Midcareer Crisis …or Opportunity?

Have you ever had a midcareer fantasy where you quit your job and go do something new?
Many executives secretly admit to their coaches that they’re contemplating midcareer shifts. They may not actively seek change, but they certainly start imagining it.
Of LinkedIn’s 313 million members, 25% are active job seekers; 60% are passive job seekers (not proactively searching for new jobs, but seriously willing to consider viable opportunities). There’s also been a steady increase in self-employed and temporary workers over the last two decades. Entrepreneurship may sound lucrative every time a startup goes public.
Regardless of your age, background or professional accomplishments, you’ve probably dreamed about a new career at some point. Midlife is often a time when we reevaluate our goals, aspirations and what truly matters to us in life.
In “5 Signs It’s Time for a New Job” (Harvard Business Review, April 2015), Columbia University Professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic examines what happens to many people at midcareer. Few of us actually shift to something different. As he explains, complacency often trumps transformation:
Humans are naturally prewired to fear and avoid change, even when we are decidedly unhappy with our current situation. Indeed, meta-analyses show that people often stay on the job despite having negative job attitudes, low engagement and failing to identify with the organization’s culture. So, at the end of the day, there is something comforting about the predictability of life: it makes us feel safe.
Chamorro-Premuzic cites five signs that indicate it’s time to seriously consider a career switch:

  1. You feel undervalued.
  2. You’re not learning.
  3. You’re underperforming.
  4. You’re just doing it for the money.
  5. You hate your boss.

Yet, who hasn’t experienced these feelings periodically? Do they mean you’re headed for a full-fledged midlife or midcareer crisis?
The Stereotypical Story
Hearing the phrase “midlife crisis” evokes the cliche of a successful man, between 40 and 55, who wakes up one day and decides he’s been chasing all the wrong things: his career, family, wife, car and possessions. Nothing provides him with the satisfaction he craves. He demands more.
Suddenly, he divorces, changes career or organization, dresses differently, gets a young girlfriend and buys a red sports car. Years later, he finds himself with the same unfulfilled yearnings, having metaphorically changed seats on the Titanic.
While this scenario has become today’s hackneyed midlife-crisis narrative, the concept of middle age as a distinct life stage dates back to the 19th century, according to Patricia Cohen, author of In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age (Scribner, 2012). The term “midlife crisis” was first coined in 1965 by psychologist Elliott Jaques. In 1974, journalist Gail Sheehy famously depicted the midlife crisis as a life stage in her bestselling book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life.
Roughly a quarter of Americans reports experiencing a midlife crisis, according to research published in 2000 by Cornell University sociologist Elaine Wethington. Many who disclaim the notion regard midlife crises as a lame excuse for behaving immaturely.
The term crisis also contributes to stigmatization, as it suggests a shock, disruption or loss of control. But the actual data on midlife experience and the relationship between work and happiness points to something different: an extended and unpleasant – but manageable – downturn.
The Happiness U-Curve
The average employee’s job satisfaction deteriorates dramatically in midlife, according to a British survey conducted by Professor Andrew Oswald of The University of Warwick.
Midcareer crises are, in fact, a widespread regularity, rather than a few individuals’ misfortune.
But here’s the good news: In the second half of people’s working lives, job satisfaction increases again. In many cases, it reaches higher levels than experienced early in one’s career, essentially forming a U-shaped curve depicted in the following graph:
(Source: Crisis, The Atlantic, December 2014)
Subsequent research revealed this age-related curve in job satisfaction is part of a much broader phenomenon. A similar midlife nadir is detectable in measures of people’s overall life satisfaction and has been found in more than 50 countries.
The U-curve tells a more accurate tale of what happens midlife and midcareer. It’s not a story of chaos or disruption, but of a difficult – yet natural – transition to a new equilibrium.
Just knowing the phenomenon is common can be therapeutic. Princeton University health economist Hannes Schwandt cites a feedback effect: “Part of your disappointment is driven by the disappointment itself.”
Understanding the U-shaped curve allows us to recognize midlife as challenging, yet ultimately gratifying. We should resist judging ourselves harshly for feeling disappointed. We can avoid making bad decisions that potentially lead to midlife divorces and career catastrophes.
The Other Side of Midlife
Fortunately, most people avoid upending their lives at the first signs of midlife dissatisfaction. As noted earlier, only 25% of us even admit to experiencing a crisis. So, what happens to the75% who may feel dissatisfied at midlife, but who don’t do anything about it? Are they in denial or simply more mature?
Freud described two requisites for sanity: work and love. What happens when work and love lose their sparkle, as often occurs in midlife?
Work carries a large, invisible burden: the presumption that it will provide our lives with meaning and energize our spirits. Sometimes it does. By midlife, however, we may find that work drains us.
The ego tends to prefer security over development. Heeding it too closely means you may wind up with neither.
At midlife, most of us feel the need to rethink our priorities. Unfortunately, we avoid this task. It’s much easier to succumb to fear. We view change as threatening, and we don’t want to risk losing our hard-earned stability.
In Search of Meaning and Wisdom
Psychologists have not yet determined why people in 50+ industrialized nations experience midlife crises. It’s certainly a major reason why executives hire executive coaches. “What’s next?” is one of life’s most worrisome questions. A coach can help you reevaluate your cherished convictions, morals and guiding principles.
Experiencing disappointment doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong. It signals that something is missing.
There’s a mental shift at midlife from “time since birth” to “time left until death.” We begin to feel time is running out and, more crucially, question whether what drove us in the first half of life is worthy enough for a fulfilling second half.
Being aware of the pitfalls associated with the midlife experience can prevent you from committing irreparable errors. If you know you’re vulnerable to doubts, anxieties and mood swings, you can stop yourself from storming out of a meeting or acting out of desperation. If you feel trapped, midlife can become a truly dangerous life passage. Perhaps Carl Jung said it best:
We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in morning was true will at evening have become a lie.
Midcareer Coaching
Consider retaining a professional coach to guide you through self-examination and reflection on what truly matters most to you. The process often entails reconnecting you to what you love about your life and career.
Clinging to the status quo may, on the surface, appear to be a safer, more mature choice. Nothing could be further from the truth. Redoubling your efforts to achieve happiness based on what drove you in the first half of life is foolish.
In the second half of life, facing our failures and losses facilitates course corrections. We are rewarded with deeper, more fulfilling life and career experiences. Avoiding life’s natural progressions prevents you from broadening consciousness and becoming your authentic self.
Midcareer is a time to examine regrets and accept mistakes. A coach can help you turn failures into meaningful learning opportunities. You won’t need to bury bad memories. Greater self-acceptance opens new avenues.
Unfortunately, most of us work so hard to obtain an identity that it becomes very hard to let it go. What worked earlier in your career is nearly always inadequate to meet the challenges of your mature years, as Marshall Goldsmith proved in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Hachette Books, 2007).
Acknowledging midcareer dissatisfaction opens a window to exploring your options. Ask yourself:

  • What steps must I take to transition to the next stage of my journey?
  • Can I give myself permission to explore new paths?
  • How does fear keep me in a reactive stance, constrained by outmoded routines?
  • Am I content to live partially, or am I ready and willing to explore new ways of thinking and feeling?
  • Can I gather the energy needed to realize my unlived potential?
  • How can I take one small step?

