leadership dot #3017: rum

During a particularly stressful project at work, a colleague gave me a tiny bottle of rum for moral support. The joke was that if it got too bad, I could always pour the rum into my Diet Coke as stress relief. The bottle stayed (discretely) in my office for nearly a decade until I returned it to the giver during a particularly rough patch for him.

I never opened the rum but it was comforting to know that it was there. The same principle applied with pain medicine after my periodontist’s handiwork and with a friend’s pain pills after surgery. Neither of us used more than one pill but it was reassuring to know that we had relief available.

Was it ever so bad that I felt I needed the rum or more drugs? No, but I was glad that I was the one deciding that. People are able to accept hardship when they believe they are able to set the limits of what is tolerable for them.

Whenever possible, give your team a relief valve over which they have jurisdiction. Unlock the thermostat and allow people to regulate the temperature. Provide spontaneous flex days when a mental health break is needed. Create an emergency fund that your staff can borrow from. Let people opt out or leave early without question when they’ve reached a breaking point.

Most people won’t gulp down all the pills in the bottle but the pain will feel less just because the medicine is available to them. Trust your staff enough to give them that control.

leadership dot #2979: reach out

“There is a great paradox that points to the hopeful path ahead,” writes thought leader Margaret Wheatley in her essay When Change is Out of Our Control. “It is possible to prepare for the future without knowing what it will be. The primary way to prepare for the unknown is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust one another.”

Wheatley writes that the key to cultivating these relationships is by doing meaningful work together. In this new era of Zoom, it’s easy to divide the work in ways that allow us to conquer it individually instead of as a group but we must fight the urge to do so. She outlines several strategies for strengthening relationships and they remind me very much of the same principles that Daniel Coyle outlines in The Culture Code. It comes down to what he terms as (psychological) safety, vulnerability and purpose.

In Wheatley’s language, the list looks like this:

  • Focus people on the bigger picture – bringing people together so they can look beyond the urgent and prevent inward spiraling
  • Demand honest, forthright communication – information helps alleviate stress
  • Prepare for the unknown – practice with others through scenarios or simulations
  • Keep meaning at the forefront – articulate how the work contributes to meaningful outcomes
  • Use rituals and symbols – encourage shared expressions to celebrate or mourn
  • Pay attention to individuals – take the time to reach out to support and care for each other

Even Wheatley admits that none of her strategies provide new organizational advice. The key is actually implementing some of them – making the time to enhance your culture and the wellbeing of your team – even when chaos is swirling around all of you. Bottom lines may be brutal, hearts may be heavy and the virus may seem never-ending, but the bridge to the other side is built with trusting relationships. Don’t stay on your side of the chasm alone.

For Part 1 of this concept, see yesterday’s dot here.

leadership dot #2978: uncertainty

Thought leader Margaret Wheatley wrote an essay entitled “When Change is Out of Our Control.” She writes: “Uncertainty leads to increased fear. As fear levels rise, it is normal for people to focus on personal security and safety. We tend to withdraw, become more self-serving, and more defensive. We focus on smaller and smaller details, those things we can control. It becomes more difficult to work together, and nearly impossible to focus on the bigger picture.”

Sounds very timely, doesn’t it? Only she wrote the piece in July 2002 when the world was still reeling from the effects of 9-11.

At the time, the terrorist attacks were the greatest disruption that most of us had seen. Whole industries were impacted, the economy took a big hit and 3000 people died. Now we long for that level of outcomes.

But amidst all the gloom, in her signature style, Dr. Wheatly provides a recipe of hope for individuals and organizations: “In order to counter the negative organizational dynamics stimulated by stress and uncertainty, we must give full attention to the quality of our relationships. Nothing else works, no new tools or technical applications, no redesigned organizational chart. The solution is each other. If we can rely on one another, we can cope with almost anything. Without each other, we retreat into fear.”

I thought of her admonition when I had a phone call with my project leader last week. She scheduled it just to chat – no business to conduct and no agenda, just an “I miss you check-in.” It was good for the soul and helped me reconnect to the purpose of what I’m doing for them.

