Eleanor and I were fast asleep at my parents’ house in upstate New York when my five-year-old daughter Sophia came running in.

“Look out the window!” she screamed, as she pulled on our shades. I looked at my watch: 6 a.m. Not bad.

Sophia was jumping with excitement as the shade opened, revealing about a foot of new powder.

“Let’s go skiing!”

A few hours later, I stood with Sophia and her eight-year-old sister, Isabelle, at the top of an intermediate slope we had all skied many times. But this time was different. Northeastern powder is not the light, fluffy stuff of the West. It’s heavy and hard to ski, especially when you weigh 45 pounds.

Isabelle struggled but managed to navigate the new conditions. Sophia, on the other hand, fell almost immediately. She laughed, got up, and started again. A few feet down the slope, she fell once more. Again, laughing, she got up. Now Isabelle started laughing too.

But not me. I was worried. This was too much for Sophia. She might get hurt. And her ski class started in 15 minutes. At this rate she would never make it.

I shouted a few words of encouragement and advice. But her laughter was making it hard for her to ski. Was she falling on purpose? Because it was fun?

I stayed behind her so I could help when she fell, but I was becoming increasingly frustrated. I yelled at her to stop playing around. But she kept falling and laughing.

I looked at the time. “Sophia!” I shouted. “Come on, stop fooling around. It’s not funny. We’re going to miss class.”

“I’m trying,” she yelled back.

I paused for a moment, looked up, and took a deep breath. The beauty of the snow-covered trees was incredible. And that’s when I finally realized: I’m an idiot.

Here was my awesome five-year-old having an outdoor experience I want to encourage. And even though it was hard and scary and challenging, she was handling it gracefully, having the time of her life. And how did I help? By yelling at her.

It seems obvious now. But at the time my response felt perfectly natural. Which is the point, actually. It felt natural because it reflected how I was feeling. My own fears and frustrations and goals.

My mistake? I forgot that the situation wasn’t about me. I forgot to focus on the needs of my audience, in this case a five-year-old skiing powder for the first time. That’s presentation and communication skills 101.

I would never make the same mistake if I were giving a speech or working with a client. In other words, if I were thinking.

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to skip the thinking part. An employee comes to us with substandard work and we get angry. But is that really going to help the employee do better work next time? If the reason for the poor performance was that the employee didn’t care, and my anger frightened him into caring more, then maybe. But poor performance is rarely caused by lack of fear. It’s usually because of a misunderstanding or lack of capability. In which case asking questions would almost certainly be more helpful.

That’s hard to do because when we’re angry, we respond with anger. And when we’re frustrated, we respond with frustration. It makes perfect sense.

It’s just that it doesn’t work and it won’t help.

The solution is simple: When you have a strong reaction to something, take a deep breath and ask yourself a single question: what’s going on for the other person?

Then, based on your answer, ask yourself one more question: What can I do or say that will help them?

In other words, don’t start from where you are, start from where theyare. What do they need in that moment? Some advice? A story about what you did in a similar situation? Perhaps just an empathetic ear? Or maybe simply some patience.

Imagine your favorite employee — the one you spent all that time developing — told you she was thinking of leaving your team for another job offer. You might feel angry and betrayed, but would it help to get angry at her? No, you’d be better off asking questions about what’s working and what’s not.

Once I realized my mistake, I got angry at myself for almost stomping out Sophia’s enthusiasm.

But I didn’t beat myself up for long. I took a few deep breaths and just watched her. She skied a few feet, fell, laughed, got up, and started skiing again.

Watching her laughing at her mistakes reminded me not to take myself so seriously. It turns out that meeting people where they are doesn’t just help them. Sometimes it helps you too.

 

 

About the Author

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

(Via HBR)

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Effective Communication in OrganizationsI stepped up to the counter and ordered a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese. I asked for the sandwich to be open-faced, “with salmon on both sides of the bagel so my friend and I can share it.”

“No problem,” Andrea*, the waitress behind the counter, told me. She punched a few buttons on the computer display of her cash register, electronically communicating our special order to the kitchen, and gave me a table stand with a number on it to identify us to the waiter responsible for serving the tables.

