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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.

How Asking Multiple People for Advice Can Backfire

  • Category EQ

When was the last time you sought someone’s advice? Perhaps you were navigating a tricky situation at work, searching for jobs, or making an important purchase. In these situations, we often focus on gathering all of the information we can in order to make the best choice. That’s why we may turn to a few or many people for different opinions. Research, after all, has shown that leveraging the “wisdom of crowds” can lead to more accurate decisions. But could turning to multiple people ever backfire? Our recent research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes suggests it may.

Doing the “right” thing is undoubtedly important, but so are the impressions we make on and the relationships we establish with our advisors. Given that we commonly consult people with higher status than us, their perceptions about us could have an out-sized impact on our futures.

In a series of studies, we tried to understand the interpersonal consequences of people’s advice-seeking strategies by investigating how advisors reacted to them. In one study, we asked 200 workers in the United States to recall a time they had been asked for advice, in which they were either the only person or one of multiple people consulted. We then asked about their impressions of the advice seeker, how close they were after the exchange, and how willing they would be to give guidance to the same person in the future.

Given how commonly most of us are told to seek second and third opinions, we expected advisors to rate those pursuing this strategy as more competent. But we found the opposite. People who were in a group of several advisors not only rated the advice seeker as less competent, but also indicated that they felt more socially distant to them later and were less interested in advising them in the future.

What prompted the negative reaction? We hypothesized that advisors were really reacting to the reduced probability that their own advice would be followed. (The more people an advice seeker approaches, the less likely it becomes that he or she will follow any one advisor’s advice.) People tend to think highly of themselves and their own opinions and gain status when their advice is taken. So they might be offended by the idea that their advice could be disregarded and, as a result, negatively judge and distance themselves from the offending party.

We tested the link between the advice seekers’ follow-through and advisors’ subsequent behavior in a series of five experiments with 1,362 participants, in which we controlled whether recommendations were taken or not. We found that advisors whose suggestions were ignored did become more offended and were more likely to denigrate and sever their relationship with the seekers. They also felt less secure in their capabilities and social standings.

To investigate the link between these negative reactions and the fear of rejection sparked by presence of multiple advisors, we conducted another controlled experiment. We recruited 186 experienced workers from an online crowd-sourcing platform (Amazon Mechanical Turk) and told them that a novice worker had asked them for advice about using the platform. Half of the advisors believed the newbie was seeking counsel from only them; the other half believed the person was consulting four other experts. (In reality, the role of the novice was pre-programmed.)

Advisors were then asked how likely they thought it was that their advice would be followed. They were also asked to rate the seeker’s competence and given the opportunity to either continue working with the person or to work with someone else on a subsequent task. Sure enough, we found that advisors told they were among a group of people consulted thought their advice was more likely to be ignored and correspondingly deemed the novice as less competent. They were also more likely to select a different partner.

Having uncovered a significant interpersonal cost to following the wisdom of crowds – or simply disregarding advice – we wanted to understand how pervasive these behaviors were. Maybe people understand this and avoid these risky advice-seeking strategies. But when we surveyed 119 full-time employees across an array of U.S. industries who had sought advice in the past month, 58% reported having consulted multiple advisors, and 52.9% reported ignoring recommendations they had received.

Why might advice seekers overlook this potential for backlash? Our research reveals that they don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with their advisors when it comes to the purpose of their interactions. In another study, we found that those looking for advice simply wanted to receive information (thereby widening the set of options considered), whereas those giving advice were more likely to believe that they were supposed to provide direction (which would serve to narrow choices).  If you illuminate a specific path, you might be more likely to expect people to follow it than if you shine a light in a general area.

What all of this work seems to suggest is that advice seekers should expand their consideration of the potential consequences of asking for guidance. In addition to considering who will provide the most information, ask yourself how advisors might react if their advice is not followed.  You might also benefit from being more transparent about your goals. If you clarify the reason why you are soliciting advice (“I am hoping to explore all my options”), that may help set the tone for the discussion and expectations for the actions you take in the future.

For advisors, it’s worth understanding the general tendency to react to advice seekers with an egocentric bias. Many of us genuinely want to help those who seek counsel, and our recommendations may not always be the best.

Want our advice? Considering the broader goals of advice seeking could pay off for seekers and advisors alike.


