The Hardest Lesson: Saying “No”

By: David Herdlinger

In professional and personal coaching, at one point you just have to find a way to help people say one, yet extremely powerful word:

“No.”

It can be daunting to do it.

People are so used to this idea that you have to always be available, a team player, and willing to go the extra mile to show your worth at all times. It’s thought of as the most effective way to move forward in your professional life.

But in reality, saying no can be very beneficial in your career.

When Should You Be Saying “No”?

Your career will present you with countless opportunities to say no:

  • Recruitment pitches that don’t work for your career path at all
  • Requests for free stuff (advice, labor, etc.)
  • Low-ball offers
  • Extra work that isn’t compensated
  • Colleague interruptions, etc.

Learning how to say no can give you a competitive advantage because you can use it to deter the events that aim to take you off your path toward reaching your career goals.

Doing someone a favor once in a while isn’t necessarily bad. It can be a way to strengthen your relationship with managers and co-workers. But if you have a habit of saying “yes” to everything, at one point you can end up:

  • Overworked
  • Underpaid
  • Frustrated
  • Exhausted
  • Confused about your future

So, How Can You Say ”No” Without Jeopardizing Your Career?

A lot of the time, the clients I work with have a problem in terms of mindset.

They see saying the word “no” mostly from the perspective of the other person, and how it will affect them. How they won’t get the help they need, the advice, or the task done.

But, it’s important to put yourself back into the story because saying “no” also affects you.

Here are a few tips that can help you figure out when and how to say “no” without it jeopardizing your career:

  • Take a few moments – You don’t have to accept or reject a proposal right away. Just say “give me a few minutes to think it over”;
  • Evaluate your priorities – Consider your goals, and how this proposal fits into your journey. Does it help? Does it distract you from your path? Does it prevent you from focusing on other things?;
  • Consider the results of saying yes – Now think about the scenario of saying yes. What would that look like? Would it be beneficial to you? Can you do it alone or would you need more support?
  • Rip the bandaid – If you analyze the proposal and want to reject it, then it’s best to rip the bandaid off, just say “no”, and add your reasoning.

I’m not going to lie, it will most likely still be difficult at first, even if you follow these steps.

You will need to give yourself some time to embrace the idea that saying “no” is not the end of the world, and that it can actually help you move forward with your career goals.

And eventually, it will happen!

 

 

Achieving Success: Do You Need Personal or Career Coaching?

By: David Herdlinger

It’s a question many of my clients looking to meet success often ask me: what type of coaching is most suitable for them and their goals?

Do you need a career coach to help you stay on track in your professional life? Or, do you need a personal development coach to help you unlock more fulfillment?

And the truth is… most people need both!

Unpacking the “Difference” Between Personal and Career Coaching

It’s easy to think that the two areas of coaching are completely distinct from each other.

When it comes to career coaching, you’d expect:

  • Analyzing your career path and opportunities
  • Get support in case you need to reassess your professional life
  • Unlock even more growth opportunities
  • Determining your goals and staying on your career path to meet them

While personal coaching seems to focus on other areas in your life:

  • Identify the skills you lack and build them (such as confidence, communication, etc.)
  • Create more opportunities for personal fulfillment and happiness
  • Finding ways to reduce stress and anxiety
  • Cultivating a sense of well-being in your life

If you look at it this way, it’s easy to think the two have almost nothing to do with each other. But before you consider working with two different coaches to reach your personal and professional goals, there is one key thing to understand:

These two facets in your life are so intertwined that working on one aspect automatically influences the other.

Success Is Determined by Having a Balance in Both These Worlds

Many personal issues can have a great impact on your professional life, positive or negative. And the reverse is also true.

Only when you have to make real choices, you can understand this strong link. You can’t truly help a person move forward in their career if they are battling with certain personal issues that are indirectly creating unnecessary obstacles. You can assist them in writing the best resumes out there, do countless mock interviews to ensure they get the job, but if, for instance, you don’t address the stress in their personal lives, you know their performance will be affected. And so will their ability to reach their goals.

Choose the “Right” Coach Instead of the “Right Type”

A coach is a person who provides you with 1:1 support to help you improve your life. The means to do it or the goals can differ from person to person, but that’s pretty much it.

So unless you’re looking to work on some very niche aspects of your life, I wouldn’t concern myself too much with the label that comes after “coach” as long as this person:

  • Has the right experience and qualifications
  • Understands your situation, and is able to genuinely empathize
  • Can provide you with support in a way that’s comfortable to you (such as face-to-face, online, on specific days, etc.)
  • You feel you can trust

And the last one is, by far, the most important! Because if you don’t trust your coach, you will not trust the process.

Take Care: Ground Yourself

How do you take care and ground yourself?

More than ever, it’s critical that we take care of our bodies and mind. After all, our success depends on being able to function in a healthy, productive manner.

So when your flight, fight, freeze, or fawn response is triggered, how do you respond? How do you signal to your body when you are in real danger, and when you are experiencing stress?

The term “stress” is overused and often misunderstood, as it’s bandied about to describe both cause and effect:

  • Cause: “There’s a lot of stress at work these days.”
  • Effect: “I’m so stressed that I can’t think straight.”

It’s interesting to note that while neuroscience has taught us a great deal about stress, we cannot always distinguish between the psychological state of stress and the physiological response to it. What is clear is that if we’re in a chronic state of high-level stress, emotional strain leads to physical consequences. The body responds with anxiety and depression, as well as high blood pressure, heart problems and cancer. Chronic stress eats away at the brain’s connective tissue.

