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The Psychology Behind Unethical Behavior

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On a warm evening after a strategy off-site, a team of executives arrives at a well-known local restaurant. The group is looking forward to having dinner together, but the CEO is not happy about the table and demands a change. “This isn’t the one that my assistant usually reserves for me,” he says. A young waiter quickly finds the manager who explains that there are no other tables available.

The group tries to move on but is once again interrupted by the CEO. “Am I the only one annoyed by the view? Why is there construction happening today?” he demands to know. The waiter tries to explain, but to no avail. “You really need to up your game here,” the CEO replies. The air is thick with tension. After the waiter walks away, someone makes a joke about the man’s competence. This seems to please the CEO, who responds with his own derogatory quip. The group laughs.

If you were present at that dinner would you let the CEO know that you disapprove of his language and behavior? Would you try to better a better example? Or stay silent?

This scene encapsulates three psychological dynamics that lead to crossing ethical lines. First, there’s omnipotence: when someone feels so aggrandized and entitled that they believe the rules of decent behavior don’t apply to them. Second, we have cultural numbness: when others play along and gradually begin to accept and embody deviant norms. Finally, we see justified neglect: when people don’t speak up about ethical breaches because they are thinking of more immediate rewards such as staying on a good footing with the powerful.

The same dynamics come into play when much bigger lines get crossed in the corporate arena: allegations of corruption at Nissansexual harassment charges in the media sector, privacy breaches at Facebookmoney laundering in the financial sector, and pharmaceuticals’ role in the opioid crisis.

While it is hard, if not impossible, to find evidence that leaders in general have become less ethical over the years, some are sounding the alarm. Warren Buffett, explaining Berkshire Hathaway’s practices in the annual letter shareholders, notes that he and vice chairman Charlie Munger

“…have seen all sorts of bad corporate behavior, both accounting and operational, induced by the desire of management to meet Wall Street expectations. What starts as an ‘innocent’ fudge in order to not disappoint ‘the Street’ — say, trade-loading at quarter-end, turning a blind eye to rising insurance losses, or drawing down a ‘cookie-jar’ reserve — can become the first step toward full-fledged fraud.”

Buffett’s note is important because it’s really about the majority of us:  neither saints nor criminals but well-meaning leaders who sometimes fail to consult their moral compass while speeding ahead in a landscape full of tripwires and pitfalls. For that majority, moral leadership is not simply a question of acting in good or bad faith. It is about navigating the vast space in between.

So how do you know when you, or your team, is on the road to an ethical lapse?  Here’s more on how to identify omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect in yourself and on your team, and a few tips on fighting each dynamic: 

Omnipotence. Many moral lapses can be traced back to this feeling that you are invincible, untouchable, and hyper-capable, which can energize and create a sense of elation. To the omnipotent leader, rules and norms are meant for everyone but them. Crossing a line feels less like a transgression and more like what they are owed. They feel they have the right to skip or redraw the lines. In the dinner party example above, it is no coincidence that the CEO’s entitled and condescending behavior comes after a day of strategizing and masterminding the next big moves.

Omnipotence is not all bad. Sometimes the rush you get from bold action is what’s required to make breakthroughs or real progress. But, the higher you climb on the ladder, the more it can become a liability. This is especially true if fewer and fewer of the people around you are willing and able to keep you grounded. If no one tells you “no,” you have a problem. One way to gauge whether you’ve reached “peak omnipotence” is if your decisions are met only with applause, deference, and silence.

The psychological counterweight to omnipotence is owning your flaws. It’s a mature capability to look in the mirror and recognize that you are not above it all. Especially if you’re in a leadership position, assume you have weaknesses and think about them regularly.

 

Sometimes, you’ll need help with this. The best performing executives I see have close colleagues, friends, coaches, or mentors who dare to tell them the truth about their performance and judgment. You should cultivate a similar group of trusted peers who will tell you the truth even when it is unpleasant. In addition, make sure to encourage an “obligation to dissent” among your core team.

Cultural numbness. No matter how principled you are, you must recognize that, over time, the bearings of your moral compass will shift toward the culture of your organization or team.

From my work with police and military units infiltrating criminal groups, I have seen examples of how cultural numbness makes leaders cross lines. It usually starts subtly. Officers need to get to know and infiltrate a new culture. They need to fit in by speaking the language, acting according to code, and dressing to fit in. But, in doing that, they risk going too far — mimicking the culture of the gang members they are out to stop and getting caught up in a group’s values system.

The same kind of “moral capture” takes place in companies, not overnight, but gradually. Psychologically, you’re making a trade-off between fitting into the culture and staying true to what you value.

At first, cultural numbness can take the shape of ironic distance or disillusioned resignation when there is a discrepancy between the two, or between the ideals your company espouses and what you see demonstrated and rewarded. But the mind needs resolution. So, over time, you stop noticing when offensive language becomes the norm or you start to behave in ways that you would never have expected to be part of your repertoire.

Cultural numbness is where I have seen the most severe breakdowns in ethical leadership because it’s so hard to detect. Leaders who have crossed a line never describe this as a clear choice on that path but as wandering down a muddy road, where there they lost track of what was right and wrong. They describe a process where they became numb to others’ language and behavior and then to their own and lost their sense of objectivity. In essence, their warning bells simply stopped ringing.

So, start looking out for signs of moral capture:  those brief moments when you don’t recognize yourself and any other indications that you are subjecting your own personal agency to the deviant norms of the collective. Another regular gut-check you can use involves asking whether you would be comfortable telling a journalist or a judge about what’s going on.

At the same time, you can’t always trust yourself in these situations. As with omnipotence, it can help to get an outsider’s perspective, turning to a trusted friend or family member, who might be able to detect changes in you that you are not able to see. Also remember to regularly extract yourself from your organization to compare and contrast its culture with others and remind yourself that the rest of the world may not work the same way.

Justified neglect. The human mind is skilled at justifying minor incursions when there is a tangible reward at stake — and when the risk of getting caught is low.

On the production line of a pharmaceutical company, for example, a hurried lab assistant forgets to remove all of her makeup. A speck of mascara accidentally drops into a batch of medicine large enough to serve a mid-sized country for a year. For a brief moment, the miniscule impurity draws a thin, yellowish color trail, but then it is gone, impossible to detect. The medicine is life-saving and very valuable, with just a hint of makeup that’s probably harmless.

Would you report the incident? If you were a manager who was quietly asked what to do, would you destroy the batch?  Would you change your mind knowing that patients might suffer or even die from a serious production delay? Would your ballooning production budget and the tenuous financial situation of your company factor into your decision? Would you push the problem up to your superiors knowing that those with a greater stake in the outcome might turn a blind eye to the incident?

Many leaders have faced a choice between getting the reward or doing the right thing. The slippery slope starts right when you begin to rationalize actions and tell yourself and others, “This is an exceptional situation,” or “We have to bend the rules a little to get things done here,” or “We are here to make money, not to do charity.”

These initial slips cascade into more, which turn into habits you know are bad but which start to feel excusable and even acceptable, given the circumstances, and eventually, become part of your moral fabric. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when an important line is crossed, but it’s much easier to course-correct at the very start of the slippery slope than when you are gliding full speed away from what is right.

 

Remember that power corrodes more than it corrupts, often as a result of clever justifications of ethical neglect. You can combat this psychological dynamic by creating formal and social contracts that obligate both you and your colleagues to do right; rewarding ethical behavior; and defining and sharing your boundaries. The latter could be as simple as making a list of things you will not do for profit or pleasure, keeping it in a convenient place to read regularly, and occasionally showing it to your team as a reminder.

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The reality is that, for many leaders, there is no true straight-and-narrow path to follow. You beat the path as you go. Therefore, ethical leadership relies a lot on your personal judgment. Because of this, the moral or ethical dilemmas you experience may feel solitary or taboo — struggles you don’t want to let your peers know about. It can sometimes feel shameful to admit that you feel torn or unsure about how to proceed. But you have to recognize that this is part of work life and should be addressed in a direct and open way.

Even though most companies have some cultural and structural checks and balances, including values statements, CSR guidelines, and even whistleblower functions, leaders must also be mindful of the psychological conditions that push people — including themselves — to cross ethical lines. Understanding the dangers of omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect are like installing the first few warning signs on the long road of your career. You will inevitably hit some bumps, but the more prepared you are to handle them, the likelier you are to keep your integrity intact.


Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg works as an executive advisor to senior-level leaders and teams. She has practiced clinical psychology and has worked extensively with the financial sector. She is the author of Battle Mind: Performing Under Pressure and holds a Ph.D. in Business Economics and an M.A. in Organizational Psychology.

How to Stop Obsessing Over Your Mistakes

Do you ever find yourself endlessly mentally replaying situations in which you wish you’d performed differently? You wish you hadn’t said that dumb thing. You wish you’d volunteered for that project that’s now winning accolades. You wish you’d spoken up. You wish you hadn’t dropped the ball with that potential client.

Overthinking in this way is called rumination. While we worry about what might occur in the future, we ruminate about events that have already happened. A ruminative reaction to an event often triggers memories of similar situations from the past and an unproductive focus on the gap between the real and ideal self. Prompted by this one event, you begin to chastise yourself for not being more of something…organized, ambitious, smart, disciplined, or charismatic.

Rumination isn’t just unpleasant. It’s closely linked to poor problem-solving, anxiety, and depression. The good news is that there are effective solutions for breaking yourself out of this rut, and they’re simpler than you might think.

Identify your most common triggers. You can’t quell rumination without noticing that you’re doing it, but people aren’t always able to spot it in themselves. A great way to get better at this is to think about what has triggered you in the past. Your list might look something like:

  • Collaborating with people I don’t yet trust
  • Being around people who seem smarter or more ambitious
  • Taking a step up in my career
  • Making major money decisions

Notice if the dominant pattern of your rumination is blaming yourself or blaming others. Most heavy ruminators lean towards one or the other of these.

Get psychological distance. Next, you need to put some psychological distance between you and the things you ruminate about. For instance, you might feel concerned about how you’re perceived by people who have no impact on your success, get hung up about very small amounts of money, or see yourself as an underachiever despite the fact that objectively you’re doing very well. One way to start to get this distance is by labeling what’s running through your head as thoughts and feelings, a tactic described in this article on emotional agility. So instead of saying “I’m inadequate,” you might say, “I’m feeling like I’m inadequate.” You can even be more light-hearted about it: “Oh, that’s just my ruminating mind overheating again.”

Recognizing the absurdity in some of your reactions can also help you take them less seriously. Look for any subtle entitlement or self-absorption hidden in your ruminations. Do you expect things to always go your way? Do you tend to believe people are scrutinizing you when, in reality, they’re probably thinking about themselves? Do you spend time comparing yourself to business superstars or celebrities? Entitlement and personalizing can indicate that you tend to think the world revolves around you. If applicable, try to see the irony in being both narcissistic and insecure, rather than viewing it as an indictment on your character. You can even try imagining an ultra-neurotic TV character version of yourself. Not every rumination topic is appropriate for this strategy but catch any that are.

Distinguish between ruminating and problem solving. Occasionally you might have a useful insight while ruminating, but mostly it’s avoidance coping. Generally, the more people ruminate, the less effective they are at problem solving. Either they don’t think of solutions or don’t pursue them quickly or effectively. For instance, one study showed that women who were heavy ruminators took over a month longer to seek medical care after finding a breast lump. To shift from rumination to improvement mode, ask yourself, “What’s the best choice right now, given the reality of the situation?” Start by taking one step, even if it’s not the most perfect or comprehensive thing you could do. This strategy is particularly relevant for perfectionists. If you’re ruminating about a mistake you’ve made, adopt a strategy that will lessen the likelihood of it happening again.

Train your brain to become non-stick. As soon as you notice you’re ruminating, try to distract yourself for a few minutes. Engage in an activity that’s short and mentally absorbing but not extraordinarily difficult, like spending 10 minutes filling out an expense report. The activity you pick should be one that requires you to concentrate. In some situations, you might be able to just refocus your attention on what you’re supposed to be doing. You might think: “How could something so simple help with my complex, emotional problem?” But this technique can be surprisingly effective.

Physical activity, such as jogging or walking, can also calm a mind that’s prone to rumination. Meditation or yoga can be especially helpful for protecting yourself from sticky thoughts and learning not to over-engage with them. These practices ask you to notice when your mind has wandered off to the past or future and bring it back to what’s happening in the present (often your breathing or other sensations in your body or surroundings.)  This is exactly the skill you need for coping with moments of rumination.

Check your thinking for errors. Sometimes rumination is triggered by cognitive errors. The catch-22 is that you’re not likely to be very good at detecting distorted thinking when you’re ruminating, since it clouds thinking. The solution is to develop a good understanding of your typical thinking errors, over time, in calm moments so that you’re still able to recognize them when you’re feeling heightened emotions. Here’s a personal example: I’ll often read a work-related email and zone in on one or two sentences that irritate or upset me and then misinterpret the overall tone of the message as demanding or dismissive. But, because I’m aware of this pattern, I’ve learned to not ruminate over my initial impressions. Instead, I read the email again after a day’s cool down, and usually see that I had a biased impression of it.

Other common cognitive errors include setting too-high self-expectations, misinterpreting others’ expectations of you, underestimating the extent to which other smart people struggle with what’s troubling you, and making mountains out of molehills. If you’re ruminating about someone else’s behavior and attributing a cause to that behavior, at least entertain the idea that your explanation is wrong and try to accept that you might never know the truth. Recognizing that we often won’t understand the reasons for someone else’s behavior is a hugely important skill in reducing rumination.

Rumination is a widespread problem. Before you can break out of it, you need to become more aware of when you’re doing it and have resistance strategies ready to go. This takes time and effort. But it’s important — for your mental health and productivity — to try to nip it in the bud. So, before you go deep into your next “would have, should have, could have” spiral, give one or more of these ideas a go.


Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer and is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.


How to Get Through an Extremely Busy Time at Work

You’re an accountant deep in tax season, a junior doctor in residency, or an entrepreneur juggling a startup and an actual baby. Many of us go through seasons of life when we have very little personal time. Others may be committed to jobs that regularly involve intense and long hours, creating a long-term lack of rest.

While this kind of overwork is not ideal, there are undoubtedly situations in which it becomes a necessity or makes personal sense. I’ve certainly done it for periods of my life, for instance, in the lead-up to exams or to put final polishes on my books. At times like this, when having full weekend off seems like a distant dream, advice on the importance of maintaining work-life balance, reducing the stress, and getting enough sleep can feel like a slap in the face. You don’t need to be scolded to work less. You need practical tips for surviving and thriving when you have to be fully committed. Here are some strategies that can help:

Use Premack’s principle.
Premack’s principle (as it applies here) is to use an easier behavior as a reward for a harder behavior. For instance, you can reward yourself for finishing a cognitively demanding task (like writing a complex report) by completing a low-key but necessary task, like running an errand that helps you stay organized. This approach can help you pace yourself during your work day, ensuring that you get regular breaks during which your mind can shift into a more relaxed gear, while still being productive. Think of it like recovering from bursts of running by walking instead of stopping.

Compartmentalize.
Tasks you actually enjoy can become tense, unpleasant experiences if, while you’re doing them, you’re mentally elsewhere, feeling stressed and anxious about the other hundred things on your list. What’s quite pleasurable or satisfying for you, even though it’s time-consuming? Perhaps it’s nutting out how best to present an intricate data visualization. Maybe it’s rehearsing speeches in front of friends or family.

You and Your Team Series

Stress

If you know the task is important and you’re approaching it efficiently, allow yourself to enjoy it. For recurrent hard assignments, think about the parts of it you like best at the beginning, middle, and end stages. For instance, I like listening to my Mac auto-read aloud drafts of my blog posts when doing my final edits. It’s satisfying to find those last few instances where I’ve repeated a word, made a typo, or the melody of a sentence is wrong. I also like the beginning stages of projects in which I get to top up my brain with broad searches on Google Scholar, and the middle stages when I’m wrestling with parts of what I’m writing that aren’t working but when my overall structure is in place and sound. By articulating distinct, enjoyable aspects of tasks, you can be more mindful and savor them.