About ten minutes later, David, the waiter, brought out the bagel. It was open-faced but all the salmon was on one half of the bagel. The other half just had cream cheese.

No big deal. But the restaurant was nearly empty and I was curious. “Thanks,” I said, “but I had asked for salmon on both sides of the bagel.”

David apologized and took it back to the kitchen. A minute later, he came back. This time, the salmon was placed on half of each side of the bagel. The other half was plain cream cheese. Think salmon/cream cheese yin/yang symbol.

What’s most interesting is what David said when he gave me the bagel. “I know this isn’t what you wanted,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “The chef obviously didn’t get it.”

Again, just to be clear, this was, of course, no big deal. I thanked him and took the bagel. But questions ran through my head: If you knew, why didn’t you explain it to the chef? When he gave you the bagel and you saw it wasn’t what I wanted, why didn’t you tell him? Or fix it yourself before bringing it out? And, finally, once you decided to bring it out as is, why blame the chef?

There’s a one-word answer to all those questions: silos.

Andrea’s job was to take my order and transmit it to the chef. The chef’s job was to create the sandwich. And David’s job was to bring out the final dish. In fact, David did his job well. Only it wasn’t the right dish.

This obviously isn’t just an issue particular to a restaurant. It’s an issue that most team members in most organizations face every day.

Here’s the problem: Our jobs are complex and interdependent, but our goals, objectives, and, most importantly, mindsets, are often siloed.

We each have a job to do — sell a service, design a product, address a customer issue — and the underlying mindset is: if I do my job well, and you do your job well, we’ll achieve our organization’s goals.

But it rarely works that way. People in one silo often have information needed by — but never given to — people in another silo. And, as my experience in the restaurant showed, if there’s a problem anywhere in the organization, everyone fails. Who is responsible for my sandwich? Andrea? The chef? David? It’s a waste of time to parse that one out. And it’s damaging to try. The truth is, they’re all, collectively, responsible.

In other words — and this might be hard to swallow — we are responsible for each others’ work.

This is not a question of blame. It’s a practical reality of collaboration. And every organization of two or more is a collaborative effort.

After breakfast, I asked David (“for the sake of an article I’m writing”) to spend a few minutes with me exploring his decision-making.

“Frankly,” David told me, “I work with the chef every day and I didn’t want to be too pushy. I didn’t want to make him angry.”

In other words, telling the chef that he had gotten the sandwich wrong — that the chef had made a mistake — was threatening to their relationship. It wasn’t a risk David wanted to take.

“It was a split-second decision,” David continued, “Is it worth a confrontation with the chef or would you guys be OK with the sandwich delivered wrong? You guys seem mellow and so I chose not to face the chef.”

David decided it would be less painful to pass the mistake to the customer than to confront his colleague or superior about it. It would be easy to judge David for this if so many of us didn’t make that same decision all the time.

How do we escape the silo mentality?

It helps if leadership is explicit about the cross-silo outcomes that are most important in the organization. It helps if everyone who works at the restaurant is clear that satisfying customers is their number one priority and that everyone is collectively responsible for that outcome. It helps if each person is committed to a whole that is larger than their part and if leaders communicate, prioritize, and reward for that outcome.

It also helps if the organization’s structures and processes support collaboration. If people meet regularly to share what they are learning and are taught the skills to give and receive feedback. It helps if people are taught to communicate clearly, gently, and inoffensively with each other, avoiding blame and embarrassment, for the sake of cross-silo outcomes.

All that helps. But even with all that support, direction, and skill, it still takes one more critical ingredient. Perhaps the most critical.

Courage.

The courage of a single person willing to take personal risks for the sake of the organization’s success.

Because no matter how clearly leaders reward cross-silo outcomes, it takes great personal strength to identify and help correct a mistake in “someone else’s” silo and to overcome the fear of the consequences of taking responsibility for colleagues’ work.

When I spoke with David, he agreed that it would have been better if he had said something to the chef. Better for me, better for the restaurant, better for the chef, and even, over time, his relationship with the chef.

“So will you do it?” I asked.

