Posts Tagged ‘optimism’
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.
This week, I had the pleasure of participating in a video shoot Management Concepts organized as part of the Professional Government Supervisor Program. It was a lot of fun (apart from the mortifying aspect of seeing yourself on screen), but what I really noticed was how the director worked with people who had speaking roles.
Time after time, he would encourage the on-air “talent” through expressions such as “That’s great,” or “Yes!” or “That’s it!”
Let me tell you, it is no easy thing to stand in front of lights that look like they could be used to open a car dealership and coherently express thoughts. You are aware the camera is rolling, and that mistakes cost time and film.
In this context, I’m sure the Director has figured out over the years that the best way to help people perform at their best is to remove any sense of threat or criticism, and to encourage and praise progress.
Since it’s all about what it takes to achieve peak performance, we can contrast this approach with the fault-finding, nit-picking, micromanagement and looking for any weakness that sometimes characterize supervision, management and leadership.
A prime example of where this occurs is when something you write is edited by someone else. There is some kind of deep-seated need to find something to change. The dreaded red-ink (today, track changes) produces a lot of negative emotions in most writers. With a red page, they lose confidence, try to second guess the editor, and sometimes wind up hating the whole process of writing.
Contrast this with steady, honest praise for what is working well, along with questions or suggestions to change what could be better, but all couched in a posture of support.
The fact is, when we are criticized or micromanaged, our brain’s threat center (the amygdala) switches on. We can fight, freeze or flee really well, but we generally don’t get very creative, intelligent or resourceful. Cortisol (the stress hormone) floods our systems.
When we are praised, recognized positively or complimented, the dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters kick in. We feel good, empowered and ready to roll.
So when the director said “Rolling,” he really knew what he was doing. In fact, I don’t know if he even knows about hormones, neurotransmitters or the amygdala. I think he knows a lot more about establishing shots, close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, how to flare the camera and lot of other things. But he doesn’t need to understand exactly what happens between the ears. He’s operating very successful from his own intuitive understanding of what it takes to help people perform at their best.
There is a great old story about a great old drummer named Bernard Purdie, who, if you’ve not heard of him, played on records by James Brown, Frank Sinatra, BB King, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis and Steely Dan.
Bernard has a beautiful sense of time. When you hear him playing a simple beat, you want to move. (For an example of that, click on the following link.)
The story goes that when Bernard was hired for a session, he would come in, set up his drums, and then before beginning to play, would also put up two signs, one on each side of his drum set.
One sign read: “You done it.”
The other sign read: “You done hired the hit-maker, Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie.”
That’s pretty bold.
If you watch the video clip above, you’ll understand why he was so bold. If you watch this video clip below, you’ll hear Walter Fagen and Water Becker (they are Steely Dan) talking about Bernard’s signs.
“Boldness” is a word used in coaching that turns out to have some real significance. Boldness is about confidence, belief, passion and conviction.
It may be easier to understand by its opposite: lack of confidence, lack of belief, lack of passion and lack of conviction.
Boldness comes from processed experience. That means that not only have you lived something successful, but you have thought about it, and consciously concluded you have reason to be bold about something. (Sometimes people are very good at something, but taking a page from the “aw, shucks. It’s just little old me” playbook, they downplay or minimize their contribution. Not recommended.)
A key with boldness is to find where it naturally occurs in your work. Where do you find your voice? What gives you energy? Where does fear dissipate?
Where can you put up your own signs?
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.
Readers of this blog know I like to play the electric guitar (I turn it up to 11), and I like Arlington Fretworks. http://arlingtonfretworks.com/home
Proprietor and craftsman Daniel Carbone repairs and builds guitars there. I have written previously about his standards of excellence being off the charts. (One client wrote that he would trust him to work on his kids’ teeth.) http://blogs.managementconcepts.com/lm/leadership/2010/09/a-thousandth-of-an-inch-or-%e2%80%9cgood-enough-for-government-work%e2%80%9d/
Daniel’s website notes that an interesting question has arisen in the music and physics world of whether a wood-based instrument improves the more you play it. http://arlingtonfretworks.com/articles
Sounds pretty virtuous if it’s true. According to a New York Times story, Dr. David G. Hunt of the School of Engineering Systems and Design at South Bank University in London believes it is. He says vibrations aimed at the instrument subtly alter the physics of the wood in a way that empirically increases sustain (the Holy Grail of guitar players), and more subjectively improves the sound.
So what leadership lesson can we apply from world of musical instruments and physics?
Every time you do something positive, constructive, helpful, engaging, uplifting, inspiring, motivating or other-centered (music), I believe you change yourself (wood).
By actually doing whatever you have learned and think might work better than whatever you were doing, you behaviorally rewrite some of your operating system source code; you rearrange the molecules in the wood.
There is actually a neuroscientific explanation for this, as you change behavior, you lay down new neural pathways in your malleable brain; it is about plasticity. It is how habits – good or bad – get formed. One phrase is, “what fires, wires.” Synaptic connections become the new reality.
You can also pick up good vibes by associating with people who operate at a high level. By observing, maybe by osmosis, you are influenced in a positive way — but you still have to act on what you are noticing.
