This is the third and final installment in a blog series that I have been writing about positive practices that leaders can use to improve the well-being as well as the performance of their teams. You can catch up on this series by clicking through the posts about empathy and kindness. Last but not least, this final post is about gratitude.
Many leaders do a fairly decent job of saying thank you to someone who has performed a much-needed task, or achieved a noteworthy outcome on a project. The basics of social skills and common courtesy will get most leaders that far. When I talk about employing gratitude as a leadership practice, however, I’m talking about something more than the occasional kudos. I’m talking about an intentional, consistent practice of infusing gratitude into how you are as a leader, not just what you do. Gratitude, then, becomes an attitude, not just an act. Here’s what I mean.
Imagine that it is 7pm on a Friday and you are still in your office. (This won’t be a stretch for many of you who are reading this post.) You are eager to get to your weekend plans and are starting to feel a tad worn out, maybe even a little resentful, about the stack of deliverables that are still on your desk. The more you think about the work you still have to do, the more shallow your breathing becomes and the more stressed you feel. You decide to sweep those reports into your briefcase and take them home so you can at least get out of the building. You’ve cleared your email as best you can; sorted out what priorities will need your top attention on Monday; the only thing left to do is turn off the computer and close the door. This is when I encourage you to stop and take just 15 minutes to do one more thing. I know, I can hear the groans from here – one more thing?! Yes.
Take 15 minutes to reflect on the most positive outcome of the week that one or more of your team members helped to achieve. This doesn’t have to be a world record. This can be small, but significant to their ongoing development – possibly something that only you know they are working on. It can be about a micro shift in behavior that you noticed and want to see more of. Whatever it is, write down a few lines to capture what happened and why it made an impression on you (and possibly others). Once you get started, you may find that other examples from other team members start coming to mind. Write down those examples too. Don’t limit yourself to your own team, either. What comes up when you think about a department you interact with regularly? Are there any moments, large or small, that you feel grateful about this week? Capture as many examples as you can in this short block of time that you’ve set aside.
Now, you may think my next recommendation will be to write a thank you email or handwritten note to a team member to thank them for what they did. That is definitely one action you could take that may be meaningful to the person(s) on your team. Expressions of gratitude like that tend to have a multiplier effect, too. The more you do it, the more others may do it, which builds an appreciative culture that positively impacts how people feel about coming to work each day. Before taking that action though, my recommendation is that you just stop, reflect on the positive strides that you noticed around you during the week, and allow yourself a moment to experience gratitude about those efforts.
Next, notice what you’re feeling as you reflect on these efforts with gratitude. Notice your breathing – even your heart rate. Notice your body language. Has it shifted from a stressed position with your shoulders nearly to your ears to a more relaxed, open position? Finally, notice your mindset compared to 15 minutes ago when you were desperate to leave your office. That stack of deliverables may still be waiting, but as you reflect on your team’s efforts with gratitude, what comes up? Do you feel a little more encouraged than resentful now? You may even catch yourself smiling as you visualize some of the actions that you wrote down. Given that our thought habits serve as the origination point for the eventual emotions and behaviors we exhibit, changing the way we think about something can have a profound impact on how you show up as a leader with others. Employing gratitude as a practice can help you to shift from a mindset of overwhelm into a mindset of positivity, appreciation, and renewed commitment to what your role calls for each day.
This brief 15-minute gratitude break is something you can do at any point in your day, not just at the end. One benefit to pausing then is that it helps to shift the busy, perhaps even frantic feel to the week into something more positive and productive. I don’t know about you, but that is my preferred onramp to the evening or weekend! If there is anyone waiting for you at home once you’ve left your office, I also predict that they will appreciate you taking a few moments to shift your mindset and your energy before you walk through the door.
