Can your team handle tough conversations?

If you want to know how powerful your team is, just see how team members deal with sensitive and tough topics.

Sensitive and tough topics are any subjects that require the leaders and team members to put their own personal feelings, egos, and agendas aside for the greater good of their company or team.

It could be anything as big as deciding which team to invest in, which team member to promote or re-allocating people and budgets from one leader’s team to another. It could be something as trivial as giving honest feedback to colleagues, your boss or subordinates about poor performance.

When it comes to sensitive and tough conversations the line between big and small topics becomes blurry because people often tend to take even the most insignificant topics personally, which leads to out of proportion reactions and behaviors.

In powerful teams, members never lose sight of the bigger picture. They put their team and company first and they always strive to do the right and the best thing for the collective cause.

In powerful teams, people don’t hold back their punches when it comes to discussing and debating the tough and sensitive topics. Teammates may fully ‘go at it’, push back and disagree with other team members, but they continue to listen to each other, consider each other’s views and they never cross the line of interacting in a disrespectful way.

At the end of the conversation or meeting when the team or their boss makes a decision all team members genuinely align, own and support the verdict, whether in their personal favor or not. When they go back to their respective teams they represent the decision as their own in a united front with their colleagues.

I have seen some great teams that exemplify this behavior. However, I have also seen many teams that don’t. I think it would be safe to say that most teams don’t do a great job in dealing with tough and sensitive topics.

Take for example the senior leadership team of a large technology company. The company experienced serious growing pains after achieving the best performance year in their entire history. As a result of their sudden surge of business, they simply couldn’t keep up with the demand. They were not set up for the next level of service and support.

Instead of coming together to find a solution and make the necessary changes to accommodate the growth the senior leaders blamed each other for the crisis. Finger pointing led to defensiveness and the hostility grew. There was even a traumatic screaming match in one of the leadership team meetings, which resulted in some leaders outright stopping to speak with other team members.

It took the leaders a long time to turn things around, and the process left internal and external scars. Key customers felt frustrated by the fact that the company didn’t deliver its obligations on time, and managers and employees felt frustrated about the petty and immature manner in which their leaders handled the crisis.

In a completely different example, the senior leadership team of the HR function of a large global company was having an honest discussion about the state of morale of their wider team, including how to motivate their staff after several rounds of company layoffs. The leaders invited a few next level managers to the meeting in order to describe the state of affairs, especially to their boss who they felt wasn’t as connected to the reality of her organization.

The managers were blunt. They painted a dire picture of HR managers and employees who felt uncared for, demoralized and disconnected from headquarter and the senior team.

The leader thanked the managers for their honest feedback, but when they left the room she turned to her leaders and scolded them for allowing their managers to feel and express such negative feelings and views. It was apparent to all that the head of HR took everything the managers said personally. Needless to say, the level of fear increased exponentially from that day on, and the ability of this senior team to discuss and address the real tough and sensitive issues decreased.

Let’s be honest, addressing the tough and sensitive issues in a productive, constructive and respectful manner (no matter what), takes leadership maturity and courage.

Unfortunately, too often there isn’t enough of these qualities even in the most senior teams.


Does your team have heart?

As human beings, we need a heart and a brain in order to live. We need most of our other organs too, but our heart and brain seem to represent the two main engines that fuel and shape our survival and health. You could view these as the ‘Yin and Yang’ of our well-being.

We could continue to exist without a heart or a brain but it wouldn’t be much of a life.

Well, it is the same when it comes to the well-being of any team or organization. In order to be vibrant, strong and healthy a team must have a heart and a brain.


The heart of the team is reflected in people’s passion, commitment and sense of ownership toward the game and the future. You develop the heart by aligning team members around a compelling purpose and inspiring vision and/or strategic objectives that they can identify with, rally around and work together toward.

When the heart of the team is in great shape people are energized, they feel that they ‘are in it together’, they trust each other and the company, and they collaborate and go the extra mile to execute on their shared goals.

When people lose touch with their higher purpose; with why they love to come to work; why they work so hard and why they are willing to put up with corporate obstacles and challenges, you could say the heart of the team is broken or unhealthy. In fact, we often describe a team without spirit as ‘a team that has no heart‘.


The brain of the team is reflected in the strategies, processes and execution plans of the team. You develop the brain by establishing clear and effective processes, metrics, ground rules and tracking mechanisms to ensure the team is, in fact, hitting its targeted milestones and results.

The heart is all about the spirit and motivation of the team, while the brain is all about team effectiveness and efficiency. The brain wants to know “What do we need to do, by when and who will do it?” The heart wants to know “Why are we doing this… for what reason and purpose?

In our human body if our heart or brain is unwell, or if there is a lack of balance between these two key engines, it will have a negative effect on our ability to function, our livelihood and our productivity. It is the same with any team or organization.

