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HBR Blog Network - Harvard Business ReviewPeter Bregman – HBR Blog Network – Harvard Business Review

Updated: 2016-04-08T14:17:26Z


WordPress.comStop Worrying About How Much You Matter


There’s freedom in feeling irrelevant.

If You Want People to Listen, Stop Talking


Master persuaders know the power of silence.

Managing the Critical Voices Inside Your Head


Know when to listen and when to ignore.

The Small Personal Risks That Actually Change Behavior


Showing courage is one of your most important jobs as a leader.

It’s Your Job to Tell the Hard Truths


Your company’s growth depends on it.

Rashid,* the CEO of a high-tech company and a client of mine for nearly a decade, called to tell me we had a major issue with some of the newer members of his leadership team.

What comes to mind when you think of what might constitute a “major issue” with some senior leaders? Maybe they’re in a fight? Maybe they’re making poor strategic decisions? Perhaps they’re not following through on commitments they made about the business? Maybe they’re being abusive to their employees? Maybe they’re stealing?

I’ve seen all of those problems in the past at various companies. But none of that was happening at Rashid’s firm. The major issue he was talking about was far more subtle — and in most places even acceptable.

Rashid had heard, through the grapevine, that two new team members were quietly questioning whether they should be honest about the gaps they saw in the business.

Is that really such a big deal? How many of us would prefer to keep the peace and avoid being the naysayer? Or prioritize being seen as a team player over identifying problems that may lie in someone else’s department? Or downplay an issue of our own team, hoping we’ll be able to fix it before anyone notices?

The truth is that it’s hard to speak up about potentially sensitive issues. But Rashid’s company’s fast growth and strong results were based, more than anything, on one underlying requirement for anyone in a leadership role: courage.

Courage underlies all smart risk taking. And no company can grow without leaders who are willing to take risks. If we don’t speak the truth about what we see and what we think, then it’s unlikely that we’ll take the smart risks necessary to lead.

So, yes, it’s a major issue if direct reports to the CEO aren’t willing to say what they really think. In fact, I’d say that there’s little value to having senior leaders in an organization who don’t speak their minds.

It’s worth asking if Rashid is creating a safe enough environment for people to speak up. That’s a good thing to consider and, in part, it’s my job to help him do that.

It’s also worth asking if the leaders have the skills to talk about sensitive topics with care and competence. This is important because it does take tremendous skill to raise hard-to-talk-about issues in a way that convinces others to address them. But, I would argue, at this point in their careers, they should have that ability. And, if they don’t, it’s easily trainable.

Ultimately, those are not the most important questions. Rashid is not running a training program or a kindergarten. He’s running a company with highly compensated leaders who are running large and complicated businesses of their own, and it’s fair for him to expect them to be brave enough to tell him what they are thinking.

How could people who have been so successful in their careers not be courageous about communicating the problems they see in a business for which they are responsible? I think that the bar for leadership in most organizations is too low. We allow politics to supersede performance. And it’s hurting good organizations.

The biggest challenge we face as leaders is rarely about discovering the perfect strategy or developing a smarter product or figuring out the gaps in the business. It’s about being courageous enough and willing to take the risks necessary to talk about the difficult, sometimes scary truth and do something about it.

That’s been the secret to Rashid’s company’s growth and the success of his leadership team. Good leaders almost always know what needs to be done. Great leaders actually do it.

So, Rashid asked, what should I do?

You have to talk to them, I said. Be direct about how you believe they’re hurting the business. Lead by example — it’s the only way.

*I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy.

What to Do When Anger Takes Hold


Managing strong emotions is a necessary skill. I had just sat down to look over my calendar and plan my day when the phone rang. It was my contractor. Several of his workers were at my apartment ready to finish some work, but the building management company refused to let them in. This news made me furious. We have been renovating our small apartment, and it’s painfully over budget and six months overdue. During that time, the building management company’s mismanagement has cost me a tremendous amount of money and made an already difficult process even more agonizing. Now they were needlessly delaying the project again, this time over a senseless bureaucratic triviality. My contractor told me he would keep the workers there for an hour, at which point he would need to send them elsewhere and we would lose another day of work. Too angry and agitated to stay still, I got up and began pacing around the room. Over time, it will be useful to consider what I could have done to avoid this situation. What role did I play in the dysfunction of my relationship with the building manager? But that’s not what I want to explore here because that’s not what I was facing in the moment. The real issue I had as I prepared to call the building manager was: What do I do with all my anger? That’s an important question, and it’s one we face all the time. Sure, I could analyze the situation rationally and identify the smartest next move that’s most likely to resolve the situation favorably. That’s textbook leadership, but it’s not always the reality of leadership. Coping with moments filled with emotion — anger, anxiety, longing, fear — are the reality of being a human being at work and in life. We do things we later regret, or don’t do things we wish we had, because our emotions take hold. To succeed in life and in leadership, we need to act powerfully in the context of strong emotions and still have the impact we intend. But that’s hard to achieve. Here’s what we usually do with strong emotions: repress them or submit to them. Both come with substantial costs. When we repress our fear or frustration or longing, the feelings get stuck somewhere in our bodies. Then, at some unexpected time with some unsuspecting person, they come out messy and misdirected. We’re left not knowing why we’re so angry, while the other person is left feeling alienated and untrusting. And that’s the best case scenario. The worst case is that the feeling never leaves us and wreaks havoc; we get either physically ill or mentally burned out. When we submit to our emotions, on the other hand, we obey them without questioning. If we’re angry, we lash out without control. If we’re afraid, we become paralyzed, we run, or we fight. In fact, it’s hard to predict what we’re going to do because we’re not the ones choosing; our feelings decide our next move for us and the outcome is rarely what we intend. But there’s a third option that doesn’t involve repression or submission and it’s a two-step process: Feel the emotion fully, Then make a strategic choice about what to do. This might seem simple but it’s by far the hardest option to take. It requires skill and practice. But it’s worth it; it has a huge return on investment. I have found that one of the best ways to practice this is through meditation. Simply sit for five or 10 minutes a day, feel whatever comes up, and don’t do anything about it. Notice what anger feels like. Notice what frustration feels like. And loneliness and desire. Notice where you feel it in your body. Notice its texture, how it moves, where it leads. Here’s the important part: don’t get up and do anything about it. In meditation there’s nothing to do. Just sit, experience, and don’t act. That’s what makes it so powerful. What you’ll find, after honing this skill, is that you’ll make better business decisions, build better relationships, an[...]

