The Power of the Present

When I speak and write about mindfulness, the question I get most often is, “If I practice mindfulness, what does that get me?” I usually point to the growing body of research that demonstrates the impact of mindfulness.  I also tell people that when they are mindful, they are more present and aware, and this in turn supports the development of certain leadership skills and capabilities, like attentive listening.  But when you put the pile of research aside, what is the impact on our lives of living in the present, in this moment?  And what does it mean to actually live that way each day?

Connect with people not technology. We give so much habitual attention to our smart phones that we have a hard time putting them away.  When we have the chance to interact with others in person – loved ones, co-workers – we keep one eye (or both eyes) on our phones.  We miss the chance to connect, to listen, to empathize, to share. I recently had dinner with four other people at a conference, new connections, and three of them spent most of the meal on their smart phones.  I didn’t know much more about them afterwards.  What opportunities do you miss when you give more attention to your phone than to the people around you?

Slow down and pay attention.  The other side effect of constant email, texting, social media, and web-surfing is that it’s easy for us to feel bored.  But there are things around us every day that are worth paying attention to. When was the last time you noticed the blue of the sky, or the smell of rain, or the new flowers blooming in Spring?  My spouse and I go on motorcycle trips every year.  We deliberately choose scenic routes and stop to take in the sights along the way. What is in your everyday experience that you haven’t noticed lately?  Or ever?  How does your day, your energy, your perspective change when you pay attention more?

Feel and express gratitude. I used to think if someone was doing their job, why should I thank him or her? Isn’t paid compensation enough?  But now I thank people all the time – the bus driver, the coffee barista, the mailman – for the little ways they make my life easier.  During employee appreciation week, Bill Marriott, the chairman of the board of Fortune 100 company Marriott International, stands at the front door of the Marriott headquarters office, shakes employees’ hands as they enter, and says, “Thank you.” Take a minute to look at the other people you interact with every day – your family, your friends – and ask yourself, when was the last time I told them how much I appreciate them?  What would be different if I told them more often?

Stay focused on today.  I had a number of unexpected opportunities come my way in the last year.  It’s been exciting and sometimes a little overwhelming.  I’d look ahead to three months from now and wonder how on earth I was going to get everything done. I made a long-term plan for meeting my obligations, but then I focus on what I need to get done today.  And then when today is over, I give myself credit for what I accomplished, and I unplug from work for the evening. I’m far less stressed, and I acknowledge and appreciate the progress I’ve made. What would be the impact if your view was of a specific today rather than a nebulous tomorrow?

We often spend much of our day and lives in a reality other than the present moment – either a virtual world, or with our attention on the past or future.  When we do specific things to reconnect with this day and this time, we begin to shift our experience:  of ourselves, of other people, and of our environment.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me.  To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

Compelling Communication

Recently, one of my clients said that he wanted to communicate better with his team. Not the kind of “every day” communication to listen and understand, or to set clear goals and objectives – but to get his team energized by his message.  He said, “It seems like other people know how to find just the right YouTube video, or thing to say so that people leave the meeting feeling excited about our work. What do they know that I don’t? How do I develop that same ability?”

Use the right format. I give a lot of presentations. I’ve had to learn the hard way (i.e., reading the reaction of glazed-over audience members) that lots of slides full of text help me remember what I want to say but are plain boring to my audience. Boring means people tune out and don’t listen to what you are saying.  Instead of text, base your communication on images, videos, or a demo. We retain 80% of what we see but only 20% of what we read. And according to the Social Science Research Network, 65% of people are visual learners.  So moving away from a presentation filled with bullets can help ensure your audience retains your message.

Boil it down. You can’t wait to share your message, and there’s so much you want to say.  I get it – my natural tendency is to explain, explain, explain, maybe never being entirely clear on the main points of my presentation. One of the most important things I’ve learned is to focus on a few select thoughts.  It’s the classic idea of the “elevator speech.” If you only had an elevator ride to make your case with a top executive, what would you say?  It’s likely that you have more than 30 seconds to speak with your team.  But it’s good practice to think through, what are my key ideas, and how do I state them concisely?

