting by going around and asking each person to comment briefly about the topic. I often ask people to share their insights and observations in a sentence or two.  No one comments on what the person has said, just respectfully listens as you go around the room (or on a conference call.) Two things happen. Everyone’s perspectives have already begun to be shared, even the shy types among us. By speaking and being listened to people are more likely to contribute again. It feels a bit safer already.
  • Focus on what you’re good at vs. problem fixation: when you convene a meeting or a brainstorm session to talk about problems, everyone comes to the table with a threatened mind-set. After all, if it’s a problem, someone’s responsible for it. In addition, the negative stimulates are threat brain triggers and shuts down our creative thinking. A valuable practice to learn is Appreciative Inquiry, which through a different path of questioning builds on a team or organization’s strengths.  To learn more about AI, check out the Appreciative Inquiry Commons, hosted by the Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. The book “Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Approach to Change” provides a great snapshot of the practice and its value.
  • Data vs. judging: before rushing to judge what a person is saying, stop. Consider the idea or opinion as a piece of data to be examined. Even if it makes your bile rise, there’s something to be understood in why the view is making you angry. Then apply a little empathy. What’s it like to be that person? Why is this important to him or her.  You’ll glean valuable insights by taking this approach. And you’re showing people that they can express ideas without someone dismissing them or biting their heads off. (Know, too  that we can send this “anger” message in our body language even if we don’t verbalize disagreement.)
  • Listen in between the lines for what’s being felt:  How people talk about something conveys more information than the words themselves.  As leaders, listen for the emotion beneath the words. Acknowledge those as real and important pieces of information. Acknowledge that anger, frustration, and other types of emotion are real and part of our work. “You must be getting pretty tired and frustrated from trying to get people to buy into this. What kind of help do you need?”
  • Don’t let titles interfere: people are no smarter or less smart because of their title. Focus on the purpose to be achieved and listen and value everyone’s ideas.  Then focus on the idea —  before worrying whether Mr. Big Title will like it or not.  Also  invite more diverse people and thinking into meetings. Too often meetings are convened for people with the same titles. This is for directors. This is for senior vice presidents. This is for Level 4 professionals. The same groups can get stuck in a rut. Mix it up.
  • Suspend certainty:  This is the cousin of judging vs. data.  If you make it a practice to challenge thinking and explore possibilities, it gets safe for people to think more expansively and creatively. If you don’t have to be “right,” you free up that pre-frontal cortex to make new connections and see previously unseen patterns. This is how insights and “aha’s” happen.  Certainty confines, asking us not to create art but to paint by numbers.
  • Don’t worry about getting through the agenda: Getting through the agenda doesn’t mean the meeting succeeded.  The question for all meetings is “what do we want to accomplish?”  Digressing from the agenda is often the best way to get there. I was recently leading a meeting and after the opening where everyone shared their “insights and observations” from the previous meeting, we had landed on what we needed to do next. The meeting had been scheduled for two hours. We were done in 45 minutes. The only agenda item we covered was “introductions.” Yet real progress was made. Everyone felt good.
  • What hasn’t been said that should? This is a great question to ask at the end of a meeting. Sometimes people are sitting quietly stewing, or feeling afraid of raising a point. By inviting people to speak up, you often get to the real conversations that need to be had.
  • Look at dissent as learning: When people disagree they are not being difficult. They are raising a different view.  Too often our reaction is to shut them down, get back to the nice flow of agreement and gentle progress.  Insights come from dissent. It’s a powerful way of learning. Help make it safe for people to disagree by sharing a few agreements such as, “it’s OK to challenge ideas, policies and opinions but it’s not OK to attack people.”
  • Ask good questions. Good questions guide good conversations.  Good, provocative questions and respectful listening not only create meaningful conversations, they make it safe for more people to participate in those conversations.  A helpful resource is this  booklet “The Art of Powerful Questions,” by the brilliant folks who started The World Cafe.
  • Laugh more. Nothing is more welcoming and indicative of a safe, friendly environment than hearing people  laugh.

 

3 simple ways to create a more optimistic, successful corporate culture

I dare you to watch this TED Talk by psychologist Shawn Achor and not see ways to change your corporate culture to be much more positive, open to ideas, optimistic and successful.

In it Shawn shares five simple ways that his team has successfully helped trained people in companies to rewire their brains to be more optimistic and successful: gratitudes, journaling, exercise, meditation, and random acts of kindness. All are fairly easy to do and cost little.

The three I find most useful:

  1. Three gratitudes: write down three new things you are grateful for every day for 21 days.
  2. Journaling: write about one positive experience that’s happened in past 24 hours.
  3. Random acts of kindness: write one positive email a day thanking or praising someone in your social and/or professional network.

Enjoy. On top of being so smart, Shawn is a great presenter.

GE Innovation Barometer: put on the cape

More creative people is the largest factor in spurring innovation, according to this insightful GE Innovation Barometer 2012 infographic. Play with the chart and see what most spurs innovation in different global regions and countries. Yup. Creative people is almost twice as more important than any other dimension.