The age-old Serenity Prayer comes to mind:
“Grant me the courage to change the things I can, to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Shift Your Mindset

Choose “Thrive” Instead of “Survive”

Do you ever wonder why some very smart people don’t live up to their potential? Maybe even you are included in this category. It may come down to… mindset.
Mindset is “an established set of attitudes held by someone,” says the Oxford American Dictionary. It turns out, however, that a set of attitudes needn’t be so set, according to Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford.
Dweck proposes in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, (2006) that everyone has either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. According to this accomplished researcher and Stanford professor, we have the power to shift our mindset from one that barely gets us by to one whereby we thrive.

Open and Closed Mindsets

Everyone has two basic mindsets: open with growth, or closed and fixed.

  1. One mindset is open to learning and changing, believing one can always do better.
  2. The fixed mindset is entrenched in the belief that natural talents and abilities predetermine success.

With an open mindset, people believe they can always learn more, do more, and improve. They are confident, yet humble enough to work harder to expand their potential. They accept criticism as important feedback, not as a personal insult.
With a closed mindset, people believe success is based on their innate talents; thus, they needn’t work hard. They think their abilities are set in stone: either they have them or they don’t. They must prove themselves over and over again, trying to look smart and accomplished at all costs.

Mindset Motivates Behavior

When you have a fixed mindset you:

  • Want to look smart (which means you avoid challenges and avoid the possibility of failure)
  • Get defensive
  • See effort and hard work as fruitless and not worth it
  • Do not listen to criticism (it makes you feel attacked)
  • Ignore useful or even positive feedback
  • Feel threatened and envious when others enjoy success
  • Give up too early, plateau, and never reach your potential

With a growth mindset you always have a desire to learn and improve, so you tend to:

  • Embrace challenges
  • Persist in the face of setbacks
  • See effort and hard work as a necessary path to mastery
  • Learn from criticism and often seek out others’ opinions
  • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others

When you adopt a growth mindset you reach ever higher levels of achievement. You’re not afraid of risks because they’re part of the learning and growing process.

Mind Shift

Begin by paying attention to all the ways you are using a fixed mindset. You could be applying fixed thinking to your career, sports, and even to your relationships.
To replace a fixed mindset with a growth mindset you’ll need to embrace the things that have felt threatening, such as criticism, setbacks, and challenges. Are you willing to look at these things as learning opportunities instead of threats?
Remember: the first step toward change is awareness. You can’t shift your attitude until you’re aware of the many ways you’re using a fixed mindset.

Three Questions to Shift Your Mindset

Ask yourself these three questions to shift your thinking:

  1. What can I do today that would advance the knowledge and skills I need to be successful at my goal?
  2. What can I learn about this task so I can achieve it?
  3. Who can I ask for help or feedback with this goal?

The difference between successful people and those who are not is often as simple as asking yourself these three questions: what can I do, what can I learn, who can help me?
This is how a growth mindset starts to take hold in your brain. Instead of putting things off, or finding reasons and rationalizations for why you’re not succeeding like you think you should, answer these questions and then make a concrete plan.
It’s not enough to dream, although that helps to form a clear picture of what you want. You also need to visualize and articulate what you’re going to do, when you will do it, and specify the details.
The idea is not only to shift your mindset, but to also get into action. The best mindset in the world is worthless if you don’t follow through.

Recovering From a Closed Mindset

Anyone can change his or her mindset. It requires conscious practice and vigilance, as well as a willingness to be open to learning and changing.
For example: “At 9 a.m. tomorrow, I’ll set that appointment to discuss the situation. I’ll ask questions and receive feedback, without acting defensive. I won’t make excuses. I’ll take in information, be receptive, and thank others for their input. I can decide what to do later.”
Detailed plans that cover when, where, and how you’re going to do something lead to high levels of follow-through and increase your chances of success. Even if you have negative feelings, you must carry through with your growth-oriented plan.

How to Grow Your Mindset

Are you in a fixed or growth mindset in your workplace? Ask yourself the following questions, which will encourage an open mindset:

  1. Are there ways I could be less defensive about my mistakes?
  2. How could I profit more from the feedback I get?
  3. In what ways can I create more learning experiences for myself and my team?
  4. How can I help myself and my team get mentoring or coaching?
  5. In what ways can I create a culture of self-examination, collaboration, and teamwork?
  6. What are the signs of groupthink in my workgroup?
  7. How can I encourage alternative views and constructive criticism?

The Crucibles of Leadership

“Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him.”
– Aldous Huxley

The ability to extract wisdom from challenging experiences distinguishes successful leaders from their broken or burned-out peers.
Difficult and, in some cases, career- or life-threatening events are called leadership crucibles. They are trials and tests – points of deep self-reflection that force you to question who you are and what really matters. Characterized by a confluence of threatening intellectual, social, economic and/or political forces, crucibles test your patience, belief systems and core values.
When you’re open to learning from mistakes, problems and failures, you become a stronger leader. You gain followers’ trust, and they’re eager to produce their best work.
Transparent, honest leaders enjoy multiple benefits: learning, creativity, engagement, flexibility and effective communications. Those who take ownership of their role in organizational problems can decode the contexts in which they make choices and how to avoid repeating poor decisions.
After interviewing more than 200 top business and public-sector leaders, authors Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas were surprised to find that all of them – young and old – could point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that transformed their distinctive leadership abilities.
Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Al Gore and Barack Obama have all been willing to talk about their contributions to national failures. As leaders, they thrived because they learned from their mistakes, which inspired confidence, loyalty and commitment even in adverse times.
Leadership crucibles require us to examine our values, question our assumptions and hone our judgment. We can emerge stronger and surer of ourselves and our purpose, changed in some fundamental way.
One of the most reliable predictors of effective leadership is your ability to find meaning in negative events, learn from trying circumstances, and inspire others through a tenacious hold on life and learning. As Bennis and Joan Goldsmith state in Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader (Basic Books, 2010):

“Conquering adversity – and emerging stronger than ever – makes for extraordinary leaders.”

In Search of Leadership Gold

To a scientist, a crucible is a vessel in which substances are heated to high temperatures to trigger a chemical transformation (for example, a steel refinery’s blast furnace).
In the leadership context, think of a crucible as a transformative experience from which you can extract your “gold”: a new or altered sense of identity.
As Bennis notes:

“Just like the alchemists in history used crucibles in the hopes of turning other elements into gold, great leaders emerge in their own lives as a result of how they deal with their crucibles.”

