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The Cost of Conflict

According to industry research:

* On average, employees spend 2.1 hours per week dealing with conflict. That’s 385 million working days in the U.S. alone.

* Workplace conflicts cost the employer 10% of the salary of the employees involved.

* Unresolved conflict can escalate to personal attack, absenteeism, inter-departmental conflict, resignation, termination, and project failure.

* Fortune 500 senior executives spend 20% of their time on litigation.

What’s on Our Minds

  • Scaling Up – How Our Hidden Immune System Makes It Hard to Change Old Habits “What got you here, won’t get you there.” Many a new leader or manager has heard this truism coined by Marshall Goldsmith and have understood it to mean that they will need to up their game and change their approach if they want to succeed as leaders. They are advised to “be more strategic and less ...
  • Feedback – 8 Tips to Get People to Tell You What You Need to Hear Many leaders report that when they ask for feedback, they get very little in response. It’s not because they’re perfect. More than likely, people are afraid that they won’t react well to the truth. What to do about that? You need to make it a safe and positive experience for the other person. Here’s how:Be ...

Choosing Delight

Ross Gay’s Book of Delights is an invitation. Starting and ending on his birthday, the poet wrote an essay a day about the things, people and events that struck his delight – a smile from the person selling him a bus ticket, a song on the radio, his garden, a turn of phrase, fresh lychees on sale, a high-five from a stranger. With each essay, his poetic riffing sweeps you up and carries you away on an infectious tide of delight.

During this year, Gay found that, the more he he practiced this discipline – this constant alert for delights – the more delight he found. His life still held sorrow, fear, pain and loss, but his delight grew. The world around him started to call out to him “Write about me!” Delights abounded, and his ability to see them expanded. His delight muscle strengthened.

Exercising this muscle is always available to us. The aroma of baking cookies, droplets of water on a blade of grass, a joke shared with a stranger. All are there for the savoring if only we turn our attention to them. We just need to make the crucial choice of where we put our attention. And as Mary Pipher’s new book, Women Rowing North, reminds all of us, regardless of age, this choice – this guiding our attention – is essential to constructing our own happiness.

The Book of Delights invites us to choose delight. Instead of rushing ahead, brow furrowed with worry and eyes downcast or narrowed in judgment, we are invited to open our eyes and ears wide to the delights that surround us. Big and small, profound and silly, we take note – similar to a gratitude practice but lighter, less ponderous. A tuning of our internal radio dial to the delight channel (KDLT?) so we notice these wonders. It’s fantastic! Friday morning I was dragged from bed too early by our new puppy (who is delightful but not at 5:25 a.m., as I had been up ’til midnight), and when I staggered outside clutching my hot tea with milk (delightfully warm, steam curling), I saw the crescent moon still rising with the dark side visible, perfectly lined up with one tiny, almost invisible star and one big, bright star. Or maybe a planet. Almost definitely a planet. And though I know the moon is much closer and the stars or planets or whatever are millions of miles away, it looked to me in that moment like they formed a celestial path. Delightful.

I accept the invitation. Each day this month I will seek delight, take note and share. Join me. Let’s get in shape together.

Tell Your Story as a Novel from Different Points of View

Stories have power.

We humans are narrative creatures. Our stories anchor us to our identities and help us understand ourselves. When we are in a new relationship, we dole out our stories as a way of inviting someone to know us, and if you’ve been with someone for a long time, you know his or her stories by heart. We tell children stories to teach them values, like persistence in the Little Engine That Could or generosity in The Giving Tree. History, we know, is written by the victors, who all too often erase inconvenient or unflattering chapters. And leaders and influencers know the power of a compelling story to move people to action — whether to get buy-in on a new strategy, to motivate a team to execute on a plan, or to spur the electorate to vote. 

And yet, great leaders know that as powerful as stories are, they can also get us into trouble, especially when we get too attached to them.

Overwhelm: Top 5 Excuses for Not Asking for Help – Debunked

Overwhelm. We’ve all seen it and many of us have been there. That feeling that the demands are coming at you like a tidal wave and and you’ve got to use every ounce of energy to keep afloat. When it gets really bad, you are paddling so hard to keep from drowning that you don’t think you can afford to reach out for a life raft. Here are some of the most common excuses for not seeking help (and why they are misguided):


Excuse number 5: “I don’t want to look weak.”

True leadership strength is not about doing it all yourself or being perfect. It involves building and motivating a strong bench. Delegation is an essential part of this. So is acknowledging your weaknesses. Don’t kid yourself that others are unaware of your limitations. Better to acknowledge and embrace the contributions of others. In addition, modeling collaboration and mutual reliance helps to prevent burnout and covering up mistakes.

