Forget Your Org Change; Start with Self Change

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When I first grabbed onto the reins of the change juggernaut at NBC News, I was preoccupied with everyone else: Were people willing to change the way they worked to embrace the internet age? How could I motivate (or force) them to join new technology initiatives? Who was with me and who was against me?

As I settled into the job, I realized this outward focus was actually not the most effective way to spark organizational change. As in so many other realms of life, effective change starts from within.

If I was to have any hope of changing others, I had to change myself first.

You’re Probably Going to Fail at Changing Others

Most organizational transformation efforts are doomed. A recent study by McKinsey found that 60 percent of executives felt their transformation initiatives had failed. A Harvard study put the number at 70 percent.

That’s not surprising. Nor is it surprising that organizations reflect their leaders. So when a change-resistant organization meets a change resistant leader, it’s pretty clear the odds for successful transformation are low.

In my case, it was clear the organization had little appetite for change — after all, we had been the dominant broadcaster for generations and the idea of a global broadcaster being upended by YouTube was unimaginable. What was less apparent (to me at least) was how resistant to change I was.

Change Agent, Heal Thyself

Yup. First off, I was dead certain that I was right about the need for change at NBC. After all, that was my job. More elementally, I also was unwilling to question my approach, viewing negative feedback as carping from those resisting the inevitable. I was rigid, righteous, and unwilling to compromise — a perfect mirror of the organization I was trying to transform.

Once I realized my stragglers-will-be-shot approach wasn’t working, I got curious and changed up my game. Instead of pointing my finger at all those traditionalists who were resisting transformation, I began pointing it at myself, refocusing attention on my resistance, my fears and exactly what I was unwilling to risk.

Four Ways Self-Change Wins

There were some big advantages to this:

  1. I learned faster. I was able to integrate feedback and act on it with less internal resistance once I started to notice my real resistance.
  2. I gained a deeper understanding of what was really keeping my colleagues from changing. I became more empathetic once I could see my own fear in the face of challenge, my own unquestioned beliefs and prejudices.
  3. I developed a better “sixth sense” for leadership by tuning into my own aversions, fears and doubts more quickly and using them as a cue that others might be feeling the same. Then, I could change course in response instead of plowing blindly ahead.
  4. I was able to model the relationship to change that I wanted others to have. I could show up more authentically, letting people see how despite getting triggered by the challenges of change, I could reconsider and bounce back to create an effective alliance with challenge and move forward.

My most effective step leading organizational change was to look inside and use myself as my first laboratory for transformation.

This is how Ghandi’s admonition to “be the change that you wish to see in the world” is actually good business sense.

Want to know more? Here’s a great article from the Harvard Business Review with some more thoughts on the subject of how personal change comes before organizational change.

Photo: Gerry Thomasen, Flickr

F*ck Work/Life Balance; Try Creative Flow Instead

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Progressive organizations today talk a lot about work/life balance — the idea that employees should spend a certain amount of time focused on work and a certain amount of time focused on the rest of their lives (family, personal health, leisure pursuits, etc.). And while this is a huge step forward from the “work is your life” ethos of the past centuries (which a shocking number of organizations still adhere to), it misses the point.

First, work/life balance implies that we are in a zero-sum game: that work time and the rest of life exist in opposition and that time spent in one area degrades the other. That we need time away from work to recover from it (if this is your reality, there’s a more elemental discussion to have about your job).

Work Is Life

My experience is that work is essential to human life, and not just because it sustains us with money and food. Work is how humans express themselves; it is literally how we create something bigger than ourselves. It is how we take ideas and bring them to life.

Second, work/life balance often is seen as dividing up the day into inviolable sectors and one should never intrude on the other. In this view, the key to happiness is getting the balance of the sectors right: eight hours a day to work, eight hours to sleep, four to family, one to exercise, two to eating, one to general leisure — as if a healthy life is just an elaborate scheduling exercise.

It’s All About Creative Flow

The reality for most people is that these spheres of existence intermingle and are not always under our control. Inspiration hits us in the shower; a friend wants to connect in the hallway at work; our kids want attention when they get home from school (or not).

So instead of work/life balance, truly innovative organizations and leaders think about creative flow. Instead of neatly delineated sectors of the day, these conscious leaders think in terms of rhythms and waves, the peaks and valleys of thought and energy that support our work and the rest of our existence.