Save small scraps of time for mental rest.
When you’re very busy, it’s tempting to try to cram productive activity, like responding to email or thinking through decisions, into any small crack of time. This could be when you’re standing in line at the supermarket, waiting for a presentation to start, or in the five minutes between finishing one thing and joining a meeting. When you’re slammed, it can seem essential to work during these moments. However, you don’t have to. Instead, consider using brief waiting times for true mental breaks. Take some slow breaths, drop your shoulders, and just chill.

You don’t need to take an all-or-nothing approach to this tip, of course. If using small scraps of time to keep work moving sometimes suits you, keep doing it Monday to Friday, but, on the weekend, consider giving yourself those little breaks. Find the balance that works for you.

Add physical decompression rituals to your day.
When we’re overloaded, we can hold a lot of physical tension. This is partly due to our in-built fight/flight/freeze response to fear or stress. For instance, the evolutionary basis of balled fists is your cave-person self preparing to run or punch. Some people breathe faster when they’re stressed. Some adopt an aggressive, dominant tone of voice or body language. Since these reactions are often unconscious, you’ll need prompts to correct them.

Try using context triggers — deciding which moments in the day you’ll use to physically decompress. For instance, maybe you can take some slow breaths whenever you go to the bathroom, or just after you wake up or just before you get into bed.  You can also use emotions as triggers, like “When I notice I feel stressed, I’ll scan my body for tension and soften and release any spots I find.” If you’re not sure how to do this, just try opening and closing your fists a few times, clenching and unclenching your jaw, or scrunching and dropping your shoulders. Our thoughts, emotions, and bodily reactions are a feedback loop. When you mimic the physiology of someone who is relaxed, you’ll find that your thinking becomes less closed, and psychologically challenging activities in which you need to think openly, like taking in feedback, will seem easier.

Pair pleasure experiences with other activities.
In my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I wrote about how people often put off pleasure, especially when they feel too busy or undeserving because they haven’t gotten enough done. You can buffer yourself against the stress of feeling rushed and overloaded if you recurrently pair simple sources of pleasure with particular activities you’re not as excited to do. For instance, I pack peanut butter sandwiches whenever I fly, which is about the only time I ever eat them, and now the two experiences are mentally linked. No matter how stressed I am about my trip or all the work I need to do before, during and after it, I feel just a little bit more relaxed because I’ve packed that treat for myself. Or, if you love podcasts, perhaps you have a routine of listening to specific shows on your commute home each day of the week. If what you love isn’t as simple as sandwiches or podcasts, set aside just a bit of consistent time to indulge in your interest, so you’ve removed decision-making as a barrier. For instance, if cooking is your passion, perhaps you whip up a big batch of something on Sundays that you can then take as lunch for the week.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that you can life-hack your way through being a permanent workaholic. But, during those times when, on balance, overworking makes short- or long-term sense (or is a necessity), you need some harm minimization strategies. It’s important to pace yourself and not let your obligations consume you.


Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer and is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.


 

If Your Company Is Going Through a Public Scandal, Should You Leave?

Having your employer get caught in a public scandal is an agonizing professional experience. Even if your company comes out okay financially, it’s likely to have a tarnished reputation. How do you evaluate whether to stay or go? Where should you draw the line on what you’re willing to be a part of? Does staying constitute an endorsement of the company’s bad behavior when you did nothing wrong? And how should you weigh the company’s diminished standing against your future career prospects?

What the Experts Say
When your company makes headlines for all the wrong reasons, you’re put in an “extremely difficult position,” says Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist and the author of Entrepreneurial You. “All of a sudden, the place you associate with your work, your colleagues, and your projects is overridden in the public imagination,” she says. It becomes a caricature. Your career becomes a gossipy punchline, and that is a very painful feeling for someone who is a serious professional.” It’s natural — and perfectly reasonable — to wonder if you should start looking for a new job. And yet, it’s rarely “super clear cut whether to stay or go,” says Amy Edmondson, a  professor at Harvard Business School. “It’s a personal choice and a judgment call.” As you contemplate whether to remain or look for other opportunities, there are measures you can take to safeguard your reputation and your sanity. Here are some things to consider.

Don’t self-flagellate
First things first: Don’t beat yourself up. Working for a company that’s caught up in an ugly public scandal is stressful, exhausting, and shame-inducing. “You feel besieged,” says Clark. And you often feel guilty by association. Indeed, studies show that the impact of a scandal on employees is far more significant than anyone would have ever thought. Researchers call this the “moral spillover effect.” But unless you were, in fact, writing emissions cheating software for VW or creating fake accounts at Wells Fargo or staying silent when you knew about harassment at Fox News, “you didn’t do anything wrong,” says Edmondson. “You were just there. Don’t be too hard on yourself.” (If you are at fault that is another story.) Pay special attention to your emotional needs during this time; being stigmatized can have serious consequences on your psychological health.

Understand the context
Next, understand whether the negative publicity your company is getting “is a problem you can move past or a body blow that will last for years,” says Clark. Your objective is to grasp the “extent of the scandal.” While it’s impossible to have “perfect clarity,” it’s important to have perspective. “Unless staying somehow condones the scandalous behavior, you shouldn’t feel the need to rush out the door,” she adds. A lot depends on the specifics of the scandal and where you sit within the organization. For instance, let’s say the problem was due to “the isolated behavior of one guy at the top,” and he’s been punished. When actions have been taken to correct misdeeds, it’s logical to assume that the scandal will soon die down, and, therefore, it’s not “necessary or useful for you to leave” right away, if at all. “If you’re going to leave, it should be for reasons relevant today, not for reasons that would’ve been relevant had you had knowledge of them three years ago.” Look forward, not backward. “Many companies have weathered small scandals.”

Take a stand (if necessary)
There’s often no need to leave quickly, but occasionally the situation warrants it. “There could be some scandals that are too inconsistent with your values or are too massive in scale that you feel the need to get out,” says Edmondson. If, for instance, your company’s continuing actions (or inactions) violate your moral and professional code, then you might consider taking a stand, says Clark. Say, for instance, details emerge that your company’s CEO is a serial sexual harasser and, for whatever reason, the board does not remove him. “If you’re a member of the leadership team, then you vote with your feet,” says Clark. Similarly, if your company’s scandal involves a “continuing drip of revelations” where it becomes apparent that the “problem was widespread” and many were complicit, it probably makes sense to start looking elsewhere.

Consider your future
You should also reflect on whether staying at your current company is the right thing for your job satisfaction and career prospects. If the bad press is resulting in an exodus of clients, hurting morale, or necessitating a wave of layoffs that includes colleagues who “are critical to your job happiness,” you need to weigh those things, says Clark. It’s also imperative to consider whether you’ll be able to continue to develop at your organization. Ask yourself: “Is this company so hobbled that my ability to grow and advance is limited?” On the other hand, says Edmondson, the scandal could cause you to think about why you’re there and what you can do to chart a path forward and help turn things around.” A little “soul-searching” is in order, she adds. “If you care about the organization and its potentially positive impact on the world, you can use this as an opportunity to reconnect and recommit yourself to improving it. Think: What can I do to bring my team closer? How can we come together to cope with and manage this challenge? How do we support each other?”

Lay off the networking
Clark is “a big believer in networking” but even she sets limits. When your company is entangled in a public scandal, “it might be a time when you do a little less,” she says. Otherwise, even light chitchat will center on your employer and its blemished reputation. “It’s a conversation piece — it’s like talking about the weather,” she says. “‘Oh, so you work for Wells Fargo? So, how about those fraudulent accounts?’” She recommends taking a temporary hiatus from the networking circuit for a few months. “Maybe during that three-month period, you join Toastmasters and work on your public speaking or you take a course,” she says. “Dial down meeting lots of people until your company is out of the headlines.”

Prepare for the challenges of searching
Contemplating a job search is intimidating in the best of times; when your company is enmeshed in a scandal, it’s downright daunting. “Although many employers would be understanding of why you want to leave, it’s not the easiest time to go out and look for new job,” says Edmondson. That alone is “a pragmatic reason to recommit” to your current company. Recognize that “until the scandal dies down in the public imagination, it’s going to be the thing that hiring managers will want to talk you about,” says Clark. You also need to understand that the “recruiter might view you in the short term at least as damaged goods. You have a brand albatross attached to your back.” If you are leaning toward leaving, you must be ready for the kinds of questions you’ll face. “You’re going to have to tell a story about the scandal and what kind of a culture could have allowed it to happen.” So practice telling that story in as neutral a way as possible.

