Archive for November, 2011

Just One Word: The Secret to Employee Engagement

Recently my husband and I visited our local CSA farm for the last time this season.  Several people were there, some picking up turkeys, others picking up the final batch of beets, turnips and greens.  One after another we all said the same thing.


Later that same day I received an email from one of my clients, a woman I’ve been coaching for the past few months and who recently made a significant breakthrough in her relationships with those around her.  Her message started off with that same word.


It’s such a simple word, taking so little breath to deliver. And of all the words that leaders extol, it’s the one that can quickly and authentically engage an employee and raise in them a sense of well-being.  The word is powerful beyond its single syllable, its six letters.

Psychologists tell us that, by focusing on the positivity that is occurring around us we can build up, within ourselves, an enrichment of repeated positive outlook and response. The same works for our employees and our clients. By focusing on their strengths, what they are doing “right”, our leadership presence is reinforced and our employees seek out ways to build on those strengths. It’s a two-way win.

G.K. Chesterton, the famous writer, philosopher and apologist, had this to say about thanking others: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”  As we take the time to celebrate with our family and friends during this season of gratitude, let’s find ways to show our gratitude to our employees, team members and clients. Acknowledge their strengths, their value, and the ways in which their contributions provide you the opportunity to grow as a leader.

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Get Down Off That Ladder!

We live in uncertain times. The economy remains anemic and jobs are hard to come by, and for those of us who do have jobs, we worry if they’ll last, or if we’ll be stressed to the breaking point as we’re asked to do more with less.  In many cases we have little knowledge of what the future may hold, leading to a level of personal uncertainty that we’re unused to, and that remains very uncomfortable.

But we’ve experienced uncertainty before, in other times and in other ways. I’ll bet if each of us were to reflect on our lives and careers we could easily pinpoint several times when we felt this way, when something in our lives shifted us to an uncertain place. That uncertainty often leads us to question the motives of others or to make assumptions about what might happen—even when we lack the facts to support those assumptions.  If, during those uncertain or out-of-control moments, we attach ourselves to what might happen rather than what is happening, then we’re way too high on the ladder.

That “ladder” is The Ladder of Inference, a model developed by Chris Argyris and presented by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline.

The model is one of the most powerful tools in my practice. Its core principle teaches that, when we get attached to a belief, make unsubstantiated assumptions, draw conclusions about someone or something and then take action based on those assumptions, we reinforce a false belief system within ourselves. That belief system then becomes the lens through which we see the world around us, where we falsely substantiate our blurred vision of reality. These “high on the ladder” meanderings affect our relationships, our emotions and our ability to see things as they really are. Instead, we use these assumptions to build ourselves a story that, at best, is untrue and, at worst, is harmful.

So what can we do when we find ourselves high on the ladder?  How do we take those first steps toward grounding ourselves?

First, ask yourself if there’s another way of looking at the situation, another perspective. Give yourself a few, calming minutes to see what’s really there, the real evidence of what is before your eyes.

Secondly, try to verify what you do and don’t know.  Have you come to an unfounded conclusion? Take a deep breath and go talk with your manager. Ask for feedback; ask for an explanation. Continue to build upon the relationships that help to create and deepen trust.

And finally, ask yourself if this is a time for action. Actions carry consequences, and if you’re high on the ladder, those consequences are likely not to be what you intend.

Ladders can be precarious, and the higher you climb the greater the risk of falling. Just one misstep can lead to long-lasting bruises. Perhaps gingerly stepping back down and taking a walk on solid ground will provide a different outlook, a different outcome.

I would love to hear situations when others have been “high on the ladder.”  Please share in our comments section.

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Some Thoughts on Teams and Their Rites of Passage

I read obituaries.

I’m assuming that half of you are appalled and the other half are nodding your heads in knowing collusion.  It turns out that reading obituaries isn’t that unusual.  Marion Roach Smith, in her small and priceless book, The Memoir Project, admits to doing the same thing and she doesn’t seem particularly weird to me! And I suspect that those of you who share my guilty pleasure aren’t all that strange, either.

In fairness, I also read the wedding announcements. Sipping my coffee and slowly spooning a bowl of Irish oatmeal on any given Sunday morning, I pour over these rites of passage in the Sunday New York Times.  I imagine first how a particular couple met, perhaps broke up briefly, then wrote letters and exchanged phone calls until they eventually came together and began a new life’s journey filled with newness, expectation and possibility.  The obituaries, in contrast, often describe a life of marvel, contribution and grace, a life that, for all intents and purposes, will be remembered by few, but in that simple commitment of ink presents us with a gift of life as story and compass. I come away from reading those columns both hopeful and humbled.

The wedding–obituary continuum made me think of how teams could benefit greatly if they gave themselves the opportunity to experience and understand their own rites of passage, an intentional depiction of a team’s life, its lessons and learnings.  As I thought about it, I came up with three ideas that teams might find useful as they go through their lives:

1-Respect the beginning:   Relationships take time and are the foundation of getting real work done. Make that time. Let the team members learn about each other, allowing trust to become the platform for working through differences and conflicts. Allow them to share their stories, learn from each other and fully wed themselves to the team’s success.

2-Respect the marriage:  As often as I hear my clients complain about being “meeting’d to death,” I also hear how valuable it is to come back together for the purpose of the team members reminding each other of their purpose, the reason they formed in the first place. Just as a wedding is not the last time the couple has to be intentional about their purpose, the team start-up should not be a “one and done” gathering. Maintaining relationships takes work.

3-Respect the end:  When a team has fulfilled its purpose and reached its end, give the team the opportunity to “write their obituary.” Make it a time of celebration and reflection. By doing so the team establishes its legacy – small gems of understanding that can be bequeathed to another team, one that then begins its own cycle of rites.

These rites of passage create narrative, a story of the team and its purpose, its successes and struggles and, ultimately, the relationships of which such stories are made.  And out of such relationships, such stories, come strengths and partnerships that will benefit everyone throughout their careers.

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