How is Your Organization Fighting Racism?

How is your organization fighting racism?

A 2017 analysis of racial discrimination revealed no improvement in hiring over time. With all the diversity training and education we have received, how can this be?

To understand the collective dimensions of racism, and how different groups of colors get set-up differently, is a life-long process. Different groups have different experiences, and it’s important to learn those histories.

All people who are not perceived as white continue to experience racism. They experience it in shared ways, and in ways that are unique to their group, and their position to whiteness. However, there is something profoundly anti-black in our culture. It cuts across all groups, and is a form of state sanctioned discrimination.

You see, racism isn’t just about being racist. And it’s not something that just bad people do. Racism is a system of oppression—intentionally or not. And it hurts everyone.

Today, most organizations offer diversity training. But we need to move beyond this. We need to learn how to listen better, learn better, and take better action to correct the systems that support racism. Ultimately, this will strengthen our businesses, those we serve, and our entire society. But most importantly, it’s the right thing to do. Black lives matter. 

Key Terms for Open Discussions

In her book, White Fragility, (Beacon Press, 2018), Dr. Robin DiAngelo shares her research and experiences regarding racism, and how white people often inadvertently maintain racial inequality. You see, often times, when our assumptions about race are challenged, our reactions are counterproductive. Instead, we can learn to identify these responses and engage in open discussions where we really listen and learn. Then, we can take action.

Talking about any issue requires an understanding and agreement on key terms:

Institutional Power: the ability to disseminate your world view to everyone, and to shape how they see themselves, how they see you, and how they see themselves in relationship to you.

Racism: a system of oppression, not an event.

Racist: the traditional definition is an individual who consciously does not like people based on race, and is intentionally mean to them. The three key words are: individual, consciously, and intentionally. This definition actually protects the system of racism. It makes it virtually impossible to talk to the average white person about the inevitable absorption of a racist world view that we get from living in a culture in which it is infused and embedded across all its institutions. This definition is the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. When this is your definition, and someone suggests you may have said or done something racist, the response is to defend your moral character.

Systemic racism: the collective racial prejudice backed by legal authority and institutional control. It is embedded in media, family, religion, education, language, economics, and criminal justice. Systemic racism is embedded in cultural definitions of what is normal, real, correct, beautiful, and valuable.

White fragility: what surfaces when any of the above is acknowledged or questioned.

White fragility is the inability to tolerate racial stress. Racial stress is triggered when our positions, perspectives, or advantages are challenged. White fragility functions to block the challenge and regain white racial equilibrium. It is not weakness per se; it is a powerful means of everyday white racial control as it leverages historical and institutional power to maintain positions. – Dr. Robin DiAngelo

Underlying Beliefs and Myths of Racism

Unfortunately, part of being raised as a white person in our society is to be raised functionally illiterate when it comes to racism. It’s not about being good or bad; nice or mean. According to DiAngelo, the idea that racism is a conscious bias held by mean people is the most effective adaption of racism.

In truth, racism is a system of oppression; it is a complex, multi-layered system infused in everything, everywhere, and probably in your organization, too. Even the best leaders can be blind to it.

Racism is built on a foundation of underlying beliefs, assumptions, and myths, many of which are unrecognized, let alone understood. (And I don’t have to understand it for it to be valid.)

Racism Myths

  • Nice people cannot also act in racist ways.
  • Racism can only be conscious and intentional; unaware good intentions cancels it out.
  • White people who experience oppression/have suffered cannot act in racist ways.
  • My race has no bearing on my perspective on the matter.
  • I have proximity to people of color (POC), therefore I am free of racism.
  • I have no proximity to POC, therefore I am racially innocent.
  • My learning is finished/I know all I need to know.

Other beliefs that support racism:

  • As a white person, I will be the judge of whether racism has occurred.
  • I am qualified to determine whether the experiences of POC are legitimate.
  • If I don’t understand it, it isn’t legitimate.
  • As a white person, I know the best way to challenge racism.
  • I have no accountability to POC, yet I am confident that I am free of racism.
  • White people are objective on racism.

The Real Truth

  • The racial status quo is maintained by white comfort; change will be uncomfortable.
  • Comfort is not the same as safety; white people are safe in discussions about racism.
  • Feedback on white racism is difficult to give; feedback from POC is a gift and indicates trust.
  • Feelings of guilt are normal, and the antidote is action.
  • It takes courage to break with white solidarity; support those that do.
  • Interrupting racism is more important than a leader’s feelings, ego, or self-image. Humility is key. Expect to grapple as you grow.

When a leader is willing to listen, reflect, and learn, change is possible.

How Your Organization Supports Racism

Consider this: most people grow up in segregation. They live their entire life in a segregated neighborhood or community and never have any consistent, ongoing, authentic relationship with people of a different color. For white people, the message is that there is no inherent value in those from whom they are segregated: people of color have no value.

And yet, many white people believe they were taught that everyone is the same. However, this is not humanly possible: socialization does not work in this manner. And unfortunately, this miseducation carries into our adulthood, and in to our places of work.

The Pillars of Racism

  • Individualism: an idea that each of us is unique, and outside of socialization. The belief that society exists for the benefit of individual people, who must not be constrained by government interventions or made subordinate to collective interests. Often equated with the ideology, moral stance, political philosophy, or social outlook that emphasizes the moral worth of an individual.
  • Universalism: an idea that we are all the same. Unfortunately, in the physical realm, universalism functions to take race and power off the table. It denies the fundamentally different experiences of persons of color, and that racism exists. While race isn’t real, the very superficial signifiers that allow us to categorize people are very real and there are consequences. An insistence that we are all the same/one doesn’t allow us to engage with this social reality.
  • White Supremacy: a system in which whiteness, and white people, are central and seen as inherently superior to people of color. It is (typically) not a choice—we are born into it—but we are responsible for changing it, because, the default of our society is the reproduction of racism. It is built into every system in every institution. If we just live our lives and carry on in the most comfortable ways for us, we will necessarily reproduce it. There is no neutral place. Inaction is a form of action.
  • Internalized superiority/Investment in the racial order: internalization of white supremacy and reliance on inequality as further proof, as well as individual and group social security, prosperity, and sustainability. Society reinforces the message, “it is better to be white.”
  • Good/Bad Binary: binary opposition is the system of language (and/or thought) in which two theoretical opposites are strictly defined and set-off against one another. When we (consciously or unconsciously) identify people or groups of people as good or bad, we engage in a divide and conquer strategy. One of the most effective adaptations of racism since the Civil Rights Era is the idea that a racist is a bad person, and if you’re not racist, you’re a good person. This binary is the number one construct that keeps racism in place today and makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism. Our defensiveness comes from the good/bad binary; what we hear is, “you are a bad person.” This binary suggests that one can’t be a good person and be complicit in racism. However, racism is a system that we are all a part of.
  • Implicit Bias: an unconscious thought or preference for or against certain people or groups, which typically leads to outward (explicit) discrimination. According to DiversityInc’s CEO Carolynn Johnson, it is the most insidious problem affecting workplaces worldwide.

Counter Learned Socialization and Implicit Bias in Your Organization

As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, our society teaches racism. And, our institutions often support it. The best leaders examine their implicit bias, take action to mitigate their biases, and dismantle policies and systems that support inequity. Oftentimes, the first step is to recognize our own learned socialization.

Learned Socialization

Consider your own childhood:

  • Was your neighborhood racially diverse? If not, why?
  • Where did people of different (from you) races live?
  • What was their neighborhood like? How do you/did you know this?
  • Were you encouraged to visit different neighborhoods? What about neighborhoods where people of different (from you) races lived? Did you get to know anyone?
  • What were the characteristics of a good school? What about a bad school?
  • Was your school/district a priority or concern for your parents? If so, why?
  • Were all classes (advanced to special needs) equally racially integrated? If not, why not?
  • How frequently were you and your teachers of the same race?
  • Reflecting on your entire life, how often have you been to a wedding that was virtually all white? What about a funeral?
  • What are some of the ways in which your race has shaped your life?

If you haven’t already, complete the Implicit Association Test (IAT), also known as the Harvard Study of Bias (Project Implicit). The IAT measures our hidden attitudes and beliefs. You see, bias and racism rely on our racialization: the grouping of people based on perceived physical differences, most commonly, the color of their skin.

Counter Implicit Bias

Of course, becoming aware of our hidden bias is just the beginning. We need to take steps to counter implicit bias. One technique that works is visualization.

At the beginning of your day, visualize the tasks you must complete. Close your eyes, and picture those you might encounter for the first time. What do they look like? Notice if they are a man, woman, or non-binary. What is their skin color?

Now, picture an alternative. Open yourself to different possibilities, and normalize these: make it expected.

For white people, the immediate future requires us to accept that implicit bias exists. Then, we must be focused on what Black people are really facing. We must break our silence.

Break the Silence of Racism in Your Organization

White leaders face two common challenges in cross-racial discussions:

  • The fear of making a mistake and losing face
  • Certitude regarding racial perspectives (and negating open dialog that results in learning)

To address these challenges, DiAngelo has created a list of Silence Breakers for white people: statements or questions that promote curiosity, open dialog, and learning. Here are just a few examples:

  • I’m really nervous/scared/uncomfortable to say this…and/but…
  • It feels risky to say this and/but…
  • I’m afraid I may offend someone, and please let know if I do, but…
  • I just felt something shift in the room. I’m wondering if anyone else did.
  • I’m still working through/processing this, but right now where I am at is…

Such “I” statements are helpful to keep the responsibility and accountability on the speaker.  They also work well in a group situation, which allow leaders to model the behavior of authentic engagement.

Examine Your Accountability Practices

Leaders must also examine their personal and organizational accountability practices. For example:

  • How do you engage and challenge yourself in a conscious, intentional, and ongoing understanding of your participation in racism?
  • What anti-racism systems of support have you put in to place, for yourself, and groups within your organization?
  • How frequently do you participate in feedback conversations with a person of color, who is not your friend or spouse?

Examine Your Hiring and Promotion Practices

Review all hiring and promotion practices for unintentional discrimination and disparities. This should be done by a diverse committee, and include three critical components:

  • Collection of data: regardless of the size of your organization, you should be able to sort applicant, hiring, and employee promotion data for any disparities. If you don’t have a system in place, create one now.
  • Analysis of your data: If you find any disparities, determine how and why.
  • Correction of any flaws in your practices: create pre-determined, objective criteria for hiring and promotion. Review for concrete, objective indicators and outcomes to reduce standard stereotypes. This should include: structured resume review, interviews, and evaluations to assess individual contributions for promotion.