Own your decision
Whether you stay at your job or resign, you mustn’t feel guilty or embarrassed. “Don’t feel ashamed of your role there if you have been doing good, ethical work,” says Clark. Since your professional and social circles will no doubt be interested in what you decide, she suggests preparing your own “scandal-related elevator pitch” in which you “acknowledge the scandal while simultaneously standing up for your team and your work.” First, she says, “express revulsion” for what happened. “Condemn the behavior that any reasonable person would condemn,” she says. Next, share your personal experience. “Say, ‘I worked there for 12 years and thankfully I never experienced” or saw any [fill in the corporate misdeed]. We ran a great department where the best ideas were allowed to come forward.’” Edmondson concurs. She recommends talking about the experience as “a learning opportunity.” Of course there’s always the option of a polite no comment. “Say, ‘I hope you will understand that it’s exhausting for me to talk about this. I am delighted to talk about something else.’”

Principles to Remember:

Do

  • Attend to your emotional needs. Being stigmatized can have consequences on your psychological and physical health.
  • Understand the extent of the scandal and whether the negative publicity is a problem your company can weather or a crisis that will linger for years.
  • Take a temporary hiatus from the networking circuit. Instead, consider other ways to develop new skills.
 

Don’t

  • Rush out the door. The scandal could actually be an opportunity to reconnect to your company’s mission and recommit to your organization.
  • Overlook the scandal’s effect on your career prospects at the company. Reflect on whether your ability to grow and advance is impacted.
  • Feel ashamed of staying if you have been doing good, ethical work. Take pride in yourself and your team.

Case Study #1: Consider your reputation, then make a thoughtful decision
Two years ago, Colin* worked in marketing for a small software company focused on the employment industry. Part of his job included being a public face for the brand. Colin directed social media campaigns, worked closely with the press, and he contributed articles to a large number of online publications.

“I was very happy the first year-and-a-half I worked there,” he says. “I had opportunities to take on new responsibilities and roles often up for grabs in lean startups. As a result I made no effort to conceal my excitement amongst friends and family.”

But over time, his employer “devolved into territory” that Colin found unnerving. The company’s questionable business decisions and deceptive billing practices caused it to develop a negative reputation. Nearly all the major online review sites, scam reporting sites, and even the Better Business Bureau listed numerous complaints against the brand.

Colin knew he needed to understand the extent of the problem. “I inquired with our customer service department and realized the depth of the issue, which was quite unsettling,” he says.

A few months later, the company was in the news when it was sued by a competitor for both copying copyrighted text and website look and feel. “Seeing your company mentioned negatively dozens of times hits you, as does seeing your company mentioned in a court case involving copyright infringement,” he says. “For someone who tries to live his life in an honest and ethical fashion it was difficult.”

He reflected on how the quality of work life would change should he decide to leave. Colin’s colleagues were split on the scandal. “Some tried to rationalize the company’s actions,” he says. “In the end, some left but most stayed.”

In the end, Colin felt his reputation was at stake, so he decided to make a career change. Today he works for a small family-owned agency. He has no regrets about leaving but, he says, the decision to stay or leave a company that’s embroiled in a public scandal is personal and situational.

“If you believe the scandal is warrantless or misdirected, then maybe you can button down the hatches and tough it out,” he says. “However if you are honest with yourself and feel the company is acting in an inappropriate manner, then it is up to you to remove yourself from the situation.

“While companies can withstand scandals, individuals fair much worse,” he adds. “So if a company is tarnishing your personal reputation, your name, your own brand, then you need to get out.”

Case Study #2: Pay careful attention to how senior leadership reacts; prepare how you’ll talk about the scandal to others
Several years ago, Linda* worked in the corporate social responsibility division for a large apparel maker that got caught up in a scandal related to supply chain issues and sweatshop labor.

“It was incredibly disheartening to see my company’s name in the headlines day after day in such a negative light,” says Linda.

 

She thought about leaving but didn’t want to do anything rash. Yes, her company had made mistakes, but Linda knew that the situation was more complicated than what was being portrayed in the press. Context was important. “My company was involved, but so were a few other companies. And there were other contributing factors that weren’t reported publicly,” she says. “The media didn’t have the full story.”

Linda also recognized that joining a competitor wouldn’t necessarily change her professional trajectory. “These issues are endemic to the industry,” she says. “Any company that has a supply chain faces these challenges to varying degrees.”

Morale at her company was low, but Linda tried to stay focused on her job. “For me personally, I considered [the scandal] a call to action to build policies that would prevent it from happening again,” she says. “Because of my position within the company, I felt empowered to make positive changes.”

Linda was also encouraged by the fact that her company’s executive leadership team seemed determined to address the problem. “They were trying to do something about it — they weren’t just sweeping it under the rug,” she recalls.

Still, she admits that it wasn’t always easy to stay upbeat. “The hardest thing was when I would go to a cocktail party and someone would ask me, ‘How can you work for that company?’ It was draining at times to feel like I had to fight for my company’s reputation.”

To cope, Linda prepared a response. “I acknowledged what had gone wrong, but then I talked about the honest efforts that we’d made to change things. I also mentioned some of the positive things we’d done to improve,” she says.

Linda remained at the company for a few more years after the scandal. “It’s always a personal decision whether to leave, but I feel good that I stayed,” she says.

* Names and identifying details have been changed.


Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University.  Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.


 

How to Get Your To-Do List Done When You’re Always in Meetings

Each morning, you emphatically write at the top of your to-do list, “Work on presentation!” Perhaps you even underline it a time or two for emphasis. But at the end of the day, your resolve has turned to dismay: yet again, you spent most of your time in meetings. And when you had a bit of time between them, you didn’t make any progress on your presentation.

So you keep waiting for the “perfect time” to sit down and knock out the whole project in one go. But meetings keep interfering and your presentation languishes on your to-do list, weighing heavily on your mind until you can’t escape it any longer. In a flurry of activity, you work day and night to get it done. You meet the deadline, but suffer in the process and dread the next time you need to finish another large task.

This cycle of knowing what your most important priority is, but feeling like meetings keep you from doing it, can be incredibly frustrating. But as a time management coach, I’ve seen that even if this way of working has been your life-long pattern, you can develop a more sustainable and less stressful approach to projects. Here are some tips on how to get project work done even when you need to start and stop for meetings.

First off, I want to challenge the idea that there’s a “perfect” time to move ahead on projects. A meeting-free day or even half-day may be your ideal, but you may never have this type of time. Waiting for a slice of project nirvana keeps you from getting started when you can. A better approach is to accept and work within the reality that meetings happen.

Next, to understand how to work on big projects in the smaller spaces between meeting, break the larger item into smaller parts. You can use your checklist as a guide for how to make incremental progress when you have a 30-minute break between meetings. For example, to prep for a presentation, you might write out:

  • Search for boss’s email about key points she wants covered
  • Look at notes from the last meeting
  • Talk to the building project manager
  • Think through the structure of the presentation
  • Write up the deck
  • Insert charts
  • Double check citations
  • Edit for typos and flow
  • Send to boss for approval
  • Schedule meeting to review the deck internally prior to the board meeting
  • Make edits
  • Write meeting agenda
  • Distribute deck and meeting agenda prior day

Even if you can just tick off one or two of these items at a time, you are still making progress. And when you come back to work on the presentation after some time away, you’ll know what you’ve accomplished and what’s next.

Another strategy is to protect some unbroken stretches of time in your schedule by putting in project time as a recurring event. For example, some of my coaching clients will block out an hour or two each morning for focused work. Some others have two, two-hour blocks of time in the afternoons each week marked as “busy.” Inserting in project time to give you at least an hour to get things done each day, preferably more, allows you to build some momentum day-by-day and week-by-week. It’s likely people will try to schedule meetings during those times, but when you can, hold firm to those boundaries.

Guarding time for projects as a recurring event starts to open up some room between meetings. But to really get project work done, you need to have pre-decided what you will do during those open times. If you don’t, the path of least resistance will lead to doing the first thing that comes to mind — like answering email.