These leaders know that it’s not the quantity of work that counts for most skilled workers; it’s the quality of the work. Rather than try to answer every email that crosses their computers as quickly as possible (a prevalent measure of effectiveness today), effective leaders focus on creating time for doing their best thinking. Which creates more value: promptly answered emails or an innovative solution to some long-standing problem?

Creativity Is Not a 9-5 Job

Those valuable ideas and insights generally don’t come while we’re sitting at our desks 9-5. I always got my best ideas away from work: on the ski lift, running that 7th mile, or reading that book at the beach.

Similarly, we can’t always schedule when our 8th grader wants to have that discussion about peer pressure or romance. We can’t always calendar quality time to really connect with our spouse. And fun doesn’t happen on demand.

How to Create More Flow

If we’re focused on enhancing our creativity throughout our day instead of carving up our day into activity sectors, things begin to look much different than they do for work/life balancers. The number-one question conscious leaders ask themselves is: “What practices support me and the people around me to be as energized and creative as possible as often as possible?”

Some common answers:

  • Set aside time for work on my most important projects early in the day and don’t respond to email during that time
  • Get up and move at least once every hour
  • Pay attention to when I have a “No” to something
  • Pay attention to what my body is telling me about any decision (do I feel relaxed or tense about the possibilities; where do I feel pain; is my gut churning; do I have a hunch about this; etc.)
  • Start meetings with a moment of appreciation and personal connection
  • Pay attention to when I am most energetic during the day and schedule my work accordingly
  • Keep a notebook by the bed to jot down those midnight inspirations and insights
  • Set aside time to check email at home because I’m curious, not because I’m afraid of missing something

All of these moves are aimed at increasing creative energy. The result is a day that looks more like a wave with peaks and valleys devoted to work and life intermixed with each other. Each benefits from and supports high achievement in the other.

So, what can you do to support your maximum creative flow right now?

BTW, a great book for creating practices to increase your energy and creativity is “The Power of Full Engagement,” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. Here’s a good summary of its key points.

Photo Credit: Radhanath Swami

Avoiding the Trap of Excellence

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I was one of the best in my business.

My business was covering breaking news for the NBC network, and I did it better than almost anyone: the 9/11 attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, mass shootings, natural disasters. I loved my work and was well rewarded and respected for it.

And then I gave all that up to do what I was really good at.

You see, I was excellent at covering breaking news. But I’m a genius at creating new possibilities for people as a corporate coach. Once I learned the difference between excellence and genius my life got easier, I had more fun, and I started accomplishing important things with less effort.

For me – and for many of the executives I work with – excellence is a trap that not only costs us dearly every day, but blinds us to what we’re really here to do with our lives.

What Excellence Looks Like

As a breaking news producer, I was doing important work, getting lots done, and literally saving the day for my company. I was lauded with big awards, showered with praise and a big salary, and felt important in my prestigious job at 30 Rock.

And it was extremely costly.

After a typical day meeting deadline (and often those days were 24-hour days), I would be so shattered from the frenetic tension that all I could do was ask someone to lead me to the bar, get me a double and put me in a black car home, where I’d have another double and sit alone in the living room until I could face my family.

My health, my family, and my friendships all paid a price for my success.

And that’s how I knew I wasn’t doing my best work.

What Genius Looks Like

You see, excellence can accomplish great things and earn you great rewards, but it’s costly. It’s work — you know you’re pushing to get your wins. But the wins are undeniable, and that’s why excellence is such a trap.

When I thought about changing my game and doing something else that wasn’t as costly (something my wife had pushed for year after year, to the point of threatening divorce), I felt a panic because I couldn’t conceive of another way to make a living. And then I felt hopeless, that I would be in this endless race forever.

But I did find another way, and it’s called genius.

Our genius is that thing we do well and find meaning in and yet it’s not costly. It’s that state of flow athletes know so well: we are accomplishing a lot and yet it doesn’t seem like work; time flies and we feel energized instead of depleted.

For many people it’s not so much a specific skill that is their genius as it is a more general approach to life, an underlying ability that they bring to many areas.

For me, genius is creating possibilities. Once I looked back across my life and saw how I’d been creating startups since I was a teenager, or how colleagues sought me out to get ideas for clearing some professional hurdle, or how young people looking to advance in their careers would thank me for helping see new avenues for growth — then I could see a pattern of creating value without suffering for it.