Use examples.  Dan and Chip Heath, authors of Made To Stick, say that the number one mistake they see when people present is that the message is too abstract when it needs instead to be concrete, something we can relate to.  I asked my client, who works at a large pharmaceutical company, what he appreciated most about his job. He showed me a picture on his phone of a woman standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  He said, “This person used to need chemo three days a week, making her too ill to do much of anything.  She now takes our drug instead. She sent me this picture to show me that she’s back to her favorite hobby, traveling.” We naturally love stories – take advantage of it.

Get out of your head.  My client wanted “tips and tricks” on powerful communication, and I gave him (and you) some of those.  But I told him that, more important than anything else, he needed to stop thinking and start feeling.  The most powerful messages connect with us, and engage us, not in our heads but in our hearts.  What are your values and your inspirations?  What makes you come to work each day?  What is it that invigorates you?  It could be providing great customer service, or building efficient software code, or the opportunity to work with your specific team members.  Figure out what makes your heart sing, and be vulnerable enough to share it openly.

Compelling communication is not just about choosing “the right words.”  It’s also about framing ideas in ways that stay with your audience, and about being willing to let your passion shine through.  Use this powerful combination to truly connect with, inspire, and energize your team.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me.  To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

The Importance of Trust

It’s difficult to avoid the topic of trust these days.  Lately it seems like there are ten different sides to every story, and phrases like “alternative facts” have made it into our vernacular.  It’s hard to know what we can count on and who we can depend on.  But given the influence of leaders in our lives, and how much time we spend at work, an organizational culture of reciprocal trust is certainly welcome.  This is possible, but it’s up to leaders to create and support this type of environment.

A recent article in the January/February 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review, The Neuroscience of Trust, explains how leaders can create a “high-trust” environment and the impact this has on employees and the culture.  The author, Paul Zak, explains that many employers try to keep employees invested in their organizations by offering perks like financial incentives, lunchtime catering, or an office game room.  Another term for this is “extrinsic” motivators, since they are driven by external (to the individual) rewards.  (This is in contrast to “intrinsic” motivators, which are specific to the individual, like values).

In his research, Zak has found that such perks do not have a lasting effect on performance levels or employee retention.  However, what does make a difference is building a culture of trust.  Those of us working in high-trust organizations:

  • Are more productive
  • Collaborate more effectively
  • Enjoy our jobs more
  • Stay with our employers longer
  • Suffer less chronic stress
  • Are happier with our lives

Zak recognizes that many leaders want to foster this type of environment, but they don’t know how.  He has identified several behaviors that foster trust, such as:

Recognizing excellence.  Neuroscience shows that the greatest impact comes when the recognition happens immediately after a goal has been reached, when it comes from colleagues, and when it is public.  This does not need to be elaborate – even small forms of recognition can be powerful.  A separate study demonstrated that when our efforts are regarded, even in simple ways such as cursory review of our product or verbal acknowledgement, we require less extrinsic reward.

Allowing autonomy.  This includes how people manage their work as well as how people manage themselves.  For the first, make a distinction between the “what,” the goal to be accomplished and success criteria, and the “how,” or the specific steps to take to get there.  It is your job as a leader to provide the “what;” let your employees decide the “how.” And most professionals would rather have benefits such as non-traditional work hours and telework than a 20% raise.  Supporting these types of autonomy can go a long way to demonstrating and fostering trust.

Sharing information. Zak reports, “only 40% of employees report that they are well-informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics.”  This uncertainty creates an environment of stress.  “Openness,” he says, “is the antidote.” Create a communication plan for your organization.  Set communication goals, determine who/what/when/how to reach them, and make sure organization-wide plans can be understood by a broader audience (or tailor accordingly).

Building relationships.  Many work environments emphasize completing tasks instead of cultivating connections.  However, Zak’s research shows that when people create social ties at work, their performance improves.  Another study found that people who worked in a culture where they felt free to express care and compassion for one another­ were more satisfied with their jobs, committed to the organization, and accountable for their performance.  Tasks define the job, but personal connections are at the heart of trust.

