Helping Employees Get Through the Loneliness Epidemic

The world is going through a loneliness epidemic that started even before the COVID-19 pandemic distanced people even further from each other. Around 43% of people reported struggling with loneliness, and the effects can be felt across the board:

  • Social life
  • Happiness levels
  • Job performance
  • Even physical health

Loneliness can have severe impacts on an individual’s mental health especially. Companies looking to provide better wellness support to their employees may want to start with ways to combat this epidemic.

Should Companies Help Employees Feel Less Lonely?

For starters, let’s answer the question: is it the company’s job to fight against employee loneliness rates?

It’s well established that companies who offer their employees solid resources designed to support their wellness benefit from higher employee retention rates and manage to attract better-qualified people for new positions.

And in 2022 and going forward, helping combat loneliness is one of the pillars of wellness, as loneliness is known to be even worse for a person’s health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or obesity.

Not just that, but being lonely can increase the risk for:

  • Heart disease
  • Strokes
  • High blood pressure
  • Depression
  • Early mortality
  • Even cognitive decline

Loneliness affects a person’s outlook on life, their motivation, and can even slash job performance. Companies who want to invest in wellness programs for their employees must ensure that at least part of their efforts goes into countering the loneliness epidemic their teams already face.

How Can Companies Combat Employee Loneliness?

Creating opportunities where employees can connect and engage is one of the best ways for companies to tackle the loneliness epidemic. But because this issue can result in negative effects on many levels, a more comprehensive approach should cover a few key areas:

  • Physical health – Helping employees take care of their physical health, either through company-created programs or facilitated access to certain medical services is one of the major components of an employee wellness program, even one designed to combat loneliness specifically;
  • Mental health – Awareness regarding mental health is increasing, yet access to such services is still low. Companies who want to help employees combat loneliness can invest in mental health services;
  • Physical activity – Sports and an active lifestyle can improve both physical and mental health. Companies can offer discounts or paid memberships to sports centers, and gyms, or even conduct their own sporting activities and encourage company-wide participation;
  • Socialization – Be it through game nights, team buildings, or office parties, such informal activities can help employees connect with each other, build stronger relationships, and even feel less isolated from their peers;
  • Mentorship and coaching – Some employees could benefit from coaching programs designed to help them connect with their peers, teams, and even collaborators. These types of programs can assist the employee in learning essential life skills and growing confidence in their own abilities.

Loneliness doesn’t have a simple cure, nor can it be fixed rapidly.

However, if companies become aware of the problem, they can build a solid framework and help their employees navigate this new reality.

Wellness Programs: Are They Now Mandatory for an Organization?

Society is forever changed after 2 years of being held in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. While people, companies, and industries are still figuring things out, we can already see some massive changes when it comes to the workplace.

Specifically, changes to how companies are starting to measure, retain, and even entice their employees.

Say what you want about the pandemic, but it has underlined the need for comprehensive wellness programs that can take care of a person from a holistic standpoint. Companies are also realizing they are not just the main factor that could influence a person’s financial life. They also play a huge role in their employee’s wellness.

The Stats on Corporate Wellness Programs

A Gartner Survey of 52 HR executives found that companies are doubling down on their wellness programs:

  • 94% invested extra in their wellness programs
  • 85% increased support for mental health
  • 50% increased support for physical health
  • 38% increased support for financial health

Wellness isn’t just the responsibility of the employee anymore. Companies are realizing that through comprehensive wellness programs, they can better predict and improve employee performance, and even increase employee retention.

Because it’s not just companies warming up to these programs: individuals are seeking services to improve their well-being in different ways.

What Should a Wellness Program Include?

If your organization is now looking to establish its first wellness program, the very first step to take is assessing the current well-being of your employees.

Wellness programs work best when they can directly speak to the needs, expectations, and individual circumstances of employees. For example, a company with many young adults may need family planning services. Notoriously competitive industries and high stress should strengthen their mental health services.

By asking your employees, you can effectively learn what they need from a wellness program. In general, such programs will take a holistic approach to help employees lead a balanced life, such as:

  • Physical health services – Such as adding health and fitness services to the program, providing tools and resources of education, or binding on a health coach to help employees improve their physical health;
  • Mental health services – Implementing stress-reduction protocols, educating employees about their mental health, improving their access to mental health services, etc.
  • Financial health – Helping employees plan their financial future, save money, invest, and even create safety nets in case of emergencies.

Of course, the wellness program can have many additional layers, depending on the needs and expectations of your employees.