Prevent Your Strategy Offsite from Being Meaningless


Get everyone moving in the same direction. I was facilitating the two-day executive offsite of a mid-sized technology company. The goal of the meeting was to solve major issues and identify potential opportunities that would guide their efforts, as a company, for the next year. We were halfway through the first day and, while everything was going according to plan, I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. I struggled to put my finger on it. I took in the scene. The CEO and all his direct reports were sitting around the board room table and everyone was engaged. People were being respectful, listening to each other without interrupting, asking clarifying questions, and moving efficiently from one presentation to the next. Everyone seemed satisfied; the presentations and conversations were useful and clear. Because everyone seemed satisfied, I was hesitant to intervene. Still, something was off. I walked around the room to try to get different perspectives, to see the meeting through the eyes of each person. Finally, when I got to the CEO, and imagined the meeting from his vantage point, it clicked. Taken one by one, each presentation was tight, well thought out, and deftly delivered. But if you took a bird’s eye view, you’d see utter chaos. Each person, representing a different part of the company, had his or her own priorities, concerns, agenda, and goals which weren’t aligned with – or in some cases were directly opposed to – the next person’s. No one had the whole company perspective in mind. No one was working within a single, overarching, companywide strategy. If I were to graphically depict this meeting, with each person’s objectives, projects, and priorities symbolized by little arrows, it would look like this: Each leader was thinking about his or her arrows – their piece of the company – but no one was focused on the company as a whole. If each leader were running an independent company, it would be fine. But they weren’t. A decision in R & D affects Engineering, Manufacturing, Marketing, and Sales. And if Sales decides to focus on different customers, that affects Support as well as Marketing and even HR – whom you hire and how you manage and pay them might be different. Here’s the thing: these were all smart, competent, highly educated, experienced leaders. It’s not that they didn’t understand the importance of a solid unified strategy. It’s not even that they didn’t have one. It’s just that, amid all the day-to-day challenges and tempting opportunities, they were neglecting it. What they needed was a reminder. After the next presentation was complete, I asked to pause the meeting and I drew the random set of small arrows on a flip chart. Then I drew a single, big arrow in the middle of them, so the drawing looked like this: “All these presentations make perfect sense and represent sound strategies if taken independently,” I said, “But they’re not aligned as an integrated whole with the strategy that we articulated so carefully many months ago.” “I want to remind us of our big arrow: the direction we deliberately chose to move as a company. Our overarching strategy. The big arrow represents where the company is going. It contains our priorities, our brand, and the definition of our success. We need to review the decisions we’re making from that perspective, so the little arrows align with the big arrow. We need to identify what’s distracting and what’s strategic.” I started crossing out some arrows and redirecting others. “The implications of this are real; some projects will be stopped, others changed drastically, and some, possibly, moved a bit.” It got so messy that I just ripped off that page and drew a new, clean image on the flip chart: “This is how we should be moving forward as a senior leadership team, together, supportin[...]

What to Do on Your First Day Back from Vacation


It doesn't involve email. You come back from vacation and start your game of catch-up. This is an especially challenging game if you’re a senior leader. You have hundreds, maybe thousands of emails, a backlog of voicemails, and a to-do list that doubled or tripled in length while you were away. You need to respond to the pent-up needs of clients, managers, colleagues, employees, and vendors. You need to fight fires. You need to regain control. So you do your best to work through the pileup, handling the most urgent items first, and within a few days, you’re caught up and ready to move forward. You’re back in control. You’ve won. Or have you? If that’s your process, you’ve missed a huge leadership opportunity. What’s the most important role of a leader?  Focus. As a senior leader, the most valuable thing you can do is to align people behind your business’s most important priorities. If you do that well, the organization will function at peak productivity and have the greatest possible impact.  But that’s not easy to do. It’s hard enough for any one of us to be focused and aligned with our most important objectives. To get an entire organization aligned is crazy hard. Once in a while, though, you get the perfect opportunity. A time when it’s a little easier, when people are more open, when you can be more clear, when your message will be particularly effective. Coming back from vacation is one of those opportunities. You’ve gotten some space from the day to day. People haven’t heard from you in a while. Maybe they’ve been on vacation too. They’re waiting. They’re more influenceable than usual. Don’t squander this opportunity by trying to efficiently wrangle your own inbox and to-do list. Before responding to a single email, consider a few questions: What’s your top imperative for the organization right now? What will make the most difference to the company’s results? What behaviors do you need to encourage if you are going to meet your objectives? And, perhaps most importantly, what’s less important? The goal in answering these questions is to choose three to five major things that will make the biggest difference to the organization. Once you’ve identified those things, you should be spending 95% of your energy moving them forward. How should you do it? Be very clear about your three to five things. Write them down and choose your words carefully. Read them aloud. Do you feel articulate? Succinct? Clear? Useful? Will they be a helpful guide for people when they’re making decisions and taking actions? Use them as the lens through which you look at – and filter – every decision, conversation, request, to do, and email you work through. When others make a request, or ask you to make a decision, say them out loud, as in “Given that we’re trying to accomplish X, then it would make sense to do Y.” Will that email you’re about to respond to reinforce your three to five priorities? Will it create momentum in the right direction? If so, respond in a way that tightens the alignment and clarifies the focus by tying your response as closely as you can to one or more of the three to five things, as you have written them. If you look at an email and can’t find a clear way to connect it to the organization’s top three to five priorities, then move on to the next email. Don’t be afraid to de-prioritize issues that don’t relate to your top three to five things. This is all about focus, and in order to focus on some things, you need to ignore others. You’ve got this wonderful opportunity, a rare moment in time when your primary role and hardest task – to focus the organization – becomes a little easier. Don’t lose it. Coming back from vacation isn’t simply about catching up. It’s about getting ahead. [...]

Don’t Let Your Head Attack Your Heart


Why we use humor to avoid feeling something. I had been planning a dinner party for weeks. There were twenty people coming, some family, some friends, to celebrate my wife Eleanor’s birthday. I designed a ritual for her:  my goal was to create a space where people spoke from their hearts in a way they don’t usually do. I prepared questions I wanted us to explore together, questions like: What do you feel grateful for in your life? What new things do you feel are struggling to grow and be born in you? What do you want to let go of, so that the new can be born? Before I go any further, pause for a second, imagine yourself at the dinner, and notice your own reaction to those questions. Are you rolling your eyes at the touchy-feeliness of them or do they excite you? Would the answers you shared be superficial or deep? I was excited and nervous as I introduced the initial question. I shared from my heart. Then, one person, David*, made a joke. It was light fun, but it was directed at my response and felt biting. Others laughed and chimed in. Then more jokes. I tried to keep the focus of the group but I failed. I had been so excited and now I just felt sad, angry, vulnerable, and disappointed. This is what I discovered that night: The heart is an easy target of the mind. I was asking questions of the heart, and the mind fought back. We are trained and rewarded, in schools and in organizations, to lead with a fast, witty, and critical mind. And it serves us well. The mind can be logical, clear, incisive, and powerful.  It perceives, positions, politics, and protects. One of its many talents is to defend us from emotional vulnerability, which it does, at times, with jokes and quick repartee. The heart, on the other hand, has no comebacks, no quips. Gentle, slow, and unprotected, an open heart is easily attacked, especially by a frightened mind. And feelings scare the mind. Why are feelings so scary? I asked my friend and colleague, Jessica Gelson, a traditionally trained psychotherapist who specializes in body-based techniques to help people unblock their feelings. “People are afraid of feelings for the same reason people are afraid of ghosts,” Jessica told me. “You can’t see them. You can’t put them in a box. And you can’t really control them.” Most of us are never taught how to experience and understand our feelings. And since our mind hates things it doesn’t know, it reacts like a guard fending off an attack. But why is that bad? Why not just rely on your agile and capable mind instead of exposing your heart, especially in a business or professional environment? Because our hearts are the source of our real power. The heart is how we connect with others. It’s how we engender trust. It’s the heart — both ours and theirs — that makes people want to follow us and throw everything they’ve got into making something successful. People follow leaders who show competence and warmth, head and heart. And there is a growing body of evidence that suggests we should start with the heart. It takes tremendous courage to lead. And it takes even more courage to lead with heart. But that’s what leadership call us to do. Mostly, when people want to develop their leadership, they try to learn more about what to do. Which is precisely why most leadership programs fail. Because the hard part about leadership isn’t knowing what to do, it’s having the courage to do it. Are you willing to experience the discomfort of speaking from your heart? Yes, it’s a risk. But a risk whose payoff includes the commitment, loyalty, and passion of the people around you. Now, think back to how you answered the question at the beginning. Was your instinct to protect yourself and your open heart? Would you have resisted answering those questions honestly and openly? How can we be more emotionally courageous in[...]