Most of us find ourselves in a difficult situation at some point in our lives. We may be undertaking new tasks, confronting new challenges, or working at a new pace or with new degrees of responsibility. In each of these cases, there are heightened stakes for success or failure.
Such experiences are extremely stressful and may cause us to challenge our underlying assumptions about who we are and what we stand for. A crucible helps you redefine your values or recognize major themes that reoccur in your life.

Adaptive Capacity

Why can some people extract wisdom from even the harshest experiences while others continue to flail?
Perhaps Charles Darwin put it best:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Crucibles set the stage for adaptation. We are forced to develop new competencies that prepare us for future challenges.
Some people are simply more adaptive than others. In many ways, our capacity to change hinges on our ability to think creatively – to look at a problem and spot unconventional solutions.
Adaptive leaders can entertain opposing views. They learn to thrive in the face of uncertainty and negativity. They can tolerate ambiguity and consider multiple options, without defaulting to short-term thinking or premature decision-making.

Buried Treasures

It’s inherently difficult for us to reflect on painful moments, so their lessons may be buried or forgotten on a conscious level. But pain forms memories that subconsciously affect our current behaviors.
Viewed in retrospect, a crucible may become a defining moment in your life, even if you cannot recognize it as it’s happening. Ultimately, it’s an opportunity to question your most basic assumptions and values, and determine how you want to show up in the world.
Conflicts, challenges and early-life difficulties all contribute to crucible moments. For many of us, a crucible may not initially appear to be a loss or hardship. But as you reflect on it, you’ll discover the many ways in which events influence your unconscious behaviors. Some underlying memories are carried into adulthood, undermining your coping skills until you acknowledge and understand their impact on your life.

From Principles to Practice

Business experts once believed we could master leadership skills by reading books and taking classes. It slowly dawned on them that we practice leadership on the job.
Acquiring leadership skills requires implementation. As with any other performance art, deliberate practice is necessary. We learn to be effective leaders by interacting with other people and groups.
Some experts call this the “apprenticeship model,”and “academy companies”like GE, PepsiCo and P&G have taken to it to heart, making developmental assignments a core part of their leadership-development programs.
Thomas offers additional insights in Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2008):

  1. Practice can trump talent.
  2. Outstanding leaders devise a strategy for transforming crucibles into learning.
  3. Organizations can grow leaders faster by helping them learn from experience.

Making difficult choices that lead to growth gives us a more generous self-perception. We, in turn, survive crucibles with greater confidence and tolerance for taking risks.

Discover Your Crucibles

It’s almost impossible to take stock of yourself without guidance from a trusted friend, mentor or coach. To be truly self-aware, you need someone to hold a mirror so you can observe past and present behaviors. You also need healthy doses of courage, honesty and willingness to listen to feedback.
Begin the discovery process with writing exercises, which you’ll share and discuss with your coach or mentor. Determine whether difficult childhood experiences are triggering strong emotional reactions in the present.
Learn to regard crucibles as integral to midcareer growth. You can work with your coach or mentor to reframe experiences as valuable life lessons. Old patterns and “tapes”can be replaced with new strategies for handling adversity.
In Finding Your True North: A Personal Guide (Jossey-Bass, 2009), Bill George, Andrew McLean and Nick Craig suggest writing a letter to yourself to describe key crucibles in your life. Present these experiences in one continuous draft, taking as much time and space as you need to complete the letter. Tell the whole story: context, high point, what changed, the emotions you felt, and the consequences and aftereffects.
Answer the following questions as you write:

  • What was the greatest crucible of my life?
  • Why was this experience so challenging for me? (List all reasons.)
  • What was the most stressful, challenging or hard-to-endure point in my story?
  • How did I resolve the crucible experience at the time?
  • In retrospect, how would I reframe it today?
  • What resources did I have at the time, compared to those I have now?
  • Which emotional scars must be healed for me to become a better leader?
  • What fundamental insights did my crucible teach me?

Leaders often begin their careers with a strong drive to achieve and succeed. They focus on themselves, their performance and the results they want to achieve. As they mature and rise to higher responsibilities, there must be a shift from “I”to “we.”Great leaders become teachers, role models and mentors, using their influence to groom others. They are ultimately rewarded with the gifts of authenticity, compassion and humility.
As you gain greater self-awareness from your writing exercises, add the following questions to the assignment:

  • How have my crucible experiences enabled me to discover my passion for making a difference in the world?
  • How do my crucibles affect my view of my leadership abilities?
  • Can I pinpoint examples of leading from an “I”vs. “we”perspective?
  • How much time do I spend focusing on others vs. myself?

Be sure to review the answers with your coach or mentor.

Sustaining Success

As hard as it may be to review unpleasant events from your past, the benefits certainly outweigh the discomfort you’ll initially feel.

  • You’ll gain greater awareness of your values and beliefs.
  • Your crucibles shape your passion to lead.
  • Understanding your crucibles helps you move from an “I”to a “we”orientation – a critical development for leadership integrity.
  • Going through crucibles enhances your capacity for empathy and compassion.
  • Crucibles can be used to learn about who you are, as well as about how you learn and grow.
  • Your leadership lessons are invaluable for teaching and grooming others.

As you face future crucibles, ask yourself:
How can I draw from my strengths and knowledge reservoir to sustain myself and overcome these difficulties?
Your answers to this question will shape your leadership effectiveness.

Conversational IQ: 5 Conversational Blind Spots

Conversational IQ:
5 Conversational Blind Spots

“Human beings are the most highly social species on this planet. When we succeed in connecting deeply with others – heart to heart and head to head – trust is at its all-time high, and people work in concert in extraordinary ways.” ~ Judith E. Glaser, Conversational Intelligence (Bibliomotion, Inc., 2013)

Scientists are discovering how conversations cause a rapid cascade of neurochemicals in the brain, laying the foundation for trust or distrust.
To remain competitive, leaders must understand the powerful conversational rituals that prime the brain for trust, partnership and mutual success.
Conversations are more than a vehicle for sharing information. As social beings, our interactions involve words that trigger powerful physical and emotional responses. Our words can facilitate healthy, trusting conversations – or cause others to shut down with fear, caution and worry.
When you promote shared understanding through conversations, you can unleash others’ full potential. As Glaser explains:
“The premise of Conversational Intelligence is: To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of our culture, which depends on the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of our conversations. Everything happens through conversations!”
Our minds toggle through a series of questions to determine the kind of engagement we’ll have with each other.

5 Subconscious Questions

Even before we open our mouths, we size up other people and determine whether we can trust them. In a fraction of a second, you sense whether you need to:

  1. Protect: Do I need to be on guard – and how?
  2. Connect: Can I trust this person?
  3. Belong: Where do I belong? Do I fit in?
  4. Be Strong: What do I need to be successful?
  5. Partner: How do I create value with others?

