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Small talk and the decline of practically everything

There is a lot of chatter out there.

On any given day, millions of ideas are shared via the internet, via Twitter, LinkedIn, articles, this blog, etc. Lots of one liners, jokes, snarky comments; but also inspirational quotes, videos of baby goat yoga, lists of “life hacks” (whatever the hell those really are), etc. In fact, every minute on the internet sees, among other things, a minimum of 2.4 MILLION Google searches, 347,222 tweets on Twitter, and 972,222 Tinder swipes (may you all find love).

This is the age of Big Data [insert dramatic music here].

And yet, most of what is out there is little more than a tasting menu of ideas. It’s a one-way sharing of thoughts, feelings, observations, and/or ego. We dip our toe into the pool of discourse, but we don’t stay too long lest we get dragged into a debate, get attacked by trolls, or – lord forbid – have to participate in an honest-to-god CONVERSATION.

What happened to our ability to sit down and actually talk to people?

In high school and college, people were all about having deep, philosophical conversations about life, death, and everything in between. Yeah, they got pretty annoying sometimes, but it was good practice in identifying where you stood in the world. You were able to frame your argument, consider counterpoints, and share your own counterarguments. It was a great way to apply debate skills and decide what you may or may not believe in.

Granted…I did not have Twitter or Facebook when I was in college. We barely had the internet. #Iamnotold #dammit

Today, communication is built to be quick, witty, and shallow. I actually resisted Twitter for a LONG time because I do not believe 140 characters is enough room to communicate meaningfully. I now accept it for what it is, but still throw it the side-eye now and then because I think it’s part of the problem.

People don’t really talk anymore.

I am as guilty of this as anyone. As an affirmed introvert, I LOVE the fact that I can do so much “communicating” online, in writing, without actually have to see someone face to face. I hate talking on the phone voluntarily. I avoid networking events like the plague. Give me a chance to interact virtually and I will take it every single time. And it probably makes me less effective as a coworker/boss/friend/human being.

It’s easy to just stop typing when you’re not happy with the way a conversation is going. You can just block someone if they get a little too obnoxious. Or you just throw a hashtag out there (#micdrop) and act like you won.

Real world conversations take vulnerability. They take concentration. They take commitment.

I’m going to try to do better at this. I’m going to try and have better conversations with the people I actually see in real life.

This doesn’t mean I won’t be quick, witty, and shallow on the internet. Are you kidding?! That’s way too much fun. I’m just going to…try harder. I hope you do, too.

What’s the worst that could happen?

 
 

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Fight the good fight

Let’s face it – no matter what our aspirations, most of us leaders will never ascend beyond middle management. That’s because unless we are a CEO of a company without a board (or we are ALSO the board chair), we all answer to somebody.

This perpetual state of “rock, meet hard place” means that leaders are constantly being asked to implement ideas, policies, projects, and other shenanigans they absolutely do not agree with. And even more, they know their employees will not agree with them, either.

The challenge is always knowing when to fight and when to support. In general, the rule of thumb has always been “fight up, complain across, support down.” Which…mostly works. It’s important that leaders know how to pick their battles and when to gain and spend political capital.

On the other hand…

There are times when your team really needs to see that you’re fighting for them. They need to believe you, their leader, has their back when they aren’t around to see it. They need to see that you are human, that you recognize when a policy from the higher ups seems contrary to the organization’s stated values, and that you are willing to stick your neck out for something that’s important.

Leaders, you won’t win on these. Most of the time the decision has already been made and you’re basically just fighting a whirlwind. You’ll be told you have your marching orders and that it’s happening with or without you, so it might has well be with you.

How you decide to react to that statement is up to you.

What I can tell you is that your team notices when you fight for them and with them. They know most of these issues are a losing battle. They know you’re putting your neck on the line. And because of that, they will be in that battle with you.

That means you have to be smart. That means you fight when it matters, not when you’re feeling petty. That means you explain why you’re fighting – so make sure the reason is worthy.

Being a leader means finding a balance in that gray area of supporting the organization’s mission and purpose and railing against anything that seems to be against the mission and purpose. Being a leader means knowing you will fight many times, and you will lose.

