What Mindfulness Can Do for a Team

What happens when you take a team of people from a range of backgrounds and skillsets and ask them to perform a challenging task on a tight deadline? Often, conflicts arise.

Sometimes conflicts can be productive: When teams are hammering out ideas and striving to find the most effective route to a shared goal, people will often express concerns and offer differing perspectives. That process can lead to stronger outcomes as well as a sense of shared accomplishment — even if not everyone agrees.

Those benefits can quickly evaporate, however, if that healthier “task conflict” turns personal, and team members begin to resent their coworkers’ comments or actions, or treat disagreements as attacks. What’s more, if left unchecked that personal friction — known as “relationship conflict” — can lead to social undermining, which happens when people retaliate against coworkers and actively attempt to undercut them by spreading gossip, giving them the cold shoulder, or mistreating them in other ways.

These more damaging forms of discord have been shown to be highly detrimental in teams, and organizations spend significant time and money on efforts to reduce them — but too often use unproven strategies that fail to produce results. Ultimately, this type of chronic conflict can negatively affect employee effectiveness, motivation and well-being, workforce retention, and ultimately, the bottom line.

How can leaders help teams before they get to this stage? One possibility might be mindfulness. Mindfulness, defined as “a receptive attention to and awareness of present events and experience,” has been shown to help individuals stay on task, approach problems with an open mind, and avoid taking disagreements personally. The trend is so strong, in fact, that many major corporations have begun instituting mindfulness programs: Google, Aetna, LinkedIn, and Ford have all employed it in hopes of boosting productivity and employee satisfaction.

Team mindfulness, however, is distinct from individual mindfulness in that it applies to the group as a whole, and to the interaction between its members, as opposed to employees’ individual thought patterns. In other words, it’s the collective awareness of what a team is experiencing at a given moment, without the prejudgements that come at the individual level.

There is anecdotal evidence that mindfulness can work for teams. In 1989, more than a decade before mindfulness became a buzzword in Western society, Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson famously introduced the idea to his team.  He believed the practice would pull the players together, buffer them against tensions, and ultimately, win them championships. Many players — including NBA legend Michael Jordan — were skeptical, but when they went on to win six NBA titles, that uncertainty evaporated. When Jackson brought the same methods to the Los Angeles Lakers, they won five championships.

Jackson’s results in the NBA are encouraging, but until now, the scientific literature has almost exclusively examined the benefits of mindfulness on an individual level; without a thorough understanding of team mindfulness, managers could risk instituting practices that are little more than ineffective and costly fads — or potentially even counterproductive. What’s more, without evidence of the structure and function of team mindfulness, its risks or benefits cannot be effectively evaluated.

Our research introduces the concept of team mindfulness and offers an empirical investigation of its application within organizations, as well as a psychometrically sound scale — that is, a scale that is tested and validated using multiple samples — for its measurement. We also show that team mindfulness can directly safeguard against the more detrimental aspects of conflict.

In one of the field studies we administered the questionnaire to 224 MBA students within 44 project teams at a large Midwest university. In the other, the questionnaire was distributed to 318 employees on 50 teams at a Chinese health care organization, in a range of departments — among them technical support, pharmacy, marketing, and customer service. To ensure that team mindfulness is distinct from individual mindfulness, we also accounted for individual mindfulness as a control variable in our models.

Across both studies, we found the higher the level of team mindfulness, the lower the level of relationship conflict. What’s more, in the more mindful teams, the shift from the project-based task conflict to the more damaging relationship conflict was significantly diminished; the tendency for relationship conflict to devolve into destructive undermining was also notably reduced.

In other words, our findings support the idea that team-level mindfulness is distinct, and offers distinct benefits from individual mindfulness.


Putting this type of mindfulness into practice can be challenging, however. Workplaces have become increasingly rife with distraction, with employees scrolling through their cell phones during meetings rather than listening and participating. Add to that the fact that more people are working remotely, and that more companies are employing people with a diverse range of languages, cultural backgrounds, and working styles, where miscommunications and misinterpretations can easily occur.

