A version of this article was first published on Troy Media.
It has been challenging for many of us to deliver consistent, stellar performance during the COVID19 pandemic. Given everything we have been coping with, it is not surprising if job performance has suffered at times. Even though there are good reasons for it, it doesn’t make us feel any better about ourselves. Failing to live up to expectations, or our potential, can lead to periods of self-doubt and anxiety. Sometimes we need reassurance we are doing okay.
As a manager, you may find members of your team reaching out for more reassurance than they have in the past. When you know people are doing their best and are generally on-track, you can provide that reassurance with a clear conscience. But what if people are having genuine performance problems? How do you balance support with feedback?
Julia manages a small team of sales specialists who have a great performance track record. Since the pandemic they have had to shift to a remote sales model, and this has been challenging for them. They are relationship-builders, accustomed to spending time with clients and prospective clients. They have had to adjust to a more transactional sales approach and find new ways to source leads. Most are doing okay, none is excelling, and one is significantly underperforming. They are all anxious about their performance, their compensation, and keeping their jobs. Julia finds herself having to provide more emotional support and reassurance than she is used to but she knows maintaining team morale is important. Chad, however, is really struggling with the new sales model and is at risk of failing. Under normal circumstances she would not have a problem confronting him about his performance. But she knows his personal situation during the pandemic has been particularly stressful. His partner, a manager in the hospitality industry, lost his job. He has elderly, vulnerable parents who live several hours away. A close friend died suddenly, leaving a young family who need support. Julia is afraid if she is too hard on Chad, he might lose it completely. At the same time, she is getting pressure from her boss about his performance and the impact it is having on team results. She feels trapped - how to balance support with constructive feedback. Chad has historically been a solid performer and team member and Julia wants to help him get through the pandemic intact. With that motivation clear in her mind, she made the decision to sit down and have a candid conversation with him about his performance. To her surprise, Chad responded with relief. He had been waiting for this. Pretending things were fine was not helping, and it was damaging their relationship. With the air cleared, they could focus on the changes he needed to make to be more successful.
Tim Knight does a great job differentiating between reassurance and feedback. To paraphrase, the goal of reassurance is to bolster confidence whereas the goal of feedback is designed to shape behaviour. A good leader knows when to use each.
When someone on your team is having genuine performance problems that can’t be dismissed due to COVID, offering reassurance not only feels disingenuous but is unlikely to help resolve anything. In this case, it is not their confidence that needs bolstering - it is their actual performance that needs to improve. If you hold back on providing reassurance but don’t explain why, the result is likely to be even greater anxiety. And heightened anxiety rarely has a positive impact on someone’s already-shaky performance.
The antidote to a vicious reassurance-seeking-and-withholding cycle is honest feedback. This can be delivered in a supportive, even reassuring, way. There are five important messages to communicate:
As a leader you have a critical role to play in supporting your team’s emotional wellness and their job performance. Honest feedback and a genuine effort to help will set you on the right course.
This article was first published by Troy Media.
Lucy is a manager who oversees a large team of sales reps. Like many other organizations, hers quickly made the transition to work-from-home. It was a new experience for a team used to working from their downtown office. Lucy used to be able to monitor her team with regular walk-arounds and check-ins. She had a good handle on how people were doing and who was struggling. Now it can take her hours to check in on people. She prefers video so she can see body language and maintain a personal connection. The number of challenges team members are dealing with has sky-rocketed. Many live in small spaces shared with others also working from home. Some struggle with child care. Some live alone and are perpetually lonely. Some have family members they are worried about. Many are bored, distracted, anxious. Lucy genuinely cares about people and has always taken a personal interest, but now she spends a lot of her time listening to and coaching people around both work and personal challenges. On top of that, her company’s management have stressed the importance of employee wellness and support. They are trying to provide resources and training to help managers like her cope with the new demands, but the roll-out has been slow. She feels a lot of pressure to deliver targets, manage and motivate her team, and also monitor and support their wellbeing. In what she would call a moment of weakness, Lucy broke down and admitted she found the “endless how are you doing?” conversations tedious, stressful and exhausting.