Hayley Blunden is a PhD student in the organizational behavior program at Harvard Business School.


Jennifer M. Logg is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Harvard University. She received her Ph.D. from the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. Her primary research examines how people expect algorithmic and human judgment to differ (research she calls, Theory of Machine, a twist on the classic “theory of mind”). Her work tests how people respond to the increasing prevalence of information produced by algorithms.


Alison Wood Brooks is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. She teaches negotiation in the MBA and executive education curricula and is affiliated with the Behavioral Insights Group.


Leslie K. John is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Twitter: @lesliekjohn.


Francesca Gino is a behavioral scientist and the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is the author of the books Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life and Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. Twitter: @francescagino.

Should You Try to Convince a Star Employee to Stay?

  • Category Teams

No matter how hard you try to create a supportive and fulfilling workplace, the day will come when you find out that a valued employee is thinking of leaving or has already accepted an offer outside the firm. What you do at that moment — whether you decide to convince the person to stay or let them go gracefully — matters not just to that specific situation but to your organization for years to come.

Should you convince them to stay?

The first question is whether you want to let this valuable employee go. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find out that someone is considering another job before they have committed to it. In that case, there is still a chance to retain one of your best people — and you should do what you can, within reason.

Here are some things you should do, all of which assume that your employee is aware that you know they are considering another position. If not, start by confirming what you have heard.

Take the person out for coffee. Find out what they’re thinking about. No matter how open and supportive an environment you think your organization has created — you might be wrong. Ask about their concerns and their hopes for the future. Be prepared that you may hear a few things that are uncomfortable for you. Sometimes you are the last person to find out some of the problems within your group — no matter how approachable you try to be.

Set up an atmosphere of joint problem solving. Presumably your employee wants things that they are not getting in their current position. You would like to keep them. In order to get there, you’ll have to approach this together.

Sometimes (particularly early in a person’s career) money is a big part of the problem. People entering their first job are often happy just to be employed, and so they don’t negotiate that hard on salary. Once you’ve figured out how valuable this person is — and they’ve figured out how valuable they are to any organization — they may feel they’re not making enough. If that’s the case, try to address it. There is nothing to be gained by nickel-and-diming a keeper. Any problem facing a star employee that can be solved by the proper application of money should be solved quickly.

More often, the issue is bigger than salary and you’ll need to think creatively. Ask a lot of questions about your star’s career goals, ambitions, and desires. Are there other ways to help them succeed that they haven’t thought about? Suggest new projects, mentors, and training. Consider helping them to get an advanced degree if they need one. Give them a sense of where you would like to see them end up in the next few years and commit to helping them get there.

One reason people stay at their jobs is that they feel supported by the people they work for. Show that support.

When to let go gracefully

Of course, you can’t win them all. Sometimes there are hidden problems you didn’t know about or can’t solve. Sometimes your star wants a new adventure. Many early-career employees just want to work for someone else to get a feel for how the field works. And sometimes you don’t find out about your star’s departure until they have already accepted a position somewhere else.

In this case, start by congratulating them on the new position. You may have been a supervisor to that person in the workplace, but most importantly, you’re a colleague. And you want to see your colleagues succeed, even if that success takes them elsewhere. A gesture of goodwill like wishing someone well goes a long way toward creating a healthy long-term relationship with that star.

You want your star to feel good about the organization as they might be back some day. There is an increasing trend toward boomerang employees who leave an organization for a while and then come back. You can smooth the path for a star’s return by letting them know you care about their future. If they decide that they were actually better off working for you, they will remember your supportive attitude. You can even remind them that the door is always open.

 

Even if your star never comes back, they are likely to remain in your sphere. Perhaps they will work for a rival firm or a company in a neighboring business. These days, many big projects require a number of organizations to band together to complete a complex project. That means that your star may be in the position to recommend your firm for business or even to partner up to bid for or complete a new project. You want to be the first one they call in the future.

So treat your departing employee as a potential ambassador for your firm. Not only might they direct business toward you in the future, but they might even recommend your firm as a place for their new colleagues to consider working if they need a change.

To be graceful in the face of a departure, you have to bear in mind that business is not a zero-sum game. The more people out there in the world with a positive impression of you and your firm, the more opportunities you will have down the line to succeed. Even the people who leave may still end up being valuable.


Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. His new book is Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career (HBR Press).

 

What PwC Learned from Its Policy of Flexible Work for Everyone

Every Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. Pacific Time, I join a video conference call with leadership colleagues from across the country. I’m on the West Coast, so these meetings are always early for me. When I started joining them more than 10 years ago, I was up early to ensure that I looked polished and ready to conquer the day before I got on the video conference. These days, I find myself forgoing dressing up or putting on makeup before dialing in. I no longer think twice about being on video from the comfort of my living room and in my morning sweatshirt. And, as I say good morning to my colleagues, it’s apparent that I’m not the only one.

It hasn’t always been this way. Our company has come a long way over the past decade by truly instilling a culture of flexibility across the firm. We now have the ability to work in a way that fits our personal lives and, if that means taking an early morning video call at home in our sweatpants, then so be it.

When others ask me how we did it, I’m honest. This did not happen overnight. It wasn’t easy, there were growing pains along the way, and we’re still learning. Here’s some of what we learned along the way that we hope other companies can benefit from:

You need to toss out the rule book. To build a culture of flexibility, you must first reimagine what flexibility means today. Remember, to create behavior change, you need to allow for variance and creativity and agility. In other words, be “flexible” when creating a flexibility culture. A policy guide or a formal program can work against you. It seems counterintuitive, but having rules in place actually hinders the development of a truly authentic culture. At PwC, we loosely call it “everyday flexibility.” It isn’t something we mandate that all teams adopt; it’s a mentality and a way of life that should be individualized for each person.

Flexibility for a caregiver might mean being able to leave work early to take an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment. For a parent, it might mean taking a midday run, so evenings can be spent with their children. And for others, it could simply be taking an hour in the afternoon to go to a yoga class and recharge. When we look at flexibility this way, it’s easy to see why formal rules actually hinder adoption and progress. It’s impossible to have a one-size-fits-all approach for flexibility. We let our teams figure out what works best for them, as long as they deliver excellent work, on time. The rest is all fair game.

Everyone deserves the same degree of flexibility. Flexibility is not related to a generational need. Every employee, at any age, benefits from and is looking for its availability. A culture of flexibility will not be created, adopted, or embraced unless the origination stems from an understanding and belief that every single person in the organization deserves the same consideration and flex work policies. This isn’t about one segment of the workforce, so if you’re sending out any kind of internal communications materials about flexibility, make sure it speaks to all employees. After all, we are a diverse workforce made up of diverse people, from working moms and dads to thousands of others without children who also want flexibility. One person’s reasons for needing flexibility are not any more important or any less important than any another person’s.

When it comes to flexibility, trust is not earned. It is not uncommon for managers to tell me that they believe in allowing employees to work flexibly, if and only when they’ve been with the firm a certain amount of time and earned that trust. This is when I remind people that we place our trust in employees from the moment they start working for us, so why wouldn’t that same theory apply when it comes to flexibility? If you trust an individual enough that you hired them to join your organization, you also should trust them to get the work done when and where they prefer, as long as they meet deadlines. I challenge all managers to take this approach.

Flexibility is a two-way street. A strong culture starts from the very top. For example, when our CEO started wearing jeans to work, it sent a message to all of our people that it’s okay to dress casually. That said, that is only where it starts. The action comes from the bottom up.

I often travel to speak to groups of our newly promoted senior associates. For most of these individuals, this is the first time they are stepping into a supervisory role. At the same time, they are still being supervised. They have a unique opportunity to empower direct reports, while putting pressure on managers to do the right thing for their teams. In these moments, I am reminded of the tremendous power our people hold in strengthening flexibility across the firm.

For us, flexibility is not about working less, but it is about encouraging people to work differently. It’s a two-way street. We give our people the flexibility they need when they need it, and sometimes, we need them to give more when business demands require it. When done right, flexibility results in a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce. And it helps attract the best employees, and makes them want to stick around

Anne Donovan is the U.S. People Experience Leader at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), where she is a key senior leader responsible for strategy and innovation around culture change. She has a strong background in operational effectiveness and in engaging people to lead positive change.

