The Hardest Lesson: Saying “No”

By: David Herdlinger

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

“No.”

It can be daunting to do it.

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

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

When Should You Be Saying “No”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And eventually, it will happen!

 

 

Take Care: Ground Yourself

How do you take care and ground yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Science

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

Our ingrained reaction is essentially a three-step process:

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

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

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

Stress and Your Autonomic Nervous System

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

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

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

The Vagus Nerve

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

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

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

Activate Your Parasympathetic Response

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

Fortunately, there are ways we can strengthen our parachutes:

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

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

The Resilience Pill

We are seeing incredible advances in medical science in recent years: portable MRI machines, cancer treatments (radioligand therapy), sickle cell gene-editing treatment, an Alzheimer blood test, and vaccines. Is a resilience pill next?

Imagine: a simple pill that can increase our resilience. No more struggle with set-backs from uncertainty, mistakes, or failure. Stress would be something we could choose: the how, what, where, when, and why. After all, we know that some stress—eustress—is good for us.

According to The American Institute of Stress, eustress is the experience of a challenging event; it is a mindset that accompanies a challenge. And it helps us develop resilience.

Typically, we become more resilient through life struggles. We adapt and grow. But neuroscience reveals that some of us are a bit more lucky: we’re born with a bit more resilience at the start. For the less fortunate, a pill might just level the playing field.

The Study

Scientists have been digging in to the study of resilience and stress over the past two decades. One leader is Mount Sinai Health Systems. According to their research, the most resilient people have the ability to defend, bounce back, and find ways to create “a sense of safety, control, and social connection.”

When examining seemingly adaptive behavior, the researchers were surprised to find that genetics and neurochemistry played a role. They found differences in the molecular biology of resilient brains (as compared to less resilient). When stressed, specific genes in the nervous system become more active. But in the more resilient brain, the genes are more regulated.

This has led to pilot clinical trials with specific epilepsy and/or anti-depressant drugs to boost resiliency at the cellular level. Of course, at this early stage it is too early to predict the outcome. In the meantime, we’ll need to develop and cultivate our resilience in the more traditional ways.

Understanding Resilience

Over the past two years, this word has been tossed about everywhere: in headlines, podcasts, blogs, articles, talks, etc. I’ve noticed that there is a wide array of definitions, and subsequently, understanding. For example, from 2015-2020, 18 different approach processes were published in adult health research.

In the June 2021 issue of Frontiers in Psychology, researchers point to three challenges when it comes of understanding resilience: definition of positive outcomes, process descriptions, and identification of mechanisms that result in resilience. The authors suggest we need to reconsider some of the attributes of resilience.

The Research

Resilience research has been conducted in four primary scientific fields/waves:

  • Developmental psychology: This resulted in an acceptance and usage of resilient scales to identify and/or predict protective factors and resilient personality types, including environmental experiences that may occur at various developmental stages.
  • Developmental and ecological systems: This resulted in an understanding of resilience as a natural phenomenon resulting from many processes. For example: a sense of safety, positive social connections, feelings of competence and control, and positive outlooks.
  • Intervention and training: the technological advances in neuroimaging suggest the possibility to recover functioning after extreme stress.
  • Neurobiology: Studies on mechanisms, including neural plasticity and the interrelations between biological and psychological processes, reveal additional insights.

Researchers explain that our understanding of resilience has evolved from a trait-oriented approach to a process-oriented/outcome-oriented approach. However, there is no universal outcome measure for resilience. At best, there are three core qualifiers: adversity, positive adaptation, and positive outcome.

Adversity

The researchers define adversity as an exposure to significant adverse events or the risk thereof. The events may be acute and chronically stressful and range from daily life challenges to bereavement, job loss, or chronic events.

Positive Outcomes

  • Immunity, stability, or resistance: while this outcome may apply for acute crisis, no one is invulnerable when it comes to chronic adversity and/or significant trauma.
  • Bouncing back, or recovery: this implies that adversity is experienced in a specific trajectory for a specified period with a return to homeostasis.
  • Growth: unlike recovery, growth implies new, or the strengthening of functions and/or abilities.

Mechanisms of Positive Adaptation

  • Cognitive Reappraisal: positive (re)appraisal and attention control
  • Cognitive or regulatory flexibility: an ability to modify cognitive and behavioral strategies to respond accurately to changing environments
  • Attachment: secure attachment with family, teachers, therapists, or others
  • Hardiness: sense of purpose, agency/self-efficacy, growth-mindset
  • Neurobiology: functioning brain circuitries
  • Genetics: allele type may affect resilience to adversity.

At its core, resilience is a dynamic, multi-dimensional construct, and there is much more to learn. Today, we must rely on three systems, or sources, to build our resilience.

Build Resilience Today

  • Intra-individual sources: gender, sex, biology, physiology, health behavior
  • Interpersonal sources: education, family, competence and knowledge, interpersonal relationships and social groups, skills, and experience
  • Socio-ecological sources: access, formal, and informal institutions, geography, socio-economic status

Of course, access to resources varies greatly across the globe, and even within a community. We see signs of this more and more frequently as situations and behavior indicate persons are experiencing a lack of agency. How can we create a sense of safety (for self and others), a sense of control, and social connections?

