Thank you all for giving me such a warm welcome – you are all way nicer than my brothers (well, they’re nice some of the time, but they seem a little moody to me)!!! Anyway, I’ve been here four full days now and I have learned an awful lot about life in the kingdom.
I know where my food is
I’ve been accident-free for two days – which seems to be a major cause of celebration for my mom, she keeps kissing me and telling me what a good boy I am every time I take care of business outside. It seems a little excessive, but I humor her.
My brother takes offense if I get too close to areas I find interesting to sniff…
But he will now allow me to hang with him if I respect his space and keep my nose to myself. The guy doesn’t know how to have any fun.
Size seems to matter – Sir Archie takes my toys, but if I try to take one of his – whoa…I am plotting my revenge.
Mom doesn’t like having her toes bitten – what’s up with that?
And the King thinks I’m perfect. In truth I think he’s got enormous potential and I’m sucking up to him for all it’s worth. I would say I’m making a ton of progress, wouldn’t you?
There was a comment waiting for me this morning that was posted on my “About Me” page. It was from a manager with whom I used to work at the firm. She moved on to greater professional opportunities years ago, and we keep in tacit touch on LinkedIn. And though I remember her in detail, from her reluctant smile, that once shared lit up her entire face to her ardent wish to ‘do the right thing’ for her department – I never really expected to receive such a gift.
“Mimi, I saw this recently and thought of you. So many times as a leader I reflect on your teachings and I am so very thankful to have them in my toolbox. Thanks for the Lollipop and for the ones I’ve received because of you.”
And she forwarded along this Ted video. And I cried (no surprise there).
And the bottom line to all of this? Be transparent, bring joy, offer people the best you have and if you can’t give them your best, certainly don’t bring them your worst. Sometimes the farther one travels up the professional food chain, the more likely it is to see people getting by with the most off-hand and dismissive of efforts – after all, there is so much one has to do (yes, this is sarcastic). I am humbled and honored that Vivia took the time to send me this. I am appreciative of the reminder that this is really what it’s all about – period. And my lollipop of choice? Tootsie pops, hands down.
Whenever I have a meeting – of any kind – I’m early. It’s my definition of being on time. I was facilitating a meeting yesterday morning, and with the rain pummeling the house, I decided to give myself more than enough time to get downtown. What does one do then with an hour to kill? Head into the open, skylit atrium with a cup of coffee, review your notes and then watch the world go by. Another olio from yours truly…
Rather than look like I’m just sitting there ogling people, I make notes, raising my eyes subtly to take in the action (Actually, I like to think I look surreptitious – I have a hunch I’m not so graceful).
– A guy walks by wearing a grey cap, striped sweater, wire-rimmed glasses…he looks like he could be a student at GW, but for the absence of a backpack. He’s so intently texting that he slams right into the corner of one of the metal (heavy, wrought iron) chairs. Unfortunately, said corner is of a particular delicate height and I wince for him. He lets out a “oooph” – a restrained exclamation if ever I heard one, and gingerly walked into the coffee shop. Those of us sitting nearby all look up with sympathy and even a little amusement (that’s what you get when you don’t watch when you walk and text). Ok, the women look more amused then the men.
– The skylights which are supposed to welcome all the natural light look like they are bearing the traces of a really good cry. It’s that kind of day.
– Beige lady – I swear this is a beige lady. Beige hair, outfit, shoes, necklace, purse…urban camouflage. Her posture is perfect, her strides are long and her heels strike the floor with emphasis. She covers a lot of ground with maximum efficiency. A person on a mission, confident, hyped, ready. She comes out of the coffee shop holding two Red Bulls. I feel for the people with whom she’s working today.
– Choices, choices..a man in biking shorts and a heavy sweat (or rain-soaked) checks out his options at the coffee shop. Grabs a yogurt. Puts it back. A box of Special K. Shakes his head and places it back on the shelf. Granola bar? Uh uh. This is a small Au Bon Pain, there are limited choices. He looks conflicted. Ah!! He grabs a an apple turnover. I like this guy.
