The Discomfort of Change

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Change is hard. It causes stress, and makes people feel off balance and out of sync. When that happens, there are two ways people can regain their sense of balance: They can hunker down and redouble their commitment to what they believe has worked in the past, or they can move through the change process, however uncomfortable it may be, to get to a new reality on the other side.  What impacts which path people choose? You.

While much has been written on leading change, the part that too many leaders miss is that change is not a “check-the-box” linear process. It requires constant recalibration to keep the disequilibrium, the discomfort, of change moving in a productive direction rather than a destructive one. In other words, if you push people too hard, they will retreat to what they know. To affect productive change, a leader has to gauge and guide people through their discomfort to reach the goal on the other side.

Camille Preston visualizes the process as a donut. The hole in the middle is the “comfort zone.” The donut — the space outside the comfort zone — is the learning zone where there is a tolerable level of tension and stress. She describes the outer reaches of the learning zone — the rim of the donut — as “terror’s edge.” Too often as leaders, we expect people to move from straight from the comfort zone to terror’s edge, without providing them the chance to move through the productive discomfort of testing the waters, learning new things, considering different perspectives, and expanding their understanding.

So how do you help your people move through the discomfort of change?

Start with a shared goal. When you cast the past as bad or ineffective (even if you believe that to be true), people who have been part of the “old way” often hear that they are bad or ineffective, which leads to defensiveness, thereby making it harder to bring about the change you are working to achieve. Starting the conversation with a shared goal — the positive you are working toward — will get people on board quicker that criticizing past behavior.

Break it into bite-sized pieces. Expecting people to move strait from A to Z, to go from their comfort zone to blindly stepping off terrors edge, will lead to resistance. Cast the vision and then then provide specific steps that, while uncomfortable, still feel manageable. Here’s where leaders often get tripped up — you moved through the learning zone while you were considering the change, so “Z” feels like the next logical step. This is all new to your people. Start where they are, not where you are.

Acknowledge that growth is uncomfortable. Let your people know that change is unsettling uncomfortable, and just plain hard. That’s okay. Let them ask questions, push back, and recalibrate. Then take a step forward and repeat. It is the leader’s job to change the narrative from discomfort = bad to discomfort = growth.

And that’s really the bottom line. If you want positive change — it you want growth — discomfort is going to be part of the process. Are you comfortable with that?

The Seeds of Leadership

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Originally Published May 19, 2015

“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”  — Mexican Proverb

When I first read this quote, I felt it at a gut level  . . . as in, I have experienced this and know its truth. I’m guessing most leaders who have led a major change initiative or championed an innovation effort also know the dank, dark feeling of being buried by those committed to the status quo, and also the inexplicable inner drive to nurture an idea until it takes root and breaks through to the surface. Seeds indeed.

In most cases, it’s not personal . . . those who would seek to bury us. Bureaucracies, and really most organizational hierarchies, are designed to maintain the status quo. Conformity is what makes such systems efficient and predictable. And to those for whom efficient and predictable are the goals, cloaking themselves in rules and processes feels safe, allowing them to be in control. Such a system works as long as the variables with which you work don’t change . . . as long as the winds never shift and there are no seeds trying to take root. I hear that happened once, back in 1953.

Once the keepers of the status quo come to the realization that seeds are sprouting up, a frequent response is to try to route the young vines through the established systems. “This is how we set rates, so send us your information in this format and we will consider it . . . (to which the seed responds) This new program doesn’t work that way, here is the cost . . . Sorry, we really want to access the service but we have no mechanism to accommodate that funding model.” At this point the seed can decide to become something it’s not, and usually wither and die in the process, or it can find another path that will allow it to flourish. In my experience, seeds will find a way. Sometimes they have to send out long shoots to work around deeply rooted vegetation in their path . . . or have you ever seen a flower spring forth amid the cracks in a slab of concrete? Seeds will find a way.

Systems and processes are a necessary part of organizational life . . . but if you are going to be successful, so is a willingness to nurture the seeds of new ideas whose time has come. That means not burying the crazy suggestion or the voice of dissention, even (and especially) if they come when you are already overwhelmed by the crisis du jour. You never know which of those might represent the seeds of your future success.

