Openness is Contagious

Years ago, I provided team coaching to an executive team of a manufacturing company based in Wisconsin.  Our meetings were early mornings. I could predict the energy and openness of the team based on the score of the Green Bay Packer game the day before. If the team was winning, as it mostly did at the time, the leadership team members were more positive about creating new solutions and working together. If the team lost, we had to spend more time creating an open environment for the leadership team dialogue.

We all have experienced this phenomenon. A colleague shared that people seemed to have a skip in their walk and a friendly smile for one another in Charlottesville after UVA won the 2019 NCAA basketball championship.  It seemed like the whole town shared this positive optimism. Not only is it Virginia’s first championship but the victory is particularly sweet after their close loss last year. The coach and players claim that the loss brought them closer together to achieve this win.

We not only need to check in to ensure that we are open and that those we interact with feel safe and open but it is important to ensure that we work to support a positive and open environment. After the UVA win, colleagues in workplaces seemed more open and forgiving of one another when they were fighting about an issue the day before. Again, a very different experience in the workplace than when there was tension during a previous rally in the city.

An abundance of research emphasizes the importance of creating an environment of openness, safety and trust.

Ask, how open is the environment? What can I do to support openness?  Pay attention to the environment or context as much as the content or your words.

Listen to Connect Not Correct

Drawing by Ann Van Eron

What is he thinking? What a terrible idea! Does he see how he is going to hurt the staff and the company?” This is what Trish told me she was thinking as her boss shared a new idea that he thought would save money and address a big problem.

Trish had immediately told her boss why the idea would not work. She was surprised that he could not see the foolishness of his solution.  Unfortunately, Trish was not successful in influencing her boss to consider other options and in addition, their relationship soured.

What happened? Trish immediately identified what she believed was wrong with her manager’s idea and began arguing her point of view. She did what we all do often. We focus on correcting or rejecting an idea before we ensure that we are listening fully and connecting with the person speaking. We need to manage ourselves and make sure we understand that the other person is saying and also identify how they are feeling by providing empathy. For example, Trish could have said, “You are concerned about the problem and believe this solution will address the challenge and address the budget deficit too.”  Her boss would have felt heard and been more open to a conversation. Because he felt judged he became closed to a genuine conversation of exploring options and also became closed to Trish.

Notice your response when you hear ideas you don’t agree with (give yourself empathy) and stop and shift to being curious and open. Focus on listening more intently, share what you have heard, give empathy and be open to learning more.

Be an Ally

Artwork by Ann Van Eron

Jenny excitedly told me how happy she was about a meeting she participated in. She was a bit intimidated by the caliber of participants and was a bit hesitant to speak up, particularly since she is an introvert. We have all had that feeling of hesitancy. She took the risk and suggested a unique idea. The ideas continued to flow from people and no one commented on hers. Then, a colleague said, “I would like to comment on Jenny’s brilliant suggestion….”

Her colleague did a number of things: she gave credit to Jenny for her idea by noting it and appreciated the contribution. Then she built on the idea. This supported Jenny in feeling a part of the group and it created an environment for all to contribute and take such risks.

Jenny actually wrote a note of thanks to her colleague who then confessed that she felt intimidated in the meeting and that she would always “have her back.” Trust was enhanced and the two are on their way to a friendship of supporting each other.

Can you take the simple step of noticing and calling out someone’s idea that contributes to the team and then appreciate such allies who are supportive?

Take a Time Out

You are having a conversation with a colleague and while you have intended to remain open you feel yourself becoming agitated. You know that you are not fully listening and note your judgement.  What can you do?

You can notice your judgement and recognize that you are not open or in your oasis. You can share, “I realize I am feeling a bit agitated or stressed. You and this conversation are too important to me, and I want to be fully hearing you. Let’s take a short break and reconnect in 15 or 30 minutes.”  Ideally, the other person will appreciate your concern for the relationship.

Research by John Gottman, a leading relationship expert, found that when couples were engaged in conflict and their cortisol levels became elevated that their conversations were not productive. He began to say that there were problems with the video equipment that was being used in the experiment. He found that after approximately a 15 minute break, the couple could resume in a positive state and were better equipped to address differences.

Notice when you are triggered and are in judgement with elevated cortisol levels. Take a break and cool down and become open. Notice the impact on your interactions.

Are You Willing for It to be Easy?

Many of us these days are overwhelmed. Organizations are going through multiple changes. The technology keeps requiring more learning even when its purpose is to make things go more smoothly and efficiently. We feel we have more and more things to do to keep up.

I recall working with a group trying to solve a challenge and someone asked, “What if it were easy?”  Everyone stopped. This option had not been considered. In fact, there was a simple solution and a lot of effort could be eliminated.