Compassion fatigue is a form of burnout - physical or emotional exhaustion - that results in a reduced capacity to empathize or feel compassion for others. Historically, we have talked about compassion fatigue within the context of healthcare professionals or those working with victims of traumatic stress. It is a serious condition and I have to believe many of our healthcare and longterm care workers are suffering from this today. What I have noticed with leaders I coach or interact with is some of them, like Lucy, have also experienced a form of compassion fatigue.
Organizations should be applauded for the outstanding efforts they have made to accommodate and support employees through the pandemic. It really does feel like we are in this together. But responsibility for executing on the goal of responding with care and compassion has fallen largely on managers, many of whom lack the experience, training, skills or even motivation to confidently and competently fulfill this role. In addition to managing performance, morale and engagement, we have charged them with the responsibility for overseeing the mental and emotional well-being of their teams. It is a lot to ask of anyone, let alone in the middle of a crisis when they, too, are dealing with pandemic-induced challenges, stress and their own mental health. We should not be surprised if, when we ask people to step up and demonstrate an extended and elevated level of compassion, sometimes they get tired.
If you are a leader, you may have felt the burden of care for others weigh heavily on your shoulders. You may find your interest and concern for them ebbs and flows. Some days you may even feel like screaming. This is completely normal. Here are a couple of suggestions around what you can do to support yourself when you feel compassion fatigue.
A version of this article was first published on Troy Media.
I often find inspiration for my column from something I have read or heard. This month’s column was inspired by a podcast with Tobi Lütke, co-founder and CEO of Shopify. If you haven’t heard, Shopify has been on a tear lately, overtaking even RBC to become Canada’s most valuable company. As a very small shareholder, I could not be happier for their success. And it is hard to listen to Mr. Lütke speak without wishing him the very best as he pursues the mission he is so passionate about - “make commerce better for everyone, so businesses can focus on what they do best: building and selling their products.” Tobi, like so many founders, is a mission-driven leader. Listening to him reminds me how important a clear and compelling mission is, particularly during times of crisis.
What is an organization’s mission?
We often refer to an organization’s mission as its ‘True North’. Vision articulates the ‘what’ - our ambitions and what we hope to achieve in the future. Strategy articulates the ‘how’ - how we will get there. Mission is our ‘why’ - our ultimate purpose and very reason for being. It is the answer to organization’s existential question “why do we exist?”
Why is your mission is so important today?
We are all living in a state of disruption. For some organizations, this situation is proving to be fuel on a fire, creating new opportunities and accelerating growth. For others, it has resulted in sudden and significant contraction and financial hardship. Even organizations who are ‘steady state’ are dealing with the challenges and complexities of having to do things differently. As we come to terms with adapting to an uncertain future, most organizations will need to at least review, if not re-vamp, their strategies. Many will need to reality-test their vision and time horizon. Your mission may be the only thing you have left to cling to. When the future is hazy, it is difficult to put a stake in the ground around what you can achieve and exactly how you will get there. But you can be clear on who you are and what fundamental need you exist to fulfill. You should be able to still see your North Star.
How can you leverage your mission during times of uncertainty?
While most organizations have a mission statement, not every organization is ‘mission driven’. For some, mission takes a back seat to the excitement of vision or the tangibility of strategy. When you work for a mission-driven organization or leader, you know it - there is something in the air. One of my client organizations happens to be in the middle of defining their mission and values, work they started before the pandemic hit. Rarely do I have the opportunity to see a group of people so enthusiastically engaged in a ‘side project’. Mission helps give meaning to the work we do.
Regardless of how central mission has been to you in the past, there are two key opportunities to use your mission in a positive and productive way during these uncertain times.
1. Your mission can be the central pillar for your communication strategy. A mission, by its very nature, serves to inspire and motivate. You can draw on it to rally, reassure and motivate your stakeholders. In a time where question marks dominate the landscape, reminding people ‘why we are here’ can be a powerful message.
