leadership dot #2906: smell

Good trainers successfully vary the exercises and format of their workshops to address multiple learning styles and most have long used music as part of their repertoire as a way to shape the environment. But in a webinar I attended, the facilitator suggested a new tool I hadn’t considered: smell.

Specifically, she suggested utilizing oranges – not just in training, but for their calming presence overall. The smell of oranges reduces anxiety and peeling one makes great sense during a program on mindfulness or stress management.

Think of how you can activate the sense of smell in shaping your learning or work environment. For your next workshop, could you bring a wax-melter or diffuser just as you bring music? Could you regularly have fresh flowers as part of your home office set-up? What about a simple candle at the receptionist’s desk to emit a light scent that distinguishes the mood of your office when people enter? Or even the smell of freshly-brewed coffee, popping corn or fresh baked goods?

We have five senses but often overlook smell and touch. Add some new resources to your tool kit and begin to use scent with intentionality.

Webinar:  by Debi Grebenik of Alia, 5-28-20


leadership dot #2897: mouse and monster

One of the more challenging skills for new leaders to learn is how to be appropriately assertive. Many people suppress their own position or do not express their needs in order to avoid conflict, while some are at the other end of the spectrum and become demanding or domineering in their statements. Neither is helpful.

One technique to help people grasp the differences between assertive behavior, non-assertive behavior and aggressive behavior is through the use of a children’s book The Mouse, The Monster and Me. Whether you utilize the actual book or just adapt its lessons, the three distinctions help people consider which mask they are wearing into a given situation:

  • The Mouse mask – which you hide behind to subordinate your own position, feelings or wishes and demonstrate non-assertive behaviors
  • The Monster mask – that shows indifference to other people’s feelings or rights and comes across as too direct or self-enhancing
  • Me (mask-less being true to you) – in which you stand up for your own rights without violating the rights and feelings of others. It honestly, directly and appropriately expressing your needs and opinions.

If you introduce this language in your organization, the metaphor provides a shorthand to call someone out who is veering too far from their authentic center. A colleague or supervisor can simply say: “It sounds like you’re wearing your monster mask today,” and convey the message without further explanation or drama.

There is enough mask-wearing these days with COVID; you don’t need to add another layer. Think about what you are hiding behind in your communication and vow instead to consciously avoid being a monster or mouse.

The Mouse, The Monster and Me by Pat Palmer, 1977.

leadership dot #2871: fine

“How are you?” “Fine. How are you?”

How many times have we had that “conversation?” In reality, the exchange above is nothing more than a robotic response, programmed into our language without real meaning. And in these days of virtual communication, the phrase is even more hollow and trite.

Behavioral scientist Elizabeth Weingarten has a better solution – 20 of them actually, as opening lines for these unusual times that actually engage people in a conscious exchange. She offers 20 questions to ask instead of “How are you doing right now?” that will hopefully spur actual conversation instead of an empty “fine.”

Some examples include:

  • How are you taking care of yourself today?
  • What’s the easiest part about the quarantine?
  • What’s something you own that feels useful?
  • What’s something that you miss that surprises you?
  • What’s something that you don’t miss that surprises you?

Whether you use them on your Zoom conferences, phone calls with friends or across the dinner table, Weingarten’s questions are sure to evoke a response that is far better than “fine.” Try one out today!

leadership dot #2854: plate

There’s nothing that brings on a groan in a workshop quicker than saying: “Let’s start with an icebreaker.” Whether you’re an extrovert or not, the warm-up activity has developed quite the reputation as a touchy-feely waste of time. It’s not true!

In a podcast through IDEO, the international design firm, facilitator Dav Rauch makes the case for why starting with an introductory activity is crucial, whether it be at a workshop, meeting or class. He sees it as a way to prepare the audience by shifting their brain functions from left (pattern recognition) to right (opening up the possibility to change or create). Without that shift, anything that is said will be vetted through the lens of previous patterns and the brain won’t allow you to see new options.

“The warmup isn’t the cherry on top,” Rauch said. “It’s the plate beneath the meal. The warmup preps the brain so that they can actually hear what you’re presenting.”

If you have to make a presentation, frame your introductory activity in ways that help participants understand its value rather than seeing it as only fluff. As Rauch reminds us, no athlete does their work without first warming up. Decision-makers and learners should be no different.

Listen to the :45 podcast here.


leadership dot #2773: silverware

A novel way to sort people into groups during a workshop or class involves the use of silverware. I purchased a bag of plasticware that came in four colors which allowed me to quickly and easily break the group into several configurations:

  • By the same color
  • All forks, all knives, all spoons
  • One place setting per group (a fork, a knife, a spoon)
  • Paired with a different utensil
  • Light blue & dark blue together // reds & yellows together

I have written before about the power of utilizing different methods of group division (see dot 2475). By deploying such tools, it forces people to mix with others they may not have chosen, removes bias from the pairing process and facilitates speedy group formation.

Next time, try silverware – or one of the many other options – to interject some energy into your pairings.

leadership dot #2767: where

For a simple warm-up icebreaker, I asked the participants where they would choose to have a gift card from if given one for free. It proved to be a great way to learn something about others in a quick and easy format.

Examples of answers included “DSW – because I’m a shoe nut – it would always be for shoes;” “Aldi – because we’re trying to pay down our debt and then I could use my grocery money to do that;” and “Best Buy – because I’m a techie and like the latest gadgets.” You could definitely get a sense of personality in a light-hearted way.