Keep in mind that overnight, radical development usually doesn’t last. It takes time.
I once worked with a woman in Atlanta in a leadership position in a federal agency. She said in workshop that one thing she does now is really listen to employees. She also said she could not do this several years ago. (Actually, she could have at any time; she just chose to start trying it at some point.) Her comment was that it still requires some effort, but it is much easier now than it used to be.
Her molecules got rearranged. Without belaboring the point about the very significant benefits of true listening, we can say she is somehow different as a result of all the times she was ready to jump in with The Expert Opinion, but chose to hold back and listen longer. I would lay a heavy bet her employees appreciated this.
The opposite way to think about this is the old phrase, “To know and not do is to not know.”
A final point: The author of the study mentioned above said in an interview that “People don’t understand entirely the structure of wood, even after using it and studying it for centuries.”
So there’s something a mystery in this (but not enough to prevent guitar players from keeping their axes by their speakers). Think about it: We have some real gaps in our knowledge of wood.
How about our knowledge of people and relationships?
This is an intuitively, inherently appealing topic. After all, who doesn’t want to see others (or himself or herself) fulfill individual potential?
Unlocked potential is about people playing “full out,” swinging for the fences and working their best and hardest for the biggest results. It’s playing to win, which is a lot different than playing not to lose. The latter is playing safe, minimizing risk, not wanting to ever make waves, keeping your head down, or doing the minimum to get by (compliance).
Sports coaches all take the concept for granted. There’s no question that the name of the game in this domain is fulfill potential.
At a time when most organizations are struggling in some significant way, isn’t it interesting how much we’ve finely tuned the use of capital, land, equipment and other resources, but the human variable is still a fraction of what it could produce?
This is no small matter. Research shows the difference in performance in the knowledge economy from the highest to lowest performers is a multiple of what it was in industrial or factory work.
So what does it take for people to fulfill their potential, and what can a leader do? Here are some keys:
Create safety – People perform best when they feel secure, emboldened and confident. Nothing robs them of this more effectively than when their sense of safety is threatened. If people feel vulnerable, they will not do what it takes to perform most powerfully. They will not take the measured risks needed to break through.
There are many ways to threaten safety, from poorly executed negative feedback, to exclusion to outright threats. Engaging in any of those guarantees people will not perform at their potential. The brain processes information differently when feeling fear.
True support creates safety. This does not mean guaranteeing someone a job will be there for life. It means guaranteeing that you are there to support them through successes and failures, and that the intention of what you do is to help them succeed. When they know this, they are more likely to perform at their best.
Encourage people by recognizing their performance — Noticing and commenting on good or great work helps people repeat what works, and it increases their confidence. If you don’t tell them, they may not know what they’re doing well. Recognition is an extremely powerful motivator. Note that encouragement and recognition have to be genuine. If not, it will be detected quickly.
Understand and accept uniqueness – Some managers and leaders harbor secret wishes that employees would all act and think alike. Wouldn’t life be simpler that way? It might, but it would also be boring. The more important point is that there is something about individual potential that demands room for individual, unique expression. It’s hard to be great by being like someone else. It could be a work style, how communication occurs, the pace at which someone works . . . whatever it is, you don’t get greatness by asking someone to be a copy of someone else.
Understand and support the personal mission – A person’s mission is that same thing as his or her purpose. People acting in support of their core purpose are much more likely to achieve greatness than those who don’t know why they are doing what they are doing. In fact, tapping into the motivating power of the mission provides huge energy to use to succeed. It goes without saying that this is an important hiring factor. It’s why recruiters regularly ask now what a person’s passion is.
Support learning – It’s not just about current performance. It’s also about how others are developing, growing and learning to those ends. If you truly help others to learn what they need to know to progress, they will move closer to their potential.
Hold a great big vision for others – You can call this the Pygmalion Effect, how when someone important holds a big, bold picture of what you could accomplish, you tend to rise to the challenge. All sports coaches consider this so basic they hardly ever discuss whether it should happen – they just do it. An example of this came in the workplace when an employee met her new boss, and the boss asked, “What’s our plan to get you to a GS-15 (the highest level in the federal government civil service structure before the Senior Executive Service). The question floored the employee, who had never even thought of accomplishing such a progression. It got her thinking, though, and she advanced rapidly. (She also never forgot the power of that one question.)
People tend to become what they think of themselves, and managers and leaders, by casting an affirming, positive story of the employee, have a huge lever for performance here.
You might have experienced such a figure in your life. This is the person who looked you in the eye and said “I know you can do it.” What’s more, their conviction in this helped you to see the potential they had identified. It could have been a school teacher or coach, a boss, spouse, or anyone who encouraged you. If you had a person like this, you already understand the power of encouragement.
Be optimistic –There is now a wealth of research supporting the notion that thinking positively has a measurable impact on behavior. While we never recommend blind belief in things that may not happen, we do believe in realistic optimism. That means choosing to believe and listening to the results.
You no doubt have experienced the difference between your own performance when feeling optimistic and when feeling pessimistic. The former generates energy, desire and action, while the latter drains energy and leads to stagnation.
You can choose out which mode you operate with others, and the mood you co-create where you work.