2. Your mission can be a key filter for decision-making. Every organization is having to make critical decisions about what to do now, and how to prioritize resources. These decisions need to be made in real time without a lot of forward-looking data or historical benchmarks to rely on. It can be paralyzing. Your mission can serve as a firm foundation and a filter you use to evaluate key decisions. Are your decisions keeping you true to your purpose, or are they taking you off course? Encouraging everyone to look at what they are doing through a mission lens can help your entire organization make decisions and act with more confidence and clarity.
In this time of volatility and uncertainty, holding firmly to our fundamental purpose, the need our organization exists to fulfill in the market or in society, can help to calm and ground us. It might also remind us why we joined this cause in the first place, and inspire us to persevere.
A version of this article was first published Apr. 8, 2020 at Troy Media.
To quote Albert Einstein, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” As difficult as this pandemic is, it is also exposing a wealth of opportunities. As businesses, leaders and individuals we are being confronted with the opportunity to challenge our assumptions on all fronts. There are some positive lessons to be learned through this crisis, and some painful ones as well. Human beings learn best through adversity. Let’s not let a profound learning opportunity pass us by. There are three assumptions we can challenge ourselves around, right now.
Speed of execution. There is research around CEO competencies to suggest CEOs differ from others in the speed with which they are willing and able to make decisions. Decision-making speed is important, but I think more important is the speed with which decisions can be executed in order to capitalize on opportunity. Faced with a ‘shut down or work from home’ alternative, our focus shifted rapidly to ‘how’ and ‘how fast’. The speed with which businesses that could moved employees to operating remotely is nothing short of remarkable. What, in normal circumstances, would have been a months-long feasibility study followed by extensive planning turned into a ‘make it so’ moment. It proved to some of us we can actually execute on logical business decisions without studying them and their downstream implications at length. Even our governments, the poster children for dithering and delay, have proven the ability to respond at pace when they put their wills to it. Will all the tactics we’ve chosen prove to be right? No. Will there be messes to clean up after this? Of course. But at least there will be, hopefully, a mess to clean up.
The question we can each ask ourselves during this time is, how can we take this new-found ability to mobilize at pace and use it going forward? What can we change or eliminate to make us more agile and nimble in the future?
What is important. We are being challenged as individuals, businesses and societies around a host of assumptions we have held. At the most basic level, we are all adjusting our expectations and experience around ‘the necessities’. It turns out my house can live without bananas. Bananas are a hallmark for me because, in our pre-isolation life, we would make a special stop at the grocery store every few days just to get bananas. Now we get a large bunch every 10-14 days, eat them even after they are past their point of peak ripeness, and then go without. It turns out I care a lot more about how long term care homes are being run, how well-protected our medical staff are, and our ability as a nation to produce our own food, fuel and emergency supplies than I do about bananas.
The question we can ask ourselves is, what really is important to me, our businesses, our country? Where have we invested time or money in things that have turned out to be superfluous and even distracting from our ability to focus on the essentials? What have we not been paying attention to that is critical?
Our preparedness. We are in the middle of a crisis that will, in all probability, have a very long recovery tail. How ready are we to meet this challenge? What have we done in the past 10 years, 2 years, to prepare ourselves? I am pretty sure ‘global economic collapse caused by a pandemic compounded by record-low oil prices’ was not on most risk radars. We don’t have business continuity plans designed to address this, and as leaders we find ourselves scrambling. As individuals, the Bank of Canada has been warning us for some time that our individual debt loads are excessive. Many of us do not have the recommended 3-month rainy day fund set aside, let alone the funds required to support us through extended shutdown and unemployment. No one is being spared from financial fall-out. Retirees, business owners, employees, freelancers, students - each of us will feel some economic pain. Governments are well aware of this, which is why they are responding with rapid, sweeping financial supports.
The most important question we can ask ourselves right now is, what will I do to weather this storm over the coming months? The second most important question is, how do I ensure I am better prepared for the next time?