This process takes place between the brain’s primitive emotional centers and the neocortex, its seat of reason and judgment.
Bad conversations trigger our distrust network; good conversations trigger our trust network. This influences what we say, as well as how and why we say it. Our trust and distrust networks shape each conversation’s outcome.

Leadership Conversations

If you project positive intentions, your employees will likely respond to questions positively and feel more confident about taking risks and accomplishing tasks.
When you offer support and praise, employees believe you trust them and will go the extra mile. Positive conversations obviate worries about belonging.
Feel-good conversations trigger higher levels of dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins and other chemicals that provide a sense of well-being and drive our state of mind. They foster trusting relationships and influence our response to our coworkers and organizational demands.

Conflict and Conversations

Negative conversations can occur despite our best intentions. Others internalize messages based on what they think we said – not our actual words. As Glaser notes:
“Unhealthy conversations are at the root of distrust, deceit, betrayal and avoidance – which leads to lower productivity and innovation, and ultimately, lower success.”
When you want to win and subsequently fight hard, you may go into overdrive as you persuade others to adopt your point of view. You push instead of attempting to pull others in your desired direction.
If you try to win at all costs, your conversations will trigger others’ primitive fight-or-flight response. Your conversation partner’s brain will effectively shut down, and he’ll no longer be open to influence. Your conversation will hit a dead end.
Open interactions require you to be perceived as friend, not foe.

3 Conversation Levels

Leaders commonly rely on two types of conversations: telling and selling.
When telling, they try to clearly specify what employees need to do. When selling, they try to persuade them with reasons for doing it. Unfortunately, some leaders resort to yelling or repeating themselves, and they wonder why they never get the results they want.
Employees may understand “what” to do and even “why” they should do it. But they’ll never fully engage unless they’re part of meaningful conversations that encourage connection, sharing and discovery. When we respect others’ worldviews (especially when they differ from our own), we create a space for better conversations and allow new ideas to emerge.
The following table offers a graphic representation of Glaser’s identified conversation levels:

Too often, we get stuck in Level II conversations because we’re addicted to being right. We fail to realize the negative impact this has on others. We may start out with an exchange of ideas, but we then become trapped in a power dance. It can be hard to let go of the need to win, but it’s critical to take this step to avoid interactions that are merely a contest of wills.
Only when we participate in Level III conversations can we transform ourselves and our conversation partners by sharing thoughts, ideas and belief systems. When we’re mindful of our intentions and notice the impact our words have on others, we begin to live in Level III. We realize that:

  • We shape the meanings our words have on others.
  • We need to validate our words’ true meanings.
  • Breakdowns occur when others interpret our words in unanticipated ways.
  • Breakdowns occur when we try to persuade others that our meanings are the right ones.
  • Breakthroughs occur when we take time to share and discover.
  • Breakthroughs occur when we co-create and partner to create a shared reality.

Reality Gaps

Conflicts commonly arise when there’s a reality gap (an opposing interpretation of reality). They trigger an array of fears that activate our distrust network. We begin to process reality through a fear-based (vs. trust-based) lens. We start to make stuff up.
When we talk past one another, we are conversationally blind. We become focused on making a point and persuading others we’re right. Winning becomes the goal instead of co-creating a shared solution.
In some studies, executives were found to use statements 85 percent of the time, asking questions only 15 percent of the time. Even their questions often turned out to be statements in disguise.
One’s conversational ability isn’t necessarily innate, but you can improve upon it. Conversation partners must agree to share thoughts, ideas and beliefs to co-create a shared sense of mutual reality.

5 Conversational Blind Spots

It’s all too easy for us to retreat into our biases, assumptions and conversational blind spots. This invariably leads to misunderstandings, miscommunications, conflicts and negative relationships. Five common conversational blind spots plague us.

Blind Spot #1: False Assumptions

When we assume others see what we see, feel what we feel and think what we think, we’re operating with blinders on. If you’re engrossed in your own point of view, you can’t connect with another’s perspective.
Sensitive people pick up on others’ lack of connectivity, and they’ll push harder to persuade others that they’re right. Their payoff is a burst of dopamine that may feel great, but it leaves their conversation partners in the dust.

Blind Spot #2: Underestimating Emotions

Words can trigger strong emotions: trust, distrust, excitement and fear. When this happens, we may misinterpret reality. If we feel threatened, we move into protective behaviors and fail to realize we’re doing so. When we’re afraid, the brain releases chemicals that shut down its logic centers.

Blind Spot #3: Lack of Empathy

Fear prevents us from empathizing with others. We become insensitive to others’ perspectives and cannot hear important parts of the conversation. When we’re able to listen deeply, without judgment, we can feel what others are feeling.

Blind Spot #4: Making Our Own Meaning

We assume that we remember what others say. In truth, we actually remember our responses to what others say. Research shows that:
1. We drop out of conversations every 12-18 seconds to process what others are saying.
2. A chemical process within the brain seizes on our responses to others’ words – and these responses form the basis of memory.

Blind Spot #5: Assuming Shared Meaning

We assume that the person speaking creates the message’s meaning. In truth, the listener decodes the message and assigns meaning to it. As a listener, you run a speaker’s words through your personal vault of memories and experiences and attempt to make sense of the conversation.
Two conversation partners can’t be sure they’re on the same page until they take the time to validate a shared meaning.

Improve Your Conversations

You can take several basic steps to enhance the quality of your conversations:

  • Slow down. A conversation is not a race.
  • Breathe deeply. Take appropriate pauses. Allow time to process conversations.
  • Check your emotions.
  • Ask discovery questions.
  • Validate shared goals and meanings

If you’re like many leaders, you tend to march forward at a breakneck pace to achieve goals and objectives – a pattern that prevents you from seeing the impact your conversations have on others. You may forget that your words are rarely neutral and have histories informed by years of use. Every experience you have adds a new layer of meaning to your conversations.
It’s crucial to work on managing any underlying feelings of rejection and protection. Only then can you harness your ability to reach out to others and achieve mutual understanding.

The Science of Happiness: 5 Ways to Improve

Are the happiest people blessed with luck that bestows a better life and fewer worries? Or, should we attribute their emotional fulfillment to character strengths and mind power?
Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is chockfull of relevant findings. Some of the latest research suggests that people who focus on purposeful living are more likely to enjoy good mental health and longevity, as compared with those whose primary goal is achieving happiness.
If you’re highly satisfied with your life, you’re less likely to suffer from psychological or social problems, physical illnesses, stress and work issues.
Everyone, at one time or another, experiences bad luck and the problems life throws at us. But is it possible that some individuals are genetically wired to be happier? And if you’re not among them, what can you do to improve your level of satisfaction?