In addition, if the brain wants to push us to a higher performance and results it better make sure that the heart is healthy enough to sustain it. Athletes are very clear about that. They know that the more they want to push their performance the more they have to make sure their heart can endure and support their goals. It is the same with any team or organization.

Any organization or team is always a reflection of its leaders. The leaders determine and shape the culture and mindset of their organization. If the leaders bring heart to the game the team will have a lot of spirit and heart. I refer to this leadership style as: “Leadership informed by some accounting.”

However, some leaders only bring a cold analytical number-driven perspective to their leadership. Their leadership approach is one of “Accounting informed by some leadership”.

Unfortunately, I see teams that have no heart all the time. All their leaders care about is hitting the bottom line at any and all cost. They are quick to cut expenses, fire people and take harsh measures in order to make their financial results look good in the short term while weakening and deteriorating the long term.

This approach is very common with Venture Capitalists who purchase sub-optimal organizations only to slash costs and take advantage of people’s sense of survival and loyalty in order to gain quick returns, without regard for longevity or long-term health.

But, I see it also in regular companies who bring in professional CEOs with no long-term commitment or regard, only a short-term focus to turn performance around, show higher numbers and leave with a big payout.

I also see organizations and teams that have a lot of heart. Their leaders genuinely care about building a strong business and brand that will transcend their tenure. Leaders who bring heart to the game care about people. They truly understand and believe that their people are their most important asset, so they go out of their way to invest in inspiring, motivating and developing their teams.

Leaders who only care about the bottom line see their people and resources as merely the means to their personal agenda and end. Their legacy is to make sure their personal brand and resume are stronger and they are richer than they were when they arrived, even at the expense of a poorer organization.

Leaders who care about the longevity and well-being of their organization see themselves as responsible for, and the means to the success of their people. Their legacy is to leave the organization with a stronger brand, capability and prosperity than the one they inherited when they took the helm.

If you want your team to be at its most healthy and prepared to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the present, as well as those of the future, make sure you manage the balance between the heart and brain of your team; build strong practices and rituals that focus your people on both critical aspects of organizational well-being.

In Chinese philosophy, Yin and Yang describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces that are actually complementary, interconnected and interdependent give rise to each other and form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts.

You can’t and don’t need to do it all yourself. You have team members around you who are naturally more oriented around (and skilled at) the aspects of the heart to balance the brain of the team. You need to bring all sides together to create the best harmony and balance for your team.

Stay real and don’t be blinded by slogans and buzzwords…

The use of catchy slogans internally across organizations and even within individual functions is becoming ever more prevalent.  Slogans like: “Winning Together”, “New ideas. Better HR”, “We deliver results” and the like, are slogans we will all recognize.

Similarly, buzzwords like “Empowerment”, “Accountability” and “Collaboration” also get liberally used, often without substance.

Slogans and buzzwords in and of themselves are not bad. In fact, most of these represent healthy characteristics and direction. I understand the reasoning behind them. Everyone is overworked and under-resourced so leaders who want to energize, motivate and inspire their people are constantly looking for the latest fads; new messages, slogans and ways to infuse renewed energy and hope to the troops. That is a commendable endeavor.

However, the problem begins when slogans and buzzwords limit leaders’ ability to see straight, face reality and own the issues and gaps they have around them.

I was working with a finance division of a global technology company. Team members were very good at what they did but the different departments within the larger division worked as fragmented silos with little collaboration, communication and sharing. It was actually worse, there was internal competition between departments which often caused major issues in the overall ability of the department to provide excellent support to its clients.

The head of the division decided to put an end to the dysfunctionality and turn his division into a cohesive team. He took his managers to an offsite session where he laid down the new law. All managers, some reluctantly, committed to the change. To commemorate their watershed meeting the managers decided to brand their effort and its purpose: “We are One Finance”.

At first, people made an effort to better behave consistently with the new slogan. However, after a while, things started to slip and deteriorate again. No one really paid attention to the deterioration because everyone was still captivated by, and referencing the team slogan “We are One Finance”. The dissonance between the slogan and reality got wider. It took a long time for the team to confront their reality of things being bad again.

Take another example in a different organization. I was sitting in a meeting in which the team members were reviewing their strategic initiatives. They had ten initiatives, which they clustered into three groups. Each initiative had a junior manager leading them, and each cluster had a senior manager leading them.

While creating the clusters made sense from an efficiency standpoint, as there were fewer clusters than initiatives, and while the senior managers kept stressing that this model enabled “Strategic Alignment”, “Business Collaboration” and “Scale” between initiatives, many of the junior managers running the initiatives didn’t buy it. They were frustrated because they felt that this structure added no value to the initiatives themselves, only to the status of the senior managers running them.