How to Escape Your Trap of Excellence

Sounds good, you say, but how can I move from my successful-but-costly life of excellence to one built around genius?

Here’s what I did:

First, inventory the costs of business as usual:

Write this stuff down so it’s there on paper, undeniable:

  1. Your health: Are you over/under weight, out of shape, sleep-deprived, etc.? How often are you sick? Do you feel as energetic as you want to be?
  2. Your relationships: How would you rate your marriage or intimate relationship on a 1-10 scale? Do you hear recurring complaints from your friends and family? How close are you to your kids? Do you have all the close friends you want?
  3. Your mind: Is your head full of thoughts all the time, things that must be done now? Can you fully enjoy what you’re doing at any one moment, or are you preoccupied and drifting? Can you focus or do you multi-task to the point of distraction? Do you have insightful breakthroughs, or do you feel like you’re just going in circles? Are you calm or peevish? Angry or forgiving?
  4. Your spirit: Do you feel fulfilled? Does your work seem meaningful? How much do you do because you want to do it versus feeling you have no choice but to do it? Do you feel connected to something bigger than yourself and your occupation?

Give each of these indicator areas (and any others you can think of that are meaningful) a 1-10 rating with 1 being poor and 10 being super. Then take a look — if you’re mostly in the 7 or below territory you’re probably living a costly existence despite the success you’re having.

(For more on this, the book “The Power of Full Engagement” contains some excellent lifestyle inventory tools.)

Next, consider flow. Think about the times in your life when you’ve accomplished meaningful things and yet it seemed easy. Perhaps it was leading your friends on a hiking trip, or helping your mother make dinner, or mentoring younger colleagues. Pick things that were meaningful to you regardless of whether they got you recognition from others.

Make a list of 5-10 of these “best stuff” moments and look for common threads. It’s those commonalities across diverse accomplishments that point to your genius qualities.

Your Choice Point

Now you have a choice. It’s not a black-and-white, either/or choice. You don’t have to abandon your work in excellence.

Instead, think about what it would take for you to spend an extra hour each week living in your zone of genius. After all, this is when you’re at your most creative and productive — think what another hour of you at your very best would do for you and those around you.

PHOTO: Minnesota Historical Society

If You Want Change, Start by Telling Yourself the Truth

three card monty

George’s business is faltering — not bringing in new clients, losing some key employees, receivables climbing and no new orders coming in. He’s worried about the trends and wants badly to turn things around.

George even knows that he’s a big part of the problem and has a long list of behaviors he wants to change.

And yet, nothing changes.

Stop Fooling Yourself

Nothing changes because what George says he wants and what he actually does are two different things. Sounds obvious, and yet this mismatch between desire and action is the top reason most of us don’t get what we want. We are fooling ourselves into failure.

“I’m doing all this dangerous behavior versus confronting the reality I need to face,” George said recently.

Like George, we all say we want change: a raise, to weigh 10 pounds less, a more challenging work assignment, a new job — the list goes on and on.

And yet… precious little change actually happens, either for George or the rest of us. Consider this: in 2012 there were 108 million Americans who said they were dieting and they spent $20 billion trying to do it. Yet that same year, more than two-thirds of Americans were overweight or obese — a record high (and the number has since risen).

Think about all the frustrating things you want to change, the roadblocks you encounter, the procrastination you create — all the ways you don’t do what you say you want to do.

Seems kinda crazy, doesn’t it?

Yeah, it is. It’s crazy that we say we want one thing and yet we do everything except that.

Talk is Cheap

Wanna try something different? Stop focusing on what you say you want.

Instead, focus on your results.

So if we say we want to lose weight, and the reality is that after six months of dieting we still weigh exactly the same, our actual commitment is to stay at that weight. If we say we want a better job and yet we’ve only sent out a few half-hearted job applications, the reality is that we are committed to staying at the same old job.

If you really want change, the first step is to stop kidding yourself that what you say you want is what you’re really committed to. Instead, look at your results and see your true commitments.

Here’s a good short video on the concept from my colleagues at the Conscious Leadership Group.

Accept Your Real Commitments

I pointed George to that video and then told him to try just accepting the fact that right now he’s committed to not improving his business. There could be tons of reasons: his desire to stay home with his kids, his fear of failure, his story that he’d actually rather be doing the coding than running the whole show.

Right now, none of that matters. What matters is facing the reality and then gently accepting his true commitments without self-judgment or criticism.