But being a leader also means showing your employees that with power comes responsibility, and being a manager sometimes means pushing back on authority now and then when the issue is important. It shows your employee you support them…and you expect them to also push back when the issue is important. Because informed dissent breeds innovation, and permission to dissent respectfully builds trust.

Yes, leaders. You will lose the occasional battle. But you just might win the war.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2017 in General Rant about Leading

 

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“I love me” – a lesson for leaders

At a recent work function, an employee was recognized for her tenure with the organization.

She was introduced, presented with her plaque, and applauded for her service. And then she gave a small speech.

The speech was very much her personality – heartfelt, spontaneous, funny, endearing. But one part stood out over all others.

She began the section by thanking those who helped her in her career. She acknowledged all the support and mentoring she received from those around her. She then talked about all she was able to accomplish, comparing herself to a butterfly. And then she paused, realized how much she was going on and on about herself, giggled, and said, “I love me.”

The crowd laughed. They loved it. It was so “her.”

She laughed along a little bit, then got serious and said, “It took me a long time to be able to say that.”


Imagine being brave enough to stand in front of a room of your peers – and your leadership team – and say those words.

How would your organization react? I mean, really….what would the people in the room say if this happened at your organization?

Would they be supportive? Would they applaud? Or would they politely clap while giving each other knowing glances that this is clearly a “career limiting move”?

For all our humanity in the workplace, we actually kind of suck at dealing with heartfelt emotion. When someone expresses gratitude earnestly in public, it makes us uncomfortable. Why is that? Have we really decided that people AREN’T people that we should pretend we have no emotions? I hate drama as much as the next person, but I also recognize that people bring different parts of their lives to work. Some folks look forward to work as a place to leave the chaos of their life behind. Some people enjoy work for the relationships they’ve developed. Some people overshare (we didn’t need to see videos of your knee surgery, but thanks!). Some people never share at all (it seems like there’s that one person who no one really knows, and it turns out they have something like 12 kids and were in a movie once).

The point is, we as leaders have done a poor job setting a good example about what is an is not okay in the workplace in terms of emotions. Someone probably cried in a VPs office once and it freaked him/her out, and the next thing you know, all the “how to succeed in business” articles started defining professionalism as “no emotion.” That message of “stoicism = strength = success” has been perpetuated for years.

But then came Emotional Intelligence and suddenly we’re all supposed to care about our feelings, and worse than that…THE FEELINGS OF OTHERS. Good lord. We are not equipped for that – especially leaders. We’ve worked hard to HIDE emotions, and promote those who do the same. So what happened? Some leaders went WAY too far the other way, and were all about sharing and caring and wearing their emotions on their sleeves. Which, frankly, makes a LOT of people uncomfortable. And again, emotion became something to make fun of.

We need to find balance, people. We need to find a way for people to BE people without BEING all over the other people who don’t like to BE in public. Leaders have a chance to connect with their people, and help their people connect with other people – in a completely appropriate and professionally supportive way. No, we don’t have to be in each others’ weddings – but recognize some people might. We don’t have to go out to happy hour with our coworkers – but there are a lot of people who do. The best way to promote balance is to watch and learn from people who are successful, but are also unafraid to show emotion. They cry, they vent, they laugh uncontrollably at cat videos. But they still get shit done and they still command respect from those around them.

Back to our story….


After the employee being honored finished her speech, she received a standing ovation. And it reinforced everything that’s good about being yourself at work. About acknowledging the mistakes you made during your career. About being grateful to those who helped you along the way. About the pain of growing up. And about the satisfaction of kicking butt at your job for a long time.

This is a person who had leaders who believed in her. Who pushed her when it looked like she needed pushing. Who encouraged her when she needed encouraging. Who supported her humor, her intelligence, her sass, and her abilities. In short, this is a person who had leaders who allowed her to discover who she was – someone who could finally say, “I love me.”

Leaders – if you can have ONE employee be able to say that, then you have done your job. You have helped someone realize their potential. You enabled instead of dictated. You got the hell out of the way and watched someone flourish because of what was inside them.

Here endeth the lesson.

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2017 in Authenticity, Coaching, Self-Awareness

 

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Help is not a four-letter word

The more I see articles about how busy we all are or stressed we are or upset we are, and how it’s become some sort of weird badge of honor, the more I’m convinced Americans (because I live and work here) have a core problem.

We don’t know how to ask for help.