We are creatures of habit and it is hard to stop doing things that we think “should” be done.  When I ask teams to consider what to stop doing, there are often blank faces. Of course, sometimes people are worried about job security and other times we don’t consider other options. One team I worked with was able to reduce over 50 major projects the company was working on down to six. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the meeting. The leadership team was aligned and had a process to monitor 6 initiatives. They had more confidence and increased market share after making it easier.

A small business owner was spending a lot of time and money trying to market the company’s offerings. They had multiple ways of marketing. When they considered how to make it easy, they realized that most of their work was coming from referrals. By focusing on communicating with a small number of people, they saved time and energy and had greater results. In fact, it became easy.

Ask yourself, “Am I willing for it to be easy?”  Then expect an easier option. Examine your current “should” and look for what you can reduce or change to make things easier.

Are You Really Listening?

It is easy to ask questions of people without waiting for a response. I know I have done this when I am in a hurry. “Hi. How are you? How is your ill mother? Are you traveling this holiday?”  Sometimes we are asking questions just as a way of saying hello as we are passing by without really looking for a response. However, we need to be aware of our impact and provide space for a response.

Mary told me that a client “sucks the energy out of the room.”  When I inquired further, it became clear that her client asked many questions without pausing to really listen. Mary feels that the client does not really care about her and she braces herself when interacting with the client.  I suspect that her client is not aware of the lack of real connection. Perhaps she is genuinely interested but feels rushed inside and has not learned to slow down and give Mary full attention.

Notice your pattern. Do you pepper people with questions without leaving space for a response or are you genuinely interested and give people attention to hear their response?

Ask Questions for Which You Don’t Have Answers

To grow the creativity and curiosity muscle it is useful to ask questions and then listen fully. Sarah practices this regularly. When she meets someone new she is really interested in learning more about them and their background. She asks many questions. “Where did you grow up?” “What do you do for fun?” “What kind of challenges have you faced?” “What do you hope to accomplish?” “What holds you back?” “What supports you?” After a conversation with Sarah, the other person feels connected with her and often learns something about themselves as they reflect and share. Sarah often acquires a new friend. Because of her curiosity and the ability to give space for a person to speak, people are often vulnerable, share themselves, and experience a sense of connection.

It takes intention and skill to be open-minded and curious about another person and to ask questions where the answers are not known.  Then it takes intention to engage by fully listening.

When we ask questions in which we are curious and don’t know the answers a sense of space is created for discovery and possibilities.

I encourage you to consciously try asking questions where you don’t know the answers. Be open and curious to learn and see what evolves and what you discover. Enjoy the process too.

Multiple Realities

 

Multiple_RealitiesOur upbringing and experiences influence how we see the world, our mindset and how we behave.  We each interpret things in a different way. When someone challenges our perspective we easily become defensive and argue for why our view is correct.

These days we are seeing polarization not just politically but in organizations where there are tensions between various offices and between management and the field and between functions and other dimensions.

Are our differences fully a function of our conditioning?  John Hibbing, a researcher and political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln suggests that the partisan divide in the U.S. might arise not just from our upbringing and background but from our biology.

His research suggests that just as we may be born with a disposition to be introverted or extraverted or left or right-handed, there are psychological differences between liberals and conservatives. He is co-author of the book, “Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences.”

His research suggests that liberals and conservatives have different temperaments. For example, conservatives tend to be tidy and have more things such as sports memorabilia in their homes while liberals tend to have more experiential things like books and diverse CDs.

Hibbing suggests that liberals and conservatives differ in how they see threats and dangers. If someone sees the world as more threatening, they may support self-protection, spending more on defense and managing immigration. Liberals may not perceive the same level of threat and are more opposed to such measures.

Each tends to judge the other group as obtuse and biased. But what if we accepted that people are truly seeing the world differently based on temperament and experience? Brain research supports that we have unique structures which cause us to perceive differently. Higgins and his group did a study to show that people even smell substances differently. You can hear more in an interview of Hibbing at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510308/hidden-brain

What if we could recall that there are multiple realities and people are always seeing the world differently? Could we then focus on how to find common ground and work together for the benefit of all rather than devoting our energy to fighting each other and working to prove our way is correct?

A client who is an extravert found herself irritated with her introverted colleague and argued that he should be more direct and that her way was the “right way.” However, after accepting their unique temperaments, they were able to recognize each other’s needs and come to agreement on how to communicate and create a positive environment.

I envision a time when we notice our differences, give ourselves and others empathy and then shift to being open minded. We could then engage in creative conversations to find solutions that honor our differences and create a better world. It won’t be easy and we will have to catch our judgment. However, we have a lot to achieve together.