Hardwired for Happiness

It turns out that mood and temperament do, indeed, have a significant genetic component. In a 1996 study, University of Minnesota psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen surveyed 732 pairs of identical twins and found them to be closely matched for levels of adult happiness, regardless of whether they’d grown up together or apart.
While everyone experiences ups and downs, your mood revolves around innate emotional baselines, or “set points.” Current research suggests that 50% of our capacity for happiness is genetically predisposed.
Still, more than 40% of how we experience satisfaction and well-being depends on our motivations, goals and behaviors. Even with an inherited range of happiness, we can do a lot to become more satisfied with life.
Surprisingly, only about 10% of the variance in happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances (rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc.).
The richest Americans – those earning more than $10 million a year – report levels of personal happiness only slightly higher than those of the office workers they employ.
As we attempt to understand and quantify our happiness quotient, a new question emerges: How many positive vs. negative experiences must we have before we can consider ourselves genuinely “happy”?

We Are Poor Forecasters

What we think will make us happy is usually off-base. While we may work hard to achieve pleasure and fulfillment, we often misunderstand the factors that influence our positive experiences. We assume certain events and milestones will do the trick:

  1. A promotion at work
  2. A clean bill of health
  3. A hot date
  4. Victories by our favorite political candidates or sports teams

We routinely overestimate the degree to which material goods will bring us happiness. Money may contribute to happiness (at least a little bit), but the feeling won’t last.
Meanwhile, as we pursue a variety of dead ends, we ignore the more fruitful ways to increase happiness.

The Little Things Count

Researchers generally agree that we’re happiest when we combine frequent good experiences with a few very intense ones. To feel happy, we must focus on the frequency – not the intensity – of positive life events.
Learning how to take pleasure in little victories, recognizing their importance in our lives and working hard to minimize negative events will accomplish more than waiting around for a single uber-happy experience.

5 Character Strengths

Attaining happiness also requires you to believe that you contribute to events and play a major role in their outcomes. A sense of mastery over both positive and negative events in your life is essential to your overall sense of well-being.
Positive-psychology researchers Nansook Park, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman have been studying 24 character strengths to determine their role in creating subjective feelings of happiness. One key study, with more than 4,000 participants, revealed that five of these strengths are most closely related to life satisfaction:

  1. Gratitude
  2. Optimism
  3. Zest
  4. Curiosity
  5. The ability to love and be loved

It’s important to note that each of these strengths can be learned. You can become more grateful, optimistic, zestful, curious and loving if you’re willing to make the effort.

5 Ways to Boost Your Happiness

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, provides five scientifically validated keys to increasing happiness in The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Books, 2007):

  1. Positive Emotions. Frequent positive feelings – joy, delight, contentment, serenity, curiosity, vitality, enthusiasm, pride – are the hallmarks of happiness. Moments of pleasure broaden your horizons, stimulate creativity, and help build social, physical and intellectual skills.
  2. Optimal Timing and Variety. Pay attention to timing and variety. Otherwise, keeping a gratitude list gets stale and becomes ineffective. Perform five acts of kindness in one day instead of spreading them out.
  3. Social Support. It’s easier to break habits (drinking, overeating) with others’ help, which explains the success of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers. The same rule applies to happiness. Get the support you need from an accountability partner or coach.
  4. Motivation, Effort and Commitment. You won’t automatically become happier by stating your goals. As with anything worth pursuing, you have to be motivated, engage in efforts and commit to repeated behaviors.
  5. Habit. Positive thinking and happiness exercises can help you form habitual patterns of thinking, acting and speaking. Happiness levels will rise with established routines.

Online happiness surveys can help you develop greater self-awareness and enhance your ability to experience satisfaction. Consider working with a professional coach to learn how to harness your strengths.

Put Positive Leadership into Action

Executive coaches and leadership consultants who encourage positive thinking often encounter cynical, hard-driving executives with a close eye on the bottom line.
But positivity coaches have come a long way since author Norman Vincent Peale preached his positive philosophy of faith and miracles. Today’s positive-psychology movement is founded on empirical evidence. Social scientists have documented the benefits of optimism, emotional intelligence and happiness in multiple work settings, including the executive suite and diverse corporate departments.
Positive leadership is no longer seen as a feel-good ideal with little bearing on business results. Mounting evidence reveals that leaders who focus on their people’s positive contributions, while concomitantly achieving tough goals through measurable tasks, enjoy higher performance outcomes.
While positive leadership is gaining traction among CEOs and executive teams, it’s often poorly understood and implemented. University of Michigan management professor Kim S. Cameron, PhD, offers a cogent definition of the term in his new book, Practicing Positive Leadership: Tools and Techniques That Create Extraordinary Results (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013):

“Positive leadership refers to the implementation of multiple positive practices that help individuals and organizations achieve their highest potential, flourish at work, experience elevating energy and achieve levels of effectiveness difficult to attain otherwise.”

As you’ll soon see, positive leadership is a bit more complex than expressing a positive attitude, celebrating progress, encouraging team spirit, fostering positive relationships and espousing inspirational values.

The Problem-Focused Outlook

Unfortunately, positive practices are truly rare in today’s businesses and organizations. Two key factors explain our natural resistance to them:
1. Physiologically speaking, our brains have a built-in negativity bias. We’re hardwired to pay more attention to issues that threaten our survival (negative trumps positive). Crises and problems dominate work agendas. Managers’ daily tasks necessitate solving problems.
2. Leadership pressures steal attention from positive practices, in spite of our best intentions. Successful leaders must override the tendency to focus on problems. Only then can they experience the high performance that positivity can unleash.
While positive executives are perceived to be better leaders, they’re nonetheless in the minority in today’s competitive business environment.

Finding the Right Feedback Ratio

A wave of research reveals that “soft”-sounding positive management practices – including conversations focused on dreams, strengths and possibilities – motivate people to achieve higher performance levels. In fact, the more positive the message, the better the outcome.
But managers are charged with pointing out what’s not working and solving real problems – a mandate that presents a potentially frustrating leadership dilemma: How can you focus on the positive when continually forced to make corrections?
Richard Boyatzis, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, offers a pragmatic solution: “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.”
Let’s quantify this ratio. Effective leaders should provide 3 – 5 positive messages for every negative message they deliver. Your communication must skew heavily toward the positive, without sounding incongruent or inauthentic.
If you fail to “accentuate the positive” (to borrow a World War II-era song title), you remain stuck in negative feedback patterns that demotivate your staff.

Positive Benefits

Barbara L. Frederickson, PhD, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has found that positive feelings expand our awareness of a wider range of possibilities. Instead of looking at what needs to be fixed, we learn to focus on what’s right and needs to be reinforced. When we emphasize positive deeds, using positive language, achievement builds upon itself.
From a neurological standpoint, positivity activates reward centers in the brain, triggering the release of mood-elevating neurotransmitters like dopamine. As we experience positive feelings, we begin to crave even more of them. This cascade propels us to chip away at the small steps needed to achieve our larger goals and ultimately sets the stage for success.
Indeed, Dr. Frederickson’s psychology research shows that a positive focus bestows greater attentiveness, more flexible problem-solving, enhanced creativity and improved teamwork.

