CG #65 – To Lead or Include, that is the Question

Getting a task done well and on time no matter who I trample, or losing my way in the messiness of including others:  Is it just me, or is this the primary dilemma of leaders everywhere?


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Armani taking a fence.

 CG #65 –  To Lead or Include, That’s the Question

My coaches in this matter are beings who have resolved this dilemma:  Horses.  Horses are herd animals who never lose sight of what they want.  They don’t trample their relationship to each other or their place in the herd to get it either.  It’s extraordinary to work with them.

I have a human coach too, and my task today is to “get a horse to put his head down without touching him.”

We were in a big barn for this, and I’m terrified of getting in little stalls with big horses.  The horses are trapped, and I’m trapped with them.  I do it, but I always   have to push my fear aside.  This time, I take the fear with me into Armani’s stall.

I approach Armani radiating a clear intention “Will you put your head down for me?”  I know I can use coercive horsemanship to wrestle his head down a little or bribe it down with food, but that’s not what I’m after.  I want Armani to put his head down because he chooses to do as I ask.

I’m pretty sure this is what leaders want, too.

When I walk in, Armani is standing against one of the stall walls.  I walk over to stroke his neck and immediately feel uncomfortable.  He is tense and watchful – it is subtle, but I can see it in his body and feel it in the pit of my stomach.  I realize I have him pinned against the wall, not the best position for eliciting voluntary behavior.

I think leaders have this problem too:  Our employees are pinned against the wall of the power we have over their lives.  Whether or not we want to admit it, every time we talk to an employee, only one of us has the power to fire the other.

I want to feel my discomfort rather than push it aside where it might cause me to coerce Armani, and I still have to get the task done, so I stand there feeling uncomfortable.  I just started and I’m already stuck.

My human coach says:  “Back off and give him some room.  Ask him to come to you.” I feel relieved, and say “Thank you – I was uncomfortable, but wasn’t sure what to do.”  I take three steps back and Armani follows me like we are glued together.  He relaxes visibly.  I relax.  I say, “I want you to put your head down, but I will not force you,” and Armani exhales and sways toward me. 

My coach and another colleague get so excited about this that Armani walks past me and sticks his head out to see what all the fuss was about. My coach says, “Now you’ve got a new task.  How do you get his head back inside the stall?”

(You’ve probably never had this happen to you, that someone you’re leading gets distracted by something more lively, interesting or urgent.)

I say “I know how to get him to back up – to make him – but I don’t want to do that.  Armani, I want you to come back in.” Armani steps back into his stall and lowers his head, holding it there.

I’m a little blown away with how beautiful that moment is, so I stand there taking it in.  The task was a red herring – maybe it always is.  Maybe the task is just the vehicle for the relationship to bloom and take your breath away.   Because that’s what happened:  My refusal to harm Armani and his generous response broke my heart open.

I reach out to stroke Armani’s neck and he keeps his head down.  As gratitude wells up in me, Armani swings his head up and looks me in the eye.  His eyes had gone clear and the boundaries between us dissolved.  I think he was grateful to not be bossed, grateful to have the chance to show me his generous heart.  I know I was grateful to see it.

After I left Armani’s stall I realized I hadn’t been afraid since I said: “Thank you.  I was uncomfortable and wasn’t sure what to do.”

If you’d like to try this with a human, here are the steps:

1. I did not let the task, the time pressure or my audience make me a bully.

2. I refused to choose,  Instead, I held on to the task and the invitation equally.

3. I accepted help.

4. I noticed and responded accordingly.

CG #64 – Are You the Flea in the Jar?

CG #64 – Are you the flea in the jar?

It’s easy to pooh-pooh mindfulness as another management fad until you start to look at the connection between the flea in the jar and our tendency to “stick like lint to the familiar.” (Mary Oliver)


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Fleas in a jar learn to limit their jumping so they don’t have painful encounters with the lid. They learn this so well, they continue to jump only that high after the lid is removed.   Unlike a flea, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer doesn’t believe her jar has a lid. I bet the words “always” and “never” or the phrase “it is what it is,” don’t fall from her lips. To Langer, every moment is open territory if we looking for what’s different about it.