How to Start a Conversation You’re Dreading


Lead with the punchline. I anticipated that the conversation would be difficult. Shari* and I had worked together for many years, and I knew she was expecting me to hire her to run a leadership program for one of my clients, Ganta, a high-tech company. But I didn’t think Shari was the right fit for Ganta or, frankly, for the role of running the leadership training. In fact, I had become increasingly critical of her recent performance, though I hadn’t mentioned anything to her about it yet. That was my first mistake. I should have said something before it got to this point. So why didn’t I? I’d love to claim that it was because I liked her, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Or because I hoped things would get better without my intervention. And while those things were true, there was a deeper truth: I was afraid of the cringe moment. Do you know that uneasy moment – right as you’re saying something that feels risky, but before the person responds? That’s the cringe moment. In other words, I delayed speaking with Shari because I was afraid of how I would feel giving her the negative feedback: awkward, uncomfortable, and maybe even unreasonable. But I couldn’t avoid it anymore. And because I had waited so long, the conversation promised to be even more awkward and uncomfortable. And now that she was getting a more extreme message with no warning, I would feel – and appear – even more unreasonable. The cringe quotient had gone up. The day of the difficult conversation, I felt anxious as Shari came into my office. We shared a few pleasantries and then I began. I told her that I knew she wanted to run the leadership program at Ganta. I talked to her about the complexities and challenges of the leadership program and of Ganta in general. And I spoke with her about my frustrations with her recent performance. She asked me questions and I offered explanations and examples. I did such a good job avoiding the cringe moment that, 30 minutes into the conversation, I still had not clearly communicated to Shari whether I was firing her or hiring her. My build-up was equally appropriate as context for either. Finally, she did it for me. “So,” she asked, “Are you saying that you don’t want me to lead this program or you do?” Now that I’m aware of it, I see my own behavior in leaders everywhere. Standing in front of the room, one senior VP slowly constructed a case to close a business.  But he never got to his conclusion as people began debating unimportant details related to his argument before they even knew where he was headed. In another case, a CEO sat in a meeting of department heads with the intention of telling them she was creating a new position to which they would all report. But she lost them as she spent the first 20 minutes giving context to a decision she hadn’t yet announced. As one person later told me, “All of the context was lost on me as I was trying to guess what she was getting at. It was a complete waste of time.” The intellectual reason we build a case, or give context, to a difficult decision before announcing it is because we want to convey that the decision is well-thought out, rational, and an inevitable conclusion to the facts. But since the listeners don’t know what decision is being made, they have no context for the context and it all feels meaningless. The emotional reason we give such long introductions to hard decisions is because we are procrastinating. We’re delaying the cringe feeling. But this delay is counterproductive; it only stretches and deepens the discomfort of everyone involved. The solution is simple and straightforward: Lead with the punchline. What should I have said to Shari? “Thanks for coming in, Shari. I am not going to have you run the leadership program with Ganta, and I’d[...]

How to Have Friends at Work When You’re the Boss


It takes emotional courage, and practice. Girish* is a client of mine who runs a 500-million-dollar business. He gets stellar reviews and is seen as a high potential successor to the CEO. But he has a friend problem. Several of his direct reports are close friends and he doesn’t hold them accountable in the same way he does his other direct reports. Often, they don’t do what he asks. And they aren’t delivering the results he expects. It’s hurting his business and his reputation. When I speak with others on his team about the situation, they see it clearly and resent Girish’s friends. They don’t understand why Girish allows his friends to take advantage of him. And they feel demotivated and disengaged by Girish’s apparent unfairness. But when I speak with Girish about it, he doesn’t see it at all. He’s filled with empathy for his friends’ struggles, which makes perfect sense since he cares deeply about them. But he’s blind to the damage they’re doing to him and the company. There’s plenty of research supporting the idea that having friends at work makes you happier and more engaged. But here’s what the research doesn’t address: friendships at work are tricky, especially when you’re the boss. So tricky, in fact, that many senior leaders avoid them. Take Bill, who is also a client and the CEO of a highly successful, fast growing billion-dollar company. Like Girish, he gets stellar reviews from the board and his direct reports. But when people offer criticism, a single element comes up consistently; “I’d like to be closer to him.” His response? “I’m not interested in having friends at work.” It’s not that Bill is anti-social. He’s actually warm, gregarious, and authentic. It’s just that he’s learned, the hard way, that having friends when you’re the boss can be complicated. “I used to have close friends at work,” he told me, “people who would come to my house for dinner with my family. But then I had to make hard calls for the good of the business, including firing one of them, and it became too painful – for me, for my family. And I became hesitant to make decisions because of it. So no, I’m not looking for friends at work.” In other words, Bill doesn’t avoid friendships at work because he’s a bad guy. He avoids friendships at work because he’s a good guy. Which makes avoiding friends all the more painful and difficult for him. Girish has friends who hurt his leadership and Bill chooses not to have friends to protect his leadership. Is there a good way to pursue friendships at the top? I’ve come up with four rules to help senior leaders maintain their leadership and their friendships at the same time: Have a clear and super-strong commitment to your business objectives. You have to care enough about what you want to achieve that you are willing to make hard decisions in alignment with your purpose. You need to be open, transparent, upfront, and passionate about that commitment, while knowing that some people, probably friends, will disagree with you. Be comfortable with strong emotions. This includes your own emotions and those of others. If you act on your commitment to the business with integrity, you will make people around you angry at times. They might resent you, withdraw, or get passive-aggressive. However callous this sounds, that’s not your problem to fix. You should be compassionate – you can listen, empathize, and support them – but you can’t be so dependent on the way they feel that you don’t lead your organization the way you need to. Develop your friendship skills. If you’re going to drive your business with passion while experiencing a swirl of emotions, you need to master the skills that will enable you to maintain friendships in the face[...]

