Saturday, October 24, 2015

My New Book: Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence

Returning to this blog after a long time, it's a pleasure to share with you that my new book - co-authored with my friend and colleague, Chalmers Brothers - is now available!

"Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence" provides an organizational blueprint and set of proven, actionable practical tools for leaders at all levels for building productive mutually-beneficial relationships - inside and outside their organizations... for shaping healthy workplace culture... for improving real world execution... and driving breakthrough results.

Based on the same powerful foundation as "Language and the Pursuit of Happiness" (2005), this new book draws on conversations with thousands of CEO's and business owners over the past 10 years.  Chalmers and I are confident that you will find this book to be helpful, relevant and valuable in your leadership journey.

In the coming months I also plan to write short posts here, sharing with you key distinctions from this powerful body-of-work, some of the ways you can apply this learning, and how it can serve you in your personal, professional, and organizational life.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Beware of the Assumption of Shared Meaning

A man sees his wife busy in the kitchen and says: "Can I help?".  She says, "Sure, take this bag of potatoes, peel half of them and put 'em in a pot to boil."  The picture above shows what he did.  Now, what happened here? I realize men are likely to have different explanation about this than the women.

Let’s look at some additional statements:
  • You can't ever put too much water on a nuclear reactor 
  • Joe will diet and exercise only if his doctor approves 
  • A woman without her man is nothing 
  • A man without his woman is nothing   
  • I never said you did it
  • Please have your report to me ASAP
  • Clean-up your room nicely
What do all these statements have in common?  I think you’ll quickly see that each of these statements have multiple meanings, and what that meaning is for any particular listener is subject to their way of listening, their own way of interpreting and meaning making.  This is crucial to understand because it’s ones interpretation(s) and meaning making that generates ones emotions and leads to ones actions and the resulting outcomes.

So let’s look further as to what’s going on here.  This happens because when we speak and listen to each other, we assume that we share the same meaning and are operating from the same reality.  More often than not, this is not so.  Thus this is one of the main sources of communication breakdowns (and thus relationship breakdowns). 

What actually happens is that each of us has and continues to build up a “meaning database” based on our interpretations of our past experiences, and this database is activated in our speaking and listening.  And it is this “meaning database” that comprises our reality.  So when we speak, we do so from our own meaning database.  Similarly when we listen, we listen from our own meaning database. 

Furthermore, the meaning of words and gestures is also context specific. Therefore, resulting meaning between the speaker and the listener often is not the same.  As Chalmers Brothers, author of Language and the Pursuit of Happiness says: “He said what he said, she heard what she heard, and they may not be the same”.   Thus it’s no surprise that so many misunderstandings and communication breakdowns occur between people.

So if you have ever found yourself being misunderstood and saying something like “No, no, no, that is not what I meant”, or you yourself having misunderstood another where they said to you “No, no, no that is not what I meant”, there is very good likelihood that you both are operating in different realities and from different meaning databases.

With the above in mind, one of the best ways to ensure everyone is on the same page, a good practice is repeating back to the speaker what you heard and understood and ask if what you understood is what he/she meant.  Checking out your listening by taking such a step will often clear up many misunderstandings and will lead to better and stronger relationships, team work, and outcomes.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Getting Unstuck...New Beginnings...Moving Forward!

I often come across talented individuals who are feeling stuck.  And in spite of best of intentions, desires, and being highly capable they have a very difficult time making transition to the new.  I too have been one of these individuals.  Having myself successfully moved through several major life and career transitions over the years, mostly through trial-and-error, there are many lessons that I have learned along with way.  In this post, I will share with you couple of those key lessons.

So, first, what is it that keeps us from transitioning effectively?

The more I have thought about this, the more I have come to see that one of the key obstacles we face is that we overtime confuse our Doing with our Being and Having.  In other words, who we say we are becomes linked to what we do, to what we have accumulated and accomplished, and to the relationships we have built over the years.

For example, let's say I successfully practiced law.  Overtime as I engaged in this work, I lose sight of the fact that being an attorney was my professional role, it's what I did, but it didn't mean that I had Become an attorney.  Practicing law hadn't become some fixed and permanent property and define who I Am.  Instead, it was simply one of my life's roles.  So if my identify of who I say Am becomes so connected to my "being" an attorney and then if there comes a point when I no longer practice law, this then brings up the question "who am I really"?