At some point in the meeting there was a heated exchange between one of the cluster leads and one of the initiative leads, in which the initiative leader again challenged the value of the cluster model. The cluster lead insisted that there was significant strategic and business value to the model because, as he claimed the initiative leads under him were strategizing and collaborating among themselves.

I looked around the room and the body language was deafening. People were rolling their eyes, whispering to each, texting other and passing notes.


Because everyone in the room knew that what the junior manager was claiming was in fact true – there was no strategic alignment, business collaboration or scale taking place between the initiatives. Each initiative lead ran his or her own initiative in isolation and the only time there was any exchange between them was when they had to give the senior cluster manager their PowerPoint slide for his quarterly reviews.

This is a common example of leaders being so consumed with their own slogans and buzzwords that they can’t see the reality around them.

The slogans and buzzwords are not the problem, it’s how leaders relate to them.

So, don’t be hypnotized by any slogan or buzzword, no matter how powerful or relevant they may be. Keep your eyes and mind open and stay real! Otherwise, you will stop seeing objectively what is working and what is not around you. You will check your mental box and believe that everything is going well regardless of the facts.

Don’t swing to the other side either and be one of these people who is always cynical and sarcastic about any slogan or buzzword. That attitude produces a negative environment too.

And, if you happen to fall into oblivion, don’t get defensive or passive-aggressive if people around you try to wake you up. If you do, you could have a worse situation on your hands – an issue with no one feeling safe enough to address it. We all know how that story ends.

Are you leading with power or force?

In my work with organizations, I meet many effective managers and executives who have a wide variety of leadership styles and personalities. 

Some drive progress in a proactive way and others are more reactive. Some make things happen directly, while others talk a good game but only play it through others. Some are self-centered and selfish in their pursuit of results, while others are generous and kind. Some promote politics and fear around them when they get things done, while others get results by inspiring and motivating others to do their best.

When it comes to driving results and making things happen there is a difference between leaders who lead with force and those who lead with power.

Take for example the following three leaders (real stories, fictional names):

  • George was a very tough and rough (prickly) leader. However, he was a very effective one too. He drove his team hard, but because he himself worked even harder, and also because he sincerely cared about his people, he had a very strong level of loyalty and trust in his organization. However, when it came to interacting with other groups the picture was not as pretty. He cared about the company, not just his own area, but when it came to navigating through internal corporate politics, he lacked patience and finesse, therefore he had a tendency to behave like a bull in a china shop. He was abrupt and often instructed his people to do things that affected their colleagues, without coordination or communication. There was no middle ground with George, people either loved him or hated him, but, everyone feared him.
  • Diane was one of the most senior female leader in her organization, which made things more challenging for her. Even though her role required a close interaction with the CEO, and she probably had his ear more than some of her peers, she always felt a bit of an outsider in the senior management team. She was effective in achieving results. However, perhaps because she felt disrespected or inferior she had a tendency to wave her title around and assert her authority whenever she needed to get things done. Needless to say, this rubbed people the wrong way, which only hurt her respect in the wider organization. Her own team members felt embarrassed by and frustrated by her behavior and reputation. But, because they didn’t trust her enough they didn’t feel comfortable telling her how they felt.
  • In contrast with George and Diane, everyone respected and trusted Michael in his company. This was a good thing as he had a cross-functional role that affected everyone. Even though he had a higher rank in his company then George and Diane did in theirs, he didn’t seem to care much about status. He did care, however about driving collaboration and results. In fact, he was passionate and adamant about it, and everyone knew it. He wasn’t afraid to compel, even demand of people to communicate and collaborate for the good of the whole. While he frequently pushed people way beyond their comfort level, no one seemed to take it personally or be threatened by him. In fact, even people who didn’t report to him listened to him and allowed him to informally guide and coach their views and behaviors. In many cases, he made a bigger difference in motivating and inspiring employees and managers than their direct bosses.

As a leader, you can be effective and get the job done in many different styles and approaches. However, there are different consequences to different styles.

Leaders who use force or authority may achieve the results they want. In fact, they may even get things done quicker than those who don’t. However, they often leave behind them a wake of corporate casualties, including colleagues who feel upset, left out, used, taken advantage of, disrespected and/or demeaned.

Leaders who use force or authority also tend to have a negative reputation in the organization. They typically say all the right corporate slogans, however, people don’t see them as authentic. In fact, they tend to be viewed as political, agenda driven and self-serving. People avoid partnering with them, and because team members usually fear them, there tends to be a lot of gossip about them but not a lot of open, honest and direct communication and feedback with them.

In contrast, leaders who use power inspire trust, loyalty, and collaboration. They may go slower and take more time to achieve the results. However, they do so in order to include and align all the key stakeholders, and at the end of the day not only did they achieve the outcomes, but they have built a strong and authentic coalition of committed team members who fully own the future.

