Where is Your “Us” Boundary?

A client told me that she did not trust or desire to work with the management team of her company. This was a challenge since she desired to progress in her career and joining the leadership team would be her next step if she stayed with the organization. She had drawn a line of us versus them. I encouraged her to expand her sense of “us”.

Brain research using functional imaging is confirming our natural inclination to assess whether others are with us or against us. When shown pictures of “others” in an fMRI our amygdala naturally reacts to differences (of race, gender, age and other factors). Our amygdala or emotions quickly react (in a tenth of a second) before our prefrontal cortex or thoughts come on board and we can remind ourselves to be open to others.

Research also shows that we can shift our boundary to have a wider sense of us and them. We can include people in our team, division, organization, neighborhood, country etc. Under the same brain imaging scan, sports fans did not react to race, gender or other factors when their “us” were supporters of their team based on the emblem on their baseball cap.

Notice where you naturally create categories separating individuals. This awareness and the skill to shift to being open and becoming interested in others’ perspectives are critical skills needed today.

Make it your intention to draw a wider boundary beyond your team and even organization. By stretching our definitions of tribe we can tackle greater issues together.

Encourage Perspective Taking

Two companies merged and each continued to see and talk about the other predecessor in negative terms. The conversations in meetings stayed on the surface level and there was a sense of mistrust. Each perceived the other as not interested in collaborating but “winning” and desiring to be in charge.  The senior leaders had been working on the merger for a longer time and failed to signal how they expected people to work together. In fact, the senior leaders joined in negative comments about the other company and demanded results. Just as it is challenging when people marry, it takes effort to integrate companies that have different mindsets and values.

How can we support more prosocial behavior and working with people who are “different” than us?  Polarization and judgments often keep people from engaging and seeing each other as human.

A first step is to encourage perspective taking. Ask people to identify what something is like for a different party.  “How do you think the other group is perceiving the situation?” It does not mean you have to agree or change things. “How do they find it working with the agreed system?”  It is essential to give empathy and understanding to individuals. “It is painful to lose a system that you developed and know well, especially when you believe the new one lacks important aspects.”  With dialogue and understanding, you can identify agreements that will work for both parties. For example, you can agree to change language to “we” and not refer to each other by the predecessor organizations.

Be kind to yourself. Notice your tendency to judge the other and focus on taking their perspective. Imagine how you might perceive things and your related emotions. Focus on being open and listening.

What is Your Word?

I find it useful to identify a characteristic that I want to embody.  Each year I create an intention of what I want to experience. Our intentions and words matter.  Selecting one word helps us to focus with clarity. It helps us to set priorities and actions to fulfill our aspiration.  There is something powerful about making a declaration to ourselves (and others we trust who can support us).

When we set an intention for ourselves, we are more likely to move toward that aspiration.  Our intention is more about who we want to be than what we want to do. Our word is what is important to how we want to be.

How would life be different for you if you embodied your characteristic? One of my favorite intentions has been ease.  I have a tendency to take the difficult road and work quite hard. I desire to be more at ease and create ease in those around me.  I envision more space and time to reflect and more of a sense of flow in my life. By setting the intention to embody ease I became more aware of when I was experiencing ease and when I was not. It is useful to post your word in places you will notice it to remind you of your aspiration.

I remind myself each day of my intention and visualize experiencing the word and I notice that I take steps to embody that intention.

Be open to identifying a characteristic or word that you would like to embody this year. Make it a practice of recalling your intention, envision how your life will be embodying it and notice ways to take action to make your aspiration a reality.

Pay Attention to the Emotional Climate You are Swimming in


“You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”—Rabindranath Tagore

“I am not looking forward to the team dialogue session. Some people in this organization are sharks; they only care about themselves and are biased.”  “I just want to do my job and keep my head down.” This was the sentiment of some of the participants I spoke with before facilitating a retreat with a team focused on building connection and aligning the team to achieve a shared vision.  Some felt like they were alone in dangerous waters rather than engaged in vibrant waters.