We like to think we are a resilient bunch, forged by the wilderness, every person for him/herself. We don’t need the support of others – we’re independent, dammit! After all, we left Europe because we wanted to do things OUR way. We fought the British because they wouldn’t recognize our rights to representation, so screw them! We’ll declare ourselves sovereign.Then we fought, scratched and hornswaggled (that’s a fancy way of saying tricked or lied) our way to the West Coast. There’s that “can do” attitude!

You hear it whenever people proclaim with pride they are “self-made.” You sense it when people keep it quiet that they’ve relied on public assistance or the kindness of strangers. And you see it when confused kids don’t raise their hands in school to ask a question.

It’s very bizarre to me, because while we ARE a nation of independent go-getters with a can-do attitude who like to pretend they can do everything themselves; we are also a nation of incredibly community-minded folks who band together to help those in need. Don’t believe me? Check out GoFundMe or CaringBridge and marvel at the capacity of humans to want to help others. But that makes us feel better because we’re OFFERING help, not really ASKING for it. I mean, look at how many of those sites are set up by someone other than the person who needs the help.

When you look around our society right now, it’s clear there are those who need help. It might be because of the floods in Baton Rouge (just because it stopped raining doesn’t mean their need is gone); maybe recent events have shaken them and they don’t know how to talk about it; maybe their water heater went out and they just can’t afford a replacement; maybe they deal with violence in their own home; maybe they suffer from depressionhelp

Take a look at the people you work next to every day. Do you know what they are dealing with? Would you know how to help them if they asked? Would they even ask? Now take a look at yourself. Chances are, you’re dealing with something. It could be as serious a cancer scare. Or it could be as simple as feeling overwhelmed by projects. Would YOU ask a coworker for help?

There are so many reasons we refuse to ask – ego, fear of losing credibility at work, cultural concerns about appearing weak, worried about putting others in an uncomfortable situation, honest belief that we can “handle it.” While these all feel valid in the moment, the reality is that none of them will kill you. It might make you and others feel awkward for a couple minutes, but that will pass.

If you work with people you think need to ask for help but don’t seem to be willing to do it, try one of the following techniques:

  • Ask for help first: I know, right?! So flipping obvious. And yet we don’t do it. This is especially powerful for leaders because it makes you vulnerable and proves to the team that asking for help is TOTALLY OKAY. In fact, it’s encouraged.
  • Shut up and listen: Your coworkers might be asking for help without saying the actual words. Maybe their complaints about being tired or stressed have increased. Maybe they’ve dropped some hints about deadlines. Pay attention to changes in how they talk and act.
  • Don’t make it about you: We LOVE to share stories about our own problems. We do it for (mostly) altruistic reasons; we’re trying to show “we’ve been there.” Guess what – they don’t care. Unless they point blank ask you if you’ve been in the same situation, don’t start talking about how tough it was when you had a hangnail, so you TOTALLY get why open heart surgery would be scary.
  • Specifically offer to help: Some people just aren’t going to ask for help. They think it’s somehow rude. Offer to help a very specific step in the process. “I can print out those reports and deliver them to the project team.” “I’ll go to this meeting and that will give you time to catch up on emails.” “How about I bring your family some dinner this Thursday so you can run to the hospital and see your grandfather?” This keeps the person from getting overwhelmed and keeps them from feeling like they’re putting you out because YOU offered.
  • Respect their wishes: Demonstrate your willingness to help through action, not words. If someone approaches you, give them your attention. If someone looks upset, just stay by them. If they say they want to be alone or don’t want to talk about it, tell them it’s okay…but you’re just down the hall if they need you. Everyone processes things differently – give them room to do that. But…
  • Don’t believe them when they say “I’m fine,” and they obviously aren’t: People in the midst of crisis may be in denial. If you see someone who is really struggling (disheveled appearance, changes in behavior), reach out. Take them to lunch. Let them know they are not alone…and they don’t have to be.

You can be independent, feisty, sassy, brilliant, powerful, successful…and still ask for help. You can be confused, frustrated, out of your depth, upset, angry, exasperated…and still OFFER help. That’s the beauty of being a human being. We are a walking contradiction. We are complicated. We are a mess. We are amazing.

We can all ask for help. We can all offer help.