What Not to Do

While it’s imperative to have cross-racial discussions, it’s not up to people of color to carry the burden.

  • Don’t ask your Black co-workers/colleagues/employees to point out specific racism to a group of white people.
  • Don’t stop learning. For more information, check out this reading list for leaders, recommended by DiversityInc.com

Finding a New Pace

How has the pandemic affected your pace?

Even the best of the best have experienced challenges in finding their new pace at work. Focus and concentration have been more of a challenge for leaders, managers, and employees. And it’s no surprise: our sense of time has been distorted. Two factors explain this phenomenon:

  • Feeling stuck in a holding pattern
  • Loss of flow

Feeling stuck is not unusual for those who remain at home, or have yet to return to their previous work environment. Research in anthropology and psychology has found that when we are unable to structure or manipulate our experience of time—when our temporal agency is deprived—we feel stuck in the present.

Dr. Felix Ringel, an anthropologist of time at Durham University in England, refers to this as enforced presentism, a term first defined by fellow anthropologist Jane Guyer. And for those who do not know when (or if) they can return to work, enforced presentism continues to alter their perception of time.

Fear also alters our perception of time. According to Dr. Sylvie Droit-Volet, PsyD, who has conducted extensive research on emotions and time, threatening stimuli can distort our internal sense of the passage of time. In Subjective Time (The MIT Press 2014), Droit-Volet points to two significant contributors that distort our internal clock:

  • Changes in internal states in response to the effects of drugs or external stimuli (such as a crisis)
  • Attentional processes: when we pay less attention to time, we experience a temporal shortening effect

Leaders, executives, and managers in situations of great pressure work with qualified coaches on self-management strategies. They focus on four psychological skills that can also be used to manage enforced presentism and loss of flow, whether you have yet to return to work, are working remotely, or have made your re-entry. 

Self-management Skills

Think positively. While this sounds simplistic, our negative thoughts—call it mind chatter or self-talk—erode our efficiency, happiness, and confidence. Notice when you are thinking negatively; when you frame a situation as a problem (and distort it into a much bigger catastrophe). Then, re-think, re-frame, and revise your thoughts to the positive possibilities.

Practice relaxation. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, make time for relaxation: a process that works for you to decrease the effects of stress. For example, I find guided meditation with body scan to be very effective and helpful. Another technique is to imagine a peaceful setting—you’re happy place—and focus on your breath, or mentally scan your body from toe to head. Others find online yoga and Tai chi relaxing. Whatever works for you; the key is to make time for relaxation that is beneficial to you.

Create SMART goals. Most of us have goals at work, but do you have personal SMART goals that reflect your own interests and values? Personal SMART goals can help you stay focused on what truly matters to you, and identify the incremental steps you have taken to reach your goal.

Minimize distractions. Today, this is the most frequently reported challenge. Whether they are external (noises and interruptions) or internal (feelings and thoughts), here are two tips you can implement immediately to help protect your focus and concentration:

  • Use a 30 minute timer. We know that extended sitting is detrimental to our health; add to that tiring mental tasks, and it’s no wonder we are easily distracted and feel exhausted at the end of the day. According to recent study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, breaks from just one to nine minutes can help you bounce back from tiring tasks. So, get up, stretch, move around, and take a break. 
  • Re-think the need to meet. Before you send out that meeting invite (or say yes), consider the meeting purpose and time actually needed. For example,
    • INFORM: If the purpose is to share information, send the information via email.
    • DISCUSS: If the purpose is to have a dialog, send relevant information via email, invite them to read it, and request a phone call to discuss.
    • MEET: If your purpose truly requires a virtual (or in-person) meeting, create an agenda that includes: purpose/goals/outcomes, references (the pre-read resources), action items (a spreadsheet works best) and meeting agenda timeline. If you can keep the meeting under 30 minutes, schedule a 15 minute meeting.

As You Return to Work

For many, a return to work is a great relief: a “normal” routine, friendly faces, a steady paycheck. But the pandemic is not over. New routines will replace the norm, friendly faces may be veiled behind a mask, and hours may be part-time. Trepidation is expected. Optimal performance and recovery depend on our ability to address anxiety and restructure flow.

According to Dr. Erika Felix, PhD, a psychologist at UC Santa Barbara, who treats and studies trauma survivors, “Most people will be resilient and return to their previous level of functioning.” But by definition, a crisis is something that exceeds our ability to cope. Fortunately, there are steps leaders can take to help everyone cope better.

Return to Work Requires Anxiety Management

In a recent Harvard Business Review (June 2020) article, Dr. Julia DeGangi suggests three strategies leaders can use to manage anxieties in the work place:

  • Allow greater flexibility in performance management. Avoid over-investing in processes and micromanaging schedules.
  • Communicate clearly. Provide clarity, context, and reinforcement of priorities.
  • Demonstrate mental toughness. This means perceiving, understanding, using, and managing your feelings. It requires appropriate demonstration of emotional vulnerability at the highest leadership levels.

Remember: anxiety can be a sign of productive growth. Leaders who communicate appropriately about messy issues can alleviate anxiety and model resilience. This sets the stage to restructure flow at work.

A New Zone Focus

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, has studied the phenomenon of zone focus or "flow" throughout his career. “Flow” is the zone state in limited form, but has the same attention characteristics. “Flow” is a sample state of entering the zone that leads to optimum performance.

Based upon his research, Dr. Csikszentmihaly theorized that four elements must be present to get into the flow state:

  • Presence of a challenging activity
  • Perception that your skills match the challenge
  • Clear goals
  • Availability of instant feedback concerning your performance

When these elements are present, an "order in consciousness" occurs. And, it is this phenomenon that helps people immerse themselves in an activity, find a new pace, and have fun doing it.

The New Face of Change Management

Leaders and managers are testing their assumptions and abilities in change management as organizations, lines of business, and teams are asked to quickly pivot in their roles and responsibilities. Many employees are being asked to take on additional work, perform new tasks, work in new environments, or under increasing pressure. Everyone is affected.

Even in times of crisis, a swift, top down approach to manage change simply doesn’t work. Two theories explain this:

  • People are hard-wired for homeostasis: we have a natural tendency to resist change, especially change that is imposed. You don’t have to look far to see examples of this today.
  • Change is occurring all the time. Every person, and every process, is undergoing change. Leaders and managers often fail to recognize and tap in to this.

But when all employees are engaged through-out the process of change, meaningful change can occur. Employees who understand the obstacles and principles, have their concerns and questions answered, and can contribute with their experience and knowledge engage in meaningful change.

This is no easy task, especially in times of crisis. Managing meaningful change begins by engaging in, and managing conversations.

The Basis for Meaningful Change

Have you noticed how leaders who speak louder, cajole, argue, and push incur greater resistance?

In their attempt to influence how people behave—their purpose or process—they fail to address the needs, desires, and agendas of those they want to persuade. This approach only serves to foster a closed, or fixed mindset.

For example, leaders and managers of offices that were closed need to examine what changes are needed to ensure employee and client safety. Many factors need to be considered, including (but not limited to) work spaces, processes and routines, new or temporary policies, and the feelings and circumstances of returning employees. While many are eager to return to work, there remains a level of uncertainty, apprehension, and stress in doing so.

Managing meaningful change requires the engagement of each employee in the decision-making of where, how, and when they work. Of course, the level of flexibility may vary depending on circumstances, however, leaders and managers can make a conversation meaningful with two-way dialog: listen, ask, mirror, and reflect back what is heard. Ask what is needed, and discuss anticipated changes. Employees who participate in decisions that directly affect them have greater confidence and adaptability, including necessary physical distancing, the wearing of masks, and other new hygiene protocol.

Leaders who maintain an open-mindset engage to learn. Offer compassion, honesty, and openness. And remember: leaders and managers are role models for the changes they wish to see.

Consider this: the voice of divergence and dissidence can be a catalyst for innovation and growth. Unfortunately, there are times when leaders fail to recognize their worth, or the opportunities they illuminate. Some leaders ignore, dismiss, or go so far as to demonize those who point out problems.

Alternatively, leaders can foster assertive diplomacy: they create environments where it is safe to complain and collaborate on meaningful solutions. Great leaders are masters in emotional conflicts. Rather than resist, they receive and offer feedback to create positive results.

You see, not only are humans hard-wired to resist change, we are also hard-wired to avoid pain and suffering. But these survival traits actually hinder us in creativity and meaningful change, often necessary in high stakes situations.

Effective Assertive Diplomacy

To encourage assertive diplomacy, model the behavior.

  • Listen first. A leader’s ability to listen signals that he values others’ ideas and input.
  • Keep it low. People know where power lies. You don’t need to advertise it. If you model quiet power, you can remain calm when tempers fly.
  • Act decisively. The payoff to reflective assertiveness is decisiveness. You demonstrate strength by acting confidently. Even if you need some time to think before taking action, you can keep people informed about how the decision-making process is progressing.

Consider how Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) responded to the crisis of the Great Depression. Nine days after his inaugural speech, FDR persuaded would be hoarders to return their cash to the banks. Within a month, 2/3’s of withdrawn deposits were re-deposited. The NYSE rebounded, with the largest one-day gain in history.

FDR managed meaningful change by addressing needs. He succeeded by taking action and managing fear.

Managing Fear

Managing fear is not about denying fear or ignoring it.

According Dartmouth’s Distinguished Professor Vijay Govindarajan and Columbia Business School Faculty Director Hylke Faber, authors of a Harvard Business Review article (May 2016), change is about managing fear: fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of change, or fear of fear itself.

Have you ever listened to the recording of FDR’s Fireside Chat? While there wasn’t the same opportunities for two-way dialog like political and business leaders have today (from daily press briefings to virtual meetings) FDR laid out the actions and steps to address concerns, without feeding fears, or inciting resistance.

Change Management: The Power of Why

Managing through change can be a real crucible test for leaders today. To be sure, intense, unplanned, and traumatic events have the power to transform leadership abilities. But great leaders can prevent fueling fires, pivot with purpose, and lead others to positive, meaningful change.

The basis of change management begins with an open-mindset. Great leaders manage meaningful change by managing conversations, fear, and taking action. Their vision, ideas, and changes take flight by answering the question, why.

Why taps in to our subconscious thoughts, the part of the brain most responsible for decision-making. It is heavily influenced by feelings and drives for survival. This part of the brain stimulates the thought, “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) and begins the analysis of trust-worthiness.

