Summer reading

Vacation is just around the corner, and the feed will now be flooded with pictures of planned summer readings. Piles of eminent management books, in English or American to get to the contents quickly.

No thanks. For me, vacation is part of my self-defense. I’m letting go of all feelings of guilt and obligation, not wanting to contribute to the self-destruction so applauded in our culture. A few weeks of unplugging and blissful relaxation is just what I need. My summer reading is just one book, and I’ve already read it many times. Still looking forward to hours in the proverbial hammock with this one, it’s almost like spending time with an old friend.

For years and years, my favorite novel was Gabriel García Márquez’ “A Hundred Years of Solitude”. I’ve read it countless times, its magical and exotic universe coupled with a complicated family legend – deservedly awarded the Nobel Prize. Since 2012 however, I’m having a new favourite: Kim Leine’s “The Prophets of Eternal Fjord”. I’m reading it in Danish to really indulge in every nuance of the story, but it’s available in many languages. The story is about Greenland’s movement to liberate from Danish colonialism, told from the viewpoint of a Danish priest and set in the late parts of the 1700’s. It is every bit as magical and amazing as the Márquez novel, a quiet, gripping story of Nordics and the Arctics.

Enjoy summer.

Why reboarding is not a good term

With the pandemic receding, people will be getting together in the coming months. Office buildings re-filling, subways and motorways re-crowding. And employees “re-boarding”?

Some are referring to the process of getting people back to work as a re-boarding process, with obvious reference to onboarding, the process of including and welcoming a new employee.

It’s not a good term at all, and here’s why:

A typical onboarding curriculum involves the practicalities of the new job. Start date, how to get help with IT, documentation that needs to be read, important aspects of the new company’s leadership, vision, culture, warm messages of welcome from new bosses and colleagues, etc etc.

None of these elements have changed during the pandemic. And if we want to seriously address learnings and issues following more than a year of lockdown, the process of bringing people back to work will look nothing like on- or “re-“boarding.

What has changed the most during Covid lockdown is the way we socialize.

When getting back together, we can expect to feel rejected frequently (now that the handshake is no longer the default way of greeting).

Working from home may lead to us feeling excluded (especially when people that are now physically together “forget” the distance inherent in being the person attending virtually).

We may experience a feeling of uncertainty or even distrust of our colleagues – are they washing their hands properly? Are they vaccinated?

Bringing people back to the office will have emotional consequences, and these qualities are what should be addressed as part of a “re-gathering” program.

Psychological safety, the freedom to feel included, to learn, to contribute and to challenge the status quo is more important than ever before. How is your workplace doing for psychological safety? Can you freely talk about how you feel, and ask for what you need?

First: conflict habituation. Conflict management and resolution come later.

We have learned that unless we have something “nice” to say, we should stay silent. Unfortunately, this drives a conflict-avoidant behavior well into our adult lives.

Even well-supported and -founded conflict resolution models (such as the Thomas-Kilmann instrument) are based on the unstated assumption that we know what we want – based on insight into what our own best interests are – and can articulate it, compare it with alternatives, and argue our case.

This fairly analytical view of conflicts skips the “quenching” mechanism coming from not feeling free to speak our minds even when it’s a dumb question or slight critique. Many teams (in fact, most teams I have ever worked with) have a huge “conflict debt”.

Legitimately opposing interests (eg between sales and delivery – does that sound familiar to anyone?) are escalated rather than resolved at an appropriate level, frequently due to our lack of conflict habituation. We avoid tough conversations, rather send an email, right?

We must un-learn the habit of only speaking up when we have something nice to say. This is not about being obnoxiously aggressive. But about acknowledging that we are actually NOT all pulling in the same direction. We often have different, even opposing objectives, sometimes to a level of win/lose.

Before we can start working through our conflicts, we need to get used to their existence; expose ourselves to training in conflict habituation. This needs to be long-term; after all, we are dealing with deeply rooted behaviors.

As part of my work in team development, I offer a 9-step conflict habituation program. Each step is a small exercise, a tiny step towards being able to address conflicting interests without going full-throttle emotional about it.

Step 1 is: Explore facts (or, information presented to you as facts). Ask where they’re from or what they’re based on. Make everyone understand that you’re a team asking questions and not accepting everything as given. Do this for a week and notice how this becomes easier every time you try. Step 2-9 gently introduces increasing levels of pressure and interpersonal risk.