At the team retreat, a long-time employee shared the pain she experienced when she was not able to answer client questions because she had not been made aware of developments. People were shocked since they assumed she did not need to know given her position and quite frankly thought she did not care.  Her abruptness was a reaction to feeling not included and disrespected. Some realized that they had made assumptions about her and had isolated her. Others shared what they needed to feel respected and most realized they were making assumptions about one another and not having meaningful conversations.  The negative emotional environment had limited people in appreciating the exciting vision they shared and the synergy that was possible.  By assuming positive intent and engaging in a productive conversation, the tone began to change for this team.  A long-time foe even asked the person to lunchsomething that had not occurred in their long tenure together.  In fact, several commented that they believed this was the first time they had a genuine conversation.  Open-minded conversations can be quite powerful.

Attending to and creating a respectful climate that the team is “swimming in” and having productive conversations are two essential skills needed for success these days.

In a recent New York Times Op Ed, David Brooks argues that a warrior ethos has reduced politics to friend/enemy or zero-sum conflicts.  He recounts that in the 90’s people adapted an unconscious abundance mindset where there was a climate of confidence in the future and a more welcoming environment. Today, there is a feeling of limited resources and a more win-lose mindset.  People have a “stick with my tribe” mentality.

Given the political environment, we are acutely aware of polarization and we feel the tension.  Often people see each other as less than human. The philosopher Martin Buber call this an “I-It” perspective rather than an “I-thou” view. Some argue that the fast pace and drive for short term results, the challenge of incorporating new technology and globalization are requiring us to be inattentive to those around us and the environments we create.

I see this kind of polarization in organizations across many areas: functions, roles, age, gender, race, people from one part of a merger or those new to the organization and those with longer tenure.  These divisions and conflicts often seem insurmountable.  They take people’s time and attention and suck energy out of a system.

When people don’t feel respected they often shut down and disengage, or become angry and fight either directly or act out in more subtle ways. Too much energy is wasted that could have been devoted to collaboration, innovation and results. People feel drained and often report a sense of toxicity.

It is useful to check on your environments and ask how you are contributing to creating a positive and safe oasis.  A key ingredient of an effective team is psychological safety.  We can each have the intention of being respectful of those around us. The challenge is that we each have different definitions of respect. It takes paying attention and an open and kind stance to ensure that others do indeed feel respected and valued.

We can make a difference in our teams and organizations and in our neighborhoods by committing to connecting with others. Notice people and see themreally work to see them. Look beyond our first labels and recognize that we are all suffering and experiencing life’s challenges in some way. We often don’t see that people have challenges with their family members and kids or are maybe struggling with technical, financial or health issues.  Even if we don’t know the details, we can all benefit from empathy and compassion and caring.

We are swimming in an environment and we can each work to ensure that it is a pool of respect that is lively and vibrant rather than one where people feel isolated, not valued and disconnected with sharks nearby.

With an open mindset and commitment to respect we will be positioned to have meaningful conversations.  I am fortunate to witness the transformation in teams, organizations and families when we create an environment of respect and engage in productive conversations.

Make it a practice of paying attention to the atmosphere in your team, organization, family and community. Do you feel respected, included and engaged?  How do others feel? What can you do to create a positive environment?  Notice the impact.

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What do you win when you win?


“If you lose your temper, you lose!”—Richard Diaz

A senior executive, Leo, stopped by a colleague’s office to thank him for putting in long hours to resolve a significant organizational challenge. After acknowledging the thanks, Jerry, the colleague, began to complain about the organization and the leaders’ decisions. Jerry blamed the senior management team (of which Leo was a member) for cutting off funding for the project. He felt the design was sound and more funds should have been allocated. Leo worked hard to explain the reason further funds were not forthcoming. It made sense to Leo. There were other more pressing priorities and such business choices had to be made. Jerry continued to blame senior management for creating a problem. Leo began to focus on what Jerry could have done to make the project go more smoothly and worked harder to defend senior management’s choice. Jerry would not agree and continued to blame senior management. Leo lost his cool and said something all of us have thought at one time. “If you don’t like it here, you can always leave.” Who has not had such a thought toward a colleague, partner or friend.  Unfortunately, verbalizing the sentiment did not support Jerry in being positive toward Leo.