We can’t completely eliminate stress. But, we can better manage our body’s natural responses to stress. We can take control, ground ourselves, and even improve our brain’s ability to function.

The Science

Severe stress activates the “emergency phase,” commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. It’s a complex physiological reaction that marshals resources to mobilize the body and brain to peak performance. Fortunately, it engraves the memory so we can avoid this stressor in the future.

Our ingrained reaction is essentially a three-step process:

  • Recognize the danger.
  • Fuel the reaction.
  • Remember the event for future reference.

Unfortunately, any amount of stress triggers neurological systems that manage attention, energy, and memory. Moreover, we can find ourselves in a constant state of stress. You see, the mind is so powerful that we can set off a stress response just by imagining ourselves in a threatening situation. It’s time to take good care and ground ourselves.

Grounded is a state of being when you’re feeling your emotions and you’re aware of your present moment experience. Being grounded also means that you’re feeling responsible for your safety and well-being. Grounding is an effective therapeutic approach for managing stress, anxiety, and improving overall mental health.

Stress and Your Autonomic Nervous System

The human body is pretty amazing. Not only can most of us choose if, when, where, how, and why to use it, there are systems that automatically work for us. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and many other functions that allow us to survive.

The traditional view of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is that of a two-part system:

  1. Sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is more activating, and can be triggered by stress to fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. The burst of cortisol may cause our hands to sweat, voice to shake, and stomach to clinch as our pulse rate and blood pressure rise. These are the physical manifestations of anxiety.
  2. Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which counter-balances our SNS and supports health, growth, and restoration. When our brain believes we are safe, we slow down and our systems reboot.

The Vagus Nerve

Our vagus nerve (pneumogastric nerve) is difficult to track, but we know that it is the longest nerve in the ANS. It extends throughout our thorax (esophagus, trachea, heart, and lungs; respiration and circulation) to the abdomen (stomach, pancreas, liver, kidneys, small intestine, and portion of large intestine; digestion and elimination). The vagus nerve can be very powerful, especially when we are feeling stress:

  1. It can trigger the parasympathetic response.
  2. Communicates from the brain to the body and from the body to the brain.

Dr. J. Eric Vance, MD, writes in Psychiatric Times (May 2018) that we are in a constant state of surveillance for risk, safety, threats, and opportunities to respond. He refers to this process as “neuroception.” Fortunately, we can practice calming techniques that send a signal from our body to our brain that we are safe.

Activate Your Parasympathetic Response

Your parasympathetic response (PNS) is your body’s way of returning to rest or calm. Think of it like this: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) works to stimulate fight, flight, freeze, or fawn—ways to keep us alive when in danger. The parasympathetic response system is our parachute out of danger: this system regulates our emotions in stressful situations.

Fortunately, there are ways we can strengthen our parachutes:

  1. Practice deep-breathing (engage vagal tone). Your vagal tone is a measurement of your heart rate variability when practicing slow, deep breathing. A stronger vagal tone leads to better blood sugar regulation, heart health, and digestion; a reduction in migraines; and greater emotional stability and resilience. Lower vagal tone is associated with mood instability, depression, PTSD, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive impairment, and inflammation. Fortunately, deep, slow breathing can increase your vagal tone and trigger parasympathetic response.
    1. To determine your vagal tone, find your pulse. Notice any change as you slowly breathe in and out. If it increases as you breathe in and decreases as you breathe out, you have a stronger vagal tone.
    2. To strengthen your vagal tone, practice slow, deep-breathing.
  2. Soften the eyes/gaze (use peripheral vision). Softening the gaze, or focus, relaxes nerves in and around the eyes. This often occurs naturally when you are lost in thought or daydream. Conversely, when your SNS has been triggered you may experience tunnel vision. When we use peripheral vision, we signal the brain and trigger the PNS.
    1. To soften your gaze, squeeze and relax your eyes. Expand your vision to the sides: notice what is at the outer edges of your vision.
  3. Valsalva maneuver (increase chest cavity pressure). This practice can trigger the heart to slow down.
    1. To practice this, bear down to compress your stomach to your pelvic floor. Alternatively, you can close your mouth, pinch your nose, and try to exhale as you would to alleviate ear pressure. My favorite practice is to breathe in slowly for five second, hold the breath while bearing down, and then slowing exhaling. I do this once or twice, then breathe normally for 30 seconds, and repeat the cycle.

These are just a few of the grounding techniques that we can use to activate our parasympathetic response. If you’d like more information, a qualified coach or therapist can help.

Renew Yourself: The Power of Awe

When was the last time you experienced an overwhelming sense of awe? How did it transcend your understanding of the world?

Even if you can’t answer these questions, chances are the experience lifted your spirits and increased your joy. Maybe that’s why some holiday traditions begin and continue over centuries: they are a way to renew yourself.

Consider the first time you recall seeing the lighting of a Christmas tree. Were you warm, or cold? Was it daytime, or nighttime? Who was there? Chances are your caregivers were focused on your reaction and able to view the spectacle through your eyes, turning a task into something extraordinarily awesome.

Unfortunately, responsibility and daily pressures can rob us of awesome experiences as we focus more and more on organized, goal-directed, and competitive activities. (Yes, it is possible to turn tree-trimming into a competitive sport.) Add to that the strain of uncertainty and ongoing changes experienced with a pandemic, and our worlds seem to shrink and shrivel. We lose our ability to experience awe.  Fortunately, we can cultivate awe.