It may take a few rounds of this practice until you truly allow yourself to slow down enough to experience a shift, but my prediction is that once you do it, you may actually start to look forward to it. For those of you who are not paper and pencil journaling types, there are also several applications out there to make it easy to record these short thoughts on your tablet, smart phone, or other devices. Above all, remember this: research shows that the simple act of pausing to surface feelings of gratitude produces a positive physiological impact that affects cognitive function and improves workplace performance (Check out Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance by Kim Cameron for more). Put simply, practices like this create conditions that enable us to perform better because we feel better.
So, here are the leadership practices we’ve explored in this series.
E = Develop empathy.
K = Extend kindness.
G = Practice gratitude.
There are many other practical yet powerful practices that you can employ as a leader to create a positive, productive climate in your workplace. In the meantime, remember that the simple acronym I made up for this set of leadership practices – EKG – centers around your ability to share more of your heart with your team, not just your head. It doesn’t matter which practice you start with. You might start by finding a point in your day or your week when you are willing to try this 15-minute gratitude practice consistently and see what you notice. Whatever you decide to start with, please write to me about it. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.
In my last blog post I offered a leadership move I call EKG that combines three key practices – empathy, kindness and gratitude – as a way to devote more attention to the human side of change in your organization. These practices are effective at any time, but they have the potential for even greater impact when an organization, and the people in it, experience change. I appreciated the emails that readers sent me offering examples of how they had demonstrated the first practice, empathy, with great success. See? You’re changing the world already! Time to add on the next practice: kindness.
“Kindness is free.” – Tom Peters
Some of the words that people use to describe kindness are grace, benevolence, generosity and compassion. Tom Peters also provides some examples of the power of kindness within healthcare, an environment that is all about demonstrating care and concern for others. You can read more about it here: http://www.tompeters.com/dispatches/011942.php. There are few work environments that are more closely linked to the importance of demonstrating caring and kindness, given the literal impact it can have on someone else’s well-being. In fact, stop and think a moment about your team and your colleagues in general. Given these common descriptors, would you describe these people as kind? If so, what are some examples of the things you see them doing and saying that make you think that about them? When you think of these things, notice how you feel physically. My hunch is that you feel a little less on edge just by thinking about these people and the way their kindness shows up each day.
Now, as a leader, turn this question toward yourself. Do you think your team and your colleagues would describe you as kind? If not, it may be that you’re not showing this side of yourself and your leadership style enough. It is common for busy leaders to get so engaged in the ‘real’ work they are called to do that they overlook opportunities to intentionally demonstrate care and kindness to the people around them. This doesn’t mean they are uncaring. In today’s fast-paced world, it likely just means they are busy. A busy calendar is no excuse, however. Leaders have to find a way to prioritize the human side of their ‘real’ work in order to foster engagement across their team and their organization overall.
If you watch the television show Undercover Boss you see some examples of ‘extreme caring’ every week. I’m not saying that you need to start handing out big bonuses, college funds, or extra vacation days, as terrific as those gestures are. I’m talking about simple expressions of genuine kindness that leaders can do every day. The only cost to you is the time and intention it takes to pay a compliment, offer an encouraging word, or perform a small task for someone without being asked to do so. Here are two examples for you to consider.
A little encouragement goes a long way. One of the hardest types of change for organizations involves the implementation of new systems. People are attached to the previous system (even if it was found lacking) and they are often flat-out resistant to the new system for fear that they will no longer be able to do what they used to do. As hard as it is to experience this as a user of the system, who do you suppose could use some encouragement during a scenario like this? The designated project manager and/or the department that is sponsoring the change! It takes about five minutes to send an encouraging email that acknowledges the effort being made and maybe, just maybe, your appreciation for that effort. You’d be surprised at how a small gesture of kind acknowledgement can make a big difference in the way the other person feels about the project they’ve been asked to implement. As Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Individual kindness fosters corporate kindness. Sometimes it only takes one person to role model kindness in a way that inspires others to follow suit. We see this all the time when natural disasters hit or a neighbor’s house burns down. Someone starts a fundraising drive, or a potluck parade, or within faith communities, a prayer chain. The next thing you know, a virtual army of compassionate people are united in response to the initial event. The same thing happens in workplaces all the time when a colleague experiences a loss or a health crisis, but leaders don’t have to wait for a crisis in order to start a wave of kindness.