This article was first published March 15, 2020 by Troy Media at troymedia.com/health/how-to-keep-it-together-during-the-coronavirus-crisis/
I remember writing about personal and leadership resilience during the financial crisis. I guess the good news is, until now, we haven’t had an event so universally significant and impactful to test us. But here we are again. Unlike the financial crisis, where it was (just) about money, this time it will be - at least for some of us - actually life and death. We are very likely at the beginning of something that will get much, much worse. It is time to dust off all those strategies for coping with turmoil. Here are 5 suggestions for working on maintaining resilience through this pandemic.
With crisis always comes opportunity for personal growth. This is a chance for each of us to hone our ability to cope with uncertainty and risk. Because while this too shall pass, there is a pretty good chance something else will pop up to test us again.
This article was first published February 14, 2020 at Troy Media
Questions are one of the most powerful tools we have in our arsenal as leaders, professionals, parents, human beings. One of my favourite personal stories about the power of a question comes from an interview. My final interview for a job I really wanted was with the CEO of the company. After peppering me with questions, he asked if I had any for him. I asked him why he was the CEO. Twenty years later, I can still remember the ‘whiplash’ that unexpected question elicited. Afterward I got feedback that it was a very bold question. I also got the job - either because of, or in spite of - what that encounter said about me.
Questions, unlike opinions or advice, have a unique ability to stop a thought process or redirect a discussion. We have all been in meetings where someone is going on and on about what they think. It is easy to sit back and tune out. But a question immediately demands our attention. The better the question, the more likely we are to perk up, and the more likely the conversation will deepen and our exchange become more meaningful.
What is a good question?
A ‘good question’ has a number of characteristics. It is well-considered. It comes from a place of genuine curiosity. It is ‘on-topic’. It is positioned in a way that allows the discussion to move forward. It requires people to pause and think before answering. It challenges assumptions. It opens up new pathways of thinking.
Coaching is a very popular development strategy for a reason. It is, at its core, all about asking the good question. A really good question is fuel for our reflection, awareness and insight. Most of us like to solve our own problems, and good questions invite us to do that.
When should you use a question?
There are a few key situations where asking a good question or two is more effective than giving advice.
When someone is on the verge of making a breakthrough. When someone you are coaching is close to finding a solution or forming a new insight, it is very tempting to step in and point out the obvious. One of the reasons leaders admit they do more ‘telling’ than ‘coaching’ is because allowing others to work through problems can be painfully slow at times. One of the best ways to help someone make that final leap of insight is by asking a really good question.
When someone is stuck in a rut. Do you know someone who is constantly complaining about the same old thing? When I see that person heading toward me, I can be guilty of looking for an escape hatch. When my friend Perry wanted to talk, for the hundredth time, about how under-appreciated he felt at his company, I decided to change tactics. Perry was stuck in a rut - unhappy but not doing anything about it. Instead of spending 30 minutes listening, nodding and showing empathy, I asked a question instead: “What do you need to do in order to leave this job and move to a place where you will be appreciated?” My question took Perry off-guard because it wasn’t my usual ‘if you hate it so much why don’t you leave?’ question. It was a ‘how’ question, and ‘how’ questions engage our problem solving brains. Instead of complaining, Perry spent the next 30 minutes talking about strategies for leaving, as well as sharing his fears and feelings of inadequacy. Asking a really good question can be the impetus for helping someone get ‘unstuck’.
When someone is coasting. When you see someone who is not living up to their potential, a question is far more effective in inspiring action than a judgment. For example, telling your daughter she could have had an A in math if she had worked a little harder is unlikely to be met with a positive response. Asking her ‘how important is it to you to get an A in math this year?’ is more likely to help her reflect on and tap into her own motivation.
Knowing when and how to ask a good question is an invaluable skill. It will make you a better leader, a better coach, a better parent, a better friend. And asking really good questions is also the best way I know to come across as really smart without having to know all the answers.
A version of this article was first published as my July 2019 monthly column on Troy Media.