When the request to pivot addresses why and is linked to a higher purpose, listeners can sift (filter on value), sort (decide to align), and take flight (ignite with passion and purpose).

While well-designed changes are required for businesses to pivot, they won’t inspire engagement unless they tap into values and purpose—into the hearts of those they wish to engage. Basic needs, like safety, must be fulfilled, but maintaining motivation and engagement requires something in which to believe. It provides context for all our efforts and sacrifices, and sustains our energy for the tasks at hand.

Align with What Truly Matters

Leaders who manage meaningful change ensure the proposed changes are in alignment with what truly matters:

  • Why we are in business
  • The difference we make in the world
  • Our most important purpose

When this topic comes up with my clients, we discuss the importance to understand, and be able to articulate:

  • Why is this change important to your organization?
  • How is this change important to the people you serve?
  • Why is this change important to all of the employees?
  • What is its functional benefit to customers, clients, vendors, and all stake-holders?
  • What is the emotional benefit to them?
  • What is the ultimate value to your customer?
  • Why is this important to you?

If you don’t know and cannot communicate why you want specific changes, how can you expect employees to engage in changes?

As Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor of business at Harvard Business School and director and chair of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Persist, pivot, and persevere, and there’s hope for finding another successful path.” 

Tips for Employees: The Art of Complaining in Change Management

Employees are often in the perfect position to see what doesn’t work in an organization, and are important collaborators in meaningful change. But, it takes assertive diplomacy. There is an art in complaining up, down, and sideways.

Meaningful change management is a conversation on what truly matters to all stake-holders: the employees, their managers and leaders, the shareholders, vendors, and those they serve. Clearly, not all bosses are secure in their authority, nor are all employees comfortable in challenging authority figures. But those who persist; those who are willing to rethink options, assumptions, and focus on ideas, not personalities, can implement meaningful change.

  • Focus on the facts. Everyone is prone to bias and blindspots. Ensure your points are based on fact-based evidence, and be prepared to back it up with verifiable resources and research. Dig to find other points of view so you are prepared to counter them.
  • Test your assumptions. Before presenting your ideas to your boss, find people who can play devil’s advocate and explore your assumptions. They will either disprove your premise and prompt you to rethink your course of action, or they will validate your path and boost your confidence.
  • Understand the difference between correlation and causation. When there isn’t a lot of research or science, correlations may be the only evidence available. But, just because there’s a link between two issues doesn’t mean one provoked the other.

Just as leaders and managers should begin their appeal for change with why, so should the employee. Why is this issue important to you? Why is it important to those you serve?

When sharing your opinions, differentiate between facts, perspectives, and feelings. Use “I” statements:

  • “I have found…”
  • “I believe… “
  • “I feel…”

Select your audience. To initiate and collaborate on meaningful change, you need to engage with other collaborators: someone who has the desire and power to collaborate on a solution. Before you choose your audience, be clear on your goals. Do you want to vent, build a coalition, identify collaborators, or prepare and test your complaint?

Identify solutions. Be prepared to contribute to collaborative solutions for your complaint. Identify the outcome you are seeking, and the action you are proposing. Always emphasize the solution when describing a problem.

Choose your tone and emotions. A complaint usually arises from an emotional place. However, communicate in a calm, rational manner. Appeal to emotions with direct, factual information that reference the values under which your organization operates.

Successful Change Management Today

We’re facing unprecedented times as we pivot in the ways we do business. Many leaders are paving the way for others to follow, sharing lessons learned and common mistakes that can be avoided:

  • Communication is inefficient, often one-way.
  • Plans are developed top down.
  • Change is incongruent with organizational values and culture.
  • Support and resources (emotional, physical, mental, spiritual) are inadequate.
  • Negativity is not managed.

Managing Negativity

You don’t have to look far to see negativity today. Images and words are everywhere. While it is critical that we don’t ignore problems, we do need to understand and manage the impact of negativity.

Negativity has a greater effect on our well-being (our psychological state and processes) than positivity. As John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister point out in their new book, The Power of Bad (Penguin Press, 2019), “The negativity effect is a simple principle, with not-so-simple consequences. When we don’t appreciate the power of bad to warp our judgment, we make terrible decisions. Unrecognized (and unaddressed) the negativity effect can promote fear, phobias, tribalism, and resistance to meaningful change.”

Great leaders manage negativity with a few key principles and techniques.

  • Recognize and acknowledge negativity: in the images you see, the words you hear, the tone you use. Consider alternatives, and refer to and/or share these through-out the day.
  • Showcase good news: specific images, stories, and/or headlines of employees modeling desired behaviors and achieving positive result.
  • For every proposed change, point out four things that will remain the same. These could refer to mission, values, purpose, policies, processes, places, people, etc.

Negativity narrows our focus to why something is wrong or won’t work. It prompts immediate, survival-oriented behaviors, including resistance to change. In contrast, a positive mindset broadens our perspective; we feel better, engage, learn more and expand our creativity and productivity.

The Best Business Strategy for Crisis Recovery

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.~ John Quincy Adams

As a leader, what strategy are you using for crisis recovery?

Strategy has become top of mind for business leaders. Too be sure, we are faced with incredible hurdles, many of which are outside of our control. As a result, many leaders have taken drastic measures.  

On May 8, 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported their findings from two monthly surveys: households (measuring labor force status, including unemployment) and establishment (measuring non-farm employment, including hours and earnings by industry). According to the report, unemployment increased to 14.7% in April, and temporary layoffs increased ten-fold to 18.1 million.

Conversely, some industries (including call centers and IT, warehousing and distribution centers, manufacturing and sales, healthcare and finance) are seeing a labor shortage, including management and specialty roles. Facing a serious shortage of employees, leaders struggle to recruit and retain qualified candidates.

Whether you’ve had to cut hours, furlough employees, or fill positions, a speedy business recovery requires the right strategy. Smart leaders focus on productivity. They engage their employees in the development and refinement of processes and systems to improve output.

Productivity Versus Efficiency

Productivity and efficiency are frequently used interchangeably. However, when it comes to business strategy there is a difference. Put simply, productivity is the quantity of work produced. Efficiency, on the other hand, refers to the resources used to produce that work.

Our recent generation of business leaders has focused on efficiency to reduce input and maintain output: doing the same with less. But a speedy business recovery requires doing more with the same: it requires a focus on productivity. This requires careful planning with input from employees, allocating resources appropriately, and measuring productivity and efficiency.

Productivity is measured by the change in output per labor hour over a defined period of time. In most businesses, it is directly tied to performance—at all levels within the organization. Improve performance, improve greater topline growth. What leaders do to improve performance affects productivity.

Productivity: Your Key to Speed

When employees are already pushed to their maximum capacity, how do leaders increase output? They adopt a productivity mindset to improve processes and systems.

Most employees want to be productive. Unfortunately, many are prevented from reaching their capacity because of obstacles created by bureaucracy, old methods, or broken systems. Smart leaders improve productivity by engaging their employees in a bottom-up approach to identify obstacles and inadequate systems.

A survey of 300+ senior executives published by the Harvard Business Review (March, 20017) found that leaders with a productivity mindset show faster growth and higher margins than their industry peers. Leaders who focus on people and processes enable peak performance. Great leaders re-think working environments, processes, and infrastructure.

How to Increase Output in the Wake of a Crisis

Rather than focus on efficiency by reducing staff (and demoralizing employees left to pick up the slack), savvy leaders work with employees to identify ways to increase output. They:

  • Focus on people and processes. Ensure the right people are in the right roles best suited for their strengths and abilities.
  • Inventory routines and workflow. Examine the “why” and effort of each process. Categorize and verify alignment with goals/mission. Identify obstacles, gaps, and redundancies.
  • Remove obstacles. This includes the organizational drag created by bureaucracy or complex organizational structures that (no longer) align with operations or real sources of value.
  • Inspire and motivate. Support autonomy and accountability. Recognize efforts, illustrate how they align with goals and mission, and celebrate small and large victories.  

Our path to a speedy recovery requires a productivity mindset, at all levels within an organization. Most managers know more about collaboration, communication, decision-making and strategic planning than ever before. But managing through a business recovery creates additional pressure: how to increase output in the wake of a crisis.

Highly productive teams and business units develop and commit to:

  • A common purpose: team members shape their common purpose. They understand how their individual and collective actions create value for their clients, the organization, their team, and individually.
  • SMART goals: team goals link to their common purpose, and benchmark achievements are recognized throughout the process to energize performance.  
  • Trust in processes: appreciation of diverse skills, mutual accountability, and access to the resources required to reach goals and build continued commitment.

Trust is created and nurtured with ongoing dialog, honest feedback, and follow-up. This can be a challenge if processes are changing, new teams are forming, and/or team members have shifted to virtual or remote work.

Most of our communication is non-verbal and relies on visual cues. When new team members are from different business units, or even different cultures, strong communication is even more important. Building cohesiveness, commitment to a shared purpose, and trust is critical.

Engage Your Teams

Prepare for the conversation. During a virtual team meeting, explain that you will be sending a confidential email survey of three questions to each member of your team.

Create your survey. Consider using a spreadsheet where you can compile the results, or use a program like SurveyMonkey, where responses can remain anonymous. Your questions should include:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how well are we working together as a team?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do we need to be working together as a team?
  • If you could change two key behaviors to help us close the gap between where we are and where we want to be, which two behaviors should we all try to change?”

Compile the data and calculate the averages for numbers one and two. The “average” team member believes that his/her team is currently at a “5.8" level of effectiveness, but needs to be at an “8.7.”

For question three, notice if there are any themes, and how they align with productivity, goals, purpose, and mission. Prioritize the suggested behavior changes. Which are the two most important?

At your next team meeting, share the scores, suggested behaviors, and the two behaviors you would like the team members to adopt (and why, linking to mission, purpose, and goals.) In addition, ask each team member to choose two behaviors for personal change, to track their progress, and share their results in follow up meetings.

When team members commit to this type of accountability, they focus on their own behaviors. When people are working together toward a common goal, trust and commitment follow. Productivity improves.

Best Practices of Highly Productive Leaders

As a leader, what are you doing to boost your own productivity?

For some leaders, the response is, “productivity of what?” The deeper question becomes, “Do we really want to return to business as before, or, do we want to use this opportunity to pivot?”

This is their time to examine what it is they want to do, and what systems they need in place to complete their objective.