Do Wellness Programs Work?

Helping someone improve their well-being isn’t a one-sided task: it takes 2 to tango.

But what wellness programs do is offer employees an easy, accessible way to take care of their health and well-being.

Whether at an individual level it will work or not, generally depends on the person. Some thrive better with 1-on-1 wellness coaching than with broad coaching programs.

But even so, wellness programs work towards improving the company-employee relationship and offer people all the resources they need to care for themselves and their well-being.

The “Human” Side Of Coaching

Coaches can have vastly different approaches to helping their clients achieve their goals, be they on a professional, personal, or niche level.

However, what should never change in terms of how coaching ensues is the idea that the client’s needs always come first, before the books, the strategies, and the formats.

Call it the recipe for success in coaching, but when you don’t put the person’s needs at the forefront of your work, you miss out on the “human” component of coaching. And this component can often determine the success of the coaching.

What Is the “Human” Component of Coaching?

The human component simply refers to the fact that the coaching strategy should answer the specific needs of the client in need of help.

Let’s take two scenarios to help you see the human component in action:

1.  The General Approach

A person looking for coaching and support certainly has many options in 2022. In fact, you may even be inclined to sign up for a masterclass or course that can help you work on some of your issues to reach your goals.

These types of classes have a “general” approach. They tackle certain subjects in a way that a large group of people can have something to learn and gain from them.

The coach will likely prepare a set of videos, booklets, checklists, and other materials to offer their clients, and help them move through the course.

And you can learn a lot from this type of approach, especially if you’ve never worked with a professional to improve your skills and mindset to overcome challenges and reach your goals. But, with this approach, you are missing out on essential interactions with your coach.

2.  The “Human” Approach

The human approach to coaching essentially means your coach will build an actual relationship with you, instead of just sharing tips and tricks. For starters, the human approach involves identifying your unique needs and expectations.

You will meet with your coach and get support for your circumstances, instead of an overall approach to becoming more successful or socially open. The human approach puts you, as an individual, at the frontline of the entire process, and not a potential group of people.

Which One Is Better?

It should be said that both approaches have their time and place. The general approach, be it in the form of a class or a course can certainly help people achieve meaningful results and even clarify some questions they may have about their future.

But in most cases, people respond better to the “human” approach, simply because it is tailored to their individual circumstances.

So when you choose a course, a program, or a coach, always let your individual needs guide you. Ask yourself:

“Can this really help me? Is it appropriate for my goals?”

Once you do that, you’ll be able to effectively navigate the world of coaching and find the tips, tricks, and the people who can genuinely help you achieve what you want.

Virtual Coaching: The Good, The Bad, And the Disclaimer

By: David Herdlinger

We’re living in an increasingly virtual world. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, many industries were forced to embrace the remote or hybrid workplace a lot sooner than expected, or even regardless if they’d ever made such plans.

But like it or not, we now have countless digital opportunities at our fingertips, including professional coaching.

But does it work? Does video-calling your coach yield the same benefits as face-to-face meetings?

Let’s unpack the issue.

The Good of Virtual Coaching

Professional or personal coaching can be incredibly powerful for a lot of people in need of a little help reaching their goals.

But depending on where you live, you might not have access to the best coaches, or even not have one in your area at all.

Virtual coaching, therefore, allows many more people to access these types of services, from anywhere, and even at any time.

This leads to some compelling advantages:

  • Easily fit the coaching sessions into your busy schedule
  • Find more opportunities to get coaching even for niche matters
  • Get the chance to find a coach who can truly help your specific situation, etc.

The Bad of Virtual Coaching

There are two things I want to mention here:

First, you need to be careful who you trust. Since virtual coaching is on the rise, naturally many people may try to take advantage of them. It’s important to fully vet the coach and be sure you’re going to work with someone who’s experienced and can genuinely guide you to the success you look for.

That’s the biggest downside of virtual coaching.

But, there’s also a matter of what style you may respond best to. Simply put, some people still need face-to-face experience. The message resonates much clearer with them when they receive it live, as opposed to a video call.

The Disclaimer

I don’t think it’s necessarily productive to claim one style of coaching is better than the other. Both virtual and in-person coaching can provide you with a great experience.

Instead, be very careful how you select your coach, no matter if the meetings will occur in real life or through a digital platform.