The Best Way to Defuse Your Stress


Let the monster out. I knew that I probably shouldn’t send the email I had just written. I wrote it in anger and frustration, and we all know that sending an email written in anger and frustration is, well, dumb. Still, I really wanted to send it. So I forwarded it to a friend, who knew the situation, with the subject line: Should I send this? She responded almost immediately: Don’t send it tonight. If you feel like you need to send it tonight, then I think it is for the wrong reasons. Make sense? Yep, I responded. Thanks. Three minutes later I sent it and bcc’d her. She was flabbergasted: You changed your mind that fast?!?!? Nope, I responded. My mind is in total agreement with you. But my mind didn’t send the email, my emotions did. And they feel so much better! Most of the time, I’m professional, focused, empathetic, thoughtful, and rational. But that takes effort and, periodically, I lose that control. I might write an inappropriately aggressive email. Or raise my voice at my kids when they don’t listen. Or lose my temper with a customer service rep on the phone who seems to be missing my point. It might look like I have an anger problem, but I don’t. I have a stress problem. I can be tightly wound. And, as a result, quick to anger. In those moments when my stress erupts, my rational mind doesn’t stand a chance. It’s like trying to use intellectual arguments to talk down a stampeding bull. Reason and stress speak different languages. Reason is intellectual; stress is physical. Reason favors words; stress prefers action. Our minds can advise us all they want, but our bodies have the upper hand. In fact, the more our minds try to curtail our stress, the more volatile it becomes. If you pause to feel your stress, you will recognize it, quite literally, as energy flowing in your body. We live with that energy all the time, and, typically, it’s useful — it keeps us fresh, on our toes, and ready for action. But, periodically — and I would argue increasingly — our stress levels rise well beyond useful. And, when that happens, we can easily lose control of our actions. Think of stress as a monster, who lives in your body and feeds on uncertainty. The monster’s most satisfying meal starts with the sentence: “What will happen if . . . . ?” What will happen if that presentation fails? What will happen if one of the projects I’m working on runs into objections? What will happen if I don’t have enough time to finish my budget? What will happen if my explanation doesn’t satisfy investors? What will happen if the company doesn’t get its financing? As the uncertainty grows, so does the monster. Eventually, the pressure to escape the confines of your body proves too great.  At that moment, you open your email, read something that annoys you and BOOM! Here’s the interesting thing: after the explosion, we relax. Sending that angry email felt great. The monster escaped. But not without consequences: The reaction of the person who received my angry email? That’s another story. The question we need to answer is: How can I release the pressure without doing damage in the process? Many of us try to manage or ignore our stress. We attempt to push it down, put it aside, breathe through it, or rise above it. But that’s a mistake. All those responses only encourage the monster to grow unfettered and, usually, unnoticed. Eventually, without fully understanding why, we get sick or explode or burn out. There’s a better solution: Don’t try to manage your stress. Instead, dance with it. The monster wants out? Let it out. But do so on your terms. You may need to cope for a moment, just until you can get to a place where you have privacy. Then, when you know there will be no adverse consequenc[...]

Why You Should Treat Laughter as a Metric


It will keep you more focused. I was following the same yoga video I had followed more than 30 times in the past. Because I know the routine well, I usually have little trouble breathing rhythmically through the postures, feeling the subtleties of each movement, and sliding gently into a mind-body meditation. This time, though, was drastically off. Not only did my mind wander, I was clumsy and confused. I did “Warrior 1” twice on the same side instead of switching legs. I lost my balance in eagle pose. And, at one point, looking up at the video from my standing split, I found myself two postures behind the leader. The worst part wasn’t my poor performance though; it was my attitude and mood. I felt stressed, annoyed, and anxious – hardly the outcome I was looking for from yoga. The problem? I wasn’t only doing yoga. I was watching the TV show Revolution on my iPad mini — perched next to my TV screen – at the same time. It was an experiment that I started after a conversation with my mother. She and I were talking about her dinner plans and she mentioned she was going out with a couple she really enjoys. I asked what she enjoyed about them. “They laugh a lot,” she answered, “and I love that. People don’t laugh so much anymore.” Her comment stuck with me. She’s right: We don’t laugh as much as we used to. I thought a lot about it and arrived at a hypothesis I chose to test: It’s not that we’re depressed, it’s that we’re distracted. And laughter, it turns out, is not something that happens when we’re distracted. I’ve written about the productivity downside to multitasking in the past. As my yoga experience and countless studies show, we pay a steep price in efficiency for spreading our attention so thinly. But my mother’s observation points to a more nefarious consequence of multitasking: its emotional impact. It’s impossible to feel joy or pleasure when our attention is fractured. Anger, frustration, annoyance – sure. Those emotions rise to the surface easily. In fact, multitasking encourages them. But laughter? It’s nearly impossible. Why is this important? Does it really matter whether we’re laughing more or less? What does this have to do with leadership? Everything, it turns out. My yoga experiment wasn’t the first I’d tried. Before that, I watched television while processing my credit card bill on an Excel spreadsheet — a seemingly mindless task that involves nothing more than dragging numbers from one cell to another. Not only did it take four times as long as when I did it undistracted, but I grew increasingly irritated as I worked. When someone walked into my office with a question, I growled. That’s a leadership issue. Not laughing is a symptom — a lagging indicator — of an ill that’s creating havoc in our lives and our organizations. We aren’t laughing anymore because we aren’t fully present anymore. Physically we’re in one place but mentally, we’re all over the place. Think about some recent phone conversations you’ve had — and then consider what else you were doing at the same time. Were you surfing the web? Reading and deleting emails? Shooting off a text? Sorting through mail? Or maybe you were thinking about any number of problems — a renovation, a recent argument, a never-ending to-do list — unrelated to the topic at hand. Unfortunately, being fully present in the moment has become a casualty of our too full and harried lives. “But don’t some people get intense pleasure from the challenge of focusing on more than one thing at a time?” a friend asked me when I shared this notion with her. “What about complex multi-dimensional activities, like doing a presentation?” She’s r[...]

When the Truth Is Your Only Chance


Take a risk and be honest with your boss. A few months ago, Paul Franco* took a job working part-time for a company in the healthcare industry. At the time, Paul told me he thought the company had tremendous potential, both in the marketplace and for him personally.  So I was a little surprised when he called me, exasperated. “I think I’m going to quit,” he told me. So we discussed it. The pros for staying were plentiful: he is free to work on his own time, from wherever he wants, doing what he loves, towards a goal about which he cares. Also, he’s making good money and a difference — both of which matter to him. Sounds great, right? So what are the cons? There’s only one, really: His boss, the CEO/founder. “He’s all over the place,” Paul told me. “Shifting from one vision to the next. He’s unfocused, unclear, unrealistic, and, most disturbingly, he’s burning bridges with potential investors as well as colleagues. He even reneged on a commitment he made to me, which I had already extended to other people. He’s hurting the business and I’m worried about my reputation by affiliation.” Should Paul quit? Even with all the seductive pros, the answer seems glaringly obvious: Of course he should quit. And not just because the CEO is unfocused. He should quit because no opportunity — no matter how badly you need the money — is worth losing your reputation. I was itching to share my advice but I held back long enough to ask one last question: “Have you told the CEO what you’ve told me?” He hesitated. “Not really. Not so clearly.” Now my answer was very clear though not the one I had planned. “Leaving now,” I said to him, “is a big mistake. I have a much better idea.” Paul is in a situation I see all the time: An organization or a relationship is either stagnating or deteriorating and no one knows what to do to fix it. Just in the last week alone I’ve heard people talk about unsatisfying managerial relationships, languishing business results, and unhappy marriages. The only two choices seem to be to live the depressing reality of an unpleasant rut, or leave. Instead, I suggest a third option: risk truth. Remember when you were a kid, playing ball, and the ball got stuck up in a tree? At that point, you had three options: You could stare at the ball, with growing frustration (stay in the job), you could walk away and play a different game (quit), or you could find a stick long enough to reach the ball and knock it out of the tree. Think of the truth as that stick. If Paul doesn’t risk the truth, nothing changes. If he leaves, he will end up in a similar position again — we always do — and then he’ll leave again. The ball will remain stuck in the tree. But that stick of truth shakes things up. He’ll have to stretch beyond his own comfort to share his observations with the CEO. He’ll have to think about it, work on it, take his share of responsibility, and communicate carefully. But however uncomfortable that is, it’s not the scary part. The scary part is the uncertainty of the CEO’s reaction. The CEO might lash out. Or sit in denial. Or fire Paul. Here’s the crucial thing though: There’s no real risk for Paul, because he was going to leave anyway. Paul has nothing to lose. And the upside? It’s limitless. He might be able to turn around the company. He might develop a deeply trusted relationship with the CEO. He will undoubtedly increase his ability to engage in difficult conversations. He will know he did what he could for the benefit of the company. And, most of all, he will shake things up. Anything else he tries — political maneuvering, avoidance, stepping cautiously around the CEO’s challenges[...]

