Steven's Own Words

The Problem With Conflict

Relationship expert and author John Gottman says 69% of all conflict is unresolvable — That’s the bad news. The good news: Conflict doesn’t have to undermine relationships — professional or personal. The simple reason so much conflict is unresolvable is that it touches on who we are as people, and we are unwilling to give up who we are as people, especially when it comes to what we value and how we see the world. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Conflict is different for everyone; one conflict is trivial and solvable in one relationship and monumental and unsolvable in another. But, just because a conflict remains unsolved, doesn’t mean it has to cause an impasse or be negative. The difference between unsolvable healthy conflict and unsolvable unhealthy conflict that undermines relationships is how you treat each other in the process. Think about it this way: every business problem is a people problem. And in the end, the problem is never that people made a mistake; the problem is how others react to and are affected by those mistakes. Do they become wedges driving people apart, kicking up the dust of judgements, grudge and distrust? Or do they become opportunities to solve a problem, figure out how to connect on a more human level, and build increasing trust?  We live in a culture that wants to feel no pain. In fact, we live in a culture that will do just about anything to avoid pain and discomfort. We don’t want the awkwardness of disagreement — or even the discomfort of fluctuating temperatures, for that matter. But guess what? Temperatures fluctuate. We feel...

How To Really Measure Engagement

Look up employee engagement stats and you will largely find depressing results: more than half still hate their job, are disengaged, and/or want to leave; too few managers are interacting in meaningful ways with their people. You’d think we’d have learned this lesson by now, but we haven’t, and it’s largely because we still think in terms of silos and roles rather then teams and interdependencies. And as long as there are silos and separate roles, there will be us and them, zero-sum thinking, and “every-win-for-you-is-a-lose-for-me.” One of the most often overlooked aspects of engagement is the role everyone plays in engaging, connecting with and inspiring one another. Yes, a lot of managers suck; they’re failing to treat their people with respect, or to provide the necessary resources, support or even the encouragement necessary to thrive. And yes, some environments are simply toxic and must be abandoned. But for those that aren’t toxic, but still not great, it’s worth remembering: change isn’t a one-way street handed down from above.  Granted, leaders set the stage, but we are the actors on that stage. We are the ones around the water cooler either contributing to negative talk, company bashing, complaining about certain individuals, or worse, disagreeing with such behavior but walking away or remaining silent. What makes leaders effective is their ability to inspire action on the part of those they lead. And since we are all leaders, we have that ability to affect the environment, to change the dialogue, to counter a negative momentum and inspire engagement. We often measure engagement by the individual’s performance against the tasks of their...

Occam’s Razor

I have often said adults are like children — just with bigger allowances, and more freedoms. We can be just as irresponsible, just as excited, just as confused, just as inquisitive as a 6-year-old. And, like a parent, one of the toughest jobs a leader can have is the barrage of questions coming their way — questions that can often feel like a doubting of their authority, or a questioning of their wisdom. It reminds me of parenting, when facing some of life’s more challenging and existential questions from our children. You know, the easy ones, like how are babies made? Where do I come from? Hopefully your team aren’t asking those kind of questions, but when they ask ‘why’ questions it may be just as uncomfortable; why are we following this protocol? Why did you make that decision? Why are we not doing this idea? What can feel like a challenge or defiance in a poorly worded question may well be just a simple curiosity, and a shallow one at that. If we can just keep our interpretations, fears and judgments in check, we may find a powerful lesson from raising kids: simply answer the question that was asked. Keep the answer simple in your first response. If a member of your team asks a question about protocol, avoid the temptation to justify your decision and actions; instead, simply answer the question with the facts. That might well be all they’re looking for. And if it wasn’t, they’ll ask a second, hopefully better-phrased question. The objective here isn’t to avoid answering their question, it’s to not answer beyond...

