Breaking Free From The Work Trap While On Vacation

Fall’s coming. And as much as I adore this season, my mind can easily turn to the cold that will arrive and vacation adventure travels.. We love our vacations, yet the persistent challenge of working during cherished breaks is as ubiquitous in the leaders I coach as it is with their teams. Disconnecting from work and immersing in leisure is not just a luxury, it’s a fundamental human right. Making it happen may seem simple to imagine, but it’s not that easy to do. So let’s explore some strategies for making time to vacation, what often gets left out in communication before you leave, different styles of vacations and what to do if you’re failing to take a true break.

Streamline, simplify and succeed.

Let’s face it—getting away can be a challenge. After all, there’s so much to do. This is especially the self-talk of those who are experiencing work overload that never seems to let up. If you’re involved in far too many projects to ever consider taking time off to rest and reenergize, then it’s your job to negotiate people’s expectations of your role and streamline their demands. Proactively prioritizing, delegating and negotiating are the skills to put into action to make your working life reasonable and create the pathway to providing your brain with a mental break and stress relief.

Communicate your availability limits.

Once you set the date when you will be off work, it’s up to you to enable others to plan for your absence well in advance. Merely activating an out-of-office (OOO) email alert is too late and insufficient to announce your vacation status to those you work with inside the organization and out.

One partner in a financial services firm was on vacation when his client urgently communicated that there was interest in a company buyout. They hadn’t said anything to him for months prior, but now suddenly they were crushed with preparations and the deadline was imminent, leaving him little choice but to sacrifice a half-day of his time away with family because he was the only one on the team who could do the work.

To minimize surprises in the future, he’s taken to putting a proactive strategy in place. He initiates early client conversations, supplementing the communication of his upcoming vacation dates with a comprehensive checklist of common challenges and deadlines. This serves as a helpful reminder to jog their memory regarding potential impacts of his unavailability. This proactive communication has lessened client surprises and left him with peace of mind that he didn’t leave it all in the hands of his clients.

Expect to be surprised.

Nevertheless, let’s be real. It’s smart to do what you can to diminish the probability that you will be interrupted on vacation by a surprise demand. It’s also realistic to accept that no matter how resolute you are in your desire for uninterrupted bliss, and no matter what you’ve done ahead of time, there will be times when work comes knocking on your holiday’s door. High-stakes situations can arise while you are away that can’t wait for your return, and your team will reach out to you. But here’s the catch—make sure everyone is on the same page about what truly constitutes a “high-stakes” matter. Is it an intergalactic invasion threatening the fate of your company? Or a trumped-up fake deadline that your team has been duped to believe? What information can you provide to your team ahead of time to help them effectively spot the fakes and to triage the real, urgent messes?

Stop temptation with a habit.

It’s problematic to aim to de-stress and truly relax if you are checking your devices all day long and crowding out the benefits of why you took time off in the first place. There’s no chance of interrupting the sources of stress. Self-monitoring is easy for some but not for all. If you have trouble holding back from repeatedly checking for messages from people at work, there are plenty of hacks for you to experiment with. Recruit an ally and empower them to be your gatekeeper. They could safeguard your device(s), maintain the secrecy of your passcode and help you respect a time limit you make for yourself. With their assistance, you can override the temptation to constantly look at work-related messages.

Choose your vacation style.

Not all vacations are created equal. If you want to work during your time off, consider embracing the concept of a “working vacation,” and own it. Maybe you are a digital nomad—working while traveling on “holiday.” Be transparent about your intentions, letting your team know that you will be available to them while also taking breaks for personal rejuvenation. Setting these expectations up front can foster open communication and ease any hesitations from your staff and colleagues who might otherwise shield you from interruptions.

Get out of your own way.

Finally, if you have a pattern that you intend to disconnect but don’t every time, consider that it’s not them—it’s you. You might be getting in the way of your well-earned vacation. Reflecting on what saboteurs are causing you to avoid putting on the brakes is helpful, whether it be the ceaseless need for accomplishments, the driving fear of what could happen when you aren’t working, persistence in the role of the victim or the people-pleaser or a reluctance to put yourself first, to name a few. These saboteurs aren’t fixed for life, but their hold on you can be. They are at the root of your dissatisfaction and explain your unhappiness and frustration. It’s time to recognize them and lessen their hold on you.