Only when we are relaxed about legitimate conflicts can we bring them to the surface and work on their constructive resolution. A prerequisite for teams looking to be innovative, creative, productive – and friends having fun.

Rewarding courage, not only compliance

Loads of research – prominently, the work of Amy Edmonson and her team – is bearing evidence to the importance of psychological safety. This important feature of a workplace is a prerequisite for innovation, team collaboration, quality work and a healthy workplace. It signifies a working environment where it is possible to state your opinion and talk about relevant ideas, where people feel free – or even compelled – to be open and honest.

The term “psychological safety” is becoming a term used almost as synonymous with trust, or with feeling personally confident to speak up. However, trust and confidence exist inside an individual person – psychological safety exists at the group or workplace level, and leadership’s efficiency in sustaining the conditions for psychological safety is crucial.

One example: encourage learning to avoid preventable mistakes, those that are due to lack of care and attention.  To “encourage” means to REWARD, not just refrain from shaming. People making preventable mistakes should not be praised for their inattention (obviously) but for their willingness to come forward and admitting the mistake, enabling a process improvement to make sure this does not happen again.

Another example: Intelligent mistakes, exploring new ground, fueled by a willingness to take risks and to experiment, should be straight-up rewarded, even if the desired results are not materializing. (And yes, results should be rewarded as well, that’s not the point).

Encouraging these behaviors will take a little bit of imagination but is totally doable. Modelling learning, asking for help as a leader, setting high standards and continuously talking about how to reach them, builds and sustains psychological safety where it belongs.

Psychological safety is not about being friendly all the time; it has nothing to do with being introvert or insecure, and it’s not about lowering the performance expectations. It is about removing the breaks that are holding people back.

Turning psychological safety into a matter of individual assertiveness bears resemblance to the way some companies deal with mental health and stress (“it’s personal”). But it’s not personal; sustaining psychological safety is a key requirement on contemporary leadership.

To “belong” or “fit in”

Some teams are developing “house rules” or team charters, to set out to desired tone and behaviors. A great, easy-to-implement process, where unspoken expectations and reservations can be brought to the surface.

Businesses develop company values, where employees’ feeling of being valued and welcome will frequently feature centrally. Sometimes, the employees are even mentioned as the most important thing for the company and encouraged to bring their “true self” to work.

Truly belonging to a team, rather than just fitting in, means being accepted and valued – even if you’re different. Having your special skills and capabilities appreciated, and your background, boundaries and priorities respected.

This first day of the Ramadan is a good occasion to think about operationalizing your team or company value of belonging – or encouraging your employees to bring their “true self to work”. For Ramadan participants, the daily routine changes radically, almost to an extent where day becomes night and vice versa. Some businesses respect that, allowing their employees to start and leave earlier in the day (this is the case at global service giant ISS) or to have shorter working hours.

Team or company values are void of meaning and credibility if they are not expressed as behaviors. As desired behaviors, values become actionable guideposts, not just posters in the reception area.

For team members to “belong” rather than ”fit in” you’ll need to look at how you address sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, etc. The potential discomfort from having such discussions in your team will be totally worthwhile.

Remembering Grethe on International Women’s Day

I just love this image of my grandmother, together with ALL of her siblings. What a crowd! Posing as #3 from the right, she was the oldest of the 11 children, her sister the youngest. You can guess who did the massive amounts of laundry.

From a family of hard-working and creative people, she herself was a warm and spirited young woman, an avid tap dancer who had to break off any plans of “making it” on stage – there was just too much work to do at home. Married with four children, she was widowed early. With no education, she got by as a seamstress, poorly paid and hard work which eventually made her fingers all crooked from arthritis.

I have so many memories from her home. The mixed scent of coffee and cigars, and the humming sound of the sewing machine. Always working as soon as my sisters and I were put to bed.

She had the most wonderful laugh and made cruel (great!) jokes about everyone we met. Always available for all her grandchildren (headcount: 10), cooking, sewing, reading bedside stories, keeping peace among us all. I remember her as a redhead and always found the color of her hair to go well with her temperament. Only later did I learn, this was a dye! She passed on years ago and must now be tap dancing in Heaven. A mover and a shaker for sure.

New Year – setback and recovery

The New Year had a more somber tone than usual for me. Sure, I was happy to see 2020 go. But the start to 2021 was not the one I had hoped for: on the second morning of January, I lost my footing on black ice when walking the dog near the sea. Complicated bone fractures in both wrists and a twisted elbow were the unfortunate and painful results, leaving me with both arms in cast to the shoulders! Fortunately recovery is going well, and I will be resuming work and life (brushing my own teeth etc.) over the coming 2-3 weeks.