Resilience Strategies

An effective strategy that helps build resilience is cognitive reappraisal. This helps us lessen negative emotions and increase positive emotions. Cognitive reappraisal is changing how we think about the situation.

Sometimes, it’s simply using a mantra, such as the Serenity Prayer: “Help me to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This can help us slow down, breathe, and connect with what we can change: our own thinking.

Researchers have found there are many psychological benefits when we experience positive emotions, without necessarily altering negative feelings. After all, it is unrealistic to avoid all negative emotions, such as loss or grief. But we can grow through these experiences when we change how we respond to the situation, including our thoughts and feelings about the situation.

You see, cognitive reappraisal can change the intensity and duration of our feelings. Neuroimaging reveals that when we practice this strategy over a period of time it actual changes our brains; cognitive reappraisal increases our overall sense of well-being and resilience. And when we build our own resilience, we can help others, too.

Develop Your Mental Game

As a leader, how is your mental game?
Consider today’s outstanding athletes, such as those who recently participated in the U.S. Open. It’s impressive to see these leaders excel in their field; they are really amazing! Not unlike today’s outstanding business leaders and managers, they overcome obstacles, deal with set-backs and persevere to the end.
After watching a game or two it’s easy to take their impressive skills for granted. After all, they make it look so easy. And then they make a clear mistake.
Such was the case for one such player: with a single swat, he unintentionally hit a ball at a line judge, and was disqualified.
How can such a well-trained, highly-skilled and disciplined leader make such a mistake?
He got caught in a momentary lapse of un-mindfulness, distracted and fueled by frustration. And it happens to the best of us. We lose our clarity and focus.
Clarity and Focus
Clarity is knowing exactly what you want to achieve as a leader: your vision. Focus is knowing and doing the actions required to get you there. Great leaders do the right thing, right now. How?
First, they develop a clear mental picture of their intention. Then, they make a conscious choice to commit to and pursue that intention. And last, but certainly not least, they develop strategies for protecting their intention against distracting feelings or emotions, like boredom and frustration.
Just like great athletes, great business leaders take purposeful action to preserve and strengthen their mental abilities. After all, leaders who work on their brain fitness are less prone to errors. They understand that clarity and focus require three key areas of brain function:

  • Cognition: Education and experience contribute to your cognitive abilities, so wise leaders engage in learning new skills which they practice to improve their processing speed (how quickly they can recall information, names and memories). This allows them to make wise and timely decisions and responses, and, it also inhibits actions that could sabotage their best efforts, like hitting a ball at a line judge.
  • Emotion Management: Learning how to self-regulate emotions, including stress and anger, is crucial for personal and professional success. You see, when an event or action is stored in our memory, the associated emotion is also stored. This unconscious emotional tagging process can influence our clarity, focus and future decision making process.
  • Executive Judgment: This operational part of the brain enables us to receive information, assess our feelings, identify and analyze pros and cons, formulate plans and discern outcomes.

Build Your Foundation
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a true brain enhancement pill that could increase our health, wellness and performance? While research reveals that nootropics benefit cognition, learning and mental clarity, they don’t actually improve intellect or IQ. If you’re not familiar with nootropics, they are a class of substances (natural or synthetic) comprised of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, antioxidants and other herbal ingredients. Nootropics can have some effect on our memory, thinking or other brain functions, but, more non-biased studies (non-brand or product related) must be conducted. In the meantime, we do know that diet, exercise and meditation are key to higher brain function.

  • Diet: in a perfect world, we’d get all the vitamins and minerals we need through a healthy diet of a wide-range of plants that fight inflammation. You see, science has linked many diseases, including those affecting our brain health­, with chronic inflammation. According to an article published by Harvard Health Publishing (November 2018) choosing the right anti-inflammatory foods reduces your risk of illness.
  • If you’re looking to improve your mental game, consider the Mediterranean diet: it’s high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish and healthier oils. And of course, avoid processed foods, or those high in sugar. Researchers are finding greater evidence linking poor brain health to sugar. So while it might give your brain an initial surge, it’s not the best tool. Instead, give yourself a boost with exercise.
  • Exercise: exercise increases activity in parts of the brain that have to do with executive function. Not only that, exercise promotes the growth of new brain cells. The key is to push yourself (with approval from your health care professional): reach your target heart rate for a period of 20-minutes, totaling a minimum of 150 minutes/week.
  • Why? Aerobic exercises increases blood flow to the brain, reduces stress and improves mood. And, if you are actually enjoying the activity, this only improves your outlook.
  • Meditation: the beneficial effects of meditation for brain fitness are the result of changes in underlying brain processes. Through MRI (fcMRI) scanning, researchers with the National Institutes of Health found that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a form of meditation, alters intrinsic connectivity networks (ICNs).
  • MBSR is an attention-training technique that focuses on present moment internal and external experience. It includes breath awareness, body awareness (scanning) and attention to the impermanence of sensory experience. After eight weeks of MBSR training and practice, researchers identified changes in the subject’s brains reflective of a more “consistent attentional focus, enhanced sensory processing, and reflective awareness of sensory experience.”