Does anyone need evidence that taking breaks from work is a good thing and necessary? They offer relaxation, fill us with positive emotions and diversify our experiences away from the routine. It’s a no-brainer, and yet there are so many things conspiring to take us off our leisure time while away from work. One big one is work itself. Another one is us.

A version of this article was published by Forbes.com. Photo thanks to Priscilla du Preez.

Getting Hybrid Work Right

We’ve had a few years where working hybrid has become a new normal for many. Even so, businesses continue to apply trial and error to get it right. Like all workplace strategies of consequence, we are all learning from our mistakes to get better at it. Here are a few things employers are doing to get the best from in-person and remote work in a hybrid model, and what to guard against.

Leader Bias In The Wrong Direction

Many leaders regularly wrestle with the decision of whether to mandate employees back into the office for more days in a week. I hear this concern a lot. The mistake to avoid is to act on impulse rather than on data. Digging deeper, it exposes leader bias toward in-person work simply because at the root of it, it’s familiar, and they may enjoy it more themselves. Businesses need to ask themselves whether they have promoted people while using hybrid models and whether promotions have included young people and new hires. Leaders must also acknowledge that if the current system is working, there’s no reason not to listen to what employees want.

Making The Case To Come To The Office

Leaders have recognized that if they aren’t able to make the time in the office worthwhile, then all interactions will be virtual. Yes, there’s food and snacks on offer, movie night, cocktails and game nights. But most of all, facilitated, human, in-person connection is what draws people together. People want to experience their teammates in person, but the frequency varies. One pharmaceutical company makes it easy for people who don’t work closely together to meet, facilitating random match-making by lottery over lunch in the office. Leaders there frequently organize cross-functional coffees and provide introductions as a way of offsetting the decline of random encounters and shrinking networks. For many leaders, the new priority has become to check in with employees when they are together in the office and enable connections.

Employers are more choosy about creating moments when everyone comes together, working to be intentional about the reasons why to do it at all. One professional services firm coordinates bi-weekly, in-person team meetings and reserves other in-person encounters for annual planning, off-site retreats and year-end events where celebration and being together is something people look forward to.

A financial investment company regularly has large employee turnouts by bringing people together for networking socials, training and skills development and sessions to promote well-being. Whatever the reasons to invite in-person gatherings, I’ve noticed that smart leaders have understood that employees want them to be designed for meaningful participation. There’s less of a desire for passive entertainment or lectures or information sharing where few are speaking and most are only listening.

Rethinking Meetings

For many, most days are filled with back-to-back meetings, exaggerated by the ease of virtual communication and WFH where the day starts earlier and ends later since commuting isn’t frequent. In fact, we now know that meetings have multiplied in some cases by more than double. Employees have become challenged with blocks of virtual meetings that can become stale without alone time reserved for thinking, planning or strategizing.

There have been plenty of remedies for the relentless challenge of meeting fatigue such as reducing the number of meetings in a week and the length of each meeting, leaving a day free of meetings, mandating meetings to no more than two people and encouraging employees to reserve time without meetings.

Other changes to make meetings productive are the introduction of meeting management training and training people on the power of negotiating boundaries and how to maintain them. Some have mandated intervals between meetings to leave time for casual chats and so the business of meetings starts on time, and others are clawing back early starts and late days in favor of shorter workweeks for less pay, and offering a compressed workweek.

Securing “core hours” is popular—a dedicated block of time typically in the middle of the day when colleagues are available for real-time collaboration and meetings and personal obligations. What businesses and organizations are realizing is that the sacred cows of pursuing increasing efficiency and speed are exacting a high cost on people over time. There are plenty of ways to make work enjoyable without losing productivity by considering alternate ways to collaborate with others and exercise limits to prevent overwork.