Want to Get That One Project Off Your Plate? Try This

Want to Get That One Project Off Your Plate? Try This

All of us have tasks we don’t want to do. Maybe they’re boring or time-consuming or stressful — but we’ve still got to get them done. One way to push yourself is to involve other people. Delegate part of the task, complete the project with someone else, or simply be around others who are working (in a library or a coffee shop, say) — the positive social pressure can create accountability. If looping in other people doesn’t do the trick, pair that approach with another one, such as not letting yourself check email or social media until you’ve finished the project. Or you can plan your time around the task: Block off a few minutes every day, or a few hours every week, to make some progress. No matter what, don’t let the unpleasant task keep lingering. The longer you put it off, the more it will wear on you, and the more unpleasant it will seem.

Adapted from “How to Motivate Yourself to Do Things You Don’t Want to Do,” by Elizabeth Grace Saunders

When Leading Across Cultures, Your Style May Need to Change

Lots of managers work with employees whose backgrounds or cultures differ from theirs. In certain circumstances, the leadership approach you’re used to may be ineffective, or even offensive. That’s why it’s important to build your cultural fluency — an understanding of how norms and expectations vary across cultures. Think about how your current style has been influenced by your background and personal identity. When might your style be a bad fit, and for whom? Working with a coach, or completing an assessment of your cultural competence, can be a helpful way to identify your blind spots and figure out how to address them. When working with employees from different cultures, think carefully about where your usual approach might need adjusting. Consider: How will you greet employees? Lead meetings? Get your team’s input? Show respect? When you encounter something you don’t understand, ask about it rather than making assumptions. And always be willing to adjust your leadership style; never assume that other people will adjust to you.

Adapted from “3 Ways to Improve Your Cultural Fluency,” by Jane Hyun and Doug Conant

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.

Managing When the Future Is Unclear

It’s one of the few facts in business everyone agrees on: Without a clear and compelling strategy, your business will fail. From MBA programs, to business book jackets, to the last keynote you attended, you’ve heard it repeated again and again.

Despite this, we frequently find ourselves managing in situations of strategic ambiguity—when it isn’t clear where you’re going or how you’ll get there. Why does this happen? Market conditions shift rapidly. Customers have more choices than ever. Resources are constrained. Executives leave, interims are appointed, and searches drag on. The list continues, and even if your company is nimble enough to set strategy effectively at the top, keeping the entire organization strategically aligned is an entirely different challenge. Your company might have a clear strategic imperative, but your unit or team might not.

In my consulting practice, I work with leaders all over the world on strategy and execution, and they shift uncomfortably in their chairs every time I broach this topic. Strategic uncertainty can feel like slogging through mud. Leaders avoid investments. Decisions are deferred. Resources are frozen. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt drive bad behavior and personal agendas. Even so, companies often succeed or fail based on their managers’ ability to move the organization forward precisely at times when the path ahead is hazy.

The best managers find ways to provide steady, realistic direction and to lead with excellence, even when the strategy isn’t clear. Push your leaders for clarity, yes. In the meantime, be productive. There are three things you can do today that will put you in a better position to manage strategic ambiguity: Take pragmatic action, cultivate emotional steadiness, and tap into others’ expertise.

Take Pragmatic Action

I’m a proponent of practical approaches to dealing with uncertainty. Doing something, anything, in support of your company’s success makes you and your team feel better than doing nothing.

Get back to basics. Deliver value. First, focus on what you can control. You owe it to the organization and to your team to deliver value every day. What clientele does your team serve today and what do they expect or need from you? How can you perform better, faster, or smarter to deliver on the promise of excellent service? What matters to the organization’s mission or vision? How can your team contribute to that? When uncertainty comes, first and foremost do good work. You’ll put the company in the best possible position to navigate new strategic choices.

Place intelligent bets. What’s likely? When the strategy is uncertain, the best managers acknowledge what’s unknown, but also look ahead to what is known and what is likely to happen. What do you know about the dynamics impacting your company? What options are being discussed? What does your boss think will happen? What can you do today to prepare yourself, your team, and potentially your clients for change? In almost every case, managers can place intelligent bets and start to work toward a future state—even when the complete landscape remains out of focus.