In an era when it’s challenging to know who and what to believe in, trust is more important and valued than ever.  Take the time and effort to create a high-trust environment, to the benefit of you, your employees, and your organization.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me.  To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

The Intelligence Around Emotions

“Emotional intelligence” is a popular phrase in leadership development.  There are several well-known models of emotional intelligence, and I wrote a summary of them in a previous blog post.  The models have several attributes in common including self-awareness and self-management.  Even though the phrase “emotional intelligence” is used commonly and easily in leadership and workplace settings, I’m struck by how hesitant we are to talk about emotions in the context of leadership and the workplace. But if we want to increase our self-awareness and self-management, we must be willing to talk about our emotions and our relationship to them.

Our emotions come to work with us whether we acknowledge them or not.  Ideally we feel the whole spectrum of emotions at work, such as feeling pride at a job well done and feeling relaxed and confident in our interactions with others.  Of course, these aren’t usually the feelings that we find challenging.  Instead, many of us experience organizational change that leaves us feeling stressed and anxious.  Or we have conflict with others, and we feel angry and upset.  Our emotions can keep us from thinking clearly or behaving constructively.  So what do we do with our emotions, so that we can be effective leaders and colleagues?

Name it.  A study done at UCLA found that putting feelings into words makes sadness and anger less intense.  They suggest that this is why talking or writing in a journal about something that upsets us can actually make us feel better.  However, it is important to use the language of feelings.  For instance, if you look at a picture of an angry face, it triggers a response in your amygdala, the “fight-or-flight” part of your brain that says you are in danger.  If you label the face as “angry,” it lessens the response in your amygdala.  However, if you label the face with someone’s name, there is no change.  Many of us need some practice at labeling our own emotions.  If you are one of them, here’s a good place to start.

Look underneath.  Our emotions are frequently driven by the stories we make up in our own heads.  For example, a co-worker is a late for an important meeting, and you quietly fume.  It is so unprofessional to be late!  How could he leave me in the lurch like that??  It’s only afterward that you find out he was up all night in the emergency room with a sick child, and he got to work as soon as possible.  Check in with yourself to ask, what do I know to be true, and where am I filling in the blanks with my assumptions?  Recognize when you may be jumping to conclusions since this is often what drives our emotions.

Breathe deep.  When we are stressed or upset, most of us have heard the advice to pause and “Take a deep breath.”  It turns out that this can actually change your emotional state.  In her book The Happiness Track, Emma Seppälä refers to several studies that demonstrate a cause-and-effect connection between our breathing patterns and our emotions.  In one study, when participants were instructed to take shallow, rapid breaths, they started to feel anxious or angry.  When they were asked to instead take long, deep breaths, they started to feel calm.  As Dr. Seppälä points out, given that it is nearly impossible to talk ourselves out of our feelings, changing your breath is a powerful way to immediately change your emotional state.

Emotional intelligence means having self-awareness and self-management, including of your emotions.  We can’t control having emotions, but we can change the way we relate to our emotions so that they don’t control us.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me.  To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

Developing A Mindful Workforce

I’m excited to announce that, through the Association for Talent Development, I’m launching an online class to explain why and how to develop a more mindful workforce.  The first offering is at the end of March 2017 and again in August 2017. You can find details at the ATD website here.

To give you an idea of some of the topics that will be covered, I’m republishing the most popular blog post I’ve written on mindfulness in the workplace.  This first appeared in my blog in December 2014 under the title, Mindfulness: Why Western Leaders Embrace An Eastern Practice.


I attended the Mindful Leadership Summit last month, and I appreciated the different perspectives on why and how practicing mindfulness helps leaders in the workplace. Janice Marturano, one of the speakers and founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, said that she tells leaders that they cannot lead today without (1) cultivating more capabilities of their minds, and (2) opening their hearts. Both of these directly result from practicing mindfulness.

On the first point, when we practice mindfulness, we practice bringing our attention back to the present moment. Judson Brewer at Yale University calls this “brain training.” With this practice, we develop greater focus and more self-awareness. A study at the University of Washington found that in a simulated stressful, multi-tasking work environment, those trained in mindfulness were better able to concentrate on the task at hand, showed improved memory for the tasks they performed, and reported less negative emotion after task completion. Another study, at the University of Toronto, showed that experienced mindfulness practitioners were better able to disengage from upsetting images and focus on a cognitive task. In a stressful work environment, this translates to an ability to remain calm and problem-solve.