– Cross-body bags with cross-body briefcases is not a great look. People look like pack animals heading up Everest. And the puce thermal lunch bag? Um, I vote ‘no’.
– Why does no one smile? I must be missing the memo. This feels like a very unhappy place, with questionable elan (but this is DC after all, we don’t pride ourselves on elan or fashion sense – or any sense at all for that matter). I am on a crusade to get people to smile. I consciously smile at everyone – the garage attendant, the vanilla-outfitted girl who passes my table with vacant eyes, the maintenance person who traverses the perimeter of the atrium scrupulously checking for…something.
I’m not talking maniacal smiles here – just a small smile that someone could choose to ignore or return without fear of a Jack-Nicholson-in-‘The Shining’ reaction. So far I’m 5 for 6…wait, 6 for 7 – not bad. Each moves along in his/her own moment, which is totally cool. I’m not looking to create memories here. I just want to break this wall of impassivity – see if there’s any light behind those shuttered eyes, as if there is too much risk in letting someone see any emotion at all.
And I want to know all their stories – where do you work? Do you like what you do? What’s on your mind this morning? House? Condo? Tent? Pets? Kids? Partners? What could change this moment from one that has merely passed to one that is fantastic? Are your shoulders bowed from the weight of your backpack or the weight of your woes?
Why fuchsia lipstick?
They need music here – something to lift these sagging commuter spirits, to imbue the morning with the hint of the possible, the funny, the sublime or even the stuff that really matters. Time for me to head to the elevator with the guy who looks like Stubby Kaye when he was in “Guys & Dolls”.
“Child, child, do you not see? For each of us comes a time when we must be more than we are” — Lloyd Alexander
Well the last few weeks have brought with them a frenetic level of activity reminiscent of earlier chapters in my life. Facilitating training sessions at two law firms; attending a national convention where I will be moderating a panel on effective communication between leaders in practice offices and their counterparts at ‘headquarters’; discussions on employee engagement at another company and then back to another professional services firm to chair forums on a number of issues all rolling up under the header of ‘organizational dynamics’. Ok, stop yawning – I find this stuff pretty fascinating, and the people I meet as a result, even more interesting and engaging. It’s the people – I’m just so damn drawn to the people.
So somewhere around the end of May or June, things may slow down a bit once more. Some things haven’t changed – the more I have to do, the less I sleep and the more I perseverate. For those of you who have not been ‘gifted’ with this talent, I’ll describe it quickly. It starts with a benign thought, like “I hope I can pull all this together in time”, and from there it blossoms into a profusion of peripatetic petals (it is spring and Cherry Blossom time here in DC after all) that fall all over my mind, covering the synapses, neurons and pathways with layer upon layer of resistant ground cover. Thought loses all rhyme or reason, and I spend an inordinate amount of time getting in my own way. Do I know that I really should get out the leaf blower? Of course I do – I’m just too busy looking at the magnificent mess I have created.
Now this talent of mine exists in direct counterpoint with another ability that I really do have about many, many issues. When my sons were younger, they maintained their rooms as temples to the God Of Who Cares. Somehow the word ‘messy’ really doesn’t do their efforts justice – neither does ‘unhygienic’. Once a week, I would expect them to make some effort to return their rooms into something livable, for I really didn’t want them contracting some weird bacteria that is only found in the Amazon and the soles of filthy socks. Their disregard drove Andy crazy – he’s the kind of guy who feels that everything has a place and there’s a place for everything – and if not, toss it out. So as he would get increasingly exorcised, I would become calmer. And my mantra through those years was “If this is going to bother you in five years honey, then I will invest in this issue with all the emotional energy I can summon. But if this isn’t going to matter five years hence, then I’m letting it go”.
Hypocrite – thy name is Mimi.
You see I really believe that little mantra – I do. I just don’t apply it with as much conviction when it comes to my own efforts. So in short – I become my own pain in the butt. Somebody needs something from me – ok, let’s jump into hyper-drive, over-think it and deliver with everything I’ve got. And then collapse and chastise myself for all that excess worry and emotional self-flagellation. Oh, and then start the whole process again…because after all, this is different. It’s about someone else’s needs. I have to be better this time, right?
