Leading Through Uncertainty: Engender Hope And Optimism

These days are filled with uncertainty. How are you supposed to stand up and show strong leadership when the world seems to be falling all around you? If you feel confused, imagine what your people are going through!

One of the many important things to strive for is engendering optimism while your troops are feeling left out. It is difficult to march on when your team can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. You understand that their motivation is ready to take a dive to the bottom of the pool. As their manager, their motivator, their leader, you must step up and break ground so they have an easier path to follow.

Your team really needs to see you shine during these challenging times — that’s what leadership is all about. When the going gets tough, the tough get going! Stop giving platitudes that fall flat and insincere on the defeated mood of your normally enthusiastic group and get on the fast train.

What your team is looking for isn’t the normal playground pep talk. They are eyeing you for extraordinary leadership in perplexing times. It’s no surprise then that in a Gallup Workplace article, we discover that employees, as followers, have four primary needs of their leaders: trust, compassion, stability and hope. They’re all critical, all the time and since the outbreak of Covid-19, hope is more valuable than it’s ever been. Because hope is what will get us through this.

As a leader, you may be so busy trying to coordinate solutions to workplace difficulties related to Covid-19 that you feel like working on hope is the last thing you can focus on. If you can’t even get the technology department to fix the intermittent problems with the server that connects your entire work team, when can you get around to engendering team hope? The team’s only hope is probably that you get the server functional.

Harvard Health Publishing, in an article Hope: Why it Matters, would disagree with you. They argue that hope is important for acknowledging that there can be good moments even under undesirable circumstances. It promotes optimism and serenity. Who doesn’t need that?

While exploring the institutional promotion of hope and optimism, author Oliver Bennett finds it to be a significant cultural phenomenon, whether that institution is a corporation, a small business or even a family. In his book Cultures of Optimism: The Institutional Promotion of Hope, he explains, “The diverse ways in which the concept of optimism has been constructed within these domains are also reviewed. But despite these differences, what divergent cultures of optimism are shown to have in common is a shared ‘form’ of positive expectation, which might be said to constitute a culture of optimism, in the singular.”

Our nation and our world have been through difficult and disrupting times before, and we will go through them again. During my work life, I’ve lived through massive layoffs, crises on Wall Street, recessions and massive technical hacks and ransoms that have shown business-demolishing potential. I’ve never found it helpful in any way to panic or give in to despair or anger. In fact, leaders I’ve observed in these situations who bravely stand up and ask productive questions are the ones who ultimately make a difference.

Fruitful questions can make a difference and engage the problem-solving skills of your coworkers. Direct your people and lead them through fear and inactivity to a state of conquering useless anxiety. Here are three tips for tackling that tall order:

• Define the problem and make it a manageable size — letting it turn into an unruly monster in our minds helps no one;

• Break it down into manageable steps;

• Prioritize each step and assign groups to work on one particular step of the solution at a time;

These are simple ways of redirecting negative energy into purpose. With purpose comes the hope and optimism to counteract the feelings of helplessness and being overwhelmed.

In his book, Relentless Optimism: How a Commitment to Positive Thinking Changes Everything, Darrin Donnelly points out, “Positive thinking leads to positive outcomes. Study after study proves this. Researchers have found that optimistic people live longer, live healthier, have more energy, have more successful careers, make better decisions, are more productive, are less stressed, have healthier relationships, and (not surprisingly) are much happier than pessimists.” Doesn’t that sound like a great outcome for a productive team? As their leader, all you have to do is provide the inspiration for the team, division or company optimism. If it sounds like too much work, you may not be the person for the job.

Your inspiration and enthusiasm will provide the fuel for the engine. Shoveling fuel into the firebox of your team’s train isn’t easy at first, but the more people you can convince to climb aboard, the more hands you’ll have to help you with the task.

This article has previously been featured on  Forbes.

Safe Learning In The Workplace For Greater Organizational Agility

One of the greatest assets you can have at your disposal as a leader or team member, especially in these uncertain times, is agility. The ability to rapidly and competently shift gears and perspectives with the fast-paced, chaotic and tumultuous times we currently find ourselves in can mean the difference between failure and success.

The times of the successful, staid, large corporations ruling the game are, for the most part, gone. It’s a time for the nimble and swift organization to shine. The burning question is how to join the ranks of the flexible and effective companies with their eyes on the prize.

One of the puzzle pieces that you need to fit into place is implementing a safe learning environment in the workplace. Without that, your organization will most likely be mired in the usual red tape. The days of “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way” are over. It’s past time to be open to new points of view and new ways of thinking. This can help you achieve the goal of being an agile company.

New Mindset Around Training

Perhaps your company provides occasional training in a formal setting. Intensive, all-day workshops are common, as are seminars and mandatory online learning. Those all end up feeling like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Turns out, it’s much easier to be less intense with training. People who take their training one bite at a time tend to retain more of the information. It also helps to have rest periods in between training sessions.