David — a good guy, someone with enough courage to explore his decision-making with me honestly — looked over at the kitchen for a second, then back at me, and smiling, shrugged.
*Names and some details changed

 

 

About the Author

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

(Via HBR)

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Ron* was up next. As a senior analyst in this investment firm — and a good one — he knew a lot about the company he was about to pitch to the management committee.

He paused for a minute as he sorted through the pages of numbers in front of him and then he began to present his case.

Even though Ron described himself as a numbers guy, he seemed to really enjoy this part of his job. He was meticulous in presenting his ideas and took pride in the depth of his analysis.

Twenty minutes later, as the meeting ended, Laurie, the head of the firm, thanked him for his work, specifically remarking on his exhaustive research. He smiled and thanked her.

Everyone filed out except Laurie and me. I asked her how she thought the meeting went.

“Oh my goodness,” she said, “What’s the best way to handle an analyst who drones on and on?”

“Who?” I asked. “Ron?”

“He’s a great analyst, a smart investor, and a really nice guy. But he talks too much.”

“But you told him he did a great job!”

“His analysis was great. But his presentation . . .” She trailed off with a chuckle.

“Have you told him?”

“I’ve hinted but no, not specifically.”

“Why not?”

“I probably should.”

But she hasn’t. And the reason is simple: Laurie is nice.

I know her socially and she’s a delight. I’ve never seen her do anything that could be remotely construed as mean or rude. And to tell someone that they drone on feels both mean and rude.

But it’s neither. It’s compassionate.

If we don’t provide each other with feedback, we won’t become aware of our blind spots. Which means that Ron will continue to drone on and, without ever understanding why, lose his audience and his impact.

Giving people feedback is an act of trust and confidence. It shows that you believe in their ability to change. That you believe they will use the information to become better. And that you have faith in their potential. It’s also a sign of commitment to the team and to the larger purpose and goals of the organization. Because, ultimately, we’re all responsible for our collective success.

Laurie knows this. And yet even for Laurie — a competent and courageous CEO — it’s hard to give someone critical feedback because it still feels aggressive and confrontational. Should you really tell people they talk too much? Or dress poorly? Or appear insincere? Or walk all over others?

Without question, you should.

And not just if you’re the CEO. Everyone should offer feedback to everyone else, regardless of position. Because as long as what you say comes from your care and support for the other person — not your sympathy (which feels patronizing) or your power (which feels humiliating) or your anger (which feels abusive) — choosing to offer a critical insight to another is a deeply considerate act.

That doesn’t mean that accepting criticism is easy. In How to Handle Surprise Criticism I shared my own struggles with accepting criticism and offered some tips to being open to learning from critical feedback from others.

But even though it may be difficult, letting someone know what everyone else already knows is the opposite of aggressive. Aggressive is not giving people feedback and then talking about them and their issues when they aren’t around. Aggressive is watching them fail and not helping.

Ironically, when we avoid sharing feedback, it usually comes out at some point anyway, as gossip or in a burst of anger or sarcasm or blame directed at the person. And that’s aggressive. Passive-aggressive.

To avoid that kind of ugliness, it’s critical not to delay.

On the other hand, if we all strutted around willy-nilly tossing criticisms at each other, things would deteriorate quickly. So how should we do this?

First, ask permission. As in: “I noticed something I’d like to share with you. Are you interested in hearing it?” Or simply, “Can I share some feedback with you?” Once they say “yes” — and who wouldn’t? — it evens out the power dynamic, makes it easier for you to speak, and prepares the other person to accept the feedback more openly.

Second, don’t hedge. When we are uncomfortable criticizing, we try to reduce the impact by reducing the criticism. Sometimes we sandwich the criticism between two compliments. But hedging dilutes and confuses the message. Instead, be clear, be concise, use a simple example, make it about the behavior, not the person, and don’t be afraid of silence.

Third, do it often. That’s how you create a culture in which people are open and honest for each other’s benefit. If you only offer feedback once in a while, it feels out of character and more negative.

Of course, not all feedback needs to be critical. Positive feedback is excellent at reinforcing people’s productive behavior, encouraging them to use their strengths more effectively and abundantly. Offer it frequently. Just do so at a different time than you share the critical feedback.

“May I offer you a thought?” I asked Laurie as we finished up our conversation.

“Please do,” she responded.