Last night though – somewhere between Carson Daly and the 2:30AM news on ABC – a memory came to the fore and I think as a result, I am going to try to teach my foolish self what I already know.
Years ago, after one back surgery or another, I lost the use of my arms. Truly. I could raise one arm high enough to bring a utensil to my lips, the other only far enough to scratch an inch near my waist. The surgeon wasn’t alarmed (of course, they weren’t his arms) – neurological effrontery can make for some pretty lousy retribution. I was petrified. All of a sudden elements of daily self-care were elusive to me. Andy would wash and dry my hair (with enormous affection and limited expertise – we will not conjure any thoughts of how I looked during this time), I drank coffee through a straw, modifications were made. The doctor was sure my range of motion would return – he had no doubt, so I believed him. My anxiety became more reflective of the ‘when’ not the ‘if’, and immediately became more manageable. In five years, this would not be an issue for me – I knew that. My thoughts became less frantic, I began to clear away the disorderly mess that had become my thought process. And yes, the doctor knew what he was talking about.
Which brings me back to this moment. In five years it will matter to me that I gave my best to others – period. I won’t get there by letting my worry trump my determination. Let me re-phrase – I may get there, but I will be have depleted essential elements of the thoughts I need to be happy. Today, I’m going to follow the advice of Steve Martin – “I’ve got to keep breathing. It’ll be the worst business mistake if I don’t”.
I hope this makes you smile – and if by chance you identify with any of this – I hope it helps you breathe.
“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” — Jane Howard
There are all sorts of families – the ones that we are magically born into or become a part of; the families that we build one person, pet, ritual at a time; the families of friends that may morph and change with the understanding that these connections are in many ways as binding as any others. Within the context of this forum in which we meet and discover virtual understandings and ‘aha’ moments, we are defining a new family. I think of many people in this community who I feel I know and love as members of my family too. People who are always there to support me when I write through my neurotic moments, laugh along with my silliness, commiserate when life becomes complicated or evocative of times that are painful to recount. Friends who I fret about and delight in, inspire me with their incredible talents, and celebrate with head-shaking wonder at the magic that they create regularly.
So it is within this uniquely bound family that I find myself accepting the Family Of Bloggers Award. I love the implication of this honor, for it suggests that we are in many ways a family of choice. We are together because we choose to be, minus some of the drama and trauma that come from nuclear units that are perhaps more complicated, defined by far different memories of shared history.
David Kanigan (DavidKanigan.com) who writes the blog titled Lead.Learn.Live and Laurie Barkman who authors PassionatePerformance.wordpress.com both nominated me for this award this week. David has a following that is remarkable in both its size, intelligence and loyalty. When I started following his blog, I hoped to come close to the quality, provocative writing and thoughtful commentary that his writing reflects all the time. I still don’t know how he does it, finding references, writers, images, videos that invite and engross the reader. He is incredibly self-effacing, and he is shaking his head as he reads this not able to admit that all of this is true. But I would bet an awful lot of money (if I had it, which I don’t, so I feel good about placing the bet) that there are many, many, many who agree with my summary. I have followed him from the first day I came to WordPress and I will follow him should the time come when I no longer post..
My line of work and Laurie’s closely parallel each other. The primary and striking difference is that she manages to imbue the topic of performance management and leadership with practical wisdom and a passion that is palpable. As some of you may know from earlier posts, I have a love-hate relationship with this topic – perhaps because I’ve been training and speaking about these topics for so long. But I return to Laurie time after time because her advice is wise and practical, her commitment sincere and passionate and the results always on point and well-considered. As much as I believe that there is nothing new under the sun because of a general reluctance to deal with the discomfort of change, Laurie gently encourages me to reconsider and remember what I loved about training and development.