There are some things you should always be looking for in a coach:

  • Compatibility – Like any relationship, you have to be compatible with your coach at least on some level;
  • Experience – If you’re going to learn from that person and take their advice, then they need to have the right experience to genuinely help you reach your goals;
  • Expertise – The coach is an expert in their niche, but is their niche right for what you need? Always be sure to check;
  • Trust – This is the foundation of any collaboration or relationship. If the coach isn’t the type of person you can trust to open up to, then your coaching experience will suffer because of it;

If you find someone compatible with you, has the right expertise and experience, and you feel you can trust them, then you don’t need to concern yourself with the virtual vs. real-life coaching debate.

Show Up for Your Best Self

How do you show up for your best self?

Let’s face it: the past 20 months have not been easy. Remaining open, yet vigilant; positive, yet cautious; and resilient, yet flexible has been no easy task. For many, taking care of our loved ones has taken precedence over care for our self. Yet, if we don’t show up for our best self, how do we fully recover and care for others? How do we live our best life?

Demonstrating care (and affection) for ourselves begins with self-compassion. To some degree, everyone suffers. It is part of being human. Unfortunately, denying our suffering may make us more prone to self-sabotage.

Practicing self-compassion means acknowledging that we may be self-handicapping: we anticipate a real or imagined obstacle to living our best life and use it as an excuse for inaction. We practice self-compassion when we recognize this as an ineffective mechanism against suffering, and begin to notice this behavior.

As clinical psychologist and author Alice Boyes, PhD, writes for Harvard Business Review, practicing self-compassion has four components:

  • Practicing a kind tone (and language) that appeals to you.
  • Accepting pain and suffering are part of being human.
  • Allowing and recognizing all feelings (without attachment).
  • Anticipating that you can and will do the best you can at any point in time.

Unfortunately, our self-handicapping can be very subtle. It’s also one of the ways we get and stay stuck, trapped in the familiar, or worse, bad habit loop.

Recognize Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage can be cunning, especially for highly intelligent and successful people. For example, resting on past accomplishments (too much positive thinking) can sabotage future success. Here are nine other ways we self-handicap:

  • Negative thinking (“I’m not good enough.”)
  • Withholding/silence (Not contributing/responding/offering ideas.)
  • Delaying action (Failing to act.)
  • Excuse making (“I don’t have the time/resources.”)
  • Failure to accept responsibility (Similar to excuse making, we may point to others or circumstances outside of our control.)
  • Adopting a “good-enough” attitude to avoid failure/rejection. (Becoming too risk averse.)
  • Imbalance of focus: too small picture
  • Focusing more on feelings, rather than facts.
  • Allowing (or encouraging) distractions to derail us.

Understand Why We Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage just might be another part of being human. Fortunately, our brains can help us thrive in the face of adversity, practice self-compassion, and become our best self. We know this through the study of positive neuroscience—the study of positive psychology using neuroimaging techniques to explain the neurobiology.

To some degree or other, we are inundated with information or situations that can evoke an emotion. Whether it is happiness, gratitude, sadness, sympathy or any other emotion, we vary in how we respond. One study leads researchers to conclude that happier people are better able to see opportunities without missing threats.

The Research

Happier people—persons with high positive affectivity—are typically characterized as open-minded, sociable, and helpful. They have high energy and enthusiasm, are alert and active, and have confidence in their ability to achieve—if not now, then later. Persons with high negative affectivity are typically characterized as having a poor self-concept. Nervousness, guilt, fear, disgust, contempt and/or anger are common experiences in persons with high negative affect. 

With the use of fMRI studies, researchers find that our amygdala responds to emotional stimuli according to our affective style. If we have a more positive affect style we are less reactive to stimuli, are better able to regulate our emotions, and our disposition is more positive. If we have a more negative affect style we are more reactive, less able to regulate emotions, and our disposition tends to be more negative. (This is not all bad news: negative affectivity does have benefits.)

According to researchers, our affective style is the result of our genes, attachment style, adversity in early life, and mental disorders. While there is nothing we can do to go back in time to change our genetics or early life influences, we can change our style, specifically, how our brains respond to emotional stimuli or situations.

Self-Sabotage Alternatives

When taking action to counter self-sabotage, especially self-compassion, it’s helpful to understand how emotion regulation can change the brain. While it’s important to recognize the feeling, name it, and allow it to happen, regulating emotions has a bit more nuance.