The old-school version of flying in a trainer and corralling your employees in a room together isn’t very effective. Being cooped up in a room for hours at a time only increases anxiety — what are the supervisors and managers missing? They will more than likely spend each and every break checking voice mail, email and returning messages instead of reflecting on the material that was just presented.

Instead, “chunks” of learning are easily assimilated and cause less stress to the learner. The new mindset is to make it safe to learn, and members learn faster when they’ve had time to rest. The company needs to embrace a learning mindset, all the while emphasizing the need for personal well-being during the process.

In their book Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work, authors Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker and Thomas Many explain, “The goal is not simply to learn a new strategy, but instead to create conditions for perpetual learning — an environment in which innovation and experimentation are viewed not as tasks to be accomplished or projects to be completed but as ways of conducting day-to-day business, forever. Furthermore, participation in this process is not reserved for those designated as leaders; rather, it is a responsibility of every member of the organization.”

One of the important keys is to ensure that you, as the manager or as the peer, appreciate all of the ideas presented in a group setting. The diversity of perspective is essential to signal to your people that it’s OK to take your team off of the mute button. You can help them get into the learning mindset by encouraging team members to support one another.

Peer-To-Peer Learning

Peer-to-peer learning is especially effective. Peers can feel safe in an environment where there is no “boss” figure lurking, listening and judging every move. It should take place in a safe environment to encourage candid conversations. When it is a peer-to-peer conversation, there’s no hierarchy to get in the way of giving and receiving honest feedback. This kind of setting encourages members to understand they’re all in the same boat. They are free to develop empathy for one another and embrace a diversity of viewpoints on the same subject.

In her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, Amy C. Edmondson writes, “More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored or blamed. They know they can ask questions when they are unsure of something. They tend to trust and respect their colleagues.” If your colleagues feel comfortable sharing their real-life experiences in these learning sessions, they will often find they have more in common than they ever imagined.

Do your best to keep the sessions short and productive. A coach or facilitator can help to keep the group on topic and ensure the environment safe, positive and open. It’s also important that the organization, after investing time and effort into this learning scheme, knows it’s important to make learning a habit to encourage corporate agility for the future. Budget time for your employees and your team to create new experiences and enhance the strengths of the participants.

Encourage your team to learn interdependently. Each team member can help support every other team member, and that enforces the team bond. Teach your employees adaptability, and you are far more likely to come out ahead.

This article has previously been featured on  Forbes.

How To Cultivate Psychological Safety And Create More Effective Teams

When was the last time you had a meaningful meeting with your team? Not just one where each associate stated their progress on the current project, during which all the other members just stared off into space waiting to take their turn so they could get back to their desks? How about the last time you had a meeting where vital information was shared, ideas for improvement were offered and decisive decisions were made on correcting errors instead of sweeping them under the rug? Imagine how much more productive your team members, and actually the entire organization, would be if the leadership team encouraged, embraced and acknowledged the absolute need for psychological safety.

In a February 2021 survey, McKinsey & Company looked at psychological safety’s role in leadership development. Researchers found that leaders can increase the likelihood of team members’ psychological safety by demonstrating specific behaviors. Out of the four leadership styles studied, the two most successful ones were “Consultative” and “Supportive.” The two that fared much worse were the “Authoritative” and “Challenging” styles of leadership.

As with most things in management, the effective way to ensure psychological safety is from the top down. If the workers in your organization chart don’t see the C-Suite emulating the values that are being touted, the disparity between the edict and the actuality will be hugely obvious. The old “do as I say, not as I do” dilemma is as frustrating and ineffective now as it ever was. Here’s how leaders can cultivate psychological safety in the workplace:

Be approachable.

As a manager, are you accessible and approachable? These are valuable and necessary qualities for productivity. I had a friend who was a supervisor at her company where every colleague, manager and above never opened their office doors except to go to lunch. Interacting with management wasn’t forbidden, yet it was not encouraged. The only reason people competed to gain management positions was to isolate themselves from all of their supervisors and the supervisor’s employees. They had no idea what even went on out on the floor, and they didn’t want to know. Any suggestions made to improve the customer experience or workflow were immediately shot down. The number of people in her organization who felt physiologically safe there was zero.

Management needs to be proactive about interacting with their direct reports. In conversations, encourage good questions. Healthy discussions invite fresh input on multiple fronts.

Have high standards — but recognize that everyone makes mistakes.

In 2019, Amy Edmondson spoke at the annual meeting for the Association of American Medical Colleges and told attendees, “The simplest way to hold people accountable is by conveying, motivating, and inspiring high standards. And also going out of your way to create psychological safety, so that when things get missed or bad things happen, people feel free to speak up. The most important insight to know is that this is not a trade-off. There is no trade-off between high standards and psychological safety.”