The most important thing organizations can do to increase team mindfulness is to encourage present-focussed attention, non-judgmental processing, and respectful communication, as well as an openness to collecting and understanding information before processing it. This helps reduce emotional or reflexive responses, leaving room for teams with diverse knowledge and different functional backgrounds to reach a greater potential.

That doesn’t mean that difficult decisions don’t get made, or that the focus on the present prevents employees from analyzing the past or planning for the future; rather, it allows people and teams to better control when and how critical analysis and crucial judgements take place.

Currently, there is no formal prescription for how to achieve team mindfulness, and how the concept is applied will necessarily vary according to the type of organization. A growing number of major corporations are instituting individual mindfulness programs, which may lead to greater team mindfulness; some are taking that approach a step further, and getting entire teams to sit down for group-based sessions that encourage employees to focus on themselves, the group, and the tasks they need to complete.

However it’s important to note that, in order to achieve a high level of team mindfulness, not every team member must have mindfulness training; in fact, even if only the team leader or a handful of team members are mindful, it is possible the team as a whole will also be more mindful. This is because team processes involve ongoing interactions, and employees with a high level of mindfulness influence the behaviors of their coworkers; when a leader models a more mindful approach, employees are also more likely to follow suit.

At the business level, leaders can set cultural expectations, and lead meetings and other interactions with team mindfulness as a central cornerstone; they can also step in when discussion is being shut down before potentially invaluable ideas have been properly heard and considered. For example, if a leader sees tensions morphing from a potentially productive task conflict to the more destructive relationship conflict, they might step in and encourage employees to shift their focus back to the task at hand.

The benefits of embracing team mindfulness are becoming clearer. Imagine two teams: On one, members interact on the side, with some members unaware that the participation has shifted or that the team has lost its task focus, so discussions have to be repeated and work redone. Members might be critical and defensive, and quick to judge, or simply check out and watch the clock. On another team, members stay focused and reunite the team if they sense that actions and communications have veered off course; the discussions focus on exploring facts, ideas and options, and avoid impulsive judgements.

Which team is more likely to win? Whether it’s an NBA franchise or a department in a health care organization, the more mindful team will almost certainly have the upper hand.

Lingtao Yu is an assistant professor in the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. He received his PhD in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from the University of Minnesota. His current research interests include leadership and ethics, abusive supervision, workplace deviance, emotions, and mindfulness.

Mary Zellmer-Bruhn is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. She completed her PhD in Organizational Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Zellmer-Bruhn’s current research focuses on context and teaming, team diversity, and knowledge processes and learning in teams.


Don’t Be the Boss Who Talks Too Much

As head of a startup, I always want to make sure everyone on my team understands the vision for what we’re trying to achieve. I also want to make sure we’re hearing, considering, and incorporating everyone’s ideas, and acting quickly to iron out problems along the way. So we have a lot of group conversations. A lot.

We discuss our mission, goals, and the steps it will take to achieve them. Every time, I look for new ways to say things, in hopes of making the vision crystal clear and discovering even slight differences in how various team members understand our goals.

In short, I over-communicate.

I don’t just do this now, with a relatively small staff. I’ve done the same throughout my career, including when I spent several years as vice president of a large company in Newton, Massachusetts.

So I’ve had to ask myself: At what point am I communicating too much? When should I give it a rest?

The answer isn’t simple. On one hand, HBR has reported on complaints from people about the kind of boss who “over-communicates with everyone on a project,” creating “a huge time suck.” On the other hand some research from Harvard finds that “persistent, redundant communication” from managers helps get projects completed quickly.

To toe the line, I’ve developed rules for myself to follow, aimed at mitigating the downsides (like wasted time and lost productivity) while still using frequent communication to clear any hurdles in our path.

Make it two-way

When you’re trying to communicate your vision and organize the work ahead, it’s easy to start speechifying. You have so much to say, so many thoughts on your mind, that you can get carried away. And since you’re “the boss,” other team members may feel a duty to listen and nod along. You can lose track of time.