Highly productive leaders develop strategies to think more clearly and achieve greater results. This begins with a clarity and understanding of your values and purpose.

Take a few minutes, consider these questions, and write out your answers:

  • How is your current role tied to your values and purpose?
  • What about the products or services your organization provides?

Whenever you engage with a coworker, client, or business associate, be mindful of your values and purpose. When faced with difficulties, these will be easier to recall.

Update your strengths inventory. Make note of the strengths you have improved:

  • What have you learned?
  • How were you able to do this?

Odds are, overcoming complex, challenging situations allowed you to grow.

Highly productive leaders focus on small victories. They climb huge mountains, one small step at a time. They keep their footing by pausing periodically, acknowledging what they have accomplished, before they resume their ascent.

If you lose your footing, don’t beat yourself up. Choose self-compassion. This not only boosts your well-being and productivity, it helps you build empathy and compassion for others.

Practice positivity. Acknowledge difficulties, barriers, and suffering, and find ways to recharge yourself. Separate fact from fiction, focus on the good, and cultivate gratitude. This is your best practice as a highly productive leader.

Tough Times, Wise Decisions May 2020, Content for Coaches and Consultants

In a time when “flattening the curve” requires universal participation, when, how, and who to re-open requires tough decisions. Wise business leadership is needed more than ever before.

There’s no shortage of talks, posts, or tweets on our need for wise, capable leaders who pursue the common good; who balance big-picture thinking with next-step management. But predicting outcomes becomes much more complex as systems and people interact in unexpected ways.

We need our leaders to do the right things, in the right way, against the right time frame. The real stand outs can navigate intrinsically complex circumstances, make smart decisions, and inspire others to do the same.

Two challenges commonly surface in complex circumstances: unintended consequences and difficulties in making sense of a situation. Unfortunately, many leaders tend to overestimate the amount of information they can process: humans have cognitive limits. More than ever, leaders need input from others to grasp complexities and determine how they affect other parts of the system.

A leader must be able to keep the big picture in clear view, while attending to all of the small executions that will lead to the right outcomes. They need wisdom.

Wise Leadership Defined

Socrates believed that wisdom is a virtue, acquired by hard work: experience, error, intuition, detachment and critical thinking; and that the truly wise recognize their own limits of knowledge.

Wisdom is also a paradox: based partly on knowledge, shaped by uncertainty; action and inaction; emotion and detachment. Wise leadership reconciles seeming contradictions as part of the process of wisdom, for wisdom is a process.

“Wisdom is not just about maximizing one’s own or someone else’s self-interest, but about balancing various self-interests with the interests of others and of other aspects of the context in which one lives, such as one’s city or country or environment or even God.” ~ Robert J. Sternberg, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Wise leadership is a combination of elements, including intelligence, self-awareness, acknowledgement of personal limitations, humility, patience, and emotional resilience. To put it in the simplest terms, wise leadership is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience and understanding, to make good decisions.

According to Sternberg, “leaders are much more likely to fail because they are unwise or unethical than because they lack knowledge of general intelligence.”

Six Abilities

Professors Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi shared their research on the six abilities of wise leaders in the Harvard Business Review article, “The Big Idea: The Wise Leader.” They found that it isn’t just uncertainty that challenges leaders, rather, it’s leading people to adhere to values and ethics. They point to six essential abilities:

  • In complex situations, wise leaders quickly perceive the true nature of the reality; the underlying issues for people, things, and events taking place now, and projections for future consequences. Their explicit and tacit knowledge (honed by a love for learning), perspective (broadened by open-mindedness and their habit of asking “why?”), and creativity allows them to envision a future before jumping to decisions.
  • Wise leaders practice moral discernment: they make decisions about what is good for the organization and society, and act on it. They strengthen their discernment with:
    • Experience (especially facing adversity and overcoming failure)
    • Adherence to values/ethics (self-awareness of values and ethics, which are modeled in business and organizations)
    • Pursuit of excellence (not to be confused with perfection) 
    • Learning (a breadth and depth of subjects, including history, philosophy, literature, and fine arts.)
  • They enable symbiotic learning by providing opportunities to interact closely with—and between—others; wise leaders develop relationships, and the spaces to nurture them. Today, that may mean more virtual meetings and the development of new groups, teams, and networks, as well as technology skills.
  • Wise leaders use applicable metaphors and stories to communicate their experience and understanding into tacit knowledge that all can understand. Great stories describe relationships (between people, places, times, or things). They don’t have to be long, but the right story, at the right time, can call others to take right action.
  • They nurture wisdom in others through mentoring, apprenticeship, and distributed leadership. Mentoring focuses on learning to achieve competence, proficiency, skill, know-how and wisdom. Apprenticeship focuses on sharing experiences, contexts, and time.
  • Wise leaders bring people together and inspire them to take action. They understand and consider differing points of view, emotions, needs, and the element of timing. Wise leaders embrace the paradoxes of life; they refrain from either/or thinking, and cultivate a both/and mindset.

The Process for Tough Decisions

Simple systems are extremely predictable and require few interactions or interventions. And while complicated systems have many moving parts, their operations are predictable; there are clear patterns. Complex systems may operate in patterned ways, but their interactions are continually changing.

Wise leaders continuously assess and adjust for new data, as well as all of the possible consequences of a change:

  • Identify subject matter experts and resources. A wise leader relies on data, but also ensures that the right questions are being asked, to (and by) the right experts.
  • Collect accurate, verifiable, and reliable information. Recognize interests, goals, and values to create context for the data.
  • Evaluate and annotate findings. While you may be tempted to discard information that may be unreliable, incomplete, biased, etc., save the information with notations for future reference.
  • Create time and space to reflect on the information. Examine it with your mind, gut, and heart, by asking yourself:
    • “What is socially just?”
    • “Who stands to benefit the most?”
    • “Who is most at risk?”
    • “How will this impact the future?”
    • “What are the impacts today?”
    • “What is the right thing to do, right now?”

Sometimes, taking more time before acting is the wisest thing to do. To be sure, action is important. But give yourself time to embrace the elements that make you wise, as well as the paradoxes:

  • Recognize your limits, and ask for help when needed. Act with humility and courage.
  • Acknowledge feelings, practice temperance in expression, and strengthen your emotional resilience.
  • Allow time and space for others, as well as self. Be patient, forgiving, and show mercy.
  • Practice compassion and fairness. View situations as they are, with a dispassionate, clear eye of human nature.
  • Demonstrate your ability to cope with adversity: be brave, persistent, and act with integrity.
  • Embrace ambiguity, practice gratitude, and cultivate hope that more shall be revealed.

The Wisdom of the Crowd

If you have wise subject matter experts, research indicates that their aggregate knowledge will exceed the knowledge of any one individual expert. But there’s a caveat: diversity and process.

As researchers from Duke University found, averaging cancels error when the crowd wisdom is based on two factors:

  • Diversity: your subject matter experts should bring diverse perspectives. For example, one expert may focus on short-term goals, and the other on long-term goals.
  • Process: your subject matter experts should not be influenced by others before sharing their findings.

When making decisions, you’ll also need to decide how much weight you give to their wisdom, as well as yours. This also comes in to play when you can’t find enough qualified subject matter experts, or when there simply isn’t a model or path to follow. That’s when wise leadership is put to the test.

In highly complex systems, when there is information overload or not enough pertinent data and analysis, how do you make high-stakes decisions?

In October 2019, Harvard Business Review author Laura Huang published an interesting article on the topic. According to Huang, it’s important to recognize two factors: what is the level of unknowability, and what is the context.

When there is just not enough information (when the level of unknowability is high), and, when there is not a proven model or schema (when there is not a map or context), you’ll need to use your inner wisdom.

Wisdom of the Inner Crowd

Researchers recently shared their findings on how the wisdom of the inner crowd can boost accuracy of confidence judgments.

“Analytical and simulation results show that irrespective of the type of item, averaging consistently improves confidence judgments, but maximizing is risky…our results suggest that averaging—due to its robustness—should be the default strategy to harness one’s conflicting confidence judgments.” ~ Litvinova, A., Herzog, S. M., Kall, A. A., Pleskac, T. J., & Hertwig, R. “How the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ can boost accuracy of confidence judgments,” Decision, February 2020

These finding suggest that similar to the wisdom of the crowd, averaging yields better results. Of course, navigating through a pandemic is new for most leaders. But, wise leaders are keen observers, have learned how to recognize patterns, and rely on mental models. They challenge themselves to make tough appraisals and learn from the consequences. When it comes time to reflect on the information they’ve gathered and analyzed, they apply the wisdom of the inner crowd.

Wise Leadership and Emodiversity

Are you experiencing brain fog? Or, maybe it’s a combination of brain fog, pierced by a wide range of emotions. This is no surprise; stress can wreak havoc on our cognition and emotions. But take heart: wise leaders benefit from emodiversity.

In the May 2019 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers published their findings on emotions and wise reasoning. In the past, theories suggested that the downregulation of emotion may lead to better decision making. But new research finds that recognizing and balancing emotions stimulates insights, and better reasoning.

Emotional awareness is key. Knowing what you feel, and how often you experience the feeling, may be more effective than knowing why.

A Wise Leadership Journal

If you aren’t already, keep a journal. Give yourself permission to write your thoughts and feelings for a minimum of five minutes, without any editing: no grammar, spelling, or content corrections. Allow yourself to go longer, if needed.

A journal will also allow you to track your inner crowd. As Dan Ciampa wrote in Harvard Business Review, “The More Senior Your Job Title, the More You Need to Keep a Journal” (July, 2017), learning what is important and what lessons should be learned happens after the fact. It allows for more meaningful, and productive, exploration of alternative solutions.

The Balance of Positive and Negative Emotions

Wise leaders understand that both positive and negative emotions work in the decision making process. Positive emotions open us; they expand our social, physical and cognitive resources. Negative emotions serve to limit our thoughts and behaviors; they help us to focus and act more decisively in times of stress or crisis. But an imbalance can sap our energy and lead to brain fog.

Research conducted by organizational psychologist Marcial Losada, PhD, along with psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, finds that a 3:1 positivity-to-negativity ratio is ideal for optimal functioning. Wise leaders track their ratio, and when needed, increase positive moments.

To reduce the impact of negative moments, practice mindfulness meditation; observe your thoughts without judgment. If you are getting caught up in negative thinking, try these tips suggested in Fredrickson’s book, Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity and Thrive(Crown Archetype, 2009):

  1. Recognize and counter negative thinking habits (always/never, most/least, internal/external).
  2. Distract yourself from rumination.
  3. Practice mindfulness (observe without judgment).
  4. Limit your exposure to bad news streams.
  5. Avoid gossip and sarcasm, and increase positive feedback to others.
  6. Practice gratitude, and smile more.