Not Penalizing Women

There was a time when flexible work, part-time work and leaves from work were considered “accommodations” that were encouraged for women, but this often stalled their careers and stigmatized them, as they were viewed as more committed to their families than to their work, which hindered their chances for advancement. Hybrid and other flexible arrangements may bring on fewer incongruities between genders as more men opt in. I know of a technology company that goes beyond having a flexible work policy on paper to actively encourage male and female employees to take advantage of the under-utilized opportunities available to them, with assurances that their careers won’t suffer as a result. Early data shows that they’ve been successful with this approach.

As one senior woman leader I know puts it, there’s finally recognition that working less, taking leave and even working from home isn’t slacking off and that most people are happier to have the option to choose it.

There is plenty we aren’t yet doing well, such as configuring office space where use, not hierarchy, is the sorting decision; promoting inclusivity when not working from home; and driving innovation while reducing collaborative overwork. There’s never been a time when high-performance culture did not require flexibility rather than rigidity, and a workplace approach that balances the benefits of virtual and in-person work is no different. The conversation about the future of hybrid work will continue to evolve with input from all areas, bringing people’s best thinking together.

Thank you to Shridhar Gupta for the image. A version of this article was published by Forbes.com on May 31 2023.

Women’s Great Resignation: Ways To Retain Women Leaders

As women continue to consider exiting the workforce, the question on their minds is: Does my workplace work for me? While many organizations are attempting to redress the inequities women face, there are plenty of new policies and actions that have served to undermine women’s certainty that they belong. Let’s discuss a few examples and positive ways to retain women leaders.

1. Be thoughtful with mentoring pairings.

Consider a leader who would like to increase her assertiveness. Like anyone who is working on this, she appreciates that it has an impact on her relationships and how she is perceived. It takes experimentation to express assertive behaviours to the right degree. Too little, and you aren’t standing up for yourself and expressing yourself sufficiently, too much and you’re perceived as hostile. In an effort to help, a more senior leader selects a mentor for her who is overly assertive. She and others perceive him as aggressive. The thinking behind the match was that pairing a leader who overdoes a vital competency with someone who underutilizes it would work. Instead, it sends the wrong message and creates confusion for the mentee who is looking to find the right level of assertiveness.

Get 360 feedback about potential mentors before involving them in facilitated mentoring programs where they will be role models. In my experience, leaders who overplay their strengths are not good mentors to a mentee who is looking to practice the competency.

2. Make growth opportunities count.

Advancing women in their careers by giving them opportunities for growth is moving in the right direction. So when one woman earned the invitation to participate in a next-level leadership team meeting, she naturally accepted. When the meeting started, she was asked to take minutes for the group.

When a mid-level manager is given an opportunity and then assigned an administrative task, it doesn’t advance them in any way. They want to be free to be actively engaged because they want to maximize the occasion. Playing the role of the scribe is a sensitive issue for women as it relegates them to assist in an administrative function, long ago perceived as a woman’s rightful job and as far as her career could advance.

3. Reserve your praise for a job well done.

A director in a design studio in the technology sector prepared an outstanding strategy. Her manager asked her to present what she and her team had accomplished. Many more people came to the call than were expected and in the banter before the presentation began, her manager noticed that the director was a little nervous. His response was to tease her about the colour of her lipstick thinking it would provide her with the confidence she lacked by telling her how good she looked. It had the opposite effect. Instead, it made her feel self-conscious.

Women want men to be great allies when they face challenges at work. What some allies don’t know yet is that commenting on women’s makeup, clothing or physical appearance redirects attention to how a woman looks instead of focusing on their competence. Calling out a woman’s physical appearance is a challenge for women working hard every day to gain credibility.

4. Recognize that one rule can’t fit everyone.

Among the new measures brought on to slow down the increased expectations for work since the pandemic, is the “no emails or work calls past 7 p.m.” rule to show support for parents who have family obligations. But instead of freeing people up from work obligations, it serves to levy new pressures to get everything done before the witching hour. This is the matching bookend of obligatory early morning meetings for those with childcare responsibilities.