You can approach making decisions about how to fill the project time in a few different ways. One strategy is to schedule in the projects as you receive them. For example, when a meeting is scheduled to present the latest data on your new building project to the board, you could immediately edit some of the project blocks of time in your calendar to designate the prep you will need to do. You may have two or three project work blocks marked for working on the PowerPoint presentation and then another project work block designated for practicing in front of your colleagues prior to the meeting. I use this scheduling strategy often — putting in time for writing articles, creating schedules for clients, etc., in my calendar as soon as I’m aware of the project and the deadline.

Another way to tackle project calendar blocks is to assess your priorities on a weekly basis. You can do this on your own, though in some work environments it makes more sense to do this planning as a team. Once your priorities are decided, put them into the open blocks of time in your schedule. This will give you a realistic picture about what will actually fit, and will give you advanced clarity on what you need to accomplish to avoid yet another week of little-to-no progress. Then, when you do sit down to do project work, refer to your checklist of smaller tasks. Accomplish those first, and then use the last five or 10 minutes before your next meeting to check email.

Also, be sure to save what you’ve completed and leave yourself a note of exactly where you stopped and what’s next. You can write any updates on your task list such as “left voicemail for building project manager, follow up if haven’t heard back by Friday.” And, of course, check off or delete items when you successfully complete them.

Although you may long for the perfection of a meeting-free day, you can still get project work done when you’re interrupted by meetings. Use these strategies to start making progress on your projects now.

 

What to Do When a Work Friendship Becomes Emotionally Draining

Having a close friend at work can make you happier, more productive, and less likely to quit. But office friendships can have downsides, too. What should you do if you’ve gotten too emotionally involved? How do you make sure that your relationship doesn’t impinge on your ability to get your job done? What sort of psychological boundaries should you put up? And how do you establish them in a way that doesn’t hurt your colleague’s feelings?

What the Experts Say
Empathy is an important component of emotional intelligence and, thus, an asset in the workplace; it helps you connect with others in a meaningful way. But you don’t want to “let your emotions take over” and become so involved in a work friendship that it depletes your energy and productivity, says Susan David, author of Emotional Agility. Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the author of How to Be Happy at Work agrees. “It feels good to be needed but it can become a burden,” she says. “It goes way beyond empathy if you’re spending too much time helping someone figure out their problems or you get upset, worried, or maybe even scared about getting it right.” If you feel like you and your coworker have gotten in too deep, here’s what to do.

Watch for the signs
When you’re neglecting your work to tend to an office friend, it’s a sign that something needs to change. Other red flags include feeling like “you’re on an emotional roller coaster” or like “you’re more attached to the other person and their experiences than your own,” McKee says. To assess whether your relationship is a healthy one, ask yourself a few questions: Is the relationship bringing me closer to the growth I want in my career? Are we both putting in the same amount of effort? Do I feel comfortable expressing thoughts and feelings that differ from my friend’s? Can I see multiple sides to the problem the person is experiencing or just their own perspective? Unfortunately, says David, “there’s no clear line in the sand of what’s OK and what’s not.” But if you answer “no” to any of these questions, consider making changes.

Don’t blame the other person
If you conclude that the friendship isn’t serving you, it’s normal to get angry or annoyed. “There’s an instinct to blame the other person and think, ‘You drove me to this.’ But that’s a disempowering position to take,” says David. Instead, think about your own role in creating the unhealthy dynamic. McKee suggests reflecting on what initially drew you to the person. Was it their personality? A work challenge you faced together? A hobby you share? This will give you useful information to disentangle your current relationship and will help you avoid similar situations in the future.

Don’t cut them off entirely
In most cases, there’s no need to abruptly end the relationship. You don’t want to go “from being their best friend to refusing to having lunch with them because you’re at the end of your rope,” David says. “You might be shutting down an important connection.” McKee agrees: “People think to change an unhealthy dynamic, you need to break it. But you don’t have to. Slight shifts can actually move the relationship in the right direction without making anyone feel bad.”

Change the tone of the conversation
It’s tough to tell a friend that you want to spend less time with them. “Sometimes the relationship is healthy enough for you to be that direct, but it’s rare,” says McKee. “If they’re self-aware and capable of having a deeply reflective conversation, you can dip your toe in the water and attempt to have the conversation.” But, in most scenarios, your strategy should be to “gradually shift” the way you speak with your friend. For example, “try to pick communication channels that are leaner,” McKee says. “If you’re spending a lot of time together in person, replace those interactions with phone calls. If you’re spending more time on video or phone, replace that with a couple of emails.” You want to create some physical distance and “tone down the intensity” of your interactions,” says David. Whenever possible, “reemphasize your professional relationship” and talk about the importance of work.

Narrow the scope of your interactions
Decide where you want to draw the line. “Think about the problems your colleague shares with you and carve out one or two of them that you want to continue to help with,” says McKee.  Then “enable [the person] to take action” on the others. “Connect them with someone who can help, David says. She suggests saying something along the lines of, “I feel like we’ve been going in circles on this. You may benefit from seeing a coach.”

Hold strong
It will take time to find a new balance. Your friend might not let you go willingly. But don’t get sucked back in just because they push. If they ask you why you’re not available for lunch, McKee suggests saying something along the lines of: “I miss our conversations too. But you know what I’m up against at work. I’ve really got to focus.” Or use the opportunity to direct the person to the topic you want to discuss by saying, “Why don’t we get together and talk about X?” If they make it hard, remind yourself that the short-term unpleasantness of drawing boundaries is less costly than the long-term drain on your energy.

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Watch out for signs that you’re putting too much time or energy into your friendship and that it’s hurting your productivity or performance
  • Shift how you interact so that you’re spending less time communicating with the person
  • Offer to connect them with someone who can help them with their problems

Don’t:

 
  • Place the blame on the other person; chances are you had a role in creating the unhealthy dynamic
  • Cut them off entirely — that’s often not feasible or pleasant
  • Give in if they try to pull you back in; you need to hold strong to the boundaries you’ve set

Case Study #1: Encourage your colleague to reach out to other people
Aliyah Jones* was on a team with her colleague Carlos* for just over two years when the large accounting firm they worked for went through a merger. “As you can imagine, the whole thing was disruptive to everyone’s life,” Aliyah says.

Carlos regularly griped to her about the extra work that had been created. And Aliyah empathized with him. “I definitely got in on the complaining,” she says. But once he realized that Aliyah was a sympathetic ear, he complained to her about other issues as well. He was moving apartments and then his sister was sick. “He had a lot going on,” she says. “But it got off-kilter.”

The amount of time they spent discussing his personal life was “way too high,” Aliyah says and their “work wasn’t getting done.” She knew she had to pull back. But just as she was mustering the courage to do so, Carlos was involved in a car accident that kept him out of work for several weeks. Aliyah found herself worrying about how much help he would need from her as a result. “I already felt like he had overdrawn on his bank account of how much I was willing to listen to him, but my natural human empathy required me to be there for him,” she explains.

When another colleague pulled Aliyah aside to tell her that she was “really concerned” about how much time she was spending on the phone with Carlos and suggested she set some limits on her generosity, she knew it was time to make a change.

So she asked herself, “How do we dial it back?” The next time Carlos called, she encouraged him to reach out to a non-work friend and talk to his parents. “With his consent, I [also] spoke to his manager about him needing to take some time off,” which shifted some of the responsibility from her to the organization.

To Aliyah’s surprise, Carlos didn’t push back. “It definitely helped to have him reaching out to other people.” When he eventually returned to the office, she also set new boundaries. She stopped picking up her phone every time he called and started sending email responses to his voicemails. If he stopped by her desk, she’d tell him she was busy trying to get work done and ask him to email her.

“I realized that his oversharing was about trying to make sure I was on his side, so now I just make sure he knows I am,” she says. “It’s a much more balanced relationship now. I think of him as stronger and he knows he can trust me.”

Case Study #2: Use the direct approach if you think it’ll work
Sophia Bland, the chief information officer of ResumeGo, a small business that offers career coaching and resume writing services, managed a close friend who she had known since college. Let’s call her Carol.

“I had to juggle our professional relationship and our friendship on a regular basis,” Sophia says. Sometimes this made it hard for Sophie to be objective. “There were instances where I let things slide for her that I didn’t let slide for the other employees that I managed.” For example, on a few occasions, she covered for Carol being late to work, delaying a morning group meeting without telling the rest of the team why.