The Benefits of Awe

To be sure, stress can be tiring. Even the holiday season can leave us feeling a bit frazzled and worn down. But before you dismiss cultivating awe as another task for your to-do list, consider the benefits of awe. Experiencing awe allows us to:

  • Enhance our connection to and with others. We become more aware of how we are connected.
  • Be more comfortable with uncertainty. Our need or desire for cognitive control decreases.
  • Take risks. Experiencing awe increases our need to take risk, and we become better able to do so.
  • Gain greater understanding of our sense of self, our history, and our place in the world.
  • Reduce inflammation. Experiencing awe improves our physical health as it positively impacts our cytokine response.
  • Be curious, courageous, and move forward.

Defining Awe

Awe can be difficult to precisely define. Many people describe awe as a human response to a spiritual presence; a complex emotion that can be positive or negative. According to scientific research conducted by behavioral neuroscientists, “Awe differs from common positive emotions, triggered by vast stimuli, and characterized by a need for accommodation (NFA).”  Based on studies of people in 30+ countries, researchers have identified certain properties of awe. These include:

  • Vastness: anything perceived as being immense in physical size, social status, scope, or complexity as compared to the self. In addition, awe comes from a vast variety of sources, including physical, epistemological, temporal (i.e. how music can stretch time)
  • Transcendence: awe transcends our understanding of the world and requires a new mental schema reorganization to accommodate the experience(s).
  • An embodied response (universal patterns of behavior), including emotions, the nervous system, and a brain state:
    • Down regulation n of the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for executive function/intentional control
    • Up regulation of the DMN (the default mode network, which is the interaction between multiple areas of the brain that are active during ideation: imagination, divergent thinking, creativity, innovation, etc.)
    • Increase of activity in the right side of the brain (and decrease in the left), which is correlated to the brain state when people engage in society or culture

Awe has a widespread effect on our sense of self. Studies also find that awe affects our sense of time, humility, prosocial behavior, and life satisfaction, all great reasons to cultivate awe.

How to Cultivate Awe

While many of us have had fewer opportunities (or the ability) to travel, socialize, or even work face-to-face with others, it is possible to renew yourself with small daily doses of awe. Keep in mind that by its very definition, awe comes in a vast variety of sources: what works for one person, may not work for another. So, start with a little inventory of your own awesome experiences.

  • Awesome writing! Block ten minutes early in your day to cultivate awe. Scan your memories for awesome experiences. It might be something you witnessed, read about, or an event in which you took an active role. Consider the ways in which you experienced the vastness: was it physical, psychological, or both? Describe your experience in writing with as much detail as possible. What did you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? How did you respond? What did you learn; how did you change?
  • Awesome reading! Again, block ten minutes early in your day to find and read an awe inspiring story. It might be a biography, a scientific discovery, a blog post, or a news story. (Avoid negative or clickbait headlines.) As you find stories that trigger awe, curate go-to sources (websites, journals, blogs, etc.) Look for stories that illustrate a sense of vastness (physically or psychologically) and alter your understanding of the world (and your place in it.)
  • Awesome tripping! This may take a bit more time than ten minutes, but depending on where you live (or work), it may require as little as 30 minutes daily. You see, awesome tripping is about being in nature; it’s noticing the natural state of things around you, including the landscape and weather. Go for a walk, sit in a park, visit a museum, or simply stand outside. Even viewing nature virtually—through photos, paintings, videos, etc.—can create awe. (Here’s the research.) So, if you can’t get outside and experience nature “in person,” experience nature virtually.

Remember, awe comes from a vast variety of sources. Explore your own personal, historical sources of awesomeness, and be open to future opportunities. Consider spending time with younger and older individuals. Children can help you see the world as novel and wondrous. Older, more experienced individuals might just be a hero in disguise.

Jump-start Your Leadership and Team Performance

Executives, leaders, and managers are facing tough decisions as we return to work. Newly appointed and seasoned leaders must assess their teams, find the gaps, and fill open positions. Adding to the complexity is the critical task of identifying those who would be better served in a different capacity, often times outside the team or organization. This requires an intricate balance of confidence and humility, as well as skillful communication.
The first few weeks are crucial to build trust, learn, and evaluate, even if you are not new to your role. You see, the pandemic has changed us: we’ve adapted and grown, our perspectives have been altered, and for some, our values have shifted.
In a recent Pew Research survey of Americans regarding their experience with the pandemic, almost 90% of the 9,220 who responded reported at least one negative change and 73% have experienced an “unexpected upside.”
According to Pew, “Most have experienced these negative impacts and silver linings simultaneously: Two-thirds (67%) of Americans mentioned at least one negative and at least one positive change since the pandemic began.
When analyzing the data, they found that Americans were affected in a variety of different ways, both positive and negative, and there was no “typical experience.”
As we return to work, we are returning as a new team. We are new leaders, managers, employees, and teams. By asking the right probing questions and actively listening you can jump-start your leadership and team performance.
Beyond “The Great Resignation”
According to research by Microsoft, 41% of the entire workforce has or may make a change this year. This includes the 4 million Americans who left their positions in April of 2021 in “The Great Resignation.” With many companies returning to the office in October, it is critical that managers, leaders, and executives assess their teams.
New leadership—managers new to their position—will likely find they’ve got the right people on the bus. However, they may inherit people who are not pulling their own weight, including people who are burned out. Rather than shaking the trees (and losing some good leaves with the bad apples), mindfully gather information to make your evaluations.
Evaluation Criteria
Spend time with each individual to assess for:

  • Core competencies: Technical skills and experience required for the job.
  • Discernment: Good judgment under pressure and supporting the greater good.
  • Energy/Engagement: Contributes appropriate energy for the role and tasks.
  • Focus: Prioritizes essential tasks, manage distractions, and complete assignments.
  • Relationships: Maintains healthy relationships with colleagues and is supportive of co-workers and team decisions.
  • Trust: Honest, consistent, and reliable, demonstrating authenticity and trustworthiness.