Being able to look in the mirror and own reality is the essential first step to changing it.

 

Photo: WikiMedia

3 Totally Non-Technological Secrets to Tech Success

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Technology has become so powerful that it’s tempting to think it can solve all our problems. Faced with increased competition and a disruptive economy, many businesses throw a big dose of tech at their problems and consider them solved. Yet in my experience, the essential first step in any tech initiative has nothing to do with technology.

Consider these little-known facts: One study found IT success is a 50-50 proposition at best. Another asserted 68% of technology projects are likely to flop.

I’ve lived (barely) through many tech initiatives, and I learned the hard way that the essential first step to tech success is cheaper, more fun and decidedly non-techie: your workplace culture.

Is Your Culture Change-Friendly?

Take the television broadcaster I worked with to create a digital video library. The project had super-smart staff, cutting-edge technology, and buy-in from the highest levels. It failed spectacularly.

It failed for three primary reasons:

  1. No curiosity about new ways to do things: Very few front-line managers saw a problem that needed fixing. Their process was basically unchanged from the days of film, but with smart people and lots of effort, it still worked.
  2. A lack of openness to new ideas: The new system was radically different and required a new way of working — and there was lots of scary new stuff to learn.
  3. Fear: There was widespread fear that the system would not work, or that if it did, it would put people out of jobs.

There were plenty of other reasons, of course, but a culture that had stymied innovation for years permeated the company, and no one involved in our digital initiative took that into consideration. Instead, we focused on tweaking the technology to make it more palatable to users.

We missed the boat completely.

Look at Your Human Operating System

If you want to change the world with technology (or at least your little corner of it), check your culture first:

  1. Is your organization open to new ideas and people? A good start to creating this is dropping the “Yes, buts” from your speech. Instead of instantly arguing for why something won’t work, welcome it with “Yes, and,” thereby starting a conversation about possibilities instead of limitations.
  2. Are your people curious or defensive when presented with new things? Rewarding curiosity by placing lots of small bets, pilot projects, and individual initiatives — even if they lead to dead ends — exercises a vital corporate muscle.
  3. Do you recognize emotions on the job, and do you acknowledge and respect them? (This is also known as emotional intelligence.) Start with yourself: pay attention to what emotions come up during your day and call them out, silently to yourself at first and then out loud, sending the signal to everyone that it’s OK to have feelings on the job. Opening space for feelings will surface the fears and objections, as well as intuition and creativity, running throughout your organization.

These critical cultural cornerstones not only lay the foundation for tech success, but also show the most important business investment is in your people, not machines.

So, how does your organization’s culture support innovation?

Want to Learn?

I’ll be teaching these and other non-tech skills for success in the contemporary organization in NYC April 27, 2016. Join us and learn the conscious leadership tools to lead your projects and teams more successfully and with less conflict. Get the details by clicking this link

And here is the link to sign up.

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Forget About Getting it Right (Learn Instead)

baconSuccess: It’s not about the bacon; it’s about learning.

If you’re like most people, you spend a lot of time trying to get things right. Problem is, things move so quickly today that it’s almost impossible to know what the right move is. So why not just give up on being right and focus on learning instead?

Ray Stata, CEO of Analog Devices, puts it succinctly: “I would argue that the rate at which individuals and organizations learn may become the only sustainable competitive advantage, especially in knowledge intensive industries.”

It’s all about increasing your learning agility. This is a skill that you and your team can learn, and it’s based on three key practices:

  • Connection
  • Feedback
  • Responsibility

(If you want to skip ahead and take the short-cut to increasing your learning agility, click here to sign up for the 21st Century Leadership Skills workshop I’m leading in NYC next month.)

Connection

If learning from experience is the secret to improvement, then the first essential step is connecting with customers and colleagues so that you can actually get the full experience.

As humans, we connect at the emotional level. Facts can inform us, but feelings connect us. Not only is emotional intelligence — the ability to know and regulate your own emotional state, intuit others’ emotional states, and respond accordingly – one of the keys to success in business; it’s also how you deeply connect with others to hear what’s really going on.

I learned this the hard way when I was one of the leaders of a huge technology project at NBC. As we gathered input from various business groups, we kept hearing pleas to customize the tools or add features. We dutifully enhanced the system to address these requests, only to find users were still not interested.