So how do know which ideas to nurture? It’s not about how easily it fits into some current structure, or adheres to someone else’s guidelines. It’s about furthering your mission — which may require an approach that no one has considered before. Viewed through the lens of mission, seeds of potential begin to stand out. It is your job as a leader to nurture those ideas — to keep them from being buried, or to help them break through to the surface if some external force has tried to stuff them underground.

If you don’t, someone else will. After all, seeds will find a way.

Leading in the Age of Polarization

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Conflict sells. It grabs people’s attention and taps into their emotions. It divides people into groups who are “for” or “against” a particular thing. And when conflict is fed with 24-hour instant everything media, it tends to grow and push people even farther apart. How does one lead in the midst of such polarization? With a level head, an open mind . . . and it never hurts to have a pair or two of iron shorts.

A few key tips for leading in the age of polarization

  • Identify the issue(s) at the heart of the conflict. As people start to line up on “sides” the central issue often becomes more and more abstract until it is simply about “us” and “them.” The reason people may be fired up on one side of an issue may be different from the primary concerns of those in the opposing camp. Don’t make assumptions. Ask. You have to be clear on people’s concerns before you can identify the most appropriate response.
  • Transparency builds bridges. The greater the conflict, the greater the need for open communications. You know what you are hoping to accomplish, so your actions make sense to you. The people you would hope to influence can’t read your mind, so tell them your intent. Even if you think they already understand. Real or perceived gamesmanship and secrecy feed mistrust. And when people don’t understand the details of a situation, it is a natural inclination to fill in the gaps with assumptions consistent with the narrative they believe to be true.
  • Strive for increased understanding. Leaders have to make decisions that not everyone will agree with — that is a given. If your goal is to convince everyone that you are “right,” you are going to have a lot of frustrating days. Instead, make it your goal to better understand the pain point of people with a different perspective. You just might be surprised at how often you can address their concerns and thus reduce resistance to also addressing your own. Looking for the win-win doesn’t make you a weak leader, it makes you a smart one
  • Maintaining respect is a reflection on you. Sure, there will be days when you are frustrated by someone intentionally or unintentionally twisting the facts a situation . . . or questioning your intent . . . or making an inflammatory comment. In such situations it can be helpful to remember that anything but a respectful and professional response diminishes your credibility and adds fuel to the combatants’ fire. Respect is more about the character of the leader than it is about whether the recipient deserved it.

As a leader, you may not be able to eliminate polarization, but you can keep your focus on the destination not the distractions. Invite people into understanding rather than pushing them away. Take the high road, even with it is lonely . . . and don’t forget your iron shorts.

Mind the Gap

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Riders on the London Underground are given a visual and audible warning to “mind the gap” when they are stepping on or off the train. This reminder that there is a space between here and there is designed to protect passengers and keep their footing sure. Likewise, leaders would do well to mind the gap lest they stumble and fall in the space between where they are standing, and the place they are trying to move toward.

Where, exactly, do leaders need to mind the gap?

1) Between the leader’s perspective and that of their critics. Recognizing the gap between you as a leader and your critics — in experience, information and/or desired outcome — can help you respond more effectively to those who would (sometimes quite vocally) recommend a different course of action. Rather than being thrown off balance by an outspoken challenge, look for the source of the gap. Are the critics missing information, are their goals different from yours, have they had an experience that differs from your own? What can you learn from them that could build greater understanding on all sides? Curiosity can help bridge the gap whereas defensiveness widens the chasm.

2) Between the leader’s intent and how others experience them. As leaders, our actions make sense to us because we understand our intent — we know our end goal. For our followers, there may be a gap between what we intend to accomplish and how they experience our actions. Ever have someone misinterpret what you are trying to do . . . or jump to conclusions based on their own perspectives and storylines? Mind the gap. Connecting the dots between your intentions and your actions is a simple as stating what you are trying to accomplish. It is easy to think people understand your reasoning because it is so clear to you. Often times, they don’t unless we tell them. As an added bonus, when we clearly state our intentions, people may be able to suggest an even better way to meet our goals . . . they can help us fulfill our intent, but first they have to know what it is.