“The problem is…we suffer from an illusion of stability and think everything we once experienced is still the same. Everything is always changing and looks different from different perspectives. Bringing that expectation of not knowing to our daily lives will encourage us to notice and be in the present.”

Langer has been studying the effects of mindfulness on well-being and performance for the last 30 years. “Actively drawing novel distinctions is the essence of mindfulness,” she says. When you are looking for what’s different from one moment to the next, you start to see all the choices available to you. That’s the opposite of sticking to a habitual way of thinking about our boss, or our role or what’s possible.

That’s the difference between being mindful and being the flea: The mindful person is always scanning their environment expecting to see something new. The flea takes the one time they smacked into the lid on the jar as proof that nothing is going to change, not ever, that’s the way it is here, woe is me. Never, always, can’t.

This is what I most often see in my clients who are stuck: Their boss was unreceptive to an idea once, so they never bring it up again. Their co-worker always gets the best projects, so there is no point in asking for the next one. I couldn’t get this to work last time, so it must not be possible. The mindful person asks, “What is different about this moment, about that person, about me? What assumptions are keeping me stuck?” and “What can I do differently because something or someone is slightly different?”

Langer’s practical approach to mindfulness doesn’t involve hours on a meditation cushion becoming non-judgmentally aware of your thoughts. We can be mindful in any moment: Either we believe that the world around us is stable and unchanging and the habits that served us yesterday are the right ones for today, or we are on the lookout for what’s new. According to Langer, “we expect everything to be new and so we notice, become engaged and enjoy ourselves.”

Langer isn’t just after enjoyment, she’s out to change the world: Her upcoming project is to study the effect of mindfulness on Stage IV breast cancer patients. She expects to shrink tumors. (Link to NYT article) Her track record so far makes me think she will.

Where are you the flea in the jar, mindlessly jumping at a fixed height? Where can you start looking for what’s different or new in the same old situation?

CG #63 – Why Not Declare Peace?

CG #63 –Why Not Declare Peace?

We polarize over our differences and turn what is merely strenuous into something stressful and exhausting. What if there was a better way?

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The internet exposes our tendency to go to war over our differences, especially in an election year. It takes about 5 comments on a blog before two clear sides emerge and commenters hunker down in support of one camp or the other. With an upcoming election in the USA, polarized rhetoric is heating up.

It’s a fertile laboratory for practicing a more productive approach to polarity.

Polarities are everywhere

You can find polarities wherever there is lasting, unresolved conflict or a problem that won’t stay solved. Take the stormy relationship between management and union employees, or between Sales and R&D; or the divide between the IT department and its customers. The endless, unproductive debate over how to deal with ongoing social ills is another example. Work-life balance is a polarity.

You Can’t Solve a Polarity

Polarities aren’t problems. That’s why the right answer, the once-and-for-all answer can’t be found.  The tension between the innovations you need to stay competitive and the need for reliable cash flow really is endless. The tension between the wild and wildly expensive ideas that your engineers dream up and what is feasible to build is not a problem to do away with either: It’s a polarity that is the lifeblood of your company. And it’s going to be much easier on everyone if we stop trying to “solve” polarities.

If only it wasn’t so difficult. I don’t know about you, but my brain has a hair-trigger about some things. Corruption, unfair treatment, deception, self-righteous in-crowds – they all make me crazy, and it seems to happen instantly.

When I decide these are a problem to be solved rather than a polarity to make room for, it leads to those 2 entrenched camps that pop up in virtually every internet comment thread: If your point of view is the problem, then my point of view is the solution. No matter how smooth we are, and how well we bury it in inclusive language, we wish the other side would stop being so difficult. We wish they’d be just a little more like us, a little more reasonable, a little less of a…problem.

That’s declaring war, no matter how subtle we are about it. And declaring war is endless and exhausting. I want a way to get off this painful treadmill quickly and reliably.