If we had really listened, we would have heard that users were afraid of the new system: afraid they would not be able to learn it, afraid of leaving behind the inefficient old system they know so well, afraid of staff realignments and cuts stemming from the modernization.

We were hearing requests for technical fixes. We missed the deeper message and as a result, the system essentially died on the vine: $30 million and three years wasted.

Feedback

Feedback is essential to improvement, and yet most of us will go to absurd lengths to avoid it.

One of my clients is a major resort company. They put on a lot of brunches, and they have a bunch of standard practices that help them get good food to the banquet table at the right time.

One recent Sunday the weather was worse than usual, and so instead of playing outside, guests decided to stay in and go to brunch. As a result, the chafing dish of bacon emptied out almost immediately.

It so happens that there is someone whose job it is to make sure there is enough bacon cooked. His usual practice is to cook six pans of bacon; usually that is more than enough. Not today. When told that he was out of bacon, the bacon chef said: “That can’t be. I cooked six pans. There should be plenty of bacon.” The rest of the conversation was an argument about the six pans not being enough. Meanwhile, the line at the bacon station was only getting longer.

Rather than taking the feedback and using it to adjust his actions, this particular bacon chef was more attached to defending his usual practice.

Agile learners put learning above defending. They don’t argue with reality; they find the fastest way to adjust to the new reality.

Responsibility

Usually when we are talking about responsibility, we are looking for who is to blame for something. But what if, instead of sticking someone else with responsibility for something we don’t like, we looked at how we can claim our own responsibility for creating the outcome we really want?

Like my friend Jack. He noticed that customers were routinely reversing the wiring on the solar inverters his company sold. The engineering team was frustrated because to them, it was obvious which way the wires should go. But experience showed a lot of customers were getting it backwards.

Instead of arguing about how wrong their customers were, Jack asked what his company could do to solve this problem once and for all. The answer: label the wires.

Dive in Deeper

Want to create your own personal plan for learning agility? Executive coach Meg Dennison and I will be leading a workshop on these building blocks for effective leadership in New York City April 27, 2016. 

You’ll get specific tools and strategies for solving your most important issues and upping your learning agility as you gather with other agile leaders in Manhattan 10am-3pm. Here’s the link to find out more. And here’s the link to sign up.

PHOTO: Nick Gray via Flickr

How to Turn a Miss into a Win

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Good post on the Harvard Business Review site on how to tell someone you dropped the ball. It hits the important points like:

  • Communicate as soon as you see danger signs
  • Don’t avoid the people you are letting down
  • Be direct and own that you fell short of what you agreed to do
  • Work together to create a path forward
  • Avoid trouble in the first place by allowing yourself to say no to requests you aren’t all in for

All these are essential to maintaining trust and connection with people you may be letting down.

And there are a couple more essential ingredients that can take this to the next level:

Don’t leave out the emotions

Notice what you are feeling when you think about telling your colleague/customer/boss that you will not fulfill your agreement. Do you feel afraid? Angry? Sad? Give yourself permission to fully experience whatever you are feeling so that you can move through it. This will keep you from being run by those emotions going forward — like that desire to avoid facing people you feel you have let down. You might even want to express what you’re feeling to those folks you had the agreement with.

And give the other party to your agreement the chance to feel their emotions, too. You don’t have to “fix” what they are feeling, but creating space for them to express whatever anger, sadness or fear they are facing in the wake of your broken agreement will allow them to move beyond those feelings, too.

The benefit of noticing and expressing these emotions is that you can both stay in connection with each other, perhaps even feeling more connected in the wake of this upset.

What can you learn from this?

It’s one thing to fall short, acknowledge you broke your agreement, express and clean up any hurt feelings, and then move forward. But to take it to the next level, dig into the root causes and learn all you can from the incident. Did you agree too readily to the assignment because you feel insecure? Does this illustrate a pattern of overcommitting? Do you have a habit of running your schedule loosely so that competing events get in the way?

You’ve already paid the price by owning up to your broken agreement, so you might as well get the benefit of learning so you can make root changes and avoid similar problems in the future.

Emotional intelligence and learning agility are the big differentiators in successful leaders and teams, even (or especially) when they miss the target.

PHOTO: ThisParticularGreg via Flickr

Five Ways to Create a Culture of Healthy Discussion

How fostering healthy discussion can help your organization succeed.

Telling the full story is the fastest way to make your organization smarter.

Want to know the secret to organizational success? It’s talk: full communication that allows everyone to know what’s really going on with all aspects of important issues.