Excuse number 4: “I’d love to work with a coach, but I just don’t have time.”

Prioritizing your own development is both a long-term investment that will likely start to pay dividends right away. Besides, working with a coach does not typically involve much of a time commitment beyond your normal work week, because most of the learning and change happens on the job – first through developing self-awareness and then by trying new approaches and behaviors. You can find 60-90 minutes for a coaching session every other week.

Excuse number 3: “Everybody else is working hard; I don’t want to burden them.”

This excuse sounds noble, and may even feed some vision of yourself as hero or martyr. However it’s healthier to cultivate a we’re-all-in-it-together attitude on your team and share the burden. But what if everyone really is maxed out? In that case, you need to take a hard look at prioritization and resources. Do you have multiple #1 priorities? Decide which really matters most and allocate resources accordingly. Ruthlessly prioritize and invest in hiring if needed.

Excuse number 2:  “It’s easier to do it myself than to explain it to someone else.”

This excuse is like your wedding tuxedo – you can bring it out only for very special events, like when you’re on on a super tight timeline, or if it won’t take you more than 30 minutes. Otherwise, this pseudo-efficiency rationale often masks perfectionism or control-freak-ism. The only way to build other people’s ability is to give them work they don’t already know how to do.

And the number 1 excuse: “I can handle it.”

Guess what? You’re not really handling it. The cracks are showing. You’re not doing your best work or making your best decisions, you are taking your stress out on others, and your colleagues are getting worried and/or pissed. Even if you are managing to keep afloat, your approach doesn’t scale. Better to admit it sooner before you do some real damage.

Climb aboard the life raft and set your course for calmer seas.

7 ways to increase positivity in your more challenging work relationships

Relationships are one of the defining elements of our work life. When we have great colleagues whom we enjoy working with, it’s easier to get things done, and work is a happier experience. However, when we have a colleague with whom we have difficulty, collaboration becomes harder and work is less fun. Sometimes it gets so bad that we quit. But does it need to be that way?

Much like in a romantic relationship, you can’t change other people. But you can change your own behaviors and mindset and thereby change how you relate to the other person and to the relationship. Taking a cue from John Gottman, if we want to improve a relationship, we need to increase the number of positive interactions and shift the ratio of positive to negative interactions (his ideal is 5:1). There is a kind of basic math at work. A relationship consists of shared experiences and communications, some positive and some negative. Each positive interaction adds to the well of positivity and resilience and each negative depletes. And the one thing that we control is making our own positive contributions.

Here’s how: Think of a person – we’ll call him Ned – that you find it challenging to work with. Maybe it’s so bad that you have begun avoiding him. Try the following ways of making deposits in the “good will bank.”

  1. Find something to appreciate. When we have a negative feeling about someone, our confirmation bias makes us filter the data to seek out further evidence of this negative impression. Instead, actively try to notice Ned doing something right. As my dear old dad says, everybody has something to praise. Note: this can be a private act of appreciation but even better if you voice it.
  2. Do something nice. Studies show that acting generously increases the giver’s happiness. Bring Ned a latte to your next meeting, offer to pick up lunch for him when you go to get your own,  or just offer him a piece of gum. Even something small like a smile or a joke or a thank you increases the positivity and resiliency in a relationship. What are the things you would do naturally if you had a good relationship with Ned? Do those things. Here are some more examples:
    • Ask Ned about his weekend or his pet gecko and listen; ask a follow-up question.
    • Thank him for something he did.
    • Share something about yourself.
    • Say something nice about him to someone else.
    • Say “please” and “thank you” in your emails to him.
    • Acknowledge his hard work or contribution.
    • Acknowledge his need, want or point of view, even if – no, especially if – you have to say no.
    • Invite him to coffee.
  3. Seek alignment. Find something you have in common and it will increase your sense of connection. What do you and Ned agree on? Maybe you’re both committed to hitting your OKRs. Or you both want to get the deal done. Or you’re both Giants’ fans. Find something you agree on and connect to him.
  4. Find compassion. Often a person’s unpleasant behavior is the result of something hidden from us – pain, insecurity, suffering. Next time Ned says something that triggers you, and you feel tempted  to say, “What a d**k,” instead try softening and saying, “I wonder what is bugging Ned.”
  5. Refrain from negativity. Don’t complain or gossip about Ned. It may feel good in the moment, but it multiplies and reinforces the negativity.
  6. Be proactive.Though your instinct may be to avoid Ned, the result is that you are often reactive or behind the curve, which only exacerbates the friction. Instead of waiting for him to ask you for something, anticipate and offer to help before he is in need.
  7. Adopt a growth mindset. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from Ned?’ You can always learn something.