Take time to think about the individuals you work with each day. Drawing on the empathy that I talked about in my previous post, what do you notice about those around you? Do they seem energized and upbeat, or a little worn out? Has your team been working full-out toward an ambitious deadline? If your environment is experiencing change, you may notice people acting a little more stressed than usual just because they are trying to adapt at the same time that they are trying to act. One leader can make a difference at times like this by looking for ways to ease the burden on others. Bring in cupcakes or some other treat if that works for your office’s culture. Institute no-meeting days so people will have one entire workday that is theirs to use as they see fit. You might even implement no-email zones in the evenings and weekends as a way to intentionally acknowledge and honor your team’s personal time. This is an idea that comes from Tony Schwartz’s book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, where he presents a compelling case about the four core needs that we frequently neglect in pursuit of performance. His book is full of practical ideas that leaders can use to demonstrate kindness and pay more attention to these core needs, resulting in greater performance outcomes over time, according to research.
The bottom line about kindness is that it is more than just a nice thing to extend to those around you. Kindness adds fuel to the important engine that drives organizational performance. Combined with empathy and gratitude – the next part of this EKG equation – kindness promotes goodwill at the same time that it fosters good work. What opportunity will you take to demonstrate kindness in the coming week? Write and tell me about it!
There are scores of helpful courses, articles and books by multiple firms on how to lead during times of change. (Full disclosure: the company I work for is one of those firms.) Many of these resources focus on strategy and tactics, while others focus more on the human emotions that leaders must also pay attention to. Thankfully, that human side of leadership and change seems to be gaining more attention. This is good news for the workplace, and quite possibly, the world as we know it. Change seems to be the rule more than the exception, which means we’d all be better off if we learned to deal with change – and each other – more effectively.
Suggesting that the world can be changed through a greater focus on the human side of organizational life may sound a tad grandiose. But when leaders pay as much attention during change to the emotional engine in their organization as they do to their strategy and execution plans, they can foster a spirit of well-being that kick-starts the change initiative and transcends the workplace. That is a win for all of us even if we don’t work in the same organization. Think about it: what type of post-workday conversation would you rather participate in? Would it be the one that is full of positive energy and optimism? Probably. Unfortunately, too many of these conversations go like this: “Well, you’ll never believe what they dropped on us at work today.” As a leader, the way you implement change in your organization can have a direct impact on the dinner table dialogue and the sense of well-being for everyone on your team. Research about the impact of positive psychology by thought leaders such as Dr. Martin Seligman bears this out. Check out his recent book, Flourish, to read more about this for yourself.
So, presuming you are a well-intended but busy leader, what steps can you take to devote more attention and intention to the human side of change within your organization? You can start with something I explain to my executive coaching clients as an EKG. No, this isn’t a medical procedure for your heart, but it does involve your heart and the hearts of those around you. EKG stands for empathy, kindness, and gratitude.
Think back to the last time a friend or family member approached you about some changes they were going through at work. Did they excitedly tell you about something their boss or company did during that time to show them how much they cared about him or her as a person? This is a simple yet underutilized aspect of leadership and human relations in general. Leaders promote well-being and engagement by demonstrating empathy. You might try a statement similar to this one with someone on your team who has stepped up to help during a time of change:
“I realize that the new system we’ve implemented is taking some extra time for everyone to get used to. I really appreciate the time you’re taking to learn the system and coach others on it. Your patient willingness to help has reduced the stress level for more than one of your colleagues! I know your effort reduces the time you’re able to spend on other projects you really enjoy though, and it also impacts your own personal time when you work late to catch up or help a colleague. What can I do to support you and give you some of your time back as we all continue to work through this change together?”