“Not telling Ron that he drones on is hurting him, you, and the business. I know you feel badly sharing the criticism but in this particular case, choosing not to share this feedback is a selfish behavior. You’re hurting him in order to avoid your own discomfort. He needs — deserves — to know, don’t you think?”

Silence. It was an awkward moment.

Which, it turns out, is a useful catalyst to action. Laurie thought for a moment and then picked up her blackberry and emailed Ron, asking him to meet later that day.
*Names and some details changed


About the Author

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

(Via HBR)

 

 

 

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Big HugMy wife Eleanor and I were visiting some friends on a Saturday when their nine-year-old daughter, Dana*, came home. She was close to tears, barely holding it together.

“Oh sweetie,” her mom said. “What happened at the swim meet?”

Dana is an excellent swimmer. She trains hard, arriving at swim practice by six most mornings and swimming some afternoons as well. And her efforts are rewarded; she often wins her events, scoring points for her swim team. It is clear she is very proud of these wins.

It isn’t like that for all her endeavors. She struggles with some subjects in school, doing extra math homework to keep up with the other kids and getting special help with her reading. But she always works hard.

“I was disqualified,” she told us. She swam the race well, but dove in a fraction of a second before the starting gun went off: a false start.

We were in the foyer of the house and she sat down on the bottom stair of the staircase, her swim bag still on her shoulder, staring into space, almost expressionless.

“Honey,” her dad said, “there are a lot more swim meets in the season. You’ll have other chances to win.”

I told her, “The fact that you left the block prematurely means you were at your edge. You’re trying not to waste a millisecond in hesitation. That’s the right instinct. You misjudged the timing but that’s OK. The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it.”

“Every swimmer on every team has been disqualified at some point,” Eleanor said. “It’s part of the sport.”

“I’m sure your coach will help you practice your starts before the next meet,” her mom said, “and you’ll figure out exactly when to spring off the block so that you don’t waste a second but you don’t dive too early either. You’ll get it.”

Nothing we said seemed to have any impact on her. Nothing changed her expressionless stare. Nothing helped.

Then her grandmother Mimi walked over.

We were all standing over Dana, when Mimi moved through us and sat down next to her. She put her arm around Dana and just sat there quietly. Eventually, Dana leaned her head on Mimi’s shoulder. After a few moments of silence Mimi kissed Dana’s head and said, “I know how hard you work at this, honey. It’s sad to get disqualified.”

At that point, Dana began to cry. Mimi continued to sit there, with her arm around Dana, for several minutes, without saying anything.

Eventually Dana looked up at Mimi, wiped her tears, and said, simply, “Thanks Mimi.” And I thought, every leader, every manager, every team member, should see this.

All of us except Mimi missed what Dana needed.

We tried to make her feel better by helping her see the advantage of failure, putting the defeat in context, teaching her to draw a lesson from it, and motivating her to work harder and get better so it doesn’t happen again.

But she didn’t need any of that. She already knew it. And if she didn’t, she’d figure it out on her own. The thing she needed, the thing she couldn’t give herself, the thing that Mimi reached out and gave her?

Empathy.

She needed to feel that she wasn’t alone, that we all loved her and her failure didn’t change that, She needed to know we understood how she was feeling and we had confidence that she would figure it out.

I wanted every leader, manager, and team member to see that, because the empathetic response to failure is not only the most compassionate, it’s also the most productive.

Empathy communicates trust. And people perform best when they feel trusted.

When I sit with you in your mistake or failure without trying to change anything, I’m letting you know that you’re okay, even when you don’t perform. And, counter-intuitively, feeling okay about yourself — when you fail — makes you feel good enough to get up and try again.

Most of us miss that. Typically, when people fail, we blame them. Or teach them. Or try to make them feel better. All of which, paradoxically, makes them feel worse. It also prompts defensiveness as an act of self-preservation. (If I’m not okay after a failure, I’d better figure out how to frame this thing so it’s not my failure.)

Our intentions are fine; we want the person to feel better, to learn, to avoid the mistake again. We want to protect our teams and our organizations.

But the learning — the avoidance of future failures — only comes once they feel okay about themselves after failing. And that feeling comes from empathy.