Beware of Distractions
Distraction has become an ongoing challenge for many leaders and managers. And it’s not just our devices or technology, rather, it’s often our emotions, or our responses to our emotions.
According to Nir Eyal, an expert on technology and psychology published by Harvard Business Review, and author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. (BenBella Books, 2019) we need to recognize the difference between traction and distraction. Gaining traction requires purposeful action: channeling our energy and focus.
Energy is much more than effort. It is engagement in a meaningful activity, propelled by both internal and external resources. Purposeful action is self-driven behavior; it is self-generated and engaged to generate traction.
Focus is conscious, intentional and disciplined thought and behavior. You see, purposeful action requires discipline to resist distraction, overcome obstacles and persevere in the face of setbacks. Our focus and energy might fall into one of four categories:

    

The Frenzied: Are you highly energetic and enthusiastic about your work, yet distracted or overwhelmed by tasks? How do you feel about deadlines, demands and the tyranny of the urgent? The need for speed may trigger you to act without hesitation, but you could achieve more if you consciously concentrate your efforts on what really matters.
The Procrastinator: Are you feeling low energy and focus? Insecurities and fear of failure may cause you to work on minor details, rather than tasks that could make a real difference for your organization.
The Detached: Are you focused, but without energy? What is the cause? You may be passing on apathy or disdain to your co-workers, sending mixed signals.
The Purposeful: Are you highly focused and energetic? You signal calm, reflective, and able to get the job done, even in chaos.
Boost Your Mental Game
When the going gets tough, how do you develop your mental game?  Answer these questions to boost your energy and hone your focus:
Energy Boosters

  • Focus on one goal. Without judgment or self-censoring, ask yourself:
    1. What is the big picture?
    2. What data, research and strategies do I have and/or need for wise decisions about objectives and goals?
    3. Is my goal well defined?
    4. Where are the limits in my understanding?
    5. How does the goal align with my values and those of my organization?
    6. How would I benefit from a mentor?
  • Build confidence. Consider past personal goals, and ask yourself:
    1. What was my experience with achieving comparable goals? Is it repeatable?
    2. Who is my role model? Can they help me understand what it takes?
    3. Where can I go for feedback and evaluation?
    4. How can I experiment, rehearse or practice critical tasks toward my goal?
  • Practice positivity. Overcome negativity, and develop positive thoughts and feelings by asking yourself:
    1. What are my patterns of feelings and experiences?
    2. How are they related to my thoughts and behaviors about my goal?
    3. Where do I find healthy outlets and support? (hobbies, sports, friends)
    4. When do I experience fun or excitement?
    5. What about my work creates enthusiasm?
    6. Work aside, where do I draw strength? How do I gain balance?

Focus Boosters

  • Harness the power of visualization. Visualize your goal, or objective, and ask yourself:
    1. What does my objective look like? When I need to remember my objective, what simple image can I conjure?
    2. What are the small steps I need to take to reach my goal?
  • Commit to your goal. Make it personal, and ask yourself:
    1. Does this goal feel right for me?
    2. How much do I really want to achieve my goal?
    3. What positive feelings are attached to this goal?
    4. How does this goal align with my values and beliefs?

Boosting your mental game requires a clear mental picture of your goal or objective and a conscious choice to commit to and pursue your goal.

A Shift to Self-Employment

Is self-employment right for you? Is now the best time to start your own business?

Questions like these are common right now. And the answer is: definitely, maybe.

Regardless of the type of business, self-employment isn’t for everyone. It requires passion, know how, and opportunity. It requires strategy and great timing. And it takes resources.

To be sure, there are many pros and cons to consider:

  • With unemployment claims at 30MM in the U.S. and unemployment dropping to 10.2% (16.5% factoring in part-time employees), there is still a lot of volatility in the market.
  • In the months of March and April the US economy lost more than 21MM jobs, and in May, June, and July, regained 9.3MM (about half of jobs lost). While this upward trend is good news, the question remains, what happens next? A lot depends on three things:
  • The virus: While scientists are making great progress toward a vaccine, the number of new cases continues to grow.
  • Consumer confidence and behavior: Some experts speculate that many people used the $1200 US stimulus check to pay-down debt, rather than stimulate the economy with new purchases.
  • The government’s response: At the time of this writing, the U.S. government has not reached a consensus on a second stimulus bill. Of course, this is really only a piece of the puzzle in response to a global pandemic.
  • For the unemployed, with no indication of a work return date, now is a great time to explore possibilities.
  • According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, when people have a greater amount of time to find the right position (with the security of un-employment benefits to sustain them), they find a better fitting job. Sometimes, this means creating a job perfectly suited for them, while solving a problem for their clients.

Many leaders, executives, and managers secretly wish that they were self-employed. When they examine past career choices, future opportunities, and the reality that time is finite, they open the window to options and opportunities.

Are You Ready for Self-Employment?