So, I thank them both and embrace the metaphor that I am part of their family, as they are part of mine. I’d do the Sally Fields thing, but David would tease me – even though in my head I’m thinking “you like me, you really like me!” As inspirational blogs go, I have many to nominate and feel certain that I would inadvertently miss some. Which is why I am going to nominate all the people who are kind enough to read my posts each day, comment each day and travel on the karma truck through all sorts of topography. Thank you for being part of my virtual family. Thank you for embracing me from the moment I started seven months ago and for encouraging me to keep the gas tank full and ready to roll.
Yesterday the University Of Virginia Board Of Visitors reversed its decision and reinstated Teresa Sullivan as the school’s President. The Washington Post provided front page coverage about the closed-door political nonsense that fueled her immediate suspension and the passionate populous reaction that drove her reinstatement. The bottom line? Ms. Sullivan is a leader that faculty, students and alumni want to follow. The paper quotes one department chair – “You can move fast, or you can move incrementally. But it doesn’t matter unless people follow you…People follow her.” I have often said, one of the biggest failures in leadership is the hubris to think that you never have to change your position and turn around to see who’s there. Your perspective on your team must be as comprehensive as possible. You have to move around.
Ms. Sullivan’s misstep rested in her immersion in the U-Va culture without keeping on eye on the education politic – the Board. Her dismissal was orchestrated behind closed doors, by people who rued her patience and thoughtful approach to issues. They were looking for sweeping change – in what areas I don’t know. In my view, such dramatic action would have resulted in the Board creating a scapegoat as well – I don’t think she could have won regardless of her approach.
This is a bit of an attenuated way of writing about why every constituency associated with the University passionately advocated for her return. Here are but a few of the takeaways that I think are worthy of consideration…Rather than clean house upon arriving, she asked her team to give her eighteen months to prove herself and for them to prove themselves in return. She traveled solo from campus event to campus event, alumni fundraiser to alumni fundraiser, sporting event to sporting event. She involved herself in truly understanding the needs of the student, the faculty and the alumni – her informal and consistent communication was welcome. Sullivan’s efforts to maintain transparency included reports that weren’t filled with fluff, outreach that was personal and consistent and worked to establish a “relationship-centered presidency”. Of no less importance, she honored her commitments and had a ‘set of rules’ that were easy for her team to get behind (i.e., no surprises, don’t filter bad news, if the going gets tough make sure everyone is aware of what’s happening and finally “people and time are our greatest resources; don’t waste them”).
She established and maintained trust.
There is no doubt Sullivan has vision and strategy. Her professional experience is as impressive as her degrees. But none of this would really matter if she hadn’t fostered the trust and confidence in the people she served. Leaders serve. Such a concept suggests a different approach to people, strategy and vision than that which we typically consider in any for-profit environment. Her weakness was in not learning how to bob and weave, and one can’t minimize the need for that kind of facility. As Sullivan notes, “There are aspects of administration, they’re like a chess game…You’re looking forward three or four moves.” Apparently Theresa Sullivan was looking forward – and probably around her as well. She just wasn’t paying attention to the knife in her back. I think her approach should resonate with every leader; I think it probably won’t. I wish there were term limits on department heads and leaders in companies – and their tenure was predicated upon votes from more than a board and/or shareholders. I believe it would foster an urgent review of what it takes to really have unanimous support. For U-Va? Today is a good day.
A friend of mine posted this quote on Facebook yesterday (an old friend of recent re-acquaintance). I couldn’t walk away from my own thoughts about its implications, and my complicity – in both positive and negative ways – over the years. You know me well enough to know that I have yet to transcend my own limitations, unable to keep my mind still long enough to even utter a mantra; I am not about to denounce a material world which has afforded my family a comfortable lifestyle, and some accessories which make my sloppy outfits look well-considered. In other words, before you jump up in defense of capitalism and financial success as a social definitive – sit down. I’m not arguing with you.