Emotion regulation is an attempt to influence what, when, and how an emotion is experienced. According to Stanford Professor of Psychology James J. Gross, PhD, and the November 2021 research paper, Assessing Emotion Regulation Ability for Negative and Positive Emotions: Psychometrics of the Perth Emotion Regulation Competency Inventory in United States Adults, we can, and do, regulate both negative and positive emotions. Gross, and his fellow researchers, posit that this ability is “a cornerstone of adaptive psychological functioning.” And they are not alone.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, emotion regulation techniques are a way to show up for your best self: emotion regulation can change our brain. First, let’s look at some of the conscious techniques:

  • Avoidance: avoiding a situation
  • Focus: noticing breath or other repetitive pattern
  • Seeking support: contacting a friend or support person
  • Smiling: forcing a smile, even by clamping a pen or pencil in your mouth, can stimulate the amygdala, releasing “feel good” neurotransmitters  
  • Exercise

Researchers find that two techniques, cognitive reappraisal and meditation, have lasting impact on our affective style

Cognitive Reappraisal

The technique of cognitive reappraisal can alter the emotional impact of a situation by changing how you think about the situation. Not only can you use this strategy to lessen negative emotions, reappraisal can increase positive emotions. This is important because it allows you to experience your feelings, including unavoidable and constructive negative feelings, and increase the psychological benefits of positive feelings.

You see, when we reframe our thoughts about a situation, experience, or stimulus, we can experience change in our emotional response. Research finds that using cognitive reappraisal correlates with activity changes in specific parts of the brain. We can change the intensity and duration of the emotion, depending on the tactics and frequency.

Meditation

Mindfulness meditation—such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)—which focuses on the experience of thoughts, sensations, and emotions by simple observance—has been used in many neuroscientific studies of emotion regulation. Researches find that:

  • Long-term meditators are better able to accept their emotions.
  • Short-term (8-week) MBSR training increased the functional connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the ability to regulate emotions.  

There are other strategies to counter self-sabotage and show up for your best self, including spotting the warning signs, stating your goals, and working toward mastering a domain that you value. A qualified coach can help you develop strategies and techniques that work best for you.

The Importance of Coaching Today

How is your organization working within the ever-growing gig economy? Let me ask: how do leaders engage with and develop future leaders?

This is a frequent topic of discussion with many millennials today. And it’s no surprise. The number of entrepreneurs, freelancers, or gig workers—those independent contractors who offer services in “one and done” or project contracts—is growing.  

According to data the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics collected in 2005, 2-4% of all workers were contingent (i.e. short term) and 7% were alternative (freelance, independent consultants, or on-call workers). In 2017, the total number grew to 34%, or 55 million workers, and according to Reuters.com, was projected to rise to 43% for 2020. (Studies are still pending.)

When half of U.S. workers polled prefer the flexibility of independent or gig work, retaining high-performers, and identifying and developing future leaders, is more important than ever before.  

Effective Execution

Recovering from a crisis is a process. It takes time, preparation, and effective execution: a culture that executes specific behaviors and techniques. Going beyond recovery for competitive advantage requires a discipline and system: a comprehensive understanding of the business, its people, and its environment.

An effective execution links three core processes of any organization: the people process, the strategy, and the operating plan to achieve its mission and goals. But in a gig economy, the three core processes are at greater risk to disconnect. Leadership, regardless of level, must be passionately engaged in the organization.

The importance of coaching today cannot be overstated. It is no longer reserved for problem employees or top performers. Enabling all employees to achieve business objectives in the shortest possible time is critical for success.

What Type of Coaching is Best?

At its core, the objective of coaching is to increase performance, achievement, and/or well-being in individuals, teams, and organizations through proven methods grounded in scientific research. There are many types of coaching (and many ways to achieve results), in four broad categories with different emphases:

  • Behavioral Coaching/Coaching Leaders
  • Life Coaching/Career Coaching
  • Coaching for Organizational Change.
  • Strategy Coaching

While there are distinctions between coaching, consulting, mentoring, advising, and counseling, qualified coaches meld differences into a successful coaching process at different times in particular situations.

Debunk Coaching Myths

One of the greatest coaching myths is that coaching is simply goal setting with accountability and a bit of “rah-rah” or hype for motivation. Sure, taping in to the human spirit is an important component to expand human capacity to achieve stretch goals. But more importantly is to consider and alter the underlying context in which goal setting, motivation, and feedback occur.

Underlying context is all of the conclusions, beliefs, and assumptions you (and/or the group of people) have reached in order to succeed. It is shaped by the shared interpretations you have about your business environment. It also includes the management culture, inherited or self-imposed. This basic cultural context must be considered in creating a framework for effective coaching.