And Daniel Goleman, an author best-known for his work correlating emotional intelligence with workplace success, says in a Harvard Business Review article, “A primary task of leadership is to focus attention.” He says further, “Focusing inward and focusing constructively on others helps leaders cultivate the primary elements of emotional intelligence. What it takes is not talent so much as diligence – a willingness to exercise the attention circuits of the brain just as we exercise our analytic skills and other systems of the body.” More and more, developing greater focus and attention is being recognized as an essential leadership skill.

On the second point, the impact of kindness in the workplace is also being given more shape and credence. When we practice mindfulness, we practice non-judgment and compassion for ourselves and others – and cultivate kindness. An article in the HBR Blog cites a number of studies that demonstrate the impact of workplace kindness, including a study at the Harvard Business School that shows that leaders who project warmth are more effective than those who lead with toughness and skill. And Annie McKee, co-author with Daniel Goleman of Resonant Leadershipsays, quite simply: “Being happy at work matters.” Her research, and the work of others, shows that happy people are better workers. One of her conclusions is, “Those who are engaged with their jobs and colleagues work harder – and smarter.”

At the Mindful Leadership Summit, Tom Gardner, the co-founder and CEO of The Motley Fool, illustrated this with a great analogy. He first cited Gallup research on workplace engagement that shows that 50% of employees are “not engaged” and 20% are “actively disengaged.” He asked audience members to picture themselves as the leader of a boat with ten rowers. Five rowers are holding their oars and doing nothing, two rowers want to hit other rowers with their paddles – and only three rowers are actually paddling. Imagine how much further your boat would go if all ten rowers were actually paddling.

Sharon Salzberg, author and teacher of mindfulness practices and another speaker at the conference, mentioned Phil Jackson, who has the New York Knicks practicing mindfulness and previously brought mindfulness to the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. In his tenure as head coach of the Bulls and the Lakers, Jackson won six championships with the Bulls and five with the Lakers, more than any other head coach in NBA history. Sharon said Phil Jackson doesn’t see his players as basketball players but instead sees them first as “whole people” who happen to play basketball. His track record is a great example of how personal connection is instrumental to successful leadership.

When we practice mindfulness, we develop the ability to be focused, attentive, and kind. The view of leadership is changing to recognize that these are essential qualities to support individual performance and, in turn, workplace effectiveness.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me. To be notified of new blog posts, subscribe to Favorite Reads This Week or follow me on Twitter. Or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

How To Change

The New Year is all about resolutions: changes we will bring about, habits we will implement, and promises we will make, to ourselves and others, about how things will be different. But good intentions are not enough. An estimated two-thirds of dieters gain back the weight they lost, new gym memberships are gathering dust by February, and 70% of organizational change initiatives are not successful. If so many attempts at change fail, what can we do instead to enable change?

One of my favorite frameworks to address change was developed by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, professors with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and described in the Harvard Business Review article, The Real Reason People Won’t Change. This approach is based on the idea of “competing commitments.” This means that while we may state that we are committed to a certain outcome, we instead do things that are contrary to that outcome. I say that I want to go to the gym every day, but instead I sit on the couch and watch TV. I say that I will delegate more of my tasking to free up my time for strategic thinking, but instead I keep my hands in every project under me. Does any of this sound familiar?

Kegan and Lahey are organizational psychologists who say that for an individual, a team, or an organization, efforts to change are fruitless unless we are willing to examine the thinking that locks us into existing behaviors. A coaching client said in our first meeting that her goal was to carve out more time for her professional development. Yet for the first three months we worked together, her immediate tasking always took priority over her professional development. Around this time, she said, “My colleague prioritizes her professional development, and I’m annoyed that she is not as committed as the rest of us are to our work.” It took some further conversation for her to realize that she would not be successful unless she could find a way to reconcile her intention with her beliefs.

So what is the way forward? At the heart of any set of competing commitments are certain assumptions. We may have been holding them for so long that we think of them as fixed and immovable. But assumptions can be examined to see if they are valid or not. And in doing so we start to change our thinking and, in turn, our behaviors.

