Category Archives: Emotional intelligence

Why Take a Vacation?

Many Americans don’t use all their vacation days because coming back to piles of work is so stressful—this according to a recent study. The understandable decision not to take a vacation has got me thinking.

  • As a leader, do you model taking time off?
  • Do you unplug or restrict email use when you are on vacation?
  • During the summer months, how can you make work time more seasonally appropriate—stretchier, sunnier—in some way more relaxed?

One of my clients surprised his staff when he stopped the practice of his CEO predecessor, who had sent emails to staff members day and night, year round. As the new CEO, Paul modeled work/life balance by attending his children’s school activities and going on vacation. Staff followed suit, and satisfaction with work/life balance quickly shot up.

Once when I told a client that I’d check email a couple of times a day while I was vacationing in France, my consulting partner spoke up and said, “oh no you don’t; I’m here and working; you are going on vacation.” I needed that curb on my control-freak tendencies.

Whether or not you take time off this summer, here are ways to model making summer stretchier and sunnier. I invite you to post more ideas in the comments section of this blog.

  • At least once a week, invite others to join you outdoors for a bag lunch.
  • Use staff meeting check-in time (5-10 minutes of an hour-long meeting) to share summer memories, like mine below. (Yours don’t have to be poems—but they CAN be. Try haiku!)
  • Bring the outdoors into the office—flowers, homegrown herbs, vegetables and fruits
  • Encourage folks to learn more about each other. What’s a summer activity they enjoy? When they were a kid, what did they most like about summer?

June 30 may be the mad end of your fiscal year. Or maybe it’s hard to divvy up work when people take time off in July and August. At the same time, just as our muscles work at full strength only if they can let go of holding, we have to learn how to relax.

First Fireflies

Early June, and I stare into dark
Wondering where and when they’ll come,
These delightful beacons of summer.

Was it a porch light through a quiver of birch
Or—over there–a trick of the eye?
Another flash, and then a third—

Ah–the tiny fellows have come
To celebrate their love and bring
Me back to nights in Arkansas

When we sat on our grownups’ laps, lulled
By the to and fro of rocking chairs,
The summer heat, and family voices

Lowing, like the cattle beyond the fence.
In the deeper dark, the lightning bugs
Arrive, and we cousins rush among

The stardust to cup them in our small
Hands, so they will make our fingers
Glow and we can feel them tickle

Gently, like my mother’s feathery
Eyelash brushing my kissed cheek.
Opening our hands, we let them go

And spreading my arms like wings, I tilt
My head skyward to the bigger lights
That spin around our haloed heads.

poem ©2013 Merryn Rutledge

The Simple Kindness of Human Connection

caring-handsAfter my husband died last fall, my world changed. Undergoing and guiding change, both of which are central to my work as a leadership coach, suddenly took on new dimensions. I have new appreciation for the simple kindness of human connection.

One of the most powerful frameworks for helping us go through change comes from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on grieving. Kubler-Ross realized grief is a process of changing. Later, William Bridges made the connection between grieving for a lost loved one and making changes at work—losing a colleague, reorganizing work operations, reconfiguring offices space, or growing a company. Change interrupts the familiar patterns of work. Change involves loss: that is the central insight Bridges got from Kubler-Ross.

In this post I’ll share my reactions to what people say when they learn I’ve lost my beloved. I hope telling you what helps me will also help you help others who are going through change.

A simple acknowledgement of my loss is very helpful. Colleagues, neighbors, customer service people (for insurance, credit cards, tech support, etc.), and even townspeople have greeted me by saying, “I’m sorry about your loss.” Their simple human kindness says, “I have heard.” It acknowledges loss that is always in my mind and heavy on my heart. The kindly sentence is sincere, simple, and direct.

Other people’s well-intentioned reactions hurt or stir my anger. I have learned from books on grieving that these unhelpful responses are common.

Playing down the loss is not helpful. “Well, at least he didn’t suffer for long,” some people have said. A workplace version might be: “Come on, it’s just different office space, for goodness sake. No big deal.”

Comparing suffering is not helpful. “I lost my brother last year, so I know how you feel.” A workplace version might be: “Once I had to take on a second job role while keeping the one I had, so I know exactly what you are going through by starting over in a new job.”

Comparing suffering is similar to presuming to know how somebody else feels. “I lost my brother last year; I feel your pain,” someone said to me. A workplace version? “I know, you are shell shocked because you are brand new to the department. I feel your ‘overwhelm.’”

“You’re strong; I know you’ll make it” may also not help. The risk with this compliment is that it doesn’t allow the other person to also be vulnerable, raw, disoriented, off-balance and/or other natural responses to change. In many workplaces, strength and toughness are prized and rewarded; vulnerability is viewed as weakness. To not allow or even to “disappear” vulnerability drives underground the range of responses to loss that helps us get through it.