Wise leadership envisions the best possible future for everyone. As Stephen S. Hall writes in Wisdom (Random House, 2010),

“In an age of reason, thought will seem like wisdom’s most esteemed companion. In an age of sentiment, emotion will seem like the wisest guide. But when human survival is paramount, social practicality and science are likelier to lead us through to better times.”

How to Cultivate Realistic Hope

In times of uncertainty, we often turn to the news media, leaders, and experts for answers. Conflicting reports weaken our trust, creating more uncertainty. As more bad news continues to stream in, we turn away.

To distract ourselves from intrusive ruminations, nagging guilt, loss, and trauma, we seek relief. Many of us use distraction techniques: we focus our attention for two minutes on a pleasant memory, image, or even a focus on our breath.

However, some of our distraction behaviors do more harm than good. Often impulsive (and sometimes compulsive) we develop binging behaviors to numb us from our thoughts and feelings. Such behaviors include activities like binge-watching series, compulsive-eating/drinking, or worse. These behaviors further separate us from others, and any real sense of hope.

Instead, we need to ease our emotional pain and prevent the problem from becoming worse. We need to cultivate realistic hope.

Realistic Hope

Realistic hope is not based on the perspective that everything was, is, or will be fine. To the contrary, hope is about a breadth of perspective with real, specific possibilities that call us to action.  

In Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Haymarket Books, 2020), Rebecca Solnit writes: “Hope is not a sunny, everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Unrealistic Optimism

Unrealistic optimism, or false hope, is not based on critical thinking. To be sure, there are benefits of being optimistic, but optimism without any real basis or plan to support it is a hollow promise; it is not the same as realistic hope. False hope is not clearly linked to realistic planning for the future.

Hopeful People

Hopeful people understand that what they do matters, even if they do not know how it will matter, or for whom. In times of uncertainty, they embrace the unknown and the space it creates to shape the outcome, individually and collectively. Hopeful people recognize uncertainty, think of new pathways around obstacles, and take action.

Recognize Your Loss, and Arrest Despair

In a time of social-distancing, physical-distancing, isolation, and quarantine, we are at greater risk of loneliness, which has serious implications.

We are wired with a fundamental need to connect with and feel accepted by others. This can explain why some of us are willing to risk the suggested guidelines, rules, and even laws regarding “stay-at-home.” When social-distancing interrupts this need from being met (because of lack of opportunities to maintain or create supportive relationships), it can have a powerful and detrimental effect on our physical and psychological health: loneliness, loss, and despair.

Researchers Louise C. Hawkley, PhD and John T. Cacioppos, PhD, describe loneliness as a distressing feeling equivalent to physical pain. Their study, published in 2010, found that left untended, loneliness has serious consequences for cognition, emotion, behavior, and physical health. Loneliness can even shorten our life expectancy.

Understand Despair

In psychology, despair is the feeling of hopelessness: that things are profoundly wrong and will not change for the better. Despair is one of the most negative and destructive of human affects. During difficult times, despair is common.

Typically, despair dissipates over time as a crisis is resolved. But when a crisis goes on for an extended period of time and despair doesn’t dissipate, it becomes chronic: it impairs our functioning and quality of life. When such despair is profound—when we feel existentially helpless, powerless, and pessimistic about the future—we may be experiencing clinical despair: we feel hopeless about life and the future.

Arrest Despair

Viktor Frankl, an existential psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, described despair as meaningless suffering, and created a simple formula to identify it: despair equals suffering without meaning: D=S-M. Finding meaning can arrest despair.

For example, recognizing self-defeating behavior and taking steps to correct the behavior can create meaning. Similarly, when clinical despair stems from undiagnosed clinical depression or bipolar disorder, the meaning (or reason) for suffering is identified. Of course, in either example, when despair persists despite treatment, additional support is required.

As C.G. Jung once said, "We cannot change anything unless we accept it."

If we are ignoring, or denying our loneliness, sadness, anxiety, or despair, we are cutting off our true selves, and drifting toward clinical despair and depression. Instead, we must recognize feelings and loss: our circumstances, thoughts, and feelings. This often requires great courage. And you don’t have to do it alone. A qualified coach, social worker, therapist, or doctor can help, and many are now available for video or virtual sessions.

Clinging to false hope, which may serve the valuable purpose of survival for a period of time, ultimately prevents moving past the despair of trauma. Instead, cultivate realistic hope.

How to Cultivate Realistic Hope

In these difficult times, it’s no easy task to balance the reality of the fear, anxiety, and suffering that is occurring, and simultaneously cultivate realistic hope. How do they stay so grounded?

Authors Angela Wilkinson, PhD, and Betty Sue Flowers, PhD write in Realistic Hope: Facing Global Challenges (Amsterdam University Press, 2018) that hope is possible because of our evolved, functioning brain (the frontal cortex communicating with the sub-cortical regions), a perspective or belief about possibility (a space for potential fundamental change and social progress) and a focus on the benefit to public and private good.

As C.R. Snyder writes in The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get There from Here (FreePress 2010), “Hope is the sum of the mental willpower and waypower that you have for your goals.”

Willpower: In this sense, your willpower is your driving force; it is your mental energy that will propel you toward your goal. It is your determination and commitment: your grit. Often times, your willpower is the story you tell yourself, about yourself: your self-talk. A strong willpower sounds like, “I can,” or “I got this,” or even, “let’s try this.” People with a strong willpower are willful: they focus on what they will do, rather than what they won’t do.

To maintain your willpower, pay attention to your self-care. Establish and maintain new routines that foster positive energy and cultivate realistic hope.

Waypower: Your waypower is the course you will take; it is your mental capacity that you will use to reach your goal. Your waypower allows you to adapt and adjust as necessary; in essence, it is your perception of your ability to create thoughtful, flexible, and realistic plans.

If you want to cultivate realistic hope, you need an objective framework of the problem. Expert opinions are critical: unbiased and relevant, in breadth as well as depth.  Empathy and dialog are key to gain perspective.

Second, you need to vision alternative futures, or scenarios, to develop a vision for the future, or goals. Accurate data, analysis, and modeling over time make it realistic.

Goals: Your goals are the outcome that you imagine. Knowing exactly what you want to achieve, and how long it will take, keeps you motivated. Establish smart goals and contingency plans (if/then planning) to maintain momentum. 

Act With Realistic Hope

We are in the midst of a grand transition, facing problems without borders and governments without solutions. But, the good news is that there are efforts underway that offer realistic hope: solutions can be found. In many cases, those involved in finding solutions are international entities, ad hoc groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals. These individuals cultivate realistic hope.

Hopeful people recognize the challenges, their purpose, and a time horizon. They commit to act and complete the process, over and over again. As our knowledge expands, as new stakeholders emerge, and as mind-sets change, the framing of the problems will also change, and relevant scenarios will need modification. Together, we can do this.

What do you think? What are you doing to cultivate realistic hope? What steps are you taking to act with realistic hope?  I’d love to hear from you.

Great Leadership in Times of Crisis

The men and women in charge of our organizations are now faced with unchartered challenges: leading their organization through a global pandemic. In this time of crisis, most leaders are doing their best to step up and inspire people to do their best. And they’re doing a great job.

One of the challenges is the evolving new normal. Rapidly changing guidelines, mandates, and infrastructure require continual monitoring and adjustments. Leaders are in a constant state of discovery, decision making, designing, and implementation. This requires resilience, collaboration, and great communication.

Those who are able to adapt quickly and wisely are best positioned to lead their organization, and in many cases, their entire nation, in novel ways. Great leadership in a time of crisis will see us through to the other side.

Business continuity management is more important than ever. Based on the conversations I’ve had with leaders, developing, refining, and implementing contingency plans is well underway. With careful attention to employee safety and preparedness, leaders can minimize risk, and in some cases, position themselves for post-crisis growth. Below are a few leadership best practices. Are you taking these steps?  

Legal Obligations

First, and foremost, focus on employee safety. Review policies, and then identify actual practices. (What happens in the field may not be the actual procedures management recommends.) Ensure you have adequate communicable-illness plans and practices in place.

Credible Authorities and Resources

Depending on the size and reach of your organization, these may need to be local, regional, national, and global, and could include CDC, WHO, EUCDPC, Singapore and UK.

Contingency Plans

If you haven’t mapped out or developed contingency plans, take a look at the tools and resources developed by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), here. While they are designed for Red Cross organizations and volunteers, they offer any leader elements to consider in a pandemic.

Identify a crisis management team with the authority and autonomy to work through bottlenecks. Identify cross-functional alternates in different scenarios to: stabilize supply chain, monitor and test financials, protect the workforce, engage customers, and coordinate communication.

  • Review your absence policies, including when/how employees can return to work. Some employers have been forced to reduce their work force. Review your benefits policies.
  • Empower and equip remote/telecommute work. A member of your crisis-management team should work closely with IT, HR, communications, and facilities to identify resources and requirements for remote workers. If you haven’t already, ask every team leader and manager to identify tasks that can be completed remotely, and who is capable of completing the tasks.
  • Determine measurable performance metrics to improve efficiencies and enhance future change.
  • Identify data-security issues and resolutions.
  • Establish communication protocol. Ensure that employee contact information is up to date, and the crisis-management team has the current information.

Companies in China can teach us a great deal about leadership in a time of crisis. Smart policies, the anticipation and mitigation of operational roadblocks, and most importantly, the care of our employees and clients will help us through.

Communications

Rumors, misinformation, and fear can spread as quickly as a virus. Clear, factual, and reliable communication is vital. A key role for your crisis-management team is the oversight of communications. At a minimum, messages should be reviewed and verified by the team to ensure that they are consistent with policies. Test your process to verify that they will reach all employees, and that all employees are able to have questions answered.

Develop messaging for different scenarios to inform coworkers or third parties about increased risks or exposure, along with a current phone and email contact list by location for health reporting.

Designate a person(s) to promptly notify local public health authorities about confirmed as well as suspected cases of the coronavirus. Ensure your designee is properly trained: while employees may be obligated to disclose contraction of Covid-19, personal health data is protected under HIPAA.

Thoughtful, intentional, and honest communication is a vital strategy to navigate a fast-moving crisis. Avoiding or burying bad news serves no one in the long run. Transparency requires preparation for the “worse before better” reality.