Where do you find more creative people to help your company grow?  You most likely have the people, but you probably need to adjust your corporate culture and processes to allow them to be much more creative.  Some ideas to consider. None require big budgets, just slightly different ways to work.

  • Ask questions that light people’s ideas. Ask your people one provocative question at the end of the week. Could be by email. At a kiosk outside the cafeteria or in the lobby. People love good questions and they want to be heard. As a leader you’ll learn much about the organization and your people — how to be a good servant leader, how to help them do more of what’s working, how to create a feeling of pride and possibility. Good questions trigger creativity.  To help spur creative thinking, do the heavy lifting of creating good questions that help people start thinking differently. Some ideas:
  • What went really well this week?
  • What surprised you this week?
  • What are you most proud of this week?
  • Who deserves an “A” on our team this week?
  • If this week were a song, what would it be?
  • What else could we have done?
  • What helped you?
  • What did you learn?

 

  • Put on the Cape (or grab a wand):  It takes bravery to bring up topics no one else is yet talking about. It’s scary to suggest new ideas. So as a leader, make it safe for people to suggest new ideas and to do things differently. Maybe occasionally wear a red superhero cape to show that you really value courage and fearlessness. Once as president of a company I walked into the Friday staff meeting not in my Giorgio Armani suit, but dressed up as a fairy queen, with crown and magic wand.  Many years later I still have the wand. That one morning where I acted so out of character broke the ice during a challenging time. People loosened up, laughed, trusted and started to believe anything might be possible. Oh, and they all still talk about that day and what it meant.
  • Put two chairs in your lobby. Four years ago I heard about a Midwest retailer that put two chairs in its lobby with a sign for “topic of the day.” What the ???? But then people sat down, talked and talked about ideas that matter.  Read here for more.  I love social media and Skype but sometimes there’s nothing like a friendly in-person conversation.
  • No PowerPoint in meetings. Ever. Send those numbing slide ahead of time to be read. But when people get together, use that precious time to have conversations that invite all present to share ideas, connect as people in thinking and caring ways, and together talk about how you can do more of what your company does so well. (Note: talking about positive — doing more of what’s great, also creates a better environment for creativity than “problem solving.”)

There’s much more to share. But for now know that you have incredible potential in your organization.  I see untapped magic and talent all the time.  People are waiting to be invited to do more in more new ways. As leaders, help your repressed creative souls break free.  It’s the only way to innovate all the time, in small ways and big.

What one thing could you do next week to make your organization a more welcoming creative place?

 

 

Better techniques for throwing employees under the bus

 

Managers are so sloppy when it comes to throwing employees under the bus.

Usually they are so damn angry with the employee that they botch their technique.

They are irrationally rough, their aim is imprecise and messy, and they end up running over the body with such force that it causes more damage to the employee than they intended. But it does seem a relief to have gotten rid of that problem.

Few think about an important follow-through skill: contact with the other employees still on the bus. Just as a baseball pitcher throws a pitch and then needs to be prepared to field the hit, you can’t just throw someone under the bus. You need to be ready for what comes next.

Alas, most get sloppy here. Despite carefully throwing someone under the bus at discrete places or times, or telling employees that the person asked to get off the bus or jumped out of the bus, annoying glitches happen.

Employees on the bus are shaken up when the bus unexpectedly hits and runs over something strange, like their colleague. They get scared and distracted from work; many update their resumes.

Then they see their ex-colleague outside of work, bruised, angry and victimized, stumbling around in disbelief. The water cooler gossip goes wild, people wonder aloud why bosses throw people under the bus, and they secretly fear it could happen to them.

What a mess. Not even HR does a good job cleaning it up. For being so precise with financial spreadsheets and quality standards, why can’t managers be better at throwing employees under the bus?

 

Why managers throw employees under the bus

First, let’s review reasons why they throw employees under the bus:

1. They are irate that the employees questioned their decisions in a public forum. How dare they! Being humiliated by that subordinate? I’m in charge, goddammit.

2. The employee has been meeting with people in the company to stir up ideas and support around an area that is not one of your five key strategic imperatives. Who gave them permission to do that? Why do they think they are entitled to be creating new strategies outside the standard  chain of command? Bet their parents coddled them. Probably were on those  sports teams where every kid gets a trophy.

3.  Fairly new to the company, the employee just doesn’t get how things work. They seem to miss all the obvious social signals and are getting on people’s nerves. Can’t they see that they’re suppose to informally socialize new ideas before bringing them up in monthly staff meetings?  What’s with the talk, talk, talk with the junior people? And strolling into the office at 9:30? Geez. Do I have to explain how everything works around here?

4. They are upsetting your boss and to save face with the big cheese, you need to act decisively and swiftly to eliminate the problem and calm your boss down. Like having an odd-looking mole removed from your face before it develops into full-blown skin cancer. I’m not going to jeopardize my career over someone making waves. She did bring some fresh thinking and energy we could sorely use around here, but after finally making it to senior vice president I’m not going to jeopardize my career.