It sounds simple, and it is. In fact, if you want to establish and maintain a culture of full and honest communication, here are the five essential things you need to know:

1. Tell the full story – with more than words

We rightly value smart thinking in business. And there is much more to our knowing than just what happens in our cerebral cortex.

Full communication includes not just our thoughts and ideas. It also includes understanding our emotions, physical sensations and intuition. This “soft” information makes for valuable additional data points for any discussion.

How many times have you looked at a proposal that makes good sense on paper, but had an uneasy feeling that warned you off it? Being aware of our feelings, body sensations and hunches allows us to access our full range of human intelligence to make fully informed decisions. Learning to routinely disclose all aspects of our experience to our colleagues ensures that no one is left guessing about what isn’t being said.

2. Separate Fact From Story

Learn the difference between the facts around an issue (what a video camera would record) and your stories (your reactions, assumptions, explanations and rationalizations). Most miscommunication starts with confusing the facts with the stories. Both are valuable. In fact, both are essential for candid communication. It’s just important that we are clear about what’s real and what we made up (even if it feels real). (Here’s a great video on the issue.)

Much of the argument and misunderstanding in organizations is around stories put forth as fact.

3. Stop trying to control people’s reactions to what you say

Most of us spend a lot of effort finding “just the right time” to have a difficult conversation in “just the right way.” It’s essential to ask – is now a good time to talk and if not now, when? But don’t back away from the discussion because someone might not like what you have to say.

Often we just plain hide the harsh truth because we are afraid of the consequences. At best this creates distrust and disconnection as information stops flowing in the organization. At worst, well, just ask Volkswagen about the costs of secrets.

Revealing beats concealing every time.

4. Speak in a way that people can hear you

This means learning to be in touch with your own speaking style and understanding that not everyone will comprehend your message. If you want someone to fully hear your message, learn their preferred communication style and where they are on the issue and then calibrate your message accordingly. Confronted with brutal honesty, some people will just block it out. Others require a blunt message to pierce their defenses and get their attention. We are all responsible for making sure our message is really heard.

5. Take healthy responsibility for problems

As soon as things get sticky in an organization, we reflexively look for who is to blame. Problem is, that’s a recipe for inaction and argument and wasting time. So instead of looking for someone to blame, ask what your responsibility is, even if you think you have nothing to do with the issue.

If you’re concerned about the issue, chances are there is some way you could have influenced the outcome. Focus on that and you immediately move into action. More importantly, you invite others to do the same, creating an upward spiral of honest self-assessment and action.

Want to Learn More?

Want to learn more about creating a culture of open discussion? Join me at a live leadership workshops coming up in New York and Boulder. Click here for details.

PHOTO: US Navy via Wikimedia

Stop Working in Toxic Sludge: Here’s How in Two Simple Steps

Candor and responsibility can clean up workplace messes

Is this what’s lurking under your workplace politesse?

Many of the teams and partnerships I coach are burdened by toxic sludge — the years of resentments, slights, enmities and stories that have built up between colleagues and color their perceptions of each other.

These teams are almost always successful and function well. If you saw them you’d say they work well together — they are considerate, professional and join together in action. But they also are operating at a fraction of their real capacity. Their members feel their energy drain when they get together, and the idea of being a team is not as exciting as it once was.

Some may say this is an inevitable part of any long-term relationship – whether a business partnership or a marriage, our cultural story is that passion cools, familiarity breeds contempt and the bloom inevitably falls from the rose.

In my experience, toxic sludge has two simple (and fixable) root causes: a lack of candor and a lack of responsibility.

The Power of Truth-Telling

By candor, I mean telling the whole truth. Most professionals don’t outright lie. But we often limit the amount of truth we tell.

For years I lived by the maxim that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. It was a way to get things done quickly in a hidebound bureaucracy. The consequence was that I often was in trouble with the boss and my colleagues, spent a lot of energy cleaning up after myself, and didn’t create much lasting change in the organization — once the rule-breaker left, the rules remained unscathed.

Candor means telling the full truth impeccably, regardless of the consequences. Master truth-tellers not only reveal all the facts; they also reveal their feelings, thoughts and hunches. And it’s pretty binary: in any moment you are either being transparent, honest, and complete or you are backing off candor in some way by shading, withholding, or staying silent.