When internal and external clients—your stakeholders—have confidence in your motives and commitment, they’ll respond in kind. The most important catalyst in a time of crisis is a trust in the word of the leader and the actions they take.

As Harvard Novartis Professor Amy C. Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (Wiley, 2019) says, “Transparency doesn’t happen without psychological safety: a climate in which people can raise questions, concerns, and ideas without fear of personal repercussion.” Ensure you have a strong, two-way communication system in place as we navigate through this time of crisis.

Virtual Meetings

Virtual meetings are a great tool, even to have those difficult or controversial conversations. As a leader, all participants will look to you to set expectations and boundaries. Model the behavior you would like to see.

  • Prepare, practice, and test.
  • Whenever possible, meet via video, with an option of audio/dial-in for slower bandwidth. Consider having a virtual meeting assistant or facilitator.
  • Send an agenda before the meeting, with all needed materials and instructions. Be clear on the meeting objective, and monitor time and focus.
  • Allow for instruction and if needed, practice time. Include reminders about disabling interrupters, i.e. cell phones, alerts, IMs/pop-ups, and closing any programs or tabs on their computer with sensitive or private information. For any meeting lasting more than 50 minutes, build in breaks.
  • For smaller groups (<20) have all participants introduce themselves by name, role, geographic location (town/city) and surrounding (my home office). During the meeting, ask people by name to contribute. For larger groups (20+), use polls and voting (raise your hand) to encourage engagement. Of course, polling with smaller groups is effective, too, and the data can be captured for later use.
  • Just like your in-person meetings, allow adequate time for questions, and discussion on next-steps: deadlines, roles, and when to expect updates.

Manage Stress and Build Resilience

Building mental resilience requires intention and practice. It’s a skill of noticing our thoughts, un-hooking from those that are unhelpful, and refraining from punishing ourselves for less than helpful thinking (which also begins with noticing). Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a great method to practice this. UMass Memorial Medical Center is just one organization who offers an 8-week online live course.

Guided meditation is also a great option, and there are many Apps available to help. Two of these include Insight Timer, where you can access >25K guided meditations led by some of the most renown leaders, (including Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, and Sharon Salzberg), and see how many people around the world were also meditating with you; and UCLA Mindful, which offers English and Spanish meditations ranging from 3-19 minutes and work with difficult emotions.  

Some Buddhist communities are also offering virtual, online “sits” to support others with their practice, and remind us of our human connectedness. Trike Daily, The Buddhist Review Tricycle.org, offers a great exercise for leaders: relax the problem solver.

Make Better Decisions

Threats to our well-being, uncertainties, and awareness of our lack of control elevate anxiety, stress, and lead us to make short-sighted decisions. Unwittingly, many of us feed uncertainty by consuming more negative news and rushing to action. Here are three techniques you can use to slow down:

  • Calm your mind. Use a four second breathing technique. Slowly breathe in for four seconds. Hold your breath for four seconds. Slowly exhale for four seconds. Pause for four seconds. Repeat.
  • Rest your eyes; if possible, gently gaze out a window. Give your mind space to unhook from screens, images, and headlines.
  • Find new ways to connect with others. Meaningful connection begins with compassion. The practice of compassion starts by asking, “how can I help this person?” The great paradox is that by opening ourselves with this one question, we actually build mental resilience and manage stress.

Leaders who slow down, deliberate with data and reason, make better decisions. Take the time to read, verify, reflect, and check before making personal and business decisions. A qualified executive coach can help.

Mitigate Anxiety

While it’s important to be transparent in communications, be mindful that anxiety and fear are contagious. When anxiety is elevated for a period of time, it becomes chronic. Fortunately, there are actions leaders can take to mitigate this.

  • Prepare yourself. Before you speak, write, or hit send, take a minute to center yourself. Pause, and breathe.
  • Imagine. What has been the experience of others? What are their challenges and needs? Acknowledge this in your message.
  • Validate. Share information that is credible. Be mindful and clear with your word choices. When you don’t know, say so.
  • Act. Identify the next action step for you and your audience. This provides an opportunity to unite, contribute, and take action, all supportive to a sense of purpose, meaning, and control. Be prepared to answer questions through this process, acknowledging their feelings.

Be Present and Focus on the Now

We are in the midst of the most disruptive crisis since World War II. At that time, rationing, 24-hour manufacturing, and strong supply chains proved to be most effective to “get through.” Today, we rely on business leaders, in the private and non-profit sectors, to set the vision and lead us to the other side.

Even under the best of circumstances, it’s not an easy task. We know from research that stress narrows our focus and compromises decision-making capacity. We act conservatively (which is a good thing), but stress diverts our energy, attention, and creative thinking.

To focus on the now, ask your team:

  • What do we want to accomplish?
  • What did we do yesterday that worked well?
  • What do we need to do today, based on any new information?
  • What do you need from me to accomplish this?

Plan for Later: Think Ahead

Leaders who are able to think ten steps ahead collaborate, partner, and foster innovative solutions. They utilize modularity diversification to protect and insulate units within the larger organization. As circumstances continue to evolve, they remain flexible. Crowdsource designing is the next level of modularity, diversification, and innovate solutions.

Think of the wide range of innovators who recently mobilized to address the serious shortage of critical equipment needed to treat the coronavirus. These designers, engineers, manufacturers, students, doctors and leaders found each other through online messaging platforms, and worked together to build innovative protective gear and ventilators.

Seven Business Models for the Future, And Today

In The Future is Faster Than You Think (Simon & Schuster, 2020), Dr. Peter Diamondis and Steven Kotler predict seven business models that will rule the decade:

  • The Crowd Economy: Developments that leverage the billions of people already online and the billions coming online with 5G expansion. Existing developments include crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, ICOs, leveraged assets, and staff-on-demand. An example of this economy is Airbnb, which doesn’t own the real estate it lists.
  • The Free/Data Economy: In exchange for data about yourself, you are given access to a tool or toy. An example of this is Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
  • The Smartness Economy: Many of these goods and services are referred to as the internet of things, or IoT, which are in essence, existing tools which have become “smart.” For example, smartphones, smart speakers, and autonomous vehicles.
  • Closed-Loop Economy: These waste free systems are also referred to as biomimicry or cradle-to-cradle. An example of this model is The Plastic Bank, where anyone can collect and drop off plastic for compensation, and Plastic Bank sells the plastic for reuse.
  • Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs): Operations are carried out by a set of preprogrammed rules and machinery. For example, a fleet of autonomous taxis with a blockchain-backed smart contracts layer, could run itself 24-7, including driving to the repair shop for maintenance, without any human involved.
  • Multiple World Models: With the growth in augmented and virtual reality, avatars for work and/or play offer increasing opportunities for new businesses. An example of this is Second Life, where players paid for the design of digital clothes and digital houses for their digital avatars.
  • Transformation Economy: This is the next step in an experience economy, where people pay to have their life transformed. Examples of this are Burning Man and CrossFit, where the experience may not be pleasant, but transformative.

While some of these models may seem frivolous during this time of crisis, there are opportunities here. They can address the challenges of prolonged social distancing (multiple world model, transformation economy), the need for sterile delivery (decentralized autonomous organizations) and the strain on our healthcare (crowd economy.)

As a leader, what is your vision for the future? What new behaviors (processes) can/should be implemented in the future? What business models will support your vision? What are you doing, just for today, while simultaneously thinking ten steps ahead?

We will get through this together. Let me know how I can help.

When Your Values Shift

Everyone knows how important it is to “know yourself,” yet how often do we reflect on why we do what we do? (Or for that matter, what we did?) Do we really understand our motives and values?

Before we even graduate from high school, most of us have participated in interest inventories and career aptitude tests. By the time we graduate from college, our interests, studies, and skills have aligned. We anticipate we’re on a path best suited for our personality, talents, and education.

And yet…most of us don’t recognize the extent of our complexity. Our personal preferences and unique sense of values are buried under layers of expectations and demands. To add to the complexity, our values shift over time.

When we identify as, or claim to be, a specific type of person (kind, caring, and genuine), but our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors indicate otherwise (we are resentful, rude, and just want other people to fall into line), we may be unaware of our true values.   

Of course, we are quick to notice when we see this happen in others. Our perception may be that they are inauthentic, manipulative, or fake; maybe even a hypocrite.

When our own behaviors are incongruent with what we claim to value, many of us have a physical reaction: a twinge, cringe, or moment when our body says, “no!”

But just as common, we learn to ignore these uncomfortable feelings. Eventually, we stop paying attention. We become mistaken about our own identity, unaware of the shift in our values.

This can manifest in a mid-career crisis. Our careers are moving along at a satisfactory pace, and one day we wonder, “How did I end up here?”

How Your Values Shift

In reality, our values are dynamic. With enough time or experience the hierarchy of our values can change. Typically, the shifts occur as a result of:

  • New knowledge
  • Social values and attitudes
  • Personal experience

In a 2015 study, researchers Valdiney V. Gouveia, Kátia C. Vione, Taciano L. Milfont, Ronald Fischer studied more than 36,000 individuals across five geo-social regions and found that regardless of gender, values substantially change through-out our life span.  

Why This Matters

Your values are the underlying foundation of your inspiration, vision, and motivation. They help you set a course to what you believe truly matters; they guide you to purpose and fulfillment. Understanding when and how they shift will help you make adjustments and improvements—in performance, satisfaction, and happiness.

Understand What Drives You

Our ideas of self are molded at a very early age. Parents, care givers, and teachers encourage certain behaviors that help us integrate with our peers. We are encouraged to go-along, to get-along.

Unfortunately, even well intentioned adults can send messages counter to our actual nature or personality type. “You are so good at following the rules,” doesn’t acknowledge your ability (and desire) to question arbitrary or unfair rules.  We develop a limited, if not warped, sense of self.

In reality, we are remarkably complex. Our environment and social context contribute to the actions we take; they influence our values and motivations.  

According to Johnmarshall Reeve, PsyD, in “Understanding Motivation and Emotion,” (Wiley, 2018), “Through our unique experiences, exposures to particular role models, and awareness of cultural expectations, we acquire different goals, values, attitudes, expectations, aspirations, and views of self.”  

What Is Driving You?

All humans have four basic drives that are embedded in our genetic DNA and remain active in us today:

  1. The drive to acquire
  2. The drive to bond
  3. The drive to learn
  4. The drive to defend

These basic drives have helped in our survival as a species. But, what drives us beyond mere survival? How do we go from survive to thrive?