We’re all “COVIDed-out,” but unfortunately, the virus isn’t finished with us. To persist and prevail in these times of uncertainty we need to reach out and nurture our relationships rather than retreat from them. More on her specific strategies tomorrow…

leadership dot #2938: slow-cooked

If COVID taught us nothing else, it made it clear that things are able to change much more quickly than we had accepted in the past. We’ve become microwave decision-makers – altering long-standing policies and practices at record speeds. Between the virus and race revolution, things such as to-go cocktail regulations, virtual notarizing, working from home, NASCAR policies, decades-old brand packaging, statue displays, and even state flags have changed more quickly than you can zap a pizza. Which is good…

…and it’s not.

I am cautious about this lightning speed of altered direction. I have always valued a bit of time to ponder the implications of a decision – almost anyone can convince you that something is a good idea if they are only presenting a singular point of view. The real trick in decision making comes in when the decider has to wrestle with multiple points of view and long-term consequences of the choice, something that is difficult to do under pressure or without the opportunity to hear different perspectives.

I get it that people want things to change quickly – not just on the current big social issues, but in general, an answer never comes soon enough for those wanting the choice to be made. But having to reverse a decision when new facts come to light makes it worse for everyone. There is untold wasted energy, the leader loses credibility and a wishy-washy culture inhibits others from putting the next idea forward or speaking up.

If you’re the leader, be intentional about the expectations you set around making decisions in your organization. Some things are better when they are slow-cooked instead of microwaved.

leadership dot #2933: actually

Please indulge me in one more dot from Pelosi. In the book, Molly Ball writes: “Pelosi learned to listen to what people were actually saying, not what she wanted to hear – and to get it in writing if possible. ‘You’d be a great whip!’ was not a ‘yes.’ Only a commitment to vote was a yes…The ability to hear what people were actually saying would, in the years to come, be a crucial component of Pelosi’s vote-counting skills.”

 I think many managers could learn from her strategy. It is so easy to dismiss thoughts and opinions that run counter to our thinking or to hear only what we hope people are saying. We become focused on what we want to see – and therefore, see lots of examples to support our case – without having the broad perspective to notice what is truly happening in the landscape. We ask for feedback in settings that make it challenging for respondents to be truthful or vulnerable, and we interchange “being nice” with “agreement.”

One of the ways managers can cultivate a strong culture is to listen to not only what is actually being said, but to listen for what isn’t. The more you can accurately assess reality, the greater your ability to influence it.

Quote from: Pelosi by Molly Ball, 2020, p. 82


leadership dot #2925: contribute

In my class last night, we discussed a case entitled “Just Trying to Help.” A manager was assigned a new project, and another manager had previous experience with something similar. The core question was whether he should speak up and offer his input. Most agreed that he should. But at what point does it become “butting in” when he should back off and let the current manager take the project in the direction she prefers, even if it seems destined to fail?

I included the case in my syllabus because I think it’s a central question for many of the aspiring managers who are enrolled in my course. On one hand, it’s natural to want to help but if the culture isn’t receptive to cross-collaboration by speaking up you could be labeled as interfering or worse. I have been in too many situations where those who keep their mouths shut and continue to do just their own work – however mediocre it may be – are rewarded with longevity in the organization instead of being chastised.

A key element is to consider how the “advice” can be framed as a genuine offer of help. Instead of making the recipient defensive, positioning it as an optional gift – a way to make them look good instead of you – can go a long way in furthering the conversation. By imparting a legitimate “take it or leave it” mentality – meaning that you truly are accepting if the recipient totally ignores the feedback you are sharing – can also help lessen resistance and open the door for sharing.

It reminded me of a teaching trick: instead of asking “Who has any questions?” professors are encouraged to rephrase it to “Ask me two questions.” It sets the expectation for dialogue. Similarly, managers assigning a new task can encourage collaboration by asking the group “Name someone not on the task force who has experience or resources that could help this project.”

The bottom line is that there needs to be openness in multiple dimensions: employees willing to take a risk to speak up and offer assistance; project managers receptive to input from multiple sources; and managers who create cultures open to making the organization stronger, no matter whose idea it is.


leadership dot #2918: values

Many companies are suddenly crafting statements that denounce racism and affirm their commitment to equality and inclusion. Such proclamations are easy to do, but writing about your values or posting them on a wall is a far cry from actually living them.

Values need to become a foundation for other actions throughout the company and must be brought to life for all those who work there. Watch for signs of how the values are made real: with strategy alignment, hiring decisions, budget allocations, time spent, transparent information sharing, vulnerability, rewards, priorities, promotions and in the stories that are shared.