Declaring Peace

1. I’m making “People are never the problem” the mantra I take everywhere.  When that’s too much to ask of myself, I’ll try “What if people are never the problem?”

I can’t prove this is true. Instead, I’m going to invite you to join me in testing it. Is it going to lead to being too accepting, too “weak?” Will I be taken advantage of? I don’t think so and here’s why: I am a “people” too, and I’m never the problem either. I suspect this levels the playing field in a transformative way.

I’m adopting a word substitution without softening the polarity.

Instead of saying or implying “or” say “both…and.” “This isn’t working for my team” (with the implied but unspoken: “Fix this or I’ll escalate”) becomes “This needs to work for both you and I, and we’re really at odds here.” (you and me and our difference)

I’m asking myself: “How am I contributing to the fight?” “Is it necessary?” It takes energy to stay at war with a person, department or idea. I’d rather spend that energy elsewhere.

 What I’m not saying

There are only polarities, not problems

There will always problems that need to be confronted, named and solved. In my experience, embracing the overarching polarity helps me find and solve problems without experiencing backlash from either “side.” It’s polarities and problems, not polarities or problems.

It’s all hugs and puppies

There is evil. There are injustices that need to be made right. That work can make us hard and unkind. I’m hopeful that refusing to make enemies out of even keeps us kind and human as we draw necessary lines and impose consequences.  Kind and firm: Polarities really are everywhere.

CG #62 – Don’t Let Fear Stop You

If a bank regulator for the Federal Reserve can’t ask uncomfortable questions without losing her job, what hope is there for the rest of us?

“…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

–Franklin D Roosevelt in his first inaugural address.

Carmen Segarra knows about fear and the cost of  “converting retreat into advance.”  Carmen was a a Federal bank regulator assigned to regulate Goldman Sachs, a prominent investment bank.  She was fired for being too direct, for asking questions that were awkward for people at Goldman Sachs and her bosses at the Federal Reserve.

Carmen just wanted to do her job, which was to regulate.  Her bosses at the Fed wanted to do that too, but preferred an approach so subtle it was easy for Goldman Sachs to ignore.  They were afraid that asking direct questions would offend the people they were regulating and those people would withhold the information they needed to regulate them.

It would be funny if it weren’t so very dangerous.

Friendly or Captured?

Getting too close to those you are supposed to regulate is so common, it has a name: Regulatory Capture.  In the consulting world it’s called “going native.”  There is a thin line between having a friendly, harmonious relationship and being ineffective.  It’s impossible to know which side of the line you’re on, unless you are willing to test it.

“I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear. What it comes down to…is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny…’  Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”

–Marilynne Robinson, author, “Housekeeping”, “Gilead

We destroy our effectiveness when we let fear run the show.  When we justify our ineffectiveness, we give fear far too much territory.  And, given an inch, fear will take a mile.  Don’t let it.  You can do the thing you need to do.

See Paris First

I quoted a poem I love in my online program for consultants, and I’m going to quote it here. When fear has ahold of us, it’s not skill we need, it’s courage.  The poem, “See Paris Fist,  by Marsha Truman Cooper gives me that courage:

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Suppose that what you fear

could be trapped,

and held in Paris.

Then you would have

the courage to go

everywhere in the world.

All the directions of the compass

open to you,

except the degrees east or west

of true north

that lead to Paris.

Still, you wouldn’t dare

put your toes

smack dab on the city limit line.

You’re not really willing

to stand on a mountainside

miles away

and watch the Paris lights

come up at night.

Just to be on the safe side

you decide to stay completely

out of France.

But then danger

seems too close

even to those boundaries,

and you feel

the timid part of you

covering the whole globe again.

You need the kind of friend

who learns your secret and says,

“See Paris first.”

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Let’s be that kind of friend for each other, shall we?

CG #61 – Culture is what you do right here, right now

That’s just the culture here. We can’t get anything done quickly.”  Organizational culture has gotten a reputation for being difficult to unravel and nearly impossible to change. Is your organization’s culture really a trap you can’t escape?  That’s up to you.