Leaders who use power don’t care about organizational borders and silos. They also don’t care about status. They truly wear two equal hats every day – the responsibility for their own organization, as well as the greater good of the whole. And, they are not afraid to hold their colleagues to account, communicate openly and honestly and volunteer for greater corporate assignments beyond their day job. Their personal commitment, example, and courage inspire others throughout the organization to do the same.

What type of a leader are you?



Don’t ask if you don’t want to hear the truth

I was attending a senior leadership team meeting of one of the key functions of a large global technology company. The function’s leader, in his attempt to improve the team’s alignment with, and in support of the business, leader undertook a significant organization structure change, in which he created new departments and made changes to existing ones.

The leaders were discussing the reorganization that had been announced and purpose of the conversation was to review the list of team members who were going to move from one team to another as part of the change. Needless to say, for many of the leaders, this was not an easy or comfortable conversation. Those who were losing team members felt somewhat upset and those receiving people felt somewhat guilty.

The function head was eager to drive the transition as fast as possible, but in his haste, he left some of his leaders behind. By that I mean, that quite a few of his leaders didn’t fully understand and buy into his change. The leaders who were not on board still moved forward with his plan but they dragged their feet in every decision and as a result, deadlines were not met and overall things moved slower than the function head had wanted.

The function head was frustrated and so were his leaders. In the meeting, he reiterated his plan and then he asked his leaders: “Do you get it and does all this make sense?” It was clear that what he really meant was: “What do I need to do to get you on board to start owning and driving the change?!

The question was a legitimate one, but even though the function head kept his cool everyone could sense the frustration behind his words.

There was an awkward silence at first, which was broken by one of the leaders who usually spoke up first reinforcing to the function head in a politically correct way, that everyone was on board. The meeting went on with the agenda.

It was painfully obvious to me – and I believe to everyone else in the meeting – that not everyone got it, not everyone agreed and not everyone felt it made sense. But, people didn’t say a word.

My question to you is:

When is the last time you heard a team member respond to the question from his or her boss “Do you get it and does it make sense?” with:

“No I don’t get it and no it doesn’t make sense. In fact, it is a bad and unnecessary idea!”

I have seen team members feel and think this way, but rarely to never have I seen them say it out loud.


Because justified or not, they fear retribution. Telling your boss that he/she is wrong; that they don’t get it and that their idea is dumb or unnecessary, is not something most people do at any level of any organization.

In most teams, there isn’t a safe enough space to have these types of authentic and courageous conversations. So, when the boss asks a bold and direct question, even if he or she means well, they will most likely always get the politically correct, diplomatic and cautious answer. People will say the right things, but they will most likely continue to find ways to pretend like they are on board while continuing to drag their feet and pay lip service to the change.

Unfortunately, I see too many leaders and managers who don’t seem to get this. As a result, they ask the same types of naïve blunt questions, they get the same politically correct answers and they leave these interactions feeling good about the outcome, even though in reality nothing really changed.

So, if you want something else to occur, either address the unsafe space and change it, or simply don’t ask if you don’t want to hear the truth.

Taking responsibility makes the difference

I was working with a large technology company on transforming their organizational culture and elevating their business results to a new level. We started the change initiative with the senior leadership team, getting each of the leaders to whole heartedly believe in, and own the process and its objectives.

We then extended the process to the top 100 senior managers by holding a multi-day session that also included the senior leaders.

Like many companies, there was history and baggage with regard to change. There were past attempts to improve the basic organizational dynamics that everyone was frustrated about, such as transforming the silos, politics and ‘blame game’ between functions and levels into genuine alignment, trust and collaboration, bringing clarity to everyone’s roles and responsibilities, and changing the overall sentiment in the organization that the senior leadership was not ‘walking the talk.’

In that initial session, the managers had the opportunity to express to the senior leaders what they were most frustrated about and what they wanted to see a change in, including in the way the CEO and the senior leaders behaved and operated. The senior team listened openly and together with the managers they committed to improving things.

The managers left the session really excited and hopeful about the future. However, they also left with high expectations of their senior colleagues regarding the continuity and follow through of the process.

The senior leaders were determined to drive changes in culture and business processes and performance. They set up task teams to drive the strategic commitments and they started – slowly but surely – to upgrade and change key employee related policies and processes.

The problem was, however, that the senior leaders did not do a good job communicating down to the managers what they were doing and the progress they were making. The managers who took part in particular activities knew only about those activities, and those who weren’t actively involved had no awareness of any progress. And, even those who saw segments of the progress felt it was too small and too slow.

With no communication and updates, managers became increasingly frustrated, skeptical and discouraged about the change. Negative hallway chatter increased and there was a growing sentiment of criticism and invalidation of the senior leaders and the change initiative for its lack of traction and progress.