I just returned from a 2-week road trip in Newfoundland with my sister, a trip I highly recommend. Being away, really off the grid, gave me time to reflect on all the reasons it is important to take annual leave. That is how vacation used to happen - annual leave where you left the office, packed up the kids and the station wagon and were absent for several weeks at a time. Now we squeeze in a long weekend between due dates and business trips and rack up un-used vacation days. It has gotten so bad, most employers have done away with vacation carry-over. Somewhere along the way, we gave up our right to put down our tools and rest.
I will admit at the outset that I am a vacation-taker. It goes back to my childhood. My dad was a teacher, so come summer we had the opportunity to take off for weeks at a time. I got into the habit. I even remember a shocking time in the mid-00s when I spent 3 weeks touring Australia with my Blackberry locked in the hotel safe in Sydney. While that may be a bit extreme, I do think breaking away from work in a meaningful way, for a significant period of time, is critical to our health and well-being as humans, and as workers. There are at least 7 good reasons to take your annual leave.
We have created a world that is constantly ‘on’ and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be constantly ‘on’. For the betterment of ourselves, and others, sometimes we just need to give it a rest.
AA version of this article was first published in my monthly column for Troy Media.
This weekend I was admiring a burst of tulips in the back garden. I commented on how striking they were. My husband commented on how they were ill-placed. Irritated by his lack of appreciation for the riot of colour, I grabbed a pair of scissors, snipped them off and announced he would no longer need to be annoyed by their poor placement. At that moment, I completely lost my ability to self-regulate. Self-regulators do not stomp into the garden and clip tulips just because someone suggests they are planted in a poor location.
It is difficult, at this moment in time, to argue that the ability to self-regulate is one of the most important success factors in work and in life. There are examples of leaders around us who are impulsive and imprudent. But I think they stand out because they are the exception rather than the rule. In most instances, the ability to demonstrate consistent and mature control over emotions and impulses will help us succeed.
What is self-regulation and why is it so important?
Self-regulation allows us to set aside our immediate emotional reactions and choose how we want to respond to situations. It directs us to be nice when we could be surly, to restrain ourselves when we could let loose, to pause before we do something stupid. It helps us sit back when we might be tempted to dominate, choose our words carefully when conflict is in the air, and show patience when we are tested. At its essence, self-regulation helps us present our best selves during our potentially worst moments. The ability to be selective in our response can mean the difference between building bridges and burning bridges.
Self-awareness is at the heart of self control.
Without being aware of ourselves, what we are thinking and how we are reacting, it is impossible to choose or change how we respond to people or events. This idea goes back a long way in human history. To quote Plato, “The first and most important victory is over ourselves.” One of the unique features of human consciousness is our ability to observe ourselves in thought and in action. Philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism incorporate this act of self-observation (and self control) as a key principle and practice. It is also at the core of mindfulness meditation, which has taken western culture and workplaces by storm.
Objectivity helps us over-ride our impulses. Humans have very big brains, but also very sensitive emotional wiring. We develop ‘hot buttons’ - beliefs, associations and attachments to things that bypass our brains and trigger our emotional impulses. ‘Cognitive distancing’ is the process of stepping back and shifting into self-observation. From this neutral place we can observe what we are thinking, how our brain is processing, and reflect on our emotional reactions. When someone says ‘you need to be more objective and not take this so personally’, this is what they are suggesting we do. When we don’t take advantage of our ability to step back, our emotional triggers can ignite and we end up saying or doing something we regret.
We have the power to choose how we respond. Psychotherapist Viktor E. Frankl said it powerfully: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” We have all had the experience of reacting to something without thinking, and then regretting it. Like me, you have probably apologized once or twice for something you said or did in the heat of the action. If we operate from a place of awareness, we are in a position to take advantage of the space between stimulus and response, and choose how we want to react. We have the luxury of considering options, and their implications. We can take thoughtful, positive actions and avoid the career- or relationship-limiting ones.
Self-regulation puts us firmly in the driver’s seat of our own life. It isn’t easy. It takes practice. We aren’t always going to get it right. But we can get better at it.