In Sophia’s view, Carol would take advantage of this “special treatment” and offer excuses for missed deadlines. “She’d tell me that she had such-and-such thing come up at home, or that she was having relationship issues with her boyfriend. I gave into the excuses at first.”

But over time, Sophia saw that Carol’s behavior was affecting her coworkers. “This was when I knew I had to put an end to the nonsense.” Still, she wasn’t sure how to handle it. “I had to find a way to convey to her that she had to get her act together, while at the same time keeping our friendship intact.”

Sophia decided to take Carol out to dinner. “This gave me the opportunity to sit her down and really talk face-to-face about the issues.” She didn’t level accusations but she was direct. “I told her I empathized with the problems she was having in her life, but [explained] that it was unfair to [expect] the other team members to show up early and work harder because she’d been dropping the ball.”

It was a civil conversation, and Carol seemed to get the message because she changed her behavior. The two women worked together for several more months before Carol found another job. “We’re still friends,” Sophia says. “Even though we no longer work together, we still see each other often and are on good terms.”


Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict. She writes and speaks about workplace dynamics. Follow her on Twitter at @amyegallo.


 

To Improve Your Team, First Work on Yourself

  • Category EQ

A colleague and I were recently meeting with a CEO and his leadership team, observing them as they discussed how to improve their annual planning process. As the team of ten explored their current process, the conversation got heated. The team had been talking for 45 minutes, but it wasn’t clear who was leading the discussion or what their objectives were. Many comments were off-topic, and they were not getting closer to answers.

We paused the meeting and posed this question: How are you reacting to this conversation and what in youis causing your reaction?

We were met with blank stares. They asked us to repeat the question, seemingly surprised that we had asked them to take responsibility for their reactions. Surely, we had meant to ask them what everyone elsewas doing wrong in the conversation, right?

Leaders and teammates often tell us that their team is “dysfunctional” (their word, not ours) and ask us to help identify and fix the issue. When we dig deeper and ask them to describe what they are observing in detail, we typically hear that certain team members are problematic and need to change their behavior. We also hear vague statements about “them” (everyone else) not knowing how to operate effectively. As experienced team development practitioners, we know that these are not accurate or helpful assessments of the situation.

Teams are complex systems of individuals with different preferences, skills, experiences, perspectives, and habits. The odds of improving that complex system in a meaningful and sustainable way are higher if every team member — including the leader — learns to master these three foundational capabilities: internal self-awareness, external self-awareness, and personal accountability.

Internal self-awareness

I once asked an executive I was coaching how he was feeling about a challenging situation. He replied, “You mean my emotions? I’m an engineer and I don’t think about emotions.” He then changed the subject.

This executive lacked internal self-awareness.

Internal self-awareness involves understanding your feelings, beliefs, and values — your inner narrative. When we don’t understand ourselves, we are more likely to succumb to the fundamental attribution error of believing that the behaviors of others are the result of negative intent or character (“he was late because he does not care”) and believing that our own behaviors are caused by circumstance (“I was late because of traffic”). Teammates with low internal self-awareness typically see their beliefs and values as “the truth,” as opposed to what is true for them based on their feelings and past experiences. They can fail to recognize that others may have equally valid perspectives.

Let’s look at another example: Manuel, a low internal self-awareness leader, and his colleague, Tara. In a product planning meeting, Tara, a big picture thinker, says, “We need to think of this plan in the context of our broader strategy.” Manuel, an execution-focused leader, has an unconscious reaction of anger and frustration. He would rather focus on the detailed plan and the execution. But rather than recognizing his different thinking style as the cause of his discomfort and the root of his belief that strategy is unimportant, he concludes privately that Tara doesn’t understand the situation, is annoying, and is not the right person for this project. He later tells another colleague she should be taken off the team.

This is a loss for everyone. Tara is misunderstood, devalued, and possibly dismissed. Manuel doesn’t broaden his perspective or learn how to operate with people who think differently than he does.

The good news is that internal self-awareness can be learned. To start, you — as a leader of the team or a teammate — can pause, reflect, and consider your responses to these questions when you find yourself in challenging or emotionally-charged scenarios.

 
  • What emotions am I experiencing?
  • What am I assuming about another person or the situation?
  • What are the facts vs. my interpretations?
  • What are my core values, and how might they be impacting my reactions?

If you take the time to consider your responses and resist the impulse to rush to an answer, you can learn a great deal about yourself. As William Deresiewicz, author of Solitude and Leadership, said in an address at West Point, “[The] first thought is never [the] best thought.”

External self-awareness

External self-awareness involves understanding how our words and actions impact others. Most of the leaders and teammates we work with have no idea how their behaviors are impacting their colleagues. As a result, it’s difficult for them to recognize and leverage the strengths that make them a productive teammate, as well as identify and correct behaviors that negatively impact the team. Without this knowledge, they can’t improve.

One way to start building external self-awareness is to observe others’ reactions during discussions. Did someone raise their voice? Stop talking? Gesture? Sit back from the table? Smile?  You can collect some valuable information this way. You should also be mindful of the fact that you will reach some inaccurate conclusions. In these situations, remember that you are interpreting why colleagues react the way they do, and those interpretations will be influenced by your personal beliefs and experiences. Paying attention to your internal self-awareness and considering how you reached your initial conclusions will help.

A more direct approach is to ask teammates for specific, straightforward feedback:

  • What am I doing in team meetings that is helpful?
  • What am I doing that is not helpful?
  • If you could change one part of how I interact with the team, what would it be?

This may feel risky and uncomfortable, but it’s the only way you can get accurate data about the impact of your words and actions.

In terms of timing, you should carefully assess whether it is additive to the discussion at hand to ask for feedback in the moment, or whether it is better to ask later. For example, in a one-on-one conversation with a trusted colleague, it’s probably OK to pause and ask. However, in a big team meeting, pausing the conversation to get personal feedback can be disruptive to what your team is trying to accomplish.

Personal accountability

When we think of accountability, we typically think of holding others accountable. But the most effective leaders and teammates are more focused on holding themselves accountable.

Like self-awareness, this sounds easy, though it rarely is. When confronted with a challenge or discomfort, many of us have established unhealthy patterns: blaming or criticizing others, defending ourselves, feigning confusion, or avoiding the issue altogether.

If a team is not working well together, it’s highly likely that every team member is contributing to the difficulty in some way, and each of them could be taking personal accountability to make the team more effective.

 

To be a personally accountable leader or teammate, you need to take these steps:

  1. Recognize when there is a problem. Sometimes this is the hardest part because we’d rather look away or talk about how busy we are instead. Resist the urge to do so.
  2. Accept that you are part of the problem. You are absolutely contributing to the situation.
  3. Take personal responsibility for solving the problem.
  4. Stick with it until the problem is completely solved.

Going back to the example of Manuel — if he were practicing personal accountability, he would have first recognized that he had some conflict with Tara that was impacting the team’s ability to create a solid plan. He would have then had the mindset to accept that he was contributing to the conflict, committed to working on a more productive relationship with Tara, and avoided the temptation to jump to conclusions and talk behind her back.

A small shift in mindset will directly impact behaviors and can have a significant positive impact on an entire team.

Taking action

In most teams, a typical response to frustration is “my teammate is annoying.” But when an effective leader or teammate becomes frustrated, she will put the above tips into practice instead:

  • Explore her reactions by considering her emotions, beliefs and values, and asking herself what in her is causing this reaction (internal self-awareness).
  • Consider the impact she may be having on others by observation or inquiry (external self-awareness).
  • Assess how she is contributing to the situation and make a conscious choice about how to react to improve the team’s outcomes (personal accountability).

Most teams we work with learn to operate more effectively by building and strengthening these three capabilities over time. Changing how we process information and respond requires not just learning these new skills, but also demonstrating them long enough to form new habits. Effective teammates believe that, sometimes, you have to go slow to go fast. They invest the time and energy needed to build these foundational skills, so they can be better at tackling the difficult business opportunities and challenges that they face.


Jennifer Porter is the Managing Partner of The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She is a graduate of Bates College and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, an experienced operations executive, and an executive and team coach.