The key here is that you are not trying to change Ned, you are simply trying to change how you are in relation to him and to the relationship. You are testing if changing behavior and thoughts makes your experience more positive or tolerable. Maybe it will have an effect on Ned and maybe not. Try these over the course of a couple of weeks and see if your own attitude shifts. Even if the other person doesn’t respond in kind, chances are you will notice a change.

You can’t tell by looking at me …….

We all wear masks. They consist of the parts of ourselves that we gladly show to others – qualities, attributes, feelings, and experiences that we choose to reveal in a given setting. We also have parts of ourselves that we don’t talk about or show. Maybe because nobody asks. Or maybe because we don’t want others to see or know those parts – the parts of us that are vulnerable, sad, angry, broken, tender, imperfect, or just private. Maybe we don’t feel safe. Some of us are more comfortable showing vulnerability, some less. There is nothing inherently wrong with having a mask – in fact, it is entirely appropriate to filter differently for workplace colleagues than for family or close friends. However, our masking becomes a problem when our life fails to provide any space where it is psychologically safe to reveal more of ourselves and to seek connection, comfort, guidance or help.

My White Fragility and What I’m Going to Do About It

I am white. That is to say, the pale pinkish color of my skin that Crayola used to call “flesh” puts me in the socially constructed category of “whiteness.” But I don’t typically think of myself as having a race. If you ask me to describe myself, there are lots of adjectives that will pop to mind before my skin color. And when I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t think about (or even really see) my race. When I walk into a new setting, I seldom if ever think about the fact that my whiteness has set me up to be the beneficiary of positive assumptions and privileges. As a result of the fact that I take my race for granted as invisible or non-existent, I have been insulated from discussions of race.  When the subject of race comes up, I am likely to feel uncomfortable and incompetent. “What do I know about race?” I think. If someone points out my biases, I feel upset, embarrassed, and may become defensive or overly intellectual. My prejudice doesn’t match my cherished self-image as a progressive and as a good person, so I may try to deny my bias or to excuse it by the fact that it is unintentional. When I hear other white people make biased remarks, even if cringe inside, I am likely not to call them out it because I know or believe them to be basically good people and don’t want to make them (or myself) feel uncomfortable. I avoid the topic. I lack the resilience or strength to wrangle with racism. Diversity trainer and author Robin Diangelo, calls this phenomenon “White Fragility” in her insightful and provocative book from last year.

Approach your career like an artist

When you are feeling stuck, uncertain, and afraid of taking action, you would do well to remember Diebenkorn’s  “Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting.” Number 7 is:

“Mistakes can’t be erased, but they move you from your present position.”

He was, of course, explicitly talking about paint on a canvas, but his words speak more universally to the need to shift perspective and to risk failure.  The tenet that getting into action–even “wrong” or misguided action–is productive and even necessary for change is at the heart of coaching.

  1. Taking action gives you data. The first line on a canvas or page, the initial prototype of a product, the informational interview–all get you out of your head and reveal new information that you cannot access when you are stuck in analysis paralysis.
  2. Once  you are in motion, it is easier to take other actions.  Compare turning a boat, car, or a bicycle from a stop as to when it is already in motion. Many people learn this when they take a new job after a long time in a job and find that their next move is easier.
  3. Acting without certainty about the results is essential to innovation. If the results are guaranteed, there is no learning or growth.
  4. Trying something new keeps you flexible. Just as a new yoga pose stretches different muscles, trying something new provides the opportunity to stretch  your thinking and your skills.
  5. Taking a new perspective allows you to see options. From a new vantage, you eliminate blind spots and identify new paths forward. Even a single spot of paint makes you see the canvas differently.
  6. Sometimes the unexpected is really cool. My mother-in law, a watercolorist, will tell you: watercolor is hard to control – it runs and blends. Sometimes the results are a blurry mess. But other times, something miraculous happens. The artist has to surrender some level of control for that to occur.

The rapid pace of change and the increasing complexity of the world demand that more of us stretch into new spaces where the outcome is uncertain. So when you find yourself facing your equivalent of a blank canvas in work or life, pick a color and make a mark. Creativity is not just for artists, y’all.

Experiencing Grief and Joy at the Holidays

The following is a Perspective I recorded for KQED. You can listen to it here.

I’m a holiday person. Starting with the Thanksgiving ritual of going around the table and ending with staying up ‘til midnight on New Year’s Eve, I treasure the traditions of the season. For weeks, our house smells of baking cookies. We choose the perfect Christmas tree – not too tall or too short, not too skinny or fat, with branches wide enough apart for real candles, a tradition from my German mother. On Christmas Eve we sit around the tree singing carols, my children and husband merrily butchering the pronunciation of Stille Nacht. A happy scene.