Consider ranking each category commensurate with the position, and using a scale to determine areas of strength and weakness. Of course, adequate time and the right questions are critical for a fair and accurate evaluation.
Meaningful Questions and Answers
Create a list of standard questions to ask every employee, such as:

  1. How would you describe our existing organizational and team strategy? What are your thoughts about it?
  2. What are our largest short- and long-term team challenges?
  3. Where are our greatest opportunities?
  4. Which/what resources could we leverage more effectively?
  5. How can we improve the way the team works together?
  6. If you could give me any advice regarding my position, what would it be?
  7. What should I pay attention to?
  8. What can I do to help you?

Pay attention to non-verbal clues:

  • What is unsaid?
  • Are they open, volunteering information, or wait until asked specifics?
  • Is there equal focus on strengths and weakness?
  • Do they take responsibility when appropriate, or blame others?
  • Are excuses made (for self or others)?
  • How consistent is body language with words?
  • Which topics evoke an increase of energy?
  • When observing the individual interacting informally with others, how do they appear? (Cordial, reserved, judgmental, competitive, etc.)

Assess Your Team
It is essential to understand how the existing team functions. An initial study of data, reports from meetings, and any climate surveys is helpful. However, group dynamics observed in first meetings are revealing indicators. This is also true for teams who are returning to the office environment post-pandemic.
Observe how they interact in your presence, and roles people take. Have they shifted? If you are new to your leadership position, notice who speaks easily, who is more reserved, and if there appear to be alliances. Note that non-verbal clues appear each time someone speaks during the meeting.
Team Restructuring
If team restructuring is required, you’ll need to identify:

  • Who will remain in their current role?
  • Who is better fit for a different position?
  • Who will you retain and develop?
  • Who do you need to observe for a longer period of time?
  • Who will you need to replace ASAP?
  • Who will need to be replaced within a year or two?

Even when poor performance is well documented, letting someone go can be difficult, time consuming, and costly. Consider alternatives such as a move to another position that is a better fit for their skills. Of course, safety is first. Keep an eye on their performance, but be respectful.
Avoid Common Mistakes
Hesitancy about letting people go, especially when positions remain open, can feel risky. But failing to act decisively and quickly can lead to derailment. Other common mistakes managers and leaders make include:

  • Inadequate personnel plan. Within your first 90-days, personnel decisions should be made and communicated to key stakeholders, including your boss and HR.
  • Ongoing team dysfunction. Correct problems and develop options right away. This may require temporary solutions, including temporary staff and resources.
  • Lack of clarity, purpose, and focus. Your leadership and team must be aligned and clear about organizational mission, goals, and values.
  • Loss of good people. Look for ways to recognize efforts and capabilities. Express gratitude and share all victories—even the small wins.
  • Poorly timed team building. Ensure you have the right people on the bus before you begin team building exercises.
  • Rushing to decisions. When it comes to making implementation decisions, wait until core members of your team are in place and include them in the decision-making process.
  • Going it alone. Great leaders are often seen as independent, trail-blazing mavericks. But the truth is that the greatest rely on experts who can offer sage advice.

How Do You Define Freedom?

When you hear or read the word “freedom,” what is the first thing that comes to mind?

In the US, the 4th of July marks the anniversary of thirteen colonies declaring independence from Britain. They gained their freedom from British rule and government.

In contrast, Canada Day, celebrated on the 1st of July, marks the anniversary of four separate colonies uniting into a single dominion with the British Empire. They gained their freedom to.

Both holidays celebrate freedom, but from very different perspectives. One is freedom from, and the other, freedom to.

But is it really a matter of perspective?

The words freedom, free will, and liberty are frequently used interchangeably. However, according to Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Ph.D, author of Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (MIT, 2006), there is significant difference:

Liberty is linked to human subjectivity; people have (or have not) liberty.

Free will is the quality of being free from control.

Freedom can exist within a state of liberty: a person can be liberated but not experience freedom. Just as control differs from discipline, freedom differs from liberty.

And then there is the matter of negative liberty (or negative rights) and positive liberty (or positive rights.) In Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin wrote that “I am slave to no man,” as an example of negative liberty, and “I am my own master,” as an example of positive liberty.  

How do you experience freedom and liberty? Are you your own master?

Defining Freedom

Consider how you may have defined freedom pre-pandemic. Was it a feeling? Was it an abstract principle? Was it the ability to do what you wanted, when you wanted? You may have given it little thought; freedom may have been something you took for granted. For many, this became abundantly clear during the pandemic lock-downs and the renewed focus against systemic racism.

Yet for persons of color, women, LGBTQ communities, or any oppressed persons, freedom is rarely taken for granted. The struggle was, and remains, real. For others, the struggle might be a matter of awareness that requires a shift in mindset.

What if we acknowledge the freedom of privilege and choice where it exists? What if we manage our time and energy better, and advocate for others?

Freedom Management

In “Time Management Won’t Save You,” (Harvard Business Review, June 2021), Dane Jensen wrote, “time management is like digging a hole at the beach: the bigger the hole, the more water that rushes in to fill it.” That pretty well describes it. Maybe it’s not about time management, it’s about freedom management.

Of course, productivity matters. But choosing what to choose is critical. Here are a few strategies to exercise freedom.