Of course, demonstrating empathy involves more than the right words offered at the right time. Leaders also need to listen deeply as their team members express what’s going on for them. They also need to follow through on whatever they offer by way of support. Not following through is one of the quickest ways to break trust – a vital part of the fuel in the emotional engine that chugs away in organizations every day.
When it comes to empathy, Daniel Goleman said it best in his book, Primal Leadership. He writes, “Empathetic people are superb at recognizing and meeting the needs of clients, customers, or subordinates. They seem approachable, wanting to hear what people have to say. They listen carefully, picking up on what people are truly concerned about, and respond on the mark. ”
Check back here in a few days for my next post about the next factor in an EKG: kindness. In the meantime, what opportunity will you take this week to demonstrate some empathy with those you lead? Please post a comment so we can all learn from you!
Change can be fantastic. Really.
Late summer tends to bring on a time of change in people’s lives, and this summer is no exception in my neck of the woods.
Some of my friends are about to send their kids off to school for the first time. They are studying bus schedules and working up the courage to ask their boss for a more flexible work day so they can be with their kids at the beginning and the end of the school day. It is a natural request, yet one that feels hard for some people to make if they work in an office with a culture that seems to value long hours and ‘face time.’ It is easy to feel like an outlier if it isn’t common behavior in your office to decline in-person meetings after 3pm for the sake of personal commitments.
Other friends are preparing to send their kids off to school too – college. These friends are busy helping their kids to pick out dorm supplies; they are double checking their insurance policies to make sure their kids will be covered when away from home; they are lovingly planning the last family meal at home before the composition of their household changes forever. They are learning how to care for their kids in a whole new way through all of these steps. The ones who are married are also learning how to relate to their spouse in a new way, particularly if their college-bound kid is the last one to leave home. No more track meets to schedule dinner around or dry cleaning reminders to work in between car pool runs or soccer practice. There is suddenly more time for ‘real’ conversation again. That can feel fantastic…or scary…or at the very least, unfamiliar. Quite possibly, all of the above at different times.
Times of change present us with an opportunity to demonstrate some curiosity and adaptability. This takes some intention and practice for most people, however. Our brains are wired to appreciate routine. A change to our routine – even a small one – can feel like a threat to the brain, making it hard to adopt a perspective that is open to possibilities. And yet, our brains have a remarkable capacity for continuous learning. When you help your brain to learn to see changes as opportunities you build the capacity to adapt to change more successfully.
There are a few simple questions that I often ask my coaching clients to consider when they are working on their capacity to adapt to change. One question is: “What is one thing about this change that I might like?” This question helps to shift the perspective from a sense of what is being lost to the possibility that the change presents something that would be positive. Another is: “What is one thing I will be relieved to let go of as a result of this change?” I have found that this question is sometimes harder for coaching clients to answer right away, especially if their answer is tied to something they feel a strong sense of responsibility about (like caring for their kids every day). It can be easy for that sense of responsibility to become a sense of identity, making it even harder to let go in the face of change.
Leaders need to be aware of this dynamic when they announce changes in the workplace, too. There are usually many thoughts and emotions that go unspoken during times of change unless leaders make it a point to demonstrate their openness to hearing about what is on people’s hearts and minds. Left unspoken, these thoughts and emotions can fester into unproductive behaviors that show up as lower productivity, increased absences, and sometimes, outright sabotage of the mission. Leaders can do a lot to diminish the fears people may have during times of change by making it safe to surface difficult topics. This is also another way of building individual and organizational capacity for adapting to change.
Change is a constant in life, whether it happens at work or at home. Whether you are experiencing a big change right now or you are leading a change initiative where you work, take a few minutes to ask yourself the questions I have offered and notice what comes up for you. If you have been feeling resistant to the change you may be surprised at how quickly you can shift your perspective and your energy around it by practicing this exercise. If you could see your brain as you do this you would see it creating new thought patterns that will build your capacity to shift to a different perspective. Then, offer the questions to those you lead, and practice some active listening as they share their responses with you. Demonstrate that it is safe for them to bring up whatever concerns or ideas they may have about the change. This will help to lower the sense of threat that the brain experiences during change. Your ability to role model adaptability and openness just may provide your team with the perfect setting for their own possibilities to unfold.