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Culture is a verb, not a prison sentence. Here’s how one dictionary defines it:

Culture: v. To maintain (tissue, bacteria, etc.) in conditions suitable for growth.

“But that’s the problem!” you moan. “My organization won’t let me take risks or grow at all. I have to wait for someone to die to get promoted.”

Which brings us to the definition of culture as a noun: Culture n. “The attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.”

Culture is what you do, not who you are. 

Attitudes. Behavior. Conditions. Groups. That’s what culture is. If the behavior that is characteristic of your organization is getting you down, make a tiny change in one of the above 4 elements.   Here are three examples.

Change a Condition

A workgroup was moved into a new building with a dispiriting floor plan. Instead of the natural gathering places and interesting configuration of their previous space, this office was one uniform row after another of depressing gray cubicles. “It’s awful.” a coaching client of mine said, “People are fighting more, and no one smiles or jokes anymore. I want to quit.”

She didn’t quit. Instead, she placed a small table in a central location with a message board above it. Soon food started appearing there – lemons from the tree in someone’s backyard, tomatoes and zucchini from someone’s garden, a box of doughnuts. Then notes started appearing on the message board. As people lingered to eat, they talked and joked with one another. The fighting subsided.

Change the Group Behavior

The meeting was the same every month: There was no project goal, no meeting outcome, no agenda. There was only a plate of cookies and a request by the CIO to figure out “how to create partnerships between IT and our client groups.” This group of senior managers ate cookies and went through the motions for 9 months. They’d meet for the rest of their lives because the culture did not allow pointing out the mistakes of leaders, and it did not believe in structuring meetings.

A newcomer suggested a meeting evaluation, and it took 3 flipchart pages to capture their discontent, and only 2 more highly structured meetings to agree to stop meeting, a first in this compliant, meeting-bound culture. “We can’t solve on partnership problems in isolation.” is what they told the CIO. “Makes sense,” he said.

Change Your Behavior

“…so we need a new design for the group by Friday. I need your very best thinking..” It was Wednesday afternoon and this was the first I’d heard of this from my C—level client.   It was a typical moment in this hard-driving, last-minute culture. I was booked solid for the rest of the week.

I tore out a piece of paper from my pad and started drawing the design. “I can do it right now,” I said.

“What? “ Now my client was flustered. “Don’t you need time to talk to people and think about it?”

“There’s no time for that.  We have 20 minutes left. Let’s take our best shot and your admin can type up our first draft while we agree on next steps.”

She frowned as I drew and labeled boxes. “Why are you putting that there?” she asked. Then she grabbed her pen and pulled the paper toward her. We had an engaging design session for the next 15 minutes.

Keep it tiny and matter-of-fact

When culture is in your way, it’s tempting to think you have to make a dramatic attempt to change it. What if, instead of trying to change the culture, you focused on not letting the culture change you in one, tiny way?

Just because the office layout is unfriendly doesn’t mean you have to be. Just because the meeting culture is dysfunctional doesn’t mean you have to throw away your skills. If the deadline demands are routinely impossible, why not make a first draft part of the way you work? Just because the culture is rigid, doesn’t mean you have to be.

Remember:  Right here, right now, the culture is up to you.


Behavioral Interview Questions for “Soft” Skills

I love writing interview questions for my clients, so I thought I’d start compiling the ones I’ve written here with this short list.  The “soft” skills questions seem hardest for people to write.  It would be great fun for me to write more, so feel free to give me an assignment in the comments below.  And, feel free to share your favorite questions there too.  If you wanted to include stories or comments about using them, I’d love to read them.

Hi Liz –

We’re looking for questions that can help us select candidates who:

1. like people

2. are happy/positive

3. are comfortable with change

4. are self-motivated


The first thing I do when I want to write a behavioral interview question is to picture the behavior I want in a co-worker, and the situation I think might evoke or challenge that behavior.  Then I use the Behavioral question format to phrase a question about the situation and ask them what happened.