What also keeps us stuck are our emotions, as they relate the past and to the future.  In regards to the past, we may be carrying feelings such as resentment, anger, hurt, guilt, shame, and regrets.  In regards to the future, given the unknown, we may be feeling anxiety, worry, fears, and apprehension.  Either way, these emotions also keep us stuck for neither have we come to terms with the past and nor have we embraced the uncertainty that is very much part of living for no one truly knows what the future holds.

So, how do we get unstuck and how do we move forward again to create a new future?

Through my own journey and after much reflection, I have come to see that we have to take two major steps.  One is we must complete with the past.  This includes both honoring the goodness we have experienced as well as taking actions such as forgiving (ourselves and others), seeing, accepting and apologizing for mistakes we have made, and simply accepting what was and what can no longer be and can not be changed.  In other words, we have to complete with and let go of what was.

"Resentment is the poison I drink, hoping you'll die" - Nelson Mandela
"Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past" - Source Unknown

In addition to completing with the past and putting the past in the past, making successful transitions requires us to embrace uncertainty for this is part of life.  Thus in spite of the uncertainty, fears, worries, we must daily muster up our inner strength and show up and take new action for it is only action that moves us forward.  Furthermore, whenever we strive to create something new, we are bound to make mistakes, to fail, and to experience set-backs. Therefore it also important we see these as not personal failures but rather as opportunities to learn, to grow, and to course correct.  These are the stepping stones that lead us to a new future.

Yet we often don't know what we can do, what actions to take.  And even when we do we experience self-doubt and wonder if we can really do it.  In this regards what I have come to see is that we each are Instruments of Possibilities (IPs). By this I mean we are like the computers and what we can do is a function of what we have programmed ourselves to do.  So if we want to create and achieve something new in life, we have to reprogram ourselves--install a new software--and this is very doable, if we allow it.  And for this reprogramming to occur, we have to be first willing to allow removal of the old program and them embrace the new program and the possibilities that are associated with it.  This then sets the stage for the new programming, new beginning, new learning to begin.

In the human sense, we have to be willing to let go of who and what no longer serves us, declare ourselves as beginners again and take steps to enter into new learning for new learning allows us to see new possibilities and to take new action, which is required in order to achieve new results.  In addition, we must step into a new field consisting of new relationships, and invent and participate in new conversations.  By doing so, over time with enough time and practice and rigor, we begin to achieve new results and in the process literally become someone new.  And all this begins with first letting go of what was and fully embracing what is and what can be.

“Perhaps that is where our choice lies -- in determining how we will meet the inevitable end of things, and how we will greet each new beginning.”-- Elana Arnold, Burning

Monday, October 7, 2013

Are You Flying Blind?

Have you ever had an experience similar to this?  It's late in the day and your day has been spent in some very important meetings with some very important people.  Then as the day comes to an end, a close colleague whom you run into points out that you have spinach stuck in your teeth, or your zipper is down, or some other malfunction?  In essence, you were blind to the situation whereas it was clearly visible to others?

If you're like most people, immediately upon hearing this you feel mortified and embarrassed.  You replay in your mind all the people you have met since say lunch and you wonder if they noticed and what they must be thinking of you.  You also wish someone had pointed this out to you earlier so you could have corrected the situation.

Now let's reverse the situation.  Now let's say you're the one who runs into Joe and you see spinach stuck in his teeth, or his zipper undone, or some other malfunction.  And let's pretend this person is your manager or someone with whom you don't work very closely or you don't know very well.  Or say someone of the opposite gender.  In such instances, do you point such mishaps out to the other person?

If you're like many people, you feel uncomfortable, you fidget, and you silently carry on an inner battle wondering if you should tell, or you shouldn't? But in the end, you decide to keep quiet for it's too uncomfortable to give such feedback, even though it would be for the benefit of the other.  Then after you leave, you still for sometime continue to wonder if you should have said something.  On the inside you feel conflicted, wondering what you should have done.  And all along the person caries on oblivious to the impact they are having on others and themselves - classic case of Bull-In-A-Shop.