3) Between the “map” and reality. Wouldn’t it be lovely if everything worked out exactly as we outlined in our carefully developed plans? Except it doesn’t. If we are so focused on following the plan, rather than arriving at the destination, we are likely to stumble . . . sometimes with devastating consequences. It is a leader’s responsibility to monitor the terrain, to look for new information that might require you to change your approach, or your timing, or the route you use, and adapt accordingly. And if you have followed #2 above, and made your intent clear, your people will help you find the best route forward.

As a leader, there are many things that can trip you up as you try to move from point A to point B. What’s the best way to keep your footing sure on the journey? Mind the gap.

Adjusting Your Focus

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Have you ever noticed that some leaders seem to take chaotic situations in stride, perhaps even thrive amid circumstances that bring other leaders to their knees? What’s the difference?  Is it advance planning, a stronger team, some innate strength of character? Those things all definitely help, however the real key to leading well in the midst of a crisis is where you place your focus.

There is a natural tendency to focus on the impact of things outside of your control — often the very thing that created the crisis in the first place. Unfortunately, that approach tends to foster fear, sucks the energy out of the room, and leads to reactionary rather than thoughtful responses. I’m not suggesting you ignore the challenges before you. The ostrich approach — where you stick your head in the sand — isn’t leadership at all. I am suggesting that the way for a leader to find a positive path forward in the midst of a storm is to focus on what you do know.

Focusing on what you know — which gives you a sense of control — is one of the key factors in psychological hardiness. The other two factors of psychological hardiness are strength of commitment, and a belief that challenge leads to learning and improvement. As noted by Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge, research has shown that psychological hardiness is more important than personal constitution, health practices or social support in fostering a resistance to stress.

Leaders who focus on what they know are better able to calmly identify how they can influence the outcome of the current situation. They can help their people avoid feeling powerless in the face of the challenges before them. “What you know” gives you solid footing, and a clarity of thinking amid the noise swirling around you, that enables you to consider new approaches . . . new ways to capitalize on the skills and abilities of your organization. It allows you to go on offense, and develop a strategy that will allow your organization to succeed.

What you focus on grows in your mind. Focusing on the unknowns allows them to “scream louder” and gives them an oversized influence on you and your organization. Focusing on what you do know brings the unknowns down to size. That doesn’t mean they go away, but focusing on what you know gives you the control to walk through the unknowns rather than being swallowed up by them.

Feeling overwhelmed by the challenges before you? Maybe it’s time to shift your focus.

Normal is Over-Rated

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For those of you impatiently waiting for stay-at-home orders to be lifted, for the curve to flatten and the pandemic to become yesterday’s news so that things can get back to normal . . . it’s not going to happen. Oh sure, businesses will start to reopen, and at some point the pandemic will cease to be headline news, but what we fondly remember as “normal” is simply not going to return. I’m certainly not the first person to make this observation, but here’s the part I haven’t heard discussed as much: That’s okay. Normal is over-rated!

Normal is about routine . . . ordinary . . . predictable. Sure, normal is comfortable. Normal gives you a sense of competence. You know what to do, how things are going to work and there is an “auto-pilot” feel to your days that can be reassuring. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s just not what leadership is about.

Leadership is about stretching and growing . . . challenging and innovating . . . finding new ways to expand your mission impact. It is certainly not predictable, it is often uncomfortable, and autopilot is not an option. Leadership is about looking for the opportunities in the midst of the storm and motivating your people to capitalize them. It is about re-envisioning how to carry out your strategic goals amidst ever-changing variables. Done well, it can build a can-do spirit and sense of team among your people that will allow you to accomplish things that would have seemed impossible in the midst of “normal”.

The key to moving beyond normal, to break away from the status quo, is to be crystal clear on your organization’s mission and your strategic goals. Sometimes it might feel easier, or safer, to default to what “everyone else” is doing. There is nothing wrong with being aware of how other organizations are responding to a situation, but if that is the rationale for your actions then you are working in support of their goals not your own.