I am however, absolutely passionate about my belief that learning is a lifelong exercise, and organizational leaders are in the position to educate all the time. I’ll go a step farther – they have an imperative to educate. And with that in mind I have got to ask you – what are you teaching? Does your department, company, organization commit to moral management or success-at-any-cost? Are you developing people’s abilities to complement their career progression or are you focused on the immediate needs which you find critical to meet? Are we defining our own personal success primarily by the amount of money we make (with the caveat that we are earning what we need to and perhaps a bit more) or are there any other markers that we value as much? More importantly, do we inculcate that philosophy to the people that we are charged with developing and growing?
What are the stories of compassion that balance the perpetual theme of acquiring stuff? How well-rounded are the people we know and work with? Where do the paths of wisdom and management-speak meet? I may not be articulating this well – I am trying to avoid the cliché of saying that we all do the right thing everyday, and instead suggest that compassion, morality, critical thought are as essential to the development of a thriving workforce than any other issues of which we speak. And it takes thought and planning and commitment to the larger theme of lifelong education. Challenging our children, our friends, ourselves to consider where we are placing our priorities as we enter in and out of the chapters of our lives. That to me, is what reading the whole book is all about.
Whenever I used to frown, my mom would say “Don’t do that, your face will stay that way.” She was right – the picture above is a self-portrait. That’s not true – I only mildly resemble a sharpei. But you do get my point. Depending upon the success of my nights in the arms of Morpheus (I love that line), I can wake up with a start, my brain flitting through the worries du jour, the have-tos that I neglected to do the day before (which I realize diminished their importance as obligations) and the ‘should have dones’ that didn’t even register. Once I have coffee, all bets are off and I wave the white flag because my mind begins to travel at a speed that has yet to be measured scientifically. Perhaps I have a bionic brain – the thoughts fly with the speed of sound, I just don’t necessarily get anywhere.
I’ve reached the point though where I can laugh at this (btw, in the picture above I am laughing – can you tell?). These exercises in self-flagellation are futile, and bear nothing like those scenes in “Fifty Shades Of Grey” where ostensibly everyone is enjoying the experience far more than me, and their vocalizations don’t resemble my “Oh damn” or “I can’t believe I forgot to do that – you dummy”. Sometimes I say things even worse, but no need to repeat them here.
Why do we do this to ourselves? We know better. We know it is better to step back, breathe, prioritize and discard the non-essential. I’ll go a step farther – we also know this is learned behavior, and as such can be ‘unlearned’. I think there is something self-reinforcing in experiencing this kind of stress. In a convoluted way it reminds us that we’re important, our contributions matter – within the circle of our life, our actions are critical to keeping the cosmic wheel turning. Is that enough of a motivator to keep stressing ourselves out? Um…no. Because in the final analysis, our ‘musts’ are not about fundamental survival, coordinating organ transplants (unless you’re an organ transplant doctor, in which case I apologize) or responding to life or death situations. We are creating this level of pressure in our own minds. It isn’t until the you-know-what hits the fan that we realize that we’ve been stressing over things that are overblown in our own minds.
We are making ourselves slightly crazy. And our sanity rests to a large degree in our perception of how big our requirements loom. If we accept that every routine day is inevitably disrupted multiple times, some things don’t go as planned and other events are out of our control. So be it. Perhaps we can gain some control over what we choose to get exorcised about. Maybe today we can start our day differently – committing to ourselves that as involved as we are going to get in our day, we are not going to let it gain zombie-control over our life (my understanding is that once you give a zombie control of anything, they pretty much grab the whole enchilada). When our tendency is to over-react to the problems in front of us, instead we will create some distance so that we can look at them for what they really are. One challenge at a time, fix it and move on. Maybe we can honestly acknowledge the days that seem to pass without asap incidents or increases in blood pressure, for there are those too – and it doesn’t mean you’re not a diligent, capable and important.
Just try it and let me know how it goes. Let me know what happens when you take a step back instead of running directly into the fray. If I have any success with this, I’ll let you know too. Unless I am attacked by a zombie, in which case all bets are off.