My experience is that most people find it very uncomfortable to give direct feedback, especially as it relates to our conduct (behavior), even thought it would be for the benefit of both the individual involved and for the organization as a whole.  This is particularly true where higher ups are involved, or someone say who is a highly valued team member given his/her exceptional abilities and contributions to the organization.

Why is this?  Here are 5 most common reasons:
  1. We want to be liked.  Thus we don't like to deliver such news.
  2. We don't want to hurt the person.  We fear that if they don't take the feedback well, they may disengage, or even decide to quite.  And if they did, who then will do the important work that needs to get done?  Along similar lines specially if we perceive the individual to be fragile, we fear that if our feedback is not taken well, they may hurt themselves in some manner.
  3.  We don't want to be hurt by the person.  We fear that if our feedback, no matter how well intentioned, if it is not well received, it may lead to conflict and make it more difficult to work together.  So why take a chance, why rock the boat.
  4. We feel it's not our place to say something.  This is specially so if it involves higher ups, peers, and co-workers.
  5. In the event if we perceive someone as a tough nut and as if they don't listen, or they have a reputation for shooting the messenger, we then say to ourselves "why bother, they won't change anyways".
With this said, if you want honest feedback, one great way to get it is to authentically ask and give permission to others to give you feedback.  If you do that, more people are likely to give you honest feedback, provided you listen to it without getting defensive, and you don't punish the messenger.

The other way, and a more effective way in my experience, is to have a 3rd party who is viewed as objective and neutral gather the feedback on your behalf.  This is because people will often give more candid feedback to a neutral 3rd party rather then directly to the person involved, provided their identities will not be revealed.

Whatever you do, I suggest you actively seek feedback.  For it is much better to know then to fly blind and one day crashing and burning and all the while being left wondering where you went wrong.  As I always say, feedback is a gift, and that it's better to know then not to know. So go ahead, make the ask, and then you'll be flying with your eyes wide open and thus can course correct as it makes sense.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Habits: Absent vs. Present

There are certain habits (behaviors) the absence of which no one notices.  For not having them one does not get any recognition, no rewards, no atta-boys (or atta-girls).  They simply go unnoticed.  On the flip side, presence of these very same habits has quite the opposite effect.  When they exist, nearly everyone notices, and often everyone except the one who is exhibiting those behaviors.  And because they can be difficult to point out and who after all wants to rock-the-boat, people often don't point them out.  Instead, they simply begin to avoid and move away from the person with such habits.

These habits when in excess can and do lead to damaged public identifies, damaged relationships, and reduced effectiveness and success--both at home and at work.  Furthermore, especially at higher levels, they even derail careers and future prospects. This is because the higher one rises, the more behavior matters and it's what often separates the good from the great.

What are some of these habits?

Below in this post I share some of the most common ones that exist in the workplace.  Thankfully though no single person has all or most of these.  At most they may exhibit 1 or 2 or 3.  Even though few in number, they are often enough to cause significant damage.  Thus it's important to understand what they are, to look out for them, and address them if they exist.

Let's take a look at what some of the most common ones are:
  • Not keeping up-to-date on required skills and knowledge
  • Poor personal hygiene and grooming and inappropriate attire
  • Excessive need to be right..always thinking you have the right answer and the only way or the highway approach
  • Poor at managing commitments...letting things fall through the cracks
  • Failing to admit mistakes...making excuses...passing the buck...blaming others...not accepting personal responsibility
  • Making destructive comments...being argumentative....talking harshly and disrespectfully...shutting down discussions...gossiping and spreading rumors
  • Hurrying through conversations...not listening...constantly interrupting cutting the speaker off...taking over conversations
  • Not being open to new ideas and new ways of doing things...focusing only on what's been done before...limiting discussion as a result
  • Withholding information...not communicating or sharing information...keeping others in the dark
  • Not expressing gratitude or giving proper recognition...not sharing and celebrating success with team members
  • Failing to express regrets...failing to say I am sorry and apologizing when needed
  • Taking credit for other people's work...claiming credit that's not deserved
  • Playing favorites...shooting the messenger
  • Emotionally unstable...getting easily upset...being moody...speaking when angry...being unapproachable
  • Micromanaging...over controlling and meddling...getting too much into the weeds
  • Making threatening and condescending remarks...publicly humiliating others...talking down to people...making snippy comments at expense of others in order to try to look good and to try to show how smart you are
  • Being closed to new learning...not being open to feedback and to learning and growing
  • Being overly judgmental...seeing only the negative in others
  • Not seeing multiple perspectives before making important decisions...jumping to conclusions and making dis-empowering assumptions
  • Constantly complaining rather than taking ownership...being overly focused on problems, on what's not right, on why something won't work as opposed to striving to find solutions, on what's right, and on how to make it work...being Mr. Negative...Ms. Debbie Downer
  • Not being available for team members when they need you
  • Putting personal agendas ahead of team and organizational goals
Now that you know what some of the most common ones are, take a honest look in the mirror.  If you are exhibiting any of these behaviors, I urge you to get help sooner then later.  This is because unbeknownst to you, the presence of these habits could be sabotaging your relationships, your career, your effectiveness, and your success -- all the while leaving you wondering why people keep avoiding and leaving you and why you're not getting the results you say you want.  You can break these habits, if you choose to.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Intention vs. Impact