Hierarchy of Values

Based on their research, Drs. Eduard Spranger and Gordon Allport identified a hierarchy of values, when in certain combinations shape our interests and level of satisfaction:

  • Aesthetic:  A drive for balance, harmony, and form
  • Altruistic:  A drive to help others; for humanitarian efforts
  • Economic:  A drive for economic or practical returns
  • Individualistic: A drive to stand out as independent and unique
  • Political: A drive to have influence; to be in control
  • Regulatory:  A drive to establish order, routine, and structure
  • Theoretical:  A drive for knowledge, learning and understanding

Understanding your individual hierarchy of values—how you rate each value, and how they combine—can help you understand what drives you, and how you can go from survive to thrive.

What Are Your Values Today?

At some time in our life, most of us feel the need to assess our values: what is truly important to us. Unfortunately, we often avoid this task; it’s much easier to keep doing what we’re doing. But then something happens that jolts us out of our complacency.

It could be the loss of something (a promotion or position), or someone (a loved one, or respect of a colleague). Or, a more minor event that illuminated something was just not right: new knowledge, understanding, or perspective. It’s time to examine your values.

The most current version of Drs. Allport, Vernon, and Lindzey’s instrument to measure value hierarchy  (IMX Values Index, or VI profile) has been updated with seven dimensions:

  • Aesthetic: Each experience is judged from the standpoint of grace, symmetry, or fit. Contrary to the theoretical dimension, life is seen as a procession of events; each enjoyed for its own sake. Chief interest is in the beauty of life.
  • Altruistic: prizes other persons as ends, and is therefore kind, sympathetic, and unselfish. Contrary to the political dimension, love is itself the only suitable form of human relationship.
  • Economic: interested in what is useful and practical; focused on security and bottom-line results. In some instances he may have regard for the regulatory dimension, but frequently conflicts with other values.
  • Individualistic: seeks to express uniqueness and be granted freedom over actions. Contrary to the political dimension, seeks neither power nor control of others or the environment in general, but rails against subjugation by any external force.
  • Political: interested primarily in power and control, whatever the vocation, and is the most universal and most fundamental of motives. Prizes personal power, influence, and renown.
  • Regulatory: seeks unity. Often described as mystical, yet directed towards achieving structure, order and to be one with they system.
  • Theoretical: interested in the discovery of truth. Divests itself of judgments regarding the beauty or utility of objects, and seeks only to observe, reason, understand and systematize knowledge.

The two highest dimensions are the most inspirational. The middle three are situational: in certain circumstances they might be a factor. The two lowest scoring dimensions are actually de-motivational, and important to note.

A qualified executive coach can help you rate these seven dimensions, and identify the 21 combinations that influence interests and drive behavior.

For example: if you score high for the altruistic dimension, but are average in the economic dimension, you may be inclined to give away your expertise or products, or even compromise on your salary requirements. Knowing this about yourself can help you plan how and when to say “yes.”

And this is just one example. Identifying your values today will help you understand what drives you, what motivates you, and what inspires you. It will help you become more effective in everything you do.

Leadership in the Time of Disruption

In the past decade, we’ve seen remarkable innovations and extraordinary technological advancements change the way we live, play, and conduct business.

Today, anyone with a smartphone has access to general artificial intelligence. We can easily manage everyday tasks (Google Assistant), send money (Venmo), travel about town (autonomous taxis in some U.S. cities), and answer our doors—from anywhere (Ring).

In the world of sports, racing sailboats have gone from large, single wooden hulls to aerodynamic vessels of flight. Their once canvas sails are now wings that carry the team on two or three small hydro-foils faster than the speed of wind.

Simulators and virtual reality are now a part of learning and training. Organizations have become data-driven cultures, led by Chief Data Officers, who work with data scientists and computers that process hundreds of hypothetical questions and answers.

And incredibly, we’re just getting started.

The most notable innovations are the direct result of disruptors: leaders who changed the game. They transformed existing markets (or created new ones) by focusing on convenience, simplicity, accessibility, or affordability. Disruptive leaders learned to innovate more quickly, cheaply, and with less risk. But this is no easy feat, especially in today’s accelerated environment. For many, disruption causes anxiety, fear, and leads to disruption fatigue.

Ignoring the problem, or worse, feeding the fear, are not real solutions. Leadership in the time of disruption calls for a two-prong approach: improving current product performance and developing new disruptive technology.

In many cases, starting, re-tooling, and scaling a business is easier than ever before. But achieving and maintaining success is another matter. While rapid innovation and new technologies allow for faster speed to market, there are considerable risks and impacts.

Leadership in a time of disruption calls for an examination of mission and vision. It requires a clear understanding of current, as well as potential future disruptors. To succeed, leaders, executives, and managers must lead with careful consideration and mindful intention.  

The Great Paradox

While disruptors are innovators, not all innovators are disruptors. Disruption changes how we think, behave, do business, learn, and live life. Disruptive innovation displaces an existing market, industry, or technology, and produces something new, more efficient, and worthwhile.

Researcher, professor, and author Clayton Christiansen described disruptive innovation as a corporate effort to redefine quality, adopt new technologies, and anticipate customers’ future needs. To put it simply, instead of trying to best their competitors, disruptors change the game.

In The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail(Harvard Business Review Press, 2016), Christiansen shares his research on success sustainability, and the great paradox of two principles taught in business schools: that you should always listen to and respond to the needs of your best customers, and that you should focus on investments of those innovations that promise the highest returns. But according to Christianson, these two principles “sow the seeds of every successful company’s ultimate demise.”

Most sustaining technologies foster improved product performance; they are discontinuous, radical, or incremental, explains Christiansen. Disruptive technologies result in worse product performance—at least in the near-term; they underperform established products in mainstream markets. But, they have other features that a few fringe (and generally new) customers value.

Are we burned-out on the hype?

The word “disruptive” evokes memories of school children unable to self-soothe or stabilize feelings, passionate entrepreneurs sharing their vision, and bosses who are feeling the pressure from their bosses or shareholders.

In an interview with The Guardian, Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Ian Bogost shared with Leigh Alexander, “The big difference between even disruptive innovation and plain disruption is that the former was focused on some improvement to a product or service or sector or community, while the latter is looking first at what it can destroy. Everything is fire and brimstone.”

When Christiansen first used the phrase “disruptive innovation” it evoked possibility, excitement, and hope. Today it signals uncertainty and change. Leadership in the time of disruption requires that leaders address fear, before it takes hold.

When Fear Takes Hold

A fear-based culture is not always easy to spot, at least at first. Indicators to watch for include:

  1. Workers overly focus on daily goals.
  2. Supervisors overly focus on results, infractions, and order
  3. Problems are ignored
  4. Communication is via rumor
  5. Uncertainty and suspicion are status-quo
  6. Stress and illness are common
  7. The blame game (and CYA) run rampant
  8. Collaboration does not exist
  9. Advancement is rare
  10. Team-players are identified by their willingness to support the culture of fear
  11. Mistakes are not tolerated

Certainly, a healthy level of fear is vital for individuals and organizations. However, leaders contribute to a culture of fear by doing nothing; unfortunately, these leaders are often unaware that their leadership is fear-based. Instead of trusting (and inspiring) their colleagues and employees, they employ fear as a means to control. These leaders also create silos within their organization (isolating lines of business, departments, teams, and individuals) and set unrealistic goals and expectations.

Fear-based leaders may have good intentions, but when their own fears are left unaddressed, they manifest into a heightened sense of urgency.

In a recent HBR article, researchers examined what happens when leaders and organizations emphasize urgent action over thoughtful consideration.

In the study, Research: Organizations That Move Fast Really Do Break Things, (HBR 2020), a “move fast and break things” attitude exposes fast-growing organizations to significant risks. Psychologists refer to this tendency as “locomotion goal pursuit.” Organizations who emphasize urgent action over thoughtful consideration are more likely to have unethical decision making.

The researchers found that by offsetting a strong locomotion motivation with a strong assessment motivation, an organization can grow conscientiously.

What Great Leaders Do in Disruptive Times

We’ve moved past the industrial age to the information age, where data, blockchain, and quantum computers may prove to be the great disruptors in every economy, sector, segment, and industry. Understanding the basics of these technologies can help leaders address fears and engage all stakeholders in the development of strategies and tactics for sustainable technologies and disruptive innovations.

Examine your assumptions. What do you know about disruptive innovation? What do your employees know? Here are just a few topics to consider:

Data: Facebook, Google and Twitter now collect 5.6 billion bits of data per day. And in just the first three weeks of February 2020, HBR published 11 articles on the subject of data. How are you using data? Do your employees understand how their data is being collected and used?

Blockchain: a growing list of records that are linked using cryptography. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data. The data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires consensus of the network majority. Reuters has created a graphic of this process.

Quantum computers:  a handful of companies have introduced prototype quantum computers. The fundamental component is the quantum bit, or qubit, which can have a value of 0 or 1 at the same time. This allows quantum computers to consider and evaluate many outcomes simultaneously, thereby increasing their calculating power exponentially.

Mission, Values, and a Triple-Bottom Line

Review your mission, values, and understanding of a Triple-Bottom Line.

Twenty-five years ago, John Elkington coined the phrase “Triple Bottom Line.” In 2018, he pointed out the misuse as an accounting framework, where profit remains center stage. In the HBR articleElkington explains, “The TBL wasn’t designed to be just an accounting tool. It was supposed to provoke deeper thinking about capitalism and its future, but many early adopters understood the concept as a balancing act, adopting a trade-off mentality.” The goal of the triple bottom line was to transform a system change; a disruptor to unsustainable sectors and a genetic code for next-generation market solutions. 

Rather than re-distribute wealth, could we pre-distribute it? Could we democratize the way that wealth gets created in the first place? These are just two of the questions Don Tapscott posed in a TEDTalk. “Technology doesn’t create prosperity, people do. But here’s where technology has escaped out of the genie bottle. It’s giving us another opportunity to rewrite the economic power grid and the old order of things, and to solve some of the world’s most difficult problems, if we will it.”

Disruptive Times Call for Compassion, Learning, and Conversations

Fear of overwhelm keeps us from recognizing the feelings (and existence) of others, and often, even our own fears. Ironically, the key to overwhelm is an ongoing practice of compassion.