So leaders should make sure to listen every bit as much as — if not more than — they talk. “Effective leaders don’t just talk, they listen,” Northeastern University reported. An HBR piece described listening as “an overlooked leadership tool.”

As you hold meetings, keep tabs on how much time you spend talking, and how much listening. And when you get a question, sometimes invite other team members to weigh in as part of the answer. That way everyone is included, and feels that their input is valued.

Never interrupt “the zone”

When your employees are busy designing a solution or banging through tasks, it’s not the right time to strike up a conversation with them. Short of an emergency, you shouldn’t pull them out of “the zone,” in which they’re focused on crucial tasks. You also need to make sure there are sufficient uninterrupted periods of working time to allow people to find that focus. Breaking the work day up into multiple chunks by scheduling meetings is a sure way to kill productivity in any creative work environment.

That’s why, as a rule, the ideal time for conversations is at the beginning of a work session or close to the end of the day  though not when they’re supposed to leave. It’s only worth having these sessions when everyone needed for them is available at the same time.


Monthly one-on-ones

To ensure that ideas and concerns are teased out and raised, every team member should have a one-on-one session with a leader once a month. In these meetings, the team members can voice anything.

To be sure they don’t hold back, I ask employees to bring at least one “bad” issue to these meetings. It can be a concern about the product we’re creating or the way our business is running. It can also include an idea for how to improve.

Of course, employees are also welcome to bring positive issues  things they’re excited about and want us to do more of. But addressing problems takes precedence.

Beyond the open-door policy

I expect all leaders and managers to welcome any team member to discuss issues large or small. But as many experts have written, simply announcing that you have an open-door policy isn’t enough. It’s important to empower employees to speak up by showing them that when they bring concerns your way, you act on them.

One way to achieve this is through a “feedback loop.” After a concern is raised, whether in a group meeting or one-on-one, follow up on it. Track progress, identify obstacles, and keep moving the effort forward. The more you do this, the more people will see the practical value of bringing up an issue  and they’ll see what all the communication you’re engaging in can achieve.

In general, avoiding lots of scheduled meetings and instead engaging in ad hoc conversations is better. And when meetings are necessary, bring good food, since meetings on low-blood sugar are an especially bad idea.

As a manager, you want to make sure everyone on your team understands the vision for what you’re trying to achieve. But at what point are you communicating too much? When should you give it a rest? There are rules you can follow to mitigate the downsides of overcommunication (like wasted time and lost productivity). For one, listen as much, if not more, than you talk. And never interrupt “the zone.” When your employees are busy designing a solution or banging through tasks, it’s not the right time to strike up a conversation with them. Encourage your employees to have a one-on-one session with a leader once a month and ask them to bring at least one “bad” issue to these meetings. And finally, empower employees to speak up by showing them that when they bring concerns your way, you act on them. With all these efforts in place, and an atmosphere of psychological safety, it becomes much more likely that you’ll do a good job of communicating frequently without annoying your team.

After all, in that environment they’ll also feel much more comfortable to say: “You know what boss? I really think we’ve got it.”

Hjalmar Gislason is founder and CEO of GRID.


To Make Networking Less Exhausting, Bring a Talkative Colleague

Networking can be good for your career, but introducing yourself to a roomful of people can also be draining. The next time you attend a conference or professional happy hour, consider bringing along a coworker to help. The two of you can divide and conquer, meaning you’ll each talk to different people and then share notes. That way you’ll both expend less energy while still gathering a large number of contacts by the end of the night. Choose a colleague who is more extroverted than you and who gets excited by socializing with others. Come up with a plan for who will talk to whom. And remember that it’s OK to take a break during the event to restore your energy. Even if it’s just a few minutes long, it might give you the boost you need to get back to making small talk.

Adapted from “How to Keep Networking from Draining You,” by Jordana Valencia


How to Nourish Your Team’s Creativity

CEOs in a recent poll agreed that creativity is the most important skill a leader can have. What seems less clear is how to actually cultivate it. Every leader is hoping for that next great idea, yet many executives still treat creative thinking as antithetical to productivity and control. Indeed, 80% of American and British workers feel pressured into being productive rather than creative.

