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.

Expectation Management

What are your plans to bring in the new year? Will you celebrate?

Maybe this is the year to try a new custom from a different culture. For example, in many Latin cultures it is customary to eat 12 grapes at midnight for good luck in the coming 12 months. Some carry an empty suitcase around the block in hopes of a travel-filled new year. Others hang an onion on the door as a symbol of rebirth; a chance to start anew.

Of course, hope, optimism, and positivity are important. They help us set and achieve goals, another common tradition for the new year. However, optimism can be dangerous when planning and forecasting. Realism is key when making decisions, committing large sums of money, and setting certain expectations.

Research has found that almost everyone who has a propensity to be optimistic in their world view tends to have greater success, better health, and longer life. However, beliefs and expectations must be based on achievable reality. You see, expectations have a profound effect on our energy, drive, and happiness.

In the recent Harvard Business Review article, “How to Lead When Your Team is Exhausted,” Dr. Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg writes:

“It feels like the whole world is tired. Even though the vaccine shines a light at the end of the tunnel, the home stretch will be long and perhaps take a greater toll on our professional and personal lives than we expect it to.”

This is an ominous warning, and an opportunity for expectation management.

Expectation Variables

There are two variables to consider in the management of our expectations: our expectations of other, and our expectations of self.

What was the last expectation you set for someone else?  Chances are, it was the completion of a task which was clearly understood. Or was it?

Many of our expectations are often implicit; we don’t actually verbalize or negotiate our expected outcome. This sets us up for resentment. Instead, we need to manage our expectations with clear communication.

What about your personal expectations? Did you achieve the goals you set for yourself this year? Why, or why not? How do you feel about that?

Our perception of our experiences is critical to the way we pursue our goals and achieve success. At the end of the day, our happiness level can be measured by the number of expectations that were met. That’s why setting conscious, realistic goals and expectations is so important.

Unrealistic Expectations

The adage, “hope for the best, expect the worst,” might seem like a way to protect us from disappointment, but the truth is, it doesn’t.

Researchers have found that:

  • If we expect to get xand succeed, there’s a slight rise in dopamine.
  • When we expect to get x and get 2x, there’s a greater rise.
  • But, if we expect to get x and get .9x, then we experience a much greater drop.

The real solution is to be adaptive, rapidly flexible, and understand what is in your control.

For example, we have certain expectations about the rollout of the new vaccine and a return to “normal.” But, the truth of the matter is that for many of us, when we will receive it is yet to be seen. And, in order to reach true global herd immunity, 70% of the world must be vaccinated. While we can encourage others to get vaccinated when they are eligible, we have no real control over these variables.

Realistic Expectations

A more realistic expectation is that we may need to continue our habits of wearing a face mask, frequent and proper hand-washing, and even social distancing for quite some time. We can remain flexible, adaptive, and maintain these habits through-out the next year.

When we have doubts, or when we fall into the gap of unrealistic expectations, we can focus on the Serenity Prayer:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

Remember: things are. People are. You are. What you expect of them—and yourself—makes all the difference in your personal level of happiness. You can’t change people, things, or event. You can, however, adjust your expectations.

Strategies to Exceed Expectations

Having accurate expectations gives you peace of mind. It can also propel you to take on more challenges, and achieve greater goals.

Consider this: what was your last experience with something, or someone, exceeding expectations?

Chances are, you clearly recall the feelings you had. When expectations are exceeded, we actually experience a hit of dopamine, making us feel good.

We can harness the power of this physiological response to manage our expectations, and, if we combine it with a few key strategies, exceed our own personal goals.

6 Key Strategies

  • Adopt an optimistic mindset, and expect progress, not perfection.
  • Be specific. Outline what you must do on a daily basis to realize your desired results.
  • Create contingencies. Predetermine when and where you’ll take action to avoid the traps of distractions and other competing commitments. The best tactic is “if/then” planning: If X happens, I will do Y.
  • Determine how you’ll evaluate progress.
  • Exercise your grit. Grit is the willingness to commit to long-term goals and endure in spite of difficulties.
  • Fuel your willpower muscle. Rest helps you recover quickly and remain positive. Reinforce your willpower muscle by completing small tasks.

When facing disappointments, you may be tempted to dwell on unmet expectations, and even use them as an excuse to lower your expectations. But this will prevent you from reaching your goal. Instead, take control of negative emotions. Recognize the emotion, and allow yourself to experience it. Then, shift your focus to what you can control.

We have goals and we have excuses, some of which are true and valid. This is the hard part. It’s always helpful to work with an executive coach who can help you navigate your blind spots and develop greater self-awareness. Be sure to give yourself a pat on the back for being courageous enough to turn weaknesses into opportunities for growth.