Ask yourself:

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

The shift to self-employment can be the most rewarding accomplishment and pathway to success there ever was. But, ask anyone who has ventured out on their own, and they’ll tell you tales of blood, sweat, and tears shed. If you’ve got a novel, great idea, it won’t take long before others are nipping on your heels. It’s important to start right: start smart.

Hone Your Value Proposition

Begin with a value-proposition: a simple, memorable statement about what you do, and why you do it. Your value proposition describes the functional and emotional benefits of your company and brand. Functional benefits are linked to specific product features, while emotional benefits refer to positive feelings that customers experience when using your products and services.

For example, the functional benefit of a gardening tool could be the efficient removal of lawn weeds, but the emotional benefit could be its ease of use by people with knee ailments. Value propositions are not necessarily about offering the cheapest products. They are about convincing customers that they are getting value for their money.

A value proposition can be created in four steps:

Step 1: Know your customer

Your customer is a business person with quite a large house, who likes the "meditative feeling" of cutting his own lawn, but gets bored by the job when it takes too long.  He’s looking for a good quality of cut, for the job to be done quickly and enjoyably.

Step 2: Know your product or idea

The product is a ride-on mower with a 25 horsepower (powerful) engine and 45 inch (wide) cutting blades.

Step 3: Know your competitors

The mower goes faster and cuts wider than the competition.

Step 4: Distill the customer-oriented proposition

"Our mower cuts your grass in 50% of the time of ‘big brand’ mowers in its class. And it leaves the lawn looking beautiful too!"

Craft Your Business Positioning Statement

Your business positioning statement flows from your value propositions. It should describe why customers should use one product over another.

For example, a small bakery’s positioning statement could be its multigrain breads and custom-designed cakes that appeal to customers who are looking for flavorful and creative products that are different from the standard mass-produced items at big-box grocery stores. Correct positioning could determine market-share gains and profitability. In this case, the bakery is trying to position its products in the market segment that includes customers who want high-quality, high-priced goods. If it tries to compete solely on price, it may not survive because bigger companies can use their buying power to drive down input costs.

Positioning statements focus on the most relevant benefit and points of competitive differentiation that are meaningful to the persona:

  • Audience (persona type/niche market)
  • Product
  • Category
  • Differentiator
  • Key customer benefit
  • Think "Why?" and answer the customer’s question of WIFM

Be prepared to modify your positioning statements to respond to changes in the business environment. 

Memorize Your Personal Positioning Statement

Your personal positioning statement flows from your value propositions and business positioning statement. It describes why customers should choose you over someone else.

For example, your personal positioning statement could include how you have helped other clients and appeal to prospects who are looking for similar results (or have similar problems).  Based on your niche market values, personal positioning statements focus on the most relevant benefit of working with you versus your competitors.

Try this basic template, and fill in the blanks:

For ____________________ (your audience/niche market/persona type),

I am the ____________________ (your specialty or category of service)

with the unique combination of ________________ (your differentiator)

that can help you ____________________ (key customer benefit/the “why”/WIFM answer).

These tools also help to keep your vision alive. They are reminders of what you do, and why you do it. Most importantly, they prepare you to answer the question: “what do you do?”

Unleash Your Inner Entrepreneur

Leaders and executives often make great entrepreneurs. After all, many have grown through the ranks in an organization, and understand what it takes to succeed in business:

  • Facilitator
  • Teacher
  • Pragmatist
  • Motivator
  • Visionary
  • Mystic (magnetism)

As an entrepreneur, you’ll move through the ranks. Knowing which aren’t a good fit—and knowing what you don’t know—allows you to focus your time, energy, and attention on areas where you excel.

Generally speaking, your passion will stem from your knowledge or experience with the technical aspects of your business: the first three ranks. Successful entrepreneurship requires a solid understanding of logistics, including resources, supply chains, and production, as well as marketing, finance, and everything in between.

As you take on more responsibility (and grow your business), the role of facilitator, teacher, and pragmatist can be taught to others, delegated, or hired out. Your role will shift to motivator as you encourage others in their performance.

As a visionary, you’ll share your ideas, identify possibilities and opportunities, and make connections others may miss. Even without a team yet in place, you’ll be called on to communicate your vision and inspire action from others: creditors, investors, and clients. This requires social intelligence, charisma, and magnetism; it requires the mastery of mystic.

The Mastery of Mystique

Mystique is a transformational, rather than transactional, quality. It affects our internal—not external—state. The charismatic entrepreneur changes the way we feel about ourselves, our values and our beliefs. Our behavior and performance are therefore influenced on a deeper level.

Consider your formative life experiences. It’s not about what happened to you, but how you responded. For example, if something traumatic raised your self-awareness; if it caused you to question, reflect, gain insight and ignite your passion, share this with others.

In challenging times, charismatic entrepreneurs can unite a group and inspire focus, more so than any other force.

Serendipity, Self-Employment and Success

Self-employment isn’t for everyone. It requires passion, know how, and opportunity. It requires strategy and great timing. And it takes grit. Successful entrepreneurs use their grit to:

  • Anticipate that obstacles are inevitable and find a way around them.
  • Develop their abilities by finding solutions to setbacks.
  • Build willpower by using it like a muscle—anticipating when they’re vulnerable, avoiding temptations, and preparing contingency plans and coping strategies.