The Show Must Go On

Consider this: the actors performing Hamlet deliver the same lines if it’s a free show in the park or a special appearance at Carnegie Hall, no matter the size of the audience. At least, we in the audience hope for as much, don’t we? Those performers know what some of us forget: The show must go on. Not because it’s important to you, but because it’s important to them — those who have paid you in money, time, or even just excitement. Because the people in your audience matter — no matter how many of them are sitting there, or how much they paid. Never underestimate that which is small, whether they be questions, commitments or engagements. What may seem trivial or minor to a leader might be seriously significant to the person asking. Unfortunately, it’s tempting to give half attention to something that seems small or unimportant. Take for instance, my profession as a speaker. It’s oh-so-easy to write off smaller groups with a, “Oh, it’s just 12 people,” as if that doesn’t demand or deserve the same level of respect, preparation, or commitment as an audience of 1200. But true personal leadership and professionalism means you bring your A-game regardless. That’s integrity. And you know what? Integrity tends to pay off, because the attention you give to that issue you deem minor may allow that staff member to better serve a client, a client who may end up referring more business or increasing their contract with you — or, in the case of that small audience, there may be a power player or your next client among those twelve. It doesn’t matter if it’s large and important or small and “trivial”...

How History Can Build A Great Team

I can’t stop thinking about our Eastern European vacation this summer. If you’ve ever been to Europe, you’ll know that one thing always stands out: History. Europe has couches older than our entire country, and that got me thinking. The First Nations of America can certainly relate to effects of being conquered and the loss of changing cultures, but as a nation, we can’t really comprehend what’s it’s like to have, to put it mildly, “new leadership.” However, many of us have experienced that in our work: a new boss, new CEO, new owner… If you join a department, company, organization as the new leader, it’s easy to fall into the temptation to assert yourself and your authority right away, and while establishing yourself has merit, remember – you aren’t “conquering a people.” Unfortunately, many new leaders come in with just that mindset, like Attila the Hun. But remember, every member of that team you just acquired responsibility for has been there longer than you, they have history, tradition, language — and you absolutely have something to learn from them. As a leader, part of that insatiable curiosity we talked about last week means humbly learning about each other’s history.  People use their history to lay claim to the land they live in; the idea that “we’ve been here longer” gives a deep authority to people, as well it should. It doesn’t mean they have to resist change with violence — it’s more the idea that they just want to hold on to an identity. As new leaders in the modern, civilized, professional world, we can learn so much from those who historically came before us. By honoring that history, we can find...

The Hidden Value Of Curiosity

My family and I just got back from an amazing vacation in Eastern Europe. While we were there, we stayed with a Hungarian family, the family of an exchange student we hosted last summer. Our time with them was incredible, and in hindsight I’ve been struck by a wonderfully powerful — and wonderfully simple — leadership lesson. On the trip, we were immersed in their world. We had a fantastic time exploring old castles, tasting local delicacies, and even discussing a wide variety of topics, from politics and religion, to careers, culture, traditions, and more. And yet, even though there were times when we had differing opinions and perspectives, we got along famously! How’s that for a unique experience these days — diversity of opinion resulting only in friendship and respect?  One of our biggest challenges as leaders can be balancing diversity with respect in order to create a positive outcome. As I reflected on our time together, I realized there was a key aspect that made all our differences in Hungary negligible:                      Open, compassionate curiosity. In our hearts, all of us deeply respect one another; we wanted to discover and understand each other, and consequently approached our relationship from a place of curiosity. I don’t think we did this consciously, but in hindsight that’s a key takeaway. Stephen Covey put it this way: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Put another way, questions are far more inviting than statements.Questions can show us how we are similar; statements tend to point out our differences. This is all about a willingness to learn, to dialogue, and to realize that acceptance is not agreement — that you can accept a person and their inherent value without needing to...

You Don’t Have To Have The Answers

One of the most important truths to remember as a leader is this: Just because you’re in charge, doesn’t mean you have all the answers. In fact, often, the most powerful answers to the questions we struggle with the most come from the people we least expect. When we’re overwhelmed with the decisions we’re making and the environment that’s causing us to make decisions, sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is pose the question to everyone around us. From the newest hire to the seasoned veteran, from the part-time contractor to your fellow VP — ask your entire team. Einstein said we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that got us into the problem, so don’t rely on your own thinking over and over again. It seems to me that those who have the eyes or experience to realize there’s something broken usually need the help of other people to figure out how to solve it. For instance, when you’re driving your car and something’s not working, you might be the one who found the problem — but unless you’re a mechanic, you’re not likely the one who can fix it. Posing a problem to other perspectives on your team means you’ll be more likely to find solution at a level of performance you could never have achieved on your own. You as a leader are in the unique position to collect feedback to solve the problem. That’s leadership. It’s not having all the answers; it’s knowing where to look and how to find...
Don’t Keep Us In The Dark