Setbacks can strike hard when you least expect it; they can also occur as the culmination of a long struggle. In any case, how you recover is largely dependent on your mindset. The most successful (ie non-traumatic) dealings with setbacks acknowledge the hardships as well as the silver linings. There is even a line of study investigating Post Traumatic Growth. This is not to be confused with false optimism, ignoring the pain; I’m skeptical of any approach distorting the truth.

Setbacks are a part of life, and the frequency will logically increase with your courage and exposure to new things. Executing a sweeping digital transformation of uncharted legacy technology? Leading your team from the distance? Home-schooling your children? Setbacks are guaranteed to happen. In my case, balancing on the edge of an icy harbor-front to see the view under a bridge was clearly too much of a physical challenge.

The solution is not resigning from life or not accepting a challenge. Both are negative results of unhealthy perfectionism, hampering sense of adventure and willingness to learn.

To build strength and resilience to better deal with setbacks (and failure, and other stressors of life), the important research of Stanford professor @Carol Dweck recommends cultivating your growth mindset.

An actual exercise in “growth mindset-building” from my online micro-training “Upside-Down View of Stress” goes like below. Think through (write, draw, talk with a friend, whatever works for you) your setback in these four steps:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why was it important to overcome the setback?
  3. Which convictions, attitudes or personal strengths helped you pull through?
  4. Did you get any help from others?

This will activate your self-compassion and sense of connection. It’s not about analyzing deep emotions; there’s no mumbo-jumbo, it’s just looking at the truth, seeing yourself in the context of your own strengths and your important network of people. Not seeing yourself as a failure, or clumsy, or having to do everything yourself again.

The effect is remarkable.

As an example, regarding my own New Year setback, I’ve already mentioned what happened. The motivation for getting back to normal functioning should be obvious. I’m pulling through with my strong sense of personal responsibility for my health and well-being – doing all the ergo-therapy chores in spite of the pain, because I know it works. Did I get any help from others? You bet, for all kinds of things! I’m blessed with (and very grateful for) the dearest husband, family and friends, for the first weeks helping me with literally everything, and now keeping me company.

Can’t wait to be fully back!

How’s the team? Check in following 4 easy steps

We have been distancing for quite some time now, and one thing is for certain: we’re communicating less than we used to. These days, do you know how your team is really doing?

Maybe you just got back together. Maybe there are new members, or a new team lead? Surely there are new requirements. Maybe you just need inspiration to re-kindle the team spirit.

You can check in with your team following 4 easy steps.

**Videoen er på engelsk, men dansk tales også 😊**

Tug-of-war or hanging a tarp?

Engaging in conflict is often thought of as problem behavior to be avoided, especially in a workplace context.

We’re born into this world with a distaste for threats, our brains constantly scanning our environment to avoid or eliminate them. Since conflicts can be hard on relationships, and relationships in turn being something we crave for and need, conflicts can be understood as a threat. This perception continues to be passed on between generations, fuelled by every parent’s urge to train “good behaviors”: being nice to others, staying silent if you have nothing positive to say etc. In Scandinavia in particular, we are nice and polite and stay away from conflict if we can – our social coherence is strong, impacting our behavior quite forcefully.

However, in organizations, harmony is getting us nowhere. Conflict is a requirement for development and growth, and frequently even a foundational element in organizational design. Cross-functional teams have conflict – resolving different or opposed interests – as the main purpose.

In strategic sales pursuits, my primary workplace for the last few decades, a cross-functional team is mobilized to balance the interest of the client with the bidder’s risk profile, financial health etc. Clearly a delicate balance when stakes are high and executive leadership are watching closely. Conflict is perceived as detrimental to teamwork, but the opposite: aiming for harmony, shutting conflict down or letting it simmer under the carpets, may cause important issues to be left un-explored, stifling collaboration and business growth.

Conflict can be very unpleasant, not least when driven by bad behavior, poor performance or skills shortage. We may worry or even ruminate about conversations regarding such topics, and conflict aversion can then lead to conflict avoidance, ie simply not engaging in the conflict.

The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument shows conflict as an activity in two dimensions: whether any given approach meets your needs (level of assertiveness) and whether it also meets the other party’s needs (level of cooperative-ness).