Fear of management doesn’t create lasting results. You must be genuinely interested in others and learn to control your response when you’re informed of a mistake, thereby helping others learn from mistakes, not be punished for them.

Meet with your people regularly and encourage them to speak up without repercussions. Allow them to share their concerns. When it’s appropriate, avoid giving them suggestions — let them come to solutions collectively so they learn to work together.

Prioritize inclusion.

Another important component to psychological safety is inclusion. Timothy R. Clark, in his book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation observes, “Despite knowing we should extend exclusion safety to everyone, we have become very skilled at chasing each other to the margins and patrolling the boundaries. We splinter, segment, and stratify the human family. Sometimes, we extend partial or conditional inclusion safety. Sometimes we revoke or withhold it.”

If some colleagues feel overlooked, marginalized, ignored, persecuted or have had their suggestions shot down at every turn, you (or someone who replaces you) will be tasked with fixing the fragmentation you’ve allowed to happen. Worse yet, if you don’t create an inclusive environment, you could be stunting the growth of your team and your organization.

In her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, Edmondson explains, “In an era when no individual can know or do everything needed to carry out the work that serves customers, it’s more important than ever for people to speak up, share information, contribute expertise, take risks, and work with each other to create lasting value.” Fear limits our ability for effective thought and action — even for the most talented of employees. Today’s leaders must be willing to take on the job of driving fear out of the organization to create the conditions for learning, innovation and growth.

When I was in management, I always told employees, especially ones new to the organization, “Don’t be afraid to ask me any questions. If I don’t know the answer (because no one knows all the answers), I will tell you who can answer your question or we can figure it out together.” How can we possibly get the highest performance out of an employee who is confused about a key portion of their job? Create a safe environment where employees have the ability to help you solve the problems and you won’t be fighting an uphill battle on your own.

This article has previously been featured on  Forbes.

Don’t Underestimate The “Culture” In Corporate Culture

If you’ve suffered through stress and sleepless nights trying to wrangle your team together in the United States, you’re not alone. It can be challenging!

At one point in my career, I was tasked with managing 14 employees in eight locations across the United States. I found myself in a difficult situation. Leadership from the East Coast thought that leadership from the West Coast were lazy and irresponsible because they dared to arrive “late” at their office at 8 a.m. They refused to budge on the issue. (Even though the sun, as is well documented, travels from east to west.) The West Coast office was annoyed at the East Coast office for their “time superiority,” and invited the East Coast employees to show up for conference calls at 8 p.m. their time (5 p.m. West Coast time) to illustrate why the West Coast office employees felt like they were being persecuted when they were asked to log into a conference call at 5 a.m.

Eventually, a compromise was made that grouped the majority of weekly conference calls during times when both East and West Coast colleagues were in the office. It sounds like a small thing, but everyone ended up “winning.” This is just a minor example of culture clashes, and similar corporate culture differences pop up for companies across the globe. If no compromise can be negotiated, the collaboration is doomed to failure. If we can’t bridge the gap between the cultures of the two coasts of the United States, how can we possibly bridge the gap between the cultures of multiple countries?

In his article for Ivey Business Journal, Jeswald W. Salacuse sums it up fairly succinctly. “In this international, global business model, it is imperative that we take the cultural norms of our coworkers into consideration to provide effective management.”

There are different systems to consider when dealing with international companies. As a leader, it becomes your focus to understand and deal effectively with all of them. Here are some important questions to answer when engaging in business deals with people from different countries or cultures:

• What is the political climate and the expectations of the business unification?

• What are the economic implications of any merger? How will it impact their business model?

• Are the values of the country based on kinship?

• Are the values of the country’s business religiously based? If so, how does that potentially impact your company?

Have you spent the time educating yourself on the core values of the culture you’re initiating a business relationship with? It’s important to understand that the answers to the above questions are different depending on each individual culture.

Authors Neil R. Abramson and Robert T. Moran offer this insight on global management: “Prior to entering a new market, forming a partnership, or buying a company, organizations spend time and money on ‘due diligence.’ What is forgotten or minimized in both business and politics is ‘cultural due diligence.’”

They also remind us that, “culture gives people a sense of who they are, of belonging, of how they should behave, and of what they should be doing. Culture impacts behavior, morale and productivity at work, and includes values and patterns that influence company attitudes and actions.”

If you and your management team wish to be successful in a trans-global enterprise, you’re going to have to spend time researching the culture you’re attempting to merge with. You will have to decide what’s most important for you and for your company. Different cultures have different ideas of what constitutes a win — it’s not helpful if your team declares a win by solely American standards. In a global company, if colleagues from each country get the feeling of success from their participation, it will be a more cohesive unit, and a more productive one at that.