Operate in sprints: Embrace short-term strategies. Once you’ve focused your team on delivering value and started to explore what’s possible, you’re prepared to move forward with a discrete set of priorities. Take a note from organizations that use agile methods and create your own strategic sprint. What can you do personally to contribute to strategic clarity for your part of the business? What projects can your team execute in 30, 60, or 90 days that will benefit the organization regardless of which direction the strategy takes? Strategy isn’t only the work of senior executives—any work you do to further the company’s capabilities and position your team for the future is a great investment. Don’t stand still, awaiting the “final” answer on strategy. Move your team and the company forward.

Cultivate Emotional Steadiness

Strategic ambiguity pushes you out of your comfort zone. When there’s clear, unwavering direction, you can focus on defined targets and deliver results. When strategies shift, or are hinting toward a shift, it’s normal to feel unsettled, and you’ll see this in your team too. Here are three steps you can take to help yourself and your team navigate the emotions of strategic ambiguity.

Be proactive. Learn more. One of the reasons I suggest pragmatic action is because doing something concrete helps you move beyond your raw emotions. But there’s more to emotional steadiness. Questions arise naturally: How will this impact my group? What if everything we’re doing today alters? What if this involves job changes, layoffs, or lost resources? Learn as much as you can so you’re informed, not just reacting to rumor and innuendo. Use your internal network and ask others in the organization for insight, context, and clarity. When you’ve done the hard work of sense-making, you’ll be able to anticipate the questions your team will ask and prepare the most effective answers you can.

Acknowledge and navigate emotions. Emotional steadiness requires that you be intentional about the way you show up in the workplace. Your role is to be calm, transparent, and steady, all while painting a vision for the future. Acknowledge your emotions and talk to a peer or your boss if you need to work through them. Play out the worst-case scenario in your mind and then move on to the more likely outcome. Chances are the reality isn’t as bad as what you might conjure up when your emotions are heightened. Commit to avoiding stress responses, frustration, rumors, or other nonproductive behavior. Your team members are watching and taking their cues from you.

Keep team communication open. Strategic uncertainty can cause managers to communicate with team members less frequently and less openly. “If I don’t have clarity to provide, why not wait?” the thinking goes. But in truth, ambiguous situations require you to communicate even more than normal. To demonstrate emotional steadiness, share your own emotions and acknowledge those of your team in productive ways. Let team members know that what they feel is okay. But talk with them about your commitment to being emotionally steady even during times of uncertainty. Ask them to do the same and come to you if they are frustrated or concerned. Maintaining open dialogue will keep your team engaged and aligned until a clear direction emerges.

Tap into Others’ Expertise

Leading through periods of uncertainty and change can be isolating for managers. Remind yourself that you are not alone. You have a network of people who have likely faced similar challenges and you can tap into their experiences. Here are three ways you can tap into the expertise of others for support.

Imagine your most respected leader’s approach. What would they do in your situation? How would they handle the ambiguity or state of flux? How would they view the way you’re handling yourself? This exercise can be incredibly powerful in helping you stay calm and emotionally steady, exercise your critical thinking, and take pragmatic action even in the most uncertain circumstances. Those we most respect have demonstrated traits we admire. Tap into their strengths to inform your own.

Engage other managers. Managers often believe they need to “be strong” and go it alone to demonstrate managerial confidence and competency. That’s not true. My executive clients reach out to peers and former colleagues regularly for advice, counsel, and emotional support. If someone you know reached out to you to ask for your advice, you’d happily provide support and feel valued as a peer. Your network will feel the same. Start the conversation with “I could really use another point of view” and you’ll be surprised how quickly others engage.

Embrace the wisdom of thought leaders. Your network becomes global when you expand beyond those you know personally to those you can access in today’s digital environment. The greater your understanding of how others think about strategic agility and change leadership, the better you’ll be able to navigate ambiguity in your company. The brightest and most inspiring minds are at your fingertips—read books and articles, listen to podcasts and interviews, and watch instructive videos, webinars, and more to expand your thinking and learn new approaches relevant to your specific situation.

The ability to thrive during periods of strategic uncertainty separates the great managers who go on to become exceptional leaders from the rest. Don’t allow a lack of clarity at your company to cast a shadow over your confidence or performance. Even in the most challenging and ambiguous of situations, you put yourself in a position to succeed when you commit to taking pragmatic action while demonstrating emotional steadiness and drawing on the expertise of others.