Nadal Is Strong Enough to Cry. Are You?


Rafael Nadal, who just won the U.S. Open for the second time, is my hero. His athleticism is extraordinary. His focus is awe-inspiring. His skill is, clearly, second to none. His will is unremitting. It’s a joy to watch him in competition. Yet those are not the reasons he’s my hero. In fact, it wasn’t until after he was finished playing in this year’s final that he rose to role model in my book. So... More » Rafael Nadal, who just won the U.S. Open for the second time, is my hero. His athleticism is extraordinary. His focus is awe-inspiring. His skill is, clearly, second to none. His will is unremitting. It’s a joy to watch him in competition. Yet those are not the reasons he’s my hero. In fact, it wasn’t until after he was finished playing in this year’s final that he rose to role model in my book. So what was it? It was that, right after winning, he fell to the ground, crying, then leapt for joy, then lay back on the tennis court, face down, sobbing. After a few moments, he got up and hugged Novak Djokovic, his opponent. “Now that,” I told Isabelle, my eleven-year-old daughter, who was watching with me, “is what it looks like when you put your whole self into something!” Where is that energy in our companies today? Where are the people leaping for joy, pumping their fists in the air, or weeping, either with happiness or grief? I sometimes walk through the halls of various companies, looking at people working numbly at their desks or cubicles or nodding off in meetings, wondering, “where are the people?” I’m not advocating for a workplace of loose cannons. I am advocating for a workplace of human beings. Before his emotional outburst, Nadal played for hours, channeling the energy coursing through his body with controlled responses and deliberate, calculated movements. In other words, he managed his emotions. That’s appropriate; it’s how any of us achieve any challenging objective, and we’ve become very good at it. But after the game, where does all that energy go? Nadal’s post-game response was the natural eruption of energy pent up from the concentration of his game. That’s appropriate too. Yet how many of us unrelentingly repress our emotions, or eat and drink them back down? Years ago, when emotional intelligence became the next big thing, I thought that, perhaps, it would give us permission to express ourselves more authentically in our workplaces. It might teach us how to hold the emotions of others, to sit quietly, empathically, with someone who was crying, without trying to fix what was wrong. Or to celebrate our successes without losing our compassion toward others, whether they be friends or opponents. But that never happened. For the most part, emotional intelligence is simply new jargon for discussing our emotions intellectually or codifying them in competency models. Meanwhile our feelings remain imprisoned in our heads. That’s not the world I want to live in, and I don’t think you really want to live there either. Sure, it might keep us comfortable. Certainly it might feel safe. But only in the short run. Long term, keeping our emotions nice and presentable hurts us, hurts our relationships, leads to burn out, and makes us sick. So why don’t we all live our lives with Nadal’s open passion, with his exposed heart? It’s scary to be emotionally open. It makes us vulnerable. We may feel shame, and we’re likely to feel weak. When I watched Nadal lying face down on the court, his body heaving with sobs, I was reminded of a time when I did the same, in very different circumstances. Earlier this[...]

Four Areas Where Senior Leaders Should Focus Their Attention


Stop checking email and starting talking about what matters. It was getting close to lunch time and the people seated around the table — the CEO and seven of his direct reports — were clearly getting antsy. But it wasn’t because they were hungry. In fact, they’d been eating snacks all morning, mostly out of boredom. The COO was at the front of the room, talking through slides projected on a screen. The conversation was primarily one way, with the COO explaining and, when necessary, defending his work. Finally, when we broke for lunch, the CEO took me aside and told me what we all already knew: “This is a waste of time.” When you bring a senior leadership group together in a room, it’s a massive commitment of resources. The hotel and food are the least of it. Even the consultant, if you’re using one, is a negligible cost compared to the investment of monopolizing the focus of seven or eight highly compensated, time-starved leaders. Yet how often do those meetings consist of one presentation after the next, while the executives listen numbly or answer emails under the table? How often does the conversation involve everything but the big issues that need executive attention? With all that brainpower around the table, the focus of a senior meeting needs to be conversation, controversy, even conflict — not updates. Leaders should never sit and read together. They should be engaging and struggling with the organization’s most critical and difficult-to-solve issues. So how do you get there? By creating an environment in which leaders are real, vulnerable, and brave with each other. An environment in which they can expose their weaknesses, break through silos, and engage one another with challenging questions, thinking, and decisions. My first rule for these meetings is no slide decks. As soon as someone projects slides onto a screen, the entire focus of the room shifts from each other to a single person (at best) or their smartphones (at worst). Neither is useful. Once the no slide deck rule is established, the team needs to choose where to focus their attention. Which brings me to my second rule. When I run senior leadership meetings, I make sure we focus on four things: 1. Decisions that move the needle. Don’t waste energy talking about expense reports when you should be talking about mergers and acquisitions or a new business line or a reorganization. Incremental improvements are the purview of lower levels of management. One of my clients, the CEO of a company with revenues of a billion dollars, likes to measure this is by the number of zeros involved. Are we talking about a $500,000 decision or a $5,000,000 decision? If there aren’t enough zeros, the decision isn’t strategic enough and shouldn’t absorb senior leadership time. Senior leadership should be focused on fundamentals, not incrementals. 2. The big arrow. Think of your company as one big arrow that contains lots of little arrows — projects, businesses, clients, business deals. The big arrow is your company’s culture, strategic direction, core competencies, and core values. The CEO and his or her leadership team own that big arrow. The problem is that, often, the little arrows point in different directions as people solidify their silos, bicker amongst themselves, and neglect the larger mission. Senior leaders have the responsibility to make decisions and act in ways that break through silos and align everyone with the strategic and cultural direction of the company. That’s how they can ensure all the arrows will be shooting in the same direction. 3. The [...]

A Question That Can Change Your Life


Your time is limited. Your impact is not. For years I’ve exercised every day — doing weights, cardio, yoga — but despite my continuous effort, I haven’t seen much change. Until a few months ago. Recently, my body has changed. My muscles are stronger, more defined, and I’ve lost five pounds along with a visible layer of fat. So what did I do differently? Let’s start with what I didn’t do: Spend more time exercising. In fact, I’ve spent less. What I did change is how I use the time I spend working out. Instead of doing the same old workout, day after day, I’m mixing it up with new routines. I’m focusing my effort more wisely — confusing my muscles with different exercises, adding balance challenges, power moves, and intervals. The rapid results I achieved by changing my exercise routine made something very clear to me: We habitually squander time and effort on behaviors that do little to move us toward the outcomes we’re seeking. Spending an hour on a treadmill watching TV had no visible impact on my fitness. But when I used that hour differently, I saw improvement. It’s not that we’re lazy. We put effort into what we do. I ran on the treadmill every day. But, like my daily run, our efforts often don’t translate into optimum results. The basic principle is simple: We’re already spending a certain amount of time doing things — in meetings, managing businesses, writing emails, making decisions. If we could just make a higher impact during that time, it’s all upside with no cost. So here’s the question I’d like to propose you ask yourself throughout your day: What can I do, right now, that would be the most powerful use of this moment? What can I say? What action can I take? What question can I ask? What issue can I bring up? What decision can I make that would have the greatest impact? Asking these questions — and answering them honestly — is the path to choosing new actions that could bring better outcomes. The hard part is following through on the answers and taking the risks to reap the full benefits of each moment. That takes courage. But it’s also what brings the payoff. I was once sitting in a meeting with the CEO of a large bank and his head of HR. Right before the meeting, the CEO had told me that he had lost confidence in his HR chief after he had made a number of blunders without accepting any responsibility. “He really needs to go,” the CEO told me. Then, during the meeting, the head of HR asked the CEO for feedback. He’s opened the door, I thought to myself. But the CEO said nothing. That led to more dysfunction as the head of HR stayed on, continuing to disappoint the CEO, but without getting straight feedback. It’s easy to judge the CEO. And he certainly should have been bolder. But how many of us miss similar opportunities out of fear or nervousness or even simply concern for hurting other people’s feelings? While the CEO’s missed opportunity was a glaring omission with painful consequences, it is, unfortunately, not unusual. There’s some good reason for that: Sometimes the bold move can backfire. I know a similar situation to the one above, where a VP level person asked her employee for feedback, but when the employee answered honestly, he was shunned and treated poorly afterwards. Rejection, failure, even ridicule — those are the risks of making the most powerful use of a moment. But in my experience, boldness, combined with skilled communication, almost always pays off because it moves the energy of a situation and cre[...]