A different client of mine wanted to improve his confidence in speaking to senior leadership. His colleagues reported that in other settings, he would bring a few slides but referred to them only occasionally, instead maintaining open, engaging conversation with the audience. His extensive expertise and passion for the work would shine through. With senior leadership, it was almost the opposite – he stuck to a slide deck and lots of structure. His expertise and passion were not at all apparent.

He could recognize that in being too scripted, he also was not allowing senior leadership to see his best self. But he also said, “I’m afraid that if I move away from my script, I will not have an answer at hand, and I’ll look incapable.” When he stated this out loud, it allowed him to examine the reality of it, to test his assumptions. He recognized that he was always incredibly prepared. If he was asked a question he couldn’t answer, the audience understood that he would provide the answer later, and it was not a reflection of his intellect, knowledge, or capability. While he still had some trepidation the first time he gave an unstructured presentation to senior leadership, unpacking and challenging his assumption allowed him to move past his fears.

The New Year brings optimism, hope, and excitement for new initiatives. Improve the odds of success for you and your team by identifying competing commitments and uncovering and challenging the assumptions that can keep you stuck.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me. To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

Defining & Achieving “Success”

I had dinner with a good friend who recently received a life-changing medical diagnosis. Thankfully, it is does not threaten or shorten his life, although 20 years ago it may have. So it is serious enough that he does require ongoing medical care, and he must be diligent about self-care to keep his condition stable. Given that I can only see how amazing he has been in absorbing all this change, I was equally amazed when he admitted that he was lamenting his less active lifestyle as he watched his friends compete in “tough mudder” running competitions that he used to do with them. All I could see is how many hurdles he had surmounted in such a short time, and all he could see was how much he wasn’t doing.

It’s easy to find this same attitude manifested all around us, and it makes sense. Anyone who is successful at work has gotten there because of his or her achievements. “High-performers” set and meet high expectations and are known for getting things done. We are acknowledged and rewarded for our visible accomplishments. Is it any surprise that “doing hard things well” is seen as a badge of honor, and that when our performance is not that, we think we have failed? Given that our role at work is to perform and get things done, how do we know when that attitude starts to become counter-productive? Here are some ways to find that boundary.

Clearly define success. I am working with a client who is a perfectionist. He knows he is but doesn’t necessarily see this as an issue because, “I hold everyone to the same high standards that I have for myself.” The problem is not that he has high standards; the problem is that his standards are not clearly defined. His employees have told me that there is no definition of “good enough.” As a result, the team spends a lot of time generating “more” – more statistics, more analytics, more insights – without knowing if or when they are done. In my friend’s case, his definition of “success” may need to be adjusted for new priorities such as maintaining good health. As a leader, it is your job to set clear measures of success for your team, what must be accomplished as well as to what standards.

Determine the way there. Our mindset tends to be that to reach our goals, we need to “do more.” But there are times when “doing more” isn’t necessarily the way to get us toward our goals. When is “be ok with here more” what is needed to move forward? These might be times where, for example:

  • Instead of telling your team what else still needs to be done, you take a moment to express gratitude and thanks for what has been done already. (And, you can do the same thing for yourself).
  • Instead of trying to convince someone you are right to quickly move to a resolution, you take the time to listen and be open to his or her perspectives with curiosity.

To be successful, we need to recognize when pausing is as important as pushing.

Identify your yardstick. We tend to rely on external measures to tell us whether or not we have achieved our goal. This is often necessary – we wouldn’t know the results of most sporting events without looking at the scoreboard, for instance. But there are times when these might not be the best way for us to determine if we’ve achieved our goals. Only looking to external measures can:

  • Mean we don’t feel validated without external feedback
  • Lead us to compare ourselves to others
  • Tie us to measures that might not accurately reflect our goals

Determine who or what you are using to gauge your achievements, and whether these are aligned with the definition of success that is appropriate for you.

Ask yourself if it’s time to change how you define success for you and your team, how you move toward that destination, and how you know you are there. It might be time to make adjustments that better serve you and your team.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me. To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.