This is the kind of day where people either squeeze as much work into their day as possible so that they can leave the office early tomorrow or begin coasting because the prospect of a long weekend is so tempting there’s little else to think about. Either way you go (and I would venture to guess that there are very few who defiantly reside somewhere in the middle), own your day. Everyone has times when they just can’t intensely focus on the work in front of them. Conversely, our concentration is not always laser-like, powered by energy and commitment. Just raise your hand and own it – so that others don’t feel isolated by your focus or annoyed at your laissez-faire, possibly misunderstanding your actions completely.
It’s funny how such candor is anathema in the workplace. Somehow it’s not ok to have an ‘off’ day. That just defies reality. Rather than reflecting authenticity, people will try to maintain an illusion of busy-ness at all times. One of the many things I loved about most of the people I worked with was their willingness – and trust in me – to be able to admit when their heads were elsewhere, if a project was just sapping their enthusiasm, or if they were crushing to make a deadline and needed more hands. I have no illusions looking back, which is why I inserted the word “most”. I had my share of coasters and boasters, people who were hell-bent on kidding me almost as much as they were kidding themselves. I still believe that allowing people the room to move within the rhythm of their lives when possible is the far better way to go. I was able to keep my headcount low, people cross-trained and facile by creating an environment which emphasized personal ownership of the day ahead. And laughter – yeah, there was a lot of laughter. And an enormous amount of individual and collective effort. All it took was encouraging people to raise their hands.
There’s a quote from John Ruskin that has been teasing me for the last few days…”When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” I love the message, and think we often lose or sacrifice one of these two elements in the workplace. I know what you’re thinking, ‘ are you really going to raise the spectre of love as an essential element of creation at work?’ Yup, I am. Before you leap to disagree though, think about your best professional years – or moments – and what they required from you.
Certainly success involves skill – though arguably every success is not a masterpiece. And not every act of love – as well intended as it may be – elicits a feeling of success. If there is no love for what you commit to doing on a daily basis, I think your efforts are diluted by its absence. And at least in the areas of work that I know well, there seems to be less attention given to loving what you do, and a skewed emphasis on just getting it done. A friend of mine asked me recently where the ‘humanism’ in management has gone. After participating in a panel discussion at a well known law firm, she was struck by the comments of young associates who attended the session. Their expectations of upper management were narrow and indifferent, acknowledging that these first years in ‘big law’ required many hours of work, but little of the relational connectedness that makes the ridiculous time commitment worthwhile. The concerns for their development were formulaic, the environment rich in superficial attention (if you’ve never been in the offices of big law, you’re missing some pretty magnificent work spaces) and sorely lacking in emotional investment. We’re not talking about daily ‘kumbaya’ moments, rather the contagious, energizing sense that people were engaged in doing work that they loved.
The workplace in general is delicately positioned right now – on the one hand, employers want their people to do more with less; however less and less time is being spent considering what new ideas or programs can be put into play to engender enthusiasm and passion for individual effort. So if you love the profession you’re in, and little is done to foster that indescribably powerful motivator, love will morph over time into benign acceptance. The reality is that at some point each of us has the ingredients to create a masterpiece. As a manager, director, chief officer, etc – what are your responsibilities to develop and/or sustain the professional and personal inventories from which your people can draw to create a masterpiece? Or in the interest of production, does it even matter any longer that people love what they do? Personally, I’ve done my damnedest to foster both love and skill instead of accepting skill and personal interest every time. What about you?
“In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities – integrity, intelligence and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you” — Warren Buffet
When I was at the firm, I facilitated a program about Situational Ethics. Various hypotheticals were offered up for discussion – all work-related obviously, but ranging in subject from employer/employee dynamics to issues of client confidentiality. The realities of workplace demographics were a primary driver for the creation of the program. The firm had grown exponentially and people were not staying ‘from cradle to grave’, challenging the cultivation of loyalty and a deep understanding of the commitment to work reflective of unparalleled integrity. Certainly dedication and tenure along with personal and professional accountability are very strong motivators for people to do the right thing. We all know when something doesn’t pass our ‘sniff test’ – but what we then choose to do is another issue entirely.