To the extent you and I agree on what these things look like, these questions will work for you.  Whether or not they fit, I encourage you to use them as a jumping off place for your own.  In each category I included a question designed to elicit “contrary evidence,” that is a question about failing to like people, be positive, etc.

1.  Like people

  • Tell me about a time when you joined a new company needed to become part of a team quickly.  What did you do?  What happened as a result?
  • Tell me about a time when your attempt to connect with someone was rebuffed.   What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time you joined a team that was tense and not communicating with each other very well.  What did you do to become a part of the team?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work with someone you didn’t like.  How did you handle it?

2.  Are happy/positive

  • Tell me about a time when your work was difficult – a real slog.  What did you do to keep going?
  • Tell me about a time when your boss made an unpopular decision and your co-workers were complaining and negative.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you lost your enthusiasm for your work.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when the barriers to doing your work were severe.  How did you handle it?
  • Tell me about a time when you weren’t able to talk yourself into being upbeat and positive.  How did you handle it?

3. Are comfortable with change

  • Tell me about a time when your work changed due to a new regulation or leadership decision.  What did you do to adjust?
  • Tell me about a time when you noticed a problem with the way you were expected to work.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when someone came to you with an idea for improving your workflow.  How did it go?  What did you end up doing?
  • Tell me about a time when the changes coming at you were just too many to deal with.  What did you do?

 4. Are self-motivated

  • Tell me about a time when you saw a way to improve your team’s workflow.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to learn something new that was really difficult for you.  How did you go about it?
  • Tell me about a time when you wanted to move forward in your career, but couldn’t see an opportunity to.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you were overwhelmed with work.  How did you handle it?
  • Tell me about a time when you couldn’t not seem to get motivated to do something.  What did you do?

CG #60 – How to Hold Someone Accountable

It’s tempting to think accountability depends on the other person and their skills.  Nope.  It depends on you.

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Let’s say you’ve got someone who is missing deadlines or turning in work that isn’t up to snuff.  Let’s say you’ve given them feedback about what’s right and carefully explained what needs to change about their work.  You’ve offered more training and sat with them to show them what to do.

And, although there may be slight improvement, it isn’t enough.  You dread spending more time for such a feeble result.

Trust that feeling. 

The cardinal rule of accountability is to stop working harder than they are.

Who is putting in more time, energy and worry?  If it isn’t the person who is responsible for the work, accountability is in the wrong place.  Believing if you just show them one more time, if you just do this one more thing for them is a big part of the problem.

Either someone can do that job or they can’t.  If they can do it, but aren’t doing it, then doing it for them won’t close the gap between them and successful job performance.  Like a baby bird, they’ve got to peck their way out of the shell to get strong enough for the challenges of life.  Doing it for them weakens them. 

Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine about how to teach a baby to sleep through the night.  Holding someone accountable is a lot like that.  Assuming they aren’t hungry and don’t need to be changed, you’ve got three choices when your newborn starts screaming in their crib:

  • Ignore them and hope they stop crying on their own (the equivalent of leaving your employee without any guidance and hoping they get it)
  • Rush in and pick them up (the equivalent of doing someone’s work for them or working harder than they are)
  • Rub their back and speak softly to them, then leave. (the equivalent of letting your employees know you care, that there are standards, and that you are confident they can fulfill them)

Letting the baby know you are nearby and rubbing their back eases his terror.  Not picking him up holds him accountable for soothing himself back to sleep, a necessary life skill.

Your employee needs to know you are nearby, and that you care, both about them and the work.  They also need to know that you have confidence they can figure out how to meet the job standards, which remain high.  Holding people accountable is holding a clear expectation of performance without abandoning them or doing it for them when they miss.

So if holding people accountable isn’t doing the work for them, or ignoring them when they don’t perform, or giving feedback or a pep talk or explaining it one more time or sending them to another training, what is it?

Holding people accountable is staying in your own business and out of theirs.