Successful entrepreneurs focus on what they will do, rather than what they won’t do—a tactic that fosters positive energy. They know success depends on adapting to challenges and persisting, even when they’re ready to wave the white flag. And, they are open to opportunities in surprising places.

Successful entrepreneurs see what others don’t; they notice the un-noticed, and expect the unexpected. Those who are successfully self-employed turn these noticed, unexpected observations into opportunities. Some call it serendipity.

As Christian Busch, PhD, writes in The Serendipity Mindset (Riverhead Books, 2020), “[Serendipity] demands a conscious effort to prompt and leverage those moments when apparently unconnected ideas or events come together in front of you to form a new pattern.” To put it simply, they connect the dots.

According to Busch, there are three types of serendipity: Archimedes, Post-it, and Thunderbolt.

  • Archimedes Serendipity: When a solution to a known problem comes from an unexpected place. This type of serendipity is common for natural entrepreneurs.
  • Post-it Serendipity: When a solution to a known problem is stumbled upon by exploring a different and/or unrecognized problem.
  • Thunderbolt Serendipity: When a solution to an unknown problem presents itself.

Why Is This Important?

As successful entrepreneurs will tell you, no matter how strong your passion or know-how, success depends on your openness to opportunity, and how well you have trained yourself to recognize opportunities around you. You see, serendipitous entrepreneurs connect the dots between the small things and life’s bigger problems. 

Busch writes, “Learn to spot serendipity.” Recognize opportunities in things, places, and with others. Connect the dots and recognize patterns.

One of the biggest hurdles in this process is confidence, or lack thereof. Sometimes, our need for perfectionism (and fear of failure) holds us back. But when we accept that failure is better than no attempt, we can let go of limitations, and open to a world of possibilities.

Some successful entrepreneurs intuitively cultivate serendipity. They are open to the unexpected, able to proactively lead during times of uncertainty, and understand what is within their control. Others work to cultivate a serendipitous attitude. What about you?

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.”

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.

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.

Positive Progress and the Art of Negotiation

How much time and attention do you spend negotiating every day?

Think about it: just getting to your work space requires negotiating activities, meals, and space (think nutrition versus convenience, after-school activities, commuter lanes, etc.) At work we negotiate our way through business deals, customer relations, office politics, and career advancements. Such negotiations often require the agility of Captain America, the stamina of Dean Karnazes, and the wisdom of Yoda.

Ask any experienced parent (or listen to the news) and you’ll hear how playing hardball with threats and bluffs simply does not yield positive progress. However, traditional wisdom that points to a win-win strategic formula of trades and compromises is not without challenges. Of course, most of us are not super-heroes or world class athletes. Positive progress requires mastery in the art of negotiation.

What is the Art of Negotiation?

Negotiation is the process of agreement that takes place between individuals or organizations autonomously (by algorithms or machines) or human interaction (verbal or written dialogue). Generally, the objective is to identify common interests and resolve opposing differences. But as authors Michael Wheeler and Jeff Cummings write in The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, “agility is the mark of a master negotiator. Yes, preparation is important, but negotiation is a two-way street.”

Negotiations often break down when people focus on their positions, rather than on legitimate interests. The resulting polarization squelches curiosity, creativity, and compassion. This is often seen in positional bargaining, where egos are hooked, relationships become strained, and neither party is satisfied.

For example, you want your children to eat something healthy for breakfast. You offer an orange, a cup of unsweetened steel-cut oats, and a cup of unsweetened almond milk. They counter that they want sweetened cereal and a glass of sweetened juice. You then drop your offer to half-an orange, three bites of the oats, and no less. One of your children counters with two orange sections. This exchange goes on until you meet in the middle.

The problem with this tactic is that the legitimate interests are not addressed, rather, both parties focus on their position and the compromise does not take into account the needs of either party.

What’s Your Negotiation Style?

Most people have a default negotiation style. Two of the most common are hard-bargaining and win-win.

The underlying motivation in the hard-bargaining style is based on a competitive, zero-sum game, that is to say, if one gains, the other loses. With this style of positional bargaining, there is a winner and a loser of limited resources.

In the win-win style, both parties seek to understand underlying interests and values of the other party. This gentler style is common with friends, family, and those who value relationships. Of course, a hard-bargaining, “muscle, might, or deception” style will dominate a gentler style, and ultimately result in a loss for both parties. Alternatively, a principled negotiation style supports both parties equally.

When both parties seek to meet the legitimate, basic interests of both parties using fair standards, mutually satisfying options are identified and result in a sound agreement. Positions, personalities, and egos are separated from the problem or conflict. Mutual respect is demonstrated with direct, honest, and empathetic communication.

The Art of Principled Negotiation

It’s not easy to change habits and disentangle emotions when negotiating. It may be difficult at first to enlist others in the task of working out a wise solution to a shared problem. Your first goal is to find a better way to negotiate.