Needless to say, even though the CEO and senior leaders felt good about the progress in the change initiative when it came time for the next in-person session with the managers, they were extremely nervous and worried about their ability to re-engage the managers in the next steps of owning and leading the change.

This true story does have a good ending…

The meeting with the managers was very successful because instead of ignoring sentiments and putting on a fancy presentation, the CEO and his senior leaders generated a dialogue that was very honest, authentic and courageous in which they referred back to the initial meeting and acknowledged what they had committed to at the time. They also shared what had progressed since the beginning, and also what hadn’t. They recognized the managers for the progress and took responsibility for what hadn’t progressed, including the lack of communication and update along the way. They also, committed to specific areas to tackle next in order to accelerate the change.

Not only did the CEO and senior leaders take responsibility, but they did it in a genuinely open, vulnerable and courageous way. This touched the managers and enabled them to get beyond the past, quickly and regain their faith, commitment, and ownership in the future of the change.

From the several lessons I took from this powerful, inspiring and transformational event, I want to highlight two:

First, it was another reminder of just how powerful and magical open, honest and courageous communication and dialogue can be.

Second, that no matter how challenging or frustrating things may be, when leaders take responsibility for what they said and committed to, what they have done and what they hadn’t, in a genuine and courageous way, this transforms almost any level of skepticism and doubt below them.

In fact, if I had to capture the blueprint of the conversation that makes the difference it would look like this:

  1. Acknowledge what you committed to in the first place, including what people may have expected out of what you said.
  2. Share what you have done, achieved and accomplished and where there have been small, medium or large progress.
  3. Acknowledge what you have not done, and do it without excuses, justifications or stories.
  4. Commit to what you will do moving forward in order to continue to drive the commitments you promised in the first place.
  5. Invite you managers or team members to join you and co-own the game moving forward – But, DO NOT start the process with step 5, because without taking responsibility first for past successes and failures you don’t have a high chance to succeed.
  6. Keep your commitments. Learn from the past, correct errors and improve your process.

People will forgive you once or twice. In fact, they will trust you even more if you demonstrate learning from history, especially your mistakes and failures. However, if you don’t, you will lose the trust and your credibility and it will be extremely difficult to recover from that.

Are your people your most valuable assets?

There are many philosophies and approaches associated with enhancing corporate culture. At a high level I would put them into two categories:

One school of thought represents the view that in order to create a strong culture and get everyone to row in the same direction you need to create clear metrics and KPIs (key performance indicators) in all key areas and then manage and control these with rigor, discipline, efficiency and a firm hand. As a result, people will fall in line.

Another school of thought says that in order to build a culture in which ‘the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts’ you have to ensure that everyone’s heart and mind is in the game. This means that people are motivated, they own the strategy and objectives, they feel empowered to take initiative and do what is needed to get the job done.

People often refer to the first approach as the “hard” approach and the second as the “soft” approach. Leaders tend to fit into one of the two camps, even though as is often in life, the best approach is probably a hybrid of the two.

But, no matter which approach you take, it is paramount to remember – your people are the most important part of your culture and success.

Many of the organizations I work with are highly technologically based. Many of them use the newest web-based, social media-type and digital tools to measure, track and assess the shape of their culture. Unfortunately, at times I see teams get so enamored with the tools that they lose track of what’s most important.

No matter how tech-savvy your organization is; no matter how many cool technology-based tools you come up with and use – your ability to create a strong culture and achieve your business objectives will always depend on your people. There are no shortcuts in this.

I don’t care how large your organization is, how dispersed or diverse it is. You cannot create a strong culture primarily based on technological tools, no matter how sophisticated and advanced they may be.

I am not against technology or technology-based tools, in fact quite the opposite! However, somewhere and somehow down the line leaders and managers have to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with generating real human interaction, communication, trust, education, enrollment, and inspiration. This has to start at the top. There is no way around it.

I work with many global virtual teams who are dispersed all over the world, and who can’t meet in person very frequently. They have to heavily rely on technology in order to communicate, collaborate, succeed and maintain a strong identity and culture. I have witnessed impressive successes and dismal failures. The difference is that those who succeeded understood the limitations of technology when it comes to culture, hence they never neglected to always put their people first.

I find it disheartening that in some companies the most senior HR leaders either don’t seem to get this or they don’t seem to accept it. They seem to believe that they can manage their organizational culture through a digital dashboard showing high scores through online surveys and personality profile assessments. Well, that may be an effective way to present a good story to a disconnected CEO or senior team in an ivory tower. However, where the rubber meets the road, it is not how culture works or what makes people tick.

I have heard HR leaders explain this in terms of “You can’t scale through personal touch and interactions”.  But, I completely disagree. My experience is that at the end, personal touch and interaction are the only way to succeed in building a strong identity and culture.