The best ideas are rigorously tested before they become rules. This rule disproportionally disadvantages moms with family responsibilities immediately after the workday. Encouraging leaders to have conversations with their teams in order to tailor the right limits for everyone is preferable to a blanket rule. Flexibility not uniformity is preferred.

5. Build on what came before.

A committee was put together in a public sector organization to support women’s leadership. When the office responsible for developing policy and programs to advance women’s equality learned about it and wanted to be involved, the chair communicated that she had no interest in collaborating and preferred to work without dialogue.

When leaders go it alone and don’t leverage the people, processes or work that’s come before, they forfeit lessons from the field, efficiencies for disseminating communication through established pathways and the opportunity to build momentum.

6. Promote for real.

Being promoted means an increase in responsibilities. Yet when there is no actual increase in decision-making power, the promotion is in bad faith. A recently promoted leader’s decisions had to be run by her male senior management team each time. It wasn’t long before this director understood that she wasn’t set up to succeed. She also came to doubt that her pay was on par with the men at her level since she was only permitted to function as Team Lead.

Research shows that early on in careers, men on average, are given more people to supervise and lead larger teams. As a result, they gain a wider span of control even at the same organizational level. Getting a change of title with more responsibilities but no increase in decision-making power is the oldest cheat in the book. It looks good to promote a woman but it’s demoralizing for everyone it affects.

The problems that are leading to the great resignation didn’t start today. Yet we have the opportunity now to re-imagine work and normalize new ways to ensure women are supported and valued. It all starts with listening to women’s experiences to know where to make changes so that women know they belong.

(This article is written by me, and was first published by Forbes.com)

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com 

Four Job Search Strategies During A Pandemic

“I’m thinking a lot about my work and what’s next.”

It’s coming up to the new year and a time to re-assess so much about our work. For so many who are are planning a job transition, the current search for meaning and greater purpose is a new wrinkle in an already tough situation. A health crisis, a racial inequity crisis and an economic crisis have stopped most of us, employed or looking to be, long enough to reflect on what we are doing with our lives. With so many abruptly ordered to stay home to work, and the pandemic and discriminatory policing ending lives, plenty of people are scrutinizing their working lives for purpose and greater alignment and are choosing to move on from where they are.

My clients who are in job transition have raised interesting concerns. Here are four of them, along with complementary strategies for what to keep in mind if you are in a job search or expect you may be in the future.

Strategy #1: Push through to share with others that you are in transition.

“A colleague just got a new role as a CEO, and I want to hold off changing my work status because I’m concerned that when I reach out to congratulate her that it will look like I’m just doing it to nudge for a job.”

The sooner you share with your network that you are in search mode, the sooner others can help. It sounds commonsensical enough, but holding back is common, especially, in my experience, among women who aren’t always comfortable leveraging relationships when they need to. Their hesitation is that they will appear needy and others will feel used by their manipulation.

Conducting a job search without the support of your network won’t be nearly as successful, and unless you are lucky, it will be a long journey until you land. There is no shame in taking initiative and communicating you are looking for work. Most of us have experienced job transition and are eager to help. And those who know your work are motivated to see you continue to contribute. If ever there’s a time to not hold back the reality of your situation, it’s during a job search.

Strategy #2: Stay current.

“How do I find out what’s going on in an industry that I’ve targeted during Covid-19? They are all in deep change. How do I get current?”

Social distancing has removed the opportunities to learn about industries at in-person conferences that so many depended on. Conferences have now migrated online, making them easier to access and at a lower cost. But it’s important to not just limit your learning to mass venues. In some ways, this tumultuous time is an opportune one to learn what is going on in every field and industry because everywhere there is so much flux in the marketplace.

And don’t give up on an industry because of what you are hearing from news reports. It’s true that many are having a tough time returning to full productivity and profits post-Covid-19. Your job is to consider your skills and assess how you can help with change management or a strategic pivot. Some employers are hiring far less, but many are hiring what they absolutely need.