In the best-selling book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton outline four elements of principled negotiation:

  1. People: Separate the people from the problem.
  2. Interests: Focus on interests, not positions.
  3. Options: Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do.
  4. Criteria: Insist on a result based on an objective standard.

These four elements require skills in analysis, planning, and discussion.

Analysis: Gather and organize information. Identify the outcome (basic need or want) you wish to achieve. Identify the desired outcome for the other party.

For example, if you are negotiating breakfast with your children, you’ll need to specify exactly what you believe to be indicators of nutrition or health. Is it consistent energy until lunch? You may want your children to eat only unprocessed, unsweetened foods, but their nutritional needs may be met with a balance of unprocessed, minimally processed, and naturally sweetened foods. You also need to know what each child wants. Is it something quick, easy, and sweet? This broader perspective differs from trying to convince both children to eat an orange, a cup of unsweetened steel-cut oats, and a cup of unsweetened almond milk. The focus is on outcomes—not positions or specific foods.

In principled negotiations, you’ll want to consider any people problems, partisan perceptions, and unclear communications as you identify others’ needs. Note the options already on the table (i.e., oranges, steel-cut oats, almond milk, sweetened cereal, sweetened juice), and identify any criteria already suggested as a basis for agreement (taste/pleasure, nutritional value, speed/ease, etc.)

Planning: Only after you have thoroughly analyzed legitimate needs, wants, and desired outcomes, generate ideas and decide what to do. Consider these questions:

  1. When people problems arise, how will they be managed?
  2. What are your most important interests (needs, wants)?
  3. What are some realistic objectives?
  4. What are some additional options?
  5. What criteria will be used in decision making?

Discussion:  This is an opportunity to practice curiosity without judgement. Through two-sided, open dialog, both parties explore differences in perception, feelings of frustration and anger, and other factors. Remember to examine all four of the elements: people, interests, options, and criteria. Each side should come to understand the other’s interests. Both can then jointly generate options that are mutually advantageous and seek agreement on objective standards for resolving opposition.

Using our breakfast example, one child may want to skip the meal entirely, while the other wants something sweet. Negotiating a compromise requires family members to examine options that satisfy the group. Ultimately, you may need to create two separate agreements.

This method of reaching agreement considers all parties’ interests and allows you to reach a joint decision without the high costs of positional bargaining.

But what happens when positive progress fails?

When Negotiations Stall

Negotiating is about coping with complexity. To succeed, negotiators must be prepared, but more importantly, they must be prepared to cope with rapid change and mistakes. Agility and curiosity is the best approach.

We often act out of habit, without question. To be sure, it’s difficult to admit our common human condition of thinking we know more than we do. The ego protects itself by gravitating toward feelings of certainty. In that state of mind we’re unlikely to ask questions.

Instead, practice being a good questioner. Recognize your own feelings of discomfort or self-consciousness with not knowing. Ask naïve questions. A beginner’s mind is open to all possibilities while an expert’s is not.

When people do ask questions, they’re often relying on assumptions and biases. Even if you don’t yet know "how," it’s important to ask "why" and "what if" questions. And remember to listen well.

Negotiation is the exploration of the scope of the issues, the best means for resolution, and the nature of your relationship with counterparts. When negotiations stall, you might just need to go back to the exploration stage.

When Negotiations Fail

Negotiations often fail when we cut corners, rush to solutions, and accept proposed solutions—even when our best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) would have been better. Similarly, failure also occurs when a solution can’t be implemented.

Remember our breakfast example? If you had reached a point of exasperation and said to your children, “eat what I made, or go hungry,” a stalemate would likely ensue. And it’s really no surprise.

According to the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation, negotiations fail when strong emotions come in to play. Instead of objectively discussing a proposed solution, comparing it to your BATNA, and making a rational choice, threats are issued.

While some critics argue that a BATNA encourages positional bargaining, others point to the objectivity and assurance an alternative provides. A well thought out BATNA, or estimated alternatives to a negotiated agreement (EATNA), increases your confidence, identifies your alternatives, and helps you to recognize subpar and best solutions.

The art of negotiation requires preparation and agility. With practice, you’ll see positive progress while maintaining positive relationships during the process.

Leadership Development and the Art of Listening

What do Douglas Baker Jr., CEO of Ecolab, Fred Rogers (Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood), and former US President Barack Obama have in common?

Doug Baker became CEO of Ecolab in 2004. At the time, the 80+year old company was selling industrial cleansers and food safety services to the tune of $3.8 billion annual revenue, with 10% annual growth. In 2011, Baker transformed the company which resulted in $12 billion annual revenue.

Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers, cared deeply about those on the other side of the television screen—their needs, concerns, struggles and joys. He was an advocate for children, public television, and a voice for the unheard.

Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009 to 2019. Prior to that, he served as a US senator, a state senator, worked as a civil rights attorney, law professor, and community organizer for low-income residents. In a recent conversation at the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific program he spoke about his experiences and values-based leadership.

So what do these three leaders have in common? They point to listening as the key to forward progress.  After listening to clients, Baker refocused their efforts to help save the planet and attained 133% of their projected growth. Rogers listened to children, changed the face of television, and transformed the lives of young children. Obama spent countless hours listening to others, inspiring trust, pulling people together, and improving innumerable lives.

