As I sat across from the company president in a beautiful conference room the light reflected off of the marble boardroom table. I was there to tell him that things were not well in his company. I had been hired to “take the pulse” of the employees by conducting focus groups. It turns out the fissures in the employee base were deeper than any of us had guessed. He peered at me as he sipped a cup of coffee and picked apart a blueberry muffin. “I’m hoping it’s not all bad,” he stated. I could see the worry etched on his face, after all, this company was his pride and joy – something he had created and nurtured from the ground up. People in the company knew the stories well of how he went without, fighting to make payroll and keep the lights on, sacrificing his personal life, and fending off competitors along the way. He was now the leader of a multi-million-dollar business that somehow seemed to keep stumbling over its own success.

Over the next two hours, we went over all of the feedback – both positives and negatives. Themes that seemed consistent and not just “one-off” accounts. Eventually, we got to some hot button issues. I say hot button because when I relayed some of the feedback, I became angry at his reaction. As many of you know, if you have some righteous anger or indignation about an issue, it is probably because whatever is happening in the room is stepping on your own value system. Initially, I assumed he would be mortified by what he heard from his employees. “There isn’t air conditioning in some of the warehouses.” Silence. “The workers actually have to step outside to get some air so they don’t pass out and then go back into work.” Silence. “It is limiting productivity, not to mention the morale of the staff.” A cold stare. “Did you know about this?” I asked. He replied, “When I was coming up through the ranks in this industry, I endured those same conditions, why should they be any different?”  Wow.  The I-walked-five-miles-through-the-snow argument.

Power is a fundamental force in life, something infants can recognize as early as 10-months old.  For as long as people have formed groups, human relationships have been structured by hierarchy, dominance, status, and control.  Power permeates all aspects of our social interactions with friends, loved ones, family members, and co-workers.  Indeed many of the problems we struggle with within the workplace – the issues that make work-life arduous and painful, whether you are a CEO or an entry-level employee – are problems related to power.  Honestly, in my humble opinion, the success of every endeavor depends on how leaders use their power, and whether they can effectively utilize the authority of their roles.

A Word of Caution
If power were being marketed by a pharmaceutical company it would have some serious side effects listed. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can make you forget where you came from. Many of you may have known people afflicted with power like this over the course of your career.  People that worked their way up through the ranks, only to end up seemingly cold and out of touch with the realities of the real challenges frontline employees experience.  But can power alter the brain’s neural pathways over time and, if so, is there anything that we can do about it? The historian Henry Adams metaphorically described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies”. Recent research may actually back up that quote.

In a study conducted by UC Berkeley, it was found that individuals in positions of power (participants in studies spanning two decades) acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury – becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. The research also found that powerful people performed worse when trying to identify what someone was feeling or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark.

One of the most troubling parts of the study found that leaders in power, over time, had stopped mimicking others. In the world of psychology, we call that “mirroring”. Keep in mind that mirroring happens in our brain and, for the most part, without our awareness.  For the non-powerful participants, mirroring worked fine. The neural pathways they would use fired strongly. What about the more powerful groups? Less so. Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized. Power, the research shows, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. As far as work goes, this might help with efficiency, but it has a detrimental effect on being able to pick up social cues.  Laughing when others laugh or grimacing when others grimace helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into what they are feeling.  When leaders lose the ability to mirror, they lose important data that allows them to connect with others.  This is the “power paradox”.   It seems that once some of us have power, we lose much of the emotional intelligence we utilized to be in that leadership position in the first place.

Staying Humble
The thing is, there is a certain amount of hubris (lack of humility) that typically comes with power.  “Hubris syndrome,” as defined in a recently published article, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.”  Many are guilty of this…even the great leaders.  Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, held him accountable for his hubris and had the courage to write, “My Darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed deterioration in your manner.  You are not as kind as you used to be.” Written on the day Hitler entered Paris, torn up, then sent anyway, the letter was not a complaint but an alert: Someone had confided to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas will be forthcoming.” So it really does afflict the best of us and is definitely a cautionary tale.

Now, I have told you one of the big potential pitfalls that come with leadership. So how do we avoid the possibility of these changes that come with power?  The answer is simple.  Stay grounded.  Have people who tether you to reality and challenge your thinking.  Monitor your mood. Stay connected to the real work your people do day in and day out.  Stay out of the ivory tower.  Surround yourself with “no” people.  Constantly get feedback on how you are showing up.  Take failures personally. And, most importantly, don’t lose touch with the WHY of what you do every day.  As one of my favorite coaching clients once asked, “Don’t our people deserve great leaders?”