Three Qualities Every Leader Needs to Succeed on a Team


Real collaboration skills are a competitive advantage. “I want your help developing my direct reports into stronger leaders,” John* the new CEO of Fasseni, a $350 million technology company, told me several years ago. Initially, I approached the request like any consultant might. First, I asked John why he wanted my help. He told me that Fasseni had stagnated. They had been hovering around the same revenue point for years and their competitors were gaining market share. He saw opportunity and knew that success lay in the hands of his direct reports. That made sense to me. So John and I defined a list of qualities a great leader should have, like expertise in their field, strategic thinking capability, common sense intelligence, powerful communication skills, problem solving prowess, and similar traits. Then I spent some time interviewing him and his direct reports to better understand their strengths and weaknesses as they related to the list of leadership qualities we had defined. Identify the goal, assess the current situation, understand the gap, and then close it. Consulting 101. Simple, right? Only in this case, it wasn’t so simple — because there was no gap. On the whole, the leaders at Fasseni were smart, capable, communicative, strategic people. A few were even charismatic. They were good leaders. Maybe we could have made incremental improvements, but, I told John, I didn’t believe it would be a good use of his resources. Our work wouldn’t move the needle enough. We sat in silence for a moment and then I chanced a gut feeling. “There is one more thing I’d love to do. I can’t exactly tell you why, but I’d love to see your direct reports in a meeting together.” He hesitated — so far I hadn’t added much value — but he took a risk. Here’s what I saw: One item on the agenda was the slow down in sales. When that conversation started, the head of sales started to defend his organization. Prices are too high, he said, because of the CEO’s focus on margins. If manufacturing could reduce costs, then sales would pick up. Hold on, the head of manufacturing argued, we can’t reduce costs because of the way the product is engineered. If engineering didn’t overcomplicate things, the product would be cheaper to build. Wait a second, retorted the head of engineering, we’re only responding to what marketing is telling us we have to create to meet customer demand. If we didn’t have to be so customized for each unique customer situation, we could engineer a more efficient product. And so the conversation continued, like a game of hot potato, everyone hoping, desperately, that the blame wouldn’t land with him when the song ended. “We’ve been focused on the wrong problem,” I told John at dinner that night. “You asked me to help you develop your direct reports into strong leaders. But they’re already strong leaders . . . individually. They’re just not strong leaders collectively.” Each leader ran his organization successfully, aggressively pursuing his organization’s interests. And each one succeeded in meeting — often exceeding — his goals. Each one was committed to — and cared deeply about — his organization’s performance. But that’s all they cared about — their own organizations. They were impressive as leaders, but destructive as a leadership team. As I watched John’s team struggle, I was reminded of the popular columnist Dan Savage, who employs a formula[...]

Why So Many Leadership Programs Ultimately Fail


You can't just learn about communication. You have to do it. The topic in the Executive Committee meeting turned to Europe. The technology company, Alentix*, was doing well and growing annually at the rate of about 15%. But its European division was struggling. It had been five years since the region turned a profit. Yet no one had addressed that issue. Jean, the head of the Europe office, had been with the company longer than anyone else around the table — he had strong ties with the board — and the topic seemed untouchable. This time looked to be no different. When Jean said he was on top of things, no one challenged him. I looked around the room at the silent senior leadership of Alentix, all of whom had privately complained to me about Jean’s performance in recent weeks. I suggested we take a 15-minute break. Every one of these leaders was smart, knowledgeable, and capable. They’d all read innumerable books on leadership, taken leadership skills assessments, and attended multiple training programs — including executive leadership programs at top business schools. They knew as much as anyone about leadership. So why weren’t they leading? The answer is deceptively simple: There is a massive difference between what we know about leadership and what we do as leaders. I have never seen a leader fail because he or she didn’t know enough about leadership. In fact, I can’t remember ever meeting a leader who didn’t know enough about leadership. What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it. In other words, the critical challenge of leadership is, mostly, the challenge of emotional courage. Emotional courage means standing apart from others without separating yourself from them. It means speaking up when others are silent. And remaining steadfast, grounded, and measured in the face of uncertainty. It means responding productively to political opposition — maybe even bad-faith backstabbing — without getting sidetracked, distracted, or losing your focus. And staying in the discomfort of a colleague’s anger without shutting off or becoming defensive. These are the things that distinguish powerful leaders from weak ones. And you can’t learn them from reading a book, taking a personality test, or sitting safely in a classroom. Ever since I started teaching leadership on mountaineering expeditions in the late 80’s, the question of how to develop leaders has absorbed me. I’ve designed and taught everything from one-day team buildings to 30-day wilderness trips, from business school classes to corporate trainings, from simulations to executive leadership courses. The goal of any leadership development program is to change behavior. After a successful program, participants should show up differently, saying and doing things in new ways that produce better results. By that measure, most of what I’ve done — and what I’ve seen others do — has failed. Sure, the trainings are almost always fun, interesting, engaging, and filled with valuable, research-based content. But they fail the test of significant and sustained behavior change that produces better results after the program. Here’s why: We’re teaching the wrong things in the wrong ways. If the challenge of leadership is emotional courage, then emotional courage is what we nee[...]