Yes, if you have tens of thousands of people working in your company you have to create methods to distil the messages and equip your leaders and managers to manage, touch and inspire people. So, if you want to use technology, make sure it serves and enhances the human aspect, not ignores or replaces it.

Never forget: any technology or tool is only as effective as the culture within which it is being implemented. For example, if the culture is political the tools will simply enhance that, as people will do everything to present a positive front, even if that is not the case. However, if the culture is open and honest the tools will enhance this, as people will use it to express how they really feel.

There is never a substitute for good old fashion communication, building trust and motivating people. It’s what makes the world go round.

Start talking about what you are not talking about

What do you consider to be the key drivers of your group’s effectiveness?

Is it your ability to raise and address difficult issues? Is it your skill at being able to come to alignment on common goals or objectives? Perhaps it’s your ability to subordinate your personal agendas for the common good?

Whichever one it is, the prerequisite for all of these is the ability to have open, honest and straight conversations. However, it’s not what you can talk about that makes a difference at work – it’s what you can’t talk about. It’s always what you are not dealing with that’s controlling and shaping your team.

Take the following true story, as just one example, I was working with the senior managers of a global technology company that was trying to improve its performance. In an attempt to take stock of the biggest issues so that we could address them, each function presented their biggest frustrations.

The Sales managers, in a very open, direct yet productive way and atmosphere gave their Manufacturing colleagues the following feedback: “You don’t keep the production deadlines we set. Your output has many issues and flaws and you are not responsive when we need you to fix errors.”

The managers of Manufacturing said back to the Engineering managers: “You build new technology prototypes, which you design in partnership with the sales group and then sell to the customers in aggressive timelines. But you don’t seek our input about the design or consult with us about our ability to build these.”

They continued, “The customers love your vision, but when engineering hands off the design to us we struggle to deliver what you promised. In addition, our people feel demotivated as Sales views us as ‘business inhibitors’ and ‘obstacles to success’. The net result is poor customer satisfaction, loss of customers, poor product quality and lots of failures in delivery, which we are often unfairly blamed for.”

I can give you hundreds of examples of this type of disconnect between teams and functions in organizations. So, if you want things to be different in your organization, you have to develop the willingness and ability to talk about what you are not talking about.

Just a word of caution, before you ask the different functions to share their biggest frustrations and complaints about other functions make sure everyone is committed to a productive and empowering exercise where ‘learning from our mistakes’ is more important than ‘blame and who’s at fault.’

Returning to the story above – within 18 months, both profitability and customer satisfaction soared as a result of a new level of communication, alignment and partnership between Sales, Engineering and Manufacturing.

The bottom line is that you have to be honest about things that are not working company-wide. If everyone knows people are nervous about layoffs, competition or market changes, put it on the table. Discuss it.

One of the management myths is that you have to always be positive and pump people up. But the most refreshing thing is honesty — both about the good and the bad!

Are you making a difference in making your work environment healthy?

The blame game is always harmful and destructive. It undermines any team dynamic and creates a stressful work environment. When something goes wrong and people sense there is a witchhunt for fault, people react by hiding, covering their behinds, misrepresenting facts and being increasingly cautious. Nobody engages in a productive conversation to learn from the mistake. This negative dynamic only perpetuates the issues and increases the likelihood they will be repeated.

However, in an environment of ownership and commitment, people only tolerate open, honest discussions that lead to the source of problems and allow for real resolution. In this environment, no one is interested in who’s at fault, but rather in getting to the source of problems. In this environment, people are eager to volunteer their insights, observations, and energy in order to address what was missing, what needs to be corrected, and they take personal ownership for resolving the issues.

Unfortunately, most workplaces are filled with people spending more time trying to avoid blame for something that did – or might – go wrong, than in anticipating and addressing real problems.

In a healthy environment, people are also much more open to receiving feedback including constructive criticism, because the name game is “how to improve and get better,” rather than the common “gotcha” environment where they are consumed by the fear of being caught.

In an environment where everyone looks out for themselves, people tend to compete for credit and be threatened by others getting it.  Credit serves as evidence for being better than others, so the unspoken theme is

“Look how great I am!”

and the mindset is: the better you are the worst I am and vice-versa. Needless to say, in this environment, people can’t genuinely be happy with the accomplishment and success of others, therefore they are far less inclined to recognize and praise others too.

But, in a healthy team environment, where people feel they are working together towards a common aim there is no angst about credit and blame. In this environment, people are much more inclined to view others accomplishments as their own; they are far more generous in providing praise and recognition to colleagues. This produces energy, inspiration, motivation, and a desire to do whatever it takes for the team to be successful. In this environment, the concept of the whole is larger than the sum of its parts – becomes a natural reality.

Which environment are you working in?


Are you making progress every day?