The next time you’re looking for an opening question for a group, toss out the gift card query. (And if it’s your group, take note of recognition opportunities for the future!) From where would you want yours?

leadership dot #2716: the driver

If I was teaching a human resources class, I would use the movie Ford v. Ferrari as a case study. It’s a fantastic film, about so much more than cars or racing, as it tells the story of the Ford Motor Company’s quest to win the Le Mans car race in the 1960s.

One of the central tension points is deciding who will be the driver of Ford’s car. The project leader, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) wants Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who is known as both incredibly skilled and equally unorthodox. The Ford executive in charge wants “a Ford Man”, someone else who can portray a more mainstream image for the brand.

I think the movie brings to light the frequent tension in organizations as to what is valued more: innovation or conformity; tradition or experimentation; mavericks or team players. So much of work today involves teamwork and playing nice with others is a necessary trait, so organizations must decide where they draw the line for those who do not fit the standard mold. Do you go with the perceived best driver to win or do you opt for someone more conventional who aligns closely with others? How much independence can you grant without sacrificing the effectiveness of the whole team or project? What is driving your decision: short-term winning or the long-term culture you are creating?

In the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni argues that it only takes one person to negatively impact an entire group. I myself recently wrote that being a member of a team is part of everyone’s job description these days. And yet, the movie highlights the dilemma of defining exactly what that team is – is it the team of driver and leader only, the race team or the entire Ford organization – and weighing how much latitude you give individual brilliance when deciding that answer.

Take a few hours this weekend and just enjoy a great film – then come Monday you can ponder the implications it may have for what drives hiring decisions in your organization.

leadership dot #2709: pink elephants

In the book SuperBetter, author Jane McGonigal advocates the use of game theories to reduce depression and increase resilience. There is substantial scientific evidence that it works – in part by redirecting your attention and strengthening willpower.

In the book, McGonigal outlines numerous “quests” – tools to build emotional, social and mental resilience – and these challenges help develop the power to take control of your thoughts, and then in turn, your feelings and reactions. She makes a persuasive case that games, and the brainpower we use when we play them, really can make us mentally stronger.

An example of one quest: First, do not think of a pink elephant for the next 10 seconds. Did it work? Of course not. Just the mention of a pink elephant made you think of one. But the real quest – the one that does redirect your brain from seeing the rosy pachyderm – is to use the letters P(ink) and E(lephant) to think of as many words as you can that contain both P and E (in any order). Examples: empty, pie, except, plane.

Most people will come up with a list of between 10-20 words – and, more importantly, completely forget about the elephant. You can apply this technique (using any two letters) to redirect your thoughts away from something that is painful or upsetting, allowing you to take control of your emotions and re-center.

SuperBetter is a fascinating read with applications for trauma, illness, pain management and stress reduction. Use the pink elephant as a starting point on your gaming journey.

Source: SuperBetter by Jane McGonigal, 2015


leadership dot #2691: huddles

Two takeaways from a conference a colleague attended:

  • Instead of offering only your standard breakout sessions, this conference provided an option for “huddles” – a time when people in similar positions could gather and talk about relevant topics for a three-hour time block. While workshops are wonderful and it’s always great to learn new content, some of the most practical wisdom comes from peers. Huddles are a tangible way to ensure that networking and idea-sharing happen more in-depth than what can occur in other ways at a conference.
  • During one of these huddles, the facilitator gave prompts in three general topic areas (e.g. staff and culture) and then asked each table to discuss the topic using these four questions: 1) What’s right (in our organization relating to this topic)? 2) What’s wrong? 3) What’s confused? and 4) What’s missing? These questions seemed to be broad enough to engender lively conversations but still focused enough to stimulate meaningful idea generation and specific examples.

Think of how you can apply these concepts to your own work. Are there people in similar positions throughout your organization that don’t currently have time to meet to discuss larger issues beyond the nuts-and-bolts? Perhaps you could swap out one of your task-oriented meetings and allow them to huddle instead.

Can you use the four questions to conduct assessments of your own operations or in 1:1 meetings with staff members? Think of how you could frame your evaluations and broaden your thinking by sharing the four questions in advance and having meaningful dialogue on where each of you sees the performance in these quadrants.

Ironically, huddles took less preparation than a traditional workshop and probably produced just as much learning. What can you do to reframe how you absorb or share content that increases its impact?

From the Spire Conference 2019 – Thanks, bg!

leadership dot #2684: evaluation narrative

New supervisors are often overwhelmed when it comes to writing performance evaluations for their staff. Instead of avoiding this critical task, here are five key sections that can form an outline for the narrative:

Context: What (if any) extenuating circumstances/factors that were outside of the employee’s control occurred during this evaluation period that may have influenced the job the person did/was able to do? (examples: staff vacancies that caused the employee to do double duty, new supervisor, reorganization, new technology system, etc.)

Contributions: Looking back on the evaluation period – what are specific contributions that the employee made? Cite evidence/examples for your statements.

Challenges: Looking back on the evaluation period – what are specific challenges that the employee had/what do they need to do differently… Cite evidence/examples for your statements.

Goals/Looking Ahead…and then, looking forward – what goal/plan/actions are needed to remedy these challenges and what are priorities for the employee in the upcoming evaluation period (to remedy challenges or to seize opportunities)

Summary: Overall assessment of the employee, optional comments on intangibles

Writing an evaluation narrative is an effective way for the supervisor and employee to ensure that their expectations and impressions are aligned. It’s a worthwhile exercise for every supervisor to do every year – both as a conversation prompt and as a snapshot of performance progress. Don’t let the task intimidate you from doing it.

More on the evaluation process can be found at dot 1753.