For me, something simple and direct, like, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m sorry for this hard time” is the most helpful. It says,

  • The loss is present and real.
  • We are connected.
  • Simple kindness matters, even for the well-trained customer service people who know they have to move on to address the reason for my call.
  • For people who are closer to me, simple human kindness opens a space for what else might arise, such as,  “And how are you doing today?” or “Can I help in some way?” or I might say, “Thanks. It’s the hardest time, ever.”

10 Ways to Be an Effective Leader

shutterstock_282591626What can you do to be the most effective leader you can be? A Center for Creative Leadership report affirms that relationship management,” that’s, “how you interact with others,” is key to leading effectively. How can you assess how you are doing, and then improve?

Start by asking yourself these ten questions:

  1. Do I follow through on commitments?
  2. Do I stay curious in conversations, and listen to others?
  3. Do I mentor others?
  4. Do I give tough feedback in straightforward and relationally savvy ways?
  5. Do I work through conflicts in productive ways?
  6. Am I clear with others about their role in decisions (for example, giving information as input, giving informal advice, giving a recommendation, or participating in consensus-building)?
  7. Do I say when I’m wrong, and apologize when I make a mistake?
  8. Do I explicitly acknowledge others’ achievements and contributions?
  9. Do I actively promote diversity and inclusion?
  10. Do I have a reasonable, sustainable work/outside-work balance?

There are many ways to use the ten questions. For example,

  • Answer each question using a scale: always, most of the time, often, sometimes, no.
  • For every question, ask yourself, how do you know? What information supports your answer? Is there information that contradicts it?
  • Get other people’s input. Your leadership coach can do this through 360 degree interviews or surveys.

In other posts, I’ve explained how to use the Learning Compass as a tool for improving leadership. The Compass, a visual representation of the Learning Cycle, brings awareness to your thinking-learning-doing process. As you follow the steps below, notice that you are moving clockwise around the Compass to learn about your leadership and then commit to action.

  • First, gather information by asking the ten questions. (Compass Northeast: Imagining)
  • Then, reflect on your answers and analyze them by asking, for instance, where am I strong and what are areas for improvement? (Compass East and Southeast: Reflection and Analysis)
  • Next, stand back and reach conclusions. What do your discoveries add up to? (Compass South: Thinking and Synthesis)
  • Finally, make a plan and commit to carrying it out. (Compass Southwest and West: Deciding and Planning for Action)

It isn’t easy to be a leader. Nearly half of new CEO’s fail. The good news is that with attention, and supports like coaching, you CAN succeed.

How Hopeful People Affect Us

We have only to consult our experience to know that our leaders’ and co-workers’ moods and outlooks affect us. My colleague Cheryl radiates sunshine and hope; they “power” her life. During a year-long collaboration, I marveled at her earnest friendliness, genuine curiosity about others, and often-expressed appreciation. When we faced challenges, her hope buoyed me.

Poet Emily Dickinson pictured hope as a bird—fragile and strong, delicate and unstoppable, freely given and giving generously.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

And sweetest in the gale is heard:
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea:
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Try an “awareness experiment” about how hopeful people affect you.

  • Begin by thinking of two or three people you know well who have a sunny outlook, a hopeful approach to living.
  • Now focus on one of these people, or all of them, one at a time. Reflect on what it is like to be around them.
  • Notice your thoughts. Jot them down. Then see if you notice patterns.
  • Notice how you feel, and jot down these feelings. Are there patterns?
  • Notice your body. For instance, are you inwardly or outwardly smiling? Feeling “up?” How is your breathing?

Now complete your Learning Cycle by asking: What did you just learn? What is one thing you will do differently today to sing hope’s song?

Here are suggestions for exploring further.

  • Look up Positive Emotional Attractors, of which hope is one, on the web.
  • Read some of the brain and social science research that explains how we boost our own growth and inspire others with Attractors like hope.
  • Do the exercises in chapter 4 of Resonant Leadership.
  • Do more “awareness experiments” on your own.

Have fun.

Take Time to Save Time

Where does all the time go? Not enough of it, too much good work to do, and the pace of change is fast.

shutterstock_207716527With such challenges, can we make space for “think time” so we learn from successes and missteps? Here’s the thing: if we DON’T make this space, we risk working in the same worn grooves and getting stuck in the same ruts.

A paradox: take time to save time

My experience is that making a space for reflection can actually SAVE time. How? Well, first of all, reflecting and analyzing are a practice, like doing yoga or playing an instrument. We get better when we have a disciplined approach.

My colleague Kay Peterson and I teach a framework that helps people:

  • Understand day-to-day work dilemmas, successes, and missteps.
  • Get perspective on one’s actions by seeing how we get stuck, find new choices, and move toward action.
  • Do things better next time–and continually learning over time.