I was facilitating a session with a group of managers in a global technology company. We were a few months into their change initiative and I wanted to find out how things were progressing since we started.

I asked them to take a few minutes and come up with a list of the areas where they have seen progress and improvement since we started. One of the managers threw out a cynical comment “Well, that list will be short!“.

As it turned out their list of accomplishments was actually not short at all. In fact, they had made admirable progress in many key areas. However, when we got to the list written by that same manager he again insisted that: “Nothing has progressed or improved!

I could tell that this manager had a chip on his shoulder. He was upset that certain areas that affected him and his team were not changing and improving fast enough. Unfortunately, it seemed that his frustrations were clouding his view and perspective about everything.

In my coaching work, I often come across people who seem to be stuck in the position that “nothing is changing” or “nothing has improved” even when everyone around them claims the complete opposite.

So, who is right and what is the truth?

I don’t think there is one. We often say: “I can’t believe what I am seeing!” However, I believe that in reality people actually see or don’t see what they believe.

When someone insists adamantly “nothing has improved or changed“, that says more about the person saying it, than the reality he or she are talking about.

I have a good friend who every time I ask her how she is doing she answers with some variation on: “Same shit different day!” That is ‘an attitude’, not ‘an objective summation of the truth’.

It takes a certain openness, positive outlook and talent to be able to see (and find) progress and accomplishment in any circumstance. It is an acquired skill, not something you have or don’t have. Yes, sometimes you need to squint your eyes, use a fine ruler or microscope to see the forward movement. However, if you orient yourself toward progress and accomplishment and look for it, you will always find it.

There are practical exercises you could adopt that would make you good at this. Here is one that I have been practicing for years, which has made a difference in my life:

Keep a notebook next to your bed (or somewhere handy) and at the end of each day take 15 minutes to complete the day by recording your answer to the following question:

What are the 4-8 things I made progress in, learned and/or accomplished today?

Don’t go to sleep before you have come up with at least 4 things. Some days it will be easy to fill the list. In fact, some days you will easily have more than 8 things. In other days, however, you will be scratching your head and searching your brain. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Do the practice and come up with at least 4 that have meaning to you. Do this for at least one month, in order for it to influence your perspective.

If you stay true to the exercise you will develop your ability to see and find progress and accomplishment in any circumstance. This will enhance your positive outlook, energy, and sense of accomplishment and progress. Ultimately it will empower you and make you experience yourself as much more powerful and able to achieve what you want.

So, if it is so easy to do this, why doesn’t everyone – especially those who are frequently complaining that “nothing is progressing” – grab this mindset and approach with open arms?

I’ll get into that in next week’s blog. See you then!

How to make meaningful progress when taking your game to the next level

If you want to be successful at taking your game to the next level, you have to be conscious of how you think and what comes out of your mouth.

I was leading a meeting recently with a telecom management team that had taken on a bold commitment to take their team’s leadership and performance to a higher level.  This was a good team that had been performing well. However, the changes in their markets, customers, and technologies were requiring them to think, innovate, and perform at a different level.

They were about three months into their transformation process and, in this meeting, we were reviewing their progress.

One by one, the leaders shared their views. One of the leaders summarized: “We are making progress, but not enough!” Everyone nodded their heads in agreement. People added: “We need to bring more energy, courage, innovation, collaboration, and change to the game.”

I asked them “Why are you not making enough progress?” “Why are you not bringing the level of energy, courage, innovation, collaboration, and change that you know you need?

Their responses were things to the tune of: “It’s because of the holidays,” “It’s because of the year end,” “It’s because of the wider changes that are taking place in our company,” “We are doing quite well, so there’s not a lot of opportunities for big improvements,” and “It just takes time to make progress.”

So many teams and people, when taking on new levels of game, fall into the same traps of blaming their circumstances for their lack of progress and talking about their transformation in ways that undermine what they are trying to achieve.

If you want to avoid these pitfalls and make significant progress in taking your game to the next level, follow these principles:

  1. Take 100% ownership for your progress or lack thereof. Give up blaming your circumstances for not making enough progress or for not bringing enough energy, courage, innovation and/or collaboration to the game. Always relate to what you have or don’t have as your own doing.
  2. Promise clear results that require you to rise to the occasion. People bring high energy, courage and innovation to the game when they have promised specific results that are important to them, that require high energy, courage, and innovation. For example: one of the leaders stated that the people are not yet seeing any change in this leadership team. So, the team took on a promise that by our next meeting, three months later, their employees would notice a new level of energy, courage, innovation, and collaboration coming from the team. By promising this new state, the leaders now had an obligation to step up their leadership and performance in order to deliver.
  3. Focus on the areas of gap and opportunity, not how great you are. One of the biggest impediments to transformation is when people feel threatened or invalidated by acknowledging deficits and gaps. When discussing progress, I often hear people say things like: “We were already good at this.” If you are already good at something you will not be compelled to improve it. Even the greatest teams and people can find “next level” gaps, deficits and opportunities for improvement. Focusing on these does not invalidate your greatness.
  4. Avoid using phrases like: “We should do X” or “We have to do more of Y.” People simply don’t do what they “should” or “have to.” Either promise that you “Will do X” or don’t expect to see progress in the area you are talking about.
  5. Go out of your way to prove the validity of your commitment. When teams are driving significant change, team members often remain skeptical throughout the process. They adopt the “let’s see if this works” point of view. This mindset is understandable, but not powerful. If you want to be most effective, be clear about the future state you want, be all-in and trust your journey, no matter what ups-and-downs you encounter along the way. Don’t check if it works. Prove that it works.
  6. Collect as much evidence for progress as you can. Transforming a team to the next level is never about perfection. The focus should be driving as much progress as possible. In the realm of progress, everything counts – big, medium and small wins. And, being public about them is key. So identify, acknowledge and celebrate all of them. The more you identify areas of progress, the more it gives you appetite to find more. So, make it your priority to collect as many areas of progress as possible.

At the end of the meeting, the leaders took on a new perspective. They stopped accepting the reality: “We are making progress BUT not enough” and took on a commitment to cause a new genuine state: “We are excited about the progress we are making.”

This seems a simple shift, but it is very powerful. It is also a future worthy of proving right!

Photo by: Richard Potts

Don’t accept cynicism and resignation

Early June 2014 I published an article in the online Careers in Government publication called It takes courage to say NO to cynicism and resignation. I also posted a blog about the same topic on April 10th, 2014.

As you can tell, I feel passionate about this topic. I believe we were all born with the innate ability and right to express ourselves, live a life of meaning, and be fulfilled and happy. Unfortunately, so many people don’t live and behave this way, especially in organizations.

I was facilitating a session with 150 managers of a highly unionized division of a well-known technology company.  During the introductions a veteran supervisor stood up and introduced himself in the following way: “My name is Bill. I don’t remember how long I have been here, but I have 64 months to go” and he sat down. The room went silence but you could hear the cynical giggles spreading throughout the crowd.

With more than 30 years under his belt, Bill was clearly uninspired, cynical and resigned. I could imagine him coming to work every day opening his locker and marking off another day on his hanging calendar. I would describe his mindset as equivalent to a “prisoner doing time.”

I wish I could tell you that Bill is the exception. So many people seem to feel powerless and unable to make a difference in their job on a daily basis. I often ask people at all levels of organizations this question: “Do you feel you can make a significant difference in shaping the things that are most important to you; things like the priorities of the organization, the collaboration of teams around you and the overall morale and excitement of their teams?”

People have great insights and ideas about how to improve things and how to make their work environment more productive and enjoyable. But they often don’t feel they can apply these ideas and make the difference they truly want to make.

When people stop believing that things can change they tend to get discouraged and disengaged. They stop pursuing certain opportunities and challenges. A very small minority of people physically resigns and leaves. But, most don’t. A few people make feeble attempts to change things only to find themselves thwarted, hence falling back into line.

But, most people simply continue about their jobs with minimal enthusiasm, ownership and drive. They are physically there but often mentally checked out. They come to meetings but don’t speak up, volunteer their ideas or take risks. They comply and survive but don’t lead, express themselves or thrive.

I am not trying to portray an overly harsh and gloomy picture of reality. This is the norm in most organizations, even the most successful ones. I see it everywhere.

The good news is that we NEVER have to settle for this predicament. We can ALWAYS make the choice to take a bold stand and not accept or adopt the cynicism, resignation and negativism that surround us. We can fully express ourselves and communicate authentically and effectively at all times.

It does take courage to say NO to negativism, cynicism and resignation – at work and in life – to ALWAYS stand for optimism, possibilities and your ability to make a difference. But, that space is fully available for us.

Here are a few tips on how to stay positive and empowered:

  • Be courageous. If you want to be a leader and say NO to cynicism you need to be courageous and take a stand. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather embracing your fears and acting in a way that is true to your values and commitments, even if people around you are in a different space.
  • Don’t engage in negative conversations. Don’t entertain, engage in or initiate negative or cynical conversations around you. These are toxic and cancerous to the organization but more important – to you personally. If you want to make a difference address issues and complaints directly with the appropriate people. If you don’t intend to address certain issues don’t contribute to the background noise about them.
  • Associate only with positive, like-minded people. When you associate with cynical people it will pull you down. If you associate with like-minded positive people it will pull you up and keep you in good shape to contribute and make a difference.
  • Live up to your stand. Look for little things to do every day that express your commitment and forward your stand to make a difference. There is a great quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that I love: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Follow her advice and you’ll become better and better at it.