Leaders can’t afford to have people holding back potential breakthroughs. Knowing this, it is important to recognize that radical, disruptive thinking is not something that can be mandated. Too many leaders try to demand creativity on the spot: They offer cash rewards for new ideas, sequester teams in endless brainstorming sessions, and encourage competitive hierarchies that reward some people for out-innovating others. While all of these strategies are intended to manifest organizational creativity, none do— and they often backfire.

As Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire explain, “One doesn’t manage creativity. One manages for creativity.” Your role as a leader is to create a working environment in which critical thinking, new ideas, and creative solutions can flow unencumbered. Here are a few guidelines for bringing out your team’s creative best.

Define creativity for your organization without making it a formulaTom Stillwell, CEO of the Clio Award–winning marketing agency Midnight Oil, explains: “Creativity can be very expensive if you aren’t careful. You could dive into work without clarity on what creativity you want, and end up churning time, energy, and money without results.”

So the first step is to define your terms. If you treat concepts like “design thinking” and “disruptive innovation” as mere buzzwords rather than as muscular strategic concepts, you will end up spinning your wheels, and maybe even stifling creativity.

To create growth, idea creation must be directed toward the benefit of the organization and the customers it serves, something that can only happen through a shared clarity on what creativity means and the purpose it serves to differentiate you from competitors. Take care not to overextend that clarity into a rote formula. Too many R&D groups, with the noble intention of creating “innovative efficiency,” try to codify their innovation processes with such precision that they neuter imagination. A clear definition of the role creativity plays in executing your strategy should get everyone on the same page, ensuring that the entire organization is working toward shared goals.

Strike a balance between art and commerce. In a company, creative thinking must occur on a spectrum between art and commerce. New ideas that exist purely in the realm of art, or creativity for creativity’s sake, won’t necessarily drive the organization forward. And ideas that are singularly focused on commerce or profit aren’t likely to break free from the status quo. To strike a meaningful balance, it is vital that everyone on your team understands the spectrum and uses it in shaping their creative thinking. Whereas some people will have a hard time breaking free from financial assumptions, others will feel constrained by the need to anchor their creative expression to commercial realities. Manage this tension by encouraging people to move out of their comfort zones and toward the center of the spectrum. Effective leaders help their people understand this not as a contradiction but as a healthy tension that can yield the most profitable and breakthrough ideas.

Provide space for both collaborative and individual expression. Too often, we think of creativity as an individual pursuit. However, the Latin roots of the word “creative” — which describe a social, communal experience — reveal a fundamental truth: Creativity is founded upon collaboration. Julien Jarreau, executive creative director at the premier health marketing agency Health4Brands, elaborates:

“Individuality plays an important part in what people bring to the creative table. And yet relinquishing that individuality to a greater collective effort is the ultimate work of generating powerful creative results. I am clear in my expectations that I want collective creation while still honoring individuals. I don’t tolerate prima donnas.” People must learn to derive gratification as individual contributors, while balancing it with a collaborative spirit focused on a greater good. A collaborative environment allows a level playing field where good ideas can be challenged into great ideas. It also fosters the emotional safety needed for creative people to risk sharing their most divergent ideas without fear of judgment. The leader’s job is to set that standard and model it.

Provide structural guardrails without constraining freedom. Creativity is messy. It won’t follow strict protocols or processes. At the same time, it needs structure to thrive. How much structure and discipline is ideal? How much freedom will yield optimal results? A leader helps build collective capability by setting objectives and deadlines, providing creative spaces and designated times for diverging, and allowing teams to practice creativity. Put the tools and processes in place, and turn the team loose.