Strategy #3: Get out in front of the internet.

“I do a lot of Zoom and I listen to a lot of webinars. I haven’t been asked to any interviews yet.”

Be careful not to spend too many hours on the internet. Naturally, it’s easy to do and believe you are job hunting productively. It’s relationship-building, though, that will make the biggest difference in landing work.

In addition to attending webinars and listening to expert panels, offer to lead or host your own webinar. Consider corralling your colleagues and host a panel to gain exposure and show what you know. The point is to be visible and be seen as an expert. Get out in front.

Strategy #4: Help them see you as a fit in the role.

“I know what I want, but I’m not sure I can persuade them that I’m a good fit.”

This is what I heard from a client of mine at the start of his career transition. After leaving an exceptionally demanding senior leadership role that started as meaningful and highly rewarding work, changes came in that degenerated the role, and he found that he was at odds with what was being asked of him. My client spent time talking through what he wanted next with his family and then with me as his coach. Still interested in a senior role, his review of his personal values led him to seek work in a smaller city where he and the family could root themselves and be closer to nature. The job, too, would need to be smaller but still complex and with the potential to make a big impact. He was clear what he was after; nevertheless, the members of the interview panel for the first job interview felt he was overqualified. Challenged to help the next job panel share his vision that he was right for the role, we worked together to clarify his story and the articulation of his values to clearly show how they were aligned with the role. Spending time on your story and your values is a necessary strategy for anyone seeking new work, not just for those others deem overqualified.

A version of this article was ublished on Forbes.com. Thank you to Aaron Burden for the image.

Examining The Gains And Losses Of Our Changing Work Environment

(Forbes published this article in the early summer and I am posting it here because the strategies are evergreen.)

Organizational life has changed. Yet even with a global pandemic and a broken economy, the world keeps on “worlding.” In addition to the threat to public health, the disruption to our livelihood and our businesses is challenging many millions of us around the world. We have changed how we work and lead. Our work lives in this liminal space is worth examining. Here are a few observations and recommendations worth noting.

Get On Video Selectively

It’s times like these when we reflect on what we miss the most. Meeting informally is one of those things.

Virtual work has seen leaders taking on extra effort to seek out conversations that would have occurred by happenstance at the coffee machine, the work lounge, around the ping pong tables and in private offices. Now, everyone’s calendars are filled with back-to-back videoconferences on Zoom. Need to address a problem? Schedule a Zoom meeting. Initially, many raved about Zoom calls because they enabled remote video contact, but now, I’ve heard people in my network complain about how exhausting it is to go from Zoom call to Zoom call. It’s a better idea to ask yourself if a voice call is needed, if video needs to be on or if an email should be sent. Use videoconferences selectively. It’s not the only way to make connections among people.

Book Time Of Your Own

One client company of mine instated a 30-minute, meeting-free zone, organization-wide. It was communicated by the CEO, who is doing what can be done in a hurried, emergent environment to ensure people’s well-being. It’s a recognition that in addition to the loss of informal time, we are forfeiting alone time to think.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says that we’ve idealized extroversion and teamwork, and this new “groupthink” has left leaders with not nearly enough time to reserve thinking of their own. I see this in my work, too, across all industries. This 30-minute respite is a useful directive and experiment.

Pooling Collective Intelligence Is a Smart Way Forward

A lot has been written about top-down leadership as the most suitable style for urgent situations. Overlooked, though, is the expanded role a more decentralized model of leadership can offer. The emergency situation is exposing and, in some cases, exacerbating company vulnerabilities that require far more mind trust than the senior team can provide.

The same client company I discussed above seized the opportunity to engage its employees in adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are those that can’t be solved by experts. They require courageous creative thinking. Crowdsourcing models such as these develop people’s strategic thinking abilities so that many more can make sizable contributions. And the proposals are far more considered since the crowdsourcing process encourages radical ideas where diverse perspectives are sought out and heard.

Taking on truly transformative ways of working by addressing challenges frees up the senior team to see the big picture by encouraging large-scale transformation and innovation thought through by others. This leaves the senior leaders to fly at 43,000 feet, the altitude at which a commercial passenger airplane flies safely at its maximum speed.