Take a step to appreciate our multiple realities and speak to someone with a different view.  What do you have in common and where is there common ground to listen to one another and create joint solutions?

What is Your Aspiration?

Change

Be the change you wish to see in the world. — Gandhi

Our language influences how we interpret and experience things. I purposely first ask people their aspirations rather than their goals or expectations.  A different part of the brain is activated when we are envisioning. We are more open and see more possibilities. Then, there is a place for clarifying goals and the next actions to move toward the aspiration.

Emotions are contagious and it is easy to feel anxious and want to rush to solutions. Often in conversations, we jump to solutions before fully listening. We push ourselves and others to commit to action for results. In fact, many of us seem wired for action and we certainly have been rewarded in the workplace for committing to action.  As a coach and team facilitator, I work to stay open and inspire people to dream of what is possible. By my questions and presence with clients, the space is set for such dreaming.

I realize that I do not always hold this same space with myself or my teenage daughter. My own worry about her succeeding can make me jump to proposed actions. “How is your studying going? What are you doing for your college applications?”  She does not feel my positive affirmation in these moments. In fact, I do have positive aspirations for her but my own worry and push for action can get in the way. I regret that I have missed opportunities with her the way leaders I coach have missed opportunities for connecting and envisioning with their teams.

When I worked with a leadership team that was experiencing challenges in the marketplace, I was able to share my excitement about what is possible for the organization and encourage them to dream of what they could co-create. They joined together to create a compelling vision and they also left with concrete priorities and actions.  Each leader agreed to carry the excitement and questions about what could be possible back to their teams. After a few days, the whole energy of the organization was lifted and new possibilities emerged. It is amazing to see the transformation when we are reflecting on our aspirations of what is possible rather than what is not going well and what we don’t want.

Be sure to give yourself space to reflect on what you most aspire and to connect with what brings you meaning. Then identify goals and next steps. Also, be an inspiration for others and engage them in dialogue about what is possible. This kind of conversation is needed more than ever these days when it is so easy for people to feel disheartened and out of control.

What is Your Urgent Need for Transformation?

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What’s wrong with these people?  Don’t they see the stock price is tanking? How do I get people to move? How do we turn this ship around? Will we make it?

Often leaders are frustrated when they sense that things are not moving fast enough or that there is not enough energy to create lasting change. How do they enhance the co-creation and action for results?

They often try to instill urgency by making staff changes. However, this can create more fear and uncertainty rather than engendering co-creation and collaboration. Other times, leaders resort to platitudes such as “the train is leaving, get on or off now.” Again, while these statements may promote short-term compliance, they do not seem to sustain commitment and action.

The challenge is that leaders generally are seeing things from a different perspective and need to engage in open-minded conversations with their teams.  A leader needs to clearly share the urgent need for transformation while understanding the needs of team members.

I have worked with many leaders who have been able to share their view and listen to the perspectives of their colleagues and then create shared meaning and a vision that inspires action for change. The value of taking some time for real conversation cannot be overestimated. Unfortunately, some feel they are too busy to engage in these essential and transformational conversations.

When all the voices are heard (initially through pre-meeting interviews) and a respectful and open environment is created, the urgency and focus emerges. An honest dialogue about the current situation and needs, without making people wrong, provides space to imagine what is possible. You can engage people to create a shared vision and a concrete plan for action. The powerful energy available when a shared sense of meaning is created is inspiring. The team can tap into a creative energy for change and then there is urgency and the excitement of working collectively for a shared goal. Rather than getting on the train, the team is forging a new path together with all the energy of experienced hikers and they bring along the rest of the organization. Mobilizing such energy is what makes being a leader and a part of an organization exciting.

After working with a leadership team to align around a shared vision the leader shared that a senior hire candidate indicated that he was excited to see the alignment of the senior team and wanted to join in the exciting venture. They had not been able to hire for the critical position before the team had engaged in open-minded dialogue and co-created a shared plan to urgently create changes in their business. Their energy and excitement after facilitated dialogue was contagious and extended throughout the organization. There is nothing like the power of engaged hearts and minds tapping into creativity. The results followed.

We love supporting leaders in deepening their ability to do this. It’s fun and rewarding for everyone. One way we support leaders with this is in working with them to create a Transformational Leadership Retreat. We’d love you to join us at our next seminar, in which we share the 6-question coaching model we use for leaders and their teams.

Creating urgency and powerful meaning is one of the topics we discuss in Use Your Next Leadership Retreat to Launch a Transformation: Learn the Process September 24 from 12 – 4:30 at the Catalyst Ranch in Chicago. Learn more here.

Jackie Sloane and Ann Van Eron are seasoned executive coaches, and work together with leaders to create transformational interventions and retreats for public sector, corporate, privately-held and not-for-profit entities.