One of the greatest challenges for leaders is determining what role they should play in helping generate creative ideas and solutions. When leaders have more experience or talent than their team, deciding when to insert their own ideas instead of coaching others can be hard. Deadlines and slipping performance targets increase the leader’s risk of imposing their will, which just reinforces self-doubt on the team and perpetuates the cycle of the leader having to insert the “answer.” If you are going to participate in the ideation, take your leader hat off and, as convincingly as you can, inform your team not to treat your ideas any differently. Only do this if it strengthens the process and avoids muting their participation.

There is nothing more satisfying that watching your people fulfill the human need to create and having their creative contributions benefit the organization and the markets it serves. Doing this requires understanding the inherent tensions that come with leading creative endeavor. It takes intentional, thoughtful leadership to help your team unleash their most creative and powerful work.

Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.




How to Decide Which Tasks to Delegate

  • Category Teams

Ping! Something needs your attention. Is it an email? A tweet? A text? A reminder on your phone? A calendar invite? Ping! Another one. Ping!There’s that sound again. Or maybe it’s a visual cue, an ever-ascending ticker count on your app icons or inbox.

Quick, why don’t you just respond right now? Says the devil on your digital shoulder — your sender will be instantly satisfied and you’ll be rewarded with a hit of dopamine. But wait! The angel on the other side pipes up, imploring you to aim for focus, strategy, meaning, and impact instead. A bit dazed, you return to center: What were you working on again? What was more important than whatever just came in? It’s hard to remember.

When I reach Peak Ping — a sense that I don’t have room for yet another request without sacrificing my sanity or my strategic projects — I take a moment to focus on what matters most, and remind myself that I don’t have to fly solo in my day-to-day work.

Our “angel” of favorite tasks and projects is someone else’s devil, and vice versa. That means there is someone out there who can delight in the devil of your details. The skill is learning how to delegate. Even better than you do right now. Even if you think you already delegate effectively to an extent, I bet you have room for even greater efficiency and resulting peace of mind, whether on the home or work front. We all have a Peak PingAchilles heel, whether it’s something as mundane as the laundry or as important as monthly bookkeeping.

Many of us know the vague benefits and aim of delegation — to build teams who can share the workload so that you do the highest expression work that only you can do. But in practice, we hoard and bottleneck out of a variety of fears: the work won’t be done up to spec, it will take me longer to assign than quickly do myself, this is work no one wants to do, it will cost too much, what if this person can’t be trusted, and so on.

I used to believe all these little white lies that I told myself. It was my inner perfectionist talking, rearing her head and leading me straight back down the path to burnout, where I had been too many times before. Even I am not immune to falling into the “But I can’t delegate this!” trap and treading water again. But all of these fears are a myth.

Delegation is what resuscitated my business from the brink of collapse in 2013. Delegation is what helped me triple my income in 2014 from the three years prior, and delegation is what has helped me earn more so far this year, as I write this in May, than the previous three years combined.

Hiring more help, while it does make a dent in the budget, has helped me far out-earn the cost of creating a team that I know I can rely on.

At a certain point, everything that can be delegated should be; with rare exception. Conduct an audit using the six T’s to determine what tasks make the most sense to offload:

Tiny: Tasks that are so small they seem inconsequential to tackle but they add up. They are never important or urgent, and even if they only take a few minutes they end up taking you out of the flow of more strategic work. For example, registering for a conference or event, adding it to your calendar, and booking the hotel and flight — on their own each of these things may not take much time, but taken together, they all add up.

Tedious: Tasks that are relatively simple probably are not  the best use of your time. Very straightforward tasks can (and should) be handled by anyone but you. For example, manually inputting a 100-item list into a spreadsheet and color-coding it, or updating the KPIs in your presentation deck.

Time-Consuming: Tasks that, although they may be important and even somewhat complex, are time-consuming and do not require you to do the initial 80% of research. You can easily step in when the task is 80% complete and give approval, oversight and/or direction on next steps.

Teachable: Tasks that, although complicated-seeming at first and possibly comprising several smaller subtasks, can be translated into a system and passed along, with you still providing quality checks and final approval. For example, teaching one of your direct reports how to draft the presentation deck for the monthly all-hands meeting, and even how to be the one to deliver those updates to the team.