What happened here?  Both Leo and Jerry were each trying to influence the other and each were using logic from their point of view while they were experiencing strong emotions. Each believed that he was “right” and the other was “wrong”. Each argued their case and worked hard to “win.”

Each felt he “won” the argument and each thereafter shared their perspective with others who agreed. However, what did they win when they “won”?  Now there is negative energy between the two men and the negativity extends to others around them. Each felt drained and their anger persisted. They felt at a standstill and each probably hoped the other would disappear. More likely, they will spread the negative energy further to others in the organization. Future meetings will be uncomfortable. I have seen such negative interactions influence decisions between people for decades in some organizations. The negativity may go underground but influence future interactions and decisions.

Ironically, Leo had good intentions to connect with and show appreciation to Jerry. What could he have done differently? He could have noticed when he was becoming defensive and used a strategy such as consciously breathing and taking a moment to shift to a more open and curious state. He could catch his tendency to want to “win” and ask himself, “What do I win when I win?”  He could recall his intention to create positive and productive relationships. When he could manage to be open and curious, Leo could have given empathy to Jerry.  “It is upsetting to lose funding for a project that you feel could have been successful with more time and resources.”  “It is hard to understand and support some of the decisions made by senior management.” “It is frustrating when you believe senior management does not see the whole situation and the ramifications of some decisions.” Leo could give authentic understanding without meaning he is in agreement. He could even say, “I hear your frustration about the decision. What else should I be aware of?”

While our instinct is to use our intellect and other resources to win at all costs, we can tame that disposition when we reflect on “what do we win when we win?”  It is useful to recall our desire to influence through noticing and managing to be open and curious. Our openness and empathy will be contagious and support others in being open in return. It is helpful to also “assume positive intent.”

Like Leo, we all have become defensive and aggressive in our efforts to “win”. Forgive yourself and you may want to apologize and envision you both on the same side, winning together.

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Where Do You Find Challenge and Support to Achieve Goals?


“If I am through learning, I am through.”—John Wooden

Face it, we are all so busy these days. Our to-do lists are long and it takes a lot of energy to be a leader, manager or collaborative contributor.  When I ask leaders and those I coach, many report that they have little time for career development or meaningful friendships. Some indicate that they don’t find their workplaces to be respectful and that it is hard to trust colleagues and there are few avenues for real feedback. Often people are competing for positions and it is hard to find the space to be real or vulnerable.

One exception that I have experienced is peer coaching groups where people make the commitment to support and challenge one another to create successful outcomes and to develop their skills. I have facilitated many of these groups as part of a larger corporate leadership program or as stand-alone coaching groups for leaders or those responsible for an area such as diversity, project leaders or senior executives.

I recently facilitated such a group for organization development and coaching professionals. We met virtually each month as well as with individuals in between. The experience was dynamic with significant results. Participants described it as “magical” and each were astounded at the progress made on their projects.

We began the process with the clear intention of supporting one another as well as each person working on a specific goal or project. As part of the norms, participants agreed to confidentiality, an open-mindset, vulnerability, focused participation, respectful listening and sharing and having fun. Each person identified a goal and received suggestions and feedback from the others. We had pair coaching as well as work as a whole group. In between the group meetings, people worked on their projects as well as connected with one or two other members.

We began subsequent meetings sharing progress and agreeing on next steps. The accountability with the group supported people in making substantial progress. The supportive environment inspired people to take action. For example, one member created a new program, developed a website and offered his course and gained clients. Others also embarked on cultural change projects and started significant new endeavors. Participants received just-in-time coaching and enhanced awareness and actions. Depending on the need, we provided models and tools that fostered learning and skill development. For example, I shared my OASIS process for positive and productive conversations.