What if, instead of defaulting to the “what everyone else is doing” sense of normal, you intentionally define and communicate what is “normal” for your organization? Maybe normal in your organization means that you are always changing and growing. Maybe normal means that you turn to your people for innovative solutions. Maybe normal is that the goal isn’t to follow the crowd but to be driven by the mission.

If your job is to lead an organization with a distinctive mission, and a unique set of circumstances, gifts and graces, why would you aspire to respond to a situation like everyone else? You’re a leader. Re-write the rules.

Normal is over-rated.

Shaming is Not a Leadership Strategy

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In finding our way through the current challenges, you as a leader are going to have to make decisions that not everyone will agree with. Likewise, others will make decisions that you may find baffling, counterproductive, misguided or just flat out wrong. Frankly, that has always been the case. The weight of it may feel amplified right now because of strong opinions on all sides and the polarizing rhetoric that surrounds us in a 24/7 social media and television onslaught, but times like these are exactly when we need leaders the most . . . leaders who will help forge a path forward, not point fingers and cast blame . . . brave souls who recognize that shaming is not a leadership strategy.

Shaming — belitting a person, attacking their character, assigning ill intent to their actions — is a power play used to shut people down, not a strategy designed to move ideas forward. Leaders move ideas forward. They seek input and consider alternate views as a way to strengthen their decision-making. They are about stretching and growing, not attacking and defending. That is not to say you shouldn’t stand up for your ideals and push for what you think is right — you should. How you go about it, however, is what separates the leaders from the “loud voices”.

A few things to keep in mind about leading in challenging times:

  • Your desire to find a path forward does not insulate you from criticism or the possibility that some will try to shame you for your actions. Bold decisions often attract critics. How you choose to respond is far more a reflection on you than on the person offering the critique. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the best way to diffuse an attack on you or your intent is with a transparent sharing of information.
  • You have the choice to bring the tone of the conversation down. The calmer you remain in the face of challenges, the better you are able to diffuse the high level of emotion that, if not contained, can overshadow the actual issue at hand. Walking away from or trying to ignore loud voices often results in an increase in their volume. Acknowledge the challenge in a calm and measured way, and then focus on options to move forward.
  • Your focus should be on the desired outcome, not on being “right.” Are you confident enough in the end goal to invite detractors to the table . . . to ask them to help you understand their perspective? The commitment to identifying common goals, and barriers to progress, demonstrates the type of strong leadership that engages people and opens up new avenues of possibility.

We’re all human. Even the most skilled leaders aren’t immune from the frustrations that come when emotions run high and opinions are deeply held. If today is one of those days, just remember . . . regardless of how tempting it might be, or how much you are encouraged by others, shaming is not a leadership strategy.

And in case you haven’t heard it lately, thanks for your leadership.

We need it now more than ever.

The Power of Uncertain Leadership

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During the uncertain times in which we find ourselves, it may be helpful to recognize that having all the answers is really not the best way to lead. Read that again. Take a deep breath. And let me explain.

First of all, do not confuse confidence with certainty. They are very different things. In fact, it takes a good deal of confidence to acknowledge that you aren’t certain . . . that you don’t have all the answers, BUT you have every faith that you and your team can find a path forward. It is your confidence, not your certainty, that assures your people you will make it through the current challenge.

We identify things as “challenges” because they are different from the status quo. Therefore, trying to transfer your sense of mastery . . . what you are certain about . . . your proven approach to normal operations . . .  can actually get in the way of figuring out how to successfully navigate the abnormal situation before you.

Here’s the good news:  Uncertainty pushes you to seek novel ideas, to look at the situation with fresh eyes, to connect seemingly unrelated variables and try new things. That’s why breakthrough performance is far more likely to be the result of uncertainty — when you are certain you have all the answers, there is less motivation to consider different options!

So how do you see things with fresh eyes? Ask your people. When you ask others for input, it exponentially expands the chance of finding the best path forward. It multiplies the experience, perspectives and insight being applied to the challenge at hand.  Asking tells your people that you have confidence that they can contribute to determining the best next step. Asking allows people to sit with you in the discomfort of uncertainty which, paradoxically, expands both the capabilities and the confidence of your team.