Also recognize that putting your best foot forward means you’ll occasionally step in some mud. It’s up to you to decide which is more perilous: the risk of disappointment or the prospect of never reaching your potential.

Strengthen Your Workplace Teams

As a leader, what is your strategy to strengthen your workplace teams?

The way we live and work has changed tremendously over the past nine months. In many organizations, this shift occurred in a matter of weeks, if not days. As leaders offered greater flexibility, employees quickly adapted to new demands and learned and improved their skills.

Organizations that have proven to be most resilient moved to or expanded their online capacities and reconfigured their supply chain and delivery options. Simultaneously, they improved their diversity, equity, and inclusion outcomes. Their ability to respond quickly has ensured continuity, and in some cases, increased productivity.

But we’re not out of the woods. All leaders and employees will need to continue to strengthen their organization. As McKinsey & Company reported in October 2020, “corporate stress is now at the same point as it was in the 2009 trough, arriving in only months versus two years.”

Employees will look to their leaders to help them adapt, and while some are well-prepared with knowledge, experience, and a leadership style that inspires others to achieve real solutions, many lack what it takes to overcome the challenges ahead. Why?

Sustainability In Times of Crisis

Traditionally, in times of crisis organizations have relied on a conservative, by-the-book leadership style, and as McKinsey writes, three specific attributes of resilience: margin improvement, revenue growth, and optionality (retained additional optional investment opportunities).

But the divisions and polarization that exist today require a vision, strategy, and the social/emotional intelligence to engage all employees and improve workers’ job satisfaction.

According to a September 2020 report by McKinsey, “Because of the connection between happiness at work and overall life satisfaction, improving employee happiness could make a material difference to the world’s 2.1 billion workers. It could also boost profitability and enhance organizational health.”

The Importance of Job Satisfaction Today

According to McKinsey, “When it comes to employee happiness, bosses and supervisors play a bigger role than one might guess.” The relationship between employee and management is the top factor in the employee’s job satisfaction. Furthermore, their research finds that second only to an employee’s own mental health, the relationship with their boss is the “the most determinant of employee’s overall life satisfaction.”

Unfortunately, research also reveals that many people find their boss to be far from ideal. And to be sure, they’ve got a lot on their plate during this time. But for those who describe a very bad/quite bad relationship with their boss, they also reported substantially lower job satisfaction.

When employees are asked, “What would improve your relationship with your boss?” most want their boss to:

  • Listen better
  • Communicate clearly and with transparency
  • Offer encouragement (rather than doubt)
  • Engage with humor
  • Show courage/vulnerability
  • Demonstrate empathy and compassion
  • Be decisive
  • Take responsibility
  • Act humbly
  • Share authority

Unite Your Team  

A manager’s first step to unite a team is to assess and arrest dysfunctional behaviors and patterns. Dysfunction can take the form of selfishness, arrogance, bullying, manipulation, callousness and/or control. Savvy managers are careful not to overlook their star player’s transgressions.

Sure, they may achieve spectacular results, but when they are disrespectful and harsh with others, they create enemies. Those who bend the rules and push the limits of ethics and relationships actually promote destructiveness. This is a recipe for a toxic team.

Toxic Team Prevention

To prevent team toxicity, try this treatment:

  • Set an expectation that change is possible. Set realistic goals.
  • Model personal accountability.
  • Establish codes of conduct that discourage the use of negative language.
  • Offer training, coaching, and performance reviews weighted for positive leadership and emotional/social intelligence.
  • Recognize small wins.
  • Establish an early detection and intervention process for dysfunctional patterns of behavior.
  • Set expectations, goals, and rewards for collaborative efforts.

Change is possible, but it requires a shift in assumptions and engagement. 

Ubuntu at Work

In times of uncertainty, people search for refuge, and often, a group identity. Groups allow us to connect and share in a meaningful, positive purpose. Great leaders understand this, and foster the conditions essential for group effectiveness:

  • Trust among members
  • A sense of group identity
  • A sense of group efficacy

Some of our greatest leaders have embraced Ubuntu to foster trust, unify those they lead, and achieve great efficacy. At its core, Ubuntu is the acknowledgement of our connection to others, our need for community, and our mutual caring for all.

Bill Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company, once shared a quote in from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a Harvard Business Reviewarticle that captures the philosophy of Ubuntu:

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished…”

Leaders who practice these principles in attitude and action, and support those they lead to do the same, can foster a strong team and a clear path forward.

Narcissism at Work

Of all personality types, narcissists run the greatest risk of isolating themselves, especially during moments of success. Because of their independence and aggressiveness, they are constantly looking out for enemies and sometimes become paranoid when stressed.