For those interested in building up self-regulation, there are a number of best-selling resources including Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul, the works of author and Stoic Ryan Holiday, and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. To learn more about mindfulness practices, the website relaxlikeaboss offers a very user-friendly guide.
Are You Listening to the Wrong People? How to Reduce the Chances of Making a Decision You Will Regret
A version of this article was posted in my April column at Troy Media.
Last month my column was inspired by the political maelstrom created by the SNC-Lavalin affair. A month has passed, the storm continues to swirl. I am inspired, once again, to draw on this situation as a leadership learning opportunity. There have been no shortage of ‘what were they thinking?’ moments, causing us to wonder about the quality of the decisions being made.
We all face difficult situations. The question is, how do we do an appropriate level of due diligence before making a high-impact decision? The more complex and nuanced the issue, the less likely there are clear-cut right and wrong answers. We can never guarantee we will always make the ‘right’ decision. We can, however, increase the likelihood of making good decisions through robust due diligence, and then anticipating and preparing for the consequences of our decisions.
There are some typical decision-making traps we can all fall into, and ways to avoid them.
Failing to recognize, early on, the importance, scope, or complexity of an issue. We are all moving quickly and juggling a lot of balls. Sometimes it feels like we are on auto-pilot, moving from one crisis to the next. When we don’t slow down and intentionally engage our brains, we run the risk of overlooking something really important. This is exacerbated when we have a job where everything we are dealing with is big and complex, or when we are confronting something for the first time and don’t have lessons of experience to draw from. Strategies for avoiding this trap include:
Limiting decision-making inputs. While we all agree there is “strength in diversity”, most of us are not very good at actioning it. We tend to fall back on a small group of advisors and confidantes, even when we can anticipate the advice we are likely to get. When the stakes are high, it can be emotionally reassuring to hear familiar perspectives from those we trust. However, we can fool ourselves into believing that hearing different perspectives is the same as hearing diverse perspectives. To maximize diversity of inputs and cast new light on an issue:
Forgetting to plan for the consequences. Too often we focus on making the best possible decision under the circumstances, and then move on. The reality is, every critical decision has consequences we will have to deal with. When we don’t stop to think about what dominos could fall, we are unprepared to respond to them. There are times when how we respond to events is even more significant than the decision itself. In his book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, author Steven Johnson talks about using a pre-mortem before making a critical decision. This is a strategy for imagining and anticipating the full range of potential consequences that could occur so we can plan for them, or even use those insights to reconsider our decision.
Doing a poor job of delegating decision-making. As leaders, we have to delegate responsibility for decision-making to others. Leaders can struggle with which decisions they should be making, and which they should be farming out. Some leaders exercise too much control and want to make every decision, even when they lack important insight or expertise (the micromanagers). Others exercise too little oversight, leaving others to flap in the wind and make critical calls on their behalf (the absentee landlords). Both situations can lead to problems in high-stakes situations. As a leader, it is important you get clear on where you need to be operating.
We are all confronted with difficult and complicated decisions, the consequences of which can have long-lasting impacts. How we approach them can make all the difference.
A version of this article was published in my March column on Troy Media.
There are so many leadership lessons lurking in the events that have plagued the Canadian political landscape over the past few weeks it is hard to know where to start. Leadership lessons that emerge from crises are easy pickings; they are so obvious and it is so easy to be self-righteous. A much tougher question is, what on earth do you do when you are on the other side of the equation - when you have a values clash with your boss?
I have most certainly been in situations where I was expected to do something or go along with something or support something I felt compromised my own values and beliefs. It is a horrible, uncomfortable place to be. I suspect many of us have been in that situation in our professional lives. Typical advice reeks of platitudes: ‘stand up for what you believe in!’. There are times when that is easier - what is being asked of you clearly violates the law, company policy or principles, or ethical codes. But not everything is so black and white. And it is not always so easy. I think that is why we are quick to recognize and applaud someone who has the courage to stand up for what they believe in, regardless of the consequences.
Here is my best advice for approaching, and resolving, this sticky situation.