What keeps us quiet most of the time is fear. Healthy teams and workplaces create a climate where people at every level are rewarded for telling the truth about anything, no matter how unpopular the message may be.

The great thing about candor is that it’s simple to practice: start with the small things and work your way up. Before long, it’s as easy to tell the truth about what you really think of lunch as it is to tell your colleagues about your fears for your new project.

Taking Radical Responsibility

If candor prevents toxic sludge build-up, then responsibility is the antidote to whatever sludge there is.

You can only be responsible for what is under your control. One thing that is absolutely not under your control is the way others will feel about what you say or do. And yet much of the time, we limit what we say and do because we are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or angering them with our idea or scaring them about the future.

Trying to manage someone else’s reactions to our ideas and actions is a futile endeavor and the primary ingredient in toxic sludge.

Instead, take responsibility for what you want to say and do by being clear, direct and consistent. This means taking the initiative to directly inform the people whose reactions you most fear. It also means explaining your ideas and actions in ways that people can understand and relate to: being abrupt or confusing will only increase the chances that others react badly. So it’s up to you to sell it.

And responsibility is retroactive: you can use it to clear up any past lapses in candor by owning up, even years after the fact.

Watch the Energy Rise

The really great thing about candor and responsibility is that they not only eliminate the source of most misunderstandings and resentments but they also increase energy in individuals and organizations.

When I take responsibility for telling a particularly troublesome truth — one that I have been worrying about revealing for fear of a bad reaction — I feel an immediate burst of energy and creativity. Multiply this across a team and you can transform the way your entire workplace operates.

Want to Clean Up Your Workplace? Join Us in NYC or Boulder

Meg Dennison and I are teaching the tools of high-functioning workplaces in two workshops this fall in the New York City area and Boulder. Learn how to be a true 21st Century leader who inspires, creates connection and builds lasting value for themselves and their organizations. Check ’em out here.

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Seven Key Moves Disruptive Leaders Learn to Make

Those who thrive in disruption are different than those who thrive in stability.

Those who thrive in disruption are different than those who thrive in stability.

Organizations and leaders who successfully navigate disruption – epochal changes in markets, world view and relationships – are different from those who struggle to adjust. Creativity counts more than efficiency when you’re Nokia and Apple has just released the iPhone. Innovation is more valuable than scalability when 3D printing allows lightening fast product cycles. Vision means more than certainty when you’re leading Chrysler back from the brink.

Here are seven ways disruptive leaders differ from their stability-minded peers:

  1. Value learning over defending. Often when we are confronted with new things, we feel fear — the fear of the unknown. But a defensive response — rejecting new ideas, clinging to what’s known, arguing for why things can’t change — closes us off from learning. Disruptive leaders overcome their fear and shift into curiosity about the things they fear in order to learn the new ideas they will use to shape their future.
  2. Know yourself. This means knowing the tricks, patterns and habits you fall into that keep you in the land of the known. It also means noticing when you are reacting instead of learning or creating. And it means knowing how to break out of those patterns to dance a new step when the music changes.
  3. Connect. Successful leaders and organizations create varied and deep connections with others. Especially in times of disruption, the quality of connection is key to moving forward while drawing on everyone’s talents, instead of fracturing and losing the creative spark of connection.
  4. Stay in alignment. Disruptive leaders and organizations know what they want and stay aligned with it. They value directness and truth over bureaucratic politics because they know that integrity saves them time and energy. So whether it’s setting goals and staying on the path to them, or setting deadlines and keeping them, or making any one of the hundreds of agreements that run through their day, disruptive thinkers see when they get off course and take steps to get back in integrity quickly.
  5. Experiment relentlessly, happily and cheaply. Disruptive leaders try new things and are wise enough to know that even quick and dirty experiments can give valuable information about new paths. Because they don’t invest a lot of time, money or ego in experiments, disruptive leaders aren’t upset when they fail, knowing that even failures move them forward.
  6. Have clear ideas and opinions and hold them lightly. Disruptive leaders cannot afford to be blinded by their own stubbornness. Because they value learning over being right, disruptive leaders are always willing to question their opinions and beliefs.
  7. Relax. Disruptive leaders know that all work and no play not only makes Jack a dull boy, but also depletes their energy and creativity. Rarely do disruptive ideas arrive when they are sitting at their desks cleaning out emails. They regularly take time away from thinking about work to nurture their creativity for work.
Photo: Wikimedia