Instead of being an expert in the other person – why they might be failing, what they might need – you need to be an expert on yourself.  Your needs.  The requirements of the job.  Your ability to do your job which is diminishing with each hour you spend doing their job.  What you need from an employee in order to keep them in the job.

It’s the chick’s business to summon the strength to peck its way through that hard shell.  It’s the baby’s business to regulate its own emotions.  It’s your employee’s business to stare at the gap between what’s expected and what they’ve produced until they figure out how they can close that gap.  It’s your business is to keep your employee’s attention focused on the performance gap long enough to devise a plan for closing it. 

 Staying out of their business doesn’t mean the baby’s cry won’t make you squirm, or that you won’t long to reach out and crack the chick’s shell open.  It doesn’t mean you won’t feel uncomfortable watching your employee struggle to get their work done properly.  It doesn’t mean closing your heart or distancing yourself from them.  It means you know better than to get in the way of someone else’s progress.

CG #59 – Does Your Productive Group Fall Apart at Times?

Groups excel at tasks, and flounder with projects.  Learning to recognize the difference will revolutionize your meetings.

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A task is something that can be accomplished in one step.  A project is anything that is more than one step.  Tasks are speedy and give you an immediate feeling of accomplishment.  Projects are speedbumps on the road of life.

Very few of the things on a typical to do list – or a typical meeting agenda – are tasks.  Most of us have items on our to do list – or our meeting agendas – that we move to the next list or the next agenda.  These are often projects rather than tasks.

Look at your list right now:  Is the item you move from list to list a project rather than a task?  If it is a project, you’re smart to avoid it.  It’s going to gobble up a lot of time and demand your complete attention.  And it’s going to send your group into one of those long, unproductive discussions.

 If you want to get things done, you put only tasks on your to do list. If you want your group to get things done, you put only tasks on your agenda.

Analyze Your Task List/Meeting Agenda

Here’s a typical to do list:

  • Wash the car
  • Mow the lawn
  • Do the laundry

There is a project lurking behind every one of these items.  I can’t wash the car without first parking the car away from my neighbor’s cars, finding a hose, getting a bucket, soap and a sponge, and putting on clothes I don’t mind getting wet.  It’s a project to wash a car, not a task.

If I put “wash the car” on a meeting agenda, then ask the group to help me wash my car, pandemonium will erupt.  The group will split according to the task they each think comes first.  One person will ask for the keys to the car.  Another will tell me – at length – how much they love using Dawn dishwashing detergent and do I have any while someone else warns me of the damage dishwashing detergent will do to my car’s paint job.  While they are arguing, 3 people will already be in the parking lot squirting each other with the hose and getting my neighbor’s cars wet.

My project just turned into a nightmare.  Unproductive meetings are just like this.  Which brings me to 3 principles of working with groups:

  • Groups are fabulous at tasks
  • Groups fall apart over projects
  • Groups tend to turn everything into a project

If you want to see the full flowering of the dynamics lurking in your group, throw a project at them.  If you want their help working on a project of enormous complexity, give it to them one small task at a time.  That’s what meeting planning is for:  to break down the big, undigestible project into tiny, group-sized pieces.

Task or Project?

In order to make improving your meetings a quick, easy task instead of an enormous, time-chewing project, take this tiny step today:

Look at your task list or list of agenda items and ask yourself:  Which of these is a project rather than a task?  It’s probably the one you’ve been avoiding, and now you know why.

CG #58 – Cut Your Meeting Time in Half

There’s a reason professional writers write faster than the rest of us.  What they know will cut your meeting time in half.

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“…my argument is that you should write quickly but edit slowly; and you can buff your words and pick better words when you’re in the editing phase and (can) take your time.”

“Yes, you’re right and you say it in the right order. I’ve habitually done it backwards. I’m editing a blank page into even blanker before I get going.  [laughter]. I’m deleting from nothing.

–A conversation between authors Daphne Gray-Grant and  Arthur Plotnik.