The ability to embrace uncertainty is one of the most powerful skills you can have as a leader. When you can adapt to the unexpected with a calm confidence that your organization will find a path forward — perhaps even a better one than you might otherwise have discovered — your entire staff becomes emboldened with a can-do spirit that creates a positive spiral of opportunity.

Make no mistake, if you have the confidence to embrace uncertainty, amazing things can happen. Of that, I am certain.

Wading Through the Shiny Objects

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As you continue to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to remember that while all of us are impacted by this crisis, each of our organizations is dealing with a different set of variables. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all response. Of course, that has always been the case. The difference now is that, as industry experts and organizations are trying their best to be helpful — and the generosity being demonstrated is both humbling and inspiring — we can get so focused on not missing out on expert guidance that we delay making the decisions necessary to actually move forward.

When there are no clear “right” answers, it is easy to convince ourselves that if we just had more information we would know what to do. In our desire to make the best possible decisions for our organization, we run the risk of getting distracted by all the shiny objects out there . . .

. . . if I just watch a couple more webinars on how to lead through a crisis, this will all become easier . . .

. . . yes, I know I have already been on six calls this week about a this issue, but this one may have additional information that I haven’t heard before . . .

. . . I should probably find out what a few more stakeholders think and try to get consensus before I make a decision . . .

I have been on some great webinars and industry calls in recent weeks. The information and activities themselves are not the problem. They become shiny objects, however, when I allow these things to become distractions from my primary responsibilities in leading the organization. I love to hear the best thinking of leadership experts. It is really hard for me to make a choice not to carve out time to hear from a thought leader I respect . . . and yet, if I do that at the expense of making critical decisions in a timely fashion, I will be less effective at a time when my organization needs me to provide clear direction.

So what’s the best way to wade through the shiny objects in the midst of this crisis?

1) Clearly identify the decisions that have to be made, by when.

2) Understand that it is unlikely that any of the offerings before you will provide all the information you’d like to have before making a decision.

3) Recognize that there is no one “right” answer.

4) Know that decisions build momentum while shiny objects deplete your energy.

Have a clear goal. Embrace support where it is helpful. Seek out critical information. Provide direction and when necessary, make the hard decisions. That’s what leaders do.

Even . . . and especially . . . when they are surrounded by shiny objects.

What Will You Learn?

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I don’t know what your email in-box looks like right now, but mine is absolutely flooded by well-intended emails/webinar invitations offering strategies/solutions for how to weather the COVID-19 crisis. I get it. People want to help, and their desire to support our organizations in any way they can is truly appreciated . . . AND . . . if we are to make the best decisions for our organizations today, we need to think beyond “weathering the storm.”

I recognize that right now many leaders are faced with extremely painful decisions that will have long-term implications for their people, their organization and their mission. All the more reason that your perspective as a leader is critically important. A “weathering the storm” mentality gives the impression of hunkering down, of digging your heels in and hanging on tight. Are you really going to walk through all the current pain without looking for a gain? What if, instead, you approached each day of this experience by asking “What are we learning now that will make us better on the other side of this crisis?”

  • Is your mission still the driver of everything that you do, or have you lost focus or drifted from what is most important? How will you recalibrate going forward?
  • Are there tasks you assumed “had to” be done a certain way that you are now approaching differently? Is there any reason you need to go back to the old way?
  • Have you learned that things you thought could not be accomplished through the use of technology really can be? Will that free up capacity to expand your focus to other priorities in the future?
  • Have your staff members exceeded your expectations with their commitment, creativity, and can-do spirit? How will you continue to tap into their innovative ideas going forward?
  • Are you connecting with people differently or partnering with different people? Are your priorities changing or becoming clearer? Are there aspects of this current reality you want to continue for the long-term?

Asking yourself and your people “What are we learning from this?” instills a sense of optimism that you will get to the other side. You don’t have to come up with all the answers right now . . . simply asking the question keeps you thinking proactively and expansively rather than reverting to a reactive sense of scarcity. Either way, the challenge is before you.

What will you learn?