Thankfully, the expression of empathy is fairly simple. When someone has made a mistake or slipped up in some way, just listen to them. Don’t interrupt, don’t offer advice, don’t say that it will be all right. And don’t be afraid of silence. Just listen.

And then, after some time, reflect back what you heard them say, what you feel they’re feeling. That’s it.

I said simple, not easy. It’s hard to just listen and reflect back. It’s hard not to give advice or solve a problem. Hard, but worth the effort.

After some time, Dana got up from the stairs, we all had dinner, and then she went to watch some TV.

We were talking in the living room when she came in to say good night.

“How are you feeling?” I asked her.

“OK, I guess.” She shrugged. “I’m still bummed.”

I almost told her not to worry, that it would be OK, that she would feel better in the morning, that there was always the next race, that she had lots of time to practice.

Almost.

“I understand,” I told her. “It’s a bummer.”
*Names and some details changed

 

About the Author

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

(Via HBR)

 

 

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What Oscars (Academy Awards) Tell Us About TeamworkI was walking down Main Street in Park City, Utah during the Sundance Film Festival with my friend Allison*, a casting director who seemed to know everyone. We stopped to say hello to an actor who was disappointed by the reception he was getting at the festival. “Actors are who really make the movie,” he told me. “The script is just black and white on a page. It’s the actor who breathes life into the words.”

Later, we bumped into another friend of Allison, a writer who had a movie in the festival. He too was feeling dissatisfied and the conversation was remarkably similar. “A movie is created by the writer,” he told us, “It’s the writer who invents the story, who’s responsible for the film.” We didn’t speak with a director on that walk, but I’m confident that if we had, we would have heard the claim that films are most influenced by the creative voice of the director.

That walk happened to be down Main Street during Sundance but it could have been down the corridor in almost any office building during a typical day.

Who is responsible–and should get the most credit–for a product or service that brings in high revenues? The team who designed it? The people who marketed it? The sales force who sold it? The service reps who gave customers the confidence to buy it? The executive leadership team who strategized it?

Not every person on the team is equally valuable, right? Think of a sports team–there are stars, who get paid tens of millions, and then there are the other players, who make, well, a lot less. It’s simple supply and demand: some people are more easily replaceable than others.

So, logically, we would have to say that the highest paid, most visible, most irreplaceable people are responsible for the greatness of the product or service. Until we look at the list of Oscar nominees for 2010.

What’s most interesting about the list isn’t which movies were nominated for Best Picture. What’s most interesting is what other categories the Best Picture winners were nominated for.

Best Picture nominee, Black Swan, for example, was also nominated for Directing, Actress in a Leading Role, Cinematography, and Film Editing.

Best Picture nominee The Fighter was also nominated for Original Screenplay, Directing, Film Editing, Actor in a Supporting Role, and two nominations for Actresses in Supporting Roles.

Best Picture Nominee Inception was also nominated for Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects.

Best Picture nominee The King’s Speech was nominated for a total of eleven other awards.True Grit had nine other nominations. The Social Network, seven.

And, perhaps most telling, the number of Best Picture nominees with no nominations in other categories? None. In fact, to be nominated for Best Picture, a film had to be best in at least three other categories.

In other words, a movie is only considered great when all the various parts are independently, and collaboratively, great. It’s never entirely the talent of a single person or team. It’s never even mostly the talent of a single person or team. Even when that person is Mark Wahlburg, or Natalie Portman, or a Coen brother.

In total, the ten Best Picture movies were nominated for 5 directing awards, 9 screenplay awards, 15 acting awards, and 29 other awards. I call these others the back office awards–like film editing, sound mixing, cinematography, and art direction.

It is unlikely that any of these movies would be nominated for best picture–and even more unlikely that they would win–if not for the stellar work done by the teams and people we rarely see and almost never acknowledge. We probably don’t even know what most of them do.

It is almost always a mistake to highlight an individual, a role, or a team as responsible for the success of a venture in which a group contributes. Those we spoke to at Sundance might have each been correct in thinking that they don’t get enough credit. But they were also each wrong in thinking of themselves as deserving the credit.