Although the art of listening is frequently the difference between leadership success and failure, it is often taken for granted, and rarely taught in schools—at any level. We have an urgent need for leadership development in the art of listening.

How Well are You Listening?

Listening well has been found to distinguish the best managers, teachers, and leaders.” ~ Psychologist Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2007)

The art of listening is essential for leaders. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that we spend 22% of our time reading communications, 23% talking to others, and 55% listening. But how well are we hearing?

Test yourself with this simple exercise, suggested by Marshall Goldsmith in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Hachette Books, 2007): Close your eyes. Slowly count to 50 with a concentrated focus on counting only; don’t let any other thought enter your brain.

Most people admit that after counting to 20 or 30 they become distracted. (Some maintain the count, but are also thinking of other things.) While this may sound like a concentration test, it’s actually a listening assessment. After all, if you can’t listen to your own voice as you count, how can you listen to someone else?

Practice this listening exercise. Track your progress. By sharpening your ability to focus on your own voice, you’ll find that you are better able to focus attention on another.

Why We Aren’t Listening

Mastering the art of listening is beneficial to everyone. It allows leaders to identify opportunities, innovate, and increase profitability. It strengthens relationships, builds better teams, and bridges gaps. So why aren’t we listening?

The human brain is a remarkable, complex system with enormous power to process information through electrical signals. Like a computer (or artificial intelligence), it has circuits for input, output, central processing (CPUs), and memory. The human brain also uses parallel processing, and, according to Liqun Luo, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, has “superior flexibility, generalizability, and learning capability than the state-of-the-art computer.” 

On average, the human brain thinks at 500 words per minute (Wpm). However, we only speak at an average of 130 Wpm. This frees up a lot of CPUs when we are listening, and we begin to multi-task.

Emotional distractions also create a lack of presence and inability to listen. These include:

  • Impatience
  • Resentment and envy
  • Fear and feeling threatened
  • Fatigue and frustration
  • Overexcitement (happiness, joy, attraction)
  • Insecurities and/or a need to be “right”

When we think we already know what someone is going to say, we often stop listening, and begin crafting a solution and response. When this happens, we move away from a place of curiosity, a keystone of listening.

Similarly, our limited perspective can interfere with our listening. When we think we know what someone is going to say, or hear something that contradicts what we think or feel, we stop listening. We fail to acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know. We hold on to bias, beliefs, and pre-conceived notions.

Often times, leaders who struggle in the art of listening are simply struggling with their own perceived inability to act on suggestions and ideas. As a result, they shut down the flow of ideas and requests, and move to a defensive position where they do all the talking. Sure, they may empathize (and emphasize) how much they care, but they are not listening.

What is the Art of Listening?

As counter-intuitive as it may appear, the art of listening actually begins with self-awareness. Self-aware people understand what motivates them and their decision-making. They recognize their feelings (as they happen) and how they affect their thoughts. They understand their strengths and weaknesses. Self-aware people understand their proclivity to bias and blindspots.

How? In an HBR article, Anthony K. Tjan writes that the trinity of self-awareness is to, “know thyself, improve thyself, and complement thyself.” Self- aware leaders are active truth-seekers who commit to intellectual honesty and surround themselves with different types of people who understand and complement each other. Individually and collectively, they develop social intelligence.

Honing the skills of awareness requires mindfulness—becoming aware of what’s going on inside and around you on several levels. In its simplest form, mindful meditation is an intentional awareness of being, focusing on the breath. If, or rather, when a thought occurs, the person simply acknowledges the thought without judgement, and returns to a focus on the breath. The practice leads to living in a state of full, conscious awareness of one’s whole self, of other people, and the context in which we live and work. It provides a framework for social awareness.

According to Goleman, social awareness is a spectrum that runs from instantaneously sensing another’s inner state, to understanding their feelings and thoughts, and to “getting” complicated socials situations. Goleman describes it as:

  • “Primal empathy: Feeling with others; sensing non-verbal emotional signals.
  • Attunement: Listening with full receptivity; attuning to a person.
  • Empathic accuracy: Understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
  • Social cognition: Knowing how the social world works.”

Whether they agree or disagree with what they are hearing, reading, or seeing, leaders who excel in the art of listening are fully receptive to the person communicating. They use active listening to signal their attunement. Self-aware listeners facilitate rapport with full, sustained presence, going beyond momentary empathy, similar to what they practice in mindfulness.

How Leaders Can Listen Better

Humans learn to sift and sort at any early age. We learn coping methods to drown out distracting movements and sounds. In the process, we often develop the habit of selective listening. As a result, we often miss important cues, or even direct communication. While the art of listening is not taught in traditional MBA programs, leaders can learn to listen better by taking a few tips from the training therapists receive.