Freedom Strategies

Clarify values, identify choices (and which really matter), and prioritize tasks that align with values.  This requires an attitude of gratitude and the ability to set boundaries:

When it is in your power to do so, say “thank you, no,” to tasks that don’t align with your values or priorities. When it is not in your power to do so, engage in a collaborative discussion to prioritize the request. This strategy aids in the reduction of tasks.

Recognize and reduce decision fatigue with absolute principles. Seemingly unlimited options and choices can overwhelm even the most experienced leaders. Create rules about your decision-making and decisions. For example, I won’t eat anything between 7:00pm and 11:00am; I will research options for 48 hours, make a decision, and then let it go; I will limit my time on social media to 15 minutes each day, including the time it requires to respond to direct inquiries.

Block task-time on your calendar in order of priority (i.e. #1 priority on Monday, #2 on Tuesday, etc.) to safeguard your time and prevent distractions. For managers and leaders, this can include open-door or on-call hours when you are available. Block a few minutes between meetings to capture notes, process, and reflect.

Together, these strategies work to reduce how many tasks we take on, how many decisions we must make, and the number of distractions that can interrupt us, depleting our time and energy.

Exercising Our Freedom

The very subtle stories we tell our self about our own limitations often block us from exercising the freedom we do have. These stories are often a form of self-handicapping: we anticipate a real or imagined obstacle that might get in the way of success and use it as an excuse to do nothing.

This behavior is not uncommon, even for great managers and leaders. We do it unconsciously to protect our self from the pain (and fear) of failure. It may look like procrastination or lack of time.  It might feel like “I can’t,” or, “I don’t have the freedom to…” But, what if you could? What if you do?

More Freedom and Power at Work

Here is an exercise to explore the freedom and power you have at work:

Block 15 minutes on your calendar where you will not be interrupted or distracted.

Reflect on your career path, and identify the projects that you enjoyed the most.

What were your actual actions, or tasks?

Did these projects rely on your strengths, or allow you to develop new skills?

How were you involved in establishing goal- and benchmark setting? What about processes to achieve the goal?

If you had the freedom to change your work, what would that look like? For example, which tasks or projects could you swap with someone who would find them more enjoyable or fulfilling? Which strengths would you like to better utilize or develop?

It’s easy to unintentionally lose power and get stuck, especially today. We have been inundated with obstacles and barriers outside of our control, and we feel disappointed, angry and frustrated. Many of us have been holding ourselves back, waiting for better times. If you have trouble with self-handicapping or embracing your freedom, a qualified coach can help.

Leadership, Trauma, and Recovery

The way we live and work has changed dramatically the past year, upending our routines, our identities, and for many, our sense of security. The trauma of job insecurity, health insecurity, major intergenerational loss, and culture assaults leave us reeling and impact our productivity. Leaders are concerned about their employee’s well-being and safety.

Traditionally, when employees share or demonstrate a need for assistance, we rely on our human resources department (or representative) to step in.

However, leaders and managers who are able to work with HR and their employees through trauma recovery are of greater help to those they lead —and their entire organization.

The Catalyst for Change

It’s no wonder that reports of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are on the rise. Experiencing violence (as a victim or witness), a serious illness, or the death of a loved one can trigger post-traumatic stress. Unfortunately, fear, misunderstanding, and lack of trust prevent many employees from seeking assistance or even reporting events.

Trauma can impact anyone. Great leaders recognize this. They understand that how we manage trauma can define our life. The best leaders share openly about their own struggles, how they manage uncertainty, and are able to engage others to share their story. Why?

Individual wellbeing matters in every organization, small or large. When leaders and managers are equipped to treat everyone with care and compassion, everyone benefits.

In Posttraumatic Growth: Theory, Research, and Applications, (Routledge, 2018), authors Richard G. Tedeschi, Jane Shakespeare-Finch, Kanako Taku, and Lawrence G. Calhoun share their research on trauma and how leaders can help traumatized people recover. According to Tedeschi, “…despite the misery resulting from the coronavirus outbreak, many of us can expect to develop in beneficial ways in its aftermath.”

What is Trauma?

Although trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are frequently used interchangeably, they are different. Trauma is time-based, can be experienced more than once by an individual, and there are multiple types of trauma:

  • Physical or psychological
  • A one-time event
  • Historical – this type of trauma is often associated with racial and ethnic population groups in the United States who have suffered major intergenerational losses and assaults on their culture and well-being
  • Traumatic grief/separation/forced displacement
  • Natural disasters
  • Witnessing any of the above traumatic events

Responses to trauma can be expressed through emotions and/or behavior, and can impede an individual’s ability to function.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a longer-term condition that can develop as a result of trauma, however, not all traumatic events lead to PTSD. Re-experience of the event can occur through flashbacks, dreams, and thoughts. Common signs and symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Avoidance of people, places, or memories of the event
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Being easily startled
  • Feelings of guilt or blame for the event
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Constant state of agitation/arousal  (not triggered by traumatic event reminder)
  • Event memory lapse
  • Negative thinking about self/world
  • Loss of interest in pleasure, family, or friends

PTSD symptoms can begin as early as three months post trauma or years after, occur for more than a month, and interfere with work, relationships, and daily tasks. A diagnosis of PTSD can be done by a trained medical professional, but leaders who have a greater understanding of the condition can aid in the recovery process.

What Leaders Need to Know about PTG

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) occurs through the struggle with adversity and results in a transformative, positive change. Based on the research published by Lawrence G. Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi in The Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth (Routledge, 2014), people who make meaning out of trauma:

  • Increase their sense of personal strength and ability to prevail
  • Improve their relationships and sense of belonging
  • Experience greater compassion
  • Deepen their sense of purpose and appreciation for life

Research also reveals the benefits of small support groups. These offer the opportunity to share our stories, an invaluable tool in PTG.