If you’re a manager in the federal government, you’ve heard some big news this week: not only will your pay be frozen for the next two years, but so will the pay of those who report to you. If you’re new to supervision you may wonder whether it is best to proactively surface this issue with your team or just hope they won’t bring it up. Don’t let the water cooler conversation get ahead of your leadership. Now is a great time for government supervisors to step up, talk with their team members about what matters most in their work, and turn the issue of pay freezes into an opportunity to foster more engagement within the team.
You probably realize that annual increases are not the only reason that people stay in their jobs, but when was the last time that you talked with your team about what does keep them engaged in their jobs? How did those conversations go? Research shows that when managers take the time to talk with employees about what really gets them excited about their work, and then do all they can (beyond pay and promotions) to connect the dots between assignments and energy, engagement levels go up along with several other positive workplace indicators.
If you have a solid performer on your team that you think is at risk of leaving, here are some engagement tools that you can use to turn things around. In addition to using these tools with your employees, now is also a good time for you to ask yourself these questions. Take time to re-engage your own energy and focus too, so you can continue to be the best leader you can be for your team.
- The High Cost of Low Engagement: What Supervisors Can Do About It by Casey Wilson
This short white paper is designed to help supervisors build trust and engagement with their team members through intentional conversations about their work and what energizes them. Applying the principles in this article (as well as the book it connects to, The Cornerstones of Engaging Leadership) will help you to navigate through some of the most important conversations you will ever have as a leader. You can access the white paper and the book through the following links. (Full disclosure: My boss wrote this white paper, the book, and the course we offer on this topic. I’m recommending them because they work, not for any extra engagement “points”.)
- Love ‘em Or Lose ‘em: Getting Good People to Stay by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans
This book contains multiple “stay factors” for supervisors to leverage with their staff, such as opportunities for growth, meaningful work and great co-workers. The authors include questions that supervisors can use to conduct “stay interviews,” or conversations that surface what matters most and what it will take to keep them on board. You can read about the book here: http://www.keepem.com/
- 12: The Elements of Great Managing by Rodd Wagner and James K. Harter
This book is full of stories, examples, and data that show the power of engaging employees in service to a common mission. The research for this book came from interviews with more than 10 million employees. You can read more about the book here: http://gmj.gallup.com/content/25402/book-center.aspx
The upcoming year is promising to be one that includes an increasing focus on budgets and performance. This is the perfect time to use employee engagement as the tool to maintain focus and achieve performance goals. What tools do you use as a leader to carry out the important work of talent management? I’d love to hear from you.
This time of year tends to be full of milestone events. Weddings, big vacations, and graduations are at the top of the to-do list. In the case of graduations, valedictorians, thought leaders and celebrities of all kinds tend to include a common thread about the importance of success in their commencement speeches. Those messages tend to go something like this:
Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.
Don’t live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable. (Wendy Wasserstein)
Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
No pressure, right?
It has been some time since I was in college and longer than I’d care to count since I was in high school. And yet, one thing remains true today as if it was just yesterday: nobody I know gets up in the morning with the intention to fail. I’m no exception; I appreciate and strive for success as much as anyone else, and I like to be surrounded by people who do the same. Failure does happen though, and it often serves as an important milepost on the journey to success. For leaders, in fact, the learning that comes through and as a result of failure can be as important – if not more so – than the achievement of a successful outcome.
Leaders who are able to withstand and overcome setbacks give themselves and their teams the permission to fail in pursuit of learning and excellence. This is an adaptive capability that is not always easy for leaders to develop. It requires some resilience and humility along with a willingness to let go of what you think you know sometimes, for the sake of learning.
Here are three tips that I’ve used myself and that I’ve offered to executive coaching clients who seek to build this particular leadership muscle.