  • “I just want to go to one meeting and not have to talk about Covid…it’s overwhelming.” – Physician
  • “I’ve been never worked so hard and have so little to show for it.” – Consultant
  • “I am spending the majority of my day trying to track who is or is not at work and who is or is not sick.” – HR Professional
  • “Before COVID I would get home around 6 and be able to enjoy my family.  Now I am not traveling and working alone in my home office until 9:00 at night…it’s exhausting.”  – Sales Professional
  • “I’m quitting – I have had to tell over 100 families their loved ones passed away.” – Nurse

These are all statements made to me just in the last week.  We are all feeling it!  The last nine months have definitely been challenging for each and every one of us. Here at Steople what we have witnessed with our clients has been work from home orders, downsizing, compassion fatigue (especially in healthcare), agonizing decisions, and working much longer hours.  But on the other side of this difficult time in history, there are many lessons!  Across the board, I feel we have all learned to adapt in the moment, become more creative in our problem solving, and gotten very comfortable with ambiguity.  But how can we put all of this to work for us in 2021?

Post-COVID Review
Many of you probably already utilize post-project reviews on your own team.  Why not implement something similar at this time of year…a post-pandemic review for 2020 (realizing it is far from over)?  Being able to look back and discuss as a team what could have gone better might be time well-spent.  Here are some helpful tips to facilitate the conversation:

  • Ask for openness – Emphasize the importance of being open and honest in your assessment, and make sure that people aren’t in any way punished for being open.
  • Be objective – Describe what has happened in objective terms, and then focus on improvements.
  • Document success – Document practices and procedures that led to successes, and make recommendations for applying them to future issues.
  • Look with hindsight – Pay attention to the “unknowns” (now known!) that may have increased implementation risks. Develop a way of looking out for these for future difficult events.
  • Be future-focused – Remember, the purpose is to focus on the future, not to assign blame for what happened in the past. This is not the time to focus on any one person or team.
  • Look at both positives and negatives – Identify positive as well as negative lessons.

Today I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the top “silver lining” leadership lessons that I have learned that will stay with me for years to come. As I document these I am going to get a little help from some of our most respected leadership thought leaders.

Give Grace to Others
A client is late to a Zoom meeting, the restaurant didn’t get your lunch order right, a direct report missed an important detail in a presentation, and your 16-year-old forgot to set his morning alarm.  Hmmm…in these situations it is tough to hold the assumption of positive intent.  Brené Brown writes that asking leaders to assume others are doing the best they can move them from “pushing and grinding on the same issues” to the more difficult task of:

  • teaching their team,
  • reassessing their skill gaps,
  • reassigning them,
  • or letting them go.

“It’s a commitment to stop respecting and evaluating people based solely on what we think they should accomplish, and start respecting them for who they are, and holding them accountable for what they’re actually doing,” she says.

Find Joy in Missing Out
The pandemic has forced us to curb so many of our regular activities.  I’ve always said Mother Nature sometimes can stop us dead in our tracks and clear our calendars. Nothing could be truer in the past several months.  We must establish a new mindset.  One key strategy Adam Grant advocates are practicing gratitude. “I know many people are feeling FOMO, the fear of missing out, right now on all the things that could be happening in their lives,” Grant says. “But there’s also such a thing as JOMO: the joy of missing out.”  His gratitude list, for example, includes wearing sweatpants to work, skipping his commute, and having fewer awkward interactions with strangers.  Mine include having quiet time to work on much-needed projects, focusing on healthy eating habits, and more time with my 16-year-old son.

Realize The Importance of Human Contact
One of the most difficult parts of 2020 for those of us who are “high touch” people have been no handshakes, hugs, or expressions due to being behind a mask.  Paul Zak, the author of The Moral Molecule, argues, “We touch to initiate and sustain cooperation.” He conducted a “neuroeconomics” study from which he argues that hugs or handshakes are likely to cause the release of the neurochemical oxytocin, which increases the chances that a person will treat you “like family,” even if you just met.  He states there are even economic benefits to physical touch, probably because “touch signals safety and trust; it soothes.” Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response.” NBA teams whose players touch each other more, for example, win more games.

Understand Ambiguity is Here to Stay
Looking at an organizational chart, you will see boxes and lines. Boxes are what the individual job is and the lines are the reporting relations. Although most of a leader’s work might fall within their job description, the meaningful activities that will advance an organization never truly fall into any specific “box,” but surf in between them in the white space.  My observations of the past few months are very clear. The leaders who had the most comfort with the ambiguity of the white space and were able to bring a team of teams to work together as one have been able to achieve a tremendous and impactful amount of work in ways that heavily exceeded normal productivity – especially in the midst of chaos.

To emphasize this point, in his new book, Simon Sinek advocates that as leaders get beyond the normal day-to-day elasticity that running a business demands, playing the “infinite game” requires existential flexibility. What exactly is existential flexibility?  Simon Sinek describes it as, “The capacity to initiate an extreme disruption to a business model or strategic course in order to more effectively advance a Just Cause.” In other words, it’s a big-time offensive maneuver and not to be confused with the defensive adjustments companies make when facing changing client needs or market conditions.

Double Down on Discipline
When the pandemic kicked in mid-March I began to research what companies not only survived, but thrived during the economic downturn of 2007/2008. In a previous blog, I mentioned that one of the strategies they utilized was being disciplined and consistent.  In “Great by Choice,” Jim Collins recounts several stories of outrageous behavior by former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, including resolving a trade slogan dispute with another company by arm wrestling the firm’s CEO in an arena in front of hundreds of employees. He did this not for the sake of weirdness, but because by “behaving with outlandish consistency,” he was animating a culture designed to be high-spirited and fun-loving. His point was that ultra-successful CEOs exhibited a fanatical level of self-discipline, doing “whatever it takes to create a great outcome, no matter how difficult.”