PTG at Work: What Managers Need to Know

Managers and team leaders can provide a psychologically safe-space where employees can share their stories, restore their wellbeing, and re-affirm their sense of purpose. Below are five key questions to help employees validate their experience and move forward constructively through the pandemic recovery:

  • What is your greatest loss as a result of the pandemic?
  • What is your greatest gain as a result of the pandemic?
  • What self-discoveries have you, or are you making as a result of the pandemic?
  • How can you apply your discoveries going forward? What would it look like?
  • What can you use to prompt you to apply your discovery? Specifically, what two words or phrase?

Remind your team to refrain from cross talk (don’t interrupt or comment on what someone else has said), as well as keeping what is shared confidential. You see, listening as “attentive companions” creates and holds a safe space for one another. When we use storytelling based on these questions, we express authenticity, vulnerability, and trust: for and in others.

Your Trauma Recovery:
What Employees Need to Know

As many return to pre-pandemic routines, trauma and trauma recovery are frequent topics of discussion. For some, the challenges have brought a new appreciation (and recognition) of personal strengths. They are exploring new possibilities personally and professionally.

If you’re not there yet, know you are not alone. Help is available. While post-traumatic growth (PTG) may happen naturally, there are steps you can take to facilitate the process.

Five Ways to Facilitate Growth after Trauma

A traumatic event is often shocking, scary, and sometimes, dangerous. It disrupts our beliefs and challenges our assumptions. Trauma can produce anxiety and repetitive thoughts.

  1. Educate: Trauma disrupts our beliefs, challenges our assumptions, and can be a catalyst of positive change. Consider where you might find positive impacts.
  2. Regulate emotions: Notice feelings as they occur. Then, determine what thoughts preceded negative feelings. Replace negative thinking with positive thoughts.
  3. Share your story: Talk about your experience: past and present.
  4. Create an authentic narrative: In what ways are you changing or have you grown? Where are new possibilities and opportunities?  
  5. Be of service: Helping others can renew our energy and help us find meaning.

Be patient with yourself. When you are ready, the effort is worth it: you are worth it. If you need help, ask your manager, a trusted mentor, or a qualified professional.

Inspirational Leadership

What does inspirational leadership look like in your organization? Let me ask: what impact do inspiring leaders have on performance, both organizationally, and at an individual level?

Consider this: while an employee’s mindset is important to their overall performance, without support from their leadership, even the most committed and motivated employee may not reach their potential. This became very clear during the pandemic, as studies now find. When uncertainty and anxiety are high, employees must have clear expectations and emotional support.

Unfortunately, some leaders have risen to the top through marketing or hype. They sway others to do as they ask (or command) with a lack of genuine concern for their well-being. As a result, there is a large degree of distrust and reluctance.

Conversely, inspiring leaders take action because of their care and concern for others. You see, inspirational leadership is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in our charge. While rank or title may indicate leadership authority, they are not indicators of leadership ability.

Inspirational Leadership Can Be Developed

Inspiring leaders are often described by their innate traits, strengths, or title. Fundamentally, inspirational leadership is the ability to positively influence and/or motivate others. In today’s world, inspirational leadership is about connection: connecting with those you lead in ways that are meaningful to them.

You see, the relationships you create determine your abilities as an influencer. If you build trust and practice empathy in your relationships, you’ll create higher-quality connections. This may sound simple, but it poses certain challenges that require nuance and practice.

Fortunately, we can develop inspirational leadership. At the core is our ability to see those around us.

Why We Need Inspirational Leadership

In a 2017 survey recently published in Harvard Business Review, 85% of 14,500 workers across a variety of industries said they were not working at full potential. We know that external incentives or benefits alone are not enough to motivate workers. Great leaders inspire their people with why they do what they do, instead of the what and how.

When employees believe their work matters; when they have a purpose that aligns with the mission of the organization and their leader, they are more creative and productive. They care because their leaders skillfully communicate genuine care.

Engage the Heart and Mind

Great examples of this in action are those leaders who engage both the heart and mind. Consider the entire speech of Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on August 28, 1963. He didn’t begin with “I have a plan.” Nor did he open with the changes that needed to be made. He began by telling us why: why all people need to bond for a better future.

When we begin a communication with why, we engage the part of the brain most responsible for decision-making. It registers subconscious thoughts, lacks language, uses gut intuition, and is heavily influenced by feelings and drives for survival. When leaders share a greater cause and higher purpose, listeners are sifting, sorting, and deciding whether and how much to trust, and ultimately, commit. Then, leaders can focus on the how and what.

How Leaders Inspire (or Not)

The pressures of the pandemic have affected our communication. We’ve reverted to old school communication styles that are less effective: define the problem, analyze it, and recommend a solution.

If you want to inspire and motivate others, this approach does not work. Worse, it can create more problems. Employees who disagree, have other ideas, or ingrained habits won’t respond well to a perceived command and control order, or a lecture on beliefs.

Communication That Inspires

Leaders inspire their audience when they pay careful attention to communication details and understand the importance of:

  • Word choice
  • Patterns  of words
  • Order of patterns

In addition to words, the language of leadership is most effective when you:

  • Can share intelligent stories and narratives
  • Display appropriate, congruent body language
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the audience’s story and context

What Your Audience Wants to Hear

Most of our communication is done electronically (email, phone, video-conference, etc.) and people aren’t necessarily listening. Inspiring leaders understand this, and use four methods to grab focused attention.