Team Retreats Reimagined

Once considered a luxury for some who viewed off-sites as time away from getting things done (or, at least, many had low expectations of what could be achieved), retreats are now seen as invaluable. And that’s a very good thing. Now, these retreats have urgency driving their agenda. Done remotely, the logistics of navigating time zones isn’t always easy, but it can be done. The previous model of a few full days away is now being replaced by two to three-hour multiday retreat sessions in home offices or people’s living rooms. It’s a recognition that in-person human hours are not the same as Zoom hours. Shorter bursts of meetings are far more productive than one long stretch when you are online.

Work In Unity

Leaders who are clients of mine have also reported less infighting, and fewer impasses caused by intractable disagreements. Not all senior teams are acting harmoniously, no doubt, but early reports of reaching agreement following a rigorous exchange are telling. There’s nothing better for business continuance than when people are driven by a common purpose.

Looking to what’s happening around the world also reveals countries shifting from discordant divisions across political party lines to a unified voice. Canada is showing a common front against the virus even though the ruling government party finds itself in a minority situation. And in Europe, there are calls for unity. There’s even an appeal for a global ceasefire endorsed by the United Nations while the virus rages. In time, we will know if this will have an enduring effect.

What are the long-term effect of these changes, and will they stick when the emergency situation is over? It seems to me that it depends, in part, on how long this lasts. The duration of the crisis, the reason for all the changes we are making at work, will decide for us whether returning to how we did things is even feasible. We want to be deliberate about processes and practices so that we choose wisely what we want to keep, and we discard the bad practices that were bred out of speed and desperation and evolve them so they are better.

A version of this article first appeared on Forbes.com. Credit to the beautiful photo goes to Elana Mozhvilo.

Advice for Leaders Newly Working from Home

I might be in the lower percentage of those people who enjoy working from home. My work as an executive coach and before that as a management consultant has provided me with the opportunity to choose where I work, for the most part.

Many more people are working from home as a precaution to protect from the further spread of COVID-19. You’ve been told to work from home, and you are nervous about whether or not you can do it successfully. Maybe you tried it once or twice and failed. With a little bit of foresight and planning, and following good advice, you can make this work for yourself and for your team.

Be Real About What You Are Worried About
The secret is that you have to find solutions to your fears. Like anything related to leadership, you will be far more effective if you are honest with yourself and admit those areas where you expect that you’ll be challenged. In this case of working from home, you’ll need to help yourself and plan to keep up your level of productivity and not lose your sense of work fulfillment.
To that end, first, get clear with yourself on what you are jittery about. If it’s your fear that you won’t be motivated to work when you are at home, identify your distractors. Is it social media, fear of loneliness or household chores like cleaning out the fridge or doing yard work that will siphon off your time? Once you identify what you know will likely take your mind off work, make plans so it doesn’t stop you from getting work done.

If you are the only one in the family who’s staying home, don’t fall in the trap of doing everything during the workday because you are there. Be firm with your boundaries. Being at home isn’t the same as having time off. Continue to share whatever household tasks you can with others in your family. When my spouse also began working from home, we continued to share household responsibilities.
If it’s social media that pulls you in and gets you going down a rabbit hole for hours at a time, set a schedule of when you will indulge in the channels that delight you. Hold yourself to specific time limits. But beware of the social media discussions that can sour your mood. When you are at home, your mood needs protecting more than you might be used to because you are on your own, at least when you are new to this new work arrangement.

Be A Good Boss
I learned early in my career that I can be a very demanding boss when I’m the boss of me. In other words, many of us make the mistake of becoming workaholics who are immune to paying attention to the signs of overwork. We are all fueled by wanting to do high-quality work and avoiding being a bottleneck for others in the collaborative work we do, but we can go too far. If this is you, my advice is that one thing that can make an impact is to make sure you take breaks.