The Most Overlooked Leadership Skill


Never underestimate the value of a great receiver. Even before I released the disc, I knew it was a long shot. And, unfortunately, it was a clumsy one too. We were playing Ultimate Frisbee, a game similar to U.S. football, and we were tied 14-14 with a time cap. The next point would win the game. I watched the disc fly over the heads of both teams. Everyone but me ran down the field. I cringed, helplessly, as the disc wobbled and listed left. Still, I had hope it could go our way. Sam was on my team. Sam broke free from the other runners and bolted to the end zone. But the disc was too far ahead of him. He would never make it. At the very last moment, he leapt. Completely horizontal, Sam moved through the air, his arms outstretched. Time slowed as he closed in on the disc. The field was silent as he slid across the end zone, shrouded in a cloud of dust. A second later he rose, Frisbee in hand. Our team erupted in cheer. Sam’s catch won us the tournament. It also taught me a great lesson: Never underestimate the value of a talented receiver. I was reminded of Sam’s catch recently after broaching a sensitive topic with Alba*, a client. The conversation was about some concerns I had about an upcoming meeting she was leading as well as my own insecurity about how I could help. Before I spoke with her, I was hesitant and worried. Was I overstepping my bounds? Was I exposing myself? Would she reject my thoughts? Would she reject me? I entered the conversation awkwardly, apologizing, and offering too much context. Even once I broached the issue, I felt tentative, unclear. I cringed as I felt my words hang in the air. Thankfully, though, Alba turned out to be a Sam-level receiver. Alba listened without a trace of annoyance. She asked questions — not to defend herself or refute my thoughts — but to understand my perspective more clearly. She was gracious, skilled, and accepting. Her ability to receive me, and my opinions, led to a deep and valuable conversation about her performance, my role, and the needs of her team. A few weeks later, she showed up powerfully and led a remarkable meeting. Typically, we choose our leaders for their skill at conveying messages clearly and powerfully. But, in my experience, it’s their ability to receive messages that distinguishes the best leaders from the rest. That’s because the better you are at receiving, the more likely people will talk to you. And that’s precisely what every one of us needs: to be surrounded by people who are willing to speak the unspoken. So how do you become a great receiver? 1. Be courageous. We often attribute courage to the speaker, but what about the receiver? 
I may have been scared broaching topics with Alba, but I had the advantage of time and preparation. I could control what I said and how I said it. I was able to think about it beforehand, write down a few notes, and test my thoughts with someone else. 
The receiver has no such advantage. Like Sam, he has to receive my throw, however, whenever, and wherever it lands. He has to be willing to listen to something that might make him feel afraid or insecure or defensive. And if he is a great receiver, he will take in the information or message thoughtfully, even if the delivery is awkward or the message jarring. That takes tremendous courage.
 2. Don’t judge. Receiving is as much about what you don’t do as it is about what you do. 

Resist the temptation — blatantly or subtly — to be critical of the speaker or what the speaker i[...]

The Unexpected Antidote to Procrastination


Stop avoiding tough tasks and start cultivating your resilience. A recent early morning hike in Malibu, California, led me to a beach, where I sat on a rock and watched surfers. I marveled at these courageous men and women who woke before dawn, endured freezing water, paddled through barreling waves, and even risked shark attacks, all for the sake of, maybe, catching an epic ride. After about 15 minutes, it was easy to tell the surfers apart by their style of surfing, their handling of the board, their skill, and their playfulness. What really struck me though, was what they had in common. No matter how good, how experienced, how graceful they were on the wave, every surfer ended their ride in precisely the same way: By falling. Some had fun with their fall, while others tried desperately to avoid it. And not all falls were failures — some fell into the water only when their wave fizzled and their ride ended. But here’s what I found most interesting: The only difference between a failure and a fizzle was the element of surprise. In all cases, the surfer ends up in the water. There’s no other possible way to wrap up a ride. That got me thinking: What if we all lived life like a surfer on a wave? The answer that kept coming to me was that we would take more risks. That difficult conversation with your boss (or employee, or colleague, or partner, or spouse) that you’ve been avoiding? You’d initiate it. That proposal (or article, or book, or email) you’ve been putting off? You’d start it. That new business (or product, or sales strategy, or investment) you’ve been overanalyzing? You’d follow through. And when you fell — because if you take risks, you will fall — you’d get back on the board and paddle back into the surf. That’s what every single one of the surfers did. So why don’t we live life that way? Why don’t we accept falling — even if it’s a failure — as part of the ride? Because we’re afraid of feeling. Think about it: In all those situations, our greatest fear is that we will feel something unpleasant. What if you have that scary conversation you’ve been avoiding and it ends the relationship? It would hurt. What if you follow through on the business idea and lose money? It would feel terrible. What if you submitted the proposal and you were rejected? It would feel awful. Here’s the thing: More often than not, our fear doesn’t help us avoid the feelings; it simply subjects us to them for an agonizingly long time. We feel the suffering of procrastination, or the frustration of a stuck relationship. I know partnerships that drag along painfully for years because no one is willing to speak about the elephant in the room. Taking risks, and falling, is not something to avoid. It’s something to cultivate. But how? Practice. Which you get by taking risks, feeling whatever you end up feeling, recognizing that it didn’t kill you, and then getting on the board and paddling back into the surf. Have that difficult conversation. Listen without defensiveness when your colleague criticizes you. Name the elephant in the room. Get rejected. And feel it all. Feel the anticipation of the risk. Feel the pre-risk cringe. Then, during the risk, and after, take a deep breath and feel that too. You’ll become familiar with those feelings and, believe it or not, you’ll start to enjoy them. Even the ones you think of as unpleasant. Because feeling is [...]

What to Do When You've Made Someone Angry


In the end, your intentions don't matter much. I was running late. My wife Eleanor and I had agreed to meet at the restaurant at seven o’clock and it was already half past. I had a good excuse in the form of a client meeting that ran over and I wasted no time getting to the dinner as fast as possible. When I arrived at the restaurant, I apologized and told her I didn’t mean to be late. She answered: “You never mean to be late.” Uh oh, she was mad. “Sorry,” I retorted, “but it was unavoidable.” I told her about the client meeting. Not only did my explanations not soothe her, they seemed to make things worse. That started to make me angry. That dinner didn’t turn out to be our best. Several weeks later, when I was describing the situation to a friend of mine, Ken Hardy, a professor of family therapy, he smiled. “You made a classic mistake,” he told me. “Me? I made the mistake?” I was only half joking. “Yes. And you just made it again,” he said. “You’re stuck in your perspective: You didn’t mean to be late. But that’s not the point. The point is that you were late. The point — and what’s important in your communication — is how your lateness impacted Eleanor.” In other words, I was focused on my intention while Eleanor was focused on the consequences. We were having two different conversations. In the end, we both felt unacknowledged, misunderstood, and angry. The more I thought about what Ken said, the more I recognized that this battle — intention vs. consequences — was the root cause of so much interpersonal discord. As it turns out, it’s not the thought that counts or even the action that counts. That’s because the other person doesn’t experience your thought or your action. They experience the consequences of your action. Here’s another example: You send an email to a colleague telling him you think he could have spoken up more in a meeting. He replies to the email, “Maybe if you spoke less, I would have had an opportunity to say something!” That obviously rankles you. Still, you send off another email trying to clarify the first email: “I didn’t mean to offend you, I was trying to help.” And then maybe you add some dismay at the aggressiveness of his response. But that doesn’t make things better. He quotes the language of your first email back to you. “Don’t you see how it reads?” He asks. “BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT!” You write back, IN CAPS. So how do you get out of this downward spiral? It’s stunningly simple, actually. When you’ve done something that upsets someone — no matter who’s right — always start the conversation by acknowledging how your actions impacted the other person. Save the discussion about your intentions for later. Much later. Maybe never. Because, in the end, your intentions don’t matter much. What if you don’t think the other person is right — or justified — in feeling the way they do? It doesn’t matter. Because you’re not striving for agreement. You’re going for understanding. What should I have said to Eleanor? “I see you’re angry. You’ve been sitting here for 30 minutes and that’s got to be frustrating. And it’s not the first time. Also, I can see how it seems like I think being with[...]