I’ve been studying how to write faster with author Daphne Gray-Grant. Her 4-step process cuts writing time in half:

1. Make a mind-map that shows you what you’ll be writing.

2.  Draft fast without editing, evaluating or thinking.

3. Take a break.

4. Edit slowly and thoughtfully.

If only this were easy to do.  I’d like to tell you it gets easier with practice, but that isn’t true. It is very, very difficult to make a mind map when I am on deadline.   I want to dive in and just get it done.  Giving in to this urge will slow me down.

Even when I get this first step right, it is very, very difficult to write a terrible first draft without improving it as I go.  When I see a clumsy construction, a word that isn’t right, a typo, it’s like the world will come to an end if I don’t clean it up right away. RIGHT NOW.

It’s as difficult to write a terrible first draft as it is to get through 3 minutes of brainstorming or round robin without heading immediately into an open discussion.

Open discussion is the meeting equivalent of editing a blank page.  The biggest problem with open discussion is it happens too early.  Discussing before all the information is out on the table is editing a blank page.  It’s deleting from nothing.

How NOT to do it

 Here’s how open discussion erupts.  The leader asks a question.  Someone gives their answer.  Maybe another person gives their answer, maybe two more do.  But the 4th person to speak is no longer responding to the original question.  They’re responding to what the first three people said.  They’re agreeing or taking exception or evaluating what’s already been said.

They are editing, not drafting.  And they are editing a blank page.  The minute someone writes a sentence, someone else jumps in to improve it.   That’s what slows your meetings down to a crawl.

The whole point of a meeting is to get to the editing stage:  You want to look at a problem together and edit, evaluate and choose as a group.

You can’t do that with a blank page.  You need a draft before you can edit it.

How to meet like a writer

1. Create the draft first without editing.  Round robin is best for this, or post-it brainstorming. (5-7 minutes)

2.  Clarify what’s up there.  If you don’t understand every word, you don’t yet have a draft.  Do not edit, evaluate, weigh in or advocate.  Just clarify. You are still drafting. (3 minutes)

3. Theme, categorize or combine to make the information easier to edit. You are preparing your draft for editing. (5 minutes)


4. Cross-off the items everyone agrees can be eliminated. Don’t push to remove anything.  Give people time to think.  You are editing. (1-2 minutes)

5. Prioritize the list that remains.   Struggle is normal here.  You are editing. (5-10 minutes)

6. Agree on action plan for the first 1-3 on the list. This can be a bit peppier, as you are now through editing. (3 minutes)

You can go from a blank page to coordinated, enthusiastic action in 35 minutes if you’ll separate drafting and editing.  Or, you can have the same meeting over and over, run out of time and make little progress on your goals.   It really is that simple.  But it’s not easy.

It’s a discipline

I like author Steve Chandler’s definition best:  “Discipline is remembering what you want.”

CG #57 – Real Feedback Doesn’t Shame

 Giving feedback is not an excuse to belittle someone, yet it’s so easy to cause harm.  A simple formula will keep you from crossing the line.

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Word Count:  1100

Reading Time:  4 minutes

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Shaming Feedback

“The officer was shouting at me, his face red, spitting mad. He would not stop until I admitted I was a reckless driver.  Not just that I was speeding, but that I was a reckless driver.  After he left, my 13-year-old daughter said ‘Dad, he really shamed you.’”

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Yes, he did.  Speeding is a behavior; something you did that was wrong.  Being a reckless driver is something you are that is wrong.  Real feedback is about the behavior, not the person. 

feedback shame

Real Feedback

Jacqueline and I are talking about the equine-guided leadership program at the Stanford Red Barn. A horse named Chey is standing with us, looking me in the eye as Jacqueline talks.  When I begin speaking, Chey takes 2 steps backwards, still locking eyes with me.  I say “No?  Not the right direction?  OK.  Forget that.”  Chey immediately takes two steps toward me and wiggles his ears, then blows snot all over me.   We have to take a tiny hilarity break before we can go on with the meeting.