Two Opposing Brain Functions

When we’re involved in technical conversations or analytical tasks, the brain’s frontal lobe is engaged. When conversations shift to people, feelings and social considerations, the inner brain – which controls emotions and memories – is activated.
Neurological imaging confirms that results-focused leaders give their frontal lobes a greater workout, while socially minded leaders exercise their inner brains more diligently.
In general, organizations tend to promote leaders for their technical prowess – not their social skills. Surveys show that goal-oriented bosses have a 14% chance of being perceived as great leaders by their employees. The number drops to 12% for socially skilled bosses.
But when bosses are both socially and technically adept, they have a 72% chance of being viewed as great leaders. The bad news? Only 1% of bosses excel at both skills in the real world.

A Trickle-Down Process

Positivity is a principle, not a concrete process like Six Sigma or TQM. Successful implementation therefore requires clearly defined action steps.
Think of positive leadership as a funnel. It starts with the organization and its overarching mission and values; permeates leadership teams through the expression of positive values and goals; helps managers implement and track progress; and ensures individuals know what needs to be done to ensure rewards.

Organizational Positivity

You can identify companies that have implemented positive practices throughout history and compare their mission statements with those of their less successful counterparts.
Positivity clearly appears in mission statements that value societal contributions over the desire to be No. 1:

  • Ford Motor Company: democratize the auto (1900s)
  • Boeing: bring the world into the jet age (1950s)
  • Sony: obliterate the image of poor-quality Japanese goods (1960s)
  • Apple: one person, one computer (1980s)

Compare those mission statements with the following:

  • GE: be No. 1 or 2 in every market we serve
  • Walmart: become the first trillion-dollar company
  • Philip Morris: knock off R.J. Reynolds as the No. 1 tobacco company
  • Nike: crush Adidas
  • Honda: destroy Yamaha

Improving your leadership positivity starts with your organization’s mission statement. Ask “why” you and your organization are here; then, ask yourself and your colleagues what you/they want on a deeper level:

  • Which values merit coming to work each day to give your best?
  • How will you inspire staff and customers to make contributions that benefit the world?

The Language of Positive Conversations

Begin to transform your team by attaching everything you say and do to higher goals and values. Leaders, managers and staff become more positive when they pay attention to the language they use. Rephrase statements in a more positive way, without sacrificing honesty or reality.
If you’re in a management position, everything you say – or don’t say – is magnified, making it even more important to boost your positive/negative ratio. Aim for a least a 3:1 (ideally, a 5:1) ratio of positive to negative statements. When you adopt this approach, others will follow suit.

Show Frequent Appreciation

Instead of seizing on what your people do wrong, start to verbally acknowledge what they’re doing right. Track and recognize progress. Most people perform better when they know they’re appreciated.
This doesn’t mean you should suppress bad news. Instead, learn to deliver it in ways that are less likely to provoke defensiveness. Your execution will improve with practice. You’ll gain respect and better performance outcomes – whether you’re participating in official performance reviews or simply engaging in casual conversations with employees.

In Search of Best Practices

If we want to staff our organizations with executives who can deliver results and demonstrate superior social skills, we need to start identifying them during the hiring and promotion processes.
Hard-driving, results-oriented executives can learn to improve their social skills by retaining an experienced executive coach. Additionally, organizations can improve their effectiveness by:

  1. Hiring for both technical and social skills
  2. Training equally for social skills and technical savvy
  3. Rewarding goal attainment and displays of social skill
  4. Promoting those who demonstrate social prowess

CEOs and upper management must realize that rewarding achievement alone has its limits. Organizations must provide incentives for behaviors, even when people take risks and “fail up.”
Leaders are most effective when they demonstrate social intelligence. Luckily, they can be trained, coached and rewarded for improving their facility in this arena. Specific areas of emphasis should include:

  1. Day-to-day conversations
  2. Performance reviews and feedback
  3. Incentives, rewards and pay
  4. Connecting mission to values

Identify and implement action steps on multiple fronts – from the seemingly simple communication efforts to the more complex ones. Changes at the individual level will begin to transform your working environment into a finely oiled machine that values both results and social relationships.
Employing positive leadership practices will allow employees at all levels to flourish at work, sustain energy and reach peak performance. Conversations that highlight people’s strengths, desires and dreams generate emotions and energy that drive us to work harder. The more positive the discussion, the more positive the outcome.

The Powerful Practice of Gratitude

“Opportunities, relationships, even money flowed my way when I learned to be grateful, no matter what happened in my life.”
– Oprah Winfrey

The secret to greater happiness and success may be more attainable than you think.
Research reveals that taking a few minutes to list the things that make you feel grateful provides a powerful boost of well-being, energy and positive emotions.
This quick exercise also yields greater productivity, determination and optimism. Practicing gratitude fosters better relationships, social ties and career success. Grateful people sleep better, exercise more and have fewer symptoms of physical illness. They’re more likely to be perceived as prime candidates for promotion.
Each day of the week, write down five things for which you’re grateful. You can do this daily or once a week.

  • Day 1: I am grateful for …
  • Day 2: I am grateful for ? (etc.)
  • Day 3: I am grateful for? (etc.)

If success is as simple as this, why aren’t more people keeping a gratitude list?
Perhaps they think it’s a bit hokey – a project reserved for touchy-feely types. Yes, putting in the effort sounds a bit simplistic. But there’s clear evidence that even the most competitive, hard-driving executives benefit from doing so.
The science of happiness provides ample proof that certain practices and exercises improve one’s well-being and mood. When you feel good, you’re more likely to be enthusiastic, generous and supportive of others.
When gratitude becomes a habit, you no longer require a special event to make you happy. You become more aware of the good things that happen every day, and you start to anticipate putting them on your list.

The Case against Positivity

Some executives would assert that expressing positive emotions in the workplace denies the harsh realities of 21st-century business, which is too fast-paced and competitive to dwell on people’s feelings.
It’s true that dishonest or inauthentic positivity creates even more negativity. We have to be able to deliver bad news in ways that will be received and encourage the desired changes. For example, when you need to give negative feedback, you must speak honestly and respectfully, and still have an impact.
Multiple surveys tell us that feeling unappreciated is the No. 1 reason why most Americans leave their jobs. Such statistics have been underlining the need for positive reinforcements ever since the Gallup Organization began surveying millions of people in the workplace.
In fact, 65% of people surveyed said they received no recognition for good work in the previous year, note Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton in How Full Is Your Bucket? (2004).
What employees want most (along with competitive pay) is quality management, Gallup research tells us. When employees fail to feel acknowledged and disapprove of their managers, they leave or simply stop trying.