Working to meet both sides’ needs is Collaborating, and to meet at least some of both side’s needs is Compromising. A compromise is not the best outcome but the quickest available option, as Chris Voss clearly illustrates in his book Never Split the Difference: a compromise between black and brown shoes is to wear one black and one brown, no swag at all!

Meeting your own need and not caring about the other side is Competing; meeting the needs of the other side without getting anything for yourself is Accommodating; and, finally, not trying to get anyone’s needs met is Avoiding.

Conflict avoidance makes no sense, not for you, not for them. Topics are circumvented and opportunity is drained. You change the subject, don’t call back, skip the meeting – whatever it takes to not face the conflict, making no room for the issue to be dealt with. Conflict-avoidance may buy you time, but it is unlikely to make the conflict disappear. Pressure will build, and the conflict can even grow larger when avoided.

But how to get through it then? Focus on the positive outcomes that awaits when the conflict is resolved. Your emotions will guide you, if you feel strongly about a conflict it’s a sign that it’s touching something important to you. Don’t let emotions take the steering wheel though! Stay calm, constructive and kind. Hard? Yes, but not as hard as it sounds.

A useful analogy: see conflict as a process like the one of hanging a tarp over your tent. A good result requires people pulling from each corner; if one corner pulls much harder than the other three, the tarp won’t hang properly.  It’s not a tug-of-war.

Following the Conflict Code, developed by Liane Davey in “The Good Fight”, you may prevent most conflicts and make the ones that are left, more productive and less taxing on your well-being. The model is a three-step approach: “Establish a line of communication”, “Create a connection” and “Contribute to a solution”.  Liane Davey includes a set of exercises to train how to enable proactive management of tensions and interdependencies in a cross-functional teams.

Conflict management is included in the half-day course “Teamwork in the Gig economy”, an event designed for leaders, project managers and teams wanting to improve collaboration, performance and respect. The event is introducing participants to foundational skills for contemporary working life – willpower, self-awareness, coaching, resilience, and can be tailored to fit actual needs in your team. More information here.

Don’t ask Why!

Thinking about the future is good.

Planning and reflecting, setting goals and pondering about capabilities and strengths – also good. Playing to the deep trends of optimizing everyone’s achievements and inspired by bestseller books, many are developing their “Why”: the innermost motivation and most powerful drivers to leave a mark in the world.

In the context of business, any change or dynamic will also be driven by a “Why”, a goal substantiated by some form of business case driving financial benefits or other types of improvement.

When businesspeople are interacting with clients to develop new joint opportunities, understanding this particular type of “Why” is sought for like the Holy Grail. It bears different labels such as Burning Platform, Core Business Problem, etc. The understanding is preferably with rich and individually differentiated details, enabling solution development and sales messaging to fit the requirement.

No matter what type of product or service you are taking to market, there must be a problem to solve or a need to fill. The Burning Platform is helping you identify what that problem/need is. And the logical thing seems to be to approach the client and ask: “Why are you XXX?” replacing XXX with whatever corporate improvement program you can think of (reduce cost, grow revenue, reduce risk, etc).

However, posing this particular question: “Why are you …..?” is unlikely to give you a meaningful answer (and it might even be considered rude) for a number of reasons:

  • When we are asked Why we do things, we’ll examine the causes of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The human mind is prone to look for the easiest, most plausible answer and once that is found: to stop looking.  The answer is therefore likely to be obvious tending towards the banal, eg: We are reducing costs to become more competitive. Doh!
  • Having to answer Why can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing. Responding to a Why-question can cause respondents (in this context: your clients!) to fixate on their problems and look for ways to place blame.
  • A person responding to a Why-question is likely to see situations from a victim’s point of view, rationalizing and justifying the addressed problem, explaining it away.

What, then, should we ask to explore the client’s thinking? Exactly that.

Ask “What” in stead of “Why” and you’ll see a different behavior and response quality. A “What” question (as in, eg: “What’s going on?”. “What’s the outcome you want to see?”, “What is the type of business you are now pursuing?”) will keep your client’s mind open to discover new information, even if this new information is negative or even in conflict with existing beliefs. What-questions are generating high-value discovery and potential solutions from the conversation.

“Why” questions stir negative emotions, draw focus to our limitations and puts the spotlight on the past; “What” questions keep us curious, help us see potential and look to the future.

Exceptions exist, of course: in some situations, you need to know every painful detail of the past (root cause analysis of operational failures, product launch failures etc). But for a business conversation trying to open up new opportunities based on insight into a Burning Platform, this is not what you need.