  • Sharing a personal story or message – sharing “why”
  • Triggering emotion – sharing “how”
  • Presenting trustworthy data or reliable source – sharing “what”
  • Using concise language, without relying on jargon (i.e. industry specific terms, abbreviations, etc.)

The Role of Positive and Negative Messaging

Personal stories that trigger emotion are more than twice as likely to resonate with your audience. Negative messages are also more effective when they illustrate the seriousness of a problem, the trajectory, and how it was and can be overcome. However, negative messages can de-motivate people.

Positive messaging creates a desire to change and sparks imagination. Clear examples of how others are making a difference appeal to the heart, and the mind. This enables your audience to see the possibilities and create their own conclusions.

What Your Audience Needs to Hear

Inspirational leadership relies on the establishment of an emotional connection, as well as sound reasoning.

The Importance of Connection: At its core, inspirational leadership is about connection: connecting with those you lead in ways that are meaningful to them. The relationships you create determine your abilities as a motivator. For example, if you are empathic and establish trust in your relationships, you’ll create higher-quality connections.

Encourage individuals to speak truth to power. Create an environment where there is safe-space to share ideas, including disagreement and dissent. This enables greater collaboration and innovation.

The Importance of Compelling, Sound Reasoning: Any desire or willingness to change will wane unless it’s reinforced by compelling, sound reasons. Appeal to your audience in story forms that communicate:

  • Why: why the change is needed
  • What: what the change is and how it will impact them
  • How: the change will be implemented
  • Why this change will work: the sound reasoning

Inspirational leadership creates a scaffolding­—a catalyst for a creative process—that enables an audience to see the world for themselves, view their relationships in a new way, and make progress in reaching their full potential.

Gender Equity at Work

How do you ensure gender equity at work?

To be sure, making our way through the pandemic has required real focus; for many leaders, keeping the lights on has been priority one. And yet, I’ve noticed that great leaders have managed to reach the light at the end of the tunnel without losing sight of the gender gap. They understand the advantages of inclusivity and gender equity. Unfortunately, they remain the exception, rather than the norm.

Consider this: prior to the pandemic, the percentage of men and women employed in the U.S. was almost equal, and yet the ranks of leadership remained male-dominated. Women remain underrepresented in positions of power and status. The highest-paying jobs are the most gender-imbalanced as organizational barriers and managerial actions limit opportunities for even the most promising women.

In the new book Glass Half-Broken, authors Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg share their research on the gender gap. They reveal how women are squeezed from the leadership pipeline through their entire careers, and for a wide variety of reasons.

According to the authors, “The gender imbalance at the top still remains, even in many women dominated industries such as health care and education, where men are still more likely to be found in leadership and executive roles.”

Fortunately, many organizations have made great progress in bridging the gender gap. They fairly value the capabilities and contributions made by women. Why?

Successful Gender Equity

Successful organizations—and leaders—understand that gender equity at work is advantageous for everyone. Here are just a few of the advantages:

  • Improved thinking and decisions.
  • Increased focus and innovation.
  • Greater access to talent.
  • More resilient workforce.

In order to make progress in gender equity within organizations, you must be systematic. This begins by addressing inequities in key areas of talent management.

The Obstacles Women Face

  • Inadvertently disqualifying female applicants.
    • Over-reliance on personal networks or referrals.
    • Poorly written job descriptions.
    • Blind spots. Often hidden or unknown, gender bias affects how we screen and evaluate resumes.
  • Inadequate integration.
  • Lack of challenging assignments.
  • Non-standardized/informal/irregular performance assessment.
  • Inequitable compensation and promotion.
  • Failure to retain female employees.

Fortunately, more organizational leaders are being held accountable for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But, are they prepared?

Gender Equity Allies

Men are a crucial and often over-looked ally of gender equity. To be an ally to women means having an interest and investment in the advancement of women—at work, and in life. It is understanding the imbalance in opportunity, and working to change it.

Men who are allies to women recognize the challenges and biases women continue to face, and take action to create an environment where everyone has opportunities to succeed and advance. They act as allies even when women are not in the room. So why don’t more men ally with women?

Gender Issues and the Big Myth

Ammerman and Groysberg point to scientific research on how some men believe that it isn’t their place to speak up about gender issues. This psychological standing refers to whether an individual feels they have authority or legitimacy to take action for a cause or issue.

However, studies find that attempts to bridge the gender gap are more effective when men participate by speaking up with ideas, volunteering to improve gender imbalance, or serving as equality champions. The key is invitation: ask men to participate.

Regardless of their position or role, men can:

  • Understand the experiences and perspectives of female colleagues.
  • Amplify what women are saying.
  • Empower women. Ensure they have a seat at the table.

Simultaneously, there are steps leaders can take to address, prevent, and mitigate barriers.

Explore Existing Processes and Practices

  • How do you attract strong candidates, both male and female?
  • Do you work with a recruiter, and if so, what are their methods? If not, how do you ensure you have gender diversity in your pool of candidates?
  • Are job descriptions clear, written with gender neutral language void of superlatives? What about qualifications?
  • How do you determine which applicants to interview? Do you use a weighted scoring system? Is screening and interviewing done by a gender diverse group? If not, what is your methodology?

Consider this: blind auditions, that is to say, resumes that are anonymized by omitting names or any indicators of gender, increase the number of female applicants who advance in the process.

Day-to-day processes also require review for potential barriers to women. For example, when task segregation occurs—when women are expected to complete less-rewarding work—they are denied access to more challenging and career advancing work. Being transparent in the promotion processes, including career development, is critical.