Lisa Lai serves as an adviser, consultant, and coach for some of the world’s most successful leaders and companies. She is also a moderator of global leadership development programs for Harvard Business School Publishing. Follow her on FacebookTwitter, her Blog, or her website at www.laiventures.com.

Ideas for Helping Remote Colleagues Bond

Research consistently shows that remote employees tend to feel excluded from the company culture. Remote workers report feeling as if they are not treated equally and often fear that their colleagues are working against them. When a problem arises, nearly half of remote workers let it fester for weeks or more.

To improve workplace integration, my company experimented with several ways to bring our distributed workers together, including virtual coffees, book clubs, and executive-led webinars focused on values. Some of these efforts revved up the team temporarily, but they didn’t solve the culture problems that are inherent to having a large remote workforce.

We realized that we needed to create a “beyond remote” workforce by coming together and creating an environment of bona fide cohesion and trust through meaningful relationships and conversations. Of all the methods we tried to bring scattered workers together, here are the two strategies that brought us the most success in terms of increasing engagement:

Generate structured conversations around shared content. We set out to generate deeper conversations among coworkers through virtual meetings structured loosely like a book club, but with a wider variety of content and platforms. For example, we had everybody watch the same TED talk, read the same book or article, or take the same online learning course. Then, we met via video conference and asked everybody to share a reaction, with one person speaking and then choosing the next contributor to speak for about the same length of time. This selection process had the additional benefit of showing where social bonds are strongly developed or where they might need further development.

We found success in encouraging discussion and openness by starting with icebreaker questions as simple as “How did you take your coffee this morning?” If two people use oat milk, they might infer that they both value health, promoting further sharing and bonding. If we discuss an article’s advice and ask, “Have you used these skills in your personal life?” we hear stories that reveal much more of the whole person and provide a greater glimpse into that person’s character. Gathering this kind of direct knowledge about coworkers creates the kind of trust that’s especially important in global teams.

Use online games to help build trust. While this may sound unconventional, playing a video game — one chosen for its ability to force collaboration and to place the team in scenarios that are destined to fail — helps to build trust and reveal how the team will handle negative pressures. In her book, Learning to Learn and the Navigation of Moods: The Meta-Skill for the Acquisition of Skills, Gloria Flores discusses how the negative emotions that crop up when learning something new can block skill development. She stresses the importance of tools and prompts to help us push through. The gaming framework does just that: It allows team members to work through and even utilize the negative emotions that can arise during the learning process.

Deliberately choose a game that forces as many of your team members as possible to get out of their comfort zones. It’s essential to create the equivalent amount of stress and the possibility of failure that exist at work. Imagine that the team is trying to get into a dungeon, but is failing, and I’m yelling, “Your cannon wasn’t in the right spot, and we’re not coordinating. If you would only listen to me, maybe we’d get there!” Suddenly, that’s an interesting conversation point: You think you’re always right? Are you coordinating well? Are you giving good instructions and requests? Are people responding to you? Failures, and people’s reactions to them, inspire much better conversations, as the team dynamics involved in game challenges often mimic the dynamics of work challenges.

Initially, we tried multiplayer games that included a mission for the team — think Fortnite or League of Legends — but our workers weren’t failing enough. To heighten the situation, we switched to more complex games like Factorio that can stump even software developers who are more used to gaming. Adding this complexity provided a place where the team could safely learn from failures. In these heightened environments, people learned that they needed to speak up the moment they foresaw trouble, so they could renegotiate and form new goals or forge new paths. That alone has had a huge impact on interpersonal and work relationships within our own company.

While book clubs and gaming together may feel like they don’t belong on company time, they have given our company a sense of cohesion and retention that had been missing. Our turnover had been significantly higher than the already high average in the software industry, and our retention rate has since improved. These tactics were a critical part of driving that number down. We’ve also seen a marked increase in progress on ongoing projects — even those had been sitting on the back burner for a long time — and greater employee engagement. With these improvements, we’ve been able to set, and meet, new standards for ourselves. Coming together for non-work activities enhanced our ability to coalesce around our common goals as a company.


Kuty Shalev is the founder of Clevertech, a New York City-based firm that designs, develops, and deploys strategic software for businesses that want to transform themselves using the power of the web.