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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

  • Grading on a Curve Undermines Performance Microsoft offers a lesson on how not to conduct performance reviews. Its evaluation process, called “stack ranking” — essentially grading on a curve — has had a disastrous effect on morale, performance, and innovation, reports Kurt Eichenwald in “How Microsoft Lost Its Mojo.” His article in the August Vanity Fair describes a system in which ...
  • Men Don’t Have It All, Either Anne-Marie Slaughter’s heavily Tweeted cover story in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” publicly and very personally acknowledges what most women in the corporate trenches already know: it is incredibly difficult to climb the professional ladder and be a hands-on mother.  I agree. What I take issue ...
  • Networking is Not a Dirty Word Many of my career coaching clients cringe at the word “networking.” But I think networking gets a bad rap. When undertaken in the right spirit, building relationships can be fun as well as helpful. And you don’t have to be Keith Ferrazi to do it.
  • No More Mister Nice Guy? Nice guys earn significantly lower salaries than less agreeable men (though still more than women, regardless of their agreeableness) reports a new study by Timothy A. Judge, Beth A. Livingston, and Charlice Hurst in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Whether you are surprised or unsurprised, dismayed or vindicated, you may be wondering whether ...
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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.

Scaling Up – How Our Hidden Immune System Makes It Hard to Change Old Habits

Over-active immune reaction

“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 tactical,” to zoom out and view the whole system rather than being stuck in the weeds. To delegate more and to empower and motivate others. To set a vision and “bring people along.” Most of them genuinely want to step into this new leadership space and make a larger contribution. But many find it really hard to let go of their old ways.

Because what got them here, got them here. Up until now, their behaviors and habits worked and helped make them successful. Whether they were problem solvers, detail hounds, or perfectionists, their ways of being are part of their professional identity. Such habits are well-established grooves, and any approach to change needs to understand the source and power of these patterns in order to move beyond them and chart a new course.

3 Ways to Promote Resiliency – How CEOs and Moms Can Be Better Role Models

What do many new leaders of growing companies and adolescent girls have in common? They are both facing demands that leave them overwhelmed, riddled with anxiety, and at risk for burnout.

My two teens girls are growing up in a world in which they are expected to excel in every dimension. They must win at academics and extracurriculars, but that’s not all — they must also have perfect bodies and be liked by everyone. The result, too often, is overwhelm, self-criticism, and anxiety. This sounds like a lot of emerging leaders I coach, male and female, on whom the demands are overwhelming and the expectations (both internal and external) are high. They must excel in all dimensions: be visionary and strategic, move fast, execute reliably, deliver results, communicate effectively, develop their people, demonstrate high EQ, and play nicely with others. These demands leave them with a pervasive sense of not being or doing enough. Senior leaders in their organizations would do well to take some advice from Rachel Simmons, author of “Enough As She Is,” who writes about helping adolescent girls cultivate self-compassion and resilience in the face of mounting expectations. She recently gave the following advice to moms on how to be a role model. Her guidance makes just as much sense for CEOs and other leaders:

1. Let your girls [teams] see you ask for help. No one can do it all alone – not a super-mom, nor a CEO, yet with the best of intentions we can all too often shoulder too much of the burden. This is not only bad for you, it also sets a bad example. Say what you will about CEO Jack Dorsey – last March, he was a great role model when he asked for outside help in addressing the state of discourse on Twitter: “We simply can’t and don’t want to do this alone. So we’re seeking help by opening an RFP process….” This public vulnerability and humility sent a powerful message. Although many companies tout a collaborative model, they should reinforce helping one another and make sure that everyone knows it’s okay to ask for assistance. Some side benefits of asking for help? It builds trust and deepens your bench strength.

2. Talk to them about your failures and how you are handling them. By now, it has become a cliche that failure is an essential step on the path to greatness. But what about run-of-the-mill failures where later greatness is not assured? In the privacy of 1:1 coaching sessions, many clients confess that they are terrified of failure. They need to build their failure muscles. Take the example of Sara Blakely, billionaire founder of Spanx, whose father routinely asked her “What did you fail at this week?” and high-fived her for her failures. Even better if he also shared his own missteps and how he was dealing with them so she could learn from his example. Talking about everyday failure normalizes it and provides an opportunity for learning. Consider each failure as a bicep curl for your resilience.

3. Model down-time. Take a break and rest. Number 3 may be the hardest advice to follow. As a mom who runs my own business, I try to wring every drop of productivity out of my day, and most of my client leaders are in the same boat. We may call it efficiency or optimizing, but really it’s a constant state of activity with no break. Yet studies show that resting boosts productivity. I’m not just talking about getting enough sleep or taking vacations, both of which are important. This is about small daily rituals of rest. Putting your feet up and closing your eyes for 5 minutes, or 20. Taking a walk on the beach – or around the block. Unilever has recognized the importance of rest and has put structures in place to support employee rest breaks (including recommending that if you want to nap, you do it between 2:00-3:00 and for no more than 30 minutes!)  Rest brings greater mental clarity and renews one’s emotional resources to decrease reactivity, and results in improved decision making (and being nicer to work with).

As a leadership coach and a parent, I am often struck by the ways that parenting advice applies to leadership and vice versa. Parents set the norms for families, and CEOs and executives set the culture for organizations. For your own sake and for the resiliency of your people, ask for help, share your failures, and rest.

Feedback – 8 Tips to Get People to Tell You What You Need to Hear

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures YouTube

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:

From the Culture Desk: When Startups Get Political

“It was great in the early days. Then things got political.” This is a common lament from my startup clients. When pressed to define “political,” the answers can get a bit fuzzy. Most find it hard to pinpoint, but, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, they “know it when [they] see it.”

Full Stop — What a Traffic Ticket Taught Me About Being at Rest

A while back I got a ticket in the mail for failing to stop at a red light. This New England girl had been caught on camera doing a “California rolling stop.” I was mortified, and upset at the steep fine. My husband was remarkably cool. Apparently he had noticed my tendency to roll through intersections and had been worried about it. “I’m just glad nobody got hurt,” he said.  That made me feel even worse. You’d think I would learn my lesson, but I continued to tap-and-roll through intersections more often than not. So this week I recruited my children to help me “brake” my habit. They were delighted at the invitation to correct my behavior, ready to catch me being bad. But I’ve been good, and to my surprise, it feels good to stop. This second or two of stillness at the intersection gives me a moment to look around, breathe, and be at rest, before driving on.