The Case for Positivity

Not surprisingly, we gravitate toward positive energy and away from negativity. Like animals and plants, humans are heliotropic (literal translation: moving toward the sun). When we’re kind to each other and express gratitude, we experience an energy surge that unlocks our inner resources.
We more accurately process positive information. We think about positive statements 20% longer than negative ones. We learn better, remember more and are more resourceful when we experience positive moods.
Several studies confirm that people live longer when they’re more appreciative. Gratitude and positivity stimulate the production of hormones that fight stress and fortify the immune system.
Although positive thinking is attractive to most, we also have a negative bias at play that must be counteracted.

The Case for Negativity

We humans have a strong survival instinct that draws on our ability to spot threats. We react quickly and intensely to warning signs. Negative headlines sell more newspapers, and people gravitate to TV shows that highlight negative behaviors.
We can pay more attention to criticisms than compliments. Negative events have a greater effect on our mood and behaviors. A healthy dose of negativity allows us to spot and avoid problems.
But too much focus on negativity saps our energy and compromises our ability to find necessary solutions.
Managers and leaders must therefore counteract the pull of negativity and the tendency to fixate on bad news. This means that as a leader, team member or friend, we need to seize opportunities to influence outcomes by emphasizing positivity and gratitude.
Ask yourself this important question: How can I help others (and myself) overcome negative events and move forward?

How to Be More Positive (and Successful)

Be willing to invest 5 minutes a day in making a gratitude list. It’s quick, unbelievably easy and provides immediate benefits.
You’ll need to sustain this practice to reap ongoing benefits. Like any habit, keeping a gratitude list takes some discipline at first. An ongoing commitment will allow it to become a natural, established practice in your life.
A word of caution: You may feel gratitude just by thinking about it, but it won’t last. Thinking isn’t doing. Daily or weekly practice – actually writing down five things for which you’re grateful – will deliver lasting results.
In closing I’ve included a list of three books referred to in this article. However, there are now a multitude of books published just in the last decade about gratitude and happiness which merit reading.

Gratitude Book Resources

Tal Ben-Shahar, Even Happier: a Gratitude Journal for Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, McGraw-Hill, 2009.
Kim Cameron, Practicing Positive Leadership: Tools and Techniques That Create Extraordinary Results, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013.
Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton, How Full Is Your Bucket? Gallup Press, 2004.

Set Big Hairy Audacious Goals

“Goals are one of the most misused and abused concepts in business and life today. Quite often, they’re set but not met, or set without providing realistic aims and/or equipment to achieve them. As a result, goal outcomes are often lowered until they are met or scrapped entirely in favor of new ones … and the fruitless goal cycle begins anew.”

Michael J. Burt and Colby B. Jubenville, PhD, Zebras & Cheetahs: Look Different and Stay Agile to Survive the Business Jungle (Wiley, 2013)

Setting a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) can seem exciting and energizing.
First proposed by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (HarperBusiness, 2004), the term refers to a visionary goal that’s emotionally compelling.
A great BHAG drives us to realize achievements that exceed our expectations. It facilitates focus, concentration and the ability to ignore distractions. In simple terms, BHAGs help make our dreams come true.
But without proper exploration, planning and prioritizing, you may end up setting the wrong goal – one that can lead to disappointment, disillusionment, and a drain on energy and motivation. This type of failure makes it hard to start over again.
An effective BHAG motivates your mind (what you know you should do) and heart (what you care about most). It sufficiently challenges your abilities, without making tasks impossible.
Before setting a BHAG, examine your values, beliefs and purpose with a trusted accountability partner or coach. Once you determine what matters most (career, family, community), your goal – a natural extension of your values – will become clearer.
But goal setting is not for sissies. It requires sacrifices: time, money and energy. Are you willing to overlook distractions, guard your time and energy, and resist old habits and routines?

Make SMARTER Goals

“Personal success and organizational success are not entitlements; they have to be earned every day. Reaching the big goals, keeping our eye on our own Big Hairy Audacious Goals, is achieved through daily actions in the here and now.”

– Howard Behar, “It’s Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks“(Portfolio Hardcover, 2007)

A great goal must be SMARTER:

S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Attainable
R = Realistic
T = Time-framed
E = Evaluated
R = Reevaluated

1. Be “specific” when you write down a goal. Narrow your focus. For example, “getting fit” is an outcome – not a goal. “Exercise regularly” is not specific enough. Be precise: “Ride bike 40 minutes, four times a week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday).” Start small; you can always expand goals as you progress.
2. Goals must include quantifiable measures. Track the minutes, days or times you engage in goal behavior. If you miss key targets, record what you did manage to complete. A formal log will track your efforts and help you make adjustments, especially on days when you lack energy or motivation.
3. Make sure your goal is attainable and realistic. If you know that 40 minutes on the bike will exhaust you or create stress because of time limitations, revise the goal to reflect what’s truly possible. If you enjoy yourself, you’re more likely to maintain the frequency required to meet your goal.
4. A goal must be time-framed, with a definable beginning and end.
5. Evaluate your goal to ensure it’s not too easy. If you achieve it too quickly, you may have set the bar too low. Try stretching your goal by 10-20 percent. Conversely, if you’re falling short on your goal, give yourself permission to reduce activities by 10 percent.
6. Reevaluate periodically. Regularly review your goal (and its alignment with your values) with your coach or accountability partner. If you’re not hitting your goals, work with your coach or partner to identify the reasons.

Online Goal-Tracking Programs

Numerous online tracking programs can help you achieve your goals; some are even free.
Here’s a list of the top 10:
1. Achieve Planner: www.effexis.com
2. Declare-It: www.declare-it.com
3. Get Goaling: www.getgoaling.com
4. GoalEnforcer: www.goalenforcer.com
5. GoalPro: goalpro.software.informer.com
6. Goalscape: www.goalscape.com
7. GoalsOnTrack: www.goalsontrack.com
8. Lifetick: www.lifetick.com
9. MyGoalManager: http://www.mygoalmanager.net
10. The Covey Community: www.stephencovey.com

Are Your Goals Incomplete?

“Learning – from experts, workshops, training, practical experiments, therapy, coaches, observing and silence – is all good,” notes Starbucks’ Howard Behar. “It’s how we test and hone our values, our potential and our goals in the real world of life.”
Real learning occurs when you review your goal shortages with your coach or accountability partner. You can then revise your goals and work toward achieving them. The rewards you’ll enjoy are well worth the hard work, time and commitment required.