So before you start to disperse for your holiday celebrations, sit down with your team and pose these three questions to them documenting as you go:

Reflecting back on how our team performed in 2020…

  • What do we need to start doing?
  • What do we need to keep doing?
  • What do we need to stop doing?

My guess is you will find some “golden nugget” responses that you will be able to leverage as we roll into 2021.  Have a great rest of the week and finish this crazy, unpredictable year strong!

Every year our team attends an annual conference joined by our friends and colleagues from across the country and even around the world!  This year the conference was in Philadelphia and we got to do some awesome activities like running up the Rocky steps, seeing the Liberty Bell, and having a Philly Cheese steak at Pat’s.  However, the real reason we are there is to learn about the gold-standard practices in our field and the scientific research that backs up the work we are doing.   There was some amazing speakers and I thought I would share just a few of the many gems of wisdom that might be relevant to your own daily leadership practice.

 

Embedding a Culture of Innovation

The former Vice President of Innovation & Creativity at The Walt Disney Company, Duncan Wardle spent his 25-year career at Disney developing some of their most innovative ideas and strategies. Ideas that would forever change the way the company expands its impact, trains its employees, and solves problems creatively.  Duncan Wardle and his team were tasked with leading the creative process for Lucas Films, Pixar, Marvel, Disney Imagineering, Disney Parks and ESPN. He currently serves as CEO of id8, a top innovation consulting firm.

The ability to think creatively is the one core human truth that will remain relevant in the coming era of 5G and artificial intelligence. Duncan believes everyone has the power to be creative. Even though the world may be doing its best to inhibit our creative expression, our childhood creativity does not dissipate — it just lies dormant, waiting to be brought back to life.  So how can you encourage creativity on your team?

  • Our imaginations start to be hindered around age 6.  Having an energizer in meetings to get people to switch to the creative side of their brain can pay dividends to innovation.
  • No idea is bad, it’s just bad timing.  Have a way that you can document ideas that come up in discussions so they don’t get lost.
  • Children automatically think expansively, and adults automatically think in a reductionist way.  We automatically shoot things down.  Find a way to open your mind up and ask questions instead of automatically saying “Yeah, but…”
  • Some of the brightest artists and thought leaders get their best ideas when they sleep.  As soon as you wake up jot down what you dreamed about and any solutions that came to you overnight.
  • The biggest barrier to creativity is being too busy.  Take one day a month that is unscheduled and you will be shocked at how many amazing ideas and possible  strategic initiatives you can come up with.

 

 

Psychological Safety on Teams

Eduardo Salas, Ph.D. is one of the world’s leading experts in the use of simulation training and optimizing learning and development on teams.  He has studied these areas extensively in a variety of fields, including aviation, health care, and during a 15-year stint in the US Navy.

How can we begin to “crack the code” on building high performing teams?  Having an understanding from Eduardo, who has studied some of the best teams on the planet, was enlightening.  Turns out one of the most important factors in creating effective teams is establishing a sense of psychological safety.

Psychological Safety is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for asking for feedback, asking questions, requesting help, and speaking up.” You can promote this on your team by admitting mistakes, remaining open to dissenting views, not tolerating a teammate saying disparaging things about other teammates and creating time for good ideological debate.

The question to ask yourself about your team is simple…in what ways are we boosting psychological safety and in what ways are we draining it?

 

 

Fascinating Entrepreneurial Traits

Rodney Lowman, PhD, is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the CSPP/Organizational Psychology, Alliant International U., San Diego and President of Lowman & Richardson/Consulting Psychologists. He does research in career choice and change, professional ethics, and occupational mental health.

One of my favorite presenters at this conference and one I have come to rely on for his counsel, Rodney, is a wealth of research and statistics. During his presentation I learned a few things about the personality of an entrepreneur.  We know entrepreneurs are creative in nature, but they not all cut from same cloth!  There are, however, certain things we know about them that are well-grounded in research.

  • They usually don’t like being managed.
  • They are very risk-tolerant and don’t fear failure.
  • They have an uncanny ability of pattern recognition – they see things that other people miss and before other people figure it out.
  • In order to have the ability to execute an idea they may need to partner up with experts.
  • Many entrepreneurial companies outgrow the founder due to either the founder’s inability to lead effectively or the organization needing to establish stability and reduce risk.

The questions to ask yourself as an entrepreneur, is are you leveraging your ability at pattern recognition?  Are you collaborating enough with experts to ensure you are executing on your ideas?  Are you the best person to lead the team?

 

As always, growth is at the core of what we are about.  What opportunities are you taking to continue to build your leadership IQ?  I encourage you to to invest in yourself and continue to build those leadership capabilities as you work towards becoming the leader you were meant to be.