 

How Leaders Can Open Up to Their Teams Without Oversharing

In the age of social sharing, people who work together know more and more about each other. In general, this is a good thing for peers and leaders. Research shows our brains respond positively to people when we feel a personal connection with them. We try harder, perform better, and are kinder to our colleagues. Command and control management is on its way out, and bosses who practice empathy and make an effort to connect with their subordinates are in.

This willingness in leaders to be open and honest, even if it makes them vulnerable, is important because it builds trust — people can easily sense inauthenticity. We tend to assume that leaders are marketing to us. If a leader never shows emotion, that conviction only becomes stronger. But when a leader reveals a more personal side to herself, and we sense that it is authentic, we feel a connection and are more likely to believe her words.

However, people who overdo this accomplish just the opposite and can end up completely undermining themselves. If leaders share information that suggests they are not up to the task — for example, “I’m scared, and I have no idea what to do right now” — there is a good chance their team will take on that same emotion, or worse, lose faith in their ability to lead. People in charge have to think longer and harder than the rest of us about when to be transparent because they have more eyes on them. Every time they are vulnerable (or are not vulnerable), their reports are watching and analyzing their words and actions for a deeper meaning. So, when does sharing become oversharing? We argue that the way to find a balance between the two is to be selectively vulnerable — or open up to your team while still prioritizing their boundaries, as well as your own.

This issue often presents itself when there are new initiatives or changes in an organization. We typically find leaders asking themselves how much of their own worries they should reveal when leading their team down a challenging or unfamiliar road. The best leaders are honest about how they feel while simultaneously presenting a clear path forward.

Below are some tips to help you do this:

  • Figure yourself out. The best leaders are able to hit a pause button when they become emotional. Instead of immediately acting, ask yourself, “What exactly am I feeling? Why? What is the need behind this emotion?” For example, an average manager might say she feels irritable about a project because the workload is annoying, but a great manager will take the time to reflect on this emotion. In doing so, she might realize the root cause of her irritability is anxiety about meeting a deadline.
  • Regulate your emotions. Once you identify your feelings, you need to know how to manage them. This is as important as managing your reports. What you consider a momentary bad mood can ruin someone’s day. Reactive, hot-tempered managers are hurtful, demoralizing, and the main reason people quit jobs. Research shows that employees confronted by an angry manager are less willing to work hard — especially if they don’t understand where the anger is coming from. But when managers control their words and body language during tense situations, their reports’ stress levels drop significantly. “An important part of being a leader is understanding how much weight the people around you can bear,” Laszlo Bock, founder and CEO of Humu, and former head of HR at Google, told us. “You can’t burden your employees with more than they can carry, or expect them to hold you up all the time.”
  • Address your feelings without becoming emotionally leaky. We’re often worse at hiding our feelings than we think. If you’re frustrated or upset, your employees will most likely pick up on your bad mood and might assume that they are responsible for it. “The idea that you’re never going to have a bad day as a boss is bullshit,” Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, told us. “The best thing to do is to cop to it. Say to your team, ‘I’m having a bad day, and I’m trying my best not to take it out on you. But if it seems like I’m having a bad day, I am. But it’s not because of you that I’m having a bad day. The last thing I want is for my bad day make your day worse.” You don’t have to go into more detail, but acknowledging your feelings helps you avoid creating unnecessary anxiety among your reports.
  • Provide a path forward. When you’re tackling a challenging project, practice how you’re going to share your emotions with your team, and make sure you do so with intention. Dumping your feelings onto them in a reactive or unthoughtful way leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation. Aim to be realistic but optimistic. A good formula to follow is: “Because of ______, I’m feeling _____ and _____. But here’s what I’m planning to do next to make it better: _________. And here’s what I need from you: _______. What do you need from me?” This will help you address your anxiety without projecting negative emotions onto your team. “It’s a promise to work towards a solution in spite of emotions,” says Jerry Colonna, former venture capitalist and coach, also known as the “CEO Whisperer.”
  • Avoid oversharing. A good rule of thumb for figuring out if you’re about to overshare is to ask yourself: “How would I feel if my manager said this to me?” If it’s something that you’d be thankful to hear, chances are your reports will feel similarly. If it’s something that would give you pause, err on the side of caution. Be curious about your own intentions. Are you sharing from a place of authenticity, or are you trying to fabricate a connection with others? Sometimes we overshare personal experiences just to feel close with someone else. But often, this is not useful or effective.
  • Read the room. If you think members of your team might be feeling anxious about the project, it’s okay to surface those feelings to help them feel less isolated. For example, if everyone has been working long hours to meet an impending deadline, you might say something like, “I’m feeling a little tired today, but I’m grateful for how well we’ve worked together and that we’re set to send the client a proposal we can all be proud of.” Again, always try to pair realism with optimism, and share when you sense it will be helpful to others.

Finding the right balance between sharing and oversharing is not easy. But with practice, it can be done. As a leader, it’s your job to understand the powerful role your emotions play, and to harness them in ways that will help your team succeed.


Liz Fosslien will join Humu, a company that uses nudges to drive behavior change aimed at making work better, at the end of February, where she will be responsible for content. Most recently, she designed and facilitated organizational culture workshops for executives at LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, BlackRock, and Nike. Liz’s previous writing and data visualization has been featured by The Economist, CNN, Freakonomics, and NPR. Liz and Mollie are the authors of the book, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @lizandmollie.


Mollie West Duffy is an organizational designer at global innovation firm IDEO. Mollie formerly worked as a research associate for the Dean of Harvard Business School Nitin Nohria and renowned strategy professor Michael E. Porter. She’s written for Fast Company, Quartz, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Entrepreneur, Quiet Rev and other digital outlets. Liz and Mollie are the authors of the book, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @lizandmollie.


 

How Leaders Can Get Honest, Productive Feedback

  • Category EQ

As an executive coach, I work with many successful leaders who want to become even more effective. Recently, I asked a client of mine what kind of feedback she was receiving to help her be a better leader. She said, “My last performance review was really positive. My boss told me I’m doing a great job and I should just continue to do what I’m doing.”

That felt nice to hear, I’m sure. But it is also completely unhelpful to her growth and development.

According to research on effective learning, to improve performance, people need three things:

  • A clear goal
  • A genuine desire to achieve that goal
  • Feedback that indicates what they are doing well and what they are not doing well

Unfortunately, the feedback many leaders receive is not helpful. It’s often infrequent, vague, or unrelated to specific behaviors — and as a result, leaders tend to be less proactive about getting more of it. Low-quality feedback is not useful, positive feedback is undervalued, and negative feedback delivered unskillfully can actually cause physical pain.

Without clear performance targets and data measuring how close or far they are from reaching them, leaders will continue to find it difficult to grow and improve. When delivered thoughtfully, however, feedback can provide leaders with the actionable data they need to become more effective.

If you want to get the feedback that is necessary to improve your leadership, there are a few steps you can take.

Build and maintain a psychologically safe environment. Sharing feedback is often interpersonally risky. To increase the likelihood of your colleagues taking that risk with you, show them that their honesty won’t be met with negative repercussions. You can do this before you ask for feedback by being curious, rewarding candor, and showing vulnerability. Being curious starts with having the right mindset, or believing that you have something useful to learn. It is demonstrated by asking your teammates open-ended questions that you really don’t know the answers to: “What could go wrong if we try this?” When you listen to and genuinely explore your colleague’s different, and possibly risky, perspectives — even if you disagree with them — you are rewarding their candor. Acknowledging your weaknesses or mistakes along the way are great ways to be open and vulnerable.

Ask for feedback skillfully. Asking “What feedback do you have?” rarely elicits a useful response. Instead, ask about specific events (“What did you hear when I shared my strategy?”), worrisome patterns (“How often do I interrupt people in meetings?”), personal impact (“How did it feel to you when I sent that email?”), and lastly, recommendations (“What can I do to help build my relationship with Priya?”).

Request both positive and negative data. Clients tell me all the time that they just want to hear “the bad stuff” when it comes to feedback. What they fail to appreciate is that positive feedback that targets a specific behavior is useful. It tells them what they don’t need to work on, and increases their motivation to focus on the behaviors that they do. For clarity, positive feedback is not the same as praise. Praise tells us someone is happy with us and thinks we are performing well. Praise sounds like: “Nice job!”; “You were great in that meeting.”; “Killer presentation!” While it feels good, praise does not give us enough information to understand what we are doing effectively so that we can repeat the behavior. 