Don’t Keep Us In The Dark

There is a ‘leadership’ mindset out there which always leaves me flummoxed. I cannot understand why anybody, much less a leader of an organization hoping to be successful, would adhere to it. And yet, it is a mindset nearly as ubiquitous as any other: the unwillingness of leaders to articulate and explain what they do, the decisions they make, and why they they made them. This bad habit leaves everyone in the dark, fearful and speculating about the whys and what might happen next — rather than practically and effectively preparing for what will happen next. It’s happening everywhere, and it’s driving organizations insane. Leaders will make big changes without telling their employees why. Rather than address these stressful issues, leaders just remain silent. This is not real leadership. This is cowardly, a fear of transparency. Real leadership is about lifting people up to a higher possibility; it’s not about creating a culture of confusion that leaves your team wondering and speculating about what they think you mean, without the clarity and understanding of what you actually mean. This behavior is the antithesis of leadership. If you’re going to build an organization of highly motivated, deeply engaged, collaborative, communicative, willing to go above and beyond team — you can’t keep them in the dark and feed them bullshit. Take, for instance, when someone is let go: it creates fear, doubt, and worry in those left behind. Put simply, their safety is at risk. They are left in survival mode, which effectively means not-working-well mode. It fosters rumors, distraction, and hostility that could easily be eliminated by a simple act of communication, clarification, and articulation of intention! Trust your team; be willing to be vulnerable,...
Negotiation Is Not About Winning

Negotiation Is Not About Winning

Since we’re on a streak with posts on “negotiation,” I thought it essential to point out a lesson I learned in one of the titular books on the subject, “Getting To Yes,” written in the 80’s by two Harvard professors. This is the most powerful lesson I took away from their wisdom: If you want to succeed at negotiation, you’ve got to be able to state your opponent’s position better than your opponent. Not only does this strategy give us a leg up rhetorically, it actually gets to the heart of what negotiation is all about: finding common ground. Finding something you can both agree on. Using this strategy, you can actually understand where your ‘opponent’ is coming from, and move forward with empathy — rather than simply a dogged determination to ‘win.’ All of us feel the same way: “That the other person just can’t see it the way I see it. If they only knew, they wouldn’t argue like this.” Incumbent upon us is the responsibility to do that research for the opponent, to actually reach that level of understanding of their position, not in order to out-argue them — but in order to more deeply understand and empathize with them. If you go into that level of learning with the mindset of undermining their perspective, you’re missing the point entirely. Nelson Mandela said, “If you speak to a person in a language they understand, you speak to their head. But if you speak to a person in their language, you speak to their heart.” If you want to find common ground in negotiation, you have to speak to their heart. You have to actually see things the way they see them....
Negotiation Means Defining Your Measurements

Negotiation Means Defining Your Measurements

Like we saw a few weeks ago, there inevitably will come a time in your career when you’ll have to convince someone else — to change their mind. This is sales; this is, essentially, negotiation. When my client wanted to convince her boss to hire a co-leader team, instead of just one leader, she had to negotiate. And what she learned is that negotiation will always go more smoothly if you can define your own measurements. When her boss said, “Co-leadership doesn’t work,” part of what he was saying was, I have no evidence and I don’t know how to measure it. Not only does she have to explain why it could work — she had to design the measurements to define what ‘working’ really meant. How would they know this new method was successful? What metrics would they use? Less turnover? Higher profit? Employee satisfaction? And over what period of time? How long was long enough? The same goes for any negotiation, really. If you want a pay raise, define your measurements of success. How have you contributed to the company? What metrics show your own growth and that of your team? This is what negotiating is: not trying to convince someone you’re right, but showing them with clear evidence the measurements that prove you’re right. The unfortunate truth, as Anias Nin taught us, is that we don’t see the world as it is — we see the world as we are. Therefore, they may be looking west for an answer when it’s standing a few yards behind them jumping up and down — but they haven’t turned east to see it. They may be simply missing a new dawn coming over the horizon, and it’s...

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