Terrible At: Tasks that not only do not fall into your strengths, but an area where you feel unequipped. You take far longer than people skilled in this area, and still produce a subpar result.  For example, the visual design of those PowerPoint slides for the team meeting, or even hiring a professional designer for an upcoming presentation outside of your organization such as an upcoming TEDx talk.

Time Sensitive: Tasks that are time-sensitive but compete with other priorities; there isn’t enough time to do them all at once, so you delegate an important and time-sensitive task so that it can be done in parallel to your other project-based deadlines. For example,  leaving your iPad on the plan after a flight (as regretfully I recently did); working to recover it before it goes completely missing into the airport lost and found abyss by calling customer service daily (with long hold times). Calling an airline to change seat assignments for the following day while you are in all-day meetings.

One of the central differentiators for determining what to delegate is checking in frequently (if not daily) to examine what’s on your plate and ask: What can you and only you do? How can you delegate the rest?

Your assignment: Over the course of the next two weeks, make a note of tasks that fall under the 6 T’s above (either do this on a sheet of paper, or in a tracking template like this one with columns for different categories at home and work). For more ideas on what to delegate, check out this list of 75+ tasks I’ve delegated in the last year.

Even if you’re not sure yet who to delegate to, or even how, start by capturing the what. Then watch as your mind (and the angel on your work shoulder) magically start creating solutions for next steps from that new vantage point of space and self-awareness.

Jenny Blake is a career and business strategist and speaker who helps people build sustainable, dynamic careers they love. She is the author of PIVOT: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One (Portfolio/Penguin Random House). Her latest course is Delegation Ninja: Turn Frantic into Freedom. Learn more at, and check out her Pivot Podcast.




Why Self-Improvement Should Be a Group Activity

Continuous personal development is fundamental to career growth, professional satisfaction, and having a broader impact in the world. And while the self-help industry and leadership professions have made a fortune on our obsession with getting better, failure rates remain alarmingly high.

In one survey, of more than 1,000 people who’d set goals for personal development, more than 96% of them failed. Another source suggests that 80% of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned by February. Why so much failure? It may be due to a lack of commitment or to choosing development areas that are overly corrective (such being more punctual or learning to control your temper) rather than focusing on strengths (such as running a faster mile or finding new ways to apply your keen analytical skill).

A dangerously flawed assumption undergirds these explanations. They infer that an individual’s development happens…individually. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite our common cultural notion of “self” improvement, the most successful efforts to self-improve have other people at their core.

The research of Stanford professors Geoffrey Cohen and David Sherman explains why this is so. They suggest, in their self-affirmation theory, that our need to maintain positive self-perceptions leads to us minimizing the impact of our shortcomings. That’s because when attempting to learn new things our egos become naturally self-protective. We reflexively hide, setting the stage for self-improvement efforts to fail. In other words, human beings are infamously bad observers of our own reality. Our ability to calibrate where we are effective, or not, and which talents are worthy of investment, or not, requires the eyes and insights of those best positioned to help decide — those on the receiving end of our behavior. Further, it’s much easier to sustain commitment to hard personal change with the active participation of others.

Here are five ways to build a “self-improvement team” and ensure that your personal change efforts will stick.