When receiving feedback, give your full attention and listen carefully. Eliminate distractions, including your phone and laptop, and focus fully on the person giving the feedback. Having your phone present, even if you’re not looking at it, negatively impacts relationships and reduces your ability to connect with others. Listen carefully to what the other person is saying, resisting the impulse to evaluate the accuracy of the message.

Don’t debate or defend. If you find yourself disagreeing with some feedback, practice self-awareness and notice this reaction, but do not offer contradictory evidence or challenge your colleague. If you debate, you will look defensive and not open to feedback, and you may decrease the likelihood of that person offering you feedback in the future. None of these are the outcomes you’re trying to achieve — so don’t do it. 

 

Own your reactions. You may feel happy, angry, confused, or frustrated by what you hear. Recognize that your reactions are about you, and not the other person. If you asked for feedback and someone was brave enough and generous enough to share it with you, it’s your responsibility to own and explore your reactions. Instead of finding fault in the messenger, become curious about yourself. Ask: Where is this anger really coming from? What about this is confusing? What part of the message is actually true for me, even if I don’t want to acknowledge it?

Demonstrate gratitude. Say thank you in a way that conveys sincere appreciation. If you’ve heard something helpful, the person giving you feedback likely spent a good amount of time considering your performance and how to thoughtfully discuss it with you. They took a risk by being candid, so let them know how much you appreciate their effort and courage.

Reflect and evaluate. Now that you have some new data, reflect on what you’ve heard even if you don’t like reflection. By thinking through the meaning and implication of the feedback, you can learn from it and consider what parts to work on, what parts to disregard, and what parts require deeper understanding. To do this, it helps to think about your development areas, the value you place on this individual’s perspective, and possibly, what you have heard from others as well. This is also the time to come back to what you may disagree with. Given that your objective was to learn others’ perspectives on you, ask yourself if it’s really worth the potential damage to go back and “correct” the information. Typically, it’s not.

Make a plan and take action. All of the steps before this set you up to make a plan and put it into practice. Pick one or two capabilities you want to improve, get really clear about what “improved” looks like, and then consider the steps necessary for you to learn and adopt that new behavior. Making a plan and taking action are not only important for your learning and development, they’re also a signal to those who shared the feedback — you are serious about improving and you value their perspectives.

Sustain progress and share updates. You need to repeat new behaviors for at least two months for them to become new habits. If you go back to your feedback providers and tell them what you are doing differently, you’ll give them a catalyst to change their perspectives, validation that you heard and appreciated what they had to say, and the opportunity to see you as a person who is committed to your professional development.

Great leaders are great learners. Their never-ending pursuit of information pushes them to constantly improve and sets them apart from the rest. Getting and learning from feedback isn’t always easy, but it is necessary, if we want to become better. It’s rare that our colleagues will offer us the kind of feedback we need to develop, and also rare that we respond in a way that rewards their efforts and helps us improve. It’s worth building the skills to do this well if we want to reach our full potential.


Jennifer Porter is the Managing Partner of The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She is a graduate of Bates College and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, an experienced operations executive, and an executive and team coach.


 

When a Leader Is Causing Conflict, Start by Asking Why

Not long ago, I received a call from an HR manager at a large corporation seeking an executive coach for one of their senior leaders. He was described as arrogant, tactlessly blunt, and lacking empathy. Despite his challenges, all of which hadn’t improved much despite several previous coaching interventions, the company hadn’t fired him because he was considered one of the industry’s most brilliant engineers, responsible for several of the firm’s most profitable patents. The company simply couldn’t afford to let him go.

How do you coach a leader whom others think is a hopeless case? Sometimes you can’t. The person may well turn out to be a jerk who won’t change their toxic ways. In that case, the company needs to fire the individual. Tolerating destructive behavior will send the signal that it’s ok to mistreat others as long as you get results. But, often, as was the case with my client, the leader who everyone thinks is hopeless is simply being misunderstood and their behavior misdiagnosed.

Whether you are a coach, an HR leader, or an executive trying to help a challenging subordinate, your credibility, and that of the leader you’re trying to help, depends on an accurate understanding of what’s actually going on. Here are three ways you can be sure you’re addressing the right problem with a challenging leader in the right way.

Manage your assumptions and judgements. Without realizing it, those of us in advisory roles often bring our own issues to our work helping others. We make assumptions and judgements based on our own experiences that often have little to do with the leader we’re trying to support. Before I even met this leader, I found myself feeling anxious, dismissive, and judgmental toward him based on what others had said. I imagined how I would respond to his insulting behavior and what I would say if he made an arrogant comment. But my defenses were unwarranted and my assumption that he was a jerk proved wrong. He was engaging, open to learning, and willing to accept his need to improve. When I asked him why he thought he was so harsh toward others, he seemed stumped and genuinely troubled by how others had characterized him.

I’d heard from the company’s HR manager that this executive was especially cruel toward one colleague. Why had he singled out one person to treat in a uniquely nasty way? As we explored this, it became clear that something about the younger engineer triggered the executive’s anger and it eventually clicked: The young engineer reminded him of his older brother, with whom he had a contentious relationship. My client was raised in an excessively achievement-oriented family, that prized blunt candor over tact, and he was regularly sent the message that he was inferior. His brother had been the family’s golden child while he was never good enough. This direct report was a daily reminder of that pain. This back story in no way excused his behavior, but it did explain it. More importantly, it revealed a path forward toward changing it. But I had to set aside my biases and prejudgments to build the trust necessary to access these important insights.

Look past symptoms to contradictions. Determining what lies beneath seemingly destructive behavior requires looking beyond symptoms. My client’s colleagues had described him as mean and insensitive. His previous coaches had focused on various interpersonal techniques, like how to give constructive feedback, work with different personality styles, and delegate effectively. But they’d neglected to probe into the dynamic with that one engineer. To thoroughly diagnose a leader’s behavior, look for breaks in patterns. Are there people this person works especially well or poorly with? Specific circumstances in which they shine or falter? No one is the same all the time, so understanding where people deviate from predictable habits can isolate important clues. In my client’s case, his unique contempt toward one colleague was an important data point. Further, I learned later that his widely regarded technical expertise coupled with his family background made him feel anxiously responsible for the company’s technical reputation. His team members experienced this as micromanagement and dismissive of their expertise. If we’d focused on those symptoms, we wouldn’t have gotten very far. We needed to understand the root cause. It’s not uncommon to inaccurately diagnosis bad leadership behavior. One Arizona State University study found that toxic leadership pathologies are often confused with behaviors that might fall into a normal range of pathology. To avoid confusing common leadership shortfalls with serious pathologies, it’s critical to dig deeper behind symptoms.

Have a broad repertoire of solutions. For many in advisory roles, their diagnostic lens is narrowed to problems they are best equipped to solve. Every hammer looks like a nail, as the saying goes. For example, I’ve seen some consultants whose specialty was team building, so it was no surprise that their findings and recommendations were all around improving team trust. Leadership coaches use their favorite personality instruments to solve everything from poor financial performance to low morale. It’s important to be open-minded to solutions that fall outside your expertise. Ineffective leadership behavior can originate from deep-seated pathologies to problems with organizational culture. Having a repertoire of tools and approaches helps avoid the dangers of applying a one-size-fits-all solution to all situations. And don’t be afraid to refer people to others who have different expertise that may be able to better help your clients with particular issues. In the case of my client, I recommended he also see a therapist to work on his anxiety and unresolved family issues. He and I worked on more effective ways to engage, teach, and empower his team, and how to recognize when his triggers were getting in the way of doing so.

Consistent scholarly research suggests when it comes to empirically measuring the effectiveness of those advising leaders, we fall far short. Mislabeling behavior or a person as beyond help is one way we fail leaders. If you don’t look for contradictions, get to the root cause, and have a range of solutions, you could unwittingly limit someone’s growth or, even worse, derail their career. But if you do those things, with an open mind, you may be able to help save the job of a valuable leader who might otherwise have been let go, and in turn, provide great value to those you serve.


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