Ammerman and Groysberg share that women who move up into leadership positions, “tend to be those who have mentors and sponsors earlier in their careers.”

Managers and Gender Equity

Great managers fully support gender equity initiatives and programs. As allies, they help address talent management inequities in three key areas.

Equitable Evaluation: Performance evaluations are often based on criteria other than employee results and behaviors. Ultimately, managers use their judgment. Assumptions, likeability, and group think (if calibration meetings are utilized within your organization) can influence the outcome of performance evaluations.

Equitable Pay and Promotion: When managers provide clear information—when communication is consistent and reliable—compensation and promotion is much more equitable. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Do all employees have access to median salary information for every position?
  • How much flexibility do managers have in awarding compensation and promotion?
  • Are employees aware of this? If not, why not?
  • Do all employees have access to performance feedback? If not, why not?
  • Is performance feedback tied to specific business outcomes?
  • How do managers provide insight into what individual women need to do to advance?

Team Culture: Day-to-day practices greatly affect retention and workplace gender equity. Consider the stigma of WFH (work from home), flex schedules, and other family or accommodation policies. In many organizations, extreme dedication has become the team culture norm.

According to Ammerman and Groysberg, “Women working flexible schedules tend to be seen as less committed and less motivated than those working standard hours, even when their actual performance is identical.”

Examining team cultures, and working with managers to intentionally shape them, is critical to gender equity at work.

Get Your Career Mojo On!

How is your career mojo?

Navigating a return to work after a long absence can be daunting, especially if it requires securing a new position. Typically, most people rely on networking as a common strategy. However, with so many workers, managers, and leaders furloughed or laid off, the competition can be fierce. Add to that bias about long-term unemployment, and even great mojo can take a hit.

There remains in our culture a stigma about long-term unemployment. This is especially true for the more mature knowledge workers who internalize self-blame or stigmas. Left unchecked, long-term unemployment can suck the air out of our spirit. When this happens our mojo becomes a no go, or as Marshall Goldsmith coined it, “nojo.”

According to Goldsmith, nojo occurs when we become dispirited and confused. This is happening right now with two common mistakes: waiting for the facts to change, and looking for logic in all the wrong places. As a result, we get stuck, and stay stuck.

Fortunately, there is action we can take to navigate a successful return to work.

Avoid Mojo Traps

Waiting for the facts to change. When we experience a setback, such as a loss of a job, it’s not uncommon to wait for the facts to change into something more to our liking. Similarly, when we are given the choice between two undesirable options, we’ll often choose neither. But, in a rapidly changing world, such inaction can be akin to moving backward.

Instead, consider what action you would take if you knew the situation would not change. Ask yourself, “Which path do I choose?”

Looking for logic in all the wrong places. Have you noticed how much time and energy you spend on finding logic in situations where none exists? It’s easy to do; after all, we’re trained to value logic. However, sometimes decisions that affect us are unreasonable, unfair, or unjust.  

Instead, we can recognize and accept that human beings are profoundly illogical. We can accept the things we absolutely can not change, find the courage to change the things we can, and develop the wisdom to know the difference.

How Is Your Career Mojo?

While many workers, managers, and leaders are excited about the future of work, not everyone shares their enthusiasm.

However, according to a recent article published by Harvard Business Review, there is an estimated 1.5 million white-collar workers furloughed or laid off for six months or more. Many are asking the question, “Where do I go from here?”

When this topic comes up in my coaching conversations, we explore four key components of career mojo:

  • Knowing yourself well. For example, what are your strengths? How do you perform best? How do you learn best?
  • Identifying your core values.
  • Determining how your values fit with who you are today.
  • Taking action with purpose, power, and increasing ease.

Reclaim Your Career Mojo

Thinking about the person you are—what makes you “you”—in a realistic, positive light, can help you reclaim your career mojo. Ask yourself:

  • How have I grown in the last decade? The last year?
  • To what extent would I want to trade places with who I was 10 years ago? What about two years ago?
  • How much do I romanticize my earlier years?
  • Who do I think I want to become—and how close am I to becoming my ideal self?

Because the work we do is central to who we think are, it’s important to explore and identify our ideals. This is a purposeful step in becoming and evolving. When we tap into what motivates us in the here and now, we find passion, energy, and direction.

Optimum Career Mojo

A successful return to work requires a certain amount of mojo: those moments when we do something with purpose, power, and increasing sense of ease. When we take action in a positive direction, we reclaim our mojo.

We can begin by reflecting on the past to identify how we have grown. Reflection allows us to identify our current values and how our identity shifts over time.

Because we often operate from a template formed by past experiences, we may be unnecessarily limiting our options. Instead, we can challenge the assumptions we make about ourselves.

Your Ideal Self

Picture yourself a year from now, with your hopes and plans fulfilled.

  • What does that look like?
  • How would you describe yourself?
  • What assumptions are you making about yourself?
  • Where are you placing limits? For example, are you curtailing thoughts based on outdated perceptions about your strengths and weaknesses?
  • How can you leverage your experiences, skills, values, and passion?

A common approach for a return to work is to identify the position you’d like to have and acquire the required skills. But considering the statistics, trends, and analysis on the future of work published by McKinsey & Company, a better approach is to identify and acquire skills for your ideal self, and then find a position.

Reclaiming your mojo begins with small steps that you can take toward your ideal you. If you have trouble with that first step, start with an action that will be helpful regardless of what happens tomorrow, or next week.

For example, review and update your resume and your social media profiles. Update your contact lists and references, and review recommendations. And if you haven’t already, identify a trusted mentor, coach, or other professional who can support you through the process with objective, helpful feedback.