Julie works for a national association and she is an expert in her profession.  Given her extensive in-depth experience and knowledge, she is quick to identify problems before they become problems.  Given her penchant for identifying gaps quickly, whenever any new initiatives are brought up in meetings, she is quick to point out why they won’t work, as planned.  While Julie thinks she is being helpful and preventing future breakdowns, her colleagues think she is being a pessimist, and they feel she constantly throws cold water on their ideas--and as a result they feel its exhausting to work with her.
Mark is a newcomer to a start-up organization that is entrepreneurial, and is staffed with go-getters, many who are much younger to him.  He comes from a very large organization and has significant experience that includes running operations, developing strategy, and business development.  Mark deeply cares about this organization given its mission to help people.  As he observes his colleagues going about their days with little systems and processes in place, he asks them questions about what they are working on and offers his (unsolicited) advice.  Given his passion to serve, Mark thinks he is generously sharing his expertise and experience to help his co-workers succeed and moving the organization forward.  His colleagues think he is checking-up on them and meddling in their business.   Silently they wish he would mind his own business and overtime they begin to resent him.
Rajeev had been a rising star throughout much of his career. He has strong analytical skills, can manage numerous projects at the same time, and is a “make it happen” kind of a guy.  He loves to move fast and get things done.  Whatever needs to be accomplished, he goes after it with determination.  The drive to succeed in him is strong and he does whatever it takes (within moral and ethical bounds of course) to "win the gold".  When he then entered a new company as a manager, where he was hired based on his past successes, after sometime he began feel as if his team members didn’t really seem to like working with him.  In this organization, collaboration was highly valued and Rajeev had come from an organization where the culture was very different.  As a result, his team members would avoid him and they even started to complain to the higher up saying they didn’t like working for him.  Rajeev all along thought he was trying to deliver results and move the team forward, while his team members viewed him as being pushy, aggressive, unfriendly, and abrasive even.
In each of these cases (all real…only names have been changed), Julie, Mark, and Rajeev saw themselves through the lens of their intentions while others saw them through the lens of observed behaviors.  And since colleagues did not have access to intentions, they would judge through observed behaviors and in the process labeled them all as difficult to work with. 
It is also that in each case, while these 3 individuals were all bright, talented, had strong technical and functional competencies, were great at execution, and were experts in their respective professions, the way they were being perceived by their team members, peers, and managers was negatively impacting their careers and their future opportunities.  In one case, the individual was even at the risk of being let go.  And all along all three were blind to how they were being perceived, and they wondered what was keeping them from moving to the next level and why co-workers didn’t seem to like working with them. 
Finally, when they took the courageous step seek help to understand what was getting in their way and took necessary steps to adjust some of their behaviors (how they were doing what they were doing), they each then began to move forward, and new opportunities began to open up for them.  And for this to happen, they had to first be willing to seek out and be open to hearing honest feedback (even though it came as a shock when they first heard it), than accept the feedback, and then do something about it.  Looking back each of them remains thankful for having done so.  Thus lesson here is that recognizing how others view you can help you begin to pave the way towards stronger relationships and greater achievements.  And not doing so can have quite the opposite undesired effect.
So, with the above in mind, do you know how you are being perceived?  Is it possible that one or more of your behaviors could be keeping you stuck, from getting to the next level, from other opportunities?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Their Perception - Your Reality