Effective Coaching

Today’s successful organizations rely on a new kind of management culture, one that is based on creating new knowledge. This requires constant learning. A crucial catalyst in this new management culture is the transformational coach. His or her job is to provide direction while leaving plenty of room for people to pursue their passions, personal interests, and projects.

In its simplest terms, effective coaching involves expanding people’s capacity to take effective action. It involves challenging underlying beliefs and assumptions that are responsible for one’s actions and behaviors. At its deepest level, effective coaching examines not only what one does, and why one does what one does, but also who one is.

Measure Your Coaching ROI

When applying common return on investment (ROI) standards for evaluating training and development programs, the amount of variables challenges the ability to establish reliable data. It is difficult to quantify data of a qualitative nature.

The marketplace is perhaps the most vocal proponent of the use of coaching. Top corporations and leading organizations are among those that invest heavily in hiring coaches for their executives. According to ibisworld.com, 2021 annual spending on business coaching in the U.S. will reach $10.9 billion.

Organizations, entrepreneurs, and even gig workers with smaller budgets are wise to follow. Successful companies don’t throw money at programs that don’t have a positive impact on their bottom line—or, at least, they don’t for very long. Even so, the question remains how to measure the ROI.

5 Key ROI Indicators

To measure your ROI, look to changes in individual and/or team:

  • Productivity
  • Outlook/feelings
  • Specific behaviors and/or skills
  • New insights that support progress toward goals
  • Qualitative and quantitative measures: feedback, scores, self-reporting, etc., and what matters most to the client.

Get the Most from Your Coaching

Consider these questions to ensure that those being coached, as well as the organization, are getting the most from coaching:  

  • Is the organization committed to coaching as a process, rather than just an event?
  • Are supervisors of those being coached committed to the coaching process?
  • What are the types of changes that you hope will result?
  • Have you established internal measurements to identify when you have achieved success?
  • What are the benchmarks/baselines/waypoints on those measures?
  • Do you have a control group identified?
  • Are you using the right period of time (at least 18 to 24 months) to properly achieve the results you are looking for?
  • Have you considered indirect measures? (i.e. employee satisfaction or turnover)
  • Are you measuring the coach on the results that the coach achieves or the time that the coach spends?
  • Have you ensured that one of the measurements is perceived improvement, as viewed by those who work with the coachee on a frequent basis?
  • Based on everything that you know about the person being coached, is there a reasonable probability for change?

What’s Most Important to You

When working with your coach, talk about your important needs—what really matters. Here are seven other tips to get the most from your coaching:

  • Make space for feelings. Feelings drive behaviors. To change behaviors, change how you feel. Awareness is the first step.
  • Simplify. Simplification also creates space, which allows you to learn and evolve.
  • Make yourself a priority. Examine activities, environments, and attitudes that impact your energy. Identify ways to reduce drains and replenish your energy.
  • Be curious and open. Be willing to examine your assumptions, ways of thinking, expectations, beliefs, and reactions.
  • Practice mindfulness and awareness. Sensitize yourself to see and experience things quicker.
  • Clarify goals and objectives. Ensure you and your coach are clear about your goals, short- and long-term.
  • Improve feedback skills. Practice giving your coach feedback, especially at the end of each session.

Coaching is a developmental process. As you evolve, you will think differently. A more accurate and expanded personal vision of yourself—and your place in the world—will replace outdated beliefs and assumptions. You’ll learn how to accomplish more with less effort.

The Learning Style of Leaders

What is your learning style?
Depending on when you attended school, you may have been tested and/or identified as a particular type of learner: the way you process and retain information. Typically, most children learn through the five senses, including seeing, hearing, touching, and doing/moving (which can include tasting/smelling). As adults, we bring depth of experience and greater self-awareness to our learning.
The theory of learning styles is not new and has evolved since it was introduced in the 70’s by social psychologist David A. Kolb. According to Kolb, our styles are based on genetics, experiences, and current environment. With his colleague Ron Fry, Kolb identified a four-stage experiential learning cycle:

  1. Observation of concrete experiences
  2. Reflection and interpretation of observations (creation of hypothesis)
  3. Formation of abstract concepts (generalizations)
  4. Testing of new concepts in different situations

Learning Preferences
Kolb and Fry posit that learning preferences are based on two continuums:

  1. Active experimentation <—>  Reflective observation
  2. Abstract conceptualization <—> Concrete experience

When combined, the two dimensions create four learning styles:

  1. Converger (Active & Abstract) This type of learner is known for their practical application of ideas.
  2. Accommodator (Active & Concrete) Known for their agility and adaptability, this type of learner is an active, risk-taking doer.
  3. Assimilator (Reflective & Abstract) This type of learner is known for their research and planning abilities, and they excel in creating theoretical models.
  4. Diverger (Reflective & Concrete) Known for their ability to see the big picture and create meaning, this type of learner is often most creative.