Why You Should Take the Blame


Accepting responsibility can be a power move. I was at a party in Greenwich Village in New York City. It was crowded, with about twice as many people as the space comfortably fit. There was a dog in the mix too. But it was a casual event and we all spent a lot of time in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning. I was at the sink washing dishes when I heard the dog yelp behind me. I turned just in time to see a woman curse at the dog as it dashed out of the kitchen. She had obviously just stepped on his foot or tail. “Watch out!” she shouted after the dog, then saw me looking at her and added, “He’s always in the way.” Really? You step on a dog and then you blame the dog? Who does that? Actually, a lot of us do. We start blaming others at an early age, usually to escape parental anger and punishment, but also to preserve our own self-esteem and self-image. Then the behavior sticks, often well into our adulthood. I — and I am sure you — see people in organizations point fingers all the time. Sometimes it’s at a departmental level: A struggling sales group blames a poor product, while the product people blame an ineffectual sales team or maybe lax manufacturing. Blaming a department or a product feels safer than blaming a person since it appears less personal, can pass as an attempt at organizational improvement, and might seem less defensive. But it’s counter-productive as the transparency of culpability betrays its disguises. A few years ago I sat at a table with the leaders of a major stock exchange. They were struggling with setting goals for the year. The CEO, to whom they all reported, was not in the room. I asked them what was getting in the way. “We need direction from senior leadership,” they answered in agreement. “Seriously?” I was stunned. “Look around,” I said, raising my voice a little, “Everyone in the organization is looking for direction from you! You are senior leadership.” “No,” the head of something answered with the others nodding, “The CEO isn’t here.” I retorted: “You’re blaming the CEO? You’re waiting for him to tell you what to do? At your level? Really?” An awkward silence followed. Then we got to work turning the company around. Blaming others is a poor strategy. Not simply because everyone can see through it. Or because it’s dishonest. Or because it destroys relationships. Or even because, while trying to preserve our self-esteem, it actually weakens it. There’s a more essential reason why blame is a bad idea: Blame prevents learning. If something isn’t your fault, then there’s no reason for you to do anything differently. Which means, in all probability, you’ll make the same mistake in the future. That will lead to more blame. It’s a cycle that almost always ends badly. Recently, a CEO I work with fired Bill*, one of his portfolio managers. He didn’t fire him for poor results. He fired him for blaming his poor investment results on everything except himself. The CEO was only looking for one thing from Bill: Awareness of the mistakes he was making. But Bill continued to deny his role in his poorly performing portfolio. The CEO was right to fire him. If Bill couldn’t admit to the mistakes he was making, why wouldn’t he make the same mistake tomorrow? Would you trust Bill with your money? Thankfully there[...]

How to Use Temptation to Strengthen Your Willpower


Your ability to change takes practice. I was running a leadership offsite at The Allison Inn and Spa in Oregon — one of my favorite hotels — and the food, as always, was exquisite. The carrot cake at lunch was so delicious that I ate two pieces. And when the staff brought out big, thick, gooey, homemade cookies during a break, I was already so far outside my circle of guilt that I ate three of them. The offsite was a success. But physically, I felt so full, it hurt. So why did I keep eating? The answer is simple: It’s hard to resist temptation. Picture the gap between wanting something and having it. Now imagine a rubber band stretched between you and that thing you want, pulling on you, drawing you toward that thing. We have a hard time staying in that tension and resisting the pull. So we do things — eat, buy, speak, act — to release the tension. The idea is that once we release the tension, we feel better. But the reality is very different. Yes, for a moment —usually a very short moment — we feel better. But then, very quickly, we go back to feeling the same as before or, in my case, worse. There’s a term in psychology for this disappointment: The Hedonic Treadmill. We relentlessly pursue things and experiences that we think will make us happier. But once we acquire them, we quickly return to our previous level of happiness. So then we look for the next thing. That car you’ve been lusting after? The first day you sit in it you feel wonderful. You’ve dreamed of this moment. But within a couple of weeks, the car feels like every other car you’ve ever owned. That’s when you start lusting after another new car. This got me thinking: Maybe getting the object of our desire isn’t what we really desire. Maybe it’s the desire itself which we desire. In other words, maybe it’s more pleasurable to want things than to have them. Think about any good movie you’ve seen recently. I bet the first few minutes introduced a problem and the rest of the movie was devoted to the tension of a protagonist who wants something, usually with some urgency, that she does not get. Then, it was only in the last few minutes that the tension was resolved and she achieved whatever it was she was seeking. The reason good movies follow that formula is that there is no way to keep an audience engaged once that tension is dissipated. That’s because ninety-five percent of our pleasure is in that tension. It’s the tension of suspense, of anticipation, and it feels at least as good and lasts much longer than the resolution. In fact, we only care about the resolution because of the anticipation. When I explored the pain I felt after overeating, some of it came from feeling overstuffed. But there was something else too, a disappointment that caused far more pain than my distended stomach. I was too full to eat dinner. Dinner at the Allison is truly my favorite meal — fish cooked to perfection, wild mushrooms, desserts to die for. I look forward to dinner well before I arrive at the hotel. And now I knew I would have to give it up. That disappointment robbed me of hours of anticipatory, tempting pleasure. It’s easy to think that it’s mainly the dinner itself that gives me the pleasure. And it is, for the few short moments that I’m eating it. But consider how much time I spend anticipating the dinner, compared t[...]

How Not to Lose a Sale


The sales opportunity was mine to lose. And I lost it. Robyn*, a close friend of mine and senior leader at a large pharmaceutical company, referred me to work with Dan, the CEO of one of her company’s subsidiaries and someone she knew well. She would arrange for the three of us to meet. The lead wasn’t just warm; it was hot. During the sales process I made a series of decisions, all of which felt — in fact, still feel — eminently reasonable. Here’s what happened: With Dan’s permission, Robyn and I met several times before the meeting to discuss Dan and his situation. Dan was new to his role as CEO and needed to step up in tricky circumstances. By the time I met with him, I understood his challenges and it was clear that they fit squarely in my sweet spot as an advisor. The day of the meeting, Robyn and Dan were running behind schedule. We had planned for 60 minutes but now only had 20. “No problem,” I told them, “I’ve been briefed about the situation, so we can cut to the chase.” I sat down in an empty office chair which happened to be uncomfortably low to the ground and I instinctively raised the seat to the level at which I normally sit. Dan started the conversation with a compliment about my latest book and told me how much he enjoyed my blog posts, which reinforced my decision to “cut to the chase.” I explained briefly what I knew about his situation and when he acknowledged that I understood it, I launched into how I would approach it. At one point, Dan asked me a question and I hesitated before answering. Robyn suggested that we discuss it later but I didn’t want to disappoint so I thanked her but said I’d be happy to share my thoughts and I did. Nothing I did or said or thought or felt was dramatically off base. In fact, each step — each choice I made — was practical, sensible, and appropriate from my perspective. Which is precisely why I crashed. I was operating from my perspective. But Dan wasn’t. He was operating from his perspective. And from his perspective, the fact that I was operating from my perspective was a deal-breaker. The problem? I wasn’t attuned. Daniel Pink, in his excellent book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, calls attunement one of the three most valuable qualities you need to move others. (Pink talked about this in a recent HBR Ideacast.) Essentially, attunement is being in synch with who’s and what’s around you. When you’re in attunement, you’re curious. You ask questions, you listen to the answers, and you empathize. I might have been attuned to the challenges Dan was facing — but everything I did and said indicated that I wasn’t attuned to Dan. Or even to Robyn. According to Pink, the first rule of attunement is to reduce your power. You do that by letting go of your perspective, which opens space for you to share the perspective of others. Pink quoted one highly successful salesperson who related this to humility. Great sales people, she said, take the attitude, “I’m sitting in the small chair so you can sit in the big chair.” I did the opposite. I raised my seat, literally and figuratively. I took control of the conversation, sidelined Robyn when she suggested we talk later, and spent what little time I had trying to prove to Dan that I und[...]