Be curious. Curiosity allows us to think more deeply, rationally, and innovatively. Curious leaders gain more trust and respect, and are better able to adapt in uncertain conditions and external pressures. As a leader, how do you strengthen your curiosity? How often do you:

  • Read a wide range of topics, genres, and authors
  • Consult with others
  • Explore without an agenda—i.e. take a trip, a walk, a visit to brick and mortar book store
  • Ask “dumb” questions
  • Learn something new—i.e. memorize new facts, learn a new game/language/musical instrument
  • Deepen your existing knowledge and expertise
  • Ponder the unknowable

Practice active listening. As a leader, one of the most important things we do for those we lead is to listen. And while we may think we’re paying full attention, we may be sending a message that we’re not. Instead, practice active listening without judgement:

  • Stop what you are doing. This is perhaps the most important, and loudest signal you can give to the other person. If you are walking, stop. Turn to face the other person squarely. If you are seated and holding something, put it down, and if possible, away from your reach, and face the other person squarely. If you are not able to fully participate, or have limited time and attention, let them know, and, schedule a time and place when you can.
  • As the other person is speaking, pay attention to their non-verbal language—their tone, body language, and gestures—as well as the details of what they are saying. As appropriate, mirror their actions (make eye contact, smile, lean in, relax your face, etc.).
  • Ask for clarification, or elaboration, without interrupting them as they speak. To do this well, without manipulating the conversation with your own bias, agenda, preconceptions, or motives, takes practice. Allow for silence as someone searches for words or composure by maintaining eye contact and using appropriate facial expressions. Ask open-ended questions that can not be answered with “yes” or “no”. If you do need specific clarification, ask close-ended questions.
  • Paraphrase what you think you heard, verbally and non-verbally. Include what you perceive to be their feelings, emotions, beliefs, thoughts, suggestions, ideas, requests, etc. Include details, as well as the big picture. Acknowledge what you don’t understand, or know.
  • Don’t rush to solutions, or fixes. Be patient, but not passive. And remember, the goal is not to critique what they say, rather, it is simply to hear and understand. Resist any urge to empathize by topping the story with your own similar, but worse, experience.
  • Communicate what your next step or follow-up will be.

Establish guidelines for team and group meetings. The art of listening is critical for team success. Leaders who remove barriers, set standards, and model behavior increase meeting efficiencies and productivity.

  • Request that distractions be minimized or eliminated (i.e. cell phones off, doors closed, etc.).
  • State your objective at the beginning of the meeting.
  • Appoint a facilitator to keep track of time and focus.
  • Appoint a note-taker to paraphrase and track main points, assignments, deadlines, status, and next-steps.
  • Encourage everyone to face the speaker as much as possible (turn chairs in the appropriate direction.)
  • When ideas are presented, resist the urge to interrupt or critique, and encourage the same behavior from everyone.
  • Discourage side conversations. Ask participants to have their conversation at another time.
  • Take your own notes of what the speaker is saying.

Model the art of listening with self-awareness, attentiveness to the speaker, and listening to understand.

Signs of a Poor Listener

People who are poor listeners are generally not difficult to spot. They are often easily distracted, fail to focus on the present, offer plenty of free advice, minimize the feelings of others, and are quick to fill any silence with their own ideas.

Colleagues, co-workers, and even clients label poor listeners. Have you seen these types in the workplace?

  • Headhunter listener: this type of listener is looking to identify others in their tribe; that is to say, if your ideas align with theirs, or what they believe is “the truth.” While they may have good intentions, they are frequently looking for ways to restate their position, rather than listen.
  • Negator:  this type of listener believes everyone else is wrong. They create barriers, often hiding behind closed doors, lack of time, and other priorities. Resentful of others for their attempt at intrusion, they negate all ideas.  
  • Manipulator: perhaps the most cunning of poor listeners is the manipulator, who skillfully steers conversations to their desired outcome. Their questions are leading, slanted, or rhetorical, leaving others to wonder what just happened.
  • Phila-buster: this type of listener is also known as a wind-bag. Any thinking they do is done externally, or outloud, and they use repetition or gas-lighting to try and prove their point.
  • Fixer: the fixer listener is a people-pleaser, quick on the draw to offer solutions. They seek to impress, and often make recommendations before assistance is sought, or problems are fully identified.
  • Faker: this type of listener is a great actor, who often uses pseudo-empathy to mask their disinterest or closed-mind.

When co-workers don’t listen at work, it can often feel like bad improv comedy. Collaboration becomes impossible when conversations are one-sided. Unfortunately, the stakes are often much greater, and the consequences far more reaching.

How Teams Can Listen Better with Improv

Individuals and teams can practice the art of listening with a few techniques from improv comedy. The game is called Questions Only, where participants are challenged to move the dialog forward without hesitation, statements, or non-sequiturs, asking original questions only. Some versions of the game use scoring, but typically it is done with a group of four (or more), and when a mistake is made, another person steps in. The key to staying in the game is to listen well.

Poor listeners rarely move a dialog forward. Instead, they miss cues and opportunities. But great listeners focus on others, remain flexible, and listen carefully. They collaborate and support each other.

Listening well will help you strengthen relationships, increase your knowledge, make better decisions, and improve your creativity. It can make all the difference in your success. How are your skills in the art of listening?