Understanding learning styles can help us become better leaders. However, we can achieve greater success—personally and professionally—by learning how to think and learn in new ways.  When we limit ourselves to a particular type of learner we can miss learning opportunities and important lessons, both critical to reach our full potential as leaders.
Debunk the Myths of Learning Styles
One of the most widely accepted learning style theories is that everyone (including children and adults) has a specific aptitude for processing different types of information and instruction. Perhaps this explains why over 70 models have been created since Kolb and Fry began their work, including Neil Fleming’s VARK model: visual, auditory, read/write, or kinesthetic/tactile (hands-on).
However, studies fail to show a “statistically significant relationship” between learning styles and comprehension. You see, we learn best when we experience a blend of cognitive (knowledge/information), affective (attitudes/beliefs), and behavioral (practical/practice) activities. If you want to learn to think and learn in new ways, expand your cognitive capacities.
Howard E. Gardner, developmental psychologist, renowned professor, and senior director of Harvard Project Zero, has spent decades researching the development of the human mind. His studies on how people learn, create, lead, and influence others are the foundation for his book, Five Minds for the Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2009).
Expand Cognitive Capacities
According to Gardner, we can expand our cognitive capacities in five different kinds of minds:

  1. Disciplined mind: a mastery in at least one specific scholarly discipline, craft, or profession. With a joyful passion to know more, a disciplined mind continues to learn as more information emerges every day.
  2. Synthesizing mind: an ability to discern crucial information across disciplines. By weeding out the false or unimportant, the synthesizing mind can organize new information (and skills) to make sense for self and others.
  3. Creating mind: the knowledge to make quality, acceptable judgments that pose new, relevant questions, offer new solutions, and/or create new genres. Creating minds also have a disciplined mind and require a medium to work with or against along with performance opportunities.
  4. Respectful mind: the capacity to welcome different ideas, opinions, and needs that moves beyond tolerance for greater understanding and unity. Respectful minds respond to differences among individuals and groups constructively and with empathy.
  5. Ethical mind: the tools to conceptualize how to move beyond self-interests to improve the lot of all. Ethical minds act consistently with conceptualizations, striving for good work and ethical balance in micro to global environments.

The first three kinds of minds deal primarily with cognitive capacities. The last two deal with our relations to other human beings. Unless we increasingly place value on diversity and common good, we risk our very survival.
As Gardner writes “…it is not enough to state what each individual or group needs to survive on its own turf. In the long run, it is not possible for parts of the world to thrive while others remain desperately poor and deeply frustrated. Recalling the words of Benjamin Franklin, “We must indeed all hang together, or, must assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
The critical questions to ask are:

  1. With which of these minds do I already show strength?
  2. How can I expand my cognitive capacities?
  3. Where can I stretch my abilities to enable growth?
  4. Which of these minds do I need to learn?
  5. Who in my organization can help mentor me?
  6. How can I assist others with this knowledge?

A Mindset for Learning
As a leader, how do you learn? Let me ask: when was the last time you learned something in a new way?  Was it intentional, or unexpected?
The mindset we develop over the years (heavily influenced by our caregivers, educators, or other environmental factors, like a pandemic) exerts a powerful impact on our attitudes and beliefs toward learning and achieving.
As psychologist, Stanford professor, and author Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., shares in her audiobook, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, (Random House Audio, 2019) our mindset creates our whole mental worldview and determines whether we approach life with an optimistic or pessimistic attitude. It shapes our goals, our attitudes toward work and relationships, and ultimately, it predicts whether we reach our full potential. How?
We have one of two basic mindsets:

  1. Growth: open to growth and learning, this open mindset believes that one can always do better.
  2. Closed: closed to growth and learning, this closed mindset is entrenched in the belief that natural talents and abilities predetermine success.