You just have to do it.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and then allows you to learn something new. ~ Barack Obama

 

 

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2016 in Personal Development, Self-Awareness, Teamwork

 

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Expanding horizons

This is my plea that everyone – employees and leaders alike – learns how to think outside of themselves.

That they look beyond their personal role to see how they impact the world around them.

That they try to improve the processes they work within.

That they reach out to those they work with to offer support when needed.

That they reach out to those they work with to offer a kick in the butt when needed.

That they step back and think about how the offhanded comment they made in a crowded room might have been interpreted.

Earth_GlobeThat they realize that they made a positive difference in the lives of the people they interact with.

That they see their value in the world and know it spreads beyond those who see them every day.

That they recognize their power to influence…and use their power for good.

That they learn how to say “no” so that others say, “I understand.”

That they win with humility.

That they lose with grace.

That they never lose their love of learning – or that they discover it in the first place.

That they remember that every single person they interact with is going through something in their lives that others don’t know.

That they see the potential of the team, organization, and community that they are a part of – and want to help everyone reach that potential.

That they want to build, not destroy.

That they learn that success comes in many forms.

It is my hope that everyone – employees and leaders alike – realize it’s not all about them.

It’s about us.

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2015 in Authenticity, Clarity, Self-Awareness, Teamwork

 

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Self-fulfilling prophecies and the danger of labels

Read through the following scenario and pay attention to how you interpret it:

An employee, Shaun, shows up very late on a Friday morning. Shaun typically isn’t a morning person and has been a couple of minutes late once or twice in the past – but never like this. He is bleary-eyed, disheveled, and appears to be having trouble concentrating. He is in his early 20s, the same as a group in the office that likes to go out and party on Thursday nights. When you ask Shaun what’s going on, he is evasive, fumbling for answers that would make you happy. 

A week ago, you had a similar incident occur in which the employee actually had a hangover and had accidentally deleted an important spreadsheet and was trying to cover it up. And there have been a lot of system issues lately that you believe are caused by your employees not knowing what they’re doing and creating extra records that don’t need to be there.

Know how you’d react? It wouldn’t be surprising if you assumed Shaun is just like the other employees of his generation. After all, you’ve read all about their work-life balance YOLO lifestyle. You’re in the know. Time to act – right?

But there’s more to the story:

When pressed, Shaun tells you that he knew that the system slowdown was affecting everyone’s productivity, and he decided to stay late on Thursday to remove the extraneous records that were slowing down the system. It took longer than he thought it would, and he didn’t want to get in trouble for not telling you.

Dang it – your label failed you.

The Power of Labels

In 1968, third grade Iowa schoolteacher Jane Elliott wanted to teach her students about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and the dangers of racism – the worst kind of labeling. How do you get children to understand such a high level concept? By letting them experience LABELS. She started the day by explaining that blue-eyed children are smarter, prettier, and all around better than brown eyed children. After lunch, she changed it and and explained it turns out that brown-eyed children are smarter and better.

The speed with which these children accepted the roles into which they were assigned – aggressor and victim – is terrifying. It is even more terrifying when you consider that Jane Elliott was completely transparent about what she was doing with the children. She explained it’s an exercise. She explains what she wanted them to learn. And yet, the labels were SO strong, the children’s performance in learning exercises went DOWN when they were the “dumb” group. [Watch A Class Divided for the entire documentary. It’s amazing and well worth your time.]

label-maker1

So why do I bring this up?

Because labels are powerful – and we use them ALL THE TIME.

We talk about generations (Do you know how to recruit Millennials? Are you ready for the ennui of Gen X? Do you care what Generation Z will do???). We talk about high potentials. We talk about “difficult people.” We talk about A Players, B Players, engineers, IT, HR, “leaders”, “followers” – all of them labels. And each of these labels comes with preconceived notions about the person who has that label can and cannot do.

Listen, I get that labels can help. We have to categorize things in order to process the amount of information we encounter every day. But we also have to be aware of the impact our labels have.

Words Matter

As a leader, the labels you place on your employees are especially powerful, and are most often given within the first day of meeting a person. A “promising employee” or “hard worker” tends to get more benefit of the doubt than a “slow worker” or “troublemaker.” It’s even worse when an executive labels an employee they’ve met once. I’ve known an employee who carried the label of not being terribly smart because on her very first day, an executive asked her a question about a process she didn’t know the answer to. ON HER FIRST DAY. This employee was very smart, and very capable – and every talent discussion we had to combat the baggage of a label given after a 5 minute interaction.