Leading through Inquiry: Do Ask, Don’t Tell

Good communication is a hallmark of healthy organizations, but it’s often founded on the belief that employees thrive when given clear directions. In today’s increasingly complex organizations, it’s not enough to tell people what to do.
Leaders who ask evocative questions instead of giving instructions set the stage for better communication, employee engagement and high performance.
After airplane crashes, chemical and nuclear accidents, oil spills, hospital errors and cruise-ship disasters, expert reviewers have frequently found that lower-ranking employees had information that could have prevented these events or lessened their consequences. Senior managers were guilty of ignoring their subordinates and being consistently resistant to hearing bad news.
Employees often worry about upsetting their bosses, so they settle for silence – a decision that exposes their organizations to risks with potentially irreversible outcomes. This dynamic plays out in government offices, hospitals and corporations with divisions in power and status, regardless of how democratic and “fair” they claim to be.
How can you create a climate that encourages people to speak up, especially when safety is on the line? How do you convince your staff to correct you when you’re about to make a mistake?

  • Learn to ask the right questions instead of telling your staff what to do.
  • Questions should be genuine, based on curiosity and without an agenda.

Effective leaders master the art of “humble inquiry,” says Edgar H. Schein, PhD, an MIT Sloan School of Management professor emeritus and consultant.
In his new book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013), Dr. Schein describes his title’s skill as “the art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”
Unfortunately, asking questions runs counter to traditional business cultures that value achievement and performance over building relationships. Nonetheless, soliciting others’ input is a fundamental aspect of human relations for leaders who want to foster solid relationships, trust, communication and high performance.

What’s Wrong with Telling?

We live in a culture of telling, where conversations become opportunities to show how smart or funny we are. While we ask questions to show interest in another person, we just as often want to sway them to our viewpoint or get something from them.
When we tell, we put other people in a position of inferiority they come to resent. One-way communication implies that they don’t know what we’re telling them and that they should already know it. This approach provokes defensiveness. People stop listening to you so they can work on a snarky comeback.
In contrast, asking questions temporarily empowers your conversation partners, giving them an opportunity to share what they know. You deliberately put yourself in the inferior position: of wanting to know something about them. This technique opens the door to relationship-building.

The Fear Behind Asking Questions

Displaying vulnerability is truly terrifying for many leaders.
You have to make a choice:
A. Risk appearing fallible by asking questions.
B. Risk creating a culture where people wait to be told what to do.
Take the first step: Banish any obsolete beliefs about omnipotence, and focus on practicing humility, Dr. Schein emphasizes. Ask real questions. Embrace the reality that you depend on your subordinates. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with soliciting their feedback.

Defining Inquiry

Professional pollsters, researchers, therapists and executive coaches have dedicated years to refining their inquiry skills. The rest of us take it for granted that we know how to ask questions. We tend to mimic our role models – usually parents, teachers and bosses – who rely on superficial or social questions that are essentially disguised forms of telling:

  • Why weren’t you at home (in class, at the meeting)
  • How could you screw this up
  • When did I ever tell you to do this?
  • What were you thinking?

These seemingly open-ended questions are actually quite controlling. If you want someone to reveal the full story, avoid steering conversations in any given direction. Distinguish open inquiry (Dr. Schein’s “humble inquiry”) from the three other types of inquiry:

  • Diagnostic
  • Confrontational
  • Process-oriented

Open Inquiry

Open inquiry evolves from authentic interest in another person. We ask questions to encourage honesty and minimize preconceived biases. We have no real agenda, other than to discover what’s on the other person’s mind.

Diagnostic Inquiry

It’s easy to veer off the path of open inquiry by homing in on a particular detail. Doing so may steer the conversation in a different direction and inadvertently return control to you.
Determine why you’re doing this. Are you trying to get the job done, or are you inappropriately indulging your curiosity?

Confrontational Inquiry

Leaders sometimes insert their own ideas in the form of a leading or rhetorical question. By doing so, you’re tacitly giving advice and trying to influence your conversation partner’s answers. Your partner may experience this as manipulative and become resistant.

Process-Oriented Inquiry

Leaders practice process-oriented inquiry when their focus is the conversation itself. This may be helpful when a discussion starts badly. You can explore solutions by asking:

  • “What’s happening right now?”
  • “Are you feeling defensive?”
  • “Have I offended you in some way?”
  • “Are we OK?”

It takes discipline and practice to allow yourself to appear vulnerable. Consider working with an executive coach to break through any vulnerability barriers and perfect the art of humble inquiry.

Rudeness at Work: What Leaders Can Do

Leaders can have a tremendous positive (or negative) impact on the incidence of rudeness. Many leaders are under extraordinary pressure to do more with less, which often impacts their own well-being and tolerance levels. I hear stories about incredible executive stress in the sessions I do coaching.
In a blog by Australian speaker Graeme Cowan, The Surprising Costs of Workplace Rudeness, he writes that the two main strategies for reducing rudeness are relatively straightforward:

  1. 1. Stay physically and mentally healthy.
  2. 2. Model the right behavior.

“There has never been a more important time for leaders to place priority on their own health. Identify strategies that boost your energy level. Take stock of your purpose, passions and positive strengths to become more robust and resilient.”

Every person is different, but common habits that improve resilience include regular exercise, eating well and getting enough rest. It’s also essential to develop supportive relationships and outside interests.
It can take constant vigilance to keep the workplace civil. Let your guard down, and rudeness tends to creep into everyday interactions. Incorporate the following strategies to foster civility:

  • Manage Your Own Behavior. Leaders set the tone, so be aware of your actions and how others perceive you. What you say and do is weighted and easily magnified. Model good behavior (actions and words) and emotional intelligence. In one survey, 25% of managers who admitted to behaving badly said their leaders and role models were rude. If those who climb the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace uncivil behavior, employees are likely to follow suit. So, turn off your iPhone during meetings, pay attention to questions, and follow up on promises.
  • Express Appreciation. People need to know they’re valued. Be alert for what they do right, and let them know you’ve noticed their hard work and progress. People become frustrated when their efforts go unrewarded, thereby setting the stage for rudeness.
  • Apply the 5:1 Ratio. According to psychology researchers Barbara Fredrickson and Marcel Losada, teams are most effective when they hear feedback that is 5:1 positive to negative. Yet, work groups more often focus on what’s wrong instead of what’s right. It’s not that leaders should be blind to negative performance. They must, however, express 500% more appreciation than criticism if they want to see progress.
  • Recognize Small Achievements. Making progress on meaningful work is the most energizing and motivating event an information worker can experience, note Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011). Effective leaders acknowledge even small improvements on a regular basis. This means employees must understand their exact roles within your company.
  • Establish a Positive Culture. Employees with a positive mood are 31% more productive, sell 37% more and are 300% more creative, notes business consultant Shawn Achor in Positive Intelligence (Harvard Business Review, February 2012). Create a positive mood by supporting physical activity: walking meetings or flexible work hours that allow for daily exercise.

What are other things leaders can do to help reduce rudeness and incivility in the office? I’d love to hear from you.