With a growth mindset we believe that we can always learn more, do more, and improve. We are confident, yet humble enough to do the work required to expand our potential. Our open mindset allows us to seek and accept criticism as important feedback—not a personal insult.
With a closed mindset we believe success is based on innate talents; we shouldn’t have to work hard to achieve (change, grow, improve, etc.) Abilities are set in stone: either you have them, or you don’t. A closed mindset requires that you prove yourself over and over again. This is the path to stagnation, or worse.
A closed mindset chips away at our confidence and sense of self. As a result, we try to look smart and accomplished at all costs. We seek validation of our worth and want to be “right,” instead of showing an interest in feedback and willingness to make changes or adjustments.
If you have an open (or growth) mindset, you know your talents can be developed and that great abilities are built over time. This is the true learning style of leaders: the path of opportunity and leadership success.
Explore Attitudes and Beliefs
What are your attitudes and beliefs about your own intelligence? Consider the statements listed below. Which is most true for you at this point in time?

  1. Your intelligence is something very basic that cannot change much.
  2. You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
  3. No matter how intelligent you are, you can always improve.
  4. You can substantially change how intelligent you are.

The first two statements reflect a more closed mindset, while three and four indicate a more open or growth mindset. Now, consider other key areas, roles, or abilities in your professional and personal life. For example, substitute creativity, relationship skills, or parenting for intelligence. Where is there room to improve your attitude or beliefs?
The Learning Mindset for Leaders
In his best-selling work, Good to Great (Harper Business, 2011) Jim Collins writes about the type of leader who takes companies to greatness. They’re not larger-than-life, charismatic types who ooze big egos and self-proclaimed talent. Rather, they’re self-effacing individuals who constantly ask questions and have the ability to confront the most brutal answers. They look failures in the face, including their own, while maintaining faith that they’ll succeed in the end.
Collins calls such open-mindset executives “Level 5 Leaders,” who:

  1. Always work on self-improvement.
  2. Surround themselves with the most able people they can find.
  3. Look squarely at their own mistakes and deficiencies.
  4. Identify the skills that they and their companies will need in the future.

These traits allow them to move forward with confidence grounded in facts, not built on fantasies about their own talents.
Open-mindset leaders aren’t afraid of debate and questioning. They prod—and then prod deeper—to uncover realities and weaknesses.
Anyone can change his or her mindset. It requires conscious practice and vigilance, as well as a willingness to be open to learning and changing.
Still, it’s not easy to let go of something that has felt like your “self” for many years and has served as your path to self-esteem. It’s especially difficult to replace it with a mindset that requires you to embrace issues that feel threatening: challenge, struggle, criticism, and setbacks.
You see, we adopt a closed mindset because it protects us from feeling vulnerable. But opening up to growth allows us to experience the fulfillment of our real potential. This is the true learning style of leaders.

Jump-start Your Leadership and Team Performance

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

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

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

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

Pay attention to non-verbal clues:

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

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

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

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

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

Gender Equity at Work

How do you ensure gender equity at work?

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

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

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

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

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

Successful Gender Equity

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

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

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

The Obstacles Women Face

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

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

Gender Equity Allies

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

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

Gender Issues and the Big Myth

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

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

Regardless of their position or role, men can:

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

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

Explore Existing Processes and Practices

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

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

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

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

Managers and Gender Equity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-Pandemic Work: The Future is Now

What will work look like in your organization, post-Covid? When the pandemic ends, which new normal adaptations will endure?

Our common response to massive disruption, such as a pandemic, is to hope for and assume things will return to normal. However, do we really want to return to all the old ways of doing business?

This topic comes up frequently with my clients right now. And it makes sense: planning for an uncertain future is challenging, even for great leaders and managers. They want to avoid old “bad” habits, and incorporate new policies and processes that make sense for their organization, including their employees.

Savvy leaders and managers understand the importance of an effective strategy, careful planning, and great execution in order to emerge from this pandemic.

But do we truly know, and understand, how our work has been changed?

When the Pandemic Ends…

A massive disruption provides an opportunity to examine how things were before, including our view of the future.

Based on an analysis of consumer and business trends, The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) recently published a report on the future of work. According to MGI, remote work, digitization, and automation were accelerated by the pandemic. They predict that these trends will “have a lasting impact on workers and work, even after the pandemic.”

However, others caution about expectation management.

It is incredibly wonderful how so many have come together to create solutions, now and for the future. It is truly remarkable how we adapt: remaining flexible, creative, and productive through-out the process.

A pandemic changes the way we work, learn, and live. It alters our perceptions and expectations.