Ground Yourself With Breaks
What I’ve learned over decades of working in a home office is that when I venture outside and take a walk, I am far more productive. Don’t let a full day of meetings prevent you from doing it. Make room for being active in your calendar. If you want scientific evidence that taking breaks is imperative for productivity, have a look at Dan Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s really not. You’ll sleep better at night and be more productive during the day. This, in my experience, is hard advice to follow but has huge dividends if you do it daily.

Stay Connected
When it comes to interactions with your team and stakeholders, you’ll want to review your calendar and see which meetings you can hold in a group or move to a one-to-one. Once you are on the call, be sure to switch on your camera and invite others to do the same. It’s easy to send emails all day, but don’t do it. You’ll find that scheduling calls and seeing people will not only improve the focus of the group calls but also restore your sense of affiliation to others. As a leader, this is vital if you are going to continue to show you care about the members of your team.
Relatedly, it can be lonely working from home, so structure in some social calls to maintain the sociability that you enjoyed when you were able to share a coffee with people you saw in the halls.

Here are a few other tips from my experience:
• Get dressed in the morning as you would for work.
• Keep your pantry stocked with healthy foods. Don’t let junk food satiate your hunger or your boredom.
• If you are a compulsive snacker or a coffee addict, do not work in the kitchen.
• If you are a natural planner, plan your day. If you aren’t, make a list based on your goals.

Working at home isn’t hard, but like anything new, it may take you time to adapt to your new situation. You may surprise yourself by how much you learn to enjoy it.

Photo credit with thanks to djurdjica boskovic. This article was first published on Forbes.com.

Cultivating A Performance Culture Of Respect

There are few things more important for a leader than fostering a culture where people feel safe to contribute their ideas. In a psychologically safe workplace, people feel free to take risks without fear of any negative consequences for speaking up. I’ve seen firsthand the lengths involved in identifying, preparing and promoting talent when I ran a management assessment center. To spend plenty of resources for that purpose and then not use the talent is a terrible waste.

Amy C. Edmondson has written the latest sine qua non about psychological safety in the workplace. If you didn’t know, Google’s study on what makes the best teams was influenced by Edmondson’s early research. Google ranked psychological safety as the first and far and away the most important of factors vital for team success. But getting it right can get messy.

If you as a leader insist on high performance standards but neglect psychological safety, employees will want to speak up about quality or safety concerns, but they’ll feel anxious because they know that their observations and general input to make something better will be ignored or ridiculed. Their contributions, most of the time, aren’t welcomed, so they don’t offer input, and so on it goes. I’ve seen examples of this, and as an executive coach, I’ve heard of many more from my clients who share their stories. There have been situations where a senior leader demanded ambitious goals thinking it would take ambitious efforts, and then modeled bad behaviors such as a raised voice, throwing things and humiliating others with their words. The leader wanted to stretch the elastic band of possibility in an uncertain market, but their actions kept people silent, dampened people’s drive, encouraged cautiousness and promoted fear.

On the other hand, lowering performance standards and relaxing consequences isn’t the way to go about it either. When you do this, all you get is a “nice” culture at the expense of one that promotes challenge and innovates. Letting go of holding people accountable reduces people’s motivation to take risks and set ambitious goals. It reduces engagement.

If, however, there’s a high bar for performance and attention to promoting sensitivity when people take interpersonal risks, the environment will be productive, and people will feel open and ready to disagree. The Goldilocks principle is at play when this combination is exactly right. In a psychologically safe workplace, there’s challenging work to do in ways that are mutually respectful so that when people fail and recover, they do so without reprisal.

But let’s be careful not to oversell psychological safety. It doesn’t have the muscle to go all the way to motivate people to collaborate with one another, and that’s key because collaboration is how work gets done. Psychological safety is a hygiene factor, not an engine. When it’s absent, boy do we notice.

The Dynamism Of Trust And Collaboration

We also need to notice how psychological safety interacts with collaboration. What’s important for leaders to recognize is that trust is foundational. We can’t cultivate purpose without it.

We know that having a view beyond ourselves, to the group, the team, the enterprise and the higher mission opens our appreciation of what we are working towards and gives us the energy to work interdependently.