What made the experience valuable was the oasis-like environment we created in the coaching group. We created an open environment for learning and we freely supported one another. There was not hidden competition where people were posturing. It is not easy to find such an environment of openness and genuine feedback. Participants felt seen by others in the group and made real friends that will last beyond the formal meetings. People were generous in introducing people to others who would be useful. Most importantly participants felt valued by peers and positive about their outcomes.

When we shared the experience with other professionals they said they yearned for the same sense of community and progress on their projects and goals.

Where are you getting support and coaching for your personal and professional development? I encourage you to join a coaching group or create this opportunity for yourself where you make progress on your goals amidst the support and feedback of colleagues.

Contact us any time.

Invest in Building Relationships


“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.”—Pablo Picasso

I like to reflect at year-end and set goals for the following year. I set aspirations in many areas including: career, professional development, health, material, psychological, spiritual, family, community and creativity. At one time I had over 20 pages of goals. Now I try to make it simpler so I can be open to what emerges and not have to be so hard on myself. One area I am focusing on and encouraging my coaching clients to consider in goal setting is building relationships.

My executive clients often say they are too busy for building and maintaining relationships. They work long hours with big commitments and pressures. They barely have enough time for family and essentials. I certainly can relate. Given the volatility and uncertainty we face these days it feels like cultivating friendships and community can be last on the list. But should it be?

While we feel pressured, it is relationships that foster well-being and innovation.  Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, found that American soldiers in Afghanistan experienced a sense of well-being when living and working in community. The same soldiers experienced isolation after deployment. Many said they missed the connection.  Junger makes the case that humans lived and worked together in close-knit social groups or tribes for hundreds of thousands of years and we value and thrive with connections of support. In our modern society, we have fewer chances of helping one another and many feel divided and even depressed. These divisions have become even larger in recent years.

When there are disasters such as floods, fires and other calamities, we see that people come together and help and support one another. After 9/11, people in New York City reported feeling more connected. The murder rate actually went down. We as humans are wired for collaboration and supporting each other. Research shows that urban wealthy women in North America experience more isolation and depression than rural women in Nigeria.  While the women in Nigeria are poorer, they have more social support and connections.   

There are many research studies showing the health benefits of human connection.  At the end of our lives, we reflect more on our connections than other achievements.

One way I have built strong supportive relationships is joining groups of peers for reflection and support of one another. I have built lasting friendships with peers while we support one another in achieving goals.  We have learned a lot professionally and experienced the power of connection. I have facilitated peer learning and coaching groups across the globe and people always report that the relationships formed are meaningful and supportive.  In addition, because of the diverse experiences and backgrounds learning, innovation and creativity are a natural outcome.

I encourage you to make building relationships and connection a goal this year.

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Appreciative Leadership


“Nothing is more honorable than a grateful heart.”—Seneca

In my work with leaders, I emphasize the importance of creating an environment in which people feel a sense of openness and respect, where people can engage in meaningful conversations and can explore diverse perspectives and be innovative. Emotions are contagious and leaders benefit from being aware of their disposition and how they influence others. One of the simplest ways to create a positive and productive environment is to build the habit of gratitude.

During the holidays, people are more apt to recall what they are grateful for. Making it a daily practice is even more powerful. Most successful leaders are problem solvers and implementers of solutions and are quick to identify what is not working. It takes a different stance to embrace gratitude.

When we are able to reflect and actually experience the sensation of gratefulness, we encounter more openness to possibilities and others sense this energy.

Research shows that being grateful has multiple benefits.  People report greater well-being when they appreciate what they have.  There are clear physical and mental health benefits. Those who are grateful experience deeper relationships and less stress.  It’s hard to argue against building the habit of noticing and being grateful and showing appreciation.

People often suggest having a journal to collect what you are grateful for. I have adopted the simple habit of reflecting on what I am grateful for about my day as I go to sleep.  I have noticed that connecting with people seems to bring me my greatest joy. I have also noticed and appreciate how much I do have and how fortunate I am. It becomes a cycle. The more I am grateful, the more I seem to be grateful for.  This sure beats my old pattern of reflecting on all I had not done and all I needed to do.  Oh, by the way, research shows that people who adopt the habit of gratitude sleep better too.