As a narcissist becomes increasingly self-assured, they act more spontaneously. They feel free of constraints, and ideas flow. A narcissist believes that they’re invincible, which further inspires enthusiasm from their admirer’s and feeds into feelings of grandiosity and overconfidence.

But the adoration narcissists crave can have a corrosive effect. As their personalities expand, they tune out cautionary words and advice.

Motivate a Correction

Not all narcissistic employees, however, are so entrapped by their personalities that they can’t be open to change and willing to learn. Here are a few tips for leaders and managers.

  • Share the principles of Ubuntu or a similar philosophy with all members of your team. Privately talk to your narcissistic employee about narcissism, and the patterns of behavior you are seeing. Document your discussions, and follow-up as indicated. Hold every member of your team accountable for their actions.
  • Assign a trusted mentor. Many narcissists can develop a close relationship with one person, who can act as an anchor and keep them grounded. But this person must be knowledgeable and sensitive enough to manage the relationship (and not be manipulated.) Narcissistic employees rarely trust other insights and views of reality.
  • Offer counseling or executive coaching. Narcissistic employees who become self-reflective are likely to be more open, likable, and better team players. If they can be persuaded to undergo counseling or coaching, they can work through their rage, alienation, and grandiosity. They can keep their strengths and diminish their weaknesses to overcome vital character flaws.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Because Better is Better

How does your organization approach diversity, equity, and inclusion?

While many leaders believe they have taken adequate steps to correct or avoid inequalities in the workplace with policies, promotion, and training, all too often we hear about employees who experience some form of exclusion or inequity, including lack of promotion, outright harassment, and even worse.

Being excluded at work is not fun. Even in times when most people are working remotely, being left out can intensify a sense of alienation, which impacts our happiness and performance. This is even more critical for small businesses: according to a 2019 survey, 52% of small businesses report labor quality as their biggest challenge.

Imagine, then, the impact when co-workers and leaders ignore an ongoing problem.

What if the exclusion(s) were due to your ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation? How do you address diversity, equity and inclusion problems in your organization?

Social psychologist and researcher Robert Livingston, author of The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations, (Random House 2021) writes in the September-October 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review that the real challenge is not figuring out what to do, it’s our willingness. We’re able, but unwilling. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Trickle-Up Diversity

The concept that diversity will trickle up to the C-level suites is fundamentally flawed.

According to research conducted between September and November 2019 by Mercer, Caucasians fill 64% of entry level positions and 85% of top executive positions, demonstrating a promotion and equity gap. “The representation of people of color (both men and women) decreases incrementally as career levels rise.” Let’s Get Real About Equality (2020, p 22.)

Without equity and inclusion, diversity falls short. According to new research published by Columbia Business School, people need a sense of belonging. Given today’s challenges with an ongoing pandemic, and a polarizing political climate, is this even possible?

The biggest obstacle to hope and change is cynicism and apathy. Don’t let that happen in your organization. We can do better, and better is better.

We need to become aware of the problems, analyze the root-cause(s), practice empathy, and sometimes, make hard choices to the point of sacrifice. But in the long run, when we invest our time and effort in real strategies that work, the return on investment is worth it.

Increase Accountability and Transparency

We are making some progress when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion.

As Harvard University psychologists Tessa E.S. Charlesworth and Mahzarin R. Banaji found in their research and published in What Works, “New data from nearly 6 million respondents shows that implicit (and explicit) attitudes/beliefs about minority groups can and do improve over the long-term (sexuality, race, skin tone, and gender roles).” They found that over a 10-year period, a widespread change occurred across most demographic groups.

What’s going on in your organization? Track your diversity and increase accountability and transparency with these steps:

  • Complete a SWOT analysis:
    • Collect data over time, including personnel transitions , discrimination complaints and outcomes, and employee surveys:
      • Create a template of questions to be answered anonymously; offer a range of answer choices, as well as an opportunity for a comment.
      • Ensure the survey reaches all employees and that they have adequate instructions and time to complete it.
      • Tabulate the results to establish your baseline.
      • Periodically, re-survey all employees with the same questions.
    • Analyze trends.
      • Compare your data over time, and compare it to other organizations.
      • Where are you seeing improvement in recruitment, hiring, promotion, pay, and retention?
      • Where do you need to improve?
  • Create goals. This is a critical step in the process: it lays the foundation for accountability and transparency.
    • Share your anonymous results with all employees.
    • Celebrate trends as they improve.
    • Establish SMART goals for areas needing improvement.
    • Educate all employees on how their attitudes and actions contribute to results, especially matters regarding inclusion.