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We can learn a lot about giving feedback from horses like Chey.  Here’s why he was so effective:

  • He stayed connected to me, both when he was stepping away from me and when he was stepping back toward me.
  • He gave feedback instantly, without agonizing or creating a story about why I was being such a chowderhead.
  • He didn’t call me a chowderhead.

Feedback that works is feedback without shame.  Horses excel at this. 

Humans don’t. 

Horses simply respond in the moment without judging either their response or the person or horse they are responding to.  Horses are OK with having likes and dislikes, and letting each other know about them.

Horses accept feedback as a way of life.

Humans don’t.

Humans like to “improve” the feedback they’re about to give by first disowning it, then telling themselves a story about it.  Rather than admitting to our own anxiety or irritation, we create stories that make it easy to blame our feelings on others.  Then we blame them for forcing us to give feedback!  “if you want to succeed in this company, you’ll watch your tone.”  That’s a world apart from “You sounded cranky to me yesterday.  It rubbed me the wrong way.”  The second example lacks shame; the first is drenched in it.

There are 3 problems with “improving” feedback by attaching a story:

  • The story gets in the way of the simplicity and directness that makes feedback effective.
  • The story obliterates the connection that makes feedback safe.
  • The story shames the receiver, which forever blights the relationship between them.

Feedback + a story = shame.

The Opposite of Shaming is Vulnerability

The feedback you give tells others what you care about and something of who you are.  Building a case for the righteousness of the feedback you’re about to give is like the Wizard of Oz terrifying Dorothy before she spots the man behind the curtain.  But it’s the man behind the curtain we want to hear from, person-to-person, because getting feedback makes us vulnerable too.

Come out from behind the curtain 

Who are you without your beliefs, certainties and authority?  You’re a human being with endearing quirks, annoying habits, staggering talents and persistent blind spots, just like me.  Nothing real separates the person giving feedback from the person getting it.  Nothing.   

Who are you without a 360-degree review process that institutionalizes gossip, or a performance review process that forces you to find “weaknesses” in perfectly wonderful people, even though every bit of research supports focusing on strengths instead?   You are a human being caught in an organization that sometimes causes you to act like you’ve lost your way.  But you haven’t, have you?

The Threefold Test: True + Kind + Helpful

There’s an ancient formula that helps us human act more like horses.  Its earliest appearance is in the Upanisads, the mystical texts of Hinduism.  It’s most often associated with Socrates now, and is a threefold test for speech that is beneficial for the speaker and the receiver.  You need all three of these to pass the test for effective feedback..

1. It’s true. True is what is real about this situation – everything that’s real.  Let’s say you have an employee who casually mentions that they’ll be working from home for the week between Christmas and New Years.  Let’s say “home” is in Colorado, where they’ll be visiting family over the holidays. What’s real is that working at home has to meet two criteria:  There has to be a valid business reason for doing it, and it has to be approved.  What’s also real is that you are supportive of telecommuting in general.  The most real thing you can say about this is that you are stuck on the horns of a dilemma.  If you start there, I bet you can work out something that satisfies the employee, the organization and you.

If you making a case about how insubordinate or entitled they are because you are stunned by this obvious attempt to pass off vacation time as work, you are adding a story to the truth and you will shame your employee.  The truth is what actually happened in the real world. The story didn’t actually happen.  You made it up.

Effective feedback is the truth without the story. 

2.  It’s kind.   Kind is from an Old English word that means kin or family.  It carries the sense of “deliberately doing good to others.” In order to deliberately do good to someone, you have to open your heart to them.  Where doing good to them seems to conflict with doing good for the company you represent, you’ll need to open your heart to yourself.  It’s OK to feel uncomfortable with the discrepancy between what you want to do and what you must do.  Everybody deserves kindness.  Make the circle big enough to include all three of you.

3. It’s useful.  Useful for the person receiving the feedback.  You’ll know because they will get very interested in what you are saying and show all the signs of someone who is learning:  bright eyes, talking faster, and a vocal tone full of color rather than a dead monotone.

True, kind and helpful:  It’s your insurance policy against shaming others as well as being shamed into being less human than you are.