Wishing you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving.

Encourage Conversations

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“Conversation is food for the soul.”—Mexican Proverb

Julie, a staff member of an executive, complained that another business unit was not cooperating and satisfying corporate requirements. What would you do if you were Julie’s manager? Do you speak with your peer, the head of the other area, or do you support Julie in having a conversation with her peer?  Either or both could be appropriate depending on the issue and the greater context.

Somewhere a conversation is needed. Often, I find that challenges my clients are experiencing are because those above are not aligned and are not having open-minded conversations. I once facilitated an agreement meeting between heads of a corporate function and a key business unit. They had been fighting for a while and the business unit had actually duplicated the corporate function in many ways to avoid contact. However, they were stuck and not able to solve an important business problem.  After some work with them we were able to get to the core issue and resolve the technical issue and enhance their relationship. However, we discovered that their leaders were misaligned and there were many ramifications.  After I facilitated a conversation with the top leaders, they were able to make progress and gained significant market share.

While conversations need to happen at the senior-most levels, I believe a role of a leader is to encourage team members to have meaningful and open-minded conversations. After some coaching, Julie did have the conversation with her peer. She was able to resolve the issue at her level. This was more efficient for Julie and her boss and others in the organization.

Leadership is about conversations. All day long leaders need to engage in conversations to inspire others and support alignment toward a compelling vision. In addition, leaders need to give feedback and support and resolve issues.  Open-minded conversations are essential for success and like any skill require practice. Leaders need to create a culture where respectful conversations are the norm.

Are you engaging in open-minded conversations today and encouraging your team members to do the same?

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Are You Creating Psychological Safety with your Team?

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“Psychological safety describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”  — Amy Edmondson

A manager said angrily to her staff member, “This work is not up to par. Don’t you know how to put together a decent presentation?” Clearly, she was agitated that she did not receive a draft that would serve her needs and she had several other pressing deadlines. However, her tone and manner of giving feedback demeaned her team member and caused the team member to feel uncertain. The two did not have a real conversation. At first the team member tried to defend her work. “This is what you said you wanted.”

While she knew that her manager often seemed to change her mind, she felt humiliated and angry and as a result, did not really hear the changes her manager suggested. She was too flooded with stress and she lost her sense of confidence. Instead, she talked about her boss to colleagues. She was looking for empathy and understanding. Instead, they shared their own stories of receiving negative feedback. In a short while the atmosphere of the team became negative. The next version of the presentation that the colleague gave to her manager did not meet her boss’ expectations. Now the boss was complaining about the inadequacies of the team member to her colleagues and other members of the team. The spiral was in place and continued to go downhill.

In this situation, the staff member began complaining about her boss to others outside the department and word filtered back to HR and the boss. Emotions are contagious and the climate of the team declined. Eventually the team member sought out a different role. This team lacked psychological safety. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation. The manager and the team member did not intend to be difficult or cause harm and both were skilled and worked hard. Both manager and the team member reacted to stress and both regretted the energy required to deal with the aftermath.  Both would benefit from knowing how to manage their reactions and being able to successfully engage in an open-minded conversation to give and receive feedback. Being open-minded and able to manage ourselves and engage in conversations are critical for success these days.

Google conducted a comprehensive study of 180 teams to analyze the critical ingredients of high performing teams. The study identified psychological safety as the most important factor. If team members felt comfortable asking for constructive feedback and exploring divergent views with one another, they experienced a greater sense of trust and openness. These teams were more productive too.

It is critical to take steps to ensure that your teams are experiencing psychological safety. You can do so by adapting an open mindset and having meaningful conversations with each other. You can agree on norms for how the team will operate. For example, how you will handle disagreements and create a positive climate.  It is important to assume positive intent and respect that people generally desire to do well. Yet we each have different strengths and different views of what is important. When we make assumptions without testing them, we invariably create a negative spiral without our desired results.

What steps are you taking today to create more psychological safety in your teams?

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