As people become more and more anonymous within companies as a result of technology, higher turnover and generational perceptions, the risk of fraudulent and/or dishonest behavior escalates. Even with the most sophisticated processes in place, someone will still knowingly enter their time incorrectly, submit inappropriate expenses for reimbursement, falsely assert that something did or didn’t get done, etc.. Are any of these ‘wrong’ enough? Where does the responsibility rest? Is it the individual’s responsibility to maintain his/her integrity in the face of an ‘every-man-for-himself’ workplace? Is it the employer’s responsibility to underscore its absolute conviction to such a principle? And if the answer involves the latter, how does one respond when some misdeeds are overlooked?
I write this with no answers. On the one hand, I believe in the very basics of right and wrong – do the right thing by the people who work with and for you, don’t take what isn’t yours, tell the truth…On the other hand, have there been times when what I thought was the right thing, wasn’t? Have I always told the truth to my boss? Yes, there have been times when my actions probably were ill-considered, and knowing some of the bosses I have had in my career, there have certainly been occasions where his/her lack of receptivity, defensiveness or demeanor led me to couch my words or obfuscate them to the point of being completely opaque. Does it matter if my intentions were good even if the outcome reflected otherwise?
I suppose that is why the elements of a given situation often drive the answer to these questions. Rights and wrongs can often be variants of black and white, not absolute in any way. Certainly, I still hold that if one’s actions are guided by a belief that first and foremost we are here to offer the best of who we are to others, we’re on the right track. But beyond that, I’m not sure there are too many other absolutes. What do you think?
“If everyone were clothed in integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well nigh useless” — Moliere
When I was a newly minted teacher (please bear in mind, I started working when I was three), I was told that the word ‘don’t’ was anathema, verboten, that-which-is-never-said when disciplining young children. So, instead of saying “Jennifer, don’t run in the hall”, the correct guidance was “Jennifer – walk”. “No shouting” became “Use your inside voice”. On the one hand, I thought this was really trite and yet theoretically it seemed reasonable. It was harder to change my speech pattern than I thought; frequently used vocabulary become habitual. Ultimately, this one lesson has remained in my head throughout my career. In your day-to-day conversations, do you think of how you’re framing your comments? Have you listened to yourself lately? Do your words inspire or deflate?
There are two incredibly demoralizing and powerful words that are regularly invoked in conversations – “no” and “but“. I realize that there are times when both are necessary. That said, there are more occasions than not when their utilization causes a far more adverse impact than we may intend. How many people do you know begin their sentences with the word “no’? If you listen, you will find that many do. Even when agreeing with someone, a response often begins with a negative. A recent example of a conversation with my son:
“Hi sweetie pie, how are you?”
“No, I’m good.”
“Are you going to go see ________?”
“No, yeah in a little while.”
Though you could toss this up to idiosyncratic conversation, I can regale you with more examples in the workplace, at dinner with friends, in any number of environments than you would care to read. We are in the habit of saying ‘no’ first. When providing someone with feedback, we invoke the word ‘but’ as we try to give someone objective, constructive observations of his/her performance. “The quality of your presentations are excellent, but you need to increase your productivity”. As soon as the word ‘but’ is introduced into the sentence, the positive sentiment is diminished – if not completely forgotten. And yet we do this all the time – at work, home, wherever…In my presentations I ask people to insert the word ‘and‘ in place of ‘but’ – the perception of the sentence changes remarkably. At the end of the day there is no one without strengths and weaknesses. As a developer of people’s’ abilities, it is your responsibility to find the most effective way to encourage growth and improvement. Leave out the ‘but’ – try it. It’s harder than it seems.
I further challenge you to count the times you say the word ‘no’ in a day. Chances are you often don’t even think about or mean it, you’ve just incorporated into your pattern. It takes little thought to recognize the impact of our words. Arguably they are more important than ever before given that we live in a time when we speak with each other less and less, and assume people’s’ intents from 145 characters.
But don’t take my word for it – no, you really should find out for yourself.