The best option is to educate yourself regarding the culture and the business norm in everyday situations. Below are some questions you should ask yourself.

• Does the culture you’re engaging with have a formal stance or informal stance regarding time, corporate hierarchy, reward systems and motivational strategies?

• Is their emotional expression high or low? Cultures really vary in this area, and demonstrating the opposite emotional expression from what the employees are used to in their country can be extremely confusing.

• Is the culture you’re working with direct or indirect? The communication style can be quite different from your own. Educate yourself and adapt your style to be the most effective in the negotiation.

In an article published by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania called “How Cultural Factors Affect Leadership,” it’s stated that, “The most successful businesses will be those that not only understand the nuances that exist among different cultures, but train their executives to lead in ways that demonstrate an understanding of and appreciation for distinct cultures. The global executive’s leadership style will need to be protean, changing from situation to situation. Sensitivity to the unique culture within which the executive works may well be the most important leadership attribute in the global economy.”

Spend some time researching the cultures of the countries you’ll be dealing with, meeting with and negotiating with. It will be time well spent.

This article has previously been featured on  Forbes.

How To Listen Your Way To Success

How many conversations have you had with your boss, your team and your employees that were wasted opportunities? At some point did you delude yourself into thinking that you were the do-all, end-all and be-all of the business world? When was the last time that you really, seriously, honestly listened? Most of us would really like to think that we’re avid listeners. We would love to believe that we’re empathetic, sensible, helpful and the like. But the truth is that many of us are too busy to actually listen to a real and honest conversation.

When Ben from accounting gave you your last update in your office — one that he had really spent time preparing for — did you listen? Probably not. Ben may have spent a great deal of his off time crafting a presentation, but were you too busy thinking about the upcoming merger to actually listen to the information he prepared? You’ll have to change your ways or you’ll lose a very competent employee, and you’ll have to spend money, time and effort to replace him. Employees lose patience quickly when their supervisor or manager can’t be bothered to actually listen. Yes, you’re busy and overworked, but so are they!

As Mark Goulston says in his book Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, “People have their own needs, desires and agendas. They have secrets they’re hiding from you. And they’re stressed, busy and often feeling like they’re in over their heads. To cope with their stress and insecurity, they throw up mental barricades that make it difficult to reach them even if they share your goals, and nearly impossible if they’re hostile.”

How’s your team going to shine when they all feel as if you routinely dismiss their thoughts and needs? If you can’t or won’t spend the time to sincerely listen to your individual employees, your team is going to lose focus fast. When meeting with your employees, remember to do the following:

Ask questions. So many people in the business world today issue ideas, orders and assignments. When was the last time you took the time to actually ask a pertinent question of your specialists? You hired them for a reason! Listen to what they have to say.

Pause. Remember the acronym W.A.I.T., which stands for “Why am I talking?” As the old adage goes, there’s a reason why you have one mouth and two ears. Consciously stop and think before you start talking or continue.

Do your very best to not interrupt. Don’t talk when one of your team members is speaking and trying to make a point. Reiterate what the other person has stated. Don’t act like a tape recorder and repeat it word for word. Show that you’ve listened, and internalized the information. Confirm the idea by taking the time to tell the person what you’ve heard to make sure you’re both on the same page and actually understanding each other.

Find common ground. Plan to make an important conversation a cooperative conversation. What do you have in common with the other person in the room? How can you meet on common ground?

Don’t see conversation as a competition. In a conversational competition, nobody wins. If you’re only listening for a pause in the conversation so you can break in and express your opinion, you aren’t listening. You’re only pausing between lecturing your opinions or truths. Do your best to create a safe environment for the speaker. Your job is to listen, not to argue and not to judge. No one should be a “winner” or a “loser.” That isn’t the way to a resolution. A productive conversation isn’t a debate.

Don’t jump in and try to solve the problem. On that same note, a useful conversation should be full of give and take. Allow the speaker to truly specify what the issue is before you jump to conclusions.

Ensure that all distractions are put away. No cell phones, no computer screens and no tablets should be active or present. This is a time for both parties to be fully present.

Pay attention to body language. No matter the words that are being used, they may contradict the body language that’s being communicated by your subject. If you suspect the words that are being spoken contradict the body posture, your colleague may be miscommunicating to you by accident or on purpose.

In Nixaly Leonardo’s book Active Listening Techniques: 30 Practical Tools to Hone your Communication Skills, she explains “Active listening is a powerful skill. It can not only help you get your message across, but it can also help others feel connected to you and positively influence your relationships, self-esteem and career success. If you practice it consistently, the people around you will feel heard, understood, cared for and respected.” The most important thing to remember when you’re trying to communicate with your colleagues and your team is to recognize that the communication skills must be taught and passed down by leadership, and that’s one of your main jobs. Lead with active listening and others will likely follow suit.

This article has previously been featured on  Forbes.