Contagion: What are You Spreading?

We’ve heard about how measles are spreading at rapid speed significantly influencing communities. In a similar way emotions are contagious.

In a study a group of nurses were asked to keep a daily log of their mood, work challenges and the overall emotional climate of their team. After three weeks, the researchers could significantly predict the mood of the entire team based on the positive or negative mood of any one nurse. The emotional contagion occurred when the moods were influenced by those outside of work and when the nurses only spent a few hours a day together. Overtime, a mood can spread through an organization and greatly influence the culture.  

Another study showed that just witnessing another person who is stressed can cause stress to a person. That’s kind of scary given how many people are stressed these days. However, another study suggests that worrying about being stressed may be a real killer. In a study with thirty thousand participants people who had a lot of stress but didn’t worry about being stressed lived longer. Those who had a lot of stress and believed it was hurting them were over 40% more likely to die after eight years.  Other studies suggest that we need some stress to support growth and seeing it as positive may help people to live longer. People who retire and don’t engage are more likely to live less.

Given emotional contagion, how can we accept stress as a part of life and realize that it can even support focusing and longevity? How can we more consciously create a positive mood for ourselves and those around us?  A simple step is to be aware of your mood and to reflect on what you are grateful for.

Recognize that your mood is influencing others and see how you can be more open and positive.

Elevate Trust

An immense amount of energy is spent when we don’t trust a coworker or family member. When we can’t count on someone to follow through on their promises we experience higher levels of cortisol which limits our openness and relationships with others. We are less creative or open to new ideas.  On the other hand, when we are interacting with someone we trust, there are high levels of the neurotransmitter oxytocin which creates more of a sense of bonding and openness.

It is valuable to pay attention to how we are trusting others. Do we have an habitual pattern of expecting the worst and mistrusting people immediately? It is useful to notice our level of trust and to work to create positive trusting environments.  We can experiment with being more vulnerable and sharing more about ourselves. We can be explicit about expected norms or terms of engagement that we can reflect on from time to time and modify as necessary. We can ask for what we need and follow up.

Pay attention to your level of trust and take actions to elevate the environment of trust with those in your workplace and elsewhere.

Are You Creating an Environment of Respect?

A senior leadership team was surprised to see negative scores on an employee engagement survey. I conducted focus groups and confidential interviews to learn more. Like many organizations, the company had gone through significant changes and restructurings and this caused uncertainty.  However, the thing that seemed to be at the core of the negative scores was the experience of a lack of inclusion or respect. People did not feel that their managers cared about them or listened and valued them. A climate of distrust had been created where people did not openly speak with one another.

The cost is high when people don’t feel valued. Usually they believe it is because of the way they look or their function or role. When people feel there will be retribution for speaking up even more energy is required to create an open and inclusive environment where people feel engaged.

Just as in any relationship, we need to take stalk of the climate we are creating. Are we respecting others and seeing them as individuals with hopes and needs?  How you can create an open and inclusive environment? Begin by genuinely engaging in conversations to demonstrate interest and respect.

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.

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 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.

The Transformational Power of Alignment

Alignment

“We don’t talk with each other.”  “The leaders each have their own fiefdom.” “Our stock price is tanking and we are fighting each other.” “We have too many priorities.”  “Nothing is being done well.” “What are we trying to do?”

It is not uncommon to find leaders each operating with their own assumptions in an effort to create success. However, given their different backgrounds and experiences each focuses on what he or she deems is most important.  Often energy is wasted and the price of misalignment is high. It is costly for the leaders and even more so for those reporting to them.

I assume you have experienced the frustration, decreased energy and commitment drain when you have worked in a system where you believe the leaders are misaligned, not listening and the direction is unclear.  On the other hand, there is increased creativity and innovation and success seems to flow when there is open-mindedness and alignment.

What can you do? I suggest three steps:

  • Schedule a transformational retreat
  • Collect perspectives
  • Engage in dialogue for alignment
  1.     Schedule a transformational retreat

Devoting time for dialogue and connection is useful when a team or an organization is newly formed.  It is great to define expectations and agreements and support a positive beginning. When changes are going to be introduced, it is helpful to ensure that leaders are on the same page and speaking the same language. A merger, reorganization or a new leader or a significant change, each create uncertainty and the need for alignment and dialogue.  While it can be challenging to find a date, it is useful to announce the intention to create a positive environment for dialogue and alignment.

  1.     Collect perspectives

As part of my work facilitating a leadership team retreat I speak with each member of the team and other key stakeholders before we all meet. It is amazing how different the perspectives are on what is happening and what should be done. Each person is seeing the environment and the situation from their vantage point. The marketing person shares her concern about how the competition is gaining market share and poaching key people and emphasizes the need to invest in facilities and promotion. The finance person talks about market share and the need to reduce expenses. The technology leader believes that the company can be transformed by investing in new processes.  The business line heads may hope to acquire other businesses or grow their business.