Sadly, the leader’s reaction to an employee based on a label is nowhere near as dangerous as the employee’s reaction to the label the leader applied. Just like the children in A Class Divided, employees who have been labeled high potential often perform better (or fade under the pressure of expectation), while “difficult” employees make more errors, because others interpret their actions differently – or because the employees themselves believe they are the label you’ve given them*.

The same goes for employees labeling leaders. “She’s mean” or “He’s a pushover” colors the behavior of leaders because it shades the way others perceive the leader. With the prevalence of 360s in today’s business world, these labels gain more and more power, impacting the leader’s self-confidence – or potentially reinforcing BAD behavior – as each cycle of feedback simply reinforces the self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Labels are going to be with us for a long time. They helped us survive as we evolved (this berry = good, sharp pointy teeth = bad). They allow us to thin-slice data. Unfortunately, they also allow employees and leaders alike to be lazy – to apply labels rather than get to know the people they interact with.

Leaders, when you go back to your teams take an honest look the expectations that you hold for each of your employees. Employees, take a hard look at the way you talk about your leader.  And ask yourself, am I responding to a person?

Or to a label?

[*For more on the power of suggestion and stereotypes, read Dan Ariely’s work.]

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2015 in Self-Awareness

 

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Measuring What Matters (the missing piece)

Leaders:

If you know what a KPI is, give yourself a pat on the back. If you have a balanced scorecard, a visual management system, a dashboard, or some other way to track said KPIs, even better. With all this talk of Big Data and ROI and other data-loving phrases, you probably feel like a big damn deal. Bully for you.

Now – what if I were to go to your team and ask, what are your KPIs? Would they be able to answer?

Could they point to the balanced scorecard and confidently explain what it means? Can they describe how the data is trending? Tie their day-to-day work to the metrics?

If the answer to those questions is NO, then you are failing to measure what truly matters.

Business has fallen in love with metrics and scorecards and trends and graphs. Analysts are the new rock stars, the secret weapon of a strategic plan. Throw in the ability to build a visual tool, and that analyst becomes The One (like Neo, or Eddie Murphy in that awful movie with the bald kid). Executives want to see pictures, a snapshot, a cross-section of what’s going on in the business. It needs to look cool, to look smart. [Think I’m exaggerating? Look at how much infographics have exploded recently. You can argue chicken or egg – but leaders want them.]

Visit www.savagechickens.com!

Unfortunately, these metrics often fail to make a meaningful connection to the people who actually do the work. They report numbers because they have to in order to make the pretty graphs, but then they turn back to their “real work” and don’t think about what the data is telling them. They are just trying to keep the work moving and ensure they meet their deadlines.

That’s where the leader comes in.

If the metrics truly matter, you will talk about them. Every day. Every team meeting. Every project launch. Every project wrap up.

If the numbers tell you a story about the business, share that story with your employees. Why the numbers are important. What they tell us about our impact on the business, the customers, the employees.

We leaders pretend like it’s the employees fault they don’t know what the metrics are. For goodness’ sake, we posted them on the shared drive!  What more do those darn employees want?!

Employees want – nay, need – context. And employees want – nay, need – their leaders to be the primary voice to provide that context. Supposedly leaders know what their employees do and the day-to-day reality of their world. Who better to be able to provide that line of sight from the work to the metric? Who better to explain why these metrics are helping the business improve? Who better to motivate employees to reach the target state?

At some point, you will notice that the metrics are not moving, or are moving in the wrong direction, or don’t seem to tell the right story. So what happens then?

That’s where the employees come in.

Your employees can help you understand whether your metrics are telling you what you really need to know about the business. They will share whether they think the KPIs make sense, and whether the targets are realistic…or even important. Your employees are the conduit through which the metrics come to life.

So the next time you start pontificating on the importance of your scorecard, think about the last time you looked at it with your team. If it’s been too long, stop pontificating and start communicating.

THAT’S what matters.

Metrics are for doing, not for staring. Never measure just because you can. Measure to learn. Measure to fix.

– Stijn Debrouwere

 

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2015 in Clarity

 

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