The best producers–arguably the CEO of the movie–understand this. I spoke to one highly accomplished producer who told me that the film world highlights directors because, from a PR standpoint, it helps to have a focal point for a movie. Like a brand name for a company. But, he told me, putting all the focus on a great director or a famous actor is clearly not the way to make a great movie. Did you see The Tourist? Even Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie can’t save a bad film.

The best leaders know this–they don’t just devote lip service to it–they really know it to be true. And they convey it through their own humility. Humility isn’t just an attitude, it’s a skill. The most effective people are highly confident (they know they add significant value) and manifestly humble (they recognize the immense value added by those around them). The skill is letting those around them know it.

At the end of our walk down Main Street in Park City, I turned to my friend Allison and asked her whether she wasn’t the most important person in a film because she chose many of the people who would make it successful.

“Oh, I’m important,” she told me smiling, then added “At least as important as everyone else.”

* Names and some details changed

About the Author

Peter Bregman writes a weekly column called How We Work at Harvard Business. He speaks, writes, and consults about how to lead and how to live. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and advises CEOs and their leadership teams. You can sign up to be notified of new articles. Bregman is the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change and the forthcoming 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done to be published in September. Peter can be found at PeterBregman.com or @PeterBregman.

[Via FastCompany]

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best-gifts-are-not-expensiveA few weeks ago was my birthday. I turned 43.

43 doesn’t mark a new decade. It’s not one of those birthdays people usually celebrate in a grand way, and mine was no exception. No one threw me a lavish surprise party. I had a few small dinners with close friends and family. I opened two presents.

And yet as I emerge from this birthday, I can’t imagine feeling any more appreciated, respected, and loved. Because on this particular not-a-big-deal birthday, in addition to those two presents, I received some other gifts — gifts that cost nothing, and that I have come to realize are, actually, a very big deal.

As we enter this holiday season, it makes sense to pause for a moment and think about gifts. What’s the point of them?

On a basic level, we give gifts because we’re supposed to. On certain occasions — birthdays, anniversaries, dinner parties, the end of the year — it’s customary.

Underlying that custom is an important purpose: appreciation. We give people gifts to show them that we are grateful for them and value the role they play in our lives.

But here’s a common misconception: the bigger, more valuable the gift, the more it expresses our appreciation. I know people who’ve received huge stock grants who feel severely under-appreciated.

Because gifts don’t express appreciation, people do. And when people don’t express it, neither do their gifts.

The gifts I received that meant so much to me on my forty-third birthday? My wife Eleanor asked a small group of my friends to write me a note of appreciation, “a thought or intention or poem,” she wrote to each friend, “that encourages him to accept himself just as he is.”

Just as he is. There is no more powerful way to acknowledge others than to be thankful for them just as they are.

And yet we almost never do this. Especially in a corporate setting where we often ask people to be change and where we value them for what they can do for us and for the company.

Think of our corporate end of the year rituals: performance reviews, holiday parties, and, sometimes, if we’re lucky, bonuses.

Performance reviews are supposed to identify our strengths, and the best reviewers spend most of their time dwelling on strengths. But it’s not a review unless we also look at weaknesses, areas “to develop,” places where we fall short. In other words, immediately after we tell people how great they are, we tell them how they aren’t good enough.

Holiday parties usually include a speech by the CEO or other leader thanking people for their hard work over the year and encouraging them to continue working hard over the next year. It’s an important ritual but it’s impersonal, given to the entire company or department at once. And it’s typically about what we’ve been able to accomplish, not about who we are. People don’t feel individually recognized.

And bonuses are a business deal, based not on appreciating us for who we are, but on compensating us for what we achieved, often delivered with no ceremony and no clearly expressed appreciation. The huge stock grants that left people under-appreciated? They were, literally, placed on people’s empty chairs overnight. No note. No conversation. Just a piece of paper on a chair.

I’m not suggesting these rituals aren’t important. People work together in organizations in order to accomplish things so it makes sense that our organizational rituals appreciate people for accomplishing things and for increasing their ability to accomplish more things in the future.

But I’d like to suggest an additional way to appreciate the people around us. A way that costs nothing and feels great to everyone involved: in a handwritten note, tell them why you appreciate them.

Not for what they do for you. Not for what they help you accomplish. Not even for what they accomplish themselves. Just for being who they are.