Often each person also complains about what others are doing or not doing and what the leader should do.  Each believes that he or she is right. And it is clear that they don’t all see the whole situation.

Most of the time the leaders are busy with their function or business lines and have not had the space or support to genuinely step back and assess the best direction for the enterprise given changing conditions.  The value of a retreat is that all the views can be put on the table in an open atmosphere. Leaders can collectively step back from their own day-to-day challenges and look at the larger picture together. In the process, they get to know one another more and learn skills.

As a team and executive coach, I use the interviews before the retreat as an opportunity to coach and challenge leaders to try new behaviors and explore other perspectives.

  1.     Engage in dialogue for alignment

With the support of a facilitator/coach the various views can be surfaced and explored in the context of developing a shared strategy.  Engaging in open-minded dialogue strengthens the team by enhancing trust.

I like to jumpstart retreats by sharing the multiple perspectives regarding the business and how the team is working. I share that it is natural that participants have different perspectives and encourage the group not to make each other wrong. Participants want the organization to succeed and need to see that they rise and fall together in the same boat.  By sharing the findings from interviews upfront, people know that the issues are on the table and they can get to work to clarify their vision and priorities. I also work with teams to clarify their criteria for decision- making and what they will postpone or not do. This can be one of the most challenging conversations. In addition to aligning on the strategy and priorities, the team focuses on being open-minded and how to engage in positive and productive conversations.  Participants listen and give empathy to one another. They experience a new way of interacting and co-creating agreements. I teach participants the OASIS Conversations process that supports them in being open-minded and curious and creating understanding and agreements. Participants agree on the kind of culture they will inspire together.

The transformational experience is unforgettable. When people come together to work on a shared goal and support one another, it is exciting and worthwhile. Leaders realize that they can achieve goals and make a difference together.

When team members leave a meeting aligned on their vision, strategy, priorities, processes and values they are prepared to lead together. They agree on structures and practices to ensure sustainable success. The alignment is palpably experienced by others and can be communicated across the organization.

How aligned is your team and are they engaged in open-minded conversations?

How to create alignment 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.

What Conversations are Needed for Transformation?

Conversations

Don’t underestimate the power of open-minded conversations.

If you are like most organizations and leaders, you are experiencing disruption. You are experiencing pressure from within and outside your company. You are introducing new technology, you are facing greater competition, you have changes in leadership and focus. You worry about engagement and having the right talent.  You need people to think and behave in a different way to achieve challenging goals. Sometimes it is a matter of life or death for the future of the enterprise.

For example, an organization we worked with experienced a merger where very different cultures joined. There were conflicts among leaders about where to spend resources and devote energy. There were different perceptions about what was needed with different demands from senior leadership and the external clients. The misalignment and conflicts were felt throughout the system.

We spoke with the leaders to understand their perspectives and brought them together for open-minded dialogue. They needed to align as a leadership team and organization to make a real difference for clients and to survive in the increasingly pressured marketplace.

First, the leadership team needed to build trust. This was not easy. However, once the different perspectives were shared and each identified what they needed to feel respected they found common ground and that they could see themselves as the team to succeed.

They created a shared vision and aligned around where they would focus energy.

They found synergies when they stopped fighting one another. They agreed on their roles and responsibilities and developed processes such as cadences for how they would communicate with each other and the organization.

They clarified the kind of culture they wanted and the mindset and behaviors they expected. They agreed to move from competing with each other to achieving together. They planned to move from each group acting as an island to finding and benefitting from synergies. They planned to move from excluding to respectful inclusion and dialogue.  They agreed to say “we” rather than “they” when referring to each other.

There is great power in bringing a leadership team together for dialogue. Open-minded conversations are essential for transformation. No matter how compelling the need for change, it requires real understanding and agreement on how to co-create a future together. Too much energy is wasted when there is talking at one another or polite talk.  There needs to be genuine understanding, alignment and agreements. Of course, the conversations need to continue among the leadership team and throughout the system.

Conversations are key to creating a shared vision and culture to achieve goals. Don’t underestimate the power of conversations for transformation. How are you promoting transformational conversations?

Please join us for a free, introductory Zoom online webinar on Leading the Transformational Retreat, on August 23rd @ 12:30 pm Central Time. 

https://bit.ly/2M9x6O6

In this program, we will hear your challenges, offer insights and share a powerful coaching model we use to support leaders and others in creating, launching and sustaining transformation in their organizations. We will also answer questions about our upcoming half-day, live, in-person seminar program September 24th in Chicago on supporting leaders in creating, launching, and managing culture change.