Uncover Hidden Hiring Bias

While human bias can change over time, employee surveys often reveal slow progress, especially when it comes to promotion and equity. Here are a few suggestions that work in any organization, regardless of size:

  • Post the position in a broad range of forums, networks, or organizations, including those that work with the under-represented.
  • Don’t discriminate by asking for classification-specific applicants or referrals, rather, include a mission statement and/or diversity statement in your post.
  • Create a diverse interviewer panel, a consistent set of interview questions, and scoring criteria relevant to an accurate job description and essential qualifications.
  • Ask every applicant for their definition of diversity. As a follow-up, ask how they have promoted diversity, equity, and inclusion through their previous work experiences.
  • Document your recruiting, hiring, and promotion process. Retain notes from interviews or decisions on promotions.

If you haven’t already, identify a diversity officer or diversity task force to create hiring and promotion plans, and to review outcomes and disparities. Look to your managers, at all levels, as potential participants in the task force.

What You Need to Know about Hiring Technology

Hiring technology must be carefully designed in order to avoid pitfalls and achieve fair hiring: absent of disparate treatment and disparate impact. In assessing technology, look for:

  • Data that demonstrates fairness throughout all demographics
  • Candidate assessments and selections that are relevant to job requirements
  • Disparate impact testing prior to deployment
  • Ability to conceal demographic indicators from decision makers to enable objective human assessment
  • Tools that mitigate the risk of human bias in decision making
  • Tools that audit for disparate impact

Two important notes: beware of small samplings or group sizes in data sets, and review algorithms. This is critical to demonstrate fairness, objectivity, and relevancy, especially in terms of predicting outcomes and success.

Share your employment composition data and processes with all stakeholders. This includes the criteria for hiring, promotion, salary, bias/discrimination complaints, and how it compares to other businesses in your segment and geography.

Create Safe Reporting Alternatives

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, over 39,000 retaliation-based discrimination charges were filed in 2019. Unfortunately, many of our complaint systems are not working.

In What Works, researchers Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev report that formal grievance procedures actually slow progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion of minority men and women in management. Instead, organizations and leaders can offer alternatives, including:

  • A neutral party to receive confidential complaints, such as an ombudsperson. Their role is to listen and provide guidance to resolve issues. Developing a pool of well trained and skilled ombudpersons can improve potential conflict of interest risk.
  • An external, third party mediator. Their role is to listen and advise. Mediators are commonly available through an employee assistance program.
  • A dispute resolution department, either internal or external. Their role is to represent—or arbitrate for—both parties in mediation on a variety of issues. However, when there is a power difference between parties, or when termination is the remedy, complaints may go unresolved in a satisfactory manner.
  • A transformative dispute resolution model designed to change the workplace. At its core, this model is designed to change the workplace by improving self-awareness, skills, and accountability through training, and sometimes, in policies and processes.

Of course, equity and inclusion ultimately depend on leadership attitudes. When leaders perceive complaints as threats, they miss the opportunity to gain valuable insights. By balancing speed with quality in finding solutions, they gain insights. 

Balance Speed with Proven Strategies

Leaders can create a culture of equality and inclusivity with best practices and proven methods that can be quickly and successfully implemented with little or no customization and at low cost.

  • Diagnostics: Assess the local context. Your diagnostics should include research on your own business, as well as the local, or relevant, geographic demographics and statistics, including pay scales. This is important for equality comparisons and goal setting.
  • Engage influencers:  Invite willing and able actors, especially managers, in the design process. Ask your managers to conduct reality checks: how does this impact current systems, processes, and ways of doing business?
  • Create your model of change: Take local context into account and identify a target of change. Understand the experiences of specific groups of underrepresented minorities, that one-size-does-not-fit-all, and that minority voices are not heard until they reach 30% critical mass.
  • Build momentum: Begin with the most engaged departments, teams, or individuals. Incorporate bystander training to equip and empower everyone. Celebrate accomplishments as progress is made.

The Key to Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are not the same. While companies can mandate diversity, leaders have to cultivate inclusion. This begins with a genuine interest in, and for, other individuals.

People instinctively yearn for inclusion; belonging is a part of our hierarchical needs to achieve our potential and peak performance. Our sense of belonging is relative to our sense of security and safety. Leaders who support diversity, equality, and inclusion provide a safe and equitable work environment.

Great leaders get to know individuals. They learn about their unique strengths, experiences, and needs. The best leaders demonstrate their understanding and care by recognizing individuals with respect.

Managers play a key role in this. As Michael Slepian writes for Harvard Business Review (August 2020), “Managers should not only signal that a social identity is valued, but also that the individual is valued, as a person, not just on the basis of the social group they represent.”

Most individuals don’t want to be asked to speak on behalf of their social group; they don’t want to be singled out in this manner. Instead, get to know the individual, and ask them to share their thoughts based on their strengths and unique experiences. People want their social group to be included and their individual self to belong.