If you’re hesitant — maybe you think it’s too touchy-feely, too sappy — just think about what it would feel like to receive that type of note from the people around you.

Here’s the hard part: don’t be stingy.

You should do this even for people about whom you feel conflicted. Perhaps you don’t like everything about them. Maybe you don’t always appreciate who they are.

That’s OK. This isn’t a performance review. You don’t have to address everything about each person. This is a gift. There’s no reason to hoard your appreciation; it’s unlimited in supply. Just think about what you do appreciate about people and describe that part. Let them know what about them makes you smile. What you admire. What makes them special to you.

Then hand them your notes and thank them, individually, for working with you. Or, if you’re feeling bashful, just leave the notes on their chairs overnight; there’s no risk they’ll open them and feel under-appreciated.

I know, for me, it made my otherwise insignificant, mid-decade birthday the most significant one yet.

About the Author

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

(Via HBR)

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Motivate Employees with Good Advice But InvisiblyConsider this, from Science Daily, Dec. 1, 2010:

New research by University of Minnesota psychologists shows how social support benefits are maximized when provided “invisibly” — that is, without the support recipient being aware that they are receiving it. The study, “Getting in Under the Radar: A Dyadic View of Invisible Support,” is published in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science.

In the study, graduate student Maryhope Howland and Professor Jeffry A. Simpson suggest there may be something unique about the emotional support behaviors that result in recipients being less aware of receiving support. Receiving social support, such as advice or encouragement, is typically thought of as positive, a generous act by one person yielding benefits for another in a time of need. Effective support should make someone feel better and more competent, it is generally acknowledged. However, what is supposedly considered “support” may make someone feel vulnerable, anxious or ineffective in the face of a stressor, Howland and Simpson found.

It seems to me that this study is as relevant for managers as it is for romantic partners, who were the actual subjects in the study. It is a truism that employees need support, and that enlightened management does all it can to provide support. But this study suggests that if the support is provided too obviously, too visibly, it can actually make a person feel worse. Support that is too blatant risks making the recipient feel as if he needed support, which is not a feeling most people in the workplace feel comfortable acknowledging. Well-intended though it may be, visible support can backfire, and make the employee feel resentful, insecure, and worried.

So what is a manager to do? Withhold support? We know that causes problems. Give support? We see that that can cause problems, too. So what then? Send anonymous notes of support? Sneak up from behind the employee and whisper in her ear, “We value you!” then disappear before she can turn and see you? Kidding aside, how you offer support can turn the well-intended but clumsy offer into the kind of support that actually boosts performance.

The best support comes naturally, organically; not on cue, not on script. The best support feels as if it is simply a part of the ongoing conversation in the workplace. It enters seamlessly into the discussion. If the manager intended to be supportive, the employee never detected that intention. Spouses yearn to hear the words, “I love you,” but if they are asked for or sound the least bit rehearsed, they mean nothing, or can be counterproductive. Same deal at work. Employees yearn to feel valued, but if the manager doles out statements of valuation he can actually undercut the employee’s feeling of worth.

Making an employee feel valued is one of the most important things a manager can do (my book Shine goes into some of the ways, based on the latest psychological evidence, that managers can bring out the best in people). But as the study by Howland and Simpson shows, it is also one of the most difficult things for a manager to do.

The takeaway: Learn how to value people subtly. How? Subtle actions, like making eye contact; asking a person his or her opinion on something, anything; noticing the person, not complimenting, simply noticing; recalling something the person said yesterday, last week, or last month; giving a high five; or recalling a past success when times are tough. These are subtle expressions of support — and if you start to think about it, you can come up with scores more.

But the best are the ones you don’t even think of. You just do them naturally, invisibly, because you feel what you feel. You’re glad to be working on your team and you show it. That’s the best support.

What works for you? How do you show support? What kinds of support make you feel the most valued?

About the Author

Edward Hallowell, MD, is a psychiatrist, served as an instructor at Harvard Medical School for 20 years, and is the director of the Hallowell Centers in New York City and Sudbury, Massachusetts. He has authored eighteen books, including the national bestseller Driven to Distraction, that have sold millions of copies.

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