- What’s your definition? Look at your current definitions of success and failure and assess where you may need to let go of some long-held assumptions. Where did your definitions come from? Are they still serving you? If not, rewrite them.
- Experiment! Choose a small project that presents an opportunity for you to experiment with the possibility of failure. Include learning milestones for yourself in addition to project milestones – things you can observe and learn about yourself and your leadership style, in addition to the tangible project outcome. What you learn about yourself during times of “failure” may turn out to be mini-successes all in their own right, whether you achieve the overall outcome as originally planned or not.
- Involve others. Talk with your team about the effort you are making to build your adaptive capabilities by experimenting with failure. Engage them in the process by inviting their feedback on how you react, respond, and recover when things go differently than you’d planned. Be sure to tell your supervisor and other key stakeholders too so their expectations are set accordingly. After all, leaders are expected to manage and mitigate risks. Your first experiment should be big enough to provide learning but not so big that you put your organization at risk for the sake of your personal development.
In her commencement speech at Harvard two years ago, author J.K. Rowling talked about the “fringe benefits” of failure. Her short, 20-minute talk is one of my favorites because she is transparent about how she benefited from giving herself permission to fail for the sake of her own learning. You may not become a best-selling author as she has, but what would become possible if you gave yourself permission to fail…the room to learn?
Run an experiment or two and share your learning with me. No cap and gown required for this one!
“Whatever job you are asked to do, at whatever level, do it well because your reputation is your resume.”
This statement by Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State and the first woman to hold that post, says a lot about perception and performance. This connection is likely to be made no matter what gender you are. But is stellar performance enough when it comes to establishing a leadership brand that adds conceptual context to your tangible performance record? If not, is the process of perception-building any different for women in leadership roles than it is for men?
I think it is, and the recent laser-like focus on Elena Kagan, President Obama’s pending nominee for the Supreme Court, bears this out. Here’s an example.
Several of the news items about Ms. Kagan have focused on her personal appearance (especially her wardrobe), the fact that she has never married, and the primarily academic career she has had outside of the courtroom, including her role as the Dean at Harvard Law School. Taken to the extreme, the not-so-subtle undertone of these articles also implies that Ms. Kagan is somehow less qualified than she should be for the role of Supreme Court Justice. This may or may not be true; I don’t know her and can’t say that I’m an expert at assessing her critical thinking or decision-making skills from afar. What I have noticed, however, is that an article about the color of Justice Roberts’ tie, or the state of Justice Breyer’s marriage, is unlikely to make it to mainstream media coverage about their rulings.
There are likely to be many reasons for this disappointing state of affairs, starting with the fact that media coverage today is no longer the journalistic endeavor that it once was. I also submit that although we have come a long way, women leaders still need to work harder than men do to establish the brand that sends the message they want others to get about their professional capabilities. While you may not be able to change the norms in the environment you lead in, here are some tips that I have used and that I have offered to multiple women I’ve coached as they sought to establish their own leadership brand:
- What comes to mind when you think about the 3-5 essential professional characteristics that you want others to notice and remember about you? Write them down, and keep it short so you can remember them easily. For example: articulate…prepared…decisive.
- Think about the key meetings and other activities that comprise your workday. When you are in those situations, what do you need to start doing, or perhaps stop doing, to convey that you are articulate, prepared and decisive? Write this down as well, and commit to practicing over the course of a few weeks.
- Enlist the aid of a trusted colleague or two so you can receive regular feedback. This is a piece of the puzzle that some of my coaching clients have found almost as valuable as the reflective time out to consider their brand more intentionally. One client has shared that by asking a colleague to help her process her behavior in key meetings, she has substantially increased her self-awareness of times that she may be detracting from her intended brand. She has also received a compliment from her senior leadership team about the way she is now being perceived in meetings with them.
Thanks to women like former Secretary of State Albright, there are many examples of strong leadership brands that we can all draw from today. What’s yours? How have you built it and conveyed it successfully to others? I’d love to hear from you.