Use a compass to navigate

We use a new version of David and Alice Kolb’s Learning Cycle (2011). We call the Cycle the Learning Compass because it helps us navigate. The Compass helps us quickly locate where we are, on-the-spot, experience by experience. Then it helps us decide which direction to move toward without either idling or racing our motors.

The Learning Compass shows four main directions, North, East, South, and West. These correspond to the four ways we learn, by experiencing reflecting, thinking, and acting. (There are actually nine “styles” or directions embedded in the compass–but that’s for another blog post.)

Compass-4-Modes small image
The Learning Compass

We begin in the North with an experience that is direct and concrete. Moving clockwise to the East, we reflect on this experience, for instance by thinking about our assumptions and how we feel, and noticeing the experience from different perspectives.

When we are ready to use more rational analysis of the experience, we move toward the South. In the southern hemisphere, we form a plan for our next actions. Moving around to the West, we take action, the result of which is a new experience that returns us to the North. A new cycle begins.

How Holly used the Compass

My client Holly recently told me about a perplexing work dilemma. She invited an employee to a planning meeting, and her offer was rebuffed. Because the meeting concerned the employee’s future at the company, Holly wanted to do all she could to lead in the very best way. The Learning Compass gave us a map for working through the situation.

Since the experience with her employee, in the Compass North, Holly had been turning the experience over and over, wondering what to do. She realized that she was getting stuck in the Compass East, in reflection. At the same time, as Holly told her story, I noticed that she kept pushing herself to find a quick solution, in other words, toward action, in the Compass West. Holly knows she is a doer–that’s one of the reasons she’s an effective COO, but in this case she was uncomfortable with the one choice of action she kept coming back to.

I suggested that we move back to the Eastern hemisphere of the Compass, to reflection. She played with looking at her encounter from different perspectives. She got curious about her feelings and indecision. Before long, she began to come up with more choices for what to do. Following her energy, I encouraged Holly to “move South” on the Compass, where she could decide which option made sense. This question resonated: “Going into the next meeting, which choice(s) will give you the greatest satisfaction that you’ve been your best self as a leader?”

Holly decided pretty quickly. She was ready for action, in the Compass West. After trying out this action, Holly can “debrief” the experience on her own because the Compass, with its different ways of learning, is easy to remember and use.

The Simplest Way to Effective Meetings

Do these sound familiar? Your senior team gets bogged down in discussions without clear outcomes. Board members discussing a difficult issue circle around it, avoiding what is hard. A new team treads cautiously while important decisions wait.

For meeting headway, where do you start? Use sturdy group discussion guidelines, which should:

  • Promote deep thought and clear understanding.
  • Keep discussion focused.
  • Encourage healthy disagreement.
  • Yield clear, actionable decisions.
  • State expectations for running on time and evaluating the meeting.

To promote deep thinking and clear understanding, try these four guidelines:

Merryn works with a group 2011

  • Talk about assumptions.
  • Explain the reasons behind what you say and do.
  • Make statements and invite questions.
  • Be specific, using examples and data.

This set comes from Roger Schwarz, who built on what Chris Argyris and other pioneers noticed about how many assumptions lie beneath what we say. We are not trying to hide anything; we simply take our assumptions for granted. These four guidelines invite us to be aware of our patterns of thought and emotion and then tell co-workers where we are coming from.

In a recent meeting, my client–a non profit COO whom I’ll call Karen–used the word “whiners” to describe employees who raise objections to the change she is implementing. During a career in the air force, she explained, she loved the admonition “no whining,” which she thought was a useful norm. By explaining the basis for her thinking, Karen followed the second guideline.

All four group guidelines invited Karen and everybody at the meeting to get curious: What assumptions are underneath the conclusion that people are whining? Do other group members have different views? If so, what is the basis for them? Surfacing such information helped Karen understand what had been her automatic judgement and opened the door to modifying her change strategy.

Meeting guidelines are nothing new. Yet most leadership teams I work with do not use them. Why? The guidelines that have failed them are the wrong kind. Statements like “Respect each other” do not improve meetings because they merely state good intentions.

Instead, guidelines must describe specific, expected behaviors. You cannot directly see respect, which is the result of several behaviors. In addition, people of different cultures, age groups, etc., have different ideas about how to show respect.

Useful guidelines state particular actions that group members can see and hear. That is why there are four guidelines that remind people to be aware of assumptions and reveal their thinking. Here are more examples of guidelines that describe behavior:

  • Avoid “talking over,” interrupting, and side conversations, including texting and sending emails during meetings.
  • Agree on what important words and acronyms mean.

When I lead groups, I use 16 guidelines that invite everybody to monitor and adjust in a continuous learning loop of heightening awareness, speaking up, then making adjustments individually and together. Consistent use of meeting guidelines are a simple way for groups to learn and model mutual accountability.