Those in category #4 are the sloppiest at throwing people under the bus, yet seem to do it more often, too.  When insecurities twist a person in knots, they get reckless and irrational. Despite throwing more people under the bus than most managers, they really make a mess of it. Insecurity is a killer.

 

Improving your skills at throwing someone under the bus

So how to improve your skills in throwing someone under the bus?

Well, before even getting to those skills I’d suggest that first you might want to consider a refresher course in bus driving.

If you get better at focusing on your destination and getting the right people on your bus, you might not have to throw many off the bus.  The focus will also help avoid distractions when employees on the bus get rowdy or restless, or someone starts hogging everyone’s attention even when you’ve told him to stay in his seat.

The refresher course will remind you to pay attention when employees on the bus yell at you from the back of the bus. They probably aren’t criticizing your driving.  It may be that they see a giant pothole ahead, or know a great short cut, or even want to drive for a while so you can get some rest for what you all know is a challenging journey.

And if your boss calls demanding an explanation about why you’re taking a different route than planned, drivers ed will teach you to stay calm and explain to you boss that several employees know this territory well and saw a better way to get to the destination. Sure he may fume and make threats. But your employees on the bus are with you, ready to fix the flats, pump gas in the rain, figure out ways around detours.

Who is going to go the extra mile for you? Them, or the boss?

Drive safely.

 

NOTE: Please see part two of this post: what to do if you have been thrown under the bus at work.  It has some pragmatic ideas on how to recover.

Why leaders subconsciously reject change

When our brain senses that our status is being threatened, our thinking shuts down.  We avoid the person or situation making us feel so uncomfortable, and we often stay away from any activity or idea about which we’re not confident. Worse, we label the other person as “wrong” so we can be “right.”

We don’t necessarily do this consciously. It’s just our brains’ natural response when our status is under attack, say the neuroscientists.

So when  corporate rebels and mavericks challenge an organization’s status quo and executive decisions, leaders’ brains go on high-alert. Their decisions, their plans, their position feel threatened and under attack. The neuroscience research says this threat to status activates the same brain regions as physical pain.

The leaders’ knee-jerk reaction is often to label the people with the fresh new ideas as troublemakers. Or not having enough experience to really know what they’re talking about. And jeez, that kid isn’t even a manager, what could she  know? (See how put downs can make you feel better and restore your status?)

Guess what this reaction does to people with the fresh ideas that you need to lead? They run for the hills. Maybe they try to approach you or another executive again, but you’re likely not to welcome what they have to say.  Through words, tone or body language you broadcast the message throughout your organization: your ideas are NOT WELCOME.

And then you wonder why the culture isn’t more innovative and creative. Why too few people speak up with substantive comments at meetings.  Why it seems like you’re the only one with the answers.

Time to get your brain in line and recognize your “threat” triggers so that you can control them —  instead of them controlling you.

Who needs to change their ways: leaders or rebels?

Some executives have told me that “rebels and change agents need to learn how business works. You can’t just disrupt things and expect everyone to change.”

But should the corporate rebels be the ones to have to adapt their style? Or should leaders find ways to better understand how to control their threat triggers so that they can create a safe, welcoming climate for new ideas?

To me, this is the responsibility of the leader. All people can benefit from understanding and managing what trips them up. But with the prestige and financial compensation of being a leader comes the responsibility for first and foremost managing oneself. So your head is ready to be in the game of leading.

Humility and reappraising

This is why so many great leaders are humble. Humility reduces the status threat. It puts people at ease talking with you. It clears the leader’s mind of emotion so that he or she can really understand what people are saying.

Another way to manage the brain is to reappraise situations that start to trigger your emotions. What’s  the other person’s perspective? What does he want me to understand? What does she want me to do and why?  Look at what’s being said as data and nothing more.

Economic and competitive threats are relentless, causing their own set of threats and associated behavioral responses. But to succeed companies need new ideas and the best ideas are likely to come from the rebels and mavericks inside your own organization.

As a leader, help those people who can most help you succeed. Even if they make you uncomfortable. Maybe especially because they make you uncomfortable.

Help yourself by seeing challenges to the status quo as possibilities not attacks on your position.

Effective corporate rebels turn to one another

People who change the world in small and big ways, rebel FOR change they believe will make a difference.  They are also keen observers and want to work with others to make the possible real. Over the holidays I had the luxurious pleasure of re-reading author and leadership activist Margaret Wheatley’s book Turning To One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future.

Here’s an excerpt that captures the behaviors of those with a desire to lead.

Turning to one another

Ask “what’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?”  Keep asking. Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

  • Talk to people you know.
  • Talk to people you don’t know.
  • Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear.

  • Expect to be surprised.
  • Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.

  • Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
  • Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.  Real listening always brings people closer together.

Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.

Rely on human goodness. Stay together.

Margaret Wheatley