Even if you are not in management directly, everyone who works in an organization has the ability to make the values real – or to call out those who disregard them. The undersecretary of defense who publicly submitted his resignation or the employees at Facebook who are resigning have taken drastic steps to highlight the misalignment of values, but there are smaller steps everyone can take to challenge the gap between what is said and what is done.

You don’t always have to pick up a sign and protest in the street to make a difference. Sometimes, what is needed most is for you to speak up in your own organization first.

leadership dot #2889: changing demands

Yesterday’s dot covered Gallup’s research finding that “70% of the variance in team engagement is determined solely by the manager.” Yowza! If you’re that critical as a manager, what should you do in your role?

Fortunately, Gallup also outlines six steps to align the culture with the new way of work that appeals to everyone, but especially Millennials and Generation Z. Successful managers should work to create a culture that addresses these changing demands of the workforce:

From My Paycheck to My Purpose
Employees want to work for organizations with a mission and purpose.

From My Satisfaction to My Development
Employees are pursuing a job that provides personal development as the prized perk.

From My Boss to My Coach
Forget the domineering boss; employees today want leaders to help coach and develop them.

From My Annual Review to My Ongoing Conversations
Everything in life is instantaneous, and employees today want their feedback to be as well.

From My Weakness to My Strengths
Of course, Gallup, the creator of the Strengths movement would recommend this, but whether you pursue the official Strengths assessment or just focus more on positive development, employees today want to build on their strengths vs. focusing on weaknesses.

From My Job to My Life
A great job is the #1 dream, but to achieve that it means having both a paycheck and fulfilling work. Having a great job has become an essential element of having a great life.

Pause for a moment and consider where you stand on these six spectrums. Really, they boil down to two key elements: purpose (#1 & 6) and personal development (#2, 3, 4, 5). Where do you shine as a manager? What area deserves more of your attention? You could make a significant impact on your team by moving toward the new way of managing – and probably enjoy work much more.

Source: It’s the Manager by Jim Clifton and Jim Harter, Gallup Press, 2019

leadership dot #2840: fading

In Simon Sinek’s new book, The Infinite Game, he writes about ethical fading — the short-term focus in an organization that pressures people to do things which they normally would not do.

“Ethical fading is a condition in a culture that allows people to act in unethical ways in order to advance their own interests, often at the expense of others, while falsely believing that they have not compromised their own moral principles. Ethical fading often starts with small, seemingly innocuous transgressions, that, when left unchecked, continue to grow and compound*.”

 The classic example is Wells Fargo, where over 5,000 employees were involved in opening over three and a half million fake bank accounts, but unfortunately, lapses occur daily in many organizations.

I think about Sinek’s concept in this time of COVID. With millions working from remote locations there can be a great temptation to engage in work ethic fading – letting habits of productivity and performance lag. Just as with ethical fading, you may be able to justify your slacking to yourself as self-care or what “everyone” is doing in this time of high anxiety – which may be true – but it is also the start of smaller lapses that can have larger negative impacts.

Don’t let your 8am start time fade into 9am then 10am before you turn on the computer. Try to remain vigilant in keeping up with email and communication. Stay on target to complete the projects you are able to finish. Reallocate any open times to create for the future instead of checking out early.

The times of uncertainty will settle into something new in the future. Take care now so that the virus doesn’t claim your work ethic as one of its victims.

*The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek, 2019, p. 132

leadership dot #2756: first citizen

Today our town will name the recipient of the annual First Citizen award, a recognition given to someone who has made an impact on the community. There will be fanfare and public recognition but, unlike with most awards, the recipient will not be forgotten.

The newspaper has been running half-page stories for the last 49 days, leading up to today’s announcement of the 50th winner. Each story gives the context that led to the award and includes an update if the winner is still alive. I especially like that all the features include the names of the previous recipients as the border.

So often we recognize people in the moment and then their accomplishments fade into the background. This series has been an excellent way to keep the legacies of the winners alive, educate readers on some of the city’s history and provide a build-up to the new announcement.

Think about how your organization could adapt this concept to share the stories of your past award winners. There is no better way to shape your culture than to hold up examples of those who exemplify what excellence looks like.