Practice compassion: Mindfulness teacher Tara Brach, PhD, has developed a great tool leaders can use to practice compassion daily. In her book, Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN (Viking, 2019) Brach details a four-step meditation that quickly breaks the grip of fear, judgment, shame, and other difficult emotions:

  1. Recognize what is happening
  2. Allow life to be just as it is
  3. Investigate with a gentle, curious attention
  4. Nurture with loving presence

Grounded in modern brain science, the practice of RAIN helps leaders uncover limiting beliefs, fears, and our tendency to feed a sense of urgency that chokes our creativity.

Support learning: Learning and development is more than teaching employees the knowledge they need to perform the basic requirements of their job, rather, it encompasses a broader process to increase skills and abilities across a variety of contexts.

According to a 2019 employee survey reported by Statista, the top five skills employees need to develop are influencing and negotiating (46%), having difficult conversations, design thinking, leading and managing change, and coaching.

Likewise, effective leaders pursue personal and professional development opportunities to improve their competence, self-awareness, and other-relatedness. They grow in ways that are transformative, not just transactional.

Have the conversations: Recognize and acknowledge fear and uncertainty.

In the recent Oscar winning movie, American Factory, documentary film makers take a thoughtful look at how a Chinese billionaire opened a factory in an abandoned General Motors plant located in Ohio. It is a deeply nuanced view of globalization, the decline of labor and organized labor, and the impact of artificial intelligence through automation. And your employees are talking about it.

Are you engaging in these conversations? How?

Despite all the advances in technology and innovation, organizations succeed because of people.

As USA sailing team skipper Rome Kirby says, “Stuff happens at a pretty high speed. The pace of the game now has changed a lot, so we got to make decisions and communicate at a pretty high pace…when you get it right, and sail well, it’s the team that wins the race.”

That’s why CEO and helmsman Nathan Outteridge brings home the gold medals. He and some of his team mates have sailed together for as much as ten years. According to Outteridge, “The F50 is a one-designed boat, so all the foils, all the rudders, all the wings, everything is the same. The only reason one boat goes faster than another is because of what the people onboard are doing…if each person doesn’t do their role properly, performance suffers.”

Remember: your communications should be logical and consistent with facts and experience. To understand nuances, explore both sides of the coin. While you want to strike an emotional chord, avoid using fear. Instead, address the interest of all stakeholders. A qualified executive coach can help.

Leader Insights Improve Innovation

As a leader, are you known for your insights?

Consider this: In January 2018, the World Economic Outlook (WEO) reported the broadest synchronized global growth upsurge since 2010, and estimated positive growth through 2020. But in December 2019, they reported the weakest pace since the financial crisis a decade ago. According to the WEO, “rising trade barriers and associated uncertainty weighed on business sentiment and activity globally.”

On January 20, 2020, they reported that despite prominent risks, “global growth may be bottoming out,” suggesting that we are on the cusp of great change. And while many leaders and organizations take a cautious, wait and see approach, great leaders recognize the opportunities for innovation. They think beyond adaptation, drive change, and make significant contributions that shape our future.

Leaders who are known for their insight identify fresh trends and actively prepare new products and services—before a need or problem is even identified. They instill an innovative mindset throughout their organization. Insightful leaders simultaneously improve efficiencies today, and prepare for the demands of tomorrow.

Innovation is not a choice. However, a lack of insight often results in a lack of innovation. Leader insights improve innovation.

Barriers to Insight

Insight is a process. Unfortunately, we often create barriers for insights to occur. We:

  • Over focus on risk management and compliance, and leave little room for creativity and insights.
  • Emphasize efficiency and effort on short-term goals, and discourage insight and innovation.
  • Set unrealistic deadlines that actually inhibit opportunities for insight.
  • Adopt a win-at-all-cost mentality that increases pressure and squelches opportunities for insight.
  • Fail to recognize our own bias, assumptions, blind spots, and leave questions unasked.
  • Fixate on the wrong problem(s) and dive into rabbit holes.

These barriers go beyond a leader and affect the entire culture. Of course, insight and innovation isn’t limited to leaders, executives, research and development personnel, or marketing departments. Cultures that are stuck in status-quo mode or strung-out in a quest for perfection become trapped and paralyzed.

Insight is a Process

The human brain is a marvelous machine, able to generate brilliant innovations seemingly out of thin air. And while intuitive thinking and insight can lead to innovation, they’re not the same. Intuition is the use of patterns already learned; insight is the discovery of new patterns. Unlike routine problem-solving, our insights aren’t conscious or deliberate.

In a November 2019 article for Psychology Today, Dr. Marty Nemko, PhD, describes the process as:

Raw Ingredients => Filtration => Fermentation => Evaluation

As a leader, you deal with a tremendous amount of those raw ingredients: data. It can be useful when appropriately analyzed, but in some cases may prove overwhelming and misleading. In Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (Public Affairs, First Trade Paper Edition, 2013), Gary A. Klein, PhD describes the process as:

  • New information joins what we already know, and sets the stage for discovery.
  • Our stories frame and organize the details.
  • Insights generate a new narrative: a set of beliefs that are more accurate, comprehensive, and useful.
  • Our insights change our perspective: how we understand, act, see, feel and desire.

Most importantly, insights change what we do next, and what we need to validate new ideas. Innovation is not just about finding a new product or service. Insights create solutions to customers’ problems—even the ones that aren’t yet clear or articulated. Start by asking these six questions:

  • What do underlying trends suggest about possible future states?
  • What would happen if some of these trends converged into a perfect storm?
  • Where is there a small, but growing, trend?
  • What can you learn from analogies and metaphors?
  • What similar situations have companies faced in the past?
  • What can you learn from others’ mistakes and history?

When insightful leaders recognize the need to change, they ensure their business is prepared to innovate, before it’s too late.

Improve Your Leader Insights

When we step back and painstakingly observe a problem, examine perspectives and context, reinterpret the familiar, become aware of unfamiliar and unseen relationships, and ask questions, we can improve our insights.

You can improve epiphany moments with a few key strategies:

  • Be Inquisitive: insightful leaders make a lot of “what if?” inquiries.
  • Make Human Connections: insightful leaders interact with people from diverse backgrounds to access new perspectives.
  • Notice and Observe: insightful leaders are always looking at the world with business radar to detect surprising solutions.
  • Play and Experiment: insightful leaders try new things, in new places, to expose themselves to new experiences.

Identify specific tactics to implement these strategies. For example, alter your environment by changing your office, reversing furniture and items on your desk, or working in a completely different setting. You can also prime your brain for epiphanies with exercise: endorphins trigger positive emotions and creativity, and distance changes perspective.

Try these tactics to improve your leader insights:

  • Mandate R&R for yourself: get ample sleep, take vacations, and disengage. Consider incorporating meditation into your daily routine.
  • Practice gratitude: think about the people, places, and things that bring you joy, and express your gratitude.
  • Daydream: periodically consider your long-range goals, assess your values, and develop plans.
  • Learn something new: start a new hobby, study a different culture, or delve into something completely unrelated to your past experiences.

New information and experiences prime your brain for insight and innovation. Interact with diverse people, ideas, and situations. As you stretch your comfort zone, you’ll expand your curiosity, think abstractly, and identify seemingly remote associations.

Consider working with a qualified executive coach to improve your insights. They can help you identify your assumptions, fixations, or limited perspectives that create barriers to insight.

Use Your Insight to Improve Innovations

Leader insights improve innovation in four distinct steps:

  • Identify opportunities.
  • Develop a framework: organize ideas into plans or pilot projects.
  • Test, assess, and if necessary, make changes.
  • Execute.

Each step requires an open mind, and that you learn from mistakes. Test your ideas, revise when necessary, and have persistence and patience to wait for results.

Identify Opportunities

“Statistics suggest that when customers complain, business owners and managers ought to get excited about it. The complaining customer represents a huge opportunity for more business.” ~ Zig Ziglar

This is the gathering step, when you need a beginner’s mind. Focus on the client, and what may be going on in their mind. This is a basic, three-step process:

  • Identify your target client.
  • Identify problems the client is struggling to solve today. Clarify how your client is using your product or service (it may be different than you think.) Ask your client what they are trying to accomplish.
  • Discover any signals that suggest the client is dissatisfied with the status quo.

Before you jump to solutions, ask “why?” five times in succession. This will help you identify assumptions, underlying issues, and help you get to the heart of the problem. Your “why” questions could be the form of “why?” or “why not?” After your five “why?” questions, move to “what if…?”

When you ask questions in context, using observation, listening, and empathy, you are likely to gain insights on client experiences, and opportunities for innovation.

Develop a Framework

While your idea doesn’t have to be perfect, it must deliver better solutions. Research how other leaders solved similar problems and develop your framework. Ensure that you include short- and long-term:

  • S.M.A.R.T. goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-based)
  • Required resources
  • Anticipated revenues
  • S.W.O.T. Analysis (strengths, weaknesses, obstacles, threats)
  • Known (and unknown) assumptions
  • How the solution aligns with your values, mission, and purpose

And remember: most innovators point to failures as their greatest success. It is most likely that your first idea will lead to a better one.

Assess and Test Your Insights

“Innovation is seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” ~ Dr. Albert, Szent- Györgyi

Make no mistake, leader insights drive change. But improved innovations require resilience and persistence. Tests are the best way to learn about existing and new critical assumptions. You’ll know whether your idea works only after actual implementation.

Sharing and feedback are a critical part of this stage. Fortunately, it’s easier now than ever to get prototypes made and reviewed. As 3-D printing becomes widely available and affordable, this might become even easier and faster.

After test completion, analyze the results. Review your framework and make adjustments based on your learning. Re-test.

Start with a pilot project to minimize resources and maximize potential. Document everything, and remain open for feedback, new information, and adjustments. Remember that a balance between minimizing performance errors and maximizing the flow of ideas and opportunities for improvement will improve insights. If questions arise that can’t be answered, be honest.

Track information that can be used in training, marketing, and reporting. Prepare presentations for executives. Your presentation style and contents will influence your project’s acceptance or rejection, so be meticulous. Lead with “why”, and link to values, mission, and purpose. If necessary, seek help from presentation experts to ensure success.

Remember: Success is never guaranteed, no matter how hard you push or market your innovation. As Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” His greatest creation may have been his invention factory.

Edison’s lab was the world’s first R&D facility, generating more than 400 patents. Rather than focusing on one invention, one field of expertise, or one market, Edison created a setting that enabled his inventors to move easily in and out of separate pools of knowledge, to keep learning new ideas, and to use old ideas in novel situations. Their insights improved innovation.