As a coach, from time to time I conduct interviews to gather 360-Feedback in support of individuals growth and development. In great majority of the cases, this involves individuals who have a very high degree of technical and functional competency and at the same time they are perceived as lets say less developed when it comes to their interpersonal skills.  In other words while they are very good at their work, they are highly productive, and they know their stuff, colleagues find them difficult to work with.  They, often unknowingly, cause great degree of emotional damage to others for they rub their colleagues the wrong way.  They are individuals with whom you prefer not to work with and yet you can't and are even afraid to be without 'em given their expertise and performance.  Left unaddressed, overtime they cause a decrease in morale, overall productivity, and even good people to leave.  One day a time finally comes where the situation becomes just too unbearable and it can no longer be ignored.  That's when I get called in.

Now, most of the time when I deliver the feedback it goes pretty well.  While they may have a few surprises, being the high achievers that they are, they are generally committed to getting better, and therefore they welcome the feedback.  This is because they believe it’s better to know than not to know, for once they know they can then do something about it if they so choose.  It beats being in the blind all the while wondering why you’re not getting some of the results you want.

Sometimes though, I face someone who wants to argue with the feedback. The argument can take many forms from “they don’t understand” to “they are wrong.”  After letting them vent, my response is usually something like this - “You may be right and they may be wrong. But you know what, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because people interact with who they think you are, not with who you think you are. And how others perceive you can and does directly impact what opportunities become available to you, and which ones don’t.  And that in turn directly impacts the quality of your results and your future.”  I’ve yet to have anyone argue with this.  

On a related note, a key point to note here is that to a great degree how you are perceived by others is directly connected to the quality of your conversations that you engage in.  This is because much of organizational work tends to be conversational in nature.  So what you say, how you say it (e.g. tonality, facial expressions, gestures), as well as what you don’t say matters and has a direct impact on your public identity.  

Another observation I have is that high achievers when they receive feedback often want to change everything.  This is not necessary, nor realistically possible.  Instead, whenever you take on the work of becoming a more effective individual, a more effective leader, in regards to changing you usually will want to focus on changing ONLY one behavior, or two at most, that will make the biggest difference.  And at the same time, you also need to focus on changing the perceptions that others have of you.  This is crucial because you work and lead in a system full of people, your overall effectiveness and success depends as much on changing their perception of you as on changing your actual behavior.  

With the above in mind, here are three points to keep in mind as you strive to change:

1.    You have to change some behavior: You can’t change perceptions without changing some behavior. Start with something that’s easy to do and likely to make a significant difference. You’ll be amazed at how much leverage you can get from relatively simple/small changes.  For example, let’s say you are perceived as not listening and as constantly cutting people off.  Then simply keeping your lips shut while others are talking and letting them finish their statements before speaking will make a big difference in how you are perceived.  

2.    You have to help people see the new you: Don’t wait for people to notice the change, at least right away, because they may not.  And even if they do, at first they may be skeptical and wonder what you’re up to and how long the new you will last.  Plus more often than not they are generally too busy and preoccupied with their own stuff.  So you have to “advertise” and let them know that you are trying to change and what you’re working on changing.   And from time to time, you also must ask them how you’re doing in making the change.  This lets them know you are serious about changing and when you slip back to the old you at times, which I guarantee will happen from time to time, they will forgive you and give you the benefit of doubt.  If they give you additional feedback, again as I shared earlier, you simply respond with something like “thank you”, or “tell me more” or “please help me better understand what you just shared”.  But whatever you do, please never ever never get defensive or argue with the feedback.  Finally, when one day when they tell you to stop asking how you’re doing and that you’re doing just fine, this means you have been successful in changing their perceptions of your behavior.

3.    You must be patient: Don’t expect people’s perceptions of you to change overnight. Particularly if they have known you for a long time.  It takes people awhile to see you in a new light as change in perception almost always lags actual change in behavior.  So keep at it and be patient.  At minimum give it several months.