Collaboration without trust isn’t genuine or effective. The stepladder to effective collaboration begins with trust, so it’s disappointing that executives in a large study rated building trust very low in relation to the other factors of instilling purpose and generating energy. This news is hard to swallow and suggests that we still will be facing a trust deficit for some time.

I feel good about the leaders I know who read about management concepts with the intention of raising their leadership game. However, I’ve noticed as we hunger to learn, we can inadvertently overemphasize a useful concept like psychological safety, believing it can deliver more than it can. We can also slip up by overlooking the importance of trust in creating effective collaboration. Understanding and applying both go a long way towards creating a flourishing culture at work.

 

This article was published first on Forbes.com Thank you to Rodion Kutsaev for the photo.

Getting Unstuck

How are you doing today? One of the many things I’ve learned about how to be with people during this crisis, is to give up ‘How are you?’ and ask a question that expresses more of our empathy and our humanity while giving people the space to say what’s really going on. “How are you doing today?” does that.

I’ve been asking a lot of people what the experience of this time is for them. We might all be interconnected and “in this together” but these times are accelerating and intensifying the inequities in our world that we live with. Just yesterday I saw a magazine cover with the header Rich Corona Poor Corona – who lives, who dies and who thrives. That captured it.

As I continue to ask others, I keep thinking about what I’m learning. It’s an immense question to consider as life’s restrictions continue without reprieve and has a bigger answer than the space available in this blog post. Yet, when I look at my own experience of this time with the advantages I have, I began to notice that there have been four stages to my personal experience of this time, so far. Viewing your experience in stages is a simple way of looking at a block of time. I encourage you to have a look to see if you can define stages, and if so, what they’ve been. Here have been mine to date:

Stage 1:
I found this time a little scary but mostly stimulating. I was staying in, signing up for all sorts of webinars for professional development and personal interest. I created a handbook for living and leading in uncertain times which I shared widely. It was early days and I wanted to be helpful.

Stage 2:
I became sick of staying on zoom calls and I couldn’t focus. I feared that I wouldn’t have the concentration to read a book. So I joined a virtual book club as a test and the temporary community offered both comfort and excitement.

Stage 3:
A friend lost both his parents to COVID and everything went dark.

Stage 4:
I worked hard to regain my focus and recognized that I couldn’t wait until my motivation returned so that my habits would continue. I had to re-imagine all the ones I worked hard to design and do. It took some time to reimagine new designs for eating and exercising and even working in this new world.

Stage 5:
I enrolled in an online learning program and my creative juices are flowing again to create new materials, read, write and learn. My multiple groups, some I’ve been a part of for years and some just newly formed have helped me stay connected to myself and to others. I’m astounded that I am as creatively productive as I have been. It’s also true that there are dips in my energy.

Naturally, there have been sad and worrying moments, but for me, getting out into nature has been a standout experience I will bring with me into the future when this is behind us.

The day before yesterday, I became aware of the paradox of nature once more. There was comfort, it was peaceful, still and static and it was also filled with change and dynamism. How I viewed the natural surroundings felt familiar, but there was something foreign and odd about it.

We walked slowly and thoughtfully through cornfields, and then along the shores by a creek with brook trout. We sat by the shoreline to eat the lunch fixings we had brought with us. We were careful to taste our food, not just eat it because food is now an ordeal to procure. “Savour it”, I remember reminding myself.

When we were in the forest I felt as though I had entered into a universe. I noticed and then said aloud that I was appreciating the small wonders around us. The sounds of the Canadian geese that flew by close enough to see their markings, the mischievous burdock that grabbed hold on our socks, and the sounds and sightings of a butterfly with dark tips on the edges of its wings that revisited many times. When I returned home, I reviewed my photos and thought about what John Muir said at a different time:

“The clearest ways into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”

I’d had trouble with focus in this pandemic but I knew that the hard part was behind me. There was and will always be the forest that makes adventure and calm available.

Photo credit: Sheila Goldgrab