But the holiday season is also a minefield. My older brother Mark died at age 25 on Thanksgiving in 1980, and every year since, each beloved tradition carries the ache of loss. As the days grow shorter, I start marking anniversaries. There’s Thanksgiving Day itself, and then November 27, his actual death date. His birthday comes on December 7. Then at Christmas I can hear him echoing the baritone line in “Joy to the World” as we sing by the tree. Even over 30 years later, memory can still gut punch me in the middle of a happy moment with longing for what might have been. There is no repairing the gaping hole his death left my heart.

But just as well-meaning folks told the 14-year old me, life goes on, and we can still find joy. I’m struck by how often joy and sadness live side by side in us, and how quickly we flip from one to the other or even feel both at the same time. Yet what we show the world usually leaves out the heartache. My Facebook page gives no hint of my holiday blues.

This year I heard the word “Thanksgrieving” for the first time, and it spoke to me of what I already knew: That for so many, the public celebration masks inner pain. We all carry our own private minefields.

Different Strokes for Different Folks – How Gretchen Rubin’s 4 Tendencies Can Help Identify the Right Strategies to Change a Habit

When I want to make sure I do something, I do it first thing in the morning. For me, this is the time in my day that is most in my control — before other tasks, emails, and the laundry get in the way. Before things have the chance to go off the rails. For years, I have been advising clients to do the same: exercise in the morning, write in the morning, etc. And while this advice works for me and for many others, for some it is a complete flop. When it comes to cultivating a new habit – whether a personal goal or a leadership aspiration – we are not one size fits all.

How One Leader Conquered His Fear By Channeling Curious George

Edvard Munch “The Scream”

H.A. Rey’s Curious George

“It’s like I’m always vigilant, walking around tense all the time, bracing for an attack, ready to defend myself,” said David, a former client. He was not describing being in a tough neighborhood at night, but roaming the floors of the start-up where had worked for a number of years and had risen through the ranks to a leadership role. He was shocked to recognize his emotional state for what it was: pervasive fear.

This was surprising to him because work didn’t look scary. The company culture was somewhat chaotic, but mostly positive. David trusted and respected the majority of his colleagues, and he had good relationships throughout the organization. But as a boy, he had been taught by his father to be on guard always, and to defend himself vigorously, lest he be seen as weak. This worked pretty well on the playground and prevented him from getting picked on or bullied. As he progressed through college and business school, he was seen as strong and confident, and at work his colleagues described him as having a commanding demeanor and presence.

But this vigilance had a major downside. It made David over-reactive to questions and challenges. When presenting, if someone asked a question, he defended as if it were an attack on his reputation, sometimes shutting people down. And if this weren’t bad enough, there was another, more insidious, side to this fear. Because David believed that he needed to appear strong, he had a hidden commitment (see my previous blog on Immunity to Change) to not looking weak that led him to engage in other self-protective strategies. Since he equated questions and criticism with threat, his battle strategy was to limit his areas of vulnerability.Thus, he seldom advanced an idea that he had not fully vetted and scripted. And he frequently avoided broadly communicating his vision and plans, because the more he put out there, the more he could be criticized and judged as weak. He was playing small without even realizing it.

Intellectually, David knew he was not in danger, but he was behaving as if there were an existential threat lurking in every meeting. He had developed a bunker mentality, hunkering down to reduce the surface area vulnerable to attack. As a result, he under-communicated his vision and missed opportunities to build alignment with cross-functional colleagues and motivate the team. He refrained from sharing his uncertainty and missed out on important input from his partners. David was holding back, and it was hurting his effectiveness as a leader.

So what did he do? He cultivated a powerful antidote to fear — it’s not courage, it’s curiosity. When presenting an idea either in writing or verbally, his habitual approach had been: “How do I present my vision as unassailable and persuasive?” His new approach was: “How can draw out  my colleagues to help improve the vision and share ownership?” and “How can I elicit their questions and objections so that we can build an awesome shared vision?” He started small, with his written communications. He prefaced an email update with an invitation for questions, comments and suggestions. The response was mostly positive and appreciative, and David was able to welcome the few questions and suggestions he received. Then he started inviting questions and suggestions in low stakes presentations. And when questions or objections came in, he learned to meet each challenge with curiosity: “What are you concerned about? What do you think would make it better? How would you frame the issue? What is your vision?” The ensuing discussions provided useful insights and helped gain buy-in. Not scary. Cool.

Over time, David found he was able to use curiosity in many situations very effectively. Sometimes he would catch himself slipping back into bunker mentality, but as soon as he noticed, he would take a breath and arm himself with curiosity rather than defense and justification. The result? Better communication, improved trust, and increased alignment.