The Future of Work is Now

According to McKinsey, the pandemic highlighted the impact of physical proximity in the workplace, and spurred changes in business models. The four work arenas most affected, both short- and long-term, include:

  • Leisure and travel venues (including restaurants and hotels)
  • On-site customer interaction (including retail and hospitality)
  • Computer-based office work
  • Production and warehousing

Work Trends

Three groups of consumer and business trends are likely to persist beyond the pandemic:

  • Remote work and virtual interactions. According to their research, 20-25% of workers could work remotely 3+ days/week on a long-term basis. This represents four to five times more virtual/remote employee work/interaction than pre-pandemic.
  • Surge in use of e-commerce and other digital platforms. Digitization of products and services has grown two to five times during the pandemic. McKinsey predicts a shift to gig jobs in the independent workforce. 
  • Deployment of automation and artificial intelligence (AI). Their research found an uptick in the use of robotics, robotic process automation, and AI. In a July 2020 global survey of 800 senior executives, 66% indicated plans to invest in automation and AI, “either somewhat or significantly.”

McKinsey predicts that more than 100 million workers may need to switch occupations by 2030 as middle- and low-wage jobs decline, and more high-wage jobs increase.

Post-pandemic Leadership Decisions

Many leaders are in the process of making strategic decisions about the future of work, including whether or how to develop ongoing remote and hybrid work. The best leaders:

  • Remain flexible. Look beyond the pandemic to reimagine how and where work can be completed.
  • Consider hybrid options. Continue to analyze activities that can be completed remotely without a loss of productivity.
  • Communicate effectively. Ensure you have strong, two-way communication in place that allows everyone to raise questions, concerns, and ideas without fear of personal repercussion.

Questions for Leaders

Below are a few questions published by Harvard Business Review regarding policies and practices at your organization that could be quantified (scored on a scale) for analysis:

  • What is the nature of the work? For example, is it highly independent, or collaborative? If the later, how much management is required?
  • What is the experience level of the individuals or teams?
  • What is the employee and team preference?
  • What is the cost/savings of remote versus in office time?

From a broader perspective:

  • How do/will you support a strong company culture, in person and remotely?
  • How will changes affect HR policies? For example, what is your policy on work from anywhere (WFA)? Will compensation or benefits be adjusted relative to geography? Will training change?
  • For new or returning workers, will you require a COVID-19 vaccination?

Post-pandemic Management Preparations

According to McKinsey, employees working in a computer-based position could spend 70% of their time working remotely without losing effectiveness. As a result, they anticipate hybrid remote work for the long-term. Of course, management practices will be critical to success.

Questions for Managers

  • How will you support a healthy remote-work climate?
  • How will you support employees as they manage competing priorities, professional and personal?
  • How will you support a sense of psychological safety?
  • How will you consciously engage your employees?
  • How will you foster employee trust and accountability?
  • What tools, resources, and practices will you need, and use?

Studies find that even small doses of high-quality social interaction can lower stress and improve well-being. Predictable communications, that is to say, a predictable cadence, can foster productivity and foster trust.

High performing teams are most often led by managers who use virtual and/or face-to-face meetings to connect socially, build personal relationships, and engage all employees. The best managers ask questions, show vulnerability, share reliable information, and are open to new ideas.

Your Future of Work is Now

With a lack of communication between leaders, managers, and employees, it’s not uncommon for tensions to grow. Add to that a resistance to relinquish telecommuting and/or receive a vaccination, employees may limit their career options. Instead, employees can prepare for the future of work by focusing on their performance, expanding skills, and effective, positive communication.

Prepare Your Future Now

  • Consider returning to the office for work one day/week. If you work with a team, consider how you might share one office, rotating your time, to reduce real estate costs. Alternatively, or in addition, you might coordinate your time so you are all together, post vaccination.
  • Prepare for face-to-face meetings. Plan 25% of your meetings (with colleagues or clients) to be in-person, once we reach herd immunity.
  • Be proactive in your own goal setting and tracking. Share your intentions and results with your manager.
  • Expand your knowledge and skills. There is, and will be, a growing need for workers who can create, deploy, and maintain new technologies, as well as social and emotional skills. Participate in training, and share your experience and accomplishments with your manager.
  • Be flexible and open to new ideas, opportunities, and reassignment within your organization. McKinsey research finds that a markedly different mix of occupations may emerge post-Covid. Job growth is most likely in healthcare, STEM, warehousing, and transportation.
  • Stay positive. Agility and collaboration can lead to greater productivity, career growth, and upward mobility. Consider working with a trusted mentor or coach; let me know how I can help.