  • Do an informal, monthly 360-degree review. A company’s annual or semiannual data collection efforts to provide 360-degree feedback to leaders on how they are doing is all well and good. But waiting a year or two for feedback can be dangerous. In my work with executives trying to stretch into new areas of leadership, I have them gather a team of five to seven people made up of colleagues, friends, and even family. The people are told about specific areas the leader is working to develop and asked to watch for progress and setbacks. Each month the leader checks in to ask “How am I doing?” Each person shares three to four observations they’ve had during the month and, for setbacks, offers suggestions for improvement. This not only accelerates the ability to adopt new behavior but also ensures that their intentions and actions are congruent. It also builds others’ commitment to the leader’s success and prompts them to reflect on their own impact.
  • Create accountability for change. To muster the grit needed to persevere through change, people must believe there will be a consequence for not changing. Even when people can articulate genuine desire for improving and the benefits they will gain, they often lack the drive to see personal development efforts through. But if they know they will have to answer for progress, it’s game changing. As an example, during company-wide leadership development efforts with our clients, we establish peer-coaching relationships between leaders from across the organization. These provide a safe place to discuss setbacks on development efforts, celebrate progress, get advice on new approaches, and challenge each other when commitment wanes. Knowing that someone is going to ask you about commitments you’ve made creates a level of accountability that raises the ante on following through. Discouragement can set in for those who naturally fixate on failures of past efforts to change, capitulating to the “See, you knew you couldn’t do it” voices in their head. But being able to express feelings of discouragement or self-doubt to a peer confidant curbs our natural instincts to isolate and sabotage. Having a trusted colleague to help correct faulty self-beliefs and, yes, provide a bit of scolding for self-pity or backsliding can make all the difference.
  • Join others on similar journeys. Mutual reinforcement from others working to improve similar areas can be a powerful source of motivation. Look for a peer, or even a group of peers, with whom you can meet regularly. Online learning communities, discussion groups, or courses can provide a shared learning platform. The exchange of empathy, success stories, and “watch out for…” insights can build confidence and commitment to press through setbacks, and can accelerate the adoption of new behavior. When I work with executives in organizations, I create cohorts of four to six leaders that travel together on common learning pathways. There are ground rules about psychological safety and confidentiality that make being vulnerablenonthreatening. They are able to push each other out of ruts. Most powerful, having a sense of deep ownership for one another’s success creates a momentum for change that the rest of the organization benefits from.
  • Create a laboratory to practice in. Improving any aspect of our lives — building new skills, changing bad habits, adopting new approaches, or shoring up weaknesses — is an ongoing, arduous process. It requires making mistakes and learning from them. Just as an aspiring virtuoso pianist must practice scales, there must be a place to hone whatever new behavior is being adopted. Without practical application, change becomes a cognitive exercise that imagines what change might be like but never attempts to actually change. One introverted executive I worked with struggled to speak in front of groups of any size, but his role demanded that he do it well. We used local community groups and internal departmental meetings as safe, low-risk places for him to practice simple presentations and Q&A sessions. Another client needed to be more consistent giving one-on-one feedback, but her conflict aversion made it difficult for her to deliver tough messages. We created scenarios of varying types of difficult conversations, and she used professional acquaintances outside of her organization to practice two to three times per week. Whatever improvement a leader is attempting to make, it will require ongoing experimentation and rehearsal before change becomes the new normal.
  • If you hire a coach, make sure it’s the right one. While it’s surely not a requirement for self-improvement, hiring a coach can be a very effective approach to development for some people. There are an abundance of leadership, life, career, and performance coaches available. But finding the right coach is harder than most think. In one global study of coaching, 65% of failed coaching efforts were due to a mismatch between the coach and the client, and 53% were due to the questionable expertise of the coach. To select the coach that’s right for your self-improvement, there are two factors to consider. The first is chemistry. Does the coach make you feel at ease? Do you feel you could be vulnerable with them? Does conversation about important issues feel natural? Chemistry can be easily confused with comfortand it’s important to distinguish between the two. This isn’t someone you will socialize with or take a ski trip with. This is someone to whom you will entrust deeply personal thoughts and aspirations. More important, it’s someone who will challenge you and give you hard feedback. The second factor is relevant capability. Do they have expertise that specifically matches the area you want to grow in? Have they successfully helped others on similar developmental paths? This factor is often confused with having credentials. The fact that someone has been an effective trusted advisor to others and has letters after their name doesn’t mean they will be effective for you. 

If you’ve ever failed at a personal improvement effort, examine whether there was sufficient involvement from others. As one critical study discovered, personal transformation cannot happen apart from social transformation. Including others who have a vested interest in your personal change means you increase the odds of your success and, in turn, help them increase the odds of theirs.

Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.